A Villain’s Backstory

I wrapped up running a very long Dungeons and Dragons campaign last week. It’s been two years with the same characters, the same story, and the same goddamn unbearable amazing players.

For the epic finale, I wanted an engaging villain who would be more than just a hit point balloon- that would engage the players in roleplay, not just rollplay. Sadly, the adventure’s prefabricated villain wasn’t quite up to snuff. Azarr Kul, from the classic Red Hand of Doom third edition adventure, isn’t a bad villain but he’s not that complicated (think Napoleon, but he’s half dragon and worships Satan).

So I rewrote him. I kept the canon consistent, he still did all the things Dragon Napoleon did, but I wrote a backstory for him based on an incredible short story (find it free to read or listen to here) by Scott Sigler. The original story has an incredible economy of language: the paragraphs are tight, the sentences always moving the action forward. You almost feel out of breath reading it. I loved it so much, I wanted to try imitating Sigler’s style and story- so I wrote a short little origin story for the new and improved Azarr Kul.

If I did this right, it should stand alone as a mediocre (if unoriginal) piece of fiction. Enjoy (but probably not):

Coughing into the moonlit smoke around him, Angel was aware only of his fear. His eyes watered, but he could still hear. Shouting, marching, the crackle of houses burning, and, still distant, screams. The entire village was on fire.

Angel turned away from the chaos outside his home, but his mother held him at the threshold. He wanted to run behind her, hide his juvenile body behind her height. But she held him fast.

“Let go of him! We have to go and find Hector!” cried Angel’s grandfather, already peering into the fire and dark surrounding their home.

Angel’s mother would let neither of them pass. She breathed slowly, in rhythm with the pulsing light of the fires.

“My husband is dead,” said Mother. “If he had survived, he’d be here. We can’t leave.”

It could not be true. Father was one of the biggest men in the village militia. Angel looked at his grandfather, he did not believe it either.

“We can’t stay here. The fire! We can find Hector and run,” cried his grandfather.

A reptilian roar came from the sky. The moonlight flickered around them, blocked by something massive flying overhead.

Mother drew her sword, a beautiful crisp white blade glowing like satin in the darkness. She pulled Angel closer to herself, but the monster above was already gone. They were still alive.

Mother turned back to Angel’s grandfather. “That was a wyvern. That means these are clan Kul raiders. They surround a village and set fires, waiting in the dark for people to run out. There’s nowhere to go.”

Mother knew things. She had traveled all over the Vale, protecting traveling merchants from the dangers of the wilderness. She had come back from a trip only a few weeks ago, talking about a city so big that not 10,000 villages could fill it.

Mostly though, she argued with Angel’s father. Telling him that they needed to leave, that the village was too close to the mountains, that the Vale was getting more dangerous. Father would listen, nod solemnly, and speculate about what crops would grow best further west… but one look at grandfather’s limp was enough to end his optimism.

Angel’s own optimism was dying. As the smoke grew and no help came, it seemed that mother was right. None of the men were coming back.

Above, another streak of movement. This time a tidal wave of fire swelled through the night sky. Across the village road, the church erupted in flame. Angel could hear wheezing screams.

“There were children in there!” said his grandfather, “Azara, let me go! Stay and fight if you want, but I’m going to go get them out!”

“It’s too late,” said Mother, not moving her sword from the doorway. “They’re as good as dead. All of us are,” she looked at her sword, “…almost all.”

The church doors erupted open from the inside. Friar Juan, carrying his newborn daughter, threw himself out. Others followed behind him, running so quickly Angel saw only blurs instead of faces.

Hobbling at the end was Old Loredo, the schoolmaster. He stopped to help the friar off the ground, but toppled forward instead, an arrow shaft at the base of his neck.

Angel had once shot a bow, seen a deer collapse after a well-timed shot. This was that same sudden stillness, and it was sickening.

Old Loredo was dead.

The friar desperately tried to push the dead man off as the fire grew closer. With one hand cradling his daughter, the friar could not lift fast enough. His robes were already on fire.

Angel heard his grandfather begin to cry. “Please, Azara, they’re dying. We have to do something.” The desperation was too much, Angel began sobbing as well.

Mother nodded. She turned to Angel, and a scowl broke the cold concentration of her face. “Stay here, do not move,” she shouted at him, “and stop crying.”

Mother went back into the house and dragged grandfather with her.

Angel was alone.

The friar’s daughter was no longer bawling. Roses of fire grew and withered as more and more thatched roofs collapsed in on themselves.

From behind him, inside the house, Angel heard a sudden choke from his grandfather. Then, nothing.

Mother came back out. Her blade was running red with blood.

“You’re not ready for this, but it doesn’t matter now,” Mother said, “you will hear me, or you will die. Say you understand.”

The reek of burning flesh blew past Angel. The friar and his daughter were dead.

Angel did not want to die.

“I understand,” said Angel.

“Hector is dead. So is your grandfather. They are with Pelor now.”

The blood… had she…?

