There is a grain of truth to Father Pourvoi’s claim, though it is a small one. The Via Mortus is not a faith in the context of the Trinitine Faith, it has no cathedrals, no massive ecclesiastical hierarchy, and no claim of spiritual superiority. On the other hand, the extent of the Via Mortus, or the Path of the Dead, extends well beyond the borders of the Kingdom of Trinistine, beyond the reach of Kings and their kingdoms. From the mist and mystery shrouded bogs and fens of the Great Woses all the way to the sun-dappled coasts of Calcobrina.
The heart of the Via Mortus, quite contrary to the claims of rampant diabolism, necromancy, cannibalism and incest claimed by the Trinity is the simple veneration of the spirits of the dead. It originated many thousands of years ago in an era that predated modern concepts of necromancy, sorcery, or structured religion. Each community held various customs and superstitions to the disposition of the dead, and their spirits.
The First Era
Also recorded as the First Age, or First Millennium, this era was the most primitive form of the Via Mortus, in which the spirits of the dead were honored with grave goods upon their death, most often wreaths of flowers, offerings of fine cloth and their tools or weapons they carried in life. this would later grow into a larger and more systematic form of ritual as then primitive shaman learned to speak with the dead to gain their wisdom. Mediums also were not unknown, and the world of the living and dead were not so separate.
During this time, the first of the barrows were raised, with tons of raw earth being shaped into a dome over a raised structure of wood and cut stone. The central chamber was a simple affair, complete with niches for the internment of the dead, and a central shrine for making offerings of incense and such. A few of the larger mounds had a special hole in the roof of the mound that allowed for a fire to be lit in the depths of the barrow, for it was known that the spirits of the dead were not displeased by a fire of scented cedar.
Zehin and the Great Barrows
The Great Barrows were truly massive works, some supposedly rising more than 100 feet tall and spreading out to many times that size across. Most of the barrows were concentrated in the ancient land of Zehin, which is now the ruined land called the Great Woses. These are considered to be lost barrows, fallen to the domain of water and ogres.
A single Great Barrow remained after the ruination of mighty Zehin, and around it grew a small community. Initially these workers, most of whom were easily distinguished from native Falhathians by their pale skin and blonde hair, had immigrated during the construction of the Great Barrow. Their community revived itself through planting olive orchards and grainfields after the cutting of stones and the building of the mound was complete.
The Age of Orders
The Council of Bone
Before the ascendancy of the Old World, Falhath saw a growing governing body in the form of the Via Mortus orders. Based from the Ozian Great Barrow, and supported by the vital Ozian township, they claimed a greater dominion that was previously claimed by the generally territorial shaman. The first order, The Council of Bones, created the now canon Edict of Bones. This laid out the proper procedure for the handling of the dead.
The Edict of Bones emphasized the dichotomy of the sacred nature of life, and the contamination of the corpse. While not venturing to the extremes of the Egyptians, the Edict of Bones indicated that a body must be properly cleaned, wrapped in broad sheets of linen, and then respectfully laid to rest in the barrow-niche. Unlike Egypt, Ozea had a more wet than arid climate and mummification did not occur with any regularity.
The bodies of the unnamed, the poor, and the enemy faced less generous treatment. Made of unfired brisk, squat towers were raised that sat brooding over deep pits. On the top of the tower, platforms held the bodies of the dead for vultures to feed from until there was nothing but bone and sun dried ligament left. Then, the custodians of the tower, often acolytes of the Council of Bones, would sweep the bone remains into the ossuary pit in the center of the tower. The Ankaran form of the Via Mortus still utilizes these towers of the dead to prevent the innately contaminated flesh of the dead from tainting the earth. There is even a small guild that tends to the vultures, which while not sacred in Ankara, are given a large amount of respect.
The Tomb Kings
The rule of the Order of Bones was later upset by the rise of the short lived rule of the Tomb Kings. The Tomb Kings fully embraced the idea of a spiritual afterlife, ruling on even in death. These cruel and some say evil men carved out a kingdom using crude monsters sewn together and animated with great difficulty. They probed the inner reaches of the soul and began to delve into the beginnings of necromancy as an art, and not a realm of the divine.
