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.


13 February, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XVII

It's a nice feeling, being back in the groove. Enjoy part XVII! There's only a couple of chapters left before the story draws to its end.

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


They came to a halt when Erik was able to discern the spire of the Cathedral. Bjarheim, in the distance, was a little wider than his outstreched hand. The Shadow’s black miasma draped across the city, choking the life out of it.

They hadn’t gone another hundred yards when an enormous, smoky tendril lurched upward from the city and began flailing in their direction.

The Shadow, it seemed, was eager to greet them.

“Let our test begin,” Aiar said as the clouds of shadow raced toward them.

Three roiling bursts of darkness had detached from the tendril after a few seconds and arced high into the air, like rocks hurled by a catapult. But at their apogee they angled sharply downward, coming straight for Erik and his companions.

Erik hurled a magical bolt at them, and though it darted into the sky, the shadow clouds seemed to sense it coming and dodged aside. “Again, when they’re closer!” Ollemar urged him.

“Get behind me,” Finnar grunted. “I’ll block the first one. Girl, you stay right behind, and step in if I fall.” Kari nodded, eyes to the sky.

“Da, no!” Erik said reflexively.

“I’m expendable,” Finnar said, keeping calm. “Just think of me as a meat shield.” His eyes twinkled a little.

Erik tried to protest, but Aiar pulled on his shoulder. “Now is not the time for arguing! This first strike may determine our fates.”

Erik saw no choice. He looked up at the falling clouds, closing rapidly. He readied another projectile and handed it off to Aiar, who could not see its Brandrinn or ironsong components, but could still manipulate it by the threads of fae energy woven into it. Erik gave the next one to Ollemar, and made a third for himself.

“Hold another moment,” Ollemar said. Erik’s gut clenched as the black clouds hurtled earthward like meteors. “Now!”

All three of them flung their missiles skyward at once. Erik realized even as it left his hands that he’d been too hasty, and his shot angled wide. He cursed, but his breath caught when one of the descending shadow clouds dodged aside to avoid Aiar’s missile, and crashed right into Erik’s.

There was a radiant blast of light, and iridescent shards flared out into a sunburst. The shadow cloud was gone.

But there were still two more: Ollemar’s shot had missed as well. There was no time to weave again. “Brace yourselves!” Finnar called out.

Everyone gathered in a wedge behind him. Erik planted his feet and gritted his teeth.

The first shadow cloud struck Finnar’s shield, exploding into shards and making the ground tremble. Erik kept his balance, holding to his father’s belt, but then a moment later the second one hit. Erik lost his grip and was knocked back into Aiar, who steadied him.

“Is everyone all right?” the fae shouted. Erik looked around. Everyone was still standing, but frazzled. The threads of Finnar’s shield didn’t look as tightly woven as before.

“I don’t know how many more shots it’ll absorb,” Erik said, peering at the quavering threads of magic. He tried to sing the knots of the golden threads tighter, but they responded sluggishly, as if wounded.

“More!” Ollemar shouted, pointing at the city. Another trio of shadow clouds had spewed off the end of the tendril, and followed the same arc again.

“They seem content to slowly pummel us to death,” Aiar said.

“Then let’s get closer so we can strike back,” Kari said. “Move!” And she sprinted off toward Bjarheim.

Everyone else perforce had to follow. Kari slowed when she realized she was outdistancing everyone except Aiar, with his long, loping stride. Closing the distance, of course, meant that the shadow missiles would reach them even sooner. It had been no more than two minutes the first time. They must still be miles from the city, Erik guessed, meaning that those projectiles were travelling at a truly terrifying speed.

“We know the shields will hold,” Aiar said when they came to a stop, to prepare for the next impact. “We must rotate who takes the hit, so that the shields last longer before you must replace them.”

Erik nodded. He’d spun out five more missiles as they ran. Aiar could take one in each hand, and Erik could bind two to himself with golden threads. Ollemar could only wield one at a time, since he had to use his staff to manipulate them, and when he tried carrying two—one at either end—one would inevitably slip off. Still, five was better than three.

“I’m up,” Kari said, planting herself in front. Erik almost shouted at her to stop, but with a tremendous force of will, he held his tongue. She was doing exactly what she’d promised: protecting him. He couldn’t scorn that.

