She knew when the first skeleton cut her that she was going to die. Erin stared down at the open skin on her arm and wondered if she could push the two red halves together. She raised the frying pan and hit the skeleton with all her strength.
It fell down. Erin kicked it until the lights in its eyes went out. She was strong. Strong as a man? Strong enough to kill. She’d hit a dead Drake until the iron frying pan had dented and his skull had caved in and bits had squished outwards.
But the dead were everywhere, and somehow, each time Erin turned around, there were less Antinium around her. But there were always more undead. Their glowing eyes watched Erin, and their clawed hands sought her life.
Once she thought she saw Toren. Her skeleton danced among the undead, sword raised, stabbing, cutting. His fellows seemed to only half notice him, only fighting back after he’d made the first blow. But he was only one, and she couldn’t tell him apart from the other skeletons.
Erin ran back and forth, ducking under slow swings, throwing the few jars of acid she had at the ghouls as they bounded towards her, hitting skeletons aside, and seeing the black shapes protecting her. Each time a sword thrust at her heart or she stumbled, a Worker would be there, grappling a zombie away or seizing a ghoul by the throat.
The girl fought, and every time she turned around, another Worker, another friend, was dying.
And then she turned around and there were only the dead. The few Workers that remained struggled alone, isolated.
Erin backed up towards her inn. Eight Workers came with her. The rest lay silent. They barricaded the doors even as the undead began breaking through the windows. Erin tossed aside the frying pan that was bent nearly out of shape and realized she’d torn the skin from her palms even as she grabbed a chair.
The dead battered at the door as the Antinium clubbed at arms and heads breaking through the shutters, and outside Skinner’s crimson gaze lit up the inn. He was close.
Erin was bleeding. Blood dripped from her arms and legs. Something had stabbed her in one of her breasts, and she was sure she’d never heard of that happening in a story. She clutched at her bleeding chest and sat down.
Just for a second.
It was very dark.
Zevara stood in the center of the street, as the undead rushed towards her. She took a deep breath and breathed fire.
A stream of bright flame shot from her mouth incinerating the front rank of the undead and making the others stop to claw at their burning forms. Zevara kept up the stream of bright fire as long as she could. Five seconds. Ten. And then she had to stop and gasp for air.
The world was dark. Spinning. She couldn’t breathe. But the enemy had been stopped for a moment. But only a moment.
They were everywhere. And they had pushed the defenders of the city back, back, until they were battling down the main street, next to the barracks, outside the entrance to the Antinium’s hive. And though the battle still raged on, Zevara knew this was it.
The end. Once their lines broke this time, there would be nowhere else to go. The children and those citizens not fighting would be exposed. Already they’d been crammed like sardines as the guardsmen had them move further and further back from the fighting. Any more and—
It wasn’t her fault. That was what Zevara wanted to say. She’d done her best, damn it. With hundreds of warriors she’d held off thousands. Who could ask for more than that?
But she’d failed, even though she was always going to fail. The Watch had never been meant to protect the city from siege. They were over four hundred guardsmen in the city that held over ten thousand civilians. They were able to quell fights, catch thieves, stop bandit raids—
But never an army. And especially not an army of the dead.
How many were there? Hundreds. Thousands. They kept getting back up. The living became the dead, and the dead refused to die. Stab wounds didn’t slow them. Fire melted their skin but had to crack their bones before they stopped. Beheading didn’t slow some skeletons and the Crypt Lords could kill scores before they were brought down.
If. If the walls had been held the Watch would have prevailed. If they had held the first few streets instead of fighting in every damned alleyway, they would have held the line.
If she’d let Relc try to kill Skinner, they might have pushed the undead out of the city. And if the Antinium had joined them, they might have won.
They were still fighting. Ksmvr’s Soldiers guarded several streets leading to their Hive. More warriors stood guarding the sloping tunnel into the earth, but none had joined the Watch. They were all back, protecting their Queen.
Another group of undead ran down the street. Zevara gulped down more air.
Damn him. Damn him. She’d counted on the Antinium. They were what had been needed, but he’d refused to send them out. Three hundred Soldiers and the Workers would have made all the difference. But Ksmvr had refused. He was heartless. Not at all like his predecessor.
A Ghoul bounded ahead of the running Zombies and skeletons. Too fast. Zevara raised her sword and slashed at his chest. The dead woman stumbled, but then raised a hand. Too quick, and her sword was caught on bone.
Zevara opened her mouth and exhaled. Fire ignited in her lungs and spilled out her mouth. It burned the air, the dead, and even her. It was her ancient birthright, but it was not hers.
The world greyed out and spun as Zevara stumbled. The ghoul was lurching back, screaming and clawing at her ruined face, but then she lunged forward. A spear tip punctured the tip of her head and she fell down.
Someone was at Zevara’s side. The Watch Captain felt a huge arm helping her up.
“Careful, Z. You’re running low on air.”
Zevara gasped and shook Relc’s hand off. She tried to inhale air, but her breath was coming in short gasps. She gasped and clawed at her throat. She could barely breathe, but she had to. She spat fire again, and a crowd of the undead went up in flames.
