The Red Quarter of Nexus was a particularly grotesque thing, a festering scar running through the ruin, a tumescent mass magnifying the ugliness of the surrounding land. Whatever building had once stood there was gone save a semicircular outer wall separating the Quarter from the rest of the settlement, granting the rest of the settlement the gift of merciful ignorance. Few seemed to take advantage of this mercy, though, as the narrow footpaths running through the malignance were choked with a steady stream of people passing each way. Scarcely less awful than the sight was the sound, which gave no doubt to what was going on behind the dividing wall. Even from a distance, the screams of pain and the visceral sounds of combat could be heard with perfect clarity.
Pathfinder - a faint, scarcely suppressed look of disgust on her face - led Baroness and Storyteller down one of the Quarter footpaths. Storyteller could barely tear his eyes from his notebook, held tightly in Baroness's spindly gilt fingers. From time to time, he would steal a glimpse at the Quarter wall, his stomach turning over at the thought of the grim spectacle transpiring within.
As they neared the wall, Storyteller hesitated. "Ma'am, I must again protest. I have no interest in seeing this."
"I can scarcely blame you. It's a truly ugly thing. But ugliness is part and parcel of beauty, is it not? And this beastly affair serves a vital purpose." Baroness took a moment to gaze out over the knot of people crowded around the entrance. "An impressive turnout today. It seems the even the savagery of a late summer day can't discourage the people of this town from their duty."
"I fail to see why this pleases you," said Storyteller. "Why would someone with a passion for culture want to encourage such a barbarous kind of entertainment?"
"Entertainment?" Baroness laughed, a dainty yet throaty noise that felt more than a little affected. "Pathfinder's given you the tour, I see, and her commentary to boot. She is an exceptional tracker, but I'm afraid she has little regard for our system of justice."
"Justice?" said Storyteller. "How does this violence serve justice?"
"Isn't violence a part of justice?" Baroness turned her head back to the city. "You know, Storyteller, ours is not a perfect place. As wondrous as Nexus is, we lack many of the features needed for a true system of order, such as those we once enjoyed. There are no penitentiaries, no places of rehabilitation. Our discipline must be meted out on the spot. It must be true, it must be fair, and it must be free of remorse."
"Please," said Storyteller, eyes still fastened to the notebook. "I thank you for all you've done, but I must be on my way."
Baroness held up the notebook. "This is the world to you, isn't it?"
"It is more valuable than you can possibly know, like a fragment of my very soul," said Storyteller. "I have little to offer a woman of means, but if you name your price, I shall deliver it to you."
Baroness grinned as she took in the pathetic visage before her. "Oh, I've a proposition for you, one that concerns this rarest of items. But not until after your surprise."
"Proposition?" said Storyteller. "But-"
"Not yet, wanderer." Baroness tucked the notebook under her arm and gestured to a small corridor guarded by mercenaries. "The exhibition first. Come, let's not waste time with the proles. We have our own route."
Storyteller planted his feet, but Pathfinder grabbed him by the arm, urging him onward. "I don't want to go any more than you do, but she's running the game," she said.
"What does she mean when she speaks of justice," said Storyteller. "What have you not told me?"
"Come on, let's keep moving." Pathfinder followed Baroness, holding Storyteller's arm. "This is what happens when the mercenaries catch a criminal. They get a choice - death on the spot, or what's going on in there. The people who run this place think the spectacle has a corrective effect."
"Because it does, dear. It does." The mercenaries stepped aside as Baroness approached the corridor. "Can you hear? That is the sound of moral education, of men and women learning to disdain evil in all its forms. The sound of wasteland children turning into upstanding citizens. Pathfinder may sneer at this system, and it is hardly an ideal system, but it is a highly effective one, I think you'll find." She waved for Storyteller. "I believe that our surprise is about ready. Shall we?"
One of the mercenaries opened an unseen door and led the group inside. The door opened onto a dark, partially collapsed passage, lit solely by what sickly beams of sunlight were bold enough to seep through the masonry cracks. The mercenary lit a small lantern and led through the passage. "You might be a little late, ma'am. It sounds like the exhibition is coming to an end."
"That's perfectly fine," said Baroness. "The full process is hardly important. It was the conclusion that I wanted my guest to see."
A minute later, they emerged into the inner Quarter - an arena of sorts, Romanesque in its design but far more primitive. There was a battleground built around the foundation of a long-since salvaged building, ringed by low wooden barricades. A ring of people surrounded the barricades, blood roiling behind their eyes, screaming epithets at the men within. The passage had led to a platform raised several feet above the surrounding land, giving Storyteller a perfect view into the arena. From the fresh blood decorating the dirt, it seemed as though the latest round had concluded and justice - or some brutal simulation of it - had been done..
