Let’s face it, as apocalypses go, it’s hard to beat zombies. They’re relentless, they don’t sleep, and their faces remind us what awaits us if we fail to beat them. But like any ace in the fantasy deck, they’re also overused, and often poorly used. For better or worse, my series has them. So far, they’re only lightly hinted at, but before they get up and start doing real damage, I thought they could benefit from some internet stranger feedback.
Fairly conventional medieval fantasy. I like conflating my cultural influences, so you might find a nation that feels as much ancient Hebrew as it does classic Viking, as Polynesian as it is Parisian, but in general, we have ships and swords, castles and keeps, queens and lords, and all the familiar trappings. Magic is super low; Most people don’t believe it exists, and those who do typically attribute it to divine miracles. I laid out some of the major intrigues in a critique thread a while back, but didn’t get to the zombies: https://www.reddit.com/r/fantasywriters/comments/97wcqp/group_critique_get_a_quick_critique_of_your_world/e4big07
Every good fantasy needs a war that happened long ago™. Mine is the War of Sins, or the War of the Undying, as it is sometimes known. Few agree where the enemy came from or what kept them from dying by the sword. Most credited a strange disease or some foreign medicine, or strong burnwyne, but to the clergy of Talfar, this power could only come from the darkest hell, and they put themselves to work finding a divine solution to a diabolical problem. In their archives, they found a way to channel their god’s energies into a bottle of water capable of wiping out even the Undying generals. With it, they struck a blow so awesome it caused the host of Undying to collapse at once, and for years after, the undying ships boats, filled with dried and lifeless bodies, drifted into harbors all over the world.
Just Add Water
These days, the War is a distant legend, fodder for history books, church hymns, and Warding week costume balls. But there are crypts, hundreds of them, where dried corpses of the Undying host lie hidden away because someone, back in the day, got the notion that burning or burying them would bring them back to life. In reality, a drop of water is all it would take to wake them up. Or blood.
Here’s a brief passage in which a character stumbles into a cache of Undying corpses.
One step… two… a third and a fourth and she was within lunging distance of the wall and its arches. A bead of sweat fell down her cheek — a drop so heavy and round a sculptor would have to depict it with a child’s marble. It fell from her chin and splashed on the naked ribs of a weathered corpse beneath her. As she watched it fall, her foot landed in a gap, and she fell through the corpses up to her waist. Quickly, desperately, she swam through the desiccated dead, their dried leather bodies and tattered rags wiping the sweat from her arms and neck.
What Zombies Want
In defining villains, I try to adhere to the adage, “everyone thinks they’re the good guy,” and these undead are no exception. When they spewed out from hell into the sea, they were lifeless corpses, but the water and salt stirred them to life and they found their spirits. But these spirits were not the tortured stuff of the grave. They were, rather, the joyful spirits of songs and legend, souls at perfect peace, who, when they encountered mortal kind, took pity on their tragic state, and decided to put them out of their misery. In this respect, they’re a bit like the Borg, or perhaps like Cylons.
The definitive text of the War is the “Epicon of Vincent”, a massive collection of stories told as if they were all experienced by one hapless traveler who finds himself in the middle of everything. Its ten volumes have been copied thousands of times in a hundred languages, but there’s an eleventh volume, one with only a few extant copies, kept secret by the church. In it, Vincent hears the confession of Aúndur, one of the “Lieutenants of Doom” (living warriors who allied with the Undying). This rare tome offers a glimpse into the motivations of the Undying host.
“Do you not cover the dead in scent and myrrh?” Aúndur asked. “Do you not turn their every good deed, no matter how half-hearted or self-interested, into lovely eulogies to share at the funeral table? The years which follow death transform even the lowest wretch into a blessed memory, dressed in finest silk and softest touch.”
I admit I had not thought of death this way — not in twenty years of war, while death wore only the face of destruction and bloodied horror. But the penitent confessor was right. There is more to death than living men care to consider, for we who are alive, never care to consider death at all.
“Are you saying that the Undying,” I asked, “with their shining faces and fine cloths, before we cut them down again and again — were just benign spirits, conjured from our ballads and our eulogies?”
Aúndur’s his eyes fell upon the sigils carved into his own flesh, and his voice became many voices as he read the words on his skin. “…the salt sea filled us with fire and virtue, song and substance. The shroud became our raiment, the dirge became our voice. We landed on your shores, and beheld you living… broken, and dying. We beheld your sorrows and your jealousies, your hunger and your fear. We smelled your fleeting flesh and felt your wicked whispers. Brothers murdered brothers and sons forsook their sires. When we, the Undying, beheld you — dying — how deeply we sorrowed, how bitterly we wept."
So that's it. Basically zombies, but while their bodies may have come from hell, their spirits are sort of ripped from heaven, and behind their bloodied faces, their joyful purpose is to send everyone back there.
Thanks in advance for any thoughts.