“Four demons are painted upon the crumbling north wall. They are depicted as slaughtering warriors, then escorting the dead by chariot and boat. Carvings identify the four as Kharon, or Charun.”—The King’s High-Archaeologist (cataloging an ancient tomb unearthed during the construction of His Majesty’s Highway).
What if life were just a dream? What if we woke from the dream and found ourselves in a nightmare? This nightmare is where the Charun do their work, fulfilling their task—escorting and guiding the recently passed, nudging them along the way.
When loved ones pass, we fret over their immortal souls. Though many have trembled over bedtime stories of the ferryman, he is but one of four Charun waiting for you to die. With a successful History or Religion check, the player character learns of the Charun that savor the moment of his or her passing. The following text represents what a PC might encounter as he or she undertakes this experience.
The first Charun encountered after the final heartbeat, after the last electrical signal traverses the gray, folded matter of the brain, is Charun Cippus.
Blue-skinned and giant in stature, Charun Cippus’s pointed ears twitch as his hooked nose sniffs. Cippus detects the throes associated with shedding the physical vessel. This transition, combined with the perfume of fear, summons this being. As you pass through the veil and rouse from the transitional slumber, there is a foggy visage of snakes slithering about Cippus’s muscled arms, sliding up the shaft of the giant hammer he wields—a hammer caked with hair and brain matter. This sight is enough to confuse, impart profound questions, and terrify. He smiles. Thick lips curl over yellowed tusks. Cippus raises his hammer. Though he will not judge, he revels in the assurance that you are in fact dead, delivering a mighty blow to your skull with a sickening crack. Cippus takes your hand, and, accompanied by winged Vanths—hauntingly and beautifully seductive female demons—guides you through the confused halls of Hades, the abode of the dead. You hear the sloshing sound of moving liquid as you progress.
Delivered to a spit of jagged rock, the confluence of rivers swirls around you. You gaze into the black of the River of Regret (Styx) and are mesmerized by its oozy bubbling thickness. You see the River of Woe (Acheron), where you can almost taste the salt of its tear-filled expanse. The River of Lamentation (Cocytus) has scabby rafts riding flowing puss, while the River of Oblivion (Lethe) is a vaporous and memory-stealing runnel. You smell the sulfurous Burning River (Phlegethon), with smoke dancing upon its blazing surface. Here Cippus abandons you, and, still unsure of your predicament, you wait. You hear the dip of an oar, and a robed, shadowy figure rows from the darkness: the ferryman, Charun Chunchules.
Chunchules’s dory is of tanned skin stretched over bone frame. The Charun gazes upon you with coal black eyes, pricks of bright red light where pupils should be. He is skeletal. The bone of his lower jaw swings on its hinge, and, though his voice is silent, you understand that his outstretched arm and hand—dripping with bluish rotting flesh—is a demand for payment. There may be an obolus (1 gp slice of a gold rod) tucked beneath your tongue. This means you are gifted with pious friends or relatives. If no such payment is forthcoming, Chunchules will turn away, rowing indifferently into the mist as you begin 100 years of tortured wandering at the river’s edge, a beach of sharp black glass. Chunchules will answer no questions—certainly you have many—as he transports you across the writhing river to deposit you upon the spongy far embankment. You squish ashore and come into the presence of the blistered and diseased form of Charun Huths, who takes over escort of your journeying soul.
Charun Huths points the way to the Gate of the Underworld. His hooked whips inspire you toward this thorn-covered portal. Looking back, the horror of Huths—a shambling tumor-covered mass—drives you on. What is left of your mind rationalizes: What lies ahead surely could not be any worse. This supposition is folly since the Gate’s guard, the three-headed hound, Charun Lufe, is next.
Charun Lufe—sometimes referred to as Cerebus by those that encounter him (such as Hercules)—has growling spitting heads that represent birth, youth, and old-age. All tear flesh with equal ferocity, and each head drips with acidic saliva that digest before the serrated teeth even get to work. These barking shrieking jaws keep the dead from turning back, and, should you question your path, the savaged remains of those foolish enough to think twice are impaled upon the giant thorns that comprise the frame and doors of the Gate. Despite their mutilation, they stare at you with cognizance as they swing with the opening Gate. Wisely, you stagger forward. Feeling the hot wet breath of Charun Lufe as he nips at your heels, you cross the frontier and enter the Land of the Dead. With no turning back, beyond is only judgment at the Crossroads.
A priapic monument marks where crematory ash-paved road parts at right angles. Bargains are made here, pleas are heard (and ignored), and the great reckoning calculated. Though you may have been silver-tongued in life, here your path is already predisposed. Despite wealth or supposed material power, all are shunted their pre-ordained way. You have arrived at Eternity. One way is light-filled and sweet smelling. The other is one of darkness, stink, and torment. Regardless of your so-called future, you have been delivered, and the Charun have completed their task.