There comes a time in the evening, when the lamps have been dimmed and the mammut have settled in their stables, when one sits alone on the porch listening to summer rain fall upon the orange groves and the warm wind rummaging in the deeper forests about the estate. Work has ceased and the only light is a cigarillo’s ember, one’s only companion a carafe of bitter xanthine wine. Wives and children are abed and even the carp dream in shallow ponds.
On such nights one thinks of the ancestors, an unbroken chain of faces, dead men arrayed behind one’s chair in ranks beyond reckoning, each with a rebuke nested behind grey lips. They swallowed the ocean, they fell pierced by blades and bullets and lasbeams, else reached their winters and slept their last in the very bedchamber where later I shall lay my head. One dwells on those who dwelt deep beneath, in bowers subterranean and illuminated by false suns, awaiting a day of rising glory they knew they would never see. We are the children of the ancients, yet one fears during these dark rainy evenings that we remain children only, heirs to the Urth who have discovered also that we are heirs to her long and gentle decay.
Of the New Hegemony
The New Hegemony, that gilt and grasping corpse-empire, lies to the south of the blue lands of Vaarn, and as such is outside the ken of many Vaarnfolk. That being true, the Hegemony has long extended its reach into the blue ruins. The Hegemon has decreed all of Vaarn a province of his suzerainty, and red-coated Legionaries patrol the lapis badlands, attempting to bring Hegemonic Law to the nomadic Faa clans and cacogenic hamlets that cluster around the scant water-holes. Gnomon, city of shaded markets, is burdened with a Hegemony Consul and Hegemony General, governing in an uneasy triarchy with the ancient Water Baron. In the Mooncradle Mountains Hegemonic mining concerns have been established, wind-barges full of conscripts arriving each month to replace those who have vanished in the dark. Further afield crews of Hegemony privateers raid and trade wherever fortune calls them, most little better than bandits who brandish the Hegemon’s seal and writ alongside the fearful weapons in their armature. All of which is to say: many who live in Vaarn have heard tell of the New Hegemony, of its occluded Hegemon and great cities. Here is some of what is told.
Of Old Luz, her Death and Reclamation
Many songs are sung of Luz, the City of Peacocks, first city of men. It was here that the Autarch Ardar-Eld established his dynasty, a shining city upon the banks of the shining god-river, the Alph. Great was the city of Luz: strong were its bastions and castles, myriad were its pleasure parks and coliseums, proud and comely were its people, and great in equal majesty was the city’s undoing.
The histories tell of seven miseries inflicted upon Luz in the course of the Great Collapse, culminating in the visitation of a terrible curse that boiled the stones themselves and woke nameless spirits beneath the Urth who, vengeful, vomited forth clouds of poison dust that dimmed the sun for many years. Luz was left a black and empty husk, her windows shattered and her gleaming lights smothered in the gloom that befell all things, and all that lived sickened and died or else sealed themselves in the arcologies that had been built in secret against this evil day.
Beneath the mountains the true-kin waited, and for a time the natural order was inverted: the dead walked upon the Urth, crying for poisoned water through poisoned lips, not yet knowing they were dead, whilst the living huddled in caverns and tombs, warded by doors of silver and lead. Beneath the mountains the inheritors waited, generation after generation, dreaming of their birthright yet knowing they would not live to see it. Above them the clouds thinned, the spirits calmed, the curse began to fade. Red sunlight streamed back into the world; men that had hidden behind the sky and beneath the sea began to return to land.
The true-kin observed this through their instruments and some sages said let us join them and still others argued against it, for although the curse had faded it had left a taint in the blood that begat strange children. Through their far-seekers and omniscopes the inheritors spied many dynasties of new-kin, the strange creatures that some name as cacogen. The inheritors knew they must wait for the right time to unseal the doors of silver and lead, must wait long enough for the curse to fade in puissance but not so long that these cacogen might usurp the Urth.
