“It’s called the Necropolis,” she told him. “We don’t know how large it is, but it seems to stretch underneath the entire known world. If you have ever stumbled upon an iron hatch in the earth, a circular tablet adorned with a skull, that is a door to the Necropolis. The dead rule the city, soulless thralls who hunt the living… and when they catch you, you join their lifeless ranks.
“There are several monsters down there. The Howlers are the most common- twisted gray corpses that hunt in packs and howl like wolves. But there are more: Torturers, Immolators, Scavengers… whatever kills you, that’s what you become. You can survive to your last strength, but eventually you will succumb to Howlers or hunger or exposure. Then you Turn.”
“...unless you escape,” Kreyton wondered. “If there are many ways into the City, there must be a way out.”
“There is no way out,” the seer was forced to tell him. “No one has ever escaped the City. The Prophets of Rockput believe there’s a hidden passage, a fabled Escape… but that is an unfounded myth.”
Kreyton needed to hear this myth. A witch had promised his family safe passage across the sea, a one-way ticket to a land without famine… the witch only asked for one thing in return. Someone would have to enter the City, to sacrifice their life to the Necropolis, lest the ship be lost at sea. What a terrible price. Yet Kreyton was a fool. He believed he could be the sacrifice, only to return safely to his family on the other side.
Now he found himself pursued by a trio of Howlers, blindly dashing down a path that would inevitably lead to his death, and his subsequent Turning. He desperately searched for the fabled Escape, for it was the only alternative to an eternity of lifeless submission. Kreyton considered stopping, and letting the Howlers feast on his entrails. Why fight the inevitable? Then he spotted a marble hill, and a fiery beacon atop.
It was the last thing he saw for several days.
Her stunning blue eyes were the first things he saw upon awakening. They were not the lifeless blue eyes of a Torturer. These were the eyes of the living. She was startled. “You're awake!” she said. “You were unconscious for so long, we thought you were irredeemable. My name's Adeline.”
Kreyton looked around and realized he was in a shack not unlike the homes he left behind at Deleanor. “Where am I?” he eventually croaked.
“Don't get excited,” the girl answered. “You're still in the Necropolis… but this is a safe place. We call it Elysium.”
Kreyton looked out the door and saw he was in what appeared to be a perfectly normal village. Although small and sparse, the area resembled nothing like he had become accustomed to in the City of Death. He strained for a better look, but Adeline stopped him.
“Don’t exert yourself,” she ordered. She brought a bowl of pale blue liquid to his mouth. “If you stress yourself too much right now, it could kill you, and then you’ll become one of the monsters.” Kreyton understood the logic behind this, and he drank the liquid.
“There’s no water in the Necropolis, so we drink the Ichor. Godfrey, the town alchemist, makes it from the plants we scavenge around here. It’s not the perfect life, and we often find ourselves without food. But at least we’re safe from the undead.”
There was a knock at the doorway. A gaunt, disheveled old man with a long beard entered. “Oh, you’re awake!” he said. “I’m Adkin, and you could say I’m the mayor of our little sanctuary. Welcome to Elysium.”
As Kreyton walked around Elysium, the first thing he noticed was how small the community was. The huts were spread out a fair distance, but he could only see about a dozen buildings. The second thing he noticed was how perfectly normal it was. There was no evidence of the death and decay that permeated the Necropolis. He saw no Howlers or Torturers or Immolators. The sun even shone, despite them being impossibly far underground.
“We have walls of course,” said Adkin, “but they’re just for comfort. It’s Godfrey’s magic that keeps the undead at bay. He also lets us pretend there’s a sun above us.”
“So it’s safe in here?” Kreyton asked.
“Well, no. You’ll never be entirely safe again. The monsters have breached our walls before, and we have lost people. Yet nothing down here compares to the safety of Elysium.”
“I hear you send people out to scavenge for food. Do you ever go looking for the Escape?”
Adkin frowned. “If you want to stay in Elysium, you need to understand one thing. We cannot waste time looking for a solution that doesn’t exist. We are all interred in the Necropolis.”
They stopped in front of an ordinary-looking building. “This is the distillery,” Adkin said. “You can come here to get more Ichor whenever you need. Food is often sparse, but we always have Ichor to spare, so stay hydrated. In fact, you should grab a canteen now, because I’m taking you scavenging.”
When afflicted with disease and about to die, the wolf tries to hide its weakness from the pack. It must retain the form of the living in front of its peers, lest it find itself alone in the harsh wilderness. The hardest part of the wolf’s ruse is convincing itself that everything is alright.
“It’s mortally injured,” Adkin claimed, pointing to the wolf. “A Howler must have attacked it. We just need to keep it in sight until it dies.”
“How can you tell it’s injured?” asked Kreyton. He could see no visible affliction.
“Firstly, it’s separated from its pack. That means either the rest are dead, or that it has been exiled. But look at the way it carries itself. It tries so hard to act dominant, like it can conquer the whole Necropolis. It needs to act like everything is alright, so it can carry on.”
Adkin was right, for the wolf began to stumble, and quickly collapsed. Adkin began dragging the body, and beckoned for Kreyton to join him. “We get to eat for one more day,” he said.
