If you have not read the other installments of this series, I highly recommend you check them out. You should start with Strange Weight, then the Tunnels, A Good Life, The False Prophet, and Part 1 of the Assassin. Enjoy!
“What information you be lookin’ for?” said Bron.
They all sat next to a small fire the little man had prepared in between a circle of metal bones and ate their bowl of paste and carrier meat. Pine blood paste was one of the things Agiion always looked forward to when his travels took him to the Blood Woods. By the looks of it, he wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it, but he got the feeling the big man devoured everything without prejudice.
“Ya talk a lot little man,” said Agiion through a mouthful. “Ya could learn a thing or two from the big man here.”
Grim smiled, letting the sludge in his mouth drip from the corners of his mouth.
“He be good company,” Agiion laughed.
“I agree,” said the little man. “Still, sometime it be nice a have a chat with new people.”
Agiion took another bite and chewed through the silence. He could see the imp watching him, planning. He may have been a merchant, but it was clear that he was far from a simple one. This was a man who rarely got caught by surprise, a man who had the future mapped out a few steps ahead.
“Ok,” said Agiion as he swallowed. “Why ya be riskin’ the Road without more protection? There be safer ways a travel.”
This time, it was Bron that laughed. “We both be knowin’ there be no truth a that.”
“Ya not concerned a the mutated?”
“Only concern a me be Hunters, and it be rare they wander the Road,” the little man took a bite of his food and kept talking. “This be first time in years we run ina them. Likely deserter from Collective raid. Maybe survivors from the lot that get lost in there. Beside, mutated ain’t ever bother us. Only scare away the Hunters. Maybe ‘acouse we look like them.”
Agiion had traveled through the Road a few times over his years and had never personally encountered the mutated. There were stories, though, and plenty of them. Enough to warrant caution.
“Aye,” he nodded back.
The big man finished his bowl and inched closer to Bron. He held the bowl out to the little man and said, “Fair?”
“No,” said the imp but the giant did not relent.
“Fair,” he said more quietly, adopting a fabricated sad face. “Fair?”
“I not be done yet Grim,” said Bron. “No.”
“Faaair…” moaned out the giant, causing Agiion to snort a laugh.
“No! You not be botherin’ him too.”
“Fair,” said the big man as if giving up, only to inch even closer to Bron.
“Fine, let me get two more bite,” said the little man, shoving the food in his mouth before the giant took the bowl and dumped it into his own.
Bron let out a big breath and shrugged. “I love the fool.”
“He blood?” said Agiion.
“No, but he be good as.”
“How he be so big?”
The little man reached for a sack close to him and stuffed his good hand into it. He withdrew a small canteen and tossed it to Agiion who caught it with ease.
“I call it Blood Juice. I tell people it be special, that it make Grim big and strong, but really only thing special ‘bout it be that it come from up there,” Bron pointed toward the sky. “Grim born big. Mutated, like me.”
“So ya lie?” said Agiion. “Ya give people somethin’ that kill ‘em.”
Bron giggled. “It ain’t rot juice, cubrat. Just juice I collect and clean meself. Aside, most people not want the truth, they want a feel good. I give them what they want.”
“I not be part a the Collective, no need a call me cubrat,” Agiion licked the bowl clean. “Why not just tell me the same as the others?”
“You not be a simple man. I tell you that, you not call me a liar, but you think it. Conversation end there,” the little man tilted his head toward Grim. “I like talking.”
Agiion put the bowl down and belched. He leaned back against the metal shell and let it keep him up.
“I travel a lot, see many thing, meet many people,” said Bron. “Maybe I help you find the information you look for.”
“Gda, maybe. Worth a shot when you be talkin’ with a man who travel a the Forbidden more time than any other livin’ man, doh?”
Agiion shot him a menacing look. He didn’t like being toyed with, but the man gave no sign of backing down, no hint of lying. “I be born with a gift for violence, ya know? Done more thing than any regular man would be broken by, but a me, nothin’. When it come a lying, though, that shit break me. Ya be opposite a that, doh? Ya be born lying.”
“Aye,” smiled Bron. The big man finished the bowl and set it down, belching more loud than Agiion had ever heard and distracting the both of them. Bron patted him on the back and the big man dug out a multicolored cube that looked like a pebble in his massive hands.
“Fair,” said the giant as he began twisting the cube around.
“Lying come natural a me, but I not lie a you,” continued Bron. “We make deal, doh? You not use your gift on us, I not use mine on you. Doh?”
“Doh,” said Agiion. “Tell me then, Bron. What be out there?”
