March – June, Hayven. [Start of year five]

Brandon hadn’t been to his honeycomb hideout in months. Old York had sealed off its tunnels and demolished its bridges. There were still ways in and out of the city, and Brandon did have enough street cred as Boss of Lonely Streetz to get through if he wanted.  But it wasn’t worth the risk; the clout that Brandon had as a gang leader also made him a great hostage. The Affiliates had abandoned Hayven in the final aftermath of the Firebrands, the Smith Family and the Last Line. Some of the more O.G. affiliates had also seemed to abandon Old York.  Back in March, Brandon had run into Cousin Vito on the outskirts of town with a motley crew of gangers and suspiciously clean kid. Vito made it clear that there were no hard feelings, and asked Brandon a favor in keeping a kid safe for him. The concept of loyalty being what it is for Yorkers, Brandon said yes.

Nevermind the fact that there was an unprecedented horde of zed that was brewing. The kid was just as likely to die in Hayven as he was in Old York. But he was still probably safer in the long run with Brandon. Most likely the kid was some kind of hostage, but Brandon knew better than to ask questions. Should they get out of the current predicament alive, he knew there’d be a nice bit of cheese at the end waiting to incentivize him. Everyone seemed to like the kid, a quiet young Baywalker who said his name was Jordan.

As the town got acclimated to Jordan, Brandon realized that Jordan was becoming a symbol of hope for the coming struggle. In that, the kid was desperately needed.The nearby Picatinny Arsenal was forecasting this “thousand year” horde was going to last for two to five years. Zed, packed balls to assholes, overrunning everything.  There were occasional pockets of rest forecasted, enough that if they fortified the Double Tapp, they’d probably survive. But Brandon privately balked at those odds.  Good people were going to have to make shitty sacrifices so that the worst among them could reap the benefits. Brandon thought it was almost a painful that life could be so cruel, but then again, he knew that it was always better to assume that the dice will almost never be loaded in your favor.

Brandon had climbed up into to willow tree at the beachhead with several bottles of hooch that he absconded with from the bar. It was quiet with all of the travellers gone.  Jordan was safe upstairs in the Tapp with Roland. Alone, watching the moonlight play off the harbor, Brandon knew that tranquility like this needed to be savored. But he couldn’t help but squander the time feeling unjustly put upon by his circumstances.

The Dice are Almost Never Loaded In Your Favor.

Mister Hoffa had always tried to ease things by saying shit how the best people to wield this kind of power were the ones who didn’t want it. But that was such a bitter pill for Brandon to swallow: he’d become good at it,  and now he worried that would disqualify him from being able to wield it.  Jade Lyndon couldn’t have chose a worse time to show an interest in him. Brandon was beyond uncomfortable with putting himself  before the town. But what if that what was best for the town? There was no way to tell.

The Dice are Almost Never Loaded In Your Favor.

As much as he’d like to blame Brock for putting him into this situation, Brandon knew that he could have walked away at just about any time and no-one would have  blamed him. Continuing the trend of lucking into greater positions of responsibility, he had received a letter from Spinner Ironhands that named him a Major General in the Army of the Wasteland Alliance, in command of The Grove, Hayven, and Requiem. It was an honor unwanted and unasked for, but loyalty demanded its due.

The Dice are Almost Never Loaded In Your Favor.

Then there was everything with Mary.  The whole situation brought up bile in his throat.  She remembered nothing, and Brandon’s  usual plan of breaking legs and forcing people to confront the turds the gravemind left in their head wasn’t going to work. He had to be Patient, and wait for things to resolve. It burned him in a way he couldn’t describe.

The Dice are Almost Never Loaded In Your Favor.

Perhaps, this was his lot in life, Brandon decided. He had spent his entire youth and most of his adult life dodging responsibility, and now it was all coming home to roost. At least for this moment, up in this tree, he was free to doubt himself.

In his reverie,  Brandon didn’t notice that he was no longer alone. This fact only became apparent once he had run out of hooch and unsteadily climbed down from his perch. A hand grabbed his wrist as he landed.

“You’re drunk.” the voice was the purest statement of fact.

Brandon coughed and forced his vision into focus, revealing first a dark bowler, followed by the unmistakable silhouette of Smiles.

“Walk with me to the Kennel.” Smiles turned and walked up the hill fast enough that Brandon struggled to keep up with her. When they both arrived at the Kennel, Brandon was almost winded. Smiles paused a moment after unlocking the door, while Brandon caught his breath.

“You know now,” she said cryptically. “Keep knowing and keep acting on it. You’re good at it.”

The moment that passed would have been awkward if it also weren’t so meaningful.

“Thanks,” Brandon replied and then tottered up the road to the Double Tapp, the rising sun just barely showing itself.

The Dice are Almost Never Loaded In Your Favor, but sometimes you  win anyway.

March – June, Hayven. [Start of year five]

August. Hayven. Year two.

[The Disciples]

Sounds of long steel being sharpened on a whetstone clashed arhythmically with a mournful song in the back of the wagon. Late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the oiled paper windows and cast a bright hue on an older man and three children. The youngest, a boy of four years, played an ocarina as the light seemed to blaze in a nimbus in his wispy blonde hair. A dark haired girl of about nine sharpened a sword with deliberate strokes in raw defiance to the melody. The eldest boy was engrossed in sewing clothes, pausing occasionally to scratch the wispy beard that had begun to grow in a few months ago. The old man sat in what used to be an opulent chair, wearing spectacles that softened his haggard appearance. He turned the page in a large leather-bound tome and relaxed.

Hayven was two days behind them.

“Done, Father,” the girl said. She stood and made her way steadily in the back of the slowly rocking wagon, offering the blade hilt first for inspection.

“Did you say the correct prayers while taking care of the weapon?” The old man hadn’t even looked up from his reading.

