Eric walked toward Castle Thrallen. Rain began to fall in a steady patter of icy drops against his back. It left rivulets in the ground like orange blood, pooled into shallow puddles between the cracks of dried earth and clay. Trees were sparse, leafless and black. Their trunks leaned as if burdened by a great weight, with branches that clawed at the fouled skies in desperation or a thirst for vengeance.
Griz had opened a portal north of the goblins’ ruined castle. It looked even worse from the outside. All of its four towers were toppled like giants and had smashed through other buildings on their way down. Boulders the size of a small car lay strewn about the courtyard, had made holes in the wall and the castle itself. Even from this distance, Eric could smell the stains of war upon its stones.
It had the taste of old pennies.
I’m gonna rust, he thought, with images of the tin man in his mind. He carried a wide steel sword over a shoulder. It was taller than him by a foot, though he had no trouble swinging it about – to the dismay of the poor few who couldn’t move aside fast enough. He didn’t care much for the goblins, even hated them for what they’d done. As for their offer of fealty? I need an army of level ones like I need a second asshole. Well, technically… He supposed they could be of use, but the only one that really mattered was the shaman. Without him, there was no chance of being human again.
He followed beside Eric as best he could, leaning heavily on his staff. The rest of them trailed behind, a mass of armored fools bungling into one another and dragging their weapons through the mud. Griz had ordered them to bring the corpse and bury it, in the hopes no other demons saw it fall. The smiths left behind had no choice but to keep working. A failed quota could just as easily result in war.
The ground shook with each step. Eric liked being strong enough to crush a demon with his hands, but the lumbering pace grated on his nerves, almost as much as the intermittent cackling and fighting from behind. They laughed like hyenas and at the stupidest things. A fart would set them off for minutes on end, let alone dwarf jokes about bearded women or the men’s preference for sheep. There would be no surprise attacks or stealthy approach. The lich king would hear them long before they came into sight, not that it would be difficult to miss an entire army of goblins marching on the castle.
More steps, still no patrols. He hated to think how slow he’d run or even if he could manage it. He had a long stride, but that didn’t equate to moving quickly. It seemed for every advantage he could think of with this new body, there were twice as many downsides and not a thing to be done for it. He didn’t seem to get tired, but the driving urge to feed was always with him. If he didn’t need sleep, did that mean he could never dream again? What if he went too long without taking a life, would he power down like a toy with a dead battery?
“I didn’t have to eat that demon to take its essence,” Eric said to Griz. “Is that normal? Normal.” He gave a short laugh. “I mean, is it how this thing is supposed to work?”
The shaman struggled to keep pace and breathed heavy as he spoke. “You were never meant to absorb life in that manner,” he replied, “by physically eating. It is curious, though.”
Eric wondered what the demon might have tasted like. He doubted it would be any worse than the goblin. He shook his right foot but couldn’t feel anything move. If the creature was still rotting away down there, he’d have to find a way to get rid of it before the rot gave him bad breath. Robot halitosis. The goblins would laugh for hours if he told them.
“You screwed me,” he said instead, plodding on, eyes ahead. “I’ll never taste real food again, like pizza or a burger.”
“Not necessarily, since you can eat and taste.” Griz considered and added, “Perhaps the humans have this food in Westorval. We could conquer it and make them cook for you.”
Eric didn’t hear. His mind swam with all he’d lost.
“I’ll never listen to music,” he said, “and I just got a new phone!’
Griz huffed. “We have music, master.”
“Real music! Not lutes and shit.” Eric looked up at the storm, gray clouds set alight by purple flashes. “I’ll never play another game. That kills me the most.” He was quiet for a time, as the wind picked up. Thunder rang out to the north. “Never get high,” he continued, “or laid.” He knew he no longer had genitals, but he looked down at the bare spot all the same. “I’m not even a person anymore. I’m a fucking monster.”
“Even monsters take joy in living. Besides,” Griz said and stopped to catch his breath, “if you are truly unhappy, there might be a way to return you to your body.”
“It’s dead,” Eric said without stopping. “You killed it. What’s the point?”
The shaman called after, “With the proper items and energies, death would not be an obstacle.”
Eric stopped and turned, angry that this was the first he was hearing of it.
“You talking about a quest?”
“Unfortunately,” Griz replied and straightened, “a monumental undertaking, which is why I was reluctant to mention it before.”
“Oh, even better,” Eric said, his voice heavy with sarcasm, “an epic quest! Why can’t anything be easy for once?”
A patrol crested the rise of a hill just ahead and charged without hesitation. Four skeletons with swords, their eyes tiny orbs of crimson light, covered the distance much faster than he expected. Tendons and bits of muscle still clung to their yellowed bones, which made a clacking sound as they ran. Not far behind them came a shambling mass of decayed flesh and torn clothes. Its eyes were black ice, and rot oozed from every opening.
“These things are batshit crazy!” Eric laughed and knocked two aside. “Charging into me like that? The hell are they thinking?”
Griz dodged a sword swipe. “Undead follow orders, master. They do little thinking.”
A goblin asked in a trembling voice, “Is that one a zombie?”
Eric snatched it up in one hand and shook it like a rag doll. “This?” It snarled and clawed, left behind little gouges. “Does it look like a zombie?” He shook it in front of the goblin, spraying green and black ooze over his armor. “This is a freakin’ ghoul! Zombies are brainless eaters. This thing will suck the life out of you. Huh, kinda like me.”
He held it up for a closer look. Like the skeletons, it was surrounded by a haze of black energy. They had no life force he could sense.
“I can’t absorb these, can I?” he asked Griz, unmindful of the goblins fighting to stay alive – and doing a poor job of it. “Why even bother killing them?”
A guard was skewered through the chest, splashing blood across Griz’s cheek.
“Dude, gross!” Eric sent the skeleton flying with a kick.
“They have magic, master.” The shaman seemed to be pleading. “Death magic. You can store it and use it another time.”
With little effort, Eric clenched his fist and squished the ghoul into splintered bones and jelly. He tossed it away in disgust, knocking over a skeleton and three goblins. The rain helped wash the slime from his hand, but the smell of it lingered. The ghoul’s magic became a pulse of black static around his body. The small claw marks it’d left behind smoothed over and were gone. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying or filling as life essence, but there was a surge of power he found… pleasant.
“Looks like magic lava isn’t the only thing that heals me,” he said to Griz. “Good thing, too, what with the war and all.”
“Indeed, master.” The shaman dodged another sword and sent a bolt of electricity from his staff. Ribs shattered from the blast. “Magic has many other uses, as well.”
Eric smashed all four skeletons with his sword, one by one, only once accidentally chopping a few goblins in half. He did feel bad about it, though.
“Sorry. I’m not used to swinging this thing yet.”
They all cheered in victory.
Death magic rushed toward him in a dark cloud and coursed over his body. It buzzed at the back of his head, like the tingle of a whisper too close in his ear. His aura of black static became a crackle of dark energy, the carpet charge of an angry god just waiting to be unleashed. He grinned like a madman, but the iron mask of his face remained unchanged.
Griz asked, “Cut a path to the front gate?”
“No.” Eric watched his fist in amusement as lightning danced along its edge. “I want to circle around and kill all the patrols.”
“Is that necessary to take the castle?”
The storm intensified as Eric turned and resumed heading north.
“Nope. That’s just how I roll.”