The Burning Cult
Attacking the town had seemed like a good idea at the time. Their supplies were running low, and the town didn't seem to have much in the way of protection. Sure, the populace probably had weapons to defend themselves with- even though Merthian law prohibited arms, the populace needed such things to defend themselves with- but even so, it had no walls or such. It was almost as if they had put their faith in some god. Which, it seemed at the time, was a faith misplaced.
Praedus gripped his spear and had attacked with his fellow bandits. The screams of the villagers still vibrated in his ears, and he remembered them stuffing their bags with foodstuffs and money. Now, well, Praedus learned what they had put their faith in. And it spelled death for him, he thought to himself as the Burning Cult led him through the forest, chains attached to his neck.
Merthia is a land of banditry. After the World War, the towns and lands were wrecked. Marauding armies need food to feed their soldiers, and so they tend to take it from towns and villages they conquer. This left many villagers with burnt farms and starving families. Banditry became the sole solution.
This has left the villagers who had farms left in a bad position. The foreign armies had been replaced by the constant threat of bandits. The government was no help, either, as the king's army, while hunting down some particularly large bandit group, would loot and burn villager's farms themselves. Safety had become a thing of the past. Protection became a thing that you needed to provide yourself.
In the early days and years, towns tried to become self-sufficient. They put up walls, they trained militias, they purchased weapons. And in those days, banditry levels in those areas went down. The bandits either purchased farms in the area, or went off to terrorize another area. Things were good, until the government got wind of it.
The government saw instead of the improvements that the towns were causing but a threat to itself. They thought that this would lead towns to stop paying taxes, to cease recognizing them as leader, to openly revolt. The government responded with force. Siege weapons, if they were even needed, turned the walls to ash and rubble, while the trained, and skilled, soldiers slaughtered the militias. Soon, the idea of protecting yourself became a thing of the past.
This led towns in Merthia to turn to organizations like the Burning Cult for protection. The Burning Cult promised towns protection in exchange for believing in its gods, sending some menfolk to join their militia, and a small amount of food. And the towns said to themselves, "what have our old gods done for us? They have not protected us." And so the Burning Cult grew in numbers and power.
Praedus stumbled along the path, led by his chains, and found himself at a castle in the heart of the forest. His escort led him through the hallways and down two flights of stairs until they reached the dungeons. They undid his chains and threw him into a cell. The door closed with a bang, and the key turned with a snick.
The cult members left, and started walking up the stairs. Praedus managed to hear a snatch of their conversation: "I'm thinking death for him."
"I don't know, he might be worthy of sacrifice."
Praedus slumped against the wall, despair finally creeping into him. Oh, gods. He was going to die.
The Burning Cult is located in a large forest in the kingdom of Merthia. The Cult calls the forest the Forest of Fire, which is mainly to fit the fiery theme that they have. Their headquarters is in a an old abandoned castle in the heart of the forest, though the congregation generally meets at The Circle of Culthus for sacrifices.
The protection they offered is provided. Though they cannot keep a physical armed presence in every town constantly- for that they rely on their god, the Protector (see below)- they instead use their army to attack the bandits that destroy one of their towns and bring back all of the bandit's food and supplies. As the bandits will generally carry more food and supplies on them than what they have taken, the Cult and the town can make a slight profit on these attacks.
Most of the time, the Burning Cult will take prisoners from the surviving bandits. The main times they won't is if the bandits fight to the death or that they don't have the manpower left to bring them back to their headquarters.
Sometimes, the government or a coalition of bandit groups may try to defeat the cult, deeming it a threat. The Cult can usually defeat such an attack by either using guerrilla warfare, or defending their renovated castle. If the attack is simply going to be too powerful, they may simply hide in nearby towns, and resume activities after the threat leaves.
Praedus was dragged out of his cell a couple of hours later. When they reached the open air, he saw that night had fallen, and that the half moon shone. The Cult tied him down to a stone alter, which was suspiciously bloodstained, and then a man stood up behind him, facing a gathering of villagers.
