((A short story taking place in the world I invented for my in-progress book series, The Order.))
Damon had been drinking again. And why not? The high-and-mighty priests told him his body was weaker when he drank, and he would need his strength in the face of the plague. Damon was sick of the talk of disease and death. He’d rather forget about it all than worry and live in terror. His farm had long since dried up, and his wife died in her sleep. His parents had been amongst the dead in the northern territory of Magus. Their bodies had been burned and the ashes scattered into the sea along with all the others. Damon had nothing left to live for, what did a little grog change about that? He was a man of low birth, no one special. His brown hair and eyes marked his common face. He had rough hands and a muscled body earned through years of farm work. And he was weary. Weary from running, and from waiting.
He sat on a weathered wooden chair he’d made himself when the forests were still alive. It had sat on his porch for over twenty years of prosper, and now nearly five years of death. He looked over the barren stretch of land that was his livelihood, and drank his bitter booze out of an old leather flask. His little farm in the foothills by the Mana Bay had a charm to it, or at least it had. Now it was all dead brown grass and cracked earth covered in a mist blown in from the summer-heated sea. Damon’s flask was empty in a minute, the last of his stock. Food was scarce, and he didn’t have any horses to take him to the city where most of the populace had gone for safety. He’d stayed behind in hopes of finding his parents, but his hopes had been dashed by the desolation he’s witnessed in the northlands.
In the shadow of the unfinished wall that was to be their salvation, the villages that had housed the people he’d known since childhood were ashen remnants of his memories of them. The land was dark with black, billowing smoke. The sun hid from the remains of the once proud frontier of the human kingdom. The air was a foul mix of burning wood, burning dirt, and burning flesh. Damon had ridden up the Mage Road on an old horse. By the time he reached the village where he had grown up, the horse had collapsed from fatigue and exposure to the harsh air. None of it matched the horror of what he found beyond the unfinished wall.
The land beyond the frontier of Magus were lowlands occupied by barbaric orcs who had bled it into a wasteland over the past decade. Damon had expected a wasteland devoid of life, but he looked out upon it and saw movement. The ground appeared to be shifting in the distance; blackened soil rippling like a sea of dirt and ashes. Just at the bottom of the hill, he saw a figure emerge from the dead ground, a pale figure missing skin over its bones in places. It had no eyes, just two golden glowing sockets in its skull, facing Damon. He nearly retched up what little food he’d eaten when he saw the remnants of the wretch’s meal. Another body, missing half a head and most of its midsection. It was bathed in blood, pus, and the grotesque saliva of the wight above it.
Damon couldn’t remember what he’d done then, or maybe he just didn’t want to remember. Somehow he’d made it home down a stretch of abandoned road over a hundred leagues long. When he’d returned, he found a dead home. His wife had died in her bed. The only signs of life since then had been the priests that chastised him. He could have joined them, but why? What was left for him now? He wanted to sleep, but the pale face kept staring at him from the darkness beneath his eyelids. Waking or sleeping, he was haunted by death. He wanted to die, but nothing he did could convince his body to commit the act. So he waited, alone, in silence.
The silence was torture. He found himself listening for the sounds of horses, or farm workers laboring, or screams, maybe the sound of shambling horrors strolling up the road to make a meal of him. Damon opened his eyes. He wasn’t imagining the footsteps. Standing up stiffly, he gazed out across the countryside at the dirt road linking his stead to the Mage Road. A lone humanoid walked down the road in a black robe. It was hooded and its face covered with a ragged brown mask. Doran knew this guy couldn’t be a normal person fleeing from the death in the north. No one wore robes like that during summer. He deigned to remain on his porch, watching the strange figure walk by. When it reached his stead, it stopped and tread across his plagued patch and stopped a few steps in front of his porch steps. The figure watched him from behind its mask. Its eyes were visible, two dark brown eyes staring at him intently. After what felt like an eternity, Damon spoke. “What’s your business, stranger?”
The figure stood still and said in a hoarse male voice, “I came to bring you the good word, brother. Your lord comes to save you.”
Damon stared dumbfounded at the man. “You a priest or somethin’?”
A cackle of muffled laughter came from behind his mask. “Something like that. I am a herald of my master. Join us, brother, and you will do more than survive. You will be powerful beyond imagining. And, you will be part of a new world. One of order and peace, devoid of death and suffering. What say you? Prosper, or perish?”
Damon was confused by the man’s words. He didn’t understand what the man expected him to say. The land was dying, and this man just happened to offer his only salvation? What kind of cruel joke was this? “You’re blind and dumb, ain’t ya? The world’s dyin’ around us, if you didn’t notice. Your preachin’ ain’t changin’ nothin’. Go bother someone with less sense, why don’t ya?” The robed figure looked smug, even beneath his mask.
“If you will not join voluntarily, then you are lost. Cynical men and women like you are the reason this plague was a necessity. You must be purged like all the other nonbelievers.” Damon was about to retort, but the man held a hand up at him, and his chest tightened. He lost the ability to breathe, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t even fall over. He felt all feeling in his hands and feet fading, then the lack of feeling trailed up his arms and legs. He managed to turn his head enough to watch as all the color in his limbs faded, and some transparent material flooded out of his body and into the robed man’s hand. As the pain began to fade in his chest, Damon began to forget his past. He forgot pain, he forgot emotion. All he thought was what the man thought. He only desired to spread death and plague to the enemies of this man.
Then his pale body fell in a heap on the porch floor. It rose at the robed man’s command, and followed him when he was told. He had no name and no past. All he had left was his hunger. The hunger itched at his insides, a hunger for flesh.