The cushions caught fire almost immediately, and soon the room was choked with a thick, oily black smoke – far thicker and more pungent than ordinary cloth and feathers should produce. An unearthly wail came from somewhere in the room, even though it had been empty of dvergr when they kicked open the door.

Jorir shared a look and a nod with Brandir, and then as one they pulled the door closed behind them. Whatever that had been, he had no desire to face it in the midst of a conflagration. “Ready yourselves,” he warned the others.

He needn’t have bothered. Gheldram shouldered between Jorir and Brandir and braced with his shield, his massive hammer held ready.

In the hall ahead, the sounds of thrashing grew louder and wilder, and the wail became an angry shriek. This was not precisely what Jorir had expected when he threw that torch.

“Here it comes,” he growled.

The door to the outermost temple burst open once more, the heavy doors this time flying off their hinges as a head like a giant serpent’s charged through.

Even lit in the glow of the fire behind it, its scales were a mottled greenish-black, more of a void of color than an actual color itself. Its eyes, though, glowed like molten gold. It opened its mouth wide to hiss at the four dvergr standing against it, and Jorir saw black corruption dripping down its fangs. Not that it mattered: its mouth was large enough, it could swallow any one of them whole.

He raised his axe anyway. This was not a creature they could set free if there was any help for it. On Gheldram’s other side, Brandir also took his fighting stance. Mornik moved behind them, and from the corner of his eye Jorir could see him limbering a brace of knives.

The snake hissed again and drew back its head, ready to strike. The four dvergr held their positions, watching it warily. They would only have a heartbeat to move.

“Now!” Jorir bellowed. He couldn’t have explained how he knew any more than he could read runework, but he knew. His four old friends sprang apart as the snake’s head lashed forward. Jorir leapt into a roll. When he came to his feet again, he charged the snake’s side, just below its head.

It had buried its fangs in the stone floor. The delay in getting them out gave them all just enough time to rush in for an attack. Jorir brought his axe down in a mighty overhand swing.

It didn’t so much as scratch a scale.

He sprang back, frowning. The serpent, its fangs nearly free, shook its head back and forth, as though something had actually hurt it. He looked at Gheldram, but the young smith shook his head: his hammer had not phased it, either.

Jorir looked again: something seemed to be wrong with the snake’s eye: there was a clear ooze flicking back and forth across the surface. Had Mornik damaged its eye?

Well, Hel, he thought, amusement dancing under the surface. This was going to be terrible, but the creature’s weakness was at least easy enough to see, if they dared to attack it. He started crab-walking back toward the center of the room, never taking his eyes from the monster.

Behind it, the fire raged. A small voice in the back of his mind wondered why they hadn’t seen any acolytes, come to put out the fire, yet – but, of course, the monsters of Malúnion were not known for discriminating between sources of food. Maybe they would be lucky and spot a broken scale the next time it reared up: that had to be better than trying to strike its eyes or the inside of its mouth.

A crashing sound came from within the temple: the giant snake was still lashing its tail about, evidently discomfited by the fire. The black, oily smoke grew thicker: its smell alone was enough to make Jorir feel nauseous.

I’m a fool.

The fire was plainly injuring the poor beast – probably, under the circumstances, an ordinary viper transformed by the dark magics of the priest – but its blood and venom both were corruption. If its flesh was burning, and its flesh was thoroughly corrupted, then what would happen if the uncorrupted breathed that smoke?

“Kill it! Quickly! We have to shut that door!”

Kaldr found the next staircase. This one led not to a long hall of prison cells, but to a shorter – although more opulent – one of priestly chambers. Several sturdy wooden doors, reinforced with iron bands, lined each wall, but at the far end of the hall stood one that appeared to have been painted white and decorated with golden scrollwork. Einarr couldn’t have said why, but he felt sure that was where they would find his bride. Without waiting for discussion he started down the hall, ignoring the other rooms.

“My Lord?” Kaldr asked, catching up.

“Another hunch. We’re starting there.” Einarr pointed ahead at the ostentatious door.

Kaldr shrugged, and the three men fell into step behind their Prince without another word.

Einarr was mildly surprised to find that the door was not locked. He frowned at the door for a long moment, wondering if this could be a trap. With a small, exasperated sigh, he put his hand on Sinmora’s hilt and shouldered open the door. Trap or not, they would have to investigate here.

He wasn’t really certain what he expected to find in this room: rows of cages, perhaps, like he had rescued Runa from before, or victims chained to the wall but this… was shockingly ordinary. Opulent, yes, but, not really that much different from his own chambers at Raenshold. Panic started to rise in his belly: had he been deceiving himself and trusting his eyes too much?

“Search the room! There’s sure to be something of use in here.”

He followed his own instructions, turning to the dvergr-sized dresser immediately to his right. It, too, appeared perfectly ordinary – far more ordinary than he would expect, frankly, from the bed-chamber of a high priest of Malúnion. There was a small portrait sketch of a young dvergr woman, a hand mirror, and what Einarr guessed were personal totems, although he did his best to avoid touching those.

Kaldr voiced the thought that was ringing through Einarr’s skull: “This doesn’t make any sense.”

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