Tag: ghost light

3.30 – Rite of Passing

The only difference Einarr could see in the barrow cave this morning from when they had left was the lack of shades hovering ominously between himself and the Allthane’s would-be barrow. “Where do you want us?”

Reki strode deeper into the cave without looking back? “You? With me. The rest of you should guard the entryway to the room with the ship for now.”

“Against things coming out or things getting in?” Irding sounded sheepish, but it was a good question.

“Yes. And remember you’re basically on your own against anything that does try to stop me. We’ve no guarantee all of the revenants fell last night.”

Nervous chuckling came from behind Einarr before Troa answered for the group. “Understood.”

Reki may have nodded in response. “Now. Einarr. As I understand it, my predecessor was your stepmother? You were involved in her funeral?”

“Mm.”

“Good. I need you to lash a raft and find the Allthane’s remains. There should be bones, at least. Then get a few things from the old barrow to go down with him.”

“Ah… of course. And you need me to do all of this…”

“You have an hour.”

Einarr frowned. He turned around to face the others in the group. “Irding, Troa. Sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to handle the raft. Jorir and I will come help if we locate everything else we need in time.”

The three he named looked rather more pleased than offended to be taken off guard duty when the most likely opponent would be insubstantial. The rest of the team took their positions in the entryway, to a man their mouths set in a grim line. Einarr had no desire to fight the shades again, solid forms or not, so he could hardly blame them. “The rest of you… good luck. We’re counting on you.”

Even with the help of his three friends, Einarr passed a tense hour searching the cave for the Allthane’s remains. The grave ship, piled high with gold, contained no bones. Neither did the floor around it. Finally, though, his search carried him over to where the ghostly feast had been set up. Where before there had been nothing, it seemed here were the bones of every man who had fallen to the cannibals.

“How does one tell the bones of a king from the bones of a sailor?” Einarr muttered as he lifted another skull. Handling them sent shivers up and down his spine, and he found himself wanting to wipe his hands every time he rejected one.

“Is it too much to ask that they leave his crown on his pate?” Jorir’s grumblings were of a kind with Einarr’s own.

Einarr growled. “Jorir, I’ll get this, you go pick out some fitting grave goods for the revenant of a thane.”

“You sure?”

“No. But the Oracle seemed to think highly of my perception… maybe that will help? All else fails, we pile the raft high with skulls.”

“As plans go, not the worst I’ve heard.”

“Mm. Go. At least one of us can get away from the charnel miasma.”

Jorir stopped mid-step. “Miasma?”

“Haven’t you felt it?”

“Nay. Just the usual darkness of an old battlefield. …Methinks your superior vision is serving you well already, milord. Find the source of the miasma -”

“And find the body of the Allthane.”

***

Einarr and Reki stood on the shore of the deep water pool that dominated the main cavern, the others arrayed around them to bear witness. At every man’s feet was a torch, and in every man’s hand an arrow, its head wrapped in oil-soaked cloth. Ahead of them floated a crude raft patched together out of boards cut from the Allthane’s rotting grave ship. Some of the ends were already charred, from the abortive funeral three centuries earlier.

The song Reki sang over the ancient royal bones was not what she had sung for the sailors who fell against the Valkyrie, sending them on to Valhalla. Nor did it bear any resemblance to the song Runa had sung at Astrid’s funeral. No. This song was one Einarr had rarely heard, for it was the song of those who were destined for Hel’s dank domain. There was no joy in it – not for a peasant, and less for a fallen king. Little wonder the Allthane had resisted.

A faint green glow arose from the center of the raft, reflecting off the gold Jorir had so carefully selected.

Einarr’s shoulders tensed. He nocked his arrow but did not yet touch it to the torch at his feet. Other witnesses stirred around him. Are we too late? Reki had said by mid-morning, but it was impossible to get a sense of time down here.

The tempo of the Song remained steady, either because it must or because Reki did not see. Einarr swallowed. The cue was soon. With luck, it would be soon enough.

A pair of burning green embers formed in the air above the raft. Then, above them, a ghostly crown faded into existence, less substantial than the fog that had hemmed Einarr’s group in on the beach.

