Mon 15 Nov, 2010
Tags: cosmology, region of the dead, shadowfell
Nahast moves and grows and the Wheel of Ages keeps turning. Most people attribute the passing of fate and history to the work of the gods fair in the Heavens that lie beyond the Dreamlands, but those who study the way the universe works with an open mind soon discover the truth: it’s all a matter of life and death.
While the Dreamlands provide a reflection of the vital energy of the world, it has a mirror that does the exact opposite. The Region of the Dead is a topic most people prefer to avoid, and thus trust the teachings of their religion as to just what this dread realm actually is. Most will only prepare the funerary rites as required by the Journey of Souls (see below), and even priests will only have a passing knowledge in order to return rogue spirits of the dead back into the darkness where they belong.
The people who know the most about the Region are the shamans and witches of more primal, primitive religions, some of whom can even travel to the shadowed un-lands and have working relationships with some of its scarce inhabitants.
Despite this general ignorance, the Region of the Dead is a very influential aspect of Nahast’s spiritual existence and, unlike the Dreamlands, it’s a spiritual domain that everyone in the world will eventually visit.
This article will give an overview of the Un-land, where all things meet their end, from the malleable nature of the realm and its shifting and terrifying geography to the nature of its denizens and what the living can expect should they visit.
The Region of the Dead is the spiritual shadow of Nahast, a fundamental force of the Wheel of Ages.
The Region of the Dead is also called the Un-Land, for it appears to be a negation of everything that is, even if a deeper understanding reveals just how ironically vital it is for the continuing turning of the Wheel of Ages.
This patch of spiritual landscape pervades reality just like the Dreamlands, but behaves wildly differently. The landscape of the Dreamlands is shaped by the spirits of the land and the dreams of mortals, flowing with vibrant currents of magic and life energy. It takes a supreme effort of will or powerful sorcery to shape the Dreamlands.
The Region of the Dead, in contrast, is highly malleable. Without interference, it reflects it’s corresponding landscape in the land of the living. Because it has no real influx of power to assert its reality, the landscape bends easily to the wishes of any strong will that makes its desires manifest, and answers promptly to hidden desires and, mostly, to repressed fears, which is what gives the Region its most dangerous quality: the ability to attack its visitors and denizens.
Visitors and natives of this dark land must learn to keep their emotions in check, because the Region seeps deep inside souls to find an echo and shape itself, and chooses nightmares only because they have a very strong emotional resonance.
This quality gives the Region of the Dead its reputation as a place of punishment, a fame that is only half-deserved, for it is the souls that stumble on its dark expanses who provide the tools and power for their own torment.
The Region of the Dead is also a timeless place. Echoes of buildings in the living world can exist long after their physical counterparts have crumbled to dust merely because the Un-Land does not forget, until it is made to forget. Ghosts and other death spirits are detached from the material flow of time, and have a hard time considering the concept of linear cause and effect. Souls and shades with a strong will can carry their own flow of time, which they impose on their surroundings, and the living who visit carry time by their own measure and perceptions. Traveling in time, however, is not part of the Region’s features; the Wheel moves always forward and the Un-Land is not exempt from its turning, but those with the power and will can glimpse moments past or future that have had contact with the shadows of death.
The Lay of the Un-land
Despite its changing nature, the Region of the Dead is well-structured and those who learn its secrets can also learn to navigate it with minimum danger to themselves. As the dark counterpart of the Dreamlands, the Region of the Dead extends from the living world into deeper expanses, dividing in recognizable zones, even if these can change location or simply disappear.
The closest layer to the world of the living, the Shallows are the point of entry into the Region of the Dead. It resembles the world as if covered in eternal night, and many magical rituals and spells call upon this darkness to empower their users.
Ghosts are dominant in the Shallows together with ancestor spirits who can cross back and forth into the Dreamlands or the living world, and the newly deceased find themselves in the Shallow corresponding to the place of their worldly demise.
Practically every culture in Nahast has a holiday celebrating those who have passed away, and during these festivities the Shallows tend to fade into the living world, allowing contact between the living and the dead as well as travel across these boundaries from certain points, but this is very dangerous for the living to attempt, and priests and other powers make sure the dead return to their rightful place when the Shallows recede.
