Einarr knelt, his eyes half-lidded, his weight supported by Sinmora’s blade standing upright in the ground of Myrkheimr, panting. He no longer heard the sounds of battle, and the smell of charred squid had replaced the smell of seawater. Therefore, they must have won. Runa’s plan must have worked, or he was certain they would all be dead now. Only, somehow he couldn’t muster up the energy to care – or even open his eyes.

He had been at the limits of his magical ability when Runa had launched the plan – Song Magic could mask fatigue, but it could not create reserves where none remained. Which meant that he owed sacrifices to the gods, which meant he had a pressing need to procure livestock.

Pressing, but not so pressing that he had to move just yet. Which was good.

The moment he had felt the ritual being snatched away from him, he thought sure he would be snatched away with it. Instead, he was allowed to ride the flood, and now he felt as drained – and exhilarated – as though he had taken a fishing boat down a waterfall.

He opened his eyes. Runa and Jorir stood in front of him, peering at his face with no small level of concern. They were flanked by his crew and some of the other dvergr – but someone was definitely missing. Einarr offered Runa and Jorir a wan smile, but then found himself counting the faces before him.

“Brandir. Gheldram. Naudrek. Jorir. Runa. Kaldr. Thjofgrir… What happened to Mornik?”

Gheldram shook his head sadly and pointed off towards the edge of the charred circle that still contained the lifeless husk of the demon. A small form lay huddled there, on a much wetter patch of ground.

Einarr sighed and pushed to his feet. His legs trembled under him, and his first step was a stumble. Somehow, though, he made it across the empty field between where he had weathered the storm and where Mornik lay, visibly trembling and clutching his middle.

Einarr dropped to the ground beside the slender dvergr’s head, glad he had managed to reach Mornik before his legs gave out. It was plain, though, that it was too late for Mornik. His skin was as ashen as any of the cultist’s, and black blood streamed down from the corners of his mouth and from his eyes and nostrils.

Gently, Einarr rolled the dvergr over onto his back. Mornik’s eyes were glazed, and he panted against the pain of the transformation in his body.

“Did we… win?” He managed to ask.

Jorir came up beside Einarr and nodded. “We did,” he added.

The corners of Mornik’s mouth curled up into a rictus. “Good.” He coughed, and more of the black blood dribbled out of his mouth. He met Jorir’s eyes directly now and breathed one more unmistakable word. “Please…”

Jorir nodded again, once, slowly. Then he turned to look at Einarr. “My Lord – everyone – please stand back.”

It was, Einarr knew, the only way. But the fact that Mornik retained enough of his mind to ask for death would make it more difficult for Jorir, not less. “Of course.”

With great difficulty, Einarr found his feet again and half-staggered back several paces. “Runa, if you would?”

Runa took one more look at the face of the dvergr on the ground and blanched. She saw it, too. She nodded and opened her mouth to Sing once more: this time, the funereal air Einarr had last heard from her when they buried Astrid, what felt like an eternity ago.

The six of them turned, and the men all offered a respectful salute to their fallen ally. Einarr felt no small pang of guilt: if he had waited to put their plan into motion… But no. That was foolishness, and all that would have accomplished was making their enemy stronger.

Jorir drew one of the knives from Mornik’s braces and raised it high overhead. “Farewell, my friend,” he said, and plunged the knife down.

In the moment before the killing blow fell, Mornik’s eyes closed, and his mouth relaxed into what was almost a smile, as though if he had to die, he was pleased to die as himself. The body jerked a little as Jorir drove the blade home.

Einarr watched as Jorir calmly removed the glove from that hand and dropped it on the body, then turned and walked back toward them. Einarr did not miss, though, that he never looked up.

As Jorir crossed their line of vigil,  Einarr came to a decision. “Tonight, we will feast our victory and toast the fallen. Tomorrow we will take stock, of what was lost and what remains, and on the third day we will thank the gods.” Then a thought occurred to him and he turned to Brandir. “There… are still priests of the real gods here, aren’t there?”

That broke the tension. Brandir chuckled as he answered in the affirmative, and the seven of them all limped away from the field of battle, Einarr leaning heavily on his liege man’s shoulder.


The Thane’s body was never found. On the other hand, on the top of the standing stone where the high priest of the mad cult had stood, there was a black smear that suggested he had been wiped away in the same torrent of magic that had finally ended the demon beast. It wasn’t proof, but it was sufficient for the dvergr of Nilthiad to convene a Thing and appoint a new Thane.