“Yes, just as mother taught us,” Her voice was firm and continued to hold the blade out steadily.

The old man lifted his gaze from the book and looked at the girl over his glasses. She was quickly becoming her mother, wrought fine. Her oval face and slightly almond shaped blue eyes had the same ice-cold fury. The old man wondered what sort of person his daughter would take as a partner, when she became interested in such things. He made eye contact with her for another long moment before he nodded slightly and returned to his book. The girl made her way back to the table, sheathed the sword, and packed it away with the other one she had already finished.

“Father?” the girl asked. The two boys continued what they were doing but looked at the girl, then to the old man, clearly interested in the breach of protocol. The old man closed the book and removed his spectacles, setting them on a nearby table. He ran his fingers through his graying beard.

“Yes?”

“Why did we let him go? The Gun Money man?”

“Why did we let the Gun Money man go?” The old man looked at the older boy, hoping to hear the right answer.

“Uh,” the boy’s voice cracked from nervousness, “It’s like hunters and stuff? We don’t want to over-hunt and…”

“That’s bullshit!” the girl interrupted her older brother petulantly. “He was carrying more wealth on him than most people see in five fucking years! We shoulda just killed him and taken his stuff!”

The girl continued to rage for a few minutes before winding down before her father’s loving, but tired gaze. The old man studied her patiently as the boy playing the ocarina ended his elaborate melody. The other children glanced at him.

“He’s a seed,” the youngest child said with a wisdom far beyond his years, his gaze focused just behind the old man.

The old man carefully regarded the precocious youngster. The small child was waiting patiently playing that damned ocarina, sitting on the gate of his wagon when he had returned from the battle in Hayven. The boy had said that he had already spoken to his father, who made it known that it was his last wish that the old man care for the boy until an appropriate teacher could be found. At the time the old man had been deeply troubled, as he had seen Colossus enter Hayven’s Double-Tapp to go down in a blaze of glory with his own two eyes.

“Howso?” the old man asked in reply.

“Seeds need fertile soil in which to grow,” The youngest boy said. “Seeds can grow into trees. Trees can be cut down for firewood to keep us warm, or lumber so we can build things. But if we do that, they don’t bear any fruit for us to eat. It’s easy and sometimes necessary that we cut down trees. But we need fruit to eat too,” The boy met the old man’s eyes levelly. “Do we have any apples left? I’m hungry.” A far off horn sounded, and the wagon began to slow.

“That’s correct,” The old man said. He would have to find a teacher for this child soon. His own children would wither in the young boy’s shadow, especially so soon after their mother’s death. His son was a third-rate fighter at best, but he was probably the finest armorer in the caravan. His daughter more than made up where his son lacked, and the pair made a great team even at such a young age.

The wagon lurched to a halt.

“There’s going to be a council meeting tonight,” the blonde-haired boy said. He had found an apple and munched happily. “They’re choosing new captains tonight to replace the lost, like my father.”

The siblings regarded their father’s ward incredulously before turning their eyes to him. The old man pinched the bridge of his nose with silent worry for a few moments. A sharp knock at the wagon’s gate lifted him from his reverie.

“Hey Boss,” Snag poked their head into the canvas flap, “Big pow-wow at the elder’s circle tonight. They’ve got a new target in mind.”

The old man nodded and waved his hand in the politest dismissal he could manage. He hated the politicking of the council meetings, the bickering, but it was the way of life for his people.

He remembered the words of the mother of their children: “Mantles weigh the heaviest upon the most worthy. Yours will drag you to hell.”

August. Hayven. Year two.

November-December, Old York. [part 1]

I: Sonny Atlas

The noise and stink of the bar nearly knocked the maroon fez from the Pureblood’s head as he entered. Sonny regretted his decision to find Brandon in this matter, but  he realized that he was committed. Shit, he was taking enough of a risk exposing himself in the bowels of Old York given that his roots were firmly entrenched in the Aysea, which had recently attacked the Borough of Hayven only a few months ago.  Sonny muscled his way to the bar between a blonde woman of willowy stature and a scaled dwarf Remnant that was slurping from a pitcher of hooch with a fleshy proboscis.  He placed ten cred on the bar.

“BARKEEP, Your finest hooch!” he declared.  The high cheekboned bartender  appeared as if by magic in front of Sonny and ran his fingers through his graying hair.

“Best we got is Terlet Hooch,” he said and quickly scooped up the money. He returned moments later leaving large black bottle and a small card that boasted’Miscellaneous services’ and ‘Reasonable Rates.’

Sonny  flipped it over. ‘Back of the bar, stupid.’ it read.

He picked up the bottle of Terlet hooch and wandered to the rear of the bar.  When he arrived he saw Brandon running a game of Bravo Hold-em that he was almost losing badly.  Brandon was wearing his armor, and had a pistol and Deerjay within close reach.

“Hey can I still buy in?” Sonny asked.

“Depends,” Brandon retorted. “You got anything that this fuckhead wants?” he gestured to a gap-toothed Natural One that held a lion’s share of chips.

Sonny produced a sheaf of clean, white paper from his jacket pocket and laid it down on the table.  Brandon snatched it up and began reading them.

“These are Aysea slave papers. What kind of game do you think I’m running?” Brandon handed the papers back to Sonny. “Highest stakes I’ve ever seen was a blood note, and even then I just ran the game. This shit’s way too rich for my blood.”

“How about this then?” Sonny laid down five trade notes, smoothed his mustache, and looked around the table. “that should more than make up any sort of added risk, right?”

Brandon looked around the table and accepted brusque nods.  He began sorting out chips.

“Sit down, and fucking play some cards, shisno.”

