The Old Church
By Walter Attridge
Saraxhiol of the house Celadrin of the tribe of the Noldor, or Sara to most humans, woke from reverie to a beautiful crisp clear morning. The first such morning that the elven bard had experienced in this blighted world for quite some time. Shaking out her hair from its tightly rolled bun she let the silken black tresses fall over her face and then pulled it back lest any tresses fall into the open empty sockets where her eyes had been. The sensation was unnerving.. Blind for nearly fifty years the elf had learned how to perceive the world through her other senses. Hearing caught the chatter of small animals foraging along the ground and climbing trees. The smell of the morning dew and the sweet scent of the damp earth beneath her bed roll. The feel of sunlight upon her face and hands. The taste of spring pollen on her tongue. Morning... a luxury so long taken for granted and perhaps lost for all time thanks to the petty spite of the Dark Lord.
The elf began to hum a light tune a diddy half remembered from her childhood and was suddenly interrupted by the loud sawing snores of her companions. The Dwarf across from her, Noral of the Hive-born,a grizzled old war veteran with Sara from the great war of power snuggled up against a large stone and began to snort and gasp and then to settle back into that steady rhythm. As if trying to accompany their companion, Arnora Asbjorndottor, a giant of a woman both tall and broad, began to snore herself and as if to punctuate she broke wind with a loud blast. After a moment the elf stood up and shouldered on her robes, cunningly woven by her [people to be as smooth and thin as silk and yet a sturdy and warm garment.
Morning was significant to the Eladrin. He people gathered in the dawn to sing and speak of the events of the night before. Those in reverie woke to share the visions they experienced and to perhaps pass along some portentous message. It was also the time that many gathered to pray. The Eladrin held little real faith in their deities realizing that in their vast age they had uncovered much that had disproved their original creation myths. Even the most steadfastly devout, those elves who many millennial ago, had crafted those same myths had long ago acknowledged that their faith was more culturally significant than spiritual. The gods and the rituals surrounding them had been in existence for so long that they had become a firm part of the elven identity, and it gave a handy excuse for the community to come together and remain a community rather than drift apart lest the slow centuries gradually drive them apart.
Upon considering her faith and the morning prayers sung in the bright early morning, Sara could hear the tell tale sounds of hymns drifting across the forest reverberating against the trees and for a moment drowning out the stereo snoring of her friends. They had not stirred as Sara passed about the camp trying to detect some movement or presence, finding nothing but small animals and the continued signs of morning. What is out there I wonder as she began to belt on her rapier Fool killer, "only what you bring with you" came the reply whispered softly on the wind, then she stopped and wrapped the blade up again and left her friends to their peaceful sleep walking off towards the sounds of the singing.
The forest was alive with the sounds and smells of the morning as Sara followed the hymns drifting among the trees. At times the indistinct tune took shape and there were snippets of words. Nothing to make sense of but it was defiantly a prayer sung by a choir. Being a student of music, Sara tried to work out the denomination that had wrote the tune. Three were many human gods, and she was certain that the singing was human now, a god for every event and personality, a god for every person and cause never in all the history of the free peoples was there ever such variety in spirituality. The Dwarves mocked the humans for their fickleness and the elves praised what they saw as a way of brining an egalitarian solution the divisive nature of spirituality. And then the humans began to kill each other with even more ferocity as they folded and rewrote their own gods to fit their own petty feuds and wars.
Working her way closer now to the source Sara detected no hostility or division in the choir only a sort of sadness and desperation behind the hymn, or the lament as it was beginning to sound like. All around the remnants of a village came into Sara's perception, the smell of long burned and rotted wood and thatch, the feel of masonry half buried in weeds and mud the tell tale clatter of bones disturbed by the prying of some squirrel or other animal trying to find a bite to eat. The place had died long ago, so long that the forest had almost reclaimed it. Quickly the elf did a circuit of the ruins and could find no signs or weapons or battle the town had died quickly though everything rotting and fading at the same pace.
