Eric struggled toward the vault. Griz and all the blues and oranges had gone to fetch Sebran. Eric knew Sebran would need the contained souls to work a spell if he agreed to help. Eric wanted to get down to the vault while he was still able, before the wrong runes unraveled and left him blind or crippled or some other horrible fate. His three loyal goblins hadn’t left his side, even helped him down the stairs to the laboratory.
They were stronger than they looked.
“Do you guys talk?” he asked them, using a wall to keep himself upright. All three had their arms beneath his other hand, supporting him like a walking stick. They looked up at him but didn’t answer. “No? Nothing?”
One squinted and curled his upper lip, revealing sharp teeth. All he could manage was a slow growl.
Eric nearly collapsed, smashed a table on his way to the well. His head swam in a foggy dizziness that pressed inward along his metal, sent pressure down his back. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve thought he had the flu. There was more to it though, because he could feel it clawing at his runes, suffocating their magic. Whatever had been in the jar wasn’t like Tragona’s experiments. It wasn’t corrupting his spirit.
It was killing him.
The hundreds of spirits had followed. He kept seeing glimpses of them flash before him, at his periphery, in a room of utter darkness. They trembled at the edge of the platform as the false Eric paced around them. He would suddenly bend to sneer or feign attacks to frighten them into submission. Silver wards on the distant walls cast their glow on the glossy floor. He could see and feel the sickness spread from rune to sigil with tendrils of black smoke. It dulled their moonlight glow, gradually doused their vibrant flame until the magic died away.
One moment Eric was stumbling, trying to break his fall, and the next Tragona was an inch from his face. In the darkness of that place, the mask’s grin grew ear to ear. It was the sort of smile filled with insult, of inevitable triumph. Eric knew the look well, had worn it himself countless times in the past. When he’d been hurting the most was when he garnered the greatest pleasure from hurting others.
You should rest, the other Eric said, let me take over for a while.
Eric painfully climbed back to his feet. Even in a golem body made of metal, he felt at times in his old flesh. He breathed harder when he strained, felt the heat and wetness of sweat across his brow, trembled within from aching muscles. It was all an illusion, a phantom body like a missing limb. In that dark space in his mind, surrounded by his glyph, he was back in that skin. On his knees, struggling with a burning illness, scared and alone, he withered but refused to break beneath the onslaught that was Tragona.
It was difficult to tell how many hours had passed before they reached the crypts outside the vault. What he saw kept alternating between the world and his mind. It wasn’t long before his reality became both.
What happened to you? The other Eric stood over him with a look of disgust and disappointment. Except it wasn’t him, wasn’t Tragona. It was Sebran. And the look was one of cautious fear at odds with controlled anger. Worse still, he was marked. They were both running out of time. Can you hear me?
“The black soul,” Eric said, strained as if he’d spoken through gritted teeth. It was a struggle to stay grounded in the reality before him, too easy to believe the one in his mind. “It was – it broke. It’s in me.”
“And what,” Sebran asked, “I’m supposed to help you now? After everything you’ve done to my people?”
The lord looked tired, his clothes disheveled. It made Eric wonder what promise or threat had convinced him to come. Tragona flashed between worlds, superimposed himself over Sebran. He tried to alter the meaning of his words with inflection, twist the expression on his face.
C’mon, let me play, other Eric said. Quit hoggin’ the controller.
“I could threaten you,” Eric said, “but I won’t. I’m askin’ for help. I’ll pay you back. I’ll owe you one.”
“Owe me?” Sebran laughed. “Why wouldn’t I just let you die and take what’s mine once you’re gone?”
The black goblins didn’t move closer, but as one all their hands twitched in warning.
“Time,” Eric replied, short of breath. “You don’t have any.” Runes kept winking out. He’d lost use of his legs and left hand, his sense of smell. His vision was blurred to a small point right in front. “You’re marked. When the Hunt comes, you’ll need help.”
