This article originally appeared at the Old School Heretic Blog.
Devukarsha may have destroyed most of the temples of the Demiurgoi and other Manifest or Incarnate Gods, the survivors of the riots that ended their not so sublime tyranny now imprisoned as Penitent Gods, but there are other city-states upon Riskail, and not all cults require the physical presence of their gods in order to persist. The proscribed Nationalist-Churches still hold rally-services in various secret locations, each one seeking some edge over the others as they carry on a millennia-old covert war of vendetta and clandestine bloodshed. They live in perpetual fear that one of their number will one day harm a non-believer and bring down the full wrath of Polite Society upon them, so they strive to be vigilant and certain beyond all doubt that whomever they attack is also a member of a competing Nationalist-Church. The Veiled Riders can be found out along the farthest reaches of the Badlands, as can the Trisectivore Chitinopods that hunt them with a reckless malice no human heart could ever match. The robed and only vaguely still human Death Spectra walk freely amongst the crowds of any city they choose, each one devoted to a particular nanoplague that they alone have contained at great personal cost. Each of them acting as the conscience of their particular plaguephorm which they carry about trapped within them like a seething demonic fury etched into their bones and imprinted upon their partially mechanized flesh.
Even in the wake and aftermath of the Godswar there are still secret societies and clusters of cultists to be found within Devukarsha and the other city-states of Riskail. Anyone can join a cult, if they know where to look, do the right research and pass the various trials and tests of the particular group. Some enterprising disgraced and defrocked scholars help potential cultists to prepare for their entrance exams in seedy storefront shops along the Backwater Districts of the Twelfth Tier. Certain of the Families and Dynasties with holdings along the lower zones tend to have all sorts of ties to various tribes, foreign powers, merchants, craftsguilds and unions as well as to cults. Some of them have maintained long traditions of cultic involvement. And of course there are the dabblers and other thrill-seekers who join some fringe group in order to be naughty, upset their parents, or have some fun. Most real cults do their best to avoid such individuals as they tend to destroy wahtever self-respect, dignity or integrity a particular cult might have had prior to the involvement of sight-seers, celebutards and dilletantes. Some cults profaned by such creatures transform themselves into half-hearted artistic movements, self-help franchises, or advisors to the rich and foolish. Their formerly religiously-oriented work becomes deprecated and demoted in favor of fashionable idolatries, commercially viable platitudes, and marketing activities. The rest implode and are rarely heard from again, as they tend to become the butt of rude jokes.
Cults are the remnants of a variety of suppressed and proscribed faiths, traditions and beliefs that have been relegated to deliberate obscurity, driven into near extinction, or legally banned from corporate existence due to past misdeeds, malfeasance or malevolent acts contrary to the best interests of Polite Society. Some cults are the lingering remains of former large-scale practices, others have always been marginal aberrations and clandestine practices that have never had any real large-scale existence or acknowledgement. Many are secret and mysterious, known only to the initiated few. Very few cults willingly discuss their beliefs or doings with outsiders, and they can be quite vindictive towards former members who talk too freely.
Many of the old faiths operate quietly, unobtrusively in the background. There is no shame or stigma attached to being a member or initiate of the old mysteries or the ancient faiths. It is the fanatics, the zealots and demagogues who are problematic and dangerous. They can be religious, political, non-religious, anti-religious or just plain ambitious. Driven to prove themselves, to defend their faith/leader/whatever, and to sieze power these individuals often devolve into wicked evangelists of depraved and boorish non-faiths, spurious dogmas and the restrictive cant of mind-tyrants and false prophets. They hide behind obscure and contradictory doctrines and rationalizations that often times completely bypass their stated beliefs and serve only the interests of their leaders. Cults are not always the same as faiths, for some of them rely entirely too much upon personality, charisma and the doctrines and marketing efforts of individuals who in many instances do not themselves believe. Others believe all too much in their cultic dogmas. There is a wide range of possible interpretations, definitions and expressions of cultic activity. Not all cultists serve Living Demigods, work behind the scenes to restore the Incarnates, or manipulate otherwise innocent student gatherings in order to revive discredited dogmas.
