This marks the final chapter of Book 12: Einarr and the Paths of Stone. As I have developed a habit of taking a month off between books, Book 13 will begin on 8/3/2021.

Kaldr and Runa set to work, searching every surface with their fingers, hunting for some way to unlatch that door from this side.

When Vali’s keening dissolved briefly into a mad cackle, their search grew more desperate. Kaldr thought he began to understand Runa’s concern for the ghost. This was wreaking havoc on his own mind: what must be happening to Vali’s?

Across the room, the others staggered back to their feet. Evidently, the brief lapse in the keening allowed them to pull their heads together a little. Kaldr wished that had worked for him: instead, he now felt lonely and spooked. Naudrek, still clutching the side of his head, came up beside him. “What are you looking for?”

“A switch. A lever. A button. Something that could open the way.”

Without another word, Naudrek joined the hunt, followed shortly by Thjofgrir.

Then the unearthly green of the statues’ eyes began to flash – not all at once, but one at a time, as though the apparition’s keening was not enough, and now it needed some new outlet for the madness embodied by that sound. One by one, around and around the circle went the flash of ghost light, and always getting faster. Kaldr found it quite disorienting.

Thjofgrir stopped in the middle of examining a statue to clap both hands over his ears. “Runa!” he bellowed. “Can’t you do something to calm him down?”

Kaldr couldn’t see her reaction, but he was not at all surprised to hear the answer.

“You want to put us all to sleep again? He’ll hit the resonance too fast.”

“Found it!” Naudrek cried from the other side of the room. His words were accompanied by an audible click.

Oh, thank the gods. He could see the seam in the wall that marked the edge of the door now, and it was slowly creeping outwards. Who has the jar?

Runa did, still. Somehow. That was good. Kaldr hurried over to her. “Get the jar through the door as soon as it opens. I’ll get him.”

She nodded her agreement, looking almost frantic. Probably even her training couldn’t fully block out the effects of a mad ghost’s wail.

Kaldr looked down at his Prince. Runa had said he was all right, but his face was pale and a thin line of dried blood traced down his cheeks from each nostril. The backlash from all these statues must have been tremendous. I wonder how it would work to carry a little carving with me. Just to be safe…

He knew his reaction to magic was not entirely rational, just as Lord Stigander’s reflexive dislike for the runes was not. He didn’t especially care, however: magic still failed, and relying on it left you weak when it did. This was the most solid proof he could ask for on that account.

He settled Einarr’s weight over his shoulder as Naudrek threw his weight into pulling the door fully open. Thjofgrir went through first, and then Runa carried the jar outside the ring of carved stone beasts.

Abruptly, the keening stopped and the flashing brightness of the circle vanished.

Vali was nowhere to be seen.

Kaldr shook his head. If Vali hadn’t retreated into the jar after it left the circle of beasts, there was really nothing he could do about it. He, too, went through the door and into another passage very like the one now blocked by the corpse of an enormous salamander. He might be mistaken, but he thought this one, finally, had a slight upward slope to the floor.

The door began to swing closed on its own as Naudrek crossed the threshold. As the light from the statues began to be blocked by the closing door, Kaldr gave a deep sigh and turned to study the passage before them as best he could. That it looked straight and mostly level was a hindrance, not a help.

The door closed behind them with a shockingly loud thud and the passage was plunged into complete blackness.

“We should be on our way out,” Kaldr said into the darkness. “Was anyone injured during that last fight?” He himself had suffered no few minor bruises and scrapes, and he was certain he would pay for them later, but right now that was not what mattered.

“My foot still aches,” Thjofgrir answered. “But I fought on it. I can damn well walk on it.”

Kaldr nodded to himself. That was not unexpected. Once they were free of these thrice-cursed tunnels, they would have to do some more permanent medicine on that leg. “What about you, Naudrek?”

“Little shaken up, is all. Never would have guessed we’d see Vali do something like that.”

“Hmm.” Naudrek wasn’t wrong, but at the same time, Kaldr couldn’t help thinking he, in particular, should have been warier of the apparition. “All right, then. Shaken or no, there’s not a lot we can do about anything until we get some light – and somehow I doubt any of our torches survived our wetting earlier. Forward, now, easy as she goes.”

As they moved forward, step by cautious step, Kaldr found his eyes beginning to grow accustomed to the darkness. At the very least, he began to be able to make out silhouettes, areas of gray among the black. Perhaps there was some sort of luminescent mushroom that grew down here? He didn’t question it.

Not much further on, he was surprised to realize he was panting. Well, it had been a very long journey down these passages. He was briefly tempted to ask Runa for a bit of aid, but she was probably having a harder time than any of them – and with him carrying Einarr, there was really no one who could help.

His legs started to feel weak, and his hands grew rapidly numb. Nothing for it. Press on. You’ll feel better once we’re out again.

He felt Einarr start to slide off his back. He tried to adjust his grip, but his arms wouldn’t respond. They can’t be that numb…

He heard a thud from behind him, as of a body falling limply to the stone floor, but he could not guess if it was Naudrek’s or Einarr’s. Then his own knees began to buckle. He couldn’t understand where this weakness was coming from.

The light ahead increased. His vision wavered in and out, but he could have sworn he saw an approaching troop of monsters, all about the size of a dvergr. Only, instead of a human head, these had the big round eyes and long nose of a terrifying insect.

The clank of chains rang in his ears, and he knew no more.

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