Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The City of the Dead: Adyton

Jeremy picked his way down through a honeycomb of tunnels. The gold-streaked obsidian was not differentiable and he didn’t dare retreat, but he made certain he was descending, choosing left or right turns at random.

He came around a bend and stopped a few feet from the barrel of Walter’s pistol.

He slowly raised his palms. 

“Okay. You’ve got me dead to rights,” said Jeremy, almost relieved.

Walter thought for a moment.
“You’re not dead to rights. But someone else is. Jeremy… I can’t do this, man. I can’t see what I just saw. Wallace-Graham. We did it before we came after you. It was horrible.”

“Did you shoot her?”

“Yeah,” he breathed, “but I pulled away. She didn’t die. Tommy finished her.”

Walter lowered his gun.

“I had you in my sights in that shootout but I missed. On purpose.”

“Felt like I got pretty lucky. Now you’re gonna let me go?”


Jeremy looked at him for a moment and nodded. 

“Get yourself out of this. “

Walter nodded back.

Jeremy bit his lip.

“About Tommy. Put him down if you get the ch-“

“Don’t say that. There are still things we could do for this city.”

Jeremy closed his eyes, and then opened them.

“Just get out of it, man.”

Walter looked at him with emotion, but he didn’t say anything. Jeremy turned and descended the tunnel.

After a few more turns, he came into an open cavern that contained a graystone section of flooring and wall embedded into the obsidian, a shrine pushed far from the thoroughfare by the shifting of the rock.

It was lit by brilliant orbs on staff-heads encircled by something silicate. There were statues bowing in decay, shorn of the full splendor of their forms, and there were engraved sarcophagi upon which collapsed skeletons lay in raiments which had not lost their luster.

Old ash flecked the air, each inhale bringing hints of things killed by fire.

At the heart of the shrine stood what appeared to be a skeleton in a veil of wax, or so its smooth crown and sharp cheekbones indicated- nothing more was visible from within the waxen shroud.

It was arranging bones in the air around it, a deep constellation taking the outline of a thing that didn’t exist in this universe. It moved them without moving, and they hung where they were placed.

Ephemeral white lines were traced between the bones, curves like bloodless slits of skin that came and went as Jeremy skirted around the shrine. The lines were imperceptible from the side. They contained the way to something that was not yet ready to appear.

The thing in the shroud rotated towards Jeremy. He stumbled back, placing his hands on the wall. He tried to form words, but could not think of what to say.

“You’ve come further than most,” came a voice. It was Jeremy’s voice, and it spoke liplessly from behind the veil. The thing’s jaw was tucked so that Jeremy couldn’t be sure if it was moving.

The figure rose slowly into the air and its shroud flared at the bottom and began to rotated around the skull, lifting just a little, revealing nothing.

“You came from the sanctuary,” it said.

Jeremy fell to a seat against the wall.

“Do- do the ones- in the sanctuary know you’re here?”

“Yes. Out of sight, out of mind.”

“Can- can I… what do you want?”

“The same thing that you want. To compete my work.”

“Yes,” said Jeremy, nodding, “I just came- for something-“

“You came for something to steal.”

Jeremy was silent.

“There is nothing to steal. There is only an inheritance.”

Jeremy held his breath.

“Much has been carried off. Bones for treasure.”

Jeremy swallowed.

“There will be no such trade,” it said.

“What- what will the deal be?”

“There is no deal. There is only the fixation of something long stuck between worlds.”


“Something else. An interloper. A thief. It could not take what it would possess. It cannot relinquish its last chance. Your work here will end at the place where it abides.”

“Thank you. Do you want me to leave you alone?”

“I have little interest in the before time. What’s done is dead, what’s left is dying. I would show the ark of codes to the sunshine as a last look to a place of memories, but no substance.”

“A parting gift?”

“An obligation to a long deceased brother. That work is dead. It is no longer necessary. But still I will allow you to complete it. Or I will destroy this place and this city when I enact the rip. Perhaps that is your preference.”

“No, I… I don’t think that is necessary.”

“Necessary… it is desirable. Look above you.”

Jeremy saw the streets of Twinmartyrs. Black armored cars trailing red and black banners. Many men and a few women in black garb, red livery, carrying wood-furnitured rifles and stamped-metal submachine guns, cigarettes in their lips. Crates hauled by donkey cart, motorcars carrying loudspeakers.

“Your city… would you not deny it to your enemy?”

Jeremy was flushed.

“Not if it meant destroying it. There are good people up there. And people waiting to be good people.”

“It is not the den of sinners projected in the solar archives? Can you even argue such a thing?”

“Even so.”

“The ark of codes is the only repository of our ancient laws. The interloper’s fixation. You would bring them among men with only one law?”

“I suppose. If only to make them safe. Why hide them in the first place?”

“The laws are manna on a liar’s lips. They must be parsed only in times of wisdom.”

“This is no time of wisdom, so… why give me the choice?”

“What do you love, Bridgewell?” it said like it was toying with him.

“I love experience.”

“Does that makes you a suitable moral agent to safeguard our ancient laws?”

“It does.”


“Because the moral agent’s not here and he’s not coming. But I can do his work.”

“Very well. A pearl is better carried in the belly of a swine than underneath the earth.”

It waited a beat.

“Descend. There is a black pearl in a subterranean sea. That is where you will find your treasure.”

“Thank you,” said Jeremy, and edged along the wall to the far tunnel, in which there was a downward curve. The thing turned back to the suspended bones and the white lines between them.

Jeremy descended the tunnel, breathing hard through his mouth with eyes open wide.

After many minutes of shaky, uncertain work guided by his flashlight, Jeremy came to a confluence of tunnels, terminating in what looked like a displaced landing of white flagstones with a speckled line of red stone tiles, beyond which lay blue water against the gold-black wall.

As Jeremy prepared himself to enter the water, rapid footfalls announced the arrival of Walsh’s gang. 

“He’s going for the sump!” yelled Tom Walsh, “Alan, Joe, I can’t swim, you got him?”
“We’ve got him!”

Jeremy sprinted for the water, praying to the Burning Eye there would be something on the other side.

Walter ran up behind the gang and Tom Walsh grabbed his jacket as he ran by.

“Walter, you stay with me!”

