“SPHERE IS AWAY,” I shouted, hoping someone heard me over the roar of wind and flames. Sadly, the heavy black stone was not the salvation our party needed. Like a stone heaved in a pond, the magically enhanced paper weight had flown through the flaming maw and set the portal ablaze with excitement. Less echoing splash and soothing ripples of a disturbed pound, more like a splash of water in a vat of cooking grease that had gotten me banned from the monastery cooking detail for a number of years. Now our dire situation was centered on a sputtering maelstrom flinging fire and charming magics with equal malice. Scrambling back to my feet, my problems quickly multiplied with a snarl and a hiss.
Standing between me and the only path to the entrance was a small pack of flaming dogs. From previous experience, their bites carried an extra hint of flame and their bodies loosed gouts of flames when hit. Especially for someone wielding a wooden stick and relying on martial arts, these barking gas bags with teeth were far from ideal sparring partners. My body groaned in disagreement with my hastily forming battle plan as I silently padded towards the pack. A wandering lava golem may have cracked a rib or two of mine, my scales were spotted with burns from tumbling and rolling about the flaming cradle of some kind of portal the Mage’s guild “strongly suggested” get closed soon, and I stood alone, so more votes were cast for not fighting the dogs. But this was my only chance at making it out, so this was the path I must follow. No battle cries or low growls could be heard over the echoing roar of the stone oven as the fight began.
Would my life end with being torn apart by a pack of flaming dogs?
My whirling staff caught fire as its first ineffective blow glanced off the flaming mane of one hound and plowed into the flank of another. A few snapping jaws missed my throat, but a member of the pack had clamped onto my ankle and tore me from my feet. My skull rattled off of the burning stone floor as my body crumpled to the floor. Like a marionette with tangled strings, my movements and thoughts connected in all of the wrong ways as the flurry of flames and teeth made quick work subduing my flailing bulk.
I groaned, forcing an eye back open, finding myself on a dark plane. Gone was the heat and pain, replaced with a dim void. Its featureless surface broken only by thin ripples where my motions seemed to disturb its surface. The burning stones had been replaced with a solid black surface. Quickly scrambling to my feet, I spotted my potential adversary. Or at least I found a direction to focus towards.
A mighty stone platform rose barely higher than a single step from the black void, its rough faces capped with a perfectly smooth surface. The small mesa supported a small, dark storm cloud. Hoovering just off of the featureless stone top, the clouds looming presence was large enough to hide even someone of my size. The core an impenetrably deep gray, the edges oozing delicate wisps of white, flashes and pulses occasionally hardened its form in shifting images and colors. The veiled speaker, indistinguishable in the gloom, remained silent as my hand reached to my back for my staff.
Its sling was empty.
My other hand snaked its way along my side and up to my breast pocket, checking my stashes of darts spread along my loose robes.
All of them.
Disarmed, but never without weapon, my left hand reached out, palm down, fingers loose. My right hand pulled in towards my chest, fingers barely held in a loose curl. My feet slide into a stable stance as my body instinctively loosened. Altogether, a basic defensive stance of the Open Hand. With my mind reeling to make sense of the ever-shifting cloud in front of me, my training filled in the gaps in my preparations.
“I was just answering his question, why does everyone get so defensive?”
“He was just fighting, cut him some slack, he’ll figure it out.”
“It’s still rude to just go willy-nilly threatening things.”
“Man, I had a king’s ransom on the little nature one dying first, who had the monk in the pool?”
“A warrior’s death should be respected, you vultures.”
“BLOOD AND DAMNATION FOR THE NON-BELIEVER.”
Each phrase seemed to coalesce portions of the cloud into shapes and memories in time with the phrases. Some my own, some unrecognizable, each voice seemed to shift and flit about in the cloud: a few religious symbols of the many clerics and religions I’d encountered on my travels, a staff of an old teacher, or the mangled skull of a fallen enemy. The formless cloud was speckled with emotions, splashed with ideas, and emblazoned with the forms of faces and eyes. All seemed at once recognizable, and yet all of them seemed a mystery as they settled back into the roil of the cloud, sinking back into its core before they could be placed with a specific name.
“Sorry, you asked a question, and we answered. The answer was no one. No one knew you were going to die to flaming dogs.” One feminine voice purred, punctuating its own message with the unmistakable caw of a raven.
