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The forest was visible from beyond the ruined castle, though it stood a few miles off. Eric trudged through fields along the way with a sense of foreboding, as if the darkness between its trees was somehow watching. It was impressive, the dense woodland, with leafless tops that came close to reaching into the storm clouds. Mist clung to the ground made muddy by rains but couldn’t hide the thick trunks just ahead. Even the smallest of them was many feet around at the base, with thin bark and a wide bough of empty branches. A few of their roots broke the surface, bent the earth in small crevices that pooled water and debris.

It was the larger trees, however, that caught and held his eye. They were few and far between but stood out in stark contrast. Massively thick trunks, easily fifty feet in diameter, these bigger trees dwarfed the others in size and scope. It was these that stretched off into the gray of winter skies, with craggy black limbs that bent at sharp angles. Their skin was rugged with age, cracked and broken, blackened between the splits. Wide knots stretched across their surface in a pattern like watching eyes or the howling spirits of creatures long dead within the trees.

Stepping into the forest brought with it a cold dread, like slipping from a dream into the depths of a growing nightmare. The air became cold in a way that slowed his steps, not for the chill but out of caution. Old discarded limbs crackled underfoot, mixed with sodden earth in a ploy to grasp. The echoed snaps and breaks were all the more unsettling for a lack of any other noise. There were no birdcalls, no insects, none of the sounds that signaled wildlife. That emptiness was like a vacuum, sucking up every noise he made and amplifying it like a beacon.

Might as well be blowing a fucking air horn.

If there were tolls, he couldn’t smell any over the heady scent of rain. There was a bitterness in the air, that came and went with the wind, but that seemed to be coming from the larger trees. Eric was working his way toward one. The smaller ones had grown too dense for his size. It wouldn’t have taken too much time to go around, but his first instinct was to push one over. He didn’t really expect it to move when he tested one with a push.

A single crack, like a lightning strike, rang out with enough force that Eric jumped and pulled his hand back. The tree didn’t fall over but was bent enough to reveal mottled striations in its pulp. The splintered wood looked sick, was greatly weakened by disease or whatever had tainted its insides. Dust from the break seemed to linger in air, gray to black tiny flakes that cascaded in a slow descent. It was similar to the bitterness, sharper and sickly sweet. Even its sap had an odd coloring, more gray than golden with black flecks floating within. Eric left the tree and went searching for another way forward.

When he finally came face to face with one of the big trees, it was so wide he couldn’t see around it, was more wall than tree. Its top branches stretched another three hundred feet or higher above the others. The acrid scent he’d been following was from a tarry substance between the cracks in its bark. There was too much to be sap, though that’s exactly what it looked like. It was as if the tree was bleeding, a dark jelly-like blood that filled every crack and crevice. Sticky to the touch, it left streaks with shades of crimson across his fingertips when smeared it. Oddly enough, his fingers tingled where it had touched.

Eric washed it off in a puddle at the base of the tree. In a world filled with magic, there was no telling what he was dealing with. It felt like everywhere he looked, magic gone awry had somehow tainted the land.

Is that what this was? Where were the trolls Bel had spoken of? Or any other living creatures for that matter? This place wasn’t a forest; it was a cemetery.

Another crack sparked off further east. With a cover of fog taller than he was, densely packed trees and the slope of small hills, it was difficult to see all that far in any direction. Where’d he come from was gone behind a wall of misted white and overlapping trunks. He had a general idea of where he was, felt confident enough to get back out, but navigating the forest wasn’t as easy as he’d first thought.

More breaking of branches sounded out.

Eric began carefully working his way toward what sounded like frantic scrabbling through fallen branches. It had started off a careless mistake and now seemed an all-out pursuit. His own noise became less a concern the louder the others grew. There was a hoarse breath like ragged growling rising in strength the closer he drew. The cold sense of dread intensified, as if his hollow had filled with ice. Steam rose off his body as he ran. It was then he could hear it, the muffled cries and jolts of a voice fleeing in terror.

It’s a chick, he could tell and ran even faster. Trees cracked and fell aside, shouldered away in haste. More cries, and he cursed. It sounded like his sister that night at the park… God dammit.

