A Good Life Part 2 (D1)

“There not be more I can do?” asked the young whore as she caressed Bron’s bandaged hand. She must have never had a broken bone in her life or she would have known how painful what she was doing was, but he let her anyway. She was sweet to try and care for him, clean up his hand proper and rewrap it with a new cloth that was not soaked with blood.

Although, come to think of it, it was hard to believe someone in her line of work had never had a bone snapped by an overexcited customer.

“No love,” said Bron, wincing each time she pet him as if he were one of the livestock out where Grim was sleeping. “I be alright. Just need a think.”

He had watched the big man curl up inside one of the stalls next to the beloved beast the giant had made friends with and left Bron to empty the cart and drag the sacks inside the stall on his own. They had not spoken the entire time and by the time Bron had gone to remove the coin sacks from around his friend’s neck, the big man had been fast asleep. He had placed them inside the compartment within the cart and padded it so the coins would not jumble if someone accidentally moved it. It was more likely someone would follow them and muster the courage to rummage through their sacks, even with the giant around, but they would never think to steal a cart with only a massive statue placed atop it. 

Once finished, Bron had stared at his sleeping friend for a long time, the beast beneath the giant’s head being used as a pillow staring up at Bron as if once again pleading for help.

“Sleep well, ‘amorrow be a long day.” he had said, closing the stall door and placing the pins inside to lock it. “I be sorry Grim, it not suppose a be like this no more.”

“Maybe I can help you think!” said the young whore.

I doubt that. “Yeah, maybe,” replied Bron.

“Well, what you be thinkin’ of?”

He stared at her, taking in all her beauty. It was hard to think that someone as striking as her would take such a liking to him, dumb or not. There was no reason for her to be here with him still. He had offered, multiple times, for her to go work other customers. He had paid up front and was in no mood for her services but he didn’t see why she couldn’t profit from that herself. She deserved it, after all. 

Yet here she was, by his side, refusing to take up his offer. 

She had claimed that she preferred it with him, that she enjoyed his presence, that he was interesting and made her think, unlike the rest of them who caused her to tune out the world and pretend she was elsewhere. 

He wished he could take her with him. Explore the world past the Road with her and Grim. They could be like a family. Grim could have a new friend to listen to and play with, and Bron a new partner to make love with at the sight of every new wonder she came across. There would be no more need for the statue. 

As much as he loved the idea, it could not happen. It had been sweet of her to say, but he knew it had to have been a trained phrase. There was no way a creature as gorgeous as her would choose a shriveled imp like him when she could have any normal lad she came across. Besides, there was a much higher chance that Grim would not accept the idea and refuse to have her along, not to mention that he was being hopeful if he thought she would continue sleeping with him once the coins stopped being traded.

“You, love,” he said softly.

She giggled and lifted his hand to her cheek, causing him to wince. If she noticed, she did not pay it any mind but closed her eyes instead like Grim had when he had held his own cheek to the beast. Bron smiled.

She opened her eyes and smiled back. “You draw me too?” she said.

He looked down at the piece of parchment, the lines carefully etched from memory. It had been burning bright in his mind, ever since the boy had shown him, but he had refused the thoughts. Bron knew that to the girl, they looked like random lines that would eventually have form. Maybe she thought, or hoped, that the lines would eventually turn into her when he was finally done, but it would never. It would become something very few people would ever understand.

It would be lines to describe landmarks that only Bron and Grim had ever seen. Places that people wouldn’t dare go because of the danger the radiation posed. Areas that carved wonderful ideas of the world long ago. It would describe the regions past the Road on both ends, where no man traveled, only monsters.

It was another reason that she would never be able to go with them.

“Maybe later,” he said.

“Promise?”

“Sure,” said Bron, picking up the small stem of charred wood. “For now though, I need a think and finish this.”

She frowned and removed her cheek from his hand, placing it over the table. He watched her as she stared at the ground and felt the sadness she did. It was hard to know how much of her had been trained for the trade and how much of her was genuine, but Bron wanted to believe all of it was.

He lifted his mangled hand and placed it on her cheek. “Keep doin’ what you was doin’,” he said. “It feel good.”

She looked at him and smiled wide, as innocent as the first time he had watched his best friend do the same. She took his hand and began petting it once again. Pain shot through him each time but Bron kept his face as straight as he could.

He wasn’t lying. It did feel good, just not physically.

The next morning they arrived at the row, Grim’s usual morning erection finally beginning to disappear. A line of men with jugs in their arms had already formed at the spot where Bron had placed his cart the day before. They seemed relieved as he strolled into the row with a new set of sacks overloading his cart.

“Top a mornin’ cubrats!” he called out to the men in the line. As he passed by Jehemiah’s stand, Bron made it a point to grin wide and raise his bandaged hand as he nodded. The displeasure in the man’s face made showing up again worth every freshly made hole in his hand.  

Grim searched for the indentations of the cart wheels left from the previous day, which wasn’t hard to find considering that there had been blood splattered close by that had not been disturbed, and placed the cart in the exact spot. It wasn’t always like that, but Grim could be strange about making sure that things took on the same order which he remembered. Yet another reason why discontinuing this lifestyle was necessary. A day would come when Grim would get it in that big head of his that the line the men had created was not straight enough and try to force them into his idea of what it should be like. 

Bron set five sacks of coins at the edge of the cart, just in case the Faction men decided to do their usual morning rounds. 

He began to attend the line, all of the initial men there strictly for their dose of juice. Just as expected, word had traveled fast in this small, shitty town and they were now here to see what type of deal the tiny freak could get them. One by one he took care of them, each leaving thankful despite having to look at Jehemiah’s face, resting forever in displeasure as if a Gunna Bull had fucked him in his rear repeatedly from the day he had been pushed into the world. 

As the line of people with jugs in their arms grew shorter, Bron began to realize that the Faction men had never come. He had expected that, but nonetheless did not like it. It meant they would now show up when they decided to, not according to their schedule, and men forced off of their routine are unpredictable in more ways than one.

Eventually the men seeking juice disappeared, not because of lack of want, but because of lack of inventory. Bron made it a point to turn some of them to something they had not considered before, salvaging at least some coin from that and gloating at the fact that he had surpassed the challenge a ‘normal’ man had thought impossible.

Bron had hoped to get at least a little down time so as to get a chance to speak with the remaining key players, but the line would never cease. As it shrunk down to appear as if it would run out, more men would show up and stand behind the others. Bron manipulated the line, of course, making sure to take longer when it was growing short and speed things up when it grew long. It was more important for him to pay those key players a premium and continue the constant stream of coin that set itself ahead of him than to stop it so he could try to make a little extra by wasting time negotiating with the key players.

Fortunately, there is no such thing as random luck, only fabricated, and Bron found that continuing on his path led the three remaining men directly to him. 

He could see them from the corner of his eyes gathering together after yet another morning of no sales. They had become too prideful to call out to a customer and earn them the old fashioned way, believing themselves to be above it all. As if they had earned the right over the years to sit on their asses and allow complacency to draw everything to them. They were wrong, and now they would have to pay the price.

