Freebie Mondays: Meet the Reaper

Freebie Mondays: Meet the Reaper

In the beginning there was darkness. Until the Celestial Mother pricked her finger and bled light into the world.

But still, the darkness remained.

As life spread across the galaxy, infinite in its diversity and glorious in its resplendence, the celestial fabric of that early existence remained. Though suns may fill planetary skies by day, always night returns like a shroud, making the light of moons soft and the twinkle of stars distant.

It is this concealing darkness in which the Reaper walks, and it is this time which the reaper rules. For without darkness there would be no need for illumination, and without change there would be only static.

Some say that Aleonath was born alone into a universe of potential. But for every force, there is an equal opposite. And so, when Aleonath walked the void, Nith walked beneath her and to the side, lurking always just beneath the universe’s shadow-shrouded surface, waiting for the right moment to reveal themself.

But though Nith has always been, mortals were not always aware of their existence. Aleonath, despite her infinite wisdom, cannot act against her nature. What she creates, she cannot also destroy, for this would be like driving a knife into her own heart. So much did she treasure her creations, that she could not bear to instill within them a sense of time or decay.

Fragility, however, is mortality’s nature. And mortals can only borrow from the essence of the Celestial Mother, not keep the gifts which are granted. So Aleonath’s creations came to know pain as they toiled beneath sun and moon for survival. Suffering became simply another aspect of life beneath the great balls of fire the Celestial Mother set into the sky.

Until one great band of warriors set off upon the ultimate hunt. Their village was plagued by monsters of enormous size who knocked over their houses and injured their companions. No longer could they abide by the pain and suffering caused by these creatures despite the fact that they were creations of the beloved mother goddess and, thus, cherished by their maker. Many months they spent fashioning great spears and arrows in hopes they could instill fear within the beasts and ultimately keep them at bay.

After hours of training and practice, the strongest donned their armor, lifted their weapons and set out on the hunt. In those days, most food was gathered from the abundance provided by the Mother, so death was not in their minds, merely freedom.

The fight was long and hard. To this day, many glorious songs are sung of the triumph and bravery of those who fought the beasts. When the dust settled, many were injured, but the herd had also fled.

No victory can come without cost, however, and this victory exacted a heavy price. In the center of the battlefield lay broken and bloody the form of the village’s greatest warrior and the twisted body of beast they fought – the herd leader, largest and strongest of them all. Their wounds were severe, and both writhed and moaned in their desire to escape their terrible suffering. No healing powers were known at that time that could have restored either to their former state. Yet their mortal bodies persisted, unable to escape the unrelenting hook of the agony on which they were speared.

“Oh Great Mother,” the warrior cried out at last. “Your gifts to me have been great, and I have been grateful for each and every one, so it pains my heart greatly to ask for one thing more. But if you could find a way to release me from the pain that even now gnaws at my limbs, my gratitude would be eternal.”

No sooner were the words spoken than did the beast writhing on the ground beside the warrior unleash a mighty growl. With all the strength left in its body it heaved. Its great muscles spasmed and then, from the depths of its body, came an egg.

Glimmering white of shell and without dent or blemish, the fragile form slipped into the center of the battlefield and, there, began to crack. Within moments, the shell burst forth and from it floated a strange, shadow-shrouded figure.

When the figure reached from within their cloak to set a hand on the great beast, its pained movements ceased, and it fell limp upon the grass.

Then the shadow-cloaked figure turned to the warrior, and he heaved a great sigh of relief for he saw within the shadows of the cloak a face not unlike his face, but glowing with the celestial essence of the Great Mother.

“Behold,” spoke the reaper as they raised both of their wispy hands high, “you asked for oblivion and I have arrived. No more shall you be forced to bear eternal the ills of the world. But no more shall the fruits of the universe be forever yours. For always I will come, though you may know not when.”

Then Nith set their hands upon the suffering warrior. And when the reaper closed his eyes, his body fell still and his suffering came to an end.

And thus does death come for us all, from the tiniest of insects to the brightest of stars!

Meet the Reaper!

If the Celestial Mother is the embodiment of life in all its forms, then the Reaper is her direct counterpart, the embodiment of death and decay. Known as “Nith” or sometimes “Neath” (short for “beneath”), the Reaper is as universally worshiped and respected as the head of the pantheon.

