It was at the bare edge of dawn that Nexus, the greatest trade city known in the wastes, came into view, the structures silhouetted against the maroon haze that covered the sky. Storyteller had heard of this place - what soul who had crossed within a thousand miles had not? - but he had not visited it, at least not in his present lifetime. He had seen the version in the world before, back when it was a mid-sized city of some historical and regional import, but in the new world it had the look of a true metropolis with few rivals. Large settlements had grown more common as the scouts had brought the message of humanity's endurance to the distant reaches of the wastes, but cities - true cities, like those that had once been so critical to the culture and economy of the world - were still a rarity.
There was a barricade at the outer edge of the settlement just visible in the soft morning light,pinpricks of light swarming before of it. This represented the first moment of relief Storyteller had allowed himself to enjoy since departing from Lifebringer's retinue. Raiders rarely carried lights - the darkness was itself a weapon against their targets, one that no skilled thief would abandon. These surely belonged to redeemers or traders, or perhaps even the city guard if Nexus was truly developed enough to have such a thing. Light was a sign of trust, of comfort, of civilization.
Then there came the sound of heavy boots along the path, moving toward Storyteller with remarkable speed. He caught the flash of metal - a spear point, aimed directly at his head. There was more movement from the corner of his eye, more lanterns, more spears - three at least, though Storyteller was too intimidated to count them. He raised his hands by instinct and reflex, his breath growing slower.
The man before Storyteller took a half-step forward, the better to intimidate the new arrival. "On your knees," he barked. "No quick moves, or you'll be dead before you touch dirt."
Storyteller meekly complied, his hands well clear of his body as he lowered himself to the ground. He had this man figured for the leader, though this was merely a guess and he had no earthly clue as to their identities or allegiance. From his new vantage point on the ground, he had a clearer picture of his assailants. These men were older, stronger and more controlled than the sorry group of raiders he had seen back in the wastes. Each was wielding a short-handled spear - most likely a converted farm implement of some sort - and wearing what appeared to be metal-reinforced body armor. Each carried a small lantern in his free hand. None of their equipment bore a mark that Storyteller could recognize.
"Identify yourself," said the lead guard.
"My name is Storyteller. Please, I assure you that I have nothing of interest to you."
"We'll be the judge of that." The lead guard pressed the point of his spear beneath Storyteller's chin. "Why are you traveling to Nexus?"
Storyteller could feel beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. "...Something was stolen from me. I was told that the thief would have traveled to Nexus to trade it."
One of the other men leaned in for a closer look. "He doesn't look like a raider, does he? Too small. A real weakling."
"He's the perfect size to be a thief." Setting his lantern down, the lead guard grabbed Storyteller by the front of his garment and pulled him to his feet. "You're coming with us until we can figure this out."
The men moved into position around Storyteller - one on either side, just a stride ahead, with the leader walking with the end of his spear in Storyteller's back. The four of them marched through the stout gates of Nexus, watched the entire way by more armed men in positions of advantage. These men were clearly trained - escape was a fantasy, though Storyteller's fear was overwhelmed by his puzzlement at their behavior.
Storyteller was led into a small building just on the other side of the gate, a crude holding cell - bars made of salvaged rebar rods, secured with a simple redeemed padlock. A real thief could easily escape from the cell, though only to meet a ghastly end at the spears of his captors. In any case, the jailer took no risks and offered no mercy to his new captive. He snatched the satchel from Storyteller and shoved him into the cell, making a point of slamming the door.
Storyteller leaned against the makeshift bars. "Excuse me, how long am I to wait here?"
"Until you've been cleared." The guard pulled open the satchel and dug through Storyteller's possessions. "What is all this junk?"
"It's mine, sir," said Storyteller. "You can see that I don't have the trappings of a thief. Doesn't this clear me?"
"I see a nice big bag with just enough crap in it to fool a merchant into turning his back," said the guard. "Just what a thief would have to move his bounty."
"Then my guilt is proven by the absence of evidence?" Storyteller dabbed at his forehead. "How do I prove that I'm not a thief? Tell me what I must do."
"You'll do nothing. If you're guilty, you'll regret ever walking that path. But if you're innocent, we'll clear you. We have ways." The guard pulled out the knife. "Interesting. A traveler's tool or an assassin's weapon? You wouldn't be the first killer we've caught."
"Excuse me, how long will it take to establish my innocence?" Storyteller stepped back from the bars. "...Never mind. I'll take what comforts I can."
