Eric looked for a door, some way to leave the broken castle. Light shone through holes in the ceiling, pale rays strewn with dust that fell upon the sea of goblins. They were quiet, waiting, still on their knees. At the far end of the chamber, wooden double doors were cracked open and blocked by stones and fallen timber. It would take some doing to clear the way. Even then, he wasn’t sure he could make it through.
He turned and punched the wall.
The new body was cumbersome, but it hit like a freight train. Rock and mortar exploded outward beneath his fist. The castle trembled in protest, rained down wood and rubble that bounced off his shoulders. A few goblins were not as fortunate. He looked back with a grin and shrugged – omelets and all that.
“Check me out,” Eric said, “makin’ doors like a boss!”
“Master, please!” The shaman coughed and wiped dust from his good eye. He barely opened the other, but when he did it looked milky. “There is no need to bring the castle down about our heads. I can make a portal when you wish to leave.”
Eric would’ve rolled his eyes if he had any.
“Alright,” he said. “So do it. Let’s get with the killin’ already.” As an afterthought, he asked, “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Grizzletongue, master,” the shaman said and bowed his head.
Eric’s laugh brought down more debris. “Serious? Your parents hate you or something?”
“All goblins hate their offspring.”
The shaman began waving his staff and uttering words Eric couldn’t make out. Now that he noticed, the goblin’s tongue was chalk white and covered in bumps like giant warts. Eric didn’t know if he should feel sorry for him or be disgusted. Both, he supposed.
“You yankin’ my chain?”
“A bit, master, yes,” Griz replied and smiled, then rapped the butt end of his staff against the floor. Its echo was more like a knock in the distance. Charred stones began to rise, upending earth and floor alike. “Before we engage Tragona’s army, I thought you might like to choose a weapon from our foundry.”
The stones became an arch, with a red afterglow and hissing smoke as if freshly heated by an inferno. In its center was a sheet of emerald light he couldn’t see through. The occasional ripple appeared, but they were rings of pale green rather than drops against water.
“Yeah?” Eric’s gaze followed the ripples. “Waddya got for me, a sword of undead bane? An axe of lich slaying?”
“Nothing so grand,” Griz said, “but they are of a size that should suit you. We have a tentative peace with the demons of Inexium. They allowed us to build our foundry in their realm, and in exchange we provide weapons for their war against the fey.” He looked up at Eric, proud. “Their lava flows have magical properties. It is where you were forged.”
“I wasn’t forged,” Eric said, his voice grating like rocks tumbling down a passage. “I’m just wearing this thing for now.” The shaman nodded and looked away. “So, you make weapons. Are they as good as dwarven stuff?” Goblins looked to one another as if insulted then spat dark spittle on the ground. One’s aim was off and coated a neighbor’s arm. A scuffle ensued. They rolled away, punching and cursing. “I take it you don’t like dwarves.”
More spitting and curses.
Griz silenced them with a look. “The portal is ready, master.”
“I can’t fit through that.”
“You just need to touch the center,” Griz explained.
Eric touched his fingertips to the light, and the world around him went dark. It flashed back into view with a dizzying speed, but his surroundings had drastically changed. The portal was still there, as was the shaman. Everything else was an entirely different matter.
They were underground now, with crimson and black rock that stretched upward for miles. Massive columns dotted the volcanic landscape, where stalagmites and stalactites had joined together. Lava flowed from a great lake, in streams and over an oozing fall. It swept around islands of unyielding rock and the scorched bones of giant monsters. Far off was an ebon structure, connected to smaller parts by a wall of obsidian. Liquid fire raged against it from the other side, but the creatures loping passed ignored its torrent. Sulfur filled the air, a burning stench like rotted eggs in the sun.
The foundry was a collection of anvils and molds, steaming troughs of boiling water, bright orange lines of channeled lava, smelters and hanging tools. The air was hot but not scalding. With dozens of goblin smiths hammering and shaping, sweating but still alive, Eric assumed some sort of magic kept them safe.
“Dwarves,” Griz said, and two nearby goblins spat without missing a hammer beat, “are too concerned with the look of a weapon, waste their magic on longevity. We goblins use enchantment to strengthen our weapons, so the blade bends but never breaks, its edge nicks but never dulls. It is the lava,” he continued and pointed out its vibrant glow. “Hottest in all the realms, infused by a thousand ley lines. It is here they all converge, why we chose this place to build our foundry.”
Weapon racks were filled with swords and axes as tall as Eric, with more stacked neatly on the ground.
“If your weapons are so strong,” he asked, “then why haven’t the demons won their war? Why do you need a freakin’ robot to rule the world?”
