To those who read this old tome,
I know not when this will be found; perhaps I am in a state of torpor, perhaps I have died. Perhaps you are a grave robber, perhaps you have taken the gray, perhaps you are an adventurer stumbling into an old tomb. Perhaps you are me, perhaps you are of my kin.
Regardless, you will find no spells or power within these pages. You will find a history. The story of my life, and lack thereof. Recalled to the best of my ability, and transcribed by my familiar Tuomio to the best of his.
Let it be known that this is the life of a man.
The Dead Lord of Kyöpelinvuori, Eternal Master of the Gray Order, Favored of the Evening Glory, Sire of the Deathless, Reaper of the Dün, Husband to Alfhilda, Father of Caoimhe and Niamh.
I am Astoshan Steurm.
It was gray. There was nothing notable about it, another day toiling in the fields. My father, Drimylus, was bringing in the harvest from the field as I moved it into the barn. My mother, Maera, was threshing it on the floors. They had lived their whole lives as farmers, they had no greater desires. A home, steady food, a son, what more did they need? I was an only child, my birth had been rough on her and left her infertile. A simple life… a good life. The wars of nations and monsters were far and few. The Lord was fair. There was little to worry about and less to speak of. I was to be a farmer and take a wife from the village just as my father had. To find joy in the people around me and the family I raised rather than waste my life chasing possessions. I did not object or rebel, I had no reason to… It was good.
We had run out of twine to tie the bales so I went to the village to ask for some from the Emmiets, our closest neighbors. They sent me inside to get a bundle from under their long table. I hit my head on the bottom of it when I heard the first screams. As I stumbled out the door, I saw them for the first time. Men of great size, some wearing mail, some wearing naught but furs or tunics. Long hair and beards, rippling muscles -- easily a head taller than me. They were stunning. They were slaughtering us. I watched Brom the Smith cut in half by an axe as his wife Anna was dragged away. I stood and stared as they cut down miss Emmiet, her drop spindle still in her hands. Her husband was run through as he cried over her. The raider who slew him stared at me, his eyes cold. I felt true fear for the first time… I was frozen… He left me to go after their daughter as she ran down the street…. I pulled their bodies over me and pretended to die.
I laid there as a corpse throughout it all. Even as I closed my eyes I could hear it. I could feel the heat of the flames, smell the burning of wood and flesh. I watched the aftermath as they set up camp in the ruins. I watched as they dragged girls into the remaining houses. The screaming lasted until the morning. They drank and laughed throughout the night. I did not sleep. They left at midday, yet I did not move until evening. I stumbled through it all like a zombie, numb and shattered. I went to the fields to find my parents, but they were still burning and I could not cross. I cried in the ash until I lost consciousness.
It was the next day when I awoke. In recollection my mind was broken; all I could think about was that they needed to be buried. I found my mother in the grass outside the barn, my father beside her. I thanked the gods that their deaths were fast, before it struck me that they were gone. I cried for what felt like an eternity before I gathered myself and searched for a shovel. It took me the rest of the day to dig their graves, I had no experience in such things. I marked them simply as I could not write. I performed what rites I could recall from my grandfather's funeral and felt a hint of peace before I decided that it was unfair to leave the rest.
It took two weeks. Shallow graves and blessedly loose soil. Forty six of them. I did not stop until I found them all. Some were skeletons in the ash, some were breaking down by the time I buried them. I scavenged for food like a dog, half eaten scraps and chunks that needed the rot cut away. I learned to wait until evening to eat or the smell of the bodies would make it pointless. When it was finally done, I packed everything I could find to sell for food at the next village over, and left my home behind.
It did not matter. The next town was the same as my own. It was a week to find as many as I could and bury them. It was easier. I did not know them much and had learned to dig well. Not that it made the next village any better. I dumped my tools and goods in the third, carrying only food and my shovel after that. It was two months before I reached the city, despite it being a week's walk. It was untouched, safe behind its walls and guards. It was then I realized I had no plans on what I would do. I had no skills outside of farming. I walked through the gates and saw a world I knew nothing of. Too many people, too many buildings, so much waste. I was not the only survivor, other villagers were on the streets. I could see it in their eyes, huddled in the alleys and inns. I was to join them in sorrow when I saw the graveyard. A small mausoleum stood amid the stones, simple but beautiful. The man I would soon know as the Cryptkeeper was digging a new plot. Without a word I crossed the graves, stepped down into the hole, and started digging. He did not even look up.
