“…know that I am the truth. Hear my words…obey…! Rise once more, from the darkness…!”
Even now Toren heard the voice in the silence. But he’d forgotten the words. They called to him in the darkness of his soul, pulling him towards the south. But his feet could not move, and though he looked towards the horizon, he could not go.
But he still heard the call vibrating in his soul. It was one of three things he remembered.
Toren was a Level 11 [Skeleton Warrior]. That was his purpose, his name and sense of being. That wasn’t one of the three things he remembered, though. It was just who he was. That was what the voice in his head told him.
The other voice in his head. Toren had many voices that told him things. Sometimes the skeleton had a hard time figuring out which ones were real. But he was getting better at listening.
He could listen and follow orders. Of all the things Toren knew, he knew he was good at that. He had orders, so he followed them. That was simple. Sometimes the orders weren’t.
Today the young woman in front of him had an extra snap in her voice as she shouted at him. That usually meant she was upset. Why was she upset? Usually when she was upset, it was because Toren had made a mistake.
But Toren was sure he’d done everything right this time. All night long he’d been pushing snow together like Erin had told him. He’d made a very tall wall, and that was good, wasn’t it? There wasn’t anything Erin could find wrong with his wall.
“Hey! How am I supposed to get out?”
Toren paused. Then he turned his head 180° and stared at the wall.
Erin glared at him and told him to clear a hole. Toren did just that as she stomped back inside and slammed the door.
It was one of the things he’d learned. Somehow, despite all he did, he kept making mistakes. Erin would tell him to do something simple, like collect water. But then she’d say something like—
“Don’t bring back fish in the bucket! How did you think that was a good idea? How—how did you even fit one in there?”
It was a mystery. Not the fish; anything could be squished into a smaller thing with enough time. But Toren had been created to serve Erin and it distressed him that he never seemed to do his job right.
He was a skeleton. He was bound to serve. This he knew. It was one of the three things Toren remembered. Even when he was being smashed into the ground by a mace or something was trying to break his skull in two, he remembered.
He remembered being made.
Sight. That was the first thing that Toren remembered. Only it wasn’t sight, not quite. He didn’t see because he had no eyes. But he was aware of the world nonetheless, in ways that could only be described as sight by primitive language. He could sense colors, shapes, and movement.
Not well. Toren had seen birds and other things which could see farther than he could. If he looked too far in one direction he couldn’t make out details. But he could see, and the first thing he’d seen was a dancing mage.
At the time Toren hadn’t known it was dancing. Understanding, like everything else, had come in the rush of magic as it continued to build him. Basic concepts like sword fighting, gravity, general anatomy, and the idea of nudity were imparted to Toren, although admittedly he was a bit hazy on that last bit. It was important not to stare at Erin when she had less clothing, that was all he knew.
But the dancing mage. Toren remembered his bones rising together to form his mortal frame, and the disheveled mage dancing around in front of him. Perhaps it was dancing. It looked more like wild waving of arms and legs and incoherent laughing and crying. Which was close to dancing?
Pisces. That was the name of his creator. Toren only remembered because sometimes his orders pertained to Pisces. Orders like ‘don’t let him steal any food from the kitchen’, or ‘poke him with a sword’. Although when he tried to poke Pisces with a sword, this too was apparently a mistake.
But the mage had laughed and danced and cried as he pointed at Toren, as the skeleton was first being created. Toren remembered the words.
“I did it! I finally succeeded! The first! The very first!”
It wasn’t very coherent speech, but Toren remembered the mage had been happy. Because of him. It mattered little, but then had come the words.
“Hm. Ah, oh. Let’s see. Uh, that’s right. You were…I suppose I must use you in less-optimal tasks. Well then. Hear and know your purpose: you are to guard and serve the individual known as Erin Solstice. Protect her. Obey her words.”
The words had struck Toren like thunder and lighting, echoing around in his soul. They etched themselves into the core of his very being, words that would never fade. The first and last command.
Even now, as Toren shoveled wet, hard snow away from his wall he remembered.
“Protect Erin Solstice. Obey her. Be used in less-optimal tasks.”
They were the words that shaped his existence. One of the three things he remembered.
After that Pisces had gone back to the laughing and talking to himself. Toren forgot most of the rest. At some point the mage had come back and spoken at length. He’d used many complex words. Word like ‘render unto me total obedience’ and ‘forsoever work to advance the cause of my designs’, and so on. But that was after the words of binding, the words of creation. So they didn’t count.
