The unexpected arrival from Xanaranth had bought the others more time to get away. Eric thought to help, to use their distraction as an opportunity to attack from behind. There were too many demons. It was a massacre and a short-lived one at that. Eric could see even if he did lend a hand and killed a few demons, in the end he’d be left alone and overwhelmed. He turned and ran to catch up with the others.
His wounds were slowly healing. He hadn’t noticed during battle, but he had numerous gouges and dents all over. The burn across his front was by far the worst. Its pain eased bit by bit as he ran against the cold wind and toward Cledford.
Within minutes he caught up, slowed his pace and turned. He walked backward with sword and shield at the ready. Char, Blood and Shen were spurring goblins on, while Griz walked beside him in his mind. The spirit goblins had lost their physical form, their fury spent, and were now resting in his forest.
How did they do that? Eric asked. He kept a close watch on the demons, both on ground and in air. It was the fliers he was most concerned about. Better yet, how did you cast that spell without a ward?
The rules seem different for the dead, master, Griz said and studied his ghostly hand. I’m able to cast much more quickly, project whole wards from thought alone. As for the others, he said and looked beyond the trees along the trail in Eric’s mind, to where goblins had built a small village, emotion and mental state can affect spirits who linger on after death. Or perhaps they were able to manifest because you allowed it.
Whatever had happened drained them, which was why they were in bed resting. Eric could feel the power each spirit afforded him. The spirits who’d taken on a physical form offered so little it made him wonder if they could die – as in permanently. It felt like if he let them, they could expend their power as they saw fit. If they used it all, though, they’d be gone. It was just a feeling, a theory, and not one he was in a hurry to test.
Demons started running toward them.
We need a way to slow them down, Eric thought and looked over a shoulder. He could see the damaged wall far off in the distance, the entire keep on fire. They were still too far away. Especially the fliers.
There are only a handful of greens left, master. They won’t be enough.
How wide of a barrier can you make? Eric had a few other ideas, but they wouldn’t work if this one didn’t. Griz was still considering, when Eric said, Nevermind. I’m giving you permission. Do whatever it takes. Just don’t kill yourself. I need a barrier wide enough they won’t want to run around and high enough they can’t jump it. Korven, help him.
Eric turned his attention to the vault.
You fight for me, he told them, or you go back in the jars. For good. I will never give you this chance again. You don’t have to kill them, but slow those fuckers down. He set them all loose – all but Tragona. Not you, fuckface, he said to the lone remaining jar. I already know you can’t be trusted.
Wyverns took to the night sky in spectral form with a wild cry. Ghostly trailers of pale light traced their path toward the demon fliers. Demons and feys scrambled forth, stopped to eye one another with a feral disdain. As Griz and Korven worked a spell, the phantom feys and demons resolved to obey and charged west. Mud kicked up in their wake, and their prints smoked in pale wisps.
The barrier went up in a blaze of sapphire light. It stretched toward the stars as if the night air was on fire. Eric turned and ran, caught up to goblins and spurred them on. Many were wounded. All were tired. Yet they ran as if their lives depended on it.
Roars and cries rang out behind. Their echoed clash was drowned out beneath the crackle of bodies striking against the barrier. His spirits did as they were told, but Eric could feel the toll it was taking. His shield wavered and vanished back into a layer of metal. He no longer had the strength to call it forth.
Oh dear, Griz said and stumbled to his knees. The barrier failed, a wash of blue sparkle raining down across the mud. I’m sorry, master. I couldn’t hold it any longer.
It’s okay, Eric said. Go get some sleep.
Griz disappeared from his inner sight.
Eric couldn’t risk the others growing any weaker. He recalled them all and gave them new, separate areas on the outskirts of his mind. Their spectral glow faded back into the night. The demons, unhindered, continued their headlong run. Even the behemoth could be seen in the distance.
Goblins passed through the portcullis with Eric close behind. The keep from steps to tower was on fire beneath the beacon. Eric felt the magic fueling the inferno as a thrumming along his metal. It caused stones to burn and blacken, mortar to crumble and the air to fill with smoke. Sebran and a handful of men were guarding a corner of the courtyard. They stood between a group of women and children and a collector. Eric ran straight for the fey as goblins moved out of his way.
At the other end of the yard, beyond the broken wall, were hundreds of prisoners in glowing blue chains at their wrists and ankles. They were bound together by a cord of light that ran through each one at the middle and carried past to the next. Trolls and humans of all age and size were tethered together in long lines. They looked exhausted and starved, dirtied and bloodied, helpless and in despair. They were tied to fey horses that had eyes, manes and tails that burned as purple fire.
