The prisoners were borne to their doom in unyielding wagons, open to the crisp mountain air. The Empire's guards were gruff and efficient, keeping their convoy in line and on time. The prisoners, including Albert and his family, were as stiff as the wagons.

Albert was relieved Mother wasn't crying as much. She had cried a lot when their family had been sentenced. Now she cried only when she and Father thought Albert and his brothers and sister weren't looking or were asleep. So that was only when they were camped for the night.

Noticing all the things he and his family wouldn't have anymore was getting exhausting. They were going where there wouldn't be any sparrows shooting through the sky. There wouldn't be the soft burbles or cold wash of mountain streams.

Albert wished he wasn't noticing any of these things. He was a lad of ten winters in a rugged land, and ought to be brave. At any other time, he'd have played with his siblings, or some of the other children in the convoy. During the journey, their convoy had received prisoners from all over the known world. Albert wanted to ask them what it was like on the other continents. However, when other children had tried to run about or play together, the guards would shove or smack them back into rigid order, barely more gentle than they were with the adults. Soon, just the stern disinterest of the guards' stares was enough to freeze anyone's heart with terror as their feet hastened back into their assigned spot. They were all doomed anyway: terror of the guards on every side, and the fate awaiting them ahead, among the mountains, chilled them all.

Albert was startled by a shout - a sentry on a wall was challenging them. Their guards answered correctly, and the convoy pressed on without missing a moment. Albert raised his eyes and saw higher on the mountain an outpost made of thick, cold stone blocks. He swallowed. The hair on his arms stood on end, but it wasn't the cold or - or anything else. The magical power coming out of the place could be felt even this far downslope.

Mother was crying again, and Father was gripping her tightly, looking up at the stone building and the Empire's soldiers stationed there. There were few dry eyes now. Father had said standing up for what was right, against the mayor himself, was worth even this. Albert hoped so.

Practiced guards unloaded each wagon was in turn when it reached the stone building. As their wagon pulled up, both Father and Albert's older brother Carl tried to help Mother off, but the guards plucked everyone off - not painfully, but with firmness. The guard's gauntlets took up Albert's sister Emma, and their younger brother Rupert would clearly be next, then Albert himself. Albert's thudding heart reminded him what he had sworn to himself and his best friend Garrett. As the guard picked up Albert, he raised his head.

He looked up, and saw the sun high in the air, framed by blue sky and white, wispy clouds -

He looked up, up, high as he could, stabbing every detail into his memory -

He looked at it, straight at the sun, and he tried to keep his eyes open like he told Garrett he would but he couldn't -

And then the stone ceiling cut it off like a stormcloud, for a guard had deposited him in the building. Albert would never know if the stinging in his eyes and the reason he was keeping them tightly shut was because of the blinding glare of the sun still dancing in spots in his eyes, or the pain of his heart.

There was a new smell in the air as the next wagon was unloaded behind him. Then there was an odd rumbling above Albert's head. He knew that sound, but it shouldn't be coming from up there - unless -

Albert looked up behind him and saw a nephilim. Garrett had been right. The face was that of a cat, even down to the whiskers. There was fur all over its body, all he could see, for its body was like a man's too, and it wore a loincloth and a dirty shirt. The nephilim was rubbing his arms and making a rumbling in the back of his throat like an angry cat while the other prisoners were queued up behind him.

The nephilim glared down at Albert and snarled, "Stop gaping, furless." It then made a hacking sound.

A guard gave the nephilim a brutal blow with the butt of his spear. This was beyond any blow yet given to a prisoner. The nephilim yowled as he reeled, then staggered up when he sensed the guard coming in for another blow. The nephilim, with unsteady steps, hurried after Albert and the prisoners before them, as they all began to move deeper into the building.

Albert suddenly recalled Garrett having told him that the Empire had actually rounded up all the nephilim and shipped them down to Avernum. Before, merely surviving the trip down into the earth was a mere, slim, almost inconceivable chance of survival. Now he considered for the first time survival beyond those first moments, and what it would be like to live with such angry creatures as neighbors, and upon him came a bitterness of soul. Perhaps even such survival would be a death; a slow, painful, death.

