Monday, January 6, 2014

Hell Dorado: Inferno - Demons

This is the introductory story I wrote for the Demons Faction, originally published in the Hell Dorado: Inferno expansion rulebook for the Hell Dorado miniatures skirmish game by Cipher Studios.

From the Memoirs of Brother Francois Gillmartin
Brother of the Order of Shining Light, Excommunicated
Discovered in the ruins of the garrison at Forsworn Pass, Outer Circle of Hell

To whoever may find these words, may they shed light on the horrors that have happened here, and may that light guide you to safer pastures.

It has been five years since the Earthly world Above discovered the gates to Hell.  I say “Discovered”, but in truth that may not be the right word, for in my estimation the gates had always been there.  They were simply waiting for some unknown signal to reveal themselves to mankind.

Where it is rumored that the Saracen cracked the gates wide by design, it is my belief that for the West, it was the blood of battle shed between brothers that allowed the Gate to Hell to yaw open before our people.  Perhaps we had to become not unlike demons ourselves, to be deemed worthy of free passage into the Inferno.

To this day I am still amazed that our lust for expansion and acquisition holds such few limitations, that once the Gate was revealed to us, we set our hearts towards scrawling our names across the very stuff of myths and legend.  What was once allegory upon which our religions had been founded, we now sought to write ourselves into by way of war and conquest.

Maybe this is merely human nature.  Perhaps our discovery of the Underworld was that last temptation of mankind.  A temptation made to test us that we could leave some mysteries intact, and resist the urge to defile the landscape of the spiritual as we have already defiled the physical.  And, having failed that test will soon face Hell’s repercussions for our imprudence.

Perhaps if I had resisted this urge in my own soul I could have avoided having to write these words, that fate would have found another.  But no...I know now that it had to be me.

My father was a wealthy merchant from Lyon, and as the son of such affluence, I was destined to a life of courtly leisure rather than that of toil and labor.  Despite my fortunate lot, I desired something greater than the simple dichotomy of feast or famine, and decided to forge a path of my own design — one of the mind and soul.

As a child, my insatiable desire for knowledge knew no bounds, and I would spend endless hours teasing the answers to the universe from whatever texts and teachings I could lay my hands on.  As I grew into adulthood, I obliged myself as apprentice to a succession of scholars and craftsmen who trained me in a myriad array of trades and teachings. Soon, I had mastered as many of the physical and philosophical arts as I deemed worthy of my attention, and I was certain that it was within the intangible mysteries of religion where I would find the answers I sought.

Against my family’s wishes I took the monastic vows, and devoted myself to a monk’s life of quiet contemplation within the Order of Shining Light.  For years I pondered in solitude the meaning of life, and man’s place within God’s grand design.

Looking back, I freely admit that I knew full well the outcome of that venture.  To all outward appearances it seemed as if I had seen the glory of God’s light, and entered as a faithful servant, devoted to carrying out His will.  But somewhere deep within my soul, I knew that I entered as a scholar, not as an acolyte, and my interest in the church was merely a means to an end.

Still, I was not satisfied.  There was something missing, some vital link between the world of faith and the world of the mundane that eluded me.

I saw my answer the day the Gate opened at Magdeburg—I knew that my future lay within the infernal depths of Hell.

On pretense of pilgrimage, I travelled to the rapidly expanding outpost the questing forces had named New Jerusalem. As I marveled at the terrible grandeur of Hell, I knew that this place was the key to my mysteries; the abstract made real, gospel made flesh, at last.

It makes me laugh now to think of my naiveté during my first secretive forays into understanding Hell.  As a man of the church, I believed that my careful inquiries would arouse suspicion, when in reality I could have run headlong into the darkest corners of everything that Hell and New Jerusalem had to offer, and it would have raised nary an eyebrow of my fellow explorers.  Once I saw this revelation for what it was, my studies became more brazen with each passing day.

There are things of this time that I will not speak of here.  Each experience proved a valuable tool in my instruction, but for the sake of my conscience and the good name of my family, I will not commit my actions to record.

Suffice it to say, my monastic brethren eventually discovered my activities, and the heads of the Order were forced to remove me from their ranks as punishment.

Despite the nature of my excommunication from the church, and subsequent dismissal from the brotherhood, I still consider myself a man of faith.

But as to which faith?  Ah, there is a worthy question. For now I am an observer, and am satisfied to simply watch until I can determine who can properly be called the architect of life’s grand scheme. Perhaps my real faith lies in that of Man as the true inheritor of eternity—the privileged kings of Heaven and Earth—if we could only find a way to reach high enough to grasp it.

