|Leader||Akkhet the Undying|
|Headquarters||The catacombs beneath Azzol|
|Affiliation||The Queendom of Azzol, the Asha|
It is difficult to name a culture or people among Aloria’s populace more reverential of death than the Asha, who have gone so far as to dedicate nearly the entirety of the Queendom of Azzol to the burial and safekeeping of all of their people’s dead within the walls of the grand necropolis. It is there, in that massive fortress of the dead, that the Sefakhem-- or “Blades of the Passed” in the Asha old tongue-- conduct their ancient rites and tenets they have held onto since even the oldest days of the Dewamenet Empire. They are a deeply spiritual organization who safeguard the secrets of the dead, so to speak, and oversee the sacred rituals necessary for properly preparing, burying, and protecting them within the necropolis’s depths. Their origins tie them back as far as history can possibly ascertain, making them an incredibly old and enigmatic group as far as present-day organizations are concerned.
Though it is impossible to accurately ascertain the Sefakhem’s precise origins, a great number of the sarcophagi in their vaults can be relatively dated by the artistic depictions upon them to as far back as the early known periods of the Dewamenet Empire. Many dead soldiers and leaders from their wars with the Allorn Empire are buried and sealed, their casks adorned with illustrious images of heroism on the field of battle and kept safe since the day they were laid to rest.
The Sefakhem themselves claim that the goddess Baskarr blessed them with a sacred, indecipherable text that outlined the rituals and secret ingredients necessary to prepare an Asha body for their journey to the blissful paradise that awaited them beyond death. The very first of the Sefakhem, Imeshret the Night-Gazer, is said to be the only one who could read Baskarr’s text and blinded himself afterward so that none but he could possess its secrets. Once but a simple mystic among the ancient Asha people who wandered between cities and rulers, Imeshret offered his sagely talents and professed a particularly strong connection to their goddess Baskarr. It would be he who saw this goddess in a vision and he who exerted his priestly influence over the local rulers to see his will done. He gathered and tested other Asha until he had formed a throng of worthy acolytes to follow his lead and aid in the ritualistic mummification and embalming of their people’s dead, before sealing them tightly within sarcophagi that would be painted and adorned with images of the lives of their inhabitants. This would prove to not be enough, though: by Imeshret’s command, a great vault was dug within the sands and earth beneath it, constructed out of mighty stone and fitted with an impenetrable door. The key to said door would forever be considered the most prized of the Sefakhem’s possessions, and ensured they would be the keepers of the Asha dead for all time.
This vault was no piece of ordinary stonework, though. Inscribed upon its foundation and great walls inside are vast, sweeping lengths of Deathspeech runes; jagged and primordial, Imeshret claimed they were a direct translation of Baskarr’s messages to him, though modern examiners of the inscriptions can connect them to similar etchings found among the writings and temples of Ordial-aligned cults and spiritualists around Aloria. Nevertheless, Imeshret and his Sefakhem enchanted their Vault of the Dead with the powers granted upon him, and turned it into an everlasting sanctuary of Asha cadavers all neatly arranged in towering rows upon rows of colorful sarcophagi. Naturally, they eventually ran out of room in the first tier of the vault, and Imeshret decided to have it sealed off-- permanently. He took the most devoted of the Sefakhem protectors and imbued them with his blessings, before leaving them behind the door and sealing it tight with brick and steel. Supposedly they would remain there eternally as the defenders of their people’s dead, for the burden of being such a servant was an eternal one.
While Imeshret was noted to have lived unusually long for an Asha, eventually he, too, would join the ranks of the embalmed dead within the Sefakhem Vault. He did not die without passing on his teachings to the next leader, though, and so the practice began of each head of the Sefakhem inheriting the secrets from the prior before they died, secrets like the exact ratio of plant oils and essences to mix the embalming fluid, and the meanings of the ritual incantations chanted while sending a body into their Kharmic afterlife. History of the Sefakhem almost vanishes from this point, though, as most of it was wiped away in the Allorn Empire’s invasion. Luckily enough and almost as if by divine providence, the Vaults of the Dead went entirely untouched; whether this was by virtue of the Allorn invaders being entirely unable to open the door or simply their inability to find the place’s entrance at all is uncertain. Whatever the reason might have been, the dead, their secrets, and their sacred protectors persisted on into the new Asha age.
