The five humans only made it as far as the hallway filled with priestly quarters before they ran into trouble. Halfway down stood a pair of dvergr dressed like priests. The white robes with their gold trim made their complexions look ghastly and grey.

The one in the front shrieked and pointed directly at Runa. “The vessel!”

Einarr wasted no time waiting for an explanation: he drew Sinmora.

“That’s the one who kept examining me,” Runa said, then cleared her throat.

“No! Don’t Sing here.”

Runa looked askance at Einarr’s order, but an order it was.

“Remember how the svartalfrs reacted to Song magic.”

Now she nodded. Thjofgrir and Naudrek had already taken the lead, and while the two priests up ahead were more durable than your average dvergr, they were still subdued easily.

“You want ‘em alive?” Thjofgrir asked, a knee in the back of the one who had spoken.

Einarr frowned, thinking. Could someone be redeemed when they were as… corrupted as these two appeared to be? He didn’t know, but they might be worth questioning later. “Throw them in the cage. I’ll improvise a new lock.”

“Why bother?” Runa’s voice was cold. At Einarr’s raised eyebrow, she continued. “Even the Matrons don’t know how to undo this. You’re the Cursebreaker, but these dvergr took the corruption into themselves – and willingly, as near as I’ve been able to gather. You’re better off killing them than leaving an enemy like this at our backs.”

Einarr shook his head. She wasn’t wrong, but… “Do it, Thjofgrir. We have no good way to shield ourselves from the corrupted blood, so I’d rather not expose you to any more of it than I can avoid.”

Runa grumbled, but evidently didn’t have a good counterargument for that. As well she shouldn’t: last time they’d fought this cult, the Matrons had sent him off after an artifact that belonged to Wotan’s wife – and that had disappeared after they destroyed Urdr’s Weavings over Breidelstein. (Einarr was not looking forward to explaining that to Ystävä, if the alfr ever decided to collect.) Somehow, he doubted Wotan would let him “borrow” it a second time.

They locked them in the cage, only it was not so much a lock. Einarr traced a series of runes along the edge of the door, and when they began to glow the bars became red-hot. When they cooled, moments later, the runes were gone and the bars had fused together entirely.

Einarr gave his wife half a smile. “You were worried about them being left behind us? I think, somehow, we’ll be okay.”


Jorir was pleased to discover that the smoke had not spread to the floor above. As they climbed out of the choking miasma, they all began to regain their strength. He hoped that meant they had made it out in time. “Once we’ve destroyed the Squiddies,” he muttered. “I’m dragging all of you with me to a priestess of Frigg.”

Mornik coughed. He seemed to have taken the worst of it. “Suits me fine.”

“We need to keep moving.” Brandir looked nervously up and down the hall. It was odd that they hadn’t seen more acolytes: were they perhaps down in the streets, dealing with the bigger distraction?

Jorir moved up next to Brandir and took a look around as well. This would be a level for the next level of initiate, Jorir suspected, but there were only three more levels between where they were and where they had left the humans. “Well, come on. This way. We kill anything that moves, and break anything that looks like it might keep them busy, just like below.”

Gheldram chuckled drily. “Perhaps not just like below.”

“Hrmph. Perhaps.”

Unfortunately for Jorir’s team, the second level was lined with initiate quarters along the outside edges, but the features in the more spacious interior seemed largely recreational. There was a mess, and a training hall, and not much of anything else. Furthermore, this floor, too, seemed to be deserted.

Less than halfway through the floor, as Jorir judged it, he stopped. “Something’s not right here. Where is everyone?”

Gheldram, too, frowned. “You’re right. The distraction in the streets wouldn’t account for this.”

“We head back up. We’ll meet Lord Einarr’s team in the designated spot and keep it clear.”


The four dvergr found themselves crouching in the middle of the stairway up to the final floor, the one they had entered through the hidden passage, and cursing their fortunes. They could just see the floor above, and it appeared to be packed with squiddies.

“More or less what we feared,” he whispered.

“Rather. But, the more we can clear out, the fewer your human friends have to deal with, right?” Brandir looked grim, and Jorir didn’t blame him at all. That was a lot of squiddies: their best hope was that they were clustered together in groups, rather than packed that full the whole way through. He nodded in response and took a firmer grip on his axe handle. Then, without a word, he held up three fingers.

Two.

One.

When the last finger became part of Jorir’s fist, all four dvergr charged the high ground.

It never would have worked if the squiddies had been expecting it. Thankfully for Jorir and his team, none of the acolytes near the door were paying any attention to the stairway behind them – almost as if they didn’t think there could be any other groups of enemies in the Mount. Not for the first time, Jorir was glad that the corruption changed the way people functioned in some rather predictable – and stupid – ways.

The first rank of four, those closest to the door, fell without a fight, and suddenly Jorir and his team were standing where they had been, laying about themselves and destroying the corrupted dvergr as quickly as they could manage. They were halfway back to the secret passage when Jorir felt his strength beginning to flag. He supposed, after that cursed snake and all the smoke down below, that he shouldn’t be surprised, but it still rankled.

That was when some of the squiddies began to stand back up. One of them, quite nearby, had been disemboweled. When those bowels began to twist and writhe on their own, their color getting darker and darker until it was nearly black, Jorir concluded they were entirely too close. “Gheldram!”

He hardly needed to catch the man’s attention. Even as the word left his mouth, the massive hammer came down on the writhing tentacles on the floor, pulverizing them. Now Jorir felt queasy for an entirely legitimate reason.

“Quickly! We must secure the passage!”

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

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

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

 

Einarr kept one hand on the low ceiling as he walked, bent half-over, down the passageway the runes had revealed. It was dark, but the far end of the passage was also open. Light filtered in from both ends: brilliant white from ahead, and the warm yellow of a torch from behind.

The passage was smaller than anything else they’d seen in the so-called Holy Mount, plainly sized for a single dvergr (or perhaps two) at a time. Still they went warily: not all dangers came in large forms, and that was doubly true when dealing with the mad followers of Malúnion.

