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Nick Cimitiere

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A Night in the Shadows

It's night in the Fens. A quick pan-in on the digital clock in a bank shows that it's 11:31 PM. The camera turns to reveal a young kid in a flight jacket; the quality of the shot shows he's carrying the kind of equipment folks usually don't lug around in the Fens without taking a risk.

"Okay, we're on," he says. "This is James Porine with OtherSide, Freedom's premiere online magazine for the arcane and the unknown."

James turns the camera around, catching the streets in its gaze. He walks with it, and the camera bounces as he does.

"Now, we all know Freedom is fairly clued in. We've got Eldrich, the world's premiere sorcerer... Robin Cross, our reader-voted Hottest Spellslinger of the Decade... our city's even got a god! You can't say that about Philly. But we're on the street looking for a new legend. Word has it that a new practitioner's on the streets, with work of a somewhat more morbid bend..."

"Oh, God! Keep that thing away from me!"

The camera starts shaking faster, making it hard to tell what's going on. When it comes to rest, James stands at the mouth of a dark alley -- unnaturally dark, in fact. There's a street lamp shining right behind him, but the camera shows nothing but inky darkness in the alley. Darkness that seems to be swirling. From out of the pitch black, an intense yet strangely mirthful voice cuts through.

"Now is that any way to treat a friend? Of course, I don't beat my friends with a length of tire iron, steal their purses, and leave them to bleed into their brains, but if that's your thing..."

"I swear, I have no idea what you're talking about. I... I never even met that b--"

An inhuman shriek echoes from out of the alley way, followed by some muted whimpering.

"Her name is Angela," the other voice says. "You might have figured that out if you'd shown some common courtesy."

"God... oh, God..."

"Now listen to me, Mickey -- you can still make this right. You know the precinct down at the corner, right?"

"Please... just..."

"Mickey, listen. I want you to go down to the precinct. I want you to talk to the officer in charge. I want you to tell them exactly what happened to Angela. Do you understand?"


"Do you understand?"

"Yes! Oh God, yes!"

"Good. Now get to it, Mickey. And remember... she's watching you."

A man comes running out of the darkness, clad in a sweatshirt, jeans and a watchman's cap. He barrels past James, then runs down the corner. The camera trails back to the alley, where the darkness starts to recede. A man steps out of the mouth of the alley. He's dressed in almost all black -- a white T-shirt stands out against a black work shirt with skull and rose filagree, black jeans, black engineer boots, and a black leather jacket. The jacket is studded and threaded with various occult symbols -- some are hieroglyphs, others are renderings in Futhark, while still others seem Semitic. But what really draws the eye is the head. A slicked-back pomadour crowns a face painted like a skull, with the teeth making up the jawline -- and on top of that, the actual mouth seems stretched into a slight rictus. The man pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket, sticks one to his mouth, and lights it. Then he notices the camera.

"Huh. Didn't know I had an audience for that one." He offers the packet to James. "Want one?"

"No thanks. Mr. Cimitiere--"

"Call me Nick, man. If I wanted to be Mr. Cimitiere, I'd have business cards that said it."

"Okay, Nick... I'm from OtherSide Magazine. I was wondering if we could trouble you for an interview?"

Nick cracks a grin -- an actual grin, not that strange rictus. "Hey, no trouble at all," he says. "What is it you want to know?"

(1)"Well, first of all, your record shows you operated out of Savannah for a few years... there are tales of you traveling to Memphis, Miami, Atlanta, Jackson, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, even Philadelphia. And now you're in Freedom. So, I guess the first question is... where exactly are you from?"

Nick chuckles a little. "Well, I like to think I go wherever my duty takes me," he says, "wherever the dead need a speaker and the living need an advocate. As for where I'm from, well... Savannah's where I got my start, and I still love that town. But I know it's in good hands -- a bit quiet and sedate, and with its own defenders. For those on both sides of the divide. And Freedom... Freedom's always been in my heart."

(2)"Obviously, you're... a bit of a sight. How would you account for your appearance? And how do you think others would describe you?"

"I'd say I'm a bit sexy -- drop dead, if you'd pardon the pun." Nick pauses. "Really awful jokes aside, though, I'd say I'm just your average guy. Not too big, not too small, not really a standout guy. Of course, that all depends on whether we're trading jokes over a beer, or whether I'm... well, you saw what happened earlier. You think that guy's gonna talk up my bright smile?"

(3) "I guess not. Now, your name and the veve on the back of your jacket indicate that you share an affinity with the voodoo loa Baron Cimitiere. But your manner and demeanor seem a bit more suited towards Baron LaCroix, if you don't mind me saying. Do you consider yourself a cheval to the loa, or...?"

Nick lets loose a merry laugh. "Hey, someone did their homework!" he says. "But no, I'm no one's mount... most of the time. I've got a good amount of respect for the Guede -- save for Samedi, who seems to have taken one too many swings of the rum bottle these days. But it's mostly professional. I've been ridden a few times -- and yeah, you can giggle at that, but that's what having a met tet's like -- but I do what I need to. And really, when you're running into the distressed dead, a bit of cheer and charm helps 'em. Lets them know they can trust you." The grin grows wider, approaching Cheshire Cat dimensions. "And it really helps the true sinners get an idea of just what's gonna happen to them."

