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Eric’s mind raced for a plan, some cunning bit of war strategy he might have gleaned from countless games. The storm had reduced visibility to a short distance, or he would’ve asked Griz to make a portal far to the north, behind the incoming patrols. They’d still be outnumbered but not surrounded, at least for a short time. He shook his head at the idea. There simply wasn’t enough time, to summon the portal, for the goblins to pass through. And what was to stop the undead from following them? No, he needed another plan, and he needed it fast.

“Could you make a barrier,” he asked Griz, “like the one at the foundry?”

Goblins spread further out, weapons ready, as the shaman shook his head. “Not one that size and not without significant time or help.”

A glance out across the clan showed the truth. Griz was their only shaman, and he had no apprentices. Eric cursed their stupidity, not for the first time that day. He had to keep the shaman alive, was about to order Griz to make a portal to the ruined castle and go through, when the patrols came into sight. Undead charged them from all around with unearthly howls and glowing eyes, and goblins began to die beneath the onslaught.

Half a dozen steps put him a good distance ahead of Griz. Eric figured the best way to keep the shaman safe was to stay clear of him during the fight. He turned his attention to the attackers and began to swing like a madman. His sword cut and crushed through decayed bodies three and four at a time. He took their energy and released it in tandem, shocking apart skeletal warriors and burning animated flesh. What damage he sustained was instantly healed by the growing aura of dark static about his body.

“So hax!” he yelled and laughed, punched a rider from its horse then cut the decrepit mount in half. “It’s like fucking God mode!”

A wyvern crashed into his chest and took him down.

It was twice his size, with claws large enough to clamp down and into both shoulders. Its wing span was wide as a house, with barbs at each tip that used the ground for balance. Huge teeth snapped at his head in an attempt to take it from him, and eyes like silver plates matched his gaze with a feral resolve. From nose to tail, it was covered with thick scales and ridged with sharp spines. Its talons pierced his iron but were quickly repelled, healed as fast as it could harm him. Its tail was again as long as its body, thick as a limb and tipped with a scorpion stinger. He barely moved his head in time to avoid its strike, where rock and earth were skewered a foot deep.

The wyvern roared down at him, its breath frosted in the cold like a stream of snowy cloud. It spit acid across his neck, pitting the iron. Eric screamed against the pain and leveled a punch at its mouth. His fist got caught between the dagger-like teeth. When he couldn’t pull free, he instead reached further in and took hold of its throat. With all his strength, he tore away its bottom jaw. Blood and acid rained over him as the beast fought to get away. He punched again, this time at its exposed chest, and his fist went through scale and muscle. He let loose a charge of dark energy that shook the creature with smoking spasms. Cooked from within, it collapsed on top of him.

The rush of joy at satiating the hunger flushed through him, healed his iron body and brought him near to another transformation. He could feel how close it was, like a building pressure in his middle that would later culminate into an explosion, like taking a massive dump after a week of constipation. He had no other way to explain or compare it, the stress mounting within him, the feeling of being pregnant with possibility, the sudden realization of it happening and the relief of it all passing. Already his mind was swimming with the choices. He knew what he wanted, to strengthen his iron flesh, but the particulars of it eluded him. He could no more specify what material he’d evolve into than he could the color or shape. It didn’t matter, though, because he wasn’t quite there yet, and the other wyverns didn’t give him time to think.

Two more grabbed hold of him, one at each foot, and lifted him into the air with great effort. They carried him over the battle, where the sounds of dying goblins rose up from the slaughter. His head and shoulders crashed through them, banging aside ghouls and two riders. He smashed a dozen goblins before the wyverns lifted him again with jarring beats of their wings. They struggled to keep him aloft let alone carry him up into the storm. Still, higher and higher they flew. It wasn’t long before Eric realized they planned to drop him.

He began to frantically shock them out of fear. Forked bolts of black lightning encompassed their bodies, a storm within a storm. Leathery scales smoked in gray plumes, muscles convulsed and split, delicate wing membranes tore and smoldered. One finally let loose its hold and fell away into the fray far below. The other fought to hang on for another moment, shrieked up at the dark skies and fell as well.

Eric plummeted toward the ground, twisting to see where he’d land. He hoped to kill as many undead as he could when he cratered. The fall might have been enough to kill him, but if he could absorb enough magic to heal at the same time…

Another wyvern crashed into him.

It tried to keep them both in air, but the best it could manage was to slow their crash into muddied earth. It bit and clawed at him as they rolled to a long stop. All the while, Eric punched where he could and used the last of his stored magic. No longer able to heal, talons ripped through him. Screaming in agony, afraid to die on this shitty world, he was on the verge of collapse when the combined life force and dark energy of all the fallen on the field struck him from behind like a runaway train.

It arced his body with the pain and pleasure of an orgasmic knife through the heart. His hands clenched from the rush of power, gripped through scale and bone, muscle and tendon. His entire body trembled with the force of transformation. The wyvern in his grasp shook and died, its life force mingling with the rest. Eric threw back his head in exultation. A nimbus of crimson light surrounded him, swirled and coalesced, then settled in his middle like a collapsed sun.

When the strain of it was gone, and the pain finally abated, all it left behind was renewed hunger. A living beast in his gut, it clawed and cried for more. He was on his knees, drenched from icy rain and growing angry at the never-ending cycle. The pleasure was like a drug, an ecstasy and oblivion he could easily succumb to. It was all he wanted anymore, those short moments of pure bliss, the brief eruption of truly living. It was the hunger that pained him, that drove the emptiness to rage. Half again to another change, it still tortured him with wild craving, with the pangs of an unbridled fervor.

Is this what addiction’s like? he wondered.

He stood and faced the battle. Fire consumed patches of earth and corpses, defiant of the rain. Slain goblins littered the area, stained the ground with their blood, but the hundred or so that remained stood strong and fought back. Griz was at their center, throwing bolts of magic and barriers of blue light to funnel the undead.

Eric looked down at his hands. He’d lost his sword somewhere during the fighting. A flash from above lit the landscape momentarily. His body was no longer a crude and coarse mass of iron. It was smooth as polished steel, with a black sheen like starless night. It was far stronger, too. He could feel it as he flexed. He walked toward the undead with a renewed vigor for the fight.

“Alright, bitches,” he said. “Time to die. Again.”

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