Clinging tenuously to place above the riotous greenery of the Verdant Waste, the Tomb Cities stand as broken monuments to the Walker’s past. Once, these were the world’s greatest industrial centres – now, moss and wildflower are pulling even the grandest structures back to earth.
The Tomb Cities serve as a hub, of sorts, for the Walkers. Disparate tribes wind their trails to come together there, to share and celebrate and compete. The hollows of buildings are daubed with luminous pigments, home to parties and contests and whatever artistic imaginings their inhabitants can bring to bear. As people meet, bond, and reflect, each of these tribes leaves with a new membership and destination.
They are no safe haven, however, Opportunity knows that most of the Walkers’ discarded wealth still resides in the Tomb Cities, and their Resitution Projects launch lightning-fast expeditions to ‘recover’ goods and people alike. The Walkers do their best to avoid or ensnare them, but their victories are by no means absolute.
The Tomb Cities are likely to feature stories from the Walkers, the Penitents nestled amongst them, and from Opportunity’s Restitution teams.
Somewhere Near The Breach
Author: By My Crooked Teeth, after the Bloom
A lone figure walks through the wasteland of a wrecked and ruined metropolis. A Tomb City. The only sound came from the ring of keys on his hip rattling as he walked. He was a shadow of a man, dressed in black and grey. A satchel around his shoulder bouncing in time with his keys. He stopped and surveyed his surroundings. He wished he knew the name of the city. The people, the culture and what happened to it. “Time.” He answered himself, “Time happens to everything.”
He pulled out his watch, an old silver watch that belonged to a man long ago, a man full of hope but looking for more. He put away his watch and moved to sit down on a mostly complete bench and opened his satchel. He pulled out a gun to ward off the simple and his book to ward off the wise. He flicked through pages and pages of notes and observations. This would not do he thought, he would have a lot to write about and observe once he reaches the Breach. He proceeded to tear out pages of his book, lines and lines and years and years of notes and work. Each page he placed neatly in a pile using his pistol as a paper weight until he was left with a flap of leather and a few sad pages. He placed the mutilated book on the ground by his feet. He unsnapped the strap that held his keys and started moving through them, until he found a small one that felt right. He held it over the book like he was undoing an invisible lock. “Bind what’s unbound. Rise and have purpose. You, up” he commanded and the book obliged for what was a book of leather and paper compared to a Shaper.
The grey clad man smiled to himself and placed his keys next to him, picked up the torn pages and placed them in his satchel with flyers and adverts for assorted Trivialities and Curiosities, the smiling face of Sigma SkyShock beamed up at him mere seconds before being buried under papers. The observant might have heard the picture snort in disgust for a second or two before falling silent. He rummaged about for his pen and picked up his book, now full and as new as the day he took it. He flipped open to the first page. He always loved this part of a book, so new and fresh and open to possibilities. So pliant and changeable. Just waiting for direction. He considered his pen, the medium for ideas to shape the paper, words had power and the pen would be its shape. But the ink was the important bit he thought, it allows permanence to the words and ideas and guides the direction of every page written after it. He smirked at his internal ramblings. Perhaps he had been alone too long? Maybe some socializing would do him the worlds of good. Only time would tell. He pulled off the cap of his pen and began to write in the book;
“I grow ever closer to the Breach and the chance to redeem myself and my siblings of our past transgressions grows closer still. I walk through the ruins of one world and hope to build the foundations of the next. This ruin is a scar, an old injury. Some see scars and wonder who gave it to them, and what event lead to this wounding. I look at a scar as nothing more than the marks upon a page a sign of a history being written. All of us, the remnants of the Oracle’s Folly bare scars, some self-inflicted, others glorious, cowardly or simply painful. We shroud ourselves in the colours of mourning, a testament of our Penance. That Penance will come to an end, we will perform the act that we promised, we will create a new world. This shall be that history, for good or ill. Where this endeavor will lead is as unknown me as the first page of a book knowing it’s last. I will be your guide and document its unfolding as archivist. This will either be a cautionary tale or a story victorious, time will tell as it always does. I have in the past been nothing more than the impartial observer. Though with so few of my fellows left I know I must step into the light and write the history that I want to read. And so this narrator introduces himself. My name is By My Crooked Teeth, Archivist, historian and story teller. With that in mind. Let me tell you a story.”
