“What about this room?”
Sostrom shook his head as he walked out of another dark room, his staff glowing. Calruz stomped out behind him, growling irately. Ceria tried not to scowl at her friend, but it was hard.
“Not a thing?”
“You can see for yourself.”
Sostrom pointed into the dark room and shook his head. He traced a line of pallid blue light, too pale to be natural, in a cone around the worn stone. Smooth stone, possibly painted once, but fragmented away. Dust and tiny insects skittered away from the light, and it fell upon a marvel of architecture.
Deep, carved passages, even the rough, broken reliefs of what had once perhaps been complex statues. Now—smashed and rotted with age. A marvel, still, to [Builders] looking for decent stone or perhaps [Historians].
Nothing for adventurers. Faceless, eyeless statues revealed only gaping wounds where what might have once been valuable metal or gems. Someone had been here first—and if there had been books, cloth, aught at all beyond the bleak stone and rubbish strewn about—even wood had crumbled to dust. Sostrom’s staff glowed brighter as he set it down with a sigh.
“Whatever was in here, it wasn’t a treasury. And now it’s long gone.”
Ceria cursed and kicked at the ground. Olesm peered over her shoulder into the empty room. He shuddered as a handful of crypt beetles scurried away. But then he looked peeved.
“I don’t get it. This is the lowest level, isn’t it? And you said there would be treasure—”
“I did. But who knew this place would be so cursed big?”
“But the treasure’s around here somewhere, right?”
Ceria growled at Olesm, and he backed away, claws raised. Gerial put a hand on her shoulder, but she sensed the tension in it too.
“Most likely. We just haven’t found it yet, and we’re all tired. Why don’t you go with Sostrom and check those rooms out?”
Sostrom made a face, but walked with Olesm down the dark corridor to peer into another room.
Ceria made a face and patted Gerial’s hand with hers. She turned, lowering her voice. She felt embarrassed—she was the veteran here. She couldn’t act like a child.
“I know how you’re feeling. But he’s trying to be helpful.”
“Plus, this is his first adventure, and he thinks this is going to be Chalence and we’ll be famous like all the greenhorns. I know. It’s just—”
It was later. In fact, it was two hours later. The last of the undead had been killed and their remains incinerated with a spell, and those adventurers wounded too badly to move had been sent back to the burial room. A few more had remained as guards in case more undead popped up, but the rest had been searching nonstop since then.
Searching for treasure.
“Any word from Gregor’s team?”
They’d split into two groups, one going down the left passage, the other the right. Of all the teams, Calruz’s hadn’t lost any adventurers besides Hunt in either battle, so they’d taken a few of Menes’ mages while the other adventurers under Gregor had gone left. Yvlon had remained with the wounded, and they were keeping up a stream of communications with several adventurers who ran messages across the vast ruins.
“We just had one come by. There he is—”
Gerial led Ceria towards a panting adventurer drinking water and talking to Calruz.
“Any word on the other team’s progress?”
The man made a face.
“Nothing substantial. They’ve come across more empty rooms, same as you. Dozens upon dozens of them. It’s a warren down here, I swear. There’s some kind of urns in one room—just filled with dust, whatever’s in them is long gone. Old scrolls in another, none magical. They found a few undead, but nothing else. How’s it going over here?”
“Uneventful. We killed a few zombies, but they’re mostly cleared out here as well. Has Yvlon seen anything?”
“Nothing. I’ll get back to Gregor’s side of things if you’ve nothing else.”
Calruz grunted irritably, and the man took off. Gerial shook his head as he watched the man jog slowly off into the darkness, a ball of light following him.
“This is where a Runner would have come in handy.”
“This is where a hundred Runners would come in handy. They could search this place faster than we can.”
Ceria kicked at a wall. She knew she was frustrated, but she was exhausted from fighting and irritable from countless annoying questions from a certain Drake. Calruz had suggested quite sensibly—which was surprising—that instead of splitting up, their team should move together closely to avoid unpleasant surprises. The need to check each room and hallway for traps or ambushes had saved them a few nasty surprises, but it meant they were moving at a snail’s pace.
The fire of battle had left all the adventurers tired, it was true, but more than even that made the searching arduous. The ruins had become silent once more, and somehow, without the presence of the undead, it made everything feel more ominous.
Ceria kept expecting another zombie to pop out of the shadows, and one or two had—but the feeling hadn’t disappeared. The worst thing about an ambush is that you didn’t stop worrying after you survived one. Rather, you kept worrying it was only the first.
Gerial was probably feeling the same, but he still tried to be reasonable.
“You know he’s never done this before. And he helped us get through that fight a lot more easily than we would have otherwise. Just don’t snap at him.”
“I know. I know. But he keeps asking and—what if he’s right?”
Gerial, Ceria, and Calruz all fell silent. Treasure. They were all certain—had been certain—it was down here. You didn’t have ruins with this many guardians without treasure of some kind. But what if the valuable goods had been knowledge or something more intangible?
What if the dead had just congregated here because this was a glorified graveyard, and the only goods were the few bags of gold and jewels they’d recovered from the dead adventurers? It was a good haul for a single team, but wouldn’t even recoup the losses of their expedition.
Ruins could potentially be sources of amazing wealth, like the Ruins of Albez where magical items were still hidden under the rubble. But sometimes ruins were just old.
You heard stories, sometimes, of adventurers who would fight their way down to the lowest part of a dungeon, sacrificing all they had, losing friends and bleeding each step of the way to discover they’d cleared out an ancient storage house for grain or the living quarters of some subterranean people. That was the nightmare that hid behind the dream, and Ceria and the other adventurers were living it right now.
“We’ve still got a ways to go. There’s plenty of chances the vault is just ahead.”
