The Fabulist #26

Meanwhile, back in Middle Market, Pathfinder was doing her best to attend to an increasingly restless Archivist. The Middle Market healers, uncertain to the exact severity of the injury, had put Archivist on indefinite bed rest. In an attempt to keep Archivist’s mind occupied, Pathfinder had done a bit of creative trading and obtained a few scraps of reading material in the market.

Archivist flipped through the pages of a half-burned textbook. “They have a funny language, don’t they?” She set the book aside. “I don’t suppose you found anything I can, y’know, read?”

“Orchid might have something in her personal library, but we’re not exactly on the best of terms at the moment,” said Pathfinder. “Hey, if you’re here long enough, maybe you could pick up some of the language. Right?”

Archivist scrunched up her face. “Not from these guys. I don’t think they like me very much. They’re always yelling.”

“Don’t take it personal, that’s just the way they are here. They’re always yelling at each other.” Pathfinder glanced at the door. “Speaking of which, I haven’t seen Lieren in a while.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” said Archivist. “For a while there, he had his head in here every fifteen minutes.”

“He’s got a suspicious mind,” said Pathfinder. “You mind if I go see what’s going on out there?”

“Fine by me,” said Archivist. “I’ll tell you if I make sense of any of this stuff.”

Pathfinder left the room and headed out into the street. The area was oddly desolate – most days, there would be continuous activity even here, but today it was dead. Despite the lack of people, there was no silence. Pathfinder could clearly hear the murmurings of a crowd just a few short meters ahead, intermingled with the sounds of shod boots clicking on the street. Over the din, Pathfinder could just make out a voice: “Move on. Your ilk is not wanted here.” It was Orchid, a faint trace of anger in her voice.

Sparing no time, Pathfinder sprinted to the city square, finding a sizable crowd. She pushed her way through to the front to see what was going on. In the middle of the square stood a large group of well-armed men in formation, all clad in matching red and black uniforms. At the front of the group stood a particularly imposing figure, his head adorned with a pure white helmet – presumably their leader. The city guards stood all around the group, weapons readied as though they anticipated violence at any moment. Standing just inside the gate to the middle ward was Orchid, surrounded by her personal guard.

“Please, Empress,” said the leader of the men, taking a step forward. Orchid’s guards trained their weapons on him, but he scarcely seemed to notice. “We haven’t come here to bring war. We wish only to trade for supplies and lodging for the night. I have brought treasures from the south to guarantee your hospitality.”

“I want nothing from you,” said Orchid. “And I know what your men do to the settlements that lodge them.”

The leader shook his head. “I had hoped that a leader of such intelligence as yours would not listen to wasteland rumors. But if that it how you feel…”

“It is,” interrupted Orchid.

“Very well. We shall proceed north on our own account. But Empress, you should pray that you never have cause to make requests of me. I may not be as merciful.” The leader waved to his men, who turned and departed. The city guards didn’t lower their weapons until the outsiders were completely gone.

Pathfinder sprinted back to the living quarters, bursting into her room and grabbing her walking stick and satchel. “I have to go,” she said to Archivist. “I’ll ask someone to check in on you.”

“What’s going on?” said Archivist. “Why are you in such a hurry.”

“I think Storyteller’s in trouble,” said Pathfinder. “I have to find him fast.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Continue reading

The Fabulist #25

The first rays of morning were breaking over the wastes as Storyteller departed Middle Market. There was no grand sendoff, no harrowing pursuit – just a single man leaving a settlement. He carried a small package of food and supplies in his bag, along with an assortment of Archivist’s computer discs – there in the hopes that Storyteller could find a working machine somewhere in the ruins of Scrapland.

