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The Silver Wolf: Ghosts Of The Past Part Eight
Posted on Fri, December 18, 2015 by LordCeb
CruelSummerLord writes "“Have you ever felt such guilt that it threatened to drive you mad?” Airk asked. “The feeling that you have brought shame to your heritage and your people, shame made all the worse by the fact that you couldn’t bring yourself to bring a murderer to justice?"


The companions had said their goodbyes to Bretten and Nusanne the next morning, and then resumed their journey to Copper Crossing once all the preparations had been made. They rode mostly in silence, each of them reflecting on the task ahead of them and on the painful turmoil they all knew that Airk was experiencing. The gnome was silent now, but he looked almost as if his mind was somewhere else entirely, a faraway look in his eyes as he silently talked to himself, mouthing words in the gnomish tongue.

That first day of travel was uneventful, as was the first half of the second, but as the adventurers brought their mounts over a knoll they heard the sound of weapons clashing, the screams and shouts of people fighting and dying. Gazing ahead, they could see a cluster of wagons and horses, around which several men were fighting fiercely. Some of them were dressed in dark green uniforms and matching caps, likely caravan guards by the looks of them, while they were fighting desperately against a much larger gang of rough-looking men, who the adventurers quickly recognized as bandits.

Looking at one another, it did not take the adventurers long to agree to enter the battle. It was a matter of moments to have their mounts secured to some nearby shrubbery, and then to release a flurry of arrows and magical bolts, striking down several of the bandits as they turned to face the new arrivals.

The first man who came at Ma’non’go was a stocky-looking fellow, his breeches and leather jerkin even more filthy and stinking than Ma’non’go would have expected. His first sword thrust was just as clumsy and crude as Ma’non’go would have thought, easily deflected by the taller man’s trident before he was run through and flung aside. Looking quickly around him, he smiled as he saw Weimar’s next arrow bury itself in another bandit’s throat, even as Airk struck down yet another with his morning star.

The bandits were clearly caught off guard, alarmed by the magic and arrows, and they were not prepared to deal with such skilled opposition. Some of the bandits shouted to one another, clearly hoping to rally each other into some form of defense, but the experienced Ma’non’go could see that their resolve was immediately crumbling. The next bandit attacking Ma’non’go swung his flail wildly, desperately trying to strike the tall Olman down, but Ma’non’go easily deflected every blow with the head or the handle of his trident.

He heard Luna’s voice call out for the bandits to surrender, and one of them did so, clearly a leader owing to his bearing and the relative finery of his equipment compared to the rest of the bandits. The man thrust his sword point-first into the ground and immediately knelt down at the priestess’s feet, bowing his head in obedience. Ma’non’go only smiled, having seen Luna work such magic before more than once.

With the surrender of the leader, the battle soon became a rout, as a few of the bandits tried to surrender and others retreated into the woods. Neither the companions nor the caravan guards they had rescued were in any mood to show mercy, and the bandits who tried to surrender were quickly struck down, as were the fleeing bandits who any of the caravan guards had managed to catch. The air filled with more cries as Ma’non’go came forward in time to see Revafour binding the leader of the bandits with a length of rope, his bloodstained sword planted point-first in the oerth beside him. The tall southerner’s gaze then shifted to see Luna conferring with a tall and heavyset man dressed in finery especially tailored for rough travel, almost certainly one of the merchants who this caravan belonged to.

Satisfied that Revafour and Luna had the situation in hand, Ma’non’go turned, leading Airk back to where the other companions had left their mounts to bring them forward.

 ***

“Zilchus be praised for your timely intervention,” the heavyset merchant said solemnly as he bowed, “and my thanks for your courage. My name is Waylon, of fair Verbobonc. Might I inquire as to yours?”

“I am Luna, and this is Revafour,” Luna replied graciously, returning his bow. “You are recently of Copper Crossing, I take it?”

“Two days out,” Waylon replied, “and set to return to my fair city in due time. Am I to presume that Copper Crossing is your destination?”

“Quite so,” Luna nodded.

“Then allow me to present you with a token of my thanks,” Waylon replied, taking a pouch off his belt and handing it to Luna. “These moonstones are worth more than their weight in gold in Copper Crossing, but not worth half of the thanks we owe you.”

