Eric laughed and said, “Hold on! There’s gotta be a faster way than walkin’ there.”
Can we make a portal? he asked Griz.
The shaman shook his head. I’ve never been there. I need to see a destination to create a portal to it.
I have, Ella said. She put a hand to the shaman’s forehead. Here, I’ll show you.
After a few moments he nodded and smiled to her. Thank you. That should be enough. He began casting a portal but frowned soon after. There’s too much magical disturbance. I’ll need to create it outside the city.
A portal appeared in the courtyard.
What about the survivors? Eric asked and looked at those still alive.
Griz said, I can’t undo what’s been done to them.
There is nothing you can do for them here, Ella said.
She’d put a slight emphasis on the last. It wasn’t an overt statement meant to hurry him but a reminder how much he was needed elsewhere.
“Alright,” Eric said. “Let’s do this.”
He touched the beryl light between the portal stones and shifted into chaos. The rain had settled to a light drizzle but encompassed all in its shadow. Stones in the road, the city wall, the flickering lanterns on either side were all slick with its touch. Screams rang out in the distance, the echoed cries of pain and loss, tormented shouts and maddened shrieks. Fire glowed across the city, lit buildings and inner walls up toward the castle. Great billows of black smoke roiled skyward from the east, where the pillar of magic fire burned.
Bodies were strewn everywhere, their blood upon the stones. From farmer to merchant, guardsman to noble, the corruption held no discrimination. It struck equally with malediction, twisted body and mind into unnatural shapes. Those who survived its touch either hid with their madness or hunted with a bloodthirsty fervor.
It’s this way, Ella said.
She led him through the streets, where buildings had fallen over into dust and debris. It didn’t look like fire had been the cause. There were no scorch marks upon the remains of wooden beam or stone blocks. They were simply eroded away, as if time had sped up and wrought its ravages within moments.
The mad quickly fled when Eric came into view. Each step he took joined the choir of pandemonium. Fresh cries filled the air the closer they drew toward the fire. The few crazed who tried their hand, who railed at his legs with makeshift weapons, were easily swept aside. They posed no threat but to each other. Char and Blood quickly dealt with those who persisted, while Shen had gone ahead to scout for danger.
Eric followed Ella up a cobbled hill, where shops had been half decayed. It looked as if walls, doorways and shuttered windows had been corroded by tendrils, eaten away in large swaths but left whole in others. Fire had spread further down the street, where a haunted victim waved a torch at his delusions.
They continued north around a corner and into a large courtyard with white trees and tall, shaped bushes. Ella passed through the gated entry and stopped, her eyes locked upon the pillar of black and purple fire. It was the size of a football field across, so dense it couldn’t be seen through and rippled outward with enough heat to melt stones at its base. Earth, stones and debris rose slowly into the vortex of flame.
It’s gone, she said with eyes wide. The academy, it’s destroyed.
They followed the sound of chanting to the other side of the pillar. Forty men and women in long robes clasped hands in a circle with eyes closed, chanting into the storm of magic fire and corruption. They were protected from the rain and flames by a barrier of light, but there were bodies among and between them. Another collapsed from the strain, her aura snuffed out. Those beside her closed the circle and kept chanting.
Laughter drew Eric’s attention to a man in leather breeches and a white tunic. He had long black hair and eyes a luminous blue. Arms wide, he danced in the rain like a child. Magic trailed from his extended fingers, slender lengths of black that rotted all they touched. Trees, bushes, iron fence and stones, decomposed in an instant and flaked away where they were touched.
Another figure worked against the mages, toyed with their glyph from a distance. He spun wards and poked at sigils, trying to undo the barrier. Eric recognized him in the same moment as Ella.
Uncle! she said, but Tragona couldn’t hear her.
“Kill him,” Eric told Char and Blood.
As they moved to deal with the resurrected lich, he headed for Kor. Essence struck Eric from the side, a considerable amount but so far from a transformation he barely felt it beneath his anger. He called his sword to hand and threw it, a wide arc to the right. There wasn’t much need for accuracy when throwing a twenty-five foot blade. It sliced through Tragona’s protection spell and his middle, as the goblins leapt upon him. They clawed at his eyes and throat, tore away his magic jewelry. He fell to the ground in pieces, gurgling a cry for help.
The sword stuck into and through a distant building. Eric sent the blade away into a swarm of particles and called it back to his hand. He absorbed Tragona once more, forced him into the empty jar and back into the vault. Then he locked it for good measure.
