Toren took his sword and rammed it a few times into the snow. Yes. That felt…good.
If anything could feel good, that was. Toren only knew that using a sword felt natural to him, just like he was happier to be called ‘he’ rather than ‘it’ or ‘thing’. Was it because Erin had named him?
Questions like that made the skeleton’s head hurt. But now he was about to do something that required less thought and more action.
He was going to kill things. It needed to be done; Toren had to become stronger.
He was currently a Level 14 [Skeleton Warrior], thanks to the battle with the enchanted suit of armor, but that wasn’t nearly good enough. Toren had seen Rags’ tribe fighting, seen Relc and the Antinium and Skinner and the hordes of undead. He could tell how weak he was compared to all of them, so he was determined to gain strength.
But where to kill monsters? Toren paused as he sheathed the sword at his side and stared blankly around the plains. He didn’t see any monsters besides a Rock Crab hiding in its shell in the distance, and it would pulverize his bones in a single strike.
Ah. This could be a problem. Toren had to think for a while before he figured out where he needed to go.
The Watch kept the area around Liscor clear of most monsters. And the roads north were generally safe because trade had to flow. Only secluded areas like Rags’ secret dungeon entrance produced the occasional threat.
If you wanted a fight around here in the winter, you’d have to jump in a Shield Spider pit or build a snowman. But Toren knew that the south was different. That way led to the ‘Blood Fields’ or so Ryoka had told Erin. And different monsters lurked there.
That was good! Toren now knew where he needed to go. But now he faced a different problem. How could he get there and back before Erin called for him? He must obey orders.
Fortunately, Toren had a solution for that too. He knew Erin; not in the sense of knowing what she liked or her personality or hopes or dreams or anything like that, but he knew how she tended to react.
The young woman was busy investigating the faerie flowers that had been left in her inn with Ceria when Toren walked back in. She’d recovered from the hallucinations, and now she was busy talking with Ceria about pots and planting things.
Toren didn’t care. He stealthily edged around the room, taking care not to attract attention. That was the thing; Toren might be a moving skeleton with purple eyes made of flame, but he was also not a person. Like a coatrack or a chair, he could become part of the room simply by standing in one place and stealthily moving a few feet every hour or two.
It was also because he had a valuable skill. Toren wasn’t nearly as high-level as Erin, but he’d still gained a few useful skills from the various classes he’d gained.
He had [Weapon Proficiency: Sword], [Lesser Strength], [Conceal Presence], and a few other skills from his classes, but those were the three valuable ones. [Lesser Strength] in particular had been a gift; Toren had received it when he hit Level 10 in the [Warrior] class.
It was [Conceal Presence] Toren used here though; he silently moved across the room, until he was right behind Erin and Ceria. Then he waited.
“Don’t you see? They’re valuable! If we plant these, I bet I could grow more!”
Erin was talking excitedly to Ceria, gesturing at the golden flowers. The half-Elf looked unconvinced, but she nodded anyways.
“If you think so. It’s winter, but they don’t seem to be dying—and of course the faeries brought them, so they must be resistant to cold. I can help with the replanting, but we’ll need some pots.”
“Pots? No problem. I think I have—”
Erin turned, and only then realized Toren was right behind her. She screamed and punched at him. Toren jumped back reflexively; he’d expected that.
Ceria had her skeletal hand on her heart as Erin panted and glared at the skeleton. He didn’t see what the big deal was, but she always got surprised and upset when she turned around in the middle of the night and saw him staring at her.
“Erin, your skeleton is terrifying.”
“I know, I know. I—okay, fine. Toren, go into the kitchen and get me a pot. Not a cooking pot; a pot for planting things.”
Toren nodded and went into the kitchen. He didn’t want to help with planting flowers, but this was all part of the process. This time he grabbed an old, dented iron pot and came back out just as quietly.
Erin and Ceria were talking again, but then Erin remembered the pot and turned her head. Toren stared into her eyes.
Toren held out the old pot. Erin took a few steps back, snatched the pot, and shouted at him.
“Stop that! What is with you today?”
The skeleton had no ability to answer, but he’d come to understand that Erin wasn’t really asking. He waited, patiently.
“Go stand over there.”
Erin pointed to the bar, and Toren walked over obediently. All part of the plan. He kept watching as Erin and Ceria began talking about soil and proper lighting conditions and things he cared nothing about. And then it happened.
Ceria caught sight of him and shuddered. She paused, moved a few feet, and shuddered again. Erin looked up.
“Is it Toren again? What’s he doing now?”
The half-Elf pointed, and Toren saw his master poke her head up from her pot. She had a smudge of dirt on her cheek. He stared at her patiently.
“I don’t see—”
Ceria walked a few feet and picked up a wooden spoon they were using as a spade. At first, the skeleton’s head didn’t move. Then, slowly, it moved to track Ceria. The half-Elf moved back, and there was that slight delay before Toren’s head slowly rotated back to stare at her some more.
Erin shuddered with Ceria. She put one hand on her face, and swore as she got dirt in her eyes. She rubbed at her eyes and glared at Toren.
“That’s it. Out! Shoo! Don’t come back until later, and stop being…creepy! Understand?”
That was what Toren had been waiting for. The skeleton didn’t smile, but he instantly nodded and moved towards the door before Erin could change her mind. He heard the girl grumbling, but paid no heed.
He was free! Toren sped out the door and into the snowy plains. Yes, he was free, and he only had to come back later that evening, or that night. Or tomorrow, although he sensed that Erin probably only meant for him to be gone a few hours.
