CruelSummerLord writes "Far off to the side, Airk could see other dwarves sorting through the gnomes' dead bodies for valuables. As the dwarves finished with the gnomes' bodies, they tossed the corpses into a large pile, likely intending to leave the bodies to rot for the underground scavengers.
Rivers Of Blood On The Stone
The gnomes of Flinthold didn't need light as they traveled through the caves beneath the Lortmil Mountains. They could see in the dark with their infravision, their ability to see heat in the darkness and determine their surroundings as easily as if they were standing in the sunlight aboveground. The gnomes were creatures of the oerth and stone itself, the skills they received from Garl Glittergold allowing them to thrive both the hills and forests of the surface world and the tunnels and caves beneath it.
Garl Glittergold also imbued the gnomes with the courage and skill that had helped them defend Flinthold so well for the past nine years of what were called the Hateful Wars. The sixty gnomes of this expedition were no exception to Flinthold's military prowess. Everything about them radiated steel and power, from the chain and plate armor 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 not to let anything stop them.
The gnomes had been marching for a week and a half. They carried not only their weapons and armor, but ropes, metal frameworks and all the other materials necessary to complete an outpost. No other race could build such devices as well as the gnomes, the world's masters of engineering. Once the outpost was built, 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 ceased their march and began settling 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.
Airk knew that the spark would make the gnomes' destination glitter with the light of a starlit sky on the surface. The cavern that the gnomes were headed to held some of the richest veins of silver any of them had ever seen. The orcs who once held the cavern had fought to the last to defend the fabulous wealth the cavern contained. Although the orcs had prospered from the silver in the cavern, the gnomes believed that the orcs had barely even scratched the surface of the cavern's potential.
The gnomes' battle with the orcs had been several weeks ago. Since then, the front line of the war had since shifted to the east. Airk and his fellow gnomes had been diverted from the front line to establish Flinthold's claim over the silver cavern. The gnomes of Flinthold saw it as their right, given how much blood they had shed to drive the orcs and other humanoid monsters out of this part of the Lortmils.
It didn't take long for the gnomes to prepare an evening meal, and soon Airk was sharing a meal of rothe steaks, sliced potatoes and mead with his friend Kalrek Burunne. Kalrek was one of the expedition's lead scouts, who charted the path the gnomes would take to the silver-filled cavern.
"You're sure there were no signs of those Steelheart dogs?" Airk asked Kalrek.
"Of course I am," Kalrek said with that ever-confident smile.
The alliance of gnomes, dwarves and men fighting in the Hateful Wars had the upper hand over their humanoid opponents after many long years of fighting. Now, though, the allies were becoming more interested in fighting each other for the richest plunder and lands they'd won from the humanoids than they were in decisively defeating their foes. The alliance between the races, and solidarity between the races themselves, were rapidly fracturing.
Flinthold's conflict with the Steelheart dwarven clan was just one of the conflicts between the allies. The Steelhearts contested Flinthold's claim to the silver cavern, saying they made more of an effort against the humanoids in this part of the Lortmils. The regent of Flinthold spoke for all his people when he denounced the Steelhearts' claims as rubbish, pointing out that the Steelhearts only struck at humanoids who'd already worn themselves down against Flinthold. 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.
"But what about all the reports of Steelheart activity?" Airk said, unconvinced.
"Nothing more than a few scouts. Do you think they'd really be so brave to face a full complement of our warriors?" Kalrek said as he and Airk finished their meal and stood up to take their turns at watch.
Airk couldn't help but laugh at Kalrek's infectious confidence. Kalrek proved himself a natural leader in many things. He was always one of the first to speak at strategic meetings. He was never shy about wanting to go aggressively after Flinthold's enemies in war or its competitors in trade. He regularly impressed and charmed the humans and dwarves he interacted with. The regent of Flinthold depended on Kalrek's energy and advice, making him a senior commander in Flinthold's armies. Many Flintholders saw the wisdom in the regent's choice, including Airk himself.
Two other gnomes joined Kalrek and Airk as they walked. The four warriors marched down a side tunnel that split off into a four-way junction. The two gnomes that had joined Kalrek and Airk each went off down one of the side tunnels. Kalrek and Airk continued down the central tunnel in front of them.