They went back, while they were taking stock, to examine the husk of the demon beast – Runa thought it might, in some way, be related to the Imperial god Phorcys. It was thoroughly blackened, but rather than char, which would have a tendency to smudge or crumble at a touch, it seemed to have been turned to stone somehow. Not that anyone could explain how, save by Einarr’s strange experience when the circle was active. It was, they thought, yet one more reason to give thanks to the gods: char would spread, and there was no way to know if it would have been cleansed of its corruption.

Finally, after a full week working with the surviving dvergr of Nilthiad, it was time to go. The summer wore on, and even with Jorir’s help it would take them most of a month to reach Breidelstein again – and Runa was already beginning to show. The dvergr, however, were not about to let them go without a proper sendoff: Brandir arranged for another, smaller, feast for the next night, and despite Einarr’s restless feet they were obliged to attend.

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Jorir and Thjofgrir both cursed, one from either side of where Einarr stood, now soaking wet with seawater. Hacking this thing to bits was evidently not the way to banish it back to the other side of that rift. Only, Einarr was the only sorcerer they had, and he was well aware of his fast-approaching limits.

There was only one thing to be done, though. “Keep going! Just try not to cut any more bits off. Something’s bound to change if we take out the priest!”

The priest had never looked terribly healthy to Einarr, although he knew that the faithful of Malùnion often had greater stamina than their appearance would otherwise suggest. Still, one spindly old dvergr man? He couldn’t have that much strength remaining to him – could he?

Einarr took two steps back and pushed his will into Sol again, drawing another, larger lightning bolt to strike the abomination. He thought he heard sizzling this time, and the creature reeled.

“Einarr!” Thjofgrir called. “Can you do that again?”

“Once or twice.” Einarr kept his eyes glued to their foe.

“Great! On my word, give it another one!”

Einarr smirked. Technically, Thjofgrir had no right to order him around – but the battlefield was hardly the place for the shouting of plans. “Ready when you are!”

Einarr’s attention was once again consumed by the battle before them, as the demon fended off their blows and struck out all at once. For several minutes, Einarr was occupied primarily with dodging and striking. It lashed its tail back and forth furiously – putting Einarr, strangely, in mind of a horse trying to buck an unwanted rider.

Einarr became certain he knew what Thjofgrir’s plan was when not just the fish tail but also the humanoid back of the demon began to writhe. It arched and twisted, as though something were crawling on its back.

When Thjofgrir shouted “Now!” Einarr was ready. But it was at that moment Einarr realized the flaw in Thjofgrir’s plan. If he called down the lightning now it would strike Thjofgrir as well as the demon before them. But, he thought there was another way to make it work.

Rather than striking the crimson beast before them, Einarr called down his lightning upon Thjofgrir’s blade. The hilt wrapping should protect Thjofgrir, but the demon beast would have no such guard. The lightning struck home as Thjofgrir’s blade plunged into the creature’s neck.

If he was startled by the change in plan he had no time to show it before black blood welled around the new wound and twin screams echoed over the battlefield once more.

Einarr looked up towards the top of the standing stone where he knew the priest and the thane both stood. It could have been his imagination, but he thought he saw a single flailing arm and a spurt of blood. Could have been, but he didn’t think it was. Thjofgrir leaped to the ground from where he had stood on the demon’s shoulder, and blood still flowed from the wound he had made. Not quickly, but enough to prove that he had not been fully healed by the last of the priest’s life.

A thrashing in his peripheral vision brought Einarr back to the moment. The severed tentacle was in the process of growing what looked like a chest, and it had writhed far closer than Einarr was comfortable with. He brought Sinmora down hard on the half-formed chest and the thing stopped moving – at least for now.

“Now! Before it can recover!” Einarr dashed in close to its scaly body and hacked at it with Sinmora. If it wasn’t recovering any longer, all they had to do was endure long enough to bring it down. A tree can be felled by a skinning knife, after all, if the wielder is stubborn enough.

A low rumble issued from the monstrosity’s chest, and Einarr could not tell if it was a growl of annoyance or of amusement. What could possibly be amusing, though?

The abomination twisted around in a circle, sweeping its full-size claw along the ground and scooping up the bodies of the fallen – friend and foe alike. Then it threw its head back and poured the corpses down its gullet.

As it swallowed, Einarr saw its wounds begin to heal once again. Then it threw its arms down and its shoulders moved up and down to the pulsation of its roar.

That almost had to be laughter. Einarr slashed at its belly again, wracking his brain to try and figure out what the thing could find so funny.

Puny humans. You have freed me. I will reward you by letting you feed my ascension. The voice reverberated in Einarr’s mind. He was reasonably certain the others heard it, as well.

