This is Hell, he thought to himself once again. I am dead, and this is Hell.
His thoughts echoed through the void. Even silence can reverberate through such interminable darkness. He couldn't say for sure what he had done to deserve an eternity of solitude in the endless void; he couldn't even remember his name. An unknowable amount of time was spent trying to recall his life before this. It was much like trying to recall a dream long after awaking: he could only faintly recall an unrelated collection of memories and sensations, unable to make sense of any of it.
Fleeting snapshots of scenes from his life were projected upon the empty blackness. Illuminated by candlelight, he watched his hand scribble into an open tome with a ratty quill. Another memory from early in his life: a flock of cackling seagulls scattering into the sky ahead of him as youthful feet splashed into seafoam on some pebbly beach. In one more mundane memory, he recalled evening twilight shining through multicolored facets of a window of stained glass. Nothing about any mortal sin that would condemn him to an eternity of maddening solitude.
As he tried to peer deeper into what little recollection he possessed of his life, the perpetual silence of the void was interrupted. A distant crunch, followed by the tearing of earth somewhere up above him. The sound gradually grew closer and closer, until a resonant thud reverberated right before him.
“Careful now,” he heard a voice call out somewhere above him. “These are old graves. Coffins are all half-rotted away by now and we don't want to hurt whatever's in there.”
A second thud, as loud as the first, rang out through the darkness.
“Enough! Gimme the shovel, Grumble. I'm not letting you get us sent off to the Locus 'cause you busted up another corpse. Dumb ghoul..."
The pittering of loose soil and gravel could be heard just before him. A groan and subsequent popping of nails as the coffin's lid was pried open, and for the for the first time in a long time indeed, he could see.
Staring down a freshly-dug grave were two half-rotten wights against an overcast sky. Both caked in thick mud from the grave they had just dug up. One was missing its jaw; its tongue lolled out from under the skull as it stared dumbly down into the old casket. The other wight was better preserved, save for a missing right eye. With his remaining eye, he studied the contents of the coffin that they had just unearthed.
"This one's in rather good condition. Let's get him out."
The two wights extracted the contents of the unearthed casket, pulling a half-mummified cadaver by the shoulders out of the muddy pit up onto the earth, unceremoniously depositing him face-down onto the scraggly grass of an overgrown and forgotten cemetery. The disinterred corpse surveyed his new surroundings, too stupefied to even pull himself onto his feet.
"Where am I?" The cadaver croaked with much difficulty, having almost forgotten how to speak.
"Hmmm, this one can still think," said the one-eyed ghoul. "Been a while since we dug up one who can think."
"Where am I?" He asked again. "Is this Hell?"
"Hell?" The one-eyed ghoul gave a thoughtful scratch of the jaw with the tip of his shovel, leaving a smear of soil on his half-decayed chin. "I don't think so. I think the master said this place was an old priory... whatever that is." The jawless ghoul gave a nod of affirmation, causing his tongue to waggle back and forth.
The freshly-exhumed ghoul pushed himself up off the ground and gave a look around. They were in a clearing in the middle of a dense wood of gnarled, overgrown trees. It hosted a dozen or so ancient gravestones, piled high beside each was a tall mound of muddy earth; tailings from the wide pits dug directly in front of each grave marker. The mud-caked lids of caskets were tossed carelessly about the graveyard, unwanted husks cast off of from the prize within. And at the far end of the clearing, some distance away from the graves, was a moss-covered mass of rubble sprouting with weedy maple saplings - too large and too square to be a natural outcropping of boulders. In the dim light of the overcast sky, the exhumed ghoul noticed a few shards of stained glass amidst the rubble and vines.
The sound of hoof and footfalls drew the attention of the ghouls away from their surroundings. Approaching from a rut path in the woods came a procession of living dead toting shovels and other digging implements. Leading the procession was revenant minor seated upon the back of a withered horse with shreds of leather and sinew hanging loosely from a snout of exposed bone. A cuirass of rusted chainmail clinked faintly with each step of his steed. Two undead hounds flanked the rider, sniffing the crisp air regularly as they went along with their master.
"Did you find anything useful?" The revenant asked, trotting up toward the three.
"Yes!" The one-eyed ghoul exclaimed, casting a glance with his remaining eye to the corpse they had just unearthed. "This one still thinks."
"This region has rich soil and I am surprised to find bodies in good condition here. Surprised, but pleased."
"You there," snapped the revenant, turning in the saddle toward the new ghoul, "Do you recall anything from your life?"
"I recall this place," the exhumed ghoul said, remembering the shards of stained glass from the ruins of the nearby building. "I do not know how, but I recall this place and little else. I do not know how I came to know this place nor who I was."
The revenant glanced quickly to the headstone marking the grave from which the exhumed ghoul was dug. It was little more than a nubbin of weathered limestone poking out of the grass and moss like a worn, rotten tooth. Any name or markings had worn off a hundred years ago.
"Typical. Few of us remember anything from life," said the revenant. "This place appeared on some old maps as an abbey of some sort. Perhaps you were an abbot, which leads me to believe you are a mite smarter than this lot of dumb ghouls."
