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Eric sank into the water by late of early morning and watched the boatmen row away. He wasn’t able to turn his head and look around as light faded, only saw the occasional fish as darkness grew from below. By the time he struck ground, light of day had become little more than a muted glow at the top of his vision. Disturbed earth clouded the water in great swirls all around him. Once they had settled, he was alone in the somber dark.

He no longer had enhanced senses, could only rely on what he saw through the encasement of solid amber. He felt nothing in its embrace, no chilling cold, no aching pain or driving pressure. His everything was numb in the deafening silence.

Why are my fuckin’ eyes open, anyway? Did I die this way? Somehow he doubted that. Or did those two mages open them for me during their ritual? Seems like the sort of thing a dick like Sebran would do, a final fuck you before burying me alive.

His body was dead, so he didn’t need to breathe. He supposed that was better than an eternity of suffocation, like living in the endless throes of drowning. His biggest complaint was that he couldn’t move. No matter how hard he tried to break, to wriggle a finger, the amber held fast. Its spell wouldn’t budge.

What if I get an itch? Thought of getting one made him wonder if that might cause an itch. Damn it! Happy thoughts, happy thoughts…

He was alone with those thoughts for some time.

Is this my life now? Eric tried to see anything in the water that could distract him but was unable to squint or even focus his eyes. Is this forever? If I really am a zombie, will I ever die? Zombies have to eat to survive, don’t they? If I starve, will I die?

Eric wasn’t afraid of dying. He was looking for a way out. He began to consider what he might do if he got free. Was there some way back into the golem, a ritual Griz could perform? Would Eric want to if there was? Could he still be resurrected if he was already in the dead body? He didn’t know the particulars of the spell, but that seemed problematic. Maybe he could make life as a zombie work – assuming he didn’t have to eat anyone to survive. People were gross enough on the outside. Either way, should he stay on Taellus or go home? What was there for him, anyway? Year and years of more schooling, dead end jobs, being overworked for shit pay, crushing debt and misery? The only things worth having or doing in life tended to kill you with the cost or cause death in the long run. What was the fucking point of it all?

At least here they have magic.

Considering magic, why did it behave so differently in some places or instances? The land around Thrallen, Taliana’s forest to the south, those people at Sebran’s keep, all seemed… unnatural, corrupted. Either magic worked differently for different people, or something was affecting how it worked. If the golden glow caused by the stalker was a person’s spirit or soul, it looked like that one woman’s had been infected by a scratch. Why else would it have turned black like the others?

And what was with that jigsaw dude at Cledford? Griz had said Tragona was experimenting on people in his laboratory. Could he have been one of them? Those experiments might explain why the land and magic all around the castle were tainted. If he was fucking with people, sure, but what about the land? Was he messing with ley lines, too?

Light of day had faded to total darkness. Eric had nothing to do but think… about his past, what he’d done, the choices he’d made and why. He could picture imagined futures, ease his mind within the fantasies, but all of them were all a lie.

Hope was a lie.

It all circled back to where he was, what he could do at that very moment – which was nothing.

Eric began to miss being in the golem, its enhanced senses and strength, the surge of essence from a kill, the thrill of transformation and the well of choices that came with it. He realized he’d taken it all for granted, even if he never asked for it.

The faint glow of a new day came and went. None of it mattered. He was still alone with his thoughts, trapped in his own choices, unable to move. He didn’t even have the comfort of his own heartbeat to pass the time. It was all just numbing silence.

He’d been talking to himself, reliving old memories, seeking solace in the past, but on the third day an odd thing happened, an unsettling thing.

His voice answered back.

It was disconcerting to hear a voice, even if it was his own, talking inside his head of its own accord. It was like one of those studies he’d seen in a video, where people had their left and right brains physically separated. Both sides had an internal voice, but only one could speak. The other was trapped, a silent passenger, a prisoner in its own body. It was able to think, make choices, but unable to take action.

