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Eric helped carry anvils and weapon bundles back through a portal, but the massive forges would have to be remade. The crafters began setting up a temporary workspace for smelting and forging. The castle was built on two ley lines, which was serviceable for most tasks. Crafting masterwork weapons would require scouting a new location, a proper nexus of ley lines to draw magic from. They’d also need to find new sources of raw ore. A search for deposits could take time and require most of their forces. While it was true the goblins were no longer forced to forge weapons and armor for the demon army, their own was still underequipped.

Plus we’ll need those ores and minerals to make new goblins at some point, Eric realized when he approved the order to begin surveying. Luckily some of the craftsmen had experience and knew what to look for. That’ll be nearly half the browns out looking, with a good chunk of reds and blues to keep them alive. Even more once they start digging. His little army was dwindling, not that he relied on any of them near as much as Griz. Can I even trust them to come back?

“Something amiss, master?” Griz was coordinating browns and where to put the last bits from the foundry. There were still quite a few tools, die casts, mounds of uncured hides and numerous other things the goblins could carry on their own. Griz had taken charge and was directing them all. “You seem quiet.”

They stood by the open gates, where Eric’s focus was on the east. He didn’t know when or if Sebran was going to return or even if the lord was coming to help him or attack. He felt like an idiot for hoping.

“Just thinking,” Eric said. Midday had already come and gone. Winter sun was setting between the clouds, just over the mountains behind him. “Can we trust that Lord Sebran guy?”

“Of course not, master,” Griz said without hesitation. “He’s human. Always in a hurry to die, as if they don’t already live short enough lives, and they care little for anyone or anything but themselves.”

Fair enough.

“You know I’m human, right?” He was more amused than annoyed.

The shaman wiped his brow with a sleeve of his dirty robe. “I thought you would prefer honesty, master.”

“I do,” Eric said, “as long as it isn’t too insulting. I just never took you for a racist.”

“My opinions are based on experience, master,” Griz said, “not the other way around. I don’t think any less of humans for their behavior, or we would never use them in our golems. I’m simply aware of their behavior and act accordingly.”

There are other golems?

A reverse whirring filled the air and ended abruptly with what looked like the face of a mirror folding in on itself. From the split in space, a goblin in white and gold silk clothing appeared as if he’d been standing there all along. He wore breeches, a tunic, a vest, short leather boots and a piece over his shoulder like a mini-cape. He wore gold-rimmed glasses over his wide, thick nose and carried a white walking stick topped with a large gold encrusted crystal. He wore a number of gold rings in a row on his long, tapered ears. More unusual than his ensemble was his caste.

The goblin was white.

From his skin to long hair tied back into a knot, his eyebrows to pointed teeth, he was a varied palette of snowy white. Even his eyes seemed to have a pale glow in the fading light of day.

“Grizzletongue!” he called out and began assessing the gathered goblins in the courtyard with a raised brow.

“Auditor Blanchbottom,” Griz said to the new goblin with a bow of his head in respect. He walked over to stand before him. “I am glad to see you well. How are things at the conservatory?”

Blanchbottom? The guy’s name is literally white ass? Eric fought back the urge to laugh. He wasn’t sure if this was like the situation with the seeker, where it would be better if he pretended to be an actual golem. Figures it’d be a white guy in charge, he joked to himself. I wonder what they’re made for and why we don’t have any.

“As well as can be expected.” Blanch seemed like one of those office types, polite but impatient. “If we could skip the pleasantries, I have seven more of these yet to do today.”

“Of course. You received my report –”

“What are they doing?” Blanch asked, tilting his head down to look over his glasses at the browns carrying material past. With a flick of his wrist, his walking stick became a scroll, which he opened and perused. “These items, that portal… what happened to the foundry?”

Griz faltered for a moment before explaining, “It is no longer safe there for us. I’m afraid our agreement with the demons is no longer tenable.”

The auditor gave Griz his full attention.

“Why not?”

“They tried to take our golem,” Griz said truthfully. “With all we’ve given them and continue to give, I saw this as going beyond the bounds of our agreement.”

Blanch checked whatever was written on his ledger and eyeballed Eric.

“Take it back,” the white said. “Make the deal.”

Griz shook his head. “It is too late for more dealing. I’m afraid we’ve… collapsed that particular passage.”

“Unacceptable.” He pointed a long nail at a list for Griz to see. “This expedition is now operating at a deficit. The benefits of our accord with Karron’s army cannot be offset by the cost of this golem. Even if your conquest is unsuccessful, the resources gained by that pact are enough to recoup our initial investment and make staying here profitable.”

