The supreme joke of the universe was not the delusion of mere mortals upon the
existence of greater beings who care about them, nor of their own relative
importance in the grand scheme of things. This natural insult to all living
beings was that Death should be little different from Life. Every hope and
preconcieved notion crumbles in the realization that there will be no peace
beyond the grave.

Be it on the battlefield or sick in bed, someone's demise is a transformation.
That spark leaves the flesh and is remade, in a land beyond time, into the
shape it desires to wear.

There is a sun the gives warmth, there is the ground the nourishes; but
that is all the comfort given to the dead. The soul is but energy, seeking
form. All in the afterlife is that selfsame energy, molded to the needs of
those who retain their identity.

It is the supreme irony; that Life is the only thing they have ever known, so
how could they expect the AfterLife to be any different? They made it into
the familiar; in hardship, in pain, and in the struggle that gives meaning
to their eternity.

Even the dead may die.

This is perhaps the greatest legacy of humanity. Bit by bit, they have built
it. Since the beginning of time, those that died added themselves into this
construct. They live again, and die again. Some are even born. Each soul
seeking expression leaves behind a piece of itself. Forests beyond sight,
mountains beyond recognition, and and endless sea to mystify... it is not an
easy land, but at very least it was interesting. They have sown crops and
built cities. They have raised armies and left pennants standing upon the
ground. This afterlife is humanity's own; by their own hands and their own
hearts they have made it so.

The greatest power of humanity is in its hope. Likewise, all the beasts in
the jungle retreat from humanity's greatest enemy - humanity itself. The
soul is power. In the afterlife, man must feed upon man.

Those without hope become greater than man, become the demons they desire.
These hollow hearts are not satisfied with the trappings of life, the limits
of the shape they wear. There is power there, if they were to reach for it.
Power to reshape the world, power to break through even the barrier between
life and death. There are no gods, not there. There is nothing to stop
them. Without hope is to likewise be without fear. When one has lost
everything, one is Hollow... and at that blank slate of existence, anything
becomes possible.

Packs of them roamed the lands of the restless dead . Even the mightiest of
creatures, animals that had strongest survival instinct crossing over into
become a crude soul, were not worthy of their notice. The Tyrant Lizard King
flees even so. Feral Hollows desire the only prey worth stalking. With every
human soul consumed, they become more powerful. They turn on each other,
greedy for every scrap of soul power. They may combine into something even
more than the sum of their tainted souls.

The strongest indeed become as the gods themselves, with the power to
rekindle the afterlife... or burn it down. In the face of such overpowering
hunger man seems destined to destruction.

The peril to man is man itself, so must salvation come from within. They
cried out for help, and something answered. From within it percieves. From
without it achieves. The need given form, hope turned into a weapon. A few
souls were powerful enough on their own to manifest a power separate from
that of the Hollow.

In the afterlife the languages of man ceases to become a barrier. In that
one shared tongue, they called it Gammoluth Akselor. The soul cutter.

-

-

-

-

-

-

Chapter One

-

It was was considered a minor settlement, but it was easily the largest he had
encountered thus far. The most impressive thing about it was its town wall.
It was massive, shining white in the sun, an edifice of carefully-hewn adobe
bricks completely encircling the town. It limited their expansion, but that was
deemed well worth it.

The gates were likewise large, reinforced by thick studded bands of bronze.
They were closed, and he stood there for some time just staring at them.
Eventually the sentries noticed him.

"Hey, you there!" one yelled down. He held a small bow at the ready. He saw
below a solitary figure, dusty from the road. The tunic was stained, but under
it was a well-used shirt of scale broze mail. The sentry frowned. "What do you
want here?"

"I want to enter the town" the traveler shouted back. "Could you open the
gates?"

"Are you a fool? There are Hollows about. Ten copper hyas to enter!" He
gestured to a large basket to his left, made out of wicker branches and hanging
off a pulley.

"What? What if I do not have that much? You would just abandon a poor traveler
out here?" He jabbed at the air. "Where is your humanity, man?"

It was as he had expected. "Then begone, if you have nothing to do but waste
my time!" Stupid fools. They would not risk the gates for one person, or even
an entire caravan. "If you value those copper coins higher than your life,
then so be it!"

The visitor shook his head sadly. "Lower the basket. I will pay."

