Seeing the Forest and The Trees
Sunsebb was the last month of the Flanaess’s calendar. Temperatures became bitterly cold in the central and northern parts of the continent, and most travel ground to a halt because of the ice and snow. The lands further south, among the alliance of countries that called themselves the Iron League, had no snow or freezing temperatures, but they could still become uncomfortably cold in Sunsebb and Fireseek, the first month of a new year.
Revafour Greystar felt none of that cold he watched the Sunsebb sun rise over the calm, still waters of the lake. His heart was warmed by the sight of the sunrise, by the quiet majesty of the oak, cedar and kara trees, and the distant sounds of the birds and fish. It offered him one of the moments of solitary peace he so cherished, where it was just him and the land.
Revafour was a Flan, the original race of humans to call the Flanaess home. He had long wavy black hair, now growing past his shoulders, dark brown eyes and deep copper-bronze skin. He was tall and powerfully muscled, his thick limbs speaking to his immense physical strength. His demeanor was as stoic as many other Flan, but those who knew him recognized his passion for both the fighting and the visual arts, and his devotion to aiding those he loved. He wore the moccasins so common to independent Flan, and while his red and brown cloak was in an Oeridian plaid pattern, he’d sewn Flan beadwork into the patterns.
He stood at the edge of the lake for another hour, before he knew he should be returning to his hosts. Those hosts were the Raballah, an independent Flan nation that called the Menowood home in the winter months. They were friendly and welcoming hosts, providing a safe place to rest at a time when Revafour and his friends sorely needed one.
Revafour and those friends formed the adventuring band that called itself the Company of the Silver Wolf. Although none of Revafour’s friends were themselves Flan, they’d become almost like a second family to him. For the last six months, they’d been doing nothing but traveling and fighting, however, and they agreed they all could do with a rest. Some of the companions had previously met with the Raballah. When they suggested taking time to visit the Flan Revafour enthusiastically supported the idea.
The sight of the Raballah’s settlement made Revafour smile as he approached it. The Raballah often seasonally migrated through the Menowood and the Hollow Highlands. In the fall and winter, they returned to a particular section of the forest they’d bonded with. Many Flan planted trees or other plants outside their homes, and each Raballah family built their winter dwellings next to particular trees they bonded with. The community had a large supply of fish, kara fruits, meat and nuts stored, and it was easy to find fresh water. The companions earned the right to stay with the Raballah as guests by contributing to the food stockpile, as well as providing money the Raballah could use to buy other amenities from other humans or allied races.
Revafour smiled, pleased that he and his friends could contribute to the Raballah and that his friends could experience the Flan’s hospitality and culture.
“I’ve always had a bit of trouble getting used to how long gnomes can live,” one of the young Raballah men said, as his comrades nodded. “I don’t mean any offense, it’s just that those battles happened when my grandfather was a child, and yet you don’t look…”
“Don’t worry, it’s alright,” the gnome Airk Venbelwar said to the humans he was speaking with. Airk’s sharp, alert demeanor spoke to his background as a soldier, as did his tanned skin, waxed blonde handlebar moustache and his matching short, bushy beard. His brown eyes reflected the years of hard battle he’d spent fighting in conflicts such as the Hateful Wars and the Battle of Emridy Meadows, and the haunting experiences he still carried with him. His clothes were unpretentious but well-groomed, another influence of his military bearing.
The young Raballah men enjoyed trading stories of courageous and daring exploits. Airk endeared himself to them by sharing some of his war stories, and they returned the favor by telling him some of their own adventures against the monsters and humanoids of the woods and highlands.
“So tell us again, what exactly brought you here? You and most of your friends are far from home,” another young man said.
“As I said before, I lost many brother warriors in the Hateful Wars,” Airk said, his expression becoming clouded. “Some of those deaths came at the hands of a gnome named Kalrek Burunne, who betrayed our kingdom to dwarves who were supposedly our allies,” he continued, the bile rising to his throat at the mention of it. “This year, when I met my friends, we formed the Company of the Silver Wolf. We learned that Kalrek had become a warlord who robbed and murdered innocent people to finance his search for the Crown of Arumdina.”
“What would he want with a crown?” one of the young men asked, as several of the others exchanged puzzled glances.
“The Crown’s a sacred artifact to the gnomish gods, one that Kalrek could use to become the king of my homeland of Flinthold,” Airk said. “We defeated Kalrek and his minions, and then we learned that the Crown was in the Great Kingdom of Aerdy’s South Province. We traveled there to retrieve it and were caught in a plot to destroy the Iron League. We thwarted that plot and retrieved the Crown, but by then it was nearly the end of autumn. We need to sail to the Principality of Ulek to return to Flinthold, but we won’t find a ship traveling at this time of year. We’ll be staying until after Needfest and then we’ll take a ship to Ulek in Fireseek.”
“May we see it?” the first young man asked.
“What, the Crown?” Airk asked in surprise.
“It’s just a request,” the young man said. “We only want to look at it-we don’t have much use for mineral wealth.”
At first Airk wanted to refuse, but he realized the truth in what they were saying. Reaching into his pack, he pulled out an object and unwrapped the cloth covering it, revealing it to be the Crown of Arumdina.
The Crown was a masterpiece of gnomish craft. It had a beautifully tailored cap of pure sable fur, a golden circlet ringed with rubies and platinum arches each lined with two rows of diamonds. The spaces between the Crown’s half-arches were filled in turn with the images of a raccoon, a sable, a badger and a mole, each wrought in gold and bearing bright emeralds for eyes. The Crown’s monde was of platinum like the arches, topped by a piece of mithril crafted to resemble a battleaxe.
Despite his reservations, Airk smiled at the Raballah youths’ admiration of the Crown’s beauty.
“How does the Crown get its name?” one of the young men asked, looking from the Crown to Airk and then back again. “You said your kingdom is called Flinthold, didn’t you?”
“Arumdina is the name of the battleaxe wielded by Garl Glittergold, greatest of the gnomish gods,” Airk said, beaming proudly. “That mithril axe is said to be a piece of Arumdina, giving a powerful magical blessing to the gnomish king who wears it, and the kingdom he rules.”
“Why don’t you use it?” the young man asked.
For a moment, Airk sat there stunned at the audacity of the question.
“Only the rightful King of Flinthold has the right to use the Crown,” he finally said, still scarcely able to believe anyone didn’t realize that, “and I’m no king. The Crown’s power would likely only work for the rightful ruler, and no one else.”
Least of all yourself, Airk heard a voice say in his mind. Small wonder you didn’t tell them the whole story!
Airk swallowed hard at the memory. In the quest to stop Kalrek Burunne, Airk crossed paths with Laessar Bradon, the only other gnome who’d survived Kalrek’s treachery. Kalrek forced Laessar to help him, and Airk’s long-simmering rage exploded when he found out. He unintentionally killed Laessar while trying to force him to reveal where Kalrek was. To atone for his crime, he was commanded to find the Crown and return it to Flinthold. Once the companions did that, Airk’s debt would be fulfilled…
…legally, at least.
The voice that had just spoken in his mind was the same one that had been speaking to him for decades. It reproached him for letting his blindness to Kalrek’s true nature get his brothers in arms killed, for leaving Flinthold once the war was over, for killing Laessar and then for endangering his friends in taking them on the quest for the Crown. His friends reassured him that they’d chosen to come along, but the voice kept reminding him that he could have led them to their deaths.
And you likely still will, the voice said to Airk as he rewrapped the Crown and put it back in his pack.
“Are you alright?” one of the Raballah youths asked, a look of concern on his face.
Airk hesitated, not wanting to reveal his inner turmoil. Fortunately, one of the other young men spoke first.
“Speaking of brothers you lose in war is never easy. We know that as well as anyone,” the other young man said. “You don’t need to tell us anything else, my friend. You’ve honored us with your sharing already,” he said to Airk.
The Raballah youths knew that Airk’s smile was grateful, but they didn’t know how relieved it was too.
“I have to say, you’re holding up pretty well,” Seline Roas Del Cranden said, an amused smile playing about her lips. Her long strawberry-blonde hair complemented her pale skin, as did her green eyes. Her slender, lovely frame was complemented equally well by her midnight blue and indigo robes decorated with the white images of crescent moons, stars and planets, reflecting her wizardly background. Her eyes shone with inquisitive intelligence, reflecting her passion for learning and her eagerness to put that knowledge to use.
“I’ve learned to manage,” Weimar Glendowyr replied, raising an eyebrow as he returned her smile. His tanned skin, tousled blonde hair, hardened green eyes and the scars on his arms spoke of years of hard living and the pride he felt at that hard living. He walked through the Menowood with the practiced ease of someone at home in the natural world, proud of his wilderness skills but respectful of the lands he passed through. His clothes were drab and trailworn, reflecting their wearer’s low-born background and lifestyle.
“Even without your Big Cedar Log?” Seline asked, referring to Weimar’s favorite brand of stout. The Raballah strictly prohibited drinking in their community, and Weimar honored his hosts’ rule despite his unhappiness about it.
“I’ve found other avenues,” he said, before he returned the wave and smile of a lovely young Raballah woman walking by. While the Raballah prohibited drinking, they had fewer restrictions on carnal relations. Weimar and several of the Raballah women both took full advantage of that, to their mutual enjoyment.
“So was she last night?” Seline asked, rolling her eyes in amusement.
Two nights ago, actually, Ma’non’go of the Silver Winds said, speaking in the sign language he used to communicate with his friends. Ma’non’go was as tall as Revafour, with the same powerful muscles and impressive strength. With his own black hair, dark brown skin and eyes, he might have passed for a Flan, but a close look at his features and his multicolored clothing marked him as an Olman, one of the race of humans from the southern continent of Hepmonaland. At first glance he seemed stoic, but his face was often expressive and outgoing. His clothes were stylishly made, those of a fashion plate who took pride in what he wore and knew how good they made him look. He could not verbally speak, owing to some past trauma he refused to discuss, but the warmth and friendship he radiated to his loved ones spoke for him.
Seline and Weimar both laughed at that, as Ma’non’go smiled. Both men, however, could see that Seline’s smile was somewhat forced.
Are you alright? Ma’non’go signed, a look of concern crossing his face.
Seline’s mouth opened briefly, but then she closed it and pursed her lips, looking away briefly.
Weimar and Ma’non’go exchanged glances, unsure as to why Seline was upset. They were reluctant to ask her, as she often didn’t like talking about herself.
“Still upset over going against the Great Kingdom, aren’t you?” the three humans heard a voice saying behind them. Turning around, they saw their halfling companion Amyalla Reorsa walking towards them. With her long, fire-red hair and flashing green eyes, Amyalla radiated coquettish charm and knowing wit all at once. She walked with the practiced ease of someone who was adept at stealing hearts as she was at stealing treasures. Her attire was a strange but complementary mix of the practical and the stylish, a plain strapless traveling gown and leather jerkin combined with a set of stylish doeskin boots and a blue hat decorated with orchids and lilacs.
Seline’s shoulders slumped, and her friends all understood her at once. Seline and her sister Luna Roas Del Cranden were Aerdi nobles before the Great Kingdom’s power games forced them to flee and become adventurers. When the companions returned to South Province in the quest for the Crown of Arumdina, Seline felt as though she was betraying her Aerdi heritage by thwarting South Province’s invasion plans. She’d done her part in defeating the cabal behind the plot, and as she told Revafour she knew rationally she’d done the right thing. Her conscience, however, didn’t let her sleep easily over it.
“…Now’s not the time to speak of it,” Seline said, shaking her head. “We’ll have ample time to do that when we’re on our way back to Flinthold,” she said, turning and walking away before her friends could say anything.
Ma’non’go, Weimar and Amyalla all looked at each other, not entirely sure what to say. Finally, Ma’non’go broke the silence.
We shouldn’t force her to speak of it, Ma’non’go said, shaking his head. It’ll only upset her more. Recruited by Luna and Seline’s father to be his daughters’ guardian, Ma’non’go had been with the sisters in South Province and accompanied them when they were forced to flee. He’d seen how hard being forced to leave their home had hit Seline, and recognized the same sadness in her when the companions left South Province a second time.
“So what can we do?” Amyalla asked.
Let her keep sharing the stories, Ma’non’go said, reminding Weimar and Amyalla of the book of Heward’s plays the rest of the companions had gotten her as a gift. The book was one of her most cherished possessions, and she loved using it to trade stories with the Raballah. They’d all noticed how much those stories seemed to relax her, particularly after their battle against the South Province cabal.
“It’s funny how Luna never felt that same guilt,” Weimar said with a puzzled frown.
Luna never much liked the stage plays and galas of Aerdi high society, Ma’non’go said. She was always happy to let Seline be the outgoing socialite. She was always more interested in her studies, and she was always the one who enjoyed our previous visit to the Raballah the most.
“So she has fewer regrets about ruining South Province’s ambitions?” Weimar said.
I doubt she has any regrets at all, Ma’non’go said.
Luna Roas Del Cranden felt a double pleasure as she and Shawnakark Little Moon finished treating the aches and wounds of several of the Raballah. She basked in the sunlight that shone down on her, a gift of the god Pelor she and Shawnakark were devoted to, as well as her rekindled friendship with Shawnakark. One of Shawnakark’s responsibilities as a Raballah matriarch was to see to her people’s well-being, and Luna was pleased to help.
Luna’s long brown hair and crystal blue Suel eyes reflected her personality, which was more restrained than Seline’s. Her face and figure were no less beautiful, complementing her calm, warm demeanor. Her clothes were of blue and gold, reminiscent of the morning sun she so cherished, as was the smile she bore. Her expression was that of a woman truly at peace, happy to aid both her adventuring friends and the Raballah who’d shown her so much kindness before.
Shawnakark’s demeanor was similar to Luna’s, although she was considerably more expressive and outgoing. Despite her comparatively tender years, being only three years older than Luna’s twenty-two, she was widely revered among the Raballah as a mother figure, one who commanded respect as much for the way she said things as for what she was willing to say. She had the dark bronze skin of most Flan people, although the sparkle in her dark eyes was uniquely her own.
“Thank you for your help,” Shawnakark said to Luna as they stood up and left Shawnakark’s dwelling to get some water. “It’s really appreciated,” she continued, speaking in the traditional Flan language.
“We’re sisters in Pelor, aren’t we?” Luna said, also speaking in Flan as Shawnakark returned her smile. “I have to admit that I missed you all, and I wanted to see what you’ve been up to since Seline, Ma’non’go and I left you. I’m glad your people are doing well.”
“And I’m glad you’re doing well too,” Shawnakark said, “but it looks like Seline doesn’t feel the same way. She seems troubled-is she alright?”
“Seline misses our old lives in Aerdy,” Luna said, as Shawnakark frowned. “She doesn’t think she could permanently live the way the Raballah do.”
“But she didn’t have a problem coming back for a visit?” Shawnakark asked in surprise.
“Not when you were among the few people in the Iron League lands who showed us any kindness,” Luna said, shaking her head. When she, Seline and Ma’non’go had first started as adventurers, most people in Idee, Sunndi and the nearby hills and woods treated them with everything from suspicion and hostility. The treatment finally became too much to bear, despite the friendships they’d made with the Raballah. They’d sailed to the Principality of Ulek, where they’d met Weimar and then the rest of the companions.
“Your friends have been telling my kin about their exploits in the Iron Hills against that South Province cabal,” Shawnakark said. “Revafour mentioned that you met with Idee’s Count Fedorik, but what happened after that?”
“We spent a few days in Naerie City as Count Fedorik’s guests,” Luna said, as they reached the clearing where they refilled their waterskins. “Seline and I made some magical potions, while our friends kept themselves busy training. We won’t be able to get a ship to Ulek until after Needfest, so we thought we’d spend the time with you. We could all use a rest, especially after that battle in the Iron Hills.”
Luna was surprised at the melancholy that came over Shawnakark, who shook her head as if trying to calm herself.
“What’s wrong?” Luna asked in concern.
“Did you know that the Iron Hills used to be the northern edge of our homeland?” Shawnakark asked. “We fought alongside our fellow Flan in Ahlissa, the elves of the Rieuwood and the Menowood, and the peoples of the Headlands, against foes like the dwarves of the Glorioles, the corrupt lords of Caerdiralor, and the monsters of the Vast Swamp. That was before the Zelrad came.”
“You mean the first Suel who started a kingdom in what became Idee?” Luna said in surprise.
“The very same,” Shawnakark said, a bitter smile crossing her face. “They founded their kingdom in the lands we agreed to share with them in mutual protection, and then they broke their alliance with us. They drove us the Raballah out of most of what’s now Idee. The Menowood’s about all we have left, and the modern Ideeans don’t recognize the benefits of the alliance their ancestors swore with ours.”
“Benefits?” Luna asked, grasping Shawnakark’s hand reassuringly as they continued walking back towards the Raballah’s settlement.
“If we had our connection to our lands back, we’d be happy to restore our old alliance with the Ideeans. We could help them against the likes of the Great Kingdom or the minions of Wastri,” Shawnakark continued. “We lost so much when the Zelrad betrayed us, not just materially but mentally…and things have never been the same for us.”
As she listened to Shawnakark, Luna thought of Revafour, and the similar looks of melancholy she’d sometimes seen on his face as well.
When the new year’s festival of Needfest ended and the month of Fireseek began the new year of 577 CY, the companions left the Menowood and returned to Naerie to find passage on a ship. Count Fedorik’s influence got them passage on the Merman’s Envy, and now they were bound for Gryrax, one of the Principality of Ulek’s main ports. Although the Flanaess was still in the depths of winter, the Azure Sea was far enough south that it was safe to sail year-round.
Luna shook her head and shuddered briefly as she looked away from the window of the cabin room she and Seline shared. Most people would have been enchanted by the sight of the sun-flecked Azure Sea, visible through the window, but it just made Luna uncomfortable. She disliked traveling by ship, and indeed disliked water in general. She hated getting caught in the rain or otherwise getting wet unless she had to.
The rocking of the ship and the presence of nothing but water all around her weren’t the only things disturbing Luna. She wanted to see how Airk was getting on, particularly once they finally reached Flinthold. Like most gnomes, Airk didn’t like traveling by water any more than Luna did, and he spent most of his time sitting in his cabin. He seemed in better spirits after the companions’ visit to the Menowood, but Luna wasn’t convinced.
Airk looked up when Luna entered the cabin he shared with Weimar. He didn’t seem very pleased to see her, and she flinched at the haunted look in his eyes. She could tell he wasn’t sleeping well, and it wasn’t due to any seasickness. As she sat down, she wondered how she could get him to open up.
“I take it you don’t like staring at the sea any more than I do?” she said.
“No, I don’t,” Airk said, shaking his head. “I loved the Menowood’s beauty, though.”
“I’ve heard the same things said about the Lortmil Mountains,” Luna said, happy that Airk opened up a little. “I only saw them briefly with Seline, Weimar and Ma’non’go.”
To Luna’s delight, Airk smiled broadly as he started to discuss his homeland.
“They’re every bit as beautiful as you heard. The underground can be just as stunning-the colors of the stone formations, the light emanating from the minerals, the fungi and the fire beetles…You remember Copper Crossing? Well, that was just the beginning,” he said, referring to the gnomish city the companions visited in the search for Kalrek Burunne.
“So you’re looking forward to seeing your home again?” Luna asked.
Airk’s face fell, and he hesitated for several seconds before speaking.
“…I’m not entirely sure,” he said. “I’ve longed to see Flinthold’s peaks, trees and valleys again. It’s just…I don’t know how my kinfolk will receive me, especially after what I did to Laessar,” he finished, as his shoulders slumped.
“Why did you leave Flinthold after the Hateful Wars?” Luna asked, taking his hands in hers. “Didn’t the Steelheart dwarves invade?”
“I helped fight against that invasion,” Airk said, “and I didn’t leave until my family was provided for. I had to leave when the guilt became too much, though.”
“Guilt?” Luna asked in confusion.
“I didn’t see Kalrek’s treachery until it was too late, and Garl knows how many of my brothers in arms perished because of my stupidity. Their blood’s on my hands as much as it is Kalrek’s. I couldn’t rightly call Flinthold my home after that. I’m returning to bring the Crown home to fulfill the promise I made to Laessar’s family, but I’m not staying after that,” Airk said, putting his hand on his temple to deal with the piercing headache he suddenly felt.
“Kalrek’s treachery and the Steelheart attack weren’t your fault,” Luna said.
“Yes they were,” Airk said without hesitation.
Luna sat in silence for several long moments as she took Airk’s words in.
“…You’ve never forgiven yourself for any of this, have you?” she said.
“Because I don’t deserve to be forgiven,” Airk said with a scowl. “Forgiving myself would dishonor the memories of Laessar and my other brothers.”
Luna tried to think of something, anything, she could say to that. She knew that Airk was wrong, but she didn’t know what she could say to change his mind.
All she could think to do was resolve to pray to Pelor for guidance.
Lady in Red
The drow Hoslanne Morvanach, of the vault of Erelhei-Kinestan, was small even for her race, at barely five feet in height. Her hair was stark white, contrasting beautifully with her deep blue skin and black eyes, eyes that were quick to take notice of any new advantages. Her expression was always interested but restrained, careful not to give too much away, a trait that had served her well in the two centuries she’d been dealing in fine art objects. Her silvery dress and the emerald necklace she wore were testament to her success as an art dealer. Hoslanne dealt with a wide variety of clients from many different races, and she was used to unusual characters. However, there was something about her latest customer that she found very unsettling.
She called herself the Scarlet Woman, as she insisted Hoslanne address her, and Hoslanne believed she was human. However, her skin was bone-white, so much so that she appeared to be a living statue, carved of human bones. Her hair, eyes and lips were also the red of flowing blood, and indeed their colors almost seemed to flow. She was dressed in a gown of scarlet and purple, and her jewelry included a tiara, rings, a necklace and a belt, all of which were decorated with red gems such as rubies, garnets and carbuncles.
It all seemed wrong to Hoslanne somehow, as if it were not truly real. And yet, the Scarlet Woman was clearly flesh and blood, as tangible as Hoslanne herself. The Scarlet Woman’s manner was smiling and affable, although Hoslanne felt a chill running down her spine.
“These are exquisite,” the Scarlet Woman said with a smile-too wide a smile, Hoslanne noted-as she contemplated the bejeweled spider-silk tapestries that Hoslanne had brought to sell. “You’re too kind to bring me such beauty,” she finished.
“It’s well worth the journey, given the price you’re paying for them,” Hoslanne said. Both women glanced at the large chest, filled with a fortune in gold and gems, that Hoslanne would be taking back to Erelhei-Kinestan.
Hoslanne did her best to smile, but she still felt on edge around the Scarlet Woman. She prided herself on her ability to keep outwardly calm, but the Scarlet Woman saw her nervous tension immediately.
“What’s wrong, my friend?” the Scarlet Woman asked, her too-long lips turning up in a slight smile. “You seem upset about something.”
“I’m not upset,” Hoslanne lied, even as her blood ran cold. No one had ever been able to read her like that before, and she wondered what else the Scarlet Woman was capable of. Hoslanne realized that if she’d offended the Scarlet Woman, her life would likely be forfeit.
To Hoslanne’s surprise and immense relief, the Scarlet Woman didn’t seem at all offended. Indeed, she seemed more amused than anything.
“Yes, you are,” the Scarlet Woman said. “So please, spare us both the charade and tell me what you’re so concerned about.”
Hoslanne hesitated, reluctant to say anything, before the Scarlet Woman began tapping her foot. Impatience showed on her face, and Hoslanne realized that refusing to answer could be far worse for her than telling the truth.
“I just don’t understand how you can live like this,” Hoslanne said, her heart starting to race. “You have this vast hoard of wealth and live surrounded by luxury beneath the Lortmils. You have all these orcs, ogres and other monsters filling your every whim as if their lives depended on it. You came out of nowhere just a few years ago.”
The Scarlet Woman’s smile returned, replacing her impatience. Encouraged, Hoslanne continued.
“Where’d you come from? Why are you doing this? Are you seeking some kind of artifact, or a conquest? Are you a sorceress? How’d you acquire so much power when you’re still so young?”
