Religion of the Corps
The Corps is the religious tradition of most of the former territories of the Omban Empire, and many adjacent areas. It emerged around 800 years ago out of the earlier shamanic ancestor-worship traditions of the region. It is non-theistic, ancestor-focused, and centered around death and what comes after death as central foci of interest.
There are no Gods or beings like gods as part of the Corps tradition. The universe is eternal and self-created; it was once a formless mass that came together into an ordered Coherence, and then began the process of Unfolding - an ongoing, neverending process of revealing the coherence of the universe. Humans are part of, can observe, and even participate in the Unfolding. They are not capable of transforming its broader patterns, but can, at the scale of a lifespan, play their part and shape its individual channels and grooves. Different theologians and poets have understood the Unfolding as the cracking of a cosmic egg, the blooming of a flower, or the shimmering of a curtain of light (the aurora). The Unfolding is unpredictable - as life itself - but its patterns can be understood once they occur.
Within the Corps, there is is a belief in the First Ancestors, who are ancestral to all humans and to some other sentient beings. The First Ancestors emerged out of the primordial chaos but do not themselves have an ancestor / creator. They are unnamed (at least, by humans) mythical entities that may have been extremely powerful. Species that have First Ancestors are persons and are capable of sentience; other species, including most nonhuman animals, are not persons, do not have spirits, and are thus secondary creations. The growth of the body (i.e., from fetus to child to adult) is the individual’s expression of the Unfolding. Bodily death is not the end of the Unfolding, but merely a point of disjunction or inflection in the course of any given pattern.
Practitioners of magic differ on how the use of fos relates to the universe, but most believe that it is used to create minor new folds / alterations in the Unfolding, tapping into the Source of the universe and giving it new coherence that it would not otherwise have.
Some believe that at the end of the Unfolding, everything will collapse back into chaos / disorder. However, this is not central to the theology as currently understood. Rather, most hold that the ultimate goal or endpoint of the Unfolding is unknowable, if it exists at all.
The Corps is divided into two complementary sex-segregated priesthoods, each with their own temples, traditions, and roles, the male Voice of the Dead and the female Hand of the Dead. Both the Hand and the Voice are celibate, and while they are permitted to have sex, may neither marry nor have children once they take their vows. Each branch has its own leader - the high priest of the Voice is known as the Head, and the high priestess of the Hand is known as the Heart. The intention, and usually the practice, of the two branches is that they should be complementary, but inevitably conflicts do occur. Adherents use the services of both priesthoods and it would be nonsensical to describe oneself as a believer in one but not the other.
The Voice of the Dead are male priests in charge of communication with ancestors, the care of the dead, the preservation of knowledge, the keeping of ancestries, jurisprudence over inheritance, and the resurrection of the dead. They are more monastic, separated from the world, and contemplative. They live in large communal temples, largely on the outskirts of major communities, where they tend to the burial vaults of the dead, and where people come to consult their ancestors. Preservation of and curation of the dead bodies is one of their most central roles. Families will play some role in deciding which temple of the Voice holds the remains of important ancestors. The Voice speak to the dead and thus acquire great knowledge about the past, which they record in great libraries. They do so not only at the behest of families, but also speak to the long-dead who have no descendants to visit them. The Voice is responsible for major rituals such as weddings and funerals. Most significantly, they are the only ones who can resurrect the dead, although this privilege is not bestowed automatically or lightly.
The Hand of the Dead is the female priesthood who create and control bubun (zombies), mete out criminal justice, oversee birth, and perform public works. They are outwardly-focused and more engaged with the daily life of people. Because they control enormous pools of labor through the bubun, they supervise large amounts of public works and monumental construction, agricultural labour, mining, and military work. Nominally, the bubun are to serve without the Hand profiting from the dead, but in practice they hold enormous power and wealth from these activities. In most of the former Empire they control the meting out of justice, particularly capital punishment. After battles and plagues, they are responsible for collecting bodies and determining their disposal - whether to be handed to the Voice to become ancestors, or rendered bubun. The Hand cares for women in childbirth and conducts rituals involving birth, including those unfortunate cases where a mother dies in childbirth and her child is Corpseborn - the Hand supervises the transfer of Corpseborn children to their communities and receiving in turn the children of corpseborn, who make up a significant proportion of the priesthood.
Both the Hand and the Voice engage in conversion activities and missionary work. Of particular interest is reducing the influence of the Hulti (Old Folk) who follow the old shamanic tradition that preceded them, and which still exercises some power throughout the region. Both are also involved in social and pastoral care for those who come to them for aid. Both male and female believers use the services of both the Hand and the Voice. The proper way to address a member of either clergy is as Voice (First Name) or Hand (First Name).
