“Who bloody knew they could grow in size?” Abassi snarled, trying in vain to stem the flow of blood from his broken nose.
“Didn’t I mention that?” Adalai asked absently as she fastidiously cleaned the blood from her robes, then started mending the tear in Miles’ tunic.
“No, you did not,” the paladin pushed himself off the ground and brushed himself off.
“Do you at least think that it might have born mentioning?” Abassi hissed.
“I swear I thought I had,” Adalai shrugged. “Oh well, sorry.”
“Shut it!” Gray snapped. “Listen!”
Abassi adopted a grudging silence and obliged. And then they all heard it: Someone calling from nearby. Miles hastened to open the door at the end of the corridor which opened into a large room at the end of which was a huge marble altar in the shape of a great dragon skull. Strapped to that, struggling with all her strength, periodically calling for help was Asha.
“And you said she’d be dead,” Miles said pointedly to the paladin as he walked over to the halfling’s side.
“I assumed she would be,” the paladin replied coolly. “Barbazu are not known for their mercy.”
“He didn’t- he wasn’t-” Asha said breathlessly as Miles gripped the strap in both hands and with a slight exertion snapped the first of them.
“Calm down,” Gray said. “Try to breathe.” Adalai went to work on Asha’s bloodstained and torn clothing.
“That devil, the barbazu, he summoned another one! He called her his mistress,” Asha said as Miles popped another strap. “He gave her the rod, but she killed him because he didn’t see me hiding under the altar.”
The paladin guffawed. “Evil always turns on itself.”
“His mistress, she told me that she was going to use the rod to take over the world!”
All of them looked at her as if she were insane. All of them save for the paladin.
“Did she tell you her name?” he asked calmly in the silence that followed. Miles snapped the last strap and lifted Asha to the ground.
Asha nodded. “Belladonna the Wicked.” The paladin paled and sank to his knees.
“I had feared this,” he murmured, clasping his hands. He began muttering a prayer to Abgar.
“Feared what?” the captain asked. The paladin ignored him and continued with his prayers.
“And you yelled at me for not telling you about the duergar,” Adalai said idely as she finished with Asha’s garments.
Gray opened her mouth to speak, but Abassi moved first. Without a word he whipped out a barbed quarrel from his quiver and jabbed it into the paladin’s back just below the shoulder-blade. Not so deep as to cause permanent damage, but deep enough that the paladin felt it. Further, deep enough that it would not be easily extricated.
“I am sick and tired of you keeping us in the dark,” Abassi growled in his basso voice. “So either you tell us everything I want to know, or I’m going to start pushing this in.”
The Yeonan captain’s crossbow, already loaded, came up to point at Abassi, meanwhile the paladin winced at the pressure but kept his calm.
“Let him go,” the captain barked, while Miles hefted the huge hammer into attack position.
“Lower you crossbow,” Miles rumbled.
The paladin, unperturbed, met Gray’s eyes. “I do not fear death. I have made peace with my god. Have you with yours?”
“Don’t talk to her, talk to me!” Abassi snarled.
“Let him go!” the captain repeated.
“You shoot him, I’ll squash you,” Miles warned.
“You squash me, I’ll shoot him!” returned the captain.
“ENOUGH!” Gray shouted. Everyone fell quiet. Gray gestured to Abassi who, somewhat reluctantly, pulled the quarrel away from the paladin’s back. The captain lowered his crossbow, and Miles shouldered his hammer in turn. Meanwhile, Gray’s eyes never left the paladin’s. “I am not interested in politics,” she continued once everyone had settled. “Not anymore. If this Belladonna person is someone a barbazu fears, and she has an item of particular power, then she is a force to be reckoned with. And right now, we are the only ones who have any notion of what she wants to do. Which means for now, we are the only ones that can stop her. In order to do that, I need to know what that rod can do. And seeing as you’re the only one here that seems to know that, I suggest you start talking or I swear by your dear and fluffy lord, you will never see the bright blue sky on this earth ever again.”
The paladin hesitated, then sighed. “It requires a bit of a history lesson.”
“Fine. We have a long trip back to the surface. Start talking,” Gray ordered.
