The Ashbound

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This sect is small in number (around 1,700 members) but compensates in its sheer fanaticism. Not for them the careful balance between nature and civilization—all that is artificial or unnatural is dangerous, with arcane magic at the top of the list. Nature’s purity must be defended at all costs.

SERVANTS OF THE ASHBOUND

Most Ashbound are humans or shifters. This sect attracts more shifters than any other for its devotion to the harsh laws of nature. They see the Wardens’ attempt to balance nature and “progress” as foolish, and most do not hesitate to destroy anything they see as unnatural. What constitutes the unnatural varies from one individual to the next, but they are united in their opposition to arcane magic, unnatural beings such as fiends and aberrations, and the ravages of civilization.

Ashbound in general do not wear armor, even if they belong to martial classes, scorning it as a civilized crutch. They might use manufactured weapons, but many are drawn to unarmed combat styles (especially shifters). They eschew woven cloth, worked leather, and crafted jewelry, and they use no dyes to alter the natural colors of the hides and furs they wear. They survive entirely by hunting, fi shing, and gathering, for they believe cultivation wounds the earth.

While going about their vital tasks, the Ashbound wear only what they need to survive, unadorned except for the emblem of their faith. They do take trophies from their campaigns, however, such as the horns of demons or wizards’ staffs, which they fashion into ornaments for use at major ceremonies. The most senior members have accumulated the most trophies— they have fantastically ornate headgear, cloaks, and the like, made from dozens of their greatest foes.

Becoming an Ashbound

The best candidate for the Ashbound is someone who has experienced fi rsthand the destructive power of civilization. Typically, such a person is not a native of the Eldeen Reaches, coming instead from a city or place devastated by fiendish incursions, such as the Shadow Marches or the Demon Wastes. Quite a few are refugees from now-dead Cyre, for whom the nightmare of the Mourning never ends. But some who inhabit the Reaches have experienced assaults from their demon-haunted neighbors or by horrors that leave the Gloaming, and this is enough to convince them of the need for eternal vigilance against the unnatural.

The Ashbound do not actively seek new members, believing that nature must call the prospective defender. Potential initiates come of their own accord, out of disgust with civilized excess or the trauma of fiendish assault, and seek refuge within the deepest part of the wilds. There they come upon the local Ashbound, who approach only after observing them from secrecy. Initiation is simple and brief: The chief druid of the area anoints the new member and then assigns him to a patrol group. Initiates who perform well have a chance to display their prowess at the next grand conclave, and advance within the sect’s hierarchy if they are deemed suitably dedicated.

Hierarchy

The Ashbound exist in scattered groups that patrol ceaselessly within the Reaches or embark on raids against what they see as threats to the natural order. They have no central base or even a high druidic council. Individuals advance in personal power through their exploits, and those who are especially charismatic attract followers. The most influential become the de facto leaders of the organization, which means only that others are more likely to listen to them. During grand conclaves, these competing leaders speak to the assembled and shape the sect’s overall policies. The speaker who most sways the crowd assumes the mantle of leader, although this is by no means a lifetime position. The next year’s conclave might see another catch the sect’s attention and become the high druid with no further ado.

The current high druid is Gharull, whose passion and personal magnetism are irresistible. He is responsible for attracting many followers to the sect, and his voice has prevailed in the last eight grand conclaves. He sees himself as the voice of nature, and his outlook is fierce and uncompromising. The Ashbound sect has become even more radical under his leadership, with attacks against farmers in the eastern Reaches, raids on arcane academies in Aundair, even incursions against Brelish industries. He has the support of shifters within the sect as well as the Cyran refugees. His voice does not speak for all, though. Other local leaders are influential within their districts, most notably Collas (N male human druid 4), who takes a more moderate message to the eastern plains dwellers. He is a proponent of atonement ceremonies over the purifying flame. Should his philosophy dominate at a future conclave, most of the sect would moderate their attitudes as well.

