Why did the dead try to kill the living? Was it hatred?
Did they seek to defile the living, to drag them into the same unending torment of their lives? Did they envy those who still drew breath? Or was it a greater mystery? Did the undead simply want others to join them, to add to their endless numbers?
Maybe—perhaps—the dead simply resented the living. Maybe they remembered the past, and it hurt them. Or that they could understand the living and wished to ease their suffering.
It could be they just knew how ugly they were and didn’t want anyone to look.
Erin screamed as an almost completely decomposed Gnoll came close. He had no face. Nothing that she would use that word for. Just—rot. Horrible, black innards that still twitched and slapped together wetly as he lurched at her.
A hand seized the zombie around the remains of his ruined head. Ignoring the flesh and other things that squelched around his fist completely, Knight tightened his grip until something crunched and the zombie jerked and fell still. The Worker dropped the corpse to the ground and kicked the body away. He stood, protectively shielding Erin at the entrance of the inn.
Around the hill, the dead were struggling with the living. But there were no screams. At least, the Antinium did not scream. The dead did. They howled or made ghastly sucking sounds or sometimes groaned, but the screaming was what terrified Erin. She felt they shouldn’t be able to. The dead should be silent.
But they weren’t. If anything, it was the Workers who more closely resembled silent reapers. They moved in unison, fighting, blocking, forming a living line as they fought against the undead. Sometimes they spoke, but with a terrifying calmness of their own.
Two Antinium gripped a zombie by each arm and tore him apart. Another seized a skeleton with two hands and ripped out its ribs with the other two.
They fought like machines. Uncaring machines that took apart the undead like a child taking apart legos. Sometimes, it was a clean dissection. Other times, they smashed the dead bodies to make them fall apart.
But for all that, they were like children. None of the Workers knew how to fight. They were extremely strong, but clumsy. And the undead may have been rotting, but they were all killers.
A Worker staggered back, arms grasping as a skeleton slid forwards, bashing at the Antinium’s head with a mace. It nimbly dodged the Worker that strove to seize a bony arm and raised its mace to crush the Antinium’s skull.
The skeleton looked up, and a flying frying pan crashed into its face. The yellow flames in its eyes dimmed, and the Antinium took the chance to seize it.
Erin watched the Worker begin to dismantle the skeleton and stared at her hand. She hadn’t even realized she’d thrown the frying pan. But more undead were charging up the hill towards the inn.
“Stay behind me, please.”
Knight pushed Erin back as more undead crashed into the line of Antinium, this time from the back. The Antinium wavered as they struggled to hold the dead back. Erin saw one of the Workers slip and fall as a Ghoul tackled him. The undead began tearing at him.
He had a name. He’d told it to Erin. Magnus. Magnus as in Magnus Carlsen, a name taken from Earth’s chess champion. He fell down, and Erin saw his blood. It was green.
She tried to run forwards, but Knight seized Erin by the waist and lifted her up.
“You must not. You must not put yourself in danger. We are here for your protection.”
Magnus fell, shielding his face. Erin pulled harder, but Knight refused to let go.
“Yes. The enemy surrounds us. We are at a disadvantage. This must be rectified.”
Knight pulled Erin back and raised his hand. He spoke calmly.
Magnus thrust the Ghoul back and raised his hand, ignoring the green blood that splattered the ground around him.
He collapsed silently as a Ghoul finished tearing through his exoskeleton. The undead Drake pulled something out of Magnus and opened his mouth to consume it.
A scream of rage preceded a jar of acid by only a second. The Ghoul stumbled backwards, clawing at its face as the acid melted flesh away. He fell back, and another Antinium calmly hit him with a mop, sending him slumping to the ground.
Erin felt the effects of the two Skills hit her as she raised another jar of acid and threw it. She felt lighter—so much lighter! And it seemed as though she had suddenly grown a pair of eyes on the back of her head. She was aware of the undead around her, just as she was aware of how the other Antinium were moving.
They held the line. Even as the undead ran up the hill, the Workers met them, calmly ganging up on the individual undead in twos and threes. The Antinium had no sense of fair play, and the undead were hard pressed to defend themselves against three sets of four hands stabbing at once.
A Ghoul rushed past two Antinium and ran towards Knight. The Antinium raised his sword, but a skeleton leapt past him and knifed the Ghoul in the chest. Toren and the Ghoul fell, stabbing and biting at each other.
