Heaven or Hell
"For the breadth of my formative years, I had one goal: find my—well, we all have our own word for them—my chosen. And every moment thereafter was dedicated to keeping him alive, whether he liked it or not. They were turbulent times, before the Last City. Before humanity found hope for the future. I was prepared to kill for it. Die for it." —A Ghost of the Dark Age He opened his eyes in the night air and took an even breath. He wasn't sure how long he'd been asleep, but his immediate instinct was to— "Run." He froze. The voice wasn't his. "You have to run." The man stood up in the evening light. He looked down at himself and saw that someone had dressed him for his own funeral. He didn't laugh, but he thought it was funny. The voice continued. "Can you hear me? Risen fight for territory in these highlands. We have to move." For the first time, he noticed a small drone buzzing in the air around him, a blazing eye at its center glowing like a blue sun. It jerked its frame to the left, indicating the light of a faraway settlement. "Head west. I have friends there. They'll help us." The man stared at the drone, frowned, and ran in the opposite direction. "What? Hey!" the voice cried out behind him. He fled into darkness, tall grass on either side of him flying past. The only thing he could hear was his own breathing and the loud crush of the vegetation he trampled. He was surprised at how fast he was moving. The voice called to him again, far behind him. He heard the roar of the machine before he saw it, and he didn't feel a thing as it exploded out of the tall grass to the right and landed on him, crushing him beneath its bulk. ** He opened his eyes in the night air and took an even breath. "You died," the drone explained, hovering over him. It was smeared with a dark, filmy paste. "I brought you back." He stood up and looked down at himself. Same clothes. Nothing hurt. The hulking wreck of the machine that had killed him sat in pieces a few meters away, inside a dark, sooty crater. The body of an armored man lay sprawled over the smoldering open-air cockpit, his helmet punctured by a small hole about the size of... the drone. "Are you ready to listen? Let me take you to my friends," it said. "This region is full of raiders like this man. Led by Risen like you. You've got a lot of catching up to do." "What the hell are you?" the man spoke for the first time. "I'm your Ghost. My only purpose is to support you," the drone replied. "You work for me?" "In a manner of speaking, yes." "Is this the afterlife?" "In a manner of speaking," the drone said, nodding at the western lights once more. "Can we go?" "Not that way." The man headed in the opposite direction. The drone watched him trample the high grass and disappear. It stared up at the massive, disfigured orb that dominated the sky, then made a small adjustment to the orbit pattern of its modular armor. It hurried after the man.
He had been reduced to crawling. His Ghost cut serenely through the air above him. "What the hell is wrong with me?" he demanded of the ground. "You're dying from starvation," Ghost said flatly. "I don't believe you," he sneered, as he dragged himself over some rocks. "I could fix you," Ghost said. "Don't need you," he said. "I got this." "You're not going to pick a name?" Ghost asked. "Everyone picks a name." "You talk too much." "Some people pick names for their Ghosts, too. What should I call you, if you don't want a name?" He had passed out. The sun beat down directly overhead, a searing marble in the sky. He died a day later after a scorpion stung his prone body. Ghost allowed it. A complete restart would be less complicated. ** He opened his eyes and took an even breath. "What should I call you?" Ghost asked. He looked at it, as if considering. Then down at his hands. "I'm still hungry."
Home, pt. I
"The Light is no gift. It takes everything from you. Makes you forget. Not just your memories. But how to live." —A Dark Age drifter Eaton received its first visitors in years. Germaine watched the armored men and women climb down from their silver transports. They were Risen, beings said to be unkillable, and they fought against each other in a war without end somewhere beyond Eaton's borders. This particular group, the Iron Lords, represented new ideology, and claimed they fought to put an end to the fighting. Led by a man named Dryden, they had paid each family in Eaton several months' worth of supplies and rations to stay the week. They planned to stage an ambush on another of their kind, known only as the Red Man. Two weeks ago, survival was in doubt. Now, because of the generosity of the Iron Lords, their little town would make it through the winter. Germaine's friend Judson emerged from a neighboring supply shed and stuck a single finger in the air as the riders strode up. Germaine chuckled and shook his head, but said nothing. "How you livin'," Judson greeted the Risen, holding his finger high. "Settle down, Judson," Germaine called out. "Shut your hole, Germaine," Judson returned, hand still in the air. "Your name is stupid, and you're stupid, too." Germaine shook his head and grinned ruefully. Judson had warned the town against the arrangement, shouting to everyone who would listen that he'd take care of food, that the "iron freaks" would only bring trouble. He was a very good huntsman—possibly the best Eaton had ever seen, and somehow produced deer, duck, and bull from the decimated hills. But even Judson had come up short for months. The war beyond Eaton had intensified. The adults went hungry so the children could eat. It wasn't a sustainable position. "We'll be out of your way soon," said one of the Iron Lords, who nodded at Judson as he passed by. Her voice was as metallic and cold as her helmet. Judson spat, and didn't take his eyes off them as they walked the length of the town to secure hidden positions around its perimeter.