"Tch." The sentry was disappointed. This was the part of the job he didn't
like. The boredom was tolerable. Physical effort was supposed to better
prepare them for a hollow attack, but he didn't have to like it. There was
a clever system of ropes and pulleys that simplified the task. The wall
guards pushed at a carousel to wind the rope back up.

Once on top, the sentry held out his palm. "Ten hyas, or I pull this lever."

The traveler looked young, in his mid-twenties. He was tall, his hair bleached
a fading blond. There was something large and cloth-wrapped on his back. He
also looked indignant, but had no choice. He paid.

"In the log, Kulnoh." his guard partner said aside. "Put it in the log..."

"Shut up, Ijis! Fine! Fourteenth hour, brought up a traveler, at cost of ten
copper hyas. Consider that damn thing marked! Psh, like you don't skim from it
too." As the traveler stepped on to the wall, the sentry loomed threateningly
over him. "Listen, boy. The slightest trouble and back out you go. I've been up
on this wall for fourty years and I'll be damned if I get blamed for letting
something in that shouldn't be in. Do you understand me?"

"I understand you." was the calm reply.

"Know this too, if you cause too much trouble we won't bother throwing you
out for the Hollows to feed on you. Some us weild the akselor." added in
the other gate guard. "Soul cutters."

"So welcome to the town of Lasurnu." the accosting sentry finished, with a
wide feral grin. It has hardly reassuring. "Have a nice stay."

The traveler climbed down the wooden ladder. At the bottom, he was met by
another guard; this one weilding a spear and looking bored. Next to him
was a desk, behind that was a scribe, who incredibly managed to look even
more bored. He, the traveler, was looking quite bewildered. Beyond was the
main street, and more people in one place than he had ever seen in... a
very long time. There was purposeful intensity there that he missed, the
unceasing movements of humanity through history. The dead... lived, to the
best of their ability, bringing with them the most vibrant portions of
existence.

"Name?" asked the scribe. The guard beside him very slightly tightened the
left-handed hold on his spear.

"Does it matter?" he replied with shrug.

"No, but I must ask. This is a town where we know everyone's names." It was
insular, a survival trait, for walled settlements were islands set in a sea
of aimless violence. "You have to be part of our Dead Book if you want to
stay." There were various mystical processes associated with it.

The traveler hesitated. Names held power. The Dead Books were a self-
maintaining piece of afterlife law. A name once written in becomes part of
its owner; and could even be used against the one who is known by it.
"My name..." An expression of frantic loss passed across his face. "Well,
some call me Oris Paulum Nova." A merchant he ran across named him that.
It sounded rather pretentious to him. The way it rolls off the tongue,
rather ornate. He didn't know the language, but could understand it when
directed at him. It tasted new. He accepted that as one of the quirks of
being dead.

The scribe nodded. Little wanderer? What a peasant-like name. The Dead
Book accepted it as a true name. He nodded and bade the visitor through. He
seemed harmless enough. It never entered into his mind how, alone, this
traveler could have made it through the old roads and forests where the
Hollows lurked.

Thus was the state of humanity in the afterlife. All of them huddled in
isolated frightened masses, as monsters of all kinds paced the shadows past
their firelights. The protector of man was alone against such an timeless
bane.

The guard handed over a slip of papyrus with his name written in unfamiliar
script. He understood any spoken language, it seems, but the written word
was something else.

Oris was was easily recognizable as someone who slumped as he walked
through the streets. "I am hungry and I have no money..." he moaned. He was
of course, ignored. Poor young fools were entirely too common. He was dead,
damn it! Why must it be so difficult to be dead? He did not remember doing
anything particularly evil; rather he remembered very little at all. His
gaze flicked around, looking for donkeys or any other beasts of burden.
"Perhaps I can shovel some excrement for some coin..."

He was getting quite good at that.

------

Arila Ulu Pelkathos remembered how she died. She died young, alone, of
starvation. It was an unwritten rule in the afterlife that finding one's
family again was all but impossible. This is the reason many formed
secondary family groups; bonded in everything but blood. It was likely
that she wouldn't go with her birth family even if she found them again.

She grew up in the charge of a Dacian named Pelkathos, so took his name.
He had a wife, who died again ("baya", reborn, in the vernacular) in the
journey to this city-state of Lasurnu along the river Sidhaas. Putting
up a tavern was hard, but they somehow managed. It got easier as she got
older and developed height and curves.