There are some places, most of them underground, where there exists a permanent opening between the living world and the Shallows of the Un-Land, and crossing back and forth is achieved simply by walking. Both ends of these natural gates are hard to find and with limited and difficult access.
The Byways and Waystations
One of the few stable features of the Un-Land are the paths that cross it. These paths were laid down during the 4th Age, echoing the travel songs of beastfolk shamans, and reinforced by the ghosts, shades and living travelers who used them in the 5th Age. Also, the myths of mortals adopted one or more of these paths and made them into an integral part of their religion.
The Byways, as these roads are called, take many shapes and appearances; they may become a well-paved highways or a navigable river, a long bridge crossing a bottomless chasm or a path between separated walls of a sea of ichors. These Byways are mostly safe to travel, but they all lead deeper into the Region of the Dead and into the Houses of Judgement, where the path will be rife with all manner of tests, obstacles and perils meant to purify the souls that take it to meet their final destinations.
Waystations are quiet and stable places built on crossroads. They always correspond to a particular spot in the living lands and can sometimes act as gates between both planes for those who know how to open them. Like the Byways, the Waystations can look and be anything. Deathspeaker shamans have charted the most welcoming Waystations, and some even become strange trading spots where ghosts can mingle with powerful mortals.
The Dark Wilds
Beyond the Shallows and crossed by the Byways are the Dark Wilds, twisted and forgotten echoes of the living world that have been pushed down by more recent or stronger reflections. The Dark Wilds are spiritual refuse that clings to existence by the very nature of the Region, but they are anything but safe to cross.
The Dark Wilds are home to fearful nightmares and terrors, with hungry ghosts being the thing most resembling a mortal creature if not for its active hostility towards anything that moves. These expanses are detached from the world, and thus they are prime raw material for the living’s necromantic powers, and as a means for incredibly fast travel by powerful spirits who are not afraid of the dangers within.
Pockets of reality that form in the Dark Wilds like a copse inside heavy woods, the Flayings spring forth directly from a soul that creates it, most often unwittingly. Despite being stable, the Flayings are anything but safe; they are part of the tests in the Journey of the Dead, echoing the flaws and fears of the soul that brings them forth. They take the shape of the soul’s most frightful memories and dreams, and are populated by wraiths made of guilt and judgment.
Weak souls are often torn apart in their own Flaying, leaving behind tormented echoes of themselves and their twisted soulscape until it is swallowed by the roiling chaos of the Dark Wilds.
Ironically enough, a Flaying is the best place and moment to rescue a dying soul from the Region of the Dead and bring it back to its own body; the link between the soul and its living memories is strong, and a canny soul traveler can create a way back from this link and bypass the dangers of the Un-Land. Then again, the Flaying can be so strong that it swallows the would-be rescuer as well.
The Forgotten Cities
Most places who pass beyond the world end up in the Dreamlands, echoing the glories, legends and dreams of its former inhabitants.
Those who are forgotten by time and did not make a strong enough impression in the weave of fate simply fade and sink into the Region of the Dead, for there to be slowly unmade by the forces of decay.
A horrid exception are the places that are charged with emotion. Besieged fortresses, harsh battlefields, places that witness horrible crimes and other haunted places carve a reflection from the Dark Wilds and may exist long after their model disappears from the living world and even from living memory. Ghosts are attracted to these sites, lapping up the emotions that surge back into the landscape. Some of these Forgotten Cities still match the sites of ruins in the world, and emerge into the Shallows, sometimes to cross over into the lands of the living to give the impression that the city has risen again.
The Houses of the Lords of Death
At the end of every Byway the Lords of Death await in their dread manors. Unlike the abodes of the deities in the Dreamlands, the Houses of Death are accessible to every soul, god or spirit. Few actually want to go there, for the Lords of Death are very particular deities that very few would even want to trifle with.
Houses of Judgment: All Byways end in the Houses of Judgment, collectively known as such for they all serve the same purpose: to pass judgment on the souls of the deceased and dictate their final destinations.
