I thought that I had led a basically good life; there was no reason for me to show up here, across the "shroud". I wanted so much more, though. My lady and I had been married for three weeks, but we’d been engaged for two years and together so much longer. I wanted to give her the world, to turn life into a fairy tale. That wasn’t going to happen like I’d planned.
It was odd to be engaged for so long back then, but I had no money; and I couldn’t take the life I wanted. Mother had raised me to be a doctor; father was a clergyman who devoted everything to me. Things would have gone well if I’d had a keen eye and a steady hand. The profession just wasn’t a practicality for me. After a few years of business school, I learned that my professors thought that I had no potential. I was disheartened but not destroyed. Not so my parents. Father grew weak as I took a job as a clerk; he died in his sleep after I’d been working for three years in this position. Mother grew bitter after father died; she disowned me when I met my Elisabeth.
She was, quite frankly, the best and most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. The daughter of a rural landowner, she was nonetheless considered to be of privileged class. We met in a cafÃ© by chance; we fell in love by what I call design. I worked hard to be worthy of her hand in marriage. It took a long time, but after many long months her father finally did accept me. It took time to save enough to pay for the wedding, but she was even more patient than I. The wedding was small but dignified; her parents were pleased despite their former dreams. My mother didn’t even respond to the wedding invitation.
After all of our toil, we were finally rewarded with the bliss of marriage. I loved her more than I could have said; I was happy because of her and for no other reason. I wondered for the longest time why it had to end so suddenly. When our honeymoon had concluded, I received a message telling me that I was needed out of town for a few days. It seemed odd that I’d be requested for work outside of town; but I was told that the city I was being called to was short-handed, and that I had been well recommended. I wondered who had recommended me, but was excited to hear that I would be compensated with a sizable pay bonus for making the trip. Elisabeth didn’t mind and I had a mind to save a bit of extra money; so, I accepted in earnest.
It was a two-day trip by carriage in which I surveyed much of the land. At some point during the second day I dozed off in the carriage. I never woke up.
The next thing I saw was a distorted view of the land. My vision had been warped by something translucent, covering my face. I found that I couldn’t move; my covering stretched across my whole body. I seemed to be floating; and I remained there, dreaming, for quite some time. At some point, the curtain parted; and I was free to look upon the world once more. It was different, somehow. Darker and more decayed, these "Shadowlands" were the lands of the dead. I knew this because my benefactor informed me of my current situation, soon after releasing me from the caul that had covered me.
I didn’t know the specifics of my death, but the fact that I’d arrived on top of a lake was an indicator; and the carriage was missing, aside from some deep mud tracks beside the water. My reflection on the surface showed me to have a strange marking on my forehead; and my body seemed to have the characteristics of drowning. I was pale and slightly blue-tinged now. The world showed me signs of decay everywhere and I heard strange sounds on the wind. My benefactor told me that Spectres were near and we should move on.
I learned that I was reaped by the Legion of Fate of the Hierarchy. I learned of the differences between ghost and man, the underworld and the physical one. I came to understand the basics of the Hierarchy, of the Renegades that opposed it, and of the Heretics that had betrayed it. I was told a history of the world from a new perspective, and learned of a terrible force called Oblivion. My life was over, and death would be quite different.
I found my passions and fetters easily enough. Of course Elisabeth was the most important of these; my wedding band buried underwater was something I had to have; I felt the urge to visit my father’s gravestone as well. I felt a need to continue making Elisabeth happy. I also regretted failing my parents after all of their attempts to make a better life for me; I would have a better life now that I was dead, I swore.
The Hierarchy was accommodating enough; I took to the merchant business with a new gusto and was much needed for the soul-trading business. I found it odd that souls had to be sacrificed to avoid Oblivion; but I grew used to the fact, after a fashion. A voice in my mind began to tell me of my weaknesses; told me that I was a failure and would join the souls sent to the forges. I would never rise to prominence, it said; I would fail my wife and my parents in death just as in life. I always thought that this Shadow-self kept me on my feet throughout the years.