“Death. Misery. Loneliness,” said Bron in as low a tone as he could muster. “It be call the Forbidden for a reason. There be beauty there, in the remnant of the past, but it just be a reminder of what once be. Only the mindless mutated roam there.”
“There be anythin’ past it?”
“It be possible, but I no ever be through the wall. Too big a climb. I not be able a climb it meself, and I not put Grim through somethin’ like that. Aside, lotta mutated cluster there. Not worth the risk.”
Agiion had never heard of a wall. He had heard men talk about the mutated there, innumerable gatherings of them mindlessly walking back and forth, but there was nothing past it. Only black beyond the fog. Only darkness so overwhelming that it would make even those men of the Dry Sea pray for the orb in the sky.
“Ya say they not bother ya,” said Agiion.
“Aye, at a distance, they not pay us no attention. When we be gettin’ too close, they start sensin’ us wee bit more. I not interested in gettin’ close enough a findin’ out what happen if I get next a them.”
“Ya not be curious?”
Bron laughed. “I be born curious! It be what make me a good trader. It also be why I know the risk not worth it. Me life be with Grim. It no matter where we go.”
“So ya not be goin’ back there?”
“If me journey take us there, sure, but I not be wantin’a. No,” Bron nodded at the man. “That were you be goin’?”
“If me journey take me there,” smiled Agiion.
“Don’t go,” said Bron with a smile. “This not mean much a you now, but trust. Don’t go. You won’t survive.”
“How did ya then?”
“I be so fuckin’ radiated from the moment me ma shot me out her slit,” Bron raised his good hand and pointed it toward himself as he laughed. “Just look at me!”
Agiion let a faint smile spread over his lips, just enough to appease the man, but his eyes focused on the tiny cube the big man twisted about. He had seen one just like it some time back. A couple of men he had run across. Strange men with accents he had never heard before. They had been surprisingly welcoming, offering him food and drink as if he had saved their lives. Behaving the way men did not behave.
Shame what had happened to them.
“Big man,” said Agiion to the giant.
Grim looked up from his toy. “Fair?”
“Let me see,” said Agiion, extending his hand out.
“Fair,” said Grim, pulling the toy to his chest. Agiion waved him over.
“It be ok, Grim,” said the imp. “Go’n now.”
Grim pushed his bottom lip up as if he were going to cry until the little man egged him on again. The giant stared at the ground as he made his way over and held the cube out without looking Agiion in the eyes. He dropped the cube in the killer’s hands and was about to turn back when Agiion stopped him.
“Ya ever solve this?” said Agiion.
“Fair?” said the giant.
“Get them side all the same color,” said Agiion as he pointed at the cube. The big man looked confused, as if he had been aimlessly twisting the cube without ever knowing the purpose behind it. Agiion tapped the ground next to him. “Come, sit with me.”
The big man looked back at the imp who nodded his permission.
Agiion turned the cube and looked at all the sides, taking in all the sides. He didn’t remember exactly how to solve it, but he knew part of it would come to him once he started. He twisted the cube around as the big man watched in fascination. After a short time, he had solved one of the sides completely.
“Fair!” the big man exclaimed, bouncing on his seat. “Fair!”
Agiion smiled and handed the cube back to the wide-eyed giant who took it and pretended to analyze it just as Agiion had. The big man looked up from the cube and hugged Agiion, letting the killer feel just how easily it would be for this giant to crush him but also how vulnerable the giant really was.
“Fair,” said the big man again.
“Ya get the rest a them side now,” said Agiion as he patted Grim on his mountain of a shoulder.
Grim nodded without looking up from his cube. He stood and made his way back over to Bron, sitting down and completely forgetting about the world outside of the cube. Agiion chuckled as he watched the giant carefully twist a side, only to look at the other side and immediately twist it back as he saw it was no longer uniform.
“You be havin’ wee ones?” asked Bron.
“No,” said Agiion.
“Why? You do good with them.”
“He no be a wee one.”
Bron laughed. “Gda. Maybe not in body, but up here,” he tapped his head. “He never be more.”
“Where ya be takin’ him then?”
“He no want a be trader no more,” said Bron. He lifted his bandaged hand up for Agiion to see. “People not be appreciative, and it be gettin’ harder a make a profit with them Factions settin’ more and more fee. Not the same. So like you, we just be lookin’ for someone, but more a settle down. We have all we need.”
“Faction do that a ya?” said Agiion, nodding to the imp’s bandaged hand.
“Aye. Collective men tryin’ a skim more off the top. It be alright, I be sure one day they commander find out. Be just a hand anyway, not like they take me tongue.”
