VIII. The Unquiet Dead
We are not breathing. There is no light. Gravity, as you call it, is a thing for the living.
But we stand here, looking at one another and seeing, and we inhale and speak.
And now that you are dead, and have joined us, you ask—what is this strange world I did not know in life?
It is nothing more or less than memory and afterimage, habit and reflex. It is a place and time only in our minds’ eyes. You are truly still in your grave, whatever it may be. But the grave has no limits. It yawns wide as the world you once lived in. We sleep separately, but we dream together.
Let me show you your way around the dream.
I am Gaucelmus of the village of Saint Therese, which was once proudly part of the Duchy of Burgundy. I never beheld the Duke himself, nor any of his sons or brothers. You would not have found my home on your maps… you are of a later time, my lord, and in the thousand years that separate our deaths, my kith and kin were destroyed utterly by plague and famine. A few stones overgrown by the forest remain, not far away from one of your motorways. Fear not, for in time you will come to see your new roads become old tracks. It comes to us all.
When I died, I was a levy in the service of a landed peer; a knight baronet, you would call him. My family and I were farmers; we grew mostly barley, with a little plot of aubergines and leeks and a few geese and chickens. Our liege’s liege, the Baron, called him to give service when the war season came, and he in turn demanded that we take up arms. I was given a hammered pot for a helmet, a leather shirt, a long wooden spear and a cooking knife, and I marched with the others to the neighboring village’s lands. The Baron wished to settle a dispute with another noble, and so we met that other worthy’s forces in a green meadow dotted with sheep dung. It was a cool morning in late spring; the grass was wet and my feet hurt.
It was a short battle for me. The knights commanded us to fight the neighboring peasants, in their pot helmets and leather shirts, and thus did two forests of sharp wood meet. I saw my spear drive under a man’s collar and felt the shock of the spear-point punching through his flesh. His mouth opened in a scream I could not hear, for all around me was noise and disarray.
A younger boy than myself, who looked very frightened, stabbed under my leather shirt and into my groin. My world narrowed to pain and fear as I fell. Hot blood gouted out between my thighs. My face was half buried in sheep droppings when the mass of men roved over the place where I lay, and I was trampled to death.
The battle had no name and is forgotten but for crumbling pages in an old monastery’s records. I have no grave but the bellies of the ravens who fed on us that afternoon.
When I returned to myself, in this otherness of death, I was pleased to find that so much seemed familiar. I will grant, good my lord, that it is not as you had hoped or expected, and I will not gainsay you your dismay. Each man and maiden thinks well of his own generation, no matter his disputes with them, and imagines them the pinnacle of history. If it be any consolation, know this: The shadowscape you behold is, to me, as a wonderland of the far future might be to you. I died in what you would call the “ninth century of our Lord.” When we look upon the dark civilization of the dead, I see the incredible grandeur of the fifteenth century!
All the family of man—even your folk, sir—are among us. Some famous or infamous, most like myself, simple and ordinary… death takes all, and this world harbors a legion. When gathered in the citadels of the Pale, we seem many, but consider: The dead far outnumber the living. Even in this strange endless dark we inhabit, there should be many more of us, should there not? But it is only in the Five Castle-Cities of the Pale that there are crowds of the dead.
The Five Castle-Cities are, as you see now—distance means nothing here, we move as a thought!—each a great and strange castle, built in the fashion of centuries that are alien to you. They are not altogether European, it is true. They partake of the fortresses of the other peoples, for they are part of our number, as I have said. You may recognize something of the monuments of the living world in them—here, Carcassone, there, Osaka, beyond, Tulum… visions and memories shape us and them alike.
Living things, and things worked by living things, leave footprints in the deadworld. That which can never live, as we know living, are shadowless here. They belong properly in another realm, which the wise tell me is known as the Elemental World. I cannot speak to that. But I know that much drifts down from the blazing world of life to us in this ebon realm, much as ashes settle from a seething pyre.
Not everything that has lived, nor everything that has been created, is imprinted in this dreamstuff. But enough has been imprinted to make this great void a strangely cluttered place.
This huge boot lying empty beside the dusty white road? As big as a house? Who wore such a thing? Perhaps a child did. I do not joke, for what you behold is the memory of that boot, and here there is no meaning to perspective. The tiny may be enormous, the vast may be infinitesimal. Remember well: The dead do not obey the laws of life.