(4) "Um... sure. So, why is it you help out the dead?"

"When was the first time you saw a ghost?"

"Me? When I was six."

"What was it like?"

"He was... old. Like someone's grandpa. Kept traipsing up and down the stairs at midnight. I... didn't know what to do. Kind of freaked out."

"Most ghosts are just like us. Some of 'em are stuck in a rhythm -- like your old man -- just the same way some of us are riddled with PTSD after intense experiences. Others have more will, more volition... but that means nothing if it's damn near impossible to make an influence on the world. You're left alone. Unable to talk, unable to act, unable to do anything but just sit on this mortal coil." Nick exhales, blowing cigarette smoke into the night. "Seeing my first ghost was a crash course in all of that. Helping them find a reward? Welll... I'm telling you, it was like nothing else. There's a lot out there -- more than you think. Restless, helpless, and waiting."

Nick drops the cigarette to the pavement and stomps it out. "'Course, they're not all good ghosts. Dead need protection from the living, living need protection from the dead. Good way to help the dead is helping the living, I find."

(5)"What with your penchant for necromancy, some of our readers are wondering if your power comes with a price. Likewise, what do you consider the strong suits of your trade?"

Nick shakes his head. "You really think I'm going to spill on something like that?" he asks. "Still, to help you out... rum. Redheads. The arts of the dead. Rock and roll. Fast cars. Human kindness."

"Um... which of those are strengths or weaknesses?"

"You tell me."

(6)"Point taken. Don't suppose you could tell me more about your passions? Your great loves, your hatreds?"

"I thought I already did," Nick replies. "But, more seriously... I love good music. Good company. Good coffee. Seeing someone walk off to their final reward." He grimaces. "Now, hate? You should see the laundry list. Bigots, bullies, murderers, demons, decaf -- but what I really hate are the necromancers who give us a bad name. You know once upon a time, necromancy was associated with simple divination -- communing with the dead? Now you've got a bunch of creeps with an ego trip and little concern for the ghost they're binding or the corpse they're powering with the spark of undeath. They're so hopped up on death they don't give a damn about life. It's sickening."

(7) "About that... necromancy is associated with madness. I don't suppose--"

"Oh, I'm probably as crazy as anyone else in this trade," he says. "But at least I know that. I don't view talking to the dead as a perfectly normal thing in mixed company, and I'm not gonna hold a party where my zombie butler pushes around hors d'ouerves. I have my limits."

(8)"You deal in death every day. I don't suppose there's anything left that freaks you out?"

"There are weirder things than death, and things that dwell in the depths that make it look like a picnic. That's all I'm saying right there."

(9) "Got it. Now... what do you want?"

Nick thinks on that. "Peace, for those who want and deserve it, living and dead. For the dead who choose to stick around, a chance to see the flow of history without living in fear of some sorcerer making you into his laptop. And justice for those who need it. Always."

(10) "Well, we've got your views on death. What about life? Where do you see yourself in the grand design?"

"I'm the intermediary. I'm not a full psychopomp, nor am I some sort of divine harbinger of justice. I leave that job to the real Baron Cimitiere, the shinigami, Ammut, and anyone else who claims it. What I do, is help out those who are still tied here. Give 'em comfort, give 'em reassurance, give 'em conversation. Help 'em pass on if they want it, keep 'em here if they don't."

(11) "Would you say you have any prejudices?"

I'd say I'm your typical 21st century guy -- I don't really care about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or who you get in bed with." The cocky grin he gives suggests he might care a little bit about that, depending on who the subject of that discussion is. "The one thing that puzzles me, though... demons. I've dealt in plenty of context neutral Underworlds -- despite what the movies tell you, Hades's place gives as much real estate to the Elysian Fields as Tartarus. But Lucifer's gang... the Hindu demon-kings... they seem really out of it. They don't care about justice. Just torment."

(12)"You obviously care for the ghosts of this town. Anything else you consider yourself loyal to?"

"Freedom City. My loved ones. My fellow heroes. My fellow practitioners, especially. But most of all -- to freedom. For the living and the dead."

(13)"All right, to get into the gossip -- jeez, some of our commenters -- is there a Ms. Cimitiere? Or... a Mr. Cimitiere?"

Nick laughs. "Like I said, it's the 21st century," he says. "And the answer is, I'm currently single. But I'm always looking for a beautiful -- or handsome -- partner in the game." He winks into the camera.

(14)"What about your family?"

"Great folks. Not sure how they'd feel about the necromancy thing, though -- they put up with the tattoos, coming out of the closet, going into the arts..."

(15)"How do you think those closest to you would describe you?"

"Great hair. Better ass. But seriously, they'd say I'm kind, devoted, fair, open, and the bearer of one sick sense of humor."

(16)"Would you consider yourself a role model?"

