Excerpt from the Zhardana:
14. And so, on the fourteenth day after the Rain of Fire, the gods looked upon Cantai, and they saw that it the people yet sinned. 15. And their hearts filled with wrath at the blasphemies of the people, and they unleashed a plague upon the city. 16. The plague fell upon their households, and within a fortnight, the city's people were dead. 17. And those outside the city feared the gods' wrath, and stayed away for ten days and ten nights.
1. On the tenth day arrived a man who called himself Zhardun. 2. And he did not fear the gods' wrath, and prepared to perform the rites for the dead. 3. But before he could begin, the Lords of the Dead appeared before him and spoke: 4. "These men have sinned and been smote by the gods; we have no desire for them in the afterlife. 5. They shall be doomed unto oblivion." 6. And Zhardun replied unto the Lords of the Dead. 7. "These men hath done more than sin. 8. Many have done much good, as well." 9. And he continued for three tendays, listing the good deeds that had been achieved by the citizens. 10. And he took no time for mortal constraints, needing no sleep or food. 11. And the Lords of the Dead thought on what he said. 12. And they resented Zhardun's knowledge, and spoke cruelly unto him: 13. "Good these men may have done, but their misdeeds outnumber their good ones." 14. Thus, they cursed the men of Cantai, saying, 15. "But we shall leave their souls here, until their corpses fix this. 16. When their good deeds outweigh those that were astray, then we shall accept them into the afterlife." And the listening souls despaired, for their corpses could do naught but lay, dead.
1. And the Lords of the Dead departed, leaving Zhardun to stand amongst the piles of corpses. 2. And Zhardun looked, and the corpses' bones had turned as black as midnight, as they tried to hide in shame. 3. And Zhardun spoke unto them, and his rage at their cowardice was plain and open: 4. "Thou twice accursed corpses! 5. In life thou betrayed thy souls with thy lusts and passions for life's pleasures; in death, thou betray thy souls again, refusing to aid them in their moments of need! 6. It is no wonder that thou hath hidden from the sight of men. 7. Up! 8. Up! 9. Now is thy last chance at redemption." 10. And the corpses found that they could not hide from the sight of Zhardun, and they rose, their unliving bodies functioning as those of normal men. 11. And for sixty years, the bodies served Zhardun, as he led them to one great cause after another. 12. The corpses planted food for living men, hunted beasts that tormented villages, and guided lost men home in the darkness. 13. And at the end of sixty years, Zhardun, now an old man, called upon the Lords of the Dead, and they appeared before him. 14. Zhardun spoke unto them: 15. "For sixty years, these men have worked at their redemption. 16. Now they have earned it, as per your command, and you must accept them into the afterlife." 17. And the Lords of the Dead saw that the skeletons, which once had been black with shame, now shone in a redeemed white. 18. And they accepted the souls into the afterlife. 19. And Zhardun was satisfied.
After the deeds described above, Zhardun's methods were supposedly passed on to his sons and students, who passed them to their sons and students, and so forth.
The Zhardun Today
In modern times, the Zhardun are the group of people who perform funeral rites. Every village has at least one or two, no matter how small. The Zhardun's rites take anywhere from hours to days, and people don't wait in line to die, so having multiple Zhardun in a community is almost a necessity.
Zhardun are taken on as apprentices, as is the case for so many other trades. During this apprenticeship, they learn the basic rituals required to be a Zhardun, most of which were originally recorded in the Zhardana, which also serves as a history of the Zhardun - supposedly.
The Rites of Death
When a man dies (we'll call him Tim), his family collects his body and leaves to rot in the sun for ten days, representing the ten days before the arrival of Zhardun. At the end of these ten days, Tim's family collects his corpse, now rapidly decomposing, and takes it to the Zhardun of their choice. They pay the Zhardun his fee, and leave the corpse with him.
Once the family has left, the Zhardun carries Tim's corpse to a special, semi-circular room, and places it on a table in the center. Using the special rituals taught him by his mentor, the Zhardun then summons representatives of the Lords of the Dead.