“We need to hold our fire longer, or we’ll be wasting our shots,” Aiar said. Erik’s heart tried to climb up his throat as he watched the shadow clouds bear down on them. He saw now that there were conelike projectiles at the hearts of those clouds, much like the ones Remy had thrown at them back in the forest. But these were larger, more jagged, more fearsome. Whatever aspect of the Shadow Remy had wielded, the full Shadow itself was a far more terrible thing.

“Brace!” Kari shouted. Everyone crouched behind her, and when the three shadow missiles were mere seconds away, all five of Erik’s multicolored arrows were hurled skyward. This time, two of the shadow missiles exploded into iridescent shards, and only one made it through to strike them. Kari’s shield took the full force of it, and she was propelled back into Finnar’s bulk.

Erik quickly inspected her shield. It was a little wobbly, too, but not as bad as Finnar’s. “I think we’re getting the hang of this,” he said, grinning.

“I think the Shadow is, too,” Aiar said, staring out at Bjarheim.

Five shadow missiles arced across the sky toward them.

They ran onward, hurling missiles into the sky as fast as Erik could weave them. Three of the shadow missiles fell this time, but two struck Aiar’s shield full-on. His shield looked as ragged and unstable as Finnar’s. On the next wave, Ollemar stood in front, and they fared worse—three of the shadow clouds landed among them. Ollemar’s shield was in tatters.

“I have to replace it,” Erik shouted. He didn’t think it would absorb another shot without failing completely, and if any of that shadow energy got through to Ollemar…

“Wait,” Aiar said, insistent. “The Brandrinn still has the shield on his back. We have time yet before you must reweave our shields. And we are not drawing on two thirds of our power. Ollemar and I can weave together without your help.”

“That won’t stop the Shadow’s weapons!” Erik said. He felt himself starting to panic.

“It’ll do better than nothing. If we sap all your strength before reaching the city—” He paused as they withstood another salvo from the Shadow. Finnar’s frontal shield took three more direct hits and failed completely. “You must conserve what you can, or we’re doomed.”

They’d covered no more than a mile toward the city, with at least three more to go. “We mustn’t stop moving,” Finnar said. Erik sang feverishly, sliding Finnar’s rear shield around to protect his front, and then beginning a new shield to cover his Da’s back. He didn’t have time to weave any more missiles, but Ollemar and Aiar produced two between them, and, Odin bless them, both hit their mark. The two shadow clouds sputtered and began to slowly dissipate as the paired fae and Brandrinn magics hit them, rather than exploding brightly as they had when struck by Erik’s missiles-of-three-magics. Their sputtering threw them off course, and they missed, harmlessly crashing into the grasses just to either side of the party. They seemed to lodge in the earth, smoking and fading slowly away. The grass around them began to wither and die, though the corruption spread only a few yards before stopping.

The other three shadow missiles struck home, though. Two hit Kari, rending her shield nearly to bits. Ollemar leapt before her, blocking the third.

The next wave was already rising by the time Erik blinked the smoke from his eyes. They raced forward, Erik weaving new shields as fast as he could. He replaced Kari’s and Ollemar’s, since the Brandrinn’s shield looked so weak that one more hit might destroy it and kill him.

Erik barely had time to spin out one projectile of his own before the next salvo landed upon them. He threw his missile an instant before the first shadow bolt landed, intercepting and destroying it. The second was only moments behind, but Aiar hurled a violet-and-green arrow, knocking it clear. The third and fourth hit Ollemar’s new shield. It held, but looked severely weakened. Erik hadn’t had time to weave it as tightly as he had at first.

And the fifth shadow cloud, which trailed slightly behind the rest, was still coming. There wasn’t time to weave another missile, so in a moment of desperation Erik sang the slow dirge Djalgand had taught him.

A skein of golden threads quickly congealed into a helix, as before, and Erik slid it in front of the last missile. It didn’t damage or even harm the thing, but it did deflect it slightly, enough that the bolt raced just over their heads and crashed into the ground behind them.

Erik whooped. He couldn’t aim his projectiles once he hurled them, but he could weave a deflecting thread wherever he chose, with much greater accuracy. That would—

“RUN!” Ollemar screamed, and sprinted past Erik. A sudden knot of fear made Erik follow without question, though he looked back over his shoulder. Where the deflected missile had landed, the grasses withered and blackened and burst into flame. The decay and fire spread outward as fast as a man could run.

