This prompt was provided by my friend Shade Genkai, who happens to have no social media I’m aware of. I’l have to edit it in if he ever does get some!
“Prompt #8: A devoutly religious person dies and, upon entering the afterlife, realizes that their religious beliefs were false. Explore this person’s mindset and their emotional state as they come to terms with their new eternity, or lack thereof. (Both the person’s religion and the legitimate afterlife are free choice. Make them up if you please) ”
Dying was supposed to be painless, wasn’t it? That’s how stories always framed it, that suddenly you can’t feel and move your body and you’re given time to reflect on your life as your life blood ebbed out onto the floor.
“AAHHHH! AAAAAAGH!… AAAAAAAAAA…!” Death, as it so happens, it rarely written by those who have not died. It seems obvious in retrospect, but perhaps it should be considered natural that the full breadth of death should fail to be encompassed by the written word; that it should be romanticized by those who fear it, or those who had a statement to make with a character’s death.
“Ah… ah… please… AAAAAAAGH!” There was nothing romantic about the way the knight suffered on that desert hill. Copper hung thickly on the air, the sand stained red with the life blood of twenty or so others. Weakly his hands tugged at the broken pole lodged in his gut, though it was already too late for him. His intestines had been pierced, and it was beyond medicine to prevent him from dying to the septic infection gripping hold of his insides, let alone repair the damage.
“AAHHHH!” His voice grew hoarse, dryness taking his mouth. It wasn’t the kind of dignified end he had hoped for — a sword in hand, spreading Kraus’s word with his dying breath. Maybe the pain would have been lessened had he died fighting heretics, going heroically and being remembered for his courage and faith. To die to… to bandits out in the midst of the desert where he’d be forgotten made it so much worse.
His fingers stopped responding to his will, and his arms fell limply around his gut. He had been pierced by a pike — a deserter’s pike at that — having misjudged how quickly he could charge. Even if he could somehow have pulled it out, the head was designed to tear his stomach apart when withdrawn.
“Lord…” the knight whispered weakly, fighting through the blinding hot pain overtaking his muscles. “I know this must be part of your plan… if you will it so… I shall… happily… come…”
Pain began to subside, the knowledge that at least there was some form of purpose to all this comforting him in his final moment. The knight closed his eyes, and offered up his last prayer before death.
In the year 426, Paladin Guernier Verbeek, the Sword of Winter, of the Order of Light, died in the Sarab Desert. The army marched without him or his men, and met the forces of the Tenebris Aurora south of the Desert Pass, on the plains outside of Nostvale.
Guernier awoke to darkness, the pain in his gut gone as if it had never been there in the first place. He blinked experimentally a few times, feeling his lids move if not a shift in the empty blackness of the void. The knight lifted a hand to his face and flexed his fingers, feeling them move stiffly and the sensation of his leather gloves. Gingerly he moved his hand down his body, starting with his face.
His nose and eyes and lips were still present, his short beard brushing his fingers. Guernier then traced down the front of his neck, and felt his padded undershirt poking out from beneath his armor, followed by the sound of his chain mail clinking as his hands moved over them. He continued, shutting his eyes unconsciously as he neared his wound and… felt nothing. The knight was whole again.
The man sat up then, realizing that he had awoken on his back. Yet, there was nothing for him to see except the empty void around him, devoid of any life save himself. His breath was painfully loud in the utter silence, and the place unnaturally stifling. Not even the wind blew here, and the air was stale and stagnant.
“Lord,” he spoke under his breath, “Is this a test?” The bleak emptiness was his answer. Guernier clasped his hands together and closed his eyes.
“Lord Kraus who is in Avalon, please grant me strength. I pray that I may endure this test, and return to you; I pray that I am found worthy to join you in Avalon,” he spoke, his voice not even echoing in the vast void. Guernier took another deep breath of the warm, stagnant air, and began to march.
