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They returned by nightfall to the orange glow and fading crackle of dying flames outside the castle. The goblins had made a bonfire and gathered around it for warmth. To Eric’s surprise, there were reds standing guard and greens out scouting for intruders or any sign of remaining undead. They’d secured the castle, searched every inch of it and were ready to close the gates once the meat was all cooked. Apparently greens were made to be hunters, skilled at tracking and trapping. A handful had set out and brought back wyvern for all to eat. They dressed the corpses in the field, carried back all the meat and hide they could. They’d go back for the bones later. Rooms had been assigned, for sleeping, crafting, cooking and spoils.

“The upper levels are yours, master,” Bel said. It was difficult walking up the stone stairs but not impossible. Eric was getting more and more used to his new size. “We only assigned what space was needed. It won’t be long before the humans realize Tragona and his forces are gone.”

Bitters snorted. “Master, send me and my gobs. We can sneak into Sebran’s castle, tonight. By morning, any one resembling a leader will be dead, and all their food and water poisoned.”

It seemed oranges were assassins.

“Yes,” Bel said and sniggered. “Picking off the rest will be easy. A few carefully placed fires, funnel them toward master…”

The other generals joined in the laugh.

Now they even sound like gremlins. Eric rubbed at his head. He didn’t care about the mechanics of having a headache, only knew that he felt throbbing behind the glow of his eyes. What would I do if this was a game? Assess resources, strengths and weaknesses, figure out what’s coming next and plan to deal with it best I can. Hope for the best, plan for the worst; hope was a sucker’s bet.

“Once that meat’s done cooking,” Eric told them, “I want the fire out. Close and lock the gates. Post guards in the courtyard, along the walls and inside the castle, just in case. Keep scouts on the lookout, especially from the east. Sebran will be coming. Rotate people as best you can, so no one falls asleep when they shouldn’t.” He considered barking at them to go, when none of them moved to immediately follow his orders. Instead, he said, “You guys did a good job while I was gone. Keep it up. Dismissed.”

They looked to one another, gave nods or bows and left downstairs. Griz remained behind. Nothing was left in the long hallway but torn paintings and falling purple drapes over the windows at the far end. The bedroom doors were all open, the furniture dragged outside to be burned.

“There’s probably books, tools, instruments, potions and who knows what else a lich might hoard. Find them,” Eric told him. “Use what you can to help us, throw away the rest. We have two goals from now on: make me human again, one way or another, and get the resources needed to satisfy your mission here. Send your people a message. We took a castle, suffered losses, and now we need reinforcements. Tell them whatever you think will convince them to help. You can stay up here with me. I think it’s best you stay by my side as much as possible.” He didn’t say it out loud, but the intimation was that everyone else was more or less expendable. The shaman nodded and turned to leave when Eric said, “Hold on. Tell me about goblins and their colors. It’s not random, right? Each type is made for a specific purpose.”

“That is true, master,” Griz said, “and very perceptive of you to notice. The most common, grays, are not very intelligent. They’re easier to make in large numbers and are used for menial labor. Some do specialize, though, in mining and sapping. It takes a long time to train them, but no one else is willing to work with explosives. Reds are our soldiers and guards, disciplined by nature and trained to work in units. Blues tend toward a solitary life. Their particular disposition makes them ideal as duelists and gladiators, combatants for sport and glory. Oranges are assassins and spies, tricksters of a sort that thrive in times of pressure. Given enough time to prepare, they can render an enemy indisposed without lifting a sword. Greens are our hunters and scouts, with keen eyes and a head for the outdoors. They make excellent trackers, and some specialize as animal handlers. Unfortunately, we have none of those with us.

“Browns, like myself, are nearly as abundant as grays, though with quite a bit more brain than brawn. That being said, browns who favor violence end up as brawlers or mercenaries. Most, however, are made to be craftsmen. Any caste can become a skilled worker, any sort of smith, armorer, woodworker, and the like, even a shaman, though the chances of that are very low. Only one in a thousand ends up with the temperament and acuity to work magic. It is extremely difficult to form a goblin with the intent of fashioning a shaman.

“There are other castes on Xanaranth, some not even limited to one color, but none of those are with us. I assume you’re asking to take a measure of our remaining forces.”

“Yeah. Interesting,” Eric said. Wheels were already turning in his mind. “What does it take to make a goblin? If we need to cut ties, could we make our own?”

“Possibly, master.” Griz looked off in the distance, as if considering how it might be done. “Normally, it would take the concerted effort of many shamans to work the magic. That might not be an issue with access to a proper nexus. The truly limiting factors are the rare stones and metals.” He hesitated to add, “Plus we would need to sacrifice… people.”

