Where Einarr had expected to see a third switchback, they were instead presented with a fork in the road. There was, of course, no good way of telling which way was north down here, and so with a shrug they turned left.
A little further on, the path split again. Again they went left.
Then left. Einarr growled softly in the back of his throat. This was taking too long: had they missed a turn?
Kaldr stopped, evidently sensing Einarr’s hesitancy. “What is it?”
Einarr shook his head, knowing his Mate wouldn’t see it. “I don’t know. Something feels off, is all.”
“Is there anything that doesn’t feel off down here?”
Naudrek, behind Runa, snorted.
Einarr smirked. “Not really, no.” He sighed, then. “Keep your eyes open. This may be the dvergr’s path… or we may have missed another secret and wandered into more traps.”
He could hear the frown in Runa’s voice as she spoke. “Should we douse the shield and try your runestone again?”
“Not if there’s any way around it. Have you ever stared out over the open ocean at noon on a clear day, when the sun shimmers on the water?”
“Far too often,” Thjofgrir answered from the rear.
Einarr nodded to himself. That was a much better comparison for a sailor than a Singer, after all. “After a while, your eyes start to hurt. It’s too bright. Using the runestone is like that, if instead of just the water the sun was also reflecting off the air around you. I feel like if we tried that down here we’d blind someone.”
Runa said nothing: he hoped that meant she understood.
“Go on, Kaldr. There’s not really anything else we can do but keep walking.”
A little further on, they came to a room where pathways branched off like spokes on a wheel. Kaldr paused at the entrance, surveying the room. “Left and right are basically meaningless here. I count eight branches.”
Einarr sighed and closed his eyes, clearing his mind. Then, with a nod, he opened them again and drew his chalk from the pouch at his belt. “Third to the right. I’ll mark it with chalk as we go.”
He shrugged. “Call it a hunch.”
As they neared the center of the room, though, a wave of vertigo swept over Einarr and he felt himself stagger. He raised his head and blinked, trying to re-orient himself, even as he saw the others doing the same. “What was that?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” Kaldr grumbled. “How are you feeling, Lady Runa?”
“A little unsteady yet, but don’t worry about me. The peppermint has my stomach well in order.”
Einarr wrapped an arm about her waist. “Say something if you need a break, all right?”
“Of course.” She offered him a slightly wan smile, but it did not look any more ill than he felt.
“It was third from the right, wasn’t it?”
“Third from the right, counted from the passage we just left.”
“…And which one was that?” Naudrek asked.
A moment of silence passed as they all realized – even Vali – that they just didn’t know.
“Did you make a chalk mark as we left?” Kaldr asked.
“I did, yes.”
“So where is that?”
Einarr turned around, searching for the mark he had made not two minutes earlier. What looked like a smudge of white was visible on the wall in one of the tunnels off to their left. “I see it. There.”
When they followed the path that led them on, however, they found themselves back at the switchbacks. Einarr pressed his lips into a line. Had it been the wrong path, or had he gotten more turned around than he thought?
They retraced their steps, and once again found themselves at the room with eight doors.
His chalk mark was gone.
Pursing his lips, he made another chalk mark. “Something is very strange here. Try the fifth on the left this time – and let’s hug the wall as we go.
No sooner had Thjofgrir stepped into the room, however, than the wave of vertigo swept over them all again. Once he had his feet, Einarr retraced his steps.
They had not even left the room yet, and his chalk mark was gone. He cursed.
“Kaldr, how many doors had you passed when the vertigo hit?”
“Two… I think.”
“We have to trust something. Three more, then.”
As they filed out of the room, he once more made a chalk mark on the wall.
Not much further on, they came to another Y in the paths. Kaldr stopped short. “I feel like we’ve been here before, too.”
Runa groaned. Einarr couldn’t blame her.
“In that case, let’s backtrack. Back to the wheel room. There’s plainly something in there we’re missing.” It was possible he was wrong, granted. But if the dvergr had gone to all the trouble of putting this kind of a ward on that room, chances were good there was an actual way forward.
As the third wave of vertigo passed, Runa sat down in the middle of the floor. “Sorry. Just give me a minute to chew some more peppermint and drink some water.”
“Take the time you need. I wasn’t planning on moving on right away this time anyway. Everyone else – we’re combing the room. We’re looking for a ninth passage.”
Thjofgrir cleared his throat. “So, maybe this is a silly question, but… what if it’s a trap door we need?”
Einarr paused, considering. It wasn’t a bad thought, but… “I don’t think it will be. Up until this point, the Paths have been big enough a dvergr could have wheeled a small cart up and down. They use these passages to transport their goods for sale, I think.”
Evidently satisfied, Thjofgrir shrugged and nodded. The five of them began their search methodically, from the door they had just entered by and working up both sides of the room.
“Hey!” Naudrek said, when he was a little more than halfway up the left. “I think I found something.”
Einarr stepped away from the section of wall he and Vali examined. “Show me.”
Naudrek was standing in front of a narrow crack in the wall. Even knowing there was something there, Einarr could not see it until he was right next to the wall. “You just might be right,” he mused. “They’d have trouble taking a cart through here, but I think if we all turn sideways and squeeze a little we can get through. Gather up, everyone!”
With obvious reluctance, Runa stood up and moved over to join the rest of them at the crack.
“Kaldr, will you do the honors again?”
Einarr followed him in, leading with his illuminated shield. The others squeezed in behind them.
He blinked. What happened to Kaldr?
The next thing he knew, the floor dropped out from beneath his feet.
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