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Eric was still blocking the entryway. Sebran looked at him in askance, clearly wanting to go see what was the matter but uncertain of his own fate. At some point during their discussion, Eric had decided not to kill him. It was easy to see this world as not real, with it having no consequences he should care about, but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t some video game he could be an ass in and hide behind the anonymity of a character. It was a face to face, tangible existence with people just as real as everyone back at home. There was no need to go burning bridges while there was a chance he might still need help from unlikely places.

Eric stepped aside and let Sebran go, followed after as the lord ran. More screams rang out, echoed back from within the castle.

He may have been a dick, Eric reasoned, but I did kill his daughter.

Eric tried to imagine what he’d do if someone hurt his sister Emily. What he’d done. Memories of the park came rushing back, of her and her friends drinking with them when she was supposed to be watching him, the crowd of guys later pulling her far away from the group and into a van, his ten year old self yanking open the back doors with a stick in his hand, like a god damned hero trying to rescue his older sister and being beaten by kids five years older than him badly enough to be put in a hospital for a week.

He growled and forced the memories from his mind, which drew an odd look from Sebran. His childhood, his family life, all of it had been shit. It wasn’t something he wanted to think about – not ever. There was a damned good reason he played Warbones as much as did.

They reached the laboratory and were heading up. Eric slowed to traverse the steps without stumbling but was right behind Sebran as he entered the main hall.

There was blood spattered across the stones as if more than one had died, but no bodies could be seen. Men who’d been sleeping in the next chamber ran for the courtyard with swords in hand. A servant came rushing in from outside, panicked and out breath, saw Sebran and headed over.

Eric had expected to see demons beyond the doors because of the mark outside the gates. What he saw was wholly different.

“How many?” Sebran demanded of the servant in an authoritative tone. He didn’t slow and continued past for the doors.

“Just one, milord,” the man answered and followed after, still trying to catch his breath. He stopped just before the exit, clearly planning to stay inside. “But everyone it attacks… they become just like it.”

Sebran had stopped listening, threw the doors wide to survey the attack for himself. The lord paused for a moment, unsure of what he was seeing. He straightened his back and started barking orders.

Eric noticed their essence right away, dark with the faintest hint of crimson, shot through with violet charges and much stronger than a human’s. Their aura was so powerful it caused the air around them to waver, like the shimmer of intense heat rising off a stone.

Whatever monsters they were now, it was clear they were once human. It looked as if the corruption had been taken to an extreme. Their skin was blackened in forked paths along each vein, lightning strikes that branched out across pale flesh. The dark patches had become scales, reflective like metal and sparked when struck by steel.

They ran on all fours, snarled and leapt on prey like starving animals. With nails grown long and black, sharp enough to slice through steel, one tore through a knight’s armor like it was paper. Their bare feet had become more animalistic as well, longer and wide, more suited to leap and with curved talons at the end.

Teeth like sharpened bits of coal, eyes a glassy black, a dark fluid seemed to leak from both. Whether it was blood or the corruption, Eric couldn’t be certain, but neither did it matter. Even a wound by claw caused the victim to change.

They had filthy hair where the metal scales hadn’t spread across their heads. It had the look of pseudo-armor, like the unfinished costume of a horrific cosplay. Crazed and feral, the handful Eric could see were trying to feed on the nearest exposed flesh. They were mindless attackers, caring for only their own hunger.

One had multiple wounds across its back from pikes striking at a distance. The flesh had parted but stopped when the blade touched against scales. Even the wound, its blood and muscles, were dark as onyx. What oozed down its back was thick like foul syrup.

A horse whinnied and bucked through, kicked a man against the wall and tried to bite another. It too had been changed. It barreled a soldier over, bent down over him and tried to feed.

To Eric they looked like nightmare fiends.

“We can’t allow any to escape!” Sebran shouted. To himself, he added, “If they can turn others to their side with a wound, they’ll take everyone in Cledford. They’ll be unstoppable.”

Eric said, “This is some zombie apocalypse shit right here. But worse.”

The fiends were alive, they were fast, and the change was almost instant. All of them were trying to feed, to satisfy a ravenous hunger, but once they took a bite, the victim began to change. It took only moments for the corruption to spread. Once the victim became a fiend, its attacker lost all interest. Both would then look for others to feast on.

