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Eric saw him the moment they passed through the portcullis and entered the courtyard of castle Thrallen. He was taller than expected, nearly seven feet, but any semblance of stature ended there. The lich was beyond decayed, no more than a skeletal memory of a man. What flesh and tendon remained had blackened to a stony shell, unmoving bits of detritus that clung to every rune-marked bone like a disease. The magic etched across his body burned with a violet fire, a trickle of flame woven around and across every surface. Heavy robes clung to his shoulders, tattered remnants of a once nobleman’s lavish attire. The deerskin boots were burned and slashed, the soles long gone, revealed bone and inhuman talons. All that was left of his gloves were the leather wristlets, and a large ruby ring seated in gold adorned his right hand.

Aside from the surprise at finding Tragona out in the open, Eric hesitated when none of the goblins reacted. Even Griz approached the castle doors without alarm, as if nothing was untoward. A faint sphere of runes floated about the lich, their light muted by the morning sun. Eric wasn’t sure if he was hallucinating – could a robot trip on acid? – or the lich had made himself invisible with a spell.

But if I can see him, why can’t Griz? He realized he’d been standing still, studying the courtyard as goblins moved past. He began walking toward the center of the long dead topiary that rounded the yard, not directly for Tragona but close enough to reach him. Let’s see if this dude’s as strong as he is ballsy.

“Hold on,” Eric called out, and the assembled goblins halted before the entryway. “Before we go in,” he said and took the final step that brought him within grasping distance, “let’s make sure everyone –” Eric lunged for Tragona with a half laugh. “Got you, bitch!”

His hands met with an impenetrable shield of magic and a blast of forked energy that scorched his fingers with a noticeable jolt. Son of a bitch! The lich turned baleful eyes toward him. Eric saw the invisibility spell fall away in a dusting of light. That’s not all he saw, as he shook his hands from the pain. Goblins began to scatter in fear, though Bitters and the other generals stood fast. The cobble circle Tragona stood upon had a ward clawed into it, with runes that flared when Eric had touched the shield.

He actually wrote the spell into the stones, Eric thought for a brief moment. What a fucking moron!

Eric brought his foot down with all the strength he could muster and shattered both stones and spell. He grabbed Tragona by the neck with his right hand, spinal column in his left.

“Oh shit, son!” he taunted. “Didn’t see that coming, did you?”

Tragona had a hasty spell upon his lips, both bony hands crackling with dark power, as Eric charged for the iron spikes that curved about each window in decoration. He impaled the lich upon two hooks and pulled down with the scream of a frenzied soldier. Tragona’s body broke apart in a blast that scorched Eric’s chest and sent a dozen goblins flying back toward those cowering. Bones splintered and fell apart, their magic spent. The only piece still intact was the head, which continued to regard Eric with the same menacing stare.

“You are a fool,” Tragona said, “if you think you can destroy me –”

Eric crushed the skull in his fist.

“Well done, master,” Griz said, seeming more aghast than impressed by the situation. Perhaps he wondered, as well, why he’d been unable to see the undead mage.

“I know, right?” Eric said and wiped his hands clean in a cloud of lich dust. “Fucker would’ve probably never shut up. You,” he said and pointed to a small group of goblins picking themselves up, “gather all the pieces, and separate them into four piles. The rest of you, start searching this entire place, top to bottom, for any kind of containers. Bring them all here.”

Goblins scurried to do as they were bid. The generals stayed to oversee handling of the lich’s remains.

“You think he’ll have it hidden here, master?” Griz asked. “Seems brazen, even for this one,” he added and kicked a broken femur.

Eric looked up at the castle. “Might be a long shot. Just seems someone who would wait for us like that, even invisible, is stupid enough to hide his phylactery where he lives.”

Bel sneezed a puff of bone dust. “A fillo…?”

“Don’t strain anything,” Eric said and laughed. “A phylactery. It’s where liches keep their spirit. Destroying it’s the only way to truly kill him, otherwise he’ll just heal back together.”

“Which is why,” Griz added, indicating to the goblins at work, “we want to keep these piles far away from each other. At least, for now.”

“You should start looking around,” Eric suggested to the shaman, “figure out what it’s going to take to fortify and hold this place. Who were you worried about attacking it?”

“Lord Sebran, master,” Griz replied, and Bel spat at the sound of his name.

“Shouldn’t you be searching with the others?” Eric asked, his gaze falling upon the idle generals. The way they looked to one another, he began to wonder if they all thought their shared talk by the fire had made them friends. “Don’t make me ask twice.”

Griz continued, “His lands, Cledford, are small by comparison to other lords in Faradim, but he does command a sizeable army.”

Eric watched the five generals disappear into the castle, hoping he’d made his point. “Why would the guy with the smallest lands have a big army?”

“Because of this.” Griz toed a pile of lich debris. The pieces looked to be drawing closer and mending together. “King Raynver at Westorval has allotted the lord extra soldiers to keep the lich at bay.”

“Why didn’t they just kill it?”

Four goblins exited the castle, dragging a human girl in tow. Her dress was dirtied and torn, her hair slick with sweat and skin the pallor of sickness. Eric guessed her to be nine or ten, though malnourishment made it difficult to tell.

She looked like she was dying.

“I suspect,” Griz replied, “they would have very much liked to.”

More goblins followed after, ooohing and aaahing over the girl, touching her skin and licking their lips as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. Eric quieted them with a glare, almost growled his discontent.

She’s a helpless girl, not a fucking hot pocket!

“Put her down and leave,” Eric demanded. He knelt so he could study her closer. Something was off about her essence, like it was damaged or intermingled with something else. “It’s alright, no one’s going to hurt you. I promise. What’s your name?”