The Reaper appears to have no set form. In fact, they take the form most expected by those they visit. A human, for example, might see a human figure, where as a centaur would see a centaur or a gnome a gnome – and so on. Always, however, the Reaper is said to wear a long, loose-fitting black cloak with a deep hood that hides their face in shadow. Sometimes the cloak is formed from the void itself with swirling stars and planets hidden within the folds of the hood. For this reason many followers of Nith claim the Reaper is Aleonath’s sibling rather than one of her children.

Aleonath remains the god of the pantheon most closely associated with the Reaper. Even those that do not believe Nith was born into the universe at the same moment as Aleonath in order to achieve celestial balance often acknowledge that where one travels the other is also found, meaning that they as often act in concert as in opposition. Some think that Aleonath and Nith were lovers rather than siblings, which could explain why the Celestial Mother so heavily mourned the death of the Reaper.

Nith rules the realm of death as Aleonath rules the realm of light. Nith is also said to hold dominion over night, the time of death and shadow.

Those who believe in an afterlife must pass through Nith’s realm in order to reach it. In fact, Nith is believed to serve as the gateway as well as the guardian at the gate. If the Reaper deems a soul unworthy of passage, they may accost the soul during the crossing or condemn it to an eternity of agony. Sometimes, the Reaper banishes souls back to the mortal realm to earn a safe crossing.

Though it is believed Nith once provided necrotic powers to the strongest of their followers, that magic has become weak, and some has faded from the mortal realms. The most powerful restorative magic that once allowed the dead to return to life has stopped working since Nith passed out of existence.

It is believed by many that Nith was toppled from their celestial throne by the hand of Agos, the god of war and Aleonath’s chosen champion. According to followers of Nith, Agos turned their wrath against the Reaper without provocation and slew them out of unreasonable outrage. Some believe Agos slew Nith because they refused to stop reaping the souls of mortals, from whence he himself came. Others believe he simply went mad with power. In either case, when Agos slew the reaper, parts of their magic ceased to flow, causing the arts of such practitioners to falter.

Some say the Reaper’s specter still haunts the corridors leading to the afterlife, preventing unworthy souls from making the crossing. Many also believe that if Nith’s divine essence could be restored to the heavens, necromantic magic would return to full strength. Unfortunately, all of the high priest’s efforts to do so have yet to bear fruit.

As a result of Agos’s aggression toward Nith, his depiction is forbidden in most official temples dedicated to the Reaper. Only small sects of the religion are willing to accept or forgive the war god, as they view death as so universal they believe that even the Reaper should one day experience their own touch.

It is unwise to anger the Reaper…

One day, outraged by the death of a favored mortal, the Celestial Mother stomped into the Reaper’s hall and slammed the door behind her. “Why is it,” she demanded as she paced frantically from one side of the hall to the other, “that you must always steal that which I treasure most? Can you not reap more heavily among your chosen and leave to me mine?”

From the depths of their shadowed hood, the Reaper offered their sister a smile, for this was hardly the first time they had been subjected to such an argument. “What you ask is simply not possible,” they explained in patient tones. “For even those who love you most eventually long for my tender embrace.”

“This, you often claim,” Aleonath replied, her tone and expression dour. “But I begin to doubt your claims, for many of the souls you have stolen have pledged their loyalty to me eternally, and I have not considered releasing them before you spirit them away from my hallowed halls.”

“You forget,” the Reaper countered in their usual calm and unruffled tone, “it was your creations who called me from the ether in order to fulfill their desires. If they did not wish for me, I would not be.” And then the Reaper shrugged, for what else could they do but serve the duty they had been called into existence to complete.

“I know well, for I remember the birth of grief more keenly than any,” the Celestial Mother snapped, displeased to be reminded of this flaw in her creative method. “But while I understand that some mortals are all too eager to experience the sweet touch of oblivion, this does not mean that all wish to hold your hand. Indeed, I know for a fact that you often take those who have not yet tired of the life they live.”

“This is true,” the Reaper acknowledged, still without ire. “And a sad reality of my task it is. But without the sting of grief, your mortal creations would never be able to savor the gifts you have given them to their fullest extent.”