Eric groaned.

“The more people,” Griz said, “the better outcome. You can fashion a dozen grays from a single human, but…”

“You get what you pay for.”

“Yes!” the shaman said, “Exactly that, master.”

This place is determined to make me a murderer. Even if I don’t do it myself, anyone they kill is on me. They’re following my orders – for now, anyway. I don’t doubt for a second they’d turn on me if they could. None of them can be trusted. Not even Griz. The only thing I can trust is that they’ll work out of self-interest. As soon as I start wanting things they don’t, I may have to take a more drastic approach to leadership.

“Alright,” Eric said. “Go send a message back to your people. Take a closer look around the place for anything useful. Then rest. You look like shit.” The shaman bowed his head and turned for the stairs. “Griz. I kind of like you. I definitely need you. But I’m not above saying ‘fuck it’ and killing everyone. I know things didn’t turn out the way you planned… just, don’t fuck me.”

Griz looked up into the red glow of Eric’s eyes. He spent a long moment in quiet thought, and when he finally spoke, there was none of that pandering bullshit in his tone.

“You have my word.”

 

*        *        *

 

Eric waited outside the walls near the road facing east. He didn’t need sleep or the comfort of a building to feel safe. Sebran and his men were coming. Despite the dark and persistent rain, it was one of the few things he felt sure of.

It was just a matter of time.

Storm filled the skies in a quiet blanket of gray. The stars were completely hidden, but occasionally the moon would light the edge of a cloud in muffled silver. Eric could see fine, though. Whatever magic enhanced his senses made it seem as if the world was lit by the bright of a full moon in a clear sky. Sounds carried to him as well, the dull hiss of light rainfall, the muted strike of drops against mud or their splash into growing puddles. He heard the heartbeats of six reds standing guard behind him in the castle and four greens skulking the low hills in front. They reeked of unwashed bodies despite the rain, of mud and blood beneath the oiled leather of their armor. He could still smell the cooked wyvern, the char of ashes from the bonfire, the rain and storm.

All this, but he felt nothing. It was cold and wet across the surface of his body, as he stood still within wind blowing in from the north. Water pooled at his feet, where his weight had forced him down several inches into mud. He felt the world upon him but had no feeling inside. It was all just a growing numbness that ate away at his caring. It was more troublesome than fear of death or any pain from coming battles. If Eric wasn’t careful, apathy would transform him into a monster far worse than the one he already looked like.

The problem was what to do going forward. This world wasn’t about to give him anything he wasn’t willing to literally fight for. This wasn’t some after school special euphemism for facing hardship. If he ever wanted to be human again, to go back home, he’d have no choice but to take – money, resources, lives. Was there a better way without killing? He could try to explain, to people like Lord Sebran, ask them for help, open himself up for the inevitable disappointment and abuse. People could be good, generous and kind, but if the internet and politics had taught him anything, it was that shit rises to the top.

No one with power is going to want to help me, he thought and clenched his right hand into a fist. I’ll have to make them… somehow. He looked down at both hands. And no more wasting transformations. I need a weapon, a shield, magic. Power. If I can’t convince, I’ll have to threaten. If people are scared enough, they’ll do what they’re told. No one has to die.

The lie sounded hollow, even to him.

He felt them before he heard the rushing beat of their hearts approach. Their presence prickled his skin like a static charge, five men trying to sneak across the field.

“Can you hear me, master?” a green whispered. Eric held up a hand, signaling that he could. “Men from the east, at least three, could be more. Engage?”

“No,” Eric said, his booming voice carried throughout the field. “Don’t kill them.” The men had stopped, hearts racing with fear. “I want all five of you to go back and tell Sebran to come talk to me. I don’t want to kill anyone, but if he brings an army here… I won’t have a choice.” They hesitated, possibly waiting if he’d say more. “Go!”

They fled back to Cledford, and nearly an hour had passed before three horses approached. All three wore full plate, but only the outer two carried lances. The one in the middle must have been Lord Sebran. When they came into view, Eric noticed their liveries were green with white griffons. The knights in blue patrolling the keep must have been sent by King Raynver.

They stopped a hundred feet or so away. Even at that distance, Eric was making the horses skittish. Sebran didn’t wear a helm with full visor like the others. His had a long green plume on top. He took it off to reveal a weathered face with a thick mustache. His hair was dark, down to his shoulders, and a scar ran along his right cheek.

