Fantasy Fiction posted July 18, 2021 Chapters:  ...70 71 -72- 73... 


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Stoneseekers Search for a Way Out of Olivejem Estate Again

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

Ultimate Scriptura (1 of 2)

by duaneculbertson




Background
I had to break the last chapter in half. I will place a book balloon on the story tomorrow too, if new people want credit for reviewing earlier chapters. Thanks to all those who have provided feedback
Wolf donned his leather gloves to protect his hands from the heat. He passed a helmet full of ash to Alcuin who in turn handed it to one of Jocasta’s soldiers.

About forty people labored on this endeavor. Sadly, half of Jocasta’s men had perished, killed by falling masonry or swallowed by the nascent chasm.

The charred remains of Olivejem’s henchmen blocked the balustraded exit where their fateful logjam had cost them their lives. After clearing the way, they discovered a steep staircase rising about fifty feet. There was barely enough room for two men to pass abreast, and Wolf wondered how Olivejem had gotten those giant obelisks down to his nefarious lair.

            Perhaps he used magic … the scoundrel certainly possessed remarkable powers.

Virriel had almost been buried alive when she forced open the door at the top of the stairs. To dig out, improvised containers, mostly helmets, ferried the scalding, hot ash from the passage to the chasm.

But progress was slow, and many grew impatient.

            “There’s got to be a better way,” Sigfried whined.

            “This is the plan we agreed upon,” Wolf insisted. “Keep your eyes to the grindstone and the task will be done before you know it.”

            “Nose to the grindstone… the correct expression is…”

            “Whatever, Sigfried!” Wolf spat. “As if you’ve ever worked a hard day in your life! Look at those white, uncalloused hands of yours; the hands of nobility I imagine you tell people. Well, I don’t need you to correct me …”  He regretted snapping at the boy almost immediately, but he could not help it. Physically and emotionally drained, Wolf had no tolerance for anything less than constructive criticism.

Demelza returned from the errand he had given her.

            “It’s as I suspected” she said. “The passage through the ossuary has collapsed.”

            “You see, Sigfried?” Wolf remarked. “Our options are quite limited, and I’m sure this one is best. So please lend a hand.”

            “It’s not our only option,” Sigfried replied. “We could go back through the sewers, forcing our way through the courtyard.”

            “Go scout it out, boy,” Alcuin suggested. “But be careful. No passage will be safe. And remember, only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet.”

Sigfried smiled. “Back in a brothel’s minute,” he said, responding to Alcuin’s sententious wisdom with a popular saying of his own, though considerably less erudite.

Spending a moment, he charted a safe course, then shimmied across the rock face to the other side of the chasm. Ostensibly, he was doing this to find a better way out, but Wolf suspected the boy merely wished to demonstrate his bravery, as if they all had not just faced enough peril to last a lifetime. Perhaps he wanted to impress Virriel. But, if this had been his objective, he failed; the elf was atop the stairs contemplating how to penetrate the wall of ash obstructing their escape. She took no notice of his actions. Nor did Jocasta heed the boy, for she was overseeing her men.

Wolf had climbed cliffs as a child, and even more so at Sigfried’s age, but he now regarded such actions as needless risks, and wished the boy felt the same.

Wolf frowned at Alcuin. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked with a tone of annoyance he was unable to keep from his voice. “That boy needs discipline. He has to demonstrate he’s a member of the team.” 

            “Agreed. But he also yearns for self-reliance and independence. Traits I’ve seen expressed in nearly all nobility, yourself included.”

Wolf sighed. As he grudgingly agreed with the scholar, he noticed the old man had no gloves and wondered if he was uncomfortable. Perhaps thick calluses protected his aged hands, then again, he was an academic, not a tradesman, a man more accustomed to exercising mental faculties, rather than performing manual labor. Whatever the case, the scholar was an avid participant in the ash bucket brigade, and Wolf welcomed his participation.

            “How many buckets does it take to dig out of a subterranean, satanic nightmare?” Wolf sighed.

            “Four hundred and thirty-eight,” remarked Ketri.

            “What!” Wolf started. “Are you serious? You’ve been keeping track? I meant it as a rhetorical question.”

            “Relax, sire,” Ketri replied. “Just messing with you. We’re probably into the thousands by now. What’s it been? Two hours?”

