: The Geheimschen Gang (Concluded) by duaneculbertson
A large barrel blocked 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.|
“Shistra!” he swore. “Get down!” He dove for the floor, expecting a barrage of projectiles to perforate their ranks, marking the start of a terrible ambush, and ending with their inevitable slaughter. Is this how his life would end? Would he fail Seydor so soon? His family? Atelka?
To his amazement, no arrows followed.
“Everyone stay down,” Wolf commanded. He crawled to the barrel and cautiously peered over. Within ten paces, a man with gray hair levelled a crossbow. Additional ones lay by his side; all cocked and loaded. The man’s weathered, craggy face winced in pain as he shifted his position, and his white shirt was stained crimson with blood. He appeared to be bleeding from a chest wound and steadied himself by leaning upon a crate.
“We come in peace,” Wolf declared.
“Password,” the man hissed.
“Blackjack,” Wolf replied, grateful he had rehearsed this moment in his head. Nevertheless, the man kept his crossbow trained upon him, the password not affecting his vigilance in the least. “Who are you?” he growled. "What do you want?”
“My name is Wolf Shearstone. I’m looking for an item that was supposed to be delivered to Chancellor Olivejem.”
“You’re too late. They’ve taken it.”
“Who’s taken it?”
“The Gitanos! Of course. Those double-crossing Romaanian bastards! I told everyone we’d rue the day we agreed to work with those scum!”
“Not sure, to be honest,” he began. He set down his crossbow, pausing to cough, wiping away blood with the back of his hand. “The attack was swift,” he wheezed. “Too swift. Must’ve been an inside job. Weeks ago, we’d hired a rogue named Curtis Hagstrom. He’s been living here among us ever since. A mercenary with a map – that was all there was to this rascal, though I admit, he’s got a silver-tongue. Somehow he managed to convince others he was worth his weight in gold.”
He paused to catch his breath, and Wolf wondered if he were slowly choking to death on his own blood.
“He’d charted passages under the city. Wanted to sell us his maps. Said it took him months of work. Miles an’ miles… all under Malden. Like a labyrinth. T’was he who betrayed us. Money involved; I reckon.”
“How do you know it was him?”
“Clear as day,” scoffed the man. “Never trusted him. False tales of gold were enough to distract my brothers. I counselled against it. ‘Don’t heed the ramblings of a charlatan,’ I said. But no one heeded my warnings. Were I Chief of this den, he would’ve been out the door on the very first day! I saw him for what he was. He claimed to come from a lodge up north. But I doubted his story, his letter of introduction likely forged. Unfortunately, I’m just the second in command, and he seemed to pass all the tests my colleagues put to him…”
Virriel appeared over Wolf’s shoulder, and the man snatched up his crossbow.
“Hold!” Wolf shouted. “These are my friends.”
“More of you? How many?” he asked suspiciously, turning his head to spit blood.
“Six. All friends of the Geheimschen. You can relax. Tell us more about Curtis.”
He regarded them with a wary look. “We employed the scoundrel to be our scout. He spoke the truth sometimes. I’m sure there are parts of Malden the city planners know nothing about as he claimed. Sections not found on any map. Some are even new! Imagine that? Who could have excavated these passages is anyone’s guess. Last official survey was over fifty years ago, and none have come to chart these parts since.”
“With your permission, we’d like to approach,” Wolf stated.
The man nodded. He was a wilting like a flower in the sun, growing weaker each minute. At this point, it was unlikely he could do anything to stop.
Wolf took a good look at the crossbow bolt buried up to the fletchings in the man’s chest. He had lost a great deal of blood judging by the staining of the crate and the blood pooling beside his feet. Perhaps Virriel could save him, but he wanted some information out of him first.
“Looks like an armory,” Wolf observed.
“A good place to be ambushed,” Wolf said, offering a small attempt at humor, but his comment only seemed to cause the man additional pain.
“Yes,” he hissed. “And yet, I could do nothing to save my comrades. I had to sit here and listen as they were all savagely slain.”
“Why did they spare you?” Virriel asked.
“They got what they wanted. Seemed in a right hurry too and carried an almost fearful look in their eyes. Not sure why they betrayed us. Curtis was on watch duty; the bastard probably opened the doors to ‘em. ‘Tis the only explanation for how they gained access to our compound. Maybe he drugged the others sentries. None of this makes any sense.”
“What do you think they stole?” Wolf asked.
