1. An Unexpected Beginning

The biggest surprise about being raised as a zombie, at least for me, was retaining my sense of self. One would think that being inducted into a shambling mindless horde would require a certain amount of, well, mindlessness. Though you certainly wont find me complaining, my last thought before I died was how much I didn’t want to end up like that. Not that my current situation is much better. The defenses in the Denboren Mountains had always been able to hold for months. Long enough for a relief force to be mustered and sent north to reinforce them. Instead they broke in less than a day and the undead marched south on Havenrock.

The heavily warded walls that should have stalled their advance for a few weeks at least and bought enough time for the Order of The Lady march north and bring holy vengeance upon the abominations. Instead a lich sundered the walls in less time than it takes to drink a cup of tea. The horde overran the city and I got run through trying to defend the lord mayors office alongside his other staff. Now the hordes numbers will swell by a quarter million bodies at minimum. The ramifications of such a large concentration of undeath is terrible even to think about. Its common knowledge that as more undead gather, stronger and stronger monsters arise into undeath.

Which, upon further consideration, might explain my current situation. The others who were raised alongside me seem to lack any sentience beyond basic motor functions. The new senses that I’ve gained in my current state show that the dark smoke that suffuses all of us monsters is much thinner in everyone else and quite strong in myself. That is without comparing myself to the lich of course. Even with him being on the other side of the city I can feel his presence like a dark sun shining upon my soul.

The folklore that I know about higher undead speaks of them having command over the lesser dead. The easiest way to prove it would be to try and exert that control. Not that I’m particularly eager to test it, the lich whose presence I can feel from halfway across the city may take umbrage to me usurping some of his minions.

Before this invasion I was just a woman with a job as a scribe in the local government office. Ensuring records were properly kept and preparing resource allocation proposals hardly lent themselves as useful job skills for an undead general. That having been said, managing the magical aspects of an undead horde couldn’t be simple. With my new sight allowing me to see the dark power animating the nearby undead and observe its intent and purpose I can tell that these zombies are practically useless without someone giving orders. And there are just so many of them, makes you understand why the horde didn’t employ any tactics more advanced than forward and kill.

Ultimately I decide that tempting the lichs’ wrath is too dangerous and that maybe fleeing the city is a good idea. Striking out on my own carries risks, if I came across any templars or clerics I’d basically be done for. But there was only a chance of that happening if I left now whereas if I stuck with the horde then it was basically guaranteed that I would be forced onto a battlefield at some point.

I had been slain on the ground floor of the three story building that constituted the lord mayors work offices. All about me were the bodies of my former co-workers, either still dead or risen into mindless undeath. Despite the mess, the building had been left mostly intact. The stairs in particular were strewn with corpses, having been the part of the room that had seen the most intense fighting. Right as I reach the stairs a voice sounds out from behind me.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

It was raspy and barely intelligible but unmistakably the voice of the lord mayor. Halting in my stride I turn and confirm that it is indeed the former mayor, though he too has been risen into undeath. The expensive clothes that the man was fond of have been ripped to shreds and are covered in dried blood, presumably his own. He has also gained an aura of dark radiance similar to that of the lich. I hadn’t felt it before because it had been obscured by the lich’s own aura. Like a candle being held against the sun, it was too weak to compare.

Interestingly, looking at the mayor under with spiritsight reveals that while he does have a significant amount of the shadowy stuff that animates the rest of us, it is wrapped around a shining core. A core that is completely missing from myself, something to ponder on later.

“Well? Speak!”

The mayors voice pulses with an undercurrent of power the resounds across the room. All of the other undead in the room begin to moan loudly as the command hits them. I only partially notice the cacophony though, because the command hits me as well and I can feel an almost irresistible compulsion to comply run through me. Almost irresistible. I keep my mouth firmly shut and flee down the stairs.

“What?” He yelled, enraged at my disobedience. “Get back here!”

The compulsion rushed over me again but this time I was ready for it and I didn’t even falter in my stride as I rushed down the stairs. Why was I running? Simple, he was a bit of a prick in life, serving him in death is definitely not in the cards. Not to mention the plan to leave the city would be in serious trouble if one of the few creatures capable of thought left in the city knew of what I was doing.

“You dare defy me!” He yells after me in rage, “After her!”

I bound down the stairs like a woman possessed. To my horror I see the zombies on the bottom floor had been affected by the former mayors orders and were now rushing towards me. Shit. Welp, here goes nothing.

“Out of the way!” I rasp out, trying to force my will into my words. I have no idea if this is going to work but I can only hope and believe it does. My voice carries through the room but doesn’t contain any of the force of will present in the mayors’ commands. A moment of disappointment and dulled panic flashes through me but is quickly chased away by shock and vindication.

My voice hadn’t carried my desire through the air but the smoky darkness that made up what was left of my soul had flowed out in thin tendrils and connected to the other zombies. All of a sudden I could feel them in the back of my mind and they became mine to control as if each were one of my fingers. A twist of will had them part and then form ranks blocking the stairs. In a flash I was out the door and fleeing down the avenue that led towards the east gate. The mayor bellowed in angry voice for my zombies to move but they only falter for a second before my own will reasserts dominance over their actions.