Jeremy dove into the water, which was cold but far from unbearable. He opened his eyes and found that the tunnel simply continued underwater, and that it opened up into an inky blackness a few yards in front of him. He kicked off his shoes, dumped out his duffle bag, abandoned his pistol and took his bootknife in hand, then swam forward. He felt Alan and Joe jump into the water behind him.

He swam out into the open.

It was a subterranean sea-gorge. The expanse before Jeremy shivered with rivulets of light from lunar crystal in the vault of the abyss, and vast walls of stone were apparent in the left and right distance. Below, there was a deeper dark unreached by the bonelike ripples of light that caught on currents here and there, but there was a great dark form illuminated ahead. It was an unmoored, spherical berg of jet black ice. Jeremy swam towards it and saw that there was a cavity, barely perceptible but for the breaking of a stream of light on its surface. The water grew colder and colder as he approached.

He entered the narrow tunnel and put his feet on the slope, breaking the surface of the water. He lurched forward, breathing the freezing air. His feet burned with the cold. The glassy ripples of the black ice walls offered no relief, just a neat rectangular corridor leading into the darkness. Jeremy clicked on his flashlight and saw a pedestal in the center of a four-way meeting of corridors ahead, when Joe and Alan began splashing up from the water behind him.

“Burning Eye! That nearly killed us!” Alan breathed, crystalline steam billowing from his lips.
Jeremy shone his flashlight at them and they winced. They quickly extended their switchblades, and then froze as Jeremy waved his bootknife in the flashlight beam.
“You really wanna have a knife fight right now, or should we find out what the fuck this place is?”
They raised their knives but didn’t advance.
“Ok, you go first,” said Alan. 

Jeremy backed away from them and turned, advancing towards the pedestal, listening for their footsteps. 

The pedestal was a simple four-legged platform of black ice, but there was a small wooden structure on top of it. 

Jeremy approached it, shone his flashlight up the other three corridors, put the pedestal between him and the daggermen, then examined the device.

It was a bundle of a hundred glossy wooden rods set onto a round wooden base. Each rod carried parchment that terminated in a central anchor. Jeremy drew out a rod and the parchment slid through the interposing forest to be revealed.

Inky symbols began to flit across the parchment, and concurrently ember sigils traced themselves in the air above the device. He let the rod return to its position and stepped back in wonder as the aerial sigils died away. Alan and Joe approached the device. Alan gazed down at it in wonder, and Joe walked up one of the other corridors.

Jeremy shone his flashlight after Joe.

Something was standing in front of him in the darkness.

It was like an incomplete pillar of static electricity, portions missing here and there, with patches of pure blackness.

It began to move towards them.

As it came, the contours of the walls, of all matter around it smudged, smeared and enlongated as if reality was fresh paint and the thing was dragging a hand across it. Joe fell on his rear, frozen, and his legs shook as he tried to move them. His face was a mask of uncomprehending horror, grief at the destruction of his reality’s schema.

“Joe, get up!” cried Alan.

Alan rushed towards Joe then stopped. He hurled his switchblade at the thing, but there was no apparent impact on the pillar or anything else in the corridor. 

Jeremy opened his canvas sack with shaking hands and knees, pulled the wooden contraption into it, then fastened the sack, barely able to work the connectors. He bolted for the way he’d come and then froze, staring, as the thing moved through Joe. His body was distorted around the pillar like an ovular bubble, nothing missing but everything in wrong proportion and fused together, nothing functional.

Jeremy sprinted up the corridor. Alan screamed, turned and ran after Jeremy.

Jeremy looked over his shoulder.

As Alan ran, his body smeared and lagged behind him, his skull growing long and his hair thinning across it, his limbs extending until they were noodly and disjointed and his lope was no longer tenable, and then he flopped out, the sound of his enlongated body terribly real against the silent ice. The thing approached behind him. Alan opened his mouth and eyes to scream and his mouth grew wider and wider as he did, his scream got more and more sonorous and inhuman, and his eyes swelled into milky orbs that suddenly blossomed with ill-proportioned, membranous pupils. Jeremy took a plaintive gasp and dove into the water with all the might that desperation could bring him. 

He swam with hot delirium to the porous obsidian face that the shrine-city had been crushed and sheared through. He retrieved his spare boots, but was clearheaded enough to pull himself back out and enter another tunnel, lest he be ambushed on his emergence. There was nothing but the silent dark when he came through the water at a set of luxuriant alabaster steps that had once perhaps been used for baptisms, but it was a dredged place sopping with subterranean seaweed that was pale and translucent, almost luminescent.

Soaked and freezing, he dragged himself from the water and began his ascent. After inestimable minutes of climbing, Jeremy came across Walter. He’d been shot in the back of the head and left where he lay. A note was crumpled up on the ground by his body. It was Tom Walsh’s hit list. 
One final entry had been added at the bottom. This one had been written in blood. Traitors.

Jeremy hobbled into the stone thoroughfare and was marked again by crystalline scrollwork as he made for the spiral staircase into the House of Petition. 

He reached the chapel hall. Tom Walsh was sitting in a pew, leaning forward as if in prayer. Jeremy stood, holding the bannister, staring at him.
Tom looked up.
“I take it my men aren’t coming back from the underworld?”
Jeremy didn’t respond.
“What? No witty remark?”
Jeremy remained silent, but began walking slowly towards Tom. Then, he noticed two dark figures near the bulding’s front doors. A pair of Anarcho-Syndicalist fighters with bolt action rifles stood gazing at the 2-ton truck.
They looked over at Jeremy and Tom.

“Hey, you two, get out. Church’s closed.”

Tom stepped into the aisle and lifted a hand towards the door. 

“Shall we?”

“We could take them out and settle this.”

“No, no sense in winning the battle and losing the war. The street’s crawling with them.”

Tom began walking towards the doors and Jeremy followed him not far behind.

“You don’t seem so torn up about any of this.”

“The path’s clear. What more can you ask for in life?”

“A functioning city-state?”

They walked through the doors and into the street.

Jeremy looked up into the sky. The leaves were a tan yellow beyond the shadowed branches, and the sun streamed through myriad layers of clouds like snow on a shaggy dog. It was good medicine for the cold and wet.

Black armored cars trundled by, men eyeing the pair from the machine gun slits. A rifleman in a bandolier stood on a roof, his boot on the chimney. Jeremy cast his gaze across the downtown skyline and saw a red and black flag streaming over the statehouse.