Oh. That would certainly be a reason to laugh, Einarr supposed. He wished, momentarily, that he had Hrug or Eydri along – either of them, he would have been willing to risk at this fight, where he could not have risked Runa. And either of them would have brought knowledge and firepower that they desperately needed. Their strength was nearly spent, and yet their foe…

A wordless melody carried over the field of battle and Einarr felt his strength returning to him. The melody seemed familiar: were there Singers among the dvergr, too?

There almost have to be, he told himself.

The giant crimson man-fish didn’t seem to care about the sudden music: it struck down with one massive claw at Kaldr, who rolled expertly out of the way.

Jorir, behind him, had a look of annoyed relief on his face as he buried his axe in its stomach once more. Then the tune shifted and all became clear to Einarr once more.

Out from behind one of the standing stones, well out of reach of the altar or the abomination, stepped the figure of a human woman with hair the color of spun flax. Einarr’s mouth went dry and now panic rose in his gorge. She knew why she had to stay away – had even agreed to it. And now, if Einarr didn’t finish this creature quickly (and bloodlessly!) he risked not only himself and his wife, but also the future of Breidelstein!

So what was Runa doing here?

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Movement caught Einarr’s eye from down below. Something was headed his way, and it bore only a vague resemblance to a man. It wasn’t going to make it in time to keep him from testing his stone, though.

He gripped the carved bit of shale and willed lightning to strike the two figures standing atop the standing stone.

Sure enough, lightning crackled down out of the clear sky. But, at the last moment, it arced away, and the crimson flesh of the monstrosity glowed and steamed. It hissed and turned its eyeless head to look directly at Einarr.

That… could have gone better. With a shrug, Einarr shoved the shale back into his pouch and gripped Sinmora’s hilt in both hands. If the only way to end this fight was to end the monstrosity on the ground, then he supposed that was what he would have to do.

The smaller abomination was close enough now that he could see nauseatingly familiar details: whatever the corruption turned people into, it seemed to have no particular need for a head. Once again, there were tentacles sprouting out of its neck, and even the fingers that gripped its axe haft looked black and rubbery and boneless.

This was going to be a slaughter – and this time, there would be no Örlögnir to claim to save them all. Thank the gods Runa isn’t here.

He charged the approaching abomination and chopped down into what was once a shoulder. The bonelessness was real: his blade sheared through flesh and muscle with no real resistance. Now on the ground before him were two halves of what had once been a dvergr, twitching but apparently out of the fight. Einarr vaulted over the remains without slowing. His test had taken him out of the melee, which could easily turn into a costly mistake.

As he approached he discovered that it wasn’t just steam radiating off the beast’s body: he could smell charred flesh, although he could not see any. Had even that wound on the monster, absorbed on behalf of its master, rebounded on the priest?

He was just outside the creature’s reach when a thought occurred to him. Why should he keep his runestones in his pouch? He could use them at need if he simply tucked them into the wrapping about his wrists. Abruptly he sprang back. Taking cover for a moment, he tucked ᛉ and ᛊ into the bindings around his right wrist.

He was about to add ᚨ when something large and heavy crashed into the bench he sheltered behind. He threw himself out of the way, clutching the mouth of his pouch closed with one hand while the other kept its hold on Sinmora.

The bench shattered. Chunks of stone flew in all directions, some large enough to crack skulls. Einarr felt two of the smaller ones bounce off the back of his maille – that was going to leave a bruise. In one swift motion, he tied his pouch closed again.

One of the giant red claws was pulling back from where it had landed. A shadow flew across the ground, about the same size as the withdrawing claw. Einarr dived again, coming out on the other side of the shadow. Once again the creature narrowly missed him.

Einarr threw his will into holding up an Yr shield even as he raced in towards the gigantic red tail on the sodden ground. The smell of salt and rotting fish assailed his nose.

More tentacles beat at him as he ran, but bounced harmlessly off the shield. The more he was hit, however, the harder he found it to focus on the shield.

When Einarr was within ten paces of the crimson horror, he let his Yr shield drop and instead willed the Sol stone to life. This time, however, he didn’t bother targeting the priest. Once again lightning crackled, and the creature hissed under the onslaught.

Einarr had almost managed to tune out the priest’s shrieks as its pet stole its vitality. That one, however, echoed across the field. Einarr wasn’t certain what would happen when the monster finished devouring its master’s life, but he was certain they would find out soon.

The plate-sized scales on its fish-like tail flared after the lightning had faded. Einarr was just in range: he lunged forward and thrust Sinmora into the exposed flesh. From the corner of his eye, it looked like the others had taken advantage of the exposure, as well. Black blood spurted out towards them and muddied the water at their feet.