Ceria nodded, and Calruz grunted. She sighed and was about to stand up when she heard pounding feet.
All three adventurers grabbed at their weapons, and the others down the hall turned, ready for battle. But the woman who ran towards them was beaming and waving her arms.
“We’ve found something! Possibly a treasury!”
The shock that ran through Ceria was electric. She smiled, and the other adventurers whooped and cheered.
“Where is it? How big?”
“It’s right at the other end of the ruins, down the other passage.”
The woman pointed back as she explained.
“We’re not sure it’s a treasury, but it has every sign of—they’ve found a huge pair of double doors. Sealed. Magical runes of warding on the front, and Menes says some of them look like warnings.”
Ceria frowned at the same time Gerial did.
“Wait a second. That’s doesn’t sound like a vault to me. It sounds like a guarded treasury, the kind that has the nastiest monster waiting right behind the door. You didn’t try to open it, right?”
The adventurer rolled her eyes.
“We’re not idiots. Menes and the other mages are already setting up traps near the entrance with Cervial’s team. Yvlon wants a hallway full of traps before we crack the seal.”
She grinned. Like Ceria, she had a streak of blood wiped from one of her nostrils down her chin, and it was cracked and dried like the healed bite wound that had ripped across one shoulder. But she was alive. This—this was adventuring.
“Cervial’s group even has two bear traps. Don’t know how they carried them all the way down, but they’re setting them up. Even if what’s inside is as big as an Ogre, it won’t be able to ignore that.”
Ceria had seen the iron and occasionally steel contraptions used to hunt bears and larger monsters. Not just black bears or brown ones, but Mossbears. Mothbears too. They were nasty, vicious, and she’d nearly stepped in one more than once in her homeland. Damn [Trappers]. She shuddered, but it was a fine weapon to use on a monster.
“As soon as you lot finish on your side, we’ll seal off this passage with a spell and open those doors. Yvlon is going to join us, and we’ll see exactly what’s inside. Menes says the runes might be warning of the undead guardians, and if so, we just killed them all!”
“Or more could be inside. Wait for us.”
Calruz was, again, the surprising voice of caution, but he sounded eager. The woman nodded impatiently.
“We’ll have so many damn traps and fall-back points we’ll kill a thousand of ‘em once we’re set up. How soon until you’ll be done here? Gregor wants to know.”
Ceria and Gerial looked at Calruz. He shrugged.
“We’ve found nothing of worth so far. Give us a few minutes to gather everyone, and we’ll follow you.”
“Well, hurry up. Gregor wants to crack the seal this instant, and the other two Captains are the only thing holding him back.”
The woman grinned and dashed back as the other adventurers began to chatter excitedly. Ceria and Gerial exchanged a look.
“Warded doors? That’s right out of one of those classic stories you hear about. Odds are three-to-one it’s trapped or something nasty is lurking inside. Gregor better not open them before we get there.”
“He’s no idiot. But Yvlon has the right idea. Regardless of what’s in there, we can turn the passageway into a killing field. Even ten Crypt Lords wouldn’t survive a fully spelled passage if we combine resources.”
“Hey, hey everyone!”
That voice came from behind the others. They turned to see Olesm running towards them, beaming in excitement.
“Olesm? You’ll never believe this, but we found something! A vault, sealed by magic, over on the other side of the ruins.”
The Drake skidded to a stop and gaped. He grinned.
“Really? That’s great news! But we found something as well!”
Ceria exchanged a glance with the others, but they followed as Olesm eagerly led the way back down the corridor. They stopped at a huge opening in the wall, possibly where doors had once stood. Olesm pointed in.
“Look—but be quiet!”
He pointed, and Ceria gasped as she stared into a massive room. It was some kind of crypt. Well, the whole ruins were a giant crypt. Only this was the crypt inside of the crypt. What that all meant was—
Hundreds of them. Each one was stone, spaced apart evenly in a room that was so large it made Ceria feel as if she was standing outside again. She could barely see the far wall. The only light in the massive room came from a single staff. Sostrom was just inside, staring at one of the walls.
“This is the place where all the dead go.”
Olesm whispered loudly in Ceria’s ear.
“It must have countless tombs, probably with a lot of important people! And probably treasure if they bury their dead with their valuables like we Drakes do!”
That was true, but Ceria stared at the tombs and had another thought.
“They could all be undead in those graves. There’s no telling how many of them reanimated with the Crypt Lords about.”
The other adventurers crowding behind her groaned and grabbed at their weapons. Gerial shushed them while Olesm whispered.
“That’s what Sostrom said. But he found something else in there as well.”
He pointed, and Ceria saw the mage looking up at something on the wall. She nudged Calruz, and he nodded, so Ceria slowly approached with the others.
Sostrom jumped when Ceria put her hand on his shoulder. He whirled, staff raised, and relaxed when he saw her face. He bent down and whispered to her.
“Ceria. You nearly scared the piss out of me.”
“Better that than you screaming. What are you looking at?”
Carefully, Sostrom edged to one side and raised his staff higher so Ceria could get a look at what he was seeing. The blue-white light illuminated a dark stone wall, but etched into it deeply were…
“Something like that. It’s not magic—at least, no runes I’ve seen before. But what language it is I can’t tell for the life of me.”
Ceria stared up at the strange words, if words they were. She was familiar with several written languages and she had travelled far and wide, but for all that, she had never seen this style of writing. She beckoned, and Olesm softly padded over with the other adventurers following.
“Olesm. What do you make of this?”
The Drake frowned up at the wall as Gerial turned, watching the rest of the room for movement. There was none, but the countless tombs disturbed him greatly. He could just imagine something creeping up on them while they studied the wall, and so he faced the other way while his friends conferred.
