rating: +21+x

Even dead Cities have a pulse. A faint, almost nonexistent one, to be sure, but a pulse is a pulse. It throbs just below the surface of the streets, behind the walls of the buildings, in the broken lamposts. It permeates brick and wood and steel and stone. And if you close your eyes, and sit in the Center of the City, and truly listen, you may hear it. The rhythm that forms in the scramble of rodents, and the clink of falling metal, and a wanderer's breath. Even in dead Cities, life persists.

The man had been in the Center for many days and heard nothing. This did not bother him. He knew that finding the pulse took time. He had done it before, in other cities. None had taken this long, but patience was one of the gods' Great Gifts to Man. The waiting meant little to him.

While he waited, creatures of the city came to watch him. Someone at the Center was a curious sight. Someone remaining at the Center for almost a week was unheard of. One by one, the citizens took their turns examining him. He did not mind. A Squirrel, fur grey and matted with mud, would approach, sniff, and scurry away. A Shadow would watch from the edges of a building before slipping back into the darkness. Ravens and Sparrows flocked overhead.

Not all came to watch. On the second day, Roan, Slumlord of the East, approached. He had heard rumors of this new citizen, and they disturbed him.

“Speak your business,” he said, and his voice cracked the air. His fangs gnashed as he spoke, and his talons pierced the asphalt.

The man did not respond. He did not move. He barely breathed.

“This is my City. Your presence is a violation of the Sixth Immutability. If you do not leave, I will cut your throat and bleed your corpse above my throne.”

The man did not speak. He lifted a single finger to the sky.

“If you have something to say, say it,” spat Roan. Flecks of his saliva spattered the concrete, and blue smoke rose from them. “Don't waste my time with riddles.”

At this, the man spoke. “I am the Sky's warden, and She protects me. Come no closer, Slumlord.”

Roan ground his teeth, and swore, and beat the buildings with his fists, but came no closer. He knew what attacking a warden of Sky could bring. For all Roan's roaring and fuming, the man did not move or speak, so the slumlord crawled back into the City.

The next day, he returned, with a new plan. He stood at the edge of the Center, and called to the man. “I know what you're looking for, interloper. You won't find it here. The pulse is not in the Center. It's in the roads, and walls, and corpses. Come, walk with me, and I will show you.”

The man did not move. Roan did not expect him to.

“There is more than just the pulse within my slum,” said Roan, and from his cloak he pulled a bag. Inside this bag were wonders that would tempt any man. He showed the interloper the heart of a scar, and a lock with a thousand keys, and the music that bricks make when they think they're alone, but the man was not tempted. He knew that the Sky could avenge an attack, but must always honor an invitation, and that once inside the slum, only Roan could give permission to leave. So he did not move or speak, and Roan's bag ran empty, and the slumlord crawled back into the City.

The next day, Roan returned with a crystal sphere that shimmered like water. He stood at the edge of the Center and presented it to the man.

“This is a Map,” he said. “A true Map, not some paper trash. There are only three in my possession, and each is worth half as much as my entire slum.” He pressed a hand against the glass, and light leapt from it. A thousand lines spun through the air. They danced and connected and twisted together in a thousand ways, forming a thousand shapes. “Within this map you will find what you want, and much more. Everything you could see, or hear, or breathe, or think is held within. There are cities, both dead and alive. There are kingdoms. There are secrets, lies and the truth behind both. It is the world, interloper, and it can be yours, if only you leave.”

The man did not move, or speak. He knew that knowledge taken was worth nothing. The threads of the the world danced around him, and he ignored them.

Roan waved a hand, and the threads spun to form a single rope. It shimmered and pulsed to a steady, silent rhythm. “The pulse is here, interloper. Open your eyes and see for yourself.”

The man's eyes remained closed. “I will not. Leave me, slumlord. I do not wish to be disturbed again.” From then he did not move or speak, and Roan's words rang hollow, and the slumlord crawled back into the City.

The next day, Roan returned with an army. If the interloper could not be tricked, or bought, then it must be war. Roan did not wish to go to war with Sky, and was not sure he could win. But this man was a threat that could not be tolerated. So Roan brought his thugs, and Shadows, and beasts, and warriors, and stone, and spirit, and Gods. They surrounded the eastern half of the Center and waited.

Roan stepped forward. “Interloper, I have given you three chances. You have invaded my kingdom, and refuse to leave. For this, there can be only one punishment.”

And his army swarmed into the Center. A thousand swords, fangs, and claws rushed the man. But he did not move. He inhaled, slightly, and lightning flashed in the sky. He exhaled, just as slightly, and thunder roared. There was a flash of light, and half of Roan's army disappeared, reduced to ash by the bolt. The man inhaled again, deeper this time. There was a howl as wind swept through the Center, and another quarter of Roan's army was swept away. The man exhaled, and rain fell from the sky and drenched the earth. Another eighth of Roan's army was destroyed.

Finally, the attack stopped. Roan stood before the man, wheezing, and fixed him with a hateful stare.

“Why, interloper? Why will you not move? Why will you not leave us in peace?”

The man did not open his eyes. “If you want to know,” he said, “return to your slum. Perhaps you will find the answer there.”

So Roan called back his armies and crawled back into the city, defeated.

And the rain stopped, and the wind calmed, and the man sat in peace. And he sits there still.

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