It's my long in the works zombie story. Hooray!
This was initally inspired by a comment on another (more humorous and semi-autobiographical) zombie story of mine. Katamazie said: "The bit about the skulls being at peace kind of interests me. It kind of made me think that the method for taking down zombies would involve "purifying" them in some way. It'd be interesting to see a zombie story done on that idea, although it wouldn't have nearly as much fighting." - in reference to my unusual hobby. The Soulpainter, however, is not an avatar of me - she merely shares this hobby, which apparently, a number of people also share.
This was also "inspired" as it were, by people who troll online news of deaths and memorials, and of course, by people who protest at funerals, causing more pain for the loved ones.
Warnings: This is definitely a horror story - rather disturbing content about rotting things, a concentration camp-like setting and forced organ "donation." I also wrote it with a disjointed style - bits of past and present puzzled up next to each other, almost like a train of thought. I've seen this kind of style used in published stories and books, but, sometimes when I've intentionally used it in my geeky fan fiction work, I've gotten reviews by people complaining about the story being disjointed. For this one, I'm warning that such a style was intentionally invoked.
Her hooves made sharp sounds upon the concrete floor of the empty hall, which was the color of terra cotta. Clack-clack. Clack-clack. Clack-clack. The hospital had been devoid of patients for a long time. Parts of the ceiling had caved in from the weight of snow and rain. The old woman (she had hoofed feet, for she was one of the deer-people), wandered past rooms with old iron-railed beds that were rusting, with bare springs and the tattered remains of mattresses, yellowed and pathetic.
This place had housed both the infirm in body and the infirm in mind once upon a time. It had even housed people whose “infirmities” were debatable. Many lives were lost here. This is why the old Ilkhan woman crouched low before a door engraved with a sign in the written language of the Others; “Human Resources.”
The old woman had a name, but it was not important. What was more important was what she did and what she’d done. She’d become known locally as the Soulpainter.
“Fever’s actin’ up,” she groused as a wave of dizziness swept over her. She had a festering wound on her left forearm, a bite. There was nothing she could do for it that she had not already done. The Soulpainter knew that she would die of this wound, however, she was certain that she would not become like many of the poor people who had died here. She set a small metal cup filled with flowers before the door marked “Human Resources.”
“I did what I could for you,” she said softly. “I do hope that you are at peace now.”
Several days ago zombies had arisen from the grounds of this old hospital – both from the cemetery and from other, less official burial sites around the property. The Institute was in the Gloaming Lands. The sun that never set cast perpetual shadows and rays of orange light that sparkled off the broken windows. I had been built under the dictatorship that ruled Vale some years ago, when that nation was in its active conquest of the world.
The Institute was built here as a place for Vale to send its own. Few of the Ilkhan had died here. The hospital and its surrounding encampment was for Valiens. The once-director of the place had died in last week’s events. The Soulpainter was sure that he had caused the uprising with his cruel words.
Director Daan Rayth was a man who’d found his god in the mirror every morning as he shaved.
He flicked the last of the foam off his razor, gelled his dark hair back and then walked down the corridor toward Human Resources, whistling a bright tune. His staff was going to save a life today – at the cost of another, but that “another” was not an important life. Director Rayth opened the door to a well-lit operating room. A thin, nude woman struggled on a bed, strapped down with leather belts.
“The first injection of sedative has failed to take,” one of the physicians informed Rayth, “Unfortunately, she figured out what her fate is to be and decided to fight it. It took all of us to get her down.”
The director noticed that his men had his right hand wrapped in a bloody bandage. “Skiff’s going to be no good for the proceedings,” the first man complained. “We’ll send him home under your order.”
“Yes, go home,” Rayth said with a wave of his hand. He turned to the restrained woman. “As for you…” he sneered, “Slaughter-animals that stay still feel the least pain.”
She spat on him.
“Gag her,” he ordered. One of the doctors quickly stuffed a thick rag into the woman’s mouth.
“Play nice or I’ll have Mahx use the sledge. I do hate to shatter limbs. Cleaning up blood is quite troublesome.”
Rayth placed a hand on the center of the woman’s chest. “This rapidly beating heart of yours is the perfect size. Your body tested to be an excellent match for one of our clients. You should be grateful. You get to save the life of one of your betters. They’ll not know the circumstances, of course. As you may have figured out, we do this all the time. In fact, that is the main purpose of this hospital.”