There was a loud, solemn voice booming through the structure as the guards watched and silently prodded the prisoners along. Albert realized as he got closer the man must be some sort of Imperial magistrate, for he was reading something very like what the judge had said when sentencing his family:

"For treason, for murder, for theft…"

Albert had seen the unnatural light on the walls and ceilings before, but he could finally see its source, even over everyone's heads: the dread portal that would claim them.

"For speaking insolence to your betters, for denying the wisdom of dread Emperor Hawthorne and his servants, for spreading dissension in your cities, for pursuit of unauthorized magics, for necromancy…"

There were only ten people ahead of them. One after another was being forced into the portal, thrown in by the guards if they had to be. Albert was ashamed of his shortened breath. No one had ever returned, so these might be his last moments. He didn't want to die a coward.

"For these crimes you are sentenced to permanent exile in the caves of Avernum. You are outside of the Emperor's protection now. Judgment is passed."

Father took Mother and Emma's hand, Mother took his older brother's hand, his older brother took Albert's hand, and Albert took his younger brother's hand, and they stepped through the portal, single file.

Eyes full of unnatural light, guts twisted out of shape, and soles of his feet feeling no floor, he was sure the rumors were true: that the portal didn't really work and you were simply killed.

But then he opened his eyes and stepped with his siblings on dirt, into a world that was cool and barely lit, and dread filtered into him. It was the other rumors that were true. The rumors of a short life scratched out of rock, surrounded by unseen horrors.

Then a man's kind voice was talking to them: "My name is Tor. Welcome to Avernum. You're in Fort Avernum, and you can rest here tonight, under the protection of the Kingdom of Avernum."

Mother finally broke down into long, wailing sobs. Albert could see well enough to know Father was rubbing her back and trying to say something to her, but Albert couldn't tell what, because he and his siblings were bawling, too.

The nephilim behind them made a hacking noise. Albert tried to shoot it a dirty look over his shoulder, but wasn't sure it could be seen in the portal's flickering light.

The last of the prisoners came through the portal. It was set in a wide, open square, so there was room for everyone. Some were shifting from foot to foot, sobbing. One or two kissed the ground. Many seemed transfixed by what Tor was saying, and were waiting in their original places in line behind them.

Tor told Mother, "There, now, ma'am. I know. But it is possible to make a life here. One of my jobs is to make sure of that. By decree of King Micah of Avernum, everyone gets a gift here, to help you start anew. A stone knife, and five coins."

He handed just that to all of their family. Mother seemed anxious when he handed them to Emma. Albert didn't know why, since she was almost as old as Carl, but Albert and his mother had never seen eye-to-eye about knives, even though Mother used plenty when making dinner. In any event, Tor said quietly, "Everyone, ma'am. It's the law."

Father said as Emma took them, "Then it's true. It's dangerous here."

"That's why we have an army, and law," Tor agreed. "We also have businesses, and farms, and homes. Your family can live, just as many others have. Here in Avernum, you are free. But if you'll take my advice, stay in the fort the next few nights, and find a job. When you're ready, go with a caravan to a city, and don't travel on your own until you know the roads and the monsters."

The ceiling and some of the moss was glowing - that was why they could see, Albert realized, after he caught his brother staring at some of the glow. There were some strange, spindly things dotted around the square, and as his eyes got more used to the light, he realized they were some sort of sickly tree. Well, there wasn't any real light - it was impressive they were there at all. Maybe they were magical, too.

Father practically had to pry Mother away from a tearful thanking of Tor, though Albert wasn't quite sure yet how much they had to be happy about. But it was true, if that kind man and this city were here, things couldn't be all bad. And Tor had found him a knife that fit just right in his hand. It felt as though it belonged, somehow. Of course, he'd felt that way about all the sticks they'd found back home when playing army, too.

Finally they had stopped holding up the line, to his older brother Carl's relief, and they started walking to the end of the square, exploring this first part of their new home.

Leafloss 21, 815 I. E. (Imperial Era)

2 Years Before Albert's Exile

Fort Avernum

Nathan stumbled out of the portal; the guard had carelessly pushed him through. He had been last in line, and they were probably tired.

Staring up and around, he tried to get his bearings, but thoughts and hopes and fears kept surging in Nathan's chest. He was alive, but with no money, no food, and no arms, how long would he stay that way?