The Six Kinds
- Living: This is everybody, or at least, everybody, once upon a time. The ordinary state of life to which all are entitled for a time, but none may have forever. A living person consists of a body and a spirit; in life, the body is an uninterrupted conduit for the spirit to express itself, whereas after death, the link is broken and must be re-established by the Voice. All humans are seen as having spirits (Corpseborn, members of other cultures, etc., etc.) but not everything that is alive and sentient has a spirit - Hith do not, because they do not become ancestors after death.
- Ancestors (Abas): These are those who have died, but whose spirits are still accessible through the Voice of the Dead. Bodies of ancestors are treated with reverence, preserved in great communal vaults in the temples of the Voice. The communal link between past and present maintained through this veiled channel of communication. Ancestors cease accumulating memories upon death but retain that element of their memory and some of the personality they had at death.
- Corpses (Bubun): Upon death, some bodies are committed voluntarily by their families, or involuntarily (enemies fallen in battle, the executed, etc.) to have their bodies brought to a new temporary existence as bubun. The spirit of a bubun is broken away from its body, leaving the vessel devoid of will and speech but capable of managed action. These are the tools of the Hand of the Dead, who use them during a seven-year span, after which they may be turned over to the Voice to become ancestors (if their families are known).
- Revenants (Shoror): Death is not a permanent state for some lucky few. The Voice of the Dead can use a ritual on a newly-dead person that, if successful, brings them back into unity with life, though somewhat changed - the link between its body and spirit become stitched back together. The skin of a revenant is always deeply chilled to the touch, and their physical appearance or personality may also be changed. The first shoror, Zunuga, came back to life spontaneously, so it is said, almost a thousand years ago, marking the foundation of the Voice and Hand and the separation of the church from the Old Folk (Hulti).
- Saints (Ula): Some ancestors are more fortunate than others, and the ula, or saints, are those rare individuals whose bodies remain largely incorruptible after death and who are able to communicate and work on the world not only through the intermediary of the Voice of the Dead, but transgress these boundaries of their own will. Although immobile, saints can come to their descendants in visions, and unlike ancestors, can accumulate knowledge of events that transpire after their deaths. A saint is sentient and capable of communicating with others without magical intervention. However, in general, access to the saints is strictly controlled by the Voice. Perhaps one in ten thousand ancestors becomes a saint, and there is no way to predict or control who does so.
- Haunts (Aidastu): Absent the steady guiding principles of the Voice and the Hand, death is frightening and uncertain. A death where no part of a body is recovered, or where circumstances are dire, can produce an aidastu, a dangerous (though not necessarily wicked) spirit controlled only with great care. The spirit is fully detached from the body, and in its flailing efforts at reunification, grave consequences emerge. Haunts are not malevolent, exactly, but they are uncontrolled and can take control of people and places, cause undesired occurrences, and otherwise manipulate reality.
The Afterlife and the Ancestors
After death, humans normally become ancestors (abasse) - their body remains linked to their spirit, but their spirit is thought principally to reside in a sort of neutral limbo, neither good nor bad, subject neither to reward or punishment. Ancestors are not capable of commenting on their state of being. Saints (ulale) are not in this place - they are, rather, fully in the world and in their bodies, despite being incapable of physically controlling them.
As long as they have their bodies, the Voice of the Dead can speak with the ancestors about anything they knew when alive, although they do not acquire new knowledge after death. Bodies are kept in large vaults in their temples, where their descendants can visit to consult them (usually after an appropriate donation). If unidentified dead body is found, the Voice would attempt to speak with it in order to determine where it should be sent or how to deal with it. There is no limit in principle to the amount of time a being can be an ancestor. The loss of a temple to fire, earthquake, or other destruction is an inestimable loss since those ancestors can never again be contacted. Ancestors are consulted for their knowledge of their time, or for general advice.
Around 800 years ago, in what is now Hasmala, a young woman named Zunuga died in battle, her body thought lost on the field. As her comrades-in-arms searched for her body, she appeared before them, her skin cold and clammy but otherwise seemingly whole and well. She reported, much to their amazement, wonderful news about death - that it was not to be feared, because it can be controlled. She returned with secrets - she had seen the Unfolding of human lives and how it could be manipulated. Through her, the Hand and the Voice were first trained in how to make and control bubun, how to speak to ancestors, and how to resurrect the dead. Her own resurrection was spontaneous, part of some unknown fate or plan to reveal a part of the universe to humanity, but others would follow. So, too, would the notion of saints. For the next ten years, Zunuga travelled as a prophet and thinker, with her sayings written down by her new followers into a set of teachings known as the Maxims. In the end, she perished again - some say she was slain by her own followers, others that she died in childbirth - but at that time, her body disappeared entirely. The Hand and the Voice, inheritors of her legacy, hold that her reascension was her being called home, her work on earth being complete.
