Called the Dead One, the One, the Black Sun, the Dark Spring, Zeboab, the Reaper of Souls, and the Bringer of Peace. Zhakrin's portfolion includes aspects of death, completion, endings, perfection, the physical body, darkness, unity, eternity, power, devotion, law, black necromancy, and domination.
The deity Zhakrin (Zshah krin) is known by the general populace as a god who reveres death, obedience, and darkness. Worship of Zhakrin is ancient, enduring, and widespread through-out the world. All manner of people invoke the name of Zhakrin, whether it be a lowly grave keeper praying that those he buries remain at peace, a zealous proselyte conducting mass executions, a counselor assisting a family through the death of a loved one, or a warrior who calls upon Zhakrin to grant him the power to defeat his enemies.
Direction of Faith
The greater plan of Zhakrin in the World of Sulerin is the perfection of the soul. This perfection is achieved by
systematically separating the soul from the world about it, culminating in the death of the body. To formalize this
process, a codex of spiritual laws has been handed down over the millennia to assist followers with achieving
this ultimate goal. The color of black, often found among worshipers of Zhakrin is symbolic of the spirits final
separation from all that is mortal.
A world perfect in the eyes of Zhakrin would be a well oiled machine where, willfully or by force, all mortals fill their spirits with detached acceptance of Zhakrin's totalitarian law and its ultimate ending of dissolution and death.
Unlike his antithesis, Arden, the power of Zhakrin is rooted in measured and unavoidable decay, entropy, and negative energy. Worshipers of Zhakrin have extremely limited access to spells which draw upon positive energy, usually only at some personal cost. Priests of Zhakrin do not strive to increase the health and influence of life in the world, but direct themselves to accept the world as a method of challenge which cleanses their spirit for the ultimate goal. These views kinder a strong sense of predestination among many of Zhakrin's following and the phrase, "My fate is sealed," is a commonly spoken acknowledgment of their certainty that their god's hand guides them to their future.
Origin of Worship
Buried in the history of the world, little is known in present day of the origin of Zhakrin's worship. Many scholars
believe that Zhakrin's presence in this world predates the most ancient of recorded time, the Age of Chaos. These scholars
believe that Zhakrin was born as soon as the light of creation cast shadow and that it will endure as long as things are
built and born into the Multiverse. Others argue that attributing such a grand scope of power to Zhakrin is premature,
but evidence exists to support the fact that Zhakrin has been worshiped in times as old as shortly following the end of
the Age of Chaos.
In those ancient times it is thought that worshipers of Zhakrin were a disperse collection of cults, scattered throughout the world and with little in common between them. The first unification of these tribes occurred near the end of the Plague of Five-Hundred Years (AC1950 through AC2380) in ancient Thaluman, Zeret, and Merkesh empires. Death cults gained in popularity during this time as people strove to understand the meaning and significance of the death which surrounded them. In a mass exodus, plagued people, and a great many other social outcasts, were sent out on Death Boats, banished from the mainland to the Isle of the Dead, also known to historians as the Gaoler's Island. Macabre tours of this island were given to the adventurous and those wealthy enough to have no fear of plague. The island was tended to by Zereti jailers, among whom were death cultists and Za'Atan, so called "specialists" in the afterlife, who came to be near the island as a focus for their studies. It is thought that this is the first place that the name of Zhakrin was formed. By Zereti tradition the name begins with the letter Z, signifying that the word is tied to the ending of things; hakar, is the infinitive form in that same ancient tongue for the title of jailer or even "master." Thus, the name Zhakrin crudely translates into the Master of Endings. As those who studied death and the mastery of it continued to grow in numbers upon the Galos, some critical mass of belief was achieved and word spread that strange manifestations had begun to take place there.
The wizard-king Thalkis of the great Thaluman empire wrote in his journals often of his necromantic exploits, investigations, and of a strange pull he felt towards the Isle of the Dead. In 2715AC, upon hearing of the strange powers that seemed to be gathering there, he traveled to the island and there was transformed into the first avatar of Zhakrin. Though his personal writings do not continue from this point on, there exists numerous accounts of the empire that he carved out of the northwest regions of Irendi. They depict a methodical conversion undertaken, great sacrifices of non-believers, and religious war spreading across the tribes of the Scattered Kingdoms, as they were then known. Thalkis built upon the Isle of the Dead a great fortress for the study of his god and for many thousands of years that island was the seat of Zhakrin's power.
Thalkis' empire fell into ruin during the fourth millennium as new favor from the god of death seemed to fall with the broken Zeboanese tribes, descended from the forgotten Zeret empire, and as forces from other gods began to push into the empire from the south.
Strongholds of Faith
Until the Isle of the Dead, then called the Gaoler's Isle, sank into the sea amid terrible quakes and tsunami
(AC12863), it had been the seat of Zhakrin's power for ten millennia.
