General Fiction posted June 8, 2021 Chapters:  ...46 47 -48- 49... 

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The Stoneseekers Search for the Gitano Gang

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

The Gitano Gang

by duaneculbertson

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

The Stoneseekers emerged from the underground lair.

“Well, that was a fun sack race.”

“Shut up Sigfired,” Wolf said, fixing the boy with a gaze that could melt lead. “And steel yourself. The hard part hasn’t even begun. Keep your focus and remember why we’re here. This isn’t about material gain or plunder. It’s about saving the world.”

“A bit overwrought … don’t you think?” muttered Demelza.

“No! It isn’t, actually! Perhaps I ought to make you wear the ring too, so you can see what’s really at stake! Let me put it plainly for you. If Evil wins, we’ll have no homes to return to! End of story.”

Wolf walked to the center of the clearing to collect his thoughts. He knew recovering the stone would not be easy. However, the situation seemed far worse; now they had to investigate a different gang, one not partial to the Chancellor – a bunch of back-stabbing foreigners, no less. And they were also assuming that Curtis was working for the Gitano Gang. It was just as likely he was acting on his own. Perhaps he was the architect, the diabolical mastermind orchestrating the whole thing: playing the gangs against each other and escaping with the stone amidst the chaos he created. Or maybe he was not working alone; maybe he was working with their enemies, whoever they were. With every question, the whole affair grew more convoluted and nebulous. 

Stealing a look at the others, Wolf could tell they shared his dismay. Everyone seemed frustrated, except for Virriel who bore a look of determined optimism. Had she some knowledge she was not sharing with him? Or perhaps after living decades in Glendor Forest, separate and oblivious to the Evil of the world, she managed to cultivate an indominable spirit. Regardless, Wolf envied her. As if reading his mind, she pulled the map from his hands.

                “According to this sketch, there’s a sewer drain ahead. If we take that route, it’ll bring us to the Gitano hideout in no time.”

                “Very well,” Wolf muttered. “Lead the way.”

                The drain was easy to find. Wolf lifted the grating out of its housing without difficulty, revealing a drop of two fathoms. Fortunately, gravel lined the entrance below.

                “Follow me,” Wolf said. “And please take care. We don’t want anyone breaking an ankle.” After issuing his warning, he dropped like a cat upon the soft gravel which slid slightly under his weight. He looked around and found himself in a room of earth and stone. The air tasted stale on his tongue.

                “I’ll go next,” Virriel called. She tossed her staff through the hole; then, like a nimble squirrel, she leapt to the ground. Incredibly, she landed without making a sound.

                Appearing unconcerned, Sigfried jumped next. Wolf imagined the boy leaping from rooftop to rooftop in his village, causing all sorts of trouble. To him, a twelve-foot drop was probably nothing.

            “Shistra!” Ralf swore. The smuggler fell hard, his large body crashing upon the gravel mound. For a moment, he lay there like a beached whale before he got up limping. Wolf prayed he had not twisted an ankle. They could ill afford to slow down, especially if Curtis intended to sell the stone quickly, which was a likely supposition.

            Weighed down by her heavy armor, Demelza dropped like a stone. Although she possessed the poor agility common to dwarves, she managed to perform a safety roll and avoid any injury, despite the heavy gear she carried. The accomplishment impressed Wolf greatly, and he nodded his approval.

                  Ketri followed her fellow dwarf, but she possessed none of Demelza’s skill or talent. As she regained her footing, she cursed like a demon, and Wolf reminded her to keep silent with a stern look and a hand gesture.

                The trickling sound of running water caught Wolf’s attention. A partially submerged tunnel passed water through a wall of stone; it was clear that was not a viable passage for people. A corridor carved out of the rock stretched ahead, and Wolf remembered the legends speaking of vast catacombs running beneath the city. He supposed he would soon learn if the tales were true.

A faint glow beckoned towards the end of the passage. Mineral deposits lining every surface refracted torchlight ahead, betraying the presence of intelligent life dwelling somewhere within. It was a welcome sign indicating they were on the right track, and yet it still made him nervous.

                “Ready your weapons,” Wolf whispered. “The people down here are unlikely to listen to reason. They may not even speak Vulgarate. If we get into trouble, we’ll have to fight our way out. So be ready for anything.”

