When the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars, be darkened,
neither the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets,
and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;
When the silver cord is loosed, and the golden bowl is broken,
and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was:
and the spirit shall return unto the god who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
I took a calculated risk, it did not go well. Bolts to the chest and the eye. I am dead.
I lie on a mound of bodies, just another corpse given to the maze. In the place between life and death the demon whose tooth I stole came to me, reclaimed his tooth and took his price, but it was little more than a beast – no bargains to be made there. In truth, I have little left to bargain with.
I watch my silver cord fray – a metaphor come to life (A metaphor? Or simply plain description of the reality?). Soon my spirit will detach from my body, and fly to face an uncertain future. I see it now – so obvious: the spirit to the immortals, the body back to the primordials. The ancient compact that made sentient life possible. I wonder for what gain they each bargained?
Around me … strange. The power in the corpses around me does not return below, as it should. The flesh remains … capable. Ready to be occupied. Animated. The spirits – I am no priest – but they do not fly as they should. Their path – they travel inward.
Into the maze.
What in the natural world appears to be an ever-changing, interlocking puzzle of shifting stone is here in the between-place a great vortex, a maelstrom. Slow at the edges, breezes merely tugging at the spirit, but a great roaring windstorm at its heart. The ground tremors and hums with the power of it – how could I not have noticed it before?
I watch the spirits around me rise, float away towards the astral sea and the immortals, but they become trapped, snared, slowly but inevitably drifting inwards to the maze. Their bodies rise and follow, like a dog its master, but the spirit drifts away faster as it is caught by the winds. I divine the purpose (or one purpose, at any rate) of the maze: to keep both body and spirit trapped together and yet lost, separated from one another. The paradox of the labyrinth – you know where you are, yet you don’t. So you wander. So close to its spirit, the body does not return to the primordials as it should. But separated from its rightful master, the body is left to its own devices – to walk, to kill and eat – and is ready to fall thrall to a spirit not its own.
It is manifestly a work, an artifact of magic. Its power is immense. Here, here is what I came to the underdark to find. Here is what I schemed and planned for. Are there even greater powers deeper below? Perhaps. But this maze lies before me. It calls me, as it calls all the rest. A snare, a trap – the naked spirit cannot walk it safely. Only armour of flesh can shield the spirit from its reality.
I will not go. I must go. I will not go. Not like this. Not like all the others – an uncomprehending spirit, while my flesh serves the will of another. I will not wander lost and forlorn without my body. Torn and ruined as it lies, yet I need it.
I have chosen my purpose, and my fate.
I will enter the maze. I will puzzle its riddle. I will decode its power.
I will gather what is mine, I will take back my flesh,
I will endure the pain of living once more,
I will seize the silver cord,
I will bind the broken bowl,
I will gather together the shards of clay,
I will enter the maze in my body,
I will tread its paths on my feet,
I will unlock it,
I will solve it,
I will know it,
I will …
A roar of shock and pain. Harrowing, as only the sounds of the undead can harrow. Among the pile of bodies at the base of the great cliff, one more rises. But this one does not shuffle dumbly towards the maze. It inspects itself, cursing its left arm hanging almost useless from a shoulder shattered to bits by crossbow bolts, which it pulls out of the wounds. One eye a gaping hole, and a great diagonal slash from shoulder to hip – ragged edged exactly like a wound ripped open by demon claw. Within, more horrifying than viscera spilling out – nothing. Nothing at all.
Shadow congeals around the corpse’s stump of a right wrist – it seeming unaware that it has called the shadows together for the purpose. It inspects a somewhat gaudy amulet, marked with a symbol of an eye. After briefly tinkering, it puts the amulet on, concentrates for a moment, and suddenly is clothed in a simple but clean dark grey robe – its eye still missing, but most of the worst of its scars effaced. It looks more or less as it remembers itself looking. It tucks the amulet away, out of sight.
It speaks. “I will also need some help, or at least some shields.” It looks up the cliff down which it so recently was thrown. “Damn them all.”
It clambers off the mound of bodies, kicking aside the occasional grasping hand, its movements becoming smoother by the second. It pauses, its attention caught by something invisible to mundane sight. It picks something up, then something else. It heads towards a pinprick of light in the distance, a flickering torch.
The guards stand their post, communicator close at hand. Cold comfort, that. If they are attacked, there are no spare troops. Did something move out there? No – all was still.
Wait – there was something moving. Shit. A single figure walking towards them, striding, not shuffling.
A hand on the communicator.
“Base! Base! We got incoming.”
“What you got?”
“We got – looks like fast zombies.”
“Just the one visible.”
“Deal with it.”
So much for back-up.
The zombie, or ghoul, or vampire, or god-only-knows-what, approaches. Spears are leveled. “Halt and be recognised.” Standard procedure. Stupid, but you have to do it.
The figure halts. Raises its right hand. What the …?
“I apologise, gentlemen, but my left arm seems to be injured.”
“All right. Approach slowly.”
The figure steps forward. Slowly. Its grey face, its mangled eye-socket: unmistakable.
“Stand down! I assure you I am not a zombie. As you see, I am in my right mind.”
“Well, what are you then?”
“I honestly do not know.”
“Blackfen. Blackfen Undergallows, I think. It has a nice ring to it.”
“Wait a moment – the one that was tried for treason?”
“And completely exonerated, I remind you. I was killed in the attack by the traitors in Justice division, along with all the others.”
“Wait, what? So you are walking dead?”
“Yes, I never said I wasn’t. Look, you are clearly incapable of dealing with this. Take me to the oracles – they will wish to inspect me at the very least.”
“And don’t call me sargeant. Do you see a badge? I stopped being a member of the underguard when I caught a crossbow bolt to the eye, and I’m not inclined to volunteer again. Find someone to tell you what to do. I’ll just wait here. I assure you – the oracles will want to see me.”