Here follows a brief overview of some cults commonly known to have some sort of presence on Riskail. Certain of these groups may be examined in greater detail later.
(17 of 20) Illicit Cults of Riskail
Prohibitionists / Penitents / NeoPuritans
A loose collective of flagellants, militant self-internists, extreme mortifiers, and others who seek to divest themselves of all pleasure, sensation and temptation of the flesh and yet do not just go the next logical step and become undead or cyborg. They see abandoning the flesh as weak and disgraceful, though some few amongst them accept it as the last act of mortification and a reasonable outcome of their self-inflicted campaigns of attrition and denial. If one achieves undeath or uploads only as a direct extension and consequence of their discipline, then that is laudable and acceptable. Of course different sects disagree. Sometimes violently. Amongst these cultists, it is not uncommon to encounter people who've ritually lobotomized themselves, chemically scoured all emotion from their nervous system, and purged all vestige of human fraility in preparation for their ascent into another state of being. Quite a number of these sects confine themselves to monasteries, while a few take up a wandering stoic-beggar sort of existence which they believe will bring them much merit and virtue as they stand firm against the temptations of the flesh. Most people find these sects boring, trite and simplistic and so try to ignore them. That said, a few of these cultists are very skilled karcists and exorcists, and it is suspected that combat-karcists like Tharlon may harbor sympathies for them and they may share deeper affiliations or direct ties, but nothing of the sort has ever been proven beyond rumors best not repeated too loudly for fear of whom or what might overhear.
Volunteers who serve the Black Tumbrels and Death Wagons that prowl the deeper, darker and less well-travelled backways of Devukarsha and some other cities. These groups first appeared during the onset of the Godswar and haven't entirely been disbanded despite a few attempts to do so by various members of Parliament and some of the Ministries. Each sect is independent of the others, each one enforces a different, often conflicting set of laws, rules and capital prohibitions. About the only thing any of them have left in common after centuries of clandestine roving executions is their use of the guillotine and their practice of selling off the bodies but retaining the heads of their victims, though a few down-on-their-luck sects have been selling off their collections of human heads lately in order to raise funds. A peculiar loophole in Old Regime law provides the Black Tumbrels with a means of re-registering for a death permit, however if they should miss the deadline their permit can be refused and their activities will be officially censured. Only three Black Tumbrels have missed their re-registrations in the last two hundred years. There is also a rumor that a group of outside investors have attempted to take-over one of the Black Tumbrel's licenses, so far unsuccessfully.
The Absurd arises from out of the fundamental conflict between human striving to determine meaning and the essential intrinsic meaninglessness of the universe. Suicide is meaningless, madness is meaningless, and acceptance is meaningless. Most of these cultists gather in dingy cafes in the dreariest times of the year and sip bad coffee while discussing what Kierkegaard meant in his ancient writings which have been hand-copied on the delicately flayed skins of their ancestors and compiled into personalized heirloom books that are often quite different from one to the other, being in a variety of languages, translations and rife with commentaries, intepretations and footnotes. Several have been so extensively revised and annotated that the original writing has to be dropped to make room for the opinions of scholars more qualified to speak to the nature of absurdity than Kierkegaard himself. For the most part these cultists are fairly innocuous and rarely inconvenience anyone, save when they get into heated debates and might raise their voices in public.
A small and mostly defunct cult dedicated to the fomenting of total ecological collapse. Most of them were killed in the course of their efforts to convert the once lush environment of Auldris into a barren waste seeded with radioactive salts and worse. It is rumored that someone is attempting to sell a number of Barrenator-derived artifacts that have been recently recovered from a hidden weapons-cache out on one of the nearer Bad Land worlds. It is also believed that whomever is behind this murdered a Guide in order to cover their tracks. Big mistake.