They walked up the cobblestone lane. There seemed to be militiamen on each street they crossed. The remaining citizens of Twinmartyrs watched them like disembodied eyes from windowblinds and fences.

“You overheard our conversation,” said Jeremy.

“I did. No room for cold feet in my organization.”

“What organization?” Jeremy sneered.

“The one that’s gonna grow and grow. Plenty of idle hands to put to work around here.”

A pair of slat shutters sprang open from over a nearby window and a flurry of submachine gun rounds thundered across the street. A line of pulverized rock leapt between several militiamen like a cutting charge and they collapsed, one screaming, one silent. Jeremy jumped in shock and glanced up at the window, then at Tom, who was sprinting through the gate of a garden wall.

“See?” yelled Tom.

Jeremy saw a group of Anarcho-Syndicalist militiamen up the street slapping an armored car to get it to stop, and then a pair of them knelt and opened fire on the window with their rifles while another rushed the building and prepared to put a hand grenade through the window.

Jeremy dashed into the garden and Tom leapt out from behind the wall, trying to stab him in the chest. Jeremy threw out his forearm and jarred the thrust to a halt. Tom grabbed him by the collar and put a foot behind Jeremy’s legs, trying to push him over backwards, but Jeremy twisted deftly, catching hold of Tom’s knife-hand wrist, stepped across his extended leg and threw him onto his side in the grass. Jeremy retrieved his bootknife and dropped his duffle bag as Tom scooted away from him towards a little well, knife raised like an ice pick. He stood up. 

There was a barrage of gunfire and then a low blast from the building behind Jeremy.

“Mmm, never be first through the door,” said Tom, shaking his head, “I’ve decided to let the An-Syns get nice and relaxed before I start trying to bump em off.”

Jeremy rushed at him, taking swipes and stabs with his knife, and Tom backed away, trying to stab Jeremy’s hand and wrist with every attack. The duel gradually became a hesitating game of cat and mouse.

“Why not join em then, Tom? Go undercover. Hell, you’d like it!” said Jeremy, his face a vicious mask.

“Good idea! Then I can get rid of anybody I don’t like with their channels! Just say they’re not Syndie enough and get ‘em killed!”

Jeremy started making wide, aggressive swipes at Tom’s eyes, and Tom raked a downward slash across Jeremy’s arm accompanied by a chilling loosening of skin. Jeremy brought his arm in low across his midsection and Tom darted a stab in at him, but Jeremy twisted and stumbled a retreat. 

Jeremy switched his knife to his other hand and shook out his arm, blood running from his cuff.

“But why start with the big dogs, eh? Lot of trash to clean out in this goddamned town. Lot of malingerers, lotta useless people,” said Tom.

Jeremy began circling him, shifting his weight to his forefeet.

“Yeah, I think I will join the An-Syns! I can make the bigwigs fry whenever I want. Why not start right here at home? Lot of pillars of this community I could warm up on!”

Jeremy let his face become a murderous rictus and launched a wide swipe at Tom’s eyes, just as he’d done before. With a dark grin, Tom launched a stab to impale the well-telegraphed attack. Instantly, Jeremy lowered his knife, darted back a step and sent an upwards kick into the handle of Tom’s switchblade, which went flying out of his hand and landed somewhere in the garden.

Jeremy lunged in and planted a stab clear through Tom’s windpipe and jugular. The weapon slipped free of the gushing wound. Tom staggered backwards, face aghast, as blood leapt from his neck in time with his heartbeat and cascaded down his chest.

“Warm up on that,” Jeremy spat.

Tom put a single hand to his wound and crooked his head slightly as if to not worsen the cut, holding himself tense. Then, eyes cottoning over, he took a single unsteady step forward and pitched sideways in the bloody grass. 

Jeremy gazed at him, pressing his sliced arm to his body as the wind rustled the garden.

He heard bolts racking from the garden gate. He looked over at the pair of Anarcho-Syndicalist militiamen and dropped his knife.

“What the fuck happened here?”

Jeremy just held his wound and shrugged.

A older man come to the garden doorway from where he’d been investigating the building and stood between the militiamen. He pushed his glasses up his nose and gazed at Jeremy. The militiamen looked down at the bookish, balding man. He was one of the theorists whom Jeremy had rescued.

“This man is a Union operative. What’s happened?”

“This was one of the assailants. A known assassin, ask anyone.”

“Good work, Mr Gardner!”

“Who are you?” asked one of the militiamen.

“Professor Oswald Greene! I wrote your induction primer, and I’m a man in very good standing, if you know what I mean!”

“Okay, I was just wondering,” said the militiamen and gave his companion an annoyed look.

Oswald approached Jeremy.

“You’ve been cut.”
Jeremy sighed.
“I’ll deal with it. “
“It needs treatment… if you’re to travel.”
“Yeah. Just need to find a sewing kit and some vodka.”
“Men! Bring a medical bag.”

Oswald leaned in. 

“I don’t have long before my enemies reacquire me. I need to get out of this place, and so should you. Where will you go?”

“I might stop at Vineforest to get provisioned, but I’m not sticking around there. I’m going east. I’ve gotten something out of all this, and I’m gonna make sure it doesn’t go to waste. I’m gonna make sure people know. That they can learn from what I’ve found.”

Jeremy shouldered his duffle bag.

“I suggest you do likewise.”

Jeremy sat outdoors with a group of professors and other researchers at the Thrice Confit, a bistro in Ascension. A waitress set down his roast and gave him a sly once-over. He smiled and turned his attention to the mutton, knocking garnishes aside with his knife. He took a bite and sat back with his eyes closed, just chewing.

“Did you have far to travel?” asked a librarian who’d missed the pilot session examining the ark of codes at the University of Ascension.
“Long way.”
A waiter set a vodka buck before Jeremy.
“Two of those please.”
“Mr Bridgewell,” asked a professor, “if you don’t mind me asking, what was it like spiriting the ark of the codes out of Twinmartyrs at that dark hour?”
Jeremy wiped his mouth with a napkin.
“The first thing is that you meet all kinds of interesting people. You get to know them. Then you go your separate ways. What sticks with you is how they lived their lives. What choices they made at zero hour.” 
“Hmm. Do you have any insights about that?”
Jeremy was silent for a moment.
“I can tell you some things that happened. Any insights would be unique to you.”

