The Gnome Who Would Be King
The underground complex had once been a great
gathering place for the gnomes who used to call it home. The gnomes held
meetings, ceremonies and feasts with their elven and Flan human neighbors. That
had been millennia ago, before the complex had been invaded by enemies whose
identities were now lost to the mists of time, along with the location of the
complex itself. Perhaps some of the oldest elves still alive knew where the
complex was, although they would believe the place to have been abandoned long
Anyone who came into the complex now would not
know its original histories. The artistic design of the complex’s halls and
amphitheaters, decorated with warm, welcoming red green and gold crystals,
might have given an intelligent observer some hints. Unfortunately, the passage
of time had caused many parts of the complex to cave in, despite the skill with
which the gnomes had built it.
Some parts of the complex survived, most
notably old gathering halls, residential areas and farming caverns. These parts
now existed along more crudely built tunnels and caverns, torn out of the stone
by the many beings that had come to live in the complex.
Most of these residents were vile, hateful creatures
like orcs, goblins, derro, mind flayers, dark creepers, formorian giants and
others like them. Each set of inhabitants had driven out the previous
inhabitants of the complex before taking it for themselves. In turn, they were
destroyed and replaced by the next set of inhabitants.
The newest residents of the ruined complex were
unlike anything that had ever come before. Orcs drank alongside spriggan
gnomes, who rubbed shoulders with evil-looking human brigands. Trolls exchanged
insults with derro, even as they both cursed the formorian giants who sat sulking
in one corner. Despite the volatile mix of inhabitants, none of them dared to
openly fight with one another. Nor did they pay even the slightest bit of
attention to the large crates and chests that were being carried by ogre
porters further into the complex.
They might have been sorely tempted to do so,
but they did not dare.
Some of the complex’s inhabitants were the
leaders of their groups, and received better beer and finer food than their
minions. Gangrelen was one of those leaders, a man who was built like an ogre
and had the sinuous, weasel-like features typically associated with cowardly
thieves and spies. He was anything but cowardly, though. His face was crisscrossed
with a misshapen spider web of scars that testified to his years leading his
bandit gang and dealing with challengers to his authority in the most permanent
Gangrelen typically replied to commands with
weapons, but he immediately stood to attention as a gnome approached him. The
gnome wore immaculately tailored sky-blue clothes and carried no visible
weapons. He looked completely defenseless, and would have been easy prey for
the men and monsters all around him. They all treated the gnome with deference,
looking nervously to one another as the gnome walked towards Gangrelen.
The gnome ordered Gangrelen to follow him, and
Gangrelen didn’t need to be told twice. The gnome led Gangrelen through the
complex into an area that was part of the old complex, unlike the newer and
cruder tunnels where the monsters stayed. Gangrelen was impressed with how
clean and well-furnished this part of the complex was, and how many gnomes
Gangrelen and his gnome guide walked past a
room containing a large library, where several other gnomes dressed like the
guide sifted through a large collection of books and parchments, making copious
notes. Another room served as a large drill hall, where several gnomes dressed
in mail armor trained with swords and hammers. Yet another room served as an
enormous treasure vault, guarded by an elaborate vault door. The door was open,
and Gangrelen could see that the room was filled with a mountain of coins, gems
and other valuables. A group of ogre porters added the contents of the chests
they were carrying to the treasure pile, escorted by a group of heavily armed
and armored gnomes.
Gangrelen knew that treasure would be a sore
temptation to the bandits and monsters that lived in the newer parts of the
complex. He also knew that none of them would ever dare to try and seize it
from the gnomes.
Finally, Gangrelen and his gnome escort came to
a large set of double doors.
The doors were studded with finely cut gems and
inlaid with ivory and silver in the shape of a beautiful crown, the display of
wealth so blatantly obvious that it almost dared anyone to try and deface the
doors to seize it.
Gangrelen swallowed hard as his gnome escort
opened the doors and gestured for Gangrelen to enter.
The bandit leader took several deep breaths as
he walked into the chamber, designed as a lavish throne room. Silken tapestries
with gems threaded into them hung at regular intervals from the walls, in
between fine paintings and figurines of jade, amber and ivory. A selection of
gold-handled and gem-studded weapons hung from a rack on one wall, and a bar
and buffet with a selection of rare sweetmeats and fine wines occupied another.
The furniture was of the finest oak, beautifully carved to resemble burrowing
As magnificent as the decorations were, they
could not compare to the massive throne at the far end of the room. The throne
was hideous, carved into the shape of a nightmarish thing that resembled a
cross between a demon, a badger and a raccoon.
The room’s inhabitants were almost as striking
as its furnishings. A collection of scantily-clad women of several different
races stood at intervals throughout the room, a few of them bearing trays upon
which they carried jeweled crystal goblets. Gangrelen heard the snap of
fingers. One of the women reacted immediately. She walked to the bar and filled
the goblets in her tray with a fine Aerdi white wine, before bringing the wine
and goblets to her master, the gnome sitting in the large throne.
