Their pool of yellow light soon came to feel like an oasis in the darkening corridor they followed. At first, Einarr wondered if it was merely an illusion, but after a while it became plain that the blue flames on the ensconced torches were actually growing smaller. Was there something about the magic of Malùnion which could not stand the light of day, then? Einarr supposed it would fit. He wasn’t certain he’d ever encountered one under a clear sky.
Eventually, after long enough the inky darkness beyond their torchlight was beginning to unnerve even Einarr, a doorway shone out in front of them. There was light inside – a cold, blue-white light that was a little like looking into the sun. When the light resolved itself into an open doorway, it felt as though they all released their breath together. The moment’s relief, however, was short-lived. “Brace yourselves,” Einarr muttered. “There could be anything in there.”
Then they were moving forward again, weapons not drawn but ready. Einarr led the way through the threshold and stepped, blinking, into the chamber.
When his eyes adjusted, he saw row upon row of benches to either side, stretching forward far enough that he questioned how anyone seated at the back could make out what was going on in the front of the room. This setup was beginning to look familiar, though. “This look like a temple to you, Jorir?”
“Too much so,” he agreed.
“Svarek, Arring, Troa – you remember those beasties under the decks of the svartalfr ships?”
“Unfortunately,” Arring grunted.
“Whatever we meet here is probably going to be worse.”
Svarek groaned. Arring gave a feral-sounding growl. Troa stretched his bowstring.
“Let’s go.” Einarr drew Sinmora and picked up his pace. He had no idea what they were going to meet, but he felt far more comfortable with his blade in his hand.
The chamber was as painfully long as it first appeared, and as they moved forward it spread out from side to side, as well, so that there were multiple columns of the benches on either side, as well. And, now they could see what awaited them on the dais at the far side of the room: an altar, and a man, and a black mass that Einarr could not quite understand at this moment. The man was doing something at the altar, and the mass seemed to be reacting to it – thus, whatever was happening could be nothing good.
He started running. The last time he had been witness to a Squiddie rite, they had summoned that crab-fisted abomination. The others were hot on his heels.
An arrow whizzed past Einarr’s face. He glanced behind to see Troa lowering his bow and sprinting to catch up with the rest of them. Ahead, the priest’s chanting faltered momentarily as he clutched at his shoulder. The arrow must have struck shallowly: it was no longer affixed to the priest, although black blood now seeped into the back of his robes.
The black mass on the altar pulsed and throbbed to the priest’s chanting. Now that they were closer, it looked like nothing so much as the gathered curse energy that had bound the Isle of the Forgotten. For a moment, he wished he had Arkja, but only for a moment.
The mass was beginning to grow. Einarr heard another arrow fly: this one stuck fast in his other shoulder, but the priest hardly seemed to feel it. Rather than stumbling or crying out, he straitened his shoulders and turned around to face them. A maniacal laugh escaped his mouth, and his gaze seemed fixed somewhere above.
“Welcome, welcome!” The priest called out. The mad laughter filled his voice. “I see that our pawn led you straight to us. I am most pleased.”
Einarr slowed, his shield raised and his sword lowered. “Who are you?”
The priest’s voice became solemn suddenly. “I am Búrak, High Priest of Malúnion, and this is His temple. You are just in time.”
That really didn’t sound good. “In time for what?”
A grin split the man’s face nearly from ear to ear without touching his wide eyes. “Ascension.”
The black mass of energy began pulsing more, as though something were trying to punch through its membrane from the inside. The priest held his arms out to either side. Even as Einarr ordered his men to back off, two of the tentacle-like pods reached out and wrapped around the priest’s arms. Slowly – and yet, with alarming speed – the mass grew until it enveloped the mad priest. Purple lightning crackled around the spikes and feelers of the energy mass. Then it seemed to twist in on itself, like wringing water from a cloth.
Troa tried another shot, but it was worse than useless: the arrow burned up, head and all, in a burst of blue flames as it touched the writhing, coiling mass of corruption.
It pulsed upward once, twice, and on the third time it constricted itself down so far the energy seemed to be sucked up by the remnants of the creature inside.
It was no longer accurate to call what emerged from the energy a man, or even a human. It still had the same basic form, but the whites of its eyes had been subsumed into the swirling blue-purple marble of the iris, and its pupils glowed like a cat’s. The skin took on an obvious ash color, as though the last of the life in its veins had been traded for the corruption of Malúnion, and at the end of each finger grew a wicked-looking claw.
Power crackled around those hands now, and as he threw back his hands to laugh two things happened. First, Einarr got a look at his teeth: the needle-sharp teeth of predators everywhere. Second, he began to raise up off the ground.
The laugh had taken on an odd, echo-like sound. When he laughed, it sent chills down Einarr’s spine. When he spoke, it was as though two people spoke at once. “Rejoice, mortals,” it said. “For you have borne witness to my rebirth.”
Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!
This is what I expect to be the final book of The Adventures of Einarr Stigandersen. After four, almost five, years and fourteen books, I’m ready to move on to other projects – and I’m sure Einarr is ready for me to do so, as well – if only so I stop tormenting him! Fear not, however: my intention is to start a new serial, although not a purely free one. Look for a poll or an announcement from me in the next few weeks as I firm up my ideas.
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