Another night had passed before the wordmasheen. Another halfmoon had passed since Aeg and Gutter’s departure. Insistent winds blew sand down broken roads, made the wooden walls groan around me, stuttered the tongues of every flame – and seemed to whip away every word, somewhere between my mind and my hand. The darkness seemed deeper and denser than usual, and as I rubbed my tired eyes, I imagined the wind streaming away daylight itself, stripping the Sun into sparks that swirled, spread, snuffed out before they could breach the horizon.
But then, the wind brought something.
A smell, sickly-sweet and musty, tinged with gunpowder and old leather.
Another, similar, but stranger, laced with herbs.
Uncertain, I walked to the door of The N and peered out into the gloom. To the north, two torchlights, just a bit beyond the Bunker. I sniffed at the air again, my hope like a wary Manimal creeping forth from its den.
I left The N, took up a torch, went closer to the distant lights. The shadows they cast spun on the sand – one solidly built and angular, the other slim and gaunt.
“…Is that…” I said, squinting into the darkness.
A few steps further, and I was as certain as I was surprised.
Doktor Aeg and GutterBlood Spoonhammer stood on the path by the Press, torches in hand. They cast them to the ground, sparks and ashes scattering, as the Sun hauled itself over the horizon.
It seemed like their trip had been successful. Gutter was laden with packs and sacks; Aeg bore a duffel and a knapsack filled almost to bursting, and he was no longer barefoot – he’d found scuffed but sturdy boots. And it seemed he’d found a few strange luxuries, as well: A bone breastplate hung against the Doktor’s bare chest, a horn hung at his hip, and he wore a shoulder guard of what looked to be leather and horn. On his head perched a patched leather hat.
It seemed he’d found new trousers, too – still roughspun, but brown, not blue – yet they were torn and dirty. It was a small detail, but my hope hesitated. While many Wastelanders have a keen eye for garb, and might gladly swap one pair of pants for another based on color alone, Aeg didn’t seem the type. Maybe those pants had been in better condition – until something on their journey tore them up.
I asked if they were all right, and if they needed anything, and I invited them to The N, my words spilling over themselves.
“Are we aight?” asked Gutter, irritation obvious on his face.
“Yah, sitting down would be nice,” Aeg confirmed.
But the Mutant Witch of the Wastes ((Ccindy Pfeffer)) skulked in the twilight, grinding her teeth. She told them they weren’t welcome anymore, blamed them for what was happening.
Glaring, I asked if she had any designs on trying to kill Doktor Aeg again.
“Yous choose yous word wise. It no be poison me soul kill yous!” she hissed.
“Seems like we can’t have a single nice day, even when we’re home,” Aeg said, frowning behind his metal mask.
I shook my head and turned to walk toward The N. There was nothing that words could do, I thought. And I thought that might have been the end of the discussion.
But Gutter bared his teeth at her and on his knife. Dawnlight dashed itself on gold and iron.
The Witch hissed at me again. “Yous end it. Yous return it soul. Or me find one who do.”
Though still on his guard, the Ghoul seemed to stand down. “Well, Dok, I guess ar contract is up. The deal was te get ya back, not deal in yer troubles when we got here.”
The Doktor groaned, looking down at the sands. “I guess that’s right. I have been more than enough trouble for you. Not intentionally, though.”
I hoped this was just Aeg’s humility. They were only going close to Northgate, they’d said; maybe Aeg was talking about nothing more than the time and trouble of a routine escort. My hope still stuck a cautious paw beyond its cave.
“You gon’ stand in our way, then, Witch?” I asked.
“Fire hill that way,” she said, pointing to the southeast, her extra arm scrabbling like the leg of a dying beetle. “There still be time, brother. There still be chance of return.”
Merdoch, a bottle in his hand, ambled up behind Gutter. The Ghoul tensed, as if he had too many enemies and not enough eyes.
“Mr. Blud, are you sure you don’t want to come relax for a while?” Aeg prompted. “We don’t have to run anymore.”
Gutter forced a rictus grin. “That’s a good un Doc; funniest shit ye said since we left.”
“Just trying to be optimistic now that we’re home,” Aeg replied, though there was an anxious quaver in his voice.
