The dvergr who faced Thjofgrir was matching him blow for blow, keeping them both locked in the clinch. Other than Arring, Einarr would be hard-pressed to find a man stronger than Thjofgrir, but these were dvergr. Furthermore, they were corrupted dvergr. Rather than wait for the corrupted dvergr to pull his trick, Einarr and Kaldr both charged him, their blades leveled at his back.

As an attack, it failed utterly as the dvergr spun and batted away both their blades in one smooth movement. As a distraction, however, it was a wild success. Thjofgrir rebounded from the clinch and buried his blade across the dvergr’s back. “I had him,” Thjofgrir growled as the corrupted dvergr crumpled to the floor.

“Maybe so,” Einarr allowed, catching his breath. “But it looked to me like he was playing with you. These are monsters, not men, and you never know when they’re going to show their true colors.”

Thjofgrir hummed but offered no more protest.

Einarr, after a quick glance across all of them showed only minimal exposure to the blood, nodded and continued down the hall. Without another word, the others jogged after him.

They encountered no more guards before they reached the hallway Mornik had mentioned. As he rounded the corner, though, Einarr stopped to gape.

The hallway ahead seemed to stretch on for miles, although that should have been impossible – they were inside a mountain, after all – and the walls were nothing but one door after another, with almost no space in between. The space behind those doors couldn’t be anything but cramped, even for a child. Einarr shuddered to think how Runa might be taking such confined captivity.

“Naudrek, you’re with me on the right. Kaldr, Thjofgrir, you take the left. We leapfrog down the line. Any captives who aren’t immediately hostile can go free if their blood is still red.”

A noise of agreement came from all three men together, and they began working their way down the line. When they had gotten about halfway down, leaving the doors open for a handful of unfortunate, weeping dvergr women, Naudrek stopped.

“Come take a look here,” he said.

In front of him, instead of another room, was a steep, unlit stairway heading deeper into the mountain.

“We haven’t found anyone up here with even a hint of magical talent, nor anyone who seems to have been captured recently enough,” Einarr mused. “I think we need to head down.”

Kaldr raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

“No,” Einarr answered with a rueful smile. “Just a hunch. Only, based on what I saw before, a woman like Runa is going to be a much more valuable prisoner for them than anyone we’ve seen here.”

“Valuable as a hostage?” Kaldr’s question was reasonable, but that wasn’t it.

“As an experiment.” He felt sick saying it, but that was what he had seen among the svartalfrs. “They make a target out of Singers – maybe those who practice other Arts, as well, but Singers for sure. Part of it is, they claim to hate magic – any magic that doesn’t come from their ‘god,’ anyway. But there was a she-troll we had to fight our way past in their fortress, before. A she-troll, who had once been an ordinary Singer.”

“How do you know?” Naudrek looked vaguely green as he asked the question.

“After we killed her, she turned back.”

“By the gods…” Thjofgrir breathed.

Kaldr shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense, though, that the dvergr cult would be creating monsters like that. Not with how Brandir said they’ve sold themselves here.”

“Doesn’t it? Wouldn’t they need an all-powerful army to defend Nilthiad during Ragnarok?” Einarr shook his head. “Even if no one outside these halls knows about it, we’ve seen plenty of evidence already that they’re turning their own members into monsters, and that’s proof enough for me. There’s a rather significant measure of madness involved in whatever the Squiddies touch.”

“And what if your hunch is wrong?” Naudrek challenged.

“Then we fight our way back up here, I suppose. But I don’t think it is. I think they’ll have Runa much further in than this.”

There was nothing more to be said to that. The others followed him down the staircase, another glowing rock in hand to light their way.

At the bottom was another long hallway, although in this one the doors were spaced somewhat further apart. The cages, while larger, were mostly empty. One or two were occupied, but their occupants were both chained and drugged into a stupor. Einarr did not like to think what that suggested about their mental state, or how controlled they were. They moved on: as horrible as this was, they could not lose sight of their goal. Runa was in here somewhere, and Runa was with child. Please let them be unharmed…


Now that they were well and truly separated from the humans, Jorir and the other dvergr ran down the halls without a care for who they alerted. They had – not entirely selfishly – taken on themselves the task of causing mayhem in the Holy Mount of the Deep Wisdom sect. Once upon a time, he had tried to bridge the gap between the squiddies and the rest of the dvergr: for his trouble, he had been cursed: never more would his smithing produce magic, nevermore would he be able to so much as recognize the runes. And, when he raised the alarm, he had been exiled for his trouble.

This may have been a little personal from the beginning.

Jorir’s mouth curled into a rictus of a grin. With the capture of the Lady Runa, they had just made this very personal. He was going to enjoy this.

He and Brandir approached a wide double-door, leading – he thought – into the outermost temple area. As one, they kicked forward with heavy boots and the doors flung open. It looked like a gathering place, anyway: there were long benches with comfortable-looking cushions, and the walls were draped with ridiculous quantities of cloth. He snatched a torch from its sconce and flung it forward into the room.

