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The Silver Wolf: Ghosts Of The Past, Part Four
Posted on Fri, September 25, 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.




Amyalla was as silent as the darkness around her as she crept down the tunnel, her eyes alert for any kind of trap. The creatures they were about to face shared many of the engineering skills of the gnomish race, and so they often rigged their lairs with deadly traps to hinder and kill intruders before the attackers could ever raise a sword against them.

The first tripwire was colored a deep slate grey, in keeping with the floor, but Amyalla knew what to look for. Hopping over it with an impish grin, she continued on down the tunnel to the first crossroads, keeping to the shadows as she considered which one to travel down.

“’Ere now!” a nasal, almost whiny voice, came from further up the corridor.

“’Wot’s all the bother?” another voice replied, this one sound much deeper than the first.

“When’s mealtime?” the first voice asked, as its owner came stomping down the corridor. Amyalla squatted down as quietly as she could, quietly thanking Yondalla that these creatures couldn’t see her body heat, the way so many inhabitants of the underworld could.

Over three feet tall, with the prominent nose and thick hair of a gnome, the creature that advanced into the crossroads could have been mistaken for a gnome at first glance. However, the sickly jaundiced yellow of its skin, the redness of its bloodshot eyes, the rounded, bulbous shape of its nose, so different from the long pointy noses of true gnomes like Airk, and the hateful sneer on the creature’s face marked it out as a spriggan.

Spriggans were vile cousins to the gnomes, possessed of inherent magic that was said to come from their consorting with the darker aspects of the fairy world. They lived for banditry and violence, whether slitting the throats of hapless victims from the shadows in their normal size or sadistically playing with their victims in the giant forms they could assume. This spriggan, like all of his kind, was dressed in dirty breeches and leather armor that looked as if it would rot on him before it was ever washed, which only accented the disgusting stink of his unwashed body.

Quietly, the halfling sprinted after the spriggan as he walked down another corridor, noting the way he ducked under a particular point. Looking up as she repeated the motion, Amyalla noticed another tripwire, this one set at about the level of her head. Her practiced eye caught the worked stone further up the wall, and Amyalla could well imagine what it might release if the tripwire was set.

The spriggan turned into an opening in the left-hand wall, from which several more voices echoed. Carefully peering around the corner, Amyalla looked into a large common space where several other spriggans lazed about on a variety of mismatched furniture, most of it no doubt stolen or otherwise acquired during their travels. Despite herself, Amyalla swallowed hard, seeing how several of the spriggans were a good ten or twelve feet in height, and taking especial note of how their weapons grew in size with them.

Returning to the crossroads and passing down another corridor, she soon came upon a kitchen and a lever set into the wall next to the doorway. Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, Amyalla could see the loose and sharpened rocks in the ceiling further up the corridor, rigged to fall the moment the lever was pulled.

Every sense on alert, Amyalla flitted through several more corridors, getting a good lay of the traps that the spriggans had set. Twice she had to hide to avoid spriggans walking through the corridor, but their guard was down and they were not particularly alert for intruders, expecting their traps to warn them of any attackers.

Satisfied that there were no more spriggans in the immediate area, Amyalla lifted her skirt, revealing the lockpicks and other tools she kept hidden on her garters.

A wide smile crossed her face.

It was time to go to work.

 ***

The spriggans leapt up at the sounds of the footsteps and the cries of pain. The first tripwire, set to release a flurry of poisoned darts, had clearly struck, striking down several intruders. Another tripwire, this one set to release a stream of acid, had just been triggered, pouring acid down on whatever creature had been unlucky enough to set it off. Yet another had breached the flamethrowing trap that was placed down the left-hand corridor branching off from the crossroads.

Grinning to one another, several of the spriggans eagerly leapt up and charged down the corridor towards the crossroads, while some of the others went the other way, intending to flank the intruders from the other side. They knew well the dangers of setting up a lair in the dangerous underground passages of the Deepoerth, and had taken suitable precautions.

The leading spriggans charged forward, and it was only a couple of stragglers who noticed that the acid-dumping trap was somehow still in place. Blinking in surprise, they were caught off guard when they heard the cries of astonishment coming from the crossroads at the lack of corpses, or indeed anyone at all, in the corridor.

