The trouble with Death
Reborn. Again. Sephs mouth turned to a light smile. Aqisha looked at him quizically. “Found something interesting?”, she asked in a light mood. Only her dark brown eyes were visible with the protective cloths she was wearing, a necessity in northern Anauroch. The Netherese may have changed most of the great desert to fertile lands, but the northern lands were still a fierce combination of shifting sands and ice, a rather unpleasent combination.
“Just more memories”, he replied with a smile. In contrast to his hooded companions, Seph had no need for additional protection. Ice and snow did not affect him and the sand piercing his flesh was just an annoyance, his new body regenerated constantly. He looked at his strong hands and memories of so many lives flashed before him. His hands were all so different with his lives, some thin and delicate, some covered in scars and some scaly or made of crystal. But this body was special. While all his former bodies relied on armor or powers to protect them, this one just seemed not to care. The only thing powerful enough to kill it, was Savage, and that instrument of destruction was gone for good.
Akim and Kunah, his other two companions, returned from their scouting. “Did you find anything?”, Seph asked them when they were near. His memories told him that it was a bad idea to shout in an empty desert, especially one with many connections to the Underdark.
Kunah, beeing is merry, former necromancer way, grunted negatively. Akim, just slumped into the slipstream of a big rock. The search slowly took its toll on the young raven queen priest. Growing up in Cormyr does usually not prepare you for the live of an agent of an awekening god. Kunah was the near opposite of Akim. Growing up in Thay and spending more than some life times as a necromancer of Orcus made you laugh at their current perils.
Aquisha scanned their surroundings. She was native to this wasteland. Before the Queen awakened, she was living a live as a warrior of her tribe. Beeing attuned to death as a essential part of live, she sought out the agents of the Queen. It has been more than a year, that Seph met her in Sigil, while she was arguing with some mage, that he send her through the wrong portal.
“There is a small cave in a distance. We could make it until nightfall if we hurry.”, she stated with her matter of fact voice. “Then we should not tally”, Seph answered. Akim sighed and Seph hold out his hand to help him up. “No rest for the young yet”, he smiled at him. While pulling the human up, Seph was again amazed by the power of his new body. With just a quick yank, he could have ripped the arm of the priest, without even straining himself. Compared to all his other lives, this body seemed superior in so many ways.
They arrived at the cave just after nightfall. Lighting a fire was out of the question. Even if they would have something to burn, the light would be visible for leagues around them. And active magic could notify the Netherese to their presence, as they had experienced when gating to this wasteland about a month ago.
Huddling in his thick cloak, Akim looked at Seph who was preparing some cold root soup for dinner. “Do you think we will find it ever?”, he asked in a subdued tone. Kunahs ice blue eyes pierced at Akim: “Are you again questioning our Queen?”, he challenged with open contempt in his voice. “At least I didn’t serve her worst enemy for who knows how long”, Akim snapped backed defiantly. Kunah’s eyes began to glimmer in a eerie light. Seph sighed and stepped between them.
“Let’s make this clear once and for all … again. None of us has a right to question our loyality to our Queen. Only she may do so, and she send us here together. Kunah, do you want to step into her presence, challenging her judgement and telling her, you killed Akim, just because you questioned her judgement on him?” Kunah fell silent, his eyes returning to normal, but not saying a word. “And Akim, our Queen sent us to retrieve the Compass because she believes in us. Do you want to stop believing in her?”. “I, I, I’m just …”, “… exhausted and cold, I know. Use your faith as a shield against the pain.” Seph finished Akim’s sentence.
It has been a long time, he thought to himself while they were eating in silence. About a year ago, one of the workers found a magically protected strongbox while clearing the upper levels of the palace of their Queen. The box contained some notes and maps, describing the location of an artifact called The Compass of Natush. This item should contain the power to locate people that saw your words as truth. While the original purpose seemed to elude Seph, the notes in the box suggested, that the compass could be far more useful in the hands of a god: It would enable her to find believers and with that perhaps even her strongest champions: The Exarch. These men and women have been reborn the same as Seph, unaware of their destiny and allways in danger falling into the schemes of Veknar or the unmerciful hands of Orcus. If the Raven Queen wants to have fighting chance against the other gods, she would need to find these powerful followers and help them remember.