“It is my duty as a daughter of Pelor,” Luna reminded him. “Are you at all familiar with this wretch?” she asked, as they turned to regard the bandit captain, still under Revafour’s watchful eye.

“Certainly not,” Waylon shook his head. “The likes of he are all too common in the Kron Hills, and one looks much like any other. Unless there is no further reason for us to converse, we should indeed be on our way. So once again I thank you, and I wish the blessings of Zilchus upon you and your companions for your timely aid this day.”

Luna and Revafour had no objection with the caravan resuming its departure, both of them realizing that Waylon and his fellows were likely just another set of victims of the bandits. Their presence would only complicate matters, and lead to the merchants’ tongues wagging with knowledge the companions did not need them to know. It wasn’t long before their friends had come up to join them, and soon they were all gathered around the tight-lipped bandit captain, who had remained stubbornly silent all this time, but who finally began speaking as he looked from one of the adventurers to the other.

“I’ve seen what you did to my companions,” the captain finally sneered, “and I presume that the only reason you haven’t given me the same fate is because I have something you want. Now, what might that be?”

“Information, of course,” Amyalla replied, turning a dagger over and over in her hands.

“And what makes you think that I would yield any knowledge I possess?” the captain demanded.

“Perhaps the fact that, if you provide the information we seek, your death would be quick and painless, but if you lie or seek to trick us, your death will be much longer, slower and more painful in coming,” Revafour replied, his eyes narrowing. To emphasize the point, he brought his huge sword down in front of him, the point barely a foot from the bandit captain’s face and still dripping with the blood of the captain’s comrades.

To Revafour’s surprise, the captain didn’t seem intimidated. Instead, he merely seemed resigned, realizing there was no way out of the matter.

“You seem like adventurers of honor, then,” the captain admitted, “and you are far more inclined to keep your word than many others I’d associate with.”

“And you don’t fear your impending death?” Luna asked calmly, although she couldn’t fully keep the dismay at having to ask that question out of her voice.

“Not with the type of leadership I’ve been pledged to serve,” the captain replied. “Death at your hands would be preferable to death at the hands of theirs, as I would have experienced even if I returned to them.”

“You fear them that much?” Revafour asked in surprise.

“So would you, if you knew them,” the captain replied in all seriousness.

“Who, then, is your master?” Amyalla chimed in. “And why are you conducting raids for him?”

“He carries himself with the air of an emperor, the skill of a master warrior, and the cunning of a philosopher,” the captain explained. “He orders us, and so many more like us, to gather wealth on his behalf, wealth that he uses to finance his plans and to build his power.”

“And what are his plans?” Amyalla demanded.

“I don’t know his greatest goal,” the captain replied, “but he is drawing in an ever-growing number of minions of all kinds-not merely warriors, brigands and monsters, but also scholars, merchants and researchers. As his wealth expands, so too does his influence, which in turn allows him to collect still more wealth and power.”

“Heedless of how many innocent lives he ruins?” Amyalla raised an eyebrow.

“Indeed,” the captain replied. “His tentacles are numerous, and astonishingly well-organized. Veluna, Furyondy, Dyvers, Greyhawk, the Wild Coast, the Lortmils…his agents have extended into all these reaches, as has his knowledge. I don’t know what he’s seeking to do with all the power and wealth he is acquiring, but it must be grand indeed.”

“So who is he, then?” Seline demanded, appalled by what she was hearing.

“I know him as…” the captain began, before he was interrupted.

“…Kalrek Burunne,” Airk finished for him with a stone-faced expression, although a strange light still gleamed in his eyes.

“So you know him, then?” the captain asked in surprise. “Then again, I would imagine he’d be better known among his fellow gnomes.”

“What else can you tell us of him?” Airk demanded.

“Only one of his outposts where we gather to provide the plunder he receives,” the captain replied, before giving them an outline of its location. “Unfortunately, I’m not privileged enough to have visited the great gnome in person.”

“And so you’ve served your purpose,” Airk said with an icy calm as he stepped forward.

The captain was entirely calm as Airk lived up to the companions’ promise, knowing that to die at this gnome’s hands was entirely preferable to dying at the hands of the other gnome.

