The Silver Wolf: Ghosts of the Past
Jared “CruelSummerLord” Milne
Company of the Silver Wolf Book Two
The Kron Hills were one of the great gnomish homelands in the Flanaess. The noniz, as the human Flan people called them, had called the hills home for as long as the Flan elders could remember. Prospering from the treasures of the oerth, the gnomes had a long and proud history of fighting alongside human and dwarven allies against orcs, ogres and other foul creatures.
The gnomes’ capital was the great city of Copper Crossing, located east of the smaller village of Tulvar and almost due south of the human city of Verbobonc. Half of Copper Crossing’s sixteen thousand inhabitants were gnomes, with humans and dwarves each forming another quarter of the population. Other communities in the Kron Hills were known for unoerthing precious metals and gems, but Copper Crossing was more known for its vast mines of copper, tin and other more mundane metals. The only precious metal mined in Copper Crossing was copper, and so it provided half the city’s name. The other part of the city’s name came from its location on the trade routes between the human communities of Dyvers and Verbobonc to the north, the elven land of Celene to the south and the human wretches of the Wild Coast to the east. The combination of trade and mining had made Copper Crossing very prosperous, and its merchants were widely respected in the human and elven lands.
The gnome gem dealer Laessar Bradon was a perfect example of those merchants. He had come to Copper Crossing more than three decades ago to seek his fortune, and over that time become one of Copper Crossing’s most prosperous citizens. Laessar did not display his wealth as ostentatiously as some of his rivals, but he wore a silver ring on each hand, and his hair and clothes were perfectly cut and coiffed. He had the quiet confidence of a man who knew he was master of his house, and sometimes of others’ houses as well.
Laessar’s confidence showed itself in his bearing as his coachman drove him home, the way he strode through the front doors of his manner and how he marched into his study. Looking at his elaborately carved desk, Laessar nodded with satisfaction. His valet Borrus had already set out his correspondence for his review, and set out the wine, fruit and cheese he enjoyed eating while he worked.
Laessar managed to keep his confidence as he shut and locked the study door, and sat down at his desk. Laessar’s confidence immediately vanished once he’d sat down, as he put his face in his hands. He sat there for several minutes, and when he raised his face again he looked as though he had aged a hundred years. His hands began to tremble as he opened the first of his letters, even as his shoulders bent.
The first letter was from one of Laessar’s friends in the Gentry of Dyvers, assuring him that the permits for his shipment to Willip in Furyondy had already been approved. Once Laessar’s goods arrived in Dyvers, they would be on the boat to Willip in less than a day.
The second letter was from one of Laessar’s friends in Veluna City, giving Laessar some advice on the market outlook for Baklunish wines. According to Laessar’s friend, that the market outlook wasn’t as good as most of the speculators were thinking. The friend strongly advised Laessar to minimize his investments in the wines.
The third letter was from one of Copper Crossing’s bureaucrats, assuring Laessar that his taxes for the year had been paid in full and that he didn’t owe any more money.
For a moment, Laessar seemed to regain his confident manner, as he thought he had no more mail.
Then he remembered that he had a fourth letter.
His hands began to tremble as he opened the letter, and he shuddered as he recognized the handwriting.
The usual collection of goods arrive three days from today, at the Wyvern Location.
These goods must go by the Forgotten Route.
You know, of course, the rewards of success…
…and the penalty of failure.
Tears formed in Laessar’s eyes as he buried his face in his hands.
Laessar had given his family and servants strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed when he reviewed his confidence. When he emerged from his study two hours later to eat his supper, he was again projecting his confident, assured manner.
He was the only one who knew it was all a lie.
A Midsummer Night’s Plea
“Trust me, the moons will be lovely when they come out together,” the human Weimar Glendowyr said to the gnome Airk Venbelwar as they sat down at their table. They had both heard about the quality of the mead served at the Wizard’s Hat Inn, where they were staying, and were eager to see if it lived up to its reputation.
“I’d think I have more experience than you with the moons,” Airk said, as Weimar immediately took a hefty swig of mead. “Do you know how many years I have on you?”
The human Weimar just laughed as he set his tankard down. The scars on his neck and forearms combined with the reddish look to his eyes and nose, his liquor-stained leather armor and drab trailworn clothes to mark him as a man who had known years of hard living. While Weimar seemed dangerous at first glance, his rakish handsomeness and smiling manner showed an entirely different side to his character, one that was quite pleased with the company and friends he kept. His unkempt blonde hair and dull green eyes completed the look, making him appear affable and rough all at once.
“Yes, but could you really appreciate the moons’ dance as much?” Weimar asked, a teasing smile playing about his lips.
“Of course I could, and unlike you I won’t be watching it through a haze,” Airk said, taking a smaller drink of mead than Weimar did.
Airk’s demeanor and appearance were very different than Weimar’s. He was quiet and somber, his bright brown eyes constantly glancing from side to side, always on alert. Vigilance seemed almost tangible around him, making him able to respond to a crisis at a moment’s notice. The military way Airk carried himself in, bred into him by decades as a soldier, only added to that image. The gnome’s blonde hair, short bushy beard and carefully waxed handlebar moustache were all immaculately cut. Airk was not wearing his heavy plate armor and dragon-headed helmet, or the formidable weapons he usually carried, but Weimar knew that Airk wielded and polished them with equal skill.
“Trust me, the moons will be beautiful no matter what,” Weimar said, before taking another drink. Weimar and Airk were referring to Luna and Celene, the twin moons of Oerth, which would both be full and shining on Godsday, two days hence. The presence of the moons marked Midsummer Day in the Flanaess, and the week-long festival of Richfest.
“Pity Greyhawkers don’t seem to have much affection for Richfest,” Weimar said. “I wonder why that is?”
“Why would they waste time getting drunk, when there’s profit to be had?” Amyalla Reorsa said as she came up to Weimar’s and Airk’s table. The man and gnome both smiled a greeting at their halfling companion as she sat down, a tankard of light, sweet Celenese wine in her hand.
Amyalla was the envy of almost any other woman she met. Her long fire-red hair and emerald green eyes combined with a perfectly shaped figure and a graceful walk, showing how equally adept she was at stealing hearts and treasure alike. A coquettish smile always seemed to play about her lips, the smile of a woman who knew the power of her charms and took a distinct pride in them. Her attire was a curious mix of the stylish and practical, consisting of a plain traveling gown combined with fashionable doeskin boots and a wide-brimmed hat decorated with orchids and lilacs.
“Right, you grew up in Greyhawk, didn’t you?” Airk said, referring to the free city where they and the rest of their companions were staying.
“Not quite-Greyhawk was where I found a home,” Amyalla said. A cloud passed over her face as she recalled the painful memories that had led her to come to Greyhawk.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything,” Airk said, recalling what Amyalla had told them about her abusive marriage in the Duchy of Urnst, and the social scandal she’d caused that had forced her to flee to Greyhawk.
“Don’t worry about it,” Amyalla said, the coquettish smile returning to her face. “But like I was saying, Greyhawkers don’t celebrate Richfest the way some other peoples do. For them, the party really starts after Midsummer’s Day, when the city guilds display their finest merchandise. The trades guilds hold skills competitions too, the better to show off to potential customers.”
Weimar was about to say something, when he and the others heard footsteps approaching their table. His back was to the new arrivals, but judging by the pleased looks on Airk’s and Amyalla’s faces he could guess who was coming to join them.
One of the people was a tall man with deep mahogany skin, dark eyes and black hair reaching down to the back of his neck. Ma’non’go of the Silver Winds might have been mistaken for a person of Flan descent, but his multicolored clothes showed that he was an Olman, one of that type of humans who dwelt in the distant jungles of Hepmonaland. He was nearly seven feet tall, with a powerfully muscled frame that clearly showed his immense strength. He was quick and light on his feet despite his size, and he carried himself with a warrior’s grace. Ma’non’go’s expression was normally calm and emotionless, but his friends could see the warmth reflected in his eyes whenever his gaze met theirs.
The other person was a young woman with an angelic face framed with bright strawberry-blonde hair, bright green eyes, and a figure that could make men’s hearts race and other women’s hearts burn with jealousy. Seline Roas Del Cranden wore robes of indigo and midnight blue, decorated with symbols of crescent moons, stars and planets that clearly indicated her wizardly training. Despite her scholarly background, she seemed to almost radiate warmth and energy, able to project her moods as well as the illusions and lightning bolts she cast so well. It was that, rather than any magic, that improved her companions’ moods as she and Ma’non’go sat down.
All the better for the guildsmen to profit, I suppose? Ma’non’go signed in the hand cant he used to communicate with his companions. Ma’non’go was mute, and could only communicate through sign language. When his companions had asked him why he could not speak verbally, Ma’non’go had always evaded the question, alluding to some long-ago betrayal.
“Of course,” Amyalla said. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again-the only thing Greyhawkers value more than their gold is their platinum. There’s a reason the free city’s unofficial motto is ‘coin makes the world go ‘round’.”
“It’s a wonder there aren’t more dwarves living here, then,” Airk said, finishing his tankard in one swallow before slamming it down on the table. “You’d think Greyhawk would be a natural place for them.”
“This again?” Seline said, frowning in disapproval. “Every dwarf I’ve ever met-”
“-never thought of betraying you for blood money,” Airk interrupted, his expression turning ice cold. “I’m very sure.”
An awkward silence fell around the table again, before Weimar spoke up.
“Like I was telling Airk, the twin moons will be beautiful on Midsummer’s Night. Did you plan to watch it?”
“I would,” a voice said as its owner approached, “but I have other duties.”
Luna Roas Del Cranden’s beauty shone almost as brightly as Pelor, the sun god to whom she had dedicated her life. Her beautiful face and figure were framed by her long chestnut-brown hair and bright blue eyes, and accented by her soft voice. Dressed in blue and gold clothes reminiscent of the morning sun rising over a heavenly sky, Luna projected compassion and joy all at once. She was much more quiet and reserved than her outgoing younger sister Seline. As quiet as she was, her smile was as bright as her sister’s as she sat down to join her companions.
“The temple of Pelor hosts a great feast for the poor every Midsummer Eve,” Luna said, a glass of fine Ideean sherry in her hand, “and I would be a poor daughter of Pelor indeed not to participate. It will take the whole day, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to watch the twin moons with any of you, if that’s what you’re planning to do.”
“Why not?” Airk asked in disappointment.
“The worship services will take most of the day, and then the evening’s spent serving the feast and healing any sick or wounded who come seeking aid,” Luna said. “I wish I could watch the moons dance, but I just can’t,” she said with a sigh.
“Well, we hardly need the moons anyway,” Weimar said. “Why would we, when we have their namesakes, far lovelier than the moons could ever be in the first place?”
Seline laughed at that, and Luna smiled.
You do realize that I should punish you for saying such things, don’t you? Ma’non’go said, before making a fist of one hand and driving it into the palm of the other. As Luna and Seline’s sworn protector, Ma’non’go took his responsibilities seriously.
“You should punish him?” Amyalla said. “If anyone has the right to demand punishment, it’s me! Imagine, leaving me out of his praise!”
“Forgive me, both of you,” Weimar said, bowing in apology. “I was dazzled by Amyalla’s beauty as well, such that I had forgotten both my manners and my wits.”
“I’m honestly surprised you had either of any to begin with,” Revafour Greystar said as he sat down to join the rest of the company, a mug of water in hand.
Revafour was more than six and a half feet tall, with thick, treelike limbs and broad shoulders speaking of a strength to match Ma’non’go’s. He had the coppery-bronze skin and shoulder-length black hair of the Flan, the original people to inhabit the Flanaess. His Flan heritage was also indicated by the beading on his cloak and the moccasins on his feet, as well as the quiet stoicism he carried himself with. His bearing was that of a seasoned warrior who showed no mercy in a battle, but he regarded his companions with the look of a man who would lay down his life a hundred times over for them.
“And now you’re getting on my case too,” Weimar said with a mock sigh. “Surely I deserve better?”
All seven of the companions laughed at that. Collectively, they were known as the Company of the Silver Wolf, having united as an adventuring band after they had helped each other during a harrowing experience in the Cairn Hills some weeks ago. They had named their group in honor of the wolves who might start alone, but often found new homes with others of their kind.
Now, they had returned for Greyhawk to enjoy Richfest. They were also in search of work, either as hired agents or dungeons and ruins they might explore for long-forgotten riches.
“If we wait until the end of Richfest, we could take up with one of the caravans leaving here,” Amyalla said. “Many merchants come for goods they can resell in their homelands, and bandits follow in their wake.”
“Maybe,” Revafour said. “Or perhaps we could mount an expedition to this Castle Greyhawk I’ve heard mentioned?”
Weimar and Amyalla exchanged glances, before shaking their heads.
“The rest of you likely aren’t familiar with the legends of Castle Greyhawk,” Amyalla said, looking at the rest of the companions except for Weimar. “Yes, there are the rumors of riches there, but those few adventurers who ever come back tend to have lost more than they gained, whether it be in treasure, limbs or even life energy. And exploring there can lead to catastrophe, such as when Iuz was released.”
The rest of the companions stared back at Amyalla in shock and horror.
“That’s what caused Iuz the Old’s return?” Luna said, referring to the vile half-demon who shared his name with the wicked, destructive empire he ruled. Iuz was widely known and feared across the Flanaess for his brutalities until his disappearance more than seven decades ago. Tales circulated of Iuz’s actions in the interim, terrifying people from one end of the Flanaess to the other. When Iuz returned to his throne some six years ago there were few who did not curse the fact.
“Then we’re obviously not doing that,” Luna shook her head. “Who knows what other monstrosities might be trapped down there?”
“Perhaps we could try and search for one of the Star Cairns?” Weimar said. The Star Cairns were a collection of fabled dungeons in the Cairn Hills north of Greyhawk, said to have descended from the skies to reward the mortals of Oerth.
“Maybe,” Amyalla said, “but the hard part would be even knowing where to begin looking for them. Many con artists have made fortunes selling knowledge of where one of the Star Cairns supposedly are.”
“Well, we could consult a more reliable source,” Seline said. “Surely there are sages we who know more of such things?”
“There are,” Amyalla said, “but we’d be better served saving as much of our treasure as we can. We could see what we could find for ourselves in Greyhawk’s Great Library. Admission’s free, so we could search on our own.”
The companions thought that over for a few minutes.
“I suppose it’s as good a place as any to start,” Revafour finally said, as the rest of the companions nodded in agreement. “We’re as likely to find a worthwhile place to explore here as we are boarding a caravan and heading off somewhere else.”
“True enough,” Luna said, “but we won’t be able to do anything until after Godsday anyway. I’m not going anywhere until I participate in the Pelorian ceremonies and feast. Would any of you care to join me?”
“I can’t,” Amyalla said. “I’ve already made arrangements to meet up with some old ‘friends’ of mine for the evening.”
What kind of friends would those be? Ma’non’go asked.
“What kind do you think?” Amyalla said, her eyes lighting up mischievously as her wide smile returned to her face.
“And the rest of you?” Luna asked.
“I want to participate in the worship services at Burrow Heights,” Airk said, referring to a Greyhawk neighborhood where most of the city’s gnomes and halflings lived. “After that, I’ll likely spend the evening training.”
I might join you for that, Ma’non’go said. It would help us to learn each other’s fighting styles. Would you join us as well? he said, turning to Revafour and Weimar.
“No, I want to participate in the Pelorian ceremonies,” Revafour said, nodding at Luna. “You don’t have any issue with my joining you?”
“Of course not,” Luna said, shaking her head.
“I might as well,” Weimar said with a shrug. “From what I’ve been told, almost the entire city shuts down at this time. I’ll likely pay my respects to Trithereon first, though.”
“Then I’ll join you as well,” Seline said. “I should like to see how you all fight, too-it will help me learn how best to use my magic,” she continued, her eyes lighting up eagerly. “Then we can likely watch the moons together in the evening?”
Ma’non’go nodded in satisfaction at that, before his glance turned to Weimar and Airk.
Weimar offered a wide smile, eager for the challenge, while Airk just raised his eyebrow.
Greyhawk’s temple to Pelor seemed run-down on the outside. On the inside it was filled with finery of gold and electrum, often decorated with sunstones, topazes, rubies and garnets reflecting the different stages of the sun’s passage across the sky. The temple was topped with a great dome of crystal through which Pelor could shine his light down on his worshippers.
Revafour had come to the temple with Luna, but when she left to join with the other priests he found himself alone among the congregation. Revafour hadn’t minded, enjoying the solitude. During the morning prayers and worship service, Revafour thought back to his youth growing up in the Duchy of Tenh, and the Flan ceremonies worshipping Pelor. He remembered the drumming, dancing and songs, part of ages-old Flan traditions now lost to much of the Flanaess with the arrivals of the Oeridians and Suel…
Revafour suddenly felt his eyes opening in anger at that. Taking a deep breath, he looked around at the congregation and priests that surrounded him, his gaze settling on Luna as she participated in the singing to Pelor.
He smiled at the sight of her, but it did little to dispel the pain he still felt.
The worship service took the entire morning. The afternoon was taken up with the priests serving a grand feast to all comers, as well as healing many of the wounded and ill who had come to the service. Junior clerics and acolytes wove through the crowd as well, requesting donations to help the temple continue its good works in the second half of the year.
As he ate on a bench with several other parishioners, Revafour thought back to his youth in Tenh. This time he recalled the potlatch ceremonies practiced by some of the Flan nations that made up the duchy. Potlatches involved participants distributing wealth, food or even special roles or titles to each other. They were a means for the Flan to support one another, and to build both alliances and friendships.
These feasts are like a potlatch, but the Suel and Oeridians need a god’s motivating them to do it, Revafour thought, recalling how Tenha potlatches could occur any time they were needed, and often without any kind of clerical involvement.
Shaking his head, Revafour stood up from the bench as the feast came to an end. A large crowd was gathering at the temple’s entrance, which the Pelorian clerics would lead down the Processional, one of Greyhawk’s main streets, to further distribute food and healing. Revafour hurried to join it, trying to pick out Luna.
Revafour spotted Luna, but he wasn’t able to catch up with her until the crowd had proceeded almost halfway down the Processional. By the time Revafour reached Luna, she was in animated discussion with a Flan man dressed in green and brown trousers and a beaded vest over a leather breastplate. A long sword hung at his side, and Revafour could tell immediately that he wasn’t from Greyhawk.
“Luna?” Revafour said, tapping her on the shoulder.
Luna started and turned to look at Revafour, as the Flan man she was talking to followed suit. Luna was pleased to see Revafour, although the other Flan man wasn’t pleased at being interrupted.
“Oh, Revafour,” Luna said. “Did you enjoy the feast?”
“Of course I did,” Revafour said. “Who’s this? Is he a friend of yours?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the other Flan man Luna was talking to.
“My name’s Dennine,” the Flan man said before Luna could answer. “Maybe you’d care to explain why you’re interrupting?”
“Because Luna is a friend of mine, and I wonder if you’re the same,” Revafour said, his eyes narrowing.
“Yes Revafour, Dennine is a friend of mine,” Luna said, stepping between the two Flan. “You recall the people of Oakdale, who helped us find the Bearded Lord’s Hollow?”
Revafour nodded as he remembered what Seline had told him. The companions had originally been two groups both trying to rescue a large group of kidnapped children at the Bearded Lord’s Hollow in the Cairn Hills. Revafour, Airk and Amyalla had managed to trail a caravan of kidnapped children from Greyhawk, but Weimar, Luna, Ma’non’go and Seline had needed the help of the Flan of Oakdale to find their destination. The companions had met after that, combining their groups into one before freeing the children from the Hollow.
“Forgive me,” Revafour said, bowing in apology to Dennine. “Tell me, what brings you to Greyhawk?”
“As I was telling Luna, I came seeking aid against a large pack of trolls that’s assaulting our home,” Dennine said. “I was hoping I could find mercenaries or adventurers who might be able to aid us, and I also hoped to buy some oil and acid to help us battle them,” he continued.
Luna and Revafour frowned as they exchanged glances. Trolls had an amazing ability to heal from most injuries, such as they could not be killed by steel alone. Steel could disable trolls, but the hateful things could only be killed permanently by acid or flame.
“I can help you with all of that,” Revafour said. “I’ll help you get the supplies you need, and come back with you. Whatever it takes, and whatever you need, I’ll help you.”
“Thank you,” Dennine said. “How much money-“
“Keep it,” Revafour said, “and don’t worry about the costs of supplies. We’ll deal with that as well.”
“Come with us back to our inn once the procession is over,” Luna said. “I’m sure our friends will be happy to help you.”
“Thank you both,” Dennine said, bowing his head in gratitude.
Revafour and Dennine fell in behind Luna as she led them back into the procession. Dennine looked relieved to have found the help the people of Oakdale apparently sorely needed, but Revafour bore a stoic expression.
Revafour expected that the people he called his companions would be willing to help the people of Oakdale, but he knew they might refuse. If they did, he would have no compunctions about abandoning them.
Revafour had enough personal experience to know that the old Flan saying about Oeridians and Suel speaking with forked tongues was all too often true.
There were few things that disgusted Weimar than trolls. The wretched things were tall and spindly, with lumpy green-gray skin covered in small pustules and splotches of dried blood and muck. Their hands and feet ended in wickedly sharp claws, and their wide mouths were filled with deadly needle-like teeth. Their faces were framed with long, pointy noses, their eyes were black pits of despair and their hair was a wild jet-black mess. Their stench was seemingly a combination of every other bad smell Weimar had encountered in his life, owing to the fact that the wretched creatures never bathed.
Why do trolls have to stink so much? Weimar thought to himself. Considering how much they attack humans and our ilk, they could at least have the courtesy to have a more pleasant odor, like rotting carrion or dog excrement.
And more than that, why I am I thinking about this now? Weimar wondered, gritting his teeth as his shield deflected the troll’s slashing claws. The blow nearly knocked Weimar down, but he quickly regained his balance. Rage flashed in Weimar’s eyes as he struck back with his axe, tearing a long gash down the troll’s arm. Striking again before the troll could recover, Weimar clove deep into its leg, causing it to lose its balance. The troll couldn’t defend itself as Weimar struck a third time, driving his axe squarely into the wretched thing’s chest.
Howling in pain, the troll collapsed.
Weimar dropped his axe and shield, picking up the troll’s arms. There were bodies all around him, most of them of the trolls that Weimar and the Flan warriors he was fighting beside had ambushed. Unfortunately, four of those bodies were of the same Flan warriors. Weimar lamented the warriors’ passing, but he was grim-faced and silent as he dragged the troll he had fought and tossed it onto the pile of troll corpses the Flan warriors had stacked up.
Taking a flask of oil out of his backpack, Weimar stuffed it with a rag, as several of the Flan warriors followed his lead. Each of the warriors holding a flask lit the rags with their tinderboxes and tossed the flasks onto the pile of troll bodies. The flasks exploded as they struck the trolls, spreading flames that rapidly consumed the monsters’ bodies. Some of the trolls had almost healed to being able to move again, but they couldn’t escape their impromptu funeral pyre. Screaming in agony, the dying trolls spat curses at the humans who watched them perish.
Weimar hardly cared for the trolls’ fates. He was more worried about the Flan warriors of the community of Oakdale, on whose behalf Dennine had come to Greyhawk seeking help.
Dressed for combat, Weimar cut a very different figure from the easygoing man he was in Greyhawk. He carried a large and bloody battleaxe in one hand, and a shield of bronzewood, painted silver and black and decorated with the profile of an angry boar’s head, in the other. A dangerous-looking longbow was strapped to his back, and several wicked-looking daggers hung from his belt. He was completely at ease in the woods, his every sense on alert as he took in everything around him.
“How many more do you think there are in this part of the woods?” Revafour asked, coming up behind Weimar. While the Flan warriors of Oakdale wore light leather jerkins, ringed mail or brigandine, Revafour wore thick plate armor. The ease with which Revafour moved in his armor, and the ease with which he carried his huge two-handed broadsword, spoke to his experience in using them. His beaded cloak and moccasins added a splash of color to the ensemble, contrasting oddly with his silvery-gray sword and armor.
“Probably one or two packs at most, depending on how well we’ve done,” Weimar said. “Trolls don’t exactly breed as fast as other humanoids, of course.”
“How do you think the others are doing?” he said.
“Who knows?” Weimar said with a shrug. “These trolls weren’t particularly clever…”
“Pray to Pelor it was like that for all of them,” Revafour said, before he turned around to rejoin the warriors of Oakdale. Weimar quickly followed, picking up his axe and shield as he went.
Weimar saw the wide smile that crossed Revafour’s fact as he exchanged a few words with Dennine, who had led their war party. Weimar had only known Revafour for a few weeks, but he already saw how reserved his friend was with most people. Revafour was able to open up to Weimar and the rest of their companions, but otherwise Weimar had noted how Revafour was usually only comfortable among his fellow Flan. Weimar also noticed how the Flan of Oakdale were also somewhat reserved around him.
Weimar didn’t blame the Flan for not being entirely comfortable with him. He knew full well the ugly history of the Flanaess, and how the Flan had been repeatedly betrayed and attacked by the Oeridian and Suel humans that had come later. The Flan, much like the Rhennee, still had to deal with much of the same bigotry and violence they’d always faced. Weimar himself had gotten into more than one tavern brawl with thugs who thought that attacking Rhennee or Flan men who they outnumbered somehow proved their courage and strength.
Weimar didn’t blame the Flan for their discomfort, but he couldn’t help but stew with resentment at it.
“Is everything ready?” Amyalla asked Seline, who only smiled. Amyalla wore the same traveling gown as she had in Greyhawk, but now several daggers hung from her belt. Seline wore her same robes, but she carried a stout quarterstaff and a wand protruded from one of her pockets.
The Oakdale warriors forming the rest of their war party returned Seline’s smile before they set off, led by Amyalla.
Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors she was leading heard the troll pack before they saw it. The monsters of the pack were making no effort to be silent, snapping branches and ripping bushes as they tore through the woods. The trolls howled eagerly as they caught the scent of the humans and halfling, eager for fresh prey. Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors paused long enough for the trolls to catch sight of them before they fled, screaming for their lives.
The trolls eagerly pursued Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors, but then they stopped short as a cloud of fog seemed to come up from almost out of nowhere. The trolls lost sight of Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors and huddled together, wary of an attack. Suddenly unsure of what to do, the trolls turned from using their sense of sight to their sense of smell. They easily picked up the scents of their prey…
…as well as the smell of electricity in the air as a lightning bolt tore through them.
The trolls began to heal from their injuries, but they were enraged at the attack. They had been played for fools, and now they could hear their human and halfling victims running away and taunting them. In a fury, many of the trolls resumed their chase, eager for revenge.
The trolls stopped immediately as they emerged into an open, cleared trail. The trail was regularly used by many of the inhabitants of the Cairn Hills, and it was an obvious point for an ambush. Right away, the trolls saw Amyalla and many of the Oakdale warriors gathered in the trees, obviously hoping to take the trolls by surprise.
The trolls only cackled at the humans’ foolishness. The humans and halfling had apparently forgotten that trolls were experts at climbing, and they could make their way through the upper tree branches as well as any human or halfling. Howling with glee, the trolls leapt up and sprang into the trees. Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors, in turn, screamed in terror at the realization that their ambush had failed. They desperately turned to flee, knowing that it was only a matter of time until the trolls caught them.
The trolls were so eager for bloodshed that they didn’t notice the netting that the Oakdale warriors had so expertly hidden on the foliage. The Oakdale warriors dropped the netting on the trolls before they could react, and they were fully entangled. Crying out in annoyance, they set about cutting themselves free…
…and began screaming in horror once Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors pulled on the cords they were holding. The cords were connected to a series of small wooden boxes, cunningly concealed among the highest branches of the trees. When Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors pulled on the cords, they pulled the boxes’ bottoms free, and dropped the bottles in the boxes right on the trolls. The trolls’ screams became all the louder as the bottles broken open, spilling the acid they contained all over the trolls.
Writhing in pain from the acid searing through their flesh, many of the trolls lost their balance and fell out of the trees. Sickening crunches filled the air as the trolls landed heavily on the ground, bones cracking and breaking with the impact. The trolls would have healed from the injuries they sustained in their falls, except that they had already been burned by the acid, which was just as fatal to them as any fire.
Amyalla smiled at the victory. It had not been easy for her to purchase the acid in Greyhawk, or in working with the Oakdale warriors to rig all of the netting and boxes, but the trolls’ deaths made all the effort worthwhile. Her knowledge of traps, the Flan’s knowledge of where to set the ambush, and Seline’s magic had all made a powerful combination.
Amyalla led the Oakdale warriors back to the ground, eager to see how Seline had made out.
So far, so good, Seline thought with a thrill of pride as she faded from sight. Let’s just hope that everything works out to the last…
In her mind, Seline gave a heartfelt prayer of thanks to the gods. The wand she had obtained some weeks before, in the conflict at the Bearded Lord’s Hollow, could emit clouds of fog and steam. The silver ring she wore, set with a deep blue opal, was a keepsake of her old life as an Aerdi noble that allowed her to become invisible to mortal eyes. The power of Seline’s wand and ring saved her from having to memorize spells for those effects. Instead, she had been able to prepare other useful dweomers, like the lightning bolt she had used to anger the trolls, and the spells she would use in the next part of her plan.
Skipping light-footedly down the slope in front of her, in the opposite direction from where the trolls had pursued Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors, Seline entered into the cave at the slope’s base. The cave was little more than an old bear’s den, long since abandoned by its owner, but it served Seline’s purpose well. Making herself visible, she called out insults to any of the trolls that might be nearby, identifying herself as the mage who cast the lightning bolt.
As Seline had guessed, several of the trolls had not directly pursued Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors. Those other trolls were determined to kill whoever had hit them with the lightning bolt. When the creatures heard Seline’s call, they responded almost immediately, charging into the cave.
As the trolls raced towards Seline, eager for the kill, she reached into her pocket. Pulling out a mass of sticky webbing, she began chanting quickly.
The trolls were suddenly stopped short, as the webbing in Seline’s hand exploded into a mass of tendrils that fully entangled them. Roaring angrily, the trolls began to flex their claws and rip through the webbing. The strands of webbing were strong, but they couldn’t hope to hold the trolls for more than a minute.
That was more than enough time for Seline. Sulphur, tallow and iron fell to dust from her hands as she cast another spell, one that conjured an orb of bright orange fire in her hand. Tossing the fiery orb at the floor of the cave, Seline directed it towards the trolls, who redoubled their efforts to break free of Seline’s web. It was to no avail, however, as Seline’s fiery ball ignited her web and the trolls with it. The creatures screamed in agony, falling to the ground as Seline’s webbing disintegrated and the fiery sphere rolled over them. Some of them tried to get up, but Seline brought her fiery sphere back towards her, burning the trolls yet again.
The trolls were already wounded by Seline’s lightning, and her fiery sphere soon reduced them to charred corpses lying amid the ashes of webbing. Seline crinkled her nose at the stench, but had to admit that it was still better than the way they smelled when they were alive.
Making her way out of the cave to rejoin Amyalla and the Oakdale warriors, Seline felt a thrill at how well everything had come together. She felt a keen sense of pride at how well she’d worked her magic, and how well the spells she’d chosen had all come together.
It’s almost like music, she thought to herself, choosing the correct instruments and using them in the correct order for a symphony. That’s the thing about magic-with the right spells, a wizard can be so infinitely creative when she sets her mind to it!
While some of Oakdale’s defenders had set out to confront the troll packs, others had set up to defend the town itself. The defenders set up a series of fires around the village’s perimeter to deter the trolls from attacking directly.
When the trolls attacked, they started the assault by hurling large bales of wet grass and mud from the surrounding woods. The bales landed on the fires around Oakdale’s perimeter, snuffing them out and allowing the trolls to attack freely. The defenders of Oakdale had been expecting that, of course. They realized the trolls would have been expecting fires, and would have taken precautions against them. The trolls would get a false sense of security from snuffing out the fires, and so the humans set a series of additional traps as well.
As the trolls charged into Oakdale, they triggered tripwires that the defenders had expertly set and concealed a little distance behind the fires. Acid poured from the containers triggered by the wires, burning the trolls and catching them off guard.
