This story was shortlisted for Reedsy’s Writing Contest — Write It Down. You can also find it on Reedsy’s site.
Baldahr Seltro didn’t mean to cause The Great Undead Uprising of the third century (third century post-Reckoning, that was) but cause it he did.
To understand how Mr Seltro caused this slight little mishap, one must first understand the difference between intelligence and wisdom. You see, Baldahr possessed plenty of the former — bucketloads, in fact — but almost none of the latter. Intelligence, they say, is knowing a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. Wisdom, as the saying goes, is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad. (Not that it has any bearing on this story, but Baldahr Seltro was actually rather partial to fruit salads containing tomatoes.)
Baldahr was a researcher and a historian, and somewhat of a part-time scientist. He also considered himself to be a linguist and a cartographer and a journalist and interviewer, and a great deal of other things, too. He was well-versed in most of the major religions and could pass as a practicing whatever whenever it was necessary (or useful). And he was, most importantly, a writer. He was rather fond of telling those who would listen — particularly after he’d quaffed an ale or twelve — that to be a writer, you had to have at least a passing understanding of everything, and so he found it to be his professional duty to get a brief taste of as many things as he could.
Mr Seltro found out interesting titbits that people might not know, which they might want to know, and he found out all he could about these topics and wrote them down and sold the resultant books. Mr Seltro already had several books under his belt, several of them actually quite popular. There was Mountain Trolls: A Comprehensive Guide on Not Becoming Their Lunch, and Gods and Goddesses — Find Which One Suits Your Personality! He’d also written the massively successful Spice up Your Life with Herbs and Ointments, which was really only popular for the sordid chapter on aphrodisiacs. After all, they do say that sex sells. His very first publishing success had been titled Fae and Their Folk: Mysterious Denizens of the Glade and Forest. He had been persuaded by his publisher to not remove the section on the Night-Dwelling Nymphomaniacs of Nysh-Gar, much to the chagrin of the men of the local village, and a few of the women. (This annoyance was voiced mostly anonymously, and never to husbands, wives, or sweethearts.) The general opinion was that Nysh-Gar was one of the forest area’s best kept secrets, and the quaint area would be ruined by tourists who would undoubtedly flood the area. Baldahr’s publisher had convinced Nysh-Gar’s mayor that the publicity would bring untold wealth to his little village (and the mayor’s own pockets), and so the section had remained in the book and the book had flown off the shelves.
So, it was clear to understand, Mr Seltro was rather popular with his publisher. He had a remarkably good track record, and a marvellous knack for unearthing hidden gems that people wanted to read about and making them sound even more exotic and exciting. In the hands of lesser writers, the topics could be made boring or even dry, but from Baldahr they became riveting. It was for this reason that he was given completely free reign on the topic of his next novel, having had extensive discussions with the publisher on the subject and content of his previous works.
Baldahr knew exactly which subject he wanted to tackle, when given the choice.
“What’s sexier than the forbidden arts?” he’d posed to the publisher, an ageing man with a gut that betrayed just how comfortably he lived. The older man had raised his eyebrows, eyes pointed away in thought, tapping his chubby lower lip in contemplation. Baldahr had practically heard the gold coins clinking together in the man’s mind. In the end, he’d given Baldahr what he wanted; of course he did, he wasn’t an idiot and he liked money. Who didn’t?
And so, Mr Seltro had been sent on his way — given an allotted length of time to research the topic, write the thing and have it out on shelves for Christmas (or whichever particular holiday you happened to celebrate at the end of the year — if, indeed, you believed that the twelfth month was when the year ended, or if, indeed, you believed there were twelve months, or if, indeed, you even believed in the concepts of months and years and year’s end; Baldahr didn’t mind what views his fans subscribed to, as long as his book sold copies and he stayed in a job).
Baldahr had spent several weeks in various archives and libraries, gathering and collating various (and sometimes, conflicting) pieces of information on the topic. Once he’d gotten as far as he thought was necessary, he then when to various religious groups and interviewed them on their different opinions and thoughts on “the dark arts”. Some were happy to talk and welcomed him warmly and said goodbye to him on good terms. Others less so. Some eyed him suspiciously and gave cold, closed off answers, whilst others straight up accused him of being a warlock or wizard himself — which would have been hilarious, had the very real threat of torture and execution not been a possibility. (Religious killings and brutality were, of course, illegal — but each sect had their own spot of private land, and as long as they didn’t bother the local law enforcement too much, they were pretty much allowed to do their bidding as they saw fit within their own walls).
