At the hearth, there sat a man weeping.
A man with a farmer's brown hide and the grey-green eyes of a Southerner. His lips, quaking, traced silent petitions. Rosary beads passed between his rough fingertips. * Tears rolled over the worn knuckles, over the stone beads, dashed themselves to steam on the ashy hearth.
Another man neared, placed a hand soft with age on the farmer's shoulder. "Albous," he said. He withdrew the hand, tucked it into his black Vicar's coat. The fire flickered, too, in his downturned eyes, mingled with some mix of commiseration and anxiety. "The Coroner is here," he warned, soft, and Albous quieted. In his coat, the Vicar gripped tight the silver hastella * of his own rosary.
Outside, there came a clap of thunder. At the windows splattered the unending peal of summer's-night rain. Albous looked to the cottage door, where, backed by the downpour, stood a tired woman with an umbrella and a heavy doctor's bag. Her hair was bunned messily, and her eyes were red.
"Be welcome, Doctora."
"Albous," the Coroner set down her things. Concern creased her brow. She neared the hearth with open palms. "My dear Albous. What has happened? The Father came to my door, saying only that your poor girl had gone." She looked to the Vicar. He nodded. "But, forgive me, is she not already prepared for rest? Why do you need me, if her body is consecrated and safe? Are we not to hold services come the morning?"
Albous lowered his head. His throat worked as if he might vomit. "She," he started, hiccupped. "Was lain there." He indicated a heavy table, upon which rested a small, lace-covered coffin. Candles surrounded it, guttering low in pools of red wax. "I prayed for her all the day. But when I departed to take in the flocks for the night, she was…" He pulled a hand to his mouth, gestured pleadingly to the Vicar.
The Vicar winced at the coming sobs. He finished for the farmer. "She was gone, Doctora, so Albous tells me. The door was open, the burial shawl was thrown aside, and salt had been scattered from the coffin." He indicated large grains of steely grey salt which still lay amidst the candles. **
The Coroner's eyes suddenly livened. "Lord preserve her soul. She hastening to the coffin. She turned through the burial dressings and salt, frowned. "You are sure no animal came and took her? There are wolves in the hills. No pawprints, no mud?" She looked to the weeping farmer, fearful.
Albous shook his head. "None," translated the Vicar, patting him.
"No scratches at the door? No smell of sulfur. Perhaps a serpent?"
"Nothing. It was as if she simply stood up and left."
"Wait," put in Albous, unsteadily. "Do you suggest my little Consolata is alive?"
"No." The Coroner stood, approached. She hung her head. "Please, Albous, do not take false hope. What I fear is worse than if she had been merely dead." She knelt, took the farmer's rough hand. "Please, can either of you tell me if the girl had received baptism?"
"No." Albous shook his head. He shook, covering his face.
"She had not," said the Vicar.
"She would have been," sobbed Albous, gesturing violently. "Only she had been sick for so long."
The Coroner paled. She went immediately to the door, whereupon she shut it hard and bolted it. The drum of rain quieted. Thunder rippled, flashed blue in the narrow stone-framed windows.
"What is it you fear, Doctora?" the Vicar said, suspicion staining his tone.
"I fear…" The Coroner met his eyes, held them. "Do you recall the historical precedent for baptism, Father?" At this, the Vicar's eyes widened, his lips parted in revelation.
"No!" Cried Albous, hands outstretched as if in supplication. The rosary shook in his grasp. "No, please, Coroner. It cannot be so. It is a myth. It must be a myth!" he cried.
"Believe me, I hope it is a myth. I hope I am wrong. But even if I am, nothing can be done for now, save wait and pray." The Coroner swept to the windows, shutting them and pulling the drapes closed.
She went to Albous, knelt. He looked at her, pleading. She took his hands, wrapped them tight in the holy beads. "Albous, your girl is gone. All we can do is pray for the Lord's protection. For her. No matter what. Yes?"
He nodded miserably.
"No matter what you hear outside, you must pray. We'll join you." She looked to the Vicar, who nodded gravely. He placed a hand on the miserable farmer's back. "Even if you hear crying. It is not your daughter. She is not there. Yes?"
Again, he nodded.
"Good." The Coroner produced her own talisman: A wooden rosary She shut her eyed, bowed.