Home, pt. II
"Sir. This is awful." —A Dark Age drifter Yu was nine cycles old and visited often. She and her family lived next to Judson, and sometimes they sent her to Germaine when their boisterous neighbor was too belligerent. As he was today. Germaine didn't mind. "Judson doesn't think it was a good idea to let the iron people stay with us," she was saying. She paced slowly back and forth across the length of the shack, stepping carefully over the game of cards Germaine had laid out on the bare dirt floor. "I know. But Judson says a lot of things. And sometimes you gotta be decisive. You see how much food they gave us?" Germaine said, placing a card down. A lamp flickered nearby, next to the largest pile of ration boxes this shack had ever held. "Judson knows how to use guns. I've seen him. Maybe he can—" "No, no he can't. Those things out there, you can't kill. Get that out of your mind right now." Yu kept pacing, frowning slightly as she considered it. "More food is nice, but Judson thinks they're going to get us dead. I think he might run away," she said. He laid another card down. "Appreciate what you get. Your parents were skipping dinner so you could have yours. The Risen solved that for us. For a little while. We have to let them stay." She stopped pacing to consider it, and looked up at the sheet metal ceiling. "I don't want to die." "You won't," Germaine said. "Why don't you go see what your parents are up to? I'm a little beat." "OK," she said, shrugging. She left. Germaine opened a small box of water from the pile of ration packs and poured a tin-full. Yu hadn't noticed because it was difficult to see in the flickering lamplight, but his hands shook. ** Judson's breath steamed in the night air as he shut the gate that bordered town as quietly as he could. Shivering would mean shaking the rickety thing and waking up Yu's family, so he kept the handle gripped tight as he pushed it back into place. He now stood on the pass out of Eaton Valley. As he turned around, he walked right into Germaine. "Didn't see you there, brother," Judson growled low, stopping just short of throwing an elbow into his neighbor's throat. He backed up a step. Just one. "Where're you running to this late?" Germaine asked. "Brother." "What are you, dense? Away from this before the shooting starts." "We gotta trust this Lord Dryden knows what he's doing," Germaine said. Judson shook his head. "You and all the deal-makers are gonna get this town dead. These guys are worse than the stories." "You know how I feel about Risen, but they saved us this week." Judson sneered. "No one ever believes it 'cuz Risen look like you and me, but they'll kill you without meaning to. Naturally as breathing. They can't help it." "They're lookin' to jump one man. Just one. We gotta see this through. Even the Risen can contain a fight at that scale." "You gonna move? Or do I move you?" Germaine stepped to the side. "I'm not the law. But where you gonna go? There's nothin' but war-land out there. And their prey is comin'." "I'm a tracker. Kept this town fed for years before you got here. I'll be fine. And that other Risen won't care about one man passing through. I got nothing to hide. Just need to get away. If you all want to play bait for the warring dead, have a nice life." Germaine chuckled."What's funny?" Judson sneered in that low voice again. "I don't know how you do it. I almost admire you." "How's that?" "You've got no fear. Have a nice life, brother. See you when I see you." Germaine walked back to the gate.