The Scarlet Woman chuckled as Hoslanne finished. The drow felt almost relieved, particularly when she realized that the Scarlet Woman was offended by her hesitating to speak rather than by her asking her questions. She was almost eager for the Scarlet Woman’s reply, wondering who this woman, seeming so human, really was.
“I come from a far, far longer time than you know,” the Scarlet Woman said, her smile becoming wider than ever, “and I’m no wizard. I’m something far, far more. As for what I want, I want it all…”
“…and I will take it all,” she finished, brushing back her long hair.
The Scarlet Woman was no longer offended, but Hoslanne felt more unsettled than ever.
A Simple Question
“I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re done sailing for a very, very long time,” Luna said as she raised her glass of wine. Her companions all followed suit, being just as sick of sea travel as she was.
The companions were enjoying an evening meal in Gryrax at the Three Towers Tavern. It was the middle of Readying, and the Merman’s Envy had finally made port after over forty days at sea. Luna and Airk found the voyage nearly unbearable. The rest of the companions didn’t dislike water as much as Luna and Airk, but their experience wasn’t much better. All seven of the companions were relieved when they finally reached land, and they were determined never to travel by ship again unless they had to.
“It did have its charms, though,” Amyalla said, “like giving us enough time to provide appropriate gifts.” With that, she handed Ma’non’go the scarf she’d spent much of the voyage knitting. Ma’non’go’s thirty-third birthday happened while the companions were at sea, and they decided to wait until they were in port to celebrate it. They’d done a similar thing with Weimar’s birthday last year. Weimar, Luna and Ma’non’go had celebrated Seline’s birthday while they were sailing to Hardby, but they didn’t want to do it like that again.
One by one, the rest of the companions gave Ma’non’go their own gifts. Revafour and Airk collaborated on a crafted and painted artwork that depicted Ma’non’go standing in a warrior pose, while Weimar offered a cruder woodcut that depicted him battling a fire giant. Seline offered a selection of fine Hepmonaland fruits and chocolates she’d bought in Naerie, and Luna presented a hot, spicy tea blend, the kind of drink Ma’non’go particularly liked.
Ma’non’go beamed with joy at the gifts his friends presented him. It took him several moments to compose himself before he could speak.
These gifts are all very kind, Ma’non’go said, and I appreciate them. But they symbolize something more important to me-the friendship you’ve all shown.
The companions sat for some minutes, finishing their meal and enjoying the last bit of respite they’d have before they set out for Flinthold the next day.
Airk had promised to lay out their itinerary for the others, and he did so when the supper dishes were cleared. He spread the map of the County and Principality of Ulek and the eastern Lortmils he’d purchased earlier in the day across the table.
“We’ll travel north to the Principality’s town of Thrunch and enter the Lortmils from there,” he said, tracing the route with his finger. “Our first destination in the mountains themselves is the dwarfhold of Rubydepths.”
“Isn’t that area claimed by the County of Ulek?” Weimar said, his eyes narrowing doubtfully.
“The humans and elves like to claim large parts of the Lortmils, but their reaches often exceed their grasp,” Airk said, shaking his head. “Most of the dwarves and gnomes don’t pay them any mind.”
“Would spring runoff be a danger going through the mountains?” Revafour asked. He had a look of concern on his face, one that Weimar shared.
“We’ll actually be traveling underground for most of the way,” Airk said to reassure them. “From Rubydepths…” he hesitated, as his friends noted how unhappy he was when he mentioned the name, “we can take the Low Road. You might know it Weimar, but does anyone else?”
Weimar nodded at Airk’s statement, but the rest of the companions only stared back blankly.
“The Low Road is a network of roads that that travelers regularly use. It links many of the underground dwarven and gnomish kingdoms,” Airk said. “Once we’re on the Low Road, it’s a fairly straight route to Flinthold. It’s right here, about due west of Enstad, the Celenese capital,” he said, tapping the spot with his finger. “Any questions?”
Most of the companions seemed satisfied with Airk’s explanation, but Seline seemed both hesitant and uncertain.
“What is it?” Airk asked with a frown.
“Well…I…” Seline said, before swallowing hard.
“Is something wrong?” Airk said. “Whatever it is, you can say it. I won’t be offended,” he assured her.
It took Seline several seconds to speak.
“What are you going to do with the Crown once we reach Flinthold?” Seline asked. “Are you just going to give it to whoever’s in charge, and then leave? How do you know they’ll use it wisely?”
Airk paled at her question. His expression showed he hadn’t even considered it. Soon, he was the one who hesitated for several seconds before speaking.
“Flinthold’s ruled by a council of nine nobles that choose one of them to be a regent,” he finally said. “The regent might be crowned the next king, but the rest of the council would have to agree.”
“…Are you really sure it’s going to be that simple?” Seline asked.
The companions’ relaxed mood vanished, replaced by one of uncertain hesitation.
Try as he might, Airk couldn’t come up with an answer.
Order Of Precedence
The gnome aristocrat Arthur Cyruson pinched his long nose in frustration at the tumult around him. As a member of Flinthold’s ruling council, he was well known for his calm demeanor. His dark brown skin was accented by his slightly brighter chestnut brown hair and pale blue eyes, and he looked comparatively young for his age, with only a few strands of gray showing in his distinguished moustache and side-whiskers. His typical clothes of dark red and green were somewhat flashier than most Flintholders’, befitting his status as a noble, but they were tastefully restrained compared to many of his colleagues.
Arthur was renowned for being able to keep his calm, but even his patience was being tested by the other councillors. He glanced from one to the other, silently praying to Garl Glittergold to give him strength.
“So you’d have us just give in to them?” one of the other councillors said, crossing his arms as he scowled. “We’re supposed to act like badgers, but you have us acting more like moles!”
His Excellent Honor Wilhelm Pontroy, High Regent of the Realm of Flinthold, spoke with the same bluster that originally led the other councillors to choose him for his illustrious position. His clothes, alternately silver and gold shot through with purple, were those of a gnome who made no secret of his aspirations. His reddish hair and moustache meshed well with his steel gray eyes and the perpetual flush on his face.
“And you know the cunning moles possess, don’t you?” Moswen Tallyrach said, his quiet calm contrasting with Wilhelm’s fire. Moswen’s skin and hair were both somewhat paler than any of the other gnomes on Flinthold’s council, and even many Flintholders in general. His quiet, thoughtful demeanor often seemed drawn inward on its own contemplations, detached from his surroundings until he chose to speak. His clothes were more simple maroon and white, akin to what many of the more common Flintholders wore.
“Moles shape the soil for their own gain, so that prey can come to them,” Moswen said. “Most other races and animals ignore them, allowing the moles to gather what they want without anyone else being the wiser. Badgers only fight when they’re cornered, and often against the likes of humans they can’t truly stand against.”
Several of the other councillors murmured at this, as Arthur frowned.
“If we tunnel correctly, we can trap Garnetholme. If they intrude further, then more of our people will support the war. We’ll also have more time to prepare,” Moswen said.
That might have sounded wise, and Moswen’s supporters on the council certainly said so.
Arthur, however, wasn’t convinced. If anything, Moswen and Wilhelm’s argument sounded like the Hateful Wars all over again.
The Hateful Wars started when the humans, dwarves and gnomes of the Lortmils united to drive the humanoids out of the mountains. After some initial setbacks, the allies gained more and more of an advantage against the humanoids, with help from the elves of Celene. Unfortunately, as the allies came closer and closer to victory, they started plotting against one another to claim the richest humanoid territories.
Soon, with the humanoids all but defeated, the last few years of the Wars turned more into a conflict between humans, dwarves and gnomes. All three races fought both each other and their own kinfolk, and betrayals were rampant among all the races. While most of the humanoids were driven out of the mountains and into the Pomarj peninsula, the allies’ infighting ensured that some of them managed to stay or even return.
Flinthold fought a bloody conflict against the Steelheart dwarven clan in 508 CY. The gnomes would have lost without the help of Garnetholme, another gnomish kingdom. Even when Flinthold won, it didn’t seem like a victory. Flinthold was too weakened to stake a claim to most of the rich territories won from the humanoids. By the Wars’ end, it had very little to show for the conflict beyond a great loss of blood and treasure.
Now, Flinthold and Garnetholme were heatedly disputing mining rights in one of their border regions. Flinthold’s council was meeting to decide their response, and they were deadlocked between the views of Moswen and Wilhelm. Each gnome had three other councillors supporting him, with only Arthur unwilling to support either side.
Finally, Arthur slammed his fist down on the table, catching Moswen and Wilhelm in mid-sentence. They and their followers fell silent, turning to look at Arthur expectantly.
“Why haven’t we even considered negotiating with Garnetholme?” he asked. “Why are we resorting to war so soon?”
“Because they’re intruding on our lands!” one of Moswen’s followers pointed out. “Surely that’s obvious?”
“No, it isn’t!” Arthur pointed out. “You all know as well as I do that title to those lands isn’t at all clear. Garnetholme has as much claim to it as Flinthold does on paper. If we spoke to Garnetholme’s king about this, we could come to an accord. How much bloodshed would we avoid if-”
“If we show weakness?” Wilhelm said, interrupting Arthur. “Why don’t we just make Ruvell our new king while we’re at it?” he said with a sneer, referring to Garnetholme’s King Ruvell IV.
Wilhelm’s eyes blazed with fury at that, staring daggers at Arthur, but Arthur didn’t flinch.
“There’s no getting past it, Arthur,” Moswen said, as his supporters nodded. “That’s why we should let Garnetholme overreach. That’ll give us more justification for retaliation, and we’ll be better prepared…”
And perhaps your friends in Garnetholme’s mining industry will give you a fine kickback off any profits they make from this overreach before a war starts, won’t they? Arthur thought, but wisely didn’t say out loud.
“We haven’t even tried!” Arthur said, this time slamming both of his fists on the council table. “You talk of weakness, Excellency,” he said to Wilhelm, “but if it weren’t for our cousins in Garnetholme, we’d already be bowing to the Steelheart king! Surely we-“
“-All know that your noble father served Flinthold well, and bequeathed his position to you,” Wilhelm said, that same sneer still on his face. The rest of the council turned away from Arthur and resumed their argument.
Arthur pinched his nose in frustration again, wondering what was happening to his kingdom.
The Call of the Mountain
Revafour was in fine spirits again as he took a deep breath of the pure mountain air. It had been over a week and a half since the companions left Gryrax, and today was the first day of Coldeven. Traveling through the southeastern Lortmils, Revafour felt the same joy he’d felt in the Menowood. The beauty of the land, from the singing of the rivers and waterfalls to the blossoming flowers and trees, from the rugged majesty of the mountains to the dazzling starlit sky at night, filled him with wonder at how beautiful the Oerth truly was.
His joy was doubled by the fact that it was just him and his closest friends, without anyone else to distract them or cause them problems. A part of him wished it could always be like that, just them always seeking what was over the next horizon. He knew it wasn’t possible, of course, but he still liked to imagine it.
Just as enjoyable was hunting and foraging for food, gathering the Oerth’s gifts and sharing them with his companions. Earlier that day, he’d taken down a large bighorn sheep which made for a fine addition to the companions’ food. He’d said a traditional Tenha prayer to the Oerth Mother for it, thanking both her and the sheep for their kindness, before returning to the companions’ camp.
Weimar was out foraging, but the rest of the companions were in a good mood themselves when Revafour returned, carrying the sheep over his shoulders. He felt a surge of pride as he saw how his friends benefited from the Flan’s creations. Luna was preparing a tea made from spruce needles, using a traditional recipe he’d taught her. The Raballah had also given the companions a parting gift of bannock bread and pemmican, a type of long-lasting dried meat infused with kara fruits. The foods were ideal for long journeys, and Revafour smiled at how much his friends enjoyed them.
Revafour was also pleased to see how much better Airk’s mood was as well. Airk had a calm, peaceful expression, no doubt because he was back in the mountains he called home. Revafour would have been surprised if Airk wasn’t also looking forward to the end of their quest to return the Crown of Arumdina to Flinthold.
As Revafour set the sheep’s carcass down and began butchering it, Amyalla spoke up. She’d seemed somewhat ill at ease over the last couple of days, and she finally voiced her concerns.
“Are the mountains safe to travel through at this time of year?” she asked, glancing around as if expecting something to happen at any moment. “We’re not in any danger from landslides or avalanches, are we?”
“Not at all,” Airk said, sitting down next to her reassuringly. “These mountains are home to me-I was traveling them for decades before your births,” he said with a half smile. “The route Weimar and I planned out in Thrunch is really safe now that most of the passes are cleared. The main danger in the Lortmils isn’t the mountains themselves-it’s more the inhabitants. The Hateful Wars drove most of the humanoids into the Pomarj, but there are still more of them here than anyone wants to admit.”
“And any inhabitants that threaten us, we know how to deal with,” he finished, a smile broadening across his face as he drew his dagger from his belt.
Revafour and the others all smiled at that, and he resumed butchering the sheep’s carcass. Some forty minutes later, Weimar finally returned, a bulging sack in his hand. He’d mentioned that he was going to search for some yarpick seeds, which were highly nutritious and fine traveling food, and he’d clearly succeeded. Revafour would have been happy at that, but the grim look on Weimar’s face concerned him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, picking up his sword as he and the rest of the companions went to join Weimar.
“We’re not alone around here,” Weimar said as he set down the yarpick bag. “I saw tracks of a large collection of humanoids, and I think they’re on the hunt.”
“What kind?” asked Airk, his expression suddenly alert and deadly serious.
“Bugbears, goblins and hill giants,” Weimar said with a frown. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were out for a fight.”
“Then let’s give them one,” Airk said, twirling his dagger in his hand as his friends nodded.
Seline felt a thrill of excitement as she hid in a stand of trees on the hillside she’d chosen to spring her part of the companions’ ambush. She silently congratulated herself on the variety of spells she’d memorized. She’d had to be prepared for many different scenarios, and some of the spells she knew now were exactly what she needed.
Seline took a deep breath as the monster group passed before her. It was just as Weimar said, as the monster group was formed of three hill giants, half a dozen bugbears and nearly a dozen goblins.
The monsters were passing between two tree-covered hills, approaching a tree-lined gully, paying little attention to the hills on either side. The goblins took the lead, eager to keep the bugbears between them and the hill giants. Hill giants often disliked goblins, and bugbears were frequently mediators between the two races. Goblins often revered bugbears as leaders, while hill giants tolerated them well enough. Breaking up that relationship was key to the companions’ ambush.
Seline chanted softly as the hill giants passed by her, their heads nearly level with the trees surrounding her. Her spell generated a thick greenish cloud that suddenly filled the air around the hill giants, causing them to grunt in surprise and alarm. She cast the spell from memory instead of using the magical wand she carried. She’d gotten the wand recharged in Naerie, and she didn’t want to use its limited powers unless it was truly needed.
As the giants halted in confusion, blinded by Seline’s fog, Weimar suddenly sprang out from behind another nearby tree, shooting a flurry of arrows from his bow into the fog bank. Seline chanted again, casting a series of magical bolts where she’d seen the giants’ heads before casting her fog spell.
Seline heard the twanging of arrows from the hill on the monsters’ other side, and she knew that Revafour was shooting true with his own arrows. She had no doubt that Amyalla was contributing with her sling as well. Despite the fog of Seline’s spell, the hill giants made large targets and were easy for the companions to find with their missiles.
The giants’ grunts turned to shouts of pain and confusion. Unable to see their attackers, they lashed out violently at anything that got too close. One giant slammed his club into another’s shoulder, starting a violent fight between them as the companions’ missiles continued streaking in.
Seline smiled at that. Her fog didn’t completely engulf the giants, and she’d cast it high enough so that their lower bodies remained exposed to her friends’ missiles.
As the bugbears and goblins turned to see what was happening, their attention was suddenly divided by the sound of a gnomish war cry coming from the gully. Airk emerged from the gully’s trees, charging towards the goblins and swinging a viciously spiked morning star. He was clad in a full suit of plate armor with a dragon-headed helmet, complemented by a shield displaying the moons of Luna and Celene and a ring of stars. Ma’non’go came out of the trees at the same time as Airk, easily matching the gnome’s stride and wielding a long trident. Luna followed behind them, dressed in chain mail with a mace in one hand and a shield decorated with a sunburst emblem in the other.
The goblins, not inclined to help the hated hill giants but all too eager to kill a gnome, screamed a war cry of their own and charged at Airk and his friends. Airk eagerly met them, shattering the first goblin’s helmet and then his skull with a powerful blow from his morning star. He easily deflected the spear thrust of a goblin coming at him from the left with his shield, while he crushed the chest of a third goblin coming at him from the right. Whipping back to his left, he swung his morning star with enough force to knock the second goblin’s head off completely.
Ma’non’go was no less impressive, raking the throat of one goblin with his trident before skewering another. One goblin cut Ma’non’go’s leg with his sword, but Ma’non’go merely scowled as he grabbed the goblin by the throat. Cracking its neck with one flex of his fingers, Ma’non’go tossed its suddenly lifeless corpse at several of its fellows. They scattered in terror, and Ma’non’go quickly ran one of them through.
Luna easily slew the one goblin that charged at her, but she was more concerned with the bugbears who’d broken away from their fellows to support the goblins and were now running at her and her friends. Dropping her mace and pulling a small piece of iron out of her pocket, she chanted quickly, as the iron in her hand crumbled to dust. Her spell took effect as the bugbears closed in, freezing them on the spot. They became completely motionless, seeming like statues made of flesh and blood, able to do nothing but blink and breathe.
The few goblins still alive after the initial assault lost their nerve when they realized the bugbears weren’t helping them. The ones who tried were paralyzed by Luna’s spell, while the others had gone to help the hill giants instead.
Spitting curses at the companions and the treacherous bugbears, the surviving goblins ran for their lives. Luna, Ma’non’go and Airk let them go, racing to help their friends deal with the remaining bugbears and giants.
Revafour smiled as he shot another arrow into the fog cloud where the hill giants thrashed helplessly. He wore a suit of heavy field plate armor, which Luna had cast a silencing spell over so that he could hide in the hillside trees without his armor’s noise giving him away. Luna cast the spell so he could dismiss it whenever he wanted, and he did so when one of the giants gathered his wits and emerged from the fog cloud towards the bugbears running to help him. Revafour set down his bow and emerged from the woods to confront him, drawing the massive two-handed broadsword strapped to his back as he did.
Blood ran down the giant’s torso and legs from the arrows that protruded from his body, but if he felt any pain he didn’t show it. Howling angrily, the giant swung his club at Revafour, who ducked his head while slashing his sword in an upward arc. He cut a gash along both of the giant’s arms as its club passed overhead, and drove his sword deep into the giant’s gut as he leaped forward.
The giant’s breathing became ragged, but he refused to fall. He swung his club downward one-handed as he pulled himself free of Revafour’s blade, slamming the Flan warrior on the arm. Revafour briefly lost his grip on his sword, and the giant slammed him in the chest with his club. The giant was surprised as Revafour winced at the blow but didn’t back away, realizing that the human’s heavy armor took most of the blow. He tried to strike again, but Revafour was faster, cleaving into his chest and driving one of the arrows protruding from it through his heart.
The giant tried to scream, but blood poured from his mouth and he fell dead as Revafour ran to avoid his collapsing body. Looking towards the other hill giants, he saw that one of them had struck the other dead as they fought wildly in the fog cloud. The surviving giant emerged from the cloud, but the side of his head was caked with blood from where the other giant’s hammer had hit him before he died. Revafour expected Weimar to come charging down to attack it, but he heard Amyalla’s taunting voice. The halfling hid next to him when the companions sprung the ambush, and she’d stayed behind when Revafour closed to melee with the giant he’d cut down.
Now, as Seline dispelled her fog cloud, the hill giant turned in response to Amyalla calling out to him. He stared hatefully at the halfling, and moved to pick up a large stone to throw at her. Amyalla was faster, though, hurling a smaller rock right between the giant’s eyes with her sling. Revafour winced at the loud cracking sound Amyalla’s sling stone made, and watched as the giant fell dead. He nodded as he realized that the giant was already badly injured from the companions’ missiles and the blows he took from the other giant, and Amyalla’s sling was just the fatal blow.
Turning around, Revafour braced himself to face the charging bugbears running to help the hill giants. One of them hurled a hammer at Revafour, but he simply deflected it with his sword. Another bugbear hurled a spear past him towards Weimar, who was running to join Revafour. Weimar slid to the ground, letting the spear pass harmlessly overhead, as he shot an arrow into the bugbear’s heart.
The first bugbear came into close quarters with Revafour, chopping at his throat with an axe, but Revafour easily caught the axe under its head and pulled it out of the bugbear’s grip. As the bugbear reached for the dagger at his belt, Revafour tore his head off with a vicious left to right slash.
The last bugbear was advancing on Revafour, but he stopped short when he saw how easily Revafour slew his companion. He turned to run, but Ma’non’go caught up to him. Before the bugbear could bring his sword to bear, Ma’non’go drove his trident into the monster’s face, killing him instantly.
Luna came up behind Ma’non’go, healing his and Revafour’s injuries as Weimar came to join them. Amyalla and Seline followed soon after, and finally the entire group went to find Airk. The gnome warrior had finished off the bugbears Luna paralyzed and was wiping his bloody morning star on their fur as they came up to him.
“Any of them get away?” Airk asked as he slid his morning star into his belt.
“None of the giants,” Seline said, “and it looks like we got all the bugbears too. How about the goblins?”
“Just four of them,” Airk said, shaking his head. “We don’t need to worry about them, but we do need to worry about the weather,” he said, gesturing at the sky above them. The clouds had thickened considerably, and the companions could hear the faint sound of rumbling thunder.
“A bad storm,” Airk said, shaking his head. “You’ve still got that spell ready, Seline?”
“Of course I do,” Seline said, nodding. One of the new spells she’d learned from the scrolls the companions found when they defeated Kalrek Burunne allowed the caster to create a full-fledged cabin. Created by the noted wizard Leomund, the spell was ideal for providing travelers a comfortable place to rest in bad weather or rough terrain.
“Then we should search these bodies and get back to our campsite,” Weimar said, glancing at the darkening clouds. “We have about an hour, if that, before the rain starts.”
The magical cabin Seline conjured resembled a fine cottage of hardened bronzewood and stone, secure against the lightning and rain that poured outside. It contained beds and chairs for each of the companions, a large fireplace over which Revafour’s sheep was roasting, and a wide table where Luna had poured out her spruce needle tea. It also contained a desk, which Airk and Amyalla sat at while they considered the large collection of gems the companions had looted from the monsters they’d slain. Strangely
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Airk said, holding one of the earrings up close to inspect it.
“It could just be a coincidence,” Amyalla suggested, looking at another earring, but her expression showed her uncertainty.
When the companions searched the monsters’ bodies for treasure, all they found were the jeweled earrings each of the monsters wore. Strangely, the earrings’ gems were all some kind of red stones, such as garnets, carnelians, fire opals or even rubies. That was strange, since most humanoids and giants gained plunder from any number of sources. The resulting hoards often had a wide variety of different coins, gems and jewelry.
“I doubt it,” Airk said, shaking his head. “These gems were all cut in the exact same way. Earrings gathered from lots of different sources would all have different cuts.”
Amyalla didn’t doubt him. Gems played an important symbolic role in gnomish culture, and young gnomes’ education often included learning to assess a gem’s cut and value. Airk was no craftsman, but he remembered enough of his childhood lessons to appraise gems well.
“Maybe they robbed a merchant?” Revafour suggested as he walked over to the fireplace and started to retrieve the roasted sheep.
“I suppose,” Airk said with a shrug, “and we can likely get a fine price for them when we reach Rubydepths.”
“You can think about that later,” Revafour said with a smile as he laid the roast sheep on a plate at the center of the table. “Right now, I’d say we’ve all earned a fine meal.”
Airk enjoyed the supper and was grateful for the cabin’s comfortable bed, particularly when the rain poured outside.
Even so, the thought of the strange earrings stayed at the back of his mind.
Long Trails and Longer Memories
Airk took a long swig of ale, savoring its warmth as he finished his meal. He and his friends were staying at the Dragon’s Luck Inn And Alehouse, in the dwarf city of Ignean. They’d reached Rubydepths without any trouble, and from there it was an eight day journey along the Low Road to Flinthold. The companions made good time, and after four days they’d reached Ignean, halfway between Rubydepths and Flinthold.