At the end of it all, Brandon was dealing with Sonny and the Natural One still in the game. Sonny was still outmatched in terms of chips but was still holding his own despite the fact. Sonny went all in for a desperate gambit, but failed. The natural one chuckled and blew his bullshit breath over the pair before dancing out of the bar with his winnings, leaving Sonny eyeing Brandon nervously.

“I know copies when I see them. What’s your real game?”

“They fucked us,” Sonny began, “without regard.” He paused and locked his eyes with Brandon.

“You wanna fuck them back?” Brandon chuckled and flopped one of his more pristine cards on to the table.

“Yes,” Sonny produced a scribbler and wrote  a name on the card.”Yes I fucking do.” He slid the card across the table back to Brandon.

“Fuck me,” Brandon exclaimed as he read the name. “I guess you do. Do us a favor and let Laze Fare know I need to talk to him. I’ve got my fucking work cut out for me,”

He started shuffling his cards once Sonny made his exit.  A few minutes went by before he got up.

“Ayyo, Isol!” he called out. The gaunt blonde woman at the bar turned to face him. “Do us a favor and make sure Jacknuts makes it back to Hayven alive.”

She nodded to Brandon, and then to Elphajus behind the bar. Brandon perched on her vacated stool. Elphajus came up with a fresh drink for Brandon.

“Got twenty cred for her tab, kid?” he asked incredulously.

“Shit.”

II:  Gamma 

“I don’t see what this is supposed to do, Brandon,” Gamma fidgeted with his hat. “Aren’t you just drawing a huge fucking target on your ass?”

“That’s actually the plan,” Brandon frowned. “Too obvious? I mean, it’s a fucking trap. I know this. WE, know this,” He sipped his hooch and lit a cigarette.

It was preposterously early in the morning. Brandon and Gamma were still up and trusted to sound the alarm to Elphajus who was napping in the storeroom. Gamma had propped his shovel against the front door of the bar.

“Honestly, that’s all I need you to do. I mean, don’t drop every dirty secret on one person. We’ve got a month or so to let things ferment and let the rumor mill do our work for us,” Brandon shrugged and finished his hooch, before he got up and walked behind the bar and washed his glass.

“Is this what you do when you’re not in Hayven?” Gamma asked. His brow furrowed trying to digest all of the details that Brandon had given him.

“Honestly, I usually just try to keep my head down and hustle enough cred and debts to get by month to month without attracting too much undue attention to myself.” Brandon finished his cigarette and snubbed it out on his boot heel. “Of course, that doesn’t always go the way I want it to.”

Brandon told Gamma the story about how he nearly murdered Oorang and his compatriots at the very table they were sitting at.

“I gave them a chance, yanno? Something that Gerome and Isol wouldn’t have done for their asshattery,” Brandon said as he finished his tale.

Gamma frowned, disapproving.

“Alive is still better than dead, Gamma. And just maybe they learned something,” Brandon said. He pulled out a deck of cards from his pocket and started shuffling. “Who am I?”

“Joseph Summers,” Gamma replied dutifully.

“What did I do?”

“Cheat me out of a small fortune playing cards.”

“Good. What am I looking for?”

“Slaves. You’re looking to jump ship to the Ironworks.”

“Damn right I am. Get some shuteye. You’re going to do just fine.” Brandon smiled and stowed his cards. Mid-morning light was just starting to reflect off of the mirror behind the bar, and Brandon had to adjust his hat to keep it out of his eyes. He dozed lightly with one hand on the pistol Tizer had sold him, and the other on his Deerjay.

III: Laze Fare 

A yelp of pain followed by a stream of invective that could only have come from a Yorker.

“Oh hush. It’s not that bad,” Laze Fare scolded, sternly waving tweezers at a reclined figure. “I’m almost done, and I assure you that this style is the current height of fashion amongst Purebloods in this neighborhood.”

“How did I let you talk me into this again, Brandon?” Ridley asked venomously.

“Clearly you had a rather big lapse in judgement,” Brandon chuckled. Ridley half smiled and half winced in reply. “Besides, you weren’t around for the fucking torture this shisno inflicted on me earlier,” Brandon winced himself in memory.

“Not my fault I could weave a rug from you, Brandon,” Laze chuckled. “Now hold still, dear. And three, two,” He plucked furiously for a moment.”And Done!”

Ridley sat up and deftly snatched the tweezers from Laze Fare’s hand and threw them at Brandon, who artfully dodged them.

“I swear, the shit I put up with for you,” she spat.

“Fuck you!” Brandon retorted, his nerves obviously on edge, and the two began to bicker.

The argument went on for a full ten minutes only to be finally interrupted by Laze coughing.

“If you two could PLEASE pull your heads out of each other’s asses,” he started. Neither Brandon or Ridley could look at each other, nor could they make eye contact with Laze. “You’ve obviously done this before Brandon, but Ridley… this is dangerous. You’ve got to keep your eye on the prize,” He looked at Brandon, who’d found the wherewithal to return Laze’s gaze. “I don’t know what this is all about, but I suspect the only one  who does is the one who orchestrated all of this.” Laze stood up and stretched before he took a drink of water straight from the pitcher that had been laid out. “Youse guys have got to be careful. Looking the the part is only a small part of it. Whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish,  you’ve got to focus and,” he paused, “Well,” He gestured grandly, “not be you.”

Brandon had already started to strip down and change into his new outfit. All business, Ridley followed suit. They both applied makeup, coached by Laze, who busied himself further by styling. In the end, they could both pass as Purebloods.

“You got the docs from Sonny, Laze?” Brandon asked, trying to itch under the ill-fitting corset.

“Yep. Everything’s tucked into your jacket, ready to go.” Laze replied, but was clearly lost in thought.

“Find me next time I’m in town, and I’ll help you if I can for this.”

Laze Fare nodded. “Your caravan should be here any minute. Better make them wait another half hour.”

