Eric headed toward the enclosed valley early the next morning with Griz by his side. They followed behind Bel, Stalk and a small group of goblins. Another group had set off at the same time to begin work on a new mine, while the rest stayed behind to guard the castle. Eric had warned them demons might attack and to flee if they did. There was no sense in dying to a lost cause when they could fight the demons later on equal ground. Now that Eric could work magic, they’d have more goblins soon enough.
It was raining as they followed the overgrown road west toward the mountains. An hour from the castle, the trees grew more frequent and less between. By the time they reached the entrance, they stood in a small forest. The road could barely be seen for the brush and fallen branches. A cursory look at the mountains on either side showed the valley had once been closed off. It had been forcefully opened by hand at a low point in the range. The rocks were roughhewn, chiseled by tool and many hours of hard work. While a great effort had gone into breaking into the valley, the road looked to have been abandoned for quite some time. With forest obscuring the pass on either side of the range, making it difficult to see a way in our out, it was no wonder only a single fiend had made it through in all this time.
A low rumble sounded off in the distance, a rolling boom that drew on and echoed against the rocks. A few moments later light flashed over the westernmost mount, cast its edges in a silver glow beneath the winter gray of a coming storm.
Goblins were already guarding the pass when they arrived. A handful of greens were resting in the upper branches of a nearby tree, had secured themselves with rope to keep from falling.
Worst case scenario, Eric thought as he saw how the pass had been carved, I can smash the rocks on both sides, collapse it all and seal them in.
“Everyone but Griz stay here,” Eric ordered. “Don’t let anything get past.”
While the others dispersed to join those at watch, Bel remained in the road.
“I’d like to go along, master,” the red general said. “If you run into trouble, I can help protect our shaman.”
“Me too, master,” Stalk offered. The green general had brought a bow nearly as big as he was tall. “You never know when you’ll need a good tracker.”
“Alright,” Eric said with a shrug, “but if one of those things attacks, let me deal with it. Everyone who gets infected is just another I’ve gotta kill.”
Stalk’s eyes slightly widened while Bel’s somewhat narrowed. Eric motioned for them to lead the way.
“How was your practice, master?” Griz asked as they walked behind.
The rain was falling a little harder, filled dips in the muddied road to growing puddles that were difficult for the shaman to traverse without his staff.
“I’m already sick of memorizing runes,” Eric said with a short laugh. “It’s like chemistry last semester all over again. I’m gonna keep going ‘til I master it, though.”
Griz nodded. He’d pulled his hood up to keep the rain from his good eye. “Soon enough, master, you’ll learn to channel sources other than your own, like the ley lines.”
“Until we deal with the infection, that might not be a good idea.” Eric looked down at his hand, worried about the glyph he couldn’t see. “If infected people corrupted the ley lines, then using one as a source should spread that infection. I don’t wanna lose my ability to cast.”
“We don’t know that’s how it works, master,” Griz said in a thoughtful tone, “but perhaps caution would be best.”
They’d continued along the road, which had all but disappeared for a short while. Stalk had found it for them again and led the way through the dense forest. The trees were slender but grown close together, with each no more than one or two feet apart. They had very few branches but for the wide canopies at their top. Their bark was white as chalk with dark grooves and knots, though nothing like the black Eric had seen in the forest to the south.
It made him wonder how Taliana was doing.
“There’s no large wildlife,” Stalk noted as they walked in the rain. “I can hear birds, see them,” he said and pointed at one nesting in the hole of a tree. He poked at the mud with one end of his bow, where worms had come up for rain. “There are insects in the ground and in the trees, signs of squirrel and wood mice and raccoons, but I don’t see any tracks or markings of large animals. No bear, no wolf, no deer, not even fox.”
“If they were sick,” Eric said, “we’d at least see a few corpses. Maybe something else is going on.”
“They could have been frightened off by those fiends, master,” Bel said. He didn’t seem to share the same level of concern as Stalk. “Any sign of those?”
“Yes.” The green left the road and knelt a few dozen paces off. He uncovered bones beneath a layer of dead leaves and mud. “I see signs of them everywhere.” When he returned to lead them further, he said, “Master, I think the larger animals have all been hunted. Some may have fled out of fear, but that’s not what I’m seeing.”
After a while, Stalk stopped pointing out all the piles of bone and signs of struggle he could spot from the road. There were plenty of tracks to follow but no fiends within sight.
When they left the forest, the valley continued on in low grassy hills sweeping north. There was a farm in the distance with three empty fields and more forest further off to the east. They saw no animals or people as they drew closer to the first field. There was no smoke coming from the stone chimney at the wattle and daub house or any livestock in the fenced area beside it. Everything seemed abandoned.
They kept to the road when Eric sensed something strange. It was like magic but different, less of a tingle and more of a hum. It was a faint thrumming along his metal like a shiver down the spine he used to have.