There was a critical mass, however. When three or four attacked the same person, there were too many wounds, too much blood lost. The victim died before they could change. The same was true of a fatal strike, either a bite or claw to the neck. When someone died, nearby fiends broke off their attack to join the frenzy, if they weren’t already feeding. It was a momentary distraction at best that allowed Sebran’s men to attack freely from behind.

For every fiend killed, three new ones took its place. Sebran’s army of three hundred was being consumed before his eyes. No matter how much the fiends fed, they were greedy for more. Their hunger reminded Eric of his own, when his need to take essence had been the only driving force that mattered.

They were insatiable.

“You don’t owe us anything,” Sebran told him with a begrudged pleading in his voice, “but if you don’t help us here, all of Faradim may be lost.”

Eric watched over the carnage, men pulled down to their backs and savaged with teeth and claw. He’d drawn the line at killing people, knew in his heart he wasn’t a murderer – even if he’d joked about it. He knew anger might one day drive him over the edge, but until then his humanity was intact. His dilemma now was in deciding whether it was the same to let them die as it was to kill them himself.

“If anything, you owe me,” Eric told him. “This isn’t my world.”

“You still have to live in it.”

Sebran left to join the fight, to hold back the tide of teeth and death overwhelming his men.

Eric called after, “This isn’t over between us.”

He headed down the steps and was hit by lingering essence from the dead. The sunny rush of a few humans paled beneath a violet surge, where the combined spirits of three fiends brought him close to a transformation. It was an incredible flood of power washing over his runes, intermingled with conflicted emotion.

Now that Eric knew what he was taking to fuel his transformations, he felt guilty for doing so – even those he hadn’t killed. Especially those. Had he stolen their chance at an afterlife, in heaven or whatever happened to someone when they died? He’d thought of himself as an atheist, though he was raised catholic. Now, he was no longer so sure. If souls existed, didn’t that mean there had to be something after? What happened to the souls he used? Were they gone forever, or had they become a part of him?

Where exactly is mine? he wondered and punched a fiend across the shoulder from behind. It was trying to bite a soldier who’d fallen to his back. The man was frantically struggling to keep it away from him. Is it inside the golem or somewhere else?

His punch had broken bones but did little to slow the fiend. It turned to sniff at Eric, to scent if he was worth eating, and quickly went back to snapping at the man trapped beneath.

Good thing they can’t eat metal.

Eric pulled the fiend off him by the neck. The guard scrabbled away still on his back and was jumped by another. The fiend was heavier than it looked, with arms and legs flailing, as it tried to reach back and claw Eric. Its nails were three inches long, jagged at the tip but metallic like its scales. The gouges it left in his hands and arms were not near as deep as those caused by the fey but enough for alarm. If he couldn’t keep away from its attacks, give himself time to heal, it would eventually expose his runes.

Chaos reigned around him. The iron gates had been bent and torn open. Arrows sped past him, some hitting their mark but many striking earth. More and more men fell to fiends, became one themselves. Heavy armor was a hindrance, as evidenced by the knights outside the wall fighting off their own horses. Prolonged battle in plate was wearing them down.

Eric squeezed the fiend’s neck with both hands but found it harder to kill than expected. It was stronger than it ever was as a human, sturdier and difficult to break. With the way it wriggled in his grasp, Eric worried it would get free before he could manage to snap its neck. There was magic at work but not the sort it could directly use or throw his way. He forced it down to its stomach, so all it could reach were his hands. With a knee to its back, he grabbed around to its chin and pulled. A resounding snap sounded out, and the fiend became still.

The feel of it rushing in overcame his other senses. Its essence was easily three times more potent than it’d been as a human. Whatever magic changed its body had drastically altered its spirit as well.

A change of his own was upon him, dulled the cries and shouts around him. His existence became burning, a power within aching to be spent. It was an odd sensation in his middle that tingled up his back, a surging pleasure that threatened pain if he let it linger for too long.

Eric wanted the ability to work magic, to channel it into spells and enchantments, to craft wards and glyphs. If anything could make this whole experience worthwhile, worth losing his body and being trapped in the golem…

Nothing happened.

Fuck!

It was like wishing to be human all over again. He didn’t know how many changes it would take to make it happen. He just hoped it wasn’t all a waste of time and transformations that could’ve been put to better use. The changes he’d spent toward becoming human hadn’t been totally wasted, he admitted. They did bind him to the golem. So what did this one do for him just then? He didn’t seem any taller or feel any stronger. As far as he could tell, nothing had changed.