At the far end of the tunnel, Einarr pressed himself against its wall and peered out into the room beyond.

In it, he saw a large stone slab, about the right size for a human body, with ropes drilled through it. Against the far wall stood a table, covered in implements whose use he could not guess at, and a door. The room was lit from above, by some means that seemed to mimic true sunlight, and otherwise empty. Einarr stepped out of the shadows of the tunnel cautiously, and the others followed.

“What is this place?” Naudrek wondered aloud.

“The Weaver-witch used to have a table like that,” Kaldr mused. “We found it while we were clearing out the dungeons. Only, hers wasn’t nearly so clean.”

Einarr nodded, suppressing a shudder. “Runa said she’d used human blood to dye her threads.”

Abruptly, horror filled his belly and closed his throat. Where was Runa?

He had seen enough of this room, he thought: recklessly, he pulled open the door that stood near the tool-covered table.

“Wait!” Thjofgrir called. When Einarr looked over his shoulder, he saw the others rushing towards him.

Nothing had happened. “I don’t think this is the sort of chamber you trap,” Einarr said, answering their obvious worries. “It’s possible he has some sort of alarm set up on this door, but this feels like a place that gets used a lot.”

A feminine voice came from the far side of the door. “Einarr?”

Einarr grinned and flung the door open the rest of the way. “Runa!”

His wife, looking faintly green, reclined in the center of a large, iron-barred cage in the middle of the room wearing nothing but her shift. She appeared to be alone. As the four men streamed in, she got unsteadily to her feet – although she couldn’t quite stand up straight.

Relief flooded her face. “Einarr! You made it. Thank goodness.”

“Of course I made it. How are you? Have they done anything to you?”

“No, I’m fine. I don’t even think the food was tainted – except with peppermint.”

“Peppermint?”

She made a face. “Literally everything they gave me tasted of peppermint. I think I must have vomited on their priest.”

Kaldr looked troubled. “We were imprisoned for quite some time ourselves. They’ve had you here for ages now: do you know what they wanted you for?”

She shook her head. “Something about a vessel. I don’t know what he meant by that, though… and I should dearly love to get out of this cage.”

“Of course.” Einarr turned his attention to the lock and frowned.

Thjofgrir put a hand on his shoulder. “Allow me.”

Einarr and Runa both took a step back from the door of the cage as Thjofgrir raised his massive sword and brought the pommel down on the lock hard enough to smash it. The noise rang in Einarr’s ears.

Naudrek and Kaldr hurried over to guard the door while Thjofgrir stepped back, inspecting his hilt, allowing Einarr to be the one to open the door and free his bride. She half-stumbled out of the cage and into his arms.

After a quick embrace, he asked, “Where’s Vali?”

Wordlessly, Runa pointed to a corner of the room none of them had noticed. “I haven’t seen him since we fought off the salamander in the tunnels.”

Einarr frowned. “Troubling. Can you still carry his jar? It wouldn’t be right to just leave him behind.”

She nodded and hurried over to the corner where the painted jar sat. She still looked stiff, although as she moved she visibly loosened up. For a long moment she studied the jar before shaking her head and tucking it under her arm.

“Something wrong?”

“I don’t know. We’ll want to take a closer look at it later. Until we know for sure, it’s probably for the best if he stays asleep, though.”

“As you say, my Lady. Have you got your things? The longer we stay here, the more likely someone is to come investigate,” Kaldr said from his post by the door.

“Of course.”

Not many minutes later, Runa had gathered the few things she had carried from the pile they had been unceremoniously tossed in, dressed herself properly, and stood ready with Vali’s jar once again under her arm. “Okay. I’m ready.”


Panting and nauseous, Jorir stood looking on the corpse of the giant serpent they had unintentionally awakened by burning the lower hall. Smoke still billowed out from around its body, which would keep them from blocking the rest of the smoke in the doorway. It didn’t matter that the doors were well and truly down now: the smoke would infect anyone who ventured in here.

“Let’s go,” he croaked. “We can’t stop this, and we have a job to finish.”

Coughing, Brandir nodded his head in agreement while Gheldram helped Mornik back to his feet. Either the acolytes would come to clean up this mess, or the fire would spread further in the temple. He just hoped he hadn’t facilitated monsters like the ones they had faced on the docks at the svartalfr hideout.

Gheldram and Mornik had just limped into the stairwell leading to the next level when Jorir turned around. Something had changed… the heat on his back felt more intense, suddenly.

He didn’t truly know what any of that meant, only that something was seriously wrong. He spun back towards his friends and tackled Brandir, sending them both tumbling down the stairs and into Gheldram and Mornik.

The whole room shook, and the sound of calamitous thunder was followed by a gout of flame that nearly singed Jorir’s boots.

That was one way to get their attention.

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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.

 

Grim-faced, Jorir drove the butt of his axe into the solar plexus of the man he had just disarmed. He fell to the ground and did not get up.

From the corner of his eye, Einarr saw one of the black-blooded dvergr coming up on Gheldram from behind. He lunged and embedded Sinmora in its chest. That didn’t drop it, but it did give Gheldram the time he needed to face his new attacker.

Meanwhile, Kaldr had slid in behind where Einarr had been, in order to deftly drop another. His blade flickered, and the corrupted dvergr fell neatly into three pieces.

Einarr turned his attention back to the fight, only to discover that the pursuers had all been dealt with. He nodded to himself, watching as the others also took stock of their situation. Brandir holstered his axe. None of them were soaked in the blood, like the Vidofnings had been when they first fought the abominations, but at the same time they were all splattered with it.

Einarr shrugged his shoulders, uncomfortable – but not, thankfully, feeling sick to his stomach. “Is there anywhere we can bathe around here? The hotter, the better.”

The leader of the dvergr nodded, his gaze locked on a dark patch of mud on the ground in front of him. “This way. I only hope it’s as empty as I expect.”