"Let us pray."
Ravens wheeled in the ruddy dawn. Hundreds, spiraling and diving to dip their beaks in the still-wet gore in the clearing below. There, on an oblong hill clear of trees, lay several dozen crumpled men and women, their burgundy uniforms blotched and darkened with claret stain. White, cold flesh and red-soaked cloth squished between avian claws, gave way under stabbing, jerking, hungry beaks.
Nearby, there was a clatter of steel. A burgundy soldier stood among the fallen, panting and laboring in the metallic air. Another clang. She threw another gun on a growing pile of salvaged munitions. An officer's sword, next. She shooed crows off each body, rolled and patted each for salvageable arms, ammunition, or lingering life. A black bird flew up in her face, flung bits of red and brown tissue from its talons. She cursed, swung at it.
Over the raucous croaking of birds, there was a sudden spat of coughing, as of a sickened dreamer wakening from sleep. The soldier perked, raised her muddy head. "Someone alive?" she called. Another cough. A second, clearer, then rasping breath.
The soldier stood, spun around for the sounds of life. Quick, she spied him: A Piper with a feathered shako, collapsed over the bag and splayed flutes of his pipes. He coughed again, chin scraping the muddied ground, struggling.
"Hold on, Tune Carrier! I'm coming to help." *** She scrambled over, sliding on mud and gore and sending up crows. Shadows of wings mottled the red sky.
"Oh. It's you," she grumbled as she approached. "Can't believe you made it, Ailwise." She knelt beside the Piper, who had got one elbow up to lean on. He hacked. Textured chunks of what might have been lung scattered on the grass.
"Shit, how are you still alive? I checked you a half hour ago. You had no pulse. Shit!" she said, beholding his wounds as he rolled over: A great mottled, holey rent in his right jacket breast, filled with a mush of flesh, wool, and an enormous clot of blood. He coughed again, chest bucking. A confused, rolling helplessness showed in whites of his eyes.
"Shit. What kind of luck is it that it's you I survive with, eh? Honestly, I always thought you were a git, Ailwise. Awful sense of humor. Stupid squinty mug. Of all the people to get a second chance at it, I swear," she sneered. "Come on. Suppose I better dress that for you." She offered an arm. Ailwise frowned, confused, didn't take it. "Come on. Don't be an ass. Take it–"
She broke off. Ailwise had lurched up, and, eyes screwed shut, tearily embraced her.
"Shit, mate. Is this a joke?" The soldier muttered. She moved to throw Ailwise off, then paused, noticing the man's tearful, relieved laughter, his sincere embrace. "Thank you," he said, muffled. "Whoever you are, thank you. ?I thought I'd drowned. I thought I was alone."
"Ailwise, come off it. You know who I am." She held him at arms' length and balked, agape. The man was grinning, despite his wracking, bloody cough. His eyes not squinting and sardomic but creased with a smile of real relief.
"You don't look like yourself at all, man," she frowned.
"What's your name?" said the bloody piper. "And what was it you called me? I seem to have forgotten."
"You really don't know?"
"No," he giggled. "Honestly, I don't mind. I'm just happy to be alive!"
Folk are well familiar with the living dead.
Familiar with plague and its resurrected, skeletal vectors. Familiar in the same way they know syphilis, typhoid, and cancer. As an endemic horror, but a known one.
They are aware of what a grue is, even if they've never see one, thanks to the good of public health efforts spanning centuries. In the rare event they do see one, they will be horrified, unnerved, but not surprised.
They are prepared. When they see a scuttling, blackened agent of human fester, they will know what they are looking at before they die.
Folk are not, however, prepared for the dead who resurrect inexplicably, autonomously. Not as monsters, but as people. As strangers.
As revenants, physically whole, but fundamentally changed.
There exists in the cells of some humans a rare genetic quirk. A survival mechanism mutated seemingly at random and without hereditary president, so rare that it is practically unknown to science. It is expressed only after apparent death.
A corpse with this mechanism will, after hours or perhaps days, auto-resurrect, a revenant. Rise, gasping, back to conscious life. Confused and in pain, still bearing whatever wounds, only barely adequately healed, that truncated their first life.
