Erin sat in her inn, staring at the table. She didn’t have anything better to do. Normally, she served customers, chatted, or played chess, but she couldn’t today.
They were all gone. Pawn had left for the city with the other Workers, promising to come back tomorrow.
He—still couldn’t move right. But the other Workers helped him walk and move and—
“Something’s different about him.”
Toren looked up from his table at Erin. He paused, waiting for an instruction, and then went back to scrubbing.
“I mean, he seems different. He acts different. More confident, y’know?”
Toren carefully picked up a small beetle that had wandered into the building and squished it between his fingers.
“Ew! Don’t do that! Just get rid of them outside!”
Obediently, the skeleton walked out the door. Erin tried not to let her stomach remember the sight of the orange insides of the insect oozing—
“Not many bugs around. But it’s winter. Apparently.”
It wasn’t very cold. Toren opened the door and walked back in, fingers clean, but Erin barely shivered.
“Am I near the equator?”
The skeleton shrugged at her. At least that was something. He generally didn’t respond to questions aimed at him, but he was far more useful than he had been.
Erin leaned over the table. She had no one else to talk to, and at least Toren looked confused when she spoke, which was better than nothing.
“It was the chess. Pawn was totally on the offense this morning! Did you notice that? He was better—I mean, he’s still learning, but he’s taking chances. I can’t wait to see what happens if he and Rags play a game. It’s like he had a massive confidence boost or something. Do you think it was what happened with Ksmvr?”
Toren stared at Erin and then picked up the rag and dipped it into the bucket. Erin sighed. She leaned back in her chair, wondering how much it would hurt if she fell over. It would hurt more if Toren dove to catch her like he had twice before. Landing on floorboards? Ouch. Landing on bony skeleton bits? Double ouch.
Erin closed her eyes, and then her eyes opened wide. She lost her balance and tipped forwards, smacking her face on the table. But she didn’t even process that.
An alarm. It sounded—no, it felt like a tornado warning siren blasting in her head at full volume. But that wasn’t sound, it was the feeling, a high-pitched whine that told her she was in danger.
Erin looked around. Toren stared at her, holding the dripping rag in one hand. Erin knocked her chair over as she ran into the kitchen and grabbed the frying pan and a jar of acid. Toren looked up and dropped the rag when he saw Erin was armed.
“Something’s out there.”
He immediately dashed into the kitchen and came out with the sword he’d taken from one of the adventurers Erin had kicked out of her inn. Erin knelt next to one of the tables, heart beating out of her chest. The alarm was still going off in her head, and she felt scared.
Toren was behind her. He lifted the sword as he peered around the inn. He stared at Erin expectantly and pointed to the door.
“I don’t know where it is. But there’s something. Something bad.”
It didn’t sound like something was outside. Erin opened the door cautiously and peered out. She gestured, and Toren ran upstairs and returned in a few moments, shaking his head. She looked out her windows and then threw caution to the wind.
She ran outside, standing at the top of the hill, staring around at the grasslands. The sun was setting on those colorful swathes of grass, and the looming mountains cast long, ominous shadows. At night, soon, only the distant city would be a glowing dot on the horizon if you knew where to look. Erin’s eyes roamed for something—anything—spiders, Rock Crabs, moving in the long grass valleys and hills.
But she saw nothing. She ran around the other side of the inn and stared in the other direction. Then she had Toren boost her up and stared from the top of the roof.
After a while, Erin jumped down, and Toren collapsed as he tried to catch her.
“Ow! Get out of the way next time!”
He helped her up, and Erin stared around the empty grasslands. Nothing. The sun was still lowering in the sky, and it wasn’t even night yet. She couldn’t see anything. But she had felt it, with a certainty that didn’t go away.
“What was that, then?”
For ten more minutes, Erin walked around, listening hard, eyes scanning the horizon. But she couldn’t see anything. And being out in the open was starting to bother her more than anything else.
Perhaps—perhaps it was a false alarm? Or whatever was happening was far away. Like…
“Maybe someone dropped a nuke? Or a magical nuke?”
Erin shook her head as Toren stared at her. No good.
“It might be nothing. Just—keep an eye out, okay?”
He nodded. Erin sighed and shook her head. She went back into her inn. But she kept the frying pan, the jar of acid, and one of the kitchen knives on the table.
Just in case.
Miles northwest of the inn, the dead poured out of the ruins on the hillside. They were howling—screaming through broken lungs, shrieking with voices no mortal, living creature could make. They ran through the grass, the evening sun at their backs. Zombies charged towards the city, arms outstretched, eyes glowing as they hunted for the living.
Ghouls bounded past them, leaping ten feet at a time, while massive Crypt Lords lumbered behind them, trampling lesser undead under their bodies. All of them—pale Wights, skeletons marching in ranks—moved with one purpose. To the city. To find the living.
To add them to their ranks.
The small shantytown that had sprung up around the ruins was gone. Broken timber and dead bodies were all that remained of the adventurers and merchants that had lived there. They had been cut down trying to flee in the first few minutes of the attack.
So many dead. The [Guard] unit had lasted ten seconds, maybe more. Brave Drakes and Gnolls had tried to hold ranks at the entrance of the tunnel—then realized the undead had no end.
It wasn’t hundreds, it was thousands. And they moved so fast—zombies should not run like that, not sprint.
This wasn’t just a horde of random undead monsters that had come together, or even a group under the control of a Lich or Crypt Lord. This was an invasion led by a single creature.
Skinner dragged itself across the earth, preternaturally fast. So quick it outpaced the Crypt Lords, arms churning through the dirt. It moved its grotesque body at the speed a horse could run.
Impossible. But each arm was so strong it churned up the soil—and its eyes glowed red. A crimson glow that made every undead it gazed upon move even faster.
Liscor had seen the camp-lights around the ruins go dark. Even before Skinner appeared, they had heard the screams. The [Guards] knew what to do, and their task was simple.
Close the gates. Liscor’s were solid metal, impenetrable to even the smallest gnats. They were poised to close them—until someone shouted.
“Survivors! They’re coming! Hold the gates! Hold the gates!”
Desperate people were running ahead of the monsters, screaming, begging for entry. The Watch Sergeant on duty froze. The right thing to do was close the gates—but they could slam shut the steel doors in a moment.