Ma’non’go eagerly charged forward, more than ready to play his part. Despite his size, he moved with remarkable speed, his leather armor not slowing him in the least. He thrust the trident in his hands with practiced ease into the first troll he encountered, avoiding the monster’s slashing claws. Normally, the troll knew no fear, but as it stared into Ma’non’go’s eyes it was startled at the intensity that shimmered within them.
Another troll came at Ma’non’go from the left, but he pivoted towards the second troll, swinging his trident as he did so. The troll he had stabbed flew off the tines of his weapon and crashed into the second troll, knocking them both flat on their backs. The trolls tried to get back to their feet as Ma’non’go charged, and the first troll collapsed again as Ma’non’go drove his trident into its face. The second troll managed to get back up and ducked under Ma’non’go’s next thrust, sinking its teeth into his arm. Ma’non’go gritted his teeth in pain, but he made no sound as he reached out with his free hand and drove his fingers into the troll’s eyes. The creature recoiled, and Ma’non’go slashed it viciously across the chest.
The second troll fell on top of the first, overcome by its injuries. Ma’non’go knew he had to act fast, as the hateful creatures would soon heal from their wounds. Pulling a metal bottle from his pocket, Ma’non’go carefully opened it, his nose twitching at the acrid stench of its contents. Pouring the acid the bottle contained over the downed trolls, Ma’non’go smiled in satisfaction as the trolls screamed in pain, the acid finishing the job he had started with his trident.
Luna knew what she had to do as the trolls attacked. Placing one hand on the pendant around her neck, she grasped a leaf from the sumac tree in the other. Gripping both items tightly, Luna chanted a prayer to Pelor, asking him to help her protect the mortals his light shone on. She could sense the magic flowing through her as Pelor answered her prayer, causing her right hand to glow a bright yellowish-red. The burning light surrounding her hand extended into the shape of a mace, confirming to Luna that Pelor approved her actions.
Now, clad in silvery chain mail over her blue and gold robes, and picking up a heavy shield decorated with the emblem of a sunburst with her left hand, Luna was ready to do her part in defending Oakdale. As the defenders of Oakdale fought the trolls, Luna ran to assist them. Whenever any of the trolls were too injured to fight, Luna finished the wretched creatures off, the fiery magic of her spell ensuring they could not recover.
Luna heard Airk cursing off to her right, and she hurried to help him. Airk was clad in heavy plate armor and a helmet resembling a dragon’s head. He held a viciously curved military pick in one hand, and in the other he held a shield decorated with the image of the crescent moons of Luna and Celene, surrounded by a ring of six stars. A spiked morning star hung from his belt, one Luna knew he wielded just as skillfully as his pick. Airk’s skill was shown by the four trolls that had already fallen to him, and Luna quickly struck them all with her fiery mace, ensuring that they died once and for all.
Airk slashed his latest opponent across the eyes, seeming not to care about the blood pouring from the gash the troll had torn in his shoulder. Luna only frowned at that, even as she drove her flaming mace into the troll’s skull. The creature screamed and died, even as a fresh stench of burned troll flesh filled Luna’s nostrils.
A part of her wanted to cry out in disgust, not so much at the stink but at all the fire and death around her, fire she herself was forced to wield.
Luna felt a sick sensation of despair rising up within her, as her ears filled with the screams of the dying.
It was all she could do to suppress it, forcing herself to continue as she joined Airk in assaulting another group of trolls.
The defenders of Oakdale could not immediately slay all of the attacking trolls with oil or acid. The defenders had to give much of their supply out to their war parties, so they were forced to leave many of the trolls incapacitated but not dead, constantly striking the monsters so they could not heal enough to fight again. Fortunately, the defenders realized that there were not as many trolls as they had feared. The humans’ own war parties had destroyed most of the creatures before they could attack Oakdale itself.
Of the score of trolls who had attacked the village, half of them had fallen to acid or to Luna’s fiery magic. The defenders gathered up the rest of the trolls and stacked them in a large pile. Luna stood before the pile of trolls, chanting another spell. She gestured to the sky and Pelor responded, as the pile of troll corpses burst into flame. The trolls’ makeshift funeral pyre filled the air with a disgusting stink, making many of the defenders want to retch.
Ma’non’go hated the smell of the burning trolls, but not as much as he hated the carnage all around him. Wounded men cried out in pain as their priests tried to ease their suffering. Women and children sang songs of lament for their fallen kin. The land itself was scarred with blood, acid and flame. Ma’non’go had seen too many similar scenes in the Great Kingdom of Aerdy and Hepmonaland, scenes of people suffering and dying at the hands of monsters, even as their loved ones often vainly tried to protect them. More powerful individuals like Ma’non’go could try to protect them, as he had done in Oakdale, for Luna and Seline in Aerdy, and to his kin in X’tandelexamenka, but the gains were hard won when they were won at all.
Ma’non’go only frowned at the effect the conflict had on his friends. Airk scowled, his eyes constantly flickering back and forth, and Ma’non’go heard him continually muttering under his breath about “hateful wars”. Luna made an effort to keep up a brave face, but the strain in her eyes and her stance was all too clear to her perceptive guardian.
Shaking his head, the tall Olman moved to clean the gore off his trident and see what he could do about helping to tend with the wounded and begin work on rebuilding.
Ma’non’go didn’t feel any better when the Oakdale war parties and the rest of his friends returned to the village. Although the Flan warriors were victorious, most of them were not inclined to celebrate, given how many of their kin were dead at the trolls’ hands. Luna and the village’s priests worked diligently to heal the wounded, while other villagers began repairing the damage to their homes or stood guard in case the trolls attacked again.
There’s no rest for the weary, Ma’non’go thought to himself as he carried one of the large bales of grass and mud the trolls had thrown to douse the fires the defenders had set. Where are all these creatures coming from, I wonder?
Ma’non’go tossed the bale into the woods and began walking back towards the village when a conversation in Flan made him pause. Glancing off to his left, Ma’non’go saw Dennine and Revafour speaking. Ma’non’go knew Dennine well, as he and several of the other companions had encountered an Oakdale patrol led by Dennine when they were searching for a kidnapped nobleman’s son named Teddyrun. Once the companions had convinced Dennine and his troops that they posed no threat to Oakdale, the Flan had helped the companions find the Bearded Lord’s Hollow where Teddyrun was being kept.
Ma’non’go slowed his pace to match Revafour and Dennine, as he continued to listen to their conversation.
“How many did you lose?” Revafour asked.
“A good thirty men,” Dennine said. “The hunting’s going to be bad this fall.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Revafour said, frowning.
“It would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for you and your friends,” Dennine reminded him.
“You would have won against these creatures,” Revafour said.
“Even if we had, we would have lost far more people than we did,” Dennine said.
Dennine tried to smile at that, but Revafour didn’t react.
“It never should have gotten this bad to begin with,” Revafour said. “Where were the dwarves of Greysmere, the people of Greyhawk’s mining colonies, or any of the other settlements in these hills? Where were our fellow Flan, of all people?” he demanded, his voice becoming more agitated.
“They likely had problems of their own,” Dennine said. “It was the dwarves who provided us so much of our oil and acid, after all!”
Revafour didn’t respond, simply turning about and stalking off, the tension palpable on his face.
Ma’non’go only shook his head and sighed.
He’d seen far too many Flan show that same tension during his travels with Luna and Seline in the eastern Flanaess. He could identify with what Revafour and the other Flan experienced likely more than any of the other companions. He recalled the bigoted insults so many people in Aerdi had thrown at him. In the more benign lands of Idee, the insults were more subtle, but Ma’non’go picked up on them all the same.
Not that his old homeland X’tandelexamenka was necessarily any better, of course.
Lost And Found
Evening saw Ma’non’go enjoying a meal of seasoned venison and roasted wild apples with his companions. The companions’ meal was the Flan’s way of thanking their guests for their help in defending Oakdale. The companions were been entertained with fiddle and drumming music. Luna had joined with the pan flute she always carried, calling her contribution a return of the Flan’s gratitude and hospitality. These types of reciprocal exchanges were very important to many of the Flan peoples, including the residents of Oakdale.
Still, Ma’non’go couldn’t help but notice how he and his companions had been given their own table separate from that of their hosts. The food was delicious, but Ma’non’go felt somehow detached from it all, and wondered if his companions felt the same way.
At one point during the festivities, Meloanne, the leader of the community, had come up to them and asked Revafour to come with her. Revafour had gone off to confer with her and the rest of the Oakdale ruling council for several long minutes. Ma’non’go wondered what exactly what was going on, but Luna seemed to be the only one of his companions concerned. The rest of their group didn’t seem to notice, as they were either watching the festivities or finishing their meals.
Finally, Revafour came back to the table, a pensive look on his face.
“Meloanne has asked a favor of us,” he said.
“And what would that be?” Weimar asked, his speech slurring from the mead he had added to the meal.
Ma’non’go did well to keep a straight face at the smell of his friend’s breath, although Amyalla had no such restraint.
“She would like us to track the evil of these trolls to its source, and to destroy it,” Revafour said. “The elders are concerned that the trolls might attack again. We don’t know how many there are, and the elders aren’t certain that Oakdale has the resources to survive another attack.”
The companions looked at each other at that. They and their Flan allies had slain more than three-score trolls over the last two days, and the idea of having to fight the foul things again was not a comforting one.
“I hardly think anyone will disagree with me when I say we’re all for it,” Amyalla said. “Do we have any idea where they’re located?”
“We’ve got their general location. The Oakdale scouts went back along the trails the trolls took to get here,” Revafour said. “You’d all best get some rest-we’ll have an early start tomorrow.”
“What about you, though?” Weimar said, as he took another drink. “Aren’t you going to join us?”
A hesitant look crossed Revafour’s face.
“I have…other things I need to take care of,” he said, somewhat evasively.
“I take it that has to do with the rest of the Flan not going to sleep yet?” Weimar said, raising an eyebrow.
“…We have a moon dance yet to participate in,” Revafour said, clearly not pleased with the question. “It’s our way of saying goodbye to our fallen allies. Tomorrow morning there’s going to be a sweat lodge, too.”
“What time is it at?” Weimar asked.
“You don’t need to know,” Revafour said, an edge in his voice. “It’s only for-“
“So we can’t participate?” Weimar said, rising to his feet. “I’d have thought we could pay our respects, too! Or is it just because I’m Oerid?” he continued, referring to his Oeridian roots.
“There are some things we keep to ourselves,” Revafour said, an angry look on his face. “So do the elves, so do the dwarves, so do everyone. Why is that so hard to grasp?”
“So, just because of my hair, I can’t-“ Weimar said, before Seline put a hand on his arm to calm him down.
“Weimar, please,” she said. “We don’t need to be arguing like this. Not tonight.”
“But-“ Weimar said.
“No buts,” Airk said. “If that’s how it goes, Revafour, then of course we’ll respect your wishes.”
Revafour nodded once, before turning away from the table and returning to join the elders.
“And not even a word of thanks,” Weimar muttered under his breath, finishing off his tankard.
Ma’non’go poked Weimar to get his attention.
I think they’ve given us enough thanks already, Ma’non’go signed to Weimar. Besides, do you really think you’d be able to stay awake through it all, after all you’ve had to drink?
“This is nothing,” Weimar said as he sat back down. “I once drank three dwarves under the table in a contest. The losers had to pay the winner’s tab…and even that wasn’t as bad for them as the humiliation of losing to a human!”
The companions exchanged laughter at that, although Ma’non’go could see the look of concern on Seline’s face, as well as the look of disgruntlement on Weimar’s.
The low, rhythmic chant in the background filled Revafour’s ears, just as the scent of sweetgrass and sage filled his nose and lungs. Almost all of the tension vanished as he sat among his fellow Flan, participating in the millennia-old rituals that were their inheritance.
The rituals were slightly different in Oakpoint than the ones Revafour and his community had done in Tenh. Revafour’s rituals used tobacco and cedar instead of sweetgrass and sage, but the scent of the latter medicines was comforting and reassuring all the same. The Flan had lost so much in the centuries since the other human races had come to the Flanaess, but there were still some things uniquely their own.
Despite the peace Revafour felt from the ritual, his argument with Weimar from the night before continued to weigh at the back of his mind.
Why was he so insistent on participating? Revafour wondered. Why can’t we have just these small things to ourselves? Would that be too much to ask? It’s just…that…
He was uncomfortably aware of the fact that he used a sword and armor of Oeridian make, not to mention a cloak that had plaid Oeridian patterns, although he’d personalized it with the Flan-styled beadwork he’d sewn into its lining.
How many of them even know what it’s like? Revafour wondered, as the lead cleric poured another cup of water on the flames. They aren’t responsible for what happened-of course they aren’t!-but we still live the impact of it every day.
Revafour did his best to put the confusion and uncertainty out of his mind as he inhaled the sacred medicines once more, and lost himself in the rhythm of the chant.
Why’d I have to go and be such a bloody fool? Weimar wondered as he finished shaving. He had a throbbing headache this morning. At first he thought it had come from a hangover, but he’d gotten used to those long ago. He realized that his headache came from his guilt and frustration.
I goad Revafour, and look what happens. No wonder he got so angry…and yet, why would it matter that much to me anyway? he wondered, as he put his shaving knife back in his pack and wiped away what was left of the lather on his face. Why should I care if Revafour and the other Flan have their ceremonies?
He didn’t know…
…and he found that disturbing.
“You’re ready to go?” Seline asked as she walked up to Revafour. The large man was now dressed for the road, clad in his heavy armor and with his huge sword strapped to his back.
“Yes, I am,” Revafour said, picking up his backpack with a stoic look on his face. “Shall we be off, then?”
“We have a little while yet,” Seline said, shaking her head. “Amyalla’s getting our supplies ready-we’re going to need as much oil as Oakdale can spare, plus whatever’s left of the acid. We don’t know what’s going to be out there.”
“Fine,” Revafour said as he turned for the door to the cabin that the people of Oakdale had set aside for the companions to stay in. He moved as if to push past Seline, but she held out an arm to stop him.
“Are you alright?” she asked him.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Revafour said.
“You seemed like you were pretty upset by Weimar asking if he could join that sweat lodge you and the other warriors were going to have,” Seline said. “Is everything alright about that now?”
“Never mind it,” Revafour said, shaking his head. “Let’s just-“
“Why does it matter so much?” Seline said.
“I don’t see why he, or any of you, would need to be involved,” Revafour said, his eyes narrowing. “Why would you need to participate, anyway? Surely we can have these private things for ourselves?” he demanded, his voice rising.
The wounded look on Seline’s face made Revafour flinch, despite his otherwise stoic demeanor.
“Why did it happen in the first place?” Seline asked.
“…Why did what happen?” Revafour said.
“The overrunning of the Flanaess,” Seline said. “From everything I’ve seen, the Flan had many of the same facilities and knowledge as the Oeridians and the Suel-blacksmithing, writing, magic, architecture, and more…so why were they pushed aside by the new arrivals? Why do you wear a sword and plate armor of Oeridian design, when the Flan had their own examples of these things long before any other humans came to this land?”
Revafour stared at her for a moment, trying to understand why she was asking.
“Surely your studies told you that,” he finally said, confusion replacing his anger. “Or wouldn’t the other Flan peoples you’ve met have told you?”
“Many of the texts I’ve read depicted the Flan as backwards and uncivilized,” Seline said with a frown, “and I didn’t feel right trying to broach the subject with Flan I didn’t know too well. I thought that…well…”
That was something Revafour hadn’t expected.
“…Why are you asking?” he asked, genuinely puzzled by her request.
“Because I want to know,” Seline said. “I want to hear it from your perspective.”
Revafour sat down at a nearby table, gesturing for Seline to join him.
“…The Great Migrations came at a bad time for my people,” Revafour said after they’d sat down. “We’d suffered at the hands of tyrants like Vecna in the Sheldomar Valley, the Archmage Tzunk in the lands around the Nyr Dyv, war against the Ur-Flan and their draconic overlords in what are now the Aerdy lands…we were so weakened from battling all those menaces that we couldn’t resist the new arrivals effectively.”
“…So it was bad luck?” Seline asked in surprise. “That’s what caused it all?”
“In part,” Revafour said, nodding, “but there was also base betrayal, and a great deal of it. We welcomed many of the new arrivals as brothers and potential allies…but all across the Flanaess, promises were broken, treaties were violated, we were repeatedly betrayed by those who had sworn to aid us…not that the dwarves or gnomes were necessarily any better,” he finished with a bitter smile. “We lost so much in the process…in its own way, it was worse than simply being defeated in battle.”
“What do you mean?” Seline asked, now feeling her own puzzlement.
“The evil ones among the Flan started our problems, the betrayals of the Oerids and Suel completed them,” he finished with a disgusted sigh. “And now we’re forced to live in the shadows of the new masters of the Flanaess, save in more isolated places like this, or in the few realms where we continue to dominate, such as Tenh.”
“I’m so sorry,” Seline said, reaching out to gather his hand in hers. “I wish that…”
They were interrupted by Ma’non’go coming into the cabin and walking up to them.
We’re finally ready to be off, he signed to his friends. Amyalla’s waiting for us, and she doesn’t seem very patient…
Luna had just finished packing for the road, and was walking to join the rest of the companions when she heard Weimar calling her name. Turning around in surprise, she saw Weimar running up towards her, an uncomfortable look on his face.
“Do you have a moment?” he asked her
“Of course I do,” Luna said. “Come on, let’s join the others,” she continued, as they resumed their walk.
“You remember…about last night, right?” Weimar asked after they’d walked in silence for a few seconds.
“Of course I do,” Luna said, nodding. “What about it?”
“…I can’t figure out why I was so angry about it,” Weimar said, looking at the ground in shame. “It wasn’t that important, surely?”
Luna thought on that for a moment.
“What made you want to participate in the first place?” Luna asked. “What made you want to ask?”
“I was too much in my cups, I suppose,” Weimar said, shrugging. “All the flute music didn’t help much, either-I’m not at all fond of wind instruments…”
Luna and Weimar both knew that wasn’t all there was to it.
“Perhaps, I…I hated being left out,” Weimar said after a moment. “The idea that I could be excluded just because of who I am, and…”
“And that upset you, of course,” Luna said with a nod. “Was there anything else, though? What do you think you might have gained by participating?”
“…I’m really not sure,” Weimar said, shaking his head. “I thought for a moment that I might learn more about the mysteries the Flan know more about, or that I might get…something out of it.”
“…Something?” Luna asked in surprise.
“Damned if I know what it is, though,” Weimar said. “I just hated the idea of being left out, of missing something special. I know how silly it sounds…”
“I don’t think it sounds silly at all,” Luna said, taking Weimar’s hand in hers. “It sounds like you’re looking for something-do you know what it is?”
“No, I don’t,” Weimar said, shaking his head. “It’s just that I saw the ceremonies and songs the Flan have going for them, and I began to wonder…what have I got that’s like that?”
“So you want ceremonies and songs?” Luna asked.
“No-I’m not one for myths or music,” Weimar said with a frown. “I was wondering about what it means, though, and…”
“Do you feel like something’s…” Luna trailed off.
“…Missing,” Weimar said with a frown. “As to what it is…”
“It’ll come in time, I’m sure,” Luna said. “Pelor’s light guides everyone who seeks the right path. You just-“
“We’d best be off!” Airk said, running towards Weimar and Luna from where the rest of the companions were standing. “Come on-Amyalla is already screaming at us to get moving, and you can just imagine what she’ll be like if we keep her waiting much longer!”
So saying, the gnome immediately turned around and marched out, keeping ahead of the humans despite their attempts to catch up with him.
Bad Things Always Come In Twos
So far, so good, Amyalla thought to herself as she returned from her scouting mission to the companions’ camp. Now we just need to decide how we’re going to do this…
The Oakdale Flan had told Weimar and Revafour where they had found signs of the trolls’ passage. From there, Revafour and Weimar hadn’t had much trouble finding the trolls’ lair. The companions’ two days of travel from Oakdale to the vicinity of the lair had been uneventful, and they’d found a suitable place to set up camp. From there, they’d sent Amyalla to scout the trolls’ lair. That was easy for the halfling, who’d spent a day and night watching the cavern to see what the trolls might be up to.
Amyalla quietly hailed Airk, who was keeping watch, and he led her back to their human friends. All of the companions looked up eagerly at Amyalla, eager for her news.
Once she’d had some of the tea Luna had prepared, Amyalla began explaining what she’d seen at the trolls’ lair.
“There’s almost a score of the wretched things in a large cave,” she said. “Always at least two of them standing guard at the cave entrance. They’ve cleared away most of the brush and stones in front of them, so they get a good view of the area. They hunt once the moons are high in the sky, always in a circling pattern like the tracks confirmed. So, how should we do this?”
They pondered that for several moments, before a thin smile crossed Seline’s face.
“Likely they’re expecting us to come to them, aren’t they?” she said.
Most likely, Ma’non’go signed back, an intrigued look on his face. What do you have in mind?
Picking up a stick, Seline began to outline her idea, tracing it in the dirt next to the companions’ fire pit.
Gods, I love this, she thought to herself. We shouldn’t come to the trolls…they’ll be ready for us.
Instead, we need the trolls to come to us…
“Faces not even a mother could love,” Weimar said to his companions as he folded up his telescope. “There’s just the two of them gathered there, and neither one looks like he’ll leave his post. You’re ready, Seline?”
“Of course I am,” the wizard said with a smile. Holding up her free hand, she winked to her companions as she faded from sight, the opal stone in her silver ring twinkling brightly.
Quietly…quietly…Seline thought to herself, as she approached the cavern. Despite herself, she shuddered at the sight of the wretched trolls, who thankfully hadn’t noticed her. They seemed nervous and on edge, peering intently at the woods ahead of them as if expecting an attack. They shook and twitched, constantly muttering to themselves as if eager for a fight.
Taking her wand out of her pocket, she began chanting softly, praying that she wouldn’t attract the trolls’ notice. Fortunately, the trolls were too intent on the woods ahead of them to notice Seline’s chanting. When a thick fog cloud, the result of Seline’s casting, they raised their voices in alarm. Their cries prevented them from hearing the chant of Seline’s next spell.
That spell filled the air with the sounds of clanking metal and angry war cries, the sounds of a war party come to beard the trolls in their lair. Already alarmed by the fog cloud, one of the trolls ran back into the cavern, while the other held his post at the cave entrance. Seline soon heard a loud metallic ringing, as the troll who had run back into the cavern rang a bell to alert his fellows. She heard the angry cries of the rest of the trolls in the lair, and their running footsteps as they came to support the guards.
Nodding, Seline turned and ran back towards her companions, who had emerged from cover and were quickly coming to join her. The noise of the trolls and her magic, along with the fog she had conjured, made the perfect cover for the companions to join her.
A flurry of debris emerged from the fog cloud as the trolls tossed everything from tree stumps to giant rocks at their apparent attackers. Smiling to herself, Seline shifted the spell she’d cast to create the sound of invaders to make it create cries of despair and pain, as the trolls’ missiles apparently crushed their victims. The missiles were soon replaced with the trolls’ cries of eager delight, which prevented them from hearing Luna’s chant as she chanted a spell of her own.
Several of the trolls emerged from the fog cloud, eager to tear apart what they thought was the decimated ranks of their invaders. Drool ran down many of their faces, mixing with the dried blood and gore all over their claws and hides. Murder was in their eyes as their hunger and blood lust overcame them.
The trolls’ eager cries were replaced with howls of pain as Luna finished casting her spell and it took effect. Thorns sprouted from the grass beneath the trolls’ feet, piercing them and knocking the monsters off balance. Howling in pain, the trolls quickly regained their bearings, knowing their regeneration would heal the wounds they suffered. Heedless of their injuries, they continued pressing through the field of thorns Luna had conjured, eager to kill the companions they finally saw.
The companions spread out in front of the trolls, beyond the edge of Luna’s spell. Ma’non’go was the first to meet the trolls, goring one on his trident and hurling the wretched creature back into two of his fellows. All three creatures rolled back through the field of thorns, crying out in pain as their bodies were further torn. Revafour chopped one troll down in a single strike, tossing him back at another troll. Airk hamstrung a sixth troll with his military pick, forcing the thing off balance and driving it onto the thorns with his shield.
One of the trolls tried to make his way around the warriors, but he stopped short as Weimar hurled a flask full of darkened liquid at his face. The flask shattered as it struck the troll in the face, and the flaming oil it contained spread all over him. Screaming in agony, the monster fell dead as his friends looked askance at him. Those trolls began screaming in pain, as Weimar picked up his bow and began shooting flaming arrows at them. Amyalla worked with astonishing speed behind Weimar, setting fire to the rags she had already wrapped around his arrows before handing them back to him to shoot.
The trolls’ assault was now bogged down. Badly torn and wounded by the thorn field and further injured by the warriors, the creatures were unable to move. Seline cast a flaming sphere at the creatures, and they were helpless to avoid the sphere as Seline directed it towards them. Many of the trolls howled in agony as the sphere burned them in their faces and their hearts, slaying them instantly. The rest of the companions joined in with bottles of acid and flaming oil, and it wasn’t long before the battle was over. A dozen trolls lay dead, their smoking corpses reeking disgustingly in the morning sun.
Despite their victory, the adventurers’ faces were grim as they regrouped.
“That was too easy,” Revafour said, voicing what the companions were all thinking. “These things were just fodder.”
“So now it’s just us and the master, and whatever he’s got waiting for us,” Weimar said. “Somehow, I don’t think he’ll be in a welcoming mood.”
“You never know,” Amyalla quipped as they made their way into the cavern. “Perhaps he’ll be pleased that we decided to deliver his next meal.”
It was fortunate that Amyalla was leading the way down the passage, and that she spotted the tripwires before the companions triggered them. It was a simple matter for Amyalla to disconnect the wires-trolls were not known for their mechanical skills, after all. Unfortunately, the spears the traps had been poised to shoot, now visible from the entrance to the larger cave chamber, were no laughing matter. No troll would have had to worry about them, but they would have easily run any of the adventurers through if they’d been released.
The passage led to a large open cavern. As the adventurers made their way in, they were split up when they were forced to dodge a flurry of hurled rocks and logs coming their way. That was just as the five remaining trolls expected, as they leapt forward to greet their new guests.
Four of the trolls were the same kinds of monsters the companions had been fighting over a week now, but the fifth one was another matter entirely. The towering monstrosity was an even more disgusting shade of green than his underlings, if it was even possible, and two heads sprouted from his broad shoulders. One of them chattered eagerly in the mishmash language the trolls used to communicate, while the other one was laughing wildly.
None of the adventurers could understand what the troll leader was saying, but the meaning of his words were all too clear as the trolls attacked.
Revafour scored first blood on one of the trolls, tearing a long gash across its chest, but the creature merely laughed and responded in kind. Crying out in pain, Revafour stumbled back, the momentum of his attack broken as he was knocked off balance. Soon, it was all he could do to block the troll’s blows as he struggled to strike back.
On the other side of the large log separating her from Revafour, Seline shuddered as the troll crashed into the magical barrier she’d cast to protect herself. Backing up hastily, she chanted frantically, releasing a series of magical bolts into the creature’s face. The troll howled in pain, but simply shrugged off the bolts’ effects as he advanced once again. Lunging forward with his claws, he soon found the limits of Seline’s barrier. One of his clawed arms struck the barrier’s top and Seline was forced to duck the slash of the second. Leaning over the barrier to bite Seline, the troll howled in pain as Seline brought her hands together and chanted quickly. Her spell caused flames to burst from her hands, exploding in the troll’s face. Stumbling back, the troll held his face, screaming in agony as Seline raised her wand. Another burst of what seemed like fog emerged from the wand, but the troll screamed once again at the painful burns the steam inflicted on him. The troll sank to its knees, shuddering violently, before Seline ended its misery by throwing a vial of acid in its face.
Ma’non’go winced as the troll he was fighting bit into his shoulder, but the silent warrior grimly endured the pain. Repeating the tactic he had used at the battle in Oakdale, Ma’non’go drove his fingers into the creature’s eyes, forcing him back. Raising his trident, Ma’non’go repeatedly slashed the troll, tearing long, jagged wounds in his body. Frustratingly, however, the creature just kept on coming, its wounds regenerating even as it impaled itself on Ma’non’go’s weapon. One of its arms lashed out and slashed Ma’non’go’s arm, even as one of its legs lashed out and cut him in the stomach.
His mind racing, Ma’non’go glanced around for another option. Raising his trident, he threw it forward, sending the troll crashing headfirst into a nearby boulder. The troll’s head cracked open from the wound, and the creature lay there for several seconds before he managed to rise to his feet. Tearing Ma’non’go’s trident out of its chest, the troll tossed the weapon aside, before looking for his opponent. It soon caught sight of Ma’non’go, and more particularly of the ignited flask of oil the large Olman hurled.
The troll howled as the flask of oil struck him in the chest, splattering burning oil all over his wounds.
The troll facing Revafour was a cunning thing, constantly ducking and dodging and attacking him from several different angles. Unable to mount an effective counterattack, Revafour could only manage minor strikes, most of which the troll’s regeneration were healing. Gritting his teeth, Revafour cursed in pain as the troll fastened his jaws on his arm, making him lose his grip on his sword.
The troll began to lash out with his claws at Revafour’s torso, but before he could he suddenly released his arm. Crying out in pain, the troll stumbled off to the side as Revafour saw the long burn mark down the monster’s back. He also saw Luna, who smiled at him as she raised the mace-shaped flame in her hand.
Revafour only smiled back as they finished the wretched thing off.
Weimar was thankful indeed for his shield, which shuddered as it took another blow from the huge two-headed troll. While Weimar had managed to inflict several blows on the creature, he hardly seemed to care about that. Ignoring his wounds, which were healing from his regeneration, the two-headed troll simply continued slashing at Weimar without even trying to block the human’s attacks. So far, Weimar had managed to avoid being injured, but he knew his luck wouldn’t last forever.
The wretch is strong, but he’s not too fast, Weimar realized. Perhaps…
Looking around quickly, he soon saw what he was looking for. Jumping back, he turned as if to flee, the blood-crazed troll howling gleefully as he pursued him. The troll was so consumed by bloodlust that he failed to notice the log Weimar deftly hopped over, and fell flat on his faces as he tripped.
Whirling around to face the troll, Weimar tore a vicious gash in the side of the creature’s right head as he tried to get up. The blow made the troll shudder and collapse on the ground again, and Weimar moved to strike again.
Weimar stopped short at the sight of Amyalla appearing as if out of nowhere, nimbly making her way up the troll’s back with a vial in her hand. The troll’s left head turned around as if to bite her, but she tossed the vial into his mouth, causing the vial to shatter as the troll’s mouth slammed shut on it.
The troll began crying out in agony, smoke pouring from his left mouth as he involuntarily began swallowing the acid in the vial Amyalla had thrown at him. He shuddered dreadfully, his left neck and face turning a disgusting black in color as the acid began to melt it.
Amyalla and Weimar were hardened adventurers, but even they couldn’t help but shudder.
Airk had beaten the troll into submission with his military pick, and set it on fire with his last flask of oil. He stared impassively at the dying troll, feeling no sympathy for the monster as it writhed in agony.
Airk had more experience battling trolls than Amyalla or the humans, following his older brother Tarnek’s lessons. Tarnek had taught Airk that the best way to slay a troll was to disable its joints, gouge out its eyes, and then burn it while it was helpless. Airk’s pick had served admirably in piercing the troll’s knee and slashing the creature’s eyes. Blinded and unable to walk, the troll couldn’t stop Airk from lighting an oil flask, much less dodging the flask once the gnome threw it at him.
Turning away from the dying troll, Airk’s mood brightened as he saw that his friends were alright. Luna had already healed Ma’non’go’s wounds, and she was now healing Revafour. Ma’non’go and the rest of the companions had begun searching the cavern.
Airk was surprised at the cave’s small size. It was simply one large chamber, filled with dozens of the stinking nests the trolls made for themselves. The trolls had haphazardly thrown a pile of supplies into one corner by the largest nest, and Amyalla was now digging through the pile. Airk came up to join the halfling as she dragged a large iron chest out of the pile, a wide smile on her face.
Not caring to search through the filthy troll nest for the key to the chest, Amyalla had little trouble picking the padlock. Her smile was wide as she opened the chest, glancing over the large pile of copper and silver coins the chest contained. Looking over Amyalla’s shoulder, Airk could see a few jewels sparkling among the coins. To his surprise, there was also several sheets of parchment on one corner of the pile, which he could see were written in the gnomish tongue.