Coughing. Gasping. It was pain and she couldn’t breathe. Zevara stumbled backwards as the undead seized the lull in the deadly blasts of fire and surged forwards.
Relc stepped forwards, spear blurring. He stabbed two zombies in the chest with blinding speed, pivoted, punched a skeleton down, and then raised his spear as another zombie lurched at him.
The zombie’s head exploded as Relc’s spear struck three times at once. The Drake caught a bit of flesh in his open mouth and gagged on the rest of what he’d been about to say. He spat, coughing, and whirled his spear around.
More guardsmen rushed forwards and Zevara stumbled backwards. She’d given them all the time to rest she could. Any more and she would stop breathing, she knew.
She gasped for more air and then raised her voice. She had to know.
“Tkrn. How are the others doing?”
The guardsmen fought in front of her, a thin line of weary soldiers, blades and armor covered in gore. Zevara looked around.
The Gnoll was nowhere to be seen. Zevara tried to remember where she’d seen him last. Running down a street to deliver a message? She shook her head.
Gone. They were all gone. Or going.
Relc fell back cursing as the undead pushed forward. The thin red line grew redder and fell back as the undead pushed forwards. And this street was not alone.
Across the city, guardsmen fell back as the barricades broke. Ghouls raced over the rooftops, too many to be stopped by the few arrows and spells coming from below. They raced towards the streets where the citizens of Liscor were guarded by the wounded, sensing their prey was helpless.
“We’re out of healing potions.”
Tkrn appeared out of the chaos, limping to tell Zevara that as the Watch fell back another street. She just nodded at him. What else was there to say?
“Fall back towards Market Street. We’ll make a stand there.”
He nodded as the guardsman ran or carried each other past Zevara. Relc brought up the rear, spear still blurring with speed. But even he was slowing down. Exhaustion was doing what all the undead could not.
“Relc. Can you…?”
He grinned at her.
“Leave it to me. Just save a spot for me when I get back, huh?”
She nodded and ran with her guardsmen. Back, back again. Relc didn’t need to say anything. Both she and he felt it.
The guardsmen met a larger force holding the entrance to Market Street. The burned out road had been torn up again, this time so that stalls and doors could be turned into another barricade. The Drakes and Gnolls who held this spot were exhausted, wounded, but the dead clogging the street were a testament to their will to fight.
Zevara took to the front of the line and looked back over her guardsmen. She knew she had to speak, to give them hope, a reason to keep fighting. She just had nothing left to say.
A voice raised above the shouting and ever-present noise in the distance. A calm, emotionless tone.
“Watch Captain Zevara. I must speak with you.”
Zevara turned and saw Ksmvr. The Prognugator of the Antinium strode towards her, two Soldier Antinium at his side.
His exoskeleton had been crushed on one of his arms and something had torn open his side. A gauze binding had already turned dark green with blood, but was otherwise unharmed.
One of the Soldiers limped as he walked and Zevara saw his left foot had been half torn off. But the Soldier did not cry out or show any sign of distress. They halted before her and Ksmvr nodded as if nothing was urgent in the world.
“Watch Captain Zevara. I regret that we must part ways now.”
She stared at him.
“This battle comes too close to the hive. I must pull back the Soldier Antinium from the streets, to better guard the hive. I tell you this as a matter of courtesy.”
Zevara struggled for words. The only reason they’d held on for so long was that the Soldiers were blocking off several streets. Without them—
Tkrn barked it at Ksmvr. The Antinium flicked his gaze towards the Gnoll, and then away dismissively.
“I regret this decision. But I must prioritize my Hive. I hope you understand. Your duties are similar to mine in nature, Watch Captain Zevara.”
She stared at him. Tkrn was growling, but she put a hand on his shoulder.
“Good. I wish you—”
“I understand that you’re a coward and a fool.”
Ksmvr paused. Zevara raised her voice as the guardsmen around her looked around.
“We’ve fought and bled for this city, and your blasted hive. If we fall here, everyone dies! But you won’t even give us more than a handful of Soldiers! Don’t you realize what’s happening? Or is your damned Queen not aware of what’s happening?”
The air around Ksmvr and the two Soldier Antinium froze. His hands touched at his sword hilts.
“My Queen completes her duties. As do I. Insults to her name—”
“Eggs rot your damned Queen!”
Zevara shouted at Ksmvr. She pointed at the destroyed streets and ruined buildings.
“We’ve kept Liscor safe! We’ve held up our end of the Bargain—you Antinium swore to protect this city from attack! And where are you when we need you!?”
“I must protect my Hive.”
“Liscor will fall!”
“Liscor may. But the Hive shall never be taken, even if ten thousand undead should attack.”
What was worse, Zevara believed him. She cursed him, but Ksmvr remained impassive. He shook his head.
“Say what you will. But the Queen’s safety is—”
Relc shouted behind her, desperately. A Crypt Lord had appeared down the street, from the wrong side. He must have broken through somewhere else. Guardsmen streamed towards him, shouting as Relc held off the undead coming from the other direction.
