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


  1. Interested to see where this goes. I have a feeling that the City of the Dead has more than one application in this story. The Walsh character is really interesting. I'll withhold further comment until I see the whole thing. Also, excellent choice of music, I have to say!

    1. Thanks- that is a great song and I thought the theme of refugees vs zealots was apt, however fast and loose they were playing with the verbiage. I thought about having “Master Exploder” be the song for the next post given how he makes people’s heads explode, that gave me a good long laugh, but ultimately I just went with the partisan angle.

  2. I like how you have this whole world with all of this intricate political machinations and ideologies, but the story and world itself are designed in such a way that it builds towards a classic dungeon crawl-style pulp adventure. It's a cool way to show how you can have both of these elements, and they can both work on their own, but also enhance each other.

    1. Thanks, Max. Man, I have a lot of stuff to say related to this, and it’s been difficult for me to know what’s enough and what exactly should be mentioned first. I’ve written a fair amount to address what you bring up, but I haven’t brought it into a form I feel is correct yet so I will just mention a few themes for this story and we can discuss more if you like.
      -Revolutionary Anarcho-Syndicalism and Ultranationalism - examples of reasonable or understandable tendencies which are then drawn out into axioms that can end up crowding out humanism
      -Exploring the struggle of a corrupt but non-totalitarian state against a totalitarian state- the relative short term and long term prospects of each
      -The subjective experience of the magical/sublime, juxtaposed against the real-life drama of faction and development. They’re both part of human experience- both exist in the same world, so perhaps they provide each other necessary relief (in multiple senses)

    2. No obligation, but it might be easier to discuss the particulars further elsewhere. Kyana actually asked a question about how to go about conveying setting information on my discord server which might be relevant to this, if you'd be interested in joining.


Art - First Run