The goblin measured Robert. “Accidental or intentional?”
“Beg your pardon?” asked Robert.
“Did you stumble across this place? Or did you come here on purpose?”
Robert said, “On purpose. People find this place by accident?”
“Fifty fifty,” replied the goblin. “Some say it’s fate. I say it’s dumb luck. No way to know for sure.”
The goblin entered the cave, and Robert followed. He lost sight of his guide in the dark, having to follow the goblin’s voice.
“If you’re here on purpose, then you know what you’re getting into.”
“Wrong. You don’t know shit. You think you know, but the pool doesn’t make you into what you want. It makes you into what you are. The question you should be asking yourself is are those the same thing?”
Robert stopped in the darkness. He had considered the question. Many times. There were times the answer was certain, and just as many times when it wasn’t.
“Are you coming?” asked the goblin, unseen in the blackness. “Or did you change your mind?”
“Of course you are. Nobody ever changes their mind. Everyone thinks they know themselves, but in the end, most only know what they want, not what they need.”
“But some do?” asked Robert.
“Maybe one out of five hundred,” said the voice. “Mind the pit. We’re almost there.”
Robert walked on in the pitch black, trusting he wouldn’t fall to his death at this point. They made it to the pool chamber. It wasn’t much to look at, but there was light here, cast from a hole in the ceiling. The pool itself was brackish brown water. It didn’t look magical.
The goblin pointed to a tree, somehow growing in the rocks. “That was a brave knight who sought immortality.” He pointed to a toad. “That was a maiden who wanted to be freed of the burden of beauty. And those rats, a band of brigands. Never got around to asking what they desired.”
“Does everyone end up like that?” asked Robert.
“No. Some change in small ways. A short man came here to become a taller man and got his wish. An orc warlord came seeking wisdom once. And an elf became a goblin and guardian of this pool.”
“That’s my business,” said the goblin. “What do you seek? Power? Peace? A handsome face? Glory?”
“None of that,” said Robert.
The goblin shrugged. “Then step into the pool and become. And may the gods grant you the mercy you desire.”
Robert stepped into the pool. It was barely ankle deep, but it didn’t matter. The tingle ran up his legs, and for a moment, he thought he’d made a terrible mistake. All his certainty faded, and he saw himself as a fool, a tree, a toad, a pitiable rat in a man’s body he’d always worn as a cage. And he knew it must be true because his doubts would surely betray him.
His body burned as the transformation took him. It was going wrong. It hurt too much to be right. He collapsed in agony and thought he might drown in the shallow water before becoming whatever horrible thing cruel fate foisted on him.
Then it was over. Just like that.
The goblin appraised the great black dragon before him. He’d seen many a transformation, but nothing quite so radical as this.
“Impressive,” he said. “Is this what you wanted?”
The dragon smiled. “Yes.”
“Power then?” said the goblin. “Pity. It’s an unimaginative desire.”
The dragon chuckled. “Power was not what I sought.”
Robert spread her wings. She shot into the sky, smashing her way through the roof. Stones fell from the ceiling. The toad barely avoided being crushed, and the rats fled deeper into the dark. The tree was smashed beneath a boulder, but it would grow back. It always did.