Eric placed three mithrinum bars on a shelf in the vault. Browns had already come through and cleaned up the broken glass. Skip planned to melt it all down and make more. Eric recalled the look of worry and disdain on the brown’s face when he’d handed over the bars. It was enough to cause Eric to rethink his plan, or at least postpone it. He could always use the bars later. Besides, the remaining fiends were probably all dead. His vision blurred from the bars inward, a bird’s-eye view of the village taking shape in his mind.
Griz had been studying the book they brought back from the conservatory. He’d still found no mention of a way to purify ley lines in any of the stories. Neither was there an indication of how they might’ve become impure. The closest to it was the tale of Kor’s change of domain. The backlash of his influence over people and events that followed led to an unstable period of wild magic.
Other stories seemed to suggest the ley lines were tied to all creatures, living and dead. They painted a picture of the ley lines as rivers of golden magic, filled by trickles flowing directly from every soul and spirit upon Taellus. It might have made for good story but sounded more fanciful than truth. If it were true, to diminish the ley lines enough to cause any magic tied to them to fail would take a catastrophic event that affected most if not every creature in the world.
If that actually happened, neither Eric nor Griz could see a way to repair the damage. All they could do was prepare.
They’d spent hours the past two nights in training for mental combat. It was a lot like when Eric had faced off against Tragona but without the advantage of fighting in his own mind. The imagined combat took place in the astral, a starry plane of existence between worlds, where the material fell away and thought took precedence. The attacks might have been imaginary, but their effects were all too real. Eric still had a headache and sore back.
It was Griz’s hope when the time came, if it came, they could join forces with all of the master magicians at the Academy. If what they might face was a god, if the story of Kor’s imprisonment was true, they would need every available caster to defeat him.
That’s a whole lotta ifs, Eric thought as he watched on. Even then it’s only half the problem.
Assuming they could best a god, and it was a big assumption, what were they to do with him? Without ley lines to provide a constant flow of magic to new prison constructs, they had no hope of containing him. Eric was convinced killing Kor was the solution, while Griz had been taught gods were immortal and couldn’t die by any means.
There was no way of knowing which was true. While Eric prepared for Kor’s demise, Griz believed they needed a secondary plan. He believed the demon home world was their best option. The nexus their foundry had been built upon was ideal for powering a complex construct. A second nexus of equal strength would be on the exact opposite end of Inexium. Both locations would be perfect for the prisons, so long as they could weaken Kor enough to separate his mind and body.
“How the fuck will we do that?” Eric had asked late last night.
Griz had admitted much relied on the magicians at Westorval, that such magic was beyond him. He’d also doubted any goblin would be willing to listen after what they did at the conservatory.
“The story of Taellus is not ours, master,” Griz had said. “We are not the heroes of this coming fight. All we can do is lend a hand where it’s needed.”
Eric glanced over at the vault he’d fashioned beyond the forest. It mirrored the one he stood in. He’d taken the time to speak to almost every spirit connected to him, even the demons and feys. They were less than willing to cooperate, so he’d put them in jars beside Tragona, with all the other monsters. The last thing he needed was a pack of wyverns terrorizing his people.
Of all those he’d spoken to, only one had a working knowledge of magic and the ley lines. He was a dwarf by the name of Korven. He’d been an enchanter most of his adult life, one who specialized in bolstering spells. He’d spent decades perfecting his wards but knew very little about what the ley lines were, why they worked or how to fix them. He was like an electrician with access to an outlet. Korven knew how to fashion wires and use them to power all sorts of things, but he had no idea where the electricity came from or how to alter it.
Eric found himself thinking it might be too late for Taellus. It wasn’t his world really nor was it his fight. He considered asking Griz to send him back to Earth. It might be better to live as a golem than die trying to be human again.
There was no one left in the valley, other than the fiends. Sebran’s people were in bad shape, with sickness and disease running rampant. Griz had showed Eric how to create sacks of grain. He’d then made enough to fill a wagon and sent it to the keep. Sebran was grateful but feared it might be too late. So many had fallen ill, and no help had been forthcoming from Westorval.