The Witch still stood there on the sands, staring at all of us expectantly. To her apparent surprise, none of us showed any signs of hauling off and killing Aeg, and Aeg showed no intentions of wandering off to throw himself into the lava. “Me can find other,” she said, matter-of-factly, as if negotiating any other sort of trade. “There be spirit worth sacrifice to keep all be good. That what yous want, brother? Yous no can do alone?” she wheedled.
“How ’bout you go do that, then? Go on an’ find somebody who’ll do your sinnin’ for ya,” I spat, that foreign word sin curled on my tongue like a long stray hair.
“We can talk,” Aeg replied, “but I really want to sit. I am sure Mr. Blud wants to sit too.”
But the Witch continued to plead, promising that she’d return Aeg’s spirit to the cycle even if she had to die herself. “Me will do all rites,” she said, in a voice as syrupy as a bad can of Frut.
I don’t know much about the ways of the Mutants. I can’t know what it truly means to be an Exile, cast away from the tribe, away from the homeland, away from the ash of their mothers. I can’t know what receiving the rites might mean to Doktor Aeg: if it would fold him back into the tribe, not just the cycle. I can’t know what performing the rites would mean to the Witch: if this, too, would be that strange thing, sin.
Still, I knew this much: “I liked it better when ye was still honest enough w’ yerself to try an’ kill ‘im with yer own hands.”
Ned ((Aborted Stickfigure)) rounded the building behind the Witch. She wheeled, hissed, bared fangs at his sudden approach. Casually, Aeg stowed his machete, perhaps to ease the tension by becoming less physically – if not spiritually – threatening.
The Witch was surrounded and outnumbered, but I knew she wouldn’t run from a fight if one broke out. She’d lash out all the more fiercely, knowing she could strike in any direction and draw enemy blood. The odds might not even be in our favor. Standing down seemed like the only way to save face – hers from being a coward; ours from being eaten. I didn’t think she’d strike first – not unless our words provoked her past the point of insanity. How close she stood to that point already… that, I didn’t know. To turn my back to her, or to Aeg, would be its own madness. And so my hope, now growling, put its paw upon the ground. “So Imma ask one more time, Witch. You gon’ stand in our way?”
But even as I spoke, Gutter’s arm was moving with that taut, snap speed of the Dead. He pointed his knife at the Witch. “You think er real scary, huh?!”
My hope fled back to its den, possibly to hibernate.
With eerie calmness, the Doktor asked him to put the knife away.
In the fraught following silence, Kaya ((Kayanite)) stumbled near, stammered an apology – and, seeing the standoff, grasped her own knife.
The Witch screeched in anger at me. “Yous no know what me did. Yous just take, take, take. You no risk yous spirit. Yous just like sand bug. No one care if yous kind no be rebirth!”
Behind her, Ned groaned, exasperatedly telling the Witch to quit her “scowlin’ an’ yappin’.”
Aeg, still unarmed, stepped forward toward the Witch, his arms in the air. “Everyone stop bickerin’. I know why the Mutant Witch is angry.” He began to look through his bag.
Her head turning from side to side, snapping from face to face, she hissed again. “It spirit must return. Yous no understand. Me be kill all yous until it be done.”
Rounding so quickly that his heel swept a hole in the sand, Gutter stomped toward her – completely ignoring Aeg, and even ignoring the fact nobody had paid him. “Ain’t in the mood fer THIS shite!”
She screamed a string of foreign words, leaned forward, her arms twitching.
“Mister Blud, aren’t your tired of fighting?” Aeg asked.
Gutter tossed his pack to the sand, raising a plume of dust.
The Witch stepped back – then stomped forward.
Before anyone could make another move, Aeg held something out toward the Witch – a tattered cloth, rolled into a slim bundle.
I couldn’t see it well – not even enough to be sure of its color. So I can’t know why the Witch looked so shaken, why she said “That… that no change things. Yous know yous must return… There be no way….”
Still sitting in the sand behind where Gutter had stood, Merdoch waved Kaya over, invited her to place bets on what came next. She hesitated and stepped closer to me. Behind the Witch, Ned watched, gun in hand.
Aeg bobbed his head nervously. “I got you a thing, too, Mr. Blud! A bonus! But you gotta put your knife away!”
“A bonus, huh?” the grizzled Ghoul said after a moment.
