That priest wouldn’t have come alone, or even just with a single attendant. Einarr and his companions clattered up the stairs, abandoning all pretense of stealth in favor of speed. When they emerged into the hallway, however, they found themselves in the middle of a swarm of grey-skinned acolytes. The passage was packed almost too tightly to fight. Probably the priest had been unsure what was happening, and they awaited some sort of signal. They didn’t get their signal, but they got something “better:” fresh meat.

With a shout, the acolytes fell upon Einarr and his friends. Down the hallway, over the clamor of their own fight, Einarr could just make out the sounds of another battle going on. That must be Jorir, Einarr thought. He turned to face the sound of the other battle and lashed out at the closest dvergr in his path. “This way!”

It had been a long time since Einarr found himself in this sort of a scrum, but not so long that he had missed it. He found, however, that the rhythm which had served him so well against the svartalfrs on his way to the docks in their fortress, and against the revenants of the Althane, once again worked to his advantage here.

He stood shoulder to shoulder with Naudrek and Thjofgrir and Kaldr, with Runa protected in the middle, and they made their way, step by hacking step, slowly towards their dvergr friends and the exit where they had agreed to meet.

The trouble with this sort of extreme close-quarters fighting was that it was slow, and over time you were certain to become injured. If you let it go on too long, it could become death by a thousand cuts. This was compounded by the fact that every time they struck an enemy they had no way to shield themselves from the corrupting black blood. Einarr already began to feel unwell, although he could not say for certain if it was only in his own mind. Thankfully, with their ring of blades, Runa was not being exposed. Also thankfully, Einarr was much stronger than the last time he had faced a wave of enemies such as this.

After what felt like hours, but couldn’t have been, they reached the place where Jorir and his kin stood with their backs to the secret passage, securing the way out.

The dvergr looked awful. They were splattered with quantities of the black blood and covered in small slashes besides. Their eyes were bloodshot. Mornik, standing behind the other three, struggled to suppress a cough. Jorir’s face brightened when he saw Einarr and his crew cut their way through the last rank of enemies to join them.

“Get inside!” Einarr ordered. “We’ll close the door behind us!”

“Thank you!” Jorir gasped, and the four dwarves blocking the entrance backed further up into it. Runa was next, followed by Einarr and Kaldr, and then with a final slash Thjofgrir kicked the support and the door fell closed behind them. A shriek of pain and rage came from the other side: Einarr guessed that the heavy stone door had caught one of them.

The closed-off passageway suddenly seemed very quiet, compared to the bedlam they had just left. Einarr took a deep breath. “Everyone in one piece?”

“More or less.” Gheldram offered a wan, wry smile.

“What happened to you guys?”

“One o’ their cursed beasts,” Brandir spat. “And then, in spite of everything, I’ll swear ta ye that all the acolytes here were in that damned hallway.”

“You didn’t see anyone down there?” Kaldr was incredulous.

“Just a snake as thought we were mice,” Jorir answered. “And only that after I decided to apply a little fire to the situation.”

Mornik coughed, underscoring the point.

In spite of himself, Einarr snapped. “Then where in Hel’s lair is that shaman?”

Jorir shook his head. “I think I know where we’ll find him… but if we go tonight, we’ll only kill ourselves. Even assuming he would be there at this time of night.”

Runa put a hand gently on Einarr’s arm – careful to avoid the inky splatters. “He’s right, Einarr. Not one of us is in any condition to fight right now. We need a quiet place to recover.”

Einarr looked at the delicate fingers that somehow deigned to reach for him, not quite comprehending at first. “You’re right, of course. Brandir, if we get back to the bathhouse, will they let us rest there again?”

After a long moment’s thought, he nodded. “She’s dependable. I can lead the way, but… we’re going to need you big folk to make sure we all make it in one piece. That beast nearly did us in.”

“It would be an honor.”


