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"The Stoneseekers"


Prologue
Prologue (Part 1 of 2)

By duaneculbertson

Enraged, the Dark Lord whirled about, cursing with clenched claws. Like an angry beacon of hate, his scouring gaze fell upon ally and enemy alike. His peers expected a tirade, understanding only too well that rage drove his actions. However, on this occasion, his vehemence failed to conceal signs of frustration, impotence, and doubt, and his tone lacked conviction.

The other gods waited, understanding the futility of their situation. Spells would not function, nor could they manipulate the strange matter of this alien domain, this mysterious, dark void. But Kanavorus was not known for his patience.

"Who dares summon me?" he bellowed, his voice hollow in the infinite blackness. His anger radiated like heat. Retracting his lips, he snarled, saliva dripping from his jackal-like snout. Riddled with scars from countless battles, his onyx-scaled chest heaved with fury. He flexed his muscled arms, stomped his clawed, webbed feet, and thrashed his heavy tail.

Yet this violent display brought no response.

Those gathered regarded the Dark One with unease. For millennia, some had fought him. Others tolerated him. Yet none were comfortable in his presence. His reputation for cruelty proceeded him, chronicled throughout the ages with each atrocity greater than the last. Even his pact brothers, Putragle and Shlargareth, kept their distance. Putragle, God of Decay and Corruption, sat alone. A shambling mound of filth marked by foul secretions; few could tolerate his loathsome stench. Shlargareth, Lord of Change, hovered nearby as a shimmering mist, emitting strange sounds, meaningless to most and appreciated by none.

Relgash, Lord of Depravity, stood in the center, pleasuring itself. Having disrobed moments earlier, it saw the angry god's arrival as no reason to stop its activities, fondling its single female breast as it stimulated both sets of genitalia. Moaning meretriciously, Relgash stroked its alabaster skin, which glistened with hot aromatic sweat and gave off vapors to titillate those in its vicinity.

Watching Relgash without any change in his expression stood an austere man clad in white linen. Although appearing older, he in no way lacked strength or showed weakness. Masterful eyes rested below a broad brow and gray hair wreathed his crown. The space surrounding him seemed completely still, and when he moved there was no sound, nor did the folds of his clothes change in any way. This was Equanamus, Lord of Intransigence. His inert marble features were calm, yet his eyes betrayed an inner wrath.

Glowing incandescently, Illuminon -- Bringer of Light, blinded all in his presence. It was impossible to discern anything from his white-hot body, other than his form was humanoid. Jolus, Lord of Knowledge, stood behind his master. He looked like a wise old man wearing a fur-lined robe and carrying a bundle of scrolls.

A soft-skinned woman watched the unfolding drama with a serene expression upon her endearing face. Her peaceful demeanor could charm even the most bloodthirsty warrior into a state of puerile docility. This was Sylvana -- Goddess of Life and Healing. With her infinite capacity for mercy, her kind eyes spoke of compassion and giving. Her silky chestnut hair hung down the small of her back and cascaded over her shoulders to conceal bountiful breasts. She wore a skirt of living branches.

Sadran the Enforcer stood directly opposite Kanavorus, staring single-mindedly at his arch-nemesis. His sworn purpose was to eradicate Evil in all its forms. Dressed in scarlet robes, heavy with gold embroidery, he took the form of a broad-shouldered man.

Behind Sadran, a man held a crimson-plumed helm respectfully in his arms. Like all pieces of the knight's armor, it shone with a mirror-like quality. A coat-of-arms adorned his breastplate: two crossed gauntlets over a great broadsword. A flowing cape finished his attire, held in place by clasps atop his burnished pauldrons. Gold inlays embellished his armor, and nearly every edge sparkled with gilt filigree. Chiseled features graced the face of this powerful man, his hard countenance contrasting sharply with his demeanor -- calm and thoughtful.

Good and Evil faced each other in a circle, the configuration arising as a natural consequence of their polarizing ideologies. For the moment, an uneasy peace reigned. For once, longer than any of them could remember, no threats filled the air. And violence was not a certainty. Most of the gods simply waited for an explanation.

But the Blood God believed patience a weakness, not a virtue.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.

Again, his question was met with eerie silence. No reply. Not even an echo. Kanavorus scrutinized the area, as if his hateful gaze could force an answer from this foreign domain. Besides the floor, dark as obsidian, there was nothing else. Blackness stretched in all directions with only an uncanny illumination permitting the gods to see each other.

Moments earlier, Kanavorus had stood within the walls of his Arena of Blood evaluating his latest creation. Gleefully, he watched the abomination hack through a cadre of victims, former officers in his army who had fallen out of favor. The creature was a tremendous success, and he had done it all by himself, not deigning to consult the Dekavivira. It was dangerous to harness the mystic energies of the Void alone, but he had not wished to share control of this powerful beast, not even with his own generals.

How he had rejoiced when the creature coalesced into a sentient being, a fearsome, unstoppable killing machine. Despite its size, it fought with deceptive speed and agility. And the keen, intelligent gleam in its eyes coupled with its base cruelty pleased the Dark One, as he recognized these qualities in himself. He only had to think of an appropriate name ...

But that was the last he could remember before finding himself in this inexplicable place. Such an outrage Kanavorus could not recall suffering in all his substantial existence. The anger now fueling him worked to cloud his reason, rage rendering him oblivious to the dangers the others appreciated -- the fact that unfathomable forces must be at play to summon so many powerful beings here against their will.

"Who dares hold me here?" Kanavorus roared. "I demand to know who is responsible. Come forward so that I may spill your blood and feed your ent--"

An invisible force seized Kanavorus, tossing him high into the infinite blackness. Moments later, he returned, the impact knocking the other gods off their feet and leaving a sizeable crater in their midst. Broken and bleeding, Kanavorus crawled towards the questionable safety of his former pact brothers. Drenched in profound humiliation, he spat out a tooth, furious his peers had observed him in a moment of weakness. Relgash laughed, a silvery, alluring sound, but the others appeared too awestruck to respond. No doubt many wondered what kind of power could have done that to their most formidable adversary.

"They will all pay," Kanavorus muttered. For the moment, the Dark Lord seemed preoccupied with mastering his pain and focused on conserving his strength. Vainly, he searched for the power that had humbled him. It was not long before he felt its great presence.

*******************************************************



Author Notes POV change necessitates breaking the Prologue into two parts. Part 2 coming soon.
If you wish to learn more about the novel consult www.duaneculbertson.com
Thank you.

Dave


Prologue
The Stoneseekers

By duaneculbertson

Dark clouds gathered, the Grand Theophanist growing more alarmed with each successive trip to the window. The tall tower offered a view of what approached, a sight that would chill the marrow of even the most battle-hardened warrior.

“Surely we must proceed, master!” he cried.

“Proceed?” blurted an old man sitting at a table. “Who am I to break the seal?” His white beard shook in agitation. Having waited months for this moment, his resolve wavered now that the event was finally at hand. “They are not called the Forbidden Documents for nothing! It says to break the seal when darkness threatens the land. Thurstan, you and I have been friends for many years, when have you ever known me to rush a decision?”

A cacophony shook the heavens, distracting the Grand Theophanist once again. He watched as multiple lightning strikes peppered the ground. Contrary to the laws of physics and in violation of the natural order, the storm moved eastwards under its own power, like a beast stalking its prey.

As the menace loomed overhead, clouds condensed into tight packets resembling dusky jewels, and whirling fingers stretched from the heavens to caress the earth. Nothing could withstand their probing onslaught, the tendrils obliterating everything in their path. A dull roar served as harbinger for the impending devastation, and panicking livestock scattered pell-mell, fleeing across crop-fields doomed by the tempest’s incoming harvest of violence.

A tumultuous wind blew aloft the anguished cries of peasants denied entrance to the city. Thurstan’s heart ached. He was their shepherd. He was supposed to keep these people safe. Not hide behind stout castle walls listening to their dying screams.

“Master,” he protested, “if not now, then when? Legendary beasts and blasphemous abominations have awakened to roam the countryside. And the Dark Cults have resurfaced too! Believed vanquished long ago, they’ve now reappeared once again to corrupt our government and wreak havoc upon our society. They plan to sap our resolve with their treasonous duplicity and murderous violence.”

            “Mere rumors,” whispered the old man shaking his head slowly.

            “Rumors! Ragerius, we both know you are too meticulous a man to dismiss these reports so easily. Most are from trustworthy sources. Some are from magistrates. And a few are even from men of science! To dismiss their testimony like the deranged ramblings of drunken men is not just dishonest, it’s reckless!”

Ragerius said nothing, his eyes still focused on the collection of papers sealed within the leather-bound book before him. Thurstan waited for a response. When none was forthcoming, he released an exasperated sigh and continued.

            “Disturbing tales have increased since crossing the threshold into the new year. And, at this rate, if we don’t act fast, there will be no Empire left to save.”

            “Everything will occur in its proper time … and careful contemplation is required before we take any concerted actions.”

            “Actions? When will you act, then? The Empire has already suffered dozens of unnatural storms like this one. Previously regarded as a scourge suffered only once in a lifetime, these tempests assault us nearly every month. How many more must we bear before you decide to do something? Must we face starvation again, as we did last year?” Thurstan shook his frail, white hands. “This approaching tempest may raze this very castle to the ground. Will you be satisfied then?”

            "These walls have repelled storms for hundreds of years.”

            “Storms like these have never been witnessed before in our history!”

            “Perhaps,” uttered the sage. For the first time, he took his eyes off the bound documents and regarded his companion. “For a thousand years, this tome has occupied the most venerable place in our vaults, if not in our hearts. Part of our heritage, these words were written down by the Dynastic Father himself. By breaking this seal, we know not what we do. We know not what knowledge we release into the world, nor what hardships we introduce to humanity.”

            “Guidance!” implored the younger man. “It was meant to be opened in our time of need, and I’m sorry to say  - that time is now!”

Ragerius paused, listening to the raging storm that would soon be directly overhead. As the first gust of wind whipped through his hair and billowed his robe, he grabbed a jeweled blade, bent forward, and broke the seal.

 

Author Notes I placed a book balloon on the novel to award all 40 chapters. Please take advantage of the opportunity, if you are interested in reading more.
Thank you!
Duane Culbertson


Chapter 1
Prologue (Part 2 of 2)

By duaneculbertson

"I will not tolerate disrespect from mere children," said a deep, booming voice. An immense humanoid form coalesced and spread its arms wide. Whether a threatening or welcoming gesture, none could be sure. It unfurled its massive wings and crouched upon one knee to get closer to its audience, like an adult addressing a toddler. After an awed silence, Sylvana spoke, "Who are you, and what do you want?"

The creature smiled. Comprised of shades of black. Its eyes were like velvet orbs, and with its large wings, bald head, and pointed ears, it closely resembled a bat. Raised cheekbones was the only way to interpret its smile, since its teeth were dark blue, too dark a color to give appreciable contrast.

"Greetings Sylvana and be at peace. I want to welcome you all. Even you, Kanavorus." It turned to glance at the dazed, bloodied deity.

"I am the Nameless One," it continued. "Your Creator."

It read incredulity in their faces; all save the Lord of Knowledge, who simply nodded his head, the spoken words perhaps verifying a truth he had long since suspected.

"You and I are the same. Derived from the same substance. The same energy. I made you, giving you freedom and individuality, but that does not change the fact that you were once just a part of me."

No one challenged this assertion. The gods simply stood attentively, like captivated children.

"Eons ago, I forged an experiment to give voice to the many sides of my personality..."

"Wait, how can I be a part of you?" interrupted Sadran. "I think for myself."

"Friend," the apparition replied patiently. "I allowed you to live in your own fashion, as you saw fit. Nevertheless, I have been with you all along. I exist in every domain and have been watching you constantly all these years."

The Nameless One paused, giving his audience time to digest these startling revelations. "I have waited for you to develop into what you are today. I control the laws of this universe. And as such, I have given you limited dominion over matter to command as you see fit except for certain physical laws. These you know well, as they mark the boundaries of your power."

The gods shifted uneasily. The Dark Lords seemed less able to contain themselves. Relgash filled the air with his silvery laughter, and Putragle grumbled something unintelligible in his deep, raspy voice. Shlargareth changed, adopting the form of a blood-colored cloud or roiling sea. Kanavorus growled, venting his displeasure. Even the lawful gods resented these constraints on their powers, perhaps wanting to know why they were barred entrance to the much-coveted Realm.

"I made you to reflect the facets of my personality," the Nameless One continued. "I know I am not the Supreme Creator. There are still domains to explore, countless dimensions and universes where powers exist greater than my own. Places populated by beings like me. I want to meet these entities ... I know they exist ... but before this can happen, I need an identity. A personality. You were made for this one purpose..."

The Nameless One regarded his audience. Some looked perplexed, others angry, and a few oddly unmoved. Their emotions were not lost on the Nameless One, who believed his experiment had worked better than he could have imagined -- for he now had the diversity of personalities he desired.

"You all want different things ... you would each rule differently. Good and Evil are relative terms, social constructs with which we describe our actions and how we relate to others and our environment. Seldom does a tyrant think himself Evil. It is more convenient to simply redefine the definition of Good until it aligns with his actions. In this manner, even the cruelest despot may think himself righteous."

The Nameless One stretched its vast wings before continuing its explanation. He noticed Relgash admiring itself in a jewel-encrusted mirror, an action contrasting sharply with Jolus who furiously scribbled notes upon an unfurled scroll as he sat beside Illuminon, his master, who emitted more than enough light for his endeavor.

"For thousands of years, you have waged war, attempting to enforce your agendas. The stakes are now higher. For I have created a competition, a contest to decide the fate of all. You will each have a stone. Although powerful themselves, they are largely symbolic. The objective of the Contest is to gather as many as possible. There are no rules regarding how you may work together."

The Nameless One paused to study his audience. Many still regarded his words with incredulity; probably having never fathomed that there could be anything greater than themselves.

"The winner will be the one who has collected the greatest number of stones when I return," he continued. "Or the one who has acquired all of them in the time allotted."

"You mentioned a stone exists for each of us," stated Equanamus. "What of Seydor? He is freshly born to the Aether. And what of Nyesha?"

"Yes! Where is my partner?" interrupted Illuminon. "I know the Fiend has taken her!" He pointed at Kanavorus, who growled back with contempt, their enmity hanging thickly in the air like a choking miasma.

"Patience," replied the Nameless One. "All will be known in due time. It's true, Seydor is new to the Aether. Born from faith and the power of prayer - the sheer belief of his people. The denizens of the Realm believe in him so much that I decided to answer their prayers and give him his own place in this pantheon. I know many of you resented his inclusion. Some have even tried to destroy him." Kanavorus was unable to stifle a snarl. The Nameless One regarded him and continued talking.

"I do not blame anyone. Everyone must act according to their nature. It is significant to note that Seydor Kreigenschwert, Lord of Man, will play an important role, for the Contest will not take place in the Aether -- it will take place in the Realm."

Protests flooded the air, and the Nameless One imposed silence by clapping his hands, sending a shockwave that knocked the gods off their feet.

"You may still fight your battles in the Aether, but the Contest shall be won or lost in the Realm. And just as the laws are now; you may not enter of your own free will. Instead, you must rely on your servants, those devoted members who, for one reason or another, support you."

"What of my wife?" asked Illuminon.

"Nyesha is well and in good hands, my friend..."

"If by well, you mean writhing in perpetual agony," mocked Kanavorus.

"No, Kanavorus," said the Nameless One. "She has been removed from your dungeons."

"What!" roared the Dark One. "She is mine by right! I defeated her in open combat! An honest fight! She is too valuable a pawn to relinquish!"

"No," insisted the Nameless One. "Nyesha will play an important role in the Contest, for the Contest is about Justice. And it is far more fitting that the Goddess of Justice is hidden elsewhere. Not your Palace of Blood."

Kanavorus trembled with rage. He growled and gnashed his teeth, but the Nameless One ignored him.

"Justice is the theme of the Contest. Is it better to live an honest and charitable life, or one based on deception and selfishness? And what is Justice? Can it be defined by something simple such as the advantage of the stronger, or does it involve something more complex like a balance or harmony of competing forces?" The Nameless One paused allowing his questions to percolate, but the gods simply stared unsure of what to say or do.

"The Contest shall provide the answers!" the Nameless One declared.

"What if we're not interested?" asked Relgash, regarding itself in a gilded mirror it retrieved from a pocket of its discarded, diaphanous robe.

"You need not participate, if that is your wish. But the winner will have absolute power. Unlimited power. Dominion over matter. And control of both Realm and Aether."

Kanavorus salivated upon hearing these words, and Relgash cast its mirror to the ground.
The Nameless One read their thoughts and helped them to their inevitable conclusion: "With such power, you would be able to slay your enemies. No wish, no desire, would elude you."

"You watched us slaughter each other for thousands of years in order to create this contest?" accused Sadran. "Is that Justice?"

"There is nothing more important than defining Justice. The steps to get here were necessary. You are thinking of yourself as a solitary actor. Your perspective needs to change. You and I are the same. We are all interconnected. Such has it always been. In the beginning, out of the Nurturing Mists came awareness. With awareness came confusion. To resolve this confusion, I fractured my consciousness into a thousand shards, thus creating you. After eons of war, the many became few. Good and Evil locked in a stalemate. Neither side having an advantage. This is why I chose to reveal the Contest now. The stage is prepared.

"Why is Justice so important to you?" asked Putragle.

"To act with Justice allows for a balanced and logical existence. Unfortunately, the interpretation of Justice is clouded by the one providing the definition. For example, Kanavorus would argue that Justice is the advantage of the stronger, while Sylvana would claim Justice is giving everyone what they deserve. Thus, we have two definitions. One from the Giver. One from the Taker. Clearly, they cannot both be correct. And do these definitions suffice? Does might really make right? Is it just to return borrowed weapons to a friend if that friend has since gone mad and could possibly use them to hurt others? In this case, is 'giving everyone what they deserve' really Justice?"

The assembly remained silent.

"You see, it is not that simple. A universal definition of Justice has eluded me throughout the ages. Nevertheless, I will persevere and prevail. We shall arrive at it with the outcome of the Contest. When I return for its conclusion, I will have both the answer and my new identity, for I shall adopt the personality of the victor."

"Nameless One, what is the duration of the Contest?" asked Shlargareth. Its question was curiously accented, spanning multiple octaves and lingually impossible for most creatures, yet still managing a tone laden with sadistic menace.

"The Contest is to be dictated by the Timeglass." The Nameless One gestured towards a massive mariner's hourglass, which appeared, hovering before them. "When the sand leaves the upper chamber, the Contest will end." A great reservoir held a fine, red powder. An entire desert could not rival its size.

"The Stonequest will commence in one thousand years. The stones will awaken, one by one, appearing throughout the Realm, adopting the powers of its owner. You have ample time to put your plans into action. I am sure you can imagine the consequences of letting your rivals win."

Many of the gods exchanged looks of enmity.

"The Realm is a large place," spoke Sylvana. "How will we direct our subjects to find these stones?"

"A Prophecy will serve as a guide. Study it well ..."

"And what will happen when a winner is declared?" interrupted Sadran.

"Every living thing will be forced to obey the victor or suffer destruction or annihilation. The winner will be able to harness unlimited energy, manipulate matter, and alter the very laws of the universe if desired."

Kanavorus' eyes sparkled. No doubt such power was beyond his comprehension, but not his imagination. His excitement was not lost on the Nameless One, who, still sharing a bond with all his children, regarded the Evil One fondly, appreciating the power-lust that shone on the face of the Blood God.

"What will you do when the Contest is won?" asked Sylvana.

"I will adopt the personality of the winner and leave this universe. In doing so, I leave total control in the hands of the victor."

The gods glanced at each other, some guardedly, others conspiratorially.

"What are the rules?" asked Equanamus.

"The rules are much the same as they are now. None of you can cross into the Realm without initiating the proper rituals. Other conditions will restrict your access even more. Procedures must be followed if you wish to succeed. And you will have to be resourceful if you wish to accomplish objectives outside your sphere of influence. The stones are hidden throughout the Realm with your subjects. You will need to rely on them more than ever to achieve your victory."

The deities knew their subjects' worship was an important well-spring that partially supplied them with power. The symbiotic relationship involved gods granting special abilities to the chosen of their flock in return for their devotion. Now it appeared the nature of the relationship was changing, forcing the powerful beings to rely on their followers.

"Nameless One," asked Illuminon. "What is the duration of this contest?"

"I have already shown you the Timeglass. It will activate in one-thousand years and hover above the Oracle at Newadj for all to consult. Any attempt to tamper with it or alter its course will prove fatal."

A few deities shuddered. Having lived so long, the concept of fatality was foreign and frightening.

"How long do we have if the contest lasts the maximum duration?" asked Sylvana.

"A matter of years. The Contest must be resolved on a timescale meaningful to the denizens of the Realm, for they have the highest stake in the outcome. Wouldn't you agree?"

The gods remained silent and thoughtful. The nature of the Contest guaranteed the participation of those living in the Realm. The consequences would affect their lives just as profoundly, if not more so than the gods.

"You will each be supplied the Rules of the Contest," continued the Nameless One. "My definition of Good and Evil will set the standard. It is important to note that Evil may break the rules. Good may not. If Good were to break the rules, Good would become Evil."

Equanamus, Sylvana, Sadran, Seydor, and Illuminon exchanged looks of concern. Relgash grinned. Putragle rubbed his blubbery claws together. Kanavorus growled. And Shlargareth shook with impatience.

The Nameless One appeared to grow restless as well. "I will meet with you separately soon. You will share your battle plans and I will help you implement your strategies. One quarter of your power will be taken and confined in your stone before being hidden in the Realm. Once there, they will lie dormant, disguised as something harmless, until the appropriate time as foretold by the Prophecy. In addition, I will allow each one of you to allocate a fraction of your power to cast into the Realm as you choose.
Heed these parting words: Expect the unexpected. Old enemies will resurface. I will not choose sides -- I love all my children -- nor will I interfere. No go! Leave this domain and let the best One win!"










Chapter 1
The Search Continues (Alehouse)

By duaneculbertson

A tooth bounced off the bar. An agonized roar followed. A burly hulk wiped blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. Plodding forward, he sought retribution from his opponent, a lantern-jawed man wearing a white silk shirt under a leather vest. Moving nimbly, this man dodged the wild punches of the giant, showing no signs of fear, yet knowing the tight quarters favored his larger, stronger opponent.

Sawdust hung in the air scattering light from an overhead window, and the raucous cries grew as more patrons turned to watch.

If they wish to see the color of my blood, they will be disappointed.

Nor would he offer prolonged entertainment; he would end this fight quickly. With skillful timing, he stepped forward, blocking a haymaker, and striking low. Ribs cracked as his supinated fist drove air from the giant's lungs. A rising elbow strike followed, catching his opponent under the chin, and forcing his eyes to roll back into his head. Momentum drove the behemoth backwards. Already insensible, his body turned and fell upon an oaken table, upsetting tankards and scattering patrons, the crude structure collapsing under the man's weight. His body rolled, coming to rest among the filthy thrushes.

Brandishing a bottle, another rushed forward to join the fray, but the man seized his wrist in a grip of iron, and the bottle soared through the air to shatter somewhere within the crowd. With fore knuckles aligned like a leopard's paw, the man struck the space where his attacker's arm joined the body. Lifting the arm high, he stepped underneath and behind before twisting it like a corkscrew. A hard yank brought forth a popping sound, and an anguished cry rose above the din of the alehouse. Pressure applied to the arm forced the wretch to his knees and a roundhouse kick finished the move. Lying on his back half insensate, the dazed miscreant struggled to stanch the blood pouring from his ruined nose.

Cheers rocked the structure of wood and stone. Drunken patrons stamped their feet in appreciation, and dust sifted from the rafters where some had watched from above. Barmaids continued to weave through the rowdy crowd, serving mugs of ale, as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

But the victor's celebration was short-lived. Sensing danger, he spun back to face the bar. A jowly, red-faced barkeep held a club aloft, preparing to deliver a vicious backhand.

"Hold!" commanded the victorious fighter. Reaching into his pocket, he retrieved a silver emblem. Dangling from a chain, hung a circumscribed star depicting an embossed coach emblazoned with the Imperial Seal -- the Sword and Crossed Gauntlets, a familiar sight throughout the Empire.

The barkeep relaxed. Lowering his club, he stowed his truculent scowl, replacing it with a cheerful, toothless smile.

"Sorry, sir," he said. "Had no idea you were a Roadwarden. We get rascals in here all the time. Trouble comes in many forms, and it's hard to know who's to blame. Just me working, you know. I can't see everything. It's my job to keep the peace. That's when I get to crackin' noggins." He rapped the counter with his hickory blackjack. "Thanks for taking care of those jesters. They cause a disturbance in here almost every night."

The Roadwarden turned to regard his handiwork. The giant still slumbered; the vast quantities of alcohol he consumed before the fight at least partially responsible for his present, docile state. The other regarded him with angry, frightened eyes. In time both would recover. The broken ribs of the former would be a painful reminder of this misadventure every time he drew breath, while the latter suffered only a broken nose and dislocated shoulder. They would mend eventually. In any case, they would not bother anyone for a while.

"Where are your peacekeepers?" asked the Roadwarden.

"Watchduty," replied the barkeep. "Couldn't find replacements."

"In the future, it would be better if large, implacable men were not served brandewijn. Instead, steer them to mead."

The barkeep nodded thoughtfully. The Roadwarden tossed him a coin. In the light offered by the only window, the man examined its luster. It was gold, a metal seldom seen in that establishment. His eyes lit up. And he stammered words of effusive praise.

"Thank you, sir! I will do as you say. Safe travels!"

"Peace be with you," replied the Roadwarden.

The barkeep's eyes darted around excitedly. He moved to and fro behind the bar until arriving at a solution. He opened his mouth and squirrelled the coin inside, grinning at his own cleverness. He would not allow the deft hands of pickpockets to touch so valuable a coin. Not this evening.

The Roadwarden smiled. As he turned to step from the musty alehouse into the waning light of the setting sun, two men sitting at a table exchanged knowing glances. Draining their tankards, they grabbed their walking sticks and left the building.


Author Notes Chapter 1 - Scene 1


Chapter 1
Fleeing the Devil's Den

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

The girl before him attended to her dress. In vain she tried to mitigate the damage to her bodice. Her eyes met the Roadwarden’s gaze, a brief embarrassed look giving way to a puzzled expression. “Why did you help me?” she asked. “Why risk your life to help a stranger?”

“Because the only thing necessary for Evil to succeed is for Good to do nothing,” her savior replied.

“I, I see…” she stammered, poorly concealing her incredulity behind a mask of feigned understanding. “Well, thank you, good sir. You pro’lly saved my life.”

            “Protecting you is my civic duty, though it brought me satisfaction as well.”

            “I shoulda known better. Those men had been shadowing me all day. Pro’lly pegged me an easy mark. Scoundrels! Vorus take ‘em!”

            “Weak men lacking morals,” muttered the Roadwarden shaking his head. “Such men care not for what is right or proper … I fear you are ill-used.”

            “Perhaps you know not what I do?” she said, shame coloring her cheeks. She brushed her hair aside and straightened her clothing. “I work the streets,” she muttered reluctantly.

            “I know what you do. It is both brave and foolish.”

            The girl shook her head in frustration, tears brimming her bright, blue eyes.  

“That was all the money I had in the world… What am I to do now?” She sobbed, and, for a moment, she indulged herself, succumbing to overwhelming despair.

“What’s your name, girl?”

            “Ashley,” she replied. Her fresh, soft face was that of a teenage girl, and her blond shoulder-length hair reminded him of Atelka, although she lacked the pale green eyes whose depths he loved to fathom.

“That arm looks bad,” he offered. “May I examine it?”

            Ashley nodded. The Roadwarden palpated her skin. The girl winced yet said nothing.

            “Your wrist is badly bruised, but not broken. How do you come to work the streets?”

            “I once belonged to a prosperous family,” Ashley sighed. “Living a simple life working on our farm. But then, a pestilence swept through our village and claimed many lives. My brothers fell first … then my parents.”

            Ashley paused to wipe away tears. She stared off into the distance, recounting her troubled past.

            “What was this illness?” asked the Roadwarden.

            “Some call it Diamond Sickness, ‘cuz it leaves red blisters on the skin that resemble diamonds. Sometimes they burst and bleed green fluid. No one marked survives. It’s horrible!”

            “Yes, I’ve heard of it,” sighed the Roadwarden. “It strikes rich and poor alike, claiming the lives of both city-dwellers and country-folk. The scourge has spread all across the Empire. A blight upon our land. And quite contagious too.”

            “Yes,” Ashley lamented. “I am the sole survivor of my village. I know not why. My parents forbid me to see them. They kept me away. Perhaps that made the difference. Oh! Had I only perished though! T’would ha’ been far better for me, for the farm came under new ownership, my uncle, a brute of a man and a slave to his drink. His worthless life was spared ‘cuz he chanced to live in a neighboring county unaffected by the tragedy. After my family perished, he swooped in and claimed the farm. He knew the right people. Got it without difficulty.”

            Ashley shuddered. “I’d always feared him, even as a little girl. Often, I’d catch him looking at me in ways that made me uncomfortable. Once I heard my mother speak of him as ‘unwholesome’. When he took over the estate my worst fears came true … he did terrible things to me.”

            The Roadwarden shifted uncomfortably and passed his hand across his brow. He thought of his two younger sisters, Urla and Saynwen. Both were dear to him. “Did you try to flee?”

            “Yes,” Ashley replied, staring into the distance with a look that could penetrate stone. Pausing, she took a deep breath and balled her hands into fists, her nails drawing blood despite her calloused palms. “Every day I swore I would never give him what he wanted. Never allow him to take it. Yet despite my resolve, he would force it from me every night, regardless of anything I could say or do. I ran away a dozen times, but he always found me. And when he did, he would beat me bloody. Sometimes in broad daylight in front of decent folk. Such was his violent reputation no one dared interfere. It was then that I realized I had to act for myself. No one would be coming to save me. And I could tolerate it no longer.”  

            Ashley appeared to desire some type of affirmation, so the Roadwarden simply nodded. He did his best to stay vigilant even as he listened to her tale. Daylight waned, and the two thugs he drove off earlier could possibly return, bringing others to help them achieve their original goal.

“One night after a bout of heavy drinking,” Ashley continued. “My uncle fell into a drunken stupor. Soon I found myself standing behind him, and, without hesitation, I slit his throat with this very knife.” She reached into her boot and pulled out a wicked looking dagger, running her finger along the blade.

"T’was the best decision I ever made, and the best thing I ever done. Ain’t got no remorse either.”

            The Roadwarden nodded, neither applauding nor condemning her actions.

            “I came to Malden hoping to find work – hoping to find a better life. But being an uneducated farmhand and not strong enough to serve as a laborer, I soon realized no one would hire me. It became clear I was good for only one thing.”

            The Roadwarden’s eyes moistened. This girl was young and beautiful, like the one he had lost. He could not fight the comparison. Ashley’s story saddened him more than she could imagine. Was Atelka now making similar choices somewhere?

“For a time, I had a glimmer of hope,” she continued. “I met a customs officer at the town obelisk. I asked if he could help me read the solicitations. Instead, he offered to hire me. He said he could get me easy work filing papers for the Harbormaster and claimed it didn’t matter if I could read, and that I could lodge for free at the office. He said I could stay in one of the large storage rooms and boasted that the sawdust on the floors felt like goose feathers. I thought my ship had finally come in.”

Ashley trembled with rage. “Instead, I’d exchanged one torment for another! Fool that I was to trust a stranger! The very first evening I fell into his power and became his plaything, a slave he could abuse according to his whims. This was worse than living with my uncle. He kept me locked away all day. Then, at night, I was rudely violated for the entertainment of his friends. ‘Twas humiliating…”

“Horrible,” breathed the Roadwarden.

“Fortunately, on the fourth night I managed to escape. I’m not sure what brought these men together, or why they gathered. But they all had one thing in common – a curious mark on their hips beneath their britches. The mark resembled two ‘v’s, one nesting atop the other.”

The Roadwarden had never heard of the symbol and tried not to think of how the unfortunate girl had arrived at her knowledge.

Ashley drew the sign with her foot in the dirt.

“Never seen that before,” remarked the Roadwarden.

“Nor had I,” she said, looking into his eyes. “And never do I wish to see it again.” She threw up her hands in frustration. “That is why I work the streets. I have no choice. Men appreciate my body… that’s all I have.”

Tears of anger spilled down her lovely face in lachrymal streams, carving tracks in the dust and grime of neglect gathered upon her cheeks.

“No,” the Roadwarden said gently, placing a hand on her shoulder. “You have hope. No matter how bleak the situation, there is always hope. There is always some shard of light, some ray penetrating the darkness. Remember that.”

“Yes, I s’pose you’re right, though it feels like small comfort when you’re hurting, hungry, and alone. But I appreciate your advice, and I’ll do my best to take it.” Ashley cast her eyes down, looking away, perhaps to consider his words or feign consideration out of a sense of rustic politeness. A few handspans above hers, she looked into his eyes once more, meeting his unwavering gaze.
“You’re a good man,” she offered. “Wish the world had more of 'em like you. What's your name? I very much want to know the name of the one who saved me.”

Her savior murmured a name, barely audible: “Wolf Kantwohner.”

“Milord!” she exclaimed, eyes widening.

“You’ve heard of me?”

“Of course! Everyone has. People adore the royal family. There’s not a single member I don’t know of by name or title. Ever since I was a little girl, I studied the royals. Those with bitterness in their hearts say we only do this to distract ourselves from our own wretched lives, but I don’t believe this. I always dreamed one day I would meet a prince and he’d carry me off to his castle and make me his princess. Every little girl dreams of that.”

“Well, I’m no prince, but I’m touched you’re so happy to make my acquaintance. I can’t make you a princess, but perhaps I can do something for you.”

“You already have, lord. And I’m grateful. Truly. If you hadn’t come along when you did, there’s no telling what would have happened to me. But what about you? Why are you so far from Aachen? And where are your bodyguards? This is a terrible place! It’s madness for you to even be here!”

“I don’t need bodyguards. If I were attacked, the training I’ve acquired through a life of …” Motion flickered atop a building on the opposite side of the street. Only a glimpse of a hooded figure, then it was gone. Wolf knew it was time to leave. The hour had grown late. Color had already started to drain from the world. The days were long at this time of year, but night could still fall abruptly. Wolf’s skin did not tingle, but this did not mean they were safe from danger. He imagined forces gathering nearby for other nefarious activities and did not wish to become a target for further violence.

“What is it?” Ashley asked.

“Nothing. But we do need to find you a safe place to stay. And a permanent one. The Devil’s Den is no place for a young girl to blossom into a beautiful young woman.”

A faint rose color suffused Ashley’s cheeks. She responded to his compliment with a bashful smile. Using a wall for support, Wolf wrote upon a small strip of parchment with a charcoal pencil.

“You can write?” Ashley exclaimed. “Oh, of course you can,” she corrected.  “Silly of me. It’s just, such skills are rare where I’m from.”

“Skills can be learned by anyone open to learning them,” he replied pedantically. “Perhaps one day you will write letters too.”

“Really? You think so?”

“Sure. If you’re willing to work hard. But you’ll need money if you want to go to the University.”

Ashley laughed bitterly. “I don’t have that kind of money. Besides, everything I owned was taken by those ghouls!”

Wolf handed her a red silk purse. Awestruck, she poured a dozen gold coins into the palm of her hand.

“Aureus?” she gasped. “For me? Are you sure?” Her eyes sparkled with joy.

“You can start a new life today. That is plenty to pay for a course of study at the University. Just make sure you take that to the bank as soon as possible. Thieves always instinctively know when pockets are heavy with gold. And it would be a shame to have your new fortune stolen.”

Ashley’s face beamed. Wolf’s heart swelled in response. It was wonderful to see the vitality he had restored to this blossoming flower, and he could tell she had regained hope, something she had misplaced long ago.

“This may prove of even greater value,” he added. Wolf gave her an intricate sigil about the size of her hand; it could serve as a charming medallion if worn on a chain. On the back of it, a resplendent sun hovered above a tumultuous ocean. On the front, a coat of arms depicted a sword with grossed gauntlets, quartered with an upright bear. Filigreed with white gold and inlaid with silver, it spoke of fine craftsmanship and nobility.

“What is it?”

“It’s my seal. Do you know the Emerald Rose?”

Ashley nodded.

“Take my seal with this letter to Lady Covington. The seal will lend you credibility. Give it to her and no one else.”

“I can’t go in there,” she gasped. “I haven’t proper clothes. They’ll never let me inside. Even to look around.”

“My seal will open doors that would otherwise remain closed. Lady Covington owes me a favor. I’ve asked her to find employment for you. And unlike the other women, you will not have to lie upon your back to earn your coin.”

Overcome with emotion, Ashley wrapped her arms around his neck in a spontaneous, joyful outburst. She kissed him on the cheek, unconcerned with social norms, or the fact that she was a farmer’s daughter, and he was the grandson of a king. Wolf’s face flushed crimson: it had been quite some time, since he had received such a gracious outpouring of affection. It felt nice.

“Thank you, milord,” she said ardently. “I will always think of your kindness. From this day forth, I will speak of it everywhere I go.”

“No,” he replied sternly. “I would prefer it if you don’t tell anyone of my actions today. Please don’t even mention my name.”

Bewildered, Ashley furrowed her brow, yet was eager to please the one who had rescued her from a life on the streets. “Consider it done, sir,” she said.

“Now, you best be on your way. Go straight to the Emerald Rose and demand an audience with Lady Covington. Accept nothing less. Hurry. It’s getting dark.”

“Thanks,” she whispered. She walked down the street, glanced over her shoulder, smiled, turned the corner, and was gone.

Wolf smiled too. He felt he had done some good today. The gold would be enough to start her on the right path. The rest was up to her.
Fate could be cruel sometimes. How many others like Ashley were out there? Wolf’s face hardened. He withdrew a locket from his vest. Opening it, he gazed at the statuesque face of a beautiful woman with high cheekbones and long, platinum hair.

“Atelka,” he murmured. He shuddered slightly, as if fearing her name spoken aloud. Tears welled in his eyes. He blamed himself once again for not having spent enough time with her before her disappearance, despite knowing this was not logical.

On the other side of the locket, he regarded another picture, a young man in military dress standing at attention. His heart sank heavier in his chest, and he took one final glance at Atelka before closing the locket. The new Daguerreotype technology was sheer wizardry as far as he was concerned, capturing someone’s likeness down to the finest detail. Not that he needed help remembering his one true love, or his nephew.

“I will not fail you…” he breathed.

Wolf returned the locket to his vest and cast a look skyward. Dropping to one knee, he crossed one fist over his heart followed by the other, forming an ‘X’ with his arms, then mouthed an oath intelligible to Seydor alone. Now a look of determination joined the tears brimming in his pale green eyes.

Rising to his feet, he ran his fingers through his close-cropped auburn hair as he watched the moon climb into the sky. In recent months, the glowing celestial orb had nearly doubled in size, prompting much speculation among scholars and ordinary citizens alike. Especially affected were animals, with the howling of wolves disturbingly common, their nocturnal communications sounding desperate, devoid of purpose. Without fail, when the moon rose high each night, one was sure to hear them, almost as predictable as the cock crowing at dawn. Similarly, the less disciplined of the village children grew especially unruly, running off to play in the fields at night as if enjoying a second day. Some said they went off to frolic with the wolves, though most agreed this was just washerwomen gossip. Everyone had their theories though to explain these strange times. There were no shortages. Wolf took all these signs as just more evidence that the world had gone mad. Life out of balance. Nature gone wrong.
 
Maybe the druids know. But would they share their secrets? Can they even be found? Long has it been since news has come from Glendor Forest.

Pausing in the pale moonlight, Wolf rolled up his sleeve and regarded a curious birthmark. It resembled a mariner’s hourglass. He traced his fingers over the image as if engaging in some vestigial habit from childhood, a ritual performed to mollify fears. 

“Sir,” called a voice. Wolf turned to see a Roadwarden on horseback. “I’ve been looking for you. You need to see this.”

With grim foreboding, Wolf took the letter from the messenger’s hand. The word “Urgent” scrawled under the ornate wax seal of his family crest froze his blood. He tore it open and scanned the contents. His face paled.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“Is there a response?”

Wolf nodded. “I’m coming home.”



 

Author Notes End of Chapter 1


Chapter 1
The Search Continues (Devil Den)

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

The Roadwarden trudged through the overpowering stench of Southtown, a lingering miasma he would long carry in his clothes. He shook his head in disgust, observing the squalid refuse scattered pell-mell and left to rot. In more affluent parts of the city, such garbage was carried away by dutiful civil servants. But not here. Here, nature took its course with little concern for aesthetics or hygiene. The inhabitants shared this tendency towards neglect, with dissolution the norm. The Watch avoided these streets, and seldom was a patrol within shouting distance when a plaintive cry chanced to pierce the air. In this sector, Justice was not for the weak; it was a privilege for the strong. The thought made him sick. In this den of iniquity, people had to fend for themselves, with compassion a scarce commodity. It was not uncommon for people to be murdered in cold blood in broad daylight, with the perpetrators likely to be regarded as celebrities, instead of reprehensible villains awaiting the ignominious fate decreed by justice -- to be broken on the wheel and beheaded. Such a concept was laughable here. In practice, as long as the bodies of the murdered victims were not left to rot in plain sight, nothing was ever said or done. No official response. Just another day in the Devil's Den. In stark contrast, last month in Northtown an assassin was caught orchestrating a plot to kill the Chancellor, the latter sentencing the wretch to spend hours on the wheel where he was broken in the hot sun before being left to die of exposure. His remains still hang from the parapets as a deterrent to any who may be tempted to follow his footsteps. It was said the Chancellor was a harsh man, but few knew anything about him; he was a shadowy leader who chose to rule at a distance.

Resentful, hollow-eyed stares met the Roadwarden's searching gaze. These were the denizens of the lowest stratum of society. Indeed, the Devil's Den harbored the Empire's most unsavory citizens, a misanthropic melting-pot of whores, gamblers, peddlers, beggars, addicts, pushers, thieves, and assassins -- all competing for space and attention. Gangs infested the area. Plundering the weak and helpless, these organizations plotted murder as the sun rose and fell or as the tides ebbed and flowed: a dark circadian rhythm governing a hostile land. Most, if not all, transactions required the approval of the all-powerful Thieves Guild, comprised of the five factions that ruled the slums of Malden with an iron fist.

The Roadwarden knew all this yet persisted despite the danger. A compulsion, a habit he could not quit, drove his actions. He suspected it was futile; he would probably never learn what had become of his beloved Atelka. Each day the thought nearly drove him mad.

To his surprise, he had learned she had fallen in with a nefarious crowd. At least, that was according to rumors his coin could purchase. He had not wanted to believe it. At first, he thought the beady-eyed student had lied to him, nearly pummeling the spritely youth in front of a large crowd at the Malden Public House. Fortunately, reason prevailed. Mastering his emotions, he simply paid the boy off, and walked on. To him, money was never an obstacle, thanks to a generous allowance from his grandfather. His plan to conduct an undercover investigation serving as a lowly Roadwarden was not well received by the monarch, yet he allowed his grandchild a bank account accessible throughout the Empire with more than enough funds to meet his meager expenses. Unfortunately, leads always dried up before bearing fruit, and it seemed no number of denarii could restore them. Dejected, the Roadwarden would postpone his quest, which had become an exhausting mantra, repeated every time his tour of service brought him to this foul city. He had sworn a solemn oath. Others may have given up, but his resolve never wavered.

A woman's stifled cries tore through the air. They came from a side alley before being abruptly silenced. He dashed to the source. Rounding the corner, he came upon three men assaulting a young woman. A small, weaselly man severed her bodice with a knife, trying to extract a coin purse concealed between her breasts. Another held her by the hair and smothered her cries with a large, fleshy hand. A third held her legs open and thwarted her frantic efforts to kick him.

For a moment, the action ceased, and all eyes regarded the tall, muscular man standing with arms akimbo. His jaw jutted forward, and he balled his hands into fists. Framed by the setting sun, his features were obscure, but there was no mistaking his intentions.

"Let the woman go!" he bellowed.

The closest man released the girl's legs, glancing at his partners before rushing forward. But his enthusiasm was checked by the Roadwarden's boot. The man slumped to the ground, adopting the fetal position in a vain effort to nurse his crushed testicles. The second crouched low and approached more cautiously. Brandishing his small blade with a flourish, he stalked his prey. But the Roadwarden took no notice. Gracefully, he snatched the prone man at his feet and hurled him into the weaselly man with the knife. The two bodies collided and fell limbs intertwined upon the cobblestones. Bewildered, they looked at each other, scrambled to their feet, then fled. The largest man was quick to follow. But before he lumbered away, he swiped the girl's coin-purse and pushed her to the ground.

"Scum!" she yelled. "Come back with my money!"

"Yes," breathed her savior. "They are scum." He helped her to her feet, then stiffened, tilting his ear to the right. His skin tingled with apprehension.

"What do you want?" he barked over his shoulder. His imperious gaze fell upon the two men who had followed him from the alehouse. They lurked by the entrance to the alley not more than three paces away. Tightly gripping their walking sticks, their malevolent eyes betrayed their intentions, their dirty, grimy faces catching the last rays of light as the sun disappeared over the horizon.

"If you've come to rob me," he growled. "It is you who will receive the next beating. Now get you gone before I make sport of you!"

The two hesitated, consulting briefly in hushed tones before backing away. Perhaps they went to search for easier prey. Or perhaps they went to plan an ambush for him further down the road. The Roadwarden didn't care. He scowled, watching them go.

He was unarmed, while they had clubs and outnumbered him. Not a favorable position for any warrior, no matter how skilled. On such occasions, however, he knew confidence, careful diction, and a clear head could prove as effective as any weapon. It was true today. The demonstration of his fighting prowess earlier had been enough of a deterrent. They probably planned to stalk him, using surprise to their advantage. They could not have foreseen this alley skirmish, which only served to heighten his senses, betraying their position prematurely.

Normally, the Roadwarden carried his sword, but a recent ordinance prevented travelers from bringing weapons into places of commerce. Even government officials were not exempt from this decree. Hence the growing popularity of walking sticks, which doubled as a means of fustigating an enemy should the need arise. Of course, he could have left his sword at the door of the alehouse, but he did not wish to risk losing such a prized possession. Besides, he travelled faster without it.

The girl before him attended to her dress. In vain she tried to mitigate the damage to her bodice. Her eyes met the Roadwarden's gaze, a brief embarrassed look giving way to a puzzled expression. "Why did you help me?" she asked. "Why risk your life helping a stranger?"

"Because the only thing necessary for Evil to succeed is for Good to do nothing," her savior replied.

"I, I see..." she stammered, hiding her incredulity behind a mask of feigned understanding. "Well, thank you, good sir. You pro'lly saved my life."

"Protecting you is my civic duty, though it brought me great satisfaction as well."

"I shoulda known better. Those men had been shadowing me all day. Pro'lly pegged me an easy mark. Scoundrels! Vorus take 'em!"

"Weak men lacking morals," muttered the Roadwarden shaking his head. "Such men care not for what is right or proper ... I fear you are ill-used."

"Perhaps you know not what I do?" she said, shame coloring her cheeks. She brushed her hair aside and straightened her clothing. "I work the streets," she muttered reluctantly.

"I know what you do. It is both brave and foolish."

The girl shook her head in frustration, tears brimming her bright, blue eyes.

"That was all the money I had in the world... What am I to do now?" She sobbed, and, for a moment, she indulged herself, succumbing to overwhelming despair.

"What's your name, girl?"






 


Chapter 2
The Great Sage

By duaneculbertson

A retort bubbled atop a soapstone counter standing beside a brick wall. Bathed by a low flame, the vessel concentrated an emerald fluid to the consistency of honey. A chandelier festooned with cobwebs containing a dozen gutted candles hung from the ceiling of the heptagonal room. Two windows overhead allowed sunshine to flood much of the interior, the result of cleverly positioned mirrors directing solar rays from the rooftop above. A bookshelf overflowing with dusty tomes spanned an entire wall. Along another, multicolored jars stood on shelves at attention. Various items covered a stout wooden table. An oculus. An abacus. An astrolabe. A lyre. Herbs. Vegetation, vines, and bones, lots of bones. A skull of some extinct animal sat atop a palimpsest, the parchment billowing in the wind. Red damask curtains framed a doorway that led to a balcony where a marble balustrade baked in the sun. The narrowest wall housed a modest window one arm-span across and nearly twice as tall. Two floor-length candelabra stood either side of the window, the wax tapers still burning, yet nearly gutted. Multicolored flagstones worn smooth in places by constant pacing lay in a careful array anchored with mortar to the wooden beams beneath, a thoughtful protection against fire from ill-fated or ill-conceived experiments.

The room’s only occupant dozed upon a mat of straw, an old man, evident by his long white hair and flowing beard. His thick, cream-colored robe testified to years of dedicated labor: stained and burnt in some places, peppered with holes in others.

A playful grimalkin leapt upon his chest rousing him from his slumber before it fled down a stone stairwell. The man groaned, though it would have been difficult for an observer to tell whether this was in response to the pain he normally felt upon waking at his advanced age, or the impact of the overweight feline using its master to mitigate its descent from the bookcase. Donning leather slippers, he shuffled to a wall-mounted mirror above a wash basin where he regarded himself.

“Do I really look that old?” he asked his reflection. Dark circles surrounded his bright blue eyes and chronicled the strain of his recent efforts deciphering ancient, arcane texts. He had not slept in several days and hoped his sacrifice would bear fruit.

“Seyd’sbeard!” he exclaimed. “The past few weeks have been brutal…” He took a long, deep breath and stretched his octogenarian arms above his head. He reached for a gutta-percha hose descending from a conduit in the ceiling that led to a solar heated reservoir. Releasing a clamp, he allowed the hot water to fill the ceramic basin. It was the Ides of Aufgroonung. And such was the heat of the noonday sun the water was halfway to boiling. The old man scooped great handfuls and splashed his face. This seemed to restore him.

He took an empty tin cup and walked to a samovar; however, while on route, a sudden gust of wind knocked the papers off the center table, the paperweight failing to keep the vellum grounded. The parchments adopted fantastic trajectories, and in his haste to recover them, the old man tripped over a wicker basket, liberating a living tide of white mice. Excited by their newfound freedom, they fled in all directions, adding to the chaos.

“Shistra!” he swore.

            The wind rose in intensity, the old man’s anxiety close behind. Now he could see all the priceless documents soaring about the room.

“Fires of the Pit!” the senex cried. “Now these papers elude me in a different fashion! Vorus take them!” Moving as fast as his aged bones could tolerate, he scrambled after them, grumbling, “As if my calculations weren’t challenging enough, now I must chase after them too!”

As he scurried about the heptagonal room, he reproached himself for his folly. Years ago, he added a balcony to his knowledge-den atop the tower in which he lived. He thought it would provide a welcome vista for reflection, envisioning himself tutoring his page while simultaneously enjoying the weather. Unfortunately, he had not counted on the wind being so strong at this elevation. The balustrade surrounding the balcony, though charming and aesthetically pleasing, caused much turbulence under the right conditions. And the present turmoil testified to this phenomenon.

He was known throughout the land as the Great Sage, Gerrard Ragerius, a scholar and powerful wizard of great acclaim, well-liked and respected by all who knew him. And as often happens with celebrated people, he soon went by one name. Political power accompanied his fame and success, and with time, he was given a tract of land by the Emperor and enough money to finance the construction of his dream home, the Ivory Tower. Although made of polished limestone, the tower was nevertheless beautiful, and, at an impressive height of over two hundred feet, provided an ideal landmark for anyone traveling in the area. Each night a rooftop beacon was lit to symbolize the incessant search for truth and knowledge. Although austere on the inside, the structure was nonetheless envied by others, mostly other scholars, for success tends to breed jealousy in the hearts of men.

Ragerius was well-liked by the villagers, for he treated everyone with respect regardless of their financial or social situation. His thick white eyebrows framed intelligent eyes that were full of kindness, and his jovial nature was responsible for many of the wrinkles upon his face, adding to the ones generated through concentration and use of his keen mental faculties.

“Stanty, give me a hand!” implored Ragerius.

            “Coming, Father,” said a meek voice floating in from the adjoining stairwell. A flaxen-haired boy of twelve soon appeared by his side. He lived in the tower and assisted Ragerius with his studies and daily life. Orphaned at a young age when his parents were killed by Vanadian bandits, he was kindly taken into the custody of the Great Sage, and the two became family.

Ragerius pursued the elusive papers caught in the cruel currents. His eyes widened as he saw one paper in particular making its way to the balcony. Realizing the immediate danger, Stanton ran forward to block its escape. This minor catastrophe was not the first of its kind, and the boy had learned to be resourceful, even anticipating debacles such as this. Stanton snatched the paper from the air, and Ragerius sighed in relief. After a few heartbeats, all documents were accounted for.

            “Thank you, my son,” Ragerius panted. He sat on a stool to catch his breath and regarded the copious tomes on his bookshelf, many he had authored himself. It seemed hard to believe that it had been nearly fifty years since he first published his watershed thesis on Magical Dowsing. Back then, at the age of thirty, he had mastered such disciplines as medicine, astronomy, taxonomy, metallurgy, mathematics, and alchemy.

Recently, he had convinced Emperor Runcheon to release a collection of sacred documents that had been in the royal vaults for a thousand years. These documents were marked with the sword and crossed gauntlets of Seydor Kreigenschwert, the coat-of-arms of the first Emperor of Etruria, a man whose apotheosis made him into a god in his own right. Underneath the scarlet wax-seal, written in the hand of the dynastic father himself, was the title – The Forbidden Documents. The parcel was so revered that none had dared examine its contents. None had even offered, until now. Inertia had kept them intact for over a thousand years, for there was a superstitious fear that the Empire would crumble the day the seal was broken, and the contents revealed. The legend was justified by the ominous words on the cover, which read:

To Be Opened When Darkness Threatens the Land

Understandably, this caveat endowed the Forbidden Documents with a sinister quality, fueling the widely accepted belief that liberating the documents would unleash certain doom upon the kingdom. Nevertheless, Ragerius overcame this barrier, holding great influence over the royal family. Some argued too much. Long ago, he had treated Atheling Prince Janicus for a life-threatening disease, and ever since, enjoyed a seat at the Royal Court.

Ragerius justified breaking the seal by claiming the knowledge within would allow him to construct a history of the people. He assaulted the Emperor’s ears daily with the mantra “A people without a written history can hardly be expected to have an enlightened future.” Eventually, the monarch rewarded his obstinacy, and he was granted the singular honor of liberating the Forbidden Documents from their resting place deep within the archival vaults. A venerable mystery, the knowledge of who had placed them there, when, and why, had been forever lost to the sands of time.

Ragerius had hooted with joy when the Forbidden Documents were finally released to his care, and for three months he poured over their contents. No cataclysm ensued when he broke the seal on that fateful, stormy day in Offnung. Indeed, he was thankful for that. What he expected to find was some type of guidance, directions perhaps. Instead, what he discovered shocked him – a terrible prophecy – a prophecy that posed a threat to the entire world. Ragerius would come to rue that day, as henceforth he would know no peace, and a sense of urgency would constantly plague his thoughts. He knew the start of the Prophecy described in the documents was fast approaching.

       “What are you thinking?” asked Stanton.

Ragerius smiled. The boy had done his job admirably. Standing at the balcony, he had let none of the priceless papers escape. Ragerius was proud of him, a capable, trustworthy youth, yet he swore he would not allow his son to share the burden of the knowledge contained within the Forbidden Documents.

       "Nothing, my son. Merely that it was daft to build such a structure.” He cast a rueful glance at the balcony. “I don’t know what possessed me to build that. Especially without constructing a sound means of sealing it off. Sheer madness.”

       “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” offered the boy pleasantly.

       “Perhaps we can hang heavier curtains…”

The mice were still at liberty. Some wandered out to enjoy the sunlight. Others sought refuge behind the bookcase. Ragerius did not care; he was overjoyed at having recovered the important documents. All other considerations were of no consequence. He walked to the balcony and drew the curtains, securing them with rope.

       “Thank you again, my son,” praised Ragerius. “If those papers had escaped, all would have been lost, and I would not now be able to operate this device.” He pointed at something resembling a circular mirror propped in a darkened corner of the room. Handprints left behind in thick layers of dust were the only sign that the item had not been standing there undisturbed for centuries. Ominous and foreboding, every time Ragerius observed it, he could not help but shudder. And, at these moments, a fierce chill would invade his body. He had tried convincing himself that this visceral response was only due to his prejudiced foreknowledge that the device was once forged in Hell by the Dark One. However, deep down he knew his strong aversion was most likely caused by his own body’s natural reaction, a revulsion to the evil it contained. Powerful, dark magic had likely been employed when this relic had been created. And Ragerius found working in its presence at night troubling. Often as the moon approached its zenith, he could swear he heard voices chanting. Sometimes these incoherent articulations reached his ear, the words too faint to discern but sounding as if spoken in some long-forgotten tongue. Once when a moonbeam chanced to fall upon the mirror’s silvery surface at midnight, he heard a woman’s scream, a sustained shriek that would have chilled the marrow of even the most intrepid warrior. It seemed to approach from a great distance, searching, almost hunting him. Ragerius imagined the voice was an agonized appeal, reverberating throughout a vast network of canyons, searching for a savior. The apparent weakness and the plaintive nature of this potential cry for help grated upon his nerves. Ironically, he felt that a woman screaming standing right behind him would have been far less terrifying.

After this peculiar incident, Ragerius made a habit of taking his work elsewhere within the tower, avoiding his Knowledge-den at night whenever possible, especially at midnight when it was said the powers of darkness were most exalted. Superstitious nonsense, of course, but there was no use in allowing oneself to become unnecessarily distracted.

Despite the grime of ages hanging upon the artifact like a burial shroud, its surface nevertheless reflected images with perfect clarity. Precisely circular, the six-foot diameter was circumscribed by a ring of copper two handspans in width. Arcane symbols danced just inside this circumference engraved at regular intervals. Yet despite his best efforts, Ragerius could not identify the runes or the base metal used in their construction. If the device had ever intended to disguise itself as an actual mirror, it would have failed miserably, since all reflections from its surface bent images in bizarre ways. It was like looking into some blasphemous, alien dimension where Euclidean geometry no longer applied. Ragerius found this deeply disturbing, yet still justified his decision to proceed, believing that desperate times require drastic measures. Besides, he was willing to take risks. He just refused to take them with his son.

       "What is it?” asked Stanton.

       "The Scrying Pool of Clandestor … an artifact from antiquity. Born from an age before the dawn of man. Once believed the stuff of legends and lost to the sands of time, it now stands before us. It has been the bane of my existence and the subject of my labors these past few weeks. An evil and dangerous object …”

The boy’s eyes widened in wonder.

       “Stanty, I tell you these things for a reason,” Ragerius began, adopting his most serious expression. “You know I always appreciate your help…”

            “Yes,” the boy replied, shifting uneasily.

            “However, there are times when I must work alone.”

            Stanton frowned.

            “And for what I’m about to do, it is far too dangerous for you to be here. Normally, I allow you to sit and learn, as long as you are quiet. But today I must ask you to wait outside until the experiment is over.”

            Stanton sighed. Kicking his feet, he reluctantly left the room, latching the door behind him.

            That was too easy, Ragerius thought, stroking his beard. He knew his son could be obstinate and wished he had built the door with a lock. Too late now for such an afterthought. The knowledge that his son was safe for the moment was enough. He could mentally prepare himself for the challenges he would soon face.



 

Author Notes The Next Chapter in "The Stoneseekers."


Chapter 3
Ragerius Prepares for the Ritual

By duaneculbertson

Long had Ragerius labored for this moment, but now that the hour was at hand, he felt unsure. He was about to start a dangerous procedure, one never before attempted. As far as he knew, no scholar, occult theorist, or thrill-seeker of any kind had ever dared try what he was about to do. And the stakes had never been higher … for himself, and the world. But was he truly ready? Had he been diligent enough in his research? Had he cast his net sufficiently wide to gather all the information available that could possibly improve his chances? He could be risking his life foolishly. Perhaps even casting it away like an addicted gambler. Like the wretch who embraces a cavalier attitude before making the biggest bet of his life, oblivious towards the dire consequences of failure, else feigning ignorance concerning the gravity of his situation; a desperate man betting everything on a single, blind toss of the dice. He found this analogy especially condign, since scrupulously following every step of his makeshift procedure still did not guarantee his safety. At best, he anticipated his chances of success at four out of five. And he did not even dare to contemplate his chances of survival for the egregious case of finding himself in the unfavorable twenty percent category.

Like dew beading upon grass at dawn, perspiration gathered upon the wizard’s brow. Although not as hot as the surface of the tower blazing outside in the smoldering sun, the interior of the knowledge-den was nevertheless stifling. Ragerius wished he had spent more effort on his invention for the chilling of dwelling spaces, but that project was scrapped as soon as the Forbidden Documents crossed his desk. And in these dark times, how could he possibly consider his own comfort with the fate of the world at stake.

Ragerius hesitated. The relic was thousands of years old. Would it even work? He chided himself. Such a silly question. Of course, it would work. It was a divine creation from the Great Beyond. The Aether. The next world. The passing of a thousand years was but an instant to the makers of this device. Therefore, it stood to reason that such a device would last millennia. He sighed and promised himself to banish all other lingering doubts from hiding amongst the legitimate concerns occupying his brain.

 He was ready to proceed. Yet given the monumental significance of this moment, he thought it appropriate to reflect on the chain of events that brought him here. Afterall, he had waited months for this moment, what were a few additional minutes now?

 
The epiphany that a great darkness threatened the land was his first step into the abyss that would become his obsession. The fact that it took him so long to arrive at this conclusion shocked him in retrospect, as the signs were all around. Last year, an outrageous number of women gave birth to deformed babies, an unprecedented occurrence in their recorded history. And tales of strange creatures roaming the countryside were no longer dismissed as mischievous lies of foolish children or yarns spun by addled crones. Instead, they led to serious discussions in the public houses, town squares, and meeting halls throughout the kingdom.

It was not surprising then that the man considered the Empire’s chief scholar was asked to share his opinions and officially weigh in on what these strange happenings could mean. And as these concerns began to pile up, myriad questions intruded upon Ragerius’ thoughts, plaguing his waking hours, and holding any chance of sleep hostage.

Why have the Dark Cults resurfaced to threaten our peace? Why do our people preoccupy themselves with their ancient blasphemies? Why would they incur such risks? They know an ignominious death awaits if they are caught worshipping a Dark Lord. Even speaking those terrible names is a crime!

Whatever the reasons, Ragerius knew they did not bode well for the Empire, nor humanity. By way of his careful contemplations, he arrived at a grave resolution: he would pledge his life to protect the Realm at all costs. He put actions to his oath, drafting a letter to the Emperor, warning the monarch of the impending danger. Aware that knowledge would be crucial for the coming conflict, the Great Sage endeavored to glean every shard of meaning from each line in the Forbidden Documents, pondering each phrase for hidden messages, delving into subtext, and divining new significance from words he had once considered empty.

Ragerius perused other ancient texts as well, spending entire days laboring in his knowledge-den. No knowledge too abstruse for consideration. No reference too archaic. Of some comfort, Ragerius had the full support of Emperor Runcheon who allowed him unlimited access to the archival vaults whenever he pleased. And his endeavors proved time well spent, for Ragerius learned the existence of a device possessing great powers of prognostication, the Scrying Pool of Clandestor. Using his keen intellect and vast knowledge of history and geography, he derived the exact location of the eldritch artifact and commissioned a capable explorer to retrieve it.

Upon its recovery, Ragerius was deeply troubled by the symbols inscribed upon its surface, the esoteric emblems crediting the creation of the device to the Dark Lords. The idea of using an implement forged by the enemy was manifestly repugnant to him, but he forced himself to swallow his aversion. Progress had to be made. And risks had to be taken.

Now, propped against the wall, the Scrying Pool of Clandestor waited for Ragerius to call it to life. It would have to wait a little longer though. He still needed to prepare.

Using myriad palimpsests and grimoires, the Great Sage pieced together what he believed to be the correct procedure for operating the device. He had checked all the links in his chain of reasoning, and all were sound. First, the scrying pool had to be awakened using proper spell ingredients and by uttering the correct phrases at the right times. Excited, he glanced over at his workbench to make sure all the items were prepared. All were. This was important, since scrupulous precision would be required for the ritual, and its success would depend upon the quality and purity of his reagents.

Atop the primary lab bench, an emerald fluid bubbled within a glass retort, the curved end tapering to a point where a collection flask gathered the distillate. The flame of an oil lamp bathed an elevated ceramic crucible upon which the retort nested, allowing for a gentle transfer of heat.

Wooden shelves housed mysterious jars containing solutions. Cochineal, indigo, and other dyes, extracts from flora and fauna, stood at attention in glass vials as well. Clever isolation techniques had allowed Ragerius to collect organic acids: formic from ants, valeric from cheese, caproic from goat fat, citric from lemons, and acetic from the oxidation of alcohol in the wine from the neighboring vineyard.

Heavily stained by mineral acids and caustic solutions, the soapstone counter where he conducted his experiments chronicled the mage’s efforts at alchemy. A rusty pump drew cold water from a well below the Ivory Tower, while hot water flowed from the gutta-percha hose linking the knowledge den with the solar-heated reservoir at the tower’s zenith.

A forge and an oven lined one wall. Bellows crafted from the lungs of a whale served to keep the former sufficiently hot for the forging of metals. The Great Sage had performed the taxidermy of this exotic item himself, ensuring the tool was well-preserved and durable.

A sophisticated manifold clung to another wall, the unique device allowing for the storage of gasses. Ragerius made this too, taking great pains to employ glass-blowing techniques to form the intricate structure.

All things considered, the lab-portion of the knowledge den was well conceived, unlike the balcony, which had been an afterthought to an otherwise sound design.

The Ivory Tower was strategically placed, resting atop the intersection of meridians of power, natural lines of flux encircling the planet. Ragerius had employed his magical dowsing techniques to locate the auspicious place where multiple meridians crossed, forcing the dwarven builder to break ground at that precise location, regardless of it being smack in the middle of a creek. Fierce grumblings ensued, the builder arguing that his reputation and livelihood were at stake, and more silver had to flow generously before any work was done. Ragerius smiled. A fond memory to be sure. And yet, he knew he needed to focus. He could not allow his thoughts to wander further. The coming procedure would require all his skill and concentration. He turned his attention to the next step in the process.

        “A wizard must be bold, yet cautious,” he murmured.

The Great Sage finished collecting the distillate from the retort. He blocked all negativity and doubt from entering his thoughts, fearing such factors could adversely affect his calculations. After weeks of preparation, a hearty breakfast, and an extra-long nap, he was finally ready to awaken the device.

Ragerius began by filling a mortar with chunks of limestone. Drawing a dagger across his palm, he winced, allowing drops of blood to penetrate the white mineral. Using a pestle, he ground the mixture into a fine, red powder, then placed it inside a mold before moving it into an oven for baking at moderate temperature. He bandaged his hand to stanch the bleeding, then paused once again to wipe the sweat from his brow. He consulted a parchment, perusing its details while he waited.

A few minutes later, he returned to the oven for the enchanted chalk he would require for the awakening of the scrying pool. Allowing the mold to cool a moment, he extracted the chalk. As far as he could tell, it looked fine.

Placing the scrying pool flat upon the flagstone floor of the knowledge-den, Ragerius scratched blood-red symbols at seventy-two-degree intervals around the perimeter. He shuddered as he did this, knowing full well that the arcane runes he copied from the parchment were taken from a language created by none other than Kanavorus himself, the Dark One.

Using a cloth, the Great Sage dabbed his brow one last time before discarding his notes upon a side table. Reaching behind him, he grabbed a jar of quicksilver and poured its contents upon the scrying pool. Spreading his arms high, he recited an invocation using Old Etrurian in a sonorous voice with a level of confidence he did not entirely feel. At present, the pool looked no different from any mirror, and he saw his own worried features reflected from its shiny surface, albeit distorted. Ragerius had been relieved when the ancient sources had said nothing about polishing the metal surface before adding the mercury; he wished to avoid touching the evil thing as much as possible ever since that fateful night when he first heard the voices.

With the absence of any visual change, Ragerius did not know if the spoken words had actually done anything. It was possible they were just ceremony, but he dared not deviate from the ancient protocols. Any omission or embellishment could prove fatal. Even a phrase recited incorrectly could spell disaster. Although he felt sure no human had ever used the Scrying Pool of Clandestor, others had used similar scrying pools throughout history. Most had perished through misadventure by failing to take the proper precautions or by omitting a key spell ingredient. Such tragedies were largely undocumented, since few could stomach chronicling the ghastly details. Often only burnt cinders and charred remains gave proof that anything untoward had happened or that such a device had ever existed at all.

The Great Sage went to his chemical cabinet, which housed his most dangerous mineral acids, their high viscosity testifying to their potency. Attaching a sheep’s bladder to a thin glass rod, he sucked out an aliquot and emptied it into a crucible. Now the vessel was half filled with Aqua Regia, the golden, viscous fluid commanding great respect from the mage, who had once been horribly burned in his early days of alchemy.

With gloved hands, Ragerius poured the solution into a groove upon the device. The metal crackled and hissed, and vapors sublimed to choke the air, as the fluid reacted with its surface. The rivulet of acid crept forward, gaining speed as it negotiated the perimeter and entered a tortuous network of finer channels. This cleared them of oxidation, a crucial step in activating the scrying pool.

Next, the Great Sage knelt to pick up a ceramic crucible set aside for the ritual. It contained a thick, ochre fluid, the ingredient evolving caustic fumes that stung the wizard’s eyes. Leaning forward, he decanted the contents, adding them to the center of the pool. Bubbles formed, bursting violently. He stepped back, grateful for his floor-length, cream-colored robe, which had done its job well, absorbing the splash-back from the tumultuous mixture.

The pool congealed an instant before regaining fluidity. A color resembling blackened blood rose to the surface before the matter within began to swirl, the vortex it formed slightly hypnotic. Ragerius shook his head to clear this addling effect and recognized that this was his cue. He began to recite his carefully memorized phrases, articulating each word with a level of attention perfectly natural for someone whose life depended on their correct pronunciation.

        “Excitare magna oculus! Summoto iter ad futurum, et revelare!"

These incantations would finalize the awakening of the device and bring it under his control. He did not hesitate, for the timing was crucial. A moment too early or to late would spell his demise.

A sudden movement violated his peripheral vision, seizing his attention: a mouse! Scurrying frightfully close to the scrying pool, the rodent threatened everything. To his horror, Ragerius realized this foolish oversight could cost him his life. Beads of sweat blossomed upon his brow and his heart thrashed desperately against his chest.

If that animal disturbs the sigils before the ritual is complete, I am undone!

This startling realization momentarily halted his progress, and he had to make a violent effort to control himself. He could not stop what he was doing, else risk unleashing certain doom, perhaps even reducing the Ivory Tower to rubble. In a twist of irony, Ragerius wished Stanty was with him.

The boy could so easily solve this problem with just a free pair of hands.

Ragerius returned to reciting his phrases. His eyes were like anxious daggers as they continued to track the progress of the mouse as it approached the scrying pool. Ten feet. Six. An arm’s length. A rivulet of sweat edged down his face, yet he dared not check its journey; he still held his arms aloft to maintain a sign of the Evil One. Despair began to settle, drooping his shoulders. When an inspiration stuck! He need not keep his entire body in this position! The thought barely had time to form in his brain before he reacted. He hopped to his right and kicked the ceramic crucible lying at his feet. It clattered just behind the mouse, yet the action succeeded in scaring it. Skittering away, it fled behind the bookcase, and the Great Sage exhaled with visible relief; however, he could not fully relax. Until he completed the ceremony, his life was still in peril, possibly all their lives. Chanting in a deep voice with an intensity one would not expect in a man his age, the wizard spread his arms wide and made the sign of the jackal. The gesture, a symbol of Kanavorus, filled him with loathing, yet failing to do so would have dire consequences.

The mirror-like surface gave way, revealing an empty blackness. It was now a portal allowing a spectator to see into another world, another dimension. Strictly speaking, the theorists of the present age, including Ragerius, would refer to it as an interdimensional space, a place neither Realm nor Aether, merely somewhere in between.

Ragerius allowed himself a smile. Lowering his arms, he breathed a deep sigh of relief. He had control of this extraordinary device before him. He wondered what it would show him.

Just then he heard a creak at the door.

        “Stanty!” Ragerius shouted. “I told you not to come in here!”

To view the strange proceedings, the boy had cracked the door, and the rusty hinges had betrayed him.

        “I’m sorry, Master,” the boy replied with downcast eyes. “I feared for you.”

        “You’re a headstrong fool!” snapped Ragerius. “Do you have any idea what would have happened had you opened that door and disturbed me before I had finished?”

        “No,” the lad said dejectedly.

        “Neither do I … But most likely we would have been killed.”

        “I’m sorry,” said the boy. “I was worried for you. I just wanted to see what was happening. I never intended to enter. I only wanted to be sure you were okay.”

        Ragerius softened. “Well, you’d better come in.”     

Stanton’s face lit up; he hurried over to gaze into the portal.



















 


Chapter 4
Ragerius Uses the Scrying Pool

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

            Ragerius softened. “Well, you’d better come in.”        
            Stanton’s face lit up; he hurried over to gaze into the portal.
            “You’ve come at the right time, Stanty. The danger is past, and now we have the fascinating power of this device at our service.”
            “How does it work?”

            “Since I awakened it; the device must obey my commands.”

            Stanton’s eyes widened, a broad smile settling upon his face.

Ragerius had planned to use the scrying pool to reveal the locations of the stones hidden throughout the Realm. Such information would provide an overwhelming advantage for the forces of Good. They would not need to decipher the cryptic, enigmatic Prophecy; they could simply follow the landmarks revealed by the visions. And since the stones would not have awakened to emit their signals, the enemy would be forced to decode the Prophecy if they wished to search for them ahead of time. Many would be disguised and not even resemble stones. For the moment, though, Ragerius wanted a broader view.

       “Show me the Contest Endgame!” he shouted. “Show me the fate of the Empire!” 

With dizzying speed, images swept past the pool’s surface. Visions inundated the wizard’s brain, the sights searing into his memory at a frightful pace. It felt like he was viewing the fate of all humanity, revealed in one stunning instant. A thousand images raced past in the first moment, and a thousand more would likely follow.

