His companion’s leather armour creaked loudly in the still quiet of the temple’s inner sanctum. Joachim wished Reybeard could stay still for even a moment, but daren’t risk more of their hosts’ ire by trying to shush him.
It had not been easy, finding a church to the goddess of death. Shrines and sites for prayer for those who had passed were as plain as day, but actually entering the sanctum sanctorum of the keepers of Her will required the calling in of more than a few outstanding favors. In a city renowned for its sanctity and purity, nobody wanted to openly admit there were dark places to be found.
Of course, not allowing Her followers somewhere to congregate would have posed some very ruinous problems. One does not lightly insult the god who holds vigil over the very boundary between what is and what was.
“You seek to remove someone from Her cold embrace, to walk once again with the pains and misfortunes of waking life,” a strong voice emanated from the darkness. Whomever Joachim expected to find in the temple, he did not expect them to have a voice like that.
“Our mission is to save the world,” Reybeard called back, as if answering a challenge. Joachim couldn’t hide his wince—they were begging a favor, not starting a fight. “Our fallen companion is vital to our success, and we must have him returned.”
A broad-shouldered and well-muscled priest stepped into the faint light from the enveloping shadows, his piercing eyes sizing up the two adventurers. “We have heard of the great war to come, and believe our Mistress would enjoy the influx of new souls it would bring. How could we, as Her loyal servants, ever have a hand in a ritual that goes wholly against Her teachings, particularly to aid those who would deny her such a plentiful bounty?”
Joachim squeezed his companion’s arm to stifle whatever sanctimonious retort was brewing in the larger man’s chest. “What we would ask is not unprecedented, dread priest—there are tales of those who have passed into the shade lands and returned to accomplish great and necessary things.”
The shadowed man nodded slowly, the darkness clinging to his angled features with every movement. “There are those, yes, who have been granted leave, when She finds the argument compelling enough. There are even tales of those who have returned without Her blessing, their passage having gone unnoticed by chance or fate.”
“So we don’t need her permission, then,” the armour-clad warrior remarked dryly, “what will it take for you to resurrect our companion?”
Whatever light shone in the priest’s eyes fell away, leaving only pools of jet. “Are you familiar with the Wastes of Agrim-mar?” he asked Joachim, who had displayed much more courtesy and intelligence than his sober companion.
The quick-talking and light-fingered man nodded. “A large valley to the East where nothing grows and where all provisions spoil and rot. A terrible scar upon the land, avoided by creatures and people alike.”
“Two centuries ago Agrim-mar was a bustling center of culture and commerce; this gilded city is but a shadow of the opulence once gathered there. There was a good king, a respected king, a pious king, who fell ill and died long before old age. After much wailing and pleading by those with power, a lone priest agreed to perform the Ritual of Regret.” He spat on the floor as if the priest couldn’t handle the taste of the words in his mouth.
“As the morning sun crested over the horizon, the beloved king had been restored, his soul granted new life. The priest was exhausted yet elated. The city’s advising council were thankful and jubilant. The king himself, honored and humbled.
“However, She had not been consulted, had not been asked to bless the ritual. The foolish priest had assumed—with abhorrent arrogance, ignorance, or both—that the Mistress would consent and that all would be forgiven.
“That day, She decided to remind the peoples of the world that there was no authority greater than Hers when it came to the fate of those who had passed. She stepped out of the heavens and entered the throne room, where a great banquet in the king’s honor was being prepared. She raised her hands above her head like thus,” he brought both of his arms straight up, almost squeezing the sides of his head. “And without a word, let them fall.”
His hands cut through the cloying darkness with a grim finality. The chamber’s lone candle flickered and threatened to extinguish.
“The wastes of Agrim-mar, and three of Her priests, were all that remained. ‘Warn them,’ she bade her loyal followers, who had cautioned the council against disrupting the natural order. ‘Warn them such that they will not soon forget.’”
Joachim realized he had been holding his breath and inhaled slowly. He was starting to have second thoughts about their endeavor.
“So you’re saying it’s possible,” Reybeard grunted, completely unfazed by the ominous warning.
The priest sighed, then attempting a different tack. “When—not if—war comes, hundreds of thousands will die. I believe in my humble ignorance that She will be pleased by this. If instead a foolhardy and headstrong band of would-be heroes somehow convinced a priest to perform the Rite of Regret and She discovers the subterfuge, she would lay waste to this entire region, if not more.”
“It sounds like we have nothing to lose,” the warrior chuffed. “Either way a lot of people die. At least with our plan there’s a chance of things going our way.”
Joachim turned to his aloof companion. “Brother mine, one day each of us will breathe our last. I don’t know if it is prudent to disrespect and insult, in a most grievous manner, She who controls what happens to us thereafter. Gods do not forget, and they do not forgive.”
The priest smiled, realizing at least one of the pair had been listening to his cautionary tale.
“Bollocks to that,” Reybeard barked. “Sounds like I’ll just have to find a different priest to bring our friend back.”
Joachim turned to give an apologetic glance to the priest, but could not see him in the darkness. The candle had gone low, and a biting chill nipped at their ears and the hairs at the back of their necks.
He didn’t even offer a word of thanks for hearing their request, so busy was he shoving Reybeard back toward the door.
Title taken from a fantastic side story set within the Sandman comic universe. Neil Gaiman is an amazing storyteller and I heartily encourage everyone to check out his work. Another particular favorite of mine is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a novella about childhood, growing up, and things that always were what they didn’t seem.
Header image from Pixabay.com, a fabulous resource for royalty-free stock images. I picked this one to be suggestive of Tartarus, one of the Greek hells.