An ominous chanting was their only warning before a cloud of white fog enveloped them. A couple of the spriggans saw the form of a young human woman dressed in indigo wizard’s robes marked with the images of the moon and stars down the corridor, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, but they had no time to think about it before they screamed in pain at the burning heat of the fog, which they realized too late was a deadly cloud of steam. Several of the creatures fell dead, horribly burned by the searing heat, made all the worse by the confined narrows of the crossroads.

A couple of the spriggans managed to stumble free of the steam cloud, their skin burned and red, while some of the others charging into the crossroads joined their companions in feeling its agony. Several of the spriggans, shifting into their giant forms to better withstand the steam’s painful heat, suddenly felt another stinging sensation as a flurry of arrows came flying into the steam cloud, likely shot by whoever had raised the cloud from the first place. Shouting and cursing to one another, a few of the spriggans emerged from the steam cloud in the direction that they had seen the young woman appearing in, only to find that she was now standing behind a taller blonde man wielding a longbow and a massively built dark-skinned man wielding a wicked-looking trident.

Angrily the spriggans charged, swinging their axes furiously. One of them was blocked off by Ma’non’go, who caught the creature’s descending axe in his trident and pushed it back up. Lashing out with his foot, Ma’non’go slammed the creature in the gut, causing it to stagger and let up the pressure on its axe. With its defenses now open, Ma’non’go charged forward, gutting the creature on his trident.

Across from Ma’non’go, Weimar fired several more shots from his bow at the other two spriggans, dropping one of them before picking up his axe. The last of the spriggans had shrunk back down to gnome size to avoid the arrow, but Weimar easily drove his battleaxe into the creature’s chest, dropping it as the steam ahead began to clear.

He smiled in satisfaction as he saw the six spriggans lying dead on the ground, noting how well their plan had worked. Amyalla had disarmed all of the traps she found, while letting Seline know what exactly they were designed for. Seline’s magic then created the sound of intruders being caught on the traps, luring several of the spriggans to investigate and running into the steam cloud Seline had conjured with her wand.

Now it’s our turn, Weimar grinned, as he put away his bow and picked up his shield.

 ***

Ma’non’go stalked off down the right-hand corridor, his trident red with the blood of some of the spriggans who had survived the steam cloud but were too injured to fight back. Looking around warily, he recalled what Airk had told the rest of the group about spriggans, and about how the nasty little things could strike from the shadows.

The warning cry from Amyalla, following along behind him, allowed him to keep from being hamstrung by the spriggan that leapt out from an alcove in the rock wall. While the creature’s dagger missed Ma’non’go’s leg, the spriggan managed to slash Ma’non’go’s hip as the large Olman turned to defend himself, sending a wave of agony down the right side of Ma’non’go’s body.

The creature grew to full size as Ma’non’go staggered back, its dagger now the size of a sword. Howling with glee, he slashed at Ma’non’go, his cry turning to a growl of frustration as Ma’non’go blocked his slash with the handle of his trident. Pushing back, Ma’non’go ducked the next sword slash and struck back with his trident, tearing a gash along the spriggan’s stomach and leg.

Unfortunately, Ma’non’go was so caught up in his own battle he didn’t notice the other spriggan, this one in its smaller form, coming up behind him with another glittering dagger in its hands.

 ***

As Revafour led the way down the central corridor, followed swiftly by Luna, the lantern he carried in his free hand was suddenly extinguished, even as many of the lights ahead of him went out. That was one of the spriggans’ powers, the ability to snuff out the flames from torches, lamps and campfires. Fortunately, Revafour had come prepared, pulling a stone from his pocket that Luna had imbued with the magic of a full light spell. Tossing it behind him and dropping it between him and Luna, Revafour smiled as he gripped his sword with both hands, feeling the battle lust rising within him.