Airk wasn’t sure what disturbed him more, having to stay in a dwarven city or hearing his friends compare it to the gnome city of Copper Crossing in the Kron Hills. Like Copper Crossing, Ignean was constructed partly above and party below ground. That was where the similarities ended as far as Airk was concerned, though. He considered Copper Crossing to be far better designed. Copper Crossing’s buildings were also much more pleasing to his eye than Ignean’s ugly buildings, which Airk thought resembled nothing so much as large stacks of cinderblocks.
Shaking his head in disgust at his friends’ comparison, Airk went back up to the bar to get a new mug of ale. He ran into Revafour getting some water, and they sat back down together at Airk’s table.
“Have you decided what we’ll do when we reach Flinthold?” Revafour asked him after they’d toasted and had a drink.
“I’m afraid not,” Airk said with a frown. “We might have to spend longer in Flinthold than I expected, at least until they figure out who’s best suited to be king. If you don’t want to-“
“Not another word,” Revafour said, waving away Airk’s suggestion before he could say it. “We’re seeing this through to the end, and we’re not leaving Flinthold without you unless you want to stay there. We’ve been through this, remember?”
“I know, and it means more than I can say,” Airk said, clasping Revafour’s hand. “It’s just…fear, guilt, I don’t know…”
“I don’t know either, but I do know it’s natural to be feeling the way you are…” Revafour said, before he trailed off. His eyes widened as he looked past Airk, and Airk turned to see what he was looking at.
A group of five Flan men walked into the Dragon’s Luck, dressed for traveling and carrying various weapons. Revafour raised his mug in greeting, and they returned the gesture. One of the men came over to Revafour and Airk’s table, asking if he and his friends could join them. Revafour eagerly agreed, as did Airk, and soon the five Flan were all seated with them, each with a meal of mutton and vegetable stew before him.
“What brings you to Ignean?” Revafour asked, once he and Airk had introduced themselves. “I take it you’re traders?” Independent Flan groups often visited other human and non-human communities for trade, offering things like foodstuffs and furs in exchange for goods like metal weapons and oil. They also often used the treasure they won from humanoids and other monsters for trade, though they had little use for it otherwise.
“If only it were that,” the leader of the Flan group, who introduced himself as Borrinn Tall Pine, said. “We came to Ignean for help dealing with a pack of fire giants raiding our homes. When we saw you, we hoped you might know who we could talk to. Unless you’re travelers yourselves?”
Revafour looked at Airk, who just nodded with a half-smile, knowing what Revafour was about to say.
“We are travelers,” Revafour said with a smile, “but we’re also the people you probably want to talk to.”
The rest of the companions readily agreed to help the Flan people, who belonged to the Kutunachke nation, battle the fire giants. The companions departed with the Kutunachke warriors the next morning and linked up with another group of Kutunachke before they started tracking the giants. Fortunately, the giants weren’t difficult to find, as they made no effort to conceal their trail. They also moved at a leisurely pace compared to the humans, gnome and halfling, so that the companions and the Kutunachke were able to get ahead of them and prepare an ambush.
Weimar felt a sense of eager anticipation as he walked alongside Revafour. He was dressed for combat, wearing a leather jerkin and hanging a bronzewood shield with a boar’s head in profile from his pack. His trusty battleaxe was strapped to his back, as was a quiver full of arrows, and several daggers hung from his belt. He carried a finely crafted longbow, as did Revafour. The rest of the companions were walking with them, seeming like an ordinary group of travelers who would be easy prey for a giant attack.
When the fire giants came into view of the companions, their expressions clearly showed they thought the companions would be easy pickings. There were six of them, their bright orange-red hair and gleaming steel armor contrasting oddly with their dark skin. They each had a sword hanging from their belt or strapped to their back, but the companions were more concerned about the boulders they carried in their hands.
Howling eagerly, the giants tossed their boulders at the companions, who cried out in alarm and scattered as the rocks crashed down around them. They managed to avoid being hit, but they seemed in disarray and unable to regroup to fight as the giants drew their swords and charged towards the companions.
That was when the Kutunachke struck. They’d called the Lortmils home for countless centuries, and were experts at moving stealthily through the mountains. They seemed to appear as if from nowhere on either side of the giants, releasing a flurry of arrows that caught them off guard. The giants cried out in anger and turned to attack the Kutunachke, but Airk and Ma’non’go charged forward to attack them while Revafour, Weimar and Amyalla added their own missiles to the flurry.
As they did, Seline moved into position. She wore an opal-decorated ring that allowed its wearer to become invisible at will, so that the distracted giants didn’t notice her. She pulled a piece of quartz out of her robe pocket as she quietly chanted a spell. The quartz in her hand crumbled to dust as her spell took effect, conjuring a large wall of ice over the scrambling giants. It landed on the giants with a sickening crunch, causing them to scream from the impact before it broke into smaller pieces that scattered on the ground around them.
One of the giants fell to one knee, dazed from where the ice wall had struck him in the head. He was seeing double as Ma’non’go approached him, and the Olman warrior easily dodged his half-hearted slash. He plunged his trident into the giant’s gut, and as the giant reached down to try and stop the bleeding, Ma’non’go found a gap in the armor guarding his neck and ripped his throat open. The giant collapsed, overwhelmed by his mortal injury.
Another giant fought Airk in a fierce melee, a look of frustration on his face as Airk skilfully dodged his every blow. Gnomish warriors received special training in battling giants, and Airk was no exception. He blocked or dodged every one of the giant’s attacks, and for every blow the giant missed with he landed a successful blow with his military pick. Soon, the giant’s arms and legs were crisscrossed with bloody scars. As the giant grew more and more desperate to kill Airk, he lowered his guard against other attacks. Finally, the giant took an arrow in the eye from one of the Kutunachke warriors and fell dead.
Several of the other Kutunachke warriors scrambled to avoid a third giant’s sword as the monster closed into melee with them. One of the warriors couldn’t dodge in time, and the giant’s sword caught him a vicious blow, covering the front of his torso in blood. As the warrior collapsed, the giant raised his sword to strike again, but he suddenly turned as Weimar chopped into his leg from behind. Weimar carried his axe and shield now, and he pressed in on the giant from the left as several of the Kutunachke warriors pressed him from the right.
As the giant stepped back to adjust his stance, Luna came up and knelt down next to the mortally wounded Kutunachke warrior. Placing her hand on his shoulder, she chanted a healing spell, causing the man’s wound to close. While his breathing was shallow and his face was pale, he wasn’t going to die.
Satisfied that the man would be alright, Luna stood up, clutching a mace in her hand. It was a mace she’d bought in Thrunch, not the one she normally wielded in combat. She concentrated on it as she cast another spell, causing the mace to fade into nothing. Another mace soon appeared in the air as Luna’s second spell took effect, glowing a bright gold in color.
With her free hand, Luna gestured at the giant Weimar and the other warriors were battling. At Luna’s command, the golden mace streaked at the giant and slammed him in the temple, making him fall to his hands and knees. He had almost nothing left after Seline’s ice wall and the damage the Kutunachke, Weimar and Luna inflicted on him, and Weimar struck the fatal blow when he chopped into the giant’s face.
One of the giants saw Seline appear when she conjured the ice wall, and he advanced on her, murder in his eyes. Ma’non’go ran to intercept him, but Seline was faster. The cat fur and glass rod she held in her hand burned up as she cast her next spell. Her hand glowed with electricity, and she hurled it forward in a powerful bolt that struck the giant dead on the spot. The bolt continued past the dying giant to strike another giant in the back.
That giant had engaged Revafour and torn a nasty gash along his hip and arm, but he was forced to let up his attack when Seline’s bolt struck him. Revafour didn’t waste his opportunity, severing one of the giant’s legs at the knee with a vicious slash of his sword, and then plunging his blade into the monster’s throat when he collapsed. Smiling despite his own vicious wound, he ran to help the Kutunachke warriors fight the last giant, which was soon as dead as its comrades.
To Luna’s relief, Revafour and Weimar were her only friends injured in the fight. None of the Kutunachke warriors were killed, although some of them were seriously hurt. She shared her healing magic with them as well as her fellow companions, and soon they had all recovered from the exertions of the fight.
The companions and the Kutunachke were fortunate not to have suffered any casualties. Their missiles and Seline’s ice wall seriously injured the giants before they closed to melee. Their size allowed many of the Kutunachke to keep shooting arrows at them, helping their kin and the companions kill the giants more quickly.
We got lucky, Ma’non’go signed to Airk as they searched through the pouches hanging from the belt of one of the giants. In all the times I fought them in Hepmonaland, fire giants tend to cause more casualties than we suffered here. Was it the same for you too?
“Aye,” Airk said as he tossed aside the pouch he was holding, which contained nothing but a large wedge of stinking, moldy cheese. “I lost a lot of comrades to these bastards…and that’s with our advantages against them. Poor Finn was literally cut in two.”
Finn? Ma’non’go asked.
“My brother, a fellow soldier,” Airk said, a faraway look in his eyes. For a moment, Ma’non’go feared Airk was about to fall into melancholy or rage. He was surprisingly calm, and Ma’non’go realized Airk was more recalling the memory of someone whose death he’d come to terms with, but who he loved very much.
Ma’non’go could sympathize. He suspected his brother M’acutli and his sister Xoral’qa were both dead, arrested when his false friends framed his family for treason. He’d only escaped because he was out on patrol when his family was taken. Unable to return home, he’d been left to wander the wilds of Hepmonaland until Lord Roas Del Cranden found him and took him back to the Great Kingdom of Aerdy.
Ma’non’go was about to say something else when Airk exclaimed in surprise. As Ma’non’go ran up to him, he saw Airk pulling the giant’s earring out of his ear.
Is that… Ma’non’go said, blinking in surprise.
“Oh, it’s a ruby, alright,” Airk said, rolling the large earring around in his hands. “And it’s cut just the same as the ones from those other monsters we fought before we reached Rubydepths.”
I wonder if- Ma’non’go said, before he and Airk turned to face several of the Kutunachke warriors coming towards them. The warriors had unpleasant scowls on their faces, which struck both companions as strange given their victory over the giants.
“That’s a fine stone if I ever saw one,” one of the Kutunachke said, gesturing at the ruby earring Airk held. “Maybe now the Flintholders are ready to pay for everything they took from us?”
“…Took from you?” Airk asked, as he exchanged incredulous looks with Ma’non’go. “What in the Nine Hells are you talking about?”
“I might have known,” another of the Kutunachke said, waving Airk away in disgust. “He’s as ignorant as the rest of them. Typical.”
“Typical?” Airk said, his face flaring with rage. “Come over here and say that!”
“Maybe I w-“ the Kutunachke man said, before another voice interrupted him.
“What’s going on here?” Borrinn asked, running up from one direction as Revafour came up from another.
“Damned if I know,” Airk said. “Apparently we Flintholders are all too ‘ignorant’ to know anything.”
“At least now you’re catching on,” the Kutunachke man who’d insulted him said. He opened his mouth to speak again before Borrinn cut him off.
“That’s enough, Danyen,” Borrinn said. “They helped us deal with the giants. Go gather up our share of the treasure. I’ll settle this.”
“You do that,” Danyen said, never taking his stare away from Airk as his comrades led him away.
“What’s this all about?” Revafour asked, unhappy at the sudden tension in the air.
“Did your friend ever tell you about Flinthold’s war against Adamanhall?” Borrinn asked.
“No,” Revafour said, as he and Ma’non’go looked at Airk. “What war was that?”
“It happened shortly after the king of Loamhedge stole the Crown of Arumdina,” Airk said. The gnomish kingdom of Loamhedge was Flinthold’s oldest rival in ancient times, and stole the Crown of Arumdina to try and undermine them. “We faced an invasion from the dwarves of Adamanhall, and we were fortunate to win. That was the start of Flinthold’s bad luck.”
“And worse luck for the Kutunachke,” Borrinn said, frowning as he folded his arms. “You really don’t know, do you?”
“Know what?” Airk said, confusion replacing his anger. Ma’non’go and Revafour exchanged glances, equally as confused.
“Know how the Kutunachke helped Flinthold against the Adamanians,” Borrinn said. “Both our peoples were weakened by the conflict. If anything, we suffered more, especially when Flinthold expanded its borders into our lands. They were our sacred home, and we’ve never forgotten the loss.”
“I never knew about that!” Airk said, dismay crossing his face as Revafour scowled.
“I suppose it’s not surprising that the Flintholders forgot the agreements our people made with them,” Borrinn said, “not when the Oeridian and Suel humans have been just as bad. But we remember.”
“Those kinds of agreements are a sacred trust to Flan,” Revafour said, as Airk turned to look at him. “The Duchy of Tenh wouldn’t exist without the wampums that symbolized its creation. Breaking them is a betrayal.”
Airk stood in silence for a long while.
“I…don’t know what to say,” he finally said.
“We thank you for helping us deal with the giants,” Borrinn said, “and you’re welcome to half the treasure as payment. We also wish you safe travel on the rest of your journey…and I also wish more Flintholders knew more of their own history.”
The words stayed with Airk as he and the rest of the companions returned to Ignean to resume their journey.
There were four major passes through the Lortmil Mountains. One of them was the Druid’s Defile connecting Celene and the County of Ulek. Two more were the Ulek Pass and the Celene Pass, which both connected Celene with the Duchy of Ulek. In their journey through the Lortmils, the companions went over or through those passes.
The Lortmils’ fourth pass was the Road of Tears, which connected the Duchy with the religious land of Veluna that bordered the Lortmils to the north. The Road of Tears was named partly to remember the loss of those brave souls who perished during the Hateful Wars. As Airk told his friends, some said the Road also gave its name to lament the ways so many humans, dwarves and gnomes betrayed each other in the conflict.
Flinthold’s capital city, which gave its name to the entire kingdom, was on the southern side of the Road. It was mostly built underground, and could be accessed from the surface through a set of massive double doors built into the side of a mountain next to the pass. It also had two smaller sets of doors that allowed access from the underground roads, and the companions approached one of those sets.
As he led his friends forward, Airk felt all the old emotions well up within him again. He felt his shame at failing to anticipate Kalrek’s treachery and killing Laessar, his concern about who would wear the Crown of Arumdina and become Flinthold’s first king in centuries, and his determination to see the Crown of Arumdina returned. He’d pledged an oath to Laessar’s son Trendin Bradon to return the Crown as penance for what he did to Laessar, which led the companions to travel to the Great Kingdom.
Those weren’t Airk’s only emotions, though. He felt an eagerness to return to the home he hadn’t seen in decades, and an uncertainty about how his fellow gnomes would receive him. He felt like one of the tightly wound springs gnomish engineers used in some of their technology, the tension in him straining for release.
The companions were last in a line of several caravans and traveling groups seeking access to Flinthold. The guards and customs officials at the gate were diligent as they interrogated each group of visitors. It was nearly two hours before the companions finally reached the gate, and most of them were testy and uncomfortable at the wait.
One of the guard captains, an officious-looking gnome with brown eyes and a thick blonde moustache, seemed almost amused at the companions’ impatience. His expression showed that he was used to that kind of annoyance from potential visitors to Flinthold, and he didn’t keep it from doing his job. He kept one hand on a large axe hanging from his belt as he walked up to the companions, eyeing them critically.
“So, what brings such an unusual group like yourselves to Flinthold?” the guard captain asked, his moustache twitching under his long, beaky nose. “Adventurers, I take it?” he said, raising an eyebrow as he scowled at them.
“Brothers, more like,” Airk said as he stepped forward. “Or have you forgotten your kin?” he said, holding out his hand.
The guard captain blinked in surprise for several seconds, before he looked more closely at Airk. Finally, his cold demeanor vanished as he recognized Airk, replaced with a calm expression. He took Airk’s outstretched hand, and they nodded to one another solemnly.
“Who are-“ Luna said, before Airk interrupted her.
“This is my brother Gilduros Venbelwar,” Airk said in introduction as Gilduros bowed.
His friends were surprised at the strong family resemblance between the two gnomes. They were also surprised at how somber the interaction between them was. Much like dwarves, gnomes could often be more open and warm with their kin than with other races. Airk’s friends couldn’t sense that between him and Gilduros. Everything between the two brothers just seemed…solemn.
“Tell me,” Gilduros said to Airk, “why are you here?”
Again, Airk’s friends looked at each other. They’d expected Gilduros to ask Airk if he was here to visit or to return home permanently.
“Because I’ve traveled and fought long and hard to bring our kingdom’s heritage home,” Airk said. Reaching into his pack, he pulled out the Crown of Arumdina and presented it to Gilduros and the rest of the gnomish guards and officials.
All of the gnomes stared at Airk in stunned silence. They looked at each other and then back at the Crown again, unable to believe what they saw. They’d all heard legends of the Crown as children, and many of them dismissed the stories as just that. Now, they saw the stories come to life, and almost didn’t believe what they saw.
Finally, Gilduros spoke.
“I…we…we must inform the Regency Council at once!” he said, seeming as though he’d just come out of a trance.
In a matter of hours, Flinthold’s ruling council had gathered and ordered the companions to bring the Crown before them. Word spread quickly among the gnomes of Flinthold about the Crown’s return, and soon many of them thronged the streets leading to the stately manor where Flinthold’s ruling council met. Several of the younger gnomes cheered at the return of the Crown, while others retold the legends about it. Most of the gnomes simply stared in awe at the Crown as Gilduros’s commanding officer carried it towards the manor, accompanied by the companions and several high-ranking officials.
The companions looked around in awe as they walked into the chambers where the ruling council met. A large, rounded table took point of pride in the chamber, with a large thronelike chair for the High Regent and four chairs to each side for the rest of the council. The table was carved with Flinthold’s coat of arms, which was also displayed on the wall behind the Regent’s throne. Banners flanked the coat of arms on the wall, while bas-reliefs of important moments in Flinthold’s history decorated the chamber’s other walls. The room and much of the furniture were decorated in a tasteful combination of green and gold colors, with edgings of silver.
Several rows of benches for spectators to sit on faced the council table. A few of these benches were sized for guests of taller races such as humans and elves, and Airk’s human friends made good use of them. The rest of the benches were occupied by several of Flinthold’s most prominent citizens. Airk sat down on one next to Gilduros, while Amyalla joined him on his other side. She held his arm to reassure him, as she’d seen how anxious he was.
Finally, High Regent Wilhelm called the meeting to order, and Gilduros’s commander formally presented the Crown of Arumdina to the Council. Once again, the gnomes sat in awed silence for several minutes. They stared at the Crown, scarcely able to believe that the legend was made real in front of them.
Finally, Wilhelm spoke, suddenly drawing the attention of everyone else in the room as he did.
“This is truly an auspicious day,” he said, rising from this throne. “To think that one of our own sons has brought our ancient birthright home. No doubt he took tremendous risks and faced horrible dangers on his quest. The tale will be well worth telling, but we have other pressing matters at hand. I would be honored to wear the Crown as Flinthold’s first king, and so I will accept the throne if my fellow councillors-“
“Are you quite mad?” Moswen interrupted Wilhelm as he stood up. “How can you call yourself a king with your pigheaded approach to dealing with Garnetholme? Not to mention our trade issues with-“
“Better to be pigheaded than spineless!” Wilhelm shot back, staring daggers at Moswen. “If we listened to you, we’d let Ruvell and everyone else walk all over us!”
“I agree with Moswen,” one of the other councillors said. “He’d probably better suited to wear the Crown-“
That led to further shouting among the councillors and arguments breaking out among several of the gnomish spectators.
Airk stared at the proceedings in disbelief. Everything he’d felt as the companions approached Flinthold’s gates was gone, replaced only with a sense of disgust. Finally, he stood up, approaching the council table as several of the councillors turned to look at him.
“How can you all be acting like this?” he said, scowling at the council. “Is this what we fought the Hateful Wars for?”
Several of the councillors and spectators ceased their arguments as they turned to look at Airk.
“A fine thing to say for someone who abandoned Flinthold,” Moswen said with a sneer.
Airk’s face turned red with anger, and the chamber guards quickly stepped between him and the council table. He seemed about to explode with rage, but Revafour realized the danger and quickly ran up. Grabbing Airk by the arm, he pulled his friend out of the council chambers as the rest of the companions followed. They gathered in a side hallway, as the voices of the councillors and spectators arguing back in the chamber filled their ears.
At first Airk still seemed consumed with anger, his face flushing red. That red anger quickly faded, and soon his face became pale as he felt a sense of despair.
“Airk, this isn’t your fault,” Luna started.
“I thought there’d be debate over who would become king, but nothing like this,” Airk said, seeming not to hear her. “Past councils didn’t act so stupidly.”
“And I take it they weren’t as stubborn,” Weimar said, glancing back towards the council chambers. “How would Kalrek have been able to convince them to make him king?”
“Easily,” Airk said, waving his hand. “He’d have impressed some of them, bribed or threatened others, and had any holdouts assassinated. If anyone accused him of treason, he’d just accuse them right back of slander and turn everyone against them. He always had a flair for charming people and promoting himself. How do you think he became so prominent in Flinthold before the Wars?”
“What do you want to do?” Amyalla asked in concern. “Are you going to stay?”
“I don’t know,” Airk said, “but I know I can’t leave, not until this is resolved. Until I do, my oath to Laessar and Trendin isn’t fulfilled. And the brothers I lost to Kalrek’s treachery…I…”
“…I see them in my dreams, every night. And they ask me how I could let Kalrek do what he did.”
There was a family gathering at the house of Osian Venbelwar that night. Osian was the oldest son and patriarch of the family, who’d achieved a prominent position in Flinthold society through his record of military service both during and after the Hateful Wars. He carried himself with the quiet but determined manner of a man who’d seen his share of horrors but did not allow them to overwhelm him. His hard eyes and stoic demeanor made many people think twice before crossing him, and he was rarely known to smile except to his lovely wife Diamande.
Gilduros attended with his wife Jhannisse and their three younglings, as did Airk’s eldest sister Ruby, accompanied both by the child she carried within her and the husband Lorian Landsonne who’d impregnated her. Airk had no spouse, and so he brought his friends as guests instead.
Not all of the Venbelwar siblings were there, of course. Tarnek had died during the Hateful Wars, his ribs crushed by an ogre’s hammer. He joined his other brothers Finn and Nordick, who’d perished before the Wars at the hands of fire giants and an auromvorax. Pearlinn was still alive, having moved to Verbobonc with her husband, as was Britanne, now living in the city of Livingstone in the far western Lortmils. Every one of the family who was in Flinthold was otherwise present, eating supper with most of Airk’s human friends. Amyalla, Seline and Jhannisse played with her and Gilduros’s children in the other room, keeping the little ones entertained with everything from elaborate stories to songs to sleight of hand tricks.
Diamande was an exceptional hostess, serving an elaborate meal and ensuring all her guests were comfortably seated, whatever their race. She carried herself with a warm and easy manner, and all of her in-laws saw the relief and gratitude in Osian’s eyes whenever he looked at her.
Despite her best efforts, the tension at the table was palpable. Flintholders were deeply divided on how to approach the current conflict with Garnetholme. They argued over the right course to take, and their arguments were louder than ever with the Crown of Arumdina’s return. Osian was a noted supporter of war with Garnetholme, and he wasn’t amused by Airk’s outburst in Flinthold’s council chambers.
“I honestly don’t know why you’d be questioning the Regent’s desire, Airk,” he said, the fierce look in his eyes and slender, beaklike nose making his glare look decidedly hawklike. “With the Crown’s blessings, he could lead us to the glory Flinthold’s been sorely lacking for too long.”
“Without the help of Garnetholme, we wouldn’t even have a Flinthold,” Airk said, returning Osian’s glare. “Or did you forget how they helped us survive our war with the Steelhearts?”
“That was then,” Osian said, waving his hand dismissively. “This is now.”
“So you’ve forgotten how the Garnetholders were our brothers during the Hateful Wars? Brothers to you, me, Gilduros and Tarnek?” Airk said with an appalled expression.
“Were they brothers like you were with Kalrek?” Osian said, an ugly sneer on his face.
Airk stood up from his chair, his eyes burning with rage. Fortunately, Ma’non’go was sitting next to him and grabbed his shoulder. He forced Airk to sit back down, although he had to make a visible effort to do so.
