The Long Retreat No. 9

Hrothgar Hrafnssen knew these woods, experience gleaned over a decade of logging the foothills the city nestled in. Here, away from the mountains, the best trees had been culled long ago, but the lodgepole pines still stood straight and tall. For more than thirty leagues, the forest stretched north, the the land growing more rugged along the way. Here, it was gentle, near enough to the mountains to undulate on the same scale. In a few leagues, it became a maze of steep-sided canyons, crisscrossed by fast-moving streams weaving their way toward the Syderskogflod, the river at the northern edge of the great wood.

They’d turned off the road as they passed into the forest, heading northwest until the trees and gathering darkness screened them from the cleared land before the city wall. Hrothgar judged they had gone far enough and turned toward the sound of running water. He chose his footing carefully, and saw that Alfhilde followed his lead. Good. The last thing he wanted was for some unseen dip or root to catch a foot and turn an ankle.

Alfhilde whispered, only just louder than the breeze through the branches overhead. “Where are we going?”

Hrothgar lifted his shoulder. The diviner had left more immediate questions unanswered, as well—all that lay between them and the Syderskogflod was trackless wilderness, but for a few lodges, widely spaced along the road north to the fort at Flodsvadgard, and a handful of logging camps. They had no supplies, no equipment, and no map. They had lived to escape the city, at least, but Hrothgar knew these woods. Their yawning, malevolent vastness had never felt so near at hand.

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The Long Retreat No. 8

For Alfhilde, the shriek of passing arrows sent long-dormant instincts singing through veins: stand and fight! She pushed them away for now. Jakob wailed, and she could not endanger him, and even were he far away and safe, she knew a losing fight when she saw one.

She stole a glance over her shoulder. Smoke rose over the city in pillars, lit in eerie reds and yellows by the fires feeding them. Against the darkening sky, she picked out another volley of arrows hurtling toward them. She nudged Hrothgar and picked up speed, but the arrows were falling short already, toward the diviner. Obligingly, he presented an easier target a few yards behind, slipping effortlessly out of the way whenever an arrow came too near.

Another few seconds, and they were out of bow shot. After a few seconds more, the diviner caught up to them. “Cut into the forest to the left when you reach it. When you come to the stream, follow it away from the city. I will go after the girl and find you later.” Alfhilde barely had time to blink before he was off, calling, “Sif!”

The girl had built up a lead of perhaps a hundred yards, and as the diviner chased her, it was clear he was tiring. Alfhilde might have outpaced him, were she not burdened with her makeshift shield and the hatchet in her hand. As they reached the edge of the wood, Jakob’s cries redoubled. She slowed to a fast walk, slipped the hatchet through her belt, then cradled his head in her hand and whispered softly to him. Hrothgar stepped into the lead, taking them off the road and into the wilderness.

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The Long Retreat No. 7

Sif sheltered behind the debris, heart hammering. She drew short little breaths, trying to keep quiet. A wall of sound crashed around her, drilling her ears into the sides of her skull. She grabbed at them, registering a look of concern on the woman’s face amidst the agony. After a few moments, it subsided, and she felt herself hauled to her feet by the arm. She blinked—the man with the sword had just shouted to run. That she could do. The monsters were running toward the man with the sword, and the way to the gate was clear. She shook off the woman’s hand and leaned into her first steps, already up to speed as she past the monsters’ tower. Rocks from atop the wall pattered down around her as she reached the gate, the big man and the woman a few steps behind. A moment later she was outside the walls. The road gave way to a dirt path. Littered with bundles of belongings cast aside as people had fled the city over the last two weeks, it ran straight through a field of shrubs and bushes until it reached the edge of the forest, five hundred yards away.

The man and woman shot through the gate behind her as the whisper of falling rubble grew to a roar. The gate swung closed, faster and faster. Just before it slammed shut, the man with the sword edged through. He caught up to them with long, loping strides. “Keep on the road until the forest!”

That had been Sif’s plan all along, and she settled into a pace she could keep up for a little longer. Something hissed past her ear, and a black-feathered arrow appeared in the ground ten paces in front of her. She let out a shriek and poured on the speed, running with terrified abandon.

