Obituary

Lydon, a necromancer of the Scourge, seeks second life amongst his victims: the free undead. Bleak and gory, examining the Forsaken prior to the fall of the Lich King.

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4. The Undercity

The Undercity we reached was nothing like the underground fortress you are no doubt familiar with today. There were no lifts, no modified entranceways. No guards, either. Instead, Cross led me through the vast front gates into Lordaeron city, across a plaza and on into the ruins of the streets. The houses there were tall, narrow and closely packed together. From the raised gate through which we entered, I could see row upon row of terraces following the curve of the outer wall far into the distance.

The thought of so many human beings living so close together was initially baffling, then sickening. I thought of the plagued falling from windows and through front doors, amassing in the street: four, five, six to a house. And, for the first time, the potential scale of the Scourge swarm I had helped to create began to dawn on me.

In stunned, wretched silence, I followed Cross. He took us along a narrow road. Between the cobblestones I saw the fading stains of blood; in the houses, broken pots and splintered wood. At first glance, it seemed the swarm had left all the signs of a massacre but the bodies.

‘Now, this is where it gets a bit dodgy, right, but you’re just going to have to bear with me.’

We had reached the end of the row, and Cross knelt just in front of me, where the gutter running alongside the raised pavement met a heavy metal grate set into the wall. He grasped the thick iron bars, grunted, and heaved the whole fixture away. A low, darkened hole remained, with the muddy water in the gutter trickling on through.

‘Thinking positive,’ said Cross speculatively, ‘everyone’s dead, so there ’in’t much in the way of mess to slog through, if you get my meaning.’

I went through first so he could pull the bars back into place behind us. The stone walls were slick with dark ooze, and I found myself increasingly sceptical of the truth in Cross’s positive thinking with each squelching step. Apparently years surrounded by blood and gore and misery had failed to numb me past disgust, because my movements became increasingly cautious, mincing even. Cross’s derisive snicker echoed far down the dank tunnel.

‘Come off it, you pussy. Go left, I think. Or right. Ah, get out of the way, mate, it’s best I do this by instinct.’

Again he took the lead, and we made our way through the ground inside the labyrinthine tunnels of Lordaeron’s sewer system, backtracking often, our path only halfway lit by ghostly fire in empty brackets hammered into the walls.

Finally we came to a place where the bricks had been pulled away, bearing an open wound through the black earth. We advanced through, the hem of my new robe dragging in the mud, until brightness bloomed ahead and we dropped down into an open chamber.

Overspill from the sewer splattered onto the grey marble floors. An inch of water covered the flagstones all the way to the far door. Alcoves in the walls housed statues of past kings, sombre in their stone robes and discoloured brass crowns. Wreaths crowded their pedestals, some old and withered, some so new I had to wonder who could possibly have been alive to place them. Someone had smeared the old kings’ faces with the same brown slime that coated the floor.

‘And then we go this way...’

We pressed onward through the royal catacombs, past further statues treated to tribute and desecration, and Cross spoke of the Scourge as we went. Prince Arthas had meant to keep the capital for himself even after his defection, as a seat of power for his undead forces. Prince Arthas had ordered the Scourge to dig deep, carve a city from the tombs, sewers and dungeons, make a place once inhabited only by the poorest of his people worthy of the most wretched. Which made Cross laugh aloud as he said it.

‘So that’s what we’re bloody well doing.’ He pointed toward the nearest statue, its base anointed with wine and its crown stolen from its head. An apathetic king, his face stained green from forehead to chin. ‘Maybe because these fuckers are still around. Just swapping one king for another and another and another, like it’s always been.’

‘But you said there’s a queen.’

‘And not exactly a royal one neither, that’s right. Guess we’ll see how that goes, eh.’

From the royal tombs we descended a vertical tunnel by means of a rope segmented with heavy knots to aid the climb. It was only a short journey through darkness, but the closeness and warmth of the earth set a sudden lethargy in me, as though my body yearned to stay there, in conditions befitting a final resting place.

The shock of the drop brought me out of any weariness. One moment I was held close by the soil, the next I was hanging by nothing more than a rope, with ten metres of open air just below.

I froze for an instant, staring: we had come through a hole in a vaulted stone ceiling, supported by tall, thin block pillars that ran all the way to the ground far below. Huge flagstones paved the floor as far as I could see; green liquid oozed through a canal close by; there were sheltered alcoves and arched bridges. None of that really mattered in the moment, because the area below teemed with people.