Half buried steps and thick weedy overgrowth gave way to better tended grounds still overgrown and dilapidated but passable and recognizable as a church road. Already the elf could see it I her minds eye, the traditional style of human churches, a stone long hall with a slate shingle roof and a single spire reaching high into the sky containing the bell tower and perhaps the clerics rectory. Stained glass windows portraying their gods suffering and trial. Human Gods always suffered for some reason Sara thought as she passed the remains of a picket fence as her hand passed over the rotting planks she still detected the remnants of paint, the last little holdouts after hundreds of white washes. The Lament was now bright and clear as the elf began to navigate the worn and cracked stones to the arched double doors. She expected them to be broken down and ruined but the doors still stood they were somewhat faded but strangely they had been opened more than a few times over the years as they were not sealed with rot or rust. Wasting little time the elf began to pull one of the doors and it came easily enough and with only the slightest groan.
Once inside the music stopped. Sara felt the light filtered through the intact stained glass windows, felt the hues of red and green and purple, she smelled the oiled lacquered wood of the pews and the groans of the worn floorboards than held them she heard the gentle swaying of the parishioners as they moved in rhythmic timing to music that had stopped, or had never been playing at all she realized now. There was also the labored rasping breaths of the cleric standing at the pulpit. There was pain in him, a terrible pain. There was the smell of rotting rugs and tapestry destroyed by rains and leaks in the roof and by general neglect. There was also the cloying sweet smell of decomposition from the parishioners and the cleric. The picture her senses painted before her would have been grotesque enough except that at that exact moment the dead cleric, who had been obviously interrupted in the middle of his sermon. Began to speak again..
"Welcome sister!" the thinker zombie called out and all at once Sara's hearing picked out the jerking movements of approximately fifty or so walkers in the pews as they turned in unison to stare with vacant eyes and gaping mouths. He was shrouded by the glare of the light from the windows. There is no light its the dead of night Sara suddenly realized"All are welcome here in the house of the Lord will you stay and hear my sermon." Sara pulled the door closed behind her and the thinker gestured to the front where there was an empty seat.
Thank you father" the elf replied and began to walk the aisle. There was no movement from the parishioners, nor would there be since shamblers ignored elves. They had only turned to acknowledge her presence because of the thinkers ability to influence and direct the actions of a horde in close proximity. The thinker was more of a problem. They took no interest in elven brains but they were also nearly indestructible and when motivated were terribly fierce opponents. Feeling along the pews Sara made her way down the aisle and to the front and settled into the empty seat. Once she sat the living corpse at the pulpit launched into his sermon. There was nothing ominous or sinister in his words or manner no exposition as to why she had been drawn here. It was a simple country sermon about temperance and submission to duty about how the town had to have discipline in regards to food rations in their time of want and woe.
Suddenly Sara saw a man behind the thinker, Saw him with eyes that had long ago been removed with a rusty spoon by humans looking for a cure to the plague that was turning their families into flesh eating zombies. Without really knowing it seemed to her that the man was dressed like the priest yet his vestments were clean and new and he was young and desperate trying to appeal to an even more desperate congregation. Then she saw the parishioners men women and children all sitting next to black silhouettes that were the rotting mindless shells of their own former bodies. Even the ghosts looked hungry and scared. Their Sunday best worn and frayed. These were the years after the cataclysm when the peace and plenty the high king had brought had turned into a hard scrabble fight to stay alive.
A hand touch Sara's and looking down she saw a small human girl holding it she was young three or four years old at the most and she was already starving to death her dress hung like a bag over a skeleton's shoulders. The elf stared with wonder into the girls eyes. The first human eyes she had seen in decades. The girl mouthed a few words but she was already growing hazy, black creeping in along the edges. As Sara blinked to refocus it was all gone there was nothing but blackness and an odd pain along her eye sockets.
Sara paused and drew in a deep breath trying to shake the feelings that they apparition had stirred in her, and consider what this haunting meant. Never had she seen any of these new undead accompanied by the ghosts of their former lives. There was no magic in any of these creatures that she had ever sensed and indeed they were immune to almost all forms of necromancy especially attempts to control or raise them from the dead. The ghosts had been mute but there was still one source she could inquire of. Respectfully she waited for the thing on the pulpit to finish.
"Excuse me father" Sara began. The dead priest turned to acknowledge her. "Might I speak to you of a spiritual matter" the thinker laughed and all around the assembled parishioners let out a series of short moans and coughs. That made the elf begin to reconsider her current tactic. This thinker had all but perfected its control over its lesser brethren. Then she remembered again that hazy image of the girls eyes "If we could speak privately?" The boards of the podium creaked as the thing crouched down she could feel its yellowed inflamed eyes staring down at her. The true horror of these creatures was their intelligence they possessed all the memories and personality of their former lives but now they were twisted by madness and a horrible pain that drove them to consume human brains. While they pursued this hunger with a berserk ferocity they could also be manipulative in the extreme.
