Quaerentes in Extremis
Benandanti from Hedge Magic
The following is a lengthy summary of the Benandanti Chapter in Hedge Magic Revised.
The Nightwalkers are an unGifted tradition. Or, rather, their tradition has nothing to do with the Gift – it occurs sometimes in the Gifted, but they gain no special benefits. The Nightwalkers are those who have the ability to roam the world as spirits while their bodies sleep. Sometimes these spirits become material in animal form. The Nightwalkers form militias, using their powers to fight evil, guide the dead to rest and protect the fertility of the living. Sometimes, they are less scrupulous, using their powers to spy and blackmail or steal. There are many Nightwalker traditions in Europe, but they all share similar powers. Hermetics call their ability to travel in spirit form ‘ekstasis’, or straying. The spirit is called a ‘phantasticum.’ Of course, Nightwalkers are not all limited to traveling at night – but the name was given to the Benandanti, whom the Order met first, and it fits them well. So far, no Nightwalker group has had sufficient power to be invited into the Order.
Nightwalkers are almost entirely normal, unGifted companions. A very, very rare few might be more, and a very rare few are mere grogs. A true, full Nightwalker gains the power to take on spirit form while unconscious, and may lead others into spirit form. They know how to force themselves unconscious. They possess Second Sight while in spirit form, and while in spirit form bear the clothes and weapons suited to their Nightwalker tradition. They may force their spirit form tangible, and they may harm intangible spirits. If their tradition uses animal or elemental shapes for travel, procession or fertility battle, they may take on that shape and its abilities. They may speak to sleeping people in dreams, and may, with effort, speak to the waking. While a Nightwalker is in spirit form, their body appears dead and is vulnerable. They suffer the social effects of the Gift while in spirit form. They must take part in every battle or procession that their tradition demands, and will do so involuntarily. Any injuries taken in spirit form appear on the body when it wakes. Outsiders must never be told in detail about the battles and processions. While in spirit form, a Nightwalker can be targetted by any spell that targets ghosts or spirits, and may be seen by Second Sight. And they get no special invulnerabilities – anything that’d hurt them normally still does.
The hamr are Norse, those who possess the power to go into a trance and send forth a spirit form which is tangible and takes the shape of an animal. Their body is vulnerable in the trance state, and will not awaken until the hamr returns. If the body is killed, the hamr becomes a ghost in animal shape. It may then vanish, or it may remain until the battle ends and fight. Most hamr may not exist after the flesh rots from their bones, but some ghost hamr can last indefinitely until they gain vengeance. In any case, the animal form of the hamr possesses the skills and abilities of the animal, but the mind of the warrior. The hamr requires some tool to enter the trance state – alcohol, herbs, whatever. It’s a very slow ritual, unlike that of more traditional skinchangers, but it does not require a ritual skin to do. Hamr are not exclusively for combat – they can be scouts, if they are bird hamr, for example.
Sleepwalkers are a variant of the hamr who, rather than send forth a spirit, sleepwalk in their trance state. They appear as a large hybrid of man and beast, made more durable and powerful by the cloak of spirit they wear. They are essentially a variant of the hamr that wears the hamr form like armor rather than leaving the body vulnerable. On the other hand, they are hurt more easily.
Ekstasis is done by most nightwalkers, but it varies in its abilities. Most nightwalkers sleep to enter ekstasis, but some use asceticism or self-mortification and fasting. Others use drugs. The body appears dead while the Nightwalker is in ekstasis, though in truth it does breathe and has a heartbeat. Both are just very, very slow, only noticeable by those with medical skill. The body does not starve or die of thirst, but if left asleep too long, the muscles will atrophy. If the body is disturbed, the spirit may die, though traditions vary in how much harm it causes. The Laplanders die if merely touched, while Benandanti only die if the body is rolled over. Still, the nightwalker never feels what happens to the body, and so is unaware if they are disturbed. Ekstasis is extremely tiring, and nightwalkers are lethargic for hours or days afterward.
The phantasticum may become corporeal or immaterial with focus, and may become invisible at will. Some phantastica are shaped like humans, others like animals. Many can shift between shapes. Again, they possess Second Sight, and their presence makes humans uneasy. Animals can sense them, and dislike them. Horses flee, dogs growl and snap and cats either avoid them or treat them as normal people. Phantastica may use spirit travel, moving almost as if teleporting via various methods – ghostly mounts, running, whatever. Failue to perform spirit travel correctly wakes the nightwalker and leaves them exhausted. You cannot fail certain forms of travel – in traditions where nightwalkers are born with a caul, you can always travel to your caul. In those where they are summoned or led to battle or procession, you can always travel to the location for the battle or procession. You may, if you have one, always go to your True Love or lead someone to their True Love. If you move at normal speed on a route you know, you cannot fail, either.
By great exertion, a phantasticum may communicate normally with people. It is much easier to give messages to the unconscious or sleeping, which are remembered as dreams, though not always very well. Nightwalkers may also call willing people out of their bodies, into spirit form. A corporeal phantasticum may fight material foes, and an incorporeal one can fight immaterial beings. The phantasticum heals as the body does, and the body suffers all wounds the spirit does. Those who lack magic resistance and fight a phantasticum suffer from drowsiness and may fall asleep where they stand. Those already sleeping near a phantasticum in battle will not awaken during the battle.