"Ah-uh?" The jawless ghoul moaned, trying to sound out 'abbot'. The horsed revenant gave a roll of his white eyes.
The abbot looked down to his hands once again, and noticed that his fingernails had fallen off of his grayed and desiccated digits.
"What happened to us? Are we dead?"
"Oh, right! We'll need to give this one the talk." The one-eyed ghoul remembered. "We need to tell him everything that's happened."
"The talk can wait," the revenant said dismissively. "Give him a shovel. For now, he digs."
Intermittent flashes of green lightning illuminated the land for brief moments in a sickly glow - the closest thing to sunlight that the gloomy environs of Necron ever saw. So dark was this country that all trees and vegetation had died long ago for want of sunlight. Barren snag trees sprouting polypores were all that remained of the verdant woodlands of the Rhanean hill country, and mushrooms and dense lichen beds covered the bare soil in lieu of wildflower-riddled grassland. The lichens and fungi, prolific as they were, did little to check the erosive damage of the frequent rains that fell upon this bleak country. Rain furrows carved deep gorges into the land all the way to slate bedrock which terminated in fetid, muddy ponds. Not that the erosion mattered; these lands were too sun-depraved to grow crops of any use to the undead who had ruled this country for so long.
Difficult though it might have been to imagine, this depauperate, utterly-exhausted country was in fact the nexus of the undead empire. Indeed, the ebon towers of Necron could be seen rising out of the eastern horizon like skeletal fingers up to the roiling tempest that hung perpetually above the city. Easily dwarfing all the other edifices of Necron's skyline was the Spire of Rutile, which served simultaneous as fortress, Eagoth's residence and library, and also as a mammoth lightning rod. Even here, some three leagues out of the sprawling undead metropolis, the Spire could still be seen. It illuminated the surrounding lands with stochastic flashes of lightning that struck it so frequently along with the the only other structure of import in this otherwise empty place: the Westward Way.
This was the main overland route into and out of the undead capital. It was a wide stone-paved highway that wound through the gentle hills west of Necron before turning south toward Comiriom and the Neck. Typically, the Way received a considerable amount of traffic - wagons full of supplies for the myriad industries of the undead capital passed couriers and others on official business for the Great Necromancer. Today however, the Way was traveled only by Theleden and his entourage.
Shod hooves clattered upon the slimy cobblestones over the distant rumble of thunder from the Spire of Rutile as Theleden's destrier cantered along. His steed, though unliving - of course, had few signs of decay and most of those were covered under a sheet of fine horsemail. Flanking the Theleden on either side were a cadre of mounted revenants. Each held high a lance affixed with a banner of black grubsilk. Embroidered on the fluttering banners was the right hand of white skeletal bone: Theleden's sigil. And behind them, on foot, were the halberd-wielding Skeleton Guard clad in their heavy platemail. With impossible synchrony, the Skeleton Guard marched in unison - their bootfalls sounding all at once as they kept pace behind Theleden and the horsed revenants minor. Some revenants major found the unified march of the Skeleton Guard maddening, particularly when accompanying them on long journeys such as this. Theleden, however, appreciated their rhythmic footfalls and much preferred it to the random peal of thunder that was heard constantly throughout Necron. He found their marching more conducive to thought.
Not that Theleden had any trouble with that. After all, it was thoughts that had prompted this journey from Necron to begin with: disconcerting thoughts that the Right Hand of Eagoth could simply not forget. Or perhaps 'vision' was a more appropriate word? Such distinctions were far outside of his area of expertise. Theleden knew his duty was to govern Necron and the subordinate provinces of the undead empire in his master's stead - nothing more. But to serve Eagoth in this function, Theleden needed total concentration. It was a challenging charge that the Great Necromancer had left him with and there was no room for distraction.
But what were these visions? Some were memories from life, vestiges left behind that the Cleansing had failed to remove, and those were unpleasant enough for Theleden. But some visions Theleden was quite sure were not from his life before. Were these visions of things that had yet to come? Or things that might have been? Theleden had to silence these thoughts, if not know their meaning.
Ostensibly, Theleden had undergone this journey to check the progress of Eagoth's revenants major and ensure that the collection of resources for the war against the living was proceeding smoothly. There had been no dishonesty when he reported his desire to make this journey to the Great Necromancer. But most important to Theleden was to end these maddening visions. Theleden had omitted that detail. Certainly not out of dishonesty - but for the sake of brevity. The Great Necromancer need not concern himself with such trivial things. Instead, Theleden would seek the counsel of the authority among the dead in matters of visions.
On the right side of the road came an old granite milestone from before the Undeath. A thick blanket of frilly orange lichen covered much of its surfaces, but the inscribed distances had been wiped clear either by ghoul laborers or travelers. It seemed some alterations had been made since the time of Eagoth, as some locales had been crossed out and others crudely added by an uneducated ghoul.
Narren - 18 Leagues
Comiriom - 54 Leagues
Vardo's Bridge - 72 Leagues
Ludire - 88 Leagues
Yzen - 109 Leagues
LOKUS - 152 LEAGES
"How far is it then, master?" Asked one of the horsed revenants.
"At this pace," Theleden paused for a moment to consider, "it will take ten days to reach the White City."