Extoller

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Extollers are skorne of the worker caste who attend the greatest heroes of the battlefield for preservation and guiding their spirits to ancestral guardians so that they might escape the Void. Extollers hold a distinct place of privilege at the top of the worker caste, and their unique function affords them an unusual degree of respect and liberty the warrior caste, including house leaders. Serving as a vital bridge between other skorne and the exalted ancestors, extollers are generally referred to as a distinct caste. Their art is the only means by which the great and mighty can gain reward for their accomplishments, the only way to preserve the worthy through exaltation. This function means even the most arrogant of warriors will think twice before insulting an extoller, especially one in charge of evaluating those worthy of preservation.[1]

History

The root principles of mortitheurgy and the fundamentals which gave rise eventually to exaltation were discovered by Voskune the Ascetic around 4650 AR. After decades of mortifying his own flesh, fasting in the desert, and pitting his combat prowess against beasts many times his size, Voskune began to understand the link between the flesh and the spirit. Voskune dissected the living and the dead to make sense of this connection. He plucked out his own eye to learn the complex structure of tissue and fluids and replaced it with a crystal orb that allowed him to perceive the vital essence of all living things, vivid in moments of anguish or when the body lingers near death. The moment of death was a particular fascination to him, and Voskune was the first to witness the spirits of dying skorne fall howling into a chasm he called the Void. This was a place entirely separate from the world of the living, where the dead experienced endless torment and agony. The spirits in the Void are all mad, and he was shaken to learn this was the fate of his ancestors and would be his own fate as well. Voskune was eventually lost to the Void, but his students carried his work forward.[1]

Ten generations after Voskune's death, two skorne named Ishoul and Kaleed worked together to achieve a breakthrough. Ishoul discovered that when cut and polished, certain stones pulled at a spirit, drawing it like water into a sponge. Ishoul and Kaleed spent their lives working with these stones, refining the process to increase the strength of this pull on the spirit. Both duplicated Voskune’s sacrifice, removing an eye and replacing it with a crystal orb to perceive the spirits of the dead. They theorised that a skorne spirit might be preserved from the Void using one of their stones.[1]

The first skorne to be exalted was Vuxoris, the dominar of Ishoul and Kaleed's house. As Vuxoris’ death approached, Ishoul and Kaleed enacted rites to capture his spirit in a polished obsidian vessel, the first sacral stone. They discovered that Vuxoris could be contacted, albeit with difficulty, and that he was now preserved and essentially immortal. The stone held great power and manifested strange phenomena, energised by the spirit within.[1]

Skorne philosophers record the creation of sacral stones as one of the most important events in their history. Yet from the beginning, the early mystics established that these rituals must be reserved for the greatest of skorne and that very few would be worthy of preservation. Those of purely cerebral accomplishments, including Ishoul and Kaleed, were not deemed worthy. Being exalted was a state that must be reserved for the greatest practitioners of hoksune, those who followed the example of Vuxoris.[1]

After the foundation of the first city of Malphas, permanent settlements allowed extollers to hone their spiritual arts and gain special stature as a distinct sub-caste alongside the paingivers.[1]

The extoller sub-caste was unified in 596 AR, with the establishment of the unified Skorne Empire under Supreme Archdominar Vinter Raelthorne IV. Zaal, supreme aptimus of House Kerash and an important supporter of Vinter, was chosen to be their leader.[1][2]

Training

Extollers are selected from among skorne workers who show gifted arcane talent and who develop a strong affinity and respect for ancestors. Some extollers were once mortitheurges with special aptitudes who were offered the chance to become an extoller to conduct its vital responsibilities.[1]

The rites by which an initiate cleanses his or her soul for this sacred office carry deadly risk. Extollers must prove their dedication by ritually plucking out an eye and replacing it with a crystal oculus sensitive to elusive spiritual energies. Only by doing so are they able to perceive and manipulate the spirit world as their station requires. Many initiates die from the shock and agony of the process. They are not mourned, and their souls fall screaming into the Void.[1]

Extollers engage in considerable training and exhaustive study of history and ancient languages in order to contact exalted spirits and understand them. They study extensively to understand the personalities and behaviours of their house’s ancestors to ensure they do not offend the spirits.[1]

Role

Extollers occupy a variety of roles, including the fabrication of sacral stones and their stone vessels, communicating with ancestors, and accompanying warriors into battle to select those worthy of exaltation. Those who join an army in battle are respected the most, and they serve an extremely important battlefield function. The mere presence of an extoller can raise morale, and few tyrants fail to take advantage of that fact. The most extollers can persuade ancestors to accompany their descendants into battle and draw on their power to protect and assist living soldiers. Ancestral guardians can act as receptacles for the spirits of skorne who die near them, allowing extollers time to decide who are worthy of full exaltation and who will receive the lesser honour of becoming revered companions in the afterlife.[1]