“I’m not sure. It looks like some kind of message, but is it a memorial or something else? A memorandum? The script…looks familiar.”
Ceria peered at him. Her first instinct was to assume it was Drake writing. Everyone spoke the same language, obviously, but the Drakes and other species had different written languages.
“You can’t read it? Does it look like something your people might have written long ago?”
“It—it could be something written in the past. Like I said, it’s vaguely similar. But I never knew if we changed written languages. I certainly can’t read it.”
“Is this important?”
Gerial winced as Calruz’s voice echoed through the room. The Minotaur wasn’t worried about waking anything. He folded his arms as he stared at the carvings.
“It could be nothing. But it might give us a clue as to what this place was or what it contains.”
“But you cannot read it.”
Gerial twisted his head and stared at Ceria in disbelief. She was raising her wand, and the color had changed to a light purple as she illuminated the wall.
“A little spell I picked up when I was at Wistram. [Translate].”
Sostrom whistled softly.
“Handy? For what? No one speaks a different language. It’s only good for reading books.”
Sostrom hesitated, reluctant to contradict his crush. But Calruz just buffeted her with one arm. Gently, for him.
“Fool. Drathians have their own language. And to read any tome, no matter how old, is a valuable ability. You uncultured Izrilians.”
Ceria nodded absently as the words glowed faintly with purple light. She frowned, concentrating as she spoke.
“It is. But I’d prefer a real translator even so. The spell takes time, and it doesn’t work unless there are enough words to read at once. And I often get a muddled message, sometimes nonsensical depending on the content. There are better spells. But it should…oh.”
None of the other adventures saw anything change, but Ceria’s pulse began to quicken as the words on the wall—
They didn’t exactly change, but somehow she understood them. And she could put them into her own language. She turned to Olesm, eyes wide.
“I really don’t think this is a memorial for the dead.”
“What? What does it say?”
“I—it’s disturbing. Really disturbing.”
Calruz snorted. He glanced at Ceria’s face and barked.
“We are not mewling Human children. Speak.”
The half-Elf hesitated, and then she cleared her throat and began to read haltingly. The words she read were almost like a song and had the same cadence, the same innocent rhymes. Her words were swallowed by the darkness of the massive room.
He’ll eat your tails and tear off your skin!
He’ll pluck out your eyeballs and devour your kin!
Run while you can!
Your flesh will be taken with a touch of his hand!
Hide in the darkness, hide in the light.
Fighting is useless; Skinner is fright.
He takes our scales and hides our bones
And makes this place our very last home.
Skinner, Skinner, never open his door.
Or soon your bones will lie on this floor.”
When she finished, there was only silence. Then one of the other adventurers laughed nervously, and someone else joined him. Their laughter echoed in the vast room and then faded away uneasily.
Gerial didn’t laugh. Neither did Calruz or most of the other adventurers. Ceria’s face was as pale as the light of her wand, and the glowing words faded again, letting darkness creep back.
Gerial’s voice cracked a bit as he spoke.
“That was disturbing, to say the least. But what does that mean?”
Sostrom hesitated as he stared at the words on the wall.
“It sounds…almost like a nursery rhyme. But not one I’d ever tell any child of mine.”
“I’ve never heard that…that kind of song before. Who in their right minds would write such a thing?”
“It was a warning.”
Ceria whispered the words, and Calruz nodded. The Minotaur’s hand was twitching towards the handle of his battleaxe, and that made Gerial even more nervous. He tried to laugh it off, but couldn’t bring himself to smile.
“A warning? Who writes their warnings so—so cryptically?”
“Maybe someone who’s afraid of speaking plainly. Or—or—this isn’t a warning. Maybe it is a nursery rhyme or just dark humor. Or an old myth. The kind you write of something that’s been around forever.”
Sostrom shook his head.
“Who is this ‘Skinner’, then? An undead? Or a [Necromancer] of some kind? Whoever wrote this message seems to fear him.”
“Perhaps he’s the reason this place exists.”
Olesm frowned as he looked around the room. The other adventurers blinked at him, and he pointed to the tombs.
“This is clearly a burial place, but that’s odd because we Drakes don’t tend to bury our dead in stone. Too expensive. We usually cremate them. But that line…”
He stared upwards and murmured.
“‘He takes our scales and hides our bones…’. That can only be my people who wrote this. So—so they built coffins to hide their flesh from him? But is he locked away with the dead down here? That would make no sense. Why not burn the bodies? Surely they’d want to keep him as far away as possible.”
Sostrom raised a finger.
“A thought. Was this a trap for this Skinner creature or—or is he the guardian of this place?”
More silence. Gerial shivered. He felt cold, the uneasy chill of fear he’d felt on the most dangerous of missions. He opened his mouth, but another adventurer raised his voice.
“What the hell is a Skinner? Some kind of special undead?”
“We don’t know. But odds are that is what’s hiding behind that door Gregor and the others found. We should go back and let them know we’re in for a fight.”
“Agreed. We will hold off opening them until we are prepared. And perhaps—”
“—Perhaps we should send word to the surface. Ask if any know of this ‘Skinner’ creature.”
Ceria nodded. She felt relieved that he was the voice of reason, for once. She turned.
“Let’s hurry before Gregor makes a mistake. I’ll go f—”
It happened suddenly. Ceria screamed and dropped her wand, her hands flying to her head. Gerial drew his sword, but other adventurers around him were shouting or falling too. He looked around wildly, but nothing was attacking them.
Half of the Horns of Hammerad clutched at their heads. Ceria fell to her knees. Her [Dangersense] was going off, but it wasn’t like the ambush. That had been a premonition. Fear, foreboding, the knowledge of danger suddenly chilling her to her core.