Erin spun. She lifted a pot and hurled it. A zombie staggered backwards. She had—she had had quite a few pots and pans she’d seized from her kitchen, but she was running out. She’d hurled them into the crowd, trusting to her [Unerring Throw] skill.
Now the undead were falling, retreating. Erin stared as zombies began turning, running backwards. Was it a feint? Were more undead coming? She looked around wildly, searching for movement in the darkness.
No. No more undead were coming for the moment—they were all dead. Toren pulled himself away from the Ghoul, reclaiming an arm as the Ghoul jerked once and then lay still.
How many horrors had died here? A hundred? Two hundred? It felt like a thousand.
Knight said it calmly as a skeleton fell down, skull cracked open from one of Erin’s frying pans. She stared at the Worker as silence fell and the last corpse stopped twitching.
“We have killed thirty-four of the undead. The rest have retreated. They will return in greater numbers, I believe.”
Erin stared at Knight as the Antinium calmly cleaned gore off of his sword. Around her, the Workers were helping each other to their feet, carrying the bodies down, and…digging?
Yes, the uninjured Workers were digging in the ground. Dirt flew into the air as they dug a long, wide trench around the inn. They were building a moat. A moat.
“What’s happening? What is all this?”
Erin stared at the dead, at the Workers, and at Knight. She felt dizzy, sick. And not just from the carnage. Just a few moments ago, she’d been waiting for Rags, and now there were Workers with names and the living dead.
And the smell. Erin threw up a little in her mouth but refused to let her stomach heave anything else up.
Knight bowed his head to Erin again. He was like Pawn only—different. Physically, they were the same, but even though they had the same voice, the same body, and both had named themselves after chess pieces, he was different. Erin couldn’t explain why or how. She just knew.
“The city of Liscor and the surrounding area is under attack, Erin Solstice. A horde of the undead emerged from the Ruins and besieged the city around an hour ago.”
Erin stared in horror at Knight. She fought to make her mouth work.
“The ruins? Undead? You mean they came from there? Did something set them—”
Her heart skipped a beat, and her stomach lurched.
“Oh no. The Horns of Hammerad. They went in there. Are they…?”
Knight shook his head.
“Several adventurers reached the city alive. I do not know any more than that.”
Erin seized Knight by the shoulder, ignoring the fluids that coated his carapace.
“Any Minotaurs? Anyone with pointy ears? An Elf? Half-Elf, I mean.”
Again, he shook his head.
“No such adventurers were seen. The only ones who survived were Humans. A…captain of one of the teams. A woman wearing silver armor. And a few other Humans. No one else.”
Erin stared at Knight, wide-eyed. Her thoughts melded together and then shut down. Knight nodded his head at her.
“I am sorry.”
She did throw up, then. Erin bent down and hurled up her lunch and dinner. She felt a cool hand on her neck, steadying her, and as she gasped and cried, Knight helped her back up.
It took several minutes for Erin to regain…control of herself. She was crying, talking incoherently, clutching Knight’s hand in a death grip as Toren brought her some water. She drank it, spat, threw up, drank some more, and finally stopped.
She didn’t stop panicking. She didn’t stop the agony in her heart or the terrible loss. But she put it inside her for a while to focus on the now. Erin looked at Knight as the Antinium studied the trench, which was only getting deeper around her inn.
“What’s happening? How many zombies are in the city?”
He paused, and another Worker—Calabrian—volunteered the details.
“The fighting was intensifying as we left. Over thirty thousand undead creatures have attacked Liscor, and the Watch fights them in the streets.”
“H-how do you know how many…?”
She couldn’t see in the dark. It sounded so precise—Knight pointed left.
“One of our number, Bird, counted them. At least thirty thousand.”
Thirty thousand. Erin tried to remember how many guards she’d seen at the gates or patrolling through the city. There were so many of them, but against tens of thousands of undead? More than that?
She turned to Knight.
“Should we—I mean, can we help them? How bad is it?”
He shook his head and gestured to her inn.
“Going out would not be wise. The undead fill the grasslands and will attack anything living. They have come here and will attack again soon. We are here to protect you, but you must stay here.”
Erin stared at him in horror. She stammered, and her voice cracked.
“Me? But—I’m just one person. Why me?”