This Zhardun names the corpse, and the representative proceeds to cite the sins of the deceased. As the deeds are announced, the corpse's flesh rots off of its bones, which then gradually fade to black, thus providing a way of measuring the man's misdeeds.
When the representative finishes, it is the Zhardun's turn. The evening before the rites, the Zhardun will have used a different ritual to find a list of the deceased's good deeds so that now, in the same fashion as the representative, he names the good done by the deceased, and as he does so, Tim's corpse grows ever closer to how it looked in life. Of course, should the Zhardun personally know of the deed, he may be able to elaborate, and thus make it count for more than it would have otherwise.
Typically, the pair of recitations will take the better part of one or two days. By the end, the Tim's appearance will have changed drastically, although whether in a good way or a bad one depends on the indivdual's merit.
If the corpse sufficiently closely resembles how it looked in life, then its soul will be welcomed into the afterlife. If the corpse does not, then the representative will reject it.
In this way, the Zhardun acts as the attorney for the deceased, pleading their case for admission to the afterlife.
If, as so often is the case, the deceased is unacceptable to the representative, then it is the Zhardun's duty to make him acceptable; indeed, this is the most important of his duties.
Once the deceased is deemed unfit, the representative departs, leaving the Zhardun with the corpse. Using a second of the rituals taught him, the Zhardun forces the soul to return to the body, which then rises at his command.
At this point, the now-undead serves the Zhardun. Although often in command of its own body, and certainly intelligent, the soul is nonetheless compelled to obey the Zhardun's commands. While serving, the undead will perform various benevolent tasks, ranging from simple farming to venturing on complex adventures. As the deceased performs more and more meritorious deeds, his body grows closer to resembling what it looked like in life. Once it matches its old appearance, the Zhardun repeats the Rites of Death, and the soul is accepted into the afterlife.
In this way, the Zhardun acts as a shepherd of the deceased, guiding them along the path to redemption.
At first, it seems that the chance to become an undead is a great one - after all, a man can do anything he wants during his life, be redeemed after dying, and still enjoy the afterlife, right?
Not quite. Indeed, post-life redemption is far more difficult than simply living decently, requiring significantly more hard work.
Perhaps the more important factor, however, is the pain of being one of the unliving. Being bound to a decaying body is immensely painful for a soul (imagine that your entire body is cramping up - and it never stops). Fortunately, as the body draws closer to its original appearance, this pain lessens.
Similarly, many bodily functions - like talking - are not possible until the corpse occupied by the deceased's soul recedes past a certain point of decay. All-in-all, existence as an undead is a remarkably unpleasant experience.
On some unfrequent occasions, a man will die in the wilderness, alone, unable to reach a Zhardun. In most cases, such individuals are doomed, for their bodies will rot away even as their souls fade into oblivion.
Certainly, they will be approached by a representative of death, and given a chance to defend themself, but the feeble memory of a human is simply no match for the relentless exactness of the knowledge of the dead. Only the most virtuous can hope for salvation in this fashion.
Whether before or after this judgement, however, there is always the chance that the body will be found by someone and taken to a Zhardun. Indeed, this is more common than may be imagined, for the return of a body is ranked of such tremendous virtue that even the cruelest bandit or assassin is often willing to journey a day or two out of his way to bring a body to a Zhardun. The Zhardun can than perform the rituals almost normally, for the lack of familiarity with the deceased poses little difficulty, although it will likely make it harder to achieve the afterlife without spending some time as an undead.
Should a Zhardun die in such a situation, with his body likely never to be found, a representative of the dead may alert a nearby Zhardun who yet lives of the location of his corpse; this is the only kindness that the dead extend to the Zhardun.
Those men and women whose bodies are destroyed or never found are all but doomed to a hopeless descent into oblivion.