“Hold on,” Eric said and stopped. If it wasn’t magic, what could it be? He didn’t see anything in that direction but a rising hill. “There’s something this way.”
He led them off the road, beyond the untilled fields and toward the westernmost mountain. The grassland stretched out and rose to a bare hill up ahead. When they crested its muddy top, they found a massive crater with a large rock shattered into three pieces at its center. Shards littered the surrounding area in a halo about the strike.
“Cool,” Eric said. “Never seen a meteor before. You guys might wanna stay back. What feels like magic might be radiation.”
Griz had gasped when he saw it.
“It’s star metal, master,” he said and worked his way down the muddied slope.
The rocks were grayish blue with white speckles and striations, shot through with dark veins that branched out in thin lines.
Bel picked up one of the smaller rocks that had broken apart upon impact.
“The expedition’s a success,” he said in voice filled with shock and realization. “This one find is enough to offset cost and turn more profit than any other has ever seen. We can go home.”
Griz waved Eric over. “It’s safe, master. We’ve found star metal twice before, though never in such quantity. It’s priceless,” he said and ran a hand over its surface. “This is an incredible discovery.”
“It’s very rare, master,” Stalk said and slid down to join the shaman, “so much so that it’s only used to craft weapons for the greatest noble families. Only eight have ever been made. They’re passed down as heirlooms to succeeding heads of house.”
Eric still stood at the top of the crater. He didn’t like what he was hearing, this talk of his goblins going home. He couldn’t let Griz leave, not until Eric was human again. He needed the shaman to send him back to Earth.
You might have to infect him.
It was back, what he thought of as his rational self and speaking in his voice. It was as if it only came out when he was stressed or going insane. Eric had heard enough of it at the bottom of the lake. There wasn’t room in his head for two voices.
Fuck off, Eric thought and tried to ignore it.
He can’t leave, if he can’t do magic, the voice stated in a sensible tone. Make him teach you the portal spell. Then you get to decide when or if anyone goes home. It was quiet a moment. Look at the smaller third. It’s been cut at already.
Eric grumbled and moved closer. “We’re not the first to find it,” he said when he reached the meteor. He knelt over the piece and ran a finger across the edges where someone had used a tool. “Tragona maybe? Pretty sure I saw a star metal rod in his lab.”
Griz took a closer look as well. “Could be, master, that’s what he used in his experiments, why the fiends look like their flesh had been fused with it. This may not be happenstance but proof the lich was working with a god.”
“A god?” Bel asked, clearly annoyed this was the first he was hearing of it. “We should notify the conservatory at once.”
Eric said, “Rocks fall from the sky all the time. It doesn’t mean it’s a god.”
“We should send for others, master,” Griz said, “to gather this all right away.”
This is where they betray you, the voice said in a matter of fact tone, where their interests don’t align with your own.
Shut the fuck up! You don’t know that. But didn’t he? Eric was, after all, talking to himself. I just need a way to make them stay.
Gather the metal, refine it, the voice suggested, and use it to make goblins.
Eric nodded to Stalk and Bel. “You two go. Get all of it to the castle and start refining it. I’ll decide what to do with it when I get back.”
The red general frowned and asked, “What else could we possibly do with it, master? It’s a prized possession on Xanaranth, more than any other item of wealth or esteem. Ours will be the most successful expedition in history, able to ask any boon of the council we want.”
You’re made of star metal, the voice reminded him. What’s to stop the goblins from taking it from you once you’re there?
Eric reiterated, “I’ll decide what to do with it.”
The two goblins bowed their heads and left without another word, though Bel had looked back in discontent as he climbed.
Best keep an eye on that one, the voice warned.
Eric headed out of the crater and north back toward the road. The shaman followed after with a small piece of meteor in his hand. The rain had begun to let up, and they were passed the farm before Eric spoke.
“I wanna use it to make more goblins.”
There was steel in his tone, one that said his mind was already made up. Eric had quickened his pace, left the shaman with barely enough breath to follow after let alone any to argue.
“Master,” Griz said with caution, “the metal is too rare. It’s never been used that way before.” He took in a few long, deep breaths. “We don’t even know if it can be or what mineral to mix it with if we tried. It’s too valuable to waste.”
“Disagree,” Eric said. He could see a village in the distance, though most of it was obscured by fog off a lake to its south. “I think the power I felt coming off it would make goblins able to work magic. That would make your expedition stronger, able to make even more goblins. You could gather enough treasure that it’d be worth even more than a pile of rocks. I thought the whole point of you guys coming here was to conquer.”
The village buildings were much the same as the farmhouse, single story wood and hardened mud with thatch roofs and shuttered windows. It was fairly large, with the single road running through. There were farms scattered across the hillsides, numerous fields and pens for livestock. There was still no sign of people, though, no smoke in the chimneys.