Shortly following this time the Black Order, supreme among Zhakrin's factions, invaded the Kingdom of Arend in a swift massacre. Arend's forces, weakened by recent
conflict against the Dark God and wary of ethnic stirrings in its neighbor, the Nation of Greentree, was quickly devoured. Meanwhile, great successes
had been made in rousing the Dazazin Empire to the West. Once evident
that their power was blossoming in the zealous lands of the West, the Black Order abandoned the Kingdom of Arend,
stealing with them the great Castle Rydendow by ripping it from the earth
and flying it west over the Desert of Three Winds and into the West to rest hidden in the fringes of the vast Dazazin
Swamp. Against the fractured new gods which are in conflict in those lands, the ancient deity has had many successes
and word spreads of a new empire supreme as in the days of Thalkis. Even though they have left, many followers of
Zhakrin remain through-out the Kingdom of Arend.
Numerous bastions of Zhakrin's power exist in other parts of the world. Some clans of Drakher worship Zhakrin with complete devotion that rivals other tribes worship of Brakah. In the south, on the Hanois Peninsula there is a powerful lich lord named Saz who controls great armies of undead deep in the southern Daul Swamp from his fortress hidden in the Fens of Fear. Cults of Zhakrin are plentiful in these lands and life is cheaply valued in the many cities that populate the peninsula, especially in the bustling and corrupt city of Hana.
In the Wastes of Saul the dead walk freely and eternally build their nation as a place of worship to Zhakrin. It is said that a thousand expressions of the God of Death can be seen among those that dwell in those shadowy lands. Somewhere in those lands is a forest copse of trees that die, yet live on. In this haunted and most sacred forest are said to dwell the greatest of Zhakrin's priests, mummified and passing the centuries in their study of secrets most bleak and lost to the world.
Hidden in the southern mountains of the Eastern Empire, somewhere near the Hills of Mirh, is said to be a mighty fortress which has been blessed for centuries by sacrifices to Zhakrin. From there, worshipers of Zhakrin spread their gods word of eternal peace, obedience, and the sanctity of death in a perverse parody of the teachings of Lathidus that are prominent in those same lands. Hidden temples, once filled with worshipers of Zhakrin dot the mountain sides and valleys hidden in the nearby Crescent Mountains. Scaurvum Re, most famous of these ruins, is still a place for the living to avoid even though its age is so old that its origin has been forgotten by historians.
The Dominions of Zhakrin
This section details why certain domains fall under the purview of Zhakrin. While other domains may occasionally be
granted to priests of Zhakrin, the below domains are those most commonly found. Priests of Zhakrin who belong to certain
sects of worship may have additional or fewer choices in what domains they pursue; specific allowances or restrictions
are discussed in sections which detail various worshipers of Zhakrin.
Death: This is among the strongest of Zhakrin's domains. While other gods may contribute to death in the world, there is no denial that Zhakrin is the true lord of the very act of passing from life unto death. Most creatures of the world who believe in the gods also believe that while Zhakrin may claim their lives that this is where Zhakrin's influence ends and that their souls then continue on to their true final resting place in whichever heaven calls to their soul. Some races (such as the Daernarthor Dwarves) believe that Zhakrin weighs each soul and decides which afterlife it receives.
Domination: Many of Zhakrin's aspects concern the concept of completion. Whether it is the completion of a life, complete devotion to worship, or complete subjugation of others to the will of Zhakrin. Other gods are less forceful about how acceptable it is to worship other gods. For many Zhakrin worshipers, there is only one god worth worshiping and that is the one which will visit you when your time on this world is over. Domination is part of Zhakrin's lawful nature, it is the inevitability of Zhakrin's will reflected through his devout worshipers.
Evil: Many sages argue that gods are without morals; that they are embodiments of ideals which mortals ascribe to them. True or not, in many cultures all over the world the power of death and the servants of gods who bring death to the living are considered to be evil in nature. Whether it is by the power of belief or because Zhakrin is truly evil, this domain has long been a part of this god's portfolio. It is the merciless demeanor by which Zhakrin brings all things to an end. Though there are sects among Zhakrin's worshipers who shun evil and take a more neutral approach to worship of the God of Endings, evil has long flocked to the power which Zhakrin offers over the living, and thus over their enemies. It may also simply be that Evil does a better job at sending freshly dead souls to sate Zhakrin than does Good.
Exorcism: Special priests of Zhakrin may receive the Exorcism domain. This specialized domain symbolizes the power of Zhakrin over the spirit world, specifically over those spirits who would subjugate the living to their will. Not merely spirits of the dead are included among those which this domain was designed to thwart, but also ascended spirits: true beings of the afterlife and of other Realms beyond the Prime Material, Outsiders.
Inquisition: As part of Zhakrin's focus upon finality, domination, and purity, an aspect of completion, some specialized priests may receive the domain of Inquisition. These priests are responsible for the rooting out of imperfections among Zhakrin's worshipers and for protecting the fold from worshipers of other gods who would sow corruption and mistruth into Zhakrin's following.