It was hunger that kept a man together. Sharp, aware, competitive. These men had lost all of their hunger and for two days straight now had lost all of their business too. They had all seen what had happened to the little freak who had tried to dodge the collectors, and whether anyone occupying the row traded or not, the collectors expected their cut. So what would happen to them when the three Faction men came strolling down the row and the biggest known earners of the row were unable to pay?

How had the bastard put it? “Roots be gone, eh Grim?” said Bron to his best friend as he collected the coins from his current customer. Grim extended his hand and collected the coins, staring down at the tiny objects as if something was missing. Bron pointed at a small container inside the cart for Grim to get for the customer but the big man shook his head.

“Fair,” said Grim, holding his coined hand out to Bron.

Bron could see the three key players gathered together and glancing in his direction as if plotting the best way they could take down the imp. It likely was not the case, instead discussing between each other how willing they were to swallow their ego momentarily so that the three of them did not need to suffer the rootlessness of the collectors. Either way, Bron wanted to be ready for when they came, and Grim was picking the wrong time to start his games.

“It be fair,” replied back Bron, taking the customer in his arm and showing Grim. “Fair trade for the both a us, eh?”

The man nodded but Grim extended his hand out again. “Fair!” said the big man, louder this time.

Bron grit his teeth and let himself glance back at the players. “Well cubrat, it seem my partner here not think this deal be fair. He think what we be tradin’ be worth more.”

“Fair.”

Bron turned toward the customer so that Grim could see only his backside. “No worry, I cover this,” whispered Bron, slipping two more coins from a sack at his pants and winking at the man. He then said out loud, “Two more coin then, make it fair.”

He motioned to the man to play along and the man pretended to put something in his hand. Bron turned toward his friend and offered the two coins over but the big man closed his hand and shook his head.

“Fair,” repeated Grim.

Bron closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Grim’s conscience was getting the best of him. It happened often, but the big man was usually too distracted during their day-to-day that he would not notice when Bron would gouge a man. From time to time, though, he would be more alert and would not allow the other man to be taken unfairly. 

It irritated Bron, but deep inside he appreciated it. It kept Bron from becoming the complete shit that he knew he was and kept Grim happy and guilt free. It also meant that something was keeping his best friend on alert.

He saw the three players begin to make their way over to him. He snatched the coins from Grim’s hand and watched as the big man put up two giant fingers. “You know that’s not fair to us now Grim!”

Grim shoved the two fingers forward, his eyes wide. “Fair.”

“Fine!” said Bron, turning to the customer and handing him the coins. “When you go feelin’ hungry big man, I remind you a this!”

Grim picked up the item in the cart and held it out to the customer, a massive smile causing his eyes to disappear. 

The man did not complain. He stuffed the coins back in his sack and wrapped his arms around his new purchase, thanking the two of them profusely.

Thank the big man only you cheap bastard. I’d be takin’ your first born given me the chance, now get the fuck out of here! Thought Bron as his lips spread into what no one but he would have known to be insincere. He could feel the key players’ eyes on his back as they waited for him to turn around. “Good life to you now,” he said to the man, urging him to leave.

The man half bowed his way out and Bron pretended to be surprised at the three men’s presence as he turned to give Grim the two coins.

“Oi! Pay me a scare,” said Bron with a chuckle. Sometimes, even he surprised himself at how good he had become.

“Don’t game here with us urad,” said the man in front. Bron could see a large scar at the edge of his neck, which made him wonder if the man had earned it after being robbed. Maybe they could trade stories. The world only knew how many Bron had to share.

“Ah,” said Bron, turning to address the line. “Cubrats! You give me just two moment, yeah?”

Some of the men grumbled but most simply nodded, recognizing that the little freak they were all there to see had had no down time since they had begun to wait in the line.

“I be see the three of you all learn manner from Jehemiah,” said Bron to the players. “You catch more with bait you know?” The three men stared at him as if trying to decide if they had made a mistake by coming to him. “What I do for you cubrats?”

“You take all the men a come to buy,” said the same man. 

Ah, so you come to fight first then. 

“How you do it?” said the tall one in the back.

You mean, how do a shriveled urad who should a be aborted manage what you bastards not? “You want to learn me secrets then?” said Bron.

“You use magic?” asked the last. He was a handsome man with striking features, something you did not see too often. Handsome men made other men feel threatened, and that was not something that was easily tolerated.

“Magic?” said Bron with a chuckle.

“Magic, yeah. Dark powers,” continued the handsome one. “You be radiated somethin’ nasty there urad. Ain’t uncommon to be gettin’ magic from it.” 

“I seen plenty who be born radiated over me life,” said Bron. “Sure, some see better or be a bit stronger, but most just fucked like me. Only thing I got be thin skin and a shriveled ass.” He made himself laugh, causing all but the scarred man to laugh with him. “Ain’t no such thing as magic cubrats, what I do be things you do.”

“I seen magic,” said the scarred man. “You sayin’ I be lyin’?”

I sayin’ you be stupid. Bron made it a point to look up at Grim, reminding the men that his bodyguard was still there and it would not be wise to pick a fight. “You ever be out past the Road?”

“Aye,” said the scarred man, “be pushed out as a wee one in the Blood Woods afore me mum take me from those savages and bring me here.”

“Then you be know there be plenty a urad born radiated out there.”

The man nodded and his tall partner chimed in. “Ain’t no surprise, not enough woman out there so they be fuckin’ beasts. Even they woman be wantin’ animal over prime man like me.”

“Aye! Bought meself two of them savage women and they be scratchin’ at me face when I be tryin’ a mount,” said the handsome one.

“You leave them inside barn a night, I say they belly be growin’ short time later!”

I say I leave ya inside a barn at night and you be the one who shit turn white. “You not wrong! I see plenty a sick thing out there. They be savages out there, so I watch them at distance, learn what they like, what make them go. They people after all, like us. They-”

“Like you, urad,” said the scarred man, curling his lip. “They ain’t like us, they more animal. Why they want beast over us.”

“Exactly!” said Bron, catching them off guard by agreeing with them. “But just like you say, they more animal, which mean they enough people to show you our,” Bron pointed at his chest and tapped hard. He then raised his finger to his head. “No magic, all it is here is a good head which mean if I can do, imagine what you three do.” Not a damn thing.

“Ok, so how we do it?” said the handsome one. Bron could see both he and the tall man eager to listen to whatever the little imp had to say, but the scarred man was not yet with them.

Bron turned and looked at his line. “Maybe I tell you another time, I got long line and it be growin’ longer.”

“I no think you listen, urad,” growled the scarred man. “The Brat Collective be comin’ back today and you be takin’ all the coin. You either tell us how we get more coin, or we be lookin’ for other way to get it.”

Bron smiled wide. “You know, when I ask for a favor, I make sure a not insult the man I ask it of.” He looked around the row at all the traders, each one watching them. “Each man here make pact with me when they see they not makin’ coin. The men who not make pact, you see them here?”

The three men looked around.

“They not willin’ to make pact and not willin’ to risk not makin’ coin for when them three thug come take our coin,” continued Bron. “You three don’t make pact and still come. Why? Hope? Pride? Maybe you have extra coin in case a bad day? But you run out, eh?” He stopped smiling and stared at the scarred man. “What you do with all meat you not get rid of day before?”