As the woman grunted, the director turned to one of his men. “Take the gag out,” he commanded.
The “patient” coughed and retched as the dry cloth was roughly removed. Another man plunged a syringe into her arm.
“Any last words, sweetheart?” Rayth asked.
“Yes,” the woman replied, giving him a stare as hard as diamond, “You’ve lost.”
“Come again?” the Director inquired, incredulous.
“You’ve lost,” the woman repeated, closing her eyes and laying her head back. “All you can do is kill me. You and yours failed to change me. I die as myself. You’ve lost.”
Organ transplant technology had advanced to a phenomenal level in Vale during the time of the Institute’s use. It was able to be done efficiently via the use of certain forms of natural magic as well as physical surgery. (In other words, it was preformed in a different fashion than those of us outside the Static-Lands know, but it was no less, and in fact, even more effective).
Due to the functional magic involved, transplant rejections were rare. The main problem in this kind of surgery was demand. People with serious health problems in the nation of Vale exceeded people who died in accidents that left their working parts useable. For a while in Vale’s history, its people were certain that somewhere in their world, accident victims were piling up like cordwood, for many people seeking help that a fresh heart, liver or kidney could give were saved.
There were, however, some that figured out the connection between the easy supply of “spare parts” and the Purges. They generally kept their mouths shut for fear of becoming a part of the supply.
The Soulpainter had only heard about the Purges from afar, when she was a young girl living on the edges of the Land-of-Always-Night. Her people, along with the majority of her entire race, were at war with the Valiens back then. Her mother was a swordswoman while her father was content to keep their home. Her mother had survived her part of the fighting, but the family found themselves under heavy burdens for being on the losing side of conquest.
This is why the Soulpainter had moved to the Gloaming Lands some time ago. The area was under dispute and many parts of it were a no-man’s land. She lived a lonely, yet free life, doing her art and selling it to humans and Ilkhan alike. She lived not far from the Institute and even closer to where Director Rayth had built his retirement-mansion.
She’d found the history of the Institute’s affairs gruesomely fascinating.
As she walked down the empty hospital halls, she thought of the people who had come here. The town the Soulpainter lived in, after all, was made up of the abandoned houses of the people who had lived around the hospital. In its days of operation, the town had been a colony of exiles. People that Vale’s dictatorship found undesirable were deported to the Gloaming Lands and made to live there.
The old woman peered into the empty rooms. People had been brought here when they were genuinely ill, but also when called upon for mysterious “help,” seemingly at random. Secrets were kept tight and it was a while before the exiles learned the truth about the place they’d been forced to live in and around.
The Soulpainter’s house was a part of the partition assigned to the mentally ill and their families. Other portions of the village included areas for people belonging to various religions. Political dissidents were scattered throughout the village so as to keep them divided.
The Valien government of the time had been trying to “create a perfection” in their nation. Elements deemed “inferior” underwent systematic extermination or deportation. Although Vale had become a technically free land after the dissolution of the dictatorship, its culture retained many of the attitudes from that era to this day.
One of the things Vale tried to do in those days was to unify its religion. The nation held to a “religion of reason,” their object of worship being a single creator-goddess. She offered no afterlife and no visions and in fact, any concept that was “immaterial” was considered inferior at best, nonsense and a danger at worst. All the same, many “nils” had come through the halls of this hospital, not to receive transplants to but “donate,” along with their neighbors that believed in various gods and spirits.
The “nils” were technically free in Vale, for they also believed in an only-material universe and forsook the various gods and supernatural concepts – but they held one less deity than most other Valiens in that they disbelieved in their single goddess, as well. This did not cause much contention, as they were considered “like in kind” to the majority in most other things. “Nil” was something of an unwanted nickname for most of them, a jab at their “belief in nothing.” Most wound up accepting the label out of convenience even though if they found it offensive. Many nils had cheered the Purges, eager to see the “superstitious” among them destroyed or deported to places like the Institute grounds. Some enlisted their aid in the process, eager to rid themselves of or even to kill their “unreasonable” once-neighbors with vindictive glee. There were even a few that wished they could purge their single-goddess believing neighbors, but knew they could not at the time and so joined them in their cruelties to the rest.