Ragerius sank to his knees, buckling under the psychic strain. His mouth gaped, gasping for air, and he clutched his chest, his nails digging into his skin beneath his cloak. The horrible visions depicted pain, heartache, and misery. Slaughtered armies, the broken bodies of once proud men, lay scattered across battlefields, hideous beasts feasting upon the freshly dead or dying. Elsewhere, an appalling number of warriors, some mere children in tattered rags, fell before unspeakable abominations, forming artificial lakes from their blood.

Festering fens of decay dotted the landscape, blossoming amongst poisoned cities reduced to rubble. Countless towns and villages burned. Likewise, farms with arable tracks of land were laid to waste. Anyone who dared to resist was immediately put to the sword by eldritch warriors clad in black, shiny armor, darker than the blackest soot. In the land of mountains and hills, fearsome demons enslaved children, forcing them to dig ores and haul minerals from crudely constructed mines, working them to death in the process.

Much to his horror, Ragerius realized he could not escape these visions; he clamped his eyes shut, but the visions kept coming. He watched as panic-stricken refugees fled from nightmarish monstrosities. In vain, they ran, only to be chased down, torn asunder, and devoured by their four-legged pursuers. In the Border Lands, he watched diseased citizens allowed to roam the wilderness, half-mad and deranged. While in other parts of the Empire, blasphemous things, demons perhaps, held down women, violating them in obscene ways for their amusement and gratification, else for some darker, nefarious purpose.

Ragerius swallowed hard as he recognized his Ivory Tower lying in ruins, the broken white stones scorched and blackened with soot. To his horror, he saw Glendor Forest, and tears sprang to his eyes as he watched it burn. Multiple millennia’s worth of growth would be gone in a matter of hours. Trees that had stood taller than clouds for thousands of years were now in the process of being reduced to nothing more than lurid matchsticks. Enormous flames hungrily lapped at the groves, engulfing them completely; none were spared. Frightened animals fled in terror, displaced from their burning homes, as smoke billowed into the sky, blocking out the sun, and plunging the world into a state of perpetual darkness.

Was there no end to these atrocities, these abominations, these ghastly visions?

Staggering, his brain fought for control,

            “Abscidio!” the mage cried.

The images ceased and the pool’s surface went blank. The residual anguish and mental strain had left Ragerius panting like a wounded animal; he thought he might be sick. He tried to make sense of what he had seen, but it was difficult to even think. Perhaps it was enough to have survived the ordeal. A sharp, piercing pain rose in his chest, prompting him to take long, deliberate breaths. He would probably never forget those images. Some had been seared into his brain forever. And some would likely serve as the fodder of nightmares for years to come. Most would haunt him for the rest of his life, and, judging by what he had seen, that might not be long.

        “Horrible!” he gasped. He regarded Stanton; the boy was nearly catatonic with fright, an unhealthy pallor invading his features.

        “Fetch some water!” Ragerius ordered. “Drink three cups and pour me a fourth! Add mint and a boiling stone to mine. Now, go!”

Mechanically, Stanty obeyed. Ragerius knew assigning the boy a familiar task would offer temporary refuge from the ordeal he had just suffered. He hoped there would be no permanent mental scarring and reproached himself for having been so foolish as to allow his son to witness the ill-fated experiment.

Destruction on such a grand scale he would never have thought possible. And as he fought to recall and catalogue his observations, his heart filled with sorrow. The Empire, the great bastion of humanity, lay in ruins. How could he survive in such a world? Would he even want to? Perhaps it would be better to perish with the untold thousands. He wondered if what he had seen was really the fate of humanity. Was there still time to alter this projection?

Such a cognitive tidal wave! Never have my mental faculties been so taxed! There must be another way to harness the power of this device. I will find it! There is too much at stake!

Ragerius suspected it would be necessary to employ mental filters to prevent the scrying pool from overwhelming him again when he used it next. Since he had no means of designing such hypothetical filters, he decided he would try to adjust the scope and pace of the device. Perhaps he could bring it down from its divine settings to something more reasonable for a human to digest.

Consciousness, an uncharted frontier, was not unknown to Ragerius. A pioneer in the field, he had written several papers discussing the topic. He appreciated the fact that no scholar had yet to scratch its surface or plumb the mysteries it contained. The waters he fathomed were largely philosophical. One of the central tenets of his work postulated that the human mind used filters to block perceptions, allowing one to focus on the important issues at hand.

        “Think about it,” he would tell his students. “How much would you get done if you were constantly aware of your socks? The feel of your feet in your boots? We need mental filters. Otherwise, we would be constantly inundated with our own perceptions. According to my calculations, we process very little information, compared to the wealth of sensory data available.”

Stanton approached, handing his father a steaming, earthenware mug. Ragerius noticed the boy’s ruddy complexion had returned. He seemed alert and ready to continue. Hopefully, his adjustments would make the scrying pool safe for his son’s viewing. Ragerius decided this most recent debacle would serve as a teachable moment – don’t be afraid to try something again just because the first time didn’t work. A lesson in perseverance.

Ragerius took a few sips of the steaming beverage before returning to the device.

        “Tempus moderato,” he said with confidence.

A point of light sprang from the center of the device and grew until it filled the entire oculus, offering an eagle’s view of the Realm. Gradually, the image centered on a flat-topped pyramid in the middle of a desert. War on a vast scale raged all around. Several armies of men clashed with nameless horrors, fighting with vicious intensity. When the view narrowed, it centered upon a single mercenary burdened by heavy armor. She carried no sigils or markings upon her gear, unaffiliated with any party present. As she climbed the steep stone steps, a breeze tousled her long orange hair. Her peculiar gait and facial features suggested she was dwarven, albeit on the taller side.

        “That’s the Oracle!” Ragerius exclaimed. “I’ve been there!”

        "What does it mean?” asked Stanton.

        "I don’t know. I presume this battle has something to do with the end of the Contest. Perhaps the Endgame.”

The two privileged spectators could observe almost every detail. It was like omnipresence. So true, so real was the experience, they swore they could even feel the fierce heat of the desert sun reflected off the fine, white sand.

        “Let’s watch carefully, Stanty,” whispered Ragerius. “We don’t want to miss a thing. Perhaps we’ll learn why this woman is so important.”

The Great Sage felt foolish suddenly, unsure why he had whispered to his son. They were alone in the Ivory Tower, and it was unlikely those they watched could see or hear them.


A fierce battle raged. Demons appeared to rend the very heavens, pouring through a fissure to blacken the sky with their obscene number. Dark wings and even darker faces screamed their hatred, their red, soulless eyes promising no mercy. Bursts of flame blossomed everywhere amongst blood-red clouds, and the air shook with concussions. Angels riding giant bird-like creatures circled and jinked throughout the skies seeking prey or fleeing pursuit. Below, armies on the ground swarmed over hot sands. A standard bearing the sword and crossed gauntlets fell to the ground where it was trampled by clawed, webbed feet under an unforgiving sun, the standard-bearer suffering a far worse fate, adding his screams to the chorus, as his arms were torn from their sockets by some ghastly behemoth.

Black beasts bounded into tightly packed ranks of men, savaging all those who stood in their way. Like ragdolls, bodies sailed through the air in multiple directions with gravity-defying ease, the heavily armored knights careening off those not yet engaged, the latter falling back like dominos into those behind, forcing the living to struggle under the weight of the dying encased in their hot, heavy armor. Many screamed. Pinned under their slain brethren, they could do nothing but watch as the beasts stalked forward to crush their skulls in their powerful jaws, the presence of helmets a mere annoyance. 

Nothing the men did seemed to help; the hides of the beasts were too thick to be pierced by spear alone. Once in a great while, amongst the legions on the battlefield, the concerted efforts of men timing their sword thrusts would bring down one of these creatures, and, on these occasions, a roar of triumph would rise above the din. But these events were few and far between. More common was the sight of men falling by the dozen, their blood spilling with appalling ease, the woeful outcome of an overwhelming force meeting feeble resistance.

On another part of the battlefield, an army of horrors clad in jet-black armor crested a hill. Blasphemous scarlet symbols blazed upon their pauldrons and shields. Most brandished heavy axes. They blew horns announcing their presence. Like grim harbingers of death, these stentorian blasts sapped the will of their prey. Knees of men buckled. Some whimpered or cried. The resolve of those daring to resist waned, and even the composure of the most famous of heroes evaporated like the sweat upon their faces. With despair, these men gaped in terror, as they watched the fiendish knights marching towards them, advancing as if backed by the inevitability of destiny, like the crashing of a giant wave. Appearing more spectral than physical, they bore their heavy armor like feathers, and seemed forged from solid metal with nothing inside, moving forward as if animated by malice alone. Their numbers could not easily be counted, their ranks stretching far back into the desert dunes, as far as the eye could see.

All around, the air thickened with the roar of battle. Explosions perforated the harsh din of metal striking metal, and the softer report of metal slicing flesh. None of the doomed men could escape the despairing cries of their dying comrades born aloft upon a forlorn wind, a terrible dirge for those still living.

The whole world seemed to have converged upon the Oracle. No order remained. All was chaos. The enemy broke through the imperial forces, dividing them. Before long, they had them outflanked as well. As the fight unraveled, a pall of despair settled over the remaining men, perhaps realizing they were trapped in an inescapable quagmire of hopeless oblivion. Many wheeled about in terror upon learning they were surrounded. Frantically looking for a place to flee, they froze, rooted in place like trees.

At this point, even the most stalwart officers fell to their knees, and few were able to resist the urge to panic. New recruits, green to the horrors of war, went mad with fright. Besieged on all sides with no places to hide, many dug holes in the ground and smothered themselves rather than face the mind-shattering terror.

A giant Timeglass hovered far above, indifferent to the massive conflict. The upper chamber appeared nearly empty, the scarlet grains slipping away into the lower chamber like a great waterfall of rust. Occasionally, a winged creature would fly too close to this chronometer and a brilliant flash of light would obliterate the transgressor.

A woman wearing a silver hauberk paused to catch her breath. She struggled to ascend the stairs leading to the platformed summit, her orange hair sprouting beneath a pot helm. Powerfully built, with large, muscular legs, she grimaced as blood pumped from an open wound, the weeping gash soaking her greaves and leaving a trail marking her progress up the steep ascent. With one arm she struggled for purchase; in the other, she held something of great value, for she clutched it tightly to her chest.

A winged beast landed on the platform above her. Mere feet away, it spewed fire over the precipice. The woman pulled a shield from her back, placing it over her head just in time to divert the fiery deluge flowing past. Twisting around, her eyes went wide as she looked at something just out of view. She screamed a name.

* * * * * * *
The unfolding drama was terrifying. Ragerius could not make out what the woman had said. “Who is she? And what does she have to do with the Prophecy?” he whispered. Stanton remained silent. And the two continued to gaze into the pool. The surface grew cloudy once again, and blood-red smoke swirled before another vision appeared.
* * * * * * *

This time the image was of a forest. Gradually, the device restricted its scope centering itself deep within a grove. Tall trees scrolled past as the view narrowed with a simultaneous jump in its magnification.
 
            “Look at the size of those trees, Stanty,” Ragerius whispered. “It must be Glendor Forest. Only the oldest trees in the Realm could grow that large. And who is that charming woman?”

Judging by her pointed ears, a young elf woman sat at a long table in a forest clearing. A feast had been laid out, and a celebration was about to take place. On wooden platters fruit and nuts were piled high. Cheeses sat upon others. Earthenware pitchers sat at the ready with water and wine, and one glass decanter held milk of some kind. Light and dark breads protruded from baskets. And although daylight, an elegant candelabra of earth-toned candles stood burning at the center of the table.

Robed men sat beside her, most of them elderly. Affectionate smiles and congratulatory greetings were exchanged. A deer strode from the forest and appeared at the elf’s side, nuzzling her arm for attention. She stroked its head while she spoke with one of the men. The squirrels and birds seemed to take notice as well, abandoning their foraging to perch in trees and watch.

Twelve men came to sit at the table. Many brought gifts for the woman. Most were handcrafted. Some were ornamental, such as a pendant, while others were functional, like an ocarina. She blew into the latter, said something, and everyone laughed.

The eldest man stood and raised a glass. The others followed his lead. Cheers sounded throughout the forest, and even a few animals lent their calls and songs. A slight blush passed over the woman’s face. Beaming with pride, she stood with the men and said a few words. When she sat, the feast began.
* * * * * * *

This happy, hopeful image was lost, and the Scrying Pool once again went dark. Ragerius stared in amazement, wondering what image would appear next. As before, he could not hear what people had said. Whatever it was appeared welcoming and friendly, as opposed to threatening and hostile.  The two scenes revealed by the pool could not have been more different.
Stanton appeared happy as he regarded his father, knowing only too well how hard the old man had worked for this moment.  Awakening the device had taken nearly a fortnight of careful preparation, and it had been just weeks since its recovery by Jordan Cartwright.. He turned back to watch the pool, intrigued by the swirling smoke, wondering how the billowing skeins were confined to the flat surface.

        “It grows cold,” whispered Ragerius. The old man looked as if he had just made an unpleasant discovery. The Great Sage noticed his breath misting before his eyes. What could it mean? Energy was being sucked from the room. But why? And how? With rising fear, he motioned his son to back away.

Stanton said nothing as he retreated to the periphery, but the fear he felt was mirrored on the old man’s face. In all the time he had known him, the boy had never seen this expression. No doubt, in the apotheosis of his father, Stanton considered fear an impossible, inaccessible emotion for the wise and powerful wizard. Now it was clear he had been wrong, and the normally unflappable Ragerius appeared much shaken. The sight terrified the boy.

With sudden violence, the device sprang to life, crackling with electricity. A cacophony split the air, the ear-grating groans like the shearing of metal. Ragerius stammered as he watched the device rise from the floor and pivot to face him. He saw his own astonished features reflected in the arcing copper trim. Then, it began to rotate clockwise, gaining speed by the second. The terrible noises were replaced by a dull roar like the rush of a great waterfall.  

        “This is not supposed to happen!” screamed Ragerius, baffled by the forces animating the evil object.

A blast of wind burst forth, knocking him off his feet. This new circumstance was of monumental importance, because it meant the portal was no longer just a viewing screen – it had become a gateway to another world, another dimension. Before it was not possible for one world to interact with the other. Now the rules had changed.

The inexplicable, unnatural cold continued to penetrate the room. The old man’s bones felt leaden, his veins ice. He managed to stand despite feeling as if some unseen force was sucking the life from him. His arthritic joints throbbed, cruelly forced to adapt to this new environment. Just a few feet away, the surface of the Ivory Tower blazed in the summer heat, providing an ironic contrast to the interior of the knowledge den, which suffered conditions tantamount to an artic chill.

An ominous darkness smothered the room, blocking out peripheral sources of light; all the while a mysterious glow pulsed from the portal. A shimmering image began to form, like millions of scintillating crystals coalescing into one aggregate form. It reminded Ragerius of wind stirring the surface of a sunlit pond. Unexpectedly, an eerie silence fell, more terrifying than the unpleasant sounds before. The Great Sage balled out commands, but he could not even hear his own voice. It was as if the air refused to propagate vibrations.

Ice crystals formed on the floor, but such was the intensity of the moment, Ragerius did not even notice his frostbitten feet. Nor did he acknowledge icicles forming on his beard, growing denser by the minute. Then the whispers came.

Disturbing in their bizarre articulations, the voices seemed to presage the arrival of a great power. His skin tingled and his stomach felt as if it were trying to digest a stone. Ranging in octaves and cadence, some of the noises sounded like insects. Others reminded him of rocks falling from a mountain pass to form scree. He deemed the eldritch phonetics lingually impossible for a human voice, further thrilling him with terror. As the sibilant sounds reached his ear, not a word could he relate, though the message was clear: a malevolent force or malignant agent approached.

Aware of his rising fear, Ragerius focused on a single thought, a mantra to offer comfort in the growing darkness – Reason conquers Madness.  He repeated the phrase over and over. It was all he could do. Yet despite this precaution, the chains holding his reason buckled under the strain, threatening to release him over the dark abyss. The concatenation of facts, proven truths, and tested beliefs, which had sustained him so well throughout his life were breaking, the rusty links yielding to the indisputable power before him, mocking his reality and proving that the impossible was possible.

An invasive paralysis penetrated the little left of his rational brain. A plan was out of the question now; he had not the strength to formulate one. With a frenetic heart thrashing against his chest, he watched a shadowy figure approach. Its features were indistinct, but it would soon be upon him. He felt as if he were being stalked by some hideous beast, a doom-bringer hailing from some unfathomed depths of darkness. Ragerius suppressed a shriek, as something resembling a face loomed before him. Glowing eyes burned with intelligent fury, and a wicked smile crossed its lupine features. It was a creature from another world, another dimension.

And it had found him!

Author Notes Is Ragerius the worst father in the world? Please answer yes or no, I'm taking a poll. :)


Chapter 5
A Most Unwelcome Visitor

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

        “What have I done?” stammered Ragerius. Then, as if waking from a dream, he called to Stanton, mobilized by the terrible fear that harm could possibly come to the boy, the person he cared for most in the world.

        “Get out of here!” the old man screamed.

    “No,” replied the boy. “I’m not leaving you!”

    “Stanton Ragerius! Leave at once! That’s an order! Don’t come back under any circumstance!”

Hearing his proper name, so rarely spoken, Stanton sprang to action.

        “I love you father,” he said. “Seydor be with you!”   

Stanton fled the room, latching the door behind him. Ragerius derived some comfort from having sent his son to a position of relative safety; however, this tranquility was short-lived, as a deep, sinister laugh filled the room. Turning to regard the source, a smoldering gaze arrested his attention. From the other side of the portal, a terrible beast transfixed him with cruel, fiery eyes. The phantom fiend gnashed its ivory teeth, retracting its lips to enhance  the feral, threatening gesture. Bone-yellow spires, like those of a conical gastropod, jutted from the back of its head, twisting their way upwards. Gray fur covered its head, muscular arms, and shoulders, partially concealing its mottled skin, the color of eggplants and olives. Visually-confounding, it shimmered when it moved, as if cloaked by some sinister umbrage.

Not well-versed in demon-lore, Ragerius was certain the horrible thing before him was none other than Kanavorus. And only with the utmost discipline was he able to stifle a shriek of terror.

        “The Dark One,” he whispered.

Amused by either the naïve presumption or the frail appearance of its prey, the creature laughed with contempt.

        “Fool!” it spat. “Were I the Dark One, you would not so easily hold your bowels! Of course, it is fitting for you to cower in my presence.”

Ragerius was paralyzed; he could do nothing. He could barely even speak.

        “Did you really believe,” mocked the demon, “that you could use a scrying pool crafted by the hands of the Great One himself without us learning of your folly? You must be either very brave … or very stupid."

        "What … what do you want?” stammered the old man.

        “I want what my master wants … Power!” The last word was roared with such ferocity that Ragerius shuddered, prompting the demon to sneer. “Our destiny is ineluctable! Our arrival, well-planned. Our forces, unstoppable! You primitive simians ignorantly sit atop vast quantities of precious ores and minerals. These, we shall take for ourselves. And that is just the beginning! Our demons shall enter the Realm to claim what is rightfully ours; for possessions are not for the weak – they are the spoils of the strong.”

A flicker of anger restored Ragerius. The image of humans enslaved and worked to death for the mining of minerals was too much to take. As long as there was blood in his veins, he would not allow it.

        "Fiend!” he challenged. “Your thesis is false. Might does not make right! By embracing such ideology, you follow in the footsteps of all past empires doomed to fail. Love. Charity. Respect. Justice. These are the pillars with which to build the foundation of a successful empire. It matters little though, for I shall see you never get the chance to learn from that lesson."

The demon released a low growl, a token of simmering anger Ragerius knew must presage an imminent, violent response. Nevertheless, he continued voicing his defiance. “You are wrong to think you can take this world! Mankind will never placidly bear the yoke of your oppression! For we are made of stronger stuff! Indeed! You will find us a most obstinate and worthy foe. And I will do my part to thwart your efforts. Even if it costs me my life!”

        “Easily arranged!” the demon snarled. With an outstretched claw, it released a blast of emerald light that struck Ragerius in the chest and sent him careening backwards to crash against the bookcase, liberating tomes from the overstuffed shelves in the process. The old man saw white flashes appear before his eyes. A few books pelted him, but he barely noticed, his head already swimming in a world of pain and confusion. Almost unconscious, he felt himself raised above the flagstones by an invisible force, taking no pains to be gentle. 

Ragerius winced as his arms were crushed against his sides, and his lungs fought to draw in more oxygen. Hovering a few feet above the ground, he faced his terrible enemy. 

        “What are you doing?” he groaned.

        “Foolish man,” replied the demon. 

Ragerius screamed. All the joints in his body were slowly dislocating. The popping, crunching noises and the sudden agony brought on waves of nausea. And as he started to lose consciousness again, a sickening reality dawned: he was as helpless as a beetle lying on its back, and he would probably never survive this ordeal, as there was little hope of extracting mercy from such a creature.

        “Oh, don’t pass out on me yet,” mocked the demon. “No such relief. Nor will I allow you the luxury of death. We still have much to discuss.” 

Buffeting Ragerius with blasts of hot air, the demon revived the old man, looking upon him with a mixture of contempt and amusement.

        “It is only by an exception in the rules that you come to know of the Prophecy,” stated the demon. “For it is forbidden for any god to inform his followers of the Contest ahead of time. However, Seydor – curse his meddlesome hide! – was granted special permission to return to the Realm and leave literature that would help humanity in its time of need. This was done to restore a proper balance to the Contest, and, although my master protested, this action proceeded as planned. As a stipulation, Seydor was forced to leave explicit language below his seal to dissuade future generations from accessing the knowledge prematurely. As I understand, those documents sat in a vault for a thousand years, until you had the audacity to open them with your brash arrogance.”

Fear crept into the Great Sage’s eyes. Fear followed by doubt, then trailed by a glimmer of hope. The demon laughed, as if relishing the opportunity to break his captive’s spirit. 

        “Our spies are worth their weight in gold,” it boasted. “They are everywhere! Whether Realm or Aether we are always well-informed.” The demon’s face adopted a look of triumph, gloating over its inevitable, perceived victory. Surveying the heptagonal room, its eyes gleamed as they came to rest upon a stack of yellowed papers on the center table. Its contemptuous gaze became a cruel smile.

        “I congratulate you on finding … the Forbidden Documents,” the demon spat, mocking the last words by which the important papers came to be known. With a quick twist of the wrist, the demon animated the ancient scrolls. Whipping through the air, they raced towards the portal to the surface of the boundary between the two dimensions. Upon impact, the priceless documents burst into flames. 

        “Noooo!!” screamed Ragerius. 

The demon laughed, as it watched the embers fall to the floor where they continued to smolder.

        “You have courage,” it continued. “I will not begrudge you that. But you will pay a heavy price for using our machine.” The demon paused, favoring Ragerius with an ironic smile. “On the other hand, had you not used it, I would not have this opportunity now to enter the Realm with my forces.”

        “What do you mean?” asked Ragerius, his heart filling with dread.

        “By operating this device, you have invited me into the Realm. It is one of the universal laws established long ago by the Nameless One.” The demon laughed, its booming voice reverberating throughout the room.

        “No!” screamed Ragerius. “You lie!”

        “Yes!” mocked the demon. “All thanks to you … you have opened a tunnel, a gateway to our domain. I suppose I should be more grateful.”

The demon made a gesture with one of its claws, and Ragerius howled, as his joints adopted their original positions.

The demon laughed. “What is your name?”

Ragerius floated in the air, saying nothing.

        “Fool!” the demon roared. Azure bolts of sustained lightning coursed over the floating man’s body causing him to convulse and shriek in agony. On the brink of losing consciousness once again, he hovered helplessly before his enemy like a child’s doll.

        “I will make you regret your obstinacy,” snarled the demon. “Soon you will learn that failing to comply with my commands is not an option.”

Ragerius moaned. He had never known such pain. The enigmatic energy had scorched his body, his singed cloak adhering to his skin in many places. He felt like he’d been tied with flaming ropes or given a massage with red-hot branding irons.

To his horror, he realized his own, broiled flesh was the source of the pervasive, nauseating stench throughout the room. The epiphany caused him to vomit down the front of his robe, adding fresh stains to the garment.

        “I am going to ask again,” hissed the demon. “And this time you will answer. What is your name?”

        “Ragerius,” mumbled the mage, averting his eyes from his implacable foe.

        “See, that was not difficult,” spat the demon. 

Ragerius had heard cruelty was a way of life for those adhering to the tenets of Kanavorus and wondered if he would be tortured for amusement after his interrogation.

        "Ragerius,” the demon said casually. “I believe you possess knowledge that could prove useful. I will make sure your hard work is not wasted.”

Ragerius suppressed a groan of despair, not wishing to grant his adversary one ounce of satisfaction. Instead, he tried to garner some shred of hope from his troubled thoughts. He found none.

        I’m as helpless as the white mice I keep. Though perhaps I am not finished yet.  The mice escaped their cage. Perhaps I can escape mine! As long as the demon needs me, I still have a chance.

        "You will now tell me what the Scrying Pool revealed,” growled the demon.

        “What does it matter? Have you not already extinguished the last hopes of humanity?”

        “Yes, fool!” retorted the demon. “That is an inevitable conclusion. Yet Kanavorus did not become the greatest of the gods by allowing advantages to pass untaken.”

        “Who are you then, if not the Dark One?” asked the mage, hoping to learn the demon’s name. In ages past, he had read that brave men had been able to summon and bind demons in the space between dimensions solely by knowing their names and following proper rituals.

Unexpected silence followed his question, adding weight to his theory, prompting him to continue his clever ploy. The forces of the Dark One were infamous for their rage; perhaps he could use this to his advantage. Perhaps he could salvage some small victory from this apparent disaster. It all depended on Stanton. He hoped the boy was listening.

        “Why do you fear me?” Ragerius challenged. “Are you not so powerful as the one you follow? Must you have the Fiend by your side to feel secure?”

        “Insolence!” the demon roared. “You think I would allow you to speak to me like that! I fear no one! None of you insects have the power to bind and control a demon of my stature! My name is Xaxontaal, Arch-Waarreeyeigh of the Dekavivira, and you will rue that name for the rest of your life! However short that may be!”

Bolts of sustained lightning leapt through the portal slamming into Ragerius, hungrily searing his flesh. With a violent gesture, Xaxontaal closed his clawed fist, and once again, Ragerius screamed in agony, as his limbs were dislocated. He felt his body rush towards the ceiling. Forced to impact the unforgiving surface without the use of his arms, he lost consciousness. His body fell to the floor, where it lay in a bloody, lifeless heap.

A moment later the Great Sage heaved, and a groan escaped his lips, vaguely aware he had produced the desired effect – he got the demon to mention his name; he could only hope Stanton had heard. It seemed impossible the boy could have missed the name, so loudly had it been roared. And, although Ragerius had never felt so wretched in his life, the thought gave him fleeting satisfaction. Mentally, he scored a victory for humanity and hoped one day the hard-earned knowledge would be put to good use.

Ragerius now felt he had done everything that could reasonably be expected of him. He felt himself slipping away; he welcomed it. A warming sensation, not without a certain feeling of well-being, invaded his body. He knew the pain would soon end.

                                                ************



 


Chapter 6
The Ivory Tower Incident

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Ragerius now believed he had done everything that could reasonably be expected. He felt himself slipping away; he welcomed it. A warming sensation, not without a certain feeling of well-being, invaded his body. He knew the pain would soon end.
                                                ************
Xaxontaal regarded the pathetic creature with contempt. Although he enjoyed causing this ‘Ragerius’ pain, he knew he had to exercise caution. Most likely, this simian had acquired valuable knowledge during its ill-fated use of the scrying pool. Knowledge that could prove useful. He did not wish to kill it. Not yet.

How could the Oultek have entrusted their legacy to such pathetic creatures? Not long ago, these simians were climbing trees and crawling through caves. How could they possibly adopt an advanced culture? Or harness the power of mineral-based technology? They still don’t even know what it is! Such is the folly of the Oultek, a race so arrogant they believed they could modify a bunch of apes and somehow train them! Optimistic fools! Creating life ought to be left to the gods!

But Xaxontaal knew even the gods understood little about the Oultek – their motivations, their eldritch technology, or even whence they came. Fleeing their doomed planet, these silicon-based life-forms happened upon the Realm. Special minerals were necessary to fuel their bodies. Special and rare, but the Realm had some. Not enough, but some. Their machine gave them the power to visit other worlds by walking through space using special paths; they searched hundreds. But eventually they were intercepted by the Dark Lords, unable to pass through the Aether without attracting their unwanted attention. It was not long before Kanavorus betrayed them with his perfidious cunning,  dooming their entire race to destruction.

Following the cataclysm, a great hole violated the heavens, allowing energy and matter to flow from the Aether to the Realm. The entering energy brought certain forms of light that caused the bodies of the Oultek to crumble. This destruction was a necessary step to pave the way for the conquest of the Realm. But something went wrong. The rift was far more transient than expected, and tragically it collapsed just as the vanguard of the Dark Army entered.

Xaxontaal shook his head, recalling the event with bitterness.

Too many of our best perished on that terrible day. Our elite forces. A gamble not worth taking … that’s what I said to Kanavorus, but he would not listen. None of the Dekavivira would lend their weight to my voice, despite most agreeing. The Dark One would have perished too had his frame been large enough to accommodate the rift …Xaxontaal began to salivate profusely … and then I would have been king, king of the demons … after killing Shartruvius.

Xaxontaal shook his head to rid himself of these dangerous dreams of glory; it was not safe to harbor such thoughts. With a violent effort, he forced his attention back to the pathetic fool lying on the floor. He would have to revive this insect.

Xaxontaal knew the Scrying Pool of Clandestor was reasonably accurate, although he recalled its powers of prognostication became less true the farther one fathomed the future. Regardless, he wanted to know everything the old man had seen, and still needed him to stabilize the portal, a priceless entrance to the Realm.

        “Arise fool!” bellowed the demon. “We have work to do!”

The corpse on the floor did not move.

Xaxontaal growled. The scrying pool could only be operated from within the Realm. It was useless to try to operate it from his side. The Aether contained too much magical “noise” that would interfere with the device.  He would have to manipulate Ragerius to achieve his goals. He hoped he had not gone too far. Rage had gotten the best of him, and he had broken an important rule – never reveal your identity to anyone from the Realm. Such knowledge could prove dangerous. It was unlikely a simian would have the power to bind a demon of his stature, certainly not this old fool, yet he had not survived all this time by being careless.

In fact, his diligence had made this very moment possible. In ages past, he had sealed a scrap of his flesh within the scrying pool’s frame during its construction. Kanavorus had commended him at the time for his forethought. The flesh anchored him to this world, providing a pivot point with which he could leverage the substantial energy he controlled from the Aether.

Xaxontaal held a reluctant respect for Ragerius, impressed the wizard had awakened the device and used it correctly, the proper rituals having been followed. What Ragerius could not have known was that the device contained a hidden alarm. Without deactivating it, the silent klaxon served as a homing beacon, allowing Xaxontaal to track the signal back to its source.

Of course, Xaxontaal could have sent a subordinate, but he believed the action worthy of his direct attention and welcomed the opportunity to champion the cause. Besides, for securing an entrance to the Realm, Xaxontaal anticipated great honors and glory. Kanavorus would likely promote him, replacing the vainglorious Vire Shartruvius. But why stop at second in command? If things went well, perhaps he would keep the stones for himself. What would it be like to wield absolute power?

But there were more important matters to consider right now. It was imperative to get Ragerius working on securing the portal, allowing the Dark Army to enter the Realm for a quick victory and swift end to the Contest. Acquiring the stones would be a simple matter once they were stationed within the Realm. They would be unstoppable.

        “Such a frail creature you are,” sneered the demon. “After serving your purpose, you will pay dearly for forcing me to repair your pathetic frame.”

Xaxontaal grimaced, the very idea of using the healing magic of Sylvana was repugnant. It contained far too much of the life-force. Too much love and compassion … too much weakness. Not at all like the dark magic he employed in battle. The magic of devastation and death.
For the moment, he would force himself to invoke the life-force to save Ragerius.
                                         ************

Amber light surrounded Ragerius, warm and peaceful. He felt himself returning, his body mending. His broken bones set, his shoulder joints relocated, and the blood pooling in his lungs mysteriously abated.

        “There we are,” said Xaxontaal with mock kindness. “Now you will be able to follow my orders. To serve me as a good and proper slave.”

Anger welled inside Ragerius, and he realized once again that there was much more at stake than his life. At this very moment, the fate of all humanity rested upon his shoulders. He must prevent this demon and others like him from entering the Realm.

        “Now then,” continued Xaxontaal, “since I brought you back from the brink of death, I am sure you will not begrudge me the information I request. Tell me what you saw in the scrying pool? What did it reveal?

Ragerius identified an almost pleading tone hiding within the demon’s words. It needed him. The epiphany filled him with confidence, prompting an insolent response.

        “It revealed to me … how big a fool you are! Do you really think I would betray my own people? I’ll never tell you what I saw! Never!”

At odds with past behavior, the demon chuckled at the obstinate reply. “Your courage is admirable, Ragerius, but you will find your only path lies in compliance!”

Bolts of electricity once again racked the wizard’s body, the torture lasting only a few seconds yet seeming an eternity to the old man. He found himself on the threshold of passing out again, but he knew his only salvation lay in outsmarting the demon, so he fought to control his senses. He must focus and ignore the pain.

        “Answer me this, old one,” the demon asked casually. “At your age, do you suffer from recurring muscle cramps?”

Ragerius floated in silence. Whatever his response, he knew it would not prevent the horrific pain he anticipated. The fact filled him with dread.

        “You will now …” laughed the demon.

Ragerius howled and doubled over. His stomach convulsed and his bowels clenched. His calf muscles felt as if they had been forged of fire. As much as he tried, he could not stifle fresh shrieks of agony, and, for a moment, he lost consciousness.

        “You are most amusing,” taunted the demon. “Proud, foolish simian. Can’t you see I am the one holding the keys to your pain?”

Ragerius lost all control of his body. Every muscle contracted, manipulated by a strange force interfering with the commands from his brain. His body twitched, his arms and legs swaying to the beat of the demon’s drum. As a final insult, urine soaked the front of his robe.

        “Look at you! You soil yourself like an animal!”

Humiliation cut Ragerius like a knife, and any further defiance he entertained evaporated, fading with the impotent tears streaming down his face.

        “Besides,” the demon continued. “It matters not what you saw. The scrying pool provides only one of many possible outcomes. It sees thousands, but none are certain. Nothing is certain, except the pain you will face, if you insist on being obstinate.”

Ragerius groaned as his body contorted into an awkward position. He could do nothing to change his situation and realized once again that his only chance lay in outsmarting the demon. He contemplated if such a thing were possible and wondered just how long it would be before his life was no longer valuable to this fiend.

Is he bluffing? Are there really many outcomes, or does he try to crush my spirit? Why would he bother interrogating me if what I saw was of no consequence?

The demon appeared pleased with itself, as if regarding its handiwork with artistic amusement, its dark chuckle reverberating throughout the heptagonal room.

        “Perhaps further questioning would best be served on this side of the portal. Would you prefer that? There are far more interesting ways to make you talk in our dungeons and when we are finished, we may even find you a special spot in the Organ of Kanavorus, though I very much doubt your screams will be as pleasing as those of our younger, more fit captives. Then again, I have no ear for music, even music born from the agony of our enemies.”

        “Enemies?” Ragerius breathed. “We have done nothing to your people, yet you call us enemies! You are the notorious invaders, violating our lands and disturbing our peace. My people will do their best to stop you. And you can do what you want to me, it will not change the fact that I do not possess any useful knowledge. The things I saw in the scrying pool I could not possibly explain. You waste your time.”

        “We shall see … old man. Nevertheless, one way or another, I will have your knowledge. I always get what I want from weak creatures of flesh like you.” Xaxontaal struck Ragerius with yet another blast of light. His body sailed backwards rebounding off the wall and shattering the glass manifold he had spent so many hours crafting.

        “You will not resist me further,” Xaxontaal said, as if reciting dogma. “Follow my instructions and stabilize the portal.”

Seething with anger, Ragerius racked his tortured brain to formulate a plan. He scanned the room for inspiration and found nothing.

        “Fetch oil of vitriol,” Xaxontaal commanded. “My people shall not perish upon entering the Realm just because the proper precautions were not taken.” The demon’s massive chest heaved with anger. “Not this time …” it hissed.

Ragerius went to a locked chest, lingering a long while. When he returned, he did not have any oil of vitriol. Instead, he held a sack of azure crystals and wore a look of triumph. With surprising vigor and a scream of defiance, he cast them into the portal.

Xaxontaal roared. Electricity coursed over the device, and sonic blasts shook the room. Other harsh noises drowned out the furious imprecations of the demon upon the other side. Bright lights shone from the portal in a dazzling kaleidoscope, as the integrity of the scrying pool failed. Emerald flames unlike any known in the natural world consumed its edges. Metal hissed and vapors sublimed to poison the room. Energy blasts erupted from the device, penetrating everything they touched, setting fire to all things flammable. A fiery maelstrom raged on the other side of the portal, alabaster flames engulfing the furious demon. Ragerius staggered towards the door.

        “I will shred your flesh into a thousand pieces!” Xaxontaal roared above the din.

An explosion masked any further threats, as air so hot it set fire to all it passed belched from the portal. A sustained wind raced into the room, pouring from the portal, and knocking Ragerius off his feet. Any former hold Xaxontaal had over the Great Sage evaporated in all the chaos, and Ragerius focused his attention on reaching the door, a short, yet dangerous journey. The wind accelerated items at terrific speeds. His most valuable possessions had now become deadly projectiles. Books and grimoires flew out of the knowledge-den, vaulting off the balcony like cannonballs. He saw his iron-bound journal rocket past his head. All ten-thousand-pages of it. His life’s work, he tried to save the heavy tome but knew he could barely save himself. Inch by inch he crept forward. Something struck him in the back, and he fell to his knees, nearly passing out in the process. He remained low, crouching upon the flagstones, and using them for purchase. He would crawl the rest of the way. He feared standing anyway, lest the tempest blow him out over the balcony. Still, that options seemed preferable over serving as a demon’s slave. Of that, he was certain. The thought motivated him, and he made a last, desperate push forward.

        “You shall not escape justice!” roared the demon. Even with its body ablaze, it still fixed Ragerius in its hateful gaze. Gesturing frantically, it cast a spell.

***************************************************************
An explosion shook the tower, the blast startling all living things in the area. In the nearby forest, birds took flight, and panicked boar fled their foraging areas amongst the trees. Barnyard horses tethered within their stables whinnied and kicked their stalls. And farmers working their fields looked up from their labors, pausing at their plows to wonder at the source of the thunderous sound.

Villagers and townspeople looked to the sky as well. Some seeking confirmation. Others crafting explanations. And still more simply muttering to themselves. For many, this event was just another ill-omen to add to the growing collection of strange disturbances that had become commonplace – like the birthing of two-headed sheep, or the queer taste of the blue milk. If it didn’t cause any visible harm, it was best to let it go. Rural wisdom frowned upon mentioning anything that could detract from the resolution of the other more serious problems plaguing the land.

The “boom that shook the sky” as it would come to be called throughout the valley of Calidor, was a curiosity, a topic of discussion for taverns and eating halls with no resolution and myriad explanations. Despite their inability to reach a consensus opinion, all the denizens were united in their desire to go about their lives with the hope that no further explosions would follow.
 

Back in the Ivory Tower, Stanton cowered in the stairwell. His hands would not stop shaking, and the deafening noise of the explosion had robbed him of his hearing. The fact that he had done nothing to help his father throughout the terrible interview was a heavy weight to bear, and he carried the guilt upon his brow.

Stanton had heard the name of the demon, however, and, using a piece of chalk, written a phonetic interpretation on one of the steps. When the winds came, the boy had been blown down the stairwell, but he regained his footing and returned.

Now harboring an incessant ringing in his ears, he crept forward cautiously. He marveled at the stout wooden door that had somehow remained intact. Opening it carefully, he examined the space that had once served as his father’s knowledge den. Only vestiges of the highly specialized room remained. Familiar items were now unrecognizable, having been pulverized or obliterated completely by the unnatural storm. Fragments of glass, stone, and wood lay scattered about the floor. Many flagstones had been torn away revealing the wooden beams beneath. Scraps of paper billowed in the air, animated by the faint breeze offered by the window and balcony. In other places, the wind whistled through inexplicable holes perforating the tower itself. Paper heavy with mildew smoldered upon the ground. Scorch marks marred the long table that had once stood in the center of the heptagonal room, its length anchoring it safely between two edges of the balcony opening. A fist-sized hole violated the bookshelf; whatever the cause, it persisted through the stone wall as well, allowing a faint ray of sunshine to penetrate the interior of the space. An edge of the old man’s straw mat where he had slept smoldered persistently, liberating white tendrils of smoke. Horrifying in its implication, blood spattered the walls.

        “Father?” Stanton asked plaintively.

Biting his fingers, he glanced around, but neither his father nor the scrying pool could be found. A cry of anguish escaped his lips. Stanton dropped to his knees and wept.

Ragerius was gone!






















 

Author Notes What do you think happened to Ragerius?


Chapter 7
The Return Home

By duaneculbertson

The day after liberating Ashley from the Devil’s Den, Wolf took the express coach from Malden to Aachen. He slept throughout the night, waking only once when the horses were changed at a waystation. The gray light of dawn brought form to objects, and the weary traveler stirred shortly thereafter as color returned to the world. He had not slept well. Rumors abounded concerning some mysterious tragedy at the Ivory Tower, with too many corroborating accounts to dismiss as idle gossip. The Great Sage had been like a father, and the thought of losing him was an additional weight to carry as he made his way home to fulfill his mother’s somber summons.

Disturbing visions had troubled his sleep. Dismembered bodies called out to him, despite not recognizing any of them. As he met their accusing stares, shame gathered. Somehow, he had failed these men. And he knew not how to right the wrong. As he walked towards these wretched individuals to see how he could help, they somehow moved further away. The faster he walked, the quicker they faded into the distance. He finally managed to approach one, a body lying face-down in a swamp. Turning it over, it bore Gwidron’s face. Dull, gray eyes stared with their unspoken accusation. It was this terrible shock, which roused Wolf back to the waking world.

Wiping the sweat from his brow with a linen handkerchief, he took a few deep breaths of pre-dawn air before removing a hunk of cheese from his pocket. He dreaded this family gathering, haunted by the letter’s words and its tone of urgency. His father was a hale, hearty man. It seemed impossible he could fall ill.

Apprehension welled in his chest as the coach turned down the lane leading to the Kantwohner estate. He looked at the yew trees along the path, many of which he had planted himself. The rock wall to his left still loomed strong. As if it were just yesterday, he could remember building the six-foot-tall structure with his father some twenty years ago.

The coach pulled up to the gate. A squat old man with a pleasant, round face approached. Wolf recognized him as one of their faithful ranch-hands. Brill.

        “Good to see you, my friend,” Wolf said. “You look right proper. Stout as a barrel and tall as a stalk of corn. Year after year, the backbreaking labor never seems to bend you.” Wolf smiled, as he engaged in his ritual banter with the man. He leaned out the window to grasp the other’s hand, but his handshake was only distractedly returned, the giant hand lacking its usual knuckle crunching effort.

        “Good to see you too, my lord,” Brill replied. “Wish it were under better circumstances.” The old man tried to smile but was overcome with emotion. He staggered away to attend to the mechanism, wiping a tear from his eye before raising the gate. Wolf could tell something inside his friend had broken. Not a good sign.

The coach rolled through, climbing a gentle slope, and rounding a bend before stopping under a giant sycamore. The shadow from this massive tree stretched across the driveway and shaded most of the house. Wolf had climbed it many times in his youth. Once he had even used it to sneak back into his room when he was out past his curfew.

The coachman helped Wolf with his bags. He tipped the man a sesterce before crossing the balustraded terrace to the parlor hall.

Inside, a man stood with crossed arms, leaning against the wall. He had shoulder-length auburn hair and a granite jaw which betrayed his kinship. He scowled at Wolf and approached swiftly, as a hunter stalking its prey.

        “About time, you showed your sorry ass!”

        “Nice to see you too, Quendar.”

        “It’s not about nice. It’s about family. Where the hell have you been?”

        “Imperial duties,” Wolf replied, his calm, level-headed demeanor seeming to enrage his younger brother further. “As you well know …”

         “You left me to look after the farm while you were off actin’ the giddy goat with the Roadwardens! Of course, shirking responsibilities is nothing new for you.”

        “I don’t care much for your disrespectful tone,” Wolf admonished. “Nor will I abide it. Now, I’ve had a long journey, and I didn’t come all this way to be chastised, so you’d better watch yourself.”

        “Watch myself?” Quendar replied indignantly. “That’s rich! It’s you who needs to pay attention. So caught up with searching for your precious Atelka, you can’t even see what’s happening to your own family! Father didn’t get sick overnight. And now you only show your face when he’s on death’s door! You’re a disgrace!”

Wolf clenched his jaw and the veins popped out across his neck. That was the straw he would not carry. He grabbed Quendar and threw him against the wall. The two grappled for a while before a young man dashed into the room.

        “Stop it!” yelled the boy. He got between the two and pushed Wolf back. Just then, an old man dressed in livery appeared. He grabbed Quendar and pulled him away.

        “You two should be ashamed!” he yelled. “Your father lies in the cellar, every breath an effort, every movement a burden, and here his eldest sons fight directly overhead. I’m sure he can hear you. And I’m sure it breaks his heart. All he wants is to see his family together one last time. Is it too much to set aside your differences a couple of hours for his sake?”

With downcast eyes, Wolf weathered the stern rebuke, humbled by the scolding. But Quendar simply pulled free of the old man’s grasp and cast his brother a look of hatred.

        "This isn’t over! Traitor!” he said, leaving the room with his Parthian shot.

The young man released Wolf. He stepped back and gave him a hearty embrace.

        “Good to see you, brother,” he said.

        “Marston, in my absence, you’ve become a fine young man. I knew you would.”

        “Thanks,” said the boy, beaming.

        “And you,” said Wolf, poking the old man. “You don’t look a day over eighty.”

        “Very funny, Master Wolf,” he replied. He shook his head in wry amusement.

        “You know I can’t remember a time without old Wilson,” said Marston.

        “Probably because he changed your swaddling clothes,” Wolf remarked.

        “Changed yours too!” spat Wilson.

        “Still,” Marston continued. “You’ll never get me to believe he’s a day over fifty.”

        “Too kind, young master,” said Wilson. “I’ll remember that. Of course, I suspect a favor will be asked of me in the not-so-distant future. You may as well ask it now.”

The three laughed, and, for a moment, a comfortable silence followed.

Wolf sighed. “I’d like to see Father now.”

        “Of course, Wolf,” said Wilson. “As soon as the physician is done tending to him. We need to limit the number of people visiting, else he gets overwhelmed.”

        “I see,” Wolf said with resignation. “Well, I’ve travelled all night, I suppose I can wait a few moments more.”

Wolf looked at his brother. “Are the others with him?”

        “Mom is working in the garden,” Marston replied. “And there’s no telling where Quendar has run off to, or when he’ll be back. Such a hothead!”

        “That’s true,” Wolf said. “He never could remain in one place for very long …”

        “Still blames you for Gwidron’s disappearance,” Marston stated. “Doesn’t he?”

        “I did all I could. I told him as much, but he never listens. Probably never will either. He just doesn’t want to hear it. I suspect he needs someone to blame.”

        “It wasn’t your fault,” Marston said, shaking his head supportively.

        “I sent every available man I could spare!” Wolf replied with asperity. “I was abusing my power as it was. Risking the lives of many to save a few. My first duty is to the Empire, not my family, and I take that oath seriously … Yet not a single day goes by that I don’t think of those men and wonder what I could have done differently.”

        "Fate can be cruel,” Wilson remarked. “Though I fear it was not Vanadian warriors who took Gwidron. Far more likely the supernatural is to blame. A company of five hundred men do not just disappear in the snowy wilderness without leaving any tracks. Nor is it the work of men. Something strange happened that night.”

        “You give credence to those bizarre rumors?” Marston asked.

        “As a matter of fact, I do. There’s too much evidence to ignore. Many accounts come from serious-minded men, not dim-witted, superstitious country folk or drunkards.”

        “What do you think, Wolf?” asked Marston.

Wolf had seen many disturbing things but decided not to share them. “Times are unusual to be sure,” he replied. “But I think we need to focus on known facts before speculating on the fantastical theories animating local hysteria.”

        “It’s hardly local,” continued Wilson. “Reports are coming in from all corners of the globe, especially up North. They say mythical beasts walk the wilderness. And people are vanishing without a trace. More and more each day.”

        “Mythical beasts?” prompted Marston.

        “Dreks, The Yeti, Manticore. Even the Roven…”

        “Stop it, Wilson, you’re scaring Marston,” Wolf jested, hoping to change the subject. “I, for one, can attest to the roads of the Empire – they are safe. Just don’t stray from them.” He wished he believed his words, but he could not forget the tales told by other roadwardens.

Too many are the reports of people disappearing after straying from main roads to dismiss as empty, townsfolk gossip. But I’ll not burden my loved ones with such news.

        “Sounds like good advice,” Marston agreed.

        “How do you like being a roadwardens?” Wilson asked.

        “It’s not bad. They made me a captain.”

        “Nice!” exclaimed Marston. “Do they know you’re Runcheon’s grandson?”

        “Of course not. I travel incognito. Sometimes it’s tempting to say something, especially when someone slanders or disparages our family overtly, but for my purpose it is best to remain anonymous, so I do my best to swallow my pride and stay silent. I go by Wolf Shearstone when it suits me.”

        “What do you think your peers would say if they knew you were the Emperor’s oldest grandchild?” Marston asked.

        “Thebes is the oldest!” Wolf replied indignantly, offended that he would be considered older than his gray-bearded cousin.

        “Thebes fell in battle last week,” said Marston. “We found out last night.”

Wolf paled. “That’s terrible…”

        “Indeed. A tragedy. He was killed when the baggage caravan he led was ambushed in Vanadia. You’re the oldest grandchild now. That counts for something.”

        “Maybe,” Wolf replied flatly. “Still there are so many others. And I’m hardly interested in dynastic succession.”

        “We shall see,” Wilson interjected. “If more members of the royal family fall, you may find yourself on the throne, like it or not.”

        “It’s a moot point,” Wolf protested. “Uncle Janicus is next in line anyway. Besides the people would never want a Kantwohner on the throne. Many still fear us.”

        “Janicus is a prick!” spat Marston. “And the rumors say Runcheon has a special place for you in his heart. Maybe he’ll jump Janicus and leave the crown to you. Atavistically, as it were.”

        “There you go showing off your university education,” Wolf jested. He poked his younger brother in the ribs, and the latter blushed.

        “Look, I appreciate you both holding me in such high regard, but honestly, I’m no different than anyone else,” Wolf protested. “If I stepped out of line, Runcheon would banish me in a heartbeat.”

Marston’s face adopted a serious expression. “I just heard the doctor leave. We’d better go downstairs. Father may have little time.”

        “I was headed for the garden,” Wilson interrupted. Addressing Wolf, he added, “You will find your mother there, if you wish to see her after visiting with your father.”

Wolf nodded, watching the old man as he left. Despite the dire circumstances, Marston could not help but smile at his older brother; he had missed him these past six months. The fifteen years separating the two made their relationship more like father and son, rather than brothers.

        “Any idea how this happened?” asked Wolf.

        “It started two weeks ago. Father collapsed at the plow. We carried him inside. ‘Heat exhaustion’ was the story we fed the servants. Nevertheless, it was clear to all something more serious was at work. Then the blisters appeared. That’s when servants and farmhands really started slipping away. Now only the most loyal servants remain.”

Wolf’s face fell. “Then what happened?” he asked, dreading what he would hear.

        “A terrible fever struck, so we brought him to the root cellar. It’s the coldest place. The doctor said we did well: the cold slows the progress of the disease, and he praised us for our decision to keep him isolated. Says it helps reduce the risk of infection. Diamond Sickness is most contagious within a day of the blisters forming.”

        “What are these blisters? A rash?”

        “Red diamonds. They are raised, as if embossed, cluster in patterns, and appear all over the body. They tend to burst if touched, oozing a green, foul-smelling fluid. The physician says he’s never seen anything like it, though he claims to have heard of multiple cases cropping up throughout the Empire.”

        “Yes, this is very bad. I heard a tale concerning this illness from a young woman. The disease swept through her family like lightning, then wiped out her entire village.”

Marston frowned, lines of worry creasing his young face.

        “Let’s go see him,” Wolf sighed. “Hopefully, he can still speak.”

        “I believe he can, if just barely. But first.” Marston went to a woven basket. Lifting the lid, he removed  a dark cloth. It gave off a pungent odor.

        “Gack!” Wolf protested. “What is this?”

        “It’s a cover for your face. It will protect you from breathing the air of the sick.”

        “It reeks!” Wolf winced.

        “Yes,” Marston’s face dropped. “I’m afraid it does. It was steeped in the virgin urine of a Sylvanian priestess.”

        “What!” Wolf roared, casting his cloth to the ground. “That’s preposterous!”

        “No, it’s purest truth. I picked them up myself from the temple down the road.”

        “No, I mean what possible good will that do?”

        “People say that …”

        “People say lots of things, Marston. You need to learn that. A chaste, young girl pissing on a towel does not make that rag anymore safe than nothing at all. At least by my reckoning anyway. It’s no different that the nostrums merchants peddle at the county fairs. Love potions. Elixirs of power. All that crap.”

        “The villagers are donning them.”

        “Yes, well, there was once a time when they all thought the Realm was flat.”

Marston appeared wounded by the harsh rebuke, and Wolf softened his voice. “Look. I appreciate you troubling yourself to protect the family, but I am a man of science. And nothing in my experience – nothing I have ever read, for that matter – has ever shown me that such precautions are warranted or effective. And I shan’t spend the last few hours of my father’s life stinking up his final resting quarters like a latrine."

        “Yes, I’m not surprised. Urla and Saynwen said nearly the same. Perhaps it’s for the best.” Marston took off his cloth and folded it neatly.

        “Mars, you don’t have to take it off on my account. It may work. We just don’t know. It’s a personal matter. I don’t want to give up my dignity. I would rather risk dying than wear something so disgusting. And I want father to look upon my face unhindered, especially if he is living his final moments.”



 


Chapter 8
The Dying Patriarch

By duaneculbertson

Wolf and Marston descended a wooden staircase to the root cellar. They were met by cool, dank air, yet there was an unpleasant stillness that stank of death. A candelabra cast an eerie light over the features of an emaciated man lying upon a straw mattress, his white linen shirt soaked with sweat.

Wolf’s younger sisters, Urla and Saynwen, emitted gasps of joy upon seeing their eldest brother. They rose from their positions by their father’s bed.

            “It’s good to see you Wolf,” Urla said, embracing him tightly. Even in the dim light he noticed gray streaking her auburn hair, a recent development. Saynwen hugged him next. Ten years younger, she was still beautiful, even in this difficult time, her blond tresses held in place with jeweled clips. Yet when Wolf looked into her captivating blue eyes, he read despair, a pain barely restrained.

            “It’s good you made it,” she whispered. “The doctor says there’s nothing more we can do. Go to him. I fear he’s been clinging to life just for your arrival. He must have something important to tell you.”

            Wolf’s face fell. He summoned up his courage and approached his father, bracing for the worst.

            “Father,” he whispered.

            “He can hear you,” Urla said. “But he does not speak much.”

Although much cooler than the floor above, the root cellar offered a bleak atmosphere with little space. Bins of vegetables ran alongside one wall. Dusty jars and bottles lined another. Hogsheads of beer squatted obtrusively in a corner. Everywhere walls of earth absorbed all sounds, offering a tense venue where everything said had the illusion of hanging in air, prone to scrutiny.

A few chairs had been brought down from the dining room, their opulence woefully out of place for the dank root cellar. Intricate patterns of gilt inlaid with ivory coursed along the back and arms of one. Crafted from padauk wood, this chair had been his favorite growing up. He drew it close and examined his father.


The great Magnus Kantwohner was but a shadow of his former self. All the intelligence and vibrant energy that had defined the man throughout his life had faded from his visage, displaced by the odious presence of raised boils and lesions. Still caught in the unforgiving grip of a relentless fever, Magnus seemed only vaguely aware of his surroundings, his perspicacity much affected by the terrible affliction.

Wolf arrived at an unpleasant observation – my father must have lost half his bodyweight! The sight infuriated him. Having not been around for the pathogenesis of the disease, the sudden contrast of his father now with the image he kept in his mind was deeply disturbing. Other family members had experienced the progression at a normal pace. No doubt, it must have been terrible for them, but at least it would have been less jarring than the sudden shock assaulting Wolf’s eyes right now. Somehow, he managed to force calm into his voice.

            “Father,” he said gently. “I’m sorry I could not get here sooner …”

            “It’s fine,” the reply came as a faint, raspy whisper. “You’re here now … that’s all that matters. Tell the others to leave … I need to speak to my eldest alone.”

It was unnecessary to communicate his father’s wishes; everyone heard his words. Saynwen bent forward to kiss his forehead; there was still an errant patch of skin that was not covered by boils. But Wolf pulled her back, Ashley’s story motivating his actions. He shook his head, sadly communicating his meaning. Saynwen simply nodded and withdrew. Urla squeezed her father’s arm over his shirt, careful not to burst any boils. Then all but Wolf ascended the staircase, the ancient wood creaking under their weight. Wolf imagined the noises would serve as a fitting prelude to a dirge. In his present situation, it was hard not to see everything in a negative light. He was not looking forward to this conversation; he feared he knew what was coming. Unfortunately, he could forestall it no longer.

            “What is it you wish to speak about, father? he asked. “Can I get you anything?”

            “As eldest … you inherit the estate … following my demise … It’s clear … I won’t survive this.”

            “You don’t know that!” Wolf protested. He tried to force conviction into his voice, even though his thoughts did not support his words. He knew not a single person had ever survived this disease. Then again, his father was a tough ole bastard. He could remember his barrel-chested father chopping down mighty trees in the forest and hauling the trunks back himself. If anyone could survive this plague, it would be he.

            Magnus forced a sardonic smile, coughed, swallowed hard, and continued.

            “You must swear … you’ll keep … running the farm … with integrity … and excellence.  What I built … must not fall … Continue the tradition. … Swear it!”

Wolf was taken aback by the request. He feared the possibility something like this could be coming, but he never imagined he would have been tasked with such a central role in the management of Kantwohner Estate.

            “I see it in your eyes,” he continued. “You’re wondering … how a warlord … could trade his sword … for a plowshare. It’s simple … I’ve learned … the best rewards … are from the earth. Killing may be righteous … sometimes glorious …. but one may not sow … the seeds of life … by spilling blood.”

Magnus panted, fresh beads of sweat blossomed upon his brow. Wolf thought he could almost hear the fluid pooling in his lungs. His poor father fought for every breath, each phrase requiring effort.

            “To live honestly … off the land. … To feed others. …Noble goals … we need these … for our clan, … our people. …We have great warriors … in our heritage. …Father Machus would never … have understood the joy in … garnering what we reap … from the ground.  The man …spent most his life …warring with your grandfather … over a strip of crummy land. …The treaty that brought peace … was a blessing … I could not … appreciate at the time … until now… Your mother and I … were given this track of land … and we made it bear fruit … It prospers… You must continue … this tradition. …Feed our people… feed the Empire … the citizens we know and love.”

Wolf gripped his father’s hand tightly. The old man’s breathing had become more labored. His end seemed near.

            "Quendar … too impetuous,” he continued. “Marston … too young… It must be you… Forget Atelka … She’s gone … I’m sorry. You must forget her … Promise me you … will care for the farm … See that it prospers.”

            Wolf had been following these words with mounting apprehension.

            “Father,” he said. “This is your dream. Not mine.”

            “Don’t be headstrong!” A coughing fit stole his momentum, forcing him to pause several seconds before he dared continue. “You are nearly forty …You’ve been to war… Sailed the seas… seen the world … What I give you now … is a chance to do real Good … to help others … To live a balanced, stable life … One where you can … use your hands … to bring life … instead of dealing death.”

            “I know, father. And I want that. But not now. We have the Vanadian Campaign. And there’s still the matter of…”
            “Unimportant! The Empire’s strong … The Clan’s strong … It’s more important to feed our warriors … than to be killed in a foolish war … Surely you must see the wisdom in that … This is my parting gift … our legacy… Helping to achieve a lasting peace … and a world free of bloodshed … starting here and now.”  

Coughing spasms racked his once mighty frame. The words spoken had taken a toll upon his energy reserves, and there was nothing left. His voice had been raspy and hydrophonetic, lending an alien quality that left Wolf feeling estranged from someone he had known all his life. He found himself unexpectedly angry, wanting to lash out at anyone even remotely responsible for causing this disease.

            “I will take care of the farm, Father,” Wolf said. “I promise.” The words came grudgingly and lacked the ardor normally associated with such a conviction. Wolf could not even meet his father’s gaze. Instead, he looked at the curious birthmark on his forearm – the mark that had perplexed him his entire life. Why was it so regular and defined? Why did it look like a Mariner’s hourglass? The men he fought alongside thought it was a tattoo he acquired in Xanadu, a misconception he never once corrected.

Wolf turned his attention to a bale of hay standing in the corner. He wondered how long it would take to count every straw.

            His father’s chest heaved, as if in preparation for some Herculean effort.

            “Wolfgang Argus Kantwohner!” he roared. “That’s not good enough! Swear it!”

Wolf met his father’s imperious gaze. He took a deep breath himself. Crossing his fists over his chest, he said, “I swear to look after the farm.”

This appeared to satisfy his father. “Good,” he breathed. A faint smile appeared on his lips, and he seemed at peace. Closing his eyes, his father adopted a state of deceptive tranquility. Devoid of fear, doubt, or pain, this was more like the face Wolf recognized.

Wolf knelt by his father for several minutes. He uttered soft prayers to Seydor, then prayed loudly to the Earth Mother and the Four Winds for his father’s benefit. He knew not if the old man heard.  

For the better part of an hour, Wolf watched his father’s chest heave until it finally stopped. With a heavy heart, he ascended the creaking stairs to tell the others that Magnus Wolfgang Kantwohner had breathed his last.








 

Author Notes I tried a form of death punctuation. Please let me know if you have ideas on how to improve this. I think there would be a natural pause before longer words, and obviously the phrasing would be optimized to retain strength as long as possible.


Chapter 9
The Investigation

By duaneculbertson

A carriage meandered through the hills of Tandoor. Two men-at-arms atop horses trailed. One scouted ahead. A tap on the roof notified the driver to stop. The coachman whistled to the point-rider and bade him return, then jumped down to open the wood-paneled door bearing the Imperial Seal. An older gentleman with an aquiline nose, and keen, penetrating eyes cast a quick glance about the countryside before taking the offered hand. His rich, red robes betrayed an academic bearing, ostentatious and poorly suited for outdoor labors, the heavy, gilt fibers and fine embroidery retaining far too much heat, especially on a cloudless day in the month of Heetschmertz bathed by the fierce rays of the Aachen sun.

Two boys, Drathil and Eddington, hopped from the carriage and followed the man already mounting the steep, grassy slope. Agile and entertaining a brisk pace, the academic did not require his ash walking stick, serving more as a fashion accessory than a functional ambulatory aid.

Cresting the hill, the three paused to look at the structure below. The Ivory Tower stood tall in the vale. Strategically placed, it rested atop the intersection of invisible meridians of magic power, natural lines of flux encircling the planet. The man reflected on the genius of the Great Sage who had used his magical dowsing techniques to locate the auspicious place where multiple meridians happened to cross. Chuckling to himself,  he recalled the amusing dialogue exchange that had taken place between wizard and builder. Vividly, could he remember the appalled look on the dwarven builder’s face when Ragerius solemnly struck the ground with his dendrified walking stick and ordered the man to ‘Dig here!’ while standing ankle-deep in the shallows of a small creek. As expected, the builder considered him daft and refused to budge an inch until a liberal amount of silver coated his palms.

A sad smile crossed the academic’s face, the heavy gilt embroidery upon his shoulders marking him a master in his field. He expected the investigation would be emotionally taxing for him; thus, it was nice to start with a fond memory of his friend. The people of the Realm demanded answers concerning the disappearance of the beloved celebrity, arguably the greatest scholar ever produced by the Empire. But for the master, it was personal. He had known the Great Sage for almost forty years and considered him a friend rather than a mentor or peer. Prior to the incident, he knew Ragerius had been researching ancient documents, but the details eluded him. Unfortunately, the Great Sage had become strangely reclusive over the past few months, sharing no findings with anyone and publishing nothing.

The man’s reflections were interrupted.

            “Master Alcuin, I thought we were going to the tower,” Drathil remarked.

            “We are,” replied Alcuin, anticipating a teachable moment for his student.

            “I don’t see why we stopped here.”

            “Indeed!” retorted the master. “Not only do you not see. You do not observe, the latter being of far greater value. Look below. Look around you. What do you see?”

            “A mess. Someone has littered the countryside with junk.”

            “Junk? …  Junk?! Those are scientific instruments belonging to a most learned man –the Great Sage himself! What is junk to one becomes treasure to another, especially in the hands of one skilled and knowledgeable; for such a person will always appreciate an item’s true value, rather than its surface value.”

Drathil nodded, digesting the wisdom.

            “Furthermore, what you have failed to note is the lack of radial symmetry about this so-called ‘junk’. Look, or rather, observe … there is an order to the chaos. The items scattered pell-mell are oriented in a cone-shaped pattern suggesting they came from that balcony above.” The academic pointed to a limestone balustrade high atop the tower, almost level with their current elevation on the hill.

            “You can see other windows and points of potential egress along the height of the tower, but none would account for the scattering pattern observed. That balustrade must be the point of origin.”

With trenchant eyes, the teacher regarded the student. “Always look for patterns – the order hiding amidst the chaos – that is where the answers lie! Do this and you will start to observe life, instead of merely seeing it.”

            “Thank you, Master Alcuin,” Drathil murmured.

            “Very good. Now take your sack and fill it with everything you can find. We’ll catalogue it all back at the university… starting with this one…”

Alcuin stooped to retrieve a stray paper; grateful it had not rained this month. Carefully, he unfurled the worn vellum and studied the markings upon it. The second boy who had been using a tablet to capture everything the scholar had said today, stopped writing and approached his master. Peering over Alcuin’s shoulder, he noticed words, numbers, and diagrams inked upon yellowed parchment.

            “What is it?” he asked.

Alcuin favored him with a smile. “These equations describe fluid flow. And this appears to be a design for a flying machine. Ah, humanity! We do have such lofty goals!”

For a moment, a happy, dreamy look adorned the scholar’s features before yielding to wistful anguish. Alcuin furrowed his brow, his eyes moist with dread.

            “What’s wrong?” Eddington asked.

            “I fear we may have lost one of the greatest minds of our times… Anyway, it is no concern of yours. Join your brother. Gather everything you can find and carry it back to the carriage. Take everything; and I mean everything. Load it up! We’ll walk back to Aachen if we have to. Understood?”

The boy nodded. Alcuin watched him go before negotiating his way down the grassy slope. He had no idea what he would find inside the Ivory Tower and approached the structure with a heavy heart.

Drathil cradled a small object in his arms that reflected sunlight. “What’s this, Master?”

Coated in dust and plastered with debris, a bronze bull the size of a kitten stared up at Alcuin. The sight forced him to turn away to wipe a tear from his eye.

            “It’s known as the Brazen Bull, my son,” Alcuin said in a voice hoarse with emotion. “I gave it to Gerrard when I started my apprenticeship … forty years ago…”

Drathil’s eyes widened appreciating the significance of the revelation. “You mean you were…”

            “Yes, my son, I was his student … his first student.”

A look of awe immobilized the boy, one bordering on apotheosis.

Alcuin smiled, “Yes. Did you think I was born a master? Learning is a life-long process. When you are older, you will be able to learn on your own. Keep practicing the discipline I force upon you now and one day you may even have a student of your own.”

The boy smiled. “What is this … Brazen Bull used for?”

            “Nothing anymore, though it could be once again following a good cleaning. It’s a miracle it carries no dents after what must have been a harrowing journey.” Alcuin glanced at the balcony, estimating its distance to be about a hundred yards.

            “It once served as a paperweight on the Great Sage’s desk. Although a much smaller version, it is a perfect replica of a hideous device created by my people long ago in ages past … and has fortunately never been used again.”

Drathil appeared puzzled, and Alcuin debated telling him more. It was not a great story, but it had educational, as well as personal, value.

“The original Brazen Bull was made for an awful tyrant named Phalaris. The device is hollow, life-size, and made entirely of brass. When the king of Ceylon wanted to amuse himself, he would fetch a condemned criminal and force him inside the device. Once the wretched prisoner was secured, the bull would be locked shut and a fire would be lit underneath. A system of pipes hidden inside the bull’s mouth would convert the screams of the dying man into music, ostensibly mimicking the roaring sounds of a bull. When the water in the dead man’s body boiled into steam melodic notes sounded as well producing an obscene form of music.”

Alcuin noticed Drathil had gone pale. He handed the bull back to him, but it fell through his hands and rolled down the hill.

             “Sorry, sir,” Drathil mumbled.

            “Eh, don’t worry yourself over this, son. When the Empire conquered Ceylon, the odious instrument was melted down and used for scrap metal. I believe it was forged into a statue of Seydor. It happened a long time ago.”

Alcuin watched as the bull tumbled and bounded down the steep slope, gaining speed. Unconcerned, he let it go, wondering if he was subconsciously making some type of symbolic sacrifice. A way to mollify the pain of losing a friend. A means of saying goodbye.

            “When I left Ceylon to study under the Great Sage at Aachen University, I gave him the bull as a welcome gift. Incredibly, he had never been there and was delighted by the present. Although famous for its barbaric, notorious history, the replica would make a welcome addition to his collection of items gathered from places around the world. He liked it so much that it became a permanent fixture upon his desk. A paperweight.”

Drathil nodded.

            “Anyway, we need to start our own collection right now. Your brother is well ahead of you. See if you can catch up. If you need more sacks, you’ll find them in the carriage.”

The boy ran off and began collecting everything he could find that did not belong on a grassy slope. Alcuin watched him go, then sat down to rest and gather his thoughts; he wanted to reflect on what he had learned to this point.

The “Ivory Tower Incident” was what the people were calling it, and many in the capitol demanded answers. The Great Sage was well-loved, and the dark rumors of his demise caused a tumultuous uproar and an outpouring of grief. It was not surprising, therefore, when Alcuin found himself in charge of a full-scale investigation. The order was sealed by none other than Atheling Prince Janicus, which prompted a raised eyebrow, since the scholar knew the two had never been fond of each other, the prince having been an exceptionally difficult student. Alcuin wondered what possible game Janicus could be playing, since it was rare his attention deviated from anything other than war and affairs of state. Why would he involve himself? The disappearance of a beloved citizen and prominent member of the aristocracy was normally an affair managed by the Castellan who would most likely consult with spymasters before leading the investigation himself. Alcuin loathed politics, much preferring to spend his days studying science and the natural arts. Nevertheless, he paid attention to internal affairs, especially when it came to the Royal Court, feeling compelled to act as a responsible citizen and champion for the people.

Unfortunately, now that the Great Sage was gone, Alcuin would have to adopt his former master’s de facto status as the scientific authority throughout the land, an honor without an official title and one he would rather not hold, preferring peace and solitude over popularity and fame. In that respect, he was much different than his master. Nevertheless, it would feel good to honor his memory, and he swore he would do his best to fill the giant shoes of the legendary Gerrard Ragerius.

Rumors and a few eye-witness accounts were all he had managed to collect so far. The purpose of this visit was to gather material evidence and interview the page who somehow managed to survive the ordeal. Alcuin hoped the reports of the boy suffering a broken mind were greatly exaggerated.

While making his way down the steep slope, a glint caught Alcuin’s eye. Rays of light shone from a piece of metal buried in the ground, a beacon his scouring gaze could not fail to catch. He crouched and pulled the iron-bound grimoire from the earth. A gilded privacy lock had somehow kept the book intact, despite its violent journey. The man licked his lips. His eyes dilated and his heart raced.

            This is the knowledge tome of Gerrard Ragerius! A greater treasure I could not hope to find! Perhaps the solution to this mystery will not long elude me!

            “Master Alcuin,” called a young voice. It was the older boy, Drathil.

            “Yes, my son … what is it?”

            “I found this paper. It could be important.”

Alcuin hurried over and snatched it from the boy’s hands. “Important? Important! This is priceless! This is one of the Forbidden Documents!” He hugged his student and the two danced with joy.

Removing an oculus from his pocket, he spread the paper across a boulder and perused its surface with meticulous care. Although most of it had been scorched by flame, he could still make out notes in the margin and recognized the handwriting.

            “Ah, master,” he sighed. “Never will I forget your bold script!”

Nearly the entire page was unreadable, but Alcuin did not despair. He noticed numbers written in the header. They depicted a sequence “1, 2, 3, 5, …”, but the rest was burnt beyond recognition.

          "This is a great find,” he mumbled. “I will work to make this readable. There must be a way.” Smiling, he recalled one of Ragerius’ favorite sayings – Nothing is impossible for a willing mind.

Alcuin regarded Drathil. “Excellent work! You’ve done well.”

Drathil beamed with pride. Happily, he followed his master down the remainder of the grassy slope and the two entered the Ivory Tower.


 


Chapter 10
Call to a Quest - Part 1

By duaneculbertson

Myriad cracks lacerated the dried lakebeds surrounding Aachen, the product of a merciless sun that never quit, save for the few hours between dusk and dawn, when the land escaped its cruel gaze. In a vast field, Wolf surveyed the plowed earth. He removed his shirt, bearing his white skin to the sun’s scathing embrace. A muscled physique spoke of his active character. It had been almost a fortnight since his father’s death, yet it only took hours to realize the new challenges associated with managing the farm. Now Wolf cultivated a renewed appreciation for all his father had accomplished. Most of the chores fell upon his shouldes, since few farmhands remained after news of his father’s illness spread. Diamond sickness impacted everyone. No exceptions.

Wolf draped his shirt over a fence post. It was black, stained white in places by salt deposits. He hoped the gentle breeze would return to evaporate his sweat directly. He chastised himself for having worn a dark garment in the first place. Clearly, he had forgotten the ways of his childhood when it came to working the farm during the summer months, Heetschmertz being the most brutal. Bleached cotton tunics were the way to go; they breathed and did not retain the heat. How could he have forgotten?

Having allowed his oxen a moment’s rest to remove his garment, he now had great difficulty overcoming their stubborn inertia. Idle banter gave way to threats, yet the obstinate animals remained impassive.