Airk was by far the angriest of his siblings at Osian’s comment, but Gilduros and Ruby both clearly showed their disgust at their older brother. They scowled at him, as did Lorian and even Diamande, and their scowls deepened when they saw Airk close his eyes and take a few deep breaths. Airk’s human friends were just as appalled. The only thing keeping them silent was their being Osian’s guests.
Osian wasn’t at all bothered by their anger. He simply maintained his sneer, and looked at everyone else at the table in turn, raising his eyebrow expectantly.
“That crossed a line, Osian,” Gilduros finally said. “You know as well as we do that Airk made Kalrek pay.”
Osian shook his head and sighed.
“…My apologies, Airk,” he said after a few moments. “I’d rather not send more of our young men to suffer the way we did during the Hateful Wars,” he continued, a look of bitter regret crossing his face, “but this is Flinthold’s best hope of prospering again. How can we back down and look weak? You know as well as I do that our race respects decisiveness.”
Osian and Airk both noticed Ruby glancing down at the child she carried within her. Her lighter platinum blonde hair, small nose and small build made her look frail, but her frame was as solid as the mountains the gnomes called home. She’d had to see to Tarnek’s burial when he perished in the Hateful Wars, as their mother was inconsolable. Her brothers could imagine what she was thinking, and what she might have to endure in the future.
“So our old alliance with Garnetholme doesn’t count for anything?” Airk said.
“It’s old history, and that’s all it is-history,” Osian said, shaking his head again. “You’ve done Flinthold a great service by returning the Crown and punishing Kalrek, but you need to realize the here and now is what matters.”
Revafour glanced at the rest of the human companions, seated in specially made chairs to ensure their comfort at a gnomish dinner table. They seemed uncertain what to make of Airk’s and Osian’s arguments, and were probably more worried about Airk’s own well-being. They likely didn’t feel it was their place to speak about the gnomes’ internal issues, either.
Revafour might have felt the same way, but he thought back to the Kutunachke men the companions encountered in Ignean.
He did well to keep a scowl off his face.
Marching as to War
The Scarlet Woman enjoyed a fine glass of Velunese fireamber wine when she considered a course of action. Not only did the drink’s crimson color appeal to her sensibilities, it was one of the finest and most expensive wines available in this part of the world. Needless to say, that made her enjoy it all the more.
She needed the wine to help her decide where she would invade. The monsters under her command were growing restless, eager for blood and treasure. She was growing restless too, as the lack of a formal title started to grate on her. She had a queen’s wealth and manners, and she decided that she deserved a queen’s formal title and dominion as well.
The only question was where to invade. The Lortmil Mountains were rich in precious stones and metals, and there were many kingdoms worthy of her rule. The Scarlet Woman had dispatched her human spies to several of those kingdoms, and they reported back to her.
“What news of Garnetholme?” the Scarlet Woman asked Dornelle, the spy she’d sent to that gnomish land.
“Strong and prosperous, my lady,” Dornelle replied, shaking her head. “They have one of the finest military machines in the eastern Lortmils.”
“They’d no doubt drain my forces of much of their strength before they fell,” the Scarlet Woman said, shaking her head. “That’s no good. Perhaps I should attack a dwarven land. Jahren, what do you know of Rockhome and Adamanhall?” she said, turning to another of her spies.
Humans and their appearance appealed to the Scarlet Woman. They were so numerous and common that they could walk into the communities of almost any other race and not attract much notice. The Scarlet Woman benefited from that as much as anyone, realizing that her appearance made her minions more at ease around her.
She did well not to smile at the irony of presenting herself as a lovely young maiden.
“Rockhome wouldn’t be worthy of my lady’s stature,” Jahren said. “Adamanhall likely would, but their defenses are nearly as fine as Garnetholme’s. My lady might win, but she would pay a great cost in lives and wealth before she did.”
The Scarlet Woman scowled before she took a long drink of her wine. That was no good. She wanted to conquer a place that would fall easily, but that would serve as a solid base for expanding her territory.
“And what do you say, Lynde?” she said, turning to another spy.
“Flinthold is vulnerable, my lady,” Lynde said, a confident smile crossing his face, “very vulnerable. They’re in a nasty dispute with Garnetholme over mining rights, and their ruling council is plagued with infighting. They’re also in an upheaval over some magical crown that was returned a few days ago.”
The Scarlet Woman was about to take another drink, when she suddenly stopped.
“A crown, you say?” she said, her eyes alight with interest.
“Just before I left Flinthold, my lady,” Lynde said. “I caught a look at it while it was being carried through the streets. A beautiful piece, and one suitable for my lady’s jewels. Even without it, Flinthold makes an ideal target for my lady’s assault.”
The Scarlet Woman took a long sip of her fireamber wine, before her lips parted in a thin smile. Flinthold was vulnerable and wracked with both internal and external conflicts.
In other words, Flinthold was the perfect target.
And then there was that crown. She’d heard legends of its supposed power, but even if the legends were just that, it was something beautiful.
More than anyone else, the Scarlet Woman deserved beautiful things.
“Let my minions prepare for war,” she said, her smile growing wider, seemingly too wide for her face.
“I will have my kingdom.”
The Divine Right of Kings
Coldeven 22 was Airk’s birthday, but he was not in a festive mood. It had been a week since the companions arrived in Flinthold, and the Regency Council was deadlocked both on which of the councillors should be king and how Flinthold should respond to Garnetholme. Factions supporting Wilhelm and Moswen openly and loudly argued in the streets, nearly coming to blows more than once before city watchmen broke them up. Similar unrest was occurring in Flinthold’s smaller towns, and a palpable sense of tension was rife throughout the kingdom.
At the suggestion of Arthur Cyruson, the one Regency Council member who refused to take sides in Wilhelm and Moswen’s feud, the Council finally agreed to cast a divination asking Garl Glittergold for guidance. Once again, many of Flinthold’s leading citizens gathered, only this time they went to Flinthold’s large temple to Garl Glittergold instead of the Council’s manor.
“I doubt this is the birthday gift you were expecting, was it?” Weimar asked Airk as he prepared to leave for the temple. Airk politely declined his friends’ offers of gifts and celebration, not wanting to focus on anything besides Flinthold’s succession.
Airk shook his head at Weimar, not sure whether to feel disgust or despair. He didn’t know what he could do about the disputes over Flinthold’s throne, and a part of him felt like the tensions were all his fault for bringing the Crown of Arumdina back.
Rationally, he knew it wasn’t his fault.
Despite that, the same voice that spoke to him when he was conversing with the Raballah youth came back to him. It told him that this was all his fault, and if any blood was spilled over the Crown it would be on his hands.
Those thoughts remained with Airk as he joined the crowd of gnomes filing into Garl Glittergold’s temple. The temple walls were richly decorated with murals and inlays of gold and mithril, representing the metals Garl and Arumdina were made of. Large gem-studded crystal orbs enchanted with permanent light spells hung from the ceiling, bathing the room in faintly multicolored hues. Finely crafted bronzewood and oak benches served as pews. A large podium stood at the far end of the main hall, flanked by an altar for offerings and personal prayers on one side and a golden holy water font on the other. In the center of the podium there was a raised lectern, where Flinthold’s chief cleric of Garl Glittergold would soon stand.
Everyone in the temple watched silently as the elderly gnome cleric placed the Crown of Arumdina on the altar and put a diamond in front of it. He placed and lit two incense candles, one on each side of the Crown, before he climbed to the lectern and began to cast a divination spell. He chanted for several long minutes, and the diamond in front of the Crown shattered, consumed by the spell’s power. His eyes glowed a bright gold, and everyone present knew that Garl Glittergold spoke through him.
“The Crown’s power will come to life…” the cleric said, speaking out loud the message Garl placed in his thoughts.
“When borne upon a worthy brow…”
“Of the champion who faces the crisis…”
“And who may choose to found a king’s line,” the cleric said, giving the final words of the divination. He closed his eyes again, and they returned to normal when he opened them.
The gnomes all murmured to themselves as Airk looked around. He held his breath, wondering how Wilhelm or Moswen would react.
Airk wasn’t surprised when Wilhelm and several of his supporters stood up.
“The spell’s clearly referring to me,” he said, beaming proudly. “My ceremony should be-“
“You’re tricked by your own illusions, Wilhelm!” Moswen shouted as he and his own supporters stood up. “I’m clearly the one Garl Glittergold is referring to!”
The temple suddenly burst into an uproar as gnomes argued and shouted at one another. Accusations and insults flew wildly, but the temple fell silent when Arthur Cyruson spoke up.
“A communing spell!” he shouted so that everyone could hear him. “Garl’s guidance will come through a communing!”
Airk frowned as he tried to remember what Luna once told him and the rest of their friends about divination spells. Divinations were often cryptic and difficult to interpret, but they were easier to cast than communing spells. Communing spells allowed the caster to ask their deity direct questions, but those questions could only provide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. They also couldn’t be cast as frequently, as they put a greater strain on the cleric than divinations.
The temple quieted and the gnomes sat down, several of them muttering under their breaths. The cleric climbed down from the lectern and anointed the Crown with holy water, a necessary part of the communing, before he started casting the spell itself. After several minutes, the cleric closed his eyes once more. They glowed gold again when he reopened them, signifying that Garl could speak through him.
Airk felt his heart race as the cleric asked his first question.
“Are either of the leaders who’ve put themselves forward as king worthy to wear the Crown?” the cleric asked.
The cleric opened his mouth again almost immediately. This time, he spoke with an entirely different voice, that of Garl Glittergold.
“No,” the cleric said, as Garl’s voice spoke through him.
The temple nearly burst into another uproar, but everyone fell silent when the cleric asked another question.
“Could either of our leaders grow into becoming worthy?” the cleric asked.
“Yes,” Garl said through the cleric.
“Are there any others worthy of growing into the role of king?” the cleric asked.
“Yes,” Garl Glittergold said through him.
The temple suddenly erupted again, but this time in quiet murmuring rather than angry shouting. No one else had put themselves forward as fit to wear the Crown, so the gnomes had no idea who Garl Glittergold might be referring to.
Again, Arthur’s voice rose above the murmuring.
“Is the crisis the divination mentioned one we’re currently facing?” he asked.
“No,” Garl said through the cleric.
Airk saw a puzzled expression cross Arthur’s face, and he felt the same confusion. What menace could Flinthold be facing besides the dispute with Garnetholme?
“Could the dispute with Garnetholme grow into that crisis?” Moswen asked, suddenly realizing the gnomes didn’t need the cleric to ask the questions for them.
“Yes,” Garl said through the cleric.
“Is there another danger coming, one outside our knowledge?” Arthur asked.
“Yes,” Garl said through the cleric.
“Could a gnome prove his worthiness to wear the Crown through this new danger?” Wilhelm asked, not wanting to cede an advantage to Moswen.
“Yes,” Garl said through the cleric.
Airk stood up to ask a question. He wanted to know if the unknown danger had to do with the mysterious jewelry the monsters he and his friends fought on the way to Flinthold carried, but Moswen beat him to it.
“Will Flinthold need to act decisively to address this crisis?” he asked.
“Yes,” Garl said through the cleric.
Airk scowled as Moswen for asking such an obvious question. He opened his mouth again, but this time Wilhelm beat him to it.
“Do we need unity to address this crisis?” he asked.
“Yes,” Garl said through the cleric. The cleric suddenly began to tremble, and he grasped tightly to the lectern. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again they were back to their normal color.
Airk shook his head at both of the would-be kings for wasting the communing spell on obvious matters. As if Flinthold wouldn’t need decisive action and unity to address the issue!
Pompous idiots, the both of them, Airk thought as he left the temple. Trying to make themselves look decisive instead of actually learning information they’d need!
Airk made straight for the Sign Of The Wolverine, the inn where he and his friends were staying.
He needed a damn drink.
“Moswen and Wilhelm both think that the crisis is the coming war with Garnetholme, and that they can gain the throne by looking strong and decisive,” Airk said as he finished his explanation. As the debates and questions in the temple were all done in the gnomish language, Airk’s friends didn’t go with him and he had to summarize it for them.
The companions were eating supper in the Sign Of The Wolverine’s common room, surrounded by Flinthold residents chattering in the gnomish tongue. As Airk explained to his friends, the Flintholders were animatedly discussing who should be king and if they should go to war with Garnetholme.
I don’t understand, though, Ma’non’go said with a frown. Why would Garl Glittergold encourage his creations to go to war against each other?
“Most Flintholders would claim that Garnetholme’s lost the gods’ favor, and that Urdlen’s granting any divine favors they receive,” Airk said. “War hawks like Wilhelm are convinced Garl’s on their side.”
“You’d think Garl could have been clearer in his spells,” Amyalla said. “Why didn’t he just come out and say who should be king, and what this crisis is?”
“Clerical spells don’t work that way,” Luna said, leaning forward and clasping her hands on the table. “The goodly gods want their creations to make their own way in the world, instead of relying on the gods to solve every problem and question for them.”
“With the way things are going, maybe Garl should intervene directly,” Airk said. “Wilhelm and Moswen are both so determined to become king I doubt they care about the cost. Blood might be spilled over this.”
“Even when there’s already the risk of war with Garnetholme?” Luna said.
“That’s what makes them both fools,” Airk said, before he took a long drink of ale. “I wonder whether the crisis Garl’s divination mentioned didn’t have more to do with those bejewelled monsters we fought on the way here. Every single one of the gems they wore had the exact same cut.”
“Can the priest cast another spell?” Weimar asked.
“Not for another week,” Luna said. “Those spells put a strain on the caster and can’t be used more often than that. It might not matter though.”
Airk looked at Luna hopefully, as a slight smile crossed her face.
“If Garl Glittergold can’t help us anymore, maybe Pelor can,” she said.
In the room she shared with Seline at the Sign Of The Wolverine, Luna sat down at the table she borrowed from the innkeeper. She lit a candle of incense, and picked up one of the garnets the companions took from the monsters they’d slain on their journey to Flinthold. With her other hand, she removed the pendant that hung around her neck. The pendant was of a stylized sun, worked in the image of a benevolent, fatherly man’s face. The pendant represented the image of the sun god Pelor, who Luna dedicated her life to as a priestess.
With the candle burning in front of her and her garnet and pendant in her hands, Luna started casting her divination. Although she was in an underground city where Pelor’s rays could not reach, no stone could block her connection with her god. She felt her mind opening to Pelor as she requested his aid, so that she could help Airk finally find peace. Her pendant grew warm in her hand as Pelor responded, placing words in her mind. In her other hand, the garnet crumbled to dust as the power of the divination consumed it.
Finally, as the spell finished, Luna blew out the incense candle and put her pendant back on. Picking up a piece of parchment and dipping a quill in some ink, she wrote the words of Pelor’s divination for Airk to take to the Regency Council.
“The bearers of the scarlet crystals…” Airk said, reading the words of Luna’s prophecy that he’d translated into the gnomish language.
“Bring the flames of war and destruction…” he continued.
“Threatening the underground peace…” he kept reading.
“…To burn for centuries to come,” he finally finished, before his eyes rose to meet those of the Regency Council.
At Airk’s request, Osian had asked the Regency Council to meet so he could tell them about Luna’s divination. Wilhelm, Moswen and their supporters agreed to Airk’s request because they all believed that the divination would bolster either of their claims to the Crown of Arumdina and Flinthold’s throne. The divination wasn’t what any of them had expected, and they now scowled in annoyance at Airk.
“Are we supposed to be impressed by this, Sir Airk?” Moswen asked. “Prattle that could mean just about anything, coming from a god that has no connection to the gnomes? For all we know, your human friend made it all up!”
“That ‘human’, as you call her,” Airk said, trying very hard to control his temper, “didn’t have to risk her life finding the Crown of Arumdina and bringing it home. Neither did my other friends. She didn’t have to cast that divination either, and it’s warning us of a larger threat-“
“Spare your words for someone who gives a damn,” Wilhelm said, cutting Airk off. “For all we know, the human woman made up everything she told you! Now begone-we have more important things to consider than the ravings of some delusional human!”
It was all Airk could do not to shout at the Regency Council, but Osian’s hand on his shoulder calmed him. Returning the councillors’ scowls, he let Osian lead him out of the council chamber as the councillors resumed arguing about the pending war with Garnetholme. They marched down one of the manor’s main staircases, where Gilduros awaited them.
“Luna made nothing up,” Airk said to his brothers as they left the council manor. “They didn’t even let me explain about the red crystals.”
“So enlighten us,” Osian said, his expression clearly showing his disbelief.
“Don’t you remember the stories I told of the battles we fought on our way here?” Airk said. “All those monsters only carried red gems as treasure. You haven’t heard of any monster bands like that?”
“I suppose you and your friends are looking for glory now?” Osian said. “Returning the Crown like some great hero wasn’t enough for you?”
Airk’s eyes narrowed, and he was about to respond when Gilduros got between him and Osian.
“We’ve heard a few rumors here and there about it,” Gilduros said, speaking before Osian could, “but no one thought more of it than that.”
“Perhaps they should have,” Airk said, his expression now reflecting concern rather than anger. Gilduros shared Airk’s concern, while Osian simply scoffed at the notion.
Osian opened his mouth to say something, but he was interrupted by a loud clanging of bells. All three of the Venbelwars, veterans of Flinthold’s military, recognized the bells’ clanging as a call to arms. Flinthold was clearly under attack, and it needed its sons to defend it.
Gilduros and Osian ran to join their companies, while Airk hurried to find his friends.
Ma’non’go scowled in anger as the hill giant’s sword cut a notch in the handle of his trident. The giant was a clumsy fighter, swinging his sword without any real finesse or technique, but he made up for it with sheer power. Ma’non’go had deflected the giant’s swing with his trident, and even avoided the worst of the blow, but his weapon didn’t escape unscathed.
The giant bellowed a war cry before swinging his sword horizontally at Ma’non’go, and the Olman warrior stepped forward, the opposite direction from what the giant expected. Ma’non’go held his trident out horizontally as the giant brought his sword in, and the giant soon punctured his hand on the trident. Screaming in pain, the giant lowered his defenses to pull his wounded hand back. Ma’non’go didn’t waste the opportunity as he sprang forward and plunged his trident deep into the giant’s gut. As the giant doubled over in pain, Ma’non’go followed up by tearing his eye out.
Pulling his trident free of the giant’s face and stepping aside as the lifeless body fell forward, Ma’non’go took a deep breath. He saw Luna and Revafour off to one side, but he’d lost sight of their other friends in the vicious fighting that now thronged the streets of Flinthold. The horde of monsters, made up of humanoids and giants from nearly a dozen different races, easily overwhelmed Flinthold’s outer defenses and broke into the city. Now, the city’s defenders were fighting for their lives while trying to evacuate as many of the civilians as possible.
Ma’non’go didn’t think he’d ever seen a military defense as badly organized as the one Flinthold tried to put forward. Flinthold’s soldiers were trained and equipped well enough, but their different units and battalions didn’t cooperate as a larger force. Ma’non’go had seen just how deeply divided the Flintholders were over whether Moswen or Wilhelm should become king, and that same dysfunction had clearly spilled into their armies. Now, after nearly two hours of solid fighting, Flinthold’s forces were faltering.
Ma’non’go could only hope that the Regency Council could somehow rally Flinthold’s defenders, or everything might be lost.
“Some fine leader you’ve turned out to be!” Moswen shouted at Wilhelm when they heard the latest report from one of Flinthold’s generals. “Had you allowed me to take the throne, I could lead-“
“You’re the one undermining my authority!” Wilhelm shouted back. “You’ve damaged our people’s resolve, so it’s no wonder their hearts aren’t in the fight!”
“So you’re saying this is my fault?” Moswen shouted, his eyes widening in anger.
“It’s both your fault for not acting like leaders when we’re in the middle of a gods-damned invasion!” Arthur shouted, making the rest of the Council stare at him in shock. “Our people need us, and you’re squabbling like children!”
Moswen, Wilhelm and their followers all fell silent for a few moments, before Wilhelm spoke up again.
“He’s right,” Wilhelm said, before he walked over to the glass-fronted cabinet where the Crown of Arumdina was stored.
“What are you doing?” Moswen asked in surprise.
“Putting an end to this,” Wilhelm said, as he unlocked the cabinet and reached for the Crown.
Ma’non’go was pulling his trident out of an ogre’s chest when he heard the trumpets blaring. The cries and shouts of Flinthold’s defenders became louder in response to the trumpets, and Ma’non’go ran in the direction of the trumpets’ sound. He suspected that either the leaders of Flinthold were joining the battle, or the leaders of the monster horde had finally appeared. In either case, he was determined to help the Flintholders.
Ma’non’go was surprised to see High Regent Wilhelm surrounded by some of his personal guards and swinging a war hammer as he tried to rally his people. Instead of a helmet, he wore the Crown of Arumdina, its many stones glittering as he shouted a war cry. A large gnoll came at Wilhelm, swinging a hammer of his own at the gnome regent, but Wilhelm easily blocked it with his shield. Wilhelm struck the gnoll in the knee with his hammer, and then crushed the monster’s skull when he stumbled.
Several of the Flinthold soldiers cheered at the sight of their leader, but Ma’no’go frowned. The Crown didn’t seem to be doing anything at all, even though Airk and all the other gnomes insisted it had some sort of tremendous power. What was it waiting for?
Ma’non’go didn’t have any more time to think about it, as he turned to face another ogre charging at him.
Despite Wilhelm’s bravado, he didn’t feel any surge of power from the Crown. Nor did any of his soldiers seem to fight any more bravely, whether they supported him or not. He was soon attacked by an orc, a chieftain by the looks of him, thickly muscled and carrying a large halberd. Wilhelm staggered under the orc’s blow, his shield arm going numb, and the orc didn’t flinch when Wilhelm struck him in the ribs.
A pair of Wilhelm’s guards ran to help him, attacking the orc chieftain from either side, as Wilhelm pulled back to regroup. He couldn’t understand why the Crown wasn’t reacting, and he felt a sudden tinge of fear.
“Garl Glittergold, Gaerdal Ironhand, grant me your blessings!” he shouted, hoping that he might somehow activate the Crown’s powers.
“I doubt your gods can help you here,” he heard a feminine voice say. The voice somehow managed to cut through all the noise of combat, so that every combatant in the vicinity heard it. They all ceased fighting, defender and monster alike, and turned to watch the woman emerge from a crowd of monsters. She didn’t resemble any human Wilhelm had ever seen, her skin being as white as a cloud, and her attire was completely unsuited for a battlefield, being a thin and revealing gown.
“Who in the Nine Hells are you?” Wilhelm demanded, raising his hammer threateningly.
“The queen of all these devoted worthies, and of your realm,” she said, gesturing at the monsters all around her. They all bowed in unison, and the woman smiled, her smile far longer and wider than that of any other human Wilhelm had ever met.
Wilhelm felt distinctly unnerved as he looked around at the monsters who bowed before the woman. Many of their races generally hated one another, and would have been as happy to kill each other as the Flintholders, but the woman somehow had them serving her loyally. She was dressed as a noblewoman, not a warrior or a mage, but she acted as if she wasn’t in any danger.
Wilhelm’s temper flared at that. This arrogant human just walked into his kingdom, and acted as though it was hers by right. She led a horde of monsters to kill his people, people who were fighting and dying for their homes and loved ones.
His uncertainty was replaced with anger as he raised his hammer, realizing that the time had clearly come. He was going to fulfill Garl Glittergold’s prophecy, as the Crown of Arumdina bestowed its power on him, Flinthold’s worthy champion. When he disposed of this woman, he would found a king’s line, a line that would reign for centuries to come.
“You would be queen, and I would be king,” Wilhelm said, banging his hammer on his shield. “Why should our peoples shed further blood when we might battle for the throne ourselves? The winner becomes the new ruler, and the loser becomes carrion. What’s your name, woman?”
“You may call me the Scarlet Woman,” the woman said with that too-wide smile.
“Name your champion then, o Scarlet Woman,” Wilhelm said, smirking confidently. “Who will he be?”
“She will be…me,” the Scarlet Woman said with a smile, as her minions cheered loudly.
