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Eric had done his best to pile the bodies once Sebran and his men left. There were so many, however, it ended up more of a long mound. He considered burning them to prevent further spread of the infection, though he would’ve preferred to do that outside of the castle walls. The resulting metals and ashen debris might still be contagious. If the goblins came back –

He heard horses and wheels in the distance.

When he looked out from the broken gate toward the south, he saw goblins heading his way. They led a train of wagons, carriages and merchant carts all tied together in a line and pulled in front by four horses. None of them seemed alarmed or surprised to see him as they drew closer. Some, like Bel and Bri, even raised a hand in welcome. Their caravan carried all manner of goods, from stolen wealth to sacks of grain, clothing to weapons and even small livestock in wooden crates. Their wheel tracks leading toward the castle left an obvious trail.

“It’s good to see you, master,” Griz said, as he and the generals approached him with smiles.

“How’d you know it was me?”

“Scouts, master,” Stalk replied. There were spatters of blood across the front of his dark armor. “They’ve been keeping watch ever since we were forced to abandon the castle.”

Eric scanned the goblins passing by, watched them bring in their spoils and start to unload. Only a few were wounded enough to warrant bandages and what little blood he saw could’ve been their own. The green general wasn’t injured, though. Eric also noticed that while some seemed happy to see him back, many didn’t care or were oblivious to anything but their own inane chatter. What really caught his attention were the few who glanced his way with disapproval. None had dared to directly meet his gaze, but the sentiment was there all the same.

“What happened at the keep?” Eric asked, giving Bel a meaningful look. He’d left specific orders. “Did you kill anyone?”

“There were casualties on both sides that couldn’t be avoided, master,” the red general replied, no hesitation or regret in his tone, “but no deaths.”

Eric gave a nod of approval. “Sebran will probably send for reinforcements and come back. He’s got a lot going on here he wants to keep quiet.” Eric pointed to the amassed bodies. “He’s down to a few dozen after this.”

Everyone had been surveying the damage done to the gate and castle wall, to the courtyard grounds. There were scorch marks, tumbled rocks and crumbled stone where Eric had crushed the jutting spires. Eventually all eyes fell upon the fiend corpses.

“What happened here, master?” Griz asked. “I can still feel the aftereffect of a terrible magic.”

“That!” a green said and stepped from the caravan, pointing at the bodies. “That’s what I saw, master.”

He was the scout who’d been sent west into the enclosed valley. Stalk introduced him as Duskrun.

“Apparently, this was done by just one of ‘em,” Eric said. “The rest are Sebran’s men. A single scratch or bite, and dudes almost instantly changed into – whatever the hell they are. I call ‘em fiends. I mean, even the horses changed.”

Griz had moved closer to inspect one. “Some sort of infection, master? It’s definitely magical in nature. The affected flesh looks similar to star metal.”

The generals went in for a closer look as well. Bitters kicked at one with his boot.

“Don’t get scratched,” Eric warned. “They could still be infectious, even dead. We’re gonna need them carted off somewhere else, away from a water source. Burn and bury ‘em. Make sure whoever does it wears a mask to cover their nose and mouth, just in case.” To Dusk, he asked, “How many did you see?”

“From what little I explored, master,” the green said, nervously shifting from one foot to the other, “there were many, at least twenty near the village. I could tell they relied heavily on smell. I didn’t want to venture too close and risk being scented.”

“No,” Eric agreed, “it was better to get back with the information. If even one of those things gets through, there’ll be a hoard of ‘em in no time. Send a group to guard that valley entrance for now, enough so they can take shifts. We want eyes on it at all times. Don’t let anything past. If you have to, try to fight them from a distance. You don’t want them in your face. Oh, they can jump really high, too, so don’t bother with barricades or anything like that. Me and Griz will check it out in the morning, come up with a plan to kill them all. They’re too dangerous to just ignore.”

The generals started toward the castle to see it done.

Not my world, Eric mirrored the thought from earlier, but I still have to live in it. For now. Last thing I need is my army turning into monsters.

“Also,” Eric called after them, “let’s get a group going at one of those possible mining locations. The sooner we start digging, the sooner we get reinforcements.”

Dusk had left with them, but Griz lingered behind. The shaman could tell Eric had something to discuss.

“No one else is asking,” Eric said and started walking toward the castle steps, “but I bet you’re wondering how I’m back. I’m glad you’re okay, by the way. You looked like shit last time I saw you.”

“I appreciate the concern, master.” Griz still looked exhausted, used his staff to help keep up as they went inside. “If I was asked to conjecture, I’d say when your human body was consumed you were returned to this one. You’ve managed to forge a bond.” He continued to follow Eric down into the laboratory. “Very unusual, so early on, but then you’re not like any other I’ve ever encountered.”

How many freakin’ golems do they have?

Eric led them toward the hidden vault. It was slow going, having to move at the shaman’s pace. The secret doorway by the well seemed even smaller now. He was forced to pull away more rocks to make room for his new size.

“I can work magic now,” Eric said, more than a little proud. “I want you to start teaching me right away.”

“I see, master. Was that your –” Griz fumbled for the words – “first spell I sensed outside?”