“I am Lord Jessop Sebran of Cledford,” he said by way of introduction, “loyal protector of the crown and rightful heir to these lands. “To whom do I have the pleasure?”

“I’m Eric.”

“What are you?” he asked. It was still raining, but the wind had died. “A creature in armor, or some sort of golem?”

The fuck?

“Yeah, actually. Golem.” Eric wanted to move closer, though he could hear them just fine. Something about talking so far apart felt adversarial. “I’m sorry about Ella. She was… nice.”

The knights with him shifted, struggled to keep their horses in line. Sebran’s mustache bristled at the mention of his daughter, but his anger didn’t seem to be directed at Eric.

“The lich. Is he dead?”

“Yep,” Eric replied, “along with all his minions.”

“Horseshit,” one of the knights murmured beneath his visor.

“You see an army of undead, fuckstick?” Eric yelled at the knight. “Notice any change in the weather? Yeah. You’re welcome.”

“Apologies,” Sebran said with a narrowed gaze. “My man spoke out of turn.” In a tone that promised reprisal for his underlings, he added, “It won’t happen again.”

Eric shrugged. “No big.”

No big? Eric berated himself. Ugh. You’re so fucking stupid! Get your shit together.

“Yes, well, perhaps you could tell me how you came to be this way?” Sebran cleared his throat, as if he was trying not to be insulting. “You don’t seem like any golem I’ve heard tale of.”

“I dunno. We don’t have golems or even magic where I come from. I was brought here by an army of goblins.” The knights shifted, started to whisper, but Sebran cut them short with a gesture. “They took my spirit and put it inside this,” Eric said and thumped his hollow chest. “Lucky me, right?”

“That’s dreadful!” Sebran said. “We’ve dealt with goblins before but never anything like this. Golems are typically magical constructs. To force a soul into one… it’s unconscionable. If I may ask, what were you before?”

“Human. Still am, I think. I’m from another world, though.” Eric looked around at the storm and mud, the castle behind. “I don’t know this place at all.”

So far, so good. He doesn’t seem like too much of an asshat. If he was an NPC, I probably wouldn’t kill him.

“I’m sorry, that sounds terrible.” He tightened his grip on the reins and said, “We have sages and scholars, practitioners of the arts. If it is within my power to return you to your body, I will do so. You have my word.”

It reminded Eric of Griz’s promise.

Was he betraying the goblins? He’d made it all too clear that all he cared for was being human again and getting back home. Why did he suddenly feel dirty?

“Thanks,” Eric said to fill the silence. “That would be awesome. No offense to your world, but I’d rather be in mine.”

“Completely understandable. Tell me, what happened to my Ella?” Sebran leaned forward, as if bracing himself for something he really didn’t want to know. “How did she die?”

“The lich,” Eric replied, “Tragona, he… used her as a phylactery. He kept his spirit inside her and locked her in the castle. As long as he kept her alive, he couldn’t be killed. When we attacked, he must’ve poisoned her. She was dying when we found her, in a lot of pain. There was nothing we could do.” Eric thought back on that moment with a cold sense of dread knotting his middle. “Before she died, she made me promise to bury her beside her mother. It was the least I could do.”

“It was poison then.” His voice seemed tormented by the loss. “Healers weren’t able to determine what had damaged her organs so severely.” Sebran looked directly at Eric. “And her neck? What caused that?”

“Oh,” Eric said. Ah fuck, he knows. “That was me.” The lord’s jaw tightened. Did I just fuck this up? Was that a deal-breaker? “It was the only way to kill the lich. And the pain. She was… hurting a lot. She wanted me to do it.”

“I see. So it was a mercy.” Sebran had to quiet his men again, though he seemed less angry about their outbursts. “Well, I’ll have men come secure the castle on the morrow. We can discuss –”

“That’s not gonna fly.”

“Pardon?” Sebran asked.

Eric said, “The castle. It’s mine now. Until I’m back in my body, back home, I have no choice but to live in this world. The goblins listen to me, do what I tell them to. I gotta keep them somewhere.” Eric waved his arms around at what used to be a magical wasteland, filled with the undead. “I cleared this place myself, so I’m gonna keep it.”

“That is… disappointing,” Sebran said. “This land once belonged to my father. It is by all rights mine, but as you say, you cleared the land, rid it of a terrible evil. We are in your debt,” he said with a slight bow of his head. “I gave my word. I will determine if anything is to be done about returning you to your body. Perhaps then you will see fit to return my castle.”

“Sounds like a deal.”

Lord Sebran bowed his head once more and led his men back toward the east.

Huh. That went better than I expected.

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