The goblins worked in silence. Either Eric had hit a sore point, or they didn’t know the answer either. Griz only nodded, as if he’d pondered the same questions many times before.
“Weapons do not win wars.”
Eric snorted. “Tell that to Japan.”
Across one of the larger flows, a demon took notice and began making its way across the lava. It had thick limbs and a wide torso, with dark plates for a carapace across its thighs and midsection. Fire ran between its scales and dripped back into the river, which even at the center only rose as high as the demon’s chest. All the while it watched Eric, as if gauging his strength. Its eyes were blood red, with vertical black gashes, and the spines on its head swept back like braids of hair. Unlike the paltry glow of a goblin’s life, this one seethed with crimson light. Its essence was palpable, so strong it tugged at Eric’s senses with an urgency to devour.
“Ho, this guy wants a piece of me,” Eric said, fists clenched. “Come at me, bro!”
“Master, you must not!” Griz warned. “He is an ally.”
It approached the foundry and stopped, looked up as if studying something in the air. It ran a claw across the surface of what must have been a magical barrier, sparking flashes of blue like deadly fireworks. Saliva fell from its mouth and burned the rock between its feet. It grinned at Eric in challenge.
“Can it get in here?”
“No, master. The area is protected.” Griz must have known what Eric was thinking. “You cannot kill him. Demons are incredibly powerful –”
Eric rushed forward and grabbed the demon by its neck with a grip that would have crushed a tree. Startled by the attack, eyes bulging in alarm, it tried to claw at Eric but couldn’t penetrate the barrier.
“Dumbass! Thanks for the free xp!”
Griz pleaded for him to stop, but Eric couldn’t hear over the sound of his own laughter.
The demon tried to cry out, but its voice was choked off. It fought to break free, to pull Eric outside the barrier, but their strength was too evenly matched. It took hold of his arm with both claws and slashed down, marring the runes across his forearm.
Eric screamed in pain but refused to let go. Surprise at being hurt was far outweighed by anger. He tightened his grip and punched the demon with his other fist. Two more times and bones broke. Again, the demon slashed him, gouging the iron as if it were flesh, undoing the runes that kept him alive. With both hands, Eric pulled the demon against the barrier by the neck. Magic exploded all around them in a shower of sparks, shrieking as loud as the demon’s pain-filled cries.
A final pull, and its neck broke.
The glow of life essence fled its body and rushed Eric, filled him with power and the overwhelming abundance of possibilities. His body was afire with the glow. It filled every crevice, blinded him to all but the coursing flow of ley lines far below, deafened him to the world but for the thrum of life shaking his core. The shaman was an ashen haze, waving his arms in the blur, speaking words Eric no longer understood.
He looked down at his ruined arm and realized the ward had been damaged. His hand still flexed, but he was incomplete, flawed. The pain came to him then, a grim reminder he could’ve died. His iron body could have died. What would happen to him?
Griz still waved his arms for attention and when he got it mimicked putting his hand in the lava. Eric lost his balance and fell to his knees. The excess life made him dizzy, drunk with power and pleasure, railing against the pain. He shook his head and focused. The shaman was insistent, even took Eric by the hand and tried to pull him toward the lava.
“Stop talking,” Eric said. Every sound echoed inside him, like a headache for his whole body. The goblin smiths had stopped working and watched. “If my arm melts off…”
He plunged it deep into the lava. The pain instantly subsided, doused in liquid fire. He expected the heat to hurt worse than any wound, but instead it was a warmth that soothed and made him whole. When he pulled his arm out, the iron was molten orange but intact. Even the runes had been healed, as if they’d never been clawed.
“Do you understand me now?” Griz asked.
Eric nodded. He wondered how the lava had healed him, how the runes were put right. Did his metal body have a mind of its own? A memory separate from his? He wasn’t even sure how he knew or remembered anything, since technically he no longer had a brain.
His mind still swam with possibilities, the multitude of ways he could transform his body, evolve how he saw fit. It angered him how easily he was damaged, even if it was by a demon he shouldn’t have been able to kill – or so Griz told him.
“You must choose,” the shaman said, “or the essence will consume you.”
“I already have.”
The glow faded away, expended in transformation. He held out both arms and watched as the runes turned and disappeared. The same occurred across his body, every rune, every ward, the entire glyph gone from sight. By Griz’s tone, he wasn’t sure if the shaman was amazed or worried.
“What have you done?” Griz asked, his words a mere whisper.
Eric got to his feet. “I turned them inward. That’s the last time some asshat claws off my runes.”
“About that.” The shaman sighed and looked up with his one eye. “That was a foot soldier in Karron’s army. You may have just caused a war between the demons and goblins.”
“Wow, sucks to be you.”