Atheian Thoughts on Barathra
Atheians have a variety of names for it. Scholars, to sound unbiased, usually call it simply the Afterlife. Religious people tend to call it by the name of their god of the dead. But a universal name for it is Barathra.
The name stems, as most things do, from the Old Tongue. Translated into the Low, it means the Chasm, or the Lower World. In either case, it means the Land of the Dead.
What it's actually like is another question all together. Though the exact details depend on the religion, the more universal features include transparent shades, a place where the evil are punished and the good are rewarded, and a deity overseeing it all.
If you start to consider the actual aspects of it, you see a variety of different things. A Reposian would probably tell you that Heaven was a beach with perfect white sand beneath your feet and a boat shoored and ready to be sailed. A Taurian would probably tell you that Heaven was a grassland with a blanket of gorgeous flowers and a horse ready to be ridden. Cultural differences speak a lot for the view of the unknown.
Repeatedly I say that the Atheians don't know of what Barathra, the land of the Dead, is like; this is not strictly true. In the old days, when scholars and sciremagi (a research wizard; subcategory of scholar) could use necromancy for their experiments, you could ask the dead about Barathra. This did yield information: the dead spoke of water and plants, but the memory of the other world faded as quickly as a dream does to the waker.
Modern scholars denounce this information and seek other avenues to gain it. They see it as barbaric and primitive, as simply evil. They say the information is not worth the price of your humanity. Of course, some modern scholars have considered doing necromancy at some point in there careers to answer that ultimate question: what is this place called Barathra like? What is this place that all living things are condemned to go to like?
Barathra; the Land of the Dead
It had been an accident. I had been cutting down a tree when it had fallen in just the wrong way, directly towards my youngest child. I reacted without thinking, diving to push him out of the way, and ended flat on my front with the tree racing down. The last thing I remembered was a giant CRACK. I believe that was the sound of my back breaking. As well as my ribs.
It all seems to matter less now. After all, when one is dead, your life is unimportant.
I remember what happens next. My soul had floated... well, physically, it would be up, as I got an aerial view of my bleeding corpse, but the better term would be out. It was more like I expanded and shrunk at the same time, and then the view sort of faded, and a myriad of colors invaded my vision from the edges. This strangest of sensations then happened, and I felt like I was running, sprinting, with the wind racing past me, but my legs weren't moving, nothing was moving.
After that, I was here. Or rather, I am here. In this paradise of sorts.
There are three main types of undead. There are the indepedant ones, which would be your average ghost. These clung to life, and refused to go on. This could be because of regrets, or grudges, or willpower, or even denial of the fact that you are dead. Typically, they are simply the soul, without a physical body. Some, however, do have bodies, usually there own corpse for the sake of the familiar.
The second and third types of the dependent souls and the dependent corpses. Each of these require necromantic magics, with the first having the soul itself be controlled, and the second having a corpse be controlled. The second type- the dependent souls- also include self-made undead, where the necromancer makes himself undead (in this category is the lich). Also in the second type are wraiths, wights, some vampires, etc. The third type are your mindless undead, such as zombies, living skeletons (which are mainly zombies without the flesh), etc. The second type make for the better, more powerful servants, as the soul allows them to make decisions for themselves. However, if they're powerful enough, that decision might be to mutiny, so there is a risk.
The second type is also far rarer. It requires the recently died to make, for a very simple reason. The soul needs to be dragged back from Barathra, the land of the Dead, to Atheus. The more dead they are, the more likely that the soul wandered away from, and thus increased the distance from, the crossing over point. The further away the soul is, the harder the magic is. It should be noted that the hardness to time graph is not linear, and is instead exponential. The reason for this is that at a certain point, most souls start running.
I was standing knee deep in the middle of a lake. There were trees and plants around the lake, after a bit of a beach. It looked like a paradise, to be honest. I looked down at my body as well. It looked solid, and it felt solid- definitely not what all the stories from back in Atheus said it should be. I tried to think back to what the stories were, and it all felt a bit... fuzzy. Then, for a scary moment, I tried to remember who my wife was. I sighed in relief when the memory came.
The next order of business was finding someone else. This couldn't be it, there had to be someone else out there I could talk to. I waded out of the lake, and started exploring the forest around me.
After about a minute of walking, I came to the edge of the forest. Around it was rock, miles of rocky, barren wilderness. Bluffs and crags and cliffs all over made out of the same dark gray rock.
A foul, ear-wrenching shriek echoed off a distant hill. I looked, and saw two people sprinting towards me. Two screeches in rapid succession were heard behind the people , signaling the fact that there were multiple... things behind him.