            "Come now! Thor! Morris! We must go back in that direction to return to the barn anyway. We may as well plow a field or two while we’re at it. Why resist? Now is as good a time as any to move."


But the oxen remained frozen.

            “I’ve got a sugar cube for each of you at the barn. Plenty of food too. Who am I to deny grain to the ones doing the work?"

Still the oxen did not move.

            “I’ll throw in a rub-down with aromatic vinegar as well. Come on!”

The oxen seemed more like two granite slabs than flesh. Wolf considered employing the whip but knew they would not respond to that either. Besides, he had an aversion to causing animals pain, especially dumb ones.

As he walked away in disgust, the beasts surged forward. His jaw dropped, leaving him to shake his head and wonder who was really in charge.

Farming was solitary work, conducive to introspection. In his youth, he found the activities relaxing, even fun. But now he realized how much depended on one’s emotional state. At first, his thoughts fell upon his father, his teachings, and fond memories spent in his company. However, darker thoughts eventually intruded. He looked up from plowing the fields, towards the skyline, catching the forests off in the distance, the verdant trees framing the red cliffs, home to the barbarian people Grandfather Machus once ruled. Besides climbing those cliffs in his youth, he recalled many happy hours spent playing with his friends in the forest.

            Those woods were once a safe place. As a child, I would play there with nary a concern. Now it is different. I am unsure what to think.

His roadwarden duties gave him a unique perspective regarding the strange happenings throughout the land. He breathed not a word of what he had seen, refusing to spread gossip, keeping the disturbing images to himself. And the visions were haunting indeed. Dismembered corpses strewn about the wilderness with eviscerated bodies of well-armed men lying beside main travel routes were no longer freak curiosities; they had become disturbingly common. Amplifying the troublesome visuals was the lack of any obvious motive. Amidst the scenes of savagery, money and valuables were usually overlooked, a fact that chilled the hearts of many townspeople. One gruseome aspect they all had in common -- at least one victim would have their heart removed, often extracted with surgical precision. Because no one ever managed to survive one of these attacks, speculations ran wild. Theories ranged from reasonable and plausible to outrageous and absurd.

            How long before these events darken the gates of Kantwohner Farms?

It was a troubling thought, one that would occupy his waking hours and occasionally threaten his sleep. He knew not what these discoveries meant, but they would not change his present situation – he had given his word to oversee the farm, so he had no choice but to follow through with the oath and build upon his father’s legacy. No matter what was happening in the world.
 
That night Wolf plunged into a cold bath. His decision to don neither shirt nor hat had been a poor one, as now he suffered the harsh effects of five hours unprotected in the sun. Orange blisters had blossomed upon his shoulders, the skin surrounding these islands lobster-red, dry, and aching to the touch. Gingerly he climbed into bed and welcomed sleep, covering himself with a diaphanous silk sheet brought back from his time in Xanadu. It was a rare item, sericulture being unknown in the West, and he was glad for some comfort that night, no matter how small.

Wolf had scarcely drifted off to sleep before a warm, burgeoning light appeared. Astonished, he rose to his feet, staring in disbelief.

            “Have no fear, Wolf,” said a deep, sonorous voice.

            “The sun has poisoned my brain; else I must be dreaming”

            “This is no dream,” said the voice. A bluish-white nimbus condensed into corporeal form.

            “Seydor!” Wolf exclaimed in an awed tone, recognizing the diety from the artwork he had seen all his life. Averting his eyes, he dropped to his knees and crossed his arms in front of his chest, while vainly trying to slow the pounding of his heart.

            “Arise my son. And be at peace.”

Wolf gazed upon the apparition, the soft glow contrasting sharply with the appearance of underlying strength – like a sword resting beneath a sheet of samite. Seydor’s willpower and unwavering purpose felt almost like a physical aura itself, humbling Wolf and leaving him speechless. With his indominable, noble mien, and gleaming armor, Seydor appeared the quintessential warrior-knight. Breastplate, gorget, articulated greaves, and guarded-spauldrons shone, burnished to a mirror-like quality. A scarlet feather jutted from the back of his gold filigreed helm, framing a handsome, broad face with piercing blue eyes, ivory teeth, prominent jaw, and a blond beard streaked with gray. A diamond-studded baldric strapped a massive broadsword across his back, while a black leather scabbard held a modest falchion by his side.

             “To what do I owe this supreme honor?” Wolf stammered.

            “I have much to tell Wolf. Listen carefully. There is not much time, and my words carry the utmost importance. I have chosen you to lead a vital quest on my behalf.”

Wolf’s face registered shock.

            “Yes, Wolf. You are a great man. Perhaps too humble to realize it, but it has not escaped my attention. I have seen you worship at my temples and I appreciate your devotion. The truth is … I need your help.”





 

Author Notes This is the inciting incident of the novel. It occurs about a quarter through the book. Ideally, you would want the end of Act 1 to happen about one-eighth into the novel, but I needed to give the reader a taste of the world first. For any of you reading this, please share your thoughts on this subject. Thank you.
Dave


Chapter 11
Call to a Quest - Conclusion

By duaneculbertson

            “To what do I owe this supreme honor?” Wolf stammered.

            “I have much to tell, Wolf. Listen carefully. There is not much time, and my words carry the utmost importance. I have chosen you to lead a vital quest on my behalf.”

Wolf’s face registered shock.

            “Yes, Wolf. You are a great man. Perhaps too humble to realize it, but it has not escaped my attention. I have seen you worship at my temples and I appreciate your devotion. The truth is … I need your help.”

            “Anything…” Wolf breathed, regarding the god like a captivated child, staring at something impossibly wonderful.

            “Your support is imperative. Contrary to popular belief, I am not all-powerful.”

Seydor paused, allowing the shock to dissipate from Wolf’s eyes.

            “I came into being by the sheer belief of people like you. It was this power that made me more than just a memory of a man. I know not how this happened. I only know that the people of the Realm made it possible. They are the well-spring.”

             “The gods need followers then?” Wolf asked, hesitantly.

            “The gods can do nothing in the Realm without help from their followers. And may only enter under special circumstances. When conditions are right.”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “We do not have the luxury of lengthy explanations. You must learn what you can on your own as you proceed with the Stonequest.”

Wolf swallowed hard. A confused, troubled look settled upon his brow. He wondered what this Stonequest could be.

            “Since my rebirth, I have learned much about the history of our world, as well as the history of the Aether. When I was born, I had little power. Had I not been protected by Sadran, I would have been destroyed.”

Wolf nodded, yet his face still registered disbelief. He did his best to listen carefully to everything Seydor had to say.

            “Long ago, the gods discovered that mental energy from the Realm in the form of prayer and worship could be harnessed and channeled from the Aether. Because society is based on law and order, these gods were promoted throughout the Empire. Conversely, worship of the Dark Lords is forbidden.”

            “This information would certainly prove useful for converting the more skeptical members of our society,” said Wolf.

            “Many do not believe in the gods today, yet it is so important to believe; now more than ever, for a contest with cosmic consequences is about to start.”

            “Which of the gods made us? It’s something I’ve always wondered.”

            “None of them.”

            “What?” Wolf’s eyes widened.

            “I have limited time here, but I do not know what will be helpful to you in the future, so I will briefly explain. Ten thousand years ago, a people of great sophistication ruled this planet."

            “Yes, I’ve heard learned men tell of a great race that once walked the land. It makes sense when one considers the Wonders. Our ancestors could not have possibly made them, but something must have.”

            “They were known as the Oultek, an advanced, intelligent race. They knew how to travel through the stars using special paths. This was not their original home. They came here to colonize.”

            “They traveled through the heavens?”

            “By using special paths, they discovered the Aether. Unfortunately, they were betrayed by the Dark Lords. A terrible cataclysm ensued; their race was destroyed. However, they had prepared for just such a disaster. For decades, they had researched a way to engineer a race worthy enough to inherit their culture. The Oultek were not flesh and blood like us, but rather rock and mineral. In their desire to improve what was already in place, they created modern man.”

            “We were made from creatures of rock and stone?! And not of this world?”

            “Exactly. Mankind was crafted by alien hands, not the gods.”

Wolf could scarcely believe what he was hearing. This invalidated all he had been taught his entire life, even what was considered holy. His worldview had just shattered. It was hard to take.

            “All the modern intelligent races today can trace their origin back to an effort known as the Simian Eugenics Project. The dark races were created by them as well.”

            “The Roven?” Wolf whispered.

            “Yes. The Oultek tried to wipe them out, but somehow some managed to survive. Hiding underground, they wait for a time when the stars are right to reclaim the land once considered theirs. I fear that time is approaching.”

            “I thought they were just stories to scare children –eat your dinner lest the Roven come for you.”

            “Unfortunately, many horrors captured in our lore are real. Some you may face before the quest is finished.”

            “What quest?”

            “I am coming to that, but first, let me warn you – never trust the dark races; they are easily corrupted by wealth and power. Sadly, this affliction befalls humanity as well. Tread carefully, there are those among you who are willing to sacrifice everything to satisfy their greed or gratify their own bad passions.”

            “I will mark your words carefully, Lord,” Wolf promised.

            “The gods may not enter the Realm in corporeal form unless certain provisions are made. I stand before you now as an astral projection. But if I wished to stand before you in my entirety, certain rituals would be required to open a communication between dimensions, usually in the form of a portal.”

            “How does one move from one world to another? Sounds dangerous.”

            “A good question … for another time,” Seydor said dismissively. “Suffice it to say laws command actions in our universe. In your world there is gravity. Although I am a god, were I to enter the Realm, I could just as easily fall from a cliff like you.”

            “Really?” Wolf blurted.

            “Physical laws exist that govern all things possible. To counteract these laws requires energy. Magic is just a word people use to explain the process of manipulating the energy surrounding us to achieve useful goals. In time you will learn to use these laws too and even harness the powers of the Aether.”

Wolf imagined himself a wizard out of the legends, summoning a bolt of lightning to smite his enemies; he nearly laughed.

            “Listen carefully, Wolf. A being of immense power recently revealed itself. Claiming to be the Supreme Creator, this “Nameless One” informed the gods that they all exist merely as facets of its own personality.”

            “I don’t understand …”

            “Personalities as diametrically opposed as Sylvana the Giver and Kanavorus the Taker were originally part of the same creature. This supreme being split itself into several entities, each with different personalities. However, after thousands of years the gods that survived the brutal selection process had forgotten their roots … the truth that they all shared a common origin. All the gods are composed of the same matter, the same energy. This explains why when one god is killed another can absorb its energy. Good or Evil – all derive from the same power.”

            “Where had this ‘Nameless One’ been hiding all that time?”

            “In the Void – the space between Realm and Aether –watching Good and Evil battle. When the many became few, a stalemate ensued, and the Nameless One appeared, revealing its agenda. A thousand years ago, it declared that it would assume the personality of the winner of a great contest. The Nameless One plans to leave this universe, adopting the personality of the winner, and giving that entity absolute power over every living thing.”

Seydor spoke quickly, expanding and elaborating on the details of the Stonequest and the associated Prophecy. He described the nature of the stones, warning Wolf to be careful, since, although largely symbolic, they still contained considerable power from the host deity. And that they could influence the thoughts of those holding them, even causing bearers to sympathize with the stone’s owner, regardless of their beliefs.

            “What does the winner get?” Wolf asked.

            “The winner will be allowed to decide the fate of every living thing.”

            "Such power! All in the hands of one? What are the rules of this contest?”

            “Only a few rules exist. The most important being that Good must abide them. Evil, on the other hand, is expected to violate them.”

            “That’s not fair!” Wolf protested.

            “It represents the burden of being Good. If Good were to cheat, Good would become Evil. Understand?”

            “I see your point …”

            “If we win, the chaos corrupting the planet will cease, and the powers possessed by the Evil Ones will be absorbed by the forces of Good. The Dark Lords will most likely be banished to the far corners of the universe.”

            “And if Evil wins?” Wolf asked, his heart beating faster now.

            “If Evil wins, humanity is doomed. It will be enslaved or exterminated and the lawful gods, including myself, will be vanquished.”

            “No!” Wolf cried, shaking his head in disbelief. His stomach felt hollow, and his mouth went dry.

            “Yes. If a Dark Lord wins, the other gods will be destroyed, including any allies; for it is unlikely pacts will be honored once one of them has claimed absolute power.”

            “That’s horrible! But what can I do? I’m just one man.”

            “You are a hero lacking only a path. After searching the land, I have chosen you as my champion. You are the greatest hope for humanity.”

            “I … I beg to disagree,” Wolf stammered. “I am no hero. There is no way I can accept this honor … I’m a farmer, not a warrior. And I’ve already proven I can’t lead anyone. Everyone who follows me either dies or disappears. I can’t save people. And I certainly can’t save the world.”

            “Nonsense!” shouted Seydor in a stern tone. “You deserve the honor of representing me. You are the best choice to fight on my behalf. You were born for it!”

Wolf swallowed hard and drew a deep breath, bracing himself for whatever would come next.

            "A thousand years ago, with the help of the Nameless One, I introduced a trait to humanity that would help us win the Contest. You have this trait. It also means you can trace your lineage back to a common ancestor – Seydor Kreigenschwert.”

             “What?!!” Wolf exclaimed.

            “Yes, it is true. You are a descendant of the human I once was. Not many have this gene, and it is expressed only under the right conditions. It is expressed in you.”

Wolf’s eyes widened and his pulse raced, remembering the strange mark upon his forearm.

            “Yes,” Seydor continued. “You bear the sign of the Timeglass. All those destined to play a major role in the coming conflict are marked in a similar fashion.”

Wolf beamed with pride, and his eyes welled with tears. With a sense of wonder, he regarded the powerful god before him. Once just a man like himself – his ancestor, and now something far greater.

            “Does this mean I am divine?” Wolf asked.

            “No, you can think of yourself as divinely inspired. Trust me. Much thought went into your creation. Don’t worry about the details. They are not important. Just be aware that many candidates like you walk the land, but I have chosen you. You must succeed if our people are to survive.”

            “I will do my best,” Wolf said boldly.

            “Yes, I know. I believe in you already. You just need to believe in yourself.”

Wolf bowed, accepting the divine wisdom.

            “My power fades, but there are still matters to discuss.”

           “Yes,” Wolf replied, “But I’ve a question. How long will this all take?”

            “A giant mariner’s glass hovers above the Oracle. It is called the Timeglass – the origin of the mark upon your arm. The Contest ends when all the sand in the glass has fallen. Perhaps two years. Maybe five. Any creature that wanders too close is instantly destroyed. Thus, a careful evaluation is not possible.”

After a speculative pause, Wolf asked, “What will happen if there is a stalemate?”

            “There cannot be a stalemate. If two parties happen to each possess five stones, a battle will take place atop the Oracle.”

Wolf noticed Seydor fading. When he first arrived, he was as solid as any man, but now he appeared diaphanous, like a curtain of silk. Seydor noticed his alarm and addressed it. “Fear not, I know exactly how much time I have, though we must hasten this discussion.”

            “I’m listening,” Wolf replied.

            “Eons ago, the lawful gods banded together for protection. They watched the destruction of powerful beings made possible through treachery and betrayal. Hundreds killed each other until less than a dozen Evil entities remained. Of these, four held great power: Kanavorus, Relgash, Putragle and Shlargareth.”

Wolf shuddered. “One can be killed for worshipping those gods. It is a crime to speak their names.”

            “Yes. For good reason. Unfortunately, the Empire is already infiltrated by their Evil. There are those who walk among you who wish to topple your society and destroy your way of life. This corruption is the main threat you must guard against. Thwart their efforts at all costs. Will you do this?”

            “Yes!” Wolf swore emphatically.

            “Good. The Dark Lords have different agendas. Since most are unwilling to yield power, alliances will prove difficult. Still, they do share some common ground. Kanavorus craves power. Relgash seeks perversion. Putragle loves corruption. And Shlargareth delights in chaos. Loathing order, he seeks a world of total chaos. Of all the gods, his goals are the hardest to fathom. Perhaps this makes him the most dangerous.”

Wolf noticed Seydor was but a shadow now and prompted him to continue.

            “Others will help you on your journey. There are those that walk the path of Nature – the Druids. I know not how to communicate with the Mother, but I do know someone who can. She has spent her life living in the Forests of Glendor. I reached out to her and she has agreed to help. Her name is Virriel.”

Wolf wanted to ask more about this person, but he felt Seydor still had much to say with little time to say it.

            “There are four lawful gods, our allies. Sadran – Slayer of Evil. Sylvanna - Goddess of Healing. Illuminon - Lord of Light and Knowledge. And Equanamus - Lord of Intransigence. Opposed to all change, it is said that no dust falls in his palace. Nor is there even the slightest breeze. Some argue we will have more to fear if he wins the Contest, since most people find his version of Justice oppressive.”

            “What do you mean, Justice?”

            “The goal of the Contest is to define a universal system of Justice. The means of achieving this is beyond my understanding, but the Nameless One thinks it will be realized at Endgame.”

            “Endgame?”

            “The end of the Contest. When the winner is declared.”

            “How can the Dark Lords be so powerful when their followers must remain underground? Truthseekers destroy any who worship the Evil Ones.”

            “While it is true the Dark Lords have few followers, unfortunately, they held great power long before the birth of humanity. Nevertheless, once they learned followers were useful, they seduced them with false promises of power. They had even tried corrupting the species before their creation. The Oultek had not finished making man when the catastrophe struck. Flawed and imperfect, humanity was released into the wild. How easily they could be manipulated and lead down false paths. The Oultek dreamed of a perfect race of lawful people who shared their values. They had almost achieved this with the Elves, but the species was not robust enough to support large numbers. Many were sterile. They had such high hopes for humanity, but there was no time to perfect their experiments before disaster struck.”

Despite the sweltering heat, Wolf felt a chill creep up his spine. The idea of breeding people to achieve certain goals made him uncomfortable. It was one thing to do this with plants and quite another to experiment on a highly intelligent species. Ironically, he suddenly felt conflicted, realizing that he himself was a product of eugenic manipulation.

            “A thousand years ago the Nameless One met with all of the gods individually. He helped us plan our strategies. We were allowed to cast a fraction of our power into the Realm. According to rumor and speculation provided over the past thousand years, we believe the Dark Lords adopted different tactics. Most involve causing fear and anarchy around the time of the start of the Contest. Kanavorus and Relgash opted to introduce dark genes into humanity. Putragle chose to introduce a plague into the world, while Shlargareth unleashed terrible storms."

            “A Plague? Like the one that killed my father?”

            “Diamond Sickness kills all living things that do not sympathize with its creator. Few afflicted will escape its horror. I know it has left its mark of tragedy upon you. Magnus was a good man. I am sorry I must ask you to break your oath.”

            “I will do what must be done,” Wolf declared, struggling to hold back his tears. He swallowed hard; he realized that his world had just been replaced by a harsh new one, a cruel reality he was loath to accept.

            “It is vital you understand the opposition. You must learn to identify and defeat their followers.”

            “I will do my best,” Wolf replied unsteadily.

            “This will help.” Seydor produced a leather-bound book. It was the color of blood with gilt sigils inscribed upon its surface.

            "Thank you,” Wolf said. The book had no title. Opening it, he read:

            Compendium of Dark Forces in the Aether
            H.R. Reinkraft – Acolyte of Sadran

            “Reinkraft went missing,” Seydor offered, “but his book was saved.”

            “Who was he?”

            “A brilliant scholar. He used his knowledge of magic to find his way into the Aether. A process known as ascension. His book provides the most complete account of our enemies. With it, you will learn their strengths and weaknesses.”

Wolf’s face paled as he thumbed the pages, bearing witness to many of its disturbing images – nightmares he never thought possible.

            “Heed one thing well as you start your mission – each stone has the ability to influence the holder towards its particular ideology. One must be strong to resist its power, for a weak will is easily persuaded to embrace the sympathies of its owner.”

            “I understand.”

            “Your training is finished.”

            “What!” Wolf exclaimed. Despite himself, he could not hide the shock and skepticism from his voice.

            “You will have to rely on your instincts from this point forward. Learn whatever you can from the book. I have great confidence you will succeed.”

Wolf wondered if Seydor really did feel that way about him, or if he was just saying those words to make him feel better. Regardless, he did not feel optimistic about his chances. At the moment, he could not even find the words to express his true feelings. If such words existed. It was all too much.

            “You will find the Putragle Stone in Malden, Wolf. Be careful not to handle it directly, else you be infected by its evil. The Nameless One has forbidden me to tell you more. Study the Prophecy to derive the locations of the other stones. Further information lies within the writing as well.”

Wolf felt numb. An emptiness invaded his body. His stomach dropped, his muscles tightened, and he drew breath rapidly. It reminded him of being on a battlefield. He did his best to suppress his fear, but at the moment, everything seemed overwhelming and out of control.

            “Assemble a team to help you accomplish your mission. I recommend choosing from diverse backgrounds … and remember the dishonest can make powerful allies too. Even Evil can sometimes be allies. As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Just watch that your friends don’t stab you in the back.”

Wolf failed to calm himself. He had no idea how he would find the first stone and could not even fathom the possibility of locating the others. He tried to dismiss his immediate fears by simply lying to himself that everything would be fine. He took a deep breath, then nodded his understanding to Seydor. “May I call you for help?” he asked.

            “You may not,” Seydor replied flatly. “I promised the Nameless One I would not directly assist you. It was a condition we agreed upon, so that I could talk to you now and leave you with a few parting gifts.”

Seydor approached and slipped a silver chain over Wolf’s head.

            “Wear this talisman at all times. It will help you locate the stones. As you approach their location, it will glow brighter and become hotter. I suggest you keep it beneath your shirt for the sake of discretion.”

            “Thank you, Lord,” Wolf breathed.

            “I will not be able to fight your battles, but I can offer you slight assistance from time to time. Like now, for example. You are blessed!”

A warm, tingling sensation coursed throughout Wolf’s body. It felt wonderful. A welcome change.

            “Thank you, Lord,” he gushed. “I am truly grateful for your blessing.”

            “Be careful. This blessing is not an aegis. It may divert some direct harm, but it does not guarantee safety.”

            “You can believe me when I say I’ll do my best to avoid any danger.”

            “This will prove quite useful as well.” A gold ring appeared on Wolf’s finger. “It will influence the wearer. Anyone wearing it will learn everything there is to know about the Stonequest; they may even feel compelled to help. It could be invaluable when assembling your team. Like all enchantments though, its power fades with use. Eventually, it will lose its luster entirely. That is when you know its power to influence has departed from the metal.”

            “I’ll use it wisely, then.”

            “Good. Here is one final, parting gift.”

A quiver of crossbow bolts appeared at his side.

            “Beautiful arrows!” Wolf exclaimed.

            “More than beautiful. They are enchanted. I’ve tipped them with silver, so you don’t inadvertently use one in the heat of battle when not needed. They are immune to magical shields and never deviate from their intended target. Most importantly, they harm beings from the Aether.”

            “What do you mean?”

           “Some creatures from the Aether are immune to non-magical items.”

Wolf’s eyes nearly bulged from his head. “Yeah, I suppose that is good to know.”

            “Indeed,” replied Seydor laconically.

            “Well, thank you, then. I’ll save the arrows for a worthy time.”

Seydor’s face adopted a pained expression. “Sylvana is calling me. Her forces are under attack. I must leave. One more warning – never take the stones outside the Realm. They become unstable. See that it does not happen.”

            “I will,” Wolf promised.

Seydor was nearly invisible now, his parting words already sounding distant.

            “Beware the pestilence of Putragle. The hidden threat lies close. Even among your friends. Trust no one! And remember to save the Empire at all costs! If we lose the Empire, we lose the ability to rally the people. Your mission starts in Malden. Virriel will look for you. Good luck with the Stonequest!”

Seydor vanished, and Wolf found himself surrounded by darkness.

Author Notes This is the inciting incident for the story. It is heavy on exposition. Hopefully, the dialogue will be interesting. Thank you.


Chapter 11
Family Problems

By duaneculbertson

Wolf forced Glamdray to adopt an aggressive pace. It was fifty leagues to Malden, so he would eventually have to slow his horse, but, for the moment, it felt good to gain distance from the lingering threat. The thrill of fine horsemanship, the speed, the wind through his hair – all helped to revive his spirits.

The land stretched out for miles. The Wonders were on his left this time. As always, he admired the black monoliths, their sheer surfaces stretching high into the clouds. He wondered, as all scholars did, what secrets they contained.

Not far from the first monolith lay an abyss, a giant chasm that fell into nothingness. Perfectly circular and lined with an unknown metal, they confounded even the best thinkers of the modern age. The nearly unbreakable material itself defied analysis, the few fragments extracted resistant to the fires of both the Dwarven forges and those of Damascus.

Brave explorers had even tried abseiling their depths, but none ever returned with meaningful insights. Some never returned at all.

Occasionally, entire cattle herds perished when they happened to graze too close to these mysterious holes. Popular belief held that foul air belched from these giant portals. Farmers sometimes shared the fate of their livestock. Most never woke up. The ones that did claimed the last thing they could remember was the smell of rotten eggs. People of science racked their brains for answers, but their efforts were in vain. Prudent farmers planted their crops far from these pitfalls and kept their livestock away. Erected barriers prevented the more daring of the children from playing near them, although occasionally there were still tragedies.

The great holes in the earth were few and far between compared with the tall monoliths. In total there were not more than a dozen on the journey from Malden to Aachen, as well as a few North on the road to Kingsport. As Wolf passed the first, he sighed aloud, as it marked the start of his long journey.
Wolf saw a lone rider approach in the distance and slowed his horse instinctively. He noticed a black feather sprouting from a tri-cornered hat, and his vague apprehensions were confirmed – it was Quendar.

            “What are you doing?” Wolf challenged, once his brother was in earshot.

            “I’ve come to take you home … by force if necessary. Mother’s worried sick. She fears her precious firstborn has departed without his reason. I know better though. Like a craven dog, you’re just shirking your responsibilities…”

            “And you’re just a stubborn ass! What do you possibly hope to achieve?”

            “I’m bringing you to justice!” Quendar spat. His dappled gray Andalusian trotted within a few paces of Wolf’s warhorse. Wolf noticed his brother’s face was flushed with drink.

            “Justice?” Wolf mocked. “What would you know of Justice? Besides, you’re no warrior. You can’t possibly stop me. Don’t even try.”

            “I beg to differ!” Quendar hissed. He pulled something from his saddlebag, and before Wolf could react he was struck in the chest. Looking down he saw a dart. His eyes blurred.

            “Madness!” Wolf roared. “What have you done?”

            “Scorpion venom, dearest brother,” Quendar said with a smile of triumph. “You are right, I could never beat you in a fight, so I had to take extreme measures. Now, you will be much more tractable. Sorry for the pain. There was no other way. Your body will clear the toxin in a day or two. Just don’t plan on doing any vigorous exercise anytime soon, as it dulls the reflexes. And I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Wolf groaned, slumping forward in his saddle, his nostrils filling with the scent of his well-exercised steed. Agitated, his faithful horse whinnied and snorted, keenly aware of his master’s plight.

            “It’s only a few hours of paralysis,” Quendar mocked. “You’ll be right as rain in no time. Able to answer all Mother’s questions, in person.”

Wolf tried to speak, but his tongue felt heavy. It lolled about in his mouth. Even breathing seemed difficult. He felt himself draped over the side of his horse and his hands tightly bound. Then he blacked out.

 
Form and color returned to the world and gradually the painful ringing in his head gave way to the hypnotic clopping of hoofbeats. Wolf forgot where he was. Then, recollection dawning, his fear gave way to rage. He spat obscenity-laden threats, calling out the treachery of his brother.

            “You fool!” Wolf spat. “You know not what you do! Our world is in great peril, yet you jeopardize our existence with your ignorance and stupidity. This is not a game!”

            “You must be referring to the cryptic letter you left for us. Some delusion of yours, no doubt. No, Wolf, this is not a game. Actions have consequences. And there are high prices to be paid – thanks to you, I’ve lost my only son.”

Wolf winced at the brutal condemnation. Not a day went by without thinking of his nephew. The tragedy gnawed away at his insides, and occasionally he could not even bring himself to eat.

            “I loved Gwidron,” Wolf began. “I did all I could to find him. Far more than policy would dictate. One must eventually accept the horrors of war. The implacability of men births many tragedies. The battlefield is not a venue you can control. ”

            “You did not do all you could,” Quendar howled. “If you had, he would still be alive! No less than four companies were at your disposal. General Kantwohner!” His last words were spat in a scornful tone laden with all the bitter disrespect he could muster.

            “As I’ve told you countless times, I commanded over six hundred men, but I could not risk them all searching for my own flesh and blood! How would that look? If an officer deployed his men to hunt down a lost family member instead of achieving military objectives that would be a dereliction of duty. And the erosion of public trust is the quickest path to defeat. Gwidron was a man. Honor his memory by letting the past go. I’m sorry about what happened, but it wasn’t my fault.”

            “Not your fault? Your favorite mantra! Was it my son who chose to lead a doomed military expedition deep into enemy territory?”

            “Yes!” Wolf hissed. “In fact, it was! He came to me the night before and begged me for command of the company. I gave it to him because I loved him. Military glory was all he ever wanted, probably to please his implacable, long-suffering alcoholic father!”

Quendar struck Wolf in the face with his riding crop.

            “How dare you!” he spat. “I’m a better father than you’ll ever be!”

Blood rushed to Wolf’s temples and a heat unlike any he had ever known surged through his extremities. His hands throbbed and he found the strength to pull free of the ropes binding them. He tore Quendar from his horse, dumping him to the ground.

His brother simply gaped in astonishment.

            “Forgive me,” Wolf breathed before knocking his brother senseless.

           What just happened? Where did that come from?

Dizzy with senses reeling, he now had yet another question in need of answering. Like the others, it would have to wait.

Kantwohner Manor loomed in the distance. With his keen sight, he noticed Brill manning the gate. He would like nothing more than to call out to him, to go back to that peaceful life. He missed his mother too, now more than ever. Her calm, careful demeanor would offer much-needed guidance at this difficult time, and her wisdom and insight could prove invaluable.

Wolf shook his head in regret. He wished he had spoken more with his mother since returning, yet he knew he must stay away. He could have explained everything with the ring, but he did not wish to waste the enchantment. Seydor said it would fade with time, and since he didn’t know how many times it would work, he swore to use it only when necessary. Nor did he want to involve her anyway. She was no warrior. She was just the wonderful woman who had raised him. Better to keep her safe. Keep her separate.

Wolf lashed his brother to the saddle and sent the gray Andalusian trotting back towards Kantwohner Manor. It was not long before Quendar regained consciousness. He turned his swollen face to regard his brother.

            “You monster!” he spat. “I’ll find you! Wherever you go, I find you!”

            “The only thing you can find these days is the bottom of a bottle. Now shut up and go take care of Mother! Seydor knows, she has enough problems to worry about. I will not add mine to her growing list. Follow me if you wish. I don’t care.”

Enraged, Quendar let loose a tirade of expletives, weaving carefully crafted insults followed by more of his mean-spirited accusations, lies born from a brain addled by drink, but repeated so often that Wolf wondered if his brother may now believe them. It did not matter; it was a sad situation, a broken relationship best forgotten, considering the present state of the world.

Glamdray whickered, clearly uncomfortable with recent developments. He wanted to be off, and Wolf knew it was time to oblige. With a growing sense of relief, he mounted.

The journey to Malden would be arduous, but at least the backtracking part was over. Now, he could head South and search for the first stone. At this time of year, there were many hours of daylight remaining. And these days, with the increased size of the moon, he could even travel at night if necessary, although this was not desirable. The far better option would be to get some sleep, and allow Glamdray a chance to rest, rather than push onwards and have him risk tripping in the darkness. Being thrown from one’s horse had no outcome that did not result in serious injury, something he could ill afford. Besides, traveling by day would allow for the possibility of seeing fellow roadwardens, an opportunity to exchange news and even get help if necessary.

 
 


Chapter 11
A Burden Shared

By duaneculbertson

Quertin winced as he passed his hand over a spot on his forehead where a mouse blossomed. “Hurts as bad as a four-year-old bastard callin’ ya ‘Daddy’.”

            “Is that a problem you encounter often?” Wolf asked, managing to jest despite the knots gathering in his stomach.

            “No. Not really. I used to be a bastard once myself,” Quertin chuckled.

            “Still are, then. You can’t unbastardize yourself.”

            “Ah, is that my problem? And to think I’ve tried so hard all these years.”

            Wolf chuckled and shook his head. “Lie down, my friend,” he said. “I insist.”

            “Well, if you insist. How could I refuse?” Quertin obliged, groaning softly, as if the change from vertical to horizontal had amplified his discomfort.

Wolf emptied the contents of a jar into a basin of water. The blue crystals danced upon the surface before forming ice. Wolf chipped off a large chunk, wrapped it in a bandage, and applied it to Quertin’s head.

            “What is it you wish to say?” Quertin asked.

Wolf drew a chair. Sunlight poured in from the only window. He could see the sun was only a quarter through its skyward arc, yet it already felt like it had been a long day. Dreading the remainder, he wondered if it were not too late to head home and reject the quest, somehow finding the words to apologize to Seydor. Of course, he knew this impossible. He had a sacred duty to perform; it was not his place to question it.

Quertin’s room was hot as a kiln, but it could not be helped. The man had to lie down, else risk losing his balance. And this was the best place.

            “What I am about to tell you is of such monumental importance that I barely know where to start.” Wolf said, casting his friend a rueful glance. “And you will not believe it anyway.”

            “Oh, trust me. I’ve heard them all … and like that whimsical creature from that play I can’t remember, each day I try to believe three impossible things before breakfast.”

            “You haven’t heard this one before. I promise.”

           “Come now, it can’t be that remarkable. If you don’t know where to start, just start at the beginning, since I know nothing of your tale.”

            “Very well. Last night, I was visited by Seydor and …”

            “Seydor!” Quertin gasped. “You’re right. I don’t believe you. No sane man has ever made such a claim …”

            “Told you it would be hard to accept. And I know it sounds incredible, but it’s the purest truth. Seydor revealed a great many things but the crux is that a contest of the gods is about to take place, and the fate of the world will be governed by its outcome.”

            “Most likely a dream,” Quertin replied. “They say stress can do that to a man. Some nights, after a battle, I wake up screaming, lying in a pool of sweat, and I swear I can see the men I’ve killed standing before me, like ghosts or fell apparitions. You’ve suffered a terrible loss, Wolf. That’s probably all it is. Seydor appearing before you in a vivid vision is just how your mind is dealing with the trauma.”

            “No! That’s not it at all!” Wolf retorted, burning with impatience. “These were not self-contrived remarks crafted by an addled, disturbed brain! Nor did I suffer from some fleeting, transient delusion! Seydor and I had a lengthy, complex conversation. Besides, he gave me this! Look!”

            Wolf handed the talisman to Quertin, who turned it over in his hand. The Sword and Crossed Gauntlets adorned one side. Otherwise, it was nondescript, like a coin on a chain. The metal of its construction, though, the Swordmaster could not place, resembling grayish gold and feeling far too heavy.

            “Perhaps, I’m the one dreaming,” Quertin said. “Maybe that foreign bitch rang my bell harder than I thought. S’blud! That was a woman!”

            Wolf fixed him with his most serious stare, and the older man withered under the force of his gaze, shying away, slightly embarrassed, almost as if he feared his friend had the powers of the mythical basilisk, and would soon turn him to stone if he did not agree to support his story.

            “Oh! Very well!” Quertin relented. “Let’s just say for argument’s sake, that what you say is true. That it was no delusion. Nothing you ate. No bite of a poisonous insect. Why would Seydor return after all this time and choose you as his chess piece?”

            “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Wolf replied wryly. Remembering the ring, he pulled it from a pouch on his belt.

            “Here,” he said. “Put this on.”

            “What is it?” Quertin asked.

            “Just do it!” Wolf demanded, his anger flaring once again.

            Quertin took the ring and put it on his finger. Instantly, he gasped and leapt to his feet. His irises contracted, as if blinded by light, and he let out a fearful groan before falling back upon his bed.

            “I’ve … I’ve seen,” he stammered. “Yes, this is serious indeed.”

            Wolf sighed with visible relief, his body seeming to shed a small fraction of the tension it had stored. “Thank you!” he replied unable to totally suppress a tone laden with exasperation.

            “That is why I have come with such urgency," Wolf continued. "We must go to Malden at once! We must find and secure the first stone before the forces of the Dark Lords!” A manic quality invaded Wolf’s voice, almost suggesting he believed that the two of them could singlehandedly bring an end to the Stonequest within the next fortnight if only they just worked together. “I need your combat skills, Quertin. Your tactical mind. And you’re one of the few I can trust.”

            Quertin furrowed his brow and frowned, responding slowly to the impassioned request. “My duty is here with the Empire. I can’t just walk away from scores of men in my charge. Training officers is important. The war effort depends upon it. And we are just halfway through. No one else can instruct them at this critical stage.”

            Wolf bit his lip and turned from his friend. He knew the argument made sense. It just was not the reply he wanted. Nor expected. Doubt crept into his thoughts again.

            “Look,” Quertin began gently. “I can probably join you further down the road. This … Stonequest? … will not be over anytime soon. Perhaps I can find someone to fill my role. But it will take time.”

            “I suppose you’re right,” Wolf said graciously. “It just would’ve been nice to have had you along. You were always like a father to me … and now …”

            “Your father was a great man, Wolf. He deserved a royal service at the capitol.”

            “The family decided against it. Instead, we had a small, private gathering. It was what he wanted; his last wish – he really loved our farm.”

            “You have my condolences … and my love.”

            “For the latter, I am most grateful,” Wolf said, managing a warm smile, despite harboring feelings of abandonment and bitter disappointment.

            “There are things I can do for you here though, Wolf.  You have enemies at the Royal Court, and some have no qualms about voicing their indiscretions. I will document their loose lips, recording every foolish thing they say, gathering their calumny and reporting it back to you. Runcheon is getting up in years, and it would be wise to have someone here in the capitol who can keep you abreast of politics. I say little, but I see everything. Your uncle has a group of cronies and is positioning himself to inherit the kingdom. As far as I know, Runcheon has not talked about stepping down, but you never know. The Contest will require all our skills. And I suspect many of its challenges will not be solved by sword alone.”

            “Wise words,” Wolf said. He rose to his feet, cracking his knuckles in the process, an unconscious manifestation of his inherent irritation.

            Quertin returned the ring to Wolf and flashed him a sympathetic smile. “Well, my friend, they say a burden shared, is a burden lessened, so I’m happy I could help you in that respect. However, I almost wish you had not told me to put that ring on. The world is different now. Frightening and uncertain. And I fear we will never be able to go back to how things were.”

            “Truer words have never been spoken,” Wolf replied with sobriety. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must speak with Alcuin.”

            “Fair enough. I believe you can find him toiling in his rooftop knowledge-den, though what he does there, I know not.

            Wolf nodded, managing a polite smile before leaving the room. Alone.
 

Author Notes This is a chapter leading to Wolf's adventures in Malden.


Chapter 11
Alcuin

By duaneculbertson

            “I thought I smelled the foul stench of Barbarian!” spat a gruff voice.

A broad-shouldered, older man with wild, flaxen hair stood barring the stairwell. Beneath a belligerent brow, scornful eyes glared menacingly. A battle-scar on his cheek permanently drew his lips downwards into a sneer, augmenting the delivery of his mocking words, his granite jaw serving as a fitting vessel for his non-delicate tongue.

Wolf paused to acknowledge the disdainful presence of Aethling Prince Janicus. Despite the Summer heat, his uncle wore the sash of an imperial field commander with gold epaulets fastening a heavy, scarlet cape about his shoulders. Unruly blond hair streaked with gray framed an arrogant face which age had visited yet left none of its wisdom.

“You’re probably just smelling yourself, uncle. Too many cronies have dunged your coat-tails by riding them through the streets. What are you doing here anyway? This part of the castle is reserved for learned men.”

            “Blast your impudent hide! One day I will be king, and you will kneel before me.”

            “What a glorious day that will be!” Wolf said, flashing a sardonic smile. “Regrettably, I have pressing matters elsewhere.” He bowed with feigned politeness.

Janicus snorted in contempt prompting Wolf to add, “By the way, I saw Lady Adrasta crossing the salon on the level below. Perhaps she’d be willing to embroider a new cape for you. I know how close the two of you are.”

Janicus said nothing as the Parthian shot lingered, and Wolf ascended the stairs.

After walking past a broad gallery of paintings and ducking into an alcove, Wolf found himself at the door of Alcuin’s study and knocked gently.

            “Come in,” said a voice.

            Wolf pushed the door and it swung inwards upon frictionless hinges. In the cozy confines of the brick and mortar room, an older gentleman clad in scarlet robes heavy with gilt embroidery sat before a grimoire lying upon a cherrywood desk. Bent forward, he scrutinized a passage with his keen, penetrating eyes. He had an aquiline nose, and his balding head gave him an almost tonsured appearance. He was so absorbed in his work that he did not even look up.

            “What do you want?” he asked.

            “To speak with an old friend,” Wolf stated.

            “Wolf?” Alcuin said, beaming. “Could it really be Wolf Kantwohner?” His eyes sparkled with warmth and he stretched out his hand. “So good to see you.”

            Wolf rounded the table and embraced his friend.

            “It’s been too long,” Alcuin said.

            “Indeed, it has. Though I see this place hasn’t changed much.” Wolf admired the overstuffed bookcase lining the back wall, the tomes sprouting from shelves as if competing for their owner’s attention. The musty odor of the place lay beneath the scent of beeswax candles, which burned on a slab by the window.

            “I’m sixty-two!” Alcuin volunteered with asperity.

            “What?”

            “I’m sixty-two. I’m not old. You said you wanted to speak with an ‘old’ friend.”

            Wolf managed only a feeble smile, as he was nervous about the possibility of a second rejection immediately following on the heels of his visit with Quertin. He knew this was not realistic and correctly identified his fears as simple paranoia. Alcuin was a man of thought, and he knew there was no way he would allow Wolf to leave without providing him with any useful guidance on something as important as the Stonequest. The realization filled him with confidence; Alcuin would have a much better idea on how to meet the challenges associated with the Contest.

            “Anyway,” Alcuin continued. “I received your note but did not expect you so soon. You must have ridden hard to get here. What’s the rush, my boy?”

            “Time is not my friend these days,” Wolf replied. “I’ve come to tell you I’ve sworn my life to an urgent mission.”

            “You are full of mystery. Have you at last found Atelka?”

            “This is of greater importance.”

            “Greater importance? What could it be?”

            “It’s easier if I show you.”

            Wolf slid the ring onto Alcuin’s finger. The old man’s face adopted a grave expression, but, unlike Quertin, his body remained calm and peaceful. His eyes seemed focused on something far away, as if watching ships on the horizon.

            Alcuin removed the ring and returned it to Wolf.

            “Well?” Wolf prompted. Alcuin was one of the smartest people he knew. He could see the light in things that would remain dark to many. He had been like a second father too, and Wolf craved his support.

            “Our world has changed overnight, my son.”

            “You are taking it much better than I did,” Wolf offered.

            “I’ve suspected the gods. Now you’ve given me proof. I knew these strange happenings throughout the land could not be devoid of meaning. Disappearing livestock and fouled crops are one thing, entire villages obliterated by storms is another. Even the wildlife is behaving unnaturally. In the North, mountain goats are grazing among common sheep on the plains, driven from their habitats by some mysterious threat. Such anomalies in our world have now become commonplace and demand immediate, corrective action. If only others in the palace had an ounce of imagination and felt the same way.”

            “Indeed, Master,” Wolf said. He watched the man who always had all the answers walk to the window and blow out the candles, falling silent, his face darkening, as if heavy thoughts gathered upon his brow. Wolf could not tell if it were anxiety or excitement that he was witnessing.

            “You are right about one thing, Wolf,” he said. “We must act fast. There is not a moment to lose. This is an all-or-nothing brawl with a winner-takes-all outcome. Our people have never faced such a crisis. But we shall rise to the challenge. We always do. Failure is not an option!”

            “I appreciate the gravity of the situation. That’s why I came to you.”

            “This is a terrible burden unleashed upon the people of the world. Bad news following bad news. You’ve heard about the Great Sage?”

            “A few unpleasant rumors … Nothing more.”

            “He’s gone missing. Killed. Possibly abducted in his very home by some demon from the depths of the Aether.”

            Wolf paled. “How do you know this?” he asked.

            “I am overseeing a committee to investigate the incident. Cowering in a stairwell, his son, Stanton, listened to the systematic torture of his father. He chanced to learn the name of the demon … Zaksontal … I believe it was.”

            “Horrible,” whispered Wolf. “The talents and wisdom of the Great Sage would be invaluable for the Stonequest.

            “Yes, he was using a powerful device of prognostication. I believe he may have seen things that could directly benefit the plight of our people. We must find him.”

            “If he yet lives …”

            “Aye. Alas, he is probably dead. And it is a moot point anyway, since we have no means of entering the Aether to rescue him, if, as I suspect, that is where he was taken.”

            Wolf’s shoulders drooped and a feeling of futility threatened to drown his soul; he did his best to resist. He had to believe Alcuin could find a path to victory.

            “What we do have, my boy, is knowledge,” Alcuin stated. “The knowledge contained in that ring makes the tragedy transparent. The powers of darkness are trying to enter the Realm to search for the stones, bypassing the need of using followers. They tried to use Ragerius. No doubt they will try to manipulate others like him. Treachery is their modus operandi. We must stop them at all costs.”

            “Agreed. That is why I have come. Will you join me on my journey to Malden?”

            Alcuin turned from Wolf’s expectant gaze. “I wish I could, but my duty lies here. I need to learn more about the demonic breach. And there is something of great importance Ragerius was working on. They are called the Forbidden Documents. The demon nearly destroyed them, but some sections were spared. I must examine what remains and glean what I can from the notes in his knowledge-tome.”

            Wolf’s mouth gaped in astonishment. He could barely believe his ears. “But Seydor has already given us everything we need. The ring. His blessing. We must get to Malden and find the stone before it’s too late!”

            “Wolf, I’m sixty-two. I would just slow you down. I can help you much better by staying here and researching the Prophecy.”

            “You know the Prophecy?” asked Wolf.

            “It was practically burned into my brain when I put that ring on. But I would like to peruse the other surviving documents. And I need to stay and work with the boy. He’s still in shock, but he’s making progress. Perhaps when he recovers further, he will be able to tell us more.”

            “Well, I suppose you know best,” Wolf sighed. “You always do.”

            Alcuin smiled. “We can win the Contest. Our people have persevered for thousands of years when faced with difficult situations. No reason to stop now.”

            “I hope you’re right,” Wolf replied. “Before I go, can I get a transcription of those documents?”

            “Sure. I will summon an interrogation-proof scribe.”

            “Interrogation-proof?”

            “Vanadian incursion parties have given to capturing our scribes and torturing them for information. To solve this problem, we’ve been using scribes who can’t read.”

Wolf fed Alcuin a blank stare.

            “The scribes need not know the meaning of the words they copy; they need only copy the symbols. All that is required is good handwriting.”

            “Brilliant!” Wolf replied. He realized he had been clenching his fists for several minutes. He paused to take a deep breath. All the stress had him wound tight as a drum. The Stonequest was beginning, yet he felt he had gained no momentum, despite all his earlier pre-dawn planning. As of this moment, he had no tangible support. He didn’t even have anyone to watch his back. It was profoundly frustrating.

             “You will talk to your grandfather before you leave for Malden?” asked Alcuin.

Wolf was caught off-guard, forced to flee his thoughts and return to confront reality. He nodded slowly.

            “That was my plan. I want to establish a credit at the Bank of Malden for anticipated expenses. I need mercenaries, and they will be costly. Grandfather’s signature would guarantee the credit I need.”

            “Good idea, though it may be best not to share the quest with him just yet.”

            “Why is that?” Wolf asked.

            “Your grandfather can be quite heavy-handed. If you were to involve him, he may tear Malden apart searching for the stone. He would mean well, but he could ruin everything. I predict certain parts of the Contest will require finesse more than fortitude.”

            “Yes, what you say is most wise. We will not tell him everything just yet.”

            “Good. He’ll be in the Throne-room at this hour. I’ll go with you. I’ve got something to ask him as well.”

 

Author Notes How is the dialogue in this chapter? There is little else for commentary. Was it effective and believable?

Thanks,
Dave


Chapter 11
Garnering Support for the Cause

By duaneculbertson

Wolf allowed his eyes to adjust. He glanced out the window. Dawn approached as he organized his bewildered thoughts.

Was I dreaming? Impossible. I have a gold ring on my finger and a talisman around my neck. Oh! It feels more like a shackle than a charm.

Wolf sat on the edge of the bed, holding his head in his hands, as if trying to prevent his reason from escaping. He took deep breaths, still having trouble believing what had just happened. However, the material evidence was impossible to refute. He wondered how he had managed to earn the respect of a god. While flattering, he was certain the role he was to play in the conflict was not one he would have chosen.

Seydor appearing in my bedroom! No one will believe it. I don’t believe it! I’m over forty winters, yet I’m expected to save the world?! What did I do to deserve this honor … or curse?

Pausing in his reflections, his face hardened. He loved challenges. And this one was perhaps the greatest ever conceived. He vowed to do his best to rise to the occasion. There was no way in Hell he was going back to sleep now. Color would return to the world soon anyway; he may as well start packing everything he would need for this trip to Malden. He rummaged through his wardroom, planning to travel light. The absurd summer heat meant he needed little clothing. Of course, he would don his leather armor. He would take food for the journey as well. His heart raced as he thought of what else he would need. He tried to think of the quest as some grand adventure, pretending that the beating of his heart was due to excitement rather than fear.
 
Wolf penned a letter to his mother, hoping the words therein would not upset her to much:

Dear Mother, it pains me that I must leave under such circumstances, veiled by the cover of darkness, as if a common criminal. It grieves me to think I may hurt and possibly lose the love of the ones I care about most in this world. Unfortunately, circumstances outside my control have arisen and great haste is necessary. A divine vision came to me  – Lord Seydor – entrusting me with a sacred quest. I know what reaction these words will bring, but I assure you it is not the treachery of the sun, moldy bread, or turned meat that has spawned in me a deceptive delusion. Instead, I am motivated by the tangible proof I hold in my hand. This is what forces my urgent flight. I wish it were otherwise. And, unfortunately, I must leave immediately. Aggrieved I am that I must depart in such an ignoble fashion.

Know that I am still devoted to the family, to honoring Father’s memory, and to making the world a better, safer place for all people.

I am off to see Grandfather. May he have an open mind and pray that he still has an open heart to hear a tale which is difficult to tell, and even more difficult to believe. Love you always, and I promise to return as soon as possible. There is more at stake than you can fathom.  Give my love to the others and take care of yourself.
Love,
Wolf

 
 Blood coursed through Wolf’s temples, and he wiped away the persipiration streaming down his face. He placed the missive on the kitchen table and used a block of cheese as a paperweight. He then scarfed down a slice of bread before making his way to the stables.

It would be dawn soon. Wolf stored the Reinkraft book inside the loculus draped over his horse. This would keep it out of view, yet within reach. He would consult it whenever he could, convinced the arcane tome held secrets that would save lives.

Wolf’s first stop would be the citadel, then Aachen University, followed by the palace. He had friends and family to see.

In the stable, Wolf saddled Glamdray and gathered provisions before donning his roadwarden gear. He did not wear the badge, since he was no longer working for the Empire in any official capacity – he now had a far greater duty to perform. In fact, he ended his tour with the roadwardens weeks ago. Nevertheless, jurisdiction was a useful power, and he knew his credentials would open doors that would remain closed to many.

Wolf led his horse to the Rookery. Even at this early hour the pigeons were active. His presence prompted a great cooing, which he hoped would not wake the household. With haste, he scrawled two notes, alerting friends of his pending arrival. He dispatched the homing pigeons and watched them ascend into the gray mists of the approaching dawn.

Wolf retrieved his crossbow from a hook on the wall. He had left the weapon there to remind him to shoot down any hawks in the area. It was the one serious problem when relying on pigeons to relay important news. Predators in the sky only saw them as food, oblivious to their utility as couriers for passing along urgent information. These days signal towers were the surest means of relaying information. Crucial matters of the state were the only items approved for transmission. And being the grandson of the presiding Emperor held less clout than one would think. It was a moot point though; the nearest tower was nearly two leagues to the South, and Wolf was heading North.

He secured his crossbow to his saddle with a leather strap, a habit acquired from his days as a roadwarden – it was always good to have ranged weapons within reach. The silver-tipped arrows bristled from a quiver by his side. He feared the time for their use would come all too soon and wanted access to their potency at a moment’s notice. Not that he expected eldritch horrors to emerge from the forest to attack him on his journey, but it was good practice to expect the common, while preparing for the worst. A healthy degree of paranoia was never a bad thing, as long as it involved vigilance, not distraction.

A baldric secured his greatsword firmly upon his back, the sharp blade stored safely inside its thick leather sheath. Experience had taught him the countryside was ideal for harboring hidden dangers, and one could never be too cautious when traveling alone. It was good to have your weapons close, and if he lacked the time or space to draw his sword, he always carried a dagger on his belt. Wolf did not expect trouble; usually the sight of a man riding atop a proud warhorse with a greatsword strapped to his back was enough of a deterrent to dissuade even the most ambitious highwayman or gang of thieves.

Wolf was fond of his greatsword. Truebite was a proud gift from Swordsmaster Keels, the one who trained him in the art of the sword. Having no heir himself, the master passed along his family heirloom to the one he considered the finest he had ever trained. And right away, Wolf could tell the sword was special, worthy of its ostentatious name. On the blade’s unsharpened ricasso, engraved in intricate detail, was a dragon with gaping jaws. Perhaps this was the visual eponym inspiring its name.

Wolf loved the sword’s balance, strength, and versatility. The extended ricasso allowed for half-swording techniques. A simple fuller ran down the center of the blade to lighten the weight.  The term “greatsword” was a misnomer, for it was really a hand-and-a-half sword, allowing the weapon to be either scabbarded by the wearer’s side, or strapped across the back with a ringed baldric. Either way the wielder could draw the sword provided he had sufficient space for the maneuver. The sword had stylized quillons with inlaid runic inscriptions allegedly imparting the wielder with supernatural fighting powers. Whether this was true, Wolf knew not, but he loved the weapon all the same, and it filled him with confidence whenever he drew its blade.

It was almost dawn, the grey glow on the horizon offering evidence that the sun had not forgotten to return for another day. To Wolf, the approaching sunrise was daunting and portentous, as if marking the end of an era of tranquility. He imagined fear and uncertainty would become the norm. Dispelling this unpleasant realization, he managed to derive some comfort from the thought that he would soon be seeing old friends. Hopefully, they would help. Then there was the elf druid from Glendor Forest Seydor mentioned. Wolf hoped she would be powerful and resourceful. What was her name? Virriel?

It was twenty-two miles to Aachen. With luck, he would be there before noon.

 
 

Author Notes I have decided to go back and publish the eight chapters I skipped. Although they can be removed from an abridged copy, I want Fanstory readers to have the full experience. I will probably not offer generous reviewing bonuses, but I still would love to hear your comments. Maybe I can place an award to give credit to all chapters in the book that people have not read, expensive but worthwhile.
Thanks again,
Duane Culbertson


Chapter 11
Swordmaster Keels

By duaneculbertson

Quertin Keels scanned the courtyard below. The men were going through fencing drills. Two dozen split into pairs according to their ability. Quertin had served as Royal Swordmaster for over thirty years, and, although he had gone gray, had lost none of his quickness, nor his love of fencing. Training the Imperial Guard was an honor he would not soon relinquish, as long as he had any say in the matter.

                Passing its zenith, the sun roasted the cobblestones. The men wilted under its cruel gaze, their exertions rendered doubly onerous.  Quertin rested his hands atop the stone balustrade and scrutinized his men. Flanking him were men-at-arms, pacing along the walls of the keep, the sunlight glinting off their polished halberds.

                The clanging of metal on metal echoed off the walls of mortar and stone. Sweat ran down Quertin’s neck and into his leather jerkin. Usually eager to praise a blow well-struck or a point well-scored, his thoughts were uncharacteristically elsewhere. His vacant eyes regarded the men in a distracted fashion, as if his presence were just some perfunctory obligation.

                Normally he was not the kind to indulge in augury or give credence to omens, but the words spoken last night by the old crone troubled him. A crazy, old bat, she had somehow managed to secure the position of Royal Astrologer, an accomplishment made doubly impressive considering all the learned men of science living in the castle. Lord Alcuin simply referred to her as the Charlatan. Occasionally though, the woman predicted the truth, and it would be folly to disregard her entirely. Something in her demeanor lent weight to her words last night, and before he went to sleep a raven perched on the parapet outside his window, impudently regarding him until he had driven it off. Then there was the cryptic note earlier from Wolf Kantwohner. It simply read– Urgent need to speak with you. Something significant would happen today. He was sure of it.

                Footsteps to his right drew his attention. A woman approached. Clad in red leather, she moved with grace and elegance with her body possessing an underlying strength. His pulse quickened as he studied her curves, thin neck, thick lips and mysterious dark eyes. Her hair was the color of oil at midnight streaked in places with crimson highlights. A leather clip directed it backwards like a plume on a helmet. Such was its length that it fell about her shoulders, rich and lustrous. She stopped before him; then faced the spectacle below.

                “Don’t you just love competitive sport?” she purred in a foreign accent.

                “It’s more than sport, milady,” Quertin replied. “These drills prepare men for battle. I admit there is a certain pleasure in practicing the fighting arts; however, their instruction is always geared towards a more solemn end.”

                “Spoken like a true fighting-master,” she said. She laughed with genuine mirth and placed a hand on his shoulder.

                Quertin searched her face to divine her intentions but read only playful mischief in her actions.

                “Jocasta,” she said, extending her hand.

                “I am…”

                “Quertin Keels,” she said swiftly. “Famous throughout Etruria and beyond.”

                Her words came stilted, steeped with a curious accent he could not place. He kissed the offered hand.

                “Are you far from home?” he asked.

                “I hail from Atherspa. I’m on a diplomatic mission to see his Excellency, but I was too early, so I decided to take a walk. I chanced upon this courtyard, and the sounds of swordplay drew me. The fighting arts have always held a special place in my heart. I see your men are doing the typical war drill. Ox to plow. Zornhau to krumpau. Basic winding and binding.”

                Quertin regarded her suspiciously. The men were indeed practicing the war drill – when swords clashed, each opponent would try to predict the intentions of the other and act accordingly, either disengaging to target another opening, or winding the arms up to slide along the opponent’s blade and thrust to the chest.

                 “Such knowledge is rare in women. How do you know these things?”

                “Father taught me,” she said, favoring him with a smile revealing perfect, white teeth. “From an early age, I learned to wield a sword. In truth, swordcraft has served as the one constant companion in my life.”

                Quertin noticed a scar on the side of her cheek, its whiteness speaking to a time long ago. He wondered if it were received in battle. Was it a duel? Or an accident? Although curious, he was too chivalrous to ask.

                 “Then you must be a woman of remarkable discipline,” he offered.

                “I would like to think so…”

                Sounds in the courtyard faded as twenty-four pairs of eyes stared upwards. The woman, an unquestionable beauty, was a distraction few could ignore.

                Quertin scowled. “What are you doing?” he roared. “Did I tell you to stop? Get back to your drills!”

                Jocasta laughed, taking advantage of the opportunity. “I’ve a better idea,” she said. “Would the men like to see a duel?” she asked him in a loud voice clearly meant for the larger audience.

                The men cheered, grateful for the excuse to take a break. Many rested on their sword-pommels as they recovered. Others unfastened sweaty gorgets, casting them aside or carelessly dropping them to the ground. Some sat on stone plinths surrounding the courtyard, while others simply sank to the cobblestones. Although exhausted, they were revived by a mischievous, almost mutinous, energy which swept through them. They sensed something unusual was about to happen.

                “Come,” she whispered to Quertin, pulling him towards the stairs.

                “Um, I’m not sure what you’ve planned,” he began, “but these exercises are quite dangerous. This is no place for a woman.”

                “Oh, did you hear that, men?” she asked. “Quertin is afraid he will hurt me. Rather ironic, since I fear hurting him."

                The word afraid and the bizarre way he was being dragged to the Field of Honor offended his pride.

Who the hell was this woman?

                The tall, mysterious beauty walked to a recessed wall where she grabbed two wooden wasters. She tossed one to Quertin then strode to the center of the courtyard. She twirled her wooden sword performing moulinets and practicing her master-strikes.

                Quertin studied her gaunt face. He wondered if he should speak but decided he would allow her to dictate the contest. This was her show. Adopting the von Tag guard, the sword held high overhead, he planted his feet on the well-worn cobblestones, distributing his weight evenly. As he did so, he found himself wondering how many duels the stones under his feet had seen throughout the ages. This was probably the first one involving a woman. He would have to remember to be gentle. It would not do to egregiously wound a lady, an ambassador no less. Such conduct would surely make the rounds – the gossip spreading like wildfire. He enjoyed a low profile at the castle and wished to keep it that way. Palace intrigue and power politics were something for lifelong courtiers and statesmen. He was a warrior.

                “Ready?” asked Jocasta.

                “I’m always ready,” said Quertin a touch of bravado. He studied her body as he attempted to anticipate her attack.

                In a flash she was upon him. She dealt a mighty blow to his left side. Instinct saved Quertin. He stepped back with a shielhau, the best counter to a charging opponent. His blow struck her forearm, knocking her sword from her hands. It clattered upon the cobblestones.

                She winced, but retrieved it nearly as rapidly as she had lost it.   

                “Again,” she hissed.

                Quertin had no time to argue. An angry blur, she stole the initiative and was upon him in seconds. A flurry of strikes forced him to give ground, and in doing so, he stumbled backwards and fell. Shame colored his cheeks, and the laughter of his men boiled his blood. He could not remember the last time he was bested in combat. And he wanted to keep it that way.

                “Let’s try that again,” he said.

                “I would be disappointed if you had said anything else,” she replied, favoring him with a mischievous grin.

                Quertin took a deep breath and devised a strategy. She seemed to enjoy pressing the attack. He would use this to his advantage. If he employed the “rose” technique, he could catch her as she stepped forward. By feinting an attack from above, the rose actually delivers an undercut from below. If he mistimed it though, his entire torso would be exposed and vulnerable.

                Jocasta charged. Quertin started swinging high, then twisted his arms at the last possible second, inverting the swing. The tip caught her under the chin. Blood spurted from her mouth, and she cursed in her native tongue. Had they been using real swords, she would have been killed.

                “Caught me with the rose, I see,” she sputtered. “You are a daring bastard.”

                “Sorry if I hurt you,” Quertin replied with genuine concern. “Let’s stop and tend to your wound.”

                “No! We are not finished yet!”

                The men hooted their appreciation. By now, some had ascended the stairs to sit atop the stone balustrade for a better view. Cries of encouragement came from all around and seemed to favor both combatants.

                To his right, he heard the crunch of gravel. A lone figure approached. Recognition dawned. He started to call out when a sword-blow struck his temple. His vision melted away and everything went black.
               
As Quertin slowly regained consciousness, Wolf Kantwohner offered him water from a canteen. Another man bandaged his head. He turned and vomited yet felt much better afterwards. He took another long draught from the canteen.

                The woman’s voice with her strange accent filled the courtyard. “Here is the lesson, men – Never underestimate your opponent, and, above all, never take your eyes off him…or her as the case may be.”

                She cast the wooden sword aside and turned to regard her vanquished opponent, a look of concern finally dawning over her features.

                A large man with hands like a bricklayer bounded forward.

                “What’s your game, woman?” he bellowed. “Treachery like that has no place on the Field of Honor!”

                “It’s only sparing,” she replied innocently. “He was distracted. I saw opportunity and claimed it.”

                “Seyd’sblood, woman! Curse you and your piss poor conduct! I don’t care where you come from, but before you go back, I’ll forge you a lesson you won’t soon forget!”

From his supine position, Quertin watched the rapidly unfolding drama. He was dazed, yet lucid enough to fear for Jocasta’s safety. Her fine swordsmanship would not save her from the savage beating the squad leader promised.

                “Stand down, Thorne!” Quertin growled. “Calm yourself, everyone. This woman is right. A proper swordsman never takes his eyes off his opponent. It was my mistake, not hers. Advantages are taken, not handed out. She has demonstrated this today. Mark her lesson well.”

                Thorne locked eyes with Jocasta, scowled, and pushed past her. Quertin could tell he wanted to hurt her badly. Fortunately, the chain of command was so ingrained in every soldier that it was nearly impossible to disregard.

                “Company dismissed!” Thorne bellowed.

The spectators sauntered from the courtyard, happy to escape the sun’s cruel gaze.

                “I should be going,” Jocasta said softly.

                “Just give me a second,” said Quertin. “You rang my bell pretty good, but I suppose it was a proper lesson. I’m not too old to learn. Nor too proud to admit when I’ve been bested. Never imagined a woman would possess such skills.”

                “Well, now you’ve met me,” she said, flashing her perfect smile.

                “My eyes still see spots before me, but unless I’m much mistaken, this is my good friend, Wolf Kantwohner.”

                “Nice to meet you,” said Wolf. He shook Jocasta’s hand respectfully.

                Quertin nodded his approval. Normally, his friend would have kissed the hand of a lady, but this lady was no lady; she was a warrior.

                Turning his attention to Wolf, he saw his student looked the same as he did two years ago, before he left for the Roadwardens. Quertin would probably always remember him too as the awkward boy who could barely hold a sword on his first day, yet somehow managed to beat all his best students by the end of the year.

                When Wolf went off to war, Quertin’s greatest fear was that his protégé would meet some ignoble, valor-starved end like catching a crossbow bolt in the chest on some god-forsaken battlefield. He would often tell his students that a warrior deserved to live and die by his own skill, not by some blind shot launched from the cold hands of some mechanical device.

                Wolf possessed the qualities one simply could not train – lightning reflexes, the ability to sense danger, and the intuition to exploit an opponent’s weakness. Moreover, he had excellent sword presence. When entering a bind, at the instant of contact when a critical decision had to be made, he knew whether his opponent was “hard” or “soft” at the sword and acted accordingly. Wolf was by far his best student. And he held him in such high regard that before the young grandprince went off to serve in his first campaign, Quertin presented him with his family’s ancestral sword, an honor usually passed from father to son.

Jocasta roused him from his thoughts.

                 “Are you feeling better?” she asked. “I’m sorry if I hurt you. Let me help you to your feet.”

                Quertin rose but held onto Wolf for support.

                “That was some good swordsmanship, Jocasta,” Wolf said. “I’ve rarely seen Quertin bested.”

                “Except when you fight me, right?” said Quertin. “Don’t be fooled by his modesty, Jocasta. Wolf is the finest swordsman I’ve ever trained. Without shame, I admit he has beaten me on more than one occasion.”

Jocasta’s dark eyebrows arched as she favored Wolf with an appraising glance. “Well, it is an honor to meet you then. I thought Quertin was the best in the land.”

                “We’re both good,” said Wolf, dismissively. “Any swordsman can beat any other swordsman on any given day, as long as the Fates are with him. But tell me, how did you learn to wield a sword like that? Is your sword for hire?”

                “My father taught me,” Jocasta said. “And, no, it is not for hire. I am no mercenary.”

                “I’m on an important mission and I need great warriors like yourself. Perhaps I can change your mind.”

                “Intrigued, I am. But I have an important mission of my own. Then I’m back to Atherspa. Perhaps one day our paths will cross.”

                “I hope so,” said Wolf. “I would love to see you fighting by my side. I certainly would not want to fight against you.”

                Jocasta bowed, accepting the compliment.

                “Please help me get Quertin back to his quarters,” Wolf said. “I’ve a matter of great importance to discuss with him. A matter of discretion.”

                Jocasta nodded. They each took an arm and helped the wobbly man to negotiate the winding stairs to the highest turret of the castle.


 


Chapter 12
Den of the Unclean

By duaneculbertson

Sebaycian Schlectblud had trouble standing. Kneeling on an olive-green surface of chitin, he regarded the one who had summoned him to this strange place. Periwinkle eyes devoid of pupils studied him.

                “Welcome to the Palace of Putragle,” said the figure.

Sebaycian stood shakily. His knees buckled and he steadied himself by placing his hand against a slimy, green wall. With great interest, he examined the demon before him. It was tall, muscularly built, with bluish-gray skin. Two gnarled horns protruded from its bald head. Its long arms were finished with razor-sharp, obsidian claws that reflected what little light the dank passage offered. Wherever he was inside the mythic palace, it was oppressively hot and humid, and the air bore an unearthly stench, heavy with a rank odor Sebaycian could not place.

A bilious chord punctured the demon’s chest, the strange appendage looping about its torso, as if a living garment. Sebaycian shrank back in momentary terror. It was a living garment! The head of a serpent slithered over the demon’s shoulder. Hissing, it regarding him with malevolent eyes.

                “Are you well?” asked the demon.

                “Fine,” Sebaycian lied. He felt as if he would vomit any second. His senses were reeling. He had been warned the trip would be unpleasant, but he found himself woefully ill-prepared for the harsh symptoms he now bore. Clenching his jaw, he fought to master his body, determined to show no weakness, if it could be helped.

The demon paused as if savoring the significance of the moment. Sebaycian wondered if other attempts had been made to summon humans in the past; perhaps he was the first one to arrive still living.

                 “I am honored … to be here,” Sebaycian stammered. His stomach twisted violently and his muscles burned, seized with cramps. Despite the nausea and discomfort, his heart raced with excitement. For years, the Grand Master of the Bloated Corpse had studied the Ways of Putragle. His hard work would soon pay off. Something of great importance was about to be revealed. Else why summon him for an audience with the Great One when a simple astral projection would suffice?

The mottled, gray skin upon Sebaycian’s face stank like rotten meat. Two black, soulless eyes stared out of a cruel, expressionless face. He had no hair of any kind. As a reward for his devotion, the Great One had marked him, the changes rendering him more, or less, of a man, depending on one’s point of view.  Besides the ability to summon eldritch powers at will, the most obvious sign he had been touched was his ghastly appearance – a condition of living death in which his face progressed through various states of decomposition throughout the day.

At first, a yellow tint, like one afflicted by jaundice, invaded his features, the only clue something was amiss. However, a malodorous stench soon accompanied him, lingering long after his departure, the radius growing ever larger by the hour. Next, like a split rotten tomato, the skin upon his face would stretch and crack to accommodate the expansion of the bloating tissues beneath. The decomposition would accelerate unabated until the ultimate state of putrefaction was achieved. To inflict maximum psychological horror, this state would endure for the remainder of the day until midnight when his face would return to its normal, unaltered condition, and the process would begin anew.

Sebaycian enjoyed the repulsive spectacle. As a child, he had suffered a skin condition and was ostracized by other children, so this affliction did not feel too different. Hatred, self-loathing, and power-lust drove him into the waiting arms of Putragle. Seduced by the promises of power at an early age, he never looked back. The abilities he now possessed would allow him to destroy his enemies and kill the ones who had mocked him his entire life.

The honors bestowed by Putragle brought great respect and admiration from other followers but made him conspicuous in public, alienating him from normal members of society and complicating his mission in the Realm. He was now a prime target for Truthseekers, and he could no longer show his face in daylight. If caught, he would be burned alive. It mattered little  now though. Sebaycian had grown his following. His hideous appearance was a sign of his power, helping him consolidate his authority. No rival would dare usurp him now.

Because of his fiendish appearance, his henchmen had to carry out all the above-ground-work with Sebaycian spending his days toiling in his underground fortress. The Bloated Corpse had established dormant colonies throughout the Empire, and Sebaycian waited for the sign to call them to life. Recently, he had been preparing for something known as the Time of Trials. He knew little of this event nor the role he would play, but his excitement peaked, as he contemplated realizing his ultimate dream – to stand before the Pestilent One.

                “My name is Temnok,” said the demon. “The Great One will see you now.”

                “Does this concern the Time of Trials?” Sebaycian asked.

                “Follow,” replied the demon.

Sebaycian’s host had already disappeared, swallowed by a dark hallway. He followed on shaky legs, running his hand along a wall to steady him. An organic feel permeated Putragle Palace, and Sebaycian imagined he could feel a pulse like that of a giant heartbeat. It was thrilling to gain first-hand knowledge about a place he had only heard of in legends.

Circling the neck of its host, the serpent continued to eye him maliciously. Sebaycian wondered if the creature loathed his involvement in the collective affairs of the Great One, perhaps disputing his value, or deeming him unworthy. These thoughts lit a flame of hatred and self-loathing deep inside him, rekindling feelings he had been unable to banish, despite acquiring all his new powers.

After negotiating myriad turns, they arrived at a chamber with a high ceiling. Light poured in from above, a welcome change Sebaycian felt. Thus far, the passages had only been illuminated by phosphorescent fungi clinging to the walls, a fact which caused him to stumble several times already. His guide, however, possessed the ability to see in the dark as evidenced by his confident movements in near pitch blackness. Several tunnels converged at this chamber. Above these, large structures resembling intestines hung as if festooned for some celebration. Upon inquiry, Sebaycian learned that the palace was indeed alive and housed a sentience of its own. They were walking deep within a giant beast.

                “These conduits feed the hatchlings,” said his guide. “They deliver pre-digested nutrients. We may pause here if you wish to look.”

Sebaycian nodded, stepping before a translucent membrane. A murky pool housed structures resembling eggs. Thousands of them sat in a giant array with tubes linking the bases of the shell-like structures.

                “When they spawn,” offered the demon, “the hatchlings have all the nutrients they need in the soup surrounding them.”

Sebaycian detected a sense of pride in his host and responded accordingly. “An awesome sight, Temnok. It is encouraging to see the future. Are Champions chosen by the Great-One to sire the demonettes for these offspring?”

                “Ha!” the demon laughed. “Demonettes? We have no women here! How could you serve us and not know this? There is no sex in the realm of Putragle – it is neither efficient nor necessary. We need not the orgies of Relgash to bring forth large numbers. Cloning ensures new champions are brought forth to replace those slain in battle. The hatcheries are always well-stocked with the best warriors. And armies can be tailor-made to suit our needs depending on the circumstances. These cloning arrays provide a quick means of swelling the ranks. Most soldiers are made in this fashion. Only the spawning of Greater Demons requires the hands of the Great One.”   

                “Yes, of course,” Sebaycian stammered, cowed by the fanatical zeal with which his question was answered.  

They followed yet another passage into a chamber larger than the first. The demon paused to allow Sebaycian to accustom himself to the sensory overload of the Throne Room. Light fell from above to illuminate the Great One. The chamber was vast and filled with curious spectacles, but Sebaycian could not take his eyes off Putragle. Overwhelmed by the sight, his skin grew galvanic, and his heart felt like it would leap from his chest.
The legends do not exaggerate!