The snow was hard to separate with mere fingers, so Toren picked up the piece of wood he’d used as a shovel and began to send snow flying into the air. In truth, he didn’t mind Erin’s new orders. He’d built a wall, and now he was getting rid of part of it.
A human or other sentient being might have objected to the wasted effort. But Toren didn’t have anything better to do, and he never got bored. He had a job and he did it. And he didn’t get cold or uncomfortable. He never got back problems from twisting around or bending over constantly like Erin complained about.
There. The snow was cleared away, enough to let a human pass through. Toren stared in satisfaction at the breach, and then wondered what he should do next. Make a bigger hole? Or clear more snow? It was hard, but he had to obey. Toren always obeyed.
Erin came back later to give Toren instructions. By that time he’d managed to add nearly another foot to the height of his wall, an accomplishment he felt vaguely proud of, but which she didn’t comment on.
“Okay, here’s the plan.”
Toren looked at Erin expectantly as she shivered at him. She pointed in the direction of Liscor.
“I’m going to buy more stuff. Food. And I need to check on my friends. While I’m gone, I want you to find more firewood. Got it?”
Toren knew that meant Erin was going to Liscor. He’d never been to Liscor. Erin had told him many times he wasn’t allowed to go near the city in case he scared someone. But it bothered him when she went, because he had to protect her.
But she gave him orders, so he had to obey. The only problem was that while Toren understood firewood as a general concept, he had no idea where firewood might be found. Normally Erin burned broken chairs and tables. Did she mean that?
Erin frowned at Toren as he looked around, hoping there would be some handy broken tables nearby for him to use.
“I don’t know where any is. Go find some trees.”
Trees? Firewood could come from trees. It was a good order. Toren nodded and Erin eyed him suspiciously for a second before she turned and left. That was almost hurtful, if Toren had any emotions to hurt. He could be relied on. He would find a tree and obtain firewood.
Toren was beginning to understand feelings. Or maybe it was that he was beginning to think of thoughts. He hadn’t before. Toren remembered a time before he’d been able to think about himself. Then he’d only obeyed orders as a dumb thing, mechanically. But ever since leveling up from fighting, and especially after the battle with Skinner, Toren had begun thinking more and more about complex things.
Things like – if Erin told him to gather fruits, did she mean rotting fruits lying on the ground with worms and bugs crawling over them? If Erin was screaming and telling him to get rid of a bug, did that means squash it, stab it, or take it outside? How many ways could he stab Pisces? Which ways would make the mage die faster?
It wasn’t that Toren had any particular animosity towards his creator. But one of his tasks was to protect Erin. Therefore, if Pisces ever attacked, Toren would have to be able to kill him. This all made perfect sense.
The winter landscape was full of snow. So much snow! Toren had never seen snow, and he was unaccustomed to moving in it. It was unfortunate how slow it made him move. He’d take two steps, fall in a snow drift, and spend precious minutes digging himself back up.
That was inconvenient, but fine. But Toren was also distracted by the dancing blue shapes circling overhead. They were…hard to see, and harder still to hear, but Toren could understand every language, and the language of the faeries was somewhat comprehensible to him. They laughed and followed his slow progress from overhead.
“Hark! Look sisters, the bag of bones is going to find the frail human some fire!”
“Does the stupid thing not know it has no axe? No axe nor sword.”
“How will it cut down a tree? With its teeth?”
Toren paused. He looked down at his empty hands. He’d forgotten his sword. Well. It wasn’t his sword because Erin wouldn’t let him wear it all the time. But it was a good point. He needed something to cut with.
Immediately, Toren turned around and began to walk back to the inn as the Frost Faeries circled around overhead.
“The stupid thing hears us! Hah!”
On his way back to the inn the faeries dumped snow on him twice, and then sent a gust of wind that blew him down a hill. But they got bored and left quickly because Toren only got back on his feet and kept walking. He wasn’t sure if they were enemies, but the Frost Faeries were too high up and he didn’t have a bow or arrows.
The first trees Toren found were the blue fruit trees in the small orchard Erin had discovered long ago. The gray bark of the trees was the only thing that stood out against the white backdrop. All of the strange green leaves had fallen into the snow, as had the blue fruits. Only the trees remained; somber sentinels.
