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.


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