The Black Branch Knights of Balthazor

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Report prepared for General Steelclaw and Captain Dod by Captain Tharius

 

Part One

Record of Statement:

This document is the testimony of Melliana Velba, one resident native of the western provinces of Balthazor and recorded by witnesses in the southern deserts of Thermador in year 1273.

Testimony of Melliana Velba:

The Black Branch were an independent, patriarchal and hereditary order of knighthood that was based in the Barony of Padrical in Southernmost Balthazor. The Black Branch Knights devoted themselves to the elimination of the Undead. This devotion has caused them to give in to the use of Necromancy so that they can better combat their foes. Infighting amongst the families then occurred as chaos and undead covered Balthazor in a fog that left the rest of the regions in the dark as what what was going on inside Balthazor.

Undead were actively hunting the Black Branch Knights before the ultimate war for the Silvermoon Empire erupted in the home of these knights. The few left found themselves between three armies: Silver Moon Knights, Klockwork, and undead. The men of the Black Branch were all but wiped out.

Yet their wives remained. Forced to flee, these women banded together and fled westerly, meaning to make it to the safety of the Arborian border. They would never make it to that closed off border. They did find safety, however, in the arms of Sisters of the Labyrinth. These wives of the now dead Knights carried the symbols of their husbands into the group of families that lived in the shadows of the Sturrbith Mountains, the lands of the Sisterhood of the Labyrinth.

The wives of the former Black Branch Knighthood were celebrated and allowed free access to all the "Sisters," most notably the Sacred Writings. As these women read each book in its proper sequence, they began to believe in and adopt the philosophy and mindset of the Sisters. That is, that men were best kept in the home, repairing, cooking, and caring for the children. Shortly after Emperor Tumian's demise, the Sisterhood took over the Barony of Padrical.

With the chaos in Balthazor at the time, there was no one to question as the Sisterhood and the Black Branch set about stopping the undead and bringing order to the region.

(signed) Melliana Velba

 

Findings:

Had we not come upon undead attacking the home the witness was in, we surely would not have learned of the Black Branch's renewal or the Sisterhood of the Labyrinth.

These sacred writings that have been testified to must be effective tools of recruitment. The witness was unwilling to give many details on the subject of the writings. I believe that there are two sets of writings, one for women being introduced to or new to the Sisterhood, and another for men within it. The witness could not recall any time the writings were read beyond the third volume by a woman in which the reader failed to then complete the rites and join the Sisterhood and take her place in that society.

There have reports of castrations which were not forced, but little if any proof that these are true. It should be noted that males are not outcast in this society. Whatever techniques are employed by the Sisterhood to bring new women into their fold, is done in equal measures with males. There is some kind of test boys are given. The need or results of these tests are beyond my best guess.

Membership in the Black Branch is no longer contingent on familial bonds. However, living in the Barony of Padrical does require acceptance of the Matriarchal nature of the Sisters. These women highly prize martial skills, but not above mental agility. The Sisters seem to have had a long-standing relationship with the dwarves living within the Sturrbith mountains. Trainees in the new Black Branch only get Dwarven crafted weapons after their trials, by which they become Apprentices.

Necromancy within the "new" Black Branch seems to be less a fight against the magic, but rather a system of somehow redirecting the magic. There are some family lines that have learned the art of runes to enchant some weapons with Necromantic powers. Those talented in casting active spells seem to be trained to provide a war party with some measured resistance to outside spells.

Also, there is Qua, a deeply seated part of their beliefs. Qua is often equated as a wheel and also as a mighty wind. It seems to be on the level of fate which even rules the gods, a level of the "Great Labyrinth." It also seems to carry a meaning of destiny. There is a certain comfort with the idea that Qua cannot be avoided. No one can escape Qua, therefore death must be met with the same mind as victory. In short, defeat carries no dishonor and death, in the course of "standing true," assures "peace and rewards in the clearing at the end of the path." This is a way of discussing death.

It is my opinion, as a field commander, that the Sisterhood intends to build an army. As to the purpose of that army, I cannot even begin to educate a guess. This newly reforged Black Branch Knighthood may have some ties to the Black Bastion near the Stonetimber Woods in Balthazor, and should not be viewed as any less than a threat to any army that should come against it.

I did send an agent to the west to discover more of this Sisterhood of the Labyrinth. She sent a single report back and was not heard from again. I assume her to be either dead, or now a part of the Sisterhood.

I have included her lone report.

Signed,

Tharius - Captain of the displaced Army of Balthazor

Part Two

Attached Report (anonymous):

 

The Religion of The Sisterhood of the Labyrinth

The Sisterhood of the Labyrinth existed for many generations, well before there was a hint of the Silver Moon Empire or even the Mad Mage.