Kor stopped dancing long enough to look perplexed. He glanced over at Tragona’s pieces and raised a brow in mild amusement. He made a motion with one hand as if to raise the fallen man a second time. Eric felt a tug at his middle, but the vault held. The god looked Eric’s way and clucked his tongue.
“It would seem you have something of mine,” Kor said. He was older than Eric, possibly late twenties, with a golden sheen to his skin. His eyes were unsettling, with both irises a bright blue light. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to just give it back?”
“Maybe,” Eric said, “if you’d just pack your shit and go home. Wherever that is.”
Kor smiled wide. “That really is the most interesting outfit.” He peered at Eric’s chest, as if he could see past the golem. “Rather large armor for such a scared little boy.”
Eric shrugged. “I don’t deny it. I’d be stupid to not be scared. I’m still gonna kick your ass, though. Unless you wanted to shit talk some more?” Char and Blood came up behind him. “Like, what’s with the glitter? You look like a stripper tripped and fell into a Ren Faire. I mean, you’re not shiny vampire stupid-looking but pretty damn close.” Kor’s smile began to fade. “Aww, it’s not all bad. I’m sure there’s plenty of dudes out there into whatever it is you call this,” Eric said and indicated Kor’s outfit. “And is there a reason you’re killin’ everyone? Seriously, what’s the fuckin’ point in that? Oh boohoo, your sister stole your girl. Get over it already. The whole world’s gotta die cuz you can’t get laid? You’re a god, for fuck’s sake. Just make yourself a new piece –”
Kor yelled and thrust an open hand forward. Had it been a punch, Eric would’ve tried to avoid it. Apparently gods didn’t need to physically touch someone to land a hit. The telekinetic force struck Eric in the middle, bent his metal and doubled him over. His feet dug up cobbles and made trenches in the earth as Eric was thrown a hundred feet backward. He tore trees from the ground in an attempt to slow himself and crashed into the iron gate surrounding the courtyard.
Eric sat there for a moment while the world rang in his ears. When his vision finally settled on a single image, he climbed back to his feet. The hand-sized crater in his middle was slowly bending itself back into shape. He let go and called his sword, had lost it somewhere during the flight.
Char and Blood had been thrown clear but were still alive. A clicking of teeth drew Eric’s attention to Shen. He was clinging to a second story window of a half-building across the way. He pointed down toward a figure hiding in the shadows of an alley. It was confusing at first, because the figure had no aura.
“No more quips?” the god asked and stalked forward with arms wide. “You were quite the merrymaker just a moment ago.”
Neither did Kor.
They’re linked? Eric thought. Or what? What the fuck am I seeing?
Eric didn’t wait for the next punch but threw his sword. It clanged against Kor and bounced aside, the blade bent where it had struck him.
Now that’s some bullshit! Eric looked closer at the god. Is he invulnerable or some kind of illusion?
Eric rolled to the right but not before Kor attacked. The force took him in the side and sent him sprawling toward the building Shen was perched on. He smashed into and went through the iron gate, clawing at the ground to slow his beeline into stone. He slammed into both floors of the building and collapsed the roof onto his head.
Shen leapt free in time and landed beside the alley. He picked up a rock and threw it at the figure. The man groaned in annoyance when it struck him in the head. He flicked a hand toward Shen like swatting a fly and sent the goblin careening away.
It’s a projection! Griz said with sudden realization. Not mental but physical. The only way to stop it is to find where Kor really is.
Shen already had.
Eric pushed at the nearest wall, toppled it over into the alley. The man cried out as he was buried beneath a pile of stones and mortar. The fake Kor glared and began running toward the alley.
“Stop him!” Eric said and loosed every fey and demon he could into a tangible form.
Each one a spectral image of their former selves, they leapt upon the projection, grabbed hold of every limb. It was slowed but kept on, dragging spirits along.
The figure that crawled out bloody and dirty from the pile of stones was a dwarf. Not the mythical sort but a half-sized human of odd proportion. His arms and legs were too small for his torso, with a bend in the bones that would’ve made it incredibly difficult to walk. His face was marred as well, with a forehead too large and jutting forward. He had a squat nose, thin lips and a cleft like an axe wound. His skin was mottled and pocked and had only splotches of beard. With a sneer, face reddened by anger, he kicked at the stones in his way.
If this was the god Kor, he looked as if hatred had twisted his body just as much as it had his mind.
Eric reached down for the little man, wrapped a hand around his torso. The metal began to whiten and flake where it touched him.
“You may have been protected from my rain,” the god said, his mouth filled with crooked and rotten teeth and too large a tongue, “but you cannot resist my touch.”
