I finally get to introduce two characters I’ve been wanting to get around to writing for a long time now. Also, two important songs collectively known as the “Ballad of the Two Stars.” The two songs share the same tune.
I am not a musically inclined individual, but I did have a tune in mind for the song. Look up Virtual Piano and key this in:
A single dash is a quarter note, a double dash is a half note, and a quadruple dash is a whole note. Of course, because of how Virtual Piano works, you don’t actually hold down the key. You hit it, and let the note linger before hitting the next key. Hopefully that made sense, and hopefully you hear the correct tune. I’m sure someone better with music could make that simple melody sound much better than what I wrote up.
Lastly, I make no promises about my intention to go back and reformat all the Bardass! chapters so they don’t have weird line breaks. I just copy and paste them from my text document and they turn out like that.
[b]Quest 19 – Balken’s Shadow[/b]
In a brightly-lit cave stood a great and hulking creature commonly known as an Ogre. This particular Ogre was larger than the others, standing as tall is five ordinary men. An Ogre’s figure was similar to that of a human, except its torso was three times the proportionate size of a human’s. Their legs were powerful, but built to hold up their massive torsos and not for running. Thus, they were known as slow powerhouses, usually picked off from a distance if they proved a threat. Unfortunately, three adventurers took on the task of entering the Ogre Lord’s dwelling to retrieve a mystic relic that was taken when the Ogres attacked traveling merchants.
The adventurers were Carwin, a brawny, dark-haired Corsair that wielded twin hand axes; Lunette, a svelte, blue-haired Bard wielding the Twin Crescent Lute, a double-armed lute that only she can play; Lowell, Lunette’s wolf companion; and Kendrick, who we know more familiarly as Kent, the Virgin Knight, but is now a Thief.
Carwin: Kendrick! He’s coming for you! Stealth yourself!
Kent: No need. I’ll cut him in half.
Ogre Lord: I’ll smash you into dust, puny thing!
Carwin: You idiot!
Lunette: Let- go your rage, Let- go your rage, let it take flight. Stay- calm your wits, Stay- calm your wits, fanciful light…
Ogre Lord: Uhh…
Kent: Now’s my chance! Cross Divide!
Kent leaped into the air and slammed his iron blade into the Ogre Lord’s head. The blade cut through to the Ogre’s ample stomach, stopping short there.
Kent: Well… good enough.
Carwin: Good nothing! If Lunette hadn’t sang that song of calming, you would have been smashed!
Kent: You can’t prove that.
Lunette: Ease up, Carwin. The important thing is, we won.
Lunette: But Carwin has a point. You’re a Thief. You should fight like one. That Knight Sword you pilfered isn’t going to last you forever.
Kent: I just have to get it repaired is all. Is the relic safe?
Carwin: Again, Thief, that’s supposed to be your job.
Lunette: Lowell has it.
Kent: Thanks for the save.
Carwin: I don’t know why Svennia recommended you. You fight well enough, but you’re a terrible Thief.
Lunette: Don’t let him get to you. You’ve got potential. Once you get your gear repaired, come see me at the pub tonight. I’ll let you in on something that might pick up your spirits.
Kent: Thanks, I guess.
The three returned to Etrium, the fortress town that was once a kingdom as great as both Verdant and Astoria. The land became a point of contention for the two kingdoms for hundreds of years until it was decided it would be an independent land as part of a treaty.
After receiving their reward for the successful retrieval of the stolen mystic relic, the party went their separate ways. Kent sprinted straight to the blacksmithing and armor repair station, where Svennia had in her short time there built an impressive reputation.
In her travels with Brier, Svennia learned much about the art of frugality. She redesigned her old maid uniform into something more battle-worthy. She shortened the skirt and sheared off the sleeves, turning the cloth into tight wrapping for extra protection, and sowed her apron into a hip sash. The extra mobility made her more effective in battle, but she found that her skills as a blacksmith were a more reliable source of income in the mercenary town. Being the only Harlian in Etrium, she quickly became known as the most skilled blacksmith in town.
Kent: 14400 gold.
Svennia: Not bad, not bad. That’ll pay for another month’s rent. I will, of course, take half of what’s leftover.