She died without knowing her cultural group but her bronzed skin, straight
hair and expressive almond eyes hinted at a life ending early in the middle
east. Most likely it was in the scarred reaches of what had been the Persian
Empire. Dead souls once past maturity simply aged slower in the afterlife,
and that was making her more and more uneasy. She had a dancer's lithe form,
a bloodline specifically encouraged to give pleasure to the sight and the
touch. It was bad enough that she attracted the coarse notice of patrons,
but as she bent over to wipe tables at night she was reminded that her
father was really nothing but a stranger she chooses to live with. When
the gates were shut for an extended period of time, such as what was going
on, he tended to partake of their own brews.

She tried hard to forget a few drunken gropes, nothing had happened after
all. He was fortunately too drunk to succeed at anything. He seemed suitably
contrite, wailing for forgiveness the day after. She smiled at the patrons,
exchanged harmless flirting here and there, slapped wandering fingers... and
through it all it was his eyes she felt. The air was growing thick, musky...
it was like her senses had gone hyper-sensitive, she was finding it hard to
breathe.

Then, it was gone.

"Out!" yelled Pelkathos, his brown beard quivering. "We don't serve your
kind here... " He made shooing sweeps of his arms at the person by the door.
"Out with you!"

"My kind?!" was the reply, taking on screech of indignation at the end.
"What do you mean my kind?!"

"The kind that stink and have no money. Begone!"

Oris Paulum grinned sheepishly and and stared down at his work-stained
garb. That was reasonable. "But, I can pay..."

"But you still stink. Now, out before I start to throw things at you!" The
patrons in the tavern made noises of support. Oris Paulum had immidiately
sought out the stables, worked for hours at what the caravan aides were
simply too willing to foist off to another, then directly proceeded to
food. Where he was hungry before now he was ravenous. And stinking to high
heaven. He simply was too hungry to notice.

His crestfallen mood showed clearly; his shoulders drooped, his face grew
slack, he turned back slowly and began to plod out back out the door. It
was all so pitiful, and to Maatli wondered if it might be feigned. No one
could so possibly be so open with his emotions. A loud, gut-busting rumble
floated through the entryway as soon he was out past its obscuring beaded
strings.

That settled her decision. She needed to get out from the stifling air
inside. She followed the oddly-innocent (and still-odorous traveler
outside). "You there!" she called out. He hadn't gone far. He turned, and
gave her such a look; full of wide-eyed, trusting hope that it pained her.
'What is it with this man?' He surely was her age, if not a bit older.
She already had counted thirty years, not including what was before her
death. 'He can't be real. That can't be natural.'

"You... you're an novumora, aren't you?"

"A what?" he answered, with a puppy-like tilt of his head. She resisted
the urge to throw a wooden sandal at his face.

"A freshly-dead, a new arrival!" she retorted. "Don't you know anything?
You cannot have been born to this world. How long have you been dead?"

"Does it matter?" he asked, tilting his head to the other side.

"Yes! Accept it, you're dead. You can't come back to life unless it is
your time. Now, how long...?" She put her fists to her waist and jutted
her hips out. It was supposed to be a contemptous motion, in a dance. She
didn't realize many of her unconscious expressions were so. "Has no one
explained things to you?"

Oris Paulus thought back. The merchant who named him had been a nice
enough person, but they didn't have much chance for conversation as
they clung to a raft through white-water rapids. In fact, he was knocked
off right in the middle of asking what being dead was all about, as it was
still as god-damned frightening as being alive.

"I... am not sure. I think I might have been knocked on the head at
some point, there is so much I do not know."

"Wonderful..." Arila huffed. "Stay here. As long as you don't come
inside I believe I may feed you."

He nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, I will stay!"

"Oh, gods..." she muttered as she went back in. Horrible, just horrible.
"If you are there, what are you trying inflict on me?" She nodded to her
father and explained of things. Money was money, it would always smell
sweet.

----

She stayed outside and watched him eat. The sky was overcast, and the
wind was cool. The lamps inside could do nothing to chase away the
feeling of dread. She hugged herself. She looked down at him, squatting
there with the plate at his feet. She wondered what it would be like, to
be a man, and be able to sit like that. To be able to fight, and decide
one's own fate. Women as far she had known were made to be submissive.
She felt so damn weak! She was no longer an innocent in regards to love
and lust, but the thought of being taken against her will still
frightened her. The other women around seemed to take it for granted.
Marriage to a good man meant accepting his desires, whenever it was.
To a man less gentle; they simply had to endure.