Brandon chuckled. “You got the story straight? Remember, if you run into Gamma out there run interference, but reinforce what he’s saying. There needs to be as much bullshit and confusion surrounding this.”

“Please. Do I look like some sort of amateur?”

November-December, Old York. [part 1]

October, Old York.

The light of sunset filtered in through a solitary window, causing the room to glow. Cluttered and untidy, the room was not unkempt; there was an order to the madness and the signs of recent occupation. Several half-finished projects were laid out neatly separated from each other: rough white canvas cut into rectangles, black paint and brushes nearby, a gun cleaned and ready to be reassembled,  sheets of stained paper with half-written notes on them.

“Be careful on the way back to Fort Shitmore, Spinner,” Brandon’s hand all but disappeared when   Spinner clasped his hand over Brandon’s.  “We woulda been fucked pretty fucking hard without your work here. Thanks.” Lonely Streetz had camped next to Fort Seymour’s BFG compound at Devil’s Den, and the last of the wagons were being loaded.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Watching Spinner shrug was like watching mountains give birth to hills. “I just did what I always do: sit at my workbench and fucking work. I lost count of how many Deerjays and Swamprunners I made in the last four days.” The Iron handed Brandon a cigar. “You, on the other hand? I thought you were just another mouthy Yorker when I first met you. Turns out you’re a mouthy Yorker that gets shit done,” Spinner smiled warmly.

“I mean, whatever,” Brandon waved his hand dismissively.

“YOU TOLD PEOPLE TO UPROOT AND MOVE A FUCKING HOSPITAL,” Spinner bellowed in reply, “AND THEY FUCKING DID.” Concern softened Spinner’s animated face. “I’ve never seen such a thing in all my days. It’s okay to take some credit, man.”

Someone yelled at Spinner that they were leaving. The two embraced, and Brandon went back to helping his gang pull up camp.

Low notes plunked out solemnly from a stringed instrument. A pile of papers sat on the windowsill. Just below the window a sheet of paper with two dozen names were tacked to the wall on a sheet of paper, with over half them crossed out. ‘Brandon B. Roderick’ was circled, but not crossed out. A few question marks were written around the circle, arrows drawn toward the circle.

Five people walked down a pitch black path, guided by a solitary lantern in the distance that marked the Hospital and Farmland of the Sainthood of the Ashes.

“Remember that time in Fort Wayne Junction when we were kids, Johnny?” Brandon asked in hushed tones.

The group advanced cautiously and purposely, all eyes in all directions at once. He caught Xerox DeWalt’s gaze several times in the low light as she turned to look at Brandon, bewildered.

“You two, uh,” Xerox’s gaze snapped to the front and the group snapped still for a moment. Confident the coast was clear, “know each other?”

“Obviously we go way back, Xe,” chided Brandon. “Why is it that nobody ever believes me when I say that I grew up on a Rover Caravan?”

“Sheets Mc-fuckin’-Ginty,” Johnny Chapman chuckled. “We almost died that night.”

“WHO IS,” Tizer started to yell, Merican and confused. He was silenced by the rest in a hail of shushes and Russel clamping Tizer’s lips shut with his fingers. They traveled a few hundred more feet into a clearing.

They’d completed their journey to the Sainthood hospital. But with reports of open hostilities between the Fallow Hopes and the Darwins, the rest of the company left Brandon ‘for his safety’ at the Hospital while they went to scout out the situation.

Brandon sat inside the Hospital, enjoying the quiet of the immediate area. Noise drifted in from the Hedon High Saturday party, and Brandon couldn’t decide if it was a colossal brawl or an orgy.  Sounds of battle came from the east where the Darwins were camped out. A small Lascarian that Brandon recognized from the Grove had entered the hospital, and  darted around the interior.

“So much fighting. Why are they fighting?” it had said to no one. “Too much. Too much fighting. Wrong enemy,” The Lascarian curled up at Brandon’s feet, clutching his leg. “Why are they fighting each other? Why not fight raiders?”

Brandon patted the troubled Blinky on its head reassuringly. “Because they’re idiots,” The Lascarian squeezed his leg tighter. “I guess,” it was another tally in the column that made Brandon keep religion at arm’s length.

More people began to filter in to the compound, eventually followed by Brandon’s original company of Johnny, Tizer, Russel, and Xerox. The Lascarian scuttled to a dimly lit corner of the building with the new influx of people.

“Shit’s going to hell in a handbasket,” Xe reported. 

“It’s getting way too crowded here. We should fuck off before this place gets fucked because there’s too many people here,” Brandon proposed.

“Where would we go?” Russel Skyhunter asked.

“Safe House, over by the stage. I still need to grab my shit from storage, too.” Brandon looked around to the growing crowd. “Fuck it. I’m going. Youse guys are welcome to join me.”

Brandon and his four companions left the Sainthood hospital, bound for the other side of the encampment.

A baritone voice sketched out a hesitant melody to the ponderous counterpoint of the low notes. It faltered, causing the supporting music to crumble. Expletives only a Yorker could utter punctuated the air were followed by the sound of a pencil scratching on a sheet of paper. A weary sigh was let out, punctuated by the rhythmic sound of empty bottles being lifted then set down to check their contents.

“EMPTY? THE FUCK TO YOU MEAN THE TRUCK IS FUCKING EMPTY?” Brandon yelled at Ridley.

“DID I FUCKING STUTTER?” Ridley yelled back into Brandon’s face.

Panic kept either of the two from escalating further. Brock had quickly organized a rescue mission. The cheers of the baited crowd deafened the weary pair when  Ministry returned with its tail of rescuees. 

Brandon and Sitter DeWalt buckled themselves down in the triage area, Sitter organizing the medics and Brandon helping to keep everything else afloat, distributing healthy meals to the people whose Bad Brain infection was only beginning.

