On the far side of the second room full of fairy lights, the four humans in the party sat on the steps recovering their wind. Einarr’s bleeding had stopped as soon as he was awake, although his tongue felt swollen and tender in his mouth. Irding claimed he was fine, but both his eyes were fiercely bloodshot. So long as he could see, though, Einarr would leave it be.
“So that was the trap, then.” Erik mused. “Use the first floor to put us off our guards, and then sucker punch us the second time around.”
“Seems so,” Einarr answered. “And if you don’t survive the changes in the memory, that’s it. If we’re all ready, we should get moving again. No telling what all else awaits us, and we need that relic.”
Runa took a deep breath and pushed to her feet.“Let’s go, then. Irding, you’re sure you can see all right?”
“I’ve got a monster of a headache, but I can see. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“What was your memory, anyway?” Einarr had trouble imagining what could have caused that sort of eye injury without actually destroying the eyes.
“The pox that killed my mother. She started getting nosebleeds, then hacking blood, and then it got to her eyes and ears. Didn’t last long after that. Not sure how I was supposed to win my way free of it.”
“Maybe you weren’t.” Erik also stood, frowning, and then they were climbing again.
The staircase curved steeply upwards, still lit by the now-ominous seeming fairy lights. Eventually it came to a landing blocked by a door, nearly identical to the ones below. It lacked only the runes. With a shrug, Einarr opened the door. As he stepped through, a flash of light nearly blinded him.
Erik and Irding, bringing up the rear, frowned as they saw their companions step through the door and seemingly disappear. “Be careful, son.”
Irding hummed. “Not sure you get to call me that, Erik. I’m going in.”
With a sigh and a roll of his eyes, Erik followed. Irding wouldn’t have sought him out if he hadn’t wanted to know him, right?
A flash of light brought tears to his eyes that he had to blink away. When he could see again, he was in a circular room with no door. In the center of the room stood a stenjätte in the form of an idealized warrior, bare-chested and leaning on the handle of a massive battle-axe. And then it began to talk in a voice as hard as stone.
“I say, good day to you sirs. It seems as though you had sufficient wisdom to face your pasts, but not to turn around and avoid my test. Very good, then.”
Erik and Irding looked at each other, nonplussed.
“The task is simple. You must best me in combat. Should you win, you may rejoin your companions and go on your way. Should you lose, I will tear off your arm and toss you into the monster-infested sea below – good luck swimming home. Come at me, singly or together – your choice, but know that you each only get one chance at me.”
Erik smiled a cocky grin, swinging his axe up to rest on his shoulder. “Stand back and let yer pabbi show you how it’s done.”
“Are you insane?” Irding started to protest, but got no farther before the stenjätte answered.
“Very good, then. Here, I’m feeling generous. Go ahead and take the first blow.”
Erik cocked and eyebrow, but shrugged. “As you wish.”
He circled the golem, limbering up his arm as he studied his foe, looking for any chink in its rock-hard defense. There! He surged forward, bringing his axe around in an upward swing toward the back of the stenjätte’s knee. A flake of stone crumbled and fell to the floor as dust.
“And so it begins with a scratch. Very well, then.” It pivoted on its two massive feet and brought its own axe down towards Erik.
He leapt forward, barely avoiding the blow that would have surely crushed his head. You idiot. What do you think you’re doing? Too late now… At least Erik knew that his axe could cut the thing, however shallowly. If he could not bite deep, then, he would just have to bite often and hope his stamina held out. Erik pressed his lips into a line.
He spun out of the reach of another deadly blow and ran in close to bring his axe down in a mighty blow on the stenjätte’s ankle. A slightly larger chip of stone fell away. That just might work. Erik kept close to the golem’s legs, at least keeping it from landing a solid blow on his head. Slowly, blow by blow, the stenjätte’s ankles grew thinner.
It was not going to be enough. Erik didn’t fight this way: when he chopped, his enemies fell. Now is face felt hot and he could not catch his breath. Even if he could have matched the stamina of a golem, however, his axe was beginning to dull. Just. Keep. Going!
The heavy crash of the giant’s axe into the tiles sent shrapnel flying into Erik’s back and he howled in pain. He’d felt worse, but only once – when the fimbulvulf had nearly taken his leg, this last spring. The force of the blow sent him three steps forward.
And then the golem stumbled, his foot landing where Erik had been standing just seconds before. Erik looked up: on its shoulders, his legs wrapped about its neck, was Irding. His son brought his own axe down on its head – to no more effect than Erik’s blade alone, of course, but between the two of them…
Erik set about his task with renewed vigor. Bad enough that his son had needed to jump in to save him: he couldn’t very well just let Irding finish the job. Erik let loose a war cry.
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