“The Hunt isn’t real,” Sebran said unconvincingly. Even if it was, you’re a liar. You can’t be trusted.
“I never lied to you!” Eric snapped back. A raised brow was Sebran’s only response. “I was a dick, but I never lied. The Hunt is real. It’s coming. Help me, and I’ll help you when it does.”
Sebran shook his head. “You purposely infected my mages, stole from my people, left us to starve! How can I believe a single word you say?”
“I told you. I’m a dick, not a liar.”
He lost hearing in his left ear, vision in the right eye. A deadening cold was stretching up from his legs.
Sebran looked back toward the jars in the vault.
“I don’t know a spell to purify a spirit,” he said, “only one to increase potency and cleanse some impurities.”
Like you, other Eric said. He laughed and spun with arms wide. C’mon! Look around you! You’re dying, and I can fix it. Give me control. Go to sleep. You look awfully tired…
The suggestion gripped his mind with the promise of needed slumber. It felt like taking cold medicine, when the comforting warmth rose up and overpowered all else.
“Anything’s better than nothing,” Eric said and may have slurred his words. His eyes were getting heavy.
Sebran left to take a jar from off the shelf and came back. The way he held it in his hand and looked down at its bright swirl was the way an addict might look at his favorite drug after years of being clean. There was dread and desire in that single look.
“I’ve never cast it on a living person,” Sebran said in a somber tone. “I don’t know if it will work.”
It won’t work. I’m your only option.
“Just do something,” Eric said.
Sebran started to cast, drew bright golden runes and sigils in the air over Eric. Tragona let fall his mask, stood in the way and swept aside the runes with a broad wave of his arm. They scattered like leaves, dashed to sparkle against the walls. Candlelight died away beneath the rise of intense dark. It pulled Eric inward, back to his knees on the lustrous platform.
He looked like Sebran but older, with a full beard of snowy chestnut and wrinkles about the eyes. His hair was oiled back, tied to a braid down past his neck. He wore a robe of crimson with black trim and gold filigree. Each finger bore a ring of different color gems, with light gleaming off their cuts. He wove a spell of his own with a wave of both hands in the form of a rainbow. A sword appeared in air. He took it down with a grin.
Let’s dance, shall we?
Eric got to his feet, more out of fear than challenge. He didn’t have a weapon nor did he really know how to use one. It was one thing to swing a sword with the strength and armor of a golem…
“I – I don’t know how to fight,” Eric said.
Long daggers appeared in both hands. The length and curve of their blades, the gold pommels and fiery red glow of enchantment. They were Sorrow and Mourn. It’d taken him fourteen runs in the Molten Carousel to get them. Leather armor covered him as well, an item set with full bonuses and fully enchanted.
Sebran unraveled the ward on the jar and broke its wax seal. Essence spilled upward in a cloud of orange, like a smoky summer sunset. It swirled and rushed for Eric but was captured in the construct. Silver runes in the far dark winked alive and glowed bright. Ghostly men and women stood, still naked and afraid but no longer sick.
“I don’t understand,” Sebran said. “The glyphs aren’t completing. They’re faltering.”
Tragona gave a flourished bow, with a salute of blade to forehead, before moving forward to attack. His long sword cut the air in three whistling swipes as he closed. The fourth took Eric in the shoulder, a gash through his armor that exposed bone and muscle.
“It’s as if there’s more than one spirit inside you,” Sebran said. He went for another jar.
It felt like being punched. Eric didn’t hurt so much as get annoyed by the wetness and growing cold.
“You’re gonna regret that,” he said with a snarl.
Eric’s perspective shifted, moved out of his body to up and just behind – like a video game. He had skills and abilities, knew their cooldowns like second nature. He disappeared into streaks of black and reappeared behind Tragona. Already facing him, Eric drove a blade into his back. Red numbers flared to life over Tragona’s head as he screamed in anguish. It was a critical backstab.
Sebran loosed another jar. New runes flared, more spirits stood but the spell wouldn’t complete.