The tenets of the Sisterhood are simple: they worship the Great Goddess, the mother of all. This supreme deity had to be a woman, for there is no birth without a female. To protect herself from greedy male gods who sought to usurp her preeminent position in the world, she wove the great Labyrinth to confuse those whose hearts were not pure enough to see the only true path. In the legends of the Sisterhood, these were the tunnels that had often become the dwellings of those males closest to the Great Mother, the dwarves. The Great Mother is said to be so pure that she is completely white. Thus albino children are said to be born with the mark of the Great Mother. Only one other group besides the dwarves could survive in the mystic tunnels: the Sisterhood. These were the daughters who did not forget the Great Mother. In ages long past, there was a bond between the Sisterhood and the dwarves because of the shared love of the old caves in the Sturrbith Mountains. This bond has dwindled over the years and is often forgotten, yet there are still whispers and shared lore…

According to the Sacred Writings, the Great Mother saved one Labyrinth for herself. It is written that it is a labyrinth of seven levels, each protected by mystical and dangerous creatures. On the final and lowest level, one would touch the spirit of the Great Mother and emerge as a High Priestess. Such a woman would have to think and fight her way through six levels to reach the lowest level and then back through the six in reverse to reemerge as a High Priestess.

The sign of the Labyrinth is found in all the art and markings of the Sisterhood, especially in their jewelry. Yet the sign of the Labyrinth is being seen besides in just jewelry and more widely throughout Balthazor.

During the cataclysm of 1261 and the strange period after, the Black Branch Knights of Balthazor somehow fell from their course and were either killed or absorbed into the Sisterhood. Many said only the wives of the Black Branch Knights were left of that old order. The truth was that a few Knights did remain, but were too wounded to continue their battle and their order. Many were maimed badly in the assault on them by the undead. No one knows for sure how many survived, but some have no doubt been indoctrinated by the Sisterhood and now remain cloistered, willingly, from outside world.

As the last remaining members of the Old Black Branch Knights added their own knowledge to the long-standing knowledge of the Sisterhood, the learning labyrinth of each combat level grew more difficult; making the new warrior women far more formidable than they had been before. The high priestesses, of course, kept the fact that new methods were added to their training and actively furthered the notion that the Knights had been utterly wiped out.

The Political structure of the culture has changed little. There are several lesser councils, but the ultimate authority over all matters is the council of the High Priestess. There can be as few as one and as many as thirteen members of the Council – women only. Each of these must pass through the Great Labyrinth and return in order to become High Priestesses. If there are more than thirteen with the Rank of High Priestess, there must be a trial by combat among the most junior. These trials are one-on-one fights and end in the death of one of the combatants. It is rare for the High Council to be full.

To enter the Black Branch, a student must go through two tutors. One educates them in literacy, numbers, the Sacred Writings and higher learning. The other teaches them combat. Both areas are equally long and hard, and the lessons are never easy. The form of this initial training is in groups of no more than seven. For a student to become an apprentice she must better these tutors' tests and pass her first tests of both combat and knowledge.

Not all pass this test and those who do not are still a part of the Sisterhood of the Labyrinth, but are employed in other areas necessary for the society to survive. A student failing her combat trials usually walks with a limp the rest of her days, proving that the ordeal is more than purely ceremonial. A student who fails her studies trial is not allowed to hold any position of import within the society. She has proven herself mentally unworthy of trust and possibly defective of mind. The tests are sacred to the Sisterhood -- to stand before the teachers and priestesses is to stand before the Great Mother.

However, not all women of the Sisterhood will enter the Black Branch and no one in the society takes such a choice lightly. The Black Branch has become the face of the Sisterhood to the outside world. Many see these women as warriors alone, but they are far more than something that simple. The women picked to enter the Black Branch are considered to be the top of the Sisterhood. They often act in the roles of law enforcers, mercenaries, scribes, executioners, and ambassadors. Many times these roles all take place at once.

There are two final trials beyond the normal trials of the Sisterhood. These trials are administered by and before the High Council. The High Priestesses may give these tests or put a proxy in their place and the council must agree before any woman may enter the ranks of the Black Branch.

Each woman entering the Black Branch is a part of this religion. Each element of the religion relates to a level of the Labyrinth. All children in the range of the Sisterhood learn of the mystical Labyrinth and offerings are left at the time of sowing and reaping at the entrance of The Labyrinth for the Great Mother.

The prospective student can choose the time of her tests, or if she waits too long they are given to her on her 16th year. To pass her trial of mind, she must answer questions posed to her by her tutor before the scrutiny of the High Council. She must also pass her first trial of combat. While, later trials of combat often involve serious injury, this first is a test of the forging of the young woman's will into a weapon. The combat trial takes the form of teacher and student facing each other on a long field on two opposite lines, with the teacher holding a ceremonially carved stick. The student must take the stick from the teacher and cross to her side of the line. Once this is done, she is then given to a mentor within the Sisterhood for her first journey to the center of the first level of her apprenticeship and the right of combat in the center.

As the Black Branch are now a part of the Sisterhood, the High Council chooses one of their own to lead the Black Branch. While the choice has only been made once, the High Priestess chosen still must pass Trials to take her place as the High Priestess of the Black Branch and the Baroness of Padrical, Balthazor.

 

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