                Everyone nodded their understanding, and Wolf’s heart raced as he loaded his crossbow. Sigfried and Ralf quickly followed suit. And Virriel breathed deeply, appearing to gather energy to herself. . although outwardly there were no signs that anything profound was taking place. Demelza and Ketri had no ranged weapons; their short, stubby fingers were poorly suited for marksmanship anyway. Instead, they would stick to what they were best at: “bashing heads,” according to Ketri.

Demelza unshouldered her battle-axe and began to utter dwarven war-chants. Ketri drew up beside her. Adopting her fiercest scowl, she brandished her Morgenstern, the spiked metal orb hanging from a dark chain fixed to a wooden shaft. In her strong, capable hands the weapon provided a menacing deterrent to any who would stand in their way; Wolf hoped he would never be on the receiving end of one of her attacks. Tightly, she squeezed the black leather bands encircling the wooden shaft, while lending her voice to help Demelza with the dwarven war chants, ancient phrases born from a time before the dwarves separated into distinct, warring clans. Wolf could not understand the ancient words; he had no idea what they were saying.

                “I’ll scout ahead,” whispered Wolf. “I’ll shout if I need help.”

Sigfried opened his mouth to deliver some flippant quip, but a stern look from Virriel froze him, causing whatever foolish remark he had planned to die upon his lips.

                Wolf crept to the front of the passage. He had to stoop slightly to accommodate his six-foot height. The tunnel turned right, and the light grew brighter. Finally, he gathered his nerve to risk glancing around the corner. A lantern sat in a hollow illuminating three men playing cards. One drank something from a gourd, as he rested his foot against a crate serving as an improvised table. A loaded crossbow sat on an extra chair beside him. A brass bell hung suspended from a rope tethered to a stalactite, most likely to serve as a klaxon to summon aid or alert others of impending danger. These men were obviously gatekeepers of some sort.

What was he to do? With the element of surprise, he could probably drop two of their number, but the third seemed a formidable adversary, a burly, barrel-chested man who appeared to posess the strength of an ox. His looming shadow fell a mere five paces from where Wolf crouched in the semi-darkness. He returned to tell the others.

                “Three men guard the entrance,” he whispered.

                “Three?” Demelza spat. “Any armor?”

                “No, they are clad in common clothes.”

                “No problem then.” She started for the passage, but Wolf caught her by the arm.

                “There’s more. A bell hangs near them. I’m sure it’s there for them to ring it at the first sign of any trouble, and there’s no telling how many will answer the call.”

                “What do you suggest?” asked Virriel.

                “I speak some Romaanian. I’ll say I’m looking for work,”

                “Yeah, and who referred you?” challenged Sigfried. “The Thieves Guild? These people are new in town. They’re not likely to have many friends in Malden.”

                “Good point,” Wolf said, taken aback by the boy’s practical contribution to the discussion. He paused to reflect. “I'll say my name is Muerto Gitano, and that I’m here to see my cousin, Antonio. While distracted, Sigfried and Ralf will step from the shadows and advance with their crossbows. If they give us any trouble, we shoot to kill.”

                “Wait a moment,” Virriel protested. “I’ll not participate in commonplace murder. My powers come from the Mother. If I use them to take lives arbitrarily, I may lose my abilities.”

                “What about the other night?” Sigfried asked. “I heard you swept aside those thieves with a storm of rocks and killed many in the process.”

                “That was different. I can take lives if I am saving others. But this must be done only as a last resort. It’s wrong to kill sentient beings unless you’re defending yourself or your family. Otherwise, there’s no justification for it.”

                Wolf sighed. “As I said, Virriel, we shoot, only if they give us trouble.”

                “There’s always another way,” she stated.

                “Look!” Wolf swore. “Sometimes there’s no other way! You forget I’ve dealt with these types of people many times before patrolling the roads of the Empire. Criminals only understand three things. Fear. Gold. And blood!”

Wolf could not believe he was having to give such a lecture now at this time and place. The team had to be united in purpose, and this would not do. Not discussing the specific steps they would take prior to this moment was a major oversight, and he silently reproached himself.

Heartbeats went by with neither speaking, and the air between the two seemed to radiate heat, like a road baking in the sun. Unknowingly, they had entered into a staring contest and a test of wills. Wolf won.

                “Fine!” Virriel said, folding her arms across her chest. “We’ll do it your way for the moment. But I want to make perfectly clear – I’ll not participate in murder. And if any of you take a life without good reason … I’ll think twice about saving yours.”

                A hollow silence followed her sobering words, their meaning having an immediate effect. All seemed to contemplate her warning, and Wolf found it unnecessarily harsh, not the kind of thing a team needs to hear before going into battle.

