Wyrms of the North: Balagos, "The Flying Flame"
Dragon Magazine #232
By Ed Greenwood with supplementary material provided by Eric L. Boyd
The survey of dragon rulers of the North conducted by the notorious Volo (and corrected by Elminster) continues with one of the most famous dragons in all Faerûn: Balagos, the Flying Flame. This great red wyrm is legendary for his gigantic size and temper, and for the spells he hurls so often and recklessly in his boisterous, brawling rise to supremacy (he intends) over all Faerûnian dragonkind. Balagos acts like a much younger dragon, betraying neither weakness nor loss of fire and showing wisdom only in his avoidance of well-prepared mages who come looking for him. He strikes hard and unexpectedly, and he has slain so many other dragons that the elves dubbed him "Dragonbane."
Balagos is Ulla Bahor in the tongue of the gnoll. Shortened to Bahor, this name has passed into wider use among the humans. Whatever he is called, this giant dragon is a fearsome foe who delights in slaughtering adventurers, wizards, and dragons alike. He has been the death of the Company of the Firestar (based in Esmeltaran), the Company of the Coin (out of Amnwater), the Laughing Lynx Long-haul Caravan Company of Riatavin, the wizards of the Tower of Tyruld east of Keshla, and the entire seven-ship Silver Swords Boarding Company pirate fleet!
In addition, Balagos is thought to have destroyed Tastrar Nagthalass and at least four other Red Wizards, as well as three or more Zhentarim magelings sent separately on a mission to steal magic from the Flying Flame's hoard. This fool's errand was ordered by Lord Manshoon not to win powerful magic but in hopes that Balagos would be goaded into pursuing the magelings to recover the lost treasure -- only to be lured into a trap. Certain of the elder orb beholders who support (some would say manipulate) Manshoon have developed a spell they believe will (if they surrounded the great wyrm and cast it together) put Balagos in mind-thrall to them, helpless to escape the endless watchful weight of a dozen old and mighty beholder minds. Presumably this trap still awaits Balagos, who avoided it by slaughtering all the Zhentarim who dared approach his lair.
Balagos is a megalomaniac who truly believes he has the wits and might to rule all Faerûnian dragons -- and lead them in a war of extermination against humans and elves, leaving other beings as fodder to be devoured at will by the victorious wyrmkin. His mighty ego and raging temper doesn't render him stupid, however. Where many a red dragon charges into waiting death, Balagos coolly slips away and plots revenge by striking foes at their weakest point. (He typically flies away to strike at the homes and mates of those who come seeking to slay him, if he can learn who and where such targets are). The great red wyrm is more intelligent than most red dragons and has three outstanding talents: he never forgets the face, name, or attitude of any being he meets (dragon, human, or other); he is a shrewd judge of character (of many races, not just dragons); and he always looks ahead for consequences and likely outcomes. These faculties allow him to act in just the right way to defeat foes or further his aims as effectively as possible.
If cornered or pressed into a fight, Balagos is merciless and fearless, taking hurt if need be to disable a foe when he faces many opponents, and moving to force enemies to hamper or harm each other with spells and wielded weapons intended for him. He's called 'the Flying Flame' for the effective aim of his firebreathing dive, but he prefers to snatch up rocks, wagons, or horses and drop them on foes from aloft before sending his fire-breath onto foes or moving close enough to face the blades of his foes directly.
Balagos seems to need less sleep than most red dragons and spends the additional wakeful time he gains in wary observation of the land around. He often perches motionless atop a mountain peak in his domain, looking out over the landscape for hours. As the sage Thoravus of Athkatla commented in a public speech (given on Mirtul 26, 1354 DR), "The mind of Balagos is never still. He is always thinking -- thinking on how best to rise to rule all Faerûn. Most red dragons think they are fit to rule the world, if only the rest of us would acknowledge them. Balagos knows he is, and he just might, for once among all the arrogant, lazy failures that make up the dragonkind of today, be right. He bears watching. He will always bear watching."
