The Darkness Between
The Ashen Covenant
The majority of cults dedicated to Orcus are, in a way, predictable evils. They seek destruction for its own sake, they collect innocent blood to slake their lord's thirst, and they possess his hatred for all life. Horrible, yes. Vile, absolutely. But these are localized evils, which are manageable in their own way. Once such a hidden cult has been unearthed, their goals and their methods can be anticipated. Others among the Prince of the Undead's cults are not so predictable, nor randomly wanton, in their violence. Focused and driven, they spread pain, violence, and undeath not out of sheer joy of carnage, but for purposes far darker. Of these, one of the worst is dubbed the Ashen Covenant.
Spearheaded by the zealous Elder Arantham, the Ashen Covenant is not a sect unto itself, but a movement growing in numbers throughout Orcus's cults. Followers of the Covenant-also called Grave-Speakers, Ash-Bearers, and Disciples of the Hollowed Grave-are driven by a single goal: to aid the ascension of their prince to the throne of the Raven Queen, and to help him gain sovereignty over all dead souls.
Through ancient magic and theologies, the Ashen Covenant seeks to fundamentally change the cycle of life. Undeath will no longer be an abomination, requiring the working of terrible necromancies, but the natural consequence of life. Everyone who dies will rise once more into a shambling undead existence. Orcus will supplant the Raven Queen because undeath will have supplanted death.
History of the Covenant
Little is known about Elder Arantham, founder of the Ashen Covenant movement. His followers know he was once a high priest in Bahamut's Church, and that he turned to Orcus after a crisis of faith, but beyond that, none can say.
Blessed of Orcus
Elder Arantham's notoriety began when he set out to uncover a copy of the ancient ritual that transforms apostate priests into foul undead creatures called huecuvas-not to punish, but to voluntarily subject agreement to the vile transformation. In a ceremony witnessed by his fellow cultists, Arantham shed the last of his humanity-and, as he proclaimed, "the last lingering stench of my prior misguided beliefs." Word of the priest's zealous embrace of undeath spread in whispers and hidden messages throughout Orcus's sects, and his cult swelled with new worshipers, their souls stirred by Elder Arantham's powerful sermons of Orcus's dark glory.
It was then that Arantham began first to focus his sermons less on Orcus and undeath in general, and more on the notion of Orcus's eventual and inevitable rise to the Raven Queen's throne-though he pursued the issue with less fervor than he would later display as part of the Ashen Covenant movement. Yet his ascension to undead was the first of Arantham's tributes to the Blood Lord. As his cult grew, the foul huecuva returned to the temple of Bahamut where he once served. There, in a bloodbath of mythic proportions, he not only massacred the entire priesthood but also raised them as shambling zombies, whom he then set loose upon the surrounding city.
Arantham's following tripled within the year. However, his efforts drew down the wrath of the city government and various religious orders, which put aside their differences to hunt the destroyer of Bahamut's temple. Several of Arantham's followers were captured, but none revealed their hidden shrine or the identity of their leader.
Arantham's actions also drew the attention of Holchwier, an undead glabrezu and exarch of Orcus. Appearing in a burst of fire before Arantham's cultists, Holchwier berated the priest, insisting that his activities were too overt and too great a threat to the survival of what was supposed to be a hidden cult.
Elder Arantham listened quietly and then, calm and polite as ever, invited the exarch to discuss the situation in a more private setting.
None can say what occurred behind those closed doors. And every cultist present watched, eyes wide, as Elder Arantham emerged from the meeting, his desiccated fingers coated in demonic blood. Holchwier, he proclaimed loudly, was a coward, unfit to serve the Prince of the Undead-and that he, Elder Arantham, would take his place as exarch.
The cultists waited for the wrath of Orcus to strike down their leader. Several cult members present were warlocks part of a sub-sect of Orcus who's pact was with the Exarch, Holchwier. When the wrath of the Blood Lord never came, the notoriety of Elder Arantham, self-proclaimed exarch, grew further still, as did the size of his following.
The Covenant is Born
Having received inspiration from Orcus in dreams that came to him in the dark of night-despite the fact that undead do not sleep-Elder Arantham redoubled his focus on aiding the demon's ascent to the Raven Queen's domain. He preached long and eloquently about every worshiper's duty to aid in that goal, and he claimed that this should become the defining effort of all Orcus's cults.
Naturally, when word reached them, the leaders of other cults disagreed. But many of their followers were convinced, enough for Arantham's ideals to become the basis of a movement that would spread throughout the cults of Orcus. This was the birth of the Ashen Covenant-a compact, Arantham claimed, between Orcus and his followers that would change the natural order of the world.