The man spat on the floor. 

“I not be a bad man, I never mean to take your customer.” I be the worst kind, the type that be rotted to the core. I no mean to take your customer, I mean to take them all! I be here to jab the dagger in and twist it ‘till there be nothin’ else that pump out. “We be lookin’ at things all wrong. All a us be on same side. It be other, less smart men, that come to take what not be theirs and not see a great opportunity when it face them direct.”

Bron raised his bandaged hand for the three to see. The handsome man nodded but it was clear in his eyes that he had not understood.

“What you mean?” said the scarred man reluctantly.

I mean, you all be idiots. “You three, you be smart men. You see what I do and wonder how you be able to do in time ahead. Yeah?”

All three of the men nodded, proud to be called smart. Idiots. It was a wonder how slightly smarter men could rule over the rest. Yet another wonder where Bron lay in the spectrum. He did not consider himself a smart man, but it was obvious he was well above these. He had yet to encounter someone he remembered being able to dupe him as well as he did to others, but then again, maybe that was the point. Maybe these men would never know or understand what he had done and blame their misfortune on the nature of their surrounding misery. 

Bron had believed, after all, that his loved ones would never abandon him, yet his mother had left without a word as a child. A tiny, deformed boy without food, without coin, without anything to his name. Maybe she thought it the humane thing to do. That starvation was the better way to go, and maybe it would have been, who knows, but Bron was not ready to give up then. He had stolen from merchants even back then, never caught for years, until he was, by a man who recognized opportunity when he saw it. 

He should have killed Bron, or at least chopped off his hands, but he didn’t. The man enslaved Bron and made the little freak pay back the attempted theft, but never once treated the mutated child like other slaves were. Instead, he took him under his wing, taught him the trade. He became Bron’s mentor, Bron’s father. Losiah.

But he too discarded the urad when he found better help. 

At least he had taught the urad to recognize opportunity when it stared directly at him.

“You understand symbols on parch?” continued Bron. The three men shook their heads. “Exactly, but I bet you see something one time and you pick up instant. Am I right?”

“That right, I pick up all,” said the tall key player, “it’s how I make it so good here in our row.”

“Then I do somethin’ better for you,” Bron waved them closer and began speaking real low. “I no explain to you how I do things, that just be like showin’ you parch and havin’ you try a understand it. No. I show you.”

“We no have time for that urad,” said the scarred man, leaning back out. “You sit well knowin’ you pay the Collective, no problem. We end up with broken hand, like you, or broken face.”

“Or more bad,” said the tall man.

“Or more bad.”

Bron smiled. “You think I let me cubrats be taken like that by thugs? No, no. What I offer you be a means to take care of all your problem, here, now, and in time ahead. Sound fair?”

“Fair,” came Grim’s voice behind Bron, just as he had expected.

The Faction men came not long after they sealed their pact, making sure to take Bron’s chance to slip away before they came. Not that he had planned to do so. No, Bron had different plans for the day. Just as their routine had been disrupted, so had his. 

He had purchased the key player’s goods so they could pay the thugs, but what he had really purchased was helping hands and trusted faces. He had directed them to set up their goods at his cart and be by his side for the remainder of the day, with the condition that their faces could not be stuck forever resting like a cunt, like Jehemiah’s.

Grim’s temper boiled as the Faction men collected the sacks Bron had laid out for them on the cart. They could see the rage in the giant and taunted him all the more for it, jingling the sack of coins in front of him as they laughed. Bron did nothing to calm his friend, he didn’t need to. Grim knew that if Bron had promised to make things better, he meant it. 

Guilt never riddled Bron’s mind, except when it came to his brute. 

Over the day, It became apparent to Bron the disdain the key players all had for Jehemiah. They respected the man, of course, considering he held a monopoly on arguably the most important good, but because of that same reason he gouged them too, and they had developed resentment toward him. They were not coy about sharing the information now that they had a pact with him. 

Around the time of second food, the line grew short and Bron took the opportunity to make it disappear. He knew Grim would be unable to continue without filling his belly, and while the three men he had with him might be able to wait a little longer, they likely were not used to it anymore. The five ate together, Grim on the floor, forgetting the world around him, the key players with Bron, shooting him question after question.

“What be point of line?”

“Why ask if they be past Road?”

“Why not charge more?”

“Why be weak with them, always smile and get they way? Why not be like Jehemiah and show power you have over them?”

“Why give away goods?”

“Why ask them to talk to other in line after they trade?”

On and on the questions went. It was endearing to see how interested they were, and also that they were at least bright enough to pick all of it up, but Bron knew it would be meaningless. They would forget the answers, forget the methods, forget the secrets the moment Bron left and they returned to their usual days. They would sink back into what they knew, because the path to progress was harder. 

It wasn’t long until people started coming back to the row and Bron stopped his second food to reguide a new line. His four companions remained eating, speaking amongst each other about how they could implement things, with the exception of Grim who finished his food and then stole Bron’s bowl and wolfed it down. 

Bron was glad the people had come back quickly. He was in no mood to chit chat with people he held no respect for. He would have preferred it just be him and Grim, at least that way he wouldn’t have to pretend to be someone he wasn’t. His mind kept veering toward the woman and child. The cube in Grim’s pocket became a constant reminder that he had allowed his best friend’s happiness to wander off to their death. A constant reminder that he would never be the decent person Grim wanted him to be.

He was a vile and sick little man, who exploited people’s weaknesses for his own personal gain without guilt or remorse for the consequences. There were no gods, sure, but there were devils, and Bron was the worst one. A soulless monster who was willing to break a promise to his best friend in order to protect his ego.

The second wave of people seemed to have a harder time keeping the line together. Maybe their patience had been depleted by their food, or the presence of the three players made them feel as if they could just walk up and speak to them instead. Whatever it was, Bron kept needing to reshape his line until it finally stuck. 

The day went on until the only things left were the massive statue and his personal sack. The woman and child continued to creep their way into his thoughts, distracting him from his task at hand as if pleading with him to choose a different path. The three player’s however, took care of all that by questioning him incessantly, as if they had never once in their life traded before. 

Bron was not sure at what moment the Faction men would return, but the green in the sky made him comfortable to place a wager that he still had time. He told the players that he would be back with their goods and asked them to cover for him in case the Brat Collective came along.

“But what if they ask what be out past the Road?” asked the handsome player as Bron began exiting the row.

Bron chuckled. He had shown everything to these men, step by step. Everything necessary to their success, a way to avoid the backlash they would get the moment the customers grew aware, yet they had heard nothing. They wanted the answer to be easy. Not even they were willing to work for their future.

“Do you know?” responded Bron.

“A course not, I only ever be here.”

“Then ask somethin’ else.”

Bron had Grim gather the three remaining sacks and load them onto the cart. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for the traders he had made pacts with to feel as if they had come up. He knew he could have made more if he had offloaded the goods himself, but like everything he did, he preferred to leave people with good thoughts about him so it could help ease his conscience. 

“Fair,” said Grim as he finished loading the last sack onto the cart.