Toren raised the sword he’d taken from an adventurer long ago and wondered whether there was such a thing as a good tree for firewood. And how many should he cut down?
He decided all of them was a good start, and began with the tree closest to him. Toren raised his sword and took aim at the tree’s trunk. He’d gained a few skills from leveling up to Level 11. [Lesser Strength] was one of them. Now the sword wasn’t nearly so heavy in his hands, and Toren even felt like he might be able to decapitate an enemy in three cuts.
The skeleton raised the sword and brought it down and across in a mighty blow. The iron sword crashed into the bark of the tree—
And bounced off.
The impact nearly jarred the weapon from Toren’s hands. He lost his balance and then raised his sword again. He sliced at the tree, and his blade seemed to just bounce off the grey wood.
Toren didn’t frown. He didn’t bother to hesitate. He raised his sword and began hacking at the wood. After a while he switched sides because the sword blade was getting dull. In the end he dropped the sword and began kicking at the tree.
After about an hour, Toren had to admit that he wasn’t making much progress. The bark of the tree he’d attacked was barely scarred from his efforts, and his sword was dull and the handle was slightly bent. This tree wasn’t going to be so easily felled.
Toren paused, the snowflakes flurrying around his head. Some flew into his burning eyes and melted. The water ran out of Toren’s jaws.
Find firewood. That was what Erin had said. She told him to go find trees for firewood, otherwise he would have just cut up parts of the inn. But here were trees that he couldn’t cut. That was a problem.
Unless…maybe, just maybe these weren’t the trees Erin wanted. Aha! See, now that was the kind of advanced thinking that separated Toren from other skeletons.
Toren left the blue fruit orchard, congratulating himself on this newfound revelation as he walked through the snow. He wasn’t like other undead. He knew that from experience.
When the undead had attacked Liscor, Toren had been quite worried. He’d been worried Erin was going to replace him with a ghoul, or maybe a zombie or another skeleton. He’d been quite relieved when it turned out they were all trying to kill her.
But then, they’d all been obeying the creature known as Skinner. Toren had heard the commands from the giant worm-creature, felt the minds of the Crypt Lords trying to control him. But he was unique, in a way that allowed him to ignore their orders.
Unique. It was a good thing to be, Toren felt. He could do things other skeletons could not. For instance, when he fought, sometimes he got smashed, or his bones were scattered. But unlike the other skeletons, no matter how badly Toren got hurt, he could always get back up.
It was due to magic, and the mana that Erin was supplying him. Toren had a limit to the mana he could contain, but it was that force, that power inside him that brought his bones together or healed fractures. If he ran out, Toren might well die for good like his skeleton counterparts.
That was a concern that Toren thought about as he slipped into a hole full of angry spiders and got caught in their webs. They bit him constantly, hard enough to fracture his bones.
Now, breaks weren’t too bad. As long as the bone wasn’t shattered or scattered far away, the mana required to repair his frame wasn’t too high. Which was good, because Erin didn’t provide him with much mana.
Toren was no mage. But he understood Erin was generating some mana by living, and it went directly to him thanks to Pisces. But that amount was terribly, terribly low. Toren could vaguely sense the magic of others, and Ryoka, the other human who he wasn’t allowed to kill, had four times as much magic in her than Erin.
If she supplied Toren with mana, he’d probably have more energy to do…everything. As it was, he struggled hard and the Shield Spiders bit him until they realized there was nothing to really bite. They untangled him from their webs rather than let him stay and he left the hidden pit trap. He wasn’t sure he could hurt the Shield Spiders with his dull sword, and there were nearly forty big ones in the nest.
Toren continued on his way. He was looking for trees. Yes, things would be so much easier if he had a different supplier of mana. Ryoka, for all that she had more magic in her than Erin, was a candle compared to the bonfires that were Pisces and Ceria. Either one could sustain at least ten Torens quite easily. But Erin was Toren’s source of energy, and that was that.
Toren wasn’t sure how far he’d walked when he first saw the clump of trees in the distance. They appeared as he crested the hill, a blob of brown in the snow. He went towards them swiftly, and saw it was a small forest! Of trees!
