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The Plague Covenant

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By Kismet Rose + Nathan Light

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Introduction

Plague - Word Origin & History
late 14c., plage, "affliction, calamity, evil, scourge;" early 15c., "malignant disease," from Old French plage (14c.), from Late Latin plaga, used in Vulgate for "pestilence," from Latin plaga "stroke, wound," probably from root of plangere "to strike, lament (by beating the breast)," from or cognate with Greek (Doric) plaga "blow," from PIE *plak- (2) "to strike, to hit" (cf. Greek plazein "to drive away," plessein "to beat, strike;" Old English flocan "to strike, beat;" Gothic flokan "to bewail;" German fluchen, Old Frisian floka "to curse").

For millennia, plagues have decimated populations across the globe, upending social order and challenging the strong to survive. And for millennia, vampires collectively known as the Plague have done the same to Kindred society, whether the undead have wished it or not. Like outbreaks of disease, the sect has risen in scattered locations, often in response to stagnation, inequality, and discontent. Its philosophy spread like a contagion, taking root in some places while being ruthlessly squashed in others. When Kindred have become too comfortable, nomadic groups called “cells” have stepped in to shake up the local community and seize power from the unworthy. In this way, the Plague has curtailed the Curia’s expansion and become its greatest enemy. For while the Curia demands obedience, order, and humanity, the Plague dares each person to earn their power, live with the Beast, and claim their freedom.

Plague vampires often hide among the sick, the foreign, the poor and the criminal - those with little to lose and much to gain if things change. Since they threaten greater forces than their own, they live in cells of fellow undead, along with loyal ghouls and mortals. Underdogs are commonly accepted, but average and wealthy people can also prove their worth. Those who still breathe never see the highest levels of power in the Plague but can earn real respect and valued roles. They are taught more about the supernatural than other sects allow, a risk that puts mortal loyalty to the test. But living housemates keep the vampires up-to-date, well supplied, and always on their toes. They also provide recruits for the next generation: The Plague Embraces more than any other sect - a practice the Curia has come to dread, since mass Embraces often herald a major assault.

These realities give the Plague its reputation with other Kindred. Its members are associated with chaos, violence, and death, everything Curia vampires want to avoid. They dwell with the dregs of the mortal world, enjoying bouts of luxury and losing everything the next night, something that horrifies most Setites. They are known to unleash the Beast for kicks and pull up stakes without warning. Plague vampires reject fear, even in the face of oblivion. The sheer instability of the sect sours vampires who might otherwise be drawn to its fierceness and fun. While the Plague isn’t known for the decadence of the Setites, it is tied to wild parties, gleeful chases, and the joys of combat. And Plague elders usually step aside to let the young make their blunders, offering a degree of freedom Curia fledglings can only dream of - which is why the Curia spreads horror stories about its key rival whenever it can.

History

The Plague was not born in one time or place, but in many, so its history varies widely. Most tales are tied to local events and homegrown heroes, but a few touchstones are shared across the sect. In the ancient world, the first Plague cells were formed from outcasts, heretics, and other rebels, including a few Kindred. They viewed exile as a challenge to survive in an utterly hostile world. They accepted others into their camps only once they were rigorously tested; then, together, they found ways to threaten those in power. They could not do this for long while staying in one place, so they took to the road. The Plague began to follow wars, famines, epidemics, and invasions to take advantage of the ensuing chaos. As different cells crossed paths, they shared philosophies and rituals, but only tenuous ties existed between them.

Some of the earliest and most fruitful meetings took place after the rise of the Xiongnu nomads in the Eurasian Steppe, roughly 200 BCE. Like the local tribes, the Plague needed strength in numbers, better organization, and a stronger sense of shared identity. But the Xiongnu had something the Kindred lacked: Modu Chanyu, a fierce leader of vision and will. His brutal rise to power was common enough for the era, but what followed after made the Kindred sit up and take notice. He swiftly brought the scattered tribes under his control and then militarized them. Although the Xiongnu were always on the move, their structure kept them in contact and in check, something the Plague could appreciate. Then, Modu unleashed his forces on their neighbors, one at a time. What the Xiongnu did not overrun, they took as vassals; even the Han Chinese sued for peace through bribes and marriages.