“Hold the doors!”
A woman in silver armor collapsed as she ran through with the surviving [Guards], adventurers, and a dozen other people who’d outrun the horde. A Drake raced over to her and recoiled.
“Get them to safety! Gates down! Move, move! Call the Watch Captain! Summon Klbkch—summon the Prognugator! Where’s Olesm? Raise the alarm!”
The Watch Sergeant shouted as the bells began to ring. The city was coming alive, and people in the streets looked up and began to ask what was happening. He waited for the gates to close—and after fifteen beats of his heart, realized something was wrong.
“Close the gates! Close—”
The Drake ran down the wall and then saw a crimson light glowing in the distance. He stumbled to a halt, fell to his knees—and froze there, trembling.
The gates! He knew they were open. Heard the undead drawing nearer, but something froze him. Froze the [Guards]—locked their trembling hands into place. It came from that thing, that malformed piece of flesh with staring gemstone eyes.
Magic—the Watch Sergeant saw his arms spasming wildly as he tried to move. And he couldn’t. Something was freezing his muscles.
[Terror]. A spell. He looked up and whispered.
The gates had begun to move downwards when the undead first appeared, ready to slam. But they halted as the guards manning the gates suddenly threw down their weapons and ran, screaming. The Watch Sergeant tried to fight the pure fear welling up in his chest—and then his body took over. He ran.
And the gates to Liscor lay open. Skinner pointed a thousand undead towards the gates, and they surged towards it. Then the screaming grew louder. The walls of Liscor could have held an army at bay. But without the gates—
Was it smiling? Did it smile? Was it…alive? Did it think?
It surely did. The thing was moving the undead around like some kind of Chieftain. As if it knew how to fight.
See? Zombies in front, Ghouls leaping in packs along the side. It put the skeletons in ranks behind the first undead, Crypt Lords interspersed in vanguards. It even made those with bows stand and advance in the rear-guard, around it.
Someone was watching the undead pouring towards Liscor. And as if Skinner realized it was being watched, it turned slightly away from the Watch fleeing the walls in fear.
Skinner’s eyes shifted away from the gates, and Rags ducked down and pulled the Goblin next to her into the grass. She and her followers flattened themselves into the earth, making themselves as small as possible.
Fear touched them, making their hearts pound wildly. It was a familiar thing. The Goblins peeked out of the grass while Rags whisper-shouted insults at them and made them keep their heads down.
Only after a few minutes did they dare look again. Far below, the creature known as Skinner had focused its attention back on the city. The undead were already through the gates, and they could hear screaming even from this distance.
From their hilltop, the group of armed Goblins watched the carnage. Rags touched the sheathed short sword at her side, but only to make sure it was there. She had no intention of moving from this spot.
Skinner was moving slowly, now. He paused at the open gates in a throng of undead, guarding his safety. The northern gates were engulfed in fighting, but Skinner was flanking, sending more undead to the east to flood in through two points. This control of the undead was being done from the back ranks, Skinner out of range of most arrows and spells. But he was the most dangerous thing down there by far, Rags was sure.
She saw the twisted, grotesque thing made of dead flesh twist its head towards her again and immediately crouched to hide in the grass. The Goblins around her shivered and held their weapons more firmly. Rags shook her head as she watched Skinner slowly drag itself towards the city.
It was intelligent. And it was deadly. She knew it in her bones. But more deadly than the city full of Drakes and Gnolls?
There were many, many people in the city. She had once tried to guess with her sticks. If ten blades of grass was a stick, and ten sticks became a rock…
A rock was a hundred. A number Pisces had taught her. Then ten rocks became…a chess piece. A thousand.
There would be a hundred chess pieces’ worth of people in the city. A hundred thousand. But some were small like Rags, and some didn’t have weapons. Skinner had just led thirty-six chess pieces’ worth of monsters into the city.
Thirty-six thousand monsters, each one moving like pieces under its will. And there were no walls and a lot of bodies for it to add to its forces. Then Rags understood. Each dead Drake was another blade of grass for Skinner’s forces. Each Gnoll…a new zombie. She sat on the hill and watched as death poured into Liscor. Watching. Waiting.
After a few minutes, her belly rumbled.
“Hm. Rags should be here by now.”
Erin checked the position of the sun in the sky, shading her eyes as Toren laid out plates and utensils. Well, one utensil to be specific. All Goblins needed was a fork, and that was only because Erin insisted.
She’d cooked a fine meal of pasta and sausage, or perhaps it was sausage and pasta. Goblins liked meat, so she’d made the pot mostly that with some spiral noodles thrown in just to add color.
Erin hesitated. The food was warm, but she didn’t want to eat alone—or with Toren as the case may be. She could wait. Besides, Rags and her crew never missed a meal. They were probably running from Rock Crabs or attacking helpless travellers. She should really talk to them about that.
Still. Erin glanced towards the window. It would be night in an hour or less. And the Goblins quite sensibly hated travelling at night.
“Do you think she forgot?”
Toren shrugged. He raised his head and stared in the direction of Liscor. He felt…something. A voice? A calling. But it was faint. He shrugged and continued setting the table. But Erin’s earlier warning…the skeleton looked up, and he felt the tug in the distance.
That decided him. The skeleton picked up a fork and eyed the tines, wishing they were sharper. Erin was right.
Something was out there.
“Close the gates!”
The streets of Liscor were filled with the dead. Civilians screamed and fled or barricaded themselves in their homes as zombies, skeletons, and other lurching forms ran through the streets. But the undead ran up against a wall of blades before they made it far down the streets.
The City Watch stood shoulder-to-shoulder, firing arrows into the crowd while armed Gnolls and Drakes held the front ranks back. The Captain of the Watch, the tall Drake named Zevara, shouted up towards the walls as she cut down another zombie.
“Where the hell are the other guards? Why aren’t those gates closing?”
She bellowed as she chopped down on a skeleton’s arm, severing the bones. The guardsmen in front of her closed ranks and threw the undead back. A Gnoll ran towards Zevara, and she turned towards him.
“Tkrn. What’s happening out there?”
He grinned desperately, the fur on his chest matted with blood and gore.