Three hours later, they soaked in the near-scalding water of what (from the smell) must have been a volcanic hot spring. Einarr was shocked to learn that, during the day, this was actually a fairly popular bath – but, then again, these were dvergr lands.

As a bonus, Mornik was on friendly terms with the proprietor, so the loft of the building would provide a convenient place to hide – at least while they decided what to do. That was where they had stowed their belongings while they took advantage of the sulfurous water. Einarr had already turned a remarkable shade of pink, and several of the others were in much the same state.

“You’ll be pleased to know,” Mornik was saying. “That your Lady appears unharmed. Most displeased, and caged like an animal, but unharmed.”

“So far,” Brandir muttered darkly. Einarr couldn’t help but agree.

“But where is she?” Einarr tried not to snap. Now was not the time for rushing headlong into things, but it was still difficult. “And… was she alone?”

Mornik cleared his throat. “Alone? Well, save for the acolytes. But, well, that’s the thing. And the reason I got caught.”

“Well, go on,” Jorir grumbled.

“She’s in the Mount.”

Einarr shared a confused look with Kaldr and the other humans. The dvergr, though, went pale to a man.

“What does that mean?” Thjofgrir ventured to ask.

Jorir stared at the surface of the water, not evidently seeing it, and his voice was quiet. “That’s their stronghold.”

“Who’s stronghold?” It was Naudrek pumping for information this time.

“The thrice-damned cult’s,” Brandir said, his voice stronger that Jorir’s but just as troubled. “If she’s there, they must have plans for her. She might not even be human when she comes out.”

Einarr dropped his head in his hands and groaned. The spring water was uncomfortably warm on his face, but it hardly registered. “It’s the svartalfr cave all over again.”

Jorir sighed. “Looks like it.”

Kaldr cleared his throat. “I beg your pardon, but as bad as I’ve heard that was, this may be worse. Didn’t you tell me yourself, Jorir, that their magic is a twisted thing? What about–”

“The babe!” Einarr sat back up abruptly with a swish, wet red hair flinging droplets behind him.

All four dvergr roared at once, “The what?”

“Are ye insane?” Jorir added.

“We didn’t know, when we left. We didn’t figure it out until after it was too late to turn back.”

“I don’t know what their foul magics might do to a babe, but I’d rather not find out.” Mornik shuddered, his voice grim. “But the only way we’re getting anything out of there is if we take the whole place, and I don’t think we’re ready.”

Einarr perked up his ears. “Ready?”

“No. No, we’re not – quite.” Brandir agreed. “But… you are the Cursebreaker? You have proof of this?”

“Aye,” Jorir and Kaldr answered together.

“The Oracle herself named him,” Jorir answered. “Even without her signs, that would have been enough for me.”

Kaldr continued. “He destroyed the black weaving laid upon our home for twenty years – and that is only the most recent of his exploits.”

“Good enough. And he’s plainly fought against the cult before: all to the good. Give me two days and I can have the final pieces in place.”

“Two days?” Einarr felt his spirits falling as quickly as they had risen. “Anything could happen in two days. I don’t even know how long we’ve been down here.”

“I’m afraid it’s the best I can do. If we are to have any hope of escaping the Mount alive, there are friends to rouse. We will not take the Mount unless the dvergr reclaim the Hall.”

“Einarr’s right, though,” Jorir rumbled. “We cannae just let the Lady Runa languish in one of Malúnion’s cages. Especially not if she’s with child.”

“It’s the Mount. It’s only gotten more impregnable since you left, Jorir: I’m not sure there’s anything we can do until everything is in place.”

“Messengers walk, rumors fly. But, fine. What if Lord Einarr and I went to investigate on our own?”

“Are ye mad?” This was Mornik, as he decided he’d had enough and stepped out of the water and into a towel. “Just earlier, when we had to fight that posse of theirs? That’s because I wasn’ t light enough on my feet – and you’re twice as heavy. Not to mention you’d be hampering yourself with a human along”

“I hardly think I’d be a hindrance in an investigation like this,” Einarr bristled.

He shook his head. “You’re too tall. I don’t care how sneaky you are, when you stand a full chest higher than anyone else on the street you’re going to stand out.”

“…Oh.”

“ ‘Oh’ is right. Now stop talking nonsense and we can get down to business.”

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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.

 

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.

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.

 

Consciousness returned slowly to Einarr, and when it did it was made more uncertain by the dearth of light. But, he could feel his body again. Everything ached, except his head. His head felt like someone had driven spikes into his temples. Even still, he was aware of the hair that felt plastered across his forehead.

Cold metal bands encircled his wrists. He must be in chains, because he could tell his arms were dangling from those bands. He deliberately blinked his eyes. After a few moments, he saw that there was light: dim and red like a torch or a campfire, but light. He tried to raise his head to look around, but fresh stabs of pain shot down his neck and he groaned.

“Einarr?” Kaldr’s voice sounded from out of the darkness. “Einarr, is that you?”

“Unfortunately,” he croaked. His throat was parched, but he highly doubted anyone could move enough to give him a drink. “What happened?”

Kaldr tried to answer, but the sound came out strangled and he fell to coughing. Einarr was definitely not the only one bound like this, then.

Naudrek cleared his throat. “Those creepy statues around the room killed your rune – and a bunch of other things. You passed out – the Lady called it backlash. Vali went mad – we haven’t the foggiest why. The rest of us killed the beast – biggest salamander you ever did see, and you know what one of the guards called it? Fluffy.” Naudrek paused to clear his throat again, rather more forcefully this time.

“So then…?”

Kaldr took up the tale. “So after the beast finally goes down we have to find another way to open that accursed door. Meanwhile, Vali’s still wailing fit to break a heart – or a mind. For a minute back there, it sounded like he might manage. He shut up once we got the jar out of the room, at least. So we start down the hallway on the other side of the door.”

“Haven’t gone very far,” Thjofgrir started as Kaldr coughed again. Had anyone had a drink since they were captured?” “Haven’t gone very far when the world starts going fuzzy. Next thing I know we’re all on the floor, and there’s these creatures coming at us with chains – I’d call them dvergr, but they had big bug eyes and a long nose.”