Their infiltration had taken long enough that the unrest in the streets had mostly calmed by the time they left the temple district, but it seemed to have taken its toll on the Thane’s men as much as it did on the uncorrupted dvergr. The streets were deserted, and they did not pass a single lighted window. They moved as quickly and as quietly as they could, but by the end of it Gheldram was supporting Mornik – the smaller dvergr seemed to have taken the worst of it.

When they arrived at the familiar bathhouse, Einarr thought for a moment the proprietress was going to turn them away. That is, until she caught sight of Mornik. Based on her reaction, Einarr thought they might be more than simply friends.

Once she spotted him, she clapped both hands to her mouth in a familiar gesture of shock and ushered the party of nine into the baths. She cast a sidelong look at Runa as she passed, but when Runa twined her arm about Einarr’s she was evidently satisfied.

“Have you a stock of medicinal herbs?” Runa asked as the last of the men stumbled into the bathing room.

“Some, yes. Why? What happened to them?”

Runa just shook her head, even as she scribbled a list of herbs on a scrap of paper from her pack. “Can you get me these? As much as you can, please.”

The dvergr woman lowered her brows as she read the list. “Aye, I have some of these. Some others I might be able to find in the market on the morrow – if you’ve the coin for them. These are all…”

“Purifiers, yes. I’ll gladly pay for what you can provide. As much as you can bring, please.”

The proprietress nodded slowly. “Since it’s for Mornik. Give me a few minutes, I’ll fetch some from my stores.”

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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

 

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.

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 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.

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.

 

They all covered their ears involuntarily at the creature’s angry shout. A small cascade of dirt and pebbles were dislodged from the rough ceiling here.

Naudrek dropped into a run again even as Einarr opened his mouth. Einarr stepped to the side as Runa picked up her skirts and started to follow after Naudrek. “Kaldr, Thjofgrir, this stone looks loose. Try to drop the ceiling, then catch up. Vali, see if you can’t give them a hand.”

“Sir!” Kaldr bellowed in agreement.

“Good fortune.” Then Einarr, too, ran after Naudrek.

Kaldr turned where he stood to look at the passage around them while Thjofgrir loosened up his arms. Based on the quality of the stone here, this was almost certainly intended to be a deadfall. Why it hadn’t triggered, Kaldr couldn’t guess, but he would certainly use it to his advantage. Fortune would have nothing to do with it. “Ready?”

“Let’s bust some walls.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about being used as a glorified lamp,” Vali groused, “but I’d hurry if I were you. I got a look at it before. It’s quick, and slippery, and it could get both of you in its mouth whole.”

“My thanks for the warning – and the light, however irksome that may be.” Kaldr drew his sword. “We could use the extra eyes, too, to be frank. There’s bound to be a weak spot that will send all this loose stuff tumbling down.”

Vali chuckled. “Is that all? Try over there.” He pointed to a section of the wall that looked much like any other.

Kaldr moved to inspect the section of face that Vali indicated. It did, indeed, look like all they would need to do would be to dislodge one stone in order to bring it all down. Unfortunately, that spot was right in the middle of the deadfall. If they simply knocked it loose, they would bring the trap down on their own heads, and their shields were definitely not up to a rockfall of that magnitude.

Kaldr frowned, staring at the spot. “Vali… how big is the beast?”

“Massive.”

Kaldr thought he could hear the wet footfalls behind them again – and a scratching noise, too. “Big enough it could brush the wall here without really trying?”

“Probably.”

He didn’t have time to deliberate: there was only one path forward he could see, anyway. He drew the knife from his belt and wedged it into a vertical crack in the stone. Assuming the deadfall trap was only malfunctioning and not outright jammed, their pursuer should trigger it when he brushed against the handle. He didn’t like this sort of gamble, but sometimes the odds were just against you. “Let’s go.”

“That’s all?” Thjofgrir actually sounded disappointed.

