Welcome back my friends, to the magical tales of high adventure. When last we met, our heroes, the Brotherhood of Platonic Solids, was returning triumphant yet with trepidity to the town of Delvers Dale. From mere ambitious underlings, they had been forged in the fires of duty and desperation into a solid band, a unit, a single many sided object. Now they were unto a veritable polyhedron, and so they escorted their future king out of the wilderness to the gates of Castle Daha, where the Black Eagle flies. There was much unrest in the lands, so many cold winter weeks without a king, and so the party had slipped past a patrol of soldiers to arrive unannounced. But here at the gates, the young men hesitated, unsure what to do. Then the Old Bear woke from his nap. The bearded Prince Caradoc raised his sorrow worn eyes to his rescuers, and there was a new clarity and luster in them.
“I have come home,” he said. “Haply, from a curse I thought indomitable. This is your accomplishment my young friends, and you shall be justly rewarded. But now the vagaries of politics demand that this be my victory, for I will be King of this castle and it is not meet to be led to the thrown by unknown youth. So this I ask: Walk behind me, say little, speak nothing of my past, and I will reclaim my throne. If you feel slighted along the way, worry not, for I will never forget the service you have done me and shall have a place in my court. The time for idleness is done, now I must take up the mantle of authority and rule my kingdom!”
“Of course Father,” young Finch, wide-eyed was first to acquiesce.
So the Heroes of the Dale agreed to soften their cries of glory in the service of their king. The walked three steps behind as Caradoc Daha, cloak thrown back and head held high, strode up the winding streets of Delver’s Dale to the castle of his doomed brother. They followed him into the courtyard and unto the throne room where the Steward Mordeln attempted to maintain the business of the realm while a grim Sir Bors looked on. The great chair itself stood empty behind.
“Behold!” said Prince Caradoc. “I have returned! From the very bowels of the swamp and the claws of evil I have returned to my rightful throne to succeed in the sad passing of my brother. Once again the Dale will be safe under the protection of Daha!”
The voice of Prince Caradoc thundered throughout the castle as if amplified by some mysterious harmonic resonance. There was a hue and cry beyond but all in the court turned and knelt. One by one they came forward to kiss the hand of their returned king. Last came the acting regent, Sir Bors, who’s mailed fist had ruled the Dale in the absence of a king. His eyes were hard and his bow was stiff.
“Come,” said Prince Caradoc. “There is a story to be told and much to discuss.”
Swiftly as he arrived, the Old Bear retired with his Seneschal and his Lieutenant to private apartments, leaving the Platonic Solids standing amidst the crowd of mystified courtiers.
The days that followed were a blur for the fellows yet accustomed to sleeping in willows and bogs. They were given sumptuous apartments in the castle, fine clothes, and well fed. They were subjected to long interviews with the various officials of the court, and with their own liege, the old Lion of Lorchester, Sir Trousdale.
Trousdale looked older than ever, and slightly unsteady on his legs, but he was well respected in the court and he defended his retainers against the suspicions of Sir Bors and the hot-headed Sir Gaz of Mithras who returned embarrassed from his patrol.
Immediately the Dale began preparing for the Coronation it had only dared to hope would occur. There was much to be done. Already, visitors from far and wide were beginning to arrive. It seemed that after all this endless winter, spring would arrive too soon.
A proclamation, Blessings Upon the Coronation of King Caradoc Daha was sent out across the land.
Twill Bell was busy with Aphra Behn putting his verse to music(and making sure it was approved by the king), The Finch was wrapped up in a new world of social obligation but found time to ensconce himself in his father’s study as well, fascinated by the darker mysteries he only now began to understand. Dyffyd Kinewatcher had many blessings to give and receive at the temple of Demeter although he was crestfallen to discover that his prisoner of honor, the wizard Bargle had escaped already, in a most spectacular fashion, Iorweth Wolfsblood was having none of this and absconded to the woods, and Cedric reunited with his family and found time, finally, for some needed rest (rigorous relaxation as he called it). Marquis D’Annunzio “The Picador” busied himself with training for the coming competitions.