“You forget anythin’?” asked Bron, “We ain’t comin’ back now.”

The big man reentered the pin where the beast was kept and hugged it tight, causing it to squawk as its breath was pushed out.

“Not everythin’ in life be fair Grim,” continued Bron. “I be sorry.”

The big man let go of the beast and kissed its head.

“Ready?”

Grim nodded and picked up the cart, once again stretching his hand out for all the livestock to lick him on his way out.

They went to Jehemiah first. The man’s lips peeled back into an abomination of a smile as Bron approached him. It was clear that the man had never let himself enjoy anything and Bron almost pitied him.

Almost.

“You get stuck with goods?” said the trader, taking the pendant from under his rags and rubbing his thumb over it. 

“Ah, no,” Bron chuckled, “the other side of thing. I get rid of too much. I plan on leave you with good gift but it seem I not able to now.”

The juice trader’s grin disappeared as he clamped down his jaw. “You make deal with me abortion.”

“Yeah, you be right, and I be man of word,” said Bron as he turned around and rummaged through one of the three sacks of goods. He withdrew a single canteen and placed it down loudly over the table. “Here we are! Me last one, all you now.”

“You no want to play this game abortion.”

“Seem like you be one playin’ game Jehemiah. Who say abortion most time, and you be winnin’,” Bron gave a hearty laugh and turned toward to open the bags. “I no lie to you friend, it be me last.”

Jehemiah spat over his table stand. “What be in them other bags?”

“Those be me livin’ supplies, nothin’ of value in them for you,” said Bron, watching Jehemiah as the man thought about how he could destroy the little freak that should have been aborted long ago. “But I give you small secret, yeah? Come.”

Bron leaned over the table stand and waved the trader to him. Jehemiah refused to move, a snarl over is lip as if he was forever cursed to smell shit. “Tell the men who buy blood juice that you buy they canteen back. Collect them and when you get enough, take a trip for day and make sure a tell all that you be meetin’ man who supply you more, hell, tell ‘em you be meetin’ me. Fill up canteen with where you be collectin’ your regular juice and boom! New batch a blood juice.”

Bron winked at the man who turned the information over in his mind. Maybe it was dangerous and maybe it was petty, well no, it definitely was, but Bron didn’t care. The other men would get gifts, but Jehemiah deserved only the truth. He wanted the trader to masticate the excrement he had just unloaded and keep doing so once Bron was long gone.

Life isn’t all about money. Sometimes, it’s a matter of competition, of knowing you’re the best. Other times, it’s about making sure things are fair, but most of the time, it’s about the money.

The rest of the traders were more thankful, leaving them with plenty to add to their inventory. Bron could hope that the traders would liven up and use what he had given them to topple Jehemiah, but he knew that it was unlikely. Even if they did, they would only change spots with him. A new tyrant to reign the row.

As he finished, Bron placed his cart in the blood marked spot and tried to sit with Grim in silence as they waited for the Faction men to come. This time, it was not customers that pestered him, after all, he had no goods to peddle, it was the traders with their non-stop questions. 

Bron had always revelled in the attention, in the knowledge that he had turned these men from looking at him with disgust to becoming their salvation. Today, however, he could focus only on his ever-growing fatigue and, as he watched the same boy he had seen the previous two days push past all of the traders, knowing full well that any of them could slap him at any moment for no reason other than believing him a pickpocket, the massive pit expanding in his stomach from having to make an exit. 

“But there be one more day,” had said the lovely young whore, “you pay for it.”

“Aye,” Bron had responded. “But there be more important things I need be takin’ care of.”

“More than me?”

“It be a matter of making thing be right, love.” It be a matter of me ego. “It be different.”

“Will you come back then? Take me with you…past the Road?”

He hated breaking promises.

He wanted to believe her, that she had meant it all. That she needed him to rescue her, to take her away and give her a better life, a good life, but he knew what he was and knew what she was too. It was all just a game, a way to bleed him of his coin. She had found his weakness, just as he did all his customers, and was exploiting it. 

“What be your name, love?”

She had stared at him, surprised that he had gone back on his original request to refrain from using names. “Mahyou.”

“Mahyou,” he repeated. He stared into her eyes, playing along, wanting so badly to pretend she was real, but he knew even the name was all part of the game. “I be back, I promise.”

He hated breaking promises.

“The Collective comin’,” said the bony child. Bron smiled as the crowd of traders began to disperse back to their own shops. He tossed a coin to the child who let it slip from his hands and desperately dug through the sand to retrieve it. 

“But, you promise two,” said the boy, staring down at his coin. Grim heard the voice of the child and turned around, looking disappointed as he stared at the boy.

“Get out a here boy,” said Bron. “We not be done.”

“But-.”

“Fair,” growled Grim. The boy cowered, expecting the giant to slap him around for his insubordination. 

“Damn you Grim, it be fair!” hissed Bron to the big man. “He not be done. Boy, get out, right there. When I be done here, you take me.”

“Fair!”

“Shut up Grim,” said Bron. He stuffed his hand in Grim’s sack and tossed him the cube. “Here.” The giant smiled with excitement and began turning the colors, completely forgetting about the boy. Bron looked at the skinny child and nodded his head. “Gone now!”

The boy turned his head and saw the three men of the Collective strolling in, once again spinning their spiked clubs. Bron could still see the residue blood from his hand covering the spikes. The bony child took off, disappearing in the direction Bron had nodded toward.

“Did we catch you at bad time abortion?” called out the grinning Faction man who had split Bron’s hand, loud enough for the entire row to hear. This was clearly a man who shared Bron’s love for attention.

“Not at all,” said Bron back. “I be here waitin’ for you.”

The man looked around at everyone in the row. “That be strange, we get word that nasty, shrivel, urad decide to close early. Leave without waitin’ for us. That be what it look like to me.”

“Whoever tell you that must be blind or stupid,” Or both. I go with both. “I run out of good to sell, yet I still be here, waitin’ for me cubrats to come get they hard earn coin.” 

“We not be your fuckin’ cubrat!” Spat the man who had snatched the coins from Grim’s neck. “I not tell you again.”

“Ah, my sorry,” said Bron, holding up his bandaged hand.

The grinning man slammed his club against the edge of the cart, the needles sticking to the wood and holding it in place. “I want to believe you urad, I do. Guess it be one of me flaws, eh boys?” The other two grunted. “I be too trustin’, lead me to much disappoint. End up havin’ to do thing to people I not always want to do.”
“Well you no need trust me,” said Bron. He waved his bandaged hand around. “Ask these good men here, they tell you the truth.”

The grinning man’s eyebrows went up, his mouth making a tiny exaggerated oh as if he were learning facial expressions from Grim. He yelled out, “Alright, what you men say?” 

No one spoke up.

“Nothin’?” continued the man, his twisted smile beginning to grow.

The silence in the row was thick. It was as if the entire city had decided to go quiet at the same time, all of them watching this moment play out. Only the hot air around them made any kind of noise. Bron’s hand began to tremble. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Maybe he had gone too far this time, believed himself too high.

