The rain had let up to a weak drizzle, but the storm continued to rumble overhead. Lightning flashed like a dim heartbeat, brightened clouds enough to highlight their edges in sallow white, while in the distance argent strikes forked down and out in a web of fury. Wind blew from the east, not so strong as to bend a tree but enough to carry the storm’s chill and the pained cries of the wounded. Fire and ash licked the air where pyres burned the dead, cleansed the bodies of disease and curse alike. A hundred paces away, the smell of charred rot was still stronger than soaked earth and ozone. More than two hundred goblins had bled the field, drenched the ground where the pyres stood. Magic fueled the flames, spread its touch in a blanket of summer sunset between the mounds and left nothing with which to heal those who had survived.
Eric sat at a campfire with Griz and five others, the leaders of each clan within the host. There would’ve been six, but none remained of the grays. Tunnelers, sappers and miners by nature, they were ill-suited for the rigor of direct combat. The goblins ate and spoke for the better part of an hour, of strategy and morale, supplies and the state of gear, but only Eric seemed to notice how exhausted the shaman was, how his hands shook when he drank from the wineskin. There were a dozen more campfires, with goblins huddled together for warmth, the injured on sleeping mats and wrapped in blankets. None of their wounds were life-threatening, but without Griz to heal them, infection would set in.
He had insisted all he needed was a night’s rest and would be able to heal everyone in the morning. So here they sat, resting and waiting, despite the lich king that could easily see their fires from his castle walls.
“If Tragona had more minions,” the red general said between bites of what Eric could only hope was jerky, “he’d have sent them by now.” His name was Belchburn, though by his own account he preferred to be called Bel. He spit a piece into the fire, where it hissed in protest. “If he’s half a wit left, he’ll be gone before we get there.”
“Aye,” Bri – short for Brinecall – agreed. The blue general ran a flat stone across the edge of his sword in long, methodical strokes. “Or he’s cooking up a nasty in that dungeon of his.”
They were smarter than the other fodder, Eric was forced to admit. They spoke in complete sentences and could hold their own in a fight. He kept listening as the storm shifted overhead but offered no words of his own.
He began to reminisce about home and almost found himself glad to be away. It was quieter here, with no sister and her trail of brainless boyfriends; or his father, the cubicle rat who hated his job almost as much as his life, who only tolerated family because the alternative was too expensive. His mother, who also hated her job, if you could call marketing a job, spent every night in a box of wine and a bottle of sleeping pills.
No, the people in his life he could do without.
Soda, on the other hand... Or chocolate! Fuck, I could go for some candy. Playing video games, watching porn, masturbating, and usually in that order, those were the more obvious things he missed. It was the little stuff he didn’t expect, the everyday insignificants everyone took for granted.
Like blinking, he thought, as rain fell across his face in a misted drizzle but had no effect on his vision. The world just wasn’t meant to be seen without pause. It’s too damn depressing.
He touched fingertips to his chest, to the hollow metal with no heartbeat. He felt devoid of thrill, of the constant exhilaration that came from being alive. When he’d killed a newb in pvp, found a legendary he actually wanted or saw a naked woman, his heart would race and blood pump in a surge throughout his body.
Now there was only empty excitement, a feeling less awful than the one before. Taking essence was a rush, but it wasn’t his rush. It was stolen pleasure, someone else’s joy at being alive. There wasn’t even escape in sleep anymore. Dreams were a thing of the past. He could lay back and stare out at the storm and stars, try to become lost in contemplation, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing in life is like dreaming, no love nor drug, no mirage nor musing. And once the ability is gone, all that’s left are frustration and the memory of it to mock you.
The shaman must have seen Eric grow melancholy and tried to lighten the mood with a joke.
“Master,” he said, drawing Eric’s attention from the rain, “why do dwarven men fear their women more than any warrior on the field or dragon in the sky?” The drawn out silence made it clear Eric had no interest in guessing. “Because their women have larger man parts!” The others laughed uproariously. “Oh, and beards! I forgot, they have longer beards!”
More ridiculous laughter. Eric didn’t even smile inwardly, just gave a light facepalm.
“I thought you were going to say because they bleed for a week every month and don’t die.”
The laughter dwindled to an uncomfortable lull.
“They bleed for a week?” the brown general asked, looking shocked and a bit frightened. Muckbud was his name, but in Eric’s mind he was forever Mudbutt. “What, like from a wound?”
Grimstalk cleared his throat, still trying to wrap his mind around the notion. “Every month?” the green general asked.
Eric laughed. “Don’t goblins have women?”
“I’m a woman,” Bri said. Eric was dubious; the blue didn’t have breasts, though she was wearing armor. Her voice sounded no different from other goblins, either, no femininity to the speech or tone. “What’s that got to do with bleeding?”
“Goblins are made, master,” Griz offered, “not born.”
“So you don’t have sex?” Eric looked down to the smooth space between his legs. “No wonder I look like a fucking Ken doll.”
“We can,” the shaman replied, “we do. Your lack of man parts was more a matter of modesty and practicality than function.”
Man parts? What the fuck, why can’t he say dick?
“Yeah,” Eric would have frowned if he could, “it’d be a shame to make anyone uncomfortable while I’m destroying their home and killing their loved ones.”
The orange general spit his wine with a laugh, then spent the next minute choking and gasping for air while the others laughed at his expense – and at Eric’s joke. Bitterbark was what he’d called himself earlier, though Eric liked to think of him as Bitters.
“You know,” Eric added, speaking to Griz, “at the rate we’re going, you won’t have an army by the end of the week. There’s barely a hundred goblins over there, and I doubt half of them could fight a cold, let alone a battle.”
“Most of those lost,” Mudbutt said, “were untrained or untrainable.”