They were as thin as stick figures, the kind you would draw in the dirt with a stick. The head was thin and flat and snake-like, with the rest of the body being covered in scales with what looked like hairs sticking out. Each of the two things had pairs of legs, with the shorter having two pairs, and the longer having three. The feet were capped in claws. They were also flying, with wings almost literally woven out of shadow. As they got closer, I could see a gap between wing and body.
One of the people tripped on a rock, and fell to the ground. The other looked down at the person, and yelled "sorry!" before he sprinted on. The lead monster unhinged its jaw and swallowed the fallen person, and I could see a bulge in its body that seemed to flow down the body as it shrunk in size, before it reached the end and was no more.
The other person was still being pursued by the second monster. The thing had almost caught up when he dived and rolled into the forest. "HA!" he yelled as the monster landed at the forest's edge, it wings of shadow melting. It roared in anger at being denied a meal, then, its wings reforming as it flapped them out, took flight, and the two flew off.
"What the hell were those things?" I yelled in terror.
"They," the man said as he used a tree to help himself to his feet, "are the Devourers."
Barathra is the land of the dead, the place where souls go to when they die. But this does not mean that only the souls of humans, of sentient species, go there. All living things have souls. And even when the smallest bacteria dies, the soul needs to go someplace.
Across the land of Barathra are a multitude of Crossing Over zones. Not all of them are in use, and some are "active" and some are "dead." The active ones are lakes, small bodies of shallow water. The plants and fungi and bacteria and, yes, animals cross over in the lake. The species that have no natural means of locomotion come across as a seed or spore or something of that nature and float to a spot in the vicinity for it to be reborn. In this manner, the crossing over spots gain the appearance of paradise. Which is a bit of an ironic joke for sentient newcomers, as they soon realize that the Land of the Dead is anything but a paradise.
The dead crossing over zones are marked by a shallow depression where the lake would have been. Zones that were recently active have a ring of dirt around them, but long dead ones have returned to rock.
No one is sure how or why a crossing over zone switches from active to dead, or dead to active. Of course, no one has much time or resources to run tests to find it out. Most likely it has to do with the fact that the crossing over zone gets old, and slows down to a halt.
He didn't bother to explain, no matter how much I pestered him with questions. He simply gathered some sticks and made a fire. He found some beans of some sort from a tree-like plant, and took a pot he had of rock- gods know how he got it- and put it over the the fire. He added water to the pot, as well as the beans, and then turned to me.
"Right," he said. "While the coffee boils, I'll answer your questions. You new?"
"Um, yeah, I died recently. Tree fell on me. You?"
"Gods, I forgot all that stuff way back. Not really important with them Devourers tryin' ta eat you. All that's important is survival."
"What are they, these... Devourers?"
"Damned if I know. 'Course, we're probably both damned anyway. Only thing I know about 'em is that they eat souls. And though I'm gettin' tired of runnin', I sure as hell don't want to find out what happens when a dead person gets ate."
"But why didn't they come here? I mean, they can walk, they could get in through the trees and eat us."
"See, there are two main classifications of living things. Animals, and plants. Each type has its own type of Devourer that eats it. Each hate the other kind of living thing, and refuse to go near it."
"But then, why were you running? Couldn't you have just stayed in a place with plants, like here, and just never get touched?"
"Because Crossin' Over zones, which we call Safe Zones, they get inactivated somehow! They stop workin', dead plants stop comin' through, and eventually all the plants that all ready come through get ate. And so then ya need to run. Course, the Devourers know when a Safe Zone is about to die, so when it becomes inactivated, its best to run then instead of waitin'."
The pot began to boil. "Ah, coffee's ready!" the man said.
"Um, what's coffee?" I asked. I had never encountered the thing before.
"I met a chap in another Safe Zone who was from another continent. They have a thing called coffee there, which they get from coffee beans. Ya drink it, its pretty good. Want some?"
Just because Barathra is the Land of the Dead does not mean that it does not have its own species, its own life, its own ecologies. In Barathra's case, the ecology is quite simple. Souls come in, and get eaten by the Devourers. The Devourers have their own life cycle, and do mate, have children, and die.
Being at the top of the Barathran food chain as they are, they typically have long lives and reproduce infrequently at best. Their life span is roughly a century, while they reproduce and have a single child typically once every two decades.
Devourers can die by other means than old age. Starvation is the major one, with times of 'dought'- not very many deaths in Atheus- seeing a fall in Devourer numbers. Such times of peace in Atheus are bad for both mercenaries and Devourers.
Souls can also kill Devourers themselves, using primitive weapons made of sharp stones and sticks they find in the Safe Zones. This is very dangerous and very difficult to do, as though the Devourer does not have many natural defenses, their numerous natural offenses more than makes up for it. They are deadly fast and very thin, making it difficult to land a blow. The 'hairs' on their bodies are actually poison thorns. Their scales are scarcely worth mentioning, as they are as easily stabbed through as a fish's scales.
