Perhaps it’s his studious and scholarly nature: holding the world at long arms’ length, he observes more than he participates. Perhaps it’s simple humility: finding facts more important than his feelings, he shares few of these irrelevant emotions. Or perhaps it’s his harrowed history: whatever horror he observes and relates to us, he has seen, and felt, and been, dreadfully worse.
Whatever the cause, Doktor Aeg has a certain manner of speaking. Patient. Plain. Precise.
Somehow, as he recounted the tale of his and Gutter’s journey to the north, that made it all the more unsettling.
“I found it in the middle of a city full of manic, burnt-out souls,” he began.
The word “city,” alone, was a strangeness. I have only the dimmest understanding of its meaning, myself. Like most everything else about the Old World, the legends I’ve heard couldn’t possibly be true. Settlements that spanned the horizons, buildings that stretched streetlengths, spires that scratched the clouds. Towers of light that shamed the stars. Each tower could have held a tribe’s worth of people, even if each person took a space the size of our hut. And yet there were no farms, no trees, no beasts but Humans, and you’d have to dig through the hard rind of concrete before you’d ever see the world’s own dirt.
I glanced at some of the Old World ruins around me. The twisted tracks. The ancient Bunker. The broken streets. If a city had been anything like the legends, I could barely imagine what it had become.
I could imagine even less what kind of people would live there.
“I hired Mr. Blud so I could get some new supplies, because everything I owned was taken or destroyed by the Ashen Traders.”
“On our second day out, Mr. Blud immediately proved his worth as a mercenary. We were foraging for food, and I am not wise in the ways of being subtle. A man got the drop on me. He demanded what little I had gathered in the past two days, but Mr. Blud… he…” Aeg hesitated, clearly uncomfortable.
“I blew is fuckin brains all over the sand.” Gutter’s gold tooth gleamed.
“It was a grisly sight, to be sure. And with a little bit of washing, that’s how I got this new hat,” Aeg explained.
“Din’t figger there were a long conversation ’bout it,” I said, eyeing Gutter and his gun.
“Anyway, a couple days later we got to Northgate, but it was already getting dark…” A hint of hesitation.“We dug a trench to hide our supplies, and made a camp. Mr. Blud said it was best that we don’t light a campfire.”
“Aye, less ye got an army, is just a big ol invitation te get ambushed in the night,” Mr. Blud remarked.
I found myself thinking of how dark the nights seemed lately. How often I’d found myself running from one circle of firelight to the next. How much I’d found myself appreciating the torch pits scattered around the sands, or the steady glow of a lantern. The safety and surety that seemed to come with the light. I frowned slightly.
Aeg continued in that plain and patient voice: “When darkness fell, there was terrible screaming and howling coming from the city.”
“It was very hard to rest that night,” he added.
I looked to the north for a moment, shivering in the sunlight. When I looked back, even Gutter’s gaunt grey face had gone ashen with dread.
“In the morning, we got ready to venture into the city while the sun was up. All the best supplies were there,” the Doktor said. “But the shadows were always moving. Mr. Blud told me to stay close.
I still couldn’t believe they’d gone into the city itself. Or that they’d come back. I wondered if I’d fallen asleep at the wordmasheen, if this was some vivid and terrible dream.
“Our first day was pretty uneventful,” Aeg continued. “We did not venture too deep into the city. We left well before sundown! When we got back to camp we hid all of our things. The night came again, and so did the screaming.”
Wolfhard shifted uncomfortably on his stool.
Gutter’s face was grim. “That place is cursed.”
A chilling word from someone usually so unflappable. He’d never seemed the type to shy from a challenge. Never the type to believe in curses. How often had he flashed that smug smirk when the Mutants spoke of magic? What possible horror could the city hold that even GutterBlood, his own name whispered ‘round nightfires, could speak plain and call it cursed?
A suspicion, like a canker, grew in my mind. I hoped, for all sakes, I was wrong.
