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Work on the latest serial continues, with the first chapter recently completed. I'm not yet sure what I'm going to do with it - submit it to JPS, keep it exclusive to my own site, or maybe just sit on it for a while. In the meantime, I'm putting together a few chapters while collecting feedback. Below is the first chapter - not sure where exactly I should put this, so let me know if there's a better location. I went ahead and set up a small page for the story to collect comments.

Chapter 1

I wish I had an explanation for this. I wish I understood it myself.

My name is Rebecca Jameson, though it's been a lifetime since anyone has called me that. In this world, I am known as Pathfinder. It's a strange name, I know, but that's how things work around here. You see, there was a catastrophe twenty years ago, an event that forever changed the face of the world. We, the ones who survived, lost everything - even our names, our very identities. Funny thing is, I never questioned this. Why have we chosen to wed our fundamental identities to our roles in society? Maybe it's so no one feels bad when one of us dies. There were Pathfinders before me, I'm sure, and if I expire out in the wastes there will be another to replace me, and another to replace her.

I'm a trail scout, or at least I was. My role was to find efficient routes leading from one encampment to the next so that the people who run things can more effectively move goods into their cities. My skill is an intimate knowledge of the wastes - I show the traders and scavengers how to survive, avoid ambushes, and find things of value. That's how I got tied up in this madness in the first place. One of the traders found a notebook, the property of a man known only as Storyteller. She decided that she simply had to meet him, and hired me to track him.

I don't know if you know of this man. There's no way of knowing if the legend of Storyteller endures in your time, or if it has faded from the pages of history. But I can't imagine that anyone who met him will forget, not soon, not ever. I know that I won't. He was this magnificent figure, a wanderer, a poet, a sage. He was unsullied by the greed and violence of this world, an innocent walking through a den of thieves. And I fell in love with him.

But his story didn't have a happy ending. He drew the attention of some very bad people. While he did his best to avoid the ugliness of our world, the ugliness found him. I was there when the monsters finally caught him. I watched him fall beneath their assault. And once it was done, I did something awful. The blood I spilled turned me into a monster as well. Maybe that's why I set out on this quest in the first place, for redemption.

Who am I kidding? I know exactly why I did this, and it wasn't that noble.

---------------

"Seriously, I will do it this time. Bet on it."

Pathfinder clapped the notebook shut and reclined against the crumbling wall, studying her audience. They were an odd mix - scavengers from various companies, escaped raider captives, and random travelers hiding from the violence outside. Most of them sat on the floor - whatever decaying furniture they had found had been busted up for kindling or shoved against the windows and doors for protection. She had watched their number wax and wane as the days passed, but the crowd that sat to listen to her read from Storyteller's notebook had only grown, bit by bit. Most of them looked more perplexed than anything.

"That didn't make a lot of sense," said one of the scavengers, scratching his head. "Were schools really like that before the disaster?"

"Don't know. I never attended one." Pathfinder slid the notebook back into Storyteller's bag. To her left, a scruffy merchant was peering through a crack in the masonry. "Hey, is someone coming?"

"No, and that's the problem." The merchant pushed a scorched chair in front of the crack and took a seat. "Tracker's been out there too long. He should have been back before sunrise."

"This is insane." A lanky man in tall clothing sprang to his feet. "We're going to starve if we stay here much longer. We have to make a move now."

"Be my guest, if you want to get your throat slit," said the scavenger. "This place is swarming with Conqueror's men. If you want to mess with them, that's on you. Don't drag me into it."

The merchant folded his arms. "Actually, the square is clear. I don't even see a trace of anyone out there." He stood up and nudged Pathfinder. "You're a scout, right? Give us your opinion."

Pathfinder pushed the chair aside and peered out through the crack. "Well, no one's started any fires here. I don't see any disturbances in the ground, nothing out of place..." She pulled back from the wall, rubbing her neck. "...Of course, it's hard to tell from the outside. We should wait for Tracker to come back, he'll know more about their disposition."

