The Nether

Just as every living thing casts a shadow, so too does the mortal realm have its own dark simulacrum. This is the Nether, the realm of the dead, a place where the living are not meant to tread. A cold wind blows here, mourning the souls of the departed as they wander beneath a starless sky, waiting to meet their final judgment.

Like the Prime, the Nether is divided in two: The Near Nether and the Deep Nether. The Near Nether sits next to the mortal realm, a shadowy double where the souls of the recently dead linger for a time. The mortal realm is visible but twisted here. Colors are muted, plants appear withered, buildings appear crumbled, and the living are little more than indistinct shadows.

Those who travel the Near Nether eventually reach a river that does not appear in the mortal realm. This is the River of Souls, the border with the Deep Nether, a perilous crossing aided by the mysterious Ferryman. Beyond the river lies the Ashen Wastes, a bone white desert half lit under a black moon. Souls wander here, some lost, others fettered, and still more made deranged and dangerous from their suffering. Avoiding them does not guarantee safety, either, for even the air draws the warmth from living bodies, making it one of the least hospitable realms for a mortal to venture.

Denizens

Most of the denizens of the Nether are souls of recently deceased mortals, the fate of whom is determined by several factors. Souls who receive proper burials, prayers, and offerings enjoy safe passage, guidance, and gifts to aid them on their journey through the Nether. The luckiest are escorted by reapers or agents of the divine, such as the serathine or storm maidens. All too often, however, souls of the dead fall victim to the many hazards of the Nether, ending up lost, bound, or worse.

  • Chained - Souls without bodies are especially vulnerable to the dark arts. Those bound by magic are known as the Chained. The chains for which they're named often feature vicious barbs and are always held by their master, sometimes disappearing into thin air if the master is distant but always pointing in that master's direction. Many cry or wail in apparent agony over their bondage, but nonetheless obey the one who binds them.
  • Flayed - It is said the Ashen Wastes were formed from the decomposed remains of innumerable souls over the ages. The Flayed are a testament to this, souls who wandered too long or suffered too greatly and lost all vestige of their humanity. Some appear as skinless apparitions, others as skeletons or merely just floating skulls. What distinguishes them is their utter lack of speech or emotion and their aggression toward any being, living or dead, who wanders too close.
  • Lost Souls - Souls who are forced to enter the Deep Nether without the Ferryman's help or who travel the wastes for too long without a guide eventually become lost. They appear confused and disoriented, forgetting they are dead and wandering aimlessly. Communicating with them can be difficult or impossible, though it is said feeding them a few drops of blood can temporarily rouse them from their dementia.
  • Penitents - Penitents appear as souls bound in weights and chains representing the sins they committed in life. Unlike lost souls, penitents remember they are dead and understand the burden they bear. Some may return to the Near Nether to communicate with the living in the hopes of atoning, possibly becoming wraiths in the process. Others may journey to the Mountain of Woe to be cleansed of their guilt. Still more seek flight and sanctuary from the reapers, forestalling their final judgment as long as they can. Practitioners of the dark arts are fond of penitents because their self-bondage makes them easier to enslave.
  • Wisps - Wisps appear as glowing motes of light that wander aimlessly through every corner of the Nether. They are the unformed spirits of babies who were stillborn or else died shortly after birth. Like numina, their counterparts in the Prime, wisps have little awareness of other beings, ignore attempts to interact with them, and cannot be injured or destroyed. Practitioners of the dark arts sometimes summon them as convenient light sources.
  • Wraiths - Souls who linger too long or have unfinished business may become unquiet, restless, or vengeful. Known as wraiths, they are distinguishable from other souls by their twisted, even monstrous, features. While intelligent, many wraiths are delusional or hopelessly fixated on the object of their unresolved business, making them difficult to communicate with. Wraiths are most common in the Near Nether, where they reach out into the mortal realm, haunting the people, objects, places, or even times closely associated with their death. Banishing a wraith often involves settling whatever unresolved business keeps it from moving on, or else cleansing the thing giving it a foothold in the mortal realm.

Other denizens of the Nether are actually natives of the realm. Most exist to perform some functionary duty regarding the dead.

