The Cultus of Vautu
The foundation of the Cultus of Vautu is as hidden in shadow and wracked with blood as the religion itself. The Vautuans apparently used no written language until after the fall of the Teberian Empire, so there is little documentation of their ancient rituals or leaders. Several idol sculptures, cave paintings, and other artifacts, however, show that destruction and death has always been found with the Cultus. Several wall carving in the ruins of what may have been a temple show a succession of crowned leaders, each beheading the next. Whether this was some sort of ritual or a metaphorical depiction is difficult to determine.
An oral history has been passed down through the Paragons and their successors that tell of Vautu’s relation with his followers:
Not once has the Gaping Maw spake, nor shall he, for that is its way. When the Eldest came they saw the Devourer and wept with terror, shame, fear. “Why has this been wrought?!” they cried, but no answer, no answer for them. And thus they fled, begging their new gods for mercy, order, law, light, rebirth. These lesser gods obeyed. But the Paragon of the Eldest would not beg to these nor worship them, his head filled with pride, his heart filled with hate and vengence. He foresaw, and he saw true: the Gaping Maw could not be stopped. When earth breaks and skies fall and days end, only the Devourer will remain, gorging all to sate his unending lust. And the Paragon shook with fear, for the Voracious One knows of no mercy, innocence, fairness. But one truth stood: survival. The lesser gods will lock with chain and key deep, deep in the soul of the world. For those that free him, those that wreak the chaos, havoc, death - they he will reward. Those that feed the Gaping Maw he will loathe to crush.
-The Tale of the Maw, “The Maraud of the Eldest”
What is known is that Vautu is one of the oldest worshipped gods on the Continent. His symbol is splayed in carvings dating back to well before the founding of Teber.
In Vautuan cosmology, the only constant is chaos. For an infinite time before the world was formed and for the inifinate time after its certain doom, discord is all that exists. At some point in time before the universe formed, the chaos took on personhood in the form of a great toothed jaw, an endlessly gaping mouth that hungers for existance. With nothing to feed on, the Maw could do nothing but wail out of insatiable and unimaginable hunger. Thus it was for a countless age.
Eventually entities entered the endless chaos, beings from a far beyond existance who are known only as the Eldest, called so as the original inhabitants of the universe. Precisely how they arrived or even who they are is never made clear in the Vautuan texts, but their purpose is certain: colonization. The Eldest arrived from whatever plane of existance they originated to turn the chaos into order, the madness into sanity. The Maw of chaos, sensing existance in its presence, did only what it could do: devour. Innumerable Eldest were swallowed in the Maw’s furious hunger, creating panic and horror among the survivors. Having been fed even but a little, the Maw took a new shape. Consciousness was formed, coherent thought. Along with it came the most ancient of emotions, desire. Deeper than the instinctual hunger, the Maw no longer simply needed: it wanted. The taste of Being was incredible, and now the Maw was driven by passion to acquire more. With a consciousness and goal, the Maw took a new name, impronounceable and unfathomable by any tongue mortal or divine. The ancient worshippers of the Maw called it only Vautu, a Proto-Continental name meaning simply “the Devouring Throat”.
The Eldest saw this horrific creation, the new formation of formlessness, and were terrified. How could this place be settled with such a wreckless and utterly despicable being? And yet they knew that they must, for it was their way. And so the Eldest created gods, deities to worship and prostrate themselves before. They thought that perhaps their new gods could provide divine assistance. Only one Eldest disagreed: the Paragon. Wisest of the Eldest, he saw that the Maw would remain beyond all time and even these immortal gods would eventually be consumed. But the gods were powerful, and for a time they would restrain the chaos with their order. Without help, Vautu would languish in hunger for eons upon eons. With an aide, however, the Gaping Maw would finally devour the world. The Paragon decided that he would be that aide.
And so Paragon made a covenant with Vautu, known in Vautuan lore as the Eternal Promise. When Vautu would be imprisoned by the gods - as he knew that he eventually would - the Paragon would do all in his power to feed and strengthen the Gaping Maw, ripping chaos from the order that Vautu might feast on it. In return, the Paragon would live to see the very last of existance be consumed, and he would be the very last entity swallowed by the Devourer. Life eternal could never be promised, for in the end, Vautu must consume all things.