The major drawback of the notes where their age: They were written in an age where the planes itself were aligned differently. So Seph and his new companions hunted for clues and legends all this time, only to hint at a location in somewhere in the old Netheril. There only clue was a legend of a caste or group of warriors, sworn to protect the temple in which the compass was stored. The legend was unclear if they protected the temple or the compass or perhaps something else, but Seph knew, that this was their last straw of finding the artifact.
The next day began with a mixture of rain and snow. Combined with the constant high winds, even Seph was reluctant to leave their hideout. But they had to move. The Netherese hunters, which they had alerted while using a gate to come here, may have lost their track, but definitly would not have stopped searching.
About noon, the weather cleared and their luck seemed to turn: Aquisha found tracks in the muddy snow, enough tracks of a small band, perhaps two dozen humanoids. That meant, a tribe could be near, just some hours ahead of them. “If we hurry, we could catch up to them before the tracks are melted”, Aquisha exlaimed. Seph looked at the tracks: “Then let’s speed up”. With lifted spirits they started to jog, making good groud, but Seph knew that the others could not keep this up for long. The ground was giving in with each step, making every step double as exhausting.
After an hour Akim began to lag behind and Seph called for a pause. Between two near immortals and a native of this region, Akim was still doing fine … but Seph could feel the disdain oozing from Kunah. “You two walk for while. Aquisha and I will scout ahead”. Kunah was clearly not happy to stay behind because of Akim, but he knew, that Seph needed Aquisha’s tracking skills.
About another hour later, even Aquisha showed slight signs of exhaustion. But they had to slow down anyway, because a thick fog was starting to cover the land. “This is unusual”, Aquisha stated. Seph found that an understatement. The whole month they were wandering this land, the wind had never faltered or even slowed down a bit. But now, he had died completly, letting the vaporing snow creating thick swaths of fog.
The mist dulled their senses, but Seph’s keen senses picked something up. Shoveling feet, supressed wimpering, leather stretching other muscles. He gestured Aquisha and she draw her swords, trying to supress any sound. Seph still found her style of fighting with two short swords rather impressive.
All out of a sudden, there was screeching sound. Seph remembered instantly the first time he ever heard this unearthly sound: His last stand at the Living Gate, the moment when the forces of the Far Realm shattered the last barrier protecting the planes from their grasp.
Aquisha and Seph acted as one. Whatever it was, it was attacking the people they were following. Luckily they seemed just to be minute of sprint away, but the fight itself was hard to join. Seph could barely see the tip of his sword in the mist. He heard a fight some steps beside him and was glad, that the human fighter he was trying to help, had good senses and did not include him in his attack. When Seph’s sword sliced a leg of the half squid, half horse beeing, he remembered all too well, why he lost his live back at the living gate: The blood of this beeing started to burn in a blinding red light when it left its body, starting to combust and burn even hotter when hitting the ground. His fighting companion cursed and jumped a step back, while his left leg started to burn.
The creature, still surprised by his loss, spun around to look for his assaillant. Seph took a side step and brought down his two-handed sword with all might, slicing the creature in half. Having a sword that can even slice the planes, comes in handy while slicing enemies. The creature sqeeked, and Seph realized, that this could have been a mistake. He jumped toward the male fighter, who was still trying to put out his leg.
Luckily the fighter was confused by the poison in the burning blood, so Seph was able to shield the fighters body with his own, just before the blood combusted, igniting a large area and setting Seph ablaze. Unfortunately he was hit a little bit sideways. The burning liquid hit the right side of his face, burning all flesh from the bone.
Seph suppressed the pain, as so many times before, and shook of the effects of the poison. The man he saved snapped for air, after beeing squashed under Seph. Then his eyes showed pure shock. Seph tried to imagine how his must look like, half his body burned to the bone, his face with an empty eye socket, his nose just barely hanging on and his right side showing even his wisdom teeths.
But to the surprise of the man, Seph got up to his feets. He tried to speak, but his throat seemed to be open on one side. Seph leaned on his left leg and offered his right arm to the man.
Sima knew they their chances were slim. Two or three of the creatures that had attacked his tribe in their mountain home, where following him and the survivors. Their tribe were one of the biggest in the northern wastes, counting more than five dozen. His father has lead his tribe for more than a generation now. But he stayed behind to allow Sima, a handfull of guards and perhaps a dozen women and children to flee. Sima would have stayed, but his father gave him the Amulet of Tarr, the mantle of leadership of their tribe. With this he inverted their roles, making himself a warrior of the tribe and Sima the leader who must survive.
