CruelSummerLord writes "
Airk was all but certain that he had died, and when he awakened in a haze of pain, he wondered if he had come to the Seven Heavens or the Tri-Paradises.
The scene awaiting him looked more like the Nine Hells. He was securely chained to a line along with several other gnomes, all of whom were marked with grisly half-healed wounds and were covered in dried blood.
The rest of
the day was taken up with the companions buying fresh supplies, Nusanne finding
lodgings for herself and her husband, Bretten finding some paying carpentry
work, and preparing a final feast of thanks and goodbye to the companions for
their help in escorting the couple here. The feast itself was modest, livened
by the use of Weimar’s magical flagon, but the feeling behind it was sincere
and heartfelt. So too was the invitation Bretten and Nusanne extended to the
companions to visit them if they ever found themselves in Restin again.
Airk could tell that Amyalla and his human
companions were grateful for the respite, however brief it was, and even more
so for the meals and companionship they shared with the Urnstian couple they
had been escorting for the last week and a half. The gnome tried to enjoy the
meal as best he could, and indeed he was quite happy to see that the couple had
arrived safely at their destination-something that did not happen in the
dangerous Flanaess as often as it should-but his mind kept coming back to
memories of the past, memories that he had been carrying for the last six and a
The gnomes needed no light in the underground
realms, making their way with their powers of infravision, the ability to see
heat in the darkness and determine their surroundings as easily as if they were
standing in the sunlight aboveground. They were creatures of the oerth and
stone itself, the blessings bestowed on them by Garl Glittergold making them
perfectly at ease both in the hills and forests of the surface world and the
tunnels and caves beneath it. More than that, Garl had also imbued them with
the courage and fighting skill that had enabled them to defend their homeland
of Flinthold so well for the past nine years against the monsters that
continued to infest the Lortmils like a plague.
This expedition, sixty strong, was no exception
to the military prowess of Flinthold’s people. Everything about them radiated
steel and power, from the armor of chains and plating that they wore to the
gleaming heads of their hammers, swords and military picks to the looks of
determination in their eyes. They marched with a sense of purpose, determined
to let nothing and no one block their path.
They had been marching for a week and a half,
carrying not only their weapons and armor but ropes, metal frameworks, alarm
bells and all the other materials and equipment necessary to construct an
outpost, complete with the gateways and traps that they would use to admit
their kin and keep out intruders. No race on all of Oerth could build such
devices as well as the gnomes, the world’s masters of engineering, and once
they were set up any invaders would be hard-pressed to break through the
defenses, even if they vastly outnumbered the gnomish force.
It’s been a
long time coming, Airk Venbelwar thought
to himself as the gnomes finally ceased their march and began to settle down
for the night. And won’t this beauty be reflected a thousand times over? he mused, lighting a spark from his
tinderbox and imagining what it would look like when they reached their
That single spark would be reflected a thousand
times over, Airk knew, as the very walls themselves would glitter with the
light of a starlit sky on the surface. The caverns held some of the richest
veins of silver any of the gnomes had ever seen, and the orcs who once held
these caverns had fought to the last to defend the fabulous wealth these cavern
walls contained. The battle lines had since shifted further to the east, but
this expedition of gnomes had been diverted from the frontline to establish
Flinthold’s claim on this hall, particularly given the amount of blood the
gnomish kingdom had shed to drive the orcs out of this part of the Lortmil
The gnomes nodded to each other approvingly, as
they began setting up camp. It was not long before they had posted guards to
keep watch, and prepared their evening meal.
“And there were no signs of those Steelheart
dogs?” Airk asked Kalrek as they shared a meal of rothe steaks, sliced potatoes
and mead. Kalrek was one of the expedition’s lead scouts, having charted the
path the gnomes would take to the cavern they had selected as the destination
for their outpost.
“Of course I am,” Kalrek replied, with that
ever-confident smile. For the last several months, the gnomes of Flinthold had
been caught in an ugly feud with the Steelheart dwarven clan, who had claimed
they’d contributed more of an effort against battling the orcs in this part of
The regent of Flinthold had spoken for all his
people when he denounced the Steelhearts’ claims as rubbish, stating that
Flinthold had done most of the lion’s share of the fighting, while the
Steelhearts had only struck at humanoid bands who’d already worn themselves
down fighting the Flintholders. The Steelheart king claimed that he was
fighting strategically, but that did not account for the way several Flinthold
patrols had been slaughtered indiscriminately by their Steelheart counterparts
when the latter intervened in clashes between the gnomes and their humanoid
opponents. Now, with the humanoids on the defensive, the Flinthold gnomes and
the Steelheart dwarves were fighting each other as much as their enemies, a
tendency that repeated itself across the Lortmils as the increasingly
victorious allies turned to fighting each other for the spoils and treasures.