A House of Judgment is created for a particular religion or set of beliefs, often tended by the Death god for that religion or powerful spirits in the service of Death. These places connect to the realms of the gods in the deeper Dreamlands, a path created by the beliefs of the gods’ worshipers, and thus unbreakable by the deities who tend to find this connection distasteful if not for the stream of souls arriving to their lands in reverence and adoration.
The Houses of Punishment: Not all Houses of Judgment have an annex in the form of a House of Punishment, content to leave the carrying of their sentence to the particular deity that claims patronage on the judged soul. Some Lords of Death, however, carry the title of executioner as well as of judge, and usher souls deemed deserving of torment into their House of Punishment. These realms of the Un-Land are never confused with Hell. Hells are were demons live, and were pain and torture serves no other purpose than the demons’ entertainment. The Houses of Punishment are actually places of cleansing, where souls are purified from the filth of their own dark deeds in life, so they can have a more benign lot when they are cast back into the Wheel.
The Houses of Rebirth: Souls who are judged ready to return to the Wheel bide their time in the House of Rebirth that corresponds to their faith, although they are all close enough that they can cross over. Deities and pantheons are zealous about not losing souls to other deities, but Death is one of the Powers, and deities cannot influence what happens in the Region of the Dead, and so many souls reincarnate where the scales of cosmic judgment and balance direct them, not where their gods would like them to return to life.
Most of the cultures in Nahast practice one form or another of ancestor worship, that is, holding those relatives who came before in high regard, considering them guardians from the afterlife who still watch over their descendants from heaven.
This is where the interaction between the Dreamlands and the Region of the Dead becomes blurry; ancestors, as once-living beings, do pass onto the Region of the Dead, and sometimes linger there for centuries as their family keeps their memory alive, especially if they did something momentous during their days under the sun. However, an ancestor gains power from the worship of his family, and eventually becomes a spirit of the Dreamlands, a small deity in his own right.
For this, ancestor spirits are the only of their kind who can exist on both sides of the spiritual mirror. They are expected to take care of their relatives, something that can only be done from the Dreamlands, but also to help guide those of his blood who die, a responsibility strictly of the Region of the Dead.
At the same time, the core of the ancestor’s soul can reenter the Wheel of Ages and reincarnate, leaving behind a shade of his spiritual being.
It is uncommon, but not unexpected, for a person to worship and actually commune with an ancestor who turns out to be his own past life. In this case, there will be an odd sense of recognition between the spirit and the person who bears the core soul the spirit was once wrapped around.
Days of the Dead
Every culture that practices ancestor worship celebrates a Day of the Dead at least once a year, a festival where ancestors can come back into the living world and partake of the offerings and celebrations in their honor. The Shallows of the Un-Land are dangerously close to the living world during these festivities, and ancestors are not the only ones who can cross over. Malevolent ghosts and spectral remains of a Flaying can also cross, and thus the Days of the Dead also include extensive warding and protective rituals.
The Living in the Region of the Dead
The living can and do travel to the Region of the Dead, the existence of the Shallows guarantees that even untrained people can cross over by accident or design, if they can find a door, make their own, or simply get in through the window. The living can enter the Region of the Dead through spirit travel, which only transports the soul while the body is in a trance, or actual physical incursions, where the living literally step through the barriers between worlds and walks upon the Un-Land.
Because the Region of the Dead can be shaped with very little effort, the living can hope to achieve everything they set out to do if they have discipline, for the plane will react even to subconscious expectations and often yields unexpected results, and reckless or unguarded hearts can trigger an unintended Flaying.
Among the expectations that the living impose on their surroundings is solidity and time. The Un-Land is made from spiritual debris, but as the living traveller expects his foot to rest on solid ground, thus the landscape becomes solid. Also, the traveller carries his own sense of time, imposing cause and effect upon the zone around him and anchoring ghosts into the traveller’s regular timeline. Some ghosts crave this stability, and confer with the living gladly.
The traveller’s sense of self is also imposed upon the Un-Land. Spirit travellers will bear the appearance they most identify with, or which they subconsciously perceive to be their true selves. While most of the times this image corresponds to their current selves, sometimes they will look like they did when they were younger, if an event in their youth marked them and defined them, or they will appear as an older, future version of themselves if they have their aim set passionately upon a future goal.