"Oh, please. You know he's not coming back. If he's not dead, then he bolted on his own." The lanky traveler began to pace the room, hands folded behind his head. "...I'll wait for one more day. Come dawn, I'm out of here, with or without the rest of you."

"You think you have the chops to avoid an army of raiders?" said Pathfinder. "You get caught, and they track you right here, to the rest of us. I'm your best shot, and I say we wait until Tracker gets back. We clear?"

The activity in the room settled down, an unspoken statement from everyone involved that Pathfinder was probably right. Even so, no one was happy - least of all Pathfinder. She knew all too well that they were sitting in the jaws of the beast. The raiders and remnants were too busy fighting each other to bother searching any of the buildings, and it was this alone that had spared their lives. Every time someone heard boots hitting the shattered pavement outside, they all held their breaths until the threat passed. It was only a matter of time until someone broke through the front door.

"Tracker's a good man. I'm sure he'll be back in no time." The scavenger settled back into a pile of rubble. "Hey, how about I tell the story this time? It's nice and short."

Pathfinder dropped back to the floor. "Sounds good to me."

"Excellent." The scavenger rubbed his hands together, a thin smile crossing his face. "Have you ever heard of the Open Land?"

"Can't say that I have," said Pathfinder.

"Yeah, I figured," said the Scavenger. "Not everyone's heard of it in the southern wastes, but work up north for any period of time and you'll catch whispers." He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. "The Open Land is the last untouched place in the wasteland. They say that the sky is still blue there, and the sun is gentle and golden. And there ain't no raiders there, no trading companies, no warlords. The soil's never been touched by blood or fire, so it's...innocent, I guess you'd say."

"Interesting," said Pathfinder. "But it sounds like a myth. I can't imagine someplace like that could exist anymore."

"That's because it doesn't," said the scavenger, leaning back. "It's just a story they tell. The northern wastes ain't very nice, so they whip up a nice story to give them hope."

"That's where you're wrong," said the merchant. "The Open Land is real. I've known men who went there."

"Everyone's heard from people who claim they're seen it," said the scavenger. "It's all campfire stories. Get over yourself."

The merchant shook his head. "This was different. These people went farther north than anyone ever had. When they came back, they were different. Some of them were outright mad. No, I say the Open Land exists, and there's something bad there. Some living nightmare that we shouldn't - "

The words were interrupted by a flurry of blows against the door. From outside, Pathfinder could hear a hoarse voice: "Let me in! For the love of God, open it!" It was Tracker, the man they'd sent out in search of supplies. The assembled company quickly shifted the furniture away from the doors and threw them open. Tracker burst through and collapsed just inside the entrance, looking as though he had just outrun death itself. The other scavenger pressed a canteen to Tracker's lips while the rest secured the doors again.

"What happened?" said the scavenger, pulling away the canteen.

"Conqueror's men," said Tracker, gasping for air. "I...ran into a big group. Gave them the slip but...but just barely. There was a giant with them. He must...must have been one of Conqueror's generals. He just found out that Conqueror is dead...and he's on the warpath."

Tracker's words were followed by the sound of heavy footsteps outside of the building. Pathfinder peeked out through one of the cracks, a mix of curiosity and terror guiding her. There was a group of men - at least a half-dozen that she could see - clad in the black and red colors of the Conqueror of the Southern Wastes. Their clothing was torn, their armor and weapons brown with dried blood. Moments later, another man entered from a side street. This one was a true giant, at least a head taller than every other man in the square. He carried no weapon, but his hands - clad in metal-studded gloves - shone with crimson dots. Pathfinder had heard stories of a man in Conqueror's employ who shunned weapons as none were as effective as his own fists. Until that moment, she had assumed that those people were exaggerating.

A soldier stepped to the giant's side. "Captain of the North has entered. At attention!"

Captain pushed the soldier aside. "What happened here?" he bellowed, specks of saliva flying from his lips. "I arrive to aid my lord in his suppression of this place, and I learn that he has been struck down? Who? Who has committed this crime?"

A sentry stepped forward. "Captain, I was present when it happened. As Conqueror was moving to capture Storyteller, a woman appeared from the flank and struck him down."

