: The Quest Underway by duaneculbertson
The sun had just cleared three-quarters of its arc, as the Stoneseekers tread the narrow, squalid streets of Southtown. Wolf wished it were earlier; it took over an hour to get to their destination. None felt like speaking as they negotiated their way through stinking piles of garbage. The mirth generated through Wolf’s mischievous actions beneath the food tent had long since faded, an ephemeral moment allowing some to briefly forget the solemn mission before them, and now replaced by a somber air.|
Wolf had taken the King’s Road through the heart of Malden. Fewer miscreants loitered because it was well-patrolled by the Watch. Even beggars were not tolerated, jailed for the slightest infraction. Wolf suspected these laws were enforced to preserve and protect the vital interest of commerce. If merchants did not feel safe, they would not peddle their wares and no taxes would be collected from the sale of their goods. Quite simple. Wolf liked to entertain the notion that the city fathers had the best interests of the citizenry when crafting these laws, but that was wishful thinking. At least those in the ruling class pretended to champion high ideals. A phrase Wolf often heard parroted in Runcheon’s Court was “Safe citizens are happy citizens’ – a charming sentiment, even if not entirely true.
Security-minded charity along the King’s Road had become common practice. If a traveler were attacked by thieves in the presence of others, the wealthiest of the bystanders would send their bodyguards to help the victim, a nice custom, and a ray of light in an otherwise dark city.
Despite these facts, Wolf felt uneasy. The Kings Road had ended many strides ago, and they now passed through the very streets where their misadventure took place two nights before. Wolf’s pride was wounded, and the affront carried a psychological price to match the bruises he still bore, suffering reduced confidence and a vague feeling of anxiety. Wolf studied his fellow ambush survivors, but he could read neither Demelza nor Sigfried. He imagined they felt similar feelings of dread; they could not fail to feel that some of the places were disturbingly familiar. Nor could they avoid recognizing the landmarks Finny had pointed out as he gave his apocryphal tour of pseudo-history. Wolf hoped to cross paths with that scoundrel one day; he had a few lumps to repay.
The Stoneseekers arrived at the deserted waterfront. In the shadows of condemned buildings unclaimed possessions cluttered the area. Discarded garments, mere tattered rags, hung on clotheslines. Besides these vestiges, nothing else betrayed any signs of life. Olivejem was correct in his assertions, even the city’s homeless avoided these melancholy derelicts.
A fire of curious origin had swept through this district in ages past. And for reasons unexplained, the Maldener Council never ordered the damage repaired. Wolf wondered how long the arm of the Thieves Guild reached. Was it possible they had influenced legislation to prevent the rebuilding and resettling of the area? Such a venue would be ideal for illegal activity: no Watch patrols, access to the harbor, and no need to ever pay rent or taxes.
After following Olivejem’s hand-drawn map a hundred paces, they found a culvert near the Reintrank River Delta. A rocky embankment led to its entrance.
“This is it,” Wolf said. He took a deep breath and exhaled.
“How are you so sure?” asked Virriel.
“What else could it be? Those buildings look condemned, and, if not, they ought to be. Furthermore, we’ve passed every landmark on the map along the way.”
“Let’s check it out then,” Demelza said. Without preamble, she dropped into the culvert and started walking. Annoyed by this breach in the chain of command, Wolf glanced at Virriel, who simply shrugged and climbed down the face of the concrete wall after her.
The culvert led to a metal grate blocking the entrance to a tunnel. Demelza waited. Wolf pushed past her and grabbed the grate. As suspected, it was not secure. He turned, addressing Sigfried. “You and Ralf cover our retreat. It would not be prudent to fall into another thieves’ trap. Virriel, please light this torch.” He held up a torch he had just removed from his pack.
Virriel scoffed at the idea, affecting a sense of wounded pride. She held aloft her staff and uttered a few words in an arcane tongue. Instantly, a bright light shone from the crystal nested in its dendritic housing. The fathom-length shaft of varnished ash had now become a beacon far superior to any torch. Cool to the touch, it emitted no heat.
