General Fiction posted June 6, 2021 Chapters:  ...44 45 -46- 47... 

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Wolf leads his team into a thieves' lair.

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

Malden Geheimshcen Gang (1 of 2)

by duaneculbertson

Virriel cast her staff about to illuminate the area, mostly for the benefit of the humans. They brought daylight with them when they raised the door, but there were still dark places. No one saw anything unusual. One passage lay to the north with another leading east. Since this was a thieves’ den, Wolf thought it prudent to search for hidden stores or passages. Ralf was already way ahead of him, sounding the walls like he had done at the Olivejem mansion. Nevertheless, the Stoneseekers found nothing of interest. The only unusual feature was the crank that raised the door. A candelabrum stood in a recessed alcove, but the candles had gutted. It was time to move on.

                “Please stay silent everyone,” Wolf instructed. “No talking unless absolutely necessary.” He noticed everyone except Sigfried listening. Somehow the boy managed to look bored, even as they explored an active thieves’ den where their mere discovery could inspire their murder. He hoped the boy would be able to focus if it came down to another fight. His performance during the ambush the other night had been dismal. Of course, it was not fair to judge the boy under those extreme circumstances. Few would have fared well in that situation. Even he felt he had not done a good job, once again remembering that it was really Virriel’s intervention that saved their lives, despite anything Demelza claimed to the contrary.

                Wolf motioned everyone into the next room. Barrels stood alongside one wall, a sweet odor betraying their contents as wine. A dozen crates stood stacked beside the far wall, a careful search revealing food preserves, opum and casks of ale. In all instances, the opum sat buried at the bottom beneath innocuous food items such as smoked fish and dried meat. The fish was most likely there to mask the opum’s pungent odor. Customs officials often employed special hounds that could detect the narcotic using their exceptional sense of smell.

                “Smuggled goods,” Ralf whispered. “You can tell they’re ‘tax free,’ because the imperial seal is missing.”

                An exclamation from Demelza came from an adjoining storage room. “Over here,” she hissed. Wolf found her crouching over a body. A crossbow bolt jutted from the man’s back. “Killed recently,” she said. “The body’s still warm.”

                “Good work, Dem,” Wolf said, patting the dwarf on the shoulder. “Next time, though, stay with the group. I don’t need you wandering off without telling me first.”

                Demelza frowned and appeared ready to say something, but instead checked herself. Wolf did not want to make a big deal of this incident, but he was annoyed all the same. He would have expected such behavior from Sigfried or Ralf, possibly Ketri, but Demelza was a trained warrior and ought to know better. Working as a team was important, and that meant following the leader. Perhaps she did not take him seriously, because he shared the responsibility with an elf, the race she considered an enemy. Whatever the reason, this was neither the time nor place to discuss the matter.

                Virriel knelt beside the slain man, making sure he could not yet be saved. The unfortunate wretch wore common clothes, a wool vest having done little to stop the crossbow bolt entering his back.

                “Perhaps this is the reason why no one greeted us at the door,” Virriel remarked.

                “Yes,” Wolf concurred. “Treachery took place here. This man was shot in the back, maybe by someone he knew. Generally speaking, when people face intruders in their home on their own doorstep, they are not struck down from behind.

                “Something big went down here,” said Demelza, “that’s for sure.”

                “Get the others,” Wolf ordered. He checked his chronometer. More time had passed than expected. It was almost evening. They had to keep moving.

                “Ready your weapons,” he said. “Hostile forces could still be around. We may have trouble on our hands very soon.”

                Virriel appeared pensive, focused, and unflappable, her outward calm masking her ever-present state of cat-like readiness. Wolf wondered if anyone had ever gotten the jump on her, and decided he already knew the answer. Although he had never seen her in battle, he imagined she had swift reflexes. He was not sure why he believed this. Perhaps he assumed that all those years living alongside forest animals, she would have adapted to their feral ways, relying heavily on instinct and intuition.

                The dwarves looked confident and alert as well. Meeting his gaze, Demelza hefted her axe, and Ketri readied her flail. In contrast, Ralf nervously clutched his crossbow.

                “It’s okay to load it now,” Wolf remarked.

                “Uh, yeah, sure,” the smuggler replied. He dropped to his knees retrieving a bolt from an arrow quiver.

