“Dealing with cursed, evil artifacts is bad. Dealing with fiends is damnable. Dealing with fiends who specialize in the creation of cursed, evil artifacts is the height of self-destruction… and yet a seemingly endless stream of mortals continue to do so throughout the centuries.
But enough of that. You wish me to tell you about the Burdenstone of Betrayal – about the device, not its creator, though the two are inextricably intertwined.
Imagine, then, a young man-at-arms on the Prime Material Plane. He is essentially a good man, a fair-weather follower of Pelor. Like nearly all mortals, though, he has questionable impulses from time to time. The daughter of his lord is a very fair young woman. His lord has much wealth, and is no longer such a young man. His lord makes a bad decision from time to time, and perhaps the young swordsman can envision a better way to rule the land…
On his own, without outside influence, perhaps he would have remained steadfast to Pelor until he died. The daughter is married off securely to some other land baron, and the lord makes more bad and good decisions, which may or may not have their own consequences. Or perhaps the young man would have, eventually, betrayed his lord, allied with the enemies of that land, and allowed them to make him ruler of that particular fief.
Who can say?
If there is a single thing that you must understand regarding the Burdenstone, it is that it does not turn anyone to Evil. It is not like those helms that spontaneously turn paladins into black-hearted villains, and law-abiding mathematicians into anarchists. (The creator of the Burdenstone, incidentally, likes to mock such devices as horribly insipid and unsubtle.) Indeed, over beings with no taint of Evil to them at all, or to those that are utterly loyal and lack any inclination to betrayal, the artifact is as inert as a doorstop. It lures, it tempts, it entices, but the stone will never force its wielder to do anything. The intent, after all, is to damn mortals through their own choices.
In its true form, which the device almost never reveals on its own, the Burdenstone is a heavy, ugly, somewhat irregular stone made entirely of lead, connected to a heavy chain (obviously meant to be worn about the neck) also made of lead. The surface of the stone is liberally inscribed with runes that are themselves very uncomfortable to gaze upon, obviously of the Lower Planes. Occasionally primitive drawings of various human-like forms may be seen on its surface, as well.
I am struck by the general resemblance of the stone and the writing to that of a defixio, a particularly nasty form of binding spell – but it seems contrary to what is known about the nature of the artifact. The entire purpose of a defixio, after all, is to force someone to do or not do something against their will, while the Burdenstone is literally unable to compel its wielder. Perhaps resolving this seeming contradiction would help us to better understand and perhaps, someday, destroy it…
Most mortals never see the ‘true form’ of the stone. It is, in fact, sentient, and takes pains to resemble some sort of necklace or amulet that it believes its potential wielder might like. (The only time it does not take on the appearance of a neck piece is in the case of beings that have no necks – the Grim Beholder of Y’tiir is one example. In that case it took on the form of an elaborately inscribed torc that the beholder wore around one of its eyestalks.) It has appeared as an inscribed golden amulet, a gaudy bauble of bronze and glass, a primitive necklace of shells and shark’s teeth…
Once worn, the Burdenstone learns as much as it can about the personality and motivations of its owner. It identifies and isolates this person’s capacity for betrayal, then begins to work on him. Generally, it starts as a series of ‘ideas’ that form (or simply grow, if the owner has consciously contemplated a particular betrayal) in the person’s mind, appearing as if the person had come up with them itself. The Burdenstone has been doing this for a very long time, and is careful not to make a particular ‘suggestion’ seem too strange or jarring.
In many cases, this alone is enough to inspire its ‘owner’ to betray others. The artifact can also use carefully chosen dreams. For one whose conscience squirms at spilling blood, it might show a dream in which a young man is somehow now a noble lord, happily married to the former lord’s daughter, ruling the land wisely – but not actually showing the necessary betrayal. For one already wicked, it might simply spin a dream of a bandit (for example) cutting the throat of his band’s leader, taking his place, and successfully plundering caravans and villages.