There was the first cue in the music. All around him, arrows blazed to life. Einarr, too, lit his arrow. The crackle of fire was soon followed by the stretching sound of drawing bows.

The outline of a face came into being, now, below the crown and around the eyes. It was the Allthane, not as he imagined himself to be but as he had appeared after Einarr shattered the illusion of the feast. The hair on Einarr’s arms stood on end.

A clawed, ghostly hand stretched out towards the observers.

The song shifted, now, and the minor key grew strident.

Einarr loosed. The whistling of arrows filled the cavern. The first of them – Einarr’s own arrow, he thought – pierced the half-formed face of the Allthane’s shade and the ghost dissipated. Even as the arrow sank beneath the ocean with a plunk this was oddly satisfying. The corners of Einarr’s mouth pulled up into a grim smile as the planks of the raft caught and the gold once again looked like gold.


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3.24 – Unification

“Once upon a time, I too was a young man,” the Allthane began. “Strong of thigh and quick of wit, I was a thorn in the side of our chieftain. Though all knew it, none dared admit that the Chieftan I was bound to serve, as my father before me, had grown weak and stingy with age. He also had no heir, and the loss of his sons is what many blamed for his temperament. I, young upstart that I was, thought it wrong that our clan should be forced to labor under such a chieftain until the end of his days when the rulership should pass to another.

“Yes, my unification of the clans began with a challenge to a man barely acknowledged as a Jarl. Hardly an auspicious beginning, was it not? And yet.

“This Jarl, though he had no reason to, accepted my challenge, and did not even appoint a shield-bearer for the fight. I sometimes wonder, even now, if he was seeking death. If that is what he sought, well, I fear I was the one to give it to him. The duel was rather one-sided, even with all of the handicaps given to one challenging the chieftain.

“After that, it was generally agreed among the other men of the clan that the one with the temerity to stand up to the old chieftain should become in fact the new leader. Why none of them had done so before, I never learned. Never cared to learn, for in accomplishing my goal I had also gathered for myself a loyal following.

“Our ships were yet in good stead, and it being still early in fall at the time, I sent a boat out in search of those which had not yet returned, to inform them of the good news and instruct them to return home and swear fealty. …That boat never returned.” The Allthane looked down for a long moment before finally setting his goblet on the arm of his throne.

“Those who were still at sea, or at least some of them, had remained loyal to the old chieftan… or had merely taken this as an opportunity to cut themselves loose. At any rate, it was not something I was capable of letting stand. They had their winter in whatever port they happened to find, for none of them returned home that fall, and in the spring I led the rest of our ships in search of the turncoats.

“The first set I found sheltering under the banner of the Atlanings. For generations our two clans had feuded, and so there was no cause to hesitate. We warred with the Atlanings for a month, and we crushed them. Their thane bent his knee and swore fealty to me.”

Einarr sat staring at the Allthane, afraid that if his focus wavered he would be lulled into sleep by the tale. Some among the shades and skeletons were already falling asleep where they sat. Evidently not even the Allthane could be excused from a long story, badly told, in this hall. He went on in that vein for some time: Einarr tuned him out after the third conquest, told exactly as dryly as the first. If nothing else, this explained the desire of the unnamed shade to skip over this portion of history.

After a time, how long he truly had no idea, Jorir stomped on his toe to keep him from nodding off. He gave the dwarf a grateful nod. From the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Tyr blinking rapidly and elbowed him in the ribs. The older man coughed and nodded in turn. Finally it seemed as though the Allthane was wrapping up his tale.

“And thus it was,” he droned, “that I was granted the title of King of the North and crowned Allthane.” He took a drink from the goblet sitting on the arm of his chair, blinking at the mostly drowsing audience.

Before the Allthane could grow angry with anyone and spoil the Vidofning’s chances of freedom, Einarr stepped forward off of the bench… stone? He had been leaning against with a slow clap. “My lord.”

When the Allthane turned his wrathful eyes on Einarr, Einarr could now see the shade beneath the illusion even there. Flesh clung to the bones of his face with not an ounce of meat beneath, and instead of eyes Einarr thought he saw burning fire. “Have you come to mock me, then?”

