It was a long, long time ago when first the dead failed to stay that way.
When the first cold, grey body rose back up on blue-black feet and groped uncomprehending at its own sunken, featureless face. When the first wisps of musty smoke could be seen and smelled on the wind. They did not come all at once, of course. Hard though it may be to believe today, only one in tens of thousands is unfortunate enough to Wake. In twos and fews, always at random, and with vast gulfs of time and space between each, they appeared. But in intervening centuries, they began to pile up.
Striking them down a second time served no purpose- nor did doing so three or four times. You could lop off every limb, break every bone, bury them under forty feet of earth, but never be rid of them or their moans of pain.
Burning them was the biggest mistake of all.
There were no plagues. No prophesies, or portents of doom. No world-ending cataclysms or all-consuming wars. No wrath from the gods- though many were accused of heresy all the same. Firebrands, kings, and snake oil salesmen all rose up with their own answers and solutions to this aberration of fate, and all of them were left wanting.
No, there was no explaining them, and no solving the problem of them until they were, ironically enough, accepted.
The funerary masks given to the first corralled group of the Awake were austere things, meant to symbolize peace and formal recognition, as well as to hide the tortured mouth and nose, and those damned eyes from the sight of the living. They were led away and sequestered of their own free will, and in absolute darkness and silence they found some semblance of peace. Hunger, thirst, and fatigue plagued them even in unlife, and those urges and feelings could never truly be sated. But in the crypts and chambers built for them by that grim, grey priesthood, they were able to have a taste of wonderful nothingness.
Soon word spread among the living and the Awake alike, of a city in the center of the world where all tortured senses could be abated. Some said it would be until the very end of days. The crypts grew cramped and crowded soon after, new chambers able to be built far too slowly to accommodate the moldering masses of petitioners who now donned masks of their own and wailed prayers before their temple.
The smoke which wept from their wounds and fell from their lips thickened and churned into a miasma that drove the living away. Not even the priesthood could withstand it, and those who did not flee succumbed to the presence of their patients. The dead were left to tend to their own, and don masks of new and varied sorts. They pried the secrets of how to build the merciful sarcophagi from the scrolls and murals of the temple, as well as a lone priest or two who was (un)lucky enough to Wake. And so they built up high and delved down deep, repurposing all of the abandoned structures in the city toward housing their brethren. The city of the dead grew and grew as the surrounding countryside was stripped down to the bare earth, and then that earth was quarried even deeper. A jagged and disorderly spire rose up toward the perpetually overcast sky and then pierced it straight through. Stargazers and the kite-riders claim to touch the heavens, but only the dead can truly be said to dwell there.
Other houses for the dead appeared over time, by design or through incident, but they all lack the size and miserable grandeur of the first crypt-city. Filling up beyond capacity, they came to serve as nothing more than stopping points and way stations for the newly Awakened on their own trudging journey.
Word of mouth has been replaced by something far stronger now. No longer must they be corralled and guided. All know all too well exactly where they belong, and how painfully far away from that destination they truly are. It is the Need that guides them, drives them, and tortures them far worse than any hunger or grief could. It is an echo of the memory of that blissful nonexistence sandwiched in between their previous lives and their current state, and they seek a return to whence they came with a coffin of their very own. Reviled by everything and everyone save for each other, the wearers of masks must band together or face an eternity of madness and pain.
((Thanks for reading! If this post reeked of a combination of Dark Souls undead asylums and those zombie cards from the Theros block of Magic: The Gathering, your nose is absolutely correct.
This as-of-yet nameless world was originally going to be the basis for a travel and survival focused Pathfinder RPG campaign, if I were ever to DM anything. Of course I did not and still will not, but after several months of letting the pieces hang around in the dust, they've risen back up to the forefront of my mind much like one of the Awakened.
This setting is, unsurprisingly, intended to be much more adventure-friendly and "gamy" than the scholastic romp through world-building that is the ITUniverse, but in the interest of widening appeal and preserving what sanity I feign to have, I will try to keep anything I write system-agnostic. (Now there's a buzzword for ya!) With your interest and support, I'll see if I can't set up a coherent campaign setting before long.
In short, expect the occasional glimpse into a desolate, danger-filled greyscape every few weeks from now on, in which the best that your heroes can hope for at the end of their journey is total numbness.
I swear I'm doing okay, dear Burrowers.))