Three days after the battle, their pursuers finally caught up with them. The Mist of Ages was rolling heavy over the land, foretelling doom and destruction. While Sima was fighting against one of the attackers, a black and gold clad figure with a black-golden two handed sword appeared out of the mist. Sima first thought that perhaps the leader of these horrors showed himself, but something told him, that this hulking mass of muscles was on his side, at least for now.
The black-clad man brought down his sword hard and cut of the leg of the creature. Sima felt the burning acid and poison mixture hit his leg and burning through his armour as if it was nothing. His senses betrayed him as the poison was numbing his body, making it quite bearable to see the flesh of his leg burning and blistering. He had to concentrate completly on the flames to put them out, otherwise he knew that he would just stare in bewilderment while his body turned to ash, as so many brave warriors of his tribe.
His efforts subdued the flames and his mind started to win against the poison. That was when he noticed the black-clad man lunging himself at him and burying him underneath. The air was pushed out of his lungs and he felt a great heat waving over his body.
When he managed to realize, that he was still alive and without a sword or anything in his body, he tried to push against the man pressing him into the ground. He reacted, lifting his head, but Sima had to control himself not to get sick. The smell of burning flesh pushed against his senses. The right side of the man was still blistering and the last flames stopped to tingle over the blacked bone. Sima could see the empty socket, where just moments ago, an eye had been. He stared in horror and the line of teeths completly visible and charred.
He completly suspected the man to be in under the influence of the poison and just breathing his last breath. He heard a choking sound, when the man tried to speak with this throat burned open. But instead of dying just there, the man just got up, his half burned legs barely supporting him … and hold out the charred, skinless right arm, with all its bones clearly visible.
“Seph”, the voice of an unknown woman called out. The man reacted to the name, turning his head for a moment. Sima stared at the hand offered to help him. First he thought he the flickering light of the burning snow played tricks with his mind, but he saw the charred flesh turn red, covering it with new layers of fresh skin. Shocked and in awe in looked to the destroyed face of the man. He saw new muscles weaving over his cheek, the empty socket was filled with a white, growing globe. Just mere seconds after Sima thought he saw a man dying, the same man looked down at him with a smile: “Stand up, we have to see to the others”.
Seph helped the wounded warrior up. His leg was in bad shape, but he seemed to suppress the pain. He was surprised that the warrior was not fleeing. In some of Seph’s former lifes, he would have had trouble witnessing the power his regenerative powers.
The red fire was casting enough light to see figures and shadows moving in the mist. The fight had ended, with two other burning corpses nearby. Seph saw Aquisha heading his way. Turning a little he noticed, that his leather armor was burned away on a good part of his body, leaving him rather exposed. He allready saw the magic material stubbornly repairing itself, but it would take some minutes until he could move without accidentally showing more parts of his body than appropriate in front of total strangers.
“Seph, you look…”, Aquisha trailed of with a smile. She was one of these warriors that were only truely alive in battle, so her showing some emotions now did not surprise Seph. Other figures came near, and Seph could see wounded men, women, children, all looking to the man he just rescued.
Sima used a very respectful warrior greeting with his arms, indicating his tribe to honor the newcomers. ‘My name is Sima of the Natush’, he proclaimed in a heavy Netherese accent. His mother has taught him many tongues, including that of the southern realms, but with Seph and the woman looking at him rather quizzically, he was not sure, if he used it correctly.
Sima wanted to rephrase, but saw to silhouttes come running towards them. Seph layed a hand on his shoulder, signalling that he knew them. Just second later, Kunah and Akim broke through the mist. “Seph, everything all right?” Akim asked, breathing heavily. “There are many wounded, please show them the gift of our Queen. Kunah, please tend to the warriors, they may be still poisoned.”, Seph ordered.
Akim and Kunah nodded and stepped towards the tribe members, but Sima took up his hand. “We don’t want to ungrateful, but who is this Queen that you are talking about and what is her gift?”, Sima asked. Seph’s face showed a warm smile: “I’m sorry, if I was too brisk. My name is Seph. This is Aquisha, Kunah and Akim. We are Agents of the Raven Queen.”
One of the elder women stepped forward “The Raven Queen is long dead, why should we believe you?” “Do not believe me, believe in her and her power. The Goddess of the Dead has returned, reborn to again watch over the dead and help their souls departing this existance. She send us here to offer you shelter, to give you a chance to live a life, worth of living, so she will be joyed to help your gleaming souls to a another place. It is your choice, the choice of each of you, if you want to take on her offer and let us guide you to safety.”