“Nay, my lord, but to bury you.” He stepped forward slowly and lowered his hands. “For three hundred years you and your men have endured this torture, and for three hundred years you have added to your number those unlucky enough to wash aground here on the same isle you wrecked on. Has this not gone on long enough?”

“It’s no use.” The Allthane’s voice was oddly wet here. Had he still been human in the slightest, Einarr would have thought he struggled not to weep. “’Twas the wreck that killed me, sure, and many of my best men… but the pile of gold you witnessed earlier was my burial mound, assembled by those who remained of the crew. And yet, here we are, with only this half-remembered feast to console us. Begone, you, and trouble us no further. Take your crew and leave this place. Leave this island, or come the rising of the moon we shall come for you as we have come for so many others.”

The golden brightness faded, and before the five living men stood uncounted shades and skeletons, each of which glowed with faint ghostlight.

Einarr did not immediately turn to go, although he motioned his companions to head back towards the others. “If you have received the proper funeral rites, what binds you to this place?”

The remains of the Allthane shook his bony head, lank hair brushing back and forth against his shoulders, and laughter echoed from his chest. “Why? Would you offer to take on tasks left three centuries undone?”

“He might,” Jorir said. Of the four, he had stubbornly remained. “The Oracle named him Cursebreaker.”

If a corpse could seem surprised, the Allthane did. “Well. Had I tasks which required doing before I could rest, perhaps I would give them to you. But that is not what binds us here.”

Einarr spread his hands. “What, then?”

“Cannibalism.”

Einarr felt as though he had been struck by the stone door above. “What did you say?”


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3.17 – Underground

The maw of the cave seemed to yawn behind them as they were pressed ever back. It offered an opportunity, though: he could see no ghost light from within its dubious shelter. They could make a stand there…

…Although it seemed they would quickly do so with steel rather than flame. His flaming brand was nearly reduced to a glowing stick, as were many others from the cluster of Vidofnings. Jorir must have lost his secondary flame some time ago, and now the fire of the “fresh” one burned near his fingers.

Some of the others had already switched to steel, and bore the marks of it in sunken faces and wide eyes. Einarr was both amazed and grateful that they still had everyone… but the vengeful spirits who had them nearly surrounded would not be satisfied so easily.

Worse, they had all been fighting for hours. Even Erik and Jorir must be starting to tire. The mouth of the cave was not so wide that it would take all of them to cover it.

Einarr stepped around, using one lip of the cave mouth to protect his shoulder. It was far from ideal, but it was all he had. “Fall in beside me!”

They did, with Tyr and Boti unabashedly falling into the secondary line for a breather. Three others, essentially at random, were also shoved behind the main line. It would be their turn again soon enough.

It seemed merely getting them to the cave, with the barrow hidden down below, was not the spirits’ sole objective. Still they drove the men back, step by step, closer to the broken slab of stone they had left behind them.

Only the broken slab seemed to be missing, as they drew closer. Rather than cracked rock, in the dim glow of the ghost light and their failing weapons, he saw only an abyss of blackness. Dread clawed at his gut, but they were powerless to stop the spirits drive deeper into the cave.

That was when a blast of ether slammed into him from the apparently solid wall to his right.

***

Einarr awoke some time later not to the expected darkness of the cavern below, or even to the filtered daylight of the cave above, but to the golden glow of a grand feast. He sat up and groaned, lifting a hand to his head to feel for damage. The side of his face was tender, but he felt nothing sticky like blood.

The rest of his team was slowly coming to, as well. None of them seemed unduly harmed by the… tumble, if he had to guess, down the steep passageway, and so Einarr turned his attention to the strange scene playing out in the middle of the cavern, where earlier he would have sworn was not just water but deep water.

A feast table now dominated the room, set all in gold that seemed to glow from within. On it were all sorts of tempting foods, from suckling pig to brilliantly shining apples to a whole walrus that seemed to take up half the table by itself, and men of the north – clan Heireidung, unless he was mistaken – gathered around to partake in the bounty.