Svennia: You never would have gotten that job if I didn’t put in a good word for you. And your sword’s chipped. I know you used it again.
Kent: Of course. A Knight would never abandon his sword.
Svennia: But you’re not a Knight. You’re a Thief.
Kent: This is the only way I know how to fight.
Svennia: You can’t afford to fight that way anymore. That sword is made out of Astorion Iron. Strongest metal in Rym. And only Knights of the Astorian army have access to Astorian Iron. I can keep sharpening that sword all you like, but eventually it’s going to shatter, and there’s nothing I can do.
Kent: Until that day comes, I expect you to sharpen it then.
Svennia: Very well.
Cazul: Hey, Svennia! This shifty Thief bothering ya?
Svennia: Mind your own business, Cazul. Do you have anything that needs repairing?
Cazul: Not repairing. Strengthening. My mighty Greatsword feels uneven, like it’s too heavy on one side. It’s been throwing me off in battle. I need you to add more steel on the light side to even it out.
Svennia: That’s not going to help. Your Greatsword has uneven weight because whoever forged the damned thing used impure metal. I can refine and reforge it if you want.
Cazul: That miserly old scoundrel! You reforge this blade and I’ll pay you with what I wring out of his wrinkly hide!
Svennia: Okay, but you’re not getting the sword back until I get my money.
Cazul: I wouldn’t dream of cheating you, Svennia. You’re always fair to us.
Kent: You know I was ahead of him. You’re going to work on my sword first, right?
Svennia: I can do both at the same time. Why? You in a hurry?
Kent: I’m just going to see Lunette at the pub later. Does that… upset you at all?
Svennia: Not at all. In fact, Lunette wanted to see me about something tonight as well. You must have done something right.
Kent: But uh… you’re going to be working?
Svennia: You just keep her company. I’ll be done with your sword by the time I’m supposed to meet her. And Cazul won’t be back until tomorrow, I can guarantee that. I’ll refine it today and reforge his sword after our meeting.
Kent: Oh… Okay.
Svennia: See you tonight.
Kent: Right… Until then.
There were ten establishments in Etrium where adventurers go to imbibe spirits, but three of them stand out among the rest. Tawdry’s Tavern was a known bandit hangout and collectively known as “the tavern.” The Pillar was a classier establishment popular with merchants and passersby, but jokingly referred to by the locals as “the bar.” And the Dark Alley, colloquially known as “the pub,” was located in a dark alley next to, confusingly enough, Parker’s Pub, the only place in town with “pub” in its name.
Inside the Dark Alley, the usual patrons sat enraptured by Lunette’s performance.
Lunette was the only Bard capable of using her instrument, the Twin Crescent Lute. It was a double lute shaped like two crescent moons with their backs to each other. Her fingers moved quickly between the two sets of strings, creating a unique musical effect. It was as if two Bards were playing at the same time.
Lunette: The earth, the sea, the fire, the sky / Together we live and together we die. The soil, the trees, the clouds up on high / Together we rise and together we lie. The green, the glory, we march to the field / The beasts, the fury, we never shall yield. Gather ye all, for now is the time! / For pride, for country, for home and for Rym!
A battle anthem was unlike most of her songs, but she still was met with a rousing cheer and applause. Lunette bowed off her stage and walked toward Kent, whom she saw enter during her performance.
Lunette: You’re early, Kendrick.
Kent: Svennia thought I should keep you company. That song was… different.
Lunette: It’s an old war song from my youth.
Kent: You don’t look so old.
Lunette: I was very young.
Kent: I was looking forward to hearing the song about the two stars.
Lunette: It’s actually two songs. I just usually sing them one after the other. But enough about those songs. I don’t like having to explain them. As long as we’re killing time, how about you tell me more about yourself? You don’t fight like any Thief I’ve ever known.
Kent: Well, I guess I’m just a too simple-minded to fight like a coward.
Lunette: A coward, huh? That’s apt. But say that to another Thief’s face and you’ll get stabbed in the back. They take their profession seriously. Why don’t you?
Kent: We’re just… not a match, I suppose.