“Yeah, that’s not at all creepy,” Eric said, “but that’s gonna be a hard pass.” His metal eroded faster, and he wasn’t able to pull away. Eric grunted from the pain. “No means no, asshole.”
Eric called the sword to his hand. It swarmed toward his palm, pierced through Kor’s chest and the ground underneath, pinned him beneath the pommel. He let go the blade and pulled free of the god’s withering touch. The projection was nearly on him.
“Call that thing off,” Eric said and raised a foot over Kor’s head. Blood spilled from both sides of the god’s twisted mouth. “You can bullshit all you want, but blood means you ain’t immortal. Fucked up teeth or not, I will curb-stomp your ass.”
Kor coughed up a gob of blood and spat it to the side. He waved away the projection. It vanished in spray of gold dust and blue light. Eric recalled his spirits and relaxed his foot. He flicked the sword pommel, which sent a vibration down the blade. Kor grimaced.
“Now,” Eric said, “let’s talk about what you can do for me.”
Kor put a stubby hand on Eric’s foot. “Come join the fun, why don’t you?”
The world shifted to starry blue upon a plane of pure white. Eric was vaguely aware of his golem body where his mind had left it, but here he was back to his human self. He recognized it as the astral, and he wasn’t alone.
Twentyish mages faced off against Kor. Not the dwarf with jacked teeth but the gold-skinned version from the cover of a bad romance novel. They had each summoned illusory creatures to fight, from giants to elementals, dragons to wyverns and all sorts of mystical monsters. Kor faced them as himself – or rather his projection. It could’ve been how he once looked before hatred poisoned his mind, or perhaps it was merely how he wished to be perceived. Either way, he took on all their creations with magic and bare hands.
While the mages seemed of a mind that bigger was better, Eric could see their tactic wasn’t working. Each time Kor bested a projection it killed the mage. One by one they were falling and fading away.
A woman appeared to be faring better than those around her. She’d conjured an ogre with a giant club, and Kor was dodging its attacks. Hers was the only one getting close enough to strike. Eric moved to join her.
“Make it smaller,” he told her. “Strength won’t matter if it can’t hit. And use a lighter weapon, like a sword or an axe. Stop going for the kill every time. Wear him down with small wounds, bleed him. Keep him busy with jabs instead of taking big swings.”
She was straining to maintain the conjure, brow scrunched and sweating, her fists balled at both sides. Every punch or slap her projection endured weakened her resolve and the connection to her body. If her spirit was killed here, her body would soon follow.
Kor danced away from a gout of fire from a dragon and the end of a massive ivory column from a titan. The other conjures were so big and clumsy they were more likely to get in each other’s way than land a strike.
“Now!” Eric said. “While he’s distracted.”
The woman whirled on Eric and shouted, “Shut up!”
A sword appeared in Kor’s hand. He lopped off the ogre’s head, did a fanciful spin as part of his ongoing dance, and kicked the head away. The woman grunted and faded from the astral.
Pain burned Eric’s left foot. He looked down and saw nothing wrong. His vision shifted to the physical, a brief glimpse of his golem foot, and saw Kor’s little fingers still upon it.
I can’t stay here, he realized but neither could he move his foot away. Fuck this.
Eric conjured Sorrow and Mourn to each hand and his full set of enchanted leathers. He may have been a griefer, who loved stalking and killing new players, who relished killing others on the battlegrounds and rubbing their faces in it, but he was also a dedicated raider. He put in the time, the dedication, the perseverance it took to have every item best in slot. If Kor wanted a one-on-one, he could have it.
No one beat Eric in a duel.
Well, except that one guy. He entered stealth and headed for Kor. Fuck him, though, he cheated. Speed hacks and exploits don’t count.
Another mage faded away. Only three remained, and they didn’t look like they’d last long. Eric admired their determination but couldn’t help thinking they were stupid for not adapting to the fight. They all chose brute force over countering the attack style.
Eric drove a poisoned blade into Kor’s back.
His body blinked and vanished then reappeared feet away and facing Eric. He waggled a finger and clucked his tongue, as if chastising a child.
“Who is the cheater now?” Kor asked.
“What? You are,” Eric said. “You just teleported out of an attack!”
Kor looked over his shoulder, as if he could see the wound. “You still landed the blow,” he said, “but sneak attacks are underhanded, not very honorable. What are we without honor, without rules?”
“Rules? There are no rules here,” Eric said, “and I am not a cheater.”
“As you wish.”