Regardless, it had worked. Toren had long ago realized that if he kept standing behind Erin or getting in her way, she would eventually order him outside. He’d never made use of that knowledge, except to carefully avoid doing just that, because he hadn’t ever had a reason to leave her side.
Toren walked and then ran out into the Floodplains of Liscor, and then beyond it. He did not tire. He did not slow. He was undead, and death had long ago taken pain and exhaustion from him.
Ryoka could run faster. So could Val, Relc, and probably even Erin if she was being chased by Goblins. Toren had to carry his sword so that made him slower. But he didn’t stop, and so in that respect he was superior to most City-runners like Garia, Persua, or even Fals.
Even so, it took Toren over an hour to move past the Floodplains. He could tell he’d left because he reached a hill. It had quite a gentle incline, but it took Toren nearly thirty minutes to run to the top at full speed. And when he got to the top, he realized that there was a narrower gap on the hill he could have crested in half the time.
Toren didn’t get mad. He was incapable of it. He just marked the spot mentally so he would have a quicker route next time.
Now that Toren was on top of the large hill, he could finally see down the long stretch of land that led south, towards the lands Drakes and Gnolls inhabited.
It was…nothing special. At least, to Toren. He only noted that this place at least was truly a plain. The Floodplains were indeed quite flat in places, but in others they had so many valleys and hills like where the Wandering Inn stood that flat ground became an illusion at best.
But here, beyond the boundaries of Liscor, Toren saw the wilderness begin. He saw snowy ground, rocks, and…trees.
Yes, trees! At first Toren had assumed these were the same kind of trees he’d found earlier, the Boom Trees that exploded with deadly force. But no, these trees were normal coniferous trees, pines and evergreens forming large forests in between the open expanse of land.
It was a pretty sight, but the skeleton had no time for any of it. He scanned the landscape, searching for hints of movement. And then he saw a small shape moving far below.
That was enough. Toren raced down the hill, drawing his sword as he ran. He didn’t bother with stealth or plans; there was something alive, and so he was going to kill it. He wanted to kill it.
A skeleton running down a snowy hill is hard to spot, even with all the snow flying about. But the creature had spotted Toren already, and instead of running, it had stopped and waited for him to approach. That was a good sign; it meant it could probably fight.
Toren halted as he finally laid eyes on the creature that had been ambling through the snow. It was…a deer.
Yes, a deer. This was, in fact, a reindeer, and although it had an impressive set or horns, it was still just a deer and not a flesh-eating Creler or a giant bug with teeth or even a Goblin.
Disappointed, Toren lowered his sword and turned away. Killing things, that was fine, but he was aware that random acts of violence wouldn’t help him level. He turned his back, and thus took the reindeer’s charge straight to the back.
The impact knocked Toren off his feet and the hooves trampled and crushed his bones. If he had been flesh and blood, Toren probably would have had pierced internal organs and countless torn ligaments. But since he was a skeleton, the reindeer’s charge was mostly harmless to him.
Toren sprang to his feet as the reindeer aborted its charge before it could hit a tree, and turned, snorting, to face him. He lifted his sword, and clattered his jaw in delight.
It was an enemy after all! He nearly rejoiced, and only then realized that he might actually be in a bit of trouble.
Because here was the thing. Yes, Toren was facing a reindeer. And yes, it had just charged him to little effect. But only now did the skeleton realize that this particular reindeer, whether by mutation or evolution, was twice the size of a reindeer from Erin’s world.
He didn’t have any other reindeer for comparison of course; Toren was just aware that this deer was huge. It was a Corusdeer, although Toren had no way of knowing that. The two antlers on the reindeer’s head were colored as much orange as brown, and there were sooty marks on the fur around the Corusdeer’s hooves.
Still, it didn’t have a sword. Toren raised his and charged at the deer, slashing viciously at its sides. The deer reared up and Toren saw flashing hooves.
It kicked him in the skull and landed several good blows on his body which cracked bone. He slashed its side open.
Red blood covered the reindeer’s side as it made a distressed sound and retreated. Toren advanced, charging through the snow with his sword raised, but the Corusdeer was agile and darted away from him, easily outdistancing the skeleton.
Well now, this was inconvenient! If Toren had flesh, he would have frowned. He’d come out this far to fight monsters, not overly-territorial animals. He expected the deer to run and decided he would let it go; it wasn’t much of a challenge—when the deer suddenly stopped and lowered its head for another charge.
Toren paused, and then raised his sword. The deer wanted to die, apparently. He had no problem with that. He waited patiently as the deer pawed the ground, snorting. It might be stronger and faster than he was, but it was just a dumb animal. No threat at all.
Then Toren learned what made the Corusdeer different from normal reindeer. The deer’s horns began to glow, and then they lit up like pieces of iron in a forge fire, turning nearly white with the heat they emitted.
The hooves caught fire too. Suddenly, Toren was aware that everything was melting around him. That didn’t bother him, as he was a skeleton, but he had to wonder what would happen if his bones met the super-heated horn.
He hesitated for a second, and the Corusdeer suddenly charged. It kicked off the ground with an explosion of fire, and it was suddenly moving faster. A lot faster.
Toren threw himself out of the way as the deer thundered past him. He felt the air change around his bones, but then he was clear. For a second. He turned, and somehow the reindeer had turned and was already charging.
Too late to block or evade. Toren cut at the deer again as the horns caught him full-on in the chest. The deer veered to one side, bleeding from the face as Toren crashed back into the snow. But the horns still hit Toren’s ribs.