A crab-clawed tentacle struck down towards Einarr’s position. Before he could react, Jorir had launched himself into the air. With an aerial somersault that Einarr honestly envied, Jorir brought the blade of his axe down on the tentacle.

The writhing arm was sheared in two. The half that was still attached to the monster flailed about in midair, spraying blood everywhere, while the other half dropped, headed right for Einarr’s head.

There was nowhere to dodge. Mentally, he was beginning to feel drained, but there was no other way. He threw his arms up over his head and willed the Yr shield back to life.

The still-writhing severed claw impacted the shield and slid down, smearing the shield with the corrupted blood and obscuring Einarr’s vision.

That blood was going to be troublesome… but maybe not as bad as it could have been. The ground at his feet was soft and wet, after all. Einarr got down on one knee and traced another rune – Lögr.

Perhaps it was a measure of his fatigue, or perhaps it was because he stood right next to an abomination from the deeps, but that didn’t quite have the effect he expected. He had wanted to sluice off the top of his shield, so he could drop it without worry. Instead, he called forth a gout of water from the rift that still hovered in midair, blasting off not only his shield but also hitting the monster itself with enough strength to push it back.

As the water pressure fell, Einarr shrugged and let his shield drop as well. That was unexpected, but helpful at least.

Only, the creature’s tentacled arm seemed to have grown back. Worse, the claw which had been lopped off seemed to be trying to grow a new body, like some bizarre relative of a starfish.

Well, Hel. Now what?

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The guard identified as Magnyl hit the ground with a thump, caught unawares by Einarr’s attack. His comrades were not so slow-witted, though. Before their fellow had even come back to his feet, Einarr had kicked out to take one in the teeth and dropped his elbow on the skull of another. They did not draw their weapons: evidently, they wanted their captives as intact as possible. Einarr was just as glad: he could have fought barehanded against a pack of dvergr, but he rated his chances of survival as much better if he didn’t have to.

One of the dvergr unleashed a nasty kick to the back of Einarr’s knee and nearly dropped him to the ground. In his momentary stumble, another planted his fist directly under Einarr’s ribs. That one hurt. Einarr took the opportunity, as he rose, to jab the perpetrator in the eye. This was a knock-down street brawl, nothing more, nothing less, and he meant what he’d said, that they would have to take him seriously to take him in. Never mind that he had turned himself in. This would be pointless if it didn’t mitigate at least some of the terror the Thane’s men were inflicting on the city.

Einarr punched and kicked and bit and gouged, and used every dirty trick he knew, but in the end, it was still one against ten. And, when they pinned him to the ground and bound his hands behind his back, he was battered and bruised. He thought one of them may have managed to break one of his teeth with a well-aimed kick as he fell. Still, through the swelling of his cheek, Einarr smiled. This wasn’t quite how the plan was supposed to go, but it was a satisfying result.

The dvergr stood him back up without gagging him and he grinned. As they marched through the streets towards the Thane’s hall, even now he did not go quietly. As they went, he proclaimed for all to hear that he was the Cursebreaker, brought by one of their own to end this madness – all according to the script they had discussed. Runa had composed the words for him.

“I am Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, prince of Breidelstein, named Cursebreaker! I am here at the behest of Jorir the Smith, to drive out the false gods that have led you astray!”

This earned him cuffs and kicks, and they could have brought him down, had they all piled on again, to gag him – but for some strange reason (possibly because of their audience) they were unwilling to do that. Einarr schooled his face, but in the back of his mind he chuckled. Even the Acolytes and Enforcers of Malùnion had to worry about public opinion.

Finally they arrived back at the Thane’s hall. Einarr was only mildly surprised to find he was taken here, rather than to the Mount. He supposed that said good things about the effects of their assault the other night. They marched him up before the Thane and gave a violent tug upon the bindings that held his wrists so that it was kneel or be bent backwards. Now he flashed a deliberately cocky grin. “So we meet again, your lordship.”

“Silence!” the grey-skinned Thane bellowed. “So. You claim responsibility for the chaos in the streets and for the unprovoked assault on the Holy Mount? Why, after you escaped, you would throw your life away on such a thing I could not guess. But, if you wish so much to be sacrificed to Malùnion, we will grant your wish. On the next auspicious day, there will be a great purge, and the mountain will flow with blood!”

Uh-oh, Einarr thought. I hope I at least bought time for some people to get away. This isn’t the sort of thing they will do without announcing – not according to Gheldram. I just hope my friends are in place early in the proceedings…


Jorir trailed Einarr as far as the gates of the Thane’s hall. He would have tailed him all the way in if he dared, but there was no way to sneak into the Hall itself without being seen. Jennora was still here, and still uncorrupted so far as they knew, so he would just have to trust in her wits. He had a view inside the gates from where he stood in the street, but she was nowhere to be seen. Probably for the best, although he would have liked to speak with her more. With a mental shrug, Jorir continued along his path, taking the first cross-street he came to and circling back towards the bathhouse.