It is at the beginning of recorded modern Asha history that the record of the Sefakhem returns, as they reclaimed their ancestral homeland after three years of journeying eastward. The Vaults of the Dead were opened once more as their machinery was reactivated, revealed beneath the sands that had swallowed them. When the doors opened the Asha were greeted by great Undead Dewamenet; what Sefakhem had remained behind to defend their people’s dead were sealed away, dying over the centuries and returning to life within the Vaults due to the Ordial enchantments inlaid there. While the guardians’ broken memories proved useless in discerning anything substantial about the ancient history they had witnessed, the records of their dead and the practices associated with them remained, and so the process began anew.
Over time, the Vaults would be expanded into a grand necropolis atop it, giving more room for sarcophagi, and the ranks of the Sefakhem grew to accommodate. The Queendom of Azzol would be constructed around this necropolis and their operations only grew from there, with many of their dead peoples being brought from across the Islands near and far to be interred by the ancient rites and laid to rest among their oldest of ancestors. Nowadays, the Sefakhem are led by a wisened seer named Akkhet the Undying and work closely with Queen Azsamakh III, allowing them to embalm and seal away Asha who die abroad in countries like Regalia when the corpses can be returned to them.
The leader of the Sefakhem hand-picks all their recruits from among the Asha States and Asha Fleets’ mystics, warriors and other proven devotees. It is not universally considered a great honor among them to serve, though; there is plenty of superstition and apprehension surrounding the ancient gravekeepers and the lifelong vow one must take when joining their ranks, though for the most faithful of Asha, the opportunity to oversee the beginning of the journey to Baskarr’s paradise is an undeniable honor.
Once one is sworn in, they are ritually blinded so as to not look upon the dead in their rest and disturb them, nor see the secrets laid within the Vaults. They are taught the embalming practices and techniques, and then begin their life-long servitude; a servitude that persists beyond even death, as all Sefakhem are fated to eventually be sealed away with their buried people.
Embalming and Burial
The Sefakhem practice of mummifying dead Asha is revered as a sacred task, the technique supposedly given to the first of them by Baskarr. This is, of course, superstition, as the embalming process is entirely scientifically-explicable. First, the corpse carefully has its organs removed and placed within clay jars that are to be set alongside the sarcophagus after it is sealed. The body is then de-moisturized using an ashy sort of mineral compound that is naturally mined from the stone laid throughout the Ashal Islands, before it is carefully coated in a mixture of aromatic plant oils and resins, and finally wrapped tightly in a layer of linen then silk. The prepared body is laid inside of a sarcophagus fashioned for them before it is sealed shut. These caskets are made by stoneworkers and masons in the Queendom of Azzol, who also adorn them with paintings that vaguely depict the life of the inhabitant and a relief of their image carved into the stone atop the lid.
Once the body is sealed within the sarcophagus, it is brought to whatever empty space is waiting for it in one of the Vaults of the Dead and set there with the canopic jars, before a brief ritual is conducted by the Sefakhem tasked to oversee that Asha’s journey: they incant in a prayer circle, imploring Baskarr to safely usher their soul into the paradise that awaits them so that they might join the legions of other Asha dead laid to rest all around them. Since layers of the Vaults are permanently sealed, it is impossible to accurately count how many dead are actually entombed within and beneath the necropolis, but modern-day estimates believe there could be as many as ten million.
The least spoken of among Sefakhem ritualistic practices is the perpetual vow they take upon induction to the order, a vow that pledges their soul’s service to the dead for all eternity. While some might simply wave such a vow off as superstition, it is entirely literal in their case, as the Ordial imbuement their leader gives to them upon induction results in their inevitable resurrection as an Undead. Because of the perpetuity of Undeath in this way, Sefakhem Undead are sealed away with the sarcophagi they are sworn to protect once another layer of the Vaults is closed off. With countless sealed layers around them and beneath their feet, one can only imagine the score of Undead Sefakhem that wander the endless halls of ancient sarcophagi, defending them with their unending unlife. Due to this pledge, Sefakhem souls are never able to go to their idyllic Kharmic afterlife, and so it is perceived as a great, selfless deed to join their ranks and give up one’s own paradise in exchange for the safe harboring and defending of their people’s.
- While there are accessible manuscripts that vaguely describe the mummification process thanks to the testimony given by various Sefakhem who break their vows and depart, their ritualistic blinding upon induction means that the exact recipe for the oils has yet to be properly replicated.
- Nobody has ever properly seen a mummified Asha before, and all literary or artistic depictions of them are based upon estimate and fantasy alone.
- It is believed by those fringe scholars of Bintaar that there is some legitimate power in the ritualistic practices of the Sefakhem and they could very well be affecting the journey of the souls in their care. However, this is entirely conjecture.