“Yeah.” Eric drew the word out. “It didn’t quite go like I planned. Almost killed myself with fire again. I did take a bunch of those fiends out, though.”

They walked in quiet for a few minutes until they came into the burial chamber. They went past both rows of elaborate statues on either side. The door was still open, though the candlelight was gone. Griz had lit the way with an enchantment atop of his staff.

“What is all this, master?” Griz asked of the jars once they entered the vault. He picked one up off the lower shelf, a storm of orange within it. “Are these what I think they are?”

“Souls. Every one of ‘em,” Eric said. Griz carefully put the jar back. “Sebran’s family used to steal ‘em and use ‘em to cast spells.” The shaman narrowed his good eye and muttered about spiritists. “Better yet, the lich was his uncle. Tragona held his own… grandniece or whatever hostage, and Sebran let him do it. Apparently nobles aren’t allowed to use magic, and using souls is illegal or something. This whole mess is some kind of cover up to keep it secret.”

“He told you this, master?”

Eric pointed to the empty spot where Marina’s shrine used to be.

“Turns out Sebran married a farm girl, which pissed off his father. Dude took her soul and kept it right there, to teach Sebran a lesson. I threatened to break it if he didn’t tell me what the hell was going on. That’s not why I brought you down here, though.” Eric indicated the black jar. “There’s a disease going around that looks a lot like that. When I went to get my body back at the keep, there was –”

“A stalker,” Griz finished for him. “Yes, master. I was told. Dire news, indeed. It could very well mean the Hunt is already on Faradim.”

“Right,” Eric said, “but what I didn’t mention was that I could see the marks. Their veins glowed with it, like magic. Some were gold, most were black. I didn’t think anything of it until I saw one change from gold to black. It’s just like those guys outside but a different infection. Except this one makes it so the person can’t use magic. The Dumbleduo thought if enough people were infected, it could corrupt the ley lines, which will cause some barrier at the main city to fail. Thing is, I think it already happened. That’s why we’ve got fey and demons running around.”

“Demons, master?” Griz asked, alarmed.

“Didn’t I mention there’s a mark outside the gate?” Eric absently poked at a jar with his fingertip. “It felt to me like the magic that seeker guy used. Anyway, the point is, all of this shit going on is cuz of Tragona and his experiments. What I can’t figure out is why. I mean, what’s the point of corrupting ley lines to bring down a protection spell over the planet if you’re too stupid to survive to see it go it down? He’s dead! What the fuck does he get out of all this?”

Griz looked like he was having difficulty following along. He still seemed to be piecing together the new information as he spoke.

“Well, master… perhaps, er, his true goal was not to the barrier construct but something else? Something… bigger.” The shaman scratched at his chin, his mind at work. “The barrier may be affected, but it hasn’t failed. I would have noticed a change in the world’s magic. This is just a guess. We’d have to verify at an arcane library, like the one at the academy in Westorval or the conservatory on Xanaranth. It may be that Tragona wasn’t attempting to let something in through to Taellus but rather –”

“Out,” Eric interrupted, having put it together. “Like something badass was imprisoned. Still doesn’t explain why dumbass would go to all the trouble if the end result means magic is screwed, and he ends up dead anyway.”

Griz looked for a place to sit and settled on resting beside the coffer of gold coins.

“I’m sure he didn’t plan on dying, master. He had a working phylactery, even if it was cruel, and possibly an auxiliary. Few face a golem and live to tell the tale.”

“I still don’t buy it,” Eric said. “He poisoned her. It’s like he was planning on dying.”

“Oh, dear.” Griz furrowed his brow. “Sorry, master. I was just struck by a terrible thought.” Eric waved a hand in his own direction, motioning for the shaman to give up what he’d been thinking. “What if what he planned to set free was a god? A final sacrifice might have been just what he needed to prove his loyalty.”

Eric laughed. “What the fuck good is loyalty if you’re dead? And since when are gods real?”

“Gods have always been real, master,” Griz stated as if it was fact, “but they don’t follow the same rules as you and I. What might seem impossible to us is mundane to a god.”

“We don’t have gods on Earth,” Eric said, “or magic.”

“It has been my experience, master, that all worlds have gods and magic and monsters, whether you want them to or not, whether you believe in them or not.” Griz used his staff to help him stand. “If Tragona did plan to set something free, we should find out just what it is or complete this expedition as soon as possible.”

Eric would have frowned if he could. He followed the shaman out of the vault.

“I’m more concerned with going home,” he said and banged his chest, making a hollow metallic noise. “Ya know, once I turn this clunker into a human body.”

Griz said, “The two aren’t mutually exclusive.” He sat down in the wide area between the vault and statues. “Are you ready to learn, master?”

“Right now?” Eric took a seat a short distance away and crossed his legs, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Griz had already started drawing runes in the earth between them. “I thought you’d be too tired.”

“I am, master,” the shaman admitted and looked all too weary, “but you do not sleep. I’ll teach you the runic alphabet, and you can practice it until morning.” Eric watched closely as Griz kept tracing new runes. “There are seventy-two runes,” he explained and traced them in neat rows, “to represent sounds, though you likely won’t use them all, but there are hundreds of sigils, which are used to embody concepts. You can learn those later, once you’re proficient with runes. For example,” he said and he’d finished writing in earth. He began new ones in the air between them and sounded out his spell. “You could write fff-eye-err.”

