Everything seemed to be holding together until Tem suddenly dropped. To her credit, she didn’t go down screaming. She died on her feet, swinging her blazing sword at any openings she could find, and a few she could force open. Although, her silent death may have had more to do with the crude spear that was shaken free from her throat as her body crumpled to the floor. The heavily armored skeletal warrior showed no triumph or emotion as it shook off its weapon, the black ichor of its poisoned spearhead darkening the fresh blood. Maintaining their shield wall formation, they stepped over Tem’s body and closed around me like a slow-moving steel trap. Desperation did its best to worm its way into my heart.
I buried it with ferocity.
Trading blows with my silent foes had been enough to keep the pressure off of the mages and rogues, but now it was do or die. Break free and create an opening for a rescue of Tem, or die under a barrage of spears. My target became the pivot of the shield wall: the warrior that anchored the rotating wing trying to sweep over Tem’s body and close on me. There was no holding back as I threw my whole body behind a right fist. The wild haymaker trailed a stinging whirl of sand as the tattoos on my arm flared to life and buried the fury of the desert into the jaw of the warrior who presumed he was safe behind his over-sized shield. The protective plate made a horrible screech as it dragged after the pirouetting skeletal horror, trying to gather himself from the unexpected blow. He managed to slow his induced spin, but not in time to close the opening.
Like the world’s most horrifying dance pair, I matched his spin. Switching feet and twisting on my new plant foot cleanly enough to make a dancer swoon, my left heel caught the floundering skeletal warrior at the base of its skull, bouncing his chin off his own chest armor with a satisfying ping like a giant dinner bell. It dropped to its knees, barely holding onto its stolen life forces.
I made an opening.
The formation was split.
But it was all too late.
The first spear caught me in the thigh. Their poisons failed to catch hold as what little was left of my chi pushed it away, but the barbed point hooked deep into my flesh and pulled me from my feet. The second spear grazed my ribs on my right side just under my arm. I closed down on the errant spear on instinct, pinning the shaft against my body and grabbing the head with my free hand.
The third spear caught me straight through my side, just below my left arm.
It found its way through a lung and into my heart.
At least this time, the end was quick.
“At least you made it exciting!”
“You’d think he’d learn to duck after the last time.”
I refused to open my eyes. Like a petulant student hoping for a little more sleep before morning chores, I sat there. The sudden loss of pain, the silence, and the voices. The nightmares of this place mostly cleared up once the tattoo dreams started up. Honestly not all those are bad dreams, so it was a nice compromise from the realm of death to my own triumphs and tribulations. But sadly, I had returned to the realm of death. There was no need to look around to know it. The cacophony of competing voices, the absolute silence that punctuated each murmured phrase from the roiling cloud that sat across from me, and the rough-hewn stone dais it was perched upon.
“We aren’t going away,” a female voice crowed from the cloud.
“Hello, Death…” My tone was flat and calm, but trailed off as I felt something completely unexpected. Everything was a lot calmer this time. I presented a much more composed soul than my last trip. No fumbling about for weapons and threatening the confusing cloud. No attempts to clear my head and prepare for a fight, even the conversation was more cordial. But there was one detail that was very, very wrong. I told myself if this happened again, I would maintain my composure and seize the opportunity to question Death. Maybe Death knew about Aljahar the Transcendent, my tattoos, or a mix of the two. Maybe there are some details about the conduits they could piece together for me before they dragged me off to where ever my soul was supposed to go. If Zeno managed to drag me kicking and screaming back to the land of the living, everyone would be wildly disappointed if I didn’t at least take the chance to ask the many aspects of Death something. Anything? Or maybe just “WHY?”
Why one of them has been running a set of red eyed cultists trying to sacrifice a city and god knows what else to power a ritual to break through into our plane?
Why an aspect of Death would even need to come to our plane when it seems dying delivers us right to their proverbial doorstep?
Why Lathander told Set the souls of the plague victims were still in the city, in the zombies, being snuffed out by the ritual and not whisked away like I am right now?
Why we show up fully clothed, but disarmed in the realm of death?
All of these would be great questions to ask to not waste the opportunity afforded to me by being skewered.
BUT INSTEAD I’M WONDERING WHY A VERY FAMILIAR WEAPON WAS RESTING ACROSS MY LAP.
“All very good questions, young one. Wait, why is he armed?”
“But I’m always armed…. whatever… monks… oh yeah that is a weapon.”
“IT WILL NOT SAVE YOU FROM DAMNATION!”