The man at the head of the table was dressed more richly than any clan chief Einarr had heard of, all in red sable and dark blue shot through with thread of gold. He was big – easily as big a man as Erik, with the same pale blond hair of his father and grandfather. The man sat, a massive jeweled goblet in hand, watching the merriment of his men but not joining in it. He appeared troubled by something… morose… The sorrow of the grave?

It was the Allthane’s barrow we stumbled across this morning, and casually spoke of looting. Einarr wanted to kick himself for his own stupidity – stupidity that had nearly gotten him and his men killed. Cautiously he rose from the damp stone beneath him.

His boots were dry. How long had they been out? Or was it merely a part of the apparition before him? Einarr looked down, not expecting to see anything by the light of the spectral feast before them but seeing anyway. He was not wearing his ordinary sea boots: these were dress boots, made of rabbit skin and died as crimson as the Allthane’s tunic. His trousers, too, were not his ordinary sea wear, nor was his tunic. He was dressed for a feast – for the feast set out ahead of them.

The others, too, were now rising, and as they stood they, too were transformed into celebrants. Confusion mixed with delight on many of their faces, and became calm certainty on the wisest among them.

Tyr spoke the warning first. “You realize this is a trap, right?”

“Undoubtedly,” Einarr answered. “But I’m not sure it’s one we can avoid at this point. We’ve been trapped since the fog fell: maybe this will be our way out?”

“Eat and drink nothing of that table.” Jorir somehow sounded even more grim than Tyr. “If you get swept up in the feast, you’re trapped.”

“Seen this before, have you?”

“Not personally, but the stories leave an impression.”

Einarr pursed his lips. “If that’s the case, I don’t want anyone over there who doesn’t have to be. Irding, Boti, you keep an ear open. Sooner or later Father will send a search party.” Here he hesitated. He wanted to tell Erik to stay behind as well, as the man was nothing if not impetuous, but…

Jorir took the decision from him, in a way the man was sure not to object to. “Erik, will ye watch our backs? If it looks like one o’ us is starting ta lose it, we’ll need someone to snap us out of the enchantment.”

Erik smirked: he knew exactly why this was being asked of him and not, for example, the level-headed Tyr. “Yes, I’ll stay back. Come now: I like a feast as well as the next man, but you know what this one lacks?”

“What?”

“The smell of meat and ale. Look at that spread – pretty as a picture. And just as lifeless. I’m good.”

Einarr nodded. “Thanks, Erik. What about you, Tyr?”

“You’re about to go engage a dead man in a battle of wits. I’m coming.”


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3.16 – Ghostly Assault

“Make ready for company, men!” Einarr rose, burning brand in hand, and turned his back to the blaze. Nothing seemed to have materialized from the ghost light yet, but he would not be caught unawares when and if it did.

The others in his team were looking about, trying to spot whatever it was that had set Einarr off. Slowly – more slowly than he would have liked, some of them seemed to see it and reached towards the edge of the fire in search of brands they, too, could wield against the insubstantial.

Erik, burning wood in hand, circled the bonfire to flank his son, his eyes fixed on the glowing green fog. “What’s going on here?”

“Not sure. But I saw that same light when we went to investigate the freeboaters’ ship. From the bodies on deck.”

Tyr growled as he took up a position near Jorir. “Shoulda said so then.”

“Would you have?”

“Yes. …But I suppose you’re still young enough you’ve not yet learned to trust the evidence of your eyes.”

Einarr harrumphed.

“But if these spirits are aiming to end us tonight, these flaming sticks won’t help us much more than our steel. Keep the fire high, and don’t let them drive you away from it if there’s any other choice.”

“At the same time, I doubt the spirits will care very much if we burn to death.” Einarr’s voice was grim. “Watch yourselves, men, and stick together.”

The mist ahead of them swirled and billowed like smoke, although there was no wind to stir it. Forms began to take shape in the fog, and they billowed upward until they appeared like sickly green rods ahead of the gathered Vidofnings. Einarr crouched and held his brand as though it were a sword.

As he watched, the spectral mist coalesced into skeletal figures, each armed with sword or axe made of the same ether as their bodies. He lost count of the number of figures forming out of the mist – they seemed innumerable.

