All the way down…
A Tale from the Realms of Orchester
+++Level 1: The Heroes of Posaune+++
The Broken Vessel was an out of the way bar in the craftsmen district of Posaune, on an alleyway off of Potter’s Row. The sort of place masters and journeymen (and perhaps a few bold apprentices) would get a few ales before staggering home after a hard day’s work. Or hard day’s idleness depending on the season. Hardly the sort of place anyone would expect to find anything involving the future of the world.
But the Broken Vessel had a private back room, seldom used but for meetings of the guild masters or occasionally a discrete customer commissioning some erotic vases for his private use. And of course, for tonight’s urgent meeting.
“The Crown of Kings!” declared Männerchor, his rolled R’s announcing his proud heritage as clearly as the Regent’s Herald himself could. His mane of silver hair, his long white beard, his ivory robes, his eyes so grey the seemed to lack pupils, he was a striking figure capable of intimidating even the host of heroes assembled in this room. He carried no weapon, had no guards or retinue, but the Medallion of the Moon on his breast gave him a level of authority even the New Kings would have to envy.
From his long fingertips silver sparks flew, forming a glowing outline of a towering golden helm with seven tiers, each tier a crown in and of itself. “For an age, the Crown of Kings was the mark of the High King and a sign of unity of the Severn Kingdoms. Forged for Trompete the Mighty, passed to his son Becken the Great, then to the heads of Horn the Hammer, Violoncello the Unready, Oboe the Fat, Flöte the Bald and finally to Kleineflöte the Iron Fisted. We do not know if the Crown of Kings corrupted him or if he corrupted the crown but his reign is rightly remembered as the Age of Fire and Blood!” The image of the crown faded, replaced by images of the sword-wielding thugs rampaging through the streets. “No honest man was safe in his home, no babe safe his mother’s arms as Kleineflöte’s thugs roamed the kingdom seeking his foes both real and imagined. When he was overthrown, the new Kings vowed there would never be a High King again, and the Crown of Kings was sealed away in the Caverns of Cataclysm where none would ever retrieve it. Or so we believed!”
The assembled heroes did not challenge the implication that Männerchor had been there centuries ago when Kleineflöte’s reign met its bloody end. There were legends that placed Männerchor at events far more ancient. None but he could say whether he was the same man, or some descendent or heir using the same name to create the illusion of a single wizard battling darkness across the ages. And none of the assembled heroes dared to ask.
“Even now the Master of Shadow’s minions seek the Crown of Kings so that he may subjugate the Seven Kingdoms under one ruler, his puppet! I dare not turn to any of the New Kings, lest they be tempted to seize the Crown for themselves, only a small band, unaligned to any kingdom, can do what must be done and cast the Crown into the Pit of Eternity where it shall finally be lost forever!”
The sparks crackled into a howling vortex sucking the air from the room, even the hardened heroes shuddered before it until with a final howl, which pulled in curtains from the wall and serviettes from the table, it vanished, and Männerchor with it.
For a minute the room was silent.
“Well don’t that just beat anything!” ‘Slick’ Streicher said, nervously tossing a dirk from hand to hand. “Find the thing that no one is ever supposed to find, don’t keep it, don’t melt it down, don’t sell it, just toss into the one place no one’s supposed to go!”
“With no clue where to find it, and the one man who was there when it was locked away just pulled a disappearing act!” Add Bassgitarre, ever the pragmatic hunter. “I’ve heard legends of course, every village has them about some lost shepherd boy falling down a well and discovering the entrance to the Caverns of Cataclysm, but that’s all they are, stories. If you ask, it always happened to their neighbor’s cousin’s best friend from three villages over. Useless, old wives’ tales.”
“I wouldn’t say… no clue.” Said Blockflöte the Scholar with a thin smile. He gestured casually at the chair where Männerchor had been just moments ago. There in his space was a small package wrapped in parchment. Streicher snatched it with the skill and dexterity that was his hallmark, he unbundled it to find a small clear gem, and writing on the parchment. He looked at it for a moment before sheepishly handing it to Blockflöte, unfortunately Streicher’s many skills did not include knowledge of letters.
“Streicher…” Said Tiefe patiently. The Uncrowned Queen voice was as gracious as ever, and as firm as the steel in her armor. She glanced pointedly at his closed left hand. “What, oh this, sorry Blockflöte, forgot I’d picked this up.” He handed over the clear gem as well.
Blockflöte accepted the gem without comment, for he was already obsessed with the map before him. Some landmarks were clear, others marked by vague runes and cryptic rhymes.
When you stand beneath the moon
Hold aloft the flower in bloom
Strike the gong and hear the tone
Touch it then to your clear stone
When the bell begins to toll
Then the light will show your goal
“That’s the closest I can translate it to the common tongue. This riddle is written at the pass of Englischhorn. Three days ride from here. It seems that will have to be our first destination. Let’s hope its meaning becomes clear once we arrive.”
“We must have faith in Männerchor’s wisdom. His ways are mysterious, his plans cryptic, but he has never steered us wrong. We leave immediately.” Tiefe decided.
“Seems a lot of trouble for not much reward.” Streicher griped. “We should’ve gotten the wizard to pay up front.”
“Come now Streicher, whatever happens, think of the songs they will sing of us!” Young Glockenspiel, the traveling minstrel, plucked a few notes on her lyre. “And great songs will last much longer than gold does in your pockets!”