Monday, October 24, 2022

The City of the Dead: Katabasis

Jeremy pushed into the cave and stumbled over the uneven stone floor. He clicked on his flashlight and shook dustbeams into the stony air. He froze as he noticed a glint that he thought had been teased out by his flashlight. He clicked it off, but the glint remained. A pearlescent light was shining in the floor of the cave ahead.

He came near the thing, a fluorescent square whose brilliance consumed any relief cast onto the surrounding stones.

It was water, lit from within like something celestial. He leaned over it.

It was a chamber of smoky white marble. Hundreds of human bones floated inside. Ribs, skulls, pelvises. It was the bones that glowed.

Jeremy staggered back from the chamber, now a blue and bone-white horror like a freakish chemical in the bath of a chlorine witch.

He sat and stared at the glow for a moment, then gathered himself and went to kneel over the water. A skull pointed right back at him, its jaw still attached. He almost fell forward but instead turned and went to his knees, overcome with numinous horror.

He knew would rather wander starved and freezing among hound-tipped patrols of syndicalist torturers than submit himself to this lethal chamber.

He stood up slowly and began walking back towards the cave entrance on shaky legs.

He sighed as the memory was dampened by cool, dark air.

You goddamned fucking pussy,” he told himself, “That was your meal ticket.”
That’s what the guys in the water thought,” said another part of him.
Would Azasham of Altenado have gotten cold feet at some skeletons?
Azasham would have found a way around.”

Jeremy stopped near the mouth of the cave. He could hear the erstwhile Anarcho-Syndicalist theorists talking outside.

He saw in the firelight and the sound of the burning wood a schoolteacher screaming, shot, stabbed, and set on fire; the last moments of life, consumed by sadism.

He shook his head in wonder at himself. Perhaps it wasn’t too late. He had no idea where Minerva Wallace-Graham lived, and there was no shortage of names on the death note that Tom Walsh had shown him, but he had a feeling she was who they’d target tonight given the conversation.

He went out by the unmarked black truck, opened the door and pushed his rifle under the seat. The theorists eyed him uncertainly.

“Get in the truck, you fucking douchebags, I’ll drive you to Twinmartyrs. Throw the guns in the pit, if we go in there looking like a war party we’re gonna have to act like one.”

They trundled over roots and mounds. The men in the truck bed shivered at the wind running through the canvas covering. Dawn wasn’t far away and it was the coldest time of night.

Jeremy took them up to the abandoned gate and killed the engine.

“Hop out, you’re gonna look like fucking stormtroopers if you dismount in the street.”

They clambered out of the truck bed and one came to the window.

“Just wait a few minutes and go on in.”

He roared the engine back to life, drowning out any response, and traversed the tunnel of the wall.

Jeremy drove the abandoned streets for upwards of an hour. He was combing the residential lanes around the House of Petition, an existentialist charter school which had formerly been a seminary, when ash began falling into the street and onto the windshield of the truck.

Jeremy put his hand out of the window and let a flake of ash touch down on his palm. He rubbed it in his fingers and found the gritty smear was warm. There was an active fire nearby.

He pulled around the corner and onto a residential street where the motorcars were limned with an amber glow. The fire came into sight like the lamp of a train emerging from the snowstained darkness, methodical industrial will o’ the wisp

A carpet of flame ate the ceiling and spit matter-thick smoke almost invisibly into the night, clouding out the liminal stars as they retreated into the coming dawn. The frame blazed skeletonized like a solar ghost. Any life within would have been carbonized in the radiance. There was a cat mummified in its of fur in the window, which itself drooped down like a bubble within the fingers.

Jeremy pulled up outside and then immediately rolled up the window of the truck, oppressed by the heat even that distance off the curb.

He almost didn’t notice a pair of lights appear in the rear view mirror. But he did. He floored the pedal and the truck lurched forward all too slowly. A car followed close behind, prevented from coming around the driver’s side by the motorcars lining the street, but Jeremy could make out multiple forms inside the cab. 

He turned into an alleyway, trying to keep to narrow streets. The car followed him into it. No coincidence, then. He drew out the silver pistol, holding the wheel in his knees, and chambered a round. He turned the truck out onto the next street. The car came out behind him. This was when they opened fire.

Cracks like explosions in stone. Immediate thwacks as bullets hit the steel back of the cab. Some made dents, some penetrated, shattering portions of Jeremy’s windshield. He gripped the steering wheel like a cliff of heaven and forced his foot into the pedal, keeping his eyes level with the dash. It occurred to him from the intermittent penetrations that the bullets must be subsonic, hollow-point, and that that might be his last thought.

There was another round of gunshots and the truck lurched to the side, dropping Jeremy several inches and causing him to sideswipe a parked motorcar with a tremendous lurch and screaming of metal. They’d shot out both his left tires. Jeremy got a good grip on his pistol and prepared himself to use it, trying to get a grip on his breathing. The truck careened out into the next street and almost immediately went up over the far curb and through a wooden fence with a splintering crack. Jeremy barely had time for his eyes to go wide before the truck went straight into a stone wall. He grit his teeth and tried to roll forward when the crash came and the whole truck seemed to jump beneath him. Stone dust and blocks came through the truck’s windshield and Jeremy bashed his ear across the  steering wheel as he fell forward towards the pedals.

The truck had carried through the wall and stopped. Clearly the engine was damaged because smoke was joining the dust which swirled throughout the cab. 

Jeremy fumbled for the door latch and opened it, falling from the cab amongst shards of glass, hitting the step and then the rubble-strewn floorboards below.

The building was dark and he saw the remnants of stars and the roofs of homes outside. Then the motorcar that had come behind him jumped the curb, pulled up, and stopped, blinding Jeremy with its headlights. Car doors popped open.

Jeremy raised his pistol in both hands and started firing. He could feel the gunshots echo in his chest and the roundels of fire burned an aurora across his eyes. A flurry of shots erupted from low around the motorcar and shell casings and smoke flitted through the air near the headlights.

Jeremy was instantly kicking his way back under the truck door and its molten tire, through the rubble, through the dust and the mortar. Bullets were hitting the truck and blasting woodchips from the floor around the tire, which he’d pulled his legs behind. Without widening his profile, Jeremy flipped over and erupted from the prone in a sprint towards the center of the building. 

It was a vast room. Pews were scattered over black and white tiles. Gray maiden stood in crimson mantles, statues humming with the full color of silk. A candelabra with flickering flames hung beneath the creamy panes of a stained glass skylight.

