Runa had intended to stay away – she really had. Only, a couple hours after they left, a feeling of impending doom had fallen over her shoulders that she could not shake.

It had been simple to sneak out. The proprietress had many customers, and as she was assisting one group Runa had tossed a shawl over her shoulders and slipped out into the streets.

Similarly, finding the place had been easy. They had told her where they were going, after all, and she remembered well enough the path they had taken back from the Mount.

The trouble came when she was nearing the Mount itself. First there were the swarms of dvergr milling about on the streets – and while their complexions looked normal, that was no guarantee they were trustworthy – or even not hostile. As she was wondering how best to slip past them all, however, she heard the sounds of battle from further up the mountainside.

Suddenly the streets around the Mount were empty, and the swarms of dvergr split. Most of them charged uphill, plainly Jorir’s allies. The others scattered into the city. Runa left them to their own devices and started winding her way up the mountain, towards her husband and whatever doom it was that awaited him if she couldn’t make it in time.

Runa was about halfway up the back side of the Mount when the tone of the battle above changed. She heard screams – more than one ordinarily expected from a battle – and the light of Myrkheimr’s already-dim sun darkened. Her feeling of foreboding grew deeper, but she was already short of breath as she climbed. The little one was unlikely to let her move any faster, even as tiny as he still was.

She rested a hand on her still-slender stomach momentarily. Just a little farther. We have to go.

Runa was not looking forward to explaining this to Einarr – but that was better than not being able to. She didn’t even really know what it was that she was going to have to do – just that if she didn’t get up there, something terrible was going to happen.

Finally, she made it to the meadow ringed by standing stones and pressed her back against one while she caught her breath. She hadn’t noticed what was happening inside the circle – but first things first. She had to be able to breathe, and breathe calmly, if she wanted to understand her role properly.

Finally, her nerves as steeled as she could make them, Runa turned to look around the pillar hiding her from view.

The meadow was set up as a sort of bowl, with the standing stones set considerably higher than the benches and altar below. Those benches had been overturned, and all the dvergr below seemed to be on the right side. They were fighting transformed cultists and a creature she had trouble even comprehending.

Its skin was crimson. From the waist down, it was a spiny fish, and from the waist up it had the rubbery skin she had come to associate with the abominations of Malùnion on a vaguely humanoid chest. There were too many arms, though, and they were really more akin to tentacles – except they ended in crab-like claws – and the eyeless head looked as though someone had set a squid on its shoulders. Oddly, this did not set off a round of nausea – probably, she thought, because she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing.

In the sky above it was a tear, from which poured seawater at an alarming rate. Glowing eyes blinked out from behind the tear: she shuddered to think what might be lurking on the other side, just waiting for a chance to come through.

That was when lightning crackled down out of a clear sky to strike the demon dominating the field. Perhaps her premonition had been wrong: perhaps they could handle this after all. Whatever was about to happen, she could afford to sit and observe for a time.

Puny humans. You have freed me. I will reward you by letting you feed my ascension.

What was that? Something had changed, and plainly she had missed it, but she couldn’t for the life of her tell what it was.

The men were flagging, though. Even from this distance she could tell that the forces assaulting the demon were almost at the end of their strength, whereas their enemy appeared to have healed itself somehow. That she knew how to help with.

Runa straightened up and squared her shoulders, filling her lungs as deeply as she could. Even up here the air smelled of smoke and blood and seawater. Then, she began to Sing, willing the strength of her voice to bring renewal and refreshment to her friends down below. I’m sorry, my love. I could not stay away: you needed me.

She knew the exact moment he realized she was there without even looking. She sang louder, her voice carrying across the amphitheater to reach her friends down below and the brave dvergr still scattered about the standing stones, tossing arrows at the monstrosity.

The arrows themselves didn’t seem to be having much of an effect, but as she watched an idea occurred to her. She darted from pillar to pillar, trying to avoid the abomination’s attention without dropping her Song. There was an archer not that far from where she had been hiding: if she could use him to send a message to Einarr, she thought they might have a chance. As she moved, she tore a scrap of cloth from her sleeve and a bit of charcoal from the amulet bag slung around her neck.

