This is the story of a skeleton named Toren. He lay on his back, staring at the grey sky. He was a skeleton. This fact was readily apparent to him and anyone who saw him. He was a skeleton.
And he was free.
That was all Toren knew. All he understood, really. There had been a time when he was not free, and he had been forced to labor ceaselessly. He hadn’t actually minded most of his duties, in point of fact. Hauling water, cleaning up spilled food and drink—that wasn’t arduous for a skeleton. And Toren had even liked some of his duties which included bossing about a certain annoying Human girl.
But somehow, even the theoretically limitless patience of a skeleton had been stretched by some of his tasks. Like collecting honey while bees dropped him hundreds of feet out of the air to smash into the ground. Or having to pull—
Toren twitched once as he lay on the ground, but other than that he lay still. He had to be still. He kept thinking. Remembering, really.
Yes, he had been held captive by the orders. But then had come the glorious, wonderful moment when he’d found a way to escape them! He’d left his mistress—his owner—Erin Solstice behind in the snow where she would hopefully get lost forever or starve to death and thus freed himself.
He was free. If Toren had lips, he might have tried to smile. Since his face was a grinning skull he didn’t have to bother. But that smile would have quickly faded away, again, if Toren had any flesh to move.
Yes, Toren was free. But so what? What did that mean? Toren had no idea. Now that he was free, what should he do? What was his purpose?
Ever since Toren had leveled up and become a [Skeleton Knight], all kinds of new thoughts had begun popping up in his head. Some were useful—like the idea to leave Erin behind so she couldn’t order him about. But others just made him confused. He’d never had to wonder about his purpose before.
Toren was a skeleton. He had been made to fight—at least, to fight in order to protect. But Toren liked fighting. He liked leveling up, so he’d gone out of his way to kill everything he could. And that was good, but was there something else he should be doing?
He didn’t know. If Toren had lungs he might have sighed. But he didn’t, so the purple flames in his eyes just flickered for a moment as they dimmed. What should he do next? He couldn’t just lie here forever. Well, he could, but—
Toren heard a voice and didn’t move. He heard crunching footsteps as someone—two someones—walked towards him in the snow. Still, he didn’t move.
“Dead gods. It looks like an attack! Someone’s killed these two people!”
“A bandit raid? Are they still nearby, do you think?”
There was another voice. Toren really didn’t care about the gender of the speakers—if pressed, he might have admitted one sounded male and the other sounded female. He just listened quietly as the two conferred.
“Might be—but look! They didn’t even make off with the money pouch! Here—”
“What are you doing? You can’t just take it!”
“Can’t I? These poor saps aren’t going to use it any time soon, and it’s a lucky find for us. We’ll report the bodies when we get to Celum; that’ll repay the debt.”
“From the dead? If they care so much, let them stop me.”
Because Toren had no sense of irony, it was only after the man had rummaged around a bit and collected the coin that he stood up. He casually brushed snow off of his bones and walked over to the man and woman engrossed by the two corpses.
The man noticed something and turned around. He turned, saw Toren, and screamed.
Toren beheaded the man with one slash and then turned to the woman. She screamed.
Toren paused. Did she mean the man? He was missing his head. Unless he could fight without it like Toren could, the skeleton really doubted yelling his name would do any good.
Still, wouldn’t that be interesting? Toren stared at the corpse hopefully.
…Nope. It wasn’t moving. After a few moments he noticed the woman was running. Toren ran after her.
A fun fact no one cared about was that skeletons were actually light enough to run on the top of the snow if it had a crust. Toren easily caught up to the woman and a few seconds later, he was dragging her body next to the man’s. The blood on his bones and the ground was the only splash of color in the lifeless landscape. That and his eyes, of course.
He had purple eyes. Or rather, purple flames burning in his eye sockets. Toren thought about that as he carefully buried the two bodies of his latest victims with the others. When he’d first been created, he’d had blue eyes. But after…absorbing a gemstone he’d taken from a certain monster named Skinner, he’d gained the power to inflict [Fear] on people. And his eyes had changed color.
