“This is yours”, said She of the darkness and the cold. “It will temper you against weakness and against corruption, until the coming of the End when I return at last to bear you to your true destiny”
The lands of the Kali-Ishtar consist of vast tundras and quiet taigas, frozen mountains and ice-choked rivers. And above all this rime-covered splendor is the sunless sky, a vault of black where the sun itself fears to tread.
The seasons here are simple, the year begins with a relatively dry, windy season (Hal-Vayu; the Wind Season, January-May), followed by a narrow band of fair weather (Ki-sham; the Calm Season or the Mercy; June-July) and finished by several months of stormy weather (Saph-bedi; the White Season; August-December).
To other peoples, this may seem a land so accursed that all warmth has shunned it. But for the folk of the Kali-Ishtar, this is the land they were promised. So sacred is this land to the Ishtari that few outsiders are allowed to enter it, much less approach their cities. Indeed, only a handful of foreigners have set their eyes upon Ashra-grad, the City of the Prophet.
Landmarks and Cities
Touring the sunless lands of the Kali-Ishtar is a difficult proposition, made viable only through Nesha’s Web, a road wrought of solid black blood that melts all snow that falls upon it and thrums with holy power that only a Priest of Kali-Ishtar can feel. Nesha’s Web connects all five cities together, over the land and beneath glassy lava tunnels, even reaching toward the Stoneclaw mountains to the south.
The Sunless Wastes are the heart of the Kingdom, a vast expanse of frozen landscape. Lichen and other plants eke a life out of these twilight lands even while herds of caribou, Ganeshi and other creatures sift through the snow or travel from taiga to taiga to find sustenance. Predators such as the winter wolf, the snow tiger and the cave spider prey upon these creatures but no hunter is as feared or as dangerous as the Yog-Mothol, the shadow fiend. These feral demons roam the wastelands in packs and a large swarm can swiftly tear down even a battle-hardened herd of Ganeshi. Fortunately, Yog-Mothol attacks have become a rare occurrence, made all the rarer by Koil-Ishtar’s military efforts to stamp them out and Koil-Avesti’s attempts to enslave them.
Splitting the Wastes from east to west is the Vaitarna River, called Gjoll by the Jotunbrud. This is the other means of transportation in the Kingdom as well as one of its primary landmarks. At its easternmost point, where a volcanic vent bubbles life into its currents is Marz-yanna, the City of the Molten River, where most of the Kingdom’s moon orchards bear fruit for the rest of the Kingdom.
In the middle of the wastes, where the Vaitarna drains into a wide canyon is laired Ziy-mitra, the city of the Fallen Dragon. Originally built as an encampment to harness the elemental energies of a draconic graveyard, Ziy-mitra is a place where the energies of the world are the strongest.
The mountains called the Frozen Fingers roof the lands to the north and among its reaches are the capitol of Ashra-grad and the military fortress of Nurem-grad. Ashra-grad herself stands within the bowels of Dal-Reshik, the mythical holy mountain that ended the First Crucible.
Somewhere amidst these mountains is a hidden vale forested by glowing trees and peopled by horrific monstrosities. Zirya-zilya, the city of Beauteous Stars overlooks this Gloaming Wood. Although constantly under threat, the city harvests a special silk from the forest that is instrumental in the creation of Spider-silk clothing, a cloth worn only by the Ashurai.
A massive network of tunnels lies beneath the Frozen Fingers. Cave spiders and worse lair in these tunnels, which also harbor rich veins of mineral ore. Occasionally, a Yog-mothol attack comes at Ashra-grad or Nurem-grad from beneath. Despite such attacks and other cave-borne perils, the Ashur-Ashurai continue to dispatch mining expeditions deep into the earth — the wealth that they bring back is far too great a prize to leave alone.
Residence and Sustenance
The Cities of Kali-Ishtar are wonders wrought of willpower, knowledge and magic. Each is centered around a source of water and a place of warmth, such as a volcanic vent, an elemental nexus or even a powerful Ishtari-wrought enchantment.
