24 November, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XXII - Conclusion

Here it is, the final chapter of BJARHEIM'S SHADOW! It was a long road getting here (I wrote another novel along the way, which is in the editing phase at the moment), but it's finally here.

BJARHEIM'S SHADOW will be collected into a single ebook and released online in the next few weeks, but I'm going to leave all the chapters here just because.

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


If there was a place where light and shadow could coexist, neither trying to destroy the other, this was it.

Erik could not feel, not hear, only see. He had no body, no skin, no hands, no breath. There was only the bright and the dark, filling his vision. He could not blink to shut it out, or look away.

With maddening lethargy, motes in the gray glow became visible. Erik willed them to move faster, eager to see them coalesce and resolve, but they would not obey. Only with time did they swell and merge, and finally the motes became blobs, then shapes, angles and curves giving form and meaning to the world again.

Erik almost didn’t notice when sensation returned to his skin. Something felt cold, and in a few more moments he realized that it was him that was cold. Part of him. His back, yes, that was it. Was it exposed to the wind? No, it lay on the cold ground beneath him. In front of him—above him, yes, that was it—the grayness dissolved into pale blue, and one bright blob became a cloud, slowly metamorphosing overhead. Thick lines became the edge of the Cathedral’s roof.

Another blob turned dark, hazel—no, light brown, reddish-brown. Auburn. That was the name for it. The auburn swayed slightly. It called to him. “Erik,” it said, and Erik had never been happier to hear a color speak.

Then part of the auburn became reddish-pink, and the pink became skin and a nose and lips and Kari was looking down at him, calling his name again and again.

Erik smiled.

The Shadow’s detonation had caved in the Cathedral’s front wall and knocked over several of the stone pillars that it had summoned up to try and trap Erik. The explosion had, for whatever reason, been significantly less powerful than the blast that the Remy-Shadow creature had mustered upon its demise.

Kari and Ollemar had been the only others close to it, and they’d been knocked “ass over teakettle,” in Kari’s words, but managed to acquire only a few bruises. The crater was empty; the Shadow had left no remnant behind that anyone could see.

Over the next several minutes, Erik’s senses and reason returned to him, and he was able to stand and hobble about a bit. He showed no bruises, but felt sore all over. The golden orbs, the sun-fragments, were gone. Erik whispered the Song of Seeing and gazed out over the square. The globes of idle golden ironsong had dissipated. Aside from the crater, the damaged cathedral, the strange stone pillars, and a few piles of ash—Erik’s stomach turned as he remembered those who had died fighting the Shadow—Bjarheim did not look as if it had spent weeks suffering under the Shadow’s thrall.

Some folk had crept back into the square, now that things had quieted down. They began to gather around Erik, and he heard mutters about magic and power and prophecies.

“To the hells with prophecies,” Erik shouted suddenly. He saw Ollemar raise an eyebrow at him, and look slightly offended. Well, it was the Brandrinn’s prophecy that had put him on this road. So what? He wasn’t Odinson, no matter what Ollemar said. “I just did what needed to be done.”

“You lot had better have more sense than to start worshipping him,” Kari said, and punched Erik in the shoulder. Look, he’s just a kid.

It smarted, but he smiled at her anyway. A few Bjarheimers laughed and exchanged sheepish glances.

Then another memory hit him. “Da!” he shouted, and started pushing his way through the crowd—before realizing that he had no idea where Finnar had been taken. “Where’s my da? Finnar Rain, where’d they take him?”

Someone in the crowd had seen Finnar carried off, and led Erik and Kari and Ollemar to the other end of the square. A public house had been turned into a makeshift infirmary for those that had suffered non-fatal injuries during Erik’s fight with the Shadow. Finnar was there, propped up on a chair. His right leg was missing its lower half, and the stump had been wrapped in several layers of red-stained bandages.

Erik’s da waved weakly as Erik came over. “They got it all,” he said. The bandages made it hard to tell, but it looked as if it had been cut off at the knee. “Dunno how I’ll manage, but there’s carpenters what can make me a false leg,” he said.

“You’ll still be twice the man as any other Bjarheimer, even with half the legs,” Erik joked. Finnar laughed weakly, then coughed some and closed his eyes, muttering something to himself.

The old woman who had directed Finnar to be carried off saw Erik and came over. “He’ll be weak for a while, but he’ll heal. We’ll keep him here until he’s well enough to move.”

“Where is he?” someone shouted, and a big man burst into the room. Erik knew that voice; he turned and saw his brother Magnus stomping toward him. “I was—I woke up on the other side of the city, lying in the street. Send me to the hells if I know how I got there. Da—!” He gawped at his father’s truncated limb. “What in the blazes happened?”

Erik recounted the day’s events, in as much detail as he could stomach. Magnus shook his head at the madness of it all. “I can see you turning green, little brother,” he said, once he’d calmed down. “Let’s get you home and rested.”

Erik had no argument. He’d shouldered enough responsibility for one day.

The losses were tallied. Half a hundred folk never awoke from their Shadow-sleep. Mostly elders who hadn’t enough fight left in them, and, tragically, a few infants who hadn’t developed the strength for it. Miraculously, the Shadow had only killed four people during Erik’s battle with it, the four who’d been touched by its tendrils. Those who had been close when the Shadow had screamed, and had had black goo leaking out of their ears, did not die, but all of them had gone deaf.

But the priests in the Cathedral had all died when the Shadow expired, save for the two that Erik and his friends had freed from its grasp. The two men, Father Gorhath and Father Haldinar, were shaken by their ordeal but promised that they would do what they could to rebuild the ranks of the priesthood.

Father Bernhard’s body was never found. It had been destroyed, as Erik feared, when the Shadow had erupted from it. Bernhard had been a stern man, but Erik had never held any hatred for him. He mourned the priest’s loss as fiercely as all the others.

And, of course, there was Aiar. The rest of the fae had been trapped underground by the Shadow’s power, but their own magic had kept it from intruding any further into their caverns. They regretted not being able to fight the Shadow off. It had just been too strong.

Some Bjarheimers were put off by this, and muttered that the fae had cowered down below while Bjarheim suffered the brunt of the Shadow’s assault. The fae who came to the surface after the Shadow vanished simply pretended not to hear them. They were led by Thiktim, the angry fae whom Erik and Kari had encountered on their visit to the fae caverns. He seemed calmer, now, but once they had ventured into the grasses beyond Bjarheim and found Aiar’s blackened corpse, Thiktim showed no more interest in interacting with humans. Erik wept as they carried Aiar’s remains down the hole that led to their caves.

A stone monument was commissioned at once to celebrate Erik’s victory, and to mourn those who had fought and died against the Shadow. There was a movement to erect a bronze statue of Erik atop it, and Erik was grateful when Finnar hobbled up to the front of the room and loudly said that there was no way he would let the others ruin his son’s life by putting up a statue of him. Erik was grateful, and perhaps a little annoyed. It might have been nice to have a statue…

Instead, they settled on a stone obelisk, and at the base, the names of all those who had died fighting the Shadow would be inscribed upon it. Aiar, and Florr, and the poor Bjarheimers who had turned to ash, and those who had succumbed to the Shadow-sleep. Erik thought about suggesting that they add Remy Thurain, but even before he’d been possessed and corrupted by the Shadow, Remy hadn’t been particularly popular, so he discarded the idea without mentioning it.

Life slowly returned to normal. Finnar had a false wooden leg made, and he could hobble around on it, though he grumbled incessantly. Magnus went back to the mines only long enough to cash out his shares, so that he could return to Bjarheim and be with his family.

The Bjarheimers who had accompanied Erik north, and who had stayed with the farmers when Erik, Kari, Finnar, Aiar, and Ollemar had gone off to find Djalgand Skaldi, returned to Bjarheim after a party was sent to retrieve them. Kari’s family was elated to find her healthy and safe in Bjarheim, though her mother was furious that she’d run away with Erik and the others. “You could have been killed!” was all Gaelle Fray could shout, over and over, as they stood in the front yard of their house. Kari had been living alone, cooking and cleaning for herself while she waited for word of her family.

She scowled mulishly at the disapprobation, and simply left when Gaelle wouldn’t let up. Erik happened to have been visiting when Kari’s family had returned. He gave Gaelle an apologetic backward glance, and followed Kari until she stopped stomping through the streets and demanded, “You think they’re right?”

“No!” Erik protested. Truly, he didn’t. Sure, it had been a dangerous journey, but why on earth would she think he’d have wanted her gone? “Without you, we never would have made it.”

Kari snorted. “The one person on that trip who had no magic, and you think I was that valuable?”

“My da had no magic,” Erik said. “He’d lost it long ago, remember?”

“Well, he knew about it.” She kicked a pebble across the street. “I just…”

Erik waited for a minute. “Just what?”

“Well, everything’s back to normal now, innit? I’m of age now, and they’re going to start prodding me toward a betrothal.”

“I never knew a person less able to be prodded toward anything,” Erik said.

Kari grinned. She grabbed him by the shirt and kissed him, then pushed him back and walked off, eyes twinkling.

