HUMMING TUNELESSLY, THE RAGPICKER WALKED the barren, empty wasteland in the aftermath of a rainstorm. The skies were still dark with clouds and the earth was sodden and slick with surface water, but none of that mattered to him. Others might prefer the sun and blue skies and the feel of hard, dry earth beneath their feet, might revel in the brightness and the warmth. But life was created in the darkness and damp of the womb, and the ragpicker took considerable comfort in knowing that procreation was instinctual and needed nothing of the face of nature’s disposition that he liked the least.
He was an odd-looking fellow, an unprepossessing, almost comical figure. He was tall and whipcord-thin, and he walked like a long-legged waterbird. Dressed in dark clothes that had seen much better days, he tended to blend in nicely with the mostly colorless landscape he traveled. He carried his rags and scraps of cloth in a frayed patchwork bag slung over one shoulder, the bag looking very much as if it would rip apart completely with each fresh step its bearer took. A pair of scuffed leather boots completed the ensemble, scavenged from a dead man some years back, but still holding up quite nicely.
Everything about the ragpicker suggested that he was harmless. Everything marked him as easy prey in a world where predators dominated the remnants of a decimated population. He knew how he looked to the things that were always hunting, what they thought when they saw him coming. But that was all right. He had stayed alive this long by keeping his head down and staying out of harm’s way. People like him, they didn’t get noticed. The trick was in not doing anything to call attention to yourself.
So he tried hard to give the impression that he was nothing but a poor wanderer who wanted to be left alone, but you didn’t always get what you wanted in this world. Even now, other eyes were sizing him up. He could feel them doing so, several pairs in several different places. Those that belonged to the animals—the things that the poisons and chemicals had turned into mutants—were already turning away. Their instincts were sharper, more finely tuned, and they could sense when something wasn’t right. Given the choice, they would almost always back away.
It was the eyes of the human predators that stayed fixed on him, eyes that lacked the awareness necessary to judge him properly. Two men were studying him now, deciding whether or not to confront him. He would try to avoid them, of course. He would try to make himself seem not worth the trouble. But, again, you didn’t always get what you wanted.
He breathed in the cool, damp air, absorbing the taste of the rain’s aftermath on his tongue, of the stirring of stagnation and sickness generated by the pounding of the sudden storm, of the smells of raw earth and decay, the whole of it marvelously welcome. Sometimes, when he was alone, he could pretend he was the only one left in the world. He could think of it all as his private preserve, his special place, and imagine everything belonged to him.
He could pretend that nothing would ever bother him again.
His humming dropped away, changing to a little song:
Ragpicker, ragpicker, what you gonna do
When the hunters are hunting and they’re hunting for you.
Ragpicker, ragpicker, just stay low.
If you don’t draw attention they might let you go.
He hummed a few more bars, wondering if he had gotten past the predators. He was thinking it was almost time to stop and have something to drink and eat. But that would have to wait. He sighed, his lean, sharp-featured face wreathed in a tight smile that caused the muscles of his jaw to stand out like cords.
Ragpicker, ragpicker, you’re all alone.
The hunters that are hunting want to pick your bones.
Ragpicker, ragpicker, just walk on.
If you wait them out they will soon be gone.
He crossed a meadow, a small stream filled with muddy water, a rocky flat in which tiny purple flowers were blooming, and a withered woods in which a handful of poplars grew sparse and separate as if strangers to one another. Ahead, there was movement in a rugged mass of boulders that formed the threshold to foothills leading up to the next chain of mountains, a high and wild and dominant presence. He registered the movement, ignored it. Those who had been watching him were still there and growing restless; he must skirt their hiding place and hope they were distracted by other possibilities. But there didn’t appear to be anyone else out here other than himself, and he was afraid that they would come after him just because they were bored.
He continued on furtively, still humming softly.
Daylight leached away as the clouds began to thicken anew. It might actually rain some more, he decided. He glanced at the skies in all four directions, noting the movement of the clouds and the shifting of their shadows against the earth. Yes, more rain coming. Better find shelter soon.
He stalked up the slope into the rocks, his long, thin legs stretching out, meandering here and there as if searching for the best way through. He headed away from the watchers, pretending he was heedless of them, that he knew nothing of them and they, in turn, should not want to bother with him.
But suddenly his worst fears were realized and just like that they were upon him.
They emerged from the rocks, two shaggy-haired, ragged men, carrying blades and clubs. One was blind in one eye, and the other limped badly. They had seen hard times, the ragpicker thought, and they would not be likely to have seen much charity and therefore not much inclined to dispense any. He stood where he was and waited on them patiently, knowing that flight was useless.
“You,” One-eye said, pointing a knife at him. “What you got in that bag of yours?”
The ragpicker shrugged. “Rags. I collect them and barter for food and drink. It’s what I do.”
“You got something more than that, I’d guess,” said the second man, the larger of the two. “Better show us what it is.”
The ragpicker hesitated, and then dumped everything on the ground, his entire collection of brightly colored scarves and bits of cloth, a few whole pieces of shirts and coats, a hat or two, some boots. Everything he had managed to find in his travels of late that he hadn’t bargained away with the Trolls or such.
“That’s crap!” snarled One-eye, thrusting his knife at the ragpicker. “You got to do better than that! You got to give us something of worth!”
“You got coin?” demanded the other.
Hopeless, the ragpicker thought. No one had coin anymore and even if they did it was valueless. Gold or silver, maybe. A good weapon, especially one of the old automatics from the days of the Great Wars, would have meant something, would have been barter material. But no one had coins.
