In the Shadow of Balean Nakt
The day broke clear and cold, with a whipping wind. The young heroes rose stiffly and surveyed the scene. The pale winter sun was just beginning to kiss the far side of the snow covered Eamonvale. To the north they knew was Delver’s Dale, for whose future they had been struggling so mightily. Somewhat to the south was the enchanted lake where the lovely Lady awaited the return of her Cauldron of Selahine. Cedric groaned when he thought it. Dragging the 3’x3’ cauldron through the winter snowdrifts would be back breaking labor, and would slow them down. It would take days to reach the lake. Nothing if not dutiful, the lad sighed and began casting about for some slender trunks that might make the beginnings of a litter.
Twill Bell sat in the old guard tower of Balean Nakt, in which he had discovered interesting acoustics. Idly he strummed his instrument and stared out across the land. The Finch was drowsy by his side, mumbling something about the Iron Key of the Dwarves he had found and how it looked to fit in a niche below the great Anvil of Moradin in the chambers below ground. Twill nodded. Another song.
Stephan D’Annunzio had not slept. He greeted the dawn fully armed, gazing morosely at the pile of bestial bodies his sword had helped to accumulate. The helm felt heavy upon his brow. He stood in the company of death.
Not much later Dyffyd Kinewatcher returned to the heroes, having been directed to Balean Nakt by the friendly advice of Voldor Goodgnome. He found Cedric busily constructing a sled of rope and stripped pines while young Finch ardently argued for a second foray into Balean Nakt to try out his key.
“Hello my friends, and a good morning to you all. May Demeter’s Smile grace your day! I say, have you all noticed that great winged worm thrashing about in the valley below?”
The Brotherhood of the Platonic Solids reached for weapons as, on que, a great dark cloud crested the line of the scarp, flying towards the old monastery at great speed. The youths rushed for the relative safety of the guard tower while Stephan D’Annunzio merely hefted his greatsword and climbed atop the pile of broken corpses to get a better view. He gripped his sword hilt in tense anticipation. The thunder of bloodlust pounded in his skull. Hurtling towards him, the dark cloud took form like a revelation, a black dragon! No small wyrm like the one under Skull Point, but a lizard of immense wingspan and gaping jaws that could swallow a man whole.
The others sought refuge in the tower, scrambling for bows and quivers. Dyffyd Kinewatcher knelt and raised his spoked wheel of Demeter above his head as he blessed his companions: “Fight well in defense of our hearth! The Blessing of Mother Patria upon ye!” Twill Bell began a HUMMM deep down in his belly that soon resonated throughout the room focused upon his arrows which trembled like tuning forks. The Heroes of Platonic Solitude unleashed a volley at the murderous flight bearing down upon the lone figure of Stephan D’Annunzio. Finch sent forth the brimming passion of his young life in a dart of magical energy that shot to such range that one could hardly see the impact, if any. Cedric launched two arrows in quick succession and the arrow Twill Bell made its own harmony as it streaked through the sky into the oncoming giant.
The dragon blotted out the sky. Stephan D’Annunzio struck a mighty blow that tore scales from its neck and showered him with putrid ichor like opening an infected wound. The dragon roared in fury even as it grasped the fighter in both talons, tearing through leather and mail, lifting the Zingarran off the ground and into the air. As it flew over the ruins of Balean Nakt the defenders of the tower shot more arrows, noting that some hit and also that this dragon had ragged wings and its scales which hung loosely from its slack belly were even missing in patches. Beating its great wings the dragon rose high above the Scarp and then dove back down to the valley below, disappearing from view as quickly as it had come, its captured prize struggling helplessly in its grip. Once again, the wind whipped across a cloudless sky and the Heroes of Universal Platitude were alone on the Scarp.
At the Vault of Kings
What now? The Finch and Twill still wanted to return to the temple below and test out their Iron Key of the Dwarves. Cedric was not so convinced, arguing that they had just lost their senior party member, whose sword protected them all from harm. Such arguments could not sway the Finch and Twill and so they descended back to the defiled Temple. What had been the Living Temple, now reeked of rotting flesh. What had been glistening pink slime now hung ragged from the walls and ceiling, decomposing rapidly. Within the gloom shining silver was the Anvil of Moradin, cleansed of all evil. At the base of the Anvil was a key hole. It seemed safe enough so Finch placed the key within and turned. A sepulchral voice filled the room, “Long Live the King”.
“What was that?” said Dyffyd. “I dunno,” said Twill. "Moradin ," said Finch. In the center of the room a great slab moved, revealing a stairway descending into the earth. Cautiously, the companions walked down, coming to an archway of polished hardwood, crafted beautifully and engraved with Dwarven runes. The Finch translated: “Strength Enables Leadership”. The boy remembered stories of elaborate Dwarven rituals of lordship by which newly crowned kings were tested and found worthy. His confidence quailed. Was this test meant for his father? What did fate have in store? There was a large, oddly shaped room beyond, echoing with emptiness. On the wall opposite the door a circular dial-like mechanism made of iron showed four concentric circles, one nested within the next. The outer circle was about eight inches across. On the floor in the middle of the room a square stone plate one inch high and ten feet across bore a message in Dwarven:
“Welcome, my child, to the Vault of the Rings. It is here that you will pass through three trials to determine if you are fit to rule this grand kingdom. To succeed, you must unlock the vault itself, using an exacting proscribed method that you will discover as you meet challenge after challenge. Attempting to bypass the tests and reach the center by means other than the proscribed method, will result in a terrible punishment that will likely cost you your life. There is no need to wish you luck. A true monarch will have the strength, the knowledge of the land, and the spirit to reach the center without luck.”