His heart thudded against his chest. He didn’t know if he would be able to snap the giant from the cube in time to defend him. He doubted it, by then Bron would already have the club joining the sponge in his head. Maybe he could still get Grim to run. At least save himself. This wasn’t his fault. Two days. What had he been thinking?

This wasn’t fair. He knew he had done everything right, beyond right, but all men had a breaking point, and maybe he had pushed them too far.

The grinning man gripped the handle of the club and began wedging it out. 

“He leave when he run out of good!” yelled out the handsome key player, “but he come back some time after with more thing that he give us. He wait here, talkin’ to us.”

“Aye!” yelled out the scarred player. “He no need to come back, but he ask me to tell you he come back in case you come early. Sure thing he do come back.”

“Sure thing he do come back,” repeated the grinning man.

“Sure thing!” said the handsome one again, “he wait.”

Many of the other men began speaking up in agreement until the silence was now swallowed by the chatter of men.

The grinning man spun the club in his hand. “Well abortion, seem the men say you true.” He turned his head toward one of his men who visibly clenched his teeth, causing his jaw muscles to bulge. “Unfortunately I no think it fair that I have to ask them to find out.”

Grim’s head lifted from his cube.

“So I not kill you and your,” the man paused as he looked at Grim, “bigger urad. In return for me harder work, I expect more coin.”

“Fair,” growled Grim.

“See? Even your beast agree,” continued the grinning man.

Bron smiled. “You be right Grim, a fair exchange.”

Bron stuffed his hand within the sack closest to him and withdrew six small sacks filled with coins. He tossed two to each of the faction men and then pulled out three more for their troubles.

The grinning man nodded at one of the other two who stepped toward the cart and shoved Bron aside. Grim stood, ready to defend his best friend but Bron quickly called to him, “Easy Grim, this be handle.” He then turned his attention to the man rummaging through the sack, “They be my livin’ supply and the little coin I be have left.”

The man ignored him and turned toward his grinning comrade. “He only have two more sack in here,”

The grinning man laughed, “What be that? I think I hear you say he no have any.”

“You be right cubrat,” said the man holding the sack. He turned the sack upside down and let all of the contents spill over the floor. “Look at that, nothin’.”

“Seem like your trip here not successful,” said the man who had snatched the coins from Grim’s neck.

“We understand,” said Bron, matching the grinning man once again with his own unwavering smile. “We not be welcome here no more.”

The grinning man laughed again, “On the contrary urad, you and your bigger urad be welcome here always. Maybe your next trip be,” he raised his hand, letting it spread and clench as he watched it, “more rewardin’.” He twirled the same hand around, motioning the men to go.

“Aye, the Brat Collective show Grim and meself true hospitality,” said Bron as the two men turned around. “They show me they Sovereign be a man of honor. Can’t wait to see what else you be storin’ from him.”

The grin on the faction man’s face wavered, but only for a split moment. He watched Bron carefully. “I startin’ to like you urad,” he said, gripping the handle of the club and and fully withdrawing it.. “What your beast be holdin’?”

“Nothin’ of value,” said Bron quickly, feeling his heart sink. He knew he had taken it too far this time, let his ego get the best of him yet again. “It just be a toy, for child.”

“I like toys,” said the grinning man. His two partners had stopped and watched them now, waiting only two steps behind. 

Bron and the grinning man stared at each other, silence hanging in the air. 

“Grim,” said Bron, “give me the toy.” He spread out his good hand without looking at the big man, his eyes staying right on the real freak. 

“Fair,” moaned his best friend defiantly.

“Grim,” repeated Bron, “the toy.”

“Fair,” said the big man again, his tone pulling on Bron’s heart and forcing the little man to harden himself.

“Now!” said Bron. He heard the big man say fair once more, quiet and defeated, before he felt the cube get placed in his hand. Bron tossed the cube to the grinning man who managed to grin even wider. 

“You be right urad,” said the grinning man. “The Sovereign be a man of honor, but he also be a man who enjoy gifts. I be sure to let him know where this be come from.”

The man turned and took a step before stopping. “It be a great benefit for us,” he continued, starting to spin his club again. “You be welcome in our town. Make sure a pay us a visit again soon,” 

Bron watched the man walk off with his two goons. “Aye,” he muttered to himself.

Grim sat at the edge of the cart, moaning “fair,” quietly to himself. Bron had never seen the big man shed tears, he didn’t think the big man was capable of it, but he knew when his best friend was crying.

“I be sorry Grim,” said Bron quietly. “I be sorry. We make this right. I promise. Just, trust me.”

But trust can only take you so far, and promises can only be broken so many times. It seemed like Bron would forever be cursed to make promises that would break other promises. 

He hated breaking promises. 

“You sure this be it?” said Bron, staring at the mansion of a shack that swallowed the surrounding buildings. 

Most of the homes were made of clay, straw covering the top to protect the people from the scorching orb in the sky. They were simple structures quickly made in order to house people and give them the idea that they were more civilized than the wandering primitives out in the Blood Woods. This specific structure was different. 

Wood beams were visible from the outside, a tasteless and unspoken brag to anyone walking by that this person could afford to pay someone to clear a trip past the Road and bring back wood from the edges of the Blood Woods. Bron wondered how many innocent slaves had died on that journey alone.

Back to their own land to make it worse.

“Yes,” said the child next to Grim.

The boy had met them right where Bron had asked him to wait. He had led them through the endless alleys, causing Bron’s mind to travel to the defensive, as was natural to the little man. The more turns they took, the further Bron prepared himself to be robbed yet again. It didn’t make sense considering the boy had watched Bron be gouged for everything already, but it didn’t mean they wouldn’t try to squeeze something else anyway. There was always the chance that the urad had stashed some coin that the Brat Collective had not bothered to look for.

They wouldn’t be wrong.

A man has to protect himself in case his plans don’t pan out.

“You have the proof I ask for?” said Bron, facing the child. He didn’t need the proof, the mansion itself was proof enough, but a deal was a deal. He heard Grim sob the usual word behind him and felt his gut tightening. 

His brute should have been excited to have a child around him. Bron felt that the big man likely believed himself to be a child as well, never fully understanding the difference in size, or age. Instead, he had continued to whimper the word, over and over, ignoring their guide completely while they had traveled through the town.

The child pulled a torn piece of cloth out of the waist of his pants. It was the collar of a garment, embroidered just as very few people would be able to afford. It was a shame that someone’s good work had been torn apart for his sake.

“It not be what I ask for but it’ll do,” said Bron turning to the cart.

“He no take it off, I wait but it no happen,” pleaded the child. He glanced at the boy, head hanging low as if defeated yet again. He felt bad knowing that it likely was not the first time he had been swindled out of his end of a deal. “I try se, I do. I get what I see in there.”

Bron removed a sack of coins from the secret compartment of his cart and withdrew two coins. “You no give up,” said Bron. The boy raised his head and Bron waved him over. “A deal be a deal. You make sure everyone hold up they end. Follow?”

Bron watched his face as the boy nodded. His features were very delicate. Round and gentle. The dirt, grime, and short, disheveled hair did a good job of masking them, but it wouldn’t do so forever.

“If they not,” Bron said, holding the coins out to the child in his mangled hand. “You find way to make them pay.”