Zevara cursed and turned towards Ksmvr, but the Antinium was already striding away. She opened her mouth, and then closed it. There was no point in wasting her breath.
The Captain of the Watch stared bitterly at Ksmvr’s back. She longed to plant a sword in it, or strike at the Antinium, but that would just see her dead sooner. Instead, she turned. Drakes and Gnolls were already fighting the Crypt Lord as he spat black blood at them, slicing at them with claws made of broken bone.
Zevara raised her sword and ran back towards the fighting.
For the last time.
For a moment, Erin thought someone else was shaking her. When she looked up into the dark eyes and saw the four arms of the Antinium, she remembered someone else.
The Worker pulled her upright.
“You must not sleep. Here.”
He shoved something at Erin. She took it and stared at the red liquid. A potion…? A healing potion. Hers. That was right. Hers. She’d—bought it after that day.
The bottle was at her lips. Erin swallowed, grimaced, and felt life returning. She was tired. So tired that the world seemed to call her back to sleep. But the potion made her live.
She got to her feet. The Worker helped her up, and she saw he was wounded. He was missing an antenna and two fingers on one of his right hands. His carapace was broken in places, but when she offered him the potion he shook his head.
She did, finishing the foul liquid and feeling life return with every gulp. Erin threw the bottle across the room and struck a skeleton in the face as it sought to climb in. It slowed the creature long enough for another Worker to behead it with an axe.
Erin looked at the Worker who had given her the potion. It seemed silly, with the undead clawing at the walls and howling outside, but she had to say it.
“I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Bird. I am Bird.”
He nodded at her. Erin nodded back.
“I guess this is it, then.”
“We will protect you until the end.”
“Which is now.”
She paused. Erin’s head was still spinning, but she looked around and saw only the dead. The undead, but also fallen Workers. Death.
Crimson light was what she saw by. Skinner’s glowing red eyes lit up the inn brighter than the light from the moon. Bird had taken his place by one of the windows, a sword in his hand, a buckler in another.
“There are few undead left. Many are moving towards the city.”
“But that thing is out there.”
“Yes. It is close.”
Erin peeked outside. She could see Skinner, his massive, obscene frame a shadow around the two red spotlights in the darkness. A guard of undead stood around him, silently waiting in the darkness.
Bird nodded again. Erin looked at the undead. They were still bashing at the doors, the walls, trying to climb through the windows as the seven other Antinium moved around the room, slicing off limbs and bashing heads.
The inn’s walls were protecting them. For the moment. But Erin knew it wouldn’t last.
“We’ve got to go. They’ll tear this place down around us if we stay.”
Erin walked into the kitchen. She had one jar of acid left. She took it. Bird grabbed her arm as she walked towards the door. The Worker stared at her.
“It is death out there, Erin Solstice.”
“Yeah. But it’s death everywhere.”
He paused, staring at her face. Another Worker turned.
“Better to place the enemy in check than suffer it yourself.”
Erin blinked at him, and then grinned.
She opened the door. A zombie stared at her in surprise, arm raised to hammer at the wood again. Erin threw a jar of acid in his face and he staggered back, screaming. She was nearly out of acid. She’d rained it all down on Skinner and the other undead.
She had a knife in one hand. It was sharp. Erin held it in her hand and thought she was dreaming. She stepped around Knight’s body, heart beating faster and faster. The knife was slippery in her hand.
Skinner looked at her, eyes projecting fear. Erin gritted her teeth.
“Go to hell.”
She ran out the door, and the eight Antinium followed her. Erin stabbed a zombie in the face, punched him, and looked up as Skinner’s massive hand flattened the undead Gnoll. Two glowing eyes stared down at her.
She raised the kitchen knife.
“Come on. Let’s end this.”
Ksmvr strode through the streets as the noise of battle receded into the dull roar of sound around him. He thought as he moved, considering all that was occurring and would occur.
Zevara and the guardsmen would soon fall. Perhaps the citizens in Liscor would make a stand. It was possible they might prevail—the undead horde’s numbers had thinned. But they were still a danger.
Duty towards Liscor and the Bargain obliged the Hive to send soldiers to defend Liscor. But as Prognugator, Ksmvr was able to determine whether such actions were wise. And with the Queen still occupied by the Rite of Anastases, he had determined her safety was paramount.
Zevara had cursed him. Shouted at him. Her anger was understandable, but there was nothing Ksmvr could do. His actions were the only sound choice.
They were logical. He knew that. The Queen had to be protected, especially when carrying out the Rite. It was quite clear in the priorities he had been given. Her life and the well being of the hive were far more important than the agreement made with the city of Liscor.
He spoke to one of the Soldiers accompanying him. To speak to one was to speak to all.
“Pull all Soldiers back. The streets are meaningless. We must protect the Hive.”
The Soldier didn’t respond, but Ksmvr could feel the other Antinium abandoning their position at the street entrances. They would retreat to the Hive, guarding both entrances within the city.
