Eric had a difficult time getting down the spiral stairs to the laboratory, but once he reached the bottom, the ceiling was fairly high. There was at least another three feet above his head, less so where arched stones ran the length between support columns. There were a number of sturdy wooden tables across the center of the room, with a series of iron chains and shackles. The varnished surfaces were worn to a paler shade, as if many had been restrained against their will. Etched lines were carved within the centers and led toward one end, where dried bloodstains speckled the table legs and floor. Brackets on that end held clay bowls in place, where body fluids were somewhat contained and collected.
More tables lines the walls. Those to his right held various tools and instruments for cutting, sawing, slicing and breaking – all manner of grisly surgery that could be imagined. They weren’t the gleaming silver of surgical steel one might have found in a modern hospital. Their edges were visibly sharp, but all the rest was coarse. The handles were bound in leather and worn smooth over time. The best way to describe them was well-used. If the lich had had a favorite, one wasn’t apparent from looks alone.
The next two tables beside that held rotting limbs in neat rows and organs preserved in clay basins. There were hands and feet as well but oddly no heads. The grim collection of body parts had been carefully removed and placed, as if categorized and set aside for later use. Eric noticed tiny bite marks in one decaying leg, where it looked like a goblin had tried but didn’t care for the taste.
The table beside that held a number of books. One was already open, its pages yellowed and wrinkled. It held a fairly detailed map of Faradim with converging concentric lines drawn all throughout. From the sheer number of them on the page, with arrow ticks noting directional flow, Eric guessed they represented ley lines. He found Thrallen on the map, saw the two lines passing through and wondered how accurate it truly was. Far off to the east, right beneath Westorval, dozens of lines converged to a single point. A notation scrawled in ink called it a nexus.
Tables on the other side held a meticulous collection of stones and minerals, many of them unfamiliar. There were metals too, shaped into rods an inch thick and a foot long. They didn’t have seams, like they’d been cast, but were perfectly smooth. Eric could still sense a hint of magic about them. They didn’t hold magic within but had been used for spellwork at some time. The books on this side of the room were anatomical in nature. They held detailed drawings of the human body, of muscle structure and bones, tendons and joints, organs and veins. From the way the last had been drawn, with the directional arrow ticks, it looked as if the artist was drawing similarities between the bloodstream and a ley line.
Eric sensed men enter the castle. The mages might have finally sacked up and went for help. He followed the essence he felt still below but saw no other way down. He went to one end of the lab where there was a separate chamber with a well. Otherwise, there was nowhere left he could see to go.
A breeze touched upon his front, while facing the dead end. Eric stepped across and began feeling for any latch or catch in the stone wall. When he found it, a rock where the mortar would have allowed for two fingers to fit inside and pull, Eric used brute strength to make up for his lack of grip. The rock came out a few inches to reveal an iron hinge. A mechanism clicked, but the wall remained still. Eric used the rock as a handle and gave a pull. The wall slid outward with little effort and touched against the well. There was plenty of room for a normal-sized person to fit through. For a metal golem almost three times as large? Not so much.
Eric sighed and forced his way through, careful not to make too much noise. He might never again enjoy the advantages of stealth, but a part of him wanted to catch Sebran by surprise.
Mortar gave and crumbled, rocks slid and tumbled. They dropped one by one at first, light thuds against bare earth, and became a small albeit quiet collapse. They only made noise when rocks struck one another, which Eric tried to mitigate with his hands.
The rough passage on the other side was much larger. Eric was able to stand without trouble, and the walls on both sides gave room enough to stretch his arms. It went on in a straight path a few hundred feet before turning back and continuing further down.
When Eric reached the next level, it looked bare but for the statues and tombs along each wall. Eight on each side, the likeness of the men and women buried within the stone encasement before them were finely carved in a white marble with bluish streaks. From wrinkles in noble clothing to the creases upon skin, each looked like they’d been captured in time. None appeared very old, so Eric guessed they’d been portrayed as they had when in their prime.
At the end of the grand chamber were open double wooden doors, reinforced with thick iron bands and the remnants of enchantment. Flickering light bled out into the room where Eric stood. He approached the massive doorway and pushed one of the doors. It slid quietly open on oiled hinges.
Sebran was inside, at the far end of what looked like a treasury of sorts. Shelves lined both sides of the room, thick slabs of wood held by chains and iron support bars beneath the outer edges. The wood was longest at the top and grew subsequently shorter with each lower shelf, so that the supports formed a pattern drawing in toward the center. It reminded Eric of the giant organ being played at church, when they still went, many Christmases ago.
The lower shelf on his left held three coffers filled with coins. First gold then silver and what he assumed was platinum, they were each stamped with a crown on one side and crossed swords on the other. Above that were smaller chests filled with jewelry and cut gems, a wide array of gold and silver necklaces, bracelets and rings – many of which looked all too similar to what Tragona had been wearing. The gems he could recognize looked like rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Those he couldn’t were black, purple or yellow. The shelves above those continued on with other valuables, gold plates, silverware, bejeweled cups and urns, decorative jewelry boxes and all manner of masterfully crafted trinkets in marble or metalwork.