The Vidofnings were outnumbered. Possibly outmatched, as well. Einarr swallowed hard. There had to be a way through this, though. One that didn’t end with them either drained of life or burned to death. The spectral warriors advanced in silence and Einarr adjusted the grip on the brand that now felt utterly inadequate to the task at hand.

There was no more time to worry about his men: the ghostly figures were in striking distance, now. A bony arm raised a sword overhead to strike at Einarr, leaving his ribs exposed: Einarr jabbed forward with the burning brand. The mist withdrew from the fire, but the skeleton did not seem to care. The blade fell now, headed for Einarr’s head, and he danced back half a step and to the right. His arm felt cold where the ghost blade had brushed near it.

Now what? If even fire did not faze these spirits, was all lost?

Jorir swept his fiery club through the forearms of the one that came for him, and its arms and axe dissipated. The spirit seemed not to care about the loss of its arms: it kept approaching at the same slow, steady pace as before.

Even still, there had been an effect. Einarr slashed across the breast of the same spirit he had narrowly avoided moments before. Its head and shoulders seemed to float away, dissipating as they went, and now it was half of a ghost that kept moving towards him.

He gritted his teeth and swiped again, the fire describing a red-gold arc across the sickly green of the ghost light. This time he cut at the knees, and the feet and shins fell away so that it was only a torso coming for him. This, perhaps, he could do something about… at least for a while.

“Slash, men, don’t stab!”

Einarr had no idea how long this went on for, but for every spirit they dissipated in this way it seemed as though two more took their place. Eventually, after long enough that Einarr was thoroughly winded, he noticed that the flame was beginning to flicker… and that it was far closer to his hand than he was comfortable with.

“Jorir, cover me!” The dwarf was not in much better shape than he was, but all he needed was a moment. When he heard Jorir’s defiant roar, hopefully in answer, he hurled the flickering brand end-over-end through their enemies. He did not see how many of them were damaged by the projectile, for he had already turned to seek a new one from the bonfire that still burned brightly behind him.

Fresh stick in hand, Einarr turned back to the fight. Whoever’s tending the fire deserves an extra share.

Jorir whipped his flickering brand wildly, trying to cover both his own body and the hole Einarr had left behind.

“Your turn!” Einarr shouted as he lunged back into the line, hoping he wouldn’t have to cover both his liege man and Irding on his other side.

Jorir, with his blacksmith’s hands, kept a hold of his old weapon even as he, too, turned to take hold of a fresh one. The spirits, however, seemed to be prepared this time. No sooner had the dwarf turned his back than three of them surged into the gap he had left.

Einarr whipped his weapon through the space where they stood, but it took several strokes to fully dissipate one of them. He panted, knowing he could not keep up even as Tyr, on the other side of Jorir, turned to aid.

It was no use. The spirits had an in, and now it was all Einarr could do to keep Jorir from being struck in the back. He roared. You will not burn my liege man!

The dwarf was quick, thank the gods, and whirled back into the fight only a moment later… but that moment was still too long. Einarr could already feel himself being forced away from the fire, not by the mysterious forces that had tried to drown him in the sea earlier that day but by the relentless onslaught of ghosts.

“Stick together, men! Don’t let them separate us!”

One by one, the Vidofnings were forced to choose between stepping into the fire fighting their way across to join the cluster around their Captain’s son.

Slowly, relentlessly, they were driven away from the safety of their bonfire and into the treacherous, freezing bog behind them. The ghost light surrounded them, now, even as more specters emerged from it.

Einarr did not know where they’d been driven until a deep black hole opened in the wall of ghost light. They were back at the cave they had only narrowly escaped that afternoon.


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3.15 – Lost in the Mist

Once again they stood before the hasty flag Jorir had constructed to mark their find. Even in the fog, Einarr could see the frosty puffs of his breath.

“This may have been a terrible idea.” They were the words on everyone’s mind, he was sure.

“So, what next?” Jorir asked the practical question. “I don’t intend to just stand around here and freeze.”

“No. No, you’re right. We can’t just stand around doing nothing. Do we try going the opposite direction, or do we try cutting across the bog? Men?”

