|Priesthood of the Beyond|
The Priesthood of the Beyond is a minor religion that developed in Gilneas, then migrated to the region of the Eastweald. Originally beginning with deep roots in the ancient Drust, it consists primarily of necromancers who consider it their responsibility to help restless souls pass on to the afterlife, especially souls bound to the material world due to undeath.
Founding and Reformation
What would become the Priesthood began as a result of Drust Death magic being introduced to human society through the descendants of Drust Vrykul who inherited their twisted ways. These humans, known as the Hálvotr, settled in the land of Gilneas, often in secluded and isolated parts of the land. Though ultimately separated from their Vrykul progenitors, the humans who carried the knowledge did so with little restraint, bending bone, soul, and death itself to their will for their own ends, and channeling the power of the Abyssal Wood.
To the early cultists, however, the mysterious afterlife was an elusive subject to them. Death was made to serve them, but they never truly understood what awaited a soul in the world beyond. Thus, they began to explore the soul, trying to discern clues to the truth of what came after death. They came to believe that the Abyssal Wood was a part of a greater realm known as the Farlands, where all souls journeyed upon death.
A greater awareness of the soul and the world led some of the cultists to question their lifestyle. Some believed that they were depleting the Farlands of souls, disrupting a natural balance between Life and Death. Some believed that their practices had become inhumane and torturous, and warped a soul beyond its pure form. Those who could not abide the cruel practices of Death magic for their own gain gathered to establish their own tenets, strict rules that would ensure the balance was not disrupted. With these tenets came the founding of the Priesthood of the Beyond.
Since its establishment, the Priesthood devoted itself to the preservation of that balance. Wayward souls were sped along to the afterlife they deserved, and the 'malevolent', individuals or entities that exploited death and the souls of the dead, were punished. To channel power from the Abyssal Wood became a crime. They still lived in obscurity, and were even ostracized for their taboo practices.
Migration and Separation
Eventually the faith of the Holy Light became mainstream. Where the neighboring Harvest Witches dwindled into obscurity, the Priesthood was effectively pushed out altogether. The Priesthood journeyed west from Gilneas, eventually settling in the Eastweald. There, a new community was founded, a town known as Summersgrove, where they continued to watch over the spirits of the people in Lordaeron, and preserve the balance. It is believed that some interaction with the Coven of the Wilds also further shaped their understanding of the Farlands.
Little changed for the Priesthood until the Third War. Effectively at war with the Cult of the Damned, many of the Priesthood were resilient to what the Undead Scourge offered. Their abilities to sever the ephemeral bond of body and soul in undead became their most valuable weapon. Though it suffered its share of losses and deaths, the Priesthood remained strong in the face of the overwhelming threat, even protecting Summersgrove against all odds.
The greatest challenge came in a moment of schism in the Scourge, when Arthas' powers were diminished and many of his undead thralls broke free. Among their number was a Lich named Vularad, who came to the Priesthood in search of penance. Though the tenets of their order called for the Lich's summary destruction, the desire to repent appealed to some who believed he deserved a chance. The issue divided the Priesthood heavily, as an interpretation of a single tenet caused the Priesthood to split altogether.
Ultimately, the Priesthood permitted Vularad's admission as a priest. A sect splintered from the Priesthood in anger, condemning the decision as heresy. With this came yet another contention in that the Summersgrove was a sacred location to all of the Priesthood, and where the new sect was expected to depart, they themselves believed the remaining Priesthood did not belong in their holy site.
Eventually, a compromise was reached: neither sect was to inhabit Summersgrove, and instead the community would become a holy site shared by both, a neutral ground where their religion could be practiced in relative peace. It was begrudgingly accepted before the departing sect journeyed south, where they established the town of Andour in the dark region of Duskwood. There, the southern sect attempted to quell the evil of Morbent Fel and bring peace to the land, while the northern sect remained to combat the Scourge.
The Priesthood believes in the existence of a realm known as the Farlands, an afterlife that all souls are meant to pass on to following death. It is not considered a paradise or hell, but instead a realm of rest. There is a balance to be upheld between the two worlds, and the Priests of the Beyond strive to uphold that. Their duty is to return the restless, angry dead to a peaceful rest and send souls bound to the material world onto the spiritual world.
Typically the role of a priest will involve destroying the bodies of undead to release their souls. Since the Forsaken and the Knights of the Ebon Blade achieved their freedom from the Lich King, the Priesthood has acknowledged that there are sentient undead who wish to pass on, but also that there are undead who wish to stay. For this reason, priests are expected to offer sentient undead an opportunity for their final death, but not enforce or pressure it if the offer is refused. It is an undead's right to choose, however an undead who is deemed malevolent will be unconditionally put to death, regardless of choice.
The Priesthood is considered to be a close-knit community, even a family among some. As such, betrayal of the Priesthood or its values is strictly forbidden. Breaking the values of the Priesthood requires one to either repent by fulfilling their duties - typically by guiding a hundred souls - or die. The opportunity of repentance only comes once, and a repeat offender shall simply be put to death.
A priest must exist beyond the potential of temptation, accepting the inevitability of death with no attempt to forestall it. Priests who wield Necromancy solely to empower themselves are considered to be malevolent. Disciplining oneself against temptation often results in many priests becoming indifferent to the self and personal desires.
With the introduction of Necromancy to the Priesthood's practices, five tenets were placed upon the practice. They outline a strict code of how a necromancer must operate, with the goal of deterring temptation to prevent individuals from upsetting the balance.