The Coming Schisms
Today, the Ashen Covenant is one of the largest unified movements among Orcus's worshipers. It still lacks sufficient cohesion to break off into its own global sect-partly because its members are geographically scattered between the various cults, and partly because the various factions within the movement cannot agree on how best to accomplish their goals. And as more worshipers flock to Arantham's words, placing adherence to his teachings over loyalty to their own cult leaders, it can only be a matter of time until the Ashen Covenant becomes a world-spanning entity all its own.
Yet even as it borders on independence, the Covenant faces a potential schism of its own. The warlord Mauglurien, leader of the Ebon Riders, has grown dissatisfied with Elder Arantham's leadership. Though not so powerful or charismatic as the huecuva, the warlord has followers of his own-and as his philosophies gain more support, his faction grows ever nearer the day when it must split from the Ashen Covenant. When that happens, none can say if the differences between the two factions will erupt in sectarian warfare-but given the chaotic and bloodthirsty nature of those involved, it seems likely indeed.
The Covenant's Goals
The Covenant seeks to elevate Orcus to the Raven Queen's throne by changing the natural order of the world itself. In Elder Arantham's vision, undeath is the natural end to life. All creatures that die would rise again-not due to necromantic rituals, or planar conjunction with the Shadowfell, but naturally.
It's a lofty goal, if a demented one, and not easy to achieve. In fact, the Ashen Covenant is split into numerous subsects along philosophical lines, as its members argue over what method might best accomplish this objective. Elder Arantham has yet to choose one particular means as the Covenant's focus, instead allowing each faction to try to prove that their philosophy is most likely to succeed. Each philosophy is, perforce, based heavily on theology, speculation, and guesswork-though their adherents are only too happy to conduct whatever experiments are necessary to prove their point.
One of the largest factions believes that they need slay the Raven Queen and reanimate her as an undead god. This, they claim, will allow undeath to replace death in the natural order-and even should it not, it would place the Raven Queen under Orcus's dominion.
Others argue that even if the Covenant had the power to do this, undeath is no guarantee that a god must bow to Orcus. Witness Vecna, they say. Yet those who believe seem convinced that, if slain and reanimated by disciples of the Blood Lord, the Raven Queen would prove a different case.
The loudest proponent of this theory is the dwarf Mauglurien, leader of the Ebon Riders, whose anger that Arantham has not adopted this philosophy grows daily.
This theory suggests that Orcus would control all dead souls and replace death with undeath in the natural cycle, if he could annex the Shadowfell into his own Abyssal realm. They point out that numerous planes already overlap the natural world; if those "extrusions" could be stretched through the world, allowing the Elemental Chaos to form stronger bonds with the Shadowfell, then Orcus could flood the realm of the dead with his own undead and demons. Eventually, they claim, the sheer weight of Abyssal energy would drag the Shadowfell into permanent conjunction with Thanatos.
The spokesperson for those who adhere to this view is Khavra Akti, a female eladrin wizard with unhealthy fascination for all things related to death and necromancy.
Aminority-and a growing one-of Covenant members, maintains that, as the gods only shaped the world, the Ash-Bearers must turn to the power of those who created it. They believe that only the primordials have the power to so fundamentally change the world, and that the Covenant should be seeking primordial-created magic from the dawn of time, or else hunting for means to manipulate the surviving primordials themselves. With such power at their fingertips, even the gods could not stop them from reshaping reality as they see fit.
The leading voice for this philosophy is Shonvurru, an undead marilith who is possibly the only member of the Covenant with power on par with Elder Arantham
Many Grave-Speakers believe that the simplest path is to find something that even the gods fear and force them to change the world. This movement has not grown since its inception, since its members cannot agree on what, exactly, would strike such terror into the gods. Nevertheless, the idea continues to thrive.
Sithas Tyrr, a human Blackguard of the Blood Lord, spearheads the followers of this philosophy.
Weight of Numbers
Perhaps the most straightforward of the Covenant's competing philosophies is based on the notion that the best way to change the world is, well, to change the world. They believe that if the undead ever outnumber the truly dead, the "weight of reality" will tip, with undeath replacing death.
Straightforward, perhaps, but hardly easy. None can honestly say how many sentient beings have lived and died since the dawn of history; it might be an impossible task, by the numbers. Nevertheless, the faction focuses their efforts on animating undead in unprecedented numbers.
By far the most outspoken proponent of this theory is the Varim the Mad, a tiefling warlock. Varim's crazed schemes are usually overly complicated and full of many deceptions, but he generally accomplishes his goal in the end. If Varim is involved, Sithas Tyrr is quite often not far away…