The child reached out and plucked the coins from Bron’s hand. Bron grabbed the young one with his free hand and held his face close. “You hear me, girl?”

Her eyes were wide with fear. It was unclear whether she was more terrified of the tiny monster taking hold of her, expecting him to do something to her, or because he had realized her secret.

It wouldn’t be long until she would no longer be able to hide herself. Once her body began giving signs of a woman’s, the first man would snatch her up and abuse her to high hell. It was clear she belonged to no family and was no one’s slave. There was no law or no person to protect her. She was a street rat, and female rats only had two options.

“I make you a deal, yeah?” The girl stared at him, unable to speak. He withdrew a folded up parchment from within his pants. “You take this to the woman shelter, find a woman who go by Mahyou. You give her this. Tell her I ask that she take care a you, yeah?”

The girl stared at him with wide eyes. She dared a glance at the parchment. “What it be?”

“Something she ask me for,” he said. She continued to stare at him without a word until he shook her. “Girl, listen! She be a good woman, she take care a you.” I hope. “You tell her I come back after I find us a place, take you both past the Road. You stay with her until I do, yeah?” Might be forever but who know? “In return, I give you full sack a coin.”

He let go of her, spat in his hand and held it out to her with a smile.

He was a vile man who had done vile deeds and would continue to do so. It was in his nature, but at least he could try and help those that deserved better.

Kindness and fairness. He’d try again. Later.

The green orb in the sky had completely disappeared, only the faint glow of its cousin allowed Bron to see the tip of his crooked nose. 

He had watched, at a distance, as the three men had strolled their way into the large building and then waited. He could have gone in much earlier, caught them before they were pissed beyond reckoning, but he saw no point in it. It was better if they felt brave, it meant they would be unable to think straight and Bron prided himself in having the sharper mind. 

Bron did not partake in the rot juice himself. He didn’t understand how people could fill their bodies with toxic substances that would slowly rot their insides as well. It was just as bad as taking a stroll through radiated juice, but slower. He may have had no respect for those that consumed it themselves, but he passed no blame to the men who pushed the rot. They had found a need among the people and were simply filling it. If not them, then someone else. 

They were businessmen, and Bron knew just how to win a businessman to his side. 

He opened the door to the building and stepped inside. 

The three Faction men sat at a table in the center of the room laughing loud enough for the world to hear. Two more men sat with them in the same colors. Candles illuminated the tables just enough to let Bron recognize them but muddied at the distance. The entire section behind them was nearly pitch black.

When the Rot Trader saw Bron, he motioned for the other customers and his slave whores to leave. The man took a rifle from behind his counter and began walking toward Bron. 

Bron nodded to him as he came closer and as the man passed next to him Bron tossed the sack of coins to him. “Lock the door, yeah?” 

The man handed him the rifle and nodded to Bron. The commotion caused one of the Faction men to look up and seconds later, all of them were glaring at him. 

“Fuck you doin’ here abortion?” growled the man who had snatched the coins from Grim’s neck. “You no learn or somethin’?”

Bron broke the rifle and made sure the bullet was inside as he listened for the wooden beam to be placed over the door.

“You never answer me when I ask you if you ever be out past the Road,” said Bron, putting the rifle together. He tapped the butt of the rifle against a wooden beam of the building, causing it to vibrate all the way up. Another rich man flaunting his riches.

“You fuckin’ dead now,” said the same man, gripping his club and stumbling as he tried to get up. Bron felt the building tremble.

“I came to make deal with you all,” said Bron calmly. 

The rest of the men stood. Bron couldn’t be sure if it was to support their cubrat or if the trembling of the building caused it. The grinning man’s grin returned.

“The Brat Collective no make deals,” he said. “We take what be ours.”

The trembling continued. Thumping causing the space all around them to shake.

“Coin, sure,” said Bron. “I no care about that, but you take something that not be yours. I want it back.”

“Everything be ours urad,” said the grinning man. “The moment the whore decide not to let your pa kick you out a her, your life became ours too.”

Bron smiled. “Aye, she make a good choice. Lead me here, to this moment.”

“You dumb, abortion?” said the man with the club in his hand, he took a step forward and Bron raised his rifle toward him. The man stopped and snarled at him.

“The little man feelin’ brave,” said one of the new men. A booming thud caused the men to look around. The pillars shook causing everything around them to creak.

“You men hear about the Vaults?” asked Bron calmly, taking a chair and sitting on it without ever taking his eyes off them.

“We ain’t fuckin’ children,” said the same new man. Another loud thud.

“Vaults don’t mean nothin’ to us,” said the grinning man.

“They should,” said Bron. “I hear your Sovereign be very interested in finding them.”

“Fuck I care about ‘im?” spat the grinning man. The continued thudding kept the men at bay. “Bastard take us for fools, send us looking for a whore while he sit back and do nothin’. Nah, nothin’ to us.”

“You say that if he be here?”

“Well he ain’t, is he? And neither is the Gavna. You know what that mean, urad?”

“It mean we take what be ours,” said the new man as he ran toward Bron.

Bron lifted the rifle and squeezed the trigger. The loud booming caused him to squeeze his eyes shut and clench his teeth. He dropped the rifle as it blew back against his shoulder, leaving an ache in the same spot as well as his wrapped hand. Everything around him vibrated uncontrollably. 

He forced his eyes open and found the men staring at the ground. Chunks of the sponge within the man’s head had exploded out over the men’s faces and rags, streaks of blood painted everything behind them.

Shit, thought Bron, that wasn’t supposed to happen.

The snatcher started to scream something that Bron couldn’t quite make out, but before he could finish, a massive object flew out from the darkness behind them. The edge caught him in the arm and spun him to the ground. The other man Bron had not yet met caught the full brunt of the object and was thrown forward with enough violence to make Bron think he had been split in two.

Bron watched as a colossal shadow pierced the veil of light and reached out to the two remaining men. It gripped them by the edges of the men’s shoulders and lifted them into the air only to slam them back down onto their seats, causing the ground to shake. 

It all happened so quickly that it took Bron a few blinks to process it all. The ringing in his ears slowly gave way to a loud shrieking that Bron was having difficulty placing. 

Shit, he thought, that wasn’t supposed to happen either.

Bron watched his best friend’s face, full of rage and hatred as he held down the two men. The candlelight struck him in a way that made the giant look like a demon straight from the depths of the longest abandoned tunnel. Even Bron, who knew the big man would never lay a finger on him, felt fear.

He stood from his seat and slowly walked toward them. 

To his left, he determined the cause of the endless shrieking. The man Bron had not yet had the privilege of meeting had his legs pinned to the ground by the massive statue Grim had hurled across the building. Pieces of the statue lay broken and scattered across the floor, but the bulk of Bron’s one sided lover lay heavy as if attempting to smother its new lover.

Bron couldn’t help but feel a little jealous.

He stepped around the dead man’s body, making sure not to get any of the blood that had begun to pool around the ruptured head on his bare feet. One couldn’t be sure what type of vile things other men carried in their life juice, especially these type of men. It likely was not much different than what the whores carried, but that was the point. Bron was already vile enough as it was.