Sima took down his hand and Seph’s companions rushed to the wounded. “And how do you plan exactly to bring us to safety? The next mountain shelter is days away…”, Sima looked at his leg and did not continue.
“Trust me, believing in our queen opens doors you have never seen”, with this Seph took a step back, taking up his sword and ramming it into the air, as if he would ram it in the side of a dragon. Gleaming light played around the sword as his tip pierced through the planes. The reality around warped into a rift, while Seph was pulling down his sword with all his might. Sima and his tribe stared as inch by inch, Seph’s sword took down the walls between space and time, creating a gleaming rift to a room lightened by blue burning candles on the other side. “This is your invitation to the palace of our Queen”, making an inviting gesture and smiling.
It has been a week since they took up the invitation of the Raven Queen. Sima was not really sure, if it was the right choice, but back then, the only alternative would have been a trek through the wastelands, wounded, without food and hunted by outwordly creatures.
Upon their arrival an ancient looking gnome or something similar greeted Seph and his companions. His name was Frukas and he seemed very distraught on the arrival of Sima and his tribe. It seemed like he wanted to be a good host, but he was not prepared. He allways mumbled “… not ready yet”, “… where to make room” and similar.
But Seph did not take no for an answer. “Frukas, I know, that the were are still reconstructing, believe me, I cleared one too many corridors from rubble. But when I was leaving, we still had enough room” Frukas looked at him defiantly “That was BEFORE our Queen took some matters into her own hands and saved a village from beeing butchered by these Orcus loving non-goods of Thay.” Seph sighed. He turned to Sima: “No worries, I will order the garrison to move to the dungeon for the time beeing. That will free up some room upstairs … if the dungeon is not yet occupied allready!?” he challenged Frukas. “As the master orders”, the little male replied with played obedience.
Sima and his tribe had settled in, but the garrison was far from beeing able to be called that way. Most of the palace seemed still rubble and dirt, even if perhaps eight dozen people of all races were working tireless to at least clear the hallways. Seph granted Sima his own room, which also ment that they had frequent contact, since Seph still had all his clothes and equipment stored there. Sima felt that he slowely grew accustomed to the visits of the man who saved his live. His tribe needed him as their leader, but he could not talk to them as an equal or share his fears for their future. But Seph listend to him closely and gave advise if asked. But Sima was wondering how old Seph really was, since he seemed to recall so many events from ages past. In the end he figured, he was guest in the palace of a goddess, so anything impossible was possible here.
This morning Seph came in while Sima was changing. “Sorry”, Seph said in a undescript tone and was about to leave again. Modesty was an alien concept in the life of a tribe warrior in the wastelands. “No worries, just come in”, Sima replied. Seph came in and went to his trunk, passing by Sima on his way. “Your leg seems to be fully healed”, he stated matter of fact mustering Sima. “With so many priests healing me each day, it is a wonder I’m not glowing myself”, Sima joked. Seph laughed: “Yeah, they have the tendency to corner you like a pack of wolves and heal you until you beg them to stop”. Both men laughed … it has been a long time for both of them, to just feel human and be themselves.
Seph rummaged through is trunk, looking for a some new clothes. Clearing rubble let you go really fast through your clothes, especially if the rubble contains a nest of Darkfell Ants, a common pest in the Shadowfell, but clearly interested in eating you alive, which unfortunatly convinced Tee, just visting the temple since a long time, to throw one or two fireballs at the ants … or him. In any case, Seph felt a little self-conscious just running around in his leather armor, the only thing that he had near him after his encounter with Tee.
Sima finished donning his plain wastelander garb, when Seph finally found what he was looking for. “Have to go back to work”, Seph said. “You know, we would like to help. Just sitting on our hands is not really making us feeling welcome”, Sima replied. “I know and I allready talked to the Queen about it.” Sima’s eyes widened: “She is here?” Seph smirked: “It IS here palace after all”. “And what did she say?” Seph grinned at Sima: “She wants to meet you all, are you free this evening?” Sima looked baffled. “I come around and get you. And don’t panic, it’s just a god.”, he winked and left Sima standing in the middle of room.