It made Eric think of Taliana. His attention switched back to the mithrinum bars. He’d been meaning for days to go check on her and her people. If the trolls hadn’t been affected by corruption or sickness, it might offer a little hope for the future.
He turned and left the vault. The black goblins were waiting just beyond the door. They fell into step behind him, as Eric made his way up and out to the courtyard. Griz was still on the upper level of the castle poring over the book. Eric told Stalk where he was headed, stepped past the broken gate and went south toward the ruins. It smelled of rain but with the ground frosted over as it was they could very well be in for snow.
When they past the first hill, all Eric could hear of the castle was hammering from the smithy. He looked back at the three following. They were different from the others in that they chose not to wear armor or clothes or carry a weapon. Their breath frosted the air, but none of them shivered.
“Maybe it’s time you guys got names,” Eric said as they walked. The ruins were in sight but at least another hour off. “How ‘bout I call out some names, and if you like one let me know?”
They made no response, just watched him carefully as he spoke.
Do I just name them like dogs or something? Eric wondered.
Bel appeared beside him on a forest trail in his mind. Eric had thought there would be animosity between them when they first spoke, but the red general seemed to have left all his anger behind when he died. Eric could see Bel still felt emotions when watching him deal with other goblins, drew happiness from their interactions. When it came to the material world and the living, his priorities seemed to have shifted.
Eric had been angry at first, even thought to hurt the reds for their betrayal. Instead he left them alone, put them out of his thoughts, until one day he realized their deaths had been enough. There was no reason to hold a grudge if they didn’t, to punish them for what essentially had become their afterlife. They were a part of him now. Their essence strengthened his.
Goblins are usually named for some meaningful or momentous occasion during the days that follow their making, Bel replied. He kept watch on the other goblins erecting a new home beyond the trees. Unless there’s something unusual about their appearance or the family decides a name should be inherited from one who passed away. I could suggest some, Bel offered, and Eric spoke them as he did.
“Starless. Nightmane. Charborne.” One curled his lip and growled. “Yeah? Alright, Char it is.” Bel continued in his mind. “Duskbringer. Nightfall. Bloodborne.” A second made two grunts and nearly looked like he’d smiled. “I guess that’s okay. Not like we can be sued for copyright infringement over here. Blood it is. Okay, last one then. Pitchburn. Onyx.” Eric sighed and gave a few of his own from his Warbones characters. “Stabatha. Krymor. Uhh, Pwner. Shenanigans.” The last clicked his teeth and gave three quick nods. Eric laughed. “Alright, man. From now on, you’re Shen.”
It was midday by the time they reached the forest. It hadn’t rained, but thunder occasionally rolled across the western horizon and echoed against the mountains. It felt as if a growing pressure in the air was waiting to be released.
The forest was much the same as his last visit. He even found his trail of broken and damaged trees where he was forced to make room. He followed it further in, taking note of the darkened trunks. Those feys had used for travel were eaten away, weakened by the traces left behind in their passing. The earth seemed to suffer the same ill effects, where roots had blackened, split open and spread their color into the mud.
It was quiet but for the wind, which grew strong enough to bend boughs. It whistled between the smaller trees and turned over decaying leaves into a wet tumble. The otherwise quiet reminded Eric of the valley. It was an absence of wildlife, a silence of empty cold with wind struggling to fill the void.
The smells came to him from beyond the hills before he could see the devastation. There was burnt wood and stone, the clinging sting of ash and charred detritus. He could smell and almost feel the sickly sweet mixed with copper, remnants of a battle with no one left behind. Mud buildings were caved in, collapsed and broken into pieces. The charge of magic lingered in the air and in the ground like vibrations from a distant shout. It went up the length of a fractured totem, across its bones and carved stone. Whatever ruin had visited the troll village, echoes of its passing could be seen in every corner.