True, the trees did seem somewhat odd. Several of them were missing their bark entirely, and Toren wasn’t sure why. His general assumption was that something had eaten the bark. Toren didn’t really care. Trees were wood, and wood was what he needed. If he wanted to think about something—
Well, he tried not to think about anything except what needed doing. Unnecessary thoughts weren’t useful.
It was hard work, cutting through a tree with a dull sword blade. But while it was hard, it wasn’t impossible like the other trees had been.
Toren eventually managed to fell the tree, and even slice off a large bit through sheer dint of repetitive hacking with his sword. In truth it was his enhanced strength that did most of the work; by the time he’d finished cutting a slice of the tree away the sword he was using was well and truly useless.
The skeleton left it behind in the forest. He’d come back later if he needed it, and besides, he needed both hands to drag the large section of tree he’d cut away.
It was slow going, dragging a huge, heavy piece of wood through the snow. More than once Toren slipped while pushing his burden up a hill, and it would roll down right over him as he struggled to get up.
Yes, the journey was filled with struggles. Toren disturbed Shield Spider nests, suffered Faeries dropping snow on his head, and disappointed a bear who only knocked him sprawling once when she realized he wasn’t edible.
He pushed onwards, carrying the piece of tree, watching as a herd of hairy boars followed a Gnoll through the snow, and seeing far in the distance, the giant golems made of snow slowly forming and coming to life as he once had. He would complete his task. He would do it well. That was what Toren knew he had to do.
And at last, he was there.
Toren pushed the part of the tree trunk up next to the inn and wondered whether he’d be able to get another part back before Erin returned. Possibly, if he wasn’t attacked on the way.
But then Toren had a thought. He had wood. Perhaps it was firewood, but who could really tell? Was all wood the same? What if he had…not firewood?
He had to know. Toren found another a hatchet among the weapons he’d collected. He wasn’t sure it would cut better than a sword, but it might do. He began hacking apart the huge piece of tree he’d collected.
How odd! The bark on this tree was quite thick, and it actually came off quite easily. Toren managed to cut a nice big chunk out of the tree and carried it into the inn. He dumped it in the fireplace and looked around. Erin had shown him very carefully how to start fires and keep it going. He just needed the flint and tinder, and perhaps a coal if the kitchen fire was still warm.
It was not, but Toren still managed to get a small blaze going quite quickly. A few wood shavings here, and the flames caught and began eating away at the wood.
And it was firewood! Toren was happy, insofar as he could be happy. Satisfied was probably a better word. He had fire. And the wood was burning brightly, too! Toren gazed at the burning wood and then noticed something odd.
The bark was reacting to the heat. As the temperature rose from frozen to not-so-frozen, the wood and bark seemed to twist a bit, as if alive. Toren tilted his head slightly. Was this a bad thing? He’d never seen it happen with the other wood he’d burned.
Maybe it just needed to be hotter. Toren found the fireplace poker and poked the wood a few times. The bark-covered wood seemed to flex as the flames grew in the fireplace—
Toren woke up later. He wasn’t sure when later was; only that was he was in pieces. The feeling wasn’t unfamiliar to him, though. He felt his head rolling back towards the rest of his body, and then his other bones joined him.
One, two, three…Toren lost count after a hundred and fifty. He had a lot of bones. Some were human, but others were Drake and Gnoll. He didn’t mind that; his ribcage was stronger than a normal Human’s, and he had thicker bones that helped withstand damage.
Most of the time, that was.
When Toren was fully reassembled he finally had time to wonder what had happened. What had happened? He’d been watching the firewood in the fire, and then—
“You blew it up!”
Toren looked around. There was Erin! She was back! She could see he’d found firewood and—
Only now did Toren realize that something was wrong. Something was horribly, terribly wrong. It was a hard thing to notice at first. Here was the inn, and here was the outside. Normally these two things were totally fine, almost mundane. But Toren was quite sure that the outside shouldn’t be connected to the inn so…intimately.
Cold, biting winds howled into the massive gaping hole in the front part of The Wandering Inn. Toren stared into the gaping mess of destroyed furniture and upturned foundations and felt uneasy. That wasn’t right.
Something was horribly wrong.
Erin Solstice stared at her destroyed inn, at a loss for words. Toren watched her, anxiously. Did she know what had happened? She was just staring at the devastation. Did she want him to clean it up? Was it his fault?
“How did—I just—I told you to get firewood. How did this happen? I mean, it’s just firewood. How could you—”
Erin looked around and caught sight of the bit of tree Toren had brought with him. She turned pale.
