Grave Council

Death and Taxes

It was nearly sunset.

The graverobber stood a few paces away from the couple, silently observing their relief and joy at being reunited. His hands were still covered in the sticky black dirt from the morgue, and he was exhausted from the effort.

Time passed as they continued their reunion, but his work would stretch long into the night.  Another town, another morgue, another soul to guide back to the land of the living. He brushed the dirt from his hands and gathered his tools to leave. He didn’t feel much emotion anymore, but there was a particular satisfaction of a job well done that he still enjoyed. He had a purpose, and that was enough.

“How much do we owe you, sir?”

The woman had broken her embrace with her wife, and turned tearfully to the graverobber. He could see the tinge of fear in her eyes. The common folk always believed the stories.

“There is nothing owed today. The Collectors will assess your grave tax, but I assure you it will be a pittance. Your wife’s death was an accident.”

She nodded, thankful, but still tried to press a few Brass into his hands.  He would need to record the donation to make sure their contracts were updated accordingly, he supposed. 

Outside, the light was dimming but still bright enough. He blinked and shaded his red eyes.  Normally this kind of work happened in the dead of the night, and he never really adjusted to the light of the surface.

A man stood across the road watching him leave, obviously drunk. A Texican perhaps? Maybe a Baywalker.  But probably a Texican. The graverobber turned and headed back to his caravan.

“Tax man here to collect his blood money! Tell me tax man!” Spittle flew from the drunk’s lips on each word of the insult.

“If an apple keeps the sawbones away, what keeps you Council fucks away?” The drunken man’s words were slurred, but the challenge was clear.

Not every doctor was sanctioned by the Grave Council, but he was. Gathering his anger, he composed it into a fiery, dead-eyed stare and turned deliberately to face the man.

“Stephen. Joseph. Clark.”

The blood rushed from the face of the Merican as he realized his taunt had been successful. Most graverobbers would have ignored him.  Not today.

“How.. how.. do you know my name?”

The graverobber took a menacing step towards the man. The graverobber’s eyes seemed to glow with a pale deathly light.

“We know what happens in the night, Stephen.”

A step closer.

“We see your dalliances. We assess your crimes. We remember that night in Essex.”

Another step.

“The tax will come due.”

Another step. The graverobber could smell the stench of the cheap hooch on the man’s breath.

“All will pay the tax when it is due. Perhaps when your pitiful life is over, cut short by a life of booze or even a raider blade at your neck in the night when you forget to lock your doors...”

A step closer.

“A hand like mine will reach out to help even the likes of you, Stephen.”

A final step. He could smell the bitter tang of piss. The terrified man had pissed himself. It figured.

“But the tax will come due.”

A long moment passed, and then Merican was alone once more, shivering in a pool of his own urine.  The graverobber stopped, and looked back at the pitiful retch.

“Remember Stephen. There are only two things certain in this life. Death and taxes.”

The final words whispered across the road. 

The sun was setting, and the balance was once again restored.


A Grave Council vignette by J. Loyd

Concerning the Hiway War and her Lasting Effects (cont.)

If the first year following the exodus out of the Lands Bravado was a period of reset, during which the bones of the old burned in hellfire and the culture of a people died with their constituents, then the second year was a rebirth.

Like ashes scattered over a fallow field, riotous growth followed after. The discovery of grand mystery under the old town swept us up and along like a demagogue her flock. 

At first it was a trickle - a few dedicated Delvers disappeared into the mud to find the roots of that perfect obelisk of white stone springing up and out of the caldera. Within days they returned, eyes brighter than the treasures they found and adventure on their lips.

Below us, they said, there are steel doors that guard something precious. They spoke of blinking lights that still function. Live munitions that click and whirl like analog machines. Long stretches of corridor bored out by ancient machinations that turn the stone smooth for miles and miles. Nothing like the Lascarian Tunnels of Old Bravo - twisting things chiseled by time and circumstance - but something deliberate and terrifying in its implications.

More delvers followed. Irons and Retrogrades, mutants and evolved for whom the residual radiation was merely an inconvenience, dove into the Ruins like Saltwise into brine and came up again and again with ancient metals, defunct computing devices, niceties of a fallen world and, very occasionally, the delicate pages of notes held together by little more than the careful handling of their discoverers. 

And the Lonestar heeded them. 

What happened next was a complex two-step of bureaucracy and belligerence. A paperwork whirlwind that, when the cyclone died, created a powerhouse capable of producing a dynasty.