For the moment, Storyteller could do little but count his blessings. It was not his first time in captivity, and this particular cell was certainly better than some. He was alone, for one - settlements with a more despotic or fearful bent were known to have lockups that groaned with captives, so many that it was an effort to breathe, and some of whom were genuinely dangerous men. Here, there was ample space to relax after his long trek, even if there was little else to do without his notebook. Sleep was a possibility, though a remote one given the noise of the road just outside the cell. There was only time, and only waiting.
The wait would not be a long one, though - not even an hour passed before a new person entered the holding area. She was slender but wiry and strongly-built, the appearance of someone who had been well-forged by time in the untamed wastes. By Storyteller's estimate, she was scarcely more than fifteen or sixteen - still just a child in the old world, but experienced by the standards of the new. Her dirty blonde hair was cut short, most likely by her own hand or that of a fellow traveler with a work knife. She wore a well-used duster over a denim outfit - no part of which quite fit her right - and carried a stout walking stick.
"Turnkey, a moment?" The woman gestured to the guard, and the two stepped aside, speaking in hushed tones. Storyteller pressed his face against the bars, though he could hear nothing but the occasional stray syllable. A minute later, the woman approached the cell and looked at Storyteller. "Your name?"
"Did you come here to recover something you lost?"
"And what was it?"
The woman nodded and glanced toward the guard. "This one is wanted elsewhere. I'll take him."
"Very well," grumbled the guard. "If a trader of Baroness's caliber has him cleared then I guess I'm obliged, but I'd just as soon he leave that cell with a spear in his back." He unlocked the cell door and tossed the satchel at Storyteller's feet. "You've been freed. Go on."
"Of course." Storyteller was stunned, though not paralyzed enough to let a perfectly good opportunity for liberty slip away. Hesitantly, he stepped out of the cell, the door slamming shut behind him. "And you are?"
"The name of a trail scout," said Storyteller. "But why have you come for me?"
"All part of my duty," said Pathfinder. "You called it. I usually scout out safe trails for the redemption companies, but from time to time I'm sent out to find people. I was ready to spend several seasons running you down, but lucky me, you had the courtesy to stroll right into my domain."
"Someone wanted to find me?" said Storyteller, cramming his belongings back into the satchel.
"Someone with clout."
"A trader, then? It seems I have a reputation, after all."
"That you do." Pathfinder sized him up. "You're not quite how I imagined. I pictured a real magic man. Figured you'd be wearing robes and charms."
"Alas, I am nothing more than a wanderer," said Storyteller. "Yet you've heard of me as well? I've never so much as set foot in Nexus."
"It's a trade center. Everything ends up here eventually, information included." Pathfinder hoisted her walking stick over one shoulder. "I'm guessing you've never been here, right? Come on. I'll give you a quick tour."
Pathfinder led Storyteller down the broad main avenue that led into Nexus proper. The path had been carved through what had once been neighborhoods, the rubble cleared away and salvaged for the building material and the few surviving structures abandoned to the squatters who flooded the city. It led to a second, smaller barrier, marking what appeared to be a marketplace. Towering over the area was a partially collapsed dome, the remnant supported by a network of scaffolds.
"Here it is, the trading heart of the region," said Pathfinder, a certain weariness behind her words. "This used to be a city called Springfield, but no one calls it that anymore. I don't think most people even remember."
"And yet you do," said Storyteller. "Did you visit Springfield in the old age?"
"...Maybe? I was just a little kid, I don't remember much, no one does. But rumor has it that you remember a lot of things."
"Such is my curse, it seems."
"I'd ask you more, but we'll have to make this quick. My client isn't used to waiting." She pointed up at a nearby ruins, the bombed-out walls buzzing with activity.
"That's the Black Quarter. It's home to all the redemption groups that collect the stuff that gets traded here. It's also where I stay when I'm not on the trail. Do you know much about the scouts?"
Storyteller scratched his head. "I know of Wayfinder, but beyond that I'm in the dark."
"Really?" Pathfinder rested on her walking stick. "I thought only traders knew that one."
"I suppose I feel a sort of kinship with the man," said Storyteller. "We both sought to redeem the wastes with knowledge. Wayfinder did it with maps and expeditions, and I...well, I shouldn't compare myself to him, but I at least aspire to accomplish the same through culture, through art."
"I can see some similarities," said Pathfinder.
"Whatever happened to Wayfinder, exactly?" said Storyteller.
"Died in the northern wastes. He kept pushing and pushing, all the way into Scrapland and beyond, and one day he didn't come back." Pathfinder bowed her head and sighed. "Fact of life if you do this. The most successful scouts end up as famous corpses."
"A grim thought." Storyteller gazed up at the structure, reaching for a way to change the subject. "Amazing how they've recovered all of these buildings."