Wolf had lost count how many buckets he had passed. He had no idea; it seemed like hundreds. Nor did he know how much time had passed, although he knew it had not been hours. His body would vouch for her statement as truth; it protested loudly to the incessant labor, as if realizing that it had already been asked to do far too much. However, Wolf swore he would not allow himself to falter; he would see this effort through to the end before collapsing somewhere in an exhausted heap. He longed for that moment, though. He could taste it. His bones felt leaden, and his muscles burned with every movement. Even blinking felt painful.

In this weary state, Wolf found he was not in the most talkative mood yet thought he would take advantage of Alcuin’s proximity. The scholar was a man who never failed to have something important or interesting to say.

            “Have you heard anything further about the fate of Ragerius?” Wolf asked.

Alcuin’s face dropped. “No. Nor was I able to glean anything useful from his boy. I’m afraid the stress of the incident warped his brain; the poor lad can’t even follow the most basic line of questioning. Maybe with time … Perhaps a Sylvanian priestess could help him recover his wits.”

            “I can tell by your glum expression you think him dead.” Wolf swallowed. It had taken great effort for him to even broach the topic. He did not want to acknowledge the loss of another father-figure. Losing a beloved childhood mentor would be a staggering blow. Tears welled in his eyes, and he fought to banish them quickly.

            “That’s the most likely possibility, I’m afraid,” Alcuin sighed. “If a transdimensional gate had been opened, perhaps he could still be alive somewhere in the Aether. In a way, I prefer him dead. It would be a small mercy, far better than suffering in demonic captivity. Few fates are so odious.”

            “Don’t ever speak that way!” Wolf retorted, chastising his friend. “As the Great Sage used to say: ‘While there’s life, there’s hope.’ I swear, Alcuin, if he yet lives, I’ll find him.”

Alcuin turned away, wiping a tear from his eye. Whether sentiment or hot ash, Wolf could not tell.

Demelza approached. “May I speak freely?”

            “Not if it concerns our mission,” Wolf stated.

            “I don’t see why not. Jocasta knows. Why not share it with her men? Don’t they have a right to know what they’re fighting for?”

            “They have the rights of every soldier … to love one’s country … to follow orders … to seek glory…”

            “And to die?” Demelza fathomed sardonically.

            “Yes, if necessary, Dem! That’s the likely fate of a soldier. We all know that.”

            “I think people ought to know the common danger we face … the terror that threatens our world. Think of all the help we could get along the way if everyone knew of  the Contest. Knew of our struggles, our desperate plight. How many barns would open their doors to us to give us shelter for the night? How many Inns would do everything in their power to accommodate us, finding us places they would not normally offer? Imagine how eager they would be if they knew they were helping their world, preserving their way of life for their children! As it is, the peasants have their own superstitions to explain the strange events of our world. And most are not helpful.”

            “Good point,” wheezed Alcuin.

            “Take a break, my friend,” Wolf said, patting the scholar on the shoulder. The old man nodded in agreement and shuffled over to where Ketri was filling her canteen.  A rivulet had broken through the rocks, the only favorable geologic change to occur in the aftermath of the disaster. As a courtesy, Ketri filled all the canteens, making her immensely popular with the soldiers of the phalanx. Without fail, every last one was hot, thirsty, and scorched by ash. At the moment, water was more valuable than gold, and Wolf realized he craved to quench his thirst as well.

Wolf drew close to Demelza. “Speak freely then.”

            “What are we going to do?” she asked boldly.

            “About?”

            “We failed Seydor!”

            “Failed? No, not exactly. I refuse to accept that verdict. We kept the stone away from our enemies – we know that much! I know not what Darknon will do, but he won’t give it to Kanavorus. We know that from the story he told.”

            “You’re calling that a win, then?” Demelza stated, scrunching her face as if tasting something bitter.

            “I’m calling it for what it is… a setback. That’s all. The Contest is no sack race! We will not know the winner for a long time. Perhaps years. We’ve got plenty of time to make things right. To pursue our Justice! As soon as we free ourselves from this caliginous tomb, we’ll make our way North and start anew!”

            “What kind of tomb?” Demelza asked.

            “Nevermind,” Wolf said, waving his hand dismissively. “We will head to the capitol. Once in Aachen we’ll build our forces and lay a trap for our enemies.”

            “You sound rather positive. Are we going on the offensive now?”

            “Why not? It’s time we take the fight to them! It’s always best to be active, rather than passive. Don’t wait for things to happen, make them happen! That’s my motto! – I always do my best to make sure I live life –  Not allow it to live me.”

            “That I can agree upon,” Demelza said. She smiled, uplifted.

            “The Kanavorus Stone will be next, appearing in Aachen. We must be ready.”