That great ruin was Storyteller’s destination. In the old world, it had been a metropolis, a center of wealth and culture crowning the otherwise unassuming Midwest. That city was long gone, replaced by a lifeless husk of what had once been. The skyscrapers that had once been its skyline now lay in broken piles in the desolate streets, the remnants covered in moss and vines as nature struggled to reclaim the land. Rust-choked car chassis sat here and there, most of them ripped apart by scavengers looking for valuable metals and oils. This was the city’s current state – a place dubbed “Scrapland,” the most valuable scavenging site in the known wastes. The scavengers had been picking through it for twenty years, and yet only a tiny fraction of its bounty had been reclaimed.

To Storyteller, there was something ominous about this place. Not because he was scared for his life – the miles of empty streets made it seem vanishingly unlikely that anyone would find him. Rather, it was the feeling of history overtaking him. As a child, he had been to this place many times with his family. To someone from a small town, the constant roar of activity was nothing short of amazing. But now, as he listened to the wind howl through the empty city corridors, it seemed haunted.

As he passed a group of storefronts, Storyteller spotted movement on the other side of the street. A pair of scavengers, their garb too ragged and worn to identify a trading company, darted through a broken window into a store. Storyteller crept up on the building, close enough to overhear their conversation.

“Shit. It would take at least two more men to move the valuable stuff out of here.”

“Knock it off and find something we can swap.”

“You know damn well that this street’s been stripped. We want anything, we have to travel further in.”

“That’s where the raiders hang out. I’m not getting killed for a haul.”

“There’s a good chance we’ll get killed on the way out, anyway. Come on, let’s do something to justify the risk.”

“You can do that if you want. I’m staying right here.” One of the scavengers leaped through the window, stopping dead still as soon as he saw Storyteller. He screamed brandished a knife. “Who the hell are you?”

“I’m not here to attack you,” said Storyteller. “I’m not a scavenger.”

The second scavenger appeared in the window. “Are you crazy? Don’t just stand out there in the street!”

“Why is that?” said Storyteller. “Surely there is no risk of traffic.”

“They’ll find you if…oh, hell.” The first scavenger dove back through the window, ducking out of sight. His friend followed suit.

Storyteller ran into a nearby alleyway to wait for the inevitable carnage, but nothing came. There were no war cries, no boots crunching on the fragmented asphalt, no sickening crunch of weapons against flesh. The only sound was the soft whistle of the wind. Realizing that the danger was not coming, Storyteller stepped out of the alley and resumed his trek down the street. He could understand the paranoia of the scavengers given how many of their kind had been murdered, but Storyteller had a mission that was too important to let fear get in the way.

As he proceeded north, Storyteller noticed that signs of life all but disappeared. Presumably, the scavengers had found sufficient riches at the edge of the ruin that they had no need to travel further inside. With the increase in violence, there were even less likely to explore the old city center. This gave Storyteller an odd sense of hope – it was more likely that he could find an intact computer in a place that hadn’t been recklessly salvaged. But as he moved from store to store, his hopes waned. Nearly every building was filled with wreckage or burned beyond recognition, leaving little chance that any relics within might have survived. By the tenth building, Storyteller’s hope was growing strained, and only the promises he’d made drove him onward.

Suddenly, Storyteller caught a faint sound over the wind. It was barely audible – the last echo of a whisper somewhere far away – but there was something ominous about it. He shrugged it off and resumed his search, but a minute later, it came again. Storyteller could feel a knot growing in his stomach. He began to run, not even fully understanding why he was so frightened, only knowing that he had to escape.

Pausing at an intersection to catch his breath, Storyteller glimpsed a figure out of the corner of his eye. A scavenger came stumbling up a side street, obviously in some sort of distress. Catching sight of Storyteller, the scavenger tried to say something, but it stuck in his throat and he fell to the ground. Storyteller could see four arrows jutting from the man’s back. Twenty paces behind him were two men in piecemeal body armor, one of them wielding a bow. The archer had a broad smile on his face, both eyes fixed on the dead man.

“Great shot!” yelled the second raider. As they began to loot their victim, they noticed Storyteller, frozen in the middle of the street. The second man smiled and pointed at him. “Scavs go home! Scavs go home!”