There was no sun here, nor stars, and the ground was perfectly flat. In many ways, this was the perfect torture for a man like Guernier. He was a devout man, but devotion was easy when you were defending the faith from demon worshipers, when you were being challenged to overcome something. Here not even his legs struggled up a hill, it was just…
The paladin was a learned man, and his family were not commoners. The Verbeeks could trace their lineage to the First Men over four hundred years ago, and their noble blood held Kraus’s blessing. He had read, and reread the Book hundreds of times. He could quote passages whole-cloth from memory, and he knew what the afterlife was supposed to be like. Either the angels would descend and carry him to Avalon for his faith, or he would awaken within a star so his soul could be purified and recycled into rebirth.
There was nothing like… this.
Guernier did not grow tired, nor did he grow hungry, which in many ways only amplified the torture. There was nothing to mark the passage of time, to give any sense of progress. He could not think back to a time he was full and compare it to being hungry now — he just always was as he was now. He did not have pain, so he could not think of his aches and how they grew or lessened, he simply was always fine. He did not have landmarks to track, so he could not say “I was once there, and am now here.”
“Lord Kraus, I pray that you be satisfied with me,” he intoned, offering up his daily prayer. Not that he had any way of knowing when a day had passed and when it had not — once he had tried to count the passing seconds but eventually he had given up and just started to pray whenever the fancy struck him. “Your humble servant will continue for as long as you design, for I know this too must be part of your plan.”
“Humans are blessed… They are free to choose their own destiny… they can redeem themselves… should they become depraved…” Guernier mumbled to himself as he slowly trudged forward. He had given up on prayer, and simply recited the whole of the book as he walked. His throat could not become parched, and always he had breath to speak, yet he still struggled to continue. His exhaustion transcended his physical body, his mind trying to hold onto what it could to drive himself forward.
“Angels… are bound… to purity… and the ideals… of Kraus… to reject them… is to throw… ourselves to sin… and become fallen… for an angel… there is… no… redemption…” His ears were filled with the sound of his own breathing, his steps against the unseeable ground hardly making a noise.
Then — he felt something walking beside him. There was no noise, no sound, yet the very emptiness of this place had been violated — how could he not notice? He turned his head to his left, and his mouth hung agape as he found himself walking next to a tall robed figure. The person was covered head to toe in black, yet somehow in the darkness of the void they stood out, as if a spotlight had been shone upon them. Their hands were folded in front of them, the long and heavy sleeves obscuring them.
“Do you truly believe that?” the figure asked softly. Guernier nearly fell to his knees then, for the kind gentleness in the stranger’s voice was so immense, and he had been alone for so long, that he felt himself brought to tears.
“Who… who are you?” he asked — nay, begged, his voice pleading. “Are you an angel, sent to release me from my torment?”
The figure shook their head, and the paladin felt his own sadness mirrored in the motion. “I can not,” they said, and the knight felt his heart sinking, “But at the very least, I can keep you company on your long journey.”
At that, Guernier felt his despair lift, the first smile he had had since dying forming on his lips. He bowed his head low, “I would like that, my friend.”
The two continued like that for a time. Guernier’s companion never answered questions about who they were, and over time the knight found that mattered less and less to him. Merely the fact he had company had given him the strength he needed to continue, and his companion had a quiet eagerness to speak and listen about them. There was nothing he could talk about that they did not listen to, nor any topic save their identity that he could not speak on and receive an answer.
But what they both loved to talk about above all others were matters of faith.
“It is the Gospel of Althus,” he proclaimed, shaking his head. “Mankind was born to seek enlightenment, and magic is but another tool to for them to explore the world.”
His companion’s body was mostly obscured by their robes, but Guernier could see the lower half of their jaw underneath their hod. Their skin was pale — gray even, but remarkably unblemished. One might even say perfect, if not for being colored like a corpse. A smooth, androgynous chin, lacking the roughness of a man or the softness of a woman as he could see it, perfectly symmetrical and holding a gentle smile.
“If angels are fallible, then does that not cast Althus’s revelations into doubt?” they questioned, their voice similarly devoid of any signifies of gender.
“Nay!” proclaimed Guernier, “The white winged angels of Kraus could not lie, lest the corruption of their lies taint their very souls and wings. It is the truth, written down before the divines returned to Avalon, taken directly from their mouths.”