“This would be a lot easier if that Physician’s Bay were down here, rather than up in the northern field.” Sitter complained.

Brandon broke off from the triage area and stalked across the field as the truck left on another run. He cornered three people in front of the depot. “Here’s what I need you to do: Get as many people as you can, and carry that fucking Physician’s Bay down here. The less time and energy  the medics spend diagnosing Bad Brain, the better. Got it?”

The trio nodded woodenly and scattered up the road.. Brandon sighed, and then went back to keeping the Ministry loaded and running with Ridley.

Dust motes kicked up by the moving bottles hung in the air, winking out as the sun went behind another building. Brandon lit a candle before grabbing his bag and weapon, and draped his armor over his shoulders. The building that he often holed up in when not in Hayven was reasonably safe by Old York standards, and not far from his old hideout that he used to share with Tommy and the Daves a few years and another name ago. He shut the door and began the trek down to the seventh floor where Elphajus Douge’s bar was.

Elphajus was one of the few locals who knew Brandon as Brandon. At least, for the last few months, he did. Brandon had told his story about the facebiter in Hayven half drunk in the bar early one morning after returning from Fort Seymour. The elderly Yorker had cornered him discreetly and revealed that he knew Marcus and was a Tremor himself. Things were different for Brandon after that: Elphajus gave him way more shit and actually put him to work now and again, but Brandon found that he was able to give more shit back to Elph. The two had come to an unspoken accord: Brandon could hustle unsuspecting rubes in the bar provided he was discreet and cut Elph in on the action, and Elphajus would point people who’d offended him enough to be shorted more than a few cred to Brandon’s usual handiwork, often referring to him as ‘That shisno that thinks he can play cards.’

Brandon had made it down to the bar just after sunset. A pair of Red Mist addicts hemmed him up in the seventeenth floor, but he was able to extricate himself without having to resort to violence or without being lightened any cred. Greeted by Elphajus with a slight nod, Brandon walked in to a busy room and set his bag down at his usual table before meandering behind the bar to mooch a pint and hang up his armor and weapon. Being obviously associated with the house afforded a few modest protections, and as long as Brandon was smart enough to sit with a back to a wall, he knew Elphajus had a Mother’s Milk with his name on it.

Brandon’s drink was poured and delivered with supernatural percision.

“Your ‘Friends’ were in here the other day, B.” Brandon marveled at Elph’s ability to pronounce quote marks while taking a sip of the hooch, and made a mental note to ask Mister Hoffa about how such a thing was possible. Brandon settled in at the end of the bar. A tall, lanky  woman took up a stool away, filthy and haggard. Her blonde hair was close cropped and she was covered head to toe in the grime of the wastes, save for the clean spot around her eyes. She was followed by a diminutive Remnant that was covered with brown and green scales that sat between them. Elphajus served them without hesitation. “Ayyo,” the din of the tavern was growing and Elph was only audible to the trio. “This is Brandon. He helped run the Ministry in Devil’s Den and did a spot of honest good down there. B, this is Gerome and Isol. One’s a Centurion, the other is a Postal Worker.” Elphajus left them for paying patrons after the cursory introduction.

The Remnant picked up its glass, opened its mouth, and dropped a long fleshy proboscis into its drink, slurping away. Brandon quickly slugged a third of his glass down nervously.

“Do not worry. Your friend did not sell you out,” The thin woman stated plainly. “While we were not fortunate enough to receive the support required,” she frowned,  “we do appreciate that some kind of effort was coordinated to do so.”

Brandon cursed Brock under his breath. One more burden shouldered without question or permission.

“That’s a fucking relief, then,” Brandon downed the rest of his hooch. “So what the actual fuck?”

Before the thin woman could reply, a trio that was loud and obnoxious even by Yorker standards entered the bar. They’d been coming in somewhat regularly for three weeks now and were a shitty mirror to Brandon; the kind of people that Tommy Two-Times would have recruited in a second. The Centurion’s gaze snapped to the group as they made their way through the bar, getting in everyone’s face with little quips and zingers.

Ooorang was the tallest of the three. His greasy red beard and loose jowls spilled out over the blue jersey he wore.  He was the loudest, and often the drunkest of the three; what passed for their leader. He sat down with his back to the door and the rest of the bar and slapped down a few cred for drinks. Rolwe was the second to sit down, shifting their bulk and scarves into the aisle. They perched precariously on a chair and fluttered their scarves suggestively at several patrons. Rolwe was known by the regulars to leave the bar with several companions in tow at the end of the night.  Mokh-Mokh was the least belligerently offensive member of the group, but in equal measures the most sketchy. The Lascarian kept its rail thin physique well covered in maroon rags and its bloody cleaver plainly displayed.

“Those motherfuckers,” Gerome uttered in his basso profundo voice after he brought  his tongue back into his mouth. “We never had proof, but a shitload of our meals that we had earmarked for people who needed it to stave off a Bad Brain infection went missing after those three came through our camp.”

“Which is …something, because those three were trying to peddle meals to our camp at exorbitant rates,” Isol spat, and frowned.

Three more drinks found their way into Brandon, Isol, and Gerome’s hands while they sat and tried to ignore the brags and boasts of the noisy trio.

“Ayyo, Elph!” Brandon called out after rapidly downing his pint. “We ever figure out if my ‘Friends'” Brandon hoped he pronounced the quote marks right “uh, Whose colors they wore?”

Elphajus reappeared with a bottle of terlet hooch and uncorked it, leaving it in front of Gerome, Isol, and Brandon.

“In my experience, people who don’t wear their colors obviously and proudly, don’t wear colors that bear respecting,” he tapped the side of his nose twice before hustling off.

Brandon poured out the terlet hooch in equal measures, drinking it without making a stupid face while Gerome and Isol winced trying to keep up with Brandon.