"Come up with me to the rectory child and we can talk there" the thing said with a thud as it lept down off the podium. Sara stayed very still not wanting to provoke it with any sudden movements or by showing fear. It took her hand and she could feel the cold dry flesh. Carefully the thinker raised her hand to its face letting her touch the mottled dry flesh. The nose was gone as were the lips the flesh of the face was lined with dried capillaries the eyes weren't sunken or shriveled but the flesh around them was and the eyes bulged swollen and inflamed as if they would burst like an abscess or cyst. Lowering her hand it gently led her to the sepulcher and past the pulpit to the staircase that led up to the rectory. They climbed the stairs in silence and passed the jagged remnants of the door to the clerics single sparsely furnished room.
"I have not entertained in some time so please forgive the state of my quarters" it said with a short titter. It led her to a seat and eased her into it"
Sara reached into the sleeve of her robe into one of the cunningly hidden pockets sewn into the inside and produced some tea leaves. She then smelled the room for what was the remnants of the fireplace and hummed a little cantrip, the subtle elvish magic that all her kind was blessed with at their creation. And the rotted fuel in the hearth grew red, then smoldered and then became a blaze. "If I could be permitted to provide the tea father" at the sight of the flames Sara felt the thinker tense and step away and then it relaxed and after what sounded like the thing rummaging in a pile of debris it returned and placed Sara's hand on a well made copper kettle. It rummaged about some more and she heard the sloshing of a bucket. "rain water" it said and Sara smelled it to confirm. The water was fouled with soot but it was water, not blood or waste, and the leaves she had would purify any impurities less than those two. The creature took the leaves and they sat for a while in silence until the tea was ready.
They sat on opposite ends of the room the thinker furthest from the fire and next to the window overlooking the forest. After a long silence the thinker began, its raspy pained voice now calmer more rational. "I remember the last days, the days when things had begun to truly become desperate. Remember hearing tales of soldiers putting whole villages to the sword once the sickness had taken hold. Mostly I remember the fear, that awful desperate need to find a cure to 'fix the problem' and how impotent I felt for having no answer." he went silent and Sara replied hoping to coax more from him.
"Dark days" she said sipping her tea.
"Yes... my own people came running into town one day near the end they were clamoring and celebrating 'a cure!!! a cure!!!' they cried. They came to me full of desperate savage hope and presented me with a pair of eyes wrapped in a dirty bloody swatch of cloth. 'elf eyes' they cried 'The eyes of an immortal to cure the undead' they said. I wonder... were they your eyes" Sara's hand shook and some tea splashed onto her robe as she remembered the weight of them on her the smell of sweat and shit and urine, hot breath and the feel of a hand trying to molest her during the chaos. She remembered the sight of the spoon rusted and caked with dirt as it came closer and closer and then the red pain and the wet pop of her eyes coming out.
"No I lost mine in the south the men who took them never reached their cleric. They were unaware that I had companions with me when I was taken. my friends were not happy when I was found. I didn't know the rumor of the 'cure' had reached this far north."
"I don't think it did" the thinker said " I just think everyone was coming to the sane conclusion a sad coincidence. I was enraged when I saw what my people had done I slapped the eyes away and beat at the crowd with my staff cursing them. I was still respected and things had not grown quite so desperate here this close to the high king, and we didn't have the witch-smeller running around causing mischief. After that day they had also grown to fear me and I forced the truth from the fools who brought the eyes. They said that the ringleaders had been a pair of brothers of whom I had already had great trouble with. Young drunken louts who had liberties with a few girls and whom the recently departed sheriff had put in stocks more than once.. I knew that there were others It would take more than two drunken fools to ambush, subdue, maim, and then kill one of you kind. But I knew I was in a dangerous position and so I focused all the blame on the ringleaders and soon everyone in the town was chasing them out pelting them with stones and dung." Sara continued to sip her tea.