“Already told you! That accursed relic the Chancellor is looking for. Must be quite valuable. I told everyone it would bring death and destruction, but no one listened.”
“The Chancellor needs it immediately,” Wolf volunteered.
“Aye. He’s a powerful man - not one to be crossed! As an officer, I knew about our plan from the start. Counselled against it, I did.”
“What did it entail?” Virriel asked.
The man coughing up blood, replied in a raspy voice: “Better I tell you when I’m feelin’ right. Can you help me?”
Virriel looked to Wolf, who nodded. The wounded man smiled, yet his celebration was cut short, as he slumped to the floor and lost consciousness, his ashen pallor betraying a deplorable state of health.
“We must hurry,” Virriel said. “That bolt must be removed before I can heal the wound.” She reached for the protruding end, but Demelza grabbed her arm.
“Not like that. You can’t just pull that thing out. Look how deep it goes. You’ll tear out his innards trying to extract it!”
“What do you suggest, then?”
“It needs to go through...”
“What?” Virriel cried.
“She’s right, Virriel,” Wolf said. “Look. The tip is already coming out the back. I’m afraid we’ll have to pound it through. Dem, give me your knife … and your mallet.”
Demelza retrieved her knife from its hiding place in her boot, and Wolf used it to cut the fletchings off the bolt. Next, Demelza unfastened the hammer from her belt and set it beside him.
“Sigfried, Ralf,” Wolf ordered. “Hold his arms. I know he’s unconscious, but he’s not going to like this. You’d be surprised how spirited men can become when forced to tolerate discomfort … even the unconscious ones.”
Demelza cast Wolf a sour look, as if she were somehow offended by the understatement of the decade.
Wolf hefted the hammer high, pausing to compose himself and focus upon the grim task at hand. Everyone took a deep breath, seemingly in unison. In a flash, Wolf brought the hammer crashing down upon the protruding stalk driving the bolt deeper into the man’s flesh. The wretched man’s eyes flew open. Howling in pain, he tried to rise, fiercely fighting Sigfried and Ralf who worked hard to restrain him.
A second blow fell. Then another. Finally, the bolt was flush with the man’s skin. Ketri reached behind and yanked the other end. With a grotesque, sucking noise, she tore the bolt free. Blood began to flow freely out his back.
Sigfried and the dwarves hooted in joyous triumph. Ralf turned green, and Wolf’s pallor grew ashen as well. It was as if his role in the affair had finally caught up with him, making him queasy. His willpower failed him, and he looked to Virriel for support. However, the elf’s eyes were fixed on the patient, frozen in a look of concern. Following her worried gaze, Wolf too realized the man had stopped breathing.
“Stand back everyone,” she said. The wound bled with renewed intensity now that the bolt was missing. She placed her hand above it. Lasing only the span of a few heartbeats, an amber glow filled the space between the man’s chest and her elven hand. Everyone watched, waited.
Blood no longer trickled from the wound, and a remarkable, hidden repair process was underway. After a moment, the man heaved a sigh and took his first breath. Coughing a few times, he opened his eyes. His pallor seemed to improve with each passing second. With Virriel’s help, he regained his footing and smiled at his savior.
“That’s how she saved your sorry ass, Sigfried,” Demelza quipped.
“Better than what you did,” he spat. “From what I’ve gathered, I’ve come to conclude that you’re the worst bodyguard ever! More concerned with lining your pockets, than caring for my well-being.”
The dwarf recoiled at the unexpected harshness of his rebuke and fled from his icy, scornful stare. A rare instance she had been at a loss for words. Sigfried adopted a self-satisfied, smug expression as one who just achieved some major victory.
“My name’s Hulst,” said the man. “And it appears I owe you my life.”
“I am called Virriel. And I am always happy to heal those in need. It is my duty in life, as I have sworn an oath to Mother.”
“All the same, you have my eternal gratitude, and I consider myself forever in your debt. Perhaps there is something I can do to repay your kindness ..."
Virriel nodded almost imperceptibly prompting Hulst to laugh. “I think I know what you want and how I can help you.” He walked past the barrel into the adjoining space with his new friends trailing close behind. Retrieving a worn piece of parchment from a desk drawer, he returned and gave it to Virriel.
Wolf looked over her shoulder. A crude drawing, numbers and lines danced all over the page. A small circle penned in dark blue ink marked the center of the parchement.