I did my duties to the Hierarchy; suppressed the Shadow’s urgings; took care of Elisabeth, in my way. I eventually found ways to interact with the Skinlands. I made sure that my wedding band was returned to Elisabeth, at great cost. I avoided Oblivion without, but steeled myself against its ravages within. My few harrowings throughout the years yielded few successes for my Shadow, and I became careful to avoid them. After I became important enough in the local Hierarchy, I found more leisure time to spend with my widow.
She had mourned for seven years, but I eventually worked up the courage-and wore down my Shadow-enough to finally influence dearest Elisabeth to pursue her own happiness again. She remarried to a noble gentleman, and seemed to have moved on. My Shadow began to tell me that I had abandoned her, that she didn’t need me anymore; it said that I had failed myself and failed my widow, as well. My visits to my favored Pardoner became more frequent thereafter; my Shadow became persistent and worked my nerves beyond my personal capabilities. I wondered if he was right, sometimes, if I was truly making Elisabeth happy by giving her up. I always watched over her, though; never did I yield in my devotion to her.
The years wore on. I watched my Elisabeth grow old; I felt her slipping away. I still loved her, but now I had learned to take joy in her life, with or without me. My visits to the Pardoner were fewer than they had been and my Shadow was more silent about Elisabeth. It seemed as though it was at peace with her as well. That was when everything changed.
Elisabeth eventually grew ill in her age. I stayed by her through the whole mess, watching her deteriorate. I could see the sickness throughout her body and knew that she didn’t have long. She had a fever and was fading fast. I offered what comfort I could; she was in the throes of delirium and I was well received. I had learned many arts in my time and I used one such to caress her hand and cheek in her final moments.
In the end, she opened her eyes and leaned toward my ghostly touch. She told me she loved me, after all these years; she had never stopped loving me. Then she was gone forever.
As her life slipped away, I fell through a Nihil into the Tempest; Elisabeth no longer fettering me to the Skinlands, I faced my own unraveling in the Labyrinth. My Shadow seemed as though it had never forgotten all of the discouragement aimed at my widow. It wracked my emotions, calling me a failure, saying that Elisabeth would now join Oblivion. I saw her, screaming, reaching out to me and falling away. I had lost my love, my light, to time. My inspiration was gone and I had failed her in the worst way. I wanted to succumb.
No. Elisabeth died fulfilled, as I had never been. She was in heaven now, happy with God to watch over her. I had not failed her; I had succeeded. It was time to move on. My Shadow raged and screamed as it lost the battle with me. I returned to the bedside, next to the wedding band I had returned to Elisabeth so long ago. I was forever changed.
I resumed my work with the Hierarchy; but I felt a need stirring in me for something else. It was as if there was a calm within me, left by the absolution of accomplishment. A voice of stillness left by Elisabeth to give me peace. I needed to explore this feeling in its entirety. The tranquility was obvious to others. I was asked many questions from my fellows as to my condition. I had stopped seeing the Pardoner and had become mildly distracted from harvesting. My mind wandered to tales of the Far Shores.
I felt that truly accomplishing something in death would have to be more than merely enjoying the benefits of a well-placed station. My harvesting duties continued, but I began to travel in search of some unknowable thing. Oblivion and I met more often; I fought Spectres in the Tempest and at the Necropoli gates. My Shadow helped them attack me; it seemed to have changed as well since Elisabeth passed, now being more introverted. It was ironic that my Shadow helped set events in motion.
I spent much time near the Harbingers of different Necropoli in order to learn to travel more efficiently. After a long while, I was flying the Tempest solo; my eyes had darkened and had taken in many odd wonders of the realm. It was in the tempest that I met my first Ferryman.
The Shadow had decided to toss me to the Doomshades during my expedition and I was ambushed. There were three huge shades in the inky mirth of the tempest when I was lured down there by a strange light. I could have died instantly if not for the Ferryman. Her name was Khevara, I later discovered; she was an amazing sight. Seemingly from nowhere she appeared, engaging in a fatal melee with the creatures of Oblivion. Her huge scythe dashed the animals asunder before my eyes in a few short instances. I flew over the waters, amazed at her killing power. She beckoned me with a wave of the hand to join her on her wooden raft; I could not refuse.
The trip must have lasted several days; though I could not have told how many in the depths of the tempest. Eventually she spoke in a low, hard tone.
