WWC: The Oppressor
“Do you have any other pains? Any cramps or spasms?”
The central square of the settlement was packed, as they often were on the day that Lifebringer’s company came by. People spilled out of their makeshift houses and into the dusty streets, eager to receive treatment from a man of increasingly rare talents. Lifebringer sat with one of his many patients – a seemingly healthy man who had become suddenly weak while working his family’s patch of land.
The man shook his head. “No, it was really sudden. Well…I was a little sore, but that’s just because we’ve been working so hard.”
“And you ignored it?” Lifebringer turned loose the man’s hand and stood up. “It’s the heat. You just can’t work as hard when it’s this hot out. Take a few days and rest in the shade, and you should be as good as new.”
“I don’t have a choice,” replied the man. “We need the food in case another dust storm comes up.”
“Your choice is between life and death,” said Lifebringer. “Keep up this pace and it will kill you. The settlement can survive for a few days; you can’t.” Lifebringer looked over at his attendants. “Send the next one.”
Suddenly, there was a shout from the watchtower: “Someone’s coming!” Everyone looked up at the watchman, who was squinting against the unforgiving sun. A moment later, his jaw dropped and his skin turned pale. “It’s them! They’re coming!” There was panic in the square as many of the people gathered sprinted for the nearest building, cowering in whatever cover they could find. The sickest among them stayed put, but Lifebringer could easily spot the fear in their eyes.
One of the attendants ran over to Lifebringer. “What’s going on?”
“You can’t guess?” Lifebringer ran towards the watchtower. “Is it Conqueror’s men?” he yelled.
The watchman swallowed hard. “It’s Conqueror. He’s here.”
“Here in person?” There was no response from the tower. Lifebringer peered through the gates of the settlement. The path leading into the wastes was obscured by a cloud of dust, but the sound was unmistakable – the steady thunder of hooves against the hard ground. Bit by bit, the war wagons came into view – hideous armored vehicles pulled by an odd variety of pack animals, driven by armed men in red and black uniforms. There were at least five vehicles, a number rarely seen unless Conqueror was on the warpath. But it wasn’t the vehicles themselves that Lifebringer noticed, but the man riding in the one at the fore – a hard-faced man crowned in ivory and clad in the regalia of an ancient hero.
Lifebringer was torn. Every instinct told him to take flight, to take refuge with the others until the danger passed. However, what he felt was not fear so much as a perverse curiosity, born of the years he’d spent cleaning up the consequences of this man’s deeds.
The war wagons came to a halt just inside the settlement and the crews dismounted. There were at least two dozen warriors, enough for an occupation force. Conqueror looked out over the settlement like he already possessed it. One of his men approached and whispered something in his ear. A curious little smile crossed his face, and he turned his gaze on Lifebringer. “You are a doctor, yes?”
“Yes,” replied Lifebringer, staring coldly back. “You don’t appear to be in need of any assistance.”
“Very perceptive of you.” Conqueror took a few steps closer. “I am looking for a particular healer, a man known as Lifebringer. Are you familiar with him?”
“That would be me,” said Lifebringer. “But I’m sure a man of your resources already knew that.”
“Then, I take it there is no need for further introductions?”
“The Conqueror of the Southern Wastes has no need to introduce himself. He leaves his mark wherever he goes.” Lifebringer knelt on the ground and dug through his bag. “If you need something, please make it clear so that I can get back to work.”
“I wouldn’t waste your time. For a man such as you, it is too valuable a commodity.” Conqueror stared down at Lifebringer, who turned his head away. “As it happens, I have only one question for you. Do you know of a man who calls himself the Storyteller?”
Lifebringer clapped his bag shut. “I believe I’ve encountered a man with that name in the wastes.”
“Many have encountered him,” said Conqueror. “He is not a man easily forgotten. But some of my scouts say that they saw a man who resembled Storyteller in your company.”
“What need would I have for stories?” said Lifebringer, drawing to his feet. “I am a healer, not an entertainer.”
“That wasn’t exactly a denial.” Conqueror stepped closer, stopping mere inches from Lifebringer. “All I want to know is where this man went.”