Three days after that speech, Balagos swooped down from a clear sky and devoured Thoravus, smashing apart the sage's home in central Athkatla to do so. Most who witnessed the attack say the dragon intended to be seen, taking a deliberately leisurely approach beforehand, and a majestic pose atop the ruins afterward, to ensure that as many humans as possible saw him and were impressed. The bowmen of a mercenary caravan escort company hustled out into the street to fire at him, and he ignored their arrows as he leapt into the sky, circled slowly, and then flew away -- but the next day, when that company left the city guarding a mixed-wares caravan bound for Iriaebor, Balagos dove down out of the clouds and blasted or devoured every horse and being of the escort company -- leaving the caravan itself untouched. It's no wonder that in Amn and the surrounding lands, Balagos is deeply feared. His confidence and might make him seem truly a "Dragon King."
The Flying Flame's Lair
Balagos lairs in the Smokespire, the most westerly peak of that arm of the Troll Mountains that shelters the upland forests of Amn north of Eshpurta, and points toward the Ridge.
The Smokespire is a long-extinct volcano, with a central cone or shaft whose walls are covered with caves and pits. Most of these Balagos has turned into traps, filling the pits with the jagged, cracked bones of creatures he has devoured, then covering them with the scales of fallen draconic foes and dirt. The central pit is adorned with a mound of blackened stone coffers and melted coins, upon which is coiled the bones of a burned dragon, the remains of Hulrundrar, the old red dragon Balagos slew to take this lair as his own. With the aid of a few fire spells to provide a burnt smell and some drifting smoke, they fool some adventurers into thinking Balagos has been slain -- but their foe is usually watching them from aloft, or lurking in a side-shaft that opens into the bottom of the central shaft, allowing the Flying Flame to send his breath out across the scorched pit in a deadly sheet of flame.
Counting on his own immunity to fire, the great red wyrm often shows himself to foes. As they are concentrating on him, he activates the deadliest trap in his lair: the firestaff of Aunagar the Black (a long-dead mage of Tashluta). This weapon is buried among the scorched coffers so that its tip is exposed, and Balagos can activate only one of its powers from a distance -- the one that unleashes a meteor swarm silently up and in any one direction desired -- using an awaken from afar incantation. The Flying Flame triggers this behind a band of adventurers who face him and often melts or at least fries them all before a single spell is hurled or a sword raised in earnest.
Those who free themselves from this trap discover that the Smokespire is riddled with large, smooth-walled tunnels and that Balagos delights in dodging in and out among them, wearying intruders until they stop for a rest -- and become easy prey for spells or fire-breath sent down their tunnel.
Balagos keeps all of his magical treasure, and most of his gems, buried under sand in two of the deepest caverns of his lair, but most intruders never find them: they're busy battling one of the trio of young or juvenile (never older; Balagos devours them when they grow too old) dragons that Balagos has captured and forced to guard areas of his lair, with their wings bitten away and their hunger kept ravenous.
Balagos doesn't even spend most of his time in the Smokespire, using it instead as a lure for adventurers, Dragon Cultists, and other foes and would-be thieves. When he's not out exploring wider Faerûn (flying freely, daring other dragons to challenge him while in their territories) or enforcing his growing rule, he's inspecting his other lair, in Tethyr: the Wyrmwell, in Mount Thargil (easternmost of the Starspire Mountains), overlooking the former duchy of Sulduskoon (the upland farms between the upper Sulduskoon River and the Forest of Tethir).
This lair is named for its entry shaft -- a natural cauldron formed by the long ago collapse of a volcano. A thoroughly miserable, always-cold young adult brown dragon (found in Monsters of Faerûn), Altagos, inhabits this bowl valley, spending most of his time huddled in a tunnel he's scraped out in the ash, trying to get warm. He scrambles out smartly when intruders enter the cauldron: they're almost the only food he receives.