Ahh. So the whites are some sort of bankers or accountants or something. Useless.

Eric stepped forward and looked down at the goblin in his pristine outfit. “We’re not goin’ back,” he said with finality. “And you might as well be talkin’ to me. I’m in charge.”

The scroll snapped back into a walking stick, and Blanch backed away.

“What is this?” His tone had decidedly changed. With genuine fear, he asked Griz, “What have you done?”

How did he get here? Eric wondered. Was it a spell or that walking stick? He hadn’t created a portal, like the way Griz travelled to Inexium and back. If I take the stick from him, can I use to go to Xana-whatevers?

Griz tried to explain. “There must have been some sort of mishap with the summoning. The spirit we bound remained conscious, in control.”

“Control!” Blanch’s eyes were wide, and he continued to back away. “You’ve lost control of this expedition!”

The shaman’s voice remained calm. “The expedition is still on track. It’s just… under new leadership. I asked for reinforcements, because I believe we can still conquer this realm and beyond. Eric needs its resources as much as we do.”

Blanch frowned and stopped moving, as if he’d found his backbone.

“You gave it a name?” One of his eyes twitched, like he was about to pop his cork. “You’re taking orders from a human!”

Eric laughed.

“Please, master,” Griz said. “You’re not making this any easier.”

Blanch took firm hold of his walking stick and tapped it against the ground, like a judge banging a gavel.

“Your charter is hereby revoked! You are to cease all activity and return to Xanaranth at once. I will give my final report to the council immediately.” He leveled a grave look toward the shaman. “If you still honor your house, I will see you at the next Gathering.”

With that, he disappeared into a folding of space.

Has to be the stick.

“That went well,” Eric said. “What’s the Gathering?”

Griz took in a deep breath and let it out. The whole encounter obviously hadn’t gone the way he hoped.

“It is a time, master, when all heads of house come together before the council to discuss laws, agreements and any grievances. This occurs every second full moon, which for Taellus is twice a month – or roughly every other week.”

There was something to his voice as he spoke, a hint of sadness or regret. From what the white had said, if Griz didn’t show at this next Gathering, there would be repercussions. It sounded as if he, too, would never see his family again.

“You gonna go?”

Griz had been lost in thought, looked up from his reverie in confusion.

“You would allow me?”

He didn’t say ‘master.’ Does that mean something?

“Sounds important,” Eric said.

Griz looked around at the other goblins. They kept working, even though there was no doubt they’d just heard they were all fired. He looked proud, not of himself but of those he led, those who chose to follow him.

“House is very important to a goblin, master,” Griz said wistfully, “as much as blood relations to a human. I believe in this expedition, in you, master. I know we can conquer Faradim and all the realms beyond. We can get you what you need and fulfill our charter in the process. But if I go to the next Gathering,” he said and let the thought hang.

“They won’t let you come back.” Eric gave it some thought, his army of level ones and his epic quest to regain humanity. “I’ll tell you what. Give everyone the opportunity to go home. Send them back if they really want to. I’m gonna keep going. I don’t have any other choice.

“At least this way you guys do.”

 

*        *        *

 

Eric watched from a hilltop outside the castle walls, as browns passed through a portal. Its wavering glow cast shades of beryl over the courtyard walls, like an emerald reflection of water. The first rays of morning sun were stretching across his back, lit the drops of frozen moisture on his metal in orange bursts. He’d ordered the goblins out surveying to return, so they could decide if they wanted to go home or continue.

Honor and house were important to goblins, as Griz has said but less so to those who were made for manual labor. Browns were just a step above grays. Their esteem and familial ties, by nature, were not as strong. They took pride in their work, not in those they worked for. All of the others had chosen to stay. To return home meant admitting failure. Continuing the expedition, charter or no, at least offered the hope of redemption and regaining favor with their respective houses.

All but twelve browns had decided to leave. Two were master craftsmen, and five were many years on their way toward the same goal. Mudbutt stood proud among the five remaining fighters.

It was a terrible blow to their morale, losing so many skilled workers. They could still function, survey and find new mines, produce arms and armor, but their odds of success had been greatly diminished.

Griz ordered a new team back out and headed over to join Eric. Barely a dozen remained in the castle, a few reds, oranges and greens. They could keep watch, guard the gates, but it was up to Eric to maintain their hold of it.

