“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.”
“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.