Saturday, November 19, 2005

-- Huntson --

When it comes to pass that you're being chased from a crumbling farmhouse by the slavering dead thing that used to be your neighbor, now animated by an unholy carnivorous lust for your brainmeats, it's only natural to toss the pants and shirts you're carrying over the other shoulder, peel that nasty pair of ugly pink undies from your head, and ask yourself the big question: just where did it all go wrong?

Fortunately, I know the answer to that question. I chose the exact wrong time to get drunk.

When the great Plague came to Tirisfal and the dead rose from the freshly-cursed ground, most people fled. Others tried to fight off the wave of undeath that crept over the land. The rest died from the plague itself, sent screaming into their graves. I slept through it.

There's a universal truth to a case of dwarven shimmer stout, and it's that a human simply shouldn't drink the stuff. We're not built for that sort of thing. It's not good for us. I was discovering this very personally as the room rocked and swung in its own merry dance set to the pounding of drums in my head. A fortunate lurch hurled me over in a sprawl across the bed, and since I now had something stable to hold on to I decided to stay there a while, maybe see if the drum chorus knew any tunes I liked.

The last thing I can remember before passing out was the darkening sky through the window. Birds were rising up, a wave of feathers and screeching that almost, but not quite, blotted out the rolling green clouds descending over the horizon. Then everything went blissfully dark.

If you ever get a chance to wake up in a cold crypt, alone, and wearing a dress, give it a try. You'll learn all sorts of things about yourself, such as how I learned just what my femurs look like. They were stretching out in a jaunty way from the ruined and torn remains of my thighs. I reached toward my legs in horror, only to pull back in sheer terror when the fleshless bones of my hand came into view.

This was not a normal hangover.

I'll say proudly, it only took me maybe a day short of eternity to pull myself together and get to work on the business of being a walking corpse. My flesh had rotted and fallen away in places. Okay. My bones were showing through. Alright. My eyes glowed. Hey, a new trick for parties. I checked down my, er, skirt. Whew. Which left only one thing; the tattered, stained, but still very red and lacy dress that someone had filled with my dead carcass. I wrapped my hand around a nearby legbone and commenced to hunting for stairs and some answers.

Crawling out into the night, I turned my fierce gaze to every direction except the one filled by a shambling wreck of decay and misanthropy who laid a cold, entirely too firm claw on my shoulder and, after coaxing me down from the closest tree, introduced himself as Mordo the Undertaker. In a voice that sounded three days deader than he was, Mordo told me to seek out the town over the hill and a priest by the name of Sarvis for an explanation. I had a more important question in mind, though. Rounding on the good, if dead and walking, fellow before me, I raised up the crushing bone club in my hand and inquired sweetly as to my present state of garmentage.

Mordo turned a deeper shade of drowned-rat blue and gave me that look which means in all cultures and across the boundary of life and death, " seemed a good idea at the time." He coughed, expelling from his throat something small and green which hopped away into the underbrush, then shrugged his shoulders. "Any clothing a corpse was wearing had to be burned," he said, "On account of the Plague. So our new recruits get whatever we can find. And, ah, I thought you would look good in that dress. The red brings out your eyes."

I hope it took him a week to find where his head landed.

After liberating a more appropriate outfit from its former owner on an open cart full of fresh bodies, I shambled my way into town. A picturesque vacation spot nestled snugly in the low mountains of Tirisfal, the village of Deathknell rotted and sulked in the moonlight before me. The hulking remains of the local church seemed to be the most likely place one might find an undead priest, so that's where I went. Smoke rose above the steeple from a wild bonfire behind the graveyard, and skinless soldiers milled about in crude uniforms. One of them laughed at me, or maybe his lungs had collapsed and he was gargling his own vital fluids. I didn't stay to find out.

Sarvis was indeed a priest, but judging by his robes, whatever he venerated seemed awful fond of spikes and leather straps. When I came in, he was watching the fire through an open back door, and the scent of charred flesh came seeping through the air like Hell's own incense. I knocked on a pew and Sarvis turned at the sound. He lurched over to me.

Imposing, decayed, and missing most of his lower face, the priest leaned heavily on his staff. His tongue, loose and hanging down openly where there should have been a jaw and throat, seemed to be enjoying its new freedom. It curled, it coiled, it bore no relation at all to what he said. I think I saw it snap out and eat a passing fly, but I was trying not to look.