“Oh my god. The boom trees. You cut one of them down? They explode! How did you not notice that?”
Oh. Toren didn’t understand exactly, but he put the pieces together. An exploding tree? It hadn’t done anything when he approached, but the [Tactician] inside him told him it probably had to do with the temperature. When it warmed up was when it exploded.
If he’d thought more about the oddness of the trees, maybe Toren would have realized that. So. Not all unnecessary thoughts were unnecessary. It was better to think more. An important lesson. Toren knew that was the case, but right now all he felt was…guilty.
Erin glared down at Toren.
“I—do you have any idea how much it’s going to cost to repair all this? In the winter?”
Toren did not know. All he knew was that Erin was angry. Angrier than when he accidentally started tearing floorboards up for a fire. Angrier than when he kept adding salt to soup because she’d never said when to stop. Even angrier than when she said ‘give me a hand’ and he did.
She was really angry.
Toren was ready. He knew what happened when he made a mistake. Erin would shout at him or throw things, or tell him she hated him. But she didn’t do it this time.
The young woman dressed in thick winter clothing stared at her destroyed inn and slowly sank down and sat on the ground. She sat in the snow, despite Toren’s understanding that she didn’t like cold things. She bowed her head and when she spoke, her voice was thick.
“Go away, Toren.”
Toren hesitated. He’d never heard an order like that before. He’d never…never heard Erin speaking like that, either. He stared at her face. Wetness was rolling down her cheeks and freezing in the wind. Tears?
The sight paralyzed Toren. But the words stuck in him. Go away. Go? Go where?
Erin didn’t look at him. She just pointed behind her.
“Go away. Just—just go away.”
Toren didn’t want to go. For once, he didn’t want to obey. But his feet marched him around and took him away. The skeleton slowly began walking as inside of him—
She was crying. That was what was called. Crying. She was upset; sad; dismal; heartbroken; sorrowful; blue. Toren understood the words thanks to the magic that give him understanding. He knew the words, but he’d never known what they meant.
Toren walked down the hill slowly, head bowed. The Drake named Relc and the Antinium named Klbkch walked past him, ignoring Toren. The half-Elf, and two Drakes followed, all ignoring Toren, although the female Drake did stare at him and flinch away.
He took no notice. Toren walked on, unseeing, ignoring the slippery ground beneath him. He just walked away. Thinking.
He’d made another mistake. A terrible one. This wasn’t like his other mistakes. This time he’d destroyed part of the inn. He’d destroyed something important.
Had made Erin cry.
Was it a bad thing? It wasn’t part of his orders. He was just supposed to obey Erin. Obey and protect and do non-optimal things. Nothing in his instructions mentioned making her happy or sad. So it didn’t matter.
That was what Toren thought, and he tried thinking that thought quite hard. But it didn’t help. The sight and memory of Erin crying disturbed him in a way he couldn’t explain. It was…
It was wrong. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t how things should have been.
Toren remembered the firewood. He’d found the trees. He’d cut the wood, and dragged it back to the inn. He’d done everything perfectly. If only he’d waited. If only he hadn’t tried to set it on fire.
Toren stumbled and fell. He looked around. Where was he? White snow all around him, rolling hills and valleys around. Somewhere in the plains. He was lost. But that didn’t matter—he could always find Erin again. He was tethered to her.
But she didn’t want him. She’d told him to ‘go away’.
For how long? Forever? Toren didn’t want to go. But he had to. Those were the orders. They were one of the three things he remembered.
The voice called to him. South. He remembered the words.
“Rise once more, from the darkness. Come to me, my eternal army. Gather and know your time of return is at hand.”
It had spoken to him after Skinner died. He remembered it, a voice in his head. It had called the others, all the other undead. They’d left at the command, carrying the magical swords and shields and strange objects glowing with power out of the ruins. South.
Should Toren go south? The voice wasn’t his master. But it still called to him, one of the things he could never forget. It was tempting. So tempting. Erin didn’t want him. If she didn’t want him, he should go. He only made her sad and angry.
It was a thought that only came to him in the darkest hours of the night, when there wasn’t anything left to do.
Why was he doing any of this? Why should he obey the words in his head? They were just words. Why should they bind him?
The voice called to him. He should go.