By My Crooked Teeth was absorbed in writing his thoughts amongst the corpse of this city. His pistol by his side to ward off the foolish, his book in hand to ward off the wise. But soon he would move on, he had work to do and more of the story to find.
A Beginning And An Ending
Author: Rain Falls On The Snow, before the Bloom
A long time ago, in a dingy basement of a city that no longer has a name, a man known as ‘Achilles’ Marden was tied to a chair.
‘Achilles’ (for the marketing videos) or Jimmy (to his colleagues and friends) was a security guard for Ares Protection (Your Shield Against The Greatest of Foes TM), and on a good day his job consisted of hanging around in HQ ‘on reserve’ for a few hours in case some executive broke a fingernail, and then patrolling some of the districts Ares held protection contracts for, and maybe beating up an unlicensed pickpocket or a shopkeeper who’d fallen behind on his contract payments.
Today was very definitely not a good day. At least not for Jimmy Marden. It was a much better day for the two other occupants of the basement, carefully standing just outside the thin circle of light that the basement’s remaining lamp cast down around its remaining chair.
“Do you really think you’ll get anything more out of him, Blood?” asked one of them, a slim hand dipping briefly into the light to gesture at Jimmy’s thoroughly bruised and bloodied form.
The man known as Blood (to an extremely select group of people) stepped fully into the light, a red bandana obscuring his face, red tattoos down his arms and fresh red covering his fists. “Every little helps, Mouse”, he replied. “Patrol schedules, comm frequencies, arms locker codes, which one of his friends is a drunk or a coward... Besides, it’s not just about the information.”
Mouse sighed. “Is this your ‘send them a message’ speech again? I can buy it when it’s a MetaGen executive or an Ares sector captain or whatever, but the higher-ups don’t care about this goon. You’ll just be hurting him for the sake of hurting him.”
‘Achilles’ tried to carefully crack open one swollen eye and see if he could work out a way to get away from these... anti-corporate lunatics, and just as rapidly had his eye closed again by a sudden punch.
“Not just for the sake of hurting him, Mouse. Or just for the sake of sending a message. For the sake of justice. This guy, and men just like him, hurt the little people, all the time, every day. Well, this is us hurting back. And yes, if we do it often enough, and hard enough, to enough of them, they’ll have no choice but to sit up and take notice. And then we can start bringing this whole rotten city tumbling down, brick by brick. But right here, right now, the beginning of that better world starts by putting just the tiniest bit of justice into our current one.”
‘Achilles’ tried to work his jaw enough to say that he didn’t think this sounded like much of a better world for him, particularly, but Blood was already stepping forward again, and then he thought no more.
Time To Go
Author: Ribs, after the Bloom
“That’s clearly two things, Snarl. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily take both. Just a little alarmed you seem to have lost the ability to count.”
“Yeah, well, try telling them that. Upwards of five tribes have attempted to wrestle them apart. It’s a fucking useless endeavour - it screams, bites, escapes, threatens starvation. Easier just to treat it like one thing. Not worth upsetting it over something like that.”
“Bizarre. Same parents?”
“Obvious, right? Came out together. Seems to have had a hell of an impact for something it can’t bloody remember.”
It picks its way through thorny ground on four bare feet. Peak calls, four eyes gaze up in answer. Eager, intelligent, brutal little eyes. It's coming along well. He’s loath to pass it along.
Peak strikes, gnarled club crashing down on the ragged young thing. It shifts, splits to dodge the blow. Another swing. It drops to the ground/moves to flank. Peak notices, doesn’t do a thing (smart move - don’t wanna discourage that). Another strike. It isn’t fast enough. It yelps/snarls, leaps for his turned back. Tiny balled fists rain down.
Peak gives a wide grin as he pries it off. It’s learning. He subdues it, turns to help it off the ground. One of its four eyes is bruised, sunken in until it resembles a tiny dark marble more than an eye.
He lays out a series of plants on the ground. Two voices - cutting over each other as often as they intersect - give him careful instruction. He follows to the letter, and finds himself with poultice in hand. Perfect - for the first time, in fact. Poultice and bandage are applied, progress moderately disrupted by unruly shifting. Naturally. He tosses a few sweets, which soon disappear into mirrored grinning mouths. It tackles him for more and the move is long expected.
