"The Great Fugue"
[An excerpt from the famous orc scholar and adventurer Brakis Grimdear. For the full text, please consult the librarians of Teatree University in the city of Harkness.]
"The underworld is not the heart of a volcano as described by the Cult of Fire, nor a blue ice-fringe as described by the Cult of Ice. There is no eternal whirlwind, meaning the djinn of the Cult of Air are wrong (or metaphorical). Perhaps the Cult of Earth understands this realm best, for the underworld is a cave that expands to bounds unknown. Here, shadows rule, and the darkness has such potency that it becomes fluid and runs on the rocks. The void is lessened only by the blue lights emitted from the souls of the dead, and by the cairns, or stacks of stones and skulls, which glow internally from some secret flame, and the lanterns at the docks.
The terrain is mostly plains of a material akin to obsidian, and is intercut by hills and shade-cloak rivulets; these 'rivers' are called Little Fugues and are easy to cross as long as you don't step in them. The entrance of the realm ends at the Great Fugue, an immense black channel, although I am sure it has no current. To be truly initiated into the dark halls, one must cross the river. This is usually done by a barge called the Ferryskul, although I believe that boats buried in tombs can be used as well. On this side of the Great Fugue, the undead do not emit a glow, for they still carry their meat and cloaks and any possessions left in the grave. I think the lantern-light attracts them for they crawl across the plains intently and growl if deterred. At the docks, sarlowes strip the dead of their belongings, load the barge with freshly-shaved souls, and ferry across the Great Fugue. The dead's luggage is tossed into the river which is, in some form, alive. I did not see where the refuse went, but if you peered into the muck, you might glimpse lights in the depths and the honeycomb of tombs.
The sarlowes (these labormen of the underworld are robed halflings with faces concealed by hoods, although each had a single blue eye which shone from within; not cycloptic, but as if the other had been punctured) were efficient carvers, and could whittle a man to spirit in seconds. I watched an elf lose her long-ears and long hair, her pale skin, her accruements of sexuality, her green and brown leather coat, and a single arrow puncturing her neck, and when this was peeled away I watched the sarlowes scrape away muscle and bleached bone and even bits of personality, including her elvish grooming, artistic ability, honor, freedom, vitality, and grudges. A dwarf tyrant, too, I beheld; I think it was Urist II of Val Dhuhaim (he had died of an energetic bowel). The stone-faced king was first parted with his beard and jewelry—diadems, rings, a crown, armor plate laced with silver. Then his gentle red cloak, his garments, and all other materia that makes a fattened monarch. Urist almost kept his cruelty and folly if an observant sarlowe hadn't pulled him from the barge for a second snip—then the tyrant lost his lust, glory-love, and insolence, too.
Finally, it was my turn, and those robed barbers examined me confusedly. "Yes," I said to them. "I am still alive." The creatures chittered to each other in an underling vernacular, and then one of them asked about my trip. I explained my rationale; how I was not satisfied with the wars between humans and goblins and other species, nor the political conflicts of Harkness, that rotting capitol, or world cultures. All of these endeavors were arbitrary, and it was a testament to the entropy of scholarship that I was one of the few who still wondered what the gods were made of, if they were merely magical mortals, if there was an afterlife, how magic originated, from where the different races derived, etc, etc. How could anyone let themselves be distracted from examining the principles of the cosmos?
The sarlowes wanted to know how I had come to the land of the unliving. I will not detail my process of reaching the underworld here for it was a tedious project, but I explained to them my preparation. Just imagine a ritual with the usual accruements of necromancy: signs made from blood, infernal words, candles lit and extinguished by cold gusts of wind, wails from invisible spirits, etc, etc, and a breach into reality itself—down into which I climbed.
Finally, the sarlowes took their blades to me. It was fascinating to watch my physical experience be severed from immaterium. First they took my armament—my foul-wind sword, my cloak of ever-fire, my flying scabbard beetle for a shield, and the black crown I let hang by my neck from a chain. Then they cut away my green flesh and layers of muscle beneath, and pried away my bones. Of my persona, especially my intellect, courage, pride, and independence, I would not depart.
All of this luggage they secured in a chest for my return. And then it was the onto the Ferryskul, and onward to Hell, not to rescue a lost lover, not to seek ancient counsel, not to conquer some infernal beast or steal a wondrous artifact, but to better the annals of mankind through the cogency of research."