Druids make up about one-quarter of the sect, a very high proportion compared to most religious organizations. The Ashbound count many rangers, Eldeen rangers, and barbarians among them, all fanatically devoted to the uncomplicated life. A local Ashbound leader might not even be a druid, especially in the western Reaches. There, war parties of rangers and barbarians are the rule. Around the borders of the Gloaming, on the other hand, the ratio of druids to others is much higher than elsewhere, in an effort to keep that region’s slow expansion in check. This often brings the Ashbound into confl ict with the Children of Winter, who patrol its boundaries to protect what they see as sacred ground.

Most Ashbound spellcasters are druids, owing to the sect’s fi erce antipathy to any sort of magic outside that of nature, but a few are adepts. Their primitive magic is acceptable to the Ashbound, as long as it is used for the correct purposes. Occasionally a spirit shaman (Complete Divine 14) joins the sect, seeing this as her responsibility to the spirits of nature. Many Ashbound, however, distrust the “spirits” she calls on as forces outside the natural order.

Religious Duties

There is but one duty for the faithful: to cleanse the world of all that is unnatural. Each follower has her own idea about how to accomplish this task, and as long as her methods do not bring further harm to nature or to others of the Ashbound, she is free to follow her heart. General directives are sometimes set out at a grand conclave, so that destroying fiends might be the highest priority in winter, whereas sabotaging farm equipment might take priority in spring.

The Ashbound operate in small groups, usually numbering half a dozen and led by a druid of 3rd to 7th level. In areas rife with magical danger, up to half the group might be druids. The rest are mainly rangers with a barbarian or two. Each group is expected to undertake missions regularly (the interval depends on the diffi culty of the task) and to report back on progress at conclaves. Merely destroying the unnatural is not enough, though—it must be clear that this is the work of the Ashbound. In addition to taking trophies, the group leaves unmistakable evidence of its work, usually the outline of a skeletal tree scorched, gouged, or outlined in a heap of wreckage.

Indiv idual groups hold their own observances. The completion of a mission demands a commemorative rite (often concurrent with leaving behind the mark of the tree). Those groups who are less radical in their outlook lead townsfolk in periodic rituals of atonement, especially at planting and harvest.

Fallen Ashbound

People join this severe sect out of absolute conviction that their cause is just. So many bear scars from the devastation of nature that they can never think differently. Some, though, advocate a more reasonable approach that advises and instructs people in how to minimize their “footprint” on the world. The sect tolerates this to a degree, but the Ashbound shun those who are overly indulgent toward civilization. Such a person’s followers desert her for another group, and she is barred from attending conclaves. With her influence so weakened, she usually chooses to leave. She retains her druid abilities, for she is still dedicated to nature; she might become a lone practitioner or seek out the gentler embrace of the Wardens.

Any Ashbound who practices arcane magic, no matter what the reason, is immediately expelled from the sect and loses all druid abilities until she atones. If the offense was not too severe (for example, consuming a potion created by a wizard or using an arcane scrying device to seek out threats), she can gain re-admittance as a new initiate. This also applies to those who engage in structured divine spellcasting; that is, cleric magic. More severe infractions, in particular studying arcane magic by taking levels in a spellcasting class, merit not only expulsion but also designation as an enemy of nature. Such a criminal’s life is forfeit, and any Ashbound would gain prestige from destroying the apostate. Enemies who survive usually become the sect’s most implacable foes, even if they do not follow an evil philosophy.

Quests

On first being initiated into the Ashbound, each new member receives his fi rst mission. He is expected to carry this out alone and bring back proof of his success to the local sect leader. These initial assignments are intended to challenge, not endanger. A typical mission is to investigate and report on threatening activity, or sometimes to destroy a fairly weak creature, such as a twisted vermin from the Gloaming.

The seasonal directive set at a conclave in effect prescribes a quest for followers of the sect. Each group is free to interpret this according to its own beliefs and set its own pace, with the most zealous driving themselves to exhaustion in pursuit of its goals.

RITES AND RITUALS OF THE ASHBOUND

Ritual is intensely personal for the Ashbound. Supplementing the ritual of arcane opposition are the following rites.