He turned his attention back to the fight.

The fiends ignored him, made it easier to walk up on them from behind. He went for those nearest, brought them down with an arm around the neck or a makeshift weapon to the throat. Smashing their heads with a fist only worked if most of the skin hadn’t been corrupted. Their scales were too hard to cave in with one blow. It took five powerful strikes when he tried, and the creature still twitched. Eric decided the neck was his safest bet. Better to finish them off than risk leaving one alive. He had one down on its back, a knee holding it in place, and drove a heater shield through its throat. A twist to either side was all it took.

Pikemen and guards were doing their best to hold their own. Many fought back to back for protection, while others worked with shields to drive fiends toward the wall. Orders were given and men followed, despite visible fear. It was going well until fiends topped the walls. The archers were unprepared and ill-suited to defend at close range. Within minutes, dozens more fiends were leaping down from all around.

Eric picked up a steel great sword, which in his hand was more a dagger, and drove a fiend to its front with his foot. His grip was so large that his fingers didn’t fit the pommel. Two rested against the blade with the guard between the next three. He plunged the sword down for a swift kill, pulled it free and caught another with in a backswing through the shoulder. Held in place, it was an easy target for the three swordsmen it’d been fighting. He didn’t wait for thanks, nor did he hear any called after.

Hands slick their blood, Eric went for another. He didn’t tire, didn’t weaken and couldn’t be infected. At least he hoped so. Two more fell to his blade before it shattered at the middle and became useless. A second change came upon him. He endured its burning and again chose to wield magic.

And again nothing happened.

It was taking more essence each time, like filling an experience bar. Each level he gained made the next one all the more difficult to obtain.

While he didn’t understand how the corruption was altering their spirits, making them so much more potent, he felt a twinge of guilt for a momentary thought. If he let them all become fiends, who knew how many changes he could fuel with their essence. Of course, he’d probably be overrun and torn apart. At the way the fight was looking, he might not have to make that choice.

Too bad, Eric thought. It’d be a hell of an exploit. Given enough people, in a controlled environment – Not that I’d ever do that…

He continued left, took one down in his right hand by the neck and drove it down into the mud. He reached out and pulled another toward him by its leg. The guard it was atop saw his opportunity, flipped around onto all fours and stabbed it in the eye. A blade to the brain, it turned out, was quite effective. Eric pushed and broke the other’s neck.

He’d been clearing the courtyard by moving back and forth it as he crossed west to east. More had sprung up behind him, but they were far less in number than when he’d started. It gave the men struggling for their lives a bit of room, both to breathe and to keep fighting. The fiends ahead of him were winning but had reached an upper limit. Too many of them were on single targets.           They were killing instead of infecting.

Three packs were clustered over victims in front of him, noisily tearing into flesh, flinging blood and bits in a grisly halo around the bodies. He considered climbing the wall and jumping down on top of one. With his size and weight, though, he’d likely bring the wall down.

From the corner of his vision, he saw the two mages exit the castle. They had no magic to lend, would only get in the way and become two more fiends he’d have to deal with. Eric was about to wave them back inside when Ball Sack pulled a crystal orb from the velvet of a metal box. He let the box fall and threw the clear orb at a pack of fiends.

It shattered upon impact and engulfed the immediate area in green flame. The blast of fire condensed across the pack in a blaze of brilliant emerald. It spread up and over them, all around, consuming flesh between their scales. They’d barely had time to cry out in pain before collapsing into char.

“Whoah! Fuck, yeah!” Eric shouted at the two. “Do more of that!”

The combined essence struck him, nearly knocked him over but hadn’t been enough for a change. He went after the closest pack, pummeling from behind, brought two heads together, drove his foot down upon a neck. So long as the fiends ignored him, so long as they fed, they were much easier to dispatch.

While Eric fought his pack, a handful of polished white rocks landed among the cluster to his left. The earth was already muddy, soaked through with blood. When the rocks struck, the ground became momentarily akin to marsh. The corpse and fiends sunk inches within then became trapped when it all turned to stone. They would have kept feeding, had the body not been buried. With frightening speed, a rough white spire for every rock thrown jutted out three feet long. It looked like a stony bramble had erupted and impaled every fiend.