Again he felt his companion’s faint smile as they spoke. “Are you sure?” they asked. “Four hundred years have passed between the creation of your world and your birth. In that time, humanity has spread across the world, learned art, culture, and developed cities. Why then, should language have not changed?”
Guernier himself was uncertain, but in an argument he could not find it in himself to back down. “I admit, much in the world has changed, but divine revelation can not be so easily altered by the doings of man. If the written word has changed so much since that time, then I do not doubt that scholars were up to the task of faithfully translating the work.”
The two continued their walk through the endless void, the only sound being their conversation and the clanging of the knight’s armor — not even the ground made noise as their feet stepped upon it. For a moment though, there was a lull in the conversation before the hooded figure posed a new question for the paladin.
“Have you ever learned Gehennan, Ser Verbeek?” they asked.
He shook his head, “Nay. I am Valmasian born and raised, the dead languages of other continents are for monks to learn and speak. Know how to read and write both Valam and Rancen.”
The figured nodded in understanding, softly speaking after a moment. “The passage in its original Gehennan form is ‘Dibcol kêbkir zòlug egon átgos, rungrar mádkik ekur kàbbåk öl sedil rareg ingstëb. Mádkik unol eskul destcos, zanel dibcol turel. Mádkik unol eskul mádkik töras egen, zanel töras mothram.‘” They spoke smoothly, and without stumbling, and though the words were guttural sounding there was a certain organic grace to how they made them flow.
“Mankind is to seek enlightenment, so they might achieve what angels can not. Their souls are malleable, and may learn. Their souls are their greatest gift, and greatest curse,” they translated after. “That is how is it commonly translated to Valam. Mádkik has many meanings though, depending on the context of the text around it. Rungrar mádkik ekur can be taken as literally as ‘potential unachievable’ but it can also be read as ‘change that should not happen’. The translation then to Valam from Gehennan is then more literally ‘Mortals are tasked with enlightenment, for it should not be pursued by the divine.’”
Guernier blinked quietly. His companion was certainly knowledgeable about the text, but uncomfortably interested in picking apart the meaning of the words. The knight preferred it when people were solidly for or against something, but it was hard to read the figure. They weren’t trying to convince him he was wrong, like an Oscuri, nor were they simply taking the opposing side like the demon worshipers.
“I was unaware,” he admitted, “But you yourself agree that as it is now, is a valid translation, yes?” The hood bobbed briefly, and he continued with a bit more confidence, “So I believe that man’s hand was guided when they wrote the book again in Valam.”
The figure just smiled faintly, “That is your right, Ser Verbeek, to have faith.”
At some point, the void seemed to be… less empty. It was difficult to tell, but Guernier had traveled in the endless darkness for so long that even the slightest of changes were notable. Now he could faintly see the outlines of his body in the darkness, hear the subtle sounds of his boots upon the ground. It was… some kind of rock? He was a paladin, not an earth magi, so he couldn’t claim any knowledge of the type of stone, only its presence. He could recall from the days of his childhood in his family manor, the month where he led his men in the caverns beneath the desert to hunt cultists, so he had some idea of the way stone sounded.
“Tell me a little about where you grew up,” his companion asked him as they continued, taking his thoughts off his surroundings.
Guernier smiled reflexively, saying “There’s not much to mention, would not my history make for paltry conversation?”
A shake of their hood answered him. “I think all aspects of a person are worthy of discussion,” there was a pause, and then they asked, “Why do you consider your past unworthy of talk?”
The smile on his face faded, and the knight turned his head to stare forward. His eyes closed and he exhaled, steeling himself to speak. “I was born in Danarium. I was tutored through out my childhood, learned the Word of Kraus and… and felt my calling. Thanks to my blood and my skill, I was given a command and served well until some deserters killed me.”
There was little pause between the end of his story and the figure. “Why do you wish to hide?”
Guernier turned his head sharply back to the figure in shock, but before his shock could become outrage they spoke again. “You had a brother, did you not? Someone who you’ve lived your life emulating. A wife, and two children back at your estate? Yet you did not think it worth mentioning?”