               “Thank you, Virriel,” Wolf replied through compressed lips. “We understand your position, and you’ve got the right idea. We may as well set our moral compass now. Let’s all agree then. While on the Stonequest, we kill only when necessary.”

                Everyone nodded in agreement. Except Sigfried. The boy shook his head vigorously from side to side in disagreement, muttering some remarks about unnecessary restrictions limiting their actions and costing lives down the road. Wolf pretended not to hear; he would speak to the boy about it later.

                “Great. Now that we’ve settled that matter,” Wolf said. “I’m off to do a bit of acting. Wish me luck.”

                 “Wait,” Demelza objected. “It’s one thing to speak the language and quite another to get the accent correct. Are you sure you can manage it?”

                 “I’ve spent plenty of time patrolling the southern border,” he replied with a touch of arrogance. “I believe I can.”

Demelza shook her head but, like a good soldier, she was ready to follow orders. Wolf went over the tentative plan once final time, and each knew the role they would play. The best plans were flexible, and he tried to keep this aspect. In life, events seldom unfolded as expected. Life is too random. People are too random. It reminded him of when he tried to win back the heart of a young maiden who left him years ago. All his carefully contrived arguments evaporated when the girl took the conversation in a different direction. He learned an important lesson that day – adapt to the situation, don’t force a plan that isn’t working.

                 “Wait. What am I doing again?” Ralf asked.

Wolf sighed. This was the third time he had gone over their roles, but he figured the smuggler was nervous, so he patiently entertained his request. “You and Sigfried hug the shadows and flank me as I approach the men. When the time is right you step forward and order the men to discard their weapons. Ketri, Demelza, and Virriel will hang back at the cave entrance, only joining us after the area is secured, unless something has gone terribly wrong.”

Ralf’s face adopted an expression of great anxiety.

                 “Don’t worry, Ralf,” Wolf said. “Stay focused and confident. Nothing will go wrong. Do your job and everything will be fine.” He smiled at the smuggler and Ralf managed to return his smile, albeit forced.

In stressful situations it was important to demonstrate confidence to others. Panic bred panic, while calm inspired calm. He had gleaned such wisdom long ago, reinforced upon a half dozen battlefields in desperate situations when his life was in jeopardy and his future questionable, times he vainly wished he could banish forever from troubling his dreams.

Wolf handed his crossbow to Virriel and removed his leather Roadwarden vest. The garment would certainly not support his narrative. And he did not want to alarm the sentries by wandering through contested gangland territory looking like a heavily armed mercenary. That would certainly compromise his cover story of being a Romaanian aristocrat. A nobleman travelling with a sword was not unusual, as it was a privileged status symbol of wealth and power. But a nobleman travelling with a sword, crossbow, and leather jerkin might as well hold up a sign saying ‘I am a mercenary.”

Doing his best to banish any nagging doubts, Wolf followed the passage to the larger cave. Gravel crunched under his feet, a potential harbinger betraying his arrival. As he drew nearer, laughter echoed off the walls, and he could discern the idle banter of foreign voices. Forcing calm into his actions, he adopted a casual gait and carefree manner. He hoped apprehension would not creep into his voice when he addressed the Romaanians.

The moment fast approached, and Wolf’s heart raced. He felt the familiar pangs of weakness he had experienced throughout his entire life, hollow feelings that threatened to sap your will, drain your resolve, and consume the valor from your soul. The sensations were ironic since they always preceded great feats of strength and courage.

As a child, he felt them for the first time when he stood up to a bully. As a young man, he experienced it again whenever he lined up against opponents for a foot race. And, most profoundly, he felt it as a young man when he stepped upon a battlefield or joined a shield wall to line up against an advancing enemy. Anticipation was a tortuous place to linger; this lesson he knew well. It was best to muster all your strength and get the challenge over with as soon as possible. Once proper preparation was done, there was nothing to do but act. Never hesitate. Follow your plan and achieve your goal.

With perverse fondness, Wolf recalled the first time he set foot upon a battlefield and vomited from the butterflies in his stomach. It never ceased to amaze him how the agonizing, nearly debilitating, sickness always disappeared once the fighting started. It was a magical moment when the weakness transformed into useful energy, an instant of exhilarating liberation, achieved as swiftly as turning a key.

As he neared the foreigners, random, undesirable thoughts came unbidden threatening to steal his focus:

Would Sigfried betray them by doing something stupid? He tried to instill within the boy a sense of discipline and encourage him to respect the chain of command, but had he made any progress with him. After all, he was still just an impetuous boy of nineteen strung out on Black Dragon. What could he really expect of him?