A dvergr archer stood just on the other side of the pillar from her now. She put the large plinth of stone between herself and the demon and paused to scrawl her message on the cloth. She laid a hand on the archer’s shoulder and he jumped. “Can you get this to the one in golden maille?”

The startled dvergr looked at the scrap of cloth in her hand a long moment, seemingly uncomprehending. Just when she was about to ask again, he nodded. “I can, Lady. But I can’t get the same message to the others.”

“You leave that to me.”

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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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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.

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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?

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 creature shrieked, and even as Einarr thought his eardrums would burst he found his feet unfrozen from the ground. Hadn’t he just been running? The nightmare before them coiled its tail in a puddle of seawater as it launched out about itself, striking anything that came within reach and devouring it, if it happened to be flesh.

“This has to be the priest’s doing! Where is he?” Einarr demanded.

Jorir shook his head, looking desperate. “I don’t know! I’d thought they’d have made for the inside of the temple, but they must be around here somewhere.”

“There!” Kaldr pointed to the top of one of the standing stones that surrounded the sacrificial field. On top of it stood the forms of two dvergr – one dressed in white, the other in furs.

“How did they get up there? No, never mind, don’t answer. How do we get up there?” Einarr didn’t really expect an answer: he was already moving down toward the field again. The answer was probably carved into the stone they stood on.

The field was very soon empty, save for the monster before them and the bodies of the fallen. When Einarr and his companions reached the field they did not bother trying to take on the crab-clawed beast itself. Rather, they turned to the side, headed for the standing stone where Thane Soggvar and the high priest of Malùnion stood, thinking themselves out of harm’s way.

Now that they were closer, Einarr could see just how huge this creature from the deeps was. It towered even over the standing stones, which themselves towered over Einarr and his companions.

He had no idea what they were supposed to do about that thing. At this moment, he merely hoped that if they took out the one who called it, it too would vanish.

Einarr felt its malign intent settle on his own shoulders. Just then there was a cackle from up above.

“Yes! Struggle! Your fears will only whet its appetite.”

Einarr glanced over towards the horror. What in the world are we supposed to do about that?

It was moving closer. They were going to have to figure out something, and fast, or they too would end up in the demon’s gullet. Still, the cackling above continued. Einarr looked to Jorir, who shook his head. He could not find how the thane and the priest had climbed the stone.

Einarr thrust a hand into the pouch at his belt and fingered his two new runestones. Would his own paltry will have any effect on a creature of this nature, though?

“Scatter!” He ordered. He was certain it wanted him, although he wasn’t certain why, and this way if the runestones failed, he at least wouldn’t take anyone down with him.

Kaldr and Thjofgrir dashed off to the left. If Einarr knew Kaldr, and he thought he did by this point, he would be aiming to circle around behind the thing. Naudrek and Mornik headed right. Good: with a three-pronged approach, they should at least be able to divide its attention long enough to accomplish… something.

Jorir, his shoulders set in a way that Einarr hadn’t seen since their battle below the Jotunhall, grasped the haft of his axe in both hands and stood a half-pace in front of Einarr. He opened his mouth to object, but then shook his head. Something about Jorir’s stance said he wouldn’t win that argument, and they both had more critical matters to attend to.

The nightmare was moving towards them. Einarr wished he had access to Runa’s lore: perhaps she would know what to call this thing.

“Any ideas?” He said, keeping his voice low. He didn’t rightly know how the thing was tracking him, but it plainly was.

Jorir shrugged. “Haven’t yet met a monster good steel couldn’t answer for. Not sure we have another choice but to try.”

Einarr’s mind rebelled to see a creature with a fish’s tail and a squid’s head slithering across the ground like a snake.

“I was afraid of that.”

One gigantic, serrated red claw shot towards them. Reflexively, Einarr willed a shield into being, and his Yr stone responded.