This was terror. This was death. She heard howling in her mind and knew she would die if she stayed. She—
Calruz’s massive hand shook her back into reality. She looked up at him. He yanked her upright with one hand.
“On your feet! What’s happening?”
“My [Dangersense]—something just happened! The doors—the vault—”
“They opened them? The fools!”
He began to storm down the corridor, but Ceria grabbed at him.
“Calruz! This isn’t like before. This—my Skill is telling me something bad has happened. Really bad. Far worse than the ambush.”
He stared at her, only partly comprehending. He couldn’t feel the certainty, the absolute terror in her head and heart. Olesm stumbled towards them, sword drawn.
“We are in danger. Extreme danger. We have to retreat.”
Olesm shakily wiped at his mouth. He’d thrown up. His tail thrashed wildly as he stared around in the darkness.
“I’ve never felt anything like that. When I was a child and the Necromancer attacked ten years back—that was the closest. But this is different. I am afraid, and [Dangersense] doesn’t convey fear. We have to go.”
The Necromancer himself? Gerial’s face turned paler. Calruz looked at Olesm a full five seconds before he turned.
“Let us regroup with Yvlon. With speed. [Warriors], form up, and mages, follow close behind. Prepare for—”
He broke off as Ceria grabbed his arm. The Minotaur stared down at her as she looked around.
“Shh! Quiet. Do you hear that?”
The other adventurers fell silent. It took them only a second to make out what Ceria had heard. In the distance, a high pitched sound. No—many sounds, all joined together.
It was faint, but echoed down the long corridor into this room. And as if that had started something, they heard another noise.
Cracking. Dull thumps sounding from behind them. Muffled moans and hissing. The adventurers turned.
Gerial’s hand turned white on his sword. He stared at the coffins in the room as, suddenly, noises began to echo from within.
“Oh…Flowers of Izril. Five Families preserve us.”
Half of the lids of the stone coffins shifted or crashed to the ground as their occupants suddenly began to move. The adventurers’ light didn’t illuminate all of the room, but they saw things crawling out of their stone beds, jerking upright, faint pinpricks of crimson light flaring into existence as they stared at the living.
Their moans and ghastly sounds filled the huge room, echoing, growing louder—then they screamed as they got up and began running towards the living.
Gerial wasn’t sure who said it. It could have been him. But every adventurer in the room was suddenly running for the door as hundreds of undead began pouring towards them.
Calruz caught Sostrom as the mage ran out the double doors. He pointed to the corridor.
“Can you slow them down?”
The bald man hesitated. He raised his staff.
“I—I could cast [Sticky Ground]. The webbing would slow them down, but this many—”
“Cast it! The rest of you, follow me!”
Calruz started running before the words had even left his mouth. Sostrom desperately raised his staff and cast the spell as the other adventurers sprinted down the corridor after Calruz. Suddenly, the lower levels were filled with sounds again, the clash of metal, surprised shouts from up ahead.
Sostrom caught up with Ceria, his longer legs pumping madly as he ran with his staff raised before him. He shouted wildly.
“We don’t have much time! Only a few minutes before they catch up!”
No one else said a word. They pounded down the corridor, and when they rounded a corridor, they saw a group of armed adventurers, around fourteen of them, led by Yvlon. They raised their weapons but lowered them when they saw who it was.
Yvlon waved the Minotaur over as he ran towards her. Her sword was drawn, and she had formed up her group into a solid line blocking the corridor down which Gregor had gone.
Calruz paused and pointed. Ceria and Gerial fell into line with the other adventurers, covering the way they had come as the Minotaur talked with Yvlon.
“What’s happening? Where are Gregor and the others?”
She shook her head.
“Last I heard, they were up ahead, trapping the corridor. But then our [Dangersense] went off and—the door. They must have opened it.”
“They didn’t say they were going to open the vault. I made it clear to Gregor he had to wait until we regrouped. So why…?”
“Have you sent anyone down there?”
Calruz looked down the dark corridor, and Yvlon nodded.
“Two people. I told them to run back the instant they saw something. They—they never came back.”
She looked pale.
“The screaming ended a few minutes ago. I was waiting for you to get back. What did you find? Anything?”
“A message. Too long to explain. Know that we most likely face Skinner, the guardian of this place. He—steals skin.”
The other adventurer shifted restlessly. Calruz nodded.
“So it was written. And his awakening woke the other undead too. There is a horde approaching from behind.”
The adventurers groaned as Yvlon frowned.
“Right then, it seems we have a choice. We can’t fight another battle here, not understrength. We should retreat.”
Calruz shook his head.
“What of Gregor and the others?”
Her face was grim.
“I think we should fear the worst, don’t you?”
Calruz gritted his teeth.
“I do not want to run without seeing the enemy’s face.”
“It’ll be the last thing you see if we stay here. If we get caught in a pincer attack from both sides—”
The Minotaur ignored Ceria. He gestured to the corridor back where they had come.
“Set spells to slow the enemy advance. I will go to see if there are any living before we fall back. If we leave our comrades—”
Both Captains looked over. Ceria was cupping one pointed ear with her hand. She raised her wand shakily and pointed into the darkness ahead.
“I hear something. Something is coming this way.”
They fell silent and then heard it too. Pounding footsteps.
Sostrom raised his staff, but hesitated as he saw an adventurer run out of the darkness. It was one man, someone he recognized. A warrior from Kyrial’s Vanguard. The man wasn’t carrying a weapon, though. He was wild-eyed and running as if chased by a legion of monsters. But nothing was following him.
Gerial stood up and caught the man as he ran towards the adventurers. He would have bowled over their front line, and he tried to dodge around Gerial as the other man grabbed at him.
