I was seventeen when I died.
There was nothing noble in my death. I had too much cheap brandy. I got into a fight with the wrong man. And I died, throat slit as cleanly as a sheep to the slaughter.
My family never even knew. I was dragged away and tossed in the river, with the rest of the trash. Nothing left of me. No one even bothered to steal my boots. Not they were worth much anyway.
I remember, in that moment when I lay on the ground rapidly bleeding out, wondering. Wondering what would come next. If there really was something more, or if this was simply the end. How long I'd last before my eyes closed for the last time.
I don't know. That's the truth. I don't know what lies beyond. Or maybe I don't want to know. I can't remember, in any case. I remember the pain was fading, I started to feel good. Blackness sank slowly over the world.
Then I woke up. Or came to. I was aware. Aware of a terrible hungriness.
Aware of being wet.
There was garbled chanting as well. Words that didn't make sense, words that sounded like they weren't even meant to be spoken. They scared me, deep inside.
It took me a while to realise something.
I wasn't breathing.
When I reached a hand up to feel my throat, I accidentally poked a finger inside. It felt strange.
I looked at my skin. It was pale and mottled. I'll be honest. I did not look good.
I was dead.
I'm sure you've heard stories.
Mad sorcerers, cackling away in the night as they raided graveyards.
Priests of nearly forgotten religions chanting rituals with black-clad followers, bathing in the blood of sacrificial victims.
An ancient evil summoning minions to work mischief on the land.
I didn't feel evil. I had no thirst for blood. In fact, I had no thirst for anything. No hunger. Just an endless emptiness. A desire for something that I could never again have.
But since I couldn't have that, I had to make do with what I could.
There are some advantages to being dead. Undead. Whatever the correct term, I found it useful to not need food, nor drink, nor really sleep. Sadly, the night still brought its gentle cloak over my eyes. When it was dark, I couldn't see any more than anyone else. So it was most often at rest that I would sit and think. Not much else to do. While there are no pains, there are also no pleasures of the flesh. When you're seventeen, or something like that now, that becomes a big deal.
The work was mindless and boring, but it kept us occupied.
And yes, work.
I hadn't been brought back by an evil cult, or a rogue priest, or a lich.
I wasn't a minion of a sorcerer, ready to take on all enemies.
I was a factory worker. A dead factory worker. And I wasn't the only one.
There were hundreds of us. At least it felt that way. We weren't abused, any more than the living workers. We worked long shifts, had time off to sit and think. I wonder sometimes if it would have been better if they worked us to the bone, without that thinking time.
Thinking caused a lot of the problems.
It's possible you're wondering who raised me. I didn't, for the longest time. The mere thrill of existing was enough, then the work. But those breaks. The empty hours sitting, not breathing, just sitting. Left on my own, surrounded by others. Silence until one moved, then silence again. Roused by the bell, gently rung each time to shift us into action.
Another shift. Another series of meaningless tasks. Another session of silent contemplation of an
existence without life.
I'd heard the rumours. There were always rumours, of what the city folk got up to. Most of them were simply worth a laugh over a mug or two. But some...
Eating babies. Fairly certain that didn't take place too often. There were simply too many little kids running around the streets, getting in the way, making a mess. Everywhere.
The obsession with hats. Now that's a thing. Don't ask me, I think it might be fashion or something. But everyone wears a hat outside, even at night. Sometimes they look good, but mostly they're just strange.
They keep strange hours here as well. Most people seem to sleep through half the morning, and then stay out late at night. Well, they can do that, see, with all the lights around the place. And streets that are stone. Makes it a bit easier, you don't have to see where you're putting your foot down.
There was one more that none of us ever believed. It was just too outrageous, the sort of tale that you laugh about and move on to more believable stories of mermaids and sirens. City folk, someone would say in their best spooky voice. City folk sell their dead! If you managed to get through some details without laughing too loudly it was often worth a drink or two.
Thing is, these stories? They're true.
City folk do sell their dead. Worth a fair bit, actually.
Big business in the big smoke. Body traders will pay by weight and condition. Up in the Heights, there are fancy parties to celebrate when someone dies. Sponsored by the body traders often. Down below, there are still parties, but the family has to pay out of what they get. Not a fair system, but no one complains. A good young body is worth enough money to feed a family for a few months. Don't worry, the traders don't like taking young kids.
There are the black body traders. Don't ask about them. Don't talk about them. You didn't hear this from me, okay? Not for my protection, too late for that. For yours. Word is that if you ask too many questions, they may take you away... even if you haven't died yet.
They're the ones who got me. Dragged me out of the river, cleaned me up a bit, and sold me on. It could have been worse, I guess. I exist. It's better than the alternative, or so I hear. I'm still not sure if I believe that, even now. Especially now.
Anyway. The body traders, whoever they happen to be, take them. They clean them up, stitch up anything that might cause problems, grade them according to size and condition. Then... and then... There was... chanting. A darkness that became deeper, and deeper. And then...
They do what they do, and sell the labour.
See, the thing with the bodies is simple.
They don't eat, they don't drink, they don't sleep. They don't decay.
Sure, there's that little problem that with too much sunlight they stop working. But that's easy to fix, and it keeps them mostly out of sight. Out of sight and out of mind. Because that's the other thing that they don't do.
They don't think.
Or at least, they didn't. Empty shell, was how it was termed. Your loved one is at peace now, safe from an often hostile and harsh world. This is just the Mud they left behind, nothing more. Nothing in there, the soul had moved on to a better place.
Except when it didn't.
That's what started this mess. I still don't know what happened, what changed. Was it the ritual? A word mispronounced, mistimed, misunderstood? Some subtle and sinister adjustment? A change in the very nature of reality?
Or was it simply that nothing had changed. That every Mud that had ever been, each and every one was silently screaming.