“You will lose everything you’ve known tonight,” his mother continued. “There is a chance for you to survive. But you must listen.

Angel could not. This was not right. Mother should hold him, protect him, make the nightmare go away. But all she was doing was hurting him, and the marching was getting closer.

“Grandfather… died?” Angel asked.

“I ended his suffering before it could begin,” Mother replied. “There are worse things than quick death in this world. If we are lucky, you will live long enough to discover that. For now, you must listen.

Angel’s mother brought him close, but he found no softness there, no warm lips or smooth cheeks, only sweat and firm brown eyes.

“Listen to me Angel. You are not ten years old. You are nine. You were not born in this village. You were found as a babe in the wild. This is vital. Do not argue. Do not forget. Say it.”

Angel could say nothing. Father was dead? Mother had killed grandfather? This shouldn’t be real. It had to stop, he had to get away from this. Angel began to cry again and reached out to hold his mother.

Azara pushed Angel back and shook him, hard. “You are nine. You were found in the wild. Say it.

Angel stopped his tears. “I am nine, I wasn’t born here, I was found.”

“Good. You will have to fight to survive. It will be terrible, it will be someone you know. Probably that lanky boy you wander the hills with. You must attack first. You must kill him. If you do not, the boy will kill you. It is that simple.”

Angel stared at his mother. Why wouldn’t this stop? Why was no one waking him from the nightmare?

“Say it all again,” she commanded.

Angel kept staring.

Azara gripped him even more tightly, her nails leaving small curves of blood in his shoulder. “Answer!”

“Nine. I was found. Must kill!” Angel spat out.

In front of the church, three rigid figures marched forward in a perfect triangle. Their posture and steel armor made them seem like living statues, but Angel could see the glint of teeth as they smiled and laughed. The biggest of the three, bigger than any man Angel had ever seen, carried a massive shield and a long grey sword; the rest had bows and arrows with the same red fletching that protruded from Old Loredo’s neck.

“The Kul raiders,” said Angel’s mother, “they must be here to collect the strong. The giant one with the shield, he is their warlord. If you survive, seek him out, become his friend. If he takes you as an apprentice, you will be safe.”

An apprentice? Angel wanted to be a merchant, to sell clothes like the ones his mother brought from the city. Merchants didn’t need to apprentice…

“You have to grow up. Right now,” said his mother. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want this for you. I wanted to raise you, slowly, carefully… but this is all we have left. You can survive.”

Angel’s mother walked between him and the approaching figures. She held her sword out, aligned it with her center, then aimed the point at the ground. The sword’s white remained undimmed in the haze of smoke, glowing as imperiously as the noon sun.

The bowmen sighted the light and Angel heard the creak of bowstrings.

The figure with the massive shield raised his hand, and the bows froze mid-draw.

“That is a fine blade,” he said to Mother, “Do you think you it will save you?”

The giant figure’s tone was casual, but his voice rumbled deeper than the blazing wooden foundations around them.

 “I know better,” Mother responded.

“Then lay it down unblemished and we will kill you quickly.”

Mother made no move, but she bent her head towards Angel. The giant’s gaze followed and he met Angel’s eyes. Angel could see the giant’s eyes glow with their own dark, yellow light. Even in the suffocating heat, Angel felt himself shudder. These eyes meant death.

“I have traveled,” said Mother, “I know your traditions. This boy was one of your people. We found him abandoned in the forest, but he has become strong with age.”

“How old is he?”

“Seven,” said Mother, “eight in eight months.”

The colossal shield shook as the raider laughed. “Seven?? You want me to think he will grow to be a titan, but even I was not so big at seven. No, the boy is eight, possibly even nine.”

Mother met the giant’s gaze but said nothing.

The warlord frowned and raised his bulwark to just below his mouth. In the street’s amber glow, Angel could see a rising five-headed dragon embossed in gold on the shield’s face.

“Speak. The truth,” he said. “If you lie again, we will take you both alive. We will sacrifice the boy to the dragon goddess first; we will slice off your eyelids and make you watch what we do to him.”

Mother’s gaze fell. “He turned nine last month.”

Angel’s 11th birthday was just a few weeks away.

“You seek to trade him?” responded the warlord. “You think we will give you your life in exchange for the boy? Is that why you lied? To make us think he was a lost prize you reclaimed?”

“He may not be my blood, but he is mine. I want him to live. Better he spend his years raiding with you than die here namelessly.”

The giant snorted and lowered his shield, flexing his neck forward to look at Mother. “You are not like these farmers. You are trained, educated, perhaps rich if you could afford an enchanted sword. Why are you in this village, caring for an infant we discarded?”

 “My husband found the boy. He is all we had. I wanted to leave. My husband could not. I stayed for the boy.”

Mother said no more.

“Give me the sword,” said the giant after a pause, “pass it on to me willingly and I will let the boy fight for his place.”

The crush and crackle of the fires had eased, but the night was far from quiet. Elsewhere in the village, Angel could hear familiar voices in pain. People crying, begging, dying.

