When I was young, I once asked my grandfather: “What happens to us when we die?”
“We burn your body and scatter your ashes in the wind,” was his gruff response, as he continued his scribing.
I stopped playing with my toy blocks and stood up.
Grandfather agreed to watch me as mother and her sisters were away, dancing the Ardor Tanebrosos at a nearby hamlet. He instructed me to be silent, not touch anything, and play with my toy blocks. He didn’t want to be disturbed as he wrote important missives to distant cabals of the clan. But I either didn’t care or understand. I was a child who wanted answers to what I thought were important questions.
Grandfather stopped writing, placing his pen down and rubbing his eyes. He turned and stared at me with those smoldering eyes that swirled flames into the Umbra.
“Akira is a romantic and a fool, if not a total ass. You’d be better off befriending a flea-infested rat,” he said with annoyance.
“As they say,” I retorted in the best formal tone a seven-year old could muster, “Ask a fool a question and get a foolish answer. So I’m asking you.”
“You’re too wise for your age,” Grandfather said with a sad smile.
He got up from his chair, grimacing in pain, and stretched his right leg. Grandfather had been injured in a fight against the undead a week prior and the wounds hadn’t fully healed. He grunted under his breath as he sat on the ground among the toy blocks. He gestured for me to sit with him and I did.
“Gin, you ask a question that all seek an answer to and none are able to find.”
Grandfather picked up a block and examined it as if looking for impurities.
“There are those,” he continued, “Who have chosen to ignore any of the religious and philosophical teachings of the past. They believe that when we die, we become nothing – we cease to exist. “
The toy block in grandfather’s hand suddenly vanished and I flinched.
“Like the Umbra,” I piped, excitingly.
“You sometimes frighten me with your knowledge, child,” Grandfather smiled. “Your words speak truer than you know. For these people believe that when you die, all memories past, all present concerns, and all future dreams, are no more; never to have existed. That is the heart of the Umbra and these people unwillingly and unknowingly follow the very thing we stand against as Sentinels.”
“But if their belief was true, then where do the undead come from?”
Grandfather chuckled. He moved his finger in a flash and the toy block reappeared: decayed, warped, and malformed. “If what they say is the only truth, then the only answer would be that the undead come from the Umbra.”
I was not comfortable with that answer. It frightened me.
“Do you believe that?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer.
“I believe that they believe in it, and belief can be the strongest force in all of Creation.”
I didn’t understand and he saw the confusion in my face. He gently crushed the decayed block and lightly blew the dust and tiny pieces away.
“I do not believe that fate is for me or you.” Grandfather picked up another toy block. “As our family has traveled the lands, you’ve seen the makeshift sanctums of Amenoth?”
“Yes, but we don’t worship Amenoth, do we?”
“No. We do not.”
“There are reasons,” he gravely replied. “But that’s not important.”
Grandfather placed the block down between us. “The followers of Amenoth believe that when you die, your soul goes to Abyssum De Purgator, realm between realms, and there you sleep.”
Grandfather picked up another block and placed it next to the first and then placed another next to the previous block, until he had a circle of blocks.
“Some in the Amenoth faith believe that when we have atoned for our transgressions, and when Amenoth finds us worthy, then the Blank God will bring back the gods of old. And the gods in turn will see the sleeping souls and awaken them!”
Grandfather held up his arms and the blocks began to float. Each block brightly illuminated a different color: red, blue, green, yellow, and so forth.
“And the gods,” he continued, “will give the sleeping souls new bodies and bring them back to the living. Families and friends will reunite, and joy, bliss, and love will wash over Ur-Delth. No one will ever die again as the gods will forgive all creation, and there will be eternal peace and prosperity for all, forevermore.”
“That sounds like a lot of wishful bullshit,” I said with a crumbled expression.
Grandfather laughed out loud and the blocks fell; their colored lights diminished. “You have your mother’s pessimism,” he said. “But understand, little one, it’s a strong belief and people will believe what helps them have hope and a reason to live each day in this shadowed world.
“Now, there are those who still cling on to the belief that the old gods are still around, but unable to commune with us. These people tend to be rabid and insane. But yet, some of them hold to concepts of life after death. What those other gods are and their afterlife – I know very little. I did hear one rumor of a fire goddess. Those who die in the service of this goddess are granted into her great army of vengeance. They will ride on great steeds of flame, wielding weapons of fire. When the time of tribulation arrives, they will take to the skies and banish the green storms, bringing forth the sun, stars and moons once more. Again, as you said, wishful bullshit.”