He told me that while I was ...indisposed, a war broke out and a curse claimed the lands of Tirisfal. A magical Plague, sent by a cheerful charmer known as the Lich King, engulfed many human towns and killed everyone it touched. Some rose again as the walking dead, bound to the Lich King's command. But of those damned souls, a few held the strength of will to resist and so broke free of his control. They found each other, they collected together, and they rebelled. Although the war itself had burned out, Sarvis told me, these rebel undead, the Forsaken, still fought on to save themselves from the Lich King's domination. And now, I had joined their ranks.

"Wonderful," said I, "Can I go now?"

The dead priest's upper lip wriggled in the manner of a worm poked by a stick, which may have been a sort of smile. "Of course," he said, "All those of the Forsaken may do as they choose." But then he leaned in close, and that wandering tongue curled up as if to strike at my neck, "Though, only those still enslaved to the Lich King's will would refuse to fight to keep their freedom. And I do so hate wasting my time on potential spies who need to be burned." His eyeless brow rose as he nodded towards the back door, still open on the roaring bonfire. I could then see what appeared to be a leg sticking out of the kindling, and darker shapes, more skeletal. Suddenly, something humanoid lunged from the flames, only to catch a crossbow bolt between the eyes. It fell back and broke apart on the pyre.

I turned to Sarvis. I looked at him. His hanging tongue lashed.

"Um...long live the Forsaken?" I said.

And that's how I found myself, no more than a day dead and risen, trudging through the streets of a plague-infested ghost town. It turns out that Mordo, for all his poor fashion sense, was right. The Forsaken were badly in need of supplies, clothing mostly, and were stripping the remains of Deathknell clean. For some reason, dead and naked was not the impression they wanted to make in the world. I thought it would have gotten some attention, but the old priest outvoted me and sent my bony butt into town proper to bring back the goods.

"Oh yes," Sarvis said, while I pondered this whole Forsaken thing versus working in a haunted house, scaring kids, "Do be mindful of the other undead in Deathknell. Not all are Forsaken, and the Lich King's slaves will seek to rend you apart. Even the dead can die twice."

Such a ray of sunshine, that Sarvis.

The Forsaken had been set up in town for a while now, meaning that the close and invitingly safe buildings were already empty of anything worth braving the spiders and rot. Other undead were searching through the ruins as well and I gave them their space, just in case they were the type to return my company with the pointy end of a knife. Most didn't look very happy about recent events, which I could relate to. Those who seemed more upbeat I avoided on general principle. You just know the sort of person who can rise from the grave with a spring in his step and a whistle on what's left of his lips has some cute little story, probably about all fourteen of his cats, and is bursting to tell you all about it. About ten minutes of that sort of horror and I'd be well into pondering the merits of Sarvis's dying twice thing.

Because of this well-reasoned caution, it took me rather a while to find a home worth invading. The night was still, the chorus of insect vermin silent for the moment, and even though my eyeballs had jumped ship to adventure in a magical land along with a certain priest's lower jaw, I could see perfectly fine. Yeah, a creature of the night! Nothing worse than me out here. Nothing at all. Summoning my courage, I went right up to the house, stood straight with a terrible resolve, and boldly knocked on the doorframe.

"Anyone home?" I called.

"BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAINS!" came the response.

Fortunately, the next house down the street, across a field, behind a woodshed, and left of the blacksmith's shop was more hospitable, mainly in the fact it boasted a rather heavy wooden bar that fit neatly across the inside of the door. Safe for the moment, I left my new special friend to pound on the woodwork as I explored this empty home and hearth. Figured if I was stuck here until Chompy got bored and left it'd be a good idea to look around.

I didn't live in this town before my unexpected mid-death crisis, but humans build the same sort of places everywhere they go. Kitchen and wash on the ground floor, cellar below, bedrooms upstairs. Since most folks don't keep their clothes in the pantry, anything I might find was going to be on the second floor. I tested the rotted plank stairs with a few good taps from my boot before going up, just to be sure. To my dismay, the wood held.