Referencing Kanavorus, whose name is reviled in every language, drew abhorrent looks from soldiers within earshot. Many crossed themselves to ward off the evil of the Dark One. Wolf was not surprised that there were still people throughout the Realm practicing this ancient custom. In Etruria, it was still a crime to even mention the name.

Alcuin was still within earshot, despite chatting with Ketri as he helped her fill canteens. “What are you talking about?” he cried. “The Prophecy states the Vorus stone lies in lands unknown. We seek Seydor’s stone next, and yes it sits by the throne … the throne of man.”

Demelza cast a searching glance at Wolf who blushed to the roots of his auburn hair, more than a little embarrassed by his mistake.

            “What!” he exclaimed. “I’m not allowed to be wrong once in a while? You can’t be a good leader without making a few mistakes. I was just excited … Alcuin is, of course, correct. I just got ahead of myself.”

Alcuin shuffled over to Wolf. “That’s fine, my boy. To err is human…” You look like you could use a little help. Alcuin produced his metal flask. Wolf watched him add a few drops to his own canteen. Wolf rolled his eyes. It was Alcuin’s Grog, the wicked concoction he had first introduced to Wolf back at the Lucky Shoe, the time Wolf made the mistake of trying to drink it in its concentrated form.

Alcuin inclined his head, a non-verbal offer, encouraging Wolf to partake. Wolf smiled and shook his head. It may have been petty, but he did not wish to grant Alcuin yet another victory tonight. It was bad enough his prediction about Wolf losing a finger had come true; he could not stomach giving him additional satisfaction by allowing another prophecy of his to come true. At the time, Wolf said it was ridiculous to think the scholar would be with him on some perilous campaign where the grog would come in handy. A fact he was loath to acknowledge.

            “Suit yourself,” Alcuin said, allowing himself a slight chuckle at Wolf’s expense. “I’ve got enough here to rock the entire Macedonian phalanx!”

Wolf could not help laughing. He was being stubborn, refusing to allow his friend the satisfaction of winning the argument, conceding that another hypothetical situation Alcuin had proposed had somehow come true.

Virriel approached, her gray tunic infused with ash.

            “How do you feel about our situation?” Demelza asked. “Do you think we failed Seydor?”

Virriel’s eyes flashed fire. She looked at Wolf.

            “It’s okay. I’ve decided to relax our rules regarding the Contest given our present company. These men are part of the team now.”

            “Really?” Virriel asked incredulously. “How long are they going to help?”

            “Unclear,” Wolf whispered. “The important thing is we have Jocasta. A powerful ally and fearsome fighter.”

            “I’m sure she is,” Virriel said grudgingly. “That still does not mean she should be part of our team. We need to talk this over.”

            “How about a vote?” offered Demelza.

            “A vote!? Wolf spat. “This is not a democracy. Seydor came to me, and Virriel,” he added hurriedly. “Therefore, the two of us have the responsibility to divine His will.”

Ketri walked up the slope, distributing full canteens. Uncharacteristically, she weighed in on the argument in an effort to mollify tempers.

            “Settle down,” she soothed. “It’s already hot enough in this vault. Virriel, it appears you’ve returned from your position. Bring you news?”

            “Very soon, I think,” she replied.

            “Fos Imeras!” shouted a voice, and a cheer went up from the warriors.

            “Daylight,” offered Jocasta.

            “Yes,” said Virriel. “I was going to add that we’ve almost broken through.”

            “Great news!” Wolf exclaimed. “Let’s not spend another moment here.”

Ralf coughed. “Don’t mind me. Don’t want to hold you back.”

Wolf turned to see the smuggler on a second makeshift stretcher. The soldiers had donated their cloaks to make an even better transport for the wounded man.

            “I’ll be able to administer better treatments once we get to the surface Ralf,” Virriel said. “I promise.”

His pallid, jowly face managed a smile before he passed out again.

            “He’s lost a lot of blood,” the elf murmured.

            “We need to get him help,” Wolf agreed. “I just hope something of our civilization remains up there. To be honest, I’m worried.”

Jocasta joined her warriors below the staircase. “Let’s move people! Somewhere down the road there’s a battle to fight!” Her men gave a cheer, as if this were an eagerly anticipated mantra repeated for their amusement. Her broad smile filled everyone with confidence and infectious enthusiasm.

 




The Final Chapter was too large. I had to break it in half. I will place a book balloon on the story tomorrow, if new people want reviewing credit for the earlier chapters. Thanks to all those who have read from the start. Your feedback has been wonderful!
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