It was the House of Petition, Minerva Wallace-Graham’s school. 

A twisting staircase with an oaken banister ran up the steeple and descended into a lower level. Jeremy sprinted to its wrought-iron railing and glanced over it for the spell of a heartbeat. The staircase fell into a feathery cobweb of shadow broken by shards of light from a hidden portal.

Jeremy surmounted the railing, twisted and fell to the story below, slapping the stone floor to dull his landing as the pain of the impact stabbed through his hard-soled shoes. He looked for the source of the light and saw that the terminus of the spiral staircase was greeted by a semicircular wooden door with an ornate lattice of black metal at head height, and this was the source of the light. Jeremy grabbed the door’s cast iron knocker, twisted it and yanked it door open as footfalls clattered in the sanctuary above. He rushed through the door, glancing down, and saw no means of blocking it. He gazed up into the chamber which he had entered.

It was a rectangular hall walled with hundreds of marble cloisters laden with candles and glossy stones. There were hearths and smooth but dusty benches along the length of the hall, and stone curtains cut with ancient mastery hung like banners waiting for a cause from the ceiling’s corners. 

There were three doorways in the hall, of which one was at the end and two were on the left and right. Each doorway was walled up with a cracked barrier of old brick and recent mortar.

Footfalls shook the spiral staircase.

Jeremy sprinted up the center of the hall. Hundreds of inscriptions appeared upon the stone that he’d traversed, all lit up with water as pure and striated as close-cut sapphire.

Jeremy turned, gaping at this for just a moment, then hurled himself into the brick wall of the lefthand barrier. It broke and collapsed under his shoulder, a plane of contiguous bricks carrying him over the breach like an acrid toboggan. Jeremy looked up.

He was in a chthonic tunnel whose walls were obsidian currents embossed with gold.

Jeremy scrambled to his feet in the glittering dark, deliriously ignoring the pain of broken brick on his hands and knees, and paused for a split second as his pursuers entered the hall. There came a long whistle.

“Holy everloving mother of motherfucking dogshit,” said Tom Walsh.

Jeremy sprinted into the depths of the tunnel, gun empty in his hand.

To be continued

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The City of the Dead: Burying the Past

Jeremy looked up and down the street from the doorway of his apartment building for a long time. Then he set out for the northern gate.

Silver moonlight spilled across the center of the lane like a snowcap. Whitewash loomed gray on the buildings’ faces, and people drifted silently for the gates laden with bags like spectral stevedores. Jeremy arrived at the northern gate and saw that the great portcullis was unguarded, that the sandbag positions lay empty. He walked through the passage beneath the wall, a good 20’ thick, and set off into the hills.

Jeremy knew of a cave which was a destination for those hunting the relics of Twinmartyrs’ history, given that the old shrines were large enough to run beneath the city’s adjoining hills. The stars were a vast audience to the carpet of dark in the trees and hillsides. Jeremy was guided from a great distance by a pinprick of light at the place where he knew the cave to be, frowning at the thought that others had had his idea. By the Burning Eye, he thought, perhaps they’d cooperate and delve down with him. By the Burning Eye, he hoped that their desperation had not made them into predators.

Slithering through the dirt of a leafstrewn hillside, he found something else entirely. A fire was crackling on an outcropping by the mouth of the cave, but those tending it were not argonauts from Twinmartyrs. They were men in black leather coats, black boiler suits, black sweaters, or black undershirts. They had blood red cravats, red badges on berets, an assortment of red bands here and their across their bodies. They were an Anarcho-Syndicalist vanguard.

Jeremy saw shovels rising and falling from the earth of the outcropping, dumping soil into subtle piles by the edge of a pit he couldn’t see down into. Periodically men stood up within, wiping their brows and gasping steam into the air. They were pale in the firelight, thin, and wore weatherbeaten blazers, collared shirts with buttons yanked out from being dragged by the collar, dirty spectacles. These were no militiamen, they seemed to be clerks or researchers. Jeremy pressed his face into the cool soil, deploring his luck, and then began circumnavigating the outcropping on his belly.

“Keep it up, gentlemen, it’s about time you did some real work…”

An officer stood above the diggers and was speaking in a bored drawl. He had on black slacks, a black longsleeve shirt, a red bandana around tied his neck, and he had a leather holster suspended from a long cord. A silverized, pearl-handled pistol was in the holster. A guard in a black leather overcoat stood near the officer with a heavy rifle in his hand, the butt resting in his belt.

One of the diggers, a balding, older gentleman, stood up and spoke with steaming breath.

“We laid the groundwork for this entire movement!”

“And for that, we thank you. We succeeded pretty handily out here in the Gorge…”

The officer was smiling. Jeremy glanced across the faces of the other militiamen and watched their movements. They were all drunk except for the leader. Only the guard carried a rifle; the others had teepeed their weapons near a 5-ton truck which was lurking in the shadows. The fighters hadn’t left a weapons guard. Jeremy shook his head in wonder and began slithering towards the rifles.

“The movement never would have succeeded without our scholarship! Without our justification! We made it legitimate!”

“Yeah, but people like you tend to be troublesome once things have settled down, and who likes you anyway? You’re not workers, you’re not fighters, you’re not foremen, nor are you engineers. You can barely dig your own graves. Are any of you married?”

Two of them stopped and raised their hands earnestly.

“Your wives are gonna thank us for this, trust me.”

One of the theorists gazed up at the officer. A drunk militiamen leaned forward from where he sat on a milk crate.

“Keep digging or I’ll pull your head off, pencilneck!”

He kept digging. The officer lit up a cigarette.

“You’re bourgeois anyway, and all your fucking theorizing is only gonna muck up the movement. Splitting hairs creates all kinds of factionalism, and for example, who wants to liquidate the Anarchists this close to v-day?”

Jeremy had reached the edge of the outcropping and began pushing himself towards the rifles, laying utterly flat against the ground. His cheek was on the earth, his arms were flat against it, and his groin was pressed against the dirt. He paused between every rotation of his arms and legs, his sleeves filling up with dirt.

The cave gaped darkly in the firelight. Jeremy could smell the liquor the militiamen were drinking and saw their bottles as he moved. There was priceless brandy from the cabinets of statehouses next to everyday liquor taken from the racks of neighborhood grocery stores. 