What was previously the Road Commission laid the first tracks near Essex, the first city on what would become The Bravado Line. The newly christened Railroad Commission contracted out evolved and mutant strains to carry and lay corrugated steel and heavy wooden beams along the old trade routes between the two settlements, while Warden Tabitha St Mercy of Prudence Penitentiary employed her penitent work crews to begin the same process on the Bravado end.

Using notes safeguarded for generations, the Conglomerate, a collection of Digitarian houses who possess a great and shrouded interest in the Ruins below New Bravado, began the process of constructing the first high-powered locomotive in the Lonestar. The Ox, at that time a skeleton of iron, steel and super-plastics, would eventually become a gestalt amalgamation of construction equipment, a half dozen derelict trains and the engine of a single downed jet plane. Contracted and funded by the Railroad Commission the Conglomerate employed the great and surviving minds of scientists and psionists alike in their research centers in the town of Waking to provoke the monolithic iron horse into motion. 

But all great movements cause waves, and the process of rebirth is often as bloody as it is brilliant. For all the steel and will of its warden, Prudence Penitentiary for the Peregrine and Penalized buckled under the weight of work crews, its guardship, and the compressed conditions of its cell blocks. Riots ensued and the sickness of man was put on morbid display. In the far displaced land of New Bravado, with no larger authority to appeal to, Warden Tabitha St. Mercy closed the doors of her prison and let Wrath determine the outcome.

Colloquially we now refer to the Penitentiary as Killhouse Prison in reference to this massacre, for when the doors were opened there were little more than corpses on concrete. The survivors begged for the Warden to again resume control. Amidst her Wrath there was Pride in her work and so the Warden struck a deal with her prisoners and the tradition of the Indulgence was born. No prisoner would be made to serve more than a year in the Prison, if they were smart. For once a year all prisoner contracts would unilaterally expire, rendering them free people. Twenty-four hours later the contracts would be reinstated, the doors would close and Warden Tabitha St. Mercy would sic the Law Dogs upon the retreating backs of any prisoner who loitered in her city.

And so, with the tradition instituted and upheld, Prudence Penitentiary resumed its work on the railroad with gusto, outstripping the paid workers of the Railroad Commission by several weeks. The uptick in bodies begged a question, however. The Killhouse Massacre was the most devastatingly fatal event since the Bomb that decimated Old Bravo. Without a proper morgue, many of those first prisoners escaped, we assume. Perhaps they retreated to the Dune Sea or fled east towards the Clutch.

Both the Railroad Commission and the Prison found themselves at a loss. Without a way to control the flow of bodies, a prisoner could simply commit an infection to the cause of their escape. Without a mechanism by which to enforce order in New Bravado the system would fail, and without voluntary work crews seeking to shorten their sentences the railroad’s production would be brought to a grinding, painful halt.

The Grave Council, a collection of Undead strains lead by the powerful Takheeta Firstborn, stepped in as the solution.

Through ritual and rite the Council of Grave Decisions determined the location of each morgue-to-be. They dispatched Graverobbers and Grave Touched to these sites, and committed their own bodies to the creation of these morgues and, in a brilliant exchange of power, negotiated total ownership of these sites and the right to tax anyone who used them. 

Now that their lives and afterlives were solidly controlled under comfortable capitalism, the survivors resettling the area found a great darkness lifting - literally. A land that had been burning with hellfire now burned with the lights of hundreds of new homesteads. In the spaces between powers, the voids of civilization, new stars were lit aflame. Had these people always been here? Or were they deposited on the shores of this disaster like flotsam on the beach after a storm?

Wherever they came from, they brought with them the salt of the earth, these settlers of the lowlands and hollers. They were the early risers, once more planting the seeds of hope into the soot-streaked soil. New quiet folk for a new settlement. Keepers of the land and Tenders of the hearth. Quick with a witty comment and slow to judgement. A magnet for a network of community bonds across the region - the Lovelace Family began to be used as a surname and identity of these landsmen, hundreds of families finding kinship under their good name. Thousands of strings of stories and lives tied together in hope for a beautiful agricultural future.

And among these quiet neighbors, there remained institutions of charity and well-being. Now that the immediate harm of the Great Disaster was healing, the Widows of the Lonestar turned their eyes to where else their kindly influence could improve the lives of others. They took a keen interest in the work of the Grave Council, and lent their weight into helping to prepare places of sanctuary and rest for those weary from work, sickness, and disease. Anyone seeking a meal, bed, or safety at their door was never turned away - including a large number of those who managed to escape the tall walls of Killhouse Prison. Above all, they sought to protect a populace that had, for too long, been victimized. 