Sigfried was difficult to read. Seemingly aloof, he neither unsheathed his sword, nor unlimbered the cross bow from his back. Perspiration trickled down his face, and Wolf suspected Black Dragon withdraw the likely cause.

As long as he doesn’t hurt himself or others, I guess that’s a win.

Leaving the room at the far end, they followed a tight corridor before entering into a much larger space. Wolf crept forward, concerned the perpetrators were still in the lodge somewhere. As he moved, torches burned in sconces, casting eerie shadows that flickered and danced. A lone candle burned on a table in front of a toppled chair, the wax taper not yet gutted, supporting the idea that the attack had recently occurred. Three bodies bristling with crossbow bolts lay in a doorway up ahead.

“Extinguish your staff, Virriel,” Wolf whispered.

The elf complied without comment. Both she and Demelza flanked Wolf. The others held back, as he wanted only his most powerful fighters close until he declared the room secure. Ketri scowled when he gave her his orders to remain behind with Ralf and Sigfried. While she may have felt insulted, she nevertheless obeyed much to Wolf’s delight. He knew what he needed for that moment: two flanking bodies to support him.

                “More of a fight in this room,” Virriel whispered.

                “A valiant stand,” Demelza agreed. She pointed to a bolt buried in the wall. And another lodged in the table. “This one’s facing our direction,” she muttered in a disconcerted tone.

Wolf nodded, pointing to another bolt sprouting from the lintel above the doorway. Pools of blackened blood stained the ground, ominous and disturbing in the waning candlelight.
One victim wore different clothes. Demelza turned the body over. It had swarthy features, suggestive of the Border Lands.

“A Romaanian,” Wolf muttered. “Must be one of the Gitano.”

Demelza nodded.

                “Why would the Gitano attack the Geheimschen?” Ralf asked. “If the rumors were true, they should be working together. And on good terms.”

                “I thought I told you to stay by the door!” Wolf barked.

                Ralf cast his eyes downward and retreated to the entrance of the room to rejoin Sigfried and Ketri.

                “Perhaps they were here to steal something?” Demelza suggested.

                The color drained from Wolf’s face. “We’d better find the Gitano gang; they must have what we’re looking for.”

                Virriel frowned. “Yes, but you just said the attack was recent. This still does not explain why the stone was never delivered to Olivejem. If the attack was recent, why did the Geheimschen wait? Why didn’t they honor their original appointment?”

                “Good questions,” Wolf remarked. “We’ll just have to figure that out later,”

Deeming their position secure, he waved over Ralf, Ketri, and Sigfried.

“We think the Gitanos killed these men and took the stone,” he said. Their faces dropped, no doubt contemplating the disturbing ramifications of his words. This would be no simple artifact recovery. Nor would it involve something as easy as clearing up a misunderstanding. He shared their dismay.

“Wait a second,” Ketri protested. “How do we know the Gitano have the stone? Anyone could have the stone. Furthermore, one slain Romaanian does not necessarily mean they were responsible.”

“Yes, that is indeed true,” Wolf agreed. “Look everyone, let’s pause a minute here. I need to rehydrate, and I suggest you take the opportunity to do the same.” Wolf unbuckled a canteen from his sword belt and upended the container, draining the entire volume. He did not know when they would have a chance to fill up again, but he needed the water now. Although it was much cooler underground, the subterranean thieves’ lair was still uncomfortably warm.

The dwarves wandered to one side of the room to converse quietly in the dwarven tongue. Wolf could not hear what they were saying, even though he tried. He could only hope the tone of their conversation was not conspiratorial. Then again, why would it be – he was getting paranoid. Leading others was always difficult for him – he tended to consider too many variables and overthink the situation when lives other than his own were at stake. It was not always like this – only after Gwidron disappeared. After losing his nephew, he swore he would never lead another group again. But the oath had been sworn in Seydor’s name, and now that the god had tasked him with leading others on a sacred quest, Wolf decided the new, arising circumstances nullified his earlier promise.

                Virriel righted the toppled chair and excused herself to pull it off to one side to study the Prophecy a while. This was not going to be a long break, but Wolf would not argue with her. She thought every spare moment contemplating the meaning of the Prophecy was time well-spent. And Wolf would not dare challenge that rationale.