It turns out I wasn't the only person to die in bed. I won't discuss the details of this particular find out of respect for keeping what shred of audience might read this account, but suffice to say that if I looked half as bad as what stared back at me from that bedroom then old Mordo must have the courage of a god on a drunken dare. I closed my eyes, turned toward the wall, and tried very hard to pretend that part of the room just did not exist. It didn't work any, but that was all I could do and so long as no noises of the dead-body-rising-up-to-eat-my-head variety came from the forbidden zone, it was good enough. This meant I wasn't exactly keeping count of the expected corpse-to-room ratio as I went through the upstairs and cleaned out their linen closets and that's why the note I found at the bottom of a drawer caused what blood was left in my patchwork body to run cold.

The story of the family catching ill, that didn't bother me.

The part where his wife dies, rather sad but not my problem.

No, the single sentence which reached into my soul and squeezed out all that was warm and joyful started with the words, "But she rose again before we could bury her," and ended with the ill-scrawled, "...we locked her in the cellar and chained the door shut so she could not escape."

I had been in the kitchen. I had seen the cellar door. There were no chains on it.

I stood there, the note in one hand and a huge stack of pants, skirts, shirts, and woolen puffy things draped over the other arm. For about ten seconds, the world was very, very quiet.

In that silence, I could hear the distinct sound of a rather heavy wooden bar being removed from the inside of a door.

The bad thing about the mindless undead is they'll charge right for your tasty, tasty skull and try to pop it open to get at the yummy parts. The good thing about the mindless undead is they really don't know what to do when you charge right for them with fifty pounds of laundry leading the way as a battering ram. Dear Wife and Chompy were just up top the stairs when I hit them at full steam and believe it or not, zombies do indeed sound exactly like clattering nine-pins when you bowl them over a balcony. Sadly, they didn't stay knocked down, and the chase was on.

In life, I can proudly say that anything even vaguely related to physical fitness not only passed me by, it crossed to the other side of the street to avoid me. But all my hard-earned sloth was for nothing, as the newer, deader me sprinted across the countryside with the carefree enthusiasm of an excited puppy. Which was good, since two more excited puppies were coming up fast to nip at my heels.

Somehow, the two zombies gained up the distance I put between us, almost as if pulled to me like a kite on an invisible string. One of them clawed at my back and shredded a furrow through the thick cloth of the vest I so recently stole. Something pink peeled away from the pile of garments covering most of my upper torso and smacked me in the face. Blinded, I plowed forward and reconsidered that haunted house gig, maybe I could get a sheet to wear as a ghost and...waitaminute.

I tore the awful pink thing away and flung it behind me. I watched it go flapping to the ground only for one of the wonder twins back there to grind it underfoot into the dirt. They were close. They were running shoulder to empty arm socket where a shoulder should be. It could really work.

Ever tie a sheet around your neck like a cape and then run about proclaiming to all and sundry that you were Lord Lothar come back from smashing orcs in the East? Of course you did. Remember how it billowed, how it spread out, and how it whipped around in the wind to smother your stupid kid face and slip under your feet to trip you up as an encore? I do. And every sheet from the house was flapping off my arm as I ran.

It turns out that the mindless minions of the Lich King really are dumb as a bag of hammers, and that's probably why they ran right into the bedcloth I swung out behind me. It caught them about the head area, then, true to form, a corner of the sheet arched down with a graceful dive to tangle up their legs in a knot that would make the Lordaeron Youth Scouts proud.

Teeth shot out when they hit the ground.

I broke through the Forsaken palisade in Deathknell at roughly nine-thousand miles an hour, whooping and hollering to beat all Hell. One of the soldiers, a captain of some minor honour, came out to either greet me or more likely order the ballistas to open fire. Then he saw the stack of loot I was hauling and his face just lit up. Who knew he could fit a candle in there?

"Ah," he said, "So good to see one of our newest recruits return from the field. And with something to show for it. Yes, perhaps you will find a place among the Forsaken yet." He helped me toss the clothes over a nearby crate. Some soldiers began to sort through them. "Still, it is only fair you receive a reward for your deed, perhaps something from our salvage to replace that unfortunate vest. This will do."

The captain pulled a garment out of the pile, unfolded it, and held it out to me. He looked up, his rictus grin positively feral. The dress fluttered languidly in the chill wind of the night, shadows casting through its lacy ruffles. "The red brings out your eyes."

There's another universal truth, and I discovered it, much to my dismay, about two seconds later. Be you human, orc, dwarf, or maybe even elf, for all people and across all cultures, be you dead, alive, or somewhere in-between, it damn well hurts when you punch a man straight in the head.