People shifting rubble, people digging, people attending to the fine detailing of the masonry. They all wore the grey skin and flaming eyes I had seen in Cross, Vandis and her soldiers. Here toiled the citizens of Lordaeron: the corpses I had failed to see above ground, amongst the debris of a massacre. The Forsaken.

Until that point, I think I had expected survivors. There was no doubting the existence of some free Scourge, Cross alone proved that, but I had envisaged some sort of shared society where the living still outnumbered the undead. The thought that everyone had died, everyone, was something I hadn’t dared let into my mind.

But it was there now, and I made my way down the rope in a daze. Cross was waiting for me at the bottom, his fingertips idly drumming against the hilts of his blades.

‘For a second there I’d figured you had a problem with heights,’ he told me. ‘Seemed pretty likely, the more I thought about it. But I s’pose we’ve found one thing that doesn’t scare you, eh?’

‘Is everyone like this,’ I said. I meant it as a question, but my voice refused to lift.

‘What, petrified? Some of them. Maybe not as badly as you, though, even then.’

‘No. Dead. Undead.’

‘Oh, that.’ Cross gave the sort of slow, absent-minded nod I expected from a farmer idly discussing the success of a crop. ‘A few nicked south in time and of course my lot are mostly holed up happy behind the Wall, far as I know, but everyone who stayed, aye. I’d say they’re all dead.’

‘How far?’ I asked, and had to clarify when he gave me a quizzical look. ‘How far’d the Scourge reach? How far’s all dead?’

‘Silverpine to Stratholme, I think. Oh, and up into the elf lands too. Knackered their capital, or so I’d heard. Think some of them made it, though. Probably helps, having magic instead of pitchforks and that. You telling me you didn’t know that neither, sitting snug with your schoolmates?’

I shook my head, no. I’d tested and mixed and helped stockpile plagued grain in ignorance, although I felt sure that, had I cared enough to enquire, several of the senior members of the Scholomance would have been more than happy to boast about the master’s plan. And then I might have worked against it from the inside. Perhaps I could have neutralised some of the stock. Saved a few lives.

So this, Silverpine to Stratholme, was the price of apathy. Worse still, as we made our way along the canal side, I felt some foul prickling in my chest. A sort of sick satisfaction. All those fat merchants. All those smug farmers. I hoped, suddenly, that they’d recognised what was happening to them, that they’d known what was coming. I hoped it had hurt.

We passed civilians who very clearly hadn’t belonged to either group, farmer or merchant. The sight of ragged clothing, rounded shoulders and sunken faces caused the dark vehemence that overtook me to putrefy into a rank, rotten discomfort down in my chest. It did not matter one bit that I was no mastermind, that I had never purposefully set out to spread the plague in full consideration of the repercussions. These people were still my victims. All of them, my victims. Intent was the only thing different between me Krastinov, and as intent was one of those internal, invisible things, it meant nothing. There was nothing to separate the Butcher and me.

‘Oi.’ Cross, slowing up ahead to look back for me. ‘No reason for you to be falling behind, mate. Not with that stride of yours, eh?’

There was a stone slab off to the side of the main walkway, in the centre of one of the alcoves. Built originally to display a body, maybe. I headed over to it and sat.

‘Look, come on. Get up. The Undercity ’in’t pretty, but we’ve got business here, alright. We’ve got to see to it.’

‘Business.’

‘Aye, that’s what I said. There’s a whole group of people who’d really like to give a job to a necromancer like you, mate, and it’ll probably get me one too, alright, so we can’t be sitting around or we’ll miss out.’

So here was the real motivation behind the actions of Edgar Cross. I was a pawn to be traded for some sort of employment. It did not hurt me any. If anything, it allowed him to settle as a reliable part of reality. This man, I felt, was now openly manipulative. I could believe in him, couldn’t I. He made sense.

‘Staying here,’ I told him, and for all that he cajoled me, I would not be moved.

I sat on that block for two days, alone, as Cross departed after half an hour at most, declaring that he would bring them to me if I would not go to them. I’d like to make out that I came to some great revelation about my work amongst the Scourge, but I didn’t. It was mostly wasted time.

