The Black Sisters
The Black Sisters is a quasi-religious order of women dedicated to dealing with witches.
The Order of Black Sisters is an all-female celibate order whose sacred charge is to identify and sanctify the witch. The Black Sisters travel the length and breadth of Nova Primus in small caravans, collecting witches and those accused of witchcraft and transporting them to the Spire. They are highly respected, for their sacred task purges society of the dangers of witchcraft, but that very mission lends them an aura of superstitious dread. Few will speak ill of a Black Sister, but they are seldom sought-after company.
Doctrine and Activities
Though frequently mistaken for a specialized branch of the Ecclesiarchy, the Black Sisters are actually independent of the white priests. Theirs is an ancient order whose origins are lost to history; when Novan history begins during the Age of Gold, the Black Sisters are already present. Whether the Order predates the Church or the other way around none can say. Nevertheless, the Black Sisters do have a distinctly religious air about them. The head of their Order holds the title of abbess, and the Order ordains “mothers superior” in much the same way as the Ecclesiarchy ordains pontifices. Below the mothers superior are “sisters initiate” and “sisters novitiate.”
The actual doctrine of the Black Sisters is not well understood. They are a secretive Order by nature, and few Novans are bold enough to question women who willingly associate with witches. It is clear that they worship the God-Emperor, for they frequently attend Mass at parish shrines. On the road, they travel with no priests, but the ranking sister conducts services anyways. Some more curious Novans wonder if this appropriation of the priestly role by a woman is blasphemy, but the Ecclesiarchy has long tolerated this minor irregularity in light of the Sisters’ close relationship with the Spire and manifest service. They maintain no permanent structures, living on the road like itinerant beggars. If a woman or girl wishes to join the Black Sisters, she must seek out one of their caravans and be instructed on the road.
The Black Sisters are too few to be present in every settlement on Nova, and typically travel in small caravans of five to twenty Sisters. These travel in loosely defined circuits throughout the countryside, ever alert for rumors of witchcraft. When a caravan stops at a settlement, the Sisters examine any accused witches in secret. Sometimes the interrogated seem to be tortured, to judge from the sounds emerging from whatever building or secluded area appropriated for the examination; other times the interrogations seem almost pleasant. It is likely that the Black Sisters have a variety of techniques at their disposal. Their actual methods of interrogation are secret, and the subject of rampant speculation in winesinks, but all agree that they are the most infallible witch-finders under the Emperor’s sun, and there are many stories of desperate witches revealing themselves under interrogation, the fury of their witchfire sloughing harmlessly from the shield of the Sisters’ holiness.
When the Sisters pronounce an accused free of the taint of witchery, the verdict is almost always honored by the local community (though not always without some grumbling). When they identify a witch, the wretch is taken along with the caravan – in irons and in a locked wagon if need be (some Sisters caravans hire guards to keep better watch over their charges). When a caravan has enough witches that its Sisters can no longer keep adequate watch over them, they make a pilgrimage to the Spire. The fate of the witches who undertake this journey is a mystery, but none ever return. If pressed, the Sisters themselves will remind the interlocutor that witchery is not a sin, but rather a gift. It is a dreadful gift, to be sure, capable of damning one’s very soul – but as it holds the capacity for utter destruction, so it makes a more valuable sacrifice when sanctified to the God-Emperor. Most Novans, familiar with the purification by flame that the Ecclesiarchy teaches, ask no further.
The Black Sisters, as their name implies, wear a distinctive loose gown of black with unusually voluminous sleeves which they use to carry various items. Outdoors, they wear no hats, but drape their black mantles to cover their heads. Indoors, they may wear small box hats, though these are also covered by their mantles. The unusual cut of their clothes and all-black appearance add to their outlandish, unsettling presence.
The Black Sisters enjoy a social status equal to that of male clergy according to the strictures of feudal etiquette, yet this high honor may be misleading. Black Sisters are admitted everywhere, from the table of the lowest serf to the courts of the highest lord. They are never precisely welcome, however. They associate with dangerous heresy and live like beggars – and indeed, a visit from the Black Sisters is almost never without a request for material aid in the form of coin, food, or other supplies. It is a terrible thing to refuse a Black Sister outright, for theirs is an ancient mission in service to the Emperor Himself, but their requests are almost never met in full. The Black Sisters combine the dread of the holy, the destitute, and the diseased into a single person. Even a community beset by witches is usually as relieved to see them depart as they are to see them arrive.
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