"Impeccable timing." Baroness pointed into the arena. "Take a look at that man, Storyteller. Look at his face, or what remains of it. Is it familiar? Does he summon any memories?"
Storyteller knelt and leaned over the lip of the platform. A mercenary was dragging a man out of the arena by his ankles - from the way he twitched it was a struggle to determine if he was alive or dead, but he was certainly far closer to the latter. He had a scraggly beard and dirty hair, but aside from that he was barely even recognizable as a human being. His face was dotted with shallow gouges and bruises, spots where a blunt spear had struck his flesh over and over again. One of his wrists was shattered and hung limply at an unnatural angle, the jagged bone standing in relief against his skin. His legs, too, were scored with lacerations so deep that his starved muscles were visible beneath. As Storyteller studied the poor soul, using all his vigor to push out the images of this man's brutalization, he realized why Baroness had brought him to the Red Quarter.
"Dear God," said Storyteller, fighting off a wave of nausea. "It's him. The man that robbed me on the road."
A satisfied smile graced Baroness's face. "Indeed. We caught him in the city with your notebook in his possession."
Storyteller recoiled from the sight. "You would do such a vile thing in my name? No...You will not make me party to such barbarity."
"Shed no tears for this man, Storyteller," said Baroness. "He's a greater monster than you know. As a matter of fact, his tenure in the pit had nothing to do with you. He attempted to rob a young woman in the Common Market and when she resisted, he beat her viciously. Most likely, she'll never walk normally again. If he survives this, he'll never walk normally again, either. You see? Justice."
"Yes, I see," said Storyteller. "But I, too, see the truth that's beneath these tales of pragmatic justice that you've spun for me. You despise criminals, but none of you have it in you to take a life. That's what this place gives you. It lets you vent your lust for vengeance while keeping your hands clean."
"Perhaps you're right," said Baroness. "You are perceptive as well as talented, Storyteller. We will enjoy your company greatly."
"You have no intention of returning my property, do you?" said Storyteller.
"Of course I will, but there are certain considerations first." Baroness flipped open the notebook. "Interesting. An account of the world perched on the precipice of disaster, a world now naught but ash and rubble. Oh, the insights we can glean from you and your memories."
"What do you mean?" Storyteller looked at Pathfinder, who averted her eyes. "What does she mean?"
"As you've most astutely observed, this is a city without culture," said Baroness. "It is a city with a taste for wealth and violence and little else. But we are going to change that. Oh, Storyteller, what I am preparing! You'll have an office of your own, private and well-appointed. At first, we will hold readings, but in time we can recruit an entire troupe of actors to bring your accounts and fables to life. Doesn't this excite you?"
"No thanks," said Storyteller.
"No?" Baroness's mouth fell open. "Is this not what you want? A chance to share your craft?"
"The price is far too steep," said Storyteller. "I've no desire to be kept as a pet, and I do not wish to stay here. Now please, return my notebook and let me go."
"This?" Baroness held up the notebook. "I'm sorry, but I simply cannot allow both the artist and the masterpiece to slip through my fingers." She held out the notebook, flat on the palms of her hands. "Perhaps you would like to hold it for yourself and consider if such a precious thing is worth leaving behind?"
There was the slightest of tremors in Storyteller's hands as he reached for the notebook. He ran his fingers across its surface, hesitating at every nick and imperfection. Its pages were ragged and yellowed, and yet they stubbornly refused to fall out. It was no longer an artifact of the old world, it had life as surely as he did, flesh and blood and a heard somewhere within the pages. It was an icon imbued with history. This was not a disposable thing, no more than the hand that clutched it.
"Now, before you entertain that naughty little thought that I know is in your head, you may wish to consider the consequences." Baroness smiled, her eyes drifting to the bloodied soil in the arena. "After what you've seen, is it really worth it?"
Pathfinder shook her head. "Don't," she mouthed.
Storyteller's breath came in ragged bursts as he surveyed the situation. The notebook was a remarkably heavy weight in his hands and all eyes were upon it, most notably those of the mercenaries already inching into position all around him. The path was narrow and growing smaller; there was time for thought or action, but not enough for both. Drawing in one final deep breath, he clutched the notebook against his body and sprinted for the platform, sidestepping the mercenaries who tried to block him and leaping for dear life. The air parted beneath and gave way to earth as he hit the dirt, landing hard on his face. With the mercenaries converging upon him, there was hardly time for pain. Scrambling to his feet, Storyteller snatched the notebook and ran for the crowd at the arena's edge. All eyes were on him, the imbecilic criminal who dared to steal in the presence of the crowd.
Suddenly, Storyteller flipped open the notebook and grabbed a handful of pages, ready to tear them to shreds. "I choose death!" he screamed.