He didn’t have long to wait, as one of the creatures emerged from a side room they had passed and another charged down the corridor towards him. The spriggan coming at Revafour was in its small form, making a ghastly face as it jabbered all manner of ugly-sounding noise at him. That was another of the creatures’ powers, the ability to instil fear in their opponents. It took more than that to scare a Tenha warrior, however, and the creature grew to giant size when it realized that Revafour was not afraid of it. Its sword clashed against Revafour’s, and it smiled wickedly as it pushed, its superior strength forcing Revafour back.

Not that Revafour particularly cared, suddenly easing his pressure on his sword to cause the spriggan to stumble forward. As he did, the spriggan now completely defenseless, Revafour raised his sword and brought it down squarely on the stumbling spriggan, chopping off its head in a single stroke.

Behind him, Luna brought up her shield to block the blow of the giant spriggan attacking her, before being knocked off her feet as the creature brought its hammer around her defenses and struck her on her hip. Knocked prone by the blow, Luna recovered more quickly than the spriggan expected and picked up her mace, slamming it down on the spriggan’s foot before he could strike again. Crying out angrily, the spriggan raised his hammer to strike Luna down, but she slammed his foot again and then struck his knee as she began to rise to her feet. Staggering from the blows, the spriggan shrunk back down to gnome size, charging straight at Luna, before she hit him squarely in the face with her mace.

The creature fell dead, and Luna managed to rise to her feet. Unfortunately, that was when she saw another spriggan leaping at Revafour. Caught off guard, the Flan man tried to stagger back, but the spriggan was faster, its dagger aiming for his stomach. Crying out, Luna flung her mace at the creature, uttering a desperate prayer to Pelor in her mind.

Her prayers seemed to be answered, as the spriggan was knocked off balance by Luna’s throw and landed on its rump on the ground. It tried to stand up, growing to giant size as it did so, but Revafour immediately brought his sword down on the creature, cutting it almost in two and staining almost the entire length of his sword red with blood.

His smile at that was quickly replaced with a frown as Luna casting a healing spell over her wounded side, before smiling again at the look of relief on her face.  

 ***

The spriggan stalking Ma’non’go would have done better to watch his own back. The whistling sound was his only warning before a dagger thudded painfully into his hip. Crying out in pain, the spriggan stumbled back, reaching for the dagger now protruding from his hip, before crying out again as a second dagger struck him in the chest. Turning around, Ma’non’go only smiled in amusement as Amyalla emerged from the shadows, pulling her blades out of the spriggan’s body.

“I dare say these creatures probably have a fair amount of treasure, wouldn’t they?” Amyalla grinned. “Care to help me find it?”

I presume you’ll need a stronger pair of arms than your own to haul much if it away, will you not? Ma’non’go signed back to her.

“I’m hurt,” Amyalla pouted. “You think I’m just asking you for your strength, without appreciating your handsomeness?”

Ma’nongo just smiled back to her.

 ***

Marching ahead of Weimar and Seline as he led them down the left passage, Airk scowled at the four spriggans charging towards them. Two of the creatures were in giant form, the others the size of gnomes, tossing spears and daggers at the adventurers. Fully expecting the tactics, Airk knelt down and held up his shield, nodding as a spear and dagger bounced off it harmlessly. The vile things were naturally going to attack him first, even with Seline spellcasting behind him, the hatred between gnomes and spriggans rivalled that between the dwarven race and the duergar, or the hatred that was said to exist between the elves and the drow, those dark-skinned elves that were now known to be nothing more than folk-tales used by parents to scare children into obeying them.

His human friends were no less vulnerable, however, as a spear struck Weimar’s own shield and a spear bounced off the protective shielding spell Seline had cast in front of herself. Seline struck back first, releasing a lightning bolt that blasted two of the spriggans dead on the spot, and left the others scrambling to recover. One of them grew into its giant form and charged at Weimar, while the other remained as such and attacked Airk. Unlike true giants and ogres, spriggans could attack gnomes without any of the difficulties the other creatures had.

Weimar buckled under the blow of the gnome striking at him, and struck back with a blow from his axe, before grunting in pain as the thing managed a stinging hit on his shoulder. Airk did not flinch as the spriggan facing him brought its flail down on his shield, striking back and tearing a long gash down its leg with his military pick. As the creature staggered, Airk charged forward, slamming into the spriggan’s legs with his shield and making it stumble. As the creature came down, Airk lashed out with his pick once more, catching the spriggan in the eye. His expression never changing, Airk tore a long gash down the spriggan’s face, continuing until he ripped a gash in the creature’s throat as it died in agony.