Yeah, he’ll be sad to let this one go.
Bottle green, neatly folded into a tiny square, pokes out from long-cracked tiles. Two eyes examine it closely. Grubby hands tentatively tug an edge. The tribe’s distant noise washes over it. No attention spared. Two lengths of bottle green fabric, crumpled, torn, neatly folded.
It shifts around in the background; body rocking back and forth as it prunes a simple blade. Humming to itself - low, monotonous whine.
It peers around. Identical eyes meet - stay there for a moment. Then, one by one, their gazes slide off each other.
There’s nothing to say.
It wishes there was more to say.
It can always change its mind.
The answer remains no.
It casts its work aside to join the rest of the tribe. It remains hunched over the fabric.
Green. Cockroach, maybe. Or Vine. Or Mosquito. Unless it turns out to be something a bit more unorthodox. It wants to throw up.
Ragweed’s gone, it remains. It sits alone, too dizzy to stand. Ragweed is long gone. Footsteps still ring in its ears. It’s Ragweed, Ragweed’s gone, it remains. A single stomach churns and its red eyes burn. Ragweed’s don’t.
His voice caught in the declaration. He stared it right in the eyes. Glanced down. Looked at it again. Glanced down again. The footsteps, still. Beat after beat after beat. It didn’t dare watch. It couldn’t even focus on watching because it was so wrong and bad and strange and the adjectives go on, and on, and on, and on until they sound just like footsteps.
It doesn’t stop. It lies down alone. The night sky flickers, swims before it’s eyes. Eventually, all of Opportunity dances before it. It looks like the Tomb Cities but bigger, shinier. A million people peer out of the buildings’ jagged holes. Termites in a mound. Ragweed is one face in all those faces. He weaves expertly through the crowd. He gets trampled beneath it - all the green gets stained with blood. He leaves.
It sees him from a thousand angles. He walks until the city falls away. The land gets more and more familiar. He grows as he walks. He’s older and he’s sorry. With every step he ages. It’s there but it’s moved on - they’ve all moved on. No reliable way to find a tribe once it’s moved on. His feet fall down, down, down until he’s nothing more than bones.
Though it’s skirting the line between sleep and wake, it knows. It knows with unshakable dream certainty. This is the end for it. This is the end for them. All that’s left is to take a bow.
She wears red. Her name is Ribs. Her voice doesn’t catch in the introduction. She thinks of him often, and often wishes she didn’t. His departure sent out ripples through the rest of her life - ironic, considering the Stillness of the situation. The tribe - a different tribe - moves on.
A couple of leagues away, Ragweed gathers a few stray scraps of paper into his bag. The explosives have been laid - goodbye, home sweet home. The Protes won’t be finding him there. Passage west has been secured. Valtaria beckons. Time to go.
Authors: Soar Ever Upward, An Endless Falling
For the most part, Soar Ever Upward doesn’t notice the double heartbeat anymore. Way back when (before he got used to falling asleep on soft surfaces, or learned the purpose of blackout curtains), he would listen to it as he tried to get to sleep. There are not quite four of her heartbeats to every five of his. This never ceases to amuse him, because he bets it bugs her.
He can’t remember when it started. Probably in training at the Summit; or earlier still. Fate took an interest in him before he even knew what the word meant.
The heartbeat’s just one part of the whole metaphysical shebang. It’s much less useful than the other thing, which is Soar’s unerring seventh sense: a kind of an internal compass needle, but one that rarely points north.
Today, the compass points south-east, as it has for the past two weeks. It leads him down some ancient freeway, the concrete all broken up and spangled green. He ditched a mission to chase it, which he’d feel a heck of a lot worse about if circumstances weren’t extenuating – or if his Archivist handler would answer his calls. Anyway, he’s on foot, for which he’s extremely grateful. Made it easier to navigate the stretch of road that had really embraced life as a swamp.
At this range, distances are hazy. He could be a mile away or ten, and he doubts he’d sense the difference. It’s not the kind of detail that narrative reality cares much about. He’s hoping for one mile, though, because the swamp was nasty.
The Wastes steam. Bushes hum with large and whimsical insects, and somewhere among the palm trees a scarlet bird calls and takes flight. The sky is cloudless and bright. If he’s ever come this way before, it was when the land was younger and less wild – it stirs no memories. There again, a century on, he’s not sure he’d recognise Roanoke. Isn’t every city more or less the same?