Again, the Celestial Mother grew angry and, at last, she paused in her mad pacing so that she could clench her fists at her sides. Despite her best efforts, she could never seem to rile the Reaper, and that only troubled her temper further. “Shall we put your claims to the test then?”

“If you desire as much,” the Reaper agreed.

Pleased, the Celestial Mother relaxed her fists and smiled instead. “Let us halt your reaping for a period of two years and see how the affected mortals respond,” she suggested.

“That is too great a suffering to visit on such a large population,” the Reaper replied without hesitation, staunch in their devotion to their duty. “Let us instead choose a single mortal to represent all. To that mortal, I will grant the eternity you desire for all and we will see how they respond.”

The Celestial Mother was displeased to have her true desire overturned, but she graciously accepted. “On the condition that, should our chosen mortal enjoy the full extent of the life they have been granted, your reaping will have to be confined to only those with dread longing.”

To this, the Reaper readily agreed and asked the Celestial Mother whom she would choose to receive this gift. The man chosen was not unknown to the Reaper, and since they had great dislike for this particular mortal, they eagerly wove their curse.

“Go as you will,” the Celestial Mother ordered her chosen disciple. “And do as you please, for never shall you feel the cold hand of death upon your shoulder.”

With great joy did the mortal go on his way and upon parting the goddess and her sibling decided that they would meet one year to the day to observe the works of their agreement.

But a mere six months passed before the Celestial Mother heard the wailing of her devoted worshiper pleading to be released from great pain they had encountered on their travels. Try though she did to stifle it, the moaning and weeping eventually summoned the Reaper, to whom the mortal said, “Please reverse your curse and grant me deliverance from this terrible fate I have suffered.”

The Reaper glanced once at their sibling then offered a simple shrug. “What I have done cannot be undone,” they announced and vanished before either goddess or follower could speak further.

When the year of the appointed meeting arrived, still the mortal sobbed with fear and pain, begging the Reaper to undo the curse set upon their shoulders. “For I have fallen upon inescapable ill omens in addition to my injuries,” the mortal insisted, “and never do I think I will overcome the obstacles set in my path.”

“Do you see now?” the Reaper asked of their sibling.

But the Celestial Mother set her jaw and shook her head saying, “You have made this year miserable on purpose. Give us ten and we will see how things change.”

“Very well,” the Reaper agreed and, once more, departed.

Ten years later the gods did meet again. The Celestial Mother observed her devoted worshiper and noted that their life had grown much easier. So the deities parted with the agreement that they would meet again in another decade.

For several decades and several meetings, the Celestial Mother was pleased over the progress of her chosen and this caused her to grow smug.

But soon a century passed and then another, and the wailing of her chosen grew great again. “Please, Reaper,” said he, “though I have made great use of the years you have given me and created great works, I grow tired. Those I love have passed from the world, and I have grown sad and lonely. I no longer wish to toil but merely to rest.”

“Those you loved before may have gone, but you will find new loves to keep you company,” the Celestial Mother declared and called the meeting to a close.

It seemed that her prediction would be correct, for the wailing of her chosen ceased when new souls came into his life. But when again the gods met to observe their handiwork, it was to the Reaper the devotee appealed. “It is true that I have found new loves and new purposes,” he admitted. “But already they begin to slide from me. I do not wish to experience the loop of grief and suffering again. Please allow me to go before the others are taken from me.”

The Celestial Mother was displeased but remained adamant. Surely the problem was related to the loss, and so she demanded the curse continue. But still, the man to whom she granted immortality wept. Work weighed upon his shoulders and when he attempted to escape it, he grew bored. Always there was a cycle in which he became trapped, and always the only sure way to escape it was the Reaper.

The Celestial Mother remains, to this day, insistent that time will eventually prove her correct, but the Reaper, who remains ever aware of the mortal’s desperate pleas, refuses to allow such suffering to spill onto the other mortals which they ultimately protect.

And so, when the moment comes for the Reaper to lay their cold hand upon your shoulder, rejoice. For though the world may, at times, be cruel and unjust, you will eventually find the rest which all deserve.

. . .
This is part of a new series developing lore for my Tales of Cryptonia homebrew D&D campaign. (Which you can learn more about here.)

Incidentally, I streamed the creation of this post in case you want to watch it come together!

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