Storyteller turned and ran, faster than he ever believed he could manage. There was a sharp whistle as the first raider fired his bow, the arrow passing close over Storyteller’s left shoulder. Storyteller ducked into an alley, looking around for anyplace where he could hide. Glancing over his left shoulder, he saw the second raider round the corner, a look of sadistic glee on his face. Storyteller smashed through the nearest door he could find, charging blindly through rooms heedless of what was around him. Passing through the third door, he tripped and fell into a pile of debris. Thinking fast, he dug into the pile, hoping that he could conceal himself well enough to fool the raiders.

Seconds later, the raiders entered the building. From his position, Storyteller could just glimpse the two of them peering down hallways. “Where the hell did he go?” said the first raider. “You see him leave the building?”

“No,” said the second raider. “Shit, this building’s too big to search it ourselves. Let’s get some help, huh?”

“Is it worth it to get one dude?” asked the first raider.

“Hey, no one gets away from us,” said the second raider. “Besides, the big man’ll be pissed if we let any more scavs through. We don’t want him to stop helping us.”

“That’s true. Let’s go, don’t wanna waste no more time.”

Storyteller watched as the two of them left the building, and waited a minute to make sure that their departure wasn’t a ruse. Cautiously, he slid out of his hiding spot and examined his surroundings. By the looks of it, this building had once been an apartment building or hotel, though it had been damaged far beyond use. A scavenger might have seen some value in the structure, but to Storyteller is was just another memorial to a time gone by.

Nudging open the main doors, Storyteller stepped out into the plaza before the building. It was perfectly still, as though the violence and the pursuit were nothing more than a bad dream. This place had obvious signs of recent human activity, though whether they were left by scavengers, raiders or some unknown group was hard to say. The risks were obvious, but absent any other clues Storyteller opted to follow those signs to their source.

Half an hour later, Storyteller arrived at a scorched and barren expanse, the  remnant of an old world park. There was little left of what had once been there – only a few slender pillars of carbon indicated that anything had once grown there. There were a few sculptures, all of them damaged but remarkably intact. Storyteller stopped in front of a concrete statue of a robed man carrying a scythe, its surface covered in char. All around the statue lay cots, satchels, stone circles, grinding stones and pitchers – the telltale signs of an encampment.

“Scavs go home.”

Storyteller spun around to find himself surrounded. Four raiders stood all around him, blocking every avenue of escape. Storyteller backed up against the statue as the four men drew closer, each with a well-used weapon at the ready.

Before any of the raiders could act, a fifth figure emerged from behind the statue. He was bald and dark-skinned, wearing an old trench coat wrapped tightly around him like a robe. There was a stoic look in his eyes – though he was unarmed and alone, he clearly did not fear these men. He raised one hand to the group of raiders. “Halt. This man is not yours.”

One of the raiders laughed. “What’s your problem? You told us we got to kill any scavs that got in here.”

The man shook his head. “This man is not a scavenger. He is not your prey.” Without moving his head, he pointed off into the distance. “There is a group of three scavengers to the west, newly arrived and laden with supplies. You may take them.”

“All right, fine. Let’s go.” The raiders lowered their weapons and left without any further dispute.

The man bowed his head. “Be at ease, traveler. No harm will come to you here.”

Storyteller looked over at the man in amazement. “Who are you that the raiders respect your words? They have no leaders.”

“I am not their leader. I am Prophet.” He turned on his heel to face Storyteller. “You may not understand this, but I have been awaiting your arrival for a long time now.”

“You…know me?” said Storyteller.

“No,” said Prophet. “But I knew that one would come, and it could be none other than you.” He gestured for Storyteller to follow him. “Come. We have much to discuss.”