Initiation

The act of initiation is brief and to the point. By the time a prospective initiate contacts the Ashbound, they are already aware of his character. Had they not approved, he would never have made contact. The local leader, or the highest-ranking druid if the leader is not one, requires the candidate to swear an oath on his life and on the life of the earth. Should he fail in his duty, goes the oath, may he be struck to ash. The ritual concludes with the smearing of ash onto the initiate’s face, usually in the shape of the skeletal tree. He does not wash or remove this mark until he has completed his initiate’s quest.

Minor Rites

Individual groups of Ashbound hold their own observances, and most practitioners perform private rituals at personally meaningful times. However, completing a mission demands a commemorative rite (often concurrent with leaving behind the mark of the tree). The exact nature of this ritual is up to the individual Ashbound, but it always contains an element of mourning for the earth’s pain. This might entail a small sacrifi ce at a sacred grove, or a libation to the spirits of nature, accompanied by a promise to ease the suffering of the world by whatever means necessary.

Major Rites

Grand conclaves take place at the equinoxes and solstices. Each group’s leader, and all druids within a group, attend these ceremonies, which are held in an unspoiled region within the Towering Wood. The exact location changes with each gathering and is set at the end of the previous season’s conclave. Group representatives report on progress, display trophies, and discuss policy for the coming seasons. The winter conclave prescribes the campaign for winter and spring, while the summer conclave deals with summer and autumn. Usually a great quest is set for all adherents to follow: Its goal is broad, so that each member can decide in her own way how to accomplish it. For example, a summer conclave might prescribe the “destruction of the scythe,” which could mean sabotaging a harvest, destroying farm implements, or even attacking servants of death and undeath.

THE ASHBOUND IN EVERYDAY LIFE

The farmers, woodcutters, and traders of the Reaches respect the purity of the Ashbound and try not to draw their ire. Most members of the sect, although they disapprove of such civilized activities, are occupied with more important causes. Towns don’t have Ashbound circles, but no part of the Reaches is far from the wild lands from which they watch. These neighbors undertake periodic rituals of cleansing to apologize to nature for their necessary damage, under the direction of the local Ashbound druid.

The Ashbound and Government

The Ashbound sometimes come into confl ict with the pseudogovernment of the Reaches in Greenheart, influenced as it is by the Wardens. The Wardens regard the Ashbound zealotry with sadness and attempt to dissuade them from more extreme actions; the Ashbound in turn scoff at the perceived weakness of the Wardens. Much of the time, however, the two sects’ goals are aligned, even if their methods differ.

The local governments of the eastern Eldeen plains regard the Ashbound as enemies of their people. They issue warnings and treat the druids as wanted criminals; even a more moderate adherent of the sect might be attacked before being allowed to speak.

Aundair considers the Ashbound to be a terrorist organization. The Arcane Congress in particular sponsors freelance expeditions to take the war to the sect within the Reaches. Other neighboring governments do not adopt such an extreme position, but they view the sect as dangerous and react quickly to incursions against their territory.

The Ashbound and Other Sects

The Ashbound consider most other sects to be soft and weak, except for the Children of Winter, whom they revile as traitors to nature.

Specific Attitudes

The Wardens of the Wood: They are too willing to accept assaults upon nature in the name of peaceful coexistence. The rapers of the world would not hesitate to raze their groves if doing so were useful to them, coexistence or not.

The Children of Winter: They at least understand that nature is harsh. But they would unleash horrors on the land and are thus no better than its avowed enemies.

The Gatekeepers: We honor them as the first druids, but their focus is too narrow. They tend those ancient gates and do not see the present danger.

The Greensingers: Silly and inconsequential. They claim to honor nature but do nothing in its defense.

TEMPLES AND SHRINES OF THE ASHBOUND

The Ashbound observe an austere version of druidic worship. Individual circles establish their own meeting places, usually isolated groves far from inhabited areas. The grand conclaves are held in similar gathering spots, large enough to encompass several hundred members, but these locations change from one gathering to the next. The sect has no fi xed center of worship, and in fact its members frown on construction or other alteration of the natural landscape.

The Ashbound

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters JW063