For a brief moment, he saw a glint of euphoria in the man’s eyes, as if reliving a wonderful memory. Just as quickly it disappeared. The man rubbed his good thumb over the medallion at his neck.
“Shame a see the Collective gettin’ much big a control they own people,” said Agiion.
“They no different then a rest a them Factions. Shit be shit no matter which way you be smellin’ it. Doh?”
“Sound like we both be around enough Faction men a recognize a truth,” laughed Agiion.
“Only truth I be recognizin’ be me own,” said the imp with the remnants of a smile.
“As everyone should,” said Agiion. “Tell me, little man. Who ya be lookin’ for a find on the Road?”
Bron snorted. “I no find em here,” he pointed off into the darkness. “I find em there. In the Blood Woods. But in there much big, I no see nothin’ so the Road be where I stay a see when they come out.”
“The Road be countless steps. Ya not be able a see it all.”
“I see more than if I be in there, though. Doh?” said Bron. “And you? Who you be hopin’ a find on the Road?”
Agiion watched him closely. The imp was probing him, giving him just information to make him comfortable and keep him talking. There was something the imp wasn’t telling him, something that the little man was worried about and trying hard to not show.
The creature was a survivor, nothing more. It was obvious that he took no sides but his own. Lucky for him, that’s exactly what Agiion needed.
“Someone who help me find a woman,” said Agiion.
“Ah,” said the imp with a sly grin. “I be with you. Blood Woods woman be better.”
“Bright green eyes, glow near bright as the orb in the sky. Dark gold skin. Not much talkative, grunt more than talk.”
The imp’s eyes quickly scanned Agiion’s own back and forth for a split moment before leading into a warm smile. Out of the corner of his eye, Agiion could see that the giant had stopped turning the cube.
“Sound awful specific. Least you know what you want.”
“I hear she be travelin’ with a boy,” said Agiion, no longer watching the little man.
The giant’s head lifted and a grin spread over as he said, “Jensen?”
The imp subtly touched the giant’s leg. “Aye, Jensen,” said Bron as he tried to take the cube from the big man only to have the giant snatch it back. He turned his attention back to Agiion. “That be your woman and son?”
“I be hire a find em,” said Agiion.
“Lotta land a be coverin’. What make ya think they be in there?”
Agiion pulled out one of his curved knives along with a smooth stone and slowly ran it along the edge. The shrill metallic sound hung in the air and before it could completely fade, he ran it again until it became background noise, but one that was impossible to ignore.
“When I be younger, I live a different life. When I be a wee one, them other wee ones not like me, not understand me. Make it a habit a beat me down when I be alone. I never be scared, never feel nothin’. Me blood spike, ya, but me mind never worry. It be part a life, result a not bein’ like them, doh?”
“I be thinkin’ me and you be sharin’ more than meet the eye,” said Bron.
“Me Ma always be pushin’ me a fight back, a defend meself, but I no trust me abilities yet. Only one a me. If only I know what I be knowin’ now, doh?” chuckled Agiion to himself. He took the blade and held it up to his eye, inspecting the edge and then continuing to run the stone over it. “Maybe I deserve it. I not be like them. Each time they beat me, I take somethin’ from them, part of they innocence. I slip into this…rage, but it be cold, not like what me Ma explain. Not warm, no flushin’ a the skin, no red in ya eyes. It just be like nothin’ else in me mind and what I do be only thing a make sense, no emotion. Ya ever feel that?”
“Similar, but I not be able a say I feel nothin’. Revenge make me gloat. Can’t blame ya if ya had felt good makin’ em feel what they make ya feel.”
“They never feel what they make me feel,” said Agiion calmly. He twirled the curved blade for Bron to see. “I split each a them open with this blade, one by one. Wasn’t ‘till I be done rippin’ em open that I think about what it mean. I be sure they come pick me up, kill me for what I do. Faction man pick me up instead, order rest a the wee one’s family a be butcher and offer me a job.”
“Ah!” said Bron. “He teach you from then on?”
“No, I refuse and he have me family strung up,” Agiion shrugged. “I make me way into his home and gut him, put his head in a sack and take it a the one man I know be warrin’ with him at the time. He pay me and offer me a position with his Faction. I refuse so instead, he offer me more a get rid a all his officer, so I do, and in one day I eliminate all trace a the Blood Brat clan and I start killin’ for money.”
“That be you?”
“I work for a man for a long time until I realize, I be doin’ all this for all but me. They cause, they power, and they not be good men. I not even ask question, I just do. So I decide a not kill anymore.”
“Ah, so them men back there, they just be sleepin’?”