There were three entrances to the Hive, only two of which were known to the Council of Liscor. The third remained outside the city, buried by several tons of dirt. They could be easily excavated, but the undead had not located that entrance as of yet.
Ksmvr continued to consider the siege as he stood at the entrance to the tunnel, watching the streets for the undead as Soldiers ran past him into the Hive. The Antinium had food and supplies for at least a month of continuous operation, which made things simple. The creature that had appeared with the undead was still at large outside the city, but it had shown little interest in the Antinium.
Regardless of the outcome above, Ksmvr estimated that the Queen would be finished with her task by the end of the night. Then he could request further orders. If she wished the city to be cleansed, the Soldiers were fully capable of doing so. Otherwise the Hive could easily be sealed off.
Ksmvr did not worry about his Queen’s reaction to his decisions. He did not worry. He had fulfilled his highest priority, even if it meant sacrificing lesser commitments towards the city. She would understand, would she not? She had given him no other directives.
“The city is expendable. The rogue Aberrations are of little concern and may be hunted down in time. The innkeeper—”
He hesitated. She was valuable. The city was valuable. But—
“The Hive is all. The Queen is all.”
She would understand. He dared not risk her safety by reducing the Soldiers protecting her. She had given explicit instructions not to be disturbed at any cost. At any cost. He was following orders.
And he had secured the individual known as Pawn. That was quite an achievement. Ksmvr remembered what the former Worker had said and shifted. He had been…unsure how to respond to Pawn’s words, as close to disloyalty as they had seemed.
“My judgement is not in error. My logic is sound.”
Reassured, Ksmvr nodded again. The last of the Soldiers were about to enter the hive. But suddenly, they paused. And stopped.
Ksmvr stared as one of the Soldiers seemed to glance up at the sky, listening. And then, suddenly, he turned around and began to run back down the street.
The Soldier halted as Ksmvr strode towards him. The Prognugator held one hand on his sword’s hilt as he stopped a few feet away from the errant Soldier.
“What are you doing? I ordered you to return to the Hive and guard the entrance.”
The Soldier stared at Ksmvr silently. Of course, he couldn’t respond, but Ksmvr sensed no difference in the Soldier’s thoughts. He was following orders. Following orders, but whose? Ksmvr hadn’t ordered—
Something brushed past the Prognugator. Ksmvr whirled, but it was another Soldier. And not just one.
Suddenly, the massive Antinium warriors were streaming out of the Hive’s entrance again. Ksmvr whirled.
“What are you doing? What is happening?”
They ran past him, silently. He turned, and saw them running into the city. Even as he watched, they began charging towards the undead.
A hand tapped Ksmvr politely on the shoulder. The Antinium turned, and another fist crashed into his face. He fell down, hands grasping at his swords.
Ksmvr was Prognugator of the Antinium. He had been born to war, and so he drew both swords and daggers even as he rolled. He could not die. His life was important; he led the hive in his Queen’s absence. But he froze as he looked up.
The world was different. Ksmvr felt it. In an instant, his reality changed. He looked up and knew. He felt his Queen’s anger; he sensed her ire in his mind. She had returned. She had completed the Rite. And he—
He stood above Ksmvr.
The world began to shift.
Selys had never used a sword. Swords were for warriors, and she was just a receptionist. She had a few archery skills from a few levels as a [Hunter], but she had never touched a sword except to sell it or appraise it.
She had used a sword today, though. Selys staggered back and watched as the zombie fell, the hilt sticking out of his stomach.
The female Drake felt sick. But Krshia yanked the sword out of the dead human’s body and handed it back to her.
“Hrr. Good that you killed. You may gain a new class, yes? If we survive the night.”
It didn’t seem likely. Selys was behind the main line of guardsmen Zevara commanded, but already the undead had attacked their spot twice. They were everywhere. Overrunning the streets.
“We’re going to die.”
Krshia smacked her on the head. Selys gaped as her hand flew to cover her head, but the Gnoll just snorted at her.
“Save your weeping for when you are dead, yes? We are not done. Fight. Fight until all is lost.”
But all was lost. More undead were struggling at the barricades, fighting to break through. It was only a matter of time.
Part of Selys wanted to throw down her sword and wait for death. But it would be a terrible death, she knew. And she wouldn’t even die at the end of it. So she raised her blade awkwardly, waiting for the end. If she’d only been an adventurer, levelled in another class—
A voice. A shout. Selys turned, raising the sword. She’d long since ran out of arrows. But it wasn’t another attack. Tkrn ran down the street, waving the axe in his hand. He was running at a sprint, but his eyes were open, wide. And he was—smiling?
“The Ants! The Antinium are coming!”
Selys looked at Krshia. It couldn’t be. They’d retreated. But now another guardsman had taken up the call.
“The black tide marches!”
“The Soldiers are fighting in the streets!”
Wildfire ran through Selys’s veins, giving her new hope. It couldn’t be. But then she saw them. Shapes. Moving out of the darkness. Not one. Not two. A moving mass. An endless stream of bodies.