“Afraid so. We should hurry: even if this works, I don’t think it’ll stop the beast for long.” Kaldr started to trot down the passage, then paused. “Hey, Vali? Earlier, you said you made the entrance to this passage colder. I don’t suppose you could make my knife warmer?”

The apparition shook his head. “I’m a ghost, not spawn of Hel.”

Kaldr shrugged. “Too bad. We’ll just have to hope, then.” And he took off at a dead run after Einarr’s party, with Thjofgrir and Vali close behind.


Einarr heard pounding feet coming up behind him: glancing over his shoulder, it was the other three. A moment later there was another loud chirrup and the crashing of stone against stone. Troublingly, the rockfall did not seem to quiet the beast at all.

“No luck?” Einarr asked as Kaldr and the others fell in behind him. They had kept a more moderate pace, both in deference to Runa and in hopes of letting the others catch up more easily.

“Not enough, I’m afraid. I liked that knife, too.”

“We all get through this, I’ll have Jorir make you a new one, exactly how you want it.”

Kaldr snorted and said no more. No-one did: they all had focused their energy on finding a way to give it the slip.

The passage wound on for quite a while, as featureless as they had come to expect outside of the flaming stairs and the vestibule of javelins. Einarr could not yet hear the wet footsteps they knew meant the beast was approaching, but its occasional high-pitched chirp was definitely getting closer. He thought, briefly, of pulling out his Óss runestone again… but the dvergr had done something that interfered with the runes. In this place, he wasn’t certain he could trust even Wotan’s rune. Best to save those for when there was no other way, and he didn’t think they’d run out of options yet.

“See anything?” he asked Naudrek after a while, but the other man just shook his head and kept running. Runa was getting winded again: they were asking too much of her, and he feared for the child.

Einarr sighed. He felt like he’d been reliant on Vali’s strange powers too much this trip… and yet, the ghost had come along as a scout. “Vali! We need you to zip ahead. Anything strange or unusual you see – anything at all – report back.”

“Will do.” This time, at least, he didn’t look cross over the matter.

A glance over his shoulder showed Runa gamely pushing on, but she needed far more than their unexpected sleep earlier. It wouldn’t slow them appreciably at this point, so Einarr held up a hand for those behind him to wait. With no explanation whatever, he dropped to one knee.

“I beg your pardon?” Runa asked, perplexed.

“Hop on. I’ll carry you.”

A stubborn look flitted over her face, but it softened almost immediately. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Why do you think I am?”

They were coming into another area of rough rock walls and loose stone. Somehow they’d managed to avoid triggering the last one, although the beast had not been so lucky. Nothing for it but to pray…

“Wait!” Vali came zipping back, almost as quickly as he’d raced off.

Without question, the others skidded to a stop. “What is it?” Einarr asked.

“Deadfall – right over head. One wrong step from where you are and you’ll all be buried.”

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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

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

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

 

The light no longer reached the water’s edge when the sound of wet footfalls against the stone floor of the cave began to echo behind them. Einarr wished he could be surprised, but if the monster had given up that easily he doubted the dvergr would have bound it. That it was bound to the area was almost certain: probably they were lucky they hadn’t run into it while they were swimming.

The footfalls did not seem to be gaining on them, or at least not very quickly, but Einarr could already hear a new problem from up ahead: howling wind.

What now? At this rate, he was going to start looking for deadfalls around every corner. Einarr took a deep breath, considering. The passage seemed reasonably wide here, even if it was still far too short for comfort. “Everyone hears that, right?”

Nods all around.

“Who feels like they’re in any condition to fight?”

“Well, if we have to…” Thjofgrir shrugged.

“So then it’s safe to say, even after our little impromptu nap, none of us are really in great shape?”

“That is my impression as well,” Kaldr answered.

Einarr nodded. The slapping noises had grown louder. “Then if we’re not in any condition to fight whatever that is, we need to pick up the pace. Go!”

None of them needed to be told a second time, even if Runa did still look dangerously pale under the light of his shield. Naudrek took long, loping strides even in the cramped conditions, and if Runa had to scramble to keep up she did still manage.