None alive now agree on who gave the order to unseal the gates of the arcologies: descendents of each Exultant lineage claim that their forefathers were the first to dare it. It is agreed that on that reclamation day the true-kin sallied forth with trumpets blaring and banners flying, a war-host who wept to stand once more beneath the sky their ancestors abandoned. As word spread that the Inheritance was no longer a dream, more arcologies opened wide the gates, and men who had lived too long beneath the world were loosed upon it. A new age of chaos was born.
The true-strain of humankind fought one another like dogs over bloody meat. They had lived apart too long to feel anything except revulsion and dread when they witnessed the outriders of a strange arcology on the horizon. The armies of the inheritors clashed across virginal spear-grass plains that had not known man’s tread for three centuries. Animals that had never smelt a human being were crushed beneath the treads of dread machines or gassed in their burrows, footnotes to the ambition of the Inheritors of Urth. The weapons of the ancients had been kept in good order, and the lasguns scribed doom in lurid lines as keenly as the day they were forged. Autochthonous cacogen and newbeasts were exterminated, evicted, enslaved. The banners of the risen arcologies flew above chained legions of prisoner-soldiers who slew one another in service to their own usurpers. Such was the get of the Fallen Autarchy: a colossus that, in its death-agony, gave rise to a hundred young, each child already mad with loss and grief, which buried themselves in their mother’s poisoned skin and awoke lifetimes hence to devour one another in dreary imitation.
The armies of inheritors converged upon the corpse-city of old Luz, for it was here the Autarchy had been born and it was here, the first city of men, that their renewed dominion over Urth would be legitimated. Luz was alight once more, yet not with wedding fires and glow globes, but with the rude dawn of war. Artillery roared amongst the banyan-netted ruins where the Autarch’s honor guard once barracked, and the god-river Alph was choked with the dead. The strong trampled the weak and within the walls of Xanadu, summer palace of the Autarchs, the victors held council and dictated the partition of the Urth, decreed the tithes that would henceforth be owed. The defeated and enslaved were set to clearing the streets of the fallen and making the shattered manses beautiful. New Luz was born in the corpse of the old: a bitter resurrection perhaps, but who could expect any different after so bitter a death?
Of New Luz
The Hegemonites style her Luz, as if sharing a name with the fabled city of antiquity is sufficient to bestow the same authority, yet most who dwell there would admit that their mother-city is swallowed within the cyclopean walls of Old Luz, like a child who dons the armour of her father in jest, hoping one day that she will attain the stature to fill it. It has been generations since the Reclamation, and the mightiest city on Urth still occupies a fraction of the footprint of its namesake. A wall has been constructed within the ancient walls, guarding the living city from its progenitor, and it would be a brave man indeed who walked the streets of Old Luz after sunset without a stout bevy of Lictors at his disposal. The dead city stretches from horizon to horizon, ziggurats and dwelling-domes and cloudspires towering above the triple-layered streets, all ruined and curse-blackened and veined with climbing plants. The streets are crowded with the petrified corpses of the accursed, flash-frozen in the instant of their despair, holding up blackened hands to shield blackened faces, else clutching blackened infants to their chests. Such corpses are thickest on the streets where the Labyrinth torii and void-ports were located. Salvation in the worlds beyond was sought and found absent.
New Luz has been cleared of these grim relics, and her streets are home only to corpses of the usual kind, who have fallen victim to footpads or jealous husbands. One might describe the Hegemony’s capital as a bright and precocious sapling, growing in the shade of a looming dead tree. By night towering fires are lit upon the younger ramparts, as if to announce vitality in the face of the yawning idiot blackness of the void overhead and the necropolis all around. The city lives, in spite of the desolation that embraces her walls, and the banks of the Alph are cultivated as they were in ancient times, shellfish and crustaceans raised in abundance in hydro-farms. Airships dock upon steel spires, their horns sounding to celebrate the arrival of luxuries from every corner of the Hegemony, and patrolling ornithopters fly low enough to kiss the riverwater, wings raising rainbow spray as they pass.
