A pleading voice called from the mortal realm. The ritualistic chant reverberated all across the great graveyard. The sickly sky and its foreboding clouds began to churn into a green and grey mass, spiralling fiercely over a single grave. All graves were open, as were their coffins, revealing the still faces within, resting in eternal slumber. The chant called for one spirit, a chosen man urged to live again.
Awakened, the chosen spirit coughed and spluttered, the taste of the sea in his mouth and lungs. Eyes were reddened by the fear his face wore in his last moments. The chosen spirit remembered the storm and the rocking ship. He remembered dying in the coldest waters, staring up at the silhouette of his ship as he sank into an inky void.
He did not wake in a void, for that would give him rest, that would give him peace.
Instead, the chosen spirit woke up in a nightmarish plain. The land was sinister and deathly, flat for the most part, yet dotted with hills with a single, lifeless tree atop each. The graves were many, the cold faces disturbing in their various forms. He alone felt the overwhelming sense of helplessness of waking up in the endless plain of the damned.
The chosen spirit heard the voices now, the chanting. Raising his eyes from the graves and their contents, he saw the yellow cracks of lighting stutter across the swirling mix of clouds. The darkness at its centre appeared more welcoming than the land of the dead. It was his longing to leave the grave that fulfilled the second part of the ritual and from the clouds a bolt of lightning descended, slow and powerful.
The chosen spirit watched it gradually descend, whipping deadly tendrils that receded as quickly as they grew, till the main branch crashed into one of the small white trees nearest him. The light grew blinding until the chosen spirit could not bear to look at it. Once the light faded, the white tree called to him with voices much louder, much clearer than before, It was these voices that awoke the many dead around the tree.
Unlike the chosen, the ones that awoke were not wanted and as such, their forms reflected their twisted desire to steal from the chosen; to live again in another form.
The grey, bony forms of the ghouls climbed from their earthly resting place and fought amongst each other to reach the chanting white tree first. The chosen spirit made to reach it as well, running between the graves with the highest hopes of somehow reaching the ancient, leafless birch. His hopes began to fade as the mass of ghouls surged up the grey hill towards the tree.
Yet, the ghouls had not only each other to fear, but the Grave Tender himself.
A cloaked figure of sinister demeanour descended like an angel of death from the darkness of the clouds. Wearing a cloak of the deepest smoke, the Grave Tender, a giant amongst the dead, fell at the foot of the tree. The force of his descent pushed all the tree’s surrounding ghouls back down the hill. The grey dead tumbled, rising again to look at the colossal figure in hatred.
From the smoke, the Grave Tender’s arm rose, withdrawing a black staff. The ghouls faltered at the sight of the weapon, but only for a moment before they continued their climb. The first was cut down in one sweep of the cruel instrument, their pale, shining blood coating the invisible blade of The Grave Tender’s deadly instrument. One, then many at a time, were sliced to pieces, for it was not a staff, but scythe with an invisible blade.
With each stroke, the white blood made it clear for all to see and many trembled.
The blade not only destroyed the terrible spirits but threw them back into a deep slumber, lifeless ash scattered across a lifeless land, like dead stars in an empty night sky.
The chosen spirit saw all this.
He saw all the horror, even felt the droplets of a ghoul’s white blood across his skin, saw splatter across the faces of the still slumbering forms of the dead. Yet, the chosen spirit did not hesitate and he continued his sprint towards salvation. It wasn’t long before he joined the waves of ghouls, only to be turned upon by the deathly figures.
Their bony forms were weak, but their claws sharp. Although the chosen spirit could wrench his body from their grasps, it paid a price in pain. A coldness unlike any other surged through him with every scratch, with every cut. Yet, the chosen spirit continue onward, his form not slowed by pain, instead, motivated by it. Voices that he heard so clearly amongst the bony chattering of the ghouls, so clearly amongst the song which the Grave Tender’s scythe sang with every sweep.
Although the words of the chant did not mean to encourage him, only guide him, the chosen spirit found a deep desire in them. A desire greater than any of the ghouls around him, and their attempts to stop or slow him were futile. Even as his heart screamed in horror at the sight of their foul figures, it never gave in, not for a moment.
The chosen spirit battled his way through the ranks of the undead, until he too was at the foot of the hill, standing amongst the thousands of broken corpses. Some of these pieces pitifully tried to climb the hill, dying in the shimmering smoke that washed down the hill from the menacing Grave Tender.
The chosen spirit stared up at the cloaked figure of Death, starring into the shade of its hood and the darkness stared back. The Grave Tender raised the scythe, singling the chosen spirit out from the rest of the dead and brought it’s scythe down. Unlike the mindless ghouls, the chosen spirit moved out of the scythe’s deadly arc and continued his climb.
Behind the chosen spirit, the ghouls followed. The Grave Tender returned to it’s wide, deadly arcs, which cut through the ghouls with ease. Yet, the chosen spirit only fell flat against the hill, the scythe sweeping over him, cutting the odd, dried grass ahead of him like the odd hairs on the back of his head. The chosen spirit was on his feet in a moment and continued to climb, leaping above the sweeps, or narrowly avoiding them by falling flat to the ground.