The skeleton heard a hiss, and felt part of his rib cage…disappear. He fought to get to his feet, and felt at his ribs. They were still intact. But—
A good chunk of his bones had been vaporized. As Toren felt at his third rib down, he encountered only air where bone should have been. Bits of ash flaked away at his touch. The deer had burnt away his bones with the intense heat coming from its horns.
That wasn’t bad. Toren’s mobility was still unhindered, and he hadn’t lost much. And he’d hurt the Corusdeer; it was now bleeding from two places. But something else concerned Toren.
He was not healing. Or if he was, it wasn’t as rapidly as broken shattered bone. That was very bad.
The Corusdeer was shaking its head, sending steaming droplets of blood flying into the snow. It was wounded right above the eye, and Toren was sure it couldn’t see out of it. Still, it raked the air with its glowing horns, forcing Toren to retreat.
He hopped backwards in the snow, and the two regarded each other warily for a few seconds. The skeleton considered his next move. He had to kill the deer now, that was plain. But he was more wary of the horns. Charging they might not be so bad, but if the deer pinned him and drove its horns into his body? He’d be ash in less than a minute.
The deer was certainly having second thoughts as well. She’d been trying to chase off the strange intruder who’d entered her grazing spot, and already it had injured her twice. Either skeleton or Corusdeer might have decided the risks here weren’t worth the reward, but that was when the snowman attacked.
Toren had only a second’s warning as the massive shadow engulfed him before a snowy fist smashed into him, engulfing the skeleton in a world of snow. He struggled, but snow was everywhere, and it was too thickly packed for him to move.
For a few minutes all was confusion for Toren. He was fighting to move, and could sense he was being swung around at great speeds. But then he heard a hiss and a roar, and the ice around him melted into water!
Toren fell out of the snowman’s body just in time to see the Corusdeer springing away as part of the massive Snow Golem turned to water and mixed with the snow on the ground. He scrambled away and saw his sword, still embedded in the snowy giant’s side. Toren stared at the huge creation in amazement.
It was a snowman. A crude sculpture of snow come to life. Technically he was a Drake, but his appearance had mutated too much to resemble his creator or any humanoid species for that matter.
A while ago—perhaps near the start of Winter, a Drake child had made a snowman in the fresh snow. The energetic young Drake had given the snowman eyes made of pebbles, long sticks for arms and a tail, a mouth, and even a radish for a nose, but had forgotten the most important thing: clothes.
Unprotected from the external sources, magic had entered the snowman—whether by accident or on purpose—and he had come to life. It might not have been that bad at first; for all the snowman was hostile to everything living, it wasn’t fast and it was made of loosely packed snow after all, hardly a threat. But this one had managed to survive its creation, and it had done what all creatures do.
It grew. The snow on the plains was a banquet for the Snow Golem, and it had absorbed more and more snow until it was taller than a Rock Crab and just as wide across. It had two massive arms made of snow, and large rocks and stones had formed two crude eyes and a mouth on its face.
Oh, and it still had a tail of sorts, but it was more like a third leg.
The Snow Golem roared again, and swung at the deer. The horns met the fist and Toren saw a flash and then a cloud of steam billow up as the Golem reared back, cradling his melted hand.
Something exploded, and Toren realized some of the stones caught in the Golem’s body were overheating when the antlers caught them. That wasn’t a problem for him or the Golem, but the deer caught some of the shrapnel from the rocks and staggered.
That was the Golem’s chance to throw a huge clump of himself at the deer, but it vaporized and became water as the deer lowered its head protectively. The force still threw the Corusdeer on the ground, but it staggered upright and the two creatures began to circle each other.
They’d completely forgotten about Toren. These two natural enemies were so engrossed in each other, that only when the skeleton had climbed all the way up the Golem’s head did the Corusdeer notice he was there.
It paused, and the Snow Golem finally realized something was wrong. It raised its only good hand, but Toren just clung to the massive snowy head, and the clumsy fingers couldn’t pull him out.
That was the Corusdeer’s cue to dart forwards, and the Snow Golem had to focus on the ground. Toren stood back up, and looked at the Golem’s head. Now, how would you kill something made of snow and ice…?
Toren knew how he’d kill himself, so he applied the same logic to the Golem. He didn’t bother with his sword; he just buried his hands in the Snow Golem’s head and began to dig.
For a few seconds, the Golem continued swiping at the deer as it ran around him below, melting his sides and darting in and out of reach. Then Toren tossed another armful of snow into the air and struck the Golem’s center. Then the Golem knew pain.
The Snow Golem roared in fury and agony as Toren dug down into its head, scooping out snow that looked different from the rest. It was somehow even whiter than normal snow, and it felt colder on his bones. The pure snow melted as soon as it reached the air, and the Golem screamed as Toren kept digging into it.
Slowly, the giant behemoth collapsed, and Toren realized it was coming apart. No longer bound by magic, the Golem’s body simply slumped to the ground, a small mountain of snow and dirt and ice.
Toren sat up in the snow, and pulled his sword out with him. Now that had been fun. He looked around quickly, and saw the Corusdeer was staring at the remains of the Golem, as if unsure it was dead. It backed up as Toren leapt onto the ground, sword raised.
Now, back to the fight. Toren waited for the deer to charge. It was clearly waiting for its moment, pawing the ground, feinting forwards, but then the deer hesitated. It raised its horns, and shook them, but too late.
The horns went out. The white-hot light and intense heat faded, and suddenly the Corusdeer was just an oversized reindeer, bleeding and tired.
Toren blinked, but the deer was just as surprised. It pawed at the ground, shaking its head, but it was clear that whatever magic or energy the Corusdeer used, it had run out from fighting both Toren and the Snow Golem.