He taught me that cities can make many wonders, tools, magical items, armies. No matter what its specialty, every city makes bodies. Always more graves to dig, more rites to learn. I slept in the crypts as only the keeper had their keys. I made my bed among the dead. The fear was gone. They were empty shells now. I had become familiar with the departed. I worked at whatever hour I was needed, my payment being food and knowledge. I learned of the many gods and their rites, those with temples in the city and those spoken of quietly in the woods. We cared not who they followed or why; it was our role to let them rest. It was in these lessons I learned of the Evening Glory. A goddess of love and devotion, of pure heart and intention. She would have held a grand following if it were not that she extended her love beyond death. The major temples abhorred any thoughts of undeath, and the masses learned to hate them from this. As such her following was small and secretive, meeting in the crypts to perform rites. I cared little at the time. It was but another faith.
I interacted little with the rest of the city. They cared not for those who took care of them after they were gone. We were touched by death; it was a bad omen to see us. My hair had faded to a lifeless white as if the gods themselves marked me as an outsider. The only people who would talk to us were the clerics. They would attend the funerals, pray, and protect the dead so that they would rest in peace, perform the rites of their faith, then hand their follower to us. It was at these that I first started to see her, my eternal flower. She was as young as I, yet to see her twentieth summer. Beautiful, like the goddess of life herself has come to walk among us. A mere acolyte then, dressed in the loose robes of the temple, black hair like the night sky but woven of the finest silk. One would think her a fey if not for her full build. In her presence, I could feel the life return to me. A light among the graves.
For reasons I still do not know, she found me worthy of talking to in the time she was not performing her holy duties. I was but a scrawny grave digger. What right did I have to talk to her? But it was in these talks we discussed life and death, the gods, our roles in this life. I cried as I told her of my loss, of what little I had to live for. But she listened and helped me move forward, not knowing that she was my reason to do so. After a few weeks of our talks I learned of how her magic extended her life, and I felt fear once more. She would outlive me easily, perhaps by centuries. I could not accept that; if more time could be had with her, I would have it. I would overturn the gods themselves to be with her forever. Then I remembered my family. Would they not feel the same? They were robbed of their lives; if I were to continue, why not them? A deep sorrow took me, aching not for myself but for my lost kin. I turned to the many faiths I studied with the Cryptkeeper for guidance. In my search for answers I found the Glory, and she welcomed me with open arms. A lost soul in love, unable to let go and missing the comfort of loved ones lost. The keeper revealed himself to be Father Morden, the priest that oversaw the small gathering of her secretive followers. It was then with love in my heart that I truly began my studies in the undead.
For years I worked forward on all fronts. I became a gravekeeper, overseeing the rites and care of the graves. I awkwardly courted my love in what time we had, bumbling along as youths do. I studied dark texts hidden in the catacombs and gathered all the knowledge of those who prayed to the Glory. It was in this time I performed my first magic, a mage's hand. Devout as I was, I refused to call upon the Glory for her strength. My actions would be my own, and powered by my own ability and my own hands. It became clear early on that Morden would not be able to help me progress further of his own ability, no fault of his own but that of his divine power rather than arcane. He did however continue to assist me with the location of a new potential teacher. A dark group devoted to Orcus the Demonic Lord of Undeath hid away in the forests outside of the city. They had contact through their shared affiliation with the undead, but there was no love between the cults. Thus I set out, hunting down any trace of the demonic sect. I was not long in finding them, but it took weeks of observation and study before I could safely approach. I did not shy from their undead, using my spellwork to bypass them without harm. This impressed the head priest, a truly evil man who refused to be referred to as anything but Lord Goge. My story captured him further, my hatred for the north and my desire for revenge upon them by any means. It was not a false tale, I spoke with certainty and a cold anger I did not know I possessed. I had the ability and potential, but he wanted a show of dedication. I was to take the Evil Brand as he had, a tattoo showing allegiance to a dark master. To show what I was willing to lose in my pursuit, I told him to make the normally small mark across my entire back. He took to me like an artist who had finally been given a canvas. I cannot speak of how he did it, but the pain was the worst I had ever felt. It was as if a full lifetime had passed before he finally took his magics away from me. It was a piece of the most depraved art, etched forever to my back. I cared not. The only regret I had was that eventually Alfhilda would see it.