Was Ralf really as competent an arbalester as he claimed?

Wolf cursed himself for not having tested his skills before.

What the Helle was I thinking trusting the word of a smuggler who probably lies like a politician each day in order to survive!

For all he knew, Ralf may never even have shot a crossbow before and might not even be able to hit a target as broad as a grain silo.

Too late now though, he was committed.

Wolf took a deep breath and stepped into the light. Addressing the card players in perfect Romaanian, he said, “Greetings, friends! I am Muerto Gitano. I’m looking for my cousin. I was told I could find him here.”

                Startled, the guards rose from their chairs. All three eyed him suspiciously. One placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. The other reached for a crossbow. The large man in the center stood with his hands on his hips and replied in a commanding voice.

                “We know nothing of your visit. If what you say is true, the Chief will be happy to see you. Step forward and drop your sword belt.”

                Wolf affecting an air of wounded pride, as if questioning his veracity was an offense to his dignity. He took a step forward and casually unfastened his belt.

A noise came from the shadows and when the large man went to investigate, Wolf sprang. Before anyone could react, he stepped behind him, pulling the giant close and placing a knife at his throat. The man growled like a trapped, enraged animal. His hands shot to the blade and enveloped Wolf’s wrist in a grip of iron. Wolf’s hand felt like it had been crushed in a vice. His eyes blurred from the pain, and he nearly dropped the weapon. He wished he had simply killed the man, instead of trying to take him alive. He cursed Virriel for imposing such a limitation on their actions. Perhaps Sigfried was right: her morality had already complicated their situation and it now could cost him his life. Terror seized his thoughts; he realized he had greatly underestimated his opponent’s strength.

The two other guards bolted for the alarm. A lanky youth leapt for the bell-cord, but Sigfried shot him in the back. Crying out, the boy fell forward, receiving the stone wall’s harsh embrace.

Ralf’s shot missed, the bolt burying itself in the rock, the spallation scattering stone-dust into the air, like a puff of smoke.

Wolf was only peripherally aware of the missed shot, since he was grappling with the Romaanian behemoth, an endeavor requiring all his strength and focus. A thought did manage to register though – because of poor planning, both men had targeted the same man, so Ralf’s missed shot proved to be moot. Unscathed, the last guard reached for the bell-cord to sound the alarm.

Wolf’s eyes regarded Virriel. He hoped she would have the good sense to shoot down the man using the crossbow he had left with her. Much to his surprise, he found her at the back of the cave staring intently at the unfolding drama. His crossbow lay discarded at her feet. With frenetic rapidity, her lips moved as if uttering phrases.

The dwarves exchange worried glances. Perhaps they knew what he knew – nothing could stop the guard now. The alarm would sound, and their problems would increase geometrically, cascading to an untenable extent and dooming them all to an uncertain, yet likely nefarious, fate.

The guard shook the bell-cord vigorously, yet incredibly it made no sound. Dumbfounded, he shook the bell-cord again, refusing to accept the impossible. As he stood gawking in disbelief, Ralf arrived beside him to plunge a dagger between his ribs. The man screamed in silence with the smuggler twisting the blade before yanking it free. The guard fell to the ground in a heap. No sound followed any of these actions – just uncanny silence.

Sigfried gave Ralf an appraising glance laden with something akin to respect, perhaps realizing there was much more to this smuggler than the man’s appearance and demeanor would suggest. It was likely Sigfried had never killed anyone, and he had just watched this rotund man dispatch a foe like an assassin, almost like he had done it before.

Wolf saw these events yet had no time to reflect on their ramifications. He wondered why the Helle no one had come to his assistance. Everyone could see he was wilting under the strain of the grappling contest, and it was obvious he would lose control of the giant at any moment.

                 “Sigfried, help!” Wolf cried, but still no sound propagated through that odd space.
Sigfried rushed to assist Wolf, but the giant kicked him in the chest. Winded, the boy fell to the ground, gasping for air like a fish out of water. Wolf’s muscles now burned like fire. He could not take more of this; he grit his teeth to help manage his pain and exertions. Sweat poured down his face; he knew he was losing his hold on the man’s ox-like neck. The chokehold he managed was tenuous at best. He could feel the man’s blood dripping from his hands, yet he still held the knife blade fast. It was a clever technique. As long as the blade did not slip, the man was safe. A Shingorean monk once taught this lesson to Wolf when he was only a child, but he never imagined he would see it deployed in a real fight.