Brandir, he was sure, would have been shocked. After all this time in human lands, Jorir was almost as good at slipping away unnoticed as Mornik was.

When he returned, the others didn’t look his way until he – rather ostentatiously – beat at some dust on his cloak.

Runa wrung her hands. “It is done, then?”

“Aye, so it is. Nothing to do now but wait for news from Jennora.”

“That’s not quite true,” Brandir rumbled.

“You’re right. Einarr made a stink to keep Soggvar’s posses from catching anyone else. We need to start smuggling people out of Nilthiad.”

Gheldram shook his head. “Just as you told the Lady Runa before, Jorir. Just because there is a part of the plan you do not like does not mean it isn’t critical.”

“If our allies cannot reach a safe house on their own, they will simply have to hide in their own homes until the appointed time.” Brandir finished. Kaldr nodded in agreement.

Gheldram sighed. “They will make a show out of sacrificing your Cursebreaker. He may not be first, but he will be early, so as many people as possible witness it. We will simply need to be in place to act early in the rites. We have wagon loads of spare axes: the people will be ready.”

Jorir ran a hand through his hair, looking at the floor. “I still don’t like the idea of throwing away Lord Einarr’s efforts like this.”

Brandir shook his head. “Lord Einarr. Hmph. So, you’ll be leaving with the humans, then.”

“I will. That’s my home, now.”

“Jennora will be disappointed.”

“Whyever for?” She was a comely lass, and a clever one, and Jorir couldn’t for the life of him fathom why she would still be carrying a torch for him.

“You know why. But, long absence or no, I think I know when your mind is made up. She’ll just have to come to terms with it.” Now Brandir sighed. “I think that’s enough talk. There’s work to be done yet.”

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If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

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Once the door closed and Runa had joined them over in the hot, cleansing bath, Einarr turned his attention to Jorir. “You said you think you know where we will find the high priest. Explain.”

Jorir sighed and sunk back so that his head was resting on the stone edge of the hot spring. “It goes back to the Oracle’s visions. You see, in what she showed me, I didn’t manage to rescue you – not from the prison. Instead, everyone gathered at an outdoor shrine on the mountain. A shrine that wasn’t there when I left, by the way. The only way I got you out of it was by offering myself in exchange. Needless to say, we’ve already deviated from that.”

“Quite.” Einarr paused, thoughtfully. “But if, as you say, the final confrontation must take place at this altar you do not know, then I suppose the question becomes where is it – and when?”

Brandir raised an eyebrow. “So that’s why you were so insistent. The where is the easy part. When, since the sacrifice was interrupted, that’s a little more difficult.”

Jorir raised his head and turned a bleak look on Brandir. “Have they sacrificed dvergr there? Or men? Or merely animals?”

Although he was looking at Brandir, it was Gheldram who answered. “Animals, yes. Men, yes. Dvergr rarely.”

“Rarely?”

“Yes, and criminals all. That’s the only way they get away with it.”

“Criminals, you say?” Put in Kaldr.

“Yes, unfortunately.”

“Quite unfortunate. I think, after tonight, they will have a great many of those with an excuse to sacrifice.”

“I cannot deny it,” Brandir answered. “That is why the instructions they were given were quite adamant that they lay low afterward. Very low. While we had not intended to move just yet, this plan has been in the works for a very long time.”

“Even still,” Gheldram continued, “Now that we’ve begun we must needs act quickly.”

“Quite,” Einarr agreed. He paused, thoughtful. “How would it be if one of us turned ourselves in? They would presumably need to choose an auspicious day for the ceremony, yes?”

“Quite right,” Jorir answered.

“Then, if one of us turned ourselves in, as an architect of the chaos of this night, might it forestall the capture of your allies? And could we not then be well aware of the timing for the next half of our strike?”

A knock came on the door. Runa excused herself and went to answer the door. She received some packets of herbs from outside and closed the door again directly. After she had tested each packet, she sprinkled the water with its contents. “Here. This should help with the corruption we were all exposed to tonight.”

They spent the rest of the night planning.


Runa insisted that they, too, take several days to lay low and rest and recuperate after their daring rescue of her in the Holy Mount. Mornik, at a minimum, would not be ready for action for at least a week, and none of them were quite sure what would constitute an auspicious occasion, under the circumstances.