“Now we won’t risk igniting sewer gas or combustible clouds of dust,” Virriel remarked. She flashed a prideful smile.
The dwarves nodded their approval. They retained their solemn features, but Wolf could sense they were impressed.
“Yes, well done, Virriel,” Wolf mumbled. He suddenly realized he had no choice but to step aside and allow her to lead. He returned his torch to his pack, and literally felt outshined. Had this been another time, he would probably have found the situation amusing. But at the moment, he worried what this would mean for him as leader of the group, as he was no longer leading. He did his best to focus on the present and comforted himself with the knowledge that he had a useful, talented companion helping him lead the Stonequest, and he knew he needed all the help he could get on this daunting, seemingly impossible, mission.
The tunnel was remarkably dry, and breathing the stagnant air made Wolf’s throat hurt. If it had ever served as a conduit for effluent, those days had long since passed. He also noticed the path had been recently used, the center devoid of debris. Occasionally, he could see a partial footprint in the dust. If there were thieves living down here, they had done a poor job at hiding their tracks. Perhaps they considered it a moot point, thinking none would be so foolish as to venture into the area.
From time to time, they came upon a bifurcation. The direction they chose was governed by the absence of spider-webs spanning the passageways. The gossamer threads festooned the unused tunnels, but the recently travelled paths were devoid of such impediments. The thought excited Wolf: they were on the right track. Hopefully, the thieves they were looking for had come this way.
Virriel stopped when she reached the end of the passage. They had travelled one hundred and thirty paces. When Wolf shared this information, the two dwarves revealed that they too had counted the steps, but their number was higher given their shorter legs.
A metal ladder clung tenuously to a brick wall. Rust covered the rungs in all but a few places where the oxidation had been worn away by recent use.
“What now?” Virriel asked.
“We go up,” Wolf replied. “Allow me.” He climbed to the top and with some considerable effort moved a heavy storm drain.
“How are Ralf and Sigfried?” he asked.
“They’re fine, Wolf,” Virriel replied.
“Great. Bring everyone up and please be quiet. Let’s not alert anyone of our presence if we can help it.”
“Yes, Wolf,” Virriel replied. She rolled her eyes and smiled at the dwarfs, who, despite their earlier conduct, returned her gesture before proceeding up the ladder.
Virriel’s face adopted a brief, satisfied expression.
“That’s good,” she murmured. “I’m making progress.”
When all six emerged from the storm drain, they examined their surroundings. They appeared to be standing in what had once been a warehouse. The remaining structure stood in partial ruins. Mounds of rubble embraced the walls on all sides, and wooden beams protruded from piles of stones. A bleak sight, pale rays from the waning sun highlighted its dreary appearance.
“Gah!” Demelza screamed. “A rat! Over there!” She pointed towards a pile of debris. Startled faces dropped in relief. Most sighed. Ralf and Sigfried muttered expressions of disgust and annoyance, while Wolf shook his head in disapproval. Raising an eyebrow, he threw Demelza an eloquent, righteous glance causing the dwarf to blush to the roots of her fiery hair. Her dwarven companion came to her rescue; deploying her morning star, she dashed the wayward rodent into a pulp of bloody flesh. Most spectators winced in disgust. Virriel turned away from the violent display, possibly disturbed by the sudden, brutal killing of one of Mother’s creatures.
“Well, so much for first blood,” Sigfried remarked.
Ralf and Ketri laughed. Even Wolf could not help but smile, and he favored Sigfried with a rare nod of approval. No matter what the circumstances, he appreciated a well-placed witty remark. However, his somber attitude returned a heartbeat later, when he realized the likely truth that the next blood to be spilled would not belong to such a tractable foe.