Soldiers ran down the street. They crashed into the line of the undead even as Selys watched, gaping. First twenty Soldiers filled the street, rushing at the enemy, and then fifty. A hundred.
And they were not alone. Ksmvr, the Prognugator was among them. He slashed at a zombie with his daggers and suddenly a Worker was next to him. The smaller Antinium seized the dead zombie and bore him down, and two more were suddenly next to Ksmvr, stomping at the dead Drake until it was paste.
Soldiers and Workers flooded out of the tunnel, an endless stream of black bodies. But that wasn’t all. The ground and streets began to ripple and hands thrust out of the stones. The undead paused, and then a huge spade-like hand seized a zombie and dragged it into the earth. A Soldier Antinium rose out of the ground and finished ripping the undead woman apart.
The undead in the street hesitated. They were an army without fear, an endless tide of death that bowed to neither pain nor exhaustion. They would fight on even when they had lost arms or legs. They were pitiless, emotionless killers. But that was the nature of the Antinium as well.
Out of the tunnels. Out of the darkness. Workers raced next to huge, thundering Soldiers. They didn’t even slow down as the first group of undead appeared in front of them. The first Soldier smashed bodily into a ghoul knocking the smaller dead Gnoll down. He didn’t pause but ran on. The dead Gnoll struggled to get up but a Worker trampled him. And then another. The stream of Antinium did not cease.
A crowd of zombies met a Soldier. He ripped into them, shovel-like hands punching, gouging their weak flesh. Workers swarmed over another zombie, ripping, pulling him apart from every direction.
A Crypt Lord raised a clawed hand to shield at its face. A Soldier leapt from a rooftop, plunging thirty feet to smash its knee into the Crypt Lord’s face. Bone and flesh gave way as the Soldier began tearing the larger undead apart. The Soldier stood up, carapace covered in steaming black blood. His right leg was shattered from impact and green blood oozed around the broken black carapace. He took two halting steps forward, smashed a skeleton to the side, and then collapsed.
The Workers and Soldiers paid no attention to the fallen Soldier. They surged around and over him, rampaging through the ranks of the undead, fighting with mindless fury.
The guardsmen and warriors in the streets stared. Hundreds of black bodies ran through the streets, killing, pounding, tearing.
The Antinium. They had come out of the hive, leaving it practically undefended. But why?
Krshia pulled Selys out of the way as a group of Soldiers thundered past them. They barely noticed the Drakes and Gnolls. But one of them was leading the charge. Ksmvr paused as ahead of them, Zevara blocked his way.
“You! What’s happening?”
The Drake stared at the Prognugator, but he shook his head. Selys saw the Antinium had cracked the chitin around his face somewhere. He looked—confused. She heard him raise his voice.
“We are attacking. We will drive the undead out of the city.”
The look Zevara gave Ksmvr was incredulous, and she wasn’t alone. Selys had heard the Antinium had called all the Soldiers back. So why had he changed his mind?
Ksmvr shook his head helplessly.
“I did not order it. I did not. The Queen did not either. He—”
“He has gone to Erin Solstice with many Soldiers.”
Relc ran past Selys, his scales streaked with blood and grime. Selys grabbed at him. Relc nearly threw her off before he stopped.
“Relc? What’s happening? Why are the Antinium fighting now?”
He looked at her, wild-eyed. Selys took a step back. She had known Relc for a long time, but she’d never seen him look like that. His scales were grey. He pointed.
“I saw him. I saw—he was leading them.”
“Who was? Relc?”
The Drake didn’t answer. He sagged, staring at the Antinium as they filled the streets, fighting. He whispered, so softly only Selys and Krshia heard it.
This was how it ended. In the last hours of the night, Erin fought outside of her inn, the undead and the Antinium mixing into a blur. She stared up at Skinner and saw death and horrors in his face. She raised a kitchen knife, a tiny weapon, and vowed in her heart to hurt him before she died.
This was how it started.
Skinner grabbed for Erin. She ducked and stabbed at his arm. Her blade cut a few inches into his dead skin and stopped.
Erin rolled out of the way as the hand came back. It still caught her a glancing blow but the red spot didn’t touch her, didn’t steal her skin. It had taken two Workers already. Their carapaces had been torn away by Skinner and tossed to the ground.
A Worker caught Skinner’s hand. He knocked the Antinium away, but three more gripped his arm and stopped it. Skinner raised his other hand and Erin threw the jar of acid.
The acid splashed on his face and he shrieked. The sound went through her bones. She covered her ears as he clawed at his face and the Antinium did likewise.
But something moved despite the ear-piercing sound. Toren ran out of the darkness and leapt towards Skinner, dagger in hand. He leapt onto Skinner’s face and began stabbing wildly. Skinner tried to shake his head, but he had no neck.
His eyes. Those crimson eyes. Toren clung to Skinner’s face, wriggling into the sunken sockets, tearing and cutting with his dagger as the giant creature tried to shake him free.