“Hey, what’s happening? Where are Gregor and—”
The other warrior struck at Gerial with a gauntleted fist. Gerial stumbled back, and the man tried to run past him. Calruz seized him and pinned him against a wall.
“You! How dare you?”
The man stared up wild-eyed into Calruz’s furious gaze. He didn’t even seem to see the Minotaur. He twisted wildly in Calruz’s grip, fighting to be free.
“Let go of me! Let go! I have to get away!”
Yvlon stared down the corridor, staring into the darkness.
“What happened? What was behind those doors?”
The man spat and fought against Calruz, futilely kicking to be free. He seemed barely conscious as he babbled almost incoherently.
“Run, run! It’s right behind us!”
Calruz gripped the man even harder until Gerial could swear he heard the other man’s bones creak. The Minotaur raised his voice.
“Why were the doors opened? Gregor was told to wait! Who—”
“We didn’t open the doors!”
The Minotaur stared at the man. He was panting, sweating, his eyes darting around as he strained towards freedom.
“If you did not open them, then who—”
“It opened them from inside!”
The man shouted it in the corridor, his voice echoing as he screamed.
“It opened them, and then it took Gregor and the others! Let me go. It is coming. We must run, all of us. Can’t you feel it? It is coming!”
“Who is? Skinner? Is it an undead?”
But the man refused to reply. His foot came up, and he kicked Calruz hard enough to make the Minotaur grunt and stumble back. He dropped the warrior, and the man scrambled to his feet. He burst through the ranks of adventurers, dashing down the corridor, his footsteps echoing and fading as he fled towards the stairs.
Calruz cursed as he rubbed at his stomach. He looked at Yvlon, and the two Captains paused.
“They’re dead. But what caught them? This Skinner—”
“We should retreat. Let us gather the wounded and go. If we have the [Mages] cast spells to delay pursuit—”
Yvlon nodded. She turned and raised her voice to order the adventurers, but the words died in her throat.
Something. Somehow, as they had listened to the panicked adventurer screaming, they hadn’t heard it. It was such a faint sound. A sort of…dragging, scraping sound. It had been growing louder slowly. And it wouldn’t have mattered. But now it had come closer, and—something—had appeared far down the corridor.
The light cast from wands, staves, flickering torches, and lanterns illuminated perhaps a hundred feet of space of the wide, empty stone passageway. At the very edges of that light, something had appeared.
Something white. It was so far away, but it filled the corridor. It looked like—a cloud? Or fog, rippling slowly towards them out of the darkness. A wall of white that moved.
But that wasn’t what caught Yvlon’s voice in her throat. It was the faint thing she could see in the middle of that unearthly cloud, the familiar shape that appeared in the darkness, staring at her.
He didn’t react to Yvlon’s voice. The Captain of Kyrial’s Vanguard stared ahead blankly, his face shifting in the mists, pale and bloodless. And his head—it was moving in ways a head shouldn’t, not if it were attached to a body.
The white sea surrounding him rippled closer, but now the adventurers could see another face slowly float upwards. Cervial. He stared ahead, gaze empty and vacant, moving in the same disturbing way as Gregor.
“Cervial! Is that you?”
Again, no response.
Closer. Now the mists didn’t seem as transparent. It wasn’t mist, but something else. Something that rippled and shook as it was pulled along the corridor. Undulating, shivering…too solid. Ceria’s [Dangersense] was screaming so loud she covered her pointed ears. It came on. Closer.
“Gregor, Cervial! Answer me! What’s going on? Are you alright?”
Neither face moved. Neither head twitched. The adventurers watched Gregor stare ahead, eyes unseeing.
Then they knew. They knew what had happened. As Menes’ head emerged from the folds of the creature in front of them and it pulled itself into the light, they understood what they were seeing.
Flesh. Dead flesh. It rippled, shook, twisted, shining in the light. It was yellowed in places, fleshy pink in others, bloody in spots. But mainly white. White with age and bloodless death. It was dead skin, layered and congealed.
It was a body. And the faces of their friends, the Captains—
They were part of it.
Not just their faces. Their skin. As the creature drew closer, several men and women gagged or vomited in place. This—thing was made up of bodies. Entire bodies, skinned. Torn from their owners and pasted together.
And what it made was a long, bloated slug-like body that reared upright. Two massive arms reached out and seized at the ground, dragging the rest of the body behind it. There was no head. Rather, a sunken face, a mockery of the Human face. No nose. No ears or hair. Just two sunken sockets filled with a crimson glow and a gaping, empty mouth.
Pieces of white flesh trailed behind the creature as it pulled itself forwards another ten meters with its hands. It was falling apart, leaving bits of itself where it went. But it was massive, hands wide enough to curl around any Human, long, almost delicate fingers of slick, white flesh, exposed along the palms where red flesh could be seen underneath.
Something. Something was living in the body of dead skin. And it was coming. The creature slowly moved towards the adventurers, pulling itself along the ground as the faces of their comrades—all of them—stared blankly ahead, the latest additions to its skin.
Because that was what it was. And Ceria knew. She knew as it stared down at her and she felt death in her bones.
She knew its name.
He came towards them, slow, dragging himself along with one arm as he travelled down the corridor. He had no legs. He was just a torso, a disfigured mockery of something Human. Not even that.
He wasn’t even remotely humanoid. Unlike the Crypt Lords who looked like bloated, twisted mockeries of something once living, Skinner just looked dead.
Scraps of ruined metal hung off the thing. Dangling from worn material. A…breastplate? Had something once made armor for this—this thing? Or had it stolen the armor of a Giant? It was far too large and torn apart. All that was left was yellowed skin—and fresh additions.
Ceria knew she should move. She knew she should raise her wand and start blasting at the creature now it had appeared. She should rain fire upon it with the others, eradicate it from the face of the earth. It was in front of her.