Altagos is the doorguard of a lair that begins as a huge cavern in the eastern side of the shaft walls -- a cave that is home to bats. Altagos swoops among them, mouth agape, as they leave at dusk and return at dawn, but it takes many bats to feed a hungry dragon. It is also home to several helmed horrors (found in Monsters of Faerûn), operating under orders to attack all humanoids who try to enter or leave the cavern unaccompanied by Balagos.
This cavern leads to a steeply descending tunnel whose floor is a slick chute of melted and fused glass (prepared by Balagos, with his flame breath) and whose ceiling is graven with regular holds for a dragon's claws. (Balagos slides down into the lair to enter, and -- on his back, with wings folded to fit into the tunnel -- climbs up out of it, to exit.) At the bottom of the tunnel is a large, irregular natural cavern whose once-molten walls resemble iron-red flows of ice (everything is smooth and sweeping, because the rock flowed like water before hardening), once a gas cavity at the heart of the volcano. In the sulfurous gloom here slithers a young black dragon, Auroxas, wingless (thanks to the Flying Flame's jaws) and tethered here with a mithral chain of woe by Balagos, to serve as a second lair guardian. This chain is too short to allow him to reach the bottom of the tunnel, and when Balagos enters this lower cavern, he can avoid contact with any acid Auroxas might dare to spit by turning sharply to the left, down a way along the edge of the cavern that keeps many pillars of rock between the two dragons.
This route leads to a spot where the cavern narrows, noxious volcanic vapors waft up into it, and a channel of chokingly hot lava crosses the open space. Only a red dragon or other creature immune to fire and heat effects can leap, stretch, or climb across the channel without harm. Beyond the channel, the way widens again in two smaller chambers, where Balagos keeps his main metals (coins, trade-bars, and items such as coffers, candlesticks, and platters, that are fashioned of precious metal) hoard. No one knows exactly how much wealth has been amassed here, but the guardian dragon Auroxas believes both caverns are heaped almost full, because increasing amounts of coinage are spilling down the passage to where they can reflect the dull, angry red glow of the lava.
Balagos keeps his two servitor dragon guards hungry and hating each other (by annually offering freedom to whichever one kills the other, and then towing Auroxas up into the Well to do battle with Altagos, only to declare neither worthy of freedom when the evenly matched dragons collapse from their wounds), but both would cooperate in an instant if they truly believed that they could win their freedom by doing so. The problem is that they don't believe there's a creature in Faerûn -- demigods and all -- who can defeat Balagos, so they dare not help any intruder against the Flying Flame, for fear of suffering the fate he often promises them: to cook small portions of their anatomy with his flame and then dine, leaving them alive as he nibbles away, taking meal after meal.
The Domain of Balagos
Balagos holds sway over a domain that stretches from the southern edge of the Wood of Sharp Teeth to the Giants Run Mountains, and from the southern banks of the upper River Chionthar (hard by the walls of Iriaebor) to the River Ith.
Many stretches of land around the edges of this area -- and the entire Forest of Tethir, within it -- are claimed by other dragons, but the Flying Flame has a rather casual attitude toward draconic dominion that other dragons have learned to accept. Most dragons hide when they see him on the wing or keep to their lairs and ignore his passage. Balagos considers all of Faerûn to be his, and lesser dragons (that is, all other wyrms) to be merely custodians of this or that part of it, who hold their offices and lives at his pleasure. Every so often, he makes an example of a random dragon to keep the others in fear of him; his common practice at such times is to slay the other dragon and then fly in a slow, triumphal flight around half the continent, with the corpse of his vanquished foe dangling from his jaws, for dragons and "cattle" (humanoids) alike to gawk at.
Balagos won his large personal holding by slaying the old red dragon Hulrundrar (in 1258 DR) and the venerable silver dragon Eacoathildarandus (in 1216 DR), whose lair was atop Scarsiir's Crag on the northern side of the Cloud Peaks, overlooking the Neck. The abandoned lair is now a monster-haunted place, with wyverns and peryton battling for use of the high ledges, and giant slugs and far worse things roaming the depths.
