Cult of the Black Hand
Concept: The Assassins of Alamut if they were licentious spies instead of political murderers
The Hand serves the will of a quasi-deific Father, sometimes called the Old Man of Azzagarat, in the world. From their remote castles, they whisper in the ears of princes and priests, deciding the fates of nations. They form the basis of thieves’ guilds, blackmailers rings, slavers’ societies and poisoners’ laboratories.
The Garden at Bethsabbath is the best known of their citadels, though its precise location is a closely guarded secret. The valley in which is sits is surrounded on every side by more than a day’s ride of dry and dusty wasteland. An unprepared traveler reaching the seeming sanctum of the Garden is doomed, however: if they should drink a single sip of the garden’s wine, eat a morsel of its food, rest in the scented soaking baths for a moment, or kiss the eager and willing companions, they are lost. Everything; the oils, the fruits, the scented incense, it is all impregnated with a potent opiate, and the entire site carefully constructed as a lure for the unwary. Once a traveler leaves, they must make a Wisdom saving throw against a DC of 5 plus 1 for each day spent in the Garden. On a failed saving throw, they become afflicted with a yearning to return. As long as the effect persists, they have disadvantage on ability checks. At the end of each long rest, they can repeat the saving throw, ending the effect on a success. A calm emotions spell ends the effect.
A more secretive center of their power is the Seminary of the Fulghian Sisters, openly a finishing school for the cosmopolitan youth of La Republica. The Headmistress — it’s not clear if this is actually the severe Dama La Cusey or merely a nickname for some other figure — recruits likely candidates from the highly-bred students. They intermix their studies in ancient languages and diplomacy with dark initiations and burglary. When they graduate, highly placed and darkly connected young ladies write letters and send funding back to their alma mater, and the Headmistress’ control grows. Many wives, courtesans and mothers in La Republica have come up through the program, and the Black Slander — the claim that this hidden sisterhood has placed them where they can manipulate events for the Hand — is a constantly brewing scandal.
The remote town of Ponte Claracastra is a peaceful and somewhat prosperous town, difficult to reach by land. The village leader, Celephaïs Palus, is a respected healer and spiritual leader to the humble fisherfolk. However, the wealth of the city comes from practicing the Prima Noctem, the ritualistic visiting upon the daughters of the town the Dark Father on the nights of their weddings. Accordingly, the people of the town have a common dark cast to their features, unusual coloring to their sclera, and frequently the Mark on their hands of six fingers. Visitors during one of these celebrations are forewarned that the presence of the Father often leads the townsfolk into a mad revelry; bar your doors.
The Black Hand’s theology is simple. Their founder, a mysterious figure known as the Daughter of Nezira, taught each of her disciples the credo “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted”, as taught to her by her Father, the Black Hand himself. Through political skullduggery, the nascent Black Hand claimed towns and valleys for itself and left sleeper agents in their wake. The cultists of the Black Hand are inclined towards zealotry; a compromised agent will often become feebleminded or mad when exposed, severing any link to her cell. The Father is said to visit disciples and nominate them as His Chosen if invited, giving them great powers and dark secrets. Upon the hundredth birthday of the Daughter, she was carried to the Father’s right hand, to continue guiding the faithful; the high commander of the cult continues to use the title of Daughter in her honor.
Who are the patrons of the Black Hand?
The demonic Ebon Lord Graz’zt makes an obvious Father. The Black Hand refers to his six fingered obsidian hand; the handsome Prince has many, many byblows, and the Daugher is but a favored one of his alu-fiend daughters; perhaps Rhyxali (sister-daughter, who charges her vassals to spy) or Thraxxia (a personal assassin, though in this imagining she’d be somewhat elevated).
If so, the Cult would tend to be a weapon against other cults of Demogorgon and Orcus, and against all of heaven; its use in temporal matters would be limited to undercutting churches.
The Mother of Demons Pale Night makes an interesting Father and Daughter. As an obyrith (a creature older than every demon), Pale Night’s true form is beyond mortal ken, so she works through indirection and the creation of fiends. Father and Daughter would be temporary, fleshy masks; the purpose of the surviving Black Hand the control of noble bloodlines from each nation. Black Hands attempt to breed the Vasharan, a creature which is to humanity as drow are to elves.
The Queen of Succubi Malcanthet makes a straightforward Daughter, though presents interest as a Father. Her title of Queen has been hard-won and changed hands more than once, so it seems likely that some predecessor created the Hand, and she is merely portraying that predecessor who was herself portraying the Father! Malcanthet’s interests are entwined and opposed to those of Graz’zt; it’s possible she’s even seized control of the Hand from him. Regardless, helmed by Malcanthet the Hand serves as a sort of earthly finishing school for succubi. Their temporal actions serve for the student as a test and for onlookers as advertisements about the power and status available to one who gives in to her unearthly pleasures.
