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.
place, then?” Weimar whispered to Amyalla as she handed his telescope back to
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.
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
thought to herself. Perhaps-
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.
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.
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.
to go back to their base camp, wondering how Airk was going to take the news.
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
they weren’t really gnomes,” Seline suggested to Airk as she handed him his
backpack. “They could be magically disguised-goblins, humans, something else
hoped her words would encourage Airk, but they didn’t. Airk only shook his
head, his grim expression not changing.
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?”
slightly embarrassed look on Seline’s face told him all he needed to know.
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.
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
Seline said, touching his shoulder.
started at her touch, whirling to face her. His eyes blazed, and one of his
hands reached for his belt.
Seline said again.
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.
he said, closing his eyes. “Different peoples…new blood…but always on their
Seline said a third time, touching his shoulder again.
popped open, before he finally calmed down.
“I…” he said.
alright?” Seline asked, as the rest of the companions came to join them.
They…it’s nothing. Come, let’s be off,” Airk said.
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
signed. Are you certain you’re capable of
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
be a gnomish design?” Weimar said, wondering which of the gateways to choose.
blinked once, before he digested the question.
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.
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.
again, maybe that’s the point,” Amyalla said to herself. Getting a closer look
at the lever, she nodded.
you talking about?” Weimar asked.
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.
forward, Amyalla nodded to herself as she examined the remains of the lever.
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.
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
It’s warmer than I thought it would be down
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?
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-
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’
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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’
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?”
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
Weimar looked at one another in concern, before running to catch up with Airk.
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?
in that,” Airk said, shaking his head, “and in any event I doubt you prepared
the necessary spells?” he asked Luna and Seline.
even know much of such magic,” Seline said, shaking her head sadly. “Would
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.
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.
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
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-
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
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.
explains a lot,” he said, before muttering something to himself in gnomish.
dealing with giants again?” Luna asked curiously. “Should-“
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.
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.”
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
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.
set, his military pick in hand, Airk led his friends on, determined to see the