Char and Blood studied monstrous tracks in the mud, cloven prints with thick talons like a horse born of nightmare. Shen pointed out others, the bare footprints of those who had fought back and lost. They were beaten down and dragged away. There was blood but no bodies. The tracks looked fresh, and at least one set reminded Eric of the collector.
Was it the Hunt? He followed the fresh tracks with his eyes. They led east. Cledford. Fuck.
Eric was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of spirits in his mind. Soldiers, servants, farmers, people from all walks of life urged him to help, to save their kin and keep his word to Lord Sebran. At the same time, Bel and all the goblins stressed a need to warn the others. If the Hunt was nearby, no one was safe. It was too much for him to listen and think clearly.
His vision shifted back, and he looked north.
“We’ll gather everyone first,” he said and began to run toward the castle, “then we’ll head east to deal with the feys.”
He’d had a hard enough time facing off against one. How was he going to handle a small army? He was no tracker, but even he could see there were enough prints throughout the village for at least twenty. If they were anything like the collector or the stalker, he wasn’t sure he could win no matter how many helped.
Griz had magic. The blues, oranges and greens, even the browns, they may have been small but they were strong. He’d seen them fight, knew they were nothing to scoff at. They could at least be counted on to stand their ground. Sebran’s mages, on the other hand, were all but useless. Unless they had more of those magic items at their disposal, the only help from Sebran would be what remained of his men.
Fiftyish soldiers, Eric thought as he ran and shoved aside trees in his way, fortyish goblins, not counting the crafters or new browns…
Char, Blood and Shen were right beside him. It was the first time he’d seen them at a full run, kicking up mud with their feet, leaping forward and grabbing hold of trees by claw only to propel themselves even further and faster ahead. It gave him a new appreciation for their strength and a little hope together they could pull this off.
If he focused, like they did, chose targets and took them down one by one, he might be able to avoid notice long enough to make a difference. It was the fear of being overwhelmed by them all at once that worried him the most. He felt confident he could face two or three without serious harm. Any more and he’d go down, helpless on his back.
Then don’t let that happen, Bel said as if he’d spoken to one of his reds. You’re outnumbered, not outmatched. Use your head. Don’t worry, he said and crossed his arms. I’ll be there, too.
As will I, Korven said and replaced the image of Bel in his mind. You have magic. Use it. I can’t help with evocations, but if you forge a barrier or a containment or cast an augment, I will bolster its effects twofold.
The enchanter faded, and Ella took his place.
You can do this, she said with a hand to his shoulder as he ran. You’re not alone anymore.
Night was falling as they left the forest. The distant rumbles grew severe and more frequent, accompanied by the sudden crack of lightning strikes and explosive glow. Silver flashes lit the clouds, highlighted every billow and angry edge. Wind rose to a howl, buffeted against him from the east.
The storm had finally come.
Eric passed the ruins and saw the orange glow over the horizon. It bloomed like a second sunset, far brighter than any beacon. The radiance of its plea bled into the fires at its doorstep. Whatever battle raged in Cledford, sign of it was bright enough to be seen from hours out.
He felt a pit in his stomach. Eric already ran as fast as his bulky legs could carry him across the mud and between trees. He began to worry there wasn’t enough time to gather the goblins. Every second he didn’t turn and head east –
The sounds of battle rang out ahead.
Eric rose over the next hill and saw a small army of demons attacking the castle. Seekers had chosen hilltops to fire magic into the courtyard, lighting the night sky with volleys of purple fire. Servitors were at the fore, two packs of ten climbing up and over the wall. They tore away stone with each step, crumbled and cracked it beneath them. Greens loosed arrows down upon them but were forced to retreat.
There were others in the field Eric had never seen. Three pairs of slender creatures on all fours spread their wings and took flight. There were spines up and along their backs from head to tail tip. With pointed maws of translucent flesh, a green glow began to emanate from their mouths. They circled the castle grounds and spat gobs in splashes of bioluminescence. Where magic fire struck it, the fluid erupted to persistent flame.
A handful of others coiled their bodies, like bristled centipedes into a ball of spikes. The flesh between thick plates of chitin began to hiss and release steam, grew so hot it reddened like an ember. Spines the size of a spear exploded outward toward the castle, sped through the air and impaled all in their path. Sections of wall collapsed from the impact, while other spines had carried over and caused the screams of dying goblins. Heat dissipated as the demons uncoiled and grew new ones.
Then came the behemoths, two massive beasts like living armaments. They stood four times Eric’s height, walked on six legs that shook the ground with every step and left craters in the mud. Molten fire ran the length between heavy plates of chitin armor, dripped down and seared the earth. With a pair of wide horns, exoskeleton down the nose and a mouthful of jagged teeth, each had the appearance of a battering ram lumbering forward to deliver death.
The goblins stood no chance.
Retreat was their only hope of survival, if they hadn’t already fled. Eric watched the behemoths trudge toward the castle. He felt frozen in place, uncertain what he could do against something so large, against so many. He was faced with the choice of fighting through to help the goblins, order them to get away, or trust they had they good sense to run while he left to help Sebran.
Either way, we’re fucked, he thought and clenched a fist. It was stay and die to demons or run and die to feys. Wait… Aren’t they at war or some shit?
An idea spurred him to action.
“We need to draw them east!” Eric called his sword to hand and ran for the nearest behemoth. “But first we kill the big ones. Go for the eyes, Boo!”
Shen clicked his teeth and bounded ahead. Char and Blood were a step behind. They threw themselves at a thick-skinned leg, dug in claws and started to climb in leaps and bounds.
Eric ran past for the next leg, swung his blade with both hands. It went in deep just below the knee, sent dark blood out in a spray. He’d come to a sliding stop and was pulled forward off his feet. The sword had only gone halfway through. The behemoth roared but kept on, kicked out and sent him sprawling. The sword was still embedded in its leg.
Shen scrabbled across the plates on its back when a multitude of high-pitched keens rang out from above. Blood and Char joined the fray, sending ichor and bits over the edge. Within moments tiny demons began to fall from the behemoth’s back. Barely a foot tall, with claws and a barbed tail, they must have been waiting to be carried into the courtyard. By the cries and debris, there had to be at least a hundred.
As the dent in Eric’s chest healed, he got back up and ran. He grabbed hold of his sword and pulled it free. He couldn’t reach the unprotected underside but saw the leg was no longer able to bear the behemoth’s full weight. He chopped at it again, careful to pull when the blade inevitably failed to cut clean through.
They were drawing attention. Spines struck near his feet, bounced off his back, even pierced the behemoth’s leg. Purple fire flared above, and fliers were turning back. Suddenly the behemoth stopped and reared its head in an agonized cry.
Shen had reached an eye.
The third swing set it loose, like felling a fleshy tree. The behemoth bent its backmost legs and toppled over. It was all Eric could do to keep from being crushed. He rolled away and nearly fell from the nearby impact. With a stumble, he half ran and half tumbled towards its head. There were no bulky plates along the underside of its neck. While Shen completely blinded the behemoth, the other two dealt with the last of the imps. The massive demon wailed, a sonorous cry Eric could feel within his hollow. He brought his sword straight down through the knot in its neck and used his weight to push the blade down. Dark blood rushed out in spurts and hissed where it touched his metal.
Eric jumped from the growing pool and called out a warning to the goblins. They leapt from the carcass and joined him on a clear area of mud.
“Let’s go,” he told them. “Get everyone out and head east.”
He was moving at a full run when the essence hit him from behind. Where the combined rush of a hundred imps had merely been a trickle, the behemoth was a dam breaking loose. Its burning crashed into his middle and washed over him like an inferno. More spines struck the earth nearby, bounced off his shoulder and back.
Eric needed a shield.
The fire within him abated and one formed in his left hand. It was fashioned the same as his sword, from a layer of his metal flaked away into a thousand pieces. It left his glyph more vulnerable to direct attack but gave him a way block projectiles. He used it to swipe aside a spine that would have taken Char in the back.
Servitors were all over the courtyard, fighting goblins like they were swatting at flies. Many goblins had already died. Their bodies lay bloodied and broken before the campfire. Its purple flames threw shadows across their staring faces. Eric’s heart skipped a beat when he caught sight of the robes. Griz was among them, face down in the mud and forever still. Eric wanted to give in to the rage that swarmed his middle, to pay them back his pain ten times over.
Grieve later, Bel said, when the battle is over. Your plan is a good one. You just have to see it through.
“Retreat!” Eric shouted. “Fall back to the keep. I’ll keep them busy.” The wall was completely shattered in eight different places. He used his sword to point the way and headed for the eastern side. “Here! Go out this way!”
Essence rushed him from the campfire. It took him in the side as he stabbed a servitor from behind. One moment he was alone, fighting to keep grief at bay for someone he’d refused to believe was a friend, and the next Griz was beside him.
Barrier! the shaman shouted and slammed his palm against the ground. It sent demons flying in all directions as goblin spirits drew their weapons. They weren’t merely in Eric’s mind but stood before him as vengeful spirits. Guard their retreat!
Goblins ran past the magical barrier without harm. Demons who railed against it were scorched by its fiery touch. Korven materialized and strengthened it with his wards. The fiery barrier intensified to a ghostly wall of flashing sapphire.
I’m sorry we couldn’t hold out longer, master, Griz said beside Eric. A spirit catcher was the best I could manage, so we could at least join you when you arrived.
Eric nodded and swallowed hard. I’m just glad you’re here. He fought back a servitor from the side, where the barrier didn’t reach. Let’s just get everyone out of here. I can hold them off –
The second behemoth crashed through the wall and into the courtyard. Only a handful of goblins were left beyond the barrier, blues who helped the others get past.
“Go with them,” Eric told the black goblins. “Make sure they make it to the keep.”
Eric backed away, used his shield to fend off demons on his left and swung at any who tried to rush past him for the fleeing goblins. He was careful to avoid the globs of burning mucus. The behemoth plodded on without a care. Its payload of imps cried out as one and began leaping from its back. Eric looked to make sure the goblins were far enough away.
Are you sure about this, master? Griz asked.
Oh, I’m sure. They’ve got this shit coming.
He waved his sword in front and imagined a barrier to protect from fire about himself. He connected the runes and waited for Korven to give it a boost. Backing away slowly, he was being overrun despite help from the spirit goblins. Eric called out another spell, without a framework, without purpose.
The entire courtyard erupted in a white hot blaze of wildfire. Prolonged shrieks rang out to the pops and crackles of burning flesh. Blackened forms within the fire dwindled and became ash. His barrier flashed orange, brightened to yellow against the onslaught and broke beneath the gale. Eric was thrown back and over the tumbled remains of wall.
When the fire finally ceased, his entire front was still smoking and reddened from the heat. Eric got up with a pained groan. It felt like someone had forced his entire body against a stove. He looked out at the devastation. All the imps had been reduced to char, but the larger demons were only moderately burned. His wildfire had barely reached the behemoth’s underside.
Great, Eric thought. They’ve got fire resistance.
He continued backing away, leading the demons east and fending off their attacks from air. The servitors were about to rush him when an inverse whooshing sounded out. It was like speeding in a car with the windows down and suddenly closing them all at once. Eric instinctually swallowed to clear his ears.
When the magic settled, an army of red goblins and a dozen war golems appeared in the courtyard. A white stood in front with an opened scroll held out before him. He immediately cleared his throat upon arriving and began to speak.
“Grizzletongue Orebender,” the white proclaimed in a loud voice, “you are under arrest for the unlawful entry of the conserv –”
They were swarmed by demons.