“For ten years, we’ve never been anything but loyal!” cried one of the diggers. He was choking up and tears gleamed on his eyes in the firelight.

“Guess you should have gone Illegalist when the denunciations started. Though that would have meant having some balls.”

Jeremy reached the rifles. He grasped the base of a structurally superfluous weapon and tipped it back slowly, slowly, so that the barrel rested on his shoulder and the buttstock was in his fingertips. Then he began sliding towards the bottom of the two-ton truck.

“How could you betray us?” cried another intellectual.

“It’s really satisfying, actually. Okay, that’s deep enough. Shovels up!”

They cast the shovels up miserably. The drunks came to the edge of the pit and picked them up, wobbling and smiling, or gazing down with taut faces, trying to pin something on the men below besides weakness.

Jeremy had reached the far side of the truck and rose into a crouch, turning and dropping the rifle’s five-round box magazine into his palm, checking the chamber. There was a round ready and the bolt was forward. It would fire with the trigger or a good jolt. Jeremy raised his eyebrows at the incaution of the militiamen and reseated the magazine, creeping up behind a tree overlooking the outcropping.

The militiamen were framed in the firelight, standing in a semicircle around the pit with spades in hand. The theorists looked up at them like terracotta soldiers. The officer flicked his cigarette butt into the pit.

“Fill ‘er up!”

The men began shoveling loose dirt over the theorists.

“Please, no, no!” cried one as soil spilled over his balding head and underneath his glasses.

The officer raised a hand and gave them a wave with his fingers.


Jeremy lay flat, exhaling, the sight of the weapon covering everything on the officer’s body except his head, which was perched along the front sight post like something on a platter.

His squeeze was so gradual that the gunshot’s explosion shocked him a little, as intended. 

The militiamen jumped. Brain fibers whirled in the smoke of the campfire, and the officer lay with his shattered head pouring dark blood into the soil around his shoulders. The rifle-armed guard lowered it at the pit and whipped his head around, mouth agape. He looked down at the half-buried men as if one of them had shot his commander.

Jeremy cycled the bolt with a deft movement. He slipped his finger back into the trigger guard and made the slightest adjustment with his shoulders. He let a breath out from his pursed lips. He sent the next bullet through the armed guard’s chest cavity, and he fell straight to his knees and then straight onto his back with a single motion. His weapon clacked across his thigh.

One of the militiamen bolted for the rifles, but tripped and fell, sliding into the weapons headfirst, collapsing them in a clatter.

Jeremy shifted his torso with a slight stretch, laid his sight at the base of the man’s armpit and fired. The man tried to scream but had no wind remaining in his lungs, or no conduit left for its transport, and lay still. The other two men bolted. One rushed into the cave. The other tumbled down the outcropping, then lay flat as if he would be invisible in his moonlit leather jacket. Jeremy placed his front sight post over the man’s flat cap and blew it off him in a hail of skull fragments.

The theorists were on their knees in the pit, holding each other. None of the shot men moved. Jeremy settled into a comfortable position with his sight picture encompassing the mouth of the cave. He didn’t wait long before the last militiamen crept forward on his hands and knees, peering from the shadows, marked out in the flickering firelight.

“Absolute fucking amateurs,” said Jeremy and shot the man in the head. He fell forward, head collapsing into itself. His throat came to rest in the dirt and his rear end protruded in the air.

Jeremy’s ears were ringing. He stood up, taking the rifle’s warm barrel in his hand, and descended the slope of the hill. He stepped up to the outcropping’s edge.

The four theorists gazed at him from the pit, mouths open wide, dirt speckling their mustaches and dusting their eyeglasses.

Jeremy took the officer’s pearl-handled pistol, grimacing at the shattered skull. He gazed at the weapon in the firelight, murmuring “Pigeon,” and tucked it into his wasteband. He cut a lanyard away from the officer’s neck and took the 5-ton truck key from the end of it.

“Thank you,” a theorist breathed.

Jeremy went to the rifles and began removing their bolts, dropping them one by one into his duffle bag.

“We could put those weapons into use,” said one of the men.

“I don’t think so. It’s gonna take you decades to get the message of what happened here.” He threw the disarmed rifles to the edge of the pit. “But these might scare someone off if they come after you.”
He looked the men up and down.
“Probably not though.”

They staggered out of the pit, so shaky they could barely walk. Two had pissed themselves and someone had shit based on the smell, though it could have come from a corpse.

“How many bivouacs are there?” Jeremy asked, loading a scavenged box magazine into his rifle. The men looked at him blankly.

“How many groups?”

“We came with a very long column of trucks and armored cars. The guerillas have all gone up into the hills, the vehicles are down along the road to Blackbeetle. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Maybe the dawn. We were the only ones who came this way.”

Jeremy nodded and walked toward the cave entrance, tucking a pilfered flashlight into his belt next to the silver pistol. 

“What do we do?” asked one of the men, clutching a heavy rifle in brittle fingers.

“Evidently not what you’ve been doing. All I can tell you is you better not follow me into this cave. You can go down to Twinmartyrs if you want, but if I come back and find out you’re lording it over people I’ll send a death squad to work you over with some pliers. They’re legendary for that.”

The men gaped at him.

Jeremy walked into the cave.

To be continued

Saturday, October 22, 2022

The City of the Dead

Jeremy Bridgewell sat in a cafe and looked out into the cold light on the streets of Twinmartyrs. The shadows were still, the wind held itself like bated breath. A man in an overcoat looked up the street in a daze as if assessing something which he stood to lose.

The cafe’s clerk sat on the wooden bar. A few other people sat in the booths, silent. Service had been slow; the attendant wasn’t bringing anyone their coffee. Things had come to a halt. No one spoke.

A man had just finished reading aloud the morning paper. Blackbeetle, the second-to-last city in Tourmaline Gorge that was still fighting against the Anarcho-Syndicalist revolution, had fallen in a night assault. Unlike the first cities which had surrendered, it had been a bloodbath.

Now, of the Free Cities of Tourmaline Gorge, only Twinmartyrs had yet to be overtaken.

The Twinmartyrs government received the news of Blackbeetle’s fall earlier than their constituents.

A nine-winged noviplane carrying a number of Twinmartyrs government officials and society people had flown into the city of Vineforest, pleading asylum.

Vineforest was a neighbor of the Free Cities of Tourmaline Gorge, but it was not their friend.

