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.”