"The area up ahead is the Common Market," said Pathfinder, nodding towards an open patch of cracked concrete dotted with tents. "It's the open part of the Nexus market district. Anyone can come here, set up shop, and start trading. Scrap, food, services - anything within reason. There aren't many rules on what you're allowed to sell. Of course, it does attract thieves."
"I gather that your city has little mercy for thieves," said Storyteller with a grin.
Pathfinder didn't return his smile. "Now's a good time to understand how justice works in Nexus. The system is effective - not always fair, but effective - but it's not exactly formal. If a thief or some other criminal gets caught in the Common Market, his punishment is left to the person who caught him. Most people aren't too rough, but it's rare for a thief to leave without a few bruises."
"And, if a thief is caught somewhere else?" asked Storyteller, thinking back to his earlier encounter on the road.
Pathfinder ignored the question, pointing towards the domed building. "That's the Baron's Market. That's where they trade rare items or goods in large quantities. It's not open to just anyone - you want it, you have to either prove that you have something worth trading, or get permission from someone who's been inside before." She nodded to a group of men passing through the gates toting hefty crates, all of them sporting short capes in unusually bright colors and marked with distinct patterns. "Those are the redeemers. The symbols they're sporting are for their trading companies."
"I've crossed paths with the redemption teams before, yes." Storyteller looked at a group of armed men standing near the entrance. "And who are they?"
"Mercenaries, another part of our system. You've already dealt with them. Some of them work for the redemption companies, some are hired by traders. Those ones for the people who run Baron's Market. If you can feed and house one of them, he'll do pretty much anything you want. Same goes for most people here, actually." Pathfinder pointed to another ruined structure just left of the Baron's Market. "And over there is the Red Quarter. That's the entertainment district."
"Entertainment?" Storyteller perked up, his eyes fastened to the new building. "Then they're preserved the arts here? Music, or drama perhaps?"
Pathfinder cast her eyes down. "The entertainment that appeals to the people here is more brutal than that."
Storyteller's bemused smile vanished in an instant. "You speak of bloodsports? Fighting?"
"The people who come to Nexus are pretty jaded," said Pathfinder. "Happens when you've been wandering around the wastes for long enough. The big-time traders are too civilized for that, but the rest? Violence is about all that excites them. The ones who've never been victims themselves are the greatest fans."
"I gather from your tone that you have no love for Nexus?"
"I hate this place." Pathfinder crossed her arms and stared off into the distance. "This isn't civilization, just a bunch of people acting like they're rebuilding the world while they try to recapture old-fashioned greed."
Storyteller put on a thin smile. "You're more of a wanderer, I can tell. Any excuse to stay on the road, in the wilds, anywhere but here. I can certainly understand that."
"I wish I could be like you," said Pathfinder. "Unfortunately, there aren't that many places where my skills are worth much, so I guess I'm stuck with it. And I'm definitely stuck here until I conclude my business."
"Meaning me?" said Storyteller. "I've been meaning to ask about that, actually. When you saw me at the cell, you seemed to know a lot about me. How did you figure it all out? Have you been tracking me?"
"All that information was from the woman who was looking for you," said Pathfinder. "Speaking of which, I should take you to her. Not to repeat myself, but she's really not the patient type."
Pathfinder guided Storyteller away from the markets and towards another cluster of ruined buildings set apart from the crowds. These resembled the squatter's buildings at first glance, but were considerably cleaner and showed signs of recent maintenance and even expansion. Pathfinder walked to the door of the first building and held it open, gesturing for Storyteller to enter.
"Baroness is waiting," said Pathfinder. "She'll explain everything you need to know."
"Baroness?" said Storyteller, glancing hesitantly into the building. "An unusual moniker."
"She chose it herself. Gives her an opportunity to show off her wealth every time her name is spoken." Pathfinder tilted her head towards the entrance. "Go on."
"And my understanding is that this concerns my notebook?"
"She can help you, but she's going to ask..." Pathfinder trailed off with a wince. "...Just be careful, traders are known to ask for more than what you'd want to give up."
The space inside was positively opulent, at least by the standards of the wasteland. The center of the room was dominated by an odd collection of what had, before the fires and looting, been expensive furniture - a ripped leather couch, a well-worn Queen Anne chair, a mahogany table with a broken leg - all arranged on a scorched area rug. The walls were lined with shelves, each one bearing a collection of random bric-a-brac, mingling the tacky with the precious with little distinction between them. The room had clearly been designed to imitate a rich man's parlor from some distant era by a person with a dim recollection of the trappings. It was a reasonable approximation - the only thing that ruined the illusion was the damage to every item in the room.
Storyteller studied a shelf of clay figurines. "Someone went to a great deal of trouble to rebuild this place."
