4 – Balston

Chapter 4: The Balstonian Empire

Only with the benefit of ages past do we get a better glimpse into the nature of the Balstonian Empire. We know that the shadow of that empire cast itself across the entirety of earth. We know that the empire of darkness originated in a land called Balston, far across the world from the Party’s origins in Greyhawk – so far that it seems like a cosmic manifestation of the polar opposition between light and dark.  We know that at its head was a mage of great power by the name of Clinchor. The burning historical question remains: How did a single man manage to dictate his law across the earth, subjugating and oppressing diverse peoples to the very edge of the world?

The answer to that question remains unclear and it is important that this is stated up front, before I propose what amounts to a historical theory. Like all theories, it takes the scant evidence that has survived the ages and attempts to consistently interpret it while providing a coherent and plausible story.  In this particular case, the story is also informed by a much broader philosophy about the mystery of the cosmos, the nature of light and shadow, and the Party of the Pendants’ seemingly integral role in the destiny of the universe.

In this attempt to explain what seems inexplicable, I will begin with some philosophical reflections. They are speculations grounded in the Party’s experience of the cosmic battle as it has played out over the past several centuries – and the possibility that the second of the prophesized five cataclysms came to pass with Clinchor’s reign of terror.

From such philosophical heights I will return to the locus of the dark empire – to the mage Clinchor and a plausible explanation concerning the origin and spread of his power. In so doing, we will traverse time, oscillating back and forth between old and new world knowledge. We will also traverse space, taking a geographical tour of earth as we speculate on the spread of Clinchor’s tentacles to lands as distant as Greyhawk. But first, a brief philosophical interlude.

Many religions of this earth, and even the spiritual lore of Middle Earth, affirm a single truth in numerous ways. Their creation stories, as diverse as they are, have common threads. It matters not which example I choose, as the stories point to the same cosmic truth – understood and articulated through the mirror of the culture within which they exist. I will provide a brief example, from those creation stories I am most familiar with, to aid in understanding. Know that I know the limitations of such articulation.

The source of all existence is One. It is Being. Good. True. Beautiful. It always has been and always will be, infinite and eternal. It is often understood as light, perhaps the most apt metaphor we have for reference.

Yet nothing can be distinguished in the One light. There are no forms, no time, no space. For a created world to be, the One had to become many, to embody itself in time and space, to take forms.

In the land of my birth, known as Middle Earth, the stories refer to this One Being, eternal and infinite, as  Eru. Eru became incarnate in the Valar – became many.  As the One light of Eru became many, Shadow also became. It was a necessary consequence of plurality. The One, in the process of becoming many, necessarily created a Second One. As the one harmonious chord of Eru became many, disharmony came to exist. It was a necessary consequence of plurality.  As One Being became many beings, the void of nothingness became. As creation became manifest in form, destruction came to exist. As life became, so too death. In order for the world we know to exist – in its ever changing, temporally racing, spatially occupying glory – Being created Nothingness as a Second One.

While originally united with the will of Eru, the Valar were also uniquely free to create. Through their harmonious songs, existence multiplied into the beautiful diversity of the created world. But light has no form without shadow and harmony remains unheard without disharmony.  The One, in becoming many, created a Second One. The freedom of created creators was born.

Morgoth, one of the Valar, broke with the will of Eru.  He let go of the One creative light at his source, rejecting the pursuit of truth and goodness innate to it in order that he could be truly Other. He rejected Eru and Ego was born.

But in order to be truly Other, Morgoth had to embrace all that Eru was not – he had to embrace the other One, the One that was born as a necessary consequence of plurality – Shadow, disharmony, void, destruction, death, evil. Morgoth became shadow incarnate. Not shadow itself. A fallen angel. The Fallen Angel.

Lucifer rejected God in favor of his own will. The freedom to do so was a consequence of the Second One. The rejection required embracing the Second One. Shadow, disharmony, void, destruction, death, deception, evil. Lucifer is the Shadow incarnate. A fallen angel. The Fallen Angel.

Lolth rejected the One existent in favor of her own will.  The rejection required embracing the Second  One. Shadow, disharmony, void, destruction, death, deception, evil. Lolth is the Shadow incarnate.

The Light is. It is the First One. The gods and the saints of the world faiths are light incarnate, in a pure form. The light is also incarnate in the minions of good, though less purely so.

The Shadow is. It is the Second One. The fallen angels of the world faiths are the Shadow incarnate, in a pure form. The Shadow is also incarnate in all the minions of darkness, though less purely so.

Conscious life involves the knowledge required to make a choice and the will to choose.  Angel of God or Servant of Darkness? What will we be?

