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Posted:|| April 8, 2021 Views: 51|
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Chapter 14 of the book The Stoneseekers
Resolution of the Alley Skirmish with the Blue Moon
A man is taksed by a god to compete in a cosmic contest with far reaching ramifications for his world and worlds beyond. The novel looks at the struggle of Good and Evil, and attempts to define Justic
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.
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.”
|The book continues with The Emperor. We will provide a link to it when you review this below.|
Warning: Brutal, graphic violence can be found in this chapter.
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