Home, pt. III
"Who are you?" "Would you know me if I gave you a name?" "Your Ghost made a fatal error. Couldn't catch it, but I confirmed it on tracker." "The hell is this? You think I'm one 'a you? Brother, you got another think comin'." "How is it that I found one man all the way out here, then? No food or water for miles." "I manage." "I have ways to make you tell us what we want to know." "..." "The Warlord campaign in this region never reached into the southern valley. Are there any settlements you know of, nearby? Anything tucked away in the valley, or inside the mountain range? You could tell me, or I could start cutting." "Might be you missed something." "You're coming with me. I planned to scout the valley myself, but now I think I'll bring some friends." ** Germaine's hands shook when the Warlords, Risen who conquered the land they found, brought Judson back to Eaton during midday a week later. Half the town came out to see them. One of the men wore red armor that fit the description of the Warlord that Dryden and his Lords were waiting for. They say that one Risen, reasonably armed, can annihilate an army. Two Risen, assuming adequate cover for Ghost support, can fight infinite armies indefinitely. Six Warlords dismounted their machines in a line at the center of town, weapons drawn. They dropped Judson on his knees in front of them. No restraints. He looked unhurt. "Does anyone want to claim this runt?" asked the Red Man. "We will," Germaine said. People groaned. Yu tried to run to Judson, but her parents held her back. "A question, first," said the Red Man. "Where are the Iron Lords? We saw one of their Ghosts. One of these?" He tapped the bladed carapace of his own drone companion as it floated past him, its eye fixed on the townspeople. "They like to meddle. Maybe they helped you, brought you some food? It would explain how you survive out here in this wasteland. But I can guarantee you their motivations are not in your best interest." The Red Man paused, scanned the crowd as his Ghost orbited above him. "The Iron Lords are trying to disrupt the established order. And we're here to liberate you from them. You're under our care, now. So. Where are they?" Germaine shut his eyes a long moment. When no one else spoke, he decided he would. "You're right. They were here. But they're long gone. We paid them for supplies and they moved on a week ago." "Did they?" The Red Man raised his hand cannon and shot Yu's father in the head. The entire crowd flinched and huddled together as the man fell backward. Yu's mother cried out in fury, but held her child tight. "Hand to my heart," Germaine said, holding his breath as he waited for the hidden Iron Lords to make a move. The Red Man held his gun in the air, watching the townspeople intently. The other Warlords scanned the horizon, gleaming weapons at the ready. Judson took the pregnant pause as an opportunity to pull a Fallen shock blade from one of the Warlord machines. He gave a triumphant yell and decapitated the armored Risen closest to him. As the body fell, he jabbed the length of the blade through the Red Man's back. A third Warlord pulled the glaive out of Judson's hands and stabbed him in the side with a gauntlet blade, then hurled him backwards over the machines. All hell broke loose around Germaine as the Iron Lords suddenly opened fire from their positions in the surrounding hills. The townspeople scattered as the fallen Warlords rose in scintillating pillars of Light, the weapons in their hands roaring to life and spitting tracers. ** The Ghost watched from high above the chaos. Over the ages, it had gotten very good at hiding. It had gotten very good at all the peculiar things its chosen had asked it to learn. Down below, gunfire and explosions of Light tore through the collection of huts and shacks. The townspeople fled for their lives in the midst of fire and otherworldly flame as the Iron Lords finally abandoned their sniper positions in the hills to close in on the Warlords at the town center. Through it all, the Ghost saw one of the men emerge out of the discharge of an errant explosive device, cradling the body of a child. He moved to relative safety behind one of the shacks and knelt down, holding an ear to the child's face. She was trying to speak. One of the armored riders in the town square raised a heavy machine gun in one hand and raked the length of Eaton with golden tracers. The Ghost lost visibility on the townspeople as the hail of machinegun fire filled its vantage point with a rolling cloud of dirt and dust. The annihilating, sense-shattering explosions came soon after, and the Ghost increased its elevation. It waited until long after the battle had died out, and the surviving Risen had all left, before lowering itself back to earth. It wasn't even sure which side had won. It didn't matter. The day had turned to dusk.
