The Fabulist #28

Storyteller did his best to keep his head together – no easy task, as the situation was about as dire as he’d ever been. He was entirely alone, facing down the Conqueror of the Southern Wastes and a group of his elite warriors. He had no chance to hide, and little hope of escape. There had to be some way out, but it eluded him.

“I remember everything now,” said Storyteller, a slight tremble in his voice. “It was all another story, one that I invented to give the others hope. I told it so many times that it became real for me, as real as any of my actual memories. I deceived myself as surely as I deceived the world.”

“It’s good that you acknowledge this,” said Conqueror. “Unfortunately, this is only an explanation, not an excuse. In any case, you still owe a debt, and I don’t believe you have the means to repay it.”

“But I can!” Storyteller held his bag aloft. “You wanted to know about the past. There are data discs in this bag, and in the structure to the rear is a computer to read them. All of this is yours, a contribution to your body of knowledge.”

Conqueror shook his head. “You expect to buy your way clear with the work of another? No, Samuel. I’m afraid that this is one offering that you must make yourself.”

“Then, this is your excuse?” said Storyteller.

“No,” said Conqueror. “This is the way it was always going to be. The songbird was always going to die.”

“Of course,” said Storyteller.

There was a moment of perfect stillness as everyone on the street waited to see what would happen next. It was Storyteller that broke the quiet first, dropping his bag and sprinting away from Conqueror. Conqueror’s men quickly joined the pursuit, charging down the street in a flurry of red and the thunder of feet on the pavement. Storyteller’s body was exhausted from the trek, but he ignored what he felt and ran on, knowing that any hesitation would mean doom. Finally, he reached the Cathedral. There was nowhere to go, no easy escape from the horde that was hot on his heels. The only path was straight up. He grabbed hold of the surface of the Cathedral, scrambling up higher and higher. As the warriors reached the Cathedral, they stripped off their armor and climbed as well, bending the structure beneath their combined weight.

“You want an offering?” shouted Storyteller as he climbed up a length of pipe. “Very well. I have one final story for you. Once upon a time, there was a place called Planet Earth. It was home to a magnificent group of creatures, the human race. The land was beautiful and vast, providing everything the humans needed. They built wonderful things, chronicled the nature of their world, crafted things of great beauty, and mastered the art of the miraculous. It was a paradise.”

One of the soldiers reached for Storyteller’s ankle. He shook the man free, grabbed a bundle of wires and pulled himself further up. A bullet streaked past his shoulder, so close that he could feel the air move as it passed. He almost let go, but he held on as tight as he could, pulling himself up to the next terrace.

“But it wasn’t enough,” he continued. “The humans wanted more. And when they got it, they decided that it still wasn’t enough, and they needed more, and more, and still more. In the name of their avarice, they began to destroy their paradise. They stole from their neighbors, and then made slaves of them. They made war on each other, using the sword to steal the land itself. They built machines that filled the world with poison. In the end, they became terrified, afraid that their pursuit of more would bring tragedy and death. But they were more afraid that they would have to give up their wealth.”

Storyteller grabbed the side of the Cathedral, braking his slide off the structure. The metal was beginning to buckle under the weight of the men climbing it. Storyteller leaped to the next terrace, dodging another pair of grasping hands. A spear clattered off the side of the Cathedral mere inches away. Spotting another warrior nearby, Storyteller kept climbing.

“Suddenly, a man appeared offering the greatest miracle of them all. He said that he had a machine, a very special machine that could fix all of the damage and bring their paradise back, all without sacrifice. So great was the avarice of the humans that they believed him without question, and gave him everything he needed to build his machine. In truth, this man hated humans, and relied on their greed to fuel his true intention – the end of Planet Earth.”

Storyteller reached the very top of the Cathedral, clinging precariously to the side of the narrow steeple. The warriors were just inches away now. There was no more time.

“In the end, they destroyed both the paradise and the miracles they had wrought. Pursuing of more, they ended up with nothing. If only they had acknowledged the beauty that was around them, and the beauty within, perhaps the conclusion would have been different. Perhaps…”

There was a loud, horrifying creak from the Cathedral. The entire structure pitched forward slightly. Some of the warriors jumped back to the ground, but it was too late. Bits of the facade fell first, kicking up clouds of dust and fragments of material as they hit the ground. The wooden supports splintered and the metal bars bent as the foundation fell apart. Most of the men had only enough time to scream as the Cathedral fell apart around them.