He nearly jumped when a voice came out of the dark saying, "Step forward, friend. You seem to be the last, but sometimes being near the portal makes people feel ill. You won't need its light much longer, we have our own light here. I'm Tor. Welcome to Avernum."

"Avernum? So we're really in a cave?" Nathan asked. He felt foolish - everyone knew that, but his mouth seemed to have moved on its own.

"Yes, we are, miles below the surface, and with no exit," Tor agreed wryly, "but look at the good part - this is the last place left in the whole world not under the Empire's thumb!"

Nathan drew back in surprise, but Tor just grinned at him, saying, "Oh, I know, I should be careful. I could get thrown into Avernum for talking like that!" Nathan chuckled, then smiled fully back after a long moment.

"So, here are some things to help you start your new life, just like all the other new arrivals," Tor continued. "A stone knife, and five coins."

Nathan looked down at his hands, holding the items, stupefied. "What good will that do me? I mean, uh, sorry, I thank you, Tor, but-"

But Tor didn't seem put out, and he replied, "As much good as you can do with them. It's not like the surface. You're free here. Your life is now what you make of it. There is a future here. But not for those who break the law. Steal, murder - you'll get thrown into the Abyss. The gift is to keep you from desperation, but we're a poor kingdom, so after this, you'll have to earn everything with your own two hands."

Nathan let that sink in. "The Abyss?" he finally asked.

"Not an actual chasm," Tor clarified, "but a series of caves separated from us by a chasm, and a fort. We have our problems, our monsters, but the Abyss? The surface's rumors are true in that place. More monsters. No law, but what petty despots enforce. Worse soil."

One former prisoner, the only one who hadn't already wandered away, abruptly asked, "Just like the Empire, then?" Tor and Nathan turned towards him, and the man continued, "Toss out anyone you don't like?"

Tor's tone hardened slightly as he answered, "Sometimes we kill the criminals, especially if we can't take them alive, to a trial. The Abyss is our way of showing mercy. There are similarities to what the Empire does. But King Micah isn't like Hawthorne. And the Abyss is one of the few things keeping us all from turning on each other. Enough men get hungry and become brigands as it is. We need something to punish evil and reward good.

"Anyway, be careful. And make something worthwhile of your new life. There are odd jobs here in the fort until you figure out something to do."

"Thank you, sir," Nathan told Tor, and hurried away. His heart sank as he realized the other former prisoner was following him.

When the other man had followed him quite some distance, Nathan stifled a sigh, stopped at the end of the square, and turned to confront him, saying, "Tor didn't seem to take to you, did he? Surprising."

"Just like those on the surface," the other man replied. "I'm not."

"Not what?"

"Surprised," the other man supplied irritatedly.

"I don't suppose it was because of your manners?" Nathan suggested.

"You haven't introduced yourself," the other man returned coolly.

Nathan gritted his teeth and said through them, "Nathan," as he held out his hand.

The other man took it with a limp grip as he said, "Warren."

Nathan pointed out, "Why not start with a new outlook, Warren? A new way of taking on life?"

"Build a new life like that fool advised everyone with his script?" Warren asked cynically.

Nathan said tightly, "You try to talk to a hundred people and tell them everything important in a new way each time."

Warren rolled his eyes and said, "Nathan, that man looked just like the trees here."

Nathan waited.

"Thin," Warren supplied. He waited, and added pointedly, "And pale?"

Nathan gestured impatiently.

"And spindly?" Warren waited another beat, then sighed and started to say something, but Nathan interrupted, "If talking to me is such a bother, you needn't go on."

"I'd say the same to you," Warren shot back, "but I'd rather say that it's clear from those signs that there isn't much nourishment for any life down here. Tor is this society's way of preventing a riot every time the Empire dumps a bushel of crooks down here. But clearly there's next to nothing to live on. They were right on the surface. Even if you do survive the trip, it's just a long, slow, death."

"And you're satisfied with that," Nathan said in exasperation.

"Of course not," Warren said in indignation, "that's why I'm putting up with you."

"And maybe because no one else will do the same for you?" Nathan muttered.

Warren snorted and said, "I can't help it if others prefer not to discuss reality."