Color slowly returned to Demelza’s cheeks, but she refused to make eye contact. Her embarrassment was palpable; Wolf could almost taste it; a warrior was not supposed to ever show fear or lose their composure. He wanted to comfort her but could think of no words that would not sound patronizing. Besides. the dwarf was proud and would not want to hear any words of sympathy, or even support for that matter.
Ralf wandered to the far side of the ruined warehouse, walking through a gap in the concrete wall. Peering through a dusty window in an adjacent building, he voiced his observations.
“Hey everyone, take a gander. Looks like an old saloon. Probably used by stevedores to get drunk after work.”
“Ralf, get back here!” Wolf hissed. “Stick to mission objectives.” Planks of wood comprising the walls of the second story of the abutting building bent inwards at an unnatural angle. Appearing structurally unsound, Wolf feared even the slightest breeze.
“It looks like they’ve got a player piano!” Ralf exclaimed. Shattering the window, he reached through and pressed a lever. A ludicrously jaunty tune immediately sprang forth. Amused, he turned towards the others to share in his glory. His face soon adopted a worried look, a reflection of what he saw in the eyes of the others.
With a groan, the top story of the building buckled inward before the wall pitched outward and fell into the street. Creaking timbers snapped and Ralf dropped to the ground. Curling up in a ball, he appeared reserved to his fate. There was no time to flee. With dread, Wolf could only watch. Time slowed for a moment, and he swallowed his heart.
Like a clap of thunder several tons of building landed hard, kicking up billowing clouds of stone dust and other debris. By some stroke of fortune, the entire wall fell around Ralf, an open window allowing him to escape without injury. For a moment, there was silence as the dust settled.
Then Sigfried fell to the ground, laughing hysterically. With a few swift strides Wolf bounded beside Ralf. Pulling the smuggler to his feet, he shook him roughly by the collar, liberating broken glass and dust from his clothes.
“Insufferable fool! Our work has barely begun here, and you nearly get yourself killed! I swear, if you ever risk the lives of anyone in our party again without good reason, including yourself, I will run you through! Got it?”
Ralf had gone white as a sheet and seemed incapable of speaking.
“Now stop acting the goat and pull yourself together!” Wolf stormed off, knowing that he had to keep his cool, else risk losing credibility with his team. He felt that if he remained in Ralf’s vicinity any longer, he would probably give him a proper thrashing.
Virriel approached. Ralf next. “Gather yourself, friend,” she said. “You’re in shock at the moment, but it will pass … and I’m afraid we must continue.”
Wolf scowled at Sigfried who could not seem to stop laughing. “Shut your face and do something useful! Look for the entrance to the thieves’ lair.” The boy managed to stop laughing, wiping a tear from his eye. Much to Wolf’s surprise he actually complied with his request, searching for the entrance in earnest.
“Everyone, split up,” Wolf ordered. “But don’t wander out of sight. And touch nothing! That means you, Ralf!”
The smuggler avoided making eye contact. A slight trembling animated his hands.
Wolf tried applying the tracking skills he had learned as a child, but the newly settled dust obscured the path he had been following; he could no longer see the traces. That fool has ruined everything! Why did I ever think hiring him was a good idea?
A hooded figure squatted beside a pile of rubble, his sudden appearance disturbing and unexpected. Wolf half drew his sword before allowing it to fall back down into his scabbard.
“What ... what brings you to this place?” Wolf stammered.
An old man pushed the cowl back from his mustard-colored cloak, revealing intelligent, violet eyes deeply recessed within a craggy face. He spoke with a soft voice full of kindness. “Remove the platform and you shall find what you seek.”
Suspicious of the man’s motives, Wolf, nevertheless, allowed the mysterious words to guide his actions. Brushing off a thin layer of rocky scree, he found an oaken slab. Dragging the platform to one side revealed a stone staircase descending into darkness.
“I owe you a debt of gratitude…” Wolf said. He turned to thank the stranger and introduce himself, but the man was gone.
Virriel appeared at Wolf’s shoulder. “What’s going on? I heard you talking.”
