Even in just the short time he’d known them, Ma’non’go had seen how the Flan warrior and his gnome and halfling companions had suffered in their own right. Ma’non’go had concluded that they weren’t so different from himself, or Luna and Seline. And then there was Weimar-for all his cheerful demeanor, Ma’non’go doubted that was all there was to it.
To his own surprise, Ma’non’go found that the idea of parting ways with any of the other adventurers dismayed him.
Luna breathed heavily as she sat down to rest. The
adventurers had found more of the children alive than any of them had dared to
hope. Unfortunately, they had also found two dead children for every living
one, victims of the hags and their depraved henchmen.
Luna wasn’t sure what sickened her more, the ways in
which many of the dead children had been killed or the indignities the hags and
their minions had inflicted on the children’s bodies.
Luna was glad that the other adventurers had agreed to
her plea that they take both the living children and the dead when they left
this gods-cursed place. She could only imagine how many parents out there were
worried sick wondering what happened to their loved ones. Even if Luna and the
other adventurers had to bring the parents the tragic news of their children’s
deaths, she hoped the parents could at least get some closure.
Unfortunately, it was likely that the hags had brought
some of the corpses with them from elsewhere when they’d come to the Bearded
Lord’s Hollow. Luna knew there was likely no way that the adventurers would be
able to return all of the dead children to their families, but she still felt
better taking them anyway. If nothing else, she knew she could at least ensure
they could be buried with dignity, and rest in peace.
The very air of the Bearded Lord’s Hollow sickened
Luna now, making her feel filthy and dirty. She had found solace in healing her
friends’ wounds and treating the living children’s illnesses. Her only other
outlet had been to help destroy and desecrate the hags’ shrine to Orcus,
something that gave her a satisfying sense of vengeance.
Despite it all, Luna found herself wondering why Pelor
and the other gods of good tolerated the evils of demon princes like Orcus. Was
there nothing they could do directly, particularly when evil gods like Iuz and
Wastri intervened on Oerth? No matter what, the likes of Orcus, Asmodeus and
Nerull constantly returned to cause yet more suffering and death.
When does it all end? Luna wondered, as she cast a healing spell over one of
the children who’d been badly beaten by the hags’ servants.
Can it even all end?
What if you simply can’t put an end
to it? Luna wondered,
addressing her god.
Luna felt ashamed for thinking that, for expressing
doubt to the god she’d pledged her life to. Try as she might, however, she
couldn’t help but wonder, sickened by all the horrors she’d seen over the last
What was it all for? Luna thought to herself.
Ma’non’go tried to remember if the adventurers had
everything they needed. They had used the food in the hags’ larder to feed
themselves and the children. They would also be able to use the wagons the hags
had used to bring their prisoners to this hellish place to take the children
back home. They could even use some of the treasure they’d taken from the hags
to pay to bury those children whose parents’ couldn’t be found and who had died
here, alone and unknown, so far from home.
If anyone could empathize with that, it was Ma’non’go.
He knew that everyone in X’tandelexamenka likely believed that he was
dead, lost in the jungles of Hepmonaland when he’d been forced to flee for his
life. Perhaps it was for the best-as Ma’non’go constantly reminded himself,
everyone in X’tandelexamenka who knew him was either dead or alive but dead to
him. He had not spoken a word in the decade since he’d been banished, the shock
and the pain proving too much for him to endure.
nothing left there for you now, Ma’non’go told himself as he
loaded one of the hags’ wagons with supplies.
He told himself that he didn’t
need to think about what had happened all those years ago.
Ma’non’go wondered how many
times he’d told himself those things over the last decade.
A hundred times? A thousand?
No matter how many times
Ma’non’go told himself those things, and he tried to make himself speak, he
simply could not, except through his hands. Try as he might, the words would
simply not come. Indeed, even speaking through his hands did not come easily,
except to the sisters to whom he had pledged his life. They made his heart
lighter, and gave him a reason to continue.
Reminded of his commitments to
Luna and Seline, Ma’non’go wondered what would happen once the adventurers had
returned the children to their homes. It
was quite possible the axeman Weimar would stay with them, but those others,
Revafour, Amyalla and Airk-what would happen to them?
Even in just the short time he’d known them, Ma’non’go
had seen how the Flan warrior and his gnome and halfling companions had
suffered in their own right. Ma’non’go had concluded that they weren’t so
different from himself, or Luna and Seline. And then there was Weimar-for all
his cheerful demeanor, Ma’non’go doubted that was all there was to it.
To his own surprise, Ma’non’go found that the idea of
parting ways with any of the other adventurers dismayed him.
The hags had kept their treasure in a series of trunks
in their private bed-chamber, and had hidden the keys so well that the
adventurers could not find them. That wasn’t too much of a problem for Amyalla,
though. It had been easy for her to disable most of the locks and traps on most
of the chests.
