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Eric was starving.

He’d spent the night outside, making sure there were no shenanigans on the lord’s part. It wouldn’t be the first time some NPC promised one thing while plotting a dick move behind the player’s back. No one else from Cledford came, no scouts or spies, no immediate plans of betrayal.

It was almost disappointing.

He wanted Sebran’s help getting back into his body, but it would’ve made everything so much easier if the guy had been an ass. He was so understanding, so polite that Eric almost didn’t know how to react. If Sebran went back on his word and attacked in the cover of night, it would’ve been all that much easier to fight back – to kill them. To ease his hunger.

It would’ve been self-defense, Eric reasoned. This is my home now, he thought and looked at the gothic nightmare of a castle, shitty as it is. I have to protect it… and my goblins. I need them.

Guards and scouts were changing shift as the sun began to rise. Eric returned to the courtyard where many had woken and gathered, awaiting morning meal. Others were still asleep on scraps of cloth in one of the rooms. With all the clanging of metal armor and pots in the kitchen, the low voices and stupid laughter, the cursing and shoving, it was a wonder they got any sleep at all.

Children, Eric thought. They’re all basically children, with the exception of a few. Scary, cartoonish, fucking murderous children.

Eric called Griz and the generals to a meeting by the portcullis. He’d doubled the guards around and within the castle, plus scouts outside the wall, until further notice. As much as he wanted to trust Sebran, he had a sinking feeling the lord would just as soon attack to have his lands back than do anything to help the monster that had broken his daughter’s neck. Compared to Tragona and his undead army, the goblins must have looked like a safe bet.

Griz arrived first.

Eric asked, “You find anything useful in the castle?”

“Quite a bit, master,” the shaman replied. “There is a laboratory in the lower level with its own cache of stores, an abundance of rope, candles, dried herbs and various spell reagents. Tragona experimented on humans to a torturous degree, though I cannot say what it is he was trying to accomplish. Their remains were so disturbing, so tainted by magic that they’re meat has become rotted and poisonous.”

“Gross,” Eric said, more about their wanting to eat dead people than the experiments. “Probably something to do with using people as phylacteries. Anything else?”

“Yes, master, there is also a small reliquary.” Griz fished the lich’s ring from a pocket. “It has a collection of potions and other enchanted jewelry, such as this. I’m fairly certain he intended to use this ring to contain his spirit once the girl died.”

“Crafty fucker.”

“Indeed, master.” Griz put the ring away as the other generals were approaching. “The reliquary includes a collection of semi- to precious stones, with quite a bit of diamonds. They’re common but useful if we ever intend to make grays.”

“Grays are made from diamond?” Eric asked. “That doesn’t sound like cheap labor.”

“Diamonds and iron, master. The stones are terribly rare on our world but in abundance here on Taellus.”

That’s something, I guess. Dunno what I’d with an army of grays, though.

He addressed the gathered generals.

“I want a full accounting,” Eric said, “of our current situation. How many goblins of each color do we have? What are they using for gear? How much food and water do we have stored? What do we know about the lands on our borders, on all sides?” He looked to Griz. “And most importantly, where can I find something to kill that isn’t murdering innocent people?”

“Well, master,” the shaman hedged and shifted his weight, “we had hoped to be working our way east by now, but –”

“Yeah, no. No eating potential allies. They might turn out to be useful –” What is that? A smell struck Eric as he honed in on the sound of streaming. He turned to see a brown relieving himself against a courtyard wall. “Hey! No! Don’t do that here!” The brown was wide-eyed with fright but couldn’t stop. He ran toward the backside of the castle leaving a trail as he went. “The last thing we need is for this place to start stinking of shit and piss.”

Bel cleared his throat. “I’ll have my reds dig a proper latrine outside the wall. There’s twenty-eight of us in all, master. We all have steel swords, some chainmail but mostly leathers. We have ten shields we rotate for guard duty.”

“Thirty-one,” Mudbutt said proudly. “Err, browns, that is, master. Also steel swords but no armor.”

“Relax,” Eric told him. “It ain’t a competition. Does that include Griz?” Mud confirmed that it did, so Eric asked Stalk, “Greens?”

“Just twelve, master,” the green general replied. “Scouts and hunters weren’t a high priority when this host was formed. We have hunting knives, short bows and a limited supply of arrows.”

Eric looked beyond the gate. What few trees survived the magical storm that had plagued the land were black and twisted. He doubted their wood was of any use for fletching arrows.

“Right,” he said, “so we need to keep an eye out for healthy trees, keep a stockpile of wood for fletching and fires.”