Gnome battled against dwarf, gnome battled against gnome, and dwarf battled against
dwarf, any thoughts of alliance or racial solidarity increasingly fracturing in
the face of the lust for riches that drove them all so strongly.
“But what about all the reports of Steelheart
activity?” Airk persisted.
“Nothing more than a few scouts,” Kalrek
replied confidently as they finished their meals and picked up their weapons to
take their turns at watch. Two other gnomes came to join them, and the four
warriors marched to a side tunnel that split off into a four-way junction. The
two gnomes that had joined them went off down the side tunnels, while Kalrek
and Airk continued down the central tunnel that led back to the main road in
this part of the mountains.
“Do you think they’d be so brave as to face a
full complement of our warriors, the finest in all this part of the Lortmils?” Kalrek
Airk couldn’t help but laugh at the scout’s
infectious confidence. Kalrek had proven himself a natural leader in many
things, being among the first to speak at strategic meetings, never being shy
about wanting to go aggressively after Flinthold’s enemies in war or its
competitors in trade, even as he charmed even the humans and dwarves he
interacted with as a senior Flinthold commander and noble with his confidence. The
regent of Flinthold had come increasingly to rely on Kalrek’s energy and
advice, and many of his fellow gnomes saw the wisdom in the choice, including
“You’re far too modest, my friend,” Kalrek
smiled at him. “You are, aside from myself, likely the greatest warrior in Flinthold’s
entire military force-so why have you never set your sights on higher things?”
Airk just shrugged, not entirely comfortable
with the question.
“I’ve never been that interested in such
things,” he replied. “And I have not put much thought into them, particularly with
the war going on as long as it has.”
“There’s time yet, Airk,” Kalrek assured him.
“The war will be over soon enough, and Flinthold will prosper as never before
when it does. We live six centuries of life-what might we accomplish in that
Airk only tugged at
his moustache as he weighed what Kalrek had told him, as the other gnome walked
“Kalrek has a point, you know,” Laessar told
Airk as the two sat down over their meal the next morning. “When the war is
complete, I have large plans of my own. Flinthold will prosper once this war is
over, and I intend to prosper with it. My father could make a much greater
merchant than he is, but he simply lacks vision. I have nothing like that
holding me back, you see-when I take his place at the company’s head, I’ll lead
it to heights never before seen!”
Airk just smiled.
“What about you, then?” Laessar asked.
“…I’m not certain,” Airk said hesitantly.
“Perhaps I’ll continue on as a soldier, or set out on the adventuring path. I’m
honestly not sure.”
“So you’ll go burrowing through haunted ruins,
rescuing distressed damsels, and traveling to the four corners of the
Flanaess?” Laessar chuckled, recalling the description of a legendary gnomish
hero who declared that he intended to do much the same thing.
“I suppose,” Airk grinned. “And what a grand
adventure it might be, would it not?”
“I can’t say,” Laessar smiled. “Once the war is
over and I return home, I intend to stay there.”
Airk just smiled again, liking that tendency in
Laessar. Laessar had always been more of a homebody, taking up his sword only
because Flinthold had needed him now, but always more interested in politics
and trade than in battle, even during the old days when he and Airk first
patrolled as novice soldiers. Laessar had mustered out of his patrol as soon as
he could, and only returned to the military because of the dire situation
Flinthold found itself in because of the Hateful Wars. Despite-or perhaps
because of-their differences in temperament, they’d been close friends ever
since they were children.
Finishing his meal,
Airk just smiled and went to take his turn at watch.
By midday, the gnomish troop was forced to take
a detour at Kalrek’s urging. He’d alerted his fellows to a brood of purple
worms that had recently settled in a cave along their intended route, and they
needed no second urging to try and find another way around. Unfortunately, the
cavern route Kalrek had chosen was almost a labyrinth of stalactites,
connecting tunnels and little alcoves, and the gnomes were slowed considerably
as they picked their way through the maze.
“There are signs of passage here,” Airk noted
warily to Kalrek, as they returned to the main troop. “Look at the footprints,”
he pointed out, indicating the faint traces that could still be noted by the
gnomes, who were blessed by Garl Glittergold to be able to see into the
infrared spectrum of light.
“Possibly some other scouts, or a messenger,”
Kalrek shook his head. “This was quite a few days ago-hardly anything worth
“…I suppose,” Airk muttered, peering ahead to
see how many of his fellows were still gathered with the main troop.
He was so intent on trying to pick out his
fellows that he never noticed Kalrek pull a lever set into one of the alcoves,
cunningly concealed behind a panel so well-made that even the most skilled
gnome or dwarf would hardly have considered it anything other than mundane
That was when a loud clicking sound echoed
through the cavern, as many of the stalactites came crashing down on the
gnomes. Their cries of alarm were suddenly supplanted with painful, hacking
coughs, as the shattered stalactites released a sickly greenish gas that
quickly filled the entire cavern.
