The Church of the Divine Balance was founded in Furon a few thousand years ago, and traveled with its traders and explorers throughout the Eastern world. Its greatest foothold outside Furon is in northern Nessiny, where, influenced by Furoni missionaries, a string of religious nobles popularized the faith several hundred years ago.
The central doctrine of the Balance church is that all things are part of the same divine consciousness – that the universe itself is the expression of the Divine Balance, the flow of cause and effect that governs all things. At this point in history there are two major schools of thought, which do not yet constitute separate branches of the faith:
Intentionalists, who believe that the Divine Balance is a conscious but incorporeal force with intentional divine will — much like a god.
Naturalists, who believe that the Divine Balance is a natural force, like gravity or entropy, in which all things naturally seek balance. What exactly “balance” means, and the physical and temporal scale by which they reach balance, depends upon the question at hand. Balance can be reached all at once, or over the span of centuries.
In either case, morality/rightness revolve around the question of balance: what brings the most balance to the world? Relatedly, what benefits the greatest number of people to the greatest degree?
The Academy of the Divine Balance
The Nessinian Church followers and their allies in the noble families of Nessiny founded the Academy of the Divine Balance, which is to this day the largest religious training school in this part of the world. The Academy and its ruling body, with ties both to the larger Church and to the allied families, holds considerable unofficial power in Nessinian politics.
The Academy trained two kinds of students at first: priests and magical healers. During one of the periods of political upheaval in Nessiny, in which a Church-allied family was overthrown and replaced with a less sympathetic family, some of the more vulnerable shrines were targeted with vandalism and arson. Several priests were murdered, and the churches’ healers were either murdered or abducted, to be pressed into service for their captors.
As it retrenched for the next few decades, the Academy began to plan for its own long-term safety. It drew upon the traditions of the Furoni royal guard and the Daranite faith to develop a particular style of swordfighting, and began to install ceremonial guards at all of its shrines. Meanwhile, the Academy’s researching healers began to look into an ability that had been suppressed until now: using the healing ability to cause pain or physical harm, such as paralyzing muscles or restricting breathing. These dangerous abilities were never publicly acknowledged, but all healer trainees from then on were taught how to wield them in self-defense.
As the two traditions developed, rogue swordmasters or healers would sometimes break free and turn against Church teachings, necessitating termination or recapture by the Academy. The two art forms balanced one another in this way, with swordmasters becoming the Church’s own defense against its healers, and vice versa. Meanwhile, the existence of both served to protect the churches and those who worked in them: the swordmasters protected the churches openly, and the healers formed a second, secret line of defense.
In the current timeframe, the Academy teaches swordmasters, healers and priests.
Orders and Testing
Before graduation, all swordmasters, healers and priests are tested in some way to determine their fitness in their chosen path. Based on the results of this testing, the newly minted graduate is ranked: first-order (healer, priest, swordmaster) through fourth-order.
The swordmasters’ test takes the form of a public tournament, which takes place in the spring term, just after the new year (March-April). In addition to the final rankings, the students are judged and awarded points by their professors / trainers. The combination of tournament ranking and privately scored points determines a swordmaster’s final rank.
The healers’ tests consist of a battery of written theory tests (anatomy and physiology, energy theory, and the like) and reports from supervisors during the healers’ practicum.
The priests’ tests are executed in thesis form; each graduating priest produces a paper or speech on a point of theology or psychology. The faculty scores these presentations and theses to produce the priests’ rankings.
Education at the Academy is not necessary to become a Balance priest, though it is considered a mark of distinction. Priests are also ordained through apprenticeship and independent study. In Nessiny and in most other places where the Church operates, Balance priests function as therapists as well as spiritual leaders, offering church services, observances such as weddings and funerals, and psychological counseling.
The career paths of priests are not curtailed, as swordmasters’ and healers’ are. Most go on to lead shrines. Many others, including some who lost their faith along the way, go into business or law. A few go on to become freelance counselors, acting nominally as priests; some share working space with independent healers or Church of the Four priests (at least in Nessiny, where the faiths are not in conflict).
Priests and priesthood students dress in off-white robes, belted at the waist. Graduating priests are given a copy of The Dialogues, the founding text of the Church, as a symbol of their rank. The book is not difficult to source otherwise, but the robes and the book are part of the common image of a Balance priest.
Swordmasters and healers are all trained at the Academy, and Nessiny has stringent laws against training in either art outside its walls. The swordmaster’s art bleeds over in the form of “Nessinian swordfighting,” though the Academy defends the “swordmaster” title strictly, and guards trained outside the Academy are not permitted to serve as shrine guards in Nessinian shrines. Other countries do not have such laws, but Academy-trained swordmasters are still considered more highly skilled or esteemed than those taught by non-Academy masters. Academy-trained swordmasters are fairly easy to come by in Nessiny, so there is little market for the “lesser” article. In other countries, an authentic Academy swordmaster is a prized catch as a bodyguard, with a “Nessinian swordfighting”-trained swordfighter as a solidly respectable option.
Officially, the role of a swordmaster is to protect and defend a Divine Balance shrine. This is a ceremonial office in the vast majority of cases, at least in this point in history; few shrines see any threat of violence. In some areas, a shrine might be under threat from common burglary or pressure from rival Fourian churches, and the swordmasters serve as a physical show of power. Otherwise, most swordmasters fill their time by taking care of the shrine in some other way, depending upon the needs of the shrine and its priests. These unofficial duties may range from acting as a shrine tender or acolyte to taking care of the shrine’s building or grounds.