“Did you see the man in the mustard cloak with the violet eyes?”
Virriel stared back at him with her own violet eyes, a look of alarmed confusion etched upon her fine features. “What man? I saw no one but you.”
“An old man revealed this entrance to me. I was just talking to him.”
“As far as I know, we’re the only ones here,” she said. “And I saw you just now talking to yourself as you uncovered the entrance to this theives’ lair.”
Wolf frowned and shook his head. Virriel cast him an appraising glance but said nothing. He bit his lip, chagrined by the thought that she may now doubt his reason.
Who was that fellow? Was he an agent of Seydor? He was neither dream nor hallucination. Perhaps it was Seydor himself in another vision, or astral projection, like he used before.
“No matter,” Wolf grumbled. “Let’s just see where this stairway goes.”
Wolf carefully tread the concrete steps, descended to a landing where a sturdy metal door stood within a recessed brick wall. The door was a fathom wide and loaded with steel. An elaborate emblem greeted entrants at face height. Etched into the gray metal, the circular symbol depicted interlocking cables, foreboding and mysterious. A closed viewport appeared beneath the decoration. An ornate handle adorned the right edge of the door.
“That design is out of place for this venue,” Wolf remarked. He talked to himself, though the others had joined him by now and eavesdropped as he voiced his thoughts.
“Demelza. Ketri,” Wolf barked. “What do you make of this?”
“Unnecessary,” remarked Demelza, commenting on the embossed emblem.
Ralf stepped forward. “It’s the mark of the Geheimschen Gang.”
Intrigued and slightly surprised, Wolf raised an eyebrow.
“What? Isn’t that why you hired me?”
Wolf nodded, and the smuggler continued. “What started out as a ‘little secret’ soon grew to become one of the most influential criminal organization in the world. They play in all venues and constantly dirty their hands in politics. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve already bankrolled most of the important Malden officials. And with lodges in every major city, their presence can be felt all across the Empire, including the Border Lands. I know them from smuggling, but they have many brands in the fire. Blackmail, extortion, forgery, and counterfeiting just to name a few. And thievery, of course.”
Wolf felt his investment paying off and favored Ralf with a satisfied smile.
“The Geheimschen Gang owns most of this territory,” he continued. “But occasionally, they rent to others. Word on the street says they’re harboring a foreign gang known as the Gitano. Probably chargin’ ‘em an exorbitant fee for their protection.”
“Do other gangs have to pay the Geheimschen in order to operate in the city?” asked Demelza.
“Yes, that’s exactly how it works. And if you don’t like it, too bad. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. The highest-ranking members of the gang are rumored to be untouchable by Imperial Law. A nasty bunch of people. Not the kind of people you want to trifle with. Or owe money to. They have a code …”
“Honor among thieves,” Sigfried suggested, smirking.
“Something like that,” Ralf agreed. “They keep their promises. Their leader is a powerful financier known as Dewberry Halfman.” He swallowed hard after saying the name of the gangleader, and Wolf wondered how well Ralf knew the man.
“Do you know how they guard their hideouts?” Virriel asked.
“No, not really…”
“Well, what good are you, then?” Sigfried scoffed. “I say we just march down into the lion’s den and make our demands known.”
Wolf grabbed the boy’s arm as he reached for the door. “Caution is best.”
“Wolf’s right,” added Virriel. “A thieves’ den is never this accessible. That handle just begs to be turned. I fear there’s danger here, though I cannot say what it is.”
“Yes,” Ralf agreed. “I guarantee there’s some type of treachery. I don’t like it.”
“Well, what then?” Sigfried asked. “Do we just knock and hope someone answers?”
“First, we need to remind ourselves what the password is,” Wolf stated.
“Blackjack,” Virriel whispered.
“Yes, that’s it,” Wolf replied. “A good thing to keep handy. An entrance sems like an ideal place to be prompted for that kind of information.”
Virriel nodded her agreement.