At the very least, every tomb’s the same. The concrete exoskeletons of skyscrapers remain, striated with rebellion and restitution. Soar’s view earlier this morning, some ways out, was of enormous hollow warehouses and decaying factories. This area was nicknamed the Rust Coast, once, on account of the industry. That name is now archaic, but all the more apt.
Another day, he’d marvel at the sweetness of being alive – at the feel of the sun on the back of his neck; in his good health and free will and his chance to explore the ruins. Not so, today. Whatever he thinks about today, it all comes back to the heartbeats twinned in his chest. For, every so often-
His vision goes white. Something in his neck spasms as his heartbeats lose time. Fear chills his spine; turns his stomach. He is pursued, threatened, and everything bids her flee instead of fighting to the death. Something rings, so loudly that he clamps his hands over his ears.
A monumental act of willpower keeps him on his feet, breathing. The world rights itself. Insects hum.
It’s been two weeks of this. He thinks of the phenomenon in terms of ‘episodes’. The first episode, he was mid-conversation with a prospect. Really killed his patter. He vomited on the poor guy’s carpet. So he made his excuses, and booked the first ship south. He’s left fifteen holomails for his Archivist, some more expressive than others, most of them recorded after episodes. Episodes vary in intensity, but this was by far the most vivid. As the second-hand adrenaline fades, he realises that her heart is still skipping beats.
He breaks into a run.
The enormity of the buildings gives a poor sense of scale. The skyscrapers are a distance away, and it takes him far too long to get through the empty suburbs and into their midst. Archivists would weep for all the things that he ignores: the scorched plazas and the broken apartment buildings; at least one ruined library; strange hollering animal cries and graffiti like alchemical sigils. But Soar doesn’t slow.
Such haste is pointless, and his fear irrational. An accident of his own particular psychitecture. He is one hundred and sixty-seven years old, and he knows what a basic narrative looks like. He is well aware that she cannot die without his presence – for, what is so, will be so. Still.
The compass needle – his Destiny, to give it its proper name – points him to one of the skyscrapers. At maybe eighty storeys, an Opportunist would consider it dwarfish. Remarkably, the double doors are both intact and locked. He draws Peace Of Mind to blast them to pieces.
On entry, he notes the amount of rubble in what was once a foyer. Destiny urges him upwards, but the stairs have caved in. He can’t even find a way to climb. The elevator, in contrast, is relatively undamaged. His subtle vision tells him the shaft’s not blocked. A couple of short, concentrated bursts of spiritual energy take off the ceiling. He tests his weight; the cables are sound.
His gloves and shoes are shaped for easy climbing. So he climbs – just not as quick as he’d like. The skipped heartbeats are starting to interfere with his own somehow, and he can’t work out whether it’s psychosomatic. Another palpitation hits him halfway up, not quite an episode, and he clings helplessly to the cable until the thing in his neck stops fluttering. Trust her to get all dramatic.
At the top, he levels a pulse of energy at the metal elevator doors, which crumple. The noise echoes for a very long time.
He holsters Peace Of Mind, swings twice for momentum, doesn’t look down, and leaps into the hall.
She isn’t there. But her racing heartbeat is louder than his own. Panicked as a small bird.
Upwards. Always upwards. There are several doors around him, all closed, which he ignores. The ladder to the rooftop is rusted, but sound.
He exits through a hatch, which isn’t locked. He stands, blinking hard against the sudden light, the wind whipping his hair to frenzy.
An Endless Falling is sat cross legged, meditating. The only emotional read he gets off of her is one of intense concentration.
“Seriously?!” he calls, shouting to be heard above the wind.
She doesn’t even open her eyes, but her heart rate steadies. Despite himself, Soar laughs. If ‘audacity’ were seven syllables, it would be her middle name. It’s the one likeable thing about her.
As ever, she’s dressed Valtarian. Her outfit has barely changed in the past century – she appears to have bleached the fur, but that’s about it – which shows an impressive level of sartorial commitment, if nothing else. Though, it doesn’t exactly constitute summer wear. Getting to the roof without collapsing from heat exhaustion must have been one heck of an exercise in body temperature self-regulation.
He takes a couple steps forward, but still has to shout. “You prank called me? What are you, twelve?”
