Einarr kept one hand on the low ceiling as he walked, bent half-over, down the passageway the runes had revealed. It was dark, but the far end of the passage was also open. Light filtered in from both ends: brilliant white from ahead, and the warm yellow of a torch from behind.
The passage was smaller than anything else they’d seen in the so-called Holy Mount, plainly sized for a single dvergr (or perhaps two) at a time. Still they went warily: not all dangers came in large forms, and that was doubly true when dealing with the mad followers of Malúnion.
At the far end of the tunnel, Einarr pressed himself against its wall and peered out into the room beyond.
In it, he saw a large stone slab, about the right size for a human body, with ropes drilled through it. Against the far wall stood a table, covered in implements whose use he could not guess at, and a door. The room was lit from above, by some means that seemed to mimic true sunlight, and otherwise empty. Einarr stepped out of the shadows of the tunnel cautiously, and the others followed.
“What is this place?” Naudrek wondered aloud.
“The Weaver-witch used to have a table like that,” Kaldr mused. “We found it while we were clearing out the dungeons. Only, hers wasn’t nearly so clean.”
Einarr nodded, suppressing a shudder. “Runa said she’d used human blood to dye her threads.”
Abruptly, horror filled his belly and closed his throat. Where was Runa?
He had seen enough of this room, he thought: recklessly, he pulled open the door that stood near the tool-covered table.
“Wait!” Thjofgrir called. When Einarr looked over his shoulder, he saw the others rushing towards him.
Nothing had happened. “I don’t think this is the sort of chamber you trap,” Einarr said, answering their obvious worries. “It’s possible he has some sort of alarm set up on this door, but this feels like a place that gets used a lot.”
A feminine voice came from the far side of the door. “Einarr?”
Einarr grinned and flung the door open the rest of the way. “Runa!”
His wife, looking faintly green, reclined in the center of a large, iron-barred cage in the middle of the room wearing nothing but her shift. She appeared to be alone. As the four men streamed in, she got unsteadily to her feet – although she couldn’t quite stand up straight.
Relief flooded her face. “Einarr! You made it. Thank goodness.”
“Of course I made it. How are you? Have they done anything to you?”
“No, I’m fine. I don’t even think the food was tainted – except with peppermint.”
She made a face. “Literally everything they gave me tasted of peppermint. I think I must have vomited on their priest.”
Kaldr looked troubled. “We were imprisoned for quite some time ourselves. They’ve had you here for ages now: do you know what they wanted you for?”
She shook her head. “Something about a vessel. I don’t know what he meant by that, though… and I should dearly love to get out of this cage.”
“Of course.” Einarr turned his attention to the lock and frowned.
Thjofgrir put a hand on his shoulder. “Allow me.”
Einarr and Runa both took a step back from the door of the cage as Thjofgrir raised his massive sword and brought the pommel down on the lock hard enough to smash it. The noise rang in Einarr’s ears.
Naudrek and Kaldr hurried over to guard the door while Thjofgrir stepped back, inspecting his hilt, allowing Einarr to be the one to open the door and free his bride. She half-stumbled out of the cage and into his arms.
After a quick embrace, he asked, “Where’s Vali?”
Wordlessly, Runa pointed to a corner of the room none of them had noticed. “I haven’t seen him since we fought off the salamander in the tunnels.”
Einarr frowned. “Troubling. Can you still carry his jar? It wouldn’t be right to just leave him behind.”
She nodded and hurried over to the corner where the painted jar sat. She still looked stiff, although as she moved she visibly loosened up. For a long moment she studied the jar before shaking her head and tucking it under her arm.
“I don’t know. We’ll want to take a closer look at it later. Until we know for sure, it’s probably for the best if he stays asleep, though.”
“As you say, my Lady. Have you got your things? The longer we stay here, the more likely someone is to come investigate,” Kaldr said from his post by the door.
Not many minutes later, Runa had gathered the few things she had carried from the pile they had been unceremoniously tossed in, dressed herself properly, and stood ready with Vali’s jar once again under her arm. “Okay. I’m ready.”
Panting and nauseous, Jorir stood looking on the corpse of the giant serpent they had unintentionally awakened by burning the lower hall. Smoke still billowed out from around its body, which would keep them from blocking the rest of the smoke in the doorway. It didn’t matter that the doors were well and truly down now: the smoke would infect anyone who ventured in here.
“Let’s go,” he croaked. “We can’t stop this, and we have a job to finish.”
Coughing, Brandir nodded his head in agreement while Gheldram helped Mornik back to his feet. Either the acolytes would come to clean up this mess, or the fire would spread further in the temple. He just hoped he hadn’t facilitated monsters like the ones they had faced on the docks at the svartalfr hideout.
Gheldram and Mornik had just limped into the stairwell leading to the next level when Jorir turned around. Something had changed… the heat on his back felt more intense, suddenly.
He didn’t truly know what any of that meant, only that something was seriously wrong. He spun back towards his friends and tackled Brandir, sending them both tumbling down the stairs and into Gheldram and Mornik.
The whole room shook, and the sound of calamitous thunder was followed by a gout of flame that nearly singed Jorir’s boots.
That was one way to get their attention.
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