But she couldn’t move. She couldn’t raise her wand. She was petrified.
Two ruby eyes flashed deep within the folds of dried, caked skin. They didn’t move, not like normal eyes. Skinner had to twist and turn his head to see with them, but the light they cast created a cone of—of—
It had struck her the instant he had appeared down the corridor. Something had reached inside her, taken hold of her heart. She shook as he approached, and she was unable to move.
“It’s just…dead skin.”
Yvlon muttered it. Ceria had to turn her head to see. The woman was trembling, hand gripped on her sword. She was trying to raise it, but she couldn’t.
“We’re under a spell.”
Ceria said it through numb lips. She tried to gather mana inside of her, fight off the magic, but it was too strong. Terror was consuming all of her. She couldn’t even think of resisting. All she wanted to do was run.
But she was too afraid to do even that.
It was like the nightmares Ceria had had as a child, in between waking and sleep, at midnight. She would be in her bed, staring at a door, a window. She knew something was behind it, that something was watching her. She knew, but she was too afraid to get up and see. If she moved—if she made any motion—it would get her.
So she would lie still, and eventually she would fall asleep or morning would come. Her night terrors would disappear in the light of day.
But this was different. This was horror made flesh, and it wouldn’t disappear. But like her childhood fears, Ceria was trapped. She couldn’t move.
“Horns of Hammerad—”
Calruz’s voice choked in their silence. She saw him raise a foot and struggle to step forwards. Even the Minotaur, even her fearless leader, was paralyzed.
Olesm said that. He was trying to shift backwards, but even escape was difficult. They were paralyzed.
Skinner pulled himself closer. Too close. He was in front of them now, and they smelled him. Dead flesh. Blood, too. Blood and death and rot. It was horrific.
His eyes gazed down on them, bringing fear. Calruz tried to raise his axe, but his arms shook. Skinner’s mouth opened.
A hand shot out. A woman in the front—a warrior with an axe and shield—screamed in sudden terror. It brought the other adventurers out of their paralysis. They scattered as Skinner encircled her with one hand and then pulled.
Her skin came off. All at once. It left—it left a bloody body that fell to the ground. Possibly dead. Or worse—alive.
The woman’s skin flapped and trembled in Skinner’s hand. He reached up and laid it delicately across one arm. Her skin…melted into his flesh, and suddenly, there she was. Her empty face stared down at the others.
They fled. Their terror hadn’t ended, just shifted. Instead, the seasoned Silver-rank adventurers dropped their weapons and ran, pushing, shoving, trying to get away.
But as they turned to flee in the other direction, they found they were not alone. Bodies stood in the way, blocking the corridor. Dead bodies.
Zombies. Skeletons. Ghouls. Even more Crypt Lords and Wights. The undead had reappeared, and they had cut the adventurers off from escape. They fell upon the adventurers silently, grabbing them, biting them, pushing them back towards Skinner.
Calruz bellowed as he gripped his battleaxe in shaking hands and decapitated a zombie. Ceria moved. She raised her wand slowly and fired a spike of ice at one of the dead as her feet took her backwards.
She could move. She and Gerial ran back down the corridor with the other adventurers, knocking away the undead. She could fight. But the instant she turned towards Skinner or even thought of raising her wand to fight him—
Paralysis. Fear. She couldn’t. She couldn’t. All she could do was run. She had to get away. She had to get away.
The adventurers screamed and ran down the corridor, some tripping, some fighting with the undead or dragged backwards. Skinner seized a mage who screamed for help, but no one turned for him.
They ran. But they stopped when they saw the wall of undead warriors blocking the way back up to the surface. They waited, the dead body of the warrior who had fled earlier crushed against one wall, his brains pasted on the stone.
“We must run.”
“We must fight.”
Yvlon and Calruz spoke at the same time. She was trembling, but he had stopped. His head was turned. He was looking back towards Skinner.
Ceria didn’t want to look. She wanted to run, but Calruz had stopped. He raised his voice, not shouting, but speaking loudly, his voice echoing in the silence.
“Horns of Hammerad. If you have any pride, turn and face your enemy.”
She didn’t want to. But she had to. Just to know how close it was. Ceria turned—
And saw Sostrom.
He dangled from Skinner’s hands. Or part of him did. His skin had been taken and had become part of Skinner’s body. The monster cast aside what remained.
He had screamed for help. But Ceria had ignored him. He had screamed for help. And now he was dead.
Ceria saw it. She saw it, but her eyes fled from Skinner. She shook, unable to look at him. He was advancing slowly, taking his time as the undead boxed the other adventurers in. She—Sostrom was dead. But she had to run.
Her feet moved back. But a pair of hooves stepped forwards.
Calruz took one step and then two. He moved haltingly—his body leaning forwards as if he were struggling against something. But he moved towards Skinner, and he spoke.
“Do not run. You are the Horns of Hammerad. This thing has slain our own. We must avenge—”
“Calruz. We have to go. Help us.”
Ceria breathed the words. The Minotaur shook his head.
“Honor. We must not run. Face your death with pride.”
He hefted his battleaxe. Skinner paused, staring down the corridor at the only adventurer not running from him. He seemed…intrigued, as far as his expressionless face could be. He raised a hand.
“I am Calruz of the Beriad. I challenge you.”
The Minotaur raised his axe. He dodged under one of Skinner’s hands as it shot towards him and raced towards the body. He brought his weapon up and sliced at Skinner’s chest.
The battleaxe bit deep into flesh. Calruz roared as he tore it through the dead skin, and for a moment, Ceria dared hope. The adventurers paused in their fighting, and so did the dead, staring at Skinner.