She informed me that my quest was far from over, that my search for Transcendence had many more turns to be taken. I wondered how she had known what my quest was; I certainly had not known. Khevara told me that all wraiths quested for Transcendence, but I had found the path that many others would deny.
My journey was far from over, though; I did not have all of the knowledge I would need to move on from this realm. As the trip bore on, I noticed more and more spectral entities dancing around the raft; I wondered how we had found such a high concentration of sentience this far into the tempest. Finally, my curiosity was answered; and the Labyrinth stood before us, in all its dark glory. It was the cave of Oblivion, the sinkhole of the underworld, the den of evil. The Labyrinth was a nightmare that I had no interest in traversing. I had heard terrible tales of the mining expeditions to the Veinous Stair, where they take raw Oblivion ore back to Stygia; abnormalities and abominations abroad-and that was only the entrance.
Khevara told me that I had not yet learned to accept the darkness in the underworld, nor the darkness within myself. If I wanted to escape this place, I would need to accept all of it and all of my own faults. I needed to let go; I needed to know what I was letting go of, first. In the Labyrinth, I would be forced to understand the creatures that represented the darkness I struggled against. She told me that I would find a man to help me along the path, if I searched long enough. His name was Rudvert; he was a Masquer Helldiver, an infiltrator of the Hive. He would show me the world of the Spectres.
It took quite a while to get close to the Helldiver community. I was forced to join the Doomslayer association called the Order of the Thorn while simultaneously trying to find connections in the Masquers. My days appeared to be numbered now. I had traded off all of the security of station that I had earned in the empire for this. Now I had the luxury of close and regular contact with the denizens of darkness and the duty of chasing enigmatic figures that I knew nothing about. Mother would not have been proud.
I did achieve my goal, however. As I participated in countless missions of genocidal abandon with the Thorns, I kept my Harbinger allies informed about the spectral activity in certain areas I was frequently in. After countless missions of stealth and battle, reconnaissance and maneuvering, I was considered an asset to the Thorns and given a good word or two with the Helldiver community. I learned my basics of Moliation and studied the art rigorously. I was exhausted by my battles, but I found a kind of solace in the knowledge that I was striking Oblivion and releasing souls from its terrible grasp. My abilities eventually led to a connection with the Helldivers. I treated it cautiously, of course; I learned new skills of stealth and maneuvering, doing more reconnaissance and less battle. My strikes against Oblivion were now fewer and more decisive in nature.
This took me years to accomplish. I had grown even more divorced from the Skinlands and was fettered only by my father’s grave; the bonds of my family were hard to let go of with the absence of the family. My ring eventually became just a reminder of Elisabeth, who remained in my fondest memories and my heart. I made certain that the ring was given to someone who needed it most; a young woman entering marriage with a rather poor painter received a mysterious family heirloom after I knew I needed it no longer. I had changed a great deal over the course of the years and was now older than any living man would ever be.
Finally, after assassinating a crafty mortwight-the leader of an Oblivion purity cult, I gained enough recognition in the Helldiver association to be treated with respect. My queries were answered now more readily than before and I could investigate my true objective in the business of Doomslaying. Rudvert was eventually revealed to me after an extensive hiatus in which he was supposedly hunting the Shadowlands for converts to the cause of Oblivion. He was on a very important mission in the depths that I would not be informed about until later, on pain of destruction.
After pulling some strings and begging some favors, I met him. Strangely enough, it was in the Labyrinth. I was told that I would meet him when he finished his mission and that I would proceed on myself in another mission of my own; I was to infiltrate a spectral barrow community. Apparently, these kind were more docile than the Spectres I had met before, a change of pace that I welcomed.
It so happened that after a few weeks, I came to realize the leader of this community to be my supposed benefactor himself. Rudvert was a man of contemplation and action, all at once. In this barrow community, the Spectres concentrated on the dull, black emotions of humanity while worshipping the unmaking force of Oblivion. It was quite religious, but seemed less fanatical and more meditative in nature compared to the other Spectres; I learned that those ones I had met were called Kindlings for their fiery nature.
