Einarr knelt, his eyes half-lidded, his weight supported by Sinmora’s blade standing upright in the ground of Myrkheimr, panting. He no longer heard the sounds of battle, and the smell of charred squid had replaced the smell of seawater. Therefore, they must have won. Runa’s plan must have worked, or he was certain they would all be dead now. Only, somehow he couldn’t muster up the energy to care – or even open his eyes.
He had been at the limits of his magical ability when Runa had launched the plan – Song Magic could mask fatigue, but it could not create reserves where none remained. Which meant that he owed sacrifices to the gods, which meant he had a pressing need to procure livestock.
Pressing, but not so pressing that he had to move just yet. Which was good.
The moment he had felt the ritual being snatched away from him, he thought sure he would be snatched away with it. Instead, he was allowed to ride the flood, and now he felt as drained – and exhilarated – as though he had taken a fishing boat down a waterfall.
He opened his eyes. Runa and Jorir stood in front of him, peering at his face with no small level of concern. They were flanked by his crew and some of the other dvergr – but someone was definitely missing. Einarr offered Runa and Jorir a wan smile, but then found himself counting the faces before him.
“Brandir. Gheldram. Naudrek. Jorir. Runa. Kaldr. Thjofgrir… What happened to Mornik?”
Gheldram shook his head sadly and pointed off towards the edge of the charred circle that still contained the lifeless husk of the demon. A small form lay huddled there, on a much wetter patch of ground.
Einarr sighed and pushed to his feet. His legs trembled under him, and his first step was a stumble. Somehow, though, he made it across the empty field between where he had weathered the storm and where Mornik lay, visibly trembling and clutching his middle.
Einarr dropped to the ground beside the slender dvergr’s head, glad he had managed to reach Mornik before his legs gave out. It was plain, though, that it was too late for Mornik. His skin was as ashen as any of the cultist’s, and black blood streamed down from the corners of his mouth and from his eyes and nostrils.
Gently, Einarr rolled the dvergr over onto his back. Mornik’s eyes were glazed, and he panted against the pain of the transformation in his body.
“Did we… win?” He managed to ask.
Jorir came up beside Einarr and nodded. “We did,” he added.
The corners of Mornik’s mouth curled up into a rictus. “Good.” He coughed, and more of the black blood dribbled out of his mouth. He met Jorir’s eyes directly now and breathed one more unmistakable word. “Please…”
Jorir nodded again, once, slowly. Then he turned to look at Einarr. “My Lord – everyone – please stand back.”
It was, Einarr knew, the only way. But the fact that Mornik retained enough of his mind to ask for death would make it more difficult for Jorir, not less. “Of course.”
With great difficulty, Einarr found his feet again and half-staggered back several paces. “Runa, if you would?”
Runa took one more look at the face of the dvergr on the ground and blanched. She saw it, too. She nodded and opened her mouth to Sing once more: this time, the funereal air Einarr had last heard from her when they buried Astrid, what felt like an eternity ago.
The six of them turned, and the men all offered a respectful salute to their fallen ally. Einarr felt no small pang of guilt: if he had waited to put their plan into motion… But no. That was foolishness, and all that would have accomplished was making their enemy stronger.
Jorir drew one of the knives from Mornik’s braces and raised it high overhead. “Farewell, my friend,” he said, and plunged the knife down.
In the moment before the killing blow fell, Mornik’s eyes closed, and his mouth relaxed into what was almost a smile, as though if he had to die, he was pleased to die as himself. The body jerked a little as Jorir drove the blade home.
Einarr watched as Jorir calmly removed the glove from that hand and dropped it on the body, then turned and walked back toward them. Einarr did not miss, though, that he never looked up.
As Jorir crossed their line of vigil, Einarr came to a decision. “Tonight, we will feast our victory and toast the fallen. Tomorrow we will take stock, of what was lost and what remains, and on the third day we will thank the gods.” Then a thought occurred to him and he turned to Brandir. “There… are still priests of the real gods here, aren’t there?”
That broke the tension. Brandir chuckled as he answered in the affirmative, and the seven of them all limped away from the field of battle, Einarr leaning heavily on his liege man’s shoulder.
The Thane’s body was never found. On the other hand, on the top of the standing stone where the high priest of the mad cult had stood, there was a black smear that suggested he had been wiped away in the same torrent of magic that had finally ended the demon beast. It wasn’t proof, but it was sufficient for the dvergr of Nilthiad to convene a Thing and appoint a new Thane.
They went back, while they were taking stock, to examine the husk of the demon beast – Runa thought it might, in some way, be related to the Imperial god Phorcys. It was thoroughly blackened, but rather than char, which would have a tendency to smudge or crumble at a touch, it seemed to have been turned to stone somehow. Not that anyone could explain how, save by Einarr’s strange experience when the circle was active. It was, they thought, yet one more reason to give thanks to the gods: char would spread, and there was no way to know if it would have been cleansed of its corruption.
Finally, after a full week working with the surviving dvergr of Nilthiad, it was time to go. The summer wore on, and even with Jorir’s help it would take them most of a month to reach Breidelstein again – and Runa was already beginning to show. The dvergr, however, were not about to let them go without a proper sendoff: Brandir arranged for another, smaller, feast for the next night, and despite Einarr’s restless feet they were obliged to attend.
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