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The heart of Nephian society is the enclave. Several enclaves exist in the Drakkath, hidden up high in remote valleys in the Storm and Sarokean mountain ranges. Enclaves are somewhat monastic communities - they are orderly, everyone has a place and duties, and they are relatively self sufficient. These enclaves serve as homes, headquarters and training centres for the Nephian people. Their locations are guarded extremely closely and, where this fails, they attempt to pass themselves off as being simple cloistered philosophical communities that wish for solitude and isolation. The bulk of the Nephian populace in the enclaves are, of course, civilians, but pretty much all Nephians receive at least some combat training, both unarmed and armed. Every enclave will also have a not insignificant body of martial students and practitioners as well as shadow-clergy of the Great Prophet and practitioners of arcane umbramancy, meaning that they are quite capable of defending themselves against most short-term threats.

If the enclaves are the heart, though, the true reach of the Nephians would be the shadow network that spreads across the Drakkath. Most major cities have at least one Nephian handler and information-gatherer; some have a cell of several. These people live double lives, maintaining a cover identity that allows them to immerse themselves into the local landscape. These handlers are highly ranked within the network, as each is an experienced operative and trained combatant as well as talented spymaster. Nephian agents are generally aware of the signs to look for that will point them towards the local handler, if not already informed of the name and cover identity, and are expected to report in when entering a handler's area of influence. The shadow network also maintains a few itinerant handlers, who move around under cover identities and serve to keep the whole thing connected together.

So what is the purpose of all this? Why maintain a covert information network and highly guarded, secretive enclaves where cult adherents are trained in the arts of combat, infiltration and information gathering?

Simply put, the Nephians are waging a holy war. The depth of an individual's initiation into the Nephian mysteries dictates how much they know of the truth, but all Nephians are aware that their people, the lineage of teaching and truth that they are the latest to bear, has been battling against the corrupting influence of a cabal of sinister beings called 'dreamweavers' for centuries, in the name of the Great Prophet, the Shadow, the All-Encompassing Eye, the god of clear vision and truth.

Yes, it's true they occasionally serve as assassins for hire. Many Nephian agents will never actually experience such a contract; when contract killings are taken on, they are carefully assessed against the long-term good of the Nephian cause and the ramifications on the region. The (high) prices paid for Nephian killings give the cult a reserve of money that it ploughs back into its true operations; in essence, the contracts are an unfortunate necessity to pay the bills of waging the shadow-war. Of course, sometimes a given target is actually one the Nephians want to see gone anyway, because the victim is a pawn or servant of the dreamweavers.

So who is pulling the strings behind all this? Who runs the Nephian cult, and directs it all?

Well, the Nephians are a religious mystery cult. They serve the Great Prophet, the shadow-god of knowledge, but an individual needs to earn their way through the ranks to receive new revelations at each level of initiation. The upper echelons of the cult know far more about the dreamweavers, the purpose of the Great Prophet and overall Nephian plans than the lower rankers do. Ascending the ranks is commonly through showing a greater grasp of the fundamental truths of the Nephian cause in martial mastery and enlightenment, in divine power or through raw experience if a handler in the field.

That said, certain information is known down the ranks, like the notion of the dreamweavers as the enemy and, very significantly, the Masters.

The Masters are the font of truth and purpose for the cult. Presumably the Nephian elders know who and what the Masters really are, but most Nephians know them only as the Masters and the Chosen of the Prophet. A character who has seen a Master (which is likely to have occurred, even if they haven't personally met one) will know the following:

  • A Master is a shape of raw shadow and darkness. Bigger than a human being, the shape is humanoid but proportions are off and wrong. It's possible that a Master is made of darkness but they may just be covered and shielded by it.
  • Masters are incredibly wise and knowledgeable - they lead the Nephian cult and give it directions. They are not, themselves, Nephians - they are enlightened and beyond the world.
  • Masters are rarely known to speak. The human cult elders usually serve as intermediaries for them.
  • Masters are genuinely masters of the martial arts that the Nephian cult teaches to its adherents. They judge the progress of, and sometimes teach, the foremost practitioners of such arts.
  • Masters are the source of the divine and umbramantic teachings that the cult practices.
  • The Masters are engaged in battle with the dreamweavers; the Nephians are their physical hand in the world, the web that catches the dreamweavers' plots.