“But the gods are all gone,” I said.
“Yes, most people only believe in the Blank God and his purgatory.”
“But what do you believe happens when we die?”
Grandfather smiled again, but with a hint of warmth. Once more, he placed a single block between us.
“Life is messy, but it moves forward and upward. You start with one generation of life,” he gestured to the single block, “And on top of that you build more generations of life.” He placed another block on top of the first one.
“Every new new generation is built on the generation before – all of the previous generation’s knowledge, wisdom, morals, and everything else are shared with the new generation. Life continues on in such ways.” Grandfather said, placing more blocks on top of each other; higher and higher he built the tower of blocks. “Each generation is built upon the one before, and higher and higher the whole of life becomes.”
The tower got so high, grandfather had to stand up.
“The current generation is the block on top. But that generation could not be there unless it had the blocks underneath. That top block is a part of the bottom block, and vise versa. The bottom block never dies and lives on in the current top block. And so, I will never die and neither shall you as long as the tower of life continues. For when our time passes, we will live on in the future that has built its life upon us. As long as no one comes to break this tower of life, all peoples live forever.”
Grandfather knelt and pulled out the bottom block, letting all the others fall and tumble on the ground.
“The Umbra,” I whispered.
“No,” grandfather snapped. “That is not what Umbra does. That is what we do to ourselves.”
I blankly stared at him.
“Now pick up your toys,” Grandfather said, patting my head. “I still have much to do and these things are heavy even for a grownup.”
Grandfather sat back at his desk and began to write again. As I gathered the toys, I asked: “Is it dark where Amenoth puts the souls to sleep?”
“In Abyssum De Purgator? I suppose so. It would be difficult to sleep if it was all light,” Grandfather chuckled.
“If it’s so dark all the time there, then does Amenoth know the Umbra?”
After five days, my companions and I were almost ready to leave and were still arguing about our next course of action. Shundara pushed hard in her doubts about opening the portal. She thought we should fly out of the double doors, explore the area, and if we found nothing to return and then use the portal. It was a reasonable plan, if our goal was to return home. She didn’t understand her home was gone. None of us had a home to return to. Our only hope was to find the cause of the world’s blight and end that blight.
When Digby and Merrill learned that the portal took travelers on a one-way trip to Tisthorrak, our course was clear. A while back, we had encountered a horrific shadow beast that mentioned that word: “You cannot stop the return of Tisthorrak!” it said. Going through that portal was another step closer to solving the riddle of Ur-Delth.
As Shundara argued, I felt the stark and harsh sensation of severance from Malum. She was suddenly gone. During the past five days, she would periodically communicate on her distance and condition – how close she was to the source of the lightning and her ability to continue. But now that I could not sense her anymore, something was wrong. I needed to resummon Malum and that meant I needed time alone.
To Shundara’s irritation, I excused myself and drifted away from her constant babbling. I overheard Digby telling the others that he wanted to use arcane powers to explore the land around us, which he felt would help us make our final decision easier. I was in distress, unbeknownst to them, and didn’t care what Digby was planning. I needed Malum back. Reality was wrong without her.
I found a corner obscured by shadow and started the dark ritual. I began by slitting my palm and used the blood to trace a circle five feet in diameter with a border five inches thick. Using black chalk dipped in my blood, I drew the lines of the Sentinels within the circle. Then I traced a small crescent within the larger circle, but making sure not to touch any of the lines. I sat in that little crescent, knees underneath, and lit a crimson-colored candle placed before me. With my flute, I played “The Sparrow’s Sorrow” – a melancholy song about the Dark Sentinel and his lost love who fell to the Umbra. It always pierced my soul in sadness.
During my solace ritual, the others readied themselves with the final preparations while Digby used his magic to explore more of what was outside. They took the pitons out of the doors we had sealed, recovered the traps we had placed, took inventory, and tested and experimented with modified weapons and tools.
An hour later, Malum was summoned and she told me what had happened. I returned to the others as Digby was explaining what he discovered outside.