The bards have said that the war carried on for time out of memory. That is first and foremost incorrect. The war has dragged on for one thousand two hundred and seven years. The historians of Yena have kept a careful catalogue of each year’s events, though only the most privileged Yeonan may view these records. Also in these records is exactly how the war started. Which is where this tale begains.
The lands of Corvan and Yeona were once a single country: Corvaneona. Corvaneona was ruled over by an true angel, a solar called Gaebrellan. Angels are immortal, so Gaebrellan’s rule was eternal, and the people of Corvaneona prospered. But then it all went wrong. For you see, Gaebrellan had a sister, a sister whom had fallen out of favor with the Gods of Goodness and Light for her belief that the mortal races should serve as slaves to the Great Outsiders, not free subjects. His sister’s name is lost to the ages, we only know her by the name given to her after she assassinated her brother: Belladonna.
After assassinating her brother, Belladonna attempted to seize the throne of Corvaneona in the absence of power, but the Paladins of Gaebrellan, mortals who devoted their life and death to their sovereign, deposed her and sent her spiraling back into the Nine Hells. But Belladonna was immortal, like all the Great Outsiders, and patient. The Paladins of Gaebrellan took over rulership of Corvaneona, but many opposed their ascension. Many believed that no mortal could hold sway over the mighty power that was Corvaneona, and perhaps they were right, for what happened next.
Fearing a rebellion, the leader of the Paladins, a man named Tarthis, consolidated power and named himself Emperor of Corvaneona. Many of his own Paladins disagreed with this action, but tradition and their oaths forbade them from opposing him. Tarthis began to turn Corvaneona into a military state. These developments burned in the minds of the people of Corvaneona, and whispers of rebellion spread like fire… fire fueled by insidious lies told by agents of Belladonna.
In the deep southern mountains of Corvaneona lived a dwarf named Bornin. A great craftsman and wizard, Bornin was a devoted follower of Gaebrellan and believed no mere mortal could replace him. It was he that stumbled across ancient plans to create magically mechanical warriors, with life and sentience. Many are uncertain how he came across these plans, some say he was given these plans by Belladonna herself, disguised as the angel she had once been. Whatever the case, Bornin began creating an army of what he called the warforged. These first creatures were nothing like the dragonforged of today: Wingless, possessing only animal intelligence, they were obedient and compliant.
It did not take long for word to get to Tarthis of what Bornin was doing, so he sent his armies to shut him down. But Bornin was canny, and many rallied to his cause. A ragtag army of conscripts and farmers met Tarthis’ men on the field of battle. They were destroyed. But then another army came, and another, and soon Tarthis’ army could travel no further. This were the first strains of the war that destroyed Corvaneona and created the separate lands of Corvan and Yeona. The Corvinians were those loyal to Barnin; the Yeonan’s remained true to the Tarthis and the Paladins of Gaebrellan.
By then, Bornin’s mechanical army was nearly complete; he simply sought an appropriately savvy commander to lead them. What he found was a woman named Idris. She was fiercely loyal to their cause, vastly intelligent, and something of a crafter herself. What Bornin did not know until too late, was that this was Belladonna yet again, in disguise. She urged Bornin to make his warforged better, stronger, smarter, but also to be totally obedient to her every command. Each unit commander in charge of warforged had a rod of control that allowed him to exert his will on his charges. For Idris, Bornin created the Primary Control Rod, which would control ALL of the warforged.
In the end, Bornin had created a vast army of warforged, and after Idris’ adjustments, they truly became the dragonforged. And once Bornin gave her the Primary Control Rod, Idris shed her mortal form, revealing her true nature to him, vowing to use this mechanical war machine to take control of what she viewed as rightfully hers.
But Bornin was no fool. Though he realized his mistake too late, he had one final failsafe in place. He enacted it, which caused the entire mountain that was his workshop, the dragonforged army, Belladonna and the Primary Control Rod to be swallowed below the surface of the earth, never to be unleashed on the world. But the war had already begun, and dragonforged army or no, it would rage on. And rage it did, for more than twelve centuries…
To be continued…