Again Skinner screamed, and this time ripped Toren away with a huge chunk of flesh. He hurled the skeleton aside.
Toren fell away with something red in his hands. But no blood. Skinner howled and struck after him with a massive hand, but Toren was already gone.
One of Skinner’s eyes was gone. In its place, a huge crater of dead flesh was all that remained. Dead flesh.
It was as if all Skinner was made of was just flesh. There had to be bones or muscle or—or organs. But all Erin had seen as the Workers and she had carved bits out of the creature was skin.
Something struck her from behind. She turned and a zombie bared rotten teeth, biting at her. Erin struck at him with her knife, but it wasn’t good for killing something already dead. It glanced off bone and she screamed as the zombie grabbed towards her face.
A blue hand reached out and pulled the zombie backwards. A ghoul—a long-dead human with blue, moldy skin—pulled the zombie back.
Erin blinked. The ghoul tore off the zombie’s head and then rushed at another skeleton. The group of the undead tore into their allies.
Above her, Skinner was still clutching at his face. He was feeling at his eyes, as if he couldn’t tell one was missing. As his fingers touched the gaps he shrieked again. His ruined face turned towards Erin.
Skinner swung at Erin and she dove to one side. She scrambled to her feet and threw the knife in her right hand. It caught a ghoul in the eye and it fell back as a Worker dug into Skinner’s side. The Antinium dug at the hard, dead flesh like it dug at dirt, pulling away huge layers and pieces as Skinner thrashed and tried to reach the Worker. But they were too close, too hard to grab at.
More undead ran around Skinner, fighting Erin and the Antinium. But something was happening. Half of them seemed to be trying to kill the other half. Even as Erin watched, two skeletons bore down a ghoul that had a sword stuck through its belly.
Erin seized the sword and dragged it out. It was heavy and unwieldly in her hands, but she hacked at Skinner’s arm with it. Bits of dead flesh flew everywhere.
Skinner backed up. He was trying to shield his body, but the Workers were everywhere, and the human girl kept coming.
It shouldn’t be like this. She should be cowering. The Antinium should be dead. And his own undead had turned against him. It was all wrong.
But the girl ignored his fear. The dead had no minds to torment with horrors, and the Antinium were fearless. Skinner could only crush them, struggling to catch the Workers and undead.
He was just a slothful, hulking thing. He had no legs. He didn’t even have good hand-to-eye coordination. It was only his hands, his flaying touch and his aura of fear that were the threats. And Erin had come far. She refused to run.
She plunged the sword into Skinner’s arm. Deep. Nearly to the hilt. She hit something—something besides dead flesh. Skinner howled in agony.
He backhanded her and Erin flew. She actually felt herself lift into the air before she hit the ground so hard she forgot everything for a second. When she looked up, he was raising a hand to squash her.
She rolled out of the way just in time. The hand smashed down and she grabbed at it. There was no time to think. As the arm lifted again and Skinner searched for Erin she leapt onto its head. The grotesque layers of flesh cushioned her and she tried not to vomit.
She climbed the dead flesh, feeling it, slick and horribly cold beneath her skin. Erin raised the sword and stabbed down into Skinner’s head, clumsily sawing and hacking with the blade.
Skinner shrieked again. And only now, touching him, did Erin feel the vibrations coming from inside. She pushed the sword deeper and then cut again, levering out a square of compacted skin.
Below her, zombies began trying to pull her off. They crowded around her, but the Workers shoved them back, fighting them. Erin desperately clung to Skinner and he writhed, sawing away like she was cutting wood. She had already given herself two deep slices, but she desperately kept cutting away.
The friendly undead were fighting with the Workers now, and half were climbing Skinner as well, tearing into the large creature like she was.
Erin had just pulled another socket of flesh away when she saw something change. Instead of the putrid white and yellowed skin something else shone in the moonlight.
Something red. Erin stopped. The piece of dead skin peeled away and something raised its head within Skinner’s body and stared at her. She stared back.
It was all she could say. Something inside of Skinner raised its head around the skin Erin had chopped away. Something wet and serpentine.
A dark red, eyeless face swung towards Erin. A segmented head with two long…antennae made of flesh seemed dropped down towards her, and a fleshy mouth opened, revealing sharp teeth.
Skinner—the real Skinner, the thing hiding in the puppet of dead flesh—slithered out of the ruined shell. Two long, whip-like tendrils followed the main body, long and thick roots of corded flesh. They were Skinner’s ‘hands’, and they were still coated with the black remains of the Worker he had seized.
Erin let go of the ruined flesh of Skinner’s face just in time. The red worm-thing lashed out, its tendrils scything through the air so fast she heard the whistling sound they made. They caught a ghoul and cut clean through his torso, shattering bone, breaking flesh.
A Worker caught Erin as she fell. Bird. He pulled Erin away, handing her a knife from one of his hands. Skinner was screaming again, the wormlike parasite emitting that high-pitched wail, only twice as loud now it was out in the open.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god. What is that?”
Bird shook his head as Skinner’s blind head moved back and forth, the fleshy antennas twisting around.
