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Eric fumed.

I knew he was gonna fuck me! He also felt stupid for not keeping track of his own body. Now what the fuck do I do?

“What can he do with it?” he asked Griz.

The shaman looked frightened, both at Eric’s obvious anger and what Sebran might do. Wheels were spinning behind that one good eye.

“With the appropriate spell and materials? Master, he could potentially force your spirit back into its original body. It would be difficult, much more so without you there, but not impossible.”

“But it’s dead,” Eric complained. “What in the fuck happens to me then? Do I just die, like all of this was for nothing? Do I become a god damn zombie or something?”

Marbit backed away. Eric had been clenching his fists without realizing it. He wanted to scream, to reach out and crush something… anything.

He wanted to kill Sebran.

“I – I don’t know, master.” Griz straightened with resolve. “We need to get it back. Whether he plans to use your body to blackmail you into doing his bidding or force your spirit back into it, so he can claim the golem for himself, we need to take it back. If we recall everyone, we can march on Cledford as soon as they return.”

It was stupid to think they could ever resurrect his body, epic quest or no, and put his spirit back inside of it like changing a pair of clothes. His meat suit was dead. Keeping it around was a liability, something to be used against him. So long as he had hope, of bringing it back to life, he was weak, exposed.

Too bad I can’t use the hollow part of me as storage. It’d be easy to keep it safe if it was inside me all the time. No, his best bet was in the changes. Level up enough times, and I can make this thing human.

“How many?” Eric asked Marbit. “Guards, knights, archers, anyone with a weapon. What are we up against once we break through the wall?”

“Fifty-seven archers, master.” The orange squinted, looking up as she recalled and ticking off numbers on one hand. “Thirty-four knights, fifty-one pikemen, a hundred and sixty-three foot soldiers –” she ran out of fingers, since goblins only had four, and cycled back to her thumb – “fifty-two guards, eighteen squires, three casters and over three hundred peasants. Most of the soldiers are from Raynver, but they follow Sebran’s orders – for the most part, without complaint.”

Eric cursed and Griz whistled in appraisal.

“That’s a lot of dudes,” Eric said. “You weren’t even there all that long. How are your numbers so precise?”

Marbit lifted her chin with pride. “It’s what we do, master. I disguised myself as a child, worked in the kitchen, served food and drink in the hall, cleaned the stables –

“It doesn’t sound like those last two would go well together,” Eric said, “handling food and cleaning shit.”

“All humans smell of piss and shit, master.” Marbit had said it like a fact. “It’s an impossible odor to escape. Only the lord bathes with water. The rest rub themselves with dirt.”

Great. Hygiene lessons from a gremlin. How the hell does anyone mistake that for a child?

“Either way,” Eric said, “it’s too many. I don’t wanna risk our guys like that. They shouldn’t be able to hurt me. It’ll be easier if I bust in, grab the block and leave.”

Griz warned, “This could be what he wants, master, to lure you close enough to complete the ritual. Rather than a frontal assault, we could send in oranges to do what they do best. With the right poison, we don’t have to kill anyone. They’ll all be too sick to fight back.”

“We don’t have that kinda time,” Eric said. “If they can put me back in my old body, then what’s to stop them from putting someone else into this one? Then I’d be royally screwed, assuming I don’t die in the process. No, I’ve gotta go by myself, smash the place up good enough he doesn’t think about fuckin’ with me again. Just be ready,” he told Griz. “If any of them follow me back here… you can kill ‘em.”

“Very well, master.”

Griz gave a single nod, like a salute, and was off. Marbit followed after, albeit slower, still exhausted from his run back.

It would be morning in a couple of hours. Assuming most people would be sleeping and he could run there in time, it was possible he could get his body back without too much of a fight. He still didn’t want to kill anyone – except Sebran.

That douche wrote his own obituary.

Eric began to run.

Being a hollow metal golem, he moved with relative ease and speed. Running was only slightly faster, but he never grew tired. He could maintain that pace for as long as needed. It was sort of a terrifying thought, being chased by a metal monster that could run forever, crash through stone walls and kill with a punch.

Even transformers needed to recharge. Hmm, can I go forever without running out of fuel? Does consuming essence recharge me? Eric considered as he ran. I’ll have to ask Griz next time I see him.

The ground wasn’t as muddy this time, had been hardened some by the morning cold, though the clouds always seemed to be threatening rain. Rumbles in the distance, the occasional bright flash between clouds; it seemed a storm was ever present, just waiting to open up.

Eric’s senses had been heightened but did nothing for his sense of time. Without a watch, he had no real way of knowing how long he ran. The stars were hidden behind clouds, like a perpetual gray blanket to match his mood. When the keep walls came into sight, he wasn’t sure how long it was before first light.

There were twice as many archers as last time but no guards outside the closed gate. He didn’t sense sentries along the way, nor were there knights out on patrol. The keep was closed up tight.

They were expecting him.

A call went out. The twang of loosed arrows ensued with the pitched whizzing of their arc. Eric paid them no attention. He kept on for the wall. The iron portcullis was too difficult an ask and would only slow him down. He chose the stones directly next to it, turned his head and shouldered through.