Judgement: As Zhakrin is a lawful being, there must then be a means by which those who are unlawful are separated from the fold. Therefore, some priests of Zhakrin study the domain of Judgement. This domain also reflects the view of some cultures that Zhakrin sits in judgement of the newly dead and weighs their souls before consigning them to their fate in the afterlife.
Law: While Lathidus represents a fair, compassionate, and lawful force in the multiverse, Zhakrin represents the law of tyrants who force their indominitable will upon their lessers and inexolerably grind out all resistance and hope of mercy. The law of Zhakrin rarely allows for second chances. It demands consequences, often cruel, in response to failure to abide by Zhakrin's will. Some find it surprising that for a god which demands comformity that there exist so many different kinds of beliefs as to how to worship Zhakrin. Even so, each version of worship is heavily codified and relagated.
Missionary: As is the nature of all gods, the expansion of Zhakrin's influence across the world is an important priestly duty. The tools to assist in conversion of followers, by subjugation or persuasion, are provided by this domain and are frequently taken by priests who endeavor to live their lives in lands where the influence of Zhakrin is sparse or under attack by other beliefs. Some priests who specialize in Missionary also find it useful to take the Domination domain.
Repose: This domain is the sole province of Zhakrin, focusing upon the deity's office over the dead. Priests with this domain often work to ensure that only intentional undead servitors of Zhakrin walk the earth and that the remaining dead remain inanimate. Priests of Zhakrin who frequently work with the living to assist in the transition to death use take this domain to impress upon commoners the beneficial powers of Zhakrin to their community. After all, what community wouldn't want a priest in their midst who can ensure that the dead stay dead, who enlightens the near dead as to their state in the afterlife, who protects the community from undead, and who can return the dead to the living when need demands it.
Strength: One of the less talked about aspects of Zhakrin is dominion over the body and its physical function. The preparation of the body and its evolution into a fine, fit, and well cared for dwelling shows respect to the spirit which dwells within that body and provides the spirit with a worthy home while it prepares for its transition into the afterlife. Priests who study this domain often excel at physical arts and frown upon vices such as obesity and apathy.
Summoning: As with other gods, priests who take this domain focus upon the bringing of their gods servitors who dwell in the Realms of the Afterlife (the Outer Planes) to the mortal world. Through contact with these beings they believe that they can thus be closer to Zhakrin's will. Beings that are summoned by priests of Zhakrin tend to have one or more traits which reveal them as servants of Zhakrin: a decayed and withered appearance, black burning eyes, shadows which gather about them, an echoing and empty voice lacking emotion, or briefly leaving fauna which they tread upon desiccated and drained of life.
War: The tests which war bring upon the world focus the spirit, hone the body, and fill the earth with the dead. Zhakrin's war is neither the chaotic destruction of Azhull the glorious exaltation of Daer-Koch or the honorable and steadfast sword of Lathidus. The war of Zhakrin is the elaborate construction of excuses for mortals to rise up against one another and in their strife make their bodies into worthy temples for their spirits and quickly send their souls onto the endlessness of the afterlife. War is a tool by which tyrannical leaders of Zhakrin's priesthood achieve domination over those who oppose them, it is the scythe which culls the weak from the strong.
Branches of Worship
This section provides an overview of the beliefs of significant branches and sects of worship dedicated to Zhakrin. Further
details of each of these branches follows below. Each branch of worship represents a large body of worshipers who pursue
a particular doctrine and set of beliefs from their god; each is a separate institution.
The Black Order: This most ancient and most powerful branch of Zhakrin worship traces its history back to the first divine appearance of Zhakrin on the Isle of the Dead. The Black Order is a militant sect which embraces the original principles of Zhakrin: Finality, Inevitability, and Death. Through these principles they wage a campaign of oppression over the world of the living with the goal of purifying the bodies and spirits of the living through strife and in ultimate preparation for an afterlife of servitude to their only lord. The Black order is separated into three branches: the Black Paladinhood provides the well oiled war machine, the Grolems provide teaching and magical support, and the Dsisini provide covert talent and fanatical assassins.
The Pale Lords: Also known as the "Pale of Zeboab" or simply, "the Pale," these priests and wizards are mostly necromancers who specialize in the enslavement or destruction of undead. Some of the Pale are even powerful undead who have been granted an undead immortality to pursue their work for Zhakrin. The Harvesters are one of the more widespread sects that serve beneath the command of the Pale Lords. While the Harvesters seek to destroy uncontrolled undead, the Pale Lords have practiced the creation and enslavement of undead for millenia.
The Bleak Cabal: This ancient priesthood fanatically strives to plumb the depths of all there is to know about the afterlife, the soul, and the process and essence of death. It is their hope that by exposing the secrets of death that they will be able to further its movement across the world and that they will be the ones in control of all that is dead, all in the name of Zhakrin. It is said that some of the most powerful of their order are able to travel to the true afterlife and return again to the world of the living, retaining memory of what they have seen while dead.