She wanted more than just being something to stick a thing into. Inside
Lasurnu that was unlikely. Society was a closed system, and every citizen
were locked to their roles. It was an engine of fear, she thought. Every
moment she spent in it she feared that day that her fear would be in
being anything else or doing the unexpected. It was still the ancient
world, and not only was slavery acceptable, her status was deemed good.

The dead should be free of such stupidity! It was not so, however, the
taunting nature of the universe. Only man can help man. Or woman can, as
the case may be.

"Did you die in battle?" she asked. She could certaintly see it happening.
His suit of bronze mail was old and worn, but a soldier's functional wear
and tear. It was not something made for inutile display. He was more than
fit enough. But he lacked common sense; she even had to slap his hands to
keep him from eating with them!

"This is a spoon." she had said. "Can you say spoon? You use it so poop
does not get into your food."

"I am not a child." he replied peevishly, grabbing it out of her hands.
He was so hungry he simply forgot. Besides, he was dead. What illnesses
lay waiting to attack his immortal soul? It was camel poopy, not sin!
Thankfully, he chose not to express that thought. It would have added to
the list of blatantly, staggeringly stupid things she had heard him say
thus far. It had yet to be an hour! Already Arila was reaching amazed
frustration. How could anyone survive thus far in such ignorance?!

"I have no idea." he replied to her question. "Is.. there any clue? I
do not seem to have retained a death wound."

"You have a formal way of speaking, do you know that? Like... nobility."
Arila had justifiable reasons to hate the nobility.

"Whatever do you mean?"

She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the outside
wall. After a while, she asked in Aramaic, "Can you understand me?"

"Uh. Yes."

She switched to Greek. "How about this? Can you understand what I am
saying?" Thirty years as a barmaid had given her some knowledge of
distinct languages of the living world.

"Yes, I can understand you."

She pushed off from the wall and walked over. She bent down and in
with her finger to the sand wrote her name in the Greek alphabet. "This
is me, you can read this, right?" At his nod, she continued the same, in
Roman. "This is Latin. It is similar to Greek, but is slowly diverging
from it. You have a Roman name. But do you feel as if you know it? That
is Greek armor you are wearing."

"The man who named me was a Roman, but I did not know at the time what
a Roman was." He sighed. "I feel as I SHOULD know Greek. What am I
speaking right now?"

"I... don't know, actually."

He looked disbelieving. "How is that possible?"

"The spoken word can be understood by anyone who died. It does not matter
what you speak, as as long you direct it to my face, I will hear you. The
ability to understand someone only applies if they are speaking to you.
People who are born here do not have this ability, but tend to be more...
powerful."

"Born?" His eyes widened. "People can be born here? Are we not... dead?
How can the dead create life?" And squinting; "... what do you mean more
powerful?"

"Think that is flesh you have there? That food you eat truly meat and
grain? Luminous beings are we, well and truly dead. Our souls simply seek
expression." She placed her hand over her womb. "Where do souls come from
in the first place? I don't believe it is beyond reason that two souls may
create a third..."

"Astounding."

Then, a little later he added. "The afterlife is truly, messed up."

Arila laughed. "It's as if all the universe is made to taunt us. Our last
and only choice is in how to take that knowledge of our own insignificance."

She began writing some more, in a script he didn't recognize. "What is
that?" he asked, while setting his plate aside.

"This is Ishaksos, the common tongue and the written way in the afterlife.
It is what allows any two people, no matter how different or far apart, to
communicate and trade. It seems to be as instinctive to all of us." She drew
more symbols in the sand. "A hyas is a copper coin. Twenty hyas is anyo, or
silver. Ten of that is solor, or gold. Do you understand this?"

"Hyas, anyo, solor. Yes. I do not have any anyos."

Arila glared. "THAT is something you should NOT be saying so easily. Never
speak to anyone any specifics about your money. Never!" At his nod, she
continued. If a Hittite was to speak to another Hittite, you wouldn't
understand their speech. What you can understand already tells much."

You are freshly dead. That you don't know of the Romans means that you either
knocked your head even more severely than you thought, or that you never
encountered them. They are all over the place now, spreading their egoes
in the afterlife. This tells me you are from northern parts of Greece, most
likely in the mountains around Macedonia or towards Anatolia. You are minor
noble, and you died either protecting your land from bandits or in a stupid
spat against another house."