Wilhelm stared at the Scarlet Woman in disbelief, shocked that she would challenge him herself. He wondered if she was some manner of wizard, given her snow-white skin and disturbing smile, but he realized it didn’t matter. Gnomes were resistant to spells, and he was confident he could strike her down before she could finish any spell she might cast. The Crown’s power would enhance his abilities, and she would be utterly helpless against him.
Smiling at her foolishness, Wilhelm accepted the challenge with a nod.
“So be it, woman,” Wilhelm said, stepping into a fighting stance. “Just know that your death was your own doing.”
The Scarlet Woman didn’t react, except to widen her smile again.
Wilhelm advanced confidently, expecting the Crown’s powers to finally activate.
He didn’t even take two steps before the Scarlet Woman raised her hand. A massive streak of fire seemed to erupt from it, consuming Wilhelm as he opened his mouth to say something.
Watching from the crowd, Ma’non’go gasped in horror as the stream of fire engulfed Wilhelm. He wasn’t sure what shocked him more, the speed with which the Scarlet Woman cast the fiery blast or how focused it was. The blast was narrow, stopping short of burning anyone else, but it was so hot it killed Wilhelm almost instantly. When the blast faded, it revealed Wilhelm’s charred bones, cracking from the heat, and his armor half-fused.
Only the Crown of Arumdina remained undamaged, and the Scarlet Woman picked it up. She turned it over in her hands for several moments, as if savoring its beauty. Then, she looked up, and smiled wickedly at her minions.
As if broken from a trance, the Scarlet Woman’s minions and the gnomish defenders resumed their battle. Many of the gnomes who saw Wilhelm’s gruesome death, and the lack of reaction from the Crown, lost their nerve. The battle around the Scarlet Woman soon turned into a massacre, as many of the gnomes fled for their lives.
Ma’non’go, Revafour and Luna were forced to flee with them, realizing that the odds were hopeless.
The Scarlet Woman called off the slaughter of the retreating gnomes who saw her destroy Wilhelm. The fleeing gnomes reacted as she expected, spreading word of the High Regent’s death and the Crown being captured by the invaders. The resolve of the gnomes, already sorely shaken by the bitter arguments wracking their community over the potential Garnetholme war and which member of the Regency Council would wear the Crown, finally broke at that news.
Struggling to find his friends in the chaos flooding Flinthold’s streets, Airk only managed to locate Weimar. They searched for anyone else they knew, and they soon came across Osian and his company in a vicious melee against a large group of monsters. The company had hit the invaders hard, as the number of enemy corpses around them showed, but the invaders had hit them harder. There were nearly as many corpses of gnomes as there were of the invaders, and the surviving invaders greatly outnumbered the surviving gnomes. Osian himself bled from half a dozen wounds, and his breathing was ragged, but he stubbornly refused to go down.
Screaming in anger, Airk charged into the melee, determined to help his brother. Weimar followed suit, and the two companions drew several of the monsters away from Osian’s company. For a moment, it seemed as though the tide would turn…
…but then the gnoll Osian was battling took advantage of his injuries and exhaustion and beheaded him with a two-handed swing of his axe.
Airk stared in horror for a moment at the gnoll, as time seemed to stop all around him. He then screamed again and charged at the gnoll, crushing the gnoll’s head to pulp with a single blow of his morning star. He went into a frenzy, attacking wildly even as Weimar ran to help him. Fighting his way through the monsters, Weimar finally caught up to Airk, who whirled around to face him.
Airk seemed as though he’d attack Weimar, but then he recognized his human friend. He snapped back to reason as he saw the look on Weimar’s face, a look that told him their fates were sealed if they didn’t escape.
All they could do was run, as Flinthold seemed to fall apart all around them.
The Gnomes Fell Down and Lost Their Crown
When the Scarlet Woman’s forces invaded Flinthold, the companions were at the Sign of the Wolverine waiting for Airk. They joined in the effort to defend Flinthold, but they were separated in the melee. When Flinthold’s defense broke, they were forced to flee with the gnomes when Flinthold’s defense broke.
Seline was despondent as she and Amyalla fled through one of Flinthold’s underground doors. They were surrounded by gnomish refugees, many of whom nursed injuries caused by the Scarlet Woman’s minions. All of the gnomes bore expressions of shock and despair, even as some of them desperately called out for missing friends or loved ones. Seline felt a hollow ache in her stomach as she looked at the gnomes, dismayed by how much they’d lost in a matter of hours. She exchanged glances with Amyalla, and saw that the halfling shared her feelings.
After an hour and a half of marching, a few of the gnomes tried to organize a plan and destination for the refugee group. Seline and Amyalla recognized Airk’s brother Gilduros as one of the organizers, along with two members of Flinthold’s Regency Council. When the organizers decided that they’d take the refugees to Silverspire, the second-largest city in the kingdom of Flinthold and the only other one with both surface and underground gates, none of the refugees argued. A few of the refugees who saw Amyalla and Seline trying to defend Flinthold vouched for them, after which the rest of the refugees consented to let the human and halfling accompany them.
As the refugees traveled along the underground tunnels leading to Silverspire, Gilduros came to join Amyalla and Seline. He was still dressed in his heavy plate armor, and some of the blood staining it was his own. He’d suffered several visible wounds, but if he felt any pain from his injuries he didn’t show it.
“You’re both well-traveled,” Gilduros said before Seline or Amyalla had a chance to speak. “Maybe you both can explain how those monsters overcame us so quickly.”
“Just what are you getting at?” Amyalla said with a scowl. “If you’re accusing us-“
“You saw how strong our doors were,” he said, ignoring her words, “and how well we locked them. We could have held those monsters off, but that red-headed woman leading them rang some sort of bell in front of them. The locks opened by themselves, and then the giants among her minions were able to force their way through. She did that at all the doors, in just a few minutes. How’s that even possible?”
Amyalla continued scowling at Gilduros, offended by what she thought he was implying, but Seline rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
“I’ve heard of magical items like those,” she said, “bells or chimes that can open locks when they’re rung. But what’s this about a red-headed woman?”
Gilduros briefly explained what he’d heard about the Scarlet Woman and how she’d killed High Regent Wilhelm.
“And how could she move around the way she did?” he asked, once he’d finished describing the Scarlet Woman and her actions.
“It was probably teleportation magic. That’s a bad sign,” Seline said. “Only exceptionally strong wizards can cast magic that powerful that many times. I don’t have the power for it.”
Seline and Amyalla exchanged worried glances, as Gilduros just shook his head. Seline defeated the wizard Xeravho, who did the power to teleport, during the companions’ search for the Crown of Arumdina, but their magical duel wasn’t an experience she wanted to repeat.
Now Seline wasn’t sure what concerned her more, the mysterious red-headed woman’s power or the whereabouts of her friends.
After a further evening of marching, a sleepless and hungry night, and several more hours of marching the next day, the battered and exhausted refugees finally arrived at Silverspire. Many of the other gnomes who’d escaped Flinthold had sought shelter in Silverspire, and Seline and Amyalla were relieved to find that their friends had made it to Silverspire with those refugees.
Amyalla and Seline knew their companions were alive, but it was a cold comfort when they saw the Flintholders’ wretched condition. Most of the gnomes escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and many of them nursed painful injuries. Some families had been separated, others had lost children, siblings or parents. Many of them hadn’t eaten in the day and more since they’d been forced to flee their homes. They tried to find some place they could rest in the streets of Silverspire while the city’s leaders and the members of the Regency Council who’d escaped Flinthold tried to find them food and shelter.
Gilduros was silent as he led Amyalla and Seline to Silverspire’s city hall, where the Regency Council and the city’s leaders were meeting, but they could see how badly shaken he was by everything that had happened. One of the gnome refugees they’d encountered on the way to Silverspire’s city hall told Gilduros about Osian’s death, and for a moment Seline and Amyalla were afraid he’d collapse at the news. He forced himself to keep going, brushing off Seline’s and Amyalla’s concerns, although he appeared at least three shades paler than before.
When Gilduros, Seline and Amyalla arrived at the meeting, they were confronted with an unpleasant sight. Most of the gnome leaders were in several small groups, holding several animated discussions. Moswen and some of the other members of the Regency Council, as well as some of Silverspire’s leaders, were shouting at Airk. He stood shamefaced, seemingly unwilling to answer the other gnomes’ chastising.
“This is all on your head, you gods-cursed fool!” Moswen said, as several of the other gnome leaders nodded in agreement. “You brought that invasion down on us when you returned the Crown. Did you ever even stop to think of what could happen?”
Airk looked worse than ever as Seline, Amyalla and Gilduros approached him. He was as pale as Gilduros, and he seemed to have the weight of the Lortmils on his shoulders. Seline and Amyalla saw that the rest of their friends were standing behind Airk, all worn and exhausted in their own right. Gilduros joined Airk at his side, while Seline and Amyalla briefly embraced their friends.
Any relief Gilduros and the companions might have felt vanished when Moswen shouted again.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” he demanded, pointing accusingly at Airk. “You can’t even begin to-“
Airk opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn’t form so much as a word. That only seemed to make Moswen and the other gnomes even angrier…
…and that was the final straw for Weimar. Breaking away from the rest of his friends, he stomped up and placed himself between Airk and Moswen. His face was scarlet with rage, and his hand was on his axe handle as he scowled at Moswen. He cut Moswen off when the gnome was about to speak, pulling his axe halfway out of its belt loop as he did.
“Airk and Gilduros can’t say it, but I can,” he said, his eyes gleaming as he stared daggers at Moswen. “If anything, you and that arrogant buffoon you called a High Regent are to blame for all this. You were both so obsessed with being kings that you spent more time fighting each other than the real monsters!”
“Weimar, don’t-“ Airk finally said, but Weimar ignored him.
“You dare-“ Moswen started to say before Weimar cut him off.
“All Airk’s done is try to do right by his homeland,” Weimar said, not backing down an inch from the gnome leaders’ glares, “and you so-called kinfolk have treated him like dirt. It’s no wonder Flinthold’s in such sorry shape!”
Moswen choked on his anger, seemingly unable to do anything else. Several of the other gnome leaders and their guards didn’t have that problem, as they raised their weapons. Weimar pulled his axe from his belt, and the rest of the companions except for Airk readied their own weapons. The air filled with tension, as each side waited for the other to make the first move.
The first move didn’t come from the companions or most of the gnome leaders. It came from Arthur, the one member of the Regency Council who hadn’t taken sides in the feud between Moswen and Wilhelm, walking between the two groups. He brandished his large sword first in one direction and then the other, wielding it with both hands. His expression was calm, but the look in his eyes was as hard as the stone Flinthold was named for.
“You can avenge your pride later, Moswen,” he said. “Our first concern should be caring for our kin. We also need plan our retaking our capital. That’s what really matters right now.”
Grudgingly, Moswen and the other gnome leaders turned away from the companions and resumed their discussions. Gilduros and Arthur went to join them, as Airk went to rejoin his friends as they gathered off to the side.
“Thank Pelor, they’re finally focused on more important matters,” Luna said. “There are so many refugees…”
More than I would have expected being able to escape, Ma’non’go said. I wouldn’t be surprised if this Scarlet Woman, whoever she is, allowed many of them to leave. They spread knowledge of Flinthold’s fall and the capture of the Crown, and force the rest of the kingdom to spend its resources caring for them. When the Flintholders are already divided over the kingship…
Ma’non’go let the thought hang there, as his friends realized what he was thinking. The refugees carried stories of their capital city’s downfall to the rest of the kingdom, further weakening their kin’s already low resolve.
“That’s not the only problem,” Revafour said. “I don’t know if the Flintholders can defeat this Scarlet Woman’s forces on their own.”
Airk looked as though he wanted to deny it, but his expression showed he knew Revafour was right.
“The gnomes might not be able to win on their own…but maybe the Kutunachke could help,” Revafour continued, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“Are you sure?” Airk said, his face clearly expressing his doubt. “Some of them weren’t exactly friendly when we fought the fire giants with them.”
“The Kutunachke would adhere to the old treaties they had with Flinthold,” Revafour said. “It’s a sacred thing.”
“Treaties like those are incredibly important to the Flan,” Luna said. “Shawnakark Little Moon told me about how the Raballah would be willing to help the Ideeans if they honored the treaties the Zelrad originally signed.”
Airk thought it over for several moments. He wasn’t convinced the Kutunachke would be as willing to help as Revafour and Luna claimed, but he also knew that Flinthold didn’t have many options.
“Whatever else we do, we need to get the Crown back,” he said. “The Flintholders’ hearts won’t be in the fight without it.”
“Then let’s do that first,” Revafour suggested, “before we seek out the Kutunachke. Do you think the councillors will agree?”
“At this point, I’m just about done caring what the Regency Council thinks,” Airk said, the disgust he felt for the Council all too clear to his friends. “Gilduros and that Arthur Cyruson man are the only ones worth speaking to. Let me deal with it.”
While the companions were conferring, Arthur, Moswen and the rest of the surviving Flinthold councillors discussed what they should do next. They agreed to send as many of the women and children as they could to Flinthold’s other towns, and send messengers to rally the rest of the kingdom’s military. They also discussed contacting Garnetholme for aid, but they realized their rival kingdom would be unlikely to provide it. Flinthold had become diplomatically isolated over the last twenty years, and it had few allies it could hope to call on. They separated to start on their assigned tasks, most of them deeply discouraged.
Airk managed to speak to Gilduros and Arthur in private, where he told them about the companions’ plans.
“How do you even plan to get back into Flinthold?” Gilduros said, shaking his head skeptically. “Are you going to use one of the escape tunnels?” Gnomish cities often possessed hidden escape tunnels that were difficult for invaders to find. The city of Flinthold was no exception, and the gnomes evacuated many of their civilians through the tunnels before the Scarlet Woman’s forces overwhelmed the city’s defenders. The civilians would have soldier escorts who closed the tunnel’s doors behind them before following the civilians.
“The invaders will have found some of our tunnels,” Gilduros continued, tugging at his moustache.
“Not all of them, though,” Airk said. “You both know as well as I do we hide our tunnels too well for that.”
“And your Flan friend honestly thinks the Kutunachke will help us?” Gilduros asked, his expression becoming even more skeptical. “After all this time?”
“That’s what he says, and I trust him,” Airk said. “And at this point, what do we have to lose?”
“Only our lives, and those of our loved ones,” Gilduros said, crossing his arms.
“And we will lose them if we don’t retrieve the Crown and find some aid,” Arthur said. “So be it-I’m approving this as a member of the Regency Council. Garl’s luck go with you, Airk-you’ll likely need it.”
Arthur shook Airk’s hand at that, and Airk was surprised to see he was holding a small golden ring which Arthur had pressed into his hand.
He was even more surprised when Arthur explained to him what the ring could do.
“We’ll leave in the morning,” Airk said to his friends once he’d recounted his conversation with Gilduros and Arthur. “Arthur and the rest of the Council will take care of the refugees and muster the rest of Flinthold’s army. They won’t be able to win on their own, not without the Crown. Flinthold’s depending on us, and its fate is in our hands.”
“Is this going to become an annual thing now?” Amyalla asked, raising one eyebrow.
“What do you mean?” Airk asked, his anxiety turning to confusion.
“Last year the fate of Idee was in our hands,” Amyalla said, reminding the companions of how they’d been caught up in the Herzog of South Province’s plot to break the Iron League. “If it’s Flinthold this year, which place will we have to save next year? The Kingdom of Keoland?”
Airk laughed at that in spite of himself.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Two days of travel led the companions back to Flinthold’s capital city, but they didn’t approach the front gates. Instead, Airk led them to one of the city’s escape tunnels, which the gnomes could use to secretly enter or exit the city as needed. The tunnel was connected to the main underground passage by a secret door crafted to resemble the raw, unworked stone around it. Seline and Amyalla were utterly amazed at the skill the gnomes showed at building the secret door. Even though the rest of Airk’s friends had seen the door already, they were still impressed with the gnomes’ tunnelling skills.
In spite of his anxiety, Airk felt a surge of pride as he led his friends through the tunnel.
The tunnel exit in Flinthold emerged into a rocky hillside in an out of the way park, hidden from sight by a secret door like the one in the underground passage. The moment the companions left the tunnel, they heard bellowing laughter and shouts. The laughter and shouts became louder as the companions walked into Flinthold’s streets, soon they also heard the sounds of splitting wood and breaking glass.
The source of the sounds was clear as the companions took in the destruction the Scarlet Woman’s minions were causing to Flinthold. Hobgoblins chopped wooden furniture into kindling that they piled up in preparation for bonfires. Bugbears and goblins used broken pieces of stone in competitions to smash glassware and crockery. Orcs and ogres gorged themselves on crops and herd animals abandoned by gnome farmers. Hill giants and verbeeg got drunk on barrels of ale and mead looted from Flinthold’s breweries. Humans and gnolls arm-wrestled for plundered valuables. Norkers tore up gnomish books and tapestries.
The companions walked through a sea of debauchery and chaos. They were horrified at the devastation they saw, but they did well to keep calm. Most of the monsters ignored the companions, being more interested in looting and wrecking the gnomes’ possessions and buildings, but soon a mixed group of humans and hobgoblins approached them. They glared suspiciously at the companions, who stopped walking and faced them intently.
Tension filled the air before one of the humans spoke.
“Don’t recall seeing your faces around here,” the human said, one hand on his sword as he stroked his moustache. “How long have you all been part of my lady’s forces?”
“Long enough,” said Weimar, one hand on his axe as he stepped ahead of his friends and returned the human’s glare. He released his axe and held up the pendant around his neck. It was set with a large garnet, cut in the same style as all the other gems the Scarlet Woman’s forces wore.
Looking past Weimar, the moustached human could see that the rest of the companions were wearing similar jewelry. He didn’t know was that the jewelry the companions wore was some of the treasures they’d won in their previous battles against the Scarlet Woman’s minions.
“What about him, then?” the human asked, gesturing at Airk. “He’s one of the pointy-nosed stumps we took this place from for my lady. Is he some kind of spy?”
Airk imagined all the gruesome fates he could inflict on the man with his morning star or his military pick, though he remained outwardly calm.
“This isn’t any home of mine,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m just a wanderer now, surviving off my weapons and my skill at arms. Serving my lady is as fine a way as any to do it.”
Airk’s demeanor was calm and his tone plain as he spoke. The humans and hobgoblins exchanged glances and shrugged. The Scarlet Woman’s human minions were a motley collection of people from all walks of life. The humans minions facing the companions weren’t surprised to see a wizard like Seline or dark-skinned warriors like Revafour and Ma’non’go in their lady’s service, and the hobgoblins didn’t question their human fellows.
“Be off with you, then,” the moustached man said, gesturing dismissively at the companions. He led his group on its way, as the companions continued on theirs.
Airk’s friends didn’t dare ask him if he was alright, but they were disturbed by how calmly he said those words.
They wondered how many of his words were a lie.
“It’s strange,” Seline said after the companions passed through several more streets. “All these monsters are more interested in carousing than keeping watch. There’s hardly any discipline here. You’d think they’d be guarding against the Flintholders’ trying to retake their homes, but they’re not.”
That might be as much a bad thing as a good one, Ma’non’go said, shaking his head at the hopeful look on Seline’s face.
“What do you mean?” Seline asked in astonishment.
This Scarlet Woman, whoever she is, is supremely confident, Ma’non’go pointed out. She might overestimate her intelligence and the hold she has on her soldiers…but she might also live up to her view of herself.
The thought didn’t comfort any of the companions as they rounded the corner and came upon a group of humans seated around a fire made from broken gnomish furniture. They had the look of brigands about them, having likely joined the Scarlet Woman’s forces simply for thrill and plunder. The companions briefly exchanged glances, before Amyalla stepped forward a few paces.
“Greetings!” she said to the humans, smiling brightly at their approving looks. “Is there space among you for a few more of my lady’s servants?”
The human brigands exchanged glances, and several of them made no effort to hide the lewd smiles they gave at the sight of Amyalla, Luna and Seline.
“Certainly for you, pretty one…but you’d best rid yourself of some of the company you’re keeping,” one of the brigands said, gesturing at the rest of the companions.
“Oh, but I wanted to show them the splendor my lady won for herself as the new queen of this place,” Amyalla said with a pout. “I take it my lady is preparing for her coronation? I heard of the gnome that challenged her wearing a crown fit for one of her stature.”
“No, she’s put it in a private hoard along with some of the other baubles we collected for her,” another brigand said. “It’s for her and her alone to brood over. More’s the pity-I think she’d look gorgeous in it.”
“Where, precisely?” Amyalla asked, a look of disappointment on her face.
“In the old council palace,” one of the brigands said, gesturing to the manor where the Regency Council met. “But you won’t find my lady there-she’s gone to inspect the jeweler’s guildhall. The stumps have a gift for cutting gems, you know.”
“My thanks to you, then,” Amyalla said, tipping her hat and hoping that Airk would remain calm at the brigand’s insult to his race. “We’ll likely return soon enough…and I can thank you all appropriately.”
The brigand returned her smile, not realizing how long he’d be waiting for Amyalla to thank him.
“The Regency Council’s chambers can be guarded by a reinforced security door,” Airk told his friends once they’d gotten away from the brigands. “You need both keys and combination locks to get though it. This Scarlet Woman probably did it with that magical bell of hers.”
“And there’s probably a host of monsters guarding the place,” Revafour said, “too many for us to fight our way past. And how long would it take us to get past the door?”
“Not as long as you might think,” Airk said. “I’m a veteran of Flinthold’s military, and one who frequently guarded the Council manor. I know the numbers to the combination locks, and a secret way to get in. You’ll need to open the key lock, though,” he finished, turning to Amyalla.
“I honed my craft in the Free City of Greyhawk, remember?” Amyalla said with a confident smirk. “Picking locks is Greyhawk’s national pastime.”
“I’ll need some of you to distract as many of the guards as you can,” Airk said to the rest of his friends. “The rest of us can sneak in and find the Crown, and then we can get out of here.”
“And how long will that last before the Scarlet Woman gets wind of it and comes back? Do you seriously think we can fight her and all of her-“ Seline said.
“We won’t have to,” Airk said, “not when I can get us out of here with this.” Reaching into his pocket, Airk pulled out a plain gold ring, which he held out for his friends to examine.
…What good will that do? Ma’non’go asked.
“It’s enchanted with the ability to grant wishes,” Airk said. “Once I have the Crown, I’ll use it to get us all out of here. We don’t all need to be together for it.”
“Where did you get that?” Luna asked in amazement. “How long-“
“Arthur gave it to me,” Airk said. “He found it in his adventuring days and now it can only grant one more wish.”
“Then why did we have to risk our lives coming back here?” Weimar asked, scowling. “You could have just wished to have the Crown back in your hands!”
“We needed to see what kinds of defenses the Scarlet Woman’s forces have set up here,” Airk said. “We passed by one of the doors to the underground passages when we first arrived here. I noticed its locking mechanism was broken. Some of our soldiers clearly did that once they knew the battle was lost. It’s been a standard procedure for centuries.”
I see, Ma’non’go said with a rare smile. It’s impossible for invaders who seize the city to block the Flintholders’ attempts to retake it.
“Exactly,” Airk said. “The lock mechanisms are really complex. The Scarlet Woman’s forces haven’t had enough time to repair them, if they even know how.”
Nodding to one another, the companions set out for the Regency Council’s manor.
“Better at pleasurin’?” the verbeeg said, narrowing his eyes threateningly. “What’re ye gettin’ at, human?”
“Just what I said,” Revafour said with a shrug. “The humans guarding my lady’s treasures boasted they were given the task because they could pleasure her better than anyone else, including the verbeeg.”
“That’s bull scat if I ever heard it!” the verbeeg said, his face reddening in anger, as several of the other verbeeg nodded in agreement. “No puny human be matchin’ us, no sir at all!”
“Hold up a nonce,” one of the other verbeeg said. “Why in Hades would ye be betrayin’ yer own to us?”
“What makes you think they’re my own?” Revafour said, narrowing his eyes. “A bunch of Oerids? Their kind have treated mine like dirt for centuries. Bragging about all they’ve done, and now this!”
“Fine then, lads!” the first verbeeg said, turning to his friends. “We’ll show those humans that no one in my lady’s forces can fight or pleasure as well as we can! Have at ‘em!”
