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The Silver Wolf: Ghosts Of The Past, Part Three
Posted on Wed, September 23, 2015 by LordCeb
CruelSummerLord writes "

Let them think him a warlord, seeking nothing more than to enrich himself at his victims’ expense.

Let them ignore what he was truly searching for, the cherished prize that would be the ultimate triumph, the ultimate irony, and the ultimate insult to his old kinfolk.

All for his glory, and the glory of the Crawler Below.



 

The stone cabin looked deserted to a casual observer. It was half-crumbling, filled with little more than broken furniture and crockery, and filled with dirt, muck and small rodents. To the experienced adventurers, it was clear that many feet had trod through this building recently. Pieces of wood were kicked away from the piles of timber they would have belonged to, the dirt on the floor was marked with traces from where furniture and debris had been pushed and some of the debris itself was marked with the blows of hammers and axes as it was broken for firewood.

Making their way into the basement, it didn’t take the adventurers long to find the secret door and the staircase behind it. Carved out of natural stone, the staircase led into the depths of the cave, beckoning the adventurers standing before it. Needing no more invitation, it wasn’t long before they had lit their lamps and descended into the depths.

The silence in the stone cabin above had been nothing unusual to the adventurers, who were well used to the solitude of the road. The depths of the cavern were entirely different, as the shadows and the silence came together to make them realize just how out of place many of them were. They had experienced the feeling more than once, having ventured into caverns and dungeons many times before, but it was something most of them could never quite get used to.

Airk was the exception, born and raised as he was in the Lortmils. The depths did not bother him-indeed, he hardly noticed them. Rather, the gnome was fighting as hard as he could to fight off a rising sense of rage. Old images flashed through his mind, images of battles with orcs and goblins, interspersed with other images of his kinfolk’s bloodied corpses. Shaking his head briefly, it was only when he looked up that he fully took in the room that surrounded them.

Five portcullises surrounded them, each blocking a separate passage further into the depths. The adventurers looked first at the gates, then at each other, wondering what to make of it all.

“Would this be a gnomish design?” Weimar asked curiously, wondering which of the gateways to choose.

Airk blinked once, before he digested the question.

“The portcullises are, but this wouldn’t be a traditional defensive measure,” he replied, his mind suddenly much more at ease. “More likely than not this was just a way to keep the trolls from following them into the depths if the wretches ever got greedy. As likely as not, all the portcullises lead to the same tunnel.”

And what could deter trolls from following them into the depths? Ma’non’go signed warily, now looking from one to the next of the portcullises as if he expected an attack from one of them.

“Let’s find out,” Amyalla replied, as she approached the first of the portcullises. Looking up at it, Amyalla glanced at the portcullis itself, at the lever set into the wall next to it, and at the walls between the gateways. She could see that the bars were all greased, making it almost impossible for even creatures as strong as the trolls to lift them. Nor could she see any kind of mechanical trap around any of them. There didn’t seem to be anything preventing any of the trolls from simply opening the gates and walking through.

“Then again, maybe that’s the point,” Amyalla muttered to herself. Getting a closer look at the lever, she nodded.

“What are you talking about?” Weimar asked curiously.

“See for yourself,” the halfling explained, as she picked up a rock. “You’d all best stand back,” she explained, as she pitched the stone at the nearest lever. She only smirked in satisfaction as the lever seemed to shatter, releasing a liquid that spilled down the front of the cave wall, hissing loudly as it made contact with the stone.

Stepping forward, Amyalla nodded to herself as she examined the remains.

“Dummy levers made of dark-tinted glass, containing acid,” she nodded to herself. “Imagine if you were a troll trying to pull one of those levers. It shatters under your grip, and then your entire hand is burned away by acid. Would you contemplate staying?”

So which lever is the correct one? Ma’non’go wondered.

“…The fourth one,” Amyalla finally decided. “See how it doesn’t reflect the light of the lantern the way the others do?” Leaping up, she grabbed the lever with her free hand and pulled down, smiling widely as the portcullis slowly slid open. Soon, the adventurers had passed through, flicking a hidden switch on the other side to close it again.

Cunning bastards, Airk thought to himself. Gnomes designed these traps, gnomes consorted with trolls, gnomes murdered the people of the hills…

Gnomes…not dwarves…gnomes…

***

It’s warmer than I thought it would be down here, Ma’non’go thought to himself in surprise. I wonder if it’s due to the more confined space, or is it because we’re closer to the oerth’s core?

The tunnel had widened considerably beyond the portcullises, and now Ma’non’go and his friends were passing into what looked like a wilder area. Stalactites hung from the cavern ceiling, now far above them, and the sound of running water echoed off in the distance. The sight reminded Ma’non’go of what one of his friends from X’tandelexamenka, a scholar who apparently specialized in the studies of the oerth, had told him about how vast the caverns that extended beneath the surface of the oerth could be. They could be far and wide alike, to the extent that a traveler could enter a cave from one point on the surface and re-emerge hundreds of miles away, depending on how far he traveled through the tunnels of what was called the Deepoerth.