“I scarcely understand why someone like you would want him.” Lifebringer turned away. “I don’t know where he is. Now, may I return to my patients?”
Conqueror grabbed Lifebringer by the shoulder. “I’m afraid we’re not finished.” Lifebringer grimaced in pain as Conqueror squeezed his shoulder, still sore from a previous altercation. Conqueror instantly turned him loose. “My apologies, I know that one of my men in Settlement 5 was unduly rough with you. Some of my men are not exactly bastions of self-control, and when they are out of my sight they let their passions run free.”
“Of course,” said Lifebringer through gritted teeth. “Even the all-mighty Conqueror can’t be expected to control everyone in his domain.”
“Hmm…Yes.” Conqueror circled Lifebringer until the two were face-to-face. “Rest assured that the discipline for men who dishonor their charge is swift and appropriate. But now, let’s return to the matter at hand. Where was Storyteller headed when you last saw him?”
“I don’t know,” said Lifebringer, staring into the ground.
Conqueror put his hand under Lifebringer’s jaw, forcing his head up. “We are men of honor, and dishonesty does not suit us. Now, won’t you rethink your statement?”
“Honor?” Lifebringer pulled away, a look of anger in his eyes. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
“There is a river crossing in Settlement 5,” said Conqueror. “Was he headed west, across the river? Or north, along the footpaths?”
“Why don’t you ask in Settlement 5?” said Lifebringer.
“I did. Their answers were unsuitable.” Conqueror’s expression hardened. “You don’t like me, do you?”
“I’ve never met you,” said Lifebringer.
“Your eyes tell me everything you need to know.” Conqueror looked over at Lifebringer’s attendants, who were standing a safe distance back. “These are your assistants, correct?”
“They don’t know any more than I do,” said Lifebringer. “You’ll gain nothing from hurting them.”
“And what makes you think I was going to hurt them?” asked Lifebringer.
Lifebringer scowled. “Because I know your kind.”
“I know your kind as well,” said Conqueror. “You’re a practical man. You gain nothing by concealing Storyteller’s location, and I know that such a buffoon is of no value to you. Why not just tell me what you know?”
Lifebringer shook his head. “I don’t know anything.”
Conqueror rubbed his chin. “Perhaps there are too many distractions around here. For a healer, it must be hard to carry on a conversation when there are so many people in need of treatment.”
“Don’t do it!” exclaimed Lifebringer.
“Don’t do what?” said Conqueror. “Wastelanders always assume that I am a brute, that I can only harm people. But I can heal, as well. Of course…” He looked around the settlement. “I am limited in what I can do in this place. I’ll have to take them back to Pinnacle. I’m more than willing to keep them as long as it takes them to recover fully.” He smiled at Lifebringer. “You see? I can be benevolent.”
“Please,” pleaded Lifebringer. “They don’t deserve…”
“What? You are making assumptions again.” He gestured back to his men. “Make sure they’re comfortable. We can set them up with personal quarters in the palace once we have them back.” Several warriors entered the central square, approaching the clearly terrified patients.
“Fine! You win!” Lifebringer ran between the warriors and the villagers. “He crossed the river, headed to Westhigh. That’s everything I know.”
Conqueror glared at Lifebringer for a moment, then smiled. “Very well. It seems we won’t have time to bring these poor souls to Pinnacle, so I shall leave them in your capable hands.” He signaled for his men to return to the wagons. “You know, Lifebringer, I’ve always wanted to meet you. For years, I’ve heard about the work you do in my territories. It’s very admirable. Whenever I meet a man I admire, I often wonder what he was like in the world as it once was. Tell me, were you ever given a name?”
“I wouldn’t want to hear it spoken in your voice,” said Lifebringer.
Conqueror sighed. “Try to keep a civil tongue. In these uncivilized times, there are those who might react badly.”
The intruders climbed back into their vehicles and departed, leaving only a palpable sense of unease. Lifebringer watched as they left, all the while questioning whether his actions were guided by righteousness or cowardice.
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