  • Ferryman - Any who seek to pass from the Near Nether into the Deep Nether must cross the River of Souls, and it is the Ferryman who meets them. His identity is unknown since he never speaks, though some theorize he may be an aspect of Banekeril. This theory is supported by his ability to manifest in many places at once. The Ferryman always appears the same, as a figure clad in a dirty, torn cloak, his features inscrutable beneath the shadow of his hood. He accepts coin in exchange for safe passage, only turning away the unburied dead. He vanishes before any who attack him or refuse his toll, leaving them to turn back or brave the crossing by other means.
  • Reapers - Wandering the wastes, the Near Nether, and even the mortal realm in search of souls, reapers enforce the natural order of death. Many have a strong command of the dark arts and wield deadly weapons of pale ivory, making them fearsome opponents. Despite appearing undead, experts regard them as a natural occurrence, manifestations of the will of the Nether itself. As such, they are single-minded and merciless in their duty to lead souls to the Gates of Judgment by any means necessary.
  • Deaths - Nobles of the Ashen Court, the seven Deaths are the peerless masters of the Nether, second only to Etejeril himself. They maintain their dominion from the Last City, commanding the reapers at their leisure, keeping watch over the souls of the dead. Each has their own tastes and temperaments; Age, for instance, is known to be fair-minded and even cordial, whereas encounters with Disaster or Violence are almost always fatal. While not immortals in their own right, they are suspected to be aspects of Etejeril, and are far beyond the ken of even the strongest mortals at any rate.

Domains

  • Amaranthine - Also called the Forlorn City, Amaranthine was founded by a human necromancer named Vagald the Mourner during the Vedrischtal. Unwilling to let his beloved Alvonna's soul be judged, Vagald constructed a fortress within the Nether itself, the walls of which could keep the reapers at bay. As time passed, a city sprung up around the fortress and Vagald eventually turned to lichdom to remain with his lady. The two now rule over a city of ghosts, some bound by Vagald, others who serve willingly to earn sanctuary from the reapers. Adventurers who brave the Nether occasionally visit Amaranthine for shelter and supplies.
  • Demesnes - Pronounced "demane," a demesne is a reality created by an especially strong wraith. Much like dreamscapes in the Astral, demesnes obey the will of the wraith who created it, often reproducing settings or events from the wraith's life. Demesnes sometimes spill over into the mortal realm during especially active hauntings.
  • Last City - Just before the Gates of Judgment lies the long-decaying ruins of a vast city. Historians believe it may have been a great civilization once, a sprawling metropolis built by masters of the dark arts during the Age of Wonders. Now it serves as the seat of the Ashen Court, populated only by reapers, the seven Deaths, and Etejeril himself, with naught but dust as testament to the arrogance of its original builders.
  • Mountain of Woe - The Mountain of Woe is one of the few features visible from a distance on the otherwise flat expanse of the Ashen Wastes. A hopeful beacon of light shines at its summit, drawing in penitents even as tormented screams and wails drive away those who venture near. The Mountain is said to have seven levels, each representing a progressive level of suffering meant to cleanse souls of their sins and regrets. Those who make it to the top are said to absolve themselves and ascend the Path of Paradise in spite of their wrongdoings. Some penitents, of course, carry too much of a burden to have any hope of reaching the summit, leading many to regard the Mountain as little more than a cruel joke.

Travel

Reaching the Near Nether is done, like most realms, via a properly attuned portal. Many factors play a part in this attunement: It is easiest at dusk, during the new moon, in the presence of the undead, and in places where death is common, such as graveyards, crypts, or battlefields. Less scrupulous spellcasters may also employ fresh death, sacrificing a living victim in order to create strong but temporary attunement for their purposes.

With the exception of its denizens, the Near Nether is generally safe of any lasting side effects. Visitors may feel pangs of inexplicable fear or sorrow, a sensation of seeing in black and white, or a chill they can't seem to shake, but these tend to be fleeting upon returning to the mortal realm.

After wandering in the Near Nether for a time, travelers inevitably come to a river that does not have an equivalent in the mortal realm. If they walk up to the shore of the river, the Ferryman appears and extends a hand, silently awaiting payment. If he is paid, travelers are allowed aboard his boat and ferried safely to the other side. Attacking him or refusing payment is foolish, since fording the river by other means is extremely hazardous. The waters sap strength and vitality quickly, causing all but the most stalwart traveler to drown. Even those who manage to swim across are confused and weak, easy prey for the many dangers lurking beyond.

Beyond the River of Souls lies the vast, barren expanse of the Deep Nether. Here the perils are much greater, such that only the dead, undead, or powerful practitioners of the dark arts can expect any measure of safety. The cold and hopelessness of the Near Nether are multiplied, causing many to flee. Food and water are scarce, if they can be found at all, and may carry deadly side effects if consumed. Wounds do not heal on their own, and healing magic is often diminished. Those who fall due to injury may expire more quickly, or in no time at all. Worse, those who linger too long in the Deep Nether may become acclimated to these effects. Grim tales tell of adventurers who ventured too far, stopping when they heard bodies fall to the ground behind them only to realize those bodies were their own.

Four natural portals exist leading out of the Nether. One is atop the Mountain of Woe and leads to the Aether. The other three are the Gates of Judgment beyond the Last City, one leading to the Pit, one to the Prime, and one to the Aether. Only the dead are permitted to use these.