Heavy Is The Head That Seeks The Crown
Airk Venbelwar took a long drink of water as he looked at the wooden engraving in his hand. It showed several scenes that told an unusual story. A single wolf wandered alone, wounded after losing most of his pack. He seemed doomed to always be on his own until he found six other wolves who formed a new pack with him. The seven wolves were of different heights, colors and builds, but they had a sense of unity among them that belied their differences.
Airk smiled before he put the engraving back in his pocket. He glanced over towards the heavy plate armor, the shield decorated with the insignia of the twin moons and the stars, and the military pick and spiked morning star, which all lay in a pile on his bed in his room at the Wizard's Hat Inn.
Airk wore the equipment well. The firmness of his stride, the alert look on his face and the vigilance of his manner were those of an experienced soldier. His well-muscled frame, immaculately trimmed blonde hair, beard and handlebar moustache only reinforced that image. He had the light brown skin and long pointy nose of a gnome, but unlike most of his kin Airk had little use for humor or joy. His hands were never far from his weapons, and everyone who met him knew how ready he was to use them.
As part of the Company of the Silver Wolf, Airk used his soldier's training to fight alongside his human and halfling adventuring companions. In the roughly four months since they'd come together, the companions had begun to form a tight bond of friendship, one that helped Airk cope with his inner turmoil.
That turmoil had been festering for a long time. During the bloody Hateful Wars over seven and a half decades ago, Airk's military unit was betrayed by one of its own, a cunning warrior named Kalrek Burunne. Kalrek's betrayal left the gnomes' kingdom of Flinthold weakened when it was attacked by the Steelheart dwarven clan Kalrek betrayed Flinthold to. Airk fought in Flinthold's defense, but he'd left once the Steelhearts were defeated and he'd seen to the needs of his family. His guilt and shame over his failing to anticipate Kalrek's treason made him unable to face any of his kin.
In the following decades, Airk wandered the Flanaess as an adventurer. He'd mostly kept his guilt and despair under control, but they exploded again once he learned about Kalrek's plan to seize the Crown of Arumdina. The Crown was a sacred artifact said to be blessed by no less than Garl Glittergold, the supreme god of the gnomes. It earned its name from its monde, a piece of mithril shaped like a battleaxe. The monde was said to be a piece of Arumdina, the divine mithril axe wielded by Garl himself. As a symbol of Garl's favor, the Crown made Flinthold prosper so long as its monarchs wore it.
When the Crown was stolen, Flinthold's fortunes declined. Its old monarchy faded into history, replaced by regents who lacked the same confidence or power as the old kings. Kalrek sought the Crown so that he could claim the throne of Flinthold for himself. To finance his search, he employed a small army of bandits and soldiers who raided for treasure in the lands around the Nyr Dyv, laundering his blood money through agents he forced to help him. One of those agents was the gem merchant Laessar Bradon, the only other gnome in Airk's unit who'd survived Kalrek's treason during the Wars.
Airk and his friends learned about Kalrek's schemes and Laessar's involvement when they fought one of Kalrek's bandit gangs. The companions traveled to the gnome city of Copper Crossing where Airk confronted Laessar to make him reveal Kalrek's whereabouts. Airk succeeded at that, but his decades-old rage and grief led him to unintentionally kill Laessar. He and his companions rescued Laessar's family, who Kalrek kidnapped to force Laessar's cooperation, but their efforts to raise Laessar from the dead ended in failure.
With Laessar permanently dead, his son Trendin inherited his gem-dealing business. Despite his anger at Laessar's death, Trendin chose not to take vengeance on Airk. Instead, he demanded that Airk find the Crown and restore Flinthold's long-lost glory, wanting to honor his family's roots. Airk initially wanted to go alone, not knowing how long the quest would take and thinking that his friends had already done enough for him. His companions all insisted on accompanying him, regardless of how long the search took.
Now, nearly a month after Laessar's death, the Company of the Silver Wolf returned to the Free City of Greyhawk to begin the search for the Crown. Seline Roas Del Cranden, one of Airk's companions, arranged a meeting with a sage who specialized in gnomish history and culture who might be able to tell them where the Crown was.
A thin smile crossed Airk's face as he considered what his friends had done for him. Another one of his human companions, Revafour Greystar, carved and painted the wooden engraving to try and help Airk cope with his guilt and shame.
The smile vanished from Airk's face as he suddenly remembered the rivers of blood on the stone when the Steelhearts ambushed his unit, and the blood on his hands when he'd killed Laessar.
He began to shudder involuntarily as the memories came flooding back, breathing heavily as he put his face in his hands.
You don't deserve their help, Airk heard an inner voice tell him. You're going to get them all killed. They'll never realize their own dreams, because they'll die trying to save your wretched hide.
Airk tried to ignore the voice, but it came back to him again and again.
Day after day after day.