Food Chain

Summary: In the macabre city of Dirge, the necrophagic undead fear what feeds on them.

Dirge was originally a necropolis built between the walls of a massive canyon, named for the eerie whistling produced by the whipping winds. Originally built solely from the aristocratic heirs of long-forgotten empires, it became a popular cemetery for subsequent generations. In time, a small settlement arose to support the crypt-building industry, which grew into a proper city.

Not all in Dirge were directly related to the excavation and preparation of tombs. The Morticians Guild studied the dead to gain medical insights for the living, with their students often absconding with fresh corpses from tombs. The Gravediggers Guild, despite the name, were sought-after stonemasons and engineers, given the difficult operations they routinely conducted. The Reeves Guild ran banks with ledgers dating back centuries, which originated to prevent the families of those buried from fraud. Despite this economic prosperity, the citizens still sought religious comfort.

The Sepulcher of Solemn Rest was the largest religious building in the region, raising high above the canyon walls. Its ornate, baroque appearance was like that of a well-embalmed corpse. While books of religion, philosophy, and theology were popular in the city, few routinely attended its services. It nevertheless served as an architectural standard for all other temples in the known world. In that way, it fulfilled its primary role, to once more draw business to Dirge's macabre economy. Nevertheless, its clergy were required to occasionally protect the dead from more than mortal disturbances.

Despite the significance of the dead to Dirge's economy, those buried in its walls were not safe. Medical students and physicians frequently stole corpses for medical experiments. Tomb robbers took the valuables from even buried paupers. Vagrants would inhabit unguarded tombs, often turning them into dens of drugs and disease. Wild animals had a habit of digging into nearby tombs. Yet despite these, not all of the threats were mundane, or even mortal. Chief among them were the ghouls.

The ghouls, if the Sepulcher's doctrine was to be believed, were souls tainted by gluttony and hunger. Diseases of the body, mind, and spirit caused those afflicted to rise once more, as to consume the dead and spread their filth. Many in Dirge considered them a superstition, but those directly involved in guarding the tombs knew otherwise. When deprived of fresh corpses, the ghouls had no qualms about making new ones. Yet during these times, the Sepulcher mobilized in secret. Their combatants, after all, were repulsive enough to the human clergy, whom only partially knew of them.

The Purifiers were not unlike the things they fought. Like the ghouls they eradicated, they lived in darkness and filth. They were ascetics beyond that of cloistered clergy or isolated eccentrics, scavenging from trash for food and essentials. Like vagrants, they inhabited tombs and Dirge's many dark, forgotten places. They covered their pale bodies with ash and mud, obscuring their former ethnicities and classes. As their ranks included both former princes and paupers, the Purifiers lived both beneath Dirge, and part of it.

The ghouls, especially those recently turned, had not yet grasped their abilities. They were easy prey for the Purifiers, who fought with scrap-metal weapons in pitch-black tunnels. Even a pack of feral ghouls could easily be quelled by a small group of determined Purifiers. Once they'd felled their undead quarries, they pulverized them into dust and paste, which would be ritually consumed. It was this ritual from which the Purifiers gained their name.

The ghouls' condition was partially spread to by inflicting injury on the innocent. Only the Purifiers were able to safety consume them, in order to prevent their remains from contaminating the city. The ghouls, and sometimes the necromancers that consorted with them, would have their remains turned into ritual meals. The Purifiers took the undead taint into themselves, as to allow their bodies to act as cleansing vessels. All that remained of the ghouls after such meals were feces and urine, neither of which was supernaturally tainted.

The Purifiers lived, fought, and died in the shadows, but Dirge scarcely knew of their existence. Just as the inhabitants would ignore the beggars and blighted, the Purifiers maintained their endless vigil. Just as death brought prosperity to those living in Dirge, so to did it bring the parasites that fed on them. Just as the body battled infection, so did the Purifiers annihilate the ghouls. Thus, even the undead came to fear the living. While they fed, they could not escape the food chain.