“Fighting, Captain. We’ve closed off the streets like you said. That’s stopping them, but there are larger creatures out there.”
“Crypt Lords. They’re extremely dangerous. Shoot them down if you can. But what about the southern gates? If they’ve fallen—”
Tkrn shook his head, and Zevara shielded her face as bits of flesh flew everywhere.
“Sorry, Captain. The southern gates are closed, and we’ve got [Archers] shooting down any undead that try to climb up. But all our guards on the north and eastern walls have fled!”
“That doesn’t make sense. I saw those gates closing! What could have…?”
A zombie shoved aside a Drake and lunged for Zevara, jaw gaping wide. She stepped back, and Tkrn’s hand axe buried itself in its exposed brain.
Zevara’s voice cracked like a whip, and the guards around her flinched. She pointed, and more warriors ran forwards to fill in the weak spot in the line. Not all of the Watch was fighting. Zevara had kept several groups back, spread around the city to fill in weak spots.
Now she raised her voice as more undead ran down the streets and hit the ranks of armed warriors hard.
“Are you Human cowards or guardsmen? Put your tails into it!”
The Drakes and Gnolls heard her and answered with a roar. They pushed the undead back several feet, and Zevara turned back to Tkrn as he wiped the hand axe on his fur.
His face was pale under his fur, but the younger [Guard] pointed back the way he’d come.
“The adventurers are asking what they can do. They’re fighting with our people—but poorly. There aren’t many good teams around. My people have bows. They’re shooting from the rooftops!”
“Have them pick off any stragglers that break through. We’ll hold the line here and push forwards. Now, where’s Relc?”
“He’s holding them off down Tesseract Street.”
“Good. They won’t get through that way, then. But this is insane.”
She pointed to the massive gates, visible from where she and Tkrn stood.
“We shouldn’t be fighting in the streets! If we can get close to those gates and close them, these undead will die outside the city. Why the hell are they still open?”
Someone else growled.
“Many of those large things are standing next to the entrance. We cannot kill them, and more keep coming.”
“Crypt Lords standing guard? That’s…”
Zevara trailed off. She glanced at the undead, and suddenly, a cold bit of fear wormed its way into her heart. She had a thought.
Tkrn raised his axe.
“I saw him in the city earlier today. I could track and kill him—”
“Not that idiot. I mean the Necromancer.”
Tkrn looked worried. Zevara shook her head.
“If it was him, we’d be dead already. There aren’t any Giants or Bone Horrors or Ghosts or any of the other undead he brought last time. No—this is something else.”
She pointed down the street.
“This area is secure. I’ve got civilians holding bows, and a few mages are catching any Crypt Lords they see. You go and organize the adventurers. Tell Relc I want to see him, and find Olesm! We need his Skills!”
“No one has seen him this day. They saw him leaving the city, but—”
“If he’s here, find him! I’ve got to go. The east streets need help.”
Tkrn nodded and loped off. Zevara exchanged a few curt words with a large Drake sergeant and ran through the streets.
The undead had caught the city by surprise, but the city militia wasn’t like a Human one. Nor were the citizens. The undead had overrun the first few streets, but their momentum had halted once the Watch and groups of combat-capable citizens had formed barricades and halted their advance.
The problem was that the undead weren’t sticking to the streets. They went through houses, over rooftops—attacking the beleaguered defenders from behind. They were hunted down, but it added another layer of complexity to Zevara’s nightmare.
And the eastern streets were furthest from the guardsmen’s barracks. They needed reinforcements or else—
Zevara ran out of the alleyway just in time to see a Crypt Lord smash its way into a group of guardsmen and civilians, sending them flying. The bloated Drake’s corpse was immediately attacked from all sides and pushed back by a pillar of stone, but while everyone was concentrated on it, a pack of zombies ran past the line and towards the civilian archers.
The fifteen or so Drakes and Gnolls froze up in fear with one exception. Krshia calmly took down one zombie, shooting an arrow through its eye. She drew a wickedly long dagger and grabbed a second zombie while Zevara crashed into two more.
The last zombie ran past the two and opened up a male Drake’s scales with a devastating strike. He had a piece of sword buried in his hand, making all of his wild swings deadly.
The Drake fell down, screaming, and his companion backed away in horror. Selys raised her bow, but the zombie split it in two with a single blow. She screamed for help, but the corpse of the Gnoll ran at her, mouth opened wide to bite.
She raised her claws—but she wasn’t her Uncle. She hadn’t had time to get to her apartment and grab her steel fighting claws he’d given her. Sword it was. Selys pivoted, dodged the bite, and slashed with her claws, but it was a zombie and barely noticed the raking cuts.
Sword! She needed the sword! Selys dodged sideways for it, and the zombie whirled. It leapt, and the sword stabbed into its leg as Selys fell back.
Zombies didn’t do this! This was the work of some kind of advanced death magic. It was like every zombie was a Ghoul. She tried to wrench the sword free as its teeth touched her throat—
Selys screamed in horror as the zombie’s neck suddenly twisted around. The undead Gnoll collapsed to the ground, twitching.
“Just so we’re clear: I didn’t raise them.”
Pisces appeared out of the air next to Selys and Zevara, hands glowing with purple energy. Selys gaped at him, scales nearly white.
“Ah. Hello to you, receptionist. Don’t wait to thank me for saving your life.”
Pisces gave Selys a mocking bow and then turned. He pointed, and two more zombies and a skeleton fell to the ground, necks broken.
Krshia bared her teeth as she hammered her zombie’s head into the cobblestones, breaking its bones until what she held wasn’t so much a head as bits of one.
She stood up as Zevara beheaded her opponent. The Drake turned to Pisces as Selys backed away from him. He raised his hands protectively, and a wall of wind swirled around him.
“I mean you no harm. And this wasn’t my fault! I was in the city all day, and I knew nothing of this—this event.”
The Drake eyed him. She shook her head and shouted to the guardsmen as they wavered, trying to form their line.
Another group of eight armed Drakes ran into the street. They rushed into battle with a roar as Pisces pointed, and another zombie that had gotten past fell down, dead.
“Believe me, ah, Captain. I would never jeopardize my good standing with your city. In fact, I am helping to prove my innocence. I—”
“I believe you.”