The verbeeg were all so insulted and spoiling for a fight that they completely forgot about Revafour. Raising their weapons, they ran towards the Regency Council’s manor, not noticing the fact that Revafour walked away in the opposite direction from where they ran.
“That’s the one there,” Weimar said, pointing at one particularly vicious-looking orc.
Seline nodded as she saw which orc Weimar indicated, and cast her charming spell. The orc didn’t flinch or otherwise react, but Seline knew instinctively that her spell had worked.
She nodded, and Weimar led her towards the large group of orcs. Several of them glared threateningly at the humans, raising their weapons, but the orc Seline charmed ordered them to stand down. Weimar’s years of experience battling the humanoids threatening Keoland allowed him to identify orc leaders at a glance, and his instincts served him well once again.
“Oh, but it’s awful!” Seline exclaimed, as Weimar patted her shoulder sympathetically. “The things they claimed they’d do!”
“Who’d do what?” the orc leader said, speaking in the Common tongue. “What are you getting at?” Seline’s charming spell made him inclined to like and trust her, and he was immediately concerned at her distress.
“Those orcs from the Bloody Claw clan,” Seline said. “They’re to plunder my lady’s private hoard! All of my lady’s treasures…”
The orc leader’s pig snout flared as his eyes widened in rage. His clan, the Burning Slime, didn’t have the infamy of larger orc clans like the Vile Rune, Death Moon or Dripping Blade, but they did have a seething hatred of their rival Bloody Claw clan. The orcs of the Bloody Claw and Burning Slime clans only cooperated because they believed that they shared a similar devotion to the Scarlet Woman.
Weimar knew all that from his time in the Keoish military, and he passed that knowledge to Seline before she cast her spell. It paid off as the orc leader screamed at his fellows to follow him, and they ran towards the Regency Council’s manor while brandishing their weapons.
Weimar and Seline made a point of going in the opposite direction.
Amyalla felt a sense of envy as she watched Airk open the combination lock on the door to the Regency Council manor’s secret entrance. Combination locks were the bane of many members of Greyhawk’s Thieves’ Guild. While she was better than most of her peers at opening them, Amyalla always found it a slow, frustrating challenge. Rationally, she knew Airk could open the locks because he already knew the combination, but it still rankled her.
Airk, Luna, Ma’non’go and Airk were silent as they stalked through the manor’s mostly trashed and abandoned halls. Luna had cast silencing spells to mask the sound of her and Airk’s heavy armor, although she placed the spells below the levels of their heads so that they could still hear everything around them. When they heard the angry screams and clashes of metal outside the manor, and many of the guards of the Scarlet Woman’s hoard ran out to see what was happening, they knew they had to act quickly.
Some of the guards remained on duty in front of the council chamber door that now housed the Scarlet Woman’s hoard. The companions caught them completely by surprise, and they were quickly slaughtered. In the two minutes it took the companions to kill the guards, Amyalla picked the key lock on the vault door. Airk opened the door’s combination lock, and then the companions all pulled it open.
The council chamber held a dazzling display of wealth. Everything from chalices of silver and gold to spider-silk tapestries threaded with gems to jade and ivory statuettes to high-class jewelry and gold and platinum bars filled the room, but Airk only had eyes for the Crown of Arumdina. Seizing the Crown, which was kept in a place of honor in the centre of the room, Airk stuffed it into his pack.
Finally, reaching into his pocket, Airk retrieved the ring Arthur gave him. Squeezing it in his hand, he wished that he and the rest of the Company of the Silver Wolf were outside Flinthold near its surface doors. He saw the ring crumble to dust, its final wish granted, before everything faded to gold around him.
Gradually, the gold faded away and Airk’s vision returned to normal. Glancing around, he saw that he was standing in the Lortmil Mountains, some two hundred feet from Flinthold’s surface door. To his relief, he saw that his friends were all with him alive and well.
Nodding to one another, the companions set out to find the Kutunachke.
“What’s going on here?” the Scarlet Woman shouted, the power of her voice cutting through the noise of the melee in front of the Regency Council’s manor. She was coming back to the manor with several choice pieces from Flinthold’s jewelers’ guild, eager to add to her personal hoard, when she’d heard the sounds of fighting. When she arrived in front of the manor, she found a large group of orcs, verbeeg and other races in a pitched brawl. She recognized some of the monsters fighting in the melee as some of her private hoard’s guards, and she immediately knew something was wrong.
The Scarlet Woman’s minions all stopped fighting and turned to her at once, looks of utter terror on many of their faces. The hoard guards were especially pale, realizing they’d abandoned their posts.
“I…we…” one of the guards finally said.
The Scarlet Woman ignored him and walked past the monsters into the manor. Her minions exchanged fearful glances, terrified at what she might be thinking.
The Scarlet Woman’s rage built as she walked up the manor’s stairs. No one came to confront her, and indeed the place seemed deserted. When she reached the vault to her private hoard, she was shocked to find the dead bodies of her hoard’s other guards and the vault door wide open.
She felt ready to explode when she walked into the vault and found that the gnomes’ magical crown, the one that fool regent had been wearing when she’d killed him, was gone.
Everyone in the street outside the manor heard the Scarlet Woman’s roaring scream, and they shivered as one.
When the Scarlet Woman emerged from the manor, her eyes seemed to blaze red with fury. She stared from one to the other of her minions, all of whom were too terrified to move.
“Explain yourselves,” she said, shifting her gaze to each of her hoard’s guards in turn.
“We…we heard the fighting happening out here, and…” one of the guards said, beads of sweat pouring down his forehead. “We were afraid they’d try to steal…”
“Then you would have done well to remain at your posts like your brethren did, and trust in the strength of the vault door,” the Scarlet Woman said, her expression eerily calm. “And for the rest of you…what was the cause of this melee?” she asked, her gaze shifting to the verbeeg and the orcs.
“One of…the humans…” one of the verbeeg said, too terrified to speak clearly.
“We…got word that the Bloody Claws were plannin’ to steal your treasures…” the orc chieftain, the one Seline had charmed, said after swallowing hard. “We came to stop ‘em…”
The Scarlet Woman stood silently for a few moments, letting her minions’ fear build.
A couple of them began to shake uncontrollably.
One wet himself.
Another started to weep.
Finally, the Scarlet Woman raised her hand.
A massive gout of flame seemed to erupt from her hand, consuming the guards, orcs and verbeeg who’d displeased her.
When the flame died away, there was only a mass of charred bones where nearly a score of living beings once stood. The sickly scent of burning flesh filled the air.
The rest of the Scarlet Woman’s minions stared at her in reverence and fear as she gazed at each of them in turn.
“I am very disappointed in all of you,” she said, her expression remaining as calm as ever. “I grant you free reign of this place, and you let the agents of the gnomes play you for fools. They were no doubt the ones who stole my crown to restore the gnomes’ will to fight. They will try to retake my city, and I will not allow that.”
“Remember that all your lives are mine to do with as I see fit,” the Scarlet Woman continued, her eyes still smoldering with anger. “My kingdom is at war, and you will shed your blood until I have taken all of it from the gnomes. I am going to meet with my generals to plan my defense, and when I do you will show the diligence and brutality I expect in my minions. Serve me well, and you will be rewarded with the riches and glory I grant you.”
Her minions remained silent for several long minutes, until one human got the courage to speak up.
“You can count on me, my lady,” the human said, his voice breaking the silence.
The Scarlet Woman turned her gaze on him, locking eyes intently.
“I am become Lady Babylon, and so long as my kingdom is contested I will be addressed as such,” she said. “Do I make myself clear?”
None of her minions dared to question their queen.
Out with the New, In with the Old
It took the companions two days to travel to the Kutunachke’s gathering place. They arrived on the second day of Growfest, and the Kutunachke had assembled for their annual ceremonies to celebrate the spring equinox, which would happen on the fourth day of the festival. Although the Kutunachke did not formally celebrate Growfest, the spring equinox was an important time for them. They gathered to celebrate the beauty of Oerth’s secondary moon, the aquamarine Celene, and thank it for its role in the flow of the waters that gave them so much.
The Kutunachke hadn’t forgotten the help the companions gave them against the fire giants some weeks ago. That help allowed the companions to meet with several of the Kutunachke’s leading matriarchs and chiefs, who listened attentively as the companions described the conflicts among Flinthold’s leaders and the Scarlet Woman’s invasion.
“That’s all interesting,” said one Kutunachke leader, who the companions recognized as Borrinn Tall Pine, “but why’ve you come? Why are you telling us this?”
“We came to ask for your people’s help in freeing our home,” Airk said, the nervousness on his face clear for everyone to see. “We can’t defeat the Scarlet Woman and her minions by ourselves.”
Several of the Kutunachke’s leaders, as well as some of their citizens who were listening to the proceedings, looked distinctly skeptical. The citizens muttered among themselves as the Kutunachke’s leaders conferred before turning back to the companions.
“You’ve come asking our help when your kin have never lived up to the treaties they signed with us?” one matriarch asked, her expression doubtful.
“If the Scarlet Woman conquers all of Flinthold, she might come after you next,” Airk said.
“If she does, we’ll look after ourselves,” the matriarch replied, unimpressed.
Airk fell silent, unable to think of what to say to that. Most of the rest of the companions were silent as well, not knowing what else to say either. Finally, looking at his friends, and then at the Kutunachke’s leaders, Revafour spoke up.
“Would you help the Flintholders if they made good on their original promises to share the land with you?” he asked.
Almost immediately, the Kutunachke’s mood changed. The eyes of several of the leaders lit up at Revafour’s words, while several of their citizens began speaking to each other much more excitedly.
“That’d be different,” Borrinn said. “One of the treaties’ old requirements was that our peoples help each other if we’re attacked by monsters like orcs or ogres.”
Several of the Kutunachke’s leaders nodded their agreement, but others were more skeptical. The matriarch who questioned Airk spoke up again, her expression showing she still harbored doubts.
“What proof do we have that Flinthold will keep its promises?” the matriarch asked, her gaze shifting between Airk and Revafour. “I, for one, want a guarantee that your gnomish kin are going to do that. Let’s see them swear an oath to their gnomish gods. And I want to see it for myself.”
“What, you want to come with us back to Silverspire with us?” Airk asked. “You’re representing your people to mine, then?”
The matriarch looked at her fellow leaders, and they all nodded their agreement.
“May I ask your name?” Revafour said.
“I’m Pellana Laughing Cloud,” the matriarch said as an introduction. “I’ve often spoken for us when we deal with other nations. I guess I’m doing so again.”
“I’m coming too, as Pellana’s escort. If we agree to help Flinthold, then our warrior societies should have someone speaking for them too,” Borrinn said.
Airk looked gratefully at Revafour, and then at the rest of his friends. He realized he never would have come as far as he had without them, not just for the physical help they’d given him, but also for the support they’d given him through his guilt and shame.
Turning back to the Kutunachke’s leaders, Airk nodded.
“We accept your terms,” he said.
Moswen and most of the other surviving members of Flinthold’s Regency Council had taken a large room in Silverspire’s town hall as an impromptu council chamber. From there, they worked to try and find food and shelter for the Flinthold refugees, while also rallying the rest of Flinthold’s military. The rest of Flinthold’s towns were sending as many soldiers as they could spare, but some of them remained as guards, knowing the Scarlet Woman’s forces could strike at any time. The army was gathering, but their morale was uncertain without the Crown of Arumdina.
Most of the councillors were not pleased to learn Arthur hadn’t consulted them about sending the companions to retrieve the Crown or to ask the Kutunachke for aid. The councillors were in a foul mood when the companions returned to Silverspire two days later accompanied by Borrinn and Pellana. The air filled with tension as the councillors gathered in front of the long table they used to conduct their business, while the Kutunachke ambassadors faced them in front of a bench sized for human guests. The rest of the councillors made Arthur stand several feet away from the other councillors, their glares making it clear what they thought of him.
Revafour and Airk stood between the humans and the gnomes, briefly introducing the two groups to each other. Revafour also held a small bowl in his hands, which contained two small bundles of fabric tied up like pouches. A faint smell of tobacco was detectable from the bundles, plants that Revafour had gathered during the companions’ journey to the Kutunachke’s lands. Amyalla put together the fabric pouches at Revafour’s request, before he’d filled them with the tobacco leaves.
“The Flintholders likely aren’t familiar with most Flan traditions,” Revafour said to the ambassadors, “so I hope you won’t mind my making this offer on their behalf.”
“…Offer?” Moswen asked, before Revafour turned back to speak to him.
“In many Flan nations, it’s customary to start meetings like these with a ceremony or offering of some sort to symbolize the relationship,” Revafour said to the councillors. “One common way is an offering of tobacco to anyone you ask to share wisdom or knowledge, or to otherwise ask for help. That’s why I’m offering these pouches, or ties as we call them, as part of Flinthold’s asking for the Kutunachke’s help. The tobacco can help us all speak with good attitudes and thoughts.”
He turned back to the ambassadors, who exchanged glances. They stood silently for several seconds, before they took the ties. Finally, the ambassadors sat down on the benches and the councillors took their seats at their table, their expressions dubious at the use of the tobacco offerings. Airk and Revafour moved off to the side to rejoin their friends, leaving the leaders to face each other.
The Kutunachke ambassadors were silent for some moments, waiting for the gnomes to speak first.
“You say your people can help us retake our capital, do you?” Moswen said, his face lined with the strain he was feeling. “We’d appreciate it, but we need to know the price of your aid. We would need some of the treasure we’d win from the invaders for rebuilding. Until we know what your aid will cost-“
“We’re not interested in money,” Pellana interrupted Moswen. “If our people help yours, we want to regain our lands.”
Several of the councillors murmured to each other at that, wondering what to make of the demand. Moswen’s expression showed exactly what he thought of it, as his face turned crimson with anger. He stood up from his chair, his fists clenched as he stared hatefully at the human ambassadors.
“So you can drive our people from their homes? When they’re suffering enough as it is? I’ll show you what you can do with your demand!” he said, slamming his fists on the table.
“Who said anything about depriving your kin of their homes?” Pellana said, shaking her head. “All we’ve ever wanted is just to share the lands. Our help wouldn’t just end with fighting this Scarlet Woman, whoever she is, either. We can help you feed your refugees-“
“And how much are you going to charge for that?” one of the gnomish councillors asked with a suspicious glare. “More than we can afford, no doubt!” Moswen smirked at his fellow councillor’s words, and several more of the councillors chimed in.
“They just said they don’t want any mo-“ Arthur said, before he was interrupted.
“Shut up, you fool!” Moswen said. “It’s your fault we’re wasting our time with this!” he finished, as several of the other councillors joined in shouting Arthur down.
Borrinn and Pellana watched the gnomes’ argument, appalled at what they were watching.
“I should have known this was a bad idea,” Borinn said, turning to Pellana. “They’re just as bigoted and selfish as their ancestors were!”
Borinn and Pellana rose to leave, but they stopped as Airk walked up between them and the council table. He held the Crown of Arumdina, which he hadn’t given back to the Regency Council.
“Haven’t you learned anything at all from the loss of our home?” Airk said, looking in disgust at every member of the Council in turn. “No wonder Kalrek thought he could convince you to make him your king! You care more for your own pride and power bases than doing right by Flinthold!”
Most of the councillors stood up from the table. One of them pulled a dagger from his belt, while another gestured to the guards standing nearby and watching the meeting.
A few of the guards drew their swords and advanced on Airk, but he didn’t seem to notice them.
“What good has the Crown of Arumdina done us?” he said, the gnomes approaching him freezing in place as his voice rose. “Where are all the fabulous powers the legends say it has? It didn’t do a gods-damned thing for Wilhelm when he put it on! Do you think it’ll do any different for you, Moswen?”
Several of the gnomish councillors and guards exchanged glances, murmuring to each other in some concern. Amyalla and all the humans watching the debate stood in anxious silence, not daring to interrupt.
“Of course I do,” Moswen said, not impressed by Airk’s questions. “Wilhelm didn’t have the makings of a king. Give me the Crown and-“
“…and that’ll prove why we lost the Crown in the first place,” Airk said.
Silence filled the council chamber at Airk’s words. A strange light shone in his eyes as he locked stares with Moswen, whose own eyes flared with hatred for Airk.
“Do you remember how Flinthold was defeated by Loamhedge?” Airk asked his fellow gnomes. “It happened just after we broke our old treaty with the Kutunachke. Maybe Garl Glittergold and the rest of our gods are angry with us for our betrayal. Everyone says the Crown has all this great power, but are we really worthy of it? The Crown isn’t showing its power because we don’t deserve it!”
Moswen looked angrier than ever at that statement, and several of the other gnomes shared his rage. He raised his hand to order the guards to seize Airk and the Crown, but then Airk spoke again.
“Do we deserve Garl Glittergold’s trust after all that’s happened?” Airk said. “Betraying the Kutunachke? Threatening war with Garnetholme? Our part in the violence and hatred between the allies in the Hateful Wars? Honoring our treaty with the Kutunachke might show Garl that we’re worthy of the Crown’s power!”
Everything changed when Airk said those words. The Crown of Arumdina, still in his hands, started glowing brightly, the gold and platinum light its metal parts emanated shot through with streaks of diamond, emerald and ruby light. Everyone in the room, gnomes, humans and halfling, stood in shock at the Crown’s reaction. They could feel the power emanating from the Crown, power that was finally manifesting itself.
Moving as if in a dream, Airk removed his dragon-headed helmet and put the Crown on his head in its place. He felt as though he was in someone else’s body, watching through their eyes, as his actions were not his own. A surge of power flowed through his body, which shone with a bright golden glow that shone on everyone watching him. From the looks on the other gnomes’ faces, he realized that the glow must make him seem to almost resemble Garl Glittergold, the leader of the gnomish gods manifesting in oerthly form.
His gaze passed over his fellow gnomes, then to Borinn and Pellana. The ambassadors returned his gaze expectantly, letting him know what they demanded of him.
His gaze then shifted to his friends. The looks they gave in return were ones of relief and hope, looks that renewed his confidence and confirmed what he felt in his heart.
“Flinthold will honor its treaty with the Kutunachke and return the disputed lands,” Airk said, the glow around him seeming to brighten as he did so. “This I swear by Garl Glittergold and all my race’s deities. If we do not, may we lose the gods’ blessings, as we lack the honor of the Crown,” he said, as the glow around him faded and returned to normal.
Airk’s friends looked from him to his fellow gnomes. Some of them were enthralled by what they were seeing, hardly able to believe it. Others like Moswen looked angry at the pledge Airk was making, but they didn’t dare speak against it.
Then Airk’s friends looked at Borrinn and Pellana.
“We intend to hold Flinthold to that pledge,” Pellana said.
Remembrance for the Brave
Many of Lady Babylon’s minions had wanted to go and attack the rest of Flinthold’s cities after they conquered the capital, but Lady Babylon overruled them. She insisted that they remain to guard the capital against the gnomes’ attempt to retake their home. Lady Babylon had kept her forces on high alert ever since the gnomes had retrieved their magical crown, ready for the attack they knew was coming. She had no intention of dividing her forces or surrendering their defensive position until they’d broken the gnomes’ resolve once and for all.
Gnorf was one of the hill giants on duty guarding Flinthold’s surface door when they saw the human Flan army approaching the city. Gnorf and many of Lady Babylon’s other servants had been dismayed, eager for more bloodshed and plunder, but now they saw the wisdom in their lady’s decision.
Like his fellows, Gnorf was on edge, as the guards from last night had reported a massive set of campfires some distance away. Judging by the number of people that would have been sitting around each fire, the force was likely massive. The Flan army wasn’t what they’d expected, but some of the humanoids who lived in this part of the Lortmils said that relations between humans, dwarves and gnomes were often strained. Gnorf realized that the Flan were probably trying to exploit their rivals’ weakness, but Gnorf knew that it wouldn’t be as easy for the Flan as they apparently thought.
The northern side of the Road of Tears was thickly forested, but there were enough gaps between the trees that Gnorf and the rest of the guards could see the Flan constantly moving between them. Gnorf realized that the force was just as large as last night’s fires predicted, and he picked up a large calling horn sitting on a boulder next to him. Putting the horn to his lips, Gnorf blew several loud notes on it to call his fellow minions to arms, alerting them to the force that was attacking.
As Gnorf heard the rest of Lady Babylon’s forces running to join the battle at Flinthold’s surface gate, he reached for the boulder that the calling horn had been sitting on. The gnomes had destroyed most of their anti-siege equipment and the locks on the city doors before fleeing, and Lady Babylon’s forces didn’t have as much missile capacity as she would have liked. Besides the archery of smaller races like orcs and gnolls, giants like Gnorf also contributed by throwing missiles like boulders and pieces of masonry and other heavy debris from the ruined city.
The Flan invaders and Lady Babylon’s defenders were soon engaged in a fierce missile battle, but Gnorf and his fellows knew the Flan who’d come out into the pass were just the vanguard. The Flan army was much larger, and Lady Babylon’s forces called for reinforcements.
Standing back among the trees on the other side of the Road of Tears, Borrinn watched the Kutunachke battling the Scarlet Woman’s forces through a spyglass. He smiled at the realization that the Scarlet Woman’s forces seemed to be falling for the Kutunachke’s tactics to lure them to Flinthold’s surface door.
One of his tactics was to have his warriors set a large number of campfires on their way to Flinthold, but each fire only had one man tending it. Most military campfires had several people sitting around them, so it was an ideal way to trick the monsters into thinking the Kutunachke were greater in number than they really were.
The other tactic was to have his warriors march multiple times between the gaps in the trees. It was difficult for the monsters to tell the Kutunachke apart at such a distance, so they didn’t realize that what they thought were multiple warriors was in fact the same man passing by the same gap multiple times. Such was the Kutunachke’s skill at using the land to their advantage that they executed the maneuver nearly flawlessly. It was a time-honored tactic among Flan warrior societies, one that had helped them prevail against other races time and again.
Nodding in satisfaction, he sat down on a large stump and reached into his satchel. He pulled out a wooden stand and a large crystal orb, which he placed on the stand in front of him. The orb was one of the Kutunachke’s most sacred treasures, a magical scrying device that allowed its user to not only scry on people and places they knew, but also to communicate telepathically with anyone they saw. Besides his training as a warrior, Borrinn also had some skill as a mage, which he used to activate the orb. Chanting quietly, he activated the orb’s powers, thinking about the adventurers who’d visited his people.
Within the orb, Borrinn saw a vision of the adventurers ready and eager for battle, surrounded by a large force of gnomish soldiers. They stood in one of Flinthold’s emergency escape tunnels, ready to attack at any moment.
Magically reaching out to Airk, who stood at the force’s head wearing the Crown of Arumdina, Borrinn advised his gnomish ally that it was time.
Within Flinthold’s tunnels, Airk heard Borrinn’s message, and signalled to his friends and his fellow gnomes. They raised their weapons to acknowledge his signal, as runners went to signal the gnomes in the other escape tunnels that the time for battle had come.
As he signaled for the escape tunnel to be opened, Airk thought a silent prayer to Garl Glittergold and Gaerdal Ironhand. The Crown of Arumdina started to glow on his head, and he felt a powerful surge of energy course through him. He was wreathed in a golden aura, and as he looked back at his friends and kin he saw their reactions as they felt a similar burst of power. His adventuring friends clearly felt that power too, as the Crown of Arumdina gave them its blessing even when they human and halfling.
As the escape tunnel opened, Airk saw a horde of the Scarlet Woman’s minions rushing past as they ran to reinforce Flinthold’s surface door against the Kutunachke. A few of the monsters turned in blank surprise as the door opened, caught completely off guard by the cleverly disguised tunnel.
His fellow gnomes shouted angry war cries and calls of hatred at the monsters who’d razed their home, but Airk himself was silent.
He was silent as he led the gnomes’ charge out of the escape tunnel, his friends close behind him, and struck at the bugbear standing in front of him. The bugbear raised his shield in defense, but Airk was faster. He was silent as his military pick struck the bugbear’s arm, and the sound of the bugbear’s arm breaking was even louder than his scream. Airk was silent as his next blow struck the bugbear dead on the spot, hitting harder than he expected it to.
