The Bannor started with a handful of stalwart paladins and their families trapped in hell during the cataclysm that rocked the world when Bhall fell from heaven at the end of the Age of Magic. Their ancient capitol, Braduk the Shining, was reduced to a giant pit of everlasting flame that burns to this day (‘Braduk the Burning’). The majority of the corrupted citizenry of Braduk were transformed by magical energies into twisted parodies of humanity, now known as orcs and goblins. Those pure spirits pulled down into hell were rescued by the intervention of Sabathiel, an angel in Junil’s service. In exchange for their salvation, the ancestors of the Bannor bound themselves and their descendants to eternal struggle against the forces of chaos and evil. As Sabathiel led the honorable spirits forth into the light, they were immediately thrust into a merciless struggle for survival with the new race of orcs and goblins (the Clan of Embers). Throughout the entire Age of Rebirth, the Bannor waged unending war not only against the Clan, but all who would not submit to law, order and their view of the good. In the course of this war of liberation, these heroes of an ancient age forged conquered and allied tribes, cities, and nations into a human empire which, with the aid and guidance of the Archangel Sabathiel, may yet stand firm against the looming apocalypse.
The effects of a perpetual Holy War permeate every part of Bannor society, leaving it almost totally militarized. For the Bannor, there is no clear line between religion, family, military and politics. They apply a frightening religious fervor to the art of war and their obsession with order makes even the peasant regiments among the best drilled of all the empires. All men are trained from childhood in the fighting arts…hand to hand combat, archery, self defense, strength and agility. Unlike most other societies, there are plenty of possibilities for rising through the ranks by feats bravery and skill, a fact which inspires as much if not more fighting fervor than the religious aspect.
Because they need to be defended and ready at all times, outlying villages are more like forts, every farm is a small castle, the cities are huge garrison towns but also centers of trade, religion, and diplomacy. Few men are without scars from battle and the women are strong willed and hardened. They know that the children they raise may one day be lost in battle, and they also know that one day the war may come to them. It is a rare woman among the Bannor who cannot handle a sword.
The split between ‘estates’ and “free land” is key to understanding Bannor society. The ‘estates’ are enormous tracts of land, almost sub-kingdoms, under the rule of an Order, a Family or one of those peculiarities of the Bannor: a Hereditary Order—a religious order with members exclusively from one clan. Centered on a stronghold or small fortified city, the main function of the estates is to provide the necessary resources to field one Order or Family division, the powerful and highly dedicated fighting forces that make up the feared backbone of the Bannor armies.
The lion’s share of the land in the Bannor empire is the “free land.” The villages and cities that occupy and make a living off this land must, in addition to paying taxes and organizing their own defenses, provide a number of soldiers, fully trained and equipped, according to the wealth of the settlement. Although the Orders and Families are the spearhead and armored fist of Bannor armies, “free land” conscripts provide the bulk forces that are needed to carry a battle.
By far the most numerous of the estate-holders, the non-hereditary Orders will take fighters from all across the world, all nations and races. Those deemed worthy in prowess and intelligence are taught in the ways and language of the Bannor and then join the fighting forces on the same footing as native Bannor.
The hereditary Orders are in reality families that have founded or taken over control of an Order. All the major positions are held by and passed down from father to son, uncle to nephew, like any usual aristocratic title. It is one of the few options a rich non-noble family has of gaining an estate and the power and responsibility that comes with it.
The noble Families all trace their lineage back to one of the spirits that Sabathiel set free. They use this holy heritage to legitimize their enormous power, and it is the reason the priesthood tolerates their existence and their meddling in the running of things. There are very few Families, but every one of them wields as much power and wealth as an Order. However, the priesthood keeps these secular powerhouses under careful and strict control, lest they attempt to change the fabric of Bannor society.
The highly-trained and well-equipped men who fight in the professional divisions of the Orders and Families come from a variety of backgrounds and fight for any number of reasons: Some do it for money or status, some few do it for glory or personal revenge, but most do it because they truly believe they are on the front line of the war against Evil.
As any Bannor priest could tell you, the war fought by the Bannor is far more complicated than a simple Good-Evil battle. The priesthood, under the guidance of Sabathiel (or so they claim) decide who is an enemy. Although they have yet to fight a civilization that conforms to some kind of law and sense of justice and compassion, few who can avoid it dare cross the Bannor, lest they be “damned” and added to the list of civilizations that must be taught to repent.