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Commentary, The Long Retreat No. 7

We return to our regularly scheduled update, uh, schedule.

Here’s the tentative holiday schedule:
Now through November 21: regularly-scheduled updates.
Week of November 24-28: no updates.
December 2 through December 12: regularly-scheduled updates
December 12 – January 9: blog-only updates.

I’ll be working on some side writing projects and some coding projects over the Christmas vacation, so you can probably expect to see some fruit from that in the New Year. I’ll also have some book recommendations to tide you over, because I’m a nice guy.

Over the next few nights, my aim is to get far enough ahead on The Long Retreat so that I’m good through December 12. Now, to get back to writing.

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The Long Retreat No. 6

Falthejn dashed out of the alley, and in the space of a few moments, he and the others crouched in the shadow of the wall. Flattening himself against it, Falthejn watched the gate. He could see an ontling, facing away. He held his breath. If his divinations had been wrong—the ontling roared something in the foul language of its kind, then stepped forward and out of view.

The moment it did, Falthejn moved again. He slid in behind a mound of masonry, remnants of the gatehouse leaning against the wall. The evening breeze through the half-open gate carried a vile stench of gutters and sewers. In his bundle against his mother’s chest, Jakob stirred, but made no sound. Well that he was quiet, Falthejn thought. If he wasn’t—well, Falthejn wanted no part in any outcome in that direction.

The diviner motioned to the others, then pointed toward the ground. Stay here. Of the three of them, only Alfhilde nodded. Falthejn looked Sif and Hrothgar straight on and repeated the gesture. Reasonably assured by their expressions that they understood, he crept as far around the rubble as he could without being seen. The next few seconds filled his mind, as far as his focus could take him while his eyes were open. Nearly every potential path saw him spotted before—

He found his opening, the ontlig guards’ attention turned away for the tiniest of moments. He felt the familiar thrill as ontlig eyes turned back toward him, doomed to miss him entirely. A thunderclap from outside the wall echoed off the ruined city as he ducked behind a few hefty blocks standing by themselves in the middle of the plaza. A tingling in his teeth accompanied the sound. A magiker, then, and one pushing the weave to the edge of its strength.

No time to worry about it just yet. His fingers closed around a fist-size chunk of debris. He saw the future laid out before him, felt how his arm had to move, and let fly. The ontr spotted him as soon as he did, raised their axes, and charged. The rock hit high on the ruined gatehouse, and as it tumbled back down, more and more of the ruined stonework joined it.

“Run!” he shouted.

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Halloween-ish bonus content!

The following is a flash fiction piece I wrote last year for the ‘Creatures of the Night’-themed October edition of a now-defunct online magazine.

Moonlight shone between the clouds as they began to part, dropping their last few flurries upon the town below. The snowflakes drifted down to join a thick layer already blanketing the steep-roofed buildings, which huddled together inside a wooden palisade nestled into the side of a hill. Below, the river meandered past.

A dark shape flitted through the sky, blotting out the moon.

 

A man laid upon the bed in the corner of the room. Death had not taken him quietly. A twisted grimace marred his face, his back arched off the bed, and his hands clenched at the blanket. Two more men stepped inside. One wore a tabard with the crest of the local lord; the other wore furs and carried a staff. A chisel hung at his belt. “Here is the third, magiker. Ansgar Gylfirsson the weaver,” said the guard.

Arnar Rasmussen shook his head. “He was a dreamseer, a fortune teller. The aendesmagiker know of him. Knew. When was he killed?”

“The night after the second, who died two nights after the first.”

Rasmussen frowned. “I must think over the possibilities. You will find me at the lodge.”

 

Rasmussen looked into the generous tankard of ale before him. He raised it to the lodgekeeper in thanks.

His staff leaned against the table next to him, and he regarded the runes inscribed upon it as he thought. The dead bore all the marks of attack by spirits, but why? Neither moon was full. A dreamseer didn’t deal with spirits powerful enough to kill a man, even a sleeping man—a man at his weakest. No malevolent spirit which could take a life would limit itself to one a day.