“That’s the last thing I saw, too,” Kaldr confirmed. “Then the world went black. Next thing I know, we’re here.”

Einarr wanted to cry. All of that, and still they were caught by the dvergr? “Is Runa here?”

Silence.

“So, no. Fine. Does anyone know how long we’ve been here?”

“It’s hard to say, Captain,” Naudrek answered. “They’ve fed us three times – if you want to call it that. They don’t seem to care much what condition we’re in so long as we’re alive, though.”

“I see.” He saw rather more than he wanted to see, honestly. Runa was missing, and either Vali was with her or he was somehow asleep again. And Jorir had said, back before they infiltrated the svartalfr cave, that his own home had fallen under the sway of that same cult. He did not care to probe too deeply what fate might await them if they couldn’t get out of this dungeon. Just as bad were all the things they could intend for Runa – or have already done to her. To her, and to the babe. He growled.

“Fine. So somehow we need to break out of this, find Runa, and find Jorir. Then we need to go back up those thrice-cursed tunnels, get in our boat, and wash our hands of this place. Sound about right?”

Noises of agreement came from around their cell.

“So. What have we tried so far?”

The only answer was the rattle of chains. Was someone shaking their head?

“It’s like the shackles were fitted for us specifically – there’s not an inch of give there. The chains are looped over a hook overhead, but we only know that because they let us down when they feed us – and that by a hook from outside the cell.” Einarr thought he heard a note of despair in Kaldr’s calm voice. “None of us has been able to manage it ourselves. Something about the leg irons is keeping us all stuck sitting, too, never mind that it’s our ankles bound.”

Einarr frowned. The dvergr were known for elevating their smithing into an art – did that mean it was an Art? He snorted: on the subject of unknowables, that was low on the priority tree. “I had a bit of chalk still in my pocket when the backlash knocked me out, but I don’t have enough play to lower my arms. Does anyone else?”

“I’m afraid not,” Naudrek answered to more clinking.

Einarr swore. This was looking worse and worse: just how paranoid were these svartdvergr? “So our best hope is for Jorir to learn we’re here and decide to free us. Once he knows we’re here, I’m certain he’ll do everything in his power to ensure we’re freed… but I suppose until that happens we just have to trust in the Norns.” Now he sighed. “I don’t suppose they’ve given any of you a clue what they plan to do to us? Surely they don’t intend to hold us here forever?”

“No, not forever,” Thjofgrir answered, black humor heavy in his voice. “Just until they decide to execute us.”

Einarr opened his mouth to swear again, but then the enormity of what they faced hit him as hard as the ache in his muscles had. He groaned and slumped back against the wall. “All right. So when was the last time they fed you… and please tell me they bring water.”

“Oh, aye, there’s water. It’s warm, and it tastes worse than it smells, but it wets your throat for a little.” Naudrek gave a bitter chuckle. “And I haven’t the foggiest when they fed us last, or when they’ll feed us again. It’s never enough to fill you up, so your belly just settles into a constant dull ache.”

“The guard has changed twice since the last time they brought their …porridge,” Kaldr answered. “I’ve been counting the passage of boots in the hall. So we should be getting some respite before too long.”

Einarr nodded, not really thinking about whether or not they could see him. When the guard came to feed them – whenever that was – he would try to palm the chalk he remembered having in his pocket. Hopefully it would still be there. Hopefully, too, he would actually be able to help their situation then.

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 marks the final chapter of Book 12: Einarr and the Paths of Stone. As I have developed a habit of taking a month off between books, Book 13 will begin on 8/3/2021.

Kaldr and Runa set to work, searching every surface with their fingers, hunting for some way to unlatch that door from this side.

When Vali’s keening dissolved briefly into a mad cackle, their search grew more desperate. Kaldr thought he began to understand Runa’s concern for the ghost. This was wreaking havoc on his own mind: what must be happening to Vali’s?

Across the room, the others staggered back to their feet. Evidently, the brief lapse in the keening allowed them to pull their heads together a little. Kaldr wished that had worked for him: instead, he now felt lonely and spooked. Naudrek, still clutching the side of his head, came up beside him. “What are you looking for?”

“A switch. A lever. A button. Something that could open the way.”

Without another word, Naudrek joined the hunt, followed shortly by Thjofgrir.

Then the unearthly green of the statues’ eyes began to flash – not all at once, but one at a time, as though the apparition’s keening was not enough, and now it needed some new outlet for the madness embodied by that sound. One by one, around and around the circle went the flash of ghost light, and always getting faster. Kaldr found it quite disorienting.

Thjofgrir stopped in the middle of examining a statue to clap both hands over his ears. “Runa!” he bellowed. “Can’t you do something to calm him down?”

Kaldr couldn’t see her reaction, but he was not at all surprised to hear the answer.

“You want to put us all to sleep again? He’ll hit the resonance too fast.”

“Found it!” Naudrek cried from the other side of the room. His words were accompanied by an audible click.

Oh, thank the gods. He could see the seam in the wall that marked the edge of the door now, and it was slowly creeping outwards. Who has the jar?

Runa did, still. Somehow. That was good. Kaldr hurried over to her. “Get the jar through the door as soon as it opens. I’ll get him.”

She nodded her agreement, looking almost frantic. Probably even her training couldn’t fully block out the effects of a mad ghost’s wail.

Kaldr looked down at his Prince. Runa had said he was all right, but his face was pale and a thin line of dried blood traced down his cheeks from each nostril. The backlash from all these statues must have been tremendous. I wonder how it would work to carry a little carving with me. Just to be safe…

He knew his reaction to magic was not entirely rational, just as Lord Stigander’s reflexive dislike for the runes was not. He didn’t especially care, however: magic still failed, and relying on it left you weak when it did. This was the most solid proof he could ask for on that account.