I pulled at my chi, hoping to calm my mind and pierce whatever spell was wracking my brain and obscuring my vision. The memories began falling back into place.
Dogs. Biting. Fire. Pain.
“Now you’re starting to get the picture. He really is quite clever. Those who live by the blade tend to catch on the quickest,” thundered a jolly voice, forming an intricately engraved great maul swiping through the form. His infectious joy brought back fond memories of battles fought.
“No, it is those who suffer who catch on quickly. The old, the sick, the warrior. It is the whining of the necromancers that I can’t stand. Always thinking they’ve mastered us, or the fanatic! Always thinking that the aspect they have chosen is on their side and it isn’t their time. Or that we can be tricked or bargained with. ‘But I have more souls to offer!’ ‘But my true love is here!’” the cloud hissed, dripping with scorn and hatred. Its form was a weathered skull that oozed liquids of a neon green as it droned on about the many injustices and the unfair representation of death.
So, I was dead.
And that cloud with an identity crisis was hiding whomever came to claim my soul? My heart sank as more thoughts settled and reordered themselves. Remembering my last words were “Sphere is away.” Remembering my friends still stuck in the fiery depths of a dwarven mine. Maybe it was enough to get my friends out. There was so much more to do, but if this was my path, if this was how the dice of life fall, this was my end.
“He’s getting weepy and introspective, I’m out.”
“DAMNATION IT IS! WELCOME, NON-BELIEVER”
“EVERYONE, SILENCE.” A commanding voice rang out over the din of rabbling and conflicting claims on my soul. “As far as last words, many of us would disagree that ‘Sphere is away’ is a poor line to end on. We haven’t been formally introduced yet, despite our close relations. We are the End. Death. Keeper of the Fallen, gods, God, errand boys, servant girls, gender-fluid workforce, and gender-less aspects of those that seek to move the many souls leaving one plane to their next location. Some of us are even in the business of recycling.” A black ram coalesced with the voice, staring deeply into my eyes before it bounded back into the darkness.
“What my wordy friend is saying is we are many, we are one, we are all. Death will do nicely for now. This whole process simplifies when you pick a team or offend one of us more than the others, but for those of you without strong beliefs in what lies at your end, our form is a bit more clouded.” The burning gaze of a multitude of eyes, flickering into focus with each word all bore down on me, willing me to understand what was facing me. Trying to make eye contact with any one pair just shifted it back into the unfocused mass. The many eyes were watching, probing, but would return nothing to me. Suddenly, they all vanished, replaced by a widening grin, not unlike that of Zeno before he lets loose something really smarmy.
“But for a monk trained by puzzles and lessons, you’ve missed the most important hint.” The grin pursed its dark lips into a smirk that set every ounce of stored anger and frustration ablaze. I wanted nothing more than to shatter that smirk. My hands flexed and tightened, trying to suppress any rash actions, but the motion was missing something.
My ring, if I so chose, would catch my soul and keep it, giving my more magically inclined friends time to find a solution to my shattered existence. Hopefully it wasn’t damaged in the heat. I tended to keep it invisible on my hand, one of the other hidden perks of the Ring of Mind Shielding, but our current locale was hardly friendly to items, magic or not. Assuming the heat didn’t get it, the rings visibility returned, and anyone could even get to my corpse and snatch up my ring, there may be a path back to my life. My glimmer of hope, however, was snuffed out with the sound of slow, sarcastic hand clapping.
“Close, but time’s up, dummy. Maybe you left the monastery oven before you were fully baked. I’ll say it slowly with small words for you.” the smirk lowered slightly into a pair of hands, like an exasperated master looking down at a clueless young monk they had no idea how to handle.
“If no one, even we … Death … didn’t know you were going to die to flaming hounds…” the smirk stuck its tongue out as its voice trailed off and then blew a cosmically infuriating raspberry.
I wasn’t dead yet?