Free from the restraints of the church, I consorted with mercenaries and other such men-for-hire, and soon began to sell my services as advisor to questing parties set out to explore the wilds of Hell.  All but the dullest captains and explorers knew I was no longer a proper member of the church, but it was the semblance of the thing that eased their minds along their journeys.  In fact, my reputation became such that I was hired by many a group where the veneer of holiness was preferable to their business than the actual moral observation of God’s will.

In simpler terms, I gave them God’s permission, without the guilt of His judgment – it still astounds me what horrors a man can commit when he believes God justifies his actions.

If I was ever still during this time, it was not for lack of work.  For five years the Western nations continued their expansion in earnest, and with astounding ease, managed to plant their flags of conquest over a vast expanse of the Outer Circle, and I travelled on many of the expeditions that required communication with the natives.  Word of the…questionable activities of my past had spread to various military leaders, and although I by no means consider myself a demonologist, my knowledge of and interest in the demonic population of Hell became very much in demand when deals were to be struck with the local Barons and Lords of the land the demons knew as Kohut.

 It was through compacts with these denizens of Hell that I negotiated the downfall of no fewer than three fiefdoms in the region to petty uprisings that overthrew their demonic masters, and turned control of their lands over to the waiting armies of New Jerusalem.

Still, we pushed further, ever onward, ever outward, the Western forces never resting until all of Hell would cower beneath their banners.  Their insatiable progress was a mirror in which my own lust for knowledge was reflected back at me – the more we gained, the more we wanted, until now, sadly, recklessness on both our parts has led us to what will surely be the ruin of us all.

The garrison at Forsworn Pass was a recent outpost built at the outermost edge of Western control.  It was one of many new military emplacements intended to solidify the Western power’s position in the region, with Forsworn Pass, specifically, being the staging point for expeditions from Kohut into the neighboring Circle of Thebaide.

My inclusion to the camp was an advisory one, instructing expeditionary recruits on demonic organization and hierarchy, and giving them the full benefit of my years of study on the subject of the Underworld, before they were sent through the great veil of darkness that would take them to the next circle.

I had not been at the fort long before realizing that this assignment had been an easy posting for its men, and as such, the garrison’s soldiers had become slothful, and lax in their duties.  With almost no resistance from demon or mortal alike, the garrison’s Commander Ambroise and his men had succumbed to poor discipline, as if Hell had already fallen to Western rule.  It was no surprise then to me, when the safety we had believed, came crashing down around us.

The guards found the woman standing quietly in front of the garrison’s main gates.  Though it was close to morning, the sky still hung with the murky gloom that signified night in the Outer Circle.  Nevertheless, her appearance sent the fort into panicked disarray and sleeping soldiers were woken to full alert.

Those guards stationed at the approach to the garrison swore it was this darkness that allowed her to slip by their watch, and make her way up the pass to the very entrance of the outpost undetected.  Likewise, the guards at the gate itself claimed that she appeared out of nowhere, as if the darkness itself dropped her at their doorstep.

The Watch Captain, on the other hand, placed the blame on the suspicious disappearance of a crate of wine from the garrison’s storeroom, whose bottles were found empty at both posts.

She was young and pretty but little more than a girl, dark haired and dark eyed, with skin the pale of cream.  Her simple dress was the coarse weave of a peasant’s gown, but the way she walked as the guards muscled her through the gates into the garrison’s courtyard, suggested a formality of grace I hadn’t seen since my youth at my father’s estate, and the courtly ladies that he entertained there.  Despite her bare and bloodied feet, and the excruciating pain she must have suffered with every step, her timid smile was the very picture of tranquility.

I do not know if it had been some spell sent to cloud my judgment, the stolen wine I had shared with the guards over the evening, or my own curiosity of what was to happen next, but something held my tongue when I realized what she was.  I choose to believe that my warnings would not have made a difference in the end, but there is a part of my soul that nags at me that I had betrayed my mortal brethren then, for the unholy pursuit of knowledge that has consumed my time in Hell.

Commander Ambroise had been sent for, and joined the commotion in the courtyard shortly after.  As he arrived, the Commander looked over the poor maiden who had since been shackled at the wrists, and forced to her knees by the nervous Watch Captain.  The woman showed no emotion to her rough treatment; she simply smiled at her handlers in the most pleasant of manners.

“What is the meaning of this?” the Commander blurted to his men – the tone and slur of his words told me that he too had been drinking long into the night.

The Watch Captain quietly stepped to the Commander’s ear and began to explain how they had found the young woman, but before the Captain had finished his report, Ambroise started to laugh and pushed his aide away.

“Her?  She’s no more than a child!” the Commander laughed.  “Quite a brave lot of soldiers I have under my command, that a peasant girl can set their fears alight!”

“But sir…”, the Captain tried to explain, but the Commander had already grown tired of the disturbance and wanted nothing more than to return to his bed.