Consolers of Draz
Aesthetes who sneak into museums and galleries in order to achieve mystical rapport and communion with chosen paintings. Their sorcerous efforts allow them to collapse the images they target and absorb them into their bodies where they transmute the stolen imagery into prismatic toxins of various sorts. They leave behind empty frames and dead custodians or guards. No one knows much more about them as they are never taken into custody alive. They are suspected of having killed several sorcerers who may have been close to discovering the secret of their techniques. Their ultimate aims and goals are unknown as well, but it is believed that their theft of various images and subsequent conversion of those images into prismatic toxins is just the beginning.
Bizarre technofetishists who delve deeply into all forms of deprecated and defunct technologies, as though they might open up radical new avenues of human thought, experience and development by pursuing those things that were abandoned, lost or suppressed by previous cultures. Seen as pseudo-scientists and archaeological re-enactors, frauds or cranks by the majority of Academia, the White Coats have become a secret society dedicated to outre beliefs, wild claims and the vindication of technological charlatanry in all its myriad forms. Their group has splintered on more than one occasion over the theories and claims of particular inventors or researchers of the past. A splinter-cell of Freudians once attacked a sub-sect of Edisonites over some seemingly trivial matter involving an apparatus made up of valves that was supposed to allow the spirits of the deceased to speak to the living. There was a heated dispute between the two camps in regards to what was meant by 'spirits' and things escalated into a full fledged massacre which was only halted when the apparatus began to emit the orders of fallen leaders. The two groups have since merged and become a formidable force amongst the White Coats as they seek to strip-mine the memories of any 'spirit' they can contact with their devices which have been continually improved-upon over the years. Most of the rest of the White Coats tend to be diligent materialists and distrust the work of their brethren whom they fear are falling into some sort of metaphysical trap.
Bedavaneer (Conquerer Worms)
Symbioticists who allow a particular species of geneered worm to inhabit their bodies and by bonding with them modify their internal systems in a number of radical and unconventional ways so that over time they transcend the symbiosis to integrate into a true hybrid form that is no longer either human nor hyper-annelid. Little is known of this cult beyond the most basic premises and practices, however it is documented fairly reliably that the worms provide their hosts with a number of enhancements and possibly certain Arbitrary Powers. What the aims and goals of the Integrated beings might be remains to be discovered.
Resenters (Bad Faith)
Freedom is inescapable and inexorable. Decisions must be made and no matter what decision one might make, it will have consequences. Resenters believe that all conscious peoples are radically free beings who know, deep down that they must make choices even if they would choose not to make a choice. By knowing ourselves on any level, we transmit false information. The very structure of the human mind insures this, or so the Resenters claim. They believe that we are all enslaved into a mechanistic feedback loop of making choice after choice, suffering consequence after consequence and so they have developed a paradoxical approach to it all that allows them to temporarily escape freedom and its terrible burden of decision-making and consequence through a form of Zen-like discipline of Bad Faith. They blot out all vestige of their recent choices and make new ones which then get blotted out to make room for new ones and so on in a cycle that accelerates through every conceivable choice and breaks through into the inconceivable, the humanly impossible and the paradoxical in such a way and with such momentum that they momentarily rise above the tyranny of freedom and the chains of consequence. Unfortunately, these breakthroughs remain fleeting and sporadic, irregular and somewhat random in intensity and duration. But they continue striving along these lines and in the face of it all because that is their choice...
Veiled, stately and elegant figures who look as though they stepped out of some art nouveau painting just after midnight during a particularly ponderous thunderstorm. The Mourners are sorrow-addicts caught-up in a ritually-gothicized existence of macabre contemplations and necromantic indulgences. Surgically-enhanced mediums, the Mourners speak for the dead who lack any other option. Self-declared advocates for the ancestors and the involuntarily deceased, the Mourners are especially obsessed with the former lives of those who've passed beyond prior to modern longevity methods, the Lost Generations prior to the rejuves or the reincarnation protocols or even the Helical Cathedraes. The Mourners are mostly ambivalent over the Helical Cathedraes as they represent a means by which the Mourners could very well stand to lose their monopoly upon the spirits of the dead with every life recovered by the Helical Cathedraes. And it is for this very reason that the cult has started to look into ways that it can impede, obstruct and interfere with the Helical Cathedraes. There are some within their circles who advocate for a more direct, even violent approach. A few radicals amongst them fear the Helical Cathedraes and are plotting terrible things.