The Fabulist #24

Storyteller stood inside the entrance to Middle Market’s inner ward, waiting for the sword to drop. The room was dark, the only light coming from a single source down some other hallway. Bit by bit, his eyes adjusted until he could finally make out his surroundings. They were in what appeared to be some sort of gallery, an oddly arranged collection of carvings ringed by murals. The images seemed random and perplexing to Storyteller – a painting of a blue apple, a figurine of a woman drawing a bow, a stark drawing of a tree wreathed in new blossoms.

There was little time to consider that artwork, however, as Lieren was pressing Storyteller forward. The two of them walked down the hall towards the source of the light. The hallway opened onto a large round room, lit from somewhere far above. The floor was filled with tables and chairs, none of which had seen much recent use. A curtain concealed one wall of the room – another mural, Storyteller thought, perhaps unfinished. A staircase led up a floor to a closed door.

Lieren pointed to the stairs, and Storyteller started to climb. Halfway up, the door slowly creaked open. Orchid stood in the frame, clutching Storyteller’s notebook tightly in one hand. “Who the hell are you?” she said.

“Excuse me?” said Storyteller.

“You heard me. Who are you?” Orchid descended the steps, stopping just above Storyteller. “Did you read my notes? My old files? You’re going to tell me right now.”

Storyteller was dumbstruck, but he forced himself to speak. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. If you mean the book, that’s just a work of fiction. It may be based on the honest events, but…”

“And how did you see those events?” Orchid’s jaw was tight. “There’s no way you could have witnessed anything that happened to me. So how did you know?”

“Happened to you?” Storyteller paused. “Are you Lidia Zh…”

Storyteller was interrupted by the back of Orchid’s hand, dropping him to one knee. “Don’t you dare use that name as though you knew me!” she said, staring at him with cold rage in her eyes. “You haven’t earned that right!”

“I’m sorry,” said Storyteller.

“I don’t want to hear apologies,” said Orchid. “I want to know who you are and how you know all these things.”

“Well, I…uh…” Storyteller was just as confused as Orchid, and he struggled to come up with something that would satisfy her curiosity. “…I must have heard about you from someone in my hometown. There was much discussion in those days.”

“Heard about me?” Orchid stared back at Storyteller. “What’s your name? Your real name?”

“Samuel. Samuel Scarbrough.” Storyteller put up his hands. “I was from Patmos.”

“Scarbrough…” Orchid nodded in recognition. “…I remember meeting a Will Scarbrough. He was a buffoon.”

“My brother wasn’t a buffoon,” said Storyteller, tears streaming from his eyes. “You don’t understand. He was all I ever had.”

“Don’t speak to me of loss. You don’t have the slightest clue.” Orchid flung the notebook at Storyteller. “I should have you and that book burned on the same pyre, you parasite. You are no longer welcome here. The scout and the girl can stay, but you’re gone by daybreak. I see you after that, you will regret it.” She looked at Lieren, still standing just inside the doorway. “Liji ni baituo ta!”

Nodding silently, Lieren grabbed Storyteller by the arm and yanked him violently down the stairs. Storyteller scarcely had time to cram the notebook back into his bag before Lieren forced him down the hall and through the gates. Lieren nearly broke Storyteller’s wrist as he dragged him through the streets and back to the living quarters in the outer ward. Continue reading

The Fabulist #23

Middle Market at night was much more vibrant than most settlements. With the abundance of artificial light, trade could continue into the early hours, and the locals took full advantage. Many of the market stalls were still open, with locals, scavengers, and traveling merchants stopping to purchase needed supplies or acquire rarities for resale elsewhere.

Storyteller looked around, feeling more lost than he had in a long time. “So, do you speak their language?”

“Not really,” said Pathfinder. “Well, I know when they’re cursing at me, but that’s about it.”

“Then, how do you make deals?” said Storyteller.

“It’s all gestures. You put down what you’re trading, you point at what you want. I’ll show you when we find a food stall.” Pathfinder suddenly stopped, clapping one hand to her forehead. “Shit! I dropped everything when the raiders hit us. I have nothing to trade.” She looked at Storyteller’s bag. “You have anything?”