One of the mercenaries gestured for the others to keep their distance. "Traveler, your punishment has not yet been decided. But the more you resist, the more likely-"
"Don't take me for a fool," said Storyteller. "I know of your ways. This is my work that I hold, the product of my labor, yet you are prepared to condemn me as a thief for taking it. I understand the consequences, and I will accept them. I will accept death because I will not be a sacrifice to your notion of justice. But before you put me to the sword, I'll do the same to this book!"
Now there was a moment of total silence, or perhaps it only seemed that way to Storyteller. His senses came into a new clarity as he considered the situation, the nature of the threat that had tumbled out of his throat with barely any conscious thought. There were the words upon the page, the ink absorbed by the fibers; and there were those letters blurring under his sweaty grip, those fibers growing soft, ready to split in his hands. He hoped that they could not see the tears welling in his eyes, that treacherous emotion that could yet betray him.
"Have you lost your sense?" shouted Baroness from the platform. "You can't destroy what you've created! It's much too precious!"
"And my life is not?" said Storyteller. "Spare me your lies about culture, Baroness. To you, I am nothing more than this notebook, a thing to be traded and admired, to be acquired even over a man's corpse. If you ask me, you are naught but a thief yourself. All of you who trade in lives are thieves or benefactors of thievery!"
"You could never do it," said Baroness. "You could never destroy that which you love so dear."
Storyteller shut his eyes for a moment as he pictured it - the notebook destroyed by his own hands, his legacy rent and left in the dirt beneath his own corpse. He could hear the pages tearing, and with it the pain passing through his hands and arms and then on into his heart. Baroness was right - he couldn't do it. It was a knife pressed to his own throat, and all he could do was pray that none would call his bluff.
Storyteller held the notebook aloft. "Then order your men closer. Witness for yourself how I act."
"You are digging your own grave," said the lead mercenary, inching closer.
"Stop where you are!" said Baroness with a faintly defeated tone. "There's no need for violence. This man authored that notebook, I am sure of that."
The mercenaries moved to positions before Baroness. "Then you are relinquishing this item?"
Baroness emitted an agonized sigh as she struggled to assemble the words. "...Yes. I hereby return the notebook to his possession."
"Bless you, Baroness," said Storyteller, relaxing his grip on the notebook. "It is a worthy thing you've done today."
"It is a lost opportunity, but I won't be a party to the destruction of art," said Baroness. "I only hope that you can one day return and share your craft with we benefactors of thievery."
"That may be a problem," said the lead mercenary. "Her forgiveness spares your life, but by your actions you have still committed an offense against Nexus. That can't be so easily forgotten. We can no longer trust you, and we can't have someone we don't trust staying in the city."
"Then I am banished?" said Storyteller.
"That's right," said the mercenary. "Be out of the city by nightfall. If you ever return, your punishment is ours to choose."
Pathfinder leaped from the platform, landing nimbly a few feet from Storyteller. "I'll escort him out now. There's no need to waste your own time."
"Very well," said the mercenary. "Goodbye, traveler."
Pathfinder escorted Storyteller out of Red Quarter, through streets stained orange by the oily cast of the sun and to a checkpoint leading out to the wastes. There was an odd tranquility that hardly fit with the violence of the day, and there were moments in which Storyteller felt like he was strolling through town in the age before. He had the notebook cradled beneath his arm and his hand drifted to it by reflex, just for the sake of security.
"You're one lucky bastard," said Pathfinder. "You got out with your life, and you never have to come back here."
Storyteller laughed and ran a thumb along the flaking leather of his prize. "Well, I found what I sought, or at least most of it."
"So where are you headed from here?" said Pathfinder.
"I had a destination, but circumstances have conspired against me," said Storyteller. "I wished to return to my hometown to see what had become of the place, but everyone I meet warns me away."
"Where is it?"
"In the far south."
Pathfinder winced at the sound. "You mean his territory. Yeah, that's hardly a safe destination."
"So I've heard," said Storyteller. "This leaves me rather adrift.I suppose I do have one quest, to find an old world object of particular rarity. Where might I find such a thing besides Nexus?"
"You could try Scrapland, to the northeast. It's not exactly a safe place either, though, especially by yourself." Pathfinder leaned on her walking stick. "Then again, I'll be traveling with a redemption group that's headed there. You could come along with us. It's not for a few days, though."
"Not a problem," said Storyteller. "I'll set up camp nearby. It will give me a chance to study my own notes."
"Meaning you want to be sure that they didn't harm your book?"
Storyteller took the notebook in both hands. "So little time, and yet you already know me so well."
"Doesn't take a mind reader to figure that one out," said Pathfinder. "I'm sure you need a little time to yourself. Good night, Storyteller. I'll see you soon."
"And to you as well," said Storyteller. "Don't trouble yourself. I shall keep out of trouble until the morn."