“I – I think that would be a mistake, master.” Griz was careful with his words. “The best course of action is to return the star metal to Xanaranth. It would appease the council, and we could ask them to send you home.”
“Except I’m not human yet,” Eric said, “and they might say no.”
He saw the bodies then, one half into the lake edge and others scattered on the road inside the village. None of them moved and were too far away to tell if they’d been infected.
“I can’t do the ritual on my own, master.”
Eric headed for the one that had clearly drowned. “That’s why you’re gonna teach it to me. So I can help.”
While the buildings mostly appeared to be houses, he could see a tavern at the village center, a blacksmith at the other end and what looked to be a tannery. There was an empty pasture to the north, just across from the lake.
When Eric got closer, he could see the stitches in the bloated legs of the man at the water’s edge.
“Are they dead, master?” Griz asked of the fiends face down in the village.
“Just this one,” Eric replied.
He could see the essence of each fiend. They looked starved near to death, too weak to even move. The body in the lake was like the man at Cledford, torn apart and sewn together. Whatever Tragona had done to him, his presence was affecting the water. The lake was frozen except for a few feet around the body. The water and soil beneath him was black.
“Don’t,” Eric warned as Griz moved closer to check the body. “Looks like another experiment. Probably died in the water and infected everyone.”
“He isn’t changed, though, master.”
“Neither was the other one,” Eric said. “They could be carriers.” At the shaman’s puzzled look, Eric added, “Where I come from, you can have a disease that doesn’t affect you. We call people like that carriers because they can still pass it on to others.”
Griz said, “They should not have left it in the lake like this, master. Even dwarves know not to foul their only water supply.”
“Maybe they tried, and that’s what started it all.”
Eric headed into the village and stopped beside the closest fiend. He nudged it with a foot. It made a sound but didn’t move. Like the others, it seemed barely alive. A quick look around revealed more, inside buildings with smashed and broken furniture and bloodstains all over.
“I think they’re starving,” Eric said back outside on the road. “They can hardly move.”
“One was well enough to make it outside the valley, master,” Griz warned. ‘There could be others.”
“Is there a way to bind them with magic?”
Griz replied, “The easiest way, master, would be to tie them up with rope and enchant it. Aren’t we here to kill them?”
“Not just yet,” Eric said. He had another plan in mind. “We’ll need them for the ritual.”
He could have claimed all the dying fiends. He was close enough to another change, but using them to make star metal goblins was a better use. It kept Griz from leaving before Eric was ready, and put more goblins at his command.
“These souls are infected, master.” Griz eyed one from a safe distance. “Using them could have unforeseen consequences. As I said earlier, it might not even work. Whatever star metal we use will have been wasted.” The shaman tried to be convincing. “It’s not the best course of action to serve.”
“The best way to serve,” Eric said with emphasis on the last, “is to make more goblins and keep going. There are other expeditions here, right? What happens if the ley lines get corrupted? The barrier thing falls, some god gets loose and the whole world goes to shit. All those other expeditions will die.”
“We could return to Xanaranth, master,” Griz said, “deliver the star metal to the conservatory and charter a new expedition to save Taellus.”
Eric sighed. He was getting a little tired of the back and forth and started searching for more fiends.
“I’ll think about it.”
He started thinking about the corruption. The one from Cledford took away the ability to use magic. He’d taken essence from the fiends in the valley but was still able to cast. It was like there were different kinds of diseases, either by design or accident. He wondered how many experiments Tragona had conducted and how long the lich had been at it.
Or when the hell did he become a lich? Some shit must’ve gone down for him to pull that trigger. Eric found more dying fiends at the other end of the village. Why didn’t Dusk report seeing them like this?
“Let’s take a look further north,” Eric said and led the way. “Either that scout saw fiends still able to move, or something’s happened to them since.”
It was getting late in the day when they passed the outlying farms and kept going toward the northernmost mountains. They crested a large hill and stopped. In the distance were fiends searching a forest to the northwest, while others tried to climb out of the valley on the east side. There were at least fifteen, maybe more he couldn’t see. They were spread out and moving sluggish. The six trying to climb kept slipping downward or falling from heights that would have killed a normal person. The ones in the forest were chasing smaller animals. They were too slow in their weakened state to be effective.
“Stalk was right,” Eric said. They’d hunted the entire valley bare from south to north. There was nothing left for them to feed on. “Pretty soon these guys will be too weak to stand, too. We can tie them up then.”
“It might be a good idea, master,” Griz suggested, “to keep one for study, to find out how exactly they’ve been changed. It might lead to understanding how they’re corrupting the ley lines and possibly undo the damage.”
“Maybe,” Eric said, doubtful, “but that’s a horror movie waiting to happen. If it gets loose, everyone’s gonna die.”
Griz leaned upon his staff. “Then we shall have to make certain, master, it doesn’t get loose.”