“I got it wrapped up here in this newspaper, somewhere in my bag! I was savin’ it if we made it home!” Aeg said in desperate enthusiasm.
“I found that, too,” he said to the Witch, looking down at the roll of cloth. “Let me tell you words. I’ve not lied to you.” Mumbling, he added, “…An omission of the truth technically isn’t a lie.”
The Witch’s face fell. “Me never think yous lie to sister. As me no never lie to brother. But yous no believe me. Me no tell no lies to yous. Me just want safe yous spirit for new birth. Yous must. YOUS MUST,” she said, her voice and anger rising again.
Jamming his knife back into his belt Gutter turned away from the Witch, hoisted his pack again, and tromped off toward The N. “Ain’t got no time fer this shit no-how,” he growled.
“Be angry at me later,” Aeg said to her, his voice muffled by his mask and his weariness. “We have been running all night, like a Savage Mutant. My legs are tired, and if you want to hear what I think about that, among other things, I am going to join Mr. Blud at The N.”
With a nervous wave, he slowly walked southward – keeping an eye on the Witch. I stared at her a while, as well, then followed.
At The N, I slid behind the bar while the weary wanderers took their seats.
“As promised, Mister Blud…” Aeg began, extracting a parcel from his bag. Something metal glinted from between the folds of faded paper as he handed it to Gutter.
GutterBlood unwrapped the object carefully, folding and stowing the paper when he was done. His grey hand held up a baffling two-handled device with what looked like two gears on one side, a sort of knob on the other. “Wut is at?”
“It’s a device some people at my old home settlement used to have. I found it the night before we had to run,” Aeg explained. He took an empty can from his pack and upended it. “You clip it on like this,” he demonstrated, parting the two handles, straddling the rim of the can with them, and clamping them down to pinch the rim between the gears, “and you turn this bit,” he said, twirling the knob. The gears bit down and rolled along the rim. One gear, it seemed, was sharpened, and began to cut a slit into the tin. “You try!”
Chuckling, the Ghoul pulled out a can of Dinki-Di.
Aeg, thirsty, provided one of his steel cups. I reached out for it, paused, frowned. “I, er, uh… thought ye couldn’t take nothin’ of mine no more.”
“Debslok doesn’t own the water,” Aeg replied. “An’ I got my own cup!”
I ladled Fissure water into it from the bucket nearby while the young Wolfhard clambered up onto a barstool When I turned back, I noticed that Irk had arrived and was staring openly at the Dok. He took a seat at the opposite end of the bar.
The Witch followed shortly thereafter, eyes downcast. She stood well away from the crowd, out by the burning barrel, and Ned lurched after her, raving. “Like I wus sayin’ before ya traipsed yer ugly hide off, ya fuk’n witch… you ain’t understand gools no more den gools understand muties. But I knows dis… ya feeds on da fears of others. Ya ain’t jag shit….”
“Yer welcome, too, y’know. If ye ain’t cause no trouble,” I told her.
She just glared balefully at me before turning on Ned. “Me understand yous kind. You greedy, clawing on yous spirit. Fear for death. No seeing beyond tomorrow. Cowards. Like hide under sand, cowards.”
Aeg interrupted, calling out to her. “I found that in Northgate.”
I froze where I stood.
“…IN?” I whispered. “I thought ye was just goin’ ’round it…”
“Norf Gate? Were be dat?” asked Wolfhard.
“Four and a half days north,” Doktor Aeg replied, looking at Mr. Blud. “Right?”
The Ghoul stood his Slugthrower on end, chambering a round. His face was weathered, weary; his clothes clotted with dust. “Ye, I s’pose bout four days.”
The Witch turned away from Ned, tried again to look to Aeg – most likely, to the tattered cloth.
It was a short break of attention, but it was enough.
Ned aimed his pistol at her. “I’s already dead… I’ll be happy to pluck yer head clean like a fresh buzzard.” With no further negotiation, he fired away.
Aeg attempted to tackle him. Gutter shouldered his Slugthrower. Irk and Wolfhard jumped to their feet, Wolfhard’s bow tumbling from the bartop, Irk’s knife deftly brought to his hand. I drew a Vicious Clobberin’ Stick from beneath the bar.
The Witch never even flinched. She stared down the barrel of the gun, hissing low.