Rudvert had progressed along the Spectral arcanos of Hive-mind; he must have had a strong will to use that terrible art to subjugate at least twenty monstrous shades and any number of young Spectres looking to find some breed of dark enlightenment. I myself had learned a bit of it from the get-go just to survive; and when I began my infiltration missions with the Masquer Helldivers my skill naturally increased to accommodate deep cover security. Rudvert was a master, though, pure and simple.
His agenda was a divided one. Officially, he was vying for the attention of a Malfean against a particularly promising Nephwrack, his intent to see the latter destroyed to prevent his ascent to power. This would weaken Oblivion just a bit more and further the Doomslayer cause. Unofficially though, Rudvert had been seeking Transcendence for some time and found that by communicating with the Psyches of those Spectres in his community, he gained a further knowledge of the Shadow. This information might have been useful to the Doomslayers, if they had the tolerance for such attempts–but he found that it gave him a personal insight into the motivations of the Shadow as an entity. With the help of those trapped Psyches, he could come to understand the motivations of his own dark half; such knowledge might eventually teach him to let go of his Shadow and Transcend.
Of course, he eventually met others with the same basic agenda and would not hide his findings. Over time, many pupils found the courage to seek him out. Those who had made it were stronger for the journey and had hopefully found their motivations that much more rooted. Others came to realize they enjoyed the battle with Oblivion too much to let go of themselves; and still others fell along the way. These he mourned silently, but there are always trials on the path to enlightenment and he realized this.
My path had been made known to him through the negotiations I’d made with the Doomslayers and Masquers and by way of Khevara. He accepted me and taught me how to behave in his realm. The place was a refuge of meditation by advertisement and a chamber of study by design. None of the Spectres knew it, but deep in their meditations they underwent catharsis on a regular basis. They gained the composure to do so through subtle applications of the mind caused by the keening powers of Rudvert and a concerted effort by all resident Psyches.
We discussed their meditations while we could, and Rudvert and I took the lessons to heart. I grew to understand that my own Shadow had been weakened by the resolution of my ties to Elisabeth. I hadn’t been controlled as much lately, I didn’t know why. I thought that it had to do with my studies of the darker emotions, rather than outright denial of them. My Shadow hadn’t been playing tricks because I was starving him since my search for Transcendence had begun. He-I had begun to think of my Shadow not as a set of mental mishaps but a separate part of myself-was focusing more on my denial of my parents’ dreams now. He used this twisted devotion as an excuse to try to send us both to the void; it was a buried loyalty I had almost forgotten when I died that he now gave as penance for us. The Shadow also seemed to have a lingering need to exploit a sense of failure in me.
I remembered from my mortal years feeling that I would never accomplish anything in my life. These thoughts I repressed as I pushed on, especially after I met Elisabeth. I pushed aside loyalty as well for Elisabeth as I had abandoned my parents to be with her. This too I pushed aside to make room for the good things in life. I wondered then if my other half had hated Elisabeth because I had chosen to forget the things he so loved for her. It made me wonder how to ease his pain; for the first time that I could remember, I sympathized with my Shadow. He was made of buried hurt that I would not confront before or after death.
I learned this and more with the help of Rudvert and was thankful for the lessons. I also learned new methods to communicate with the Psyches in the Labyrinth on the sly. I eventually came to wonder how much I could learn locked in the cavern; I needed resolutions that could not be found here. I felt the need to see my father’s grave again. It seemed to be essential, the key to unlocking the pain of my Shadow. There was another key, though, and I would find it soon.
I checked in at the old gravestone and remembered my father somewhat fondly. Apparently, Spectral activity in the area was increasing lately for unknown reasons. I knew why; it filled me with a dread I hadn’t felt in so long, but I knew. I watched the gravesite until it became obvious that I wasn’t going to be disappointed. My mother was a Spectre now. She might have even been a Nephwrack, for she had a contingency following her. I don’t know what they were doing there, and I never would, but I didn’t run. I had the appearance of a Spectre and no intention of being chased because I fled. There were a couple of people in the cemetery, doing who knows what, but they would certainly regret it soon enough.