Stones and mortar exploded outward in time to the cries of falling men. The wall collapsed where he’d passed and continued to fall apart at either side. Some of those who came down with it were bloodied but alive. Others were not so lucky. Eric had no time to give it thought before their essence rushed toward him.

“Finally!” Lord Sebran said from in front of the keep steps. He and two others in long robes stood before a fire pit with Eric’s body. The amber was still intact. “Finish the ritual,” he ordered the two beside him. They looked like stereotypical wizards, pointed hats with wide brims, hair and beards down to their middle. The glow of runes hung in air between them, an incomplete spell. “The rest of you, keep that thing back!”

The courtyard was full of men. At least a hundred in various armors, chainmail and leather, with long swords or pikes, they lined the bottom of the walls and stood ready to attack. Every knight at Sebran’s disposal moved to bar Eric’s path. Some carried sword and shield, both heater and tower, while others chose two-handed great swords. Each wore livery of blue or green, though most were in blue. Atop the walls were every archer, ready to loose a volley before men got too close.

While not as large as the courtyard at Thrallen, this one was much busier. There was a stable to Eric’s left, with a handful of horses, and an empty smithy to his right. There were workers and servants, both female and male, but they did their best to stay out of the way. Only one caught and held Eric’s attention, a filthy beggar just outside the stable. Clothes torn, he was sitting in a pile of horseshit with no real understanding of where he was. More than his apparent history of head injury, old scars and stitches covered him head to toe, as if he’d been taken apart and put back together. Even more unsettling than his Frankenstein’s monster impersonation, there was magic coming off him, but something about it was off. If magic was a chorus, his was a barrage of horrified shrieks. Like most other magic he’d encountered out in the world, this one’s seemed tainted.

A call went out, and arrows were loosed. They’d done little to no damage to him earlier. Their scratches had already healed. The beggar, on the other hand, would be skewered. Eric jumped in front, did his best to shield the poor guy with his body. No one deserved whatever had happened to make him look like that, let alone be killed by arrows from his own lord’s archers.

“Fuckin’ assholes!” Eric yelled. Arrows bounced off him and struck the floor. One took the beggar in his right leg. He didn’t flinch, but tears fell from his vacant eyes. “You could’ve killed him!”

“He’s already dead,” a knight said and approached. “Soon you will be, too.”

“That a fact?”

Eric was ready to barrel them all aside to reach Sebran and the casters. He didn’t want to kill anyone he didn’t have to, but those wizards had to go.

“Back to that lard ass you call a body,” another said.

“And that nub you call a pecker!”

“Hope it kills you, too.”

So they don’t know if it’ll kill me for sure? Eric was trying to ignore all the insults. Well, that’s something, I guess.

He was about to charge through, when he saw a fey climb over the wall.

“Fuck me…”

It was similar to the collector, tall and spindly, pale skin and very thin. It moved like a spider, though, over the wall and across the ground on all fours with crazy speed. No one around it seemed to notice, and it moved between them with precision, careful not to touch. Its eyes were completely covered, the top half of its head hidden beneath a white carapace with spikes. The shell-like skin continued down its back in overlapping square ridges.

It’s invisible and blind? Eric wondered. It doesn’t move like it’s blind.

“That’s right, asshole,” the lead knight said and swung his sword. “Fuck you!”

Eric moved back out of reflex but the sword edge still clanged against his chest. It left a hair-length gouge that immediately started to heal.

His attention was on the fey. It wore that same gauzy material, like a tattered snowy gossamer. Its pelvis was covered in a dark material beneath the wrap. He thought it might be another collector, until it stopped before a woman with a wicker basket looking on. The fey touched her on the forehead and slipped back between the crowd, searching out others to mark.

It’s a fucking stalker.

A golden glow emanated from her brow where it had touched and slowly spread all through her veins. The glow was gone from her forehead but lit up her veins in the early morning dark. It stayed there, like a beacon, calling out for other fey.

Taliana didn’t have that. Eric had been avoiding and ignoring attacks, keeping track of the stalker. He was relieved she wasn’t marked, but that meant other trolls were. It’s the only reason a collector would be out in their forest. Should I go back later and warn her?

Eric was surrounded, taking scratches from all sides. He pushed through the knights like they were children to keep from losing sight of the fey. It had touched three more in the crowd of those watching on. Their veins, however, were not glowing gold. They were blackened, like poison, their marks somehow marred.

The two casters were chanting loudly, as if their spell had reached a crescendo. The fire in the pit was glowing blue and violet. Eric needed to stop them, but the fey was to the right, on the other side of the yard. For every one marked in glowing gold, another ten were webbed in black across their faces and exposed skin.

“Knock it off, already!” Eric yelled and backhanded a knight into the wall. The man struck with a loud thud, armor bent, stones cracked, and slid to the ground with a groan. He wasn’t dead, but he didn’t move. Eric yelled again, to the people in the crowd oblivious to the stalker. “Watch out! He’s right there!”