Thanks to the Gilgorin, the Watcher-in-Darkness, the Sunless Kingdom has learned to build structures wrought of black-ice (believed to be conjured from the Underworld) and carved out of ice and frozen rock. However, many portions of an Ishtari city and majority of smaller Ishtari communities are composed of buildings made of hides, Ganeshi bones, sinew-rope and web-silk.
Tanneries are an important part of a community, especially considering the necessity of leather and furs in Ishtari culture. Each city and town of Kali-Ishtar has several of these, manned by Vashu (with Pariah doing disposal work). Especially talented and skilled leatherworkers are esteemed by the Ishtari, despite their Vashu status.
The sunless orchards of the Ishtari are another marvel given to them by the Goddess. These orchards cultivate various edible lichens, fungi and underground flora. The Sunless Kingdom also maintains vast herds of domesticated animals and insects, including the revered Ganeshi and a variant of the cave spider.
Despite the society’s dependence on magic and Sorcery, the consumption of demon flesh or the flesh of the undead is taboo; the price for such “feasts” is far too high for the Mortal body and spirit to endure.
The Castes of Kali-Ishtar
The citizens of the Sunless Kingdom are divided into four different castes.
– Ashurai, the Holy – the ruling caste and the priesthood
– Kshatriya, the Noble – the warriors and the other users of magic
– Vashu, the Common – the tradesfolk and the laborers
– Pariah, the Outsider – the outcast and the criminal
The Ashurai are the ruling caste of the Ishtari. To be born Ashurai is to be live a life of prayer and discipline. Instruction is a daily part of one’s childhood, replaced by training and study during adulthood. However, the Ashurai are the holiest in the eyes of Church and Goddess – even the lowest adult Ashurai has the right to command Kshatriya of equal or lower rank. Also, Vashu and Pariahs must follow their every word as is their due (although they must obey the higher ranked of two Ashurai).
However, the Ashurai often do not spend their time telling their lessers what to do. They spend their the sunless days of Kali-Ishtar meditating upon the mysteries of the Goddess and attending to the duties they were born to. Every Ashurai is meant for the clergy, whether they are Priest, Sorcerer or Witch. So, they must take to their role with humility and grace, knowing that at one point in their previous lives, they must have been Vashu or Kshatriya.
The Kshatriya is the noble caste of the Ishtari, tasked to the guardianship of the Ashurai and direct management of the Vashu and the Pariah. To that end, they afforded greater influence over their lessers and are licensed to use weaponry and/or magic as their need requires. They are also required to arm, train and maintain armies in service to the Ashur-Ashurai.
Despite their subservience to the Ashurai, the Kshatriya are afforded a fair amount of independence with regard to their methods. If an Ashurai of Koil-Avesti were to direct a trusted Kshatriya to the guardianship of a relic, she would not only respect her inferior’s methodology but also support that person’s efforts.
The Vashu is the common caste of the Ishtari, the limbs of Ishtari society. The Vashu dramatically outnumber the rest of their superiors not only because of necessity but also because of the attrition that the greater castes suffer from their restrictive and perilous roles.
Some Vashu are tasked to attending to the needs of their betters. Most however, are simply assigned to the well-being of Ishtari society: maintaining the cities and towns of the Sunless Kingdom under the watchful eye of Avestian Overseers.
Vashu who somehow attain magical ability (as a Sorcerer, an Adept or a Witch) are elevated to the level of Kshatriya, although such happenstances are rare. When this event occurs, the Vashu is found by the Ashur-Ashurai and given to a high-ranking Kshatriya who can mentor the magic-user. Because the paths to Sorcery are very perilous, Kshatriya and Ashurai guard well the secrets of Sorcery.
The Pariah is the lowest rung of Ishtari society. These are the accursed, the forsaken and the criminal. These folk are branded at birth and given the worst and most perilous of trades such as pest control or waste disposal. Many consider touching a Pariah to be bad luck and associating with one is done with the least amount of interaction as possible. Pariahs are not educated and instructed except in the basest scriptures and dogmas.