Many Plague cells were drawn to the expansion of the Xiongnu empire. Some mortal agents learned the Chanyu’s ways firsthand and took their knowledge back to the Kindred. Independently, Plague cells started to cultivate combat readiness and teamwork tactics as a regular part of life. But many saw the need to come together and really take a page out of Modu’s book. This is how the first Convocation came to be. An open invitation to any who followed the Plague’s ways was sent abroad, and many responded. The Convocation only required them to gather, debate and hone Plague practices, and then carry the results back to their cells. They organized their own “tribes” into right and left branches at first, with a central warlord. Cell leaders competed to serve as regional generals, commanders, and governors. When the Convocation ended, cells went back home and adopted aspects of the cultures around them, like the Xiongnu when they took on Chinese dress and homes. This helped cells to further blend in wherever they were.

But inspiration from the Xiongnu only went so far. First, the Plague was not interested in leaders with absolute authority. A system of challenge was set up so Plague authorities could be questioned, not just through violence but open debate. Then, cells realized they were too numerous and spread out, so they expanded into north, south, east, and west branches. Eventually, they divided further, with branches that used the cardinal directions but were contained within certain borders. The Roman Empire’s hands-off approach to local leadership was helpful for scattered forces, so, as long as cells proved loyal to the Tribulations - the standards of Plague philosophy and behavior - they were largely left to their own devices. Some cells tried to support mortal tribes against Rome’s legions but failed. But when Germanic peoples and Huns moved on the Empire, many cells went with them to ensure the Romans would be tested as they deserved. It was no small point of pride when the Empire crumbled.

Unlike other sects, the Plague was not horrified by the rise of the Inquisition. If anything, they could hardly believe it had taken so long for mortals to admit what they so often brushed aside and seize their power. Those who were careless with their abilities and secrets were being tested at last. The penchant of mobs to turn against the innocent - and those without social ties or political support - was more disturbing but not surprising. The Plague provided what opportunities they could for those who would flee but expected the casualties that followed. That is not to say they were unconcerned for their own safety; every supernatural was at risk of being hunted, and cells let more mortals into the secret that magic was real. But the Plague took the shift as a sign that they had to be more careful in the nights to come. It was a welcome warning.

The rush to the New World seemed like the Plague’s next great calling, but it involved more risks than ever before. Many insisted on a Convocation before moving forward, and eventually, they won out. None braved the seas until the meeting was done and safe passage was arranged. For once, the Plague stopped before charging in - and in so doing, they sealed their fate. They had hungered to shake things up abroad. Their plan was to block the Old World monarchies, tear down the status quo of the New, and guide the survivors in creating a society the likes of which had never been seen before. But the Plague’s great opportunity became its most bitter disappointment. The sect was not ready for the genocide and futile battles they faced. Diseases tore through virgin populations despite their best efforts, dooming native uprisings from the start - a painful irony that was not lost on the sect.

But in the wandering cells of The Plague, the lore and languages of vanished tribes remain. They saved thinkers, writings, and art from destruction and integrated local beliefs into their own. Renewed traditions of bloodletting and human sacrifice were inspired by the Mayans and Aztecs, but tied to goals instead of gods. Some refused to abandon their plans, striking against old powers and new Curia’s footholds. Other cells traveled north to embrace the chaos and freedom of the North American frontier. They found the same persecutions of native tribes, the same spread of disease, the same brutality - the same tests. But instead of admitting defeat, they accepted the challenges the New World posed. They put their mastery of guerilla warfare, misinformation, and extortion to work against all comers and have never stopped.

The Curia of the United States blames the Plague for the Civil War, and is not entirely wrong to do so. The sect has an ancient disdain for slavery, particularly generational forced servitude. It is one thing to be indentured but have a path out of bondage; it is another thing to have a whole society stacked against giving you a chance, forever. In such an arrangement, masters only master the art of imprisoning others and slaves are kept from showing the best they can be. So yes, Plague cells stoked dissent, and no, they were not sorry for the horrors of the war between brothers. They have eagerly played their part in every major social upheaval before and since. But Plague involvement is never a simple matter of punishing overlords and freeing underdogs. Regardless of era or place, they provide challenges to those in power and opportunities for those on the bottom - and then step back to see where the chips fall.