Such was the enmity of the Duke of Vineforest that he had the Twinmartyr migrants stripped of their heirlooms and handed over to Anarcho-Syndicalist emissaries. As of the morning edition, the fate of the noviplane’s passengers was unknown, though it was predictable to those who had listened.

Jeremy gave the clerk a little smile.

“Well, you still taking currency? Or should I start paying you wheat rations?”

“Nah, coffee’s bourgeois, I quit.”

The door opened and a group of four men entered. They looked around, nodding grimly to the patrons, and then came over to Jeremy. They bundled themselves into his booth, sitting down across from him.

The toughest and most decisive of them was named Tom Walsh. He had livid blue eyes and black stubble. The others were more nondescript, like shifting shadows in street clothes. They were Joe, Alan, and Walter.

Tom leaned in.

“So, looks like things are settled.”

Jeremy had met these men at a discussion group. He’d attended several different meetings over the last few months. Many had been at midnight, because in Twinmartyrs any criticism of certain government officials could lead to being murdered if one didn’t already have them on the payroll.

Most of the groups had been trying to figure out what to do in light of the Anarcho-Syndicalist victories. What to make of the future. Tom Walsh’s discussion group was about recrimination. Who was to blame. Jeremy had gone twice and stopped. These men had some ideas that seemed reasonable, but the way they talked about upholding their principles seemed to negate the principles to begin with. They seemed eager for a time when the law would collapse so they could bring justice to those who they thought were to blame for the collapse of the law. They were not interested in making specific plans beyond that point. 

Twinmartyrs had been a rotten apple for a generation, and Jeremy didn’t see it as a hill worth dying on.

“You guys read the papers, then,” he said.

“Yeah, Jer. It’s on. The An-Syns are gonna be here in a couple days, tops. They’re not gonna have to do a lot of mopping up in Blackbeetle.”

“So, what are you gonna do now? Get out?”

“Nah. We’re gonna make the motherfuckers who are responsible for this pay.”

Jeremy took a deep breath.

“You saw it in the papers,” he said, “A bunch of government officials and other Twinmartyr oligarchs got rolled up when they landed in Vineforest. I’d say anyone who’s really responsible is gonna be fucked one way or another.” 

“Pfft. Those guys aren’t the problem. Most of the cities in this valley were fine until people started cooperating with the An-Syns. A little promotion here, a little permission there, and suddenly the cancer grows. Suddenly people turn against the good thing we had and now look, four cities have gone down into darkness over the last six months. This place is next. And why? The government here was fine. But people still spread Syndicalism. Promoted Syndicalism. Abetted Syndicalism. And now everything that we ever hoped for is… impossible. All because people couldn’t leave well enough alone. Well, we’re gonna make em pay. Tonight. Tomorrow night. Then when the An-Syns come to town, we’ll have something for them, too.”

“Do you think going around killing people is gonna make any difference? Most of the army’s already laid down arms. I think the issue’s decided.”

“Yeah, they were throwing their fucking uniforms in the river when we were coming over here. We’re hoping you’re not that much of a coward.”

“You want me to help you.”

“You were an Air Grenadier. You know about war, and we’re going to war. You laid down your life for this city once, and we’re about to follow in your footsteps. I know you believe the same things we believe, that this system and this city is worth fighting for. That it’s worth dying for. So help us.” 

“Urban warfare’s not my specialty. Who are you planning on going after?”

Tom Walsh looked at the others, then took a paper from his coat and slid it facedown across the table.

Jeremy sighed, lifting it by a corner, and began scanning the names.

“Hm. Minerva Wallace-Graham. I know her. She’s a schoolteacher.”

“Is she? She’s been teaching Syndicalism to children for a decade. I’d say that makes her a Syndicalist operative, wouldn’t you?”

“So you’re gonna kill her?”

“Yeah. We’re gonna kill her.”

“And then what? Five of us against an army that brought down five cities?”

“Oh, there’ll be more than just us. But we’ll wage war from the shadows. Use their own tactics against them. Most An-Syns cells started out as little urban guerrilla bands, and I’d say that worked out pretty well for em.”

“It worked out well against these five governments, which were damned corrupt to begin with. There weren’t a lot of people who were willing to die for them, and the Syndicalists will do things to root out insurgents that the city governments wouldn’t dream of. They don’t care if they destroy the economies or the infrastructure of these cities. They have nothing to lose except their ideology, and you threaten that to the core. You threaten it more than anything they could do by wrecking the city.”

“Then let them wreck it. Show the world.”

“They’re gonna do that anyways. Tom, you can’t stop them.”

“Fuck it then. This city’s fucked. We‘ve got a few days before it all goes to hell. Don’t you want revenge?”

“The best revenge would be carrying the torch somewhere the Syndicalists can’t reach you. There’re a lot of democracies to the east, most of which aren’t as fucked up as Tourmaline Gorge is. You could spread awareness out there.”

“Democracy. Democracy isn’t the same thing as nationhood. Democracy will always lead to this once people forget what it takes to uphold it.”

“Democracy didn’t lead to this, the corruption of these cities did. That goes for their governments and for their people. Graft, patronage, that’s how you got ahead around here. No wonder people didn’t want to fight for these cities. No wonder some people bought into Syndicalism.”

“No wonder,” sneered Tom Walsh, “How understandable. That’s what you get for not having a backbone. Everyone’s gonna suffer when the An-Syns get here, but we’re gonna start a little early with some people who greased the skids.” He stabbed his finger at Jeremy. “You’re gonna help us.”

Jeremy sat back and raised his eyebrows.

“And if I don’t?”

“Then we’ll fuck you up until you reconsider.”

Jeremy slid sideways out of the booth and stood up. The others got up out of their side of the booth. People were staring at them from around the cafe.

Tom Walsh smiled.


Jeremy threw a right cross into Walsh’s eye. People jumped at the impact. Walsh fell sidelong. The other three men came at Jeremy swinging, jumping, kicking all at once. Jeremy slid back with his fists raised, knocking wooden chairs out of his way as people leaned over their tables, wood scraping across the concrete floor, china clattering. Jeremy let blows rain across his arms, loosening his stance whenever hits came in, moving along with them. He let one hand fall to his waist and leaned back as Joe threw a punch, then he whipped in with his fist flying and knocked Joe straight in the jaw. Joe twisted as he fell, hitting his head on the corner of an occupied table. The smack caused several patrons to yell. Alan and Walter held back for a moment, each with a hand on the other, grimacing. Tom Walsh had gotten to his knees and staggered over to them, bent at the waist like a ghoul. He grabbed the back of Alan’s coat and pulled himself up straight, shaking his head as if to rouse himself.