"What do you want to do once the war is over?" Kalrek asked Airk when they were alone again. "You're likely the best warrior in Flinthold's entire army besides me. Why haven't you ever set your sights on higher things?"
Airk just shrugged, not entirely comfortable with the question.
"I've never really thought about it," he said.
"There's time yet, Airk," Kalrek said. "The war will be over soon, and Flinthold will prosper like never before when it does. We have six centuries of life. What could we accomplish in that time?"
Airk only tugged at his moustache as he considered what Kalrek had told him.
"Kalrek has a point, you know," Laessar Bradon said to Airk as they ate a meal the next morning. "I have plans for when the war is over. My father could be a much greater merchant than he is, but he doesn't have the vision to try. I don't have anything like that holding me back. When I take over my family's company, I'll lead it to heights never before seen!"
Airk just smiled.
"What about you, then?" Laessar asked.
"…I'm not certain," Airk said. "Maybe I'll continue on as a soldier, or become an adventurer. 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 said with a chuckle, recalling the legend of a gnomish hero who said those exact words.
"I suppose," Airk said with a smile. "And what a grand time it would be, wouldn't it?"
"I can't say," Laessar said, returning Airk's smile. "You're the traveler, not me."
Airk laughed. Laessar was a homebody who only took up his sword because Flinthold needed him. He was always more interested in politics and trade than battle. Laessar had initially only served in the Flinthold military because it was family tradition, and he'd mustered out as soon as he could. He'd only returned because Flinthold needed every soldier it could gather for the Hateful Wars. Laessar had met Airk when they patrolled as novice soldiers, and they'd been close friends ever since.
At midday, Kalrek urged the gnomish troop to take an alternate route to the silver cavern. He'd noticed a brood of purple worms that had settled in a cave along their original path, and the gnomes had nothing to gain from fighting them. Unfortunately, the alternate route Kalrek chose for the gnomes was a labyrinth of stalactites, connecting tunnels and little alcoves. The gnomes were slowed considerably as they picked their way through the maze.
"There are signs of passage here. Look at the footprints." Airk said to Kalrek as the main troop came into a broad, high cavern filled with stalactites. The gnomes' infravision allowed them to see heat underground, including the heat left by creatures' footprints. Looking down, Kalrek saw the same faint traces that Airk did.
"They're barely visible," Kalrek said, shaking his head. "Whoever was here, it was several days ago. Probably just stray humanoids."
"…I suppose," Airk said. Looking up, he glanced around him to see how many gnomes were still with the troop.
None of the gnomes noticed Kalrek pull a lever set into one of the stalactites. The lever was concealed behind a panel so well-made that even the most skilled gnome or dwarf would not have considered it anything besides mundane rock.
A loud clicking sound echoed through the cavern, as many of the stalactites came crashing down on the gnomes. The gnomes' cries of alarm suddenly turned to painful hacking coughs, as the shattered stalactites released a sickly greenish gas.
Chaos ensued among the confused gnomes. They called out to one another and tried to form up for battle, but they were hopelessly confused by the toxic fumes and the layout of the cavern. Half the gnomes were on their knees, so ill from the greenish gas that they could only 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. His clothes and equipment felt like lead on his body. It was all he could do to stay upright, trying to reach 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 gnomes' alarmed cries were soon replaced by their screams of agony as they were cut down. Most of the gnomes were too dizzied and nauseous to be able to defend themselves properly, and died before they could ever raise their weapons.
Airk raised his war-pick and his shield defensively in front of him as he tried to identify the gnomes' attackers. To his astonishment and horror, he recognized the attackers as dwarves clad in shining steel armor. The dwarves bore shields with designs that showed a sword being driven down vertically through a bleeding heart, cold steel tearing through flesh and blood.
Airk stood stunned for a few moments, unable to react as one of his comrades was beheaded by a dwarven axe. Airk then remembered himself, charging forward at the dwarf. He easily blocked the dwarf's first attack with his shield, striking back and tearing a gash along the dwarf's arm.