If we do not know the difference between light and dark we are ignorant and can only be liberated through knowledge. If we know the difference but lack the will to choose the good, then we are sinners who can only be saved through devotion. If we know the difference and have the will to choose the good, but still choose to serve the shadow, then we are not just ignorant sinners. We are a more pure form of Shadow incarnate.

Perhaps the only thing that is certain is that most servants of the One or Second One, light and dark alike, are ignorant and lack will. Therefore, they only imperfectly incarnate those cosmic foundations of the One and the Second One. This is a matter of degree, however, and both history and religion teaches us that in rare cases the servants of light more perfectly incarnate the qualities of the One, Eru’s knowledge and will shining through them unimpeded. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the servants of darkness who more perfectly incarnate the qualities of the Second One. Morgoth’s knowledge and will shining through them unimpeded.

Clinchor, Arch-Mage of Balston, was a powerfully  pure incarnation of the Shadow. He was, however, a mere minion of an even more powerfully pure incarnation – the Dark Lord Asmodeus, ruler of the nine hells. It is such for almost all of us that begin life in the frailty of our mortal coils.  Too ignorant and weak to know and embrace the Light or Shadow as they are, in their pure form as One and  Second One, we attach to manifestations of them incarnate in something more familiar. We learn the teachings through another, a more limited and understandable form, transcending as we grow. We are devoted to the will of our masters in a form that we can implement and understand, making their will our own.

Although his origins remain shrouded in mystery, the extent of Clinchor’s success serving the Shadow make us imagine a youth eagerly devouring the knowledge of the the arcane and a will tainted, by birth or experience, so that it hungered for power and the assertion of control. Any historical explanation of Balston’s ascension to power pivots on this man and the mysterious connection he had to the nine hells.

Tales of old speak of a deal that the Arch-Mage of Balston made with Asmodeus, selling the Arch-Ruler of the nine hells his soul in return for the power the Dark Lord could grant him. The concept of a sold soul is difficult to grasp, so I favor an interpretation more in keeping with the philosophy espoused earlier. Clinchor, by whatever cause and means, embraced darkness over light and sought to serve the shadow – believing that doing so would grant him the all consuming authority and control his own ego hungered for. Clinchor was intimately aware of the Dark Lord Asmodeus and began to serve the Shadow through homage to that concrete form. It is possible that Clinchor inherited a Balston that had already founded itself as a society in service to Asmodeus, much as Alakavia is based on that religious culture today. Whether the two were connected in this manner from some lost and ancient time or it was Clinchor’s influence alone that created the similarity is not known, perhaps it never will be.

In either case, Clinchor’s devotion and worship garnered the Dark Lord’s attention and Asmodeus, a kindred ego lusting for control through devastation and destruction, obliged. He gave Clinchor the key to the nine hells. With the Dark Lord’s blessing and his own mastery of the arcane arts, powerful demons began to arrive to do Clinchor’s bidding. His army of demons would grow to immense proportions, but the most powerful servants – the Pit Fiends, would come to serve a special purpose.

The methods by which Clinchor would be able to assert his dominance across the world are likely best understood by imagining them in the concrete locale of his homeland. The mage secured his power locally before it grew like a fireball rolling down a mountain of molten lava.

The civilization in which Clinchor first asserted his authority was known as Balston. It was a rugged land along the eastern coast of the large continent in the north of the western hemisphere. Its rocky coasts give way to plains of jagged rock, before transitioning to more fertile grasslands,  flat plains, and massive forests. As one progresses west across the continent, foothills give rise to a mountain chain, descending again into hill country to the western coast. Although Clinchor’s home was on the far eastern shores of this massive continent, the entire continent still bears the name of Balston.

Today, nothing remains of the human civilization that was Clinchor’s home. The best reflection of its people and purpose is to be found in Alakavia, far in the east. The mysterious human culture of Clinchor’s Balston may have always lived in service to Asmodeus, or was forced to do so under his reign. In either case, we do know something about the nature of the subjugation.

Fundamental to ruling over his people with an iron fist was a forced servitude to the lord and master Asmodeus. Those who did not voluntarily accept the will of the Dark Lord as their own would be persuaded to do so, either through the Arch-Mage’s powerful magics or fear of death.

Clinchor had prepared for this day. As a budding mage he quested for the Orb, Jewel, and Crown of Charisma. The trio of items gave him an immense presence, encouraging those who heard him to bow to his will and be persuaded by his deceit. He flipped the order of the cosmos upside down, speaking to his subjects of the power of the dark and the pain of the light. Good was bad and bad was good. A will to power the ultimate pursuit, love and compassion mere weakness. No doubt most of his subjects fell under the sway of his potent charisma. For those that needed more convincing, Clinchor had an answer.