After he’d finished with the religious leaders, Mr Seltro then went to a handful of universities and interviewed a handful of professors on the subject. These were much more affable than the assortment of priests and holy fathers and vicars that he’d met — if somewhat more socially awkward. Several interesting and chin-scratching theories and ideas were posed to him, many over a fine glass of port in personal libraries bedecked with rich oak and old leather.
And finally, once all the boring stuff had been done and dusted, Baldahr got ready for the real meat of the novel. The next part was a bit trickier and decidedly riskier.
He had to find a necromancer.
Considering that necromancy was — at the time of Baldahr’s book — against the law, this was a task that was easier said than done. Fortunately, Mr Seltro had experience in finding those who wished to not be found — or, at least, to not be found by anyone they didn’t want to find them. After all, had he not spoken with both troll hunter and semi-tame troll? Had he not found out various peddlers of illegal substances? Had he not discussed — at great length — the effects and efficacies of various romantic potions with multiple lovers (both of the starry-eyed and of the financial kind)? Had he not had winding conversations with distrusting faeries and their kin, deep in the hearts of their hidey-holes?
To cut a long story short: he discovered such a person, residing in an old wooden shack on the outskirts of a rapidly declining village, itself on the outskirts of the Forest of Decay. The forest wasn’t actually called that, I mean, if you named a forest that, what did you expect the place to do? No, the real name of the forest was long forgotten by the common tongue. The more accepted nomenclature came from the fact that everything that had once sprouted there was now rotted through and black, half collapsing. Not a single living thing abided there, and those that could be found within were merely passing through on their way to somewhere else. And nothing — neither bird nor dog nor man — lingered within the reaches of its charred, skeletal branches after the dying of the light.
How, exactly, Baldahr found the man remains one of the writer’s best-kept secrets. Let’s just say that, if you spend enough time hanging around the rougher parts of town, lingering in the dark recesses of the seedy drinking holes, the insects will eventually come crawling out of the woodwork — regardless of the particular vice you are lusting to satisfy.
Mr Seltro spent months living with the dark wizard without ever learning his real name. “Call me… Nessie,” he’d said, with a sly smile that made his grey eyes sparkle in the candlelight. For all of the reputation that necromancers have earned themselves, Nessie welcomed Baldahr into his home with greater warmth than a good deal of the supposed “holy” men he’d encountered throughout the duration of the project. He even offered the writer room and board for free, so charmed was he that someone should take such an interest in his chosen profession.
Not only was Nessie a decidedly friendly person (or so Baldahr came to believe), he was frighteningly intelligent and had a pitch-black sense of humour. It’s only right, I s’pose, the writer had reasoned to himself. I guess you’ve got to be able to see the absurdity and hilarity of things, if you deal with death every day. Furthermore, he was an astoundingly good teacher, and Baldahr soon came to grips with actual necromancy, and the urban legends and myths were quickly dispelled, pun intended.
By the time autumn had rolled around, Baldahr had more than enough material for a book. He even thought he could potentially release a sequel — provided the first sold well, that was. Isn’t It (Nec)romantic? was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. It seemed that — secretly — the common folk had a deep-seated interest in all things dark and forbidden. Baldahr was right; the badness of the subject made it all the more exciting. It was sexy, it was dangerous.
It was dangerous.
Baldahr had researched the topic to the finest detail and was astoundingly accurate in his descriptions and depictions. Unfortunately, he had researched the topic to the finest detail and was astoundingly accurate in his descriptions and depictions. This fact — that had earned him his reputation as an excellent author and the golden boy of his publishing house — would be the cause of the problem.
“Bally,” said his publisher, using the name that Baldahr hated but could never quite bring himself to actually say so. “Any publicity is good publicity, you gotta remember that.”
“Nup,” said the publisher, raising a chubby hand. “Sales is sales,” he said, using grammar that made Mr Seltro wince. “Money is money. If it sells, it’s good.”
“But the dead—”
“I asked you to write me a bestseller, and — boy! — did you deliver! I love it! The people love it! The money’s rolling in! Listen — Bally — I am not recalling the book.” He jabbed a copy of the book with his pudgy fingers. “This thing is solid gold.”
Baldahr had quite literally spelled out ancient spells, thus giving power to dark forces; these were then printed out thousands of times, which gave even further power to the aforementioned dark forces; these words were then read by a sizeable percentage of the population, thus giving more power to the now-flourishing dark forces; which were often quoted aloud to friends and family (sometimes to the tune of, “Hey, honey, listen to this!”), giving even more power to the already-empowered dark forces that were now in full bloom. All of this resulted in coffins and tombs across the lands being pushed open or splintered apart; mausoleum gates creaking on hinges; stone sliding against stone in deep, grating cacophonies; choruses of post-demise groans filling the air — rotten lips and tattered lungs expelling the air they no longer needed to breathe to live.