She was working on the padlock of the last chest. One
final twist of her pick broke the needle in the padlock, and opened the lock
itself all at once. Smiling widely, Amyalla tossed the padlock aside and opened
the chest. In the dim torchlight, Amyalla found the glittering of the gold and
silver coins pretty enough, but not as much as the jeweled goblets or the set
of perfectly cut and matching topazes. The hags had accumulated quite a store
of wealth, much of it probably acquired from their victims or from would-be
rescuers who they’d killed.
Normally, Amyalla would have been quite pleased to see
all this wealth. For the moment, though, she was more interested in how much of
the treasure the adventurers could use to pay for the burial of those victims
who had no families to claim them.
Standing up, Amyalla went to try and find some of the
other adventurers to help her carry the hags’ treasure out of here. She was
eager to get back outside and far away from this disgusting place. She was too
small to help much with gathering up the bodies of the dead children, so she
had spent much of her time entertaining the living children instead.
Amyalla had knitted together some puppets, which
Revafour had painted to make them much more lifelike. The puppets were the
perfect accompaniment to the stories and songs Seline contributed, all set to
the music Luna played on the lute she carried. When the puppets were not enough
for the story and Amyalla needed something more dramatic, her magical hat
allowed her to take on any other roles she needed.
The laughter and smiles on the children’s faces
lightened Amyalla’s heart, particularly after the horrors she’d seen. Not that
the horrors of seeing caged children were new to her. After having Kivern
Goodleaf as a husband, Amyalla was well acquainted with living in cages,
metaphorically if not literally.
The halfling had often wondered what it would have
been like to have children, to care for them and raise a family. Feeding and
caring for the human children she and the other adventurers had rescued was
particularly amusing in her case, given that so many of them were just as tall
as she was. Being a parent was one thing, but being a nanny was quite another…
That realization made the halfling sigh. She had no regrets
about publicly exposing Kivern and dragging House Reorsa’s name through the mud
in the process. Unfortunately, being forced to flee the way she did had kept
her from ever being able to enjoy the family she’d been looking for. The Reorsa
family wasn’t exactly what she’d been hoping for-it had been all about money,
rank and military prestige for them. It was the same with all the men she’d
rooked and robbed-every one of them were double-dealing snakes who deserved the
scandals she’d exposed them to.
At the end of it all, though, I’m
still alone, Amyalla realized
glumly as she caught sight of Revafour down the corridor.
Whispering quietly in the Flan tongue, Revafour
breathed in the cleansing smoke of the tobacco burning in the bowl in front of
him. After a few seconds, he picked up the pieces of cedar next to the bowl and
added them to the flames, whispering once again in Flan. Praying quietly to
Beory the Oerth Mother, Revafour asked that she accept his offering, so that
the Bearded Lord’s Hollow could be cleansed of the evil that had poisoned it.
The thought of what the hags had done to the Bearded
Lord’s Hollow pained Revafour. These hills offered a special rugged beauty, something
to be cherished and until they were tainted and polluted by the corrupting
influence of the hags and their minions. The dwarves who had originally carved
the caverns of the Bearded Lord’s Hollow clearly recognized that, given the
alliance they likely shared with the Flan. Revafour doubted that any of the
other companions he had fought alongside recognized the runes of protection and
welcome subtly carved into the walls of some of the tunnels, runes that he
recognized as having a Flan influence. Those runes showed just how closely the
Flan had allied with the dwarves who shared these hills with them.
More the pity, then, that the caverns had been so
tainted by evil, first by the orcs that had taken over this place and then by
the hags and their foul minions.
Anger welled up in Revafour as he thought of it,
despite his best efforts to focus on his prayers. He was reminded of some of the
stories of the Flan elders, stories of the betrayal and murder many Flan had
suffered at the hands of the Oerids and the Suel. Revafour had heard the
stories, and he had seen it personally. His old friend Quendamak, a second
father to him, had been betrayed by Archbaron Bestmo of Blackmoor.
Revafour was still pained by Quendamak’s murder, and it
served as an uncomfortable reminder of everything the Flan had suffered at the
hands of the new arrivals to the Flanaess. Revafour also remembered how the
Flan could suffer at the hands of each other-he hadn’t forgotten about Tuomad
Wolf-Slayer or Kathleena Nightoak.
What now, then? Revafour wielded a sword of Oeridian
make, worn a cloak and armor of Oeridian design, and had fought alongside people
of Oerid and Suel descent to destroy the evil infecting this place. He was not
certain what he would do once all the children had been returned to their
homes. Would he continue on with Amyalla and Airk? Or would he go on to his own
devices, working as a hired sword?
Would he find another Quendamak out there?
The thought of striking out on his own did not arouse
the same enthusiasm in Revafour that it might have several months ago. He
hadn’t felt particularly close to any of the rest of Quendamak’s people after
he’d helped them escape from Blackmoor after Bestmo’s attempts to kill them.
Quendamak’s people had chosen to stay in Highfolk, but Revafour had been too
angry and frustrated to stay with them.
He needed to leave, to be somewhere, anywhere else.
Where else did he need to be?
He thought again about the other adventurers he had
fought alongside, and added another pinch of cedar to the bowl.