He orders his own zombies to force their way through and the weight and height advantage sees my defense crumble very quickly. I strip the tendrils of control from my former minions in case he could use them to find me and duck into a side alley. Continuing down the avenue would’ve let him see the direction I was fleeing. I would have to take the back streets closer to the wall before going through the gate.

I feel the urge to slap myself in stupidity. The gate? Why was I even bothering with the gate? The lich had pulverized the walls of the city into sand as the opening gambit for his assault. I could just leave in any direction that I wished. Making my way towards a section of wall would be better for masking my escape.

Walking through the city I was surprised at the lack of devastation on display. Other than the destruction of the walls, the city was actually in pretty good shape considering what had befallen it. Sure, doors were smashed in and shutters broken and there was blood and entrails everywhere but the buildings themselves were in good repair. A few weeks of dedicated effort from a few hundred hands and the whole city could be made livable again.

There were a lot of other undead milling about on the streets, the overwhelming majority of them were former citizens turned zombie. Though there were packs of undead animals, wolves and bears and other stranger things I had no name for moving about in packs as well. I briefly considered taking control of some of the zombies but eventually thought better of it. I was pretty sure that my co-opting of the zombies back in the mayor’s office hadn’t been noticed by the lich but I couldn’t be certain.

I eventually made it to where the city walls and was pleased to see that there were zombies milling about on and outside of the shallow mounds of sand they’d become. It would mask my movements well enough until I got to the edge of the forest and became hidden by the trees. Perhaps I was being too paranoid but ultimately it was better to be safe than sorry.

Not that it mattered.

Before I’d even stepped off of the pile of sand and left the city proper a voice sounded throughout the city.

“GATHER” it said, and it swept through the horde like an inviolable command handed down by the divine. The horde obeyed.

And, however unwilling, I did as well.

Interlude: Reflections

The King of Arcadia, once ruling monarch of Winter alone, but now sharing dominion of the realm entire, stood atop a hill surveying the disaster that painted the ground below. The unruly wind that rose from the torched ground carried the ghost of a familiar taste. Though most of what had been wrought below had been at the hands of others.

In the center of a ruined cathedral stood a stele upon which was crucified a thin man. His blood flowed freely down the words inscribed on the risen stone-ye of this land, suffer no compromise in this-and flowed in a circle within the grounds. Though nothing could ever truly be spoken of with certainty he could tell that so long as the blood flowed no other worshiper could cross the entrance.

The great pivots of Creation often imprinted themselves into Arcadia, many fae wandered through such places as one might visit a garden. This too should have been just another place to find idle amusement. Would have been, if not for that presence that faintly colored the proceedings. The Duchess of Moonless Night he had titled her once, and she had since born a crown as Queen of the same. He had first learned of her when she defied Contrition, revealing herself as a stone that could, through dint of sheer stubbornness that was kin to cleverness, turn aside the river of fate.

With her as an instrument the King of Winter had brought an end to the endless cycle of conflict that had etched itself into his land since time immemorial. Pleased with the result he had left Creation well enough alone, for with the birth of a new court came a time of… uncertainty. A new order had been born, and the shape of it forged, a single court rising and falling both. But such order was fragile still, the new stories and the details that could undermine his desired outcome needed a steady, patient touch to bring it to completion.

Now though, it seemed that there may be complications. Catherine Foundling, the one who had brought about a new age for Arcadia had since ended an era, placing in the crucible an Empire Ever Dark to be forged anew. More pressing, another court forged from a piece of Arcadia itself had been established. Though these Twilight Ways served to distance Arcadia from the stories of creation, and in time might prove useful, they also stood out as the continuation of a pattern. The Black Queen was forging a new age and until she was done, in success or failure, those who were part of her story might be struck by turmoil at any time. One need only look down the hill to see how disastrous that could be.

The King of Arcadia sighed, choices of momentous weight lay in his future. The simplest answer would be to nip this problem in the bud. Though such course carried dangers, not least of which the goddesses who had claimed the Black Queen as their herald. The other was similarly fraught with peril, though half his court had owed allegiance to Summer, season of war they were not that anymore, time may yet prove the pattern of the fae victorious on the field, setting the new foundation of that story with war against the King of Death may prove costly.

A shiver in the air alerted him to the approach of another, though in truth he had felt their coming much earlier. Ista, former Queen of Summer strode out from behind a tree to come stand at his side. He had been genuinely surprised to find that he held genuine affection for the other fae ruler. Those born of Winter had long buried such feelings beneath a thousand scars of broken promises and petty spite. But in the wake of the Arcadian reformation the feeling had bloomed anew and he was loath to part with it. Even if he knew that the echoes of resentment the Queen still carried might see it used against him.

“We truly live in interesting times.” She mused, taking in the sight for herself.

“Intervention may prove necessary.”

“Starting a pattern of intervention with the mortal world has risks. As I’m sure you know.” She replied, a hint of dry humor coloring her words.

She was right, though many fae had been called into that world, never had they been allowed firm foothold. Even Summer fae had fallen easily into patterns of defeat and banishment. Creation helping along the story that woulf see their kind banished had been one of the factors leading to their current situation.

“Doing nothing also carries risk.” He warned.

“Still, I council patience. Premature action will lead to ruin.”

There was a period of silence before both rulers disappeared as if they never were.

Down in the valley the echo of a thin man looked up at where they had stood and whispered judgement.

“Conspiracy against the People, Tyranny of the First Degree…”