Nick pulls out another cigarette. "Kids," he says, "do not smoke or attempt to call forth the restless dead until you turn 18." He lights the cigarette and takes a puff. "A role model? Never thought of myself as that. But... I suppose I could be. Show the world there's a kinder face to necromancy. Encourage better relations between the living and the dead. Yeah. Yeah, I could be."

(17)"You spoke earlier about... well, about the afterlives of about eight different cosmologies. Do you follow any particular creed? Voodoo? Hellenic Reconstruction? Christianity?"

Nick pauses on that, and shakes his head. "Like I said, I've got friends everywhere. But they're friends. There's still a bit of the good Episcopalian boy in me, but I'm more of a wanderer and a practitioner, and less of a devotee. There are gods I know, gods I fear, and gods I respect. But not many that I worship."

(18)"You may be fresh to these streets, but you've got a long history. Are there any teams you've served with?"

"None as of yet. But... I wouldn't be averse to working with one."

(19)"You seem pretty comfortable with the existence of post-life and divine entities on Earth. What about metas, extraterrestrials, and other species?"

"Like I said, I've got no prejudices. They're here, and we're pretty used to it. I've yet to actually walk into the Grue afterlife, but I imagine they've got their ways, just like us. Not a big deal."

(20)"All right. One last thing -- we, uh, have a comment from a Mr. E --"

"Yeah, that sounds familiar. What's it say?"

"Says... 'Be careful in all things. Be mindful of what you have.'"

"Sounds exactly like him." Nick stretches, then tosses his cigarette in a nearby trash bin. "Well, thanks for the company. I've got some more friends who need help. Don't suppose you want something real flashy?"

"I suppose, but--"

"Good." Nick goes slack, and opens his mouth. Out comes the sound of clanking hammers and infernal presses.

"What the --?"

The sound of screeching tires fills the air. Down the street speeds a black '67 Chevy Impala, painted over with veves in white. Nick hops in the driver's seat.

"Wonder how many hits that'll get?"

And with that, he speeds off into the night.

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  • 8 months later...

From the Diary of Nick Cimitiere

April 4th, 2011

We've finally got renovations on the Parkhurst done. Rene, Crow, Arcturus and I managed to lay the wards that'll let us know when intruders get in. Changeling and Warlock put up the glamour that keeps the Parkhurst looking like it did before we moved in. The Astorias, Millie and Joe helped finish the reconstruction, and they know all the signals for setting off the wards. And the spell array's up and running, even if the conflicting energies are a bit hard to wrestle -- divine magic, necromancy, fae magic, mind magic, pretty much everything but infernalism. We've managed to keep it all stable and warded, but I'm gonna be doing some more research into keeping it all running without either muting the effects or causing the whole thing to overload.

Now, if only we could find a way to get pizza delivered here...

25 EP (1 PP from Nick Cimitiere, 1 PP from Crow, 3 PP from Changeling)

Size: Large (2 EP)

Toughness: 10 (1 EP)

Features: Combat Simulator, Communications, Concealed, Defense System (the Parkhurst Ghosts), Fire Prevention System, Infirmary, Garage, Laboratory, Library, Living Space, Personnel, Pool, Power (7), Power System, Security System (the Parkhurst Ghosts), Workshop (22 EP)


Communication 10 (Mystic Communication) [Anywhere on Earth, Dimensional 2, Subtle]

Emotion Control 10 [Area Burst, Limited to Calm]

ESP 9 (Scrying Pool, including to other dimensions) [20,000 miles. Dimensional 2, Visual and Auditory, Medium: Water]

Nullify Magic 10 [Area Burst, Selective Attack] (hex-buster)

Obscure 10 [All Senses, Limited to ESP]

Regeneration 10 [Affects Objects Only]

Teleportation 10 [Anywhere on earth, Long Range, Accurate]

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  • 2 months later...

From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

A Field Guide to the Deathlords


Dominion: Tartarus

Purviews: Magic, necromancy, the crossroads

When you're down in the depths of Tartarus - God knows why you would be - and seeking aid from the divine, you have a few options. You can try talking to Hades, but he'll probably show you the same kindness he shows anyone who got a chance to see daylight in the last millennium (read: not much). Assuming it's some time after the Autumnal Equinox, you can seek out his wife, Persephone, who seems to be the only thing keeping Hades from going full tyrant, but good luck there -- he keeps her in a gilded cage whenever she visits, wanting her husband but comforted with cold riches and dead repasts instead.

Or, you can seek Hecate. Goddess of witches -- and a whole lot of other things; the Greeks weren't picky -- Hecate is probably the biggest active (1) force in the Underworld that isn't Hades and isn't chained under bindings forged in the war with the Titans. Unlike Hades, who lords over the domain from his silent manse and gives orders only to his underlings (2), Hecate hears the laments of ghosts and gods alike. It probably comes from the days of her worship; once, she was acknowledged as a goddess of childbirth, and with the Pact, she turns her nurturing nature to the souls in her kingdom.

Hecate is three bodies that move and often speak as one, though the individual bodies sometimes offer up secret and contradictory wisdom. Her base is small, but rivals the power of Hades's manse -- the Iron Throne. Carved at its base is wisdom from when Gaia was still young and Cronus still had his wedding tackle. It's a catch all for arcane secrets - the names of the heads of a Hecatonchire, spells for healing and plague, a word that will allow you to speak to the tools of field and battle. Hecate's always happy to set you up with the secret you need, but often it requires a price.