The whole party galloped onward, trying to outrun the conflagration. Erik could feel its heat on his back, unimpeded by the shield he wore there. The skin on the back of his neck, the only part exposed, began to feel burned, as if he’d stayed in the sun too long. Erik pumped his arms, hoping beyond hope that they’d escape.

He breathed easier when the heat lessened, and when he glanced back he saw that the spreading flames had come to an abrupt halt, extinguishing themselves. All the grasses in a huge circle had turned to ash.

They were halfway to the city now. The whole party came to a halt, gasping for air. Erik looked up at Bjarheim.

The Shadow did not tire. Another tendril had extended from the city, coiling back and forth in sinuous rhythms. And now each tendril sent five clouds of shadow into the heavens.

“We’re never going to make it,” Ollemar said, breathing hard. The one saving grace of this latest salvo was that the missiles seemed to be moving a bit slower. But there were ten of them. They might survive this attack, and another, but how many more could they withstand?

“We can’t let any of them land undamaged,” Aiar said. “I have the stamina to outrun those firestorms, but the rest of you don’t.”

“That means we have to damage, destroy, or absorb every single one,” Ollemar said.

“I can’t weave shields as strong as before,” Erik said. “Each one can take… three, maybe four hits before I have to weave it again.”

“That’s two or three shields per attack, if it stays at ten,” Finnar said, casting a glance skyward at the incoming shadow missiles.

“Maybe it will if we ask nicely,” Kari said.

“The Shadow seems disinclined to acquiesce to your request.” Aiar caught Erik’s gaze. “Do you think you can last?”

“I’m… I’m getting tired, no lie,” Erik said. “But I’ve got strength left.”

“Enough to get to the city? Hold that thought,” Aiar said, and they prepared to face the incoming missiles. “Spread out! Let us see what they do.”

They sent three shots skyward. Miracle of miracles, all three connected; the increasing number of incoming shadow clouds made it difficult to miss. But that left seven falling upon them that they had to absorb. If all seven went after one person…

The clouds seemed at first confused by this proliferation of targets. Then they too spread out. Erik took two hits, one to his arm shield and one to his front. They both struck him like gongs, setting a ringing in his ears. But his shields had held, and better than the others’; these shields had been woven before the battle, with sufficient time and care.

Finnar and Ollemar each took two; Kari took one. They shook off the impacts and began moving toward Bjarheim again.

Erik could make out more details of the city now: individual buildings around the edge, mainly houses, and the taller buildings of commerce and society near the middle. The fae wall, the violet shield that had so long protected Bjarheim, was nowhere in evidence.

Another volley of ten shadow clouds rose into the sky. Erik was beginning to feel nauseous from his efforts, and from the constant fear of one of those clouds breaking through Erik’s shields.

The Shadow, it seemed, did not learn, but merely reinforced strength with strength. The missiles again separated, picking out targets at random. Erik and his companions only shot down two this time. Finnar presented his back to the rest, absorbing three shocks, while Aiar and Ollemar each took one. Kari took one, and Erik took two. Erik decided to stop building shields at his friends’ backs. Instead, he slid new shields in front of them, behind the existing ones. That way, the weakest shields were layered on the outside, and would ablate away the attacks, while the stronger shields were in the rear, ready to advance forward, like soldiers in file, marching into the bowshots of an enemy force. He wouldn’t have to waste time rotating shields around from the rear.

Of course, this meant that everyone’s backs were unprotected. But, gods willing, the Shadow wouldn’t figure out that weakness. Erik quickly explained what he was doing, especially to Finnar and Kari, who couldn’t see the magic. No one had any objections. Or if they did, they were too tired to explain them.

They closed to within a mile of the city, after long minutes tromping through the grasses, shooting down and withstanding the impacts from countless shadow missiles. Each footstep was slower, more tiring than the last.

And then a third tendril unfurled itself from the black mist enveloping Bjarheim.

Ollemar sent up a cry of despair. “You bastard!” Kari shouted at the city.

Fifteen black clouds soared high above them, threatening to blot out the sun.

Bjarheim was so close. If they could get within range, if Erik could attack the Shadow directly, maybe this terrible onslaught would end.