How in the Nine Hells could this be happening? Airk thought. 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 ducked the dwarf's next strike and retaliated by driving his pick into the dwarf's face. The dying dwarf fell in a bloody heap, and Airk attacked a second one. The second dwarf carried a pick like Airk's, and he charged at the gnome, thinking he could take Airk down in a single strike. A surge of adrenaline helped Airk stay on his feet, and he blocked the second dwarf's strike with his shield. Striking high at the dwarf's face, Airk 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.
Airk turned to face a third dwarf, and his shield saved his life again as he blocked a spinning hammer thrown at his face. The third dwarf brandished a second hammer, but Airk lashed out again, impaling the bearded wretch's arm and pulling him forward. Completely off balance, the third dwarf was helpless to resist as Airk drove his pick into the dwarf's chest.
The gnomes who weren't disabled by the gas were fighting bravely, refusing to surrender despite their sickness. Despite the gnomes' efforts, they couldn't hope to win as the poison took more and more of a toll on them. Dwarves were far more resistant to poison than gnomes, so they were not sickened by the gas at all. The Steelhearts intensified their attack as the Flintholders began to falter.
Airk had struck down three of the dwarves, but his lungs were burning with pain. A fourth dwarf attacked him, but Airk couldn't raise his pick or his shield. The fourth dwarf laughed at Airk's helplessness, and lashed 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.
When Airk regained consciousness, he was sure he was dead. Looking around him, he wondered if he was in the Seven Heavens or the Tri-Paradises.
What he saw looked more like the Nine Hells. He was securely chained to a line with several other gnomes, all of them badly wounded and covered with dried blood. Groups of dwarves stood around the prisoners, gathering up the materials the gnomes had been carrying and dividing the gnomes' food and drink among them. Several other dwarves pointed and laughed at the gnomes, shouting curses and singing paeans to the dwarven gods for their victory.
Far off to the side, Airk could see other dwarves sorting through the gnomes' dead bodies for valuables. As the dwarves finished with the gnomes' bodies, they tossed the corpses into a large pile, likely intending to leave the bodies to rot for the underground scavengers.
Airk's stomach burned with pain from the gash he had suffered in the battle, but he barely felt it. All he could feel was a sickening sense of horror.
How did they do this? Airk wondered. How, by the gods, how?
The voice behind him revealed the awful truth.
"I was wondering if you'd die or not," Kalrek said, smiling as Airk turned to face him. "I should have known better than to doubt you, though." Kalrek was unhurt, all smiles despite the wretched condition of his kin and the laughter of their murderers.
"…Kalrek…?" Airk said, barely able to get the words out. "…Why?"
"Didn't you ever question why I got myself assigned to the scouting missions so often?" Kalrek said, his eyes reflecting the fires of the dwarven torches. "Or why I went off alone more than once? I can't believe no one questioned my saying that a brood of purple worms just migrated into our intended route. Didn't anyone remember our elders telling us that purple worms typically don't travel in packs?"
"How could you…" Airk said.
"Wondering why so many stalactites dropped at once?" Kalrek said. "Wondering why they were made of ceramic instead of stone? Wondering whether they were a trap set up for an appropriate time?"
Airk couldn't reply. He just sat there, overwhelmed as he was by the sheer weight of it all.
"Everything was so easy," Kalrek said. "Planning this route, selecting the right place for the ambush, setting up the traps with my esteemed friends, who put this clever poison formula of theirs in the ceramic stalactites. It acts on the dwarven resistance to poison so they're completely immune, but cripples any other creatures who breathe it in."
"…Why," Airk managed to say.
"Because you thought so small," Kalrek said, his smile turning into a hateful glare. "So many of our kin did. You never stopped to think that of what the Steelhearts might be offering?"
"Aye, and be sure that we'll be holding to our end of the bargain," one of the dwarves said as he came up. The dwarf was a leader by his bearing and attire, and he smiled widely as he shook Kalrek's hand. "All the treasure we promised will be yours, and more than that when he plunder Flinthold. We'll put everything you told us to good use."
"I'm sure you will," Kalrek said. "That just leaves these loose ends," he continued, gesturing to Airk and the other half dozen surviving gnomes. "What did you want to do with them?"