The Shadow was easier to understand than this girl, Erik thought. Woman. Whatever. He ran after her.

Erik never really got used to the eyes.

Everywhere he went, people would see him and whisper. Despite his da’s insistence—and Erik’s agreement—that people not try to deify him, they still treated him like some kind of hero. He didn’t feel like a hero.

He practiced his magic. The fae rebuffed his attempts to contact them, so he had to practice with the methar on his own. Maybe there was someone down there who would be willing, but Thiktim had put his foot down. Unless there was some kind of leadership shake-up down below, Erik would never get guidance from the fae. They lived so long, it might be hundreds of years before that happened.

The ironspeakers were happy to accommodate him, especially once he explained how he had met and learned from Djalgand Skaldi. The hermit had a fearsome reputation among the ironspeakers of Bjarheim, and they all wanted to hear Erik’s story of how he’d journeyed to the Styggen and negotiated Skaldi’s traps. After a while, they lost interest in that, and Erik apprenticed himself to Master Halgrin. But it became evident in short order that Erik’s power and control over the golden threads already outstripped Halgrin’s, even if Erik didn’t know as many songs. He learned what he could and moved on. Halgrin encouraged him to take up ironspeaking as a profession, but Erik felt too young, too raw to commit to something so… definitive.

Ollemar stayed in the city for a few weeks, until the call of the forest grew too strong. “If I stay much longer, the Seed will abandon me, and I cannot shirk my duties so,” the Brandrinn said.

“I understand,” Erik said. “I wish you could teach me more.”

Ollemar frowned. Erik had had the same experience with the woodsmen’s magic as he had with the ironspeakers’. The Seed was an open book to him; he could trace its every pulse in his mind, and weave nets of such delicacy that Ollemar had spent hours examining them and trying to copy him. Ollemar asked only once if Erik would join the Brandrinn—he even mentioned the prophecy again, though he seemed less convinced of its truth, now—but Erik again demurred. “Bjarheim is my home,” he said. “I don’t know if the Shadow is destroyed forever. I have to stay here.”

Ollemar nodded sagely, shook Erik’s hand, and left. He hadn’t said farewell to anyone else. Old habits, it seemed, died hard.

Erik did, however, consent to join the Conclave. There was a feverish motion for him to become its leader—though not everyone supported this idea—and Erik again refused. He had experienced much since fleeing Bjarheim, but he had not learned politics. After sitting through a few meetings, he felt as if discussions about crops and street repairs far outweighed any consideration of the Shadow. He would learn those things in time. There was a lot more to governing a city than defending it from dark horrors.

He was a man now, he supposed. Finnar gave him plenty of leeway after the fighting ended, but soon enough began to grumble that Erik needed to pull his own weight in the household, magic be damned. Erik had no problem with that. He could pursue ordinary work and practice his magics in his spare time.

And he pursued Kari. As if saving Bjarheim hadn’t proved his mettle! Nonetheless, she wanted more from him. He found work in a stonemason’s shop, and earned enough to put food on the table, helping to compensate for his father’s reduced capacity.

Kari appreciated Erik’s work more than his magic. She’d spend time with him, ignoring her mother’s attempts to pair her off with other strapping young lads of Bjarheim. “D’you think we’ll get married some day?” Erik asked on impulse, one golden afternoon as they sat atop the Fray family’s roof.

Kari stared blankly at him. “We’re only sixteen.”

“I didn’t say now,” Erik retorted. Kari appreciated directness, and boldness. She seemed to like him a lot more since he’d figured that one out. “Just some day.”

“Some day,” she echoed, and took his hand. “No promises.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Erik said, and lay his head on her shoulder.

The sun still glimmered over the western hills as Erik trudged up the path. Alone, he reached the flat hilltop where he, the Frays, Florr, Aiar, Thora, and the others had taken refuge after Bjarheim had been first consumed by the Shadow. He turned around and looked back at the city. It stood red in the sunset, awaiting the creeping darkness cast by the very hills Erik stood upon. This time, it was no malignant Shadow waiting to engulf the city, just ordinary shade, as the sun went on its circuit about the world.

Hearthlights glowed, and the city of Bjarheim slipped toward the quiet dark as Erik Rain watched and breathed contentedly under the cobalt sky.


03 November, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XXI

At long last, part 21. Life did its best to get in the way, until I punched life in the face and told it to mind its own damn business. There should be one more part after this one. Enjoy!

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


Fear gripped Erik as he looked up at the black Shadow, hovering over the steps of the Cathedral. The orange embers glowing in what passed for its face seemed to bore right through him. Was singing really going to put a stop to this horror?

He had to try. What choice did he have? He thought about Aiar, about Florr, about everyone who had succumbed to the darkness. Even Remy, who had been possessed and corrupted by it. Jackass he may have been, but no one, human, fae, or otherwise, deserved that fate.

Erik would not let that happen to him, or to anyone else. He began to sing.

It was the Song of Seeing. He could already sense the golden threads flitting about at the edge of perception, and within a few notes they strengthened into a golden torrent, whirling and dancing at random in the air all around him.

The Shadow’s tendrils had grown longer, thickening into black ropes that started to branch at the ends. The first tendrils reached the stone steps beneath the Shadow, and where they struck, pools of blackness with a bruise-purple sheen formed around them. The pools began to grow as the Shadow laughed, a rumble that made Erik’s hair stand on end.

Erik concentrated on his song. The golden whorls around him were as bright as he’d ever seen. He could make out every individual thread if he focused, tiny packets of golden light cavorting in the air, heedless of the Shadow.

But what to sing next? A song of binding, of cutting, of burning? What would harm the Shadow? Bernhard’s body had been damaged and ultimately destroyed by a dart woven of Erik’s three magics. It was as good a place to start as any.

He focused on the methar and the Seed, and wove the strongest, tighest dart he could. He wrapped it in golden song and threw it at the Shadow.

This time, there was no shield. The dart struck the Shadow in what resembled its chest, and punched straight through, leaving a fist-sized hole. The Shadow’s laughter cut off, but the Shadow itself did not shake or falter. Instead, the ground below it, where the tendrils touched, disintegrated to dust. The stone steps crumbled as if aging ten thousand years in a second. The hole in the Shadow’s chest filled itself in, black and purple gases coalescing into whatever constituted the Shadow’s body.

“I WILL CONSUME YOUR WORLD.” The Shadow’s eye-embers glowed ever more fiercely. “YOU ONLY SPEED ITS DEMISE.”

So much for attacking it directly. That left one other option.

Enough light would banish any shadow.

Erik began a simple, clear melody, something any child could learn. He stretched out his hand. The golden threads near it coalesced into a ball of golden light. It was weak, barely visible in the daylight. Even at night it would have been no brighter than a candle. Djalgand Skaldi had taught him the Song of Light one evening after everyone else had gone to bed. The golden ball had hardly been able to compete with the light from Djalgand’s fireplace, but Erik enjoyed the melody anyway, and memorized it.

Now he turned his back on the Shadow, and locked eyes with the old woman who’d gotten the others to help Finnar. He nodded at her. She took the hint, mimicking his song, warbling on either side of the correct pitch for each note, but she had the general melody of it. Others began to join in.


He wouldn’t look at it. That gave it power, made it real. Instead, Erik walked among the crowd, encouraging everyone to join in the song. It was a simple, short refrain, only a few seconds long, and easily learned. Erik was guiding the song, the only one here able to use its power, but the more people sang, the more power he could draw. He sang at the threads all around them, and the threads began to coalesce into faint, hollow globes. More people sang. The globes thickened.

Erik brought his glowing ball close to one of the weak orbs. The idle golden motes merged with those that made up his ball, the tiny threads twisting together in intricate coils, seemingly of their own accord. Erik’s ball brightened.

The Shadow laughed again, and Erik finally felt compelled to look back at it. Its tentacles had grown, spreading outward from where they’d first touched down, crawling across the cobbles toward the nearest Bjarheimers. The folk held their ground, but looked perturbed by the ominous black tendrils.

Erik sang louder. His voice carried, and yet was drowned out by the folk around him taking up the tune. Dozens, scores of faint golden spheres appeared in the air around him. Erik passed his glowing ball through as many as he could reach, and though the change each time was minuscule, the ball glowed ever more brightly. And there were hundreds of clusters of golden thread yet to collect.

There was a scream, and Erik’s song faltered. No! He looked back at the Cathedral. The Shadow’s tendrils had elongated suddenly, thrusting toward one part of the crowd. The Bjarheimers had shrunk back from it, uncertain. The group most menaced by the tendrils had stopped singing.

Erik sang even louder and made his way toward them. His throat began to hurt. How long could he keep this up? He tried not to think about it as he came closer to the embattled Bjarheimers. He patted the nearest man on the shoulders, trying to encourage him to take up the song again. The man’s brows beetled nervously, so Erik smiled in the friendliest way he could.

After a few agonizing moments, while the Shadow’s tendrils crept ever closer, his lips started to move. Then the melody came, and the man had the notes again. Golden spheres appeared to Erik’s eyes, floating about the man’s head. The man couldn’t see them, of course, and he looked baffled when Erik waved his hand around, collecting those clumps of golden ironsong. But he kept singing, and that was what mattered.

