“Welcome to the mountain, Master Sartet.” The silky voice slipped through the amethyst-tinged shadows from behind its alabaster mask, a dagger unsheathed in the dark. “We’ve waited patiently on your arrival.”
Throld groaned. The sound shook the close granite walls of his new surroundings, battering him in repeated reminder of the wager he had just lost with his life at stake. Suffocating tendrils lifted from his vision and receded from his lungs; he breathed again of stale must and ancient history. Over him loomed three slight figures clad in black. The one on the right glowered at Throld with boorish bravado, bristling beneath the bruises of his brawl with Breaker. The other two regarded him with little more than mild amusement.
Pain wracked his head. He dared not acknowledge the triumph flickering through their eyes, the crescent of glowing silver tickling his throat. The rancid musk of his fear stained the aurochs-hide vest he wore, heedless of the chill in the air. Hard rock dug into the small of his back and the seat of his pants, clawing at his sweaty palms.
“Said the dark elf holding his moonblade to the captive dwarf’s neck,” he muttered, jabbing at them with a stubby, grimy digit. “Let me guess... you all met me in Raiaera last year. Four, Five, and Six, together again at last. Ronus’s beard, you didn’t have to tear a hole in time and space to get to me, you know.”
“You have proven remarkably adept at escaping our attempts at talking to you, Master Sartet,” their leader replied, removing his mask and confirming Throld’s suspicions. The hint of a wry smile played about his pale purple lips. “I hope you will not begrudge us our little game. After all, we did make the effort to convince you of its authenticity. The informants. The map. The illusion of pursuit.”
“Fool me once,” Throld swore, this time not bothering to keep his temper in check. The roots of the mountain reverberated in tune with his rage. Loose dirt and ash sprinkled upon his upturned, furrowed brow. “No shit, then, you tricked me. I fell for it, hook line and sinker, to my eternal shame. Now what?”
“Now, Master Sartet, you walk free.”
“I do what?”
Six - or was it Five? - shrugged. The movement gave the dwarf a whiff of dried grub rations beneath the delicate sweet scent of dark elf magic, a tantalising hint of the underground tunnels that he had once walked as home. “You walk free, Master Sartet. We let you go.”
Throld’s face, already folded into thunderous crags, hardened like black diamond. Snarling, he bared yellowed fangs at his captors. His voice stabbed at them through the dim motes of floating dust. “Why?”
The dark elf on the left sighed, shook his head behind its sculpted mask, and turned to stand guard over the empty tunnel behind him. The bruised one continued to glower through the gloom, dire disappointment beginning to seep through his hurt pride. Their leader smiled, white teeth gleaming, arcane amethyst seeping from his fingertips.
“We have proven that, despite your misgivings and your trickeries, we can track you down and corner you. We have proven that we know how to manipulate you, through your desire to collect the artefacts of your people. We have proven that you cannot escape us. That is all we need to do.”
“You sons of molehares.”
“Admit it, Master Sartet, we have impressed you. As a teller of stories you admit, however much you hate to, that this is an inspiring flourish. After all, like us you enjoy wreathing your words behind smoke and mirrors. Even when you wished us to learn of your ignorance regarding that accursed artificing anarchist, you tantalised us instead with what else you might know.”
The Blackcloak straightened from his crouch, allowing Throld his first good look at the chamber into which they had summoned him. Brittle bones, what little that remained of those fallen acolytes unfortunate enough to encounter the three dark elves, lay scattered past the entrance. Faded murals of ancient saints marked this room as one of great significance to those who had constructed it, beneath the intricate friezes depicting their battles against aberration and abomination. A shrine, perhaps? A reliquary? Painful shards of rock continued to dig into the palms of his hands.
“Don’t patronise me. You didn’t go to all this trouble to make a point.” The dwarf’s glare smouldered like the frosty embers of a dormant balefire. His fingers twitched upon the stock of his dragon-belcher, mindful of the moonblade still held at his neck. “What do you want?”
“For the moment?” Six’s smile revealed little. “Nothing.”
“You sons of molehares,” Throld repeated. He could think of only one reason why the aristocrats of Alerar would want to hold leverage over him: his wealth of contacts throughout Ettermire, Kachuck, and Gunnbad. “In Ronus’s name, you’re not turning me against my kinsfolk.”
“Perhaps.” The dark elf smiled again. A flick of his wrist withdrew his blade from Throld’s throat, leaving behind only the faintest of cold impressions in leathery skin. As the glowing steel receded into its scabbard, the shadows sped forth once more to swallow him whole.