The giant drove them to the back of the cave, propelling Wolf’s body against the unforgiving surface. Pain raced through Wolf, and he felt the breath knocked from his lungs. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth; he knew he was now bleeding internally. Increasing his horror, he felt his arms going numb. He would not be able to hold this man much longer.
Demelza leapt forward and cracked the giant in the face with the top of her axe, opening a broad gash in his forehead. As blood poured down his face, the man relaxed his grip, and Wolf cut his throat. As the big man toppled to the ground, blood pumped from his wounds to penetrate the stone dust at their feet.

Wolf clutched Demelza’s arm, and they shared a moment. With his eyes, he offered her his thanks. She smiled in response, pressing his arm, and betraying something else in the process, fondness. Averting his gaze, Wolf looked to the others and bent over to take a few deliberate, deep, restorative breaths. He shook out his oxygen-starved arms, trying to restore his circulation. His muscles were still screaming from their exertion.

For the moment, the area was secure, and Wolf relaxed. The eerie silence continued, and everyone was keenly aware. No one could hear anything. They could not even hear the sounds of their heavy breathing. Sigfried yelled at the top of his lungs, but this accomplished nothing. Raising a hand to his throat, his worried eyes sought an explanation. He looked to Wolf, who pointed towards the back of the cave.

                Virriel lay delirious against a boulder, bathed in perspiration. Her pallid face held a grim, pained expression, and her eyes lacked their usual fire. Ketri stood beside her, mopping her brow with a cloth.

Abruptly, sound returned like a crashing wave.

                “Help her!” Wolf commanded. “Get her some water!”

                Ketri did as instructed, feeding Virriel water from her own flask. She hauled the elf to her feet and offered her shoulder for support, a rare occasion when the height mismatch between the two worked to their mutual advantage. The two made their way down the rocky path to join the others, puzzled looks and ecstatic smiles greeting them.

                “You are full of surprises,” Wolf said, smiling. “And I welcome them all.”

                “Spells like that take a lot out of me,” Virriel offered weakly. “It’s much harder to control an entire region, and seldom do I engage in such activities. Usually, I target only a single source of noise. I will recover … in time.”

                “Well, we would have been lost without you. We’re all in your debt.”

                “Twas nothing,” she said, still breathing hard as if just finishing a race.

                “Sit a moment,” Wolf said, concerned over her pale complexion. “You need rest.”

                He smiled his encouragement while secretly fretting over her condition. It scared him to think what would happen if she lost consciousness right now. How would they carry her to safety without exposing themselves to greater danger? He prayed her color would return. It was not an ideal touchstone to judge one’s health, but it was all they had at the moment.

                Wolf returned to the cave entrance to retrieve his items. He picked up his crossbow, leather vest, and loculus. Then, he returned to check on Virriel who still looked too weak to travel.

                 “Please lie down,” Wolf said. He removed the loculus from his shoulder. “It’s not the best pillow, but at least it’s something.”

                “Thanks,” she replied. She lay her head on the leather satchel containing the Reinkraft book and instantly fell into a deep slumber. Wolf marveled at how soon her chest rose and fell with a regular rhythm; fast asleep already.

                That spell must have taxed her terribly. Perhaps dangerously. I must consider this limitation for our future battles. I refuse to leave a team member behind … Never again!

                Wolf scraped dried blood from his shirt sleeve. White had been a poor choice. He thought he had poor luck when it came to choosing the color of garments and nearly laughed at himself for making such a silly observation. It felt like such a long time ago that he donned the white silk shirt to garner a favorable impression with the Chancellor. At least the blood on his cuff was not his own; it easily could have been. The realization made him appreciate his companions.

                “Hey, this one’s still alive,” shouted Ketri. Wolf watched her roll a man onto his side. He moaned in agony. A crossbow bolt emerged from the front of his chest. By some miracle, it had missed his heart. Nevertheless, he bled profusely and was most likely not long for this world. His spine may have been damaged as well.

                “Let’s make him talk,” Demelza suggested. “Wolf, you can translate.”

                “No!” Wolf replied. The thought of torturing the wounded man repulsed him. It was an abhorrent idea, especially considering the circumstances. “If anything, we should help him. He’s in terrible pain.” He glanced at Virriel, but she was still sleeping.