Weimar ducked another swing from his opponent, and retaliated with a strike that clove deep into the creature’s chest. As the spriggan fell to his knees, Weimar struck again repeatedly with his axe, hacking through the spriggan’s arms as he tried to defend himself and finally taking its head off.

“Is that the last of them, do you think?” he tried to ask Airk, only to notice that the gnome had already stalked off down the passage.

Weimar and Seline looked at one another in concern, before running to follow him.

 ***

It’s the Hateful Wars all over again, Airk realized. Just like when we fought those spriggan bandits who preyed on our defenseless villages…

During the Hateful Wars, many of the gnomes who sent their warriors to fight their supposed dwarven allies or the humanoids they were meant to be battling together were preyed on by spriggans who robbed and murdered their families and homes. Airk had learned much about the vicious creatures from his older brothers Osian and Tarnek during their time in Flinthold’s army, when their unit had confronted a band of the creatures who had kidnapped several gnomish children, intending to sell them either to the humanoids for food, or to some of the treacherous dwarves as slaves, whichever offered the higher price. Now, Airk had passed that knowledge on to his new companions, and he was quite pleased with how well they had used it.

There was one thing he had kept for himself, however. Spriggan bands were usually organized around a single leader, the most vicious and sadistic of the group, who only entered into battle at the most opportune time. If that time never came, he would try to flee with as much treasure and other essentials as he could lay his hands on.

His eyes glancing all the passage, far better in the dimness than any human’s, Airk soon found what he was looking for. The kitchen lay further ahead to his right, while he had passed the general sleeping area several feet back. A spriggan leader would want his minions close by to protect him, and also be close to the kitchen to have first choice of the meals, so…

Easily bursting into the room, knocking aside the wooden door that separated it from the passage, Airk stared hatred at the spriggan who was about to step through the open secret door. The creature turned back to regard Airk, and the gnome could see that his new foe was ugly even by spriggan standards, powerfully muscled even in his small form and heavily marked with tattoos and piercings. Hefting a vicious two-handed battleaxe as he dropped the chests he was carrying, the spriggan only spat at Airk as the gnome strode into the room.

“Think you’re clever, don’t you?” the spriggan sneered at Airk, who raised his military pick warily. “Think that just because you slay a few expendable fools, you think you can triumph?”

“You think you can slay us all by yourself?” Airk shot back, not giving an inch. “You’re quite calm for someone facing the end of his life.”

“I never thought I’d meet you,” the spriggan continued, before his scowl turned into a wicked leer as Airk rocked back on his heels.

“How do you know me?” he demanded.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” the spriggan laughed evilly. “Pity you’ll never get to find out!” he shouted, charging at Airk as he grew into his giant form. The spriggan’s axe grew with him, the huge weapon clanging loudly as it rang off Airk’s shield.

Reeling from the sheer force of the blow, Airk lowered his shield and was slashed across the chest by a vicious backhanded chop from the spriggan’s axe. His entire body on fire with pain, Airk stumbled back and was fortunate to avoid being cut in two by the next blow. Blood ran down the front of his torso, and Airk knew that his heavy armor had likely saved him from being instantly killed.

Shouting in a rage, Airk struck back with his pick, tearing a long line in the spriggan’s arm as he withdrew his axe. The spriggan grunted in pain and struck back viciously, moving his axe with frightening speed. His first blow was deflected by Airk’s shield, and his second slashed another wound across Airk’s back. Airk was now covered with blood, most of it his own, but the gnome simply struck back, driving his pick into one of the spriggan’s hands. The pick’s point penetrated almost up to the handle of the weapon, causing the spriggan to scream in pain. Forced to strike one-handed, he still registered a solid blow against Airk, one that caught the gnome in the side of the head and tore a shallow gash in his neck as the edge of the axe blade struck it.

Airk seemed not to care.