“I am Ella,” she said, her breathing labored, “the daughter and only heir to Lord Sebran.” Her eyes were a milky blue, and they pleaded for an end to the pain. “I’ve been held captive in the broken tower for years, an assurance my father would stay away from these lands.”

“What of your illness?” Griz asked and took her frail arm in hand. “Her blood is weak, master. She won’t last the night.”

Ella coughed, and her thin lips became flecked in crimson. “I have been ill since weeks after my arrival here. The castle air, it seems, does not agree with me.” More coughing and a struggle for air. “It is only recently though that my health has taken a turn for the worse. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Tragona had poisoned me.”

“He might have,” Eric considered, “if he thought he’d lose his castle. Kill off his insurance policy, so the pissed off father comes after us.”

Goblins began trickling out of the castle with a number of items in hand, from jewelry and curio boxes to locked chests, glowing glass phials and beakers on wooden racks to complete dresser drawers, furniture and a broad cabinet that took a dozen of them to lift. They’d literally emptied the castle of every item that even remotely resembled a container.

“You guys don’t miss much,” Eric said and stood to look each piece over. Some were enchanted, like a handful of clay pots sealed with wax, but none had the look of living essence. “Destroy it all, and burn it.” Just in case the goblins were stupid enough to kill them all with fire, he added, “Away from the castle.”

He returned to Ella, cradled her frail body in his right hand and waited. The sounds of splintered wood and broken glass echoed back for long minutes before the crackle of flame began to spread. None of them held the lich’s spirit, but Eric had already known that. He stared down at her, disgusted at himself and this world he now had no choice but to live in, and wondered if he could bring himself to do it.

“Master?” Griz stood beside him, puzzled. “What do we do now?”

“It’s her.”

She could barely keep her eyes open but winced at an unrelenting pain. Her condition was worsening before his eyes. If they waited long enough, her death would be upon Tragona’s head and not his.

“I see. Well then,” the shaman said, as if relieved at the problem being solved, “might I suggest we end this quickly? Two dwarves, one spear. We kill the girl, which destroys Tragona, and then have her for dinner.”

Ella’s eyes opened at that, wide with fright and a growing delirium. Eric had no words at that moment but fought against a sudden rage and every impulse to crush Griz where he stood.

You’re lucky I need you, he growled inwardly. The fuck am I going to do?

“Please,” Ella pleaded, her voice losing its strength

“See, master, she wants to die. It would be a mercy.”

“No.” Eric shook his head. “I gave her my word. Isn’t there any way to get it out of her?”

Griz looked back at the piles of Tragona. “It must have taken him a very long time to weave a spell into her spirit, to transform her into a living phylactery. We would have to convince him to craft another, and even then, the spell may kill her. To undo the binding without Tragona’s aid would take twice as long, if it were at all possible. I’m afraid the only way to set her free is…”

She squeezed Eric’s hand. It was the barest of a touch, but he felt it deep within. Tears carved dirty rivulets down her cheeks, and she looked up at him with a firm set to her chin.

“I understand,” she said. “It’s alright.”

“No,” Eric insisted, his voice breaking. “I can’t do that.”

She smiled despite the pain, met his gaze with a strength he’d never seen in another.

“The good of others,” she said, “has always come first in my family. We sacrifice for those we love. We give to keep them safe. I only ask one thing.”

Eric took a deep breath, lungs or no, and tried to find his way to being as resigned as she.

“What is it?”

“I want to be buried beside my mother.” Ella looked off to the east, toward what must have been family and home, though the court was blocked by stone walls. “Don’t let them eat me.”

“Technically, that’s two things,” Eric said, eliciting a pained laugh that led to coughing. “Sorry, bad habit.”

The way she looked at him, her touch, as if he wasn’t truly a monster, made him feel something he hadn’t experienced in a very long time. He cared. More than anything he wanted to help this girl, who had gotten dealt a shit hand and was willing to die to prevent others being hurt as she had. He wouldn’t say the words, but he nodded assent.

A calm came over her then, as if the pain had slipped away and an almost smile settled in her features at the thought of being at peace with her mother. She closed her eyes and lay back into Eric’s hand, a final gesture meant to let him know she was ready.

“Griz, how do I…” Eric began and nearly choked on the words, “you know, so it doesn’t hurt.”

“Her neck, master.”

Eric gave a curt nod, growing numb to the ordeal. As much as he wanted it to just be over, he’d hate himself for the rest of his life if he caused her undue pain. He put thumb and forefinger gently to either side of her head.

“I’m sorry, Ella.”

A quick twist and her chest no longer labored to draw breath. Her whole body became instantly still.

The influx of essence was immense, a flood of power that overwhelmed his senses in a sea of argent black. The first transformation came upon him with such speed and intensity, a spherical blast that sent goblins flying outward against the walls, that he had no time to choose before the second was fast on its heels. He knew what he wanted, had no idea if it was possible but wanted it all the same. Eric wanted to be human again; not to be put back in his old body but to somehow make this new one flesh and blood. He hadn’t made a clear choice when he felt the magic subside. He didn’t feel any different, certainly couldn’t see any change. All he saw was the girl whose life he’d just ended.

He set her head back in place, so it looked like she was resting and stood, cradling her limp body.

To Griz, he said, “I hate this fucking world of yours.”

The shaman wisely chose not to speak, only bowed his head in respect.

“Secure the castle,” Eric told the goblins, who were still struggling to pull themselves up from the floor. He stood and began to leave, with Ella in hand, knowing Griz would be beside him. “Show me where her mother’s buried.”

Together they left the courtyard and headed east.

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