“The next morning,” Aeg continued, “we ventured back into the city. While we were there we met a man…’”
His mask seemed not enough for him. The Doktor covered his face in his hands.
“It was less en a man,” Gutter said, casting a furtive glance behind himself.
“Wat parts were missin’?” asked young Wolfhard.
In reply, Gutter pointed to his own head.
“He wanted to sell us something at the end of some city block,” Aeg’s muffled voice went on, “but Mr. Blud wasn’t having any of it. What did you tell him exactly?”
“I member tellin em to fuk right off.”
“I think his name was Nikolas,” Aeg continued. “He seemed real nice, like he wanted to trade something. He said he hates doing business with Debslok. Mr. Blud pulled me away, though. We kind of argued about that all day.”
I wondered, not for the first time, what Gutter knew. Had he seen this trader before? If not, what was it about the stranger that put the Ghoul on edge? Surely there was more to it than just the dislike of Debslok. The lines between ally and enemy aren’t always sharply drawn, and no good guard would believe them so. Whatever cued Gutter’s suspicion, it wasn’t an obvious threat. It was something worth arguing over. Something that even Doktor Aeg, with all his cleverness, couldn’t immediately accept. Something subtle. Or secret.
In hindsight, I should have pressed for answers. I should have asked what he saw. I should have asked what we should watch out for. But I was too gripped by curiosity over what happened next.
“But we got a lot of useful stuff I need, and we went back to camp. We buried our stuff, and the next night there were more screams. For once, I slept really well. I was probably just tired from all the physical work, and not resting well.” Aeg’s story was built like an emergency shelter: simple solid supports, just enough information to cover the gaps, and few details or embellishments.
Again he put his head in his hands. “When we woke up, all our stuff was gone.”
There was a chorus of sympathetic groans from most of us. The Witch idly swirled her fingers through the sand, as if bored.
“Mr. Blud sleeps with his gun, though…” Aeg noted. A scavenger would have to be mad not to, even in their own shelter – and now they were out in the distant and desolate, surrounded by howls and screams.
“But Mr. Blud was mighty angry in the morning,” acknowledged Aeg. “He was cussin up a storm, studyin’ the ground and the footprints he found.”
Wolfhard asked if Gutter tracked them back to the city.
“Yah,” Aeg confirmed. “I’m not good at sneakin’ round places, being as tall and lanky as I am. So Mr. Blud told me to wait at the end of an alley, because he thought he saw ’em.”
“They was there, a’ight, with er stash n all, havin a got damn party,” growled GutterBlood. “Managed to get a drop on em; dey was hootin and hollarin in the moonlight. ‘Magin that.” I did, despite myself.
“Was then I knew what we was dealin’ with,” he drawled on. “Wasn’t but 10 or so feet from em, hidin’ in the shadows from the moon.”
It must have been a long journey to find them, I thought, if they’d tracked them from morning to moonlight. They must have found some truly incredible things to make such a risk worth it.
“Who were these thieves?” asked Irk. “Is it the Ashen Traders who attacked you?”
The brim of Gutter’s hat cast deep shade on his face. In the shadow, a smirk tugged taut the leathery skin of his lips.
“It was a buncha blood drinkers.”
“Many things drink blood,” Irk said, incredulous.
“Peoples’ blud?” Wolfhard asked.
“They were tearin a body ‘part mongst each other, chewin on the flesh and suckin it dry,” Gutter went on.
Irk gagged. Wolfhard cried. I wrinkled my nose, as if I could smell it from here.
Doktor Aeg looked to the Witch and repeated himself: “…Truly burnt-out souls.” He looked to the Witch and he echoed her: “All they do is take.”
Gutter, glaring, turned his shadowed face to the Doktor. “Then, BAM!” he shouted, slamming a fist on the bar.
We stumbled, started, twitched.
“This ol bird beside me dun snuck down the alley behind me and kicked a trashcan over.”
Aeg covered his face once more.