There had to be a way. Erik wove shields as fast as he could, reinforcing the line, and desperately trying to figure out how to survive. His shields were growing sloppier and sloppier.

Was he close enough to hurl a bolt at the Shadow itself? Could he spare the time and energy? He’d never tested the range on such a thing. He’d just have to try. He thought about telling the others, but why distract them? They all looked as ragged and beaten-down as he felt.

Erik glanced along the line. Everyone had enough shielding to survive this volley… probably. They all had two shields, one full and one ragged. Aiar’s was the weakest, bare tatters hanging before him. Maybe he should make more…

No! There was no time to think. Erik wove a missile, taking care with the threads, binding it as tightly as possible. His throat was sore from constant singing. How did ironspeakers go on for hours, as he’d heard them in their forges? Practice, years of practice. Years he hadn’t had. Years he’d probably never have.

Finally his missile was ready, glowing brightly in the air before him. The fifteen shadow missiles rained down toward them. Erik almost threw his new missile up at them—no, he had to attack the Shadow. He focused on the nearest part of the great black mist, where it writhed and flowed around the buildings at the edge of the city. Aim—Ha! What need was there to aim at a target so large? He drew his arm back and hurled the golden arrow, violet and emerald energy coruscating within.

Then he had to suffer four violent blasts as the shadow clouds landed among them. When he finally came up for air, he looked after his own missile. He glimpsed a golden streak, and watched in astonishment as it struck the Shadow—

There was a colossal blast of iridescent light, brighter than the noon sun, and when Erik could see again he perceived that a great hole had been rent in the Shadow’s flank. The black mist withered away from it, like a goatskin drawn too tight and then cut. For a moment, Erik thought the Shadow was destroyed. Then the withering stopped, although it did not reverse. But the three great tendrils of black gas dissipated instantly, their smoke flitting away on the wind. The Shadow had been hurt!

“Look!” he shouted. “It worked! I stopped it!” He looked around at the others, certain they’d be as ecstatic as he was.

Finnar, Ollemar, and Kari stood in a little circle, looking down at something on the ground. Aiar lay there, with one entire arm and part of his chest turned black with corruption.

He wasn’t moving.


04 February, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XVI

Back on track!

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


“I’ll be damned,” Djalgand muttered. “Tiny loops that hold the other threads together?”

Erik breathed steadily, but he was excited. “I can do more of them,” he said, and began singing more golden threads into place. One by one they encircled the emerald and violet strands, squeezing them together. But he noticed that after a few moments they would unfold and slip away if he didn’t keep singing at them. “Is there a way to tie a… a sort of knot in them?” he asked Djalgand. “So they hold fast?”

Djalgand began to sing a series of erratic notes, seemingly at random. One thread, that Erik held in place with his own melody, began squirming. Its ends writhed until they touched, and then they slithered around one another, intertwining and tightening into a complex knot so tiny that Erik could barely make it out.

When Djalgand stopped singing, Erik did too. The other threads slowly uncurled and flitted away, but the knotted one did not move. “How long will it stay like that?” Erik asked.

“How do you think I kept all those wards in place outside?” Djalgand said. “Sung knots never slip unless they’re unsung, which only an ironspeaker can do. Or if, say, they’re part of a trap that triggers. Like the tripwires.”

Aiar tapped thoughtfully on his chin. “So our shield, tied with these knots of yours, would hold itself indefinitely?”

“I suppose. Are you working to maintain your magic now?”

Aiar shook his head. “Not in the slightest. Fae magic can be made to persist, but it is very difficult. A small weaving like this will unweave itself in minutes if not maintained.”

“If your magic and ours can be held together by these threads,” Ollemar said, “we could weave permanent shields. They would be very effective defenses.”

They tried. Aiar and Ollemar brought together their webs, and Erik started bending golden threads around them. At first, Djalgand sang the knots, but Erik quickly picked up the melody and helped, doubling their speed. His knots weren’t as firm or precise, but they held.

The first shield was as tall as Erik, and about as wide as his armspan. They’d built it in only a few minutes. Ollemar could move it around by poking the emerald threads with the tip of his quarterstaff, and Aiar could drag it by grabbing onto the violet threads. Djalgand could make it move by singing at it. The whole thing stayed intact, no matter how much they shook it about or how long they waited.