The stereotypical arc of a swordmaster is to find a shrine, spend several decades guarding it without incident, and retire comfortably, if not lucratively, in one’s sixties or seventies. The low demands of the job can drive out more ambitious individuals, who often find more challenging work as personal bodyguards to Nessinian nobles or to foreign heads of state. Others find fulfillment through gathering other types of influence, in the personal or political sphere, or by becoming more involved in the social or functional aspects of their shrine — for instance, by heading up local charities that benefit the poor.
By Nessinian law and Academy bylaw, trained swordmasters may not serve in the King’s Army, the standing national army of Nessiny, nor in any other standing army. Violation of this rule results in revocation of the swordmaster’s rank, and in egregious examples, a swift and covert end by the Nightblades. Pressure from the Academy has kept this law in force in Nessiny for centuries, despite several monarchs’ attempts to repeal it.
Because of the long tenure of many swordmasters, in many areas — especially in peacetime — there is a surfeit of swordmasters and not enough shrine posts to go around. In such times, more swordmasters find themselves getting work as bodyguards or secular guards, or even finding work outside the industry entirely. This trend has continued to grow during the timeframe of the story, leading to consternation among some of the heads of the Academy. It has been suggested that the Academy admit fewer swordmastery students until the market equalizes. However, a combination of tradition and pressure from Family patrons has kept them from making any changes to policy. Swordmastery is a common path of study for rambunctious scions of noble families and keeps the nobles of Nessiny supplied with highly trained bodyguards, so they resist any threat to their supply.
The uniform of the swordmaster is a green, un-hooded cloak and a sword of rank, which is awarded to each swordmaster upon graduation. Many swordmasters name their swords, though this is not mandatory.
(See also Energy/Magic)
For the first four years of their education, healers are trained in biology, anatomy and chemistry, as far as the scientific community understands them at this point in time. When they have gained a grounding in the functioning of the human body, they move into the mastery of energy. The healers use the same energies as Tufarian priests, though they believe that they connect to and draw upon the spark of the Divine Balance in the people they treat. With this power, healers guide their patients’ natural processes to heal the body much faster than it normally would. Beginning with non-invasive sensing and detection skills, the healers move on to minor healing and surgery, and ultimately to larger-scale operations.
For the last two years of their education (age 19-20), healers are placed in hospitals and clinics to gain real-world experience. Most complete their practicum requirement at Blackhall, the largest hospital in Murio.
Upon ordination, Balance healers often operate out of shrines, healing visitors in return for donations to the shrine. Others work for secular hospitals or in private practice.
Just like swordmasters, Academy-trained healers may not serve in the King’s Army or any other standing army, nor may they operate out of a Tufarian church. Violation of this rule results in revocation of rank and/or capture by the Nightblades.
Would-be healers who are not able or willing to train at the Academy are generally accepted by the Church of Tufar, and learn the art by apprenticeship with a Tufarian healer.
The uniform of healers and healing students is a dark brown robe with a wide leather belt. In practice, especially in the past, many healers use these belts to carry medical tools and medicines.
The Nightblades are the Church’s black-ops wing, made up of first-order swordmasters and healers who have undergone further training in covert operations and stealth. They exist only as a rumor or a fairy tale to most, but their true purpose is to capture or neutralize rogue healers and swordmasters — those who have broken the rules that they swore to uphold. Nightblades are frequently installed in the households of Nessinian monarchs and other high-ranking nobles, either to carry out assassinations or to prevent them.
Church of the Divine Balance shrines are common in northern Nessiny, often existing side by side with Fourian churches. They are slightly less prevalent in southern Nessiny. They are everywhere in Furon, which does not outright ban other faiths, but which has a millennium-old tradition of the Balance faith. In Kavera, they exist in only two places (so far): in Prisa’s Foreign Quarter, serving its sizeable Nessinian expatriate community; and in Laketon, serving its Furoni expatriate community. There are a few shrines in Achusa, which serve mostly as community centers, valued for their social services. The faith is banned in Yanwei, where the Church of the Four is the state religion, and few immigrants exist to bring it into the country anyway.
Physically, shrines can take just about any form, as long as they include a meeting hall and an altar. The most common design is with pillars holding up a front portico area (where shrine-goers can gather before/after entering), an entry hall where the swordmaster is stationed, a main meeting hall with an altar at the far end, and offices for any priests and healers in the back. Between the entry hall and the main hall is a ceremonial fount, where any visitors are supposed to wash their hands. These are also standard in Nessinian homes, even secular ones. Many shrines also contain housing for priests, healers and swordmasters, either attached to the shrine or in a nearby building.
The altar is often stone (ideally marble). During services, it is draped with altar cloths, the color and style of which depend on the season, region, and budget. Facing the altar are rows of chairs or benches, depending on the needs of the shrine. A shrine that is frequently used for other meetings may opt for a more convertible layout, such as rows of chairs; another may have stone or wood benches, with or without backs.
Shrines do not generally contain statuary, but friezes or murals depicting local history or local landscapes are common.
(see also Nessinian holidays)
The Church of the Divine Balance does not have holidays in its own traditions or in its scriptures. The national holidays of Furon, where the Church originated, tend to center around its own history, and in Nessiny the cultural solstice/equinox holidays are nearly universal. It’s common for a Divine Balance church to connect with the holidays that are being celebrated anyway, such as hosting community celebrations, but this is more about outreach than religiosity per se.