A sheet of white light radiated outward from where Einarr’s rune shield stopped the claw in mid-air. The tentacle behind the claw wobbled like jelly, as boneless as it first appeared.

They stood frozen like that for a long moment, Einarr’s will straining against the strength of his opponent’s arm. He could feel his brow growing damp: was sufficient, so long as his will could hold out.

Abruptly, the creature shrieked and recoiled back, as though something had struck it in a sensitive place. Movement caught Einarr’s eye from across the open-air temple. It was hard to be sure, but he thought he saw a dvergr standing on top of another stone over there – a dvergr with a bow, no less.

An echo of the monster’s shriek interrupted the mad cackling from above. Well. That’s interesting. I wonder if it works both ways? “I have an idea. Keep it busy for a second – but don’t die.”

Jorir grunted in response. Good enough. Now Einarr just needed to get to a place where he could see the dvergr at the top of the stone. As he ran, he pulled the other new stone from his pouch.

Einarr had only gone a few paces before he heard the battle cries of his friends as they rushed in to beat against its body. He turned as he slowed, peering upwards. It looked as though Thjofgrir had already landed a palpable hit on its tail: a long streak of oozing black marred the crimson scales – although not for long. Even as he positioned himself, he saw the wound knitting back together.

If there was one benefit of joining battle with the creature, it was that the priest’s mad laughter had ceased. Not that his cries of pain were much better. It seemed the priest had little tolerance for the pain he was absorbing from his summoned beast.

This is going to make his day a whole lot worse, Einarr thought, rubbing his thumb over the surface of his one directly offensive runestone.

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.

 

“This way,” Jorir said and turned to lead them all further up the mountain.

Einarr turned to look back at the chaos they left in their wake. It had taken some real effort to ensure the acolytes hadn’t taken out a batch lot of dvergr whose only crime was in keeping to the true gods. Mornik – and a few others – had done an excellent job not only freeing them but arming them as they prepared Einarr for his dramatic ‘escape.’ Mornik himself, still evidently not quite recovered, had donned the robes of one of the fallen acolytes. Thus disguised, he had led Einarr out before the high priest could become too suspicious.

Now, their dvergr allies from the outside were holding their own against the circle of corrupted dvergr they faced. With some degree of confidence, Einarr returned his attention to follow his liegeman up the mountain. Everything behind them was well in hand.

As they left the battleground, Einarr turned once more to observe the fight behind them. Once again, the dvergr of Nilthiad stood up for their own defense to allow the Cursebreaker and his friends to do what they had come for. The defenders were on their back foot: in the center of the field, strewn with benches, Einarr could see that the greatest number of the fallen bore the gray skin of the acolytes or the crest of the Thane on their armor – or both.

“Vyssiní kyvernítis tou váthous!” A deep voice boomed over the field. Below, everyone froze. Kaldr and the others all turned to look, as well.

“Pigí káthe gnósis,” it intoned. Down below, the combatants began to move again, but the flow of the battle had changed. The men of the cult fought with renewed ferocity, and the ordinary men of the town were stalled in place.

“Ton opoíon ta plokámia katapioún óla ta prágmata!”

“No,” Jorir breathed, taking a step up next to Einarr.

“You recognize that voice?”

“Kráken-patéras ton nychión!” The cultists’ desperation and ferocity seemed to grow with every word the echoing voice spoke.

“Kraken?” Thjofgrir’s alarm was reasonable: Einarr had caught that word, too.

Jorir nodded. “Ever since we saw the Oracle, I’ve heard that voice in my sleep – regularly. That’s the high priest.”

“Me to sýmfonó sou se kaló!”

“We need to get back down there.” Einarr started back down the hill. He would not falter, and he would not allow more of his allies to fall like that. Kaldr and Naudrek took up places at either shoulder, and the others were only a pace behind.

“Desmévomai gia séna!” The voice echoed over the field, and Einarr felt the frigid depths of Hel in its reverberation. He rested his hand on Sinmora’s hilt.

