The hallway that Einarr crept down, following the sound of the voices, was not long. What struck him as strange, though, was how empty it was. The guards who had passed earlier never returned – assuming they were, in fact, guards and not priests or thralls on some errand. They knew they were under assault, though – and could guess at what the attackers were after. So then, why?
A large double door stood closed ahead of them, and the light from around its edges was bright like an aurora. The chanting came from inside.
The five stole up to the door and listened, but could hear nothing save the same chanting that had drawn them here in the first place. If the layout inside were typical of surface temples, the odds were good they could slip in unnoticed… but based on what Jorir had said of this cult, Einarr was not impressed with the chances of anything about them being normal.
Still, he wasn’t certain how much choice he had. There was no cross-corridor here, to look for another entrance. He scowled at the door, as though that would change anything, and stepped up to push it a shoulder’s width open.
Despite the loudness of the echoing chants, when Einarr pressed his eye to the opening he could tell it was only sparsely filled. He furrowed his brow, but still saw no better chance. Einarr sidled through the door, stepping as swiftly and as softly as he could manage on the still-carpeted flagstone.
There were guards in the room, it seemed, although they were stationed about the altar at the far side. Even as brightly lit as this place was, however, it did not reach all corners, and he did not think they could see him.
The focus of all in the room was the white-haired svartaflr at the altar, leading the other monks in their chant. That Einarr could make out no fresh blood at the front, nor any signs of struggle, gave him hope. Slowly, Einarr crept around the outskirts of the temple, keeping his back to the wall.
Barri and Bollinn, seeing the same two side-doors Einarr did, each with a guard stationed in front of it, split off the other direction. One of them, they hoped, must hide Runa. The challenge was going to be getting past the guards without inciting a melee.
The guard at attention ahead of them may as well have been a statue for all the life they could see in him, and the helm that covered his head effectively obscured whether he was man or monster. Not that it mattered, where Runa was involved.
Sivid slipped past Einarr, followed only moments later by Jorir. The dwarf could be wickedly cunning, Einarr knew from experience, and Sivid was sometimes too clever by half. Einarr nodded to himself and let them take the lead.
When they drew near enough that it seemed inevitable the man would notice them, Jorir dashed forward on his toes, right in front of the guard.
“Wh-!” The guard started to cry out, not so oblivious that he could miss a dwarf nearly treading on his toes. That was when Sivid moved in, his hand slipping under the helmet to cover where a man’s mouth would be even as his knife sunk between the guard’s ribs under his arm.
Muffled protests came from under the helmet as Sivid grimaced but did not remove his hand. Then the guard began to slump, and Einarr slid in to help lower him against the wall. Sivid shook his hand as though it were in pain. The guard’s knees locked of their own volition, and so he appeared mostly upright as the three Vidofnings slipped through the door behind him.
The passageway they entered was in many ways akin to the secret passage they had left not long before: the floor was bare flagstone, the walls were rough-cut stone, and every ten paces or so they passed a lantern. The passage seemed to curve around the outside of the large temple room they had just left, moving inexorably towards the back. If this didn’t lead to a short-term prison cell, it would lead to priestly quarters. Either of which could hold Runa. Einarr walked faster.
Finally they came to a small, unassuming wooden door – the first change of any sort they had run across since entering the passage. Einarr reached for the handle, anxiety clawing at his stomach, and more frantically as time went on. Let this be it.
He saw Sivid’s hand raised for him to wait even as he undid the latch. A corner of his mind shrugged: nothing for it now. He practically tossed the door to the side and dashed through.
The room on the other side was not the one he expected to see. The passageway opened into a broad room lined with not cells but cages, and those each easily big enough for a large bear… or a troll. Einarr’s lips curled in distaste. A pair of larger doors sat in the back wall, and across from them stood an open doorway, much like the one they had just exited. Barri’s brassy head was just emerging from the passage and into the twilight of the larger area.
He looked again. There was a fifth door, one he had somehow almost missed, opposite the closed back doors. That one had to lead out into the temple, where they would present the sacrifice.
“She’s in here.” Einarr barked the words as though he were on deck and not deep in enemy territory. He found he could not care at this moment. “She has to be.”
Einarr set off, looking in every cage he passed until he came to an intersection. A low growl rose in his throat: this was going to take forever. …But that stack of crates off to his left might help. His boots thudded against the wood as he leapt up towards the top. He was so close now: he would never forgive himself if the cult got to her before he did. Runa…