Toren began walking south, away from the inn, away from Erin. To the voice. The voice would give him purpose, he was sure. But he stopped.
It was just—
Toren was a Level 11 [Skeleton Warrior]. That was what the voice in his head told him. But he never bothered to remember that. It wasn’t important. There were only three things Toren remembered. One was the orders that bound him to this world. The second was the voice which whispered to him, which spoke to an entire continent and called the dead.
The third was the music.
He heard it in the silence of his mind. It came to him even when no one was speaking, when Erin was angry or Toren was fighting. It wasn’t something Toren could control.
Time and again he’d tried to stop the sound. He’d hurled himself off the roof of the inn, stuck his head underwater to let fish bite at his head. He’d hit himself again and again, but the music always played on.
A faint strumming was how it started. A strange sound Toren had never heard before; a rhythmic strumming. And then a man’s voice.
When Erin had sung it, it had been her voice. But Toren had heard another voice, and it was in his head now.
A gentle croon, growing louder. And then the words.
“Somewhere, over the rainbow. Way up high…”
They echoed in his soul. A voice sung to Toren, telling him about a place beyond the rainbow. A place…where dreams could come true.
“How to be brave. How can I love when I’m afraid?”
Piano. Violins. Things Toren didn’t have words for because he’d never heard them before. But the music caught him and held him. He could never forget.
“I have loved you for a thousand years.”
Toren stopped. He stared to the south, towards the voice. But the music was louder. It touched him, and something in Toren was there to listen. Something beyond mere bones and magic.
He did not know its name. But it terrified him. But it made him rejoice. It was what he had that none of the undead had. It was his, and he could never forget it.
And it was a picture, a song, a moment. A young woman sitting in her inn, singing alone and surrounded by people. Singing with one voice that carried a song from another world on her lips.
“I don’t know why you hurt inside or what was said to make you cry…”
Toren clutched at his head. His jaws opened and he howled wordlessly. The music was in him. He could never forget.
Erin smiled at him as he held out a basket of blue fruit.
“Thanks, Toren. I guess you’re pretty useful after all, huh?”
She slapped him on the back as Toren contemplated his next move in the odd game of chess.
“Don’t think. Just go for it! I mean, think, and go for it. You can do it, okay?”
He rushed to Erin’s side, sword drawn as she screamed and cried out. She shouted a name in the night.
She wept and he stood guard over her until she stopped crying.
“Thank you, Toren.”
“Good job, Tor.”
Toren stood up. He shook. The voice still called to him from the south, full of power, echoing in the very fabric of his being. But it was a weak thing. Quiet. It couldn’t control him. Only Toren could control himself.
And right now he had his orders.
Go away. Just go away. But Toren remembered orders before that.
“I’m going to visit some friends. Don’t follow me into the city. Wait around the inn until I’m gone. Do something useful. I’ll be back before nightfall.”
He remembered every order Erin had ever given him. And she said that to him. Once. Long ago. But it still counted.
Do something productive. Do something useful. Toren remembered grabbing a fish out of the water and hacking it apart. Erin hadn’t been happy—but she’d said he did a good job in the end.
He wasn’t useful. He was worthless. He made the inn explode and that was bad. He couldn’t fight the adventurer with one eye and he couldn’t kill many things.
He needed to be more useful. He needed to be…stronger.
Yes, strong. Harder. Better. Faster. He wasn’t sure how he could make his bones stronger, but perhaps he could wear armor? That would make him slower, not faster, but better was more important.
He had to be better. Level up. But how? Fight things? He wasn’t allowed to kill Humans or Drakes or Gnolls or Goblins or Antinium or…a lot of things. What about Shield Spiders? What about Frost Faeries? What about the shadowy human that kept following Ryoka around?
Toren didn’t know. He had no idea. And that made Toren frustrated. For the first time in his life he felt genuinely irritated. He couldn’t think, and it made him angry.
Erin was the one with ideas. She had good orders. He had to go back, even if she would be angry.
She told him to go. But he should go back. He would go back. He would go back and Erin would give him orders. If she didn’t want him—well, then he’d think of something else. But he would go back.
Toren nodded. The blue flames in his eyes burned hotter, whiter. The dark sapphire color flared bright white-blue, and he turned with determination. He would be better.
The skeleton took two steps in the snow, walked right to avoid a tripping over a stone twice, and fell into the gaping hole as the snow collapsed around him.