Late in the day, Seph returned to the garrison and was not surprised to find Sima and his tribe in perfectly combed and cleaned. Seph was at least wearing his full armor and weapons including the Sword of Kas, which he rarely let out of his eyesight. “Ready?” he asked with a reassuring smile. Sima looked unsure: “Are there any special rules? How do we address her?” Seph smiled. Should he tell them that just some years ago he saw his goddess dancing totally drunk on a table in some roadside tavern. Probably not, but the irony of the situation still amused him. “Just be yourselves and speak your mind”, was is official answer.
Seph led the Sima and his tribe to the throne room, one of the nearly finished rooms. Right know it was also serving as a anchor point for planar portals, but Seph was not really happy about the security impact of this.
When entering, Seph knew he would find the throne empty. Tee had convinced the Queen to work a little on creating her legend, even if Seph found this a little unnecessary. They waited for a minute in silence. Seph could feel their anticipation but stayed statue like beside them. Then the blue lights started to flicker, the sound of feathers ruffling and wings flapping filled the room. In a tornado of black feathers, The Raven Queen took form in front of the throne. Her black and golden dressed seemed to change from leather to feathers and back. Golden threads where encircling her horns, her face filled with mercy and calamity.
Seph was surprised. She had learned fast. Faster than the he remembered from his former lifes … and hope was rising in him. Hope that perhaps this time, he could break the circle and finally live on forever. But he was already pushing the thought away. This hope has been unfullfilled for so long, why should this time be different?
“Welcome to my home!”, her voice filled the room. That was one of the first changes, Seph noticed back in the days, shortly after their rebirth. Where Tias voice was more raspy and flat, the voice of the Raven Queen sounded like a soothing balsam, an elderly matron, full of understanding and wisdom. “I heard you had to go through much peril and to come here and I apologize for the rough housing we can provide.”, she explained while walking down the dais, here hips swinging like the bells of grand tower.
Sima and his brethren started to kneel. “There is no need for that. While you are all subjects of mine, I do not look for servitude.”, she expressed calmly. “You saved us. How can we repay you?”, Sima asked with his eyes casted down. The Queen took a final step forward and lifted Sima’s head by ever so slightly touching his chin. Timidly he looked up. “You don’t owe me. Everything you want to give, you give freely.”, her calming voice filling the room. “But how should we pay our tribute to the goddess of the dead?”, the elderly woman of the tribe asked. The face of the Queen showed understanding. “Understand that my power is not just about the dead, it is about granting relief, the sleep after a good day of work.” She continued in a lighter tone, more Tia than the Queen. “You know, what fills me we joy? It is helping a bright soul on it’s way. Living a full life, beeing remembered by the living, beeing content and fullfilled with your way of life. These are the things that create souls, shining bright as the sun and beeing as unique as a grown crystal. Live a full life, enjoy it and be remembered as kind and gentle beeing, honor your ancestors and gone friends … these are things that make me happy, which make it ever so enjoyable to give you relief from the burdens of this life.” The Queen was standing in front of the group, her arms opened in a welcoming embrace.
Her words were still sounding deep in the souls of the mortals, and even Seph had to admit that he was touched by the new Queen. She made her way back to the dais, sitting down on the throne as if she hadn’t done anything else in her life.
‘Hear me, Tribe of Natush’, her voice more that of a ruler. “You are free to stay here as long as you wish. But hear my plea.”, waiting until all of the members seemed had returned to the now and here. “Sima, your father gave you the Amulet of Tarr, right?” Seph knew what was coming, having discussed the plan in detail more than once before their meeting. “Yes, my Queen”, Sima replied and fished the amulet from under his clothes. “Do you wish it as a gift?”, he asked reluctantly. Seph had to contain a his calm face, knewing what would come.
“No, Sima, the amulet was a gift. A gift I gave to you ancestors so long ago, long before Netheril ruled your lands, long before the wastelands even existed.” Sima looked in surprise and awe at the amulet. The Queen continued: “This amulet is part of greater artifact, The Compass of Natush. I gave the six parts of the compass to the ancestors of the northern tribes, asking them to protect them.” Sima looked confused, but held his breath. “Sima, if you are willing to help me, return to the wastes and unite the tribes. Unite them under my banner, unite the parts of the compass.” Sima looked stunned. “How…”, he stammered. “… have faith in me, and you will gain my blessing. And rest assured, my blessing will be more than just protection. You will gain the support of my agents, having a safe haven and access to equipment and training. Trust in me, and I will make sure, that the tribes of the north will become a force to be reckoned with, and you Sima, will be their leader.”