The diabolic pairs Glasya/Asmodeus and Fierna/Belial are indistinguishable as Daughter and Father. The Fierna/Belial pairing is somewhat more likely: they are the more established active pair, and work together on many projects, while Glasya has only recently ascended to power and Asmodeus doesn’t seem likely to shop His power around through a mouthpiece. A diabolic patron would use the Hand in the service of the Iron City, but would conceal their control of the Hand. It is difficult to tell, then, whether the famously harsh discipline of the Iron City is the reason the Cult has been unable to gain a foothold there…
Finally, it is just possible that an actual human father/daughter pairing, the khufic sorcerer Hassangrazir and daughter Ngrazira were descended from powerful bloodlines and could have been in the right places at the right times. It’s possible that they discovered some trick of immortality (lichdom, ghosts) through study or some private patron, and continue to guide the Black Hand from beyond the grave. This is perhaps the most interesting conclusion; it renders the long-lasting damage done by the Hand due entirely to the designs of iron-age goatherders and their intellectual descendants.
Cult of Luth
Concept: The black web, the deep web; WikiLeaks.
The secretive serpent, Luth is the deity of whispers, masks, and manipulation. The innermost secret of the cult is the true name of Luth; it’s obvious to all that the goddess of secrets wouldn’t travel openly under Her name. Her cults are made up of sages, alchemists and philosophers, who meet under the banner of Luth to discuss their art behind masks, keeping secret only their names. The groups are small and keep to a rigid order of business, where each member (“Inquisitator”) submits anonymously and in aggregate their “Confession”, learned facts. This corpus is then scattered and encoded by the cult leader (a Legator) and sent in parts from one cell to the others via a Peregrinator, a traveling member. The recipients then (by holy duty) store, still encoded, the contents of these missives. The contents are far ranging: blackmail encrypted steganographically in a new recipe for wine; a clockwork toy which could also be a bomb timer; a recording of crop information for its own sake; an order to murder concealing a new poem; the complete correspondence of some private entity. Each Legator thus becomes warden of a vast storehouse of odd knowledge, without context; while it is an accursed act to intercept their exchanges, an unscrupulous Legator may be coopted, bribed, or cajoled into revealing otherwise secret information.
Father Giostephios (“Zstefano”, also a not-so-famous demon’s name) is the Legator of a circle which includes several clerics of the celestial church in La Republica. Their Confessions are frequently the literal confessions of their parishioners from that crime-ridden city, and so Zstefano is the patron of the Furies, who punish those crimes known only the Cult. Unfortunately, an Inquisitator of his cult, “Umber Hulk” is by day an agent of one such corrupt citizen, seeking the informant behind the Furies by feeding the group false information, causing chaos.
The Order Argent is a circle made entirely of Legators who rotate on a monthly basis in an attempt to overcome the strictures of Luth, learning without exposing themselves. They therefore consume vastly more correspondence than they produce, and subvert the cell system as they know many more of their co-conspirator’s names than a standard Luthian cell. This mechanism has not yet become known outside of their halls, and they are quite pleased; they are however torn between stagnation and disaster, as each new member carries the risk of total destruction. Tambrian Laren (“Roland”) is suspected to be the submitter of the Confession “One of the Order Argent serves Demogorgon”, though she has since disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
The Weaver’s Guild of Waterdeep is said to hold their Confessionals under the clacking of the auto-looms in their Autofactury, via the tapestries they weave and the way they strum the weft. The product is observed closely for artistic choices and missed stitches, though as yet the pattern has not been cracked. It is reported however that the Lector of the guild stands ready to declare the key to reading the tapestries, now distributed widely, and uses this power to pressure the Masked Lords; their names and those of Lord’s Alliance and Harper agents are reportedly fibrously encoded, awaiting only the decoding step. Her demands are thus far simple.
Who is the patron of the Cult of Luth?
The simplest option is that there is some being, not-quite-named Luth but also not really any other being. She is a secretive and reclusive goddess who wants to ensure information is neither entirely public nor entirely forgotten. Her domain is secrets, lies, and scholasticism, her favored animal is the many-legged centipede (or, sometimes, a snake). She would therefore be an ascended mortal (as all lesser gods are in my setting), presumably a Khufic sorceress-queen; perhaps Lemuria or Thule.
Alternatively, Luth could be a cover-identity for Lolth (also known as Lloth; Demon-Queen of Spiders). The Weaver would make an excellent secret identity here if we ignore her Drow contingent; while I acknowledge most of what we know about Lolth comes from the drow, her place as a shadowy manipulator makes the cults of Lolth a fascinating example of the World Wide Web of Lies.