Even his most outlandish dreams had fallen well short of reality. There was no way he could have imagined the sight before him.

The Pestilent One squatted upon a rotting mound of filth serving as his throne. Tendrils of smoke arose from the revolting heap, the product of organic decay. Rivulets of bile penetrated this mass and pooled about the floor. Gargoyles perching atop balustrades vomited foul fluids from high above. And bizarre beasts soared through the air, playfully defecating on those assembled below. Courtiers milled about the noxious venue, communicating in low tones Sebaycian felt rather than heard. Out of respect or due to some prearranged agreement, the creatures withdrew.

Sebaycian noticed vile and loathsome creatures lurking within the mound of filth. Maggots the size of human limbs wriggled about. One, failing to gain purchase on the squalid, slippery surface, rolled down the mound to rest within inches of Sebaycian’s boot. Hardened as he was, the experience challenged his nerves and fortitude.

Putragle casually turned to regard his visitor. Bathed in unwholesome fluids and riddled with open sores, the great globular body of the Pestilent One emitted malodorous vapors. Sebaycian recalled the scriptures which spoke of the legendary stench. He was inclined to agree. It was written that in his inner sanctum not even other gods could touch him, for to breathe his air meant death for most living things. The miasma was nearly a physical barrier, the grayish-green mist above him polluting the cavernous vault.

Sebaycian noticed he stood on tessellated bone fragments forming an irregular floor. A rotten gray paste served as mortar to bind the pieces together. He could barely contain his excitement, and he did not even try to still the pounding of his heart.

A voice boomed out in a low timbre that shook the walls.

                “Stop!” the Great One commanded. “He must be protected first.”

Languidly, Putragle stretched out a blubbery arm, and, with an articulate gesture, a transparent sphere enveloped the Grand Master of the Bloated Corpse. He was now surrounded by a protective barrier anchored to his body. Temnok and his symbiotic serpent watched nearby.

                “Now, my son,” said the deep voice calmly. “You are safe from the atmosphere. Enter without fear.”

                Sebaycian walked forward until he was just a few feet away. He dropped to one knee in supplication and was about to speak when he realized he had nothing to say. He had no words for this moment – the entire experience had been so intense, so overwhelming, that all his carefully wrought phrases had vanished.

The Pestilent One laughed, a deep chuckle that rumbled the walls. “Sebaycian. Do not trouble yourself. I know everything. You have served us well. The seeds of decay are sown in your world and you played an important role in this. On behalf of our way of life, we are most grateful. When our forces enter the Realm, you will be remembered. You will hold a high position in our new order. You will have power over all those who once wronged you. Over all humanity if that is your wish.”

Sebaycian’s eyes sparkled and something resembling joy spread across his corrupted features.

                “It is time for you to learn your true purpose – a mission to end all missions! A final spearhead to crush our enemies and vanquish all opposition! You will be my voice in the Realm. Everything you say to my followers will express my will. You are the first of my flock. Henceforth, your followers will call you Prima Bellator.”

                 “I am honored,” Sebaycian stammered. “Is this the prophesied Time of Trials?”

                “Relax and open your mind,” Putragle commanded. Sebaycian gazed into the eyes of the Great One. An energy passed between them.   An invisible warmth prompting a new dawn of comprehension.

                “I understand, Lord,” said Sebaycian with a distant look.

                “Fail me not! Never has our power been tested like this. We must not fail! Sacrifice everything to achieve victory! No price is too high!”

                “Yes, Lord!” was Sebaycian’s crisp reply.

                “Retrieve my stone at once! Kill any who interfere! If it falls into the wrong hands, I will start the Contest considerably weaker than my enemies. Already I ache for my missing power, it is a yearning most unpleasant, a pain a mere mortal could not possibly fathom, though I will try to make you understand should you fail.”

                 “I shall not fail, Lord,” replied Sebaycian fervently.

                “Excellent! Take this wand. It will lead you to the stones when they appear. Keep it safe. You only get one!”

                An ebon rod appeared, hovering before Sebaycian; he snatched it from the air. Absorbing all light, the obsidian shaft was about half the length of his arm.

                “Thank you, master!” he said emphatically. “I shall not fail.”

                “Yes. I know.” Putragle allowed the words to percolate into Sebaycian’s soul before he continued. “Once you have found the stone’s location, you may summon a Skareasyn to crush any resistance you encounter.”

                Sebaycian nodded, fighting back tears of pride welling in his jet-black eyes. He had read about the mythical beast, but never imaged he would one day be allowed to summon one.

An odd-looking creature waddled into the light. Rotund with spindly arms and enormous legs, it belched like a canon to announce its presence.

                 “Yaldus will escort you to the portal,” Putragle ordered. “May you return safely to the Realm. I will leave you with my blessing.”    
       
                Warm, sparkling light   descended upon Sebaycian, and he felt power course through his veins. It was wonderful. Although he had never lain with a woman, he imagined it must feel like this.

                “Thank you, Lord. I will not fail you!”

With a wave of his arm, Putragle motioned Yaldus to lead Sebaycian from the Throne Room. Yaldus beckoned for Sebaycian to follow, and the latter wondered what strange powers this awkward creature possessed, for it did not seem much of a warrior. And it was written that only the most powerful warriors were permitted within a stone’s throw of the Great One’s throne. As he contemplated this thought, the creature broke wind loudly, and the flatulence burst into flame. Sebaycian screamed, scorched by the fiery blast. It was unclear if the act had been premeditated, for the creature kept walking as if nothing had happened. Although his robe smoldered, the blessing had protected Sebaycian; it would serve as an aegis against many threats, although he knew its power would likely fade with time.
 ***********************************************************************

Laughing loudly, a dozen creatures melted from the walls. The courtiers had returned, certain the meeting was over, Yaldus having provided an amusing close. Eagerly, they milled about the Great One.

Temnok approached. He was one of only a few who could stand on the decaying mound and speak with the Great One without first being addressed.

                 “Why do they do it, Lord?” he asked. 

                “Do what, Temnok?”

                “What makes a man betray his people?”

                “Power, Temnok … Power! Man is greedy. His lust for power is perhaps his greatest weakness. It is good to know, so that we may exploit this weakness. Man is a frail, flawed creature, yet a useful one.”

                 “Indeed,” replied Temnok. “Still, I wish we did not have to rely on such a pathetic, frail creature to win the Contest.”

                “Well, therein lies the challenge. An important metric for the success of any god is the number and fanaticism of his followers. We have thousands strategically placed throughout the Empire. Your recruiting efforts have been most successful. And none too soon, for the Time of Trials has now begun!”

                 “Thank you for your praise, Great One. Our efforts have been most fruitful.”

                “All to be expected,” Putragle nodded. “For the start of the Contest means more followers were born into the Realm marked with my sign over recent years. It is part of the plan I formulated with the Nameless One a thousand years ago. The disease I unleashed will sow fear and anarchy. In the confusion, more will turn towards the darkness, embracing our agenda for our alleged protection.”

                “Why do they join us, Lord? Why not serve Kanavorus instead?”

                “Most seek Kanavorus,” Putragle replied. “However, the clever, cautious ones follow me, for I am much more… benevolent.”  An evil smile played across his horrible features. “However, if Sebaycian fails, … he will feed the hatchlings!”







 

Author Notes Chapter introduces the co-antagonist of the novel. In the previous chapter, the hero of the story received his version of the Contest.


Chapter 13
Fate

By duaneculbertson

The sun set behind Wolf as he trod through the Western Gate of Malden, an unconcerned gatekeeper allowing him to pass unquestioned, his roadwarden uniform once again proving useful.

Two days of hard riding had been tough on Glamdray. Regretfully, he decided to sell the animal; he needed money and could not afford a stable anyway. He sold his horse at a nomadic shanty town hastily erected a stone’s throw from the city walls.

Wolf knew the foreign merchant had raked him over the coals, but there was little he could do. He was not bargaining from a position of power. The bearded man may not have known Vulgarate, but he understood people. He read desperation in Wolf’s face and noticed the travel-dust heavy upon his clothes before adjusting his price accordingly.

Ten sesterces felt like an insult to the proud beast, a former war-horse, no less. Such a pittance Wolf could not abide and haggled the man to twenty sesterces, still only half the horse’s value, but he needed to press on. Nightfall would arrive soon, and he did not wish to be an easy target for thieves as he made his final approach to the city on foot.  

The next logical concern was how to solve the problem of hiding twenty sesterces, the cumbersome coins ten times the weight of a denarius.  He hid some in his boots. Some in his travel bag. The majority he stashed in his body-belt. To his dismay, he noticed the grim visage of his uncle upon the face of one of the coins. The title “Aethling” sat ominously under the square, arrogant chin. This land was in trouble if he were to ascend the throne; it was unlikely the hard-headed, shallow egomaniac would give much consideration to his Counsel of Royal Advisors.


Before leaving the shop, the happy merchant had tried to persuade Wolf to buy an exotic beast, a durak, claiming the monstrosity could travel hundreds of miles without water. With blue-grey fur, a long neck, bulging eyes, and a misshapen, humped back, the creature looked more like a carnival curiosity than a useful pack animal. Wolf had no interest in buying such an oddity. Besides, the ugly thing would only make him an easy target to track and identify.

Save the encounter with Quendar, the journey had been uneventful. If a warrant had been issued for his arrest, no effort had been made to act upon it. It was possible bounty-hunters were on his trail, but he was confident he had not been followed. Occasionally, he saw a concealed highwayman hiding by the roadside, but the sight of the tall man astride the powerful warhorse was enough to discourage thoughts of robbery.

Throughout his life, Wolf enjoyed a kind of feral sense. He did not know how it worked or why he had it. But he knew the crawling numbness washing over his body warned of impending danger. He shared this atavistic trait with his paternal grandfather, Warlord Machus Kantwohner. Tales boasted of supernatural powers that endowed the chieftain with unparalleled situational awareness on the battlefield, as if he had eyes in the back of his head. Wolf thought it was just the kind of talk used to embellish stories, but one day he experienced it himself, the ability allowing him to escape a bear attack.

One day the great warlord chose to share his secret, recognizing the trait in his grandson. Eager to learn more, the younger man pressed him, but the older man could offer no explanation other than they were somehow special. Closer to the animals. Closer to the Mother. His inability to articulate his meaning did not surprise Wolf as Machus was known better for swinging his battle-axe than exercising his mental faculties.

Wolf sauntered into Malden, his slower pace a reflection of the fatigue and dread he felt. He hated this city, angrily dismissing the beggars who accosted him after passing through the gates. Some he sent sprawling. He knew the people of the streets were skilled at liberating items from pockets, and he was not about to become a victim. Always on guard for treachery, he was even more vigilant now that he carried such a large sum of money, for, no matter how well money is hidden, thieves always instinctively know the lucrative targets. And Wolf held no delusions regarding the Malden Watch. The itinerant, roving band of peacekeepers were incompetent at best, and often displayed indifference to the cries of those they were sworn to protect, whether residents or travelers.

With the approaching darkness, traffic increased, dozens rushing to get to their destination before gates closed. Passage was still possible for stragglers, but the scrutiny was unpleasant and often involved bribes. Like the guards, Wolf paused to watch these people pour into the city and disperse. He would need food and a place to stay. Searching his surroundings for a familiar landmark, he found none. He had not spent much time in these parts. Normally, he would have entered the Eastern Gate, but he had been forced to this location by his desire to sell his horse at the shanty town. He could have walked around to another entrance, but he wished to avoid circumnavigating the city walls at night carrying a fortune in silver.

Grudgingly, Wolf had to admit the ancient capital still held charm. The aqueducts transporting water throughout the city were a marvelous accomplishment, and few places in the Empire could boast such an engineering feat. Green gardens lush with plant-life interspersed and accompanying the miles of water-delivering channels was a welcome change in a land recently scorched by the unusual Summer heat. The sun had taken its toll on the countryside, leaving only yellows and browns where vibrant flowers and green grasses once flourished.


Darkness coupled with the fog of partial recollection led Wolf to hesitate, unsure which road to take.  It was in this state of contemplation that a short, stout man approached. The stranger wore a sailor’s uniform, which was odd since sailors were only granted leave certain times of year, and this was not one of them. Most of the navy occupied ports in far off Xanadu.

            “Sir, for a denarius I’ll show you some fine lodgin’s. Give ya’ a guided tour of the city as well. Ya’ can’t lose with such an offer!”

            “Thanks,” Wolf replied. “But I just want a cheap place to stay with the chance of a meal.” As soon as he had uttered the words, he regretted them; it was best to say nothing under these circumstances. The correct response would have been – “I’m all set” or “I’ve got plans.”

            “Oh sir! I know just the place! Charming and stocked to the brim with friendly characters. A little Public House known as the Blue Moon. Good food and a place to stay at a price that can’t be beat.”

            Wolf had never heard of the place, but his stomach rumbled at the mention of food and he did need lodgings. He surprised himself by considering the offer.

            “You there!” The sailor pointed at two others. An odd couple. One, tall and slender, probably a nobleman judging by the quality of his clothes. The other a dwarf, but unlike any Wolf had ever seen. Her long orange hair cascaded around her broad shoulders and framed a beautiful face with high cheekbones and full, sensual lips. Taller than one would expect, yet still under five feet, her enormous biceps drew Wolf’s attention. The soft beauty of youth residing in her face contrasted sharply with her commanding eyes that looked like they had seen many battles. A formidable presence and an exotic beauty, she would be difficult for anyone to ignore.

            “Why would we you follow?” she asked, in her curious Dwarven accent.

Not all dwarves were fluent in Vulgarate. Wolf guessed she was from one of the noble families that interacted little with the rest of the world. It was not unreasonable to assume this was her first time walking amongst humans.

            “Think we can’t care for ourselves?” she pressed.

            “Mighty dwarf, I have no doubt you are well suited to look after yourself and your charming companion. I merely wish to offer my services. My specialty is introducing travelers to our fine city. Been doin’ it for nigh on twelve years; I know everything there is to know about it, and I can find a place that will suit your needs.”

            “We can do that for ourselves,” the slender man said coldly. He spoke in High Etrurian, confirming Wolf’s suspicion the young man belonged to the aristocracy.

Undoubtedly the remark was designed to unsettle the sailor, the noble probably suspecting such discourse beyond his comprehension. While it was generally true the nobility could speak High Etrurian and Vulgarate, this ability was rare in a commoner.

            “Yes, but I’ve the advantage of knowing which Inns have vacancies,” he replied with a condescending smile. It was unclear if he knew High Etrurian or simply interpolated the meaning of the aristocrat’s comment. Regardless, his demeanor suggested they were all being foolish to resist his offer.

            “I don’t believe it,” said the slender man, reverting to Vulgarate. He spoke with such ease that it was clear he preferred the language of the common man.

             “Oh, ‘tis true, my friend,” replied the sailor. “You see, I’ve already purchased all the rooms myself.”

            “You’re just a bloody scalper!” Wolf exclaimed. “In Aachen, you’d spend the greater part of a day in the stocks for your actions. And some would insist that you be tarred and feathered.”

            “Oh, sir!” said the sailor, feigning shock. “Do they still do that there? Well, thankfully, we are not in Aachen. And your assessment of my occupation is woefully incorrect. In reality, I am a mere convenience salesman. I ensure all travelers have a place to stay when they arrive. If you check, you’ll see there’s almost no markup for my services. No one is ever gouged … at least, not by my hands.”

            “I suppose you’re compensated in other ways,” said the aristocrat.

            “The gentleman is correct. Now, follow me, I know a wonderful place where you can lodge for the night. You can pay me a denarius for my trouble later. Name’s Finny, by the way.”

The man’s last remark hung awkwardly in the air, as reciprocating introductions were not offered.

            “Well, Finny, you seem to have quite a silver tongue,” said Wolf. “Do they teach oration now at naval academies? I was unaware of this development.”

The nobleman laughed, but the dwarf beside him remained impassive. Perhaps she was not given to idle banter, or perhaps she was hindered by a limited vocabulary. Or, most likely, she was the nobleman’s bodyguard, wisely using her time to scan areas harboring potential ambushes and reading the faces of those who walked within striking distance of the man she was paid to protect.

            “No,” Finny chortled. “Tis just a skill I’ve cultivated. They say I’ve got the gift of gab, and I like dealing with people. You may find this hard to believe, but I was once enrolled at the Academy.”

            “Yes, I do find that hard to believe,” Wolf remarked flatly. He scrutinized the charismatic man. His pale complexion seemed at odds with his claims of having spent appreciable time at sea. Even the arctic traders of Norsica wore some color upon their brow. Then there was the issue of Finny’s muscular legs, inconsistent with the premise of living aboard a ship where one had little room to exercise. On the contrary, his body-type was reminiscent of the worthy competitors Wolf once faced during his sprinting days at the Aachen County Fair. He had served in the Royal Navy as well. And all the sailors he knew were suntanned, weather-beaten men with large arms and permanently blackened hands caused by the tarred ropes used in the riggings.

Cracking a faint smile, Wolf shook his head from side to side. He was using Alcuin’s method, his logical approach to deconstruct Finny’s premise; he was turning into his teacher.

            “When did you do your service, Finny?” Wolf asked, hoping to trip him up.

            “Hmmm, ‘tis hard to know. What year is it now? Ha ha! My nerves tell me it could not have been that long ago. Ten years perhaps? I saw some awful stuff while on the seas. Been in hot water more times than I care to tell.”

            “What campaign?” Wolf prompted.

            “Xanthi, I spent much time in Xanadu. That’s where I got this tattoo.”

Finny pointed to a blue crescent on his calf muscle.

            “Very nice. What ship were you on?” Wolf asked, hoping to trip him up.

            “Ah, let me see,” Finny mused. He scratched his head as they continued to navigate the labyrinthine streets and back alleys.

            “T’was a frigate,” he nodded. “The EES Bastion, I believe.”

Wolf grunted. His story was plausible. He had even been stationed aboard that very ship at one time.For the moment, he would continue to follow the enigmatic guide.

Like a bard, Finny regaled his audience, spinning absurd tales concerning the historical importance of one building or another, when it was clear to all that they were in the notorious “pleasure” district, replete with seamy brothels and opum dens.

Sweat gathered upon the aristocrat’s brow. The plush velvet tunic he wore was not the best choice for this evening. To make matters worse, he ported a rucksack over his shoulder that seemed bursting to capacity. His eyes darted, as if full of nervous energy. Perhaps he too carried an unwise quantity of silver. His companion lent weight to this theory with her habit of hefting her weapon whenever anyone approached and regarding every shadow with frosty hostility.

            “In this very archway …” Finny rambled. “Vlad the Just led a valiant charge against an invading horde of Romanians sacking the city. He vowed not to make the same mistake his grandfather made in trying to bargain with these brigands, since that particular army nearly drained the entire treasury. And there is the infamous story of how the protests of the Maldeners inspired no mercy; for when the words were heard by the ears of the invading general, the man simply said ‘Woe to the conquered’, adding his sword to the scale of weights to be balanced by an equal weight of gold. No, that would not be their fate. Not this time. And, as it is written, Vlad held fast! Outnumbered four to one, he rallied his warriors and inspired our citizens, leading them to the final charge that saved the day. Present-day Maldeners are forever in his debt. There is even a statue of him somewhere … Northtown, I think. Though, I assure you this is where it happened.”

Wolf scanned his surroundings. With every twist and turn Finny had led them past buildings with decreasing affluence. Complex architecture gave way to dwellings of lesser skill, reminding Wolf of the shanty town he had just visited. In the more prosperous parts of this city, these structures would likely be condemned. This disturbing trend drove Wolf to confront their eccentric guide once again.

            “Oh, it’s just a little further. Be patient. It’s worth the wait. You’ll see.”

Rising high into the sky, the moon bathed everything in silvery light. Wolf suspected they were in the heart of Southtown. Perhaps the Devil’s Den. He almost wished the moonlight were not present to illuminate the squalid path they followed. The luminosity was curious tonight, casting a greater offering of its pale light. Wolf swore it looked nearly three times its normal size.

Abject poverty abounded. Wolf felt embarrassed by its stark contrast with the palace life he’d seen just days before. Here, children went barefoot, loitering aimlessly, begging in threadbare rags. Stale beer, rotten food and urine formed a pervasive stench. Adults of every age sat idle. Some stared at them with hollowed eyes. Others paid no attention at all, escaping reality by means of narcotic-induced visions.

They walked in silence now, Finny having exhausted his apocryphal tales of pseudo-history. Wolf fell behind to study his travel companions. The dwarf looked like a soldier of some sort, though Wolf could not discern her allegiance. Her outfit carried no family crest or sigils of allegiance. Leather vambraces protected her forearms, while a padded blue gambeson rested beneath a chain-mail hauberk. Leather straps secured a steel-breastplate, scrupulously burnished to a mirror-like finish. Wolf wondered how the dwarf was able to wear such heavy armor, especially in the blazing summer heat. She must be exceptionally fit, as she had no trouble keeping pace. Wearing the armor was probably easier than carrying it. That made sense. No one would choose to walk around wearing full battle armor if they could help it. Furthermore, no sane warrior would wear a mail hauberk beneath a steel breastplate. They would choose one or the other. Not both.

Maybe she was the young man’s bodyguard. That would provide a likely explanation for their association. He would have loved to ask them whether their relationship was personal or professional, but he had been raised to observe proper etiquette, a habit he refused to break. Nevertheless, he could not help wondering if they were on intimate terms. Were they friends? Were they lovers? Interracial pairings were rare, but not unheard of. Wolf refused to dwell on the topic any further. He had more important matters to consider such as their situation, which had become less promising each minute.

A metal door stood at the end of an alley that widened into a circular area probably used for loading carts. A rusted storm drain punctuated the irregular pattern of cobblestones. Wolf felt a crawling numbness wash over his body, a feral warning of danger.

            “Welcome to the Blue Moon,” Finny cackled. “Enjoy your stay.”

With those parting words, their guide disappeared behind the metal door. A bar slid into place. Then a bolt drew back to reveal a pair of malicious eyes. It was then they realized they were not alone.

            “It’s a trap!” Wolf bellowed. They huddled in the center of the circular space, as the walls came alive. A dozen cloaked figures sprang from the shadows, some dropping from rooftops. Brandishing clubs, the blackened forms converged upon their prey in the silvery moonlight.

Wolf knew these thieves would offer no mercy; they would beat them to death and rob their corpses. No negotiations. Terror seized his heart. They were outnumbered three, four, perhaps even five, to one. They would be overwhelmed. Wolf shouted for the Watch, knowing it would do no good. The glacially slow, roving volunteer unit would not arrive in time, even if they heard their cries. They were on their own.

 

Author Notes Note: To those of you who have followed the story faithfully: there is an eight chapter jump now. It will not impact the overall story, but some references may not have been discussed. I am excited to finish the book and have it available for sale on my website. If I publish every chapter here, I will not meet my timetable. Thank you. Dave


Chapter 14
Convergence

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Virriel’s feet hurt. She’d been walking all day. The Malden cobblestones were much different from the earth and soil of Glendor Forest. She longed for the tender kiss of moss underfoot. While initially skeptical, she planned to purchase things the leather merchant called shoes. Although she loathed the idea of walking upon the skins of dead animals, she decided the practical aspects of accomplishing her mission far outweighed adhering to the most rigorous interpretations of druidic ideology.

After stopping to find a place to stay, she continued her search for the man called Wolf, reserving a pair of rooms at the Lucky Shoe. She financed the reservations using the harbormaster’s ill-gotten gains, and it pleased her to think the money would fund a just and noble purpose.

Virriel was practical, yet modest. She purchased two rooms, because she did not wish to share lodgings with a stranger, even one who would be working alongside her. So many years living in near solitude, she found the idea of sharing a living-space with another daunting.

As she negotiated the city, she would stop periodically to examine the ring Seydor provided. It glowed most brightly when she was walking in Wolf’s direction. Unfortunately, it operated as the crow flies, its illumination pulsing greatest when oriented in the shortest straight-line path.

Malden had been built as a hub for the Etrurian civilization and grew with its population. As a result, little planning went into its layout. Some roads even went in circles. Virriel found this quite frustrating. Her ears hurt too. It was frightfully loud. Creatures of Glendor Forest relied on stealth, the balance of predator-prey relationships hanging on their ability to both move silently, a noiseless competition, whether forager or stalker. In her present venue, this did not matter, and cacophonous sounds assulted her sensitive ears: Raucous shouts filled the air. Doors slammed. People gossiped. Some argued. Others haggled.

Virriel decided the strike of the blacksmith’s anvil and the drum of the cartwright’s hammer were poor substitutes to the songs of the chaffinch and wren. She felt herself a foreigner navigating an alien landscape, unsure of its rules or customs.


Regretfully, she realized she had no choice but to follow an inefficient, meandering path as she wandered the streets. Hungry gazes greeted her at every turn, and she wondered why Wolf would be found amongst such people, dwelling in the heart of a poverty-stricken district.

Virriel had never been to a city before, but this visit was shattering the few positive preconceived notions she had. She thought cities were great places of knowledge and learning – a collection of buildings and people celebrating the harmonious union of logic, purpose, and beauty. She now realized her idealized vision could not be further from the truth.

Raising the cowl of her cloak, she strode past coarse-looking citizens. Now the ring glowed with greater intensity, bringing about a corresponding rise in its temperature. This development was of monumental value; she could now keep it in her pocket and feel for the change in its heat to divine the proper path forward, allowing her to shield the precious tracking device from hungry, covetous eyes, eliminating the possibility of attracting unwanted attention. And yet, still some approached.


          “Opum, miss?” asked an emaciated man.

          “No thanks, I’ve already got mine.” Virriel smiled, enjoying her private joke. The peddler grunted and shambled off to try his luck elsewhere, much to her relief, as the man smelled like a festering, dung heap. On that note, thus far, Virriel had detested every smell harbored by these squalid streets; all were noisome and foreign to her. Nothing at all like the fresh scent of pine trees or the evocative fragrance of wildflowers.

Her sensitive ears picked up a commotion down a dark, side alley. As she rounded the corner, dark-robed figures attacked three people, fustigating them with clubs. One had already fallen. The others did their best to resist the onslaught, but they were surrounded, fending off multiple attackers at once. Clubs rose and fell with savage intensity. And screams and groans pierced the night air. A woman with flowing orange hair fought back with ferocious intensity, though her ultimate success was questionable.

The Way of the Mother centered around helping others in need, prompting Virriel to take decisive action. Chanting phrases never spoken before on these streets, she tore a handful of pebbles from her purse. With compressed lips and tightened brow, she focused her power.
 
                                       *********************************
            "Back to back! Ring formation!” the dwarf shouted. Growling, she bellowed her war cry before diving amongst the enemy. Wolf feared their survival doubtful. The ambush was well-planned, an obstacle too great to overcome.  Panic and claustrophobia smothered his thoughts. He had no time to draw his sword and no longer had room. Half crouched, he did his best to protect his head. Clubs rained upon his arms and shoulders. He reached for his dagger, but a numbing blow knocked it from his hand. He caught a glimpse of the unconscious aristocrat’s supine body absorbing powerful blows.

Wolf had a vague impression the dwarf fared better; he hoped this were true. He looked past the dark forms converging on his position and caught sight of her long, orange hair whipping around as she darted amongst her foes.

Swearing in her native tongue, the dwarf ducked her first attacker and countered with her battle axe. The gruesome weapon tore through the man’s chest and blood spattered the alley walls. The blow knocked her attacker's body back into another, and the second thief floundered under the weight of his dying comrade.

Her counter-swing soared up to cleave the face of a gangly man wielding a blackjack, killing him instantly. The second thief regained his footing and rushed forward. With unexpected agility, the dwarf sidestepped his strike and brought her axe down hard above the knee. Flesh and bone yielded to her awesome power, severing the leg mid-thigh. A  fresh shriek of agony pierced the din of battle, and the wretched man fell, his lifeblood pouring out upon the cobblestones.

A fourth attacker managed to strike the back of her head, a glancing blow that only served to fuel her battle-rage. Turning, she swung the axe upwards with both hands. A crunch sounded as the weapon lodged into the man’s sternum, the ferocity of the blow lifting him from the ground. Abandoning the axe, she tore a mace from her belt. Growling, she spat curses at her remaining foes. In the span of a few heartbeats, she managed to kill four men.

Without warning, a blast of wind whipped through the alley bringing with it a shower of stones. Men howled in pain, the majority writhing on the ground. Some were unconscious. Others had their skulls crushed. A few escaped the volley, but the number of thieves hungry for plunder diminished considerably.

In the aftermath of the spell, Wolf’s bewildered attackers lost their nerve and backed away. This was all he needed. Their mistake would cost them their lives, for he now had the opportunity to rise. With a shout of triumph, Wolf unsheathed Truebite, and slashed about with savage glee.

Cleaving the nearest club in twain, he lunged forward, running his sword through a man’s chest.

The point is quicker than the edge,” he could hear Swordmaster Keels as clearly as if he were standing beside him. Indeed, no truer words spoken.

Wolf twisted the blade to pull it free of the dying man’s flesh. A glance right revealed two men dragging the unconscious aristocrat. A third opened a sewer drain. If unchecked, they would dump him into the sewers, where others waited.

I must save him. But first …

Wolf stepped forward to deal with the immediate threat before him, blocking the club-wielding forearm of an attacker with his left wrist, then pommel-striking the man’s face with his sword-arm. The thief staggered backwards. Wolf slashed Truebite across his neck. Blood spurted from the wound, and he abandoned the man to deal with his terrible injury.

Wolf barreled past the dying man, roaring a battle-cry as he charged the three holding the aristocrat. Two parted, diving to either side. The third intended to use the sewer grate as an improvised shield. He failed. Wolf’s sheitelhau strike split his skull in half, parting it to either side.

Without skipping a beat, he slashed to his right, opening a deep gash clear to the man’s thigh bone. The wretch screamed, collapsing upon the cobblestones where he tried to drag himself to safety.

Wolf spun upon the last of the trio, running him through the ribcage. The force of the blow snapped ribs as the blade sank deep. With a deft flick of the wrist, he twisted Truebite before pulling it free. The lifeless corpse dropped to its knees, held up by inertia alone. Briefly, Wolf noticed an expression of pain and disbelief register before the attacker’s eyes grew blank.

A pair of hands emerged from the drain seeking the aristocrat. Wolf slashed the offending appendages; they disappeared, leaving behind traces of blood.

A large, bearded man swung at Wolf’s head with an axe. Leaning just in time, he felt the breeze, as it sailed past. Time slowed with his near-death experience, random thoughts intruding. He was certain he would recall this precise moment in his nightmares for weeks to come, long after resolving this conflict – the blow that nearly killed him. Another errant, fleeting thought registered as well, a momentary distraction –  if he had haggled better that day when selling his horse, the added weight of the sesterces would probably have prevented him from evading the axe properly, an ironic realization.

Time sped up again, and his blood boiled with rage. The powerful haymaker had left the axe-wielding thief overcommitted, an easy target. Wolf struck the exposed shoulder with a mighty zornhau, Truebite tearing through muscle, sinew, and bone. Screaming, the man fell to the ground, following his dismembered arm, expiring a heartbeat later from massive blood-loss.

A man crawled from the melee, pulling himself level with the viewport.

            “Finny! Finny! Let me in!” the frantic voice screamed.

Battle-crazed, Wolf reacted without hesitation. Sensing an enemy behind him, he thrust his sword to where he heard the noise, not even deigning to face his opponent. Truebite pierced muscle and flesh to strike the metal door, bringing forth a hollow sound. The point scraped against the surface as the man slumped forward.

Searching for his next target, he wheeled about. But there were none left standing. Wolf caught his breath and checked the bones in his arms. Incredibly, none were broken. Reassured, he forced himself to take deep, restorative breaths. Despite this precaution, he feared he would vomit any moment now, wiping perspiration from his brow. He found it was always after the danger had passed when he got sick. Never before. Walking upon unsteady legs, he shuddered before mastering his thoughts and emotions.

Glancing about the corpses, he almost felt sorry for these men. Poorly trained and poorly equipped, they were probably not prepared to fight actual warriors, expecting common tradesmen, wealthy merchants, or members of the aristocracy – sensible targets. At worst, they may have anticipated a competent bodyguard or two. Also, most were probably reluctant to be there in the first place; the outlaw lifestyle having chosen them, caused by unfortunate circumstances or failed upbringings. Of course, people ultimately make their own choices in life and must be held accountable for their actions. And it is hard to pity those who would do violence to others, especially when such people implicitly understand the risks associated with taking the dark path – the possibility that violence could be visited upon them just as easily.

The fear, instinct for self-preservation, and the rush of battle always brought about a paroxysm of joy within Wolf as he fought, but this inevitably faded, becoming woe and regret in the aftermath. Such was the case here. He did not enjoy killing these men. He would much rather have killed their bosses, the ones organizing the violence, the scoundrels profiting the most from it.

Finny was a stupid ass! He must have known the dwarf and I were warriors. We carried weapons for Seyd’s sake! He must have thought the perceived payoff justified the risks. A foolish gamble on his part. May he, and others like him, meet ill ends!

Wolf watched the dwarf dispatch the remaining thieves with ruthless efficiency, even giving chase to two. A sad sight really - her main priority ought to have been the safety of her travelling companion – the poor boy who may not even survive this attack. Wolf stooped beside the young man, letting out a sigh of relief after detecting a faint pulse. The aristocrat was still breathing. And Wolf’s examination brought him around. He groaned, turned his head, and vomited. Then lost consciousness again.

Wolf reflected upon their good fortune: they had survived a carefully crafted ambush, designed to overpower their victims before they could react. Unexpectedly, their seemingly helpless prey repelled a gang of thieves outnumbering them at least four to one. It seemed impossible.

The crowded alley had been in their favor since not all attackers could strike at once, the concentric layers providing an unintentional shield. These men were probably overconfident, their numerical advantage leading them to underestimate their prey. When the first two waves of thieves were killed, it was likely the younger, inexperienced members watching fled for their lives. In such a way, three could triumph against twenty.

Wolf tried to replay the fight in his head, but it was all a blur. Per usual, he felt he could have done a better job. And he chastised himself for having fallen for the ruse in the first place. There had been a small voice in the back of his head warning him that something was wrong, but hunger and fatigue drowned out his cries.

During the attack, Wolf had panicked and entered survival mode. He even recalled his vision tunnelling at one point. He had not even thought to grab the dagger on his belt, until it was too late, the blows already falling hard around him.

How stupid!

Following the thought, he scanned the area where the melee occurred looking for the dagger, but it was nowhere to be found. A thief must have scooped it up before fleeing the scene. The thought angered him, that knife had been a present from his younger brother, Marston. A rare item crafted from Damascus steel. Now he needed to find a replacement piece for the close combat fighting he would likely face before his adventures were through.

At least, he had not panicked hard enough to insist upon drawing his sword. In the moment, his sword instincts had prevailed, knowing that time and space were lacking for Truebite to clear its scabbard. In these times of reflection, Wolf knew he could be his own worst enemy. Nevertheless, he felt he had somehow failed. It was a warped view; he knew it, yet he still managed to convince himself that it was the vigorous actions of the dwarf that saved their lives. But then he recalled there was something else that happened during the fight. Something strange …

Footsteps approached. Wolf gripped his sword tightly, turning to face the threat. A tall, slender woman entered the alley. She stood over one of the fallen, but instead of rifling the man’s pockets, she seemed concerned with checking his body for signs of life.

Panting heavily, the dwarf returned from her pursuit, her long orange mane matted with blood. Her fleet-footed prey had escaped her terrible wrath, but their comrades had not been so fortunate.  Most had fallen to her vengeful hands, lying eviscerated in the alley, or clinging to life upon the cobblestones, their rapid, shallow breathing a harbinger of their imminent doom.


            “Chased ‘em several blocks,” she gasped. “But they know the city. Twas not long before I lost ‘em.” She wiped blood from a scalp wound. “I’m not so fast on my feet either. And this armor is a bitch to carry!” She smiled warmly at Wolf, eyeing him appraisingly. He was not sure if the moment they now shared was brought on by post-battle-bliss, or if he had kindled genuine interest within the dwarf's loins. As beautiful as she was though, Wolf forced himself to harden his heart. Not only had he sworn an oath to locate his beloved Atelka in Seydor’s name, but he now worked for the god in a far greater capacity. The Stonequest took precedence over all else.

            “We sure gave ‘em a good thrashing!” the dwarf continued. “Where I come from, they call me Ithrunbrekher, but to you I am Demelza.” She clasped Wolf’s outstretched hand, shocking him with her iron grip. It was in this moment a fateful thought occurred to him – such a fine warrior could be invaluable to the Stonequest. And certainly, there was no better proof of her fighting skills than the bodies lying at their feet. Such evidence was far superior to any possible word-of-mouth recommendation. And far more valuable than watching her perform fencing drills or defeating a slew of sparing opponents, since Wolf knew that no matter how celebrated a warrior’s skills and reputation were, it was always best to see them in actual combat. Often highly regarded sell-swords withered under the strain of actual battle, performing less than admirably.

This would not be a problem for Demelza. The alley fight was the only interview Wolf needed and hoped she would be available to work as a hired mercenary. Had Seydor not recommended adding a dwarf to the team? … Actually, Wolf could not remember. But he did recall the god suggesting a diverse team would be best.

            “I am Wolf,” he stated with confidence. “Pleased to meet you, and thanks.”

            “Pleasure’s mine,” the dwarf said offhandedly, managing to sound cavalier, as if killing a dozen men was all in a day’s work.

            “I don’t think anyone could have caught those villains,” Wolf graciously added. “Such men are trained to be quick on their feet and fade into their surroundings at the first sign of trouble. I’ve dealt with their kind before.”

            Rivulets of blood ran down Demelza’s otherwise charming face. Her skin was creamy white, marked by neither lines nor blemishes. Wolf placed her age at twenty-five.

            “Are you hurt?” he asked.

            “I’ve had worse,” boasted the dwarf. “How’s my friend?”

            Wolf grimaced. “He took a savage beating. I’m afraid he’s still unconscious.”

            “Ah, sorry to hear that … hope he pulls through.”

            Much to Wolf’s surprise, Demelza did not check on the boy’s status to verify his claim. Instead, she went into her pack to retrieve a tinderbox and brought forth fire, using the cradle to ignite a torch left behind in a sconce on the wall.

            “I thought dwarves could see in the dark?”

            “Aye. We can,” she said. “But only form, not color. I want to know the luster of the metals we find. Why bother keeping a denarius when you can have an aureus?”

            “True,” Wolf agreed. “But I can’t imagine these thieves are carrying anything of value. Afterall, they attacked us with simple clubs. And why would they bring money to a fight when they hoped to steal ours?”

Wolf was taken aback by her naïve assumption. How could anyone think thieves would burden themselves with coins as they executed an ambush of their own planning? It did not make sense. Perhaps she was not as worldly as she seemed. Maybe she had not walked long amongst humans. Clearly, she did not know thieves.

            “Yeah, well, it never hurts to check,” she spat defiantly. “By the way, you look quite pale.  You’d better sit down and rest. Here’s a bit of brandewijn.”

She tossed Wolf a flask and he took a generous sip.

            “There we go,” Demelza said, lighting the area. “Now we can see our spoils.”

But Wolf was not interested in spoils. Instead, the intense gaze of a beautiful woman caught his eye. An elf! Wolf had not seen one in years. His heart raced; he thought she might be the loveliest creature he had ever seen. Besides the typical, defining  attributes of elves – the pointed ears, the stark, angular features – upon her head, sat a mane of wavy, dark-brown curls. Large violet eyes brimming with kindness regarded the world from their position beneath a broad, intelligent brow, her skin smooth and flawless. In contrast to her high cheekbones, her chin was rounded and full. As she approached, her alabaster skin glistened in the moonlight. She stood nearly a fathom in height, almost as tall as Wolf.

            “My name’s Virriel,” she said. “I was sent to find you.”

            Wolf’s face adopted an astonished expression. How had this woman managed to find him his first night in Malden? It was incredible! Her beauty was almost overwhelming, a problem since his heart already belonged to another. Perhaps for a short while, he could suspend his thoughts of Atelka, for he did not want any feelings of guilt to interfere with building a good working relationship.

            “I am …Wolf Kantwohner,” he stammered, overjoyed by the realization that he finally had help with the Stonequest. To his great relief, he was no longer alone.

            The mission is moving forward!

Part of this realization daunted him. With this stranger involved, there was no turning back.

            “Then it is you I am looking for,” she said with a satisfied smile. “Here.”

She removed her glowing ring, placing it into Wolf’s outstretched hand. He felt it cooling on his palm. Soon it appeared dull – just like an ordinary ring.
“Thank you…Virriel,” he replied, finding himself at a loss for words. The dwarf inadvertently came to his rescue.

            “Hey, do either of you have bandages?” she asked. “My friend has a serious scalp wound, and it’s not going to stop bleeding on its own.”
Wolf rolled his eyes, amazed it had taken Demelza that long to recognize the gravity of her friend’s injuries. At least she looked concerned now. Even worried.

            “They must have used an iron tipped mace,” she suggested.

            “Very likely,” Wolf muttered.

            “I can help,” offered Virriel, crouching over the aristocrat’s body.

Demelza regarded the elf and recoiled, her face morphing from an expression of shock to one of repugnance. When she finally managed to speak, it was only with grudging reluctance. “His name’s Sigfried,” she growled. “Whatcha gonna do?”

            “I need silence if this is to work,” Virriel said. “If I lose concentration, I may do him more harm than good.”

The elf waved her hands over Sigfried, whispering words in an arcane tongue. An amber glow appeared in the space between her hands and his body. Lasting but an instant. Then all three waited expectantly.

Sigfried’s eyes fluttered. He moaned in agony, raised himself upon one arm, mumbled something unintelligible, then fell back unconscious.

            “He’ll need rest to achieve a full recovery,” Virriel offered. “And he is not out of danger yet. He can come back to my room. I’ll watch him the rest of the night.”

            Wolf thought he saw a smile play across the boy’s face, but he could not be sure.

            “Mighty dwarf,” Virriel continued. “You’ve sustained injuries as well. If you’ll allow me …”

            “I’m fine,” interrupted Demelza. She pulled away and went to retrieve her battle axe. It was where she had left it, deep in the sternum of one of her victims.

Wolf approached her. “You fought well, Demelza. I would like to make you an offer … to work for us.”

            “Us? You know each other?”

            “Yes and no. Virriel and I share a common goal. We are on the same mission with the same objective. However, we had never met until just now.”
Demelza appeared skeptical.

             “We are well-funded,” Wolf insisted.

            “It will be a cold day in the Pit before I work for an elf,” she sneered.

            “I’m the one hiring you,” Wolf argued.

            “That’s different, then,” she said, glaring over her shoulder at Virriel. “What’s the mission? And how much we talkin’ about?”

Wolf felt eyes upon him, his feral sense alerting him to the presence of others. Perhaps the Blue Moon had regrouped and wanted revenge. If so, they were likely watching from the rooftops right now. And there was no telling what they carried. Wolf did not fancy looking down the front of his shirt to discover the sudden appearance of a crossbow bolt buried in his chest.

            “This place is not safe,” Wolf said. “Come back with us. Your friend needs a bed and Virriel has offered her rooms. She can care for him tonight.”

            “How much?” Demelza insisted.

            “You’ll start at two aureus per month,” Wolf said casually. It was a large sum. He hoped it was more than she was used to making. Probably more than she made right now. With luck, his bank account would suffice to cover her wages, for a little while.

            “I’ll need time to think it over,” she said

            “Do it quickly. The Devil’s Den is not a place for introspection. We need to get out of here now.”

Wolf felt more eyes upon him. From the rooftops. From the sewer. Behind windows and walls. His heightened senses alerted him of all these potential threats. Virriel seemed to sense the danger as well, occasionally pausing in her work to lift her head, as if listening intently. Wolf wondered if she heard things he could not hear. Perhaps elves heard noises inaccessible to men. It was possible. He realized he knew shockingly little about his elven neighbors to the West, despite their technically being part of the Empire too.

Virriel spoke rapidly in hushed tones as she attended Sigfried. “Wolf! This is not a safe place! … We are vulnerable here. Tell the dwarf, we’re leaving.”
 



 

Author Notes Warning: Brutal, graphic violence can be found in this chapter.


Chapter 15
The Emperor

By duaneculbertson

Emperor Runcheon sat on a tall throne elevated on a dais at the back of the hall. Wolf wondered if the long approach was meant to intimidate visitors, as his feet tread noiselessly on the opulent carpet. Resembling living statues, a half dozen guards stood at attention, equally spaced on either side.

Ganymede, the captain of the guards, stood to the right of the throne. Squat in stature and powerful like an ox, he scowled as he marked Wolf’s progress with suspicious beady eyes set close to a flat nose. A dozen courtiers congregated to the left of Runcheon. Whispering to each other, many took interest as Wolf and Alcuin drew near.

A middle-aged man holding a ledger spoke before the king. Wolf recognized him as the minister of agriculture. The Emperor looked out a window with a vacant expression. When he saw Wolf, he waved the minister away.

Age had been kind to Runcheon. Although his face resembled weathered parchment, his mental faculties had been spared time’s addling effects, and even with his hair as white as bone, his eyes still burned with intelligence, embers smoldering deep within the hollows of a craggy cliff.

            “Ah, is that a Kantwohner I see?” exclaimed Runcheon. Myriad wrinkles gathered as he arched his brow. Gripping the armrest of his throne, he shifted his weight, bending forward in anticipation.

            “Your Excellency,” Wolf began. “It’s good to see you.”

            “Excellency? Come now, I’ll have none of that. I’m a formalist, yes, but not a long-suffering one. You think I’d impose such nonsense upon my own kith and kin?  What was it you used to call me when you were a young ankle-biter?” 

            “Runchy?” Wolf recalled.

            “Exactly! But if that is too awkward coming from one grown man to another, you may simply call me Runcheon.”

            “Thank you, sire,” Wolf said.

            “How is Lystra faring?” Runcheon asked. He steepled his hands and leaned forward ever so slightly.

Wolf spoke loudly in case his grandfather had grown hard of hearing. “She is well enough under the circumstances.”

            “Yes …” the monarch replied, his face adopting a grim expression. He gripped the armrest of the throne tightly before continuing. “I’m sorry about your father,” he began with downcast eyes. “If I had known sooner, I would have dispatched the Imperial Physician … Your mother’s pride …”

Wolf made a deferential gesture, but his grandfather continued. “And I’m sorry I could not make the service.”

            “I understand, Grandfather. I know a monarch’s time is never his own. What with affairs of state – diplomacy, trade, the economy, and, of course, the war with Vanadia…”

            “Magnus was a great man. I rather liked him. I may have objected to his marriage to my daughter, but that was on account of my quarrel with your grandfather.”

Wolf had to fight back his tears. “I was fortunate enough to speak with him before he died. He is at peace now.”

            "Is this why you have come to the palace? May I be of service? Would you like me to commission a statue in honor of his memory? Believe it or not, there is still room in the Royal Vaults, and your father is a prince twice over. None will object.”

            “No, I have something else to discuss. It concerns an important mission.”

            “Is this why you brought your tutor?”

            “Yes,” Alcuin stepped forward and bowed. “I am here to discuss the topic, but the matter is of such great importance that I beg you grant us secrecy before we speak.” Alcuin glanced furtively at the courtiers milling around the room.

            “Very well,” Runcheon sighed. “Ganymede, help the guests find refreshment. And take your men with you.”

Ganymede barked out an order and all six guards sprang to life. Politely they culled the courtiers into the adjoining salon. When the mighty palace doors were shut and the three were alone, the monarch continued. “Well, what is it?”

            “Last night, Sire,” Wolf began hesitantly. “I was visited by Seydor, and…”

            “Seydor?” Runcheon started. His eyes grew large, and his face adopted a skeptical smile. “Surely, you’re mistaken.”

            “I know it’s hard to believe, but …”

            “More likely you were visited by a spirit of a different kind…”

            “No, sire. Neither alcohol nor elfroot were involved. Trust me. I’d love to dismiss my tale as fantasy, but I’m afraid I was as lucid then as I am now.”

Runcheon gave Wolf his full attention and bade him continue with his eyes.

            “Seydor says a contest of the gods is to take place and the battles will be fought here in the Realm in the company of mortal men.”

            “And he wants your help?”

            “He needs assistance in locating sacred stones hidden throughout the land. I am to assemble a party and retrieve them. The first is in Malden.”

            “Still,” Runcheon objected. “You can’t expect me to believe such a story? Just because you are my grandson does not make you infallible.”

Wolf looked to Alcuin. The latter simply shrugged, as if to say, “Do it.”

He took the ring from his pocket and offered it to Runcheon. With a bony hand extending from a white linen sleeve heavy with gilt embroidery, the monarch bent forward and took it.

            “Very fetching,” said Runcheon. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

            “Just put it on, please,” Wolf said. “All will be revealed.”

Runcheon cast Wolf a searching glance before placing the ring on his finger. As it came to rest, a cry of anguish burst from the old man’s throat. His neck muscles tensed, and he leapt to his feet clutching his chest. A shriek of agony filled the air before he slumped back into his chair.

Alcuin rushed to his side. He grasped the monarch’s wrist, frantically feeling for a pulse. His face transformed into a mask of terror.

            “He’s dead.”

 


Chapter 16
Flight

By duaneculbertson

Wolf froze. His jaw opened, but no words came. Guilt and remorse filled his heart. Tears welled in his eyes and his chest heaved on its own accord. He forced some deep breaths, as he tried to see clearly. What would be their course of action? What was going to happen? The questions were clouded by the stark realization that another family member had taken his leave right when he needed him most.

In his mind’s eye, Wolf foresaw the potential ramifications. Courtiers of the Royal Court would fret over the dynastic succession and the aristocracy would grow uneasy. And with the threat of a civil war looming, the economy could falter. Officers at the frontiers would idly await orders instead of pushing forward with their war plans. Within the major cities, itinerant merchants would dump their wares at discount prices before fleeing a country of dubious stability.

Strict rules governed the transition of power, so the process ought to be smooth. But Wolf knew history; he knew how simple it was for others to lay a claim to the throne under the pretense of authority, or even stage an outright rebellion. A civil war would be a costly endeavor, and this was the worst possible time for such a catastrophe. One thing was certain – it was the end of an era.

            “We’ll need to call the guards and alert the Imperial Physician,” gasped Alcuin. “But first, take this.” 

With trembling hands, he returned the ring to Wolf who thrust it deep into his pocket. The sage removed the Imperial seal from the monarch’s other hand.

            “What are you doing!” Wolf exclaimed.

            “Don’t argue! Just take it! Now brace up. We must sound the alarm. Guards!” Alcuin cried. “Come quick! The king has fallen.”

Ganymede burst through the doors. The color drained from his face, once he saw the monarch slumped over with lifeless eyes. He bounded to his side and felt for a pulse, confirming what the others knew. Wolf felt he could see the man’s blood start to boil.

            “Treachery!” he sputtered. “How dare you? And in this house!” Trembling with rage, he drew his sword.

            “Don’t jump to conclusions!” Alcuin protested. “We are innocent of this tragedy.”

Wolf backed toward the door as two guards approached. He understood Ganymede’s fury; the man oversaw the Emperor’s safety. People would accuse him of failing to do his duty. He had guarded the old man for decades and probably regarded him like family. And having not witnessed what happened, he would assume the worst. Already a volatile situation, this fiasco could deteriorate rapidly if passions flared. Now was not the best time to explain what happened. A formal inquiry could take hours or days – time he did not have.

            “Seize him!” roared Ganymede.

Wolf ducked to his left and struck to his right, punching the first guard in the groin. The man doubled over, and Wolf pushed him into the other guard. This man tried to draw his sword but was knocked flat by the other’s body.

            “Stop!” bellowed Ganymede.

            “I don’t have time to make this right!” Wolf shouted.

            “I know!” yelled Alcuin. “Get out of here! I’ll plead our case!”

Wolf turned to flee, sensing the guard captain close behind. With surprising deftness, Alcuin pulled the carpet and Ganymede tripped, landing hard, his sword clattering across the floor.

Wolf did not look back. He sprinted through the doors into the adjacent salon and barreled into Janicus, knocking him flat. Winded, his uncle could do little else but curse his nephew and watch Wolf continue his flight. Courtiers scattered in terror as if they were in the presence of a madman. Other petitioners froze, rooted in place by fear or surprise. One servant attempted to stop him, but Wolf sent the man sprawling. He burst through yet another door upsetting two servants and a food cart. Mutton shanks and angry waiters were left in his wake.

Wolf rounded another corridor. He was almost free of the palace. Only two guards remained. They stood at the end of a long hallway.

            "Mad dog!” Wolf yelled, pretending to look back for the dog that was chasing him. The guards drew their weapons but looked for an animal that did not exist. As he passed, he heard shouts from behind.

            “Seize him!” someone yelled.

Wolf heard footsteps. The guards were giving chase, but they were encumbered by armor and no match for Wolf’s speed – he had not been the Aachen County Fair’s sprint champion two years in a row for nothing. As he emerged from the castle, he paused in the courtyard, squinting in the harsh daylight. He saw what he was looking for. He vaulted a low balustrade and jumped into the garden below. He knew the palace gardens from childhood. They were vast, and he had played in them for hours, knowing them like the back of his hand. It would be easy to lose any pursuers now.

Wolf stopped to catch his breath. He took the ring from his pocket, the gold glinting in the midday sun. He shook his head ruefully.

            “What a mess,” he muttered. “Did I just kill my grandfather?” It was not intentional, but this truth did little to mollify his feelings. Remorse and doubt clouded his thoughts. How could he have known? Keels and Alcuin had not suffered lasting effects. Then again, they had not lived nearly a century.

Sweat trickled down Wolf’s face, as he approached the western gate. This did not concern him; everyone in Aachen was sweating. Two guards stood outside, but he did not even draw their attention, as he slipped into the street. Their lack of interest was not unusual: their job was to keep people out of the gardens, not keep them in.

            “Meat pie, sir?” a boy asked. “Curried mutton.” The street urchin wore threadbare rags and offered him his most piteous expression. As he stood imploring his well-dressed customer, he kicked his bare feet in the sunbaked dust of the street.

Wolf had not eaten anything since early morning. He wondered what capricious winds of fate had blown the boy here to this exact moment in time. Was he a foundling? Did he have family? Did he have protection from the Thieves Guild? Was he homeless? And where did he get the meat pie to start with? Was it stolen from a vendor? Wolf didn’t care. He gave the boy a denarius and told him to keep the change. The urchin cast a patchwork smile and took off down the street.

The meat pie tasted terrible, a tangy, salty, sinewy mess. Although outlawed in Aachen, it probably contained a fair amount of rat. Wolf could only manage a few bites. He suspected the overuse of salt was meant to mask the taste of rotten meat. He gifted his purchase to a stray mongrel and made his way to the stables.

Wolf would have preferred an express coach to Malden, but he feared one would not be ready in time. It was imperative he leave the city immediately. Any moment he expected to hear the dreaded bells that would toll the death of his grandfather. Such an action would force the city gates closed, and they would not open again for anyone until an all-clear command was issued by the Imperial Guard. If he did not act fast, he would be trapped. He could not have more than a few minutes.

At the stables, Wolf found Glamdray and settled with the farrier.

            "I noticed her shoes in a poor way,” said the man. “You want me to re-shoe her? Takes only a minute.”

            “No thanks,” said Wolf. He tapped his fingers on a post as he waited for the farrier to hand him the reigns. With a gruff salutation, he mounted and cantered to the western gate. He would have preferred a gallop, but it was against the law to ride at such speeds within city walls, and he did not want to draw unwanted attention.

A logjam blocked the gates, but Wolf managed to grab the eye of the gatekeeper, an old salt who had once served alongside him in the Xanadian Campaign.

            “Rushton,” Wolf called over the din of the crowd. “I’m in great haste. Can you do anything to help?”

Although the man’s face registered pleasant recognition, he simply shrugged. A cart with a broken wheel blocked the gateway. Wolf hopped down from his horse. Loudly declaring his roadwarden status, he pushed and elbowed his way past the throng. Then, he put his shoulder to the cart. Two city guards followed suit and before long it was limping to the side of the road. That was when the tolling of the bells began, the urgent peals reverberating throughout the city.

Everyone knew something terrible had happened. People gasped, exchanging worried glances. Some speculated. A fire or an invasion were the most popular suspects, but there were no shortages to explain the foreboding sounds. Wolf alone understood they marked the death of the Emperor, the one who had shepherded the kingdom for over half a century.

Wolf caught Rushton’s attention and delivered an impassioned plea with his eyes, far more articulate than any he could offer through his words. Nodding gently, the man motioned him through the gate. Wolf led Glamdray through the crowds amidst competing cries of outrage and frustration, knowing he had just made a narrow escape.

 

Author Notes All chapters of the book will offer review bonuses for the next ten days. :)


Chapter 17
Virriel

By duaneculbertson

            A lone figure stood barefoot leaning against a rail on a passenger barge. Although the heat was fierce, she hid her face in the dark confines of a deep-cowled cloak. She was called Virriel, though few had ever made her acquaintance.

            “We’re almost there, miss,” said  a cheerful young man. “Just need to make it through Customs, and you’ll be on your way.”

            “Thank you,” she murmured.

The young man gasped, and Virriel pulled her cowl forward to conceal her Elven ears. The two exchanged awkward smiles.

            "Just let me know if you need anything,” he said sheepishly. He lingered a moment longer as if savoring the sight of a rare bird before making his way to the bridge. Virriel noticed other passengers staring at her too and did her best to ignore them. Growing up, she had been told she possessed an exotic beauty, but it was something she never appreciated. She preferred the quiet of the forests, where you could be yourself and there were no judgements.

Nevertheless, now that she was forced to delve into the world of men, her ignorance was a potential problem. She had never been to any imperial city, let alone the ancient capitol. Having interacted with fewer than a hundred people in her entire life, she had no clue that her violet eye color was the rarest in the world. She had never even met another of her kind.

While this isolation had kept some of her social skills underdeveloped, she was never wanting for knowledge, having access to a library which would have rivaled most towns and villages; for the ones she dwelled with were gentle scholars of the highest caliber. Furthermore, her advanced age meant she had read and digested nearly every book in their collection.
 
The midday sun beat down upon the stevedores as they talked loudly and exchanged ribald jests. Cranes ferried crates between ships and the dock. Some boats were laden with cargo. Others unladed. One man called to another as he hoisted an enormous box high into the air, swinging it precariously, while a third pointed frantically at the rigging. A sound like the cracking of a whip split the air and the box plummeted. As the container splintered upon the dock, a dark amber fluid gushed from the wreckage, and a buzzing sound filled the air. People ran for cover as a swarm of bees lashed out indiscriminately.

Virriel laughed. A dozen bees settled upon her cloak, but they did not sting her. On the contrary, they allowed her to gently pet them with her finger. She found the activity calming and smiled to herself.
She felt her stomach rumble, reminding her she had not eaten all day. She dismissed the bees before scanning the crowd for merchants eager to sell food to travelers. She could smell something cooking nearby.

            “Probably roast rat,” she grumbled. She had stopped at enough port towns along the way to Malden to know that this was a thing that happened. Vendors trying to foist rodents off as genuine livestock meat. But she was not fooled. Nor was she particularly interested though. She preferred vegetables over animals, as many animals she considered friends. 

A line formed to disembark, and customs officials detained people as they stepped off the gangplank. The process felt like it was taking forever.

Nearly a week ago, a god told her to leave Glendor Forest and go to Malden to search for a man named Wolf. With his help, she was to locate a stone hidden somewhere in the city. Before leaving, Seydor gave her a ring. “This will serve as your homing beacon. It will glow faintly whenever you are walking in his direction.” Virriel had no idea why she had been chosen for such a mission. Growing up, she had not been so naïve as to think the mysterious hourglass birthmark on her arm carried no significance, yet she could never have imagined it would have led to this. The druidic treemen who raised her often spoke of her destiny – a role she was to play that even they did not understand. Her origins were a mystery as well, and she often had wondered who her parents were. Perhaps she would get answers by following the divine path Seydor had laid out for her.

A customs officer interrupted Virriel’s thoughts. Withouth noticing, she had made it to the front of the line.

            “Name?” he grunted.

            “Virriel von Glendor,” she replied, looking into the beady eyes of the slack-jawed official. She met his distrustful gaze with confidence.

            “Any belongings, miss?”

            “Just this sack,” she replied.

The man eyed it as if it were leaking blood. “What’s in it?”

            “Clothes and books.”

            The officer nodded. “What’s your business in Malden?”

            “Visiting a friend.” She shifted her weight and brushed her hair to the side.

            “For how long?”

            “A fortnight perhaps.”

            “Your papers?”

Virriel fumbled beneath her cloak and produced the required documents.

            “Says here, you were born in Glendor. Can you be more specific?”

            “I was a foundling. I have no other information.”

            “Very well…” He was about to affix his stamp when he noticed an irregular bulge beneath her cloak.

            “What’s this, then?” he asked belligerently.

            “It’s a travel purse,” she replied, dismissively.

            She withdrew a small pouch. The officer grabbed it, and, furrowing his brow, scanned the contents - a few roots and a curious ring, the latter glowing slightly.

Virriel’s heart raced. Without that ring, her mission would be over before it even had a chance to start.

           “That’s not important,” she stammered, her concern betraying her words.

            “Interesting ring,” replied the official.  He stepped back and pocketed the item. “Sadly, I don’t recognize your other articles. You’ll have to wait here.”

            “They are just herbs from the forest,” Virriel protested. “Harmless nostrums to cure the sick. Surely you cannot hope to identify all flora of the Realm.”

            But the young man was not moved by her passionate explanation and went in search of his supervisor. Virriel clenched her fists. She tried to calm herself by taking deep breaths, as she casually looked around. Her stomach rumbled again. She was not sure what meat the vendors were selling, but the aroma grew more enticing by the minute. Such was the intensity of her hunger pangs, she thought she would take her chances with a meat pie, even if it were roasted rat.

The officer returned with an obese, red-faced man who had passed the prime of youth long ago.

            “I’m Chief Anderson,” he said. “You wanna tell me what we’re looking at?”

            “Well,” Virriel said, forcing clam into her voice. “This herb is known as Kildrake. The other is Dragonfoot.”

            “Remove your cloak please,” he ordered.

Virriel complied, handing the garment to the younger officer.

            “Kildrake keeps wounds from going sour,” she explained. “While Dragonfoot helps people recover from vigorous activity.”

But the Chief was not paying attention to her words. To her dismay, she watched his gaze travel from her elven ears and face down to the curves of her breasts, hips and slender legs. It was obvious he was more interested in inspecting her, rather than the contents of her purse. The realization made her skin crawl. She swallowed hard, awaiting his response.

            “I’m afraid I don’t recognize any of these items,” he said flatly, despite examining none of them. “We’ll have to run some tests. Unfortunately, we must detain you until our investigation is complete. Shouldn’t take too long.” He favored his subordinate with an impish smile.

“You must be joking,” Virriel protested. “Is this how you treat all visitors to your fine city?”
The Chief motioned for another subordinate to join them. And Virriel realized she would not leave their company without a fight.

             “Follow me,” the Chief commanded.

             Virriel walked past the food that had previously enticed her. Hunger, however, no longer occupied her thoughts. Fear and nausea now competed for her attention. Her eyes scanned the crowd of onlookers. None seemed sympathetic to her plight.

She was pushed into a warehouse, and a make-shift office greeted her. Stacks of papers sat atop desks. An improvised latrine lay off to one side with a box of yellowed documents nearby that were probably not destined for filing.

Virriel’s eyes darted around the room, scanning the vulgar surroundings with mounting apprehension. She hesitated as she saw a pair of clerks leafing through papers at the back. Perhaps she could appeal to them for support. They, too, stopped their work, exchanging knowing glances before grinning at her like simpletons.

            “Keep moving,” barked the customs office behind her before pushing her through a doorway. 
In the hallway beyond, the Chief paused. “I’ll take it from here,” he said, dismissing the subordinate. The man nodded and withdrew from the passage leaving the two alone. The Chief led Virriel the rest of the way down a cramped corridor. He opened a metal door at the end.

            “If you will just step in here,” he said, motioning to Virriel. He flashed her an easy smile, but his eyes were full of malice and cruelty, betraying his intentions. “It will only take a moment.”

With a loud clang, he slammed the door shut, locking it behind him. Then he placed the key conspicuously in the front of his trousers. Virriel found herself in a holding cell, sunlight from windows high above providing faint illumination. The sawdust on the floor piqued her curiosity, but it was the item at the center of the room that arrested her attention and chilled her blood.

            A large wooden pillory stood before her, the solid oak timbers and metal hasps frightening to behold. Her heart thrashed against the walls of her chest as she contemplated its possible meaning.

            “What game are you playing?” she demanded, instinctively raising her arms in a defensive gesture. 

            “No game here, missy,” he replied casually. “The boys have made rapid progress in identifying your items.”

             Virriel felt a tingling sensation along the back of her neck.

              “Opum derivatives,” he continued.

              “You lying bastard!” Virriel screamed. “I told you what they were. Let me go!” But Virriel was seized by a strong pair of hands. She turned to see a tall, balding man with a stubbly beard. His breath reeked of alcohol.

            “Welcome to Malden,” he slurred, grabbing her in a chokehold.    

The man must have been lurking in the shadows all along, the sawdust providing an ideal surface to muffle his approach. She cursed herself. In the forests of Glendor, nothing moved without her knowledge. Here she was vulnerable.

            “Release me!” she cried, but the two men disregarded her words.


 


Chapter 18
Virriel - Conclusion

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

With a loud clang, he slammed the door shut, locking it behind him. Then he placed the key conspicuously in the front of his trousers.

Virriel found herself in a holding cell, sunlight from windows high above providing faint illumination. The sawdust on the floor piqued her curiosity, but it was the item at the center of the room that arrested her attention and chilled her blood.

            A large wooden pillory stood before her, the solid oak timbers and metal hasps frightening to behold. Her heart thrashed against the walls of her chest as she contemplated its possible meaning.

            “What game are you playing?” she demanded, instinctively raising her arms in a defensive gesture. 

            “No game here, missy,” he replied. "The boys just identified your items.”


               Virriel felt a tingling sensation along the back of her neck. There was no way an investigation could have been performed within such a short span of time.

              “Opum derivatives,” he continued.

              “You lying bastard!” Virriel screamed. “I told you what they were. Let me go!” But Virriel was seized by a strong pair of hands. She turned to see a tall, balding man. His breath reeked of alcohol.

            “Welcome to Malden,” he slurred, grabbing her in a chokehold.    

The man must have been lurking in the shadows, the sawdust muffling his approach. She cursed herself. In Glendor Forest, nothing moved without her knowledge. Here she was vulnerable.

            “Release me!” she cried, but the two men disregarded her words.

            “You know what the best part is?” the Chief said. “Since you were found with narcotics on your possession, we are now required to search you. All of you.”

             Virriel’s eyes widened, as the chief approached.

             “I think a generous body cavity search is in order,” he continued, smiling at his accomplice.

            "And I have just the tool for the job,” he winked at her, grabbing his crotch.

Virriel knew the pervert saw her only as a flower to be plucked. In his eyes, she had no rights. And with mounting horror, she watched his lust rise. His accomplice held her in a grip of iron, but the man could not resist using one hand to fondle her breasts and pinch her nipples.

It was all the opening she needed.

With fanned fingers, her hand shot upwards over her shoulder striking the man’s eyes. Howling, he let go. Without skipping a beat, she drove her elbow into the man’s stomach. He doubled over, and when he tried to rise, a rolling hammer-fist struck the back of his neck sending him crashing to the floor.

Virriel turned to flee, but a fleshy palm struck her face and sent her sprawling.

            “Whore!” the Chief roared. “I’ll fix you!”

Her head struck the floor, the aroma of wood invading her nostrils. Rising to her knees, her wavy, dark-brown curls dappled with sawdust, she roared her defiance. “Vorus take you!” It was one of the few curses she learned from her time living with the Treemen, yet it did little to discourage her attacker.

The Chief pounced. Landing squarely, he tried to immobilize her with his immense weight. Virriel could not breathe. She did her best to fight the animal tearing at her tunic. She could feel his rigid body against her, and in her supine, helpless position the realization drove her to panicked fury.

Cupping her hands, Virriel struck his ears with all her might. Disoriented, the Chief shook his head, the distraction allowing Virriel to squirm free. She scanned the shadows, looking for something she could use as a weapon, but found nothing.

The Chief rushed forward, his cry of rage echoing harshly within the small cell. Virriel dodged his sloppy haymaker, grateful the Treemen had insisted she learn basic self-defense as part of her training. Skillfully, she side-stepped the meaty fist flying past her head before kicking him in the groin.

The second man stirred upon the ground, sweeping the sawdust with his arm. He treid to rise, but Virriel kicked him in the face, knocking him senseless.

The Chief still nursed his bruised testicles, stalling his attack. Virriel circled away from him, using the pillory as a barrier. She was winning the fight but feared she could not dodge him forever. Crouching low, she dropped her arms before swiftly bringing her palms forward, shouting an arcane phrase. A great gust of wind struck from nowhere, knocking the chief off his feet and driving him into the wall.

Virriel looked at her hands; they were shaking. Her body felt numb and tingly. She paused a second to marvel at her accomplishment. 

The Chief groaned, letting her know the battle was not over. It was then that she noticed the items gathered along the front wall. Bolts of rope, soiled handkerchiefs, a cat-o-nine-tails, and a carving knife. She chose the knife. Brandishing it, she stooped over the Chief, holding it to his throat. The scoundrel was aware of his surroundings, and Virriel read fear in his eyes.

            “You filthy toad!” she hissed. “You’ll never threaten women again!”

The blade bit into his flabby neck, liberating a rivulet of blood. This man deserved to die. And yet it was not in her nature to kill, especially an unarmed foe. In this world, she was raised to be a force of Good. Killing this man would be selfish. The realization brought on a visceral response, forcing her to shudder, despite her perilous situation. To yield to dark desire would lead her down a path towards Evil. Would she break her oath so soon by gratifying a dark passion now?

            Of course not.

            She stepped back and regarded the whimpering man who seemed to lack all strength to move. She would help him see the error of his ways. She would not kill. She would punish.

First, she checked on the other man. Much to her delight, he was still out cold. She found a pair of manacles in a desk and restrained him where he had fallen. Then she dragged the Chief to the pillory. Despite his massive size, she managed to get his head and arms into the device. He was still too dazed from the attack to offer any resistance. Slamming it closed, she placed the large bronze pins in the hasps. For added measure, she attached a padlock, pocketing the key. He was not going anywhere. 

The pillory was sturdy with a wide base and two shackles attached to the lower planks. Not knowing exactly where she was going with this, she nevertheless took advantage of this feature, spreading the man’s legs wide and securing his ankles in the restraints.

             “And now, my porkish friend,” she began. “It’s time you learn women are to be respected, not whipped. Cherished, not violated.”

She walked to the wall and removed the cat-o-nine tails from its hook.

            “What are you going to do?” the Chief cried.

             “I could have killed you just now. Or skinned your miserable hide. Instead, I’ve decided you ought to suffer in the very room where you made others suffer. And suffer in the same fashion."

Virriel noticed sawdust beneath the pilory spattered with dried blood. Her jaw tightened.

           “How many women have you tortured here?” she demanded.

Save for the man’s anxious breathing, the room was silent as a tomb.

            "How many women have you detained, disrespected, and violated?”

Again, no response from her prisoner. She wondered if it were fear or obstinacy.

            “Answer me! You dung-heap!” She slapped his face repeatedly. In his vulnerable position, he was unable to defend himself, quickly yielding to her demands. 

             “Plenty,” he pleaded. “I don’t know.”

             “Plenty is not a number. I don’t like that answer.”

            Tears streaked the man’s swollen face, but Virriel felt no compassion. The most likely cause was self-pity, rather than regret for the ill deeds he had done. She continued her interrogation.

            “Let’s just say dozens then,” she said.

He nodded his head in agreement.

“You confess,” she prompted, “to abusing dozens of women by your hand. To taking advantage of your office to gratify your own dark passions. To molesting women whose only crime was being beautiful and pleasing to the eye.”


             “Yes. I do. And I was wrong to do it,” he responded in a wavering voice.

             “And what is it you do with these women after? Do you murder them?”

              “No!” he replied emphatically. “We let them clean up and discretely escort them out the back. They are never seen again.”

              “Charming hospitality,” Virriel said facetiously. “A perfect gentleman. And how do you select your victims? Do you choose the pretty ones who travel alone? Perhaps you prey on the foreign ones, the ones unfamiliar with your laws and customs.”

               “Yes,” he replied reluctantly. “It is as you say.”

              “Well now…” she continued.  “Today they shall have their vengeance!”

The pathetic man trembled, as Virriel stood behind him.

            “What are you doing?” he cried.

She cut away his trousers with the knife.

               “Please, I have money,” he begged. “I’ve a purse of silver back in my office. Better than that, we have vaults here. Contraband from all corners of the Realm. Tobacco. Xanadian Opum. Even Black Dragon – tons of it!”

                A whooshing sound thrummed the air above the Chief’s head, as Virriel took practice swings with the cat-o-nine-tails. The wretched man began to babble at a frenetic pace, tears of anguish rolling down his panicked face. Exorbitant promises flowed from his wavering lips, but Virriel was not listening.

            “Whatever you want, I can make it happen!” shouted the man bound in the pillory. “Whatever you need, I can get it! Just last night, we caught a Romaanian skiff, laden with a fortune in silver counterfeit coins. It can be yours! All of it! Just let me go!”

                The Chief screamed as the first blow fell. Another crack followed. Then another. A dozen. A score. Soon the man’s skin was bloody, the lashes tearing into his flesh. He no longer pleaded; he had become an unthinking creature, howling in agony.

                 After a few minutes, Virriel’s arms felt like lead. Being ambidextrous, she’d  switched hands several times to keep up her aggressive pace. But the cat-o-nine-tails grew heavier as it soaked up the wretched man’s blood, and Virriel was not used to this type of strenuous exercise; she had to rest. She smiled with satisfaction at the product of her labors – the man’s empurpled skin had ruptured in places. It would be a long time before this swine would sit comfortably. Justice was finally being served in what she imagined was a long-standing den of corruption.

The Chief panted like a diseased animal. In the respite, he managed a feeble protest, begging to be freed.

            “Please … I swear I will never hurt another woman again.”

            “That’s better,” Virriel said. “I would hope those words would escape your lips … at the very least.”

            “I promise,” he panted. “I’m sorry for everything. I know it was wrong. Haven’t I suffered enough?"

