Eric spent the next two days learning the creation ritual. He sat in the courtyard by a fire and held a hand out while thinking a phrase. The runes appeared in air beneath his palm as he moved it, the result of his last transformation. He merely had to think of a word and its runes were formed by his hand without need of actually writing it out. It made for clunky, inelegant casting, as Griz had called it, but it did make Eric proficient with runes. Unfortunately, he needed to start learning sigils to be of help with the ritual.
When it came to magic, size mattered. The wards had to fit equally within a glyph. Otherwise, it was easily susceptible to tampering. If the magic wasn’t also evenly spread across the glyph, it could be shorted with an influx of power. Substituting sigils when possible and filling the rest with runes made it easier to even out the wards. This was why some spells were passed down from master to apprentice. Like perfect formulas, they were treasured and kept secret.
Additionally, the more complex a spell was the more focus it required to cast. It didn’t necessarily mean adding more wards, though that could in theory help if the caster was able to maintain concentration. It meant some wards, like those designed to increase power to a glyph, could be replaced with physical components. The magic inherent in these ingredients helped lighten the load on the caster, allowed for less attention to detail than would otherwise have been needed.
Since the goblins didn’t have the various bladders and clippings from a handful of magical creatures, the ritual was going to be particularly difficult.
Eric looked out past the gate, which had yet to be fixed. It was midday with faint sunlight struggling past the winter clouds. The rain had finally ceased, but the storm was ever present. The fields south were drab and muddied. He found his thoughts drifting that direction, wondering how Taliana and her people were doing.
People, he thought with an inward laugh.
He’d never considered trolls as people – or goblins for that matter. In all the games he’d ever played, both were considered monsters. He’d killed them for experience and treasure without a second thought. None of it had been real. Here on Taellus, though? It was all too real. He’d been forced to rethink what made a living being a person.
Every fiend still alive in the valley was now face down in their old village, bound hand and foot by enchanted rope. Were they people?
Not anymore, Eric reasoned. They’re monsters.
Letting them live was too dangerous. They could go on to infect others. They needed to be put down. He was going to use them in the ritual, so their deaths could serve a purpose. But what if they could be cured? They’d become people again, deserving of life, of their souls.
Eric looked over at the stables. There were only three horses now, but their essence was plain to see. It was more yellow than orange with tinges of red at the core. Did that mean they had souls?
What exactly was a soul, anyway? Was it a type of energy that fueled life? What happened to it when a body died? If Eric had never claimed one, what would have happened to them all? Where would they have gone? His gut instinct told him it was all tied to the ley lines, but he had no solid proof.
They’re a means to an end, his rational voice said.
There were times he wished it would speak with someone else’s voice, so he could tell it apart from his own. It was too confusing to hear two, made it difficult to know which thoughts were his.
Eric refused to think about it anymore, pushed it all from his mind before the voice argued it was both. He was done with waiting. It was time now for doing.
He had a wagon already prepared, kept in a corner of the courtyard with orders not to be touched. Just as he’d sent scouts to guard the fiends, he kept a close watch on the wagon himself. The iron cauldron Griz had used to summon him was loaded in back, hidden beneath a heavy cloth. The refined star metal, three bars, and the coffer of black gems from the vault were secured there as well. He had everything they needed and couldn’t stand another minute of memorizing.
Eric sent for Griz and put the study scroll along with the rest in the back of the wagon. He was about to call for Bel and a group of reds, when the voice cut his thought short.
The red general can’t be trusted, it warned. None of his reds can.
It was a problematic thought, in that Bel and his reds made up a sizeable portion of the army. Half were keeping the group at the mine safe. Without guards, he’d have to rely on others.
“Bri!” Eric called out to the blue general. She was sword training with another. “Gather your blues at the gate. We’re heading into the valley.”
He gave the same order to Bitters and told Stalk to pick five greens. He told the green general to stay behind. That gave him thirty goblins, the perfect number for what he had in mind.
“Master,” Bel called out and approached, ten reds in tow. “Why are we being excluded? If you’re going west, we’re best suited for the task.”
They can best serve by guarding the castle, the voice said.
“Guard the castle.”
A horse was tied to the wagon, as Griz came out with the others. Most of the blues looked like they’d been asleep. Eric led them out of the gate, ignored the bitter stares and grumbling of reds left behind.
It was nightfall before they reached the village. There were two rows of twenty-three fiends face down in the mud. All of them were bound, too weak to even move let alone break free of the enchanted rope. Eric could tell at a glance they were all still alive, though their essence had faded to a dull luster.
Eric dragged the cauldron from the wagon and put it in the center of the muddy road. He ordered thirty fiends brought over as he got the star metal bars and coffer and placed them beside the cauldron.
“Thirty, master?” Griz asked in alarm. “To use so many would be a waste of precious resources – both of life and materials.”
“Line them up ten at a time right here,” Eric said and indicated in front of the cauldron. “Have them kneel. I want someone behind each one with a blade.”