Upon receiving a corpse into a temple, and after determining that they will not attempt to resurrect it, the Voice lays out the body on a flat slab of slate and waits to observe for any signs of decay. In almost every case, once decay begins, the body is recognized as an ancestor and stored in a vault where it decays (slowly) and may be spoken to. Very, very rarely (fewer than once in 10,000 deaths curated by the Voice), something else happens - the corpse does not decay, kept alive by a strong and persistent current of its spirit, that allows it to retain sentience. These are the saints, or ulale. They cannot move, but can perceive things in its immediate environment, obtain new knowledge of the world, and speak telepathically with anyone, not merely the Voice of the Dead. It is not known, but is speculated, that saints can arise spontaneously where there is an intact body. Nothing that the Voice does seems to influence the likelihood of a body becoming a saint. A saint is incorruptible, ageless, and timeless - essentially it persists in perpetuity in that state. The most famous saint of all time is Eluli, the First Emperor; Eluli’s ascension to this state ensured the potency of the Corps in overcoming the old shamanic religion.
The word bubun can be used to refer to a corpse in general, but more often restrictively to corpses specially treated by the Hand of the Dead to become reanimated. The connection between body and spirit is temporarily severed, and the body is instead animated with a more general lifeforce, allowing it to obey simple commands that allow it to walk, use tools, fight, and serve any number of other basic labour tasks, as instructed by a Hand that controls it. It cannot speak, acquire new memories, or use the skills or abilities it had in life - it is a shell. The bubunne came into existence at the time of the Corps, first in small numbers but later in much larger quantities. To be rendered bubun, a body must be largely intact. The lifespan of a bubun is around seven years - at that time, whatever lifeforce was in it fades, and its spirit is permitted to rejoin it as it becomes an ancestor, remembering nothing of its time. The main sources of corpses are enemies slain in battle, executed criminals, and the poor. Impoverished families frequently will allow a family member to be rendered bubun in exchange for payment, a form of rental of the body that defers its time as an ancestor for a seven-year term. Bubunne are about 2-3% of the population in most regions of the former Empire, but in Hasmala as many as 10% of the population at any time are rendered bubun.
Resurrection is an uncertain and sometimes risky process. It can only be attempted by a high-level Voice on a recently-deceased individual (dead less than a week, or have been subject to the Voice’s power of gentle repose) with a mostly-intact body. The church will not normally even attempt the ritual on individuals over the age of 70, those for whom too little of the body remains, or those who are held to be of immoral lifestyle or behaviour. The ritual takes roughly three hours to perform. The resurrection is not always successful, working approximately two-thirds of the time. If the ritual is successful, a generous offering to the church is considered appropriate. Resurrection can only be attempted once per death - if an individual is not restored to life on the first attempt, no subsequent attempts will succeed.
Individuals who are resurrected will return to life healed of their wounds or illnesses (though missing body parts will not be restored). They normally appear as they did in life, with some exceptions (see chart below). However, all resurrected people have a chill to their flesh that can never be removed. Skin-to-skin contact will reveal this to an observer. There is no particular stigma attached to resurrection, apart from among followers of the old religion, so this chill is considered a harmless side-effect. Other side effects are also possible. Each time an individual is resurrected, they must roll on the following table. It is possible for an individual who has been brought back from the dead once who later dies again to be resurrected a second time, or even more, but each time they must add 20 to their roll.
|01-05||The subject's eyes change in color or shape.|
|06-10||The subject's flesh becomes pale and haggard.|
|11-15||The subject's hair becomes brittle and colorless.|
|16-20||The subject develops a minor but noticeable tic, twitch, or idiosyncratic habit.|
|21-25||The subject's voice becomes hoarse and raspy.|
|26-30||The subject suffers from frequent bruising and bleeding (all damage is increased by +1)|
|31-35||The subject becomes reckless, feeling that death is no longer to be feared.|
|36-40||The subject becomes fascinated with death and seeks others who have returned from death to share stories and experiences.|
|41-45||The subject becomes overly cautious, fearfully holding on to her second chance at life.|
|46-50||The subject develops a craving for life-affirming activities such as eating, drinking, sex, music, etc.|
|51-55||The subject suffers from occasional hallucinations.|
|56-60||The subject develops a phobia of some common item or activity (e.g. cats, crowds, fire, etc.)|
|61-65||The subject sleepwalks, even attacking people in his sleep (although usually unarmed).|
|66-70||The subject develops an aversion to natural light and prefers to be nocturnal.|
|71-75||The subject has horrible nightmares that disturb her sleep; she requires an extra 2 hours of rest to be fully rested.|
|76-80||The subject's emotions are numbed, leaving her cold and distant, unable to truly experience happiness, sadness, anger, etc.|
|81-85||The subject develops a taste for raw flesh (or for maggots, rotting meat, or another repugnant substance).|
|86-90||The subject is haunted by an evil spirit that wants to kill her and those who raised her.|
|91-95||The subject's memories of his previous life are hazy and indistinct. He may retain some class skills and abilities, at the GM's discretion, but has limited recollection of events, personal relationships, etc.|
|96-00||The subject becomes a psychopath, with no regard for human life or emotions.|