Pisces blinked. So did Selys. Krshia was firing into the crowd of the dead already.
“We have countless witnesses who saw the undead emerge from the ruins. Besides, I doubt a [Necromancer] of your level could reanimate more than five bodies, let alone a horde like this.”
He hesitated and glanced at Zevara.
“Um, that is correct. But this is rather inconvenient, is it not?”
She glared at him.
“Are all you Humans as damn crazy as this? Liscor is under attack!”
“They’re just the undead. Quite easy to subdue. I have every confidence your Watch will safeguard innocent civilians like myself.”
“If you’ll excuse me—”
“Oh, no you don’t!”
Selys stomped on the hem of Pisces’ robe, and the mage stumbled. His arms wind milled frantically as he tried to keep his balance. He turned and glared at Selys, but she advanced on him, tail thrashing.
“You stay here and help! If this wasn’t your fault, then help us!”
Pisces hesitated. Zevara hesitated. She didn’t like the mage, but she needed all the help she could get.
“Can you do that back-snapping thing many times?”
He sniffed and clicked his fingers. Three skeletons fell down like dolls that had their strings cut.
“It’s neck snapping, and I have ample mana reserve. I suppose if it means exonerating myself…”
“Good. Do it!”
The Crypt Lord finally fell to the ground, splashing those nearby with toxic blood. Zevara cursed as those hit cried out and retreated to be cured. She ran towards the line of guardsmen, already shouting. Selys stared at Pisces, finger raised. He raised his hands.
“I understand. I will help. Stay here and, ah, try not to put an arrow in my back.”
She spluttered, but Pisces was already striding forwards. He kept a safe distance between the struggling fighters and the dead as he stared at the masses of the undead running through the streets.
“I assume I will be remunerated appropriately for this?”
Zevara turned her head and snarled at Pisces.
“Kill these things and I’ll give you a medal. Now start casting or I’ll slice your damn hands off!”
Pisces sniffed and conjured a flaming sphere into existence. He aimed it at a crowd of the dead as they surged down the street.
“I prefer gold, myself.”
He threw the orb, and fire consumed the dead bodies. The [Necromancer] smirked as the undead screamed. Fast or not, the zombies and Ghouls were still slow targets to him. He snapped the neck of a Ghoul leaping to one side, casually, bringing it down.
But who was making them so quick? A foreign [Necromancer]? What…
What had happened to Ceria?
Pisces stared towards the gates, and his smile winked out. Then—he heard the Watch Captain scream in the distance.
“Fall back! Fall back to Tesseract street!”
Whyever would she do that? They were holding fine with him here! Pisces turned to tell her they were losing a decent defensive spot—when he whirled around.
He shot a second spell into the dark street—then snapped his fingers. A neck twisted—and the flaming orb went out before it could strike its target. But the undead refused to go down. And Pisces couldn’t snap the neck of the too-pale Drake with huge fangs and long, grasping limbs that looked melted.
His voice trembled. Pisces backed up. But that was a rare undead! Then he saw a Crypt Lord appear. His fingers snapped.
The neck—twitched. And did nothing more. Pisces stumbled back as the Wight ran forwards. Then he saw the second Crypt Lord appearing, and eight Ghouls bounded down. The [Necromancer] turned and ran.
“Something is wrong.”
Toren looked up from the floorboards. He was using an old knife to lever up bits of food from between the floorboards. Erin stared out the window.
“Can’t you feel it? Something is wrong.”
She pointed out the window. It was dark now, but there was a faint speck of light coming from outside.
“That’s Liscor. Why is it red over there? Is something burning?”
Toren walked over and saw the skies around Liscor were indeed glowing. And there was smoke, rising and barely visible in the moonlight.
Erin stared out the window worriedly. The pot of meat and noodles sat untouched on a table. She leaned over the windowsill and then grabbed at her stomach. The anxiety was getting to her in a physical way.
She pointed at Toren.
“Keep an eye on that, okay? If you see anything—”
Her stomach gurgled, and Erin ran out the door, leaving the skeleton by himself.
Toren hesitated. He looked at the knife and the floorboards. Then he carefully put the knife on one of the tables and reached for the sword he’d leaned against one wall. He opened the door and walked outside.
The skeleton had made it halfway down the hill when the Antinium seized him and ripped his skull off his body. The Worker tossed Toren’s skull to the ground and seized his sword. He left the flailing skeleton’s body and walked up the hill towards the inn.
A Ghoul caught a Drake’s halberd in one hand and punched him in the midsection with the other. The guardsmen gasped and collapsed as the Ghoul tossed aside the weapon and tried to race past the other guardsmen.
Zevara’s sword cut through the top of the Ghoul’s skull, severing the flesh and rotted brain. The Ghoul collapsed, and she helped the Drake to her feet.
“Watch the damned Ghouls! They’re strong enough to rip your scales apart if you let them!”
Another zombie ran at them. Zevara turned her head and growled low in her throat. Then she took a deep breath and exhaled.
A gout of fire leapt from her jaws and blasted the zombie off its feet. It fell to the ground, screaming and burning as Zevara coughed.
“Where are the damned Antinium?”
The Watch had retreated back down another street, giving ground up as more undead flooded into the city. They were fighting well, and healing potions and a rain of arrows and magic had given them the advantage, but the undead kept coming.
And the more dangerous ones had appeared. Wights, whose single touch would make you freeze up and fall over, helpless. Crypt Lords, who were so huge and tall they could sweep aside low-level [Warriors] in a single blow and break every bone in your body—or spit black poison.
The Watch was not equipped to deal with them. Or at least, they were well equipped, but they needed reinforcements. And those reinforcements were not coming.
The Watch was one half of the city’s defenses, but in truth, they only handled [Bandit] raids, criminals, the occasional monster pack, and so on. The landscape took care of most armies, but the other half of Liscor’s considerable defenses was the army.
The army…who were at Oteslia, leagues to the south! But even in their absence, there was another force, newer to Liscor, who could fight. The bargain that had made Liscor a pariah with every damn city in the south.
The Antinium. The Black Tide who had nearly overrun Izril! An entire Hive was in Liscor, and they were the true force to be reckoned with along with the Watch.