The world had progressed since I had died, and cars were an everyday part of life now. Smoking was still in fashion, though, so not everything had changed. I regretted these facts after mother recited a crackling prayer to Oblivion and took the body of one of the innocent bystanders. The other one fell dead in a few moments with stunned surprise; the two young men were probably friends. Mother had taken over the smoker and piped away contentedly inside of her new body. After some experimentation, she drove his car directly on top of father’s grave. I watched helplessly from the Shadowlands as she dropped her cigarette into the gas tank of the car.
The young man burned shortly and she was again with me for a few moments. She knew who I was and smiled the venomous smile of eternal hatred. She told me she would send us both to the everlasting comfort of Oblivion, just as she had always wanted. Then the gas tank exploded and sent us both away. She went home and I to another harrowing as my last fetter was consumed in the pyre she had unleashed.
The Shadow roared his triumph. I was weaker than he and would fail. I could never be better than Oblivion and had given up all for a goal that didn’t even exist for one such as me. In the end, I had struggled against my destiny and now was faced with it on a cosmic scale. I was the fool of the universe; opposing my parents, my Shadow, my annihilation, and more had led me right to where I deserved to go. My dream, the Eidolon, was nothing; a trick played by an overly imaginative dead man, it had served well to send me off to my final rewards whimpering for mercy. The universe loomed over me and all was a great swirl of lack. My mother had known all along; she cackled her glory and watched me fall apart. I could do nothing to escape my fate.
There was a dawning then. I knew I truly was nothing to the universe. I had never forgotten myself in all of my experiences and all of my travels and trials could never remove who I was. The time to think of my own goals was over and the fetter of my own mind was past its usefulness. The dark of Oblivion faded into a shimmering ray of hope. All the things that pulled at me faded. I knew what to do now. My Shadow had nothing to stop this sense of purpose. I didn’t matter; that was why I was going to succeed. The Tempest opened up before me and I was spilled out before the gently swaying raft of Khevara. I had come a long way; it was time I saw the Far Shores.
The next period of my unlife was all forgetting. I forgot the color of my mother’s eyes, the names of the cities I lived in, the place I died; I let it all go. I stayed with others like myself and did everything I could to show my gratitude for their company and devotion. We were all walking the path to enlightenment and lived in compassion and grace. The Shadow tried to rant at me once in a while, but found my lack of angst and receptiveness to his speculations detrimental to his own resolve. We were both going away. I spent a long time that way, probably longer than my whole unlife-but it was all a blur. I felt a connection to an unknown bliss. I was different, then. My thoughts were not my own, exactly; they were of the world, from another place, a higher place.
I was ready to move on. There was only one thing left to do then. I finally got my one last wish, today. The Spectres outside of the isle gate are no coincidence. I had to tell someone my whole story before my departure. I’ve been waiting all of this time for one last confrontation; then I can move on to whatever lies beyond. I’ve known about the Spectres out there for some time now, which is why I chose to share with you so conveniently before the arrival and the call to arms. There are others here who know what I know, and our privacy was assured. Remember this day, friend, for I won’t. I’ve told you all I can remember of who I was. I hope you enjoyed the story of a passing piece of history.
Mother was out there in the storm. She raved and screamed across the Hive-Mind for my destruction. There was an amazing force brought here just for me and I found it odd. It was time to say goodbye, though, so I began to move.
The storm rips at my corpus and drains my vitality. It is all right, for I won’t need it for long. I fly past the oblivious Spectres until I come to my mother. I release the shroud of shadow and face her one last time. I tell her that I loved her, and that I’m sorry she was disappointed in me, and that I hope she finds peace some day. She rends my corpus apart symbolically enough and I face the end.
The mouth of the void calls to me below, rippling and wavering. I sense that I could lose myself if I reject that place of destruction. I feel the pull to nothingness, but I have nothing left to fight with. There are none here to sway me, only myself and Oblivion. I forget both.
They all watch as I climb back up through the Maelstrom winds, flaming like a star. My eyes burn with the fires of absolution as I meet the crowd of Doomshades. It is time to go at last. Elisabeth, here I come. Mother looks at me with fear, for they all know what is coming. On the island, all eyes are upon me as none can avert from my radiance. My purity erupts in all directions, like a hurricane. The Spectres are devoured in my final passing; the island is safe from Oblivion, for now. I am no more. The story of my existence has ended perfectly, and I shall never have to mourn it.