Eric was practicing runes in the courtyard later that night when the first load of star metal arrived. All four horses pulled a wagon half full of the white rock, which apparently weighed more than it looked. The wheels had dug deep tracks in the mud and creaked from the strain. The storm hadn’t let up but continued as a steady fall with the occasional crack of thunder. The horses were having a difficult time but persisted with not-so-gentle prodding from two reds riding atop the rocks.
Surprised they haven’t eaten ‘em, Eric thought as they went past. The smell of wet horse was a little overpowering. I guess they stole enough food to last a little longer, but it wouldn’t shock me to see horse on the menu pretty soon.
A crowd had gathered to see the rocks that would become star metal. There were excited murmurings at the thought of going home. A few whispers later, that excitement turned to quiet resentment and more than a few unhappy glances toward Eric.
He could feel his leadership in question. It was like the butterflies in his stomach when he’d pass a group at school, saw them look and heard their whispers, knew they were talking about him. He’d tried not to care then and did the same now. He didn’t need friends any more than he needed goblins.
Having an army made things easier, but Griz was the only one he really needed – not as a friend but for what he could do. Loneliness sucked, but Eric had found ways to deal with it in the past.
Eric quieted the goblins by giving them his attention. They quickly dispersed without a word and went back to their assigned tasks. Once he and Griz started creating new goblins, Eric could make sure they were loyal only to him. He’d had enough of the pirate booty expedition for the goblin home world. He had his own plans to worry about. He went back to practicing runes but kept a close eye on the meteor rocks.
A scout arrived hours later, his dark leathers soaked and muddied. He was from the mining group and needed to speak with Griz. Eric had the green sit with him by the fire while a red went to fetch the shaman. Another guard brought over something hot to drink. The scout nodded in thanks, took the clay mug and nearly finished it in one pull. He covered the rest with a hand to keep the rain out. Griz soon made his way down the steps and joined them. A red brought over a wooden crate for the shaman to sit on and left them to talk.
“What happened?” Eric asked the scout, certain it was bad news.
“We found a mine, master,” the green replied, and finished his drink. He wiped his mouth with a forearm and looked to Griz. “A dwarven mine.” The reaction was immediate, as goblins who should’ve been minding their own business began to curse and spit. “We need you to open the door. It’s been sealed with magic.”
The cursing continued. Even Griz seemed to share the sentiment.
“Fuck dwarves,” the shaman said bitterly. When Eric laughed, Griz looked up from his beneath his hood with a bit of a sheepish grin. “Did I say that right, master?”
“Yeah, you did,” Eric said and chuckled more. “Why do you guys hate them so much anyway?”
Griz dismissed the scout with a nod. The green gave a slight bow of his head and left for more drink.
“Dwarves created the first goblins, master,” Griz said and pulled tight the cloak over his robe. “We were slaves in their mines.”
“No shit? I’ve never heard anything like that before.” Eric mulled over the idea. He’d already known goblins were created and not born. He’d just never given any thought as to why. “So dwarves can create life?”
“Transmute life, master,” Griz corrected. “Goblins are formed of metals and minerals then transmuted to life by magic and the essence of other living creatures.”
“Like a golem,” Eric said.
Eric had continued drawing runes in the air as it rained. The last one he’d scrawled was starting to falter. Griz used one end of his staff to correct it.
“Yes and no, master. Golems were never intended to be conscious, to have intellect.” Griz turned his gaze toward the fire, and his voice grew somber. “Goblins were. Dwarves enslaved us, treated us as property, as things like a piece of jewelry or fancy clothing. Except we were made to serve, to work their mines, cook their food, bring them drink, fight and die for their amusement.” He took in and let out a deep breath, as if breathing out all his contempt. “Now we serve each other. We would never knowingly or willingly create a slave.” He looked at Eric with a furrowed brow, one weighed by shame. “You were never meant to be aware, master.”
“Guess I’m just lucky that way.”
Griz gave a nod and stood. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, master.”
About as much apology as I’ll ever get, Eric thought and watched the shaman head back to bed.
Not that he needed or even wanted one. Nothing was going to change what had already been done. All he could do now was move forward – like always.
The next morning he and Griz brought a small group back to the mine, in case they encountered dwarves. The storm hadn’t passed, but the rain was little more than a drizzle as sunlight breached the horizon.