If a Soul does manage this incredible feat of killing a Devourer, he gets marked by his victim's blood, which acts like a pheremone. It attracts every nearby Devourer to it, making it so that the Soul will now need to fight packs and groups of Devourers in groups of twos and threes and even, in one very rare case, tens, till they can get to the next Safe Zone and wash the blood off. Such Souls tend to die off quickly.
It was a couple hours later. Me and the newcomer, who refused to say his name and hear my own (something about not wanting to get attached to someone who might die), made camp in the patch of forest near the lake. As the day progressed- though how far it did in fact progress I did not know, as there was no sun in the sky, just blank gray clouds- I watched animal souls appear in the lake, and plant seeds float to the shore.
The souls didn't come as you might expect. They did not fade in. No, they sort of simply appeared in the lake, and when they arrived, your memory played tricks on you, giving you the impression that the new arrival had always been there.
My companion, while this went on, used another rock to sharpen a stick into a spear. He hefted it, eyeing it critically, before waiting with me, watching the lake. When a deer came through, he slowly rose and, with one quick throw, killed it. Saying that he was "famished," he soon skinned it and cooked it over the fire. He explained, after I pestered him, that though we Souls did not need food anymore, he did like the taste of a good hunk of venison.
Time passed. It got really boring for a while. When I complained about this, my companion said "that you'll soon 'preciate the boredom."
That was when the lake started draining. It was a slow process, sure, but you could see it draining. Perhaps an inch or two a minute? We watched until the water was no more. I tried searching for a hole in the ground that would explain its disappearance, but there was none. My companion said that it wasn't quite water. "Things happen faster in it, too. That chap who told me about coffee commented that it took longer ta boil back in life than here."
But there were more important things to discuss. Such as our survival. He grabbed a stick, and started fashioning another spear, telling me that as a last resort, you could try killing one, and told me to do the same. It also doubled as a walking stick for when a Devourer was not overhead.
He then put his pot and knife back on his back, and waved me to follow him. We walked to the edge of the forest, and looked around for Devourers. Seeing none, we began our odyssey to the next Safe Zone.
The question of what happens to a soul that has been eaten by a Devourer is common among the souls, and debates have raged in Safe Zones across the land, usually preceding one of the debators finding out the truth first hand.
Some say that the Soul gets sent back to Atheus, that the Soul gets reincarnated. After all, a Soul cannot just die. Dieing twice makes no sense- unless you believe that there's a Land of the Dead for the dead from Barathra.
Others say that the Soul gets disintegrated, that the digestion process of the Devourer completely consumes the Soul, that there is nothing beyond the stomach of the Devourer. This camp holds as proof the fact that they have never seen a Devourer poop, or have not seen any opening for a Soul to come out. Watching a Devourer after it eats a Soul, you can see the bulge get smaller and smaller until it becomes nothing.
There is some truth to both of these positions, though both are not completely right. When the Devourer eats a soul, its digestive juices act like a human's would: it removes all the nutrients for its own use, and does in fact poop out the remainder. However, the remainder is more metaphysical than substance, and gets transferred to another world when digestion is finished.
That other world is Congeria. The chewed up bits of soul that are left is, after some modifications done in transit between Congeria and Barathra, pretty much raw magic, which is sent from Congeria to Atheus.
We kept an eye out for Devourers. My companion said that they were just as likely to fly on their wings of shadow as they were to walk. It made little difference to them.
Judging by my internal clock, it was about an hour when we spotted one. It was flying, and judging by the speed it was going, my companion said that it was chasing some unlucky soul. We increased our pace, and walked in the opposite direction, even after it was lost to sight.
We saw another Safe Zone in the distance. I looked around, thinking that fate must have something in store for me, some surprise, but I saw no Devourer. We arrived at the Safe Zone, and saw three other people, a man, woman, and child, about to leave.
"This one died?" My companion asked them. They nodded.
"Well, we came from that direction, so I'm open for not that way suggestions."
It was funny how the group mechanics immeadietly worked out when we continued after going right. Silence is universal.
We plodded along under the dull gray sky, wary to the extreme. We came to a gorge on our right,, jagged and twisted, and looked like some giant had stabbed into the earth with a knife. At the bottom was a river, twisting and churning and roaring at its entrapment between the walls of stone. Only it wasn't truly a river. There was not water within, I could tell that much from here. It was too dark, too slippery, and the droplets seemed to cling to each other far too much for it to be water.
My companion, standing at my side, said "There's five rivers in Barathra- least that've been discovered. No one I've heard about has actually been stupid enough to jump in one."
"Is he new?" Asked the child.
"Yep. Only been in one Safe Zone. Not including yours, o'course."
The child nodded, and we were off, following the walls of the gorge.