Now, if Gylfirsson the weaver were a dreamweaver, Rasmussen thought, that was an idea with more promise. A dreamweaver could have delved into things beyond his ken. If he came across a nightmare spirit just a shade cleverer than the norm, it might have convinced him to make a deal. He could not have paid a dream-eater’s price. First, it came for those whose dreams he had rewritten. Once it had consumed them, filling their minds with unspeakable terrors, it turned back toward Gylfirsson.

If that was so, Rasmussen had less time than he thought. He took his staff and made for the door.

 

The still air had a crispness to it which might have been pleasant on another night. Tonight, Arnar Rasmussen could almost feel it crackling with magical energy. A dream-eater which had feasted upon the spirits of three living things was not far from becoming a danger to the waking and sleeping alike. It would be hunting tonight.

So would Rasmussen. He was an aendesmagiker, and spirits—the breath of the world—were his domain, whether it be harnessing them or destroying them. He stopped at the door to Ansgar Gylfirsson’s house, rapping on the door with the end of his staff. Nobody answered, so he pushed it open and went inside. With no lamps burning, it was pitch-dark, but Rasmussen saw by the spirit-light. He looked past their teeming multitudes and spotted his target: a black tendril, filling the room with the stench of terror. It wound around the bed and stretched toward the door, oozing out into the street. Rasmussen followed it.

It led him on a roundabout path through narrow streets, which ended at another house, larger than the last. The nightmare coiled around it. Rasmussen rattled the door in its frame with his staff. A few moments later, a tall man pulled it open.

Rasmussen barred the way out with his staff. “Gylfirsson the weaver. You knew he was a weaver of dreams?”

“I don’t know what—”

“Your lives are in grave danger.” Rasmussen glanced over his shoulder. “I am a magiker. Go inside now. Gather your family. Stay inside and stay awake. Don’t come out until I come in. Do you understand?”

“Yes—”

Rasmussen pulled the door closed and took his chisel from his belt, inscribing a row of runes—words of warding—into the wood. From behind him came a scream.

He turned, and the shade reached into his mind. It showed him itself made manifest—gnarled, vast and terrible, ancient beyond comprehension.

Rasmussen stepped back before the assault, head bowed. Seconds passed before he looked up, fire in his eyes, and laughed. The shade flinched. Rasmussen raised his staff, roared in defiance, and charged into battle.

 

These two fifty-word microfiction pieces were first seen in the same magazine. If you’re a long-time reader with a better memory than me, you’ll recall I posted a somewhat longer piece in the same vein as the latter in September, 2012.

“School in the morning. Sleep tight,” her mother chirped, turning off the lights and closing the door.

Silver moonlight, leaking between the curtains, replaced the lamp’s warm glow. On her windowsill, her dolls stood, throwing dancing jagged shadows against the bedroom wall. “Yes,” they said together, singsong. “Good night.”

The man sprawled on the ground, unconscious but stirring. Two groaning figures, their flesh rotting away, shambled around the corner and approached him. One crouched and sniffed the air over him.

“I daresay this man’s been attacked!” He straightened his tattered uniform and stood. “Constable Lurch, call the Inspector.”

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The Long Retreat No. 5

He retreated from the mouth of the alley, closed his eyes, and gathered his wit. The warp and weft of the world slackened and twisted, and suddenly he saw possibilities fanning out before him. Likely futures wound through the myriad like lightning in darkness, shifting as he bent his plan to yield to what he saw. He felt the fatigue creeping in at the edge of his perception, then saw the path he needed. Fine the timing was, but it would work. He let go his focus, and the weave snapped back with what seemed to be an audible twang.

He found himself breathing hard. He’d pushed well past his limit several other times, earlier in the day, and like now, he’d had no time for totems or rituals to ease his task. The others watched him, Sif fearful, Hrothgar reserved, Alfhilde almost eager. “Follow me closely,” Falthejn said. “Stop where I stop. When I tell you to stay, stay. When I tell you to run, run for the gate.” They nodded, and Falthejn peeked around the corner at the end of the alleyway. “Not yet,” he said, watching one of the sentries. “Now.”

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