“Let me see those,” he said, before Amyalla passed the parchments along to him. Airk stepped away from the chest, reading the parchments intently as the rest of the companions came up to help Amyalla gather up the treasure. The gnome was so focused on his reading that it was a long moment before he realized that his friends were all staring at him expectantly.
“…Are you sure you don’t want your share of this treasure?” Amyalla said, raising an eyebrow.
Airk didn’t reply, his eyes narrowing.
“Damn them all…” he said.
“…What did we do?” Luna said, concern evident in her voice.
“You? Nothing,” Airk said. “These parchments show why the trolls were rampaging and attacking the people of places like Oakdale.”
What do you mean? Ma’non’go signed curiously.
“The trolls were being paid to raid and plunder the surrounding communities,” Airk said, “and bring the treasure to their masters. These parchments give directions to where they were to meet their employers.”
“And the trolls were able to read that?” Seline asked incredulously.
“Larger two-headed trolls are cross-bred with ettins,” Airk said. “Believe it or not, that makes them smarter than your average troll. What I find strange, though, is why this was written in gnomish?”
“Perhaps we should find out,” Luna said. “Who’s to say they might not attack the Flan and the other goodly people of the hills once again?”
“And we can deal with them, can’t we?” Weimar said, a wicked grin crossing his face. “I have to admit, I like the sound of that.”
Most of the companions returned his smile, but Weimar noted with concern that Airk didn’t seem to have heard him. The gnome was reading the parchments again, a clouded expression on his face.
“Farewell, brother,” Dennine said as he and Revafour clasped hands. “We cannot thank you enough for all that you’ve done for us.”
“We acted only as we should,” Revafour said with a nod. “Take care, and may Pelor’s blessings continue to shine upon you.”
Revafour turned to join his companions, who had already mounted the horses and ponies they’d bought from the residents of Oakdale. Soon, the adventurers rode off, the waves and calls of gratitude of the villagers of Oakdale following them down the hill.
Dennine sighed as he watched Revafour and the others go, wondering what the future held for the younger Flan. They had had their final conversation in their ancestral language, and Dennine had not failed to notice how much more relaxed and at ease Revafour seemed to be in speaking the old Flan tongue than the Common one. Revafour even seemed somewhat and withdrawn with his fellow adventurers, uncomfortable with fully opening up to them.
How many of us have such feelings still? Dennine thought to himself. We cannot change the past, but we cannot help but be shaped by it.
How do we stay true to who we are, while still moving forward, in this new world?
Dennine thought back to the last time the dwarves of the citadel of Greysmere had visited Oakdale. The dwarves had told Dennine about a bitter feud between two of the families who once lived there, a conflict that had ended with both of them driven out of the mountain fastness they called home. Now forced to wander, each of the families had eventually found new homes. Unfortunately, the pain and bitterness they’d endured from their banishment had taken deep roots among them.
And then there was Dennine’s nephew Belden, who had left Oakdale to find his own way in the world because he found village life intolerable. Dennine’s brother had been less than pleased with his son’s choice, and he’d bluntly accused Belden of abandoning his people and community. Belden had in turn been less than pleased with the accusation. The younger man had left in a bitter acrimony, swearing that he would never return.
Dennine thought long about Belden, the dwarves and Revafour, wondering what to make of it all.
He thought long and hard, but he could not find an answer.
“That’s the place, then?” Weimar whispered to Amyalla as she handed his telescope back to him.
“Just as Airk described from the parchments,” Amyalla whispered back, confirming Weimar’s own suspicions. It had taken the companions two days to follow the directions laid out in the parchments, which led to a stone cabin at the base of a hill between a small, thick wood and a waterfall further east. Now, Weimar and Amyalla were scouting the cabin area, while the rest of the companions prepared at a base camp farther back in the forest.
As Amyalla and Weimar approached the cavern, walking stealthily through the woods, Weimar glanced all around him, looking for any sort of sign of what might be coming to or from the cabin. Amyalla didn’t notice anything except the wind and the occasional twittering of birds. She tensed as she heard something rustling in the bushes ahead, but the creature that emerged was simply a moose looking for food. The large beast began munching contentedly on a nearby tree, causing Amyalla to smile briefly as she and Weimar passed it by.
It doesn’t look like there’s much going on here, Amyalla thought to herself. Perhaps-
Amyalla’s train of thought stopped short as she and Weimar reached the edge of the woods. They saw the stone cabin, dilapidated and clearly abandoned for years, sitting some thirty feet away. They could also hear the roar of a waterfall farther off to the east, and realized they were in the right place.
According to the parchments from the trolls’ lair, the stone cabin’s basement contained an entrance into a set of dungeon ruins where the trolls’ masters were staying. The trolls were instructed to wait outside the cabin. The trolls’ masters, whoever they were, would come out of the cabin to meet them.
Weimar and Amyalla watched the cabin for several minutes. They were surprised to see a group of cloaked figures emerge from it and set off in the direction of the waterfall to the east. Amyalla did well not to exclaim in surprise when she recognized the cloaked figures as gnomes. She couldn’t imagine what they would be doing consorting with trolls. Looking at Weimar, she saw that he didn’t understand it any more than she did.
They turned to go back to their base camp, wondering how Airk was going to take the news.
When he heard Amyalla and Weimar’s report, Airk’s face reddened in anger.
“Why?” he said to himself, leading his pony towards the concealment the companions had set to hide their mounts. “Why would they be consorting with trolls, of all things? What would they have to gain from all that murder and looting?” he continued, returning to the rest of the group once his pony was hidden with the other mounts.
“Perhaps they weren’t really gnomes,” Seline suggested to Airk as she handed him his backpack. “They could be magically disguised-goblins, humans, something else entirely?”
Seline had hoped her words would encourage Airk, but they didn’t. Airk only shook his head, his grim expression not changing.
“Whoever wrote those instructions wrote like a gnome,” Airk said with a heavy frown. “We can usually tell when humans or dwarves write in the gnomish tongue because they construct their sentences in a way that’s more in line with their own ancestral languages. I imagine that’s how you and Luna probably sound to the Flan when you speak their language?”
The slightly embarrassed look on Seline’s face told him all he needed to know.
“They’re gnomes all right, and blood is on their hands. That’s not so easily forgiven among gnomekind, any more than it is among any other race. What kind of treachery…” he said, trailing off as a faraway look came into his eyes.
Seline waited for Airk to say something else, but he simply stood silent and unblinking. His lips began to move silently, and he began to almost imperceptibly tremble.
“Airk?” Seline said, touching his shoulder.
Airk started at her touch, whirling to face her. His eyes blazed, and one of his hands reached for his belt.
“Airk!” Seline said again.
Airk blinked several times, seeming to calm down. He looked around from side to side, seeming as if he had just woken from a dream. His alarmed expression was replaced with a shaken one. He took several deep breaths, placing his hands on his temples as if he was trying to forget something unpleasant.
“The axes…” he said, closing his eyes. “Different peoples…new blood…but always on their hands…”
“Airk!” Seline said a third time, touching his shoulder again.
Airk’s eyes popped open, before he finally calmed down.
“I…” he said.
“…Are you alright?” Seline asked, as the rest of the companions came to join them.
“Old memories. They…it’s nothing. Come, let’s be off,” Airk said.
Ma’non’go came up to stand beside Seline and face Airk. He shook his head, clearly not convinced by Airk’s words.
Your words say one thing, your features say another, Ma’non’go signed. Are you certain you’re capable of doing this?
Taking another deep breath, Airk nodded.
“Yes, I am. Suffice to say that I have no tolerance for any among my own people who consort with murder and robbery. I’ve experienced more than enough of that to last a lifetime, and not among humans or humanoids,” he said.
Despite his words, Airk could still hear the sounds of axes clashing on shields, the retching of gnomes dying from poisonous fumes, and the laughter of the Steelheart dwarves in his mind.
He heard those things often, of course, but ever since Amyalla and Weimar had told him about the gnomes at the stone cabin he heard them a lot more.
The stone cabin looked abandoned to a casual observer. It was half-crumbling, filled with little more than broken furniture, crockery and small rodents. The experienced adventurers saw several signs that people had passed through it recently, though. Pieces of wood were kicked away from the piles of timber they would have belonged to, the dirt on the floor was marked with traces from where furniture had been pushed, and some of the furniture itself was marked with the blows of hammers and axes as it was broken for firewood.
The adventurers made their way into the basement, and it didn’t take them long to find the secret door and the staircase behind it. Carved out of natural stone, the staircase led into the depths of the cave, beckoning the adventurers standing before it. The companions needed no more invitation, and it wasn’t long before they had lit their lamps and descended into the tunnel the steps led down.
The silence in the stone cabin had been nothing unusual to the adventurers, who were well used to the solitude of the road. The depths of the cavern were entirely different, as the shadows and the silence came together to make the companions realize just how out of place most of them were down here. They had experienced the feeling more than once, having ventured into caverns and dungeons many times before, but it was something they could never quite get used to.
Airk was the exception, born and raised as he was in the Lortmils. The depths did not bother him-indeed, he hardly noticed them. Rather, the gnome fought as hard as he could to fight off a rising sense of rage. Old images flashed through his mind, images of battles with orcs and goblins, interspersed with other images of his kinfolk’s bloodied corpses. Shaking his head briefly, he forced himself to focus on the tunnel around him and his friends.
The tunnel ended in a round chamber with five exits besides the tunnel the companions had come in through. Each of the five exits was blocked by a portcullis, and each portcullis had a lever set into the wall next to it. The adventurers looked first at the gates, then at each other, wondering what to make of it all.
“Would this be a gnomish design?” Weimar said, wondering which of the gateways to choose.
Airk blinked once, before he digested the question.
“The portcullises are, but this wouldn’t be a traditional defensive measure,” he said, his mind suddenly much more at ease. “More likely than not this was just a way to keep the trolls from following the gnomes into the depths if the wretches ever got greedy. All the portcullises likely lead to the same tunnel.”
And what could deter trolls from following them into the depths? Ma’non’go signed, now looking warily at each of the portcullises in turn as if he expected an attack from one of them.
“Let’s find out,” Amyalla said as she approached the first of the portcullises. Looking up at it, Amyalla glanced at the portcullis itself, at the lever set into the wall next to it, and at the walls between the gateways. She could see that the bars were all greased, making it almost impossible for even creatures as strong as the trolls to lift them. Nor could she see any kind of mechanical trap around any of them. There didn’t seem to be anything preventing any of the trolls from simply opening the gates and walking through.
“Then again, maybe that’s the point,” Amyalla said to herself. Getting a closer look at the lever, she nodded.
“What are you talking about?” Weimar asked.
“See for yourself,” the halfling said as she picked up a rock lying on the cavern floor. “You’d all best stand back,” she continued, before she pitched the stone at the nearest lever. She smiled in satisfaction as the lever seemed to shatter, releasing a liquid that spilled down the front of the cave wall, hissing loudly as it made contact with the stone.
Stepping forward, Amyalla nodded to herself as she examined the remains of the lever.
“Dummy levers made of dark-tinted glass, containing acid,” she said, looking back at the rest of the companions. “Imagine if you were a troll trying to pull one of those levers. It shatters under your grip, and then your entire hand is burned away by acid. Would you contemplate staying?”
So which lever is the correct one? Ma’non’go wondered.
“…The fourth one,” Amyalla finally decided. “See how it doesn’t reflect the light of the lantern the way the others do?” Leaping up, she grabbed the lever with her free hand and pulled down, smiling widely as the portcullis slowly slid open. The adventurers easily passed through the opened gate, and Amyalla found a hidden switch on the other side to close the portcullis again.
Cunning bastards, Airk thought to himself as the companions resumed their march. Gnomes designed these traps, gnomes consorted with trolls, gnomes murdered the people of the hills…
It’s warmer than I thought it would be down here, Ma’non’go thought to himself in surprise as the companions continued walking down the tunnel. I wonder if it’s due to the more confined space, or is it because we’re closer to the oerth’s core?
The tunnel had widened considerably beyond the portcullises, and now Ma’non’go and his friends were passing into what looked like a wilder area. Stalactites hung from the cavern ceiling, now far above them, and the sound of running water echoed off in the distance. The sight reminded Ma’non’go of what one of his friends from X’tandelexamenka, a scholar who specialized in the studies of the oerth, had told him. According to Ma’non’go’s friend, the caverns underneath the oerth could be far and wide alike. A traveler could enter a cave from one point on the surface and travel through the tunnels before re-emerging somewhere else on the surface hundreds of miles away.
All those shadows, Ma’non’go thought to himself as he scanned the darkness around them. Who knows what-
Ma’non’go’s warrior senses suddenly alerted him to the danger that was approaching. He immediately rapped the handle of his trident on the cavern floor, getting his companions’ attention.
Ma’non’go’s warning came just in time, and the companions scattered before the beast would have landed in their midst. As the companions readied their weapons, they got a good look at the creature in the lamplight. To Ma’non’go, it resembled one of the black panthers that were said to dwell in the lands of the Touv people that the Olman sometimes dealt with back in Hepmonaland. It was far larger than any panther, however. The creature’s tail was unnaturally long, extending well over its owner’s head and swinging around like a flail.
Ma’non’go was about to charge the creature with his trident when he stopped short in surprise. At first, there only seemed to be one of the weird cats, but then there were nine of the foul things, smaller than the original but looking no less fierce. The creatures charged in an expanding ring, forcing the adventurers back and preventing them from linking up.
Ducking under the swinging tail of the panther that advanced towards him, Ma’non’go thrust his trident at the cat, but the creature easily dodged the blow. It swung its tail at him a second time, forcing him to bring his trident back to block the attack.
Off to his right, Weimar had better luck. Deflecting the panther’s attack with his shield, Weimar struck back with a perfectly aimed axe blow aimed at the creature’s neck. The blow struck home, but to Weimar’s astonishment the panther simply blinked out of existence. Looking around in confusion, Weimar wondered if the creature was preparing to attack him from behind, but it seemed to have simply vanished.
Two of the creatures sprang at Seline, instinctively realizing how little she had in arms and armor compared to her companions. Seline had been preparing to cast a spell in return, but she had no time to do more than dodge their relentless attacks. Taking her wand out of her pocket, she chanted quickly, releasing a blast of heated steam straight into the face of one of the cats, which howled in pain and seemed to vanish in turn. Unfortunately, that was when Seline heard the roaring behind her, and saw that the other panther was advancing, ready to crush her with its flailing tail.
To her astonishment, the thing vanished, as did all of the other cats fighting the companions. Soon, all they could see was just the one large cat, roaring as it crouched down. Cunningly, the creature sprang forward, forcing Revafour and Luna back, but it lashed backwards with its tail, striking Amyalla and sending her flying as she tried to sneak up on the monster. The halfling landed some distance away, struggling to get to her knees, as her friends struck back. Revafour came forward, viciously slashing the creature across the chest, but then it seemed to vanish yet again. In its place, there were now seven of the smaller weird cats, roaring in a perverse harmony as they attacked the companions.
Airk had no idea what this thing was or how it was doing its disappearing trick, but he didn’t intend to let it get away with it. Charging forward, he slammed the nearest panther in the head once with his morning star, blocked its tail strike with his shield, and brutally smashed the creature again before it vanished. To Airk’s left, Luna cried out in pain as she fell back, hit by the tail of one of the creatures. The creature was about to strike again, but then it too howled and vanished, blasted by the magical bolts Seline cast at it.
There were but five of the creatures left, and two of those soon vanished as Ma’non’go and Revafour struck them down. The three remaining creatures seemed to merge back into the single panther, and it appeared angrier than ever. It seemed as if it was ready to spring, but then its roars became a choked gurgle as it fell to the ground. As Airk stepped forward, he saw the long dagger suddenly protruding from the monster’s throat, and the battered Amyalla smiling grimly as she sat on the monster’s back. Pulling the dagger out of the large cat’s throat, she contemptuously wiped the dagger on its fur, before returning the blade to its sheath.
“What was that thing?” Amyalla said, as the companions regrouped. Luna stepped forward, casting a healing spell that the battered halfling gratefully accepted.
“I’d say it was a nonafel, though I never thought I’d see one,” Seline said.
“Non-a-what?” Weimar asked.
“Nonafels are a race of catlike predators that many sages believe are related to the displacer beasts,” Seline said. “They have the ability to create multiple copies of themselves, all fighting as one. They can split up and reunite, healing their wounds when they’re all together. If any individual cat is destroyed, the nonafel has to regenerate them over a few weeks.”
“…Oh, right,” Weimar said, nodding. “The elves I studied with always called them the ‘cat-o-nine-tails’, though. How could something like that get into the gnomes’ complex?”
“Because this isn’t just their complex,” Airk said, gesturing with his head to urge his friends onward. “This whole area is part of the natural cave system. Surely you didn’t think wild monsters might not wander in here?”
“But-“ Weimar began.
“The portcullises were just built as a way of deterring anyone from following the gnomes back to their lair,” Airk said, as if expecting the question. “They choose an area for a lair, find a route to the surface and set up a trap to guard the way. It’s unlikely they have the time or the resources to take over the entire cave network. Surely that’s all obvious! Now come, we’ve lost enough time already!”
Seline and Weimar looked at one another in concern, before running to catch up with Airk.
Another hour’s worth of walking brought the adventurers to the edge of a vast underground lake. Water flowed into and out of the lake through various smaller rivers that branched off in all directions, many of them continuing into some of the other tunnels that led into the main cave.
Where do we go now? Ma’non’go signed. Must we employ magic to proceed any further?
“No sense in that,” Airk said, shaking his head, “and in any event I doubt you prepared the necessary spells?” he asked Luna and Seline.
“I don’t even know much of such magic,” Seline said, shaking her head sadly. “Would that-“
“Don’t worry about it,” Airk said, glancing down at the ground. “Come over here and help me,” he continued, gesturing towards Weimar and Revafour. “We need search for tracks-the footprints should be about my size.”
Weimar and Revafour weren’t sure what they could expect to find, but then they noticed the gravel, mud and dirt that surrounded the lake’s shores, which could mark a creature’s passage as easily as the mud or sand of the surface. Following Airk’s lead, they began glancing around. It wasn’t long before Weimar found a set of traces in the dirt leading towards one passage several hundred feet away, just in front of a river that carried water out of the cavern. Much of the grit and dirt had also been disturbed, spreading out in the telltale patterns that emerged when they were kicked by walking feet.
Gesturing to bring his companions over, Weimar’s pleasure at discovering the tracks was marred by the look of dismay and anger crossing Airk’s face. He could only imagine what Airk was thinking, but the gnome seemed to constantly lose awareness of his surroundings, falling into thought with a faraway look in his eyes before his eyes suddenly flashed as he came back to reality.
What are you looking for, Airk? Weimar wondered. Are you still searching for something, too? Or are you trying to rid yourself of something that still haunts you? Are you left wondering about where you came from, and how it affects who you are?
Or are you thinking about what was done to you, and wondering what you could have done differently to stop it? Weimar continued. He recalled the betrayals Airk had told the rest of the companions that the gnome’s kingdom of Flinthold had suffered during the Hateful Wars over six and a half decades ago.
Weimar glanced back at Revafour, and he was suddenly reminded of their dispute over Weimar’s attending the sweat lodge back in Oakdale. Revafour’s anger at Weimar’s request still stung him, although he could understand his Flan companion’s reluctance.
Damn it all, he thought to himself as he looked down again at the footprints. I knew I shouldn’t have finished that last wineskin-
Weimar was turning to call his companions over when he realized just how large the footprints really were. The size of the footprints, to say nothing of their stride, was far larger than anything a gnome like Airk could make.
“I saw some footprints that could have been made by a gnome,” Revafour was saying as the companions came to join Weimar. “How about you?”
“I wish I did,” Weimar said, a grim look on his face. “We’re also dealing with giants,” he pointed out, showing the rest of the group the larger footprints he’d discovered.
For the last few hours, Airk had seemed to constantly losing himself in thought. When he heard Weimar’s and Revafour’s descriptions of the footprints, he became fully alert at. If anything, he seemed almost to calm a bit, now more determined than angry.
“It explains a lot,” he said, before muttering something to himself in gnomish.
“So we’re dealing with giants again?” Luna asked curiously. “Should-“
“Not giants,” Airk said. “I know what made these trails.”
By the time Airk finished explaining the nature of their targets, the expressions of his human and halfling companions were almost as grim as his.
“They’re cunning rats,” Airk said, “and all they care about is the survival of their own hides. Giants and humanoids at least care about prestige and impressing their allies with their battle prowess, but that hardly matters to these wretches. They’ll have no compunction about slitting your throats if they surprise you, or abandoning their comrades if things go badly.”
“Is everyone ready?” he asked, although he hardly needed a response.
For all the anger he had felt just a short time ago, all Airk Venbelwar felt now was an icy calm.
You know the suffering these creatures bring to your people, he silently thought, his mind filling with the images of Gaerdal Ironhand and Garl Glittergold, the gnomish gods of war and protection. Never have I received the vengeance I have so long prayed for-if you have never seen fit to grant it to me, then grant me the strength to destroy these hateful things. More than that, I ask that you extend your blessings to my friends-they are not of our people, but they deserve to die beneath the sun and the sky, rather than the darkness of the oerth.
His face set, his military pick in hand, Airk led his friends on, determined to see the matter through.
Old Demons, New Suffering
The adventurers soon found themselves in an area of worked stone, one where it was clear many feet had recently trod. Some of the footprints were smaller in stature, others large, and it only reconfirmed Airk’s suspicions. Further ahead, the adventurers saw several tunnels branching off at a crossroads. Weirdly glimmering lights flickered along the tunnels, and shadows danced eerily on the tunnel walls.
They didn’t post any guards, but that’s just to lure people in, Airk thought to himself. Looking around, he found a smaller cave off to the side and gestured towards it. Leading his friends into the cubbyhole, he further led them to dim their lanterns, knowing full well the dangers of the light giving them away.
Airk had a fairly good idea of how their opponents would have designed their lair. He began tracing an outline in the grit at the companions’ feet, whispering quietly as he explained his plan.
They lure people in and expect them to be easy prey when they finally arrive, the gnome thought to himself, smiling inwardly.
Let’s turn that against them, he decided.
And they call themselves tricksters…
Amyalla was as silent as the darkness around her as she crept down the tunnel, her eyes alert for any kind of trap. The creatures the companions were about to face shared many of the engineering skills of the gnomish race. Their lairs were often rigged with deadly traps to hinder and kill intruders before the attackers could ever raise a sword against them.
The first tripwire, leading up to the crossroads, was easy to miss, but Amyalla knew what to look for. Hopping over the wire with an impish grin, she continued on down the tunnel to the first crossroads, keeping to the shadows as she considered which one to travel down.
“’Ere now!” said a nasal, almost whiny voice from further up the corridor.
“’Wot’s all the bother?” another voice said, this one sound much deeper than the first.
“When’s mealtime?” the first voice asked, as its owner came stomping down the corridor. Amyalla squatted down as quietly as she could. In her mind, she thanked Yondalla that these creatures couldn’t see her body heat, the way so many inhabitants of the underworld could.
Over three feet tall, with the prominent nose and thick hair of a gnome, the creature that advanced into the crossroads could have been mistaken for a gnome at first glance. However, the sickly jaundiced yellow of his skin, the redness of his bloodshot eyes, the rounded, bulbous shape of his nose, so different from the long pointy noses of true gnomes like Airk, and the hateful sneer on his face marked him out as a spriggan.
Spriggans were vile cousins to the gnomes. They possessed strange magical powers that were said to come from their consorting with the darker aspects of the fairy world. They lived for banditry and violence, whether slitting the throats of hapless victims from the shadows in their normal size or sadistically playing with their victims in the giant forms they could assume. The spriggan Amyalla saw, like all of his kind, was dressed in clothing typical for his kind. His dirty breeches and leather armor looked as if they would rot on him before they were ever washed, accenting the disgusting stink of his unwashed body.
Quietly, Amyalla sprinted after the spriggan as he walked down another corridor, noting the way he ducked under a particular point. Looking up as she repeated the motion, Amyalla noticed another tripwire, this one set at about the level of her head. Her practiced eye caught the worked stone further up the wall, and Amyalla could well imagine what it might release if the tripwire was set off.
The spriggan turned into an opening in the left-hand wall, from which several more voices echoed. Carefully peering into the opening, Amyalla looked into a large common space. Several other spriggans lazed about on a variety of mismatched furniture, most of it no doubt stolen or otherwise acquired during their travels. Despite herself, Amyalla swallowed hard. She saw how several of the spriggans were a good ten or twelve feet in height, and took especial note of how their weapons grew in size with them.
Returning to the crossroads and walking down another corridor leading off it, she soon came upon a kitchen and a lever set into the wall next to the doorway. Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, Amyalla could see that the lever was set to trigger a deadfall of loose and sharpened stones near the crossroads.
Every sense on alert, Amyalla flitted through several more corridors, noting where the spriggans had set their traps. Twice she had to hide to avoid spriggans walking through the corridor, but their guard was down and they were not particularly alert for intruders, expecting their traps to warn them of any attackers.
Satisfied that there were no more spriggans in the immediate area, Amyalla lifted her skirt, revealing the lockpicks and other tools she kept hidden on her garters.
A wide smile crossed her face.
It was time to go to work.
The spriggans leapt up when they heard the sounds of the footsteps and cries of pain. The first tripwire, the one in the corridor leading from the crossroads back to the underground lake, had clearly been triggered, striking several intruders with poisoned darts. A few seconds later, the spriggans heard another agonized cry as another tripwire was set off, this one pouring acid down on whatever creature had been unlucky enough to set it off. A third set of screams followed after that, as another set of intruders had breached the flamethrowing trap that was placed down the left-hand corridor branching off from the crossroads.
Grinning to one another, several of the spriggans eagerly leapt up and charged down the corridor towards the crossroads. Some of the others went in the opposite direction intending to flank the intruders from another one of the passages leading to the crossroads. They knew well the dangers of setting up a lair in the dangerous underground passages of the Deepoerth, and had taken suitable precautions.
The leading spriggans charged down the corridor that contained the acid-dumping trap. A couple of the stragglers, following along behind their kin, were the only ones who noticed that the acid-dumping trap was somehow still in place. Blinking in surprise, they were caught off guard at the lack of corpses, or indeed anyone at all, in the corridor.
An ominous chanting was their only warning before a cloud of white fog enveloped them. A couple of the spriggans saw the form of a young human woman dressed in indigo wizard’s robes marked with the images of the moon and stars down the corridor leading from the crossroads to the underground lake. The human woman seemed to appear out of nowhere, but the spriggans had no time to think about it before they screamed in pain at the burning heat of the fog. Too late, the spriggans realized the fog was a deadly cloud of steam. Several of the creatures fell dead, horribly burned by the searing heat, made all the worse by the confined narrows of the crossroads.
A couple of the spriggans managed to stumble free of the steam cloud and into the corridor where the human woman stood, their skin burned and red. Behind them, more of the spriggans charging into the crossroads felt the agony of the steam. Several of the spriggans, shifting into their giant forms to better withstand the steam’s painful heat, suddenly felt another stinging sensation as a flurry of arrows came flying into the steam cloud from the corridor where the young woman awaited them.
Thinking that the young woman had shot the arrows at them, three of the spriggans ran down the corridor towards her. They caught sight of her, but they saw that she was now standing behind a lean blonde man wielding a longbow and a massively built dark-skinned man wielding a wicked-looking trident.
Angrily the spriggans charged, swinging their axes furiously. One of them was halted by Ma’non’go, who caught the creature’s descending axe in his trident and pushed it back up. Lashing out with his foot, Ma’non’go slammed the spriggan in the gut, causing him to stagger and let up the pressure on his axe. With the spriggan’s defenses now open, Ma’non’go charged forward, gutting the creature on his trident.
To Ma’non’go’s left, Weimar fired several more shots from his bow at the other two spriggans, dropping the first one before picking up his axe. The second spriggan had shrunk back down to gnome size to avoid the arrow, but Weimar easily drove his battleaxe into the creature’s chest, killing it as the steam ahead began to clear.
He smiled in satisfaction as he saw six spriggans lying dead where the steam cloud had struck. The companions’ plan had worked perfectly. Amyalla had disarmed all of the traps she found, while letting Seline know what exactly they were designed for. Seline’s magic then created the sound of intruders being caught on the traps, luring several of the spriggans to investigate and running into the steam cloud Seline had conjured with her wand.
Now it’s my turn, Weimar thought with a grin, as he retrieved his bow.
Ma’non’go stalked off down the right-hand corridor, his trident red with the blood of some of the spriggans who had survived the steam cloud but were too injured to fight back. Looking around warily, he recalled what Airk had told the companions about spriggans, such as how the nasty little things could strike from the shadows.
Amyalla was following along behind Ma’non’go. When a spriggan leapt out from an alcove in the rock wall to stab Ma’non’go, the halfling’s warning cry saved her tall friend from being hamstrung. While Ma’non’go managed to avoid having his leg torn as he spun to confront the spriggan, the creature slashed his hip.
A wave of agony went down the right side of Ma’non’go’s body as the spriggan grew to full size. The spriggan howled in glee as he slashed at Ma’non’go, his dagger now the size of a sword. Ma’non’go blocked the spriggan’s slash with the handle of his trident, turning the spriggan’s eager cry to a curse of frustration. Ma’non’go ducked the spriggan’s next sword slash and quickly struck back, tearing a gash along the spriggan’s stomach and leg.
Unfortunately, Ma’non’go was so caught up in his own battle he didn’t notice another spriggan coming up behind him. This creature held a shimmering dagger in his hands, eager to succeed where his comrade had failed.
Revafour led the way down the central corridor, Luna following in his wake. He carried a lantern in one hand as he walked, and suddenly stopped when the lantern was extinguished. Many of the torches ahead of him were extinguished as well. Revafour recognized one of the spriggan’s magical powers, the ability to snuff out the flames from torches and lamps. Fortunately, he was prepared, dropping the lantern and reaching into his pocket. The corridor blazed with light again as Revafour pulled a stone from his pocket and tossed to the cavern floor behind him. Luna had enchanted the stone with a magical spell, and she and Revafour had no problems seeing any spriggans that might attack them.
Revafour and Luna didn’t have long to wait. One of the creatures charged down the corridor towards Revafour, and another one charged at Luna from a side room the companions had passed. The spriggan coming at Revafour was in its small form, making a ghastly face as it jabbered all manner of ugly-sounding noise at him. The spriggan was using another of the creatures’ powers, the ability to instill fear in his opponents.
It took more than that to scare a Tenha warrior like Revafour, however. The spriggan stopped his babbling and grew to giant size when he realized that Revafour wasn’t scared of him. Revafour’s sword clashed with the spriggan’s as the monster attacked, and the spriggan began pushing Revafour back with his superior strength. Revafour only smiled, suddenly breaking away from the spriggan and causing him to stumble forward. The spriggan was completely defenseless, and Revafour didn’t waste the opportunity. Raising his sword, Revafour brought the blade squarely down on the spriggan’s neck, chopping his head off in a single stroke.
Behind Revafour, Luna brought up her shield to block the hammer the other spriggan was swinging at her. The spriggan anticipated her move, and brought his hammer around Luna’s defenses and struck her on her hip. Luna was knocked prone by the blow, but she recovered more quickly than the spriggan expected. Picking up her mace, she slammed it down on the spriggan’s foot before he could strike again. Crying out angrily, the spriggan raised his hammer to strike Luna down, but she slammed his foot again and then struck his knee as she got to her knees. Staggering from the blows, the spriggan shrunk back down to gnome size, charging straight at Luna. She hit him squarely in the face, and he fell dead.
Luna stood up, and she saw a third spriggan advancing on Revafour. The creature kicked the corpse of the first spriggan at Revafour, knocking him off balance. Revafour tried to defend himself, but the spriggan was faster, his sword aiming for the Flan warrior’s stomach.
Crying out, Luna flung her mace at the creature, uttering a desperate prayer to Pelor in her mind.
Pelor seemed to answer Luna’s prayer as her mace hit the spriggan in the chest. He stumbled back from the blow, landing on his rump. That gave Revafour all the time he needed to recover. He brought his sword down on the creature with a titanic slash, cutting the monster almost in two and staining the entire length of his sword blade red with blood.
Revafour initially smiled at his victory, but then he frowned as he heard Luna casting a healing spell over her wounded side.