His fury was rising again, an anger borne of his memories of the Hateful Wars and what the spriggans had done. In truth, he did not even feel the pain of his injuries, his mind continually flashing back to memories of fighting the spriggans he had confronted once before. The lessons of Osian and Tarnek flashed through his memory once more, as he lashed out with his pick and drove it straight down into the spriggan’s foot. As the spriggan screamed, raising his axe for another blow, Airk tore a gash in its stomach, raising a line of blood that ran down the spriggan’s legs.

Murder was in Airk’s eyes as he went into a frenzy, hacking away at the spriggan’s torso one moment, and then at his legs when the monster tried to protect his vital areas. Finally, staggering from his wounds, the spriggan sank to one knee.

Glowering with rage, Airk drove his pick into the middle of the spriggan’s face, right between his eyes. Withdrawing the weapon, he struck again and a third time, each time tearing the gash more and more widely.

It was only when Seline called his name that he broke out of his trance, and turned to regard his friends, who were all staring at him with concern on their faces.

Covered with blood and looking half-dead, Airk’s wounds would have been worrying enough by themselves.

The look in his eyes, on the other hand, was chilling.

 ***

“Are you alright?” Luna asked Airk in concern, as she finished her healing spells. Airk quickly leapt to his feet, more quickly than she would have liked.

“What did you find?” he demanded, marching over to the chests that his companions were now looking through. Gemstones and potion bottles spelled out a clear enough reply to Airk, but he was more interested in the sheaf of parchments that Amyalla held out for him.

“None of us could make much sense of these letters,” the halfling said grimly, “but from what we can tell the news isn’t good. You’d probably be more familiar with these names than we are.”

Snatching the papers out of Amyalla’s hands, Airk saw that they were written in the gnome tongue. The handwriting seemed vaguely familiar to him, and a memory flashed across his mind, something half-forgotten and buried stirring from within the recesses of his consciousness.

He flinched for a second, trying to remember what it was about, before the memory came back, unbidden, as he read the first letter.

Gorkyn,

Excellent work. Your raids have been even more profitable than I expected, and the profits will finance some truly important parts of the search. It will have to be laundered through that fool Laessar’s merchant house, but that’s hardly a problem of course. He’s known as a master dealer, so a few more gems will hardly attract much attention.

More than anything, I should like to commend you on your use of those stupid trolls in your raids. Not only are they excellent shock troops, and perfectly expendable, but they are almost impossible to trace back to us. It reminds me of the old days, when some of our different nations began manipulating the humanoids to attack our rivals. Needless to say, after our rivals had exhausted themselves, it was a simple matter for us to take what we wanted.

In gratitude for your fine work, I would encourage you to keep half of the spoils for yourself. But no more than half-you should know, after what I did to Crullach, that I have eyes everywhere.

I am always watching you.

I am everywhere.

And yet, if you stay with me, you shall share in the riches that shall be mine. The game I am playing holds many rewards for the bold, rewards that-I will repeat myself-will be passed on to the most loyal and devoted of my followers.

The Crawler be with you, my brother.

Kalrek Burunne.

Airk’s blood ran cold, as his mind raced back to that horrible night more than six and a half decades ago.

He recalled the deaths of his fellow warriors of Flinthold, fellow gnomes he had grown up with, kinsmen and blood brothers.

We were assured the cavern was safe…that the claim had to be made…Airk heard himself think.

How could we see the stalactites coming, after Kalrek had insisted there was no danger?

At first there was nothing but silence, the sound of peace and the anticipation of a bright future after suffering and loss…

…and then rivers of blood, the mocking laughter of the dwarves, their axes aided by the toxic poisons released by the broken stalactites…

The blood of the guilty dwarves, washing away the innocent gnome blood, was my only redemption…

Dozens set forth, and two alone return home…the last of the survivors.

…A joke of Garl Glittergold’s? More likely a joke of Urdlen.

What did Flinthold gain, for all those years of war?

None of the promised riches, none of the sought glory…

…nothing but broken families, hundreds slain, betrayal by those who were thought to be our allies.

Is that what you sought, Kalrek? What did you gain from it?

How much gold was our peoples’ lives worth?