Tragona whirled about with magical flames in one hand and a crystalized frost billowing off his sword. In a frenzy of angry spellwork, he scored burns on Eric’s flesh with both fire and cold. The more fury he expended, the more tired he became. He backhanded Eric, sent him sliding across the platform toward the edge.
“It isn’t working,” Sebran said. “It shouldn’t need so many spirits to complete.”
Spirit hands gripped Eric by the shoulders, halted his soaring over and into the abyss. They were hunched over in fear, faced away from Tragona, but hadn’t entirely given up. They pulled Eric back, so he could stand. He’d dodged most of the attacks and used his evasion skill to avoid the worst of what he couldn’t. On his feet again, Eric vanished into smoke, stealthed behind Tragona one more time and cycled through his rotation. Stun, bleed, build, build, execute! Thick green poison dripped from both wounds when Eric pulled the blades from Tragona’s chest.
Runes flared, more spirits stood.
Tragona was growing tired, weaker, while Eric was gaining strength. Each opened jar eased the sickness, reinvigorated him for the fight.
You think too small.
The warrior-wizard became fire, a giant plume of blinding orange in a whirlwind blaze. He scorched the platform, marred its luster and filled the air in choking black. The air between them wavered from the heat, as embers sparked and popped. Tragona swelled to twice his size as a cyclone inferno and moved to engulf his foe.
“Break them all!” Eric ordered.
Little feet skittered to obey. Sebran shouted for them to stop.
The fire overwhelmed Eric. He had no cooldowns left, nothing to buff his resistance or defensive maneuvers to counter the attack. It licked at his leather armor, flaked away their enchantment.
“Too small, huh?”
Eric decided to change the game. He let fall both his daggers, gave up the armor and its bonuses and became a water elemental. He rose up in a splash of sea blue with sapphire eyes and came crashing back down in a frothy wave. Fire sizzled and sent up great billows of steam. Tragona was left in the flames that remained, smashed and broken against the floor. Over and again, Eric brought waves down upon him until the fires were completely out.
A roar of crackling essence caused a wave of its own, came rushing from the vault in a flurry of broken glass and exploding magic. It struck the construct first, flared all its wards to bursting flames of gold. Silver light along the walls erupted all at once, scorched and ate through darkened sickness. The construct fell, completed, but the essence carried on.
A new burning gripped Eric’s middle and sent up a golden incandescence around the platform. Its intensity burned away at the smooth edges. The spirits all cried out, tried to shield their eyes and bodies from the glow. Eric shrank back down into his human shape.
He wanted protection from corruption. He couldn’t let himself, his glyph and all the spirits, be compromised like that again. The first transformation felt no different, so he persisted through the others. It was only after the third, when the gold radiance abated and fell away, he felt any sort of change. It was like feeling the first rays of sun against his face after a long night of numbing cold.
He looked down at Tragona. The man was beaten but still there. Eric needed a way to handle him, to keep him in line. He wished he could lock Tragona away in a jar, like the man’s family had done to so many other souls. A jar appeared in Eric’s hand.
“Oh really,” he said.
Sebran picked himself up off the floor. The explosion of magic from behind and in front had knocked him over.
“Did it work?” Sebran asked.
Tragona groaned, opened his eyes and became a glow of swirling orange. His essence swept up into the jar and was sealed with a glass stopper. Eric put it down on the platform.
“I think so.” Eric stood in the world as well, felt all his strength returned to the metal body. “Yeah, man. You totally did it. Thank you,” he said both to Sebran and the goblins.
Eric could still see inward to all the spirits around the platform. He recognized one of them as Ella. He walked over to her, was about to reach out a hand to touch her shoulder when she turned halfway to face him. She was naked, like the others. Eric wanted her to be clothed and she was. With a thought, every one of them became dressed as they were in life.
You don’t have to be afraid, Eric told them. Slowly they turned his way. To Ella, he said, Not anymore.