His smile returned at the look of relief he saw on her face.
The spriggan stalking Ma’non’go didn’t realize it, but he should have been watching his own back. He belatedly heard a whistling sound, his only warning before a dagger thudded painfully into his hip. Crying out pain, the spriggan turned around, reaching for the dagger now protruding from his hip.
Amyalla had caught the spriggan by surprise with the first dagger she’d thrown, and threw the second one when he was off guard. The second dagger thudded into his chest, killing him instantly. Turning to consider the scene, Ma’non’go smiled in amusement as Amyalla came up to the corpse of the spriggan she’d killed, pulling her daggers out of the monster’s body.
“I dare say these creatures probably have a fair amount of treasure, wouldn’t they?” Amyalla said, grinning at Ma’non’go. “Care to help me find it?”
I presume you’ll need a stronger pair of arms than your own to haul much if it away, will you not? Ma’non’go signed back to her as he returned her smile.
“I’m hurt,” Amyalla said, a pouty look replacing her smile. “You think I’m just asking you for your strength, without appreciating your handsomeness?”
Ma’nongo just rolled his eyes in amusement.
Marching ahead of Weimar and Seline as he led them down the left passage from the crossroads, Airk scowled at the four spriggans charging towards them. Two of the creatures were in giant form, the others the size of gnomes, tossing spears and daggers at the adventurers. Fully expecting the spriggans’ tactics, Airk knelt down and held up his shield. Airk nodded as a spear and dagger bounced harmlessly off his shield. He knew the spriggans were naturally going to attack him first, even with Seline spellcasting behind him.
For Airk and the spriggans, this was just another chapter in the eternal blood feud between their races. The hatred between gnomes and spriggans rivalled that between the dwarves and the duergar, or the hatred that once existed between the elves and the drow, those dark blue-skinned elves that were now known to be nothing more than folk-tales.
The spriggans weren’t going to spare the humans, however. Weimar grunted as a spear struck his own shield, and a spear bounced off the protective barrier Seline had cast in front of her. Seline struck back first, releasing a lightning bolt that blasted the two spriggans in giant form dead on the spot. One of the remaining spriggans grew into giant size and charged at Weimar, while the other remained the size of a gnome and attacked Airk.
Weimar grunted again as his shield absorbed another blow from the spriggan attacking him. Gritting his teeth, Weimar struck back and cut the spriggan in the hip, before crying out as the spriggan struck him in the shoulder. Weimar ducked another swing from the spriggan, and he retaliated with a strike that clove deep into the creature’s chest. As the spriggan fell to his knees, Weimar hacked at the monster repeatedly, chopping through the spriggan’s arms and finally taking its head off.
Airk did not flinch as the other remaining spriggan struck his shield. The gnome’s expression was stone cold as he struck back, tearing a long gash down the spriggan’s leg with his military pick. As the spriggan staggered, Airk pressed the assault, slamming into the spriggan’s legs with his shield and making the monster stumble. The spriggan fell to one knee, and Airk lashed out with his pick, catching the spriggan in the eye. Airk pulled down on his pick, tearing a long gash down the spriggan’s face and gouging the creature’s throat.
Through it all, Airk maintained that cold, unmoving expression.
“Do you think that’s the last of them?” Weimar asked Airk.
Airk ignored Weimar and Seline, running off down the passage.
Weimar and Seline looked at one another in concern, before running to follow Airk.
It’s the Hateful Wars all over again, Airk realized. Just like when we fought those spriggan bandits who preyed on our defenseless villages…
During the Hateful Wars, many of the gnomish communities who sent their warriors to the front lines were left underdefended. Those communities were constantly preyed on by spriggans eager for blood and treasure. Airk had learned much about the vicious creatures from his old brothers Osian and Tarnek during their time together in Flinthold’s army. The Venbelwar brothers’ unit had confronted a band of spriggans who had kidnapped several gnomish children, intending to sell the children as humanoids for food or to treacherous dwarves as slaves, whichever would offer the higher price.
Airk had passed the knowledge of spriggans he had received from his brothers on to his new human and halfling companions. He was quite pleased with how his companions had used his knowledge, but he hadn’t told them everything. Spriggan bands were usually organized around a single leader who only entered a battle when he thought he could ambush his victims. If the leader didn’t get the chance, he would try to flee with as much treasure and other essentials as he could carry.
Glancing all around the passage as he ran, Airk soon found what he was looking for. He saw a door leading to a kitchen further ahead to his right, and he had passed a general sleeping area several feet back. He knew that a spriggan leader would want his minions close by to protect him and to be close to the kitchen to have first choice of the meals, so…
The door in the left wall of the passage, almost flush with the kitchen door, was the one Airk knew he was looking for.
Bursting into the room, Airk stared hatefully at the spriggan leader. The spriggan leader had been about to escape through a secret door in the wall opposite the door, but he turned to face the intruder. Airk’s eyes narrowed as he locked stares with the spriggan. The spriggan leader was ugly even by spriggan standards, powerfully muscled even in his small form and heavily marked with tattoos and piercings. He hefted a vicious two-handed battleaxe, kicking aside the treasure chests he had dropped when Airk burst into the room. Airk strode forward, raising his bloodstained pick, and the spriggan leader spat at him.
“Think you’re clever, don’t you?” the spriggan said with a sneer. “Think that just because you slay a few expendable fools, you think you can triumph?”
“You think you can kill us all by yourself?” Airk said, a smile crossing his face. “You’re quite calm for someone facing the end of his life.”
“I never thought I’d meet you,” the spriggan said, raising an eyebrow.
The spriggan’s sneer turned into a wicked grin as Airk stared in surprise at his words.
“How do you know me?” Airk said, confusion replacing eagerness on his face.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” the spriggan said, laughing evilly. “Pity you’ll never get to find out!” he shouted, as he suddenly grew into his giant form. The spriggan’s axe grew with him, and he howled with glee as he swung the huge weapon down at Airk.
Airk managed to block the blow with his shield, but the sheer force of it left him reeling. The spriggan followed up his first attack with a vicious backhanded chop, slashing Airk across the chest. His entire body on fire with pain, Airk ducked and was fortune not to be decapitated by the spriggan’s third strike. Blood ran down the front of his torso, and Airk knew that his heavy armor had likely saved him from being instantly killed.
As the spriggan prepared to attack yet again, Airk shouted in a rage. Airk struck back with his pick, tearing a long line in one of the spriggan’s arms. The spriggan grunted in pain, and his next attack passed harmlessly over Airk’s head. He recovered faster than Airk expected, and he chopped straight down with his next attack, slashing another wound across Airk’s back.
Airk was now covered with blood, most of it his own, but if he felt any pain he did not show it. He struck back with his pick, driving it into one of the spriggan’s hands as the creature withdrew his axe. The pick’s point penetrated the spriggan’s hand almost up to the handle of the weapon. Forced to strike one-handed, the spriggan managed to hit Airk just under his head, tearing a shallow gash in his neck.
Airk seemed not to care.
The gnome’s rage was rising again, as he remembered the Hateful Wars and what the spriggans had done. One moment he was seeing the spriggan he was currently fighting, the next he was remembering fighting alongside Osian and Tarnek. His attacks were as deadly as ever, as he ripped into the spriggan’s foot with his pick. As the spriggan screamed, Airk tore a gash in the spriggan’s stomach, causing blood to run down his legs.
Murder was in Airk’s eyes as he went into a frenzy, hacking away at the spriggan’s torso one moment, and then at his legs when the monster tried to protect his vital areas. Finally, staggering from his wounds, the spriggan sank to one knee.
Glowering with rage, Airk drove his pick into the middle of the spriggan’s face, right between the creature’s eyes. Withdrawing the weapon, he struck again and a third time, widening the gash each time.
Airk only broke out of his trance when Seline entered the room and called out his name. He turned to face her, noting the concerned look on her face.
Seline was worried to see Airk covered with blood and looking half-dead.
The look in his eyes, on the other hand, sent a chill down her spine.
“Are you alright?” Luna asked Airk once she’d finished casting her healing spells on him. The rest of the companions had joined Airk and Seline in the spriggan leader’s room, reporting that the rest of the spriggans were dead. They were looking through the chests the spriggan leader had dropped, and had already accumulated an impressive pile of coins and gemstones.
In response, Airk jumped to his feet-more quickly than Luna would have liked-and ran over to join his companions looking through the chests.
“What did you find?” he asked. He was initially interested in the money they had found, but that interest vanished when he saw the sheaf of parchments Amyalla was holding.
“None of us could make much sense of these letters,” the halfling said as Airk read the parchments. “I take it they’re all in gnomish?”
“Yes, they are,” Airk said. “More than that, though…”
“What is it?” Amyalla asked.
Airk didn’t reply. He was focused on trying to recall where he had seen the handwriting in these letters before. Finally, a memory flashed across his mind, something half-forgotten and buried stirring from within the recesses of his consciousness.
He flinched for a second, trying to remember what it was about, before he forced himself to read the first letter again.
Excellent work. Your raids have been even more profitable than I expected, and the profits will finance some truly important parts of the search. It will have to be laundered through that fool Laessar’s merchant house, but that’s hardly a problem, of course. He’s known as a master dealer, so a few more gems will hardly attract much attention.
More than anything, I should like to commend you on your use of those stupid trolls in your raids. Not only are they excellent shock troops, and perfectly expendable, but they are almost impossible to trace back to us. It reminds me of the old days, when some of our different nations began manipulating the humanoids to attack our rivals. Needless to say, after our rivals had exhausted themselves, it was a simple matter for us to take what we wanted.
In gratitude for your fine work, I would encourage you to keep half of the spoils for yourself. But no more than half-you should know, after what I did to Crullach, that I have eyes everywhere.
I am always watching you.
I am everywhere.
And yet, if you stay with me, you shall share in the riches that shall be mine. The game I am playing holds many rewards for the bold, rewards that-I will repeat myself-will be passed on to the most loyal and devoted of my followers.
The Crawler be with you, my brother.
Airk’s blood ran cold, as his mind raced back to that horrible night more than six and a half decades ago.
He recalled the deaths of his fellow warriors of Flinthold, fellow gnomes he had grown up with, kinsmen and blood brothers.
We were assured the cavern was safe…that the claim had to be made…Airk heard himself think.
How could we see the stalactites coming, after Kalrek had insisted there was no danger?
At first there was nothing but silence, the sound of peace and the anticipation of a bright future after suffering and loss…
…and then bloodshed, the mocking laughter of the dwarves, their axes aided by the toxic poisons released by the broken stalactites…
The blood of the guilty dwarves, washing away the innocent gnome blood, was my only redemption…
Dozens set forth, and two alone return home…the last of the survivors.
…A joke of Garl Glittergold’s? More likely a joke of Urdlen.
What did Flinthold gain, for all those years of war?
None of the promised riches, none of the sought glory…
…nothing but broken families, hundreds slain, betrayal by those who were thought to be our allies.
Is that what you sought, Kalrek? What did you gain from it?
How much gold was our peoples’ lives worth?
For the rivers of blood, pouring over the stone?
Finally, Airk became aware of his surroundings again. Glancing from side to side, he saw that Revafour and Ma’non’go each held one of his arms, and the rest of his companions were staring at him in horror.
“What happened to you?” Weimar asked. “You dropped the letter, and then you just began to scream…”
Airk took several deep breaths as he managed to calm down. A haunted look remained in his eyes, the look of someone who had seen the memories of an ancient horror come screaming back to him.
“…Kalrek…” Airk murmured, before he took a deep breath.
“Who’s that?” Revafour said.
“The cause of it all,” Airk said, looking down at the cavern floor. “Kalrek is the gnome who betrayed my clan to the dwarves that nearly murdered us, and caused so much suffering for Flinthold. So many decades on, and he’s still doing it. The attacks on the Flan, consorting with spriggans, all this suffering and murder to line his own pockets!”
“He organized all this?” Revafour said. “The troll raids and the spriggans?”
“All that death and murder,” Airk said, not seeming to have heard Revafour’s question. He seemed to have aged two centuries in as many minutes. “So many decades and their deaths are still unavenged. What’s he planning now, and why would he involve Laessar?”
“Who’s this Laessar?” Amyalla said, turning Airk’s head to make him look her squarely in the eyes.
“Laessar is a friend of mine,” Airk said, shaking his head as he attempted to focus his thoughts. “He left the Lortmils with his family a few decades after the Hateful Wars, and set himself up as a merchant and gem dealer at Copper Crossing in the Kron Hills. What would he be doing with a monster like Kalrek?”
Did you- Ma’non’go started to sign, before Airk suddenly spoke again.
“Not now, not anymore!” Airk said, his voice rising to a shout. “If Laessar still lives at Copper Crossing, I’ll make him speak the truth face to face!”
“Will you stop your ranting and listen to what we have to say?” Revafour demanded, turning Airk to face him. “Or have you gone completely mad?”
“…Mad?” Airk said. “No, I’m…not…by the gods, I’m sorry…for everything. I know how difficult and curt I’ve been over the last several days. It’s just…when I saw that Kalrek was involved, everything just…”
“…It’s alright,” Luna said, leading him over to a comfortable chair at one side of the room and sitting him down. “Is there any means by which we could help you?”
“There’s a gnome city in the Kron Hills called Copper Crossing,” Airk said. “I intend to travel there-I need to speak to Laessar and ask him about Kalrek. Whatever Kalrek is planning, I have to stop him.”
“…Are you sure that’s wise?” Amyalla said. “You don’t exactly seem like you’re in the best condition to-“
“The Nine Hells how I feel!” Airk said. “After all these decades, I’ve finally found a lead on Kalrek, and a means to avenge the blood he’s spilled! Think of the Flan, too, and everyone else his minions have likely murdered. What else could he be planning? He has to be stopped! Garl only knows who else might suffer if we don’t!”
The rest of the companions only looked at Airk in dismay.
“I’m sorry…those memories,” Airk said. “I can’t…it’s so hard to let…”
Your pain at your recollections are entirely understandable, Ma’non’go signed. Surely you recall, however, that you are not alone with your suffering? We too have endured similar traumas, and we understand what you are experiencing.
“Then…will you join me?” Airk asked. “Justice demands no less of me than to finally punish Kalrek for all his crimes.”
Looking at one another, Airk’s companions nodded reassuringly.
Ma’non’go was certain, however, that he wasn’t the only one troubled by the look that was still in Airk’s eyes.
The Gnome Who Would Be King
The underground complex had once been a great gathering place for the gnomes who used to call it home. The gnomes held meetings, ceremonies and feasts with their elven and Flan human neighbors. That had been millennia ago, before the complex had been invaded by enemies whose identities were now lost to the mists of time, along with the location of the complex itself. Perhaps some of the oldest elves still alive knew where the complex was, although they would believe the place to have been abandoned long ago.
Anyone who came into the complex now would not know its original histories. The artistic design of the complex’s halls and amphitheaters, decorated with warm, welcoming red green and gold crystals, might have given an intelligent observer some hints. Unfortunately, the passage of time had caused many parts of the complex to cave in, despite the skill with which the gnomes had built it.
Some parts of the complex survived, most notably old gathering halls, residential areas and farming caverns. These parts now existed along more crudely built tunnels and caverns, torn out of the stone by the many beings that had come to live in the complex.
Most of these residents were vile, hateful creatures like orcs, goblins, derro, mind flayers, dark creepers, formorian giants and others like them. Each set of inhabitants had driven out the previous inhabitants of the complex before taking it for themselves. In turn, they were destroyed and replaced by the next set of inhabitants.
The newest residents of the ruined complex were unlike anything that had ever come before. Orcs drank alongside spriggan gnomes, who rubbed shoulders with evil-looking human brigands. Trolls exchanged insults with derro, even as they both cursed the formorian giants who sat sulking in one corner. Despite the volatile mix of inhabitants, none of them dared to openly fight with one another. Nor did they pay even the slightest bit of attention to the large crates and chests that were being carried by ogre porters further into the complex.
They might have been sorely tempted to do so, but they did not dare.
Some of the complex’s inhabitants were the leaders of their groups, and received better beer and finer food than their minions. Gangrelen was one of those leaders, a man who was built like an ogre and had the sinuous, weasel-like features typically associated with cowardly thieves and spies. He was anything but cowardly, though. His face was crisscrossed with a misshapen spider web of scars that testified to his years leading his bandit gang and dealing with challengers to his authority in the most permanent way possible.
Gangrelen typically replied to commands with weapons, but he immediately stood to attention as a gnome approached him. The gnome wore immaculately tailored sky-blue clothes and carried no visible weapons. He looked completely defenseless, and would have been easy prey for the men and monsters all around him. They all treated the gnome with deference, looking nervously to one another as the gnome walked towards Gangrelen.
The gnome ordered Gangrelen to follow him, and Gangrelen didn’t need to be told twice. The gnome led Gangrelen through the complex into an area that was part of the old complex, unlike the newer and cruder tunnels where the monsters stayed. Gangrelen was impressed with how clean and well-furnished this part of the complex was, and how many gnomes lived there.
Gangrelen and his gnome guide walked past a room containing a large library, where several other gnomes dressed like the guide sifted through a large collection of books and parchments, making copious notes. Another room served as a large drill hall, where several gnomes dressed in mail armor trained with swords and hammers. Yet another room served as an enormous treasure vault, guarded by an elaborate vault door. The door was open, and Gangrelen could see that the room was filled with a mountain of coins, gems and other valuables. A group of ogre porters added the contents of the chests they were carrying to the treasure pile, escorted by a group of heavily armed and armored gnomes.
Gangrelen knew that treasure would be a sore temptation to the bandits and monsters that lived in the newer parts of the complex. He also knew that none of them would ever dare to try and seize it from the gnomes.
Finally, Gangrelen and his gnome escort came to a large set of double doors.
The doors were studded with finely cut gems and inlaid with ivory and silver in the shape of a beautiful crown, the display of wealth so blatantly obvious that it almost dared anyone to try and deface the doors to seize it.
Gangrelen swallowed hard as his gnome escort opened the doors and gestured for Gangrelen to enter.
The bandit leader took several deep breaths as he walked into the chamber, designed as a lavish throne room. Silken tapestries with gems threaded into them hung at regular intervals from the walls, in between fine paintings and figurines of jade, amber and ivory. A selection of gold-handled and gem-studded weapons hung from a rack on one wall, and a bar and buffet with a selection of rare sweetmeats and fine wines occupied another. The furniture was of the finest oak, beautifully carved to resemble burrowing mammals.
As magnificent as the decorations were, they could not compare to the massive throne at the far end of the room. The throne was hideous, carved into the shape of a nightmarish thing that resembled a cross between a demon, a badger and a raccoon.
The room’s inhabitants were almost as striking as its furnishings. A collection of scantily-clad women of several different races stood at intervals throughout the room, a few of them bearing trays upon which they carried jeweled crystal goblets. Gangrelen heard the snap of fingers. One of the women reacted immediately. She walked to the bar and filled the goblets in her tray with a fine Aerdi white wine, before bringing the wine and goblets to her master, the gnome sitting in the large throne.
The gnome sitting in the large throne was the owner of the fabulous wealth all around him, from the silk tapestries to the jeweled goblets to the slave girls. He was clad in a combination of silk gentleman’s clothes and fluted silvery-steel armor. A wickedly edged sword lay at one side of the throne, and a skull-faced shield at the other. Gangrelen knew that the gnome could easily reach other of them as needed, and that he wieleded them both with deadly skill.
The gnome was all smiles as Gangrelen approached. The elven maiden that had been sitting at the gnome’s feet rose up and quickly walked off to the side, leaving Gangrelen and the gnome staring at each other intently.
Normally, Gangrelen feared nothing. However, this gnome seemed so far above Gangrelen, above every other being that lived in the complex complex, that Gangrelen was relieved indeed that the gnome was glad to see him. The gnome’s mannerisms were those of a king, and indeed Gangrelen could imagine him in the company of the human kinds of Nyrond, Furyondy or Keoland. The gnome radiated confidence and certainty, as well as an aura of power and wisdom that almost seemed tangible around him.
Instinctively, Gangrelen knelt before the lord of the complex, master of everything he saw.
Gangrelen knelt before Kalrek Burunne.
“So nice to see you again, my friend,” Kalrek said as he came down from his throne. Reaching out with his hand, he raised Gangrelen’s face to look into his eyes.
Gangrelen was the same height as Kalrek even when he was kneeling, but he felt small, so very small, compared to Kalrek
“Good, very good,” Kalrek said with a smile. “Now, tell me…how fares the robbing and plundering trade?”
“It fares…well,” Gangrelen said, unable to stop himself from swallowing hard. “Very well.”
“Well enough to share with a friend, I’m sure,” Kalrek said. “How well, then?”
“Forty thousand silver sovereigns, Sir Kalrek,” Gangrelen said, nodding as beads of sweat began to show on his forehead. “All for your glory, of course.”
“I must say, I’m impressed,” Kalrek said, the smile never leaving his lips. “Indeed, I’m flattered by your generosity-perhaps it is somewhat excessive, considering how much wealth I already possess. Perhaps if you were to share only twenty thousand of those silver sovereigns, as a gesture of friendship of course, you and yours may find yourselves welcome in my house once more?”
“My thanks, Sir Kalrek,” Gangrelen said, bowing his head once more.
“And as a gesture of good faith,” Kalrek said, gesturing to some of the serving girls, “you may enjoy yourself with the pick of my beloveds.”
Gangrelen had taken many people as slaves and prisoners in his raids, but he’d rarely seen slaves as submissive as those Kalrek surrounded himself with. The slaves were eager to please his every whim, but the experienced Gangrelen could see the pain and fear behind their subservient smiles. The slaves had lost all hope, resigned to spending the rest of their existences as Kalrek’s playthings…until he grew tired of them, of course, and gave them to the monstrous minions who paid him homage.
Gangrelen felt admiration for the gnome lord.
He also felt fear.
According to Kalrek’s precisely timed clock, it was well past midnight by the time he had completed his business. He had collected the tribute from Gangrelen and the rest of the monsters and brigands who served him. As a reward, Kalrek treated them all to a lavish and rich feast and allowed them some pleasure with his girls.
Kalrek’s minions revered him as a bandit king, someone with intelligence and connections far beyond their own limited means. He gave the bandits and monsters knowledge of what communities to raid, what tombs to plunder, which people to hold for ransom, and more in exchange for their allegiance and tribute.
Kalrek’s minions feared him as much as they revered him. A few of them had dared to try and cheat him, or challenge him for a greater share of their wealth, and he’d made them beg for death. It was easy for Kalrek to read his minions, as easy as it was to read his fellow gnomes from Flinthold, or the Steelheart dwarves he’d betrayed the gnomes to.
And yet he was so much more to Kalrek than that. He used merchants like Laessar Bradon to launder his stolen plunder. He used sages to conduct research for the prize he sought. He used spies to keep him aware of what was happening in the surrounding lands, in places like Verbobonc, Dyvers and the Wild Coast.
Kalrek’s minions didn’t know about that. It suited him to make them think he was just a bandit lord who sought nothing but wealth.
None of them, not Kalrek’s minions, not the other people in his employ, knew what he was truly searching for, the cherished prize that would be the ultimate triumph, the ultimate irony, and the ultimate insult to his old kinfolk.
All for his glory, and the glory of the Crawler Below.
The Crown of Arumdina was beckoning.
Wood And Wine
“Well, how is it?” Luna asked eagerly as Revafour sampled the tea.
“Wonderful,” Revafour said with a satisfied sigh. “What kind of blend is it?
“My own special kind,” Luna said with a smile. “It’s a blend of traditional Flanaess spices combined with some more exotic herbs. The trader claimed those herbs came from beyond the Baklunish West. He talked about vast tea fields and plantations, harvested by halfling farmers who’ve been doing so as long as the Oerth has existed.”
“Travelers’ tales,” Revafour said, shaking his head as he took another sip.
“Yes, but you surely know how often travelers’ tales turn out to be true?” Luna pointed out. “Besides, I studied the herbs myself and saw just how different they are from anything grown in the Flanaess. And if you don’t believe some mountebank merchant, surely you’d believe me?”
“True enough,” Revafour said, returning her smile. “But I must ask-why are you keeping me company? Surely you’d want to be with the rest of the passengers?”
The companions were sailing across the Nyr Dyv, the great inland sea at the centre of the Flanaess, on the Coast Dancer. Their destination was Dyvers, the merchant city to the west of Greyhawk. From there, they planned to travel overland through the Gnarley Forest to the village of Hommlet. After resupplying in Hommlet, the companions would continue on to the Greenway Valley in the Kron Hills, where Copper Crossing served as the gnomes’ capital. Airk said they would be able to get some information on what Kalrek might be planning in Copper Crossing. With the wealth the adventurers had acquired from their destroying the hag coven at the Bearded Lord’s Hollow and their campaigns against the trolls and spriggans raiding the communities of the Cairn Hills, it was easy to find a ship willing to take them to Dyvers.
The sailing journey gave the companions a well-deserved, if brief, rest. Revafour avoided socializing with the crew or any of the other passengers. Instead, he’d mostly stayed in the cabin he was sharing with Weimar, carving at a block of wood with his sculpting knife. Now he was taking a break, enjoying the meal Luna had brought for them to share.
“Why’d you come to join me?” Revafour asked, before taking a bite of the stew the ship’s cook had prepared. “You don’t care for large crowds much either?”
“Not particularly,” Luna said, shaking her head. “You know that, don’t you? That’s not the reason you’re asking, is it?”
“You probably know the reason I asked,” Revafour said. “Tired of playing music for everyone else on this ship?”
“Indeed,” Luna said. “Besides, if there’s any more singing to be done, Seline can do it, I’m sure.”
“I noticed your performance is more animated than the song requires,” Revafour said. “Is there a problem?”
“…Am I that obvious?” Luna asked, slight dismay in her voice.
“Yes, to those who know you,” Revafour said, raising an eyebrow. “So, do you have a problem, one that you didn’t feel comfortable with some of the others?”
“…I was hoping to speak to you or Amyalla,” Luna said, “because-“
“-we’ve known Airk for longer than you,” Revafour finished for her. “You’re concerned about him still?”
“How can I not be?” Luna said, a flustered look crossing her face. “I wanted to ask Amyalla, but…” she trailed off, flushing in embarrassment.
“She’s been getting to know many of the sailors,” Revafour said, an amused smile crossing his face. “So you came to me,” he continued, his smile turning to a frown.
“What would you have me do?” Luna said. “I’m concerned about-“
“What could I have you do?” Revafour interrupted her. “Airk’s the only one who can deal with his problems. Why else are we going on this mad quest?”
“You think it’s mad?” Luna asked in surprise. “Then why-“
“For the same reason we all have, of course,” Revafour said. “Because Airk’s our friend. As to why he’s doing it, it’s obvious. He’s still struggling with something, and he needs to see it through.”
Luna and Revafour ate in silence for a few minutes. Luna tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind.
She was jolted back to reality by the door to Revafour’s cabin slamming shut. Turning around, she saw that Weimar had just arrived. He sat down at the table with them, his breath reeking of the grog he had paid some of the ship’s crew to share with him. Weimar moved like a sober man, his breath and reddened eyes the only visible signs of drink.
“And here I thought sailors were supposed to be jolly types,” Weimar said, folding his arms in disgust. “You beat them at a drinking contest, and they cut you off…”
“We’d have appreciated the knock,” Revafour said, none too pleased by the interruption.
“Pardon me for having a right to enter the cabin,” Weimar said, his bloodshot eyes flashing. “What are you all doing here, then?”
“How’s Airk?” Luna asked before Revafour could answer.
“Well enough, surprisingly,” Weimar said. “He actually seems more at ease on a ship than he did on land. And here I thought most gnomes didn’t like the sea. I wonder, though, how much of it is an act…”
“An act?” Luna asked as Revafour frowned.
“How long has he been carrying around this grudge against this supposed traitor?” Weimar said, a faraway look appearing in his bleary eyes. “How long has he been dwelling on what happened to his kin? How long has he been blaming himself, even when only a fool would consider him responsible? Gnomes have such long lifespans-how long do they keep such memories with them?”
Luna frowned at that, more worried than ever for their gnomish friend. Revafour, on the other hand, merely slammed his fist on the table, as he felt a surge of anger rise up. Staring directly into Weimar’s glassy eyes, Revafour made no effort to disguise what he was feeling at the moment.
“Are you accusing me of something?” Revafour said.
“Not of anything bad,” Weimar said. Despite his drunkenness, he realized what it seemed like he was saying. “Who could blame someone for feeling that way, after everything they’ve been through? No, I’m just worried about what it might make Airk do.”
Luna looked in concern from Weimar to Revafour. She reached out and grasped Revafour’s arm in an effort to calm him. To her immense relief, Revafour relaxed his clenched fists and took another sip of tea. There was a look of intense concentration on his face, one he kept as he turned to look at her.
“You’re the only one here who’s only worried about Airk, aren’t you?” Revafour said as a half-smile crossed his face. He picked up his sculpting knife as he looked back down to the scene carved into the wood block before him.
“This is what you’ve been doing all this time?” Weimar said, leaning forward to get a better look at the carving. “And here I thought you just painted…”
“It passes the time,” Revafour said, turning his sculpting knife over in his hand.
“I’ve tried sculpting myself,” Weimar said, running his fingers admiringly along the lines Revafour had already etched into the wood, “but damned if I could ever create something so lovely.”
Revafour’s carving was set out in several panels. It depicted a kingdom founded in brotherhood, later sundered by a brutal, bloody war. The kingdom struggled to recover from its loss, weighed down by the memory of past betrayals, having lost much that it would never truly recover.
“It recalls what things used to be like, before…” Luna said, trailing off as she looked at the panel.
She looked into Revafour’s eyes, and then into Weimar’s.
“…Before so much,” she said with a sigh.
“And where do we go from here?” Weimar asked, his voice remarkably calm and clear.
Now Revafour was the one who found himself without an answer, looking intently at what he had created without fully realizing it.
“…an’ when that turtle bit down on the barrel, it blew up real good,” the sailor said to Amyalla, who returned his smile as she took a sip of wine. “See, that’s the secret to dealin’ with most of these sea bastards-the stupid ones run like dogs when they’re burned by flamin’ oil. Even the smart ones don’t think of stayin’ round too long after that, if’n you’re lucky…”
“How interesting,” Amyalla said. “Does the same trick work on pirates?”
“Afraid not,” said another sailor who’d identified himself as the bosun. “All it makes ‘em more interested in is putting a ballista up your arse. Not that we’ll be lettin’ a pretty little behind such as yours suffer such a fate!” he continued, gallantly saluting Amyalla.
“I would expect no less,” Amyalla said with a smile, picking up one of the kerchiefs she’d knitted to help pass the time on the ship. “And yet, such bravery deserves reward,” she continued, handing the kerchief to the bosun. “Pray take this as a token of my gratitude.”
“Your ladyship does me no small favor,” the bosun said with a bow. “In thirty years plying these waters, rarely, if ever, have I seen a more lovely flower than yourself.”
Amyalla merely smiled coquettishly, her eyes saying more to the bosun than her voice revealed.
Amyalla enjoyed the attention she was receiving from all the sailors, but she especially appreciated the bosun’s company. She admired the bosun for his quiet professionalism, and noted how he’d almost been downplaying his experience. There were several other passengers besides the companions on the Coast Dancer, and they were worried about the dangers of sea travel. The bosun put them at ease by showing the contingencies the ship had in place. He also kept his rough and tumble crew in line with firm discipline, although many of them were gentlemen of the sea.
A few of the sailors were different, though. They made snide comments about Revafour, Ma’non’go and Airk, and Amyalla had to deal with them. She charmed several of the more open-minded sailors, adding to her natural skills with the flagons of high-class grog she bought them. From there, Amyalla just had to complain about the way her fellow adventurers were being treated by the bigoted sailors. Her new drinking companions were angry at seeing such a beautiful lass upset, and they quickly ‘persuaded’ their less than admirable mates to treat Amyalla’s companions with respect.
It’s so much like last time, Amyalla mused, back when I exposed Kivern as the philandering son of a whore that he was.
No, that’s not right, she continued. This time I haven’t had to resort to stealing Kivern’s letters, planting suspicious evidence in the homes of the men whose wives and daughters he was seducing, or charm his mistresses’ servants into providing me what I needed…
“Is something wrong, my lady?” the bosun asked, concern on the faces of him and several other sailors.
