Zalos A over Phokaas
Everyone across the Third Horizon has heard tales of them, although few have seen or felt their power. But those who have are changed forever by the retribution of the Martyr, the aspect of the Judge who accepts unjust punishments, demands contrite confession and an absolute acceptance of one’s failings.
The Witchsmeller Covenstead is the Order of the Pariah’s most revered, most feared and most secretive sect, operating from the first planet in orbit of Zalos A, a bitter little rock called Phokaas. Tidally locked, Phokaas is a hard proving ground and life there is both a trial and a penance at one and the same time. From there the Witchsmellers roam across the Third Horizon, hunting down Mystical aberrations and enemies of the Martyr, without sparing a second to dwell on the obvious irony: that they nurture Mystics with special powers to search for and hunt down Mystics with special powers.
The Covenstead is led by the Holy Heirophant, the Lady Maja Mariska, and her inner circle of honoured mystics – the Whisperers in the Abyss. Chosen as children and raised to fulfil just one destiny the Whisperers in the Abyss live deep within the catacombs of Mount Zainaar. Under the searing light of the sun, overhead in perpetuity, they perform their séances, ceremonies held in their central cathedral, built within the still warm shell of the old volcano’s magma fumarole. Their one destiny is to commune with the Martyr and expose the aberration and heresy that plagues the Third Horizon. Many are just children, and none ever live beyond their third decade, as their exposure to the Icons demands a monstrous price: they age and wither at a terrible pace; with wrinkled and cracked skin; pale and cold to the touch; deep-set, haunted eyes; and a frailty of movement. Within the Covenstead they are “the Honoured”, but without they are known as “the Accursed Children of the Catacomb”.
The Lady Maja is never seen in public, but is rumoured to be weak both of mind and body: her Attributes are 2, except her Empathy of 4. Her power lies in her mysticism, with a skill of 5 and the talents CLAIRVOYANT, MIND READER, MIND WALKER and PREMONITION, and in her ability to manipulate those around her, with a skill of 4.
The Whisperers in the Abyss never have AGILITY or STRENGTH attributes higher than 3, and many are physically much weaker. They all have MYSTIC as a skill, but are limited to the small range of prescient Mystic talents: CLAIRVOYANT, EXORCIST, INTUITION and PREDICTION.
Many, but not all, of the Witchsmellers themselves are Mystics, with no such restrictions on their Mystic talent. They are drawn from the character concepts FUGITIVE, OPERATIVE, PREACHER or SOLDIER, but in addition have a 50% chance to have the Mystical Powers skill and one Mystic talent.
The Mount Zainaar catacombs are sacred, inhabited by spirits and beasts from the darkness that only answer to the Holy Heirophant’s authority. These creatures are thought to protect the Whisperers, but some say they imprison them instead. The Holy Heirophant, and her hand-picked Covenstead Guardians, are the only ones permitted to enter the cathedral, other than the Whisperers themselves. Once every segment, a Guardian will emerge to relay the Martyr’s pronouncements, and the Witchsmellers are dispatched to track down the evil in the Third Horizon and offer it the Martyr’s justice.
Mount Zainaar and the catacombs are surrounded and served by the Holy Shield City of Neelay, the sprawling hub of life on Phokaas. Not everyone living in the city’s tunnels and under its domes is a Witchsmeller or their minion, but they all devote themselves to the Martyr and they all work to advance or protect the Covenstead.
Within Zalos the Witchsmellers openly ply their trade, but elsewhere they tread more carefully – keeping to the shadows. In nearby systems they watch and wait, guarding the gateways to Zalos against all that offends the Martyr. Their presence isn’t obvious, but it’s well known they are on planets like Trini, in the Aiwaz system, and Jhopaz and Chelebs in Mira. Further afield, their grasp is weaker but the Witchsmellers are tenacious, relentlessly hunting down their prey: they will capture their charges alive if they can, to be returned to Phokaas for trial and punishment. But if that is impossible they will summarily exact the Martyr’s judgement – and vengeance – themselves.
The Witchsmellers are led by the Witchsmeller-Pursuivant. Ruling from his glittering tower on the fringes of Neelay, Darshan Raj-Neesh sends his men and women out to fulfil the will of the Martyr. When the task is troublesome, Raj-Neesh will send a favourite Witchsmeller, one who has proven themselves faithful, time and time again.