They tested it by having Erik bind together spears of energy woven by Aiar and Ollemar, much like the ones they’d used to attack Remy back in the forest. Those spears, powerful as they’d been against the Shadow, shattered into nothing when they struck the new shield. The shield did not so much as quiver under the attack.

“I bet we could weave shields for all of us,” Erik said.

“What about your father? And, uh, her too, I suppose,” Aiar said, when Kari glared at him. “They can’t manipulate any of the magical parts of the shield.”

“I can solve that problem,” Djalgand said. He sang a long, slow dirge, and Erik saw something new: dozens of the golden threads spliced themselves into one long, helical mass. Djalgand repeated this a few times, then brought the mass around Kari’s midsection. He sang the helix into place on her other side, and then tied the long threads around its edges.

Aiar, Ollemar, and Erik all stared at her, fascinated. “What?” she asked, looking nervous.

“Walk around the room,” Djalgand said. Kari did, pacing along the perimeter. The shield stayed with her, pivoting as she turned, always at her back.

“Brilliant,” Aiar said.

Erik exulted. “The Shadow won’t stand a chance!”

Everyone seemed thrilled with the idea. Everyone except Finnar, who just looked worried. “What’s wrong, Da?” Erik asked.

“It’s… it sounds amazing, what you’re doing. But it’s still a long way to Bjarheim.”

“I know, but don’t worry. With our power, we’ll win, I’m sure of it.” Erik, all on his own, traced out violet and emerald threads into a small, arm-length shield, and sang golden threads to bind it tight. He mimicked Djalgand’s dirge in order to create the longer threads, and wove them around his arm. It was as if he’d created a buckler of pure light, that he could move with his arm.

It wasn’t a patch on the full-sized shields the others had helped create, but Erik could work up to those in time. In less than a week he’d thoroughly learned basic ironspeaking. By the time they got home, he was sure he’d be powerful enough to stop the Shadow on his own.

“We should leave,” Erik said the next morning. “I can’t stand thinking of what the Shadow is doing to Bjarheim.”

“You’ve still got too much to learn,” Djalgand said. “There’s hundreds of patterns I haven’t taught you yet.”

“I know enough. Besides, you should come with us! The more strength we have, the better we can fight the Shadow.”

Djalgand’s face fell. “I… I can’t go back. I can’t face Bjarheim.” His earlier anger and bitterness had faded. Now there was melancholy, and… fear, Erik supposed. What was he afraid of? If Djalgand helped them free Bjarheim, wouldn’t they revere him as a savior?

“Then come with us some of the way. At least until we get back to the Brandrinn’s forest.”

Djalgand shook his head. “No. You go. You’ll figure out the rest on your own. If you… if you save the city, send for me.”

Erik was pained by this, and wanted to insist, but Finnar laid a hand on Erik’s shoulder. “He’s got his reasons, lad. Let’s be off.”

They had enough provisions left to reach more settled lands, if they were careful. Even Finnar, big as he was, had shed some pounds on the journey. His cheeks had sunk in a little. It made Finnar look old. Erik didn’t like it.

Erik, Aiar, Ollemar, and Djalgand wove and re-wove shields for every member of their party: one large shield, affixed to each person’s back, to prevent attacks from the rear; and a smaller one tied to the right arm, that could be—Erik hoped—used to block the Shadow’s attacks. Erik wanted to encase everyone in shields, head to toe on all sides, but the bright threads were too hard to see through. Only Kari and Finnar got shields protecting their faces, while everyone else settled for shields around their torsos and legs.

Djalgand took Erik’s hand and clapped him on the arm. “You be careful. Practice the Song of Seeing every day, like I said. And try new melodies. Slowly, softly, so you don’t hurt yourself. You may be strong, but take it from me. It’ll be years before you really understand how little you know.”

Erik thought Djalgand was exaggerating, but he nodded agreeably anyway. Erik hadn’t learned the melodies that would let him open and close the stone walls, so Djalgand sang them open for Erik and his friends.

The enormous golden ward still arced up into the sky overhead, but Erik could now see the whorling threads that constituted it. He sang quietly, pushing them away, so that they could no longer entice him. They made it out of the base of the Styggen without incident, and began the long trek back south.