It was enough to send Eric into a change. He was still on one knee, finishing the last of his pack. The bliss rose up from his middle, swept across every rune inside him. It was a fire of promise, a burning pregnant with choice. The power swelled to a painful crest and was spent with a single thought.

Eric felt it this time.

Like the sudden waking from a bad dream, he opened his eyes to a new level of clarity. Colors became brighter, sounds crisper, as his spirit did more than merely bind with the golem. It connected. It was as if he’d become complete, his hollow brimming with a warm glow. He felt alive at last, more so than he’d been in a very long time. The ever present emptiness that had defined him was now filled with something new. He had hope. Transforming into a human no longer seemed so farfetched.

Eric held out a hand, knew it was within him. He just didn’t know how to call it forth, how to put it to use. He scrawled in the air, as he’d seen others do. Rather than runes, he used letters, but they fell apart into gold sparkle.

He growled in frustration, walked toward more fiends feeding on the dead. There were close to two dozen packs with barely a handful of men left in front. Those behind him still struggled but were at least winning out. If Eric didn’t deal with those clustered before they finished their meals, the resulting onslaught would spell the end.

Fire, Eric thought, imagining it in his mind. Fire. He recalled the green flames, wanted to bring them forth. Fire! He saw their every detail as he continued to walk. The liquid lick of its light, the emerald glare of its blaze, consuming all it touched…

“Fire!” Eric shouted, and his world became flame.

It exploded outward in a plume of beryl madness, so intense it baked the mud to cracked earth in an instant. Flames swept from off his body, tore away metal into flecks that flared to viridian embers. The air itself was on fire, swirled and whooshed with a deafening voracity as it turned. A whirlwind of destruction, it claimed all within its grasp.

Fiends reared and cried out, blood spattered maws turned to ash. The burning spread further down, a new corruption of growing black. In the span of a few breaths, their flesh was gone. It took longer for scales to bubble and drip, for their remains to become slag within the dying of fire.

Eric dropped to all fours in utter agony. He’d felt pain before but nothing like this. He been stripped, metal flayed and consumed by the wildfire. It left his coloring in shades of green along lines across his body. The fire was gone, but the ache of it lingered long after. He took in deep, ragged breaths, despite not needing air. It helped him endure while his body healed. The pain had been so intense he didn’t realize its core burning was a change waiting to be spent.

He looked up and saw four more packs descend on what was left of the men trapped on that side of the yard. He had magic now but no idea how to use it properly. Another attempt like before might be his last.

No, he needed a weapon – a sword. One he could call at will and send away. It would have to be strong, like his star metal. Steel would only break. And it had to be large enough for him to wield.

Power fled his middle.

Better able to breathe again, Eric stood and saw the carnage his magic had wrought. Six clusters had been decimated. The char of their passing clouded the air with foul odor and ash. Melted metal had pooled with bits of blackened bone. All else had succumbed to the emerald fire.

Eric held out a hand and willed his sword to it. A layer of metal came away from him, as it had when the flames came. Tiny flecks and flakes swarmed together in his hand. From pommel to tip, they formed a star metal great sword. It took only a brief moment to fully form. It felt good in his hand. The blade was even taller than him, which was considerable since he’d grown another three feet. Its metal was dense, far heavier than steel, and even though the sword was huge, he was able to wield it with the one hand.

It’s a tradeoff, he realized, for now anyway. Forming the sword weakened his armor, made his runes more vulnerable. Probably wanted too much. I can take care of it later.

He went after the remaining packs, swinging the sword just as easily as a man might a steel blade. From behind, he did his best to cut away heads. Where the sword struck scales, it wasn’t able to slice through. Still it was enough to end most he attacked. He finished those out of reach of his swing with stabs, through the chest or an eye, whichever was easiest. Unfortunately, the last two clusters finished feasting, and Eric stood between them and another meal.

All thirteen rose at once and swarmed him like rabid animals. Four leapt at his shoulders, three more right behind, and toppled him by sheer force. The others were at his legs, clawing madly at his metal. Blood and spittle fell from their mouths, as all of them grunted with the effort of trying to tear him to pieces.