One such is Gnarses Mordai, a gnarled and battle-worn Witchsmeller who has never accepted promotion to the select order of Witchsmeller-Generals, for to do so would keep him from his work. Orders received, Mordai dispatches his minion, a semi-intelligent but totally loyal Skavara – called Qadhar Gallabeya for the filthy clothes she chooses to wear – to requisition a battered and anonymous vessel from the Phokaas ship-house, whilst he prepares for the mission in the usual prayerful way.
Qadhar may be from a semi-intelligent rat-like species, and physically she is an average Skavara, but there’s nothing average about her mind: with WITS of 5 and EMPATHY of 3 she is a genius amongst her own kind, and can do much aboard ship with a TECHNOLOGY skill of 4. Off ship, she can slip around bustling cities and wilderness with similar ease, watching and learning (INFILTRATION and OBSERVATION skills both of 4).
Gnarses Mordai himself is wiry and quick (STRENGTH and AGILITY of 4), and is capable both with a gun (RANGED COMBAT 4) and a blade (MELEE COMBAT 5). Heavily modified, Mordai has a cybernetic armour-weave through his skin (the talent BODY ARMOUR) and CYBERNETIC MUSCLES. He hides these beneath his heavy silk caftan and fur-lined kameez. He is also expert at the darker arts of covert intelligence, with WITS of 4 and EMPATHY of 5, and high skills in INFILTRATION and COMMAND (both 5). These skills, and his Mystical talent of MIND READER, have made him a most feared and effective Witchsmeller indeed.
How Mordai and Qadhar came to work together is not well known, but rumour has it that Mordai rescued Qadhar as a pup having delivered the Martyr’s justice on her mischief of Skavara, and was commanded to raise the pup as if she were his own daughter, as an unjust penance for the destruction of her family (even though this was a task he was ordered to fulfil).
Travelling the length and breadth of the Third Horizon the Witchsmellers respect no law or jurisdiction other than their divine mandate. They are not recognised as a legitimate law enforcement authority outside Zalos, and they make no use of Ijma’urf or any other infidel mechanism to justify their behaviour: the harsh approval of the Martyr is all they need. Needless to say, authorities in other jurisdictions do not approve of the activities of the Witchsmellers and their minions. But open trials are rare: trials, even convictions and the most punitive of punishments, do not deter the Witchsmellers from their divine calling (and even encourage them, as an unjust punishment – in their eyes – singles them out as martyrs of the Martyr). And besides, it’s rarely worth antagonising the Order of the Pariah, even if the crimes are terrible by all reasonable standards.
But the Witchsmeller Covenstead is not all powerful, as shown by the incident that has become known as “the Great Redemption”. Five cycles ago a group of young Whisperers braved the catacombs to flee Mount Zainaar and escape the Zalos system. The Covenstead, and the Holy Heirophant, have never officially acknowledged this breach in their theology, and this breach in their security, but they have been unable to hide the fact that a significant minority of the Whisperers in the Abyss escaped and fled across the Third Horizon, even if the Darkmorphs haunting the Zainaar catacombs took their toll.
The impact on the Order of the Pariah was enormous and even though there was silence on all official channels the reaction under the radar was unmistakable. In the aftermath many Witchsmellers were purged, executed in beastly ways. But the survivors were hastily dispatched from Phokaas in pursuit. Rumour has it that some of the Children of the Catacomb were easily tracked and sent to the Martyr without any ceremony. But many remain at large, evading capture and avoiding the inevitable “Trial of the Icons”.
The Trial of the Icons is the highest form of judgement performed by the Witchsmellers. The accused is placed, awake and aware, into the Throne of Shahada, the sacred drone in which the accused will face the Icons and receive their judgement. But the accused is not alone: they are accompanied by the Muraqib, “The Watcher”, who is supposedly blessed with a Mystical talent of “Icon Sight” and is so beloved of the Icons that he can commune with them in portal space and survive. The Throne of Shahada is launched through the portal to Zahedran, and the accused is judged as they pass through. If the accused is sane and clear of mind the Icons have judged them guilty of witchcraft, and they will be executed: if the accused is mad and delirious, they are innocent and returned to the Covenstead Shrine Hostels in the Holy Shield City. Once there, they are lovingly cared for until they recover or die of their experience. Needless to say, no one is known to have recovered sufficiently to be discharged from the Hostels.