The patrolling guards never saw what hit them. Einarr blinked to realize there were only two who came to investigate, and those two were already down. They continued on their way.
The passage Mornik led them down showed every sign of having been long forgotten. They passed truly massive spider’s nests and other signs of vermin as they crept down into the mountain and towards whatever horrors might lurk beneath on their way to reclaim Runa. Still, though, they moved cautiously and kept their speech to a minimum: voices carry in caves, after all, and there was no telling who might be listening on the other end.
They had not gone very far, though, before Einarr decided to risk a light. He claimed a loose stone from the ground and inscribed it with a sun rune, willing it to life very dimly – much as he had with his shield in the Paths of Stone.
From time to time they passed small branch passages, some of them no bigger than a crack in the wall, all of which appeared to have been claimed by vermin. When they heard a skitter or a squeak, it almost invariably came from down one of these passages. Little wonder they had been claimed by vermin after something like two hundred years – Jorir had never said when in the upheaval he was exiled, and now was not the time to ask.
At long last, their path led up against a stone door which did not look to have been disturbed for a very long while – although, since this was the route Mornik said he took before, looks were almost certainly deceiving here. The sneakiest of their dvergr companions, Mornik pressed his ear against the blocks that appeared to seal up the passage and listened. The others held their breath. After that seemingly breathless eternity, when Mornik was satisfied that the passage outside was clear, he put his back to the stone just off-center and pushed. Shockingly, the door swung open silently, as though it had been perfectly balanced for just such a circumstance.
Inside the habitable portion, the passages of the cult’s holy place were shockingly bright when compared with the stronghold of the svartalfrs. The walls were done in white limestone, and the fire that burned in the sconces was of the ordinary color. Einarr glanced to Jorir for an explanation, but the dvergr merely shook his head and shrugged.
It was Brandir who had the answer. “They’ve positioned themselves as the path to eternity and a way of ensuring survival through Ragnarok. They promised long-life, and cheating death, and for that their colors are white and gold,” he whispered. The fact that the same cult could have two such different faces was a puzzle to Einarr, but not a puzzle whose answer presented itself just yet.
Now that they were inside, it was time to part ways. Jorir and Brandir, and Gheldram and Mornik, were to split off and head for the outer reaches of the temple to cause yet more chaos. Meanwhile, Einarr and the other men were to seek out the priestly offices where they held their female captives.
As they parted ways, Jorir knelt before Einarr and hung his head. “My lord… forgive me. If it were not for me… for my conflicted loyalties, and my foolish obedience to a summons by a Thane no longer my own, none of you would have been captured, and Runa would not be in danger.”
Einarr smirked. “What are you bowing your head for? Rise. I knew we would have to come here someday, and you warned me what insanity we would face when we fought the svartalfrs. I knew that you were as loyal to your dvergr kith and kin as you were to me.” He offered Jorir a hand and pulled him to his feet. “As much as you are my liegeman, you are also my friend. We’ll save Runa and the babe, both. Good luck out there.”
“And to you.”
The two clasped hands, and then the party split – Einarr and his company heading off to the left, Jorir and his to the right.
There would be no hiding for their group: if they encountered cultists, the only thing they could do would be to kill them quickly. For that reason, Einarr was very glad to see that the ceilings had been built far taller here than in most dvergr architecture, to the point that they could actually all stand up straight. He preferred not to think too closely on why they might have done that, however: the only answer he got was of a she-troll, dead on the ground, and suddenly no longer a troll but a human woman. He shuddered as they rounded a corner.
“What is it?” Kaldr kept his voice low.
“Just… if the squiddies here are as… creative as the svartalfr ones, know that the creature you’re fighting may not be the creature you think you’re fighting.”
He glanced over long enough to see a troubled look on Kaldr’s face: just as well. It had been a terrible thing to be surprised by.
Mornik had given them a general idea of which way to go: after this passage, there would be another to their right, which would bring them into a long hallway lined with widely-spaced doors. Behind these doors were their female captives.
Around that third corner they practically collided with the first patrol they had seen since they entered the secret passage. Einarr didn’t think: he reacted. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sinmora was out of her sheathe and embedded in the dvergr’s belly. Black blood oozed around the crossguard. He gave the blade a twist to free it and sprang back before the corrupted blood could reach his hands.
As quickly as he dispatched that one, the other members of the patrol had not been caught quite so off-guard. One of them was occupied in holding off Thjofgrir’s powerful blows, while the last was dancing circles around Kaldr and Naudrek. Well. I can probably do something about that. He may have been preternaturally quick, but he still didn’t have eyes in the back of his head. Einarr swung Sinmora at the back of his legs, and while Sinmora bit deep it did not go down.
That was when eyes did, in fact, open on the back of its head.
“Aah!” Einarr turned his shout of horror into strength for his attack as he stabbed at the dvergr guardsman’s head. In the same moment, Kaldr and Naudrek buried their blades in its sides and it collapsed to the floor. Now all that was left was the one Thjofgrir fought.
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