Customs

The Task: The first rite the Plague enacts involves testing whether potential members have what it takes to live as the sect directs. This can be a test of strength and fortitude, such as being sent to face a dangerous group or tasked with surviving a winter night on the streets of Denver. Other times, it is a test of resourcefulness and loyalty. Will a candidate take the chance to steal from their friends or give enemies valuable information? Will they be able to come up with a way to relocate the homeless after a police raid and locate those who might be of use to the Plague’s interests? Current members work together to ensure the task is not impossible, each submitting and weighing the possibilities. It is also important that the task does not rely on the candidate’s strongest or weakest traits but provides a varied and worthy challenge.

Ultimately, the task is decided on by a vote of all cell members who are fully initiated into the sect. A taskmaster is agreed upon to orchestrate and spring the trap at a random moment. Watchers are set to observe and report, using supernatural and mundane means to track and spy on the proceedings. In the event that the test involves Plague secrets, a strike team is nearby, just in case the candidate fails to stay quiet. Anyone who agrees to participate in this rite swears not to interfere, except to protect Plague secrets. It is understood that no one should warn the candidate about the test in any way; anyone who does faces a thrashing. Candidates who are compromised will be tried again, but a snitch will be left out of the proceedings and lose prestige. And it goes without saying that those who betray the cell during their task are killed without mercy, along with anyone they gave information to.

Vampires who are turned during a mass Embrace are not considered Plague members until they undergo a task (which may have to wait until threats have died down).

The Offer: Although the sect readily accepts vampires from all backgrounds, it also has a taste for siring new Kindred. While this can be done en masse before or after major battles, the Plague prefers the personal approach. For some vampires, it is a matter of setting up their own lineage, establishing more bonds within a cell, and testing themselves as sires. For others, it is a way of challenging favored mortals in every respect and seeing what comes from their struggles. This last motivation is not uncommon, particularly for elders - a fledgling can provide a sire with decades’ worth of entertainment and surprises. Regardless of why a sire wishes to Embrace, the Plague has a ritual for how to go about it known as the offer.

The offer is always given directly from potential sire to childe, never by proxy or with the understanding that someone else will deliver the Embrace. It is also never written down or otherwise recorded, although a few poetic versions exist that can be memorized and recited, if the sire so wishes. A few key aspects must be covered, including the permanent transformation from living to undead; the need for blood, secrecy, and shelter from the sun; the unaging extended lifespan, along with a few possible benefits and pitfalls; the sire’s responsibility for the childe for an indeterminate period of time; and a childe’s new standing within the sect. A sire can explain more but must never explain less, and should never use powers or other methods of leverage to sway a mortal’s reaction or choice.

A sire-to-be may choose to inform the mortal that their memories of the offer will be altered if they refuse; otherwise, they can refer to heavy but indistinct repercussions. Few Plague cells kill those who reject the offer or eject them outright, especially since the vast majority of candidates are members or worthy of being members. If they are not already initiated, the task will follow the Embrace. Only if the mortal tries to expose secrets or rejects the sect after hearing the offer is a death sentence warranted. Finally and most importantly, the offer should always be framed as a proposal that can be refused, and the mortal should be given at least from sundown to sundown to decide their fate. These measures are both a test of the mortal’s resolve and a sign of respect for their power to seize their own destiny.

A potential sire is expected to enlist an observer to watch over the offer and the waiting period that follows. The mortal does not have to be made aware of being watched; an observer can remain completely hidden by whichever means they choose. It is common for a vampire to observe during the night and a ghoul to observe the mortal during the day. However, if the sire violates the precepts of the offer or if the mortal tries to run or alert outsiders, an observer is expected to intervene immediately. The sire may need to be corrected, the mortal’s memory may need to be wiped and the offer re-made, or the mortal may need to be brought down. Either way, making the offer is a risk for everyone and is not taken lightly.

The Mustering: Occasionally, Plague goals require more supernatural firepower than a cell has to call upon. They are expected to be resourceful, of course: to make the offer to as many worthy candidates as possible, put other supernatural beings to use, try unusual strategies, and utilize every advantage. But when time is short and all else fails, a cell can decide to enact the mustering. Members will plan to grab and escape with as many targets as they require, usually from scattered locations. What may seem like completely unrelated disappearances, deaths, and disconnections across an area are anything but. Random people are usually good enough, but groups might be chosen to see if they will rise to the challenge. These experiments tend to go very well or fall apart; after all, some elderly folks will exult in new powers, while others would rather die than be as they are forever. Every now and then, specific people are Embraced for strategic value, but this is rare because no one should be that important to a plan.

