Hi, Everyone! Allene here. We’re going to try something special with book 8, assuming I don’t exhaust myself in the process. In an effort to get my rankings higher on TWF and RRL, I’m aiming to post two chapters/day for the next two weeks (so, 28 chapters in 2 weeks, or what will probably be most of the book), and then go straight into book 9 when it’s done. Wish me luck!

As was probably to be expected of an island of this size with the number of people it must have had, most of the interior was taken up by farmland – although Einarr would have hesitated to tend any crops there now. It was bad enough hurrying across the abandoned fields, eyes open for anything – man or beast – that might be hostile.

There were, however, significant benefits to traipsing over farmland, namely in open and easy terrain. Even skulking, trying to avoid combat with anything still alive here, it only took them a few hours to cross the handful of miles between Kettleness and Southwaite. Thankfully, they encountered no more of the strangely shimmering curtains. Forced to the choice, he would risk Sinmora against one again rather than sending any of their number through… but the idea of Sinmora becoming tainted disturbed him nearly as much.

Their first sign that they were approaching Southwaite was the rise of walls – far more impressive than the wooden palisade that had served Kettleness, but not, to Einarr’s way of thinking, anything that would slow a ship of Clan raiders more than an hour or two. They drew nearer, and then Einarr caught sight of the fortress within the walls, a great rectangular brick of stone, quarried who knew where, that squatted over the village like some giant toad.

“As expected,” Einarr muttered.

“I beg your pardon?” Liupold’s eyes, too, were on the castle town ahead.

“If this is the seat of whatever petty jarl rules this island, as it appears to be, then they will want the defenses and capacity of that citadel for their own purposes. The captives should be in the citadel prison. At least, that’s where I found Runa.”

Liupold hummed and they continued forward.

Einarr still saw no sign of whatever that strange curtain of energy had been outside Kettleness. Why would they not use it as a defense around their base of operations?

Why had they not seen any in the svartalfr fortress?

He shook his head: they had not. He was not going to assume their absence here, but it made no sense not to worry over their absence, either. “Be cautious,” he whispered as they drew into view of the unguarded gate. “I expect the corrupted will have gathered their forces here, so as to better defend themselves.”

“That’s almost certainly the case,” Liupold agreed. “Follow me. Assuming the old Lord stuck to convention, I know right where the prisoners will be held.”

Sneaking their way through the castle town of Southwaite was almost anticlimactic compared to the circle fortress of the svartalfr city. Not that there weren’t corrupted villagers everywhere – there were – but the villagers seemed less at ease in their corruption than the cultists in the circle fort had been. Did it perhaps take some time for the corruption to take full control of the mind, even after the body succumbed? He did not know, but the only way he could think of to find out would ensure their enemies knew they were there.

True to his word, Liupold led them down the narrowest of village ways to a small servant’s entrance in the side of the castle near the wall. Up until that point, it was easy.

Inside, the fortress was filled with labyrinthine narrow passages, any one of which could hold one of the shambling, half-asleep villagers who grasped pitchforks and javelins alike like walking sticks. More than once Liupold had to duck back behind a corner he had just rounded, or dash across an intersection, to avoid the notice of the strangely lethargic villagers.

They had nearly reached the cells in the bottom of the keep when Einarr noticed something he wished he had not.

One of the villagers in the cross-hall, who he could see without being seen – he thought. The figure turned around, and Einarr saw what appeared to be a mass of dried blood on her neck. A large mass of dried blood. A strong wind gusted down the hallway and the head tilted back at an unnatural angle.

She was already dead.

Einarr’s breath caught in his throat. This wasn’t a regrowth of the cult, like he’d thought, at all. The kraken itself had brought the people around to its rule, and those it could not bend it broke and made into puppets.

When next they had a quiet place, hidden from the view of any of the creature’s flesh-puppets, Einarr warned the others. “Are you sure these captives are still alive?”

“The very existence of the Order of the Valkyrie depends upon it. I only wish I were exaggerating.”

Einarr nodded. “Just so long as you understand, I do not believe there is anyone else alive to save here. We get the captives, and we run before the kraken can figure out where we are.”

“Don’t we need to destroy the kraken, too?” Naudrek asked.

“Yes, but… on our terms. Not its, and definitely not on ground chosen by its flesh-puppets. Are we almost there?”

“Nearly. As soon as I find the next stairwell, we only have two more flights to descend.”

“Assuming the prison is where you think it should be, of course.”

“Of course.”

He shook his head, a little exasperated. “Well, lead on. Hrug, you’re getting all this, right?”

The mute nodded his head and made a gesture Einarr recognized as later.

“All right, then. Down we go, I guess.”

If this was a typical Imperial fortress, Einarr was just as glad they weren’t trying to storm it. The stairs alone would have been murder holes, not to mention the twisty corridors that seemed to make up the bulk of each floor. Still, with a castle defended entirely by the kraken’s puppets, reaching the prison cells in the basement was not so difficult as the designers intended. Ahead of them stood a single straight hallway, bounded on either side by solid wooden doors. The one responsible for guarding the cells, however, stood very alert in the center of the guard room.

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