"Forgive me father" she replied "But what would you know about one of 'my kind' aside from what you had read in stories"
There was a long pause as if the thing was insulted or it no longer wanted to continue. Sara braced for a possible attack, lamenting having not brought Fool killer. Fire was the only way to truly destroy a thinker but only because one had to completely immolate the thing burning even the bones to ash and that took time and a lot of fire and the mad creature would fight the entire time. "I met an elf once" the thinker finally said.
"It was years earlier. Just when your people had begun their march west leaving Arda for some new land" She let it continue not correcting or explaining. "a lone elf on horse back had stumbled into a a pt fall and the steed had been killed. I found him three days without food or water and pierced in several placed from the posts at the bottom. I got him out nursed his wounds and fed him. All the while the elf was terrified always looking about and jumping at the slightest noise he was desperate to leave and struck me when I insisted that he lay back down lest he reopen his wounds. When I wouldn't relent he said something in the elvish tongue and I fell down consumed with the worst pain I had ever felt... at the time that is...
'He would have left me then but the wounds did reopen and he collapsed nearly a mile away and would have died if I had not followed and brought him back. We never spoke during his convalescence. He just continued to be afraid. When he was healed enough to leave he held my hand and touched my chest said a few words in elvish and then said 'I have nothing to give you in thanks but this perhaps it will guard you in dark when all other lights go out.' he then sped away without another word. I never learned what he was running from and no pursuers ever crossed our path." Sara knew, but such things were not for an abomination like this to know. They had spoken longer than Sara would have liked it was dangerous to parlay with a thinker since they were so adept at appearing human. She decided to press the point.
"Tell me father How did you die?" a dangerous tactic some refused to acknowledge that they were dead and then being confronted with it could reduce them to frothing insanity. Its voice was flat as it answered
"Painfully and slowly" as it continued the tone changed revealing some of the true personality behind the facade of humanity "I woke one day to a terrible nausea I began to vomit and void my bowels uncontrollably it continued for a short while off and on but it seemed like hours. Even after there was nothing left in me and all that was coming out was blood. The pain started after that my muscles tightening and cramping all across my body. I called out for help but was too weak to leave the floor. During quieter moments I noticed that there were no sounds coming from the village and I was hopeful that I was the only one spared this sickness so when I was able I bared the door lest any of my flock come to check on me. I lost track of time then at least one night passed that I am aware of and there was rain I know because I drank some water that had gathered. And then the delirium passed and I was clear headed...
'I guess I died then, but I never went to sleep or felt my body relax. All I felt was everything stop, heartbeat, and breathing and that I had to consciously draw breath. The the pain began and I wasn't weak anymore and I knew at long last what I needed to make myself better. I was strong now stronger than I had ever been and I threw open my doors and bounded down the stairs bursting from the church into my village, knowing what I needed to find.
'My people were all there as well some were on the road, some wandering about others were just now stumbling from their homes out into the morning air. None of them had what I wanted but they were all my people so I called out to them and they stopped and as they had always done they came and gathered about me and I led them back to the church so that they could hear the good word that I had so recently learned." he let the story hang omitting what had come next, the hunting down of any survivors and then the inevitable march on any living humans he knew about in the area. But that all happened a long time ago and there was little purpose in dredging it up now, nor would the thing across from her even care.
"Can I inspect your body?" the elf started "to see if I can find clues as to the reason why you died." The thinker laughed and stood
"And why would you want to do a thing like that? It stepped closer. Sara simply sipped her tea.
"Call it curiosity" she replied. Its hand shot out and caught her by the wrist. The tea sloshed about a little but didn't spill. It urged her to her feet.
"I've always considered that a virtue" It said pulling her face to the thinkers ruined visage. Her lips were less than an inch from its exposed teeth. "How does an elf maid find herself blind and wandering in this ruined world. Tell me do you have any companions on your journey some protector or are you escorting anyone some group of refugees." Its mouth began to water, saliva ran through gaps in its teeth and dribbled onto the priests vestments. Sara never reacted.
"No father I am simply curious you have offered my your hospitality and I thought to perhaps alleviate you of a burden." that stirred something in the thinker. It stepped back and Sara could feel the thing tremble, with some conflict between what it had once been and the ravenous lunatic it was now. "Besides father what harm could it do for me to check" now it came and stood over her she was an elf and female and it was of a large human stock.