Toren fell down, down, down! He bounced off of a rock, crashed into something hard, and then smashed into the ground so hard his bones scattered in every direction.
For a few minutes all was confusion. Toren reassembled himself as quickly as possible, trying to figure out what had happened. He’d—fallen? How? Why?
A hole. A break in the ceiling. Toren looked up. Yes, he could see something overhead. He’d fallen through a hole, some kind of chasm. Harsh stone crags shone in the faint light all the way down.
He was nearly four hundred feet underground, perhaps. But that wasn’t the interesting bit. The interesting bit came when Toren noticed the stone changed roughly fifteen feet overhead. From broken, normal bedrock and stone, the walls became smooth and refined. He was in some kind of…ruins?
Yes, ruins. Toren recognized it as being the same sort of corridor as the ruins where he’d went with Erin to find Ceria and Olesm. But these were different corridors, a different place. Where was he?
A vast stone corridor stretched out in front of him. Dark stone under his feet—a long corridor with two exits at the end. Toren stared, and saw bright yellow light coming from the right side and darkness from the other. He turned around and saw only darkness behind him. Some kind of passageway? Leading where?
The corridor wasn’t dark. Something was lighting it up. Toren looked around and saw glowing…runes on the walls. Strange shapes and symbols that glowed in different colors. And that was only what his eyes told him. He could feel this place, feel the nature of it.
Magic, pure and unrefined, hummed through the air. Toren could sense movement around him. Magical hotspots of power burning his otherworldly senses, more undead like him, and movement, struggling figures, shapes slithering, running around him. This place, this underground structure was full of life.
The magical runes around him lit up as something moved down the corridor. Toren saw something humanoid walking towards him.
A giant armored warrior appeared in the corridor, a figure clad in massive plate mail that would be too large for even Relc. Toren saw the strange warrior was holding a greatsword in one hand.
As the armored figure drew closer, Toren suddenly realized something was wrong. The armor was pristine, oddly so for a place this far down, but that wasn’t what was strange. What was strange was that the armored warrior had no head.
Tucked beneath the suit of armor’s other hand was a helmet. It was glowing—something was casting light between the slits in the visor. And the armored head was looking straight at him.
Toren looked around for a sword, a weapon, anything, but there was nothing in the corridor. And the armor was locked onto his position.
The skeleton could run, but he didn’t know where he was. And he wasn’t sure what was happening. So he waited. The magical creation walked towards him, footsteps echoing hollowly down the corridor.
It stopped about ten feet away from Toren. The enchanted suit of armor raised its sword and orange-red light like the lights of hell spilled out from the open cavity at its neck. Toren heard a horrible roar of sound, the screeching of metal on metal, so loud and furious that it sounded like something living.
It advanced, placing the helmet on its head and holding the sword in a two-handed grip. Toren stared at the armor.
It would kill him. Grind his bones. Destroy him. He would die if he didn’t fight or run. He knew.
There was no Erin to tell him what to do. Toren was alone. Alone and without a weapon. But that was okay. He had orders. He had a purpose.
Slowly, Toren opened his jaws impossibly wide, stretching them so wide his skull tilted backwards. He reached up, and with one skeletal hand, reached up into the cavity where his brain would have been.
The suit of armor stopped as Toren pulled something crimson out of his skull. The skeleton pushed and pulled it in the inside of his skull, wedging a…gem into the inside of his skull, anchoring it behind his eye sockets.
Toren looked up. The enchanted gem he’d taken from Skinner glowed in his head. He couldn’t know it, but the blue flames in his eyes were mixing with the crimson light from the gem, turning the flames in his eyes a deep purple.
The enchanted armor hesitated as Toren began strolling down the corridor towards him. The skeleton had no weapons, no armor of any kind. It was just a skeleton, but there was something about it that made the magic automating the armor and sword readjust its stance.
Toren didn’t care. He looked back above, where faint light was shining down from on high. Too far to climb even if he could find a way to reach the ceiling. But this place had been built. By something, for some reason. Toren understood buildings. They usually had an entrance and an exit that didn’t involve a hole in the ground.
There was a way out. All he had to do was find it. And if there were things that wanted to kill him, that was fine. Toren clenched his fist as the armored warrior began to thunder down the hall towards him. He ran forwards, mouth open wide in a wordless shout.
He was going back.