Blessed as she was, my flower accepted me even with the mark. She had known of my intentions and supported me despite the methods I was taking to accomplish them. She was progressing in her own temple, slowly turning into the goddess of nature and life she surely was. Such different things we were, I knew not why she cared for me. Yet she was as an anchor that held me firm, that I would not slip too far into my now undoubtedly evil works. And so for years I lived my two lives, caring for the graveyards and courting my love before disappearing into the depths of the woods to study and experiment.
She was with me for it all, taking my confessions of what I had done in those depths to clear my mind. Washing me of the evils and blood that hung about me like a dark miasma. Among all the things that surprised me of her, perhaps the most shocking was when she said yes. Neither the temple of life nor the mortuary cults were happy about that, and the wedding was perhaps the strangest affair they had seen in their lives. The goddess of the wilds dressed in silks and flowers, the desire of every man in the realm, standing next to the pale and thin keeper of the crypt dressed in a plain gray robe. She could hardly keep still; she was so excited, flowers sprouting at her feet as if bounced in place. I was told I looked as lifeless as a corpse except for the small grin on my face. Life and Death united with a pair of rings, a spectacle for the whole city to gawk at. They were Rings of Shielding too, a bonded pair so that I may share in her suffering to protect her. My many trips to dungeons and cursed grounds had brought me wealth, but it was not nearly enough for them. My connections in the Orcites had given me the locations of many lairs and meeting grounds of cultists and undead; this information and a hefty donation to the local Forge Temple had secured them for me.
Though, even in this, I had kept a secret.
Back in the depths of the Orcite cult I had made my first undead, followed immediately by my first kill. Another cultist was too observant, too patient, an aspirant like myself vying for Goge's attention. He had suspicions of my true intentions. My first undead was a bandit who had stumbled into our lair, still warm when he rose from the stone table. As soon as I affirmed my control over him, I had him attack my rival and drag him to the floor. I will never forget the fear in his eyes as I grabbed him by the face and ripped out his life force. I had no remorse; his body was the second to serve me. Goge found the entire affair humorous, monster that he was. I continued to raise all the undead I could, experimenting on their limits and weaknesses before discarding them. I would release them in areas far from the lair, set free to wander and kill as Goge found fitting. I never told him that I reported these locations immediately to Alfhilda with Sending, who then told the temples and adventurer guilds. Between holy duty and a paid reward per corpse, they would be waiting for burial by the time I returned to the city. Fittingly I was declared the Cryptkeeper by the mortuary cults, partially thanks to words of praise from Father Morden and partially to hide the influx of bodies coming in from outside the city. I commissioned a catacomb to house their remains, paid out of my own pocket, of course. It gave them their rest, as well as providing me a stockpile of those who owed the living a debt from their actions.
The years passed painfully slowly as I continued to work under Lord Goge, eliminating any of the cultists that looked too much upon my background. In turn there were several attempts on my life, for Goge had no pity for the weak. With each victory my power grew, and I became infamous for fighting face to face. I was no master of unarmed combat, but once I had a hold, it was over. Chill, Vampiric, Fatigue, Ghoul, so many spells that work with a touch. Some thought they could stay at a distance; they would feel a spectral hand close around their throat. A ghostly visage began to appear as I ripped their lives away, a sign of terror to my rivals that I welcomed. The lesser members of the cult called me Death's Hand, a warning to the acolytes that joined after me. It was a way to gauge my strength, nothing more. I was never unarmed, I had no weapon to destroy or steal. I had nothing to rely on except my own power, and unexpectedly my wedding band. My flower, being in a temple most of her time and a capable healer in her own right, always kept her ring active. As such I was always much harder to kill than would be expected, but due to sharing my pain it was impossible to hide my conflicts from her. I had acquired them to protect her, but I found myself using them far more. Still she was with me, and with that strength I overcame all before me.
I had climbed in power to be second only to Lord Goge when I decided the time had come to leave them. I had kept a singular lair secret from the temples, the dungeon of the Lich Mistress Lyeneru. Beautiful and pale in her preserved form, she was a powerful sorceress and devout of the Evening Glory who had attempted to go into lichdom with her husband so that they may be together for eternity. While her conversion was successful, her husband's ritual had failed and his soul did not bond to his body. She had tried every magic she could to bring him to her state, but every attempt either brought him back as a mindless undead or in a living body that was quickly suffering from old age. I had been sending her gifts for some time, tomes and letters carried by undead and familiars. We had a mutual desire for intelligent undead to preserve our loved ones and as such were swift allies. In time she agreed to take me into her tutelage in exchange for assisting in her research, so I left the Orcites to their own machinizations. Upon my arrival she too asked for a demonstration of my willingness to sacrifice for our work. I rolled up the sleeve of my robe to expose my left arm, then gripped it with my right and inflicted my most awful plagues upon it. The flesh slipped from it like melting wax and the smell was like corpse rot. Soon my left arm was naught but bones loosely hanging from my shoulder. She found this suitable and repaid my sacrifice by assisting in grafting my bones back, giving me my undead arm.