                “Very well,” Demelza said. “I’ll do it myself!” She pulled a dagger from her boot and held it to the man’s throat. “Look, mongrel! We can make this much worse for you. Or we can make it better. Your choice. The carrot or the stick. What’ll it be? Answer our questions truthfully and completely, and I’ll ease your pain.”

                A flicker of understanding registered in the man’s eyes. He nodded.

                Wolf knew he should be stopping this yet could not bring himself to do it.

                “Where is the stone?” Demelza growled.

                “Gone,” came the weak reply. “We go … soon. Take goods to docks.”

                “You have the stone?”

                “Don’t know. Please… it hurts.”

                Demelza sighed. Casually, she bent forward and slit the man’s throat.

                “Seyd’sblud, girl!” Wolf roared. “That’s no way to treat a vanquished foe. You cannot be an honorable warrior by embracing such monstrous conduct! Did we not promise Virriel to kill only when necessary? Not more than five minutes ago!”

                “First, I never claimed to be a hero. Nor do I want to be one. Besides, I was just doing him a favor. I saved him from a slow, agonizing death that could have lasted hours, so save your indignation for a more worthy cause.”

                Wolf could have slapped her for her insolence, but he managed to stow his anger. “Now listen up! All of you! If we do not offer our enemies compassion, we are no better than they are. Virriel is right to hold us to a higher standard. The Stonequest is about seeking the true nature of Justice. As such, we must always consider where our loyalties reside. Are we forces for Good, or agents of Evil? Think long on this matter. As we must never align ourselves with the wrong side.”

                Wolf regarded the slumbering elf, pausing to appreciate her tranquil beauty. “It’s a good thing, she was not awake. And for Seydor’s Sake, think first! Never make rash decisions without consulting the group.”

                “She was just doing what needed to be done,” offered Sigfried. “A good warrior knows the importance of taking decisive action. A good warrior does not wait for orders.”

                “I agree, Sigfried. Exercising independent initiative and taking proper action are important aspects of being a good warrior, though I’m at a loss to know how you harbor such wisdom.”       
                Sigfried’s face twisted and his eyes flashed fire. “I’m a member of the honorable Geisterstadt family, my bloodline goes back to the Andalusian Conquest, to none other than Warlord Charles Martel.”

                Wolf continued as if the boy had not said anything. “Individual heroic traits are admirable, however, a successful team relies on following rules, practicing proper etiquette, and respecting the chain of command. And that’s what we are … a team.”

                Wolf paused, allowing his words to sink in. He had their undivided attention, all except Virriel, … and Ketri, who oddly seemed to be caring for her. Sitting cross-legged on the ground beside her, the dwarf was even stroking her hair as the elf slumbered. The image was so incongruous that Wolf lost the objective of his speech for a moment. He shook his head, as if to clear the cobwebs from his brain, and continued.

                “It’s important we win the Contest. But how we win is just as important. I’ll not have us abandoning morality along the way. It’s important we uphold our ideals. It’s what differentiates us from the demons of the Aether.” Wolf fixed them with his most masterful gaze. “Anyone who can’t abide by my rules ought to leave now.”

                Wolf allowed his words to hang in the still air of the cave. No one said anything. “Good,” he said. “I’m glad we’re all in agreement. Now, let’s get the Helle out of here. Tempus fugit.”

                “What?” Ralf asked. The dwarves also exchanged puzzled looks. As did Ralf. Only Sigfried registered any recognition of the phrase uttered in the dead language of classical antiquity - Old Etrurian.

                “Time flees,” Wolf stated.

                “Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?" Ketri grumbled. She pushed past him and retrieved her water flask beside Virriel’s sleeping body. Then, approaching a fissure in the rocks, she discovered what she was looking for - a tiny trickle of water. Smiling with satisfaction, the dwarf refilled her container. Then she filled another for Virriel.

                Wolf did not enjoy wearing someone else’s blood. He removed his shirt and cut the sleeves off after borrowing Demelza’s sharp knife. While no longer fashionable, at least the garment would not garner unwanted attention or raise difficult questions to answer. As a bonus, it would be slightly cooler now. The last thought made him smile. As if such a consideration would ever justify destroying an opulent garment from Xanadu.

                Wolf decided it was time to go. He stooped beside Virriel and nudged her awake.

                “Virriel, I’m sorry. We need to keep moving.”

                The elf rose to her feet, handing the loculus back to Wolf. “That’s fine. I’m feeling much better now.”

                Wolf smiled. “Happy to hear it.” In a louder voice, he addressed the others. “Now follow me. And no talking.”

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