Jorir jumped back, away from the latest strike of the snake’s jaws. Flames licked around its body from inside the temple, and the smoke in the room was thick and cloying. Even if it hadn’t been corrupted it would have been giving them issues. As it was, he was beginning to feel a little queasy.
If only there were some way we could hurt it without jumping into its maw… But, perhaps there was one. Scale armor was flexible, after all. While the scales overlapped, they were only attached on one side. If Jorir could plant his axe under one of them, and perhaps even pry it up, that would give them an advantage. Unfortunately, the angle he would have to strike at would be nearly impossible from the ground.
Now. How to get up on its back? Their battle had not been so fierce as to dislodge convenient stone blocks from the ceiling, after all. His eye lit upon one of the doors that still hung akimbo off of one of its hinges. He hadn’t the foggiest how they were going to shut up that room again, although they plainly would have to, but right now the door could be their key to victory.
“Keep it occupied!” Jorir bellowed over his shoulder. Without looking to see who heard him, he sprinted for the wildly tilted door. It was steep, but he could do it.
Jorir’s first foot pounded against the temple door. Ahead of him, the snake’s body writhed and he felt its baleful gaze fall on him. Then it shook its head again, its eyes squeezed shut, as Jorir raced up the surface of the door.
He leapt from the top of the ramp, his axe held high, as the last beleaguered hinge gave way and the door crashed to the ground.
Jorir landed on his feet in the middle of the serpent’s back and immediately began to slip: he let one foot continue forward even as he thrust the other foot back so that in the end he sat astride the overgrown snake like a horse. Not quite how he’d intended to land, but it would suffice.
He brought his axe down in a shallow slice, aiming for the edge of one of the scales near his foot.
It caught the edge of the scale. Behind him, he heard the beast hiss in pain. Then he twisted the axe so that the scale began to separate from the body.
That was when he heard a low, rumbling noise that permeated the room. The beast he sat on seemed to be vibrating along with it… was it growling? Jorir hadn’t known snakes could do that.
It didn’t matter. He jammed his booted toe under the lifted scale and cut again with his axe. This time he was able to pry it up at a good angle. Jorir started kicking at the underside of the scale, trying to pry it free.
“Look out!” Brandir’s voice cut through the chaos.
Jorir glanced over his shoulder and saw the massive maw of the snake thrusting towards him. He dove, grabbing for the edge of the loose scale to break his fall on the way down.
It tore off in his hands. Again the snake hissed loudly in pain and threw its head up towards the ceiling.
Jorir tossed the scale aside and resettled his grip on his axe. The gap was a little higher than he might like, but it was still a gap. He leapt again, swinging his axe overhead, and planted its blade in the soft, revealed flesh. Black blood welled up from the cut and from the hundreds of small pricks where the scale had separated from the skin. He hung briefly from the axe to pull at a nearby scale, already loosened by his efforts. As he dropped back to the ground, one of Mornik’s daggers buried itself in the new-found vulnerability.
The snake thrashed its midsection. Jorir scrambled backwards, even as he saw Brandir clinging to his own axe, still embedded in the corrupted flesh of the serpent.
Brandir gave a battle cry and brought his feet up against the loosened scale. He kicked against the scale at the same moment he wrenched his axe free, launching himself into a flip to land near Gheldram. A second scale tore free of the enraged beast before them.
Then Gheldram ran forward and brought his hammer up in a ferocious upward blow. It landed considerably lower than the flesh they had revealed, but Jorir could see the scales above growing looser. Between the fire on its tail and the dvergr in front, the serpent’s fight was growing both weaker and more desperate. Now they just had to finish it before the smoke overwhelmed any of them.
A sound like a far-off explosion rumbled through the priest’s chamber. Einarr looked up, surprised, only to see the others still searching diligently. Not that they had found anything particularly out of the ordinary. If it weren’t for the black-blooded acolytes, Einarr might have mistaken this for the room of one of the priests who had married him.
They had searched the entire room. They had even turned out the drawers of the dvergr’s desk and dresser. And still, no clue as to where Runa might be kept. He was just about to order a retreat to one of the other doors when his eye once again fell upon the portrait and mirror atop the dresser.
With a growl, he grabbed the portrait and turned it over. The frame came open easily, as though it were often removed. On the back of the portrait, three words were scrawled in badly drawn runes. He wanted to laugh: without his training under Elder Melja, he would have been lost, but this was plainly the key they had been seeking.
“Open. The. Door.” Einarr read aloud, pressing a trickle of his will into the words as he was suddenly certain the priest did regularly.
There was a click, and near the headboard of the bed, a panel in the wall slid open. Kaldr gave him a flat look, and Einarr shrugged. “There had to be something. But even if our princess isn’t back there, we’re sure to find something interesting. Come on.”
Without waiting, Einarr ducked into the secret passage in the high priest’s chamber. His gut still told him this was where he would find Runa, and he was still inclined to trust it.
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