Chaos ensued among the confused gnomes. Some of
them tried to call out to one another and rally a line of defense, thinking
they were under attack. Others tried to run back to the main troop, but were
hopelessly confused by the layout of the cavern and even more so the toxic
fumes released from the broken stalactites. More than half the gnomes were on
their knees, so ill from the greenish gas that they could do nothing but vomit
Airk managed to stay on his feet, but he was so
sickened by the gas that all his strength seemed to fade from him at once, and
his clothes and equipment felt like lead on his body. It was all he could do to
stay upright, calling out desperately as he tried to rally his brothers in
arms, realizing that they were all in mortal danger.
The cries of alarm from the other gnomes were
soon joined by a loud tromping sound, as if another troop of warriors had
entered the cavern. Loud war-cries to the dwarven gods soon replaced that
tromping sound, as did the sounds of weapons clashing against shields. The
alarmed cries of the gnomes were soon replaced by their screams of agony, as
they were cut down, most of them too dizzied and nauseous to be able to defend
themselves properly. Despite their best efforts, many of them were cut down by
the new attackers before they could ever raise their weapons.
Struggling to stay on his feet, Airk raised his
war-pick and his shield defensively in front of him, as he tried to determine
who their attackers were. To his astonishment and horror, he recognized that
the new arrivals were dwarves, dwarves clad in shining steel armor and bearing
a design on their shields that reflected a sword being driven down vertically
through a bleeding heart, cold steel tearing through flesh and blood…
Shock and horror left Airk reeling, unable to
react as one of his comrades was promptly beheaded by a dwarven axe. It was
only then that Airk remembered himself, and he charged forward fearlessly,
deflecting the dwarf’s first attack with his shield and retaliating with a
strike that left a gash along the dwarf’s arm.
How in the
Nine Hells could this be happening? Airk
demanded in horror. Where did the gas come from? How could the Steelhearts
know that we were here? What could have led them to follow us here?
Airk had no time to think any further, before
ducking the dwarf’s next axe blow and then standing back up, striking down in a
fury and driving his pick into the dwarf’s face. The dying dwarf fell in a
bloody heap, and Airk moved on to the next dwarf, clashing his pick against the
dwarf’s. This one was overconfident, believing that he could take Airk down in
a single strike, but a surge of adrenaline helped Airk stay on his feet.
Deflecting the dwarf’s strike with his shield, he struck high at the dwarf’s
face and then pulled his weapon back as the dwarf raised his shield to block.
Faster than the dwarf expected, Airk whipped his pick back over and down, right
into the dwarf’s knee. As the dwarf fell with a howl, Airk tore his throat out.
A spinning hammer came at him, and once again
Airk’s shield saved his life as he blocked the incoming weapon. The dwarf came
at him, brandishing a second hammer, but Airk lashed out once more, impaling
the vicious wretch’s arm and pulling him forward. Completely off balance, the
dwarf was helpless to resist as Airk drove his pick into the dwarf’s chest.
Despite their shock and surprise, the gnomes of
Flinthold were fighting admirably, refusing to surrender without resisting
despite how weakened they were by the poisonous gas. Dwarves were far more
resistant to poison than gnomes were, but it seemed to go even beyond this, as
not a single dwarf seemed to be affected by the poison at all. As the gnomes
began to falter, their reactions dulled and pained by the poison, the dwarves
intensified their attack and began a final press.
His lungs burning with pain, Airk could not
defend himself from the next dwarf he faced. He had already struck down three
of the bearded wretches, but his newest opponent only laughed at the way the
gnome coughed and wheezed from the poisonous gas. Lashing out with his axe, he
tore a long gash across Airk’s stomach, causing the gnome to collapse on the
A cavern floor that seemed more like a pool, so
drenched was it in red liquid.
Drenched in spilled
gnomish blood, running like rivers over the stone.
Airk was all but certain that he had died, and
when he awakened in a haze of pain, he wondered if he had come to the Seven
Heavens or the Tri-Paradises.
The scene awaiting him looked more like the
Nine Hells. He was securely chained to a line along with several other gnomes,
all of whom were marked with grisly half-healed wounds and were covered in
dried blood. Airk himself was no better off, his stomach on fire from the axe
blow that his dwarven foe had cut into him with. Looking up and around him,
Airk could see groups of dwarves working diligently, gathering up the materials
the gnomes had been carrying, organizing patrols and dividing up the gnomes’
food and drink among them. Several of them pointed and laughed at the gnomes,
shouting curses and singing paeans to the dwarven gods for their victory.
The physical pain Airk felt at that moment
seemed to fade, replaced by a sickening sense of horror.
they do this? Airk wondered. How, by
the gods, how?