At last, though, news reached their ears that the Thane’s men and the temple enforcers had begun going door-to-door through the city, searching for those who had taken part in the riots, and that they had already captured several with ties to Brandir and Gheldram.

“I was exiled for daring to disagree with the Thane over this, and that was two hundred years ago. I doubt they will be so gentle now,” Jorir rumbled.

Einarr nodded in agreement. “Indeed. It is time.”

“It’s still too early. Mornik’s injuries are still grave.”

“Runa, my darling, you’ve been against this plan from the beginning. No amount of stalling is going to give us a better one: we’ve all tried.” She never used to be this anxious: Einarr was inclined to blame the babe she still carried – not that there was much blame to assign. He could admit to his own anxiety on that front. How long had she been a prisoner there, exposed to their dark magics, before they fought their way through the corrupted? Einarr shook his head: now was not the time to worry over that.

“That doesn’t change that you’re not ready yet.” She set her jaw, but this was one argument she couldn’t win.

“My Lady,” Jorir rumbled. “While I appreciate your concern, the longer we delay the more of my kin will become fodder for Malúnion. If Mornik cannot fight when the day comes, then he cannot fight and we will manage.”

It looked like she was going to protest again, but Kaldr forestalled her. “My Lady. They are right. To delay further would be folly. However, I cannot say that I am easy about you being the bait, my Lord.”

“The only one they want more than me is Jorir, Kaldr. We’ve talked about this, too.” He finished checking over the bundle of belongings he was leaving behind, ensuring that his brokkrsteel maille and Sinmora were easily accessible. The others would carry those hidden in their own things. Better that than having them confiscated and useless in a storeroom somewhere. “And now I must be off. Fortune’s favor, everyone.”

Jorir, sounding a little husky, answered for them all. “And to you.”

Then, with one last embrace from Runa, he slipped out into the streets of Nilthiad.

Three streets down, he tossed back the hood on his cloak and straightened his stance. Now that he was away from the bathhouse, he wanted to be seen.

He didn’t have to go much farther before he spotted what had to be one of the cult’s posses. He put on a lopsided grin, smoothed his mustache, and swaggered up to the heavily armed dvergr with the unhealthy color of the grave. “Leave these poor people alone. I’m the one you’re looking for.”

He got a scornful look from one of the former dvergr before he turned back and pounded once more on the door of some poor fool’s house.

“Hey.” He dropped the false smile and grabbed the dvergr’s wrist. “I said, I’m the one you’re looking for. None of that would have happened except for me.”

The dvergr gave a violent twist to his arm – one which Einarr was reasonably sure should have been impossible – and pounded once more on the door. “We have orders to bring in every treasonous rat who took to the streets that night. Since you’re here, I presume you’ll go quietly. Magnyl, take him in. I’m sure His Lordship will be pleased to see one of his humans returned to the dungeons. And don’t worry: your friends are sure to join you soon enough.”

One of the dvergr – certainly Magnyl, all things considered, reached out and tried to take him by the elbow. Einarr wrested it away almost effortlessly. “Is that so. You’ll regret that. I’m the Cursebreaker. You really think any of this would have happened if I weren’t here? You want to take me in, first you have to take me seriously.”

Einarr was unarmed, but he wasn’t about to let this posse go about their business. A quick sweep with his leg brought the unsuspecting Magnyl ignominiously to the ground.

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

That priest wouldn’t have come alone, or even just with a single attendant. Einarr and his companions clattered up the stairs, abandoning all pretense of stealth in favor of speed. When they emerged into the hallway, however, they found themselves in the middle of a swarm of grey-skinned acolytes. The passage was packed almost too tightly to fight. Probably the priest had been unsure what was happening, and they awaited some sort of signal. They didn’t get their signal, but they got something “better:” fresh meat.

With a shout, the acolytes fell upon Einarr and his friends. Down the hallway, over the clamor of their own fight, Einarr could just make out the sounds of another battle going on. That must be Jorir, Einarr thought. He turned to face the sound of the other battle and lashed out at the closest dvergr in his path. “This way!”

It had been a long time since Einarr found himself in this sort of a scrum, but not so long that he had missed it. He found, however, that the rhythm which had served him so well against the svartalfrs on his way to the docks in their fortress, and against the revenants of the Althane, once again worked to his advantage here.

He stood shoulder to shoulder with Naudrek and Thjofgrir and Kaldr, with Runa protected in the middle, and they made their way, step by hacking step, slowly towards their dvergr friends and the exit where they had agreed to meet.