Too bad. But Toren didn’t mind. As the deer began to back up, he charged it, sword swinging. This time the deer met him head on, raking the skeleton with its antlers, but they did nothing. And Toren stabbed the deer in the side.
This time his blade went in several feet. It didn’t hit the heart, but it did strike something vital because the Corusdeer moaned and pulled itself away. It didn’t strike at Toren, but began to run as the skeleton chased after it.
Even wounded, even half-blind, the reindeer instantly outdistanced Toren. But it left a trail of red in the snow, and a wake besides. That was enough for Toren. He ran after the deer even as it pulled away, not discouraged by how fast it was moving. It would slow in the end.
That was the thing about Toren; he was patient and he didn’t get tired. He pursued the wounded Corusdeer relentlessly through the snow, cutting at its sides each time he drew near. It couldn’t run forever, and each time it slowed there he would be, stabbing at it, cutting it, ignoring the hooves and horns that smashed into him time and time again.
Blood ran into the Corusdeer’s eyes as it surged towards a forest, trying to lose the skeleton. He ran after it, but then the Corusdeer made a mistake. Half-blind, it never noticed the low-hanging tree branches and ran straight into them.
Toren clattered his jaw with delight as the deer careened left and into a tree. The skeleton was on the wounded animal in a second. The Corusdeer raised its horns and knocked the sword out of the skeleton’s hand. It tried to use that moment to run, but Toren was on it in an instant. He put two fingers together and pushed them into the deer’s other eye. The deer screamed, and Toren felt delighted.
This was fighting. This was killing. This was what he had been made to do. The world became a small, concentrated bubble of violence for the skeleton. He punched and bit and battered the deer as it tried to kick him with its hooves or stab him with its horns. But there was no heat. No heat, and the deer was weakening. Dying.
Toren found his sword and brought it back as the deer lay on the ground, hooves moving weakly. He stabbed the deer in the chest, and then the head, repeatedly, painting the snow and his bones with gore.
It was done. He had won. Toren regarded the steaming corpse, and then took a bit of snow and began to clean himself. Erin hated it when he was dirty.
[Skeleton Warrior Level 16!]
[Skill – Even Footing Obtained!]
Toren couldn’t sleep, and he never rested, so the level up notifications always appeared in his head the instant a battle was done or a game of chess was finished. He considered the words as he finished rubbing himself with snow.
[Even Footing]? It didn’t sound that useful, but…Toren lifted a foot experimentally. He began to walk through the snow, and realized the ground was suddenly far, far easier for him to traverse. How? It was as if instead of landing on slick patches of ice or divots in the ground, he was walking on a smooth, hard surface rather than treacherous terrain.
That was useful. Not just for killing things; Toren was sure he’d be able to go wherever he liked with this skill. It was definitely handy, but it was—odd.
Odd, yes. That was the only word for it. Just a while ago Toren had been worried about not moving fast enough. And lo and behold, he’d suddenly gotten a skill that allowed him to do just that. Was thinking and leveling connected in some way?
Perhaps. Toren didn’t know, but he could see the connection. And yet, useful as this new skill was, it wasn’t quite what he needed. It would still take Toren over an hour and a half to get back to the inn, even if he didn’t slip every few minutes.
Speaking of which…Toren glanced at the sky and noted the position of the sun. Yes, he had to return anyways, or it would be dark by the time he got back. No more killing for today. It was inconvenient, but he had orders.
The skeleton began to run back towards Liscor and the inn through the snow, as if he’d never been fighting. The mound that had been the Snow Golem and the slowly freezing corpse of the Corusdeer lay on the ground, to be slowly covered as more snow fell from the sky. Toren ran on, thinking only of Erin, the inn, and the levels he had gained. He’d killed two new enemies today; probably the reason why he’d leveled twice. The Snow Golem was a true threat. If he hadn’t been melted out of it, he might have been trapped there forever.
He wondered what he might kill tomorrow?
That was Toren’s first day of hunting. It was not his last, but when he returned to the inn, he found something new.
She was sitting in the middle of Erin’s inn, on a chair, shivering in a blanket as Erin fussed over her. The girl had a cup of warm and expensive milk, and a plate of hot beef and bread besides.
And she was complaining.
“—filthy peasants and monsters! They should all be wiped out!”
Toren stared. She was probably a guest. Probably. But he had an uneasy feeling, made worse when Erin looked around and saw him.
“Oh, Toren! There you are! I was wondering where you were. Look, this is my new employee. Her name is—”
Toren didn’t hear the rest. He looked at the shivering girl, dressed in filthy clothes and staring at him with open-mouthed horror. He looked at Erin.
No, she couldn’t be doing this. She was replacing him? Or—no, not replacing him. Toren listened as Erin explained.
She was going to work here? Doing his jobs? Why? Wasn’t he the only help Erin needed? He’d…
Was it because he’d left? Surely not. Erin was saying something about the girl being rescued or exiled? Toren didn’t quite understand. He didn’t understand a lot of things that happened or that people said. But he looked at the girl and didn’t like her.
Not one bit.
More things happened. Erin began fussing over the girl for one thing, although it appeared the girl was quite capable of fussing over herself. She made the other people who visited the inn angry, Toren saw that. The half-Elf, his creator, and especially the Gnoll [Shopkeeper].
Was it important? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Toren only knew two things. He had leveled today, which was good, and Erin was putting him in charge of the girl, which was bad.