Lunette: I’m aware. And I know you’re not what you say you are.
Kent: Is it that obvious?
Lunette: It’s especially obvioius when you admit it.
Lunette: Don’t feel too bad. That wasn’t a trick. But, yes, it was obvious. But… I want you for what you truly are.
Kent: Want me? For… what?
Svennia: Hey, sorry I’m late!
Lunette: Oh no, perfect timing.
Svennia: So, what’s this about?
Lunette: Follow me to the back.
Kent: There’s a back? To THIS bar?
Lunette: There’s a back and a below and some other confusing directions, yes. I think it’s best you just silently follow.
Lunette led the two behind the counter and into a storage room. She opened a small crate, revealing a staircase leading underground into a maze.
Lunette: I don’t expect you two to memorize the path on the first try. And don’t try any guesswork. This place is riddled with traps.
Kent: Now I’m worried.
Svennia: Just shut up and follow her.
At the end of the maze was another staircase, this time leading up into a massive cave brightly lit with torches.
Lunette: This used to be an old bandit hideout. Now it’s ours. We kinda killed all the bandits and took it for ourselves.
Svennia: And who is this “us” you speak of?
Lunette: Balken’s Army.
Lunette motioned to the back of the cave, where a tall stone staircase led to a black throne, whereupon sat a large man clad in jet black armor and a horned helm that concealed his entire head. Anyone who saw his image would tell immediately that it was the Dark Lord Balken. Anyone except those who were closest to him.
Dark Lord Balken: You have been brought before me because only those I personally approve are fit to join my ranks. The rest join only the dead. I am Balken, the true ruler of this supposedly free town and its… protector.
Kent: Protector? Balken? You are truly him? Believe me, I’ve heard that tune before.
Dark Lord Balken: There are many pretenders to the throne. But none of them have a fraction of the true Dark Lord’s power!
Lunette: Trust me, he’s the real deal. You should be thrilled to be in his presence.
Dark Lord Balken: You are bold, but have yet to prove yourself worthy. The army I am building seeks to destroy the Seven Heroes and return Rym to my rule of darkness!
Svennia: Sounds like fun. But what makes you think I’ll follow orders from a weakling like you?!
Svennia sprang forward, taking a single swift leap to reach the base of the staircase, and another one to fly straight to Balken’s throne without having to touch a single step. Her punch connected directly into Balken’s chest, knocking him back and shattering his black throne!
Dark Lord Balken: Hnng! So quick!
Svennia: What in the-?
Svennia’s feat shocked Kent and Lunette, but the truth behind what happened was lost to them. Svennia struck Balken with her strongest punch, but it only succeeded in knocking him away. His armor was completely undamaged, as was Balken. She merely caught him by surprise.
Dark Lord Balken: You won’t be so lucky again!
Svennia: Impossible! You’re not the real Balken… so why?
Dark Lord Balken: Grrr… Not the real Balken? Allow me to change your mind! From the depths, I call thee! Become my weapon! Forged from Darkness itself, a blade to slay all before me! Shadow Sword!
Svennia: Th… the Magic Weapon!
A greatsword seemingly made entirely of shadows formed in Balken’s hand. He immediately swung it at Svennia, intentionally striking just short of her and cutting the very earth at her feet.
Svennia: It’s… real!
Dark Lord Balken: You may now take this opportunity to bow your head before me and beg forgiveness.
Svennia: This strength… that weapon… It can only be you.
Dark Lord Balken: Yes! Say it!
Dark Lord Balken: Gah!
Svennia: It is you, isn’t it?
Dark Lord Balken: That name… why do you…
Svennia: You seriously don’t remember me? I mean, I’ve grown a bit since then, and I don’t wear a maid uniform anymore, but…
Dark Lord Balken: Wait… Svennia? That means… So you know where the real Balken is?
Lunette: Real Balken? You mean you’re a fake too?! How do you know each other?
* * *
Dark Lord Balken?: Is this the best you have to offer me?
Ranka the Venom Mistress: Ggh… How is he… still unaffected?
Cyrus the Berserk: I can… still go another round!