Most, however, protested these acts, even though their voices were drowned out by people who were loud. Even more disagreed with the doings of their leaders, but remained silent out of fear and the practicality of saving their own lives and livelihoods. The nils that were brought to the Institute were those that openly opposed the Purges. They could have lived easy lives with the views that they held and the people they were if they had not chosen to defend their “superstitious” neighbors – but they’d seen something they didn’t think was right and had chosen to be brave.
Even stranger, perhaps, so the Soulpainter thought, were those Valiens kept and killed here who did worship the national goddess. “Machinists,” they were called, for the name of their goddess was “Materia-Machina.” A few of them had come here, too. Most had come for reasons of politics – their deviant ideas on economics and so forth – but some had come for the sake of standing up for the members of the various religions, neighbors, friends… strangers. It stood that the most ardent of Machinists under the dictatorship had no qualms about destroying their own for the supposed “greater good.”
The Soulpainter stepped out of the hospital’s lobby doors into the perpetual evening. She remembered how she used to use the grounds as a personal supplier. The Soulpainter had an unusual art – she felt it her calling. In the forest, she’d find the bones of animals at random, clean and white and felt a need to honor their departed spirits. This lead to her paintbrushes and colors swirling over skulls and jaws, sometimes the long-bones. She’d carve them and turn various small bits – ribs and teeth - into jewelry that she sold to little girls and young men who hoped they’d prove effective talismans to improve their hunting prowess.
She used to come to the Institute’s grounds to find human bones.
Some of the graves here had been shallow. There were even some bodies that had been left in cold storage bays (kept for study). When everything had shut down, they’d just been left to thaw and decompose. Long bones and the occasional skull could be found in the undergrowth around the immediate area, where the least-carefully constructed graves had been unearthed by wild animals.
If no one else would honor these bones, the Soulpainter decided that she would. She never sold her human work.
“They know what is going on, but they can do nothing about it.”
Director Rayth laughed at his desk at a soldier who’d reported some unrest in the settlement. The unrest had been quelled, with some effort.
“It was clear from the beginning that this was not merely a deportation colony,” the soldier said. “The true workings would have been found out sooner or later, what with the healthy folks who come in for their check-ups and do not return.”
“So the cattle are clear upon what they are now.”
“Materia-Machina has seen fit to make us gods, my man. As director here, I decide who lives and who dies. It is a wonderful feeling, to bestow grace to my own while delivering judgment to those that reject our world. They are only good for providing resources – now they are aware that this is the farm and they are the cattle. All the better that they know their place!”
“There are rumors among them,” the commander of troops ventured, “It comes from some legend among a couple of the tribes of the Ilkhan on our borders.”
“Deer-people, pah! The venison is worse than the beef!”
“Sir, they say that people wrongly-killed will come back for vengeance someday from the grave – that their bodies will rise to destroy the living among their killers. It’s just a stupid legend, to be sure, but some of the more superstitious elements in the village are raising their hope on it.”
“Then we’ll kill their hope. We will start burning our corpses to ash immediately.”
The ash-zombies had been some of the angriest of all. They’d arisen from the dumping-grounds and even gathered together from the earth and air. When the Soulpainter and her immediate neighbors had watched the skeletons march down their street, they’d been amazed and appalled. How did they hold together with naught but a bit of sinew at the joints? Watching them move without the muscles that would move them in living bodies was the strangest of sights.
Corpses that had been buried in the bogs and cool places – particularly those that had spent part of their death in cold storage raised a horrible stink. Most of them had skin that was leathered, hanging over the bones. A few left spats of black jelly behind them as they walked – the remains of their non-transplanted organs.
It was assumed that no one who had been a recipient of transplant was affected by the uprising. After all, according to the stories, zombies could only be raised by what remained of the main body and most things that had rotted away or were gone remained gone. Just as the skeletons could not take back their muscles, they could not take back their livers. Of course, the ash-zombies were the most confounding. They moved like smoke and looked like ghosts.
It was clear that the undead were coming from the main grounds of the Institute. They were marching toward one goal, to a mansion upon a high hill.