“Vgeíte éxo kai pníxte tous anáxious…” The air itself seemed to tremble. Something was coming, and the cultists below had a good idea what. Their desperation put him in mind of the cultists who abandoned ship when they fought the svartalfr, just before the horrors that powered their vessel broke free.

He wasn’t going to make it in time. “Retreat!” The word tore from his throat. He didn’t know if anyone below heard him or not: the cultists were pushing back, and their allies were in danger of a rout.

“Me tis skoteinés sou alítheies!”

For just a moment, the world seemed to freeze around them. Then it was as though the air itself split in two. Right above the altar, a tear seemed to open in reality, and on the other side of it they could see the blue-black of the deep sea.

Morale broke, then, in the combatants down below. All of the combatants. Those who bore the Thane’s sigil and those who wore the robes of the Acolytes screamed. Some of them dropped to their knees, clutching their heads.

The uncorrupted dvergr simply broke and ran, but since the cultists were no longer even trying to fight them their rout was merely an escape.

Einarr felt sick to his stomach – and very glad Runa waited on them at the bathhouse, about as far from the chaos here as it was possible to be in Nilthiad – when several of the acolytes on their knees began to transform. Their skin went from ashen all the way to the sickly dark green he remembered from the corrupted beasts he had fought before. Some of them sprouted extra limbs, the tentacles appearing in a burst of black blood. Others’ heads morphed to resemble squid. Briefly, Einarr wondered if one of them had transformed in public at some point, given their name among outsiders.

He had very little time for the spectacle on the ground, however. Despite the inky darkness of the other side of the rift, he could see the shadow of a creature. It was either growing larger or getting closer, and he couldn’t tell which.

When a claw, crimson as a cooked lobster’s, pushed through and took hold of the edge of the rift, Einarr became certain it was getting closer: nothing became that massive that quickly.

The edge of the claw was jagged, and he could see it tearing the rift wider as it pulled the rest of its body forward. Before long, a second claw attached itself to the other side of the rift, and the creature began to emerge. The arms attached to those claws were more like squid tentacles, but just as red as the claws themselves.

Einarr began to run. From the sound of footsteps behind him, the others were as well.

Before long the head emerged. It seemed to look about the field of battle around itself, but that should have been impossible: neither eyes nor eye sockets were visible. It opened its beak, mouth tentacles writhing around it, and let loose a shriek like nothing Einarr had heard before.

It didn’t seem possible that they were so far away from the altar, but no matter how much they ran they never seemed to close the distance.

Now that its head was free the shoulders followed soon after, and the rest of its body slipped from the rift like some sort of perverse birthing. The creature that loomed before them, dominating the field, was a crimson-scaled fish from the waist down, covered in spines. Its torso was vaguely human and hugely muscled, and the two main clawed tentacles were not the only ones it possessed. It shrieked again and lashed out, scooping up friend and foe alike into its monstrous maw.

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.

 

A week passed, and Einarr’s sacrifice made no difference in the number of people brought in by the Thane’s men. No one who went in ever came out. But, at the end of the week, the “auspicious day” was set. Those who remained on the outside would be ready in plenty of time.

When the day arrived, the allied dvergr took up their axes and their maille and took up position around the field of sacrifice on the back side of the Holy Mount. Jorir went alone, as though he were attending the event, armed as was his right – but perhaps carrying a little more than one might ordinarily expect.

He needed to be here, both for the sake of subverting the vision and to ensure Einarr was not unarmed when the time came. He felt wildly out of place as he approached the front row of benches before the altar. He was the only dvergr there who did not bear the gray complexion of those corrupted by Malùnion. Still, although it made his skin crawl, he took up a position near the front and sat, ignoring those around him.

It seemed like they were kept waiting for hours more, although it couldn’t have been. Jorir was disturbed to realize how many had fallen to the Squid. When the trickle of observers finally stopped, a pair of acolytes in white robes bearing golden censers filled with foul incense came up the center aisle. Behind them walked the cadaverous shaman of Jorir’s vision, and behind him was Thane Soggvar. The Thane took his place in front of the benches for his men while the shaman, his trusted advisor, climbed up to the altar itself and turned to address his captive audience.