Withdrawn of Dantesino / Atoners of Dantesino
The Gulag-Asylum of Dantesino was the Atoner's greatest hope and most abject failure. A cold, harsh angular-walled citadel perched atop a massive barren bluff of raw stone in the middle of some tempestuous sea filled with ice floes the way a shark's mouth is filled with teeth. Dantesino is a dismal, heartless place of despair where the prisoners are left to their own devices within crude, unlit and chilly cells hacked out of the cold, gray rock beneath the citadel, often by the previous inmate. The citadel is so heavily warded that telepathy is stifled, empathy is turned back upon the sensitives who try to employ it, and most forms of psychism are interfered with so as to be both unpleasant and ineffective for anyone foolish enough to attempt their use within these walls. Spells refuse to enter these precincts or respond entirely inappropriately, often seriously damaging those who try to use them in this place. Isolation and boredom are the order of the day, and the bone-chilling cold. Many prisoners begin to look forward to the surprise inspections, regular beatings or even the Director's monthly holographic sermons on morality which were initiated over seven hundred years ago as part of an obscure political sect that had gained some credibility during the Third Revolution before being wiped out by internecine feuding amongst themselves. Several left-over bioweapons still crawl about the less used regions of the citadel looking for stray Atoners and otherwise ignoring all others as they smell wrong. The few Atoners who survive are hidden away within the bowels of Dantesino, or frozen in hibercysts, or have fled to nomadic camps that prowl the very fringes of some Bleak World, waiting for the message to find them that all is forgiven and that they can return to their once and future home, the monotonous gray prison of Dantesino.
Shaggy and dishevelled wildpeople in long-coats and broad-brimmed hats, covered in the dust of a hundred thousand unnamable trails out past the perimeter of Civilization and the Known Worlds. Withdrawn and taciturn, the Dustascetics are self-sterilized and are innoculated with nanoblasts that completely scour and breakdown all biological materials that leave their immediate contact, rendering such things inert, sterile dust. They leave few, if any traces behind them save for the dust. Most ride chitinous non-horses, arachnorses or in some instances self-modifying multi-cycles adapted to the harsh conditions of the trackless deserts, salt flats and similar Badland terrains that the Dustascetics prefer over all other regions, for the sake of the natural barreness. It is rumored that at least one band of the Dustacetics have been contacted and possibly corrupted by contact with one or more Ragers.
Absolutely rigid in their chosen follies – their minds are all made up and reinforced by prosthetic AI systems that allow them no doubts, no wavering, no questions—they are committed completely and totally, irrevocably and irresistibly to their previously chosen decisions, paradigms, etc. They deliberately and violently defend/support the most outrageous theories/ideas/ideologies on purpose, lies are their truth, fantasy their reality, and they wouldn't have it any other way. These are people who fervently and fanatically pray that they are wrong on a daily basis. Literally.
Use genetically-engineered copycats to make reproducible templates of any and everything that is currently held in secret or witheld from public view. Revealers of all secrets, proletarian gangs who reduce secret treasures to so much graffittized datatrash. Contextual scramblers and glorious mixmashers who lift everything and recombine it all in a million unforeseen, unexpected ways. Some few have adopted a randomist approach, and others pursue a more freeform collaborative effort seeing themselves as partners to all other creators...a radical, transgressive conceit. Several of the so-called/self-declared leaders of various sub-sets have died in duels fought over the ownership of the works that they personally derived from what they stole themselves—adopting an outlook based upon personal appropriation.