But the Antinium, always present in some capacity in the city, were nowhere to be found. She hadn’t seen a single Worker today…or the last few days.
Zevara growled again and coughed out some smoke. She walked backwards as the Drake found his halberd and joined the line of guardsmen and shouted.
“Tkrn! Where are you? Get over here!”
The Gnoll ran towards Zevara, panting. He was still drenched in gore, but now he was bleeding in places, dark blood covering his fur.
“Where are the Antinium? Send a message to the Queen at once! We need Soldiers!”
“That will not be necessary, Captain Zevara. We are here.”
Zevara and Tkrn spun around. Ksmvr walked towards them, two swords and two daggers held at the ready. Fifteen Soldier Antinium followed him.
Ksmvr pointed towards the failing line of guards.
“Join the battle. Kill all undead. Retreat if you suffer significant injuries.”
The Soldiers ran forwards instantly. They pushed aside the surprised Watch and civilians and crashed into the undead in a black wave of their own.
A Ghoul lunged at the first of the Soldier Antinium. The huge ant man grabbed the undead and held its shoulders with two of his hands. The other two punched downwards.
As Erin had seen, the hands of the Soldiers were more like spades or weapons than actual digits. They pummeled the Ghoul, breaking bones, stabbing through flesh with ease. The Soldier held the Ghoul down, pounding it into paste. When it was done, it stood up and grabbed a zombie and ripped its head off.
A skeleton stabbed the soldier Antinium in the back. It didn’t stagger as the blade buried and stuck in its carapace. It swung around and began ripping the skeleton apart.
Ksmvr watched the Soldiers fighting as the Drakes, Gnolls, and few Human adventurers staggered back, suddenly reprieved from battle. He nodded to Zevara as she stalked over to him.
“Watch-Captain Zevara. It is good to see you alive.”
Zevara was in no mood to exchange pleasantries.
“Where the hell were you? And where are the other Soldiers? I don’t need fifteen of them, I need every single one in your Hive! Bring them out!”
Ksmvr calmly replied to Zevara as he kept one eye on the battle.
“As this is not a period of war or crises as declared by the Council, I must decline your request. The maximum number of soldiers the Watch Captain is allowed to command is fifty Soldier Antinium and a hundred Workers in a time of crisis.”
“That is exactly what’s happening! Or do you not see the undead? I am authorizing you to bring all your Hive! Bring the Soldiers and all the Workers then! We need barricades, fortifications—”
“I regret to say that is impossible at the moment. I have brought fifteen Soldiers. That is all that can be spared at the moment.”
Zevara gaped at Ksmvr. She opened her mouth, and smoke plumed outwards as she shouted at him in fury.
“Why by the damned Ancestors—”
Again, Ksmvr cut Zevara off calmly.
“The Soldiers guard the entrance to the Hive and the surrounding streets. We will let nothing disturb our Queen. She is in the middle of a critical process. The Rite of Anastases. She is hours—less perhaps—to completion.”
“Your Queen can take her damned ritual or whatever it is and shove it—”
Zevara cut herself off as the blades in Ksmvr’s hands twitched. Half of the guardsmen near her raised their weapons, but their Captain waved them away. She eyed Ksmvr and tried to modulate her tone slightly.
“This is a state of emergency. If we can’t push the undead back soon, they will overrun this place. Your Soldiers can buy us some time, but there’s not enough. We need all fifty and soon. More than that. We need all of them! Talk to your Queen. Tell her we need help!”
“I regret that is impossible. The Queen must not be disturbed at this moment. I am sorry.”
Flames trickled from Zevara’s mouth as she opened it in rage. Ksmvr held up one hand.
“As soon as our Queen finishes the Rite of Anastases, we will fully cooperate in the defense of the city.”
There was no use arguing with the Antinium, so despite the building heat behind Zevara’s eyes, in her heart…and her lungs, she bit off her reply.
“The Workers, then. We could use them. Not just for building. If they can fight—”
“They are unable to be summoned as well.”
For the first time, Ksmvr visibly hesitated. He clicked his mandibles together and stared at the battle. Already, the Soldiers had pushed the undead back the street, and two were attacking a Crypt Lord as it spat black blood on them.
“The Workers are in rebellion. Many have left the Hive and fought with the Soldiers at the entrance.”
Ksmvr lowered his voice as Zevara stared at him in horror.
“Already, three have become Aberration. We fear the rest may have as well. They are violent, and many are armed.”
For a moment, Zevara’s mind was caught up with images of Worker Antinium ripping apart Drakes and Gnolls. Then she brought herself back to reality and stared at the dead bodies lining the street. She snapped at Ksmvr.
“If we didn’t have a horde of the undead trying to eat us all, I’d be more worried. The citizens are either in their homes or fighting with us. If these Workers kill a few zombies, I won’t shed any tears.”
Ksmvr shook his head.
“I fear the Workers are not in the city any longer. They are moving towards a Human. Erin Solstice.”
“The one who got Klbkch killed?”
“Yes. One of the Aberrations who escaped was intent on killing her.”
Zevara didn’t have to think about this one. She gestured at the undead. The Crypt Lord was dead, but the two Soldier Antinium who had killed it were curled up, arms and legs withdrawn as they lay on the ground, dead of the poison.
“Whatever the reason is, I can’t spare anyone. She’s not a citizen here, and we’re up to our necks in trouble. The Human will be on her own.”
Ksmvr nodded shortly.
“The Queen is all. She must not be placed in danger. Erin Solstice…is merely important.”
Zevara eyed him. The words he’d just said—she couldn’t dwell on them now. She pointed towards the Soldier Antinium as she signaled the guardsmen to form up.
“Will you stay and fight?”
Ksmvr nodded. He followed Zevara as she strode down the street, Drakes and Gnolls seizing weapons and standing to follow her.
“I will fulfill my duty as Prognugator within Liscor. However, my position will cease in a few hours. Another will take my place.”
“Until then, follow me. We’ve got to use this moment until your Soldiers all die.”
Tkrn fell into place next to Zevara, swearing, as the guardsmen and lone Antinium ran after the Soldier Antinium. Suddenly, things had gone from bad to worse. He looked around as the two realized—the relief they were waiting for wasn’t going to come.