Between the prisoners and those still free stood the Hunt. Collectors were driving a final group to be chained, pushed or pulled the unwilling, dragged those unable by the collar or a leg. Stalkers walked what remained of the wall. One caught sight of a muddied girl hiding with her mother beneath an overturned wagon. It marked them with a short cry. A collector quickly grabbed them by the hair and dragged them screaming toward the others.
There were no dead, neither fey nor human. The feys who stood the courtyard with bloodied cudgels and coiled rope had no intention of killing their prey. They varied in appearance, as much as a collector from a stalker, but also looked much the same in that they were undeniably all feys. Their skin was so pale as to seem bloodless, with black talons and blacker eyes. Some had long dark hair tied back with silver chain, while others were short and fair and let the locks fly free over lengthy tapered ears. Some had sharp rows of teeth or upper and lower fangs, while others had toothless sneers. They all wore dirtied and tattered silk that billowed in the wind.
Eric struck out with his sword as the last group was put in chains. The spell that bound them, that chained their spirits in spectral shackles and tied them to one another, sent out a sickly chill like the hollow cries of tortured ghosts. Lightning struck in a series of bright successive strikes, as if their capture had tipped the scale and let loose the looming storm. The collector’s arm was cut free as the first drops of rain fell. Eric lunged forward and jabbed it in the throat to prevent it from becoming smoke. He and Sebran stabbed at its middle at the same time.
Demons entered the portcullis.
“I ask you for help,” Sebran snapped and pulled his sword free, “and you bring demons to my doorstep!”
Eric kicked the dead collector from his blade. “Yeah,” he said as the demons rushed past to attack the feys. “You’re welcome.”
The rain was black. Its downpour was like a living shadow. Eric held out a hand to catch some, saw the black swirl within each drop. It reminded him of the corruption.
Oh shit, he thought. Kor’s free.
As if he needed further proof, he could feel his power weaken. A piece of him had been stolen. A look inward to his vault revealed the jar had been taken.
Tragona was gone.
The rain had an immediate effect on all it touched. Some dropped to all fours and howled in pain as the darkness spread through their veins. Some growled and grew feral, enraged to the point of blindly attacking the nearest to them. Others fell over and lay still, either dead or unconscious. Those who physically changed became monstrous caricatures of themselves, with exaggerated features of face and body. The mentally affected seemed to suffer the worst, fought imaginary foes, tormented by hallucinations, harangued by voices no one else could hear.
Only Eric and the black goblins seemed unaffected. They were already corrupted, had been created that way, and Eric was protected from its touch. He could feel its magic against his metal like whispers in the dark. They sought to reach him, to break through but couldn’t pierce the veil around his spirit.
Chaos ensued as feys and demons killed each other, as prisoners collapsed in agony or fought to tear one another apart. Even Sebran clutched his head, let fall his sword and screamed at visions only he could see. The goblins were at each other’s throats. The grotesquely changed died first, either victim to the masses or from alterations life was never meant to sustain. Exposed organs, unwieldy bodies, flesh and bones stretched to breaking, they fell to violence and corruption in equal measure.
Eric had no way to help those who were suffering, but he could take advantage of the turmoil. He gripped his sword and eyed a fey. Lumbering stomps outside the wall drew his attention to the behemoth. Its mouth was agape and biting at delusions. It swung wildly from side to side but kept on for the keep.
“We have to stop it,” Eric told the black goblins and headed for the gate, “before it gets in here and crushes everyone.”
A woman leapt at his leg and tried to bite through his metal. All she managed was to break her teeth. Eric pulled her off by the waist and tossed her gently into a corner. He had a much more pressing problem, like how to deal with a crazed behemoth before it reached the wall.
Essence took him from behind, the combined rush of the resulting onslaught. By claw and magic, sword and fist, the corrupted sought to end one another by any means. The burning of a transformation overcame him as he ran. It was difficult to think clearly, with so much magic and mayhem, the mingled clamor of combat and madness.
He recalled the weakness of losing Tragona. It made him wonder if his transformations could be undone. If that was possible, he’d need protection from it happening again.
No one’s gonna nerf me. Choice made, power spent, he wasn’t all that surprised when nothing changed. Typical.
