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. ;)