*** 

Kalrek Burunne was not amused, not after he finished examining the summaries of the plunder that his minions had brought him. The flow of plunder from the spriggans he had dispatched to the Cairn Hills had ended altogether, and he had heard no communications from them altogether for several days. The agents he had dispatched to their lair reported that the trolls under the spriggans’ command had all been slain, and the spriggans themselves had also been found dead, their lair looted. That was very bad-Kalrek knew full well that whoever was responsible for that might get their hands on the communications Kalrek had made with the spriggan commander, and learn about his responsibility for those activities.

He’d ordered one of his priests to conduct a divination on the matter, and had impatiently awaited the priest’s response. Now, he was sitting in his private chambers, leaving strict instructions that only Tooktrilk was allowed to disturb him.

The rapping on his door roused him from his brooding, and he ordered the petitioner to enter, his fingers grasping his sword to give an appropriate reward to anyone other than Tooktrilk who might be trying to intrude. Fortunately for all his minions, it was indeed Tooktrilk himself who was entering, the pale-skinned and entirely hairless gnome looking less like a gnome and more like a manikin, given how sickly thin and pale he seemed to be.

“You have information?” Kalrek demanded.

“I would not disturb you if it were otherwise,” Tooktrilk replied as he knelt before his lord, his bones creaking and cracking as he did so. The older gnome was breathing heavily, his body slowed by age, although he had been frail even in his long-ago youth. “I have information on those who dare to cross your minions.”

“Speak it, then,” Kalrek ordered, his fingers twitching along the handle of his sword.

Kalrek was rarely astonished, but he was so when Tooktrilk described the interfering heroes who had invaded the spriggans’ lair and defended the people of Oakdale against the troll invasions.

After all this time… Kalrek realized, I cross paths with Airk Venbelwar. Of all the people in the Flanaess who might have opposed my plans, fate chooses one of my oldest friends? I do not believe in the Lady of Fates, although I must confess that if I did I would be congratulating her on the irony!

He smiled and laughed at that thought, before he remembered that Tooktrilk was still staring at him.

“My lord?” the older gnome prompted.

“Use your divinations to determine where these people who disrupted my plans are,” Kalrek ordered Tooktrilk, “and then come to me when you have that knowledge. Now, return to your duties,” Kalrek said dismissively. “I have much to contemplate.”

Tooktrilk bowed once more before rising to his feet and turning to leave.

As Tooktrilk slammed the door behind him, Kalrek smiled once again as he considered how much Tooktrilk resembled Urdlen, the Crawler Below, the gnomish deity who tore through the oerth to indulge his lust for blood and suffering, for gold and plunder, burrowing grief and misery into the hearts and souls of his victims even as he burrowed through the oerth.

Kalrek had long admired Urdlen far more than any other gnomish god, admired him for his destructive rages, his ceaseless digging for more and more gain, never satisfied with what he had, always demanding more. The god’s accomplishments, frequently told and retold in gnomish lore, were typically meant to terrify young gnomes and warn them against such evil, but such tales had merely stoked the interest of young Kalrek when he was a child. The trickery and deception the Crawler Below frequently engaged in, trickery that caused no end of grief to the other gods, became something Kalrek felt he could model himself after.

That had been half the fun of betraying Flinthold to the Steelheart clan, after all.

Although the Steelhearts had ultimately failed against the combined forced of Flinthold and Garnetholme, Kalrek hardly cared about that. He’d turned the tables on the Steelhearts when they’d tried to take their frustrations at their defeat out on him, escaping with a healthy pile of the Steelhearts’ treasure for his trouble, and since then he had continued to work diligently, expanding his influence and his efforts the way Urdlen might dig an ever more extensive tunnel to entrap his prey, leaving them hopelessly lost, alone and confused before he moved in for the kill.

An image of Urdlen tearing his victims apart passed through Kalrek’s mind, and he began to laugh out loud at the thought of it.

He saw that image a lot.

It pleased him to no end.

 ***

While the gnomes who made up most of its population were not as skilled at mining or craftsmanship as their dwarven cousins, Copper Crossing was still an impressive sight. From the road the companions were traversing to approach the city, they could see that its walls were ringed with ballistae and catapults, alarm bells were placed at every lockable gate, and much of the land in front of its walls was rigged with pit traps, formidable obstacles for any would-be invaders. Large clock towers and bells loomed above the city, chiming out the time for the scores of humans, dwarves and gnomes walking through its streets, waiting for admission at the gates or passing into or out of the large caverns within its walls. Only the gnomes could hope to make such technology work as well as it did at Copper Crossing, and the adventurers could see why human lands such as Dyvers and Greyhawk paid such princely sums for gnomish engineering and works.