“MAAAANN, FUCK LONELY STREETZ,” Ooorang hollered over the din. “What a bunch of fuckin’ loosers. If they had their shit together, why did they fuck up so hard at Devil’s Den? Brock? Such a chump! And a failure too!”

Brandon got up slightly unsteadily from his stool and walked around behind the bar to retrieve his armor. Elphajus caught his eye, and after a few moments meandered to him.

“ELPH,” Brandon began, “You’re right. I’ve got to wear  my colors proudly.” He set three trade notes on the bar. Elphajus nodded and scooped them up quickly before going back to serving drinks. Brandon made a few gestures to Gerome and Isol, and left from behind the bar carrying his Deerjay.

Brandon brought down his weapon on Ooorang’s right shoulder with two hands. The blade broke his collarbone and got stuck for a moment until Brandon kicked the legs out from the chair freeing the road sign blade for a few more short jabs to puncture vital organs. Rowle and Mokh-Mokh tired to interefere with the assault, but Isol held the equally wiry Lascarian in its seat  while Gerome wrapped its tongue around Rowle’s throat, with the business end  smacking its lips in  Rowle’s ear. A few kicks to Ooorang’s ribs displaced him from his chair, which Brandon picked up and spun around to sit in.

Ooorang choked on his own invective as Brandon gently lowered the tip of his weapon into the bleeding Yorker’s mouth.

“NOW,” Brandon Yelled. The bar had gone silent, anticipating a good show. He set an Uncle Todd’s brew on the table.”that I have your undivided attention,” Brandon put his feet up on the table and fished out a cigarette with his free hand. “You’ve offended some friends of mine, as well as delivered me a severe personal insult.” He adjusted his armor so the Lonely Streetz patch was clearly visible. “And no one here would give the sweat from a Rottie’s taint for your lives.”

“Hey, fuck you, Brandon,” called someone from the other end of the bar, chuckling.

“No offense, Frankie,” Brandon apologized.

He lit his cigarette while Mokh-Mokh and Rowle tried to protest and lay blame at Ooorang’s feet.

“Keep wasting your breath, if you want this shisno to die.  It’s not what I want, for sure, but keep fucking talking. I can wait.”

The pair fell silent while Ooorang gurgled quietly.

“See, I ain’t even mad about your methods, yanno? But I don’t know what’s stupider, pullin’ shit like what you did in a warzone or bragging about it to anyone who’ll listen. So, I’m askin’ nicely: cut that shit out. Re-think your lives, people. I was on the same track, and I’d have gotten caught eventually.”

Ooorang’s breaths were getting shallower and more labored, exacerbated by the tip of Brandon’s Deerjay.

“I see any of you fucks around here again, you’re dead, period. I’ll hold each one of you face first into the fucking gravemind until you’re zed.” He removed his Deerjay and  cracked open the brew, carefully pouring it into Ooorang’s mouth. “Now fuck off.”

The trio released exited the bar in a flurry of panic, to the amusement of the crowd. Brandon produced a deck of cards and began shuffling.

“So who wants to play some fucking cards?”

October, Old York.

September, En Route to Devil’s Den 2 [Downfall]

[Scenic, The grove ==> Devil’s Den]

Night had fallen and the horses were almost as exhausted as Brandon was when they cantered into the wagon train’s camp.  Corrosive slime  still coated the back of his armor, and survivor’s guilt hung from his temples as could only befit a Yorker.  He had three broken ribs that were still healing from his escape from The Grove.  Judging by the wagon train’s reaction he was expected: several people peeled off and offered the animals water and sustenance and helped Brandon down from the horse. A bottle of hooch was pressed into Brandon’s hand as he was escorted gently, but firmly toward the central cook fire.

Gladys looked like she hadn’t slept since Brandon had left. Several of Benny’s guards were nonchalant in their visibility.

“Glad to see you made it back,” She said quietly. Conversation around the fire was at a whisper at best. “What happened to the Runner you left with?”

“Didn’t make it,” Brandon replied; there was no need to elaborate. “At least I brought back both of your horses,” He shrugged.

A single shot barked  out into the night.

“At least one of them,” Gladys mused.  Brandon frowned in reply.

“Where’s Benny?” he asked.

“Didn’t make it,” Gladys replied. “Some kind of Raider got in our ranks. It looked normal like, like a person. Stabbed him through the back of his armor into his heart and then et his brains. THEN, he begged us to kill him before he killed again.”

“People’re calling them Omni Raiders. They’re tragic and fucked up.” Brandon frowned again. “My shit still okay?”

“Yes, yes,” Gladys waved her hand idly, and the surrounding darkness sounded like the sheathing of weapons. “How bad was The Grove?”

Brandon paled.

“Bad,” he started. A bowl of stew was pressed into his hands. “Real bad,” he paused to slurp the thin broth. “s’good. Thorand told people to fuck off to what safety they could find, and I was holed up in the Depot,” He shrugged. “A friend died, and If I were there I-”

“Don’t say that,” Gladys spat. “You’ll make yourself useless walking down that road.”

“Heh, Walmart said the same thing to me.”

This was Gladys’s turn to frown. “I heard stories. About some new Strain that could control Brainers.”

“I heard about them too. Find out who the shittiest people are in this train. Have them throat punch fuckers.”

Gladys gave a sheepish grin. “We’re about a day out from the Den. You should get some sleep,” she motioned towards a tent. “There’s  a letter here for you, too. from some guy named Charlie Beckett?”

Brandon feigned surprise, recognizing the code. “If this is about that shit that went down in Kaydeross…”

“That can wait until morning. Get some sleep.” Gladys moved to hold open a tent flap, and then followed Brandon inside, the guard taking up its position around the fire.