The focal point of the entire Bannor Empire is their capital, centered around the Bannor Palace, The Halls of Sabathiel. Although still recognizably a garrison city, it is also a sprawling, international metropolis matched by few other cities in Arcanearth. This is where the Orders have their headquarters, this is where the Families meet to discuss affairs of state, and this is where people come to consult with the priesthood. People of all races flock to the city to swell the ranks of the Orders, the Halls of Sabathiel have a constant stream of visitors coming to pay tribute or ask favors of his priests, and the bazaars and markets attract traders from far and wide, catering to the needs of a multiracial, multinational, and multicultural army and administration.
Sabathiel, the mythical ruler of the Bannor, unwilling to set foot upon Arcanearth and break the letter of the Compact (if not the spirit), is said to reside deep within the recesses of his Halls, watching, guiding, teaching, and warding over the Bannor, urging them on but unable to physically manifest. He is a shadow king, never seen by his subjects but always a haunting figure, ever present in their consciousness. Their battlefield commanders are much more present figures to most Bannor men, Capria being the best example, who as a young girl led her people as they stepped from hell. She quickly grew in honor and authority through the end of the Age of Ice and dawn of the Age of Rebirth.
In this day, there are those even among the Bannor, and even more so among their enemies, who whisper that both Sabathiel and his original spirits are naught but legends invented to legitimize the power of a militant priesthood. Whatever the truth of the matter, the Bannor of the Age of Rebirth must rely on human flesh and cold steel, not angels and spirits, to bring law to the dark corners of the world.
Bannor citizens condemned to death for breaking oaths can gain a temporary reprieve from execution by joining the military. They sacrifice their title, property, relationships and even their name. To everyone else it is as if they died on the gallows. These Forsworn Brothers are organized into special companies committed to the fiercest fighting. No matter their valor or accomplishments, execution awaits them at the end of the current conflict. Their only reward is death in battle instead of at the end of a noose, and they pursue this goal with relentless devotion.
75% Lawful Good
20% Lawful Neutral
3% Neutral Good
1% Lawful Evil
< 1% Other
Adult population Lvl 1 or higher: 12%
Sorcerers: 3% (Divine Bloodline)
Warlocks: 1% (Divine Pact)
Other: < 1%
Shaddis slipped quietly into the room. Although not comparable to the vast antechambers and lofty halls of the public part of the Halls of Sabathiel, the room was large enough, roughly cubic and a good six meters from floor to roof. The roof was vaulted, with supporting columns built into the four walls, dividing each wall into three segments.
The room was also plunged into darkness, something which simply drew your attention to the fact that the huge figure lying on a carved stone bed in the center of the room was emitting a faint glow. Sabathiel was sleeping again. He’d probably been sleeping since last Shaddis spoke to him, two weeks ago.
It wasn’t really sleep, Shaddis reflected. He wasn’t quite sure what it was. It was like Sabathiel’s body was there, on the stone bed, but his mind and soul weren’t. The Deacon of Winds had never asked Sabathiel where his mind went when he lay like that. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
As Shaddis approached, there was a sucking sound, like a sharp intake of air, and Sabathiel sat bolt upright with startling suddenness.
“Something has happened.”
The voice sounded like a million voices speaking softly at the same time, and it carried a note of simultaneous accusation and certainty that infuriated Shaddis. Sabathiel was scrutinizing him, probably finding out what was wrong even before Shaddis had a chance to say it. And the angel was right, both in the statement and in the accusatory tone. Something HAD happened, and Shaddis was at fault, albeit indirectly.
“They will be punished, of course. We must teach them that they cannot defy law and hope to avoid repercussions. But I am disappointed in you, deacon. You knew about this. You could have stopped it earlier.”
Shaddis bowed his head in shame. He had known, but he hadn’t found it important. Dealing with it at this early stage would have required taking appalling measures. So he had left the problem alone, hoping it would burn itself out. Instead it had exploded. The cleaning up would be a mess.
Sabathiel floated to his feet. As he did, the room erupted with multi-hued light. The sight never failed to awe Shaddis. Every section of wall was now a huge window looking out across a landscape far below. It was as if the room was at the top of an impossibly tall tower. But the view was not uniform. Each window overlooked a different landscape: In one window, all you could see was mountains, ice and snow. Another showed rolling hills, fields and peaceful pastures. A third looked out across an endless desert.
The angelic ruler of the Bannor drifted across to a window that showed the sprawling urban vista of the capital. He stood there in silence, his hands clasped behind his back, for quite some time. Shaddis didn’t speak. Holding a conversation with Sabathiel was a frustrating affair—the angel knew what you were going to say before you said it, and generally answered before you even had a chance to open your mouth. So the Deacon waited patiently for his master to break the silence.