I finally opened my eyes, matching the gaze of far too many eyes leering out from the storm of Death. Some I recognized from my last trip, others were just unfamiliar flashes in the cloud. The haughty crow perched on a branch high up in the cloud, a wispy ram head level with my gaze, a pair of masks of tragedy and comedy all snapped into focus looking down at me. Even a myriad of religious symbols that popped up in my travels came into focus at the edge of the clouds. A small pair of beady red eyes seemed to shift and lose form in the mist whenever my gaze hunted them down. It seems I had Death’s full attention, or at least my staff did.
“It’s rather embarrassing to think of it that way,” sneered the comedy mask.
Death was interested in my staff though. And there it was, lying across my lap in one solid piece, like the day I shattered it fighting Ahkmatix never happened. Finally chancing a look down at my old friend, some details of my faithful weapon seemed off. The color was odd, a white with the faintest hints of silver and blue. The markings carved into its surface were all mine at least. My memories, my work, carved into the wooden staff over years. Small collections of skeletons and kobolds, mermaids from Lake Norka, and even some winding scrollwork matching the wild train tracks of Egonia. Little things I carved to mark highs and lows, to kill time on the road. Markings of shattering the wall to escape the center of Cspiherus, or a small section of the map of the catacombs. Even more intricate carvings of Nightscale and Calcryx wrapping around the ends of the staff were weaved into the complex pattern that had begun to grow on my staff were still present.
It was covered in my work.
It was covered in my memories.
It was my staff.
But I burned it.
And many of these details happened after it was lost.
“Oooh a puzzzle, we rarely get puzzles!”
The staff felt real as I picked it up. There was an easy way to test it though. Planting it into the rippling surface of Death’s waiting room, I pulled myself up to my feet. From there it was easy, just move like so many mornings. From my days at the monastery, through snow, through hot caves, through the desert sands, the same practiced forms and stances. Sweeping attacks, defensive posturing, and foot work in a pattern that calmed me on hard mornings, and probably worried a number of hungover bar patrons stumbling home.
“So why is my staff here?” My last sweeps settled into a final resting stance, staff proudly planted next to me.
“Oh, that is an easy one you can put together on your own time. You have all of the pieces. Ask your other question,” bayed the black ram. The rest of the leering visages faded back into the cloud, but its color noticeably darkened. If Zeno pulled me back from the brink, I’d leave out the soul crushing terror that swept over me. My grip tightened on my staff until my knuckles hurt.
“Alright then.” My answer was barely a whisper. One could even call it a hiss through gritted teeth. My muscles stayed tense as the demand lingered in the silence. The ram turned and stalked off, fading into the rumbling cloud of Death. The cloud held its many voices and personalities in check as it waited for my response, no flickers or peaks to betray their test. This approach was frighteningly polite as Death already made a habit of answering questions before I asked them. Hell, they probably already know all the questions that shot through my head in a panic when I first arrived. So what question was I supposed to ask? What didn’t I ask that was so much more important to them? What didn’t I ask that was so much more important to me?
“I have my question.” My head and heart slowed back down to a level calm. Being dead gave you a nice perspective. Your thinking cleared up when you didn’t have the most normal of concerns: staying alive. The right question snapped into focus when I considered the potential permanence of my situation.
“Can the people of Csipherus be saved?”
The other questions really were already answered, I just needed to stop and think. Maybe I could do that without dying next time, but for now, I’d take the advice of Death. There is no need for me to understand the full name of my enemy. An Aspect of Death and his Red-Eyed cultists will do. There wasn’t a need to fully comprehend their goals and agenda. The fact that they were hurting people is enough. There was no need to understand the goals and conflicts of gods. I was just a monk of the Open Hand who wanted to use his training to help anyone that needs it.
“How noble, maybe your good intentions will steer the spears of you enemies to less vital organs next time.” A pointy faced jackal stalked out from the blackened cloud, its shoulder bones and ribs holding its midnight black coat like a set of shifting set of tent poles under a taut canvas. Waddling behind the emaciated canine was a portly chimera of sorts, a reptilian head with a mammalian body that was so well fed its stubby legs struggled to drag its stomach behind its lithe companion.
“Only a rare few are able to delay our judgement, and an even more select group can delay it nigh indefinitely. Your wards will all come to meet those they have chosen to judge their death,” rumbled the mixed creature, finishing with a deep yawn to exhibit its razor-sharp rack of gleaming fangs marred only by a single ornate feather nestled in the gap between two teeth.