“Well,” said Bron, raising his arms up and letting them drop as he did a half turn. “It not supposed to be like this.” He pointed down at the dead man and then the ceiling. “I be trying to shoot up there, just scare you all.”

The grinning man laughed, “You be fuck now, urad. No way outta this.”

Bron looked down at the snatcher, his wrist and elbow twisted in such a way that the bone jutted out from the inner pit. Bron gagged and forced himself to look away. He wondered if that’s how others felt when they looked at his twisted little body.

He patted his chest and let out a breath. “You think so?”

“I know so.”

Bron raised his bandaged palm against his head. It had begun to bleed again, the crimson fluid slowly spreading across the wrappings. “Wow, that be loud.” The shrieking had turned to drawn out cries, sobs for help. “Can you good men think? I sure can’t. You pass me that, yeah?”

Both men followed Bron’s fingertip to the spiked club that the grinning man must have dropped when Grim had slammed them into place.

“To hell with you, abortion,” said the grinner. He spat on the floor.

Grim squeezed the man’s shoulder and Bron heard bones cracking even over the man’s scream. 

“Fair,” growled the giant into the grinner’s ear in such a guttural tone that Bron pictured the air vibrating all around them. Grim pushed the man down close enough to finger the club into his hand and toss it to Bron.

Bron let it drop to the ground and picked it up from there. “Many thanks cubrat,” said Bron. He began to walk toward the screaming man. “You know, I not much like that word. Abortion. It sting. It make me feel…well it just make me feel.”

He kneeled next to the screamer who turned his head in Bron’s direction. 

“Help me,” choked out the man, “get it, off me.”

“I help you, cubrat,” said Bron. “We not get chance to meet. What be your name?”

The man coughed up blood before taking a deep breath and saying, “It be Tob-”

He never got a chance to finish before the spiked club shattered the side of his skull and pierced through the outside of his eye. Bron struggled to wriggle the club free, taking part of the eye with it once it finally came out. 

“You not look over here, Grim!” said Bron. “You lot make it look easy,” He raised his mangled hand. “I only be havin’ one hand. Man can’t really expect me to lift her all on me own.” Not that I could even if I be havin’ both. “Now we be able to think, though!”

The only trace of a smile on the grinning man’s face was the lip he curled up on the left side of his face that bore his teeth. Bron’s own face held a wide grin for him to see.

Bron always won.

He waddled his way toward the snatcher and stood over him. “It not supposed to happen like this, you know?” continued Bron. “You three supposed to stay sittin’, we talk. Make deal. You give back what you take and I give you somethin’ you want. Make all fair, no need for all this.”

“Fair,” growled Grim.

“Grim, look away now.” Bron watched the giant until he made sure his head was turned. He slammed the bloody club into the back of the snatcher’s head as hard as he could, this time not even bothering to try and pry the club free. 

“Now I be havin’ to pay for all this damage.” He sat on the opposite side of the table and smiled at the two remaining men. “So, you two ever be out past the Road?”

 The defiance over the grinning man’s face was commendable. He must still believe that he could somehow get the upper hand. His partner’s confidence, however, had been long shattered.

“Truth be told, the Road be a lonely place. Nobody there to share conversation with, except the mutated. Most people who travel through only go one. They stay on other side, because it not be safe to travel back and forth. People die all a time, maybe from the orb in the sky or maybe they get eat by the mutated. Who know?

“Your Collective go recent, yeah?” continued Bron. “Huntin’ party, come back with slave and plunder. You two not go though, yeah? I take it you not too happy to have your Gavna take his spot again?”

The grinning man ground his teeth, reminding Bron to smile wider. “I and Grim follow them here. Figure the people be extra excite over foreign goods. Turns out I be right, eh Grim?”

“Fair,” said the big man turning his head toward the statue.

“Oye! I say not look over there.” said Bron. The big man looked down. “See, here the thing. When I be out in the Blood Woods, I meet a boy and his ma. The woman, she not be social, fact, she be a pain, but the boy, he be open. He be nice, he no treat me like people usually do. He talk, even with Grim here. Maybe it be a cuz his gimp leg, or maybe not everyone be shit. I know you no care, you shit a piss on me if given a chance, but here be the interestin’ part.

“The boy say they be travelin’ through the Woods, to the land beyond.”

“They ain’t no land past the Blood Woods,” said the grinning man. “The boy not only be deform like you, he be stupid too. Livin’ in dream his ma promise of a better world.”

“Promises…” said Bron, looking down at the club in the back of the snatcher’s head. He wondered if he had dug the club deep enough to kill him or if the man was somehow still alive and would eventually stand up and rush him. Judging from the amount of blood surrounding him, Bron wasn’t too worried. “I consider meself a man of me word. I try hard to keep all me promises, but you cause me to break a very important one. See, Grim here, he hate violence. He want all to be fair. The boy tell him an idea. He tell him, if you be kind, then you breed kindness in the heart of other. He give Grim a color box, so what do Grim go do? He make me promise we do same to other. No more hurt.”

“Your oaf don’t talk,” said the grinning man.

“Fair,” growled Grim.

“No,” said Bron, “Grim talk plenty. The problem be that you too stupid to understand him. For example, I just hear him tell you to shut your fuckin’ mouth.”

The man glared at him, still unable to believe he would lose but starting to see the possibility. 

“You can still keep promise,” said the other man. Bron’s smile faded, surprised to hear him say it in front of his Collective. 

“Maybe,” said Bron. He watched them both in silence for a moment. “Most people think they be nothin’ past the Blood Woods. That the tree go on forever until there be no more, and all that be left is death. They not be wrong, but there be more to it.

“Grim and I, we go past the Road, many trip, back and for, back and for. We travel beyond the Blood Woods where the world end and we find all we trade here. There be men and women there, beautiful women, just like the one your cubrat there have a top him.” Bron pointed at the statue that crushed the man. “I be curse with this weak body, sure. Grim here be curse with a tongue only some be willin’ to understand. But he be strong, and me tongue catch all, and we both be bless with the ability to walk through radiated land like we be walkin’ through this here town of yours. Now, I admit, I be more like waddle.”

Bron chuckled to himself. The grinning man frowned.

“You talk too much, abortion,” said the grinning man.

Grim squeezed again, the bones cracking loud. 

“Grim told you, and he not like that word either,” said Bron. “No matter, you listen to me until you can’t.”

He looked at the grinning man’s partner and nodded a single time. The man nodded back repeatedly.

“You three come along and steal me hard earn coin,” continued Bron. “I ignore. I make promise to Grim. You come back and try a make bigger fool of me in front of all a row. I ignore again, since I make promise to Grim. The third time, you only need a come steal the coin, I even willingly give you more to keep me promise to Grim, yet you go to feel like you bigger than the big man and take the one thing I not be able a let go of.

“So here I go, tryin’ a figure out how I can still keep me promise to Grim but feel as if I win. Make it all fair to everyone.”

“Fair.”

