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.

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 could hear the breath in his throat as he stumbled again in the corridor. Ahead of him, Naudrek didn’t look much better off – and this was after Runa had returned to the Song of Stamina. They weren’t even running, just now, merely trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other. There was only so much their bodies could handle, after all, and the dvergr traps were rapidly pushing them past it.

Almost like the dvergr had promised death to any who came this way.

The thought was fleeting, and unhelpful. Einarr quickly returned his focus to getting them all past whatever they were going to run up against next.

Naudrek stopped in his tracks and held up a hand for the others to wait as well. He shook his head, like he was trying to get water out of his ears, took a deep breath, and held it. A moment later, he let it go with an audible pah. “Does anyone else smell seawater?”

Dutifully, Einarr took a deep breath of his own: yes, that was definitely a sea-smell down here, in tunnels which had thus far been entirely dry. They must have left behind the sections of tunnel that were also used by dvergr when they ventured down that staircase. Though their exertions had masked it, the air down here had the chill that was common to all caves. Getting wet was going to be a problem. The floor remained smooth: he glanced down, and in the stretch of his light he saw no sharp spikes – but the floor was distinctly damp looking.

“Boots in your packs, everyone. Roll up your trousers – Runa, tie up your skirts as best you can. Thjofgrir, how good a swimmer are you?”

“Best on our boat,” he answered, gesturing at Kaldr, and Einarr didn’t think he was merely boasting.

“Good. Runa, give Thjofgrir the jar. You’re going to have enough trouble as it is with your clothes if we have to swim, there’s no sense weighing you down more with a jar full of water.”

He was hoping they wouldn’t have to do more than wade, and if that was the case this would allow them all to put on dry boots when they were past the water. If it wasn’t, though, they were still better off in the water with bare feet.

In spite of everything, it felt good to take off his boots. He flexed his toes against the damp stone floor and wondered just how cold the water ahead would be. Soon, everyone stood barefoot in the light of his shield, and Thjofgrir now held the jar upside down over his shoulder. Vali had not made any protests – at least, not yet – so Einarr said nothing. It might, maybe, keep the jar from filling with water, but whether that would be a boon or not when they were swimming he could not guess.

“All right. Forward, then.”

On they trudged, and the farther they went the more water they splashed through. It increased almost imperceptibly at first, their footsteps moving only slowly from wet smacking sounds to gentle splashes. Almost before they knew it the water was up to their ankles, and painfully biting cold. Runa made quiet growling noises as the icy water lanced at her ankles and her shins. Einarr could sympathize, but he was glad she made no complaints. There wasn’t really anything he could do about it.

They continued on, and soon the water was splashing around their knees. It seemed to be rising faster now, although the slope of the floor was still too shallow to draw attention to itself otherwise. Einarr thought he felt the water swirling around his rapidly numbing ankles, as though they were walking into a current. He only considered a moment. “Runa, come ahead of me.”

“What? Why?”

He offered her a rakish grin, even though there was nothing funny about their situation. “Why, so I can be the one to catch you if you fall, of course.”

Naudrek, ahead, shook his head and chuckled. She laughed, looking pleased, and complied. He had made a joke out of it, but it wasn’t, really. Runa had traveled some, but she was not a sailor.

Einarr drew in a muffled gasp as the water began climbing up his thighs and soaking his trousers. By the gods, that’s cold! His knees and his shins still ached from the icy water, but he was starting to have trouble feeling his toes. He turned his attention downward, which helped him keep his feet a little better now that they were nearly numb.

Before long, the water was creeping up over their waists, and it became clear that all their supplies would also be soaked. I hope our water skins are sealed tight. There was no point lifting their packs over their heads, even if they’d had the strength to spare. The passage had not grown any taller down here, and Einarr could see, not that far ahead, the surface of the water lapping at the roof. The current was definitely getting stronger, too. So far Runa had managed to keep her feet in spite of everything, but still he stood ready to keep her from being washed away.

The water lapped now about his armpits. I hope my chalk survives the passage. I should think about how to dry us out on the other side. That, of course, assumed there was another side: he tamped down on the idea of a dead end hard. Drowning would be an effective end, but hard to ensure in a flooded section like this. Probably the water was meant to sap their strength and soak them through, for something on the other side to finish the job.

Naudrek, still in the lead, took several deep breaths and plunged beneath the surface of the water. Runa pressed a hand against the ceiling as she imitated him, with Einarr and the others right behind.

Einarr was a little surprised that the cold could still shock him, but as it closed over his head it did. He managed not to let go of his breath as he slowly batted his eyes open. Naudrek swam ahead, still within the circle of light from Einarr’s damaged shield. Behind him, Runa struggled forward. Her skirts dragged her downward, and the current caught the cloth so that it swirled around her legs.

Einarr could not see the bottom. If they drowned here, their bodies would be gone forever. He kicked forward and took Runa’s arm over his shoulder. He could get her through like this, he was certain.

Naudrek was suddenly shoved from the side and struck up against the wall of the passage.

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.

