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.

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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.

 

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.”

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.

 

Without another word, the eight men – four dvergr, four humans – slipped out into the hall to follow Gheldram. In silence they crept through the halls of the dungeon until they reached the storeroom, where they set to searching for the belongings of the humans.

“I had half expected you to have… company by the time we got there,” Jorir admitted to Einarr.

“It was threatened, as you heard. I don’t know why they never came to torture us, but I’m not about to complain. …Is there any–”

“Ah! I found the maille.” Gheldram exclaimed. “Looks like they hadn’t decided what to do with it yet.”

“Even the Brokkrsteel?” Jorir’s jaw dropped.

“Even the Brokkrsteel. Come see!”

Einarr clenched his jaw and tried not to sigh as he followed his rescuers over to the haphazard stash of human-sized gear. The one who had picked the locks – Mornik? – moved over to stand and listen at the door.

The clink of chains sounded in Einarr’s ears as the maille in question slid over his head. He only had to pull a few hairs free. “We can’t leave yet,” he said as he settled it on his shoulders.

“Whyever not?”

“We don’t have everyone.”

Einarr watched Jorir’s expression as he clearly counted in his head the faces he’d seen. “You mean you didn’t lose anyone in the Paths?”

“Not one, although it was a near thing a time or two.”

Jorir nodded slowly. “So then we’re missing Eydri? Anyone else?”

“Not Eydri. Runa. Runa, and Vali. She had his jar.”

Jorir cursed – loudly and roundly. The one who could have been Jorir’s relation clapped a hand over his mouth.

“The lass’ll not be here, I’m afraid,” Brandir said, his tone much more measured. “They don’t catch a lot of women, but the few they do go off for… special treatment.”

Einarr blanched.

“Hurry up. We can’t do a damned thing about it standing around here.”

The dvergr at the door gave a low, rising whistle. “Someone’s awake. Hurry it up!”

“Blast. That was less time than expected.”

“Jennora did warn us,” Gheldram muttered.

Einarr glanced around at his companions. “We’re ready.”

Kaldr, Naudrek, and Thjofgrir nodded their silent agreement, and the party of eight slipped back out into the dungeon halls.

They had only gone a couple of turnings before a shout came from behind them. Someone, it seemed, had already discovered their empty cell.

The dvergr started running, but Einarr and the other humans were right behind. They abandoned all pretense at stealth – eight people, charging down stone corridors, will be noisy under any circumstances. Einarr wished they could go faster, but in the twisting corridors of the dvergr dungeon it simply was not possible. Hang on, Runa.

“There they are!” The cry came from a cross-tunnel.

“Just a little more!” Gheldram called back from the lead. Einarr racked his brain, but he could not think of anything he could do with the runestones in his pocket that would throw the Thane’s men off their track.

Mornik had an idea. Einarr saw him throw some sort of powder into one of the torches as he passed, and it began to emit a thick, choking smoke.

When they made it out of the dungeon halls, they saw the courtyard in an uproar. It seemed as though everyone came out of their stupor at once – which seemed very odd, for a sleeping drug. There was no time to consider why, though: Jorir and Brandir looked both ways, then at each other, and nodded before taking off to their left.

Thankfully, the interior of Thane Soggvar’s hold was far smaller than the inside of either the svartalfr ring fort or Raenshold. They only had to dodge one more group of guards before they found themselves in a dim lane, the wall to their left, and what Einarr would call a thrall’s door just ahead.

“Halt!” The cry came from ahead of them, just beyond the thrall’s door. Einarr gripped Sinmora’s hilt, ready to draw.

“Wait. Not here.” Jorir whispered, holding out an arm to block his liege lord’s path.

Before Einarr could ask for an explanation, it became apparent. Even as their enemies were charging forward, Gheldram was coiling a large weighted rope about his arm. He gave a sudden dash forward and cast his net.

Their enemies tangled themselves quite satisfactorily, although there was no time to appreciate his handiwork. Mornik had quite literally kicked open the door. Naudrek and Thjofgrir led the way through.

“That won’t hold them for long,” Brandir said, slightly winded, as he pushed the door closed behind him. “This way. There is a place prepared.”


Runa’s back ached, and it had nothing to do with the babe. She sat up off the hard stone slab the dvergr acolyte had lain her on – again. She must have undergone these examinations a dozen times just since she’d awakened, and every time was the same. A pair of svartdvergr in pale robes would carry her – against her every protest, and even if she offered to walk, which she had tried once or twice – into this room. There was the slab, and a window with a terrible view, and they would tie weights on her arms and legs to keep her from leaving. Then another dvergr, this one plainly a priest, would enter and check her over, as though he were inspecting livestock, and then leave. If she moved an inch before he left, he would lash her across her back. She had tested this, too.

But, once they had finished with their nonsense, she was allowed to sit up until the dvergr came to carry her back to her cage.

They had not done anything else to her – not that she could tell – and she was certain the babe still lived. They laced all her food with peppermint now – even the meat.

This was entirely too much like how the priests of Malúnion had treated her.

The dvergr entered the room again, surely to carry her back to the cage – cage! – they locked her in. “Well. Faster than usual today.” She did not bother to hide her scorn. It was the least they deserved. “What’s it to be today? Staring at the walls again?”

The acolytes ignored her tart words. She wasn’t entirely certain they even heard them, although they seemed to understand the priest’s words well enough. One of them grabbed her bare ankles, and the other took her roughly under her arms. Briefly she thought about struggling, but the last time she’d done that she’d been unceremoniously dropped on her tail and dragged back to the cage by her ankles.

She glared daggers at Vali’s jar, sitting inert in a corner of the room where she was bound, as the key turned in the lock. Naturally, he wouldn’t wake up, not even to let her vent, let alone to investigate.