“No, it’s nothing at all,” Amyalla said, shaking her head. “Do you have any other stories to tell?”
“I’m afraid I must return to my duties, as must the rest of the boys,” the bosun said, shaking his head. “Your company’s been a pleasure, my dear, and I hope that we might be able to converse once more before the voyage ends,” he continued, nodding to his men to follow him as they stood up.
What a pity, Amyalla thought as the bosun led his men away. What would it be like, forging a life alongside you? Surely your wife, if indeed you have one, is a fortunate woman.
And yet, it simply cannot be…
…I’ve found what I’ve been searching for, or so I’ve said.
And yet, why do I still feel unfulfilled?
The Coast Dancer put in at Dyvers five days after its departure from Greyhawk. Dyvers was infamous for living up to its nickname of the ‘City of Sharks’. It was known for being as greedy and grasping as Greyhawk, its most hated rival, and preferring to put Oeridian and Suel humans at the top of its social ladder. Dyvers was also known for what most people, even many residents of Dyvers itself, considered the preening arrogance of its nobility. For all of Greyhawk’s greed, it was wide open to the aspirations and goals of most races. Even if places like the Savant Tavern and the Guild of Mercenaries barred women and certain demihumans from entry and membership, most nonhumans found Greyhawk much more welcoming than Dyvers.
The companions didn’t plan to stay long in Dyvers. They only intended to buy horses and supplies for the trip to Copper Crossing, a journey that would be a week and more overland. Unfortunately, by the time the Coast Dancer had docked and the city officials had inspected the ship, it was early evening and most of Dyvers’ shops were already closed. The companions booked rooms at the Fox and Hound Inn, known among travelers for its competitive prices and high-quality fare. They enjoyed a fine meal of roasted beef and spiced potatoes, although Revafour lamented that they didn’t serve any game fare. Now, Ma’non’go, Amyalla and Weimar were relaxing over drinks in the Fox and Hound’s common room, their fellow adventurers having gone to sleep.
Ma’non’go was bemused by the difference between his two drinking companions. Amyalla only had a couple of glasses of light, sweet wine, working on her knitting in between answering Weimar’s gregarious comments. Weimar himself made two trips to the privy in between knocking back generous amounts of mead and rambling about everything from various local legends to his exploits as a former scout in the Keoish army. Ma’non’go drank two flagons worth of beer, but his vision was remarkably clear compared to Weimar’s.
Amyalla uses her charms as much as her lockpicks or her stealth, Ma’non’go thought to himself. How many of her ilk are content simply to pick pockets, without actively enlisting help in their exploits?
Weimar uses a shield instead of the two-swords style so many warriors with such wilderness training employ. I’ve never seen him use the natural magic that such rangers are often taught. Maybe he doesn’t have the power for it yet…assuming he could even keep his hands from shaking long enough to cast it?
There’s so much more to them than there seems at first glance. I’m all too familiar with what that’s like…
Ma’non’go tried to repress the memories of X’tandelexamenka and Hepmonaland that came flooding back to him, memories he did not care to dwell on.
Besides, it wasn’t fair to compare Amyalla and Weimar to his treacherous false friends.
“…and that’s the trick to getting the snapper-saw plant’s fruit,” Weimar was saying. “Trigger the leaves with a tossed stone or a stick, and then you can hack at the leaves to get at the fruit. Won’t permanently hurt the plant-the leaves grow back. Just be careful when-“
Weimar was interrupted by the sound of raised voices over by the bar, and the companions turned to see what was happening. Several rough-looking men at a table were laughing hysterically at a young barmaid, dripping with the beer she’d spilled all over herself after one of the men groped her. Several of the men stood up, their faces clearly showing how much they’d had to drink, and they surrounded the barmaid. The barkeep yelled angrily at the men, but they just laughed and spat in his direction before turning back to the barmaid.
“You’d best be saying yes to a worthy man’s offer,” one of the men said, smiling lasciviously. He was clearly the band’s leader by the way the others deferred to him. “Or are you just leading us on to get more silver?”
“Sounds like she seeks to earn more than she’s worth,” one of the other men said. “Perhaps we ought to teach her a lesson in ladylike conduct?”
Three other large men, clearly the bar’s bouncers, emerged from the back room at the barkeep’s call, and they attacked the ruffians. The rest of the patrons cheered at the melee, eagerly placing bets on who might win the fight.
His eyes flaring, Weimar immediately stood up, and finished what little mead was left in his mug. Tossing the empty mug at one of the ruffians, Weimar struck the large man in the back of the head, knocking the ruffian senseless. Several of his friends turned around, glaring angrily at Weimar, who strode forward fearlessly.
“Best to stay out of thing that don’t concern you, lad,” one of the ruffians said, dropping the unconscious bouncer he’d just knocked out.
“Big words coming from men who likely wouldn’t even be able to pleasure that young lady you’re harassing, assuming you were worthy of being with her,” Weimar said with a scowl. “I’ve always found that the more people like you boast about your prowess, the smaller your protrusions actually are. I’m sure you all know that about each other already, considering how little success you’ve likely had with anyone else…”
Infuriated, the thugs not already beating the bouncers charged at Weimar. Weimar didn’t seem the least impressed, picking up a chair and smashing it across the face of the first ruffian to close in on him. As the man collapsed, his mouth and nose suddenly gushing blood, Weimar swung the chair in the other direction, striking another ruffian. The second man staggered back, and Weimar drove the chair straight down on his head, breaking it into pieces. The man fell like a sack of grain, but the two remaining ruffians attacked Weimar at the same time. One of the men grabbed Weimar from behind, holding his arms. The other man began punching Weimar, raising painful welts on his face as he struggled to free himself.
Ma’non’go moved to help Weimar, but he was stopped by Amyalla, who grabbed his hand as he stood up.
“He can handle himself, of course,” Amyalla pointed out to Ma’non’go before he could even sign a protest.
Following Amyalla’s pointing finger, Ma’non’go saw Weimar kick the ruffian punching him in the chest. Crying out in pain, the ruffian stumbled back, tripping over another thug’s unconscious body and knocking himself senseless as his head hit the floor. The thug holding Weimar relaxed his grip in surprise, and Weimar quickly slipped free. Turning around, Weimar smashed the thug in the face with a vicious punch, before driving another punch into his stomach. As the thug doubled over in pain, Weimar kicked him in the face, sending him flying back to collapse.
The two remaining bouncers and the barkeep were holding their own against the remaining ruffians, but one of the bouncers was suddenly knocked senseless by a chair wielded by one of the ruffians. The remaining bouncer braced himself for the thug’s next attack, but he was surprised to see Weimar snatch the chair out of the thug’s grip. Turning around, the thug was surprised to see Weimar smash him into the face with the chair. The thug fell senseless as Weimar attacked the last three thugs fighting the remaining bouncer and the barkeep. Weimar struck down two of the thugs, breaking his chair into pieces from the second blow. The last ruffian turned to face Weimar, but the remaining bouncer punched him in the back of the head, knocking him out cold.
Ma’non’go’s mouth fell open as he watched the brawl, before he looked back at Amyalla questioningly.
“Dyvers’ laws don’t allow for exceptions when someone gets into a bar brawl for a noble reason,” Amyalla said. “The only people who aren’t arrested for it in this city are innkeepers and their employees. Just look,” she continued as the city watch barged into the inn. Armed with swords and dressed in ring mail armor, they began rounding up the unconscious ruffians, along with the dazed and drunk Weimar. The watchmen ignored the protests of the bouncer and the barkeep at Weimar’s arrest, dragging him away along with the ruffians.
“If Weimar hadn’t been three sheets to the wind when that little incident took place, I could have pointed out the exact same thing to him,” Amyalla said, as a dismayed look crossed Ma’non’go’s face. “He deserves praise for going to help that young woman, but the watch would have had things well in hand. We’re in a better part of the city, one where the Gentry of Dyvers doesn’t tolerate too much out of place behavior.”
“Let him spend a night in the cells,” Amyalla said with a smile. “Maybe he’ll learn something from this, although I doubt it.”
Weimar woke up with a splitting headache. At first he attributed it to a typical hangover, but then he cursed as he felt the pain from the bruises he’d suffered in the brawl. Rolling over and sitting up, was surprised to see himself not in a soft bed at the Fox And Hound Inn, but on a cot in a jail cell. It was then that he began to vaguely remember last night, including how he’d been arrested after the brawl.
Suddenly, he heard banging on the cell door, which didn’t do his headache much good. Cursing as he looked at the cell door, he was surprised to see Amyalla on the other side, a dagger in her hand.
“You had a restful night, I hope?” the halfling asked with a mocking smirk.
“I was…arrested,” Weimar said, still holding his head. “Why did-“
“Because the Dyvers city watch will arrest anyone who’s involved in a fight, even if it’s for noble reasons,” Amyalla said. “Besides, you didn’t even need to get involved anyway. The Dyvers watchmen of are known for being professionals.”
“…Where are the others?” Weimar asked. “Are they trying to free-“
“Of course not,” Amyalla said, rolling her eyes. “Luna and Seline are preparing their magic, and Revafour, Ma’non’go and Airk are out gathering supplies. We’re going to join them once I pay the fifty silver wagons you owe in fines,” she finished with a grin.
“And you just let them arrest me?” Weimar said, wincing as he stood up and walked over to the cell door.
“I could have warned you if you weren’t so drunk last night,” Amyalla said, as a watch sergeant came to open the cell door. “You could stand to learn a lesson anyway.”
“Oh? And what’s that?” Weimar said as he came out of the cell.
“The next time your loins make you try to save a distressed damsel, don’t be so stupid about it,” Amyalla said with a smirk, as the watch sergeant led her and Weimar to where they were keeping Weimar’s belongings.
Off The Beaten Path
When the companions set out from Dyvers on the western road, the city’s elaborate public clocks, crafted by the supremely gifted gnomish engineers of the Lortmil Mountains, showed the time to be an hour before noon. Their first destination was the town of Calatran, west of Dyvers. From Calatran, they would turn south on the High Road into the Gnarley Forest. They would continue along the High Road, passing through the towns of Sobanwych and the infamous Nulb until they reached the village of Hommlet. From Hommlet, they would turn west into the Kron Hills, where they would reach Copper Crossing.
Airk was calm as the companions journeyed, much to his friends’ relief. His expression was determined and grim, but lacking the anger it previously had. He even gave a mocking smile when he saw Amyalla leading the battered and bruised Weimar to join the group before they left Dyvers.
The companions’ journey through Calatran was uneventful, as was the first day of their journey through the Gnarley Forest. The month of Reaping was drawing to a close, and the Gnarley Forest was alive with the sounds and colors of high summer. The companions enjoyed the sounds of birdsong and chattering animals and the sight of the beautiful greenery and rivers as they rode through the woods.
The companions were careful not to let their guard down, though. Relatively civilized areas like the Plains of Greyhawk or the main roads between Keoland and the vassal realms of the Sheldomar Valley were constantly threatened by bandits, orcs and even worse monsters. Wilder areas like the Gnarley Forest were all the more dangerous.
On their second day of traveling through the Gnarley Forest, the companions came upon a lone wagon parked at the side of the road. The companions were surprised and suspicious, sharing knowing glances with one another. Bandits frequently used wagons like this to lure in unwary travelers, attacking from the trees when their targets came up to investigate.
Airk and Weimar advanced on the wagon on foot, their weapons and shields in hand. They were surprised not to see any bandits emerging from the forest around them. Instead, they saw a middle-aged man sitting in the wagon’s front seat, and a woman of similar age sitting in the back, filling a sack with leftover food. The wagon was filled with dismantled furniture, cooking materials and other homesteading supplies, the mark of people who had not only moved but taken their entire lives with them.
“Greetings, fellow travelers!” the man said, smiling a greeting to Airk and Weimar as they came up to the wagon. “A pleasure to find company on the road! What brings you here on this fine afternoon?” he continued, as the woman finished tying the sack and climbed over to join the man at the front of the wagon.
“A journey, and nothing more,” Weimar said, as the rest of the companions came up to join him and Airk. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that his friends were still looking around warily, unsure if these two were what they seemed, or if they were something more sinister. “And now let me ask in turn-what brings you to these lands?”
“Careful about telling us who you are, eh?” the man said with a smile, as the woman sitting next to him chuckled. “Well, caution’s wisdom in this part of the world, so I’ll start. I’m Bretten, and this is my wife Nusanne. We’re off to make a new life in Etterboek, just south of Verbobonc.”
“That accent,” Revafour said once Bretten had finished. “You’re not from Urnst, by any chance?”
“The County used to be our home,” Nusanne said with a nod, “but the harvests on our old land were bad. There wasn’t much reason for us to stay, with two of our sons moved on in the world and our dear Willianak dying of the fever this past spring.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Luna said. “And I take it now you’re making a new life in Verbobonc?”
“Not much call for farming,” Bretten said, shaking his head. “Etterboek’s more in need of carpenters. Did some woodworking whenever I could spare the time for my neighbors, so I think I can play my part. And who might you all be? A collection of those freebooting heroes that the bards sing rollicking tales about to taverngoers?” he finished with a smile.
“Indeed we are,” Amyalla said, certain that Bretten and Nusanne were harmless. “Explorers of dungeons, slayers of monsters, protectors of the innocent! All this and more we have done in the short time we have been together, always striving for new horizons, eager to see what is over the next hill!”
“Then perhaps, you could grant a humble request?” Bretten asked. “A request to protect those ill-equipped to defend themselves, particularly when there are many dangers about?”
Airk considered Bretten’s request, frowning. Etterboek was considerably to the north of Hommlet. Bretten and Nusanne were likely planning to take the western branch of the High Road where it forked, and cross the ford over the Imredys Run. From there, they could reach the city of Penwick and continue west to Etterboek. The companions had been planning to continue along the south branch of the High Road. They could travel south from Etterboek to Hommlet once they’d escorted Bretten and Nusanne, but it was a delay.
Airk didn’t like the idea of being diverted from his path. Worse, he knew that Kalrek might get word that the companions were after him. Kalrek might cover his tracks, or-more likely-strike at Airk and his friends. Luna and Seline might be able to find Kalrek if they had to, and the companions could defend themselves if Kalrek attacked, but Airk preferred not to take the risk. Bretten and Nusanne could be killed in battle if Kalrek attacked while they were still traveling with the companions.
I don’t see as how we have a choice, though, Airk thought with a sigh. The others will want to see these folks along as far as needed. Bretten and Nusanne might not typically be worth the effort to rob or kill, but if any bandit or monster is desperate enough…
“By all means,” Airk said, nodding as his companions’ expressions brightened. “Pray join us, and fear not the hazards of the open road!”
The companions and their new friends continued for several hours before stopping near dusk. As they ate a meal and set up camp, Luna and Nusanne fell into conversation.
“Lived all our lives in the County of Urnst.” Nusanne said. “Always farmers, but two of our boys weren’t interested in working the land like us. Went off to Radigast City when they came of age, and only Willianak stayed. None of the priests could help him when his illness came, and he died before a more powerful one could come. We didn’t have much reason to stay after that,” she continued sadly.
“I’m so sorry,” Luna said, holding Nusanne’s hands in her own.
“We came to terms with it,” Nusanne said, blinking back a tear. “Better to die in his own bed than at the edge of a goblin’s sword.”
Nusanne kept up a stoic front, but Luna could see the bitterness in her eyes.
“But why’d he have to die so soon?” Luna said. “Why would Pelor, or any of the gods, allow it to happen?”
Luna was not surprised by the deep sigh Nusanne gave, but she was surprised by the strange look Nusanne gave her after that.
“How can you say such things about your god?” Nusanne asked, her eyes narrowing. “You call yourself a daughter of Pelor?”
Nusanne was not surprised by Luna’s deep sigh, but she was surprised by the saddened look Luna gave her.
“What have you lost then, child?” Nusanne asked.
“I’m…it’s not something I’m…” Luna said, before Nusanne nodded in understanding. “I want to believe that Pelor’s my guiding light, but when I see all the suffering in the world…”
The look in her eyes was clear as glass to Nusanne this time.
It’s not just what she’s lost, Nusanne thought, but also who she’s lost. At least Bretten and I chose to leave Urnst, and start anew…
“I have to admit, I’m not the most fond of light wine,” Weimar said, before taking a draw on the wineskin. “I mean, I appreciate their paying us, but…” he took another drink, doing his best not to grimace at the taste.
And yet, that doesn’t prevent you from partaking of these peoples’ attempts to repay us, Ma’non’go signed as he chewed his food, putting down his utensils to do so. Indeed, out of all the wine we’ve consumed on this journey, you’ve drunk more than half of it by yourself.
“So I have,” Weimar said with a smile.
Why, then, don’t you employ that magic flagon you found in the hags’ lair? Ma’non’go asked, referring to the magical drinking vessel that Weimar had claimed from the treasure of the hags they had slain at the Bearded Lord’s Hollow.
“What? And turn down the hospitality these kindly folk have seen fit to show us?” Weimar asked, offended. “Certainly not, my good man! It would be an insult to suggest that their gratitude is not good enough for us! Besides, the flagon would be much more worthily used to celebrate when the journey concludes in Etterboek!”
What a convenient explanation, Ma’non’go signed, after he’d taken another bite of his food.
“What do you mean by that?” Weimar asked.
I mean that you always have an excuse to indulge in all the liquor you can lay eyes on, Ma’non’go explained. I’m curious as to why you indulge in it so much, and why Revafour refuses to indulge in it at all.
Weimar was about to take a third pull on the wineskin, but he stopped at that.
“You’ve heard the bigoted jokes, of course,” Weimar said, “about drunken Flan and their fondness for liquor. Never mind that Suel and Oerids can act just as stupidly when they’re in their cups.”
Much like you, for instance, Ma’non’go signed.
“Why are you asking me this?” Weimar demanded. “What does it matter to you how much I drink?”
I’m merely curious, Ma’non’go signed, curious about those I travel with and the different parts of the world I visit.
“They didn’t have liquor in Hepmonaland?” Weimar said, raising an eyebrow.
Pulque drinks are mostly consumed by the wealthy upper classes, Ma’non’go explained, and there were taverns as you would know them were rare. Most common folk in the more civilized parts of X’tandelexamenka drink coca tea in coffee houses similar to taverns.
“Yes, well, that’s fascinating,” Weimar said, his frown revealing that phrase for the lie that it was. “And yet, I’m curious that my imbibing is so interesting.”
I just find it strange, Ma’non’go signed. From what I have experienced of warriors who are as attuned to the wilderness as you claim to be, most of them use two swords in their battles, not the axe and shield you do. They also typically don’t make spectacles of themselves by indulging in tavern brawls or spending as many nights with barmaids and dancing girls as you do.
“Why should I follow what others do if it doesn’t suit me?” Weimar said. “Is it really so strange? Or were such things frowned on in Hepmonaland?”
They’re often frowned on here, Ma’non’go reminded him.
“Yes, by arrogant nobles,” Weimar said, scoffing disdainfully. “They hide behind their airs and wealth when they can be just as violent as any lowly vagabond. Trust me, I know.”
Is that why you indulge? Ma’non’go asked curiously. Because of your disgust at them? Because you want to show how different you are?
Weimar took a long drink of the wineskin at that, draining it completely before putting it down next to his empty plate.
“…Alright, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know, rationally, why I enjoy my drink. Are you quite happy now?” he demanded.
Ma’non’go frowned, a wounded look on your face.
I didn’t mean to insult you, he signed. I was just curious to learn more about the Flanaess and its human cultures. They’re different from the humans of Hepmonaland. Perhaps, if you were the one in Hepmonaland, you’d be puzzled by the ways of the Olmans, Ma’non’go reminded him.
“Damn it all,” Weimar said. “My apologies-I don’t know where my mind is today.”
Think nothing of it, Ma’non’go signed, noting the shame in Weimar’s voice.
Indeed, Ma’non’go was quite satisfied with the conversation. He knew that Weimar had likely revealed more about himself than he’d intended.
Ma’non’go’s observations about his companions only reinforced his belief that there was nowhere else on Oerth that he’d rather be.
Three days of travel brought the adventurers and their temporary companions to the outskirts of Etterboek. Bretten and Nusanne thanked the adventurers profusely for their help, assuring the adventurers that they would could take care of themselves from here.
“May the gods’ luck be with you, then,” Airk said with a nod. “We should be off soon, once we replenish our supplies. There’s still a good amount of daylight left, and if we travel-“
“You won’t spend the night, at least?” Bretten asked. “Surely you deserve a rest, and we should like to repay your escorting us here!”
“We’ve another journey of our own to make,” Airk said, “and we’ve been delayed enough as it is.”
Bretten and Nusanne looked considerably disappointed. Airk’s companions, who understood the gnome’s turmoil, merely looked at one another. Seline took Airk by the shoulder, leading him away for a few minutes.
“You can’t keep going at this pace,” Seline said to Airk. “If you do, you’re sure to drive yourself mad!”
“For decades,” Airk said. “Kalrek’s gotten away with his crimes for decades. How much longer is he going to be able to do it?”
“Is that all you can think about?” Seline asked. “How much do you think Kalrek would enjoy knowing that?”
“I…” Airk trailed off. “I…can’t…I can’t just…”
“We know,” Seline said. “We’re just worried about you. You can’t let yourself be consumed by this.”
“You know we’re with you,” Seline persisted. “You know we’ll be off on the morrow. Just give yourself this one night of peace.”
Airk finally nodded, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath.
He knew that Seline was right, and he knew that it was right to accede to her request.
But in his mind, he still heard the screams of his brothers in arms, the cries of the Steelheart dwarves, and Kalrek’s laughter.
And the blood running like rivers over the stone.
For the rest of the day, the companions bought fresh supplies in Etterboek. Nusanne found lodgings for herself and her husband, while Bretten himself found some carpentry work. That evening, Bretten and Nusanne gave the companions a final feast of goodbye and thanks. The feast was modest, livened by the use of Weimar’s flagon, but the feeling behind it was sincere and heartfelt. The invitation Bretten and Nusanne extended to the companions to visit them if they ever returned to Etterboek had the same warmth behind it.
So too was the invitation Bretten and Nusanne extended to the companions to visit them if they ever found themselves in Restin again.
Airk saw that the rest of his companions were grateful for the respite, and the meals and companionship they’d shared with the Urnstian couple they’d escorted here. He put on a brave face during the meal, and he was indeed happy to see the Urnstians arrive safely in Etterboek-something that didn’t happen as often in the dangerous Flanaess as it should.
In spite of it all, his mind kept coming back to memories of the past, memories he had carried for the last six and a half decades.
Rivers Of Blood On The Stone
The gnomes of Flinthold didn’t need light as they traveled through the caves beneath the Lortmil Mountains. They could see in the dark with their infravision, their ability to see heat in the darkness and determine their surroundings as easily as if they were standing in the sunlight aboveground. The gnomes were creatures of the oerth and stone itself, the skills they received from Garl Glittergold allowing them to thrive both the hills and forests of the surface world and the tunnels and caves beneath it.
Garl Glittergold also imbued the gnomes with the courage and skill that had helped them defend Flinthold so well for the past nine years of what were called the Hateful Wars. The sixty gnomes of this expedition were no exception to Flinthold’s military prowess. Everything about them radiated steel and power, from the chain and plate armor they wore to the gleaming heads of their hammers, swords and military picks, to the looks of determination in their eyes. They marched with a sense of purpose, determined not to let anything stop them.
The gnomes had been marching for a week and a half. They carried not only their weapons and armor, but ropes, metal frameworks and all the other materials necessary to complete an outpost. No other race could build such devices as well as the gnomes, the world’s masters of engineering. Once the outpost was built, any invaders would be hard-pressed to break through the defenses, even if they vastly outnumbered the gnomish force.
It’s been a long time coming, Airk Venbelwar thought to himself as the gnomes ceased their march and began settling down for the night. And won’t this beauty be reflected a thousand times over? he mused, lighting a spark from his tinderbox and imagining what it would look like when they reached their destination.
Airk knew that the spark would make the gnomes’ destination glitter with the light of a starlit sky on the surface. The cavern that the gnomes were headed to held some of the richest veins of silver any of them had ever seen. The orcs who once held the cavern had fought to the last to defend the fabulous wealth the cavern contained. Although the orcs had prospered from the silver in the cavern, the gnomes believed that the orcs had barely even scratched the surface of the cavern’s potential.
The gnomes’ battle with the orcs had been several weeks ago. Since then, the front line of the war had since shifted to the east. Airk and his fellow gnomes had been diverted from the front line to establish Flinthold’s claim over the silver cavern. The gnomes of Flinthold saw it as their right, given how much blood they had shed to drive the orcs and other humanoid monsters out of this part of the Lortmils.
It didn’t take long for the gnomes to prepare an evening meal, and soon Airk was sharing a meal of rothe steaks, sliced potatoes and mead with his friend Kalrek Burunne. Kalrek was one of the expedition’s lead scouts, who charted the path the gnomes would take to the silver-filled cavern.
“You’re sure there were no signs of those Steelheart dogs?” Airk asked Kalrek.
“Of course I am,” Kalrek said with that ever-confident smile.
The alliance of gnomes, dwarves and men fighting in the Hateful Wars had the upper hand over their humanoid opponents after many long years of fighting. Now, though, the allies were becoming more interested in fighting each other for the richest plunder and lands they’d won from the humanoids than they were in decisively defeating their foes. The alliance between the races, and solidarity between the races themselves, were rapidly fracturing.
Flinthold’s conflict with the Steelheart dwarven clan was just one of the conflicts between the allies. The Steelhearts contested Flinthold’s claim to the silver cavern, saying they made more of an effort against the humanoids in this part of the Lortmils. The regent of Flinthold spoke for all his people when he denounced the Steelhearts’ claims as rubbish, pointing out that the Steelhearts only struck at humanoids who’d already worn themselves down against Flinthold. The Steelheart king claimed that he was fighting strategically, but that did not account for the way several Flinthold patrols had been slaughtered indiscriminately by their Steelheart counterparts when the latter intervened in clashes between the gnomes and their humanoid opponents.
“But what about all the reports of Steelheart activity?” Airk said, unconvinced.
“Nothing more than a few scouts. Do you think they’d really be so brave to face a full complement of our warriors?” Kalrek said as he and Airk finished their meal and stood up to take their turns at watch.
Airk couldn’t help but laugh at Kalrek’s infectious confidence. Kalrek proved himself a natural leader in many things. He was always one of the first to speak at strategic meetings. He was never shy about wanting to go aggressively after Flinthold’s enemies in war or its competitors in trade. He regularly impressed and charmed the humans and dwarves he interacted with. The regent of Flinthold depended on Kalrek’s energy and advice, making him a senior commander in Flinthold’s armies. Many Flintholders saw the wisdom in the regent’s choice, including Airk himself.
Two other gnomes joined Kalrek and Airk as they walked. The four warriors marched down a side tunnel that split off into a four-way junction. The two gnomes that had joined Kalrek and Airk each went off down one of the side tunnels. Kalrek and Airk continued down the central tunnel in front of them.
“What do you want to do once the war is over?” Kalrek asked Airk when they were alone again. “You’re likely the best warrior in Flinthold’s entire army besides me. Why haven’t you ever set your sights on higher things?”
Airk just shrugged, not entirely comfortable with the question.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” he said.
“There’s time yet, Airk,” Kalrek said. “The war will be over soon, and Flinthold will prosper like never before when it does. We have six centuries of life. What could we accomplish in that time?”
Airk only tugged at his moustache as he considered what Kalrek had told him.
“Kalrek has a point, you know,” Laessar Bradon said to Airk as they ate a meal the next morning. “I have plans for when the war is over. My father could be a much greater merchant than he is, but he doesn’t have the vision to try. I don’t have anything like that holding me back. When I take over my family’s company, I’ll lead it to heights never before seen!”
Airk just smiled.
“What about you, then?” Laessar asked.
“…I’m not certain,” Airk said. “Maybe I’ll continue on as a soldier, or become an adventurer. I’m honestly not sure.”
“So you’ll go burrowing through haunted ruins, rescuing distressed damsels, and traveling to the four corners of the Flanaess?” Laessar said with a chuckle, recalling the legend of a gnomish hero who said those exact words.
“I suppose,” Airk said with a smile. “And what a grand time it would be, wouldn’t it?”
“I can’t say,” Laessar said, returning Airk’s smile. “You’re the traveler, not me.”
Airk laughed. Laessar was a homebody who only took up his sword because Flinthold needed him. He was always more interested in politics and trade than battle. Laessar had initially only served in the Flinthold military because it was family tradition, and he’d mustered out as soon as he could. He’d only returned because Flinthold needed every soldier it could gather for the Hateful Wars. Laessar had met Airk when they patrolled as novice soldiers, and they’d been close friends ever since.
At midday, Kalrek urged the gnomish troop to take an alternate route to the silver cavern. He’d noticed a brood of purple worms that had settled in a cave along their original path, and the gnomes had nothing to gain from fighting them. Unfortunately, the alternate route Kalrek chose for the gnomes was a labyrinth of stalactites, connecting tunnels and little alcoves. The gnomes were slowed considerably as they picked their way through the maze.
“There are signs of passage here. Look at the footprints.” Airk said to Kalrek as the main troop came into a broad, high cavern filled with stalactites. The gnomes’ infravision allowed them to see heat underground, including the heat left by creatures’ footprints. Looking down, Kalrek saw the same faint traces that Airk did.
“They’re barely visible,” Kalrek said, shaking his head. “Whoever was here, it was several days ago. Probably just stray humanoids.”
“…I suppose,” Airk said. Looking up, he glanced around him to see how many gnomes were still with the troop.
None of the gnomes noticed Kalrek pull a lever set into one of the stalactites. The lever was concealed behind a panel so well-made that even the most skilled gnome or dwarf would not have considered it anything besides mundane rock.
A loud clicking sound echoed through the cavern, as many of the stalactites came crashing down on the gnomes. The gnomes’ cries of alarm suddenly turned to painful hacking coughs, as the shattered stalactites released a sickly greenish gas.
Chaos ensued among the confused gnomes. They called out to one another and tried to form up for battle, but they were hopelessly confused by the toxic fumes and the layout of the cavern. Half the gnomes were on their knees, so ill from the greenish gas that they could only vomit helplessly.
Airk managed to stay on his feet, but he was so sickened by the gas that all his strength seemed to fade from him at once. His clothes and equipment felt like lead on his body. It was all he could do to stay upright, trying to reach his brothers in arms, realizing that they were all in mortal danger.
The cries of alarm from the other gnomes were soon joined by a loud tromping sound, as if another troop of warriors had entered the cavern. Loud war-cries to the dwarven gods soon replaced that tromping sound, as did the sounds of weapons clashing against shields. The gnomes’ alarmed cries were soon replaced by their screams of agony as they were cut down. Most of the gnomes were too dizzied and nauseous to be able to defend themselves properly, and died before they could ever raise their weapons.
Airk raised his war-pick and his shield defensively in front of him as he tried to identify the gnomes’ attackers. To his astonishment and horror, he recognized the attackers as dwarves clad in shining steel armor. The dwarves bore shields with designs that showed a sword being driven down vertically through a bleeding heart, cold steel tearing through flesh and blood.
Airk stood stunned for a few moments, unable to react as one of his comrades was beheaded by a dwarven axe. Airk then remembered himself, charging forward at the dwarf. He easily blocked the dwarf’s first attack with his shield, striking back and tearing a gash along the dwarf’s arm.
How in the Nine Hells could this be happening? Airk thought. Where did the gas come from? How could the Steelhearts know that we were here? What could have led them to follow us here?
Airk ducked the dwarf’s next strike and retaliated by driving his pick into the dwarf’s face. The dying dwarf fell in a bloody heap, and Airk attacked a second one. The second dwarf carried a pick like Airk’s, and he charged at the gnome, thinking he could take Airk down in a single strike. A surge of adrenaline helped Airk stay on his feet, and he blocked the second dwarf’s strike with his shield. Striking high at the dwarf’s face, Airk pulled his weapon back as the dwarf raised his shield to block. Faster than the dwarf expected, Airk whipped his pick back over and down, right into the dwarf’s knee. As the dwarf fell with a howl, Airk tore his throat out.