Relax, the voice said, I’m not here to shit on your parade. I just wanted to cheer you up. The golem is too valuable for the goblins to just eat the loss. They’re gonna come for you.

Eric disagreed.

Ehhh, I don’t think they need me anymore. I mean, it took a whole bunch of shamans to put me in there in the first place. Griz probably won’t be able to do it on his own. They’d be better off forgetting about me, maybe get some help from Xanadu –

Xanaranth.

Whatever, Eric thought sardonically. They should just put someone else in the golem, if they can get it back. Or make a new one altogether.

Their charter was revoked, the rational voice pointed out. Xanaranth won’t help them. They’re only option now is to get you back into the golem. No one else can use it. It’s been marked. You pissed all down the leg, on the inside. It’s claimed, man. It’s yours.

The other voice wouldn’t go away. When Eric refused to respond, it went on for hours about how cool it would be to use magic- as if Eric didn’t already know that. His numbing silence had been invaded but in the worst kind of way. He never realized what a self-absorbed asshole he could be.

Eric never thought he’d miss the quiet.

On the fourth day, just hours past the faint rising of morning glow overhead, the voice had finally stopped. A shadow broke through the light, and a strange tingling filled the water. Bubbles began to rise all around him. He could feel the block pull free of the lake’s bottom and gently start float up toward the surface. Rays of daylight grew broader and brighter as he rose, the water more clear, and there were voices from above. Muffled by the lake, their sounds still carried through the amber. Eric never thought he’d be so happy to hear other people.

When the block broke the surface, it bobbed up and down until it came to rest upright. Only its top half stuck out of the water, where a boat sidled up and revealed five goblins. Griz was there, eye closed, casting a spell. Two in back were blues with oars, and the others were reds. They reached out and tied rope around the amber block. Once it was secured to the boat, they helped the blues row Eric back to shore.

The entire expedition had come to save him. Griz continued casting until the boat struck against mud, where at least a dozen pairs of hands were waiting. It wasn’t until they’d pulled the block out and lay Eric on his back that Griz ended the spell. An immediate sense of weight came over the amber, enough that Eric could feel it press upon his front. The shaman casted another spell, and the amber fell away.

Eric was finally free of it.

He slapped his arms and legs up and down in the mud, laughing and hooting. Sunlight touched his face, and he could feel its warmth. He still wasn’t alive, but this was the very next best thing. The goblins gathered around him laughed along, though some in back were still afraid. He was, after all, undead. Eric sat up, got to his feet, and was beaming it like it was the last day of school.

“I am so fucking glad to see you guys,” he said and laughed again. It felt weird, though, forcing himself to breathe after so many days without air. “Like, seriously.” To Griz, he added, “I’m also kinda surprised. I… didn’t think you’d come for me.”

“That was not even a consideration, master,” Griz assured him. “You’re a part of this expedition. We would never leave someone behind.” The generals and other goblins gave headshakes and grunts in agreement. “I do apologize it took so long. It took time to find you, and we’ve… had a few setbacks along the way.”

“It’s Sebran, master,” Bel said with a furrowed brow. The red general was clearly upset. “He’s taken the castle and moved his men inside.”

Bri was right beside him. The blue general added, “And he’s brought your body with him, master.”

Bitters spat out of anger, along with many others.

“His casters, too, master,” Stalk said in an ominous tone.

“We think, master,” Griz clarified, “they’re going to try bonding it to a new spirit, to control it.”

“Master,” Mudbutt pleaded, “we need to attack right away, regain the castle and get your body back.”

That’s twice now, Eric thought.

They kept calling the golem his body, as if he wasn’t already in one – the one he’d been born to. That’s when Eric realized the goblins had never seen him as a human trapped inside their golem. They saw him as their leader, stuck in a dead human.

Eric nodded and they took it as assent. The generals gave orders, and their respective gobs took off to perform the assigned tasks. While a temporary camp was being built, Eric started planning.