“Merely my bottle of ink and writing utensil,” said Storyteller. “I doubt they are worth much, and I’m not willing to part with them anyway.”

“Didn’t you have a really nice knife?” asked Pathfinder.

“I…misplaced that,” said Storyteller. “This is all I have now.”

Pathfinder sighed. “Hell. Maybe I can beg some supplies off of Orchid.”

Storyteller took a deep breath, looking around the square. His eyes fell on the obelisk. “Where did they ever find a stone that large?”

“Hard to say,” said Pathfinder. “They could have traveled a hundred miles to find that thing. Anything for the glory of their Empress.” She glanced over at Storyteller. “You want to see more?”

“More of what?” said Storyteller.

“More of what they made for her,” said Pathfinder.

Storyteller rubbed his chin. “There’s art here?”

“You could call it that.” Pathfinder gestured to Storyteller. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Pathfinder led Storyteller down a side path and into what had once been a manufacturing district. Unlike the rest of Middle Market, there had been no attempt to reclaim any of the warehouses or factories. Rather, the walls that still stood had been covered with large, intricate murals. A handful of hooded bulbs cast rings of light onto the walls.

“Each of these murals depicts a moment in Orchid’s life,” said Pathfinder. “As you can see, there is nothing they wouldn’t do for her.”

Storyteller stood before a mural depicting Orchid standing above a young man and a young woman. “Remarkable. Where did they ever find paint that had survived the disaster?”

“They didn’t,” said Pathfinder. “It’s a mixture of a dye and some kind of resin. Hell of a thing, isn’t it?” She stepped to Storyteller’s side. “This one depicts Orchid, before the disaster, counseling her students.”

“I remember when they would have called this sort of thing propaganda,” said Storyteller. “There was a time when I would have mocked this. Now, I’m just taken aback by its beauty.”

“Well, there are plenty more. Come on, I’ll show you.” Pathfinder took Storyteller by the arm and led him to another mural, this one depicting Orchid speaking to a crowd of people. “This one is Orchid traveling the world, bringing her wisdom to the old places.” She led him to the next mural, an image of fire and wreckage. “And this one is the day of the disaster, Orchid emerging unscathed from the flame. And the next one…”

As Storyteller glanced over at the next mural, his jaw dropped. “Oh, mercy.” He broke away from Pathfinder and ran to it, staring in awe. This mural depicted a beautiful sea of flowers, uninterrupted except for a single, mysterious figure standing somewhere off in the distance.

“Yeah, this one’s probably my favorite, too,” said Pathfinder, walking back to him. “They say that just as her plane hit the ground, Orchid had a vision of an endless garden.”

“I’ve seen this place,” whispered Storyteller.

“Seriously?” Pathfinder drew closer to Storyteller. “Before the disaster? I always wondered if places like this really existed.”

“No…it was recent,” said Storyteller. “I was lost in the desert. I saw the garden, and when it faded, I was safe.”

“That’s incredible,” said Pathfinder. “It’s like the two of you are linked somehow.”

Storyteller shook his head. “No, a lot of people have seen this place. There was this man who saw it while he was under the influence of a drug. And there was a woman who saw the exact same thing a week later while she was near death.”

“How do you know all these things?” said Pathfinder.

“I…guess my brother told me.” Storyteller paused.

“You mentioned him before,” said Pathfinder. “Maybe you’d like to tell me more?”

“His name was Will. I owe him my life.” Storyteller took a deep breath. “I’ll never know how, but he knew. He knew that our days were numbered. Right before it happened, he sent me to a bomb shelter, just in case the worst happened.” He chuckled “Everyone always thought he was such a screw-up, but he showed them all. He showed them.”

“Sounds like he was really important to you,” said Pathfinder, putting an arm around Storyteller’s shoulders. “Why don’t you talk about him more often?”