Kari walked beside Erik, holding his hand much of the time. He could see, between her shields, her loose auburn curls poking out from under her hood. “Do y’think the Shadow is expecting us?” she asked as they trudged through the snow.

“I hope not, but I’m not that daft,” Erik said. “We’re going to have to fight.”

“I’ll do whatever I can. Protect you,” she said. “The Shadow won’t get close, I promise.”

No one said anything about the fact that, each night when they settled down to sleep, Erik and Kari lay piled together under their furs. Erik knew about the things that grown men and women did at night, but that still seemed far away. And, somehow, scarier than the prospect of fighting the Shadow, which might kill them all.

Still, Kari let him kiss her a few times before they closed their eyes and fell asleep. If they lost the battle, he’d miss Bjarheim, he’d sorely miss his Da, and he’d even miss Aiar and Ollemar—but he realized, startlingly, that he’d miss Kari most of all.

The snowy tundra gave way to grasses and woods again. Erik practiced his magic incessantly, weaving and re-weaving his shields over and over as they walked. He alternated this with spinning the threads into tiny, radiant projectiles, of the sort Aiar and Ollemar had made, but bound with ironsong as he’d done with the new shields. Come the battle, he was going to need to be able to wield his magic as fast as possible.

He remembered how in the forest he’d merely been an energy source for Aiar and the Brandrinn to use. Now he could touch the methar and the Seed in his mind with ease. And whenever he so much as murmured the Song of Seeing, the golden threads appeared, pervading everything. It still took longer to weave a shield by himself than if Aiar and Ollemar helped, but he gained speed by the day.

How was it possible that he had so much power? A lad of barely fourteen, that’s all he was. All he felt like. Weren’t heroes supposed to be grand and bold and sure of themselves? The closer they drew to Bjarheim, the less certain he felt.

So he practiced, and sang, and wove. He created a shield and left it standing against a tree, then wove a missile from all three magics. When it slammed into the shield, Erik heard an ear-piercing shriek, and saw that the threads of the shield had been jarred loose. So, a shield of three magics was vulnerable to an attack by all three magics.

But the Shadow didn’t have these magics, did it? The Shadow had some corrupted mimicry of magic. Powerful, to be sure. Would his shields hold, when the time came?

Erik tried not to worry about this, with little success. They passed within a day’s walk of the village where they’d left the rest of the Bjarheimers. Erik wanted to visit them and make sure they were all still well, but there was no time to lose. He thought he could sense something off to the south. Or maybe those were just his fears. They were only a couple of days from Bjarheim now. The Shadow would be upon them all too soon.

They’d refilled their packs with dried fruits and nuts and salted venison purchased from farms and trading posts along the way. Erik longed for fresh bread and nice hot meal. And apple tarts. Tons of apple tarts.

They broke for dinner as the sun set. “Bjarheim will be on the horizon some time tomorrow,” Finnar said. “Then we’ll see what we’re up against.”

Aiar sat with them, but ate nothing. He was staring off into the gathering dusk. “Are you okay?” Erik asked.

“Don’t bother me,” the fae said, and continued staring silently. Erik sighed and ignored him. Aiar had been growing more and more irritable the closer they got to Bjarheim.

Ollemar spoke next. “I hesitate to ask, but… what plan of attack have we against the Shadow? If it’s enveloping the whole city, as you say, then I don’t know how our magic will defeat it. As well hurl a pebble against an oak.”

“I don’t know,” Erik said. “Maybe we can just make the biggest magical arrow we can, and that’ll do… something.”

“Bjarheim’s got open fields on all sides,” Kari pointed out. “There’s no cover. If you attack, and it fails, then what? Stand around figuring what to do while the Shadow strikes at us?”

“It’s not as if we have much experience fighting the Shadow,” Ollemar said. “No one had even seen it in a lifetime before this.”

“In a short human lifetime,” Aiar said abruptly. “I remember it.”

“What?” Finnar demanded. “Why didn’t you bring this up earlier?”

The fae ignored him. “Erik, do you see that?” he asked, pointing south into the darkness.

Erik looked, but there was nothing obvious. “What?”

“That violet glow. On the horizon. It’s a thin line, and it’s interrupted by those trees, but it’s there, if only you focus.” He waited, staring at Erik.