It was several days travel from the city to Lyeneru. Weeks could pass before I returned. I had planned for this and assigned underlings to maintain the graves and crypts, but my work was not my greatest concern. My time with Lyeneru was full of study and rituals, deep conversations and intimate conditions due to our shared faith in the Glory. She taught me to enchant my wedding band with sentience, and Buhone became my familiar and greatest tool. She taught me to sculpt flesh and shape bodies together for greater creations. I taught her the summonings and amplifying spells of the Cult of Orcus. We were two souls brought together by our love for our partners who practiced the faith of a goddess of love unending. We were willing to do anything to keep them with us, including acts and rites to the Glory that were normally reserved for such lovers. I was nothing but honest with Alfhilda throughout all of it. She said that she understood and supported me in my quest, but I could feel the pain in her voice. Those months I was plagued with guilt, hating myself for what I was doing to her. It was a cruel play of the gods when upon my return from one such trip my flower found herself with child. My visits were much shorter after this, spending more time at the temple with my love. Lyeneru found beauty and inspiration in my act, transcribing a great many texts and having them sent to us so that I may continue my work without leaving. Through these I learned of flesh crafting in detail, as well as a condition that I had acquired from my time with her. It was known as being Lichloved, strengthening my bond with death and making me appear as kin to the mindless undead. I could walk among uncontrolled zombies and skeletons with no threat of attack, a trait I decided to exploit immediately.
For weeks I created undead in my crypts. Thieves, murderers, raiders, monsters, raised to repay their debts to the living. I bound them and hid them in wagons, sending them with experienced coachmen who did not ask questions. They would drive until they saw a sign, drop the boxes on the side of the road, and come back. Lyeneru would send a minion to take the boxes from there to her dungeon. They were unboxed and ordered to march through her dungeon where they would eventually run into the gelatinous cube she used for cleaning. Suitably stripped of their flesh they would then be loaded back into boxes again and forgotten. Once we had amassed more than enough I took the last wagon myself, these undead carefully maintained to preserve and enhance their muscular systems. They would carry the boxes of the skeletons in pairs, and as such I only needed to maintain control on the porters.
In this way I moved over one hundred undead through the woods on foot, undiscovered. Upon reaching my destination, I took a good deal of satisfaction pouring my horde down the steps of Goge's cult. It was slow progress as undead are not the greatest foe against a lair of aspiring necromancers, but it was endless. My horde flooded the halls and drowned them in bodies; even when they took control of the front, the sheer weight of the push moved them forward. I walked among them all, ripping the life from the cultists and adding them to my numbers. Lord Goge destroyed great swathes of them and his undead guardians held their own, but he did not prepare for his strength to be sucked from him by my new arm. I looked him in the eyes and watched the life fade as I drained him to a husk.
The cult of Orcus became the basis of my first and only true construct, my flesh golem Tuomio, with Goge contributing the brain. I found the irony highly amusing. He was modeled after the mythical Wendigo, but far larger and full of muscle. He was, and still is, my beast of burden and my most loyal creation. Of course he was not the size he is now, but he was still a force to be reckoned with even then.
Be Warned reader, he is likely near. If you are not my kin, I hope for your sake it is swift. If you are one of mine, tell him Master says he is doing a wonderful job.
After Tuomio was finished I had him and the remaining undead turn the remnants of the cult's lair into a crypt to house their remains. Once this was done I filled in the entrance and sealed it, setting off back to the city with my construct. I managed to smuggle him into the city by disguising him with massive robes and illusions, a half-ogre shaman from the mountains come to perform rites for fallen kin. It also justified the massive amounts of incense and herbs needed to hide his smell. Upon reaching the catacombs to store him, one of the gravekeepers told me that Alfhilda had gone into labor. I was stunned. Unfortunately Tuomio sensed my emotions on this and carried me at a run through the city to her temple. My flower found it quite amusing when he came through the doors carrying me like a child holds a doll, antlers rattling across the rafters. Antics aside, I was there in time to hold her hand as my daughters came into this world. Twin girls, Caoimhe and Niamh. In that moment, I decided the rest could wait for a while.