I watched the free undead. I was used to the sight of ghouls and other deeply rotten minions, so the injuries of the Forsaken workers did not faze me in and of themselves. I saw the stumps of severed arms; fingers worn down to the bone; open cuts of all kinds darkly festering; skin that roiled with the maggots underneath; jaw bones torn clear away, leaving dry tongues to slap against pallid necks; faces without flesh; sockets without eyes; hair working its way steadily free of the scalp; skeletal limbs; a man who had lost all his organs, so his belly was nothing more than a bloody gap; and more unidentifiable kinds of bodily discharge than most Living can probably imagine.

The difference lay in their reactions to all this damage. The mindless always staggered around without any recognition that they were injured. But the Forsaken knew. I saw a wide range of attempted repairs. A great number of people wore makeshift bandages to hide their cuts. I saw a woman who had secured her arm, torn from its socket, to her side with leather straps, useless but still a part of her. There were masks and gloves and high collars meant to spare them the sight of their own dead skin.

I even watched the man with the missing gut pack the hole with wool and hold it in place with a new sheet belly he stitched directly into his flesh-and-blood flanks. His stitches were awful. I imagined they would hold for a few days at best. But then he pulled on a metal breastplate, hiding his work, and it became evident it probably wouldn’t matter. The surgery had been a mental reassurance and, as long as that breastplate stayed on, he would be none the wiser if his bloodless new gut pulled free.

Can you imagine waking up into the body of a ghoul? You’ve endured a distant nightmare, and you wake to rot and hideous injury. And as you’re panicking, as you’re praying you wake up or break free, it slowly dawns that this body is yours. You look at your own limbs, or at your reflection in the still surface of a lake, and you see yourself in death. I saw the resulting desperation, hollowness, in some of these Forsaken.

Other repercussions of mindlessness lingered too, particularly in some mirrored behaviours I noted amongst those working. They’d dig with such intensity and stamina that they cleared five of the giant alcoves in the short time I sat nearby, but between tasks I noticed a few of them standing stock still, staring aimlessly into space until someone else gave them fresh orders. I think some were sufficiently used to the voice of their commanding necromancer whispering new demands right into their muscles that they struggled without them.

This didn’t apply to everyone. A man sitting with his back to a wall droned on about the futility of the work. Another reappeared a few times over the two days, asking after his wife: had anyone seen her? She was brown-haired and pregnant, had anyone seen her? The baby might still be alive, he told me, grasping at my shoulder. The baby hadn’t eaten any grain, had it, so there was still a chance. I would tell him, wouldn’t I, if I’d seen her? I’d tell her he was looking, if I saw her later on?

It was only on his final visit that one of the most relentless workers, a muscular man with a broken arm, stopped digging to whirl around, grab the lost husband by the front of his shirt, and spit into his face.

‘I seen your wife,’ he snarled in a heavy city accent. ‘I meet your lady in the swarm, and I hold her down, and I eat her belly and I eat your kid, so shit on you and all your whining. Never gonna see them again, boy.’

He hurled him aside. The man gave a strangled yelp as he struck the floor, then curled up like an injured animal, shuddering. The worker rounded on everyone else, the tendons standing out in his bloodless neck as he bellowed.

‘And that goes for all of you! Never gonna see your dead spawn or your friends or your fucking other halves! I fucking ate the lot of them, and you’re all better for it! It’ll make it easier when you all rot down to mulch like you’re fucking meant to.’

‘Kindly keep your nonsense to yourself.’

The new speaker put herself between the crying husband and the angry undead. Not two steps away, she had to tilt her head all the way back to look the aggressor in the eye: despite ash blond hair deliberately fluffed up to feign extra height she was no more than five feet tall, and he towered over her.

‘Nonsense? All I’m saying’s sense. ’Cause we’re dead.’ He leant down toward her until there was barely a gap between their faces. ‘The dead do nothing but rot.’

The air seemed to darken around them.

‘Stand back.’

She pushed him lightly in the chest, and the worker stumbled back two steps as though forcibly shoved. As he started, glancing about, she continued.

‘It’s rather funny you should say that, really. Look around you, sir, at the work you yourself have been doing, and that your peers continue while you waste time turning on your own brethren. Just as you carve out these halls, so will the Forsaken carve out our very place in this world. Is that, do you think, the behaviour of a race doomed to merely rot away to nothing?’