He settled Einarr’s weight over his shoulder as Naudrek threw his weight into pulling the door fully open. Thjofgrir went through first, and then Runa carried the jar outside the ring of carved stone beasts.

Abruptly, the keening stopped and the flashing brightness of the circle vanished.

Vali was nowhere to be seen.

Kaldr shook his head. If Vali hadn’t retreated into the jar after it left the circle of beasts, there was really nothing he could do about it. He, too, went through the door and into another passage very like the one now blocked by the corpse of an enormous salamander. He might be mistaken, but he thought this one, finally, had a slight upward slope to the floor.

The door began to swing closed on its own as Naudrek crossed the threshold. As the light from the statues began to be blocked by the closing door, Kaldr gave a deep sigh and turned to study the passage before them as best he could. That it looked straight and mostly level was a hindrance, not a help.

The door closed behind them with a shockingly loud thud and the passage was plunged into complete blackness.

“We should be on our way out,” Kaldr said into the darkness. “Was anyone injured during that last fight?” He himself had suffered no few minor bruises and scrapes, and he was certain he would pay for them later, but right now that was not what mattered.

“My foot still aches,” Thjofgrir answered. “But I fought on it. I can damn well walk on it.”

Kaldr nodded to himself. That was not unexpected. Once they were free of these thrice-cursed tunnels, they would have to do some more permanent medicine on that leg. “What about you, Naudrek?”

“Little shaken up, is all. Never would have guessed we’d see Vali do something like that.”

“Hmm.” Naudrek wasn’t wrong, but at the same time, Kaldr couldn’t help thinking he, in particular, should have been warier of the apparition. “All right, then. Shaken or no, there’s not a lot we can do about anything until we get some light – and somehow I doubt any of our torches survived our wetting earlier. Forward, now, easy as she goes.”

As they moved forward, step by cautious step, Kaldr found his eyes beginning to grow accustomed to the darkness. At the very least, he began to be able to make out silhouettes, areas of gray among the black. Perhaps there was some sort of luminescent mushroom that grew down here? He didn’t question it.

Not much further on, he was surprised to realize he was panting. Well, it had been a very long journey down these passages. He was briefly tempted to ask Runa for a bit of aid, but she was probably having a harder time than any of them – and with him carrying Einarr, there was really no one who could help.

His legs started to feel weak, and his hands grew rapidly numb. Nothing for it. Press on. You’ll feel better once we’re out again.

He felt Einarr start to slide off his back. He tried to adjust his grip, but his arms wouldn’t respond. They can’t be that numb…

He heard a thud from behind him, as of a body falling limply to the stone floor, but he could not guess if it was Naudrek’s or Einarr’s. Then his own knees began to buckle. He couldn’t understand where this weakness was coming from.

The light ahead increased. His vision wavered in and out, but he could have sworn he saw an approaching troop of monsters, all about the size of a dvergr. Only, instead of a human head, these had the big round eyes and long nose of a terrifying insect.

The clank of chains rang in his ears, and he knew no more.

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.

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For the first time in a very long time, Kaldr saw the red haze of the battle fury pressing at the edges of his vision. It was a mark of just how exhausted he was that he contemplated accepting it, just this once. When he realized that, he physically shook his head to shake it off. One of them, at least, had to keep his wits about him. Thjofgrir was quite plainly in its grip, as was Naudrek. They must have (reasonably) assumed he would play the Captain here.

He fought off the Song as hard as he fought off the enormous, wounded salamander.

The beast shot its tongue toward where Runa stood over Einarr. All three of them lunged at once to slash at the exposed flesh. For a wonder, their blades bit deep.

The salamander – he was reasonably certain that’s what he was looking at, overgrown though it was – reared back and shrieked in pain, as inhuman a sound as Kaldr had ever heard. Salamander blood splashed everywhere.

He turned his attention back to its gills: the shot would be tricky, but he felt certain it would be the best way to injure the beast.

In and out he darted, trying with every lunge to stab deep within the beast’s gills. Even at full strength, with all of them fighting and fresh, this would have been a difficult fight. Here, their Captain was down, Vali was keening most unpleasantly, and even a quick glance at Runa showed the strain she was under.

Kaldr was panting furiously as the three of them fought off the beast. He wasn’t sure any longer whether or not it mattered if he kept his wits: there was nothing to this fight except to cut and retreat.

Then the very air around them began to vibrate, thrumming in his ears. He spared another glance across the room at Runa.

Her eyes were squeezed shut, and her mouth open wide, but the tone of her voice was shifting subtly downwards, as though intending to twine with Vali’s mad keening.

He hoped she was doing that on purpose, whatever it was. The throbbing of the air in his ears grew worse, until even the beast became distracted by the noise. It thrashed its head this way and that, like a dog with a bee in its ear. Then, it tried to scoot backwards out of the room the same way it had wriggled in. As it did so, it flared its gills.

Kaldr reacted. He lunged for the opening with all his strength, plunging his sword into the exposed inner flesh of the beast’s neck. Blood spurted out around his blade and the salamander began to thrash in earnest.

Naudrek jumped nimbly out of the way before it could slam him against the wall with its head. Thjofgrir took a different approach.

Still under the effects of Runa’s Song, Thjofgrir jumped up to land on the wildly shaking head. Deliberately, one step at a time, he walked up its slimy nose until he stood right beside the beast’s eye. Then, with a scream of Song-fueled rage, he drove his sword point home just behind its eye. With a shudder, the salamander collapsed to the floor and ceased moving.

Runa’s Song shifted, and Kaldr no longer felt the red mist of rage pulsing at his mind. The keening, however, modulated with it, so that the thrumming in the air never ceased. And now, without the battle fury to distract him, Kaldr became aware of something else pulsing at the edges of his mind.

Now it was his turn to shudder, him and the other two who had been doing the actual work of fighting the beast. Suddenly he was a small boy again, alone and hiding in the corner while pabbi railed drunkenly at his mother over… nothing, so far as Kaldr could tell. Some seithir had worked her magic on him, again, and convinced him to give her all his coin. Mother didn’t deserve that, but he knew better than to help. The man’s temper couldn’t abide that.