Though vicious and brutal, the reign of the Tomb Kings was short. An enigmatic figure known only as Gravewalker appeared, and she was a common born woman. She was a medium, and in several confrontations with the various tomb kings, channeled spirits of heros departed to defeat them. There is only one account surviving. Recorded in the Iagros Text, a collection of linen scrolls stretched over wooden panels, tells of the Gravewalker defeating the Death Giant guardian of the Tomb King Intema. After besting the undead hulk with agility and guile, she used a rod of fire to destroy the monstrosity. The confrontation between Intema and Gravewalker is short, only saying the the Tomb King submitted to her will.
The Ebon Order
Nearly a century after the defeat of the Tomb Kings, a new more pragmatic order rose. This new order sought out the old roots of the Via Mortus, to take the faith back to its original intent and away from the unwilling manipulation of the dead. For more than five centuries the Order maintained itself and stood alongside the secular kings and high kings who rose and fell with their respective powers.
It was not until the time of Belex, High Priest of Ozea and later deified to the Trinitine pantheon, that the order stumbled. During this time, there was a growing backlash against the matriarchal organization of Falhathian society. For the better part of two centuries, strong Queens had ruled, and in that time there was little in the way of war and violence. This rankled those who wished to live by the sword for honor and glory, rather than become dutiful husbands plowing fields and dressing cattle.
The Order, largely male itself echoed the sentiment as they felt their own power sliding away. Without war and violence there was little need for placating priests, other than to officiate at the funeral processions. Belex began a series of minor edicts, each aimed at elevating the Ebon Order. He commanded that the bodies of criminals, thieves, murderers and rapists be consigned to flames for their deeds, rather than granted release atop one of the ossuary towers.
Later he added other edicts that began to limit the grave goods given to certain classes, each aimed at both elevating the order and undermining the largely female dominant nobility. The breaking point, seen in hindsight, was the edict that commanded that all unmarried women be placed in unmarked niches. This created only a minor uproar, since it suited many of the matrons of the noble families, yet another level to use against unruly and headstrong daughters. It had an unexpected side-effect. The Lady Mastere staged her protest, cutting off her ankle-length blonde hair, and in a second stage or protest cut away her own breasts.
The Shadow War
The most defining moment in the History of the Via Mortus was the war that was waged, largely in secret, between the necromancer Mastere and the Ebon Order. This magical powered engagement was a crucible for the development of sorcerous necromancy. Within less than a generation, the power the bridged life and death went from a society minded charisma dependant art to a cold and calculated science of magic.
The Order was broken, leaving Mastere as the victor. This would set the tone for the next few centuries as the Via Mortus, and Falhath were absorbed into the nascent empire that would eventually become the Old World. During this time, necromancy was explored, the art expanded, and the funeral customs of the Via Mortus changed, though only slightly compared to the massive changes that were wrought on other faiths.
The Ossuary Towers were largely abandoned in Falhath, though the structures remained in use in Ankara until the appearance and conversion of Ankara to the Trinity. (See Sima Ling for possibly the earliest appearance of the Trinity and the Via Mortus as opponents). No new overarching order was to replace the Ebon order, and a more cell based system took its place. The Via Mortus in Falhath did do several things by consensus. The Edict of Bones, along with several other works were adopted and worked into the Anima Manuscript.
The Anima Manuscript
though not universally accepted, the Anima Manuscript details the edict of bones, the handling and internment of the dead, how to handle the bodies of unrepent heretics and sinners, and most importantly to the world at large, the wards and spells to control and destroy undead, though very little about creating them. Some consider Mastere’s Black Book and the Anima Manuscript as sister texts, as one fills in the holes of its counterpart.
Lacking a monastic tradition of scribes or a printing press, the Anima Manuscript was never common to begin with. Some historical accounts allude to there only being 13 copies of the book made. With the coming of the Trinitine Faith, and the recorded destruction of nine of the known copies of the manuscript leaves the chance of finding an intact copy as likely as finding the lost horde of Zehin.