Streicher grumbled but his companions were already leaving out the back door. He shrugged and followed. Experience had taught him that when wizards were involved there’d be treasure sooner or later.
+++Level 2: The Order of Euphonium+++
The White Tower of Euphonium stood deep in the whitened woods, guarded by the seventy-seven Ivory Warriors. Taller than the tallest tree, capped in purist white marble, it was glistening beacon of light and hope for the honest folk of the Seven Realms. To the Euphonium rode Männerchor on a steed with a silver mane. He passed the bone-armored warriors guarding the argent gates and rode through the gardens of lilies, jumping from the saddle and ascending the 777 steps to the council chamber at its summit. His six brothers and sisters were already assembled and deep in debate.
“Are we even sure the Shadow Master is looking for Kleineflöte’s heirs?” Said Klarinette, frustration creeping into her voice. “I just spend the last six months crisscrossing the Seven Realms tracking down bastard descendants of that madman and twisting the arms of temples and holy orders to take them in! I keep having to claim to random birth marks are proof a child is the chosen one just to get people to cooperate!”
“Oh poor you! Got some saddle sores did you? Well I just sent seventy-seven Knights of the Silver Blade into the Valley of Oblivion to learn if the Master of Shadows truly lives again. A year of fighting the beasts of darkness and all we have to show for it is sixty dead knights and some vague ramblings howled by dying beasts. The Knights will need at least a generation to recover!” Violine wailed. She had mentored and nurtured the Knights for three centuries and her love for the order was well known. Männerchor sympathized. Especially in light of his own tidings.
“My brothers and sisters, the Fellowship of Liebesoboe has failed. Devoured in the Swamps of Sorrow. Therefore, I just sent another band of heroes to retrieve the Crown of Kings. The fourth band to attempt the task.” Männerchor explained.
“The fourth band… so far.” Violine spat.
“Have you considered just telling them where the damn thing is.” Gitarre sniped. “Seems it would save everyone a lot of trouble.”
“Oh fine, just let them ride around the Seven Realms with an accurate map to the Caverns of Cataclysm! Perhaps I should sent a copy to the Master of Shadows too while I’m at it!” Männerchor roared back.
“If the Master of Shadows even lives.” Violine added bitterly.
The seven wizards looked at each other. Gitarre chuckled, Violine giggled, Männerchor let loose a belly laugh that had been held back far too long. Klarinette waved her wand and refilled their drinks. Hats came off, staves were put aside, belts and robes loosened and Order of Euphonium relaxed in their chairs.
“I must confess I made the map a fair bit easier this time. Even a blunt instrument like Tiefe and an over-inflated peacock like Blockflöte should be able to follow it. I mean how much clearer can I make things?” Männerchor moaned.
“Oh dear Männerchor, you must not underestimate the stupidity of these mortals.” Klarinette shook her head. “The stories I could tell you. I ask a Temple to take in an orphan boy, tell them the fate of the world may rest on his shoulders, and they have the gall to ask for a donation!”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I gave them a pouch of gold and promised them more when I returned for the boy. Of course, the coins will turn to lead in a few weeks, but no doubt they will consider it a lesson about greed or some such.”
They all laughed.
“Oh I have to tell you about the ‘ancient prophesy’ I planted in the library of Trommelstocke!” Gitarre began. “I made the damn thing up in about five minutes, it goes-“
He looked up, so did the others. Quickly robes were tightened, hats restored, staves floated back into open hands. Cups disappeared into the aether. Decorum was restored to the Order of Euphonium as the diamond doors opened and Grand Mage Zymbal entered the chamber. His bald head was covered by a cap of finest gold filigree, and his robes such a bright combination of oranges and yellows they almost made the Symbol of the Sun on his breast disappear against them.
“My lord!” Seven voices cried. They performed the sign of the moon over their breasts. Zymbal answered them with the sign of the sun. Then with a gesture he bid them be seated.
“I know you have doubts.” Grand Mage Zymbal declared, stamping his staff on the floor the chamber. “I know the sacrifices have been many.” He stamped it again. “But I must ask for your faith! For the Seven Kingdoms are but a small corner of the Hundred Realms, and the battle here will be but a small part of the great war for the fate of this world. Remember always when the forces of the darkness gather, only through unity can the light shine through!” He brought his staff down a third time and great golden light filled the room. Even the assembled wizards had to shade their eyes, when they could see again, he was gone.
Silence reigned, but only for a moment.
“Well that bloody helps!” Gitarre muttered. “Guess I’ll just go back to sitting in inns and muttering cryptic riddles to passing mercenaries.”
“At least you’ll have a comfortable chair…” Klarinette responded with a smile. “I’d be happy to sit on my arse for a month instead of riding to every hamlet and village looking for the bloody chosen one! I’ve found sixteen chosen ones so far and I’ve still got dozens of villages on my list.”
“Better that then to bury another brave soul.” Violine whispered. Everyone grew silent.
“Hey everyone, I think the world can survive another day without our care. What do you say to another round of drinks!” Männerchor didn’t wait for an answer before spinning his wand in growing circles calling forth cups and bottles from the heavens themselves. “We’ll be a bit more enthusiastic for our missions after a night of good drinks and better company!”