Erik didn’t know if the golden light would do any good. But what was the Shadow, if not a place without enough light? He had to try; if the Shadow spread any further, and this didn’t work…

Erik pushed past the cityfolk, and stopped abruptly as one of the Shadow’s tendrils lunged toward him. It didn’t quite reach, but Erik’s heart nearly leapt out of his throat. The song faltered; the crowd murmured and sighed nervously. Erik forced down the the panic in his chest and sang again.

The Shadow’s taunting laughter had stopped. There was a pause in the air, even as the song persisted, and then the tendril shot forward again, boring straight toward Erik’s heart.

A man, some man Erik didn’t know, leapt in front of him. The man’s scream barely had time to register as his body disintegrated to ash in the blink of an eye.

Erik’s throat caught, and he made himself swallow violently and continue the song. The tendril had stopped when it struck the man, and there was something—diminished about it. It wavered absently in the air. What it had done had not strengthened the Shadow.

It had weakened it.

Is that how to defeat it? Sacrifice lives when it attacks? The thought made Erik sick. But it also made him confident that the Shadow was not all-powerful. If it could be weakened… it could be destroyed.

He realized that in the panic of the attack, he’d sunk to one knee. He struggled to his feet, and found the way eased by strong hands pulling him up: Ollemar stood beside him. “We’re here,” the woodsman said.

Erik looked to his other side. Kari’s hand rested on his shoulder. She didn’t smile either, but the sternness of her glare reinvigorated him all the same.

“Then sing with me,” Erik said, and took up the Song again.

A dozen, a hundred voices around him rose in unison, and a faint gray film that had accumulated in the air overhead suddenly dissipated. Erik hadn’t even noticed it, but the Shadow must have been draining the energy out of the very air around them. The Song had pushed it back. If it can be weakened…

The Shadow’s inchoate void still hovered over what was left of the Cathedral’s front steps. The tendrils trailing into the crater beneath it still pulsed and thickened. Whatever had happened to the tendril that had disintegrated that poor man, the Shadow itself seemed unaffected. But it wasn’t cackling or mocking him any longer.

Erik kept collecting golden threads out of the air, and the orb he held grew with every mote that touched it. It was so bright, it hurt his eyes to look directly at it. It was almost like holding a piece of the sun. He glanced up at the burning embers that served as the Shadow’s eyes. They tracked him as he moved among the crowd—no, tracked the orb. Even the Shadow was wary of its power.

Could it be afraid? Erik, on a whim, teased apart his orb, separating out about a fifth of its threads into a separate, smaller ball. He wrapped the golden sun-fragment in a quick netting of violet and emerald, then lobbed it overhead toward the Shadow.

The burning embers snapped up to track its path. Erik hadn’t aimed it very precisely—it was going to land a few yards from the Shadow—but the monstrosity recoiled away from it. Two of its tendrils withdrew suddenly, as if proximity to the golden fragment might harm them. Was there something different about it? The Shadow hadn’t dodged the dart he’d thrown at it a few minutes ago. But this…

“Ollemar!” Erik yelped, even as he pulled his golden orb apart into several smaller fragments, and began weaving nets around them. “We need to hit it with one of these.”

The woodsman looked down at him, and saw the emerald part of the net Erik held. He deftly hooked it onto his staff and nodded.

Erik glanced at the Shadow and saw that it was swirling more vigorously; two new large tendrils had begun to unfurl themselves from its torso. “Look out!” he shouted reflexively.

The tendrils whipped in his direction. He and Kari had the presence of mind to duck; Ollemar had seen it coming before any of them, and had already crouched down.

But others were not so fortunate. Two men and a woman, standing just to Finnar’s side, were struck by the tendrils and shrieked as their bodies crackled and froze into ashen statues of themselves. A breeze immediately sent whorls of gray dust coiling away from them.

Erik glanced up in time to see Ollemar vaulting into the air over the tendrils, slashing at them with the sun-fragment Erik had given him. The tendrils, like the first one, seemed languid and weakened by their strike, and when Ollemar’s blade hit them, they were shorn clean off. The severed parts dissipated into a black foam that sank into the cobblestones and vanished.

The Shadow screamed.

All the Bjarheimers stopped their song and clamped their hands over their ears. Scores of them fell to their knees or collapsed altogether. Black vitriol bubbled out of the ears of a number of those closest to the Shadow.

The scream cut off as abruptly as it had begun. Erik scrambled to his feet, holding tightly to the remaining globe of golden threads he’d accumulated.

“We’d better destroy it before it does that again,” Kari grumbled.

Erik grabbed a pebble from the ground and bound another sun-fragment to it. “Use this.”

“A pebble?” Kari snorted. “Might be more use than whatever else you were throwing at it.”

“No, it’s—special. Just trust me!” he shouted. She held up a hand defensively.

The Song had mostly stopped. A few Bjarheimers caught up the tune again, but there was no structure to it; too many of them were still recovering from the Shadow’s scream. Erik would not be able to gather any more power from the golden threads.

“We’ve only got one chance,” Erik said to Ollemar as the Brandrinn alighted next to him. “We need a clear space.”

There were a dozen or more folk writhing on the ground nearest the Shadow, those who had been too close to its scream. Others had started to flee, depending on their ability. There was nothing Erik could do for them now. If Erik failed, everyone would die.

Ollemar leapt up and grabbed onto a lamp-post. “CLEAR THE SQUARE!” he boomed, in a stronger voice than Erik had ever heard him use.

The Bjarheimers were no cowards, but they did not need to be told twice. Those who were able turned and ran.

“Flank it,” Erik said to his two companions, hefting the last sun-fragment.

“Are you sure it’ll work?” Kari asked.

“Not even a little,” Erik said, trying to keep panic from his voice.

“Can’t hurt to try, then.” Her faint smile meant more to him, in this dark moment, than any show of bravery might have.

Ollemar nodded agreement. “It has been an honor fighting alongside you, Odinson.”

“Never a wrong time to be somber, is there?” Kari said, then darted off to one side.

The Shadow’s eyes followed her, and then it noticed that Ollemar had bounded the other way. Erik stayed in the middle. He had to keep its attention. He was weary to the bone; even their approach to the city, shielding against those great missiles the Shadow had hurled at them, had not fatigued him like this. Kari and Ollemar had a better chance at striking the Shadow with their fragments than he did.

“You cannot defeat all of us, you cowardly horror!” Erik shouted, holding his sun-fragment up before him, and advancing slowly toward the Cathedral. “You are nothing! You are weakness, and failure, and I will not abide you!

More tendrils had silently sprouted from the Shadow’s sides. One each snaked slowly toward Kari and Ollemar, while the Shadow’s burning eyes stayed focused on Erik. “I don’t know how they defeated you in the past, or why you didn’t stay gone,” Erik said. “But this is the end of it, one way or the other. Bjarheim is not yours. Bjarheim will never be yours. We will never be yours.”

Erik felt a tremor in his feet. Was he shaking in fear? No—pebbles were bouncing on the ground around him. The very earth itself was shaking. Then there was a crack as the stones before him erupted into the air, and a gray pillar forced itself out of the ground, blocking his path. Another one shot up on his left side, banging into his arm. For a panicked moment he thought it was a tendril, that he was dead, that the life force would be drained from him—but, no. Whatever the Shadow was doing, these weren’t… part of it.

He couldn’t see the Shadow now. The pillars were far enough apart to squeeze past, but more and more were rising up every moment, a whole forest of them.

The Shadow was using some magic to bring these stones from the ground. And Erik knew exactly how to fight back.

He opened himself to the methar, and wove a flat blade of violet light. The fae lived deep underground, among the dirt and rock. Their magic had carved the vast caverns they lived in.

With a slash, Erik’s blade cut through the base of the pillar before him, as if it were water. The top of the pillar slid aside and crashed to the ground. There were still other pillars, but now Erik could get past this one.

The Shadow might have mastery over the ground… but it did not control the sky.

Erik hoped to all the hells that Ollemar and Kari were all right. He stepped onto the pillar before him, and slashed the next one higher, cutting himself a stairway, zigzagging across the square.

And then he was almost directly above the Shadow, its tendrils whipping through their air around Ollemar to the left and Kari to the right. They each still had their sun-fragment, but as Erik watched from his perch atop the last pillar, Kari dodged one of the tendrils and hurled her fragment at the Shadow. It fell short by inches, teetering on the edge of the crater. Ollemar lashed his staff out at the Shadow, hurling his own sun-fragment at it.

A third tendril, smaller and finer, whipped into the path of the sun-fragment, and there was something gray in its grip—a piece of stone, which deflected the sun-fragment. The golden orb fell straight down into the crater below the Shadow… and nudged up against one of the trunklike tendrils down there.

The Shadow’s scream this time made the first one seem like a polite cough. Erik would have dropped his own fragment if it hadn’t been bound to his hand with golden threads of ironsong. He screamed in return, trying to drown out the pain surging through his mind.