A mass Embrace is not necessarily a horrific ordeal, although it can be, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes there is time enough to use a party as cover; other times, it is a quick attack in a shipping container. Eventually, the big bite is sprung on the guests by all vampires who want to take part and the fledglings are kept, starving, until unleashed on a target. These shock troops are often the first wave or a nasty surprise in an enemy’s blind spot. Blocked from easy escape, the cell will herd its new soldiers forward, trying not to kill them and even providing weapons and cover fire. Although heavy casualties are normal, there are usually survivors when the smoke clears. They will not be left behind, even if a cell has to fall back, if only to deny enemies more support.

Once things calm down, leftover fledglings are given a modified offer: join and become part of their parent cell, be sent to another cell, or be released on their own. They are taught the basics about being Kindred, which shows them how vulnerable they are. The Plague will not try to keep them from discovering other sects but feels no obligation to introduce them. Those who choose to stay are eventually given a task and welcomed into the fold - but only once they have shown they bear no real grudges. Occasionally, the mustering will go wrong and a childe will return from death in a feral state. A few clear up in time, but others never regain control. Those who took part in the ritual are expected to put these errant childer down, but they are wily and have a way of escaping.

The Send-Off: One thing that distinguishes the Plague from other sects is that those who are Embraced are not held under their sire’s protection for long periods of time and many decide to move away once they are on their own. This is not seen as a sign of failure on the sire’s part but as a strong step for the fledgling. After all, they are taking their new existence in hand and challenging themselves with a new cell, perhaps in a different city, and likely in a fresh role. In general, it is something to be celebrated, so a cell will arrange a farewell gathering that best suits its culture: a rave, a battle, or a sacrifice. At some point during the night, each cell member will give the fledgling some kind of gift to take with them, with the sire’s gift expected to be the best or most meaningful. Cell members or the sire alone may escort the fledgling to their new home, if it is desired; otherwise, the fledgling will depart on their own not long after the send-off comes to a close.

The Challenge: The Plague does not insist that its members agree on everything, but it also does not cultivate mutiny and murder at the slightest provocation. There is too much at stake to stand back while grudges or power plays decimate the ranks. So when major disagreements arise or new leadership is needed, a member can call for the challenge. This can involve a duel, a debate, a demonstration, or a tactical head-to-head presentation. The use of powers may or may not be allowed, and more than two people can be involved (such as when multiple contenders vie for top positions). The form of the challenge and its rules can be decided by cell elders, a coin toss, or some other measure the group will accept. No matter what it is, at least three cell members must be in attendance to ensure it goes smoothly: a supporter for each contender and a neutral party. One side or the other should be able to clearly claim victory but can also choose to concede or compromise without losing face. In fact, dueling to the death is often met with some measure of disgust at the waste of manpower.

A new challenge cannot be issued for at least three nights (or longer, in the case of leadership changes); this period is also decided beforehand to avoid misunderstandings. While some grudges take more than one challenge to put to rest, a limit can also become part of the bargain. After a while, a cell will usually insist on an end to rivalries that keep interrupting the group’s business. Similarly, it is not out of the question to demand a challenge during a time of war, but everything about the process is sped up and likely to be more lethal, to punish those who would put everyone else at risk.

The Bloodening: This last common Plague ritual can be done at many times for various reasons and by its nature gives the sect a bad reputation with other vampires. This is because the Plague reveres bloodletting and human sacrifice as a reverential rite that sanctifies its goals, victories, and losses. Their fervent belief is that blood underpins every great thing humans and vampires can ever attempt, and there is a price in blood that must be paid for everything one can enjoy. It is the real currency of the world, not to be wasted but also not to be denied. It is the driving force that allows vampires to rise from the grave and exist each night and supplies the most powerful magic Kindred can work. It waters the fields that mortals toil and battle in; it is the great secret behind history, religion, and philosophy. Knowing when to shed blood and take life is the ultimate challenge every Plague member faces. In new generations, fresh blood wells up to fill the cup of the future, and death is the ultimate price people pay for the right to exist on Earth. Therefore, sacrificing a living being is the holiest of holies.