Airk was still silent as he realized he was moving more quickly than usual. His attacks hit harder than he was used to, and he more easily blocked or dodged the attacks of the three gnolls he suddenly found himself battling. One of the gnolls struck a vicious blow in Airk’s shoulder with his axe, but Airk only felt a small stinging sensation as he realized the axe blow was much shallower than it would have normally been.
Airk was silent as he fought, never losing his focus, but somehow knowing that the Crown of Arumdina was helping him battle.
He was silent, knowing that just as the Crown was helping him, it was helping his allies as well.
Borrinn thought Mannor was finished when the orcish arrow struck him in the chest. He was shocked when the arrow skidded off Mannor’s armor, leaving a bloody cut along his ribs. Mannor was clearly in pain from the arrow strike, but he was also more than ready to continue the fight. He retaliated with an arrow of his own, taking down the orc who shot him with deadly accuracy.
Borrinn followed up Mannor’s shots with a flurry of magic missiles from the wand he carried, but he cursed as a piece of Flinthold masonry flew at him, hurled by a verbeeg. He tried to dodge the flying masonry, but as he saw its angle he realized it was probably going to hit him. The best he could do was to avoid the worst of it…
…or so he thought.
To Borrinn’s astonishment, the masonry slammed into the ground close by him and then bounced further down the mountainside. It came close to hitting several more Kutunachke warriors, but they managed to get out of its way in time. Ahead of Borrinn, the verbeeg stared in shock at his missing the mark, before shouting in a rage. He raised his spear for a throw, but Borrinn was faster, striking him in the face with another flurry of magical missiles, killing the verbeeg on the spot.
Borrinn had been surprised at the verbeeg’s bad throw, but he was even more surprised by the size of his wand’s missiles. They were larger than his wand usually cast, and judging by the verbeeg’s reactions they were doing more damage than his wand’s usual missiles.
He’d been concentrating too hard on the battle to notice before now, but he felt something within him that he’d never known before, something that aided him in this battle.
Then he remembered how, when he’d contacted Airk with his crystal orb, he’d seen Airk’s crown start to glow just before he ended his scrying.
Tricked by the Kutunachke’s maneuvers into overestimating the size of the Flan warriors’ force, most of Lady Babylon’s minions ran towards Flinthold’s surface door. That left them with fewer troops at Flinthold’s underground doors and elsewhere in the city.
The gnome soldiers struck in waves, with different groups attacking one after another at points and times where Lady Babylon’s forces were most vulnerable. Some gnomes burst into the city through the hidden escape tunnels, while others overcame the weakened defenses at Flinthold’s underground doors. Lady Babylon’s generals tried to rally their soldiers to meet each new group of attackers, but the situation constantly changed as new groups of gnomes joined the battle. Soon, Lady Babylon’s forces were in complete disarray, divided and unable to adjust their tactics quickly enough to respond to each new wave of attackers.
Lady Babylon’s minions were fiercely devoted to their queen, and their determination led them to slay many of the attackers. But the casualties the monsters inflicted were hard won. Many of the attackers struck harder than the minions expected, or were better at dodging or resisting the minions’ blows.
Empowered by the Crown of Arumdina, the gnomes of Flinthold and their allies, whatever their race, soon found the battle for their homes turning in their favor.
Lady Babylon seethed with rage as her generals reported the course of the battle. The Flan warriors had steadily gained ground outside Flinthold’s surface door, and they were now starting to pass through the door itself. The gnomes’ surprise attacks through their hidden tunnels had split up her forces, leaving them disorganized and unable to counterattack properly. The gnomes also captured both of Flinthold’s underground doors. All of her enemies, not just the gnomes but their human allies, fought beyond what might have been expected of them, as though they were being aided by some supernatural force.
Lady Babylon realized that her enemies were indeed being aided by a supernatural force, and she knew where that force was coming from. The legends of the gnomish crown’s powers were true after all, giving everyone who fought for the crown’s homeland powerful blessings to aid them.
Her eyes blazed as she realized the potential advantage of that fact. If she seized the crown, the gnomes and the Flan would lose its power. From there, she would rally her forces, and her enemies would burn to ash.
Once her grip on Flinthold’s capital was unbreakable, the rest of the kingdom would swiftly fall.
She would be queen of all she saw, all that belonged to her.
Some of her minions would be shocked when they saw her truth, but others would fight all the harder for her, loving and fearing her even more than they already did.
As if by magic, she rose into the air and flew out of the Regency Council’s manor towards where she could sense the Crown of Arumdina’s powerful energies. Her minions cheered as she flew overhead, while some of her enemies shot missiles at her. Strangely, despite it all, every one of their shots somehow seemed to miss.
The rose petals burned up as Seline threw them into the air, consumed by the power of her spell. More than a dozen of the hobgoblins charging at Seline and her friends fell asleep in a moment, and her friends quickly slaughtered them.
Seline was momentarily shocked at how effective her sleeping spell had been. It was a simple incantation, one that even the most novice wizards could cast. It shouldn’t have been able to take down that many hobgoblins, but it did. Then she remembered that, just as the Crown of Arumdina increased many of her friends’ fighting abilities, it was enhancing her magic.
Many of the spells she’d memorized for the battle were designed to hinder large groups of fighters, allowing melee warriors to fight them more easily. She’d cast them sparingly, saving them for emergencies, not knowing how long the battle might last. She had more powerful spells ready, but she’d decided to save them for battling that mysterious red-haired woman Gilduros told her about, realizing the woman was likely a powerful mage.
That battle came sooner than Seline or any of her friends expected as they came into a large park. Before the monsters’ invasion, the park was filled with comfortable benches and tables, carved wood and stone statues of various burrowing animals and lampposts with globes containing fire beetles. Now, the park was strewn with wreckage and corpses, a representation of the devastation that had ruined Flinthold’s capital.
Looking at Airk, who led the companions and wore the glowing Crown of Arumdina, Seline was dismayed at the look of horrified grief that crossed his face as he took in the gruesome sight of the park. Some of the gnomish corpses were those of children, of mothers and elders, people who stood no chance against the invaders. Even the Crown of Arumdina’s glow seemed to dim at the sight, as if the gnomish gods grieved for their lost followers.
Then the Crown’s light flared again as a look of boiling rage crossed Airk’s face. The look in his eyes promised death to the woman that caused the deaths of so many of his kin, and he was eager to confront her.
That confrontation wasn’t long in coming, as Luna’s cry of recognition alerted the rest of the companions. Looking up at where Luna was pointing with her mace, the rest of the companions saw the Scarlet Woman flying down towards them, leering with malicious glee. She moved with an almost inhuman speed, and her eyes glowed with their own inner fires.
Seline didn’t understand why the red-haired woman was approaching them alone. None of her minions seemed to be approaching. If she descended, she’d be facing the companions all by herself.
The inhuman roar the Scarlet Woman told Seline more than she likely wanted to know. Seline’s blood ran cold as she realized what the Scarlet Woman likely was, and she could tell from her friends’ apprehensive looks that they realized the awful truth too.
The Scarlet Woman’s skin turned from snow white to a deep blood red, as her soft flesh was replaced with hard scales. Her dress tore apart as she grew massively in size, from just over five feet in height to nearly fifty. Her hands and feet turned into massive reptilian paws brandishing deadly sharp claws, even as her mouth bristled with long, swordlike fangs. Powerful batlike wings supported her flight, while a long serpentine tail whipped around with a life of its own. Her head became a gruesome cross between that of a lizard and a demon, her eyes burning with hatred and malice.
“I am Lady Babylon, Queen of all that I see,” the red dragon said, staring with hatred at the companions. “And now, you all will die.”
And then she breathed.
Enter the Dragon
The fire in Lady Babylon’s eyes was just as intense as the cone of murderous orange, red and white flame she breathed at the companions. The companions could feel its heat from down on the ground even when it was still in Lady Babylon’s maw.
Seline’s heart pounded frantically as she reached into her pocket and retrieved her magical wand, which allowed her to conjure great blasts of steam and fog. Pointing it in the air, Seline chanted and released a great blast of steam at Lady Babylon’s fire breath. The steam and flame collided in a great burst of smoke, which formed a screen that separated Lady Babylon from the companions.
It took Lady Babylon only a few moments to blow the smoke away with her wings and swoop down among the companions, but they used those few seconds to scatter. They were all around the park, and Lady Babylon realized she wouldn’t be able to slay them all with her fire breath. Instead, she lashed out at them with her deadly fangs and claws, which were as deadly as any human or dwarven sword.
Ma’non’go leapt back as Lady Babylon’s maw lunged towards him. To his immense relief, her jaws slammed shut scarcely five feet from him. He didn’t let his relief weaken his resolve, as he slashed at Lady Babylon with his trident. It tore a vicious-looking gash just beneath her mouth, leaving a trail of purplish-red blood dripping on the ground. Ma’non’go had poured a dose of one of the potions Seline had made in Naerie on his weapon. The potion enhanced the sharpness of any edged or pointed weapon, giving it temporary magical properties. That potion’s power, combined with the power Ma’non’go received from the Crown of Arumdina’s blessing, made his blows all the more powerful.
As Lady Babylon opened her mouth once again to bite at him, her eyes burning with anger, Ma’non’go honestly wondered if it would be enough.
Lady Babylon hadn’t had to use her full powers in decades, preferring the guise of a human wizard and enhancing it with her magical spells. Not all dragons could cast magic, any more than all dragons could speak, but Lady Babylon was skilled enough to do both. She often passed her fire breath off as magic, but she could cast a few true spells.
She used the first of those spells now, as her entire body seemed to glow fiery red. The enchantment she was using caused anyone it affected to age a year from the strain it often put on their systems. Most lesser races were reluctant to use the spell, but dragons like Lady Babylon grew more powerful as they aged.
Lady Babylon started to move with a surprising speed for a creature so large, her limbs flexing with a catlike grace. She whirled in place, turning her face away from Ma’non’go and slashing at him with her left foreclaws. The Olman warrior tried to dodge, but Lady Babylon’s strike caught him along his back and down his leg, knocking him flat. Lady Babylon led with her right foreclaws, hitting Weimar in the shield and knocking him onto his back, but she fixed her glare on Luna, who was grasping her holy symbol and chanting a spell. Lady Babylon wasn’t having it, as she caught Luna in her jaws.
Luna screamed in agony, her spell lost. Fiery pain tore through her back and into her limbs as Lady Babylon’s teeth tore into her. She’d managed to get her shield up in front of her right before Lady Babylon struck, and that kept her from being torn in two. Lady Babylon tried to apply some more pressure, intending to finish her opponents’ healer first, but suddenly she was the one screaming in agony as Revafour hacked into her rear flank. Luna fell out of her mouth, leaving her fangs stained with blood, as she turned to the right again, intending to face the Flan warrior.
Airk struck at her with his morning star as she turned. His attack skidded harmlessly off her steel-hard hide. Her counter, again with her right foreclaws, was blocked by his shield. The blow was so strong, however, that it sent Airk flying back to crash into the broken remains of a statue and roll past it to the ground. The gnome barely managed to get to his hands and knees, his head throbbing from the blow, as Lady Babylon continued past him to face Revafour.
The Flan warrior returned her hateful stare. He slashed at her again, aiming just below where Ma’non’go had struck her first blow, but again her hide proved tougher than her enemies’ weapons. Lady Babylon lunged at Revafour, seemingly ready to bite him in two the way she nearly had Luna. Seline wore a determined look as she chanted her next spell, but the dragon had keen hearing. Seline cast a powerful lightning bolt at Lady Babylon, but the dragon retaliated with magic of her own.
As the lightning bolt streaked towards her, Lady Babylon seemingly vanished as her own spell took effect. The bolt flew right through where she’d been standing, streaking past Amyalla. The halfling cried out in alarm, as much by Lady Babylon’s disappearance as by Seline’s lightning bolt. Amyalla had nearly gotten into position for a good strike at the thrashing dragon, but now the dragon seemed to be gone.
Then, Lady Babylon suddenly reappeared, as Amyalla realized what kind of spell the dragon cast. She lunged again at Revafour, who was too startled by her sudden reappearance to get his defenses in line. Swallowing hard, Amyalla charged in, driving her dagger up to the hilt into Lady Babylon’s side. Her attack was strengthened by Seline’s sharpness potion and the Crown of Arumdina, and did enough damage to force Lady Babylon to stop short of biting Revafour.
Unfortunately, it also angered Lady Babylon enough for her to lash out and catch Amyalla with her claws. Lady Babylon only struck Amyalla a glancing blow, which was further weakened by the Crown’s power, but Amyalla felt a wave of hot agony as her lifeblood streaked across her torso and arms.
Airk’s head spun as he struggled to his feet, his entire body aching from the Scarlet Woman’s blow. To his surprise, the Crown of Arumdina was still on his head, and didn’t seem at all damaged from the hit he took. Its gems continued glowing brightly, and his body still radiated the golden light the Crown originally imbued him with.
But out of the corner of his eye, he saw Weimar frantically tending to Luna, who lay in a bloody heap. Directly across from him, he saw Amyalla drinking one of the healing potions Luna had brewed back in Naerie, in an attempt to stanch her bleeding.
Airk picked up his morning star and shield and ran to help Revafour, who was facing Lady Babylon head on. Revafour swung a mighty blow, one that would have cut even Lady Babylon’s tough hide, but she briefly vanished and his sword slashed nothing but air before she suddenly reappeared and lashed out at him.
Revafour’s heavy plate armor gave him better protection from Lady Babylon’s bite than Luna’s chain armor did, but his cry of pain still tore at Airk’s soul. He finally caught up to Lady Babylon and slammed her left foreleg, the enchantments of the Crown and a dose of Seline’s sharpness potion strengthening his weapon. Lady Babylon winced at the blow, and lashed out at him with the claws on her left foreleg. Those claws viciously cut Airk, but they didn’t take him down. He retaliated with another blow to her foreleg, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Airk realized that it truly didn’t matter when Lady Babylon turned to look at him. Her eyes seethed with an inner fire, and Airk could see it welling up in her throat. She was going to breathe her fire all over him, killing him in one blast.
Without a wearer, the Crown of Arumdina’s power would fade, and Flinthold’s defenders would lose its blessings.
Airk knew then that all was lost, as the voice he’d been hearing in his head started to speak to him again.
And this is how it ends, doesn’t it?
First you brought death and despair to your brothers in arms because Kalrek Burunne played you for a fool.
Then you murdered Laessar Bradon because you let Kalrek escape.
Then you divide your kin and let them suffer at this monster’s hands.
And now you’ve led your so-called friends, people foolish enough to spend more than a day with you, into the literal jaws of death.
Garl Glittergold must be so, so proud!
Airk saw the golden light around him start to fade, as the Crown’s gems started to lose their shine.
Weimar worked frantically to pour one of Luna’s own healing potions into her mouth. Her bite wound wasn’t mortal, but Weimar knew the companions needed her back in the battle as soon as possible.
Luna coughed as she rose to a sitting position, and her wounds closed rapidly. Unfortunately, Weimar’s relief turned into alarm as he saw the look of dismay on Luna’s face, as if she’d lost something important. A moment later, Weimar felt it too, as the strange sensation he’d felt since the battle began, a sensation that gave him courage and determination, faded away.
Weimar and Luna exchanged worried glances, realizing that the Crown of Arumdina was losing its power.
As Airk realized what was happening, that his wavering resolve was weakening the Crown’s power, he felt something break within him. Rage at Kalrek Burunne for his betrayal, rage at the Steelheart dwarves for massacring his brothers in arms, rage at Lady Babylon for what she and her minions had done to his home, rage at the thought of his kin and his friends dying, and rage at himself for allowing it all to happen.
Despair gave way to white hot anger within Airk as he charged forward. He didn’t care if Lady Babylon killed him-it was no less than he deserved-but he’d be damned if she slew any of his friends.
His body glowed brighter than ever as the Crown of Arumdina’s power returned. Lady Babylon breathed a horrific cone of flame at Airk, but he raised his enchanted shield above him. Airk’s shield and the Crown’s power protected him from the worst of Lady Babylon’s fires, but those flames still raised painful burns on his face and scorched his plate armor. Emerging from the flames, his armor gleaming red with the heat, Airk slammed his morning star into the side of Lady Babylon’s neck. She roared in pain from his blow, and blinked out of sight to avoid his next strike.
Lady Babylon started to leap into the air, intending to breathe on Airk again, but then Seline completed her next spell. A large bluish-white wall of glacier ice appeared above Lady Babylon, landing squarely on her head and neck with a sickening crunch. Lady Babylon screamed as she fell back to the ground, and her scream turned into a roar of anger as Weimar, Ma’non’go and Revafour each charged her from a different side.
Weimar was the first to strike, chopping into her left flank, and Lady Babylon’s speed allowed her to strike him back. She blinked out again as Weimar fell back, leading Revafour and Ma’non’go to miss with their blows, but as she moved to counter them she felt herself slowing down. Luna dispelled the spell Lady Babylon had cast to speed up her movements, and she couldn’t react as Airk, Amyalla and Ma’non’go all struck her again.
Roaring once again in pain and rage, Lady Babylon prepared to breathe on Airk. Seline cast another blast of steam from her wand just in time, snuffing out Lady Babylon’s flames and raising a large cloud of smoke in front of her. Airk charged through the smoke to attack her, but Lady Babylon expected that. She recoiled and blinked out of sight, causing him to miss his blow. When she reappeared, she plunged her head back into the smoke, intending to bite Airk in two and be done with it.
Lady Babylon was so focused on Airk that she didn’t notice Revafour running into the smoke from her right.
The rest of the companions heard her snarling as she lunged down at Airk, but that snarl turned into an ear-piercing shriek. Lady Babylon recoiled out of the smoke, thrashing violently as the companions fell back. They realized Lady Babylon was dying, and they saw the cause when they noticed Revafour’s sword protruding from her throat.
Gilduros’s breath ran ragged as he severed the head of the hobgoblin he was battling. His fatigue nearly caused him to drop his axe, and he wondered how much longer he could go on. Even with the Crown’s blessings, he’d suffered several painful wounds. It was all he could do not to collapse.
He shuddered when he heard a loud, bloodcurdling shriek, a scream of despair and death. The scream unnerved him, but its effect on the monsters was far greater as they realized what it meant. They seemed to lose all heart for the battle, as some of them turned to run while others simply sank to their knees in despair.
Lady Babylon’s death destroyed her minions’ will to fight, but it gave new heart to the gnomes and the Kutunachke. The gnomes who’d suffered and lost so much to the monsters, exacted a brutal revenge on them. The Kutunachke, horrified by the destruction and death they’d seen the monsters inflict on Flinthold, were more than willing to help the gnomes avenge their pain.
Weimar was gasping for breath and soaked with blood from the wounds he’d suffered fighting Lady Babylon. He was grateful for the healing spell Luna cast on him, but his gratitude was quickly replaced with worry for Airk’s fate. Luna shared his worry, and they joined their other friends in running towards Airk, who was on his hands and knees.
Airk looked up at his friends. They were shocked at his injuries, from the burns on his face to the bloody gashes he’d suffered from Lady Babylon’s claws. What disturbed them most, though, was the exhaustion and pain he was clearly in.
Luna knelt down next to him, casting a healing spell that filled him with cool, soothing energy, but if he felt any relief he didn’t show it.
Kings And Vagabonds
Pellana felt a hollow ache in her stomach as she walked through Flinthold. There was wreckage everywhere, from the remains of bonfires that consumed the gnomes’ possessions to broken masonry scattered from damaged buildings. The streets were stained with blood and thronged with corpses. Pellana saw not only the bodies of gnomish soldiers, Kutunachke warriors and Lady Babylon’s minions, but also the bodies of civilians slaughtered by the invading monsters. It would be years before Flinthold physically recovered from the devastation. Pellana realized that it would take the gnomes even longer to mentally recover from their losses.
Pellana was part of a delegation of matriarchs who’d accompanied the Kutunachke warrior societies in their march to Flinthold. Although they obviously didn’t participate in the battle, the matriarchs wanted to be on hand to speak for their people immediately in the coming negotiations with Flinthold’s leaders. Pellana would be joining those negotiations, but she’d also been asked to try and do something that would strengthen the Kutunachke’s position.
Despite her age, Pellana was quick on her feet and skilled at moving about without being seen. It didn’t take her long to find where the adventurers who’d visited the Kutunachke to request their help were staying. They were wounded and exhausted from their battle against Lady Babylon, and they were resting in a house next to the park where they’d fought the dragon. The house hadn’t been damaged much by Lady Babylon or her monsters, and it was an ideal place for the companions to take a breather.
Looking into the house through a large window, Pellana saw that most of the companions were sitting in the living room or eating something in the kitchen. Pellana heard the young brown-haired woman, the priestess of Pelor, mention that the gnome Airk was resting upstairs, where it was the most comfortable.
That was all Pellana needed to hear. The house had a staircase at its back that led to a terrace on the second floor, and a door that led into the house proper. It took just over a minute for Pellana to ascend the stairs, enter the house through the upper door, and find where Airk was resting. As she’d hoped, he was sound asleep in the master bedroom, with the Crown of Arumdina on a table next to him with the rest of his equipment.
As Pellana walked into the room, she tried not to gasp at Airk’s injuries. He’d been badly gashed where Lady Babylon’s claws struck him, and his entire body was marked with burns from the dragon’s fiery breath. Pellana felt a surge of pity as she saw how badly he was hurt, and suddenly had second thoughts about what she’d come to do.
Pellana thought of all the devastation and loss she’d seen on her way here, and wondered what she had planned would do to the gnomes. It might cause further anguish and despair to a people who’d already suffered so much.
Then she remembered how her own people had fought and died for the gnomes, fought and died for promises that proved to be empty when the gnomes first made them centuries ago. She owed it to her people to make sure the gnomes lived up to their promises this time.
She took the Crown of Arumdina and walked back into the hallway, intending to leave by the back stairway without the companions ever knowing she was there.
Pellana didn’t count on meeting Revafour in the hallway as he came up to bring Airk some food and water. Revafour’s eyes widened as he saw the Crown in Pellana’s hands. For a moment, she thought he was going to try to restrain her, or just call out and warn the rest of his friends.
She recognized the indecision on his face, as he likely wrestled with the same issues she did. She saw the pain on his face, as he likely wondered what his friends would do if he let her go. Finally, as she expected, she saw him nod at her.
She nodded back in appreciation and left through the back door, silently praying for Revafour as she returned to the other matriarchs.
Revafour mentally braced himself when he heard Airk’s cry of dismay from upstairs. He heard the scrambling footsteps of Seline and Weimar, who’d both gone upstairs to rest themselves, running to see what was wrong. The rest of the companions were still downstairs with Revafour, and he joined them in running up to join their friends. When all the companions had gathered, Revafour felt his stomach turn at Airk’s expression. The gnome seemed caught partway between despair and anger, his emotions constantly shifting back and forth.
“The Crown…it’s…gone…” Airk said, scarcely able to believe it. “It was right here. How could…a divination!” he said, suddenly turning to Luna. “Could you cast a divination?”
“I could, but not right now,” Luna said. “I’ll need to rest before I can prepare a spell like that.”
“Maybe Borrinn could find it with his crystal ball,” Weimar said.
For a moment, Revafour hesitated. He saw two paths in front of him, neither of them leading to a good end. If he kept silent, he prolonged Airk’s pain and would likely lose his friendship altogether if the gnome found out about Pellana’s actions. If he told his friends about Pellana’s actions, the Kutunachke might lose any hope of forcing the gnomes to keep their promises of renewing the treaty.
Then he remembered what Airk said to the Regency Council in Silverspire, and how it finally revealed the Crown’s powers.
Nodding, half in dread and half in hope, he spoke up.
“You don’t need to ask Borrinn to use his crystal,” Revafour said. “He’ll tell you the Kutunachke have the Crown.”
The rest of the companions stared at Revafour in astonishment. To the surprise of everyone, even Revafour himself, Airk was surprisingly calm. His eyes widened at Revafour’s admission, before they narrowed again.
“How in the Nine Hells did they get ahold of it?” Airk asked, his lips thin.
“Because Pellana took it,” Revafour said, his stomach twisting in knots at the admission. “I saw here leaving your room with it when I came up here.”
The rest of the companions were caught somewhere between shock and anger, but again Airk was quiet and calm.