It was then that Airk was vaguely aware that he had been screaming, and that Revafour and Ma’non’go had restrained him to stop his violent thrashing. Finally, as he regained his senses, he began to calm, for all that the haunted look remained in his eyes. Looking around, he could see his companions staring back at him, worry reflected in their eyes.

“…Airk,” Seline began to speak for all of them. “What happened to you?”

“…Kalrek…” Airk murmured, before he took a deep breath.

“The person who wrote that letter?” Revafour asked. “Who is he?”

“…The cause of it all,” Airk finally murmured. “The gnome who betrayed my clan to the dwarves that nearly murdered us, and caused so much suffering for Flinthold. So many decades on, and he’s still doing it. The attacks on the Flan, consorting with spriggans, all this suffering and murder to line his own pockets!”

“He organized these spriggans, and the trolls, all to gain further wealth?” Weimar asked incredulously.

“All that death, all that murder,” Airk sighed, seeming to have aged two centuries in as many minutes. “So many decades, and their deaths are still unavenged,” he continued, seeming not to have heard Weimar’s question. “What’s he planning now, and why would he involve Laessar?”

“Who’s this Laessar?” Amyalla demanded, turning Airk’s head to make him look her squarely in the eyes.

“Laessar is a friend of mine,” Airk continued, shaking his head as he attempted to focus his thoughts. “He left the Lortmils with his family after the Hateful Wars, and set himself up as a merchant and gem dealer at Copper Crossing in the Kron Hills. What would he be doing with a monster like Kalrek?”

“Not now, not anymore!” Airk exclaimed as he stood up. “If Laessar still lives at Copper Crossing, I’ll have him speak the truth face to face!”

“Will you stop your ranting and listen to what we have to say?” Revafour demanded, forcibly pulling Airk into the air and holding him there, forcing the gnome to look into his eyes. “Or have you gone completely mad?”

“…Mad?” Airk mumbled again. “No, I’m…not…by the gods, I’m sorry…for everything,” he continued as Revafour set him down. “I know how difficult and curt I’ve been over the last several days. It’s just…when I saw that Kalrek was involved, everything just…”

“…It’s alright,” Luna assured him, leading him over to a luxurious divan and sitting him down. “Is there any means by which we could help you?”

“There’s a gnome city in the Kron Hills called Copper Crossing,” Airk explained. “I intend to travel there-I need to speak to Laessar and ask him about Kalrek. Whatever Kalrek is planning, I have to stop him.”

“…Are you sure that’s wise?” Amyalla asked curiously. “You don’t exactly seem like you’re in the best condition to-“

“The Nine Hells how I feel!” Airk snapped back. “After all these decades, I’ve finally found a lead on Kalrek, and a means to avenge the blood he’s spilled! Think of the Flan, too, and everyone else his minions have likely murdered. What else could he be planning? He has to be stopped! Garl only knows who else might suffer if we don’t!” he continued, his voice rising.

“I’m sorry…those memories,” he said, calming himself once again. “I can’t…it’s so hard to let…”

Your pain at your recollections are entirely understandable, Ma’non’go signed. Surely you recall, however, that you are not alone with your suffering? We too have endured similar traumas, and we understand what you are experiencing.

“Then…will you join me?” Airk asked. “Justice demands no less of me than to finally punish Kalrek for all his crimes.”

Looking at one another, Airk’s companions nodded reassuringly.

Ma’non’go was certain, however, that he wasn’t the only one troubled by the look that was still in Airk’s eyes.

***

In happier times, it had been a great gathering hall for the gnomes of the hills, the elves who lived to the south and east of the hills, and the Flan who were the first human inhabitants of the Flanaess. That was millennia ago, however, before the gathering hall had been invaded and largely destroyed by enemies whose identities were now lost to the mists of time, along with the location of the hall itself. Perhaps some of the oldest elves still among the living knew of its location, although they would have considered the place to have been destroyed centuries ago.