And the undead were pushing into the city. If they tore into a group of civilians, a thousand—a thousand running, jumping, climbing zombies? Ten thousand?
Liscor had a hundred thousand souls in it. This was how undead apocalypses began. They had to hold the streets.
“Anything I can do, Captain?”
She spat, so furious she trailed smoke.
“You heard the Ant. Looks like we’ve got no choice. We need to close those gates. Get Relc. He’s the only one who has a chance of cutting his way through. I’ll grab a squad and push up.”
The Gnoll nodded and broke away from the group. Zevara and the guardsmen rounded a corner and skidded to a stop. The Soldier Antinium had thrown back the undead, mercilessly cutting their way through them until they’d reached the main street down which the north gates were located. But there they had been stopped.
Zevara saw a Soldier borne down by the weight of a Crypt Lord and another hurling Ghouls to the ground as they swarmed him. She saw groups of guardsmen struggling to contain the main flow of undead. But that wasn’t what struck fear into her soul. She pointed towards the gates where something was dragging itself through the open stone doors.
Her heart froze. The sword in her hands grew heavy, and around her, the Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans shuddered and felt terror coursing through their bodies. All around her, guardsmen and civilians fell back, screaming, unable to fight.
Zevara forced the words through her numb lips.
“What is that?”
It was nearly ten minutes before Erin managed to extricate herself from the bathroom and stagger back to the inn. She held her unhappy stomach and walked through the open door.
The inn was dark. Erin stared around. The skeleton normally came the instant she called. Where was he?
“Hey, Toren. Where are you?”
No response. Erin didn’t hear the clicking of bones on floorboards. She stared around. He’d left the knife on the table. Had he gone out to fetch water?
Erin stared around the dark inn. He could at least have lit the lanterns. Or a candle. It was so dark—the only light came from the moon.
Where was he? And why—
Why was Erin feeling that same warning in her head again?
She spun around. Nothing. The grass shone in the moonlight from the open door. Erin relaxed. But then a prickling feeling ran down her spine.
She’d walked through the open door. But Toren always closed the door behind him. And if he hadn’t opened the door—
Erin backed up towards the door. Something moved in the shadows and shut it. She spun around, fists raised, and then relaxed.
“Oh. Pawn. It’s just you.”
The Antinium stood in the doorway, nearly invisible in the light. Erin frowned. Then she took another step back.
“Wait a second.”
The Antinium had four arms. And two legs. Pawn—Pawn didn’t have all his limbs anymore. But Workers weren’t allowed to leave the city unattended, and this Antinium didn’t have swords.
He was familiar. At least, he seemed familiar, but he definitely wasn’t Pawn or Ksmvr. The Worker—if that was what he was—shuddered. He shook slightly and then stepped suddenly towards Erin. She backed up quickly.
“H-hello? Can you hear me? Who are you? What do you want?”
The Worker’s head twitched suddenly. Erin jerked back, and his voice came out, quivering with emotion.
“i aM AnTiNium. i haVe a NaMe.”
Erin backed up even further. That wasn’t what a Worker normally sounded like. The one in front of her was speaking rapidly, his voice surging and falling. He sounded—
“You have a name? Um. Good. That’s good, right?”
He stared at her.
“I Am iNdivIDuAL. BuT i reJECT. I rejEcT aLL.”
“Reject? Reject what?”
He pointed at her with two arms.
“YOu. ThiS is yOuR FAulT.”
“Me? What did I do?”
The Worker raised his hand, and a sword shone in the moonlight. He walked towards Erin, still speaking.
“YOU DiD ThiS To me. yOu mAde Me THis waY. For yOU, I did tHis. bUT alL iS SuffERIng.”
Erin backed up, speaking fast. She tried to sense where her frying pan and jar of acid were, but it was impossible in the darkness.
“What did I do? I don’t remember—”
Erin took another step back and suddenly tripped over a chair. She sprawled to the ground and desperately tried to get up. But the Worker was too fast. He loomed over her, sword raised.
Erin kicked up at his groin, but the Antinium caught her leg. He pinned her down with three arms and held the last one up with the tip of its sword pointed at her face. Erin tried to scream, to shout. But her breath was gone. She stared at the gleaming blade as the Worker shuddered and stared at her.
The sword flashed towards her eye. Erin screamed—
And another Antinium seized the first and threw him off Erin. She gasped as the sword fell to the ground and rolled away as the two Antinium crashed into chairs, fighting, punching and kicking in the darkness.
Erin scrambled away and struck a table. She ran to a shuttered window and threw it open. The moonlight illuminated the room just in time for her to see one of the two Workers mount the other. The Antinium seized his struggling opponent’s head and twisted with all four arms.
The neck broke. The Worker lay still. The other Worker stood up and stared at Erin.
She held the frying pan and jar of acid in shaking hands.
“Stay back! I’m warning you!”
The Worker walked towards Erin. She raised the frying pan, and he stopped. The Worker raised all four arms.
“Please. I mean you no harm.”
The words were familiar. The way of speaking was familiar. Erin hesitated.
“I am not Pawn.”
The Worker shook his head. But he was not Ksmvr either. He knelt before Erin suddenly, and she nearly tossed the jar of acid. But the Worker made no move. He spoke to her, voice loud in the silence.
“I am Knight.”
He nodded. The Worker stared up at Erin.
“I have named myself. I have chosen. I am Individual, first and last of my kind. I am Knight, and no other is like me. And I am here to protect you. We are here to protect you.”
Erin stared at him. The frying pan loosened in her grip, and she nearly dropped it. Her mind was spinning. She stared at Knight. There was something familiar about him, too.
“I—I don’t know you. I never—”
“Please, Erin Solstice. You must remain calm. We are here to protect you.”
Movement. Suddenly, Erin saw it outside the window. She threw caution to the wind and raced outside, brushing past Knight. There she stopped.
Antinium. Workers. They stood around the inn, arms folded or holding weapons. Swords, maces, axes—and not just those. Rolling pins, rocks, large branches…even a large vase in one case. They stared silently at Erin as she froze in place.
Knight emerged from the inn and bowed his head to Erin.
“The dead are coming. Please remain inside. We will protect you with our lives.”
She looked at him.
“You? But who are you? Where’s Pawn?”