Kor turned and threw kinetic attacks at the three remaining conjures. Bones broke, skin and muscle tore free, and the last of the mages faded.
Of course he was toying with them. Eric inwardly sighed and couldn’t help but wonder, What the fuck am I doing here?
Kor turned, now with a silver long sword in each hand. “Shall we?”
Eric gripped each dagger. “Let’s dance, asshole.”
He used every skill with perfect timing, from endless hours of practice. He vanished, reappeared and struck, evaded and dodged. After a solid minute of combat, he’d landed three bleeds and two stabs. He’d suffered a cut to his side, right thigh and forearms as well. He could feel them healing albeit slowly.
Kor had a sheen of sweat on his exposed chest that made his golden sparkles glitter all the more. He didn’t seem to be healing, but neither was he slowing down.
“Why do you do that?” Eric asked, caught a blade in his left pommel and stabbed out with the right dagger.
Kor dodged to one side, pulled free his sword and danced away. “Do what?”
“That!” Eric said. “Dance like a cokehead. And why are you still wearing that Fabio-wannabe projection? We both know you’re a butt ugly runt. Why hide it here? No one gives a shit what you look like. I certainly don’t.”
Kor stopped his prancing and narrowed his eyes. “I should have noticed sooner,” he said and peered closer. “You’re not alone.” He waved an arm in a wide circle, and every spirit connected to Eric appeared around them in the distance. “How curious. Is this what gives you your strength?”
Kor spun and threw a sword. It sped through the air and struck one of Sebran’s men through the chest. His name was Aldren Konah. He was a guardsman, a loyal husband and father of two boys. Eric had seen memories of the man’s entire life and now felt them slip away like waking from a soon forgotten dream.
“You killed him,” Eric said, voice quiet and filled with loss.
“Dear boy,” Kor said and smiled wide, “I’m going to kill them all.”
Eric gritted his teeth. “The fuck you are.”
Listen up! he said to everyone. This is now a raid! You have free rein. Pick a class, suit up and take this fucker down! Warriors to the front. Rangers and healers in the back. Mages in the middle. Eric grinned. Rogues, you’re with me.
One by one, nearly a thousand souls chose a class and donned their respective armor. Warriors in full plate or chain rushed forward to form a circle with sword and shield in hand. Mages in fiery and frosted robes took up their wands and closed toward the middle rank. Healers bloomed into white or gold robes, brandished staves and began casting protection spells. Rangers decked in full leathers or furs brought bows to bear and pulled magic arrows from their quivers.
The rogues appeared around Kor, stepped from wisps of black smoke. In dark leathers and face masks, dual blades in hand, they stood ready to strike as one.
All the feys, every demon, any creature that didn’t quite fit the mold of a Warbones class, was given the freedom to fight for their lives however they wished.
Kor laughed in the face of it all. His body stretched, grew tall, elongated to a tail. In the span of a breath, he became a gold dragon. His metal scales glinted off the light of molten spittle dripping down from his maw. He swung his tail, and rogues vanished to avoid it.
“Let us begin!” the god roared and loosed his breath in a wide arc.
The fire struck against a protective barrier. Warriors rushed in with shield to fore, taunting and attacking to draw the god’s attention. Rogues worked together with them, weaving their attacks between the heavy shields. Healers set to work, renewed their protections, mended burns and wounds, struck out with magic when they could. The mages and rangers sent out one volley after another, from enchanted arrows to bolts of fire and jagged shards of ice.
Kor was beset on all sides, barraged by unrelenting magic and steel. His scales bent and broke loose from a hundred different wounds. He swiped out with his tail, clawed the ground, even tried to take flight. Arrows and icy bolts tore at the membrane of each wing. Grounded, overrun, he lashed out in fiery anger.
Eric felt each one fade away, like losing a piece of himself. Whether human or dwarf, troll or goblin, their memories were slowly taken from him forever. He fought hard not to give in, not to anger or loss or even despair. They could win, he knew, no matter the cost. Too many lives were at stake and not just those connected to him.
Kor shrunk inward, collapsed, and became an earth elemental fifty feet tall. His wounds, however, carried over. Chunks of stone across his back were broken open and cracked. He bled molten rock along the ridges of his craggy armor and down the front of his earthen body. He brought a stony fist down, broke through a barrier and killed a handful of healers.
Ella was among them.
“No!” Eric screamed and dropped to his knees. It felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. He took in long ragged breaths, seethed as he eyed the god. He climbed to his feet, gripped hard both blades and returned to the fight.