Someone was going to pay. And it wasn’t going to be the ghost.

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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 his eyes locked on Jorir as he was marched to the front of the Hall, and Jorir could feel the weight of their disappointment heavy on his shoulders.

Soggvar stood. Despite his sickly appearance, his legs were just as strong as Jorir remembered, and his hands steady. “So,” he said, walking to the front of the dais to examine his prisoner. “This is the leader of the barbarians I was told wandered our paths. I don’t know why you came here, human, but your kind has no place in these lands.”

Jorir cleared his throat. “My Thane.”

Soggvar ignored him, perhaps listening to what the shaman was again whispering in his ears. What new poison could this be?

“But since you ignored all warnings, rejoice! You and your companions will go to be with your gods tomorrow.”

Panic tried to close Jorir’s throat. If they did that… “My Lord!”

Both Einarr and the Thane turned to look at him. Einarr’s eyes were surprised, Soggvar’s contemptuous.

“What?” They both said at once.

“My Thane,” Jorir tried again, more clearly addressing Soggvar. “This man is the Cursebreaker. He can free our land from its terrible circumstances.”

“Indeed, by the flow of his blood. His, and his companions.”

Jorir was entirely certain that was not what the Oracle had foreseen. “No, my Thane. By the strength of his hand and the quickness of his wit, if only you would pay it heed.”

The shaman began to laugh, a raspy hideous cackle. “I said, did I not, that this one had forsaken you? See how hard he tries to save the worthless barbarian scum – barbarian sorcerer, no less.”

Soggvar made a calming gesture with his hand and the shaman lapsed into quiet chuckling.

“These barbarians trespassed deep within the Paths of Stone. Furthermore, they slew the beast we had trained into a guardian, and now we must train a replacement. By all our ancient laws, the first alone is enough to earn them death. Tell me, smith: do these laws now mean nothing to you?”

Jorir gaped, unable to find the words to answer, knowing that anything he said would only make their circumstances worse.

“Get out of my sight, smith. You, take the human away. Make sure they are well entertained: it is their last night among the living, after all.”


Late that evening, Jorir crept up to a servant’s entrance to the fortress. Already there, keeping quietly to the shadows, were three other dvergr: Brandir, a younger smith named Gheldram, and a locksmith by the name of Mornik. He nodded in greeting to each of the three. “Is everything ready?” He whispered.

“Just waiting on the signal,” Brandir answered, just as quietly. As hastily conceived as their present plan was, they knew that Soggvar’s court often drank late into the night. Brandir’s sister worked in the Thane’s kitchens, and many years ago she had obtained a large quantity of sleeping draught.

They didn’t have long to wait. Jorir had only just stepped into the shadow of the wall when the servant’s gate began to open. Peeking out from the other side was a comely young lass bearing a passing resemblance to Brandir. “Swiftly now, and quietly. They’re all snoring in their cups, but it took a tolerable large dose to put his lordship under.”

“My thanks,” Brandir said, just as quietly. “Go on back to your post. We wouldn’t want to raise anyone’s suspicions.”

The four of them slipped inside, and their benefactor sent them all off with a quick smile and a “good luck” before she hurried back off towards the scullery.

“That’s little Jennora?” Jorir muttered as Mornik peeked around the corner, looking for sentries.

“The very same.”

“Hard to believe she’s grown up already.”

“That’s what happens when you miss a pair of centuries.”

Mornik motioned them forward, and they hurried on toward the dungeon’s entrance.

Jennora had been thorough. Ordinarily, there would be a guard on the entrance to the dungeons – and, technically, there was. He, however, slept just as soundly as they’d been told the dvergr in the Hall did. Unfortunately, he lay sprawled across the doorway.

Once they were in they moved faster. There should be plenty of warning down here, even if someone was unlucky enough to be given a dinner patrol, and all the skulking in the world would not help them if the men of the Hall woke up before Einarr was rescued and they were out again. Jorir helped himself to one of the torches ensconced on the wall as they went.

Finally, after a wrong turn or two and far more time than any of them liked, they heard a cough and the croaking of parched throats. Jorir stopped in his tracks and swallowed.

“You’re sure you saw him?” Kaldr’s voice asked.

“I could hardly mistake him at this point. It looked like he was in no great favor, either, too.”

“M-my lord?” Jorir called. His ordinary voice sounded loud to his ears.

“Who’s there?” Einarr asked again, a hard edge to his raspy voice this time.

“A svartdvergr in no great favor. Keep talking: we’re going to get you out.”

A third voice laughed. Jorir thought it was Thjofgrir. “He was right, Captain. Rescue is at hand.”

Mornik went to work on the heavy iron lock.

“I knew you’d come for us, once I saw you up in the Hall.” Einarr laughed, too, very plainly relieved.

“Even if I hadn’t sworn to you…” That got Jorir a sidelong look from Brandir, but he shrugged it away. Now was not the time to explain any of that. “We haven’t much time. The Hall is sleeping, but we have no way of knowing when they might awaken.”

“I understand. Have you seen–”

“Got it!” Mornik exclaimed. There was a click, and the door opened a crack.

“One down,” Naudrek drawled. “Four to go. We’re chained to the walls in here.”

The four dwarves nodded to one another and streamed into the room. Before long, all four Men stood rubbing their wrists where the shackles had held them.

Gheldram whistled. “You must really have given them some trouble. They don’t usually pull out the constricting shackles unless they mean business.”

Thjofgrir smirked. “We had the temerity to kill their pet.”

Gheldram nodded. “That would do it.”

“Let’s go. If we’re lucky, we can still find your things in the storeroom down here,” Brandir said, even as he peered back out into the hall. “We’re clear. Let’s go.”

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.