An elite clique of Nobles and highborn who yearn for a highly stylized form of neobarbarianism. They maintain carefully cultivated recreation-preserves out amongst various wilderness worlds, and some have adopted a peculiarly syncretistic form of post-modernist pseudo-barbarianism. At odds with the plebian-focused NeoTribals and there are some amongst them who have sponsored the development of various wildtribes, fringegangs or throwbacks. Aesthetes, dilletantes and capricious in their aristocratic cruelty, these people are as likely to abandon their creations, contrivances, projects and progeny as they are to doff their costumery and adopt more formal dress to attend court orgies or whatever. There is no real central authority amongst these self-styled decadent genartists and amateur socioneers, but rather they form an informal confraternity of those engaged in similar personal projects, often with majorly competitive overtones and rivalries. These cultists are very strongly caught-up in a bizarre and ritualistic working-out of a number of mostly discredited and antiquated sociological imperatives and theories (some quite strangely mutated or distorted from the original sources). It was one of their number, who so-far remains unnamed and uncredited, who established the horrific colony-state of Malthusia. They gather annually at a feast to commemorate the Lord of the Flies, an event that almost always devolves into a free-for-all riot supposedly arranged to help them select their spokesperson via a contest of (arbitrarily restricted) arms in order to perpetuate the survival of the fittest amongst themselves.
Extensively revised by proscribed feral neurological wetware, the Vidiots are perpetually surrounded by a video-memetic fog of telepathically-permeable holography that can sometimes be contagious. They gather in desolate places such as the darkside of a moon or an auspiciously located asteroid or in the middle of an equatorial jungle in order to build elaborate stupa-like antennae-towers and massive dish-receivers in order to receive and capture the sacred inforelics of archaeo-transmissions from Old Earth. Each sub-sect being self-defined by their particular affinity to various programs or periods of broadcast. Some include radio, others, purists mostly, discount it as crude and stone-age-like precursor-stuff and unworthy of their devotion. The Vidiots are prone to lapsing into fugue-states and operating in a videodronic trance, often reciting dialogue or playing snippets of their favored transmissions through their flesh which has been ritually integrated into one of several possible videonic membranes, vidfoil or other broadcast media suitable to their preferred programming. It is the hope of the Vidiots to transcend the flesh and to become living transmissions as a unification with the source of all broadcasts.
Terror Management Institute / Industreocracy
The Terror Management industreocracy is predicated on the questionable premise that an individual's capacity for self-awareness is hedged-in by the knowledge that there was a time prior to it and a time after it when it will not exist. This awareness of an existence that preceded it and an inevitable point in time after which it will cease to exist, to die as all things once were alleged to do, before the longevity plagues and the gerontological rehabilitation clinics arose from the ashes of the Senescopalypse. The TMI-cult gives all its followers and any interested passers-by access to a wide range of anxiety-mitigation wetware, programmable cultural buffers, psychological prosthetics to stave off any awareness of mortality, and of course a variety of death-suppression technologies that can be customized and tailored to the individual from their extensive database of thanoterically neutral worldviews, syntheticultures, insertable personal fictions and anti-hysteria-response routines. The TMI-cult believe firmly that terror is to be managed, and that the fear of death is a hold-over from previous stages of evolution and needs to be remedied so that people can begin to conceive of a meaningful existence, one that meets their standards and conforms to the cult's encrypted values. Those who meet these unstated standards are prosthetically-empowered to transcend death free of anxiety or fear, whatever that really or actually means or amounts to is unclear.
Abominators of Gulm
Masked, cowled and heavily robed members of a once-human priesthood devoted to polychromatic polypous entities that they allow to take over their bodies from time to time, despite the horrific mutational aftershocks these periods of ecstatic possession inflict upon them. In time, after enough of these drastic, damaging mergings, the cultists are absorbed bodily into the polypous abominations and their minds may or may not survive the translation process. If they do survive (mentally) the process of becoming one with their patron polypous mass, a few are granted the ability to form new bodies derived from the hypermatter of the particular mass that they have been absorbed into, but only a very few have achieved this level of discipline and development. The rest are bonded into deep coral reefs on worlds outside the parameters used by the Deep Infrastructure and so are completely lost and unrecoverable.