The trembling ground dislodged Kari’s sun-fragment, which rolled down into the pit and fetched up against another one of the tendrils.

The screaming got worse. Erik’s brain tried to tear itself from his skull.

But the Shadow wasn’t dying. It would recover, given enough time. Erik could feel it.

He stood, knees shaking, the pain like knives driven into his ears, and jumped.

The Shadow’s burning embers flashed up at him. Erik watched them the whole way down as they grew in his sight.

He held his hand out before him.

The infinite sun and the eternal darkness collided.


03 September, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XX

Here it is, part 20! The story needs at least one more part, possibly two. Enjoy!

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


Erik couldn’t move. Lift your damned feet! he screamed at himself, to no avail. Father Bernhard—the Shadow—whatever it was—spread his smile even wider and rose easily from the bed. “It’s such a wonderful feeling, being within this shell. Ages in the cold, buried in frost, alone in the mountains, left me in such a state.” He paced forward, stretching out his arms as if after a nap. Erik instinctively backed up, bumping into Finnar, who moved back as well. They retreated slowly down the hallway as Bernhard stepped through the door. “I so appreciate you coming here to me,” Bernhard growled. “It will make this so much easier.”

“Look out!” Ollemar shouted, as Bernhard raised his right hand and a beam of pure blackness sprang forth from it. The beam struck Erik’s shields full force. The first two shattered into golden fragments and dissipated instantly; the third cracked, and began to unravel.

Erik himself was jolted backward by the blast, though he kept his feet. Bernhard cackled and raised his left hand, but Kari shouted and leapt in front of Erik before the monster fired. The blast ripped away Kari’s shields and left her with only tatters. She stumbled back, and Erik caught her.

He didn’t want to know what would happen if one of those blasts hit them without a shield. “RUN!

The others didn’t need to be told twice. Bernhard was raising his right hand again. Erik flung an entire brace of golden ironsong projectiles at Bernhard. A black shield, completely obscuring Bernhard’s body, appeared before him, instantly absorbing each projectile as it struck.

After a moment, the shield vanished, revealing Bernhard’s psychotic grin. He cackled madly.

But it had bought them some time. Finnar, Kari, and Ollemar had already made it halfway down the hall. Now Erik stood, alone, only ten feet from the monster that had consumed Bernhard. And there was no time to weave anything new.

Bernhard raised his right hand, but then his smile faltered and he flinched. The black shield appeared again, and a swarm of projectiles careened past Erik’s head and vanished into the shield.

“Erik, run!” Kari shouted from down the hall. He’d bought them time, and now they were returning the favor. Erik sprinted, faster than he’d ever done before, away from Bernhard.

Something slammed into his back just as he reached Ollemar. Erik felt the shields behind him shattering, felt the cold sting of the Shadow’s power clawing at his back. Any stronger, and the blast would have gotten through. Finnar grabbed Erik by the torso and lifted him bodily into the air, then threw him five yards onto the landing. Kari was there in an instant, while Finnar put his back to Bernhard. The next beam hit him squarely, tearing away all three shields, but Finnar made it into the landing.

Ollemar shouted at them to get downstairs. He stepped to one side of the landing and shouted at Bernhard, then sprang aside like a grasshopper. A black beam tore through the air where he’d been standing, and punched explosively through the wall beyond, spraying the staircase with fragments of wood and plaster. Erik covered his face just in time, and came away with only some scratches on his hands.

And then they were all careening down the stairs, bruised but alive, with Bernhard’s cackling laughter following them. “We can’t fight that,” Finnar grunted as they came out into the entryway again.

“The beam can be dodged,” Ollemar said, barely maintaining his calm. “The farther we can keep from it, the easier it is to see coming.”

“Dodging’s… our only choice,” Erik said between gasps for breath. Panic had nearly seized hold of him; only the faces of his companions kept him sane. “I can’t weave shields… fast enough to block that beam of his.”

Footsteps creaked from upstairs. Finnar pushed Erik and Kari through the stone archway into the Cathedral’s dining hall. “Let’s keep on the move, then. If he can’t see us, he can’t hit us.”

“We should ambush him,” Kari said as they all ducked behind one of the dining hall’s long tables, though it was poor cover. That black beam of Bernhard’s had blasted straight through a wooden wall upstairs. Maybe stone would stop it? The bottom floor of the Cathedral had stone walls.

“Now what?” Kari said.

“I will distract him,” Ollemar said. “I am the fastest, and have the best chance of dodging him. Erik, you must make more projectiles. He wouldn’t need the shield if your missiles weren’t a danger to him.”

“Yeah, but how do we get them past the shield?” Erik started weaving; he’d done enough of these violet-and-emerald darts, wrapped tight with golden ironsong, that he barely even had to concentrate. Making one only took ten or fifteen seconds.

A thump reverberated around them as a black beam passed through the air over their heads. Kari screamed, and scuttled over to hide behind a large iron cabinet full of dishware. Ollemar vaulted out from behind the table and threw his last magical projectile at Bernhard, who stood in the entryway, smiling malevolently and casually raising a shield to absorb the missile.

Finnar glanced up over the edge of the table, then ducked down. “Get through that door,” he whispered to Erik, pointing at a wooden door, shut tight but hopefully not locked, a few yards away. Erik had no idea where it led.

“Don’t die,” Erik pleaded, and started crawling across the stone floor toward it. Finnar reached up onto the table, grabbed a heavy pewter salt cellar, and then stood and flung it across the room at Bernhard.

Erik had reached the door, but hadn’t yet reached up to try and open it. He could see the possessed priest through gaps in the tables. Either Bernhard—the Shadow—had never expected such an attack, or did not fear it, because he did not raise his shield. Instead he laughed as the salt cellar sailed through the air, flinging white grains in every direction as it spun.

Then the sound of his laughter cut off, replaced by an “oof” as it struck him in the chest. He stumbled back, caroming off the archway and taking a moment to steady himself. But his smile returned. “Destroy this body if you wish,” he shouted at them. “I will simply take another. Perhaps one of yours!”

Erik glanced up at the wall beside the door. There was a scorch mark where that last beam had struck, but the stone was otherwise undamaged. Finnar had told him to get through the door, but… they couldn’t defeat the Shadow if they split up. They had to stay together, work together. Could Bernhard make more than one shield at a time? What if they attacked him from opposite directions at once? What if… “Da! Throw again!” Erik shouted, weaving another projectile in record time and holding it up for Finnar to see.

Finnar nodded, and scanned for more ammunition. There was nothing so massive as the salt cellar remaining on the table he crouched behind, and there was an open gap between that table and the next one. Finnar was not fast; Bernhard would have a clear shot.

Ollemar had heard Erik’s call, though. He’d alighted atop a table across the room, and slipped his staff through the loop of a breadbasket sitting on it. It was woven of wooden slats, and would weigh almost nothing, but Erik didn’t need it to be a weapon. He just needed a distraction.

The Brandrinn snapped his staff up, flinging the basket toward Bernhard. This time, the Shadow-possessed priest was ready, and blasted the basket out of the air with his black beam. Erik stood and hurled one of his own magical projectiles right at that exact moment.

The Shadow saw the projectile coming and raised its shield, a fraction of a second too late. Erik’s missile slipped in past the edge of the shield and clipped Bernhard’s arm. A crystalline ringing overlain with a nails-on-glass shriek filled the air, and a cloud of purplish gas erupted from where Bernhard had been struck.

“He’s wounded!” Erik shouted to the others, in case it wasn’t obvious. Bernhard screamed, and stumbled forward into the room, raising both hands and spraying his black beams around at random. The air became icily cold; Erik frantically pushed at the door behind him and slipped through into what looked like the larder. The walls here were stone as well; as long as he stayed out of the doorway, he’d be safe from the beams of shadow.

But what of the others? He couldn’t cower in here, and there was no other door out. There were narrow slit windows on the wall, admitting light, but too narrow to slip through. Maybe he could widen them, using his magic, given enough time…

No. It was time to stop running. Erik wove a half-dozen golden missiles, hoping beyond hope that the others weren’t dead, hoping they’d be able to hold off Bernhard for just a few more seconds. The noise of stone being scorched and wooden tables being blasted to smithereens stopped abruptly, though now Erik heard the telltale crackling of flames. Smoke began to sting his nose.

There was no more time to waste. Erik leapt into the doorway and ran into the dining hall, hurling two of his magical projectiles forward before he could even see anything. Bernhard was still more or less where he’d stood, but he had his shield out. Erik’s first missile went wide, while the second connected, dissolving into the blackness. One of the tables, the one Finnar had been hiding behind, was on fire, and he didn’t see Finnar anywhere. Kari was still crouching behind the iron dish cabinet, while Ollemar had somehow made his way up to the ceiling and was now perched atop a swinging chandelier that had been partly blasted away.

“Get outside!” Erik shouted, and threw another missile at Bernhard. Three left. Bernhard raised the shield again, easily blocking the projectile, but he seemed slower somehow. The purple miasma erupting from his arm had abated somewhat, but the wound looked horrific, a tangled black mass of flesh and… tendrils of some kind, perhaps the Shadow trying to claw its way out. The other priests had only had the little mass of blackness in their throats, while Bernhard’s very veins had been infiltrated by the loathsome Shadow.