What was mine? Well, that's another story for another day...

(1) I have no idea where the Moirae fit into that scale; they seem more like a regulatory force for the higher structure of capital-F Fate than a deity.

(2) Meaning the judges (Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus), Cerberus, Charon, and Thanatos.

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From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

A Field Guide to the Deathlords

Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl

Dominion: Mictlan

Purviews: Death (both), fertility (both), justice and malediction (Mictecacihuatl, as Santa Muerte), night (Mictlantecuhtli)

Every pantheon has its nasty qualities if you look at it long enough. Zeus's clan has a penchant for incest and dickery. The Aesir, despite their noble style, are warrior gods of a warrior culture, and have a taste for bloodshed we've pretty much laid aside (1). When you get to the Aztec gods, however, those nasty qualities stare you right in the face, blood dribbling from their lips and cheeks flayed open. The Aztecs believed that the world had been forged and reforged many times over due to the squabbles of the gods, and that in this world, the world of the Fifth Sun, it was necessary for blood to be shed in order for the great celestial machinery to keep ticking. This quality infected a lot of their beliefs. Aside from Quetzalcoatl, who required the least of the sacrifices (2), every god needed its share of blood and souls. Huitzilopochtli, god of war, demanded captured soldiers by the dozens. Xipe Totec, god of fertility, demanded that sacrifices be flayed on the Vernal Equinox to bring bountiful harvests. Tlaloc, god of rain, demanded children be drowned in his wells.

So you can probably imagine what this pantheon's death gods have to be like. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl receive all souls in their domain; while Aztec culture was keen to divide the dead based on their final fates (like the Norse), Mictlan served as a place where all came to their reward in time. Both are in a state of disrepair and mutilation, like a number of Aztec deities. Both have skulls for faces, flayed down to dry bone. Mictlantecuhtli is in a shabbier state than his wife, with his guts sometimes torn open to reveal an exposed liver (3).

The two gods usually rule from their house at the base of Mictlan, but they've been known to traverse the layers of the underworld to keep up with their underlings. As Mictlan is like Dante's Inferno with worse real estate (4), they don't leave their house all that often. Mostly they remain at the bottom to greet souls who have completed the journey to the ninth level, accepting their offerings of grave goods and ready to tear apart any unworthy individuals who've managed to skip ahead in line.

Mictecacihuatl, however, has more reasons to step out than her husband, though -- she's managed to evade the Pact. Well, in a way. When the Spanish invaded and brought Christianity to Mexico, they would sometimes convert the standing Aztec gods into syncrenistic figures to aid the transition. And while Mictlantecuhtli got the brush-off, his wife managed to get a sort of unofficial conversion into Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. It's hard to trace when it started, as open worship of Santa Muerte only really started in the 19th century - and you can imagine how the local Archdiocese responded to that. But nowadays, Santa Muerte is openly invoked as a figure of folk magic, to bring luck, love, health, and curses upon those who have evaded justice. And Mictecacihuatl, in the guise of a saint, is there to answer those invocations.

Well. Most of them.

(1) Well, that and the whole Thor thing.

(2) Quetzalcoatl only fed on the sacrifices of hummingbirds and butterflies. This is like having a pantheon that requires weekly sacrifices of great joints of beef where the head deity is fine with just a few packs of Hostess Cupcakes.

(3) Yeah, I said "sometimes." Some depictions have him whole, others have him desiccated with the exposed organs, and the wholeness of his torso seems to vary on visits to Mictlan. It may just be some gross party trick.

(4) Followed up on in the "Mictlan" entry in "At the Crossroads."

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  • 1 month later...

From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

A Field Guide to the Deathlords


Dominion: Yomi

Purviews: Death, decay, birth and stillbirth

Shinto, the traditional faith of Japan, does not look on death kindly. I mean, sure, we Westerners aren't exactly keen to shake hands with the Reaper ourselves, but in Shinto, it's not just considered something fearful, but often something toxic and polluting. The faith is big on the trend of ritual purification, or misogi (1), and things considered impure are to be avoided - and blood and death, in the context of the faith, are both things that can stain the individual. Cremation is the most popular means of disposing of a body, and there's a history of social prejudice in Japan against those who deal closely with death. While the days of legal exile against the burakumin are long since gone, an undercurrent of distrust and stigma against them still runs through the culture.

So you need to imagine what kind of god would need to exist in the faith to make death something that stains the very soul. And that's where you'd get Izanami-no-Mikoto.

Izanami-no-Mikoto wasn't originally the scary all-powerful lady of Yomi. She and her husband, Izanagi-no-Mikoto, were both originally fertility gods. Throughout their marriage, they brought many things into existence. Izanagi-no-Mikoto washed Ameterasu-Omikami and Tuskiyomi-no-Mikoto, the gods of the sun and the moon, from his eyes, and Izanami-no-Mikoto gave birth to the eight islands that made up Japan. She died in childbirth, however, bringing the god Kagu-Tsuchi (2) into the world.