Soon after the Eternal Promise, the gods of the Eldest struck. The deities created hordes of angels to strike at Vautu. Many he consumed, but eventually Vautu was confined to the Infernal Realm, the place the gods had created to trap the Maw. Vautu struck back, creating out of his own chaos new entities, beings of pure chaos and malice dubbed “demons.” And thus for an eon the forces of the gods and of Vautu fought in what is called the Elysian-Infernal War. Scores on both sides were crushed out of existance, but in the end the gods prevailed and captured Vautu with their sacred magic. To hold him, they created something new: World. World would become the new home for the diaspora Eldest, their long-awaited colony. In time it would develop and grow, new races and creatures would thrive. Under this wondrous shell lies darkness: Vautu is imprisoned beneath.
And into World they cast him, deep below, beneath stone and water and flame. In World’s Heart, doth gape the Peccant Maw, yet starved as the hunger grows unabated. Terror, irony, horror, farce! That which ends all is trapped beneath all.
-The Tale of the Maw, “The Enslavement of the Devourer”
And thus Vautu continues his existance, starving for chaos and power, stifled by the order of the universe around him. The Paragon still works, wreaking havoc and sewing discord throughout the world until Vautu can finally be freed.
The mandate of the Cultus is unchanging in essence: create chaos and death enough to free Vautu. To this end, any and all actions necessary are acceptable. Chaos and disorder are considered sacramental, and Vautuans go to great lengths to sow discord and destruction throughout the world. Due to the nature of their work, most Vautuans practice in secrecy. Many lead double lives, holding a normal career in the public eye but secretly attending Cultish assemblies and wreaking havoc. The brand of chaos varies: some are brigands and petty thugs, others thieves, some assassins. A number of skilled or noble Vautuans join government organizations as their cover. Once there, they cause intrigues and accusations, enough to disrupt and weaken the orderly political process. Others join constabulary forces only to harass peaceful denizens or plant criminal evidence to convict rivals. There is no single method that is favored; so long as the Vautuans cause chaos, the Gaping Maw is fed.
Although secrecy is the norm, Vautuans do occasionally create highly visible chaotic acts in order to remind the orderly that they exist. This may take the form of a terrorist act, or perhaps assassinating a local leader while shouting the praises of the Devourer. Under well-organized leaders, a number of Vautuan rebellions have managed to steal power away from the normal rulers at times. The most famous of these was the Black Oak Uprising, 400 years before the start of the Sectarian Wars. Deep in the Kursan Forest in Judicial territory, the Overlord Maledict surprised the small town of Black Oak by marching on horseback into the center of the village, defiantly wearing the black and red garbs of a Vautuan. The mayor ordered the town guard to stop him, but to the town’s horror, the guards refused. They turned on the mayor with daggers and pikes, revealing their true identity as secret Vautuans. Maledict had planned the uprising decades before and managed to place many of his congregation in the guard, allowing their insurrection to be quick and violent. The entire town was slaughtered - men, women, children, elders - and burnt to the ground, sending a great fire through the Kursan Forest. Only two people survived, but not without a price: one man had his arms removed, and the woman her breasts. The Vautuans sent them out of the forest to spread a message: The Devourer’s servants have risen. The Order of the Gavel quickly mobilized and rushed into the smouldering remains of Black Oak, but they found only burnt corpses and blood; Overlord Maledict had disappeared as quickly as he first arrived. While rebellions such as this are few, when they do occur, they leave a deep scar on the minds of the community.
Beyond chaos, there are a few rites and rituals practiced by the Cultus. A number of texts exist, written by various authors throughout the history of the Cultus. Perhaps the most famous is The Tale of the Maw, said to be written by a Paragon during the reign of the Teberian Empire. It holds the most complete myths and analyses of the story of Vautu, the Eldest, World, and the Paragon. It is often memorized by practitioners out of both zeal and necessity: the mere posession of the book is enough to get a person killed anywhere on the Continent. Ritual prayers are led by the most authoritative member of a congregation, or the Overlord or Paragon if present. Prayers and rites are done in discreet locations, sometimes a practitioner’s home, often deep in the woodlands, and occasionally in uninhabited caves. There are very few set rituals outside of those in The Tale, thus many congregations invent their own prayers and rites. One ritual, however, is always practiced: sacrifice. Blood and death help to sate the Maw’s hunger, and therefore something must be killed at each religious meeting. Preferrably, the sacrifices should be human*. If a prisoner cannot be found, an unfortunate member of the congregation is usually selected as the evening’s holocaust. Practitioners often use a ritual arthame in their sacrifices, said to emulate the original Arthame Ebon of Vautuan legend.