Anyone who came upon the hall now would not know its original history, although the artistic design of its corridors and amphitheaters, decorated with warm, welcoming red, green and gold crystals, might have given the intelligent observer some hints. Unfortunately, even with the tremendous strength the gnomish builders had imbued the stone with, the passage of time had caused many parts of the complex to cave in. The surviving parts of the hall, the old gathering amphitheaters, residential areas and farming caverns, now existed alongside more crudely built tunnels and caves, torn out of the oerth and rock by various parties that had come to call the place home over the years. Most of these residents were creatures like orcs, goblins, derro, mind flayers, dark creepers, formorian giants and more, vile, hateful beings that would have been all too happy to murder the original residents of the complex and seize it for themselves. All of these residents were eventually driven out, however, as new inhabitants seized the place for themselves.

The newest residents of the ruined complex were unlike anything that had ever come before. Orcs drank alongside spriggan gnomes, who rubbed shoulders with evil-looking human brigands. Trolls exchanged insults with derro, both of whom cursed the formorian giants who sat sulking in the corner. None of them dared to pick fights with one another, much less to pay even the slightest bit of attention to the large crates and chests that were being carried by ogre porters further into the complex.

They might have been sorely tempted to do so, but they did not dare.

Some of the residents of the complex received better beer and finer food than most of the others, accorded respect as leaders of groups formed of most of the rest of the rabble that visited the cavern. Gangrelen was one of those leaders, a man who was both built like an ogre and had the sinuous, weasel-like features that one typically associated with cowardly thieves and spies. He was anything but cowardly, though, his face crisscrossed with a misshapen spider web of scars that testified to his years leading his bandit gang and dealing with challengers to his authority in the most permanent way possible.

Gangrelen was a man who typically replied to commands with weapons, but he immediately snapped to attention at the approach of the gnome approaching him. Clad in immaculately tailored sky-blue clothes and carrying no visible weapons, the little gnome didn’t seem to do much to merit the deference the dangerous men and monsters all around him showed, and on his own he did not, of course.

And yet, when the gnome bid him come, Gangrelen needed no second ordering.

The gnome led Gangrelen through the crudely torn tunnels and back into the older part of the complex, carved with love and reverence by the gnomes who once called it home. Several more gnomes, dressed much like the one leading Gangrelen, were busily at work. Some were in what resembled a large library, sifting through a mountain of books and parchments in between scribbling notes. Others were diligently training with swords and hammers, in a large cavern that looked as if it had been converted into a drill hall. Another room had a small army of gnomes directing the ogre porters to empty the contents of the chests they were carrying, all of the coins and gems and valuables, onto a small mountain of similar wealth, the whole ready to be blocked off by an elaborately designed vault door.

Gangrelen was familiar with all of these rooms, and he knew that most of these gnomes, except for the ones practicing in the drill hall, were unarmed and unskilled, such that even a small gang of orcs or goblins could slaughter them all with barely any fuss.

He knew all this, but he knew that none of the creatures back in the newer caverns would ever dare to do so.

Gangrelen had to keep from swallowing as he approached the large double doors at the far edge of the hallway his gnome escort was leading him down. The doors were studded with finely cut gems and inlaid with ivory and silver in the shape of a beautiful crown, the display of wealth so blatantly obvious that it almost dared anyone to try and deface the doors to seize it.

Only a fool would have ever done so, as the doors swung open into a large chamber designed as a lavish throne room. Silken tapestries with still more gems threaded into them hung at regular intervals from the walls, in between fine paintings and figurines of jade, amber and ivory. A selection of gold-handled and gem-studded weapons hung from a rack on one wall, a bar and buffet with a selection of rare sweetmeats and fine wines occupied another. The chairs and tables were of the finest oak, beautifully carved to resemble burrowing mammals, but none of them compared with the massive throne that towered above Gangrelen, carved into the shape of a nightmarish thing that resembled a cross between a demon, a badger and a raccoon.

As impressive as all these sights were, they paled in comparison to the room’s inhabitants. A collection of scantily-clad women of several different races walked through the room, a few of them carrying trays upon which they carried jeweled crystal goblets. Gangrelen heard the snap of fingers, and one of the women leaped to attention, walking to the bar to collect a pair of jeweled crystal goblets and a bottle of fine Ideean sherry.