Two more figures in plate armor filed down the street. They carried two restrained boys by the neck, both limp but awake.

“We found two strong ones Kharn, 30 others we gave to the goddess,” one said to the giant.

Kharn, a name or a title, Angel did not know.

The raiders dropped the boys on the ground and cut their bonds. Angel recognized them. One was Tomas, a boy bigger than Angel despite being a year younger. Tomas loved to shove Angel around when the schoolmaster was not looking, impressing his friends with his strength. The other boy was Ignacio, younger but closer to Angel in height and the only other child who liked exploring outside of town.

They looked meek and terrified, their faces red from sobbing. Angel wondered if he looked the same way to them.

Kharn scowled. “A meager offering for the season… at least we may get something out of this. Release the big one, he is too old for the test. The goddess is not the only one who deserves spoils.”

The raiders picked up Tomas and threw him into the air like a weighted stone. At the same time, Kharn slammed his massive hands together. Before Tomas could even begin to come back down, he was jerked into the air.

Angel could see it this time, a behemoth of claws and scales, diving past on leathery wings. Bones snapped and cloth tore, then Tomas disappeared in its talons.

Kharn turned back to Mother. “Come, it is your time.”

Mother turned to Angel and, kneeling, pulled him into an embrace. Their cheeks touched and Angel felt his mother brush the soot from his face. Holding him, she whispered, “remember. Fight, Kill. Survive. You are the last of us. Never forget we loved you.” Angel’s mother looked at her son and smiled.

With that, she walked to Kharn, keeping the sword lowered. When she stood before him, reaching not even to his chest, she gave the sword a dexterous flip and held it hilt forward.

Angel wanted her to attack, he wanted it all to have been a ruse, a tactic to surprise the enemy. She could strike them all down with the blinding white of the sword!

But Kharn was already clutching it.

“Beautiful,” said Kharn, “Dennovarian?”

“It is,” answered Mother.

Kharn smiled. “Prepare her.”

Two arrows were fired in perfect unison, one lodging itself in each of Mother’s legs. She fell to her knees, but her eyes stayed locked with Kharn’s.

Angel could not speak, could not think.

“Go to meet your gods knowing I never break an oath,” said Kharn and flicked the glowing white blade across Mother’s throat.

Mother’s head tumbled back, rolled twice, her right cheek brushed past a rock and stopped.

Angel saw her eyes blink twice.

Then, nothing.

She was nothing.

Noise faded. Colors dulled.

Mother had done this for him. For him.

“Push the boy forward,” said Kharn.

Angel felt no one touch him, then looked up to see the raiders shoving Ignacio until he was facing Angel.

“There are two of you,” Kharn said. “The strongest lives to see tomorrow.”

Kharn drew a dagger from his waist, almost a splinter in his hands, and threw it between the two boys.

Ignacio looked at the knife, at Mother’s head, at Kharn and then, finally, at Angel. His gaze expressed only agony. Agony and confusion.

Ignacio didn’t understand what was happening.

Angel did.

He understood because Mother had told him what to do.

Fight. Kill. Survive.

Angel dove towards the blade.

Ignacio stared at him. Now as confused by Angel as he was by Kharn and all the evil that had slaughtered his innocence.

Angel gripped the handle, he felt the smooth iron against his palm and fingers. It wasn’t hot. It wasn’t cold. It just was.

Angel shuffled toward Ignacio.

They’d grown up together. They’d spent nights under the stars talking together. They had taunted each other to get farther and farther from town. Together, they had always found their way back.

Ignacio’s eyes snapped to the bare blade.

His breathing stopped.

Now he understood, but it was too late.

You must kill him

“Angel,” Ignacio said, “please—”

Angel drove the point into his friend’s throat.

Ignacio’s mouth opened. Only blood came out.

Angel pulled the blade free. Blood sprayed against his face. He blinked it away, thrust again.

The dagger stuck and Ignacio fell away from him, shaking and writhing.

Ignacio’s blood pooled on the dirt, mixing with Mother’s.

Angel stepped back and Ignacio stopped moving. Just like Old Loredo, he would never move again. Perfectly still. For eternity.

This dwarfed every action Angel had ever taken. The scope of it overwhelmed him. He felt his heart move into his throat and then into his eyes as they begun to burn with tears. He swallowed hard and pushed the coldness he felt in his hands into his chest. He breathed it in and out and let the cold anesthetize his face.

Mother had never cried, not even at the end.

Nor would Angel.

Kharn spoke. “Well done. What is your name, boy?”

Angel looked at the man who had killed his mother.

Angel wondered if he should cry over the death of his mother. He wondered if he should scream and swear at Kharn for killing his mother, his father, his friend.

To do those things, Angel would need to feel pain.

He would need to feel rage.

He felt neither.

He felt… nothing. Only the memory of feeling, the memory of his mother’s face, smiling.

A mother who had thought about him, and only him, when no one else had. A mother who had foreseen everything needed to keep her son alive.

“Azar. My name is Azar.”

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