A long, low chirp echoed out through the tunnel behind them. Whatever it was, it sounded big. Big, and inhuman.

“I don’t suppose there’s anything you can do to slow it down?” Naudrek asked over his shoulder.

“You want me to use more runes now? Right after my clumsy circle almost got us eaten?”

“I for one would rather handle this the old-fashioned way,” Kaldr put in. Einarr had to agree this time. He’d use them again if he had to, but if they could throw their pursuer off without it would be better.

They held no pretense of stealth, but Einarr thought the creature that pursued them was not likely tracking them by sound anyway.

As they loped along, Einarr had his eyes open for any sort of a side passage or some loose rock – anything to slow it down. The dvergr had promised them death for entering these tunnels, but what sort of prince would Einarr be if he simply accepted such a thing?

The passageway stretched on. The light from his shield only illuminated a few paces ahead of Naudrek at the pace they were keeping: they could stumble into nearly anything this way, and it was sure to be at least as deadly as the creature behind them. Einarr stretched out his arms to drag his fingers along the walls. If they could find a crack or a crevice, like the one that had led them to the hall of pits and the stairway down, perhaps they could give the monster the slip. His fingers would find an opening long before his eyes did, under these circumstances.

The frog-like chirrup echoed through the hall again. Einarr didn’t know what would make a noise like that, but he was entirely certain he did not want to meet it.

Naudrek started to quicken his pace again, but Einarr slowed him again. He could hear Runa panting behind him already. Any faster, and one of them would have to carry her – which wouldn’t actually gain them any speed. Not for the first time, he wished he’d had a good reason to insist she stay home, and take Eydri instead. Then he wouldn’t be risking his wife and his heir in this mad journey.

His fingers caught on a sharp edge.

Before he thought about it, he moved his fingers to his mouth to suck at the blood that welled up from the cut. It was nothing serious, he thought, but neither was it an actual passage they could take advantage of. And now the creature would have the scent of his blood. Brilliant move, Einarr.

He shook his head and jogged on after Naudrek. There was nothing they could do about that now, and it would stop bleeding soon enough so he could keep feeling for a side-passage.

When they came to an actual fork in the path, Einarr was delighted.

“Go about fifteen paces down one leg, then we double back and take the other,” he instructed Naudrek. They would lose some of their lead, but if he was right that the hunter could smell them it might well throw it off their trail.

Another idea struck him. “Vali – can you obscure our trail?”

“How do you mean?”

“I think it’s got our scent. Can you cover it?” He was starting to feel a little winded, himself.

The apparition frowned, floating backwards just in front of Naudrek. “I can try? I can’t say I’ve ever tried something like that before.”

“Try, then. When we start down the second fork, try to make sure it goes down the first one.”

“Sure thing, chief.” Vali winked out of sight just as Naudrek was turning them around to double back.

Einarr thought he could hear the scraping of claws against the stone. Please let this work.

It chirruped again. It was definitely closer, but still not so close that he could see it in the shield light.

As they turned, he scooped Runa up into his arms and breathed one word to them all: “Run.”

At their new, breakneck pace, they all skidded a little making the turn into the second fork of the path, but they made the turn. What’s more, they caught no glimpse of the beast on their trail.

About thirty paces down the second passage, Vali popped up in front of them again. “I’ve done what I can. It won’t fool it forever, though, and it’s going to be mad when it catches the trail again.”

Einarr paused long enough to set Runa back on her feet, and then they were moving again at Naudrek’s ground-eating lope.

“So what did you do?”

The ghost shrugged. “I made it colder? I don’t really know how to describe it. I also hid your light.”

Einarr nodded, and none of them slowed. They still had no idea how to get out of here, and the farther behind they left the beast the better.

The walls became rougher, and a little looser, when a series of chirrups echoed through the halls at ear-piercing volume, followed by the crash of stone.

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