The trouble with this sort of extreme close-quarters fighting was that it was slow, and over time you were certain to become injured. If you let it go on too long, it could become death by a thousand cuts. This was compounded by the fact that every time they struck an enemy they had no way to shield themselves from the corrupting black blood. Einarr already began to feel unwell, although he could not say for certain if it was only in his own mind. Thankfully, with their ring of blades, Runa was not being exposed. Also thankfully, Einarr was much stronger than the last time he had faced a wave of enemies such as this.

After what felt like hours, but couldn’t have been, they reached the place where Jorir and his kin stood with their backs to the secret passage, securing the way out.

The dvergr looked awful. They were splattered with quantities of the black blood and covered in small slashes besides. Their eyes were bloodshot. Mornik, standing behind the other three, struggled to suppress a cough. Jorir’s face brightened when he saw Einarr and his crew cut their way through the last rank of enemies to join them.

“Get inside!” Einarr ordered. “We’ll close the door behind us!”

“Thank you!” Jorir gasped, and the four dwarves blocking the entrance backed further up into it. Runa was next, followed by Einarr and Kaldr, and then with a final slash Thjofgrir kicked the support and the door fell closed behind them. A shriek of pain and rage came from the other side: Einarr guessed that the heavy stone door had caught one of them.

The closed-off passageway suddenly seemed very quiet, compared to the bedlam they had just left. Einarr took a deep breath. “Everyone in one piece?”

“More or less.” Gheldram offered a wan, wry smile.

“What happened to you guys?”

“One o’ their cursed beasts,” Brandir spat. “And then, in spite of everything, I’ll swear ta ye that all the acolytes here were in that damned hallway.”

“You didn’t see anyone down there?” Kaldr was incredulous.

“Just a snake as thought we were mice,” Jorir answered. “And only that after I decided to apply a little fire to the situation.”

Mornik coughed, underscoring the point.

In spite of himself, Einarr snapped. “Then where in Hel’s lair is that shaman?”

Jorir shook his head. “I think I know where we’ll find him… but if we go tonight, we’ll only kill ourselves. Even assuming he would be there at this time of night.”

Runa put a hand gently on Einarr’s arm – careful to avoid the inky splatters. “He’s right, Einarr. Not one of us is in any condition to fight right now. We need a quiet place to recover.”

Einarr looked at the delicate fingers that somehow deigned to reach for him, not quite comprehending at first. “You’re right, of course. Brandir, if we get back to the bathhouse, will they let us rest there again?”

After a long moment’s thought, he nodded. “She’s dependable. I can lead the way, but… we’re going to need you big folk to make sure we all make it in one piece. That beast nearly did us in.”

“It would be an honor.”


Their infiltration had taken long enough that the unrest in the streets had mostly calmed by the time they left the temple district, but it seemed to have taken its toll on the Thane’s men as much as it did on the uncorrupted dvergr. The streets were deserted, and they did not pass a single lighted window. They moved as quickly and as quietly as they could, but by the end of it Gheldram was supporting Mornik – the smaller dvergr seemed to have taken the worst of it.

When they arrived at the familiar bathhouse, Einarr thought for a moment the proprietress was going to turn them away. That is, until she caught sight of Mornik. Based on her reaction, Einarr thought they might be more than simply friends.

Once she spotted him, she clapped both hands to her mouth in a familiar gesture of shock and ushered the party of nine into the baths. She cast a sidelong look at Runa as she passed, but when Runa twined her arm about Einarr’s she was evidently satisfied.

“Have you a stock of medicinal herbs?” Runa asked as the last of the men stumbled into the bathing room.

“Some, yes. Why? What happened to them?”

Runa just shook her head, even as she scribbled a list of herbs on a scrap of paper from her pack. “Can you get me these? As much as you can, please.”

The dvergr woman lowered her brows as she read the list. “Aye, I have some of these. Some others I might be able to find in the market on the morrow – if you’ve the coin for them. These are all…”

“Purifiers, yes. I’ll gladly pay for what you can provide. As much as you can bring, please.”

The proprietress nodded slowly. “Since it’s for Mornik. Give me a few minutes, I’ll fetch some from my stores.”

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

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.”

“Hrmph. Perhaps.”

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.

Two.

One.

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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If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

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.”

“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.

“Something wrong?”

“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.

“Of course.”

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.

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

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.

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

The cushions caught fire almost immediately, and soon the room was choked with a thick, oily black smoke – far thicker and more pungent than ordinary cloth and feathers should produce. An unearthly wail came from somewhere in the room, even though it had been empty of dvergr when they kicked open the door.

Jorir shared a look and a nod with Brandir, and then as one they pulled the door closed behind them. Whatever that had been, he had no desire to face it in the midst of a conflagration. “Ready yourselves,” he warned the others.

He needn’t have bothered. Gheldram shouldered between Jorir and Brandir and braced with his shield, his massive hammer held ready.