“So I come up with somethin’,” continued Bron. “When I be with the boy and his ma, I wonder how the boy be talkin’ about a land past the Woods. Clearly, he no ever be there and his ma be obvious that she no native of the Blood Woods. I ask him and you know what he say? He tell me that he meet a man who be from the Vaults. Crazy boy, yeah? So I ask why he think the man be from there. He not say nothin’, he just reach into one of the sack he and his ma be luggin’ round, and as she be tryin’ to stop him, he pull out a folded up parchment.”

Bron reached into his pocket and put a folded piece of parchment on the table. “Just like this.” He watched the two men’s eyes as they stared down at the parchment, letting it soak in. He began to unfold the parchment. “He open it and tell me that this parchment be the salvation of all a us. It show the exact spot where we be able to find the Vaults. You ever see one a these afore?”

The partner nodded. “The Sovereign’s prophet, he have many a them. He collect them, he copy them exact. Be the only man who know how to read them.”

“And I be sure that when the Sovereign send you all out to find somethin’, he be sendin’ you out with these, yeah?” said Bron.

The partner turned to the grinning man as if asking for permission, but the grinning man just watched Bron. “Last time I go, I see the Gavna with one. He make two small line,” the man tried to raise his hand but Grim shoved him down. Bron nodded toward Grim who loosened his grip. The partner drew an x in the air. “Many time when he tell us a set up camp.”

“You know what they be?” asked Bron.

The partner shook his head. “Map,” said the grinning man.

“That be right, they be call map. They suppose a give a layout of the land, but as you say, not many people know how a read them.”

“And I suppose you do,” sneered the grinning man.

“Aye, I do. And you know what be significant about this map? It be of a land beyond the Blood Woods, where there ain’t suppose a be nothin’. I know that area well enough a know that this here map that boy have,” Bron shook his head, “ain’t no fake. And it go further than I ever be. You follow?”

“So what? You come to trade this map in exchange for the toy? Think I take it a me Sovereign to gain favor?” said the grinning man. “You not hear? The Sovereign be dead to us here. The Gavna gone. When he get back, all he find is the man who fill his gut with a blade and his head with bullet.”

“You be right, it be my mistake. It be what I get for no take the time a get a know me customer,” Bron spread his hand toward them. “Or maybe, deep inside, I want all a this a happen. Twisted little urad I am, eh?”

“Fuck you urad.” spat the grinning man. Bron raised his hand to Grim to stop him from hurting the man. “Fuck you and your mute beast. Even if you kill us, you never, ever get away with it. The Collective come after you. They find you, gut you and your fuckin’ giant pig here. You go a your little radiated land, we suit up and come after ya. No, fuckin’, place, will ever keep you safe!”

Bron stared at the glaring man. 

“You be a very unpleasant man,” said Bron. “Tell you what, I no kill either a you, long as you tell me where Grim’s toy be at.”

“Fuck. You. Abortion.”

“Ok,” said Bron, standing up from his seat. “Grim, I be sorry about this. It be the last time, I promise.”

“Fair,” grunted the big man.

“Last time, I promise. Last time.”

“Fair.”

Grim yanked the two men together as if they weighed a grain of rice. The partner began to scream. “It be in the barrack! It be in the barrack! I can take you!”

“Ah! Well that be nice of you a offer, but I no need it,” said Bron. “I know all about you Collective.”

The grinning man spat into the partner’s face. “The lot a you, dead!”

Bron smiled, “Not today. You two on the other hand.”

“No!” said the partner, “No! You promise! You promise!”

“But you make me break me promise a me best friend. What make you think I keep one with someone I no fuckin’ like?”

The grinning man hocked up mucus from his throat and spat it into his partner’s face. His grin reappeared over his face. “Coward. The Collective no beg. Do me favor, urad. Kill me first so this fuckin’ coward can watch what about to happen to him and piss hisself afore he go.”

“You talk too much cubrat, but I tell you what. I do you bigger favor, yeah? Grim, would you agree that our cubrat here talk too much?”

“Fair.”

“I thought so. Let’s see how he like it when people have a hard time understandin’ him, yeah? Make him see the world from our eyes, eh Grim?” said Bron, “But let’s make sure this one here not run first.”

Bron raised his mangled hand for Grim to see and brought it down over his leg. Grim looked down to the ground, hesitating.

“Last time, Grim. Promise.”

“Fair.”

Grim ripped the partner from his seat and threw him down on the ground. Before the man had time to think, Grim’s foot came down over the man’s thigh, crushing it from the rest of his body and breaking the ground below.

“Oye!” called out Bron, “Please, no bitin’.”

Grim’s gargantuan fist plowed into the grinning man’s smirking face, removing both the smile and teeth it held only seconds before. 

Bron’s smile disappeared as well. This was different than the outward joy one reveals to others. This was a basking in the deepest, darkest areas of one’s mind. An enjoyment that we hide from others because we know society does not accept it. 

But Bron was not part of society and neither was Grim. They had made sure of that. 

Grim held the man’s jaw open, a popping as he tried to pry his massive fist further in and take hold of the slimy slithering snake that writhed inside. It could only escape the giant’s grip for so long.

Bron watched in fascination, unable to look away. A feeling he could not describe filled his very being. Each thump in his chest harder and harder against the brittle cage that held it together. He felt like his body was filling further and further and he would not be satisfied until it overflowed.

He was a vile man, with vile thoughts, and vile deeds.

The tongue flopped about, back and forth, back and forth. Bron waddled along next to it rubbing the medallion at his neck and watching the tongue move around as the cart rolled on. He had never paid any attention to tongues before but watching the beast pulling the cart along and licking randomly at the air had him curiously captivated. 

Grim walked next to the beast, the cube tightly held between his thick fingers. Occasionally, the giant would stop toying with the cube and stroke the beast’s head and a great, big, oversized smile would spread over his features. 

“Grim?” said Bron to his friend. The big man’s smile turned to him. “Me legs be givin’ out. You help me up?”

The big man stepped around the cart and gently picked up Bron, as if he were picking up a baby. He placed Bron on the back of the cart and then returned to the front, next to the beast. He continued running his hand over the back of the beast’s neck, smiling wider each time.

Bron scooted himself back and placed himself against the edge of the cart. He could hear the jingle of the coins he had not yet placed in the secret compartment. It hadn’t been hard to find the coins. It wasn’t like the Collective needed to hide them. They believed themselves untouchable. No one would dare try and rob them.

Bastards.

The empty space in the cart left him feeling lonely. It felt as if the statue had become part of their small family. It hadn’t just been his one sided lover, it had been their companion as well. He had wanted her gone for what seemed like ages, and now that she was, he wanted her back. It was hard picturing the future without her, but he knew it would still continue on anyway.

He rubbed the medallion around his neck, feeling the stones run across the thin skin of his thumb.

“Grim?”

The big man looked back at him.

“You know I love you, yeah?”

The big man grinned wide again. “Fair!” he boomed.

“We be together, always.”

“Fair.”

Bron hoped the girl had found Mahyou, if that was her real name. Maybe some good could come from this trip. He rubbed the medallion until he felt the stone pierce his skin. Blood smeared over it and dripped onto the cart.

“Let’s go find your friend,” said Bron with a smile.

Grim’s eyes disappeared from his colossal smile.

“Jensen?” said the big man. Bron nodded.

“Fair.” Bron said back to his friend.

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