Shelves on the other side amassed a wholly different sort of treasure. Eric saw and felt them with awe and a longing to claim them all. Glass jars six inches tall lined every shelf three deep. They were as wide as they were tall, with glass stoppers sealed in wax and imprinted with a family crest. Each one was spelled shut with an enchantment he could feel but couldn’t see until he tried to touch one with a finger. Its glyph lit up in a golden sphere around the glass, both protection and a warning to be cautious.
Within each jar was swirling light with charges of static silver. Most all of them were vibrant orange, with faded crimson in the mix, while some were red as blood or deep blue with whorls of green. Only one among them was all black, in a section at one end by itself, placed apart as if out of fear of being too close to the others. It bore a striking resemblance to the infectious corruption. Their collective force was palpable, a power urging to be taken.
Every one of them contained essence.
Sebran was at the far end of the room, knelt before a jar on the lowest shelf. A leather necklace with a single diamond had been placed around the jar, accompanied by a white flower on its top. He had a hand to the glass but made no move to lift the jar. It was almost as if he was mourning at a shrine.
He saw the golem and knew but didn’t say a word. His jaw stood out with tension, as he swallowed hard his emotions and got to his feet. He smoothed the front of a silken shirt and leather vest done up in gold buttons. With a brown fur cloak across his shoulders for warmth, his breath frosted the air.
“It’s you,” the lord said with frustrated contempt. He still hated Eric for ending Ella’s life. “I can tell in your manner. Even trapped within metal, you have the bluster of a drunken braggart.”
Eric stepped closer, towered over him with menace. Sebran didn’t flinch as he looked up into the crimson fire of those eyes.
“Yep. It’s me again, asshole.”
Sebran may have seemed consigned to his fate, but his casual demeanor belied a mind hard at work. What or whoever was in that jar meant something to him. If a confrontation was inevitable, he was all too keen to have it elsewhere.
“How is that possible?” Sebran asked and clasped his gloved hands in front. He wore a sword sheathed at his belt, for what little good it might do him. “Even if you managed to escape the amber, how did you get back inside the golem? Only one spirit can occupy an object at a time.”
How the fuck do you know that?
“Jaken’s dead,” Eric replied, “thanks to you.” He gave a nod toward the jars. “What are these?” He pointed at one with a finger, caused its glyph to flare to life. Sebran didn’t seem to care about the others. “Looks fragile.”
The lord stiffened, raised his chin. His mouth even twitched a bit beneath that ridiculous mass of bristles he called a mustache.
“No?” Eric grabbed hold of him around the neck with his left hand, knelt down and brought Sebran along. He slowly dragged his index finger toward the jar enshrined with a necklace and touched his metal tip against its glass. “How ‘bout now?”
Sebran’s nostrils flared, but he wouldn’t budge.
He may be an asshole, Eric thought, but he’s got a pair, that’s for sure.
Eric poked the jar again, a series of metal tinks that grew louder each time.
“I will break it,” he promised. When the lord still refused to talk, he grabbed hold of it in his right hand. “Fine, then.”
“No!” Sebran pleaded. “Wait! Wait… don’t. Please put it back. I’ll tell you.”
Eric put the jar back within the necklace, let go of Sebran and stood. He was still blocking the only way out. There was no getting past him, and he wasn’t leaving without answers.
“My family has a strong bloodline of casters,” Sebran explained and straightened his clothes again. “We keep it secret because nobility are not permitted to use magic. Those who govern have power enough, in the eyes of the Assembly.”
Eric recalled the name from his talk with the two try-hard wizards. That meant magic was governed by a separate body, possibly a council of magicians at some school in Westorval. So did the King answer to them, or was it the other way around? Exactly how did they enforce these rules?
“That doesn’t explain the jars,” Eric said, “or why they look like they contain essence.”
“My family,” Sebran reluctantly admitted, as if he was ashamed or afraid of being judged, even by someone he despised, “aren’t just skilled practitioners. They’re spiritists. It’s a forbidden form of magic. They harness souls to work magic. It’s far more potent then channeling ley lines,” he added and looked down at the jar he cared for, “but it’s also cruel and despicable.”
Wait… Eric began to piece together an uncomfortable thought. Is essence a soul? I thought it was just like life force or something. He wondered if what he’d been taking to fuel his changes were actual, supposedly eternal, souls. Is that what makes the golem so powerful? So, does that mean if I take someone’s essence, their soul no longer exists? Am I stealing their afterlife?