I. The soul shall have no awareness of its risen state.
II. The risen dead shall be laid to rest when their purpose is fulfilled.
III. The dead shall not be risen for reasons that are vain or trivial.
IV. The soul shall not be warped into unholy and malevolent form.
V. The works of the malevolent are to be destroyed, never used.
The subject of undead membership has been a source of controversy for the Priesthood. The most significant instance was when Vularad, formerly a Lich of the Scourge, sought to join the Priesthood to correct the damage the Scourge had inflicted upon the land. His capacity for faith and redemption was marked and deemed worthy by some, however others declared that to admit Vularad was a violation of the fifth tenet and served to perpetuate imbalance.
The northern sect is now led by Vularad and remains somewhat flexible on undead membership, provided the undead is worthy of character. No other undead have ever joined the Priesthood since Vularad's admission. The southern sect consists of the more rigid who believe that even the repentant undead are better off being ushered to the Farlands than remaining with the Priesthood.
Source of Power
Though not the sole realms of the Farlands, the Priesthood predominantly focuses on two realms known as the Sleeping Thicket and the Abyssal Wood. The Abyssal Wood is actually a term for what is known as Thros, the Blighted Lands - which are therefore not part of the true realm itself - and the original source of their power, dating back to the Hálvotr. However, this source of power has since become taboo for the Priesthood to tap into, and instead they draw power from the Veiled Escort in the Sleeping Thicket.
While this new source of power remains markedly similar to the Death magic wielded by the Drust, it allows more flexibility and versatility, and allows for a reduced - but not eliminated - likelihood of harming the soul in its use. Furthermore, the Sleeping Thicket is now the destination for all souls sent by the Priesthood, a place of respite to find guidance by the Veiled Escort.
Rites of the Balance
To become a necromancer for the priesthood, one is expected to forge their own ceremonial scythe. No ordinary forge will suffice, as one must travel to a specific forge deep within Duskwood. The area this forge is located within is believed to be one in which the barrier between the realm of the dead and the realm of the living is weak enough that it will shape both the scythe and its wielder.
When the scythe is constructed, the priest is then expected to find a grave of their choosing. When the grave is chosen, the priest will lay within and consume an alchemical concoction that will place in them in a death-like sleep. They will sleep within the grave for the entire day as their soul is sent to the Farlands to see the world beyond their own. When they arrive in the realm of the dead, the first thing they will see is the soul of the person whose grave the priest now inhabits.
The priest is to traverse the realm of the dead for a day. The act of sleeping with the dead and walking among the Farlands measures a priest's capacity for temptation as they are met with the souls of long-lost relatives, old loves, past lives, confronted with the reality of Death. It is also a task to ensure the individual's understanding of the task that awaits them, to ferry souls from the material world to the spiritual world.
When one emerges from the sleep, they are expected to understand the necessity for balance between the living and the dead, and possess the discipline to withstand temptation. If a priest is successful in both of these, they are then permitted to be named as a Guide to the Farlands, and are trained in the dark arts of Necromancy.
Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead is an event marked by the spirit world drawing closer to the material world. This is regarded as a day of rest by the Priesthood, a reprieve from their responsibilities. Priests believe the Day of the Dead is a day in which their god permits the souls of the deceased to visit the world of the living. As a result, the priests hold a festival on the Day of the Dead in honor of their god's benevolence, and prepare offerings beforehand for visiting souls.
Before the Day of the Dead begins, priests will often pray to the soul of a loved one who has since passed on in order to communicate and reach out to them. A candle is lit in reverence to the honored dead, serving as a means of remembrance.
The Priesthood regards Hallow's End in a similar fashion to the Day of the Dead for a similar reason the spiritual world drawing closer to the material world. A time of rest, celebration, and reverence, this too is an event for many priests to set down their scythes and take a reprieve from their duty, as well as honor the deceased.
The tradition of the burning of the Wickerman is one the priesthood does retain from its roots as harvest witches, with the original meaning of burning away one's burdens still being upheld. Typically the burning of the Wickerman occurs as a singular event on the final week of Hallow's End, during which the two sects of the priesthood convene for a friendly festival of celebration and shared values, before finally carrying out the burning.
The Priesthood possesses its share of sacred items and symbols, employed by priests for various purposes.
All necromancers of the Priesthood carry a ceremonial scythe. It is not intended to serve as a weapon, but instead as a tool for carrying out rituals and a symbol of closeness to the Farlands. Priests share an intimate relationship with their scythes, and to forsake one's scythe is to forsake their god. Along the blade of each scythe, intricate designs are carved portraying the journey to the Farlands. Every priest creates their own scythe as a rite of passage, personally responsible for its design, empowerment, and carving.
The scythe is a prominent symbol in the Priesthood, as their god is often depicted with a scythe, as one may expect. However, in the Priesthood's belief, it is not the god's duty to reap souls, and the scythe is not used on all he meets. Instead, it is carried in order to take in those who attempt to resist Death's calling by means of forcible harvest, often regarded as punishment for hubris against Death.
For this reason, the scythe is considered to be a symbol of the inevitability of Death and a priest's acceptance of it, and mirrors the priests' role in occasionally wielding the scythe as a weapon against the undead. The scythe does possess magical properties, serving as a focus for necromantic magic. It can be used for combat, as its blade is remarkably durable. That said, the scythe, like Necromancy itself, must not be used in vain.