“I guess I don’t want to remember that he’s gone and never coming back,” said Storyteller. “Our father died when I was very young, so Will practically raised me. No one else really understood him, they just saw a goofy kid, a failure. But he’s the one who encouraged me to express myself. Without Will, there would be no Storyteller.”

Pathfinder smiled. “You should talk about these things more often. Helps keep the memories alive.”

“What of your family?” said Storyteller. “You mentioned your mother once, but little else.”

“Well, that’s where it gets a bit complicated. You see, my family…” Pathfinder looked down the street. “…Someone’s coming.”

Storyteller glanced back down the street. A group of Middle Market guards stood in the otherwise desolate street, with Lieren at the head. “Storyteller?” he shouted.

Storyteller raised his hands. “My apologies. I did not know that this place was off-limits to me.”

“No,” said Lieren. “You are summoned. Fanghuo must speak with you.”

“She wants me?” said Storyteller. “Why?”

“No more questions,” said Lieren. “You must come now.”

Pathfinder leaned in close to Storyteller. “Look, you don’t have a choice in this,” whispered Pathfinder. “If Orchid wants to speak to you, you’ve gotta go. I’ll keep an eye on Archivist. Meet me back at the living quarters when you’re done, okay?”

“All right,” whispered Storyteller. He stepped towards Lieren. “All right, I’m coming with you.”

“Good.” A pair of guards moved to flank Storyteller while Lieren approached him. “You will follow me. You will not wander. You will not touch anything. Clear?”

Storyteller glanced at the guards who were surrounding him. “Very clear.”

Storyteller kept careful pace with his escorts as they led him through the city. The gates to the inner ward swung open, and Storyteller was led through them yet again. He had expected to see Orchid on the dais again, but things were different this time. The streets of the middle ward were sparsely populated, save a handful of sentries keeping watch over the buildings. Most of the lights were out – a few bulbs threw circles of ghostly light on the main boulevard, but apart from that the roads were lost in shadow. Storyteller followed Lieren up the ramp to the top of the dais, passing a pair of guards who glared at him every step he took.

“Where is she?” asked Storyteller as they reached the top of the dais.

“Not here,” said Lieren. “We go to the inner ward.”

“The inner ward?” said Storyteller.

“Yes.” Lieren approached another gate, this one much narrower than the previous ones. Unlike the others, this gate was wooden, the mark of the lotus burned into the surface. “You will show respect. Few people ever see the inner ward.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand this at all,” said Storyteller. “Have I broken some law, some rule?”

“No more questions,” said Lieren. “Fanghuo will tell you what you need.” He reached behind a concealed panel next to the door, and a moment later some mechanism opened the doors.

Storyteller peered through the open doors and into the room beyond, but he could see only shadow. “Could you at least tell me what waits beyond these doors?”

“You shall see.” Lieren seized Storyteller firmly by the arm and pulled him through the gates, into the inner ward. A moment later, the doors slammed shut behind them. There was nowhere to go but forward.

The Fabulist #22

Storyteller didn’t know quite how to respond. He merely stood frozen as the man in front of him continued to bark orders in a language he couldn’t understand.

“Ni xiang si ma?” the man yelled, grabbing Storyteller with his free hand. “Nimen quxi!”

“We don’t understand you!” screamed Archivist. “You can’t kill us because we don’t understand you!”

Another guard approached Pathfinder, trying to force her to the ground. “Knock it off!” she yelled, shaking free of his grasp. “We’re not raiders. We’re here to see Fanghuo.”

“Shenme?” The guard turned back to the others. “Nimen renshi ta?”

“Tuirang.” The men stepped back, lowering their weapons while still keeping all eyes on the three intruders. Another man stepped forward, gesturing for the others to hold their ground. He was a lean, dusky man with short dark hair, small but also well-built. His garb was similar to that of the scavengers, topped with a short cape embroidered with a large flower. A small revolver and a knife stuck out of his belt. With a deliberate pace, he approached Pathfinder. “How do you know this name?”