Sometimes – and generally only after the owner has committed one or more major betrayals – the artifact reveals its speaking self, the ‘many-voiced one.’ Often this is a literal voice inside one’s head, though it can make itself audible to normal ears as well. Most rarely, it may manifest one or more of its thirty ‘images,’ male and female (and, I think, a few ‘other’) phantoms of many races, some now extinct. These phantoms cannot interact with the physical world in any way, but they can move and speak.
More on that later. If, for example, the Burdenstone is found as part of a treasure hoard, it is amazingly gifted at making sure it ends up in the hands of the one most susceptible to its influences (avoiding, for example, the devout paladin) and able to do the most damage. If someone manages to stoutly resist its suggestions, the Burdenstone will begin probing the souls of those nearby and urging them to kill (or drug, or enspell, or whatever is most convenient) the wielder, and make sure they pick up the necklace too. It rarely has to do so, being careful in its initial choice.
At some point – depending on the nature of the ‘owner’ – the Burdenstone may reveal that it is magical and sentient, and claim to be anything that might impress or inspire the wielder. A magical amulet containing the intellect of a long-dead mage of an ancient empire? Certainly. An eladrin imprisoned by a fell wizard? Surely. A relic created by the owner’s patron god, given to mortals to aid them in their struggles? No problem. The Burdenstone has a gift for making even outrageous lies seem entirely believable. It may even reveal that it is evil, though it does not normally speak of its true purpose – to damn the souls of as many mortals as possible, by inducing them to betrayals. The Burdenstone is able to conceal its nature even from the true vision spell (only the most extraordinarily powerful forms of divination have much chance of revealing its true nature), and can appear as non-magical, slightly magical, highly magical… however it wishes to, really. Once the owner becomes aware that the Burdenstone is some kind of powerful magical item, however, the artifact may reveal some or all of its powers.
* The ‘owner’ may disguise himself as any kind of humanoid being that would normally be seen in the area where he travels. (In a world with no dwarves, he could not disguise himself as a dwarf.) This is an illusion effect, with visual, audible, olfactory, and even tactile components, but – like much associated with this evil device – it is impervious to most forms of divination, including truesight. The owner does not gain any special powers, such as the ability to see in darkness. The owner can, with adequate acting ability, impersonate specific individuals.
* The ‘owner’ may, at will, scry any person or location he can uniquely identify (i.e., enough for the scrying spell to work) on the same plane, unless the scrying is blocked by some spell or force. Such scrying may be detected by anti-scrying spells or devices, but they never seem to reveal that the artifact is the Burdenstone. They may well reveal the identity of the ‘owner,’ though!
* Detect magic, good, and evil at will. Even if an aura is ‘overwhelming,’ the Burdenstone will block the worst of the effect from its ‘owner’ if it would burden him tactically. The artifact may selectively prevent its owner from noticing the magical/good/evil property of something if it is in the artifact’s interest to do so.
* Teleport without error. The Burdenstone will seldom grant this ability, and only for very specific purposes. If the prince to be assassinated is hidden behind dozens of guards that cannot be bribed, cajoled, or slain by the artifact’s ‘owner,’ the artifact may resort to teleporting him into the prince’s closet. If the ‘owner’ is about to be captured by incorruptible servants of some god of Weal, the device may teleport him to safety. This will only be to a location on the same plane. (I’ve heard a rumor that it is capable of teleporting its ‘owner’ to either Carceri or to the Third Mount of Gehenna. If so, it is very rarely done, and perhaps only as a final betrayal of the owner.)
* It is able to make the ‘owner’ into a gifted liar. Any lies or half-truths spoken by the ‘owner’ will foil even most magical and psionic divinations (such as detect lie spells). The owner may flawlessly spin lies to a Mercykiller while under the influence of the artifact. It is still possible for a bluff to fail, but only if the ‘owner’ is simply bad at it – the effect ‘only’ makes him more glib and protects him from magical and psionic detection.
* Finally, once the Burdenstone has corrupted its ‘owner’ to the point that his soul may be considered thoroughly damned, the ‘owner’ becomes immune to most abilities that drink or destroy souls (for example, soul-stealing swords), or taint them in a way that the Burdenstone would not approve of. The artifact is jealous of the souls it claims and attempts to protect them from such effects.