Lodi the Trap Artist: Don’t be fooled… He can’t be the real Balken. It’s impossible. He wouldn’t… he wouldn’t betray me in a pointless fight like this.
Caden the Necromancer: I agree with Lodi. This… thing… has no life in him.
Dark Lord Balken?: The same will be true of you.
Ranka: I think you’re right. Balken was never this cheesy.
Balken: And what’s this?
Cyrus: Balken! Wait… There’s two of you? I didn’t think this world had room enough for even one!
Svennia: I told you! He’s as strong as the four generals!
Cyrus: Such lies, kitten! I had him on the ropes!
Svennia: Did not!
Balken: Hush. You! Identify yourself!
Balken?: I am you.
Balken: Oh. Well, that explains things. Hello, me. I think I’m ready to commit suicide now. Iron Wave!
With a wave of his hand, Balken summoned a ridge of solid iron to form from the ground and rush towards his double. The attack did no damage, however, as the other Balken cut the wave in two with a black sword.
Balken?: Your final mistake was not taking me seriously! Dark Edge!
The second Balken lunged at the first, aiming to stab him in the chest with his black blade. The first Balken did not move. The attacker was instantly stopped in place as soon as his blade touched Balken’s armor.
Balken?: What is this?!
Balken: Now it should be clear who is the true Balken and who is the Doppelganger!
Lodi: A Doppelganger?!
Balken punched his shocked double in the face, tearing through its helm. His fist still buried there, Balken uttered a spell, and his double’s head exploded with fire.
Lodi: No! Balken!
Ranka: What? Didn’t the real one win?
Lodi: That’s impossible. Doppelganger’s are almost exact copies. Whenever a Doppelganger meets its double, without fail it kills the double, and then disappears.
Balken: Do you see me disappearing?
Balken: Look there.
The generals looked at the fallen Balken and saw that its head had reformed.
Cyrus: What in Rym am I looking at? His head… it was just…
Doppelganger: I am a Doppelganger… and Doppelgangers do not die. Who are you? No human has ever defeated a Doppelganger before!
Balken: And no Doppelganger has ever defeated Balken before.
Balken: There are some things in this world that simply can’t be duplicated. There can only be one Balken.
* * *
Svennia: The Doppelganger tried again and again, but he could never best Balken. Eventually, he gave up and joined the army. Since he had almost the same strength as Balken, he was an incredible asset. We were able to conquer Rym in half the time we planned.
Lunette: You mean to tell me you were in the real Balken’s army?
Svennia: I was his chambermaid.
Lunette: Chambermaid? No way… With your strength, you had to have been one of his generals, or…
Svennia: You have no idea what it takes to be the personal servant of Balken.
Kent: But wait, you called him Doop, right? What’s the reason behind that?
Svennia: Short for Doppelganger Balken or Duplicate Balken. We shortened it to Doop.
Kent: But why not Falken?
Kent: For Fake Balken.
Svennia: He doesn’t deserve a cool name like that.
Doop: So what if I’m not the real Balken? I’m still his equal in strength. This doesn’t change things. We can still take down the Seven Heroes and conquer Rym.
Lunette: How? The real Balken is stronger than you, and he couldn’t take down the Seven Heroes. Why should I believe you?
Svennia: Because Balken never lost.
Svennia: Balken never used his full power against the Seven Heroes.
Lunette: Are you saying he lost on purpose?
Svennia: No. He just wasn’t motivated.
Kent: How do you know this?
Svennia: Because I saw him fighting the Seven Heroes. And I saw him fight other battles. In that fight, he never once used the Spell of Calamity. In fact, he didn’t use ANY spells. Balken was a skilled and powerful fighter, but his true strength was in magic. When the Seven Heroes defeated him, he was using less than half of his true power.
Lunette: Okay, so the Seven Heroes are greater than half of Balken. In your estimation, how much Balken is Doop?
Doop: 90 percent.
Svennia: 60 percent.
Svennia: Yes, 60. You can’t copy his Spell of Calamity, so you only have half of his strength. And you’re incredibly durable and can’t be killed, but that armor is only part of your body, not Obsidian Armor. You can’t reflect magic. So, 60 percent.