Life proceeds within the double ring of walls: the Hegemon’s Lictors parade beneath crimson banners, urchins teem beneath the stony visages of long-perished Autarchs, the ninescore Brides of the Everbleeding Wound writhe and wail beneath scourges of dog hair and stinging-vine. Walking the city one may see a great variety of true-kin, claiming ancestry from a thousand buried arcologies, and stranger things besides, for all the cacogenic new-kin subjugated during the Reclamation are found on the verdant avenues of Luz. Whispering Thanataurs and obsidian-fletched Lornfolk mix with the ancipital men of Ibbn Ut and yellow-blooded Sons of Zond; yet all inhabit New Luz at the sufferance of the Hegemon, and any may be evicted by writ with seven hours’ notice. It is the true-kin who reign here, and only the true-kin may manage estates, carry weapons, or wear the crimson sashes granted to those who serve the Hegemon, although it should be noted that the cacogen are not exempted from taxation, nor from the burden of defending the Hegemony’s homes and working the Hegemony’s fields.
To live amongst the true-kin is both exciting and maddening. They are as true-men always have and shall ever be: proud, reaching, keenly aware of the unpayable debt they owe their ancestors and dreaming of the world they must re-make for their children. They are fond of hounds and cats, make much of fine jewels and elegant silks. All strive to be atop the wheel of destiny when it turns and to push another beneath that same grinding wheel when they might fall. They are mindful of their heritage, obsessed with the august purity of their bloodlines and the corpse-chain of a billion generations that connects them with the first men who lived in antiquity. They live in a rigid caste system that traces each family’s name to the exact occupation their forefathers held inside the arcologies, and these long-ago divisions of labour continue to mark how high each man of the Hegemony might think to reach before his fellows drag him down.
At the lowest rank of the ladder one may find the Servitor caste. These true-kin are descended from those who maintained the vents and ducts of the arcologies, scrubbed clean the algae tanks, and recycled the bodies of the dead to feed the living. All may command them and none are below them, and they generally survive in New Luz by carrying out trades that are considered impure or spiritually corrupting, such as disposing of corpses, shovelling dung, or prospecting the ruins of Old Luz. Their only source of pride is to hold themselves apart from cacogen and newbeasts, which they do with great ferocity.
Above the Servitors are set the Freeholders, descedants of the artisans and craftsmen who were protected within the arcologies. Each Freeholder family is the practitioner of a craft, and these families join together into Guilds for greater control over who practises their trade. As such this caste is the largest and most divided, arrayed into multiple Guilds who care for little beyond the affairs of their own trade. Freeholders may own property, but are excluded from esoteric colleges and warrior societies.
In the middle is the caste of Optimates, descended from those who worked as administrators and scribes within the buried arcologies. These families are to be taught to read and write High Autarkic, by the Hegemon’s decree, and are allowed to commune with the machinery of the ancients. This is a small, resentful caste, contemptuous of the uneducated workers and merchants below them, and jealous of the wealth amassed by the warriors and aristocrats above them. Most enter the bureaucracy of the New Hegemony, serving as administrators for Exultant families, or else are promised to the priesthood.
The most numerous of the two upper castes is the Armiger class, a title granted to the children of those who fought to defend the arcologies as they were constructed, and who guarded against internal strife during the centuries before the reclamation. This is to say nothing of the battles fought by the Armigers during the inheritance itself. Armigers may carry a pistol and blade within New Luz, and have the right to use them on anyone lower in rank. Armigers may manage estates, but are required to fight for the Hegemon, and to muster soldiers for him. They are permitted to join warrior societies, and many do so, as this is the chief form of advancement available to them.
The most rarified caste in the New Hegemony is that of the Exultant. Such a title is granted to the sacred aristocracy of the Hegemony, the descendants of the priest-scientists who designed the arcologies and ruled them during the long centuries mankind spent underground. All trace their ancestries to the noble families of the Autarchy. Exultants have claims on all lands in the New Hegemony, and may rule them in the Hegemon’s name. The Senators who advise the Hegemon on all matters are drawn exclusively from Exultant families, as are the Consuls who rule frontier territories like Vaarn. Lastly, Exultants are permitted to enter Xanadu, the garden-palace at the heart of New Luz.