“Wouldn’t it be better that we explore the area and find out more about this place?” Shundara demanded. “Digby says we are close to the [[God’s Hammer]]. We don’t know what is beyond this portal and it’s a one-way trip. As far as we know, it could lead to the Nine Hells. We should investigate this God’s Hammer, or Heaven Rock, as you call it. Isn’t that what you said was the cause of everything?”
I could tell the others were starting to side with Shundara.
“The answers we seek aren’t out there,” I said. Malum, in shrike form, sat on my shoulder.
“But shouldn’t we learn more about this Heaven Rock instead of going somewhere we don’t know? Surely it is better to investigate something we know rather than something we don’t know?”
“My home is gone,” I said, “and so is yours. The world is not what you remember, and the calamity that has brought ruin to everything you know is not out those doors, but, I believe, through that portal.
“The Heaven Rock came to our world eons past; so long ago that it doesn’t hold in anyone’s memories, not even through legends or myths. But I have learned that it did not come alone and it came with intent. When the rock came, it brought with it vile beasts, winged aberrations, and demented abominations. When it came, it changed everything, reshaping the land, altering the sky, resurrecting the dead, and plaguing the living in a perpetual nightmare with no hope of ever waking.
“That rock was a symptom, not the cause. It was the ship that brought whoever did this to our home and also scattered the gods. Through my travels, I’ve discovered clues and hints that perhaps the gods did not willingly leave, but were forced to abandon us. I say we take our ship and bring our own calamity to them!
“Tamar! You follow a fire goddess that, somehow, for whatever reason, has reached you and granted you powers. Have you ever thought as to why? Why you? Why now? Why has your goddess continually empowered you to protect us in our travels? It’s because your goddess has chosen you to end the blight of this world, and bring your goddess’ fire back into the sky. You won’t be able to do that if we go out those doors into a death trap of a storm.”
Tamar grunted. “Gin is right. We go through the portal.”
“And Digby,” I said, noticing the little Gnome scribbling in his notes, “you said you are a scholar and researcher. What better opportunity than this – to discover and record true mysteries of all Creation? To walk in places no one has traversed since ages past and uncover secrets that are lost or denied us. Going through those doors will only hinder, if not, stop your studies.”
“Well, I guess, when you point it out that way…” Digby replied.
“And Crunchy,” I continued, but saw that the goblin had left, so I said nothing more.
“Fine!” Shundara huffed. “If you’re all decided, then let’s get going. The sooner we get this done, the better.”
With final preparations complete, Shundara activated her flying ship. With the sound of a thousand tornadoes, a massive, rushing wind swirled and encircled the hull of the ship. It slowly lifted with a lurch, jerked, and began to hover over the ground below us. We were flying – truly flying! This was the power of the air elemental Shundara had entrapped.
I stood with Tamar, Crunchy, and Digby on deck, close to the bow. Shundara steered the ship at the stern, under a canopy and Merrill stayed under the deck.
“I feel bad for the thing,” Tamar commented, looking at the elemental. “Feels like we’re enslaving it.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” I said, “but its efforts will not be in vain.”
Shundara glided the ship over the portal and Digby used his magical hand to activate the mechanism. The portal opened. Black lightning exploded all around us and a dark veil slowly consumed us. I felt a dreadful sensation of icy fingernails clawing into my flesh, but nothing was touching me. I was falling, or so I thought. What was up was right. What was down was backwards. I had no sense of direction. There was a brief whiff of a horrid stench I had never smelled before and it forced bile up to my throat. I thought I faintly heard a low rumble in the distance. Laughter? The terror was real. Something was very wrong.
All went dark and the sensation disappeared.
I opened my eyes and my eyes flared like never before. Malum was gone and I was alone again. Panic threatened to overtake me, but I quickly regained control.
The portal took us to a large chamber. It was absolute dark. But with my Umbra eyes, I saw other portals all around us and the whole ground was covered in a strange vegetation that incorporated a gooey, pus-like substance. It did not smell very pleasant.
Digby activated Lumen and nearly blinded me with the sudden eruption of light. But that was when I noticed that the air elemental was gone – the ship was not flying anymore.
“What is going on here?!” Shundara shouted. “What happened to my air elemental and where are we?!”
“It would appear that going through the portal banished us of our magic,” I replied.
“Look! More portals,” Digby pointed. “Interesting.”
“What’s going on up there?” Merrill shouted from below deck. “Can I come up yet?”