Doop: Well, that’s fair.
Kent: So, you can’t die? And you have 60 percent of Balken’s power? How is it you haven’t put it to use yet?
Svennia: Doppelgangers come from the Shadow World. It’s where they belong. The only purpose Doppelgangers serve in our world is to kill their double and return.
Doop: I wasn’t strong enough to kill Balken yet, so I thought I could wait out his life. Maybe kill him when he got old enough.
Kent: But what happens if someone else kills Balken first?
Doop: Then I change form and have to hunt another target. Hopefully someone weaker, but usually it’s the form of the one who killed him.
Svennia: And since he’s still in the form of Balken, you ought to know what that means.
Lunette: The real Balken’s alive?
Kent: The Seven Heroes… they never killed him?
Doop: Exactly. The Seven Heroes are not the powerful beings their people have been led to believe they are. They now rule Rym under the veil of a lie. It is my hope that taking Rym back and defeating the Heroes that supposedly vanquished Balken in battle will get the attention of the real Balken. And then…
Kent: You try and fail to kill him yourself?
Lunette: No… You want to turn your new army against Balken! You want to lead them to believe he’s the imposter!
Doop: I think this would be for the best. You people suffer now, and you suffered under Balken’s rule. With this, the Seven Heroes and Balken will both be wiped from this world, and I get to return to the Shadow World. Have you changed your opinion now?
Lunette: So many times in such little time, yes. But…
Kent: Kruseid is no hero. I’m with you as far as him. But I have no quarrel with the other six.
Lunette: Defeating the Seven Heroes was always my aim. My position hasn’t changed.
Svennia: Honestly, no matter how this turns out, I’ll probably end up in a good position. I’ll join your army as long as it pays well.
Doop: Then it’s settled. But my secret must be kept guarded. The four of us must be all that know of the plan. Everyone else must believe I am the one and only Balken.
Lunette: That goes without saying.
Kent: But to take on even one of the Heroes requires a great army. You can’t have recruited even half of Etrium.
Doop: The army doesn’t matter right now. We are building leaders to take up the army that will soon be built. Svennia I know well. She will be one of the army’s high generals.
Kent: And what will be my rank?
Lunette: You were picked up as a prospect. So for now, you’ll be working under me. You’ll mostly be doing quests like you have been, except this time you’ll be invited to more jobs. I expect you’ll take this opportunity to improve.
Kent: Of course!
Their audience with “Balken” ended, the three returned to the maze and returned to Dark Alley.
Svennia: Let’s stop by the shop first. I have your sword ready.
Lunette: That’s one of the finer points of being a Bard. No repair work.
Svennia: As long as you don’t get your lute broken. And even so, you have to replace strings and make sure it’s tuned.
Lunette: That’s true. You’re well-informed.
Svennia: I’ve traveled with a Bard for some time now.
Lunette: Have you? Where is this Bard?
Svennia: We got split up. It doesn’t matter now.
Kent: You mean Brier, right? You still haven’t told me what the story with him is. He’s too young to have been in Balken’s army. But you called him “Master.”
Lunette: Ooh, I know, I know! That’s the Dark Lord’s bastard child, left under your care! Under the guise of anonymity, he wanders the lands of Rym, making preparations for his father’s ascension!
Kent: Yes… that would explain why Kruseid was so intent on killing him…
Lunette: He was? Now you have to tell us, Svennia.
Svennia: I made a promise to Kendrick. I would tell him the full story once I deem him worthy of the tale. Until then, I offer no answers.
Lunette: Ahh… Well, I look forward to raising you to become worthy. Then maybe you can share the tale with me.
At the blacksmithing shop, Kent was presented his newly-sharpened Knight Sword.
Kent: There she is… She feels lighter.
Svennia: Of course. That blade is perfectly balanced and sharper than it’s ever been. But there’s a good deal less body to it.
Kent: I’ll take good care of her. So, shall we be off to our room? I could use a good night’s rest.
Lunette: You two share the same room?
Svennia: I try not to advertise the fact. It’s not something that would help Kent in terms of popularity.
Lunette: That’s true.