The Grave Tender was unfazed, continuing its onslaught, killing many ghouls when it did not kill the chosen spirit.
In the end, the Grave Tender could not stop the chosen spirit, only watch as it ran through the smoke of its cloak towards the white tree. The chosen reached the tree, which splintered as he neared, splitting open into a cruel arch. Without thinking, the chosen ran through the arch.
Now, he only heard voices, voices that chanted strange words.
The voices surrounded him, manifesting into an unclear image of another world. A world of the living, although his eyes could not make them out properly. It was as if he were looking through frosted glass and what appeared to be lights could have been shadows, making the world seem more unusual than it should have been. The chosen spirit found himself unable to move as if he were fixed onto a wall, unable to move his arms, legs or head. He could only listen and watch as life slowly returned to him.
What the chosen spirit heard next was a single voice calling to him, a voice that felt so familiar. A name circled his mind but never registered. It was a voice he had known for so long, but could not remember. Yet, he felt that he soon would, that it all would become so familiar. It gave him hope, a sense of hope that made his heart feel warmer with each second.
A sound echoed behind him.
A sound that should not be yet was.
A sound familiar, singing.
Singing in a whisper so familiar.
More familiar than the voice.
The chosen spirit recognised it. The sound of the Grave Tender’s scythe, slicing through the air. It was a disheartening sound that grew louder with every passing second as the Grave Tender approached. Although it did not speak, the Grave Tender’s intentions were more than clear, as it conveyed its purpose to the chosen spirit.
It was not meant to punish, but to save. To prevent crimes against life and death, to ensure their balance. The Grave Tender’s purpose was not evil, yet, it was not good either. It was a purpose that needed to be fulfilled, that would be fulfilled. There were no desires, no obstacles, nothing holding it back. Nothing could hold it back.
Although he could not see it, the chosen spirit could feel the blade of the scythe pass behind his neck. Cutting closer, until it graced the skin on the back of his neck and again, deeper. On the third stroke, the kiss of the blade was enough to draw blood, but the chosen spirit did not die.
The chosen spirit awoke.
There were three cultists around him. One, a woman, stepped towards the altar and tears welled up in her eyes. The chosen spirit looked back at her and she broke, falling over his chest and weeping into his shirt. That sense of familiarity returned. The weeping, the voice, it was his daughter. He raised his aged hand and placed it on her shoulder. The cultists had fished him from the water during the storm and upon reaching home, began the forbidden ritual.
All to save him, to bring him back and lead them again.
The chosen spirit relished the moment. His body slowly regaining its strength, his senses returning to him. Each breath was deeper than the last, as he drank fresh air again. With excitement, the chosen spirit placed his hands on the altar he laid upon and tried to sit up.
As he did, he felt a pain unlike any other, causing him to sit up in an instant. It wasn’t the effort that made him feel that way, but his neck. He grunted the word ‘neck’, causing the others to examine him more closely. The cultists could see a small cut, as thin as paper, yet, from the cut a single drop of grey blood formed, finally falling onto the altar.
All four examined the curious droplet, only to watch it shift into smoke and then grow into a cloud of grey. The cloud grew to surround them as if they were caught in an ocean of mist. From the smoke grew a large figure, skeletal at first. The haunting figure was familiar to the chosen spirit and then all his memory returned as the Grave Tender stood in the mortal realm before him.
All four stood, surrounding the Grave Tender, feeling a fear that froze them in place.
The Grave Tender examined the three figures that began the ritual. Without love, without hatred, the Grave Tender swung his scythe. The cultists were split, destroyed, broken into red ash and their remains joining the forceful spiral of smoke, turning it from grey into a terrible crimson.
Surrounded by the red of his cult, of his family, the chosen spirit finally broke.
The Red Death stood before him, a figure of cruelty, come to punish. Without mercy, it had destroyed those closest to the chosen spirit. Even though he had only returned to the mortal world for just a moment, the chosen spirit wished to return to the open grave he slept in.
However, as his humanity returned to him, so did his lust for power. Witnessing the might of the Red Death only served to inspire the chosen spirit to cling to life a little longer.
As the Red Death raised the scythe, the chosen spirit fell to his knees and tried to bargain. He pleaded for power and in return, he would pay with the blood of all his followers. The Red Death did pause, it did hesitate, but not to consider the offer, but to punish the chosen spirit in a way it felt most fitting.
The chosen spirit felt the Red Death’s meaning, the unspoken words, once more. He knew then that there was no hope for him or his following.
The Red Death walked amongst the mortals, amongst the innocent and the guilty. With incredible power, the Red Death would destroy all that the chosen spirit created and he would live only to watch it happen before the Red Death removed him from existence. For he was only the Grave Tender in the land of the dead, but in the mortal realm, he was a cruel and angry god.
The chosen spirit would suffer a punishment greater than any other.
To be erased from all time, from the past, present and future. All his influence, all those memories, to be struck from the record of the universe and then instead of being scattered across the graves, the chosen spirit would be thrown into oblivion.
The chosen spirit saw all this and the Red Death willed it into being. Once done, it returned to the land of death, to tend to the graves of the damned, to fulfil a purpose.