He returned her gaze seriously, black, faceted eyes intent on her face.
“You are alive. That is all the reason they need.”
“And they’re out there? Regrouping?”
“Yes. Can you see them?”
He pointed, and Erin looked out. There was little light anywhere—the stars and moon were the only sources out here, but her eyes had grown accustomed to the night. She looked, and the sight made her stomach tighten with fear.
Dark shapes moving in the moonlight. They filled the plains, moving slowly, a cluster of shapes surrounding something white that was approaching the inn.
“Oh gods. There are thousands of them.”
“Hundreds. They move towards us.”
Knight’s words sent a chill down Erin’s spine. She opened her mouth to say something and then froze.
“Hold on. What’s that thing in the distance?”
Erin squinted. It was the white mass the undead were surrounding. At first, she thought it was just a bunch of them moving together, but it was something else. It was far away, but coming…closer?
“Is it…a giant slug?”
The Watch of Liscor fell back, fighting, loosing arrows into the undead crowd, casting spells. Fighting, retreating.
They were outnumbered and fighting across a wider and wider area. The gates had let in the undead like a virus. And so long as they had been contained to the first few streets, the battle had been even, perhaps even in the defender’s favor.
But with Skinner’s arrival breaking their ranks and the ceaseless influx of the dead, the streets had been overrun. And more and more dead had surged down alleyways, forcing Zevara to pull her warriors back further and further or become surrounded. And as they did, the scope of the battle extended until dozens of streets were locked in desperate combat, stretching thin numbers even further.
A sign of how the battle was going lay with the civilians. They were being evacuated to the southern section of the city—the children and those unable to fight, that was. Everyone else was fighting. Those with class levels and even those without.
They fought, Drakes and Gnolls and the few Humans, healing themselves with potions, making the enemy pay for each step with blood. But the dead were bloodless. And they just kept coming.
Zevara and twenty guardsmen fought down one of the main streets, trying to stem the flow of the dead. They weren’t enough, not for such a wide passage. But overturned wagons had barricaded part of the street and created a kill zone.
The problem was that the dead were coming over the roofs, scaling walls, running through alleys. Zevara had archers shooting down as many as possible, but the defenders would still have been quickly overrun were it not for the Human and Drake fighting at the front.
Pisces pointed, and another Ghoul jerked. Beneath his rotted skin, his spine twisted and broke, and the undead collapsed soundlessly. The [Necromancer] turned, and more undead fell down as if their strings had been cut. He had accounted for over half of the fallen dead lying in piles on the street. The other half were due to Relc.
The Drake stood in the center of the undead mob, spear spinning around him too quick to follow. He stuck a zombie through its head with the shaft of his spear, twirled the butt up to shatter a skeleton’s jaw, ducked another skeleton, punched a Ghoul hard enough to break its ribs, and then beheaded a zombie with a wicked cut from the tip of his spear.
Zevara cut down a skeleton and gasped as it cut her shallowly across one arm as it fell. She stabbed it until the lights in its eyes faded and saw the massive creature approaching Relc from behind.
The Senior Guardsman spun around and hurled his spear. The Crypt Lord staggered back, the spear lodged deep within its chest. Relc ran forwards and seized the shaft of the spear. With a roar, he ripped it back out, kicking the giant undead backwards as he did. The Crypt Lord fell on its back, and Relc stabbed downwards, spear blurring until the bloated creature lay still.
He staggered back and ran back towards the barricade as the undead tried to encircle him. The guardsmen opened up a small gap for him to squeeze through, and then he was beside Zevara as they pushed the dead back.
Relc coughed and swore as Zevara moved back with him. His scales were covered in black bile, and she instantly grabbed a potion out of one of the crates and handed it to him.
Relc took a sip of the potion, spat black liquid out, and drank the rest. He threw the empty flask over the barricade and nodded at Zevara.
“Thanks. I got some of the poison in my mouth.”
She scowled, but couldn’t put any of her usual force in her words.
“Be careful. If we lose you, our line will collapse.”
Relc grinned at her wearily.
“Hey, don’t worry, Captain Z. None of those things can scratch my scales. If there weren’t so many of them, this would be as easy as frying fish.”
“But there are a lot of them, and they just don’t stop coming.”
Zevara hissed in fury, and her tail lashed the ground as she pointed.