Of Xanadu, her Gardens and Depths
The forbidden bastion, the garden set aloof, seven-hued Xanadu! Only a handful who walk the streets of New Luz have ever set foot within the bounds of the Hegemon’s retreat, and even to stare too long at the archipelago of iridescent pleasure-domes amongst the sea of flowers is to invite rebuke.
It has not the aspect of a dread fortress, being once the summer palace of the Autarchs, where god-kings would recline amongst the flora of a thousand spheres. It is guarded to be sure, by vigilant brigades of Lictors, yet Xanadu boasts no curtain wall nor brooding towers. Her primary defences, it is whispered, lie in realms beyond the mundane and physical. The Urth’s flesh has cooled considerably even since the reign of the last Autarch, and so Xanadu maintains an artificial climate, some degrees warmer than the city beyond. Hermetic warding fields repel pests and parasites, defending the myriad flowers of Xanadu from all that might ail them. And what flowers!
The gardens of Xanadu are beyond compare. Every seed that was saved from the Great Collapse is cultivated here, tended to by green-priests of surpassing skill and wisdom. All plants known upon the Urth, and many from the spheres in the void above, are grown to full flourishing, and the air is heavy with scent and pollen and the throbbing of bees. Always there are flowers, for the gardeners arrange matters so that when one plant sheds her petals, another is about to bloom. Amongst this riot of foliage stand seven pleasure-domes, each worked from a different hue of crystal, and within these domes the Hegemon entertains his guests with nightly feasts and daily recitals of song and prayer. Tea ceremonies and weddings are conducted in lesser pavilions, and the great rolling lawns are the ideal venues for the contests of skill and strength that mark a young Exultant scion as worthy of marriage or military command.
The Great Houses of the Hegemony maintain estates all across the Urth, but at least one member of the household is expected to reside in Xanadu at all times, so they may enjoy the Hegemon’s generosity (and, perhaps, remain in easy reach of his Lictors). Herds of holy cattle and llama are fatted in river-bank pastures, destined for the altars of New Luz each holiday. A menagerie of even stranger creatures is kept within pens of anbaric force: fierce Alzabo and Mantygers, listless lunar insects, and beasts abducted from the deeps of the ocean and held within pressure-spheres lest their intestines exit their bodies through their mouths. Even lacking their proximity to the ruler of rulers, these gardens would be a wonder of the Hegemony.
Yet not all within Xanadu is pleasure and diversion. Hard-eyed Praetorians sometimes appear at the feast, beckoning one guest or another from the gaities and ushering them into a waiting elevator. The full extent of the underground palace in Xanadu is not recorded, but it is known that the subterranean vaults are of prodigious size and depth. It is widely understood by the Exultant caste that the pleasure gardens on the surface are but a fraction of Xanadu’s true size, being merely a glorious mask upon a face far more austere and unknowable. The Hegemon is said to reside deep underground, within a lead-lined command complex designed to shield the Autarchs from an orbital strike, and it is within these forbidding confines that a select few patriarchs speak with him in the flesh.
Of the Hegemon Himself
One might picture a colossal wheel, of great strength and velocity, which advances through the world with a murderous impetus. The outer rim of this wheel crushes with abandon, extinguishing the life of plants and animals without second thought; the cities and free peoples who find themselves in the path of the wheel are destroyed with equal haste and carelessness. The rim of this calamitous wheel is constantly in motion, shaking and reverberating with the force of the impacts, kept coherent under myriad blows only by its strength and single-minded purpose. At the centre of this wheel, meanwhile, is the axle, and the axle is stable and unperturbed. The wheel may be said to move but the axle does not, holding a single position while all creation re-arranges itself around this monad point, and the degradations and violence inflicted by and upon the rim of the wheel mean less than nothing to the axle, about whom the mechanism revolves. This industrious juggernaut wheel is the New Hegemony. The axle is the person of the Hegemon, whose bearded face glowers from uncountable coins and banners and brazen statues. He is always portrayed in profile, staring to the dawning horizon, his austere features a conscious mimicry of the despotic scowls worn by the Autarchs. Yet what is truly known of the patriarch of patriarchs? What do the people of Vaarn say of this distant imperator?
