Skulls of the Serpent
Over 200 summers ago, Darius Sol was a member of the Silver Order, a paladin order within Cheliax that venerated Iomedae. Following the death of the god Aroden, the Silver Order and House Sol fought against House Thrune and their demonic allies in the civil war that ripped apart the great nation of Cheliax. During the early years of fighting, Darius gained a reputation for strength, honor, and bravery, both on and off the battlefield.
Darius fell in love with Floriana Roux, a scion of the powerful House Roux, who stood beside the Silver Order and House Sol in opposition of House Thrune. After a short courtship, Floriana and Darius were betrothed, an act that would not only join the lovers, but also the two noble families.
For unknown reasons, Darius’ father, Xerxes, altered the betrothal, arranging instead for Darius’ brother Cyrus to marry Floriana. Floriana reluctantly accepted the arranged marriage to Cyrus to satisfy both houses and avoid any appearance of discord that might have distracted or divided their forces in the civil war. However, it soon became evident that Floriana was quite smitten by Darius’ younger brother and the two were soon expecting a child. Darius was taken aback, both by his father’s actions and his former betrothed’s apparent turn of heart, and the paladin retreated from his many duties, falling into a deep depression.
Meanwhile, the civil war raged on, and Darius’ melancholy only worsened when his younger brother slew an archdevil servant of House Thrune, garnishing him the reputation for bravery and strength that Darius had once enjoyed. Darius’ sorrow soon turned to jealousy and hatred for his family, his former betrothed, and their cause in the war.
Darius renounced his own house and took up arms in support of House Thrune. Alongside the demonic and tiefling warriors of that fell house, Darius found the respect and obedience that he felt he deserved and which he believed his family had withheld from him. Darius quickly rose in the ranks of House Thrune’s military arm, becoming a powerful Hellknight captain. He soon became known through Cheliax and beyond as the most feared warrior in the land. To strengthen his abilities and his status within House Thrune, Darius forged several pacts with Asmodeus, granting him additional powers and a supernaturally long life.
House Thrune eventually conquered their opposition, and for 200 years, Darius served as the highest ranking Hellknight, maintaining order in Thrune-run Cheliax with an iron fist, and the blackguard gained a reputation as more demon than man. During this time, Darius was never seen without his custom black helm, which became an immediately identifiable mark of the man himself as well as of the cruel, fear-based manner in which House Thrune maintained its rule.
However, even though House Thrune had won the war and controlled most of Cheliax, a small group, comprised primarily of House Roux and House Sol descendants, continued to oppose the demonic rule of House Thrune. They formed the secretive Bellflower Network, which helped usher slaves and political dissidents out of Cheliax and into neighboring nations. Vayla, a nearly blind oracle in whose veins flowed the blood of angels, served this rebel group and aided them with her divinatory powers. With her talent for prediction, Vayla was able to keep the Bellflower Network one step ahead of House Thrune and Darius, who continually hunted the members of the rebel group down and considered Vayla to be a personal rival.
After years of tracking the Network, Darius was finally able to locate several of the group’s leaders. Darius and his Hellknight minions attacked their hidden base. Balthazar Sol, a direct descendent of Cyrus Sol and Floriana Roux’s union, was one of the leaders of this Bellflower cell. When Darius attacked, Balthazar was surrounded by his family and friends, including a fellow Bellflower leader named Cacciaguida Roux. Darius killed all present save for two souls: Cacciaguida, whom he took as a prisoner to interrogate in in the hope of locating other Bellflower cells, and Balthazar’s young daughter, Eva, who managed to hide in a secret compartment beneath the floor during the attack. When Darius and his men left, the girl emerged to find her father, Balthazar, near death. She helped her dying father to his feet, and together, they made their way to Vayla, who tried in vain save the mortally wounded Balthazar. With his dying breath, he tasked Vayla with looking after and protecting Eva.
From that moment, Eva swore revenge upon Darius, and she spent every waking moment attempting to harness whatever power she could muster from her body in pursuit of that goal. She grew a latent magical talent into sorcerous abilities under the tutelage of Vayla, whom Eva considered to be a motherly figure.
Darius kept Cacciaguida as a prisoner for many years, alternating between sessions of torture and interrogation. However, Cacciaguida would not break and held tight the secrets of the Bellflower Network. Instead, during the interrogation sessions, Cacciaguida would turn the tables upon Darius, questioning the Hellknight’s true motivations and desires. Slowly, over the course of many long and painful years, Cacciaguida convinced Darius to seek redemption and join the Bellflower Network in opposing the evils of House Thrune.