Home, pt. IV
The man opened his eyes and took an even breath. Almost nothing was where he remembered it. Eaton was gone. Blasted and paved. Mild climate was the only reason the shacks and huts that made up most of the town remained standing. But the storm of Light versus Light had left scorched earth and shadows behind. And the bones of the dead. It was a blood red dusk. Ghost hovered above him. The man looked down at his hands. He tried to chuckle, but coughed instead. "Are you all right?" Ghost asked. He stood up, straighter than he had in a long time. Easier to seem like people when you slouch. "Germaine?" Ghost asked. "That's not my name." "You let them call you that." The man turned to look at his Ghost. "It's not my name. One 'a the Warlords mentioned seeing a lone Ghost. Did you get sloppy?" Ghost nodded. "I'm sorry. I was scouting a new livestock route for you and I got carried away." "I don't ask for much," said the man, shaking his head. "Shovel. Get me one." Ghost scanned the debris and ash to find a charred spade, lifting it with a lasso of Light. The man slowly gathered all the bones he could find and began to dig. "The child. Yu," Ghost continued. "Stop talking," he replied. "What did she tell you? You were speaking to her at the end." He didn't respond. It would be lifetimes before he told Ghost the answer. But he would remember. "You could have helped her." The shovel hit the dirt harder. "I told you to shut up." "You could have saved them all." The man had nothing to say. He must have been making more noise than he thought, because just as he finished digging a grave big enough for the bones, a voice called out. He dropped the shovel, stared across the vacant town square at the smoldering ruin of the Diaz barn. Eaton was dead. No point in keeping his secret any longer. He crossed the distance at a speed and ease that would have shocked his neighbors and rounded a corner to find Judson, on the ground, leaning against the barn door. There was a cannon in Judson's hand, and his eyes opened wide when he recognized the man and his Ghost. Judson lifted the gun with a shaking fist. His other hand clutched a dark stain on his side. "He's lost a lot of blood," Ghost said, its Light spilling across the scene. "You were one 'a them all along," Judson sneered. The man chuckled. "All my lives, brother." "You got us killed, you son of a—" The man kicked the firearm out of Judson's hand with no urgency at all. He knelt down to point a finger. "No, no, that one's on you. Those Warlords caught you. What else were they gonna do? I wanted to stop you from leaving, but I didn't think I had the right." Judson reached out to grab his throat. The man caught his hand in a vice-grip instead, a crushing handshake. Judson frowned and struggled, but he was exhausted. Dying. And the man had strength that belied his frame. The man lifted his other hand, smoldering from a Solar glow, and held it against Judson's wound. His former friend managed a high-pitched wail, but couldn't break the man's grip, though he tried and tried. The man nodded at Judson, addressing his Ghost. "Do you see how he never gives up? Because he knows this one life is all he has? No fear." "Those Risen out there?" The man finished cauterizing the wound and used his suddenly-cool hand to wave indiscriminately into the darkening night. "They'd be long dead if they were him. All they know is war. This man survives." Judson made a gurgling sound. He had stopped struggling, but the man kept a grip on his hand. "You wanted me to save him? Even if this works, he could never show me how to live. Not like he lives. And that's on you." Ghost watched, but made minute adjustments to his orbiting armor and sent Light-based scans cascading across the ruins of town. If there were lingering Warlords or Iron Lords nearby, they would have to run. The man stood up. Judson was dead. "Maybe you should have told him you were bringing livestock in from a hundred leagues away and releasing them for him to catch," Ghost said. "I mean—did you see how happy he was? How they all were? They got to eat," the man replied. "Give someone something to chase and you give them purpose." "You're pathetic. This is what you aspire to be? A perennial liar who plays house with refugees? These people are dead because of us!" "I lived here as one of them." "You could be so much more. Let me show you how powerful your Light can become." The man walked past his Ghost and brought Judson's corpse to the center of town. As he began digging again, he noticed the bloated, spherical husk that dominated the sky. It had been out of his life for a while, but it seemed a lot closer to earth tonight. He raised a hand to salute it with a single finger, as Ghost looked on. "How you livin'?" he said, and gave a smile to the heavens that ended at his eyes.