"A woman? Impossible!" Captain approached the sentry, grasping him by the shoulder. "Tell me no lies!"

"It is no lie," said the sentry. "Conqueror was incapacitated, pinned beneath a fallen structure. The woman approached and stabbed him through the heart in a most cowardly fashion."

Captain turned away from the sentry and screamed to the heavens, a primal roar from deep in his gut. "Who was the woman?" he said, turning back to the sentry. "What did she look like?"

"She wore clothing of leather and carried a stick. Yellow hair, likely cut short with a blade. She had the look of a scout for one of those Nexus traders."

"Very well." Captain turned back to the rest of the men. "I want this scout found! I want to carry her head back to Pinnacle as an offering to our slain lord! Search this place. Spare no effort! And if you fear you may have missed her, burn the building to the ground!"

Pathfinder fell back from the crack, shaking uncontrollably. She could still remember it all with a terrifying clarity - the sound as the knife slipped between his ribs, the spurt of blood as she pulled it free, the look on his face as his eyes went dead. It was an act of revenge, passing all logic. She hadn't anticipated the feeling of loathing once it was done, and she'd certainly never imagined consequences.

"Can we leave now?" said the traveler. "I'm not getting burned alive today."

Pathfinder snapped back to reality. "...Yeah. There's a path through the back." She grabbed her walking stick and slung Storyteller's bag over one shoulder. "Gather the rest of the supplies, I'll make sure that the way is clear."

Slipping away from the group, Pathfinder crept to the rear entrance and peered into the alley. It was empty, but there was no way to know how long that would last. She could already hear Conqueror's remnant fanning out - it was far more than six, that much was obvious. They weren't bothering to keep their presence a secret, possibly hoping that someone would panic and run for it. Even as shaken as she was, Pathfinder wasn't about to make that error. They would have to move from building to building, always keeping cover but never staying in the same spot for too long. She could see the way out, but it was a gamble even without the other men who were surely lurking just out of sight.

The rest of the group moved up behind Pathfinder. "Are we ready to move?" asked the scavenger.

"Yeah, just follow me exactly and try not to touch anything." Taking one last glance down the alley, Pathfinder bolted through the door, sliding along the wall heading left. Luck was with her - the disorganized remnant hadn't bothered to secure any escape routes, so it was a clear shot to the next building. She paused at the corner, peeking around down the next street. There was movement at the other end - friend or foe she couldn't tell, but with the rest of the group following close behind she hardly had time to figure it out.

The group passed smoothly to the first building, and then the second. Pathfinder didn't allow herself the luxury of relief - they still had a long way to go until they reached the edge of the Scrapland ruin, and there were plenty of ways that they could screw up and get caught. A single misstep or a soldier she hadn't seen could mean death.

"Hey, lookit this!"

It was the last thing Pathfinder wanted to hear. She turned to spot a raider, one hand clutching a large, dull knife, the other reaching for her. He wasn't even hiding - how had she missed this one? Shaking the assailant free, Pathfinder swung her walking stick wildly, catching the raider on his temple and knocking him prone. Already, she could see his friends streaming down the road.

"New plan," yelled Pathfinder. "Everyone split up and run. I'll try to ditch them."

Without waiting for a response, Pathfinder charged down the road. The raiders stared dumbly as she sprinted past them. There were a lot of them, but they had grown dependent on their mysterious leader to give them guidance - without him, they were barely organized enough to keep from killing each other. It was several seconds before they gave chase, scampering along the street like rabid dogs after a squirrel. The chase continued for blocks, Pathfinder leading the raiders on a frantic tour of the old city. Gradually, they fell back - some succumbing to exhaustion, others losing the trail and running down random streets. Finally, the edge of the ruin came into view - the end of the chase.

Pathfinder paused for one last look into the ruins. The raiders were all gone, but there was still movement. She could just spot the silhouettes of several men climbing to the top of one of the buildings. One of them stood up, his massive frame blocking the sun and casting a long shadow over the boulevard.

He turned his head, and for a moment his eyes locked on Pathfinder.

Pathfinder started running again. This time, she didn't stop.

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