Since the Via Mortus dealt largely with the spirits of the dead and their bodies, the Via was not really changed by the Nightmare War, and the end of the Old World. It had no patron deities that were slain or driven to madness, so things simply became very busy. In the first generations following the devastation, the Via came to the forefront in Ozian affairs. The Great Barrow was a beacon that the people rallied behind, and the Primes, or Kings of the region knelt before the stone carved lintel and asked the spirits of the dead for their approval and at times their advice.
The Ozian Prime, Voz, was the last of the kings who knelt before the Great Barrow. In the years that followed his coronation, the Via Mortus encountered something it had not encountered before. The Kingdom of the Trinity made no room for any faith other than it’s own. Those who did not accept this new faith were alternately censured, banished, ostracized or slaughtered. Many regions submitted, seeing the once mighty patrons reduced to lesser station, saints beneath the Trinity.
The war was long, and hard fought, but Ozea lost. It is still something that sticks in the craw of many Ozians, and something that no Sangrealian will forget. The Via Mortus was systematically hunted out and eliminated. The lesser barrows were closed, the Ossuary towers were either razed, or converted. Many a Ebionite Monastery found it’s first chapterhouse to be an ossuary tower that had the bone pit filled and the roof covered.
The Ozians and the Via Mortus was dealt three blows that still leave a sting on their collective identities. Belex, one of the most power-mongering and nakedly ambitious of the Ebon Circle was raised from being the patron spirit of his home community to being a full part of the new Trinity. some say that the spirit betrayed Ozea and forsook them for having the blood of Mastere still flowing in their veins. Second was the canonization of Voz, their last king. Many claim that Voz’s deathbed conversion was a lie crafted by the Sangrealians to discourage and dishearten the Ozians.
The last was the closing of the Great Barrow. Given it’s massive size, the amount of work required to move the barrow was deemed excessive and a new plan was made. The top of the barrow was cut off to make a foundation for the new Cathedral of Ozea. The lintel stones were used to close the entrances, and they were then filled with dirt. Within two decades, a startling short time, the new Cathedral was completed. Sitting atop its 80 foot mound, the cathedral is the tallest structure in the city, and some sailor speak that they can see the cathedral even when two miles out at sea.
A Crisis of Faith
The recent decline of the Kingdom of Trinistine has seen an upswing in the Via Mortus. While the old orders are dust, and the Great Barrows are closed or gone, the folk aspect of the faith only waned, never disappeared. Faced with the growing hypocrisy and authoritarian nature of the Kingdom, many have turned to the solemn wisdom of this venerable and seemingly timeless path…
The Manuscript - rumors abound of a new copy of the Anima Manuscript coming to light. Somehow, it falls into the hands of the PCs, or is placed where they can get their hands on it. The necromancers want it to complete the Black Book, the Faith wants it to destroy it, the new order of Via Mortus wants it to help restore their faith. Who do the PCs help, or do they sell the relic to the highest bidder?
The Vozian Code - A terrible secret is whispered, there is a door into the Great Barrow, one that can be reached through a secret passage inside the Cathedral. The PCs have to face the labyrinthine interior of the Great Cathedral of Ozea (Dungeon dungeon dungeon) and then enter a place of the hallowed dead now closed and forsaken for nearly 1000 years… What is the secret, where is the dingus, what is that smell?
A New Order - a new order of necromancers and ghost-wranglers has emerged, and they are not going to accept rule by the Faith any longer. They plan on starting the next war with Sangreal, and this time using armies of undead to through off the yoke of Sangrealian oppression! Ozea shall rise again! Can the PCs stand against this bastardization of the Via Mortus, or do they stand to gain more by siding with the necromancers?
A Rose by Any Other Name… - The PCs face a serious loss, one of their own, a valued henchman, an ally, whatever. No real solace comes from the Faith, since the truth of the matter is that they have become more concerned with secular matters than spiritual ones. The PCs instead are met by a follower of the Via Mortus who whole-heartedly helps them, this could be a simple burial and recitation of funeral hymns from memory to a more elaborate processional funeral, complete with Chalice Bearers. In this plot hook, the Via Mortus is more back dressing that plot device.