Izanagi-no-Mikoto, mourning for his lost wife, descended into Yomi - then an unformed, shadowy pit where the wild things dwelled - seeking her out. He found her, eventually, but by then, she'd eaten of the fruit of Yomi and become something else (3). She hid herself in shadows and said she didn't want to go anywhere with him, fearing herself impure, but Izanagi-no-Mikoto insisted he would not let her go. Then he set a fire, saw that the fruit of Yomi had turned his wife into a rotting corpse, and promptly let her go.

She didn't take this well. Would you? Your husband promises to love you no matter what, then gets a look at your new makeover and runs screaming? In any case, she claimed that she'd take her revenge on Izanagi-no-Mikoto by killing 1000 people each day. Izanagi-no-Mikoto struck back by saying he'd just make sure 1500 people were born each day. Judging by current birth and mortality rates, they were both underachievers, but these were the days of myth. Things were different back then.

So, that's Izanami-no-Mikoto's lot. Abandoned in the darkest pits of Yomi, attended to by hordes of mad, shrieking shikome, once tasked with bringing life to the world but only now able to bring it death. She exacts vengeance on her husband through the people she once birthed, and all she has to show for it is more suffering and tears.

You'd fear death, too, if this was who was in charge of it.

(1) You ever see one of those martial arts movies where a guy meditates under a waterfall? Yeah. That's misogi.

(2) Kagu-Tsuchi was the god of fire. I think you can imagine why this killed her. Izanagi-no-Mikoto responded by chopping his son into eight bits, which became the volcanoes of Japan. Creation myths are interesting, aren't they?

(3) This bit of folklore is a common one - Izanami-no-Mikoto eats the food of Yomi and is bound to its plains, Persephone eats the pomegranate seeds and is bound to Hades, people eat the food of Faerie and are bound in service to its lords. Odds are that the fruit and food, born of the very soil and water of these lands, carry the most potent metamorphic qualities, allowing them to suffuse the human form. It's like eating nuclear waste and thinking you won't get cancer.

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  • 2 months later...

From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

A Field Guide to the Deathlords


Dominion: Duat

Purviews: Death, royalty, fertility, justice

Nowadays, it seems we know most of the classical or fringe modern pantheons by their most prominent religious figures - by which we mean "superheroes/villains." Hades is the most prominent face of the Greek gods, which must lead to one of those "scandal before the gentiles" situations up on Mount Olympus. Siren seems to duke out Baron Samedi for representation in vodoun in mass media, along with the residual image of zombies and pain poppets. But Horus the Avenger has been our longest-standing image of the Egyptian pantheon, and despite some master dickery on the part of Set, his image seems to stand up to this day. He was an upright, compassionate hero - which really isn't a surprise, given his dad.

Despite the behaviors of the Egyptian people at times (1), the Egyptian pantheon has, for the most part, been made up of decent people. Despite the occasional blood-thirsty binge of Sekhmet and the predatory nature of Sobek, most of the pantheon is focused on the ideals of justice, peace eternal, and bringing a new day to the world (2). Osiris, as Deathlord and a former Allfather to the pantheon, represents these qualities in their most upstanding form. Under his rule, Duat, the Fertile Desert, serves as a peaceful rest for the righteous dead, a place of ever-yielding crops and peaceful skies. As for the wicked, well... let's just say no one will accuse Osiris of being soft on crime.

Unlike many of the other Deathlords, Osiris came into his second throne the hard way. Osiris was originally just the Allfather of the pantheon, until Set grew jealous and killed him. Isis used magic she learned from Ra, the sun god, to bring Osiris back, but could only manage it for a limited time - there wasn't much she could do besides, well, "fulfill the royal prerogative" and become pregnant with Horus. She made sure Osiris' body was kept intact in honor of her husband, but while she was busy with the duties of maternity, Set found the body and tore it to pieces, scattering Osiris's remains to the winds. Isis found all the pieces... except for "Osiris Junior," which had been eaten by a catfish (3). She managed to put Osiris back together as well as she could, and it was through this act of devotion that the other deities took pity on her and resurrected Osiris. He was permanently bound to death's dominion as part of the revival, but that was no big deal. Death was just another kingdom that needed just rule.

Osiris, working alongside Anubis (another entry in and of himself), makes sure that the righteous dead have a place to stay where they're free of turmoil, strife, and hunger. He tends to favor nobles, but that's mostly because of the culture he came from - and he at least exercises the idea of "noblesse oblige" in the best fashion. But Duat is meant for the righteous, and those whose hearts are heavy for sin end up feeding Ammut. So, if you're going to step into Duat, be very sure about where you stand. Or at least hope they didn't recalibrate the scales.

(1)We'll just say "the Book of Exodus" and leave it at that.

(2)Mainly because Apophis keeps trying to eat it, and they're playing Keep Away.

(3)Isis managed to make him a replacement. Made of gold. When you're a fertility god, you can get away with metallic junk.

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  • 3 weeks later...

