Einarr raised the chisel to the wall and gently tapped it with the hilt of his belt knife. As he drew the vertical line he focused on the defensive aspects of the rune. “We seek” tap “A dvergr friend” tap tap “Who is lost” tap. “We come,” he said, starting on the outward angle, “to aid him in his quest.”
As he connected the outer angle of the ᚦ, Einarr dropped the chisel as though it had burned him and straightened so that he stood entirely within his ward. He gripped Runa’s hand, waiting for the trap to spring.
He shared a perplexed look with Runa, then took another look around them.
A new message had appeared on the plinth. “Dvergr quests are for dvergr alone. Turn back, ye who are no kin of ours, or know that ye have been warned: all who come this way without dvergr blood will perish.”
Then the door opened with an audible click. Beyond it, the passage lay in deep shadow.
Einarr did not need to look at his companions to know their resolve: he could feel it. He set his jaw and stepped forward, out of his useless ward and into the passage ahead. There was simply no other option: they would return with Jorir or not at all.
Inside, the path traveled in a plumb line forward, with only a slight downward angle. Irritatingly, it was scaled for dwarves. Even Runa had to stoop to avoid bashing her head against the uneven ceiling: Thjofgrir was nearly bent double until he went to his hands and knees. Thankfully, it was also wide enough for dwarves to pass easily, two or perhaps three abreast, so Einarr and his companions adopted a defensive posture. Einarr and Kaldr took the lead, to make the best use of the light that still glowed from Einarr’s shield. Naudrek and a grumbling Thjofgrir were on the rearguard, while Runa and Vali kept to the middle.
Abruptly, after they had gone at least two hundred yards down the abnormally straight tunnel, their path turned hard to the right and they found themselves in a much broader chamber with five doors. Each door bore a pattern of runes on the lintel, just as the door outside had – although none of them had a plinth with a chisel.
Einarr took in the room with a glance. “Well, nothing for it. Split up, and let’s each examine a door. Give a shout if anything looks promising. Otherwise, we’ll all come back to the center after a half of an hour. Agreed?”
Thjofgrir took a look around the room as well before sitting down cross-legged. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll stay on watch here in the middle.”
Einarr couldn’t really fault the man: the ceiling, after all, was no higher here than it had been in the passage. “Excellent, thank you,” he said. There was no harm in allowing the man his pretext, at least for the moment. Einarr just hoped they wouldn’t have to fight on their way down.
A few minutes later, as they were all split up and examining their respective doors, Runa’s voice carried across the room. “Einarr? What do you make of these lintel runes?”
Einarr shook his head, though. “They’re plainly some sort of ward. Beyond that, without seeing any of the circle they’re a part of? Hrug might have been able to tell you, but I can’t. Why?”
“Just I wondered if they might be able to give us some warning of what we’ll find beyond them. If the svartdvergr Thane is using traps to kill interlopers in here, perhaps if we took some time to understand the traps we could mitigate them.”
He hated to stop moving and take the time, but… Einarr nodded. “Not a bad plan at all. Thjofgrir, if I gave you some chalk, could you copy down the runes from there?”
“I can’t read them…”
“You don’t need to. Actually, it’s probably better if you don’t. That way you can’t accidentally activate something that will kill us all.”
The tall man grunted. “Give me the chalk, then. I’ll do what I can.”
At the end of the half-hour, all that had really been determined was that each and every door was locked, and Thjofgrir had terrible handwriting. Five minutes after that, Einarr had adeptly corrected the copied runes so that they were legible. He and Runa stood staring down at the copies.
“There’s a definite pattern here,” he mused.
“If I was trying to draw a picture of resonance, I’d use a pattern like this, I think,” Runa added.
“Interesting. Okay. Most of these runes are there to amplify the effect or constrain the timing – for defense, naturally. See the thorn there, and the yr. Which means that the traps are set by… these runes. The centerpiece, I should have guessed. I see fire, ice, air, and earth… what in the world?” The centerpiece on the last door was the eiwaz – the dream rune. “Let’s not go there.”
“Whyever not?” Thjofgrir asked.
“That’s the rune for the yew tree and for dreams. Each and every one of these wards is probably going to try to kill us. How would you kill someone with dreams?”
“Ah.” Kaldr shuddered.
“Exactly. There might be a way to evade these traps, but I don’t yet know how… Which element are we most interested in chancing?”
Runa peered over his shoulder. “You know, when you write them out that way, it almost looks like a message. ‘Which end do you wish: Burning, Freezing, Choking, Crushing, or Madness?”
Silence settled over the group as they pondered those words.
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