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Evermoon 8, 817 I. E.

2 Years after Albert's Exile

Avernum's Last Unblocked Exit to the Surface

Warren was crowding Nathan and Derek. Derek whispered to him, "Get back in formation, fool! We don't know what's ahead!"

"Oh, we do," Warren said, face enraptured. "We still recognize it, all of us. Even after all this time. Even so far away. That's daylight. Oh, a long way off, still. But it's there."

He laughed aloud. "So much better than I could've hoped! It's not too horrible a slope uphill. It's doable. Let's pick up the pace!"

"Wait," Nathan said suddenly. "We aren't going up there, Warren."

Warren turned on him as though he were the crazy one.

"At a minimum, we owe it to Erika and Rogow to tell them about this. Maybe the ordinary folks, too!" Nathan insisted.

Warren asked pointedly, "And then we're coming back, to go through ourselves, right?"

Nathan took a deep breath, looked Warren in the eyes, and said, "Whoever wants to is coming back to go through the exit."

Everyone seemed to be saying something at once after that, a lot of yammering about the group disbanding and who had said what about when that they were going through the exit or not going through it, and how likely anyone had thought ever finding an exit was at the time they said that.

Abruptly, Nathan roared, "Quiet!"

Collecting himself in the silence, Nathan said more calmly, "We all know that at least Warren wants to go through the exit. So, yes, this does mean disbanding the group." Ribaldi sighed in exasperation. Nathan turned to him and said, "I'm more upset than I expected, Ribaldi. But this had to end sometime. It's my fault for not making us face this earlier. For not planning who and when. But here we are, and we haven't drawn any monsters yet with this racket. So we're planning it now."

Derek put in, "You can't be around Warren and not have realized this moment was coming. I'm just surprised we're arguing about it."

Warren jumped in, "I'm surprised you aren't all trying to come with me. You've seen this place. The kind of life we have to live? And you want to stay?"

Derek pointed out, "The wine is (expletive deleted), the company dismal, but there is something kinda nice about being able to do things with your own two hands. No worrying about the Empire's tale-bearers down here. No bowing and scraping to toadies. Dignity. Respect. You know, we've even made a name for ourselves down here. We're doing alright."

Warren waved angrily at the end of the tunnel and exclaimed, "The sun is right there!"

Ribaldi commented, "And I miss it, Warren. The surface has a lot to offer. But can we claim it? Just where will we be coming up there? The Empire rules everywhere. If we're caught, they will kill us rather than send us back here. We ruled out the surface when we killed Hawthorne. We'd be struggling through life as brigands on some deserted hillside. The sun is worth a lot, but not starving, or being killed. It's not worth preying on travelers."

Warren reminded them with entreaties, "Light. Wind. Rain. Snow. All of it, just waiting for us. We can do anything, I know we can. And the Empire does rule all, but there's plenty of places it's only sparsely settled. Very few up there know our faces. We can blend in with the crowds, buy passage to Valorim, and start new lives yet again among the settlers there."

Nathan spoke, "I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss those things, or want those things, Warren. But there's beauty here, too. It's hard and uncomfortable. There are monsters. But there's monsters on the surface - not as bad, but there are. And here we're free, and we have a purpose, and our mistakes are in our past. Up there - even without what we did to Hawthorne, we're all still criminals. Our pasts still dominate any life up there, not our futures. Even if we did make anything worthwhile up there, we'd still be living under the tyranny of whoever takes the throne next. Down here, we've got people worth fighting for, from throne room to barroom. I'm done with armies, but I can still do something to protect these people. It's not an obligation, and I'll die or get too old for it someday. But after all these years down here, I've come to love this land. I'll help any who want to escape it, too, but I want to spend the rest of my life here. Even if it's short."

Warren exhaled. "That's it, then. We've all said our piece. And I don't think any of us are really surprised, like you said, Derek." He looked at them all. "But even if people are interested in escaping, you'll need lots of time before we can come back here. All the way back to the Abyss to talk to Rogow, and then sailing all the way to Erika, if you really think she'll feel obligated to reward us for the information. And then, once you finally get back to Avernum, you'll need to get a caravan together to make the trip through the wilds on the way here worthwhile, and pay proper guards. And I'm not even sure how you're getting a caravan through the fire barriers the Empire set up behind us, but that's another issue. I'm trying to say that I want to go now. Life is short. I want to die on the surface."