Copper Crossing appeared at first glance to be more of a large town than a city, having only some ten-score buildings within its walls. As Airk had explained to his friends, however, the surface part of Copper Crossing was actually built on a network of underground tunnels that contained the majority of the city’s population, homes and businesses. They also housed the mines of copper, iron and tin that generated so much of the wealth not only of Copper Crossing, but of many of the surrounding communities as well.

“We won’t have much difficulty gaining admission,” Airk was telling his friends, “or in finding a place to stay while I conduct my business with Laessar. We shouldn’t be here more than a couple of days, at the most…and then we will finally deal with Kalrek. That’s what I plan-do any of you have any objections?” he asked, his voice taking on a calmer tone as he addressed them.

His friends were mostly silent as he stared back at them, riding alongside him in silence.

“You have already done me a great honor by coming this far,” Airk explained, “but you should not feel obligated to follow my course. I cannot truly live with myself until I have put this conflict behind me, and I must see it through to the end, for everyone Kalrek’s betrayal ruined, for the people of Flinthold. Are you all certain that you want to continue?”

“Of course we are,” Seline replied before anyone else could, “and I believe I speak for all of us when I say that. But why should we come to Copper Crossing? Would we not be better served by traveling to that outpost the bandit captain described?”

“Laessar will have any knowledge of Kalrek’s operations that we could have gleaned from the outpost,” Airk shook his head, “including where Kalrek’s actually based. If we were to strike at the outpost, Kalrek would likely have gotten word of it and gotten more time to prepare for us when we strike at his lair. Likely he’ll already have knowledge of us, but hopefully in dealing with Laessar we can get more information and still be able to strike within a reasonable amount of time,” Airk explained.

They fell into silence again, pondering what Airk had told them.

Airk himself was reflecting on it as well, but that was not all he was thinking of.

The humans and the halfling traveling with him, the friends who’d come this far with him already and had risked their lives when they could have just as easily gone their separate ways, were putting their lives at risk for him and his vendetta against Kalrek.

Six and a half decades…the gnome thought, and all I’ve done is wander, until now. I left the blood of my fellow soldiers unavenged, and now that I’m finally doing it I might just as easily shed the blood of people who’ve already done more for me than I could have ever asked.

Anger and disgust welled up inside him once more, but it was not directed at Kalrek this time.

 ***

The underground part of Copper Crossing was just as impressive as the surface part. Rotating lift elevators carried people and vehicles to and from the surface, sophisticated plumbing systems drew off water from the two large underground rivers flowing through the city streets, and rothe-powered bascule bridges were continually raised and lowered to allow the passage of both pedestrians and underground ships traveling to and from other underground communities. The underground part of the city was just as active and bustling as the surface, lit brightly by caged fire beetles and specially raised luminescent fungi planted in strategically located lampposts. The companions were reminded of Greyhawk at night, the night sky of artificial stars shining on a community that continued to thrive with activity long after the sun had vanished.

And this Laessar Bradon person conducts all of his underhanded operations for Kalrek in a thriving community such as this? Ma’non’go signed incredulously. How could he hope to avoid notice from his fellow citizens?

This is the perfect place to do those kinds of operations, if they’re properly disguised,” Amyalla reminded him. “How many people will take notice of yet another rich caravan laden down with trade goods, when so many of these things pass through Copper Crossing’s streets on a daily basis? It’s no different than the way the Greyhawk Guild of Thieves smuggles contraband and gets it to their ‘clients’. A large caravan is more likely to attract attention in a scattered rural area. That bandit captain told us about one of Kalrek’s outposts-it’s as likely that he has an entire network of such meeting places where raiders like those spriggans meet merchants like Laessar to deliver their plunder, and then transfer it all to Kalrek himself, and routes for how they get to these meeting places without attracting attention.”

“And Kalrek is able to keep even the likes of bandits and spriggans loyal just by how well he speaks,” Airk spoke up with disgust. “How else do you imagine that he managed to attain such a position of trust in Flinthold, aside from all our blindness and stupidity?” he continued.

“Airk, are-“ Seline spoke up.