Airk turned to face a third dwarf, and his shield saved his life again as he blocked a spinning hammer thrown at his face. The third dwarf brandished a second hammer, but Airk lashed out again, impaling the bearded wretch’s arm and pulling him forward. Completely off balance, the third dwarf was helpless to resist as Airk drove his pick into the dwarf’s chest.
The gnomes who weren’t disabled by the gas were fighting bravely, refusing to surrender despite their sickness. Despite the gnomes’ efforts, they couldn’t hope to win as the poison took more and more of a toll on them. Dwarves were far more resistant to poison than gnomes, so they were not sickened by the gas at all. The Steelhearts intensified their attack as the Flintholders began to falter.
Airk had struck down three of the dwarves, but his lungs were burning with pain. A fourth dwarf attacked him, but Airk couldn’t raise his pick or his shield. The fourth dwarf laughed at Airk’s helplessness, and lashed out with his axe. He tore a long gash across Airk’s stomach, causing the gnome to collapse on the cavern floor.
A cavern floor that seemed more like a pool, so drenched was it in red liquid.
Drenched in spilled gnomish blood, running like rivers over the stone.
When Airk regained consciousness, he was sure he was dead. Looking around him, he wondered if he was in the Seven Heavens or the Tri-Paradises.
What he saw looked more like the Nine Hells. He was securely chained to a line with several other gnomes, all of them badly wounded and covered with dried blood. Groups of dwarves stood around the prisoners, gathering up the materials the gnomes had been carrying and dividing the gnomes’ food and drink among them. Several other dwarves pointed and laughed at the gnomes, shouting curses and singing paeans to the dwarven gods for their victory.
Far off to the side, Airk could see other dwarves sorting through the gnomes’ dead bodies for valuables. As the dwarves finished with the gnomes’ bodies, they tossed the corpses into a large pile, likely intending to leave the bodies to rot for the underground scavengers.
Airk’s stomach burned with pain from the gash he had suffered in the battle, but he barely felt it. All he could feel was a sickening sense of horror.
How did they do this? Airk wondered. How, by the gods, how?
The voice behind him revealed the awful truth.
“I was wondering if you’d die or not,” Kalrek said, smiling as Airk turned to face him. “I should have known better than to doubt you, though.” Kalrek was unhurt, all smiles despite the wretched condition of his kin and the laughter of their murderers.
“…Kalrek…?” Airk said, barely able to get the words out. “…Why?”
“Didn’t you ever question why I got myself assigned to the scouting missions so often?” Kalrek said, his eyes reflecting the fires of the dwarven torches. “Or why I went off alone more than once? I can’t believe no one questioned my saying that a brood of purple worms just migrated into our intended route. Didn’t anyone remember our elders telling us that purple worms typically don’t travel in packs?”
“How could you…” Airk said.
“Wondering why so many stalactites dropped at once?” Kalrek said. “Wondering why they were made of ceramic instead of stone? Wondering whether they were a trap set up for an appropriate time?”
Airk couldn’t reply. He just sat there, overwhelmed as he was by the sheer weight of it all.
“Everything was so easy,” Kalrek said. “Planning this route, selecting the right place for the ambush, setting up the traps with my esteemed friends, who put this clever poison formula of theirs in the ceramic stalactites. It acts on the dwarven resistance to poison so they’re completely immune, but cripples any other creatures who breathe it in.”
“…Why,” Airk managed to say.
“Because you thought so small,” Kalrek said, his smile turning into a hateful glare. “So many of our kin did. You never stopped to think that of what the Steelhearts might be offering?”
“Aye, and be sure that we’ll be holding to our end of the bargain,” one of the dwarves said as he came up. The dwarf was a leader by his bearing and attire, and he smiled widely as he shook Kalrek’s hand. “All the treasure we promised will be yours, and more than that when he plunder Flinthold. We’ll put everything you told us to good use.”
“I’m sure you will,” Kalrek said. “That just leaves these loose ends,” he continued, gesturing to Airk and the other half dozen surviving gnomes. “What did you want to do with them?”
“What would you have us do?” the dwarf leader asked.
“Whatever you like,” Kalrek said with a shrug. “Why should I care if they live or die?”
“Maybe we’ll let you see what happens to your precious Flinthold,” the dwarf leader said as he walked up to Airk. “Won’t that be a sight to see?” he continued, punching Airk in the face with his mailed fist.
Airk fell unconscious from the dwarf’s punch, Kalrek’s hysterical laughter echoing in his ears.
Airk shot awake in a cold sweat, his chest and face aching from phantom pains. He was vaguely aware of a piercing scream, and a strange shaking sensation, before he calmed down. To his amazement, he saw Ma’non’go walking away from him, lighting a lantern on the table between their beds, before coming back to join him.
“What’s going on?” Airk said as Ma’non’go approached him. Ma’non’go had a worried look on his face as he sat down on the bed next to Airk.
I could say the same thing to you, Ma’non’go signed. You suddenly woke up screaming and shaking. I had to grab you before you fell off the bed. You were having a nightmare. Was it about this Kalrek person?
Airk buried his face in his hands, breathing hard for several seconds until he calmed down.
“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had that dream,” Airk said. “Of all the kin I saw die, of how much Flinthold lost, of all the blood running like rivers over the stone.”
Ma’non’go said nothing, but the look of sympathy on his face was all too clear as Airk described the horror to him.
“Laessar and I were the only ones who survived,” Airk said. “A group of the Steelhearts took us out to be executed. A patrol of gnomes from our allied kingdom of Garnetholme managed to stop them, but not before I saw four of my kin have their heads taken off by dwarven axes.”
Ma’non’go’s eyes widened in dismay.
“The gnomes of Garnetholme took us back to Flinthold, and we were able to warn our regent of the attack. When the Steelheart kingdom attacked Flinthold the next year, Garnetholme helped us win. Even that couldn’t keep Flinthold from being badly damaged by the siege, or having many of its people die at the edge of a dwarven axe,” Airk finished.
But it survived, didn’t it? Ma’non’go signed.
“Barely,” Airk said, a bitter expression crossing his face. “We were so weakened from fighting the humanoids, and then fighting the Steelhearts, that we couldn’t claim any of the rich areas the allies won from the humanoids. All that silver we could have claimed, that could have helped us survive, was lost to us.”
“Flinthold’s been a pale shadow of itself ever since,” Airk continued. “It was all our people could do to keep the kingdom from collapsing altogether after the Hateful Wars ended. Fifty years, Ma’non’go-almost fifty years of struggle, living hand to mouth while Kalrek was likely off living like a king somewhere.”
What made you decide to leave Flinthold? Ma’non’go signed.
“Garl forgive me, I couldn’t take it anymore,” Airk said, putting his face in his hands again. “I’d built up enough money for my family to live on, so once Flinthold could stand on its own, I had to leave. I had to find something, anything, that I thought could help me forget. If I’d stayed, I’d have gone mad, but…”
Ma’non’go placed a comforting hand on Airk’s shoulder.
“I fought at the Battle of Emridy Meadows when the hordes of Elemental Evil were defeated,” Airk said. “It doesn’t trouble me. We lost a lot of good people that day, but they didn’t die in vain. But with the Hateful Wars…all that bloodshed, the backstabbing, the loss, what was it all for? We could have driven the humanoids out of the Lortmils entirely, if we weren’t so gods-damned stupid!” he continued, his voice rising to a shout.
Ma’non’go tried to think of what to say.
“And me,” Airk said. “How could I let Kalrek play me for a fool? If I’d been a little wiser, none of this would have happened! All my kin…they’d still be alive…if only…I…”
Ma’non’go pulled Airk’s shoulder to look at him.
You’re not the only one who’s been betrayed by a false friend, Ma’non’go signed. I know what it’s like to know people who claim to love you as a brother, only to learn how much hatred they hid behind their smiles. I know what it’s like to be forced to wander, to feel like you have nothing.
I know all too well, Ma’non’go finished, a careworn look crossing his face.
Ma’non’go and Airk said nothing for the rest of the night, each thinking about what the other had told him.
The companions resumed their journey to Copper Crossing the next morning after saying their goodbyes to Bretten and Nusanne. They rode in silence, reflecting on the task ahead of them and the painful turmoil that Airk was experiencing. Airk was silent, but he looked as if his mind was somewhere else entirely. He had a faraway look in his eyes as he silently talked to himself, mouthing words in the gnomish tongue.
The companions’ first day of travel, and the night they spent in Hommlet, were uneventful. The first half of the companions’ second day of travel was quiet, but shortly after noon they heard the sounds of battle as they brought their mounts over a knoll. Gazing ahead, the companions saw a cluster of wagons and horses around which several men were fighting fiercely. Some of the men were dressed in dark green uniforms and matching caps, and the companions realized they were probably caravan guards. The guards were fighting against a much larger gang of rough-looking men, who the companions quickly recognized as bandits. The guards were outnumbered, and it wouldn’t be long before the bandits overcame them.
The companions hesitated long enough only to tie their mounts to some nearby shrubbery before they entered the battle. Weimar and Seline began the attack with a flurry of arrows and magical bolts, catching the bandits by surprise and killing several of them before they could react. Some of the bandits broke away from their fight with the guards to attack the companions, and the companions eagerly responded.
Ma’non’go led his friends’ charge, bearing down on a stocky man whose clothes were even dirtier than Ma’non’go would have expected. The stocky man attacked with a clumsy sword thrust, which Ma’non’go easily deflected. Ma’non’go ran the man through and tossed his dead body aside before attacking another bandit. The second man died as easily as the first, Ma’non’go striking him down before he could even swing his sword.
Glancing from side to side, Ma’non’go saw his friends overwhelming the bandits as easily as he did. The bandits weren’t prepared to deal with such skilled opposition, and Ma’non’go saw that their resolve was crumbling. A third bandit attacked Ma’non’go, swinging his flail wildly, but Ma’non’go easily deflected every one of the bandit’s attacks. For the third time in as many minutes, Ma’non’go drove his trident into a bandit’s chest, tearing his weapon free as the mortally wounded man collapsed.
The battle became a rout as the caravan guards regrouped and joined in the companions’ attack. Several of the bandits tried to flee, but Luna yelled for them to surrender. One of them did just that, walking up to Luna before kneeling at her feet and thrusting his sword point-first into the ground while bowing his head in obedience. Ma’non’go only smiled, having seen Luna work such magic before more than once.
A few of the bandits managed to escape into the woods, but most of them were quickly caught and killed before they could flee. Soon, the only bandit who hadn’t fled or been killed was the one who’d surrendered to Luna. He was clearly the bandits’ leader by his dress and the air of authority about him, and Revafour securely bound his wrists with a length of cord. The rest of the companions came to join Revafour and Luna, who was speaking to a tall heavyset man dressed in finery especially made for rough travel. The heavyset man was one of the merchants the caravan belonged to, and he bowed graciously to Luna as he spoke.
“Zilchus be praised for your timely intervention,” the merchant said. “We owe you and your friends our lives and our thanks. My name is Waylon, of fair Verbobonc. Might I inquire as to yours?”
“I am Luna, daughter of Pelor,” Luna said, before she introduced the rest of the companions. “You’re recently of Copper Crossing, I take it?”
“Aye, and eager to return home,” Waylon said. “Might I presume that Copper Crossing is your destination?”
“Quite so,” Luna said, nodding.
“Then let me present you and yours with a token of our gratitude,” Waylon said as he took a pouch off his belt and handed it to Luna. “These moonstones are worth more than their weight in gold in Copper Crossing.”
“It’s appreciated,” Luna said with a smile. “Are you at all familiar with this wretch?” she continued as she and Waylon turned to regard the bandit leader. The leader was standing now, as the magic of Luna’s command had worn off. He was securely held in Revafour’s iron grip, and there was no way he could escape.
“Certainly not,” Waylon said, shaking. “Scum like him are all too common in the Kron Hills. They all look alike to me. If there’s nothing else you need to ask us, we should be on our way. Once again I thank you all, and I wish the blessings of Zilchus upon you for your help.”
The companions were planning to interrogate the bandit leader, and didn’t mind the caravan leaving. They knew Waylon and his fellows were just random victims of the bandits. The merchants’ presence would have only complicated things, making their tongues wag with information the companions preferred them not to know. After several minutes, the merchants and their guards were gone, leaving the bandit leader surrounded by the companions. He had been stubbornly silent all the time, but he finally spoke once he was alone with the companions.
“If you haven’t killed me the way you did my men, I suppose that means I have something you want,” the bandit leader said with a sneer. “So what is it, then?”
“Information, of course,” Amyalla said, turning a dagger over and over in her hands.
“And what makes you think I’d tell you anything?” the bandit leader said.
“The fact that you’ll die quickly and painlessly if you give us what we want,” Revafour said, “but if you try to trick us, it’ll be much slower and more painful.” To emphasize his point, Revafour brought his sword barely a foot from the bandit leader’s face. The sword still dripped with the blood of the bandit leader’s minions, causing the bandit leader to take several quick breaths. The bandit leader quickly calmed, and he soon seemed resigned, realizing there was no way out of the matter.
“I suppose you’ll keep your word,” the bandit leader admitted, “more likely than any of my own kind would.”
“You’re not afraid of death?” Luna asked. She tried to keep calm, although she couldn’t fully keep the dismay at having to ask that question out of her voice.
“Not with the kinds of leaders I’ve served,” the captain said. “Better to die at your hands than theirs-and that’s what I’d do if I returned to them.”
“You fear them that much?” Revafour asked in surprise.
“So would you, if you knew them,” the captain said.
“So who are your leaders?” Amyalla asked. “And what are your raids for?”
“Just one leader,” the bandit leader said, “with an emperor’s air, a champion’s skill and a philosopher’s wisdom. He uses the riches we gather for him to fund his plans and build his power.”
“So what are his plans?” Amyalla asked.
“Damned if I know what his end game is,” the bandit leader said, “but he’s drawing in more and more minions of all kinds. Not just brigands and monsters, but scholars and merchants. The more wealth he gains, the more his power grows, and the more he seeks.”
“So how much power does he have now?” Amyalla asked.
“He has agents in Veluna, Furyondy, Dyvers, Greyhawk, the Lortmils, the Wild Coast…and that’s likely not the full extent of it,” the bandit leader said.
“So who is he?” Seline demanded, appalled by what she was hearing.
“He’s called-“ the bandit leader started.
“-Kalrek Burunne,” Airk finished for him. Airk’s expression was cold and calm, but a strange light gleamed in his eyes.
“You know him?” the bandit leader said in surprise. “No surprise-I’d guess he’d be better known among his fellow gnomes.”
“What else can you tell us of him?” Airk asked.
“I can tell you how to find the outpost where we deliver the plunder we collect for him,” the bandit leader said, before giving the companions directions how to get there. “I’ve never met the great gnome in person, though.”
“And now you’ve served your purpose,” Airk said, his expression remaining calm as he stepped forward and raised his morning star.
The bandit leader was calm as Airk fulfilled the companions’ promise.
He knew that dying at this gnome’s hands was preferable to dying at the hands of the other one.
Kalrek was not amused by the report that the flow of treasure from the spriggans he’d sent to the Cairn Hills had stopped. The agents he’d sent to investigate showed that both the spriggans and the trolls under their command had all been slain, and that the spriggans’ lair was looted. That was very bad, given that whoever attacked the spriggans’ lair might get their hands on Kalrek’s communications with the spriggan commander. Kalrek ordered a priest in his employ to divine what was happening, and impatiently awaited the priest’s response.
Kalrek looked up as someone knocked on the door to his private chamber. He’d left strict orders that no one other than his priest Tooktrilk was to disturb him. He fingered his sword as he called for the knocker to enter, ready to give an appropriate reward to anyone besides Tooktrilk who came in. Fortunately, the knocker was indeed Tooktrilk. The elderly priest was pale-skinned and hairless, looking less like a gnome and more like a manikin, given how sickly thin and pale he was.
“You have information?” Kalrek demanded as Tooktrilk knelt before him.
“Yes, my lord,” Tooktrilk said, breathing heavily as he did so. The priest’s body was slowed by age, although he’d been frail even in his long-ago youth. “I know who dared to cross your minions.”
“Out with it, then,” Kalrek said, his eyes narrowing.
Kalrek was rarely shocked, but he was when Tooktrilk described the heroes who’d invaded the spriggans’ lair and defended the people of Oakdale against the troll invasions.
I never thought I’d meet Airk Venbelwar again after all this time, Kalrek thought to himself. Out of all the people who might have opposed me, the one that does is one of my oldest friends? I don’t believe in the Lady of Fates, but if I did I’d be congratulating her on the irony!
Kalrek smiled and laughed at that thought, before he remembered that Tooktrilk was still staring at him.
“My lord?” Tooktrilk said.
“Divine where these people who disrupted my plans are,” Kalrek said. “Come to me when you have that knowledge. Leave me for now-I have much to contemplate.”
Tooktrilk nodded at his master’s instructions, before he rose to his feet and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
Once he was alone, Kalrek smiled again as he considered how much Tooktrilk resembled a thin, shriveled version of Urdlen, the Crawler Below. Urdlen resembled an oversized, pale-skinned hairless mole, but he was so much more than that. He was the gnomish god of bloodlust and greed, who tore through the oerth to indulge his lust for bloodshed and treasure. The more he gained, the more he sought, an ever-growing empire that so many feared, but so few recognized.
Like the other young gnomes, Kalrek heard many stories of the horrors Urdlen inflicted on his victims. The stories were meant to warn young gnomes against such evil, and most of the children were terrified by them. Young Kalrek was merely intrigued by them, impressed by the trickery the Crawler Below frequently engaged in. Urdlen’s deceptions caused no end of trouble for the other gnomish gods, and Kalrek found them both amusing and inspiring.
Half the fun of betraying Flinthold to the Steelheart clan had been to watch his fellow gnomes suffer, after all. The other half of the fun had been the riches he’d gained from the betrayal. Although the Steelhearts were defeated by Flinthold and Garnetholme, Kalrek hardly cared about that. The Steelhearts might have tried to take revenge on him, but it was simple for Kalrek to get a large hobgoblin clan to attack their underdefended home. The Steelhearts were too busy defending their home to chase after Kalrek, who escaped with a good selection of the Steelhearts’ finest emeralds, rubies and diamonds for his trouble.
Over the last six and a half decades since then, Kalrek had continued to work diligently, expanding his influence the way Urdlen might expand a tunnel. Both the gnome and his god took pleasure in entrapping their prey, leaving them hopelessly lost and confused before the hunters moved in for the kill.
An image of Urdlen tearing his victims apart passed through Kalrek’s mind, and he began to laugh out loud at the thought of it.
He saw that image a lot.
It pleased him to no end.
Rivers Of Blood On My Hands
As the companions approached Copper Crossing, they saw it was an impressive sight. The city walls were ringed with ballistae and catapults, alarm bells were placed at every lockable gate, and much of the land in front of the walls was rigged with pit traps, formidable obstacles for any would-be invaders. Beyond the walls, the companions saw a group of large clock towers, their bells chiming out the time for the scores of humans, dwarves and gnomes that called the city home. Gnomes were not as skilled at pure craftsmanship as dwarves were, but they were the dwarves’ superior at engineering. The companions saw why human lands such as Dyvers and Greyhawk paid such princely sums for gnomish technology. Despite his melancholy, Airk managed a proud smile at the admiring looks on his human and halfling friends’ faces.
At first glance, Copper Crossing seemed more the size of a large town than a city. There was much more to Copper Crossing than what was on the surface, though. The surface part of the city was built over a network of underground tunnels that contained the majority of the city’s population, homes and businesses. The tunnels also housed the copper, tin and iron mines that generated so much wealth not only for Copper Crossing, but for surrounding lands as well.
When the companions were close enough to Copper Crossing’s gates, they dismounted and led their horses and ponies on foot towards the gate. As they did, Airk began to speak again.
“We won’t have any trouble getting into the city,” Airk said, “or in finding lodgings while I meet with Laessar. We won’t be here more than a couple of days at most, and then we’ll deal with Kalrek. What say you all?” he asked, his expression and his tone both calm.
His friends were silent as they followed him.
“Are you really sure you want to continue with me?” Airk asked. “You shouldn’t feel like you have to. This is a personal thing for me-I can’t live with myself until I’ve put this to rest, for all the deaths and bloodshed Kalrek’s caused.”
“We’ve been over this, haven’t we?” Weimar said. “I’m sure I speak for the rest of us when I say that. But why are we coming to Copper Crossing? Shouldn’t we go to that outpost the bandit captain described?”
“Laessar will know anything about Kalrek’s operations that we could have learned from the outpost,” Airk said, shaking his head. “If anything, we’re likely to get more knowledge from Laessar. If we struck at the outpost, Kalrek would likely get word of it and have more time to prepare for us when we strike at his lair. Kalrek will have less time to prepare this way.”
The companions fell into silence again, thinking about what Airk told them.
That wasn’t the only thing on Airk’s mind.
Despite his companions’ assurances, Airk still felt guilty about bringing them along. They were putting their lives at risk for him and his vendetta against Kalrek, a vendetta that had festered for longer than any of them had lived.
Six and a half decades…the gnome thought, and all I’ve done is wander, until now. I left the blood of my fellow soldiers unavenged. Now that I’m finally doing it, I might just as easily shed the blood of people who’ve already done more for me than I could have ever asked.
Anger and disgust welled up inside him once more, but it was not directed at Kalrek this time.
The underground section of Copper Crossing was just as impressive as the surface. Rotating lift elevators carried people and vehicles to and from the surface. Sophisticated plumbing systems drew off water from the two large underground rivers flowing through the city streets. Rothe-powered bascule bridges were continually raised and lowered to allow the passage of both pedestrians and underground ships traveling to and from other underground communities. Caged fire beetles and specially cultivated luminescent fungi planted in strategically located lampposts lit the city like a starlit sky. The streets themselves were thronged with gnomes, humans and dwarves, the bustle and noise they created as vibrant as any city on the surface.
Laessar Bradon conducts all of his underhanded operations for Kalrek in a thriving community like this? Ma’non’go signed incredulously as the companions walked down one of the main streets. How could he avoid notice from his fellow citizens?
“This is the perfect place to do it,” Amyalla said. “You saw how many caravans leave the city on a daily basis, so who’ll notice another one? The bandit captain told us about one of Kalrek’s outposts. He probably has an entire network of such places where minions like the spriggans meet merchants like Laessar to deliver their plunder. The merchants then deliver it to Kalrek. Their caravans look the same as any other.”
“And Kalrek can keep even bandits and spriggans loyal,” Airk said in disgust. “How else do you think we Flintholders came to trust him, besides our being so blind and stupid?”
“Airk, are-“ Seline said.
“The Owlbear Arms is best suited for humans in this part of the city,” Airk interrupted her, staring straight ahead. “You all can wait there while I talk to Laessar. Once I get the information I need from him, I’ll return and we can discuss our plans.”
“Don’t you want anyone to come with you?” Weimar asked.
“No,” Airk said, shaking his head. “I’ll be less likely to alarm Laessar if I go alone.”
“Is that all, though?” Seline said. “You might-“
“If Kalrek has spies in Laessar’s household, they’re less likely to notice us if Airk goes in alone,” Amyalla said. “We just look like another group of travelers, and Airk’s just visiting an old friend. You’ll be careful, of course?” she asked Airk.
“Of course I will,” Airk said, staring straight ahead.
His companions looked to one another uncertainly.
The Owlbear Arms more than lived up to its reputation as one of the finest inns in Copper Crossing. It had thrived for over a century and a half under the management of Nordick Shimmerstone, a gnome who prided himself on never letting an opportunity go to waste. Nordick noticed how many humans came to Copper Crossing, and he capitalized on it by building a number of specialty suites sized for humans. He continually expanded the Owlbear Arms by buying up neighboring properties whenever they became available, and now he was the proud owner of one of the largest inns not just in Copper Crossing, but in the entire Kron Hills.
The companions had no difficulty getting rooms at the Owlbear Arms, even with all the other patrons thronging the place. Most of the companions went to get something to eat, and Amyalla took some time to catch up on her knitting, so Airk thought he would be able to leave without being hindered.
He was relieved at that, not in the mood to talk to any of his friends at the moment. He was heading for the door of the room he was sharing with Weimar when it opened and Luna walked into the room. Worry was etched on Luna’s face, and Airk was struck by how clearly it showed. He’d always thought that Seline was the more outgoing of the sisters, but now Luna matched her sister’s expressiveness.
“What do you want?” Airk demanded, his ugly mood made clear by the look on his face.
“We need to talk,” Luna said, shutting the door behind her. She stood between the door and Airk, making no move to get out of the gnome’s way.
“We’ve said everything we need to,” Airk said. “Now get out of my way.”
“Not until I’ve had my say. What are you going to do, Airk? Throw me out of your way? Threaten me? Or are you so obsessed with revenge that you’d be ready to attack everyone who’s come to care for you since then?”
“I…how can I let Kalrek go unpunished after everything he’s done? Didn’t you see what he did to the people of Oakdale, to the people of Flinthold? Am I supposed to forget all that?”
“Of course not! Never that! But you know how worried we are about you, and what this quest is doing to you.”
Airk sighed, looking down at the floor before looking at Luna again, a sombre look on his face.
“Have you ever felt such guilt that it threatened to drive you mad?” Airk asked. “Have you felt you’ve shamed your heritage and people, shame made all the worse because you couldn’t bring yourself to punish a murderer? When you saw the corpses of the people of Oakdale, were you reminded of your failures and your weakness? Did you feel disgust at your cowardice, feel that you were just as responsible for their deaths because of your inaction? That’s what I felt, Luna-and don’t go telling me that I’m not responsible. I am, and that’s all there is to it. Now please, let me pass.”
Luna’s mind whirled as she recalled the conversation she’d had with Revafour and Weimar on the Coast Dancer. She tried to think of what to say.
“I just…I can’t bear to see you this way,” she finally said. “None of us do, and-“
“-and I know that,” Airk finished for her. “But this is something I have to see through to the end. I owe the people of Flinthold that, at the very least.”
Before Luna could answer, Airk pushed her aside and left the room.
Luna was left alone with her fears, praying desperately to Pelor for answers.
When Airk looked at Laessar Bradon’s mansion, he was distinctly impressed by how well his old friend had done since leaving Flinthold. The mansion was not the largest house in Flinthold’s high class neighborhood, but it was immaculately designed and crafted. Detailed bas-reliefs of burrowing animals and murals of surface hills and woods decorated the mansion’s walls. The grounds were decorated with statues of gnomish heroes and gods like Garl Glittergold and Baravan Wildwanderer. Strategically placed lights decorated the estate with a combination of warm embracing light and mysterious, dreamlike shadows.
Airk walked at a leisurely pace up to the gatehouse at the entrance to the estate. He glanced all around him, admiring his surroundings as if he had all the time in the world. As Airk approached, the gatehouse’s attendant emerged with an officious look as he prepared to deal with the latest visitor to Laessar’s manor.
“Greetings, sir!” Airk said as he came up to the attendant. “Is Master Laessar Bradon at home today?”
“Who are you?” the attendant asked, looking suspiciously at Airk’s heavy armor and weapons. “What’s your business here?”
“My name’s Airk Venbelwar,” Airk said, bowing slightly. “I’m an old friend of your master’s from the Hateful Wars. I’ve come to Copper Crossing on business, and I thought I might pay Laessar a visit. It’s been too long since I’ve seen him.”
“Indeed,” the gatekeeper said, raising an eyebrow. “And what proof do you have that my master would know you?”
“Laessar and I are friends of one Kalrek Burunne,” Airk said. “Perhaps you might at least confirm with Laessar’s valet, and he can inquire of your master?”
The gatekeeper’s eyes widened in surprise at hearing Kalrek’s name, but it spurred him to action. The gatekeeper turned back into his gatehouse and rang a bell. The servants’ entrance of the manor opened in response to the bell, and a pageboy came out to the gatehouse. The pageboy had a whispered conversation with the gatekeeper, and quickly ran back inside. A few minutes passed before the pageboy returned, this time with directions to the gatekeeper to let Airk in.
Once Airk passed through the gates, the pageboy led him up to the grand front doors of Laessar’s mansion. The pageboy opened the doors and let Airk into the foyer, where they were greeted by Laessar’s valet Borrus.
“Greetings to you, sir,” Borrus said to Airk once the pageboy had left them. “Any friend of my master’s is a friend of mine.”
“You honor him, I’m sure,” Airk said. “Will Laessar be able to see me today?”
“He has some important paperwork to finish, but he’ll come to see you in a few minutes,” Borrus said. “Would you care for something to drink while you wait?”
“Just some water, thank you,” Airk said, as Borrus led him into a sitting room and poured him his drink.
Borrus left after that, leaving Airk to think about the situation. Everything turned out the way Airk expected. Laessar gave his servants standing orders to immediately admit anyone who mentioned Kalrek’s name, although without revealing exactly why Kalrek was so important.
Everything appeared so calm and normal to Laessar’s servants and family.
Little did they know the turmoil under the surface, their master’s true feelings.
Little did they know Airk himself.
In a few minutes, Laessar himself came to greet Airk, leading Airk back into his study where they could speak privately.
“How long has it been, old friend?” Laessar asked as he shut the study door behind him. “Thirty years?”
“Yes, but it feels longer than that,” Airk said. “How’s the gem trade? I take it things are going well?”
“Of course they are,” Laessar said as he walked over to the bar in one corner of the room and poured two glasses of wine. “And what about you? Are you still burrowing through haunted ruins, rescuing distressed damsels, and traveling to the four corners of the Flanaess?” he continued, as he sat down at his desk and Airk sat in the chair facing it.
Airk and Laessar laughed at the comment, but then they fell silent. Airk could see a hunted look in Laessar’s eyes, and he realized that Laessar probably saw the intensity in his.
Laessar took a long, hard swig of wine, but Airk didn’t touch his glass.
“Now that’s an expression I haven’t heard since the Hateful Wars,” Airk said.
“…Well, it’s been some time,” Laessar said, his expression clouding.
“Time enough to lose contact with old friends?” Airk asked.
“You were the one who became an adventurer,” Laessar said. “How could I have reached you?”
“You didn’t have any trouble reaching Kalrek,” Airk said. “Still exchanging letters with him, aren’t you?”
Laessar turned ashen at that, rising up from his chair as Airk did the same.
“What do you know about that?” he demanded.
“I know everything I saw from those letters written to the spriggans in the Cairn Hills,” Airk said. “I know what I saw from seeing those people dying at the hands of the trolls you and Kalrek sent against them. I know what I saw when Kalrek betrayed Flinthold to the Steelhearts in exchange for their blood money. I know what I saw when Kalrek made the caverns run red with our kin’s blood! I know all of it, and I know you’re involved with it!” Airk continued, his voice rising to a shout.
“Airk, you don’t understand,” Laessar said, stumbling back as Airk began to advance on him.
“He shed our blood. He led us all to suffer and die. He received a king’s ransom for it,” Airk said, his eyes flaring with rage. “And now he’s doing it again. Again!”
“Airk, please!” Laessar said.
Laessar tried to run for the door, but Airk was faster and immediately caught him. The two gnomes wrestled fiercely, each trying to overcome the other. Airk soon proved the stronger and caught Laessar by the wrists, pulling him closer until they stared intently into one another’s eyes.
“How much did he pay you, Laessar?” Airk said. “How much was it worth to consort with spriggans and trolls? How much was it worth to send bandits out to rob and murder defenseless innocents? How much was it worth to turn your back on everything we fought for in the Hateful Wars? How much did he pay you?”
Panic rose in Laessar as he tried to break free. His fear gave strength to his arms, allowing him to drag Airk forward as they resumed their struggle. As they passed by a large glass mirror, Laessar twisted to try and fling Airk into it. Unfortunately, Laessar’s combat skills had weakened with time, and Airk had little trouble countering his maneuver. Instinctively, Airk planted his feet firmly and went with the spin, twisting around and releasing Laessar.
Laessar crashed headlong into the mirror, which exploded in a shower of glass. Blood mingled with glass shards as they spilled all over the carpet, and Laessar’s body fell among them. Gasping for breath, he tried to rise to his feet, before collapsing again.
Airk’s blood ran cold with horror as he knelt down and rolled Laessar over. The door to Laessar’s study burst open, and Borrus burst into the room with several guards, alarmed by the shouting they’d heard. They were stunned when they saw their master’s condition. A large shard of glass protruded from Laessar’s neck, and another one had pierced his eye, leaving a torrent of blood pouring down his upper body.