The man’s face twisted into a sneer and he leaned toward her again, although I note he neglected to retake those two steps forward. ‘Race? You think we’re a race?’ And he tipped back his head and guffawed.

If not for my imminent demise I’d expect to regret writing this, but I have to admit that, although initially impressed by her bravery in standing against someone who’d already proved to be violent, I found myself taking the worker’s side. There was something familiar about her words, something bolstered by her educated accent. Here was one of the elite, descending to tell the common rabble to be happy in their pisspoor state, and to look forward to a future of success through unity.

Of course, in this case she wasn’t just a condescending supporter of the hierarchy, she was suggesting undeath might be enjoyable. I figured she was probably out of her mind.

She waited for his laughter to stop, her head tilted back, her expression fixed, her back straight and her hands trembling almost imperceptibly, until she held them still by crossing her arms over her chest. Most of the work had ceased all around them. Even the destitute will usually spare a moment to watch a free show.

‘Ah. Do you know what a race is?’ she said, and her voice started small. She forced it to grow. ‘A people united by common descent, by common traits, by common history. We share the same state. We share the same time spent amongst the Scourge-’

‘Rot. All of you hear that? She reckons we’re all bound together by our precious rot.’ He looked around at the others, brows arched high, as though to draw them into his victory.

‘Yes.’

His head snapped around at that. ‘Yes? Lady, that’s a bad thing. Did you forget what “bad” means, maybe? D’you need some help with the basics, huh?’

‘Don’t try to tell me something you perceive as “bad” is necessarily dividing. If, ah, you think about it... I think you’ll find shared grievances draw people together quite commonly. Demonstrably. War, disaster, distaste for some form of authority. I think there’s quite some evidence to support a basic human joy being found through complaint. Besides, you’re too quick to dismiss all the strengths this new state may yet provide, and you ignore the fact that this is essentially an extension of existence far more often denied to victims of war-’

Whatever agreement she might have won with the start of this speech, and there was some, I saw it in the thoughtful expressions that passed over a handful of faces, was decimated by this last line. Her opponent wasn’t alone when he guffawed this time. Though the other Forsaken did not laugh, criticism surged from them in a sudden roar, forcing her to take a step back.

‘Strengths!’ The worker found great amusement in the word, it seemed. His voice soared above the racket. ‘Strengths.’

‘There is something to be had here,’ I heard her snarl, the vitriol in her tone just enough to pierce the noise, ‘you will come to appreciate it soon enough.’

She turned on her heel and beat a hasty retreat, her overlong skirts hissing along behind her. The man she had stepped in to help scrambled to his feet and fled after her, and the din died down almost as quickly as it started. The muttering between individuals did not cut out, however, and continued for the next few hours I remained there.

I didn’t listen in. I wondered, instead, what kind of life that woman must have led, for undeath to count as an acceptable extension of it.
 

* * *


I didn’t earn Cross his job, not to start with. He reappeared on the third day, spluttering in disbelief at the sight of me, sitting still on my table.

‘You haven’t even moved, have you, mate? You’ve not even moved.’

‘Showing a deficiency in enthusiasm from the start, I see.’

The second voice hissed and slithered. The speaker did not enunciate. The hard flats of his consonants fell through, and each word seemed fit to collapse into a breath laced with tangible malice. This was a voice that would suit the worst of the monsters in the Scholomance, and it raised me instantly from my musing on the woman and the Forsaken as a whole.

My gaze met Sythros. He stood not a few metres away, wearing a featureless black robe that covered him from throat to floor. His head had been broken into pieces and pulled back together with crisscrossing belts, the scalp long gone and the skull polished to bright white, while his cheeks had been torn down to the last few rotting shreds. I saw his dark tongue flick in the bone-and-sinew cradle of his ruined jaw as he considered me. His Forsaken eyes blazed past the limits of their sockets, flickering all the way up his forehead to the line of metal studs that held the flesh in place.

Cross brought him to dig into my mind. I might have pushed him back if he had continued to approach, but instead this putrid wreck of a man stayed where he was, his flaming eyes fixed on me. The shadows in the folds of his robe, between the flagstones at his feet, darkened and streamed up around him as he raised his hand toward me. Deep within my skull, something slithered.