"What would you have us do?" the dwarf leader asked.
"Whatever you like," Kalrek said with a shrug. "Why should I care if they live or die?"
"Maybe we'll let you see what happens to your precious Flinthold," the dwarf leader said as he walked up to Airk. "Won't that be a sight to see?" he continued, punching Airk in the face with his mailed fist.
Airk fell unconscious from the dwarf's punch, Kalrek's hysterical laughter echoing in his ears.
Airk shot awake in a cold sweat, his chest and face aching from phantom pains. He was vaguely aware of a piercing scream, and a strange shaking sensation, before he calmed down. To his amazement, he saw Ma'non'go walking away from him, lighting a lantern on the table between their beds, before coming back to join him.
"What's going on?" Airk said as Ma'non'go approached him. Ma'non'go had a worried look on his face as he sat down on the bed next to Airk.
I could say the same thing to you, Ma'non'go signed. You suddenly woke up screaming and shaking. I had to grab you before you fell off the bed. You were having a nightmare. Was it about this Kalrek person?
Airk buried his face in his hands, breathing hard for several seconds until he calmed down.
"I've lost count of how many times I've had that dream," Airk said. "Of all the kin I saw die, of how much Flinthold lost, of all the blood running like rivers over the stone."
Ma'non'go said nothing, but the look of sympathy on his face was all too clear as Airk described the horror to him.
"Laessar and I were the only ones who survived," Airk said. "A group of the Steelhearts took us out to be executed. A patrol of gnomes from our allied kingdom of Garnetholme managed to stop them, but not before I saw four of my kin have their heads taken off by dwarven axes."
Ma'non'go's eyes widened in dismay.
"The gnomes of Garnetholme took us back to Flinthold, and we were able to warn our regent of the attack. When the Steelheart kingdom attacked Flinthold the next year, Garnetholme helped us win. Even that couldn't keep Flinthold from being badly damaged by the siege, or having many of its people die at the edge of a dwarven axe," Airk finished.
But it survived, didn't it? Ma'non'go signed.
"Barely," Airk said, a bitter expression crossing his face. "We were so weakened from fighting the humanoids, and then fighting the Steelhearts, that we couldn't claim any of the rich areas the allies won from the humanoids. All that silver we could have claimed, that could have helped us survive, was lost to us."
"Flinthold's been a pale shadow of itself ever since," Airk continued. "It was all our people could do to keep the kingdom from collapsing altogether after the Hateful Wars ended. Fifty years, Ma'non'go-almost fifty years of struggle, living hand to mouth while Kalrek was likely off living like a king somewhere."
What made you decide to leave Flinthold? Ma'non'go signed.
"Garl forgive me, I couldn't take it anymore," Airk said, putting his face in his hands again. "I'd built up enough money for my family to live on, so once Flinthold could stand on its own, I had to leave. I had to find something, anything, that I thought could help me forget. If I'd stayed, I'd have gone mad, but…"
Ma'non'go placed a comforting hand on Airk's shoulder.
"I fought at the Battle of Emridy Meadows when the hordes of Elemental Evil were defeated," Airk said. "It doesn't trouble me. We lost a lot of good people that day, but they didn't die in vain. But with the Hateful Wars…all that bloodshed, the backstabbing, the loss, what was it all for? We could have driven the humanoids out of the Lortmils entirely, if we weren't so gods-damned stupid!" he continued, his voice rising to a shout.
Ma'non'go tried to think of what to say.
"And me," Airk said. "How could I let Kalrek play me for a fool? If I'd been a little wiser, none of this would have happened! All my kin…they'd still be alive…if only…I…"
Ma'non'go pulled Airk's shoulder to look at him.
You're not the only one who's been betrayed by a false friend, Ma'non'go signed. I know what it's like to know people who claim to love you as a brother, only to learn how much hatred they hid behind their smiles. I know what it's like to be forced to wander, to feel like you have nothing.
I know all too well, Ma'non'go finished, a careworn look crossing his face.
Ma'non'go and Airk said nothing for the rest of the night, each thinking about what the other had told him."