September, En Route to Devil’s Den 2 [Downfall]

SEPTEMBER, EN ROUTE TO DEVIL’S DEN [DOWNFALL]

Brandon’s back ached from sleeping in the back of a caravan, though it was arguable whether or not he was sleeping lately. Brandon had been getting migraines since leaving Hayven a few weeks ago, and the progress to Devil’s Den had be tortuously slow. Raiders were a serious problem, but infighting among the lead caravan drivers was reaching the critical point where bloodshed was going to be imminent.

They had already camped for the night and once again, the owners of the caravans sat around the central fire eating a communal meal, vehemently discussing the prospects and potential profits of Devil’s Den. A few curious glances were given to Brandon as he sat near the back of the central fire with his bass guitar and went back to being ignored when he began plunking out a low melody. He played, letting muscle memory take over so he could listen in on conversations. An elderly Rover woman left him a bowl of thin soup before patting him gently on his hatless head. Brandon frowned, remembering that he lost his somewhere in the Run ‘n’ Gun while Bell was fixing his armor.

“NO! FUCK YOU!” The exclamation snapped Brandon out of his reverie. He stopped playing as three dozen eyes around the campfire snapped to Gladys Etru and Benny Four-Fingers, who were the two majority stakes in this wagon train. They were already standing and had weapons drawn on each other. Gladys had suffered worse losses than most and for the past three nights had threatened to pull her caravans from the train. Benny had doubled-down on muscle before leaving and was lucky to be faring as well as he was. The argument was growing in pitch and on the precipice of violence.

“I guess tonight’s the night, then,” Brandon smoothed back his fraying braids, set aside his guitar, lit a cigarette, and strode towards the heating argument. Eyes broke rank to follow him, leaving whispers in his wake while the argument between Gladys and Benny began to boil over.

“AYYO! POCKETS!” Brandon called out to Gladys.

She snarled and pirouetted to Brandon, her dagger met with three feet of sharpened steel wrapped in an Old York street sign. The two traded glares with their locked weapons, but Brandon still had reach on her. Gladys withdrew and stepped back well out of reach of both Brandon and Benny.

“Ya can’t make shitty bets and then be pissed off that the guy that makes the smart bet wins,” he said plainly. “Shit, how long you been running ‘vans? Twenty years? Thirty years?” His cigarette danced in his mouth as he spoke. The crowd’s murmuring grew at this development.

“Thirty-two,” replied Gladys, and pushed a graying lock of hair from her eyes with her free hand. Brandon made a show of setting down his weapon, but kept it propped up on a log and within easy reach.

“And you ain’t learned how to hedge your bets yet?” Brandon asked, incredulous.

“Wait, who the fuck are you, anyway?” a few chuckled, and Gladys wore the smile of a predator. Brandon heard the sound of more weapons being subtly drawn.
Brandon took a long drag on his cigarette, the glow of its cherry illuminated his face momentarily.

“Brandon Roderick. Capa of Hayven’s Lonely Streetz,” He straightened out his armor so the patch was plainly visible. The whispered conversation around the campfire stopped for a moment then restarted with a new furious momentum. “And a simple ‘no’ would have done the job,” Brandon raised his voice over the chatter around the campfire. “You’ve lost what, Four wagons worth of goods and manpower already? How many you got left? Benny’s got his shit locked the fuck down and you’re already losing your admittedly ample tits in this deal.”

Gladys sputtered outrage in reply, but Brandon’s words rang true.

“I’ve been beyond the Ironworks and back, and it’s always the same stupid shit that brings people down. Pride fucks with people and keeps them from seeing where the smart bet is. This whole raider bullshit? It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and the safest fucking place in the Wasteland is going to be Devil’s Den for at least week.” Brandon took a final drag of his cigarette before snuffing it out and field stripping it, and placing the butt in his pocket. “What, your puddle jumping pride ain’t going to let you work with a Rot-face? No offence, Benny. Gladys,” a note of serious pleading crept in his voice.

“Sometimes looking out for each other is all we can do. Sometimes accepting help is the hardest thing we can do. Sometimes…” a commotion at the edges of camp distracted him for a second. “Sometimes the promise of loyalty is the only coin we have to buy anything with. But, I can tell you that particular coin buys dearly and fucking pays dividends when spent wisely.”

An Affiliated Runner ran up to where Benny, Brandon, and Gladys were.

“Hayven,” She was breathless. “Overrun by troops from Aysea. Raiders getting worse. I need to rally The Grove before heading down to Devil’s Den.”
Brandon went and picked up the bowl of soup that was left for him, and gave it to the runner who slurped it noisily. He then began digging through his own pockets, determined.

“I’ll go to the grove with her. Benny, we’ll need your two best horses.”

“Brandon,” Gladys spoke quietly, “I’ve got two Racers I was lookin’ to sell down at the den. You can have ’em provided I get them back.”

“No promises, but I’ll do what I can, provided you and Benny can play nice while I’m away,” Brandon offered a handshake and palmed a few trade notes into her hand.

“Benny, pretty please see that my shit gets to the Den safely,” More trade notes passed hands. “Ayyo, miss! you ready to hit the Grove?”

“It’s Marlene. And yes. The sooner the better,” Replied the runner.

“Then what the fuck are we waiting for?” said Brandon, a smile growing on his lips.

SEPTEMBER, EN ROUTE TO DEVIL’S DEN [DOWNFALL]

May, Fort Seymour: Start of Year One.

The caravan veered off the path suddenly, headed down a road to a town that Brandon recognized from an ancient past: Fort Wayne Junction. It accelerated improbably, skidding around corners, the driver apparently taken over by a fit of madness. The caravan eventually came to rest outside of The Gala.  Brandon grabbed his satchel and weapons, and hopped out of the back of the wagon. He stormed up to the front of the caravan.