“Master, there’s no guarantee this will work,” Griz continued to complain, watched on but made no move to intervene. “And the corrupted spirits might ruin the spell if it does.”
It took two to three goblins to drag each one over, to position each fiend for execution.
“There’s no need to use so many, master.”
Eric found it strange the shaman would plead for the lives of corrupted humans. Unless all he really cared for was the star metal. And then Eric’s suspicions were confirmed.
“This has never been done before, master,” Griz said. “It’s wasteful to use star metal on goblins, to use so many lives on something that might not even succeed. It goes against my very nature as a shaman.”
“Just do as you’re told,” the voice said, and Eric was surprised to hear himself speak it aloud at the same time.
All thirty fiends were positioned before the cauldron. Goblins stood behind each one, held them on their knees with one hand on a shoulder and a blade to the throat.
“Start casting,” Eric told the shaman in an ominous tone.
Griz looked troubled, conflicted but held his tongue as he dragged a wooden crate over to stand on. He climbed up and stood over the cauldron, began casting the first runes. They appeared in air with a strong shimmer of gold. Eric lent his hand to a second ward, connected to the casting and added his strength to the spell.
The cauldron began to fill with power, a thrumming swell of magic that became light. Its swirl of purple and blue brightened, took on threads of silver and became liquid. It splashed up against the iron sides, left trailers of quicksilver that ran back down into the mix.
When the first glyph was completed, Eric reached for the star metal. Griz was already into the first ward of the second glyph when Eric dropped all three bars in.
“Master!” Griz stopped casting, eyes wide with shock. “That’s too much! We should only use a little, test if it’s going to work.”
His ward began to falter.
“If you don’t keep casting,” Eric said, “it’ll all be gone for nothing.”
He picked up the wooden coffer and emptied all the black gems in. They splashed into the mix, melted across its surface and stretched to sparkling crystals within the black of spreading star metal.
Griz set firm his jaw and fixed the last remaining rune before the ward fell apart. Even the first glyph had begun to falter. There was a time limit to be met. Too long without casting and all would be lost.
Eric continued to help Griz, working on wards they’d agreed on. Griz knew he’d be stronger in the beginning but less so as the spell went on. Eric had done his best to learn the ritual in its entirety, but he’d specifically spent the most time memorizing the final two glyphs.
He could see Griz growing tired by the time they finished the second and exhausted by end of the third. There was strain in his arms and chest, a slight pulling at his runes, but Eric felt nearly as strong as when they’d started. He didn’t think it would be quite so severe, but when it happened he was ready. Before the first ward of the fourth glyph was finished, Griz collapsed and fell into a waiting hand.
Eric gently let him down to the road and returned to working the spell. He only made two or three mistakes but quickly caught them as the sigils began to fail. He finished the final ward and let out a sigh of relief. The glyph flared into place, spun back toward the first and blazed into a construct. The runes and sigils were alight with golden fire, thrumming with enough power to send a shiver up his front.
“Do it now,” Eric ordered.
As one all thirty goblins drew a blade across the neck of the fiend knelt in front of them. Dark blood spurted out, a flood at first and then a trickle. Life spent, they all fell over. The combined essence rose from them like a cloud of crimson gone to black, a storm of violet charge riding its edge with feral fervor. It came straight for Eric but was pulled down into the cauldron. The mix swirled faster yet, intensified in power, as the construct grew to a blinding light.
It fell upon the cauldron.
Eric was knocked back a step by the force of it. The goblins had gasped in awe and fear, shielded their eyes or fell to their knees. While the mix still burned bright, Eric stepped forward and put his hand in.
“You will serve only me,” he said.
Silver sigils rose up from the mix along his metal, spun a circle about his wrist and formed a ward. It burned for a bright moment, sank within him and was gone. Eric could feel their spirits bind with his. Their loyalty to him would be without question.
The first goblin emerged and climbed out to grip the cauldron edge with both hands and feet. It crouched and eyed the others as if gauging their worth. It was black head to toe, a pure dark like starless night. Taller than the others by a hand, more muscular as well, it looked born to fight by tooth and nail.
The black turned its attention to Eric with a sidelong look. There was intelligence in the gaze but something more, something deadly. It was like staring into the eyes of a tiger at a zoo enclosure.
The goblin hopped down and knelt before Eric as a second climbed from the mix. It followed suit, eyeing the others and hopped down to kneel beside the first. When the third climbed out, the magic was spent. All sound within the cauldron disappeared, like air being sucked into a void. Only the scrape of nails on iron could be heard as the last black jumped down. All three knelt on one knee before Eric.
As one they bowed their heads.
* * *
When they returned to the castle courtyard, all of the goblins were gathered – even those from mine. It was nearly morning, Griz was still asleep in the back of the wagon and the Eric’s newest goblins hadn’t said a word since their creation. Bel stood waiting before the fire, his reds spread out behind him as if expecting confrontation. None had yet drawn a weapon, but the red general had a leather sack in one hand. He took one look at the black goblins and scowled Eric’s way.
“What the hell is going on here?” Eric asked.