“We’ve met,” said Pathfinder. “I have an injured woman here. Will Fanghuo give us aid?”

The man paused for a moment, studying the group of outsiders. “We shall see.” He gestured to the other guards, who returned to their original positions. “I am called Lieren. Come, we will talk to Fanghuo.” Lieren looked at a nearby pile of refuse, pulling out a rickety but still usable wheelchair. “For the injured woman.”

After Storyteller helped Archivist into the chair, the four of them proceeded through the gates of the city. The darkness of the narrow corridor gave way to an city square, the streets filled with an unusual illumination.  Despite the late hour, there was ample activity. The footpaths were lined with stalls selling everything imaginable – ranging from food and scrap material to books, artwork, and exotic products that Storyteller couldn’t believe still existed. The whole scene was lit with bare electric bulbs, powered by some unseen energy source. At the center of it all was a massive stone obelisk, its surface completely blank.

Archivist looked about in awe. “You have electricity here.”

“We have many things here,” said Lieren. He stepped towards a guarded gate, leading deeper into the city. “I must consult with Fanghuo. Wait here until I return.” He vanished through the gate, leaving the rest of the group to wait.

Storyteller turned towards Pathfinder. “How is it that you know so much about this place?”

“I’ve been here many times,” said Pathfinder. “Middle Market is a secret to most of the world, but it’s well known to scavengers and scouts. You’re standing in the home of Great Lotus company, the biggest trading concern in the known wastes.”

“So you know the person who runs this place?” asked Archivist.

“Everyone knows her. The question is if she remembers that we met.” Pathfinder took a seat on a set of stairs. “Most of the world calls her Orchid, but the people around here have a different name.”

“Fanghuo?” said Archivist.

“You know what that means?” said Pathfinder. “Fireproof. See, the story is that Orchid was in an airplane when the disaster hit. The plane goes down, killing everyone on board – except Orchid, who emerges unscathed. I don’t buy it, but they take it as truth around here. They worship her like some kind of goddess. And every year, a few more people find their way here, all of them looking for a place where their language and culture are better understood.”

“I’ve heard of enclaves like that in the wastes. I’ve just never seen one.” Storyteller stared down the well-lit street. “And I can’t imagine that many of them are this spectacular.”

“The Fireproof one brought the gift of cold flame,” said Pathfinder. “At least, that the way the people around here see it.”

The gates swung open, and Lieren emerged. “Fanghuo wishes to speak with you. Follow me, do not stray.”

The three of them followed Lieren through the gate. “Well, this is unusual,” said Pathfinder.

“In what way?” asked Storyteller.

“Middle Market is divided into three wards,” said Pathfinder. “That was the outer ward, where anyone can go. Ahead is the middle ward, which is usually just for members of the company. Sometimes they let some scavengers in, but never this quickly.”

“But that’s a good thing, right?” said Archivist.

“Possibly.” Pathfinder took a deep breath. “But you should be very careful. The people here worship this woman, remember. And Orchid herself is…not always so pleasant to deal with. Just watch what you say and do.”

The group emerged through the inner gates and entered the middle ward. This area was more organized, consisting of a series of restored buildings adorned with carvings or banners of the lotus. Connecting the buildings was a dais – some ten feet high – constructed from the wrecked fuselage of a jumbo jet, the wings bordering a set of stairs that led to another gate.

“One moment.” Lieren climbed up an unseen ramp to the top of the dais, standing beside the stairs. “Fanghuo Huangdi arrives. Nimen fucong ta de quanli.

