"He does not punish. He does not reward. He doesn't judge at all. He simply is; a withered hand to hold on the last, long journey."
- A literal translation out of Esgodarran prose taken from Nares Saton's Elegies.
"Don't fear Death- fear where he's taking you."
- A prominent graffito scrawled over the threshold of a funerary home in the Lower-East Tier of Deneroth.
"Relish the sting! It means the Horned One hasn't yet claimed you."
- Hital, elated as always to be performing burn debridement without any anesthesia handy.
When death comes, not everyone has a tribe to cut them apart, or a bird-spirit to whisk them away to the sky. For many, the only company to be had in death is silent and solitary Ergil.
As his epithet "Ergil-Who-Is-Death" suggests, Ergil is the state of death, and everything which is dead is entered into his being, at least temporarily. He is not a god, at least not the kind which needs worship and sacrifice, though he does receive both on occasion. He is somewhat closer to a force of nature, in a restrained and creeping sort of fashion. But he is also an individual, acting separate from or within himself in a manner surprisingly personal to each lost soul.
Upon death, the individual is commonly believed to be lost for a time without time ranging from hours to years, in which the soul is tossed back and forth upon the currents of some roiling sea of unbeing. But this transient phase ends, and then the dead "wakes up". They are greeted with a place not too vastly different from the location in which they died, with certain marked differences. In some stories this is a pallid mirror of the world of the living, while others hold it to be the actual, physical world through different means of seeing. Without the veil of mortal eyes, the spirit can see the world quite differently- perhaps, as it truly is.
Regardless of what the nature of this place is where the dead find themselves, it is somewhat of a dreary place. The sky remains perpetually overcast, and though the constant wind can feel quite damp, no rain ever falls. The world stretches out in all directions, silent and dead but for the wind in the grass or the flowing of stagnant-smelling water. Geography wears thin the farther away from one's site of death one goes, and beyond that, space itself begins to deteriorate, until a truly alien landscape stretches out before one's unveiled eyes. If this is the land of the dead, it can give the impression that one is the only dead thing anywhere, ever, for not a single other soul is ever to be seen. Black-feathered birds or small flies can occasionally be seen, as well as brief and distant views of dark shapes shifting about, but nothing pays the dead any heed. None but Ergil.
He appears sometime after the dead's wakening, typically from a great distance at first, no different from the other furtive black spots on the horizon. But though he moves slowly, he advances inexorably toward the spirit. Some flee what they see as this approaching apparition of doom, and beat a hasty retreat through the weird land which now keeps them. And because the spirit needs no sleep, nor food or water, the chase can last indefinitely. But Ergil's slow and steady approach never leaves him farther away than the horizon, a constant reminder of the inevitability of death.
Some remain quite ignorant of their own death, while others refuse acceptance, traveling through as many stages of grief as the living they left behind might feel. Though countless ages and trackless wastes may separate the dead soul from where they began, the time always comes when they stand in silent acceptance, and the master of that self-same domain comes to rest before them.
The avatar of death is quite featureless. He stands immensely tall, twelve feet or more at times, perpetually enveloped by a cloak of frayed black feathers and scraps of fur. His arms and legs, when visible, are as black as his garment, long and gangling, and terminating in gnarled claws. Contrasting with these dark hues is the dingy whiteness of bandages wrapped haphazardly around his body, stained with blood or antiseptic here and there- some believe these to be the remnants of dressings stripped from the bodies of those who died in agony under the ministrations of physicians, who finally came to know release from Najis the Healer. A more bleached shade of white is his head. Or, what passes for one.
Ergil has no visible face, for the head which caps his eerily long neck is mounted by the immense skull of a bovid shaped into a mask. Because of this, plus the large wooden staff or crook he is sometimes depicted with, he is known as the Horned One, or the Moldering Shepherd. His gender is inferred as male only due to the large and impressive horns which adorn the skull, suggesting that it had once belonged to a great steer. Either Death cannot speak, or he does not care how any including his newest guests refer to him. All he will do, is extend his hand.
He does not force the spirit to take his gesture, and will even continue to follow the dead on their aimless journey across the vast and empty vistas of that place, ever a silent companion walking a few paces behind and beside, as tireless as his charge.
When the hand is at last taken, he will not take initiative even then. Rather, the land seems to reorient itself and regain some measure of coherence around the two, and the correct path reveals itself. And so it is that Ergil and the spirit walk together, hand in hand, neither leading the other, until the destination is reached. Other times, if in life one was too young or old to walk, or some disability gripped them, Ergil effortlessly carries them in his musty yet gentle embrace, going where the dead would go as if they themselves were walking that way.
The final destination may be an opening into a vault in the earth. It may be a craggy pinnacle enveloped in a shaft of light piercing the ever-present clouds. Whatever it is, the immediate and profound sense of belonging which takes over the wandering spirit ends all travel. Ergil acts as final witness to the departed and their departure, and then he vanishes again over the horizon.
Ergil-Who-Is-Death has accumulated a great deal of frightening iconography over the ages, making him appear sinister and even violent in nature. The addition of a cruel-looking harvesting scythe in some depictions contaminated by a certain grain-god has not helped matters. But to those who pray to him and officiate funerary rites and interment, his even-handedness and gentleness are emphasized.
He is no one's enemy. Only another step to be taken.