Death of a Zhardun
It is, of course, inevitable, that sooner or later, a Zhardun will die while several souls remain at his command. At this point, one of two things will occur:
1. If the Zhardun died of natural causes, then any undead under his command will be divided amongst the other Zhardun in his community, although this will be largely random.
2. If the Zhardun was killed, however, then the spiritual shock will shatter his connections to his undead, leaving them Zhardunless. This is a truly horrible fate, as an undead without a Zhardun cannot be redeemed, will never reach the afterlife, and will slowly decay into excruciating pain. This almost inevitably drives the being mad, giving rise to the number of malevolent, free-thinking undead in existence. The creature will live a painful, half-life, losing those abilities which mark him as a sentient being until his soul decays into oblivion.
Needless to say, an undead will go to almost any extreme to protect his Zhardun.
The Zhardun could be a cultural or religious organization, and could stretch from being a small cult to the dominant culture in the world. Personally, I quite like the idea of them existing only in one region, so as to maximize the culture shock that inevitably will occur when the PCs see undead in various states of decay plowing fields and competing with them for adventures.
1. The most obvious, perhaps, is simply introducing the PCs to the nation or religion which incorporates the Zhardun.
2. Perhaps a faith which incorporates the Zhardun seeks admittance into the PCs homeland. Although they are peaceful enough, their use of the living dead brings prejudice and hostility down upon them (understandably, perhaps). The PCs may wish to aid the new faith, or aid in keeping it out.
3. The land where the PCs dwell goes to war with the land of the Zhardun. The PCs are sent to slay the people animating the undead saturating their adversary's ranks. Once they slay a few, of course, they become wanted criminals, and they find they aren't making things any easier for their comrades on the front.
4. The rival of Thaddeus the Terrible, the infamous wizard, dies, and is animated by a Zhardun. Unwilling to let his rival go peacefully to the afterlife, Thaddeus attempts to have the Zhardun assassinated. Unfortunately, someone the PCs care about (or are being paid to care about) is also currently animated under said Zhardun. To help their friend / client, the PCs must protect the Zhardun while trying to put a stop to the attacks.
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? Responses (8)
Death is not the end in that soceity, also a good reason for all the evil undead.
What Cheka said. Necromancers who actually serve the forces of virtue. Now that is truly something!
Now how do the Zhardun actually learn the good deeds of a given deceased? Do they know him/her so well, or does the family supply the information? Or is there something supernatural involved?
In any case, the Zhardun become the actual priests of their community, and you can bet they will be treated specially.
Also, what happens to those that die on their own, are lost, or completely unknown to those that find their bodies? What if the rites have to be performed for an unknown person - or what if they cannot be performed due to a missing body? Perhaps they will receive a judgment as well, but without the professional assistance? The good people have not much to fear - but it is clear most will be glad to have that support.
But this is only scratching on the surface of the topic. It is a deep change to any given culture, and I like the potential of it.
An interesting premise, such a culture will have a very strong connection to death and the afterlife, much like the Egyptian culture. In addition to what everyone else has already said, I would add that a canny necromancer could make a decent living as a false Zhardun, he has the bag of tricks to stomp around with a pack of undead, plus gets the money and the respect.
Quite interesting! Another good look into the whole topic of necromancy...
Manfred's questions are the same as my own.
I would assume that there was a magic of sometype for the list of good deeds.
And also assume that they function as specialty priests for the dead and dying. It would be interesting if it they are part of a binary religion, if the other dominent religion does not have good funerary rites (like Shinto and Bhuddism in Japan).
We can infer some of the answers from the basics presented, but I would like to see a bit more.
It is a lovely piece though, with a pack of good ideas. It just needs a bit more explanation.
Updated: I believe I've answered the questions; most of what I added is in the Strange Circumstances section, near the bottom, although some also squeezed into Rites of Death.
Coming back to this one, I'm thinking that you could run a neat campaign with all of the PCs as undead. Sort of a French Foreign Legion or Dirty Dozen kinda thing, with all the PCs being horrible people forced to do good stuff in order to redeem themselves and escape the consequences of their old lives.