From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

At the Crossroads


Despite what movies trying to ride the hype from Hades' last invasion tell you, not all Underworlds are crapholes. Some are lush paradises, peaceful fields, and endless carnivals under eternally star-lit skies. Irkalla, however, is not exactly at the top of the scale - at least, for the living. Irkalla - or "the house of dust," as the Epic of Gilgamesh lovingly described it - is the Underworld of the Babylonian pantheon. As a result, it hasn't seen much use since the rise and widespread growth of the Abrahamic faiths, but the shades and gods who live there make do with what they've got. It's watched over by Ereshkigal, her consort Nergal (1), and their various servants.

Entering Irkalla is a bit like entering Soviet Russia with all the wrong papers. If you're living, you're going to need either a ward against disease or all your shots. Yes, all of them. Irkalla is a metamorphically-rich Underworld, and as one of the gods in charge is the god of both the plague and the punishing light of the noonday sun, that's not a good thing. The ghosts of Irkalla, known as "gidim" in Babylonian myth, were said to cause all sorts of ailments just by being around people. Part of that was likely the myths originating in a time before aspirin, but there's definitely something to it.

Another thing you'll need is clothing you don't mind losing. I wouldn't recommend layers because, like I said, noonday sun, but I would recommend plenty of accessories, charms, or thrift store clothing. There are seven gates barring the way to the depths of Irkalla, and like Ishtar so famously did (2), you're going to need to give up items of clothing or other adornments to the guardians of those various gates as payment. Think of it as a bribe to get past the border guards. Of course, if you're going back the way you came, you'll get them all back.

Once you get past all of that, you'll be brought to meet the Annunaki, the court of the dead. They're responsible for receiving and redistributing death offerings, and will assign a ghost their respective place in the hierarchy and infrastructure of the dead. If you're just visiting, like most mortals are, it'll be a short-term gig, somewhere between holding a temp job and being a reenacter at a Ren Faire. For the residents, it's a bit more permanent. After all that, however, if you manage to settle in Irkalla... it's not that bad. I mean, it's not the best and the brightest of Underworlds, but it's definitely a few steps up on Hel or the darker pits of Di Yu. Ghosts have their own houses that they can share with their family, a sort of living wage in grave goods, and are not only allowed but encouraged to socialize with old friends. I mean, in some ways the whole thing feels like a Soviet commune, but there are worse models for your afterlife - as we'll soon see.

(1) For more info on the duo, see their "A Field Guide to the Deathlords" entry.

(2) Ishtar gave up all her clothes and jewels so that by the time she was facing down Ereshkigal, she was butt naked. You're welcome to try this in the plague-soaked, sun-drenched landscape of Irkalla, but remember - Ishtar was a goddess. You're probably not.

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  • 1 month later...

From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

At the Crossroads


It's a fair bet to say that the faiths of YHWH don't have the sole claim to the idea of Hell. It's just that Hell's a lot more permanent in many of those cases. In some faiths, Hell is less like an eternity in the world's hottest gulag and more like a prison in a military junta with the promise of time served. You may be in there because you've done bad things, but the entire reason you're there is so that the bad things can be purged away. With hot pokers, if necessary.

Diyu is one of these hells. Chinese mythology holds that the dead tend to go to one of two places - Tian, the city of the Celestial Bureaucracy, for those who are virtuous, and Diyu, for those who are... not. Originally a loose conglomeration of dead dominions, the various places became organized after their Deathlords learned of Naraka (1) once Buddhism became a thing. The cosmic equivalent of a real estate transaction took place, and suddenly all the dominions were woven together into a many-layered, many-chambered maze that some say stretches to infinity. Diyu is overseen by the ten Yama Kings, deputized by Yama (2) at the behest of the Jade Emperor, the Allfather of the Celestial Bureaucracy. Each King oversees one of the Ten Courts of Hell, which determine the duration and enforcement of sentence on the souls that fall into the domain.

And man, you can't fault them for lack of creativity. The various subdivisions of Diyu are rather plainly and horrifically named, each one telling you exactly what you need to know about its character. Here's a short list: Grinding Hell, Cauldron Hell, Eye Gouge Hell, Frost Hell, Knife Mountain Hell, Predator Hell... and that's just a few of them (3). The Yama Kings are reluctant to say how many specific chambers there are in Diyu, but some estimates by mortal scholars say upwards of 84,000. Really, the whole place makes Dante look like he was jotting down his grocery list.

But, despite all the cruelty - and trust me, there's a lot of it; nothing haunts me like the few times I've had to descend into the lower chambers of Diyu - there is something like fairness at work. Those souls that do reach the ends of their sentence are let go from Diyu, allowed to either enter the cycle of reincarnation or make their way up to a post in Tian. If they've had relatives or descendants looking after them and making the right offerings, they'll likely have a good stock of hell money waiting for them if they decide to truck upstairs. So Diyu may be a gigantic torture chamber, but it's a gigantic torture chamber with the best of intentions. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what the Yama Kings tell themselves.

(1) Another one of those "temporary stay" Hells, with its own "At the Crossroads" entry.

(2) See his entry in "A Field Guide to the Deathlords."

(3) Despite the suggestions of some jokers, the Yama Kings have yet to institute "DMV Hell," "Hangover Hell," or "Easy Listening Hell."

