|Pope Uncommon the Dainty|
Mykos Roarik (male vampire fighter 10) is the member of the Umbral Court who wanders the farthest. What race was Mykos before his Embrace? Presumably human, but why not state it? Deceptively gentle-mannered, he’s the leader of the Adamant Company, a subset of the state army (appropriately called the Adamant Guard) and hires them out to people other than Nidal (the Black Triune? The Umbral Court itself? Who actually is in charge of the Adamant Guard, anyway?) Evidently, the Company’s cruelty is so famous that their mere arrival on the field can cause the enemy to surrender with only one condition: no one, civilian or soldier, will be given over to their uncertain care.
The final member of the Umbral Court we’re given a description of is Virihane of Pangolais (female caligni ranger 8/rogue 2), a lovely (and rare) example of a veiled assassin done up in classic Kuthite goth-y style. I like the spiked steel rings that fringe her veils ~ it’s a detail that can either end up delicate and elegant, or exaggerated and hella metal. She’s a hunter of forbidden faiths, killing their worshipers and taking their stuff, and ties into a relatively weighty plot thread running through the book. Her current quarry is the Harp of Night’s Hope, a relic dedicated to Desna that helps them dream and get rid of Zon-Kuthon’s influence. It’s somewhere in the Uskwood, lost by a worshiper of the night sky who was caught trying to get an umbral shepherd out of a loved one. (That would be a Shadow Plane-based outsider who actually serves the Midnight Lord ~ as opposed to the velstracs who are merely deeply allied with him ~ who look like something out of a Lovecraft story and spend their time possessing people and turning their flesh into dissipating shadow.)
We’re given the details on the occult ritual known simply, descriptively, and effectively as enter the Umbral Court. It’s a big’un, level 8 and requiring 2-7 spellcasters. Oh, and ouch ~ it involves being whipped with a whip made from one’s own skin. That’s a little over-the-top, I’d say, but certainly makes a point! For some reason, I am deeply happy about the inclusion of an Intimidate check as part of the ritual ~ it feels very gratifying and realistic to me that many rituals involve some sort of action covered by a non-obvious skill like this. Why is this ritual possible at close range? That means a 20th-level lead caster can initiate someone into the Umbral Court from half a short city block away!
Backlash causes all involved casters to take a permanent negative level, while failure sends them off to somewhere near Zon-Kuthon’s realm of Xoviakain (on average, that would be 252.5 miles away, which is about the distance between Fremont and Shasta in California) and then get attacked by apostle velstracs. I wonder how often the ritual is failed, and how Nidalese culture processes it ~ is it a sign of the Midnight Lord’s displeasure with the supplicant? With the caster? Is it a test? Is it just something that happens sometimes, a consequence of working with such murky energies? Apostle kytons are powerful beings formed from those who have become infected with the madness of shadows (CR +2 template), either by another apostle kyton or some other source. The example in Horror Adventures uses a human slayer 11 as the base, resulting in a CR of 12. Since three more attack than the number of casters, that would result in a difficult CR 16 to a difficult CR 18 encounter, which doesn’t seem all that hard for spellcasters capable of doing an 8th-level ritual.
The fact that the ritual involves custom tortures derived by reading the target’s mind might make the distance of the ritual make more sense ~ many tortures would only be possible at such a distance (certain humiliations, fears of pursuit, etc.). While being tortured, the supplicant must recite the story of the Black Triune’s meeting with Zon-Kuthon against a background of epic poetry concerning the god’s time outside of reality and what he can do to his worshipers.
There’s this thing in religious studies scholarship that the achievement of altered states of consciousness is one of the main purposes of religion, with the particular state preferred by a religion defining much of how that religion works. This particular ritual surprises me by not going for the endorphin-fueled altered state caused by extended pain but rather the adrenaline of fear (in fact, anyone immune to fear would fail the ritual). Or perhaps it’s something similar to the panikon (panic) sought out by the cults of Pan in ancient Greece who would often get themselves lost in the mountainside forests. It wasn’t the state we call panic they worked with (the freakout when you realize you have no idea how to get back to somewhere safe/familiar), but the state afterwards ~ the wide-open freedom of no expectations.
Anyway, the ritual turns the supplicant’s eyes inky black and renders it immune to shadow spells (though they can lower this as a standard action, if desired). They also gain a bunch of unholy protection: regeneration 5 (“good weapons and spells and silver weapons” ~ is that good weapons and good spells or good weapons and any spells?) and DR 15/good or silver. Finally, they are forcibly turned lawful evil and have a 1-in-4 chance of getting summoned to Xoviakain for eternal torment if they do anything against Kuthite doctrine or dogma.
D&D-style fantasy games often refuse to describe what certain things look like, describing them solely in mechanical terms. The Umbral Courtmember lowering their immunity is one of those things. While this can often reduce games to simple strategy, it also allows players to develop the fiction of their character’s religious practices. What are some possible ways that could look?
We’re also told a little about the Midnight Guard and the Adamant Company. The former is a group of Nidalese spellcasters that serve House Thrune in quelling rebellion and the Black Triune by spying on Cheliax. Liane includes a short shout-out/pointer to her two Nidal-focused novels for more information about the Guard.
The Adamant Company, on the other hand, are pseudo-mercenaries who enforce the will of and loyalty to the Black Triune, with a specific focus on the Uskwood. Mykos Roarik sometimes hires them out to bosses other than the Triune when possible (although there is a slight discrepancy: his description says he does “when otherwise unoccupied” but this says “when resources permit”).
It doesn’t answer the question of the Guard’s, and therefore the Company’s, ultimate commander. Nidal obviously isn’t a feudal state, seemingly run as a nested oligarchy, with a larger group of rather independent agents (the Umbral Court) taking charge of most matters, and a tiny junta (the Black Triune) at the top. But/and many of its structures and institutions, like the Adamant Guard, seem to call for it to either be some form of absolute singular rule (monarchy, despotism, etc.) or to have some sort of governmental level in between the two. Though I suppose a more unified Umbral Court could also be a solution.