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The Silver Wolf: Ghosts Of The Past, Part Seven
Posted on Mon, November 23, 2015 by LordCeb
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 half decades.

***

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 destination.

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 Mountains.

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 mountains.

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 grinned.

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 Airk himself.

“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 time?”

Airk only tugged at his moustache as he weighed what Kalrek had told him, as the other gnome walked off.

***

“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 worrying about.”

“…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 rock.

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 helplessly.

Airk managed to stay on his feet, but he was so sickened by the gas that all his strength seemed to fade from him at once, 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…

…the Steelhearts.

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 cavern floor.

A cavern floor that seemed more like a pool, so drenched was it in red liquid.

Drenched in spilled gnomish blood, running like rivers over the stone.

***

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.

How did they do this? Airk wondered. How, by the gods, how?

The voice behind him revealed the sickening truth.

“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 smiling.

“…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 asked.

“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.

***

Airk shot 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.

Flinthold’s 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 hammer.

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.

Airk had 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 market activities.

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…

…he…

...I needed to leave...

...Please, Garl, forgive me...

"
 
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