“Not unless it necessary. I gather information for powerful men now. It easier, and I not be responsible for nothin’.”
“I trade random thing with people from city a-.”
“I be tasked a find this woman so I visit a town where I be told there be information. I find a whore, pretty, young, dumb as this one,” Agiion pointed at Grim with his blade without looking up. He could see the little man getting tense and trying to hide it. “Dumb, but loyal. She know lots, and it not easy a pry it outta her. Easier a pry her teeth out her mouth. Eventually she tell me what I need a know, they always do, one way or other. And then, there be the little girl.”
Agiion lifted his attention from the blade and stared into Bron’s eyes. The imp’s face may have been stoic and unperturbed, but he rubbed the medallion at his neck so fiercely that it gave away everything he was trying to keep in.
“They both tell me about a man who talk lots about the Road, lands ayond it, lands more beautiful than a one we see. Lands describe in a small parchment, like this,” Without ever taking his eyes off the imp, the assassin stuffed his hand into the satchel and withdrew the bloody parchment. He flicked it open and held it out for the little man to see. “Ever see this?”
Bron narrowed his eyes as he inspected the parchment from his seat, never making a single effort to get closer. The imp knew.
“Lot a blood over it,” said the imp. “Who’s it be?”
“The whore,” said Agiion coldly.
“She deserve it?”
“She not talk.” So far, they never talked.
“Ah,” said Bron, placing his hand over Grim’s thick leg. “Sad day, hope you not hurt me brat here. He not talk much either if you not notice.”
“Ya ever see this?” said Agiion calmly.
“Maybe,” the little man stood and walked over to the cart. He went under the cart and opened a compartment Agiion had not realized was there, making him feel foolish for not paying more attention. Agiion wondered if there was something else he was not aware of, something more threatening. The little man walked back with a sack in his hand and plopped down next to Grim. “You let me see?” He patted the big man’s leg and said his name, pointing at Agiion without looking.
The big man stood, shuffling over to Agiion while never taking his eyes off his cube. In any other situation, Agiion would have given no second thoughts about it. He would have ended the conversation and moved on, but this was different.
The imp was playing a game.
Agiion handed the parchment to the giant and then watched as the little man took out parchments of his out from the sack.
“You could say I be a bit of a collector,” chuckled Bron as the big man handed him the bloodied paper. He set it down on the dirt and began to open the other parchments next to it. “I admit, sometime I make some a me own. People pay good coin a these.”
“So they not real?” said Agiion.
“You make very low opinion a me, cubr-,” Bron stopped before finishing and looked up. He was nervous, it was causing him to break character. “Sorry. They all be real as you and me. All me ever do is get me buyer excite about them. That be all.”
Agiion watched him quietly, letting the silence wrack his nerves. He was hopeful the little man might break without ever needing to lay a finger on either of them. Liar or not, he was enjoying their company. Liar or not, he needed to prove the code.
A big smile spread over Bron’s face as he pointed at one of the parchments he had just opened. “Here it be! Look like it be one of mine.”
“Ya make it?” said Agiion, raising a single brow at him.
“Aye,” said Bron, tapping the big man again and handing him both parchments to take to Agiion. “See the symbol? All be the same. It be me writin’. Which town you say it be?”
“Ah. Likely same where the bastard do this a me,” said the little man, raising his bandaged hand. “I stay with a whore two night who fool me a thinkin’ she be dumb. Must’ve stole this along with the extra coin she take.”
Agiion frowned. Shame. It seemed keeping this new code was becoming increasingly difficult. He liked the imp, he didn’t want to have to hurt him. Most of all, though, he didn’t want to have to hurt the big one.
Agiion slumped his head and began to twirl the blade. “That be so?”
“Aye,” said the imp without hesitation. The nervousness Agiion had thought he had read on the man was nowhere to be seen now. Maybe his code was becoming increasingly difficult because he was not as patient of a man as he had once thought himself to be. Violence was always easier. “She not skim much, but still more an what we bargain. Grim here not like when things not be fair.”
“Fair,” grumbled Grim.
The man was talkative and clearly out for himself. All he had to do was keep him talking. His code could be upheld, it had to be.
“It not be real,” said Agiion, continuing to twirl the blade.
“The parchment?” said Bron. When Agiion didn’t respond, he chuckled and continued. “It be as real as me twisted frame.”
“The Vaults not be real.”
“That be the only part I not be able a verify. Everythin’ else on there, I see with me own eyes. The Vaults, though,” he stood up. “You want more a eat?”
Agiion looked up as he realized the imp was addressing him. He shook his head while the giant nodded violently.