“Awfully cheap enchantment if we can get out of it just by turning around,” grumbled Irding.”

“Agreed, although sometimes the simplest tricks are the most effective.”

“I don’t think it will be that simple, either.” Tyr shook his head. “On the other hand, this is a lot to portage through that swamp. It might be worth trying. And if night falls, we have plenty of firewood handy.”

“Furthermore,” Troa ventured. “Right now, we’re walking in circles on a beach, so we know it’s not natural. You know what’s easy to do in a swamp, even without interference?”

“Walking in circles. Right. Well, let’s give this one more try, heading east this time. If it gets dark, or much colder, we’ll light a fire here.”

As soon as they tried to turn east, it was as though the air itself resisted them. Einarr tried to resist the temptation to hope that meant the easy solution would save them.

Before long it became clear that was not the only thing they had to resist. The further east they pushed, the harder it was to avoid veering into either the marsh, on the one hand, or the sea on the other. And yet, after something approaching another hour, they once again found themselves face to face with the flag. A chorus of groans rose from Einarr’s team.

“Well, we knew it wouldn’t be that easy, I suppose.” He sighed. This meant their next best option involved porting their find through the swamp behind them. Assuming the distortion wouldn’t take hold there, too, as it might. But, there was something else amiss.

Einarr furrowed his brow. They had been walking for, as a guess, three hours now. And it had been around noon when they ventured out in search of their missing hunters. Which meant the daylight should have faded into evening by now, if not night. And yet, the light had not changed since they emerged from the cave.

This time he did not bite off his curse. “Blast and damnation, I missed it. All right, men. We’ve been out here a long time already, between our search and rescue and trying to break free of this beach. Unless I miss my guess, we’re all feeling it by now, but there’s one more thing to do before we can call it a day.”

A series of grumbles followed, but Einarr was not deaf to the relief they hid.

“Everyone with an axe, we need wood for a bonfire. Everyone else, help me build a ring.”

***

Einarr had worried, for a time, if the damp wood cut from the hull of the ship would actually light – or if their kindling would, for that matter. It took several tries, but as night finally fell the stack caught. Now the ten men sat around the fire, large enough and hot enough that those on the other side were difficult to see, and dried their boots.

Boti had some small luck fishing while the rest prepared the fire, and so they were able to at least take the edge off their hunger. For his part, Einarr was unsatisfied, and he suspected that carried over, but there was little more they could have done about it.

One benefit of the darkness and the fire was to make it impossible to tell if the fog still clung to the beach like barnacles. Einarr found himself hoping someone among the crew would see their flame and come to the rescue when they did not return tonight. Hoping, in spite of the suspicion that any rescuers would quickly become as trapped as they themselves had.

Erik started to rumble a ribald shanty Einarr had heard a few times previous – most likely something the man had picked up when he was a freeboater, although it was hard to know for certain. Whatever magic the song might have had was aimed at inducing cheer – or at least that was the effect when an ordinary man sang it. Soon the rest of the team was joining in – either laughing and clapping along or, here and there, jumping in for a verse of their own.

Einarr smiled and let them. That he could not quite bring himself to revel didn’t mean they could not enjoy themselves. Probably for the best that he be the only one to chew over what they would do tomorrow.

He blinked and looked over his shoulder, away from the fire. He could have sworn he’d seen something, but when he looked directly there was nothing within the firelight. Einarr shrugged a shoulder uncomfortably and returned to his thoughts. If they could rig up some sort of hand cart in the morning, venturing across the marsh might be their best bet…

There it was again. Only now when he turned his head to look, he saw a sickly green mist rising from the brush line of the swamp. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, not wanting to believe what he saw.

As chance would have it, Irding sat to his right. Einarr tapped the man’s shoulder to get his attention and pointed behind them. When Irding looked back, he seemed confused.

Jorir, on Einarr’s left, noticed the exchange and glanced back as well. Only, his glance turned quickly into a horrified stare. “Ghost light.”

Now Einarr groaned, even as he lunged forward to steal a brand from out of the fire. “Make ready for company, men!”


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