Ever since the Age of the Walking Dead (see World History for more information), the souls of the departed have gone to the underworld for later rebirth or to the halls of the gods in the high mountains. All the souls, that is, except for a few who cling to the mortal world and their mortal body. Once a small year, at the winter solstice while the sun hovers just below the rim mountains and there is neither night nor day, these souls who refuse to pass on rise as the undead. They walk the land, joined by earlier undead.
Burial rites exist to provide comfort to the living but just as importantly, they serve to prevent a person rising as undead by speeding their soul to the gods or the underworld as their fate may be. The rites serve to alert the gods of the passing of the mortal, should they wish to take the soul to their halls. The rites also provide the soul with markers to the underworld so that it may leave its body behind.
Rising as Undead
A soul may rise as undead if:
- it wishes to remain in its mortal body
- and the soul has not yet passed to the halls of the gods or the underworld
Burial rites speed a soul to one of the two normal destinations. Additionally, the mere passage of time tends to pull a soul one place or the other. Therefore, those souls that pass a long time between death and solstice and still rise as undead are the strongest undead becoming spectres, ghosts, or worse. Weaker souls who die near the solstice and without burial rites might rise as a barely sentient ghoul.
Perverted Burial Rites
Some depraved individuals seek out undeath after life. Forming secret cults and societies, they inact vile, terrible rites of sacrifice that seek to bind their souls to their corpse until the solstice when they can rise as undead. In order to rise as more powerful undead, these rites are often performed just after solstice.
Naturally, these practices are abhorent to most people and cultist must remain deeply hidden.
Walking of the Undead
The newly risen dead as well as the previously risen undead walk the land during the solstice. A brave few might challenge them at this time but most remain huddled in their dwellings behind seals that block the undead.
Liches do not take the path of death and subsequent rising at solstice. Instead, a lich is an arcane practitioner who by various necromantic arts transitions from living to undeath without ever dying.
Skeletons and Zombies
Skeletons and Zombies are mindless, soulless undead raised from the corpses of those not properly interred. It is possible to raise the corpse of someone whose soul is now in the underworld or the halls of the gods. It matters no longer to their soul what happens to their body once they reach either destination.
Not all who refuse the underworld or the gods are evil. Some honor-bound souls might remain to fulfill a particularly compelling task. Such beings often pass to evil in the long twilight of their undeath but some remain true to their living purpose and serve that purpose as spectres, ghosts or sometimes corporeal undead. They perhaps guard the tome of their lords or protect the world from some terrible peril. Should their purpose ever be fulfilled they pass into the underworld (it is too late for them to go to the halls of the gods.)
Practices During the Solstice
The solstice is the period when the sun does not rise above the high mountains for more than 24 hours. In most parts of the world, this is a seven day period. (See the campaign area solar table for an example). During the week or more preceeding solstice and for the entire solstice, nearly all cultures practice some sort of ritual seclusion from the world to both minimize the risk of dying at this time and to prevent the undead from entering into their dwellings.
Typically, these rituals involve sealing of the dwellings with spells that prevent the crossing of the undead followed by internal illumination that seeks to create an indoor day that is apart, and therefore not part of, the external solstice. It is also common to play continuous loud music to drown out the sounds of the undead outside. During this time, almost no one is allowed to enter the dwellings. Even creatures living alone in the wild hide in their dens or lairs to avoid the walking dead.