Ribaldi urged, "Nathan, say something to him. I don't like to admit it, but we need each other, each one of us. Besides, it won't be that long before we come back."

Derek cautioned, "Ribaldi, what if most people respond like we did? Or they're too scared of the dangers? If I had kids, I wouldn't take 'em through what we had to go through to get here, caravan or not. And once we get back to town, and if no one wants to go, why would we want to walk all the way out here just to see Warren off? Why tie Warren down all that time? I'll miss you, brother," he looked at Warren, "but we all know where we're at."

Nathan extended his hand to Warren. "Then it ends here." As Warren took it, Nathan said, "We don't want to do this ourselves, but I think all of us see the appeal. And we definitely wish you the best."

"I thought I hated everyone," Warren replied as he shook hands with everyone, "but it seems I don't hate any of you as much as I thought."

"You'll do all right, Warren," Derek smiled.

Ribaldi huffed, "If you watch that tongue, you will. Go with God, my son."

Warren waved to them, then turned and faced the light and walked up the incline.

Nathan plodded after him automatically for a few moments, then he stopped himself. He called up, after a moment, "Welcome us if we ever come to visit you!"

"Right," Warren returned. "And the same for me!" They heard him chuckle. "We're crazy, aren't we?"

Ribaldi called, "Of course!"

Derek shouted, "We are Avernites, after all!"

Everyone's laughter carried through the passage.

As they walked away, Nathan looked at Ribaldi, then said, "If you want to go now, too -"

Ribaldi shook his head and waved him off. "No, no, my son. True, I was praying about joining a caravan to the surface, should we manage to get them to the exit. But God revealed that I'm to stick with you lot, and that I'm not to see the surface. But enough of that! No more plans on heavy hearts and empty stomachs!"

"Right, we gotta get through that fire barrier again," Derek sighed, rubbing at some singed hair and reassuringly thwacking Father Ribaldi on the shoulder.

They continued striding back towards Avernum together.


13 Years Later

Sulfras' New Lair, Surface

Albert was turning to leave their audience with Sulfras. The dragons had fashioned a weapon for fighting the alien beasts, but only after putting them through quite a bit of danger. His tired body was ready to get a safe distance away and make camp. Albert was surprised to see Sschass step towards the dragon and request, "Wise Sulfras, may I ask another question?"

The dragon may or may not have been surprised - she had been watching them all carefully - either way, she inclined her head wordlessly.

"In my hometown, there are tales that you once guarded the exit to the surface," Sschass began.

Sulfras broke in, "I chose a lair with one of the best secondary doors imaginable; always wise to have more than one. Rather offputting that the Empire filled it up at the start of the war. Continue."

Sschass was only slightly off-balance from the interruption, and did continue, "I see. It is said that the Tamers of Avernum paid you tribute so that they could pass, and that they even brought other Avernites through. Is this true?"

"The Tamers of Avernum?" Sulfras inquired. "Oh, yes, you mean that bunch, don't you. I thought you meant the ones who rescued the Crystal Souls for a moment. Why does this mean that much to you?"

"I wished to know if there were any who were able to make a life on the surface, like you and your siblings, like many in Avernum hope to," Sschass answered, "and I wish to learn if the Tamers were honorable enough to share their fortunate escape." He looked briefly at Albert and Helen, to be sure he had their interest, and he did.

Sulfras looked towards the ceiling, collecting her thoughts, then said, "Yes, they did. It was almost not worth those artifacts they gave me, having wagons and smelly humans and their disgusting mushroom meal bread, and all that ruckus, going throughout my lair. I told them; I really was going to eat those children if they touched my scrolls. But it was only one caravan in the end, so I didn't get a chance to demand further payment. Never saw any families come back from the surface, so I assumed they found their measure of happiness. Possibly death. But they earned the respect of a dragon, I'll tell you that. When my siblings and I debated coming up here, I said, 'If that rag-tag bunch of scrawny humans challenged the Empire for a piece of their land and managed it, then we dragons can do a lot better.'" She puffed out a bit of smoke from her nostrils and narrowed her eyes, relishing the memory of her eloquence.