“What the actual shitty fuck?” Brandon spat at the  caravan driver.

“Uh, Gotta…” the driver’s eyes darted around nervously. “Gotta bunk down here tonight. Radcats and Raiders and shit.”

“Riiiiiiight,” Brandon sighed and walked into the Gala, his thoughts dwelling on ghosts and entered the building.

Brandon looped the establishment three times, sizing up potential threats, and plotting a dozen scenarios with two dozen exits before taking a seat that gave him a commanding view of his surroundings.  A waitress was soon by, and took his order: Terlet hooch if they had it. Brandon laid out ten Rung, a few brass and lug nutz. The currency felt strange in his hands. Someone sat down next to him  while he scanned the room for the first sign of trouble. He actively ignored them, and waited for his drink.

“How long since you’ve been here?” wisdom seeped from this voice.

Brandon produced a deck of cards and started shuffling them to ease his anxiety.

“Fort Wayne Junction? Twenty-three years, eight months, fourteen days.” Brandon turned  his head to the source of the inquiry.

“Why didn’t you drop in when you were in Seymour last year?” the voice was neutral, but violence hung in its cadence. The waitress deposited some rare and expensive hooch at the table and curtsied before disappearing.

“Didn’t think I’d be recognized, obviously,” Brandon uncorked the hooch and poured two full glasses and turned to face the elderly woman sitting next to him.  He offered a toast, “To your health, Granny.”

“I’d always wondered when you’d come strolling back in here, Laizhe Bailey,” Granny Smith’s demeanor warmed as she drank the hooch.

“You’re one of a precious few people who know me by that name.” Brandon replied, sighing.

“But you’ve clearly done so well for yourself… Lonely Streets, huh?” Granny leaned in to inspect the patch on Brandon’s armor, giving a nod of approval and picked a speck of something off it. “Making a name for yourself in Old York?”

“Someone is,”  Brandon sipped his hooch and coughed.  “I usually try to keep my head down, but that’s not going so well for me at the the moment. I’m getting spoiled by comfort in Hayven. It’s become a home,” he shrugged and returned his cards to his satchel.

“I always knew you’d get up to great things.”

Brandon scoffed. “How’d you find out I was in town, anyway?”

“Johnny Chapman sent a runner when she saw you walk into Shitmore a few days ago. Recognized you last year too, which piqued my interest, I must say. She used to have the most hilarious crush on you when you were both little shits,” Granny chuckled.

“Wait, what?” Brandon was perplexed. “I don’t remember any-”

“Yes you fuckin’ do. When you were twelve you talked ‘Sheets’ McGinty out of murdering the two of you in a back alley by convincing him you two were supplying false info to the NMA and tried to cut him in on the action,” Granny sipped her hooch, and cast her gaze over the Gala. A bubble of empty tables had formed around them, giving the pair a modicum of privacy. “That was actually brilliant of you.”

“Hah! Shit,” Brandon laughed, “I remember that!” he paused with a vacant look on his face as the rest of him caught up to Granny’s point. “SHIT. That was Johnny?”

“You stupid or something?”

“I just… well, I wouldn’t have told so many dick jokes around her if I had known.”

“That’s what you’re embarrassed about, Laizhe? Fuckin’ dick jokes?” Granny Smith laughed so hard that conversation throughout the Gala dimmed. “What’re you fuckheads lookin’ at? Can’t an old lady find something fuckin’ hilarious?” she called out.

“Name’s Brandon now,” Brandon said solemnly, with a quiet force.

“Fair enough, Brandon,” Granny nodded. “Yanno, Johnny’s set to be married soon,” she let the statement hang in the air buoyantly.

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told her: Some of the questions are really weird and specific on that application,” Brandon began, “and there are a shitload of them,” He sipped his hooch conservatively. “But also, If I were to have, like, a fucking wife, I’d like to see her more than once or twice a year.”

Granny Smith nodded and slugged her hooch down, wiping her mouth on her sleeve  before pouring herself and Brandon another. “So what the fuck have you been doing these past twenty-something years?” she finished her hooch and poured a second glass for herself, topping off Brandon’s when she was finished.

“How about the last three? It’s what’ I’ve been running off of,” Brandon countered.

The two exchanged stories for hours. The clientele dwindled in the Gala, until it was Granny, Brandon, several empty bottles of expensive hooch, and a few hardcore drunks left stumbling.

“Get some sleep. Room’s on me, company’s on you if you want it,”  Granny Smith searched for a bottle of hooch within arm’s reach that had more than a sip left in it. “but I suspect you’re not inclined,” She frowned. ” Leave your shit out and the girls will wash it. No really: you fucking stink.”

“Can’t blame me. It’s your Shitmore weather,” Brandon stood up unsteadily as two young women appeared to help him from darker corners of the room. “Heheheh,” he laughed drunkenly at his own joke. Granny Smith put one hand on his shoulder and the other cupped his chin.

“HEY,” she said severely. “You’ll have to tell Brock, eventually,” her voice softened. “From what I’ve heard of him, he’d want to know.”

“Maybe. I don’t want him to owe me any more than he has to,” Brandon replied with a clarity he had no right to. One of the young women gingerly took his rifle, while the other scooped up his Deerjay and satchel. With deft hands they guided him up the stairs as if it were his own idea.

“And H-” Granny began.

“I’ll FUCKING DEAL WITH it,” Brandon bellowed at her from the landing. “I…” he looked around defiantly at first, but the wind spilled from his sails before he could go anywhere with it. “I’m sorry. Look, I know you get it, but.”

“Yeah, I do, Brandon. Life goes on, though,” Granny Smith said, holding a mostly empty bottle of hooch. “Don’t be such a stranger next time, Brandon.”

“I won’t. Or at least, I hope I won’t,” Brandon replied.

May, Fort Seymour: Start of Year One.