“I do not know. It is dangerous. Please. Stay back—”
A tendril shot towards Bird. He choked and Erin screamed as the tendril lanced through the Antinium’s side. She cut at the tendril with the knife and Skinner screamed again and pulled the tendril out. Bird collapsed on the ground, bleeding.
Erin threw the knife. It spun towards Skinner’s head, but the red worm dodged the spinning projectile effortlessly.
Two skeletons ran at Skinner. The red worm-creature hissed and lashed out with its tendril arms, scattering both skeletons. He cast around again, and struck like a cobra.
A zombie was lifted into the air and his skin was removed in a sickening ripping sound. Only Erin was sure that was one of Skinner’s own monsters. The crimson worm slithered back to the layers of skin and pasted the zombie’s flesh over part of the broken skin, as if he was repairing a papier-mâché doll.
“Do not allow it to rebuild. Kill it now.”
Erin couldn’t tell which Worker spoke. But they all ran towards Skinner at once, slashing at the huge segmented creature.
Skinner whirled around, and its tail sent several Antinium sprawling. It seized two Antinium with its tendrils and ripped parts of their bodies away. It was impossibly fast now, and it stabbed two more Antinium as they ran at it.
Erin was on her feet. She scrambled for something to throw. Acid. She had to have another jar of acid in the inn. She ran towards it, but Skinner slithered forwards and blocked the entrance. It lowered its head and bit at her.
She ducked. She felt the smooth, sticky body of Skinner just above her, and then it rammed her. She hit the ground, stunned as Skinner raised its head. It regarded her, two antennae probing at her face, and then raised a fleshy tendril to spear her.
Erin couldn’t scream. She just looked at Skinner and held her breath. Waiting. The fleshy appendage rose and then scythed downwards towards her neck.
Death came for Erin, and stopped halfway. A sword cut through the air; a pair of silvery blades. They flashed together and Skinner reeled back, screaming. Yellow, pus-like blood oozed from the cuts, splashing onto Erin as she stared. She looked around.
Someone was standing over her. An Antinium. But not like any she had ever seen. He had only two arms, and a slim, graceful body, not like a Worker’s or a Soldier’s. In his arms he held two swords she recognized, and he faced Skinner calmly as the red creature writhed and screamed.
Around Erin, black shapes suddenly appeared out of the darkness, grabbing the undead and tearing them apart. Large Soldier Antinium. They ran after Skinner as the red worm retreated. But that wasn’t what captured Erin’s gaze.
She was still staring at the Antinium who had saved her. He was a tall fellow. Some kind of Soldier? A new kind? But—
“Are you unharmed, Miss Solstice?”
For a moment the voice was just a memory. And then Erin’s eyes widened. Memory. The Antinium tilted his head as he regarded her. Her heart froze in her chest, and then began to pound wildly.
It couldn’t be. It was impossible. But the voice was the same. The way he talked was the same. His body was different but he—
“You have fallen. Allow me to help you up.”
She blinked. He reached down and pulled her to her feet. She clutched at him, ignoring the foul-smelling pus clinging to her clothing, Skinner and the undead. Everything.
“You—you can’t be. I saw you dead. You were dead.”
Her eyes were filling with tears. Part of her was screaming something wordless. Erin reached out and her fingers shook as she touched the Antinium’s black carapace.
He smiled. Klbkch of the Free Antinium sheathed his swords and bowed to her.
“Have you not heard it said? The Antinium never truly die.”
The world stopped. The dark night ceased. Light filled Erin’s head. She staggered, and Klbkch caught her with one arm. She felt his cold, hard chitin on her skin. Smooth, hard carapace. An alien’s touch. An unnatural feeling.
But she looked up and saw a friend.
Erin stared at Klbkch. He turned his head and raised his swords. A ghoul ran onto one of his blades while the other beheaded it. He turned to Erin.
“It is not safe here. Remain behind me, Erin.”
She was unable to speak or even form a thought. Klbkch seemed to gesture, and two Soldiers appeared out of the darkness. They surrounded her while Klbkch gave orders.
“Harry the undead. Pursue that creature.”
Erin stared as the Soldiers ran towards Skinner. The red, fleshy slithering thing was trying to retreat towards its dead skin, but the Soldiers weren’t letting it. They tried to corner Skinner, but it seized a Soldier, ripped his carapace away, and slithered away from them, down a hill.
Skinner screamed in fury as he ran. And he was running, slithering down the incline, a freakish worm-creature from the depths of hell. But he was running, nevertheless. His body of skin was gone. The Soldiers chased him, pounding through the grass.
But they were too slow. Too slow. They’d wounded Skinner. One of his ‘hands’ was missing thanks to Klbkch’s blades, and he was bleeding and torn in a dozen place.s But he was too fast. Without his body he would get away.
“Do not slow! The creature must not be allowed to retreat into the Ruins!”