The day of the tournament approached! For weeks caravans had been arriving. Merchants and peddlars laden with their wares had been setting up stalls and tents. Herds of goats and pigs were brought to slaughter in preparation for the feasting to come. Men-at-arms came as well, from Dun Eamon and the Vale beyond the Stonehearts, from Asgulan and the southern climes, drawn by the offers of great prizes for the competitions of strength and martial skill. It was rumoured that even a circus had been arranged by the prince-in-waiting! A great temporary city of tents began to grow in the fields along the banks of the Diamond Lake and the River Eamon. The king’s men were hard at work as well, carpenters have been busily building a wooden keep to house the lords and ladies in attendance while they enjoy the festivities. In front of the keep the Lists for the jousting to come, and beyond the field of valor where archers would demonstrate their skill and swordsmen test their mettle. Behind the keep was a mountain of rubble and refuse, constantly scoured by the common folk for useful material. All were invited to compete, noble and common man alike, a rare leveling of the field that has attracted ambitious men from far and wide.
The Brotherhood of Polyhedral Solidarity enjoyed their well earned respite. Twill Bell honed his craft in the ever full taverns like the Pewter Cup and the Drunken Dwarf Inn. The Finch reveled in his new finery and became ever more haughty as the heady scent of royal blood and forbidden knowledge cloistered in his nostrils. Dyffyd Kinewatcher traveled to his home farm to share some of his blessings only to find his family well informed and on their way to the Dale to claim him as their own. He retreated quickly but found solace with the kindly Mother Patria, who bestowed upon him a fine relic of the ancient wars, a suit of chain. Cedric managed to avoid both the duties of the castle and the duties of home (which had become a waystation for even the most dubious relations). However, Cedric did find time to wander back into the Darkwald where he happily encountered the faerie dragon Xanxuiloxozzyr, he of the butterfly wings, once again. Xan took him to the tree home of the Goodman Gnomes where he was well entertained by his friends. He then journeyed to the Lake of Selahine, where he saw not the lady, but left an offering none the less.
When Cedric returned he found that Iorweth Wolfsblood had sent one to replace him in the brotherhood, a rough warrior called Blodriech, who carried two sharp swords belted at his waist. He explained that he was a slave the druid rescued from the fighting pits of Ahgrapur, and that he had been sent to render service. “Hopefully that means cutting stuff,” he grinned.
The Brotherhood sat together in a high turret of the Black Eagle Castle, and as they ate their meal and drank their mead, their thoughts turned to their liege lord, the old knight Sir Trousdale of Lorchester, who, unlike the rest of the population of the Dale, seemed more grim and dark of spirit with each passing day.
“He does not speak to us,” said Twill Bell. He confides only to Aphra Behn, if at all, and the halfling says nothing to me, for all that I implore him. I worry about our lord. He does not even seem fit to enter the lists for this tourney, and yet all those in the taverns below have already placed bets upon his reputation.”
Cedric looked out from the high window and his gaze was ever drawn across the broad sweep of the valley. Far off, hidden by the green haze of the Dark Wald, he knew, was Lake of Selahine. “Perhaps the Lady of the Lake could help him. She seems so wise and knowing in the ways of the world. She lifted the curse from Caradoc, why could she not lift the spirits of Trousdale?”
“Never speak of that business again,” The Finch said sharply. “That subject is forbidden. And yet,” here the stars returned to the young man’s eyes, “she is indeed a creature all knowing and wonderful. We have time, perhaps the old man would like to go for a stroll.”
It took some cadging and convincing, but finally the companions prevailed upon the old knight to join them for a therapeutic stroll in the Darkwald. Indeed, merely leaving the castle seemed to raise his spirits some. But despite the coming of spring, the wilderlands around around the Dale were still dangerous.
On the third day of their journey, the group settled down to make their camp along the banks of a pleasant pond and stream, near the site King Brandoch Daha’s battle with the giant Firmbolg The had reached the limit of the fields were the DarkWald had been cut back in ancient times. Nearby those ancient trunks loomed, and as dusky fell a sepulchral baying could be heard echoing through the trees. Night seemed to fall ever so swiftly. Always the howling grew louder.