The gnome sitting in the large throne was the
owner of the fabulous wealth all around him, from the silk tapestries to the
jeweled goblets to the slave girls. He was clad in a combination of silk
gentleman’s clothes and fluted silvery-steel armor. A wickedly edged sword lay
at one side of the throne, and a skull-faced shield at the other. Gangrelen knew
that the gnome could easily reach other of them as needed, and that he wieleded
them both with deadly skill.
The gnome was all smiles as Gangrelen
approached. The elven maiden that had been sitting at the gnome’s feet rose up
and quickly walked off to the side, leaving Gangrelen and the gnome staring at
each other intently.
Normally, Gangrelen feared nothing. However,
this gnome seemed so far above Gangrelen, above every other being that lived in
the complex complex, that Gangrelen was relieved indeed that the gnome was glad
to see him. The gnome’s mannerisms were those of a king, and indeed Gangrelen could
imagine him in the company of the human kinds of Nyrond, Furyondy or Keoland.
The gnome radiated confidence and certainty, as well as an aura of power and
wisdom that almost seemed tangible around him.
Instinctively, Gangrelen knelt before the lord
of the complex, master of everything he saw.
Gangrelen knelt before Kalrek Burunne.
“So nice to see you again, my friend,” Kalrek said
as he came down from his throne. Reaching out with his hand, he raised
Gangrelen’s face to look into his eyes.
Gangrelen was the same height as Kalrek even
when he was kneeling, but he felt small, so very small, compared to Kalrek.
“Good, very good,” Kalrek said with a smile.
“Now, tell me…how fares the robbing and plundering trade?”
“It fares…well,” Gangrelen said, unable to stop
himself from swallowing hard. “Very well.”
“Well enough to share with a friend, I’m sure,”
Kalrek said. “How well, then?”
“Forty thousand silver sovereigns, Sir Kalrek,”
Gangrelen said, nodding as beads of sweat began to show on his forehead. “All
for your glory, of course.”
“I must say, I’m impressed,” Kalrek said, the
smile never leaving his lips. “Indeed, I’m flattered by your generosity-perhaps
it is somewhat excessive, considering how much wealth I already possess.
Perhaps if you were to share only twenty thousand of those silver sovereigns,
as a gesture of friendship of course, you and yours may find yourselves welcome
in my house once more?”
“My thanks, Sir Kalrek,” Gangrelen said, bowing
his head once more.
“And as a gesture of good faith,” Kalrek said,
gesturing to some of the serving girls, “you may enjoy yourself with the pick
of my beloveds.”
Gangrelen had taken many people as slaves and
prisoners in his raids, but he’d rarely seen slaves as submissive as those Kalrek
surrounded himself with. The slaves were eager to please his every whim, but
the experienced Gangrelen could see the pain and fear behind their subservient
smiles. The slaves had lost all hope, resigned to spending the rest of their
existences as Kalrek’s playthings…until he grew tired of them, of course, and
gave them to the monstrous minions who paid him homage.
Gangrelen felt admiration for the gnome lord.
He also felt fear.
According to Kalrek’s precisely timed clock, it
was well past midnight by the time he had completed his business. He had
collected the tribute from Gangrelen and the rest of the monsters and brigands
who served him. As a reward, Kalrek treated them all to a lavish and rich feast
and allowed them some pleasure with his girls.
Kalrek’s minions revered him as a bandit king,
someone with intelligence and connections far beyond their own limited means.
He gave the bandits and monsters knowledge of what communities to raid, what
tombs to plunder, which people to hold for ransom, and more in exchange for
their allegiance and tribute.
Kalrek’s minions feared him as much as they
revered him. A few of them had dared to try and cheat him, or challenge him for
a greater share of their wealth, and he’d made them beg for death. It was easy
for Kalrek to read his minions, as easy as it was to read his fellow gnomes
from Flinthold, or the Steelheart dwarves he’d betrayed the gnomes to.
And yet he was so much more to Kalrek than
that. He used merchants like Laessar Bradon to launder his stolen plunder. He
used sages to conduct research for the prize he sought. He used spies to keep
him aware of what was happening in the surrounding lands, in places like
Verbobonc, Dyvers and the Wild Coast.
Kalrek’s minions didn’t know about that. It
suited him to make them think he was just a bandit lord who sought nothing but
None of them, not Kalrek’s minions, not the
other people in his employ, knew what he was truly searching for, the cherished
prize that would be the ultimate triumph, the ultimate irony, and the ultimate
insult to his old kinfolk.
All for his glory, and the glory of the Crawler
The Crown of Arumdina was beckoning.