Without haste, she stretches and stands, cape flowing out behind her. She frowns at him like he’s an exam question that she didn’t prepare for.
May as well be direct. He walks right up to her. Not so close that he’d be in a normal person’s personal space, but then, An Endless Falling was always a bit of a freak.
“Well?” he prompts.
She draws Peace Of Mind and shoots him in the chest.
He lands flat on his back on the concrete, vision swimming. Body and soul strain against each other – pain that isn’t pain, but darn well hurts like it is. She watches with interest.
He gets to his feet without really understanding how. He has approximately zero seconds to find cover. There’s a bank of air vents somewhere behind him. He stumbles in that direction, and she doesn’t follow.
Her next shot misses, leaving a crater in the rooftop. He drags himself to safety.
As half his torso goes numb, he assesses the situation. The air vents are approximately the height of his shoulder. They are perhaps three direct hits from sublimation. He reaches for Peace Of Mind, but stops halfway. She’s still an Initiate.
“Aberration! Step out and die!”
On the other hand, he isn’t about to do that.
Getting back inside is impossible. The hatch is between them. She still hasn’t bothered to move. For that matter, she isn’t pulverising the air vents. Gritting his teeth hard, he tries to straighten, and slumps to his knees. Well, that’s no huge loss. Like he could have climbed down the side of the building under fire, anyway.
“You always wanted to fight me, Soar! Didn’t you always want this?”
There’s a manic edge to her voice. For what it’s worth, this is new. Probably. Even if he were authorised to access it, An Endless Falling’s quarterly psych evaluation would not make Soar’s to-read list.
Regardless, he has two options. Death is one of them, which makes the decision for him. He shifts his weight off the wall and manages to hold his balance long enough to stand. Feeling is beginning to return to both his physical and subtle bodies, though coordination isn’t. He sucks in a deep breath.
“Stand down, acolyte!” he cries, loud enough that his voice doesn’t waver. He breathes hard, and swallows. He stays standing.
In the open, she is waiting for him. He meets her eyes and holds her gaze. He can’t read her expression, so he focuses on not falling over.
“You would raise your hand against one of our own, An Endless Falling?” he asks, letting her hear his disgust. “In the name of the Sublime Concord, stand down.”
What she does next fills him with such intense horror – such utter repulsion – that he is basically unable to process that it’s happening in front of him.
It goes on for longer than he really wants to hear it, and at no point does he experience any kind of a desire to join in.
“Soar,” she says, when she finally catches her breath, “There is no Concord.” Like she’s explaining the punchline of a joke he doesn’t get.
“Wh-“ he manages, before she shoots him again.
This time, the pain certainly is pain. The force lifts him from his feet and flings him over the edge of the rooftop. He tries to scream, but there’s no air left in his lungs. For a brief, weightless moment, there’s nothing but the open sky.
Then he’s lying on his back, maybe seventy-seven storeys in the air. He’s unsure whether it’s his spine or the rusty metal that crunched louder when he hit the fire escape, but the world sure is swirling. Also, he’s lost feeling in both legs.
This is exactly the sort of situation that he’s dealt with a thousand times before – the kind of thing that any good Initiate is trained to deal with – so he doesn’t panic. Actually, he’s still too fixated on the mental image of An Endless Falling laughing to panic.
“I KNOW YOU’RE STILL ALIVE, INFIDEL! I CAN FEEL YOUR HEARTBEAT!”
That makes him panic.
It’s not so much a fire escape, anymore. Even before its violent encounter with Soar, the decades had eroded it down to a collection of serious code violations. Only a couple of flights survived, which Soar assumes is why he didn’t notice it from the ground. He is embedded in the lowest landing. The whole thing attaches to the wall at a single point, and is gently swaying.
He thinks he can feel Fall watching him. Like a cat with a half-dead mouse. Or some other, less passé simile, that would be more readily accessible to him if he weren’t about to do something really stupid, then lose consciousness.
Peace Of Mind is in its holster. Totally undamaged, unlike its master. But he can still move his arms. He flexes his left hand, pops the snap on his holster, and draws his gun.
The fire escape is attached to the building at one point. Soar prides himself on being a darn good shot.
“Look out below,” he mumbles, as he does the really stupid thing.
He remains awake just long enough to register An Endless Falling’s surprise.