"Don't be too impressed," said Pathfinder, running a finger along one of the shelves. "This building used to belong to the head of a very rich family - his apartment and office for when he was in town. During the catastrophe, Baroness's family squatted in the apartment. They parents were eventually killed by raiders while out scavenging, but Baroness managed to hang on to the building." Pathfinder walked over to an inner door and rapped on the frame. "She's a storyteller in her own right, though, too proud to give the honest story."
"I can understand that," said Storyteller, taking a seat on the couch. "One does whatever it takes to ease the pain."
Pathfinder waved a finger at Storyteller. "That's not...well, you'll understand soon enough." She knocked on the door again. "Ma'am? I've brought him."
"Well, why didn't you mention that sooner?" The door flew open, and a young woman swept out into the parlor. She was clad in a mismatched collection of what had been designer clothes in the old world, assembled from an eclectic assortment of designers and styles. Her hands were covered in rings, ranging in value from fine antiques to worthless pieces of prop jewelry. Every move she made was wonderfully exaggerated, every step calculated to draw attention, every gesture transforming into a grand flourish. She gasped loudly as her eyes fell on Storyteller. "Is this the man we have sought?"
"It's him," said Pathfinder. "He checks out."
"Marvelous!" Baroness glided into the center of the room. "Oh, I've heard so very much about you, dear. Your genius is well known in my circles, you know. It's nothing short of an honor to have you in my presence."
"Thank you," said Storyteller. "I had no idea that I enjoyed such a reputation. I am still a stranger wherever I roam."
Baroness rolled her eyes. "Yes, there are so few these days who really appreciate the finer things in life. Of course, you can see that I am different." She waved her hands across the room. "My parents inducted me into to a world of culture and taste. Even with the end of days looming before them, they had the foresight to preserve just a slice of the refined world for future generations to enjoy. One day, I shall regale you with tales of my own concerning their wisdom and refinement."
Storyteller gave Pathfinder a swift look, which she answered with a smirk. "That's fantastic, ma'am, and I hope you will share your tales with me someday. Still, and I don't mean to be rude, but I don't quite understand why you asked for me."
"I've been thinking of you ever since I saw the notebook," said Baroness.
Storyteller leaped to his feet. "Then you possess my notebook?"
Baroness smiled and walked over to a low bookshelf, filled with an odd assortment of fire-damaged books and notebooks. "Examine, dear Storyteller, the very soul of my collection. Books, an especially rare treasure. These are my pride and joy - the collected literature of this world and that which came before." She plucked a familiar leather-bound notebook from the shelf, holding it gently in her spectral fingers. "Such a fascinating record, simply fascinating, at least from the tiny morsel of text that I've allowed myself to savor. When this most precious item appeared in Baron's Market, I knew I had to own it. They read just a bit at the auction, just the smallest fraction, a dribble of syllables, and when I heard them? My world positively grew, dear. A true struggle to claim it, but well worth the battle, I think."
"How did it come to be in the market?" said Storyteller.
Pathfinder stepped forward, resting her hand on Storyteller's shoulder. "I forgot that part. When a thief is caught, the settlement returns all stolen property. But if the thief was carrying things that don't belong to anyone in town, they go up for auction."
"That exotic tigress from Great Lotus made an impressive play, but she wasn't quick enough. Perhaps next time she'll deign to leave her perch in Middle Market and come in person, hm?" Baroness threw back her head and laughed. "The other traders are positively green that they missed the opportunity, especially Collector - you know how he is, Pathfinder dear, he simply can't stand to lose. But then, he would have kept it to himself, that covetous man, and I have no intention of doing the same."
Storyteller extended his hands, willing away the anticipatory trembles. "Well, I am forever in your debt for finding this."
"Yes, you are." Baroness tucked the notebook under her arm. "But we'll discuss that later. For now, I have a small gift - a token of my dearest admiration. Come, Pathfinder. We head for Red Quarter."
"No thanks, ma'am" said Storyteller. "Pathfinder has told me of this place. I have no interest in partaking in that kind of event."
Baroness winched her smile tighter. "Nor did I. This is not a place for cultured men to tread, and certainly no place for a proper, refined lady. But there is something I feel you should see, something that may set your mind at ease."
Storyteller pondered the offer, his eyes fixed on the notebook. "Perhaps...you will return my notebook at the conclusion?"
"Why, of course!" crowed Baroness. "And then you'll have to do something for me. A reasonable favor, dear, nothing beyond your powers."
"How can I say no to such generosity?" said Storyteller.
"Splendid!" Baroness clapped her hands, her rings sending a metallic echo through the room. "Pathfinder? Lead the way."
"Yes, ma'am." Pathfinder leaned over to Storyteller. "You're not going to like this," she whispered. "Not one bit."