And still — still — Baldahr’s publisher wouldn’t pull the book. As they say, money talks. Some, particularly the more cynical, may say that Gad Berladat wouldn’t have pulled the tome if even his own mother had succumbed to a horde of the ravenous flesh-eaters, and would have only considered doing so if the throngs of undead were at his walls, baying for his skin and blood. And even then, only after having eyed his profit reports and scribbled some calculations and predictions.
In the end, Baldahr rectified the issue in the only way he knew how.
By writing a book.
A sequel, of sorts.
So, the Dead Have Risen: A No-Fuss Companion to Navigating the Revenants was released a year to the day after Isn’t It (Nec)romantic? Mr Seltro felt a slight twinge of guilt at making a profit by selling the solution to a problem he had caused, but his ever-overweight publisher failed to see this as an issue. And Nessie hadn’t seemed particularly upset by the outcome, either. In fact, he found the whole thing rather hilarious. He did, however, agree to providing further insights into the dark arts; particularly ways to address the undead problem, and — in a manner of speaking — reverse it.
“So, ya sold ‘em the cure, big deal, Bally. You gave ‘em a year to sweat, then were kind enough to fix the problem. Every salesperson does it: ‘Oh, you need to hunt deer to eat — you don’t wanna starve, do ya? — so here’s a bow I made,’ and ‘Ah, you want something to boil water in? Everyone needs boiled water. Here’s a pot I sell!’ and ‘Oh no, you’re going grey! Nobody likes grey hair. Here’s some hair dye I made — can’t just leave your natural hair as is, gotta buy my product!’ and so on, and so on.”
“I guess…” ventured Baldahr, not quite convinced, but no longer not not convinced, either. In truth, he was somewhere in between.
“And we made some pretty sweet moolah out of it, didn’t we?” said his publisher, round face shining redly.
Baldahr didn’t have an argument for that.
“And you get to write more books,” said Gad, tiny eyes sparkling in his doughy face.
That got his attention.
“What’s gon’ be your next topic?” The publisher rubbed his hands together. “Something good, I hope!”
“Well, I did have one idea,” said Mr Seltro, slowly coming around to Gad’s way of thinking.
“Yeah?” said the publisher, practically salivating.
“Paths to Hell: 101 Places in the Eternal Fire to See Before You Die.”
So, the Dead Have Risen received even greater praise than its predecessor. Critics hailed it as, “The only answer we’ve got to this modern apocalypse, skip buying this at your own peril — Seltro’s best since Fae and Their Folk,” and “Oh god, if only this had come out last year, they ate my wife. Five stars,” and so on and so forth.
Interestingly, more people bought the sequel than Isn’t It (Nec)romantic? This is interesting because a large percentage of the population had succumbed to what would later be known as the “shufflin’ biteys” — so it was impressive that there were enough people left around to buy the book. It perhaps makes sense, considering that people only bough the first one out of interest and curiosity (which still resulted in a healthy amount of sales). People bought So, the Dead Have Risen out of necessity.
Gad Berladat was immensely pleased with Mr Seltro’s latest work. His pleasure at the money and fame that came rolling in was only slightly dampened by being eaten alive in his own home, one afternoon when he forgot to lock the backdoor.
As for Baldahr, he felt a marginal weight on his heart for the suffering he had caused, but this slowly abated — particularly with the excitement of his next project, which was already well under way. He wasn’t worried about the death of his publisher; he could now sell tomes by slapping his name on just about anything (although he was far too principled to ever stoop to that).
Nessie had introduced him to a charming man with eyes that were entirely black and a deep monotone voice that sounded an awful lot like a coffin lid being shifted. The fact that everything he touched died — be it bug or bird or, indeed, human — did not concern Baldahr, nor did the puzzling realisation that he cast no shadow. The man who did not give a proper name but instead a slightly mystifying riddle that seemed to go on forever (“I am the end and the beginning of everything, I am the shadow of man’s soul, I am the eternal night, I am the obsidian flame, I am the darkness, I am the absence of light…” etc. etc.) was extremely knowledgeable on all things satanic and demonic, and claimed to know how to get to and from Hell itself.
“I’ll be damned if I don’t get a literary prize for this one!” he told Nessie and the one who called himself The Obsidian Flame over a pint of ale in the pub, as he scribbled madly in his overflowing notebook and the landlords fought off a wave of undead besieging the house’s walls.
The other two seemed to agree.
16th June 2020
Shortlisted for the ‘Write It Down’ Reedsy Writing Contest