As a side note, any being that has a strong supernatural connection to Weal – a guardinal or deva, for example, a paladin in good standing, a proxy of an Upper Planar god – will be horribly burned by merely touching this fell device, in whichever form it assumes. (I still have a scar.) Natural healing methods won’t work, and the wound will even attempt to resist clerical healing – the more powerful and good the attempted spell, the greater the chance of success.
Only mortals can be corrupted by this device – as a result, only they can access its powers (if they are foolish enough to do so). The Burdenstone also appears to know if a mortal’s soul is already ‘claimed’ in an irrevocable or near-irrevocable way. For example, if a mortal has already bartered his soul away to a pit fiend, the artifact will have no interest in him and will not attempt to cajole him.
The Burdenstone picks and chooses when it will allow the ‘owner’ access to any of its powers. It will never allow its abilities to be used in pursuit of any good act or act of loyalty. It is much more likely to grant its powers in the pursuit of specific acts of betrayal. It is not interested in casual murder or cruelty; it encourages its ‘owner’ to acts that involve betrayal of a trust. (It may, for example, grant its powers to a professional assassin, but only if the assassin joins a noble house as an employee and wins the trust of its lord before assassinating him. It will not grant its powers to a cutpurse in an alley unless said cutpurse convinces his intended victim that he is, in fact, a tout or a helpful friend of the person his victim came to the city to meet.) The more betrayals that the ‘owner’ commits, the more likely the Burdenstone is to be liberal in granting its powers.
Finally, the artifact is – of course – cursed. Eventually – when the Burdenstone feels it has used this mortal to his full potential, or when it believes that the mortal is sufficiently (utterly) corrupted – the owner will himself die to an act of betrayal. Usually the one who betrayed him will become the next wielder of the artifact.
Supposedly, it is possible for the ‘owner’ at any time to repudiate the artifact by simply casting it from him and refusing to use it… yet, somehow, this seldom happens. The Burdenstone may additionally seek revenge.
As for its history…
Even I have not been able to pin down how many years have passed since the Burdenstone was forged – though it is said to be one of Vashanhusur’s earlier creations. (What, does that name surprise you?) Other yugoloths have claimed, in amused tones, that the Render detested being taken away from his research so much that he resorted to forging devices to corrupt souls for him. The Burdenstone is only one (and one of the most infamous) of many such.
Most likely this device is ‘targeted’ to provide souls specifically for the Tower of Incarnate Pain in Carceri – for which the demand is nearly infinite, as the gehreleths periodically manage to tear the place down. I suspect it is something he crafted at the behest of his superiors, rather than something designed entirely for his own purposes.
The Burdenstone is said to have been forged in the depths of Khin-Oin from the dissected remnants of some thirty damned souls – all traitors and betrayers of (in that long-forgotten era) historical note. I think it possible that the Render’s were not the only hands involved in the artifact’s creation, though I am sure he provided most of the inspiration (if it can be called that) behind it. The souls have been so mangled that they are no longer truly discrete entities; the ‘many-voiced one’ is the composite of what’s left over from the original thirty. What is left is the fragmented, tormented consciousness that inhabits the Burdenstone and incites living mortals to evil.
Like all artifacts, it has proven notoriously difficult to destroy – despite many attempts. I believe that many locations on the Upper Planes would provide some means of destroying the artifact permananently, but the Burdenstone is remarkably adept at preserving its own existence (as I have, unfortunately, discovered). Placing it in direct contact with a Tome of Ultimate Good did manage to partially melt its surface and render it inert for several days, in addition to generating a sizeable explosion of released holy/unholy energies. Unfortunately, it did appear to repair itself over time. I suppose one could, in theory, prevail upon its creator to destroy it, but nothing enrages the Render like the destruction of his work – better to stick to the abovementioned Upper Planar methods.
For unfortunate mortals who happen upon the item, it’s usually best to hurl the Burdenstone into the nearest ocean or volcano, or to bury it in the most thoroughly consecrated ground available.”
-- Uncertain author, but attributed to Turila the Insightful, an ursinal guardinal