The mine was built into one of the larger mountains to the north, but passage to it was hidden by elaborately crafted rocks. The outer rock looked solid, from far away and up close. It was an illusion of craftsmanship and not magic, impressive and ingenious. The carved wall ahead matched perfectly with the two preceding it, creating an invisible T-junction. What looked to be a small mountain at the base of a much larger one was actually a well- constructed passageway. The secret entry was crafted into a deep enough depression that no sunlight reached through. Holding up a torch threw shadows across the rock, but the illusion still held.
“How the hell did you guys find this?” Eric asked as he carefully walked through with an arm out front to feel his way. It looked to him like he was about to walk right into a solid wall.
“By accident, master,” Mudbutt replied. The brown general went on to explain, “Scuffles are common on long outings. Two came in here to relieve themselves. One was shoved through the illusion ahead.”
Typical, Eric thought. All this work to hide a tunnel and it gets ruined by some jackass messing with someone trying to take a piss.
It wasn’t even a tight fit, as Eric moved beyond the center rock. The wide passage had plenty of room to accommodate his size. It went on for fifty or so of his paces and ended with a solid metal wall. Within it was a round door twice as tall as Eric. It looked similar to silver but with tints of gold and blue in broad streaks when light struck its surface. Griz called it mithrinum, the only naturally occurring metal with magical properties. There was dwarven writing and elaborate circles all over the door’s surface and the surrounding wall.
The glyph protecting it flared to life at the shaman’s touch. Eric watched Griz study it carefully, saw him turn its wards, poke at specific runes. Griz took hold of one and pulled it free, shattering it into gold shimmer. Its ward fell apart within the glyph. He then spun the glyph to its other side and did the same to another ward. The whole glyph fell apart into a cascade of sunlight sparkle. Griz pointed to one of the circles on the lower right of the door.
“Could you open the door, master?”
Eric leaned over and put his hand against the circle. It was cold to the touch with a numbing tingle, like he’d put his hand into a bucket of ice. He pushed it inward and heard a click. The circle bent at the top and bottom, revealing hinges, and became a handle. It only turned to the right and made another click when complete. A series of rotating gears and sliding rods sounded out within the door. It then slid free an inch from the frame and was easily pulled outward.
The door had the look of a bank vault, with wide pins receded within and facing every direction. It would have been easier to tunnel through the mountain than try to cut through its three feet of solid mithrinum. Despite the obvious weight, it took very little effort to swing the door wide open.
The tunnel beyond was just as massive, as wide and tall. Its walls were cleanly cut and smoothed by hand and tool. It was supported by stone columns and wooden beams reinforced with thick iron bands. Each column was illuminated by a torch with enchanted flame. They cast a green radius of light on either side every twenty feet.
It was a mithrinum mine, the dark walls interlaced with the heavy veins of a rich deposit. It gave off a faint silver glow, even in its unrefined state. The soft bloom of it mingled with the emerald light of each torch, lit the rails in a semblance of beryl moonlight. Metal tracks ran up from the tunnel ahead all the way to the door, but no carts could be seen in the immediate area.
Eric led the way.
The mine didn’t look abandoned, was fairly clean and maintained. It felt as if they could run into dwarves at any moment, though he didn’t sense anyone ahead. He’d never been in a mine before. This one seemed impressive. He couldn’t imagine the amount of manpower and hours it had taken to carve the walls so smooth or to create such a perfectly straight tunnel. He could feel it sloping downward, but it was barely noticeable with each step.
They eventually reached a separate tunnel that branched off toward the right. It had support columns with lit torches, but its walls were roughhewn still. The mithrinum veins were sparse here but interspersed with bright gold. Eric had never seen gold in its natural state. He had to admit it looked pretty. He couldn’t help but wonder how much it would’ve been worth back home.
“Master?” Griz asked.
Eric shook his head once. No matter how much he tried not to think about home, to care, it crept up on him sometimes.
Light from the torches didn’t seem to go on for very far but ended a few hundred feet in the distance.
“It’s nothing,” Eric said. “Keep going.”
He led them further down the main tunnel. They passed three more, branching to either side, before entering a wide chamber. The tunnel had been much the same, dead ends where mithrinum grew scarce but had mingled with gold. There were three large tunnels leading out in cardinal directions from the chamber. It was an enormous circular room where iron carts were amassed. It was a sort of switching station, where rail directions could be changed with tall handles, and carts could be added or removed from the tracks.
It wasn’t long before entering when Eric caught the stench of strong alcohol and unwashed bodies coming from the eastern tunnel. He began to follow it and soon after goblins could smell it too. They cursed and spat, called dwarves names like filthy animals and scum.
“Quiet!” Bel ordered with a harsh whisper. “And stay alert.”
If there were dwarves ahead, a fight was inevitable.