Most of the other living things, plant or animal, do not resonate in our dark world. But even a tiny fraction of their number is a gargantuan mass of confused, troubled un-human spiritus. Between the ghostly creatures and vegetation, the memories of objects and tools and garments, and all of the impinging spirits, our limbo is often a chaotic and busy place.
There are Five Castle-Cities, linked by roads as white as powdered bone and as sheer as a baby’s dying breath. Betwixt them lies a strange wilderland of nightmare… a frontier of darkness in which the dead haunt households and beastly lairs alike. Did I not mention ghostly creatures and vegetation? Well, they are there as well, and their rude burrows and thickets are haunted as surely as any human dwelling. They swim in waters that dissolve from dark earth. They fly mournfully in a sunless sky.
And what of the sky? It is the very sky you behold in the zenith of your eyes when they are shut in the peace of sleep. We are asleep, but not at peace.
The great band of ashen light you sometimes see fade in across the sky is the very horizon of a strange universe of thought that impinges on our half-life. Some call it the Akashic Library, or Akashic Record, or many other things. It is an infinite ocean of knowledge, past and present and future, and it may touch your consciousness at any moment.
That glow in the distance—it is the power of a spiritual medium reaching into our existence. It is indeed warm and reassuring, and many of us are drawn to it. But most dread it, for it is the unknown—nothing is certain to issue from it, but certainly nothing returns once it is drawn into it.
Under the sky, we see but cannot approach the wardens of the dead. They are busy! They bear many shapes, most oft in pagan seeming. The black mother goddess, the choosers of the slain, the sad king in the toga, the skeletal boatman, with all their scythes and swords and seals of office… they troop from the world of life to this place, but as their duties are discharged, they have naught else to say to us. As the princes of life might bid a babe to go on and live life, so do the guardians of death wordlessly command us to exist in death and await…
No one knows.
The Five Castle-Cities are rowdy with dissent, each great mass of spirits seeking some change, some different way of doing everything. Each sends forth its companies of knights, mounted on strange beasts and weird machines, to guard against chaos. Chaos does await us, you know. Monsters from the wilderland within, and worse things rumored to approach from outside the Pale and beyond our ken.
We hunger for meaning and for life itself. There are ways to attain both. For me, I have found service as a herald gives me satisfaction, which is not unlike meaning, and I glean some trifling of life from the sighs of living youth as they struggle for better life. This is only one way; you may find another as you discover yourself in this new existence.
Some wish to watch their loved ones, warn and aid them in small ways. Others grow sick with the essence of pattern and circumstance, and relive their lives and deaths over and over again, as a madman might repeat the same doggerel endlessly whilst rocking back and forth alone in the dark.
Some wish to gloat at the fear of others, or to hold out phantom lights to the living, that they may find safety or perish by trickery. As I say, there are many answers to the questions of our continued existence. They are slowly drowned out by the drumbeats of monotony, confusion, meaninglessness, what a man told me was called a “fugue state”—unless you find some guiding purpose in existence, you will one day drown in this noiseless sea.
There are ways to lay us to rest, too, if you wish that. Priests and witches sometimes know them, or even little children with good souls. There are also darker things. Ways to reach across the thin distance between our dream-place and the palpable realm of life. Cold stone, as statues and gargoyles, can be possessed and brought to a semblance of vitality. Flesh, too, may be reanimated… revenant things as near to mortal life as you might ever dream, and grisly masses of rotting flesh so hungry for a heartbeat that they will rip hot meat from human bones with their very teeth.
Shame and self-will are hard to come by in the land of the dead. We find it easy to judge the living, but oh so hard to judge one another. After all, we all know the same terrible miseries… when I look at another dead man’s bad choices, I must say as the later poets did, that there but for God’s good grace go I.
There are tales of passageways between the world of the living and the world of the dead; I cannot speak to these things, but I will say that for all living things, there is one sure road away from life. We have walked it, you and I. All the men and women, beasts and flora of our times have or will, as well.
As our time grows brief, I will tell you something that is rarely mentioned of our endless void of death-within-death. We who are Unquiet are not alone. I do not speak of the strange spirits that are not dead—those sprites and devils—nor of the animus of the living creature.
We did not know of their kind when I still lived, but older things than humanity have died and continued in ghostly fashion. Terrible lizards and bird-like things, huge many-legged monsters and furry beasts as big as houses… they too lived, they too died, and their shades have not vanished. You will see a few of them ridden by bold mounted knights! Others you will see under less happy circumstances.