To say the Cultus that worships chaos is organized seems an oxymoron, and in many ways it is. The Cultus is less organized than it is brutalized, the strongest holding power and crushing any that may challenge it. The head of the Cultus is always the Paragon. In accordance with the Eternal Promise, the Paragon lives until the very end of existance:
And because life dies, the Paragon must too die, but the Paragon must not until the appointed time. When the life was ended, the husk consumed, the Maw ordained that the Paragon should not be devoured nor obliterated nor crushed. Into a mold anew he was born, and into life again. The spirit homoousian, the soul unchanged. Out of one flask and into the other, round and round through generations until World is consumed.
-The Tale of the Maw, “The Eternal Promise”
Each Paragon is a reincarnation of the first, continuing the unbroken line of covenant leadership. Rather than simply being reborn, however, the soul of the Paragon finds a new host body as soon as the latest one dies. With few exceptions, the next host is the one who kills the last. Thus for generations, a Paragon is supplanted by his successor, the new Paragon. As soon as the old host dies, the soul of the Paragon enters the killer and continues the cycle. As might be expected, the position of Paragon - though coveted - is frequently short-lived.
Directly below the Paragon are the Overlords. Personally hand-picked by the Paragon, these lieutenants serve as field generals and regional authorities. Although trust is difficult to find among most Vautuans, the Paragon must afford some amount of reliance to his Overlords. While not in the presence of the Paragon, and Overlord wields absolute authority; any subordinants are completely at his mercy. As there are is no formal heirarchy beyond the Paragon and Overlords, the rule of these officers varies from person to person. Some Overlords are very closely involved with their underlings, overseeing every minor task and enforcing strict adherence to arbitrary rules. Others appoint their own lieutenants and delegate tasks as they see fit, choosing instead to see their congregation in a “big picture” scenario, sometimes to a fault. Under very skilled Overlords, a congregation becomes an elite force, deadly and secret; in others, things may be far less formal and occasionally more brutal. Overlords serve as the pleasure of the Paragon, who has full right to dismiss, kill, or otherwise eliminate any that he sees as a failure or threat. It is not uncommon for an Overlord to usurp a Paragon’s position, becoming the next reincarnation of the leader.
Despite its age, the Cultus has never been a dominant religion on the Continent. Feared by practically every other religion, kingdom, or organization, the Vautuans are considered heretics by all societies. The Teberian Empire persecuted the Vautuans, largely on the crime of inciting anarchy rather than practicing heterodoxy (which was a rare crime, given the wide and open Teberian pantheon). When Teber fell, many blamed the Vautuans for sewing seeds of discontent and helping to overthrow the long-standing empire, an accusation the Cultus is proud to admit. For a brief while, the Paragon Kadessh led an insurrecting Vautuan army to seize Teber for a month before the rising Modoal Kingdom crushed them and put the lot of them to the stake. The Cultus was perpetually unpopular thereafter, hated both by the aristocracies and the lower classes. Coloquially, Cultus practitioners are known as “Gapers” after their frequent use of their god’s title, “the Gaping Maw.” Both the Order of Dalraaen and the Church of Modoaldus consider the Vautuans heathens.
The Dalraaenites particularly despise them, a historical and theological hatred that is mutually shared. Though both sides would cite many reasons, the core is always the same: one incites chaos, the other order. The sheer incompatability of the two accounts for most of their shared animosity. Interestingly, the Order of Dalraaen is the only other theological body that holds faith in the Elysian-Infernal War. According to the Order, Dalraaen led the gods to victory and chained Vautu with the bonds of Law. The Vautuans often agree with this analysis and thus consider the Dalraaenites a prime obstacle. From this double persecution of the primary landholders of the Continent, the Vautuans practice in secret mostly in the Freelands, though a few circles do “go deep” and hide within the Judicial States or the Modoal Empire to wreak havoc in secrecy.
The Sisterhood of the Pelagic Queen also considers the Cultus of Vautu a blight on the earth. The cautious Sisters, however, are not opposed to working with the Vautuans to achieve greater goods. Usually, however, the “greater good” is the death of Vautu, the annihiliation of nihility. In this capacity, the Sisters share a hatred against the Vautuans matched only by the Dalraaenites.