“You haven’t answered my question.” I brought my staff to a defensive position in front of me. “Yes, we all die in the end. Everyone gets to visit you and have a confusing chat eventually. But for those still in the city, for the people hiding in the catacombs in fear, for those still suffering from the creeping plague, for those being marshalled as an army of the undead, can the people of Csipherus be saved?”
The jackal and his crocodile-headed companion turned from me and melted back into the stormy murk. Up above them formed a black-winged humanoid outline, like Set with his wings extended. Just with more wings, and no features beyond the vaguely humanoid dark outline.
“We only handle death and the dead. Why would you ask us about people who still yet live? We know everything about those who pass over to us. How they lived their lives, how they found their way to us. But until they truly arrive here, they are mysteries to us. The living are enigmas. Stories waiting for endings. Questions waiting for answers. The Dead tell us all of their tales; the living are silent.” The voice was more a chorus of voices than a singular tone.
Realization dawned on me, and it made me feel like one of our smarter members needed to give dying a try. They may be quicker on the uptake in these conversations. My shoulders slumped like a scolded student.
“Oh. Oh no. There are people who still live in the city. People who need help, but you only see the dead. It is useless to ask Death for answers about the living.” My voice faded back down to a whisper.
“Don’t worry, it is hard to comprehend one’s own mortality. Dying has been known to confuse many mortals, just as much as straddling the line between life and death confuses us.” The wings fluttered and arms gestured in a sweeping motion, as if it was speaking to an audience of more than just me. But then its brilliance concentrated to a single spotlight on me.
“If even we didn’t know why you, a soul set adrift from your mortal coil, have a weapon that is a part of your very being. If we still have questions about you….” the chorus drifted off into a low hum of harmonizing voices. An arm raised up from the angelic silhouettes side, holding a massive, curved horn. The form slowly began to rise up above the darkened cloud, slowly raising the horn up towards its head as it did. My eyes followed until a flash low in the cloud caught my attention.
A massive smile.
The same smirk that mocked me last time I died. Its massive shining grin seared into my dreams.
It was the last thing I saw before I found myself back in Egonia fighting for my second chance at life.
“Slow again, monk, stay interesting.” And with that, it stuck its tongue out again and blew a cosmically infuriating raspberry. I would have been more horrified if not for the angel and its horn. As if queued up by the childish gesture, the angel began to blow into its instrument. A wall of sound smashed into my chest and blew me from my feet. The raspberry and the horn melted into a singular tone that vibrated deep in my chest. It shook every bone in my body. It wormed its way deep into my mind. It shook everything that was me. The singular, oppressive tone crushed me down onto the ground, like so many hands grabbing at me. Gradually, the sonic assault shifted and began pulling me across the floor. The featureless floor gave nothing to hold onto and my staff disappeared as the sound hit me. Forcing one eye open in the assault, I watched Death and their plinth receding from view, partially obscured by a mess of gray tendrils rapidly enveloping my body. My vision faded to black as the oppressive tone began to fracture. First into harmonies and pulsating tones, then into a more melodic mix of notes. It became a song made by an instrument that was impossible to forget.
“All good, buddy,” a voice called out to me, then slapped me in the chest.
My eyes flung open to the gloom of the ritual chamber. My body once again filled with the pain of fighting the skeletal shield wall. My body kicked into action on instinct. In a single fluid motion, I curled my knees to my chest, then threw my legs forward. It was enough to pull me back up onto my feet. My head pounding, my vision blurry, I found the nearest enemy, a pile of bones and tried to drive my fist into it. My blow went wide and down I went, bested by a stationary pile of bones.
“Did we win?” I managed to huff out between breaths.
“Well, we have that thing to deal with, and Felegum and Tem are smashing some bones that still seem to wiggle. But yeah, the plan worked great.” Zeno stayed just long enough to make sure I wasn’t going to drop dead again before he sauntered off to something more interesting. I chose to stay on the ground a little bit longer to contemplate being alive.
“A PUZZLE!” Helli interrupted my navel gazing with a shout from a desk in the corner of the chamber. I dragged myself back to my feet and did my best to steady myself. I straightened up my torn shirt to cover the details of the tattoo I’d rather not share when a few pieces of a lingering puzzle fell into place. Holding up my arms, I looked over my tattoos, white with hints of silver and blue seemingly carved into my dark skin. The patterns, somehow unblemished by the myriad of cuts and open wounds still covering my body, tingled with recognition.
I was covered in my work.
I was covered in my memories.