Loose Ends, pt. I
"I never forgive and I never forget. I live a hard life, sister." —A Dark Age drifter Wu Ming's bar wasn't always bustling, but it was this afternoon. Wu served anyone who could pay, but his clientele were often Risen. Not because he provided a menu particularly suited to them, but because he had built his bar at the foot of a mountain called Felwinter Peak. Felwinter was a former Warlord—the only one, it was said, to hold an entire mountain all by himself. He now rode with the Iron Lords, and Felwinter Peak was staunchly the territory of the Iron Wolves. They had never given Wu permission to build the bar. He had never asked. Almost to a person, the patrons tonight were without Ghosts. High winds and inhospitable cold meant those without Ghosts rarely visited. But tonight, word had reached the general population that Warlords were back in the region. No shots had been fired. Not yet. But it was enough to get every poor, Lightless wretch from miles around into Wu's bar, where chances were an Iron Lord or Lady might be having a drink. Wu Ming didn't mind. The door swung open again, and a trio of armored figures marched in from the cold. "Welcome to the End of the World," greeted the serving frame. The Warlords shouldered past the 55-30 and headed straight for Wu Ming at the counter. "What can I get you?" Wu asked, giving a smile that ended at his eyes. The leading Warlord, a hulking man with shoulder guards larger than his brain, grunted, "Food. Everything you have." Wu raised an eyebrow. "Sure. That'll be... well, a lotta Glimmer." "You don't understand," the giant man said, grabbing Wu by the lapels of his stormcoat. "Give us everything you have in the back, or we'll gut you and eat you alive." "Hey Citan," a woman's voice said. "Pick on someone your own size." All eyes turned to a helmeted figure standing a few feet behind Citan. She only came up to the giant man's sternum. "Lady Efrideet," Citan muttered. Wu Ming's gaze went from the Iron Lady to the three Warlords positioned around the bar amongst his Lightless patrons. He cursed under his breath and braced to duck.
Loose Ends, pt. II
Wu Ming looked on as the Warlords surrounded the lone Iron Lady. "End of the World is Wolves territory," Efrideet was saying. "And so is the entirety of Felwinter Peak." "That changes tonight." A crescent of Light arced between the Warlord's open hands. "I have an army of raiders and a fireteam of Risen waiting on my command. Felwinter's lost his mind siding with you lot." Underneath the helm, Citan's eyes flickered from the Iron Lady to his Warlord ally positioned behind her. The flanking Warlord raised a massive hand cannon and thundered a bullet— Directly into Citan's chest as Efrideet dropped to a knee. She swung her cannon to her right side with her left fist and let loose with a roaring double-tap behind her, shattering the rear Warlord's head. Wu Ming saw that she hadn't so much as looked. The third Warlord's submachine weapon fired a spray of bullets that hammered the floor as Efrideet rolled. Wu cursed inwardly as wood splinters went flying all over the room. People screamed. But it was already over. The third Warlord crumpled. Efrideet's solar knife had divided his head. "Hold!" the Lady barked, firing her cannon into the ceiling as three Ghosts materialized above their charges. Bits of wood fell on her shoulder. Wu Ming cursed audibly this time. "You know who I am," she shouted at the room. "At this distance, I could shoot all of you out of the air swifter than you could ever bring your Risen back." The Traveler's children froze, their shells spinning aggressively in the air like metallic bees. "You're free to go," she told them. "But your Risen stay with me. Follow the Iron Decree and you'll get them back. In time." The Ghosts looked at one another. "Tell the Warlords," she sneered. "Felwinter Peak belongs to the Wolves." The Ghosts left the way their owners came. The bar patrons began murmuring. Efrideet's Ghost, always a quick thinker, started playing music: Lady Skorri singing an old hymn. The patrons backed away from the three Warlord bodies, but began chattering amongst themselves. The din of conversation gradually filled the room and built to a dull roar. The music helped. "Is this why you asked me here?" Efrideet said, holstering her weapon. "You said you had some business that paid." "I did. You just finished it," he responded, reaching out with a fistful of Glimmer. The Iron Lady stared down at it, gawking beneath her helmet. "Who the hell pays you?" "I have means," Wu Ming said, chuckling. "Stick with me, sister. I'll make you rich. I promise." She eagerly took the sapphire cubes out of his hand. Glimmer represented pure material potential. "You didn't bring Felwinter," Wu said. She eyed him. "I told you he never comes down from the Peak unless it's official Iron Lord business. What do you need from him?" "Hey, what're you doing later?" Wu asked suddenly. "Hunting Fallen. They're becoming a problem at Boyle Pass. We'll be at it 'til dusk," Efrideet said, lifting the helmet just above her mouth to grab a drink from behind the counter and swallow an entire mug of the malt Wu served. She belched and asked, "Care to join us?" Her smile just beneath the helm was all teeth. Wu chuckled. "Nah, a mere mortal at a Risen fight? I'd just get in the way." He thought for a second. "Would you like to dance before you go?" "Nah," she said, imitating his tone. The helm came down. He cocked his head over the music, then leaned in to ask, "Wait, what did you think I said?" "Would you like to dance before you go?" she repeated. "I would love to," he said, stepping forward, arms wide. She side-stepped him and kicked his leg out from under him. He went tumbling to the ground, and someone spilled their drink on him. "I had to try," he called from the floor, watching her go. The plume of her helmet rose above the crowd, and was already halfway out the door. "Take the bodies!" he yelled, still on the ground. ** It took him three hours to climb the Peak that night. He was shivering in his long coat, and if not for his Ghost, he would have succumbed to the cold long ago. Ghost was hidden, of course. The massive castle doors were already open when he arrived at the top. An Exo, eyes glowing in its sleek black skull, stood just beyond them. It released whatever weapon it was reaching for inside its greatcoat when Wu Ming approached with his hands held high. "I come in peace, brother."