While the majority of extollers divide their time between crafting sacral stones and selecting warriors for exaltation, a sub-group called advocates focus on serving as intermediaries between the exalted and the living, having shown a keen aptitude for communing with those preserved from the Void. Advocates often dwell in chambers adjacent to the house shrine and are expected to serve as intermediaries for their lords at all times of day and night. Skorne wishing to seek the guidance of forebears must rely on them to serve as a bridge between the world of the living and the wisdom of the dead.[1][3]

Uninhabited sacral stones naturally attract the spirits of dying skorne in close proximity. An extoller can block a spirit’s access the stone, allowing it to fall away into the Void. Most uninhabited stones are kept safe in the protected vaults of a house to prevent any spirits not specifically chosen from reaching them. Others are set within ancestral guardians to be available on the battlefield to help save some of the fallen.[1]

Determining who receives exaltation is one of the foremost purposes of the extoller caste. There is no precise rubric by which a skorne earns exaltation, and determining who is worthy is a matter of some debate. Still, all extollers strive to maintain its standards and to preserve only those who truly deserve it. Skorne are chosen for exaltation primarily due to martial prowess and accomplishments in battle: only very rarely do extollers judge a scholar, mortitheurge, or master builder worthy of preservation, though a few have earned the privilege through remarkable contributions to society. Even the majority of extollers face the Void; those who die in combat occasionally earn preservation, but this is very rare. Extollers keep extensive records of the actions of those around them, weighing their worthiness day by day.[1]

In theory the extollers alone can judge who is worthy of exaltation. In practice, they might be subject to pressure from house nobles. Some of the more powerful extollers are able to ignore these pressures, and the highest extollers are extremely difficult to sway. The senior extoller in a house in particular is expected to adhere to proper practices and is held accountable for his choices by the supreme aptimus. An extoller’s superiors may mete out harsh punishment if he is determined to have improperly executed his function.[1]

So long as they meet their end in battle, nearly all house rulers become exalted, though even they must fulfil the minimum requirements expected of any tyrant, including fidelity to the hoksune code. Only extreme circumstances would cause a ruler to be denied exaltation. An unworthy house leader is likely to be ousted before death, in which case the extoller is at liberty to let him pass to the Void. There is always the risk that relatives of the former leader might lash out at an extoller, but doing so could bring the wrath of the entire extoller caste, a fate even the mightiest skorne would dread.[1]

Arts

For the Skorne Empire, the extoller’s ability to see into and interact with the spirit world has been a transformative force. Through specialised arcane study, extollers gain the ability not only to prevent a spirit from falling into the Void but also to preserve it forever bound to the living world.[1]

Extollers are able to sense and interact with spiritual energy through the crystal oculus that replaces one of their eyes. Some master mortitheurges know other means to commune with the spirit world, making use of esoteric rituals and chymicals, but such means are temporary and imperfect. The oculus permanently alters an extoller’s perception and offers effortless insight into the spiritual realm. Extollers are able to see the spiritual essence of both the living and the dead and can manipulate this ephemeral substance through the power of their will.[1]

It is through such manipulations that an extoller can prevent spiritual essence from following its natural course after death, which would be to pass into the Void and be lost forever. With skorne this transition normally happens very quickly after death, but if an extoller can seize the spirit in time it can be preserved. Extollers can also feel a resonance with preserved spirits and through this affinity they connect and communicate with their minds. These exalted ancestors are revered, respected, and treated with sacred solemnity.[1]

Communion with the ancients is both an immense privilege and a grave responsibility. Much of an extoller’s studies centre on the rituals, practices and etiquette required to communicate with the exalted, who must be approached delicately: most dislike being disturbed by the living, particularly for petty requests.[1]

Ancestors can also speak through the extollers directly, using the extoller’s body as a means to be heard by the living, but this occurs rarely; only in the most urgent or significant moments do the dead feel it necessary. When this does happen, the extoller’s oculus glows brightly and his voice becomes resonant with the ancestor’s tones.[1]

The oculus allows extollers to see anything made of spiritual essence, transcending barriers and concealment. As an extoller interacts with the spirit world, the oculus glows with a subtle internal light. The glow becomes brighter and more intense when the extoller communes with an ancestor, reaching peak intensity when an exalted spirit speaks through him, as the crystal sympathetically responds to the power of preserved spirits.[1]

Not all spirits are alike in an extoller’s vision. Most skorne spirits have a wispy gossamer appearance that only sometimes coalesces to show a wan, emaciated face. More powerful spirits appear brighter and more solid. Spirits of gifted individuals has a subtly different glow, and the greater the individual’s arcane power, the brighter the essence. Dragon athancs shine with a shifting hypnotic energy so bright it is almost blinding.[1]

The unique vision of extollers allows them not only to see spiritual energy, but also to seize it and rend it. They can literally kill with a look, reaching into the essence of their enemies to tear their souls to tatters.[4]
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