Eric rolled onto his front, trapping one beneath him and raised his sword for a fatal strike to its head. He threw fiends off him one after another, forcing them from his arms. He grabbed one off a shoulder, brought it down and killed it as well. As much as it felt like he was making headway, his time was running short. The pain behind his legs, across his back and shoulders, grew with every claw swipe. Their gouges were cutting deeper. His runes were in danger of being exposed.

The few guards and pikemen left, the pair of knights who still remained, were fighting off a last handful of fiends on their end. Even if they managed to succeed, they wouldn’t reach Eric in time.

He threw off as many as he could at once and stood, drove his shoulders toward the wall to crush those he wasn’t able to shake loose. Stone crumbled beneath his charge, and debris rained down. The wall had collapsed inward, was on the verge of tumbling. Eric struck again, killing the fiend between and brought a section of wall down. Rocks smashed with disregard. He was up to his knees in stones, but a few fiends had been momentarily trapped. He finished those off with quick stabs to the head.

Of the seven that remained, five snuffled the air and caught scent of the men still fighting. They ran off before Eric could do anything to stop them. Two still clawed at his middle, flailing both arms in frenzied swipes that would only abate with their deaths – or his. Metal parted beneath the furor, revealing silver light and a trickle of golden shimmer. What fell from the open wound looked like the glowing cascade of a failing rune.

Everything went dark.

He felt the pain all too keenly, could still hear, smell the blood and ash, but his vision was gone. Eric grabbed at one with his left hand, caught hold of it by a shoulder and punched it to the death with the guard and blade of his sword. The other kept at the wound, not to further a weakness but because it was a mindless killer. Eric doubled over to protect the opening with one arm, swung out with the sword. He knocked the fiend aside, heard it come right back at him. He dropped the blade, reached out and caught the fiend around the waist. Eric brought it to his front, wrapped both arms about its back and crushed it against him. He didn’t stop until he heard its spine crackle beneath his grip.

It took long minutes of healing before the wound finally closed and his runes were fully mended. His vision returned in the same moment, like opening eyes.

Three fiends were held back by shield and pike, while four more had pushed men to the opposite corner. One among them was Sebran. Eric was surprised to see the lord fight beside his men, had taken him for the sort who let others do the dying.

Eric picked up his sword, pulled free of the fallen rocks and headed across the courtyard. An angry swing ended the one on his left, cut through from shoulder to waist. Another swing took out the one on his right, an upward slash from underarm to opposite shoulder. Three pikes simultaneously caught the middle in the chest, as Eric swung and lopped off its head.

Less than two dozen men remained. They all turned as one and rushed to help their lord. They made quick work of the four, attacking from behind. When all the fighting was done, there were only somber nods, claps on the back and men falling to the mud in exhaustion. They were relieved, visibly glad to be alive, but grieved by the loss of so many.

Though he’d expected to hear cheering, he had to admit it seemed out of place. Maybe if the enemy hadn’t been fellow soldiers…

They gave Eric sidelong looks, but not one of them was grateful. Only Sebran approached.

“You have my thanks,” the lord told him. His clothes were in ruins, torn and covered in splatters of dark ichor. “We saved more than a collection of mortar and stones this day. We saved a kingdom.”

You’re still not off the hook.

Sebran had spoken as if they were on the same side. Eric quickly cured him of that notion.

“That’s two you owe me,” he said. Eric considered the jar. “Actually, make that three. You can take Marina, but get the fuck outta my castle.”

The lord’s mood swiftly soured.

“My men and I,” he said, “are but the tip of a very long and very dangerous spear. There is no more army of undead to hold this land. If King Raynver decided to take it back, thousands would be at your doorstep. You would be wise to let this be and find refuge elsewhere.”

Eric laughed. “So instead of fighting an army of undead,” he said in imitation of the lord’s speech, “you think your king would rather fight the guy who took ‘em all out? Good luck with that.”

Men grumbled and glared, looked angered enough to attack, but no one moved to raise a hand.

“There is more at stake here than holdings,” Sebran reminded him with forced calm, “as clearly evidenced by this battle. Even you must see that.”

Even me? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?

“You’re right. There is more goin’ on here A whole lotta secrets.” Eric whispered the last word. “The kind you don’t want others to know about. Right?”

Sebran’s jaw clenched. He chose not to reply.

“That’s what I thought,” Eric said. He turned and headed back toward the castle entrance. “Don’t take any of my stuff on your way out.”

 

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