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.


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