Soon thereafter, Darius publicly denounced Asmodeus, Cheliax, and its entire High Council save for Queen Abrogail Thrune II. Darius privately swore allegiance to House Roux, secretly freeing Cacciaguida and serving the house as a retainer/bodyguard. Because he had become infamous throughout the land, Darius took a new name, opting to be simply called Ren. He quickly found that most of the powers and longevity granted to him by his pact with Asmodeus vanished, and his martial abilities diminished to the point where they were no greater than that of a first day watchman. Strangely, a small number of his magical demonic powers remained, perhaps to simply tease the man and remind him of the power he once wielded – or perhaps to tempt Darius and draw him back into the service of Asmodeus and House Thrune.
Within House Roux, only Cacciaguida, his brother Alaghiero, and Alaghiero’s son, Dante, know of Ren’s true identity. All others within House Roux and the Bellflower Network only know of Ren as a loyal, if quiet and sullen, warrior.
For his part, Dante hoped to someday succeed his father as patron of House Roux, and in pursuit of that goal, served as a knight-in-training to several more powerful members of House Roux, House Sol, and other members of the Bellflower Network. However, Cacciaguida served as Dante’s principal trainer, and Dante viewed the man as a model of what he hoped to be as an adult.
By this time, Eva had reached the age of maturity, and despite Vayla’s warnings, left the security of House Sol and sought her revenge upon Darius. Even though the man had publicly renounced House Thrune and had not been seen for several years, the impetuous woman would not be swayed from her goal of revenge for her father’s death. After months of searching, she found a lone Hellknight whom she believed to be Darius. She accosted the half-demon and soon found herself in mortal danger, with the tiefling Hellknight standing astride her, his sword pulled back to deal her a final blow.
Eva closed her eyes and expected death. But when she opened them, she instead saw the Hellknight dead upon the ground and Ren reaching down to lend her a hand to stand up. Dante and Alaghiero were there as well, and Eva, not recognizing Ren as the man whom she sought to kill, thanked him and swore her debt to him. She had a passing familiarity with Dante and his father, as the two traveled in the same Bellflower Network circles as Eva, but beginning with this encounter, the three grew to be close friends.
During Eva’s encounter with the tiefling Hellknight, Ren, and Dante, Vayla had received a particularly potent vision – one in which she saw Eva on the ground and in mortal danger. In the same vision, she saw a darkened shadow that she realized was Darius standing atop Eva. Vayla mistakenly interpreted the vision to mean that Darius was about to kill Eva, and the oracle used her divinatory powers to locate Eva, promising not to allow the young woman to adventure without her protection. When Vayla eventually found Eva and the young woman explained that she had been rescued by Ren and Dante, Vayla graciously thanked the men for their help, unaware that Ren and Darius were one in the same. However, she remained convinced that Darius remained a threat to Eva’s life and vowed to do whatever she could to keep the young sorceress safe.
Far away, in the distant nation of Sargava, Dhanga was being trained in an ancient style of hand-to-hand martial artistry. His nation had once been a colony of Cheliax, but during the civil war 200 years ago, Sargava managed to obtain its independence. Now, as House Thrune grows even stronger, the nation of Cheliax has turned its eye back to Sargava, hoping to reclaim this one-time colony. Sargava has enlisted the assistance of the pirate group known as the Shackles, and this has staved off the Chelish navy for many years. However, Chelish agents are beginning to infiltrate Sargavan politics, and it seems only a matter of time before the demon-run Cheliax again dominates the people of Sargava.
Thus, after his training was over, Dhanga and several of his clan were sent into the heart of Cheliax to enlist the aid of the Bellflower Network. Dhanga and his allies argued that for all the good the Network was doing within Cheliax’s borders, it would be for naught of Sargava was turned into a second demon-worshiping nation. The leaders of the Network, particularly Cacciaguiga, agreed, and a diverse group was assembled to return to Sargava with Dhanga. To maintain the group’s secrecy, the contingent would be split among three passenger ships, each bound for the Sargavan city of Eleder. Dhanga, Ren, Dante, Eve, Vayla, and Cacciaguida happened to share one of these three ships.