Time seemed to stop all at once for Airk as he knelt down. Gently, he cradled Laessar’s head in his hands, ignoring Borrus and the guards.
“Laessar…no…by the gods, what have I done?” Airk said.
“My family…” Laessar said, his breath coming in shallow gaps. “Kalrek has them…he’ll kill them if I don’t do his bidding…I beg of you, save them…”
“Laessar…I…” Airk said.
“Borrus…where is my faithful Borrus?” Laessar said, coughing up blood.
“My lord!” Borrus exclaimed, kneeling down next to his master.
“Give Airk…the silver tome in my safe…it contains all the…don’t call the watch on Airk, please let him…” Laessar said, now visibly struggling to speak.
“Laessar, I won’t let him get away with…” Airk said. “Please forgive…”
“Save my family…” Laessar said, his voice barely more than a hoarse whisper, “and may the rest of your days be cursed if you do n-“
Laessar’s words ended abruptly as he died.
Airk sat in silence, staring in shock at the face of his dead friend. He looked at his hands, and saw that they were stained the deep crimson of gnomish blood.
Over the past several weeks, Airk had felt guilt and rage in recalling Kalrek’s betrayal. Now, he simply felt numb as he realized what he had done. He might have remained like that, except that Laessar’s guards pulled him to his feet. Looking across the room, he saw Borrus opening a safe hidden behind a painting on one wall, which contained a large collection of books and parchments. Borrus pulled out one large tome embossed in silver with the emblem of a crown on it. Walking over to Laessar’s desk, Borrus laid the book on it and began to read.
“Oh, my poor master…” Borrus said, his face pale as he read through the book. “The shame of it all…that you were driven to this…”
“Is this what you came to confront my master about?” Borrus asked Airk as he looked up from the book. “How did you know about this?”
“Because of the letters I have with me in my pocket,” Airk said. “I came for information about Kalrek Burunne, and how I could find him.” One of the guards retrieved the letters from Airk’s pocket and handed them to Borrus. Borrus glanced over them, comparing the handwriting on the letters from Airk’s pocket to the writing on some of the letters included in the book, Borrus saw they were a perfect match.
Putting the book and letters down on the desk, Borrus took a deep breath before he turned to look at Airk.
“The only reason I don’t have you killed here and now is because of my master’s dying requests, and because his family’s in danger,” Borrus said. “My master allowed no one but him to read that book. It should tell you everything you need to find this Kalrek’s person and rescue my master’s family. If you fail at that, then may Garl Glittergold ensure that the curses of a broken family bring you, and everyone you love and cherish, nothing but misery and ruin for the rest of your days.”
Airk looked once again at the blood on his hands, before he looked back at Borrus.
“My friends are at the Owlbear Arms,” Airk said. “I will need their help to do this. They go by the name of the Company of the Silver Wolf. If you give them my name and say I need help, they’ll come.”
“Very well,” Borrus said, as he gestured for some of the guards to carry out Airk’s request.
“And damn you to the Nine Hells for what you have done today.”
At that moment, Airk agreed with him.
When Luna and the rest of her friends were summoned to Laessar’s mansion, they’d expected to find that Airk had convinced Laessar to tell them where Kalrek’s lair could be found. Instead, they’d learned the horrible truth of why Airk needed them there.
Luna wasn’t sure what horrified her more, the fact that Airk had killed Laessar, or the thought of what his guilt might do to them. Airk had been so angry over the past few weeks, and Luna wondered if he would begin lashing out at them as well…
…or if his guilt and despair might drive him mad entirely.
“There’s nothing you can do?” Borrus asked Luna as they examined Laessar’s body, which lay in state in a separate bedroom.
“I’m afraid not,” Luna said, shaking her head. “I don’t have the power to raise the dead. We’d need the help of a priest with enough power to cast such a spell, unless the magic were inscribed on a scroll I could use. As it is, we don’t have enough time to find a suitable priest.”
“My master has many contacts,” Borrus said, “and I may be able to find someone with enough power. You’ll be on your way, then?”
Luna nodded solemnly as she turned to leave.
“A word to the wise, young one,” Borrus said, as Luna turned back to face him.
“What is it?” Luna asked him.
“You are a daughter of Pelor, judging by the pendant around your neck,” Borrus said.
“Yes, I am,” Luna said.
“Perhaps you should ask your god whether he would tolerate your sharing the company of a murderer who’s responsible for at least one innocent death, and probably many more afterward,” Borrus said, his eyes flashing.
Unable to reply, Luna turned and left the room to rejoin her friends.
Borrus just stared after her.
“It was an accident, wasn’t it?” Weimar said as he pulled on his backpack. “Surely you can’t be blamed for-“
“Yes I can,” Airk said.
“But with everything you’ve gone through because of this Kalrek-“ Weimar said.
“That means nothing,” Airk said, shaking his head.
“It’s murder,” Revafour said, glancing from Airk to Weimar. “And maybe you should-“
Instead of judging Airk, maybe we should ask what we would have done in his situation, Ma’non’go interrupted, an intense look on his face. What kinds of friends are we to judge him, especially when he might actually be able to avenge a betrayal?
Weimar and Revafour stared at Ma’non’go incredulously.
“We leave in less than an hour,” Airk said, breaking the silence.
Airk, Revafour and Weimar had already left the room, and Ma’non’go was about to follow them. He paused, however, when Amyalla came into the room.
You are prepared? Ma’non’go asked her.
“You said Airk might have a chance to avenge a betrayal,” Amyalla said, ignoring Ma’non’go’s question. “What did you mean by that? Is it because you can’t avenge what happened to you in Hepmonaland?”
Ma’non’go stood in silence for a few moments before replying.
There’s nothing there for me anymore, he signed. I’ve cut all my ties to that place.
“So why can’t you talk, then?” Amyalla said. “Why do you need to communicate with your hands instead of your voice?”
Ma’non’go looked away, unable to answer Amyalla’s question.
Reaching out, Amyalla took one of Ma’non’go’s large hands in her tiny ones, a sympathetic look on her face.
“I know what it’s like to not be able to go home again,” Amyalla said. “Wishing you could, lamenting what could have been…you’re not the only one who carries that pain, and neither is Airk.”
For a moment, Amyalla thought she could see tears blinking in Ma’non’go’s eyes.
I appreciate that, Ma’non’go signed to her, especially now. Indeed, without you and the rest of our friends, I might have gone mad, much as Airk nearly has.
“That’s why you’ve come this far with him,” Amyalla said, “why we all have.”
A rare smile found its way onto Ma’non’go’s face as he and Amyalla left the room to rejoin their friends.
It was almost time for the companions to leave, but Airk asked them to wait for a few minutes. Finding a quiet, empty room, Airk knelt down and began to pray. Tears formed in his eyes as he reached out to Garl Glittergold, begging his god’s attention.
I know my failings, Airk thought. Failing to realize Kalrek’s ambitions, letting the Steelhearts kill so many of my friends, abandoning Flinthold because of my own selfishness, suffering Kalrek to live, and now murdering one of my oldest friends.
I’m not asking for your forgiveness, Airk continued. I know my punishment is coming, and I know I’ll deserve it. I’m only praying now for other reasons.
Please let me free Laessar’s family from the monster holding them prisoner. They’ve suffered already at his hands, and they will have a long, hard road yet to travel.
Please ensure my friends return from this quest alive. They’ve come this far already, for no better reason than their friendship and love for me. They have nothing to gain and everything to lose in accompanying me, and they deserve better than to die in a corrupted hovel.
And please let me punish Kalrek for his crimes. I accept my fate, but please let me make Kalrek suffer his first for all the blood he’s spilled.
Those are the boons I ask of you. My failings are mine alone-no one else should suffer for them.
If I’ve ever proven my worth as a son, please grant my requests.
Finally, Airk opened his eyes.
It was time.
The Shadow Knows
“Don’t be so afraid, my lovely,” Kalrek said as he caressed the human woman at his feet. “It doesn’t become someone so beautiful, and could upset those around you…”
The woman swallowed hard, knowing what Kalrek meant by that. It took all the effort she could muster, but she forced a smile onto her face. She made sure to widen it as Kalrek began to caress other areas.
“That’s a good little girl,” Kalrek said with a smile. “Worth every copper piece I paid for you.”
The woman managed not to look away or scream, but she couldn’t stop tears from flowing from her eyes.
“Oh, you can weep all you like,” Kalrek said, smiling in an almost fatherly manner as he kissed her gently. “As much as I enjoy our time together, I have other matters to see to, matters that help our little family thrive.”
Kalrek gestured, and one of the two attendants waiting by his throne led the woman out of his throne room and back to the harem. The other attendant helped Kalrek strap on his equipment. He’d ordered Tooktrilk to divine where Airk and his companions were, and the priest had just warned him that Airk had visited Laessar’s manor. Tooktrilk also told Kalrek of the struggle that had ended in Laessar’s death. Airk had viewed the book that Laessar used to track his dealings with Kalrek, and Airk likely knew where Kalrek’s lair was.
Kalrek knew that Airk and his companions were likely coming to attack his lair. He was eager to see his old friend once again, but he was less keen on meeting the rest of Airk’s companions. Those people were dangerous, given what they’d done to the spriggans and trolls in the Cairn Hills.
Once Kalrek was arrayed in his battle gear, he dispatched his remaining attendant with an order to gather the leaders of the various gangs of bandits and murderers who served him. In a matter of minutes, the leaders were assembled before Kalrek, eagerly awaiting his orders.
The gnomish hall Kalrek used as a lair was part of a labyrinth of many different tunnels and caves. He frequently sent different groups of raiders and merchants out through different tunnels, making it much less likely that they could all be tracked back to a single source. Unfortunately, now those tunnels were as much of a liability to Kalrek as an advantage. Airk and his friends could use any number of routes to reach his lair.
Kalrek didn’t want Airk’s companions to reach his lair, and he didn’t want his bandit groups fighting them there, either. The bandits’ loyalty to him came from fear, respect and the prospect of rich plunder. They respected him as a warlord, but they didn’t admire him to the extent that they would fight together for a common cause. Many of the bandits actually hated each other personally, and they would be as likely to fight each other as any intruders if they made a stand in his lair.
Kalrek thus ordered the bandits to set out into the tunnels leading to his lair. He said that they were to kill Airk’s friends, but to bring Airk to him alive if possible. He promised great riches to whichever of the bandits brought the adventurers’ heads to him, regardless of whether the heads were attached to anything else.
The bandits cheered eagerly, their lusts for blood and treasure kindled by Kalrek’s words. They set off into the tunnels, murder and riches on their minds.
Kalrek smiled when he was left alone in his throne room before he went to meet with his personal lieutenants. Besides his bandit minions, he also commanded the loyalty of a large group of humans, dwarves and gnomes. These were the soldiers who served as his personal guards and enforcers, the sages who researched on his behalf, and the bookkeepers who collected and distributed the plunder he received.
They were the beginnings of his kingdom.
Right now, Kalrek was a warlord, respected by the bandits who served him and revered by his personal followers.
Once he settled things with Airk, the Crown of Arumdina would be his.
And then he would be so much more.
Did we ever truly know you? Amyalla wondered as the companions followed Airk down the passage. How much anger did you hold within you for all these years? And if you still bear it, how do we know you won’t be able to keep from lashing out again?
Amyalla was full of mixed emotions, and she suspected her human friends felt the same way. She felt sympathy for Airk-of course she did!-but she was disgusted by what Airk had done, too. She was glad that Airk would submit to the justice of Copper Crossing when they returned with Laessar’s family-if they returned-but she had trouble looking at him the same way she did when she first met him.
Amyalla was snapped out of her revelry by a bloodcurdling howling that sent chills down her spine. Some of the howls seemed low and guttural, while others were loud screeches. Raising her dagger, Amyalla glanced around in alarm, expecting an attack from any direction. She heard a pair of human screams, one a man’s and the other a woman’s. Amyalla saw Weimar running back the way they’d come down the passage, while Seline charged ahead into the darkness.
Neither Weimar or Seline got very far, however. The very shadows around the companions seemed to come to life as a horde of strange figures, vaguely resembling large dogs, lunged at them. Some of the shadowy dog creatures tore at Weimar and Seline, while others blocked their friends from reaching them.
Revafour immediately cut down one of the dog creatures with his sword, and wounded another one. Some of the dog creatures leapt at him from behind, forcing him to turn away from the dog he’d wounded. Ma’non’go charged at the dogs, stabbing left and right with his trident as he tried to reach Seline. The dogs soon surrounded him, and he was stopped altogether. Seline screamed in pain as the dogs tore at her, her blood pounding from the creatures’ howling. As she scrambled to defend herself from the dogs’ bites, she couldn’t get her bearings to cast a spell, or even reach her wand.
Weimar managed to pull out one of his daggers to defend himself, and he cut one of the dogs’ throats with a lucky slash. Luna and Airk tried to move toward him, but they were soon caught fighting the dogs who blocked their way.
Amyalla’s eyes narrowed as she darted into the shadows herself, unnoticed by the vicious dogs. She emerged a few seconds later, slashing viciously with her daggers. She killed one of the dogs instantly, her dagger piercing the top of its skull. The halfling followed up by throwing a dagger into the flank of one of the dogs biting at Weimar. The foul creature turned to face her, and Amyalla plunged her next dagger right between the creature’s eyes. Airk and Luna soon overcame the dogs blocking their way to Weimar, and Amyalla joined them in finishing off the dogs still swarming the blonde man. Weimar smiled gratefully as his friends came up to him and helped him to his feet. The companions heard several pained yelps behind them, and they saw that Revafour and Ma’non’go were winning against the dogs attacking them and Seline.
When the dogs attacked, Luna and Ma’non’go put the lanterns they were carrying down on the passage floor in the midst of the companions. Now, the lamps’ light vanished, as the entire passage plunged into darkness. Amyalla whirled around, thinking that the dogs might be responsible, but then she screamed in pain as a blade slashed her viciously across the back. Twisting around, Amyalla tried to stab whatever attacked her, but then she heard cruel laughter that no dog could make.
She also heard the cries of her friends in the darkness.
Seline gasped in pain from the dog bites she’d suffered, but the panic she’d felt, caused by the dogs’ howling, was rapidly fading. She could hear Ma’non’go and Revafour near herr, Revafour cursing as he tried to defend himself. Seline knew that both men were at a serious disadvantage, unable to swing their weapons for fear of hitting their friends.
Fortunately, Seline anticipated an emergency like this, and she reached into one of her robe’s many pockets. Her fingers made contact with a lump, and she smiled in relief as she felt the rune she’d carved into it to confirm that it was the phosphorus she needed. Chanting quickly, praying that she would have the few seconds she needed, Seline caused a series of lights to appear all around her, glowing in a rainbow of colors.
Despite herself, Seline had to admire their enemies’ cleverness. The shadowy dogs, whatever they were, could howl to confuse and panic the companions, before the dogs’ masters snuffed out the companions’ light sources and attacked while the companions were blinded.
Fighting the companions while they were blinded was one thing, but fighting them in the light was quite another. In the light of Seline’s spell, the companions saw that their attackers were a group of humans and orcs. The attackers’ bodies were marked with scars and tattoos that matched their vicious, bloodied weapons well. Revafour wasn’t deterred by the attackers’ dangerous appearance, cleaving the first orc he attacked almost in two before gutting the second orc attacking him. Ma’non’go easily parried the attacks of the three men facing him, before methodically tearing them open one by one.
One man got past Revafour and Ma’non’go to charge directly at Seline, but the wizard was ready for him. Quickly chanting a spell, Seline released a series of silvery-blue bolts of magic that struck the man in the face. The man immediately collapsed, screaming as the last bolt tore into and straight through his eye.
As she picked up her staff, Seline saw several more of the men and orcs fighting the rest of her companions. Airk easily blocked one of the men’s blows with his shield, and crushed the man’s skull with his morning star. Luna easily ducked an orc’s sword slash, and slammed her mace into his chest. Weimar, his arms running red with blood from the dogs’ bites, wielded his axe against another man whose skill at blocking Weimar’s blows marked him as the leader of the bandits.
Seline soon saw another man lurking in the shadows, his arms waving in an all too familiar pattern as he cast a spell. He was standing at a perfect angle for the lightning bolt he was casting to tear through all the companions at once. Seline realized the man was likely the wizard who had darkened their lanterns. She began casting frantically, praying that she would get her own spell off before the other mage did.
Seline didn’t need to, as the other wizard suddenly cried out in pain and stumbled. There was blood all along his thigh, and Seline saw the cause of it as Amyalla stepped out from behind him. The halfling drove her dagger into the man’s chest, killing him instantly, as Weimar chopped off the attack leader’s head in a single stroke.
“How did they do that?” Weimar said, gasping as he lowered his axe. “How could they see in the dark?” he continued, as Luna came over to heal his wounds.
“They wouldn’t, if their wizard cast magical darkness throughout the tunnel,” Seline said as she knelt down next to the man she’d struck with her magical bolts. “Their wizard only darkened our lanterns. Other than that…just as I thought,” she said, pulling a ceramic flask from a pouch on the dead man’s belt. “The humans probably took potions like these to see in the dark the way dwarves or gnomes can.”
So Kalrek is aware of our approach? Ma’non’go signed as Luna finished with Weimar and went to heal Seline’s wounds.
“Kalrek would make sure the merchants he’s got working for him wouldn’t try to cheat him,” Airk said, as he began rifling through the possessions of the attackers he’d killed. “He’d use diviners or household spies to monitor them, including Laessar. It’s no wonder he sent his brigands to kill us.”
“He keeps such fine company,” Amyalla said as she retrieved the last of her daggers from the dead shadowy dog creature and cleaned it with the hair of the wizard she’d slain. “I suppose he wants to become a bandit king, then?”
Amyalla didn’t intend her remark as anything but sarcasm, but she was surprised at the way Airk froze at her words.
“…What did you say?” Airk asked Amyalla.
“That Kalrek wants to become a bandit king…” Amyalla said.
Airk suddenly remembered the image of the crown emblem on the book Borrus found in Laessar’s safe. Then he remembered the image of another crown, a crown he’d learned about in his childhood, that made him realize where the emblem on Laessar’s book had come from.
Suddenly, everything made sense to Airk.
He was filled with horror as he realized Kalrek’s true goal.
My Kingdom For A Crown
By all accounts, Trendin Bradon did his father Laessar proud. Trendin was a quick study in learning the ins and outs of the family’s gem-dealing business, and became his father’s trusted right hand. Whenever Laessar was traveling on business or otherwise indisposed, Trendin managed the company’s day to day affairs with a steady hand. Trendin also proved to have a silver tongue, skillfully negotiating mutually beneficial deals with competitors and allies alike. Laessar was immensely proud of his son’s intellect and charisma, and knew the family business would be in good hands when Trendin took over.
Trendin didn’t feel as smart as people often told him he was, not when he couldn’t figure out how to escape the cell Kalrek had locked him in. The cell was sumptuously outfitted with tasteful decorations and furniture, plumbing and a selection of fine foods, which made the steel shackles binding Trendin stand out all the more. The cell was cunningly designed so that Trendin could move around in relative freedom, but he couldn’t reach the door of his cell, much less free himself from his chains. Trendin’s mother Marthe and his sisters Pearlinn and Topia were in cells similar to his, and they had no more hope of escaping than Trendin did.
Trendin jumped to his feet as the door to his cell opened and Kalrek strode in, a wide smile on his face.
“You’re still at it?” Kalrek said with a smile as he glanced around the cell. The walls and furniture were covered in scratches and dents that Trendin made in his attempts to find a secret door that Kalrek might not know about, or to break the chains restraining him. “Come on, you’re a bright lad. Did you really think I’d have put you in here if there was a way out?”
Trendin responded by spitting at the older gnome, who easily dodged it.
“Do you even know why you’re here, boy? Besides to ensure your father’s cooperation, I mean?” Kalrek said.
Trendin didn’t reply, staring daggers at Kalrek.
“You might as well know, since our time together will be ending soon. You see, I’ve got almost everything I need…and then you and the rest of your family won’t be of any more use to me,” Kalrek said.
Trendin’s eyes widened despite himself, but he didn’t say anything.
“You motivated one of my old friends, and now you’re motivating another,” Kalrek said. “Still, they’re just stepping stones to my larger goal. Before you meet Urdlen, I should at least do the courtesy of telling you what I’ve been seeking all these years.”
Trendin tried to keep calm, but he couldn’t keep himself from shaking with rage.
“Did Laessar ever tell you about the Crown of Arumdina, my boy?” Kalrek said.
Trendin kept stubbornly silent, refusing to answer Kalrek’s question.
“…I asked you a question,” Kalrek said after a moment, his eyes narrowing.
Trendin made as if to spit at Kalrek, before the older gnome lunged forward and punched Trendin in the face with his mailed fist. The blow broke Trendin’s nose, causing blood to pour down his face. As Trendin reeled, Kalrek punched him again, knocking two of his teeth out.
“Laessar should be ashamed of himself,” Kalrek said, scowling. “He doesn’t teach you anything about our beloved homeland, or even proper manners. I suppose I’ll have to do it in his place, then?”
Trendin didn’t say anything, but his eyes glanced at Kalrek’s hand as it moved to the sword at Kalrek’s belt.
“Centuries ago, the kingdom of Flinthold was one of the most powerful and prosperous gnomish kingdoms in the entire Flanaess,” Kalrek said. “It was said to be blessed by Garl Glittergold himself, and he gave the Flinthold kings an artifact called the Crown of Arumdina as a sign of his favor. The Crown got its name from the axe-shaped piece of mithril atop its monde. The mithril was said to be a piece of Arumdina itself.”
Trendin’s eyes widened at that claim. Arumdina was the sentient, divine mithril battleaxe that was Garl Glittergold’s eternal companion. Anything that contained a piece of Arumdina would possess impressive magical power.
“Flinthold’s future seemed bright when its kings wore the Crown. They reckoned without Flinthold’s jealous rivals, who stole the Crown and with it Garl’s favor. Without Garl’s blessings, Flinthold couldn’t truly be ruled by a king. Its rulers could only claim the titles of regents, unable to fully claim their birthrights,” Kalrek said.
“Imagine it, lad-imagine being destined to wield glory, only to have it taken out of your reach, as you’re forced to struggle to survive. That was the lot of Flinthold and its ruling family. Indeed, Flinthold’s old monarchy faded into history by the time the Aerdy Overkings were crowned. Now, Flinthold is a pale shadow of its former self, weakened further still by the Hateful Wars, ruled by appointed regents,” Kalrek said.
“But the people of Flinthold never forgot about the Crown,” Kalrek said, a smile crossing his face. “The priests of Garl Glittergold received visions from their god of the Crown, visions that showed it was still out there somewhere. Think of it, my boy-anyone who finds the Crown of Arumdina could lay claim to the throne of Flinthold. He could rule as king in his own right, and return Garl Glittergold’s favor to our homeland. Flinthold would relive its past glories, and shine brighter than ever!”
“…Is that what this is all for?” Trendin said, a disgusted and incredulous look crossing his face. “Your consorting with orcs, spriggans and minotaurs? Your murdering and looting people who never crossed you? Using my father’s business to transport your blood money? All so you can finance your search for the Crown?”
“I’m so glad I was wrong,” Kalrek said, clearly pleased with Trendin. “Laessar did educate you well. And you’re quite right, lad. I do need the wealth and prestige I’ve been gathering to support my search for the Crown. But that’s not my only goal. A worthy king needs wealth and splendor befitting his station…but he also needs followers who will support him when he takes his throne.”
“You expect to take Flinthold’s throne with your murdering brigands beside you?” Trendin said, raising an eyebrow at Kalrek’s claim. “You think our people would accept a king that consorted with spriggans?”
“Then again, maybe I was right the first time,” Kalrek said with a frown. “You are a fool. Did you really think I would try to take the throne that way? No, the Crown would confirm my right to rule, and my support from the people. They’ll stand with me as I lead Flinthold back to greatness, and Garl’s favor blesses us once more!”
“But you revere Urdlen, the Crawler Below,” Trendin said. “Surely you don’t think-“
His words were cut off with a grunt as Kalrek punched him in the face a third time.
“No lad, you don’t think,” Kalrek said. “So few of our people do. I was wrong-you don’t deserve to know the full story after all.”
With that, Kalrek turned and left Trendin’s cell, locking the door behind him.
As a child, Kalrek enjoyed the stories the Flinthold elders told of Urdlen. He also enjoyed the stories the elders told about how gnomes used illusions to protect and defend themselves. Little Kalrek wondered why the gnomes so rarely used illusions on each other, something that struck him as a waste of potential.
As he grew up, Kalrek witnessed it over and over among the humans, dwarves and elves he and the other gnomes interacted with. They lied to conceal unpleasant truths, they deceived to gain and keep power, they pretended to be friends with each other, only to betray their allies when the latter were no longer useful…
Kalrek wondered why the gnomes couldn’t profit from this more than they did, especially given their skill at deception.
He profited very well when he betrayed Flinthold to the Steelhearts, of course. When the Steelhearts invaded Flinthold after the war, he’d have been pleased to see them loot Flinthold and cave the entire place in. It didn’t really matter to Kalrek, though-he purloined a considerable amount of wealth from the Steelhearts, using it to begin his search for the Crown.
Kalrek knew his decades of work were about to pay off. His minions respected him as a warlord, and they would revere him as a king when he took Flinthold’s throne. The minions would be his secret agents, expanding his power and striking down his enemies in ways that couldn’t be traced back to him. They would be the hidden part of his kingdom.
The public face of his kingdom would be for him to act the part of a good king, using the Crown to rebuild Flinthold’s power. Flinthold would become not just one of the greatest kingdoms in the Lortmil Mountains, but in the whole of the Flanaess. Any claims that he betrayed Flinthold to the Steelhearts would be exposed as the lies and slander they were. The Crown would be his to rightfully wear. It didn’t matter if the Crown truly brought Garl’s favor to Flinthold, or if it was only a legend. The Crown’s favor could just as easily come from Urdlen when it was rededicated to the Crawler Below.
Kalrek would have the power of the Crown on his brow, the power of the public face of his kingdom in one hand, and the power of the hidden face of his kingdom in the other. That kingdom, Kalrek’s visible and hidden kingdom, would grow like an ever-expanding tunnel. It would bring him new treasures, new glory…
…and new victims.
He could hear Urdlen laughing again.
Fog Of War
As the companions walked down a long and straight corridor, they heard a horrible bellowing sound approaching them. The bellowing was reminiscent of what an angry bull might make, and the companions immediately realized that they were about to face a gang of minotaurs. Most beings, even gnomes or dwarves, would have had a hard time tracking the companions through the mazelike cave passages leading to Kalrek’s lair. The group of orcs, men and shadow mastiffs the companions had previously fought needed luck to find them. Minotaurs were another story, gifted at finding their way almost flawlessly through labyrinths to track their prey.
Nine minotaurs came into view ahead of the companions. They were hideous creatures that resembled crosses between bulls and men, powerfully muscled and wielding large axes and flails. They snorted in delight as they saw their prey and charged eagerly, determined to tear the companions apart.
Seline began chanting a spell as her friends cried out in alarm and fell back, distracting the minotaurs from what she was doing.
Weimar raised his bow and shot a flurry of arrows, stinging the minotaurs and even felling one. He couldn’t stop the minotaur’s vicious charge, though, as Seline’s friends continued to move back and stepped behind her.
Soon, all of the companions stood behind Seline, and there was nothing between her and the charging minotaurs.
Seline finished casting her spell, raising one finger and pointing it at the minotaurs. A streak of blue-white lightning blasted from her finger, tearing through the minotaurs and causing the entire passage to glow brightly. The minotaurs bellowed in pain, and six of them fell dead, smoke rising from the burn marks on their bodies. The last two minotaurs continued their charge, determined to tear Seline apart. She quickly stepped back as Ma’non’go and Airk came up to confront the minotaurs.
Airk swung his morning star at one minotaur before it could bring its axe to bear. He hit the monster right between its horns, crushing its skull and causing it to fall dead on the spot.
The other minotaur swung its massive flail at Ma’non’go, but the tall Olman caught the flail’s chain in the tines of his trident. Ma’non’go pulled his trident forward, pulling the minotaur off balance. As the minotaur sought to free its weapon, Ma’nongo’ swung his trident back over his shoulder, causing the minotaur’s flail to fall to the ground behind him. The minotaur snorted in anger and lowered its head before it charged at Ma’non’go, trying to gore him. Ma’non’go was faster than the creature expected, as he quickly brought his trident back down in front of him. The minotaur skewered itself on Ma’non’go’s trident as it bellowed in pain. Blood poured from the minotaur’s mouth as it collapsed, and the surprised look on its face only lifted when the light left its eyes.
Seline shook her head as the companions searched the minotaurs’ bodies. She’d noticed how long and straight this passage was, and that it was ideal for her to cast a lightning bolt to destroy any line of enemies coming at them. Her companions had quickly understood what she’d needed them to do, and Amyalla congratulated her on her cleverness.
Seline considered Kalrek to be cleverer, though. His minions probably wouldn’t have fought well beside one another. By sending his minions out into the cave passages, Kalrek reduced the risk of his minions turning on each other. He also forced the companions to waste their strength fighting the minions before they ever reached his lair. The companions were lucky to have only encountered two groups of Kalrek’s minions, and Seline could only imagine how many other groups were still out there.
Seline had already used more of her magic fighting Kalrek’s minions than she would have preferred. She wondered how many dwarves and gnomes Kalrek had as his personal guard, knowing all too well how both races were resistant to magical attacks.
Seline usually enjoyed intellectual puzzles, and the challenge of how to creatively employ her magic in resolving them, but she was not optimistic about the companions’ chances.
The passage led the companions into a chamber that contained a breathtaking sight. The chamber was worked and well-crafted, with carved red, green and gold crystals set into the walls. The crystals caught the light of the companions’ lanterns, reflecting the light into a rainbow of colors all around them.
To Luna, it felt as if she was almost in the midst of a glowing gemstone, the colors spreading warmth and protection all around her even as they seemed to draw her closer to the gem’s core. Glancing around at her companions, Luna saw that they felt the same comfort she did. Only Airk was different, his expression showing familiarity as well as comfort.
“Crystals of protection and welcome,” Airk muttered under his breath.
“Was this complex built by gnomes?” Luna asked him.
“Aye, though it’s likely been centuries since any of us lived here,” Airk said without looking back as he led the companions through the doorway in the far wall of the chamber.
The companions emerged into a passage with the same kind of stonework as the chamber. They admired the care and skill that had clearly gone into the stonework, skill that was reflected in the solidity of the structure around them.
After several minutes of walking, the companions came to a junction. The passage continued ahead, continuing to show the same stonework the companions had seen so far. Now, though, a gaping hole had been torn in the wall to their left. Looking into the darkened chamber beyond the hole, the companions saw broken debris and rubbish. Although Amyalla and the human members of the group lacked Airk’s knowledge of stonework, they could see how crudely wrought the stone in the new cavern was.
“I take it the new inhabitants have done some remodeling,” Amyalla said.
Airk didn’t answer and continued leading the companions down the passage, his expression grimmer than ever.
The companions came into a wide chamber full of smaller caves and passages leading off from it. According to Airk, this place would have been the residential area for many of the gnomes that once lived here. The companions saw torches placed beneath the colored crystals, and they saw how recently the torches had been set.
Luna felt her heart begin pounding as a chill went down her spine.
Amyalla started, and raised her hand wordlessly. Her friends stood still, and then they all recognized the sounds she’d heard. The sounds were of footsteps, laughter and rattled swords, the sounds of armed warriors expecting a fight.
Amyalla pointed to herself and then towards the sounds, as her friends nodded.
Soon she was gone, vanished among the shadows.
Luna agonized with worry until Amyalla finally came back, describing everything she’d seen.
Luna felt sick at what the companions would have to do, but she knew that the consequences of not doing it would be far, far worse.
The gnomes Durginn and Ludrock were part of Kalrek’s inner circle, those gnomes, dwarves and men who were more devoted to Kalrek than most of the brigands and monsters who made up his followers. Kalrek didn’t send his inner circle into the tunnels along with the rest of his followers, because his inner circle knew that the brigands and killers were only fodder. The brigands were only meant to gather wealth, and to fight and die like the expendable fools they were. Durginn, Ludrock and the rest of Kalrek’s most devoted supporters would exult in the glory he would bring them.