“My hearin still ain’t right from all the rounds I sent down that alley,” groused Gutter, twirling a grimy finger in his ear.
“Needless to say, we got our stuff, and their stuff. But before it got too dark, we headed back to camp,” Aeg went on.
I realized that his story was less like an emergency shelter, and more like an abandoned ruin in the wake of a sandstorm. The horror had savaged it, all details and comforts stripped away, leaving nothing but the supports – and even those were teetering.
“Yeh,” said Gutter, “Just that simple, wasn’t it?”
“You make it seem so simple, as talented as you are,” Aeg replied.
“He don’t mention the winders we jumped through and the maze we got arselves into,” Gutter went on. “Like the whole damn place was designed fer trappin’ people.”
“We set up camp someplace else. Wasn’t that the next day, or did you not sleep that night?” Aeg asked.
“It’s all a blur te me now,” Gutter replied. “Figure I let instincts take over by then.”
A worrying thought all on its own.
“Even after we got our stuff, I needed some special glass components. So we had to go back one more day. Even though I was shaken by the day before,” Aeg admitted, “that guy was pretty dead.”
“There were of course, more screams at night,” he added.
“Was a dumb thing goin’ back,” grumbled Mr. Blud.
“Everything was going fine, until the sun set,” Aeg replied. “We ventured pretty far into the city, as those glass components were hard to find. We should not have gone that far.”
“So greedy. Like hoomans,” the Witch murmured from the sands.
“But if we didn’t I would not have found that cloth, Witch. Nor would I have found the glass.”
Wolfhard’s small voice quavered a little as he shivered. “Too far ta git out afore nightfall?”
“I mean, we could have, if we didn’t get cornered,” Aeg stated simply. “Dozens of burnt-out souls began crawling from the shadows, blocking our paths back.”
“I swear is like every shadow had a body,” Gutter said.
Irk’s broad green brow furrowed. “Souls?”
Aeg had said it often, but it was another word I barely knew, myself. In my home country, I’d heard it sometimes from traders; it seemed like another word for “people.” But it was not quite so neutral as that. It always seemed to say something about emotions: a “soul” wasn’t just a person, it was a feeling person. A few brave souls led the battle. A lucky soul came home alive. You could meet a sorrowed soul, a wrathful soul, even perhaps a merry soul. The way some used the word, it was almost more about the feeling than about the person at all.
What would a burnt-out soul be, then?
I thought again about the screaming in the night. I thought again about their hideous feast. My suspicion grew and gnawed at me. I held a breath.
“Long gone Ghouls…” Doktor Aeg said. “Burnt-out fires, not even embers remain…”
Wolfhard groaned. I shuddered.
The Witch glared from the sands at the Ghouls. “Like ash in oil lamp. Like these be soon. Never to be rebirth.”
“We ran getting lost in the city at night for what seemed like hours,” Aeg said. “We were in the middle of all the screaming. Mr. Blud shot so many, but they still kept coming from everywhere.”
Mr. Blud’s face contorted as if he’d just eaten a bitter herb.
“I think he ran out of bullets, because he stopped shooting and began cussing. As if his words would kill them – and with as loud as he was sayin’ ’em, they might have. But his Flayer did a lot of the work.”
“Guess fukbullets don’t kill as much as I wish they would,” Gutter lamented.
Aeg “We were scrambling down alleys, hiding in storefronts, crawling up fences all night. When I was being chased, I tripped over a tire, and I…”
The Doktor paused. No expression could be seen behind his metal mask. A sigh escaped, and he spoke.
“I kilt one of those things when it jumped at me.”
“E did a real gud job of it, too,” Gutter said, extending his arm to pat the Dok proudly on the back.
Grimacing, I tried to reassure Aeg that he did what he’d had to do. But I doubted any comfort would reach him. What could have been said? True, that survival must be fought for, that we must defend ourselves from attack. True, that a Ghast is a Ghoul gone mad, a Ghoul beyond its time, an unhinged, unthinking thing. But the same things are said of Ghouls themselves, especially by the Mutants.