Jorir was struck once again by how unfortunate the choice to paint themselves as representatives of the light was: the white cloth and the gold trim rendered their sickness starker by contrast. Skin, which ordinarily would have seemed ashen, now looked as gray as the grave, and the shaman’s eyes were pools of blackness.

The shaman raised bony hands towards his captive audience and a smile floated over his sunken features. “Rejoice, my children,” he called out over the crowd. Jorir thought he could see knees shaking under the shaman’s robes, but the voice was as strong and clear as ever.

“Rejoice, for the day of salvation is at hand! For today we will purge from our ranks the unbelievers, and we will offer a sacrifice which will please our Lord most greatly. The Cursebreaker himself has offered his body to us!”

The audience was silent. The shaman went on in that vein for quite some time. Jorir found himself tuning him out just to maintain focus on the task before him. Had Jorir listened, he would have grown far too angry to have stuck with the plan.

When it felt like the shaman was finishing up, the first words that caught Jorir’s ears were “…And soon we will move south and take the lands of the földvergr – lands which should rightfully have been ours! – And we will unite all dvergr as we should have been from the beginning. Rejoice, for our salvation is nigh!”

The shaman waved his hand, and one of the acolytes struck a large chime that stood by the side of the stage.

“Bring forth the unclean, that their blood may feed our God!”

Jorir caught himself holding his breath. This was the true test. Would they, in fact, bring out Lord Einarr first, so that no more dvergr had to die? Or would he be forced to sit and watch as some of his kin were slaughtered in the name of this horror?

There was a long pause where nothing happened. Jorir saw annoyance flash on the old shaman’s face, and he started to motion the acolyte again.

Before the chime could ring a second time, however, a familiar-looking dvergr strode out. Behind him, in chains, walked the proud figure of Einarr, and Jorir felt he could breathe again. He could guess at what the delay was in the Squiddies’ pageant, but it didn’t matter.

The familiar-looking dvergr kept marching across the dais until the chains attached to Einarr’s cuffs pulled tight. Einarr had stopped, directly in front of the stone slab where they intended to slit his throat, and turned to face those in attendance. Jorir studied his face, but if Einarr had spotted him he made no sign of it.

“It is true that am here today to provide your salvation, but I warn you: it may not be as enjoyable a spectacle as you were expecting. In fact, I suspect you will find the entire experience rather unpleasant.” He raised his bound hands in front of his chest and, with one swift motion, jerked his arms down and to his sides. The shackles fell away, and even from where he sat Jorir could not tell if they had been unlocked or broken.

There was no time to speculate. In the next instant, he was on his feet and rushing the dais. Chaos erupted on the edges of the assembly as arrows rained down on the heads of those who were meant to be there.

Mornik, from his position closer to the edge of the stage, took the chain he still held and lashed the nearest acolyte with the shackles. The robed figure dropped like a stone.

Jorir pulled Einarr’s brokkrsteel maille out from where he carried it under his cloak, buckled to the shoulders of his own maille, and held it out to him. “I am glad to see you are well, milord.”

“Me, too.” Einarr grinned at him as he took the maille and pulled it over his head. Jorir already had Sinmora ready.

Einarr threw the baldric over his shoulder.

Kaldr, Naudrek, and Thjofgrir all rushed onto the stage now from their places with the ambushers. Brandir and Gheldram were both leading the assault on the assembly, and would not be joining them here.

“Is everything ready?” Einarr asked, freeing the ends of his hair from the maille.

“Hours ago,” Thjofgrir drawled. Naudrek chuckled, and even Jorir was forced to agree.

Now freed of his burdens, Jorir drew his own axe. “Let’s go, then.”

“Where are the Thane and the Priest?” Kaldr asked.

Jorir could think of very few directions they could have even tried to escape. The question was, which one was most likely? Then he shook his head: he knew where they were headed. “This way.”

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 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.”

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.

 

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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