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Eric looked down at the iron hands and flexed them. Strange symbols were etched in perfect rows across every surface, wrapped around each finger, wrist and arm. No space was left unmarked. They gave off a silver light and thrummed like a heartbeat.

Unable to close his eyes, he looked out at the mass of tiny creatures staring back. Tapered ears, scarred from battle, wide eyes and sharp teeth, they varied in color but all looked like exaggerated gremlins from a movie. They wore armor, carried weapons, and beyond the crisp physicality of their presence, Eric saw their lives as a crimson glow with argent charges all throughout.

The one in front of him was old, much more so than the others. His life glow paled in comparison and the little bolts far less frequent. It spoke, but the words were distant, muffled by distraction.

Eric fought with the strangeness that enveloped his senses. He felt an overwhelming hunger, as if his body was completely empty. The urge to sate it filled his mind, clouded every thought, and clawed at his insides with a growing pain that would not relent. He more sensed than heard the wind outside the stone walls, as if the sound echoed through him from all sides. Insects scrabbling over dirt, moisture dripping from a cracked shutter, dust falling from the rafters, but most of all the scrape of coursing blood through veins and squishy organs resonated in the air like a cacophony of sounds.

He saw it then, at the corner of his vision, his own body lying still. It made no sound, had no glow. It was no more alive than the stones, without warmth or subtle movement. Eric snatched up the old creature and felt bones splinter beneath his touch.

“You dick!” he bellowed, and the walls rumbled at the force of his voice. “You killed me!”

“Please,” it rasped and fumbled with a potion. “Let me explain!”

The others looked to each other with uncertainty. In unspoken agreement, they began to shuffle backward.

“What the fuck did you do to me?” Eric was so angry, he considered crushing the old dude and eating all the rest. Eating them? he thought, puzzled by the urge. It’s the glow. He knew instinctively it was their life force he craved. “And why am I so fucking hungry?”

The old goblin tossed back the potion, draining the red liquid, and his glow for a moment grew stronger. It had somehow healed him, like a health pot from a video game.

Goblins. He knew what they were, as if he’d known all along but only now remembered. Fucking goblins. You’ve got to be kidding me.

“We brought you here,” the shaman explained. What else could he be, his robes covered in bones and skin marked with dried blood? “To fuse your spirit with our war golem. But you shouldn’t be able to speak! Or feel anything, not anger or hunger.” He looked down at the floor, no doubt wondering if he’d survive the drop. “I don’t understand. Something must have gone wrong.”

“You saying I’m supposed to be like some mindless vegetable?” Eric brought him closer to eye level. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?!”

Eric wasn’t breathing. He spoke fine, even shouted, but the old goblin’s hair remained still. A tap against his chest caused a hollow echo to ring out. How was he even alive?

“I know this must be confusing –”

A shake interrupted the lame excuse. “You better start explaining, or I’ll tear this place apart and kill every one of you.”

Eric grabbed an executioner-looking goblin with his other hand and ate him in one swallow. He felt the goblin die instantly, burst warm blood against his insides and come to rest in his right foot. The taste was god awful! Eric had no teeth or tongue, might not have been meant to eat, but it seemed like his entire body from within was a giant taste bud. The goblin was like sour milk over rotted chicken, topped with black licorice and doused in bile. The worst part was it persisted! It wasn’t like taking a bite, enduring its foulness and moving on once it had passed. The taste stayed with him, lingering for too long, like heartburn from toe to head.

What did taste good, or at least felt good, however brief the sensation, was the moment he had absorbed the goblin’s essence. It was like candy and an orgasm, a rush that tingled his brain – even if he didn’t have one.

“Blech!” Eric wanted to cough, to hack up the remains. “Tastes like shit!”

“What you hunger for,” the shaman said, “you’ll find in small quantity here. I can show you much better prey, creatures strong enough to trigger a transformation.”

That caught his attention. “You mean I can turn into shit, like a transformer?”

The goblin squinted one eye. “When you’ve consumed enough essence, you… evolve. You’re meant to become stronger the more you kill. The transformation is fueled by the lives you take. Your body will grow, allowing more room for the glyph, and you’ll be able to choose ways to improve yourself.”

“Like upgrades?” Eric asked. “Wait a minute. Are you saying I can level up?”

He liked the sound of that! To say he was addicted to leveling was like saying crackheads enjoyed a rock now and then.

“Of course,” the shaman agreed, his voice nervous. “Destroy anything you like! It’s why we chose you. Our plan was to set you loose upon the world and gather any treasure in your wake.”

Eric laughed. The other goblins laughed with him, though half-hearted and afraid.

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!” He laughed again. “Seriously, though. You make this giant killing machine, stick me in it and don’t think to put a geas on it or some way to control me? What’s to stop me from killing you?”

“As I said,” the shaman replied, “you’re not supposed to be this intelligent. As for a geas, there simply wasn’t enough room. We’d hoped control wouldn’t be necessary, that we’d point you east and follow along as you wrought destruction.”

“Yeah, well, like my dad always says, ‘Hold out both hands. Put hope in one, and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.’ Looks like things didn’t work out like you planned.” Eric put the shaman down and stared out over the others. “Now what?”

The shaman cleared his throat, as if surprised he was still alive.

“We… pledge fealty to you, master!” Every goblin in the chamber dropped to their knees with him, hundreds of them. “We will serve you well, as you conquer all the world!” In unison, they said, “Master!”

“First things first.” Eric pointed to his dead body. “You’re going to preserve that somehow and find a way to put me back. Eh, eh –” he cut off any protest – “just do what I tell you.”

Two red goblins held up the body, as the shaman got to his feet. He waved a feathered stick with a skull on its top and mumbled a few words. Yellow crystal, like amber, began to grow at the body’s feet and spread upward. The two reds let go, and soon the crystal fully engulfed his former body in a solid block.

“It is done.”

“Put it somewhere safe,” Eric commanded, his voice edged with warning. “Now, about this better prey.”

“Oh, yes!” The shaman led him to a broken wall. “Look there.”

It was a castle in the distance, ebon stone with thin towers that stretched up into a swirling storm of magical energy. The land between was in ruin, trees twisted and black, the ground orange and broken. Even the sky, an amalgam of blood and gold across an ocean of sickly blue, looked poisoned by enchantment.

“What is it?” Eric asked, intrigued by its power.

“It is the castle Thrallen. It stands at the very center of Faradim.” Lightning crackled across its parapets and highlighted winged creatures circling the towers. “It is patrolled by undead, protected by wyverns in the air, necromancers on the ground and ruled by a lich with an iron grip upon the land.”

Eric watched for a long moment, studying its every feature. He nodded and smiled, happy at the prospect.

“That would be a lot of xp.”

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