He was never a true believer in life after death. The entire notion of heaven and hell seemed as ridiculous as an immaculate conception. But if souls were real, what did that mean for what comes after living? He had proof they existed, had seen and felt it with his own senses. If souls were real, there must be something more… to life, to living, to death and beyond.
“You sound like you don’t approve,” Eric said, “like you can’t or won’t use the magic yourself.”
“I can,” Sebran said, “but you’re right. I refuse. I’ve seen it destroy lives, twist the good intentioned into true evil, turn love into ash.” He shook his head with heartfelt sadness. “I could never do that.”
“And the jars? Why do you have them?”
Eric could understand the sentiment, was feeling it himself, but that didn’t explain why Sebran had enough souls to fuel a dozen transformations.
“We take –” Sebran began and corrected himself. “My family used to take the spirits of criminals and debtors, tax evaders and the like, and stored them for later use.”
Eric pointed toward the lone jar. “Why’s that one black?”
“An experiment gone awry,” Sebran answered. “No one has ever been able to duplicate the results.”
Except Tragona, Eric thought wryly.
Sebran continued, “There’s something wrong with the spirit, like it’s been fouled by torture and torment, dark emotion to such a degree that it’s become unusable. Its magic is warped, too volatile to employ or risk release into the ley lines.”
“Experiments,” Eric said, “like the ones Tragona was doing in the lab above us.”
He looked back at the golden rings on a shelf to his left. Something clicked. The lich might not have known about this hidden collection of souls, but what he was doing bore a striking resemblance to what Sebran had been describing.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Eric accused, “that he chose this castle. Who is he to you?”
Sebran had the look of someone caught helping a murderer. He knew what he’d done was wrong, had known all along, but said nothing to protect his family name. He put reputation above others, risked the lives of those loyal to him, even those who loved him… like his daughter.
“He was my uncle,” the lord admitted and bowed his head. Sebran took in a deep breath, set it loose in a long exhalation. “He was cast out of the family, exiled from Faradim on pain of death. My father put him on a boat headed east for the Red Isles. When he returned years later, after my father had died, he seemed a changed man. I was a fool to have ever trusted him, but I learned that lesson far too late.”
Eric was more interested in the experiments than the family drama. All that game of thrones shit was about as useful to him as an enema.
“What exactly did he do?”
“There are countless books in our library,” Sebran said, “of experiments my forebears have performed in the past. They were always done in the interest of better harnessing a spirit, of getting the most from a body or purifying the essence to a more potent form.” He looked to the jars, as if he saw them as imprisoned people and not contained magic. “My uncle was too extreme. He was trying to alter the soul, remake it into something else that could be bent to his will. He went through subjects so quickly that it was noticeable people were missing – innocent people. He became indiscriminate in who he took. He had to be dealt with.”
Oh, sure, Eric thought with sarcasm, it’s fine to forever kill criminals and the poor, but once you start fucking with rich people, shit’s gotta stop!
“What about that one?” Eric asked and pointed to the shrine. “What’s so special about it?”
Sebran smiled at the jar, a faint turning of the lips that faded with accompanying memory.
“Her name was Marina,” he said, as if he could still see her in his mind. “She was a farmhand, a beautiful young girl, full of life and joy.”
It was clear he’d loved her and still did.
“But you’re a lord or whatever,” Eric finished for him, a noble drama for the CW in the making. He rolled his eyes inwardly. “Cuz poor people are just the worst.”
Sebran’s brow furrowed. “It was my father who had disapproved. I didn’t care for station or lineage. I only knew she made me happy. We were married in secret.” He started to speak again but choked back the words. Eric started to feel shitty for making fun of him. After a moment, he added, “Father took her spirit as a reminder not to break with tradition or ever go against the family’s wishes.
“That’s why you wanted the castle back so badly,” Eric guessed. He didn’t have to, but he wanted to set the record straight. “Look, I tried to save your daughter. She was in pain, already dying and there was nothing we could do to save her. She asked me to end it. I didn’t have to go out of my way to bury her next to her mother. It’s what she wanted, and if I couldn’t save her, it was the god damned least I could do.”
Sebran gave a curt nod in recognition. “I was just so angry at the loss, even though I knew it would one day come. You do have my thanks for that, no matter what you choose to do next.”
“I’m guessing Tragona didn’t know about this,” Eric said and indicated the stockpile of souls.
“No, he was never trusted with that knowledge before he was sent away. Otherwise,” Sebran said with a heavy heart, “he would have destroyed Marina’s spirit out of spite.”
“Trust me,” Eric said and eyed the blackened soul, “I think he woulda done a lot worse.”
He was tempted to smash the jars himself, take their essence and channel the transformations into becoming human again. Then he could finally return home and be done with this world. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Even though they were dead, it felt wrong to take their souls. They were people just like him, and they deserved whatever peace they could find in death. He may have lost his human body, but he hadn’t lost his humanity.
“Is there any way to free –” Eric started to ask but was interrupted by distant screams.