“But why are there no sentries or guards here?” Wolf said, thinking out loud. “The absence of a guard suggests this door may contain a secret.”
“Oooh, secrets are fun,” Sigfried remarked.
“Be serious, Sigfried,” Virriel said. “Our lives could depend on it.” Apparently cowed by her harsh tone, the boy shrank back into the shadows against the wall and remained silent.
“The door must have a secret which allows passage to those dwelling within and prevents or possibly harms those who do not belong,” Wolf declared.
“Wise words,” said Virriel.
“We’ve no way of knowing the consequences of failing to open the door correctly, so everyone else needs to leave the area. The hinges swing outward, so I’m going to tie a rope around the handle and try to turn the mechanism from a distance.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Demelza whispered.
Wolf felt sweat gathering upon his neck, soaking his collar. He did not mind stressful situations when dealing with himself. On the contrary, occasionally stress could result in great achievements, accomplished in a timely fashion. However, Wolf hated stress when leading others. He worried about what could happen. Fear of the unknown was terrifying, and when this compounded with his fear of being unable to protect others from harm, especially those he loved, it became unbearable.
“Which way will you turn it?” asked Virriel.
“Most doors open by turning to the right; therefore, I will turn it to the left.”
“Makes sense,” grunted Ketri.
Sigfried rolled his eyes and retreated with the others to a safe distance above the stairs, some six feet away. Wolf tapped his sword on the hearthstone in front of the door. A hollow sound resonated. He was fairly sure he knew what to expect if he failed to open the door correctly. A trap would be an excellent way to catch an intruder. Two questions came to mind though: how far would he fall, and what kind of surface would greet him? A survivable trap would allow a victim to be ransomed; however, it was just as likely that no such consideration had been given. He breathed deeply and pulled the rope to the left. An audible click sounded. He sighed in relief and turned to smile at the others.
“Excellent,” whispered Demelza. She’d been squeezing Ralf’s gambeson so tightly it hurt him. Wincing, he pulled his arm away. “Keep your stumpy mitts off me.”
Wolf shoved the door, but nothing happened. He scowled. “That’s strange,” he muttered. Upon closer inspection, the ornate handle broke off in his hands. He swore and cast it to the ground.
“Perhaps, the door’s meant to slide upwards. Not inwards,” Demelza offered.
“Brilliant,” Wolf declared. He crouched and grabbed the lock rail before pushing upwards. It moved a couple of inches before his strength failed. The barrier crashed down as if roaring its defiance.
“Demelza, come help,” he urged. “Together we can lift this.”
The dwarf rubbed her hands together and shook out her massive arms. Frieze rails and other decorations adorned the door. This gave them purchase on what would otherwise be an impossible, sheer surface. The two concentrated their strength in preparation for a difficult feat.
“Ready?” Wolf asked.
“I’m always ready,” Demelza answered. Wolf smiled recognizing his own reply to Olivejem. Had she meant to do that? His fondness for her grew.
“Now!” he cried.
Muscles and sinews strained with the effort. Noises of their exertion gave way to an ear-grating groan as the door scraped against its housing. The collective force of the two warriors continued to drive the barrier upwards, until halfway, when their progress stopped. Something stuck in the mechanism with the door suspended only a few feet above the floor. Virriel sprang to action, sliding beneath the newly voided space.
“Hold on,” she called. “I’ll try to find the locking mechanism.” Ketri, Ralf and Sigfried shouted words of encouragement to Demelza and Wolf, the lack of space preventing them from helping directly.
“Okay, it should be good,” Virriel shouted.
Wolf relaxed his burning muscles. Somehow the immense weight had been negated. He heard a metallic cranking.
“I’ve found the lifting mechanism too,” Virriel called.
Wolf felt something akin to happiness. They had managed to overcome their first challenge and did so as a team. He allowed himself a brief feeling of satisfaction as he watched the door ascending. Then he and the others entered the thieves’ lair.
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