And each time Erik attacked him, Bernhard went on the defensive for a few moments. He had to make the most of that. Erik ran to Kari and grabbed her hand. He half expected her to be terrified, but no; she was furious. But she had no way to attack Bernhard from here, so she’d had to cower behind the cabinet. It too had been scorched by Bernhard’s beams, and the glass front had completely shattered, but the main structure of it was intact.

Bernhard growled from across the room and raised his hand. Erik flung another missile at him, interrupting Bernhard’s attack and forcing him to raise his shield again. “We’ve got to get outside! Where’s Da?”

Kari pointed overhead. There was a window there, also shattered, but now that Erik looked at it, he realized it hadn’t been from Bernhard. Finnar must have leapt through it. Leaving us behind? Erik recoiled from the thought. His father, bailing out on them?

There must have been a reason. Erik shook his head. They had to get outside. He threw a fifth bolt at Bernhard, rocking the priest back on his heels again. “Climb, now!” Erik shouted, pushing Kari upward. She took the hint and clawed her way up the side of the cabinet, finding any foothold she could in the immense stone bricks of the Cathedral’s wall.

Erik only had one missile left. Ollemar was still up on the chandelier, his staff held out before him. He’d woven a faint emerald missile with his Brandrinn magic, but it wouldn’t be even a fraction as powerful as Erik’s bolts. It might not hurt Bernhard at all, even if it could get past his shield.

There had to be a way to buy time. Erik could climb out the window, but how would Ollemar escape? Erik could keep Bernhard off-balance, but more than a few seconds and Bernhard would be able to get off another shot. He was going to have to try something else.

“You want to kill me?” Erik screamed, stepping out from behind the cabinet, presenting a clear target. “Why? What did we ever do to you? What did my family, my city, my people ever do to you to make us deserve this?”

Bernhard had been about to raise his hand again, but paused. The shadowy tentacles writhing through the skin on his upper arm wiggled more intensely as he laughed. “Boy, what do you know of the world? Beyond the sky, there is nothing but blackness. Your pinprick of a world is an offense to the great dark, and I will see it undone!”

Erik walked steadily toward Bernhard until only a stone’s throw separated them. “You haven’t succeeded before now,” he said. “And you never will!”

“FOOL!” Bernhard roared. “I—”

Erik did not wait for Bernhard—the Shadow—to finish. He sprinted toward Bernhard, holding his ironsong missile high. He wasn’t going to throw it this time.

Bernhard cut off with a growl, and raised his shield. Erik didn’t know what would happen if he touched it, but he remembered Aiar. For Aiar, he thought, and swung his missile at Bernhard’s face, arcing it over the top of the shield.

The shield vanished before he connected, because Ollemar’s staff cracked Bernhard on the side of the head right at that moment. He screamed, and Erik plunged his last weapon into Bernhard’s skull.

The very air itself shook, as if a gong the size of a mountain had been rung by a hammer the size of a city. The shriek that accompanied it froze Erik’s bones. All this he perceived in the fraction of a second before Father Bernhard exploded, a wave of black and purple and gold and green and violet all tangled together, coruscating outward. Erik was flung through the air and crashed painfully into an upturned trestle table.

The sound vanished. Erik breathed hard, aching all over, wondering what was broken. He slowly drew himself into a sitting position, and though he had scrapes and pains aplenty, he could still move. He blinked tears and dust out of his eyes, and looked up.

Floating in the center of the room was a grotesque, distorted humanoid shape, twice as tall as any man he’d ever seen, but made entirely of black shadow and whorls of purple gas. Two fiery embers burned in its head, ghastly eyes that Erik thought would burn right through him if he stared too long.


Erik wasn’t waiting around to discover what that meant. He ran for the door as the air in the room seemed to freeze solid behind him. What was that thing? What had they unleashed? Was that the very Shadow itself? How could it possibly be stopped?

He’d been inside the Cathedral so long that the sunlight outside seared his eyes. He blinked away the pain, while stepping toward what seemed like some kind of black mass ahead of him—

It was Bjarheim.

As his vision cleared, Erik realized that hundreds of people stood around the great square at the heart of the city. He recognized some of them, but there were more people here than he’d ever seen gathered at one time. They were still streaming into the square, in fact, clogging the open space before the Cathedral.

At the front of the crowd, Kari stood over Finnar, who was propped up on his elbows. One of his feet was burned black—no, not burned. So that’s why he fled. It was the Shadow’s corruption, the same thing they’d seen in Aiar, before he…

“Da!” Erik screamed, and ran forward. He collapsed on the ground next to his father. “What happened?”

“Inside,” Finnar huffed, his breath labored. “When he went mad. One of the beams grazed my foot.”

Ollemar came loping up beside Erik, looking none the worse for wear. He gasped sharply when he saw Finnar’s blackened foot. “Better that than his heart,” the Brandrinn said. “Cut it off, now, and he may yet live.”

An ominous groaning sound came from behind them. Erik looked back at the Cathedral, as the Shadow creature pushed forth through its doors, cracking them off their hinges. The wood splintered and charred, then dissolved into dust. “YOU HAVE BROUGHT ME MUCH TO FEED UPON,” the creature shouted across the square. “I WILL DEVOUR YOU LAST, LITTLE HUMAN.”

Erik expected the crowd to panic and scream, but they did not. There was a hardness in the eyes of those around him. “Get him to a healer and get that foot off,” one of the folk said, a tall, pale old woman. A couple of other folks lurched forward and helped Finnar to his good foot, taking care to avoid touching the other one. The old woman looked down at Erik. “Tell us what to do, son. Tell us how to fight it.”

Erik watched his father go for a moment, then resolutely turned back to face the Shadow. It floated ten feet off the ground, and its body had begun to slowly extrude black tendrils.

Whatever the people of Bjarheim had gone through in their long slumber, now they were ready to fight. Erik knew his magic could hurt the Shadow, but what could he do against that monstrosity?

The people of Bjarheim couldn’t weave magic. The methar of the fae, the Brandrinn’s Seed. But…

Erik stood tall and squarely faced the Shadow. “We will sing.


30 August, 2014

Coming soon!

THE SILVER WAR is now in its final revision pass, and should get published pretty soon™. In the meantime, I'm finishing up BJARHEIM'S SHADOW. Expect to see PART 20 up in the next couple of days!
Also, when all is said and done, I'm going to put BJARHEIM up as an omnibus edition on Amazon (and possibly other places). Reading twenty-odd chapters through Blogger may be some people's idea of a good time, but I think providing it as an ebook is probably a better approach. I'll let you know when that happens.

01 April, 2014

A short delay

I've pushed back on finishing BJARHEIM'S SHADOW a little bit, because I wanted to bang through revising the last few chapters of THE SILVER WAR, so that it can start going to beta readers. This is what happens when you only have 1-2 hours per day to work on writing! I dream of a day when this is my full-time job... I'ma write so dang fast... *sighs dreamily*

18 March, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XIX

I know I said that there were only two parts left, but it's likely to end up with twenty-one total rather than twenty. Funny how these things grow; it's like they have minds of their own. I probably shouldn't have installed that artificial mind, I guess...

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


The door creaked open. It seemed unnaturally loud, echoing in the city’s emptiness. Normally the square behind him would be filled with noise: merchants barking, people chatting, children running about. Now there was nothing but the wind and the careful tread of Erik’s companions.

The cathedral’s vestibule stood cold and empty. There was a layer of dust on the floor that would give the priests conniptions if they saw it. Erik stepped lightly, trying not to kick up motes that might make him sneeze or obscure his vision.

Not that there was much to see. “There’s so much of the Shadow outside. Why hasn’t it gotten in?” Ollemar said.

“Maybe it’s all upstairs,” Kari ventured, peering up the staircase. “I can go look—”

“Don’t be daft,” Finnar snapped. “We stay together, no matter what. Ground floor first.” Nobody argued. They trod slowly through the dust, which puffed up into curlicues despite their efforts.

The whole ground floor of the cathedral was deserted, including the entire great hall. “Must be upstairs,” Finnar said once they’d returned to the entryway.

“Who wants to go first?” Erik said, hoping someone would volunteer. The stairs were wide enough for any two of them except Finnar, so he led the way while Ollemar trailed behind, staff held out warily.

Erik had taken the time to re-weave several new layers of shields for all of them, and had equipped himself and Ollemar with double handfuls of magical projectiles, hanging from their belts with threads of golden song. He had no idea what to expect in here. The Shadow’s hold over the city seemed to be weakening, but there was still that vast black cloud over the Cathedral. Erik could feel an ominous, malevolent presence lurking in the very air around him.

They came out onto the landing on the upper floor. The corridor before them stretched into darkness; the wall sconces had been snuffed out and all the doors were closed. “D’you think the brothers are all still in their rooms?” Kari whispered.

“Only one way to tell.” Finnar stepped cautiously to the nearest door and twisted the knob. It clicked quietly. He pushed it open with a creak that made Erik wince.