That memory was followed by a rush of raw emotion, so strong even Kaldr felt himself sinking to his knees. Fear. Anger. Loneliness. Pain, too, but nearly subsumed by the others.

His shoulders shuddering, he turned bleary eyes to the others. Coming down off the battle fury, as they were, it seemed to be hitting them harder. The green light of the statues’ eyes reflected wetly off of Thjofgrir’s cheeks where he knelt, staring silently towards the ceiling.

Naudrek had curled up into a ball on the floor.

And Runa was no longer Singing.

Wait. If she’s not Singing, then where is that thrumming coming from? He didn’t know much about Song magic, but he had heard enough ordinary music to be familiar with the effect. So then, was Vali causing all of this by himself? Kaldr forced himself to his feet under the inhuman, almost physical weight of loneliness that was bearing down on him. He stumbled towards the Singer and nearly choked when he tried to speak. “Runa?”

“We’ve got to get the jar out of here!” Her voice sounded wet with tears, as well. Interesting: he had rarely known Singers to be affected by other Songs.

“How?” It came out as a wail, but how much of the despair was his own he could not guess.

“I don’t know!” She inhaled loudly, a deep, sobbing, shuddering breath. “I can try to give you strength to burst it.”

Kaldr shook his head. That would take too long, he expected. Damn that apparition. The throbbing keening echoing through the room made it almost impossible to think, though. “There’s got to be… some sort of emergency catch. In case one of their own gets trapped.”

He spared a look for Einarr. He was probably the happiest among them, peacefully unconscious and unaware of the havoc around them. Sadly, they could not knock themselves unconscious to escape this, not without handing themselves to the tender mercies of the dvergr. “Help me search?”

“But…” Runa glanced worriedly between Einarr and Kaldr. Pregnant women were often overly emotional. She must have a will of iron to be holding together even this well under the onslaught.

“I think he’ll be fine on his own. We, on the other hand…”

He could just see her nod, one hand at her face. When she rose, it was unsteady. “You’re right, of course. And who knows what will happen to poor Vali after this…”

Kaldr stared. In this situation, it was the ghost she worried about?

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.

 

Einarr’s scream was followed quickly by Runa’s as the light shifted from one, central source of dim white light to a diffuse green. Kaldr spun on his heels, only to see his Prince collapsing to the floor, and the Lady racing across to where he fell.

“What happened?” he called across as he returned his attention to the hall beyond. The beast was far too close for comfort.

“I don’t know!” It was Vali who answered: Kaldr assumed the Lady was examining Einarr. “We finally found the door, but there didn’t seem to be any way to open it from this side. So Einarr drew Bjarkan, and then… this.” Disconcertingly, he cackled.

Kaldr tightened his grip on his sword. This could get very bad, very fast.

Not much light reached the passage, but what did was just enough to prove they were out of time. A fleshy-looking white rod impacted with the wall, just at the edge of what Kaldr could see, and then vanished again.

“Runa? Is he all right?”

“He’ll be fine, I think. The backlash knocked him out, but -”

The beast’s chirrup, from down the hall, sounded more like the hunting cry of a wyrm at this distance. Whatever it was, there wouldn’t be much choice but to fight it.

“But?”

“But his breathing is normal. I’m not sure… no! Damn these dvergr! It’s the statues!”

An unnerving giggle echoed through the chambers, plainly from the apparition.

“Explain. Quickly.” Kaldr took a step back from the doorway so that he would be half-hidden by the stone and motioned for Thjofgrir and Naudrek to do the same. It was starting to sound like Vali would be little help here.

“Sculpting is the Art of Defense. It basically cancels static magic.”

Thunderous footsteps sounded in the hall, far too close to the door.

“It’s not great for me, either, but I’ll do what I can.”

Kaldr met eyes with Thjofgrir. The other man gave a familiar wry grin. Naudrek looked grim as he limbered his shoulders and neck. They were in for the fight of their lives, but it looked like they were all up for it.

Kree-ee-ee!

The noise reverberated so loudly Kaldr worried it would bring down the ceiling on them, dvergr work or no. Then it stuck its head inside, even as a glowing green mist rose up around them all. Are you trying to help us or not, Vali? Even if he was, Kaldr wasn’t certain how helpful thick fog was going to be here.

The beast’s head was shaped like a snake’s, but instead of dry scales here they saw moist, slimy-looking skin and gill slits, like a fish might have. Between the cheeks and the gills, little tentacles writhed like worms in a frill around its head.

“Now!” Kaldr shouted, unnecessarily. Thjofgrir was already in motion, his blade held in both hands and his shield still slung over his shoulder. It hissed as blood welled up from the cut, but even from this angle Kaldr could tell it was just a shallow strike.

The creature’s head had fit through the door, but it was having to fight to get its shoulders in. Kaldr lunged forward and cut at the gills. Its skin felt preternaturally tough, though, so even though he knew it to be a solid hit, it too merely welled with a thin line of blood.

Naudrek, in the center, saw both of these blows glance off the beast’s slimy flesh. He stood a moment longer, studying the creature. Then, with a nod to himself, he took a step back and then leaped onto its nose, sword-tip first.

The beast let out another of its shockingly loud chirps and shook its head, this way and that, trying to shake off the prey that had stuck its nose. Well. It didn’t like that.

Kaldr was up next to its neck, now, even as its first four-toed leg was wriggling through. Each of those toes had claws as long as a dagger, and likely just as sharp.

The eerie, mad laughter echoed through the room again, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. The fog no longer seemed to glow in and of itself, but rather little balls of what he could only term ghost fire hung in the air around the beast’s head. Kaldr could see it squinting against the light, sideways membranes squeezing to cover most of the eye.

There was something strangely familiar about the form of this beast, but Kaldr did not have time to dwell on it. He stabbed his sword forward, straight into the gills.