            Virriel considered his words.

            Almost.

            She crouched in front of her prisoner looking him straight in the eyes. “You’ve suffered today. True. And yet I’m sure the women you molested would be happy to see you in this position. Happy to see you suffer more. They would thank me. They would probably offer to take over once my arms grew tired.”

Virriel discarded the cat-o-nine tails. Sailing through the air, it bounced once in the sawdust before coming to a rest by the door. The Chief sighed with relief.

Virriel rifled the man’s trousers searching for the key to the locked door. She found it, but in doing so, noticed a curious mark on his upper thigh.

            “What’s this?” she asked, jabbing it with her finger.

            “It’s nothing.”

            “That double arrow. You’d better tell me. I can always pick up the flogger again. It’s only just over there.”

            “It’s a society. I don’t know its name, or even if it has one. They tell us nothing. Everything is secret. They use certain phrases and codes to communicate. I get notes telling me where to go and what to do. Sometimes I host.”

The spate of words surprised Virriel. Fear and pain had loosened his tongue. She would probably get the entire truth now.

            “Let me guess,” she stated slowly. “You gather to defile women.”

The Chief said nothing, but his silence was tantamount to a confession.

            “Your crimes are heinous! Fortunately for you, the women you abused are not here. However, I am, and incredibly you have yet to appologize."

            “I’m sorry!” the Chief screamed. “Very sorry! Honest, I am!” He stiffened with apprehension, as Virriel stalked behind him. For reasons she could not explain, she relished what she was about to do. She had forced a confession and a promise. She even managed to extract what sounded like a sincere apology, but it was still not enough.

Positioning herself at a comfortable distance, she shouted in triumph, kicking his exposed testicles. The Chief yelped, his body contorting in agony as far as it could, given his bound position. He squirmed after the second blow. Writhed at the third. A hoarse shriek followed the fourth; then he vomited.

Virriel enjoyed having his vulnerable manhood exposed. She kicked it again and again. She was not sure why she did it, but it felt good.

Spasms racked the man’s body as he received incessant blows to his most tender areas. Within seconds, he was hyperventilating. After a minute, his body went limp. Virriel stopped kicking once he had passed out. It was time to go.

As she quit the cell, she looked back one last time, savoring the view: the unconscious, fat man locked in a pillory with his accomplice lying in the sawdust. She smiled and bolted the iron door.

As she emerged from the hallway, clerks stared speechless. Virriel imagined they were used to seeing broken women ushered out the back. What they saw on this occasion was an elf woman walking with dignity. Triumphant and undaunted. Under her blistering gaze, the men withered, averting their eyes with cowardice and shame, their resolve to challenge her freedom wilting like flowers in the hot sun.
She found her belongings stuffed in a bin. Everything was there. Even the ring. None of the herbs had been disturbed. It was all a ruse – there had been no investigation.

Stepping into the sunshine, she returned to the docks, ordering a meat-pie of known authenticity – it was chicken.  She then uttered a prayer for the animal thanking it for its meat before satisfying her appetite. As she ate, she sat on the peer watching the rippling waters below. The air tasted of honey, thanks to the careless stevedores. It appeared someone had made perfunctory efforts to swab the spill away but had failed. While in the city, she would miss the wild honey, and there was no telling when she would be back in Glendor Forest. When at home, she would eat fresh honey right from the source, as the bees were always willing to share their supply with her.

Virriel felt something heavy in her pocket. It was the key to the pillory. She drew back her arm and gave it a vigorous toss. Noiselessly, it slipped into the Reintrank River, and she smiled with brief satisfaction.

Recalling the reason for coming to this foreign land, she studied the ring. It had grown increasingly brighter during her journey. She thought of the man she was told to find. What made him special? Was he worthy of a bard’s tale? Was he afraid of failing Seydor too? She supposed she would learn soon enough. Collecting herself, she placed the ring on her finger and mingled with the crowds leaving the harbor.



 

Author Notes This is the conclusion of the chapter introducing the reader to Virriel. She was given the same quest as Wolf by Seydor (in an event not recorded in text) and told to meet him in Malden. She appears to be an elf, which means Evil had been bred out of her genes by the ancient aliens known as the Oultek (long extinct). Longevity was another benefit for the elves, but most were born sterile. Humanity was to be the final creation of the Oultek, but a great cataclysm destroyed their civilization before mankind could be perfected; it had to evolve on its own.


Chapter 20
Demelza - 2.0

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

Author's Note: The previous chapter introduced the important character of Demelza. Although I felt it was well-written, it was heavy on backstory and expostiion. This was a major weakness, so I am re-writing the entire chapter. I present it here, because I hope it will be a helpful case study for other writers when they encounter chapters in their own novels that are less than exciting. By the way, I am not claiming to be a great writer - I just thought I would offer my own struggles here. If it helps you, take something from it. :) My solution was to use more interiority and to introduce a flashback to dramaticize exposition that I simply revealed in the previous chapter. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks, Duane Culbertson.

Demelza strolled to the alley entrance to gather her thoughts.

An opportunity to fill my purse with more silver without changing my situation. Not a bad idea. Always good to have multiple revenue streams, as father used to say. 

Wolf only sees a warrior in me, but I am far more complex. Everyone makes that mistake. Some never get a chance to alter their opinions, like the fools lying here. 

I left Karhalazlad for wealth and adventure; this could be what I’m looking for. Having demonstrated my talents here, I’m in the perfect position to adjust my asking price once I learn what the job really entails. 

A secret mission too! I love that idea! How charming! Perhaps I can become famous like the legendary heroes spoken of in tales around the hearth-fires. 

Best be on my guard though. Wolf may be on the level, or he could be touched in the head, and his story a mere pile of horse dung. Still, if the money’s real, I don’t care how crazy he is. As long as he doesn’t endanger my life without good reason, that’s all that matters.

Demelza had lifegoals like everyone else, and, in her case, her objectives were at odds with her family’s wishes, no matter what their good intentions. These divergent agendas clashed, prompting her to leave her mountain stronghold in the middle of the night. Perhaps one day she would return. Perhaps not. She had no idea if her family would send someone to track her. It would not be difficult to pursue a dwarf with flame-colored hair walking the land of men. She would offer a spectacle that would turn heads; people would notice, and a denarius or two could loosen even the most stubborn of tongues. She really did not care though; let them come. It would take a remarkable man to bind her in a sack and drag her back home. Such a man was welcome to try though, as far as she was concerned.

Demelza had no idea how she would be received if she did return. She had run off to avoid her own betrothal feast, an atrocity in dwarven society that would earn her scorn, especially from the insulted bridegroom’s family.

She kicked a stone, watching it carom off a wall and disappear around a corner. Although filled with prideful satisfaction at having survived the brutal ambush, she nevertheless realized her situation could still prove an unmitigated disaster. Her carefully wrought plans regarding Sigfried had been threatened; she needed the boy alive and in good health. Still, perhaps there was a way to turn these unfortunate developments into an opportunity for greater financial gain; she was good at that sort of thing.

She had tracked Sigfried with the intention of claiming the considerable bounty on his head. The boy had humiliated a powerful nobleman by the name of Ratberg von Geisterstadt. Ostensibly a mercantile financier, Ratberg was really just a tyrant who ran a crime organization, exploiting the denizens of the Eastern Kingdom, the land bordering the wilds of Vanadia where the Rule of Imperial Law held tenuous sway.

As far as Demelza could tell, the hated crime-lord had amassed his fortune the old-fashioned way through blackmail, extortion, and unjust business practices. However, unexpected hope arose in those parts. Street gossip spoke of a righteous gang of mask-wearing rebels who acted to thwart Ratberg’s efforts. Their leader was Sigfried, third son of the Earl of Geisterstadt. When Demelza had made inquiries, many described the boy as an arrogant youth living a mischievous, dissolute lifestyle with little to no responsibilities. Word on the street was that he and his friends had stolen from Ratberg’s warehouse, and someone had gotten careless and let it be known throughout the town, boasting of how Sigfried had returned the ill-gotten gains and fenced the merchandise, donating the money to charity.

Such news infuriated Ratberg. Vowing vengeance, the crime-lord placed an enormous bounty on the boy’s head, forcing the young man to flee. Despite many regarding him as a hero, Sigfried was shunned by most, even his friends.  People were too scared to associate with him, and silver had to flow generously before Demelza could learn these simple facts about the boy.

The Earl had cast him out of his family keep. Although ostensibly it had been done because his father considered Sigfried a disgrace, many suspected the Earl did not want trouble with Ratberg. The unfortunate boy could find no help. Even his friends amongst the landed gentry offered no quarter. Everyone feared Ratberg’s wrath.

Demelza had tracked her quarry to the town of Eppendorf. She was about to drag Sigfried from a tavern bar when she arrived upon a brilliant idea. By lucky coincidence, the town of Geisterstadt was offering a bounty for a man named Grachford, and rumors suggested he and Sigfried were friends. It occurred to Demelza that Sigfried may be trying to catch up to his friend who had fled capture just days earlier. No one knew his whereabouts, but it seemed logical that Sigfried had an idea where he could be found. Demelza thought that if she could befriend Sigfried and earn his trust, perhaps one day he would lead her to Grachford; then she could claim both bounties, doubling her profits with little extra effort. A simple plan.

Demelza reached the end of the alley, smiling as she recalled the events that led to her fateful meeting with the boy. She had devised a simple strategy, and everything had gone perfectly.
 
She approached the Fighting Cocks Inn, the weathered wooden sign a harbinger of what to expect – a hard drinking, rowdy establishment that cared little for aesthetics, or respect for the Rule of Law. Exactly as she had hoped.

Her impressions were confirmed upon entry. The Inn did not even have a door. A heavy-eyed peacekeeper, possibly under the influence of strong mead, barely acknowledged her presence, a surprising action by itself, since dwarves rarely made an appearance so far from Karhalazald. The bovine gatekeeper sat upon an empty hogshead; the barrel barely able to support his immense bulk. Brandishing a truculent scowl, he supported his stern affect with crossed arms, but Demelza knew it was all just a front; this man would do little or nothing to interfere with her plans.

She brushed past this sentinel. Entering the hall, she felt grit upon the floorboards beneath her feet. A wave of heat retaining the full fury of the long-departed Summer’s day assaulted her, welcoming her to the large, drab drinking hall, carrying with it the stale taste of fermented beverages mingled with pipe smoke, and the sweat and body-odor of the clientele, a rough-looking collection of laborers judging by body-type, clothing, physical appearance, and the course language spoken.

Many holidays populated the Summer, and this chanced to be the primary one, Litha. As such, the venue housed more than usual, and patrons packed every table, surrounding them on crude wooden chairs. At this late hour anyone entering the establishment would likely be treated to the hospitality of standing room only, and as expected, the most densely packed area was the crowded bar at the far end of the hall.

Raucous laughter, boisterous shouting, and rowdy behavior assaulted Demelza’s ears. Having grown up in the presence of rough, violent dwarves in Karhalazald, she was used to loud, harsh words and actions, but even she was not accustomed to the deafening sounds of the drinking hall, the brick interior creating echoes, amplifying the acoustics, and forcing patrons to vocally compete with each other.

Oddly, none of the patrons took notice of her presence. Other venues along the way harbored denizens not nearly so discrete. Often her sudden appearance could stop entire conversations. For her, this was a welcome change; it would make her job easier.

Recessed in walls, stout candles sat upon windowsills, while others squatted upon designated tables. Two wrought iron chandeliers hung overhead from post beams, the heavy rust penetrating the chains offering an excuse to crash down amongst patrons at any moment, liberating dozens of wax candles in the process.

In the unlikely event of a fire, Demelza noticed the entrance and exit were one and the same with no other egress, save for thin patrons who could possibly squeeze through the windows and flee to safety. She was happy rushes were not used on the floor. While the hardwood surface had not be swept in years, at least it would not burst into flames like a tinderbox if someone upset a candle. Many of the lower establishments still used rushes to soak up the day’s filth. This Inn was of that kind of quality yet for some reason did not use them.

This seemingly errant thought was not unusual for Demelza. As a little girl, she had nearly perished in a fire, and the event still haunted her, spawning one of her odd handful of fears. When it came to combat, she was fearless. She would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime. But when it came to fires, enclosed spaces, or rats, her warrior's level-headed composure would vanish.

Skirting the periphery, Demelza tracked her quarry. It did not take long to notice the young nobleman standing alone beside the bar. Wearing his typical finery, his foppish appearance made him conspicuous. Clearly the boy needed an education on how to remain elusive when fleeing those would pursue you. He could have easily sold his clothes and purchased new ones along the way. Better yet, he could have traded with a passer-by. Any farmer or common laborer would delight at the opportunity to receive such an upgrade to their apparel, taking home the nobleman’s fine attire worth a hundredfold the value of their original pedestrian garments. But Sigfried was young and oblivious; a fact she would soon use against him.

Scanning the back of the hall, she found the other person she was searching for: a tall loner – a surly looking man, loitering in a corner, speculating life’s questions, and seeking their answers at the bottom of a tankard of ale.

A white scar upon his face marked him as a man of violence. His stature had once been impressive, but now he appeared malnourished and underweight. A sallow complexion and jaundiced eyes suggested alcohol was responsible. His faded hair, flaxen streaked with gray, also spoke of poor living and excessive familiarity with drink.

Demelza believed him a discharged warrior or mercenary. He carried no armor, but that was not unusual for someone celebrating the Summer solstice. On festival days, people dressed casually. Demelza herself had left her armor back at a competing inn to better blend with the townsfolk.

Nor was there any reason to carry a sword. Large towns were typically safe, especially if a competent Watch kept the peace.

Demelza would try to use the man’s boredom to her advantage. His threadbare clothes could be a sign of possible desperation as well. And she still had sufficient silver to influence behaviors.

After purchasing two ale mugs from the distracted, overworked barman, she approached her quarry causally. “Happy Litha! May good fortune walk beside you as we enter the better half of the year and approach the harvest months."

“Nothing special ‘bout Litha,” the man spat. “Jus’ another stupid excuse to drink away our sorrows while we sweat our asses off. And it’s only gonna get hotter from this point onwards. Why the fuck do we want to celebrate that?” He turned upon her with brown beady eyes and arched his brow in annoyance.

“What sorrows do you drown?” Demelza asked. “You seem much troubled.”

“Girl, you been hidin’ under a rock? Let me count the ways … a strange illness is sweeping the land, markin’ people with bloody blisters with no rhyme or reason, then strikin’ ‘em dead! You ain’t noticed? Seyd’sblud!”

“Course I’ve noticed…”

“Then we got Violent storms uprootin’ trees and scatterin’ crops across the land. Reasonable men tellin’ frightening tales of strange beasts lurkin’ in the woods to the East … and Vanadian raidin’ parties now within a stone’s throw of our city gates. Pit of Vorus, girl! Any o’ these things ringin’ a bell within that head of yours?” The man touched her, pawing at her long, orange hair. “Say. You’re a purdy thing … a bit stumpy, but that don’t bother me.”

Demelza’s eyes flashed a fiery warning. She fixed him with her a serious gaze but said nothing. She could see the man was halfway to a drunken stupor. For the moment, she would forgive his conduct.

“Tremors shaking the earth along the southern ports,” he continued. “And I could go on …”

“Please don’t,” interrupted Demelza. “Look, I could use some help. Do you know where I can find someone interested in earning some quick coin? I got sesterces.” She opened her belt-purse wide enough to reveal the large silver coins. The man’s eyes lit up.

“My name’s Thar. What do you have in mind?”

Demelza learned towards him to affect a conspiratorial demeanor, but this was all an act, of course, since she had to all but yell just to have him understand what she was saying. “That lad in the fancy clothes at the end of the bar. You see him?”

Thar nodded.

“He’s a rich nobleman from an affluent house … he raped my sister!”

Thar’s eyes registered shock. “Yeah! I see the bastard!” His face adopted a look of righteous indignation.

“Good. And yeah, he is a bastard, one fathered by the Earl of Geisterstadt. My sister tried to bring him to court, but his family name kept him from prosecution. I want revenge for her, but I’m not much of a fighter. I need someone to soften him up. That’s where you come in. I need you to start a fight with the boy. Rough him up a bit.  The Peacekeeper will then throw you both outside. That’s when I take over.”

“What about the Watch? Brawlin’ in the streets is illegal.”

“The Watch? Really? You’re worried about the Watch? They can’t be everywhere at once, you know. Look, I’m offering you a chance to make four sesterces for five minutes of work. You could search the Empire and not find a better rate than that.” She withdrew a few of the heavy coins and admired them in the palm of her hand. Thar licked his lips. His eyes darted between Sigfried, the barman, and the peacekeeper. He clenched his fists and shifted his feet in agitation, betraying his avarice.

“Yeah,” he spat. “I’m up for it. Hand ‘em over.”

“Outside. You get them outside. Not a moment before.”

Thar’s eyes narrowed. “No! You give me half now; else I tell the barman you’re brewing trouble in his ‘stablihsment.”

Demelza laughed. “You are truly my kind of scoundrel. Very well done. Fine!” She smiled, handing him two sesterces.

“What am I supposed to do now to start the fight?”

“I don’t know. Spill your drink on him. Fart in his general direction. Shistra! I don’t give a fuck! Use your imagination. You look like a resourceful fellow.”

Thar downed his drink before taking a deep breath, inflating his chest as if to summon his courage.

“Here take mine too,” said Demelza. She gave him her mug of ale. But instead of finishing it, he carried it with him, perhaps intending to use it as a prop as he made a beeline for Sigfried.

Demelza furtively approached the area where the violence would occur making a circular arc through tables and pushing past rowdy patrons. Despite her short stature, she still saw the action as she peered between two people talking close to the bar.

Sigfried looked up from the front of his soaked finery where he had been liberally splashed with ale. He raised his hands to his sides, affecting an expression of disbelief.

“Clumsy oaf!” roared Thar. “You made me spill my drink.”

“You walked right into me! You stumbling idiot!” Sigfried protested.

Thar threw him against the brick wall, heads instantly turning to regard the action. The barman lifted a blackjack from behind the bar, pointing it at Thar.
“Hey! No fighting in here!”

Thar threw a haymaker, catching Sigfried below his left eye, knocking him to the floor. The tall man stood over the noble waiting for him to rise. But Demelza was upon him within the next heartbeat.

“Brute!” she yelled. Crouching, she exploded upwards like a compressed spring, striking Thar square in the face. As he staggered backwards, blood gushed from his nose.  Confused, his beady eyes registered disbelief, recognizing his new employer. He tried to say something, but Demelza worked his body with her fists with powerful blows that drove away whatever words he had planned with the breath from his lungs.

Thar groaned when Demelza raised her knee into his groin, forcing his head down where it would be closer to receive her fury. A haymaker to Thar’s jaw knocked his teeth clear across the bar. She stooped once again before springing upwards, finishing her opponent with a left upper cut. Thar’s eyes rolled back into his head, and his body stiffened. He fell back to crash against the bar before slumping to the hardwood floor.

A hush fell over the crowd, all eyes awaiting the conclusion of the drama. The peacekeeper had closed the distance by now, clasping a firm hand upon Demelza’s shoulder just as the barkeep spoke.

“We’re good here,” he said. “I saw the whole thing. The stunty saved the dandy. Twas an unprovoked, unwarranted attack. She’s not a perpetrator. Let her go.”

“Whatcha want me to do then?” asked the large, bullish man in a deep voice.

“Just hang on,” ordered the bartender. “Anyone know this man?” He pointed at the unconscious Thar lying against his bar. A few stirred at a table to the bartender’s left, and a man stood in response. Most had already risen to their feet to better see what was going on, although the conflict had ended so swiftly that many at the hall’s entrance were still not aware a fight had taken place.

“I know him,” said the middle-aged man. “Goes by the name of Thar. Former soldier with the King’s Tenth Legion.”

“Ah! That’s too bad!” exclaimed the barkeep. “Hate to see a veteran in such a bad way. He cant’s stay here though, and I don’t want the Watch to find him lying outside. Can you do me a favor and take him home?”

The other man hesitated, perhaps unwilling to perform charity at his own expense. He looked at the faces of the large group he had gathered with to celebrate the holiday.

“Tell you what,” continued the barkeep. “I got a dog cart around back. You take him home, and your table gets two free rounds of whatever you’re drinking.”

Whooping cheers filled the hall, the man’s popularity having soared tenfold at his table. Amidst such peer pressure, he relented on behalf of his friends. He nodded his head at the barkeep and approached the bar.

Sigfried sat against the wall, tending a bloody nose with a silk handkerchief. His left cheek was already swollen and purple. Not wishing to be outdone, his eye seemed well on its way to blackening also.

Demelza stooped beside him.

“I saw what you did,” he mumbled. “Thanks. Name’s Sigfried. Whatever I can do to repay you, just ask.”

“Demelza,” she replied. “Well, I am recently out of work.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a bodyguard.”

“You’re hired!” Sigfried declared. “I really can’t thank you enough. You’ve proven yourself most capable. What are your rates?”
 
It really had been that easy. Demelza smiled at the fond recollection.

Poor bastard ... what was his name? … Thar! Yes, that was it! That man really earned his sesterces that night. Broke his jaw too for good measure. I could not allow him the possibility of revealing my deception to Sigfried. Not that it mattered. Thar never regained consciousness in the drinking hall, as far as I know. They dragged him out the back, and he was allegedly carted back to wherever he lived. Life as a mercenary can be tough.

That had only been a week ago, and things were going according to her plan. Sigfried had told her things. When he said he had made powerful enemies, she pretended to hear the information for the first time. She said she would protect him for as long as he could afford. And the unusually low rates she charged had not roused his suspicions. Gradually she was learning more about his friends and lifestyle. She hoped it would not be long until he found Grachford.

Her thoughts returned to the present. She grimaced, recalling how she had done little to protect her charge during the fight. Ostensibly, she was his bodyguard. She would have to play the part better if she wanted to convince others of her sincerity. In truth, she had never served as a bodyguard and was relying on instincts instead of formal training.

Demelza found herself falling for the boy to a certain extent too and had taken a fondness to him. In such moments of friendship, she would let her guard down and allow herself to ponder what would happen when she turned him over to Ratberg. The fat man would probably torture the boy for the whereabouts of his stolen goods; then, if rumors were true, he would torture him further for amusement and to send a strong message to the streets – this is what happens to those who defy him.

Sigfried does not deserve that. Still …  fifty gold aureus …

The bounty was absurdly high; it would take the average citizen ten years to amass such a sum. And such a reward would motivate many to entertain nefarious deeds. Perhaps even members of the boy’s own family could be persuaded to betray him for that amount of wealth.

Demelza knew the money would allow her to live comfortably for years, approaching the royal standards with which she was accustomed.
 
Demelza found the new opportunity intriguing. And Wolf was a handsome man with broad shoulders who had proven himself a competent warrior. He was probably a good leader as well, with the look of one who knows his way around a battlefield. And she could probably learn from his wisdom, appearing at least a decade older than her.
 
As long as the money was real and promptly paid, it would be worthwhile for her to participate, if Sigfried was willing to entertain the notion. Oddly, Sigfried had been reticent about sharing his plans with her. As far as she could tell, they were just wandering, though what it was the boy searched for he would not share.

At the moment, the elf appeared to be taking proper care of Sigfried, a great asset that complimented a deficiency in her skillset, since she knew little to nothing about treating wounds, such knowledge greedily hoarded by the shamans back home.
 If only she weren’t an elf.

Demelza sensed forces gathering. A warrior’s instinct. It was past time to leave. And she had made up her mind anyway. She turned and noticed Wolf looking at her with apprehension in his eyes. Swiftly she approached.

“I accept your offer,” she said, clasping his arm to honor the deal.

“Excellent,” Wolf beamed. “Now let’s get the Hell out of here.”

“My final decision rests on what Sigfried decides to do; I am his bodyguard.”

“Sure. I was wondering what your relationship was.”

“Perhaps we can make our way back to the Lucky Shoe,” interrupted Virriel. “I’m sure we can find a place for you, Demelza.”

“Hmmph,” Demelza snorted. She brushed past her, returning to the front of the alley, as if she knew where they were going,
Virriel shrugged. “Hatred runs deep between our people. Sadly, the wars fought years ago still pursue us today. I have no problem with dwarves, but I was not raised with other elves who could have influenced my thinking. Instead, I was taught by druids who emphasized tolerance and the value of trying to understand those who are different.”

Wolf simply nodded. “You know the way back?”

“Spatial awareness is a gift of the Mother. There are few trails in the wilderness, so I’ve come to practice the discipline often, mapping areas in my head so I know where I am at all times. These surroundings are quite foreign, but my skills still apply.”

“Good, let’s get this boy to safety.”

They each took a shoulder, half dragging, half carrying the aristocrat as they proceeded to negotiate the network of squalid streets. Neither spoke, as they followed the dwarf who obstinately insisted on leading the way towards a place she had never been. Fortunately, they had not far to travel.
 

 

Author Notes Chapter Introducing An Important Character


Chapter 21
Anxious Bedfellows

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

The middle-aged innkeeper was none too pleased to see a bloody, unconscious man dragged into his place of business.

“Hey! Who’s gonna come after you?” he protested. “I want no trouble.”

“You’ll get none!” barked Wolf. “This man was attacked in the Devil’s Den. I’m a Roadwarden; we carry no legal problems in our wake. Nor are we pursued by nefarious agents. As you can see, this man is gravely wounded. We only wish to help him recover his strength. Besides, we’ve already purchased two rooms here. That is …unless you wish to reimburse this lady.” Wolf nodded towards Virriel, his diction elevating her from a woman to a lady, perhaps satisfying an unconscious desire to pay tribute to her beauty, as if her appearance alone could justify her exalted social status.

The innkeeper cast the elf an appraising glance, lingering on her bare feet. While he might have been skeptical of her noble status, it was obvious he recognized her from their earlier dealings. It would have been absurd for him to deny he could remember such an elegant, exotic woman among the rough folk he dealt with every day. He turned to Wolf, the unspoken leader of the curious party, deciding negotiations were best conducted through him instead of the woman who had purchased the rooms.

Crossing his arms in front of his chest, he portrayed an affect of stubborn resistance, as he complained about their potential difficulties. “You’ll pro’lly make a mess o’ my ‘stablishment! Bleedin’ all over the place, disturbin’ customers, and carrying on. I say take ‘im to the Convalescent House. Dressed like that, the dandy kin afford it.”

“This man’s a victim,” Wolf persisted. “As I said, you’ll get no visit from the Watch on our account. And there’s no good reason to bar him from this establishment. Have hot water and fresh linen sent up and I’ll see you well-rewarded.”

It took only two heartbeats for the innkeeper to decide, likely eager to return to the bottle protruding from the pocket of his trousers.

“Done. Jus’ don’t bleed everywhar’ and stay in your rooms. Can’t have you scaring the other guests.”

Scaring the other guests? Indeed! No one this side of Southtown ever shows concern over spilled blood. It’s not like he’s got royalty staying here. Wolf paused, irony forcing a chuckle from his lips. In response, Virriel raised a curious eyebrow, but Wolf simply shook his head. “It’s nothing,” he muttered.

As the pair negotiated the stairs with Sigfried, the boy meandered through various states of consciousness. In moments of wakefulness, he groaned in agony, unable to articulate words other than curses to express excruciating pain. Likely his injuries were more serious than anyone realized. Besides the contusions blossoming upon his head, he suffered cracked ribs. Other bones could be broken as well – radius, ulna, and clavicle all likely candidates.

Wolf was not a physician, but he had seen plenty of battlefield injuries to know enough about them. No doubt Virriel had great knowledge of medicine. During their walk to the Lucky Shoe, she told Wolf she was an accomplished herbalist, a useful fact as they recovered from that brutal ambush.

The awkward group ascended another flight of stairs. As luck would have it, the vacant rooms were on the third floor. Every step and accidental jostling brought forth fresh peals of agony. Like a yo-yo, Sigfried drifted in and out of consciousness. For the slumbering guests, the loud, late arrival of the boy did not go unnoticed. Like prairie dogs in a field, heads popped out of rooms lining the hallways. In no time at all, they had become the least popular guests staying at the inn, earning them scornful looks. Not that Sigfried would care had he been able to notice such things.

Virriel’s room was the last door on the right at the end of the hall. Everyone agreed it would be best if she cared for Sigfried in her quarters. To Wolf, the furnishings appeared surprisingly opulent; he had stayed in places across the Empire, but was accustomed to sleeping in roadwarden accommodations, a much lower standard. Virriel’s room was clean, tastefully decorated, and spacious. And the large bed seemed of high quality. It even had pillows. He hoped his accommodations were equally charming.

On that matter, it was decided Wolf would share quarters with Demelza at the other end of the hall. He felt nervous about how that would go. Bedding with a stranger was awkward; he imagined bedding with a beautiful one would be doubly so. Exhausted, he only sought rest, and the oath he had sworn to locate Atelka kept any lustful feelings at bay, at least for the moment.

The straw mattress laying in the middle of the room looked comfy enough, although Wolf wished it were wider. It sat on a four-legged platform, a nice feature, since it reduced the chances of nocturnal visits from wandering critters. On that note, however, all seemed good. The room was exceptionally clean, the hardwood floors swept and spotless.  On a bedside table, an oil lamp provided a generous amount of illumination, contrary to what one would expect from most Inns and Public Houses throughout the land, which typically featured dimly lit rooms to better hide the dirt, grime, and filth covering nearly every surface. The Lucky Shoe offered a glorious alternative. No matter the unsavory appearance of the innkeeper, Wolf had to admit he ran a tight ship.

“Very nice,” exclaimed Demelza. “A well-made mattress. Such a nice change. Sigfried and I have been using cots not much better than the hardwood floors. I suppose he may have seen some nice mattresses recently though; that boy loves his brothels! I follow him everywhere, except when it comes to that. Sometimes, much to my dismay, he’ll bring back a harlot for a night of debauchery. On those occasions, the bastard makes me sleep in the hallway. Imagine that! Won’t even let me watch.”

A tinge of color invaded Wolf’s face, and he avoided her gaze. A sudden knock at the door rattled him, his nerves still in a heightened, jangled state following the alley skirmish. Cautiously, he opened the door.

The Innkeeper stood there with hot water and fresh linen as requested. Smiling, he wore an expectant look upon his face. Wolf coated his palm with silver and pointed him towards Virriel’s room.

“Make sure she has everything she needs,” he instructed. Dutifully, the Innkeeper nodded and withdrew.

Wolf welcomed the chance to use the ointments and herbal remedies Virriel had provided to sooth their skin and accelerate the healing of their wounds. Such good fortune to have an herbalist on the team. He wondered what other skills they would acquire as they gathered more members for the Stonequest.

Wolf loathed the idea of getting into another fight any time soon but wanted to be ready just in case. His body felt sore and muscles he did not even realize he had ached, screaming for his attention. With tired eyes, he watched Demelza remove her armor. First, she unbuckled her breastplate, carefully placing it against the wall. Then, she peeled off her hauberk, the interlocking loops of mail clinking against one another as she dropped it to the floor. Last she removed her sleeveless blue gambeson bleached white in places by the salt of her sweat. Underneath this final layer a stained cotton shift clung to her curvy, muscular body. With a look of excitement, she eyed a hogshead full of water sitting in a corner. In a flash she pulled the shift over her head and stood naked. An image of muscular arms, powerful back and sculpted legs and buttocks accosted Wolf before he could look away. His heart raced with natural arousal. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he produced a sharpening stone from his vest, and began to scrape dried blood from his sword. With his back to the naked dwarf, he breathed deliberately, matching his rhythm with the sharpening stone. Water sloshed over the sides of the barrel, and Wolf decided it was safe to regard her again.

 “Ahhh,” she sighed, “you really ought to try this. So refreshing! Good to feel cool… and clean after a battle.”

“Cool, maybe,” remarked Wolf. “But how can you be sure that water’s clean?”

Demelza responded by sucking the questionable fluid into her mouth and spitting it at Wolf. The jet fell short. Nevertheless, Wolf scowled disapprovingly. In doing so, he caught a view of her ample cleavage, which he briefly enjoyed before forcing himself to look away. Her nipples were nearly poking out of the water.

“Water is water,” she said. “A warrior’s not fussy. We take what we can get, and use what we take…”
Wolf grunted. Resourcefulness was something he too appreciated.

Demelza grabbed the variegated soap, seemingly cobbled together from other bars belonging to the inn or left behind by former guests. Methodically, she began to wash.

“Well, I guess I gotta give the elf credit. This is a fine room. Even the soap is scented. Lavender, I think.” She began to build up a lather and gathered her long tresses for a cleaning.

 “Ya’ gotta keep hair clean, else it loses its luster,” she stated. “Looks like you agree with this habit. I can tell you take care of that fine, auburn hair.”

“Actually, it’s not auburn. If you look closely you will see a combination of gold, silver, and bronze.”

“Metals? Eh? That’s a new one. Well, whatever you say… Maybe you got gray in there too that you don’t want anyone to know about.”

Wolf scoffed. “I should say not. My scalp does not quarter grays.”

Demelza laughed. Wolf ran his hands through his hair. “My hair is the perfect harmony of three colors, each balancing the other.”

Demelza smiled. “I’m happy with my orange, the color of metals heating in a forge. Unusual, but not too exotic. My uncle has bright orange hair as well. As did my grandfather.”

She finished lathering and dunked herself underwater to rinse. She surfaced and released a refreshing sigh.

With her hair gathered to one side, Wolf noticed a scar running along the top of her ear. He imagined she wore her hair deliberately long like that to hide it, as its appearance detracted from her otherwise flawless face. His mother had raised him to observe proper etiquette, taught to abstain from delving into potentially sensitive topics concerning others, but he found he could not resist.

“What’s the story with your ear? Get that from a duel?”

“What? Oh …” Demelza began. “Nothing so interesting. My entry into the world was difficult, so I’ve been told. Twas a complicated birthing. Apparently, some lunatic doctor used forceps to pull me from my mother. He clipped both my ears in the process. My parents were foolish for not having sought the assistance of your people. With your superior knowledge of medicine, it would have gone much smoother. Not to mention, Dwarves are not known for their dexterity. My father was furious with the doctor and had the man banished. Maybe he’s working amongst your people now.” She smiled.

“I see,” Wolf said. “I’m Sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s not like I remember. The event bears no effect upon me today. On the contrary, makes for a good conversation starter.” She laughed.

Wolf returned to sharpening his sword.

“You know, I’ve not been long amongst your people,” Demelza said. “But is it true that in Atherspa men and women train naked alongside each other?”

“First of all, they are not my people,” replied Wolf. “Atherspa is not even part of the Empire. Their kingdom lies to the East. But, yes, I have heard that rumor. And I believe it to be true.”

“How do you suppose that works?” she asked coyly.

“Pretty well, I imagine,” Wolf replied honestly. “Their women are fierce fighters. I met one recently. Never seen a woman fight like that before. Her name is Jocasta.”

“Sounds like she took your fancy.”

“She took my respect. That is all. Much as you did tonight.”

“Hope I get the chance to meet her. Probably could learn a thing or two.”

“Indeed, you could. She bested my friend in a duel, and he is a Swordmaster. It was a playful skirmish though. I doubt she could beat him in a real fight.”

Demelza stepped clear of the barrel and towel-dried her hair. Wolf finished polishing his sword and heard her crawl onto the mattress behind him. Turning, he gasped to see a full view of her naked body on display. Her hair lay limp, fanned against the pillow, ostensibly to dry, while her ample breasts rested flat on either side of her chest. She looked at him with an innocent smile, but her erect nipples betrayed her intentions. He was having no part of it.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“It’s hot as the Pit in here! You can’t seriously expect me to wear clothes?”

“Do as you like,” Wolf spat. “I’ll not join you. This is Etruria, not Atherspa. Now turn away so I can undress.”

“So proud, so prudish,” she muttered, quoting a famous play. Wolf recognized the words, surprised she knew the reference considering she had just said how she had not spent much time among his people. Perhaps she had been educated or received an unusual upbringing.

Demelza turned her head away to look at the wall, ostensibly allowing Wolf to undress in privacy. “Perhaps so loud, so foolish is more appropriate …” she muttered. Wolf ignored her comment; whatever her intentions, he was not interested.

He withdrew a linen undergarment from his loculus. But as he changed into the outfit, he caught a glimpse of Demelza admiring his naked body in the reflection of her breastplate, the highly polished parts not spattered with blood. He shook his head disapprovingly and climbed into the bed beneath the sheet beside her.

“Suit yourself,” she muttered. “You’re the one gonna sweat your balls off under that linen.”

“Where’d you say you’re from?” Wolf asked, deliberately changing the subject.

“I didn’t,” she said.

“Well, which of the five kingdoms do you hail from?”

“Fires of the Pit! I’m impressed! Not many of your kind know such things.”

“Just tell me,” Wolf persisted.

“If you must know, I’m from the dwarven stronghold of Karhalazald.”

“Ah, the Ironbeard Clan,” he remarked.

Eyes wide, Demelza’s mouth dropped open. “How could you … know that?”

“I’ve travelled much …What I find interesting is how an Ironbeard comes to walk the roads of Etruria. Your people are the most reclusive of all the dwarves. We don’t even have ambassadors to your fortress.”

“No, you wouldn’t. We don’t like to associate with others. My grandfather was the great Gron Ironbeard. Most dwarven kings of the modern age inherit their lands. Gron conquered his. The man had utter contempt for any who held power using diplomacy alone. Toughness in battle was what he valued most in life, and such was the strength of his convictions that his ways influenced all others around him. Our people are the toughest and most feared, but they are also the most hated. Fortunately, all the clans are at peace now, but his memory is still reviled.”

“Why did you leave?” Wolf asked.

“Got bored. That’s all,” Demelza said, waving her hand dismissively. “How do you know so much about dwarves?”

“I had dwarven friends growing up. But that’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to discuss is the demonstrated fact that you know your way around a sword … or an axe, in your case. You kept a cool head tonight and fought your way out of a difficult situation. I think you’re going to make a great addition to this team.”

“T’was a good fight,” she agreed. “Stomped ‘em to the next world! But that reminds me, what is this great thing we’re supposed to be doing?”

“Tomorrow,” Wolf said softly. “You’ll learn tomorrow.”

“And why are we working with an elf?”

“Is that a problem?”

“Yeah, it is. Elves can’t be trusted! Why would Seydor send one to help you?”

“You need not understand his reasons, though I can assure you he has good ones. Virriel can be trusted. There’s nothing more to say! Tell me about Karhalazald. What are your people like?”

“Boring. Predictable. Ill-tempered. That sums them all up perfectly. Including my family.” A wistful look briefly visited upon her features. “I’ve always wanted to see the world. One day, I woke up and decided to do something about it. Didn’t tell a shade where I was going.”

“Won’t you be missed?”

“Probably!” Demelza blurted. She let loose a hearty laugh, causing Wolf to stare in amazement. “Sorry. Some will miss me a lot more than others. None will be happy though. Wish I couldha’ seen the look on …” Demelza checked herself. “Anyway, my people,” she continued, “are good people. Simple craftsmen. Gifted in the ways of metallurgy. They can forge just about anything – swords, shields, axes, halberds… It’s what they’re good at. And they know how to take care of their weapons. Seems you do too.”

Wolf raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Yeah, I saw you polishing your sword earlier. Very important. Can’t let traces of blood tarnish the metal. Imperfections grow with time. And ‘fore you know it, snap! You’re holding half a sword, while needing a whole. I started polishing swords when I was young. Fifteen to be exact. It’s important to know how to polish a man’s sword. Fastest way to his heart. I can do it really good. The secret is to get the proper rhythm … I can show you if you’d like.”

Wolf forced a yawn, pretending to overlook her hidden meaning.

“Perhaps another time. It’s been a long day. The first of many, and tomorrow there will be much to do. We need rest.”

Wolf reached across the bedside table, touched a spring on a lantern, and plunged the room into darkness.

“Good night, mighty dwarf,” but Wolf heard no reply. Perhaps she had already fallen asleep, although he could detect an almost rhythmic vibration coming from her side of the bed. An instant later he was asleep too.
                                                            *************
            Faint rays of twilight filtered through the window. The two awoke at the same time. To his horror, Wolf found himself caught in an awkward position, limbs intertwined with Demelza’s. Their eyes met. The sudden realization of their geometry produced a galvanic effect. Wolf quickly rolled one way. Demelza the other.

            “I’m terribly sorry,” Wolf stammered.

            “No, that’s okay,” replied the dwarf hastily. “Probably my fault. I’ve been known to move about in my sleep.”

            Hurriedly, they dressed.

            “That’s a right proper battleaxe,” Wolf offered. “Have I told you how much I admire it?”

            “Thanks,” Demelza replied. “Forged it myself.”

            The dwarf paused to insert a wicked-looking knife into a hidden slot in her boot.

            “We’d better check on Sigfried,” Wolf suggested.

            “Right! I’m ready. Let’s go!”

Wolf locked the door and they hurried down the hall.
 

 


Chapter 22
First Steps

By duaneculbertson

The hands caressing his head had long delicate fingers.

Her touch is smooth …

Last night, the incessant agony made him want to die, but today, he felt life held promise. In the middle of the night, his angel reapplied his bandages, each time lacing them with medicinal herbs. To his amazement, his pain was tolerable.

It was morning now, and the grey light from the East illuminated the bedroom. Sigfried watched his angel closely. Before he could only feel her gentle touch, but now he could see her clearly.

            “You’re beautiful!” he declared, despite the pain of his swollen face.

            “And you’re delirious,” Virriel laughed. “But I’m glad you’re feeling better. You’ll want to remain still though, Sigfried.”

            “Who are …?”

            “My name is Virriel. And it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Your friends will return shortly. Earlier you were unconscious, so they went in search of food.”

There came a knock at the door.

“Enter,” Virriel said.

Wolf strode into the room with Demelza in tow, the latter carrying a bag containing her employer’s possessions.

“Are you okay, Sig?” Demelza asked.

“Much better,” he replied. “Place my rucksack on the table. Thanks.”

Wolf’s eyes lingered long over Virriel.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Umm, yes,” he said, forcing a cough to hide his embarrassment. He held a piece of parchment in his hands. “As I waited for my order, I checked the solicitations posted by the bar. I found this declaration.”

 

Wanted – Able Adventurers for Artifact Recovery
Interested applicants inquire at 47 Regent Strasse
Ask for Chancellor Olivejem
 

Virriel eyed Wolf. “Do you think this artifact could be what we are looking for?”

“It’s possible,” he replied. “In any case, I think we ought to check it out.”

“What do you have in mind?” she asked.

Wolf took her by the arm and led her to a corner of the room where he thought their voices could not be overheard. However, despite this precaution, Sigfried could still understand what was being said, blessed with fine hearing and having cultivated a peculiar talent for reading lips.

“We need a plan,” Wolf began. “Seydor told us to hire a diverse team. I say we spend the day recruiting help and visit the Chancellor tomorrow. The solicitation says applicants may inquire at dawn. If we get there at first light, we may be able to beat our competition.”

“Good idea. What about them?” Virriel gestured towards Demelza and Sigfried, the latter turning his head in time to feign looking out the window.

“The dwarf’s remarkably handy in a fight,” Wolf remarked. “And the nobleman could prove useful. Seems we cannot get one without the other. What do you think?”

“I agree. Demelza is a powerful fighter, but how will we convince the nobleman to join us?”

“He may be in a desperate state. Maybe that’s why he has a bodyguard. We don’t know what led him to Malden. Maybe he’s running from something.”

“Running?” Virriel started. “Why would anyone run to a populated city?”

“Hiding in plain sight. It's an evasion tactic. If you keep a low profile in a crowded city, the fact you're surrounded by thousands of people can be to your advantage.”

Virriel nodded.

“Maybe he needs money,” Wolf continued. “Perhaps he’s not as wealthy as his clothes suggest. And there are other draws … I noticed the way he looks at you. I suspect he’d be willing to follow you anywhere.”

Sigfried blushed in spite of himself. Damn him to the Pit! Of course, I want her! Idiot! How could any man resist such exquisite beauty? She possesses the power to inspire bards! Never had an elf before either.

Virriel blushed. “As I walk your lands, I tend to draw attention from men, an attention seldom wanted.”

“I can imagine,” Wolf said. “We must be careful you are not captured and sold by a slaver. You’re a rarity in this world, which means you would fetch a fine price, and in this city, there are those who would think nothing of selling your freedom.”

“I can take care of myself,” Virriel replied in a wounded tone. “I’m not some helpless, newborn fawn fresh from the forest.”

“Relax. I did not mean to imply you needed protection. I just want you to be careful. That’s all. I know you can look after yourself. You saved us all last night. You don’t have anything to prove.”

“Sorry,” Virriel said, sighing. “I’m just nervous about the Stonequest. The sooner we start the better.”

“Agreed. Let’s leave these two here and go to recruit help.”

Virriel nodded.

Wolf addressed the odd couple, “Virriel and I will be leaving for a while. Please make yourselves comfortable. We’ll be back soon. On the table you’ll find coins for food. You may break your fast here. Remember, it is important Sigfried does not move around much on account of his injuries.”

Demelza frowned. “Are we supposed to just wait here ‘till you feel like telling us what’s going on?”

“Sigfried needs rest, and since you are his bodyguard, it would be best if you remain with him. Besides, we don’t know if that Finny character is one to hold a grudge. He may have great influence in this city, and until we know more about him, we’d better not get caught in the streets alone.”

“I still think –" Demelza protested.

“Please don’t,” Wolf interrupted. “I saw the keeper downstairs grinding coffee beans. I’ll have some sent up for you. We’ll be back soon. You two stay here and rest easy. And please don’t do anything stupid.”

“Fine,” Demelza replied grudgingly. “Just don’t stay out for too long,”

Wolf opened the door and ushered Virriel through before disappearing himself and locking the door behind him.

Sigfried flashed his bodyguard a wry smile. It was clear the dwarf was more accustomed to giving orders than taking them.

 
 


Chapter 23
The Market

By duaneculbertson

Another scorching day embraced Wolf and Virriel, as they negotiated the marketplace. Allegedly, city elders could not recall a hotter Summer in recorded history, and many street vendors cooked their eggs outside upon stone slabs, instead of using their wood-fired grills. Despite the heat, Virriel insisted on wearing her cloak, disregarding Wolf’s assertion that it was not necessary.

“You should discard that. In this heat, it could become your shroud.”

“People will remember an elf,” she said. “I must hide my features. If we go around asking questions and hiring mercenaries, people will notice. People will talk.”

“Do what you want. It’s your body. Just remember if you faint from the heat, you won’t be able to revive yourself.”

Virriel fed him a sour look.

“And then I will be forced to dunk you into one of these water troughs,” Wolf jested, regarding the large basins for horses that lined the street.

Virriel’s face did not soften to his playful banter, and the two had no further discourse as they pushed their way through the sweating crowd. Wolf could not recall the last time the rays of the sun felt so powerful. He winced when he turned his face skyward. The sun had yet to reach its quarter-arc mark, and already the heat was fierce and brutal. Wolf imagined you could spill a full tankard of ale upon the cobblestones and the liquid would be gone before you had the chance to walk the length of the street.

 Nary a cloud in the sky too. On such days there never were. Almost as if the gods mocked them.

Wolf grew serious once again. Virriel probably had few interactions while living in the forests. Irony, sarcasm, and other nuances of humor would therefore be lost on her. His efforts at idle conversation had not fared much better, and the comments naturally born of his easy-going personality were probably not appreciated either. He had tried to use humor to put her at ease, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect. Perhaps things would change once they got to know each other better. For the moment, though, the elf was all business.

 “Where do you think we’ll find people to help us?” Wolf asked, trying to engage in polite, yet purposeful conversation.

“I don’t know,” Virriel replied frostily. “These are your people. You’ve walked among them in this city before. What do you think?”

“Well,” Wolf replied, ignoring her impertinent tone, “I suggest we start with the market center, then look to the taverns.”

“Fine by me,” the elf replied flatly.

Mercilessly crowded, the market center swarmed with patrons and merchants, the latter selling their wares, many of questionable value. An old woman stood on a box, hawking a “magic” elixir. “Twill chill you to the bone,” she boasted in her foreign accent. “Make you feel like you just stepped off the boat in Norsica! I guarantee it!” Stretching her arm out, she momentarily checked Wolf’s progress, hoping to precipitate a sale.

“Crone, the only guarantee you can possibly make regarding your elixir is that it will fatten your purse. Now make yourself scarce.”

Although not intending his comments for a broad audience, several in the crowded street overheard and laughed heartily. Some joined in heckling the old woman. The foreign crone scowled at Wolf, blaming him for the unfavorable change to her marketing climate. She spat in the street and cursed him in her native tongue before disappearing behind the tented flaps of her shop, seeking refuge from both sunshine and ridicule.

Virriel frowned in disapproval. Wolf knew she did not wish to draw unwanted attention, but it was a moot point, since the broad-shouldered Roadwarden and his tall, mysteriously cowled companion provided a spectacle enough to attract the eyes of many.

In the market square, paper solicitations clung to a giant obelisk that once served as a centerpiece for a fountain in less arid times. For centuries people congregated at this location, to bathe, wash their clothes, and fetch water for cooking. The water no longer flowed, but citizens still gathered here to conduct business. Centrally located within Malden, it provided an ideal meeting place, a good venue to exchange gossip and hang out with friends.

Naturally, at the moment, the talk of the town was the death of the Emperor. A general sense of unease surrounded this topic, and opinions were rife regarding the dynastic succession. Most scholars claimed it was a sure thing that Janicus would become the next Emperor, but others felt the monarch’s eldest daughter, Lystra, was better suited for the role and had a more legitimate claim. Wolf doubted his mother would want such responsibility, but sometimes people surprised you when presented with the chance to accept absolute power.

Wolf overheard one such conversation. It was impossible to ignore eavesdropping given the proximity of people pressed against other as they swarmed about the obelisk.
 
“Dynastic succession is a very clear matter, not for debate!” said one older fellow.

“Not so, my friend,” said another. “There could be a codicil in Runceheon’s will stipulating who shall inherit the throne. And it could very well be his eldest daughter. Such things have been known to happen. It’s possible we just haven’t heard about it since there’s no way the Aachen Times would be allowed to publish such scandalous information until verified and fully discussed by the Royal Elders.”

“Perhaps. but an Empress on the throne? When we’re already at war with most of the world? Our enemies would sense weakness and possibly make incursions into the heartland. A clearheaded man of discipline like Janicus must take charge of our destiny. Without him, we are lost….”

The Pit we are! If only he knew Janicus like I do, how soon his rhetoric would change! I can’t imagine a more arrogant, unworthy buffoon ruling the kingdom. He knows as much about statecraft as he does about charming women – Nothing! Without a counsel of competent advisors like Alcuin, such a reign would end in disaster! If he is coronated, let’s hope the pigheaded fool is not too proud to heed men of common sense and reason.

Wolf blocked out the passionate stupidity of the orator and focused on the solicitations hanging in front of him. Seeing the papers plastered across the obelisk reminded him of the girl he had rescued from the streets not long ago. What was her name? – Ashley! That was it. He wondered if she stood on this very spot attempting to read the solicitations before being targeted by the pervert working for the Harbormaster. He hoped Ashley was faring better now.

It seemed like such a long time ago that he had fought those men on her behalf, and yet, in reality, it had only been a matter of weeks. It just seemed longer because time had been dilated by the monumental events impacting his life. First, his father died. Then Seydor had entrusted him with leading the Stonequest, only to be followed by the tragic passing of his grandfather, an event that affected the entire world. No wonder the last time he was in Malden it felt like a different era. It was.

Every square inch of free space on the obelisk told some tale with no wasted real estate. Wolf and Virriel inspected the articles looking for people who might prove useful. Some parchments had been there a long time, exposed to the elements. The weathering of the sun, wind, and rain, coupled with the tendency for newcomers to place their posters over older posters, created an unseemly palimpsest which was difficult to read in some places, and comical in others.

For example, “The archbishop of Hochplatz would like to urge volunteers to come … try the finest cuts of meat at bargain prices …. to celebrate the union … of these two worthy stallions of excellent temperament. All offers considered and …clergy in need can expect to be paid ten kilpecks per day provided…some excellent fresh milk as well, the freshest in Etruria. … featuring the finest lager in the Kingdom. So why not slake your thirst and enjoy the rich taste of …dung-infused wattle and daub thatching.”

The most noteworthy perversion of information was derived from two sources: the Citizens for Charity and the Farmers Guild, the corrupted literature suggesting anyone donating time or money to their worthy cause would receive free castration to accompany their purchased sacks of grain.

“What a mess,” said Virriel. “How can one expect to find anything of value in this sea of trivialities?”

“It’s just our way,” offered Wolf. “People have been doing this for generations.”

“Well, they should find a better way,” said Virriel testily. Wolf noticed beads of sweat congregating upon her brow, her wavy hair matted beneath her cloak’s cowl. Still fearing for her safety, he hoped she would not succumb to heat exhaustion. He said nothing, however. Afterall, she was not a “fresh fawn just born of the forest,” so why should he worry. Besides, maybe elves liked it hot.

The two stared at the mess of posters before them.

“Perhaps we should place an advertisement,” suggested Wolf.

“No time,” replied Virriel curtly. “We must find the stone at once. Any delay will compromise the mission.”

“Look. I’ll tell you what. I’ll go to the taverns. You keep searching through these papers.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Virriel. “Can’t you read?”

More than half the population lacked this ability; however, Wolf happened to be one of the few citizens who had attended a university.

“Of course, I can read! I just think we may save time if we split up. That’s all. I’ll meet you back at the Lucky Shoe before supper. Good luck.”

Without waiting for a reply, he pushed his way through the sweating crowd, leaving Virriel frowning in front of the obelisk.

Before leaving the square, it occurred to Wolf to leave a note for Alcuin. He was not sure if the master would follow him to Malden, but it would not hurt to leave a message just in case. Wolf stopped at a cartography shop and bought parchment upon which he wrote a message. He coded the linear sequence of characters. Anyone unfamiliar with the code would just see a few lines of seemingly random letters. But Alcuin would be able to read the message. The secret was in the geometry of its construction and the direction the message was to be read.

As he approached the obelisk, he noticed just such a message! Was Alcuin already here? Had they missed each other in the crowd? It was not there a few minutes ago. Wolf wanted to yell Alcuin’s name aloud, but he did not want to draw attention to himself either. The message read:

“To my most lupine son, the one who prefers to climb red cliffs rather than sit indoors and learn his letters. I am here in the city. Leave a message for me atop this one. It is possible I am being followed. Discretion always. – A”

Wolf modified his message to read: “Assembling team for job. Looking forward to seeing you. Come to the Lucky Shoe. – WK”

He tacked it above Alcuin’s with a rush of euphoria. Having his friend and mentor by his side meant the world to him. Everything would be fine now. They were a great team. And for the first time in a long time, he allowed himself to bask in the cheerful feeling of optimism before returning to his errand.
 

 


Chapter 24
A Chance Encounter

By duaneculbertson

Once again, Wolf found himself treading the well-worn cobblestones of Malden. He dreaded the recovery of the Putragle Stone, concealed somewhere in this foul city, hidden behind untold dangers. He wished it were somewhere else. Why couldn’t the Nameless One have chosen Aachen? Then he remembered at this very moment he could be a wanted man, not just in Aachen, but throughout the Empire. What kind of bounty would be placed on the head of one thought to have murdered a beloved Emperor? He decided he did not want to know. No reward posters hung at the marketplace – that was a good sign – but it was possible the wheels of Justice were simply turning slowly.
          
            Thirst drew Wolf to his first location. An alehouse. Every trained soldier knew dehydration was the silent killer, furtively dispatching those ignorant of its dangers. And much before the end, the insidious threat would tend to drain one's strength, willpower, and mental clarity. That was not going to happen on his watch. He nodded at the peacekeeper and entered.


            “Hold, good sir,” said a deep, commanding voice. “You’ll have to leave your sword here.” The peacekeeper approached, pointing to the scabbard where Truebite was sheathed. Wolf leveled his gaze at the man.

            “Fine,” he swore. The peacekeeper reached for the weapon, but Wolf held it fast. “See that nothing happens to this. It is priceless.” The man nodded, and Wolf coated his palm with silver, the unspoken agreement being that special care would be given to his property. The peacekeeper snapped a wooden dowel labelled at either end with a number and handed a fragment to Wolf. He would need to produce this in order to claim his sword upon departure.

            Dark, crowded, and loud, the alehouse was bustling with activity. The odor of fermented beverages mingled with scented soap poorly concealing bad hygiene hung heavy in the stagnant air. His eyes struggled to adjust to the dim candlelight. It was nice to be in a place that actually swept the hardwood floors; the bar even looked polished. After a moment, he could see tightly packed tables, pressed together like firewood in a shed before winter. Chairs were plentiful, but most patrons stood.

            Giving his eyes more time to adjust he ordered his first tankard of ale. He tried to down it all at once to slake his thirst, but he nearly sputtered. Contrary to his expectations, the ale was quite strong. Most alehouses in Malden watered their drinks down to boost their profits. Here the opposite was true, the potent, foamy beverage was even cold.

            Now that his eyes had adjusted to the extreme change of blinding sunlight to nebulous darkness, he turned away from the bar to survey the clientele and get a closer look at the venue. It was an upscale establishment. a far cry from the sawdust strewn alehouse where he had his last brawl. Acrid pipe-smoke wreathed the heads of many as they played or watched other games. These were all serious activities by the look of it; fortunes were likely at stake. As he approached, severe expressions greeted him, warning all outsiders that idle conversations were not welcome. Wolf adopted a dour demeanor to better blend with the clientele. He joined the second tier of spectators surrounding what was allegedly the most exciting game.

            So, this is why the brew has such bite. The house makes its money through the misfortune of others - not by the sale of its alcohol. As one would expect, strong drinks encourage unwise bets and promote bad decision-making, as reckless behavior and alcohol go hand-in-hand.

Aureus flowed freely at one table. Wealthy merchants, government officials, and crime bosses were the likely players. They did not interest Wolf though. He was looking for others –desperate, hungry men. Those more likely to embrace a dangerous mission.

Myriad games were in progress – card games, dice games, and even one he had never seen before using a board and colored stones. Wolf changed his mind. These people were too addicted to gambling to be useful for much else. Recruiting anyone here was unlikely. A less upscale business would be a much better place to search. This was a waste of time.

            Wolf reclaimed Truebite from the peacekeeper. After leaving, he realized he had to relieve himself, so he walked around to the side of the building. In Aachen, public urination was a serious offense, but here it was different. He wanted to better blend with the locals, so as the popular proverb goes: “When in Malden…”

Wolf heard rapid footfalls approaching. A blur entered his peripheral vision, as gravel crunched beside him. Before he could turn his head, he was knocked down. By some miracle, he had managed not to piss himself. Quickly rising to his feet, he brushed street-filth from his clothes, his face and diction unable to mask his outrage.

            “Seyd’sblud! Watch where you’re going!” he growled.

            “Sorry,” said the man. His embarrassment turned to an expression of consternation, finally giving way to recognition. “Wolf, is that you?”

            Wolf struggled to place a name to the face. He crossed paths with so many scoundrels while patrolling the roads it was easy to lose track. The circumstances of their acquaintance eluded him, but he recalled the man’s name.

           “Ralf?” he suggested.

            “That’s right! Ralf Backer. I’m in great haste. Please help! I’m being pursued!”

            In addition to Ralf’s labored breathing, Wolf heard angry shouts around the corner from whence he had come.

            “So you are,” Wolf acknowledged. “What is it? A woman? Money?”

            Ralf’s face became a rictus of anxiety. He implored with his eyes.

            “Don’t worry, I’ll see you through this,” Wolf sighed. A look of amusement played over his features. He removed a pair of manacles from his vest pocket and closed them around Ralf’s wrists. Eyes wide, the man’s face adopted a confused look of terror.

            “What are you doing?” he protested.

            “Shut up, and stay quiet,” Wolf whispered. Then in a louder voice added. “Ralf Backer, by order of the crown, I place you under arrest.”

            An elegant man with long blond hair stopped short in front of Wolf. His clothing marked him as nobility. For the moment, he was too concerned with catching his breath to speak, though he pointed a finger at Ralf. Another larger man, presumably his bodyguard, appeared shortly behind him.

            “Thief,” rasped the young man. “He must be punished.”

            “This man’s a wanted criminal,” Wolf declared. “He’s my prisoner.”

            “Not yet,” challenged the man. “This chub cheated us last night at the Horseshoe. We uncovered his scam, but he managed to escape like a coward! By Seydor’s Ghost, he’ll not evade us today! Mack, my bodyguard, is my witness.”

            The large man nodded, appearing to size Wolf up with an appraising glance. perhaps assessing his odds at winning a confrontation.

            “If you have a legitimate complaint, you’ll have to file it with the presiding magistrate,” Wolf said. “The prisoner’s coming with me. He’ll spend tonight in a cell.”

            “Who the Pit are you?” screamed the young man. “Do you know who I am? You will soon feel foolish. I am Victor von Geisterstadt, second son of the Earl!”

            “Well, I’m Roadwarden Maxwell Watermill,” said Wolf, producing his official documentation. “And I don’t care who you are, this man, Ralf Backer, is my prisoner.” Wolf hoped the Earl’s son would not look too closely at the badge, which showed a different name than the one he had given. He did not wish to use his alias of Wolf Shearstone, because that could be traced back to him, and he still had further plans for that identity. For added measure, he grabbed Ralf by the collar and shook him. “I’ve been tracking this filth for days, and nothing will stop me from bringing him to justice!”

            “What’s he wanted for then?”

            “Better to ask what he’s not wanted for; his crimes are so numerous. Bribery. Horse-thieving. Coining. Forgery. Extortion. Even Murder.”

            Ralf shuddered upon hearing that last charge. Searching Wolf’s face, his eyes betrayed a genuine concern, and the experienced roadwarden made a note of it.

            The nobleman shared an eloquent expression with his bodyguard. Wolf did not like it. He decided to follow with a threat of his own. “Interfering with an officer of the crown is a punishable offence, bearing heavy fines and corporal punishment.”

            “That fool owes us money,” said the bodyguard in a gruff voice.

            “I sympathize with your position, but the Law will be followed.”

            Wolf must have sowed seeds of uncertainty because the men appeared to relent. He hoped the noble was not a man of intellect, lest he question the wisdom, oratory skill, and even the audacity of what appeared to be a common Roadwarden. Or worse, he could demand to see the warrant for Ralf’s arrest. Wolf knew he must continue to press the attack to keep the ground he had won.

“The accused will be held at the station prior to his trial. If you wish, you can press charges there.”

            “We want our money now!” shouted the bodyguard.

            Wolf looked at Ralf. “Do you have their money?”

            “I spent it all on dice,” the prisoner said in a pathetic tone.

            “Well, there you have it,” said Wolf. “He doesn’t have your money. I’m afraid your complaint stops here. If you interfere with the King’s Justice, you will find yourself on the wrong side of the Law.”

            The men looked to each other for support, realizing Wolf would not back down. Sneering, the bodyguard stepped forward and punched Ralf in the chest, dropping him to his knees. The nobleman lifted Ralf’s chin and struck him in the face, and Wolf raised his hand, signaling that no further violence would be tolerated. The young man straightened his vest and walked away, his lackey close behind.

            Wolf brought Ralf to his feet.

            “Kaw, couldn’t you have prevented that?” Ralf stammered.

            “Probably,” Wolf replied, “but something tells me you deserved it.”

            Ralf nodded.

            “Did you cheat those men?”

            “Of course,” he said, flashing a bloody smile. His narrow escape had dramatically improved his mood. He let loose a hearty laugh, enjoying the moment, his jowly face quivering with mirth.

Wolf frowned. Judging by his salt and pepper hair, Ralf appeared to be about his age, yet that was where similarities ended. He was overweight, and Wolf imagined he lived a haphazard, undisciplined life. It was then Wolf remembered where he had first seen the man – at a bend in the river near the village of Sturmhafen. At the time, Wolf had been in charge of a detail of roadwardens sent to apprehend a political criminal. The spy planned to avoid capture by favoring the waterways over the roads, perhaps believing the notorious lack of discipline and widespread corruption of the Harbormasters would work in his favor. The recovery of this spy was of such importance that the roadwardens had been given temporary jurisdiction over the waterways. And when a sloop tried to leave the harbor without stopping for inspection, Wolf and his men boarded it. The owner, one Ralf Backer, betrayed the spy in his hold, claiming the man had threatened to kill him if he refused to ferry him to safety.

While aboard, Wolf recognized the ship was used for smuggling, a thorough investigation revealing a double hull. Any trace of contraband was curiously absent, though the inside of the compartment was wet, suggesting cargo had been dumped recently, perhaps even as the vessel was being boarded. Wolf knew Ralf was lying, but the charismatic pilot offered the men food and wine, and eventually his culpability of the unrelated crime became a moot point. They had apprehended a Vanadian spy, and that was reason enough to celebrate. The roadwardens spent a few happy hours in Ralf’s company.

That had been a year ago, but Wolf had forgotten the incident until now. With the man standing before him, he had an idea.

            “Are you in need of employment?” he asked.

            “I must admit I am looking for work,” the smuggler replied, an expectant look crossing the man’s chubby face. “Not long ago, pirates stole my boat! And those damned harbormasters didn’t even try to stop them! Not a finger lifted! I probably should have bribed them ahead of time. Their corruption is almost proverbial in these parts.”

            “Corrupt as a harbormaster,” Wolf replied casually. “Yes, I’ve heard it said before. Most unfortunate about your boat.”

            “You don’t know the half of it! That cargo was supposed to go to a wealthy merchant, a financier named Dewberry. I think he’s convinced himself that I sold it and kept the profits. He doesn’t believe my story that thieves stole the cargo.”

            “I don’t believe your story either.”

            “Well, you are right to doubt it! It never happened. I was afraid I was about to be boarded, so I dumped the entire shipment. It is now resting with the fishes at the bottom of the Reintrank. If someone were to salvage …”

            “Let me guess,” Wolf interjected. “It was all duty free.”

            “Yeah,” Ralf admitted sheepishly. “Black powder from the Orient. Also, some silk finery and exotic bird eggs from Shingoray. As well as a few Parthian sabers and dyes from Jeyda.”

            “So, you are a smuggler,” Wolf replied. “I thought as much.”

            “Please, I prefer to call myself a Purveyor of Untaxed Goods.”

            Wolf could not stop himself from releasing a chuckle, always a sucker for witticisms. “So now without a boat, it seems you’re in a jam, desperate for work …”

            “Yeah, that about sums it up,” Ralf replied. “I’m afraid my trade skills are rather limited. Sadly, my reputation as an honest smuggler has now been tarnished. Word of mouth is key in this business, and Dewberry Halfman, the largest financier in Malden, has let it be known that I’m unreliable. I’m marked; he may even come after me.”

            “I see,” Wolf said, marveling at how a person could juxtapose “honest” and “smuggler” so casually. The thought made him wary, but he believed Ralf could prove useful for the mission. His likely knowledge of the Thieves Guild could come in handy, and Wolf recalled Seydor’s words about how even the dishonest could sometimes make good allies.

            “How would you like to work for me?” Wolf asked.

            “Are you joking with me?” Ralf asked.

            “I am in earnest. Are you good with a weapon?”

            “I’m good with a crossbow,” Ralf said thoughtfully. “I shoot rats on my boat.”

            “Good enough for the moment, I suppose,” Wolf said. “I’m interested in your knowledge of smuggling and the Thieves’ Guild.”

“I’ve extensive knowledge of both,” Ralf replied.

“You have contacts in the Guild?”

“Of course! I wouldn’t be a successful smuggler without them.”

“Excellent. Welcome aboard! You’ll start at one denarius a week with the chance to make much more.”

Ralf beamed before Wolf cast him a sobering look. “Don’t make me regret giving you this opportunity.”

            “Perish the thought,” Ralf said, shaking Wolf’s outstretched hand.

 
 


Chapter 25
Ketri (Ch 25)

By duaneculbertson

Ralf and Wolf made their way to the Lucky Shoe, careful to avoid side alleys. Wolf did not want a repeat of the previous evening, his bruises still painfully fresh from the brutal attack. He thought again of Alcuin, excited by the possibility that his friend could be waiting for him back at the inn. The realization filled him with joy, but as much as he desired to see him immediately, he nevertheless adopted a cautious pace as he negotiated the streets.

            “I know a shortcut,” Ralf offered. Affably, he pointed down a side street.

            Wolf shook his head. “I prefer the main roads. Besides, a longer walk will serve you better. Your breath still reeks of alcohol! And I want the others to have a favorable impression when I introduce you.”

            Ralf affected an air of wounded pride, but it was lost upon Wolf who occupied himself by carefully regarding every eave, window, doorway, alcove, and alley for signs of potential treachery. They were not in the Devil’s Den, but it made sense to exercise caution. Wolf swore he would never be ambushed again. Nevertheless, as he walked, he found his thoughts wandering despite his best efforts. He could not help thinking about Atelka. He wondered if he could still continue searching for her as he worked on the Stonequest. Could he not do both?

As they passed a store-front window, a loud crash sounded from above. With a warrior’s reflexes, Wolf pulled Ralf clear of a plummeting object. A man dressed in a military uniform landed hard upon the cobblestones, a shower of glass in his wake. Wolf saw he was a captain judging by the knots of gold hanging from his epaulets. The tinkling sounds of the shattered window had scarcely died away before a shout followed.

            “Bastard!” The dwarven woman roared the words, her anger pursuing the wounded man. Her face livid, she peered down from the smashed window to where the man lay five fathoms below. “You lying, thieving bastard!”

            Wolf marveled at the odds of encountering another dwarf so soon in Malden. Like Demelza, this one was powerfully built, but her hair was black as midnight, and no one would ever call her beautiful. She had a broad, flat nose and the left side of her face carried a thick white scar. She bore a mocking sneer that appeared with such ease that Wolf imagined it must be one of her habitual expressions.

            The man on the ground was in too much pain to move for the moment. Although partially masked by the cacophony of the falling broken glass, Wolf was certain he had heard his bones crack.

            “By my fay,” said the injured man, “the lass has character.” In a show of bravado, he grinned at the growing group of spectators, but his smile lacked ardor, as his front teeth were missing, and blood trickled down his chin.

            A scraping noise came from above, like something heavy dragged across a floor. The sound galvanized Wolf. He saw the tip of a barrel appear, propped upon the windowsill, and knew what would happen next. If he did not act, the defenseless man would be killed. As it hurtled end-over end, he pulled the man to safety by the collar of his captain’s uniform, his body just clearing the path of the massive projectile. With a crack, the barrel burst, dousing onlookers with wine. Ralf, the hapless smuggler, managed to catch most of it on his tunic.

            “Pit of Vorus!” cursed Wolf. “Girl, are you mad?” Such a heavy weight dropped from that height would have killed the man for sure.

            “Meddling fool!” shouted the dwarf. She picked up a chair from the room and hurled it downwards. Wolf dove, allowing the chair to splinter harmlessly behind him.

            “I’m coming down there to finish what I started, and you’d better be gone!” she roared.

            “Do as you must,” Wolf replied, “But you shall molest this man no further.” An enraged shriek tore the air, and the woman disappeared from the window.

            In the next heartbeat, a second wild-eyed woman burst from the inn. Anxiously, she clutched clothes to her slender, naked body. She stole a brief look at the injured man lying in agony upon the cobblestones then fled.

            “Argenta,” the man moaned, blood bubbling from his ruined mouth.

            Wolf snapped to action.

“Move this man down that side alley and get him out of sight,” he ordered. Ralf obeyed, his first action as a hired hand. Carelessly, he dragged the wounded man into the seclusion of a dark alley, the miserable wretch howling all the way.

            Two heartbeats later, the dwarf burst from the front door wearing a sturdy leather jerkin over a silken garment, much like the outfit Wolf favored. He marveled at the opulence of the silk article, noticing fine gilt embroidery upon the sleeves. How could she afford such a luxurious item? It appeared to be a silk nightgown. Was that even possible? And why had she chosen to wear leather battle armor over the nightgown on such a hot day in the first place. These transient thoughts evaporated once the furious dwarf was in his face, relentless and overbearing. In her eyes, she carried a crazed look, and Wolf felt genuine fear.

            “Where is he?” she screamed.

            “You’re too late. He’s fled.” Wolf did not know if this were true but hoped he had given the man enough time to crawl to safety.

            The dwarf was no fool though and recognized his obstruction.

“I’ll bash you good, you poxed bastard!”

            She balled her hands into fists and charged with a flurry of punches. None of them struck her target, but Wolf was impressed by her speed and agility.

            “You’re quick … for a dwarf,” he taunted.

            “I hit hard too!” she spat. A low punch evaded Wolf’s defenses, striking his left ribs and partially driving the wind from his lungs. On his heels, he thwarted her subsequent blows, but was forced to give ground.

People gathered. The sight of a roadwarden defending himself in the middle of the street against a half-mad, dwarven woman wearing a leather jack over a silk nightgown was a remarkable, almost comical, spectacle. Street fights were a daily occurrence. Usually, drunken vagrants would square off and scrap over a morsel of food or a plot of cobblestone real estate. But today the spectators knew they were watching something truly special; nothing would top the sheer novelty of this event for years to come.

Wolf had sworn an oath never to hit a woman, a promise he now found himself regretting. Nevertheless, he would do his best to honor his pledge. This constraint, however, seriously limited his fighting style. He planned to keep pushing the dwarf off balance, while dodging her attacks. So far, it had worked.

After a minute of frustrated street fighting, the dwarf began to tire. Her attacks became careless. After one particularly awkward haymaker, Wolf knocked the blow aside with a palm block, and, as she stumbled forward, seized her arm. Circling behind her, he caught her in chokehold, immobilizing her left arm in a half-nelson. He applied vigorous pressure to the back of her neck but found he was unable to choke her into unconsciousness. Perhaps there was some structural advantage thwarting his efforts, something inherent to dwarves. She was also much shorter than Demelza, and this further complicated the application of the chokehold.

            “Do you yield?” Wolf asked.

            “Never!” she hissed.

            She tried stomping Wolf’s feet with her heels, but he had anticipated this move and kicked her calves whenever she tried. With each passing second, she grew more frantic. She tried driving her right elbow into Wolf’s chest, but he held her wrist out at arms-length in a grip of steel, and she was unable to free it.

Wolf marveled at her strength and feared he would not be able to hold her much longer. The strength of dwarves was proverbial, but he never thought it applied to their women as well. He prayed she lacked endurance; her muscles must be burning right now as much as his, hopefully more. At least, he could tell she was breathing heavily.

“Why did you assault that man?” Wolf asked.

“Blast you!” she screamed.

“Why did you throw him through that window?” Wolf persisted.