Shoved aside, Ned stumbled. “I’s swear it ain’t gon’ be the sand next time, ya filthy mutie….”
Gutter let out a long, croaking laugh. “Ned, ye… ye cain’t even hit ‘er from three feet!”
Doing two of the things he does best, running and yelling, PanPot came up to me. “Apo! Aeg is here! Gimme candy after I kills Mister Deadman!”
I held up my hand, trying to gesture him into silence, as I kept my eyes fixed on Aeg, Ned, and the Witch.
Aeg stared down at the one-armed Ghoul. “You say a lot of disrespectful things! You don’t understand Mutant culture! And I ain’t never killed nobody until just a few days ago, and I don’t wanna make it a habit!” Rising, Aeg hissed at the Witch in return. “An’ you’re trying to start fires!”
The Witch didn’t seem to hear him. All four fists twitched and balled, all claws carved at the air. “Coward,” she screeched. “Yous kind take way rebirth. Yous kind, yous coward bangers. Yous kind take me brother and make it be yous kind. Weak and coward. Yous kill me? Yes?” She stepped closer to Ned, her sharp teeth gnashing, dripping.
Knife still in hand, Irk stepped forward. Gutter, still laughing, trained his Slughthrower on him.
Aeg shoved himself between Ned and the Witch again.
Ned shifted his gaze from the Witch to the Doktor. He raised his pistol to the air and fired off one more shot. “I don’t need ta understand jag shit at this point but to avoid da lot ‘ah y’all….Ya’s feed on fear… ya’s jus’ like hyoomans. I ain’t need no further gum chewin’ from nun ‘ah ya….” He brushed sand and gunshot residue from his mottled grey skin and turned to walk away eastward.
“You were a human once,” Aeg called after him. “You still can be…”
Momentarily stunned by the sound, the Witch recovered – and lunged, all claws out, barely missing the mottled grey flesh of Ned’s back as he stepped away.
Aeg reached out a long arm and grabbed at her cloak. She fell backwards into the sand. Hissing, spitting, kicking, she bit into Aeg’s leg.
The Doktor winced, clutching his leg, but made no move to strike her away. Gutter, however, stepped forward, gun raised – but held backward, as if ready to strike her with butt of it.
She released, a baffled look on her face, as if she’d only then realized what she was doing – and was still only dimly aware. She spat again, said something in that harsh strange tongue of her tribe. “Why yous do that, brother. Why yous one of these.” They were more like laments than like questions. To Gutter, she asked, “Yous be one who finish? Coward?”
Aeg looked down at her, his expression hidden behind his mask. Plainly, he replied. “Because nothing ever goes according to plan.”
“Welcome to The Wastelands,” I said, grimly, as the butt of Gutter’s Slugthrower struck the words from the Witch’s mouth.
“You think I would waste death on you?” Gutter laughed at her stricken face. “Take a nap.”
“Mr. Blud, you are not helping,” Aeg stated, as Irk let out a snarl.
The Doktor extended a sallow hand to the Witch. She ignored it, her head lolling. She scuttled aside and clawed herself back to unsteady feet, her gaze still fixed – as well as it could be – on Gutter.
Gutter paid her no mind. “I just wanna eat a got dam can of Dinki-Di now, if that’s a’ight with all y’all,” he said, returning his Slugthrower to the ready position and rotating , gold tooth and gun barrel glinting at each member of the crowd.
“Reckon we oughta all fill our hands w’ drink ‘steada gun, mebbe,” I murmured, nodding carefully.
The Doktor still held out his hand. “Do you want to know where I found that scrap of cloth or not?”
Head hung so low that her chin sat on her chest, the Witch gave a hesitant nod. She still did not take his hand.
One by one, we returned to the bar – Aeg with a slight limp in his step. He settled back onto his stool.
The Witch rose, stumbled, sat in the sand and stayed there, a livid mark and large bump blooming on her head. Irk drew a flask of water and dampened a handful of fabric scraps, handed them to the Witch, moved to hold them to her wound. She shook her head, then paused, accepting the help.
We settled in again, sheathing or retrieving our weapons. I put my VCS back below the bar, gathered up Wolfhard’s Bow to pass back. Aeg offered his cup once more, and I filled it.
In the uneasy peace, Aeg began his story.