It hissed and tried to close its gills around his sword.

He hopped back. Too hasty. What else might work?

Then the beast got its second leg in. Now that its shoulders were through the door, there was very little to bar the slimy creature from getting to all of them. Very little, save for the four of them. Kaldr had to do better than that.

Naudrek had gained his footing again, just long enough to retrieve his sword from its nose and plunge it down again. It hissed and reared up, trying to dislodge the offending creature on the ceiling. While it was stretched up on its toes, Kaldr hacked at them.

This time, his blow did what he expected it to, and three of the beast’s webbed toes were sheared off.

That got its attention. It twisted its head around and bit at Kaldr.

Naudrek, still on its nose, drew out his sword again and stabbed at the inside of the jaw, just behind the row of sharp, needle-like teeth. Amazingly, he did not lose his sword to its bite.

And that was when Vali, the apparition bound to a jar, began to wail.

Kaldr was only aware of it at first as a prickling on the back of his neck and a feeling of deep unease, even above fighting this monstrosity that had been chasing them for who knows how long through these accursed tunnels. But then the feeling of unease grew until it felt like the room was vibrating with it, and with the hollow rage of a spirit forever bound to – what?

Even the hungry beast seemed to shiver at the sound – right up until Thjofgrir took its other foreleg at the knee. Now it lay, half inside their only sanctuary, on its chest, hissing and chirping and biting around itself left and right. Kaldr almost felt sorry for it: it was now down two legs. They would have to kill it, if they could.

That was the moment that Runa began to Sing.

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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 hurried his crew along as best he could, but Thjofgrir’s injury was going to be an issue until Runa’s song had a chance to do its work. The beast – whatever it was – would still be slowed somewhat by the rubble in the way, but they couldn’t exactly move full speed right now, either. He had taken the rear since Kaldr was bearing Thjofgrir, but that meant he couldn’t carry Runa. He was actually impressed at how well she was maintaining her Song at this pace, but it wasn’t going to gain them any time. They needed either an exit or a hiding place, and they needed it fast. Not that he had the first clue what a hiding place would even look like in this circumstance. There had to be something he could do to slow it down, just a little more.

But, as with the rest of the paths, there was no sign of any supports holding up the ceiling, nor were there cracks in the wall he could exploit. The idea of runes flitted through his mind again, but he shook his head firmly. No runes, not unless it was absolutely critical. Not when he didn’t know what sort of magics the dvergr might turn against them.

“Hey!” Naudrek’s voice rang down the tunnel from up ahead. “I think I found something!”

With great relief, Einarr scooped Thjofgrir’s other arm across his shoulder. “We’re coming!”

Now that there were two of them carrying the other man’s weight they went faster, although still no faster than Runa could move while Singing.

Naudrek and Vali led them into a wide-open room with a narrow entrance – narrow enough that two men could effectively hold off any number of assailants, if they were fresh. None of them were anything like fresh, but still Naudrek moved to bar the door as the last of their crew staggered in. Kaldr joined him as Einarr helped Thjofgrir to sit and Runa turned her full attention to mending his injured leg.

That left Einarr and Vali to examine their momentary shelter. Einarr laid his shield by Runa’s side so there was at least a little light for her to work with. Sweat beaded her brow, although it was no warmer in this room than it had been in the passages beyond. Perhaps she was more exhausted than she let on.

As he got a good look at the room, though, he wished he had it with him. The light itself was steady, but at that distance and that angle it cast strange shadows over the multitude of carved beasts that lined the walls. He saw creatures as mundane as stags, wolves, and bears, but also coiling dragons and hideous sea creatures. There were even a few that looked not unlike tafl pieces. Each and every statue that he passed, Einarr saw that the eyes were set with some sort of faintly glowing green gem.

They had nearly completed a circuit of the room, without finding any other exit, when the beast’s incongruous chirp echoed into the room. Everyone turned to look towards the door, Thjofgrir still massaging his injured leg as Runa took a moment to rest her voice.

“How’s it feeling?” Einarr asked Thjofgrir.

“Better.” He suited action to words and pulled his boot back on. “We had another hour, I’d be right as rain.”

Einarr nodded. That was more or less what he’d expected. “Right then. Stay off it for a bit longer, I think, then go backup Kaldr and Naudrek. Runa, rest up while you can. Won’t be long. We’ll keep looking for another way out of here.”

Runa gave him a wan smile even as she drew the water skin from her belt. She raised it to her mouth and drank long and deeply.

Einarr turned his attention back to the problem at hand, but by the time he completed his circuit of the room with its eerie statues he still hadn’t found anything that looked like a way through.

Then Vali gave a quick, quiet whistle from the far side of the cavern. Einarr crossed the room at a trot, sparing a glance for his wife who still sat near where she had treated Thjofgrir. She looked less pale, he thought, although in the dim light of his shield it was difficult to be certain. Vali was still waving him on, though.

“What did you find?” he asked as he drew near the apparition. He was fairly sure he heard the familiar wet slapping footsteps of their pursuer again.

“It’s well-hidden, but I think I’ve spotted the passage.”

“Oh, thank the gods.”

“Gods, or ghosts?” Vali winked at him mischievously, then sobered again. “But really, don’t thank me yet. We still have to figure out how to get it open.”

“Show me.”

It was a door, as cleverly concealed as the one they had found initially, just before bypassing the elemental traps at the very top of the Paths. Only this one was locked – as Vali was able to confirm. Probably this was an access hatch for the poor sots sent to clean up after the fools who dared the tunnels.

Einarr took a deep breath. Before, it had taken all of them to push open a stone door like this – only that one hadn’t been locked, or even seemed to have a catch. This one was plainly designed to open only from one side – the other one.

A continuous stream of chirps echoed through the room now, and Einarr imagined he could hear the scraping of claws over the wet smack of the beast’s footsteps. They had found their exit, but they were out of time. He drew out his chalk once more and inscribed a – Bjarkan. The Rune of Liberation.

Please let this work. He willed the rune to life.