As dedicated as Aeg has been to helping others and preserving life, it must have pained him to choose to kill – even to kill a Ghast.
As unsure as Aeg has been of whether he deserved to exist as he does, it must have pained him to choose to live.
“We were pretty tired, and mentally exhausted, when we heard other gunfire,” Aeg said in his spare, stripped speech. “Mr. Blud got really excited then. I don’t think I had ever seen him smile on that whole trip.”
“Managed to lose the mob,” said Mr. Blud. “Yer never gunna guess how.”
I couldn’t begin to imagine. How few people even dare to approach Northgate at all? Who else could possibly have been mad enough to risk it?
Gutter cracked a gleaming grin. “A fukkin caravan came flying down the road. Musta been Debslok’s boys n girls; I heard that’s how they get through the city. Big ol plated-up sand hippo pullin em through, Mercs up on a wagon throwin slugs all over the got dam place.”
We listened, leaning in, eyes wide.
Aeg cried, “They didn’t stop, though!”
“Almost ran ar dumb asses over, too,” Gutter snorted. “We managed to jump behind some rubble, n the monsters jus chased em down the road like flies ta shit.”
“Lucky!” he added.
“And then we chased them,” Aeg continued. “Hopping over dead and mostly-dead bodies.”
“Finishin’ dem off, ah hopes…” said the small voice of Wolfhard.
“Er… no,” Aeg replied.
Wolfhard shivered. I glanced off again to the north.
“There want much te finish off,” Gutter said. “Ye ever seen a sand hippo go full rage?”
Only Irk nodded. “My tribe hunted them. They are powerful in anger.”
“It was well fed,” Gutter remarked. “I never seen a beast like that fore.”
“We got out eventually by the morning,” Aeg told us. “We didn’t stop to rest. We dug up our stuff and kept walking for a day.”
The Mutant Witch stared at the dunewall to the west. “So yes. Yous slaughter all yous kind. It be too late, but yous did. Good start,” she muttered.
“What of that cloth, Witch?” Aeg asked. “Found in the dark place among the soulless?”
“And it ain’t my damn kind,” Gutter growled.
“These be. As pure spirit eater as be yous.”
“Not one us choose to be what we are. You jus got lucky, Witch.”
“Don’ think Mister Blud here eats no spirits,” I argued. “Nor no bloods. He’s lucky to e’en eat a gorram can o’ Dinki-Di….”
“But all of yous chose stay what yous are!” Exasperation made her voice grind and scrape like rusted gears.
“Yer damn right, cause livin is all I got. Look around ye!” barked Mr. Blud, raising his hands to the scalding sky.
“It is true,” said Doktor Aeg, calm amid the growing argument. “But I choose you to send me off when it is my time.”
“So what be with banner?” asked the Witch, admitting no defeat and turning to the other topic.
Aeg persisted. “But it is not my time yet. I want to learn of lost tribes. Let the embers of my fading fire rekindle lost memories. I have always wanted to be a Mutant, and I am not happy to be what I am. But that is how things happened. Let me use what little time I have left to learn of lost things.”
“Yous no life,” the Witch muttered. “Yous can be youngling ever and ever gain,” she said in a cloying voice. She pointed a claw at young Wolfhard. “Where yous think it spirit came from? Why yous think it look like its eldest father’s father?”
“I am like this, by accident, or by fate. I do not know and it still troubles me,” Aeg replied. But he spoke again of the scrap of cloth, the battered banner he’d salvaged from the dead city: “Those tribe markings are similar, but not the same, as yours.”
“My tribe is gone,” he said, “but I can speak of the winds. But if someone does not pay the price, then the tribes are lost forever. Teach me things, Witch, and Irk.”
The Mutant Witch was unmoved. “With no younglings, tribes be left forever.” She spoke slowly, gesturing with her hand, as if instructing a youngling herself.