All those shadows, Ma’non’go thought to himself as he scanned the darkness around them. Who knows what-

He immediately rapped the handle of his trident on the cavern floor, getting his companions’ attention.

Ma’non’go’s alertness saved them just in time, as they scattered before the beast would have landed in their midst. As they readied their weapons, they got a good look at the creature in the lamplight. To Ma’non’go, it resembled one of the black panthers that were said to dwell in the lands of the Touv people that the Olman sometimes dealt with back in Hepmonaland. It was far larger than any panther, however, and its tail was unnaturally long, extending well over the creature’s head and swinging around like a flail.

His trident raised, Ma’non’go was about to charge forward when he was stopped short by surprise. One moment, there seemed to only be one of the weird cats, but then there was suddenly nine of the foul things, smaller than the original but looking no less fierce as they growled and charged at the adventurers. The creatures emerged in an expanding ring, forcing the adventurers back and preventing them from linking up.

Ducking under the swinging tail of the panther that advanced towards him, Ma’non’go thrust his trident at the cat, but the creature easily dodged the blow. It swung another blow at him, forcing him to bring his trident back to block the attack.

Off to his right, Weimar had better luck, deflecting the panther’s attack with his shield and then striking back with a perfectly aimed axe blow aimed at the creature’s neck. The blow struck home, but to Weimar’s astonishment the panther simply blinked out of existence. Looking around in confusion, Weimar wondered if the creature was preparing to attack him from behind, but it seemed to have simply vanished.

Two of the creatures sprang at Seline, instinctively realizing how little she had in arms and armor compared to her companions. Seline had been preparing to cast a spell in return, but she had no time to do more than dodge their relentless attacks. Taking her wand out of her pocket, she chanted quickly, releasing a blast of heated steam straight into the face of one of the cats, which howled in pain and seemed to vanish in turn. Unfortunately, that was when Seline heard the roaring behind her, and saw that the other panther was advancing, ready to crush her with its flailing tail.

To her astonishment, the thing vanished, as did all of the other cats fighting the companions. Soon, all they could see was just the one large cat, roaring as it wheeled to face its attackers. Cunningly, the creature sprang forward, forcing Revafour and Luna back, but it lashed backwards with its tail, striking Amyalla and sending her flying as she tried to sneak up on the monster. The halfling landed some distance away, struggling to get to her knees, as her friends struck back. Revafour came forward, viciously slashing the creature across the chest, but then it seemed to vanish yet again. In its place, there were now seven of the smaller weird cats, roaring in a perverse harmony as they attacked the companions.

Airk had no idea what this thing was or how it was doing its disappearing trick, but he didn’t intend to let it get away with it. Charging forward, he slammed the nearest panther in the head once with his morning star, blocked its tail strike with his shield, and brutally smashed the creature again before it vanished. He heard a cry of pain as Luna fell back, hit by the tail of one of the creatures, but it too soon howled and vanished, blasted by the magical bolts Seline cast at it.

There were but five of the creatures left, and two of those soon vanished as Ma’non’go and Revafour struck them down. The three creatures seemed to merge back into the single panther, and it appeared angrier than ever. It seemed as if it was ready to spring, but then its roars became a choked gurgle as it fell to the ground. As Airk stepped forward, he saw the long dagger suddenly protruding from the monster’s throat, and the battered Amyalla smiling grimly as she came out of the shadows. Pulling the dagger out of the large cat’s throat, she contemptuously wiped the dagger on its fur, before returning it to its sheath.

“What was that thing?” Amyalla wondered, as the companions regrouped. Luna stepped forward, casting a healing spell that the battered halfling gratefully accepted.

“I’d say it was a nonafel,” Seline said, “though I never thought I’d ever see one.”

“Non-a-what?” Weimar asked curiously.

“Nonafels are a race of catlike predators that many sages believe are related to the displacer beasts,” Seline explained. “They have the ability to create multiple copies of themselves, all linked together by a single mind and fighting as one. They can separate and reunite, healing their wounds when they’re all together, but if any individual cat is destroyed, the nonafel must regenerate that cat over several weeks.”

“…Oh, right,” Weimar nodded. “The elves I studied with as a lad always called them the ‘cat-o-nine-tails’, though. How could something like that get into the gnomes’ complex?”

“Because this isn’t their complex,” Airk said impatiently, gesturing with his head to urge his friends onward. “This whole area is part of the natural cave system. Surely you didn’t think wild monsters might not wander in here?”

“But-“ Weimar began.

“The portcullises were just built as a way of deterring anyone from following the gnomes back to their lair,” Airk continued, as if expecting the question. “They choose an area for a lair, find a route to the surface and set up a trap to guard the way. It’s unlikely they have the time or the resources to take over the entire cave network. Surely all this would be obvious! Now come, we’ve lost enough time already!”

Seline and Weimar looked at one another in concern, before running to catch up with Airk.