Klbkch’s thundered at his Soldiers. But even Erin could see it. Skinner was too quick. And he was—it was—
The worm laughed. It let out a ghastly, staccato chittering that made Erin’s skin crawl. It looked back as it wriggled away, as if taunting Erin and the others. It laughed, mocking them.
Erin gritted her teeth. If she had a weapon or something to throw she would have—but it was too far away. All she could hear was that taunting, echoing laughter. That high-pitched sound. She wanted to cover her ears, but they were already splashed by blood and worse. It was so loud, so repetitive. In fact—
“What’s that sound?”
Klbkch cocked his head. Erin looked around. She heard something else, another high-pitched noise, echoing across the plains. It wasn’t coming from Skinner. It was something else.
“That sound. What is it?”
It was faint, but growing louder. It was a high-pitched sound, countless…countless voices, ululating and screaming wildly.
Erin knew. She breathed the word.
They streamed down one of the hills, countless small shapes lit by torchlight. Light glinted off their weapons and ragtag armor as they ran towards Skinner, faster than it could run. It halted, rearing up onto its serpentine body, seemingly unsure of what to do.
As the Goblins drew nearer Skinner lanced out. He skewered two Goblins and ripped the skin from another, but they were so many.
One of Skinner’s red, glowing eyes still shone in the carcass of flesh. Erin could feel the fear. But the Antinium ignored fear. And Goblins—Goblins were different. Goblins were always afraid.
They swarmed the massive worm, ducking under him as he lashed out with his tendril arms. He bit and screeched, but the Goblins screamed too, louder than him. Skinner tried to wriggle away, but he was caught.
Erin breathed the words incredulously. But the Goblins came on, little green demons with eyes that flashed red in the moonlight. They were just pests. The lowest kind of monster.
But they were quick. And they were everywhere. For each one Skinner killed, five more were stabbing, biting.
They were no match for Skinner. No match for the undead. But they killed the wounded, attacked from behind.
They were cowards, like that.
Skinner lashed out. He tore left and right, a friend, a worm, a parasite living in dead flesh. He had come out of the Ruins, a horror from the past. But the Goblins stabbed and stabbed, and his vulnerable skin bled.
He collapsed, born down by the weight of countless small bodies. Skinner thrashed and screamed, but the Goblins drowned out even that. They stabbed, bit, burned him with acid and with fire.
Small jars of acid. They smashed it on Skinner’s side, leaping away as his red skin smoked and he writhed in agony. And fire—a flaming creature of fire was dancing round Skinner, burning him, making the red worm twist as the flames seared his unprotected flesh.
Rags. From her spot on the hill, Erin saw a small Goblin controlling the fire. Her hands glowed red and her face and body were illuminated by the flame as the spell struck Skinner again and again.
She raised a sword that shone like gold even though it was bronze and stabbed him in the head. Skinner screamed then, and the dead howled with him. Then, slowly, he collapsed.
Skinner, the guardian of the Ruins of Liscor, the death of adventurers and stealer of flesh, opened his mouth to howl one last time. Rags tossed a jar of acid into his mouth and he convulsed. She pushed the sword deeper and his body jerked. Once. Twice.
And then he was dead.
The dead stood still, staring at Skinner’s remains. And then slowly, they moved. Those closest to the living fought on and died. But the others walked away. Back, out of the city, away from the inn. Towards the ruins, down the long dark corridors, into dark places. Back towards the place they had died and risen. Back towards their lair.
It was over.
Klbkch of the Free Antinium, Prognugator of the Hive and Senior Guardsman of Liscor sheathed his blades as the last zombie stopped moving. He stared around the battlefield quietly, making sure all the corpses lay still.
Erin stood next to him, not saying anything either. Just looking.
Death. She saw it everywhere. The corpses, the pieces and blood that stained the ground—
And the friends.
Knight lay against the doorway of her inn, arms stills spread outwards. Other Workers lay around him, still locked in battle. More still dotted the hill. Erin’s eyes picked out each one as the Soldiers collected the bodies.
So much death. So much grief and pain. But at least one small part of the world was right.
Erin stared at Klbkch. Her hands shook, but he took it in hers. His hands were cool and smooth. An alien’s hands. A friend’s hands.
He gestured at her inn, still standing. Light played across its worn exterior, but it was home. Home. A place to rest. A place to be safe.
A place to protect. And after so long, her first guest had come back again.
Tears made Erin’s eyes blurry. But Klbkch just clicked his mandibles together and raised them. The closest thing he could come towards a smile.
They walked to the door in silence. Erin stared down at Knight, and gently folded the Antinium’s arms across his chest. Klbkch watched her do it, and saw her wipe away the tears.
Erin stood in the doorway and faced Klbkch. He looked at her, and saw a girl. Perhaps a woman by some standards, but someone young. Her clothes were covered in blood and gore, and she was cut in places, bruised in others. She had been aged by violence and death and loss. But something still shone in them. Something bright.
There were many things Klbkch could have said. But none were quite right, quite fitting. So he said the only thing he could.
“Greetings, Erin Solstice. May I come in?”
And she smiled and wept and for a moment—
Everything was right again.