This also applies to the true dead, which is why many ghosts look either the way they did in their prime years if they never lost their vitality in their old age, or reflecting the way they died, if their passing was traumatic enough to imprint their minds.
There re very few reasons why anyone alive would travel to the Region of the Dead. The first and foremost is wisdom. The dead are natural oracles; disjointed from time as they are, they can glimpse at what has happened and what may happen, and convey this knowledge to worthy supplicants. In this, ghosts are easier to appease as spirits of the Dreamlands, as no ghost will refuse an offering of blood.
The second reason is travel. The Byways crisscross the land and are safer than the roads in the living world (although the fewer dangers in the road of the dead compensate by each being incredibly dangerous), and subjective time means traveling can happen much faster.
The last great reason is to find a specific soul, whether it is a ghost, a shade, a soul in the middle of the Journey of the Dead or trapped in the Houses of the Lords of Death. Famous songs speak of heroes who brave the Journey of the Dead in life to rescue a loved one.
The Journey of the Dead
Upon death, a soul embarks on a terrible and final journey. All religions in Nahast feature this trip, and the journey may be as short as crossing a tunnel or as long as ending an odyssey, but in every case the Journey is the first step towards purifying the soul so it can be judged, rewarded or punished, and then be reborn.
The Journey takes different aspects for each person. It is the soul’s expectations that shape the Journey, but since their religion takes a large part in shaping those expectations, they will certainly find the afterlife their priests taught them.
Guilty or tortured souls are in for a nightmarish voyage, because they will endure Flaying after Flaying until they reach the House of Judgment that will take them if they did not destroy themselves, in addition to the natural hazards of traveling through the Un-Land.
However, Death has its mercies, and for every soul that embarks on the Journey of the Dead, there is a Death Guide (see later). The Death Guide will do its best to lead the soul safely to its destination, fighting against the random dangers and sometimes even assisting the soul during a Flaying, so that every soul that dies is not lost from the Wheel.
The Dwellers of Darkness
Despite being a barren, lifeless realm, the Region of the Dead teems with “lives”. There are many creatures that call the Un-Land home.
The Lords of Death
Gods and goddesses of Death enjoy a special status in the cosmology of Nahast. While their brethren fight and devour each other for supremacy, the seat of their power is unchallenged. Ruling over the dead brings no sustenance of worship as the gods are used to, and the Region of the Dead is quite a dreary place even if it can be shaped at will.
Also, they are the only gods that are in direct communication with one of the four Powers that created the world: Azkenik, the force of Death and Endings.
The Lords of Death understand that they are not Death, but Its stewards, Judges, guides, reapers, messengers, gatekeepers… but not Death itself, despite the beliefs of their worshipers or even of other deities. Because most of their power is derived from Azkenik’s sufferance, they do not need to devour other spirits and gods, and thus they have actually very cordial relationships with each other. Souls that end up in their House by mistake are politely referred to the proper deity, and every Day of the Dead they gather to confer and sometimes to walk among the common souls to rekindle their ties to the world above.
This brotherhood also ensures that no upstart deity from the Dreamlands will ever challenge their power. If you take arms against a Lord of Death, you face all of them. Even if a Lord of Death officially belongs to a pantheon, his primary allegiance is to Death, and then to his fellow deities.
Each Lord (or Lady) of Death is different, shaped by how they rose to power and how they are perceived by mortals, as well as their own personality and inclinations. While each will favor an aspect of Death, they are able to perform all the obligations of their calling. As such, some of the Lords have many names as they are revered in different parts of the world, but they remain the same. The Lord of Death that likes to wander the Dark Wilds in search of stray souls is called Night Wolf by the humans of Atemac Valley, but is actually the same being as Vej’rajit, the Hooded Hunter of the Maehvindra elves, who are often at war with the Atemaqui without knowing they share their god of Death.
A special place in the hierarchy of the Un-Land is reserved for the Death Guides. These are enigmatic spirits full of contradictions. The only true fact known by the shamans and priests who have studied them is that a Death Guide receives every soul that arrives upon death. This Death Guide assumes the mission of leading the soul through the Journey of the Dead into a final destination in the soul’s corresponding House of Judgment.