Some resurrect, crow-picked and corpselike, on battlefields, surrounded by the dead. Some wake in the dark, already buried, doomed to a slow, second death. Some awake on their deathbed, surrounded by stunned family, just minutes after their last breath. Others, wheeled into a hasty crematorium, never rise at all. †
All awaken the same: Changed. Still in possession of their skills, their procedural and semantic memories, but lacking names, belonging, or creed. That is not to say they lack personality: Revenants uniformly sport demeanors and drives directly opposite those they held in their previous life. An antithesis of their former selves.
Inverted souls. The generous, the selfless become the greedy, the selfish. The wise become the foolish. The suave, the awkward. The agoraphobes, socialites. Murderers become saints.
And saints, babes, and good folk, become ravening, confused predators. Lost, rageful, remade, empty revenants. Violent travesties.
This is the trait for which revenants are best known: unmitigated violence. Often, cannibalism. Though they are rare–for only the truly good and innocent ones invert so horribly, and there are overall more neutral, simply self-involved folk than purely good ones– these are the subjects who are remembered, who define the unfortunate folklore and histories surrounding revenancy. It is from these killers that myths of predatory revenants, including bloodsuckers, supernatural slashers, and draugr, are drawn.
Most commonly, the worst revenants are children. Babies, often. Blank slates save for some essential empathy, that are so terribly countermanded by revenancy into crawling, hungry horrors. A human child, its basic affection replaced by primal meanness, becomes the pupal stage of even worse, human monsters.
Though most would not know it, the historical basis for Avethan baptism lies in the prevention of revenancy.
While most hold baptism as a solely religious rite, the ceremonial bathing of babies and youngsters in medicated holy water has real and practical function, if forgotten. In addition to likely being a baby's first dose of plague-preventing grisodate, whatever mixture of oils and salts composes holy water has the effect of correcting whatever genetic quirk causes revenancy in humans.
Thus, myth will tell you that it is the woefully unbaptized who rise, miserable and hateful, from their graves to prey upon the good living.
The few scholars to have surmised a biological function for revenancy believe it to be a simple evolutionary quirk: Human mutation, in a random few, tries some new function to increase survivability. If one mode of behavior fails to keep a person alive, they suppose, why not heal and try the opposite instead?
Of course, this is near-impossible to prove, as revenancy has no observable hereditary carriage and no reliably good outcomes. A human, resurrected randomly by their own latent physiology, is most likely to find that they, a sad amnesiac or perhaps a new-made pathological fiend, no longer fits into society as they did before. They are cast away, imprisoned, or killed, and do not improve their lot in life at all.
Some say instead that revenancy is an ancient human function, now rarely seen to reemerge in modern humanity. They suppose that the brutal human of prehistory, animalistic, was more likely to benefit from such harsh and un-nuanced behavioral adaptation.
Though it cannot be known what purpose revenancy serves, it can be known what becomes of modern revenants.
Most, indeed, become outcasts, naturally and sadly removed from a social niche where they once belonged. Revenants tend to drift into new, confused lives. As sailors, soldiers, and, more often than not, cutters.
Lives where they might easily find a second, permanent death.
In the Incunabuli Playtest, you'll find a character sort called the revenant soldier. It's proven to be, and I did not expect this, one of the more popular and enigmatic character backgrounds to choose. I'll likely make a few more like it.
This is both to my mild chagrin (as I find amnesiac characters to be sinfully tempting, lazy conduits for wack player behavior) and my pleasure (as it gave rise to the later, grim canonization of revenants in the lore.)
Great thanks to all my dear Patrons. A new Patrons' only piece has been long overdue. I enjoy writing these, as they serve as an outlet for ideas wilder, grungier, more fantastical, and often gameplay-informed, lore. There will be more.
There'll be a new main-feed article soon, as well. I'm working on a long one, a request. Cheers.
* The hastella is the primary religious symbol of Aveth. It is a seven-pointed star with one long, trailing point, representing the similarly shaped spearhead borne by Aveth in her first life.
** Avethans are the only major human group to practice ground burials. In order to safe a body against latent plague, they line the interior of coffins with powerfully antibiotic, antifungal grisodate salt.
*** Enlisted men with musical talent may be assigned the position of Tune Carrier, a time-honored, if declining role in Northern military units.
† Northerners, by their propensity for swift and unsentimental burial by fire, tend not to see so many revenants as the South does.