Despite their low status, Pariah remain within the Kingdom because the alternative is death in the Sunless Wastes or among the godless heathens of the southern lands. The Ashur-ashurai ensures that the Pariah districts of each city receive rations and are orderly, but these people are of minimal priority in the eyes of the Koil.
It is believed that being born a Pariah is penance for bad kharma in a previous life. Thus, while the Ishtari are not encouraged to make a Pariah’s existence a miserable one, they do little to alleviate the Pariah’s wretched state. That said, one can also become a Pariah through criminal activity and a Pariah-born can be elevated to a Kshatriya by somehow acquiring magical ability and being identified as such by a Binder of the Koil-Avesti.
The laws of Kali-ishtar are myriad and many. But they all stem from the seven Arch-Sins that dogma forbids of the Ishtari.
The Arch-Sins of the Ishtari are the following:
Heresy is committed when an Ishtari allows outsider ways to question their beliefs or dominate their actions. Similarly, following false tenets or a false God is punishable within the Sunless Kingdom’s bounds.
For the moment, Ishtari within the boundaries of Freehold are commanded by the Prophet-Matriarch to follow the laws of Freehold within reason.
That said, Heresy is taken very seriously by the Ashur-ashurai. Those who have been proven to be heretics are tortured and destroyed in accordance to the Goddess’ decree.
Blasphemy is committed when an Ishtari defiles a holy object or speaks profane of the Goddess. Certain Blasphemies are so great that merely perceiving it can even corrupt a witness unless the Blasphemy is avenged, amended or the witness performs a personal Penance to the Goddess before the end of the next day.
Such Penances involve blood sacrifices and 10 minutes worth of mantra or prayer. Or a Death dedicated to the Goddess.
Malifica is illicit magic-use. Magic is the gift of the Goddess and Ishtari who wield it must be mandated by the Trinity Temple or be servants of the Goddess Herself. Malifica also includes using relics or magics deemed forbidden by the Ashur-ashurai.
Harmful or corruptive association with certain baleful entities is considered to be both Malifica and Heresy.
Malfeasance is the unlawful harm or slaying of another Ishtari. This includes psychic and physical injury including rape, soul-binding and illicit torture.
Ashurai tasked to martial positions such as Confessors or Justices as well as certain deputized Kshatriya are exempt from this Sin, although they often perform Penances in their off-hours to cleanse any stain on their soul.
Perjury is when Ishtari breaks a Holy Oath or lies to the Trinity Temple. Other examples of Perjury includes failing to protect those you have sworn to protect, disobeying a direct order form your superiors or misusing those under your command.
Sabotage is the unlawful destruction of others’ property or using unlawful methods to destroy one’s own property. To a lesser degree, Sabotage is also committed when an Ishtari takes or misuses what does not belong to them. It also covers the misuse of others’ property and the evasion of tithes to the Trinity Temple.
Naturally, certain members of the Trinity Temple are exempt from this Arch-Sin.
Impropriety is the least of the Arch-Sins, but it also covers the most ground. This Arch-Sin is committed by those who do not revere the natural order of the world (as decreed by Kali-Avesti-Ishtar) and by those who do not act in a manner befitting a Child of the Goddess.
Examples of Improprieties:
– Disrespecting or speaking ill of one’s Mother, Grandmother, Great grandmother, etc.
– Dressing against one’s Caste (wearing Gloaming Silks as a non-Ashurai or wearing Armor for non-Kshatriya or non-Ashurai)
– Experiencing or giving Pain without dedicating it to the Goddess
– Fornicating against your station
– Failing to recognize your betters
– Misusing your own Property
– Carrying and/or wielding a weapon (Vashu and Pariah only) without need or permission.
– Trafficking items deemed forbidden by the Ashur-Ashurai.
Crime and Punishment
Those who take issue with other Ishtari may go to a Crucifier Court. Similarly, those who break Ishtari laws within the Kingdom’s boundaries are brought to a Court or sentenced there without their presence.