To the north the Tribes Disparate under Holy Mother Queen Jasper thrived. Maintaining a friendly rapport with the Braves that saved their people, Jasper committed workers to the cause of re-building the city of Bravado even as she kept an iron grip on the thirteen tribes that writhed and strove beneath her. Houses formed, with figureheads who swear fealty to the Holy Mother in a feudal framework that benefits both the Lady and those who report to her. The individual tribes vie for her attention and favor, some committed by blood and sword - others by convenience.

The Junkerpunks, a loose coalition of seafaring folk, begin to earn the name alluded to in the first chapter of this long-form essay. Among their ragtag ranks a leader emerged, a Saltwise of dangerous charisma and wit, Sinker Swim captains the flagship of the Junkerpunk flotilla. 

The nature of their separation from the naysayers of the Clutch encouraged in the Junkerpunks an  underdog mentality that never truly left their culture. Seeking out the downtrodden, desperate, and dangerous to swell their ranks the Junkerpunks quickly became known as pirates, bandits - but also coy merchants in an era where few ships navigated the inland seas of the Spoiled Coast.

It was this mercantile mindset, this author believes, that lead the Junkerpunks to build a modern-day Tortuga in the middle of the lake that was Old Bravo. The marina, cheekily called the Punkerport by locals, trucks in undocumented finds from the Ruins as much as it does raw imports of food and supplies for the delve-camps there.

The Junkerpunks, in the second year of their watery pilgrimages, found an accord with the Spiderhause Redstar who have, in recent years, taken up residence in Essex and its surrounding plane-space. Both underdogged, both committed to uplifting those who otherwise do not have the means to achieve their own strength, the members of Spiderhause left the land that had treated them poorly to try again on the open sea. What the Junkerpunks lack in organizational skills and raw, coordinated strength, the Redstars of Spiderhause make up for in spades.

In the second year following the Bomb that destroyed Old Bravo, the world began again to turn. The hole in the sky closed up, mostly. The water in the lake might never be drinkable in our lifetime but the fish seem to like it just fine. The riotous growth-post-nuclear burned in the summer and regrew again in the following spring, just as it always has. These events in isolation beget no particular question. But in aggregate, in the context of the bomb and its thereafter effects, this author wonders aloud what arcane circumstances render this land livable again after only two years. And if the truth of this place is merely old, or truly ancient.

It is said around these parts that things are happening that have happened before. But it is this author’s humble opinion that previous trends do not indicate future behavior. And that just because something has happened before, does not mean it will always happen.

-  “Concerning the Hiway War and Her Lasting Effects”

By: Dr. Perenthius Goodfellow 

Concerning the Hiway War and Her Lasting Effects

In the weeks following the Second Stampede and the nuclear detonation that marked the end of the Hiway War, the second war that follows all wars began in earnest. The mass exodus out of Bravo and her outlying territories was only the beginning of that effort. And the hundreds of displaced peoples, uprooted from their culture as much as their homesteads, began to assert themselves on the desolate wastes beyond the borders of their vaporized town.

The first burning season was the worst we’d ever seen. The bomb carved a hole in the sky. Not like the quaint colloquialisms that paint the stars above Lonestar as distant forges, but in a very literal sense. The ionizing radiation ripped a hole in our atmosphere some ten miles across, exposing us to raw starstuff beyond our ken. The sun baked the land black, reducing what little was left by the bomb to flakey, carbonized debris.

Radiation sickness rent through the population like gorehound claws would a lump of tepid butter. Hundreds grew ill, their immune systems mangled by the blast and the fallout thereafter. Dozens died to common illnesses that had no business taking the hardy Bravo folk, while dozens more will live the rest of their lives with the scarred imprint of their clothes on their backs, twisted and marked with nobbly keloids in the places that the initial thermal wave tore at them from behind.

Storms, rendered radioactive and boiling by circumstance, swept over what we now refer to as the “Blastlands” South of Old Bravo. The Oil Fields, as they were called before, were ignited by the bomb and even now, at the time of this entry, burn hot and bright below the black dirt. To rest your feet too long on the Blastlands invites pain, and only with thick and leather soles would this author ever suggest to traverse them. Month by month, they extend further southward as the Texas Tea below ignites; threatening the Imixin people and the various tribes that inhabit the Pridelands and Dead Marches. Ambassadors forged north and spoke widely of a new homeland. Opportunists and criminals accosted the diasporic Unborn as they made the pilgrimage across the burning wastes, forcing the Imixin people to look for allyship in the uprooted and downtrodden.