I stayed in the city for several years with Alfhilda to raise our children. Early on there were odd signs of fate in them, the gods perhaps taking an amused interest like the rest of the city. The most obvious was when Niamh's hair came in black like her mother's, while Caoimhe's came in bone white like my own. As priests we naturally assumed this was a sign of the gods since such a thing could not be natural. The oddities continued as they aged; each was completely different in personality. Niamh was full of energy like her mother but had an affinity for death. She spent much of her time fervently studying with me or playing with Tuomio, climbing across the flesh golem as if he were a tree. She had no fear in her of any of my works. She snuck into my catacombs at night to run among the undead I experimented with, dressing them up like dolls. On the other hand Caoimhe was composed and dour, devout to the gods of nature and life. She was very serious and hard working alongside her mother, spending her time ordering about the small semi-sentient mushrooms that Alfhilda named Fungalis. She had a great fear of death, stemming I believe from the fact that Niamh had a habit of accidentally killing or breaking everything she made. A cloud always seemed to hang over her, even from a young age. I fear it may have been my failing as a father: I favored her sister and later in her life disappeared for months at a time. In time they would both grow to be powerful in their own right, Caoimhe a Druidic Cleric like her mother and Niamh a necromancer like myself, but that would not be for many years yet. Those years I was with them though were wonderful.
They were ten when I left home again. I was approaching my fortieth year and had grown restless. My work with Lyeneru had borne little fruit; while her time was infinite mine was most certainly not. I set to the roads to join a party of powerful adventurers, lending my power in order to explore the dungeons and caverns of distant realms. I gathered all I could find and sent it back to her dungeons for study. It was difficult due to the paranoia of my party, which was understandable. I had to keep my intentions secret and as such I stayed distant, which did little to earn their trust. Despite this however, a breakthrough was made during the defence of a large town. In preparation for a battle in which we would be greatly outnumbered, I had gained the permission of a full company of soldiers to raise them as undead should they fall. I prepared a ritual to raise all of them in a single moment, pouring nearly all of my strength into the spell. I would not have control over them, but they would be unleashed into the enemy's flank. Yet when I released my power, their souls did not leave. They stayed within their bodies, risen intact and awaiting orders. They formed into a true formation and charged into the enemy's rear while I used the last of my power to rip open a portal to my catacombs, unleashing the hordes I kept in their depths. When our foe surrendered these strange undead helped us push the hordes back into the portal as well.
After the battle I studied them intensely, it appeared that the willingness of the soul was required to raise them within their body; specifically, they needed to know where it was and that it was about to be raised. I contacted Lyeneru and traveled to her as soon as I could get away from the others. I brought a few of the newly named Deathless alongside me to further experiment upon how we may replicate the process on those who had already passed. The solution was a combination of Sending, Create Undead, and Revive Undead, and a fair bit of onyx and black pearls. Being pragmatic, I called it Summon Deathless. In essence the soul had to be contacted to know what was happening, and had to agree to the process. Create and Revive Undead started the basis for what was essentially a willing possession. False Life provided a boost to sustain them until they got a proper hold and control of their body. Of course, these spells were not used in their entirety, but the resulting pieces did bring about an intelligent undead that was sustainable. I believe the Glory herself smiled upon us and gave our work the guidance it needed as they have no ill urges or noticeable issues aside from the state they were in upon death. It was not a quick spell. It was a slow ritual that took hours at the least. It appeared that the binding took longer depending on how long the soul had been separated, what plane they were in, and the power they had in life. It also, like Sending, had a failure rate. Approximately ten percent failed to maintain their connection, but they could be attempted multiple times. Also like Revive Undead, there was a noticeable loss of skill or strength. Once we were certain of its function we cast it on Lyeneru's husband, who revived after six days. While he was certainly no lich, he did maintain his abilities from life, and over the course of several months regained most of his spellcasting capabilities.
With this information we contacted every cult of the Evening Glory that we could to inform them of our discovery. It was decided after much debate and sharing of information that we would need to establish a home in which to live as the rest of the realms would not be accepting of an undead city and tens of thousands of Deathless among them. A dedicated myself whole-heatedly to this task, raising the Deathless Companies from the scattered cults and setting out with my adventuring party to find a home for my family. It was several years before I found what I needed in defense of a village on the northern borders.
I found it.