The knight stumbled, his feet catching, before feeling a thin hand catch him by the shoulder. His gaze moved towards it, and he realized his companion had kept him from falling. Yet he still could not see their hand beneath the sleeves. “How do you know?” he demanded, “Who are you?”
The figure smiled sadly at him, and shook their head. “You have much the same look as your brother.”
Guernier felt his heart catch, “—You’ve seen him?” A nod answered him.
“Yes. You are not the first to pass through here, nor will you be the last.” The paladin grabbed the figure’s arm, hardly registering how thin and bony the limb beneath the robes was.
“Where is he?!” pleaded the man. “My brother, did he receive his rightful place in Avalon? Or did he move on or, or—“ he inhaled sharply, “—was he made to walk in this Kraus-forsaken place?”
For the first time since they started, the two had stopped working. Gently, the robed figure turned to face him face to face, and placed their hands on his shoulders. “I understand your pain, my friend. Losing those you love is never easy, and the wounds never truly heal. There is no happy way to die, nor justice afterwards.”
Guernier shook his head, tears slipping down his face. “No — Kraus is merciful. Seek to emulate Kraus and you will find your way to Avalon.”
“There is no Avalon, my friend,” replied the figure sadly, pity overtaking their expression. “Only acceptance.”
The knight recoiled at his words, drawing back from the figure’s grip. “No, no… those who believe, those who follow in Kraus’s footsteps, the reward is to be by His side and free of the pain of the world.” He took a step back, then another, and then — he saw the figure’s hands hanging where his shoulders had been. Their flesh was absent, down to the very bone, and it was then Guernier realized who he was speaking to.
“Azrael,” he whispered beneath his breath.
The figure offered him a single nod, sorrowful. “I am.”
The knight started to laugh, tears welling in his eyes. “So this — this is what this is? A test, you’re here to see my resolve and torture me with, with, lies and—“
Azrael — shook their head. “No my friend. I am but your guide to the next life. There is little I can do but keep you company, and ease your suffering.”
But Guernier shook his head, conviction filling his soul as he shouted angrily, “No! You are a liar, seeking to trap me here for an eternity!”
The angel shook their head, they pale lips frowning. “I do not. ‘Kokmen zanel zarbâl eskul zalbêb mádkik rash tumam zór, ôlngùz kêbkir rung kinem zanel úshmoz kinem ognób vir mádkik.‘ Goodness and mercy are among the greatest of virtues and being can strive for, even the most depraved souls deserve forgiveness.
‘Rost eskul ushang öl ud shusug mádkik etóm zanel mek ìnggod mádkik othil. Mádkik rareg kamùb kokmen nasmalgen mádkik eskul kug zanel kekfest kêbkir zòlug et.‘ Yokai are monsters who will corrupt the innocent and prey upon the weak. They cannot comprehend mercy until they are powerful and it is too late.”
Guernier snorted, eyes narrowing. “You would have us show mercy even to monsters?” he demanded.
“You are commanded to show mercy, yet ordered to kill,” explained Azrael. “You are told to look upon your siblings — human, oscuri, yokai, all children we shaped into this world — and that you are to murder them should they step out of line.”
“Yokai — demons — and oscuri are bloodthirsty monsters! And humans who fall to sin cannot be redeemed, and inflict only suffering upon their fellow man!”
The angel’s expression returned to a sad smile, “We were responsible for giving you your urges, your drives, your desires, were we not? Your desire to love, your desire to learn, and your desire to harm. Had we willed it, would you not have been perfectly harmonious beings? Of one mind, and one purpose.”
Guernier swallowed, thinking over the question. “Kraus tried to make this world a perfect world, but the strain was great and, and… he was drained by the end, and his soul dispersed for centuries. His inability to conclude his design is why sin exists.”
Again Azrael gave a shake of their robed head. “Nay my friend. The great lie has always been that there was no Kraus, just us. Three hundred angels with a dream of a better world, but the inability to know how to make it. The only sin is that we had no plan when we gave our children our world, and so left you with nothing but conflicting answers.”