A moment later, lances of white fire seemed to stab into his eyes and ears. For a moment, all the world was pain. And then it grew black.


Runa whipped her head around at Einarr’s unexpected scream of pain. The men at the door were ready to fight, and so was she if she had to, but she had expected danger to come from the other direction.

Einarr clutched at his head and sank to his knees – and then the shield winked out.

Runa was on her feet in a heartbeat, wondering if she could make it across the floor in the pitch darkness without falling flat on her face.

The question quickly became moot. All around the chamber, the eyes of the fantastic carved beasts began to glow, as green as ghost light.

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.

 

Vali’s warning left Einarr thunderstruck: hadn’t they just passed a deadfall? “Another one?” He managed to say eventually.

“And in better repair than the one before. You’ll never make it through here carrying the lady: not sure you will anyway.”

“It’s fine. Put me down: I’ve rested enough.”

As Einarr opened his mouth to ask if she was sure, the beast’s ear-piercing chirp rang through the passage again. The sound alone was enough to dislodge some of the looser stones. Instead, he turned to Vali as Runa climbed down off his back. “Can you see where the keystones are?”

“Not well. I’ll do my best to warn you, but…”

“Fine. Let’s go!” There was no time for arguing or explanations: Einarr felt certain the creature was gaining on them with every step.

Vali looked thoughtful for a moment, then his eyes brightened as an idea occurred to him. He floated forward through the passage, and in his wake bits of stone along the walls and ceiling illuminated in the virulent green of ghost light. Every last one of these was placed such that Einarr had to dodge around it – and some of them he nearly stumbled into anyway. Einarr was as thankful for the ghost’s presence as he was shocked they had done as well as they had.

The wet sounds of the beast’s footsteps were clearly audible now, and moving quickly. And it almost certainly wouldn’t care about this deadfall, much like it hadn’t cared about the one before. There was not room to carry Runa, so he reached back and grabbed her hand. “Faster!”

He and Naudrek ran faster, pulling Runa along in their wake. When Naudrek danced around a protruding lance of stone highlighted by Vali’s ghost light, Einarr didn’t even think what he needed to do. He pulled Runa forward in a spin, as though they were dancing, and both their feet left the ground as Einarr turned so that the lance passed just above his back.

Then his feet touched the ground again, and Runa’s as well, and they were running again. It was a move that he would have to remember the next time he found himself at a Hallingdanse – although Sivid was sure to show him up almost immediately.

A moment later he heard a muffled curse from Thjofgrir, but there was no following rumble of moving stone so he must not have hit the keystone.

How are its feet still wet? We must have run a mile at least! He didn’t know where the thought came from, except that it touched on the nature of the beast: it didn’t matter, right now – and never would, if Einarr had his way. Even before this chase, none of them had been in any condition to fight a monster of the deep.

Finally, just up ahead, Einarr saw the walls of the passage grow smooth again. Thank the gods! He had to fight the urge to pour on more speed, though: he suspected Runa was already having trouble keeping her feet, and getting through the deadfall would not end their race.

He practically leaped over the last few feet and past the final glowing keystone for the deadfall and did not slow his pace. A curse from Thjofgrir made him turn his head to look: the big man had tripped and rammed his shoulder into that selfsame keystone. Ghost light clung to the arm in question, although Vali quickly extinguished it.

The walls of loose stone began to rumble, and bits of debris fell from the ceiling in thin streams.

“Run!” Einarr bellowed back, knowing that he already was.

Thjofgrir righted himself and half-stumbled back into his run, his fatigue made worse by the extreme stoop he was forced to move in. Larger, fist-sized rocks started to tumble from the ceiling, as the keystone began to slowly slide down the wall.

Further down the hall, at the very edge of what Vali’s ghost light still illuminated, a massive silver-grey rod shot out and collided with the wall ahead of it. Einarr only got a glimpse, it moved so fast, but that hastened the deadfall.

Thjofgrir propelled himself forward, trying to get out of the way of the fast-descending rubble. As he stretched out into his desperate dive, he collided with Kaldr, sending them both sprawling to the floor.

Einarr, Naudrek, and Runa all stopped in their tracks, turning to see.

The deadfall gave way and several tons of rubble came crashing to the floor of the cave. This one, evidently, had also been a deeper deadfall than the one before, as the rock nearly filled the passage behind them.

Kaldr rolled to his back and sat up. “Thjofgrir? Are you all right?”

Kaldr’s Mate looked up, a pained expression on his face. “I’m trapped. Go on: that thing’s going to burrow through this just like it did the other.”

“That just means we’ll have to hurry. Runa, catch your breath quick as you can. We’re going to need your voice.”

She nodded silently, it looked like she was already working on that.

“Now, come on. We’ve got some digging to do.”

All three standing men moved up to the fallen rock. Einarr thought it shouldn’t take them very long to dig him out, based on how the rocks had arranged themselves, provided his feet had escaped crushing.

“What are you doing?” Thjofgrir protested. “You really think I’m going to be able to walk? Run!”

“Yes, actually,” Kaldr answered, cool and unflappable as ever.

“Just hold on. We’ll have you out of there soon enough, and Runa will fix you up right away.” Einarr had already started shifting stones. They could hear the angry chirps of whatever the beast behind them was, but it sounded like this was enough rock to stymie even it, at least for a while.

Thjofgrir was only buried about halfway up his calves, and the stone was as loose as Einarr thought here on the edge of the fall. With all the strength their exhausted muscles could muster the three of them moved stone until Naudrek and Kaldr could take Thjofgrir’s arms and haul him out from underneath.

His feet were tender, but not bloodied, and while he could put no weight on his left leg, his right was fine. Runa began the Song of Healing even before he was fully upright, and if her voice sounded tired it did not diminish the strength of her Song. They started off again, Thjofgrir leaning on Kaldr’s shoulder and limping as quickly as he could. Einarr moved into the rear and they started to jog, just as the sound of tumbling stone started up again. The beast had found its way forward.

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