Finally, Sabathiel let out a long, shuddering sigh. It reminded Shaddis of a wind whistling through a mountain pass. Still facing his city, Sabathiel started to speak:
“I don’t blame you. After all, you’re only human. You’re all only human. Invaluable tools in Junil’s service, but still only mortal flesh, fallible and prone to faltering. Sometimes, my friend, mercy must take a back seat to peace, stability, and law. This was one of those times, and you failed to recognize it. You reached the limits of your human capacities. I’m not angry. I have no real reason to be disappointed either. But you are a product of my people, of my children, those whom I lead into the light, those I protected through Mulcarn’s reign. I suppose…I suppose I have expected too much from you.”
Sabathiel paused. To gather his thoughts, perhaps. Who knew? His mind appeared to work on an entirely different plane. While humans had to stumble through their choices, hoping the one they made was the best possible, the angel simply knew. He was capable of total mercilessness, of deceit and exquisite cruelty, but the results of an action commanded by Sabathiel would always be better than any alternative course of action could have brought. The angel, however heartless and wrong he seemed at the time, was always right. The window suddenly started showing many different views, flickering past at an astonishing speed.
“So much to watch. So many to care for. So many things that can go awry. I wish, oh, how I wish I could take a more direct part in the affairs of my people. These things would not happen. I would be there to stop them. But I am not strong enough. Not yet. I need to conserve what little strength I still possess. Someday, after you are gone, perhaps, but some day soon, I will need it. We will all need it.”
Capria held Sabra close as they waited near the portal. Her sister was quivering, whether from fear or excitement she didn’t know. Either way, her father had told her to keep her calm. So she did.
Kneeling down to eye level, she said, “Remember what we talked about, Sabra? We’re going home, so today you need to be extra brave. What’s home going to be like?”
Sabra smiled. “No monsters!”
“That’s right! What else?”
“The fire is just in the sky, and not all around. I can go play in the grass and run and not fall in the pits or the lava or be eaten by the shadows!”
“That’s right, little one,” Capria said, hoping the stories that they told the young ones were true. She herself took the elders at their word regarding the world beyond hell. But even if memories of home were exaggerated, it could not be worse than living here.
The booming voice of Sabathiel rang out as if to prove it to her. “Soldiers to arms! We are being followed!” The men rushed to the rear of their company, leaving their wives and children to await entry to the new world. Capria picked up her sister, bouncing her in her arms. “People of Braduk! Prepare to return!” Sabathiel cried out, then unfurled his wings. Capria shielded her eyes as the brilliant light flashed out from the angel, then subsided. Sabathiel stood facing them, a gateway of light behind him turning the back of the canyon into their route home. “Hurry! Your men cannot hold out forever!”
The families approached the gateway, but hesitated before entering. Capria gritted her teeth, and pushed to the front. “Come, brothers, sisters! This is what we have been living for!” Without another look back, she stepped into the light…
…and out of the fire. The heat at her back was the first thing she noticed, nearly searing her skin through the heavy leather armor she wore as a Secondline-woman. The darkness alarmed her; instead of a perpetual red haze, there was blackness above her, pierced by countless points of light. She turned to see more of her people emerging from the flames, and reacting as she had, hurrying ahead in surprise. Then she turned back and noticed the screams.
“They’re free! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” An old woman, green skinned and heavily marked was writhing on the ground a few yards in front her. Other green skinned people watched the strangers coming out of their Sacred Fire with shock.
“What have they done to our city?” asked an elderly woman emerging from the flames.
“Well, what gifts have been given to us by dear ol’ Bhall tonight?” The deep voice came from an orc man who pushed past the crowd of orc children eating and playing by the flames near the humans. Unlike the smooth skinned younger orcs, long bone spikes protruded from his back, shoulders, and arms. “Metal blades on young girls? Take your spears, my clan.” The burly orc hefted a massive axe and grinned at Capria. Others came forth, wielding long wooden spears.
Capria bent down to set her sister on the ground, then in a blink had an orc child in her arms and a dagger at its throat. “We don’t know who you are monster, but we mean you no harm. Let us walk out of here and your child lives.”
“A trade, girl? One life of ours for all of yours?” Orthus pulled a sharpened bone knife from his belt. “That doesn’t sound like a good trade.” Orthus’s arm swung out, and the knife came flying towards Capria. She blinked, and before her eyes opened she could feel warm blood splash on her face. But not hers. The orc child went limp in her arms before it could scream.
“You value life, human. Death is the currency I trade in.” Orthus hefted his axe and started towards the humans.