“It makes no sense. They’re not congregating in one spot, and they’re attacking every side. Like a real army would do. And that guard they have around the gates is—”
“Not like them. I know.”
Relc’s eyes narrowed as he stared in the direction of the open north gate. Despite their best efforts, they hadn’t managed to retake it, not even with Relc. The dead around the massive metal doors refused to budge, and the gates were cumbersome enough to close on their own.
“It’s that damned skin-creature that’s doing it. So long as it’s around, they’re going to keep coming. If you’d let me go after it…”
Zevara shook her head curtly.
“You wouldn’t make it out the gates before they surrounded you. And that thing is too much for you to handle alone.”
He glared at her.
“And so we’re going to leave it? I told you, it’s going after Erin—”
“Do you want me to try and save one Human in this mess?”
Zevara shouted at Relc. He blinked, and she continued.
“No matter what that thing is doing, we can’t spare anyone to go after it, let alone you. If we knew what it was doing, then maybe—”
Zevara and Relc turned. Pisces stumbled back towards them. His face was pale, and his hair and robes were matted with sweat. He stumbled towards a cart holding water flasks and drank greedily.
The Captain of the Watch looked back towards the fighting. Without Relc and Pisces, the guardsmen were already beginning to be pushed back.
“We need you to keep casting, Human. If you can’t, we have plenty of mana potions—”
Pisces glared at Zevara.
“Potions do not cure exhaustion. Even my efficient spells tax me. I must rest.”
“I’ll go. The poison’s cured.”
So saying, Relc sprinted to one of the wagons and leapt. He kicked the skeleton that was climbing over it and landed on the other side, spear already blurring. Pisces drank more water, and both watched as Relc kept fighting.
Zevara glanced at Pisces.
“What did you mean? That creature is waiting?”
He nodded and wiped at his mouth.
“It is clear that these dead are protecting that skin creature in some way. It may have control over the dead or spellcasting ability—regardless, they act as convenient fodder while it takes the skin of creatures to sustain itself.”
“Then why did it leave?”
“The danger. As I said, your Senior Guardsman posed an actual threat. It realized this and withdrew. It will let the undead keep fighting until we are exhausted and it returns. Remember—for each one of us that falls, it has another minion to use against us.”
Zevara knew that. She was more worried about the trick it had pulled before it left.
“What about reanimating the undead we’ve already slain? How many times can it do that?”
Pisces shrugged. He looked as unnerved by that as she did.
“I’ve heard of undead doing that, but not even the ones I saw at Wistram could—it’s a spellcaster. But it cannot do that forever. Only a few times, I suspect. And it might not be able to control all the undead. The Crypt Lords are lesser leaders. The fact that greater undead than them haven’t been created is odd. So many dead gathered for so long together—”
“And why the girl? Why is it going out after that Erin Solstice? The one who got Klbkch killed?”
Pisces hesitated again, and Zevara wondered if he was about to lie. When he spoke, it was with clear reluctance.
“…She probably doesn’t matter at all. It’s simply how that creature works. He will eliminate every living being in the area and surround the city with his army. He senses her, no doubt, and wishes to eliminate any possible threat. Or perhaps it is fleeing east then north, towards Esthelm, to minimize the risk to itself.”
“Well. We may have time if that’s the case.”
Pisces opened his mouth, and his eyes widened with outrage. Then he looked at her, really looked at her panting for air, the screaming, embattled city, and closed his mouth and nodded.
“Yes. Perhaps. But we will be overrun soon if there are many more of the undead.”
It was a statement both knew to be true. Zevara shook her head. She raised her sword, feeling exhaustion in her arm. Flames trickled from around her mouth as she spoke.
“Drink whatever potions you need. Rest if you must. But get back to casting quickly, mage.”
She ran back towards the guardsmen as they struggled to hold back several zombies. Pisces stared after her and shook his head. He took a few quick steps back and then made his way to a pile of dead corpses that archers had shot off rooftops.
The skeletons, Ghouls, and zombies had taken the rooftops and smashed in their skulls or splattered on the ground when the arrows had knocked them off their perches. But as Pisces raised his hands, the shattered flesh and bone reknit, and the dead rose back upwards, unearthly lights appearing in their eyes.
Six zombies, three skeletons, and four Ghouls stood up, staring at Pisces. He pointed east, in the direction of the gates.