For most cases, a Chantric-Justice of Koil-Avesti presides over each case, arbitrating innocence and sentence an hour or so after the Defendant and the Plaintiff have spoken their piece and have been examined by Justices . In smaller villages and towns of the Ishtari, a case’s arbiter may simply be a Justice of Koil-Avesti either sent to an area to ensure order or the Overseer that functions as a community’s leader.
Crimes done by higher ranking officials or clergy are presided over by the Var-Katar or even the Prophet-Matriarch herself.
The typical Punishments given to Criminals and Sinners are listed below. Generally speaking, Male Sinners are punished harsher than Female Sinners. Similarly, Courts tend to be more generous to Higher Caste individuals over lower Caste individuals. Lastly, the societal bias toward Magic-users is also present in the Crucifier Courts, although this may not always work out in the Defendant’s favor (see Servitude).
Fine – For minor Crimes, a Fine is demanded from a Defendant found guilty. A portion of the Fine also goes to the Trinity Temple.
The amount of a Fine varies according to the gravity of the Crime and according to the importance of the Victim.
Penance – Another common Punishment, a Penance is prolonged prayerful torment as dictated by a Crucifier Court. Sometimes, Criminals are sentenced to Penances when they are too poor to pay the Fine but occasionally, a Justice may sentence a high ranking citizen to a Penance to teach them humility.
Penances can last from a single hour to an entire year, depending on a Court’s ruling.
Servitude – Servitude is indentured service to an individual or an organization for a prolonged period of time, as dictated by a Crucifier Court.
Banishment – For more serious Crimes, an Ishtari may be sentenced to Banishment into the Sunless Wastes for a period that may range from a week to several years. Helping an individual marked as Banished is a Sin against the Trinity Temple. Many Banished Criminals die in the harsh landscape of the Wastes.
Locking – Locking is a punishment given to Magic-users, sometimes in addition to a Punishment they have been sentenced to serve. Locking involves a special ritual that hinders the ability of an individual to perform spellcraft, preventing them from accessing higher disciplines in their Gift.
The Ceremony of Breaking is a version of Locking which destroys one’s ability to use the Gift. For Adepts, its a permanent Exorcism of their Totemic Spirit. For other Magic-users, its a permanent Silencing that includes but is not limited to maiming their vocal cords and preventing them from being healed magically or naturally.
The worst crimes are deserving of two fates:
Execution – Ishtari who have committed heresy or blasphemy against the Goddess are given to the Mouners of Koil-Ishtar. These Criminals are executed in elaborate ceremonies that follow prolonged torment. The torture pleases the Goddess, purifies the executioners and punishes the Sinner.
The Ceremony of Execution takes hours, prolonged by healing magics and by the skill of the Confessors. For many Ishtari, it is a spectacle akin to a Holy Ceremony and is spectated by pious faithful. At its end, the victim’s heart is drawn still beating by the executioners and destroyed.
It is an unsubstantiated but popular rumor that especially vile Criminals have their hearts and heads preserved by Koil-Ishtari so that the Criminals cannot enter the afterlife and remain tortured by the Confessors for eternity.
Regardless of the rumor’s truth, the body of an Executed Criminal is destroyed.
Mortification – For those Ishtari who have committed heresy or blasphemy but have somehow earned the Goddess’ mercy (perhaps committing the sin only through helping the heretic or blasphemer) are given a damning yet less deadly sentence.
These Sinners are stripped of their Caste and condemned to living the life of a Pariah. Some Pariahs attempt to leave the Kingdom but just as many attempt to stay, either because they fear the world outside Kali-Ishtar or because they desire to live pious lives in an attempt to redeem themselves in their next life.
Matriarchy and Polyandry
The core family unit among the Ishtari are composed of a Woman, her Husbands and unmarried Children. In this instance, the Woman is called a Matriarch and is the leader of her Family, assigning tasks and orders as she sees fit. When she is unable to lead, her first Husband governs the other family members.
Several core families borne from the same lineage form a Household. Among the Ashurai, this is called a “Shurai” while the Kshatriya call this a “Khasat”. The Vashu and the Pariah have no Households; individual families are under the control of a Shurai or Khasat.
