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    The Silver Wolf: Ghosts Of The Past-Cat's Meow
    Posted on Fri, March 02, 2018 by LordCeb
    CruelSummerLord writes "Ma’non’go’s warning came just in time, and the companions scattered before the beast would have landed in their midst. As the companions readied their weapons, they got a good look at the creature in the lamplight. To Ma’non’go, it resembled one of the black panthers that were said to dwell in the lands of the Touv people that the Olman sometimes dealt with back in Hepmonaland. It was far larger than any panther, however. The creature’s tail was unnaturally long, extending well over its owner’s head and swinging around like a flail.

    Chapter Five

    Cat’s Meow

    “That’s the place, then?” Weimar whispered to Amyalla as she handed his telescope back to him.

    “Just as Airk described from the parchments,” Amyalla whispered back, confirming Weimar’s own suspicions. It had taken the companions two days to follow the directions laid out in the parchments, which led to a stone cabin at the base of a hill between a small, thick wood and a waterfall further east. Now, Weimar and Amyalla were scouting the cabin area, while the rest of the companions prepared at a base camp farther back in the forest.

    As Amyalla and Weimar approached the cavern, walking stealthily through the woods, Weimar glanced all around him, looking for any sort of sign of what might be coming to or from the cabin. Amyalla didn’t notice anything except the wind and the occasional twittering of birds. She tensed as she heard something rustling in the bushes ahead, but the creature that emerged was simply a moose looking for food. The large beast began munching contentedly on a nearby tree, causing Amyalla to smile briefly as she and Weimar passed it by.

    It doesn’t look like there’s much going on here, Amyalla thought to herself. Perhaps-

    Amyalla’s train of thought stopped short as she and Weimar reached the edge of the woods. They saw the stone cabin, dilapidated and clearly abandoned for years, sitting some thirty feet away. They could also hear the roar of a waterfall farther off to the east, and realized they were in the right place. 

    According to the parchments from the trolls’ lair, the stone cabin’s basement contained an entrance into a set of dungeon ruins where the trolls’ masters were staying.  The trolls were instructed to wait outside the cabin. The trolls’ masters, whoever they were, would come out of the cabin to meet them.

    Weimar and Amyalla watched the cabin for several minutes. They were surprised to see a group of cloaked figures emerge from it and set off in the direction of the waterfall to the east. Amyalla did well not to exclaim in surprise when she recognized the cloaked figures as gnomes. She couldn’t imagine what they would be doing consorting with trolls. Looking at Weimar, she saw that he didn’t understand it any more than she did.

    They turned to go back to their base camp, wondering how Airk was going to take the news.

    When he heard Amyalla and Weimar’s report, Airk’s face reddened in anger.

    “Why?” he said to himself, leading his pony towards the concealment the companions had set to hide their mounts. “Why would they be consorting with trolls, of all things? What would they have to gain from all that murder and looting?” he continued, returning to the rest of the group once his pony was hidden with the other mounts.

    “Perhaps they weren’t really gnomes,” Seline suggested to Airk as she handed him his backpack. “They could be magically disguised-goblins, humans, something else entirely?”

    Seline had hoped her words would encourage Airk, but they didn’t. Airk only shook his head, his grim expression not changing.  

    “Whoever wrote those instructions wrote like a gnome,” Airk said with a heavy frown. “We can usually tell when humans or dwarves write in the gnomish tongue because they construct their sentences in a way that’s more in line with their own ancestral languages. I imagine that’s how you and Luna probably sound to the Flan when you speak their language?”

    The slightly embarrassed look on Seline’s face told him all he needed to know.

    “They’re gnomes all right, and blood is on their hands. That’s not so easily forgiven among gnomekind, any more than it is among any other race. What kind of treachery…” he said, trailing off as a faraway look came into his eyes.

    Seline waited for Airk to say something else, but he simply stood silent and unblinking. His lips began to move silently, and he began to almost imperceptibly tremble.

    “Airk?” Seline said, touching his shoulder.

    Airk started at her touch, whirling to face her. His eyes blazed, and one of his hands reached for his belt.

    “Airk!” Seline said again.

    Airk blinked several times, seeming to calm down. He looked around from side to side, seeming as if he had just woken from a dream. His alarmed expression was replaced with a shaken one. He took several deep breaths, placing his hands on his temples as if he was trying to forget something unpleasant.

    “The axes…” he said, closing his eyes. “Different peoples…new blood…but always on their hands…”

    “Airk!” Seline said a third time, touching his shoulder again.

    Airk’s eyes popped open, before he finally calmed down.

    “I…” he said.  