Water! he called out. We need water attacks!
The raid persisted despite heavy loss and mounting wounds. They were growing weary with each attack. The longer the fight continued the less chance they had at winning. If they didn’t fight smart, the god would win by attrition.
Kor had grown sluggish and given to fits of rage. Each injury spurred another wild attack that left him open but also cost the raid in lives. Ice and water struck him from all sides, eroded his body and ate away at his armor. His open wounds cooled to hard stone and slowed him further. It wasn’t long before he relinquished the broken form.
He became an ice demon and faced fire, then a giant met by poisoned arrows and blades, a massive wraith against holy light, a bone devil opposed by hammers. Whatever new form Kor chose to take, Eric ordered a way to counter it.
Years of gaming had finally paid off.
“Hold!” Kor shouted and regressed to his dwarven body. Bleeding from countless wounds, from small cuts to large gashes, his twisted limbs broken and crushed, he breathed heavy and coughed up blood as he tried to speak. “Hold. Please.”
Eric saw fear in his eyes. You can die.
“You give up?” Eric asked and closed the distance. He knelt over the little god, put a blade to his chest and fought the urge to drive it through. This fight had cost him hundreds of lives, people he would miss. Like Ella. Eric’s eyes burned. “Please say no.”
“I offer you,” Kor said, struggled to get the words out, “a truce. I will give you what you truly desire… to be human, to return home.”
“Then what?” Eric asked. “You’re free to kill everyone on Taellus? Twist them into monsters like you?”
Kor gave a short laugh. “That is the trade.”
“How the fuck is that any different from me killing them myself?”
The god looked at him in genuine confusion. “Only a fool would think inaction causes action.”
Eric frowned. “Then I guess I’m a dumbass.”
He drove the blade into Kor’s heart. The god tried to reach for it, to pull it free. His arms were all but useless. The astral bled away. Eric was back in his golem body, standing over Kor.
“You fool,” the god said and gasped for air.
Eric raised a foot and brought it down on Kor’s head. “Yeah, you keep sayin’ that.” He ground his foot into the cobbles. “But I’m the one who’s still alive.”
His other foot was badly damaged from Kor’s touch. It started to heal as the rain stopped, as the god’s essence overcame him. The burning was so intense, so sudden, that the metal across his middle reddened and began to melt. Runes exposed, wards broken, Eric fell over to one side and onto his back in silent darkness.
Human! he shouted in his mind. I wanna be human. Me. I wanna be me again.
He kept repeating the thought through a multitude of transformations. Vision returned as his body began to change. The star metal faded in color to shades of silver, became stone, faded to shades of white, became clay, faded to shades of gray and finally became flesh. Over two dozen transformations, in various stage of alteration and hue, he could at last see skin. They continued to adjust, to shape him as he used to be.
Oh, he thought, and gimme back what I lost. With so many spirits taken from him, some transformations had been undone. And healing, he added, as if allocating skill points to a character. Gimme better healing.
With the essence fully spent, he climbed back to his feet. The spirit of Kor was there to greet him.
You fool! he said. You’ve bound us for the rest of your life!
Keep that shit up, Eric said, and you can sit in a jar next to Tragona.
He was suddenly cold and realized he was naked. He wanted clothes and suddenly had them, a black tee and blue jeans, socks and sneakers, a warm gray hoodie.
Do you honestly believe you can contain me? The little god crossed bent arms and gave a look of challenge.
I’ve got a better idea. Eric fixed Kor’s arms and legs with a thought, made them straight. He did the same for the god’s skin, teeth and beard. Eric made him into a perfectly normal looking dwarf. In the end, the god could even be called handsome. Eric conjured a laptop and opened it. The game was already loaded when he handed it to Kor. Allow me to introduce you to Warbones.
The god took it and sat in the alley, began to play with the computer in his lap and mouse against his thigh.
It looks like a caricature of life, he said and after a minute added, The play is rather repetitive.
Eric said, Whatever, dude. Give it back then.
Kor put an arm protectively around the laptop. I did not say I didn’t like it.
Eric rolled his eyes.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I can do that now.” He looked down at his hands, his fleshy arms and doughy stomach. “I should’ve asked for muscles or something.”
Griz appeared beside him. You look just as you were, master.
“I suppose,” Eric said, “but not fully human. I can still see you guys, have all those abilities. I’m still a golem. Like a flesh golem or something.”
Good enough to go home, master?
“Yeah.” Eric nodded, as if he was as close to getting what he wanted as he ever would. “I guess it is.”