“He was kept in the Hive by the Prognugator. He remains. But we have come. We have chosen. We are Individual.”
Knight nodded. In front of Erin, a Worker turned. He bowed to her, low, as far as his stiff exoskeleton would permit.
“I have chosen. I am Bishop.”
Another Antinium turned and then another.
“I too chose. I have decided. My name is Vladimir.”
“I am Calabrian.”
“I am Emanuel.”
“Call me Garry.”
“I wish to be known as Milner-Barry.”
“Belgrade. I will die for you.”
“We will all die for you. I am Jose.”
They spoke, one by one, in the faint moonlight. Antinium looked at Erin, all alike on the outside. But each one different, each one individual.
They were all familiar to her. And only now did Erin realize. She knew them. She knew them all. They had never had names, but she knew their faces, the way they played. She knew them.
They were her chess club.
Thirty odd Workers stood on the hilltop, ringing the inn, waiting. Erin could barely speak. She felt it. A surge of terrible emotion—whether fear or happiness or sadness, it was impossible to say. But she knew something had happened. They had all chosen names.
But that was only half of the question. The other half burned in her fiercely. She turned to Knight. The Antinium was staring into the darkness, splashes of green blood still coating his carapace.
“Why are you all here? Why now? Why tonight? What—what’s happening?”
He opened his mandibles to reply. And that was when the first zombie appeared out of the night and tried to take a bite out of Erin’s face. Toren leapt out of the darkness, crashing into the zombie, and the two rolled down the hill.
Erin screamed. More bodies shuffled and ran through the grass as the Workers moved to intercept them. And then the night was filled with the dead, and Erin found herself fighting for her life.
“Fall back! Fall back!”
Zevara screamed as Skinner grabbed a Drake and pulled his scales and skin off him like a child pulling a wrapper off a bit of candy. The horrific white face grinned down at her, sunken crimson eyes staring around layers of folded dead flesh. Fragments of metal clung to its chest, deflecting some of the arrows striking it.
She tried to raise her sword to slash at it, but her arm refused to move. Zevara had fought countless monsters, had faced and come close to death several times. But the terror that Skinner projected dwarfed anything she had ever felt before.
Zevara retreated, trembling, as Skinner’s hand swept around and grabbed a struggling guardsman. The female Gnoll had only a moment to howl in fear and agony before she was dead.
All around Zevara, guardsmen were retreating or dying. The undead flooded through the gates around Skinner, slaughtering the helpless warriors. Only the Antinium fought on, Ksmvr and the five remaining Soldiers blockading one street, but even they were falling back. No one could fight Skinner, and every time one of his hands swung down, someone died.
Zevara prayed they died. To live without skin—she hoped they died instantly, rather than imagine there was still life in the silent piles of bones and intestines and muscle that lay on the ground.
Skinner grinned at her. His folds of thick, white skin grinned at her too, the faces of the dead stretched to canvas his body.
She had to run. Zevara felt it in her bones, in her marrow. But she was Captain of the Watch. She couldn’t run. She had to fight. But her body wasn’t listening to her mind.
Skinner loomed over her. He tossed what remained of the Gnoll to the ground and raised his hand towards Zevara. She dove out of the way, dropping her sword, and the palm smashed into the ground next to her.
The impact knocked the Drake sideways, but she scrambled away. The red spots. It was the red spots on Skinner’s hand. Touch those and your skin would be peeled away. She had to keep her distance. She had to run—
Too late, Zevara saw the other hand circling around. She was running right into it. She tried to stop, but it was too late. Skinner closed his hand around Zevara’s scales—
Something blurred past Zevara and stabbed into the hand. Dead skin fell around spear tip as a green Drake grabbed both spear and Zevara and ran nimbly past Skinner. Zevara gaped as Relc, Senior Guardsmen of the Watch, grinned toothily at her and twirled the spear as he ran.
“Heya, Captain! Mind if I take this one on?”
It was a warning. Relc turned his head, and both he and Zevara hit the ground as Skinner swiped at them. His hand smashed into a wooden building instead and shook the foundations. Skinner stared at both Drakes, and Zevara felt her scales growing cold with fear. But Relc just shook himself and bared his sharp teeth.
“Soldiers, fall back. I’m going to need some room for this.”
He raised his voice, and somehow, it was audible over the fighting, over the terror in Zevara’s heart. Men and women looked up—and the Drake shivered as that crimson stare fixed upon him again, like a lighthouse.
Terror. Terror—death and terror! It was primordial, deep, and even Zevara wanted to void her bowels and flee. It took all her will to hold her sword steady.
But Relc just shouted.
“Clear a space. Hold the lines!”
He wasn’t Senior Guardsman Relc in that moment. The former soldier of Liscor’s army spun his spear. [Sergeant] Relc held his ground. And Skinner…stared at him, then seemed to realize Relc was immune to the stare. Relc’s body lowered.
“Not an officer. I hate fighting monsters.”
He was watching Skinner. The undead froze—then lashed out so fast his hands cut the air. But Relc was already gone. Zevara’s head whirled.
Skinner had missed as well. A second hand had come out, grasping for the Drake, but Relc hadn’t dodged left or right. He’d launched himself from the ground with his spear. He landed as the monsters swiveled, kicked a Ghoul aside—
Blurred past a Crypt Lord whose head vanished as Skinner ripped it off. A green figure, zig-zagging through the undead as if they were statues. Zevara heard someone mumble something. They had once had a nickname for him, hadn’t they? In his days in the army.
“The Gecko of Liscor.”
A zombie popped up on his right side, but Relc raised his spear and ran the undead Human through. He kicked the zombie’s corpse off his blade into a skeleton, punched a Ghoul to the ground, and looked up as Skinner’s other hand swept towards him.
Relc raised his spear and met the hand as it flew at him. His spear’s tip stabbed rapidly into the open red sores in Skinner’s hand. The monster jerked, and for the first time, Zevara thought she heard a sound come from the creature’s mouth.
No—not the mouth. It came from inside Skinner, a high-pitched shriek that echoed across the city.
It was deafeningly loud, but barely within Zevara’s auditory range. She clapped her hands to her ears, and Relc staggered back, doing the same.