So what is generally known of the dreamweavers, the cult's very purpose of existence? Well, they're ancient and corrupting beings that are not of the physical world - like the Masters, they operate through proxies, conspiracies and agents, mostly unwitting. They can invade minds and dreams to set events on course, and possess great magic which lets them offer their minions rewards of power and wealth. The Great Prophet spoke of the dreamweavers to the Nephians, it is said, and prophesied that the Nephians must do battle with them to prevent them from corrupting the world. The ultimate goal of the dreamweavers is to corrupt the Younger Gods themselves, and the Prophet must serve as an eternally vigilant bulwark against their endeavours. To achieve this, the Prophet has created the Nephian movement through the Masters and deployed it to do battle with dreamweaver influence in the world.

What does a dreamweaver actually look like? Well, that's information that isn't available to all levels of the cult.

Anyway, it's a holy war, one which each Nephian must be prepared to sacrifice themselves in the cause of - the very fate of the world hangs in the balance, even if the unseeing people of the nations do not realise it. The Nephians have shouldered this burden and will see their sacred task through. Secrecy is vital because the dreamweavers know that they are opposed and would gladly strike directly at the Nephians if they could.

The Nephians know that reality is a lie, to some extent; it is an illusion, the blanket that covers the real war and struggle that underpins existence. The tenets of other gods tend to be filled with useless and trite prattle about the world; the Nephians seek to achieve the Masters' detachment from reality, to ascend to enlightenment so that they may battle the dreamweavers directly. Existence, practical material reality, is filtered through the perception of the mind; master the mind and you master reality. People are easily misled and guided, and can be manipulated and used to the Nephian cause without ever knowing the truth. Of course, the humble Nephian does not view themselves as any better than the common man or woman - but less humble Nephians, proud of who and what they are, often dismiss the unknowing mass of humanity. But then, pride itself is too much of an attachment to the physical, and should be shed for greater freedom from the lie.

Nephians are not a distinct ethnic group. Many Nephians are the children of Nephians, but the cult also takes in young orphans and, upon occassion, a few lost or desperate souls. It's a one-way trip, though - once you've joined the Nephians, you do not leave.

So what tools do the Nephians use to pursue their war?

Truth be told, a lot of the 'war' is just a cold one, made up of moves by the Nephians to try and push their hidden influence, to occasionally try and shape the fate of nations covertly, to kill or remove key individuals identified as a threat and rarely - oh so rarely - to find an actual occurrence of dreamweaver activity. Most such activity is identified by Masters giving that information to the Nephians and telling them to act on it; most Nephians don't have the skills or knowledge to actively ID dreamweaver plots themselves. Hell, if you wanted to be paranoid, you could think that there are no dreamweavers and it's all just a ploy by the Masters for whatever hidden agenda they're really following. No Nephian would ever consider such a notion, of course.

Nephians use a range of martial arts, from unarmed to armed combat, as well as poisons. Nephian martial arts usually focus on flowing round enemy attacks and finding the right place to strike from and at. Some Nephians are trained mages and in particular use umbramancy - divination and control of shadows and darkness. Some are clerics of the Prophet and use the relevant divine disciplines to support their missions and compatriots.

Some Nephians are selected for specific initiations into refined mysteries, such as the shadow infusion. A dangerous and risky procedure of umbramancy, shadow infusion involves a ritual that partially unanchors the body and soul from the material plane, something of a 'shortcut' to the enlightened powers that the Masters wield. A successful result gives an elite agent capable of manipulating shadows and even partially fading out of reality; these agents usually suffer permanent changes to their personality and manner in the process, becoming very cold and distant even from other members of the cult. They are trusted with the most challenging, dangerous and hard-to-stomach assignments, the killings and conspiracies that are sadly necessary for the greater good but which even a well-trained Nephian may baulk at. However, many attempts at infusion fail. In some cases, these result in death, while in other cases they end up crippling the individual's path to personal enlightenment, leaving them with some shadow powers but to a far lesser extent than a successful shadow-infused. Upon occasion, the process goes really wrong, leaving results such as agents with little control over their attachment to reality - in these cases, the agent's personality is usually left unchanged, although they're likely to be mentally affected over time by their inability to totally control their own alignment with the physical world.

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