“Go. Avoid fighting until you reach the inn. Protect the girl. Kill any who would harm her. Go.”
Pisces watched the undead run towards the barricade, moving past the startled defenders. He smiled crookedly and had to sit down as the effects of the spell hit him.
“My, my. I suppose I’m a little too invested in that girl for my own good.”
He laughed and cast his eyes towards the sky.
“Well. A token deed. It will not amount to much. Not when…”
His voice trailed off. Pisces stared blankly at the undead fighting with the Watch. He was a [Necromancer]. He could sense how many dead were in the city and outside it, a fact he had carefully neglected to mention.
After a moment, he smiled again and stood up. His blood was burning in agony, and he felt nauseous, exhausted. Even a potion wouldn’t help him, but the undead still fell as he killed them methodically.
Pisces laughed as the dead fell around him, uncaring of the toll. They would die. All of them. The few living guardsmen and citizens couldn’t stem the tide any more than Erin would survive. He laughed and cast his eyes skyward again, perhaps for the last time.
“Ah, but what a wonderful night to die!”
He could have run. Yet…the [Necromancer] looked around. He had the [Invisibility] spell upon his lips. It would be simple to cast it and hide from the undead. He, of all people in Liscor, could probably evade them and escape with his life.
But—Selys was swinging a sword on one side, Zevara holding the line on the other. Relc was fighting ahead of him. Another, reasonable man might have fled.
“But I’m better than that. I am…”
The [Necromancer] whispered the words, and his head turned as his friendly undead ran past the ones under Skinner’s control. Pisces never finished his sentence. He whirled, waved his hand, and a group of zombies collapsed. He pointed, and the dead died. But they kept coming. And coming.
“Oh god. What is that?”
Erin stared down towards the white shape moving towards them. Every time it dragged itself towards her, more horrific details emerged. At first, it was just a white shape, a sickly slug. Then it was a slug with arms, and then…a creature of some kind. But then she saw that its skin wasn’t skin but dead flesh packed together. And then she saw the faces, stretched across the skin and…
They ran towards the Antinium, Skinner’s small army. They fell into the huge trench the Antinium had dug, breaking bones, climbing out only to be kicked back in by the Workers.
There weren’t many. Around a hundred or less. That’s what Knight had said. As if that wasn’t enough to bury them all in corpses anyways. Most of the undead had moved back towards the city. But the creature came on, dragging itself through the grass.
It left glistening chunks of itself behind. Pieces of dead skin. It horrified Erin more than anything.
But she had to fight. Erin lifted another jar of acid and hurled it at a Crypt Lord. The massive, bloated creature shrieked and slapped itself with its clawed hands. But the acid ate away its skin, melting the massive creature’s outsides in a matter of minutes.
That was her role. Erin stood at the door of her inn, throwing jars of acid, pots, pans, knives, anything she could. She had one frying pan next to her as an emergency weapon, and she’d already hurled most of her chairs down the hill.
It was working. It was working. The dead were filling the trenches, but they hadn’t broken past the Workers yet. It was working—
Skinner had reached the bottom of the hill the inn was on. He raised his head and looked up. Two crimson eyes flashed at Erin, and suddenly, she knew fear.
Skinner’s eyes glowed at her under the moonlight. His gaze touched Erin and held her. It caught her and made her feel fear beyond anything she had felt. She was helpless.
She shook. Erin was consumed by horror, pure, unfiltered terror that paralyzed her to her core. The crimson stare was death. Hers.
She couldn’t even move. She couldn’t even scream.
Erin felt something tugging at her. Knight grabbed her and pulled her backwards, towards the doors of her inn. He shoved her inside, and she stumbled, partly free of Skinner’s gaze on her.
“This creature projects fear of some kind. Please, move back. We will handle this.”
Erin stared at Knight. She worked her jaw soundlessly.
She wanted to say she’d keep fighting. But she couldn’t. She glanced outside, and Skinner stared at her. He was grinning, his toothless, empty mouth a gaping hole. She froze up, and Knight blocked the door with his body.
“Stay behind me.”
The undead surged forwards as one. The Workers met them as they tried to leap the moat and failed and knocked the undead into the pit. Several zombies managed to tug one Worker into the pit, where he disappeared under a pile of discolored limbs. But the line was holding.