That first night, Toren stayed up late, thinking, trying to figure out if he was being replaced or if this was just punishment for something. He felt his ribs slowly beginning to restore themselves; the bones were reforming out of the air, but slowly, draining the mana within him by quite a bit. But it wasn’t important like the new girl was.
Toren ignored everything as he thought. He stood in the center of the common room until he noticed the girl sneaking downstairs. She didn’t notice him as she snuck into the kitchen, but she did when he caught her hand as it was reaching for Erin’s pouch of coins.
More screaming. More noise. Toren followed orders, and the next day he was left alone with the girl to supervise her. He stared at her in shock, but it was mirrored on her face with not a little revulsion and horror.
He had to teach? Her? Erin wanted the girl to learn how to clean, but all the girl did was back away from Toren, screaming insults and calling him names. He offered her the dustrag several times but she just ran away from him.
At last, she stopped being afraid of him enough to stand still and try to order him around. The girl planted her feet, opened her mouth petulantly and pointed towards the door.
“Thing, I order you to—”
What was Toren supposed to do? He agonized over the problem. He couldn’t kill the girl; he even had orders to protect her and ‘show her the ropes’, which sadly didn’t mean hang or garrote her either.
Okay. Toren could do that. He was good at following orders. It was just…the thing was…
The thing was…he didn’t care about the girl Erin had hired. He did not. He didn’t care that Erin paid more attention to her than to Toren, he didn’t care that the other girl was doing his job (albeit very poorly), and he especially didn’t care that she was a worthless waste of flesh and space.
She was just so tiresome, that was all. It was only that. Yes, only that. And she gave him orders which were…meaningless. They were just words. They didn’t bother Toren at all.
It was simply inconvenient, and Toren disliked the time he was wasting trying to teach her. But that all changed when Toren discovered he could do very enjoyable things to the girl when Erin wasn’t watching. It was fun; pleasurable even. First he used fists and feet, and then fingers, and then he just had to push to have fun. He could stare of course, but that wasn’t nearly as entertaining.
A distraction. In the end, that was all it boiled down to. After Toren discovered the fun that could be had from the girl, and managed to get her to do some chores, it became less of his problem and more of Erin’s. Teaching the girl was a mandatory part of the day Toren resigned himself to, which was only punctuated by a few enjoyable moments. He did what Erin asked of him, but when she was done and the new girl was sniveling or hiding, he went out and hunted.
The Goblins were creeping through the snow, ten of them, dressed in grey winter pelts of some animal. Toren watched them for a while, but they weren’t part of Rags’ Goblins. He had seen them all, and they were coming from the south. He leapt up from the snow where he’d been lying, almost invisible, and ran the first one through. The second he grabbed and strangled with one hand as he began to slaughter the rest.
They couldn’t hurt him, not without magic or enough force to scatter his bones or grind them to dust. One of them tried to cast a spell, but Toren hacked him to bits before he could finish.
The wolverine hunted through the snow, searching for something he could kill. He took a step and slipped on something smooth. Toren opened his jaws and bit upwards. A shame he didn’t have a Drake or Gnolls’ teeth.
The second Corusdeer went down far more easily than the first. Toren had taken to carrying a small hatchet—one of the weapons he’d liberated from dead adventurers in the Ruins—and he threw it and scored a deep cut on the deer’s leg. It was easy to kill then; Toren ran forwards and cut at it from behind, evading the hooves with ease.
But this time, he miscalculated. The Corusdeer that had wandered too far from the herd was nevertheless within sight of them, and as Toren butchered the animal, the rest of the herd thundered towards him.
The skeleton heard a groan, or perhaps some kind of call, and then he realized he was surrounded. But Toren just raised his sword, and wondered how many of them he could kill.
The Corusdeer’s horns began to glow white-hot, and then the wind picked up. Toren glanced across the plains and saw that the wind had kicked up a cloud of freshly fallen snow. It blew towards Toren and the herd of reindeer, a wave of ice. But as it hit the deer’s glowing horns, the snow suddenly became steam.
They had been waiting for that. Even as the blinding steam rushed past Toren, the Corusdeer charged at him, dark shapes and burning horns and hooves in the haze.
Toren ran at them, howling silently. The first charge knocked him off his feet, but then he was among the herd, slashing, stabbing, tearing. The deer stampeded around him, and Toren felt his bones turning black and catching fire from the heat.
The deer were clustered around the skeleton, swiping with their horns, heedless of the heat which somehow didn’t set fire to their own thick hides when suddenly, as one, they turned and fled. Toren lay on the ground, bones still smoking, and stared at the herd as they raced away across the plains. He’d nearly forgotten about the gem of [Terror], but it had its uses.
It was half a day before he could walk again, but he leveled up from that battle all the same.
The wild boar wasn’t one of the ones herded by shepherds of Liscor. He was an alpha among his pack, and he led them through the snow, foraging for edible food in this frozen landscape. In the summer of course they shed their fur, but right now they needed all the warmth they could get, so the herd huddled together.
Not just for the body heat of course; the boars were weak individually, especially given the numerous deadly monsters living on the plains, but together their tusks and explosive power could gore all but the deadliest enemies.
Still, this boar was taking his herd further south, away from Liscor. True, the threats in the south were just as bad; Rock Crabs and Shield Spider nests might be dangers around Liscor, but deadly tribes of Gnolls and other monsters like Wyverns would slaughter even a group as large as his.
But the alpha boar had made up his mind. His pack had just passed by a freshly slaughtered monster, a tall, semi-bipedal creature with leathery skin, and no face. It had only a mouth and no eyes, but its long talons and barbed forearms more than made up for its lack of sight.