“But you can speak the stories of the tribes that once were. The wind will carry that to faraway tribes.”
Irk stood stunned. “What can I teach?”
“I do not know of your tribe,” Aeg replied. “I hid from the Mutants for so long, out of shame for what I was. I have walked with the Humans. I have walked with the Ghouls. I have not walked with the Mutants.”
“Walk with me to fire hill. And yous spirit be walk in new tribe and new place with Mutants.” The Witch’s voice had returned to its usual roughness – no hiss, no grind, no whine. Aeg had made his request, and this was her counter.
Aeg told us he remembered his tribe very well, “But the things I know will be forgotten.”
“To remember is sorrow,” Irk said with a knowing nod.
“But all things be found one time more in new generation. That how all thing be found, from first day,” replied the Witch.
Gutter gathered his gear and stood. “I’d really love to hear y’all muties cry and ache bout the tribes and traditions and all that fancy dancy. But I got things te do.”
We nodded our farewells, the Doktor adding “Enjoy your can tool.”
I glanced at Aeg. Part of me wanted to reach across the bar and slug Gutter straight in the face for actually going into the city, for leading Aeg into danger beyond imagining. But I knew that, with or without any protection, Aeg would have gone out there anyway. And he surely wouldn’t have returned. “…Glad yer back,” I told Mr. Blud. “And thank ye.”
“Y’all let me know if anything a worth happens,” he said with a smirk. He only seemed to meet eyes with the Humans. But he did acknowledge the Witch as he passed her on the sands: “Good luck with yer head; that un is gunna hurt.”
Irk left shortly after him. I suspected it wouldn’t be warrior-like for Irk to stalk him down the streets and attack him for his assault on the Witch. But these are strange days, and so I left an ear open for gunfire.
“Now yous show me banner,” said the Witch, her focus full on Aeg, “but what does it change? What yous know of banner that not be found once more? Yous fuel be gone, yous cloth be burning. What it be worth if ash be what left?”
“But I have been dead for so long; what is the harm in a few more years?” Aeg argued. “If I go, I want to go knowing that I am a Mutant in my heart. I want you to take me to the fire hill with a proper ceremony, but I want to do more good before that time. I do not want to be empty like a Ghast, but I want to make my time count. We know that the ancestors, or a new tribe, is out there, someplace. We should look, in the sun, together.”
“Me be take yous hand when yous be rebirth. And me will look for all things forgotten.” She rose from the sand on uneasy feet.
It wasn’t much of a concession, I thought. It reminded me of the ravings of other preachers I’d known – of The Right Revenant Doktor Pileus, of Jedidiah Stone. They, too, had urged their listeners to let go of their scrap, their will, their lives itself, promising rewards beyond knowing in a life beyond death.
But for now, for Aeg, perhaps it was enough.
“Thank you, Witch,” he replied. “You are the closest thing to a shaman I have known.”
I held my breath a moment. The Witch is nothing if not proud, I knew. She expects – and has often earned – respect. But to be compared to a shaman by a creature she thought an abomination… it might have been unspeakably profane.
The Mutant Witch looked to the Doktor. A moment passed. But she neither cursed nor crowed. She hung her head, as if unable to meet his gaze, and turned to walk the sands in silence.
We watched her go in silence.
Aeg gathered up his things.
I thanked him for telling us what had happened. “I’m sure it weren’t nothin’ you wanted to ‘member again…”
“Aye, fanks fer da etllin’. An’ fanks fer eryfin’,” Wolfhard added.
PanPot nudged me and nodded. “Me go run an’ wait fer candy on pillow from yous.” He bolted off across the twilit sands.
“I’ma go home and unpack what I got,” Aeg told us, shouldering his bags.
“You need a guard on yer way back?” I asked him.
“Or two gards?” Wolfhard replied.
“An escort would be nice. It’s getting dark.”
And so we three went southward, weapons in hand. We climbed the steps of the High Mesa as the moon sank below the dunes. We wove through the ruins; we entered the cave.