“Riverwood is best, master,” Stalk said, “along clear streams and rivers, some ponds and lakes. They don’t grow very tall, and the wood is more pliable.”

Eric frowned – inwardly.

“Good to know,” he said in a disparate tone. He really was trying not to lose his patience. There was just so much noise going on around him, and every cackle or scuffle made his hunger seem all the more pronounced. To Bitters, he asked, “How ‘bout the oranges?’

A shadow fell across the goblin’s face, either anger or embarrassment. “Nine,” he said sullenly then quickly added, “master. We lost quite a few during your arrival.”

Oh. Well, shit. He gave a mental shrug. I didn’t think any of them were important back then.

“My bad.” It was about as much an apology as he’d ever give. “Gear?”

“Steel short swords, daggers, throwing knives, and we each maintain our own herb kit for mixing poisons. Four of us wear silk padded leathers for infiltration. The rest have a mix of leather and cloth.”

“Nice.” Eric sounded impressed. He wondered when they might be useful for more than swords on the field. He looked to the blue general, who still didn’t look all that feminine to him. As much as he wanted to keep calling her smurfette, she just didn’t fit the description. “How many blues?”

“We’re sixteen, master,” she answered. “We all have steel swords and long daggers, some hardened leather armor like mine. Most are used to going without it. They think it hampers movement. We can use more than just swords if the need arises. Blues are trained to use any weapon at hand.”

Alright, so… Eric did some calculations in his head. We have ninety-six total. He looked over those gathered in the courtyard. The goblin host was much bigger when he first arrived, but what remained was leaner, the actual army. We’re better off. They would’ve just been a waste of food. Still, we gotta find a way to keep these guys fed. The way they’re eating that wyvern meat…

“What’s the land like around us?” he asked. “Aside from the obvious,” he added and indicated the range of mountains stretching west to north off in the distance. “Have you done any scouting?”

“We did, master,” Griz replied. “I believe the castle to the south was rebuilt here once it was destroyed. Most likely because beneath us is a convergence of two ley lines. Its magic helps strengthens the stones.”

Eric could feel the ley lines as a steady thrum, like the bass of a song he couldn’t quite make out. That electric thrumming was always there but subdued enough that it didn’t take hold of his attention. The way they flowed far below, always in one direction, was like rivers of pure magic reaching up toward the surface with their splashing. He wondered what it would be like to tap directly into such power. If he could use it to fuel his transformations, he’d be human again in no time.

“To the east,” the shaman continued, “is Cledford. There are small towns and farming villages spread throughout the land surrounding it further east and to the south. North of it is a river that runs along the range directly north of us. It rounds a forest that continues east for many days. West of us is a fully enclosed valley. We haven’t been able to scout very far in, as it’s been completely barred by the undead until recent.”

An entire area blocked off by mountains, with this castle guarding the only way in. Is that why Tragona was satisfied with staying put? What the hell is he hiding in there?

“Stalk, can you send someone to check it out? No more than three days. If they encounter any danger, tell them to turn around and report back.” The green general left to see it done. “Bitters, is it possible to get someone inside Sebran’s keep without being seen? Just watch and listen, see what they’re up to. I mean, I know you guys don’t exactly blend.”

“Absolutely, master,” the orange general replied, as if his own skill had been called into question. “I’ll send Marbit. She’s an excellent spy. If she needs to, she can pose as a human child.”

Marbit. Isn’t that what they call those stale ass marshmallows in cereal?

“If you say so.” Eric watched him go as well. They seemed happier to have a task. He might just have to do the same with some others to keep them busy and their minds off eating humans. “What’s south of that ruined castle?”

“Dense forest,” Bel answered gruffly, as if recalling a bad memory, “master. We almost lost a patrol there our first day. Luckily, my gobs recognized the smells and got out in time. It’s infested with trolls,” he explained and scrunched up his nose, as if he could still smell one. “They won’t risk leaving the forest – not without a shaman venturing out to secure a new totem.”

“Great!” Eric said, his stomach roiling with quiet pains. “Stinky troll forest is the one to beat. What’s in the forest north –”

The crystal on Griz’s staff began to slowly pulse.

“Hmm,” the shaman muttered, concerned.

Eric asked, “What is it?”

“It’s the foundry, master. I set an alert spell for the others to use in case I’m ever needed.”

“That place is still around, huh?” Eric gave it some thought. If it wasn’t already destroyed by demons, they should probably move it. “What all do we have there? How many smiths and weapons? Come to think of it, what are they doing for food and water?”

