I am aware of being. At some point I seem to have stopped being, but now I have resumed being. All is stillness. I have not opened my eyes. Indeed, I am not entirely sure if I have any eyes to open.Or ears to hear. I am only aware of breathingperhaps mine, or perhaps that of a greater being of which I have become a part. I do not know what or where I now am, yet I feel no urgency to discover what has become of me. All is tranquility, all is peace. It is good to be dead.I know I died because I remember the events that led up to my dying. Or most of them, at least. Having been released by the Lord Commander of Chailhelm, our group -- the Cuthbertian cleric Bakari, the woodsman Devlin, the stealthy Synast, the valiant Rowan, the Syndar elf Meliusine, and myself -- made its way to the wizard Damas who agreed to teleport us to Koidarra to investigate the portal we had discovered in the headquarters of the Nerullite cultists. To our shock, we found the partially ruined city under threat once more, this time from a lurid orange vortex in the sky--the very thing the survivors had described seeing when the place had been set ablaze. And hovering above the town square was the Mysteriarch we'd been so desperate to track down! He cast down the bag of Oeridien's bones, saying that they were useless to him. He denied creating the vortex, blaming it on Kirinafor. And finally he threw down a key to the portal, warning us to stay out of Ifium. He said he would just as soon as killed us (and he certainly has the power to do so), but some other person had placed us under protection --who, he would not say. And then he was gone.Despite his great age, Damas became like an excited schoolboy at the prospect of being able to activate the portal. We made our way to Kirinafor's rooms in the cult complex without difficulty. Bakari cast a divination and was told by celestial powers to "Put aside the cloudiness of your mind / And you may be rewarded with what you seek." Damas investigated the portal and concluded that it was a gate to the astral plane. After some debate we decide to use the key to open it. We saw a metallic pearl-covered pool beyond... and events began to occur very quickly. Devlin and his animal companions, Tala the wolf and Alfie the cat, immediately fell under a compulsion to enter the portal. Bakari managed to restrain the ranger, but the animals ran in and disappeared. Without hesitation, Damas followed them. The rest of us hesitated, looking at each other, and then one by one stepped into the gate.Shit got weird.I found myself standing beneath a bright red sky. Every so often a silver star would shoot across it, and various structures floated here and there in the ether. Before me stood the monastery I trained inonly it was alive. The walls were breathing and were like flesh to the touch. There were sounds, too. Screams. Familiar screams. The voice of my sister, screaming for help! But my sister was long dead.The gate behind us had disappeared. We stood on a path that led to the monastery. There was no sign of Damas.We soon learned that this plane reserved other surprises for us. It turned out that each of us experienced it differently. What I saw as my monastery was, to each of the others, some other location that had been important in their life. The phantasm of my sister's voice was, to each of them, someone else's voice. Moreover, I was no longer able to hear the voices of some of my companions, though they were clearly speaking.
There was little choice but to enter the building, the door of which closed behind us and disappeared.Inside we found many strange things: desecrated altars and shrines. Skeletons of long-dead priests. Statues that appeared differently to each of us. Pools of blood. Cruel traps. Rooms where gravity was reversed. Containers of powerful acid. Pools of brown sludge. Fantastic creatures of nightmare that attacked upon sight. Our spells often produced unpredictable and dangerous effects, as did the "chaos wine" we discovered in some barrels. Devlin turned bright red while Bakari's gums swelled and rotted. Time and time again we found that there was but one way forward: twice it involved stepping into pulsating uterus-like tunnels that closed in about us, pulling us through while strange voices spoke in our heads.Clearly we were being guided and tested, but to what end? And by whom?The traps and the monsters gradually ground us down, as did accidents from spells and the chaos wine. There was no end in sight, and we grew desperate. At one point, I made a fateful decision. It had occurred to me that despite the Mysteriarch's claim to the contrary, the bones of Oeridien still constituted a danger to our world. We had no certain way of re-sealing the bones within the crypt and Meliusine gave us little help to believe that the elves could help. Indeed our party was divided internally as to what course to follow. Under the circumstances, it occurred to me that the best thing for me to do would be to hide the bones where no one would find them, perhaps in a lead-lined box. Now, trapped on another plane, my chance presented itself. At one point, while Devlin was unconscious from his injuries and the others were busy searching for something or other, I took Oeridien's bones from the Bag of Holding that Devlin carried and bore them to the container of acid we'd investigated earlier. I plunged them in and heard a satisfying hiss as they were consumed. I felt a great peace come over me. Previously I'd vowed not to rest, nor even to cut my hair or beard, until Oeridien's bones were safely beyond the power of the Nerullites. Now they were. I told no one in the party. They would learn in time, and for the moment our priorities were elsewhere.
It may have been that my satisfaction at having accomplished that task made me careless. In the next battle we faced two horrific constructs of flesh. I rushed to face them, heedless of the danger. Flattened by the blows of their great fists, I lay unmoving on the floor until, the battle over, my comrades tended to my wounds. We began casting spells to heal ourselves but the evil effects of the wild magic undid us. A huge pit suddenly appeared beneath us, some 12 or 15 fathoms deep. I tried to slow my fall as best I could in my injured condition. The last thing I saw was Devlin, twisting in the air to cushion Rowan's fall with his own body. And then, blackness.
Now, all is light. Or seems to be. I am not conscious of actually having seen anything. I feel no need to even try to open my eyes; perhaps I never will. My mind tells me that this is not the Enlightenment I have been seeking all my adult life; it is merely another step on the path toward it. But there is no rush. For now, I will simply be.
Image credits: Buddhist samsara, uncredited; "Old Merlin" by Richard Svenssen via elfwood.com; Gibbering Mouther, artist uncredited, via wizards.com; Flesh Golem by Blazboros via deviantart.com.