And that is not all. It seems our sun is not the only star in the sky—O Lord, we did not know your lamp was a star in my day!—that has warmed life of its own. Other worlds exist in the endless gulfs beyond our sun’s light. The dead of those worlds also do not lie easily in their alien graves.
Sometimes things approach the Pale. We make great noises, call on powers you have yet to witness, and mass our knights on horse and “fighter jet.” Nothing has tried to pass our border yet, but… they may.
Add to this the deadly danger of the many strange supernatural creatures that scheme and crawl in the world of the living and you will see why I hope that you will not take up a duty in the Lighthouse or the Library, nor in the Garden Maze. There are never enough of us acting as sentinels. I am no knight, for I lack the strength for it—to say nothing of my single remaining eyeball!—but we each may serve in our own way.
The Pale is a circle, my lord. We shall meet again.
I bid you good death.
The Unquiet Dead are the ghosts of dead humans from as far back in history and prehistory as there have been humans. In the dreamworld of the dead, they have banded together in five great Castle-Cities (the Pale) arranged at what, in the living world, would be the five Lagrange orbit points of the planet Earth. Like ghost riders in the sky, they trek from one Castle-City to another on roads like milky stardust. When they have a purpose or seek relief from the monotony of death, they may venture into the wilderness inside the Pale or outward beyond the Pale into unknown alien realms.
Their plane of reality is nearest to what the Adepts call the Akashic Record, and there are strange connections between the Unquiet Dead and the boundless truths of the Akasha. When they let themselves feel true peace, even for just a few moments, the Unquiet Dead can touch the knowledge of the Akashic Record and know things they could never otherwise know.
The world of the dead is strange, and can best be compared to a fever dream. Things have continuity and consequences, but one moment may fade into another without intervening time—space may simply dissolve away and a faraway place suddenly become near. The Unquiet Dead must struggle to keep coherent and to remember things. It is all too easy for them to fall into meaningless habits or just sit down, take root and let years pass without even noticing.
They have no days or nights, and can only measure time by its passage among the living. For the Dead, it is always Now, and the past is merely banished, never gone. The future also exists, but only as the pages of an unread book. To torture the metaphor, they can see the entire library waiting on vast shelves, but they cannot read ahead or know which volume will be opened next. They only know that it is there and that they are, at best, peripheral to its narrative.
The Unquiet Dead have many strange powers that they can unleash on the living, other sorts of spirits, and even one another. Possession, poltergeist-like violence, terrifying waking nightmares and much more are within their reach. There is little that can be done to harm them by the living, except through magic and weird science… and reminding them of what they once had, and may never have again.
No Vampires exist in the modern world who yet recall that long ago they were only ghosts themselves. The Greeks of old tell the tale of how visitors to Hades paid tribute to the hungry shadows with dishes of fresh blood. These and other sacrifices changed the fundamental nature of the Vampire curse, for by such offerings mortal men gave the blood-drinking ghosts the power to cling to their own flesh and keep it solid forever. The Vampires have forgotten this, not even remembering that the spirit world is entirely real withal. Distracted by the countless lures of the physical and consumed with their own greed and paranoia, Vampires are harder to reason with than dying drunkards in the very gutter.
Most of these sad dollies are worthless idiots who have decided to ruin themselves by serving Vampires as their footstools and bank vaults. Yet for all this, my lord, a few have been exposed to the supernatural world without becoming completely wasted, and are thus capable of being guided to more intelligent pursuits.
Breathing people who would fain destroy the supernatural world with secretive technology and puissant occult methods…they’re oft good-hearted, but always wrong-headed. They find our nature frustrating because their crude methods are rarely effective in dealing with the presence of the truly dead. Only their most specialized machines can torment or trap us, banish or call us. Fortunately, they usually only seek out the most deranged or evil of the dead, and the resulting battle is spectacular.
Necromancers, Cultists and Loa Masters
A terrifying menace to the natural order of things, make no mistake of this. More than scientists or magicians, the Necromancers combine multiple powers to pursue a diabolical madman’s dream: The destruction of the barrier between life and death. Similarly insane and abominable goals are pursued by the Cultists, who wish to bring foul spirits and dark gods to the earthly plane, and the Loa Masters, who hope to make everything in every permutation of reality dance to their grotesque tune.