Calruz severed the chunk of Skinner he’d carved away, and it fell to the ground. Skinner blinked down at it. It was—
It was dead skin. Calruz stared into the gaping wound he’d left. Dead skin was all he saw. Just dead skin. No blood. Not even any organs or bones. Just dead skin, layered to create armor. How deep did it run? Skinner was so vast—
He raised his axe again, and it bit deep. But he struck nothing but skin. And above him, the monster moved.
A massive hand swung towards Calruz. The Minotaur had lodged his axe in the skin, and he had to roll and abandon it. He dodged sideways, but too slowly. Too late.
Skinner turned and seized Calruz’s arm with one of its hands. It twisted, and the Minotaur screamed and fell back. The monster tossed his arm to the ground dismissively, and his mouth moved. The layers of flesh wrinkled up, and that vacant mouth twisted at the corners.
Ceria screamed as Calruz stumbled away, one of his shoulders suddenly a bleeding stump. He roared in pain, fury, and fear. He raised his hand to strike at Skinner, but something caught him from behind.
A zombie. The dead Drake grabbed Calruz by the legs. He turned and kicked, and it fell to the ground, skull fractured. But a skeleton tackled him, grabbing onto his arm, and then more zombies seized him. Calruz threw them aside, pounding, fighting, but they engulfed him.
He disappeared under a swarm of bodies, roaring in agony as their claws and blades tore at his flesh. The darkness swallowed the Minotaur as Skinner turned towards Ceria.
She trembled. She was fixed in place as the crimson eyes fixed on her. She wanted to run. She needed to run. But fear kept her in place.
A skeleton drew near, grinning, a sword in its hands. It raised the blade, and Gerial slammed into the skeleton, knocking it to the floor.
He shouted at her, shielding her with his back from Skinner’s gaze. She could suddenly move again, and she gasped and shuddered as he pushed her back.
Gerial held Ceria as she clutched at him, his head swiveling around at the dead fighting the living, the adventurers still screaming and trying to escape. His arms tightened, and he held her close. He spoke to her, his voice the only thing she could hear above the roaring in her ears.
Ceria stared at him. Gerial’s face was white, and he looked almost as bloodless as Skinner’s body. He shuddered, and she felt it.
“Run. I’ll—I’ll buy you some time.”
He pointed down the corridor. Ceria’s feet began to move, but she halted them.
He shoved her away.
“Run, damn you!”
He turned and walked down the corridor towards Skinner. He couldn’t look at it, and his legs shook. They stopped fifteen feet from Skinner. Gerial couldn’t move any closer.
Again, Skinner halted and stared at him with interest. Gerial tried to raise his sword, but he couldn’t. Terror gripped him, and he couldn’t even lift his weapon.
It wasn’t fair. But he heard and felt Ceria turn and flee behind him. That was enough. That was—
He raised the other object in his right hand. A jar of acid sloshed around in his gauntleted hand. Maybe. If he could get Skinner to turn back, maybe—
He was going to die. Gerial knew it. The undead surrounded him, not attacking. The adventurers were running or dead, but the dead waited for Skinner to take him. He had to buy time. To let her live. To let one of them survive.
“Death before dishonor.”
The words were enough to make him look up, to meet that terrifying gaze. Skinner smiled at him, and Gerial’s heart stopped. The hand came down, and he raised his arm, drew it back to throw the jar.
But he hesitated. The fear made his arm spasm, and the jar of acid broke on the ground in front of Skinner, showering only the monster’s lower half with acid.
Skinner lurched back. The skin began to smoke and peel away, but the creature didn’t let the acid consume any more. He reached down and peeled off several layers of his own body, digging his hand into the white skin and hurling the smoking bits to the ground where they were consumed.
Fool. If he’d only thrown it better. If—
The acid was fading. Even if he’d had another jar, even if his aim had been true…
Gerial stared numbly at the dead flesh. He raised his sword, but Skinner lashed out with one finger, and the weapon went flying. Gerial’s hand broke with the impact. He felt the pain, a dull shock running through him, but it was just a feeling.
The man reached for his belt dagger with his other hand, but the darkness was closing in and—
A pale wall of glistening flesh rose. Higher and higher. Two eyes deeper red than blood looked down at him. Gerial looked up bitterly. Skinner loomed over him. It was no longer smiling, at least. Ceria. Had she run? Had she made it?
Why here? The man spoke, his voice breaking, laden with guilt and regret. With fear. Yet here he stood.
A hand seized him, and Gerial felt tearing—and then coldness.
He was gone before he hit the floor.
Ceria saw Gerial die. She stopped in the corridor and screamed. He fell to the ground as Skinner carefully took his skin. The creature placed it where acid had struck him and then continued on as if nothing had happened.
She had to run. But something in Ceria was screaming louder than the fear. Sostrom. Calruz. Gerial. Her friends were dead. Her family was dying.
She faced Skinner, her body shaking. Ceria couldn’t even stare into his face. He laughed at her, soundlessly, crumbling lips revealing a body that was hollow. He was just skin. Skin and something red that twisted through the dead body, giving it life.
She couldn’t raise her wand. Fear consumed every part of her. Ceria howled in despair and fled. It was the only thing she could do. She left her friend behind and ran.
Live. She would die if she faced Skinner. She had to live.
A hand shot out and seized her by the leg. Ceria screamed as the skin along the back of her leg tore.
Her skin curled as Skinner regarded it in one hand. He brought it up to his ‘mouth’ as if tasting it and then tossed the bit of flesh away. And he took no notice of Ceria either. Skinner turned and began to drag himself along the ground, after the Humans.
For a moment, Ceria lay on the ground, disbelieving. But then she saw the dead moving towards her, and reality came back with the pain.