Char and Blood went for the eyes, while Eric ran for a front leg. Shen was close behind and carried with him a stolen pike. Eric swung at the tree-like leg. Shen ran up the wounded limb and toward the behemoth’s mouth. It roared as Eric pulled the blade free, kicked out at him and missed. It began to stomp its front legs and snap at a hallucination.
Two more swings cut the leg free, as claws tore at its eyes. Shen jabbed the pike into its upper palate behind the teeth and leapt down toward Eric. Rather than catch him, Eric eased the goblin’s fall with a palm and let the momentum carry through. Shen rolled into a tumble and slid across mud to a stop. Char and Blood held on for dear life as the behemoth tried to shake them loose, bit down and impaled itself upon the pike. It stiffened and fell forward, crashed through wall and the portcullis. Char and Blood jumped away as it fell, before joining the bloody collapse.
His next transformation did nothing as well.
Eric climbed the rubble into the courtyard. Those feral or driven mad were laying waste to everyone else, to those too weak to fight back, even the unconscious. Rain fell without relent, the storm driving them on. Pools of blood drenched the mud, swirled in the black of Kor’s corruption.
Though demons had outnumbered the feys, it was clear they were going to lose. Eric jumped in and fought beside them, drove back the remaining feys until only a handful remained. Essence continued to rush him from the prisoners. The goblins were mostly gone, as were the humans. Only Sebran and a few others were left to deal with their madness.
Eric felt the third transformation take hold like a firm grip. It strengthened the bond between his spirits and his own. Not only did he feel each one more keenly, he could see glimpses of their lives when he focused on any one.
When the last fey fell, Eric held his sword out toward a seeker and four servitors. They were all that was left of the demons.
“Truce?” Eric asked.
The seeker paused. He seemed to be considering it, though his eyes twitched and darted from one end of the courtyard to the other. The servitors visibly shook as they fought against whatever magic held them in check.
“Why?” The seeker looked from the decimated goblins to Eric and the three blacks at his side. “Why now?”
“This rain,” Eric said. “You can feel its magic, right?” The seeker gave a single nod. “It’s from a god named Kor. He was just set free. He won’t stop with just destroying this world. He’ll come for yours too. A truce now means maybe we fight him together, before he kills us both.”
The seeker was bleeding from a number of wounds. He put a hand to the biggest cut at his side. At his nod, the servitors turned and left south out of the courtyard.
“I will carry your proposal back to Karron,” he said and began to limp away. He didn’t stop but added, “You fight well.”
With the feys all dead, the magic chains had fallen away into nothing. Maddened trolls and humans rushed to attack the others, leaping on those nearest.
“Kill the crazy ones,” Eric told the black goblins.
As they picked up weapons to follow his orders, Eric went about doing the same. It didn’t matter in the end. He could see the essence of all those who’d survived, the ones driven mad or in a coma. There were barely twenty left, and he had no means of curing them.
“God damn it,” Eric said as he looked down at the body of Taliana. She’d been strangled by another troll, stomped into the mud in the chaos.
A column of black and purple fire erupted in the distance, bright enough to burn away clouds and light the night from days away. He didn’t need to be told that it came from Westorval or who caused it. Anger roiled in his middle with a desire to kill.
“Kor,” Eric said.
Though he seethed with grief and hatred, he didn’t know what to do. A part of him wanted to go back to the castle, gather all the spirits from the catcher and make mithrinum goblins with the last of the fiends.
There isn’t time for any of that, Ella said.
Rain steamed off Eric’s shoulders. I know.
Another part of him simply wanted to go home. What good was he against a god? What good would it do if after all he’d endured if he died for nothing?
It’s not nothing, she said. Others had gathered in the village in his mind, circled him with their unspoken desire to save their world. It’s everything. It’s you and I and every life he plans to take.
Why should I care? Eric asked bitterly. What has this world ever done for me?
You do care, Ella said. I can feel it, as clearly as I feel the love for my father and my family and my people who need your help. We do right because it needs doing.
Griz appeared and said, Master, we serve the greater good and in so doing serve ourselves.
Eric looked out at the column of fire, tried to imagine the sort of power it would take to create it, to corrupt an entire world with a single storm.
I’m afraid, was all he said.
Ella put a hand to his heart. It takes wisdom to know your fears and courage to conquer them. If you go, you will not do so alone.
“Courage, huh? Well, waddya say,” Eric asked the black goblins, “wanna go kill a god?”
Char cocked his head to a side, Blood followed Eric’s gaze to the northeast and Shen clicked his teeth. As one all three turned and started walking toward the column of fire.