Kent: How do you mean?
Lunette: The others would be jealous and spiteful.
Kent: Oh. Well… Yes, I can see that happening.
Lunette: I think you need different living arrangements.
Svennia: Oh no, this suits me just fine.
Kent: I’m sure you only say that because you know I pay more of what I earn on rent than you do.
Svennia: Consider it part of his training.
Lunette: Very well. Kendrick, you should know about the type of quests I typically want you running. That troll raid we did? Bal- er, Doop, was the one who actually posted it.
Kent: Then the mystic relic we retrieved…
Lunette: Is now the property of Balken’s Army. The army runs these fake quests all the time to hide our activities and to scout for new prospects like yourself. Etrium is our base of operations, but we have similar quests running all over Rym. Even in the Sakarlands.
Kent: Impressive reach, but I don’t imagine you have very many soldiers. The people are content with the rule of the Seven Heroes. What kind of person would be tempted by the prospect of serving the Dark Lord?
Lunette: All sorts. The short-sighted who can’t see past their current plights. The people who profited most during Balken’s reign and have fallen since returning to the old ways. The people who seek out the glory of battle. The people who have a personal vendetta against the Seven Heroes. The people who seek the throne for themselves. And finally… those who have been awakened to the truth of this world.
Kent: Awakened? What do you mean?
Lunette grinned and tuned her Twin Crescent Lute. She played a song just for the two – a favor offered to no one else but her wolf companion.
The Black Star shines
The night is but a veil
Its Silver Light
Gazes on us
It spreads across the sky
The Black Star shines on us all…
The Black Star swallows us whole.
The Silver Light
Peers through the Black Star’s veil
The hope of day
Looms in the air
The break of dawn
Casts out the darkened sky
Yet the Black Star shall return…
Yes the Black Star shall return…
Kent: I don’t understand…
Lunette: You wanted to hear it, didn’t you? Ah, but that was just the first song. “The Black Star and the Silver Light,” abridged version.
Kent: I thank you for the performance. But… why is that your answer?
Lunette: There once was a tribe in the Verdant Forest who believed day and night exist because of the whim of an ancient two-faced goddess. When the Goddess of Dark was awake, she summoned the Black Star, which was so large it appeared the sky had turned black. The moon was the Silver Light, all that is left of the Goddess of Light’s presence when she is asleep. Many times the Goddess of Dark sought to destroy it, but it is eternal. When the Goddess of Light was awake, she summoned the Blue Star and the Golden Light to eradicate all darkness in her heart. But no matter how much she tries, the darkness always comes.
Kent: What do these stars have to do with the “truth of this world?”
Lunette: How about you think it through? Work it out in that head of yours. Well, I suppose I can give you one last story. That tribe was completely killed off during Balken’s rise to power. They chose to fight the Dark Lord, but they died… not to Balken, but from a surprise attack from behind. They were killed by the Noble House of Keane, who surrendered to the Dark Lord without putting up a fight. The nameless tribe sang one song as they were being slaughtered by the Keane clan. But it was not “The Blue Star and the Golden Light,” which is about the glory of the day and the perseverance of good. They sang “The Black Star and the Silver Light.”
Svennia: The song of encroaching darkness, banished darkness, and the vow that darkness will return.
Lunette: No more handouts. You have it. See if you can discern the truth of that song.
Kent: But… what about “The Blue Star and the Golden Light?”
Lunette: They’re two sides of the same coin. I don’t need to sing it to you. Not yet. Come to me if you learn the truth, and I’ll reveal everything I have to offer. Until then. Lowell!
The bard walked away and played the tune of the two stars as her faithful companion followed. Kent turned his gaze at her back and lingered there as he pondered her words and the meaning behind the formation of Balken’s Army.
Next time, on Bardass! After her draw with Doop, Svennia decides she needs to go out into the field and hone her skills for the battles to come. Although she jokingly mocks Kent any chance she gets, she realizes she is no closer to the personal truth her uncle set her out to find than he is to Lunette’s challenge. She has learned many things in her ordeals, but what is the lesson that continues to elude her? The next chapter is Quest 20 – Pride of Harl.