“He lied to me,” she blurted. “He said he was a wealthy nobleman … only in the army for adventure. He said he’d take me to meet his distinguished family. Said he’d marry me too. The liar! He’s not from any noble family! It’s only by some miracle he’s managed to advance to the rank of captain. Probably lied his way into that too! The bastard! He’s not even rich! He stole my jewels and sold them to pay his gambling debts.

When I tracked him to this place, I patiently waited in the closet of his room for my revenge. The drunken fool returned with some woman, probably lied to her too. And when he tore her clothes off, I pounced! The fool thought he was safe. Thought a dwarf wouldn’t be able to find her way around the city. He was wrong! Now, where is he? I just want to take back my money! I won’t kill him. I swear.”

“Alright,” Wolf began slowly. “I’m letting you go now.” Cautiously, he backed away. Ralf stared wide-eyed from the corner of the building at her, perhaps fearing her anticipated wrath. Somehow the scoundrel had managed to crawl away. He was nowhere to be found.

“Where is he?” she screamed at Ralf.

“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “He … he got away.”

Rage swept through her once again, but Wolf interjected. “Look, I’m sorry. As a Roadwarden I am bound by the law to enforce the peace wherever I go, whether it be on the roads, in a village, or in a city. I have sworn an oath to protect all citizens in the Empire – an oath I take seriously. Had I known your story; I would’ve kept walking. I am sorry your scoundrel has fled. At least you can take comfort knowing you have permanently altered his face.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the dwarf replied, waving Wolf away. “It doesn’t hurt you at all. You’ve done your duty, and now I’m without any savings. That bastard took it all. And a small fortune it was too. Now I’m far from home in a land I do not understand, my only items the clothes upon my back and the few belongings I carried with me. Who in this accursed city would hire a dwarf anyway?”

“I would.” Wolf said.

She cast him a look of surprise, followed by one of suspicion. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I’m forming a team for an important mission. I’m sure you must have skills that would prove useful. You certainly possess a tenacity I’m willing to vouch for. I’d like to take you back to meet my business partner.”

“Really? You’re serious?”

Wolf nodded.

“But you don’t even know me.”

Wolf raised an eyebrow.

“Ketri,” the dwarf said, grasping Wolf’s outstretched hand. “Ketri Greathammer. A pleasure to meet you. Always great to cross paths with a talented fighter. You must show me some of your tricks one day.” She patted him on the shoulder, a dwarven custom, and for the first time that night, she cracked a smile.
“Wolf…Wolf Shearstone.”

A nervous innkeeper appeared and made inquiries about the violated window. Ketri told him where he could go and what he could do to himself using unambiguous language, and the gray-haired man promptly returned to the safety of his inn. The spectators began to disperse as well, realizing no further drama would transpire.

Ralf approached Ketri and made a timid introduction. He then pulled his wet shirt over his portly body, wringing it out with his hands, releasing rivulets of wine. Although Wolf managed to escape the wine, Ralf’s mustard-colored tunic was ruined.

“I hope you’ll explain my appearance,” he said, frowning at Wolf.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Sorry about the Malbec,” Ketri offered, patting Ralf on the shoulder. “I fear that’s not going to come out.”

“Most likely not,” Wolf added. “Fortunately, I can advance both of you your wages. We’ll get new clothes tomorrow when we buy weapons and armor.”

“Weapons and armor?” Ketri said. “I can't wait to learn more about this mission. Sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun.”

“It will be many things. Though I can’t promise fun will be one of them.”

 

Author Notes Readers have expressed displeasure at reading some of my chapters out of order. To help with this problem I will have the chapter numbers in parentheses going forward.

Please let me know if this introduction to Ketri works for you. Is it exciting? Do you have a feel for her as a character? What are your impressions? Thanks DC


Chapter 26
Sigfried -Part A (Ch 26)

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

Sigfried did not like waiting. He never waited for anyone. Patience was for other people. Not for him. One of the joys of being the Earl’s third son was the complete lack of responsibility. He could do whatever he liked whenever he wanted.

Today he had two cravings to satisfy. The first carnal. The second difficult to articulate. It was the latter that gave rise to the itchy feeling threatening to take control of his reason. He could abide it no longer. Fortunately, it would not be difficult to find what he needed in this city, legendary for its depravity.

            After pacing past the window for the tenth time, Sigfried stuck his head out into the late afternoon sun and decided upon a course of action. He moved for the door.

            “Where do you think you’re going?” Demelza challenged.

            “Out,” Sigfried replied laconically.

            “But your wounds? You need rest!”

            “The elf has worked wonders,” he said dismissively. “I feel fine.” He walked over to a mirror and removed the bandages from his head. About a half dozen welts populated the crown of his head. His face was hardly recognizable, looking more like a garden of heliotrope – puffy, purple blossoms.

Fortunately, he had lost none of his teeth.

            “It may be harder to make beautiful music with the ladies tonight,” Sigfried said, laughing despite himself. “Fortunately, a man laden with silver is never unlucky in love.”

            “Please don’t do anything foolish. At least let me go with you. I can protect you. Looking like you do right now, people will try to take advantage of your weakened, vulnerable state.”

            “Good argument, but no. Not today. I want you to stay here and learn as much as you can about these two. Then report back to me. I need to know if they can be trusted. Find out if they really can deliver the aureus promised.”

“It was sesterces, and … look, I insist on coming along.” Demelza protested.

“Listen. I’m going out and I probably won’t be back soon. I value your company; I even pay for it, but this time I must go alone.”

Having no further reasons to counter his proposed course of action, Demelza returned to sharpening her dagger. It was the grating noise of the sharpening stone that had precipitated Sigfried’s desire to leave in the first place. He knew not why she did this. The small knife she kept in her boot could not possibly be dull – she never used it and constantly sharpened it. He guessed it must be some type of obsessive habit, or perhaps it calmed her. He did not care; it had the opposite effect on him, and he refused to suffer it any longer.

The sun dropped low in the sky as he left the Lucky Shoe. Like a homing pigeon, he instinctively found his way to the largest, most famous brothel in the land – the Emerald Rose. Although no longer collecting an income from his father, he still had a small fortune from fencing Ratberg’s stolen goods. Sigfried could not help but laugh as he recalled the rage on the fat man’s empurpled face as he viewed his empty warehouse. The thief had been robbed; his stolen goods stolen. Sigfried loved the poetic justice.

An excited pace brought Sigfried before the Emerald Rose in less than half an hour. Inside the salon, a lovely young girl named Ashley greeted him from behind a podium.

“Afternoon, gud sir! Welcome to the Emerald Rose. My name’s Ashley. Allow me to help ya’ make your stay ‘ere as blissful as poss’bul.”

She was beautiful, but her accent marked her as one born from the lowest stratum of society. Sigfried was curious how she had managed to secure such a prestigious position within the finest brothel in the Realm. Not that it mattered; he was eager to conduct business and had an important question to ask this woman as well. He had expected to use High Etrurian, but he was just as happy to speak in Vulgarate. He much preferred the common tongue anyway.

“Ashley,” Sigfried said, interrupting her carefully memorized sales pitch. “These pencil drawings are great, and I would enjoy looking at them later, but for the moment I’m really just interested in one woman in particular. And I don’t see her.”

“What’s her name?”

“Emmanuel Schlagen,” he said. Holding his breath, he leaned forward, placing his sweaty palms upon her podium.

“No one ‘ere by that name, sorry. Ya know, I’ve only been working a couple of weeks though. If you come back this evenin’, Lady Covington herself will be ‘ere. She’ll pro’lly be able to provide you with gossip about your friend, if there’s any to share.”

“Thank you,” Sigfried replied dejectedly.  “I guess we’d better continue looking for a mistress for my entertainment. I don’t suppose you’re available.”

Ashley blushed, “No gud, sir. Flatter’d as I am, those days are behind me now.”

“Ah! My loss then. Do you have any other profiles to look through?”

“Yes, of course. We have two dozen girls workin’ at the moment. Besides the six I already showed you, we have another dozen available right now.” She opened another file and withdrew a dossier on the remaining possibilities. “There’s Carly from the forests of southern Francoria. Veronique, a statuesque goddess from Kingsport, an offspring of Norsican descent.”

“Ah, I bet she’s used to warming herself in cold winters with horizontal coupling,” Sigfried remarked. Although he was trying to be funny, the girl simply continued describing his options as if he had not said anything.

“Jasmine the Parthian Princess is a' excellent choice. “Of noble birth, she is univers’ty educated, speaks four lang’ges, and got the flex’bility of a sultan’s dancer.”

“Pass,” Sigfried said dismissively.

“This is Taijin, an al’baster dove from Shingoray. Her voice as soft as silk, tis said she can charm the petals off a rose.”

“Interesting, but no…”

“Next we got Vania the Fair all the way from Rusland. With platinum hair and smooth, pearly white skin, her lithe frame can make a man happy for many hours.”

“No, thank you…”

“Next, we got Brigitte the Barbarian Princess from the Rotekant. Tis said she is of Kantwohner descent, the only barbarian tribe to resist the yoke of imperial rule. You best belief she can be a bedroom bully if that is what you lookin’ for.”

“Baby, if there is any bullying to be done in the bedroom, you ‘best belief’ I’ll be the one dishing it out …”

“Very well, sir. Just offerin’. Takes all kinds. Dif’rint strokes for dif’rint folks as they say. I don’t judge any who enter our salon. I merely try to please all of our cust’mers. And ‘tis my job to make sure they all know what’s on the menu.”

“Please continue, Ashley.”

“For our pentulmate choice, we have Tarja from Romaania. Her swarthy complexion and jet black hair will enchant you for hours…”

“Are we at the penultimate choice already? No, she may be pretty, but she is probably dumb as a post, and it will be a cold day in the Pit before I share a bed with a Romaanian.”

“Very gud, sir.” Ashley said. She retrieved the final portrait from the dossier file. “This one is known as Sheena. And I …”

“Yes! That’s the one! Let’s just go with Sheena then. She looks exciting.”

“An excellent choice, sir. One of our finest courtesans. You will not be disappointed. Skilled, with a charmin’ personality. I’ve been told that in all the years she has worked here man’g’ment has yet to receive a single complaint. A trend I hope continues with you.”

“Thanks, Ashley. Truly a wonderful recommendation, and coming from such a charming girl as yourself… how could I refuse?” He flashed her his most flirtatious smile, and despite the girl’s occupation, her face flushed once again.

After paying the entrance fee, Sigfried was shown upstairs. As he strolled the long corridors, he adopted a swagger, imagining this was what one was want to do when visiting an upscale brothel. The Emerald Rose was by far the classiest establishment he had ever visited, and he figured it was best to act like he owned the place to better blend in, which was not unreasonable; after all, he was born of nobility thanks to his father, the Earl of Geisterstadt. His mother may have been of noble birth as well, but she had died when he was just an infant. And his father had always been oddly reticent regarding the topic whenever he inquired about his mother’s origins.

 Finding the correct room, Sigfried knocked confidently, waited for a reply, then entered. He had chosen a red-head, and she was ready for him, lying seductively across the canopy bed, her lustrous mane tousled about her shoulders and falling down in front to conceal large breasts nearly bursting from her leather corset. The woman had striking, noble features that regarded him with full lips, a thin nose, and seductive, green eyes.

This is worth the price already.

“Hello there, handsome,” purred the woman. “Have a seat.”

As he approached, the woman’s face registered alarm. “Are you okay? Looks like you found trouble recently.”

“Yeah, you could say that. I got jumped by a bunch of guys the other night. They got me pretty good, but I walked away. Most of them did not.” He neglected to mention being unconscious throughout the ass-kicking phase of the alley skirmish. A minor oversight.

“Oh well, that is what I’m here for. To make you forget your problems. Whatever form they may take.”

Sigfried sat on the bed, savoring the view of her sultry body. She was voluptuous. It had been a long time, since he felt overwhelmed by a woman. Sadly, Emmanuelle was now just a sweet memory. They say a first love is never forgotten. Sigfried agreed, for after having had sex with dozens of women he still could not forget the one who had first thrilled him. And as his list of lovers grew, he found none could compare.

Admiring the beauty before him, he wondered if this time would be different. Ashley had told him this meretrix was held in high regard, her list of courtiers far too numerous to mention, some allegedly near the Crown. Sigfried believed the high acclaim could be justified: this woman exuded a feral sexuality from every pore in her body.

“Name’s Sheena,” she said.

“Sigfried,” he replied, swallowing hard.

Sheena displayed a perfect hourglass in her black and scarlet corset. Sigfried decided not to humor her with any further idle conversation. Without hesitation, he pushed the silk robe from her shoulders, and unlaced her corset, liberating her breasts. As he fondled them, his pulse quickened. He became more of a beast with each passing second, kissing her passionately before pushing her down on the bed. Without hesitation he removed her clothes. Then he was out of his.

As the young man grew more aroused, he became less gentle. Sigfried sensed Sheena was excited and possibly a little scared.

“Come on bitch!” he yelled. “Scream my name!”

            Sigfried was behind her where he had an excellent view of her curvy back. With one hand he held her lustrous mane, the other resting on her hip. Her hair was soft and thick in his grip. From time to time, he slapped her ass, bringing forth cries of pleasure mixed with pain.

            “Yes, Sigfried,” she screamed. “More, more...”

            The young man increased his intensity, and Sheena let out a moan that became a wail. He pulled her hair, and her arched back seemed as if it would bend no further; then he pulled harder. Soon the two became slick with passion.

            “Yessss,” Sheena managed to say. It was all she could say as the fury of their actions prevented her from speaking. Sheena’s cries gradually became one long staccato moan, reaching a crescendo. Sigfried grabbed her hair with both hands and pulled her in for a climactic finale.

            Sheena screamed. Whether pain or euphoria, Sigfried was not sure. Panting, he lay next to her. Despite her ordeal, she wore a satisfied smile.

            “Well, that was something!” she remarked. “I thought I was going to pass out! I was worried you were going to rip my hair out too … or break my back,” she added ruefully. She rubbed her scalp, seeming alarmed yet pleased.

            “Yeah, you’ll never forget me though,” Sigfried boasted. “You enjoyed it.”

            “You’re right, I did,” she agreed. “By the way, what is that mark on your hip? I noticed it earlier but was too preoccupied to ask.”

            Sheena pointed at a pair of nested ‘v’ shapes.

            “Oh, nothing. Just how I was born. Tell me, what brought you to Malden?”

            “I was born here,” Sheena said. “At an early age, I found I could hold the attention of men. I wanted a life of glamor and fame, so … here I am.”

            The sun sank lower as Sigfried regaled Sheena with stories of childish pranks he used to play on the noble families of Geisterstadt. He fancied he had charmed her, though he knew in her line of work she could just as easily be playing a role, hoping for repeat business and greater helpings of his coin. Seeing her in such a relaxed state, he decided it was time to ask her two questions that for him held great interest.

            “I’m looking for someone,” he began.

            “It is a big city, baby” Sheena purred.

“Her name is Emmanuelle Schlagen?”

            Sheena’s body grew tense. “Never heard of her,” she said, shaking her head.

            “Are you sure?” Sigfried pressed. “Because it looks like your lips say one thing, while your eyes say another.”

            “I don’t work in those circles,” Sheena said dismissively. “I’ve heard of her, yes, but it’s not safe to speak ill of that woman. They say she is a sorceress.”

             “Sorceress?” Sigfried scoffed. “Impossible! I’ve known her for years, ever since I could cast my seed. And trust me, she had a hand in that too.” Sigfried laughed in spite of himself. “She may be a bit depraved, but she’s no sorceress.”

            “They say she is a woman who dwells within a mysterious world of unbridled lust,” Sheena whispered. “A world of pleasure and pain mixed with drugs and black magic. I have no desire to meet her … and I suggest you stay clear of her too, if you know what’s good for you.”

            “She’s my friend!” Sigfried spat. “You can’t expect me to stay away from her, just because you heard some rumors. You can’t believe everything you hear. Those tales were probably spun by jealous women. That’s all.”

            “Perhaps,” Sheena said. “I just felt you deserved a warning.” She played with the hem of her embroidered robe.

            Staring off into space, Sigfried fondly recalled his times spent with Emmanuel, never imagining one day her name would be associated with infamy. The first time the two made love he was just sixteen, she nineteen. She had rocked his world, doing things he never thought could be enjoyable. And her dark, mysterious nature became an alluring, irresistible draw for the impressionable boy. Sometimes she would invite him to join her friends, salacious characters who gathered for unusual activities. He suspected they all belonged to some pleasure cult, though he was not certain. The gatherings he attended were mostly just narcotic-fueled orgies. Not that he complained.

On one occasion, he met their leader, Martin Grachford. Sigfried suspected the older man had seduced Emanuelle, because the two had recently run off together. It happened just weeks ago, yet it seemed like a lifetime. He ached for her. Longed for her body and her touch. Longed to kiss those thick, pouty lips and gaze at her beautiful face, losing himself in those bluish-gray, wolf eyes of hers.

Sigfried had learned that allegedly there was a price on Grachford’s head, but who knew if that were true. Maybe that would explain why the two had departed so quickly and told no one of their plans. Not even Sigfried. A logical explanation, but it hurt him, nonetheless. He had heard the bards claim that being abandoned by someone you love is a pain too great to bear. As a child he had not understood that oft repeated phrase, but now its meaning had become quite clear.

            “You’re thinking about her, aren’t you?” prompted Sheena, rousing the young man from his thoughts. “I don’t think she’s in Malden anymore.”

            “What? Why? Do you know where she’s gone?”

            “No one knows for sure. I think she went north. To Aachen probably.”

            “Aachen!” Sigfried shook his hands in frustration. There was nothing he could do about this development. He would just have to wait longer. A lot longer. His thoughts progressed to his next question, which concerned a topic of even greater importance.

            “Do you know where I can get my hands on Black Dragon?”

            Sheena nearly choked. “Fires of the Pit! That terrible stuff? A dark path to nowhere. That is all you will find. I can’t tell you how many lives I’ve seen ruined chasing the Dragon. Good people too. Women show up here addicted – they don’t last a month. We have to kick them out. The craving makes them lie and steal. We earn good money here too, but it’s never enough for people addicted to Black Dragon. Horrible people. Or rather, horrible drug. The people start out fine – just like you or me –then they become victims. It owns them before they know what is happening. Stay clear of that mess. It’s a one-way ticket to the gallows or the grave. I’ve seen it.”

            “I'm afraid that ship has already sailed. I’ve been flying with the Dragon since Beltane.”

            “That long?” Sheena gasped. “I’d never have imagined that. You look so healthy, and well…,” Sheena gestured toward the bed. “Vigorous.”

            Sigfried laughed. “You sweet nymph! You’re the best!” He gathered his clothes from the floor where they had been hastily shed in his initial moments of passion, now some hours ago. He put on his pants and noticed he had to tug the drawstrings extra tight; it was not enough to simply button them.

            Beltane. How long ago was that? Ten weeks? I really must remember to eat more. The Dragon makes it easy to forget.

            “If I’m ever in Malden again, I’ll drop by for another visit.”

            “If you’re still alive, please do.”

            Sigfried flashed her a smile. After donning his tunic, he went for the door.

            “If you must,” she offered. “You’ll find what you seek on Darby Lane.”

            “Thanks,” Sigfried said. He smiled again and placed a soft kiss upon her lips before leaving the Emerald Rose.


 

Author Notes We get to see who Sigfried really is ... the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Warning - Semi-graphic sex scenes and topics of narcotic use. You have been warned! :)


Chapter 27
Sigfried - Part B (Ch 27)

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

Author's Note: In Part A of this chapter Sigfried entertained himself with a courtesan named Sheena at the Emerald Rose. She reluctatnly told him where he could find Black Dragon.

After making inquiries, Sigfried found Darby Lane. Each time he asked someone, the person was unable to hide their disgust. Nevertheless, he continued his search, undaunted and unashamed. The revulsion of those he queried along the way decreased the closer he got to the infamous location, a sign that those who dwell within its shadow are more sympathetic to its visitors.

Darby Lane was a squalid place. Garbage rotted in the street, and rats as large as cats fled before him. The road looked as if it had seen no upkeep in generations. As he walked its length, aggressive whores stalked him. Unlike Sheena, these were not ladies of fine breeding. These harpies were filthy, malodorous, and desperate. Rude too. They groped his manhood and shouted angry insults when he ignored their efforts to entice him.

Only desperate men would seek the comfort of such women.

Unlike the ladies of the Emerald Rose, these whores carried diseases collectively known as the pox or the clap. The accommodations here provided a stark contrast as well. Most clients lay upon straw cots as they enjoyed their business transactions in plain sight of others. Some did not even use those, taking their pleasure standing, or using a wall for support.

            “Opum, sir?” offered a voice from the shadows.

            Sigfried shook his head. “Black Dragon!”

The response had a galvanic effect upon the man. His eyes widened. “I got none of that stuff!” he exclaimed. “Refuse to touch it. Ask Liam ‘round the corner.”

A score of anxious strides brought Sigfried within sight of an emaciated man standing beside a makeshift stall. A crown of gray hair sprouted wildly about his head, though it seemed reluctant to take residence upon his pate, giving him an almost tonsured appearance. Sigfried assumed this man must be Liam. Judging by his jaundiced eyes and state of malnutrition, it was clear the narcotics purveyor sampled his stash often.

Only to test it for quality, of course … for the good of the customer. Not that I care. Just sell me the fucking boat and let me set sail.

Two larger men flanked Liam. A fortune likely sat hiding in the dark chest that doubled as his foot stool.


            “How much for Black Dragon?” Sigfried asked boldly.

            “Thar’s been quite a drought,” Liam said, moving a wad of tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other. “With trade routes no longer safe, the mules have jacked up their prices. They say it’s no longer just Vanadian warbands that keep ‘em up at night. There’s talk of strange beasts roaming the wilderness, stalking the unwary. It poses a serious problem - they can’t keep to the roads for fear of the Roadwardens yet can’t travel the country for fear of these horrors. Not to mention the terrible storms threatening the caravans. It’s a miracle I’ve anything to sell." He scrutinized Sigfried, taking stock of his fine clothes.

            “Two pieces of eight,” he said flatly.

            “Done.”

The merchant’s eyes widened, and he almost swallowed his quid of tobacco. No doubt he expected Sigfried to balk at the exorbitant price, then haggle. Dumbfounded, Liam took the gold coins offered and handed over the goods, most likely regretting that he had not gouged his young customer more.

Sigfried felt a thrill of excitement as he received the Black Dragon. His heart raced. He could already smell the drug through the paper, and, like a conditioned animal, the odor aroused him.

He had not even checked the contents to assess the quality. He cared nothing for this aspect; he was not a connoisseur. Soon he would satisfy the painful longing for the dried, black herb – that was all that mattered. It had been nearly three days. Far too long! Now that the wait was over, an overwhelming urge took hold. He had to find a place to use the drug. He quickened his pace, his feet pounding the cobblestones.

Clouding his judgement, the pungent odor already thrilled him, a harbinger of his future ecstasy, so close he could almost taste it. The two pieces of eight were supposed to pay for Demelza’s services, but he had a fortnight to come up with money to replace it. Plenty of time. The strangers would surely lead him to some form of wealth or treasure; else why would they have insisted on such secrecy.

At a frenetic pace, Sigfried gained ground over the well-worn cobblestones. With the Dragon in his hands, his blood roiled, and his heart raced with the thought of what he was about to do. He could restrain himself no longer. At the end of Darby Lane, he found what he was looking for – an opum den.
He practically dove into the dark stairwell of the condemned building, making it appear as if the structure had swallowed him whole. The denizens below lurked in shadows, meandering through states of consciousness. Some lounged on couches or pillows. Others reclined on the stone floor, no longer aware of its hard surface. Many seemed oblivious to all forms of discomfort, their bodies contorted in unusual positions, oriented at strange angles.

Moonlight trailed Sigfried into the depths of this subterranean dreamshop. Dust and smoke hung in the air, scattering the light, lending a ghostly quality to all it touched. A dozen candles bristled from a candelabrum upon a shelf, the only source of light.

Stepping from the gloom, a slovenly man approached. He brushed something out of his beard and tossed a small bone over his shoulder.

            “Can I help you?” he asked in a distant voice. His eyes seemed to see through Sigfried. Aware of his presence, yet vacant.

            “A room please,” Sigfried ordered crisply.

            “Would you like food?  Drink? A woman to accompany you perhaps?”

            “I want a room!” Sigfried yelled, pounding his fist on the table. The man behind the counter did not even blink.

            “Two kilpecks,” he said.

Sigfried tossed him a denarius. “Keep the change,” he said. The man bowed before handing him a key, then pointed. “Straight down that hallway. Turn right. Then it’s the fourth door on the left.”

Sigfried nodded, adopting an energetic pace down the indicated hallway. As he passed doors, he chanced to hear muffled moans of pleasure. Soft laughter too. A few candles ran alongside the wall, casting their scant light to illuminate the dingy place. In ages past, it had probably served as a storage cellar for wine or vegetables, the wooden doors and walls now lining the cellar constructed as recent additions to give patrons the illusions of privacy. Few would mistake this place for a classy venue though, no matter how drug-addled their minds.

Mold, smoke, urine, vomit, and the stale residue left behind by fermented beverages all coalesced into one pervasive miasma of decay. Keenly aware of the hideous stench, his addiction overruled his disgust and fueled his resolve; Sigfried did not even hesitate as he turned the key to enter the room.

Drab walls greeted him. A stained, broken couch sat upon three legs with a samovar filled with hot tea bolted to the floor beside it. For him, these items held no interest. He was not concerned with any of the surroundings; for he knew they would soon change.

Locking the door, he began the ritual that had become a necessity. He would not use the entire Dragon, as he knew he would need to call upon its power again soon to keep the cravings at bay. He sprinkled the acrid powder upon special paper he kept in his handkerchief. He rolled the herb into a tube, twisted both ends shut, then lit one end by candleflame. He sucked at it greedily, the acrid fumes stinging his eyes, making them water. The first hit went by too quickly. He wanted more, so he rolled another one. And before long he had smoked the entire quantity.

Oh well, I can always get more on the way back.

He felt really good now. The numbness had taken hold, replacing his earlier cravings, and the amazing part, the ride, had not even started.  He sat eagerly upon the moldy couch and waited. First the candlelight began to fade, then he could no longer see the tattered, gray wallpaper. He felt the drab, stained couch disappear beneath him, leaving him to float in silence. He could not even hear his own breathing, nor the beating of his heart, which he felt growing faster by the moment. A delicious torpor invaded his body. The itchy pangs suffered earlier were replaced by warm caresses. These tactile sensations gave way to a dreamy reality, and before long he was lying upon a soft, fluffy cloud with three beautiful women. As often happens with the magic of dreams, he found himself naked without any recollection of having taken off his clothes. Wings sprouted from the backs of the women; their feathers softer than anything he had ever touched.

The physical manifestation of the dreamworld is what made Black Dragon truly special, an experience unparalleled in the real world. Lost in ecstasy, overwhelmed with pleasure, Sigfried allowed these angels to do as they pleased. One cradled his head in her arm, her blond hair draped over him like a protective shield as she showered him with kisses. The second angel with raven-black hair and an aquiline nose massaged oil into his chest. He stole a glimpse into her violet eyes and read deep kindness therein. A face imbued with grace and symmetry, gazing upon her was a pleasure of its own. Her soft smile spoke of love and betrayed an odd sense of familiarity, her delicate hands sensual and caring. He touched her small, rounded breasts, smooth and supple, her skin fair and flawless. Then, for reasons unknown, she sprouted elven ears.

The last angel had long, wavy chestnut hair cascading down the length of her back and covering her shoulders. He could not see her face in his supine position. She was probably beautiful too, like the others. Once he chanced to see the crown of her head as she attended to his rigid member.

He thought he would burst with joy. Each culmination growing more intense than the last, he wondered if there was a limit to the amount of pleasure he could safely receive. Rumors claimed the Black Dragon joyride occasionally killed those who dared to overindulge and test their limits. Sigfried hoped he would not become a statistic supporting this theory.

Blue sky surrounded him. Warm sunshine embraced him. And strange fanciful birds flew beside him. The women continued to stimulate his body in provocative ways, eliciting sensations previously unknown. He had no concept of time. He was sure of only one thing – he wanted to stay.

 


Chapter 28
Gathering the Team

By duaneculbertson

"Seyd’sblud! Where the Teufelwust is he?!!” Wolf’s voice ringed with anger. He picked up Sigfried’s discarded bandages from where they had been left on the bed, regarding them as if they might yield answers if he only studied them more closely.

            “I told you,” Demelza retorted. “I don’t know!”

            “You just let him go?” Wolf accused. “I thought you were his bodyguard.” Dropping the bandages, he spun to confront the troubled dwarf, whose face had reddened to the roots of her flame-colored hair.

            “I am his bodyguard!” Demelza roared, throwing him a look of defiance. “Which is why I must obey him.”

            “Could you not have shadowed him?” Wolf said, throwing his hands up and shaking his head in disbelief. “That would’ve been prudent, a noble action worthy of one in charge of caring for his safety and well-being.”

            “Are you kidding? If he caught me, I’d lose my job.”

            Wolf cursed as he paced the length of the room. His efforts to assemble a cohesive team were now threatened by the boy’s unnecessary absence.

            Virriel appeared bearing a plate of meat. She forced a cheerful smile.

            “Does anyone want steak?” she asked.    
                   
            “Yes,” Wolf growled, plucking the largest piece.

            “What’s wrong?”

            “Sigfried’s gone off exploring the city on his own. You’d think the beating he received last night would’ve dissuaded him from such foolishness. Why can’t he just relax for a while?”

            “Well, we can’t worry about it now,” Virriel said. “If he survives, he’ll join us, if not, it’s his own fault.”

            Resembling the animal for which he was named, Wolf tore into a piece of steak, washing it down with a swig of water from his canteen.

            Ketri approached Demelza, staying well clear of Virriel. “Who’s that?” she hissed, asking her question to her fellow kinsman in the Dwarven Tongue.

            “Our employer,” Demelza said, rolling her eyes.

            “What!” Ketri spat. “Must we work with an elf? Please tell me you’re joking.”

            Demelza made a sour face and shook her head. “I’m Demelza Ironbeard of Karhalazald.”

            “Ketri…” she extended her hand but did so cautiously. “Kranir Forge.”

            “Something wrong?” Demelza asked.

            “Er, nothing. It’s just the Ironbeards are such an infamous clan.”

            “Don’t judge a fruit by the bark of its tree,” Demelza said.  “We’re not all bad.”

            “Well said. Dwarven proverbs are forged from experience and tempered with wisdom. They hold much truth. I love them.”

            “You have a charming way about you.”

            “Ha!” Ketri laughed. “Don’t be fooled. I put on a good show, but usually my passion gets the best of me. The truth is – there’s nothing better than bashing heads.”

            Demelza laughed. “I like you. I hope you will call me Friend.”

            “Problems between our clans need not translate to problems between us. And I happen to know that my people plan to pay the tribute well before the First Thaw. We need not have a repeat of last year’s hostilities. As for myself, I do not wish to quarrel with you. And I am happy to call you Friend.”

            Demelza and Ketri placed a right hand upon the other’s left shoulder.

            “The honor is mine,” they said in unison before exchanging friendly smiles.

            “I am pleased that is done,” Ketri added. “Besides, we need to stick together. You are the first of our kind I’ve seen in Malden for weeks. You have no idea how good it is to have a conversation in our mother tongue once again. It’s been a long time.”

            “I understand completely. Etrurian Vulgarate does not appeal to me, and sometimes I am unable to find the words to express myself. It is disheartening to think that men know almost nothing of our ways. We forged great cities long before they were ever around.”

             “As it is written…” Ketri replied laconically. Despite her earlier remarks, she appeared contemplative. 

Demelza waited for her new friend to continue the conversation, perhaps expecting another wise proverb or some profound commentary. When none was forthcoming, an awkward silence fell between them. Ketri recognized the lapse and hastily responded.

            “You’re certainly a tall one,” she remarked. “Do all trees in Karhalazald grow so high?” Demelza towered over her by almost a foot.

            “No, I’m special,” Demelza said, laughing. “At least that’s what I tell myself.”

            “Perhaps you take after Gron Ironbeard. I’ve heard the legends.”

            “That’s my father’s father. A giant of a man, though I never met him. They say he was almost as stout as he was tall, a whole fathom of bottled rage – a powerful, implacable dwarf the likes the world has never seen. My uncle Ragni would say otherwise; he’s a braggard who thinks himself an even greater warrior than his father. But I still feel he has much to prove. Such is the unbounded ego of an Ironbeard!”

            “I bet you’ve got good stories to tell. I love the legends of our people. I’ve heard most, but I’m sure your clan must have a few I haven’t heard yet.”

            “Perhaps,” Demelza replied. “My people don’t share much. They are an irritable lot under the best of circumstances. More likely to break someone’s bones before breaking bread with them. I’ve been told I take after my mother’s side. She was a foreigner, and apparently a great deal more hospitable. Sadly, I never knew her. She perished in the Elven Conflict when I was but an infant. Father told me she fell victim to an ambush, a cowardly raid upon her caravan.”

Demelza cast a look of enmity towards Virriel, but the elf had her back turned, and her vehemence went unnoticed. Wolf’s watchful gaze, on the other hand, could not fail to catch the incident, and he made a mental note to speak to her about it.

“Horrible,” said Ketri with sympathy. “You don’t remember her at all?”

            “No. My father promised to tell me more about her when I was older, but instead he found himself upon the point of a spear. ‘Twas twelve years ago, and I was raised by my uncle ever since. I found Karhalazald too dull when the Elven Conflict ended and decided to leave and make my fortune in the land of men. That’s when I met Sigfried and became his bodyguard. Hopefully, he didn’t shoot his mouth off and get himself killed. If he did, I’m out of a job. Of course, these folks want to hire me for some secret mission. I hope they can deliver on the promise of great wealth. I didn’t leave our mountain fortress to live a normal life mucking crops out of the side of a hill. I want fine things. Gold and glory. All that I can carry of both!”

            Ketri’s face brightened.

            “What clan did you say you’re from?” Demelza asked.

            “I didn’t,” Ketri muttered.

            Demelza angled her head, arched her brow, and smiled in an effort to precipitate an answer.

            “My name is Ketri Greathammer.”

            “Greathammer!” Demelza exclaimed. “You must be royalty in your own right!”

            “Those are your words, not mine. I may have Thurn’s name, but I am not in favor with the old rascal. Got three older sisters, and there’s no telling how many bastards he’s fathered. Likes to cast his seed about. It would not surprise me if we were related.”

            Demelza laughed.

            “I don’t consider myself royal,” Ketri continued. “Never have. I’m certainly no proper princess. And I refuse to be a pawn for some political game.”

“You ran away …” stated Demelza laughing.

“Your words again, not mine,” said Ketri, cracking a smile.

“I had no idea we had so much in common. I can tell we’re going to get along great. It’s nice to have a dwarven sister in a foreign land.”


 


Chapter 29
Gathering the Team (Conclusion)

By duaneculbertson

Wolf could hardly believe what he had just heard. Dwarven royalty? Fascinating! What are the odds? He was happy he had bothered to learn the Dwarven language as a child. It was proving most useful. His ability to multi-task was useful as well. He had lost not one word of the dwarven conversation, while still pretending to give his undivided attention to Virriel. He called this talent “compartmentalization,” and had made fine use of it one more than one occasion.

            “What do you think of the dwarves?” Virriel asked him.

            Wolf gave Ralf a hard look, and the latter read the unspoken message, understanding that his employers wished to speak privately. He made a brief introduction to Virriel and favored her with a gracious bow before turning to go join the dwarves. Wolf and Virriel watched him go. Within just a few moments, he and the dwarves were laughing as if they had been friends for years.

            “I like the dwarves,” Wolf replied. “They are powerful and hearty with useful skills for our mission. What do you think of them?”

            “Ketri certainly looks tough enough, though I don’t understand why you persist in recruiting from that race. They are a stubborn people and will probably attract trouble. We will be the only party walking around Malden with a pair of dwarves. And something tells me discretion is not a word in their lexicon. We will attract eyes like a circus, and people will speak of us long after we have gone.”

            “Yes, you are probably right. All valid points. I just think the benefits are worth the lack of discretion. You’ll see, they’ll work in our favor. Dwarves are fierce fighters. I grew up near the Rotekant. Clan exiles once lived there within the rocks. Good folk. You just need to give them a chance.”

            “It’s not so much me giving them a chance, as it is them giving me a chance.”

            “You may be right,” Wolf replied.

            “Is she wearing an orange wig?” Virriel asked of Demelza. “If so, perhaps she would be good enough to consider losing it. That color alone is enough to draw unwanted attention.”

            “No, that’s her real hair,” Wolf replied, admiring the dwarf.

            “How do you know that?” Virriel asked, raising an eyebrow.

            “Last night, I saw her wash it,” he answered.

            “Oh, really?” she said with marked interest.

            “No, it’s not like that,” he replied, catching her tone. “We didn’t bathe together or anything,” he continued. “The room had a hogshead for washing. I did not join her. I saw her brush her hair afterwards. That’s how I know it’s real. That’s all.”

            Virriel inclined her head and gave Wolf an appraising look.

            “We are warriors…” Wolf stammered. “We have a code we live by. Standards. Honor. Ethics. Besides, it’s not unusual for warriors to dress or bathe together.”

Virriel nodded and went to fetch her handbag; Wolf breathed a sigh of relief. Then he remembered the awkward embrace that morning with Demelza and blushed. He hoped Virriel would not notice. To hide his embarrassment, he walked to the window.

Wolf looked down into the street. A man in a burgundy cloak watched the tavern, his cowl was up, partially masking his features except for a square jawline and a scar running along his cheek. Wolf had seen the man earlier today in the market. It could be a coincidence, but he did not want to take any chances. He studied him carefully. He did not seem a tradesman. This was most likely a man of action, perhaps a bounty-hunter. Wolf felt uneasy, like a stalked animal. Perhaps it was time to choose different lodgings.

 “Well, I’m not crazy about you hiring another dwarf,” Virriel continued, “But I’m willing to give them both a chance … if you think they’re useful.

            “Thank you,” Wolf replied, returning to sit at the table. He wondered who was really in charge of this quest. He did not think he needed permission or approval. He was the one of royal blood here, the eldest grandchild of the Emperor. Well, former Emperor. The thought made him sad.

            “What about the other fellow?” Virriel asked. “He seems of questionable value, as charming as he may be.”

            “He’s a smuggler,” Wolf said.

            “A smuggler!” Virriel exclaimed. “Are we recruiting from the lower strata of society now? You don’t think that could compromise our mission?”

Wolf glanced at the man; happy he had not heard her outburst.

            “Can you ever really trust such a person?” she whispered.

            “I feel I can trust this one,” Wolf replied. “It will be valuable to have someone with contacts in the Thieves’ Guild. Ralf has such contacts. The man lost his barge and needs money. He’s just wants stable employment. We can count on him.”

Virriel did not look convinced. “How do you know he’ll not betray us?”

            “At some point, you just have to trust people. We can’t succeed at this alone. People rarely do what you expect anyway. Nor do they behave the way you want them to. We have little control over such matters. You just have to hope that in the end they do the right thing and make the right choices.”

            The elf relented. She closed her eyes and nodded. “Would you like to hear about my recruiting efforts?”

            The dwarves’ banter distracted him. Something Demelza had said caught his attention. They were conversing in the Dwarven Tongue, despite Ralf’s presence.

            “Tis true,” Demelza continued. “Wouldn’t even look at me. Made me turn around when he got undressed.”

            “A prudish man?” Ketri offered.

            “Don’t know. Never met a man who could resist my naked body. I’m not bragging - I’m just saying…”

            “Perhaps he’s wounded down there,” Ketri offered.

            “Certainly not! I got a good look in the reflection of my breastplate and I will tell you he is a man of ….”

            Demelza’s voice trailed off, and she flushed crimson. Ketri turned to see what had stopped her and was met by Wolf’s icy stare.

            “He understands the Dwarven Tongue,” Ketri whispered.

            “Obviously,” Demelza hissed, staring straight into Ketri’s eyes and refusing to meet Wolf’s imperious gaze.

            Ralf grinned stupidly. Not knowing what was being said, he still managed to find the episode amusing.

            Wolf’s stern demeanor faded, and he returned his attention to Virriel who bore a puzzled expression.

            “What is it?” she asked.

            “Nothing. Just a dwarven joke in bad taste.”

            “Oh, I see,” Virriel said. Pausing, she added, “You know the Dwarven tongue?”

            “When I was young, I explored caves with the cliff-dwelling dwarves of the Rotekant. They weren’t good at climbing cliffs, but they certainly knew their way around subterranean passages. Dwarves are excellent miners and stone workers. Although I was young, I learned much from them.”

Virriel nodded thoughtfully.

“Now what was it you were saying about your recruiting efforts before I interrupted you?” Wolf asked.

            “Well, as you can see, I have no one to introduce. I went to an illusionist named Menac at the University of Malden. A renowned and talented scholar.”

            “And this scholar has promised to help?”

            “No, he has commitments and is unwilling to break them.”

            “Did you tell him what was at stake?”

            “I’m not sure he believed me.”

            “So much for our academics,” Wolf spat. “No shortage of suggestions, but when it comes down to it – no real support either. Typical!” 

            “Perhaps he could still be of use in the future,” Virriel offered.

            “What did you say his name was?”

            “Menac the Enchanter.”

            Wolf withdrew a small leather book and charcoal pencil from his vest and made a note. He looked up at Virriel, who seemed surprised. “Not expecting such skills from a common Roadwarden?” he asked. “That I know my letters?”

            Virriel flushed. “No Wolf,” she replied gently. “I’m not surprised. Perhaps we just need to get to know each other better.” She placed her hands over his on the table, and they stared into each other’s eyes.

            The door was thrown open. Sigfried stood in the doorway. His hair was disheveled, and his clothes were sweat-stained and soiled. Perspiration streamed down his face. Wild-eyed, he stared at the group gathered in his bedroom.

            Wolf bolted from the table. “Where have you been?”

            “I needed some fresh air. I went for a walk.”

            “A walk lasting eight hours! It’s almost midnight! Where in the Pit have you been? You’ve not recovered from your wounds. Running around with a head injury – it’s pure foolishness. Even now, you bleed.”

            Sigfried scowled, “Who do you think you are, my father?”

            “Not a chance, for no son of mine would behave in such a manner! Though it’s clear someone needs to look after you. At the moment, intelligent decisions avoid you like the Diamond Sickness, and I’m not sure why ... it must be either all the blows to your head, or your stubborn personality."

            “What are you talking about? You don’t even know me!”

            “Sigfried, it’s not right to put Virriel through this. She took great care nursing you back to health. When you act so foolishly, you betray her hospitality. Running off to seek “fresh air” is pure madness – it threatens to undo all the progress she has made. Perhaps you don’t realize that without her assistance you would be dead right now. How can you possibly justify your actions?”

            Virriel watched the boy with worried eyes, and her silence was tantamount to agreement. The truth had been spoken.

The young man glared at Wolf. He had no clever response to counter such candor. He could offer no reasonable defense of his actions.

            “Why are your clothes so filthy?” Wolf asked. “Were you attacked?”

            “As a matter of fact, I was. I ran into some thugs, but I got away.”

            “Very unwise to tempt Fate.”

            “I can take care of myself.”

            “I see,” Wolf said. He stepped closer and noticed Sigfried’s dilated, bloodshot eyes and smelled traces of the pungent Black Dragon. As a Roadwarden, he had trained himself to look for the signs. He made a mental note, but this was not the time for a confrontation.

            “I thought you were a member of the aristocracy,” Wolf remarked.

            “I am!” Sigfried snapped.

            “Then start acting like one!”

            Sigfried rolled his eyes. “Instead of trying to make me feel bad, why don’t you take this opportunity to tell us your plan. What the hell is this all about anyway? We’ve been waiting around all day to hear about this special mission. It’s almost midnight and we still have no idea what it is.”

            “Be quiet and sit down,” Wolf said in a calm voice. “I was going to tell you tonight anyway.” Sigfried pulled up a chair and the others gathered around. Wolf leaned against the wall, took a deep breath, and began his tale.

 

Author Notes How is the dialogue? Is the drama sufficient for the content?
Thank you,
Duane Culbertson


Chapter 30
Quest and Prophecy Revealed

By duaneculbertson

            “Strange events are threatening our world. I do not understand everything yet, but I’ve learned their cause. We must steel ourselves for challenging times ahead.”

            Virriel nodded for Wolf to continue. Sigfried scowled. Demelza appeared skeptical, and Ralf and Ketri simply waited expectantly.

            “Until a few weeks ago, I was working as a farmer on my family’s estate. Then one evening I was roused from sleep by none other than Seydor himself.”

            “Ridiculous!” Sigfried laughed. “How drunk were you?”

            “Let him finish Sigfried,” Virriel said. “Come over here, so I can apply a fresh bandage while we listen to what Wolf has to say.” She beckoned the young man to come rest upon the straw mattress next to her. He obeyed.

            “It is as I say,” Wolf continued. “I know it’s hard to believe, but Virriel is proof that this is no singular delusion of mine. She too was visited by Seydor.” The others looked to Virriel who nodded in agreement.

            “Seydor spoke of a contest between the gods, a contest that will be fought here in the Realm among our people. Stones of great power are hidden throughout our world, and the followers who gather the greatest number before the contest is over shall win. The winner will hold dominion over all life, all matter. The Dark Lords Putragle, Relgash, Shlargareth, and Kanavorus desire to possess these stones to unleash great Evil upon our world.”

            Wolf’s audience cringed upon hearing the names of the Dark Lords spoken. Virriel seemed particularly agitated.

            “Please never speak those names aloud,” she implored. “One never knows who may be listening.”

            Wolf was going to tell her she was being foolish, then thought better of it. Her words held wisdom.

            “I know what I’ve told you seems hard to believe,” Wolf continued. “Yet it is the purest truth. I did not ask to be chosen for this mission, but I made a promise to Seydor. And I will not stop until I achieve victory.”

            “What instructions were given?” asked Demelza.

            “I was told to find Virriel in Malden and search for the first stone.”

            “So, it was no accident Virriel found us…” Sigfried remarked.

            “No, it was not,” she replied. “I was walking through the Forests of Glendor, when Seydor appeared and spoke of his great need and my destiny. I accepted his request to lead the mission and made my way to Malden.”

            Wolf frowned. Virriel was not leading the mission. He was. Had Seydor really told her she was in charge? Or was she lying? Why would she lie? Was Seydor playing them off each other for some reason? For the moment, he said nothing. It would not do to debate the issue in front of the people they were trying to recruit. It would only risk the others losing confidence in the mission.

            Wolf and Virriel each spoke about the directions Seydor had provided and told of the magic rings they carried. Ketri was intrigued by Virriel’s description of how her ring had led her to Wolf.

            “That sounds great,” she said. “Can it do anything else?”

            “Alas, no,” Virriel answered. “Once I reached Wolf, the ring grew cold. Now it is just an ordinary brass ring. Behold.”

            She tossed the ring to Ketri, who admired it in the palm of her thick, fleshy hand.

            “Keep it,” Virriel offered.

            “Thanks,” Ketri mumbled, eyeing the elf suspiciously.

            “Did Seydor give you anything else?” asked Demelza.

            “He gave me this talisman I am wearing,” Wolf said. “It will lead us to the stones. Seydor can track our progress as well, though he says he is not permitted to help directly in any way.” Wolf was about to mention the other gifts but was interrupted.

            “He also gave me this wand to locate the stones,” Virriel said. She produced a small object from her cloak resembling a foot-long length of polished wood. It was thin and looked quite ordinary.

            “That doesn’t look special,” remarked Ralf.

            “It’s not supposed to,” retorted Virriel. “That’s the point.”

            Ralf looked away with downcast eyes.

            “How do we know where to find the stones so that we can get close enough to use that thing?” Demelza asked.

            “A prophecy describes where the stones can be found,” Wolf offered.

            “Easy enough,” she remarked carelessly.

            “No, not really,” Wolf observed, “I don’t have a copy yet, and its words are difficult to fathom. It doesn’t provide a map. Nor does it state exact locations.”

            “I’ve a copy,” Virriel announced proudly. She pulled a bundle of parchments from her satchel.

Wolf bit his lip. Why had Seydor entrusted her with this vital information? Why had it not been given to him? Wolf wondered what other information she had kept from him. He would confront her about it later.

            As Virriel flattened the parchment on the table, a knock came at the door. She shot Wolf a frightened glance, and he silently drew his sword. He placed his back to the wall near the door. The others watched motionless.

            “Who’s there?” Wolf asked.

            “A friend,” said a familiar voice.

            Wolf opened the door wide, and a thin figure strode into the room. Throwing back the deep cowl of a forest cloak, the man looked at Wolf and flashed a broad smile. It was Alcuin!

            “My friend!” Wolf exclaimed. “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you.” He hugged Alcuin, and happiness marked the faces of both.

            “Even better to see you,” Alcuin replied. “I’ve been worried about you.

            “Ah! A learned man like you need not fret over such pedestrian concerns. We had some slight difficulty, but it is hardly worth mentioning. Besides, I am good at getting myself out of trouble.” Behind him, Demelza give an exasperated sigh, but he ignored her.

“Well, we have much to discuss when you are ready," Alcuin urged. "And many topics to catch up on. You’ll be happy to learn I managed to untangle the problem we faced when we last met.”

            A joyful, astonished look came over Wolf’s features. Such great fortune. “How?”

            “That, my son, is a topic for later.” The learned man surveyed the room. “And who are these fine people?”

            “Seyd’sblud!” Wolf exclaimed. “Where are your guards? You made the long trip to Malden by yourself. That is madness!”

            “Rather ironic coming from the man who insists upon telling everyone how safe the roads are.” Wolf could not help but laugh at his friend’s remark.

“Why would he need bodyguards?” Demelza asked, forcing herself into the conversation.

Wolf hesitated. “Er, because he is a celebrated academic. He could possibly be taken prisoner by thieves hoping to extort a high ransom for his release. Hard to believe I know, judging by the look of him.” Wolf was used to seeing Alcuin wearing scarlet robes heavy with gilt embroidery about the cuffs and collar. His friend had come to their quarters dressed in a common, nondescript gray cloak.

“Come now my son, you know my reputation as an empiricist. I do not spend all my time in libraries and knowledge-dens. I like to go amongst the people incognito. To observe human nature and record my discoveries.”

“Why do you call him son?” It was Ketri who asked.

“Good question, young lady,” Alcuin replied favoring her with a smile. “After formal education at the university, it is customary for the best students to continue on in their studies more closely with a mentor. It is like a father-son relationship, so the terminology is used to denote the special bond between student and master. Sadly, the student often leaves before his training is finished.” He cast Wolf a reproachful look.

“They need not hear this old argument,” Wolf grumbled. “Let me introduce to you the members of my team.”

(To be concluded…)

 


Chapter 31
Quest and Prophecy Concluded

By duaneculbertson

Wolf helped Alcuin get acquainted with the others. As he went around the room, each responded as they were introduced. Most were cheerful, if not polite, though Sigfried did little to hide his indifference.

            “The pleasure is mine,” Alcuin replied collectively. “Now, what do we have we here?”

            The scholar walked over to consult the sun-bleached parchment upon the table. He whistled in appreciation. “Elven runes, I’d not expected to see such fine writing in Malden. There are few with this level of talent.” He smiled at Virriel. “You did this?”

            She nodded with a self-satisfied bearing.

            “Your Elfscript is remarkable … I should say beautiful.”

            “Very pretty,” Demelza interrupted, “But what does it say?”

            “It’s the Prophecy,” said Virriel. “It's quite long. I was seized with cramps towards the end. I burned the original Seydor provided, so that it would not fall into the wrong hands.”

            “It says,” Alcuin began. “Out of nothing came something…Out of something came many…Out of many came few…Out of few comes One."

            “Terrific,” added Sigfried sarcastically. “But what’s it used for?”

            “The Prophecy gives clues for finding the stones hidden throughout the Realm,” Wolf volunteered. “Some lines provide useful information as well.”

Wolf had to admit he was impressed with Virriel. She had taken the precaution of hiding the information by copying it in a language only a few would be able to understand. He withdrew his notebook and charcoal pencil from his vest pocket and began translating the words into Vulgarate. Compared to the beautiful complexity of elven runes, it would not take long to transcribe their meaning using common shorthand abbreviations.


            “You can read Elfscript?” Demelza marveled.

            “In the dark. Underwater. In my sleep. Of course, I can read Elfscript!”

Alcuin chuckled, as if enjoying some private joke, but he never took his eyes off the Prophecy. And as he meticulously perused every sheet, beads of perspiration gathered upon his brow. Others asked questions of him, but the scholar made his thoughts unavailable, at least for the moment.

            “How does a simple roadwarden come to know Elfscript?” Demelza persisted. “Is there something you’re keeping from us?”


            “No!” Wolf snapped. “There’s nothing to tell. I attended Aachen University, where I met Alcuin and studied alongside him for a few years before I left. You ask the wrong questions. We must focus on the Prophecy. That’s all we need to discuss for now.” Wolf hoped the severity of his reply would not betray his secret. He did not want the others to know he was royalty. Mostly for their own protection. The information could also possibly interfere with group dynamics and problem solving as well. And he did not want anyone getting the false impression that he had unlimited funding.

            “This is a more complete document than the one I was able to piece together,” Alcuin remarked. “I used the notes from the knowledge-tome of the Great Sage, but this work you’ve done contributes wonderfully to my understanding. Thank you, Virriel.”    
   
           The elf smiled warmly in response to the praise.

Wolf and Alcuin shared a brief moment of sadness, as they silently contemplated the demise of their common friend, the Great Sage – Gerrard Ragerius.

            “The Prophecy is too long to be entirely relevant,” Alcuin mumbled. “At least, that is my theory ... There are ten stones, yet we have twelve stanzas each with twelve lines. Far too many, in my opinion. Some lines must be more important than others … many could be misleading.”


            “Misleading?” Virriel asked, alarm creeping into her voice. “Good Glendor! Why would that ever be the case?"


            “Why not? Who says all lines were meant to guide? Some could be meant to deceive. The Contest is about the struggle between Good and Evil. Would it not, therefore, be logical to consider that deception could play a role?”

            “As if this contest weren’t challenging enough,” Wolf grumbled.

            “Come now, my son,” Alcuin soothed. “Would it not be to our advantage if we were one of the smart, enlightened few to break the code. Think of how much time we would save. Our enemies would be off in different parts of the world chasing red herrings, while we would be preparing to fight where the actual battles will be fought.”


            “And what if you’re wrong?” Ketri asked.

            “Well, good dwarf, it has been known to happen.” Alcuin smiled at her, and Ketri retruned the favor.

            Ralf looked over Wolf’s shoulder. Like an impatient child who cannot wait to see how the story turns out, he skipped ahead to Wolf’s translation of the final lines.

            “All domains and every state …” he said bewildered. “Does that mean whoever wins has control over everything in the Realm?”

            “Actually, Ralf,” replied Wolf in a somber tone. “It means the winner will have control over every living thing in the universe – Realm, Aether, and Beyond.”

            “Oh!” Ralf exclaimed. “That’s heavy.”

            “Yes, and now you understand the dire situation we face. And why we must not fail.”

            The group collectively nodded in unspoken agreement.

            “What do these lines mean?” Demelza asked, pointing at the first page.

            “I’ve had time to ponder them,” Virriel admitted. “But their meaning eludes me. What do you think, Wolf?”

            Wolf massaged his cramped hand following his rapid translation of the Prophecy. The words were new to him as well, and he studied them carefully. “There’s too much to discuss here, Virriel. We need only consider the first few lines at the moment if what I believe is true.”

            “And what is that?” she asked.

            “The order the stones are mentioned is probably the order of their appearance.”

            “A sound theory,” Virriel agreed.

       
            “What about this part where it talks about the child of not one race?” Demelza asked. “What does that mean?”

            “I’m not sure,”  Virriel said. “It could simply mean the child is the product of two different races … a human and a dwarf, for example. I’ve never seen such a child, yet they must exist.”

            “Aye, they do,” muttered Demelza, “though the poor bastards are not much welcome in our society. It’s not right, but it happens.”

            “What’s not right?” Alcuin challenged. “That half-breeds are exploited and treated as inferiors, or that they are made at all?”

            “That they are treated as inferiors, of course! Sheesh! You must hold quite a low opinion of me to even think such a thing!" Demelza’s face twisted as if wounded or tasting something sour.

            “Not at all,” Alcuin replied in a calm, even tone. “I just wanted to be sure. Words are important. Or rather proper diction is important. Wars have been started over careless comments. And misunderstandings between parties can quickly lead to trouble, as I’m sure you are well aware.”

Wolf found his thoughts wandering. A child of mixed race? Could that pertain to his situation in some way? Had Seydor told him to assemble a diverse team for this very reason? Was he meant to form a union with Virriel? His heart still ached for Atelka, but he had to admit he felt irresistibly drawn to the exotic elf woman.

Perhaps Seydor did not mention it to save me the stress such a declaration would cause, fearing it could jeopardize a successful union . Maybe he wanted events to unfold naturally. This is crazy talk! Am I really that arrogant to think the world revolves around me? And what of Atelka? I swore an oath to find her. Then again, I swore an oath to my father too … I wish I was working the farm right now. How peaceful that would be…

Absorbed in his thoughts as he was, Wolf had not realized Sigfried was talking to him.

            “Yes?” Wolf asked

            “Rules!” exclaimed the boy. “Every contest has rules. What are they?”

            “Yes, Sigfried,” Virriel offered. “I took notes about those as well, although they are not very detailed. Seydor had little time.”

            From her cloak, she produced another paper marked with Elven runes.

            “Here are some of the rules,” she began. “No deity may cross into the Realm without proper provisions being established along with an invitation from its denizens.”

            “Invitation?” Sigfried interrupted. “Like an embossed, filigreed note?”

            His attempt at humor fell flat, and a somber mood descended. Most did not even acknowledge him with a glance. Even the merry Ralf frowned.

            Sigfried stood in a corner, leaning against the wall with crossed arms. “Is there anything interesting there?” he sighed.

            “The stones will appear every other moon. Contestants may anticipate their arrival. Some are already hidden throughout the land as actual stones or jewels. At the appropriate time they will spring to life, and each will carry the power of its patron deity. There are other stipulations, but this is all I had time to glean … Certainly enough for now.”  

            “Great work, Virriel,” Wolf praised. “There is one point you did not mention though. It’s small, a mere trifle, but often these are the most enlightening.”

            Alcuin smiled, as if recognizing his own words.

            “Go on,” Virriel urged.

            “It seems the contestants must choose sides – Good must be Good – Evil must be Evil. Both sides will make choices, but Good may not lie, cheat, or deceive, while Evil is expected to commit such acts.”

            “But didn’t some warlord once say, ‘All war is deception’?” Ralf asked.

            “Yes, son,” affirmed Alcuin. “The Vanadian general, Ariovistas. You are much deeper than you appear.”

Ralf blushed, “Uh, thanks…I guess.”

            “Bah! Good or Evil, who can tell these days?” stated Demelza. “I say kill ‘em all and let the gods worry the details!”

            “Ah, the cavalier attitude of the mighty warrior,” remarked Alcuin. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. We must evaluate our circumstances as we go. It’s important to heed these guidelines. If one spends too long on the path of Evil, one may not be able to find their way back.”

The portentous words hung in the air like a dark cloud. The silence was broken by Sigfried.

            “The stones just magically appear?” he asked incredulously. “This whole thing is absurd. You’re all suffering from some common delusion!”

Wolf’s face brightened – he had an idea. He would offer him the ring. Not only would it show him the truth, but Seydor said it could influence the willingness of the wearer to participate in the quest.

            “Absurd or not, it’s quite real,” Wolf said. “We must do what we can to make sure the stones do not end up in the wrong hands. If you need convincing, there’s something I can show you.”

            “Yeah, and what’s that?”

            “Seydor gave me a ring that protects the wearer from harm. It also endows him with feelings of well-being and confidence.” Wolf knew this was not completely true but had no compunctions about saying it.

            “Why are you not wearing it yourself, then?”

            Good question. Blast his stubborn will!

            “The enchantment fades with time,” Wolf said casually. “I wanted to save it to use on others, but since you seem full of doubt, I suggest you try it yourself.”

            Wolf tossed him the ring. Hesitantly, he put it on. His response caught Wolf by surprise. The young man staggered backwards and fell against the wall. A violent tremor seemed to shake every fiber of his being. Wolf stepped forward to help, but Sigfried waved him away.

            “I’m fine,” he hissed through clenched teeth. He balled his hands into fists, and with his eyes tightly shut, his face froze in a twisted, pained expression.

            A disturbing amount of time passed before the tension eased from his body.

            “That was strange,” he breathed.

            “How do you feel?” asked Wolf hesitantly, unable to banish the memory of his dying grandfather from his thoughts.

            “Incredible,” Sigfried replied. “This ring is special. Thank you for sharing it. Now, when do we start this quest?” Smiling, he handed the ring back to Wolf, who admired it in the palm of his hand. It seemed less shiny now compared to the time he had given it to Quertin two days before.

            The others appeared puzzled by Sigfried’s transformation but went along with it, perhaps refreshed to see sarcasm give way to optimism. Wolf noticed the change was infectious. Soon everyone talked excitedly.

            “Our first step is to form a team that can work together,” Wolf said. “I think we have that.”

            “What do we call ourselves?” Demelza asked.

            “What do you mean?”

            “We have to name our group.”

            “I don’t think that’s necessary. We don’t want to advertise the mission at this phase of the game.”

            “Oh! Come now,” Demelza prodded. “It’ll be fun. Just a name for ourselves that we share with no one else.”

            “Seydor’s servants,” Ralf suggested.

            “Even I know that’s stupid,” Ketri spat. “And I’m just learning the ways of your people.” Ralf shot her a wounded glance.

            “Well, it would be useful to have a term to describe ourselves to others,” Virriel said. “We are bound to make allies along the way.”

“How about the Stonehunters?” Sigfried offered.

            “One does not hunt stones, Sigfried,” Wolf said. “Stones are to be found. To be sought after.” After a brief pause, it came to him clear as crystal. “We are Stoneseekers.”

            A collective approval gathered on the faces of all. People nodded and sighed, exchanging contented smiles.

            “Love it,” Alcuin said. “The Stoneseekers! Now let’s lose no time further and devise a course of action.”

            “Yes,” Wolf agreed. “We know the first stone is somewhere in this city. We need only find it. Virriel and I have ideas on how to accomplish this. Listen carefully…”
 

 


Chapter 32
The Auction

By duaneculbertson

It was an ironic spot to gather, the ruins of an old temple. So many villains here on holy ground. The thought made Finny smile. It was unlikely any of these rogues had ever stepped inside a house of worship before.

The building’s roof had collapsed in ages past. Nevertheless, the courtyard provided an ideal place for clandestine gatherings of a nefarious nature. The sky was clear, though even impending rain would not have deterred the assembled scoundrels from placing bids on the celebrated artifact.

If the temple had been impressive once, it was now just a shell of its former glory. Only the thick outer walls stood intact. Ivy grew over these surfaces, straining to reach the life-giving rays of a departed sun. Dusk had come, and, with it, stars appeared, dappling a violet sky. Torches burned in rusted sconces along the walls, and the torchlight cast eerie shadows that seemed to dance menacingly, surrounding the assembly, as if culling livestock to the pens for slaughter.

Finny Simmeran leaned against a sculptured column, waiting for the auction to resume. Representatives from the Five Families were present. Bosses, bodyguards and henchmen all jostled for space in the crowded area in front of the stage. He found it odd that a group of foreign thieves possessed such a valuable item. Stranger still, that the Thieves' Guild would allow them to host the auction. The auctioneer was a regular with a favorable reputation, but Finny had little confidence in the foreigners. He would consult his informants; there was bound to be more to this story.

Finny kicked a rock across the floor. He had been waiting an hour, and the time had not passed easily. Oppressive heat and stillness smothered everything like a scalding wet towel. News of his debacle the other night had become a popular topic for gossip, and his humiliation kept him from mingling with the other crime lords. For years, he had worked hard to earn a metaphorical place at the table, and now that spot was in jeopardy.

It was widely known, perhaps celebrated by some, that he had lost a quarter of his men in the failed ambush, a fact which marked him as incompetent in the eyes of many and made him the laughingstock of the Thieves’ Guild. Such thoughts weighed heavily upon his spirits, dampening them considerably more than even the sweltering evening air. He pulled his cap lower. Crossing his arms, he moved to rest his back against a ruined stone slab that had once served as an altar. It felt hot, retaining the heat from a full day of sunlight, but he welcomed the recessed alcove – much easier to hide from people he would rather not see.

He smiled. It really did not matter. In his profession, a loser today could be a hero tomorrow. Such were the capricious winds that carried the destinies of those working the turbulent underworld.  Besides, he did not want to talk right now anyway.

He pulled a forgotten piece of stale, moldy bread from his pocket and devoured it, waiting for the auction to resume. This was the longest intermission he had ever suffered. Ruefully, he listened to the chatter of nearby crime lords. Such was the din in the packed confines of the courtyard he was unable to discern any more than a few snippets of conversation. He just hoped they were not talking about him. If his ears started to burn, he did not think he could take it.

Fortunately, Finny was a unique name, and he had not heard it spoken this evening. Finishing his bread, he amused himself by tossing bits of loose rubble at a pillar, attracting angry looks. Finny evaluated the social status of the on-lookers and noticed they did not command any hired muscle; he would continue what he was doing and take no further notice.

Harsh looks he could handle. Harsh words he could talk around. But violence … violence was another story altogether. He had sampled too much of it recently, even if only vicariously. His fine Andalusian carpets were totally ruined thanks to the few survivors who returned that evening and made a bloody mess of his private quarters. Why couldn’t they have had the decency to die somewhere else? What was wrong with people? Fabrics don’t tolerate blood. Consideration. That was what was lacking in the world. Common sense and decency.

No. Finny was finished with violence for a while. He would avoid it like the Diamond Sickness, which, if reports were true, was a horrific fate. Just to illustrate the point to himself, he swore an oath to Tynback, god of thieves, vowing he would not witness violence again for as long as possible.

Finny wished he did not have to be at this stupid auction, but he had a job to do, and he refused to screw this up. He would suffer himself no further humiliation.

Why was this taking so long? Perhaps this was normal. After all, what can you expect from a bunch of Romaanians?

A small man vaulted over the altar, his tunic gliding smoothly over the marbleized surface. He landed softly next to Finny, smiling at the success of his acrobatic skill. His simple attire marked him as no one of significance, though he did not seem a servant either. He wore a hat on his head, the whimsical twin peaks adorned with tiny bells that Finny found ridiculous. The man pulled a cheese wheel from his pocket and offered him a portion. Despite his hunger, Finny waved him away, not wishing to feel indebted to a stranger.

“Name’s Remmington. You can call me Remmy,” he said. The young man paused, a look of recognition arching his brow. Finny opened his mouth to silence the man, but he was too late.

“Say, you’re Fenster Glockenspiel! Mastermind of the Blue Moon. Heard good things ‘bout ya.”

“Is that so…?” Finny replied guardedly. His right hand crossed his belly and eased into the folds of his vest where it came to a rest upon the hilt of a dagger, the weapon overlooked earlier when the guards had conducted their perfunctory search of everyone in attendance.

“Sure,” Remmy continued. “Rumor has it your men are well-treated, well-paid, and always given a fair share of the profits. Such deeds are worthy of mention.”

“We try our best for our members,” Finny said. He removed his hand from the dagger, and his face brightened. The dagger had been a wonderful find, the only good thing to come out of the failed ambush the other night. With a jeweled endcap, the piece had been forged with exceptional skill, perhaps containing Damascus steel – Finny was no expert, but the patterns in the metal looked promising. The lackey carrying the knife had expired in his salon, yet not before bleeding all over the place, much to Finny’s dismay. Rather foolish of him to have made such a journey, when the man could have gone to a convalescent house nearby; the price of the dagger alone could have paid his stay for an entire year. No matter. Finny knew he would make far better use of it anyway. He could probably sell it for even more than it was worth. He was good at that sort of thing.

Remmy tore into the cheese wheel and spoke loudly as he chewed. His breath reeked of alcohol.

“When they gonna get this thing goin’? People are gettin’ pissed. Big men ‘ere too! Not jus’ lackeys. Disrespectful to waste their time. We all wanna see the tee-uh.”

“The Tear?” Finny prompted.

“Aye, the Tear of Putragle. Always thought it were a myth, but apparently it's here tonight. Romaanian scum! No idea how they got their grubby hands on it.”

Finny smirked, warming slightly to this eccentric man who shared at least one of his sentiments. He found it ironic that Remmy held such venom for Romaanians when he himself must be a foreigner judging by his accent.

“Showmen know how to build suspense,” he continued. “But this … this is jus’ wrong! Wasting our time like this adds nothing. ‘Twill only annoy powerful men. Still, I’m itchin’ to see the Tear. Most excitement I’ve felt in a long time! Imagine if it’s true! Tonight, we’ll see sumthin’ thousands of years old. ‘Twas last held by Xyron the Great! ‘Magine that?  ‘Tis said any who leads an army with the Tear is unstoppable.”

“People say lots of things,” Finny remarked, waving his hand dismissively.

“S’truth, friend! One need only affix the Tear to a weapon and strike. Da’ blow always kills. Infects first, then kills. There’s no cure for any wounds it causes."

“How whimsical…” Finny muttered with poorly veiled sarcasm.

“Xyron the Great was da secret leader of da Bloated Corpse, one of dem dark cults. ‘Cept back in the day, ‘twas more of a following, a great army some say. Kin ya fathom that? A king serving the Pestillent One!”

Finny’s face winced as if biting into something sour. “Such history is nonsense!” he spat. “No mentor worth their salt teaches that stuff anymore! It’s just superstitious drivel and myth! Like tonight for example. We’ll be lucky if the damn thing they show us isn’t a forgery.”

Remmy’s mouth dropped open. “Seyd’sblud! None would dare! Romaanians may be greasy, but they’re not stupid! No, ‘tis the genuine article. And I can’t wait to see it! Men have killed throughout history for it. And people say…”

“Look! I’m not interested, you lout!” interrupted Finny. “You’re free to believe any nonsense you want, but don’t share it with me. Your company has become tedious! Good day to you!”

Remmy simply shrugged in response to the harsh words and abrasive glare.

“Suit yourself.” He bowed deeply and walked away. Finny watched him melt into the crowd. No doubt he was off to court favor with other gang leaders.

Finny sighed, relieved to have reclaimed his solitude. He sat beneath the altar and pulled his cap low. Thoroughly bored, he figured he would get some sleep. He shut his eyes and drifted off for a while.

“Looks like the sanitation men missed a dung heap,” said a smooth voice. “And a rather large one at that.”

Two other men laughed.

Finny tore off his cap. When he turned his anger upon the voice, his scowl vanished, and he scrambled to his feet. Flanked by slack-jawed bodyguards, a man not more than four feet in stature regarded him with a mocking smile. An elegant garment of white linen bedizened with gold embroidery covered his ample frame. Gemstones adorned the rings on his fingers, and a solid gold watch hung from his neck.

“Dewey!” Finny exclaimed.

“That’s Dewberry Halfman to you, and you’d better not forget it!” He shook his head slowly from side to side. “Fenster, you look a mess. You need to start investing in better apparel. You’re a disgrace to the Guild! And get some self-discipline while you’re at it. Dozing in the dirt like a common drunk!”


Finny bristled at the appraisal.

“Is it true you lost half your men trying to rob a group of armed mercenaries?”

“There were only three, Sire. Two warriors and an unarmed nobleman.”

“Shend’sgoat! What the Helle were you thinking? A noble and his bodyguard you could get away with. But trying to jump trained warriors? That’s just stupid!”

“I had no idea they were so skilled. They fought like demons. Like assassins. There was another with them. A witch or sorceress! She called rocks from the sky. My men had no chance.”

“Rocks from the sky?” Dewberry laughed. “A sorceress? Have you been reading fairy tales late at night again with a belly full of mead? What a cart of horseshit! Surely you can do better than that!” The two bodyguards laughed, the uproar attracting much attention.
Remarks from Dewberry always garnered great consideration, so it was not surprising when a small crowd gathered around the rich and powerful celebrity. Finny feared the verbal excoriation he knew he would soon receive, certain his reputation among the underworld was about to be irrevocably destroyed.
 
“I … I swear!” he stammered. “I speak the purest truth! I saw everything with my own eyes. May the gods pluck ‘em out if I state but one falsehood regarding what I witnessed."

“No, my little friend. You need not swear oaths. I like a fairy tale now and then, but you’d do much better in life, if you sipped wine and partook in the writings of Pliny to while away your evenings. The man is a genius! ... what was I reading last night? … Naturalis Historia! All manner of things may be learned within that great tome. Perhaps you could even learn how to run a crime organization.”

The two bodyguards sustained their incessant laughter and were now joined by a handful of others to form a mocking chorus. Finny was already unpopular in Malden, and he did not wish to fortify this status through further ridicule. But there was little he could do, except stoically weather the storm.


“I shall look into Pliny as you say, excellency. It is good of you to pass along your advice to those of us who are still willing to learn from your wisdom.”

Dewberry nodded his head. “Well, I suppose there’s still hope for you. The drab caterpillar may yet become a beautiful butterfly. The ugly duckling, an elegant swan. But I dare not hold my breath … although now that I’m standing in your presence, I’m reminded that perhaps it’s best to hold one’s breath.”

More laughter enveloped Finny. He felt as if he had become the center of a small comedy. He wanted to hide under the altar.

“Times have been tough, I’ll admit.” Finny stammered. “Merchant caravans from the East have all but ceased now that the routes are so unsafe. Attacks are the norm, and it’s not just Vanadians. Rumors speak of horrors roaming the countryside, stalking the unwary. Even water travel has become treacherous with record breaking tides and choppy seas.”

“Sounds like more of your fairy tales,” quipped Dewberry. “Not my concern. If you were smart, you’d raise your prices in response to the dwindling supply. But I honestly don’t care whether you succeed or fail. My only concern is that you pay the rent at the end of the month. In full.”

“Of course,” Finny replied. “As it has always been done … though I must admit, an extension would help a great deal, excellency.”

“No extensions! No excuses! In this world, you live and die by your reputation. If I make an exception for you, then everyone will ask for similar treatment. Pretty soon there’s no discipline. Pretty soon your rivals take over your territory. Pretty soon you find a blade sliding between your ribs. No, I will not grant it. The money is due in full. Without fail!”

“It will be done, lord. I promise. I would never cross one as powerful as you.”