His loyal three took up position before him, legs apart and hands open. Eric could see them eyeing the gathered goblins, gauging where the first attack might come from.
Bel said, “I’d hoped you would change your mind about the star metal.” Again, he’d purposely not called Eric master. It seemed his rebellion was at hand. “You have put your own needs before this expedition for the last time. What you did was a selfish waste of resources.” More to those gathered than to Eric, he raised his voice and said, “We could have completed our expedition with honor, gone home as celebrated heroes. Instead, we’re stuck with a human, who cares for nothing but himself, and corrupted abominations that will never be welcome in Xanaranth.”
The three watched Bel with perfect calm, waiting for him to make an aggressive move or for Eric to give an order.
Crush him, the voice urged. Crush them all.
“Big words,” Eric said, “for a little man. You gonna back ‘em up?”
“Belchburn,” Bri said with a hand to her pommel. Her blues were already spreading out on the left side of the gathered reds. “This is not what’s best for us right now. It will only make matters worse.”
Bitters and his oranges had moved toward the right on their own. Stalk and Mudbutt were in back on the castle steps, well behind the reds. Either they’d chosen the wrong side or were waiting to see how things played out. All of the gobs who’d come with Eric stood quietly behind him.
“Don’t do this,” Bitters said in an even tone.
Bel squared his shoulders. “You think your duty is to the expedition,” he told the two generals. “It isn’t. It belongs to the people of Xanaranth, our people.”
“Honestly,” Eric said, “I dunno what’s going through your head right now, but there’s no way you’re walkin’ out of this.”
“Perhaps not,” Bel said and threw the sack against the ground. The sound of breaking glass within followed. “But neither will you.”
Black essence rose up from the sack.
“You stupid fu –”
It struck Eric in the chest, sent him backward a step and took the words from his mouth with the strength of its touch. Despite all effort to refuse it, the black cloud licked along his metal in wisps of clinging smoke. It seeped inside, ran the length of his runes and gripped his spirit with the force of a storm.
Eric dropped to his knees as if violently ill. He would have wretched if he could, convulsed his every muscle to expel it from his body. It shook him from within with an implacable hold, caused both his hands and vision to tremble. Senses became dulled, as if the world had slipped beneath a blanket of noise. It blurred his eyes, rang in his ears and burned his middle with a growing cold.
I’m dying, he realized, could feel his glyph start to slowly unravel. He looked up at Bel, at the traitorous goblins beside him. You think you won? Think again.
“Kill them,” Eric said. “Kill the reds.”
None of the others made a move, not Bri nor Bitters or any of those that followed them. Whether it was out of shock at the order or loyalty to their comrades, not one of the original expedition moved to attack.
They didn’t have to.
The three black goblins sprang forward like hounds loosed upon prey. They went straight for the closest red, all three on the same target. One grabbed him by the arm reaching for a sword and broke it at the elbow over a knee. A second was at his other arm, using it as leverage to drive him backward over a leg and toward the ground. The third leapt on top, punching at his face with sharp raps to the nose until he was dead. The red’s sword was pulled free and chaos ensued.
One after another, all three leapt upon a target and took a new weapon with each kill. The first red had died so quickly, none of the others had time to react with anything but fearful surprise. By the time they drew their blades, another had fallen. The reds were guards and soldiers, trained to fight with sword and shield, but none of that mattered in the face of such a coordinated ferocity.
The three fought as one, blocked attacks for each other, created and took advantage of openings for one another. They were relentless in their assault, choosing the nearest target and fighting for all they were worth until it was dead. Each slash, every thrust, all their movements were deliberate and delivered with precision.
Pained screams rang out, blood spattered, and reds died one after another. Bel was last to fall, disarmed, brought to his knees and beheaded without a word.
When it was finished, the three let fall their swords and came to stand before Eric, facing the other goblins. They were covered in blood but not a drop was their own.
It happened so quickly, Eric had barely seen. His vision was blurred, shaky and playing tricks. Suddenly he was surrounded by hundreds of ghostly spirits – goblins, humans, dwarves, men and women. They were all crouched, looking away, trembling in fear.
All but one.
It was Eric, or a man that looked like him. He wasn’t pale and doughy, as Eric remembered himself, but a man straight and tall. The face was Eric’s though, and he carried it on a wooden stick like a mask. It spoke when he did, mimicked his expressions.
Don’t leave me now, boy, the man said in Eric’s voice and knelt so they were face to face. I still have use for you.
Griz was there beside him. “Master, are you alright?”
“No,” Eric said, staring into his own eyes. “I think I’m corrupted. Can you… fix it?”
The shaman shook his head. “I know of no way to purify a spirit.”
Eric recalled Sebran and his family of spiritists as the mask that was his face smiled wide with a horrific grin.
“Bring me Sebran,” he said. “Whatever it takes. Just bring him here.”
See? said the man with Eric’s face. Still of use.
Eric couldn’t see what was behind the mask, but he knew who it was. The fancy clothes, the boots, the gold ring with a ruby.
It was Tragona.