"My congregation!" he began, "We are gathered here today to decide this man's fate. He was a bandit, a destroyer of homes, robber of food, creator of famine! So I ask you all; shall this man die, or shall this man be sacrificed?" A vicious silence hovered over the crowd, as torchlight flickered ominously, and Praeda waited for the verdict. And then, all at once, the crowd gave their answer.
"Sacrifice! Sacrifice! Sacrifice!" they shouted in one voice.
The man's dagger shone wickedly in the torchlight for a moment, before it plunged down into Praeda's chest.
Prisoners taken from a bandit tribe generally have two options, chosen by the congregation. They are known colloquially as Death or Sacrifice.
The first of these, death, is an accurate title. The victim is literally killed, and consigned to death, in the name of the cult's god, the Protector. This is, to be frank, a sacrifice, though not in the sense the second option is. The body of the victim is then burnt, and the ashes are sent to the towns that are being protected by the Cult, to show the Protector to defend these towns.
The second of these, sacrifice, is something of a misnomer. The first way is the true sacrifice, as the victim dies in it. But in the second option, the victim ends up alive. What happens is that the high priest of the cult (currently Rilthus), cuts out the victim's heart from his chest. While doing this, the priest casts a spell that preserves the victim, and keeps the heartless victim from dying until a more lasting method is achieved.
The heart from the sacrifice is then placed into the chest cavity of the Protector, their god, which is in actuality a wooden automaton, around ten feet in height. The Cult believes that the god then inhabits the heart, and through it the statue, which both blesses the victim and allows the god to Protect the cult. This is untrue.
The victim, who had his heart cut out of his chest, is kept alive. Some part of the process keeps him living beyond what the small magic the priest did, and the cult gives him honors. He becomes a comfortable prisoner, unable to leave, but at the same time provided with luxuries. As he is kept alive by the grace of their god, the Protector, the Cult honors him for that, and for his (unwilling) sacrifice to their god, to give that god a physical form.
The next week proved very relaxing for Praedus. Having your heart ripped from your chest by some cult and then placed into a wooden... thing, which then came alive and roared for the congregation, seemed to be an excellent way to break the ice. Now, they treated him well. He had exchanged the cell for a small, above-ground bedroom. The cult treated him well, and taught him of their practices.
Being without a heart was not much of a change. It was weird, at first, not being able to feel a pulse, or a steady beat when he put his hand on his chest, but all in all, it wasn't too different. Everything was fine until the night of the eight day heartless. What a large force could not do a small force proved capable of. Five bandits sneaked past the cult, and made it over the castle's walls. One death was reported, as a guard had his throat slit. And after that night, Praedus had disappeared.
The Protector, the god of the Burning Cult, is a wooden automaton. Hinges, constructed of platinum, serve as joints for the limbs, as well as in the center of the chest, where a lock of platinum is placed to guard access to the Protector's heart. Inside the chest is a wooden box, where a sacrifice's still-beating heart keeps the whole thing alive, or at least a semblance thereof.
But these do not answer the necessary questions. The most important of which are how does the heart keep the thing moving, and able to act, and how the heart keeps its original owner alive.
These two questions can be answered with one answer. And it is thus: demons.
The Head Priest of the Burning Cult, its founder, a man named Rilthus, dabbled in demonology. After founding the Cult, he realized that he needed to have a physical manifestation of a god to keep his followers. Thus, he made the Protector. Using wood planks and platinum hinges, he made the automaton. After, he tried to breathe a semblance of life into it. He needed it to move.
Rilthus eventually hit upon the idea of infusing the automaton with a demon. He chose the demon Carcer, and tried to summon Carcer into the automaton, but it failed. He realized that this was because the wood was dead, and the hinges inanimate, which gave no place that the demon could inhabit.
Life provides the chaos necessary for the demon to possess an object, Rilthus discovered, and what is more chaotic than human emotions? Thus, the heart.