They found this in the shape of other mutant and gorger strains. Full Dead, Retrogrades, Lascarians, Semper Morts and Tainted; discriminated against in the wake of a disaster that cast any zed-presenting persons as aggressors and and monsters, they began to form a loose association of tribes that would eventually come to be known as the contemporary Grave Council.

Other victims of the war, distraught and displaced, banded together - finding refuge from within. Three hardy individuals, self-titled Widows of the Lone Star, formed an orphanage-of-sorts. A haven for the misfits and the lost. They wore their grief on their sleeves - these common folk that had sacrificed everything in the war against Robb - but there was a fragile hope in their kinship and, as is the case when victims come together in common cause, there was eventually strength and determination.

In the meantime, beyond the blastlands and into the dangerous and virulent forests that characterize our northern Lonestar, the Antler Tribe’s flotilla came to rest at last. After months of searching these itinerant peoples began to craft for themselves a new capital and a new identity alongside the Cervaxi who had saved and hosted them in the wake of their genocide. Queen Jasper, first of the Antlers, proved herself the conqueror she had always claimed and in the space of a few months, the Antler Tribe annexed twelve clans and their power grew to that of a small nation state. Even now the Antlers and her Tribes Disparate rule the northern lands as a matter, not explicitly, but of course.

To the east of Old Bravo there was war, small wars that tore at the identity of the places they were waged in. Insurrection after insurrection as half a dozen leaders rose and fell, each time claiming that their way was the right one - only begetting more death when the the next demagogue climbed up to meet them.

Temple Station, as few call it now, after largely bloodless conflict came to rest firmly in the clutches of Warden Tabitha St. Mercy, the woman responsible if not for the founding, than the actualization of the Prison located there.

While The Clutch, located in the Concrete Isles, ballooned in terms of population. A divide quickly developed in the months following the Second Stampede. The nuclear winter that followed, affecting the entire latitude at which ground zero occurred, isolated a unhappy population to the shorehouses and fisheries there. The riots that broke out killed dozens, most often by the process of exposure when offending parties were thrown from the safehouses into the unforgiving, month-long blizzard uncharacteristic to this southern locale.

When the long winter ended, two factions had developed and one of them left. Called the Junkerpunks - at first a slight against their motley flotilla of repurposed boats, this loose coalition of Saltwise, Red Stars, Remnants, Diesel Jocks and Baywalkers set out to make a new identity along the Spoiled Coast. A kind of freedom-fighting but vicious underdog, they made their name first with blood and made targets of the looming leviathans below the murky waves. In that first year after the blast, the Junkerpunks only began to gain ground.

The Dune Sea to the west remained unchanged. Pitiless miles of sunbaked stone and sand have little to change in the wake of nuclear detonation. Raiders, previously deep-dwellers in the unexplored reaches of the desert migrated Eastwards towards the blastlands. Lured by the object of their worship, these blast-glass festooned and psionic madmen were among the first to brave the radioactive storms that surrounded ground zero for the first eight months following the Second Stampede.

It was only when the storms passed, and the end of the first year approached, that the lands Bravado became remotely livable again. A few wandering Aggies returned, lured by the radiation and the promise of discovery. The Firebrands, raiders as mentioned above, made their first primitive settlements around the muddy caldera that had been Bravo. And a few dedicated and Darwin monks took up residence and the purpose of cataloging and understanding the slow and stately evolution of a land post-nuclear.

Instead of a town, there was now a lake. An imperfect circle of muddy, radioactive water. The air was barely breathable and only the hardiest, fool or otherwise, could live in the Lands Bravado without suffering sterility or sickness.

But it was that they could live there at all that drew them. Radiation takes a long time to leech itself out of the soil, much longer than ten months.

It was in May of the year following the Second Stampede that the discovery was made. A pale and perfect edifice of stone rose up and out of the muddy ground that surrounded Old Bravo. Something older than the town that died there. Something older than any of us.

It was proximal to that obelisk of too-perfect rock that the town of Bravado was re-born.

Concerning the Hiway War and Her Lasting Effects

By: Dr. Perenthius Goodfellow