"Well said," Sschass told her, grinning at Albert and Helen. Albert made a face back at him while Helen put her hands on her hips, but she had a grudging smile as well. Maybe Sschass and Frruh were right; maybe the Tamers weren't quite as bad as she had thought.


Frost 18, 833 I. E.

16 Years after Albert's Exile

Fort Emergence, Upper Avernum

After Albert and his friends had helped to destroy the last monster factory, life was like a dream. It was like a dream in that all sorts of people marveled at their achievements, and royally honored them. It was also like a dream in that time sped up. Important events and galas popped up out of nowhere, then suddenly receded into the past. Somewhere in all of that, they traveled the length of Valorim, back to Upper Avernum, for yet another round of feasts.

Then, all of a sudden, the feasts were over again, the last one concluding one evening in Fort Emergence. Albert and his friends gathered in the dining hall on the next morning, like they always did whenever they returned to the fort. But after all that had happened, it wasn't like it always was.

The ceremonies were over, the awards had been given. The mission was finished. This was a moment the adventurers hadn't realized was coming, but now seemed inevitable. They had their pick of missions in the Avernum Adventurer Corps, they could return to Avernum, or they had the whole of Valorim to explore, separately or together. But their hearts had not yet settled on a course. The realization that this might be the last time any of them traveled together weighed on them that breakfast.

Sschass looked at each of them and finally said, "I've known what I've wanted all my life. Why do I now feel torn?"

Helen inquired with concern, "Where do you think you can do the most good?"

Sschass gave a long, whistling hiss. "That is just what I thought I knew. I can fight. I can drive back the monsters of Avernum. Eventually, I hoped to slay the last of the wicked slithzerikai. My comrades and I would liberate Lost Bahisskava, kneel before the door to our ancient homeland, and humbly ask our brethren to take us back.

"But now I know how much good I can do here. On the surface, or in Avernum in general. And I know that Avernum has to look after itself, and this new beginning on the surface, before it can afford the long campaign to Bahisskava. My generation may not be the one to return."

Frruh pointed out, "Naturally you'd want to go back to your homeland. But would the descendants of those who cast you out be willing to take you back? I thought you'd say you would open the door back to your homeland."

Helen frowned at Frruh, but Sschass returned gently, "My ancestors were exiled for a reason. Opening the door on our own, however good our intentions, would be an invasion. But I have to admit, being part of your return to the surface made me wonder. The Empire practically forgot about all of us in the midst of its problems. Perhaps the slithzerikai beyond the door have forgotten about us. The tales tell of no locks to be picked or ways to force the door open, and they may have filled it with rubble beyond, so it cannot open. But maybe they are willing to forgive." He looked thoughtfully at Albert and Helen, then added, "Your success at homecoming has filled me with desire anew, while at the same time showing me it may be quite different from how I thought it would be."


Epilogue

When the first records were written about the Shields of the Surface, they told the reader that the rest of their lives were happy, although not nearly as happy as they deserved.

Albert and Helen were married in Lower Avernum, and they and their children were among the settlers who founded one of the first villages in the surface land Empress Prazac granted to Avernum. They lived happily, and for a good span, but the land of Krizsan, beautiful and fruitful, was yet wild. The couple fell before their time, guarding their village from a raid of all-too-normal monsters, but their sacrifice allowed their now-grown children and other villagers to finish the battle with no further loss of life.

Sschass explored the surface for some years, but eventually returned to his hometown of Gnass. Finding youth of the slithzerikai, humans, and nephilim were drawn to him because of the legends about him and his friends, he founded a training camp to develop skills in warfare, skills that Avernum would still have need of for many years. Sschass and his spawn were remembered for many daring deeds in the scrolls of Gnass and of Avernum.

Frruh and his faithful horse Rover sometimes journeyed with Sschass, and sometimes visited Albert and Helen, but after the Tower of Magi was re-established, he was most often found there. Frruh was always on uneasy terms with the leaders of the Tower. Students, however, frequented the large table he and his mate set, and his hearth was commonly said to be the only warmth in the whole tower. Though Frruh lived a long and happy life, his last years were marked with pain, as cave fungi invaded his lungs, weakened in the Tower of Magi's disaster. Frruh's daughter, Marow, more often known as the Midnight Archer, was among the most distinguished graduates of Sschass' camp, and Frruh's students also performed many feats remembered in verse.