“…Why?” was the only word Airk said.
“Why do you think?” Revafour said. “This might be the only chance the Kutunachke have to regain their homelands! Do you think the gnomes need the Crown to be able to thrive? Well, the Kutunachke need their homes! How do you know the gnomes, especially Moswen, won’t just break their promises like their ancestors did?”
“And what would it take for us to get the Crown back?” Airk asked.
“Making the promises binding,” Revafour said. “Make whoever becomes Flinthold’s king swear an oath to Pelor,” he continued, gesturing to Luna, “and to whichever gnomish gods you want. Do that, and the Kutunachke will swear to the oaths too. Returning the Crown will be part of it.”
“So they want to renew the old treaty,” Airk realized.
“That’s all they’ve likely ever wanted,” Revafour said.
Airk stood in silence for a long time, thinking about everything that had happened over the last several weeks. A part of him was angry at Pellana’s taking the Crown, but he also recalled his words to the Regency Council in Silverspire. Then he thought about the joy he’d felt when the companions first returned to the Lortmils, seeing the majestic peaks, the beautiful woods and lakes, the dance of the moons over the starlit skies. All the turmoil he’d felt about everything he’d failed at, from the Hateful Wars to killing Laessar, all faded away when he saw those mountains.
Most of Airk’s friends were shocked at Revafour’s admission, but they were even more surprised at Airk’s final reaction. He took a deep breath and nodded.
“She did what she had to do,” Airk said. “Come on, we need to hurry.”
Why’s that? Ma’non’go asked.
“Because the Regency Council’s probably going to be confronting the Kutunachke’s leaders,” Airk said. “We need to stop Moswen before he does something foolish.”
The companions, Revafour and Airk in the lead, were part of a crowd gathering around several of the Kutunachke leaders and the members of Flinthold’s ruling council. Pellana and several of the other Kutunachke matriarchs, guarded by Borrinn and several of the lead Kutunachke warriors, faced Moswen and the rest of Flinthold’s ruling council. Both parties were soon surrounded by all their peoples, gnome and Flan human alike. Pellana clearly held the Crown of Arumdina in her hands, locking stares with Moswen.
“I knew it!” Moswen shouted at Pellana. “I knew you’d betray us sooner or later! What business do you have stealing our Crown-“
“You’ll excuse us if we want to make sure you’ll keep your promises,” one of the Kutunachke matriarchs said, not backing down an inch. “Have you forgotten everything about Adamanhall? Or do you just not care?”
“That crown is ours,” Moswen said. “We shed our blood for it, and we’ll shed yours if you don’t return-“
Arthur was standing with the other councillors, and he locked eyes with Airk. Both gnomes nodded to each other, and they stepped between the Regency Council and the Kutunachke leaders.
“Is your skull really that thick?” Arthur said, cutting Moswen off. “Or has your ambition blinded you so much you can’t see past your own damn nose anymore? We’d never have retaken our homes without the Kutunachke. We’d never have gotten the Crown back or slain the Scarlet Woman if it wasn’t for Airk and his friends. Humans and a halfling have been our saviors. Is this how we repay them?”
“Our capital is in ruins,” Airk said, joining the conversation. “We ought be more worried about our wives and children. We don’t just need the Crown’s blessings, we need the humans too. And the Crown never reacted until I talked about our keeping our word to the Kutunachke.”
“We don’t have to be enemies,” Pellana said, as the gnomes turned to look at her and the other Kutunachke leaders. “All we’ve ever wanted is equal access to our homes. That doesn’t mean the gnomes can’t live here either. Besides, we can help you rebuild. You’ll need food and other supplies to feed your people. We can help you get it.”
“The last thing we need right now is more bloodshed, Moswen,” Arthur said, “and you and your cronies are the only ones who want it. Not now, not when our peoples’ lives are in ruins!”
Moswen bristled angrily at Arthur’s words, but then Arthur played his trump card.
“And did you forget what Garl Glittergold told us through Erthrand’s spell?” he said, recalling how Erthrand, Flinthold’s patriarch of Garl Glittergold, had cast a spell asking Garl for guidance on who should be king. “About the Crown’s power come to life on the brow of a worthy champion…”
“…who might choose to found a king’s line?” Arthur finished, turning to Airk.
Everyone, from the Kutunachke to his fellow gnomes to his adventuring friends, all turned to look at Airk. He stared in utter shock at Arthur’s words, barely able to process what Arthur was getting at.
“I…I…the Crown…take…throne…” he said, his mind whirling with the implications of what Arthur had just said.
He briefly imagined himself on the throne of Flinthold, making peace with Garnetholme and making restitution to the Kutunachke. He saw himself helping his wounded nation heal, helping his people grieve for their losses and rebuild what was broken. He saw himself leading the charge against any orcs, giants or other monsters that threatened his fellow gnomes.
Then he remembered everything else. He remembered how he’d been fooled by Kalrek’s deceptions, how he’d survived the Steelhearts’ massacre of his fellow soldiers during the Hateful Wars, how he had Laessar Bradon’s blood on his hands…
Finally, Airk looked at his friends in the Company of the Silver Wolf. They seemed dismayed at the thought of his leaving them, though he knew they’d support him if that’s what he chose. They felt more like family to him than any of his fellow gnomes did, particularly after all they’d done to help him find the Crown and bring it home, even though they had no stake in doing so.
Taking a deep breath, weighing his words carefully, he finally spoke.
“…I cannot take the throne,” he said, “not as I am. I might be worthy to wear the Crown in Flinthold’s defense, but I’ve no right to be king. There’s too much blood on my hands.”
“I might have guessed!” Moswen said before anyone else could react. “And as for you,” he said, turning to the Kutunachke’s leaders, “it’s a fine thing to say you want to help us when you won’t return the thing we need to recoup our losses. You say you want your lands back?”
“Yes, but not just that,” one of the matriarchs said. “We want a written guarantee, sworn on both your gods as well as ours. If you don’t trust any of our priests of Pelor, that young lady over there would serve just as well,” the matriarch said, gesturing towards Luna. “And choose whichever of your own priests you wish to represent your own gods.”
“Agreed!” Arthur said before Moswen could speak up.
The Crown of Arumdina immediately started to glow in Pellana’s hands, its axe-shaped mithril monde shining brightly.
Erthrand, the patriarch of Garl Glittergold, then pushed his way forward through the crowd. His eyes shone brightly, seeming to reflect the light emanating from the Crown’s monde. Holding out his hands, he took the Crown when Pellana handed it to him. Finally, he walked back to Arthur.
“Garl Glittergold said that a worthy champion could choose to found a king’s line. He didn’t mean that champion had to,” Erthrand said. “Garl also said that another gnome could grow into the role of king.”
All of the gnomes, the Kutunachke, and Airk and his friends all fell silent at that.
Nothing more needed to be said.
Let the Past Lie
The next ten days were busy ones for both the gnomes and the Kutunachke. The Kutunachke grieved for their dead, consigning them to their funeral pyres, and Luna joined their priests in praying to Pelor. The gnomes grieved for their own dead, burying them in freshly dug tombs with prayers to Segojan Oerthcaller. Many of the refugees who’d been forced to flee Flinthold’s capital came home to join in the rebuilding, while Flinthold’s other cities sent further food and aid. Much of the treasure Flinthold’s liberators won from Lady Babylon’s forces went to purchasing food and supplies from other nations. The Kutunachke’s hunting provided invaluable further aid, and they were given their own share of Lady Babylon’s treasure in payment. While the Kutunachke didn’t put much stock in material wealth, they often used the treasure they gained to buy things like metal weapons and oil flasks.
At the same time, preparations began for Arthur’s coronation as His Respected Majesty, Arthur Cyruson I, King of Flinthold. Delegates from other Lortmil dwarf and gnome realms like Garnetholme, Adamanhall, Copper Crossing, Rockhome, the Principality of Ulek and even Steelheart attended. Representatives of human and elven lands like Veluna, Celene and the County and Duchy of Ulek, also came, quickly traveling by magic or flying on griffons and giant eagles. The delegates found that Flinthold’s capital city was still in shambles, its inhabitants still hungry and careworn, but also determined and refusing to give up.
The coronation ceremony followed old gnomish tradition. Arthur ceremonially offered a wealth of gemstones to Erthrand to honor the gnomish gods for entrusting him with Flinthold’s throne, after which Erthrand placed the Crown of Arumdina on his head. The Crown shone brightly on Arthur’s brow, as if to show that the gnomish gods were pleased with Flinthold’s new king.
After Arthur was formally crowned, a second ceremony took place to formally renew the treaty between the Kutunachke and the gnomes of Flinthold. The Kutunachke’s part of the ceremony involved a traditional Flan drumming and smudging of all the parties involved. The gnomes’ contribution was a ritual exchange of gems as gifts. The ceremony concluded with a repeat of Arthur’s swearing on the Crown, and the blessing of the gnomish gods, that the Kutunachke’s land rights would be restored. Luna, Erthrand and several of the Kutunachke priests all participated in the ceremony by offering prayers and blessings.
The companions worked to help the gnomish refugees and attended the memorials to both the gnome and Flan warriors who fell saving Flinthold. Most of them were repeatedly thanked by the grateful gnomes, except for Airk. While he worked as diligently as anyone, Airk noticed the angry glares and muttered whispers that greeted him wherever he went. He knew why many of them were so angry with him, and he felt a terrible sense of guilt.
Not knowing what else to do, on the tenth day after the battle with Lady Babylon’s forces, he entered Flinthold’s temple to Garl Glittergold and started to pray. He knelt in front of the altar to Garl for over an hour, reflecting on his failing to stop Kalrek’s treachery, his murdering Laessar, his punishing Kalrek, his efforts to find the Crown of Arumdina and his refusal to take the throne of Flinthold.
He prayed to Garl for guidance, asking the god if he had followed the right path, or if this was just another one of his mistakes.
“I thought I’d find you here,” a familiar voice said, jolting Airk out of his thoughts. He looked up in surprise to see a younger gnome with close-cropped black hair and dark eyes, dressed in simple yet immaculate clothes that revealed their wearer’s modest tastes but exceptional wealth. The younger gnome’s expression was calm as he approached Airk, but Airk could see a multitude of emotions reflected in his eyes.
Airk knew him well. The younger gnome was Trendin Bradon, Laessar’s son. Trendin was the one who’d tasked Airk with finding the Crown of Arumdina and restoring Flinthold’s monarchy to atone for killing his father. In the months since Laessar’s death, Trendin had taken over his gem-dealing business. Airk realized that Trendin was attending Arthur’s coronation as one of Copper Crossing’s delegates.
“…You were looking for me?” Airk said. He’d sometimes wondered what he’d say to Trendin if he ever met the younger gnome again, but he’d never been sure. In fact, he privately hoped he never would.
“Of course I was,” Trendin said. “When the Lord Mayor of Copper Crossing was invited to your new king’s coronation, I knew you were responsible.”
Trendin paused a moment.
“So it’s come to this. You returned the Crown as I demanded, and you’ve atoned for my father’s murder.”
Airk wasn’t sure what to say, and he couldn’t bring himself to look Trendin in the eye. Even if he’d seemingly atoned for his crime, he didn’t feel as though he truly had. He couldn’t say anything, but his expression made his feelings clear to Trendin.
“I’ve come to terms with everything that’s happened in my head,” Trendin said, “but not in my heart. I’m still angry, and I can’t forgive you for killing my father.”
“…You’re right not to,” Airk said, still not able to look Trendin in the eye.
“No he isn’t,” the two gnomes heard Luna say as she and Revafour walked towards them. They’d come into the temple shortly after Trendin and heard most of the gnomes’ conversation. “Airk’s done everything he pledged to you, so you shouldn’t be-“
“Luna, please,” Airk said, interrupting her. “He has a right to say what he did.”
“No he doesn’t,” Revafour said with a scowl, “not when we all risked our lives to find the Crown. The only reason we did that was to help Airk.”
Scowling right back at Revafour, Trendin turned and walked out of the temple without saying anything. Revafour took a step as if to follow him, but Luna grabbed his arm and shook her head. Luna and Revafour then turned back to Airk.
“Are you all right?” Luna asked, putting her hand in Airk’s shoulder.
“…I’m not sure,” Airk said. “I thought bringing the Crown back and making things right with the Kutunachke would help me, but it didn’t. I’m still guilty of falling for Kalrek’s trickery and for killing Laessar. Do I owe Trendin anything else? Was I wrong to refuse Flinthold’s throne? Can I still even call myself a Flintholder? I don’t know what to do…”
“Maybe you don’t need to do anything at all,” Revafour said. “You avenged your brothers in arms by killing Kalrek, you made amends for what happened to Laessar by bringing the Crown back to Flinthold and you figured out how to use its power. Without you, without us, Flinthold would be a conquered ruin! What else could you possibly even need to do?”
Airk hesitated, but then Luna spoke again.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve wondered whether you can call this place home,” she said. “I remember your telling me that’s why you felt you had to leave the first time after the Hateful Wars.”
Airk closed his eyes and nodded, recalling his conversation with Luna aboard the Merman’s Envy.
“You’re not alone in that, though,” she said. “Seline would have loved to stay in South Province, but she can’t. Ma’non’go can’t return to Hepmonaland. Revafour’s been banished from Tenh. You’re not alone in what you feel, or what you’ve been through.”
As Airk heard those words, his gaze passed over the altar to Garl Glittergold at the far end of the room and then back to his friends. His memories of the Hateful Wars faded, replaced by a memory of how his friends had refused to let him search for the Crown of Arumdina alone. They’d come with him all this way simply because they were his friends.
That realization gave him a tremendous sense of peace. He would likely always carry his guilt at his past failings, but in time he might start to forgive himself.
Revafour and Luna were overjoyed to see the look of resolve on Airk’s face.
“What do you all plan to do now? Whatever it is, I’m coming with you,” Airk said.
“We’ll have to decide that as a group,” Revafour said. “Let’s go.”
The companions received some of Lady Babylon’s more portable treasures for slaying her and returning the Crown of Arumdina. In particular, they received her jade and ivory statuettes and a collection of gold and silver chalices. They also received several of Lady Babylon’s magical potions, although her hoard had no permanent magical items. Of the potions, Ma’non’go insisted on taking one that Seline identified as being able to restore the drinker’s youth.
You’re sure it’s safe? Ma’non’go asked Seline as she handed him the potion. They were sitting at a table in the Sign Of The Wolverine’s common room, the inn having withstood the siege of Flinthold better than most of the city’s other buildings.
“Positive,” Seline said, “but I don’t understand why you were so determined to have it.”
Instead of answering, Ma’non’go uncorked the potion bottle and drank the golden liquid it contained in one motion. Several long moments passed as the potion’s magic took effect on Ma’non’go. He was in his early thirties, but the potion made several of those years fall away. He became eight years younger, by Seline’s estimate. Now he was physically the same age as Revafour and Weimar, who were both in their middle twenties. Seline blinked a few times, startled by the potion’s effects. When Ma’non’go raised an eyebrow at her, she realized just what kind of attention she was paying him, and how much of it.
I take it you like what you see? he said with a half-smile.
“Er…well…yes,” Seline said, eager to change the subject, “but why is it so important to you? I mean, none of us mind you taking it, but…”
To Seline’s surprise, Ma’non’go’s look suddenly became cold and grim. He resembled a statue, and Seline felt a chill run down her spine at the look in his eyes.
I have my reasons, Ma’non’go said, and I won’t speak on what they are. Let’s just say that looking younger than I really am will help ensure that some men get the justice that’s long, long overdue to them.
Seline shrugged at that, realizing it was Ma’non’go’s business and no one else’s.
“I have to wonder, though,” she said, eager to change the subject, “about whether Kalrek would have been doomed even if he’d found the Crown and returned it himself. There’s no way Garl Glittergold would have given Kalrek any blessings through it.”
I actually asked Airk about that, Ma’non’go said. He said that Kalrek probably would have rededicated it to Urdlen, he continued, referring to the evil gnomish god of bloodlust and murder.
“He’d tamper with an artifact?” Seline said in shock.
An…artifact? Ma’non’go said, his expression showing his confusion. What makes an artifact different from any other magic item?
“Artifacts are on a plane of their own as magical items,” Seline said. “They can be extremely powerful…and extremely dangerous to use. Either they can have all sorts of horrible effects on their users, or the users have to follow some sort of moral code for them to function.”
Urdlen’s still a gnomish god, Ma’non’go pointed out. If the Crown is an artifact of the gnomish gods, couldn’t Urdlen channel his power through it too? And how many people could even tell the difference?
That made sense to Seline. From what one of Lady Babylon’s human spies had said when he’d surrendered to the Flinthold forces, Lady Babylon made Flinthold her target because of how badly its leaders’ infighting weakened it.
“And if Flinthold was united under a strong king, Lady Babylon would have probably never attacked,” she said. Ma’non’go nodded in agreement, recalling what Airk said about how Kalrek could have gotten the Regency Council’s support.
Seline frowned. The spring festival of Growfest had come and gone during the companions’ efforts to recruit the Kutunachke. The gnomes of Flinthold were more concerned with looking after their refugees and preparing to retake their capital than with celebration. A few of the gnomes made some half-hearted attempts to belatedly celebrate, but most of their kin weren’t in a festive mood.
She was about to say something else when Revafour, Airk and Luna all walked into the Sign Of The Wolverine and joined them at the table. Weimar came over to join them, bringing a fresh tankard of Big Cedar Log with him. Amyalla came last, as she finished the card game she’d been playing with several of the inn’s other patrons and got a cup of wine before joining the rest of the group.
“How are you doing?” Seline asked Airk, her expression reflecting the worry she and the rest of his friends felt for him.
“I’ve…come to terms with it all,” Airk said. “Don’t worry about me. Right now, we need to decide where we’re going next.”
“…We?” Seline said in surprise. “You’re coming with us?”
“Yes I am,” Airk said. “There’s nothing for me here.”
But isn’t this your home? I’d have thought you’d be admired as a hero here, Ma’non’go said. And what about your siblings?
“Many of my kin blame me for everything that’s happened,” Airk said, shaking his head. “Some of them think that I attracted Lady Babylon here by bringing the Crown back. Others are angry at what we’ll have to concede to the Kutunachke.”
“Like what, exactly?” Weimar asked.
“Areas that’ll be off-limits to mining, for one,” Revafour said before Airk could do so. “Places where the Kutunachke might collect rents from Flintholders living there. The Kutunachke’s right to make decisions about how their lands are used.”
“The Crown’s blessings will help Flinthold regain its prosperity, but those blessings depend on our honoring our treaties with the Kutunachke,” Airk said. “The kingdom as a whole might recover, but some gnomes’ purses are still going to be thinned. They might not be able to stop it, but they won’t like it at all.”
“What if that fool Moswen tries something?” Weimar said.
“No one takes him seriously anymore,” Airk said, shaking his head. “He nearly led us to war with Garnetholme, and his stupidity helped Lady Babylon and her forces overrun Flinthold. I wouldn’t be surprised if he leaves the kingdom altogether. Without Moswen, King Arthur won’t have a problem settling Flinthold’s mining dispute with Garnetholme. That’s another thing some of my kin will blame me for.”
Why? Ma’non’go said. Because their fortunes won’t be as large as they used to be? Even after everything the rest of your people have already lost?
“I’m afraid so,” Airk said, nodding.
“That’s bull scat if I ever heard it!” Weimar said, ignoring the surprised looks the inn’s other patrons gave him. “If it wasn’t for us, the Crown would have never-“
“It doesn’t matter,” Airk said. “Ma’non’go mentioned my siblings, and…” he took a deep breath before continuing. “Osian’s dead, Gilduros was nearly killed, Ruby nearly widowed. I can’t stay with them after everything that’s happened. They might be harassed by other Flintholders who’re angry at me.”
“So what’s going to happen to them?” Luna asked.
“I saw to it they were provided for,” Airk said. “It’s just like it was after the Hateful Wars. Arthur offered me a fair amount of Lady Babylon’s coin as a reward, but I had him give it to their families.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t stay here,” Luna said.
“Maybe it doesn’t,” Airk said. “But even if it doesn’t…I just don’t feel like I belong here.”
“Nonsense,” Weimar said with a scowl. “You’ve every right to stay-“
“My head knows that, but my heart doesn’t,” Airk said. “Seeing so many of my kin die during the Hateful Wars…seeing so many more die now…this isn’t the place for me right now.”
“So we can’t get rid of you,” Amyalla said with a smirk. “Does anyone know where we should go, then? South, to the Duchy of Ulek?”
“How about northeast to Verbobonc?” Weimar said. “They pay well for guards against Elemental Evil raiders who survived Emery Meadows. And they don’t mind if you take a bit of time to do some exploration of your own,” he said, his eyes lighting up.
“I’d like to go north to Veluna,” Luna said, her eyes lighting up. “I’d love to see their interpretations of Rao’s faith, and how it intersects with Pelor’s.”
“I have friends I left in Highfolk after we fled from Blackmoor,” Revafour said, frowning at the unpleasant memory of the winter flight south. “I’d like to check in on them, if I can. And besides, it should be my right to decide. The second of Planting was my birthday, and none of you even acknowledged it!”
Revafour’s friends all looked more than a little embarrassed and ashamed, but the wry smile on his lips showed that he was teasing them.
“You didn’t exactly tell us before now,” Weimar said with a smile of his own. “Besides, what would you even want as a gift?”
“Making sure the gnomes respected the Kutunachke’s rights was the only gift I’d really want,” Revafour said, his smile widening into a grin. “But I would like to visit everyone in Highfolk. There’d be a lot of work for us too. There’s always the danger of monsters from the Yatil Mountains and the Vesve Forest. We could sail or even canoe down the Velverdyva river from some place like Verbobonc.”
“Maybe we should go west before we do that,” Amyalla said. “I heard one of those dwarven nobles talk about the ruins of a dwarf-hold some days to the west of here, a place called the Glimmering Hall. You ever heard of it, Airk?”
“Oh yes,” Airk said with a nod. “Old tales used to tell of it as a dwarven city that was named for the way its platinum and mithril veins shone in the torchlight. It fell to an orcish siege during the Hateful Wars, but then the orcs mostly destroyed each other fighting over its riches. The Glimmering Hall’s been unclaimed ever since. A few places sent expeditions to try and retake it, but none of them ever returned. It wasn’t long before the place was abandoned altogether.”
“Why do you bring it up?” Airk said. “Are you saying that we should explore it? No one’s ever come back from there alive!” He tried to sound incredulous, but he was smiling.
“What better reason would a group of daring adventurers have to venture there? Brandobaris only knows what treasures we could find!” Amyalla said, returning his smile. “We could likely travel north from there to Veluna and Highfolk.”
“We’ve got plenty of treasure already,” Seline said, joining in the game.
“And how much of it will we lose in taxes if we go to Veluna or the Uleks?” Amyalla said, her smile growing wider. “Best we have as much as we can get. Besides, training and sorcery aren’t cheap. Remember how much it cost for you to recharge your wand?”
“That was an investment!” Seline said, her expression one of mock outrage.
“Not to mention tithing to Pelor,” Luna said. “I mean, honestly-half of all my wealth?”
The rest of the companions looked askance at her.
“…What?” Luna asked, a smile of her own playing around her lips. “Why can’t I make a joke once in a while?”
I’d be all for it, said Ma’non’go, but what about you, Airk?
Airk looked around at his fellow adventurers, his second family.
“You’ve all come this far to help me,” he said. “Now it’s my turn to help all of you. Wherever you want to go, whatever you need…I’ll be with you.”
“No matter where?” Revafour asked.
“Everybody has to be somewhere,” Airk said. “Being beside all of you is as good a place as any.”
The rest of the companions returned his smile.
Airk half-expected the voice that had tormented him for the past several months to speak up, but it was utterly silent.
Instead, an old gnomish traveling song entered his mind, a song that suited his mood very well at that moment.
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down…he thought, recalling the lyrics.
Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll find what I call home…
Until tomorrow, I know I’m free to roam.
He smiled, thinking of the peace he felt at that moment.
Dedicated to Anna Meyer, whose hard work in mapping the Flanaess has been so helpful to me and countless other Greyhawk fans, and to everyone on the Greyhawk Resources forum for their support and encouragement.