The voice behind him revealed the sickening
“And here I was afraid you’d been cut down,”
Kalrek smirked, as Airk turned to face him. “I should have known better than to
doubt you, though.” Kalrek was apparently unscarred, all smiles amid the
wretched condition of his kinfolk and the cheers of the dwarven victory.
“…Kalrek…?” Airk slurred, still wondering what
was happening. “…How?”
“Surely you never thought to question why I had
myself assigned to the scouting missions so often?” Kalrek asked in mock
horror, a devilish smile crossing his face. “Or why I insisted on going off
alone more than once? Or why I said that a brood of purple worms had just
migrated into the main cavern on our normal route, when purple worms don’t
typically travel in packs, as our elders once reminded us?”
“…why…” Airk managed to murmur.
“And did you even stop to think why so many
stalactites dropped at once?” Kalrek continued. “Or why they were made of
ceramic, rather than stone? Did it ever occurred to you that they might have
been a trap, rigged to fall at the appropriate time?”
Airk couldn’t reply, sitting there numbly,
overwhelmed as he was by the sheer weight of it all.
“It was all so easy, you know,” Kalrek smiled,
“planning out this route, selecting the right location for the ambush, and
setting up so more of my own poisoned stalactite traps here…with the aid of my
esteemed colleagues, of course, who also took precautions to protect themselves
from the crippling poisons those ceramic stalactites released,” he continued
“…why…” Airk repeated, his entire body feeling
paralyzed by the coldness of his blood.
“You all thought so small,” Kalrek sighed. “So
many of our kinfolk did, of course. Surely you realized that the Steelhearts
could afford greater opportunities?”
“Aye, and be sure that we’ll be holding to our
end of the bargain,” one of the dwarves, a leader by his bearing and attire,
smiled as he came up and shook Kalrek’s hand. “All the gold, silver and gems we
promised, and more besides, shall be yours, and more so again when we strike at
Flinthold. Your knowledge will, of course, be put to good use.”
“I have no doubt of it,” Kalrek smiled. “And
what do you intend to do with these wretches?” he asked, gesturing at Airk and
the other half dozen surviving gnomes.
“What would you have us do?” the dwarf leader
“Whatever you like,” Kalrek shrugged. “Their
fates are hardly worth my concern.”
“Mighten be that we’ll have you watch what
occurs to your precious Flinthold,” the dwarf leader sneered, punching Airk
across the face with his mailed fist. “And won’t that be a sight to see?”
Kalrek moved away at that, laughing
hysterically at how flawlessly everything had proceeded.
His laughter echoed in
Airk’s ears as he fell unconscious from the dwarf’s punch.
awake in a cold sweat, his chest and face aching from phantom pains. Looking
around, he saw that he was asleep in his bed at the inn, before he buried his
face in his hands.
It was the
same nightmare again, of course, the nightmare of how he and his people had
been betrayed. Sheer good fortune had enabled him to survive that horrible
night, as the Steelheart patrol who had been assigned to take the gnomes out of
the cavern and execute them had themselves been slain by a patrol of gnomes
from the kingdom of Garnetholme further to the south, who happened to chance
upon the grisly execution. Four of the surviving Flinthold gnomes had been
beheaded by the Steelhearts before the Garnetholme gnomes had stopped them, and
only Airk and Laessar had been able to avoid their kin’s fate.
survival came thanks to the Garnetholme gnomes, who took Airk and Laessar back
to their home to warn the Flinthold regent of the attack, and who provided aid
against the Steelheart clan’s invasion. The assistance of Garnetholme had saved
Flinthold from being massacred by the Steelheart clan, but even they could not
prevent Flinthold from being extensively damaged by the siege, and having many
its people meet death at the edge of a dwarven axe or the head of a dwarven
So many of
its soldiers had died in the battles against the humanoids, and then against
the aggressions of the Steelhearts, that Flinthold’s survival had been in doubt
for some time after the Hateful Wars ended. Weakened as it was, it could not
lay claim to any of the rich mining areas that were taken by the victors after
the Hateful Wars’ end, particularly not the rich veins of silver that had held
so much hope for the future.
fought many battles on Flinthold’s behalf in the ensuing decades, even as
Laessar dedicated his merchant house’s resources to helping the struggling
kingdom recover. Flinthold had eventually regained its footing nearly twenty
years after the Hateful Wars, but it was but a pale shadow of its former self.
It was only then that Airk had left his pension and his share of the riches to
his family before setting off to make a fortune of his own, once they would be
able to take care of themselves. Laessar had continued to build trade ties
between Flinthold and the rest of the communities of the Lortmils and the
surrounding lands, although he moved his home and the main part of his
operations to Copper Crossing because of its closer proximity to the main
Garl forgive me, Airk thought to himself, but I couldn’t stay after Flinthold was able to stand on its own once
more. I had to leave...or else I would have gone mad. Kalrek…he…
...I needed to leave...
...Please, Garl, forgive me...