The unchanging static of the astral was beginning to grate on his sanity. Sethian gazed at his broken soul, torn to shreds by magic unlike anything he had ever seen. But he was alive, unlike the two companions he knew to be lost.
First he would need to heal his spirit, or it would be unable to keep its grip on life for very long once he returned to the physical plane. Something which would mean slipping into the embrace of death, and the waiting hands of the Collectors. The Reapers, the Harvesters; the gatherers of the dead, psychopomps, those who folklore claimed took the spirits of the living and led them into the realm of the dead when their time had come.
Sethian knew better than to believe old wives’ tales. The Collectors sought out those who lived past their time, those who cheated death of its dues, and so they brought ‘balance to the scales of life’. Sethian knew because he had eluded them on more than one occasion, using magic and cunning to deny them their prize. He would not die, had not the time for such things.
Sethian had things to do and no mere force of nature would stand in his way.
An unsettling realization struck him then. He could sense their gaze, watching him with quiet patience through empty sockets brimming with darkness. Sethian shuddered and clenched his teeth. The presence behind him waited silently.
“You are here to collect me?” It was a statement more than a question. Why else would it come, after all? “Your kind has no power here. Death has no place in a world without life.”
The entity did not answer. He dared not turn to face it, yet he knew that it remained motionless as well.
“It is not my time!” The normally calm Sethian, ever in control, was growing agitated. He had spent so long running from them. So many years hiding from his own death. He had things to do, he had lifetimes of things to do. He could not die here, must not. If he died, his revenge would be denied him.
“Why are you here?!” he demanded, suddenly spinning around to face the presence.
Nothing but empty whiteness greeted him. Yet he could still feel it, somewhere nearby. Gripping his cane tightly he floated back until he was pressed against the obelisk behind him. His eyes were darting about, scanning the astral void while his mind was reaching out in search of the presence he knew to be hiding somewhere nearby.
A hooded figure draped in plain black robes slowly materialized in the distance. Its skin held the pallor of death and its eyes the darkness of the grave. Lifeless white tresses hung out from under its hood, framing a calm and expressionless face. It reached out a hand as it approached him, an hourglass suspended in an exquisitely crafted silver frame dangled from a thin chain wrapped around the figure’s hand and arm.
Raising the hourglass to swing slowly between them, an eerily natural motion given the lack of gravity here, the figure quietly regarded Sethian through the motionless sands. It was measuring his remaining life, he knew. He gazed back at it with as blank an expression as he could muster, the moemnts slowly dragging on. Why was it so fascinated by the hourglass?
It was standing right in front of him, he suddenly realized. When had it gotten so close? And why was it holding up the hourglass, now motionless, in front of his face? Sethian’s gaze shifted from the lifeless face to the object before him. It was nothing he had not seen before.
The top half was as empty as usual and he slowly slid his focus down to the lower half. The last few grains of sand were motionless as if time stood still. There was no time in the Astral, and his body… Sethian winced at an unwelcome memory of pain and defeat, forcing his mind to focus on the hourglass to push it aside. There they were, the last moments of his life, suspended in mid-fall.
Then he noticed it.
The sand was slowly drifting toward the bottom of the hourglass.