The five humans only made it as far as the hallway filled with priestly quarters before they ran into trouble. Halfway down stood a pair of dvergr dressed like priests. The white robes with their gold trim made their complexions look ghastly and grey.
The one in the front shrieked and pointed directly at Runa. “The vessel!”
Einarr wasted no time waiting for an explanation: he drew Sinmora.
“That’s the one who kept examining me,” Runa said, then cleared her throat.
“No! Don’t Sing here.”
Runa looked askance at Einarr’s order, but an order it was.
“Remember how the svartalfrs reacted to Song magic.”
Now she nodded. Thjofgrir and Naudrek had already taken the lead, and while the two priests up ahead were more durable than your average dvergr, they were still subdued easily.
“You want ‘em alive?” Thjofgrir asked, a knee in the back of the one who had spoken.
Einarr frowned, thinking. Could someone be redeemed when they were as… corrupted as these two appeared to be? He didn’t know, but they might be worth questioning later. “Throw them in the cage. I’ll improvise a new lock.”
“Why bother?” Runa’s voice was cold. At Einarr’s raised eyebrow, she continued. “Even the Matrons don’t know how to undo this. You’re the Cursebreaker, but these dvergr took the corruption into themselves – and willingly, as near as I’ve been able to gather. You’re better off killing them than leaving an enemy like this at our backs.”
Einarr shook his head. She wasn’t wrong, but… “Do it, Thjofgrir. We have no good way to shield ourselves from the corrupted blood, so I’d rather not expose you to any more of it than I can avoid.”
Runa grumbled, but evidently didn’t have a good counterargument for that. As well she shouldn’t: last time they’d fought this cult, the Matrons had sent him off after an artifact that belonged to Wotan’s wife – and that had disappeared after they destroyed Urdr’s Weavings over Breidelstein. (Einarr was not looking forward to explaining that to Ystävä, if the alfr ever decided to collect.) Somehow, he doubted Wotan would let him “borrow” it a second time.
They locked them in the cage, only it was not so much a lock. Einarr traced a series of runes along the edge of the door, and when they began to glow the bars became red-hot. When they cooled, moments later, the runes were gone and the bars had fused together entirely.
Einarr gave his wife half a smile. “You were worried about them being left behind us? I think, somehow, we’ll be okay.”
Jorir was pleased to discover that the smoke had not spread to the floor above. As they climbed out of the choking miasma, they all began to regain their strength. He hoped that meant they had made it out in time. “Once we’ve destroyed the Squiddies,” he muttered. “I’m dragging all of you with me to a priestess of Frigg.”
Mornik coughed. He seemed to have taken the worst of it. “Suits me fine.”
“We need to keep moving.” Brandir looked nervously up and down the hall. It was odd that they hadn’t seen more acolytes: were they perhaps down in the streets, dealing with the bigger distraction?
Jorir moved up next to Brandir and took a look around as well. This would be a level for the next level of initiate, Jorir suspected, but there were only three more levels between where they were and where they had left the humans. “Well, come on. This way. We kill anything that moves, and break anything that looks like it might keep them busy, just like below.”
Gheldram chuckled drily. “Perhaps not just like below.”
Unfortunately for Jorir’s team, the second level was lined with initiate quarters along the outside edges, but the features in the more spacious interior seemed largely recreational. There was a mess, and a training hall, and not much of anything else. Furthermore, this floor, too, seemed to be deserted.
Less than halfway through the floor, as Jorir judged it, he stopped. “Something’s not right here. Where is everyone?”
Gheldram, too, frowned. “You’re right. The distraction in the streets wouldn’t account for this.”
“We head back up. We’ll meet Lord Einarr’s team in the designated spot and keep it clear.”
The four dvergr found themselves crouching in the middle of the stairway up to the final floor, the one they had entered through the hidden passage, and cursing their fortunes. They could just see the floor above, and it appeared to be packed with squiddies.
“More or less what we feared,” he whispered.
“Rather. But, the more we can clear out, the fewer your human friends have to deal with, right?” Brandir looked grim, and Jorir didn’t blame him at all. That was a lot of squiddies: their best hope was that they were clustered together in groups, rather than packed that full the whole way through. He nodded in response and took a firmer grip on his axe handle. Then, without a word, he held up three fingers.
When the last finger became part of Jorir’s fist, all four dvergr charged the high ground.
It never would have worked if the squiddies had been expecting it. Thankfully for Jorir and his team, none of the acolytes near the door were paying any attention to the stairway behind them – almost as if they didn’t think there could be any other groups of enemies in the Mount. Not for the first time, Jorir was glad that the corruption changed the way people functioned in some rather predictable – and stupid – ways.
The first rank of four, those closest to the door, fell without a fight, and suddenly Jorir and his team were standing where they had been, laying about themselves and destroying the corrupted dvergr as quickly as they could manage. They were halfway back to the secret passage when Jorir felt his strength beginning to flag. He supposed, after that cursed snake and all the smoke down below, that he shouldn’t be surprised, but it still rankled.
That was when some of the squiddies began to stand back up. One of them, quite nearby, had been disemboweled. When those bowels began to twist and writhe on their own, their color getting darker and darker until it was nearly black, Jorir concluded they were entirely too close. “Gheldram!”
He hardly needed to catch the man’s attention. Even as the word left his mouth, the massive hammer came down on the writhing tentacles on the floor, pulverizing them. Now Jorir felt queasy for an entirely legitimate reason.
“Quickly! We must secure the passage!”
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