The Guardians of the Dead: These are worshipers of Zhakrin who follow a gentler path than most other branches. Their work is to assist the living with preparation for the transition of life to death. They are divided into two sects. The Ushers of the Dead provide guidance and counseling to the living. The Champions of the Dead defend the spirits of the dead from the living, ensuring that their rest is eternal and undisturbed. Guardians of the Dead are welcomed in many cultures for the essential services that they provide in handling the dead.
The Black Order
Oldest of Zhakrin faiths, the Black Order has spread its grasp across the world. Such is the might of the Black Paladinhood,
that its mention is nearly synonymous with mention of the Black Order or, for all practical purposes, the will of Zhakrin. The
Black Order is different from other branches of Zhakrin's faith in that it is a highly honed military machine, led not by
priests but by powerful paladins.
History of the Black Order
The Black Order was founded upon the Isle of the Dead in 2716AC, following the time when the wizard-king Thalkis ascended and became embodiment of Zhakrin in this world. The Halls of the Dead on the island were raised up, turned into the Black Citadel, and a magical call was sent forth pulling beings from across the world inexorably towards the seat of Zhakrin's power. The Avatar of Zhakrin, known as the Al-Zhara, then anointed its first high priest, Shamaar (who is said to have changed his name to Zhamaar for his master's favor, though history books refer to him by his first name). Shamaar was sent into the Thaluman empire where he masqueraded as Thalkis' plenipotentiary. To protect Shamaar from hostile agencies, such as Zeboanese or assassins or Merkesh revolutionaries, the first ranks of the Black Paladinhood were formed and led by Dreadlord Aramat Aul Mha'ta'lon. Mha'ta'lon helped to raise a mighty nation from the Thaluman empire, centered upon the worship of Zhakrin and the seat of this power remained upon the Isle of the Dead, where the immortal Thalkis dwelt in the full, complete glory of Zhakrin.
Thalkis recognized that it was the might of the Black Paladinhood that held together the empire and slowly invested more responsibility and power to them until their authority eclipsed that of the priesthood, which was relegated to educating and reforming civilizations after the Black Paladinhood had finished subjugating them. A brief period of turmoil followed near the dawning of the fourth millennium when priests of Zhakrin staged a coup to put down the power of the Black Paladin. The coup was a partial success, fracturing the Empire of Thaluman, and which eventually resulted in the creation of several new branches of faith, such as the Pale Lords and the Bleak Cabal. A period of transition and consolidation followed while the Black Paladinhood recovered from the revolution, allowing new ideas of faith to develop and expand across the following of Zhakrin and into other parts of the world. The priests who remained behind were those cowed by the Black Paladins; eventually becoming what is known today as The Coven. In place of priests, the Black Paladins recognized the need for dedicated magical studies, but reserved for themselves the right to directly channel their gods power, largely ignoring the priests of the Coven who remained within the Order. Thus the Black Order formed a sorcerous based sect of wizards who had dedicated their souls to Zhakrin, the Grolem Brotherhood.
The Grolem Brotherhood largely prevented the Coven from ever regaining any significant foothold of power in the faith, but never eradicated the Coven since there were obvious uses for priests who could wield such power, though their numbers were kept in check and the Coven became a rather secretive sub-sect of the Black Order. The power of the Black Order has waxed and waned over the years, generally keeping strong in the northern parts of the Continent of Irendi, nearer to where its operations are based.
Since the sinking of the Isle of the Dead (AC12863), the Black Order has based its operations from the Kingdom of Arend. After brief attempts to consolidate their power in the vacuum left behind by the armies of the Dark God, the Black Order moved its fortress, the conquered Castle Rydendow, from the Kingdom of Arend and flew it across the Desert of Three Winds (AC12864) where it became a part of the Citadel of Aurum, the present center of Black Order power.
The Black Order believes in the total subjugation of the world to Zhakrin's will, eliminating all other gods or at least relegating them to a position that serves only the barest of needs; perhaps allowing Arden to bring life into the world, but nothing more. While some other branches of Zhakrin's worshipers are more pragmatic and begrudge the need for other divine forces in the multiverse, however inferior they may be to Zhakrin, the Black Order will settle for nothing less than complete subjugation of all to the rigorous will of their lord from birth to death. It is their belief that this world is but a temporary test to refine the body and spirit in preparation for the exquisite ascension of the soul into the eternal bliss of the afterlife. The more tested and prepared the soul, the more blissful and powerful their incarnation in the afterlife. A weak soul drawn from a weak body simply cannot contain, much less fathom, the powers which are to be commanded were they better prepared. Therefore, the time spent by a being in this world should be spent dedicated to readying themselves for the moment of ascension, death. Those who command well in this life will be allowed power over others in the afterlife. There are no second chances.