Skinner’s gaze moved from the inn for one second. He seemed to regard the ditch and then looked back towards the inn. For a second, Knight wondered what had happened. And then the ranks of the dead drew back, and a larger creature lurched forwards.
A Crypt Lord stood on the other side of the trench. But he—or rather she—didn’t try to cross. Instead, the Crypt Lord began spitting, sending huge gouts of black blood raining over the Workers.
Several Workers hurled their weapons across the ditch, but they bounced off the Crypt Lord’s thick, discolored skin. It spat blood back at them, and the Workers shielded their faces ineffectually with their hands.
Suddenly, the moat was no longer a barrier but a liability. The Antinium could not cross to fight the Crypt Lord and instead had to retreat while it poisoned them.
Knight watched as two Workers fell, curling up into balls as the poison killed them. He stared as the undead swarmed into the trenches and up the other side. He sighed.
Chess was not at all like battle. There were some similarities, and the [Tactician] class leveled with chess. But it did not teach fighting. It did not account for unpredictability. Chess was a beautiful thing. But battle—
Battle was uncertainty.
Knight made sure his body was covering the door. The other shutters around the inn were closed, and the second floor was also shut off. Any dead creature could break in, though. He gestured and raised his voice.
The Workers stepped back, forming a wall around the inn. There were just over twenty left now, some injured, many without weapons. They had learned something of fighting, though. They would not die easily.
Knight turned his head slightly and saw Erin was still staring out at the undead as they cleared the moat. Her face was pale. He tried to smile, but all he could do was lift his mandibles slightly. What would Pawn say at a time like this? What was the right thing to say?
“Please stay inside. You will be safe here.”
She tried to say something. But Skinner’s stare paralyzed her, took away her words. Knight closed the door and put his back to it.
Twenty workers. A hundred undead creatures. Skinner. They would hold with all their might. As long as they could.
Until they could no longer move. Until they were no longer alive. Each Worker was resolved to die. That was simple. Knight only wished—he only wished—
He only wished it were enough.
Rags sat on the hilltop, watching. She was no longer watching the city of Liscor. That place would fall or burn. It mattered not to her.
Instead, she was watching a small hill covered in flickering motion. Rags’ eyes were good. Even in the night, she could see the Workers struggling against the undead. She was also good at counting. That was why, despite her entire tribe sitting with her on the hill, she did not order them to move.
It was a sensible choice. All of Rags agreed with that. Aside from Skinner, the terrifying monster that struck fear into her heart, the undead were too numerous, too deadly. Goblins weren’t good at killing things that were already dead, and they would have been outnumbered by the dead even if they joined the Workers. Not a good fight. So why fight?
All of Rags agreed with her choice, even if not all of her tribe did. The frightened, pitiful Goblin part of her told her to run. And the cold [Tactician] self she had learned told her the battle was unwinnable. Rags knew this. But another part of her hurt.
It was a small part. It wasn’t a practical part or a particularly useful part. It knew there was no other choice. But it hurt. And it distracted her as she watched the battle.
Absently, Rags’ hand went up and poked at her flesh. No. It wouldn’t stop hurting. She knew she couldn’t do a thing. So why try.
A Goblin shifted next to Rags. He wanted to go down there. But one glare from her and he stopped moving. She was Chieftain. She decided. And she had decided not to interfere. It was only logical.
She just wished that part of her would stop hurting.
Rags touched her heart again. There was nothing she could do. Nothing but watch. She would watch until the end.
That was all she could do.
Knight stood against the doorway, arms stretched wide, his entire weight against the wood behind him. His legs buckled. But he refused to fall.
The undead had crossed the moat. They had reached the inn itself, and it was there the Workers were making their final stand.
They were doing well. Well enough. The lone Crypt Lord had fallen, taking five Workers with him. But the remaining Workers fought together, shielding the inn, letting their strong bodies take the brunt of the assault to protect the fragile wood.
They had learned. A few short minutes—or was it hours?—of battle had made them stronger. They fought with weapons methodically, killing, guarding. They were holding.
It was just that the dead were relentless. And they clustered thickest around the door of the inn, seeking entry.
Knight blocked them. He took the swords and claws, not even bothering to block. He couldn’t move his arms anyways. He just had to cover the door. Simple enough. Simple. But so difficult.
Green blood trickled down his sides. He was cold. He had been stabbed. Was being stabbed. A group of the undead savaged him, stabbing, biting.