Where’er you find them, if it be practical, destroy them all. Most are only human. You needn’t use much power to affect the material world. Disrupt a warning light here… erode the walls of a blood vessel in the brain there… small things, normal things that would kill an ordinary person. Certes, these living monsters die readily enough. And then, if they linger in the world beyond life, you may bring allies with you and dispatch them even further from the normal desmesnes of reality…
Wizards and wizards. Wise they are, and clever. But few are wise and clever and also honest and kind. They indeed do good and ill among mortal mankind, having little truck with us. A few call us to answer their questions and riddles, and we do our best to give answer from our vasty deep. Unless thou has a great love for arcana, they are better avoided, for their thoughts are much consumed with Great Things and Great Ideas, and dwell only a little on the tiny moments that genuinely comprise the stuff of Life and Death.
The Lunar Covenant
They care not about us—it were foolish, my lord, to waste our thoughts on them. They are elder beings from the dawn of time, soulless and brutal as a rust-bladed trap in an empty field. An thou art kind to the living, call them away from these rutting, famished beasts’ claws and fangs; yet if thou care little for their fortunes, let them fall prey.
Indeed, there are more things in this world of worlds than ever we knew whilst we breathed, to say nothing of what followed that time. Strange things that walk under the sun and creep in the depths—let us ponder them briefly.
The Lords of the Ukhu Pachu
The Vampires are not the only ghosts to regain their bodies, but even they are less profane than the wizened mummies of the deep caves of the world. These “Lords of the Ukhu Pachu” were driven from the world of the dead in battle with our brothers of Xibalba, and they seek two things in the mortal world today: Earthly power and the rich reward of immortal resurrection. They are bandits, kings in exile who were once proud and mighty but now enrobe themselves in stolen finery and the rags of death. Only the desperate and the dishonorable will stand at their side.
The Djinn and the Messengers
It pains me to my core to know that all I was taught in my faith has been shown to be a lie. I believed with my every fiber while yet I breathed, but in death the scales are fallen from my eyes. There is a Fire World beyond our own fields, and it is known to some as Hell or a hell, and there is an Air World too rarefied to see or touch. And from these Empyrean planes come strange spirits that have shaped themselves on the morphic forge of mankind: Some as proud Djinni, spirits from Hell given voluptuous flesh, and some as mad Messengers, ascetic “divines” who mortify their tattooed flesh and carry the weapons of saints in endless battle. Neither host of spirits leads any to just punishment or righteous reward—they only drag the worlds into their meaningless battle, turning what once was a mystic metaphor into a pit of despair.
Those who still dwell in flesh cannot see the Asuras as they really are. We can. They are not human, nor were they ever human. They are a clan of beings that dwells on the Earthly plane, extraordinary demigods of war and power. They are not united. Each of them has a different vision of the future of the world, but only one of them can carry their dream to fruition. And so it is that when they meet, they must inevitably do battle: Sometimes with armies at their backs, sometimes alone in dark alleys. But with each victory, the survivors become more powerful, uniting their nature one duel at a time until at last only one voice among them can remain to speak its power to the universe.
Their name is used in the Hindu faith. It means “demon.”
There are worse things than the Djinn and the Messengers with their children’s crusades, or the subterranean Lords and their machinations, or even the great game of the Asuras. Our worlds—those of the living and of the dead—have already been invaded!
The living world and its squabbling supernatural mobs barely suspect the truth of this, but we who never sleep know. And what we know, we fear.
The lesser invaders come from beyond tomorrow—the Time Engineers. They are the shadows of a possible world to come, and they have journeyed backward beyond their own origins, to ensure their future may come to pass. They will do whatever they must to accomplish their goals, and their technologies are beyond the wildest dreams of the living world. Allied with a motley assortment of spirits and monsters of the Asian world, the Time Engineers are seemingly benevolent but utterly ruthless. Their goals cannot coexist with any others: In the end, they must either make their soulless future a reality or they must vanish from existence entirely.
The worse infection to reach these shores of the cosmos would be that of the Dream Masters. Pray, how can I explain these horrors? Shapeless light, strange geometries, a fugue of alien music that brings madness… they exist in angles and lines, patterns and ideas… the Dream Masters come from beyond all known reality and have a simple wish to make the universe we know into the universe… they know.