Nathan didn't know that he ever wanted to hear more of Warren's views on reality, so he said, "Why me, Warren?"

Warren said, "You have a bearing about you. Like the others, you don't like hearing reality. But listening to me this long means you can acknowledge the truth, and work with anyone, even annoyances, at least if they aren't trying to kill you. In short, you know how to get things done."

"If I could get things done, I wouldn't be here, would I?" Nathan said dismissively.

"Hardly. You heard of Erika and the rest, haven't you?" Warren debated. "Competency can be one of the main reasons to get thrown down here."

"That and choosing friends and enemies unwisely," Nathan said.

"Pointed subtlety," Warren said approvingly. "You're smarter than you look, too."

"This feels," Nathan muttered, "like walking into a trap."

Warren craned his neck up, gestured at the ceiling, and said grandiosely, "This is the world's greatest trap." He whipped his head down, came closer to Nathan, and gazed piercingly. "And I want to escape it."

"I think we would've heard, back on the surface, or from Tor, if someone had," Nathan told him firmly.

Warren countered, "Or maybe a few escapees managed to live in one of the Empire's less populous regions, hiding the fact that they were ever banished here. The Empire may rule all lands, but it isn't all-knowing. I don't want to go back to the Empire. I do want to go back to the surface."

"Or die trying," Nathan put in.

"That's why I'm working with you, to avoid that," Warren smiled.

"I don't know what I want," Nathan said frankly, "besides a drink."

Warren frowned. "A bad use of these five coins, but since an inn probably is one of the safest places to sleep tonight, I'll follow you still."

"You're free here," Nathan said, trying not to sound hopeful.

"It'll take more than that to get rid of me," Warren pronounced smugly.

Author's Note

When I first announced the idea for this story in "No Need for All Tenchi's Adventures," I announced it as a fanfiction of Exile 3/Avenum 3, a computer role-playing game by Spiderweb Software. Careful readers will note that while the main story, which will include Albert and other heroes, will eventually be a tale set in Avernum 3, the story of the Tamers of Avernum, Nathan, Warren, and others you'll meet later, is set in the story of Exile / Avernum, the first game in the series.

I considered writing only an Exile 3/Avernum 3 story, and writing two additional, separate stories for Exile / Avernum and the second game, Exile 2 / Avernum 2 respectively. I also considered melding the three stories into one, and may still do so in this story. For now, the first and third stories make the most sense to blend, because they both have many parallels, and affect each other in many ways. Exile 2 / Avernum 2 also significantly affects Exile 3 / Avenum 3, but it has fewer parallels.

Don't count on this story for proper adherence to canon. For example, I entirely made up (at least I think I did) "The Tamers of Avernum" as a title for the player characters of Exile / Avernum. Readers unfamiliar with the Exile or Avernum series should also note that all player characters are entirely made up by the player, from name to species to backstory. This is in sharp contrast to role playing games such as the Final Fantasy series, in which all player characters are given identities by the scenario rather than the player. It is also distinct from other Spiderweb Software games such as the Geneforge series or Avadon series, in which the main player character is completely customizable, but other player characters are given identities by the scenario. In short, most of the characters in this fanfiction are non-player characters (NPCs) and thus are from the scenario of the game (unless I stretch them too far out of character, intentionally or otherwise) while the main characters (Nathan, Warren, Albert, and others you'll meet later) are made up by me.

Beyond completely making things up, however, there are at least two other reasons why you shouldn't count on this fanfiction to accurately depict canon. One is that I am relying on memory for some points of the plot. The other is that there are occasional slight differences between Exile and Avernum. Some subplots and dungeons were added into Avernum as bonuses, and other matters were changed, especially in the spells used, but also in some points of plot.

All in all, if something appears wrong in my adherence to canon, I've most likely made a mistake, or possibly am intentionally making a change.

The following disclaimer shall be construed so as to apply to all the fanfiction. The author does not own, and does not claim to own, anything copyrighted, trademarked, or otherwise owned by anyone else. The author does not claim to own Exile or Avernum, its characters or events or jokes or concepts or dialogue, despite any usage of the above. All intellectual properties, copyrights, trademarks, and other items are the property of their respective owners.