Blood splattered on Donal’s face, and by the burning, he knew it belonged to the demon. He gritted his teeth and ducked under a leaping Hellhound, thrusting upward with his short sword. Its snarl turned to a yelp, but it still managed to kick his helmet off as it tumbled gracelessly to the ground. Donal raised his shield to fend off a fireball hurled by a towering fire elemental, shouting over his shoulder, “Are we about done here, my lord? I do think they are sorry to see us leaving.”
Sabathiel grunted. “Another… another few minutes, my friends, and the elders shall have left this accursed place. I trust you can hold out?”
“We will do what we must!” said Alessi. Donal’s burly comrade swung his halberd in a wide arc, knocking a Gaersteed to its knees and unseating its rider. The death knight continued his charge, however, and pierced Alessi’s left shoulder with a long ebon blade. The warrior dropped his pole-arm and staggered, perfectly exposed for the coup d’grace. Donal spun towards them, slicing down on the demon knight’s arm and turning a lethal blow into merely an ugly gut wound.
The demon snarled, and knocked him to the ground with a quick shield bash. It advanced on Donal until an arrow flew into its chest. Then another hit, and a third, and fourth, until finally he fell.
“Pull back and regroup!” said the marksman, before being set upon by a swarm of harpies.
Donal sheathed his sword and helped his friend to his feet. “You’re not dying before you see daylight, Alessi, I swear it.” The pair stumbled back towards the portal, as their peers closed ranks behind them.
Capria stumbled as she tried to back away from the advancing orcs. Her hand found a long spear, blackened with bits of burnt swine clinging to it. She lunged and thrust it into the throat of an advancing orc, who fell with a whimper, snapping her weapon in two as he fell. “C’mon, friends, we’ve all faced worse than this before!” She unsheathed her short sword. “Ring formation, boys and women to arms. Children and elderly in the center! We’ll work our way towards the gate. Slay the beasts if they come, but hold your position!” An orc charged her, spear first. She prepared to dodge, but he dropped to the ground before he reached her, felled by a slung stone.
The group began to move towards the gate of the palisade, past hovels. Behind them a wounded man staggered out of the flames, clutching his chest. A pair of goblins leapt upon him, stabbing repeatedly. He managed to grasp a handful of grass before breathing his last.
“You will never escape me, humans,” Orthus cried. Swinging viciously, he bowled into their formation, breaking the ranks and cleaving a young girl just below the ribs.
Capria barely noticed the death of her best friend. She did see her sister dangling from the orc King’s hand. She dropped and rolled under the spikes, coming up directly in front of Orthus, too close for him to wield his axe. Behind her the humans closed ranks.
“Be glad I’m sick of death,” Capria growled, plunging her sword into Orthus’s gut up to the hilt. She didn’t stay to finish him, but slung her sister over her shoulder and turned away. The worst of the orcs had been stopped already, and the freedom was in sight.
“You’re the last, Donal,” said Sabathiel. The other soldiers had charged through the portal during the last lull in the melee. The ones who had survived the onslaught, at least.
“And then you’ll follow, my lord?”
“Someone must remain on this pedestal to keep the portal open. I will stay behind.”
“No you won’t. My people need you, you must go through!”
“I cannot lead them in the next world as I did in this Infernal hell, Donal.”
“It’s not a leader they need, there’s wisdom and strength in even the young girls, like brave Capria. They need a symbol, to stay united in the real world, my lord. You must go through. I will hold open the doorway for you.”
“I cannot leave anyone behind, Donal!”
Donal Lugh stood beside the angel, feeling an enormous weight descend upon him. “There’s got to be another way out of here, Sabathiel. I’ll find it, somewhere, and I’ll make it back, if I have to kill every demon in Hell to do it.” A moaning sound drew their attention to the corpses of their friends, now rising as imps on the cliffs above. The newly born fiends giggled and danced in circles. Sabathiel and Donal exchanged one last glance, then the angel embraced the man, and turned and flew through the portal. The instant Donal stepped towards it in vain hope that the angel was wrong, it vanished. He turned back towards the leaping, leering fiends.
“Alrighty, my friends, who’s first?”
“While the Order wages war, the Empyrean discusses.”
The hound that tracked him almost looked normal, until it turned and growled. Half of the face was rotted away, and the skull beneath was scratched and chipped, with a dark pit for an eye socket. But it had no trouble seeing its prey. It leapt for Donal’s throat.