"Indeed Lady elf... what harm could you do"
The corpse stood and allowed Sara to perform a thorough examination, stripping it bare and then feeling and palapating almost every inch of its rotting flesh. After a time she found a special place on the thing's chest a small subtle mark that only she could have recognized and many of the pieces as to why she was here came into focus.
She had suspected poison and after a few careful incisions ith a small utility knife she was able to find the cause, Thin long worm like creatures that had embedded themselves inside the man's intestines when he had been alive. A parasite fornd in the dung of farm animals like sheep of pigs. Enough of that waste dumped into the towns well... Sara considered
"Take me to your friends please" it asked politely.
"Do you know where those boys went after you cast them out?" they were the most likely candidates and something told her that even after this many years they were probably still alive and relatively close by.
"I've been alone here for so long . You've shown me the importance of friendship. I won't try to harm them. I can fight the hunger so long as you are with me." Sara ignored the thing. And made for the stairs. A tea cup smashed into the wall next to her and the thinker rose and screamed "I WANT THEIR BRAINS!!!!" It started to charge but Sara had pulled the door closed in time. It beat on the other side furiously screaming and clawing. Quickly the elf began to sing a song of holding and repair and the broken hinges bent back into place. She sang of expanding and the wood grew and swelled until it wedged in the frame sealing it. She ran down the stairs and down the aisle past all the parishioners and worked the same cantrip on the front door of the church. With time the thinker would either beat the door down or it would find a way to wedge itself through the window in its keep, but in the meantime she was free to leave and to put an end to this sad little tale.
A tale came to the bards mind. A tale of two young men practically boys themselves who wanted to find a place that was all their own and where they could hide from an ever increasingly dangerous world. The boys found a new home one deep underground where no one would think to look and so they moved what was valuable to them there and made ready to ride out the storm in their stronghold. They needed treasure first so they found an elf along the road and killed him. After they had the treasure they went back to town to take what else they could and that was when the people turned against them, and drove them out. So they went underground but not before playing one last mean trick on the townspeople they hated, making them drink a well full of pig shit. Once it was done they went into the hole and waited until it was safe to come out. But it never was safe ever again.
The path north from the church was overgrown with brambles, covered in muddy sinkholes and with dozens of dead end paths. The hiding place of the brothers would be well hidden from most but to an elf the true path opened up like a beacon. a goblin path hidden and treacherous appeared in the muck and she began to follow it finding the tell tale masonry. The goblin made tunnel network would have dozens of clever devices to drawn and purify groundwater . Deftly moving along the outer tunnels of the warren she soon discovered what it was that the brothers had stolen from the elf they murdered... light crystals
The crystals were an elven invention mostly used for decoration. They ere naturally forming crystal grown more quickly thanks to elven cantrips and worked into a variety of shapes. Whatever shape they had had before the crystal had begun to grow wild within the chaotic atavistic goblinoid environment. It was now only random growths covering ceilings of side tunnels or even blocking entire antechambers. Sara could feel the intensities of light and from those determine at least what the general themes were. some tunnels were lit up like daylight, others a broken miasma of browns and greens hanging in the air like a cloying oily cloud. further along the elf began to find signs of habitation.
There were remnants of chairs and a table near a alcove closest to one of the primary water gathering pools. They were broken and rotten with water damage. Feeling about the alcove there were several odds and ends all smashed and ruined thrown about the room. For any creature living underground it was vital that the occupants dispose of their waste usually by depositing it in a deep chasm. Now it was strewn all about the caverns even fouling the water gathering pool. Touching and smelling the waste there it was flecked with mineral deposits telling Sara what had happened. The crystal had done more than simply spread among the stone and dirt of the warrens it had begun to infiltrate the humans body. This was not a common quality for the light crystals but more than likely the elf they had killed to take them had cursed what was stolen and elven curses always took a long time to take effect. Echoes reverberated through the tunnel groans and half coherent mutterings, Sara set off in the direction of them letting herself blend into the elven light filling the warrens.
The brothers were much deeper than Sara had thought they would ever go and much farther gone than she had feared. Feeling the resonance of the elven made crystals she could draw a mental picture of how the curse had taken hold. They were crippled, having each lost a leg and an arm to crystal growths. Spikes of incandescent mineral were jutting painfully all over their bodies and as she approached unseen and unheard she could tell they had lost most of their mental faculties from huge growths protruding from their skulls.