“No!” Tamar shouted. “Stay down there.”
With a spell, I took to the sky to get a bird’s-eye view and then noticed the gooey vegetation on the ground bubbling and molding into a huge humanoid-shaped creature off the port bow of the ship.
“Looks like trouble!” Tamar hollered. She unsheathed Solemn and leapt off of the ship with a war cry for blood, or maybe in this case, tomato juice.
“There’s another one over there!” Digby pointed toward starboard. Another creature had formed.
“Gin, this is your fault!” Shundara yelled and she drew her sword and jumped off the ship towards the second creature.
“Well, at least it’s better than ending up in the Nine Hells, no?” I yelled back.
In the far distance, in complete darkness where Digby’s dagger could not illuminate, I saw, with my Umbra eyes, a large double door slowly open.
Below, Tamar roared and with two powerful swings, slashed and bashed the huge shamble of vegetation with Solemn. Even from my height, seventy feet above, I felt Tamar’s power smashing into the creature. She brought the thing to its knees, wounded and near death. And following that, Crunchy threw a dagger and finished the great beast once and for all.
Out of the double doors emerged fish-like humanoids. They reminded me of the sahuagin we had faced before, but more fishy. But behind them, floating through the door was a large spheroid body with a giant eye in the center. It had multiple tentacles protruding from its body and at the tip of each tentacle was an eye.
“Shundara!” I shouted. “Get back and start up the ship again!”
Shundara and Tamar were fighting the second beast. Digby was tossing magical spears of fire at the thing. Even Merrill had mustered his courage and came up on deck to throw fire and acid vials at the creature. Crunchy was hiding under the deck.
“Gin!” Shundara shouted back. “I don’t know where we are!”
Within my mind I heard a terrifying voice: “Surrender! Your torment and death will be quick and painless.”
It was then I realized that I had forgotten to place the ring of Krallak back on my finger, and I felt vulnerable.
Crunchy popped his head out of the deck and yelled out: “No!” and then popped back down again. The others had heard the voice as well.
“We got a whole lot more company coming!” I screamed. “We need this ship moving and now!!”
“You better listen to Gin,” Tamar yelled at Shundara, as she dodged a swing from the beast’s massive arm. “He’s usually right about these things.”
“I’m not starting the ship and using my last elemental until I know where we are and where we’re going,” Shundara replied as she struck the creature with little effect.
Tamar struck the beast with Solemn and the sound of thunder echoed through the dark chamber.
“Gods damn you, woman!” I yelled. “Tamar’s a genius compared to you! They’re coming…”
Three bolts of magical energy shot towards me. Two of them missed but the third….
It was excruciatingly painful. The pain didn’t feel real, but was more real than what reality could perceive. The body was not harmed but the mind was shattered. All my thoughts swirled and collided. My memories crushed and blended in the mortar of my mind – the energy bolt was the pestle.
I felt a strong, cool breeze. My legs and arms flapped above me. My hair fluttered and wrapped around my face. I heard the whooshing sound of the wind. I was falling and I was going to die.
I thought of the tower of toy blocks and saw my grandfather as he pulled out the bottom block. Everything crumbled and fell down. Down! Down! Down! The tower of life! The generations past! All of it was gone now. I was the last of my clan, the last Sentinel, and I had failed. I had failed as a Sentinel. I had failed my grandfather. I had failed my clan. I had failed Tamar. I had failed the people of Osmarren and everyone from Ur-Delth. And most importantly, I had failed my sister, Circe. In my death, all would be forgotten and nothing of my people would remain. Everything would scatter in the wind and all would be lost forevermore.
Then I felt lightness and my body slowly descended to the last five feet above the ship’s deck. My feet gently landed and I saw Digby wave and smile at me.
“You okay?” he asked.
I nodded, unable to speak with the massive headache that pounded within my skull.
I scrambled to the stern of the ship, under the canopy, and summoned an illusionary brick wall around us. Crunchy darted around the illusion and held up the elemental gem that activated the ship.
“This is what you wanted, right Gin?” he said with a smirk. “Know how to use it?”
“Hey, Merrill!” Crunchy said. “You know how to get this thing started? Here! Catch!” He tossed the gem to the Halfling tinkerer.
“They’re coming,” I hoarsely whispered. “One of those giant eye things. We need to get the ship up and moving, and now!”