Everyone in the street stopped immediately, staring up at the gate. As it swung open, each of them fell to their knees penitently. Somewhere above him, Storyteller could hear the sound of footsteps, growing louder and louder. Finally, a figure appeared at the edge of the dais alongside Lieren. She was an older woman – older even than Storyteller – with shoulder-length black hair and cold almond eyes. She wore a long robe, embroidered with the flowers that symbolized her trading group. On her head was a crown, painstakingly wrought from an aquamarine stone that Storyteller could not identify.

Orchid silently examined the group from her perch. Finally, she spoke. “You are a trail scout, yes?”

“That’s right,” said Pathfinder. “You gave me permission to come here, remember?”

“No,” said Orchid, “but it’s acceptable for you to be here. What about the others?”

Archivist wheeled herself closer. “I’m Archivist, ma’am. From Westhigh?”

“She’s why we’re here,” said Pathfinder. “We were attacked by raiders, and during the fight she fell and injured her knee. We’d like to stay until she can walk again.”

Orchid sighed and shut her eyes. Several seconds passed before she spoke again. “…Very well. I won’t turn her out. But what about the man? He’s not injured and he’s clearly not a trader.”

“I am called Storyteller,” he said. “I was traveling with Pathfinder to Scrapland.”

“Storyteller?” Lieren turned to Orchid. “Zhengfu Zhe sousuo youren jiao Shuoshu Ren!”

“Wo sihu haipa ma?” responded Orchid, waving him away. She turned back to Storyteller. “What have you brought here?”

Storyteller glanced at Archivist’s backpack. “This is a collection of data discs. We were hoping to find a computer in Scrapland to read them.”

Orchid nodded. “And the smaller bag?”

“Merely my personal belongings,” said Storyteller.

“Come up here and let me see,” said Orchid.

Storyteller glanced at Pathfinder, hoping for some guidance. “Go ahead,” said Pathfinder. “She made a request.”

Reluctantly, Storyteller ascended the ramp to the dais. At the top, Lieren took Storyteller’s bag and opened it for Orchid to examine the contents. She reached inside and plucked out the notebook, flipping it open and studying it.

“Please don’t take that,” said Storyteller. “I’ve been through a lot to keep it.”

“Show respect!” shouted Lieren, shoving Storyteller back.

“At ease, Lieren,” said Orchid, continuing to flip through the notebook. “This is a work of fiction.”

“That’s right,” said Storyteller, staring tensely at his notebook. “I’ve been working on it for years.”

Orchid flipped the notebook shut. “You’ll get it back once I’ve had a chance to read it.”

“Well, I had not planned to stay very long,” said Storyteller. “I don’t think anyone could read it so quickly.”

“I can.” Orchid turned back to the staircase. “They’re your business, Lieren.”

“Yes, Fanghuo Huangdi.” Lieren walked down the ramp, gesturing for Storyteller and the others to follow. “We go to the living quarters.”

The group followed Lieren back into the outer ward and into a cluster of buildings. They had once been houses of some kind, but had been restored and repurposed into a communal gathering and living space. Lieren guided them into a small, lightly decorated room in the back of one of the buildings. It featured a bed, a few chairs, and a single light bulb, the controls wired into a panel somewhere outside of the room.

“Wait here. I will fetch a healer.” Lieren turned and exited the room.

Archivist leaned back in her chair, staring up at the light bulb. “This place is amazing…damn it, I wish I could walk around and see more.”

“I probably should go out, anyway,” said Pathfinder. “We’re out of food. Storyteller, want to give me a hand?”

“I shouldn’t leave Archivist here alone,” said Storyteller.

“Go ahead!” said Archivist with a smile. “Maybe I can’t see this stuff first-hand, but you can take it in and describe it to me. Come on, do me a favor.”

Storyteller laughed. “All right, if you insist.” He looked over at Pathfinder. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“One thing,” said Pathfinder. “Never smile. They take it as a sign of weakness.”

“Oh.” Storyteller’s expression immediately faded.

“I’m just kidding,” said Pathfinder. “They’re just normal people, and it’s just a normal place. Trust me, you’ll like it.”