It was a formidable enemy that was twice as tall as the alpha boar, and yet it had been brutally hacked apart. It looked like something had killed it, but not even stopped to consume it. What could be so dangerous?
The boar snuffled, raising his snout to the air. His nose was just as good as his eyes at determining where threats lay. He called to the rest of his herd and they followed him as he pushed a path through the snow.
Toren let them go. He was running low on magic from Erin, and he didn’t think he could win against the boars without using the ruby gemstone. And he didn’t level if he used that, or so it seemed.
They were a Gold-rank team that had arrived late to Liscor. Late to the undead invasion, and too late to claim the best inns in the city, which was the most important thing. They weren’t happy about it, but they could still rent an inn to themselves.
“It beats staying at that little Adventurer’s Guild they’ve got in the City, that’s for certain.”
Halrac, their lead [Scout] and [Marksman] complained as they rode on horses through the snow. He peered at the magical compass in his hands and stared at the snowy landscape ahead before motioning the group forwards.
“I don’t think they would have had room for us even if we’d asked. Dead gods, what a city to come to. Are there no adventurers higher than Bronze-rank here?”
“A few, but the city doesn’t need many. They have a strong Watch.”
That came from one of the two mages. Halrac grunted at Typhenous irritably; not so much for the explanation as the mage’s riding style. He was sitting uncomfortably on the horse, who was clearly not fond of the older man, nor the tight grip the mage took on the reins.
“Well, that might be helpful for us. Less competition that way.”
Halrac pointed left, and the group skirted a Shield Spider nest. He kept looking around, but the other mage—a light-skinned girl with stitch marks around her hands, neck, and knees and a long robe sighed irritably.
“That’s only for now. Already Silver-rank adventurers and even some Gold-rank ones are flooding into the city. Word’s spreading about the dungeon underground, and even the undead invasion hasn’t scared many off. Did you see the one talking to the [Paladin] and one with the hammer in the back? That’s a Silver-rank adventurer named Frostfox; she normally takes on missions solo, but even she’s teaming up. Unless we get a jump on the others, we might be upstaged by a Silver-rank team, or another Gold-rank one. There’s already two in the city!”
Halrac opened his mouth to reply, but their leader, a man with a greatsword and magical armor replied. His name was Ulrien, and Halrac was even more concerned about his horse, which had to bear both the man, his sword, and his armor through the snow.
“No worries. The guardian of the crypts that attacked the city was more than a match for any Silver-rank team, or even a group of them. How many joined up to crack open that place? Four? Five? And they were all slaughtered by the Lesser Guardian.”
“Makes you wonder how we’ll do.”
Halrac muttered the words under his breath, but his three companions didn’t look worried. And in truth, he understood Ulrien’s unspoken point. Silver-rank groups might team up as much as they wanted, but even a hundred Silver-rank teams wouldn’t be able to match the magical items and abilities of a Gold-rank team.
“What about Named Adventurers? If some of them arrive—”
“If some arrive, we’d better have a good foothold in the dungeon already. Which is why we need to find the entrance, Halrac.”
Revi glared at Halrac and looked at the magical compass in his hands pointedly. He opened his mouth to retort—he and Revi got along least well—but he turned his focus back to his task instead.
“We’re close to the center of the magical disturbance, but there’s nothing but snow and dirt around for miles.”
“Damn. Another false trail? Should we just start digging and hope we hit a wall or something?”
Typhenous sighed loudly and pointedly at the two non-mages as he pulled on his horse’s reins to make it stop.
“Even if you wanted to dig however far down it is to this dungeon, I doubt you’d be able to blast through the walls without a serious amount of effort. Frankly, I don’t believe I could do it even with Revi’s help. No; we need to find an opening in the earth, or a surface tunnel. The compass should flash when it detects an opening of some kind.”
“It’s flashed five times already today, each time over a Shield Spider nest.”
Halrac snapped back at Typhenous, irritable and cold. He pointed at the distant mountains looming over the plains.
“It might be the entrance is in one of those damn mountains, don’t you think? And if that’s the case we’d better join up with other teams as well because the High Passes are not a place for a single Gold-rank team to go exploring alone. And stop gripping those reins so tight! You’re hurting your mount!”
“Calm down, Halrac. We bought these mounts outright; it’s not like we’re hurting the animals too badly. We’ve got potions if they need it, and we need to get a drop on the others. Let’s keep searching.”
The [Scout] scowled, but he gently nudged his horse into a walk again. He knew he was being irritable—well, moreso than usual, but they’d been travelling day and night to get here before the others. The [Message] spell Revi had received from Liscor had told them of the dungeon and its possible riches, and that was enough to motivate them to make the thousand-mile journey.
“Alright. Let’s head towards that forest over there. Odds are the entrance is buried behind all those trees or underground.”
Halrac began to ride in that direction, but raised his hand just as quickly. The other three adventurers stopped as he squinted across the plains. His vision was far greater than normal, and so he was the first one to see the undead.
“Is that skeleton…fighting a Snow Golem?”
Revi frowned as the group slowly drew closer to the odd sight. Yes, in the distance a lone skeleton was exchanging blows with a Snow Golem of roughly the same height. It was an uneven fight; Halrac could already tell the skeleton was going to win. It had speed, reach, and strength on the Snow Golem, and even as he watched the undead creature speared the Golem through its vulnerable head.
“Now there’s a sight. Do you suppose it’s one of the undead left over from the attack on Liscor?”
Typhenous shook his head again. He gestured at the skeleton as it stomped the Golem into the snow and planted its sword in the snow.
“Look at how it moves. It’s no ordinary skeleton. It must be a revenant of some kind.”