Dimness reigned within. The priests of the Cathedral kept simple rooms, so there was only a dresser, a bed, a writing desk, and a side table. But the windows were large and ornate, and should have been flooding the room with light in this midday hour. Instead, everything was suffused with a sickly, purplish cast, like deep wine gone bad.

“Anything?” Ollemar said quietly.

Finnar shook his head, then froze. Erik could hear a low thrum, which began to rise in pitch and intensity. It changed to a growl, then a moan, and then, prickling the skin on Erik’s neck, a deep, cackling laughter.

“Back!” Finnar shouted, and heaved himself away from it. A black shape lunged forth and glanced off his shields, knocking him down. Erik barely dodged aside, pulling Kari with him. The shape was inchoate and shifting, and swirled in the air beneath the corridor’s high ceiling.

“DIE!” it shrieked, and dove at them. Erik hurled a bolt at it, which bounced off, but it seemed to divert the wraith momentarily. The bolt’s weaving came loose, and it spattered itself along the wall and faded away. The creature swirled back up to the ceiling, then screamed and dove again.

This time Ollemar smacked it with the end of his staff, which had one of Erik’s missiles firmly bound to it. The missile came partly loose and flopped around by a few of the golden ironsong threads holding it to the staff. The wraith was again deflected, and retreated for only a few moments before racing down at them.

“Why isn’t it dying?” Kari shouted over the din of shrieks and cackles.

“I don’t know, but—” Erik winced and held up the shield on his arm as the shadow creature crashed down into him, rattling his teeth and leaving a nimbus of bitterly cold air around him. His gaze caught on the open door. “In there!”

No one needed to be told twice. They barrelled inside, and Finnar slammed the door shut behind them just as the wraith smashed into it, popping splinters from the frame. “I don’t think it likes us,” Kari said.

The room was still veiled in a grotesque bruise-purple shadow. Erik looked at the bed and noticed a shape there—a man, lying stock-still and staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. His back was arched, as if he’d been seized by some agony and then paralyzed. Erik deliberately put one foot before the other and came to the man’s side. He was breathing, in sporadic short puffs, his chest barely moving. But alive, definitely alive.

What shocked Erik most, when he was able to see them, were the ghostly strands of shadow trailing from the man’s mouth. They were barely visible in the dimness, so Erik wove a ball of violet light, fae energy drawn from the methar in his mind. Such a simple task, now.

Finnar stayed pinned to the door, holding it shut against the Wraith’s attacks, while Ollemar and Kari stepped close. “Hurry up, lad, whatever it is you’re doing!” Erik’s Da shouted.

The black threads flowed in an unending torrent. “What are they?” Kari said, leaning in close.

“Don’t touch,” Ollemar warned. He cautiously poked at the threads with his staff; they flowed around it but seemed otherwise unaffected. “It looks—it feels like it’s draining the life from him.” He paused, then touched the man’s cold, exposed hand. “I can feel it. That thing is using him up.”

There had to be some way to stop it. Erik sang one pattern after another, trying to slice at the black threads, trying to staunch the flow, but nothing worked. He even tried pushing the man’s mouth shut with his hand, but the pressure grew and in a few seconds it forced its way open as a whorling black mass erupted forth. The wraith’s shrieks outside intensified.

“Something in there’s the source of this,” Ollemar said. “We have to get in and stop it!”

“How? Cut him open? How will that save him?”

“Maybe it’s just some Shadow in there,” Kari said. “Like a parasite. If you could get it out—”

“I tried that with Aiar. It—it didn’t work,” Erik said, hesitating when he felt like his voice was about to break with sorrow.

“Well try something!” she shouted.

The door was cracking under repeated impacts. Finnar grunted and glowered over his shoulder at them. “Any day now!”

Erik clenched his teeth and focused on the old man lying before him, still frozen in a tormented rictus. He didn’t want to touch the shadow threads, although he wasn’t sure that they would harm him—but how was he supposed to get at whatever was possessing him? Well, here goes nothing. He jammed his fingers into the man’s mouth.

He was met at once by a burning fire on his fingers, and yanked his hand back with a screech. “Are you crazy?” Kari yelped.

“Apparently.” The pain had already vanished and there was no redness—or worse, blackness—on his fingers. So the threads themselves weren’t harmful. They could scald his hand, and somehow penetrate the door, but the wraith-thing attached to the end of the threads was stuck on the other side, trying to smash its way through? It made no sense.

Erik, essentially at random, wove a thin blade of light using all three magics, and swung it through the black threads in midair. The threads scattered apart, then reformed into a single stream, unaffected. So if one end of the threads was solid—the wraith—then what about the other end?

He released the blade and wove a small skin of magic around his hand, like a glove. Once more, he tried to shove his hand into the old man’s mouth. This time there was only the faintest tingle as the black threads flowed around the shield he’d woven. There was a counterpressure trying to push his hand out of the way, but he was able to overpower it.

The old man didn’t have an especially large mouth, but Erik’s hands were small and fine, not huge meat-sacks like his Da and brother had. He grimaced as his hand, shielded by his magic, pushed in past the old man’s tongue. The man still didn’t move, his eyes staring blankly up at the ceiling. How did I get here, shoving my hand down a priest’s throat?

And then his fingers brushed against something soft and giving; not the elastic warmth of flesh, but more like a tarry mass. Any further movement was blocked by the narrowing of the throat and jaw, and Erik couldn’t get a grip on the thing. He wiggled his fingers, trying to gain purchase on whatever it was, panic rising as the pounding on the door grew again in intensity. “It’s almost through!” Finnar shouted, near hysteria.

Erik felt at the thing once more. He felt something more rigid slide past one of his fingers—where had it gone? There it is! He pinched it between his forenail and middle finger, and as gently as possible began to draw it up. It slipped away once, twice—he grabbed it again—and then got a stronger hold. He yanked his hand free, scraping his skin painfully on the old man’s teeth.

The thing in his hand looked like a ball of boiling shadow. The dark threads that connected it to the wraith immediately began to thin and wither. Still, the pounding on the door did not slow; if anything, it became even more intense and frantic. If the wraith had been drawing its strength from this frail old man, why wasn’t it weakening?

The door was going to shatter any second now. Erik had to cut the thing off. The little glove of light on his hand had too many gaps, so he wove a small bowl shape, violet and emerald threads bound together with golden song. He put the ball of shadow into it, then wove a second, inverted bowl and sewed them together.

The threads madly tried to evade the seal, but the instant the last gap closed, the pounding on the door stopped. The wraith-ball was sealed in.

As the seconds wore on without any resumption of pounding upon the door, the others breathed sighs of relief. Finnar cautiously edged away from the door, which teetered in its frame, still held fast by only a fraction of one hinge. “You took yer time with that, boy,” he said, not unkindly.

Kari and Ollemar gazed down at the ball of shadow. To Kari, the ball would appear to simply float above Erik’s palm. Ollemar peered at the emerald threads. “A sort of cage,” he muttered. “But what is that thing inside it?”

“Whatever it is, we need to figure out a way to destroy it,” Erik said. “I don’t know if the cage will hold it forever, or if it can break out somehow.”

The sky outside was still a dusky purple, despite only a few minutes having passed. “The Shadow’s still out there… or somewhere in here,” Kari said. “And if the other priests all have this same… thing… inside them…”

The prospect of going through all that again make Erik shiver. “We have to find the source, whatever it is.”

“I’d wager all the city’s gold that it’s close,” Finnar said. He looked worn out, his head drooping. “It must be, to have guards like this lying about.”

Erik wanted to go look out in the corridor again. He wove a second, larger cage, and put the first one inside it, then set the whole contraption on the side table. With any luck it would remain confined long enough.

Out in the corridor, the other doors remained shut, the sconces dark. There was no noise from within. “These are all the priests’ chambers, aren’t they?”

Finnar nodded. “Aye. There’s not as many as there used to be.”

“Father Bernhard’s the chief of them, right?”

“They haven’t got a chief. They all act as equals.”

“Yeah, but you’ve seen Bernhard, the way he talks to the others. Everyone hops to his tune.”

“I suppose,” Finnar said. “What are you getting at?”

“If the Shadow can put its guards in these men… I’d guess it’d take the strongest one for itself. Which is Father Bernhard’s room?”

If there were possessed men in the other rooms, Erik couldn’t tell by listening; all was silent behind the doors. No one wanted to open one and see, lest they be set upon by another wraith.

But if Erik’s guess was right, they’d have to face something when they found Father Bernhard. Something even worse than that wraith. Unhelpfully, the doors weren’t labelled, and they all looked the same. Finnar suggested that Bernhard’s room might be the one nearest the far end of the hall.

It wasn’t. It was some other possessed priest, and within seconds a wraith erupted, shrieking for their deaths. At least this time destroying it was easier; the thing had barely emerged from the shadows by the time Erik clawed the little swirling ball of darkness from the priest’s throat. He’d prepared the cage in advance, and clapped it around the ball. The wraith, which had been repeatedly pummeling Ollemar in the confined space, vanished in a puff of smoke. The Brandrinn picked himself up and wiped blood from his nose. “Can we please find Father Bernhard’s room next?”