Kreyton was accustomed to hunger, so he quickly adapted to life in Elysium. The work was arduous and constant, and food was a rare gift… but they had Ichor. Yes, they had plenty of Ichor. The pale broth was purely intoxicating; as Kreyton drank, he could feel heat coursing through his veins, a blissful awareness passing through him. He was alive. He was alive, in the city of death. What more could he ask for?
Adkin had decided that Elysium would have a lighthouse. If lost souls could see their city on a hill from the far reaches of the hellscape, Elysium could save even more lives. Kreyton found himself moving stone slabs from the makeshift quarry to the outskirts of their town. Exhausted and in pain, Kreyton pushed against the marble with Adkin’s help, simply thankful to have something to do. Yet eventually he could push no more.
“Kreyton, you’re exhausted,” Adkin said. “When did you last have Ichor?”
“Last night, after the hunt.”
“Kreyton, get something to drink,” Adkin warned sternly. “I will not have you over-exert yourself.” Kreyton eagerly complied.
He met up with Adeline heading to the distillery. “Hello!” she chirped. “How’s the work today?”
“Nothing too bad,” Kreyton replied. “I apprenticed under a mason back in Deleanor, so it’s nothing I’m not used to.”
“You’re funny!” Adeline laughed, as they turned toward the distillery.
“Well Deleanor was destroyed a hundred years ago… and that was when I was on the surface.”
“I think I would have noticed Deleanor being dest-” Kreyton stopped short. Reaching for the door to the distillery, he happened to glance through the window, and met the cold blue gaze of a too familiar set of eyes.
“Torturer!” Kreyton screamed. “In the distillery!” The two survivors ran from the door as the depraved corpse vaulted through the window. Standing tall and gaunt, the monster’s discolored flesh peeled from its bones. It glared at the duo with lifeless eyes. Having no mouth, the Torturer managed to bellow an awful wail from its sealed maw. Then, with unearthly speed, it leaped at the survivors.
Kreyton pushed Adeline aside before lunging away. The Torturer turned to Kreyton and raised its precisely sharpened claws. Behind it, Adeline began to shake, tears running down her cheeks. “No, no, no,” she stuttered, rising to her feet. “No… I need it!” she screamed, crying. She ran into the distillery, ignoring the monster.
“What are you doing?” Kreyton shouted. He began running backwards, hoping to lure the monster beyond the walls… but the Torturer was no longer interested in him. It spun around, and leaped to the door of the distillery, grabbing Adeline around the waist. “No!” she wailed, grasping at the keg just beyond her reach. “No, please!” she screamed as she was flung against the building behind her. “Please… please…” she mumbled, before passing out.
“Stop!” Kreyton shouted. He ran at the monster, his only goal being to protect Adeline. The Torturer cocked its head curiously at him, before jumping at him, knocking him to the ground. It sunk its claws deep into his forearm and pinned him, watching.
Kreyton would not be overcome by a corpse. With newfound strength he grabbed the monster by the neck and lifted it above him. As the Torturer detached its claws from his arm, a sickle found its home deep in the monster’s skull.
Adkin kicked the dead monster off of him, jerked his sickle out of the corpse, and quickly wrapped a cloth around his arm. Meanwhile, Godfrey ran out of his hut and attended to Adeline. The battle was over, but Kreyton cried in disbelief. He gazed at the wound on his arm; the mark of a dead man. Kreyton was cursed to turn.
“Drink it, Kreyton!”
“No!” Kreyton cried, pushing the canteen away. “Don’t waste it on me… I need to leave! I’m going to become one of them!” He stood up and ran past the distillery, toward the gate. Adkin tackled him and brought him to his knees.
“Please, Kreyton. Just drink the Ichor.”
“No, no! That’s not for people like me. This place is not for me, anymore. I’m dead already.”
“Oh, no,” Adkin mumbled, bringing him to his feet. Adeline and Godfrey approached him, examining him with concern. “Kreyton, you don’t understand,” Adkin said sorrowfully. “You were dead when we found you.”
Kreyton stared at him in disbelief, wondering why he would say something so awful.
“The Ichor,” Godfrey spoke, “it doesn’t keep us alive. It just lets us forget that we’re monsters.”
Kreyton’s body weakened, the last drop of Ichor dissipating from his veins. His flesh began to sallow, his skin tightening around his bones. His jaw lengthened, and his back arched as he began to tremble from the everlasting cold of the city. His bony hands morphed into claws, and suddenly he realized what he had become: the very monster that chased him through the city streets. He looked up at his friends but saw only monsters; a Torturer, an Immolator, and a Scavenger. The warm and comforting homes of Elysium were now stone cold slabs.
“I told you there’s no Escape,” spoke the monster that was once Adkin. “We are all interred in the city already.”
“The Ichor lets us forget,” Godfrey murmured sadly. “I perfected the formula moments before I turned. We can never be alive again, but at least in here we can muster some semblance of humanity. We wanted to let you pretend for as long as you could.”
Adeline the Torturer produced a flask of the blue miracle. “Please take it,” she whispered.
“Will you succumb?” Godfrey asked. “Or will you find solace at the bottom of a bottle?”
Kreyton took one final look at the hellscape around him. And then he drank. He drank to Deleanor, the village on the sea; to his wife and children, ever lost; to Crown and country, however broken; to Rockput and his frozen river; and to the soft glow of life. And finally, Kreyton found himself in Paradise.