“We have seventeen master craftsmen, master,” Griz said with some pride, “and another twenty-five with many years of experience. They make all of our weapons, armor and tools. In exchange for allowing us use of their land, we provide the demon army with all the weapons and armor they need. Karron additionally provides us with resources, from processed ores and hides to all that is necessary for our craftsmen to survive.”

Sounds like a sweet deal, so long as the demons aren’t treating them as slaves. I wonder how much of what they make they get to keep.

“Alright then,” Eric said. “Let’s go see what’s up.”

Griz nodded and began summoning a portal.

 

*        *        *

 

When they arrived at the foundry, Eric was surprised to see a demon already there and inside the protection of the magic barrier. It was crouched over the spot where Eric had killed the other demon. Gouge marks in the stone floor and a drop of blood in particular had caught its attention.

While the first one Eric had encountered was a foot soldier, with thick limbs and a wide chest, covered in heavy dark plates, this one seemed more of a scout. It was lean and cunning, with a feral intelligence behind the eyes. Bright red with vertical slits for pupils, they seemed to gauge and take in all with practiced care. It must have stood twelve feet tall, with slender but muscled arms and long legs bent backwards at the knee. Its scales were dull crimson edged in black, more oval than diamond shaped and tightly spaced for protection. Rather than plates across its back, there were finned spines a foot long, from obsidian black to orange and black again at the tip. Its chest was striated with corded muscle beneath a harness of steel spikes worn crosswise like a vest. It hands and feet were resembled claws, with long talons and barbs along the backsides. Its maw was draconic, a short snout with pointed teeth and a series of nostrils across the top. It had no ears or hair, just a head covered in tiny black spikes.

Within seconds its essence was overwhelming. The bright of its crimson aura washed over Eric like tingles across his front, tantalizing parts he no longer had. It was summer warmth on the face, the breathy intake of fresh baked goods and the numbing rush of realization one was about to have sex. However strong the soldier had been, this demon’s essence put it to shame.

It was increasingly difficult to think of anything else.

“Greetings,” Griz said and bowed to the demon with the deference of a diplomat or politician. “To what do we owe the honor?”

The other goblins kept working, heads down to avoid eye contact. The incessant sound of hammering rang out in time to glowing sparks and the bright glow of freshly poured molten metal.

There was a feel of magic coming off the demon, not as strong as its essence but there all the same. It was like stepping into a strong electrical field, one that could jolt outward and strike at any moment.

It warned of danger.

How the hell did it get in here? The thought was hazy in his mind, beneath the shouts and sudden screams that wanted the demon’s power, like a barrage of his own voice demanding, Do it! Just do it!

“A servitor has gone missing,” it said in a voice more rasp than whine, the slow paced speech of one who gave thought to every word. The demon eyed Griz and stood to its full height. It completely ignored Eric. “I tracked his scent –” the demon pointed toward the gouges – “to here. Explain.”

“There must be a mistake,” Griz said. “I’ve not seen a demon here since collection. Perhaps he was one of those who helped carry arms back to the citadel.”

Damn, Griz. You go, boy! Eric had to admit, it was a pretty smart explanation. He had trouble keep his own thoughts in check, though, was clenching a fist to fight back the urge to attack. The demon noticed but said nothing. Just fucking kill him, already! Eric growled inwardly at himself. Shut up, goddammit. Shut the fuck up!

“Seekers do not make mistakes.” The demon stepped forward and faced Eric, looked up into the glow of his eyes as if trying to gauge intent. “Considerable strength would be needed to best a servitor.”

Son of a bitch. Eric knew they were playing a ruse to save the foundry, but the sudden proximity… You better back the fuck off!

“Indeed,” Griz agreed, “so much so that I can’t think of many creatures even capable of it. Isn’t it more likely that this soldier is out on the hunt or has taken the fight to the fey on his own terms, rather than a highly unlikely loss to a mysterious predator?”

“What purpose does this serve?” the seeker asked and tapped Eric’s chest with a talon. “It looks awkward, clumsy and lacks the finesse of your usual work. Surely, it is not meant to fight.”

If Eric didn’t know better, he’d swear the demon was trying to goad him. It wanted him to attack. All he had to do was reach out and grab its spindly throat. Its face was so close he could feel its breath across his face.

“That’s just a worker,” Griz assured him. “We goblins are not known for our strength. We need such things to help with heavy lifting.”

The demon dragged its talon over Eric’s chest, filling the air with a low pitched screeching and several sparks. It only slightly marred the surface but enough to enrage Eric. It was all he could do to keep from striking out in a frenzy.

“It is a tool then,” the seeker said, “a stupid thing to be used. Give it to me.” It kept its gaze upon Eric and grinned. “As a show of a good faith.”