It didn’t matter. They couldn’t see it. People began to comment that the ritual was making Eric insane. He pushed others aside with enough force to take them out of the fight without killing them.

Sight of his old body trapped in ember caught his eye. It was naked, with short hair, and the skin looked gray, even dark at the lips and eyes. He saw the flabby stomach in rolls and couldn’t recall being so fat. It was like looking at a stranger and judging who he’d been. He felt anger and disgust, as if he’d taken his old life for granted, just as the goblins had taken it from him.

All he wanted now was to take it back.

Eric headed for the casters. Their spell in air was a collection of spinning runes and sigils, rings of golden shimmer within rings. Magic filled the space between each mage and the solid block of amber. Men struggled in vain to keep him from the fire, from interrupting the spell, but their strength and weapons were no match. Even mighty blows from a great sword left but a scratch and were healed in less time than it took to swing again. Despite Eric’s resolve, he couldn’t help but watch the fey slip through the crowd of soldiers and servants, marking one after another.

Why the fuck is he marking so many?

There was a scuffle, as a woman marked with gold was shoved aside on accident and scratched along her arm. She cursed the fool who’d done it, one marked in black. And then it happened. Her mark began to change. As if it, too, had been tainted, her golden glow darkened to black.

Is he killing them? Fuck! I don’t understand what’s going on here. Why should I even care? He looked to Lord Sebran, and his anger flared. I should tear that fuckin’ mustache off his face!

Eric seethed, but beyond the three at the fire pit, he could see the stalker marking prey. If they were all weak or had damaged spirits, then something else was terribly wrong. With the number of people it’d marked, it would only be a matter of time before collectors or the Hunt came to kill them all.

“God damn it!” Eric pushed passed Sebran and the two casters, knocking them over. He headed straight for the stalker. “Get out of the way! How do you people not fucking see it?” He pointed at prints in the mud, saw it jostle shoulders as it skittered like an insect. Ordinary people, and some soldiers, were in a hurry to move from his path, while men in heavy armor continued to attack him from behind. “For fuck’s sake, you’re all useless!”

Eric grabbed hold of the fey by a leg, tried to pull it in closer. It fought back, pulling for all it was worth to break free. Violet fire grew in one of its palms, and it threw the flames at Eric’s face. It struck him full on, sent magic back and out as it burned across his metal. There were outcries of panic at seeing magic erupt but not until it had already struck his face. Eric used both hands to swing the fey in a half circle and threw him against the wall. Stones went inward from the force, and cracks spread from the impact. Wooden support beams split apart. It looked like that section of wall was going to crumble.

“He’s gone mad!” a man shouted from the right.

“Get him under control,” Sebran ordered, “before he brings the entire wall down!”

Shoving knights aside, Eric was back at the stalker. He tried and failed three times to grab it. At every turn, someone was in his way, inadvertently or not. People were shoved and knocked aside by the fey but were all too quick to blame each other. Two more knights got bashed aside for blocking his path. Eric didn’t know what was more frustrating, that the stalker refused to fight him or the stupid people getting in his way.

“I’m trying to save you, damn it!” he yelled at them and smashed another knight, crumpling the armor.

The stalker had scampered itself into a corner as Eric shoved a group of guards to either side with both arms. Its only option was to climb. Eric leapt and caught it by both legs, brought it down hard into the mud and wouldn’t let go. With deliberate care, he grabbed further up its body one had at a time. If he could get a hold of its neck, the fight was over. Arms and legs kicked out, their talons leaving deep gouges and flying sparks. Magic went up and out, again and again, scorching his metal blue, blinding him with purple flames.

He could take the pain from both, knowing he’d soon win. The fey had no hope of escape. It was frantic, wild in its attacks. Even the knights had finally realized that something was amiss, as if mud and sparks flew of their own accord. They’d kept a safe distance, suddenly more afraid of what it was they couldn’t see. Eric was reaching for its neck when the ritual took hold.

The edges of his vision blurred. It was like the wave of sudden haziness that comes from taking oxy, all fog and no warmth, the distant pull toward sleep without the drowsy. It felt like the world had become a tunnel, and he was being pulled back toward the entrance. The light slimmed and dimmed until at last it became nothing.

When next he could see, his world was filtered in waves of dirty gold. His vision was still blurry, behind the bubbles and swirls, within the block of amber. There was no breath, no beat of heart, no flow of blood… just regret. The golem stood empty, beyond the gathered faces, out of reach. One face took center stage, with a cocky voice and bristling mustache.

“I kept my word,” Lord Sebran told him. “I put you back into your body.” His satisfied grin was both cruel and mocking. To his men, he ordered, “Toss him in the lake.”

At least I didn’t die, Eric thought, as men gathered rope to tie around his block. He felt hollow, even more than when he was made of metal. And I got my body back.

He saw the golem standing still. Soldiers were poking it with swords, while others brought chains to bind it as well. Fear and sadness rose within him, the sort that came from the realization he’d made a horrible mistake.

My body…

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