The Brotherhood drew their weapons and Sir Trousdale of Lorchester mounted his horse. They were none too soon as the flame of their campfire seemed to dim as if seen through a dark veil. The baying grew louder and grated upon their nerves so that their hands shook gripping their tools of war. Suddenly, there were wolves all around them, they seemed to be creatures of shadow and mist except for their bluish eyes and slashing teeth. The hounds of shadow appeared and disappeared and reappeared in new places as if the veil between world was as insubstantial as a delicate cascade of water.
The heroes to were separated and savaged but the brave prayers of Dyffyd Kinewatcher and the lusty songs of Twill Bell coupled with the cruel barbs of Cedric, the inscrutable power of The Finch, the slashing blades of Bloodriech and the mighty spear of Sir Trousdale (which he inexplicably cursed after it flew from his hand) and soon the hounds were banished to the underworld.
It was only as the last hound was put down that Cedric looked over his shoulder and saw the very last thing he wanted to see that night, a sight that froze his blood.
It was a horseman followed by a small crowd of shambling forms. The horseman entered the sward unhurried as all turn to look and Cedric drew back, for it was a fearsomely helmed knight and his retinue was pack of ragged beggars, more dead than alive. This strange procession stopped at the edge of the wood. Now all know what faced them. It was the form of every child’s nightmare, the executioner of dreams, the scion of Danzig, the Deathdealer. He sat silently on his horse. Then there came a ragged sob and a beggar stumbled forward.
“Fire, warmth, we are saved!” With a moan, the others stumble and collapse, exhausted from their trek. Some Cedric recognized as men of various thorps of Eamonvale. All had been missing for weeks and months. A murmur shivers his lips and he and Dyffyd Kinewatcher instinctively ushered the refugees to the fire, offering them food and water while keeping an eye on the image of doom behind him. The beggars spoke of horrid conditions were they were held in the fortress of the Witch Queen, the very fortress the heroes had assaulted and failed to breach. They were made to dig a foul mine for ore in the swamp, under the cruel whips of goblin overseers. They died by the dozens through the winter, until a week ago when the Dragon swept out of the sky and tore down the walls and massacred the Witch’s minions. Not long after, as the slaves cowered in their pits, the Deathdealer arrived and the rabble scurried behind the dark horseman even as shadows hounded their every step and feasted on those who fell behind.
Then the Deathdealer spoke: “Oh Dragonslayer of Lorchester, I bring you tidings from Stygoth the Damned, the Black Serpent of the Swamp. He bid me lead these slaves of the Witch Queen to your care, for the Witch is no more and these have little meat to satisfy his hunger.”
Then Sir Trousdale spoke, “You who bear the mark of the beast, are welcome for the return of my people, whom all thought were dead, and welcome for any role you may have had in the defeat of the Witch Queen in that Swamp, but still you stand unbowed. Do you come to honor me? Or is there some other business which you are here to attend?
“Two things,” said the Deathdealer. “The Black Serpent requires the audience of those he battled in the winter months, those who call themselves the brotherhood of Polyhedral Solidarity.”
Now Sir Trousdale interrupted the Dark Knight, “Helmed Knight, you do not show your face, but perhaps I recognize your form. Are you or are you not the one called Stephan D’Annunzio, who was my follower, lost in the wilderness this winter past?”
“I am,” said the Deathdealer. “And this is my other business, for I am no longer the man you knew, and yet honor demands that I release myself of the burden of oath. I demand a trial by combat for absolution of my debt to you! You with your fabled Culhglas Bolge, Which Pierces the Heart, and I with my sword.”
The companions looked at each other. They were weary from fighting the shadow hounds, and in no mood to battle their former comrade, though they knew they could not allow this figment of their friend to slaughter their liege in his weakened state. What was this “trial by combat”? What purpose did it serve but to offer Sir Trousdale some balm for the insolence of D’Annunzio’s betrayal? The companions could not decide. In vain the cleric and the skald pled with the impassive warrior to come again on tourney day and there present his case in full view of man and law, not here in the wilds where none were wiser.