“Don’t have any,” he said, backing away a step. “Can I pick up my rags?”
One-eye stepped forward and ground the colored cloth into the dirt with the heel of his boot. “That’s what I think of your rags. Now watch and see what I’m gonna do to you!”
The ragpicker backed away another step. “Please, I don’t have anything to give you. I just want you to let me pass. I’m not worth your trouble. Really.”
“You ain’t worth much, that’s for sure,” said the one who limped. “But that don’t mean you get to go through here free. This is our territory and no one passes without they make some payment to us!”
The two men came forward again, a step at a time, spreading out just a little to hem the ragpicker in, to keep him from making an attempt to get around them. As if such a thing were possible, the ragpicker thought, given his age and condition and clear lack of athletic ability. Did he look like he could get past them if he tried? Did he look like he could do anything?
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said suddenly, stopping short in his retreat. “You might not fully understand what you’re doing.”
The predators stopped and stared at him. “You don’t think it’s a good idea?” said the one who limped. “Is that what you said, you skinny old rat?”
The ragpicker shook his head. “It always comes down to this. I don’t understand it. Let me ask you something. Do you know of a man who carries a black staff?”
The two exchanged a quick look. “Who is he?” asked One-eye. “Why would we know him?”
The ragpicker sighed. “I don’t know that you do. Probably you don’t. But he would be someone who had real coin on him, should you know where to find him. You don’t, do you?”
“Naw, don’t know anyone like that,” snarled One-eye. He glanced at his companion. “C’mon, let’s see what he’s hiding.”
They came at the ragpicker with their blades held ready, stuffing the clubs in their belts. They were hunched forward slightly in preparation for getting past whatever defenses the scarecrow intended to offer, the blades held out in front of them. The ragpicker stood his ground, no longer backing up, no longer looking as if he intended escape. In fact, he didn’t look quite the same man at all. The change was subtle and hard to identify, but it was evident that something was different about him. It was in his eyes as much as anywhere, in a gleam of madness that was bright and certain. But it was in his stance, as well. Before, he had looked like a frightened victim, someone who knew that he stood no chance at all against men like these. Now he had the appearance of someone who had taken control of matters in spite of his apparent inability to do so, and his two attackers didn’t like it.
That didn’t stop them, of course. Men of this sort were never stopped by what they couldn’t understand, only by what was bigger and stronger and better armed. The ragpicker was none of these. He was just an unlucky fool trying to be something he wasn’t, making a last-ditch effort to hang on to his life.
One-eye struck first, his blade coming in low and swift toward the ragpicker’s belly. The second man was only a step behind, striking out in a wild slash aimed at his victim’s exposed neck. Neither blow reached its intended mark. The ragpicker never seemed to move, but suddenly he had hold of both wrists, bony fingers locking on flesh and bone and squeezing until his attackers cried out in pain, dropped their weapons, and sank to their knees in shock, struggling to break free. The ragpicker had no intention of releasing them. He just held them as they moaned and writhed, studying their agonized expressions.
“You shouldn’t make assumptions about people,” he lectured them, bending close enough that they could see the crimson glow in his eyes, a gleam of bloodlust and rage. “You shouldn’t do that.”
His hands tightened further, and smoke rose through his fingers where they gripped the men’s wrists. Now the men were howling and screaming as their imprisoned wrists and hands turned black and charred, burned from the inside out.
The ragpicker released them then and let them drop to the ground in huddled balls of quaking, blubbering despair, cradling their damaged arms. “You’ve ruined such a lovely day, too,” he admonished. “All I wanted was to be left alone to enjoy it, and now this. You are pigs of the worst sort, and pigs deserve to be roasted and eaten!”
At this they cried out anew and attempted to crawl away, but the ragpicker was on them much too quickly, seizing their heads and holding them fast. Smoke rose from between his clutching fingers and the men jerked and writhed in response.
“How does that feel?” the ragpicker wanted to know. “Can you tell what’s happening to you? I’m cooking your brains, in case you’ve failed to recognize what you are experiencing. Doesn’t feel very good, does it?”
It was a rhetorical question, which was just as well because neither man could manage any kind of intelligible answer. All they could do was hang suspended from the ragpicker’s killing fingers until their brains were turned to mush and they were dead.
The ragpicker let them drop. He thought about eating them, but the idea was distasteful. They were vermin, and he didn’t eat vermin. So he stripped them of their clothing, taking small items for his collection, scraps of cloth from each man that would remind him later of who they had been, and left the bodies for scavengers he knew would not be picky. He gathered up his soiled rags from the earth into which they had been ground, brushed them off as best he could, and returned them to his carry bag. When everything was in place, he gave the dead men a final glance and started off once more.
Bones of the dead left lying on the ground.
One more day and they will never be found.
Ragpicker, ragpicker, you never know
There are rags to be found wherever you go.
He sang it softly, repeated it a few times for emphasis, rearranging the words, and then went quiet. An interesting diversion, but massively unproductive. He had hoped the two creatures might have information about the man with the black staff, but they had disappointed him. So he would have to continue the search without any useful information to aid him. All he knew was what he sensed, and what he sensed would have to be enough for now.
The man he sought was somewhere close, probably somewhere up in those mountains ahead. So eventually he would find him.
The ragpicker allowed himself a small smile. There was no hurry. Time was something he had as much of as he needed.
Time didn’t really matter when you were a demon.