In devout cells, it is the duty of Plague members to christen and commemorate their best and worst in blood to make it worthy of pursuing or remembering. New partnerships, schemes, members, and other beginnings are celebrated thus. Likewise, fallen friends, lost battles, and other lasting wounds call for the rite. Enough sacrifices are gathered so that each cell member can receive at least a forehead palm print of blood from the ritemaster and a deep drink from a ritual cup, but full-on bloodbaths are not out of the question. Who the sacrifices are and how they are chosen is up to the cell. Often, enemies and prisoners are used, but sometimes random strangers are chosen. It does not have to be a torment to the sacrifices; sometimes, they are plied with drugs and supernatural powers beforehand so the process is no cause for panic, or even pleasurable. Sometimes, deities are invoked, ornate patterns are traced by knives, and prayers are chanted. It is not uncommon for each participant to add their own blood to the mix. However it is dressed up, the rite begins with slow bloodletting and ends in slaughter. Whatever blood is not employed during the ritual is used to feed the cell.

Perhaps more than anything else, this practice has led to rumors that the Plague worships demons - which, ironically, is one of the few things strictly forbidden in the sect.

Tribulations

Accept the Challenge: Existence is an unending series of challenges. Do not resist them; take them on and earn your place. Face each test in your own way, using every advantage you possess and every weakness you uncover.

All Must Be Tested: None are above or outside of the need to prove they are worthy, not just once but many times over. This is true from the highest to the lowest. Any who insist they are beyond challenge must be tried from all directions.

Freedom is the Prize: The ability to choose one’s path is the greatest reward anyone can earn. Each challenge should lead to more decision-making power in the end. Every choice should end with more options, not less, and the strength to seize them.

Leadership is Not Tyranny: Lead with strength and pride, test the comfortable, cull the weak - but do not believe you can torment your brethren without repercussions. When despots rise, refuse to let them prosper; bring them low until they learn.

Loyalty Among Exiles: From the innermost circle to the outermost fringe, we must be loyal to each other to survive. In thought, word, and deed, we will not betray those who adhere to the Tribulations. We will not break this trust if we wish to live.

Maintain the Rings: Each circle has its place. The outermost rings will be let into our secrets carefully, when they prove ready. The innermost rings require the distance of ages and must never be open to those too short-lived to appreciate their wisdom.

It should be noted that keeping the supernatural a secret from the normal world is considered the basis of maintaining the rings. The mortal world is not ready for the truth and likely will never be. Forcing it on them only leads to disaster for everyone.

Reject the Chains of Servitude: Beings from other worlds will seek to bind you to their will, but do not be fooled. We must never knowingly serve infernals, Keepers, or other outsiders. Any who violate this rule will be hunted to Final Death.

Learn Your Beast: The Beast is an inherent part of the Kindred condition and cannot be ignored. It is an instinct to be understood and embraced, leashed when necessary but let loose when possible. Do not enslave it, or become a slave to it.

Make Your Own Mistakes: No one else can save you from yourself. Those who seek counsel should have it but those who refuse it should be left to their own ends. Let the fledgling flail and the elder move in error; let each reap what they sow.

Go Your Own Way: We are not slaves to obligations or each other; we choose our way. Those who wish to leave may earn their freedom by performing tasks. Unless they betray our secrets or truck with outsiders, they should not be harmed.

Titles and Rings

Some cells support single leaders, but what they value in a figurehead varies widely. Charismatic Kindred rise to the top of the Plague, as they do in other sects; others develop a following after leading raids or grandly manipulating the mortal world. Elders are not always in the brass ring because those who are too slow or mired in old habits are not fit to lead. It is not unheard of for Kindred fresh off the fang to be given the nod, not because they are easily influenced but because they see things in a radically different light. Many cells are led by duos, trios, or small councils. A few give every member present an equal vote. Leadership titles can differ between local cells or cities, and they run the gamut, from religious honorifics to business titles. The same holds true for most other specialized roles in the sect, from enforcers to priests.