In a Household, the oldest Matriarch (sometimes called a “Manang”) governs her own core family, while indirectly governing the core families beneath her wing. This control also extends to the Husbands that marry into a Household and to the Vashu and Pariah under their care. Households reside in communal estates, although some urban families are scattered across a cityscape with a main estate near or within the city.
When a Manang dies, control of the Household and the Household’s property moves to her Eldest Daughter. A Manang without female children is succeeded by her sister and without such a person, the nearest female relative. In some cases, her First Husband may take control of the property – this may occur on a temporary basis (during the transfer of power) or if there are no available relatives to bring order to the Household.
The Images of Women and Men
In Ishtari society, the Woman is considered the more spiritual and cerebral of the two sexes. Kshatriya and Ashurai women are educated toward this mindset, although they are given leeway to pursue the physical and martial arts if they so wished.
The education and archetype assigned to Ishtari Men tend to be on the physical side. Some Ishtari (both men and women) are convinced that Men are prone to anger and intellectually duller than Women, a stereotype occasionally reinforced by societal norms and mythologies. Many are the stories and exemplum that feature Men performing follies according to their pride, wrath or their orientation toward the physical over the mental realms.
Childhood and the Rites of Life
Childhood among the Ishtari is fraught with prayer, education, training and work, with little time for play. Ashurai children spend most of their week performing the duties above, although their higher status means that they have more idle hours than others. Kshatriya children are similarly kept busy. They do have more experience commanding the Vashu and the Pariah servants and less time in prayer.
Vashu children have more free time and status than Pariah children, generally enjoying less demeaning and less perilous jobs. Vashu children receive some academic education while Pariahs get only the basic amount religious instruction.
All Children and Adults (except the Pariahs) must undergo the Rites of Passage, called the Samskara. The three main Samskara groups are:
The Rites of the Cradle – These are the three rituals that dictate a Child’s passage into the world and early development.
1. The Samskara of Nascence (Samskara-Jata) – this ceremony involves the birthing mother, her emerging child and one to three Kalian Midwife-Wardens.
The Jata is among the holiest rites within the Ishtari faith because it reflects their Goddess’ powers of creation. The presences of the Kali Priestesses ensures the proper procedures of the ceremony as well as the safety of the mother and the child (in that order). Occasionally, a Priestess may be alerted to several omens that portend a Child’s fortune and future – allowing the child’s family to prepare accordingly.
Much of this ceremony’s exact details is kept secret from outsiders and male Ishtari. However, it falls to the Kalian Midwives to guarantee that preparations are ready months before the actual ceremony and that the Jata goes as smoothly as possible despite the many complications that may arise during the process.
2. The Samskara of Reason (Samskara-Takar)- Celebrated in masse throughout the Kingdom, this rite is a feast attended by children who are old enough to speak and learn (ages 2-4). This is a Kingdom-wide festival performed once a year (typically in Ki-sham, the season of Mercy) as dictated by the Ashur-Ashurai.
For many children, this is the first ceremony where they interact with a large amount of people outside their family. Also, this marks the first time that many children see the Prophet-Matriarch and the Ashur-Ashurai, who consecrates them to the Kingdom and the Goddess.
In times of tumult and war, the Samskara of Reason is turned into community-wide festivals, is reduced to only half a day, or even cancelled (as it was for many a year during the Hundred Heresies).
After the Takar, an Ishtari is no longer an Infant but a Child possessed of some self-will.
3. The Samskara of Introduction (Samskara-Arma)- This community-wide rite occurs when a child is ready to undergo the first portion of their education (ages 5-7). They meet with the Kalian Singer that would shepherd their instruction in the various prayers, myths and devotions to the Goddess. Typically, the Arma is also when a child’s abilities in magic are discovered and nurtured. Similarly, when a child’s personal talents as well as their familial professions are cultivated here by assistances to the Kalian Singer.
The Arma typically occurs at the beginning of every White Season, when most Ishtari must stay indoors. The day-long Rite itself occurs in the Temples to the Kali-Aspect, a time of merriment and warmth.
After a child completes this Rite, their instruction to the Ishtari religion and culture deepens in the succeeding years until their Initiation.