Griz scrawled three golden runes. He dragged the first toward the last, which formed a circle and vanished into sparkles of gold light. They quickly cascaded toward his open palm and took the shape of a green flame. He closed his hand, and the flame was gone.

“Or you could use the sigil for fire,” Griz said and drew three interconnected lines in air, like a small golden mountaintop. He pushed his palm against it, and the sigil flared as the runes had done when they’d made a ward. He lowered his hand beneath the shimmer, and the flame appeared again.

Eric said, “So runes are phonetic, and sigils are like symbols. How come it doesn’t work if I just use English?”

“I don’t know what that is, master.”

“It’s what we’re speaking right now,” Eric said. “It’s what everyone here speaks, even the trolls.”

Griz raised an eyebrow. “Master, your glyph allows you to understand and speak any language. What you say and I hear are very different. I’m speaking a common language on Xanaranth called Sperian. Trolls typically speak Volsh, and the humans here on Faradim speak Wystoran. For a golem, clear communication is essential. Language and dialect can vary greatly by locale and even social standing, so golems are enchanted to understand them all.”

“Hmm,” Eric said. What else did he not know about his own body? “Sounds handy, but it doesn’t really answer my question. Why can’t I just write what I want to say in my own language? Can the golem interpret what I want and convert it to the runic alphabet?”

The shaman shook his head. “I’m afraid not, master. The runic alphabet isn’t a true language. It’s a focus. All magic is about desire, harnessing energy from a source and channeling it to a focused outcome. If you try to cast without a focus, you end up with wild magic. The results can range anywhere from mildly amusing to disastrously fatal.”

Eric recalled his brush with wildfire and cringed.

“Point taken. So no shortcuts. Gotcha.” Eric looked at the runes before him in the dirt. “Are these facing me or you?”

“You, master.”

Griz spent the next hour going over each and every rune, pronouncing which sounds each represented. Eric was familiar with many and used the space Griz had left between rows to write out their English counterparts. He didn’t expect there to be so many. There might have only been twenty-six letters in the English language, but there were quite a few more sounds to be made with them. He was pretty sure they were called phonemes but wouldn’t bet his life on it. At least a third of the sounds Griz had listed made no sense, as if they were intended for some other language. He left those blank.

“Can I cast something?” Eric asked.

The shaman smiled. “Everyone is eager to try their first spell, master. It does make for good practice when learning runes. Alright, let’s begin. It’s best to start with simple illusions, so there is little chance for destruction. Picture in your mind what you want to create. Remember you’re crafting an illusion, a ghostly image, and not something with substance. Perhaps start with a simple flower? Also remember that the simpler you imagine it, the easier it will be to create. If you envision too much detail, the spell may fall apart without proper focus. So picture it in your mind. Start to draw the runes. When all the runes are complete and while you still have a clear image, move the first one toward the last to form a circle.”

Eric pictured a simple white flower in his mind, the one from Sebran’s shrine but with far less detail. It was just a green stem and a few white petals. He looked down at the runes for reference and started to draw in air the sounds needed. He remembered to make it illusory, like a transparent photograph. Once he’d finished drawing the runes, he spent extra time making sure the image in his mind was strong and clear. With a finger, he poked at the first rune and dragged it toward the last. The line of runes snapped together into a circle and fell apart into a golden shimmer. The cascade coalesced into an illusory white flower hanging in the air between them.

“Well done, master,” Griz said. He used his staff to help climb to his feet. More than one old joint creaked in protest at the strain. “Try not to cast too much. It will drain your power, and you’ll need to rest.”

“Really?” Eric asked with surprise. “So I might have to actually sleep at some point?”

“Not sleep, master, just rest. Any time spent not working magic is rest.” Griz began to leave but stopped and turned back. “May I ask you something, master?”

Eric poked at his flower until it dissipated into a rain of sparkles. The spell didn’t last forever. He wasn’t sure if it simply ran out, or he’d ended it with his finger.

“What’s that?”

“Why haven’t you claimed all those souls, master?” the shaman asked and nodded toward the vault.

“Cuz they’re people,” Eric replied.

He might not have sounded as conflicted as he felt. Truthfully he wanted them but knew in his heart it was wrong. It didn’t matter they were already dead. Taking their souls, consuming them, was worse than if he’d killed them himself. It was a forever death.

“You could set them free, master.”

Eric gave his full attention. “How?”

“When you encounter essence, master,” Griz said, “you can choose to reject it. An ordinary golem would not be able to, but you have free will. You can exert that free will and choose.” The shaman bowed his head. He turned back to leave. “Something to consider, perhaps.”

For many hours, while he practiced, Eric did just that. He weighed his feelings against need, his sense of guilt against his conscience. He kept memorizing runes, casting the occasional spell, but the temptation to claim the souls was a constant buzzing along the back of his head. By the time he’d grown tired of staring at runes, he hadn’t come any closer to a decision.

The jars were still untouched.

 

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