He came bounding through the trees, slid down a low gully into a clearing and nearly struck her. She was on all fours, crawling his direction in desperation. Furred hides shredded and muddied left her nearly naked to the cold. Long black hair down to her waist had been braided into folds, were now disheveled and come loose. Her skin was a pale green, smooth with youth, smeared with dirt and blood. She was painted in white across both arms, shoulders, down neck and back. Her exposed muscles were fit, tensed with fear and determination. When she looked up to see Eric, her wide eyes were a bright violet beneath a delicate brow. She had two blunted tusks in her lower teeth, but there nothing coarse about her. In a word, she was beautiful – troll or no. She nearly backed away before what chased came into the clearing.

It stood a foot taller than Eric, six more than her, and carried itself with a strength born of madness. It was impossibly thin, each rib and knotted joint clearly visible through a long and tattered gossamer wrap. Chalky skin, black eyes, a mouthful of fangs, it looked a nightmare spirit become flesh.

Each croaking breath shook its body, expanded its fragile chest with a shuddering of clicks. It gave pause when it saw Eric, flexing jittery hands with black talons just as long as each finger. Its hair was a mass of curls that fell all about its body, floating in air with a swoosh and swoop as if submerged in murky water. Its ears were two feet long, twice that of the troll girl’s, and tapered back to a sharp point. When it moved to attack, its whole body disappeared into a shattering of smoke – a dark cloud that creeped its way forward.

“Get behind me,” Eric told the girl.

Instead she fell back and scrambled away from them both. Thorny roots sprouted up from the muddied earth, grasped at her legs and arms. They snapped, whipped out, caught a wrist and held fest.

Eric stepped up, swung into the cloud. It was like a flutter of roiling ash, swirling as it moved. He’d done no damage he could see and felt nothing as it encompassed him. Roots grew at his feet, tried to grasp and take hold. He broke free with little effort. He wanted to help the girl with her bonds but had to keep the creature focused on him.

“Is this the best you can do?” he asked. “Some vines and smoke rings?”

It materialized behind him, raked a hand across his back. It left gouges three feet long and deep enough to hurt. Eric spun and swung a backhand, but it was gone again into a burst of smoke. The girl fought to break out, bled from wrists and ankles where the thorns had bitten deep. Again it appeared, raked his back in a crisscross of excruciating sparks and was gone from his wild swings. Any deeper, and it might break through to his runes.

He faced the girl, left himself open, waited for the rush of cold. When he felt it begin to take shape, he put all his strength into an elbow jab. A sharp twist of his torso, and he grazed the creature’s shoulder. Brittle bone crunched, elicited a hollow scream that clawed his ears from within. He quickly jabbed at its throat, poked his fingertips just under the chin. The creature choked, flickered into smoke and back, as if it couldn’t hold the form any longer.

“You need air to shift?” Eric reached down and filled both hands with dirty water. He threw toward its mouth and got some in just as it flickered. “Not so tough now, huh?”

He jumped for its throat, but a vine slapped his hand away. More and more rose up, cumbersome roots lined in heavy thorns and leafy vines like agile limbs. Both sought to trap or trip him, encase his legs and arms, anything for a few moments where the creature could catch its breath.

The troll girl cried out. A root had wrapped around her throat, and its thorns were cutting in. Blood ran from the row of wounds, a darker green than her skin. Eric growled, pulled free one limb after another and rushed to save her. If the root around her neck tightened any further, she’d bleed out in front of him with nothing to be done for it. He pulled the root apart, used both hands to keep it from puncturing her throat any further. He broke the others the same way, pulling outward with care.

The cold came again all too quick.

Eric’s world exploded into pain and bright lights. His runes had been exposed. Talons raked his back in a dual frenzy of echoed shrieks. Sounds had become muted. The pain was like a burning that crippled his legs, hot embers in his middle flaring outward. He swung wildly behind, each time at bursts of smoke. It was chilling, the sudden calm at odds with his anger. Another part of his conscience came to fore, a detached piece of being that watched on without actually taking part.

So this is how I go? it seemed to say. At the hands of a crazy bitch I can’t even attack?

Fuck you! Eric screamed inwardly. The pain was too much. It was too difficult to think. Flailing his arms in a weak attempt to hit back only wore him out faster. Do something useful instead of whine! Like, come up with a fucking plan!

Pfft. Whatever. Fine. Crawl to those trees. There were smaller ones all around. Break ‘em. Fill the air with that dust. You don’t need to breathe. It does.

His legs wouldn’t work. Even troll girl had lost her fear of him, was looking at him with concern, wanting to help, knowing she couldn’t. Eric ignored it all, the look of pity, the relentless talons tearing him open from behind. He put one hand in front of the other, pulled himself through the mud toward the trees.