All nightwalkers take part in fertility battles, in which they face evil forces or rival nightwalkers. If they win, then the crops and hunting are good. Lose, and they are poor. This lasts until the next battle, in either case. Nightwalkers involuntarily answer the summons to battle. Deaths in night battles happen, but it varies between traditions. Benandanti rarely die, but the mazzeri to the south almost all die…though usually only when old and weak. Each tradition has lore explaining why they don’t die as often. (Or why they do.) For example, the Hounds of God claim that their deaths make them martyrs, and evil doesn’t want martyrs because they weaken it. The Benandanti say that when they die, they improve fertility, which their foes don’t want. Most of their foes lack such protections and often die in the battles.
The enemies of Nightwalkers vary; some fight other Nightwalkers. Some fight ghosts. Some fight the Infernal. Ghosts tend to suffer from unquenchable thirst, while the servants of the Infernal tend to either be evil Nightwalkers, minor demons or more potent demonic captains. Occasionally, Nightwalkers do battle outside these fertility wars. They rarely meet while waking, and tend not to recognize each other due to the dreamlike nature of the battles. Nightwalkers return home in slow processions, allowing them to look for trouble in their communities, either fixing them then or when awake. They often take spiritual nourishment from wine, water or livestock, weakening or draining them as reward for their battles.
Nightwalkers also do other processions. Three types. First, processions of the dead, to guide the dead to rest and regulate the movement of ghosts or zombies. Nightwalkers can fight the undead well, and may also intimidate ghosts into fleeing or answering questions. Second, beating the boundaries. These are patrols of the community to look for evil and seek new Nightwalkers. Last, celebratory processions, great feasts and celebrations of victory to regenerate the spirit. Many Nightwalkers also battle evil while awake, perhaps by hunting the Infernal.
Traditions include the Benandanti, the Good Walkers, who are summoned to serve as teens. They battle during the Ember Days, Church feasts, and fight against Infernal witches at agreed-on battlefields. They can fly, and can take the shape of animals or ride animals or tools. In battle, they take human form and fight with bunches of fennel, while their foes use sorghum. The Benandanti are northern Italian.
In Central Italy, there are The Hounds of God, secretive werewolf clans guided by spirits that make them the virtue of wolves, not the sins of man. Some are born to be Hounds, with cauls or deformities that mark them, and they are approached by a spirit in puberty who will guide them to the battles. In other places, people are tricked into becoming wolves. If someone toasts the health of a Hound, the werewolf may pass the power on to them by choosing neither to thank them nor share the toast but instead blowing three times on the mouth of the bottle and saying “As was done to me, so be done unto you.” Usually this is done by elderly Hounds who wish to retire and pass the duty to a family member. Hounds battle three times a year – the eve of Saint Lucia, Midsummer’s Night and the Pentecost. They raid Hell in the form of phantastic wolves, stealing back the seeds of Earth. (Perhaps they merely go to Infernal regiones, for each country’s wolves go to a different Hell.) Hounds fight Infernal foes, who wield iron batons against the spirit-wolves, and sorcerers who wield broomsticks wrapped in horses’ tails. Some Hounds possess the power to roam as phantastic wolves when not fighting Hell, as well. They are found primarily in Germanic areas or places with German minorities.(Incidentally: These guys are based on a real German, if 17th century rather than 13th, set of beliefs.)
The Kresniki and Kudlaki are Slavic nightwalkers. Every community has a Kresnik, a protector, and a Kudlak, a fertility thief. Kudlak is short for Vokudlak, which could mean sorcerer, werewolf or vampire. The living vokudlak is a sorcerer, able to curse people and steal fertility. They are Nightwalkers who take the form of black dogs, boars or oxen. They can fly in this form, and if they die, they become a vampire of sorts which continues its role. To prevent this, they must be staked with hawthorn or have their tendons cut behind the knee. Both kresniki and kudlaki are born with cauls; that of a kresnik is clear or white, and a kudlak’s is red or black. They are usually trained in their roles by older members of each tradition, and most kresniki first go to battle at the age of seven, though some take as long as 18 or 28. They regularly fight each other. Kresniki take the same animal forms, but dappled in color, and both can take on the form outside the ritual battles. Kudlaks who defeat kresniks are wealthy until the next battle, and many turn to Infernal or Faerie powers. Kresniks can kill kudlaks, but most take precaution to prevent their rising as vampires. Besides, a new kudlak will show up in a year anyway. Kresniks also fight on Christmas and the Ember Days against hordes of vampires or sorcerers, or sometimes foreign nightwalkers. In those cases, the kudlak may show up to help the kresnik.
The Mazzeri of Corsica fight Infernal witches or other mazzeri. They wield asphodel stalks, and they have a second duty: to hunt through the night. Some take animal form, some don’t. They must kill one or more animals, then examine them to see what local they correspond to. That local is very likely to die shortly after, between three days and a year. They cannot choose who to kill, or even whether to kill. It is involuntary.