Worshipers of Zhakrin indoctrinated by members of the Black Order ritually exercise, meditate, and engage in struggles to strengthen their body, mind, and spirit. These exercises are as frequently introspective as they are extroverted; engaging in missionary work to persuade or bringing force of arms to subjugate others into viewing the world as they do.
Commonly Chosen Domains
Members of the secretive Coven priesthood in the Black Order frequently pursue the divine domains of Death, Domination, Evil and Inquisition. Less frequently are the domains of Missionary, Strength, and Summoning. Part of the reason for the Coven's focus on these domains is because of their being charged to care for the high knowledge of divinity, but also because they believe that the favored domains will eventually return them to their rightful place of power over the paladinhood.
Demonstrations of Faith
Most expressions of faith are common to dedicated followers of Zhakrin. Some have spread into common society, mostly acting as wards to keep at bay the dread judgement and scythesmen of death. As in other religions, followers of Zhakrin express the sincerity of their faith through dress, keeping holy icons on their person or in their household, the invocation of holy phrases, the presentation of sacred gestures, and the singing of hymns. The more dedicated perform a variety of rituals to express their faith and perhaps garner favor from their divine master. Warriors who dedicate themselves to Zhakrin and express their faith through all of the above means, but also frequently limit their choice of weapons to those favored or blessed by their god. It is significant to note that when speaking of priests in the Black Order that we are referring to not Clerics in the traditional sense, but to Grolems, Coven, and Educators (priests who do not channel divine power).
Priests and particularly devout worshipers on the path to becoming a Divine Educator tend to wear black robes, accompanied by a gray or silvery mantle that is embossed with various symbology of Zhakrin. Grolems wear dusk gray robes with various bands of color at the sleeves, hem, and hood fringe to denote their rank; blue for aspirants, white for initiates, dark silver bands whose number indicates the rank of a Grolem, and black on black for each of the nine undead Divine Testates. Members of the Black Paladinhood don fine plate mail whose shoulders are edged in blue, purple, or silver to denote the category of Initiate, Knight, or Paladin; notwithstanding a multitude of military symbology to denote ranks within each category. Members of the secretive Coven wear bleak gray sack cloth robes as Aspirants, which they exchange for pure black silk robes upon joining the Blessed. Dsisini are only allowed to wear holy garb on special occasion for they have no rank within the Black Order.
Those who have cause to do battle of behalf of Zhakrin typically carry a blessed kris dagger for ceremonial use or for when no other weapon is at hand. Such blades are always kept upon the personage of any member of the Black Order who has a rank and is not just a lay worshiper. Grolems and Coven are typically trained in the use of a sickle, a weapon holy to Zhakrin for its use in taking life from the produce of the land. Members of the paladinhood typically carry swords into battle, as well as a daunting variety of different weaponry, though some choose to use the sickle in battle. This is particularly so with members of the elite reaper brigade. Dsisini carry with them specially prepared weapons, crafted from eldrich stone into various blades, to which they are magically bound.
As in many religions, symbology is an important aspect of worship and identification of Zhakrin's followers. The most common symbol of Zhakrin is a painted black, humanoid skull. In different parts of the world skulls may be dipped in tar, dyed, or carved from black stone. In temples the black skull is typically placed on a cloth of silver or gray when funds are not available for expensive silver woven cloth. Silver medallions embossed with the black skull or chains from which hang a black skull are common holy symbols carried by priests and are symbolic of their commitment in faith.
The Black Order is also easily recognized by the Black Sunburst. Many life loving priests consider the Black Sunburst to be a mockery of similar symbology used by priests of Arden and Lathidus, but to the Black Order it is an ancient symbol full of meaning. Its points represent unity among the black paladins; their many sword points facing outward in defense of their faith, in cooperation with each other and never turned in upon each other. The many points each also represent various aspects and blessings of Zhakrin. Though all the points are directed outward, other interpretations of the sunburst speak of how its design shows that all paths lead to its center, showing that all things must eventually arrive in the presence of Zhakrin upon their death, regardless of what path they may have taken in life. Its circular, outer perimeter hides the Eternal Circle if one were to draw a line from each point to the next in circuit about the symbol, representative of the Black Pact which promises Zhakrin's eternal favor in the afterlife to those who promise their lives to him while among the living. The black sunburst also represents the figurative black sun which in holy texts is said to wait beyond the sun which lights this world, cradling the light life in its black infinity of death. It is the Black Sunburst which figures prominently over alters in the temples of the Black Order.
