Human culture had developed in a land of long winters and little daylight, and even when it found itself transported to a land of mild winters and sufficient daylight during the long servitude to the elves, it had not changed much. And so the story had kept its place of honor—how better to spend an evening of bitter cold than in rapt attention to some tale of better and probably warmer times?
A whole etiquette had grown around the act of sharing stories, and the aspirants had invoked one of its rules in asking him to go first. He was bound by politeness to come up with a story they could match, or even outdo by a bit. It was not an easy task. He was a full mage, and by its very nature that title meant that interesting things happened to him on a regular basis. He was a long time in thinking.
“Ah,” he said at length. “I have it. I was younger, then; younger than you are now, in fact. I was still living with my father…”
For as long as he could remember, he saw things other people didn’t. For almost as long he’d been lying about it, starting as soon as he saw that it wasn’t normal. His mother had been relieved. He remembered her saying to his father that she had enough to worry about, and the last thing she needed was a mad son.
“I already have six of them,” she had said, brows knitted together in an expression Eirik was all too familiar with. Looking back, he could hardly blame her. The last decade had seen the death of Svein III without an heir, a brief but bloody war with the dwarves, the fall of the old capital at Medlwyrmirholm, and most critically the discovery of just how bad magic was for the world. The human army, sapped of its strength by the dwarves and robbed of its mages by their habit of spectacularly and sometimes literally exploding when called upon in sufficient numbers, was reduced to fighting desperate holding actions against the hiisi tide, and Eirik’s brothers insisted on being there, either on the front lines with their father’s men, or a few miles away, herding frightened refugees northward toward safety.
And so Eirik found himself confined to his father’s estate; if the unthinkable happened and all his brothers were lost, someone would need to carry on when his father died. There was one room on the third floor with a window that faced the fjord, and Eirik would occasionally amuse himself by watching the sea churn, stirred to a frenzy by the wind. It was on one such day he first saw it. One moment he was staring thoughtfully out the window, and the next there was a figure beside him.
It was something straight from a sailor’s nightmares. Once, long ago, it had been a man. Flesh hung from it in tatters, ragged as though it had been sliced to pieces by a thousand tiny blades. Something slightly too thick to be water alone dripped from it and pooled at its feet. A length of thick rope was draped over its shoulders and wrapped twice around its neck, and all at once the stench of rot and the scent of seawater reached Eirik’s nose.
Eirik took a step backward, eyes wide, and stared as the thing’s head began to turn. He heard the sound of bone grinding on bone, and saw no more: he had spun away, and ran as fast as he could in the other direction. The rest of the day he jumped at every shadow and every movement he caught out of the corner of his eye. His mother looked on, worried, but what could he tell her?
He passed the night tossing and turning. He couldn’t close his eyes without seeing the thing. Eventually, though, exhaustion overtook him, and he fell into an uneasy sleep.
The next morning, he awoke suddenly, and has he sat bolt upright a single thought echoed in his mind: go back. See it again. He waited for it to fade, but rather than oblige him it grew in intensity until he could no longer resist. Dreading every step he took, he climbed to the third floor and returned to the window.
He passed the time staring out the window as usual and glancing apprehensively over his shoulders every so often. This time it was the scent he noticed first, same as before. He turned to face the apparition, tensed to run but standing his ground. He forced himself to examine it more closely, and saw that he had perhaps let his fright cloud his sight the day before.
The man—for surely it was, even if his skin was peeling and mottled, and his face a bit swollen, and even if he still smelled unmistakeably of death—leaned forward with a hungry look in his remaining eye.
The man opened his mouth, and there was a rattle. It sounded almost like words. He watched Eirik for a response, and when he saw only confusion he tried again. Eirik heard, “Remember me.”