Weimar smiled to himself as he contemplated the flagon
he’d found in the hags’ larder. The flagon was one of the magical ‘flowing
flagons’ produced by the legendary Zagig, the mad old demigod of yore. It was able
to dispense different types of drink on command. Weimar considered himself
especially fortunate to find the flagon, given how badly he needed a drink
after everything he’d seen.
Weimar had been reproached for his drinking before,
but he just couldn’t help himself this time. He found himself wondering what
was it that motivated beings like these hags and their minions to pick on
helpless innocents like the children they victimized.
Weimar had never been able to find the answer, not
even after all of the duels and tavern brawls he’d gotten into over the years.
One day he was defending his brother Denrik against a spurned woman’s champion,
the next he was smashing tankards over the heads of low-born street thugs who
harassed barmaids and halflings. Weimar’s brawling had gotten him into trouble
with his superior officers in the Keoish Army, too. Just as he was ready to
attack civilians who bullied people who couldn’t defend themselves, so too
would he attack his fellow soldiers for mistreating civilians. Weimar was no
better with his tongue, as he gained a reputation for bluntly criticizing military
officers who abused their charges.
For all of Weimar’s fighting, he still felt
unfulfilled. He felt like he was searching for something, and never really
found what it was. Of course he enjoyed himself fighting a new foe every day,
spending every night with a new fair maiden and enjoying a new type of ale in
every tavern he came to, but he still didn’t feel like he’d found what he was
Take the adventurers he’d fought beside, for instance.
Would Weimar now leave their company, after they had risked their lives for one
The idea appalled him.
Weimar suddenly felt his mind fill with the images of
everything he’d seen the hags do to their victims.
Those images faded, and then they were replaced with
memories of how Weimar and the other adventurers had had to gather up their
victims’ bodies to return to civilization.
Weimar realized he needed another drink.
Seline had found that the clasps on the silver bracers
N’arghenn was wearing easily opened, and she had no trouble removing them. The
bracers immediately shrank to fit Seline’s wrists when she tried them on, and
she could feel their protective power. Seline also helped herself to the wand
hanging from N’arghenn’s belt, the one that N’arghenn had used to produce the
Seline knew she would be able to make good use of both
As valuable as these prizes were, Seline considered
them a poor consolation when stacked against all the horrors she’d seen in
these caverns. The images of what the hags had done to their prey remained
seared in her mind. Judging by the looks Seline had seen the looks in the eyes
of her companions as they’d gathered up the bodies of the hags’ victims, she
knew the other adventurers suffered the same problem.
Seline was sickened by the memories of what she’d
seen, but she knew she would be able to deal with them. What concerned her more
was how the other adventurers, the people she’d accompanied on this mad quest,
Airk was constantly staring off into the distance, as
if he was reliving some distant memory. Revafour seemed to simmer with some
sort of inner rage, mostly ignoring everyone around him. Ma’non’go looked
confused and saddened. Amyalla put on a brave face as she entertained the
children with the puppets she’d knitted. Luna was spending more and more time
in prayer. Weimar was constantly sampling from that magical flagon he’d found,
seemingly unable to stop himself.
Seline felt a keen sense of frustration, wishing she
could do something more to help them.
She didn’t want it to end this way.
Airk dutifully worked to help the others gather up the
treasure and the bodies of the hags’ victims, and to ensure that the surviving
children were well-fed and guarded. Inwardly, though, his mind kept drifting
back several decades to the Hateful Wars, and the ugly memories that he simply
could not seem to shake.
How many comrades had he and his fellow gnomes had to
bury back then? How many times had the gnomes and the dwarves continually
betrayed and sold each other out for profit and political gain, allowing the
humanoids to regroup? It was one thing to kill the orcs and goblins, monsters
who would have enslaved the gnomes and dwarves they did not kill and eat, but
it was quite another to face death at the hands of your supposed allies. Even
now, the thoughts still filled him with rage, and sometimes it was all he could
do to keep himself in check.
Gazing out over the beauty of the hills, which
remained unspoiled beyond the borders of the cancer poisoning Bearded Lord’s
Hollow, and the dance of the twin moons at night, helped soothe Airk’s soul. So
too, did the surviving children-Airk had much more fun than he would have ever
imagined playing with Amyalla in her silly puppet shows.
But what would Airk do after he and the other adventurers
had taken the children home? Airk had wandered for a long time after the end of
Hateful Wars, working as a mercenary and adventurer, but it all seemed so
hollow to him. He hadn’t even returned to Flinthold after the war ended. He
could not show his face there after the way he’d allowed Kalrek to betray their
Now, as for the past five decades, Airk was left
wondering what to do with his life. His latest attempt to try and find some
meaning had led him to fight alongside a crew of humans and a halfling, people
who would eventually go grey and die while he would still be comparatively
Airk was struck by the strangeness of the situation,
and even more so by the fact that fighting alongside these other adventurers
made him more fulfilled and alive than he had been since before the Hateful