Storyteller only had time to fall.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

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The Fabulist #27

For several hours, Storyteller followed Prophet in silence. It was all a lot to take in – the strange prophecy, the mystery of the “Cathedral,” the totality of his quest up to that point. From time to time, Storyteller would pass something that reawakened a memory from his youth, only adding to his quandary. Eventually, they drew near enough to the waterfront for Storyteller to catch a glimpse of Lake Michigan. The water was as clear as it had ever been, a rare piece of nature left untouched by the end of civilization.

“We are close,” said Prophet.

Storyteller looked around. “I remember this place. In the old world, there were many museums in this area.”

Prophet nodded. “In my dream, I was told to build the Cathedral in a seat of historical knowledge. This was the only suitable location.”

Bit by bit, the Cathedral came into view. It was a strange structure, a tangle of concrete, wood, metal, piping, and wire rising up several stories into the sky. The foundation sprang forth from the remains of what had once been a great museum, now just a pile of rubble that merely hinted at what had once been. As they grew closer, Storyteller could make out more details of the new structure. It was decorated with things that he had not seen since before the disaster – television sets, medical diagnostic machines, diesel engines, all of them stripped of their tradeable materials. The entire structure looked like a tragic memorial to a distant world.

“For months, I labored to construct the Cathedral,” said Prophet. “It is built from the past itself, to contain what I was able to save.”

“You did this all by yourself?” said Storyteller, approaching the entrance.

“It was my penance that I receive no aid,” said Prophet. “But the outside is merely a shell. No one has stepped inside the Cathedral since I finished it. It had awaited one worthy of its treasures.” He stepped to the entrance and turned towards Storyteller. “Now, it is time to fulfill your destiny.”

Storyteller stepped past Prophet and entered the Cathedral. The inside was dimly lit, but what he saw left him amazed. It was filled with tables and shelves, rising high into the reaches of the structure. All of them were packed to the brim with old world artifacts. Storyteller could not remember ever seeing such a collection in one place, but that wasn’t what took him aback. In the center of the structure on the largest of the tables was a collection of electrical devices, all of them in near perfect shape. Sitting in the center was an old laptop computer, fully intact.

“Do…do you know if these things work?” said Storyteller.

“I gathered only the least damaged machines for the Cathedral,” said Prophet. “But I am not worthy to use them, so I never tested them.”

“And…you have a source of power?”

“I have a generator. It, too, is fully intact.”

Storyteller pointed at the computer. “This one. I must turn it on.”

“Very well.” Prophet stepped behind the table, kneeling down to test the wires leading in and out of the machine. A few seconds later, there was a grinding sound as the generator powered on. “It is ready. The rest is up to you.”

Storyteller pushed the power button and then knelt by the table. Digging through his bag, he retrieved one of the discs from Westhigh. It was just another anonymous artifact, but after traveling with those discs across half the wasteland he felt that there must be some hope still within them. Once the computer booted up, Storyteller inserted the disc and waited. There was a whine as the machine struggled to read the disc, replaced seconds later by voices and instruments, the kind of thing that Storyteller hadn’t heard in many years.

“What is that sound?” said Prophet. “Is the machine damaged?”

“No…it’s music,” said Storyteller. “What was this band called…Stephenson Syndrome, that’s it. A local band where I used to live. There were never really my cup of tea, either, but I guess I do miss them in a way. My brother listened to all the local bands, told me I had to support the town. He used to take me to shows all the time, buy CDs, t-shirts, records…we didn’t even have a player. But he just had to pitch in. He just had to…”

Storyteller shut his eyes.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The evening was crisp and clear in Patmos, with just the barest trace of dew in the air. Hundreds of people had turned out to see Main Event Patmos, a showcase of the best bands southern Illinois had to offer. Some crowded around the stage, hoping to get as close as possible to the music, while others sat on blankets on Kiyama Hill, watching the show from above. Young Sam Scarbrough was near the top of the hill, waiting patiently for his brother to return.