A Worker hurled a zombie off him. Two more joined him, and they crushed the others, breaking them, taking them apart like a building or a carcass to be butchered.
Knight tried to move, but felt himself sinking to the ground. No good. He had to stand. He had to be a shield. A Knight. He moved in an L-shape, but his name was more than that. He was a protector. A champion of the innocent. She had told him that. He remembered. He remembered everything.
One of the Workers paused before Knight. Knight struggled to remember his name. Garry? Yes, Garry. Named after Garry Kasparov, one of the greatest Grandmasters of all time. A good name.
Garry stood beside Knight as the others covered them. He spoke.
“You are dying.”
Knight could no longer feel his body. But he could see. Green blood—his blood—stained the ground.
It was a pointless comment to make. He strained to ask the more important question.
“Is she still safe?”
There wasn’t much else to say. Knight’s vision was growing dark. But he struggled to move, to block the doorway with just a bit more of his body. It was important. He rasped at Garry.
The Worker nodded.
“Of course. Until we perish.”
The world was growing dark. And cold. But Knight didn’t care. He just wanted to play another game of chess again. He was sure he was better. And if—if she was alive, maybe she would remember. He had loved playing with her. Each time, no matter how few they had been, how short.
He wished he could play another game. He would open with the Danish Opening, risky, but push her as hard as he could. Just to hear her laugh in delight or praise him. If he could play another game in that warm room, it would be perfect bliss if—
Knight didn’t close his eyes. He had no eyelids to close. But he stiffened, and something left him. The other Workers took no notice. They were fighting, bleeding, holding the enemy off. Only one person noticed among the dead and the living. Only one person cared.
They were dying. Erin sat in her inn and heard it. She knew it. They were dying.
All of them.
The Workers fought outside, so close she could hear them as they spoke. They were short phrases that tore pieces out of her heart.
“I have fallen.”
“My arm has been torn off.”
“Continue on without me. Protect her. Please.”
Passionless inflection. But not passionless words. She heard them fall and die, begging the others to keep fighting. To protect. Protect her.
It hurt more than anything else. More than being stabbed, more than physical pain. But she couldn’t move. She was rooted to the spot, unable to do anything but hide.
Hide in her inn while her friends died.
She didn’t know their names. She’d forgotten them as they’d spoken. But she knew them. She’d played chess with each of them. Taught them. Klbkch and Pawn had brought each one countless times, and Erin knew their every move in chess.
And they were dying. For her.
She tried to move her legs. They shook, trembling against the floorboards, refusing to carry even a bit of her weight. Her hands were the same.
They were dying. She had to do something.
Erin grabbed at her frying pan and then let go of the handle. She covered her ears with her hands and curled up. She was afraid.
The fear was overpowering. It wasn’t even a conscious thing, something Erin could fight against. It was like a basic math equation, an unchangeable part of the universe. If she fought, if she tried to fight, she would die. She couldn’t overcome that.
But she could still move. Erin felt it. She could run. The Workers would protect her. If she ran—
Something in Erin rebelled against the thought. Run? Run while they died for her?
It was the only sensible choice. But they were dying. For her. And that made running wrong.
Even if it saved her? No. It was impossible. They were all trapped. The undead were everywhere. That thing was coming. Running was just a slower death.
Erin shuddered. She had heard Knight’s last words. They cut at her, pulling pieces out of her soul. She wished she could move. She wished—
Her foot trembled and knocked against the table. Erin heard something clatter to the floor and flinched. She looked down.
In the moonlight, something rolled next to the chair and stopped. Erin stared at it.
She saw a chess piece lying on the floor. It was a broken knight piece, a Drake holding a sword and a shield, only someone had snapped it off so only the legs and base remained.
Slowly, Erin bent to pick it up. She held the chess piece in her hand and felt at the sharp edges.
She put the chess piece on the board. She stared at the two sides, white and black, bathed in the red light from Skinner’s eyes. Her heart was filled with fear. Her mind was broken by terror. But her soul cried out as her friends died.
Erin’s hand moved. She pushed the white pawn piece forwards. She hesitated and then pushed a black pawn two spaces forwards.
Pawn to E4. Pawn to E5. Bishop came next, to C4. A classic opening.
Slowly, Erin began to play. It was wrong. It was the wrong thing to do as the Workers bled and perished. But she played anyways, mechanically, playing out the game on pure instinct.
