It was kind of you to contact me. I always appreciate the chance to offer my assistance to a fellow adventurer, even one as experienced as yourself. The mysterious circumstances you describe: clergy found in their own shrines and cathedrals (which had subsequently been defaced), their throats torn open, left me quite puzzled until I noticed an additional detail in the sketches you provided. The vandalism and the destruction of holy iconography does not extend above chest height: the perpetrator is quite short in stature.
I believe you are dealing with a child vampire. Able to put on the act of a starving, freezing orphan, they are usually welcomed into the place of worship by a merciful clergy member, who is in turn killed for their trouble.
Child undead are a terrible tragedy, but are all too common. All manner of undead can come in a childish form, and in some cases can be even more deadly than an adult version of the same creature. Fortunately, there is a sharp divide in the psychology of undead children, and understanding where any specific creature falls in that spectrum could mean the difference between life and death for the prospective monster hunter.
Type One: The Innocent
Don’t mistake my hyperbole: these creatures are far from innocent. However, the first type of child undead does share a certain lack of development common to small children. They act the way children act, because as far as they know, they are still children. They respond mentally and emotionally to problems as adolescents do, and can often be confounded due to this limitation. (Although sometimes this limitation is more of a burden to an adventurer trying to parley or outwit such a creature.) Undead of this variety may believe they have the same needs as a living child, and often come into conflict with the living while seeking food, shelter, playmates, or the protection of adult authority figures. A child like this often has a protector that provides for their unholy needs and shields them from any direct challenges to their deluded worldview. Aukagaak and her child mummies are an example of such a relationship.
Ghosts are far and away the type of child undead most likely to fall into this category. Any type of undead which can both largely pass as human and create spawn without conscious effort (vampires, most commonly) are also likely candidates. More than one adventurer has confronted a vampire parent-child bond hoping to destroy what they believed to be an abomination turning children into undead only to discover that it is the child who is the master and their ‘adoptive parent’ the spawn!
One final word to the wise: if such children as these teach us anything, it is the true folly in believing that childhood equates to innocence. Empathy develops during childhood, sometimes later in some children than others. A child turned to undeath before this process is complete can be capable of horrifying acts of cruelty, made even more horrifying by the cherubic countenance that conceived of them.
Type Two: The Grown-up
Eternity is a long time. For many children cursed with undeath, their mental and emotional development is not hindered by the stunted physical maturation. Indeed, one vampire I interviewed indicated that he’d seen a child vampire whose physical condition made her even more motivated to increase her intellect and experience, to avoid being treated like a child. Undead of this stripe have the psychological maturity of their actual age, not their apparent age. They are often erudite and well-spoken, and capable of laying plans of great cunning. Such creatures may play the role of a child in specific circumstances, usually while feeding or preparing a trap, but when dealing with those who know what they are, tend to revert to speaking and acting like an adult. Merilee Markuza, the child vampiress from Lamordia, is one of the best examples of this type.
Creatures that cannot ignore their undead nature, either due to horrific deformity, a feeding compulsion, or a required intent to have become undead, are the most common children in this category. Child liches are not terribly common, but not so uncommon as to never be encountered. Child mummies are frightfully common, unfortunately, and tend to function identically to their older counterparts, especially those that have been placed as sentinels over long forgotten tombs.
Fortunately, undead of this stripe often suffer from insecurity. They act as adults because they desire to be adults; a privilege which has forever been stolen from them. Dealing with them amicably requires one to treat them at all times as though the child is a peer. Patronizing or ridiculing them for their physical age is a certain way to enrage them, a tactic that more than one adventurer has used to deceive creatures of this ilk.
Type Three: The Changeling
The most insidious type of undead child is one that has the full knowledge and experience of an adult, but still chooses to act in the manner of a child consistently. Such monsters enjoy occupying the social position of a child. People go out of their way to protect children, children have few to no obligations or expectations, children can break social morays or go ignored if they wish to: the advantages are endless. Like Innocent undead, they often have families or adopted protectors to shield them from harm.
Undead that live in clusters can frequently give rise to these abominations; vampires, ghouls, and lebentods are the most common examples. The horrific nature of their existence makes the self-delusion of the Innocents difficult, but the communal nature of their kind makes it easy to slip into a child’s role. The diminutive undead receives the protection and special treatment they so desire, while the older undead assuage their own psychological trauma by going through the motions of living relationships, helping them to ‘normalize’ their own existence. It’s not uncommon for community members to be just as surprised as adventurers to discover the ‘child’ in their midst is not nearly so naïve as they had believed.
Adventurers faced with this type of undead would do well to never forget that its childlike appearance is its primary defense mechanism. By keeping its façade going at all times, the creature is often able to convince heroes to treat it as though it were a child even though they most certainly know it is not. Many times this proves to be a fatal mistake.
In Conclusion: Growing Up
The attacks you described in your letters seem almost certainly vampiric in nature. Confronting such creatures is often even more dangerous than confronting more mature specimens. Their supernatural strength ensures that they do not suffer the weakness that a human child would, and their undead abilities are under no inhibition whatsoever. Complicating this is your own empathy: heroes are invariably compassionate and helpful at their core, and nothing compels compassion like the plight of a child. Undead youths rely on this, and you can go into your investigation assured that your empathy is their greatest weapon.
Safe travels and happy hunting,
Frankie Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Image Reference: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/06/birgitte-hjort-sorenson-game-of-thrones-wildling-undead
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.