The Undying Lord Vecna (“The Arch-Lich”, “Chained God”, “Maimed God”, “Master of the Spider Throne”, “Whispered One”, “Dying King”, “Lord of the Rotted Tower”, “Undying King” — many named!) is a second obvious choice. Loves secrets, loves manipulation, and famously learned magic from a mysterious tutor: the Serpent. This would be pretty bad. It gives the cult of Luth an agenda: to record everything for the lord of secrets for his personal use.
Asmodeus is said to have a second form. The dapper being we all know and “love” is but of a projection of a dark being trapped inside the ravines of Nessus, where He fell during the celestial revolt. The humanoid form is a hologram, and the serpent calls the shots. In this view, the secrets that pass from Lector to Lector pass ultimately through to the Iron City. In fact, it also operates the other way; purportedly truthful Confessions can be intermixed with damaging (but only partially true) ones, in the service of the Iron City.
Tiamat is the many-headed Queen of Dragons. Any similarity between this cult and the Hydra attack on peer to peer networks seems straightforwardly obvious. Tiamat is the Queen of Greed, of Hoards, of Jealousy. Thus, these secrets sit in her hoard, glittering jewels; Hail Hydra.
Demogorgon (Prince of Demons) is a long-range planner and schemer, with a pair of serpentine heads turned against themselves. The cell-structure of the Cult of Luth is due, in part, to the self-conflicted nature of the cult’s bestial patron; each cell works against the designs of each other one, but on the whole, the Prince of Demons establishes a madman’s view of the world, and uses the pattern of events to pass deeply connected clues from cell to cell.
Nothing. It is possible that there is no power behind the mask, and that the cult of Luth is effectively a cult of hermetic rationalists with no central principle and no goal. It acts as the aggregate of its members, with all the horror and potential which that represents. It is difficult to distinguish this possibility from the world in which Luth is Demogorgon.
The Circle of Thorns
Concept: Isolationist neoreactionary ecoterrorists.
Formed from a group of druids and witches whose reverence of nature was warped by the introduction of intercessory fey spirits, the members of the Circle seek a return to the old ways of nature, and a replacement of the kings of men with the Gentry of the fair folk. This is out of a respect for the natural order of things; the laws of men elevate the weak, dishonest, and disconnected from the land, and set low the workers and the honest toilers. Members are witches, and each of the circles worships a local (or opportunistic immigrant) court of fey, the Gentry. Witches have their own reasons for serving the Gentry; in contested borders, hatred of the current regime; in human heartlands, hatred of rapacious nobles or priests; at the edges of the wilds, a shelter from famine or plague. However, there are also those witches who serve out of madness or misdirection; a village whose wise ones are Thorns will tend to breed fey-blooded children, which tend to be skilled in the Art. How fortunate, then, that Granny Wizenfloot is a witch, and will train them? The true tragedy is that the druids and witches and wise ones of isolated villages bring learning and hope to a brave and hard-working people ill equipped to validate the wise one’s wisdom. For each secretive witch of the Circle serving an inhuman Gentry, an Inquisitor will likely find some innocent druid or witch with a much healthier attitude towards the Fair Folk.
There are many sponsors, because the unifying theme of the Circle of Thorns is a general turning away from human laws and towards an older, wilder order. Several demon lords make excellent fey impersonators; Yeenoghu, Baphomet, and Demogorgon are extremely capable of impersonating fey. Lords of lies, like Beelzebul, Malcanthet, and Asmodeus might make interesting poseurs. But of course, our best bets are actual fey; hags and dryads and unseelie and such.
One such circle are the Thorns of the Wychwood, a twisted coven of hags which has for generations intermarried with the men along the borders of the woods; they call them out a-night and ride them, before returning them in the morning, bruised and sickened. Their boychildren are made into lost colonies of goblins, while the girlchildren with the Art are raised into their inheritance. The adults living on the borders find themselves unable to leave, knowing their half-children and broken families hang in the balance.
Another are the Sisters of Foxglove, a group of poisoners in a distant nunnery renowned for its healing. Women with child are sent to the nunnery from the nearby city, to resolve the problem quietly; a shame, then, that Foxglove extends her life through the consumption of innocence, and that she has a poisoned tongue to convince others to join her. Those women who dwell in the close, vulnerable, are often inducted into these horrific ways and driven mad; too often, they prove excellent new Sisters.
The Whitethorns are a group of warlocks who serve the Pale Lady, a fomorian duchess. They are each her paramours and servants, champions and knights. They serve at the court of an actual human duchess to whom their feudal obligations are owed, and yet they are corrupted and turned from their duty. Some say their numbers swell through foul magics, but others that the men merely have ideas above their station; the traitor knights are difficult to divide from the human duchess’ leal servants.