Worshipers of Zhakrin, mainly among the Black Order, read from a collection of holy texts named the Canon of Nine. These books detail the evangelical lives of those whom the Al-Zhara (the Avatar of Zhakrin) appointed to travel beside the first high priest, Shamaar, from the Isle of the Dead and into the world to proselytize the will of Zhakrin throughout the world. The books focus upon the original nine priests sent forth into the world, records the words and teachings of the Al-Zhara to them, and details their experiences in creating converts and worshipers in many different lands. Its text is believed to be a factual and historical accounting of true events that took place over the course of roughly one-thousand years, even if some accomplishments ascribed to the Nine of Al-Zhara are incredible by today's standards. Several dozen lesser books provide supporting documentation to the original Canon of Nine by detailing the lives of those who the Nine converted and who later became powerful prophets and advocates of Zhakrin. The original manuscripts of these relic texts are said to be kept in vaults to which only the Dreadlord possesses the key. Religious scholars insist that present day texts remain true and accurate translations of the original texts, despite the roughly ten-thousand years that have passed since they were originally penned.
A variety of phraseology is common to followers of Zhakrin, easily identifying them to each other. The greeting, "May you find peace," and its response, "In perfection we are at peace," is often used between worshipers. The solemn pronouncement of, "My fate is sealed," is used to express commitment to a vow, promise, or to dedicate oneself to a course of action. Warriors of Zhakrin might consecrate their blade in prayer, speaking aloud that, "may those I send to you have found purity," and then shout out, "All is death!" before charging into battle. Other fighters who are less concerned with the state of their enemies souls might satisfy themselves with the thought of how those they slay will suffer eternally in the torment of ignorance and imperfection. "By the Black Skull!" "Scythes!" "By the Nine!" and "To the Nine with [insert target]" are all frequent exclamations and curses used, often crudely, by less eloquent followers of Zhakrin. Educators have no problems with these phrases being said in an appropriate setting, but deplore their use when made as a disrespectful outburst or as part of commonplace conversation. More colorful anecdotes, including comparisons to Zhakrin's "black" or "shriveled" testicles, "turning the Nine in their graves," or "as dead as a Grolem," are phrases that belong in a tavern room, not upon the lips of a true follower of Zhakrin.
Hand gestures are typically the province of priests and the thoroughly indoctrinated, though recognized by the casual worshiper, many do not understand their meaning. With fingers outspread, one hand behind the other, the small finger and thumb crossing that of the opposite hand, is known as the allahmat. The allahmat symbolizes the black sunburst and is a gesture held high in place of a holy symbol to spread benediction upon other beings. The binyet gesture is formed by the conservative extension of a thumb, pointed up from a closed, right-handed fist and rotating to downward while drawing a circle in a counter-clockwise motion with the tip of the thumb is representative of the eternal circle and signifies unity, completeness, and the encirclement of all that is mortal by the will of Zhakrin. The binyet gesture is used by priests to recognize each other when working in secret, but is recognized by most followers as the gesture made around their heads when they are formally welcomed into the church or when a worshiper is elevated to a new rank. Sometimes the binyet is used by placing the tip of the thumb upon a creatures forehead and then turning it clockwise while maintaining contact in one place. This use of the binyet places the eye of Zhakrin upon its recipient, whether for good or for ill. Receiving such a gesture often denotes a coming trial of faith during which the recipient's spirit will be scrutinized by holy powers. The salumut is formed with the right hand, index and middle finger extended and together with thumb tucked against where the two fingers meet. The salumut begins at eye level, arm unextended, with pointing fingers slightly elevated skyward, then moved in a downward arc who's curve is closest to the body as though pushing with the tips of the two extended fingers. It represents a single point of the black sunburst, the will of Zhakrin, and is used to ward away evil and undesirable circumstance or beings. Together, the allahmat, binyet, and salumut form the three holy chants of Zhakrin which are sacred and never to be uttered in unison or in sequence without offering prayer to Zhakrin between each vocalization. When properly applied, these holy words possess magical power that Coven and Grolems of Zhakrin use to focus their minds and invoke their divinely granted powers.
Members of the Black Order practice a number of different rituals both as part of day to day expressions of their faith and also as part of special occasions, such as rituals which are performed when an Initiate is welcomed into the Grolem brotherhood. Since detailing all the rituals performed by members of the Black Order, a deeply traditional branch of worship, would require a book all its own, we discuss here rituals which might be observed as commonplace among the Black Order and leave those which occur on special occasion for mention elsewhere in this text. Most common among rituals to Zhakrin are those of dedication: the presentation to Zhakrin of something which will further the cause of Zhakrin, and the Black Order, in the world. This may be as simple as a meal or it may be a person committing their life to holy service. These rituals are widely varied, ranging from a simple request that a meal will allow those who consume it yet another day to work towards spiritual perfection, to the anointing with essence of spirit a new worshiper of Zhakrin. Other rituals to Zhakrin focus upon sacrifice, whether it be abstinence from alcoholic drinks to more extreme devotions involving loss of life. Sacrifices involving mutilation of the body are not practiced by the Black Order since they hold the belief that a life and body offered to Zhakrin, being a living temple, should be offered whole. This doesn't stop Zhakrin's inquisitors and torturers from exacting terrible evil and pain upon non-believers whose lives and deaths are worthless to Zhakrin. Fasting is seen by worshipers of Zhakrin as a means of cleansing the body and achieving a purer state; it is frequently practiced in preparation of some important holiday, particularly for the Black Moon of Yanamen. The Black Moon, celebrated on the full moon in the month of Mordun, the first month of Autumn, reveres the ascension of the first avatar of Zhakrin into the heavens, when the full moon was said to have been swallowed in blackness by its rising spirit. During this holiday Zhakrinites practice fasting to elevate their spiritual lives in emulation of the first avatar. Also common to the faithful of Zhakrin is the practice of meditation. This is done with the goal of gaining insight into the nature of one's spiritual being as a separate entity from the world about. Achieving spiritual clarity and separation from the world such that one recognizes the body as a tool that the spirit manipulates to serve Zhakrin's Will, and achieving a consciousness where one views the body as external to one's spiritual awareness is an achievement which symbolizes a transcendency only second to the moment of one's death. Many Zhakrinites practice meditation in the evening at the setting of the sun or during the rise of Darkling, the black moon and counterpart to the white moon, Emmor.