Erik squinted, wondering if maybe his eyes had to adjust. He got up and walked a little ways from the fire, trying to peer into the night. After a minute, he shrugged and turned back. Aiar had somehow silently crept up behind him, making him jump. “Cut that out! How can someone so big be so damned sneaky?”

“I used magic to muffle my footfalls, you nitwit.” Aiar said it with some affection, not the hostility he had initially presented to Erik. If nothing else, this whole adventure had given Erik a new—well, “friend” wasn’t exactly the right word. “Do you see it?”

Erik shook his head. “No. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. For once it’s not your fault. There’s a faint glow of fae magic on the horizon there. At this range I can barely sense it, but I’ve had centuries of practice. It’s Bjarheim.”

Kari joined them. “If you can sense fae magic there… that’s good, right?”

“Potentially. The feel of it is uncorrupted, so I think my kin are still below ground, holding out against the Shadow. I doubt they’ll be of much use to us, but at least they’re still alive.” He frowned. “But the glow is weak. Very weak. The few times I’ve travelled out of Bjarheim, I could see a glow as bright as the full moon from this far away.”

“I’m sure this is important, but you said you remember the Shadow,” Ollemar said. He’d walked up silently behind them, as usual. “Shouldn’t you have mentioned this before?”

“Frankly, I never thought we’d make it this far. Anyway, I didn’t fight the Shadow. Another elder was in command then, while I was deep within the earth, teaching. I wasn’t even aware the Shadow had come and been beaten back until I resurfaced, more than a year later.”

“So you don’t know anything useful?” Kari asked, disbelieving.

“I know what the elders told me. The fae elders, the ironspeaker council, and the priests of the Order came together to fight the Shadow. It was really only we fae and the ironspeakers who did the work. The Order’s magic is actually the same as the magic you woodsmen use.” Aiar eyed Ollemar. “They are surrounded by life—the people of Bjarheim—but less of it than the woodsmen in the forest. Their grasp of the magic is weak, and so the priests’ teachings encompass only observation and sensation, not manipulation. They can weakly see their magic, but they cannot really do anything with it. A true waste of potential.” He snorted. “The elders told me that the priests helped observe where the Shadow would strike, the ironspeakers sang the defenses, and the fae wove the attack. It was fundamentally a routine operation, no different than all the other times the Shadow has come.”

Erik felt cold inside. “But this time the Shadow had someone inside the city.”

“Yes, your dear friend Remy. Whatever he did, he was able to suppress all warning that the Shadow was on its way, until it was too late.” Aiar looked out at the horizon again. “The last time, there were a dozen priests, thirty ironspeakers, and seventy-three fae defending Bjarheim. Now we have one fae, one woodsman, and one half-trained boy.”

“Who can use all three kinds of magic,” Erik retorted. “That’s worth something!”

“Let us fervently hope so,” Aiar said. “Otherwise, Bjarheim is doomed.”

Erik couldn’t fall asleep. He tossed and turned under his blanket, staring up at the stars above, wondering if at any moment they might become obscured by a creeping darkness, the same as they had when the Shadow came to Bjarheim.

At some point he dozed off, because suddenly it was dawn and he felt groggy. He hadn’t dreamed. Just as well. He didn’t need the distraction.

They ate breakfast and broke camp, and were just about to depart when a cold, bitter wind rose from the south. Unexpected breezes weren’t uncommon on the plains around Bjarheim, but this one had a sour tang to it. “What’s that smell?” Erik said.

Ollemar had already noticed it, and lifted his nose to the wind, sniffing. Aiar glanced curiously to the south. There was enough light to see a thin, dark haze on the horizon. “I’m not sure,” the fae said. “Let’s be on our guard.” Erik glanced around to make sure that everyone’s shields were still intact.

Finnar gathered up the last bits of his pack. “Erik stays in the center,” he said. Finnar put himself and Aiar just ahead of Erik, on either side of him, and Kari and Ollemar behind. Erik didn’t feel like he needed that much protection, but everyone else kept insisting how important he was, and he got tired of arguing about it.

They marched south. The sour smell grew stronger as the sun climbed. The copses of spruce and pine grew less frequent, until the horizon before them stretched great and wide.

And at last, as the sun reached its zenith, the gray haze on the horizon gave way to a black line, growing thicker as they trudged along.

The Shadow sat astride Bjarheim, and all Erik’s fears sat with it.