This was far from the first hellhound Donal had seen. Reflex took over, and he dropped and rolled to avoid the fangs. His crude weapons flew to his hands. Donal and the hound circled each other, feinting and pulling back, until in a flash it was over. Donal dodged the lunge, and sunk his blade into the demon’s neck, pinning it to the ground. It growled and thrashed about almost comically, trying to free itself and continue the attack.
“C’mon, boy, play dead,” Donal said, slamming his shield down upon the hound’s skull. Both shattered, and the thrashing stopped. “That’s a good dog.”
He didn’t laugh at his jokes any longer. He had stopped amusing himself some time ago. Ten years or a thousand, he had no idea and had stopped caring. Since his people left Hell, there was no one else to laugh either, and yet still he quipped as he grimly fought the inhabitants of this realm. In the home of the King of Despair, his biggest battle was maintaining the one thing that sustained him, hope.
“We have no hope, Capria. We must abandon the siege.”
“Capria turned to face her nephew. “We cannot, Mattius! You heard what I heard from Fanariel’s lips. ‘The Sheaim have made a breakthrough. With Agares’s guidance.’ We must press on!” Capria trembled as she spoke, her aging frame failing her more and more lately. Perhaps she would be steadier if she met her council without full battle armor on, but to be war leader of the Bannor and not be ever battle ready?
“Indeed we must,” agreed the High Priest. He was young, much younger than the regent he addressed, but he spoke with supreme confidence. “The heresies stemming from Galveholm are provocation enough to mobilize. Sabathiel therefore sees no reason for us to even associate with elven brigands like this Fanariel.”
Mattius snorted. “I’m sure Sabathiel knows a better way to get a spy into Sheaim lands, but he hasn’t been exactly forthcoming lately.”
“Does the Head of House Venerat doubt the authority of the priesthood to speak for…”
“What Mattius was pointing out, Elmin,” Capria jumped in, “is that we need to prioritize our missions. The Clans have been building strength, our ambassadors have been expelled from the Lanun capital, and—”
The war council was interrupted by a tremendous quake, throwing them all to the ground. Capria’s reflexes triumphed over the limitations of age; she bounced to her feet and raced out of the tent. The camp was showing the benefits of Bannor discipline and were in formation around the commander’s tent, ready to repel the attack.
But it was not an opening magical salvo for an attack. The army watched as the trees and brush on the hillside below them withered and died, the sun was obscured by a dreary haze, and fires erupted on the horizon. It was a scene Capria remembered well from her childhood, and nightmares ever since. Seventy years ago they had escaped Hell, and now it had come for them.
He had scoured this Hell looking for an escape. Never mind that it was an infinite plane, he swore he’d seen every inch of it twice. He had been chased every step of the way by the minions of Agares and Bhall, and managed to either elude them, or fend them off. All to see this day.
Donal saw a portal to the mortal realm stretching out in the valley below him. A rift in dimensions, fluctuating wildly. And around it was arrayed an army of demons. Cavorting imps, a contingent of Ruhin, a virtual city of manes… and the biggest balor Donal had seen. And they were leaving. “Oh, not without me, you don’t,” he muttered as he started down the hillside. “I don’t know where you’re going, but it’s got to be better than here.”
The demons marched through, as the rift slowly began to close.
The demons were on the march. The first battle with them had caused the Bannor army to rout, and since then they had been pushed back to Tor Lehan, the nearest settlement to the corrupted lands. From its battlements Capria could see flames at the Infernal border all through the night. So far the priests’ blessings had kept the corruption at bay, but not the corrupted. They surrounded the settlement, the demons that had haunted her in her youth. Only the most courageous soldiers remained to stand against them.
The battle was joined at dawn. It quickly turned against them.
Mattius stood alongside his aunt at the battle lines. “If I’m to die, I’m honored to do so beside one of the heroes of legends.”
Capria nodded, swinging her two-handed sword. “I’d rather live. But if the Bannor do not stand to face this dire threat, who will?” An image at the edge of her field of vision made her turn, coming face to face with a monstrous pit beast.
“The trick to these beasties is to get them from behind,” shouted an old friend as the pit beast was felled. “The wings limit their peripheral vision.”
“Who… my god, is that you? Donal Lugh?”
“In the flesh, for a pleasant change.”
Mattius gasped. “Then the legends… are all true? We are the Bannor of Sabathiel!”
The tide of battle turned. The Bannor lost as many as survived, but the town was saved, and the forces of Hell pushed back for today. The news of the victory spread, shaming those who had fled, and inspiring a new generation. This was the war that Sabathiel had saved them for, and it was only beginning. But the first victory was theirs.
Bannor Paladin in Hell