 

Burned hair. Singed sleeves. Blistering skin on arms and legs and – yes – even faces. Einarr and his band rotated their way down the flaming hell of the staircase, and with every blast of flame their fatigue grew. Even Runa, much to Einarr’s shame – did not escape burns. Long before they reached a landing at the bottom, she began to Sing to maintain their stamina.

When, finally, all five of them stood on the first level ground they had come across in what felt like hours – and may have actually been – they stood for a long minute in their shell, panting and looking about the room they had come to.

It was, by all appearances, an empty room. A passage continued on some thirty feet ahead of them. The walls here, too, were carved, but where the intricate scrollwork and fanciful figures there served to conceal the nozzles of their fire traps, the carvings here were definitely martial in nature.

“Is everyone all right?” Einarr asked, knowing full well that everyone was injured, and began to lower his shield.

Thjofgrir, too, began to relax. “Well as can be expected, I think. Our shields are ruined, though.”

“Better our shields than our bodies,” Kaldr answered. His eyes still scanned the room suspiciously, and Einarr thought he saw gooseflesh on the man’s neck.

Einarr hummed in agreement. “We could all use a break,” he started to say, when a very familiar pop sounded from the opposite wall.

As one – almost – they raised their overheated, charred shields to defend against another blast. But what came their way here was not more fire.

It was javelins.

And the “almost” was Thjofgrir. His shield lagged just a heartbeat beyond the others – due to fatigue or his awkward posture or his burns, Einarr could not guess. But that heartbeat made all the difference.

Most of the javelins bounced off their shields, or even fell short. But Einarr and Naudrek both felt the heavy impact of the javelin against their shields – where it stuck. Thjofgrir cried out in pain. When Einarr risked a glance over his shoulder, he saw the big man clutching his shoulder with his sword arm. Then the man growled and brought the shield up anyway, knocking the shaft of the javelin to the side.

That was the first volley.

“Kaldr! Shield him. Naudrek – shield Runa and me. Runa, I need you to use the Healing song.” Einarr dropped his shield, the javelin still lodged fast in the wood.

Thjofgrir was already gingerly pulling at the shaft of the javelin, but not having any luck dislodging it. It didn’t take Einarr long to see why: the head of the javelin was barbed. They were angon, not mere javelins. Einarr drew his belt knife as he moved to assist and the first notes of the Song of Healing flowed over them.

That was when the second volley flew, barbed heads coming at them again from seemingly every direction.

Without thinking, Einarr turned to shield the wounded Thjofgrir with his back. He heard a curse from Naudrek, but nothing really registered beyond keeping their wounded friend alive. He brought his knife up towards Thjofgrir’s shoulder. “This is going to hurt.”

One of the angon crashed into the center of his back. The impact made him stagger, but curiously he felt no blood, and he was not impaled. The brokkrsteel. Once again, he had Jorir’s foresight to thank for his own life – but now was not the time. Without wasting another breath, he slashed across the shoulder wound with the knife, opening it up enough to extract the barbs of the angon.

Thjofgrir was going to need more than just the Song of Healing, but now that the angon was out they should be able to bandage it. It looked as though the Song was already working to stanch the flow of blood.

As quickly as he had come to aid, Einarr spun out and picked up his half-destroyed shield. It was unweildy with the javelin stuck through it, but their best hope of survival was to ignore that and fight on.

Thjofgrir still held his wound closed with his hand, but he was steadier on his feet already. They had to get out of here.

As the volley of angon finished, Einarr took a deep breath. “Run for the tunnel!”

Runa, unable to Sing and run at the same time, threw her arms about Einarr’s neck and rode on his back as they frantically tried to escape the hail of fire.

Kaldr held back, letting Naudrek move forward into the lead so that he could assist Thjofgrir – which Einarr appreciated, even as he was entirely unsurprised by it. Those two had been working together for at least a decade now.

Now that they were moving again it was a constant barrage, as though there were layers upon layers of whatever was launching these, and each one would reset itself. Einarr felt sluggish: the angon tore through Runa’s skirts, which trailed behind them like a flag, and scratched across his calf, but somehow he managed to shield both their bodies from the wicked tips. Even still, he was not that much ahead of Kaldr and Thjofgrir when he rushed through the threshold of the tunnel and stood, panting, while Runa set herself down and smoothed her skirts. She gave him a grateful smile as she continued to Sing.

Naudrek proved himself once again: as Thjofgrir and Kaldr staggered through, he thrust a long, thick cloth at Kaldr. “For the arm.”

“Be quick,” Einarr said, his breathing still coming in gasps. “The dvergr aren’t likely to have set things up to give any respite at this point.”

Kaldr did not waste any breath answering: he simply nodded his acknowledgment as he deftly tied the cloth around Thjofgrir’s shoulder. Thjofgrir tested the binding by rolling his arm – as well as the ceiling would allow – and gave his Captain a nod.

“We’re ready.”

“Good.” Einarr gestured for Naudrek to lead on even as he spoke. “Runa, when you think Thjofgrir’s shoulder is put back together well enough, we could really use that other Song.”

Einarr’s legs were beginning to feel like jelly, and his arms weren’t much better, but he was plagued by the certainty that to stop now would mean death.

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.