                Wolf watched Sigfried as he scratched his neck vigorously. Even in the dim candlelight, he could see the skin rubbed raw above the boy’s silken collar. Ralf tapped the boy on the shoulder. “Here,” he whispered. “This will help.” He handed him a vial of blue powder.

                “What is it?”

                “Blue Lotus mixed with ginseng.”

Sigfried recoiled, his eyes widening at the implication. “Don’t worry,” Ralf said with a kind smile. “Your secret’s safe with me. I know you’re hurtin’ right now. Seen it before - the sweatin’, the itchin’ … the agitation.”

                With a wary look, Sigfried took the kind offering.

                “I’m a smuggler, remember? Dealt with Black Dragon addicts before. I could tell you were one firm in its clutches on the first night I met you after you returned to the Lucky Shoe. Trust me, the lotus’ll make you right.”

                “Thank you,” Sigfried managed to say.

                “Pleasure’s mine. In the early days, I smuggled tons of Black Dragon. I must’ve caused the deaths of thousands and ruined countless lives. Over time, that knowledge came to bother me. Each day it would haunt me, and it became more of a burden each time I dropped off a shipment of that infernal stuff. Eventually, I swore it off entirely. Now I only smuggle nostrums like Blue Lotus to help people who are addicted. I can’t change what I’ve done in the past …But I can help those I find suffering along the way. It’s something.”

                Sigfried smiled. “You’re not bad, Ralf. Whatever anyone says, you’re not bad.

                Ralf returned the smile.

                Wolf had overheard the entire exchange. He was touched by Ralf’s candor and generosity. The profits derived from smuggling Blue Lotus would be substantially lower than those he could have made smuggling Black Dragon. Wolf gained some respect for the man after considering his heart-warming story. However, he did not want either man to know he was aware of Sigfried’s drug problem.

                “What’re you two rascals on about?” Wolf asked.

                “We were just discussing what to do next,” replied Sigfried. “Ralf has a good idea. He thinks we ought to capture one of those Gitano and make ‘em talk to tell us what’s going on.”

                “Assuming they speak Vulgarate, you mean.”

“Of course.”

Wolf stared off into space. “Actually, it’s not a bad idea,” he muttered. “I hope you are not suggesting we torture a prisoner though. I will not abide that practice.”

“Not even a little?”    
Wolf did not even deign to respond to his question. He was looking at Virriel. The elf rolled up her scroll and turned to the group. The dwarves ended their conversation and approached as well.

“Sigfried, why don’t you double back and make sure we’re not being followed,” Virriel suggested.

                “No!” Wolf shouted. “He can’t go by himself. We must all stick together. I want none of you out of my sight!” Wolf’s heart raced, recalling the exact moment he learned of his nephew’s disappearance. It was a memory that came unbidden to torture his soul with alarming frequency, filling him with feelings of guilt, helplessness, and shame. Wolf knew his outburst was illogical and did not understand it why his response had been so intense. The fact that Sigfried was the same age as Gwidron and even looked like him was probably the root cause.

                Virriel frowned but said nothing.

                Sigfried threw up his hands. “You think me a child? I can take care of myself.”

                Wolf shook his head. “We’re not having this discussion now. You either follow my orders, or you don’t follow at all. Got it?”

                Sigfried looked away but said nothing.

                “And keep your voice down,” Wolf added. “I want everyone to follow me into the next room. And move with caution.”

                Wolf drew Truebite. The next room was even larger than the one they were in, and he predicted it would be the scene of an even greater conflict. Adopting a warrior’s crouch, he crossed the threshold. A few candles still burned, illuminating a scene of carnage. The place stank like a battlefield.  Four bodies lay on the floor. As Wolf crept forward, he noticed slash wounds, suggesting close-combat violence. Copious pools of blood collected and the entrails of at least one man had been spilled across the ground. All the men had died with swords in their hands.

At least they had a chance; they were not shot in the back.

A large barrel blocked the doorway to the next room. A clerk’s desk sat off to one side. Wolf noticed jeweler trappings – a magnifying oculus, a shaded lantern, and tools for fitting precious stones. His mother had employed a jeweler once when he was growing up, and seeing these items brought back sweet memories. They vanished instantly when a crossbow bolt whistled passed his head.


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