Within the old world of the Undead, life was on the verge of teetering into oblivion...
Almost every living creature had been eradicated and transformed into a legion of marching monstrosities. The final days of the Undead campaign had come, as a single kingdom stood against relentless hordes that smashed into their battlements like waves crashing into cliff faces. Giant abominations ripped stone towers down, scattering bodies across the battlefield and crushing their smaller kin. As dead soldiers fell from the garrison, foul Undead who were made of mismatched creatures gathered up piles of corpses. Acting like a group of ants, they hoisted together and carried the dead away from the battlefield. Deep into the misty forests they traveled towards the Garden, domain of Pluto, the purveyor of undeath.
Needle-like digits worked the soft, saturated soil of the Garden, digging carefully for what laid beneath. A horned figure with scraggly, disheveled hair more akin to fibrous roots than hair follicles, hunched over a mound of dirt. He worked carefully and diligently until he scooped a fingernail full of dirt from a skeletal eye socket. Pluto felt gratification swell in his head as the dirt under him began to shift, the body beneath him awakening. Moving back, he shoveled dirt away from the sides of the shallow grave by the handful.
The skeletal being pushed up from the soft soil, rising as if he was being harvested by unseen hands. Antlers broke the crest of the soil first as Chiwa sat up with thick chunks of moss falling away from his bones. Pluto continued to scoop handfuls of dirt away from Chiwa’s skeletal frame, assisting him in freeing himself from his earthly tomb. Although Chiwa could not feel his body, he understood what it was communicating to his consciousness and he felt reinvigorated. He felt power in his bones that allowed him to manipulate his skeletal form and push himself to his feet.
Chiwa basked in the glory of the deep, powerful emotions that came with rising from the Garden. He saw fleeting images of a face that might have been his own and another- perhaps a man he once loved? He saw himself bounding over hills and through valleys. He recalled the taste of freshly plucked sour berries. He felt the brisk night air as he had laid down to rest with the rest of his herd. He heard the roar of the fire as his hands pumped the bellows, harmonizing with the crunch of leaves underhoof.
Undeath was so unlike his life, he felt melancholy yet also somewhat apathetic that his existence was something so profane and unnatural. He ran his bony finger tips over his antlers, feeling a confusing sense of pride. Chiwa moved his left femur and understood that its range of motion had returned, as had his awareness of the present. Although he felt regretful for his grotesque existence, he was more afraid of not existing at all. As he attempted to stand, he stumbled and collapsed to his knees, momentarily unsure of how many legs he should have tried to stand on. The naive display felt distantly familiar. Slowly, he rose to stand on two feet.
Bowing his head, Chiwa rasped, his voice resonating like cracked wind chimes, “Appreciation, Gardener.”
“I serve,” Pluto’s voice seemed to emanate from deep within his throat, but also as small gusts of wind, snaking around the trees and echoing all around them, “it is our way.”
Swimming in the ocean of consciousness, Chiwa imagined how the Garden repaired his broken body. He thought of roots growing all around his bones and tightening around them until they were properly set again. The galvanized mulch of the Garden burrowing into his skull, filling him with soil and decay, reanimating him again and again. He drifted off, wondering how many times he had been put into the ground here. He could not remember, even with the enhanced awareness of his recent rebirth.
Chiwa struggled to speak, but asked in broken, slow bursts, “Have any ever failed to rise?”
It took a great deal of focus and an abundance of effort to get out each sound.
“Yes,” replied Pluto in a wet, guttural rasp as his long tongue smacked and slithered from his jaw-less maw.
Chiwa was certain he heard Pluto’s reply from the tree behind him as well, but continued and asked, “Why?”
“The will of the Garden.”
Pluto had just finished when Wulfric’s disgruntled shout echoed across the misty, mossy, overgrown forest, “Gardener, where are you?!”
Chiwa fell to his knees, prostrating as Wulfric approached, while Pluto did not even turn to greet him. Wulfric’s thick, ornate plate armor scraped against itself and the bark of nearby trees as he marched over uneven earth to Chiwa and Pluto. A wide gash had been opened under Wulric’s left eye from a recent battle. It oozed an obsidian liquid that stood out against his ghastly pale flesh and faintly glowing azure eyes. Chiwa felt envy enveloping him as he caught a glimpse of Wulfric’s smooth, intact skin, wondering what it must be like to have some semblance of feeling or sense of touch. Wulfric stopped ten paces from Pluto and demanded, “Gardener, unearth Corbin!”
Like a leaf on a placid pond, Pluto met no resistance as he turned to face Wulfric. Pluto’s voice reverberated around the Garden as a very faint crimson glow appeared from his pupils as he spoke, “Do not blaspheme in this place. None shall rise until the Garden declares it so.”
Drawing his sword, Wulfric approached Pluto without hesitation, marching with deadly purpose. The faint blue hue of his blade seemed to paint the mist around him as he went. Pluto’s hands moved with unnatural fluidity as he wove the mists of the Garden to bind Wulfric in place. For a brief, calm moment, only a gentle strain could be heard as Wulfric’s muscles contracted, but his indomitable will allowed him to push forward until the spell broke away like shattered glass. With a howl, Wulfric launched forward and impaled Pluto through the chest. Wulfric landed on Pluto’s torso as the duo tumbled to the ground. When Pluto hit the forest floor, he embraced Wulfric, wrapping around him like a spider enveloping its prey. Suddenly, they sank into the soil as if they were being dragged down by unseen hands. Dumbfounded, Chiwa lifted his gaze, anticipatory watching the freshly overturned soil for what would happen next.
No matter how hard he tried to adjust his sight, Wulfric could see nothing. He could not hear anything but the earth shifting around them rapidly like a landslide inside his head. A moment later, Wulfric found himself in a small chamber of earth and root networks. He felt thick, ancient roots wrap around his ankles and wrists moving around his head and through his stark white hair. In seconds, Wulfric was so completely and tightly bound from head to toe, any lesser being would have been swiftly strangled. Unable to speak as invading plants pushed into his nasal passages and throat, Wulfric could only listen to the echoing voice of Pluto all around him.
“How long until you mature?” Pluto spat as his voice traveled directly into Wulfric’s head from the roots burying themselves into his ears and behind his eyes.
Pluto willed the roots away from Wulfric’s mouth and after a barrage of curses, he retorted, “What I have done?! All I have done is what you tasked me with!”
“Wrong!” Pluto interrupted with a thunderous shout. “You are an instrument of rebirth. The one ordained to bring them salvation. Now, go, and bring me more dead.”
Wulfric started to protest, but was forced up through the soil by the roots until he was standing in the Garden again. He gathered his senses, noting that the deep wound on his face had been healed. He then sensed Chiwa’s gaze upon him, the only other witness to his spat with the Gardener. Wulfric sheathed his sword with a theatrical snort and commanded, “You - To your feet. If Corbin is not ready, then you will suffice.”
“Thy will be done,” Chiwa said with no inflection, as he rose and marched behind Wulfric.
Written by Christopher Tesorio
Edited by Connor Policastro