“I’ve heard the Owlbear Arms has the best accommodations for humans in this part of the city,” Airk interrupted her, staring straight ahead. “We’ll take our lodging there while I settle things with Laessar. Once I get the information I need from him, we can then discuss our plans.”

“Don’t you want anyone to come with you?” Weimar asked.

“Not for this,” Airk shook his head. “I’ll be less likely to cause Laessar alarm if I visit him alone, than if I were to go with all of you.”

“Is that all, though?” Seline spoke up again. “You might-“

“If Kalrek has spies in Laessar’s household, there’s less danger of alerting him to our numbers and our agenda if Airk goes alone,” Amyalla interrupted. “To all appearances, we’re just another group of travelers, and Airk is simply visiting an old friend,” the halfling reminded her. “You will be careful, of course?” she reminded Airk pointedly.

“Of course I will,” Airk replied without looking back.

His companions looked to one another uncertainly.

 ***

The Owlbear Arms more than lived up to its reputation, having thrived for over a century and a half under the management of an owner who prided himself on never letting an opportunity go to waste. Nordick Shimmerstone had observed the increasing number of human visitors to Copper Crossing over the last four decades, and he’d capitalized on it early by setting up a number of specialty suites sized for humans. He’d continually acquired new space to expand the Owlbear Arms by buying up neighboring properties whenever they became available, and now he had one of the largest and most prosperous inns not just in Copper Crossing, but in all the Kron Hills.

Even with the all of the other patrons thronging the place, the companions had no difficulty finding rooms. Most of them had now gone to the common room to get something to eat, and Amyalla had taken the time to catch up on her knitting, and Airk thought that he would be able to leave without being hindered.

The gnome was secretly relieved at that, not in the mood to deal with any of his companions at the moment. Having gathered up his belongings, he was heading for the door of the room he was sharing with Weimar, preparing to leave, when the door opened in front of him and Luna entered. Worry was etched on her face, and Airk was struck by how clearly she revealed it. He’d always observed that Seline was the more outgoing one of the sisters, but now Luna easily matched her sister’s expressiveness.

“What do you want?” Airk demanded, his ugly mood made clear by the look on his face.

“We need to talk,” Luna replied, making her way into the room and shutting the door behind her. She stood between it and Airk, making no move to get out of the gnome’s way.

“I should think we’ve already talked about everything we need to,” Airk replied quietly. “Now get out of my way.”

“Not until I’ve had my say,” Luna insisted. “What are you going to do then, Airk? Throw me out of your way? Threaten me with your weapons? Is that what you intend to do? Or are you so obsessed with vengeance that you would be ready to abandon everything and everyone who’s come to care for you since then?” she demanded.

“I…” Airk trailed off, as he looked up at the ceiling, off to the side and then at the ground. “How can I let Kalrek’s betrayals, all the horrors he’s responsible for, go unpunished? Or did you not see what he did to the people of Oakdale, and hear me when I recounted what he did to dozens of my brothers in arms? Am I supposed to forget that?”

“Of course not!” Luna insisted. “Never that! But you know how concerned we are about you, and what this quest is doing to you.”

Airk sighed before fixing his gaze on Luna again, a somber look on his face.

“Have you ever felt such guilt that it threatened to drive you mad?” Airk asked. “The feeling that you have brought shame to your heritage and your people, shame made all the worse by the fact that you couldn’t bring yourself to bring a murderer to justice? When you saw the corpses of the people of Oakdale, who died in the defense of their homes, were you reminded of your failures, your weakness? Did you feel disgust at yourself and your cowardice, realizing that you were just as responsible for their deaths because of your inaction? That’s what I felt, Luna-and don’t go telling me that I’m not responsible, because I am, and that is the simple cold, hard truth of the matter,” he said quietly. “Now, once again, get out of my way.”

Her mind whirled as she recalled the conversation with Revafour and Weimar on the Coast Dancer, and tried once again to think of what to say.

“I just…I can’t bear to see you suffer this way,” she finally managed to stammer. “None of us do, and-“

“-and I know that,” Airk finished for her. “But this is something I have to see through to the end. I owe the people of Flinthold that, at the very least.”

Before Luna could say anything else, Airk pushed her aside and left the room, leaving her alone with her thoughts and her fears as she prayed desperately to Pelor for guidance. 

"
 
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