The Rites of the Scroll – The Rites of the Scroll are the Rites of Passage that concern one’s adulthood.
4. The Samskara of Initiation (Samskara-Panu) – This once-a-year rite is community-wide event that celebrates a child’s passage into adulthood. Typically, the Matriarch of a family is the primary arbiter of whether a Child is allowed to undergo the Panu.
The weeks leading up to a individual child’s Samskara-Panu are expected to be filled with study and prayer. During the ceremony itself, each child is expected to endure several trials related to their life’s profession. Those who impress with their performance may be taken as personal pupils by renowned teachers of their craft.
The final part of this rite involves a session with an Ishtarian Mourner. This session may take an hour or longer, but it involves ritual torture and mutilation to purify an Ishtari’s soul for the next step in their life.
After the Panu, an Ishtari is no longer a Child but a fully fledged adult. While such an Ishtari maintains their familial ties, they spend more time with their teachers, in work and in training than with their family.
5. The Samskara of Expertise (Samskara-Naya) – When a teacher feels like their student is ready, they initiate the Samskara-Naya.
The Naya is different for the different Castes and the different professions. In essence, it is when a student moves from a status of apprenticeship to being a journeyman. For a military Kshatriya, this is a move from their military schooling to the status of a true soldier (albeit a lower ranking one). For the Ashurai, this means serving in the Trinity Temple as an acolyte.
The Naya involves a display of skill and experience that is intended to impress one’s family, peers, teachers and future superiors. Poor performances may lead to poor rankings or positions. Particularly impressive performances may lead to more prestigious appointments, such as being the Hand of an Envoy, the assistant to a Master Builder or the Aide to a General.
6. The Samskara of Matrimony (Samaskara-Vaha) – When a woman feels that an unmarried man would serve her well as a husband, she constructs a marital talisman. It is with this talisman that she proposes to him. A man accepts by bending the knee to her and accepting the amulet around his neck, thus binding him to the woman.
The Samskara-Vaha is a celebration that spans two Households, officiated by three Priests (of Kali, Avesti and Ishtar) and typically (but not always) hosted by the Household of the would-be groom . Oftentimes, the bride is escorted by her mother and her closest relatives and friends. The groom is escorted by his mother and flanked by his closest relatives and friends, as well as the current husbands of his bride.
At the end of this ceremony, the husband becomes forever bound to the family and Household of the bride, ascending or descending in Caste. Naturally, marrying a Pariah is strictly forbidden and is considered Blasphemy.
Unlike the previous rites, the Samskara-Vaha may be performed multiple times during a female Ishtari’s lifetime (or a male’s if he becomes a widower).
The Rites of the Memory – These are the rites of death. Except for Samskara-Maran, these are performed by the deceased family and friends.
7. The Samskara of Demise (Samskara-Maran) – At the moment of one’s death, an Ishtari is expected to perform the proper prayers that would sanctify their death to Kali-Avesti-Ishtar.
Being saved from true death is not a disservice to Ishtar, although it is expected of the Ishtari to tithe to Koil-Ishtar and to perform a feat of great devotion to the Goddess.
8. The Samskara of Lamentation (Samskara-Kriya) – Sometimes called the Holy Lament, this rite is a funerary ceremony intend to sanctify the departed’s soul to Ishtar, to aid them in their afterlife journey and to lessen the bad Kharma they may have gained during their life.
While this rite is best performed with a body, the prepared corpse of the deceased is not an absolute requirement (See Kali-Ishtar religion).
9. The Samskara of Rememberance (Samskara-Yeshti) – Near the beginning of every year, when the White Season ends and the Wind Season begins, the Ishtari perform the Samskara-Yeshti to remember those who have passed and to ask for their guidance.
The Yeshti is celebrated across the Kingdom by the Ishtari Households. While fasting, these families visit their personal graverooms, hang favored heirlooms around their residence’s main rooms and meditate about the challenges of the new year.
At the end of the Yeshti, there is a feast in the Household that breaks the meditative fast and brings the new year to a true start.