“Enough, Captain.”  The Commander waved the Captain and his explanations aside.  “Put her in stocks or send her away, it makes no difference to me.  Just don’t wake me again until morning.”

The lout’s overconfidence enflamed me.  That he could dismiss the sudden appearance of a stranger in the middle of his camp – and against the backdrop of Hell no less – was a shining example of the false sense of superiority that the Western forces had adopted over the years of easy victories in the Outer Circle.  In the shameful light of the Commander’s indifference to military discipline, I admit to a certain thrill at what was to come.

As the Commander started back towards his quarters, the woman finally spoke.  Though her words were quiet, and she spoke them plainly, her voice rippled out through the ranks of soldiers surrounding her with the sound of a knife on the grindstone, and the gnawing of bones.

“By the hand of my master, the Fallen Angel Abezeth, you all will die this day,” the woman said.

The Commander turned back slowly, too stunned to speak.  To hear her voice was to have the worst of a man’s fears and disgraces dragged up from the pit of his soul, and laid out for him to see all at once.  Had I not accepted that I was already damned years earlier, I might have joined the few guards who fell to the ground weeping openly at the shame of their pasts now revealed to them.

The Commander tried to stammer out a response, but he was stopped short as the woman stood and broke the iron chains that bound her wrists as easily as if she had been shackled by a single thread.

She spoke again, and men wailed as they ran from the sound of her.  “The mortal’s time in Hell is at an end, and by the authority of Lucifer Himself, your kind shall be wiped from its face.”

Only the Watch Commander was able to speak.  “Lies!  Nothing more than the boasting nonsense of another petty Demon Lord, come to test his mettle against the might of New Jerusalem!”

Bold words, but the waver in the Captain’s voice reminded me of a frightened child.  As if to punctuate his fears, a low rumble of drums began to beat time from outside the garrison’s walls.  The demon woman smiled broadly at the Captain, and when she did the corners of her mouth split her face from ear to ear, nearly bisecting her head on a wide, unnatural hinge. “The archangel Abezeth, the Sword of Lucifer, comes to deliver your doom.”

Those of us able to move ran to the garrison’s open gates and looked out into the distance.  The sky was beginning to lighten with the morning, and by the dawn of the new day, I could see an army of the damned, greater than any I had ever seen, descending upon us with tremendous speed.

As I watched their approach, I felt a warm hand gently take my arm.  I turned away from the advance of death to find myself face to horrible face with the woman as she put her arm in mine like two lovers out for a stroll through the countryside.  She whispered softly, “Stay with me.  It will all be over soon.”

And it was.

To call it a battle would be a gross overstatement.  It was, without argument, nothing short of a slaughter.

No resistance by the Western soldiers was given.  Those who did not run were cut down instantly by the demons that poured into the garrison’s confines.  Those who fled were quickly caught and torn limb from limb.  So mesmerized were they by this sudden turn of events, I swear I saw the Captain and Commander both offer up their necks to the blade when Hell swept through their camp.

The bloodshed raged around me, but as I was with the woman, I remained untouched by the violence.  Then, as quickly as it had begun, the fight was over.

I marveled at the carnage that surrounded me, and watched as fires were lit one by one to burn the garrison to the ground.

A voice with the echoes of distant thunder spoke from behind me.  “Is this the one?” it asked.

The woman turned me to face the speaker.  “Yes, my Lord Abezeth,” she cooed, “This is the one you wanted.”

When I looked up into the face of the being that towered over me, I wept – not from fear, but from the sheer perfection of his countenance.  His features were carved as if from living marble.  His armor gleamed and burned with hate—forged from the very stuff of war itself.  From his back a single wing rose up, its partner ripped away as a broken stump.

Before me, tainted though he may have been, stood that which I had imagined man could someday attain to – soul made flesh.  Before me stood the angel Abezeth.

His eyes were fire, and I felt him look deep into my soul and gaze at the darkness I carried with me.

“We know you,” his voice rolled through the now burning garrison, and the flames jumped higher as he spoke.  “You wish to learn.”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Then you will watch.  You will study, and you will learn,” he said, “And you will chronicle my punishments on those who have trespassed into Hell.”

“I will,” I answered, and found that at some point in my reply, I had fallen to one knee in act of fealty to my new master.

Satisfied, he walked away, his gibbering demon soldiers following on his heels.

Much as I had witnessed the massed ranks of the Archangel’s demonic horde across the great landscape of the plains of Hell, I now see the inevitable war for dominance that looms on the horizon.

There was only ever one intended path to Hell, and having found a more convenient route we have disturbed the balance of the cosmos.

A balance that Hell, in all its fury, intends to correct.

Hell Dorado and Hell Dorado:Inferno is © Cipher Studios. Story used with permission.

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