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The patrolling guards never saw what hit them. Einarr blinked to realize there were only two who came to investigate, and those two were already down.  They continued on their way.

The passage Mornik led them down showed every sign of having been long forgotten. They passed truly massive spider’s nests and other signs of vermin as they crept down into the mountain and towards whatever horrors might lurk beneath on their way to reclaim Runa. Still, though, they moved cautiously and kept their speech to a minimum: voices carry in caves, after all, and there was no telling who might be listening on the other end.

They had not gone very far, though, before Einarr decided to risk a light. He claimed a loose stone from the ground and inscribed it with a sun rune, willing it to life very dimly – much as he had with his shield in the Paths of Stone.

From time to time they passed small branch passages, some of them no bigger than a crack in the wall, all of which appeared to have been claimed by vermin. When they heard a skitter or a squeak, it almost invariably came from down one of these passages. Little wonder they had been claimed by vermin after something like two hundred years – Jorir had never said when in the upheaval he was exiled, and now was not the time to ask.

At long last, their path led up against a stone door which did not look to have been disturbed for a very long while – although, since this was the route Mornik said he took before, looks were almost certainly deceiving here. The sneakiest of their dvergr companions, Mornik pressed his ear against the blocks that appeared to seal up the passage and listened. The others held their breath. After that seemingly breathless eternity, when Mornik was satisfied that the passage outside was clear, he put his back to the stone just off-center and pushed. Shockingly, the door swung open silently, as though it had been perfectly balanced for just such a circumstance.

Inside the habitable portion, the passages of the cult’s holy place were shockingly bright when compared with the stronghold of the svartalfrs. The walls were done in white limestone, and the fire that burned in the sconces was of the ordinary color. Einarr glanced to Jorir for an explanation, but the dvergr merely shook his head and shrugged.

It was Brandir who had the answer. “They’ve positioned themselves as the path to eternity and a way of ensuring survival through Ragnarok. They promised long-life, and cheating death, and for that their colors are white and gold,” he whispered. The fact that the same cult could have two such different faces was a puzzle to Einarr, but not a puzzle whose answer presented itself just yet.

Now that they were inside, it was time to part ways. Jorir and Brandir, and Gheldram and Mornik, were to split off and head for the outer reaches of the temple to cause yet more chaos. Meanwhile, Einarr and the other men were to seek out the priestly offices where they held their female captives.

As they parted ways, Jorir knelt before Einarr and hung his head. “My lord… forgive me. If it were not for me… for my conflicted loyalties, and my foolish obedience to a summons by a Thane no longer my own, none of you would have been captured, and Runa would not be in danger.”

Einarr smirked. “What are you bowing your head for? Rise. I knew we would have to come here someday, and you warned me what insanity we would face when we fought the svartalfrs. I knew that you were as loyal to your dvergr kith and kin as you were to me.” He offered Jorir a hand and pulled him to his feet. “As much as you are my liegeman, you are also my friend. We’ll save Runa and the babe, both. Good luck out there.”

“And to you.”

The two clasped hands, and then the party split – Einarr and his company heading off to the left, Jorir and his to the right.

There would be no hiding for their group: if they encountered cultists, the only thing they could do would be to kill them quickly. For that reason, Einarr was very glad to see that the ceilings had been built far taller here than in most dvergr architecture, to the point that they could actually all stand up straight. He preferred not to think too closely on why they might have done that, however: the only answer he got was of a she-troll, dead on the ground, and suddenly no longer a troll but a human woman. He shuddered as they rounded a corner.

“What is it?” Kaldr kept his voice low.

“Just… if the squiddies here are as… creative as the svartalfr ones, know that the creature you’re fighting may not be the creature you think you’re fighting.”

He glanced over long enough to see a troubled look on Kaldr’s face: just as well. It had been a terrible thing to be surprised by.

Mornik had given them a general idea of which way to go: after this passage, there would be another to their right, which would bring them into a long hallway lined with widely-spaced doors. Behind these doors were their female captives.

Around that third corner they practically collided with the first patrol they had seen since they entered the secret passage. Einarr didn’t think: he reacted. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sinmora was out of her sheathe and embedded in the dvergr’s belly. Black blood oozed around the crossguard. He gave the blade a twist to free it and sprang back before the corrupted blood could reach his hands.

As quickly as he dispatched that one, the other members of the patrol had not been caught quite so off-guard. One of them was occupied in holding off Thjofgrir’s powerful blows, while the last was dancing circles around Kaldr and Naudrek. Well. I can probably do something about that. He may have been preternaturally quick, but he still didn’t have eyes in the back of his head. Einarr swung Sinmora at the back of his legs, and while Sinmora bit deep it did not go down.

That was when eyes did, in fact, open on the back of its head.

“Aah!” Einarr turned his shout of horror into strength for his attack as he stabbed at the dvergr guardsman’s head. In the same moment, Kaldr and Naudrek buried their blades in its sides and it collapsed to the floor. Now all that was left was the one Thjofgrir fought.

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.