It was cold and slick and it forced its way through my mind as though my memories and my emotions were a physical arena for exploration. It left a sickening trail of slime over everything it touched, and each scene rose up all around me as the corruption crept through it: memories of home; my siblings; my mother.

In that moment my mental snarls and pitfalls, the dislocation and confusion, all fell away. A mental clarity past anything I’d felt in years stole over me. My very being seemed to coalesce within me to push the intruder back.

Fighting off a mental attack is like pushing against air, it’s like imagining up an enemy just to start striking back. Good shadow priests will duck and dodge into different forms when they’re in your brain, they’ll disengage by blending in and disappearing. But it didn’t work for Sythros. He’d enraged some part of me that had fight left in it, and I saw his presence as clearly in my mind’s eye as I saw his undead body standing right in front of me. Darting between the trees of Lordaeron, I saw him change from tar to smoke, from smoke to snake, from snake to slug, and I tore after him, I slammed him back, I threw him against the wall of my family home and struck him with shockwave after shockwave.

In the physical world, he began to laugh. It was a low, rasping chuckle at the start, but it soon flourished into a maniacal cackle. Somehow I became aware of myself again, of pulsing pain in my skull, and wetness down the back of my neck.

‘Mate, are you-’ Cross looked back and forth between me and Sythros, coming to focus on the latter. ‘Are you hurting him?’

‘He’s fighting me.’

Sythros strode forward and caught me by the front of my robe. I was too caught up in the mental battle to co-ordinate a physical attack: he thrust me not half a step back and my shoulder blades struck the wall; I had backed up toward it unaware, and cracked my head solidly against it as my body contorted with the effort of resistance. Sythros leant close now, so close his putrid breath struck my face.

‘Impressive, Sand Lydon. Persevere a little longer and perhaps I shall accept your friend’s good word.’

Hopeless. I was already fighting with everything I had, and as the words left Sythros’s mouth his mental projection surged up, a shadowy tide, and hurled me backward. I crashed through the stone wall of my home, through breakfast with my siblings, through Lordaeron in bloom with my mother striding ahead on the way to the apothecary, through Florence’s archery lessons and my father’s attempts at teaching me to whittle. From the memories of my family I had been so determined to defend, he sent me hurtling into the main room in the Scholomance, where I applied a corrosive to a man’s face and watched his cheeks begin to melt.

Any spirit in me died down at that. The strength I had brought up in defence of my family withered away at the recollection of who I really was; any vision of myself as defender sloughed away like an insect’s wasted skin. Underneath I was thin, fragile, weak. I felt Sythros’s sneer all the way through my mind as he withdrew.

‘Sylvanas does not seek such snivelling specimens to serve her.’

‘Come off it, he’s not snivelling, he’s a necromancer, he’s just what your lot bloody asked for.’

‘Silence your assumptions, Master Cross, lest I decide to steal your tongue.’

‘Look, just give me a couple weeks to bring him up to speed and he’ll be worth your while.’

Barely able to stand, my weight borne primarily by the stone wall at my back, I looked up at Sythros in the silence that ensued and saw no trace of mercy or even interest in his shrivelled visage. Finally there came a rustle of cloth. His cold, damp fingers grasped my jaw and turned my head. My jaw clenched instinctually, but I was too disorientated from the blast through memory to push him back. His thumb dipped into my eye socket and pressed against the scabbed-over stump of the optic nerve. Distant pain throbbed through my skull.

‘What are you doing?’ Cross’s pitch sat a few notes higher than usual.

‘Despite your insolence, you are correct. We desire necromancers, Cross. Master Lydon’s strength, both mental and magical, it would seem, is insignificant, and yet…’

‘Yet?’

‘He is passable, if only because he lacks competition.’

Sythros withdrew his hand and wiped his thumb on the sleeve of his robe.

‘On a temporary basis… I accept your fealty.’

He turned about and blew past Cross before he had a chance to reply. Precious seconds passed in which he blinked at me and Sythros strode further, before the shadowstalker whipped around and raced after him, calling for confirmation.

I slid to the ground, my back to the wall, and braced my head on my hand. Nevermind the unknown cause Cross had drawn me into, nevermind the pain in the back of my skull, nevermind even the undead still toiling on around me. I had touched coherence, clarity, for an instant, and I was going to get it back.

 

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