The Soulpainter looked upon some of the artworks decorating her walls and littering her small abode. Of her bones and skulls – both of animals and of people, none stirred. This confused her. If many of her bones were from the Institute, why were they not gathering to join the mob? She took a small skull – the skull of some human child – into her hand. She had painted this piece with bright colors, abstract flames in orange and blue and in swirls of gold and silver pigment. The skull was especially bright to her Ilkhan eyes, accustomed to seeing in low light. She’d been especially sad painting this skull because it was from someone young.
She felt, however, that she had appeased the spirit of its once-owner somehow, that by painting it, she had helped the spirit of the slain child to move on to where it needed to be. The old woman sighed and set the skull back upon its shelf.
Someone screamed in the street. According to all the stories regarding zombies she heard, the Soulpainter knew that they attacked anything and everything living in their way. They may be animated by anger and a desire for vengeance, but that did not mean in any way that the spirit had truly returned to the body. And, of course, in most of them, the brains had completely rotted away.
A zombie, in the myths of the Soulpainter’s tribe, was a body without a soul, animated by a tiny piece of anima or life-energy. It was said that when a person died, their immortal inner-being had a variety of destinations but if they had died unjustly, that the spirit may be in a state of terrible anger, tormented by it, until some kind of justice was done. According to the stories, a disembodied soul might sacrifice a small piece of itself to animate their dead body for the sake of attaining that justice. The problem was, the piece required for animation was an emotion – rage, and that said rage was all the re-animated corpse knew. It may take vengeance upon the right people, or it may just blindly grope and destroy until the rage subsided.
Respect for the dead was held in utmost regard in the Soulpainter’s Great Eastern Tribe. To spit upon a grave or to torment the loved ones of someone deceased was seen as inviting a potential zombie. What was usually considered common courtesy became a deeply-held folk-belief in regards to warding off evil. The Soulpainter didn’t believe it was true until the day she saw the rotten and rotting marching down her street.
As she rushed down the stairs of her home, armed with paints, brushes and the craziest of ideas, she thought to the event that had likely triggered this. She thought Daan Rayth a very stupid man.
He held his speech in the rain. All the current residents of the old village were gathered, as well as other people from the surrounding area – humans and Ilkhan alike. Drizzle wet the stage softly and made the eternal gloaming a deeper shade of gray. The twilight shone through the clouds in the western portion of the sky in orange and pink crystalline patterns.
Rayth and set up his stage so that he was backlit by the never-setting sun. It created a dramatic effect. Today was the anniversary of when the Institute had officially been shut down. Although the dictatorship of the ex-director’s home nation had been dissolved, he was still held in a position of regard by its current government. Attending this commemoration was required for all residents in the area. The Gloaming Lands were a no-man’s land in most respects, but denying this day would bring burdens upon the residents that they were largely free from and would likely spark a conflict that nobody wanted.
The Soulpainter remembered the man being a blowhard. She did not pay much attention to his words, her attention upon shivering in the wet air and the obnoxious dripping off the points of her antlers. She noticed the faces of some of the people that surrounded her. A few of the people here were survivors from the Institute’s operational days. They remembered friends and members of their families that had not been as fortunate.
Rayth gesticulated with his hands. “We honor the great personal sacrifice made by those brave souls who gave their lives here!” he went on. The Soulpainter could see the survivors wince. She could hear a few grinding their teeth. She noticed balled fists beneath the cuffs of coats. “They saved the lives of our people and died for the good of our country!”
“How can he..?” one man grunted, barely suppressing his anger. “My brother… my little brother… He did not go willingly. The forced him. And this…murderer… dares to ‘honor his sacrifice?”
Most of the people on the lawn that day were not here when the Institute was running. Many Ilkhan were here – most from the Soulpainter’s Great Eastern Tribe. They had no personal stake and remained largely unemotional. The old woman feared for the survivors. If they let their indignation get the better of them, their lives would likely be forfeit.
The commemoration went on without incident. As the Soulpainter returned to her home, she knew that the former director had just gleefully spit upon the graves of his hospital’s victims by pretending they had done his land such a great honor. He had not even hinted his own part in any of it – with or without apology.
The only thing a zombie knows is their rage. The zombie has no reasoning functions. They are able to see or “sense,” but it is not known how.