Dewberry cast him a look of disdain. “You’d better not!” he shouted. “Everyone knows you’ve been disgraced. S’blud! It’s become the talk of the town.”

Dewberry waved his arms in an encompassing gesture, as if inviting audience participation. 

“You may have be disgraced, Fenster Glockenspiel," Dewberry stated with deliberate slowness. "But you have not crossed me … not yet. People who cross me end up dead. Take this man for example…”

Dewberry unrolled a parchment. It was a sketch of a jowly man with a large nose.

“His name is Ralf Backer. And this roadapple deemed it tolerable to dump my cargo in the Reintrank rather than face possible prosecution by customs officers. What the fool failed to realize was that I own all those people. None would ever dare confiscate my cargo!”

“Truly an idiot,” Finny breathed.

“Yes, a simpleton to be sure. I’m glad we agree on that. TEN GOLD AUREUS!! Ten gold aureus to anyone who brings me the head of Ralf Backer.”

“Zwohl! Ten gold Runchies!” said Remmy, excited like a moth drawn to a flame.

“Dead or alive?” Finny asked.

“What part of ‘bring me his head’ do you not understand? You halfwit! I’m not interested in seeing him alive.”

Among the more pedestrian members of the Thieves Guild, the sum attracted great attention. Conversations ceased altogether. Only Dewberry spoke.

“Bring me his head within the next fortnight and I will double the offer! Wanted posters of his fat face can be found all over Guild Headquarters. Take one only if you’re serious about my offer. That is all ..."

People returned to their conversations and lively discussions blossomed all around as before.

“You see, Fenster. That’s how it’s done! That’s how you motivate the masses – generate gossip and leave a carrot for the donkey to follow. Tomorrow, I guarantee there will be dozens of bounty hunters looking for that clown. And when I finally get his head, I will boil it down and use it as a footstool, a testament to the fate of those foolish enough to cross me.”

“A gruesome reminder,” Finny remarked.

“Yes, you get the idea. Here take this poster. Since you are short on funds, you may wish to claim the bounty yourself.” The bodyguards burst out in a fresh paroxysm of laughter.
Finny bit his lip, but took the poster just the same, thinking it unwise to refuse.

“Now, I must be off,” announced Dewberry.

“You’re not staying for the Tear?”

“Of course not. I’ve better things to do with my life than rub elbows with scum the likes of you. My purser will claim the artifact. I wouldn’t be caught dead here. I only came because I had business to conduct with the other families. Much more efficient to see them all now rather than schedule multiple meetings. Watch and learn, Fenster. Watch and learn.”

Finny bowed to the short man with the scheming eyes and commanding presence. The idea that he needed to follow Dewberry’s superior intellect and wisdom hurt his pride. Judging by his smooth face, the well-fed man could not be much older, probably around forty. For the moment though, he must pay fealty to this arrogant toad. He decided he would stare at the ground, rather than make eye-contact and risk evoking another insult as a Parthian shot. At least he was taller than the financier - despite the latter calling him his "little friend" - that was something.

Dewberry left with his bodyguards in tow, and Finny breathed a sigh of relief. It was nice to be rid of the odious man. Unfortunately, overwhelming dread now filled the void he had left. How could Finny raise the money for the rent with all his best men slain? They were needed to rob people in the sector of the city he controlled, once controlled was probably more likely. Events moved fast in Malden, just slightly slower than gossip.


A horn blared. Two men-at-arms burst from the make-shift curtains at the side alcove. With measured paces and crisp, orthogonal turns, they mounted the dais and took flanking positions alongside the back. Eyes forward, they stood at attention with their halberds. The auctioneer returned next, raising a hand to impose silence. The audience shifted with anticipation, awaiting the item to be announced.

"And, finally,” said the auctioneer, “a rare item, recently recovered from the sands of time ... the Tear of Putragle.” He lifted a gloved hand to show a stone the size of a goose egg. Embossed diamonds marked the pearly-smooth, olive-green rock. On the other side squatted a graven image of some hideous monstrosity. A hush fell over the crowd. Those closest appeared to wither, shrinking back as if the stone radiated malice.

For a long moment, the audience stood in awed silence. Finny marveled that something so hideous could command such respect and admiration. He decided he would try to acquire it. Unbeknownst to Dewberry, Finny was not only the leader of the Malden Chapter of the Blue Moon, but he was also authorized as the purser for the Aachen Chapter. As such, he commanded considerable resources. He relished the thought of outbidding Dewberry. He did not think he could do it, but it was worth a shot. He also entertained a wicked idea – he could purchase the jewel with the money loaned to him, then turn around and sell it to a third party for a much higher price. When he returned to Aachen, he could pretend he was outbid and simply return the money, keeping the difference as pure profit for himself. Such a betrayal, if discovered, would unleash a terrible vengeance, but Finny was not averse to taking risks.

The auctioneer took a deep breath but Finny was faster.

“Five hundred sesterces!” he shouted.

"The bidding starts when I say it starts,” replied the auctioneer with asperity. “The starting bid is one thousand sesterces.”

“The starting bid is irrelevant,” hissed a mysterious voice from the back. All eyes turned to see five cloaked figures stepping from the shadows, as if they had just melted from the walls or descended from the stars above. Finny crouched lower, fear gripping his heart. Who were these people? Where had they come from? And what had happened to all the guards? Were they not well-paid to keep strangers away?

“Who the Helle are you?” challenged the auctioneer. “This auction is private!”

The stranger remained silent as he strode forward, approaching the stage. A heavy cowl concealed most of his face revealing only a strong jawline and an angry mouth with sharp, gray teeth. The audience parted, giving him a wide berth. Many recoiled with twisted faces, as if assaulted by an unpleasant odor.

“That stone belongs to my master,” it said. “You will give it to me. Now!”


(To be concluded...)

Author Notes This is one of my favorite chapters in the book. I hope you enjoy it. I will break it into two parts. This section is heavy with foreshadowing. Some of it not so subtle. :)


Chapter 33
The Auction (Concluded)

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

            “The starting bid is irrelevant,” hissed a malevolent voice from the back. All eyes turned to see five cloaked figures stepping from the shadows, as if they had just melted from the walls or descended from the stars above. Finny crouched lower, fear gripping his heart. Who were these people? Where had they come from? And what happened to all the guards? Were they not well-paid to keep strangers away?

            “Who the Helle are you?” challenged the auctioneer. “This meeting is private!”

The stranger said nothing, as he strode forward. A heavy cowl concealed most of his face, revealing only a strong jawline and an angry mouth with sharp, gray teeth. The audience parted, giving him a wide berth. Many recoiled with twisted faces, assaulted by an unpleasant odor.

            “That stone belongs to my master,” it said. “You will give it to me. Now!”

The crowd shifted uneasily. Merchants secured their wallets and looked to their bodyguards. Others cast glances for possible exits.

            “Guards!” roared the auctioneer. He turned, as if expecting a squad of men to burst from the alcove, but none appeared.

            “Right,” continued the auctioneer. “You two. Kill that man!” He pointed a bony finger at the unseemly interloper as he addressed the two flanking guards. The men-at-arms dropped their halberds and raised their crossbows, but they were far too slow.

Muttering fell words in a sadistic, sibiliant tone, the stranger gathered a ball of fire in his hands. In the span of two heartbeats, it flew through the air, a kaleidoscopic trail of brilliant sparks marking its flight. The glowing orb swelled in size before dividing to strike all three. Bursting into flames, the wretched victims writhed in helpless agony. Shrieking, they fell to the stage where they thrashed about searching for refuge, and finding none. After a few seconds, their cries died upon the stale, sweltering air. 

With a flourish the stranger threw back the hood of his cowl and laughed. A collective gasp arose as the crowd saw what masqueraded as a face. Red glowing eyes surrounded by gray mottled skin regarded them with blistering contempt. Rotting strips of flesh hung limply from the fiend’s cheeks, and a bloated, bald head completed its corpse-like appearance. Panic swept through the audience almost as quickly as the fires which had consumed the three men. Some whimpered. Some babbled like frightened children. Others wept. Even prideful crimelords soiled their fancy robes and gilded togas.

            “Kill them all,” ordered the fiend. With a gesture, he summoned a mighty wind and blew out the torches, plunging the entire venue into darkness. Abject terror descended upon the crowd like a smothering blanket. Men trampled each other as they sought their escape. Some fled to the dubious safety of the alcove, but two cloaked figures stepped forward and dealt with them.

Everyone screamed. People scrambled blindly in all directions. The cloaked intruders dove into the crowd slashing about and stabbing furiously with long, curved daggers. Unlike their prey, they had no problems negotiating the darkness and moved with terrible efficiency. To these killers, the task was as simple as slaughtering sheep.


Some men climbed the walls but found the ivy insufficient to support their weight. The vines gave way and they fell back to the ground where they were trampled to death by their associates. In the bedlam that followed the survival instinct took over and allegiances evaporated. Bodyguards threw down their charges, some using them as steps to ascend the wall. Most fought blindly, striking friend and foe alike until the wicked blades finally found them. The few that did make it over the wall were greeted by more cloaked figures outside. None escaped the slaughter. All the while, the fiend stood cackling, admiring the expediency of his men.

Finny lay curled in the fetal position beneath the altar. He never once moved as men died all around him. He shut his eyes tightly and clenched his teeth. In vain, he tried to block out the screaming by covering his ears with trembling hands. He did not have long to wait. In less than a minute, the noises abated. To Finny, frozen in terror, lying under a stone slab like a corpse in a crypt, it seemed like an era.

Eventually only gasps, groans, and the labored breathing of the dying filled the air of the courtyard. Finny dared not move. He prayed that the gods would not allow him to share the same fate as his peers. Footsteps approached.

            “Arise, craven dog!” said the fiend.

Finny cowered before the hideous creature. It now held a glowing staff that illuminated its surroundings. Finny managed to stand and noticed he stood at the center of a den of death. Everywhere he turned, dozens lay dead and dying. A mere ten paces away, Remmy lay on his back staring vacantly at the stars, a broad, dark gash marking the wound which had severed his throat. The opulent garments of the wealthy were now stained crimson and heavy with blood, their Summer finery no more than expensive burial shrouds. It was a massacre. He had never seen so much blood. He felt like he was watching the formation of tide pools at some diabolical beach.

As the fiend stepped closer, Finny fought waves of nausea. To his horror, he realized the source. Decomposed skin hung in tatters upon the face of the monstrosity. By chance, the remaining flesh belonging to what had once served as its nose fell to the floor and came to rest near Finny’s boot. Fear had robbed him of reason, yet he managed to stammer, “Whawhat do you want?”

            “I’ve got what I want. I’m keeping you alive so you can tell others what you’ve seen. I want you to tell everyone that Sebaycian Schlectblud of the Bloated Corpse is coming to claim this world for Putragle. Those who wish to serve may join. Those who oppose will die!”

Sebaycian took a vial from his pocket, removed the stopper, and gave it to Finny.

            “Drink!” he commanded.

            Finny recoiled from the foul-smelling fluid.

            “Drink or burn!” ordered Sebaycian. Once again, flames gathered in the thin, cadaverous hands.

The fire was all the impetus Finny needed. He knew he would never forget the sight of those poor souls reduced to ashes; the terrible event forever seared into his memory. Without hesitating, he downed the nasty fluid in one gulp.

Sebaycian cackled. “You are now infected with the Mark of Putragle. Every night you must lie with a different woman. If you fail to do this, you will die!”

A black vapor appeared, coalescing into solid form, vaguely humanoid with smoldering amber eyes. It hovered a few feet away.

            “Before the cock crows each sunrise, if you have not lain with a different woman, this shade will appear and kill you. Understand?”

            Finny nodded.

            “Good. Now go! Get out of my sight before I kill you myself!”

Terrified, Finny scrambled over the bloody corpses, slipping once on a pool of blood and stumbling a few times before reaching the exit. No longer a thinking creature, he babbled as he fled, his clothes soaked in the blood of his peers.


Chapter 34
An Unpleasant Discovery

By duaneculbertson

Sebaycian watched the silly coward run for his life. The ability to strike fear into the hearts of men was a delightful power to wield. He could not get enough of it. All his life, he had been mocked, ridiculed, and disrespected. People had shunned him, dismissing him out of hand, and not even giving him a second glance. Now he would have their full attention. The whole world would bow at his feet.

The abilities bestowed upon him were amazing. Beyond his wildest dreams. The very essence of matter had to dance to the beat of his drum. He felt unstoppable; he could conquer the Realm all by himself ... he would conquer -- 

            “Is it true, master?” interrupted a cloaked figure.

            “What?” snapped Sebaycian, irritated at the sudden intrusion upon his thoughts.

            “You would send a shade to ensure that buffoon has sex with a different woman every night.”

            “Of course not! You idiot!” he hissed. “I would never waste a shade on such a foolish errand. The important thing is that insect believes it, and he will infect as many people as possible before succumbing to the slow-acting version of the disease.”

            “Most wise, master. But if he infects women in the brothels will that not interfere with the plans of Relgash?”

            “That is no concern of yours!” Sebaycian spat. “Now fetch me the stone!”

The henchman approached the charred rostrum. He rummaged through the ashes but to no avail. Then he searched the auctioneer. A blackened claw, the vestige of what had once served as a hand, clutched something tightly. The henchman snapped off the fingers as if they were dried twigs before removing the stone from the dead man's grip. The gem showed signs of scorching.

            “Here it is, master,” he said. As Sebaycian took the stone in his hand, his smile of satisfaction vanished. He gnashed his teeth.

            “This is not the stone!” he roared. “A forgery!” His epiphany occurred the moment he took the stone and felt nothing but bitter disappointment and an intense fear of failing the Great One, instead of the power he expected. Enraged, he tightened his fist, crushing the stone into dust. He knew the real Tear of Putragle was indestructible and would never show signs of having been scorched.

            Someone has crafted a forgery. But why? And who would dare do such a thing?

Seething with anger, he stormed the courtyard, rifling bodies until he found a foreigner still alive. T
he wretched man bled from multiple stab wounds.

            “Where is the stone?” hissed Sebaycian.

            “Our jeweler …” replied the Romaanian in broken Vulgarate.

            “Where is he?” Sebaycian demanded.

            The man’s head rolled back, and he convulsed, succumbing to shock and blood loss. Sebaycian roared. He tore off the man’s head and hurled it over the wall.

            “It does not matter,” he muttered. “I will get the stone. It will just take a little longer than expected.”

He did not look forward to searching the caves beneath the city, but if that is what it would take, he would do it. He had his divining wand and that was all he needed. He might even summon some help from the Aetherial Plane.

            “Come,” he addressed his followers. “We have much to do.”

Author Notes Please share your thoughts: Is it better to hide the information that Finny has no reason to fear the shade coming every day from the reader, or is it more fun for the reader to enjoy the dramatic irony, watching Finny attempt to satisfy the requirement of having sex with a different woman each night to fulfill a non-existent curse he believes carries dire consequences?


Chapter 35
A Discussion Between Friends

By duaneculbertson

Alcuin walked to a darkened corner of the dining hall. Long past midnight, the bar was closed with no patrons in sight. Nevertheless, he managed to scrape the dregs from a hogshead behind the counter, adding them to a tankard for his friend. Not as good as fresh ale, but it could not be helped as this hour, as the cellars were most likely locked at night.

Alcuin heard the footfalls of his friend approaching from the side corridor. A lone candle overhead cast just enough light to suit the clandestine discussion they were going to have. Wolf eased into the high-backed chair opposite, bent forward, and whispered conspiratorially, “None of them,” he began, “not even Virriel, know my identity, and I want to keep it that way.”

            “As you wish,” Alcuin replied. “I like your team. Virriel is great. And I especially like the feisty dwarf.”

            “I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific?”

            “Ketri, I believe you called her.”

            “Ah! Yes, she is quite the handful. Don’t make her angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.”

            “Thanks for the warning. No, your secret will be safe with me. It may come as no surprise that I had the foresight of anticipating your desire to remain incognito, which is why I was discrete with you upon my arrival.”

            “Yes, I appreciate that,” Wolf said, relaxing slightly. “Now please tell me, for I’ve been dying to ask, what happened at the palace when I saw you last?”

            “After you fled, I spoke with the Grand Theophanist. I told him of our great need. Of the threat to our people, our land, and our way of life. He was much more willing to accept our story. He is a man of good sense; he knows that strangeness plagues our land. It was not hard to persuade him that what I spoke was the truth.

Janicus still wants your head. But it matters little. I was able to convince those in power of your innocence. The royal physician ruled the cause of death as heart failure, and I suggested the frightening news brought about the tragedy. Our story was believed. And even the courtiers who enjoy spreading gossip were unwilling to entertain the notion of any nefarious plot, despite the best efforts of Janicus and his partisans.”

            Wolf exhaled in obvious relief and managed a tired smile. “That is certainly good news. Well done!”

“Thurstan just wants you to appear in court to add your testimony to the official record. A mere formality.”

            “The Theophanist? Why must I appear before him?”

            “Because we are experiencing a constitutional crisis at the moment. Runcheon never declared a successor.”

            “What!” Wolf shouted, his outburst echoing throughout the dining hall. “Please tell me you’re not serious,” he added in a much softer voice.

Alcuin compressed his lips tightly and shook his head. “Seydor keep him, Runcheon never named an heir. Like others before him, he was supposed to name his successor and keep the name locked within a special vault in a wax-sealed envelope. All monarchs are required to do this long before they reach their golden years. Occasionally, a new envelope is required when an unexpected tragedy claims the life of the Aethling Prince, but usually the succession is well-known by everyone ahead of time, and the breaking of the envelope is simply a tradition required by law. Alas, for whatever reason, Runcheon failed to do this. When the Grand Theophanist opened the vault, it was empty.”

            “Son-of-a-bitch!” Wolf hissed. “What the Helle happened? Senility?”

            “Hardly. You heard the old man speak. Sharp as a tack. More likely, he feared handing the kingdom to Janicus. Perhaps he procrastinated because he preferred your mother and did not want to admit it for fear of shaming his son.”

            “A plausible theory, I suppose,” Wolf admitted, taking a long draft of ale.

            “Regardless, the Grand Theopahnist sits on the throne for the moment.”

            “What!” Wolf spluttered, nearly upsetting his tankard. “Thurstan sits upon the throne? Royal blood is not running the Empire!”

            “The Grand Theophanist has a year to transfer the power to a more suitable heir. There’s a law for this very occasion. I’m afraid it could be months before everything is settled.”

            “S’Blood! How are we to survive? Our enemies are bound to take advantage of this perceived weakness. And now we must contend with the possibility of in-fighting and civil war. Shistra! The timing could not be worse! Morale is already low for the men garrisoned at the borders. How can we expect them to fight valiantly when a legitimate emperor is not even sitting upon the throne? Most will fear for the safety of the loved ones they left behind, knowing lawlessness could break out any moment if it comes to civil war. A fine mess we’ve created!”

            “Well, there’s nothing for it now. Besides, we’ve got more pressing matters than civil unrest. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Wolf frowned but reluctantly nodded in agreement.

            “We may even want to consider sharing the ring with the Grand Theophanist,” Alcuin added. “Thurstan believes our story, but it may be good to provide him with the insight only the ring can provide.”

            “Sure, just as long as he doesn’t die too,” Wolf said, rolling his eyes. “Who knows? If we’re lucky we could have a scullery maid sitting upon the throne!”

Alcuin ignored the unhelpful sarcasm. “How many times have you used it?” he prompted, almost dreading to hear the answer.

            “Four,” Wolf said. He removed the ring from his pocket. “As you can see, it has lost some of its original luster.”

            “I can’t tell. You’d know best.” Talking about the ring, brought back another memory. “By the way, what have you done with the Emperor’s Seal? It is safe?”

            “Yes,” Wolf sighed. “I forgot to tell you …” Alcuin raised an eyebrow. His student looked embarrassed.

Wolf brought his left hand out from under the table. With the other hand, he rotated the shiny ring so that the Imperial Seal faced outwards.

            “Hounds of Vorus!” Alcuin exclaimed. “You’re wearing it?”

            “Keep your voice down,” Wolf pleaded. “Yes, I’m wearing it, and now …”

            “What?”

            “I can’t get it off.”

            “S’blud! Can’t I trust you with anything? That item is priceless! The platinum alone is worth a fortune! But the ring holds great political and cultural significance! Are you aware it has passed from one emperor to the next in an unbroken chain going back a thousand years? The original owner was none other than Seydor Kreigenschert!”

            “Well, you shouldn’t worry then,” Wolf replied flippantly. “Seydor happens to be my ancestor, and, furthermore, considering all I am doing for him, I’m sure he won’t mind if I look after it for a while! Sheesh!”

Wolf smiled, forcing Alcuin to burst out laughing. It was nice to break the tension. “Fine,” he replied.

            "We can worry about how to remove it from your finger later. Just be careful. If you get mugged by thieves, they will surely cut your finger off to get at the shiny bauble, not even realizing its real value.”

            “Don’t worry, my friend. I’m getting good at dealing with thieves … as of late.” Wolf returned the other ring to his vest pocket. As unlikely as it seemed, Wolf Kantwohner, the barbarian prince who preferred climbing cliffs over learning mathematics, now possessed two rings belonging to Seydor Kriegenschwert. Alcuin shook his head – the miracles never ceased.

He watched his friend glumly contemplating his empty tankard of ale and wondered if he wished for something stronger. That gave him an idea. Reaching into his cloak, he retrieved a small metal flask. Uncapping it brought forth a pungent odor.

            “By the beard!” Wolf exclaimed. “What’s that awful smell?”

            “Medicine,” Alcuin smiled. “It warms you, provides comfort, improves mental clarity, facilitates proper diction, promotes affability and …”

            “In other words, it’s powerfully strong alcohol,” Wolf interrupted.

            “Yes, my son … exactly.”

            The two laughed. “Well, what are we waiting for …” Wolf reached across the table and took the flask. Before Alcuin could say anything, his friend had already taken a gulp. Wolf’s face twisted. His eyes closed tightly, and his features scrunched up, as if biting into a lemon. He coughed and sputtered violently.

            “By the Beard! What the Helle is that?”

            “You’re supposed to add water first! You halfwit!” Alcuin laughed. “I keep it in concentrated form when I travel. It’s much more efficient that way. Hopefully, you won’t go blind by morning.”

            Wolf drew back his hand, feigning to threaten Alcuin with violence, but he could not keep a straight face. They both laughed again.

            “One moment, my friend,” Alcuin said, as he shuffled to the bar. All the earthenware mugs had been used that day, so he reached high into the cupboard and removed a glass from the back. He imagined the ornate piece was used only once in a great while when affluent clientele chanced to stay at the Inn. With biased reasoning, he decided being affluent of the mind met this criterion, providing him with the acceptable justification. He reached into a hogshead and scooped out enough water to fill the glass before returning.

            “Well?” Wolf prompted.

            Alcuin extracted a thimble from a pocket in his cloak and filled it with the contents of his flask. He raised an eyebrow and favored Wolf with a knowing smile.

            “This, my son, is the proper quantity of alcohol to add to make a potent potable. Strong enough to enjoy tonight, yet weak enough to bear no regrets the next morning.”

            “I see,” Wolf said with a wry grin. “Thanks for the demonstration.” They watched the black drop of fluid sink through the surrounding water, tendrils of color shedding off its center, allowing the billowing skeins to spread out at the bottom of the glass before diffusing throughout the entire fluid, leaving a dull brown color in its wake.

            “It’s called grog,” Alcuin offered. “It’s derived from Andalusian molasses.”

            “Well, I can’t say I care much for its taste in concentrated form,” Wolf said. “But, regardless, I don’t think I’ll be trying any of that. Looks nasty! Bilgewater would be a better term for your drink. Or latrine run-off.” Wolf laughed, but Alcuin simply frowned.

            “Suit yourself,” he shrugged. “It’s a prudent drink. More for me, I guess. Just don’t ask me for any when we are stuck out in the wilderness or on campaign.”

            Wolf laughed. “Since when are you ever out in the wilderness? Or on campaign? Perhaps next time you can furnish a drink that doesn’t look like watered-down excrement.”

            “Don’t be absurd!” Alcuin spat testily. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like. It matters how it tastes.”

            “I prefer a rich, dark color. Ale is good enough for me.”

            “You don’t need a rich, dark color. Besides, you can’t fight entropy, my son.”

            “Entropy?” Wolf asked, failing to suppress a yawn.

            “Surely you remember theoretical alchemy,” Alcuin chided, a disapproving look invading his countenance.

            “Can’t say that I do… nor do I feel badly about it…”

            “Well, listen carefully then. You remember that black drop of concentrated alcohol a moment ago?”

Wolf nodded, bleary eyed.

“It fell through the water and gradually became less concentrated. Entropy is responsible for this process. It is a measure of disorder. In this case the water and the alcohol. As time moves forward, there are an increasing number of ways of organizing the mixture of the two.”

            “How is this helpful?”

            “There’s a fellow at Aachen University named Johannes Gibbs, a brilliant and promising scholar. He says he can calculate the energy required to take a system, like this mixed drink, and force it back into the drop from whence it came. And can you guess what the energy requirements are …?”

            “Uh, I give up …”

            “Astronomical!”

            Wolf shook his head. “Again, how is this helpful?”

            Alcuin frowned. “You need to look at the applications, the big picture. There are schools of magic that tap into cosmic energy. If we can harness and channel those forces, we can make the impossible, possible! For example, we can take a pond full of dye and squeeze it back into the original drop from whence it came. That in itself is amazing, but one can imagine other applications that are of far greater interest. In medicine, we could prevent an infection from spreading throughout the body of a wounded soldier – we could force it back to the source of the wound and remove it.”

            “Yeah … that would be useful.”

            “Or we could take a fire and force it back to the original spark that birthed it. Think of the implications. For warfare. For fire-protection. And these are just two examples …”

            “Yes. You’ve made your point. I can see why you’re excited. I’ll tell you what – next time I’m in Aachen I’ll look up your friend … Doctor Gibb.”

            “Grandmaster Gibb,” Alcuin corrected, unsure if Wolf had responded in earnest. “He’s an accomplished alchemist, and a decent man I’m happy to call my friend.”

            Wolf laughed. “You were always a stickler for details. A collector of trifles.”

            “My friend, as I’ve said many times, it is the trifles that are often the most telling finds of an investigation.”

            Wolf smiled, recognizing the famous words that many claimed were Alcuin’s mantra. Then his face fell, and he looked at his master with a serious expression. “What do you make of all this? The gods, the Oultek, the Nameless One, the Prophecy, the Contest?”

            “Hold on, Wolf. You go too far! We could devote an entire evening to just one of those topics. The logical course of action is to try to understand that which can be understood. The issues of the gods – their motivations, their passions, their reasons for what they do – these things we cannot fathom, nor would we ever want to. We must focus on this world. Leave everything else to them. This is the world we want to improve. We can always dream of the next one. Even hope for the next. But make sure you spend your energy here. That’s the mentality I’ve adopted over the years, and I do my best to live by it – be a good person, honor the gods, but focus on the people, for in life, the people are what is most important.”

            “Always the scholar,” Wolf said. “Well then, tell me this: why were we made? What is our purpose?”

            “I fear you may know more than I concerning that matter, so perhaps you can answer your own question. Did Seydor not tell you about the Oultek? Did he not say they created us, not the gods?”

            “Indeed. He did say that. And a startling discovery it was for me. I would not have believed it were it not for the evidence I held in my hands after our meeting.”

            “Well, there you go,” Alcuin replied. He raised his glass, draining its contents.

            “What do you think about this Supreme Being? This Nameless One?”

            “Well, he must have created the Contest because he thinks it will help him define the nature of Justice,” Alcuin stated. “In the process, he can hopefully answer the question as to why some good people live miserable, wretched lives, while some evil people live glorious, rich ones. Is there a more noble cause than that? For our entire history, we’ve fought petty wars, killing people over the insignificant whims of a few, and for what? So that some family or dynasty can gain more wealth than another? Do people around the globe still not kill each other today because they worship different gods, look different from each other, or harbor slightly different values? Answer!”

            “Yes, yes, you are right, master,” Wolf stammered, seemingly caught off guard by Alcuin’s passionate tirade.

            “Would it not be worth the effort to break people out of this cycle of oppression? To show that living with Justice is best for everyone? Would it not be a worthy endeavor to prove that it is better to be a just person than an unjust one?  Would it not be best to provide a logical argument to the masses and show them that it is really in their best interest to behave properly and do the right thing, instead of threatening to punish them in the fires of Helle should they fail to comply? What say you?”

            “I concur,” Wolf agreed.

            “There is no philosophical problem more important to solve than the issue of Justice – it is the one thing that unites all humanity. Every society values it; and its solution transcends religion and history. We judge ages past by the decisions they made according to their concepts of Justice. But what is Justice? Kanavorus, the Taker, would argue that it is the advantage of the stronger – using force to back ideals. But does might really make right? If Justice is acting in ways that elevate or uphold a tyrant, are there not times when the tyrant may make mistakes and act in ways that do not uphold him? What happens when he raises taxes too high and causes his people to revolt? His actions would not have resulted in his best interest; therefore, Justice is clearly not simply the advantage of the stronger. In contrast, Sylvana, the Giver, might say Justice is giving each person what they deserve. But is it right to return borrowed weapons to a friend, if that friend has since gone mad and could possibly harm others? In that case, would giving everyone what they deserve be Justice?”

            Wolf exhaled. “Yeah, I get it. Justice is a complex topic. I can see now why the Nameless One created the Contest to help fathom its meaning.”

Somewhere a clock chimed within the building, its hollow, sonorous note ringing throughout the hallways, a nocturnal message for the listening pleasure of the few still awake at this hour.

            Alcuin sighed. “We’ve been talking a while. We really ought to get some sleep. There’s been enough rumination for one night.

            “As usual, your words hold much wisdom,” Wolf began. “And, as usual, I will not heed them.” He laughed softly, a playful look of mirth settling upon his tired eyes.

            “Well, some things never change. Perhaps we can take comfort in that. Advice is easily given, yet seldom easily taken.”

            “Yeah, I will get some rest eventually. But for now, I’d like to look over the Prophecy once more before I retire. There are notes I want to make before I forget them. I’m sure you can relate; it’s easy to have brilliant thoughts and ideas evaporate before you can record them. Doesn’t seem to matter how much you promise yourself that you’ll remember the next day, if you don’t write them down then and there, you are …”

 Wolf’s voice trailed away.

            “What is it?” Alcuin whispered, instinct forcing him to drop his voice. He knew his friend well. Something was wrong.

            “A cloaked fellow entered the back of the building, and he didn’t use the door. Saw him watching the Inn earlier too. And besides the fact that a window is not a proper method for entering a building after midnight, his choice of attire troubles me. A hooded garment on a sweltering night only serves one purpose – concealment.”

            “What are you going to do?” Alcuin whispered.

            “I don’t think he’s noticed us. He’s heading up the stairs. If he came here to find someone, he would’ve checked the ledger. Of course, he may already know their room number through bribery or subterfuge. Let’s follow and see where he goes.”

            “Should we wake the Innkeeper? He could summon the Watch.”

            “There’s no time.  Besides, I saw the man stone drunk at the front door earlier. He’ll be of little help.”

            Alcuin nodded. Although the night was frightfully warm, a cold sweat gathered upon his brow. More accustomed to living as a man of thought rather than as a man of action, he would follow Wolf and hope they were playing a reasonable hand.

            Is it possible the enemy has already learned about Wolf’s role in the Contest and sent an assassin to kill him? “Be careful,” Alcuin whispered to his friend.

            “We’re just gathering information,” Wolf replied. “At the very least, we’re helping the Innkeeper. He doesn’t want any trouble in his establishment.”

            Alcuin nodded and trailed his student. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the stairs groaned plaintively under their combined weight. Wolf flattened his back against the wall of the stairwell. When he reached the top of the stairs, he turned the corner.

 

Author Notes Chapter is written from Alcuin's point of view. Let me know if more interiority is needed. Does the reader have a good sense of Alcuin? Does he seem like an aging academic with a playful nature?
Thank you.


Chapter 36
A Nocturnal Visitor

By duaneculbertson

Alcuin nodded. Although the night was frightfully warm, a cold sweat gathered upon his brow. More accustomed to living as a man of thought rather than as a man of action, he would follow Wolf and hope they were playing a reasonable hand.
 
            Is it possible the enemy has already learned about Wolf’s role in the Contest and sent an assassin to kill him? “Be careful,” Alcuin whispered to his friend.
 
            “We’re just gathering information,” Wolf replied. “At the very least, we’re helping the Innkeeper. He doesn’t want any trouble in his establishment.”
 
            Alcuin nodded and trailed his student. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the stairs groaned plaintively under their combined weight. Wolf flattened his back against the wall of the stairwell. When he reached the top of the stairs, he turned the corner.
 
A blur of motion is all Alcuin saw. He heard a dull thud and watched Wolf drop to one knee, cradling his head.
 
            “Help!” yelled Alcuin. Terror seized him as the cloaked figure stepped forward. His hood fell back, revealing a rough-looking fellow. He smiled before kicking Alcuin in the chest. The scholar’s arms flailed, as he tumbled backwards, falling down the stairs. He rolled to a painful stop, but nevertheless scrambled to his feet, and with an agility remarkable for someone his age, dashed up the stairs again. In an instant, he was beside Wolf. Loud footfalls resonated down the hallway and Alcuin turned just in time to see two feet diving through a window at the far end.
 
            “Are you okay?” Alcuin asked. Wolf could not speak. Wincing in pain, his friend merely pointed down the hall. Understanding his meaning, Alcuin ran to the window. Placing both hands on the sill, he peered down into the courtyard below. A cart of straw sat idle. That was all. The man was nowhere to be seen.
 
The scoundrel must have been watching the Inn, for he would not have jumped through an open window without looking first. Alcuin felt his anger rising. He and Wolf had been duped by this fellow, yet he blamed himself for their carelessness. They should have taken more precautions, and he should have insisted.
 
            The Innkeeper ran up the stairs wielding a blackjack. He had bleary, bloodshot eyes and his breath reeked of alcohol.
 
            “What’s all this then?” he shouted.
 
            “An intruder,” Alcuin said. “He made his escape out the window.”
 
            Locks started turning, followed by heads sprouting from doorways.
 
            “Well, I lock the building before I turn in for the night,” slurred the Innkeeper. “Man the front door too with keen vigilantz! You sure you ain’t ‘magin’n things here? No hard feelins if you were. I mean, could he have just been a ghost or sumthin?”
 
“Look at my friend,” Alcuin chided. “You think a ghost did that!” An unsightly mouse blossomed on Wolf’s forehead, the ugly knot looking horrific even in the poor light offered by the wall-mounted lanterns. Spectators gathered around the three men. Many asked questions, and Alcuin could sense the Innkeeper’s anxiety rising.
 
“One of you must’ve forgotten to lock the back door,” he said dismissively. “Else he picked the lock. In any case, you all got new locks on your doors. Well-rated, good ones. They’ll keep you safe should the dastard be foolish ‘nuff to come back.”
 
            “Maybe, you need better locks for your establishment,” Wolf growled. He touched his head where the mouse was growing and winced in pain.
 
            “Maybe I need better customers!” challenged the Innkeeper. “Been a long time since trouble came to this ‘stablishment. You folk are the queer ones. Last night you were bleeding all over the place. Tonight, you’re running around chasing phantoms.”
 
Sigfried appeared with a knife in his hand. “What’s going on?”
 
            “Everything’s fine, Sigfried,” Wolf said calmly. Reaching into his pocket, he tossed the Innkeeper a denarius.
 
            The man shot Wolf a stern glance, then softened. “You want me to call the Watch?”
 
            “No,” Wolf replied. “I could use some ice, though.”
 
            “Done.” The Innkeeper ran off to comply with his request. By this time, a dozen people milled about the hallway demanding to know what had happened. Some had even wandered down from the third floor; Virriel was one of these.
 
“Nothing to see, people,” Alcuin said calmly. “A burglar. He’s gone now.”
 
            Virriel approached Wolf. She wore a thin cotton shift and smelt of lavender. His eyes were blurry with pain, yet he could not help noticing that she looked lovely. She had brushed out her hair, and if she had been sleeping, she showed no signs of it.
 
            “Are you okay?” she asked. “What happened?”
 
            “An intruder. I followed him, but he got the jump on me. Normally, I can sense danger … but this time …” Wolf’s voice trailed off.
 
            “Perhaps he was a cool fellow,” suggested Alcuin. “I don’t pretend to know how your animal instincts work, but maybe it has something to do with the beating of his heart. An assassin or other professional thinks nothing of danger. They may even enjoy what they do, but most understand the value of keeping their cool. That rogue sure did. A cheeky fellow. He even smirked at me before kicking me down the stairs.”
 
            “I’ll see what I can do for both of you before we go back to sleep,” Virriel offered. “Or return to whatever the green groves of Glendor you were up to.” She looked at Wolf’s scalp wound, twisting her lip and furrowing her brow. “Well, I’ve seen worse. What did he hit you with?”
 
            “Not sure,” Wolf groaned. “Felt like a sack of lead.” He passed his hand gingerly over the wound. “Swung vigorously, I imagine,” he added.
 
            “Our mysterious visitor must want you alive,” remarked Alcuin. “Otherwise, he would have stabbed you instead. And I think I know how he bested you. That brass lantern over there sitting on the recessed lintel over the storage room. Its curved surface is just large enough to see someone coming up the stairs from his vantage point in its reflection.”
 
            Wolf nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right. That would explain how he knew when I would spring around the corner. Too bad I did not use it to see him.”
 
            “We must be vigilant from now on,” Virriel stated. “We have no idea who these people are or what motivates them. We must be on alert. Others could be hunting us … all of us.”
 
            “A bit paranoid. Don’t you think?” Demelza said, chiming in from over the elf’s shoulder. She had wandered down from the third floor brandishing her mace. “I mean, he could’ve just been a thief acting alone.”
 
            “I recognized him,” Wolf volunteered. “He was watching the Inn earlier.”
 
            “All the better, then,” Demelza said. “We’ll be ready if he comes back. Everyone needs to lock their doors with extra care tonight. Use barricades, if possible. I’ll sleep with my feet blocking the door’s entrance, so he won’t slip past me.”
 
            “I doubt he’ll return tonight,” Alcuin remarked. “And tomorrow we must find another place to stay.”
 
            “Agreed,” Wolf said. “Everyone needs to pack their items and be ready to go before first light. It’ll be safest if we choose another place at random. Now we all need to get some sleep. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow.”
 
            Alcuin noticed Ketri was absent. “Where’s the other dwarf… and the fat man?”
 
            “Probably where I left ‘em,” stated Demelza.
 
            Alcuin and Wolf followed her back to her room. Incredibly they found Ralf and Ketri fast asleep, both snoring loudly.
 
            “They will make poor sentries,” Alcuin chuckled. “An intruder comes into our midst, clubs one of us, runs down a hallway, and despite all the yelling and frantic conversations, those two managed to sleep through it all. Amazing!”
 
“Gift or curse?” Wolf muttered, shaking his head. “I know not, but that is most remarkable.”

 


Chapter 37
A Trek to Destiny

By duaneculbertson

            “Come with us,” Wolf begged.

            “No,” Alcuin said. “I’m not as spry as I once was. I can’t just shrug off a tumble down the stairs. Not at my age. My body aches. Look, I’m already bruising like a dropped apple.”

Alcuin rolled up his sleeves revealing arms empurpled by tumescent welts. Wolf adopted a sympathetic frown. He felt badly for his friend yet could not hide his own selfish disappointment. Not having him by his side was a major blow. Alcuin recognized his friend’s dismay and seemed eager to convince him that his planned course of action was for the best.

            “Please be kind enough to acknowledge this, Wolf,” he said. “I’m an old man. My time will be better spent searching for new lodgings and studying the Prophecy. I’ll communicate as before by leaving notes on the market obelisk.”

            Wolf sighed. “I know. Your words hold wisdom.” He smiled warmly at his friend. “At least, take the ring though. You will be in a better position to recruit others, and I trust your judgement.”

            “I’ll keep it safe.”

            Wolf handed him the ring. Alcuin placed it in a locket on a chain and put it around his neck beneath his robe.

            They smiled at each other. Since they had settled their accounts, nothing remained to do at the Lucky Shoe. It was time to go. Wolf addressed the others milling about in front of the tavern. “Form up, people! We’re leaving now.”

On foot, the Stoneseekers made their way to Chancellor Olivejem’s estate in the pre-dawn darkness. Alcuin’s decision not to accompany them was sound, but Wolf would miss him all the same, especially since the wise man could see things that would remain hidden to others. On this occasion they would just have to do without his keen mental faculties.

            Wolf knew next to nothing about the Chancellor, and he had even spent time at the Royal Court, where gossip was traded like currency. It was strange that one so elevated within the government could have no rumors circulating about his personal life. Servants always had loose tongues, and even the most trusted could be bribed for scandalous information. Not so with this man. It was said he held a ball once a year yet did not even preside over the event, rarely showing his face for more than ten minutes. Unlike other politicians, the common folk knew little about the one who ruled over them. For many decades, the only consensus held by those living throughout the province was that people who crossed the Chancellor did not fare well, especially those found guilty of criminal acts, the poor wretches often perishing by cruel, agonizing means.

            Wolf had donned a clean shirt that morning, hoping to make a favorable impression. Unfortunately, the long walk was negating this intention. Although the sun had yet to rise, already the heat was oppressive, the night hours insufficient to dissipate the copious heat stored in the giant paving stones lining the street. At one point along the way, Wolf stopped to satisfy his curiosity and checked his theory. Indeed, he felt the stones with his hand; they were still warm, despite the sun’s long absence.
 
Wolf had been prudent enough to wear a white shirt that would be less likely to show the stains of salt deposits. His leather boots still retained their polish, and the rest of his outfit remained clean. He had skillfully managed to avoid the nightsoil from the previous evening. Demelza had not been so lucky. On more than a few occasions, she stepped poorly, and a slew of imprecations would pierce the air, much to the amusement of others. Usually, the oaths were muttered in the dwarven tongue, which tickled the others with their foreign sounds, although occasionally bristling Wolf and Ketri, who often exchanged shocked glances. Wolf hoped Demelza was merely not used to minding her steps while traversing a human city, and that her misfortune was not caused by poor agility or a dangerous lack of situational awareness.

            “Shistra!” Demelza swore yet again. “What kind of place allows their people to cast dung into the street?!”

            The others laughed again, although those within her reach laughed less loudly.

            “It’s just our way,” replied Wolf. “City servants, affectionately known as muckrakers, will be along to cart it away. It’s still early, so …watch your step.” He winked at her, but she simply stared straight ahead, ignoring his attempt at humoring her.

            As they made their way to the Olivejem Estate, the streets became more affluent with every turn. Higher quality, more expensive materials were used in the buildings, and the technical skill required for their design and construction sat at a pinnacle where utility combined with art. Thatched rooves were long gone now, replaced by crenulated rooftops, an ostentatious status symbol with no other purpose than to inform people that those dwelling within belonged to the highest stratum of society. Some domiciles even boasted brick facades and featured stone sculptures, whimsical carvings of animals or, in some cases, mythical beasts. Wolf wondered if he would see any of the creatures in real life before his journey ended. Looking at a stature of a manticore, he hoped he would not.

            As they entered Malden Heights, they crested a hill and could see their destination. Trees dotted the urban landscape, running along footpaths. Wolf sensed that tranquility was the status quo here. It was not possible that any crime would be tolerated in this area. It was likely the district was well-patrolled by the Watch, and anyone out of the ordinary would probably be questioned or asked to leave. Instead of treading on cobblestones, they walked along only the finest flagstones.

Wolf recalled hearing that this was strictly a residential area. Businesses were prohibited from building within a stone’s throw of the district, the nobility much preferring the song of birds and waves crashing a thousand feet below over the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer.

The district had the first taste of the aqueduct as well, and even in these arid times no restrictions barred residents from powering their fountains or irrigating their luscious gardens. Although royalty himself, Wolf found the setting more opulent than any he had ever known, except for his grandfather’s castle. The fulsome display embarrassed him, especially considering the abject poverty he had seen the night before, not more than a few furlongs to the South. It was clear to everyone that those holding power in the ancient capital believed in flaunting their wealth, rather than sharing it.

Still, social commentary aside, Wolf appreciated the aesthetics. Harmony and beauty abounded. Everywhere the illusion of space prevailed thanks to the artificial construct of zoning laws governing the Heights. Even the air smelled sweeter. Wolf paused and took a long breath.

            Ketri drew alongside him and stopped to admire the Chancellor’s residence.

            “Zwhol! They got nothing like that where I’m from,” she remarked. “The buildings are sturdy – to be sure, probably stay up for a thousand years – but they aren’t much to look at. This place is breathtaking. I never knew a city could look so nice.”

            “Yes,” Wolf concurred. “I’m sure most citizens never come here. It is a secret haven for the rich. No businesses allowed. No reasons for merchants to congregate. Or for people to pass through these parts. I would not be surprised if they had their own private Watch ordered to keep non-residents away.”

            “Can’t blame ‘em. I wouldn’t want commoners stopping by, if I owned this place. To tell the truth, I’d never leave. Just have my servants get whatever I needed from the market. Looks like they got their own gardens too. Probably have their own cooks as well.”  Wolf thought he heard the dwarf’s stomach rumble. It made him smile.

            “Where are we going anyway?” she asked.

            Wolf pointed straight ahead. The mansion loomed over a high hill. So imposing was the estate it looked like a fortress. Four stories of brick and wood stood as a glorious testament to modern architecture and engineering. Rumors had always spoken of vast interconnected wine cellars in Malden Heights. Wolf wondered if it were true.

            Ketri whistled her appreciation.

            “Indeed, feisty dwarf,” Wolf responded. “Let’s keep moving. Not much further.”

            Sigfried lagged. Despite his enthusiasm last night, his body struggled to detoxify the previous evening’s debauchery. A green pallor infused his face, and copious perspiration gathered upon his brow.

Virriel withdrew a waterskin and a ceramic mug from her purse. She poured the former into the latter, then added herb and some tiny, white stones. She waved her hand over the mixture and uttered a phrase. The concoction boiled briefly then subsided. She approached Sigfried and handed him a steaming mug containing an amber fluid.

            “What’s this?” he asked groggily.

            “It’s an herbal chai. It will sooth your head and restore your appetite.”
       
            “What’s in it?”

            “Mentha spicata.”

            Bleary eyed, he cast her a blank stare.

            “Spearmint,” she reassured.

            “Ah,” he nodded. He sniffed the contents and gulped down the aromatic liquid.

            “Mind the boiling stones. It would not do to have those inside you if anyone in the area were to cast the spell to reheat them.”

            Sigfried returned mug and stones to Virriel.

“Thanks, milady,” he said, smiling. “Feel much better already.”

Wolf found her kindness endearing. For someone living on her own in the forests, she had quite a giving heart. It impressed him.

            “Guess it pays to have an herbalist as a friend,” Ralf interjected. “I’m surprised. Such knowledge is rare in women.”

His careless remark seemed to ignite Virriel.

“Listen, you lunk!” Virriel retorted. “There are more women serving as herbalists than men. You’d know this if you ever bothered to leave your barge and visit the forest communities.”

“Looks like she helped you find your place,” Sigfried said, laughing. Even the dwarves smirked at the elf’s fiery retort.

“Well … the only ones I’ve ever met were men,” Ralf stammered.

“Probably still are men, I imagine. In future, you’d do well to think before making broad statements on topics of which you know little.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I meant no harm. I find the healing arts fascinating. I once knew a man who healed another of Vorcander.”

            “Yes, you’d be surprised at all the miracles an herbalist can perform. Many take their knowledge to the cities where the money is better. Some specialize in specific disciplines such as dermatology. I know of one such person in Malden. If you’d like, I can make an introduction on your behalf.”

            “Uh, that’s okay,” Ralf said, blushing.
 
            Wolf led the procession to the mansion at a brisker pace. Now that he could see his goal, he was eager to reach it. Virriel seemed accustomed to this type of early morning exercise. Her toned, athletic body supported this assertion. She climbed the steep hills of Malden Heights with regular ease, bright and alert. The others looked less disciplined. Until today, Ralf had most likely been his own master, rising whenever he felt like it. Demelza was a hardened warrior, but for the past fortnight Wolf knew she had kept Sigfried’s hours, which were probably random at best. Ketri did not seem overly affected by the early hour, but her face bore a perpetual scowl which made it difficult to ascertain her true feelings.

            When they were within a stone’s throw of the mansion, Virriel barked out instructions. “Remember,” she coached. “We speak nothing of the Stonequest. We’re a party of mercenaries looking for work. That’s all. Wolf will do all the talking, and don’t draw unnecessary attention or do anything out of the ordinary.”

            Wolf cast Virriel an affirming nod, impressed with the staccato fashion with which she had given her orders. It reminded him of his military days. He smiled.
Perhaps the elf did know a thing or two about leadership.

            As the first rays of dawn peered over the horizon, Wolf’s Stoneseekers reached the wall surrounding the chancellor’s compound. Metal spikes bristled atop the concrete surface, dissuading intruders in case the height of two men failed to provide enough of a  deterrent. With the appearance of daybreak, livery-clad servants sprang to life. They scurried to complete their early-morning duties. Some carried chamber pots to the gardens. Others drew water from wells. A cook whistled a tune as he unburdened a delivery cart of milk, bread, cheese, fresh fruit, and meats. Overheard, gilded shutters clattered open to admit the air of another day.

Wolf led his team through the imposing black gates of iron, carefully wrought in a manner which gave an artistic appearance even to this base metal. To his horror, he discovered a courtyard packed with people.

            Virriel’s mouth dropped open. “Oh no!”

            “Shistra!” Wolf swore. “This will not do!” Despite getting there at dawn, they’d been beaten to the Chancellor’s house by scores of other applicants. Wolf could not believe how many showed up. It was impossible.


Chapter 38
Finding a Way

By duaneculbertson

“What now?” asked Demelza.

“We wait,” Ketri remarked flatly.

Dozens gathered in groups. Most milled about the grand entrance. Some glanced at the newcomers with casual interest, but most took no notice. Many sat upon the marble balustrade leading to a sprawling multi-tiered staircase. Others lounged on the stairway itself. Some played dice to pass the time. Although still early, the oppressive heat of the day lost no time in making its presence felt, lending an air of lethargy and inertia to the proceedings as prospective applicants awaited admission.

A roguish fellow with long, lank hair entertained a small party. He hailed them as they passed but was ignored.

            Good, they’re keeping quiet as instructed.

            “Let me handle this,” Virriel stated.

Wolf sighed. “Go ahead. We could use a miracle. Put our name in with the old man up there; he must be in charge – he’s dressed in livery. Maybe you can charm him into admitting us first.”

Virriel pushed her way through the crowd, which parted like a living sea.

            “Are all chancellors this wealthy?” Ketri asked.

Having been raised in their own society, the dwarves knew little of the Empire. Aachen had dwarven ambassadors, but dealings between humans and dwarves were rare.

            “Anyone who has the Emperor’s ear is bound to accumulate wealth,” Wolf said. “But other chancellors I’ve known were not nearly this wealthy. Maybe his money does not derive from his office. Maybe he started out rich.”

“What do you mean, you’ve known?” Ketri asked. “How many chancellors have you met?”

Wolf faltered a moment. “Uh, I’ve heard stories. That’s all. I’ve a friend in the government. He keeps me well-informed.”

Sigfried cast Wolf a sidelong glance, but the latter managed to avoid his gaze.

Ketri appeared genuinely interested and urged Wolf to continue.

            “Most chancellors are selected from the aristocracy,” Wolf blurted, anxious to recover his misstep. “The majority hail from Aachen, though I believe the current High Chancellor was born in the provinces …”

Wolf paused, and the others followed his gaze. He saw Virriel disappear into the building.

What was she doing? Could she really be making progress?

            “Where’d Virriel go?” Sigfried asked. “She have a plan?”

            “I’m sure she does,” Wolf replied. “Though what it is, I know not.”

Ketri spoke with Demelza, but the taller dwarf had grown sleepy, acknowledging her only with monosyllabic grunts born out of perfunctory politeness.

            “Diamond Sickness!!” someone shouted.

More voices took up the call, and the cry rang out with greater intensity. Wolf spotted Virriel atop the staircase, and his heart skipped a beat. Specks of blood dappled her face and arms. She screeched and dropped to her knees, as a score of rats ran past her. They bounded down the steps in a repulsive, greasy wave, chirping angrily, a pitter-patter of feet marking their progress. Wolf could not believe his eyes.

Demelza went white as a sheet. She pushed past Wolf, jumped the balustrade, and climbed atop the base of a large garden statue. This unexpected behavior from such a battle-hardened warrior was almost as disturbing as the repulsive spectacle itself. Wolf noted it, then turned back to watch the chaotic drama unfold. Like Demelza, the solicitors shrank back with horror and tried to flee. Differing reaction times and levels of urgency created a logjam, and a stampede ensued.

Wolf pulled his team aside, as the frantic horde bolted for the gates. Men and women trampled each other, those regaining their footing hobbling wild-eyed for the exit. None were content with stopping at the gates though, and the panicked mob surged downhill.

            The roguish man cackled maniacally, standing opposite Wolf on the other side of the human river. His dozen associates were oddly impassive, as if they had seen this kind of thing before.

            “Bravo! Bravo!” the man shouted, doubling over in a fit of laughter.

            The few remaining applicants crept forward.

            Using a cloth, Virriel wiped blood from her face and arms. She smiled at Wolf’s approach. An old man of austere bearing stood at attention. Clad in the house livery he appeared none too pleased but was too dignified to comment.

            “I believe we are next?” Virriel said triumphantly.

            “Actually, that gentleman was here long before you,” the steward spat.

            “Archenon’s the name,” said the man. He bowed before Virriel, took her arm, and placed a kiss firmly upon her hand. Wolf frowned his disapproval, thinking the man lingered upon Virriel’s arm for far too long. "Never have I seen such a fine ruse carried out with such skill and accomplished by so fine a lady.”

            “Virriel,” the elf said, blushing.

            “Charmed,” he continued. “And what the man says is indeed true. I was here first. However, I am so taken with your artful display that I’m going to grant you passage. Make the best of it.”

            Virriel’s mouth dropped open. “Kind sir, if you are speaking seriously, we are most indebted to you. We humbly accept your generous offer.”

            Archenon favored her with an alluring smile, “I beseech thee, fair maiden – do not balk at my hospitality. I am in earnest. Accept it with grace and poise as maidens of your ilk are want to do.”

            “Well said, sir. That’s most gallant of you. We shall not forget what you have done today.” Virriel bowed and turned to the steward.

            The dwarves offered their thanks as well, fawning over the mysterious stranger as Virriel had done. They both stumbled through their own awkward introductions, their praise so effusive that Ralf felt compelled to push them along their way. Wolf thanked him with his eyes, nodding his approval.

            Sigfried tried to walk past, but Archenon stuck out his arm.

            “Wait, son. Don’t I know you?”

            “Doubt it,” Sigfried muttered. “Never seen you before.”

            “Yes, I’m certain of it. I’ve a knack for faces. Never forget one, especially a handsome one. You were relaxing on a velvet couch in a wine cellar, a dark-haired girl upon your arm. Geisterstadt I believe … or Eppendorf. I don’t see her with you now. Where is she? You haven’t lost her, have you?”

            Sigfried paled. “Wrong person,” he said, waving him away. “It’s a big world.”

            “Yes,” Archenon goaded. “One of vice and beauty .”

            The words had a galvanic effect upon the young man. Shuddering, he quickly pushed past Archenon and strode after the others.

Wolf eyed Archenon with suspicion. He shook the hand offered with reluctance.

            “Such a noble brow, good sir,” Archenon began. “A most charming jawline too. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were royalty. But then I see the Roadwarden uniform. No one with aspirations to sit upon the throne would be caught dead wearing such a garment.”

Wolf paled visibly, and an unsettling feeling sank to the bottom of his stomach; Archenon laughed heartily. In doing so, his silk cravat slipped about his neck revealing a curious birthmark – two ‘v’ shapes, one nesting atop the other. Wolf had a vague recollection of seeing something like that before but was too distracted by the craggy face smiling at him to divine its origin.

An aura seemed to surround this strange man; one that led to irresistible attraction. The dissonance caused by the irrational draw combined with his instinctual trepidation, forced Wolf to avert his gaze. Instead, he glanced over the man’s shoulder to regard the peak of the Stahlbrenhoch.

            Archenon followed his gaze.

            “Ah, the Stahlbrenhoch. Truly a fine sight. When I first moved here, I would rise early just to watch the mists surrounding the peak burn away as the sun made its way aloft. ‘Tis grand fortune to meet a kindred spirit. Perhaps we ‘av more in common than you think.”

            “Unlikely,” Wolf said.

            Archenon appeared not to notice the tone of Wolf’s comment and continued undaunted. “An appreciation for Nature is something lacking in the youth these days. Indeed, not just the youth. In most people. Everyone’s so pedestrian, so mundane. Most people are oblivious to the wonders around them. Oblivious to that which lurks beneath the surface. Unwilling to peel away the first layer of the onion. Either unaware, else too lazy to follow through and do what it takes to see the beauty, the truth.”

            Archenon responded to Wolf’s perplexed expression. “Oh? Perhaps you are unaware the Stahlbrenhoch was once an active volcano? In a bygone era, fire and brimstone threatened those unfortunate enough to have built upon its slopes. Don’t know why our ancestors founded Malden here in the first place. A rocky promontory overlooking the sea is not the best place for a city.”

            “I disagree," Wolf retored. "Building upon a rocky bluff offers natural defenses, and the location supports a thriving fishing industry and provides a harbor for our navy. Regarding your first point though, I know our history quite well. I am well-aware the mountain was once a volcano, but it has been dormant since the founding of Malden, literally thousands of years ago. Basalt veins run deep to support the tallest of our buildings, so the city is well anchored."

            “Aye. That’s true. But have we not seen incredible things become commonplace? Storms killing thousands now sweep across the land with alarming frequency marking their passage with utter devastation. Such events prove that things that sleep may easily be disturbed. Inner peace is an illusion. ‘Tis true for mountains … ‘tis true for men.”

“Indeed. Well, thank you for your hospitality. As for your allegations regarding my noble appearance, your words are most kind, but woefully inaccurate. I assure you I am far from royalty…”

“If you say so,” Archenon interrupted. “I feel you sell yourself short.”

“I’m just looking for honest work. I was discharged recently from the Roadwardens. Wearing the jacket is a habit. One that is hard to break.”

            “Aye! Habits are  hard to break … And only with utmost difficulty is one able to shed those that bring pleasure. This is well-illustrated by the man who knows that his best interests lie in avoiding such pleasure, yet he still cannot resist. Well aware his vices are slowly killing him, he nevertheless plods inexorably towards his own doom. But such is life. You need only visit any gambling house or brothel to see what I mean.”

            “Spoken like a true sage,” Wolf replied in a glib tone. “Well, I’d love to speak further, but I must rejoin my companions. Please be so kind and allow me to take my leave, and good luck with whatever you decide to do and wherever fortune takes you. One day I’m sure you’ll be well-rewarded for your charity.”

            “Aye. Charity … let’s call it that. In my world actions have consequences. Positive actions bring positive consequences. Negative actions bring unfavorable ones. Quite simple, really.”

Archenon spoke as if he had seen much in life, yet his long chestnut hair bore no signs of gray. Swept to one side, he wore it disheveled with an implied petulance marking him as a rogue. His presence would be unwelcomed at court; nobles and other courtiers speaking High Etrurian would never deign acknowledge such a man. His attire was unrefined as well, vaguely military, his uniform a curious patchwork of different, and sometimes opposing, military factions. Vanadian runes even adorned the leather sash across his chest, a fashion statement bordering on treason. He’d probably spent his life as a mercenary. His penchant for cobbling uniforms together was probably just his way of marking the milestones of his career. To test this theory, Wolf threw the crossed gauntlets salute before departing. Archenon returned the gesture, although he did so with a twinkle in his eye, as if amused. Wolf turned to follow the others.

“May you have good fortune…”

“Thank you,” Wolf replied over his shoulder. “We will not fail.”

“Excellent,” Archenon chuckled. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
 
Wolf jogged through a garden promenade to catch up with the others. Ahead, the steward led them up another staircase. Ketri hopped over the penultimate step at the top. The peculiar movement caught Wolf’s eye.

“You, okay?” he asked her.

“Just a twitch in my knee,” Ketri muttered. “An old wound. I’ve been kickin’ so much ass the joint’s been complaining.”

“Will it interfere with your performance?”

“Nothing interferes with that!” she spat. She followed her remark with a smile and a nervous laugh.

“No, I can’t imagine anything does,” Wolf replied. He returned her smile with an ardent one of his own.

As they approached the entry to the mansion, the watchful eye of a chained mastiff followed their progress. With its hackles raised in anger, it growled with increasing vehemence the closer their proximity. The beast ignored Virriel but was eager to display its hatred for the others. Three feet at the withers, it posed a daunting sentinel. The steward did little to mollify the fears of his guests as they drew ever nearer. Links of chain lay coiled in a heap, making it difficult to estimate the tether’s ultimate length, a topic for Wolf that held great interest. At the last second, the steward uttered a command, and the hound adopted a state of deceptive docility.

            “May I help you?” he asked, as if meeting them for the first time.

            “We’re here to see the Chancellor about his offer,” said Wolf.

            “Of course,” replied the steward, managing a tone of condescension. “Your arrival is not unexpected, though your method of gaining an audience with his Excellency is somewhat … unorthodox. Some might say bordering on the obscene.”

            “Sorry,” Virriel offered. “We really need to see the Chancellor.”

            “Very good, madam,” said the steward. “What are your names?”

            “Virriel. V-I-R-R-I-E-L. From Glendor Forest.”

            “Ketri Greathammer!” barked the dwarf. “That’s K-E-T-R-I, but it’s pronounced Key-tree. As in something to unlock a door, and something to make a door out of.” The steward’s stony face registered no emotion, but he stared with icy politeness to give her the impression that he cared about what she was saying.

            “Ithrunbrekher!” declared Demelza. Ketri raised an eyebrow in admiration, but the steward only looked up from his writing with an annoyed expression.

            “It’s dwarven,” volunteered Wolf. “It’s pronounced ‘Ithrunbekher’, but fortunately the spelling’s rather simple. It’s D-E-M-E-L-Z-A.”

            Demelza scowled at Wolf, but he returned her gaze with his own look of daggers causing her to wither and shy away. He had no idea how she had received the whimsical name “sword-breaker”, but he did not appreciate the unnecessary hinderance to their goal of entering the compound. He would have a chat with her later.

            “Zigfried Aurelius Eddington the Third,” announced Sigfried.

            “Sigfried, will do nicely,” Wolf interjected swiftly, shaking his head at the boy.
            What the Helle is wrong with these people? We are supposed to be mercenaries, not a circus act!

            “Magnus Smith,” said Ralf.

            Sure. Might as well happen. Wolf nearly blushed as he realized he was about to give a false name too. The Kantwohner name was too distinguished and could be recognized, especially by the Chancellor. At least he had a good reason to lie. He wondered what excuses the others had.

            “Max Watermill,” Wolf said, avoiding everyone’s eyes.

            When the steward finished writing Wolf’s alias in the ledger, he led the Stoneseekers inside to wait in a spacious salon. As soon as he disappeared, the others swarmed Virriel, their faces beaming.

            “That was fantastic!” praised Sigfried. “How did you manage such a stunt?”

            “I have some slight dominion over small creatures,” she replied, taking a moment to bask in their delight. “Rats are not born of the forest, but they heard my call just the same. In a house this large, it did not take long to gather quite a few of them. To my surprise, dozens answered my call. I gave them one command – run forward. Thankfully, they obeyed.”

            “What pretense did you give to enter the house?” asked Wolf.

            “I told the steward I wanted to fill my waterskin at the fountain. Believe me, at first, he wasn’t having any of it. I chanced to notice his gums were bleeding and gave him a nostrum to make it right. After that, he felt compelled to reciprocate and let me enter.”

            “And what of the Diamond Sickness?” asked Ralf.

            “One of my herbs causes lesions to form when placed upon the skin. These fill with blood and burst in a matter of minutes, mimicking the symptoms of the disease. I dappled my skin, and the effect was … convincing?”

            Everyone laughed and offered their congratulations. Wolf noticed even the dwarves patted her on the shoulder, a common gesture of appreciation in their culture. As Ralf shook her hand, Wolf shared an appreciative smile with her. Sigfried went in for a hug, but she did not return his embrace, standing woodenly with arms by her sides.

            “A fine performance, Virriel,” Wolf added. “Truly wonderful.”

            “It got the job done. We would’ve been waiting all day. Fortunately, Archenon let us go ahead of him.” A wistful look crossed her features.

            “Yes,” Wolf said. “I don’t like it. It makes no sense.”

            “Perhaps gallantry is not dead.”

            “In my experience it is treachery that never dies.”


Chapter 39
The Proposal

By duaneculbertson

Everyone laughed and offered their congratulations. Wolf noticed even the dwarves patted her on the shoulder, a common gesture of appreciation in their culture. As Ralf shook her hand, Wolf shared an appreciative smile with her. Sigfried went in for a hug, but she did not return his embrace, standing woodenly with arms by her sides.

                “A fine performance, Virriel,” Wolf added. “Truly wonderful.”

                “It got the job done. We would’ve been waiting all day. Fortunately, Archenon let us go ahead of him.” A wistful look crossed her features.

                “Yes,” Wolf said. “I don’t like it. It makes no sense.”

                “Perhaps gallantry is not dead.”

                “In my experience it is treachery that never dies.”

Virriel’s face fell. They turned and watched the others wander throughout the salon. Sigfried reclined on a sofa, his body struggling to detoxify the previous evening. Demelza and Ketri conversed in the Dwarven tongue, but Wolf could not hear what they were saying. Ralf entertained himself by pulling the flowers off a potted plant, forgetting Virriel’s orders to touch nothing.

                Virriel examined the wainscoting surrounding the room. She called Wolf’s attention to the cherry wood paneling.

                “Do you see these strange patterns?”

                “Yes,” Wolf replied. “Most unusual.” Gnarls and swirls in the knotting presented an almost threatening quality. It was odd to see so many, but not unnatural.

                “They look like faces to me,” Virriel commented. “Do you think this was done on purpose?”

                “I see what you mean. It’s possible, though I find it hard to believe anyone would do such a thing.”

                Sigfried rose from the couch to intrude upon their conversation. “Don’t worry, Virriel,” he said. “If any of them make faces at you, I’ll carve them out with my sword.”

                “That’s very kind of you,” she said, humoring the young man. “I’m happy you’re feeling better.”

                Wolf rolled his eyes. He sighed and walked to a different alcove, leaving Sigfried to continue his efforts at flirtation. 

This salon was vast, making him feel like he was at a museum. The furnishings were ostentatious. Gilded suits of armor stood at attention. Swords, shields, and halberds adorned the walls. The white pelt of Ursus Borealis covered an entire section of wall. Symbols of wealth and power, the items drew no interest from Wolf. He imagined the sole purpose of the room was to establish the greatness of the master of the house and wondered if the steward had allowed them to molder there for that very reason.

                The dwarves wandered to opposite sides of the room. Wolf took the opportunity to approach Demelza, addressing her in the Dwarven Tongue.

                “What happened back there, Dem?”

                “What do you mean?”

                “You nearly went to pieces at the sight of those rats. In battle, you must keep your wits at all times.”

                “I don’t need a lecture about conducting yourself in battle. Remember, I saved our asses the other night.”

                “Virriel saved us the other night, but I agree you fought admirably. And with great skill. I just want to know if you have any limitations that could possibly jeopardize our mission.”

                “Look! I don’t like rats! Leave me alone!”

                She brushed past Wolf. He thought of calling her back but decided against it.

Virriel joined him at the alcove, wincing in disgust as she regarded the head of a wolf mounted upon the wall.

                “That’s horrible!” she exclaimed. “A wolf is a hunter. A proud animal. Not a trophy.” Her words echoed from the high-vaulted ceiling.

                Wolf could see the pain in her eyes but feared her outburst could threaten their chances of getting hired.

                “Please, Virriel,” he whispered. “We must not jeopardize our mission. Right now, this is our only lead. We need this!”

                “I know,” she said. “It’s just hard to see one of Mother’s proud creations used as a decoration.”

                Thumping noises sounded behind them. Wolf turned to see Ralf tapping the wooden paneling, searching for concealed cavities.

                “Ralf!” Wolf hissed. “What the Helle are you doing?”

                “Just searching for treasure,” he replied. “There’s gotta be some in this place.” As he turned, he upset a samovar standing on a table. He steadied the porcelain vessel and backed away towards the salon entrance. The mastiff outside was eager to take this opportunity to demonstrate the length of its chain. It rushed Ralf who barely avoided its jaws. Radiating hatred, it barked and snapped ferociously, the cacophony echoing throughout the halls of the mansion.

                Wolf fixed Ralf with an icy stare. As the man turned, he noticed others watching him with similar looks of disdain, their angry eyes more eloquent than a torrent of reproachful words. He recoiled, and, seeking refuge, shrank back to an empty corner.

                A grandfather clock stood near the exit where they had last seen their host. It marked the glacial passage of time, the bronze pendulum ticking with its inexorable rhythm. No one spoke. How long had the steward left them? Wolf knew not, but he could feel the patience of his team waning. Nervous energy began to manifest in the form of foot-tapping, finger cracking, floor pacing and tune humming. Every new sound was met with mounting impatience, as each listener hoped it was a harbinger signaling the steward’s return. Frustration gathered about them like a stagnant pool. Making matters worse was the sweltering heat that could only rise as the sun climbed higher into the sky. As they sweat into their garments, each wished for a breeze that would never come.

                “Is that a relative, Wolf?” Sigfried asked, pointing to the wolf’s head on the wall.

                “Shut up, Sigfried,” he snapped. “But since you are here … and in a talkative mood, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me how Archenon knows you.”

                “I’ve already said,” snapped Sigfried. “He’s mistaken.”

                “Just a coincidence then that he nailed your town of origin and the birthplace of your noble family?”

                “It’s a big world. I don’t have a common face by any means, but I have a face people commonly like to see. Perhaps he imagined someone like me in his dreams. He seemed like the kind of person who would plant his seed on both sides of the field … fallow or fertile.”

                Wolf’s face soured. “One day that mouth of yours--I hear footsteps! The steward’s returning. Everyone be silent.”

His face a mask of propriety, the steward beckoned them to follow. He made no apology, nor gave any explanation for his extraordinary tardiness. He led them through a labyrinth of corridors, and Wolf wondered if he should drop breadcrumbs as in the fable he had enjoyed as a child.

Ralf paused to observe an imposing painting hanging at the end of the hall.  A wolf pack chased a deer through snow-covered woods. As he tried to get everyone’s attention, he bumped into a statue of crystal resting upon a marble pillar. His eyes widened as he watched it fall. With unexpected agility, Demelza dove, catching the item with her stumpy fingers before it could shatter on the carpeted floor. Ralf let out a sigh of relief. A heartbeat later Ketri removed her leather gloves from where she had buckled them to her belt and cuffed him in the back of the head.

                “Fool! Are you trying to ruin this thing before it has even started?” she hissed.

                Wolf threw a menacing glance at Ralf promising dire consequences if he continued his tendency towards unnecessary drama.

                “Sorry,” Ralf mouthed.

They followed the steward into a large study where a middle-aged man sat in a high-backed stuffed leather chair behind a sumptuous writing desk. He did not get up, nor did he acknowledge their presence. Another man, short in stature, fanned him with an enormous, white feather. In all his travels, Wolf had never seen such an item. Spanning four feet, it must have belonged to some exotic bird.

Barefoot, clad in a dun-colored robe, the servant posed a curious specimen. His body curved awkwardly, as if stooped by deformity. An eyepatch fashioned from coarse leather wrapped around his head, matting his greasy, black hair, concealing his left eye. With a toothless grin heralding his inherent stupidly, he regarded the newcomers. Wolf thought he caught a knowing gleam in the man’s eye, betraying his simple façade, but he could not be sure, so swiftly was it replaced by the appearance of a drooling idiot.

With quill in hand, the man sitting behind the desk scribbled upon a fresh sheaf of parchment, diving into the inkwell when necessary. After what seemed like an age, he looked up, yet still said nothing. He sat and stared, examining their faces as if attempting to identify some miscreant in a group of suspects at the behest of a magistrate. His cold gaze lingered long upon Wolf, as if trying to read his thoughts or divine his background. He then tilted his chair, a smug expression upon his face.

                Wolf burned with impatience. Already he despised this man. In the sweltering heat, the knowledge den smelled strongly of papyrus, and he noticed myriad scrolls lining the back wall. An abacus stood on the desk next to a sculpture: a piece of jade carved into an abomination torn from a deranged artist’s twisted imagination or a lunatic’s haunting nightmare. Or perhaps it was something hideous borne of eldritch mythology. Wolf did not care; he could not stand to look at the thing.

                Somewhere a clock chimed the hour, and Wolf bit his lip to avoid sharing the diatribe forming in his mind. He wanted to rail against the rudeness of his host. His blood began to boil. He thought of the pleasure he would derive from throwing the thin, older man against the wall, like he had done with Quendar days before. The obnoxious man finally broke the silence.

                “I am Chancellor Olivejem.”

Wolf drew breath to make his introduction but was cut off.

                “I understand you are responding to my advertisement concerning the recovery of a rare artifact. Is that correct?”

                “Yes, sir” Wolf responded, exercising his willpower to remain cordial.

                “And you lead this group?”

                “I am in charge.” Wolf decided simple answers were best for the moment. It would not do to tell Olivejem he shared the responsibility with another, let alone a woman, let alone an elf.

                “Name?” Olivejem asked.

                “Max Watermill,” he lied.

                “Occupation?”

                “Mercenary, though I was once a roadwarden, solider, and farmer.”

                “Interesting. And how long have you managed this team?”

                “Two years,” he lied.

                “Very well, I will tell you the job.”

                Wolf eyed the crippled man with the giant feather.

                “Oh, you need not worry about Meinos. He’s a simpleton. And loyal as a lapdog. Anything you want to say to me, you can say before him.”

                “I understand,” Wolf replied.

                A voice called from the alcove to the left. “Johannes, your letter concerns me deeply. When the time’s right, we must be twelve. Twelve good men. I’ll not have an idiot among us.”

                Without response, the words hung awkwardly in the air. A man wearing black robes strode into partial view before realizing his blunder. His face flushed to the roots of his sparse gray hair. The Chancellor’s eyes flashed fire. He appeared as one suffering from a fit of apoplexy, or more accurately, like an implacable man struggling to master a raging storm within.