“Hey, buddy!” Will Scarbrough waved as he ran up the hill. “Sorry for the wait, there was a hell of a line at the merchandise table. Man, I always forget how much people love this stuff.”

“What did you get?” asked Sam.

“Slim pickings, but I did get these for you.” Will handed over several large rolls of paper. “They’re posters. I figure we get them signed after this thing’s done, and then if any of these guys hit it big, they’ll be worth hundreds of dollars. Maybe thousands.”

Sam laughed. “That’s great, Will.”

“Think nothing of it.” Will took a seat next to Sam. “So, you enjoying the music?”

“Um…”

“Yeah, I got you,” said Will. “These guys are an acquired taste.”

“Yeah, but it’s fun anyway.” said Sam “It would be nice if we could do this more.”

“Yeah.”

Sam scooted closer to Will. “So…you were talking about moving back here?”

“I’d love to, but it’s not up to me, you know? It’s the world. It’s the economy, and there’s cultural crap to deal with…” Will looked over at Sam. “…But I’m trying. Believe me, I am sick of rambling all over this crappy state.”

“The state’s not that bad,” said Sam.

“Yeah, well…you spend four years driving up and down it, you get a different perspective.” Will took a deep breath. “Oh, that reminds me. I found that little website of yours, with the stories? Pretty good.”

Sam laughed nervously. “They’re not that good.”

“Yes, they are,” said Will. “Who would know better, huh?”

“Maybe,” said Sam. “But I show them off in school and no one cares.”

“Those kids are idiots,” said Will. “And maybe they’re just not that into the fantasy-type stuff. Maybe they wanna read about what’s real.”

“Real?” said Sam quizzically.

“Yeah, you write about what’s real.” Will rubbed his chin. “All right, I’ll tell you a good one. So about a month ago I was in this town called Solace, right? You heard anything about that place? Every year, they have this trivia competition in the high school, and everyone goes nuts. I talked to some guys there, you would not believe what happened there this year…”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Suddenly, the calm was broken by the sounds of a struggle, rudely snapping Storyteller back to reality.

“What could that be?” said Storyteller. “It does not sound like scavengers.”

“Someone is trying to desecrate this place. I will handle this.” Prophet ran out of the Cathedral.

“Wait! You can’t leave me!” Storyteller ran out behind him. From outside of the structure, the sounds were even more pitched and violent. He could hear steel striking steel and the crack of gunfire, punctuated every few seconds by a scream of death. It was a true melee. Occasionally, Storyteller spotted movement on the top of one of the buildings, someone watching but never taking action. Was it a thrill seeker, hoping to catch a better view of the carnage? It was a grim thought, but little surprised Storyteller anymore.

A moment later, the sound faded. The battle had ended just as quickly as it had begun. Storyteller followed Prophet around a corner, not really knowing what to expect.

What he saw stopped him dead in his tracks.

The street was filled with men in armor and red and black uniforms, their clothes and weapons stained in blood. Before them were bodies – raiders, their weapons laying shattered beside their mangled corpses. At the head of the grisly formation was a man Storyteller hoped he would never see again. He stared straight at Storyteller, cradling a familiar looking knife.

Storyteller took a step back. “Conqueror…”

“Samuel,” boomed Conqueror, gripping the knife. “You left this behind in Pinnacle. I’ve come to return it to you.”

“Leave this place at once!” screamed Prophet, stepping towards Conqueror. “This is consecrated ground, and you are not to defile it with your presence!”

“Under other circumstances, I may enjoy this, but my patience has worn thin,” said Conqueror. “This does not concern you. Therefore, I will give you one – just one – chance to leave of your own volition.”

“Everything that happens in this place concerns me,” said Prophet. “And I refused to be cowed by…”

There was a pop as the bullet ripped through Prophet’s chest. He scarcely had time to acknowledge what had happened before he fell to the ground, lifeless. Storyteller stared at the dead man, then up at Conqueror, who gestured for the shooter to shoulder his weapon.

“Now,” said Conqueror, “let’s get to our business.”

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.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

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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.”