One role, however, has only one title - that of Inquisitor. An inquisitor is only chosen when a member or a cell is suspected of directly, knowingly, and wilfully violating the Tribulations of loyalty and serving outside masters. Concerns about the other Tribulations are left to sires and mentors, but loyalty to the sect is too important for normal oversight. A candidate can refuse the assignment, but the prestige that eventually comes with it is difficult to turn down. Someone can volunteer, but known rivals are turned down. And if no one will take the suspicions seriously, an Inquisitor can take on the mantle themselves. The main goal is to gather evidence, and the Inquisitor has wide latitude on how they collect it. Anything short of fabrication is allowed. Ideally, the inquisitor will take what they find to those in charge, who will determine the judgment and sentence. That may mean going to a cell in another part of town or city, depending on how far the paranoia goes. Ultimately, an Inquisitor may be forced to act on their own to prevent breaches - either of Plague security or the veil between worlds.

Members refer to their cells as a series of rings, each larger than the next. These rings are not usually named or directly referred to, but everyone knows they exist.

The smallest circle is at the heart, made up of those with the greatest respect for and understanding of the Plague’s ways. They have proven themselves trustworthy and dedicated through many difficult challenges, and have learned Plague tactics and rituals firsthand. They are involved in major decisions for the cell and expected to be available to consult others, whether they serve as leaders or not. Perhaps most importantly, these few provide a greater perspective. While they are not all elder vampires, they are all Kindred. This is due to the fervent belief that only those who live well beyond a normal human lifespan can fully appreciate the Plague’s philosophy and be trusted with all of its secrets. Depth and breadth of experience are just the beginning; having had time and distance to appreciate them is vital. Thus, there are some relatively young Kindred - say, perhaps, 200 years old - in such positions, but non-Kindred will rarely if ever qualify.

The next circle knows and lives by Plague ideals and is fully aware of the existence of the supernatural. Members at this level know some of the cell’s secrets and much of its history because they have been members for a good while. They have also volunteered regularly to participate in rituals and maneuvers and shown genuine zeal. Most will be vampires, but mages and changelings are not unheard of, along with ghouls and revenants. A few rugged mortals have proven worthy, but this is as high as they will go without accepting the offer.

There is a special place in the Plague for those who live by its ideals but are not yet ready to learn about real magic in the world. They are taught the Tribulations, with some key alterations: Servitude to and worship of anyone else is disdained, particularly when they demand it and make promises. Ritual worship of supernatural beings is treated with great suspicion because someone is probably taking advantage of the situation. Whole sermons are dedicated to living with one’s rage without losing it or being overcome by it. That these mortals know nothing about the Beast does not matter; some even see it as preparing them for the offer later.

Succeeding at the task confers a basic degree of membership but no one is pressured to go deeper. They are watched carefully and, if they show interest or glimpse more than they should, they are ushered into more eventually. But they are first made to wait in order to prove they can and will deal with the frustration without turning on their fellows. This is important in more than one way. Members of this ring do not always live with or close to the rest of their cell. They show they are worthy of being drawn closer by waiting for an invitation.

Some people or groups spend significant time with Plague cells without being members of any kind. These are considered the outermost rings of the sect. Often, they do jobs for a cell or join in their bigger parties. They might have caught on to some of the group’s philosophy but are not expected to know more. Members will look down on them for violating some of the Tribulations, but unless they commit a grave error - like trying to get into and spread Plague secrets - they will not be reprimanded. Members might notice and begin to mentor people in the outer rings, but most at this distance will remain unaware of what is really at stake.

It is a strange and interesting fact that a number of changelings and fetches have been drawn into the Plague’s orbit over the millennia, whether cells have understood what they were or not. The sect’s dedication to freedom and underdogs is appealing, but only the beginning. Changelings certainly experience life back on Earth as a series of challenges; the Tribulations encourage them to face what their world has become. No matter how much ritual or magic is involved, the Plague keeps its members rooted in reality. Continual testing by others keeps the fae on their toes - which is something they and their fetches need. When Keepers come calling, changelings want to be ready. When changelings come for their doubles, fetches need to be sharp.

Those who have been burned by Courts or freeholds in the past can find community in the Plague. Even those in good standing can be involved in the outer rings, along with fae ties. (Dedication to the inner rings is usually too demanding to maintain other social groups.) The sect will also work against Keepers, privateers, and loyalists, if they stumble across them. Fetches who struggle for connection can be accepted and even defended. Perhaps most importantly, the Plague does not demand a lifelong commitment. It is possible to leave the sect alive, intact, with a future - no pledges or hunters required.

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