The Deeds of Balagos
Balagos is most fond of human flesh, particularly that of youngish females, though few communities think he can be appeased by offering him live maidens as sacrifices (as was once done in the villages of eastern Amn, in less civilized times). He relishes a good fight almost as much as a good meal, and he plays with prey that scrambles to escape or tries to fight back, while ignoring terrified cows that cower in fields in plain view.
The Flying Flame likes to bathe (unusual in a red dragon), and prefers to do so in the Chionthar (from which he has risen, dripping, at dusk, to terrify many a bargeman). He usually takes water at Lake Esmel or the Gaping Face Cascade (where Gaping Stream, the westernmost of the two tributaries of the upper Esmel River that join each other in the Troll Mountains and then flow south to join the Esmel at Trollford, is born). Balagos hunts anywhere he pleases, always over land and usually taking creatures on the move and not actually in mountains (the great wyrm is too cunning to trust confined spaces and the cover that caverns and rock pinnacles afford enemies).
To Balagos, there is no such thing as a typical day. He's always varying what he does, so no foe can catch him in a routine and no creature living in his domain can come to feel safe and complacent. He's as likely to alight on the roof of a coster hall in Athkatla as to sun himself on high ledges in the Troll Mountains, and every so often he flies hard and fast along the Trade Way, 40 ft. or so off the ground, terrifying horses and humans alike, and sending goods and wagons tumbling in the wind of his passing. If a farmer in Amn checks over his shoulder to look at the roof of his barn when coming in from the fields at dusk, grunting that "the King of All Dragons could be a-sittin' up there -- or anywhere!" Balagos is well pleased; that's exactly how he wants all of the creatures he rules over to feel.
Such behavior has won him no shortage of foes, and many a wizard has sought to win fame as "the destroyer of the dread Balagos" -- but such titles must be earned, and though a lone red dragon shouldn't be able to prevail against the right combination of spells and items, somehow Balagos always seems to survive, and the list of wizards who ended up as smoldering bones spit into bone pit by the Flying Flame grows ever longer.
Balagos takes no mates, though it's said he once consorted with Uluuthavarra, a venerable red dragon who laired somewhere near the Lake of Steam. In the end he had to slaughter all of his offspring, after they slew and ate their mother and came looking for him. Several wizards (including Elminster) share the belief that Balagos is covertly trying to research clone magics or a new kind of lichdom that will allow him to retain more of his powers than the Cult-assisted undead dragons that he contemptuously calls "bone dragons."
Balagos holds no special affinities or hatreds for anyone; all beings are his rightful subjects, and all who defy him must be destroyed. To many observers, he seems one of the few mad tyrants in Faerûn who just might have a chance to carry out such a policy and survive, as he already has done, for more than a thousand years.
Currently, Balagos is thought to be assembling a small band of loyal human agents whose tasks will be to strike at any human organization or dragon cabal that plots to work together against Balagos. The first few of these agents have already slain a Red Wizard who tried to poison the Gaping Face Cascade, so as to render Balagos blind and paralyzed. (The wizard had the concentration of liquids wrong and succeeded only in causing the great wyrm several days of discomfort).
The Fate of Balagos
It's conceivable that the Simbul, any two of the other Seven Sisters, or a cabal of wizards led by Khelben, Elminster, or perhaps Halaster of Undermountain could defeat Balagos in face-to-face battle -- and that a score or more of beings resident along the Sword Coast, such as the ultra-lich Larloch, could destroy the Flying Flame if he attacked them on their home ground, where they could call on servitor creatures, magic items, and traps. Yet none of these mighty ones ever corners Balagos -- and so his arrogant rule continues from decade to decade, century to century, and age to age. Misadventure or a lucky attack could weaken the wyrm and leave him vulnerable to the attacks of his many enemies, but at the moment such a fate seems unlikely. His recent efforts to achieve immortality, or at least a second chance, suggest that Balagos is at last feeling the hand of time . . . but they also mean that his first death may not be his last. Only his unpredictability keeps his tyranny from becoming intolerable -- and so long as his brilliance never strays into foolishness, Faerûn may live in fear of the Flying Flame for centuries to come.