“I travel everywhere on the three side of the Road. Meet nearly every type a man there be, except a one that be able a verify that part a me drawins’.” The little man pulled out a chunk of dried meat from a sack and stuffed it in his mouth. “You remember the expedition some time back? When the Collective decide a show they true power and cross ina the Forbidden?” said the imp as he chewed. “Not many man come back from that.”
Everyone did, especially Agiion. It seemed as if the Collective had climbed a ladder that had eventually run out and instead of remaining at the top step, had continued to build a bigger ladder that only they could climb. Agiion had watched the whole thing unfold and had made up his mind that the Sovereign had taken it too far, but just as he had decided to stop the false god, some of the men had begun returning. Instead of ending the Sovereign then, his curiosity, or maybe it had been his affection for the man, had forced him to see the whole thing through.
Thousands of lost lives later, the Temple had been built, and when the people should have resented and rebelled against the Sovereign, the Prophet, and their false religion, they instead rejoiced them. The only rebellions that occurred were among other Factions that joined the Collective. They had sent thousands to their death and conquered the bulk of the land without ever raising a blade. In the end, they had saved hundreds of thousands by not going to war and Agiion had been sure he had chosen the right code.
Violence was not necessary to achieve results.
And yet, he was finding it so difficult to get the results he needed.
“The one that do,” said Bron. “I talk a. Ask if they see the same thing I do. They all see it, but none see past the wall. None see any sign a the Vaults. Most be dead now anyway, and I no desire a go a the big man city a ask the livin’ about the Wanderers.”
Agiion narrowed his eyes and forced himself to laugh. “Ya think I be a wee one? Tell me all them stories we tell wee ones so they not realize the shit they be growin’ ina?”
Bron tilted his head as if confused.
Agiion pointed the blade toward the imp. “Ya be over here makin’ me listen a ya beast shit while I be thinkin’ we be talkin’ truths. What be ya plan little man? Ya tryin’ a sell me some special trinket ya get from a Wanderer ya meet, eh?”
The big man looked up from his cube and frowned. “Fair.”
Bron watched Agiion in silence, not a hint of fear in his eyes. He ripped a piece of dried meat with his teeth and held the rest out for Grim, who didn’t hesitate to snatch it and shove it in his mouth. Bron waited until he had swallowed his bite before talking this time.
“I be seein’ why you think that. I tell you I be good liar. I tell you I be a trader. I tell you part a me tricks with buyers. Easy a see how you might think I set you up,” the imp refocused his giant on the cube. “You be a man a violence, that be clear. I be a man a words. I be sorry if me dance takin’ longer than what you be likin’, but I assure you, truths be all we talkin’.”
“What be ya game, eh?”
“I never meet no Wanderer,” said Bron. “I meet more people than anyone else alive, but I never run ina no Wanderer.” The imp paused to give Agiion a moment to say something and continued when the man didn’t. “Friendlike, givin’, curious. Met countless men who be sayin’ exact same thing about them, as if they be all hearin’ the same story and decidin’ a vomit it out same. Many get save by them, others be spendin’ a night around the fire with them. They always be sayin’ the men talk different, more proppa. Strange sound a they tongue.”
“Suit over they body like nothin’ we ever see afore,” said Agiion in a mocking tone, but it was not the imp he was trying to shut up. “Tech so advance it make ya mind twist. Ya, we all be hearin’ the same shit since we be wee ones.”
And he knew them all to be true.
“I be sorry if what I be sayin’ make you feel more than you be ready for,” said Bron. “If you not be wantin’ Grim a me here, we can-.”
Agiion flicked his wrist that held the blade in the air. The imp was right, he needed to be patient. He now had a code to abide by.
“I not be able a say if they be real or no,” said Bron after a long silence. “But all these maps here, they all from men who claim a have met them. Most I not believe a be real, but the one you be havin’ there, I be feelin’ in me belly.”
Agiion took his free hand and lightly traced the scar over his stomach. The scar that had been sealed closed by something he had never understood. By men who had made him experience fear for the first time.
By men who had caused him to react like the mindless savage he tried so hard to fight against.
“Just like the people be feelin’ the power a the Unbroken One, eh?” said Agiion, letting his head hang.
Bron smiled and shook his head. “Yeah, it be possible, but nah. The people at have it, they like you. Not able a tell a lie. Only omit a truth.”
Agiion raised his head enough to see the imp watching him closely.
“You kill the whore?” said Bron.
Agiion raised his head to match the man’s eyes. He could feel the anger exuding out of the little man now. He was making no attempt to hide it, and for some reason, it made Agiion feel something.