It struck Sara how pathetic they truly were. All the years they had outlived so many other humans, most of them far better men and women than these miserable reprobates and they had done noting with that time. in many ways they were little different than the mindless dead they were hiding from. She was grateful she had not brought fool killer seeing now that a weapon like that was wasted on enemies such as this. Coming out of camouflage she came closer. The elderly cripples sensed her presence and became agitated staggering closer.
For an elf like Sara, naturally inclined to be dramatic this would have been the perfect time for a dramatic speech, angrily confronting these old brain damaged fools with their terrible crime and the ramification it had wrought. Perhaps even a dramatic battle as the mutated lumbering and monstrous humans attempted to kill the elven hero. Instead as the creatures shambled closer Sara simply reached out and took control of the magic of the elven curse infecting the crystals. The brothers froze in place then screamed as the crystals grew faster and faster causing their limbs to explode, and their bodies to twist and distort as the natural formation of the crystals tore them apart. A quick end nut painful. When they fell there was nothing left of their flesh except for a few dessicated scraps goatherd about the humans rigid, dead bodies. Sara turned and began to make her way out feeling completely unsatisfied . The criminals had been punished for their crime but that was a hollow kind of closure. The victims needed tending to now.
By the time Sara returned to the church she resembled. Not so much an elf but some kind of swamp hag. The kind she had sang about in her stories but strangely had never encountered in all her travels. From her head down to her toes she was caked with mud and her beautiful silken kimono was torn to shreds. It was a shame to have such artistry ruined but Sara was unconcerned she had another in her pack a way to get more should he need ever arise. What concerned her now was the edifice e before her and the horror that was beating its was out. the thinker must have spied her from its window because a new torrent of screams and curses issued forth. Sara took no note of what it was saying, instead she walked the perimeter of the church taking in the ways in and out and other possible escape routes. Luckily it seemed as though no other walkers had left and they had continued to ignore Sara's presence.
Coming back to the front Sara sat cross legged on the stone floor and began to sing low and steady in her native tongue Not the trade language that her kind had always spoken to humans or even the singsong elvish she often used when performing. Now she used the high elven tongue and there was great power in that. She sang a song to the trees and hedges, long neglected but still strong. She sang to the vines and ivy promising them that they could reclaim this ruined place. She sang to the weak guttering fire in the rectory..
Trees are quiet sleepy things and in this age they sleep even more deeply hoping to ride out the storm. But when roused there are few things in the world stronger or more implacable. Sara heard the ripping and tearing as they pulled free of the earth, she heard the groaning as they dragged dead logs and detritus and the crashing as the fuel was tossed in through the windows. Above the flames were starting to become an inferno and the thing inside was screaming. The last bits of fuel having been added. The trees withdrew and Sara let out a loud cry and the inferno became an explosion the rectory tower collapsed spilling fire and stone down on the roof collapsing it on top of the corpses inside. Raising her hands Sara called the wind to fan the flames and soon enough the stone church had become an enormous brick oven. Every time she took a breath she cried out and the flames surged and the thing inside screamed even louder. Soon enough the screams stopped but the elf stoked the blaze even hotter until even the stone walls blackened and burned and then collapsed in on the center. Finally she stood
"Elf friend" she called out to her self she whispered " may this be a light in the dark when all others go out." Those were the words of the frightened elf to the priest. Those were the spirits she had seen inside the church and the hallucination about morning when it was midnight. All a beacon to any elf that there was a debt to be repaid. "I'm sorry it took so long for one of us to find you" Sara said to the spirit of the priest.
The sky began to brighten when she finally left the church and it was morning when she returned to camp. Arnora and Noral had woken already and were chewing on rations when the elf came out of the tree line " good morning friends" Sara said as she wandered to her pack and slumped down on her bedroll.
"And where have ye been milady," Noral asked a wain smile on his face " decided to have a quick roll in the mud did ye!?" With that he laughed and asked no more questions.
"Yeah it looks like you were in a fight your dress is all torn up" Arnora asked genuinely concerned Sara smiled at the young human girl.
"I woke early and decided to go to mass it was a wonderful service" the elf then rolled over and went to sleep and dreamed her queer elvish dreams. Later when she woke her friends commented that she must have been exhausted since they heard her snoring the whole morning.