We trudged on, eye on the lookout for Devourers. Even so, it was still a surprise when the inevitable attack came.
They chose to come on foot. Easier that way, and harder to be seen. Using a butte as cover for their ambush, five Devourers laid an ambush for us. The child was the first one to go. The beasts whipped around the back, snagged him with its claws, and tossed him down its throat. Two more came from behind us, two from in front of us. We were trapped between the butte and the gorge, almost literally between a rock and a hard place.
The man the woman went next. Screaming in terror, they backward, hoping to evade the feasting Devourer and use it as cover. The other two Devourers snatched them up in one gulp. The other two started approaching me and my companion, knowing we had nowhere to run.
"Spears on three!" My companion yelled. "One two THREE!"
Both flew with quite accurate precision, and pierced the hide of one of the Devourers. It spurted blood, spraying even us. Looking down at the spears sticking out of its chest, its eyes flashed icy blue in supreme anger and roared, both charging us. Seeing no other choice, I grabbed my companion and jumped.
Surely the river presented us with a better fate than the maw of a Devourer's belly.
The five rivers of Barathra are each in some way different, except for a couple of similarities. Each river is at the bottom of a gorge, none are composed of water, and each terminates in a common lake. More on the lake later.
The first river (the one our protagonists jumped into) is the least dangerous of them all. It is composed of a black, slippery liquid. The liquid clings to itself very well, creating a higher than normal surface tension, but does not adhere to the rocky walls much. This makes, if the river were to go down a steep section, the river run very fast. The fact that it clings to itself also helps support people within, as it "pushes" people out of it.
The second river is composed of fire. Liquid fire. It is not lava, but actual fire, with a few differences. The first is that it is a cold fire, around 250-300 degrees Celsius (482-572 in Fahrenheit). Still, this is plenty to cause third degree burns and kill people jumping in.
The third river is composed of a glue-like substance. Strangely, it increases its stickiness for organic materials rather than the inorganic, which is why it hasn't eroded its gorge away by now. Its main danger is suffocation, as it sticks to your face and your nose and your lips and you can't open your mouth any more.
The fourth river is made of waste. That is, destroyed dreams. The most spiritual and unphysical of the rivers, it is literally made of abandoned ambitions and broken promises of living things on Atheus. This creates a hopeless air about it, and people within and around it get depressed and melancholy. Suicide is very common around it, especially suicide by jumping into it and thus drowning. For this reason, Devourers shirk it, going near only if they must.
The fifth river is made of memories. When you come to Barathra, you slowly forget all the things that happened in life; those memories are stored in this river. When you enter the river, three things can happen, in descending order of likeliness: you can either lose all of your current memories, receive all the memories stored within the river (and go crazy in the process), or (extremely rarely) receive your own memories back.
It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. Sure, it was kind of cold, and we were heading along downstream at a decent speed, but it wasn't killing us. It was only moderately easy to get a breathe when you needed it.
That was before the slope increased. And the walls got more twisty.
We were going unbelievably fast. I was sure that an arrow couldn't have caught up to us. Of course, that was probably inaccurate, as I was too busy trying to stay alive to make certain.
We whipped past corner within inches, almost collided with walls, and at one point hit a jump and went flying above the gorge's walls. We then splashed back down and continued going.
I'd like to say that it was my skill kicking off walls at the right moment that kept me alive. It was probably more luck than anything else. Extreme luck.
Eventually, after almost splattering on a wall after a tricky double turn, the slope became gentler, and the walls became straight, and we were deposited in a lake.
I tasted the liquid we were immersed in, and found that it was water. At least, demonstrated the properties of water. It could have been like Safe Zone water.
Looking around, I saw that the lake was enclosed like the river was, with walls of rock. Off to my left another river cut its way into the lake, only it was made of fire. Off to my right a river that was moving sluggishly, almost like glue, joined the lake.
In the middle of the lake was an island on it, so I swam over with companion. We climbed out of the water and shook ourselves off.
"Brilliant idea, that was," my companion muttered sarcastically. "Hey, lets get ourselves stranded on a tiny island in the middle of Barathra! Great, let's go!"
I left him there, knowing he knew that it had been the right choice, and started exploring the island. It was very small, composed of sand, pure white sand, and I saw a green flame dancing in the very middle, green as the forest, green as the trees. I got this feeling, this gut feeling, that the only possible way out of this lake was to touch that flame, was to succumb to temptation and leave.
I walked back to my companion, and waved him up, and led him to the flame. We stared into it for a long moment, and then as one we touched it.
We were wrenched out of Barathra, feeling that very same sensation that I had felt when I had left Atheus for Barathra. The next moment, I was at the top of a mountain with the flame at my back, and I had this feeling of joy. I was home. I had been processed, and now I was in Congeria.