There were rooms occasionally carved on both sides of the tunnel, with wide open wooden doors that led to a barracks, a dining hall, tool storage, a kitchen and eventually the source of increasingly foul odor.
It was a large room to the north, twice the size of the barracks that had housed two rows of ten beds. It was filled with wooden barrels and small casks along every wall. They were stacked two deep and layered one upon the other. They ran the length of the room from one wall to the other, held fast by the limited space between. Even in here, the faint silver of mithrinum cast its glow over the room.
In the center were at least forty dwarves, all of them barely conscious, soaked in alcohol and piss. They were taller than goblins by a hand but far stockier – or at least they were. Beneath leather aprons and sturdy cloth, they looked emaciated from lack of food, so starved every bone showed. They were pale, their flesh a milky pallor, with hair and beards gone to an unnatural white. Blackened veins stood out in their pasty skin, though none had the metallic scales or black eyes of a fiend. They’d been changed, for certain, but not into feral animals.
By the debris all around them, shattered clay mugs and broken casks, they looked to have drank themselves near to death. Even still, while starving, some tried to weakly reach for more drink. Like fiends hungered for flesh, these seemed to suffer an insatiable thirst.
Bel cursed and grabbed a torch from off the wall in the corridor. Before Eric could stop him, the red general tossed it at the dwarves.
“No!” Eric said. “Don’t!”
It was too late. Fire spread from the first until the pile of them was engulfed. They let out weak shrieks but lacked the strength to move. White hair blackened and curled as skin melted in the inferno. The fire quickly spread to the surrounding casks in a halo of orange blue.
“Shit, run!” Eric shouted and headed back down the tunnel.
Goblins scattered in sudden fear, tried to get as far away as they could. It took only moments for the barrels to catch fire and explode. Flames, large chunks of stone and a barrage of bloody bits shot out of the doorway – along with the wall. The entire room had been exposed in a thunderous instant. The whole tunnel shook but luckily didn’t collapse on their heads.
Eric was about to unleash his anger when all their essence rushed toward him. He was suddenly afraid he might lose the ability to work magic. He tried to refuse them, like Griz had said, to choose not to absorb them. He shook his head in defiance, said no over and over in his mind, but the souls came to him nonetheless. They entered his body, flared his runes within. He tried to imagine a wall around him, a sort of force field or barrier to protect himself from their corruption. The burning of a change overcame him, threw his concentration into ruin. Rather than push the last few souls away, he was forced to deal with the rush rising inside him, threatening to burn him from within.
Transformations had been more difficult to come by. If he had no choice but to take their souls, he at least wanted to put them to good use. His main concern was losing Griz and the ability to get home. Eric needed to get better at working magic. He wanted to be proficient at casting, but if he was forced to memorize every rune, it would take forever. He needed a faster way, a shortcut or a kind of exploit. His choice made, the magic spent, the burning fell away.
Disappointment became anger. He whirled on the red general with a growl.
“What the fuck was that?” Eric demanded. “Not only did you almost kill everyone, you just wasted souls we coulda used to make more goblins.”
Bel spat despite his imminent danger. “Never would we dirty our people with dwarf spirits.”
“Master,” Eric said and loomed over him.
Bel gritted his teeth and made a fist, looked so angry and disgusted Eric thought he was going to have to make an example of him. Bel let out a breath, eased his grip and hung his head.
“Apologies, master,” he said with what sounded like sincerity. “I overstepped my authority.”
Other goblins were grumbling, clearly siding with Bel and his initial reaction. Eric didn’t care for their feelings or how much they hated dwarves. He didn’t need people acting out of turn. For all he knew, Bel had done it on purpose, to prevent Eric from using the star metal.
Wait… For a moment he wasn’t sure if that was his thought or the voice’s. God dammit. It doesn’t matter. I still have the fiends. There was a lingering doubt in the back of his mind that seemed to say, Do you?
“Master,” Griz said to fill the silence, “as I explained earlier, our hatred for dwarves runs deep. They were our slave masters for generations. To birth a goblin from their foul spirits would be a grave insult to all that have come before us, who toiled so hard to set us free.” Others nodded and quietly agreed with the shaman. “And again, these were contaminated spirits. It would be unwise to use them in the creation ritual.”
Eric was still fighting the tunnel vision of anger. He hadn’t moved his gaze from the red general.
You’ll have to find a way to deal with him, the voice echoed his own thought, before he starts some kind of rebellion.
“Clean up this mess,” Eric told them all, “and start mining.” To Griz, he said, “Let’s get back to the castle. We’ve got work to do.”