A Death Guide will assume a shape familiar to the person, either a form conditioned by the soul’s religious expectations (like the dog-like guides of the Zergune pantheon) or called from the person’s subconscious, but always sporting something that makes it obvious that it’s a spirit of Death. It is unknown whether the Death Guides are the part of the soul that wants to die, spirits in their own right that have aligned with Death, small avatars or servants of the Lords of Death, or a combination of all of the above.
After their charge reaches their destination, Death Guides usually fade and disappear, but some remain, especially those that rose for a powerful soul that left a shade behind.
Death Guides and ghosts have a curious relationship. A Death Guide will do its best effort to take the ghost where it belongs, but whatever it is that ties the ghost to the living world is too strong for the Death Guide to sever, and thus they resort to cajoling, and sometimes even assisting a ghost in fulfilling whatever task or regret they left behind that keeps them from rejoining the Wheel.
Hungry ghosts and spectral remains are the natural enemies of Death Guides, for they threaten the souls undertaking their Journey. Even after fulfilling their duty to a particular soul, a lingering Death Guide becomes a guardian of Byways and Waystations, hunting the malevolent undead that threaten the dead and the living who visit.
Because the rituals of shamans and priests can ease a soul’s passing into the Region of the Dead and grant additional protection for the Journey, Death Guides are well-disposed towards them.
Ghosts, Shades and Undead
Not all souls that pass into the Region of the Dead undertake their Journey towards judgment and reincarnation. A person who feels he left unresolved issues and feels a strong obligation towards them may eschew the beginning of the Journey and linger in the Shallows and intruding at times into the living world. Death Guides try to help these souls as best they can, but it is ultimately up to the ghost to resolve whatever binds him to the world. As such, ghosts manifest in an incredible collection of varieties, all depending on the manner of their death and their reasons to remain. Some are benevolent and may eventually become ancestor spirits, others are consumed by malice and exist only to torment the living, and some others become little more than spiritual predators.
Shades, on the other hand, are not souls originally, but echoes of a soul that passed through the Un-Land and left a strong impression, either because the deeds it fulfilled as a ghost, or as a heritage of its life. Shades are an idealized version of the soul that spawned them, so heroic shades are even braver and more noble than their living originals, and wicked shades even more perverse.
While ghosts and shades have either a soul or the reflection of one, other undead that populate the Region of the Dead are simply beings of dark energy, soulless husks made of deathly essence without any sort of conscience guiding their actions, just pure instinct. These dark beings are always hungry and yearning for the warmth of life, which they seek to steal from the living. The most horrible undead are those that escape the Region of the Dead, either animating a creature’s corpse, or infecting and killing a living host, only to be driven by the unlucky victim’s latent urges and sometimes remnants of intelligence.
Echoes and Apparitions
The landscape of the Un-Lands changes and shifts every time, but there are some permanent fixtures created by their resonance in the living world, creating the closest thing to geography and flora that this dimension can exhibit.
An echo is a tragic event that transpired in the living world, with such strong repercussions and impact among its protagonists and witnesses that it left an impression. Battlefields, murder scenes, catastrophes and other such occurrences play and replay at semi-regular intervals at fixed locations in the Un-Lands that correspond to where they happened in the physical world. The apparitions that play out these tragedies are neither shades or ghosts, simply part of the scenery. These sad things are locked into replaying the echo over and over again, and while they might interact with visitors, it is always within the reflection of their “part”. Sometimes, a shade or even a ghost might be trapped in an echo as part of a Flaying or simply because they lacked the will to remain apart. Living travelers are mostly immune to the effects of an echo and its apparitions, but the unwary might still be horrified enough that they mold their surroundings to give the echo a more solid and dangerous substance.
Last and most rare of the denizens of the Region of the Dead are the errants, the fallen deities that turned all their godly power inwards to escape from being devoured by another deity. An errant chooses the Region of the Dead as a refuge because no living deity would willingly transgress into the territories of the Lords of Death just to pursue a fallen foe that no longer poses a threat, and its timeless nature means that what remains of their divine spark will not diminish, even by a lack of worshippers. An errant, however, is not safe, for his immense willpower and epic loss can unwittingly unleash some of the most destructive Flayings the Un-Lands could ever see.