“There’s a dozen other doors at least,” Kari said. “Do you have any idea how to tell what’s behind a locked door?”

“Even Brandrinn can’t see through doors,” Finnar grunted.

“But they can see through windows,” Erik said. “What if we look in from outside?”

Kari stared at him. “Outside? How are we supposed to do that? The windows are twenty feet off the ground, and there’s no ledges or anything.”

Ollemar tapped his staff on the floor, grabbing their attention. “I’d rather do that than fight another one of those damnable things.” He pointed up at the ceiling. There was a small window, letting in dim, purplish light, that Erik hadn’t noticed. “I can fit through that and look down over the eaves. Tell me what Father Bernhard looks like.”

Finnar protested that it was too dangerous, while Kari looked put out that she wasn’t going to be the one to get to climb up on the roof. Erik was glad to let the Brandrinn do it. Whatever magic Erik might have learned, he wasn’t particularly keen to dangle twenty feet off the ground, with the Shadow itself lurking overhead.

There was nothing even Ollemar could use to climb up to the window, so he stood his staff on end, somehow climbed atop it without it falling over, then leapt up and caught the bottom edge of the window by his fingertips. It flipped open at a push, and he hauled himself through, then leaned back in and whistled. Finnar tossed the staff up to Ollemar, and he vanished.

“Let’s hope he never takes a job as a burglar,” Kari said.

Erik didn’t know how Ollemar was going to be able to make out each priest’s features through the window, from the outside, while the Shadow swirled around him. Or even tell them apart; even as long as he’d known the priests of the Cathedral, they all still seemed like interchangeable, white-bearded old men to him.

The minutes dragged agonizingly on, and Erik felt the Shadow’s oppressive presence grow. Something was coming. Not the wraiths; something worse. The wraiths, at least, seemed content to wait in the rooms where they’d attached themselves to the priests. To what end? Draining the life from them, as they’d done with so many folk out in the city? Was that all the Shadow was, a rapacious parasite seeking sustenance?

No. It had to be more than that. Erik remembered the madness in Remy’s eyes, out there in the forest, hunting him, wanting to annihilate him. Parasites didn’t send minions out to destroy their enemies.

A whistle from above jerked Erik back to the present. “Third on the left,” Ollemar hissed, and folded himself through the window. Erik was sure he’d crash to the floor, but he alighted as softly as a leaf.

“You’d better be right,” Erik said. “We don’t have time to fight any more of those things.” To punctuate this, a groaning creak came from the ceiling above, as if the wooden beams were being put under some enormous stress.

No one wanted to wait any longer. They hustled to the end of the hall, and faced the door Ollemar indicated. “I’m not opening it,” he said when Erik glanced at him.

They all exchanged glances. Finnar stepped forward—

“No,” Erik said. “I have to.”

He wanted his father to deny him, to insist on going first. Finnar only shook his head and stood aside. Erik’s legs felt like jelly. He knew waiting would only make it worse, so he gulped, turned the handle, and pushed the door open.

Inside, Father Bernhard lay on his bed, but he sat up the instant Erik saw him. A tickled smile appeared on his lips, waxen and cracked from weeks of dehydration. “Hello, my boy,” came the voice, but it was a grating, gut-wrenching sound Erik had never heard any man make. “I have been looking forward to killing you.”


17 March, 2014

Apologies for the delay; those responsible have been sacked

Houseguests plus a spate of illness running through the family have knocked me out of my groove, but never fear; part 19 of BJARHEIM'S SHADOW will be up soon.

And THE SILVER WAR, the sequel to THE QUEEN OF MAGES, should be finished in the next couple of weeks. It's exciting to hear that people I don't know are looking forward to it. ;)

20 February, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XVIII

Part 18 is here! Just two more to go.

If you missed them, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


“Aiar!” Erik screamed, shaking the unmoving fae by the arm, the one that wasn’t enveloped in creeping black rot.

“Don’t touch him!” Finnar said, yanking Erik back a pace. Erik struggled with all his might, twisting in his father’s grip, desperately trying to reach Aiar again.

The black rot spread slowly across Aiar’s torso. His whole left arm was black now, twisted and shriveled. The patch on his chest stretched from just beside his neck down to below his armpit. His clothes hissed and shriveled, emitting faint trails of smoke.

Everyone was staring silently at him. Erik couldn’t tear his gaze away, even to look at Bjarheim, even to make sure that the Shadow was still wounded, that it wasn’t coming after them. Suddenly Aiar gasped sharply and his eyes opened. He let out a brief shriek, then gritted his teeth and jerked his head back and forth.

“Aiar! Can you hear us?” Ollemar said. He held his staff out before him, as if warding against the Shadow’s taint.

Aiar grunted and gnashed his teeth. “It’s… agony…” His good arm shook as he wove some magic in the air. The violet threads wavered and spasmed, flashing and sparking. Weakly, Aiar pushed a tangled skein at the black rot on his arm, but it caromed off and dissipated without apparent effect.

“There must be some way we can heal him,” Kari said. Erik had been thinking the same thing, but words would not come.

Ollemar shook his head. “Healing is the most complex, the most delicate magic there is. I have no great skill at it myself.”

“You have to try!” Kari said, grabbing the Brandrinn by the arm and dragging him closer to Aiar. “Do something! Anything!”

Ollemar grimaced. He glanced back at the city, which gave Erik the strength to do the same. The Shadow still roiled and smoked, but the great wound was still there. Erik—Aiar—had bought them some time.

The Brandrinn looked down at Aiar. He muttered something under his breath, then raised his staff and started drawing emerald lines in the air. These new patterns were thick and elaborate, and very strange to Erik’s eyes. He’d seen nothing like it before.

The black rot had started to climb Aiar’s neck. His arm had withered away to almost nothing. “Why’s it move so slow?” Erik finally asked, breaking the silence. “When—when Florr got it, it raced all over him in no time.”

“I—” Aiar grunted again. He was sweating, something Erik had rarely seen. “I am resist—resistant to it,” he said between gasping breaths. “Fae are—are—strong.”

Ollemar finished his weaving. “That’s the best I can do.” He gently guided the snarl of green light down toward the rot, and gave it one last shove.

It floated the last few inches and bumped against the corruption. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then the color began to leach from the green threads. Erik wondered if they were somehow drawing the Shadow out of Aiar as they faded to gray.

But in a few seconds, the threads had all gone the lifeless color of ash. In another moment they disappeared completely. The black rot was unchanged.

“You do it,” Kari said to Erik. “You can weave all three, right? It’ll have to stop the Shadow, just like it did when it was attacking us!”

“I don’t have any idea how to weave healing magic!” Erik said, terrified.

“Copy what Ollemar did. You can’t just do nothing!”

Erik looked down at Aiar again. The fae was gazing up at him. There was something wild in his expression. Maybe it was just missing the utter control that Aiar normally evinced. This was what Aiar looked like when something was horribly wrong.

Erik held out his hands and started to weave. He drew violet light out from the methar, and emerald strands from the Seed. He sang the Song of Seeing and wove golden threads to hold it all together, trying to mimic the channel of nourishing energy that Ollemar had made. It would work. It had to.

That’s not good,” Finnar said. Erik glanced up from his work.

The wound in the Shadow was closing.

Slowly, probingly, tiny shadow tendrils poked around the edge of the hole in the Shadow’s flank. It had shown no interest in them since Erik had attacked it, but if he took much longer, the Shadow would regain its strength and strike at them once more.

He wove and sang as quickly as he could. Ollemar pointed out where the flows were weak, where it would not support its own weight under the stress of channeling energy through it. And finally it was done, or as done as Erik thought he could make it. “Try it,” Ollemar urged.

Erik bound the mass of energy to his hand, a mass so bright and fierce that he could hardly stand to look at it. He pushed it down toward Aiar and, being careful not to touch the Shadow’s contamination, let the magic poultice drift down onto Aiar’s skin.

There was an even brighter blast of light as they connected, and Erik could feel the energy from his weaving flow into Aiar. It was interacting with the corruption in some way, but he could hardly tell how.

And then the light faded, and for a blessed moment, Erik thought he had done it.

The blackness was gone from Aiar’s skin… but there was something underneath. Something deeper.

Aiar did not look relieved. His eyes rolled up in his head for a moment. “It is futile,” he said, gasping after every word. “The corruption is… too deep. It… cannot be stopped.”

“No! There must be a way!”

Aiar shook his head weakly. “I… am sorry. You may have… slowed it… a bit. But there… is… nothing…” He lost the power of speech for a moment, and released a great wail of agony. It made Erik’s skin crawl and his heart pound. This can’t happen!

“I need more time,” Erik protested to no one in particular.

“Time… we don’t have.” Aiar licked at dry lips. “You… made me… a promise once.” Aiar caught Erik’s gaze again. “A… favor. I need… a favor.”

“What? Yes! Anything!” Erik said.

“It will… take hours… for this to kill me. The pain… unbear… unbearable. End… end me now… make it end.”

There was complete silence, save for Aiar’s labored breathing. “No. You can’t ask me to do that!”

