The light no longer reached the water’s edge when the sound of wet footfalls against the stone floor of the cave began to echo behind them. Einarr wished he could be surprised, but if the monster had given up that easily he doubted the dvergr would have bound it. That it was bound to the area was almost certain: probably they were lucky they hadn’t run into it while they were swimming.
The footfalls did not seem to be gaining on them, or at least not very quickly, but Einarr could already hear a new problem from up ahead: howling wind.
What now? At this rate, he was going to start looking for deadfalls around every corner. Einarr took a deep breath, considering. The passage seemed reasonably wide here, even if it was still far too short for comfort. “Everyone hears that, right?”
Nods all around.
“Who feels like they’re in any condition to fight?”
“Well, if we have to…” Thjofgrir shrugged.
“So then it’s safe to say, even after our little impromptu nap, none of us are really in great shape?”
“That is my impression as well,” Kaldr answered.
Einarr nodded. The slapping noises had grown louder. “Then if we’re not in any condition to fight whatever that is, we need to pick up the pace. Go!”
None of them needed to be told a second time, even if Runa did still look dangerously pale under the light of his shield. Naudrek took long, loping strides even in the cramped conditions, and if Runa had to scramble to keep up she did still manage.
A long, low chirp echoed out through the tunnel behind them. Whatever it was, it sounded big. Big, and inhuman.
“I don’t suppose there’s anything you can do to slow it down?” Naudrek asked over his shoulder.
“You want me to use more runes now? Right after my clumsy circle almost got us eaten?”
“I for one would rather handle this the old-fashioned way,” Kaldr put in. Einarr had to agree this time. He’d use them again if he had to, but if they could throw their pursuer off without it would be better.
They held no pretense of stealth, but Einarr thought the creature that pursued them was not likely tracking them by sound anyway.
As they loped along, Einarr had his eyes open for any sort of a side passage or some loose rock – anything to slow it down. The dvergr had promised them death for entering these tunnels, but what sort of prince would Einarr be if he simply accepted such a thing?
The passageway stretched on. The light from his shield only illuminated a few paces ahead of Naudrek at the pace they were keeping: they could stumble into nearly anything this way, and it was sure to be at least as deadly as the creature behind them. Einarr stretched out his arms to drag his fingers along the walls. If they could find a crack or a crevice, like the one that had led them to the hall of pits and the stairway down, perhaps they could give the monster the slip. His fingers would find an opening long before his eyes did, under these circumstances.
The frog-like chirrup echoed through the hall again. Einarr didn’t know what would make a noise like that, but he was entirely certain he did not want to meet it.
Naudrek started to quicken his pace again, but Einarr slowed him again. He could hear Runa panting behind him already. Any faster, and one of them would have to carry her – which wouldn’t actually gain them any speed. Not for the first time, he wished he’d had a good reason to insist she stay home, and take Eydri instead. Then he wouldn’t be risking his wife and his heir in this mad journey.
His fingers caught on a sharp edge.
Before he thought about it, he moved his fingers to his mouth to suck at the blood that welled up from the cut. It was nothing serious, he thought, but neither was it an actual passage they could take advantage of. And now the creature would have the scent of his blood. Brilliant move, Einarr.
He shook his head and jogged on after Naudrek. There was nothing they could do about that now, and it would stop bleeding soon enough so he could keep feeling for a side-passage.
When they came to an actual fork in the path, Einarr was delighted.
“Go about fifteen paces down one leg, then we double back and take the other,” he instructed Naudrek. They would lose some of their lead, but if he was right that the hunter could smell them it might well throw it off their trail.
Another idea struck him. “Vali – can you obscure our trail?”
“How do you mean?”
“I think it’s got our scent. Can you cover it?” He was starting to feel a little winded, himself.
The apparition frowned, floating backwards just in front of Naudrek. “I can try? I can’t say I’ve ever tried something like that before.”
“Try, then. When we start down the second fork, try to make sure it goes down the first one.”
“Sure thing, chief.” Vali winked out of sight just as Naudrek was turning them around to double back.
Einarr thought he could hear the scraping of claws against the stone. Please let this work.
It chirruped again. It was definitely closer, but still not so close that he could see it in the shield light.
As they turned, he scooped Runa up into his arms and breathed one word to them all: “Run.”
At their new, breakneck pace, they all skidded a little making the turn into the second fork of the path, but they made the turn. What’s more, they caught no glimpse of the beast on their trail.
About thirty paces down the second passage, Vali popped up in front of them again. “I’ve done what I can. It won’t fool it forever, though, and it’s going to be mad when it catches the trail again.”
Einarr paused long enough to set Runa back on her feet, and then they were moving again at Naudrek’s ground-eating lope.
“So what did you do?”
The ghost shrugged. “I made it colder? I don’t really know how to describe it. I also hid your light.”
Einarr nodded, and none of them slowed. They still had no idea how to get out of here, and the farther behind they left the beast the better.
The walls became rougher, and a little looser, when a series of chirrups echoed through the halls at ear-piercing volume, followed by the crash of stone.
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