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The excellent meal eased Arula into a comfortable mood. She sat on a bench, leaning with her back against the wall, when she became aware of Aunt Nora slipping around the darkening chamber. The few remaining guests had retired, and as the Dvergar dimmed the oil lamps, she busied herself with draping runic symbols tied from sticks over each window and setting a strong oak bar across the door. When she realized she was being watched, she smiled shyly and went on with her ritual.
Arula frowned. Why was Aunt Nora fortifying the inn so early in the evening? Arula let her gaze drift back to Ham. He sat at a table and swapped stories with his uncle about family affairs over in the Ranges.
She began to grow weary of waiting, and was giving careful consideration to the idea of retiring to the loft rooms to meditate, when a shriek split the quiet that pervaded outside. Everyone froze, save Arula. She snatched up the blessed Hammer and raced for the door.
"No!" Scorcher shouted as she yanked the locking bar out of its mooring.
He ran over to slam the door before Arula could open it very far. A second shriek cut the air, this one a moan of terror that carried a desperate plea for help.
"Out of my way!" Arula said. "Someone is in need!"
"Not after dark!" he said. "Anyone foolish enough to roam out there when night falls deserved their fate!"
There was yet another cry, this one from closer quarters. "No! Please! Someone help me!"
Arula caught hold of Scorcher's arm. He looked shocked over the ease with which she removed him from her path. She shall be blessed with the strength of ten men--she shall possess the Eye of True Seeing. The stuff of legends, Arula always insisted, but now it was time to use those gifts. Before Scorcher could stop her, Arula had the door open and was running out into the night.
A full moon lit the wide dirt road and revealed the horrors on display. Foul, black creatures of unearthly shapes were gathering about a farmer lad. Svartdemons! Children of Helas. The boy had fallen, and with a cowardly shriek, he hid his face from the twittering creatures. Arula gave a shout and swung the Thunder Hammer, Mjolnir's twin, at the first creature to stand in her way. Bone shattered, and the squelch of flesh let her know that the blow was true. The creature fell aside, knocking another of its kind off balance. A third beast turned for Arula, and she rammed the Thunder Hammer into its face and sent the creature flying back. She now had a clear path to reach the terrified lad.
A svartdemon howled and leaped at her. Arula struck out with a fist. The blow smacked the fiend's jaw, knocking it out of joint. Another reached for her, only to snag its claw on her pendant. With a scream, the creature fell away. Arula felt a surge of power from the Eye, linked to her senses as it was. A keening filled the air, and light whiter than day flooded forth from the stone. The brilliance forced the monsters to draw away.
Arula took advantage of their confusion to grab the lad and drag him towards the inn. Ham waited at the door, axe in hand, ready to rush to her aid. He came out far enough to offer a hand with the boy who seemed unable to get his feet to work under him. Svartdemons rallied and surged after the trio as they bolted headlong through the door. Uncle Scorcher shut it fast. Aunt Nora shoved the locking rail in place.
A great weight hit the door, and angry howls scourged the night. The dry scrabbling of many claws against wood and stone shook the building. Quiet followed abruptly. Arula took a deep breath and looked over the faces surrounding her as Scorcher let loose with a long string of Stone Folk curses. Though she had only a small grasp of their language, she could easily guess what they meant.
"Of all the stupid, ox-brained things to do!" Scorcher finally shouted. "You could have gotten us all killed!"
Arula sank onto a bench, drained by all the excitement. The boy cringed on the floor. Aunt Nora gathered him into ample arms as she rolled him over on his back. He could do nothing but shake and whimper as she gently rocked him and hummed.
"There's one who would have been better off had you left him to them!" Scorcher said. "He'll be no good to anyone now!"
"Hey!" Ham interjected. "Rul does what she has to! She's sworn to serve Thunor's will, and if he wants her to risk her neck for one life, she will!"
"What do we care what Thunor wills!" Scorcher said. "He has abandoned us!"
"Thunor would only forsake those who have forsaken him!" Arula said as she let her temper get the better of her. She flew off the bench to tower over the angry Dvergar, yet her greater height did little to deter him.
"We never forsook him!" Scorcher said. "It was that foul Black Priest what turned his back on Thunor!"
"Black Priest?" Arula repeated. "What Black Priest? What has happened in this village?"
Scorcher frowned. "Three moons ago Hengst, our priest of Thunor went mad. No one knows why, but he dared to challenge the god and made a pact with Helas. The dark one gave the priest a black hammer with the power to split open the earth. Hengst and Thunor fought up there in what are now the ruins of a temple. Thunor was the mightier of the two. He struck the priest a fatal blow, but just before dying, Hengst struck the altar with his black hammer. The altar split open, revealing a gate into Helheim!
"The svartdemons pour forth to plague us nightly now. First, they toiled and raised the mountain at night, and it became clear that what they wanted was to stretch the shadow so they could come here in daylight. Within weeks, it touched the outermost farms. Those folks have been forced to flee while others have left all together. There are still some who cling to their land, for it is all they own, and they continue to hope for a miracle that never comes. So Thunor has abandoned us to the mercy of those foul things. The priest ghost is now guardian of the gate he opened. Now, we are forced to hide while the Black Priest and his followers take those who dare to enter the temple or wander the village after dark. Soon, it will be too late."