He reached the first and smashed it over. It cracked, split down the middle and toppled against another. Dust spat out into a puff of lingering ash. He punched another and another. The creature halted of a sudden. He turned into the cold as it sputtered. He grabbed hold of its gauzy wrap. Eric pulled the creature toward him as it struggled for air. He forced a hand over its nose and mouth, squeezed to keep them closed. Talons clawed at his arms and back, his neck, his face. His other hand was at its throat, thumb pushing into the hollow. He’d never seen the wide-eyed fear, the frantic spasms of one dying in the throes of suffocation. Its attacks grew weak until they eventually stopped. Arms sagged, legs ceased, and its essence rushed to fill him.

Eric was in ruin. Without the foundry, without dark magic, he had no way of healing. His runes were exposed in half a dozen places, torn open and raw against the pain of his damaged glyph. There was no other choice. He either healed or he died right there in the mud.

His choice had been made, the change had taken place, but his body was healing at a much slower rate than he’d hoped. Minutes went by before he could even understand what she was saying, knelt over him at the chest, looking so worried.

“– what to do! I don’t know how to help you.”

“You can speak?” Eric asked. He could still feel his metal mending, but the largest wounds had closed. The runes within him were whole again, his glyph fully healed. “I always thought trolls just sort of grunted and stuff.”

She snorted a short laugh. She’d been helping him to sit up but let him fall back to the mud.

“Did you just call me an animal?”

“What? No! No,” he said and sat up on his own. Sitting this close to her made him a little uncomfortable, but he was able to see her face much more clearly. She truly was beautiful. “I’ve never actually met a troll before. I’ve just… heard stories.” Her brow eased, but she still looked insulted. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“Taliana,” she said and stood, offered him her hand. He took it and was surprised at how strong she was. “My tribe is to the east, just beyond the river. I… don’t know what you are, but you saved my life. I owe you a debt. I would introduce you to the others and offer my thanks with food and fire. Will you return with me? My pledge of gratitude must be made before a totem.”

Great, Eric thought. Trolls are people too.

“No, I – that’s not really necessary. I don’t exactly make a good first impression. I mean, I’m kind of… I’m a monster.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Taliana took hold of his hand and pulled him east. “You’ll see. I will explain everything. No one will say an unkind word.” She looked back up at him when he wouldn’t budge. She looked puzzled. “Trust me. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

“I can’t,” he said as an excuse. “I need to get back. I was just exploring when I heard your cries. What was that thing, anyway?”

“A fey,” Taliana said and reluctantly let go his hand. “They infect our forest. I thought I was still close enough to the totem, to its protection, but I must’ve gone too far. Or the fey are growing stronger. We’ve tried to drive them from our homeland, but the best we can do is keep them at bay.” She seemed to search his face but there was no sign of emotion there. “We could use your help, uh…”

“Eric.”

“Eric!” she said and laughed. “That sounds like a human name. If you come with me, maybe you could help?”

Part of him really wanted to, though to be honest, just to spend more time with her. She was hurt, in need of first aid, and all she wanted was to thank him. Eric wished he could actually feel what her hand was like. His metal could feel pressure, temperature and pain. It just wasn’t the same as living flesh.

“I have other concerns to deal with, too many to be honest. I would like to come back and see you, though. I’m just not sure when.”

Taliana gave a nod. “I understand. I would stay and talk more with you, but it will be dark soon. I must get back soon and tend these cuts.”

“Okay. It was nice meeting you, Tali.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You may not call me that. Such familiarity is for mates. If another heard, you would be forced to seek my hand.”

Eric laughed nervously but her expression didn’t change.

“Holy shit, are you serious?”

Taliana crossed her arms. “Yes. And it’s impolite to assume someone is telling an untruth.”

“I – No, that’s not what –“

She laughed at his expense.

“So serious. If I didn’t know better, I would think you are human. Thank you again,” Taliana said, took hold of his hand in both of hers for a final squeeze goodbye and let go. “I must get back. I do hope to see you soon.”

She’s pretty funny, too.

“So do I,” Eric said and waved, as he watched her walked away. “So do I.”

 

*        *        *

 

Eric sat with both arms on his raised knees before a magical bonfire in the courtyard. There was nothing left to burn, so Griz had conjured the large flame. Aside from the tingle of magic, it looked like any other fire, with more green than orange at its center. It didn’t crackle like burning wood, but its warmth didn’t waver. The feel of it on his front, across his face and arms, reminded him of summer and the constant heat of noonday sun.