If Sebran attacks, I’m on my own.

Eric would have rather some of the others had left, instead of the browns. He needed workers more than fighters. Without them to find mines, extract minerals and ores, they had no hope of making new goblins. As much as he wanted a weapon and shield from his next changes, Eric thought the ability to wield magic, to help Griz expand their army, would be much more useful.

I dunno if it’s even possible.

“Explain magic to me,” Eric said, as the shaman sat down beside him. “Like, what is it? How does it work? How come some people can use it but others can’t? Is it an intelligence thing or like some innate ability thing?”

“That’s quite a large topic, master,” Griz said, as if surprised by the sudden interest, “one that usually takes many years to fully grasp.”

“E-ligh five it for me. Gimme the wiki version.”

“Alright, master, I shall do my best.” He took a brief minute to compose his thoughts and explained, “Magic is a force of nature most like gravity or magnetism. It is inherent to a place, in its ley lines, though I cannot say what determines its strength. The magic here on Taellus is strong, when compared to say Inexium, but pales in comparison Xanaranth. Some have theorized this has to do with the number of ley lines present, their direction of flow and density –”

Eric cleared his throat.

“Apologies, master. To wield magic is to channel, by way of a focus. The basest of users employ cumbersome foci, like exhaustive rituals and complex casting, while the most skilled seem to use no focus at all. They’re able to use their minds and body to channel and direct.”

“Magic can also be stored,” Griz went on, “within an item or enchantment. Do you know what a rune is, master?”

“Err, yeah, like a letter.”

“Precisely, master, although in this case the letter of a magical language.” Griz used his staff to draw in air, and where he wrote, golden runes appeared and hung in place. “Runes are individual letters. Sigils represent concepts. Both can be used to create a ward, a simple spell.” He kept scrawling golden runes with his staff, as if writing out a sentence in a foreign language. “Wards can be joined to create a glyph, a complex spell. The more wards a glyph contains, the more complicated the spell. Glyphs can be worked together to create an interlocking system, but it is incredibly difficult, requires countless hours of planning and preparation and a great number of skilled users working in tandem.”

When Griz finished the last rune, they all flared to life as one and faded into golden mist. Below the spell, where its magic rained down, a stem sprouted from the mud about an inch. Two small leaves grew out from its middle, like the promise of spring.

“You can create life,” Eric mused. The little sprout wouldn’t survive winter, but the notion stuck with him. “Can anyone do it?”

“I wish I could say yes, master,” Griz replied sadly, “but it has been my experience that is not so. It has little to do with desire or practice, as far as I’ve observed. Some are simply born to it. Discipline, desire, practice all determine how well one does it, not whether one is able.”

If his golem body could one day be human then why would using magic be any different?

“If I spend a transformation,” Eric asked, “or however many it takes, do you think I could use magic?”

Griz considered his answer as if he saw beyond it, to what Eric truly wanted.

“Anything is possible, master, but it would take a great deal of practice and study to help me with the ritual.” He appraised Eric with his good eye. “That is why you asked, because you wish to create more goblins?”

Eric nodded.

He’d been thinking of those that left. Their loyalty wasn’t to him or even their expedition. But if he could make his own goblins…

“Why were you and the others so quick to follow me?” Eric asked. “Aside from the fear of dyin’ and all. Why stay? Or why not just take off on your own? Why continue to serve me?”

“Survival is a factor, master,” Griz admitted with a chuckle, “but we all serve, one way or another. It is the single most important tenet goblin society is based on.”

“What about your leaders? There’s always someone at the top, even if it’s a council or whatever. At some point, there’s a dude who doesn’t answer to anyone.”

Griz said, “Even those at the highest level, master, who make the most important decisions, ideally serve the people. As I said earlier, the expedition is still underway. It’s simply under new leadership. Either way, we’re still serving society.”

Eric got to his feet. Even though it hadn’t been long since Sebran agreed to help, he was getting restless. He didn’t want to sit around waiting. His hunger had been reduced to little more than an imagined grumbling, but acquiring essence to fuel more changes was his highest priority.

I feel the need for xp.

His vision wandered south toward the ruined castle he was summoned in. If there was a forest full of trolls beyond it, he could potentially get to work. He neither needed nor wanted to risk what remained of his army. It was better they gathered resources and watched over their new castle, rather than follow him toward their possible deaths.

Nah, I got this.

Eric headed toward the ruined castle.

“I’m gonna take a walk,” he told Griz. “Don’t wait up.”

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