24 November, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XXII - Conclusion

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik waited for a minute. “Just what?”

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

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

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

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

Erik never really got used to the eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


03 November, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XXI

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough light would banish any shadow.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had weakened it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He held his hand out before him.

The infinite sun and the eternal darkness collided.