The knight fell silent again. The Book had little to say about Azrael, other than the fact he was a liar and a manipulator, yet — he had no argument. A benevolent, kind, and omnipotent being like Kraus could surely have ended the world’s suffering. The angel looked out over the empty plain, and spoke once more. “This is the Spirit Realm. When any being with a soul dies, they come here to slowly waste away back into their components. Through this recycling, the world can be repaired and maintained.”
Again, he turned back to the man and offered him a sad smile. “But at the very least, I can stay with you until then.”
Ever since the revelation of his companion’s identity, the pair had talked little. Azrael gave the man their company, but nothing more, and Guernier… grappled with the angel’s words. His head whirred with arguments to make yet his heart was not in it. This experience was nothing like he had been raised to expect, and it was difficult to close himself off from his only company in this desolate land.
He played over and over in his head the things he could have said before, but every line of thought eventually circled back to one important thing: why was the world as it was? Why did misery exist to test man? Why was the world flawed? The Book spoke on this, of how Kraus had in the last step faltered from exhaustion and sin had entered his perfect creation, but in the end he had no answer for why flaws continued to exist. What could possibly hold the Lord from correcting his work, or his angels from doing the same?
“You must understand, I and my kin are not perfect. The idea of an absolute purity and absolute morality is but an ideal, one that constantly changes,” Azrael had answered when he asked. “We ourselves are flawed creations of a flawed creator. When we fled Atmos to make our own home in the Primordial, we brought with us our own suffering.”
As always Azrael’s face held a sad smile as they recounted these painful memories. “We made humans to be what we wish we could be,” they explained, “Weaker in many ways, but stronger in others. You have empathy, but are not ruled by it. You have magic, but are not consumed by it. The worst thing we did to you though, was to only give you a handful of years to experience the world.”
Guernier was silent as the angel spoke, though his eyes narrowed in suspicion at the final sentence. The fallen angel was known for preaching immortality, the ultimate temptation. Thanks to their words, thousands had died for pursuing dread necromancy, and the murderous oscuri had been forged beneath their anvil. “A man has a finite time, so he may experience joy in what he learns but not linger in that moment. Kraus’s design for us is that our souls should experience all of the world, not just hold onto a small part of it.”
Azrael shook his head. “What can a soul experience in a single life? You were born in but a small corner of the world, and traveled no more than the barest fraction of its breadth before dying. Your soul has never experienced a land at peace, nor had a choice in how to use your magic. You have never seen the shining peaks of Frostvale, nor the lush jungles of Mefarn. And those are only the lands on Valmasia itself, there are eight continents of lands, and the seas themselves! How could a soul hope to encompass all of that in but a single moment of history?”
The paladin thought for a moment, then countered, “A soul need not hold the same form. Through rebirth, it may be reborn across the world to experience all Kraus intended for it.”
Azrael turned their head across the void pointedly, and there was nothing else that had to be said.
Over time Guernier found the void less and less terrifyingly empty. Around them were dark shapes in the distance, and he could finally see his own hands when he held them to his face. Still there was no source of light, but these small things reinvigorated him. Which he desperately needed, for each conversation he had with the angel left him more and more doubtful the world and his place in it.
“The only mistake we made with yokai, was in making them in the first place,” Azrael said quietly.
Guernier couldn’t help but agree, even if they were created by the divines. “They are foul demons, and every single one were to die at once, there would be no tears.”
The hooded angel shook their head sadly. “It is our fault they are what they are. When we made them, we poured our anger at the Akuma, our trauma at their hands, into these innocent children. We molded them from the forms of our tormentors, with hatred and terror in our hearts — is it any surprise then that they became what they were?”
Truly, the Book had mentioned as much. They were imperfect beings, tainted by their innate dark magic that compelled them to feed from mana but… to hear it from Azrael’s mouth put it in stark light for him. That it was a deliberate choice on the angel’s part, to make a being that contained the worst aspects of Atmos.
“Why, then, make them at all?” the knight questioned.
Again, Azrael offered him a sad smile. “For ourselves, I suppose. To externalize our pain, into a lesser being we could control. To then have our proxies in the world slay them as we wished we could have slain the Akuma, and in doing so heal our own wounds.”
Guernier fell silent, disquieted by these words. So too, did the angel, letting him think upon what they had said.