“Damn that was a good hit!” he said with a smile.

Joe was pushing himself to his feet using the table that he’d cracked his head on. Blood was streaming from his forehead. A woman at the table gaped with red lips and her date pulled back their cups and put a napkin in front of Joe, who began turning around shakily.

“You call that a hit?” Jeremy hissed at Tom. He reached across his body and then whipped his closed fist backhand into the bridge of Joe’s nose. Joe sprawled back across the table and smacked his head into the center of it, sending china mugs and silverware clattering, then bobbed forward and slumped onto the floor, unconscious, blood pouring onto the concrete from his nostrils and forehead.

Jeremy backed away from the other three with a fist cocked by his chest while a general murmur went up inside the cafe.

“You better let me go before someone gets hurt,” he said, circumnavigating the tables in the center of the room.

“Fine, pussy,” spat Joe Walsh, “You better get the fuck out of town. Go turn tail. Tell em what happened here. Tell em that not everyone in Twinmartyrs turned chickenshit.”

“Whatever you do is gonna speak for itself,” said Jeremy, pushing his way through the glass door and out onto the cool cobblestone streets.

Jeremy sat on his bed, one suitcase open next to him and another on the floor. People had passed him in the halls of the apartment complex, carrying bundles or suitcases of their own. Nobody had made eye contact. Jeremy wondered where they’d go. Twinmartyrs had no commercial airlines and it wasn’t on the water. All roads led to Vineforest or Blackbeetle. Jeremy pictured greasy black machine guns lining the trees on the roads outside Vineforest. The Free Cities of Tourmaline Gorge had fought Vineforest for generations. There would be no mercy at the Duke’s green gates.

Jeremy thought of black-garbed militiamen pouring up High Street. Red sashes, red armbands, red bandanas. Would they come in shooting or would they act like liberators? If they came with an olive branch, they’d turn it into a rod just as soon as Tom Walsh and his ilk opened fire on them.

What of the teacher and the others who would die tonight? Walsh’s gang would be furious after the public snubbing and drubbing Jeremy had given them. They’d be all the more brutal as a result. Jeremy wished that he’d agreed to help them and then given them the slip. Now other people would suffer for what he’d done.

The situation was bad, very bad. The Anarcho-Syndicalists held four nearby cities and would be ruling them with an iron fist. The riverlands and hills to the east were held by Bounty, a notorious slaving state for whom refugees would just be fuel for the fire. Far to the south was the fallen city-state of Feyglade, now ruled by prairie nomads who would do unspeakable things to outsiders, and to the east beyond Vineforest was the heartless mountaintop corporation-city of Starling & Shrike. He would find no sanctuary there.

Jeremy thought deeply. For him, personally, as a private citizen, Vineforest would be the least dangerous destination assuming he could sneak or barter his way in. Not everyone would be willing to sell him out to the Duke. If he went to the fallen Tourmaline cities, he’d be dragooned into the labor force, and for all he knew there was starvation or plague going on unreported in the Syndicalist zone.

He began to consider sneaking into Vineforest. Even if he did, he would be completely at the mercy of anyone who knew he was an outsider. He needed something to offer, something to trade. Citizens of Twinmartyrs had been fleeing throughout the six-month war with the Anarcho-Syndicalists, and they’d taken much of the city’s movable wealth with them. Jeremy knew he was in need of bargaining chips.

There was one source of valuables that the corrupt mayors and oligarchs of Twinmartyrs had left untouched across the generations, though occasionally the poor or the desperate had attempted to delve them out. Twinmartyrs had once held the largest shrine complex of Tourmaline Gorge, a destination for processions of pilgrims who brought cultural artifacts from across the other city-states. During a time of anarchy, a grim Lord Protector had sealed the shrines and catacombs away, declaring that the patrimony of the deep and the conditions of the day would react badly if brought together. Gradually, the chambers began to flood as fault lines broke through them with inexplicable speed, bringing underground rivers with them.

The potentates of Twinmartyrs did well enough on graft and the uncontrolled selling-out of the region’s natural resources that the city’s shrine-chambers were allowed to flood. The chambers occasionally ameliorated the poverty of a lucky tomb raider, but more often the catacombs ended up serving their intended purpose.

A plan was forming in Jeremy’s mind. He would steal into the catacombs, lay hands on a few portable artifacts, and make for Vineforest. He’d cache most of his haul outside the city, make his entrance with a single item, and find a museum director or some aristocratic dilettante, then present him with the item and promise him the rest in exchange for sponsorship (with the subtext that Jeremy was a desperado and not to be trifled with).

He dumped out his suitcases, then took up a canvas duffle bag with a strap. He put a spare pair of boots in the bottom and laid a raincoat over them, then tied a few tins of corned beef together with twine and laid that on top so that further additions would be kept comfortably high on his shoulders. Then he laid his bootknife, his belt, and his pocketwatch and chain atop his dresser, and rolled onto his bed to sleep. He lay still for a long time, seeing visions of Tom Walsh and his men bursting out from the front door of a little cottage, guns in hand, smoke pouring from the door behind them as they rushed into a motorcar and sped away. He pictured them crouching in the bushes around the University of Twinmartyrs’ Sociology building, submachine-gunning graduate students as they emerged from discussions of the impending invasion. He pictured the Anarcho-Syndicalists demo-charging whole tenements full of people in order to exterminate Walsh’s gang, or the others who would inevitably pop up. He heard screams, sirens, fires in his mind.

A second motive for his planned delve began flickering into his consciousness, as well. The Anarcho-Syndicalists generally eliminated whatever local religious and cultural symbology they could find when taking over cities. They would probably pour concrete over Twinmartyrs’ catacombs, given that dynamite was out of the question in the flooded chambers. Jeremy frowned at the thought of carrying off so little of his city’s patrimony, and then pawning it for mere permission to enter Vineforest.

Eventually he couldn’t lay in bed any longer. He took up his effects, slung his duffle bag over his shoulder, and walked out of the apartment.

To be continued

Art - First Run