Durginn and Ludrock were not surprised to hear the sounds of clashing swords and shouting voices coming from that part of the complex where the lower-ranking brigands stayed. Kalrek had posted guards at all of the main entrances to his personal part of the complex, and directed other soldiers to help them if any of the guard posts were attacked. Already, Durginn and Ludrock could see several gnomes, spriggans and men running towards the brigands’ area.
“Lord Kalrek’s enemies, do you think?” Durginn asked.
“Maybe,” Ludrock said, “but it’s just as likely wanderers pokin’ their undersized noses where they don’t belong. Derro or ogres, per’aps. Not that it matters, of course,” he finished, raising his sword with an evil grin.
As the two gnomes joined the guards’ charge, an alarm bell began ringing to alert more of them. Loud cheers echoed throughout the complex, joining with the sound of rumbling footsteps as Kalrek’s warriors prepared to slay the intruders.
The first group of guards who arrived in the brigands’ chamber were so eager for a fight that they didn’t think about why the four guards set to protect that portion of the complex were already dead. The chamber was empty aside from the guards’ bodies, with only the sounds of battle echoing around them.
The guards looked to one another in confusion, before they understood what was happening.
“Wizard’s trick!” one spriggan howled, realizing the sounds that had lured them there came from a magical illusion.
“Spread away, lads! Don’t be marchin’ too close together!” one dwarf said.
The spriggan and the dwarf had to shout to make their voices heard over the sounds of the illusion. None of the soldiers heard the wizard chanting, although a few of them saw her as she materialized into sight. They couldn’t react before the wizard waved her wand, releasing a blistering cloud of steam that filled the air. Many of the soldiers howled in agony, scalded by the heat of the steam, and several fell dead immediately.
Several of the soldiers who survived the steam shot crossbows and threw daggers at the wizard as she quickly backed up. Unfortunately, their missiles seemed to fall short, falling at the wizard’s feet as if repelled by some invisible barrier.
A few of the soldiers managed to get close enough to attack the wizard with their melee weapons, but then two men came up to block their way. One of them was a huge dark-skinned man dressed in multicolored clothes and carrying a trident. The other was a more slender man with paler skin and hair, carrying an axe and a shield. Kalrek’s soldiers struck at them, determined to cut the men down so they could reach the wizard, but what the two men lacked in numbers they more than made up for in skill.
Some of Kalrek’s soldiers managed to avoid the steam cloud, and they tried to find a way around it to reach the two warriors. They were caught off guard when two more warriors emerged from a side tunnel. One of the new arrivals was a large Flan man dressed in plate armor and wielding a huge broadsword. The other warrior was a gnome dressed in plate armor similar to his Flan companion’s, but wielding a bloody morning star instead of a sword. Kalrek’s soldiers eagerly attacked the two warriors, but these warriors were just as skilled as their peers guarding the wizard.
The wizard began chanting again, using her wand to fill the chamber with thick fog. Kalrek’s soldiers were blinded as they tried to strike at the warriors. Several of the soldiers, half-crazed by anger and pain, began lashing out at each other, and everything fell into chaos. Some of the soldiers knocked each other into the steam cloud that still filled most of the chamber, while others struck at anything that seemed to get too close.
A few of the soldiers tried to rally their fellows, but their efforts were too little, too late. By the time the steam and fog cleared, over two score of Kalrek’s soldiers were dead. The few survivors were no match for the victorious companions.
The companions gathered in the center of the chamber, looking to one another with grim satisfaction. Luna reached into her pocket and retrieved a vial of holy water as she chanted a spell. Dipping her finger in the vial, Luna prayed to Pelor to bless their efforts in the coming battle. Luna daubed each of her friends with the holy water, signifying the support Pelor would offer them, until she came to Airk.
Airk shook his head before Luna could bless him, the shame all too evident on his face.
“Airk…please…” Luna said.
“No,” Airk said, shaking his head. “You know I can’t.”
Tears formed in Luna’s eyes as she resealed the vial of holy water and put it away. As she picked up her mace and shield, she knew there was little she could say.
Blood And Treasure
After killing most of Kalrek’s soldiers, the companions continued further into the complex. From the room that was a barracks for Kalrek’s lower-ranking followers, the companions passed through rooms that served as the followers’ kitchen and mess hall. In all three chambers, the companions saw crude and rickety furniture, bad-smelling food, and haphazardly strewn boxes and bedding, indicating the status of the minions who used them.
The next set of rooms the companions entered were much cleaner and better organized. The companions saw murals painted into the walls of gnomes welcoming visiting humans, dwarves and other races. Other murals showed the gnomes and their visitors fighting together against orcs, goblins and gnolls, and enjoying a victory feast after the monsters were slain. The murals were surprisingly well-preserved, and even looked like they were touched up in some cases. Fresh torches burned in polished wall sconces, and the furniture in these rooms was tastefully decorated and solidly built. This part of the complex seemed deserted, although the companions knew that it wasn’t.
When the companions came into a large chamber that served as a common room for Kalrek’s inner circle, they were not surprised to see more than a dozen armed warriors waiting for them. Most of the warriors were gnomes, with a few dwarves and humans among them. These warriors were much fewer in number than the soldiers the companions had fought in the lower-ranking minions’ chamber. However, these warriors showed that what they lacked in numbers they more than made up for in skill. The coordinated way they marched forward, and the brightness of their spiked and serrated armor and the swords and axes they carried, showed that they were Kalrek’s highest-ranking guards.
The warriors threw a volley of spears at the companions, who were forced to scatter. Before the companions could regroup, the warriors assembled into groups and charged at them.
Airk barely noticed the warriors. His gaze was focused on the corridor behind them, which was richly decorated with tapestries, rose quartz chandeliers and silver and copper laid into the walls. Slowly, steadily, Airk advanced towards that corridor, his expression as hard and cold as any golem’s.
One of Kalrek’s warriors, a bulky-looking gnome with images of skulls and demons on his armor, leered wickedly as he charged at Airk. He had a manic look in his eyes, and the bloodlust on his face was all too obvious to anyone who looked at it.
For a moment, Airk’s gaze turned from the corridor to the gnome charging at him. He raised his shield, easily blocking the other gnome’s sword blow. Then he raised his morning star, knocking the other gnome’s shield aside before swinging it right at the other gnome’s face.
The last thing the other gnome ever saw was the morning star’s spokes flashing towards him, before he heard the sickening crunch of his own skull being caved in.
Airk’s gaze returned to the corridor, his expression remaining unchanged the whole time.
Kalrek Burunne cut a majestic figure fit for a king. He was dressed in gold-lacquered armor polished to a beautiful sheen. His helmet, the edge of his shield and the hilt of his sword were all studded with gems, and the sword’s blade was sharpened to a razor’s edge. Kalrek’s equipment gleamed brightly, but the shine of his equipment paled compared to the eager shine in his eyes, a shine that intensified as the footsteps in the corridor outside his throne room approached.
Soon, the double doors that led into Kalrek’s throne room were thrown open. Airk walked in and locked stares with Kalrek. The two gnomes started at each other for several long moments.
Airk’s plain armor was stained with blood. He stared hatefully at Kalrek with eyes that reflected the guilt and shame of the crimes his weakness had let him commit both during the Hateful Wars and since he had come to Copper Crossing. His breathing was long, slow and heavy, and his expression was cold and emotionless.
Kalrek’s armor was brilliantly decorated and shone with polish. He smiled triumphantly at Airk with eyes that reflected the bright future he anticipated for himself. His breathing was calm and collected, and he greeted Airk with a wide smile.
Finally, Kalrek spoke.
“How long has it been, old friend?” he said, the smile never leaving his face. “Six decades and more?”
“Far too long that we continued to draw breath on this oerth, while gnomes better than the both of us have waited for justice,” Airk said.
“And yet, here we are,” Kalrek said. “I’ve made the most of my life, building my reputation and my fortune. And what have you done with yours? How has burrowing through haunted ruins, rescuing distressed damsels, and traveling to the four corners of the Flanaess benefited you? Or did it really?”
“You’re going to pay,” Airk said, pointing his morning star at Kalrek, “for everything.”
“There you go again,” Kalrek said with a laugh, “languishing in the past, while I think of the future. You, the lowly soldier, and me the rising noble. Even Laessar Bradon strove for more than you did. And how is Laessar anyway?”
Airk shuddered at the memory of his crime came back to him.
“You worry too much about foolish things,” Kalrek said, the smile returning to his face. “You let them rule you instead of tearing through them and taking what you want. Why do you think I’ve prospered the way I have? What’s your reverence for the likes of Baravan and Segojan ever gotten you? Or are you just letting Garl Glittergold play an especially sick joke on you?”
“You worry too much about whether I care what you have to say,” Airk said as he advanced. “None of it will matter when I kill you.”
“Weren’t you listening when I talked about your living in the past?” Kalrek said, his smile growing wider as he raised his sword and shield. “That’s all you are now, as much a part of the worthless past as Laessar. You put that past behind us, and now I’ll do the same to you…”
Weimar gritted his teeth as one of the two warriors he was fighting slammed a massive hammer into his shield, sending a shock up his arm. Weimar struck back with his axe, but the warrior easily dodged the blow and swung his hammer again, forcing Weimar to duck
The other warrior slammed his flail into Weimar’s knee, making him nearly lose his balance. Cursing at his disadvantage, Weimar swung his shield back and forth to deflect the warriors’ follow-up attacks. Finally seeing an opening, Weimar struck at the warrior with the flail, cutting a deep gash in the man’s hip. Weimar used his shield to block another blow from the hammer-wielding warrior before he rushed at the flail-wielder, leading with his shield. Weimar slammed his shield into the flail-wielder, making him overbalance, as Weimar clove deep into the man’s arm.
The flail-wielder fell back as Weimar turned to face the hammer-wielder. Blocking yet another hammer blow with his trusty shield, Weimar chopped at the man’s vulnerable abdomen, tearing a long gash across it. The hammer-wielder cried out in pain as his flail-wielding companion came up behind Weimar.
Weimar fully expected the move. He dodged to one side and turned to face the two men as they both turned to face him.
Kalrek’s warriors came at Weimar again and he eagerly responded, a wicked grin on his face.
Kalrek struck first with a series of sword thrusts, and the jeweled blade seemed to come from every angle as it forced Airk back. Airk couldn’t find an opening to strike back, and he could only maneuver his shield to deflect the blows. The two gnomes’ weapons clashed loudly, but that sound was drowned out by Kalrek’s mad laughter.
Once Kalrek had forced Airk back, he sprang forward, bringing his sword down in a vicious overhanded slash. Airk quickly dodged aside as Kalrek stumbled, trying to regain his balance. Airk leapt at Kalrek, swinging his morning star at Kalrek’s exposed shoulder. He learned too late that Kalrek expected that move, as Kalrek quickly turned and swung at Airk with a vicious backhand slash. Airk managed to get his shield up to block the blow, but then Kalrek reversed the flow of his sword. Kalrek swung the blade the other way, tearing a long gash in Airk’s weapon arm. He thrust at Airk’s neck, but Airk managed to duck the thrust. Airk retaliated and swung his morning star at Kalrek’s leg, causing him to stumble and fall back.
The two gnomes paused for a moment, staring at each other before they charged in again. They exchanged a long flurry of blows, successfully blocking them all, until they broke off, realizing neither of them could win that exchange.
Airk and Kalrek circled each other warily, each looking for an opening. Airk struck first, swinging his morning star in a flurry of blows that Kalrek dodged or blocked. Finally, Airk struck down low at Kalrek’s legs again, leading Kalrek to bring his shield down to block the blow. Then, faster than Kalrek expected, Airk swung his morning star upwards in a wide arc and slammed it into Kalrek’s face.
Blood streaked down one side of Kalrek’s face, but if he was upset by the blow he didn’t show it. He continued laughing, blocking Airk’s next strike with his shield before thrusting again with his sword. Airk tried to block it with his shield, but Kalrek hooked his sword under Airk’s shield. Kalrek heaved Airk’s shield upwards, throwing him off balance and unable to avoid Kalrek’s sword.
Kalrek didn’t waste his opportunity. He slashed Airk across the chest and down to his leg. Blood poured down the front of Airk’s body, a flow that was only worsened when Kalrek followed up with another slash. Kalrek’s second blow cut deep into Airk’s hip and thigh, causing another well of blood to rise up.
Amyalla ducked and dodged desperately, knowing that she’d be torn apart if she tried to fight either of the two gnomes slashing at her head-on. They were skilled warriors, each reacting to the other’s movements as they forced Amyalla back.
One of them slammed her arm with his mace.
The other one slashed her in the stomach with his sword, and Amyalla only managed to stay standing through pure willpower.
Amyalla was drenched in perspiration as she tried to catch her breath. Her sweat mixed with her freely flowing blood as she threw a dagger at one of the gnomes to force him back.
The gnome simply knocked it away with his shield.
Kalrek’s laugh reached a fever pitch as he easily blocked Airk’s desperate counters and struck yet again at his former friend. As Kalrek’s sword cut deep into Airk’s shoulder, causing another line of blood to well up, it was all Airk could do to block Kalrek’s next strike.
The light in Kalrek’s eyes as he lunged in for the kill would have made any demon or devil proud. His laughter echoed in Airk’s ears, a laughter that brought back memories of their fellow soldiers, dead and dying in in the caverns of the Lortmil Mountains. Airk’s memories shifted to the Flintholders who’d died when the Steelhearts invaded their kingdom, to the people of Oakdale, to Laessar Bradon and his family, and then to Airk’s friends, who were almost certainly going to be killed by Kalrek’s minions.
Airk thought of all the people who’d died because of him and Kalrek, because of his stupidity and weakness, and Kalrek’s greed and sadism.
Airk slammed his morning star into Kalrek’s shield, knocking Kalrek back several steps and breaking his forward momentum. As Kalrek stumbled back, Airk charged forward, swinging his morning star wildly as he struck over and over at Kalrek. Shrieks of metal clashing on metal filled the air as Airk slammed his morning star into Kalrek’s arm, drove it deep into his gut, and slammed it into his hip.
Soon, Kalrek was no longer laughing.
As the gnome who’d blocked Amyalla’s thrown dagger lowered his shield, Amyalla quickly reached into her pocket and tossed something else at him. The gnome, trying to figure out what it was, couldn’t react before it struck him in the face. The flask Amyalla threw immediately shattered, splattering the gnome in the face with oil.
He cried out in pain as glass shards pierced his face and his eyes were covered with oil. Blinded by pain and anger, the gnome began stabbing his sword blindly, determined to kill the wretched halfling. He followed Amyalla’s mocking taunts, and eagerly thrust his sword…
…only to hear the agonized cry of his comrade as he ran the other gnome through. Too late, the blinded gnome realized that Amyalla had moved so his comrade was between them, and then goaded him into killing his ally.
That realization paralyzed the gnome long enough for Amyalla to come up behind him and cut his throat.
For your glory…Kalrek thought.
For the slaughter I conduct in your name… Kalrek repeated.
Grant me your aid, Lord Urdlen!
Kalrek seemed to become indistinct and wavering, as if Airk was looking at him through the haze of an intense heat. He resumed laughing as Airk’s morning star passed harmlessly by him, thrusting his sword in a strike that would have run Airk through if Airk hadn’t dodged in time. Airk swung his morning star again and again, but he always struck short. Try as he might, he couldn’t see Kalrek well enough to hit him.
Kalrek brought his sword across and cut a long gash along Airk’s ribs. Airk felt faint, realizing that another thrust would finish him, but he stubbornly refused to give in.
He saw himself throwing Laessar into the glass mirror, and then he saw himself helpless to watch as the Steelhearts beheaded his kin one by one. Finally, one of the bearded wretches turned and advanced on Airk, his axe raised to finish Airk off.
Airk quickly blocked the dwarf’s blow with his shield and struck back, hitting the dwarf in the chest with his morning star. The dwarf turned and attacked from the side, but Airk brought his morning star down on the dwarf’s weapon hand. The morning star struck home with a sickening crunch, causing the dwarf to howl in agony and drop his weapon. The desperate dwarf tried to regroup, dropping his shield and picking up his sword with his left hand, but Airk hit him again and again. The dwarf seemed vague, fading in and out of Airk’s sight, but Airk continued to strike, surrounded by images of his dying kin.
Everything around Airk seemed to fade away briefly. It came back a second later, and Airk saw that he was back in Kalrek’s throne room.
Kalrek was on his knees, supporting himself with his good left hand. He was covered in hideous bruises and open cuts from where Airk had struck him. Blood streamed down the front of his body, staining his brilliant gold-lacquered armor. His right hand was at a twisted angle, indicating that it was broken. He stared fearfully up at Airk, one of his eyes half-closed in pain.
Kalrek’s expression seemed to beg for mercy, but he didn’t say anything.
Airk raised his morning star as his eyes narrowed with hatred.
“This is for the blood on both our hands,” he said, before he struck Kalrek dead.
The explosion of pain Kalrek felt as Airk’s morning star crushed his skull was mercifully brief. His pain was replaced with a sense of falling into an endless abyss, completely surrounded by darkness. His entire body was on fire, and his agonized screams mingled with the cries he began to hear all around him.
When Kalrek finally landed, it took him several moments to find his bearings. He finally stood up and looked around, until he realized where he was.
Kalrek was in an underground tunnel, one that was suffused with bones and skulls the way other tunnels might be suffused with rocks and roots. A horrible stench, seemingly a mix of suphur and decomposition, filled his nostrils.
The blood froze in Kalrek’s veins as he realized where he was, and who these tunnels belonged to. He heard an angry hissing sound behind him, and realized his doom was at hand.
The nightmare greeted Kalrek as he turned around to face it. It was a huge mole-like creature covered with the blood and excrement of its countless victims. The monster’s claws extended over twice Kalrek’s height in length, able to tear a gnome in half with a single stroke. Its fangs were each the length of a human broadsword, honed to a sharpness no gnomish or even dwarven swordsmith could ever match.
Urdlen was enraged at Kalrek’s failure, and it made him realize just how angry it was.
Kalrek’s soul was a long time being devoured.
He only stopped screaming towards the end.
And I Dub Thee Unforgiven
Seline chanted quickly as the large man charged towards her, tossing a piece of butter on the ground between them. The butter expanded into a large puddle of grease into which the man stepped, slipping and falling flat on his face. As the man tried to get to his feet, Seline walked up to him. She spread her hands out in front of his face, her thumbs touching, as she chanted another spell. Her hands burst into flame, igniting the man’s face and causing him to scream in pain before he fell dead.
Taking a deep breath, Seline looked around at her companions. They were all battered and exhausted from a long night of battle, but they’d survived. That was a relief to Seline, but she was still worried about Airk.
Trendin heard the faint sounds of battle from his cell, and wondered if it meant his family’s salvation or doom. He recalled Kalrek saying how he and his family were acting as bait for another of Kalrek’s old “friends”, and wondered if the sounds of battle were related to it.
The sounds of battle eventually fell away, and everything was silent for several long minutes. Finally, Trendin heard his cell being flung open. Rising in surprise, Trendin was surprised to see a large Flan human coming towards him. The Flan man carried a ring of keys in one hand, and in the other he carried a large, bloodstained sword. Trendin was struck by the weariness on the man’s face, and the many cuts and wounds on his body. The man’s armor was marked with blood as well, and Trendin suspected that much of that blood was the man’s own.
Trendin and the man locked stares for a long moment, before Trendin spoke.
“You’re a deliverer for my family and I, are you not?” Trendin said. “If you are, you have my thanks.”
“And glad to receive it,” the man said, setting down his sword and kneeling to unlock Trendin’s shackles. “My name is Revafour, of the Company of the Silver Wolf.”
“Company of the Silver Wolf?” Trendin asked in surprise as he followed Revafour out of the cell. “Were you hired by my father to rescue us? Or did Kalrek cross you as well?”
Revafour didn’t answer, and the disturbed look that crossed his face caught Trendin completely by surprise.
“It’s a simple question,” Trendin said. “Which of them is it?”
Revafour still didn’t answer, and even the sight of his mother and sisters coming down the hall accompanied by Weimar and Luna did little to reduce the concern Trendin began to feel.
Once the companions freed Trendin and his family, they assembled the rest of Kalrek’s servants, the various accountants and researchers who managed the plunder Kalrek’s raiders brought in and researched where the Crown of Arumdina might be. The servants knew better than to try and confront the companions, and they quickly helped the companions free the slaves and other prisoners Kalrek kept trapped. They also revealed the large collection of potions and spell scrolls Kalrek kept. The potion collection included a number of healing potions which brought welcome relief to the companions and many of the prisoners.
Finally, the companions gathered everyone in the wide chamber that once served as a residential area. Besides the companions themselves, Laessar’s family, the other prisoners the companions freed, and all of Kalrek’s servants were there. The companions and Laessar’s family were at the center of the assembly. Airk and Trendin stood at the head of their respective groups, staring intently at one another.
“You’ve done us all a great service,” Trendin said, smiling gratefully at Airk. “We can’t thank you enough for-“
“You thank me too much,” Airk said, shaking his head as a solemn look crossed his face. “I’m only making amends for all my sins.”
“…What do you mean?” Trendin asked in surprise.
“I caused the deaths of all my fellow gnomes during the Hateful Wars,” Airk said. “I failed to anticipate Kalrek’s treason. And the blood of one of the noblest gnomes I’ve ever known is on my hands, blood that came from my trying to force the location of Kalrek’s lair from his lips. My rage got the better of me, and I caused Laessar Bradon’s death.”
Trendin turned ashen pale, as his mother and sisters staggered behind him. They stood still for several seconds as the awful truth dawned on them.
Finally, Trendin came forward and punched Airk viciously in the face, knocking him flat on his back. As Airk began to rise to his feet, Trendin punched him again, knocking Airk back down.
Trendin reached out as Airk began to rise again, putting his hands around the older gnome’s throat. He was about to strangle Airk when he looked into the older gnome’s eyes. The look in Airk’s eyes reminded Trendin of one he’d seen in his father more than once, when Laessar would sit alone in his study for hours at a time, refusing to speak to anyone who tried to disturb him. Trendin also noticed that Airk made no effort to defend himself, even with Trendin’s hands around his throat.
Releasing Airk’s throat, Trendin turned his gaze up towards Luna.
“You, do you have the power to revive Laessar?” Trendin demanded.
“No, I don’t,” Luna said, shaking her head. “There may be another means-if Copper Crossing had a priest powerful enough to assist us.”
“It doesn’t,” Trendin said, shaking his head, before he looked back down at Airk.
“Pray, for your sake, that she finds a way,” he said.
The next four days were busy ones for the companions and the prisoners they’d freed. Luna treated the injuries her friends and many of the prisoners suffered. Kalrek’s servants gave up all the information they’d been able to gather about the Crown of Arumdina’s whereabouts. The prisoners told the companions where they had been taken from, so that they could be returned home. The companions slew those of Kalrek’s minions who returned to the complex. The companions, the prisoners and the servants stripped the complex of all its food and riches for the return to Copper Crossing.
Things became even busier for the companions when they and everyone else with them returned to Copper Crossing. Kalrek’s servants were turned over to Copper Crossing’s city watch, while the companions found temporary lodgings for Kalrek’s prisoners and began sorting through the truly staggering amount of monetary treasure Kalrek had gathered, as well as his collection of potions and spell scrolls.
Among Kalrek’s spell scrolls, Luna found one of clerical magic that contained a spell to resurrect the dead. Such magic was always a tentative thing, but Luna knew she had to try. After the companions and Trendin’s family had dealt with Kalrek’s prisoners and servants, they gathered in the library of the Bradon manor, with Laessar’s body kept reverently in state before them. Luna looked from Laessar’s body to the living people around her, before she took a deep breath and began to read the scroll containing the resurrection spell.
Luna felt the divine power filling her mind as it attempted to make her its vessel. She focused her mind on the power, making sure to keep a tight grip on it. That focus was important when reading a spell from a scroll. If the caster was not innately powerful enough to cast the spell on their own, it might fail or even turn back on them.
Give me your strength, Pelor, Luna prayed fervently as she continued to chant. Help me help Laessar, help heal the pain his family has suffered…
Pelor answered Luna’s prayer as the spell fully embraced her. She realized that it would not turn on her, and would go where she directed it.
Laessar’s body began to glow as the resurrection spell began its work. His eyes began to flicker, opening and closing even as the wound in his neck began to close.
Finally, with the last syllable, Luna released the spell’s power, channeling all of it into Laessar. The glow surrounding Laessar’s body vanished in a flash before he began raising himself up on his elbows.
Then, with a sudden gasp, he collapsed once more, the life gone out of him entirely.
Trendin gasped in horror as his mother and sisters cried out in despair. Airk stared at Laessar’s body while the rest of Luna’s companions glanced at one another, realizing what had happened. Luna felt weak in the knees as she realized her failure, and she would have collapsed if Ma’non’go hadn’t caught her.
“What happened?” Trendin said, turning on Luna with an angry glare. “Damn you woman, why didn’t it work?”
Tears streaked down Luna’s face as Ma’non’go looked with concern at her, and with anger at Trendin.
“I asked you a question!” Trendin repeated, his voice rising to an angry shout. He started to advance on Luna, but Airk stepped between them. Trendin’s eyes blazed with anger as he threw a punch at Airk, but Airk easily caught it.
“Resurrection magic is an uncertain thing,” Airk said, as Trendin stared back at him. “The shock of being revived can be dangerous for its recipient. They don’t always survive that.”
“You…all of you…Trendin muttered. “Laessar’s blood is on all your hands!”
“Not on theirs,” Airk said, shaking his head. “On mine. My friends have only come this far with me because they are my friends. They don’t deserve your curses and hate-focus them on someone who actually does.”
“So you have my hate and my curses,” Trendin said. “What does that mean?”
“Whatever you want it to,” Airk said. “If you want me to face trial in Copper Crossing, I will. If you want me to go into the depths of the oerth alone and never return, I will. If you want to kill me in return, then you can take the morning star that ended Kalrek’s life and use it to complete the circle. My companions won’t take any vengeance on you, since whatever happens, gnomish justice will be served.”
Trendin stared at Airk, who awaited his judgement. He looked back at his mother and sisters, and thought of all of Kalrek’s other victims. He then looked past Airk to the latter’s human and halfling companions, who’d faced fire and steel to rescue him and his loved ones.
Then he looked back at Airk. Again, Trendin saw the haunted look in Airk’s eyes that reminded him so much of the look he’d seen in Laessar’s eyes during Laessar’s bouts of melancholy.
Trendin remembered that he was now head of the house of Bradon, heir to everything his father built and strived for. He thought of the stories Laessar and Kalrek both told him of his ancestral land of Flinthold. He also thought of how Laessar’s stories told him that mentioned Airk as an old friend, a veteran of the Hateful Wars who’d fought with all his heart for their kingdom.
“Any of the things you mentioned would be a fitting reward,” Trendin said, “but you led your companions to save us. Without your help, we’d all be as good as dead. You and I are both sons of Flinthold, like my father was before me, so you know about Kalrek’s search for the Crown of Arumdina.”
“You owe me a blood debt, and I’ll give you a means of fulfilling it,” Trendin continued. “Kalrek Burunne sought the Crown of Arumdina for his own selfish ends. Find the Crown in his stead, and return it to the regents of Flinthold so they can rule as proper kings. Restore Garl Glittergold’s blessings to his people. If you succeed, I’ll hold your debt fulfilled and your crime forgiven. Refuse, and I’ll have you hanged in Copper Crossing for murder.”
“Very well,” Airk said, “and I’ll take them farther. If I fail in my efforts, then let me find no rest among our gods. Let me be cast into the Abyss, into Urdlen’s maw, as punishment.”
Airk’s companions were startled to hear that, and even more startled at how serene Airk and Trendin became.
The next two weeks were busy ones for the Company of the Silver Wolf and for the Bradon family. First, they divided up the vast riches accumulated by Kalrek. Much of the treasure was used to pay for the kidnapped slaves’ and prisoners’ passage back to their homes. Another large share compensated the Bradon family for everything they had suffered at Kalrek’s hands, and for the loss of Laessar. The companions also attended Laessar’s memorial service, where Airk’s oath to Trendin to retrieve the Crown of Arumdina was sworn before Copper Crossing’s highest-ranking priest of Garl Glittergold.
Airk worked as diligently as his friends at supporting the Bradon family and the rest of Kalrek’s victims, but he became increasingly withdrawn as the days crept by. All he gave to anyone who tried to speak to him were one-word answers, and he ate and slept in silence away from everyone else.
Finally, Revafour couldn’t bear it any longer. On one day when the companions were taking a brief respite at the Owlbear Arms, Revafour walked into the side room where Airk was eating his midday meal and sat down next to him.
“It’s been a busy time, hasn’t it?” Revafour said.
“Yes,” Airk said without looking up.
“Is that all you can say?”
“What else is there to say?”
“This is more reaction that you’ve given anyone for the last few days. Why is that?”
“Maybe I don’t need to say anything else,” Airk said, finally looking up at Revafour. “Did you ever stop to consider that?”
“Did you ever stop to think that maybe you shouldn’t be tormenting yourself?” Revafour said. “Or do you plan to spend another six decades wallowing in shame every time something new troubles you?”
Airk’s eyes flared for a moment before he cast them down again.
“…I don’t know. I still have a lot to think over.”
“You’re going to search for the Crown, of course,” Revafour said.
“Of course I am,” Airk said.
“And we’ll be accompanying you.”
“No you won’t,” Airk said. “You’ve come more than far enough for me already.”
“You should know better than that by now,” Revafour said. “Surely you can’t think we wouldn’t follow you to the ends of the Oerth if that’s what it took. We know you’d do it for any of us!”
Airk didn’t say anything.
“Maybe this might help,” Revafour said. Reaching into his pocket, he pressed something into Airk’s hand. Airk was surprised to see a small carved and painted wooden engraving, one that depicted a wounded and despairing wolf that had lost most of his pack. The wolf seemed doomed to wander alone until he found a new pack, one that gave him a new home. The seven wolves in the engraving were of different heights, colors and builds, but there was a sense of belonging among them that belied their differences.
Airk looked back towards the ceiling, thinking about what Revafour had just given him.
He offered a half-smile in return.
The next morning, Airk walked down the main street of Copper Crossing towards the tunnel leading back to the surface part of the city. Halfway to the tunnel, he paused, still uncertain about his decision to leave early. He had spent a good hour last night thinking about the engraving Revafour had given him, and wondering what he should do.
In the end, though, he realized it would be right for him to leave on his own. The search for the Crown could take years of his friends’ lives, years that they had all too few of. They deserved to make more of that time. He’d left a letter for his friends back at the Arms that made those points. As much as he knew it would have been right to leave Revafour’s engraving back with them too, he couldn’t bring himself to.
It was a small but comforting reminder of the brief time he’d deserved such companionship.
“Did you really think you’d get away from us that easily?” Airk heard Weimar say behind him. Turning around in surprise, Airk saw all of his companions dressed and equipped for the road. Before he could say anything, they came up to join him.
“You don’t need to do this,” Airk said, shaking his head. “You can do anything else you’d like to.”
“Why would we?” Revafour asked. “Where else would we have gone?”
“Wasn’t that my line?” Amyalla said, raising an eyebrow. The companions briefly remembered the night in the woods off the road to Greyhawk where they’d first agreed to come together.
“What would the purpose be?” Weimar said. “Everybody has to be somewhere, and being beside you is as good a place as any to be. Otherwise, we’d probably just be alone again.”
Airk opened his mouth to say something, but then he only smiled. Reaching into his pocket, he took out the small engraving Revafour gave him and held it out in front of him.
One by one, his friends placed their hands on top of it, each one on top of the last until all seven of them were as one.
I won’t rest until I’ve fulfilled my responsibilities to Laessar, his family, the brothers we lost in the Hateful Wars, and Flinthold, Airk thought. I have much to answer for, and there will be a reckoning for my sins, but no matter how many roads I have to walk before I do, I know that I won’t walk them alone.
“To the end, then?” Airk asked his friends.
“To the end,” Revafour spoke for all of them.
The Crown of Arumdina was waiting.
Dedicated to everyone at Canonfire for keeping the flame alive, especially Cebrion for uploading these stories, and Mystic-Scholar, for his invaluable feedback.
Illustration by Artofty