Church Hierarchy and Leadership
The Black Order has three major sects and three minor. In order of powers, the three major sects are the Black Paladinhood, the Grolem Brotherhood, and the Body of Worship. The three minor sects are the Purifiers, the Coven, and the Dsisini.
The Black Paladinhood is the military arm of the Black Order. They enforce the laws of Zhakrin and lead efforts to subjugate other populations to the will of Zhakrin. The Black Paladinhood has four major stations among its ranks: Initiates, Knights, Paladins, and the Grand Lord. Initiates are warriors yet to prove their full worth. They have more authority than a common guard and their skills are significantly more disciplined. Initiates are recognized leaders of the lowest rank, fit to lead a small squad of men on missions of lesser importance. An Initiate who has served well is often elevated to the rank of Knight. Knights are the captains of platoons. They make the majority of tactical decisions in any skirmish and are warriors of fearsome skill and repute. A Knight might preside over a town garrison or a section of a minor city. Knights ensure the will of the Paladins that they serve. Though most Knights are sworn to a particular Paladin's service, any Paladin can expect obedience from any Knight. Paladins are the leaders of the Black Order. They ride as leaders in major battles and their decisions govern the direction of the Order. Paladins are rare and deserving of respect. They are warriors of the highest caliber and are entrusted with magical powers by virtue of their lengthy service and unwavering dedication. Black Paladins tend to coordinate their actions in groups of three, though each in the group may be separated by great distances; in this fashion they form a support network and help ensure that the Black Order acts in unison. A Black Paladin might rule over a minor city or army, a triad might rule over a major one of either. Ruling over the Black Order and all Paladins is the Grand Lord. This is a Black Paladin of singular power, invested with divine will, possessed of longevity. This leader has authority like that of a Pope or Arch-prelate over all members of the Black Order.
The Grolem Brotherhood is a group of arcane spellcasters who serve the Black Paladinhood. Within the Brotherhood are several ranks. The Ankhir (aspirants) are but fledglings in arcane study and who are assigned the most menial of administrative tasks, typically working as scribes. The Inuden (initiates) cruelly rule over the Ankhir and perform most day to day business required to keep such a large organization as the Black Order functioning smoothly. They are minor administrators, often specializing in a field of study, and they possess arcane abilities of small power. Inuden who complete their studies and who manage their charge are elevated to the significantly more prestigious position of Grolem. The Grolems, also called masters, serve Paladins and high ranking Knights directly. They are formidable spellcasters and can often be found accompanying war parties, serving as important aids to the Paladin or Knight who leads the party. Among Grolems a pecking order exists, though there are no formal ranks among them. Those with talent and the will to employ it successfully bully those of lesser skill and tenure. Among Grolems, politics and social connections are important tokens of power. Selected in secret from the Grolem Brotherhood are the Nine Divine Testates. These undead lich-lords rule over the Grolems and possess awesome arcane power. Officially they are lesser in rank than a Black Paladin, but the reality is that even a Black Paladin hesitates to make demands of The Nine. Needless to say, the Grand Lord never hesitates to command The Nine as necessary.
The Body of Worship contains all members of the Black Order who have recited the Black Oath and who worship Zhakrin. They are led by Divine Educators, non-spellcasting priests of varying rank. Divine Educators are near in power to Inuden (initiates of the Grolem Brotherhood). Divine Educators of long tenure and social power can informally command respect and assistance from Inuden, but no Educator can approach a Grolem or Initiate of the Black Paladinhood without humility. Divine Educators act as the publicity front for Zhakrin to the common people. Their goal is to persuade them to take the Black Oath and become part of the Body of Worship.