The Soulpainter was certain that ex-Director Rayth’s words at the gathering were the final insult that triggered the rising of the dead. The rage was inspired by him and they clearly were headed to his mansion, however, that same rage would cause the corpses to tear apart anyone living who happened to be near them or in their way. There was no worry that anyone injured by a zombie would become one; the condition was not contagious. However, if one escaped at zombie but was injured by a bite, that person was likely to die due to infection caused by natural rot.
The Soulpainter thrust herself between a young man and an oozing corpse. This was one of the better-preserved ones. She reflexively put her arm up as a shield and the teeth of the creature sank into it, the flat teeth and the canines cutting into her skin. The slick, decaying gums dripped brown-black fluid down between the teeth and onto her. The young man she’d shielded ran, seeking a place to hide. Other living watched from the windows of their homes or from the staircases they’d climbed in hope the zombies wouldn’t be interested in climbing up after them. After all, they did seem to be moving as a herd, ground borne.
To the utter surprise of all who were there to witness it, their local crazy old artist wrapped her other arm around the shoulders of the zombie that was biting her and hugged him close.
“Sssh,” she soothed. “I don’t know who you were, but I honor you. I love you, though you are not one I can remember. Easy, now. It may not be much, but I give you my respect.”
The corpse released his bite. At least it looked like it had once been a male. It fell to its rotting knees and looked up at her with its eyeless sockets, its jaw open. Then it fell over and went still, becoming a proper corpse.
“I honor you,” the Soulpainter said, moving among the horde. With her paints and brushes, she assaulted the skeletons and half-skeletons, swiftly painting designs of bright colors onto the bare bones and portions of bone. After a certain portion of a skeleton was painted – different for each one – the bones would tumble to the ground as if satisfied.
She simply bowed before the fresher corpses and the ghostly ash-zombies that she could not paint. The living members of the village marveled at the brave painter. She stood between many zombies and people menaced by them, giving them the chance to escape.
“How?” some young woman asked her once the street was filled with the newly-dead undead.
“When I paint bones… remains… I always do so with respect,” the Soulpainter sighed. “I always seek to honor the spirit of whatever left the remains. All these people wanted was a little respect – someone to care that they’d died and that they’d been wronged. A little love can turn away much pain and make rage subside.”
Ex-Institute Director Daan Rayth was found torn apart in the topmost room of his home. He was surrounded by the corpses of the long-dead, his blood on their lips and strips of his flesh in their mouths. His assailants seemed to have paid special attention to consuming his heart, his liver and his kidneys. Several members of his staff were found around the mansion and yard in a similar state as their master. A few escaped, utterly shaken, yet sure there was a rational explanation for all of this.
No scientist in the whole of the Static-Lands has ever been able to come up with a sensible explanation for zombies. Some have proposed a form of virus that effects what is left of the nerves and muscles of a dead body, but that explanation relies upon a fresh corpse. Some have postulated that an unknown disease affects the bones, but such a thing fails to explain locomotion without musculature. Both ideas fail to explain the zombies composed of the wispy remains of the ashes of the cremated. As it is, reports of zombie uprisings are so few and remote in the Static-Lands that they are dismissed outright as folk-stories, lies and fantasies.
The Soulpainter knew that the Institute’s uprising would be dismissed and all the surviving witnesses would be branded as liars at worst and as delusional sufferers of a collective hallucination at best.
The scientists of Vale, however, had not been around to do the cleanup.
The Soulpainter looked at her arm as she wandered around the Institute grounds. She could not be sure that she had not dreamt the whole thing. She believed what she’d experienced to have been a reality, but the fever had been fuzzing her perceptions lately. She’d suffered a fatally-infected zombie bite. Maybe she’d just been bitten by one of the local stray dogs. She’d had to chase them out of her trash more than once.
She sat down beside a stream and washed her wound in it. The water was icy-cool and pleasant. Whatever had happened, she liked the narrative that played itself out in her memories. She wasn’t going to live much longer. She’d drop here on the Institute grounds, perhaps stretching herself out over one of the old, unmarked graves. She’d lived a good long time and had kept most of her health and strength until now. She didn’t know if anyone would come to bury her or to honor her bones in some way someday. It didn’t matter. She’d saved some lives and had brought peace to the dead.
She was the Soulpainter.
And she knew that she was far too content to become a zombie herself.