Balagos: Male great wyrm red dragon; CR 20; Colossal dragon (fire); HD 40d12+400; hp 660; Init +4; Spd 40 ft., fly 200 ft. (clumsy); AC 41 (touch 2, flat-footed 41); Atk +49 melee (4d8+17, bite) and +47 melee (4d6+8, 2 claws) and +47 melee (2d8+8, 2 wings) and +47 melee (4d6+25, tail slap), or +49 melee (4d8+25, crush), or +49 melee (4d6+25, tail sweep); Face/Reach 40 ft. x 80 ft./15 ft.; SA Breath weapon (70-ft. cone of fire, 24d10), frightful presence, spell-like abilities; SQ Blindsight 360 ft., damage reduction 20/+3, dragon traits, fire subtype, keen vision, spell resistance 32; AL CE; SV Fort +32, Ref +22, Will +30; Str 45, Dex 10, Con 31, Int 26, Wis 27, Cha 26.
Skills and Feats: Appraise +28, Bluff +48, Climb +37, Concentration +50, Diplomacy +44, Escape Artist +30, Hide -16, Intimidate +32, Intuit Direction +23, Jump +57, Knowledge (arcana) +18, Knowledge (geography) +28, Knowledge (history) +18, Listen +48, Scry +38, Search +48, Sense Motive +23, Spellcraft +48, Spot +48, Swim +32, Wilderness Lore +18; Cleave, Flyby Attack, Hover, Improved Initiative, Lingering Breath, Multiattack, Power Attack, Snatch, Track, Wakefulness, Wingover.
Breath Weapon (Su): Balagos can breathe a 70-foot cone of fire every 1d4 rounds that deals 24d10 points of fire damage. His breath weapon attack allows a Reflex save (DC 40) for half damage. Balagos is immune to his own breath weapon.
Frightful Presence (Su): This ability takes effect automatically whenever Balagos attacks, charges, or flies overhead. It affects only opponents with fewer than 40 Hit Dice or levels. The affected creature must make a successful Will save (DC 38) or become shaken. Success indicates that the target is immune to Balagos' frightful presence for one day. On a failure, creatures with 4 or fewer HD become panicked for 4d6 rounds. Those with 5 or more HD become shaken for 4d6 rounds.
Spell-like Abilities (Sp): 12/day--locate object; 3/day--suggestion; 1/day--discern location, find the path; save DC 18 + spell level; cast as a 12th-level sorcerer.
Blindsight (Ex): Balagos maneuvers and fights as well by using nonvisual senses (mostly scent and hearing) as he does with vision. Invisibility and darkness are irrelevant, though he still can't discern ethereal beings. Balagos usually does not need to make Spot or Listen checks to notice creatures within range of his blindsight ability.
Dragon Traits: Immune to sleep and paralysis effects.
Fire Subtype: Immune to fire damage; takes double damage from cold unless a saving throw for half damage is allowed, in which case it takes half damage on a success and double damage on a failure.
Keen Vision (Ex): Balagos sees four times as well as a human in low-light conditions and twice as well in normal light.
Sorcerer Spells Known (6/8/8/8/8/7/7/7/7/4; base DC = 18 + spell level): 0 - arcane mark, detect magic, light, mage hand, mending, open/close, prestidigitation, read magic, resistance; 1st - alarm, burning hands, enlarge, expeditious retreat, shield; 2nd - bull's strength, cat's grace, eagle's splendor (see Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting), pyrotechnics, see invisibility; 3rd - dispel magic, fireball, haste, slow; 4th - fire shield, shout, stoneskin, wall of fire; 5th - dismissal, feeblemind, passwall, prying eyes; 6th - eyebite, Tenser's transformation, true seeing; 7th - delayed blast fireball, spell turning, teleport without error; 8th - incendiary cloud, iron body, mind blank; 9th - foresight, meteor swarm.