Finally D’Annunzio spoke. He seemed to convulse and shrink somewhat as he slowly lowered his claymore. “This agreement I will make. If you obey the dictate of Stygoth and journey to that swamp, then I will delay the assurance of my debt until a later date. For the wyrm requires your service to complete his destruction of the Witch Queen’s empire of war, black blight, black blades sold to the beastlords of the West, mining of the very stuff of Blight which curses that beast and fueled the magics of the enchantress. To put it simply for the common folk. There is a tomb the dragon would have you rob would have you rob. Do this, and I will stay my challenge.”
“We will sleep upon this, oh betrayer of trust and friendship. And in the morning we shall give you our answer.”
The morning came and Trousdale told the Deathdealer, “We will seek the council of the Lady of the Lake who lives nearby. Then we will give see about this swamp lizard of yours.”
It was a short hike to the faerie lake. They were followed by those refugees too sick to travel alone. Cedric and others had brought incense, mirre and other offerings, and soon the lady appeared. The unbearable beauty of her presence drove all to distraction. Tear streamed down the face of Sir Trousdale of Lorchester.
“Be not ashamed old knight,” said the Lady. “For you have had a long and glorious career, far longer than your mortal form has any right to expect. You have held your glory tight, and now it threatens to consume you. By mighty deed you grasped that Culhglas Bolge, Which Pierces the Heart but long have you held its pinions. You are due to hang up your shield with honor, and let others take up the tools of war.”
Then the old knight sobbed as if his heart would break, but he suddenly stood and hurled his spear into the lake. It flew long and true and then froze in mid-air above the water, vertical, waiting. The knight seemed to age visibly before the eyes of his vassals as he sank to his knees by the shore of the lake.
“The Dragonspear was your blessing and your curse. It built your pride and it destroyed it. Be relieved old man, for will find a softer end.”
Then the Lady turned to the others. “You judge your friend a dark heart, and you question the wisdom of obeying his demand. And yet you know not the struggle in his soul. For he is not lost. The Black Dragon has been a bane of these parts for seasons uncounted, but the evil that Sondra unearthed predates even him and comes from beyond the plane. For even as Rhiannon is both the sister of Demeter and her mirror, so Mithras is the brother of Danzig, all shadows and light, bound together yet never far apart. Hear then, the tale of the savage kings.”
“Long before the shining empires of the south dare to lay claim to these northern lands, fierce barbarians defied the serpent emperors of Stygia, and called these dark moors their home. The land still bears their mark: brooding statues that stare out over the lonely fens, and grim tombs left crumbling amid the dour granite cliffs.
“Of the many tales of that dark age, the most terrifying is that of the demon Obit-que, who some scholars call the Herald of Danzig. Ballads tell of how the demon prince swept through the tribes, sacrificing entire villages to his whim. Finally the demon was cut down by the last of the great savage kings, its five-eyed skull brought back on a spear, and the reign of terror passed. And in time the tribes were overwhelmed by the serpents of the south.
“But the ballads fail to tell the entire story. The demon’s evil was so great that it tained the very spirit of the land. Long after the moldering bodies rotted away, a dark sliver of corruption remained in the earth, a creeping disease known now as the Blight, the very residual essence of a long dead demon.
“So you begin to learn of the cycle of things. Names change, evil remains, yet is rarely what it seems.”
The companions decided they would face the dragon, but first they would rest upon the mystic sward that was the Lady’s domain, for ever was it a restful night free from fretful dreams.
The old knight of Lorchester sat long into the night, and sang this song:
I bade, because the wick and oil are spent
And frozen are the channels of the blood,
My discontented heart to draw content
From beauty that is cast out of a mould
In bronze, or that in dazzling marble appears,
Appears, but when we have gone is gone again,
Being more indifferent to our solitude
Than ‘twere an apparition. O heart, we are old;
The living beauty is for younger men:
We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears.