It was strange, being able to speak with the spirits inside him at any time. They spoke with each other as well, but he could tune that out if he wanted. When he was alone, in the quiet of night, it was comforting to hear them. They had no world but what he gave them, nothing but the platform and silver glow of his glyph. So he gave them a clearing surrounded by forest and a clear stream. The day’s cycle followed the real world, and by end of the first they had already started to build a community. Even Bel and the other goblins had started building out in the forest.
Why didn’t I see any of you before? Eric asked Ella the next day as they walked along the stream. The sounds of chopping wood and hammering followed after. Ya know, when I was on the platform with Jaken.
Perhaps you weren’t ready, she said. She wore a light dress more suited to summer. The days were the same there but not the season. My great uncle controlled much as he grew stronger. Her hair was done up in curls, and she was eating an apple, though none of them needed to eat or drink anymore. I can tell you he won’t be missed.
It made Eric wonder if he could’ve saved Jaken. The memory of him drowning sometimes came to mind for no reason. They were just flashes, quickly pushed aside, but troubling all the same. Eric looked back at all the spirits living in a world within his mind. Even more worrisome was the thought he’d become their afterlife.
“Master?” Griz asked.
Eric’s attention was brought back.
The construct had already completed, and the last brown climbed out of the cauldron. He’d performed the ritual by himself. Griz was still too tired from the last one.
The dwarven mine they’d found was massive, went on for miles below the surface with numerous deposits of ores and minerals. While electrum had been fairly easy to come by, there was only one pocket of topaz so far. They needed more workers and crafters, so browns had become a priority. There were sixteen fiends still bound in the valley, but Griz had insisted no corrupted spirits be used again. There was nothing particularly wrong with the black goblins, aside from their inability to speak. It was clear they could have been something greater, though, had purer spirits been used in the ritual.
Sorry, Eric told Ella, I gotta bounce.
He liked talking to her, enjoyed being back in his old body. It was too difficult, however, to carry on multiple conversations.
“I’m here,” Eric said. “So… they turn out okay, or do we need a short bus to get ‘em around?”
They’d used the last three horses instead. While using an animal spirit might have been fine ordinarily, they’d also stretched the essence a bit thin by creating twelve goblins. At least they could eat the horses – two birds and all that.
“None will be craftsmen, master,” Griz replied as he checked each one for physical maladies, “but they will all serve with honor.” They weren’t quite as ridiculous as the grays had been, but two had already started a laughing and shoving match that was spreading. “Speaking of which, the imperative you added was… surprising. Not that you’d want to, after Belchburn’s betrayal, but that you were able. Imperatives are tricky and dangerous to accomplish. Then again, few if any casters can complete such a complex construct on their own.”
“Knock it off,” Eric told the browns. They quieted and stiffened to attention like a cartoon army, which would have been fine if it hadn’t caused one of them to fart. Eric sighed as they all struggled to stifle laughs. “It links them to me is all. I don’t want a repeat of what happened with the reds.”
He looked over at the three black goblins. They stood waiting against a nearby wall in the courtyard, watching with intent. They seemed always at the ready, as if at any given moment they might leap into action. If they weren’t so loyal, their severe focus might be a cause for concern.
As much as they needed browns to keep working the mines, to build a new foundry, to craft new tools, armor and weapons, Eric wanted to try using mithrinum. Griz complained much as he had with the star metal but for a different reason. It had never been done before because mining mithrinum was the very reason the first goblins had been created and enslaved. In their minds, it was a dwarven metal. Goblins wanted nothing to do with it. They’d been prioritizing materials for browns and reds, mostly the topaz and ruby. Still, Eric couldn’t help but wonder what sort of goblin the inherently magical metal might create.
Griz gave a nod of approval to the last brown and sent them off to begin training. Crafters were smelting the last of the gold ore and would be heading back to the mine before nightfall. They looked to Eric before moving.
“It’s okay,” he said to them.
They were more childlike than the black goblins, looked to Eric for orders but weren’t so intense all the time. He’d told them earlier to listen to Griz, Bitters and the other crafters, to learn everything they could. It was clear they were somewhat limited by their origins. They could speak right away, though, and at least had a basic understanding of how to survive.
“They’ll do fine, master,” Griz said and watched them go. “We’ve done far more with much less in the past.”
“So do all animals have souls then?” Eric asked. He began to wonder if he absorbed a horse’s essence if it would end up with the other spirits in his mind. “Like even rats and shit? What about bugs?”
Griz eased himself down onto a castle step. “I think all life is connected to a soul one way or another, master. However strong that connection may be is a different matter. There is a reason some spells call for a virgin princess or a military leader. Some flames burn brighter than others.”
“You look like you need to go back to bed,” Eric said as a scout whistled a warning.
“I could always use more sleep, master.” Griz used his staff to pull himself back up. “If only the world would stop turning for a few moments.”
It was a messenger from Sebran. There were no more horses at the keep, so he’d been forced to run.
“Lord Sebran is sorry to inform you,” the man said between catching his breath, “that your request to access the Academy library has been denied, milord.” His eyes had been moving from one goblin to another, probably wondering if this message might be his last. Being the bearer of bad news was a dangerous job. “Furthermore, the high council sees no reason to look devote resources into the matter.”
“’Course not,” Eric said. “They’ll wait ‘til the problem can’t be ignored, like every other fuckin’ government agency faced with a world-changing problem. I mean there’s definitive proof and shit. You’d think the school of magic or whatever would be worried about a disease that makes it so people can’t cast spell.”
The messenger said, “Lord Sebran believes they will look into the matter, milord. They just – they don’t want to share their findings. He wanted me to assure you he will pass on any information he receives.”
Griz spat into the mud. “It will be too late by then, master. We’ll have to do our own research.”
“Yay,” Eric said flatly. “Field trip.”
“Milord,” the man said and cleared his throat, “Lord Sebran also wanted me to remind you of your bargain. He has held up his end of it and done as you asked.”
“We’re just a few hours away,” Eric said. “If you think a messenger will take too long, you can set up a beacon. Light a big ass fire, big enough for us to see it, and we’ll be on our way.” The man nodded, his face drawn. He looked like he’d barely eaten in days. Eric asked, “How bad is it over there?”
The man squared his shoulders, as if he’d only just remembered he was a soldier.
“Very.” He gave a salute of fist to chest, turned and left.
“We should do something about that,” Eric said as he watched the messenger leave the courtyard. “What good is magic, if you can’t use it to feed people?”
“If you wish, master,” Griz said and headed up the steps. “I’ll go get ready. We should leave at once.”
While the shaman was gone, Eric went over to the smithy. He called out to the crafter in charge, a brown by the name of Mudskip.
“Hey Skip,” Eric said. “When you guys go back to the mine, I want you to bring me back enough mithrinum for three bars.”
Skip put down his tongs and wiped dirty hands on his leather apron. He looked up at Eric, sweat running down his head.
“What’s it for, master?”
“I’m gonna be workin’ on a nunya,” Eric replied and cut Skip off before he could ask. “A nunya business. Just get it done.”
Eric waited by the fire. Even though all their cooking was done in the kitchen, it’d become standard to leave the bonfire burning for the guards to warm themselves. When Griz returned minutes later, he looked refreshed but was alone. He immediately began casting a portal.
“Just us then?” Eric asked.
Griz finished the spell. “Just us, master. Any more would draw attention.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m gonna draw attention,” Eric said and reached out a hand toward the beryl light between the stones.
“You should know, master,” Griz said in warning, before Eric touched the portal, “we’ll be trapped once we arrive. We’ll need to find a way to cross back through the barrier again.”
“One of those walking sticks the white used to get here,” Eric said. “Shouldn’t be a problem. I hope.”
They passed through to a grand chamber of white marble adorned with gold. From thick bands across the bottom and top of tall columns to an elaborate pattern inscribed into the floor like a glyph, shiny gold was used to highlight the luminous sheen of polished marble. It ran the base of each wall, swept upward through more spellwork and joined together in a single piece on the ceiling like a work of art. Magic thrummed within the metal, even stronger than the glowing white orbs that lit the room.
As tall as the ceiling was, Eric wondered why goblins would need so much room. Either it was to accommodate golems even larger, or the space was necessary to craft such an intricate spell.
There was a gasp from behind.
A white goblin was seated in a golden chair with red cushions behind a solid desk of white marble. It too was decorated in fancy goldwork, along each leg and across its surface. The goblin had been reading from a book. A golem on either side stood back against the wall. They resembled the room so much they nearly blended with the background. Pure white marble with gold filigree and wards stretched across their surface, they were barely half Eric’s size at ten feet tall.
“You brought the conqueror here?” the white asked.
A layer of metal flaked off Eric into a swarm of black particles. They surged toward his hand and reformed into a sword. He crossed the distance as both golems began to move. The white screeched, eyes wide behind his gold-rimmed glasses. Griz began to work a spell. Eric swung clean through the first, from right shoulder to waist. Magic erupted in a shockwave of golden light. It threw the white from his seat and scorched Eric’s front. The upper half of marble golem struck the floor.
Eric flung the desk aside and went after the second golem. A cloud of yellow essence took him from behind, momentarily distracting him with its charge. The golem punched him in the side strong enough to leave a dent. The second took Eric across the thigh and brought him down to one knee. The white pulled his hand from a coat pocket and threw gold dust at Eric’s face. It hit against a sphere of blue light, as if the goblin was trapped within a bubble. The dust quickly spread, caused the white to choke and grasp at his eyes.
Eric drove his left fist into the golem’s crotch. It didn’t double over as he expected, but its marble cracked in two places. He stood up with all his strength, brought the blade’s edge with him. His sword sliced through the golem’s face. Its glyph was damaged but not destroyed. It continued to throw heavy punches, furthering the dents in Eric’s middle. Lightning struck its right arm, broke off more marble and scorched three wards. Its arm hung useless, as it began to swing blindly with the other. Eric plunged his sword through its chest, used both hands to force it upward. When the blade came free, the golem’s glyph exploded in a golden flash. Eric slumped against the wall as he absorbed the essence and began to heal.
“You couldn’t bring us directly to the library?” he asked in a pained voice. The burns were extensive but hadn’t reached his glyph.
The white had choked himself unconscious within the magical bubble. Griz checked the white’s pulse and found it satisfactory.
“I brought us to the conservatory, master.” Griz took the white’s handkerchief and used it as a gag. “This room is a gateway.” He slipped off the coat and used its sleeves to bind the white’s hands in back. “As a precaution, the barrier forces all nearby portals to exit here.”
“A little head’s up would be nice.”
“Hmm, yes, master.” Griz looked toward the golden double doors. “Perhaps I underestimated your presence. We should cloak you with illusion. It’s only a matter of time before the caretakers realize I’m here without proper authority.”
Eric was breathing easier with each moment. He let the sword flake away and return to his body. The worst of his burns were fading from white to dark. Even the dents had started to straighten.
“You work on my costume,” Eric said. “I’m gonna sit here a minute.”
By the time Griz had finished casting, Eric was fully healed. He couldn’t see the illusion but felt the tingle of it on his metal. When they walked past a column toward the double doors, he caught a reflection in its gold décor. He looked like one of the marble golems, pure white with golden wards in tight circles all about him.
“Damn,” Eric said. “I look fancy.”
Griz said, “Master, perhaps it would be best if you behaved like a defender as well. You’ll need to remain quiet and walk a step behind me. Try to keep your eyes forward. Other golems don’t look about the way you do, like a visitor from another world.”
He just call me a tourist?
Eric frowned but let Griz lead the way.
Once outside the doors, he could see they were in an opened corridor. They were ten floors up, with a central courtyard to their right. The motif of white and gold went on throughout the building, whether in marble or stone, with gold decoration and spellwork. Trees and statues could be seen past the stone bannister, and the sounds of stringed instruments carried up. There were at least another ten floors above, each one same as the last. A few white petals drifted downward, where each level had a flowered balcony.
Each room and corridor they went past on the left had large double doors like the gateway. Some of them were guarded by marble golems, while others were locked with visible bars and glyphs. A multitude of whites were going about their business, talking in pairs, staring down at scrolls or merely walking with purpose. The few who had their attention drawn to Griz quickly looked away, as if a brown was beneath their notice. The corridor was wide enough for golems to pass by with plenty of room to spare. None of them seemed to pay Eric any attention at all.
Once the corridor reached its end, the only way to go was right. The next went on for the same length but at its center was a spiral staircase. They descended four floors and headed into a library directly across. Rows of bookcases on either side of the room stretched off into the distance. Long tables in between held white goblins hard at work, either writing onto or reading scrolls, their heads buried in large tomes, hidden behind stacks of books or quietly discussing an open page. There were ten to twenty at each table, with dozens of tables on each side. Their whispers were enough to cause a hushed din.
Griz motioned for Eric to wait by the door while he went toward the central hub. Behind a circular counter, whites worked a card catalogue, dispensing the location of specific books to those waiting in line. It took a few minutes for Griz to reach the front. By the perturbed look of the librarian, Griz had to do some explaining to justify his presence. The white frowned even more, left to look up the information and scrawled something down on a piece of paper. He passed it beneath the golden bars that separated them and watched Griz walk away. He kept his eyes on the shaman the entire time it took to return to Eric.
“He’s gonna be trouble,” Eric said quietly.
Griz nodded toward one of the doors in the side walls and kept walking. Eric followed after. They passed into a smaller room with a single table and six chairs. It looked like it was meant to be used for private study. Griz went over to the leftmost wall where there was a shelf with a large golden box and a bell. He opened the box, put in the slip of paper, closed it and rang the bell on the wall.
“This could take a while, master.”
Eric turned back to the door. It was closed but had no lock. He held out a hand and started casting a barrier spell. The runes quickly appeared, but it took far longer to imagine what it was he wanted. He saw it in his mind, encompassing the entire room. He tried to envision every conceivable way someone could try to get in or damage the barrier. It was an extremely difficult thing to visualize all at once. When he finally thought he had it, he closed the ward. The spell completed, and a barrier of blue light went up within the room.
The bell rang.
Griz opened the box. The slip of paper was gone, and in its place was a large book titled Taellus: A History of Magic. The book was half his size.
“That won’t hold, master,” Griz said and took a seat at the table with the book. He began searching through its tall pages. “The ward is too simple to keep a practiced caster out.”
“Trust me. I thought of everything.”
“Did you protect the spell from tampering, master?” Griz scanned one page with a finger, frowned and turned to the next. “Other casters can undo spells by directly affecting its runes.” He kept searching while he spoke. “The way a good barrier is cast, for example, is to create a separate ward for everything it’s protecting against and turn that into a glyph. Then make a second to guard them both and link them as a construct.”
Eric eyed the ward and grumbled. It looked fine to him. Thinking his effort might’ve been a waste of time was more than a little annoying.
“Just focus on the book.”
Time dragged on in quiet. The pages were inked in elegant writing, but there were hardly any pictures.
“Wait,” Griz said half an hour later. He flipped back through the pages, scanned to a passage, and hurried to where he’d left off. “Master, I think I found it. It’s a bit confusing, though. I’m not sure how much of it is fact or fable. Like most human books on magic, it’s written as a story and not a historical account.” He went back to the previous page. “It’s one of the Old Gods, Kor. It seems he was once the God of Purity, deeply in love with Lumen, the Goddess of Light. His sister Losa, the Goddess of Desire, shared his love for Lumen. To break them apart, Losa began to poison his mind with half-truths about Lumen’s feelings and fidelity. One lie after another filled Kor with jealousy and rage. By the time his love had turned to hate, he’d become the God of Corruption.”
“You can skip the backstory,” Eric said. “Although wouldn’t it make more sense for the sister to become Corruption? Whatever. So it is a god then. Just how fucked are we if he gets out? How did they beat him? What’s his weakness?”
Griz skipped another page. “Here, master. He was defeated on the astral plane in mental combat by a conclave of master magicians. Many of them died in the process. Once Kor was weakened in mind, they were able to weaken him physically. They then parted the two and trapped in separate, concealed prisons.”
“Astral combat?” Eric asked. “How the fuck are we supposed to do that?”
“I imagine, master,” Griz said, “we would have to find him first.” He turned another page. “Ah! It seems the constructs that bind him are so complex, hidden so well, no one could possibly set him free let alone find both prisons.”
“Tragona didn’t have to,” Eric pointed out. “He used an exploit instead.”
Griz closed the book and sighed. “It is quite the loophole, master. Our only hope now is to fix the ley lines before Kor is set free.”
“If he does get out,” Eric asked, “what then? I don’t know how to astral fight, and last I checked you were more Yoda than Professor X.”
The door handle jiggled. Someone banged, and the ward flared to life.
“Open this door at once!” a voice demanded. It had the tinny high pitch of a goblin.
The runes of Eric’s ward began to falter.
Griz said, “Perhaps we should discuss that later, master.” He went to the other side of the table for cover. “Once we’re safely away.”
Eric called his sword to hand.
He was ready when the ward failed, and the door was forced open. Eric swung his great sword with both hands toward the wall. It went clean through and beyond, over the white’s head, from one end of the marble golem standing behind him to the other. The eruption of magic threw the goblin straight at Eric’s leg. The white fell over unconscious, and his walking stick clattered against the floor. Eric picked it up, tossed it to Griz. The other golem hadn’t moved, still looked whole. Eric poked its chest. The top half slid back and off. Its fall echoed throughout the library.
“We should probably go,” Eric said.
Griz came around the table with his staff and the book in one arm and the walking stick in his other hand. Eric put a finger to the shaman’s shoulder. Griz tapped the stick against the floor, and magic encompassed them.
Everything went white.