The dvergr who faced Thjofgrir was matching him blow for blow, keeping them both locked in the clinch. Other than Arring, Einarr would be hard-pressed to find a man stronger than Thjofgrir, but these were dvergr. Furthermore, they were corrupted dvergr. Rather than wait for the corrupted dvergr to pull his trick, Einarr and Kaldr both charged him, their blades leveled at his back.
As an attack, it failed utterly as the dvergr spun and batted away both their blades in one smooth movement. As a distraction, however, it was a wild success. Thjofgrir rebounded from the clinch and buried his blade across the dvergr’s back. “I had him,” Thjofgrir growled as the corrupted dvergr crumpled to the floor.
“Maybe so,” Einarr allowed, catching his breath. “But it looked to me like he was playing with you. These are monsters, not men, and you never know when they’re going to show their true colors.”
Thjofgrir hummed but offered no more protest.
Einarr, after a quick glance across all of them showed only minimal exposure to the blood, nodded and continued down the hall. Without another word, the others jogged after him.
They encountered no more guards before they reached the hallway Mornik had mentioned. As he rounded the corner, though, Einarr stopped to gape.
The hallway ahead seemed to stretch on for miles, although that should have been impossible – they were inside a mountain, after all – and the walls were nothing but one door after another, with almost no space in between. The space behind those doors couldn’t be anything but cramped, even for a child. Einarr shuddered to think how Runa might be taking such confined captivity.
“Naudrek, you’re with me on the right. Kaldr, Thjofgrir, you take the left. We leapfrog down the line. Any captives who aren’t immediately hostile can go free if their blood is still red.”
A noise of agreement came from all three men together, and they began working their way down the line. When they had gotten about halfway down, leaving the doors open for a handful of unfortunate, weeping dvergr women, Naudrek stopped.
“Come take a look here,” he said.
In front of him, instead of another room, was a steep, unlit stairway heading deeper into the mountain.
“We haven’t found anyone up here with even a hint of magical talent, nor anyone who seems to have been captured recently enough,” Einarr mused. “I think we need to head down.”
Kaldr raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“No,” Einarr answered with a rueful smile. “Just a hunch. Only, based on what I saw before, a woman like Runa is going to be a much more valuable prisoner for them than anyone we’ve seen here.”
“Valuable as a hostage?” Kaldr’s question was reasonable, but that wasn’t it.
“As an experiment.” He felt sick saying it, but that was what he had seen among the svartalfrs. “They make a target out of Singers – maybe those who practice other Arts, as well, but Singers for sure. Part of it is, they claim to hate magic – any magic that doesn’t come from their ‘god,’ anyway. But there was a she-troll we had to fight our way past in their fortress, before. A she-troll, who had once been an ordinary Singer.”
“How do you know?” Naudrek looked vaguely green as he asked the question.
“After we killed her, she turned back.”
“By the gods…” Thjofgrir breathed.
Kaldr shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense, though, that the dvergr cult would be creating monsters like that. Not with how Brandir said they’ve sold themselves here.”
“Doesn’t it? Wouldn’t they need an all-powerful army to defend Nilthiad during Ragnarok?” Einarr shook his head. “Even if no one outside these halls knows about it, we’ve seen plenty of evidence already that they’re turning their own members into monsters, and that’s proof enough for me. There’s a rather significant measure of madness involved in whatever the Squiddies touch.”
“And what if your hunch is wrong?” Naudrek challenged.
“Then we fight our way back up here, I suppose. But I don’t think it is. I think they’ll have Runa much further in than this.”
There was nothing more to be said to that. The others followed him down the staircase, another glowing rock in hand to light their way.
At the bottom was another long hallway, although in this one the doors were spaced somewhat further apart. The cages, while larger, were mostly empty. One or two were occupied, but their occupants were both chained and drugged into a stupor. Einarr did not like to think what that suggested about their mental state, or how controlled they were. They moved on: as horrible as this was, they could not lose sight of their goal. Runa was in here somewhere, and Runa was with child. Please let them be unharmed…
Now that they were well and truly separated from the humans, Jorir and the other dvergr ran down the halls without a care for who they alerted. They had – not entirely selfishly – taken on themselves the task of causing mayhem in the Holy Mount of the Deep Wisdom sect. Once upon a time, he had tried to bridge the gap between the squiddies and the rest of the dvergr: for his trouble, he had been cursed: never more would his smithing produce magic, nevermore would he be able to so much as recognize the runes. And, when he raised the alarm, he had been exiled for his trouble.
This may have been a little personal from the beginning.
Jorir’s mouth curled into a rictus of a grin. With the capture of the Lady Runa, they had just made this very personal. He was going to enjoy this.
He and Brandir approached a wide double-door, leading – he thought – into the outermost temple area. As one, they kicked forward with heavy boots and the doors flung open. It looked like a gathering place, anyway: there were long benches with comfortable-looking cushions, and the walls were draped with ridiculous quantities of cloth. He snatched a torch from its sconce and flung it forward into the room.
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