    “…Are you alright?” Seline asked, as the rest of the companions came to join them.  

    “Old memories. They…it’s nothing. Come, let’s be off,” Airk said.

    Ma’non’go came up to stand beside Seline and face Airk. He shook his head, clearly not convinced by Airk’s words.

    Your words say one thing, your features say another, Ma’non’go signed. Are you certain you’re capable of doing this?

    Taking another deep breath, Airk nodded.

    “Yes, I am. Suffice to say that I have no tolerance for any among my own people who consort with murder and robbery. I’ve experienced more than enough of that to last a lifetime, and not among humans or humanoids,” he said.

    Despite his words, Airk could still hear the sounds of axes clashing on shields, the retching of gnomes dying from poisonous fumes, and the laughter of the Steelheart dwarves in his mind.

    He heard those things often, of course, but ever since Amyalla and Weimar had told him about the gnomes at the stone cabin he heard them a lot more.

    The stone cabin looked abandoned to a casual observer. It was half-crumbling, filled with little more than broken furniture, crockery and small rodents. The experienced adventurers saw several signs that people had passed through it recently, though. Pieces of wood were kicked away from the piles of timber they would have belonged to, the dirt on the floor was marked with traces from where furniture had been pushed, and some of the furniture itself was marked with the blows of hammers and axes as it was broken for firewood.

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

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

    Airk was the exception, born and raised as he was in the Lortmils. The depths did not bother him-indeed, he hardly noticed them. Rather, the gnome fought as hard as he could to fight off a rising sense of rage. Old images flashed through his mind, images of battles with orcs and goblins, interspersed with other images of his kinfolk’s bloodied corpses. Shaking his head briefly, he forced himself to focus on the tunnel around him and his friends.

    The tunnel ended in a round chamber with five exits besides the tunnel the companions had come in through. Each of the five exits was blocked by a portcullis, and each portcullis had a lever set into the wall next to it. The adventurers looked first at the gates, then at each other, wondering what to make of it all.

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

    Airk blinked once, before he digested the question.

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

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

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

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

    “What are you talking about?” Weimar asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Gnomes…not dwarves…gnomes…

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

    The tunnel had widened considerably beyond the portcullises, and now Ma’non’go and his friends were passing into what looked like a wilder area. Stalactites hung from the cavern ceiling, now far above them, and the sound of running water echoed off in the distance. The sight reminded Ma’non’go of what one of his friends from X’tandelexamenka, a scholar who specialized in the studies of the oerth, had told him. According to Ma’non’go’s friend, the caverns underneath the oerth could be far and wide alike. A traveler could enter a cave from one point on the surface and travel through the tunnels before re-emerging somewhere else on the surface hundreds of miles away.

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

    Ma’non’go’s warrior senses suddenly alerted him to the danger that was approaching. He immediately rapped the handle of his trident on the cavern floor, getting his companions’ attention.

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

    Ma’non’go was about to charge the creature with his trident when he stopped short in surprise. At first, there only seemed to be one of the weird cats, but then there were nine of the foul things, smaller than the original but looking no less fierce. The creatures charged in an expanding ring, forcing the adventurers back and preventing them from linking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Non-a-what?” Weimar asked.

    “Nonafels are a race of catlike predators that many sages believe are related to the displacer beasts,” Seline said. “They have the ability to create multiple copies of themselves, all fighting as one. They can split up and reunite, healing their wounds when they’re all together. If any individual cat is destroyed, the nonafel has to regenerate them over a few weeks.”

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

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

    “But-“ Weimar began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Or are you thinking about what was done to you, and wondering what you could have done differently to stop it? Weimar continued. He recalled the betrayals Airk had told the rest of the companions that the gnome’s kingdom of Flinthold had suffered during the Hateful Wars over six and a half decades ago.

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

    Damn it all, he thought to himself as he looked down again at the footprints. I knew I shouldn’t have finished that last wineskin-

    Weimar was turning to call his companions over when he realized just how large the footprints really were. The size of the footprints, to say nothing of their stride, was far larger than anything a gnome like Airk could make.

    “I saw some footprints that could have been made by a gnome,” Revafour was saying as the companions came to join Weimar. “How about you?”

    “I wish I did,” Weimar said, a grim look on his face. “We’re also dealing with giants,” he pointed out, showing the rest of the group the larger footprints he’d discovered.

    For the last few hours, Airk had seemed to constantly losing himself in thought. When he heard Weimar’s and Revafour’s descriptions of the footprints, he became fully alert at. If anything, he seemed almost to calm a bit, now more determined than angry.

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

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

    “Not giants,” Airk said. “I know what made these trails.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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