Branwen held the tome in trembling hands. It was an ancient tome. The pages were yellowed and crinkled when she leaved through them sending off that thick scent of old parchment. The spidery hand that limped across the page was rapidly fading at the edges. She found the right spell about two thirds of the way through the thick grimoire, and she traced the edge of the page, her heart beating in triplet, then speeding ever faster as she read exactly what exactly this spell would do: stop it forever.
She didn’t want that, not really. The idea of being trapped in her own rotting for, her spirit trapped behind glass, was completely disgusting. But the idea of letting him touch her…
A pale hand reaching out of the shadows, cupping her chin corpse-cold against her skin a low chuckle she could feel in the ridges of her bones. A voice like a death rattle. You are the most beautiful mortal I have ever seen, and I have seen all of them. And you, like them, belong to me.
She shuddered. It was unacceptable. This ritual… this ritual would be the only way to escape his grasp. Her sleep was no escape. Death would be to fall straight into his hands.
But lichdom was a way out. For however long she could hold herself together.
Her finger trailed down the spell. It seemed straightforward enough. She’d need a hell of a power source and quite a few interesting components, but—
Dear girl, she heard ringing in her mind from nowhere. She started, moving a half-step forward, head swivelling as she tried to take in the whole of the library at once. It wasn’t his voice, it didn’t ring like a death knell or make dread collect at the bottom of her spine. This one was pages rustling and her favorite teacher giving a lecture and a warm cup of tea. But still she couldn't find the source.
You really don’t have to go to all that trouble, though I do, of course, applaud your studiousness.
“Who?” She looked around the library, spooked. There was no one there. No one that she could see. Just her and the bookshelves and the lone globe of light she’d conjured to read by. “Who’s there?”
You all call me many things, came the warm response. The Eternal Archivist, the Keeper of the Divine Books, the Celestial Scribe… the Mistress of Knowledge. They all seem a little high and mighty, but you humans do love your epithets.
Branwen felt her heart all but stop. Her fingers tightened on the old, leather cover of the book. “Ioun.”
The very same. And you are Nerull’s obsession. I can see why. You are quite pleasing, aesthetically. And quite the accomplished mage, as I have seen. First in your class, clever inventor of spells. A mage with the power to shake mountains and still learning, for all that.
Branwen scowled. “Don’t say it like that, I didn’t ask him to... to… obsess over me. I wanted him to leave me alone but…” she bit off her sentence, when she heard how petulant she sounded. “How are you even speaking to me right now? He can’t speak to me while I’m awake, and I thought you had to be in prayer, or dreaming, or at least in a temple—”
Where do you think you are, child? Branwen looked around again, over the endless rows of bookshelves and the neatly arranged reading tables between them, the cavernous space empty and dark due to the hour. Each library is my temple. Each book, my altar.
Fear not, girl. I did not come to chastise you for casting your eyes above your station, or to punish you for using your feminine wiles to ensnare the heart of a god. I simply wanted to ask a question of you.
Branwen swallowed, chasing the dryness from her throat. “What question.”
What do you want?
“What do I… what do I want?” She gave an incredulous laugh. And though she couldn’t see the goddess, she felt her patience, felt that willingness to wait for as long as it would take her to answer. “I want him to leave me alone. I want just to go back to being able to sleep without him waiting for me in my dreams, I want to be able to walk by a cemetery without wanting to cry. I want to no longer fear what might be waiting for me after death.”
It all poured out of her in a rush, and she took in a deep breath, looked around the silent library.
Then, There are many of us who disapprove of Nerull’s… proclivities. He takes our children, our wondrous, blessed children whom we created to enjoy the world we made, instilled with free will and a desire to learn and grow and explore, and he scoffs at their lives well lived, and places them capriciously, taking delight in the torment of those who do not deserve it. His realm is a dark, disgusting place, filled with screams and the beat of fiendwings.
The Dawnfather will not be convinced to move against him, not with the shifting he feels in the Abyss. Most will not move without his approval. But I will not wait for one war to finish before fighting another. Not when one can be tied up so neatly.
“What does this have to do with me?”
You my dear, Branwen ferch Carys, you with your brilliant mind and your arcane power blazing like a star inside of you, you drew the eye of a God. You live in times unbounded, unrestrained. Magical. The words made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. With a little help, I think you can topple the throne of death. But you will have to move swiftly.
Branwen froze. “You think I can…” her voice dropped to the barest of whispers. “Kill a god?”
It will mean more than that, Branwen ferch Carys. That power will have to go somewhere, and the domain of Death cannot go uncontrolled. That would start an entirely different war, one that would have terrifying consequences. If the wrong hands got ahold of that power, they could unmake all that we have wrought.
Her eyes widened as understanding clicked in her head. “You want me to—you think I could?—” Disbelief quickly turned into the elation of possibility quickly became the fear of responsibility. To take the mantle of a God. To become Death. To ease the suffering of millions of souls, billions, save those not even born from Nerull’s cruelty. To make death a thing not to be feared, but a rest well earned. “Me?”
Do you think you’re up for it?
She weighed the choice. Remain as she was, and resort to the abomination of undeath or fall into Nerull’s hands as naught but his toy. Or do something never before attempted. The thought was an exciting one. But if she failed… hells, if they failed…
Somewhere, outside the library window, Branwen heard the cawing of ravens, the rustle of wind through feathers. Somewhere, outside the library, the sun was rising.
Branwen nodded, heart pulsing in her throat. “Where do we begin?”
And Branwen felt the goddess smile.