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


  1. Have just caught up with this story. A ripping adventure, and I mean ripping in quite a few senses.

    The setting is of course fascinating - modern/contemporary fantasy in a non-Earth or alternate history is something I don't see often - hard to believe noviplanes were a real thing - and the genre-blending of revolutionary noir and dungeon-crawling is another rare and compelling element. Atop all that, in just three posts there is a good sense of place both locally and regionally. Neat to see we're really getting into the occult side of the world now too.

    Very brutal - the politics and the people and the violence - glad there is the pulpiness to balance it out some.

    1. I appreciate your comment because it’s hard for me to know exactly what a post is doing for the reader; ideally it’s entertaining, obviously, but knowing things like that a sense of regional and local place can be valued by the reader is non-obvious to me for some reason (perhaps because my schema is something like there always being more territory, so I may go in wavetops and not always give a place its due), and the reminder of the potential value of positive pulp elements (adventure, travel) as a balance to intense dark material is good to have spelled out.

      I know that the fiction I’ve done in this world so far has not been super supernatural, at least compared to related meta-material; there’s some stuff, mostly the invention of people who created the city-states involved (the wood-rot in Sarabande, the vengeful spirit in Saxherm, the giant execution laser in Setroxia), but that is one place I’m aware of that I should put the focus a little more. Hopefully the last post for City of the Dead scratched that itch!

  2. "blue and bone-white horror like a freakish chemical in the bath of a chlorine witch"
    "The frame blazed skeletonized like a solar ghost"

    Really like both of these lines in particular. I agree with what Semiurge said, the blend of genres and concepts is very cool.


Art - First Run