The burning sensation of a healing potion being poured down the wrong pipe tore me from the void and slammed me back into my body. My burns lit up again and my eyes sprung open to the fiery hellscape that was the dwarven forge works. The sounds in my ringing ears faded from the mocking jeers of Death into the jaunty tunes of a music box-wielding gnome and the dry rattling of a pile of mangled corpses beneath the feet of a suspiciously clean bard. The winged teen rogue had managed to force feed me a health potion and drag me back to the land of the living while the gnome and bard tore apart the pack of dogs. There was little time for pleasantries and thanks as some more flaming creatures began to close around us to investigate the scramble of activity, closely following the remaining members of our party limping together to close ranks.
“Thanks, Set,” my hoarse voice struggled to find itself through the sputtered potion remains and throbbing headache. Sparing only a small moment to clear my throat and catch my breath as I rolled to my feet, the battle continued to rage around me. In a simmering pile of viscera lay my staff, scarred, but still in one piece, and just in reach. With my trusty singed staff back in hand, I rose wearily to my feet. Once again Harry White was aloft in the land of the living. Just in time for a searing bolt of energy to strike me in the face.
No graceful dodge.
No raised limb to intercept the blow.
The beam raked across my left eye, cutting me from brow to lip before my head was twisted from its path. The searing light burned a deep trough, leaving the sickening scent of singed scale and flesh as my body toppled like a felled tree. The world was dark again before I hit the ground.
“Do we still do punch cards?”
“Is anyone else feeling hungry suddenly?”
“Who had the monk? Yes, he is back. No, we don’t do double or nothing anymore. Not since ‘he who is his own father’ pulled the grave stunt. I’m still paying that out on every feast day.”
The process was a little smoother this time and the pains of the fight faded away, so that was a perk. But the shifting personalities of the many tricksters, judges, and choosers of the slain was trying on a good day, let alone on the day I die twice.
“Ungrateful little shit.”
“Trying? That’s just rude.”
“D-A-M-N, welcome to your new nation! DAAAAM-NATION, YEAAAAH”
I managed only a long sigh and attempted to clear my head. Best to let them speak their minds and take advantage of the peace. Settling into a relaxed sitting position, my mind wandered away while Death talked at me. My current situation was set, no need to fight, challenge or posture. Instead, I considered my path. In a way, it stared at a raging river as I left the monastery. With a pack of my meager belongings strapped to my back, I was told to cross it. There were trees along the bank, but the branches would never support my large frame. There weren’t any bridges in sight, no shallows could be found pacing up and down the shore. I even briefly considered trying to run across like a few masters could. But in the end, the only path was through.
“Is he trying to ignore us?”
“Shhh… this is going somewhere….”
“This better not be one of those ‘the meaning is what you need it to be’ sort of stories.”
My memories cleared of the muddying interruptions of Death, I proceeded into the river on foot. My steps fell into a steady pattern. Plant the staff into a stable pocket of the smooth river rocks below, advance to the anchor point, repeat. Dragging my meager belongings and waterlogged form through the swift current in relentless defiance of the path the river had chosen for me, I eventually managed to stumble to my knees on the far shore.
“The path is like a river, sometimes you must follow its flow, sometimes you must fight.” The master called once I arrived at the far shore. He turned on his heels and left me. No fanfare, no banner, no fellow students to see me off. Just a wizened old teacher embodying his own teachings. Not a motion out of place, no more words than were needed in the moment. This is how that hardened man showed pride, with acceptance of letting me go. Even family bonds are complicated for a monk. After a break sitting quietly to collect my thoughts and breathe, I stood and ventured forth into the world beyond the monastery. That was the day I left my only home and started my own path, and now I had to consider letting go.
My mental walk along familiar banks seemed to silence the voices, if only for a moment.
“Wait, that makes no sense. Do you follow ‘the‘ path or just wander about aimlessly fighting everything? Is there even a difference?”
“Yeah, you don’t even have any hair. Why are you called Harry?”
“I don’t think he is even the right color. What, don’t look at me that way. It’s not insensitive! He calls himself White. HE is the monster.”
“Walking on water really isn’t that hard.”
The storm cloud churned with images as Death seemed to mull over my story. Clarity in the end, peace achieved. It was a shame it took me dying to finally find that right peaceful balance in meditation. Oh, and some severe blows to the head.