The pieces moved mechanically. Erin played the game, and time slowed around her. Time stopped. Time—
Time was a strange thing. It didn’t matter at all for entire days and mattered the world in a single moment where it flashed by. For Erin, time had always disappeared when she played chess. That was why the Skill she had learned was so fitting.
Such a silly thing. A useless thing. It made one moment longer. It was good for a little bit, but only that. It only made a second into an eternity. It couldn’t level mountains or grant her luck or do anything else.
It just made a moment immortal. So Erin played. She played as the undead slaughtered her friends and Skinner’s gaze touched her heart. She played.
A useless game. A worthless game. She lost to herself with half her pieces still on the board. But that wasn’t important. Erin reset the board and played again, moving the pieces with reckless abandon.
It wasn’t about chess. It was just about the time. Every second, fear etched itself into her mind, always present, always there. It was part of her and part of the endless games she played. Again. And again. Playing, always playing, until fear and living were one and the same.
“The king is smart and uses his head. For if he moves, he’ll soon be dead.”
Erin muttered the words again. She remembered her dream and the certainty of it. The dead Goblin Chieftain. The blood. The smell of oil.
Death and violence.
If she were a king, moving, fighting would only lead to her misery. And death. She had lost friends because she’d fought. But she would lose them again if she did nothing.
“If he moves, he’ll soon be dead.”
But that was just it. Someone died, even if the king didn’t. The king was a selfish jerk, letting people suffer in his place. Erin’s hand moved on the king and slowly tipped it over.
“I am no king.”
Erin stood up. The fear was still in her, still biting, still trying to hold her down. But it was part of her now. It still tried to paralyze her thoughts, but it was old now. There was something more important than fear. More important than pain or death.
“I am a queen. And this is my inn.”
How many minutes had passed? How many seconds? It felt like years, but the battle was still raging. The only difference was that Erin could move. She seized the frying pan and then hesitated.
Slowly, Erin walked into the kitchen and came back carrying a huge glass jar. It was one of the big jars she used to store the bulk of the Acid Fly’s acid. She pushed the door slowly open and saw Knight lying in front of it.
For a second, Erin wavered. The jar of acid tipped in her hands. She steadied it and then looked around.
The dead were everywhere. But down the hill, Skinner was looking upwards. He was commanding the flow of the battle. Like a general. Like a king.
Erin supposed that made her the other king. And this was check. Well. She was promoting herself to queen and damn the rules of chess.
Skinner stared at Erin. The crimson gaze fixed her, sending tendrils of terror into her to squeeze at her heart. But she had felt it before. It was an old trick. She lifted the jar of acid.
“Come on, you bastard!”
Her voice echoed from the hilltop, cutting through the sounds of battle like thunder. Erin surprised herself, but remembered her Skill. [Loud Voice].
Skinner didn’t blink. He couldn’t. But he seemed surprised as far as Erin could tell. His gaze moved sideways, and she sensed undead moving towards her. The Workers cut them off.
The jar of acid sloshed in her grip. Heavy. Without her [Lesser Strength] Skill, she would barely have been able to lift it. But she raised it up onto one shoulder and then heaved it into the air like a giant shot put.
The glowing green projectile flew down the hill towards Skinner’s face, straight as an arrow. He raised his hand, too slowly. It broke on him, and green liquid drenched the giant monster.
Acid covered Skinner’s face and body. He screamed, a high-pitched sound that made Erin’s teeth hurt and the Antinium clap their hands to their ear holes. But he didn’t die. He ripped his own flesh away, tearing away layers of skin. Then he looked up at Erin and screamed.
The dead flooded the hilltop, and Skinner shrieked in rage, pulling himself up towards Erin, hands digging into the soil and earth.
Erin stood on top of the hill, frying pan raised, as the Workers surrounded her. Her blood was on fire. Her heart hurt. But she would keep fighting.
Skinner stared at her. Erin stared back. Neither one blinked. He was her target. She could keep fighting until he was dead.
She wouldn’t stop. She would keep going, regardless of fear or death.
Until the moment he stopped moving. Until her last breath. Until her friends were safe or they were all dead.
Until the end.
The dead rushed at Erin, and she raised the frying pan and hit the first zombie hard enough to break all of its teeth free. The darkness moved, and the dead were everywhere.