“Can you do the ritual,” he asked Griz, “by yourself? Can you get me back into the – my body?”

“It will be difficult, master. I’m not sure, honestly, but I’m willing to try if you are.”

Eric chuckled. “What’s the worst that could happen? I’m already fuckin’ dead. Besides, being a zombie might be useful.”

“You’re not exactly a zombie, master,” Griz pointed out with some hesitation. “Your spirit is trapped inside a dead body, and that body is no longer preserved. It will start to deteriorate. Any damage you sustain now cannot be healed, unless you were somehow resurrected.”

“Can I be?”

“No, master,” Griz replied, “not while you inhabit it.”

Eric shrugged. “Meh. It’s starting to stink, anyway.”

“Your best chance for survival at this point, master, is to go back into the golem.”

Bel agreed. “It’s where you belong, master. You were born to wear that body.”

It was so strange seeing them with human eyes. The golem’s senses were so enhanced, that vision sometimes took a backseat. He’d seen the goblins before as a sort of amalgam of sensory input. Shape and color, smells and sound, all sort of rolled up into a single image. Here he was simply seeing them for who they were.

They were little people, in their own way, as varied in size and shape as humans. They stood two to three feet tall, with tapered ears both short and long. Some were bald, some had hair, some thin or stocky, slight of frame or muscled, with bulbous noses or long and pointed. Even the colors that defined caste were disparate in hue, with reds that ran pale and oranges dark. They were individuals, smart and fierce, and they deserved a good leader.

“Let’s get to it, then,” Eric said with enthusiasm. As Griz left to prepare for the ritual and the other generals started to disperse, Eric asked for Bel to stay behind. “What’s our situation?”

Bel hooked both thumbs in his belt. “We’re far south of Sebran’s keep, master, but it is still his lands. There might be a patrol at any time, so we’ve set up guards, scouts and patrols of our own. We lost the castle, true, but it’s not all bad news. Our survey team did find a few promising spots for iron and copper deposits. Once we retake Thrallen, we can begin mining. Scout report of the west details a town overrun by some kind of monsters. We could ransack the place for resources, while you fed.”

“Nice,” Eric said, impressed. “That is good news. Hmm, how many of his men did squirrel-lip bring to the castle?”

“As far as we can tell, master? All but a few guards.”

Eric snorted. “Well that was fuckin’ stupid, leaving his ass exposed like that. We should raid the keep before we go after the castle, cut off their food and supplies. We take everything worth having, all their weapons and armor, any metal and jewelry, anything we can use. Try not to kill anyone if you can, disable anyone who gets in your way. Don’t burn or break his house, but make him wish he’d never left.”

Bel grinned. “Yes, master.”

“I’ll probably wake up in the castle courtyard,” Eric said, “hopefully before they try to stick someone else in. I’ll force them out of the castle. Take a roundabout way back, so you don’t run into them on the road.”

“Are you going to kill them, master?”

“Not yet.” It rankled Eric, but there was no denying he might need them. “As pissed as I am and as much as I hate Lord Semen, bigger trouble might be on the way. While I was at the keep, I saw a stalker.”

The red narrowed his eyes. “A fey? They shouldn’t be here on Taellus, not while Twilight is at war.”

“Shit’s about to get ugly,” Eric agreed. “Let the others know to keep an eye out. Do what you gotta do. Be ready to march the second Griz finishes his spell. I’m gonna have some fun before I send those assholes packin’.”

“Consider it done, master.”

Bel set about making plans, while Eric went looking for Griz. The shaman was seated by a fire at the center of camp. Eric didn’t want to disturb him, so he quietly took a seat and waited. It seemed his time underwater had at least taught him some patience. He was so glad to be free of it, that he didn’t mind all the chatter or clatter of metal, the hushed cackles and joking, the goblins being themselves.