In the hall ahead, the sounds of thrashing grew louder and wilder, and the wail became an angry shriek. This was not precisely what Jorir had expected when he threw that torch.

“Here it comes,” he growled.

The door to the outermost temple burst open once more, the heavy doors this time flying off their hinges as a head like a giant serpent’s charged through.

Even lit in the glow of the fire behind it, its scales were a mottled greenish-black, more of a void of color than an actual color itself. Its eyes, though, glowed like molten gold. It opened its mouth wide to hiss at the four dvergr standing against it, and Jorir saw black corruption dripping down its fangs. Not that it mattered: its mouth was large enough, it could swallow any one of them whole.

He raised his axe anyway. This was not a creature they could set free if there was any help for it. On Gheldram’s other side, Brandir also took his fighting stance. Mornik moved behind them, and from the corner of his eye Jorir could see him limbering a brace of knives.

The snake hissed again and drew back its head, ready to strike. The four dvergr held their positions, watching it warily. They would only have a heartbeat to move.

“Now!” Jorir bellowed. He couldn’t have explained how he knew any more than he could read runework, but he knew. His four old friends sprang apart as the snake’s head lashed forward. Jorir leapt into a roll. When he came to his feet again, he charged the snake’s side, just below its head.

It had buried its fangs in the stone floor. The delay in getting them out gave them all just enough time to rush in for an attack. Jorir brought his axe down in a mighty overhand swing.

It didn’t so much as scratch a scale.

He sprang back, frowning. The serpent, its fangs nearly free, shook its head back and forth, as though something had actually hurt it. He looked at Gheldram, but the young smith shook his head: his hammer had not phased it, either.

Jorir looked again: something seemed to be wrong with the snake’s eye: there was a clear ooze flicking back and forth across the surface. Had Mornik damaged its eye?

Well, Hel, he thought, amusement dancing under the surface. This was going to be terrible, but the creature’s weakness was at least easy enough to see, if they dared to attack it. He started crab-walking back toward the center of the room, never taking his eyes from the monster.

Behind it, the fire raged. A small voice in the back of his mind wondered why they hadn’t seen any acolytes, come to put out the fire, yet – but, of course, the monsters of Malúnion were not known for discriminating between sources of food. Maybe they would be lucky and spot a broken scale the next time it reared up: that had to be better than trying to strike its eyes or the inside of its mouth.

A crashing sound came from within the temple: the giant snake was still lashing its tail about, evidently discomfited by the fire. The black, oily smoke grew thicker: its smell alone was enough to make Jorir feel nauseous.

I’m a fool.

The fire was plainly injuring the poor beast – probably, under the circumstances, an ordinary viper transformed by the dark magics of the priest – but its blood and venom both were corruption. If its flesh was burning, and its flesh was thoroughly corrupted, then what would happen if the uncorrupted breathed that smoke?

“Kill it! Quickly! We have to shut that door!”


Kaldr found the next staircase. This one led not to a long hall of prison cells, but to a shorter – although more opulent – one of priestly chambers. Several sturdy wooden doors, reinforced with iron bands, lined each wall, but at the far end of the hall stood one that appeared to have been painted white and decorated with golden scrollwork. Einarr couldn’t have said why, but he felt sure that was where they would find his bride. Without waiting for discussion he started down the hall, ignoring the other rooms.

“My Lord?” Kaldr asked, catching up.

“Another hunch. We’re starting there.” Einarr pointed ahead at the ostentatious door.

Kaldr shrugged, and the three men fell into step behind their Prince without another word.

Einarr was mildly surprised to find that the door was not locked. He frowned at the door for a long moment, wondering if this could be a trap. With a small, exasperated sigh, he put his hand on Sinmora’s hilt and shouldered open the door. Trap or not, they would have to investigate here.

He wasn’t really certain what he expected to find in this room: rows of cages, perhaps, like he had rescued Runa from before, or victims chained to the wall but this… was shockingly ordinary. Opulent, yes, but, not really that much different from his own chambers at Raenshold. Panic started to rise in his belly: had he been deceiving himself and trusting his eyes too much?

“Search the room! There’s sure to be something of use in here.”

He followed his own instructions, turning to the dvergr-sized dresser immediately to his right. It, too, appeared perfectly ordinary – far more ordinary than he would expect, frankly, from the bed-chamber of a high priest of Malúnion. There was a small portrait sketch of a young dvergr woman, a hand mirror, and what Einarr guessed were personal totems, although he did his best to avoid touching those.

Kaldr voiced the thought that was ringing through Einarr’s skull: “This doesn’t make any sense.”

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