“It’s a map,” offered Hulst. “Showing the Gitano’s location. I certainly have no further us of it."
Wolf took it from Virriel. “Hulst, what do these markings mean?”
“That's an underground railroad," he said, tapping his finger upon the parchement. "The Gitano’s dwell at the heart of a network of mines that once harvested ore for the Empire. Some passages are reported to be unsafe. I would tread carefully throughout the entire region if I were you.”
“Earlier you mentioned a plan. Were you working with the Gitano?”
“Yes!” Hulst spat. “Wish it had not been the case. Weeks ago, the Romaanian crime boss, Antonio Gitano, approached Dewberry and asked for his permission to settle the waterfront. They were willing to pay the exorbitant fee, and everything seemed fine. But that was when the trouble began. Somehow Antonio learned of our efforts to recover the Chancellor’s artifact … probably Curtis now that I think about it.
The Romaanian crime boss proposed a complex scheme where the two gangs would work together. The Geheimschen would recover the stone, and the Gitano would craft a forgery. The fake stone would then be sold at an auction hosted by the Theives Guild. When the sale was made both gangs would split the profits. The real stone would then be presented to Chancellor Olivejem for additional financial gain. It was an attractive plan with a good chance of success. Dewberry could not resist, especially when Antonio boasted about having the best counterfeit jeweler in the Realm. Supposedly, the Romaanian gang wished to stay in Malden only a short time. Seems their country had grown too hot …”
“Indeed,” Ralf interjected. “I’ve smuggled in those parts before. Fiercest heat in the world. You could fry an egg on your forehead if you wanted to.”
“Be silent,” Wolf hissed. Hulst threw Ralf a bewildered look before continuing.
"The plan counted on the probability that by the time the buyer realized the stone was a forgery, the Gitano would be long gone. On our end, our folk would claim no knowledge of the treachery. Only three of us knew of the plan: Dewberry, our purser, and me. This was done deliberately to allow our members plausible deniability in case the Thieves’ Guild interrogated them, as they no doubt would.
We would then spread the word that we’d been cheated too and claim we had no idea we were harboring counterfeit jewelers in our territory. The Gitano had to absorb nearly all the risk in this situation, and if they betrayed our secret, we would just deny it. No one would seriously take the word of a foreign gang of criminals.”
“Seems like a risky speculation,” Wolf offered.
“Dewberry is fearless when it comes to gambling with other people’s money, or safety… Say, you look quite familiar, friend.” Hulst examined Ralf with a keen eye, measuring him as if he had seen his face before.
“I get that a lot,” Ralf replied. “Common face, uncommon man, I like to say.”
“So, what happened to the stone?” Wolf pressed. “Was it copied?”
“Aye, it was. The Gitano allowed us to keep their jeweler here under our watchful eye to ensure no possibility of any treachery. Took the man only three days to make the horrible things. Of course, this pushed back the auction and our meeting with the Chancellor.
I don’t know what cover story we planned to feed that man, but I’m sure Dewberry thought of something. He probably had a good story too. Few men have ever frightened Dewberry Halfman, but I could tell he took the Chancellor very seriously. He certainly would never feed some half-baked nonsense to man with such a keen intellect and brutal stance on criminals, especially those who specifically crossed him. Why once I heard of a story where a thief dared to steal a golden cup from the Chancellor’s residence. The wretched man was caught and broken on the wheel before the town obelisk. A gruesome ordeal … took the poor bastard four days to die.”
“Hulst,” Wolf interrupted. “Did you say horrible things a while ago? You mean more than one forgery was made.”
“Aye. Two were crafted. Nasty, evil-looking monstrosities. I’m almost relieved we were robbed of them. I want no part of this anymore. In fact, I want nothing to do with the Thieves’ Guild at all. My mind’s set. Been thinkin’ ‘bout going back to the farm. My parents are older now and could use my help. Thieving’s no way to live a life!”
“Well said,” Wolf murmured. The words struck a chord. He thought of his own family back at Kantwohner Estate and wished he were there helping them right now.
“Almost died today,” Hulst continued. “Such a thing changes a man. Makes the choice I have easy – ‘taint even a choice, really. I know the path I must take. Again, much obliged to you, dear lady. I’ll always remember your kindness.” He smiled at Virriel, who returned the gesture. Sigfried scowled at the man, but Hulst took no notice.”
“It is we who are indebted to you,” Wolf said. “You’ve helped us with our path.”