Loose Ends, pt. III
It wasn't much warmer inside, though Felwinter's Ghost had lit the fireplace for Wu. He sat across from the former Warlord, both of them in massive, gothic chairs. "Who are you?" Felwinter spoke first. "Your neighbor. I live downstairs, been trying to get your attention for a month," Wu Ming grinned. "What do you want?" Wu thought about it. "I heard you kill." "A necessity of life in this post-Collapse existence." "No, I'm talkin' Risen. Final-deaths. It's gotten real taboo recently. You Iron Lords are changin' things." "Who are you? I don't believe you've been honest with me." Felwinter's voice echoed through the chamber. Wu Ming leaned back and rubbed his temples. His hands shook. Felwinter stared unblinking. Wu had the feeling the Exo would sit, frozen in time, until he said something. "Ghost," Wu Ming beckoned. His only friend in the world materialized out of the air. "Is that supposed to impress me?" Felwinter asked without a shred of irony. "How else would you have survived the climb?" Wu coughed. Ghost shook its head at him. "Let me ask again, then," Wu Ming said, straightening to his full posture in the stupid chair. "Will you break the Iron Decree? Will you kill for real?" "As a Warlord, I did many things I'm not proud of. Under the Iron Lords, I adhere to strict rules of engagement," Felwinter said. His voice sounded hollow inside his armored skin. "Ghosts are not valid targets." "I heard you care very much about right and wrong, and the delivery of justice to those who deserve it." Felwinter's eyes glowed brighter. "I can't think of a more human act," he said after a moment's pause. "I don't know that anyone has a right to that. But I believe in revenge with all my heart. And I have a request, knowing that you do what you do." Felwinter tapped his chin. "What are you asking me?" Wu Ming told him a story about a long-forgotten town far away called Eaton, early in the age of Iron Lords. A Lord called Dryden had brought food for the town's starving people, but in return, asked to use them as bait to bring a local Warlord into position for an ambush. This, Wu had learned, went against the code set out by Lord Radegast, the founder of the order. Dryden had broken the rule of involving Lightless individuals in Iron Lord business, because it was those people the Lords had unified to protect. The town had agreed, of course. What choice did it have? But the ambush had gone horribly wrong. The Warlord target had brought a whole fireteam to the fight. Eaton's erasure was utter and complete. Though Wu later learned that Dryden won the battle, he lost every Lord under his command, Ghosts and all, and he committed the additional sin of inflicting final deaths on the Warlords he defeated, in an act of bloodlust and rage. In the intervening years, Wu had learned that Dryden kept this under wraps, and that he and his Ghost were now among the most decorated of Lords, next to the likes of rising champions like Lord Saladin and Lady Efrideet themselves. Felwinter sat frozen in his chair. It was difficult to tell if he had registered any of what Wu Ming had said. "How do I know you're not lying?" the hollow voice asked finally. "I have live recordings," Wu replied. His Ghost transmitted a data stream to Felwinter's Ghost, who nodded. "Eaton. Who were those people to you?" "Nothing. Just ghosts." "You want revenge for people you care nothing about?" "Is the Darkhorse of Iron for hire?" Felwinter stood, and politely motioned for Wu Ming to take his leave. Wu sighed, shrugged, and left the chamber. He had a long climb ahead of him. The Exo parted his coat and drew a long, bronze shotgun from his side. "What do you think?" his Ghost asked. "Call Lord Dryden. Prepare my Iron Banner arsenal."