                “Forgive me, sire. I did not realize you were engaged. I shall return.”

The interloper withdrew. The Chancellor took a deep breath and, after a pregnant pause, forced a smile.

Wolf found the man unsettling. Not a trace of warmth bled from his appearance. His thin, gaunt face seemed to hunger for something besides food, the lines creasing it revealing one commanding prodigious mental faculties, reminding him of Alcuin, or the Great Sage. The sunken eyes seemed to search him now, as if attempting to penetrate his soul; Wolf wondered why he had not noticed earlier. Perhaps this unexpected interruption had unsettled the Chancellor, the boiling, inner rage lowering his defenses, exposing the veneer, revealing the harsher surface beneath.

Wolf intuitively disliked this man, and that applied to his knowledge-den as well. Stocked with books and eclectic items poached from all across the Empire, the space provided a fulsome display of wealth and conquest. Some cases held ancient weapons, while others contained odd pieces of sculpture, like the jade monstrosity squatting upon the desk. A portrait hanging directly behind the Chancellor depicted a smug, middle-aged man who bore a close resemblance. It could have been the man himself, except the clothing was outmoded by at least a century.

               “My apologies,” he began. “I believe I was telling you about the job.”

Wolf nodded, prompting him to continue.

                “A rare item has been misplaced. A group of men were to deliver it last week. They never showed. It’s possible they decided to keep the artifact. Or perhaps it was stolen. In any case, it must be recovered.”

                “Who were these men you employed?” asked Wolf.

                “Members of the Geheimschen Gang. They dwell in the abandoned mines near the waterfront, an ideal setting for thieves and smugglers. The currents surrounding the area are treacherous, and, as a result, customs officials do not patrol there. Malden is aware of the illicit activity, yet no effort has ever been made to reclaim the territory.
                “Recently, a foreign gang intruded upon their space. Gangland violence may be responsible for the disappearance of the gem, which is why I’m hiring you to go in there and retrieve it. I care not how you accomplish this task, but it must be done immediately.”

                Wolf wondered how a gang of thieves from a foreign country could survive in this tough city without the approval from the Thieves Guild. “Your suggestion of a rival gang seems likely,” Wolf offered. “We have some recent experience dealing with thieves.”

               “Excellent! My confidence in you has just risen.”

               “I know a great deal about the Maldener Thieves Guild,” offered Ralf.

               “Be quiet,” Wolf hissed.

               “Heed my words carefully,” continued Olivejem. “The artifact is dangerous. It must not to be handled. Use gloves. And take this.” The chancellor produced a small metal box. “This container will allow you to carry it safely.”

                “Thanks,” said Wolf. He reached across the desk and took the box from Olivejem’s cold fingers. He felt a chill and had to repress a shudder. “Tell me, the recovery of a gem can’t be that pressing, can it?”

                “The gem is an artifact of historic significance. There is an imperial decree issuing its recovery, a decree countersigned by the Great Sage himself … right before his disappearance.”

                Wolf paled upon hearing the name of his missing friend.

                “I am offering six hundred aureus for its return,” stated the chancellor, smirking almost imperceptibly, as he watched his audience buckle. It was more than most could earn in a lifetime. “I will advance you fifty sesterces, so you may purchase anything you need for the mission. Do not use it all – the money could prove useful for bribes.”

Olivejem tossed Wolf a felt drawstring purse. He deftly caught it in one hand, the clinking of the large silver coins betraying its true value.

                 “Thank you,” Wolf responded. “Is there anything else?”

                “I’ve a rough sketch of the area,” Olivejem said. “At the outskirts, near the harbor, there is a culvert which once served as a conduit to float goods from warehouses to docked ships. Begin your search there.”

                “Any idea what we’ll be looking for?”

                “I don’t know!” Olivejem quipped. “I’ve never been there. That’s why I’m employing you! Look for a storm drain. An effluent pipe. Or something unusual. In any case, there will be no sign-posts telling you where to go.”

                “I see,” Wolf replied through clenched teeth. He did not care for Olivejem’s tone, nor his quick temper. He looked forward to taking his leave of the cold, arrogant man. “We’ll search for a pipe, then” he replied in a calm voice. “Is there anything else?”

                “Be on your guard. You’ll be entering a lawless den home to rival gangs of thieves. Rumors speak of abandoned mines stretching out for miles, creating an underground labyrinth. In some parts, the ground may not be stable, so tread carefully. And there’s a reason no one lives there besides the volcanic activity. I’ve only heard legends, but you best accomplish your task before nightfall.”

                “We’ll return with your gem or at least the news of what has happened to it.”

                “Don’t bother returning without the gem!” the Chancellor shouted. He smiled to mitigate his outburst. But alarm bells had already sounded for Wolf.  There was something complex and disturbing about this man. His last statement betrayed an emotional investment at odds with his earlier statement downplaying the artifact’s importance. This was just more evidence for Wolf to be on his guard.

                 “Oh, I almost forgot,” he added. “If you want to avoid getting filled with arrows, give the word “blackjack” when prompted for a password. I cannot guarantee the Geheimschen still use it, but it will lend some degree of credibility.”

                Wolf produced a charcoal pencil from his vest and jotted the word down in his notebook. “This gem must be of great value to command such a high price.”

                “Many consider it priceless, due to the alleged powers it possesses. But I give no credence to these rumors. It is like those fools who think ingesting the ground horns of a bull will grant them sexual prowess. Regardless, take its value seriously. The Empire is not the only concerned party seeking its recovery.”

                “What do you mean?” Wolf asked.

                “I’m saying you best be on your guard. Trust no one. I’ve never seen the artifact, but it is allegedly the size of a goose-egg, pearly-green, and dangerous to handle.”

                “Who told you this?” Sigfried asked, breaking his vow of silence.

                “That’s confidential,” barked Olivejem.

                “Where did it come from?” Sigfried continued.

                “That is a Crown Secret as well, young man. Are you ready now?” he asked Wolf.

                “We’re always ready,” Wolf replied with a touch of bravado.

                “Good. Because there’s no time to waste. The longer you delay, the more likely the artifact will be lost forever. If it leaves the Empire, we’ll have no jurisdiction to reclaim it and no chance for its recovery.”

                Wolf nodded to his team that it was time to leave.

                “Good luck,” Olivejem said. “I look forward to your return.”

                Wolf flashed his best fake smile and turned to go.

The steward escorted the visitors from the premises, and, with palindromic symmetry, accounted for each person, placing a checkmark next to their name in the ledger as each left the mansion.

The group breathed easier once outside the walls of the Olivejem compound. For some, it had been unbearably difficult to remain quiet, and they made up for their earlier silence by voicing their thoughts and talking excitedly over each other.

                “Crusty ole bastard,” Sigfried remarked.

                “Perhaps,” Wolf replied. “But unless I’m much mistaken, this is legal.” He held aloft a silver sesterce, allowing the light to play over its surface while turning it over in his hand. It sparkled and shined in the sunlight. He tossed the coin to Ralf. 

                “What do you think?”

                “Looks good,” Ralf replied. He removed an oculus from his belt-pouch and examined it more closely. “If it’s a fake, it’s an exceptional forgery.” He was about to cut a slice out of the coin but stopped.

                “Ooops! Almost broke the law. These ridges along the edge – they gotta be visible. If not, it means the coin’s been shaved down. If any are missing, it’s not legal.”

                “Old habits are hard to break,” Wolf muttered.

                “What do you think he wants with the gem?” Ketri asked.

                “I don’t know,” Wolf replied. “But it seems the gem he desires and the stone we are looking for are one and the same. I wonder what he’s hiding.”

                “You think he’s holding something back?” Demelza asked.

                “I’m sure of it. Why would the Great Sage inform him of its location? Why would he not hire his own team to retrieve it? People he could trust. And even if Ragerius had told Olivejem, why would the Chancellor be dealing with the matter at all? Normally, a chancellor would delegate such a mundane task to the castellan or some other military official better suited for managing the endeavor. Why does this matter fall under his jurisdiction at all?”

                “It makes no sense,” Sigfried agreed.

                “How do you know so much about imperial politics?” Ketri asked.

                “I’ve a friend close to the throne,” Wolf responded, avoiding eye contact.

                “Regardless of his motives, his main story seems plausible,” Virriel offered. “He paid an explorer to find the stone. Something happened. And the gang hired to deliver the stone failed to appear.  Our job is simple enough. Find the stone.”

                Opinions differed about what to do next and how to best prepare. Wolf knew the only ones that mattered were his and Virriel’s yet allowed the others to believe their advice impactful.

                “Let’s find someone in the Guild who knows the gangland area,” Sigfried suggested. “We could pay them to serve as our guide. You must know someone, Ralf.”

                “Er, sure,” Ralph said, looking away nervously. “I know a fair amount of people.”

                Ketri suggested a linear approach. “Why don’t we just go down there and start bashing heads. I’m sure we can make the right people talk.” Wolf caught the look of hardness in her eye. Such an indominable spirit could be an asset in some situations, a problem in others.

                “A systematic search is best,” Demelza said. “We approach it just like any proper military expedition. Careful planning followed by swift  execution.”

Half-listening with his back to the wall, Wolf allowed the chatter to fade into background noise. In this state, he brooded over his doubts and fears. The Chancellor’s mysterious warning about proper handling of the stone frightened him. What was the danger? He never said. Wolf wanted to believe the Chancellor’s story. Perhaps Ragerius had entrusted him to recover the gem. It was possible. Then again, Seydor made no mention of either Ragerius or Olivejem playing a role in the Contest. On the contrary, he said to trust no one. Wolf felt this was good advice.

Virriel was speaking when Wolf held up his hand to impose silence. “For this mission, we’ll need provisions. We must be well-geared to trek through sewers and caves. And we must be prepared to fight. I need to run an errand now. When I return, we shall go to the market.”

 


Chapter 40
The Errand

By duaneculbertson

Wolf kept to the shadows as he made his way to Malden Reserve. He did not know who his enemies were or if they were following him. Besides, it was cooler in the waning shade offered by the buildings as the sun approached its zenith.

Before he knew it, he stood in front of the oldest and largest bank in the Empire. The architects had spared no expense in the construction of the impressive edifice. It was as if the glorious exterior celebrated the wealth therein. Fluted columns with intricate scrollwork stretched to the heavens. And even the iron gates inspired admiration, wrought in a manner to demonstrate fine craftsmanship and artistic beauty.

A mounted officer and a company of foot soldiers stood guard. Rumors spoke of arbalesters stationed atop the roof, pacing back and forth between merlons, ready to fire upon any who threatened the vaults. But this was most likely a canard circulated by the bank to discourage thieves.

Before embarking on his errand, Wolf had left Truebite in Virriel’s care, not wishing to tempt Fate by leaving the precious sword in the hands of another, even an employee working at the most prestigious bank in the Empire.

With a nod, Wolf acknowledged the captain on horseback, then entered. His purpose here was simple –obtain supplemental funding for the mission. The silver Olivejem had advanced would probably be enough to equip the team, but Wolf wanted more just in case. He would withdraw a healthy amount from his personal account here at Malden Reserve. Since Alcuin had told him there was no official warrant for his arrest, he had no fears. No fears, but one regret: he wished he had not sold his horse before entering the city.  T
he proud beast had been more than just a means of transportation; he could not explain it, but he considered it a companion, even a friend.

Wolf marveled at the opulence of the bank’s interior. He had been there many times before, but the sight always took his breath away. Smooth, white marble paved the spacious salon, and somehow the floors were perpetually clean. Exotic fabrics hung from the walls. And, high above, gold leaf crawled over the vaulted ceiling. Alabaster columns inlaid with gold filigree stood at regular intervals beside the walls, proudly adorned with the bank’s emblem. Polished padauk wood comprised the massive tables where customers could sit upon stuffed leather chairs and conduct their business. There was even a place for bodyguards to congregate.

It was no accident the bank stood in Northtown. Most patrons dressed to flaunt their wealth, their garments bedizened with jewelry to display their value like an unspoken password.

Wolf paced the length of the floor and presented his identification to the teller at the far end. While this man consulted his account, he considered once again how much money to withdraw. He knew he had over a hundred aureus and figured ten would suffice to purchase the weapons and armor required. The money could also prove useful to bribe thieves should the need arise. The teller interrupted his thoughts.

            “I’m sorry, your lordship. Your assets are frozen by imperial decree. I have no other information.”

            “There must be some mistake!” Wolf blurted. “A few days ago, there was an order for my arrest, but that has been cleared. Officially rescinded.”

            “My hands are tied in this matter. I lack the authorization to overturn this order.”

            “Outrageous!” Wolf muttered. He compressed his lips and shook his head. “The arrogance of the man.” He could feel the meddling hand of his uncle, a deliberate effort to interfere with his plans.

Janicus must have authorized this before the Grand Theophanist took the throne.

            “May I speak with the bank manager?” Wolf asked.

            “It’s Seydevan, milord. He’ll be at home.”

            “Very well … looks like I’ll have to clear this with Aachen.” He forced an embarrassed smile and kept his boiling anger in check as he left the building.

Wolf stepped into the blaring sunshine, shielding his eyes with his hand. He hated wearing hats, yet wished he had one. He strode the length of the street maintaining a brisk pace, allowing the action of his legs to vent his frustration.

As he turned down a side street a man wrapped in a burgundy cloak motioned to another, and the two fell in step behind Wolf, flanking him by about five paces. Wolf’s animal instincts alerted him of the danger. He glanced over his shoulder and recognized the man on his right as the one he had seen at the Lucky Shoe. He favored him with an ironic smile and kept walking.

What kind of moron tracks someone wearing a burgundy cloak?

Ahead a figure stepped from behind a hitching post. He threw back the cowl of his ivory cloak to reveal a rugged face framed by blond curls streaked with gray.

            “Wolf Kantwohner!” he cried. “By Imperial Decree, you are under arrest!” The men flanking Wolf converged until they were within two paces.

            “Under arrest?” Wolf challenged. “Why am I under arrest, and who the Helle are you to make such a statement?

            “We’re the ones bringing you in,” he said, smiling. The others exchanged smug grins garnished with malice.

            “Bounty hunters? Well, I don’t have time to explain why I can’t come with you.”

The men flexed their jaw muscles, and eyes dilated, as tension filled the air. Wolf’s arms floated outwards, and he regarded all three with meticulous care.

Wolf nodded at the man in the burgundy cloak – “I imagine this is not the first time we’ve met.” The man responded with a cruel, knowing smile. Wolf thought of other light-hearted banter he could employ to distract his opponent, as he considered how he would take the man apart. He then turned back to the graying man in charge.

Wolf laughed. “Wait a minute, I’ve seen your sorry ass before. Tidus, is it not?”

            “Yeah, that’s right,” said the older man, a surly tone invading his voice.

            “Disgraced former captain of the guards? Banished from the King’s Court? You really need to make better choices when considering which maidens to grope. Lady Adrasta has powerful friends…including the idiot who hired you.”

The man bristled. “Look here! We can do this easy or hard, it’s all the same to us. We get paid either way.”

            “And where is this decree of which you speak?”

            “Right here,” said the man. He unfurled a piece of bleached parchment, blinding white in the noonday sun. He handed it to Wolf.

Scanning the contents, Wolf laughed, a sonorous laugh, rich with contempt.

            “What’s so funny?” roared the bounty hunter.

            “I’ll give you three reasons why I won’t be going anywhere with you,” Wolf said fixing Tidus with his masterful gaze. “First: This document is signed ‘Emperor Janicus,’ and we both know he was never coronated. Such arrogance! Perhaps one day the bards will tell stories of it. Janicus the Unready, the man who mismanaged the Vanadian Campaign; he could’ve ended the war and brought peace to the region were it not for his stupidity."

            “Humor me,” said Tidus. “What’s your second reason?”

            “Second: This order is a summons for Wolf Kantwonner. I’m Wolf Kantwohner. Say it with me: W-O-H-N-E-R. I don’t know who this Kantwonner is, but he certainly isn’t me. Therefore, any attempt to take me based on this decree is not only illegal, but an effrontery to the Crown. Don’t forget I’m royalty - to falsely lay hands upon me could forfeit those hands."

            “And the third?” Tidus prompted.

            “The third,” Wolf muttered. “is that you haven’t brought nearly enough men…”

Wolf jabbed Tidus in the throat with two fingers, striking the carotid sinus, causing him to crumple to the ground like a mis-tossed sack of grain. A back kick to the groin wilted the man on Wolf's left, while a spinning backfist removed the threat on his right. Burgundy-cloak staggered backwards. Spitting out a tooth, he swore, then leapt forward.

Creating distance, Wolf stepped back and deflected a roundhouse punch with a knife-hand block, catching the man’s wrist in the process. He stepped forward and drove a supinated punch into his opponent’s solar plexus, followed by a rising elbow to the man’s chin. Burgundy cloak’s head shot backwards, and his body followed. He fell hard upon the paving stones and did not stir.

His movements dampened by crushed testicles, the other bounty hunter tried to rise, but Wolf kicked him in the face, knocking him senseless to join his companion in slumber. Partially recovered, Tidus floundered upon the ground. He reached for Wolf’s leg but his persistence was only rewarded by a rolling hammer-fist to the back of his neck.

Wolf was not finished with him yet; he wanted to make a point. He dragged the dazed man to an equine watering trough and pushed him under the stagnant water. Tidus sputtered, thrashing about like a hooked fish. In his panicked haste, he broke the structure, spilling its contents into the street. Disheveled, the man lay in a pool of filthy, steaming water, trying to catch his breath. With contempt, Wolf snatched the unlawful arrest warrant from the ground, crumpled it in his hands, and crammed it into Tidus’ mouth.

            “Give my regards to my uncle! And tell him, if he wants me, he can try to take me himself … if he dares. As for you, if you ever try to lay hands on me again, I’ll kill you!” Wolf brought his boot down hard upon the man’s face, allowing him the opportunity to contemplate the folly of his actions in his dreams.

A crowd stood gawking in the aftermath. Many had watched the unfolding drama in the street with disbelief. The commotion had even garnered glances from wealthy patrons at the saloon next door. Some leered from shaded balconies above.

Violence was incongruous in Northtown. Unlike his victory in the alehouse in Southtown weeks earlier, no one cheered. On the contrary, most regarded what they had seen as appalling, an exhibition befitting only the lower classes. Wolf regretted they could not appreciate the brutal skill with which he had dispatched three bounty hunters. He wished the Shingorian monk who had taught him empty-handed combat could have seen this fight – the master would have been proud.

Smoothing his shirt, Wolf walked away. He would not loiter to answer questions, official or otherwise. As he departed, some condemned his actions, loudly protesting his egregious conduct, while others called for the Watch. But none followed.

Wolf shook his head. Tidus thought he could take him with just two men.

Indeed!

 

Author Notes Do you like the fight scene? Is it easily visualized? Do the analogies work, or are they over the top?


Chapter 41
Final Preparations

By duaneculbertson

[Author's note: I am placing a "Book Balloon" on the entire novel this weekend to award all chapters if readers want to go back and get credit for reading past chapters. Hope you take advantage of this opportunity. Best - Duane]

Wolf returned, unnerved by what had just happened, the sweat not yet dry upon his brow. He resolved to tell no one. It would only lead to questions he did not feel like answering. Instead, he brought everyone to the market and distributed a few items he had already purchased.

“Food rations.” Wolf said, tossing a parcel of smoked meat to Demelza.

"What!” she exclaimed. “It’s not like we’ll want for food in the middle of a city. How long is our mission going to take?”

"Simple items often come in handy. Maybe you can bribe a rat.”

Demelza’s eyes flashed fire, but she took the food just the same.

“What have you got for the rest of us?” Virriel asked.

“Everyone gets a ration of twice-baked bread and cured ham.”

"I’m glad the ham is cured,” offered Sigfried. “What was wrong with it?”

“It asked too many questions and was beaten within an inch of its life,” Wolf growled. Smirking, the young man took the rations and stowed them in his pack.

Despite being the middle of the day, the market was sparsely attended. Those who could afford to stay home did so to avoid the brutal heat. Sauntering to the booths where the artisans and craftsmen labored, the Stoneseekers purchased items required for the mission. Wolf allowed sesterces to flow freely according to everyone’s needs. They spent much time with a blacksmith and armorer noted for his high-quality pieces. Ralf acquired a new crossbow and equipped himself with a chain-mail vest and bronze bracers.

“Bronze bracers?” Demelza protested. “That’s an extravagance. Surely leather will suffice.”

“Let it be,” replied Wolf. “He’s more confident now.”

“Has he ever even seen combat?”

“I’m not sure. But I’ll not ask a man to place his life in my hands without giving him the tools he feels he needs to succeed. If he wants them, he shall have them.”

The dwarf simply shook her head.

In no time at all, only two of the fifty sesterces advanced remained. As a seasoned warrior, Demelza already carried most of the items required. She even offered to keep using her war-ravaged battle-axe, the gruesome double-edged cleaver that separated many a thief from his limbs on the night of the alley ambush.

Wolf had no objections to this, as he had seen firsthand the skill with which the powerful dwarf wielded the formidable, yet cumbersome, weapon.

Why fix something that works?

“Demelza,” Wolf called. “Come here a moment, please.”

With nothing to purchase and having no decisions to make, she was passing the time by pushing a sharpening stone along the blade of a knife. She returned the weapon to its hiding place  in her boot and approached Wolf.

“Yes?” she asked.

"I want you to have these.” He filled her hands with sesterces.

"What are you doing? Where did you get these? I thought the chancellor’s money was all gone.”

"It is. This is the money I made from selling my horse.” The thought saddened him. He missed Glamdray and fondly recalled the hours spent training him years ago. In turn, this made him think of Kantwohner Manor, reminding him of happier times.

“Why give it to me, then?” she asked.

“Because I want to make sure you’ve got everything you need. That will make me feel safer.”      

Demelza thanked him with her eyes, and Wolf decided it was a good time to broach another topic.

“Demelza, I need your help.”

“With what?” she asked in a guarded tone.

“I need you to give Virriel a chance.”

Demelza scoffed. “Bah! She’s an elf? Why does she deserve a chance?”

“Because she’s a member of this team, and we must all work together. Maybe, if you got to know her better, you'd realize you have more in common with her than you think. And need I remind you it was she who rescued us two nights ago?”

"Not how I recall it," muttered the dwarf.

“What is it with you and elves?”

"Elves murdered my mother! Okay? Because of them, I never got to know her. Never knew her touch. Never heard her speak words of praise. Never knew her love. My entire life, I grew up living in her shadow, wondering who she was and thinking about what might have been.”

Demelza’s eyes filled with tears. She clenched her fists and looked away.

“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”

“I was raised by my father, until he died. Then my uncle cared after me. I’ve always longed to know that missing side of me, but it’s impossible. She had no family of her own. I’ve just got to accept it and move on.”

Wolf found this episode as enlightening as it was unexpected. It was unusual for dwarves to share their feelings. The ones he had known growing up were reticent folk, and rarely spoke of their lives or their families.

                 “My mother was not the only casualty in our clan,” she continued. “Many others died in the Elven War of Aggression. I lost friends … and now you expect me to embrace my enemy?”

                "I’m not asking you to embrace anyone. But we need to work as a team. Virriel is not your enemy.”

                Demelza did not look convinced.

“I’m not asking you to forgive the Elven people for things they did in the past. But please make an exception for Virriel. The entire world is at stake. I know she has no quarrel with you. She’s not really a typical elf, either. Only by heritage. She knows not their culture and was not raised by them. She grew up living in the forests almost alone. Please give her a chance.”

                “She’s still an elf, though. I’d rather work alongside Ketri.”

                “But there’s strength in diversity. A hybrid is always stronger than a purebred.”

                “If you say so.”

                “It’s true. But diversity without unity is madness. We must share a common goal. Focused and aligned. Each member looking out for the others.”

Demelza said nothing for a moment. “I’ll try. I guess that’s not too much to ask.”

                “Thank you,” Wolf said, patting her on the shoulder. “Our very lives may depend on it.” He walked away, hoping she would take his words to heart.
 
Wolf found Sigfried conversing with a swordsmith as he shopped for weapons.  The boy handled a rapier. With its lighter weight and stylized basket-hilt, it was a more elegant weapon than the traditional two-handed broadsword. Wolf suspected it lacked durability, since it was a weapon for thrusting, favored by duelists. Sigfried examined it with an attention perfectly natural for a man who could soon be trusting his life to a piece of forged metal.

                 “Well-balanced,” he said. “Close enough to the hilt to allow good point control.”

Wolf smiled, pleased the younger man knew to consider such a feature.

                 “Indeed,” chimed the swordsmith. “I see you know something of swords. Well, let me tell you … this is no mere butcher’s blade. It’s a sophisticated weapon for solving those problems that plague the nobility from time to time. A weapon of grace and beauty, for one like yourself, a man of means and the product of fine breeding.”

                 “What would you know of nobility?” asked Sigfried in High Etrurian.

                 “My family has furnished them with swords for nearly ten generations,” said the swordsmith, responding in the elite language of the upper class.

                 “Zwohl! I suppose that’s good reason enough,” Sigfried said, switching back to Vulgarate. Wolf could not tell if he was genuinely impressed or simply mocking the swordsmith. Probably the latter, since the only reason to switch from Vulgarate to High Etrurian in the first place was to embarrass the man and make him uncomfortable. Wolf shook his head, mentally tallying yet another example to the growing list of times the boy had displayed rudeness and arrogance.

Such is the brashness of youth.

                 “Wield this sword in a fair fight and you shall never know defeat; for, despite its elegance, the blade is exceptionally strong. A genuine Ulfbehrt! Behold the monogram upon the ornately wrought basket-hilt! Crafted from Damascus steel! I assure you, yours will not be the sword that breaks when metals clash!”

Sigfried whistled, turning the sword over in his hands, mindful not to touch the last quarter of the blade which was razor sharp and tapered to a wicked point. Observing runes from a bygone era stamped upon the ricasso, he tried to fathom their meaning.

                 “It says the wielder shall possess the heart of a lion and the strength of a bear,” whispered the merchant in Sigfried’s ear. “That each life it steals will make the sword more powerful, and the wielder more skilled.” He let the words hang for a moment before boasting, “But enough of that, the real benefit to carrying the sword is the effect it has upon women. With that hanging by your side, you’ll never need to hunt maidens again. Every woman you meet will want to lay their hands upon your sword. Why you’ll need a gaggle of bodyguards to keep them at bay! And the ones you do let in … well, you best catch them as they swoon into your waiting arms.

                 “Look! The endcap is solid gold and unscrews so you can access the hollow handle. Keep extra supplies hidden away. Whether practical or whimsical, the items you choose to store will be kept safe. You need not worry about keeping your tinder dry either – It’s waterproof. Keep fishing line in there too. Anything. Even black powder.”

Wolf took the sword from Sigfried and scrutinized its every detail.

                 “A good sword,” Wolf agreed. “The decision to hollow out the end-cap is a curious one though, since adding items will affect the weight and therefore the balance of the blade.”

The merchant’s eyes widened, scrutinizing Wolf with anxiety, perhaps fearing the loss of a sale.

                 “Probably not an Ulfberht,” Wolf continued. “More likely some knock-off. But it seems well-crafted.”

                 “Oh, good sir,” the merchant said, affecting wounded pride. “I don’t doubt your knowledge of swords, but I assure you this is a genuine Ulfberht."

                 “The Ulfberht family made arming swords and longswords, percussive weapons for hacking and slashing. They did not make flamboyant thrusting weapons for dueling.”

                 “Perhaps you are unaware that the youngest son sought his fortune by making weapons for the Parthian King. It was this swordsmith who forged this very blade in the hot sands of Arabia. Look at the fine quality.”

                 “Parthians are nomadic horse archers. I find it hard to believe there would be a market for dueling weapons in their lands.”

                 “Who knows? Kings are whimsical at times. That was the story I was told. I can’t speak to its veracity, but I can speak for the item. That is a good sword!”

                 “The steel is good. I agree. But I would dispute its maker. Have you no documents to support your claim?”

                 “How much?” Sigfried interrupted.

                 “Four pieces of eight,” said the man. He inclined his head and licked his lips, clasping his hands in front of his chest.

                 “Four pieces of eight?” protested Wolf. “You may as well charge an aureus.”

                 “This is fair market-price.”

                 “Yes, for an Ulfberht,” Wolf retorted. “But we don’t know what this thing is…”

                 “I’ll take it,” said Sigfried.

Wolf’s jaw dropped, but he said nothing. He could not argue the decision since it was not his money. He wondered if that was the point.

                 “Do what you want, Sigfried,” Wolf sighed. “May it bring you comfort and victory in the days to come. And may your enemies fall to its steely sting.”

Smiling, the boy handed over his gold to the ecstatic merchant.

When they stepped outside the merchant’s tent, Wolf turned on him.

                 “What the Helle are you doing? You didn’t even haggle!”

                 “You’re not my father. And you can’t tell me how to spend my own money.”

                 "Not trying to… son. But you owe it to yourself not to get swindled. Ignorant noblemen make easy targets.”

                 “Well, that’s fortunate then, for I’m neither ignorant nor easy. Look. I appreciate your help. But I want to do my own shopping now.”

He drew the sword from the scabbard; the polished steel reflected the sunlight.

                 “Zwohl! That’s a right looking beauty, eh?” remarked the boy.

                 “A nice sword. But you still need armor.”

                 “Nah, I’m good. No need to come with me. Look after the Smuggler, he needs your help much more. Far as I can tell, he can’t do anything right.” Sigfried chuckled at his own comment and walked away.

 

Author Notes [Author's note: I am placing a "Book Balloon" on the entire novel this weekend to award all chapters in case readers want to go back and get credit for reading past chapters. Hope you take advantage of this opportunity. Best - Duane]


Chapter 42
Final Preparations (Conclusion)

By duaneculbertson

“Four pieces of eight?" Wolf protested. "You may as well charge an aureus.”

“That is fair market-price.”

“Yes, for an Ulfberht,” Wolf retorted. “But we don’t know what this –”

“I’ll take it,” declared Sigfried.

Wolf’s jaw dropped, but he said nothing. He could not argue the decision since it was not his money. He wondered if that was the point.

“Do whatever you want, Sigfried,” Wolf sighed. “May it bring you comfort and victory in the days to come. And may your enemies fall to its steely sting.”

Smiling, the boy handed over his gold to the ecstatic merchant.

When they stepped outside the merchant’s tent, Wolf turned on him.

“What the Helle are you doing? You didn’t even haggle!”

“You’re not my father – you can’t tell me how to spend my own money.”

“Not trying to… son. But you owe it to yourself not to get swindled. Ignorant noblemen make easy targets.”

“Well, that’s fortunate then, for I’m neither ignorant nor easy. Look, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I’d rather do my own shopping.”

He drew the sword from the scabbard; the polished steel reflecting the sunlight.

“Zwohl! That’s a right looking beauty, eh?” remarked the boy.

“A nice sword. True. But you still need armor.”

“Nah, I’m good. No need to come with me. Look after the Smuggler, he needs your help much more than I. Far as I can tell, he can’t do anything right.”

Sigfried laughed at his own comment and walked away.

Wolf watched the boy go. As he made his way up Market Street, he appeared to swagger, as if he had purchased self-esteem in addition to his sharp piece of metal.
 
In a stroke of good timing, Ralf chanced to wander down the street. The smuggler had just purchased a hand-and-a-half sword, and he practiced cutting great arcs through the air, as if slaying scores of enemies.

At least he is a skilled swordsman in his imagination – a good place to start.

Wolf watched Ralf carefully. His footwork was terrible. His strikes and thrusts awkward and overcommitted. Even his balance looked shaky. His enthusiasm, however, never waned, as he struck out against imaginary foes.

Energy, interest, and a love of fencing are important and unteachable aspects of swordcraft, but you still need the basics if you hope to survive. The wrath cut is an effective strike, yet easily thwarted. He needs to practice against real people. Shadows are predictable and make for poor opponents.

After a few minutes, Sigfried returned wearing a fancy chain-mail tunic. He admired himself in a full-length mirror outside a tailor’s shop. Wolf feared the gold loops about his wrists and collar were only there to justify the high price he must have paid for the item, and in battle the suit would prove less true. He held his tongue though. At least, the armor would last longer than Demelza’s war-torn hauberk.

Author Notes A very short conclusion to the previous section.


Chapter 43
Their Last Meal

By duaneculbertson

In one of the parks scattered throughout the city, the newly equipped group convened at an eating tent to enjoy an early dinner. The tent housed a dozen tables with benches. Barrels brimming with alcohol stood at attention with pints liberally supplied by serving wenches. Brick ovens blazed in the background as cooks toiled to satisfy customer orders. It was mid-afternoon and the aroma of cooking hung thick in the air. Meat was enjoyed by all, save Virriel who insisted on a repast of mixed vegetables.

Wolf clapped his hands, and serving maids sprang to his attention, bringing forth tankards of ale. His generosity had become well-known, and his popularity among the serving ladies caused several to fight over the exclusive right to take what they knew would be his final order. Demelza, Sigfried and Ralf each grabbed a tankard and raced to see who could finish theirs first. Virriel did not drink and excused herself, claiming she would return shortly. Sigfried slammed his tankard on the table. Finishing first, he smiled broadly. However, his smile faded once he saw Virriel leaving, and his eyes tracked her as she disappeared into the crowd. 

Malden Park was a popular area, one of the few places remaining where common folk could relax and play. Eating, drinking, and sleeping were all activities enjoyed here. On a nearby bench, Ketri participated in the latter, oblivious to the commotion all around. A pot-helm shielded her eyes from the faint sunlight filtering through the canopied tent. Wolf marveled at how she could sleep through all the noise. It reminded him of the incident at the Lucky Shoe. Thoughtfully, he drained his own tankard.

How extensive was her training? I still know next to nothing about her.

The slumbering dwarf wore a rusty chainmail tunic and chose a wicked looking flail known as a morning star as her primary weapon, the fearsome item hanging from her belt by a leather buckle. She had probably pocketed most of her share of Olivejem's money. Wolf did not care; he just wished he had gone with her. He could have given her some much-needed guidance. Weapons and armor were always good investments for a warrior and cutting corners or bargain shopping was never a good idea, especially when one’s life was at stake.

A welcome breeze swept through the food tent, cooling those inside and bringing with it the aroma of roasted chicken.

Wolf sat across from Sigfried. He noticed the boy still wore the same dark finery he had been wearing when they first met, almost two nights ago. It reminded him of his own recent foolishness when he spent an afternoon working on the farm dressed in a black shirt, only to remove it later and have his decision rewarded with a harsh sunburn that evening. 

                 “You know, Sigfried,” Wolf began. “You would fare much better in this heat if you were to sell or stow your finery. Woolen velvet makes a fetching garment, but it is not the coolest fabric by any means.”

                 “No thank you. I prefer style over comfort. It is important to look one's best. Were I not so richly adorned, I would not appear as superior to the common man.”

                 “Is it necessary to look superior? A confident man feels it; he needs no validation. Furthermore, a confident, decent man hides his feeling of superiority from others; he does not celebrate or revel in it. If you want to command respect, treat others well and speak properly, with thought and purpose. That is how you make a favorable impression. People care not about exterior appearances after they have spoken with you. It is diction that proclaims the man, not apparel.”

                 “Whatever you say, Wolf,” Sigfried replied impertinently. “I swear I am at a loss to know how you come to know so much. I know not who taught you, nor do I know where you learned all that knowledge, but I certainly do know you are full of it.”

Wolf pretended not to understand the boy’s disrespectful comment; he would deal with him later. “I told you the other night along with everyone else,” he replied nonchalantly. “It was Alcuin who taught me. And a finer mentor I could never hope for. In fact, you would do well to take advantage of his knowledge. I am quite sure someone in your position could learn volumes. He knows much about topics concerning the nobility too, well versed in diplomacy, heraldry, and even manners. You could benefit greatly from his tutelage. Especially regarding that last topic…”


Sigfried made a sour face, and Wolf upended his tankard to drain the remains of his beverage and avoid the boy's reproachful gaze.

Ralf rose from the table. He had just consumed his second plate of ribs, and he eagerly licked his lips, unable to resist the lure of yet another course. His jowly face and rotund figure vouched for his fondness of eating, betraying his intentions to the vendors who recognized a valuable customer when they saw one, likely altering their prices accordingly.

After placing an order for an entire chicken, he sat down again at the table, examining a sheet of paper that doubled as both placemat and advertisement. Hungry as he was, he could not fail to notice the powerful face staring at him.


                “Ooooh! There’s going to be a show at the Colosseum,” Ralf said, taking a swig and finishing another pint of ale.

                “There’s no time for that,” Wolf said dismissively.

                “Oh, come on! It’s Magnus Stentorus, the judicial champion. He’s scheduled to fight two condemned criminals at the same time! They never do that! We gotta see it! Starts in an hour. If we start walking, we’ll have plenty of time. A couple hours' delay could not possibly hurt Seydor’s quest.”

                “Silence, you fool!” Wolf hissed, casting him a look of daggers. “Speak not of the Stonequest in public while others are around.”

                “Sorry,” Ralf replied. With downcast eyes, he went back to sulk over the advertisement.

Wolf snatched up the paper, pausing to look at an artist’s rendition of Magnus Stentorus. His blood began to boil.

Arrogant murderer. Hard to believe I almost fought you.

Wolf struggled to repress the bitter memory. It won. He recalled the face of the student he had beaten to death in a saloon about a year ago. He had been asking for the whereabouts of Atelka, gleaning what information he could, when he chanced to run into an impudent noble who made unflattering remarks about his fiancé. His temper got the best of him and even the peacekeepers were unable to stop him from killing the man. Had it not been for Runcheon’s intervention, he would likely have faced Magnus in the Colosseum before a crowd of thousands.

Wolf swore. He crumpled the notice in his hands and tossed it into the trash.

                 "Hey," Ralf said, offering a weak protest.

                 “Our mission is too important!” he roared. “We cannot afford to lose time over such nonsense! We need to get going very soon. Besides, those games teach nothing but cruelty. They ought to be banned. Most decent societies do not tolerate such behavior. It only encourages civil unrest. In Xanadu, they are outlawed.”

                 “Xanadu, huh?” Sigfried remarked. “I thought such judicial practices were invented in the Orient.”

                 “A common misconception,” Wolf growled.

                 “But Judicial Champions have talent,” Ralf protested. “And they are fabulously wealthy.”

Wolf shook his head. “Until our society learns not to equate wealth with virtue, we will always be a poor country.”

Ralf stared blankly.

                 “Gold is not enduring,” Wolf continued. “When we leave this world, we take not material possessions. Our experiences are what we take with us. What we’ve done in this life, and how we’ve helped others. The children we’ve raised.   The souls we’ve touched. The Good we have brought to the world.”

Ralf absorbed the words with a blank expression. Wolf could not tell if he did not agree or simply did not understand. Perhaps the man only had one means of measuring success – a shiny, lustrous one.

                 "Overpaid athletes are seldom good role models,” Wolf continued. “While their training is admirable, there are no constraints placed on their conduct outside the arena, where they get away with the most monstrous conduct and are never punished.”

                  “But they’re a legitimate part of our justice system,” Ralf protested.

                 “Ha!” Wolf challenged, “Legitimate? You think a villain deserves the chance to redeem himself and escape Justice … just because he is a better swordsman than the man chosen to fight him? Is this not doing his victims a disservice by offering the perpetrator a means of escaping his crimes? And what if he does win? In society’s eyes this absolves him, his sins are washed away and stricken from the public record. The perpetrator can then start life anew without being pursued by the shadow of shame and disgrace. Meanwhile, the families of the victims must live each day with the bitter reminder of everything they’ve lost including the additional burden of knowing the architect of this misfortune is living free, able to enjoy life."

                 “Well, I suppose, if you put it that way…” Ralf responded feebly.

                 "And do not such policies favor the wicked, those who use their martial skills to murder others for personal gain with little fear of reprisals thanks to their own talents with weapons? Answer!”

Wolf did not particularly enjoy debating. Nor did he relish crushing an opponent’s argument, but he always felt compelled to defend Justice when he felt it threatened.

                 "The condemned man never wins, though,” Ralf stated meekly.

                 “That’s not the point. We’re discussing the ethics of the judicial system -- the silly, archaic means of Justice called Trial by Combat.”

Ralf remained silent, perhaps realizing the futility of arguing his stance with an educated person possessing greater intelligence.

                 “You think it proper to pay a fighter a dozen aureus for one minute’s exertion?” Wolf asked. "For him to cut down an untrained, hapless criminal? No! I look forward to the day this nonsense is abolished! If I were running the Empire, I would end it right now. People ought to be treated like human beings. Not beasts.”

Ralf shrugged and went to check the status of the chicken he ordered. However, when he returned, Wolf insisted on dragging him to an open stretch of green not far from the food tent. The others followed out of curiosity. Demelza sat on a stone bench nearby. A raised platform housed a rose garden with sculpture and statuary placed at aesthetically pleasing positions therein. Much of the grass had perished under the sun's cruel gaze the past few weeks, with bleached, yellow strands offering the sole evidence to suggest that at one point the vegetation enjoyed better days. A broad plinth stood without any sculpture above its flat-topped base, and Sigfried took the opportunity to perch atop the structure like a dark bird, watching from above while drinking the remains of yet another tankard of ale.

                 “What gives?” Ralf asked.

                 “Wait here,” Wolf commanded.

Two men rested at the edge of the park under the shade of an elm tree. After a few brief words, Wolf returned carrying helmets, gloves and two padded wooden swords. He approached Ralf.

                “Those men are traveling performers,” Wolf said. “Fighting masters who earn their coin by teaching others the fighting arts. They allowed me to borrow their gear for a time and refused my offers to pay them. Let’s make the most of their generosity.”

                Wolf tossed the gear to Ralf.

                “What’s this?” he asked.

                “Padded helmet and gloves,” Wolf replied. “Put them on. Here’s a padded wooden waster too. You’re lucky. Most students do not enjoy such luxury.”

                “I can do without this luxury,” Ralf said. “Why are you giving them to me?”

                “Because it’s clear you need training in the ways of the sword.”

                “Nah. Keep your lessons. I’m good with my crossbow.”

Demelza smirked as she caught Wolf’s eye.

                “Shooting rats lurking at the bottom of your boat and fighting for your life are two very different preoccupations.”

                 “No, they’re not,” Ralf protested.

                 “They could not be more different,” Wolf insisted. “Your skill set is greatly lacking, and this deficiency could get you killed. If you want to stay employed with us, you’d better learn fast.”

With an exasperated groan, Ralf tossed the haunch of meat he was eating into a bush and donned the fencing gear.

                “Now what?” he asked.

                “You’ll fight Sigfried.”

                “What!” Ralf protested.

                “Oh, I’m gonna enjoy this,” Sigfried boasted. “I won’t even need to gear up.”

                “You’ll wear the gear, Sigfried” Wolf growled.

                “Why him?” Ralf whined.

                “Because I won’t be able to critique you if I’m fighting you. Much better to observe you from a distance.”

                “I don’t want to fight him!” Ralf exclaimed.

                “In battle, we don’t have the luxury of choosing who we fight. You simply deal with whomever is in front of you.”

Sigfried donned the gear. Despite the metal mesh, a broad smile shone beneath his helmet. 

                 “This will be fun!”

                “It better not be, Sigfried,” warned Wolf. “Your job is to help Ralf become a better fighter, not to make sport of him.”

                “Can I hurt him just a little?”

                “No, you may not! In fact, if I detect you are working to amuse yourself without considering his best interests, I will don this gear and fight you myself, and I won’t go easy on you. Understand?”

The young man said nothing, but Wolf could feel his angry eyes upon him.

A few paces apart, Ralf and Sigfried faced each other.

                “Salute your opponent,” Wolf commanded.

With a flourish, Sigfried twirled his sword through the air, brought it level with his mask, then cut down and to the right, away from his body. The action mocked proper etiquette since it was designed for a one-handed weapon such as a rapier or arming sword. The gesture looked ridiculous using a padded piece of wood meant to act as a surrogate for a two-handed longsword.

Wolf sighed.

The smuggler crouched with his sword held stiffly. He was about twice the width of Sigfried and a hand taller, but his strength advantages would be of no use in a contest where skill beats slaughter nearly every time.

                “Begin,” Wolf instructed.

Eagerly, Sigfried advanced, changing guards several times and using a mixture of Passing Steps and Gathered Steps. With fluid movements, he moved gracefully as if dancing. He knocked Ralf’s guard aside playfully and thrust a blow to his face. Ralf dropped his sword and swore.

Demelza laughed. But Wolf motioned her to be silent.

The fighters faced off again and the duel continued. Sigfried circled to his right. Ralf pivoted in response. Sigfried cast a feint to his left, then rapped Ralf in the helmet with a quick blow to the head that sent the man reeling.

                “Shistra!” Ralf swore. “Is this really necessary?”

                “Ralf, you look like a tree out there,” Wolf observed. “For Seyd’sake, move around! You need to change your guard. You can’t expect to win a fight rooted like that.”

                “I don’t even know how to move!” Ralf panted.

Wolf stared aghast. “Are you saying you’ve never wielded a sword before?”

                 “Yes!” Ralf cried.

Wolf cursed. Even farmhands knew some basic level of swordsmanship, the techniques passed down from father to son. Only archers trained in the longbow lacked such training, as it took the better part of a decade to master that craft and consumed all their attention. But even those extraordinary marksmen carried a knife and a mallet for the rare occasions when battles went horribly wrong. And most archers were at least familiar with basic swordsmanship.

Demelza and Sigfried could no longer contain themselves, erupting in a paroxysm of laughter.

                “Go occupy yourself with another tankard of mead, Sigfried,” Wolf said, tossing the young man a denarius.

                “Better give me more than that! I’ll need to drink a hogshead to give that man a fighting chance.”

                “Just get out of here,” Wolf said sternly.

Sigfried removed his gear and went in search of refreshment. Demelza did not go with him, despite being his bodyguard. Apparently she was too curious to leave, watching Wolf’s fencing lesson with an amused expression.

Wolf placed a hand on Ralf’s shoulder. “This is not about winning or losing. It’s about learning and survival. I don’t care if you ever beat Sigfried. What I do care about is giving you the tools you need to stay alive on the battlefield.”

                 "Will we be fighting on a battlefield?”

                 “I was speaking metaphorically …”

                 “Oh, okay. Look, I appreciate what you are trying to do Wolf, but the truth is I’m no good wielding a sword in battle. I am fine with shooting a crossbow, but the thought of defending myself with a sword terrifies me.”

                 “Fear is almost always caused by the unknown, a lack of understanding, or unpreparedness. When a warrior is brave, it is because he knows his life is at stake yet chooses to do what must be done anyway. No matter what the costs are to himself. In contrast, a crazy person who charges a shield wall of enemy soldiers alone or a warrior made reckless through the ingestion of drugs or alcohol do not exemplify bravery. It is normal to be scared. All warriors feel fear before a battle. Any who claim otherwise are not telling the truth.”

                “Seyd’sblud! I’m no warrior! I’m a smuggler!”

                “You probably shouldn’t say that too loudly in public,” Wolf admonished.

Ralf blushed and adopted a sheepish expression.

Looking over his shoulder, Wolf noticed a couple of drunkards had heard Ralf’s outburst, but they couldn’t care less. Nor did any customs officers chance to hear. No spectators came to watch their efforts. All reasonable people had sought refuge from the sun’s cruel gaze. Besides, the sight of warriors practicing was so commonplace that the activity drew little attention. Few cared to watch. It was something that happened in parks all the time. Even the owners of the gear were too deep in conversation to take any notice, seemingly unconcerned about the fate of their possessions.

                "Everyone can learn how to handle a sword,” Wolf said, forcing calm and patience into his voice. “And everyone can benefit from sword-training. First thing, we must correct is your stance. Your weight ought to be balanced on both feet. Your left foot needs to be forward, because you will be stepping forward with each blow, bringing the weight of your dominant side forward.”

                “I’m left-handed!” Ralf protested.

Demelza pitched forward unable to control herself, racked by laughter. “Ha! That takes the cake! A left-handed swordsman? How sinister!”

                “Hush!” Wolf ordered. “Don’t mind her,” he whispered. “Everyone has to start somewhere. You just need to master the fundamentals; then you’ll be fine. Fencing takes years of practice, but if you learn a few basic techniques, your odds of survival will greatly improve."

                “Wonderful,” Ralf mumbled. He was sweating profusely, and despite his sarcasm, Wolf knew he was fearful and uncomfortable. Training him would require patience and finesse, and Wolf hoped he had enough of both qualities. He knew this endeavor would require all his willpower; it would take little provocation to lash out at his student given the oppressive heat from the unrelenting, blistering sunshine beading down from above.

 


Chapter 44
The Fencing Lesson

By duaneculbertson

“Take off your helmet and gloves,” Wolf said.

Ralf happily obliged. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face.

"Just listen and relax. With a two-handed sword, or even a hand-and-a-half sword, you want to move forward with every blow. To cast a strike, the feet follow the hands. When striking from the right, you step with your right foot. When striking from the left, you step with your left. In your case, your guard will start on the left side of your body. Keep your right foot forward. As you deal a strike, your left foot will move forward and pass the right. This is called a Passing Step. The rules of fencing change when fighting with a one-handed sword. On such occasions, you want your dominant side forward, but don’t think about that now.”

            “Not a problem,” Ralf mumbled.

            “And don’t worry about your lack of experience. As long as you don’t panic, you still stand a good chance of surviving a fight. Green fighters are sometimes more challenging to fight than veterans. Personally, I hate fighting novices; they do stupid things seasoned fighters would never do. They get killed in the process, but often they take out their opponent too. A situation fencing students call “Two Dead Idiots.”

            “In fact, sometimes to shake up our training, Swordmaster Keels would test us against people without any formal sword training. He called this “Idiot Sparring.” Usually, he took drunkards or vagrants right off the streets – desperate people with nothing to lose and eager for money. I questioned the ethics of his actions, but he claimed nobody was ever permanently injured, and the volunteers were happy to earn their coin. Keels argued that had he not employed them, they would have stolen from others to feed their habits anyway. But I am digressing here. Back to the lesson. 

            “Put your right foot forward and keep your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart. The first guard is called “Von-Tag” which means “From the Day,” or “From the Roof.” There are two forms for this stance. Either the sword hilt is held at shoulder height, else it is held high above your head. Many believe it is better to use the higher guard because you can attack more easily to either side. Observe.”

Wolf raised the wooden sword. His double-handed grip was roughly two hand-spans above his head. He demonstrated the second guard option by bringing the sword down by the side of his face, the sword perpendicular and the quillons running parallel with the ground.

            “Some people call this guard Zornhut. You try it now."

Ralf mimicked both stances without difficulty. “Good,” Wolf praised. “Now that you have a guard to protect your centerline, you need to learn how to move.”

Ralf opened his mouth to ask something, but Wolf plowed ahead. “The most basic step is called the Passing Step. You simply shift your weight and take a step forward. For example, right now your front leg is bent at the knee in a comfortable stance. Simply bring the back leg forward, stepping so that it becomes the forward leg. Keep the same degree of bend at the knee with your weight evenly distributed. Maintain the width of your stance as you take your step and adopt your new position.”

            “Okay, I think I got it,” Ralf said. He smiled; his mood seemed to be improving.

            “Looks good,” Wolf averred. “Now try a few more Passing Steps. Keep the sword in the same guard but allow it to move naturally. You will notice how it shifts according to your stance. When you are in the high guard of Von Tag, it doesn’t matter, but if you keep the sword chambered at your shoulder in Zornhut, you will have to make a slight adjustment as you move.”

            “Yes … I see what you mean.”

            “Good. The next step is called the Gathered Step because you gather ground on your opponent. Watch me. With your forward leg, you take a small step and then drag your back leg to maintain a constant width of stance. Similarly, if you need to give ground, you step back with your back leg first, then drag your front leg backwards. It’s really important to master this step, as you need to change distance frequently whether you are attacking or defending. The strikes are all made using the passing step. There are exceptions, but generally you want to step forward when delivering all blows.”

            “Okay. What’s next?”

            “Hmm, I could show you how to move laterally with triangle steps, but I think that is a lesson best left for another time. Right now, I want to finish discussing the guards. The terminology for the next two have a basis in agriculture. They are known as ‘Ox’ and ‘Plow.’ For ‘Ox’, you wind your arms up beside your head and your sword is roughly parallel to the ground; you will notice the sword resembles the horn of an ox. As a general rule, always threaten your opponent. Keep the point in his face. Give him something to think about.”

Ralf mimicked the Ox as demonstrated by Wolf.

            “Very good. Now, you’ll notice your arms are crossed on one side, but when you take a Passing Step forward, they become uncrossed.”

            “Yes, I see,” Ralf said excitedly, as if discovering some secret of the universe.

            “Now lower the sword in front of your body but keep the point of the sword where it is. This guard is known as Plow. You see how the blade is no longer parallel to the ground, but oriented at an angle? It resembles a plow.”

            “Yeah, that makes sense. What’s the last guard?”

            “The last guard is called “Alber,” which is Old Etrurian for “Fool,” a simple yet deceptive guard.”

            “What!” Ralf exclaimed. “Why call it Fool? And why use such a thing?”

            “It is a matter of debate. Most believe it is called Fool because only a fool lowers his guard. Others think it is called Fool, because you fool your opponent into thinking you are tired or defenseless. Almost as if goading him to strike your exposed upper left quadrant, the area containing your head, shoulder, and chest. To produce this guard, you simply hold your sword out in front of you, allowing it to hang down at an angle, as if you were about to use it to probe bushes or move logs in a fire.”

            “Seems kind of useless.”

            “Indeed,” said Wolf. “Unless … Come. Thrust your sword at my chest.”

            “What?”

            “Do it!

Ralf tried to hit Wolf in the chest with a quick thrust, but the point never hit home. With surprising deftness, Wolf flicked the sword up from Fool and knocked Ralf’s sword off the centerline. Then he stepped to deliver a quick cut to Ralf’s temple. Wolf pulled the sword back at the last moment to leave it resting against his head.

            “Zwhol!” Ralf cried. “That was fantastic!”

Wolf smiled. “Indeed. Every technique has a proper time and place. Some are more versatile and can be deployed in several situations.”

Sigfried returned with another full tankard of ale.

            “My third,” he boasted.

            “I’m glad you’ve been making good use of your time,” Wolf said mockingly.

Sigfried frowned and sat beside Demelza on the stone bench. “Well, I made good use of my coin … or rather, yours. They had ale pints for only a fen! Fenny ale! Can you believe that? Tastes like watered down piss, but they’re cheap as Helle and quench your thirst. It’s important to stay hydrated on a hot day.”

            “I’m not going to ask how you know what watered down piss tastes like, but I’m happy you're enjoying yourself on this hot summer day.”

            Sigfried had just upturned his tankard and was in the middle of a long swig, prompting him to respond to Wolf’s comment with an eloquent hand gesture.

            “We’re going to address your impudence at some point too,” Wolf remarked. “If you don’t start respecting authority and the chain of command, you’ll be dismissed.”

The boy scowled but said nothing.

            “You gonna give him some strikes?” asked Demelza. “He’ll not make it very far with only guards.”

            “Yes,” Wolf replied in an exasperated tone. “I was getting to them.”

Ralf looked at Wolf expectantly.

            “There are five masterstrikes, Ralf. The first is called Zornhau or the ‘Angry-man’s Strike.’ This strike requires no training. You simply step forward and deliver a blow to your opponent’s head or torso, usually at a forty-five-degree angle, but the trajectory can vary. It’s the easiest, most natural strike. When dealt from your right, you are striking your opponent’s left. When dealt from your left, you are striking your opponent’s right. It does not cross the center-line.”


            “What’s the center-line?” Ralf asked.

            "It's an imaginary line that divides your opponent in half lengthwise. Only one of the masterstrikes deliberately crosses the centerline. Most attacks will stay on the same side as they are launched.”


Ralf nodded his understanding.

            “Returning to Zornhau … You want the upper third of the blade to hit your target. This area is called the center of percussion and delivers maximum force. This guideline is true for most percussive blows. Thrusts follow different rules. And you can also land a “push-cut” or a “draw-cut” – these can be delivered from any part of the blade. Such attacks will not usually end a fight unless you happen to slice the neck or inner thigh of your opponent. They can be demoralizing and may hurt your opponent as the fight progresses, but you never want to lose sight of your primary goal – end the fight as quickly as possible. If you strike your opponent with the center of percussion good things tend to happen, allowing you to achieve victory with a minimum number of strikes.”


            “Got it,” Ralf said in a voice that seemed to grow with confidence.

            “Unfortunately, there’s no one at your skill level to fight, but eventually you’ll get better. Perhaps one day we will spar as equals.”

            “Not bloody likely,” Ralf murmured.

Sigfried approached. “Just finished my ale; I’m ready to fight him.”

            “There’s been a change of plans,” Wolf informed. “You’ll be fighting me now.”

            “What!” Sigfried exclaimed. The boy grew pale, and Ralf flashed him a triumphant smile.


                  "But I don’t want to fight you,” Sigfried protested. “I’ve got a good case of the tingles going. It wouldn’t be fair. I thought I was fighting Ralf; I need to sober up first.”

            “Too bad! The enemy waits for no one. Gear up!”

            Fury replacing fear, Sigfried swore violently. “You tricked me!” he yelled accusingly. “That’s a shitty thing to do! Especially after your sanctimonious talk earlier about honor and righteousness—"

            "Think what you want, Sigfried. The fact remains that a swordsman must learn to fight in all conditions. Drunk. Injured. Sick. Snow. Rain.  Desert heat or arctic chill. It doesn’t matter. When the enemy attacks, you just have to deal with the situation no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant. That’s the warrior’s lot in life.”

            “Hear! Hear!” Demelza yelled from the periphery. She rose from the bench in anticipation of the duel, and Wolf wondered who she would cheer for.

            “Well, I’m a nobleman, not a warrior!” Sigfried spat.

            “Today you’re a warrior, son,” Wolf declared. “Now guard up!”

            “You smug sonofabitch!” Sigfried roared. This time, he did not bother with any flamboyant salute, nor did he wait for an invitation. He charged forward, throwing a spirited Zornhau at Wolf’s head, but Wolf moved sideways with a Triangle Step, and, in one continuous motion, raised his guard, twisted his wrists, and brought the sword down hard in an inverted strike atop the crown of Sigfried’s head. Not only did the blow resonate a crisp, pleasing thwack, but the position of Wolf’s blade shielded him from Sigfried’s Zornhau.

        
The young man swore vehemently, knowing he had been skillfully outmaneuvered.

            “Woooo!” Ralf cheered. “That was excellent!”

Demelza clapped her hands together too. “Well done, Wolf.”

Sigfried turned and glared at his bodyguard. “Traitor. Perhaps now's as good a time as any to renegotiate your pay.”

But Demelza simply laughed, taking the comment for jest. Furthermore, Wolf noticed she only had eyes for him. He wondered if the look she now gave him was motivated by feelings of genuine fondness or an appreciation of his martial skill.


            “Ralf,” Wolf said, once again adopting a didactic tone. “They are not called the Masterstrikes for nothing. The one I just employed is called Shielhau, and the technique is known as Breaking the Buffalo. When facing a fierce, charging opponent, or a man much bigger than yourself, one may defeat his powerful swing with a well-placed Shielhau, stopping him dead in his tracks. I figured Sigfried was angry enough to attack with a fully committed Zornhau. And I was right.”

Wolf paused to gloat at Sigfried. The boy appeared seething and on the verge of apoplexy.

            "Again,” the boy hissed through his teeth.

            “One moment, Sigfried, I’m sharing a teachable moment with Ralf. Of course, you’re free to learn too if you wish.”

Sigfried trembled with rage. “Blast your insolence!” he roared. “I’ll make you regret that glib tongue of yours!”

            “Calm yourself, boy,” Wolf said mildly. “It’s important to fight with emotion, but fury can lead you into trouble. Ralf, take note: never allow your opponent to unsettle you. This is applicable to duels, not battles. I’ve seen plenty of strange things happen with combatants taunting each other to gain an advantage before the fight has even started; it's best to be wary of treachery. On a battlefield, however, you would rarely encounter an enemy stupid enough to waste time taunting you. What you will encounter, though, are men bellowing their war cries to frighten you as they charge your position. In such cases, one must always resist the urge to flee.”
    
As Wolf talked to Ralf, his eyes never once left Sigfried. He recalled what had happened to his friend, Swordmaster Keels, just a few days before. The painful lesson Jocasta had taught him had made an impression upon Wolf as well, and he did not wish to become a victim of similar circumstances.

            “When you face your opponent,” Wolf continued, “the edge of the blade pointing away from you is called the “True Edge” while the edge facing you is known as the “False Edge.” The Shielhau is a false edge cut. It’s an awkward, unnatural movement, requiring much practice.”

            “I’m not sure I understand,” Ralf admitted.

            “Don’t worry about it. We can go over the mechanics and nuances of this strike some other time. The other false edge cut is known as the Zwerchau. It involves some unusual wrist action like the Shielhau, but it is a much easier strike to deliver.  However, I will save its demonstration for later as well. Preferably in a safe environment, not in front of an angry opponent. Furthermore, you never want to telegraph your intentions to your enemy. It’s best to give several different looks, then do the unexpected.”

            Sigfried seemed to regain his sense of calm, almost as if Wolf's words had reminded him of something.


            “As great as my skill is with a sword,” Wolf continued. “I’m not foolish enough to tell Sigfried which of the masterstrikes I’m going to deploy next – if any. I respect his swordsmanship too much for that.” Wolf meant the compliment as an olive branch. If Sigfried had felt shame at being beaten so handily, he thought this statement would help him regain confidence. However, the boy did not acknowledge the gracious remark, nor did he reciprocate with any compliments of his own. Instead, he remained silent.

            “I still say I can stop anyone with my crossbow,” Ralf volunteered, inspiring another round of laughter from Demelza.

            Wolf groaned. “Ralf, if you want to be one of us, you must gain competency with the sword to supplement the marksmanship skills you possess. Besides, here’s a hypothetical situation that could change your mind: let’s say you’re in battle. You’ve just taken your shot and killed an enemy warrior. You drop to your knees to reload when suddenly a champion breaks through the ranks of warriors tasked with your protection. A Vanadian warlord is now barreling down upon you. With his sword raised high, he prepares to cleave you in half to avenge his fallen comrade. Now, at this moment, wouldn’t it be nice to have a back-up plan rather than simply hoping that you can reload fast enough before he closes the distance?”

            “Yeah I guess,” Ralf admitted. “It’s always good to have options.”

            “Exactly,” Wolf replied. “Which is why the king’s arbalesters are all equipped with swords as well. And trust me, they practice often. In the hypothetical case I just mentioned, a Shielhau, like the one I used against Sigfried, could save your life.”

            “Fine,” Ralf replied. “I’ll learn your techniques.”

            “Thank you,” Wolf replied. He motioned to Sigfried. “Again.”

Snarling at his opponent, Sigfried hurled another Zornhau at Wolf’s head, but the latter merely stepped to his right, parrying the diagonal blow with another masterstrike. Matching the angle of the incoming Zornhau, Wolf caught the blade along his before knocking it downwards. With a quick flick of the wrist, he followed his counter with a false-edged Shielhau, cracking Sigfried along the top of his forehead. 

The boy released a torrent of angry words, but Wolf took no notice.

            “The lesson here, Ralf,” Wolf began, “is that Sigfried is still trying to beat me with his speed and physical talents, allowing his anger to govern his actions. Although very quick, his Zornhau was telegraphed and expected. I responded with the masterstrike known as the Krumpau or the “Crooked Strike,” so called because the wrists cross as the blow lands. This happens naturally as a consequence of crossing your opponent’s centerline. It is the only masterstrike that deliberately does this and is the defining characteristic of the strike.”

            “Wolf,” Ralf interrupted. “I’m not going to pretend I know what the Helle you are talking about.”

             “Don’t worry. I am just exposing you to the terminology. You need not grasp it all your first time. Just relax and watch. But perhaps I can put it another way … if you cast Krumphau from the right side of your body it targets your opponent’s right, not his left. In fact, you can break his ‘Ox’ guard with this masterstrike by targeting your opponent’s hands. Most of the time, though, your opponent will not be foolish enough to hang out in one guard for too long … although you were doing it earlier when you faced Sigfried. But now you know better.”

Demelza could not help laughing again, but at least she tried.

            “Most of the time, though,” Wolf continued, “the Krumphau strike is deployed to redirect an attacker’s Zornhau. As you saw, I met Sigfried’s blade before his strike could land.”

            “Sure," Ralf replied. “Whatever you say…”

            “The lesson for you both is that skill beats slaughter,” Wolf said. Smiling, he looked from one man to the other. “I knew Sigfried had little chance, but I wanted to make my point. We can not afford to be defeated by those who are more skilled. Approach every fight as a man of thought. Always think first and fight the fight that suits you best!

            “Hmmph,” Sigfried snorted. “The kind of fight that suits me best is the one where I run from you. I had no chance as you yourself just admitted. That makes you a poor winner in my book. Only a bully picks such fights.”

            “I was not picking a fight, Sigfried. I was illustrating a point. And there are always other options. Running away is a perfectly valid course of action, although it is not always possible. If I had been in your shoes, I would have done something to take my skill out of the equation.  I would have done something unexpected.”

Sigfried’s shoulders relaxed once again upon hearing these words. He looked at the ground as if in a state of contemplation.

          
            “How could he possibly take your skill out of the equation?” Ralf asked.

            “Well, he could have thrown some dirt in my face, or better yet, coins. Such a move would temporarily blind me. If followed by a quick attack, I could be beaten.”

            "That does not sound like honorable conduct," Ralf volunteered.

            "Indeed," Wolf agreed. "It is not honorable. You would never act in such a fashion in a proper duel, but on the street or battlefield you do whatever it takes to survive."

            “I’ll remember that next time,” Sigfried mumbled.

            “You will improve, Sigfried. I’m sure you were well trained once, when you were growing up, but you can always learn more techniques and practice often.”

            “Very well!” Sigfried replied with a sudden touch of bravado. “I’m ready to go again.”

            “You want to go again?” Wolf asked. “Are you sure? It’s pretty hot and we’ve both been under the sun quite a while now. We really ought to check back and see if Virriel has returned.”

            “I said I want to go again!” Sigfried shouted.

            “Have it your way, then,” Wolf sighed. “Guard up, my friend…”

Sigfried circled Wolf. As if engaging in some fluid dance, both men changed guards and stances constantly. It appeared Sigfried had adopted a new strategy – he would rush in rapidly to feign an attack and then immediately withdraw. If he hoped to frustrate his opponent, it did not work. Wolf’s countless hours of drills upon hot proving grounds had given him the discipline to wait for the right moment to attack; he would not be drawn. Nevertheless, it was brutally hot, and he did want to bring the fencing lesson to an end. He decided he would have to play the game and take the fight to Sigfried.

As Wolf closed the distance, Sigfried continued to dance around. He jumped behind Demelza, using her as a human shield.


            “Blast you!” she yelled. “Get your hands off me!”

The boy then leapt upon the plinth adjacent the rose garden.

            “You can’t beat me now, Wolf. I have the high ground!”

Artfully, Wolf threw a hopping side-kick, bringing his back foot to rest where his front foot had been, and using his front foot to strike Sigfried square in the chest. The boy flew backwards, landing hard on his back in the dried dirt of the dead flower garden, losing his weapon in the process.

Wolf adopted the Fool guard angling his sword down at Sigfried’s neck. He shook his head at the boy. “That’s not a thing, Sigfried. The high ground is only important in the shield wall. When you are fighting an uphill battle and a wall of men is pushing down upon you … when gravity, or weight rather, becomes important. It is not a factor in a duel and will certainly not negate your opponent’s skill. It’s great to use the environment to your advantage, and situational awareness is important, but don’t plan on it bailing you out of trouble.”

   
Demelza clapped her hands together. “Well said, Wolf!”

            “It’s time to gather our forces and go,” Wolf said. “Come on, Sigfried.” He offered his hand, but the boy waved it away.

            “One last time,” he insisted. “This time I’ll be ready for your tricks!”

            “Sigfried, when you’re out on the street, you don’t get a second chance. You need to do it right the first time, else you end up dead.”

            “Spare me your sententious wisdom! I’m coming for you!”

            Despite the remark, Wolf’s words must have had some effect, for Sigfried approached with great caution. This time, he was not playing games; he did not dance around or use any false attacks. When he edged within striking distance, he dealt a series of vigorous blows, which Wolf countered  without difficulty. The boy tried again, launching another flurry of strikes. Wolf was hard pressed this time and had to give ground, but he never once felt that he was in any danger of losing the fight. Once again, the boy grew frustrated by his lack of progress. Seething, he spat insults through his helmet.


            “Always keep your cool, Ralf,” Wolf instructed. “Don’t listen to anything your opponent says. Stay focused.”

Sigfried feinted left. But stepped right casting a furious Zornahu. Wolf matched the angle of the incoming blade, knocking it down and away with a Krumphau strike. He followed with a rapid backswing which caught Sigfried in the face.

            “Shistra!” Sigfried swore. The fight ought to have ended at that moment, yet with surprising quickness, Sigfried tried to club Wolf in the head with the pommel of his sword. Wolf leapt clear, then struck Sigfried's chest.

            “A murder blow!” bellowed Wolf. “Sey’dsblud! What do you mean by that? This is sparring practice between friends. Not an actual battle!”

            “Well, you said ‘do the unexpected’ – I was just following your orders.”

            “Blast you!” Wolf yelled in an exasperated tone. “A murder blow is reserved for the shield-wall or close-quarters combat with heavily armored men. It’s a half-swording technique! It’s employed when fighting is tight, and lack of space prevents the use of the masterstrikes. It has no place in a duel with a single opponent on open ground. It’s far too telegraphed a move. You try that in a real fight, and you’ll get yourself killed.”

The boy took off his helmet and cast it to the ground, throwing a surly look in Wolf’s direction, but not meeting his eyes. "I almost beat you," he mumbled. 

            “That gear is not ours,” Wolf warned. “Treat it with respect. Unless you want to be held accountable for your actions.”

Sigfried reluctantly retrieved the helmet, placing it on the bench beside Demelza.

            “I don’t know what fighting master taught you,” Wolf continued. “But he did a disservice if he told you to bring that technique to a duel. That strike is easily anticipated and leaves you vulnerable -- you could end up dead yourself, instead of killing your opponent. And such a dangerous strike has no place when sparing between friends.

Sigfried simply shrugged in response.

            “Why’s it so dangerous?” Ralf asked.

            “Because you basically turn the sword into a hammer or club. In fact, some pommels are especially weighted for that purpose. Some have knobs, teeth, or even prongs to augment the blunt-force damage. By gripping the blade near the end with one hand and near the middle with the other, you windmill the hilt towards your opponent. Imagine how your hands move when you chop a piece of wood with an axe. Often the blow can puncture the plate-mail armor of a helmet, stunning your opponent, or killing them outright.”

            "Wouldn't you slice your own hand in the process?" Ralf asked.

            "Not if you do it correctly. You simply slide your thumb and fingers along the fuller of the blade, avoiding the edges."

            "I think I'll leave that technique to the experts," Ralf quipped. 

            "Please do. I never want to see you try such a ridiculous move. Nor is it likely you will find yourself in a shield wall anytime soon. Not if I have anything to say about it."


Ralf offered his hand to Wolf. “Thanks, for the lesson. I know you are trying to help me. And despite my resistance, I appreciate your efforts. And, who knows, maybe one day you’ll make a fine swordsman out of me.”


Wolf smiled. “Sure. It's possible. You just have to work at it. Day by day. Year after year. Until one day you wake up and you are no longer terrible at it."

Ralf laughed. “Well, thanks again.”

Wolf nodded. As he stared into the jowly face, he considered once again his recruiting decision. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Ralf’s connections to the Thieves' Guild could prove useful. On the other hand, his lack of martial skill could prove a liability to the team. Wolf had to admit, under normal circumstances, he would never be spending time with such a man. He preferred men of energy, discipline, and character. Ralf had little of these qualities. Still, under the right circumstances the smuggler could change, but how long would that take?

Wolf knew it was long past time to get going. He had planned to isolate and confront Sigfried about his Black Dragon addiction, but now there was no time. They had spent far too long in the park this afternoon. And the thought of them burning more time made Wolf anxious. At this very moment, someone could be spiriting the Putragle Stone out of the city. In fact, there was no guarantee it was still in Malden at all. Nor did Wolf know who their enemies were. They would just have to wait and see who would try to stop them from achieving their goal.


Wolf followed Ralf, Demelza, and Sigfried back to the food tent. It would not do to start their mission with negativity, so he did his best to banish the nagging thoughts now plaguing him.

When they returned to their shaded table Ketri was still fast asleep. Virriel had indeed returned; she carried a large wooden staff with her now. At the top, some type of crystal sat in a dendrified housing. Probably quartz, Wolf thought.

            “Did you have fun?" she asked Wolf.



            “We sure did,” he replied. “And now that you’re back … and Ketri is awake.” Smiling, he took the dregs from a tankard of ale and poured them atop the face of the slumbering dwarf. The effect was galvanic.

            “You bastard!” she roared. “I’ll bash you good!” Leaping to her feet, Ketri chased Wolf throughout the food tent, much to the amusement of others. Wolf weaved around confused customers and doubled back.

            “The nice thing about evading dwarves,” Wolf said casually. “Is that they have such stumpy legs!” Showcasing his nimble agility, he dodged her every move with never a concern of being caught. Demelza looked as if she considered tripping him yet did nothing, eyeing him with an emotion he could not place. Maybe she was just daunted by the thought of having to restrain Ketri to prevent her from killing him, as the dwarf’s fiery temper had already reached legendary status within the group.

 

Author Notes In 2005 I studied German Medieval Longsword fencing for the purpose of writing the Stoneseekers. I met with a group of MIT graduates who had a passion for the topic. On Friday nights we would gather to read through the actual verses of Johannes Lichtenauer in a local karate studio and then try to interpret the meanings. If you are interested the group still exists. It is run by its founder, Jeff Tsay, and is called Forte Swordplay. I was one of the founding members. Back then we had about six regulars. Now, I think they have twenty to thirty people and it seems much rougher with a younger crowd. We would gear up and hit each other with actual swords. Surprisingly, injuries were rare. This is no longer the case when I went to meet with them a few years ago. Some of the newer members were talking about shattered hands and wrists, and I was a bit reluctant to return, although I honestly do miss fencing a lot.


Chapter 45
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.


Chapter 46
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.


 


Chapter 47
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!”

            “What happened?”

            “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.

            “Aye."

            “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.”

Demelza shuddered.

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.”


Chapter 48
The Gitano Gang

By duaneculbertson

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of 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.