The populace of Balston was branded with a pentagram between their shoulder blades, indicating their submission to the will of Asmodeus. Without such a pentagram, people were subject to instant death at the hands of Clinchor’s patrolling demons. The Pit-Fiends, in particular, flew unhindered throughout the population – feeding on those who had not submitted themselves and who did not bear the mark of Asmodeus. Worse, the Pit Fiends’ capacity to sense goodness – to know when someone still worshipped the light –  meant that they could eradicate it whenever the opportunity availed itself. Not only did the people of Clinchor’s Balston have to submit to the mark of Asmodeus, their submission had to be complete. If not, they would become demon food.

With such rigid control over the will of his subjects, Clinchor’s eyes likely expanded to the populations most accessible to him. The northern Balstonian continent, we know today, is home to a great number of indigenous tribes that span from coast to coast. It is also home to a great number of Norse clans, not indigenous to the land but migrants from the northeast at some point in the distant past. Both are semi-nomadic warrior cultures, promising assets to a megalomaniac who dreamed of ruling earth. It is likely that a combination of magically-enhanced charisma and fear of death by demon subjugated these peoples to Clinchor’s purpose. Those who he could not persuade with the power of his magic and unnatural charisma, he would subjugate by force – setting the fires of hell down upon all who disobeyed. By such persuasion, and conquest, his army rapidly grew.

And the people obeyed, giving up the light of their old ways, because they had to believe it was right. If they did not, they died a demonic death.

With the continent of his homeland under his supreme authority, the Arch-Mage would take his ever burgeoning army to his next target. Although history does not afford us a precise map of the Dark Mage’s conquest, there are references couched in ancient terms that can be interpreted to provide a theory of Balston’s growth. The order in which I present the fall of people across earth may not be precise, but between sparse records and most-likely scenarios, I will paint a picture of Clinchor’s conquest that is reasonable, if not perfectly accurate.

Early in his rise to power, Clinchor got his first taste of a united front. As the prophecy received by Meneleus warned – only the unity of peoples against their common enemy could save them. Clinchor learned this truth early, and carefully constructed his conquests to ensure that people would live in ignorance of the threat that he posed. He wanted them to remain isolated in the safety of their own lands until it was too late.

The Resistance came from a land the old histories of Greyhawk referred to alternately as Ulvorn and Evenstoke. The lands are at the southern tip of the Balstonian continent, connecting it to the continent below by a narrow land mass. The area is covered in lush forest and is still home to one of the largest populations of Elves on earth – despite the near cultural genocide that befell them. The ancient race, due to their longevity, tend to have a better understanding of the world in which they live than human cultures. Clinchor’s conquest of the continent to their north did not escape Elven sight and the various  tribes of the region united to resist the threat.

The Elves of Evenstoke share the land with human cultures, specifically the Mayan, Aztec and Inca. Contact between them was not well established and any attempts that may have been made to secure an allied resistance ended in failure. Despite being greatly outnumbered by the indigenous tribes and Norse clans supporting Clinchor’s growing army, the Elven people felt forced to offer a united resistance and stop the southerly advance of the Balstonian Empire.

The songs of the Elven bards celebrate the courage and skill of their warriors and reveal that the resistance may have met with some early success – even liberating some of the indigenous tribes subjugated to Clinchor’s will. Yet the illusion of victory would soon be dispelled. Clinchor’s army of demons grew by the day. The Elven people were enslaved and nearly eradicated, owing to their steadfast refusal to succumb to the Dark Lord’s will and abandon their deities. The Mayans, Aztecs and Inca were soon to follow the Elves into slavery.

Clinchor now had his link to the southern continent in the west. His armies prepared to march on the region known to the old world as Wittsburgh. Today the term Wittsburgh only refers to the southern part of the continent of Hyboria – a very populated land mass with a staggering diversity of culture. It was here, perhaps more than anywhere else in his conquest, that Clinchor would succeed by persuasion and rapidly bolster the ranks of his army. Having learned of the challenges that a united resistance could pose, Clinchor careful segregated the various cultures of Hyboria and ensured they did not see the threat of subjugation until it was too late.

The Western world was firmly under his sway, his demons ensuring that the populations were loyal subjects. Clinchor very likely appointed his Pit Fiends to govern and control limited populations of the subjugated people. With every conquest came more power.  The resources of the lands were now controlled by the new Demon Lords. The ancient cultures pillaged mercilessly to fuel the dark mage’s cause.