The snapping of those fingers brought Gangrelen’s attention to the master of it all, the owner of the fabulous wealth all around him, the one who the serving girls devoted their attentions to, the one for whom all the gnomes Gangrelen had noticed on his way in here deferred to.

He too was a gnome, clad in a combination of silk gentleman’s clothes and fluted silvery steel armor. A wickedly edged sword lay at one side of the throne, and a skull-faced shield on the other, and Gangrelen knew that the gnome could easily reach either of them in a hurry if he needed them. The gnome was all smiles as Gangrelen approached, even more so as the elven maiden that had been sitting at his feet rose up and quickly walked off to the side, leaving Gangrelen and the gnome staring at each other intently.

Gangrelen normally feared nothing, but this gnome seemed so far above him, above every other being that shared his complex, that he was relieved indeed that the gnome was glad to see him. His mannerisms were those of a king, and indeed Gangrelen imagined that the gnome could easily have held his own in the company of the human monarchs of lands like Nyrond, Furyondy or Keoland. Confidence and certainty marked his every move, as did a sheer aura of power and wisdom that seemed almost a tangible thing all around him.

Instinctively, Gangrelen knelt before the lord of the manor, master of everything he saw.

He knelt before Kalrek Burunne.

“So nice to see you again, my friend,” Kalrek grinned as he came down from his throne. Reaching out with his hand, he raised Gangrelen’s face to look into his eyes.

Although Gangrelen was the same height as Kalrek even when he was kneeling, he felt small, so very small, compared to the gnome before him.

“Good, very good,” Kalrek smiled. “Now, tell me…how fares the robbing and plundering trade?”

“It fares…well,” Gangrelen replied, unable to stop himself from swallowing hard. “Very well.”

“Well enough to share with a friend, I’m sure,” Kalrek smiled. “How well, then?”

“Forty thousand silver sovereigns, Sir Kalrek,” Gangrelen nodded. “All for your glory, of course.”

“I must say, I’m impressed,” Kalrek smirked. “Indeed, I’m flattered by your generosity-perhaps it is somewhat excessive, considering how much wealth I already possess. Perhaps if you were to share only twenty thousand of those silver sovereigns, as a gesture of friendship of course, you and yours may find yourselves welcome in my house once more?”

“My thanks, Sir Kalrek,” Gangrelen replied, bowing his head once more.

“And as a gesture of good faith,” Kalrek smiled, gesturing to some of the serving girls, “you may enjoy yourself with the pick of my beloveds,” he grinned, gesturing to the serving girls.

Gangrelen had taken many people as slaves and prisoners in the raids he’d led as a bandit captain, but he’d rarely seen slaves as submissive as those Kalrek surrounded himself with. They were eager to please his every whim, but behind those subservient smiles the experienced Gangrelen could see the pain and fear in their eyes. If anything, they had lost all hope, resigned to spending the rest of their existences as Kalrek’s playthings…until he grew tired of them, of course, and gave them to the monstrous minions who paid him homage.

He felt admiration for the gnome lord.

He also felt fear.

 ***

According to his precisely timed clock, it was well past midnight by the time Kalrek had completed his business. He had collected the tribute from Gangrelen and the rest of the monsters and brigands who’d come to serve him, treating them all to a lavish and rich feast before rounding off the evening with some pleasure with his girls.

They’d come to revere him as a bandit king, someone with intelligence and connections far beyond their own limited means. He gave the bandits and monsters knowledge and suggestions of what communities to raid, what tombs to plunder, which people to hold for ransom, and so forth, in exchange for their tribute and a goodly share of their wealth. He was as feared as he was loved, having slowly and publicly tortured the few minions who’d dared to challenge him for the amount of their wealth he claimed, or who otherwise sought to cheat him. It was easy for him to determine which of his minions had cheated him-he could read them all like a book, much as he had read his fellow gnomes of Flinthold and the Steelheart dwarves he’d betrayed them to.

And yet he was so much more than that. Kalrek used the likes of Laessar Bradon to launder his stolen plunder, and to convey messages and intelligence to the various spies, sages and other beings he’d come to rely on. He was so much more than a bandit lord, so, so much more.

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 Crown of Arumdina was beckoning. 

"
 
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