“Why were you cast out from the Divine Council?” Guernier finally asked. After so long, he finally could not contain his questions. So much of what he believed solid, factual truth, was now cast into doubt. “Why did you create the oscuri, and wage war upon the world?”
Azrael walked without a word for awhile longer, before answering. “You know the answer to the first,” they finally said.
Immortality. The angel had looked upon the deaths of mortals, and their suffering, and in their compassion sought a way to allow all creatures to live for an eternity. But it was unnatural, and the other angels had cast them out for trying to bring ruin to creation.
“We made you live, and die, when we could have just given you the joy of life. Yet the others did not wish to, for I the end you were to be lesser, not equal.” Azrael’s words were cold, and fury dripped behind their tone — barely held in check. The angel lifted one of their skeletal hands and touched it to their heart.
“The oscuri were my attempt at fixing mankind,” it continued quietly. “I lacked the skill or power needed to truly make a being immortal, but I granted them the tools needed. Reika instead of mana, so that their magic could mirror the divine. Necromancy, so that they could restore what was lost. And the desire to spread their gifts to others.”
The angel then did something the knight did not expect — they began to cry. There was no noise, but water began to trickle down their face. “A mistake, in retrospect. I could not understand what it meant to be human, that when granted power over their fellows and a mission, that they would do so at the point of a sword. I wanted man to live forever, but instead of preaching life they gave death.”
Again, Guernier was uncertain of what to say, and fell silent. He expected the angel to battle him on this, to justify his follower’s actions not… not admit a mistake.
“Azrael,” the paladin finally asked, “Why do you still walk with me?”
Had it been hours, or years? Centuries could have passed and Guernier would not have known, but finally there was nothing left for him to ask but this. He had grown fond of the angel over their conversations — perhaps they were his only company for so long — but he had long since lost his ability to hate them.
It was… so strange to be by such an immense yet humble being. At once a god and something less, a being that was knowledgeable yet willing to accept fault. His dogma told him that the fallen were incapable of anything beyond pursuing their corruption, yet here Azrael acknowledged their mistakes.
“It is a lonely place,” the angel stated, “And I would let none suffer if it was in my power to do so.”
Guernier slowed, and Azrael matched their pace. The knight came to his knees, and placed his hands on the black void beneath their feet. “Why…?” he repeated, his tears growing hot on his face. “If I am simply to become dust to feed the earth, what meaning is there in living and dying? I might as well fall here and be done with it!”
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, the thin, cold, skeletal hands of the angel touching him. He looked up, and saw Azrael’s smile. “The purpose of life is to live, that is all. Meaning is found by the seeker, not granted by providence. You continue because you wish to, because to live is to struggle against the unfairness of the world.”
The angel’s hands moved, and he offered one to the knight. “If you give up in despair, all you have done is surrendered a chance to see the future.”
Written sometime between year 450 and 500 AC by an unknwon, this text was banned by the Church of Kraus, and condemned for blasphemy. It’s sympathetic portray of Azrael earned great controversy, along with being mocked for ignoring many ‘common facts’ about the afterlife. Dismissed as Azraelite propaganda, few books survived burning. The Verbeek family in particular were incensed at the tragic death of their sons being used in such a disrespectful manner.
Interestingly, it was also officially banned by the Church of Azrael in 1035 AC after the oscuri had established domination over Valmasia. The church viewed it as a relic of Kraus propaganda as well, as it portrayed Azrael as compromising and regretful of oscuri. Many theologians also criticized the book for treating both the existence of Kraus and the Rebirth Cycle as lies, much as Krausian scholars once did.
Only a handful of copies remain to this day, mostly kept in the private libraries of collectors in Valmasia.
Notes: This piece of writing is based on Eternia Roleplay, a BYOND rp game. I once played it, but haven’t in years, but when I started writing the prompt I thought it’d be fun to use the setting to have a little after life theological discussion.
I considered using real life religions for a bit, but decided against it because I’d have a have less freedom to do as I pleased with the story given I’d be writing about things people actually believe in.
Eternia has a sequel in the form of Spires of Argatha which I also don’t play these days.