Skinner swiped at Relc and caught him on the leg with an open palm. Relc roared and stabbed down with his spear, and Skinner let go just as quickly. The Drake staggered backwards, and Zevara saw part of the scales on his leg had been stripped away.
The Drake slashed Skinner’s arm, but the monster brought his limb out of harm’s way. A hand swung back—Relc leaned under it as it beheaded a Wight—
Fast as a sword’s swings. But the [Spearmaster] was watching it, reacting before the arms even reached him.
Again, Skinner fixed Relc with his crimson gaze. But though Zevara saw Relc shudder, he gritted his teeth and fought through the magic affecting him. He raised his spear and dashed towards Skinner, cutting and stabbing as he ran across the monster’s side.
Chunks of flesh sloughed to the ground as Skinner swung his hands at Relc. The Drake dodged away, keeping too close to Skinner’s body to be caught. The massive undead suddenly rolled, and Relc had to dodge away before being squashed.
“You bastard! [Triple Thrust]!”
He struck so fast Zevara didn’t see it, three lancing jabs. But the thick flesh—Relc yanked the spear out, cursing. He slashed, his arms a blur—stepped back. Then just backed away.
Why? He wasn’t doing any damage. Dead skin littered the ground, but Skinner just rolled back upright and attacked again.
Relc ran through the undead, stabbing and knocking them aside like flies as the hands struck at him. The zombies and skeletons weren’t able to even slow him down, and the Ghouls he neatly dispatched with a spear strike to the neck or head.
Suddenly free of Skinner’s gaze, the guardsmen around Zevara turned and formed another line. The Drake Captain found another sword and sliced a zombie apart as Relc blurred towards them.
Faster, stronger, and unaffected by fear. That was Relc, Senior Guardsman, the strongest guard in the city. Perhaps the world. A Level 33 [Spearmaster].
He paused in front of Zevara, panting. She saw red blood running from his leg and grabbed a healing potion from her belt.
He nodded and smashed the bottle against his leg. The purple liquid ran into the gaping wound, and he sighed.
“Damn. This isn’t good.”
“Do you know what that thing is?”
Zevara pointed to Skinner as the monster slowly rolled back upright, the undead around him forming a living wall. Relc shook his head. He was focused and barked a reply between gulps of a second potion. Stamina.
“Something ugly? It’s—strong. All that dead flesh is like armor. I need to slice it away to get at what’s underneath. But one touch of those hands—”
“Can you kill it?”
Relc paused and then grinned at Zevara.
“I can. Maybe. Probably. But give me some of those Antinium just to be safe.”
“The Antinium? Why—”
Relc pointed. Ksmvr was slicing apart zombies as the four Soldiers still alive covered his back. Even as Skinner rolled back upright and stared at Ksmvr, he kept fighting, undeterred by the crimson stare.
“The Ants are immune to whatever he’s doing. So am I.”
Relc grinned and tapped his head with one claw.
“[Indomitable Will]. Anyone without a similar Skill should fall back. This thing—it’s projecting fear. Like a Level 30 [Mage]. Higher.”
“I got that. Can you take it out with just them?”
“I can try. But give me more [Archers] and [Mages] to get rid of the undead. I can’t have them on my back and that thing.”
“Just stop it for now while I call a retreat. We’ll set up another street and give you a chance—”
Zevara stopped, and Relc turned. Skinner was moving. The giant creature stared hard at Relc as the Drake raised his spear. But suddenly, Skinner turned. He pulled himself around and began moving back through the crowd of undead.
Relc crowed as Skinner pulled himself away. He twirled his spear and broke a skeleton’s skull with the butt end as he shouted at Skinner.
“Yeah, that’s right! Run! Run! Finally met someone with too many scales for ya, huh? Run away and…wait a second.”
Relc blinked. Skinner was leaving. Not just retreating; he was pulling himself back out the gates while a wall of undead protected his ‘back’.
Zevara stared at Skinner in confusion. Why was he going?
“He must sense you’re a threat.”
Relc swore, and Zevara nearly spat fire at Pisces as the mage appeared out of thin air. The Human flinched, but pointed at Skinner as Relc glared at him.
“This creature is highly intelligent, guardsmen. It won’t fight anything that can resist its fear effect and poses a credible threat. Perhaps it could win, but it won’t risk that.”
“Most of the more valuable undead specimens have some kind of survival function built into it. I surmise this being may be the same.”
“Being? It’s not undead?”
Relc grabbed Pisces as Zevara stared at him. The Drake shook the mage none too gently.
“Okay, but where is that thing going? Is it going back into the ruins or do we have to worry about reinforcements now? Even without that monster, we’re still up to our ears in undead!”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!”
Pisces fought to get Relc to release him. He shouted as the undead resumed their attack on the lines of guardsmen.
“Perhaps it seeks to wear us down first! Or maybe it goes after easier prey! I can’t tell!”
Relc released Pisces with disgust. He turned back to Zevara.
“Well, that’s just great. If it comes back with another horde, we’re cooked. But what could it want if it wants more victims? There’s only a few farming villages around here and they’re almost all north or west, not east. So where—”
He broke off, eyes widening. Zevara looked at him as Relc turned towards the east. He breathed the words.
Pisces looked at Relc’s face and then east too. He blinked in sudden comprehension, and his face turned slightly pale.
He and Pisces were starting after Skinner, and Zevara was about to call Relc back. Then—the monster paused at the gates. She saw it turn—and that ‘hand’ rose. Skinner looked at Relc. At Pisces. And its grotesque hand moved. Almost in a parody—a mockery of Pisces.
Skinner snapped its ‘fingers’—and the fallen undead began to get up. The ones hacked to pieces slowly began to rejoin. Watch Captain Zevara turned—and Pisces turned dead white.
A fallen Ghoul sat up, and Relc beheaded it. Then he watched the Ghoul fall over—the glowing eyes fade—and flicker back to life as the severed section of its head began to drift back to its body.
Contemptuously, Skinner hauled itself away as a second wave of undead rose and joined the first. Then the Watch was in full retreat, fleeing, trying to block the streets. And every single member of the living that fell rose once more. It left the city and the danger with a tiny bodyguard. Too much direct danger here. Skinner’s glowing gaze turned elsewhere, to the only other pocket of life it sensed. A handful of villages. And…