“With more time, you will make a frustrating teacher, young monk, or at least impart some frustrating wisdom on people who are looking for it. For now, it seems we have work to do,” the cheerful baritone stifling a chuckle as the storm cloud full of shouting voices slowly settled. The cloud began to melt off its simple resting place, oozing dark tendrils out towards my seated form. The tendrils gently washed over my legs, slowly gripping me and pulling me towards the descending cloud.
My eyes closed.
Then a tug at the back of my robes. Small at first, but solid. My motion halted.
Then a tug at my left horn. Jerking me off balance.
“Umm, I don’t know how to address you, and I don’t wish to offend. But are you all alone?” My eyes risked a peek. The tendrils had slid me to the base of the platform of Death. Coming nose to cloud with the manifestation of Death, a pair of glowing red eyes matched my gaze. Death was staring into me. I was staring back. More of its coalescing tendrils reached out for me, but my head jerked again, this time with a firm grip on my right horn, sprawling me on the ground. Face down on the formless void, my eyes rose up to see a steady ripple of motion coming from in front of me, like a light tapping on the surface of a pool. Matched with tendrils of a different shade, the undulating wave was slowly picking up speed. Its peaks rising and falling with greater vigor, more of the foreign tendrils latched on. The pulling on my head and robes began to grow firmer, with Death pulling to match on my legs.
Needless to say, this whole dying experience was becoming wildly uncomfortable.
“It is not us, young monk. It seems you have a friend. We do not relinquish the chosen slain idly,” a voice called out. My body being pulled like the last piece of meat between fighting dogs, again, my eyes caught a glimpse of the red eyes fading to reveal a winged figure brandishing a rune-etched spear. “But we do not mind losing battles with mortals on occasion.”
“We always win the war in the end,” the red eyes hissed, re-materializing in the depths of the cloud.
“Plus, you were the only one who said you ‘death,‘ some of us knew you were going to pull through. You really need to listen more closely” The winged figure turned away with a flourish of its spear, enrobing itself in the cloud and breaking up its image back into the grasping mist.
“OH, COME ON. He was here long enough, he was technically dead. All bets should be paid up.”
“He’ll be back they always are.”
“I got my scales and feather, what did I miss? Gone? AGAIN?”
“In the end, he wasn’t dead, but he will be dead in the end. Until next time, monk. Break a leg, or whatever else suits your fancy.” A pair of jester’s masks, one morose white mask, and one mocking black mask with the smile from my first trip, bid me farewell with a duet of sing-song voices.
More gray tendrils poured over my chest and arms, their pull growing with the ripples in the glassy surface of the void of the beyond. The smoke was familiar as it took hold of me, dragging me from Death themselves. The black tendrils began to snap and pop, their shattered remains humming with a familiar wheeze of musical tones as they fell from my legs and rejoined the retreating cloud. The ripples, matching the growing cacophony, hummed in time. Everything began to throb to an unseen metronome, drowning out the bickering voices of Death and dragging me further from my end. Slowly, a single, thundering blast of bagpipes rose from the din.
I knew this song.
I knew this smoke.
I would know this smoke anywhere.
The grasping gray smoke suddenly grew into one enormous wave, a thundering pulse that wrenched me from the grip of death and casually reminded me why third watch is the best watch.
Zeno’s bagpipes would rouse you with the world’s worst headache, and now it seemed, even death wasn’t an escape from its jaunty tunes.
I awoke back in my battered body with a scream, startling a tutting Awk doing his best to triage the plethora of wounds on what was, until recently, my corpse. My right eye opened to the blinding light of an out of control portal. The shouts of a rapidly organizing defense fighting the flaming spells of the lurking magical skulls filled me with courage that my friends were still alive and kicking, maybe more figuratively than usual with me on my back. Many words have been said about the euphoria of a second wind, but reinvigorated with my third, I pulled myself together and leapt back into the melee.
Full of life, pain, and anger from being cut down twice, the rest of the fight was a blur. We cleaned up the remaining lava golems and harried the skulls until they were swallowed up by the destabilizing portal. As our party licked its wounds and made a break for the nearest exit, my spirits were surprisingly high. As long as this portal didn’t swallow us, that was a mission accomplished for the Mage’s guild, a much-needed victory for our party, I was still alive, and we were about to leave a nice big, scorched hole for that obstinate mine owner to haggle payment over.
Even a left eye that was struggling to open couldn’t dampen my mood.