The Hegemon is remote even from his own subjects. His personal banners fly above the pavilions of Xanadu year-round, to show that he is in residence, yet the Hegemon does not grace the streets of New Luz with his presence. Grim-faced bearded men in imperious white uniforms attend the triumphs of the Hegemony’s Generals and officiate at the openings of public works, and to the naive observer they may appear to be the Hegemon, but those who are wise to the ways of New Luz know such figures to be nothing but the Hegemon’s shadows, an ever-changing cast of actors who are bred for their resemblance to the face that frowns from the obverse of all coins.
The true Hegemon dwells in Xanadu, and he does not stir from those forbidden gardens. He speaks through writ: his heralds emerge to pronounce legislation, pasting copies of his decrees over every surface in New Luz. Sky-cars and ornithopters depart day and night from the landing pads in Xanadu, carrying groups of heralds ever-further afield and returning with news from the Hegemony’s frontiers. The Hegemon’s words are heard everywhere on Urth: true-kin are raised with their ruler’s laconic aphorisms ever on their fathers’ lips, and the cheap red-covered collections of such axioms are the most commonly printed book in New Luz. All men of the Hegemony will speak at length on the influence the Hegemon’s decrees have had upon every aspect of their civilisation, from the curriculum taught in their Lyceums to the exercises practised in their Gymnasia. Yet the man behind these words is never seen, and the few who are invited beneath Xanadu will not speak of what they saw there.
Naturally such reticence on the part of the supreme father of the Hegemony has attracted attention. It has been generations, they say, since the Hegemon last emerged from seclusion. Stories abound, passed between rough sailors and lizard ranchers, of what is really going on beneath the polychrome glades of Xanadu. All claim insider knowledge, gleaned through eavesdropping on a drunken Lictor, the idle chatter of the Hegemon’s heralds, else a secret liaison with one of the horticultists who tend to Xanadu’s holy gardens. As these tales of the Hegemon’s household and activities vary wildly and contradict one another, it must be concluded that many such tales, if not all, are fabrications. Still, it may be of interest to collect some of the most common stories here.
- Some swear that the Hegemon is gravely ill, convalescing inside a cocoon of Long Ago biotech that resembles a dryland coral reef. The symbiotic animal-machinery has sustained the master past his normal span, but he no longer appears human and cannot allow his subjects to witness his cacogenic form.
- Others argue that the Hegemon has followed the Path Synthetic, and allowed his quadripartite soul to be transferred into an ego-engine. This machine rules in his stead, the true Hegemon having perished after the egress of his souls.
- Some speak of the cannibalistic memory-transference practised by the Ghoul cults that worship the Alzabo. They claim that when a Hegemon dies, his brain is consumed by a successor, along with a draught of Alzabo brain-bile. In this way the memories of the Hegemon live on in a new infant body, which takes time to grow to maturity.
- It is occasionally whispered that the Hegemon perished decades ago; his corpse was reanimated by the College of Indigo Tigers, and is now puppetted by the Arch Lectors of that august institute. It is the College that truly rules the Hegemony.
- A common hersey states that there is no Hegemon, and never was. His bearded countenance is a fiction, which grants the common folk a hero for their worship and a lightning rod for their dismay. The New Hegemony is ruled by bursars and accountants, all servants to a blind algorithm of commerce and expansion; else it is run by soothsayers, sacred fools, or the operators of an inscrutable mechanical haruspex.
- Some say the Hegemon broods on the greatest threat to his empire: the red and dying sun. He has devoted all his time to mysticism and a deep psychic trance, attempting to make contact with an intelligence upon another world that can help him revitalise the Urth’s star. A cabal of advisors issues decrees in accordance with his assumed wishes.