Bri put more wood onto the fire, beneath wide stones stacked in such a way as to protect the flames from rain. “Grays took the brunt,” she said. “House Azaren hasn’t lost a one since we arrived.”
“Nor Bloodfall!” Bel chimed in.
Griz calmed them with a hand, as if to stave off any contest before it could begin.
“You’ve all done as expected, and the grays, well, they did too. We’re not all suited for war,” he said to Eric, “the grays less so than others.”
This got Eric thinking. “The shamans who helped summon me,” he asked, “were they from different clans?”
The old goblin nodded. “There aren’t many of us, mind you, and the few we have are coveted by the families they’re made or bought into. As soon as you were summoned, they all returned home.”
There was grumbling among the generals.
“Cowards,” Bitters remarked.
“What’s up with that?” Eric asked. “Why’d they bail?”
“None of us truly wants to be here,” Griz replied. “We do it because it’s necessary. There are resources here on Taellus that just can’t be found on Xanaranth. Everyone benefits from the goods we send back. Unfortunately, few are willing to help in the endeavor.”
“Which is why,” Mudbutt added and emptied a wooden pipe against his knee, “we have more grays than swords and little hope of reinforcement.”
“Had,” Stalk amended. His green skin and dark armor took on brighter hues with the growing fire. “We’ve plenty swords now that we’ve no grays.”
“That’s rough,” Eric said. “I almost feel bad so many have died.” Almost.
“You honor us with your concern,” Griz said and bowed his head. Eric couldn’t tell if he was being sincere. “Once the castle is ours, we will send for support to hold it while we conquer the rest of Taellus.”
“Real soldiers,” Bri put in, “no more worm food from the mines.”
Griz sighed, looked even wearier. “We take what we can get.”
“Xanaranth,” Eric said, trying the word out on his nonexistent tongue. “How many goblins are there on your home world?”
“Millions,” the shaman replied. “Far more than there are humans in all of Taellus.”
Eric scoffed. “That’s all? How can a few million take over an entire world?”
“Well,” Bitters said, offended, “how many humans are there where you come from?”
“On Earth? Seven and a half billion.”
“Million?” the orange repeated, his face perplexed, asking if Eric had made a mistake.
Eric turned to face him. “You got shit in your ears? Billion.”
“What’s a billion,” Mudbutt asked.
Griz replied, “A thousand million.”
Bitters gave a snort and looked at his fellow generals, waiting for them to join in on the jest. He seemed to consider the enormity of the numbers and grew quiet.
Eric shook his head and focused his attention back to Griz. “Will they send more shamans, or at least decent warriors? I agree with smurfette here; we don’t need any more shit stains clogging up the battlefield. They’re a drain on resources, and if the gobs in charge need some convincing, I’d be happy to pay them a visit.”
“A generous offer, master.” Griz pulled tighter the blanket about his shoulders. “The truth is few are willing to risk their lives for the amenities they take for granted. There are others far wiser and stronger than we, but they stay at home where they believe they are safe.”
Eric was quiet a moment. “You know, you’re not what I expected when I woke up here.”
The shaman managed a smile. “To say the same of you would be a great understatement.”
“No, I mean where I come from, goblins are low level monsters for players to level up on. The idea of them taking over the world, any world,” Eric said with something akin to admiration or incredulity, “it just wouldn’t happen.”
“And now, master?”
“Well,” Eric replied, in a not so modest tone, “you brought me here. You just might have a chance.” It was good to see genuine laughter from the shaman. It made him seem stronger, healthier, like he might survive long enough to help Eric get his life back. “Speaking of which, tell me more about how I get back into my body, alive and home.”
A nod and a squirt of wine. “It is a very complicated spell, one I will need assistance with, aside from the rare and exotic materials –”
“Cut the epic quest crap,” Eric cut in. “Just tell me what we need, and why we need it. Because I fucking hate quests, and I’m not dragging my ass all over the world on a wild goose chase. If there’s a cheap substitute, I want to know about it. I’m not hunting down a unicorn if we can use a plain old horse. You get me?”
Griz nodded. “It will not be easy. First, we need to resurrect your body. There are many ways to do so, but the only way I can do it myself is to sacrifice a human virgin.”
“The fuck? Why does it have to be human?”
“Because you are human,” he replied with calm, as if used to choosing his words the way one chooses footing while walking upon eggshells. “A life for a life.”
“Whatever.” Eric was getting tired, or maybe he was just tired of talking. “Seems wrong to kill someone just because they’ve never been laid.”
“As I said, there are other ways.”
Eric asked, “What else?”
“We need to replace your spirit with another’s.”
“You’re going to trap someone else in this thing? Lame.” Eric considered. “Why not use the sacrifice? Two birds, one stone.”
The shaman shook his head. “Once the spirit has left its body, we will not be able to harness it for the exchange.”
“So, you’re basically killing two people so far. Can you use one of the retarded goblins?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Griz took a deep breath, as if searching for the right words. “It must be someone of strong spirit, or they will die for naught.”
Eric nearly growled. “What the fuck, man. Why’s shit got to be so complicated? How are we going to know if someone has a strong spirit or not?”
“We could summon them,” Griz offered, “as we did you, or wait to see if we come across one in our campaign. Military leaders, royalty, anyone able to wield magic, all would be good candidates. And I can test them to be sure.”
“What a fucking hassle. Anything else?”
The shaman hesitated. “Those are just the steps we must take to restore you. I have not mentioned the reagents, any of which could take us weeks to acquire –”
“Fuck it. I don’t want to hear anymore,” Eric said and got to his feet. “Let’s just take dickhead’s castle in the morning and wing it from there.”
“As you say, master.”
Eric stalked off into the darkness, away from camp, convinced he had a headache despite being hollow.