The jailer stood in the center of the guard room like a bulldog, as though at any minute he expected intruders to burst in. He also looked significantly healthier than the flesh-puppets they had seen elsewhere in the citadel. He was still alive, plainly, although probably not, Einarr thought, the first to succumb.
Not that he could still be mistaken for human anymore, either, though. His eyes were pupil-less red orbs, and his skin was darker than a human’s should be. He had hands, still, and stood with his thumbs tucked into the belt of his trousers… but where one expects to see fingers, there were octopus-like tentacles.
The Kraken evidently doesn’t do subtle. “I think we’ve been noticed,” Einarr whispered. “Eydri, if we stop our ears, do you think a lullaby would work on him?”
Her face was pale as she stared at the abomination. “How should I know?” she spluttered. “I’ve never dealt with this before!”
Einarr hummed. “And the cult didn’t use Singers at all – who knows why. Fine. If we can’t knock him out, we’ll have to kill him.”
His hand traveled to Sinmora’s hilt, but then he thought better of it. The last thing he wanted was to be doused in the black blood again. “Hrug, give me a hand, will you?”
The sorceror grunted his acknowledgement and stepped forward, trading places with Liupold.
“Lightning, or fire?” Fire was still tricky, although the outright prohibition had been lifted since the destruction of the Muspel Shroud, and Lightning was also Sun, which could be advantageous.
Hrug apparently agreed, pumping his fist to simulate a lightning strike.
“Lightning it is, then. Rambert, Burkhart, open the door and stand clear when I give the word. Naudrek, Liupold, watch our backs. Leave this to us.”
It took them a good five minutes before they were satisfied, but when they were finished three ranks of lightning runes were inscribed on the floor, from wall to wall. “There. That should do it. Everyone ready?”
“Just waiting on you,” Burkhart answered.
“Good.” Einarr looked over his shoulder. “Stand clear, everyone. This is going to be bright. …And, now.”
The two oarsmen opened the doors and scrambled back. As soon as the way was clear, just as the jailer’s lips curled up in a snarl, Einarr and Hrug lit off the first pair of lightning runes. The second pair followed immediately on the first, so that it almost looked like four at once.
When the flash cleared, the abomination was shaking its head. It looked singed, and a little stunned, but Einarr hadn’t expected it to go down easily. Four more lightning bolts flashed, and the smell of ozone and burning hair assaulted their noses. Four more followed before the smoke had cleared, and then four more hard on the heels of that.
They paused again at the end of the first row of runes on the floor to let the smoke clear. It was important to know if their target had moved, after all.
The abomination was on its hands and knees, swinging its head back and forth as it tried to come to its feet. Einarr did not spare the attention to see how the rest of his party was taking this, but Hrug looked a little surprised. An ordinary man, after all, would be hard pressed to have lived through even half of that.
Einarr remembered fighting the horrors, and the cultists who had unmasked themselves, too well. After having confirmed that their enemy still lived, he called “Again!”
It was brutal. At the end of the third rank of runes, when their enemy was nothing more than a charred husk on the floor, Einarr felt sick. It was good that runecraft was not suited to open battle, for that was not a death he would wish on his worst enemy. That was an execution of a rabid dog, in the only safe way they could think to do it. Fire might have been kinder – maybe, if they could have contained it – by being quicker. Better by far to die cleanly, by the sword. Once he had collected himself, he looked down to ensure there were no traces of their runes left behind.
“Someone grab the keys,” he said, striding forward, trying not to look at the corpse.
Liupold seemed less disturbed. It took Einarr a moment to remember why, but then it was obvious. The Empire had developed Painting. No few Clan ships had been destroyed by balls of fire or lightning from clear skies – just as he had done to that creature. The Captain of the Arkona stooped to gingerly unhook the ring of keys from the former jailer’s belt. His voice was calm when he asked “Are you sure the third rank wasn’t overkill? You might have melted these.”
Einarr just shook his head. “We should free the captives and get out of here. Assuming they’re still captives, and not puppets.”
Liupold blanched now and stepped forward into the hall of doors, tossing the keys a little in an attempt to cool them. “My lady? Are you here? Are you unharmed?”
He had looked through the barred windows of three doors before he got an answer. “Yes, I’m here. Who’s there?”
“Liupold of the Arkona, Lady. I’ll have you out momentarily.” He rushed to the door her voice issued from. “Are there any others?”
“I’ve not heard anyone else for more than a week now. I think it’s just me.”
“Impressive that you could track days so well down here, Lady,” Eydri said.
“Who is that?” The voice asked, just as her door swung open.
The woman who stepped forth from the cell was dirty, and her clothes torn, but that could not mask their obvious quality. Her long black hair was still lustrous in spite of the bits of hay sticking out of the thick braid. If Einarr hadn’t known better, he might have believed her to be a Valkyrie herself.
“My lady, allow me to present to you the Cursebreaker, Einarr son of Stigander of the longship Vidofnir, and his companions. Eydri, a Singer of some skill. Naudrek, a swordsman, and the rune sorcerer Hrug.”