Hulst appeared wistful. “Wish you could come with me. I fear what you seek can only lead to death and misfortune. You probably don’t have much correspondence with the underworld in Malden. But I tell you things are shaken and may never be quite the same.”
“What do you mean?” Wolf asked.
“Not sure I know, myself. Honest. But something terrible happened at that auction. I’m just lucky I had duties here at the lodge. I tell you – good men went to that gathering. And when I say ‘good’ I mean fierce, competent fighters. Bodyguards. Brawlers. Warriors. None returned. I can’t even begin to explain that one. Nor can I imagine what type of dark powers those foreign devils summoned. It's a mystery to me how Romaanians could acquire the knowledge or skill to unleash the powers of Helle, but word on the street says that’s exactly what they managed to do. Not a single person survived that meeting in that ancient house of worship. They say the number slain created a small lake of blood.
What we know only comes from those investigating after the event. Prominent members of the Five Families were killed that night. It aint right! Bunch of greasy foreigners come to our land and destroy the social fabric of our community. Well … things are going to change, I suppose. Not that it matters. I will not be around to watch it happen.”
“What kind of supernatural events are we talking about here?" Wolf asked. "What are people saying? How could a foreign gang fleeing persecution in their own land have found the power to kill so many of the Guild’s most influential members?”
“Beats the Helle out of me…Maybe they drew upon the stone’s power, and it killed everyone. Then they went back afterward to gather the spoils. The strange thing is the bodies had been left with their belongings intact – purses, jewelry, and all.”
“Yes,” Wolf agreed. “Leaving valuables behind is not something thieves do.”
“Exactly! Makes no sense. Antonio seemed like a reasonable, level-headed man. Not one who would take unnecessary risks in a hostile land. He most likely did not get where he was by making enemies. Yet nothing else explains what happened. Then, to betray us with this treacherous assault on our base here in Malden – an invasion of the very ones who took care of ‘em. Well, it’s outrageous! We took ‘em under our wing. Fostered ‘em. Gave ‘em shelter and set ‘em up with the right contacts in the city. Whatever dark end awaits those blasted Gits, they deserve it!”
“So, it sounds like no one really knows what happened at the auction.” Wolf said.
“Nope. What I know is hearsay. But as far as I can tell, there are no eye-witnesses. No survivors. We had about two dozen of our members go. Sometimes our men will party at taverns or alehouses afterwards … or stay with friends, or visit the brothels; some even visit Darby Lane. But they were expected back here hours ago. Many had guard duty tonight, and there’s no way any would skip and risk forfeiting their membership. No, I fear they’re all dead.”
“Is there anything else you can tell us about Curtis?” Wolf prompted.
“Yeah, don’t trust him. He’d betray his own mother for a denarius. I’m sure he’s the one who paved the way and made the Gitano attack possible. Probably told ‘em to hit us when we’d be most vulnerable. Half our number are currently engaged in a smuggling operation to the North. When they attacked, we were helplessly outnumbered. They let me live because I dropped a few of them, and I guess they decided whatever valuables lay in the armory, they weren’t worth the heavy price I’d make ‘em pay.”
“What’s this square region on the map?” Virriel asked.
“Land the Gitanos stole from the Astaphan gang. Dewberry was pissed when he heard that. We’ve always been on friendly terms with those fellows, and now those foreign devils have gone and jeopardized that relationship.”
“Who are the Astaphan gang?” Wolf asked.
“Coiners mostly. Smugglers too I suppose. They use the underground mines to store their trappings. They are quite familiar with the sewers too. Gives ‘em access to the ‘Devil’s Den’ so they can trade with the Blue Moon.”
“You think Curtis has the stone now?” Wolf asked.
“Wouldn’t surprise me. He could’ve stolen the jewel himself and left the gates open for the Gitano just as a means of covering his tracks. He’s probably scampering like a rat in those caves right now, putting distance between himself and here.”
Wolf and Virriel exchanged worried glances.
“Yeah, he’s got a good start on you. ‘Bout an hour. May already have a buyer lined up too. Wouldn’t put it past him. After news of what happened spreads throughout the land the real stone will be worth a fortune.”
“You have our thanks, Hulst,” Virriel said. “May the Mother protect you and keep you safe.” She hugged the older man, causing him to blush unexpectedly.
“Farewell to you too, good lady,” he said. “I wish you and your friends the best of luck with your search. Take care.”
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