She got up. Her leg—she could move. But only just. Ceria limped and pulled herself along the corridor. The undead were around her, striking at adventurers as they cowered or chasing those that fled.
It was chaos. Ceria raised her wand and blasted a skeleton out of her path. She was close to the room with the injured but—
Yvlon was ahead of her, part of the scrum of adventurers screaming and fighting to get past two Crypt Lords. The massive abominations blocked the passage, smashing adventurers against the walls and crushing them with contemptuous ease.
There was no attempt to fight as a group. Men and women shoved each other, striking even their friends as they sought to escape. Skinner slowly dragged himself down the corridor, ripping the Humans apart as they screamed in terror.
The Captain of the Silver Spears was shouting, trying to be heard above the din. She was gripped by terror like the others, but she was at least coherent enough to try and fight the Crypt Lords. But no one was listening to her.
The undead were everywhere. They flooded out of the tunnels, biting, clawing, tearing. Ceria screamed as a skeleton stabbed her in the back with a dagger. Again, her robes saved her, but she felt the skin break even as the blade slashed at her.
It stabbed her in the leg. Ceria screamed as she felt her exposed sinews tear and her bones crack.
She raised her wand and this time burned it. The skeleton staggered away as its bones cracked from the heat. Ceria pulled herself upright. The pain was overwhelming, but if she stopped to consider it, she would die.
The Crypt Lords barred the way, but there were gaps between their bloated bodies. Enough for her to get through. She could run. She could use the other adventurers as a shield so long as Skinner ignored her. If Ceria sacrificed them, she could—
Yvlon was fighting. Her blonde hair was dirty with blood, but she whirled, cutting down Ghouls and zombies as she struggled to protect her friends. She was trying to carve a path open before Skinner reached them. But the Crypt Lords were too strong, the adventurers too disorganized.
They would all die. Ceria looked at Skinner, and her mouth opened. She couldn’t raise her wand despite it all. The magic was too strong. She was too afraid. She cursed herself for that.
But the others—Gerial’s face swam in front of Ceria. She closed her eyes.
“Death before dishonor.”
Ceria snapped her wand. She had to break it over her good knee, but when she did, the magic burst out. Cold, endless cold instantly covered the walls and floor around her with frost, and the undead trying to attack her froze. But Ceria took the magic and used it.
Yvlon turned, her sword raised just in time to see Ceria point. The half-Elf was standing down the corridor, behind Skinner, but she aimed at the Crypt Lord closest to Yvlon. Her finger glowed with white-blue light, and a blizzard had appeared around her.
The female adventurer dove to the floor as a spike of ice twice as long and wide as a Human fired down the passage. It struck the Crypt Lord in the chest and continued down the passage, shattering into shards against a wall. The undead, and even adventurers unlucky enough to be caught in the way, fell to the ground, frozen. Or dead.
The lower half of the Crypt Lord fell down, and adventurers scrambled through the opening. The other Crypt Lord seized two men, but other adventurers darted past, pursued by the faster undead.
Ceria nearly blacked out as the magical backlash struck her. She would have screamed, but the pain was just one more layer in her agony. But the coldness she had channeled struck her as well. The hand she had used for the spell was already numb, but now she could no longer move it.
Her hand froze. Her skin began to peel away and turned black in places. She fell to her knees as Yvlon turned.
Fifteen feet. An eternity of space. That was what separated the two. But the dead were running, and Skinner followed, snatching lives away. Yvlon wavered for a second, and her eyes met Ceria’s.
Their gazes met for a long second, and then the Captain of the Silver Spears tore herself away. She kept running, and the dead surged after her.
Most of them. Skinner ignored the half-Elf, but others were drawn to her. She got to her feet and began to run as a few undead broke off to chase her.
Down the hallway, to the right. Through the maze of corridors she’d explored. Ceria ran, dodging flailing arms and gaping jaws, knowing there was no escape.
She tripped and fell down as she reached the place where she had read Skinner’s message. Ceria tried to get up and realized she hadn’t tripped. Her broken leg had stopped moving.
This was it. She scrambled to get up, pushing at the ground with her one good arm and leg. She leaned against one wall, feeling something important draining from her.
A shape appeared out of the darkness. A Ghoul bounded down the corridor, glowing yellow eyes fixed on Ceria. It had been female, once. It stared at Ceria, grinning with jagged teeth.
Ceria drew her dagger. It was heavy in her shaking right hand.
The Ghoul drew closer, feinting, dodging around Ceria to get at her back. She staggered, trying to keep it in front of her.
Ceria felt hollow. Empty. She was crying. She was sobbing. She wished—
She wished it hadn’t happened. Any of it. But it was too late now.
The Ghoul slashed at her, drawing blood, dodging back. It was about to go for the kill.
Tears fell from her eyes, but Ceria blinked them away. She lunged, and her dagger caught the Ghoul in the cheek. It thrashed, ripping her blade out of her hand, and then its teeth were biting, tearing at her ear, her flesh.
Ceria reached out her hand, but there was no one to take it. Cold. Calruz. Gerial. Had they done anything? She wished she had stayed with them. Too late, now.
Ceria closed her eyes and waited for the end. It came with sharp teeth to take her away from the pain. And then she was gone.
The darkness covered the ruins as the orbs of light cast by Ceria’s [Illumination] spell went out one at a time as Skinner passed by. Like lives, winking out one by one as the darkness moved upwards. The thing that stole flesh and hunted the living raised its head towards the surface, and the dead followed, clustering, hungering. They streamed out of the catacombs, through tunnels and secret passages, running, crawling towards the surface.
And Skinner began to move upwards. It—he—had harvested enough flesh. Now he would take the rest. He left the ruins and left behind only death.