The Purifiers are a small and very secretive group of Grolems and their agents who act as spies among worshipers of Zhakrin. They work to ensure that other sects do not infiltrate the Black Order, but they also work to ensure that those with power in the Black Order use it responsibly and according to the will of Zhakrin. The Grand Lord, The Nine Divine Testates, and a very small group of Black Paladin and Grolem leaders know of the Purifiers and use them to test for and root out sedition.
Coven are an ancient minor sect which are commanded by the Grolems. They are priests in the traditional sense of the word, but they possess divine blessings and powers, unlike the Divine Educators. Coven are often chosen from among the upper ranks of Divine Educators. Coven refer to potentials as Aspirants and refer to themselves as the Blessed. Coven consider each other to be of equal rank, but they tend to defer to each other depending on the power and longevity of who is making suggestions. Coven work with subtlety and largely work behind-the-scenes, gently manipulating leaders of the Body of Worship and nurturing ancient plans to eventually regain a position of power over Grolem Brotherhood.
Last among the minor sects are the Dsisini, assassins bred from childhood and solely commanded by the Grolem Brotherhood. Dsisini really aren't an independent sect. They have no leaders since they depend on Grolems for instruction. They are sent into the world to eliminate individuals that are causing the Black Order problems, whether it be a political leader that refuses to acknowledge the supremacy of their local Authority of Zhakrin or a rogue initiate that has had a crisis of faith.
Lay followers generally fall beneath the auspices of the Body of Worship. Only those who have taken the Black Oath are actually members of the church. Non-members are tolerated in peaceful times if they express a healthy respect to the church and pay any demanded tithes, but are otherwise accorded neither respect nor quarter.
The various major branches of Zhakrin share much in the way of beliefs, but there are important disagreements between them too; even for something as broadly important to their faith as the meaning of death and undeath. Some Zhakrinites see undeath to be an affront to their gods will, while others see undead to be holy servants sent back from the afterlife to assist in their lords work among the living. The Black Order subscribes to this latter belief. In keeping with this belief and numerous others, the Black Order follows a codex of rules that have been handed down over many millenia. In this section we will touch on those rules which are most important to members of the Black Order.
The greatest of laws are the Nine Holy Edicts, spoken aloud by the first Avatar of Zhakrin, the transformed Emperor Thalkis of the Thaluman Empire, the Al-Zhara. These holy edicts are represented throughout the faith, each having a special symbol associated with it. These symbols are placed upon armor, tattooed upon flesh, listed across the mantle of temple doorways, and in many other places. The nine grand legions that divide the Black Paladinhood are each named after one of the edicts and some say that The Nine Divine Testates each embody one of these edicts. It is the duty of the Divine Educators to enforce the Edicts among the general populace, though any authority of the Black Order can dispense punishment to a commoner for the breaking of these laws. The Purifiers and their minions work to ensure that these laws are followed within the brotherhood, investigating claims of their violation, torturing conspirators, and executing violators.
Devoted members of the Black Order can expect to take certain vows before joining the church. Other vows are common through-out a members life within the church, occuring during or in anticipation of special events such as war, the induction of new members, accepting a holy quest, ascending in church rank, and during various ceremonies.
Minor vows are those which are created by the church to exert influence over the lives of their devout. Their occasional oversight is often overlooked by the church authority, unless the violator has gained the church's scrutiny. They include abstaining from eating unblessed meat, to devote themselves to prayer at the setting of the sun, to observe each holy new moon with proper ceremony, to confess one's actions to one's superiors, to study the Canon of Nine, to bend the knee upon entering any holy site of Zhakrin, and to strike at those who profane their gods name, to abstain from gross intoxication, and many others. Punishment for their violation is usually mild, ranging from censure to fasting in prayer for a day.
Sacred vows are those which have been handed down by divine agents of Zhakrin, often an Avatar. Many of them are documented within the Canon of Nine. They are taken very seriously and their violation can result in severe punishment such as public humiliation, lashes, and imprisonment. Repeated violation of sacred vows can result in indefinite imprisonment, excommunication, and even execution. Sacred vows include promises to indoctrinate one's progeny in the faith of Zhakrin, to follow and enforce the Nine Holy Edicts, to abstain from offering assistance to or accepting assistance from individuals or organizations which work against Zhakrin, to honor the divinity that is Zhakrin with proper respect, to honor the Black Oath, to support and educate new members of the faith, to vigilantly guard the church from desecration, to not speak in confidence with priests of other religions, to observe the Black Moon of Yanamen with prayer and fasting, to not steal the possessions of another favored by Zhakrin, and several others.
Mortal vows are those which simply cannot be violated without expectation of immediate and terrible castigation. Violation of a Mortal vow can forever separate a follower from their god and their violation typically has consequences that extend into the afterlife, following a horrifyingly painful death. They are simple and direct vows that include the following: to honor and worship no god other than Zhakrin, destroy no spirit favored by Zhakrin, and to not knowingly present false witness or teachings of Zhakrin.
The Black Order and the Community