Griz seemed at a loss but managed to finally say, “I cannot. It is just a tool but an invaluable one. I can offer you anything else you see here, for your personal use.” He headed toward a collection of fine steel swords pegged to a wall separating the foundry. They hung over bundles of numerous, more common weapons ready for the next collection. “These are our finest,” he said and pointed to a row of masterfully crafted long and great swords. “I could even add an enchantment for you, given enough time.”

The seeker seemed to consider but never looked away from Eric. Its talon continued to etch a path across his dark metal.

“No need. I will let you keep your toy.”

The seeker shoved Eric back a step, hard enough that a less coordinated creature would have stumbled and fallen. The demon was much stronger than it looked. Eric’s eyes flared bloody red.

“Oh, dear,” the shaman said.

Eric smashed his head into the seeker’s, sent it reeling back but kept it close by grabbing hold of its neck with both hands. He growled in anger, a fury spurred by the demon’s taunting and a desire to take its essence. Eric squeezed with all his strength and forced the seeker downward.

Eyes narrowed, one foot braced behind, the demon looked as if it had expected the assault. It immediately raised both hands to grab hold of Eric’s wrists. There was no denying its strength, but the gurgled struggling meant it was fighting just to breathe.

Talons raked Eric’s wrists. They marred the metal but couldn’t reach the runes inside. The seeker raised both arms and smashed down into the crooks of Eric’s arms. Magic formed in one hand as a ball of swirling violet. It plunged the sphere into Eric’s face, and it broke apart as a burning flash of wild flames.

Eric didn’t need the false approximation of eyes to see. He used his entire body to sense his surroundings. The magic jarred that ability, though, like overcharging all his sensory input. Momentarily blinded, ears ringing, hands extended just for balance, vertigo threatened to send him down onto his back.

The demon grabbed Eric by one leg and pulled, drove an elbow into his chest to propel him even further. Eric felt himself go down and crash hard against the floor. Stone cracked outward beneath his weight. The demon was suddenly on top, clawing wildly at Eric’s eyes and throat. It reached back with both hands and called magic to either one.

Eric caught both wrists as they came down. Two more spheres crackled with black lightning just inches from his face. Whatever magic this was, its intent was to kill. Eric squeezed, forced both wrists back, but the bones wouldn’t break.

All the goblins but Griz had fled to the lower level. The shaman was moving his staff through the air in a small circle while quietly chanting.

Is this his chance? Eric thought, also wondering if he’d taken on more than he could handle. Is he gonna help, or is he gonna fuck me?

“You have broken our pact,” the seeker said to Griz, his voice strained from the struggle. “When I do not return, Karron will know of your betrayal. He will seek to destroy all of goblinkind. Not only on Taellus but on your home world as well.”

Eric changed tack and brought the demon’s hands together. The magic clashed and exploded into bright shards of ebon flame. A flash of blue rose up between them. The demon screamed in anguish, its hands all but destroyed. Some of the bones and bits of muscle still remained but the dark magic was spent. Eric rolled, forced the seeker beneath his weight. He held the demon down by one hand at its throat.

“You talk too fuckin’ much,” he growled and grabbed its face with his other hand. Eric pushed for all he was worth with both hands. “And those goblins are mine!”

The seeker’s neck snapped in two places.

Eric was barely able to breathe a sigh of relief, to let loose his hold, before the change came upon him. Like a spike of adrenaline, it seized his every thought in a mix of sated hunger and dying pleasure.

It’s the fucking hunger that kills me. I can’t take it anymore. I’m no good if I can’t think straight.

And with that his choice was made.

The exultation faded, and so did the hunger. Eric still wanted to feed on essence, but it no longer drove him. As much as he wanted other changes, he would never again be a victim to that unrelenting desire.

Eric sat up and looked at Griz.

“Shit,” he said. “I fucked up. I just couldn’t take it.”

“No, master. You did the right thing.” Griz moved to stand before him, as other goblins were starting to come out from hiding. “He forced our hands.”

Eric snorted. “We didn’t do shit. I’m the one who killed it.” He looked the shaman over, though he wasn’t really all that surprised. It’s not like they were friends. “For a second, I thought you were gonna help.”

“I did, master,” Griz said. “I knew you would turn the seeker’s magic against him. I shielded you from the blast. The spell he was casting… it would have torn you apart. It was the best I could do, given the circumstance.”

Huh. Eric recalled the flash of blue light as the demon’s magic exploded. Guess he did help.

“I didn’t realize,” Eric said. “Thanks.” He got up to his feet and looked around at the foundry. “Well, this place is burned. Start packing it all up. We’ll make a new one at the castle.”

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