Note that only Rilthus knows of the demon; to the rest of the cult believes that the actual god, the Protector, comes down and inhabits the wooden automaton.
Praedus found himself with a hood over his head and his hands tied behind his back being led roughly through a variety of twists and turns. He smelt the smells, and heard the noises, and he knew where he was. A bandit camp.
He heard a ten flap be ripped open, and he was pushed down to fit through the doorway. The hood was violently torn off his head, and the sudden light blinded him temporarily. When vision returned, he saw what looked to be the bandit's leader, as well as a couple of his bandits. "Now that I have rescued you from the Cult," the leader began, "You can begin by telling me their weaknesses. How can I raid towns under their protection and get away with it?"
Praedus smiled for a moment, and responded "What? Have you attacked a town? Are they going to go after you?"
"Yes. What are they going to do?"
Praedus began to laugh, a low, hollow laugh, and said between his mirth, "You are all dead. I can feel Him coming, you know. I can feel where He is, as He's stolen my heart. And I can tell you this for a fact: He's coming, and he's going to kill you all."
Praedus stumbled forward and grabbed the leader's shirt, all traced of laughter gone. And he whispered into the bandit's ear, "He's here."
The mixture of heart, wood, and demon is a dangerous one. It produces a new entity, previously undiscovered by any Atheian, mostly because it produces a volatile combination. A demon's main weakness, when on Atheus, is that their magical powers, which are the main source of their strength, get weaker as time goes on. A human, on the other hand, has weaker powers, but has those same powers until the day it dies. When you combine the two, you get a threat.
The Atheian provides durability, and rejuvenation of the magical powers. The demon provides the strength.
The Protector is one such coupling. The demon Carcer inhabits the heart of the latest sacrifice,and from that heart controls the entire wooden automaton. The Protector, also called the Burning One, typically uses flame and fire-based attacks, though has a large amount of spells and sorcery to defeat its enemies, including as a last resort simply crushing people to death with its massive fists.
Still, there are some weaknesses to the combination of life and demon. The most notable of these is the power levels. They start out low, but then get slowly higher and higher as time goes on. Which is why, so the Protector and Carcer do not get so powerful they go beyond Rilthus' control, the Burning Cults sets the Protector aflame after its been around for a month.
He was just a small town boy living in Merthia, born during the World War. After gaining the beginnings of an education, he opted to return to his home town instead of going to the Animus Academies, Atheus's equivalent of college for wizards. There, he experimented with the "dark arts."
These "dark arts" would be necromancy and demonology. The former of the two was discovered by the other villagers, and he was exiled. While wandering, he happened upon the Circle of Culthus, and the demon trapped within those stones stole his mind and twisted it for its own purpose.
Now he is motivated by power, and his desire for more power, using the cult as his means to achieve it.
The demon that Rilthus summons to give life to the wooden automaton which masquerades as the Burning Cult's god, the Protector, Carcer has been going slowly insane. Once a month, he and the wooden automaton are burnt alive (the burning of the heart within the automaton also burns up the victim the heart originally belonged too), and though this does temporary frees him from the confines of Atheus, mere days later he's re-summoned into another wooden automaton, and surrounded by the smells of fresh-cut wood and imprisonment.
It is easy to understand how Carcer could go insane, being continuously being burnt alive, over and over and over and over again. It is easy to understand how Carcer could want revenge on Rilthus, to rip him apart, and burn him to ash.
Though not a real person, he is the god of the Burning Cult, and thus deserves a brief mention.
They believe that the god deigns to take on physical form within the wooden automaton to protect them. Which it does, as the wooden automaton stalks the earth after bandits to return stolen loot and to prevent attacks if the cult detects bandits in the area.
When the Protector's time is up, and it needs time to rejuvenate in its heavenly home, the cult provides the service of the flame, by burning the Protector. The holy smoke flies skyward, taking the god's divine essence with it, while the ashes are taken as the Protector's gift. Some of the ashes are placed in a person's coffin, and it is believed that they help guide and protect the fallen as the journey to the next life.