The creature laughed again, this time with what sounded like real mirth. “A Cursebreaker? In my line? Oh ho, that’s rich.” The sound of feet scraping against the stone signaled that he’d turned again, even though Einarr couldn’t see his eyes. “Very well then, Cursebreaker. Face me. It’s the only way to get the sword.”

“How did I know that’s what you were going to say?” Einarr sighed and settled into a wrestler’s crouch. “Before we begin,I don’t suppose you could be persuaded to tell me what happened?”

“Ah-ah-ah. That, too, you’ll only get out of me if you defeat me. If you win, you get the sword and my head, and you can demand information then. If I win… I get a meal.” Einarr could practically hear it grin.

“So be it, then. We may begin whenever.”

A low growl, as of a wolf or a mountain cat, reverberated out of the darkness. Einarr closed his eyes, listening for the approaching scrape of feet or claws against the floor of the barrow.

At the last moment he pivoted, catching the huge, muscular hands with their wickedly sharp claws as the draugr attempted to drop on him from the ceiling. Einarr wouldn’t have thought a creature so large could move so nimbly, and yet it had almost got past his guard. Because of that, he now strained against the weight of the beast. He didn’t dare let Ragnar force him to the floor, and so he shifted to the side.

The massive form of the draugr stumbled past Einarr. The knife-like claws dug in to the back of his wrists, and the pair went spinning through the darkness, neither willing to release his grip on the other.

“Not bad, for meat,” the draugr hissed in his ear, and laughed. “But you’ll have to do better than that.”

Einarr felt the creature tense, and even still it was all he could do to jump out of the way of the kick that flew for his knees. Its toes were as sharp as its hands, and the claws sliced across the flesh of his thighs: the wounds felt like fire.

At the top of his jump, Einarr swung his own feet forward into an aerial kick. They connected, and the shock of the impact rattled his bones, but the draugr hardly moved. He landed, dodging another brutal kick. He was going to be at a disadvantage until he could get the thing flat on the ground.

“You may as well just lie down. I’m far too strong.”

He had the beast by the forearms, barely keeping its claws from him as it pressed ever closer. “You have the strength of the grave, nothing more.”

“More than enough for a boy like you.”

The light from outside seemed to be fading: he didn’t know if that was because he was so deep in the barrow or because time was passing too fast, but he didn’t have space to ponder the question. It lunged.

At the last second, Einarr dodged to the left, still without letting go of its arms. Off-balance, the creature stumbled, and Einarr swept its legs out from under it.

It worked – sort of. Ragnar’s corpse turned its fall into a roll and grabbed at Einarr’s waist. Not even its claws, however, were sharp enough to pierce the Brokkrsteel maille Einarr wore. Thank you, Jorir.

The two rolled across the floor until they finally came to rest with Einarr sitting on his chest even as the corpse continued to prod at Einarr’s armor with its talons. It was pinned, but it was not done yet.

“Oh, dear, whatever shall I do,” the creature mocked. “There’s an insect on my chest, who thinks he has me pinned.”

Einarr frowned, staring down at the cold flesh beneath him. He didn’t know if it would work, but maybe it would at least get the thing to stop talking: he punched, with all his weight and all force of his superior height, at the draugr’s throat.

For a wonder, it seemed the undead still needed to breathe. It choked on the impact.

Einarr punched it again. Already it was struggling to rise under his weight. He drew Sinmora and plunged it between the creature’s ribs, pinning it to the floor.

That wasn’t going to hold it for long. Einarr drew his knife, then. Leaning into Sinmora, he stabbed down into the breastbone. Once and twice before he had to duck a swinging claw, then two more times. He poured his will into the sigil he had just drawn – more will than a single rune had ever before called for.

There was a small fwoosh as the dead flesh caught and illuminated the fire rune he had inscribed there. Einarr sprang back before the flames could catch him, as well.

The creature chuckled, utterly unperturbed by the fire that now spread rapidly over its body. “You thought to stop me with flames of this level?”

Einarr ignored the taunt. He was already searching for Ragnar’s sword – the very blade he had come in search of.

“You’ve lost, Ragnar. Why don’t you go ahead and tell me what killed you?”

“Lost? Hardly. You didn’t overpower me, you merely pinned me to the ground like a bug and set a rather pleasant fire. Can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve been warm. …Well, I suppose that’s worth something. Fine.” It chuckled again. Einarr was growing truly sick of that sound.

“I’m afraid Wotan had some rather strong feelings about my hospitality. As consideration, he left me quite a wondrous gem. You can have it, if you want.”

Einarr glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, the draugr was wriggling on the floor, slowly working Sinmora out of the earth. Once he was free, Einarr would be faced with an unbent, powerful, flaming draugr. I have to find that sword.


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