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From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

Ghosts of the World


Nicknames: Hell Houses, Oubliettes

Description: When you think of a haunted house, you don't think of "a house with a ghost in it." Instead, you think of a house that's rife with them, serving less as a home for wandering spirits and more as a prison. And like in any prison, it's every man for themselves. The ghosts turn on each other and, when they can, the living. Someone comes in, and suddenly it's a competition to see who can get the new guy to break and join them on the other side, usually dragging others along in the process. So when most people think of a haunted house, they think of a nihil.

There are many ways a nihil develops. Sometimes, the very creation of the place gets tainted by death - if a house or a hotel is being built, for instance, someone dies in an industrial accident in the process, and the death energy pollutes the location as a kind of spectral trap. Sometimes, a nihil develops spontaneously during a place's history, usually after a disaster or a mass murder - I ran into an onmyoji once who theorized that the spirit of the house feeds on the horror of the event and becomes addicted. Then there are the cases where the nihil is "man made," as it were - someone dies, and either they're already twisted enough or the death traumatizes them so greatly that they become power mad and start running the other side like the warden in every women's prison movie ever.

My first encounter with a nihil came when I was still training under Adrian Eldrich. The Parkhurst Hotel was an example of the second type of nihil, with elements of the first - the death of a worker during the construction of the building (originally a railroad baron's mansion) had awakened the spirit of the house and turned it into a horror-hungry, power mad bastard. Unlike other nihils, this one was slow to pick off its prey, but when it did, it usually made a big show of it. We had to lure the spirit out - while it was using every ghost trapped in its confines as a puppet - and put it out of its misery. Another, more docile household spirit - what the Romans called lares and penates - took root soon after, and most of the ghosts, freed from their chains, went on to their just reward. Still, it was my first time realizing how strong a haunting can get if left unchecked, as well as realizing that some ghosts just aren't keen on unfinished business. Sometimes, they just want people to suffer.

Benevolence/Malevolence: By its very nature, a nihil can't be classified as benevolent. After all, it involves trapping ghosts within its walls and either forcing them to do horrible things or waiting for some Lord of the Flies-type instinct to overtake them. There are cases, however, where a number of ghosts may try to make a house more of a home. Once the Parkhurst nihil was destroyed, some of its former residents stuck around out of loyalty towards either each other or the house, and have maintained something of a domestic arrangement ever since.

Manifestations and Methods: How quickly a nihil destroys its targets depends on its patience and their fortitude. Sometimes, you get nihils that are quick to kill any target that walks in - these are usually the abandoned houses or other urban disasters that lay deserted for years, due to the reputation they maintain in urban folklore. Every so often, some brave soul goes in to prove the legends wrong. And seven times out of ten, they don't make it out. But there's a reason these places lay abandoned. Even if people don't necessarily believe in ghosts, no one wants to stick around a death trap.

Most nihils - the ones that remain operational by mortal means - are keen to just pick off one target every so often. Sometimes, this can happen quickly, as the nihil selects someone who likely won't be missed and goes to town on them. Other times, it takes a while - the target's tempted or taunted by the ghostly servants of the greater nihil, who might show them beauty before revealing a ravaged image, ply them with vice, or take the image of a feared individual from the person's past and harrow them. The goal here is often to make the mortal another agent of the nihil, even before they're dead. When they go out, they'll take others with them, others that the nihil can slowly corrupt into its service when they're on the other side.

Nihils are, at the same time, some of the most subtle and most brash ghosts/spectral entities you'll find. The nihil rarely acts directly, instead binding up most of its power with forcing its "prisoners" to do its dirty work. While they'll have an overriding compulsion to do horrible, horrible things in the name of their warden, they'll usually do it by their own means with the particular talents death has colored them with. In some cases, however, when pushed to the edge or when just starting out as a burgeoning hellhole, a nihil will act directly. Sometimes, this is subtle - pulling the rug at the wrong moment so the maid falls and breaks her neck, or a sudden "mechanical failure" that results in the elevator plummeting to the ground floor. Something that can just be written off as a careless disaster. But some nihils will make themselves known, screaming spectral roars, hurling furniture about and turning the hedge animals into hungry predators. Once I ran into an apartment building that had been overtaken by a poltergeist so powerful, he effectively became the building itself. He was anything but subtle, and if allowed to sink in and claim more victims, he may have developed into a true nihil.

Examples from Folklore, Fiction and Reality: The Overlook Hotel (The Shining), Hill House (The Haunting of Hill House), Rose Red (Rose Red), that mansion from the first season of American Horror Story. I've never been out to the Winchester House myself, but I've heard some folks in my trade whisper that the place was unintentionally designed as a nihil by Sarah Winchester, and any ghosts that got caught in it would likely be mad enough to lash out. As there's something of a distinct lack of reported hauntings and/or bloodshed at the Winchester House, though, it may be that the design was more effective than anyone thought, and those ghosts are trapped in both this world and the next. Either that, or some enterprising young necromancer found some way to install a back door once Sarah Winchester kicked it. Who knows.

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  • 3 months later...