“I almost died today,” he told Griz, in the same way he might have mentioned finding a cool rock.

The few goblins in the castle were either resting, on guard or out on patrol. The shaman sat beside him with a carving knife and a small piece of wood. He’d been whittling the individual links of a chain. Griz paused and gave Eric a look of concern.

“How did that happen, master?”

Eric chuckled and asked, “Have you ever seen a fey?”

“Oh, dear,” the shaman said. He looked as if he might put down his whittling then continued to work at the first link. “You know, master, just as demon is a general term for the many races upon Inexium, fey is also a general term for those who come from Twilight. What you faced could vary greatly from what I’ve seen or even read of.”

“Twilight,” Eric repeated in distaste, “like the crappy teen romance novels? I never read the books, but the movies were fuckin’ terrible. Chick was dumb as a rock, and the sparkly vampires were ridiculous.”

Griz kept working at the first link until it finally came free. He blew the shavings from the middle and looked pretty pleased with himself.

I swear he just ignores half of everything I say.

“Twilight is a dreamscape, master,” he said and started working the next link, “a world between worlds, a realm where thoughts and desires can manifest into reality.” He gave Eric a meaningful look. “It can be a truly horrific place. If you encountered a fey, it could mean their war with the demons is bleeding onto Taellus.” He set back to work and asked, “What did it look like?”

“Like a crackhead, grandma zombie.” When Eric saw his description wasn’t helpful, he added, “It was almost as tall as me, super thin, all white skin, black eyes, with crazy fuckin’ hair and nails that tore me open like a god damn burrito.”

The shaman actually stopped to consider. He looked worried and confused, as if he was trying to piece together a motive for crazy.

“What you’re describing, master,” Griz said and put down his whittling, “is a collector. They gather souls for the Hunt, a host of fey that prey on those with weak or damaged spirits.”

Why go after Taliana then?

“What do you mean by damaged spirit?” Eric asked. “Like some kind of trauma or mental disability or actual damage to their soul?”

“Yes.” Griz had a far off look as he answered. “All of those, master. Fey can cross realms in a number of ways, but collectors… they dwell inside and move between marked trees.”

Those big trees with the diseased sap?

“Marked how?”

“By stalkers, master,” Griz replied. “Like scouts, they are vanguard to the Hunt, seeking out the greatest number of prey.”

Eric said, “You say stalker, I hear crazy ex. What the fuck is a stalker?”

“Stalkers are spirit hunters, master. They can sense suitable prey. They leave their mark and move on, let others pick up the scent.” Griz scratched at his forehead. “All of this is highly unusual. Something drastic must have changed.”

Should I go back? Eric wondered. Is Taliana marked by one of those guys or just the trees?

Eric rubbed at his back. Even though he was healed, it still ached.

“How is it my runes can be damaged,” he asked, “but I don’t die? I mean, it was so bad… I lost the use of my legs, but I was able to keep going.”

“Well, a simple enchantment, master,” Griz said and drew a gold ring in air, “can be like a circle. If the circle is broken –” he smudged a piece away, and the ring fell apart – “the enchantment is broken. However, a complex enchantment,” he said and drew multiple rings, each one connected to the last, “like a glyph, is a collection of circles. If one is broken –” he broke the first circle, and none of it fell away – “the glyph, as a whole, is damaged but not broken.”

Eric considered how many rings of runes were across his body before he turned them inside. There could be even more, what with how many transformations he’d undergone.

“So to die,” Eric guessed, “I’d have to have all of my circles broken. Either that or some are too important and can’t afford to be broken.”

“The latter, I’m afraid, master.” Griz wiped clear the air of golden scrawl. “Your body is a masterwork of art, an incredibly complex enchantment, but it is not without flaw. Break one, and you’ll lose the ability to speak; one more and your ability to walk. Who is to say which of them all contains the spark that is you.”

Eric sighed at the thought of his own mortality.

“That’s just fan-fuckin’-tastic.”

An orange goblin ran through the gates, panting and out of breath. She was wearing breeches and a tunic, with a leather hooded cloak. Eric recognized her as the one Bitters had sent to spy on Sebran.

“Marshmallow!”

“Marbit, master,” Griz corrected. The orange stopped before them, trying to catch her breath. “Easy now. What is it?”

“Body… the body. Your body, master,” she said to Eric and gasped. “They have it.”

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