“Revenant? You mean a possessed undead? That’s dangerous.”
Halrac hated the undead. They were hard to kill with his arrows, and some, like ghosts, couldn’t be harmed by normal weapons at all. It was part of the reason why he worked in a team; a mage was always useful when fighting those horrors.
He’d already put an arrow to his bowstring when Revi grabbed his arm. He glared at her.
“Don’t kill it. If it belongs to the city, we’ll have to pay for its destruction.”
Ulrien snorted in disbelief.
“I’ve heard the local Watch uses odd creatures, but an undead?”
“Why else would it be attacking a Snow Golem?”
“Maybe the Golem attacked first. Let me handle this.”
Reluctantly, Halrac lowered his bow. Revi shot him a smile which he did not appreciate or return, and opened a pouch on her belt. Halrac eyed the scrap of cloth the stitch-girl pulled out suspiciously.
“If you’re just going to destroy it, let me—”
“I’m not going to destroy the skeleton. I’ll capture it. If it belongs to the city, we can return it. Otherwise, I’d love to know how strong the spirit bound to the corpse is.”
“And steal the spirit? I’m not having an undead following me around. It’ll spook the horses.”
Revi rolled her eyes as she held the scrap of cloth to the air. It was flesh-colored, much like the fabric that made up her body.
“I’m no [Necromancer], as I’ve told you a thousand times Halrac. But I can still use a spirit, especially if its memory of being alive is still strong.”
Her hands began to glow, and Halrac uneasily moved his mount away from Revi as her voice deepened. She tossed the scrap of fabric into the air and spoke.
“Arise, ancient warrior. Heed the call and return to fight once more.”
A figure shimmered into being. He was a tall man, dressed in bronze armor, holding a mace and shield. His face was completely blank, but he snapped to attention as Revi spoke.
“Capture that skeleton. Break his limbs if you must, but deliver the skull and torso to me intact. Go.”
Instantly, the armored warrior shot off through the snow like an arrow. Halrac had to admit he was impressed by the man’s speed even in armor, he seemed to leap from spot to spot, so that each step covered ten feet as he closed with the skeleton.
As the two began to fight, Halrac eyed Revi.
“I still don’t understand how that’s different from revenants. They’re spirits of dead people bound into bodies and forced to obey the caster. How’s that different from your summons?”
Revi scowled at him as Typhenous sighed loudly and Ulrien shook his head. She was the newest addition to their team, Griffon Hunt, and he still wasn’t used to her. Come to that, he’d be happier if they were still hunting Griffons for pay. It was dangerous, but it wasn’t unpredictable like exploring a new dungeon.
“They’re constructs, not ghosts or spirits. They bear some of the power of their previous bodies, but they don’t have minds. I call them from the memory of souls past, but they’re not the souls themselves. If they were, they’d be far stronger.”
“And that’s your ancestor, is it?”
“Perhaps. Not all String People are related. His name was Kelthor, but he’s only a shadow of the warrior he was in life.”
“Still strong enough to take on a lone skeleton, though. I hope you’ve got enough for when we fight a real enemy.”
“With any luck, I’ll have another one soon enough. I can imprint the soul bound to that skeleton and let the spirit go, and then we’ll all be happy.”
Halrac was never happy, but he watched as the skeleton began to fight with the summoned phantom anyways. His eyes travelled to the right, and he called out to Ulrien.
“Corusdeer. A herd of them. We’d best not get too close unless you want a real fight.”
The big man nodded.
“I see them. We’re far enough away and upwind. The only risk is that Revi’s pet warrior or the skeleton attract them.”
“If it comes to that I’ll recall the warrior or banish him on the spot. Stop worrying, Halrac. Watch; the skeleton’s nearly done.”
It was true. A shadow of his past self Kelthor’s image might be, but he was still far stronger than a normal skeleton. Halrac estimated he was around Level 25, give or take a bit. Not enough for a Gold-rank with his poor equipment, but certainly the equal of any Silver-rank adventurer.
He was bashing the skeleton mercilessly, and the undead was falling back, unable to strike back. Indeed, the armored man was still unharmed because every time the skeleton did try to attack, his sword would glance off the armor or shield of the man.
“Ancient equipment. How old is this construct?”
“Oh, I got it from my grandmother. He’s declined in power since she used him, but it’s a testament to his original strength. And he’s quite efficient.”
Kelthor’s phantom had caught the skeleton with a strike that knocked one arm clean off. The skeleton retreated now, running backwards swiftly as he deflected strikes. Halrac cursed.
“Damn. They’re headed straight for the Corusdeer herd.”
“Not if I can help it. Kelthor! Stop the skeleton now!”
It was impossible for Kelthor to have heard Revi’s actual words at that distance, but he did nevertheless. He sprinted at the skeleton, swinging his mace faster. And the skeleton—
Halrac felt the chill on his heart and nearly screamed out loud. Fear, pure and unrelenting, suddenly poured over him for a brief instant. Revi and Typhenous cried out, and Ulrien gritted his teeth. Kelthor suddenly paused and stumbled backwards, and the skeleton ran towards the Corusdeer herd.
The [Scout] turned to the other adventurers, feeling the terrible terror gripping him dissipated as quickly as it had come. Ulrien fingered the protective stone at his chest, and Revi and Typhenous collected themselves as best they could.
“What the hell was that?”
The gem of [Terror] had worked. Toren scrambled through the snow, towards the herd of Corusdeer, knowing he wouldn’t get another chance to use it. The warrior that was alive-and-not-alive had only paused when he’d used it, which meant he was probably resistant.