Hours passed in that bustle, as Griz meditated in total silence – or did whatever he was doing to mentally prepare. Winter days were short, and night was already falling when he opened his eye. He gave Eric a confident nod and used his staff to climb to his feet.

“I’m ready when you are, master.”

Eric stood as well. Even naked, he wasn’t cold.

“I’ve got mud in my crotch,” he said, “and up my ass. I am so ready to be done with –” he indicated his flabby body – “all this.”

Everyone gathered in a circle around them as Griz began to cast. He scrawled the first rune, an unfamiliar symbol in gold shimmer. It climbed into the air above the fire and spun in place. More and more joined it, until they formed a complete circle.

That’s the first ward, Eric thought.

Another circle went up in air, just below the first and at a tilt, so that its runes spun through. They weren’t joined by any rune or sigil but were interconnected. Two more circles went up in the same pattern, each more tilted than the last. The joined wards seemed to form half a sphere, which Eric assumed would be the final glyph.

Crazy, he thought and watched Griz scrawl them one by one. How the fuck does he keep track of it all?

Once the sphere was complete, Griz pushed it aside to make room. He began a new circle, one connected to the sphere but outside. Eric realized the shaman wasn’t merely scrawling a single glyph.

Griz was casting a construct.

Sweat beaded across his tiny brow, and Griz’s arm began to shake. His other hand was tightly gripping the staff, using it to hold himself up. Eric couldn’t fathom the toll it was taking. Working magic wasn’t just writing words in the air. It was fueling a spell with magic, with power from inside the caster.

Shit. Eric knew it would be difficult, but he didn’t know how much. It wasn’t until that moment that he began to worry. Can he even do this? Griz was struggling just to stand. The new runes he scrawled came out dull, as if they weren’t as powerful as the first – or he was running out of steam. There’s gotta be a way to help. Eric offered a hand to steady him.

Griz completed a circle, but it didn’t flash like the others had. One of its runes began to crumble and fall away into mist. Griz quickly went back to correct the mistake, before the entire circle fell apart. Eric could tell it was too much. With the strain of casting so many wards, Griz was losing focus, making more and more mistakes. The construct was too complex for him to manage on his own.

Soon he wasn’t able to keep up with correcting the failing wards. Two glyphs were complete, but the third was an utter mess. Eric knew it was only a matter of time before the whole construct collapsed.

Eric’s heart sank.

He’d truly hoped Griz was able to finish the ritual on his own. He wasn’t mad at the shaman, was actually grateful that he’d tried. The toll it was taking, the sheer amount of effort he was exerting, Griz was doing all he could to make it work. It only took a moment for Eric to come to grips with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. With the golem out of the equation, he started thinking of what was next. He didn’t want to spend whatever time he had left as a rotting, undead corpse waiting to fall apart. He’d always wondered if there was an afterlife. Or did everyone die and become nothing?

Despair had taken hold.

Eric might as well have been back in the amber block. He was trapped again, unable to move forward, a prisoner to his choices. His mind went back to the same conclusion he’d reached at the bottom of the lake. Hope was an indulgence, a fantasy for the weak. The strong worked with what they had, saw the world with clear eyes and recognized when they were out of options. He didn’t see the point in going on.

Eric put a hand out to the flames, watched it catch fire across his palm and curl around in bright orange. It didn’t even hurt, as the pale dead skin blackened and burned. Nearby goblins rushed to stop him, but even a dead human he was too strong.

Griz collapsed from exhaustion. The spell collapsed with him. Golden light rained over the fire as Eric took a step forward. Goblins let go, backed away with arms raised, as Eric went up in flames. Bel tried to reach him, burned his hands in the attempt, but the fire was too strong. It took only a few moments to engulf him head to toe. The flames were so loud as they consumed him, it was like the silence of the lake, drowning out all other noise and complaint. In a way, it was peaceful, a blinding light so bright that it began to fade at the edges. It took the strength from his legs, the light from his vision.

Eric fell to his knees and into darkness.

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