From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

A Field Guide to the Deathlords


Dominion: Tartarus

Purview: Death

Our pop culture tends to reflect death as a hungry beast, the alpha predator everyone wants desperately to avoid. There's tragedy inherent in death, as we temporarily lose those who either we thought would be around forever or who've left this world too soon, but there's also peace and the promise of life eternal. Death, when it's personified, cares. Best case scenario, he (or she) is here to bring you comfort in your time of distress and lead you past this thing we call life. Worst case, however, death cares about nailing your ass the way Inspector Javert cared about nailing Jean Valjean (1). Like some divine Terminator (2), death will not let you go, and will not rest until it has you. And in the process of trying to get you, it will some times find the most awful, most humiliating way to end you.

There are many rapacious Deathlords - Izanami-no-Mikoto, motivated by her grudge against her husband, is just one of them. But none of them match the sheer pettiness, the grand malignancy, the absolute dickishness of Thanatos. He is Hades' hunting hound, the same way Anubis acts as Osiris's bounty hunter - but whereas Anubis is fair in meting out justice, Thanatos views collateral damage as a career goal. If I hadn't met this bastard in the flesh on more than one occasion, I'd swear he was Jack-A-Knives... but I guess Tartarus has a whole lot of fiends stuck in its charnel pits, leaving Hades with no lack of shock troops. Guess you could say it runs in the family - the child of Nyx and Erebus, gods (3) of night and darkness, his brothers and sisters consist of Doom, Suffering, Retribution, Blame, Deception - and Hypnos, incarnation of sleep, so every family has its white sheep.

Hades can't do much of his business personally these days, thanks to that whole "Let's conquer the earth" ordeal. If Cerberus is his legbreaker and Jack-A-Knives is his monkeywrencher, then Thanatos is his collection agent. His goal is less about collecting those whose time has come as it is making sure their time comes early, forcing the letter of fate almost to the breaking point. Where he walks, disasters happen - gas leaks, car crashes, scaffolding collapses, lightning strikes. He claims he has the ability to see those who've "escaped" death and bring them to their just reward - but if that's the case, I've seen a lot of vampires, revenants, and other undead who must have escaped his careful study. Or maybe he's finally learned not to hit anything close to his weight class. Maybe I got through to him.

Guess we'll just wait and see.

(1) I don't normally get this literary, but what else was I going to use? Blame it on arts school.

(2) See, I knew it wouldn't last.

(3) Well... "god" is a technicality. Nyx and Erebus, as children of the primal Chaos, are technically the Primordials, who birthed the Titans, who birthed the gods of Olympus. I imagine once Zeus got Hera pregnant, he decided, "No more of this renaming ourselves after every generation business, it's getting silly."

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  • 1 month later...

From the Journals of Nick Cimitiere

A Field Guide to the Deathlords


Dominion: Hel (1)

Purviews: Death, cold

If I told you Hel wasn't that bad, would you buy it?

Yeah, probably not. I mean, just look at the name. And then you've got the more obvious stuff. She watches over a lightless and grim realm, peopled by the dead who didn't qualify for the hallowed halls of Valhalla. She's half-unearthly beauty, and half-abominable corpse - right down the middle, in fact. Oh, and if that weren't enough, he's the daughter of Loki, the god of all lies and deceptions. How could this woman possibly be anything but the hideous bitch queen of the lightless realm?

Well, we need to back up a bit. Keep in mind this woman watches over a realm of the dead who aren't warriors. Sure, it was quite a dick move on the part of the Norse gods to disallow those who died in battle from Valhalla and Folkvangr (2), but that means Hel is a realm of mothers, children, those who died of illness, and those who died of old age. And it treats them as such. This is not a place where you get tormented for not having the stones to take a greataxe to the head; it's just dull by comparison to the all-you-can-eat-and-pillage buffet of Valhalla. And there is a lower realm, Niflhel, that is specifically set aside for the worst of them all - rapists (3), murderers (4), and kinslayers. And it's not as if she's some rapacious reaper who seizes who she wants. No, she was commanded by Odin and the other gods of Asgard to take in, shelter, and provide for anyone they sent her way. So if anyone's in Hel's realm, it's because of dickery on the part of the gods above.

And why was she handed such a "plum" assignment? Because she's the child of Loki. The gods saw her and her brothers Fenrir and Angrboda (5) as threats entirely because of who her father is. They put her downstairs in hopes that she wouldn't get up to the same antics as dear old dad. So she's stuck as middle management to the dead that don't qualify for the infinite Viking experience, stuck down in the darkest parts of the ninth world and distrusted by everyone due to an accident of birth.

Which is not to say that she's completely blameless or deserving of a big old hug. But that's another story for another time.

(1)Seems obvious enough, doesn't it? They aren't really much for proper nouns down there.

(2) Freya's slightly-smaller-but-no-less-mead-stocked add-on to Valhalla.

(3) Save for on the field of battle, that is. Asgard can be real charming.

(4) See above.

(5) A giant wolf and a troll. Loki also gave birth (no, not fathered, gave birth) to an eight-legged horse. Divine paternity is weird.

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