Possessions: Double Standard = Countless coins (many melted into slag), gems, trade bars, and other items fashioned of precious metal including coffers, candlesticks, and platters, worth approximately 24,625 gp, firestaff of Aunagar the Black, mithral chain of woe, and 3 potions of bull's strength.
The Magic of Balagos
Little accurate information is known of the magics of Balagos, but it is certain that he uses some powerful items crafted by others. One such item is a minor artifact known as a mithral chain of woe and another is the aforementioned firestaff of Aunagar the Black.
Mithral Chain of Woe: This ancient, rarely seen item may have been crafted in long-ago Netheril, where they captured, subdued, and controlled (as steeds, digging forces, or beasts of burden) lar This ancient, rarely seen item may have been crafted in long-ago Netheril, where they captured, subdued, and controlled (as steeds, digging forces, or beasts of burden) large monsters such as dragons. It consists of two mithral manacles that expand or shrink magically (from 3 inches to a 20-foot interior radius) to pass around a living body or stone spar that they're touched to as a command word is whispered (they do not change size if touched to wood or metal). A second command word causes the manacles to shrink again until they touch something solid -- allowing them, for instance, to be put over a man's head and then shrunk to clasp his neck snugly.
To open a manacle or change its size, the correct command words must be uttered by a creature who is directly touching the manacle to be affected. A heavy mithral chain links the manacles of a mithral chain of woe. The chain itself is 5 inches thick, and it has a hardness of 15, 150 hp, AC 9, and a break DC of 40.
The chain and manacles possess a resistance to both acid and lightning (similar to the protection from elements -- acid and protection from elements -- lightning spells cast at 20th level). As a result, those trying to use either of these elements on the item may find their efforts fruitless and even painful (see below).
A creature that strikes the manacles or chain directly or with any sort of weapon (regardless of its conductivity) suffers the effects of a lightning bolt spell, and such attacks cause no damage to the item (beings imprisoned in the manacles at the time don't suffer this damage). Missile attacks don't harm the launcher, but they also leave the chain unaffected.
Typically a mithral chain of woe is used to tether a powerful being to a stone spar or two beings to each other, usually with the chain between them wrapped around a stone pillar or other anchor. (In such a case the horizontal level of such a chain can be altered if both prisoners work together to shift the arc up or down the pillar, which is why this sort of tether often involves passage of the chain through a hole, or slot too narrow for the prisoners to pass through, between the anchor and either prisoner.)
Caster Level: 20th; Prerequisites: Craft Wondrous Item, lightning bolt, protection from elements -- acid, protection from elements -- electricity; Market Price: 150,000 gp; Weight: 50 lb.
Firestaff of Aunagar the Black: The firestaff of Aunagar the Black, a long-dead Tashlutan wizard, is crafted from the heart of a suth tree. It allows the wielder to cast the following spells:
- continual flame (1 charge)
- fireball (1 charge)
- wall of fire (2 charges)
- delayed blast fireball (2 charges)
- meteor swarm (3 charges)
The firestaff also grants its current owner a +1 resistance bonus to saving throws against fire effects and a -1 resistance penalty to saving throws against cold effects.
Caster Level: 17th; Prerequisites: Craft Staff, continual flame, delayed blast fireball, fireball, meteor swarm, resistance, wall of fire; Market Price: 135,375 gp.
One spell employed by Balagos is known to Elminster: Choking Claw
Ed Greenwood is the creator of the Forgotten Realms campaign, as well as the author of several bestselling fantasy novels. Many fans may recognize him more readily as Elminster the Sage.
Ed Greenwood's Wyrms of the North column ran from Dragon Magazine 230 through 259, detailing over two dozen unique dragons of Faerûn. Although written for 2nd edition AD&D, the original articles largely eschewed game statistics in favor of descriptive text, with the exception of the occasional spell or magic item. These articles will be reprised in a regular column on the Wizards of the Coast website with the addition of game statistics and updated spells and magic items for the new D&D.