The group spoke as one: “Perhaps we should return here another day.” And so the Heroes returned above ground.
A New Companion
With the funerary pyre burning the bones of their foes, the Heroes of Platonic Solidity descended the treacherous switchbacks back the to the valley floor. They dragged the Cauldron of Selahine on a makeshift sled. It was slow going and the trail was icy. Far out along the valley, at the site of the Battle of Bargle, a lone horseman could be seen. That night camp was made not more than a mile from the base of the scarp. It had been a hard day of ice and slog, to say nothing of the dragon encounter of the morning. They huddled around a small fire, savoring the warmth and hoping it did not attract any of the fell creatures of the darkwald. Twill plucked a small tune from his Myrdonic Harmonizer. Cedric sat apart in the shadows. He heard the snap of a frozen branch cracking in the darkness nearby.
Walking out of the darkness came a man in leather leading a liver colored horse. The man was slight with a luxuriant mustache. He carried a slim sword at his waist, a spear in his hand and a bright red cape over his shoulder. The swordsman bowed elaborately, “Hello, I am… Marquis D’Annunzio “The Picador”, a picador. I come seeking my brother Stephan D’Annunzio, who I have sworn to slay him in a duel of honor.”
The Finch was shocked. The boy jumped to his feet in outrage. “Why would you kill Stephan? He is a boon companion to us, a member of our brotherhood. He has fought for us, protected us and he is an honorable man.” The young sorcerer’s eyes blazed with passion, confusion evident on his boyish face.
The Picador replied, “This is a family affair. My brother Gabriel has seen with his second site the fall and corruption of our dear Stephan’s soul. For the good of his name and that of his family I am honor bound to kill my brother before his evil spreads to become great infamy throughout the land. I shall challenge him to a duel and I must not fail.”
“No! I will defend my- our brotherhood!” protested the Finch. Now his hands blazed with eldricht flame. “I will not allow you to do this. Stephan is one of us!”
Marquis D’Annunzio “The Picador” drew his rapier. Quickly Dyffyd Kinewatcher stepped between the two. “Nay, nay, stay thy anger, for can you not see that we are all on the side of virtue. Do not be blinded by words and emotion for perhaps we serve a common cause. Stephan was good to us, but his soul was dark and had of late grown darker still.”
“Yes,” piped up Twill Bell. “Ever since he wore that damned helm he never took it off and seemed tormented.”
After much discussion soul searching and honorable legalese peace was restored. It was decided that Marquis D’Annunzio “The Picador” should travel with the party as they searched for their missing companion. They would decide the warrior’s fate when they found him.
The Finch scribbled furiously in his diary.
In the meantime, there was a cauldron to deliver. Finch had had a hushed yet intimate conversation with his father that exposed the pain and moral torment which the future king suffered, doubting his ability nay even his right, to rule. The boy tried to comfort him, but thought perhaps he would only find solace in the arms of the Lady of the Lake.
To Bring a Cup to a Lady
It took three days of hard travel through the snowdrifts and ice of deepest winter for the party to reach the shores of the Lady’s Lake. There the ravages of winter were hardly noticable. The lake was on frozen and the breeze was cool. The sun even had more warmth.
The Finch went to the lake shore to greet the lady, intending to drive a hard bargain for the return of her cauldron but when the lady appeared, her otherworldly loveliness smote his young brain like a ray of light from heaven, his tongue was tied and it was all he could do to nod and smile and gesture at the great bronze vessel he had help drag halfway across Neradia.
The Lady’s smile was wan, “I am glad you have divested yourselves of the corruption that was the Horned One. I will take your Prince to my home and treat him with the cauldron’s magics for 30 days and 30 nights. Only then will his curse be put in abeyance. He will have to return in the summer solstice for his soul to finally be put to right. You may stay here in my demense to wait and take your leisure.” Then the lady gestured to Prince Caradoc, who took a deep breath and stepped out onto the water and took the lady’s hand. The cauldron floated beside them as they walked out into the lake of mist.
“Well, that’s done,” said Marquis D’Annunzio “The Picador”. “Let’s go to the Swamp and find my brother.”
The Great Swamp
A thick fog hung heavily over the swamp, turning the sun into a weak, red glow. Dead trees loomed like skeletons in the mist, and everywhere was the stench of rot and death.
Of a sudden, the silence was broken by a terrible thrashing sound. Through the trees could be heard cries of frightened horses, mixed with the ragged
screams of the dying. A horse emerged from the mist, dragging its fallen rider behind. Where the torso should have been were just wet loops of intestines trailing through the grass and mud.