"Ohh." He looked suitably impressed. "You seem to know a lot. How did
you do it? Is there some place to view the mortal world?"

She preened. "Hah. People here do nothing but talk. The battles we've
fought in, the lands we've seen, that fish I almost caught, damn huge
it was... that sort of thing. Some of them even bring maps to show off."
Then, she looked abashed. Gossip was one of the reputed habits of her
gender, as well. One had to make quick deductive leaps to arrive at
the juiciest of rumors. Truthfully, she found little difference in
men's discussions and women's gossip. Both were equally hypocritical
in the face of someone else's misdeeds.

"The living world is just so interesting, it's always moving and
changing! Not like..." she faltered, then pressed on; her voice dipping.
"Not like here. There are only the walls and the Hollows..."

"Are the Hollows truly that bad?" He looked past her to the stick-like
figures of men up on the walls. "Must it be that everyone freed from
their mortal bodies continue to live in fear?"

"Not that bad?! Have you ever seen one?!"

His mouth was open, but Arila slapped a hand over it before he could
say yes.

"Don't brag. I would know." She took back her hand and squinted at him.
"Just seeing one can change you. Imagine the worst of the myths, the
most evil of humanity... and all that pales before the terror of the
Hollow.

They feed on you. They don't just kill you. They take your soul, and
keep you from being reborn. Inside it, there is only pain. Even the
Hollow is in pain, and that is why it kills and eats. Kills and eats.
There is no rest for the Hollow, and that is why there is no true
safe haven for anyone."

She pointed to the sentries he was staring at. "If you want to survive
your afterlife, then this is what you must know. Everything you do is
on avoiding Hollows. You must guard against them, pay anything to be
away from them. Some of the Hollows may be bargained with, and it is
they who rule these lands of the dead. They keep away the feral ones.
What you must do is make yourself important, or make yourself scarce...
just so you are not offered to tribute.

Fear the Hollow, and you live. Anything else, and you might yet be
reborn. Only in the Hollow are we cut off from the circle of life and
death, and that is why Hollows are the most frightening things of
all."

The traveler looked pensive.

"What?"

"It seems like I heard this before..." he said, though unsure. "The
circle of life and death. It is... a cycle. A snake feeding upon
itself."

"Ouroboros..." Arila nodded. "The snake feeding upon itself." It was
indeed a favored symbol of the afterlife, the Lasurnu's own coiled
sigil reflected that. She pointed to a hanging banner on the central
tower.

Oris Paulum looked past it, into the remains of memories that had burned
away in the rebirth of his soul.

-

You are lamenting about what is not worth the lamenting and you speak
learned words as well - whether lives are lost or not, the wise never
lament.

I never really did not exist whenever, nor did you; you nor any of all
these kings - never shall also surely all of us not exist hereafter.

Of being embodied one knows the physical of boyhood, youth and old age
- similarly does attaining to the beyond of the body never delude the
sober ones.

It is only sense perception, o son of KuntĂ®, like summer and winter,
happiness and pain given, appear and disappear; none of them are
permanent, just try to tolerate it, o descendant of the Bharata dynasty.

-

"What did you just say?" Arila was taken aback. That was unexpectedly deep.
"Where is that from?"

He still seemed lost in the recollection. Memories formed the core of
a person's identity. In the unforgiving afterlife, one's identity was the
only thing that anyone could ever really deem theirs. It was their soul's
own form, and the only thing left sacred to them. That a Hollow could
take it, debase it so easily was what made them so fearsome. Death beyond
death was the loss of identity; in being reborn at least they were given
a fresh new start.

The afterlife was already a disappointment. That this last piece of his
humanity would be taken even before he set foot upon dead man's land, was
to him an unfairness of massive proportions.

Again, he asked the gods that do not answer; What could he possibly
have done to deserve that?

-

And then something exploded in the distance. He sighed. Typical. He just
couldn't expect a single day to pass without there being some violence
around him.

He got up and smiled a bit. "Thank you for the meal." And ran away in the
opposite direction.

"What the- hey, you haven't paid!"

Oh storm gods. More violence in the future.

He knew better than to stick around though. He wasn't THAT stupid.

-

-

-

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Clumsy cliffhanger, I know. Insert commercial break here.