And just as the skeleton thought that, the warrior with the mace and shield charged towards him again. He was so fast! He exploded through the snow, leaving a trail behind him as he dashed at Toren, mace raised.
This time the skeleton stood his ground. He swung his sword and dodged back as the mace flew at him. Too slow; Toren felt himself being sent flying again.
But this time, he was close to the herd of Corusdeer. They looked up as one of Toren’s ribs flew through the air above their heads, and then began pawing the ground as they sensed intruders. Perfect.
The warrior had paused, and Toren realized that the odd group of adventurers far away was probably controlling him. Slowly, he backed up out of the Corusdeer’s territory. Toren watched him go, and looked around at the deer.
They were igniting their horns, but not charging. Not yet, anyways. He slowly began to walk away from them as well. Towards the armored warrior, which was death as well. But Toren moved slowly, because he was waiting. Waiting…
They were almost out of range of the Corusdeer when it happened. A gust of air blew snow up into the sky. Toren had been waiting for that. He ran at the other warrior, and the phantom-man raised his mace. Toren knew he couldn’t win, not in a fair fight.
But this fight was about to get less than fair. Because as the snow blew in a cloud past the Corusdeer, it turned to blowing steam and mist as it hit their horns. The blinding fog engulfed Toren and the phantom, and too late the construct realized the danger.
He couldn’t see, or even breathe that well in the hot, vaporous fumes. But Toren had memorized the man’s position, and now he unleashed his gaze of [Terror] as well.
The man with the mace swung blindly, creating an arc of whirling metal around his head. He shifted, crouching low as he looked left and right, waiting for the steam to dis—
Toren’s purple flaming eyes appeared out of the steam, and his sword flashed forwards. His reassembled arm caught the mace and bone shattered once more as his sword flashed past the warrior’s neck.
The slight gap where armor met flesh parted as the sword cut through the ghostly skin. The man choked as blood spurted from the wound. Toren hadn’t expected that. But the phantom was real enough, and he sank to his knees, gasping for air, dying.
He looked up at Toren, and the skeleton thought he saw a smile cross the man’s face before his body dissipated, leaving his weapon, shield, and armor behind in the snow.
The steam vanished, and Toren was left alone as the Corusdeer dimmed their horns and ignored the skeleton once again. He looked at the dented bronze armor, a relic from time long past. He reached down—
And the arrow shattered his skull and sent Toren sprawling in the snow.
Halrac lowered his bow and looked at Revi. The female mage was fuming, her eyes hot with fury.
“It was too close to the Corusdeer. If we went after it, it would only make the herd angry. You’ve already lost one summon—unless you can recover it?”
Revi said the words bitterly. She stared at the armor that was all that remained of Kelthor, and shook her head.
“Once they’re dead again, they’re gone. If he was just injured I could restore him but—”
She clenched her teeth.
“What a waste. Let’s just go.”
She turned, and Halrac hesitated as he looked at the armor. It was lying in the snow next to the fallen skeleton.
“Do you want to recover the plate? It’s bronze, but it could be worth something—”
“Tsk. Leave it. It’s just low-quality armor anyways.”
The adventurers left. Revi was in no mood to talk, Typhenous was saddle-sore, Ulrien was bored, and Halrac had to keep looking for potential dangers as they continued exploring for the entrance to the dungeon below Liscor. But the [Scout] kept looking back at the skeleton. It hadn’t been that strong, but it had been cunning. And what had that terror been? Some feature of the undead, or a magical item?
It was dead, though. It lay in the snow, unmoving. But then why did Halrac still feel uneasy?
It took a long time before Toren was sure he wasn’t being watched, and his skull was finally reassembled. He sat up in the snow and stared around. Well, he’d nearly died again, but he’d leveled up. A good trade, he felt.
On cue, the notification began to read in his head, but with a pleasant surprise this time.
[Skeleton Knight Level 20!]
[Skill – Power Strike Obtained!]
[Skill – Weapon Proficiency: Shield Obtained!]
[Skill Change – Power Strike → Mirage Cut!]
[Skill – Mirage Cut Obtained!]
He was a [Skeleton Knight] now? Was that different than a [Skeleton Warrior]? And did that mean he had the [Knight] class, or was that different from being a skeleton? Toren had no idea, but he looked at the metal armor in the snow and decided that whatever the mysterious message in his head was telling him, it was a good idea.
The armor was cumbersome to don, but when it was on Toren he felt tough. Heavy, and far slower, but tough enough to fight without needing to worry about being disassembled with each strike. He took the shield but left the mace in the snow; he preferred cutting weapons anyways.
It was a long and slow trek back to the inn. Toren was worrying how Erin would react when she saw the armor. Maybe he could hide it? It had never occurred to him to hide anything, or to trick her, rather. But it beat her asking questions, and of course, it wasn’t as if she owned the armor. It was Toren’s. He’d won it.
The annoying girl was probably going to be his responsibility when he got back. Toren dreaded that. Couldn’t he slow down?
Toren was pondering all of this as he slowly walked back to the inn. Then his head snapped up. He saw the struggling shapes on the hill before he heard the sounds of fighting. Toren saw furred shapes—brown, grey, and black mainly, struggling around the inn, and several figures fighting. One held a sword; the others warded the Gnolls off with magic while one more had no weapons and was fighting with her fists.
There was no time for thought, no time for action. Toren had no heart, but he felt a shock at his very core. Erin was in danger. Like her, hate her, he still had his duty. She was under attack, and that meant he would fight.
Toren drew his sword and shield, and charged.