Clinchor was ready to take his army east, across the great sea. It is unclear whether the Balstonians had naval capacity themselves, or whether they relied on the extensive naval prowess of their conquered subjects. In either case, a massive armada with Balstonian and demon troops – supported by diverse armies of the conquered – set sail from Balston to Albornia.

Albornia, as it is still called today, is a massive land mass in the north, separating the eastern and western hemispheres. It is an ice realm, sparsely populated by Norse and ice orcs. It fell under Balstonian control with little resistance.

The armada proceeded east to a region the old world knew as Osworn. Today we know that the myriad of civilizations referred to by this term fell, one by one, with little resistance. The celts of Briton and Scotland. The celts of the twin Isles of Ireland. The Arthurian Britons of Angleland. From the west it moved east. Franks, Saxons, Danes, Slavs and Scythians. North of the great Serpentine Mountains the tentacles spread, coalescing again in the strange land of Alakavia. Some believe that the Balstonian civilization actually originated in Alakavia, others that it was brought to Alakavia from Clinchor’s homeland. In either case, his people were reunited under a single banner, as were most of the civilizations in the world.

Further south they also fell. From the west it moved east. Aragon, Castille, Granada, Rome, Greece and Persia. South of the great Serpentine Mountains the tentacles spread east into the land dubbed Bluestone by the Greyhawkians. Today we know that these are the arid lands of the Babylonians, Sumerians, Phoenicians and Assyrians. The army from hell was arriving on Greyhawk’s western border.

But the tentacles spread further, to a land known in the old world of Greyhawk as Northwood. This misnomer serves to show how little our ancestors knew of the world around them. Now known as Ghana, the northern portions of the continent are dominated by the world’s largest desert – the Ankh Desert. The region is populated by Lybians, Egyptians and Carthaginians. In the southwest, tribal cultures such as the Ashanti, Masai and Zulu had survived since the dawn of time, or at least our knowledge of it. The eastern side of Ghana is a massive jungle, populated by Indian peoples in lands now known as Khalistan, Hindustan and Islamastan. In the south, a pale-skinned culture from the north who call themselves Abyssinian. Worlds within worlds, diversity so rich it is palpable. All enslaved.

The mere thought of the immensity of Clinchor’s control sends chills down my spine. What a horrid and dark world, the creative light of diverse people snuffed out by an overpowering shadow.

And it was not done.

The noose was tightening on our Greyhawkian heroes. Their cataclysm was near and the horrifying army they would soon face from the west was amassing in Alakavia. But we know from the story of Ulysses of Kaldon, that Clinchor went north first – conquering the sparsely populated northerners before making his play on Greyhawk. One can only speculate why it was that Greyhawk, together with a land the Greyhawkians referred to as Pennesalia, were the last to fall. Perhaps it was as simple as the fact that they are on the opposite end of the earth from where Clinchor’s reign of darkness began.

The old histories refer to both of these lands as the last to fall. It may be that the final conquests occurred simultaneously. The sheer size of the Balstonian army, with its subjugated warriors, certainly would have made it possible.

Clinchor’s armies sailed east from Ghana into the region known as Pennesalia. This region is now known as the continent of Quistom, surrounded by several large islands which were at the time populated by humanoid races such as orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, beastmen, ogres, giants, kobolds, lizardmen and draconians. It is likely these creatures voluntarily joined Clinchor’s Empire as soon as they had the opportunity.

This was an unfortunate reality for the Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes that populated the forests, mountains and hills of Quistom. They had no doubt dealt with the threat of the humanoids on the islands surrounding them for centuries, but never before would they have to face those races united under the banner of a world empire.

Elven ballads again tell of heroic resistance, even victory, against the first onslaught of Clinchor’s hordes. United with the Dwarves and Gnomes, the Elves of Quistom stood their ground and drove the initial invasion back. But the Balstonian’s had what seemed an infinite army, bolstered by the recruitment of the neighbouring humanoids. The songs sing of devastation. The Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes fell together on the northern coasts of Quistom – their populations nearly annihilated because of their refusal to betray their gods and submit to the will of Asmodeus. Remnants of Elves escaped into the forests, Dwarves into the mountains, and Gnomes into the hills. If their races were to survive on Quistom the only thing left to do was run and hide.

I have already relayed the tale of Greyhawk’s fall, and the exodus on the Liberation to the hidden island of Shemar deep in the Southern Sea. Clinchor’s victory was complete and his reign of darkness smothered the planet in deep shadow. But flickers of light remained.

 

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