“You… swore to me,” Aiar said. “On your… on your life. Now mine… is at an end. You… you must do this.” He punctuated that with another long wail. Though the blackness had eroded from the surface of Aiar’s skin, the fae’s arm and shoulder were still withered, dry husks, and Erik could see some sort of dark mass pulsing beneath the skin. It looked like it was growing. “Please… now…”

Erik couldn’t even comprehend what to do. To kill Aiar? His teacher, his mentor? After everything they been through? There MUST be a way!

“There isn’t,” Aiar said abruptly, as if reading his thoughts. “Do it. DO IT!

Erik almost reached for the methar again, but stopped. He had no idea how to kill someone with his magic, much less how to do it without causing even more pain.

“I will do it,” Ollemar said. “Of a time, I’ve had to… prune a branch to keep the tree healthy.”

Aiar shook his head. “No… the boy… promise…”

“He’s barely of age,” Finnar said. “You had no business extractin’ promises from the lad. Let my brother do what needs to be done. Take m’boy over there,” he added to Kari. Her face had gone white, but she nodded and pulled on Erik’s arm. He stumbled alongside her until they were a stone’s throw away.

Erik didn’t want to look, but at the last moment he turned around and watched as Ollemar pushed a mass of magical green light down into Aiar’s chest. Aiar spasmed, gave one last breath, then was still.

“We will return for him,” Ollemar said, walking closer to Erik but carefully keeping his distance. “I swear it.”

Swearing. Promises. What good had that done? The only thing Aiar had ever asked of Erik, and he couldn’t do it.

He looked at Bjarheim again. The Shadow had made more progress in repairing its wound. Another few moments and it would be closed up, and then who knew what would happen?

He began to weave, and to sing. Rage seethed within him, and the magical arrow he crafted burned with energy. In a few seconds it was done, its threads woven as tightly as Erik had ever made them. He aimed at another section of the Shadow’s morass, and threw.

The effect was even more pronounced. Another enormous gash ripped itself into the Shadow’s side. The small tendrils that had been repairing the other wound floundered and dissipated.

“It’s on the run now,” Ollemar said. “We should get closer and finish it off.”

“I don’t know,” Erik said. His voice rang in his ears. Aiar was dead. How? How had they gotten here? He shook it off. “If any of it’s left, hiding in the city, it might come back. We need to destroy it once and for all.”

“If we can hurt enough of it, there might be more folk in the city that can help,” Kari said. A little color had come back to her cheeks, though she didn’t look at Erik. “I bet that even those who can use only one magic would still be of use. Like Ai—” She stopped. “Last time it was fae and ironspeakers and priests who stopped the Shadow. Maybe they can help now.”

Erik wanted to scream, to cry, to fall down and curl up and sleep for a decade. Maybe Kari was right, maybe not. But Erik would gladly take part in any plan that let him hurt the Shadow more.

Wounded as it was, the Shadow did not attack them. Erik hurled bolt after bolt, aiming at the densest, darkest parts of the Shadow. The gashes connected together to form gaping ruptures.

They walked on toward the city as Erik continued weaving and singing. By now, the entire side of Bjarheim that they could see was practically free of the Shadow, save for occasional small spouts of black fog.

“Those could be a problem,” Finnar said. The edge of the city was only a few hundred yards away now. “They’re small, hard to hit.”

“And they look to be moving,” Ollemar observed.

Indeed they were: those wispy fragments of the Shadow settled onto to the rooftops, then slipped down into the streets and out of sight. Bjarheim wasn’t the biggest city in the world, but finding all those pieces could be a nightmare. And any one of them might elicit the Shadow’s return.

Erik realized with astonishment that the very edge of the city lay only a few yards ahead of him now. He’d been so focused on distant patches of shadow that he’d hardly noticed.

After all this time, he was home.

The streets echoed with emptiness. Trees and flowers were blackened and shriveled; a gray patina seemed to overlay everything. Erik scuffed at the cobblestones with his boot, scraping away soot that puffed into the air and was carried away on an unseasonably icy breeze.

“I was expecting worse,” Finnar said. “The trees’re all dead, but elsewise, the city doesn’t look too bad. Looked way worse from outside.”

“But where is everyone?” Kari said.

Erik looked at the nearest house, a stumpy brickwork affair with a slanted tile roof. “Let’s see.”

The door was latched. Erik found an open window on one side. He climbed through it into dusty dimness, and sat for a moment to let his eyes adjust. “Hello?”

There was no reply, just the sound of the wind whistling outside. He’d come into the kitchen first. He explored the dining room and entry hall, then went back into the larger of two bedrooms. He stopped, startled.

Two figures lay on the bed, holding one another. A man and a woman, old. They didn’t seem to be moving. They were in their nightclothes, the bedcovers pulled halfway back. They must have been caught unawares when the Shadow had come, weeks ago. Erik wiped away a sudden brimming of tears, and was about to turn away when the old woman shuddered with a drawn breath.

Erik yelped and leapt back, then cursed himself for a fool and stepped closer again. The woman’s eyes had fluttered open, and she began turning her head back and forth. Her mouth worked, as if to speak, but her lips were so dry that she couldn’t form words.

Erik unstopped his waterskin and held it to her lips. She drank a few sips, then coughed. “Wh…who…”

“It’s all right,” Erik said, trying to sound calm and soothing. “You’ll be all right.” He didn’t know if that was true, but what else could he say?

He helped her sit up. The skin on her hand was cold, but not terribly so. The man lying beside her hadn’t moved at all. On impulse, Erik touched his hand. It was as cold as ice. He felt at the man’s neck. There was no pulse, no warmth. The Shadow had done him in.

“What happened?” the old woman asked, after Erik gave her some more water.

“The Shadow came,” he said. “Have you been here the whole time?”

“Time?” She was beginning to come to her senses, glancing around in the dimness. “Why… the last thing I remember was going to sleep. We’d had a visit from our son…” At this she looked down at the old man. “Andras? Andras!”

“I’m… I’m sorry…” Erik couldn’t bear to see her grief. He ran to the front door and threw it open. Ollemar, Finnar, and Kari stood there, looking uneasy.

“You were gone long enough,” Kari said. “Who was that shouting?”

He shook his head. Finnar and Kari went in, while Ollemar stayed outside. He seemed uncomfortable with the idea of being indoors.

Erik could hear the old woman wailing, then Finnar and Kari’s voices calming her down. Erik tried to ignore it, and instead looked skyward. The Shadow seemed to have completely retreated from this part of the city, though he still spotted a few dark, misty remnants drifting along. One of them floated down the street toward him, so he wove a magical bolt and threw it at the fragment. Both bolt and shadow shattered into iridescent shards, and then vanished completely.

After a few minutes, Kari and Finnar returned. “It sounds like she remembers nothing from the Shadow’s whole presence here,” Finnar said. “But her husband… he died at some point. I couldn’t say why.”

“Maybe he was just old,” Kari suggested.

Finnar scratched at his beard. “He didn’t seem to have any of the… blackness on him,” he said, darting a glance at Erik. Erik thought of Aiar again, and his heart clenched. “Let’s see who else we can find.”

They didn’t have to search long. The next house over already had people stirring inside: a younger family, parents and children. They all looked sickly and weak, but they were alive. They, too, had no memory of the Shadow. The next house’s door stood wide open; it was empty. Erik wondered if its inhabitants had managed to flee before the Shadow came, or if they’d met some darker fate.

All through the neighborhood, the pattern repeated itself. Those who had been old or sick or weak before the Shadow came had almost all died in their beds. It was as if the Shadow had drained the last vestiges of life out of them.

It enraged Erik to see all this waste and death. But at least the Shadow had made no attack on them since entering the city. Any time he saw the black miasma overhead, he hurled a bolt at it, and it withered away. The leftover fragments that floated around seemed harmless, but he destroyed them all anyway.

The Shadow above them grew thicker and darker as they closed in on the center of the city. His shots were becoming less effective. The Shadow retreated a shorter distance each time.

“Its defenses strengthen,” Ollemar observed. “We may yet meet some new threat.”

“I pray otherwise,” Finnar said. “Be on guard.”

Kari slipped her hand into Erik’s as they walked and gave a quick squeeze. He’d hoped that she, at least, would have found some pleasure in being back in the city. Maybe there was a little joy on her face, but it was swamped by grief and fear. Erik knew how she felt.

They made it to the central district, where most of the shops and taverns and trade-houses were clustered. The spire of the Cathedral loomed over all, and from here Erik could plainly see that the Shadow had fixated upon it. A vast, boiling cloud of blackness was concentrated upon the spire, nearly obscuring it. Erik could feel a dire presence inside the Cathedral. It was almost as if the heart of the Shadow itself were visible through the ancient stone walls.

Finnar put his hand on Erik’s shoulder. “Are you ready, boy?”

Erik gulped and nodded. The last time he’d gone into the Cathedral, Kari had been chasing him, all those months ago. Everything had been easier. Sweeter. Now the air tasted like ash.

Erik stepped up to the Cathedral’s great oaken front door, and grasped the handle.