 ***

Another hour’s worth of walking brought the adventurers to the edge of a vast underground lake. Water flowed into and out of the lake through various smaller rivers that branched off in all directions, many of them continuing into some of the other tunnels that led into the main cave.

Where do we go now? Ma’non’go wondered. Must we employ magic to proceed any further?

“No sense in that,” Airk shook his head, “and in any event I doubt you prepared the necessary spells?” he asked Luna and Seline.

“I don’t even know much of such magic,” Seline shook her head sadly. “Would that-“

“Don’t worry about it,” Airk muttered, glancing down at the ground. “Come over here and help me,” he continued, gesturing towards Weimar and Revafour. “Help me search for tracks-the footprints should be about my size.”

Weimar and Revafour weren’t sure what they could expect to find, but then they noticed the gravel, mud and dirt that surrounded the lake’s shores, which could mark a creature’s passage as easily as the mud or sand of the surface. Following Airk’s lead, they began glancing around, and it wasn’t long before Weimar found a set of traces in the dirt leading towards one passage several hundred feet away, just in front of a river that carried water out of the cavern. Much of the grit and dirt had also been disturbed, spreading out in the telltale patterns that emerged when they were kicked by walking feet.

Gesturing to bring his companions over, Weimar’s pleasure at discovering the tracks was marred by the look of dismay and anger crossing Airk’s face. He could only imagine what the gnome was thinking, but the gnome seemed to constantly lose awareness of his surroundings, falling into thought with a faraway look in his eyes before suddenly coming back to reality.

What are you looking for, Airk? Weimar wondered. Are you still searching for something, too? Or are you trying to rid yourself of something that still haunts you? Are you left wondering about where you came from, and how it affects who you are?

Or are you thinking about what was done to you, and wondering what you could have done differently to stop it? Weimar wondered, recalling the betrayals Airk had told his friends his gnomish clan had suffered during the Hateful Wars so many years ago.

He glanced back at Revafour, and he was suddenly reminded of their dispute over Weimar’s attending the sweat lodge back in Oakdale. Revafour’s anger at Weimar’s request still stung him, although he could understand his Flan companion’s reluctance.

Damn it all, he cursed to himself as he confirmed which way the footprints were going. I knew I shouldn’t have finished that last wineskin-

Weimar was turning to call his companions over when he caught a glimpse of the larger footprints in the grit. The size of the feet, to say nothing of their owner’s stride, was far larger than that of any gnome.

“I found several trails of footprints all headed in the same direction,” Revafour was saying to the rest of their friends as they came up. “How about you?”

“So did I,” Weimar nodded, “but that’s not all. We’re also dealing with giants,” he pointed out, gesturing at the larger footprints he’d discovered.

If Airk had seemed to constantly losing himself in thought, he became fully alert at the sight of the larger footprints. If anything, he seemed almost to calm a bit, now seeming more determined than angry.

“It explains a lot,” he cursed, before muttering something to himself in gnomish.

“So we’re dealing with giants again?” Luna asked curiously. “Should-“

“Not giants,” Airk shook his head. “I know what made these trails.”

By the time Airk finished explaining the nature of their targets, the expressions of his human and halfling companions were almost as grim as his.

“They’re cunning rats,” Airk finished, “and all they care about is the survival of their own hides. Giants and humanoids at least care about prestige and impressing their allies with their battle prowess, but that hardly matters to these wretches. They’ll have no compunction about slitting your throats if they surprise you, or abandoning their comrades if things go badly.”

“Is everyone ready?” he asked, although he hardly needed a response.

For all the anger he had felt just a short time ago, all Airk Venbelwar felt now was an icy calm.

You know the suffering these creatures bring to your people, he silently thought, his mind filling with the images of Gaerdal Ironhand and Garl Glittergold, the gnomish gods of war and protection. Never have I received the vengeance I have so long prayed for-if you have never seen fit to grant it to me, then grant me the strength to destroy these hateful things. More than that, I ask that you extend your blessings to my friends-they are not of our people, but they deserve to die beneath the sun and the sky, rather than the darkness of the oerth.

His face set, his military pick in hand, Airk led his friends on, determined to see the matter through.

 ***

The adventurers soon found themselves in an area of worked stone, one where it was clear many feet had recently trod. Some of them were smaller in stature, others large, and it only reconfirmed Airk’s suspicions. Further ahead, they could see several tunnels branching off at a crossroads, from which they could see weirdly glimmering lights flickering and shadows dancing macabrely on the tunnel walls.

They didn’t post any guards, but that’s just to lure people in, Airk thought to himself. Looking around, he found a smaller cave off to the side and gestured towards it. Leading his friends into the cubbyhole, he further led them to dim their lanterns, knowing full well the dangers of the light giving them away.

Airk had a fairly good idea of how their opponents would have designed their lair, and he began tracing an outline in the grit at their feet, whispering quietly as he explained his plan.

They lure people in and expect them to be easy prey when they finally arrive, the gnome thought to himself, smiling inwardly.

Let’s turn that against them, he decided.

And they call themselves tricksters…

"
 
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