“Hopefully ye can be here an’ stay here a while now…” I said.
Quietly, methodically, he began to unpack his finds. Strange and spiraling glassworks, pouches of powders, inexplicable tools. He placed items I couldn’t see into bins marked with glyphs I couldn’t understand.
Wolfhard yawned, settled himself onto one of the thin cardboard mats, and soon fell asleep.
I lingered a while, watching. There was nothing I could do, yet I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know what I wanted. Besides, I guessed, what I always want: more knowledge, and more ability to help.
I wished he could teach the purposes of those powders, those tools, those flasks. I wished he could teach all the meanings and all the stories behind these little mysteries. I knew I wouldn’t have understood it. But I wished, before he busied himself again with work and research, that I could hear him speak at length, animated and enthusiastic, about the work he was so passionate about. The arcane mysteries, the astounding realizations, the successes and surprises.
I’d seen him so vulnerable, and I wanted to see him victorious. I’d seen him so haunted, and I wanted to see him happy.
Soon, Aeg stood behind his worktable once more, torchlight and kilnfire flickering behind him and gleaming on the walls of his cavern. He still had more to do. He still had lost so much. He still was marked by Multa – as, perhaps, are most of us. But he was hard at work. He was healing. He was home.
Perhaps that was close enough.
The Wastelands is not a world of happy endings. It’s a world of few endings at all. Things follow other things, and are followed. Things change, and are changed, and change others. There’s no surer way to suffer than to try to resist that change. Perhaps that’s simply what suffering is.
We’d been, so many of us, shaken by what we had learned. The faithful faltered. The stoic swilled spirits and slurred. The reckless listened vigilant at the sickbed; the killers stood as guardians. The objective grew entwined by attachment; heavy hearts sank into hope. The helpers needed help, and the jaded and naive rose to guide them.
That shaking isn’t stalled by Aeg’s safe return.
And so I knew that was no end. It was no beginning. It was a thing among things, forged by people among peoples, in a time among times. I glanced around the cavern, eyes trailing over the now-clean stone where stew and blood and booze and tears had recently been spilled. Already, a newcomer could enter the cavern, see Aeg toiling away, and not know things had ever been different.
For myself, I knew that all I could do now was write. To record the story as well as I could. I can not decide what it means or matters, not even for myself. But I can try to help ensure that it’s not lost when we are.
I looked up at Aeg again. Torchlight shone dully on his elaborate metal mask. It gleamed upon his scales. Already he was too busy to pay me any mind. I cast him a sheepish smile and shrugged. “I’ll be back up t’ visit t’morrow.”
Once more, I left the cavern. I took up a torch and stood for a while, looking out on The Wastelands. Fire blooming in my hand, shadows spinning around me. The land, the sky, and the night all felt so vast and dark, and my torch felt like a target. Not far beyond the fires of our home, there were – there are – vicious creatures beyond imagination, beyond reason.
Perhaps they were watching. Perhaps they were coming. Perhaps they are already here.
But I went northward into the darkness. I returned to The N and soon settled in at the wordmasheen. There, there were no mutterings from the depths of dream. There, there were no howlings from the height of madness. There was just the clacking of the keys, the kicking of the small metal legs, and the thump as each letter’s inky bootprint stamped the page. And yet I still shivered in the hot, vast night. Thinking about the stories as I wrote them. Knowing every word could be the last.
Still, when has that not been true? When have we ever been safe? When have we ever been certain?
When have we ever let that stop us?
With every word, another memory stands free of meat and mind. Another ember burns in the darkness. With everything we do, everything we craft, everything we fight, create, trade, steal, find, lose, want, love, hate, we burn on. Even as we clash, as we change, as we crumble, we burn on, each of us kindling the others.
Perhaps our light makes us a target to those horrors beyond our borders. But perhaps we burn hotter and brighter than they could ever withstand.
May we never burn out.