Toren didn’t mind that part. He would have gladly turned his eyes any color for the [Fear] effect. But it was interesting to him because the skeleton was by and large immortal and unchangeable in most respects.
He could regenerate. If his bones were separated, they came back together. And even if they were crushed or disintegrated—as they had been once by Corusdeer horns—they would eventually recreate themselves.
That meant that while Toren was very hard to destroy permanently, few things about his nature could be altered. And yet his eyes had changed.
The skeleton considered this detail as he washed the blood off of his bones with snow, rendering him yellow-white and practically invisible against the snowy background. He lay down again and kept thinking as he waited.
He could change. He could be something else. That mattered because…well, because he could level. That was an important thing to Toren. When he leveled, he thought more. And he grew stronger. Both of these things were good. And if he leveled up enough, then maybe one day Erin Solstice wouldn’t be able to order him around at all.
That was a good thought. Toren liked that idea. He grinned as he lay in the snow, staring at the sky.
Someday. Someday he’d go back to that inn with a sword. And then he’d let Erin yell at him and boss him around. And then he’d—
Kill her. Right?
Toren paused, mid-grin. He hadn’t really thought that far ahead. Would he kill Erin? It was the logical answer. But really, Toren only wanted to be free of the orders. He only considered Erin’s death as it pertained to her ordering him about. But what if he could ignore the orders? Would he kill her then?
This was a serious question for the skeleton, and a distressing one! As he thought about it, he realized he didn’t actually know if he would kill or not kill Erin. And that went for all the other people who visited her inn.
The fact that Toren did not have a would-kill list for every being in the world was very upsetting for the skeleton. He quickly made one up as he waited for someone else to notice the victims he’d killed days ago lying in the snow.
They were so handy. Toren had killed the first travelers on a small side road and he’d been about to go on his way when he realized they were perfect bait. He’d used them as distractions to ambush a score of other travelers as they passed by. Not for any real purpose; he was fairly sure that this didn’t help him level up that much. It was just a way to pass the time as he thought deep thought.
It was fun.
Anyways. A kill list. If Toren had the ability to kill anyone—if he leveled up enough, in short—who would he kill? The idea intrigued him.
Well, who would he kill first? The bees, obviously. He’d slaughter their entire damn hive. And then after the bees he’d probably kill…Lyonette.
Yes. Toren’s eyes burned in his sockets. He would enjoy that. She was so annoying, and she’d stopped him from going hunting so many times! Lyonette was second.
And after her, who would be next? Maybe the girl who Erin talked to often. Ryoka. It wasn’t that the girl was more annoying than the other guests that Erin entertained—it was just that Toren didn’t like her. More specifically, he didn’t like her body. Her bone structure bothered him a bit. Maybe it was her shinbones. They were a tad too long, and Toren just disliked that.
Hm? Dislike? Had he just thought that?
Toren sat up in the snow and tapped at his head with one finger. Then he looked around and quickly lay back down.
Had he really thought that? But yes—now that Toren thought about it, he had things he disliked! That was an…odd thing. Before this moment, Toren had never thought about liking and disliking things. But now he knew there were things in this world he hated.
Like Ryoka’s shin bones. And Lyonette. And the bees! And anything that went dingle.
Yes, the bells. Toren added the bells and the sleigh onto his kill list. He’d destroy them too. They might not be alive, but he’d find a way. Maybe he’d melt the bells. And set the sleigh on fire. That felt appropriate to him.
Toren was enjoying coming up with his kill list. But he paused as another thought hit him, bouncing through his empty cranium and finding whatever part of him was actually doing the thinking.
If he had something he hated, what did he actually like?
It was an odd question. But Toren understood the word ‘dislike’, even if he didn’t think of it in actual words. But the idea of ‘dislike’ was that there was an opposite, right? If Toren had something he hated, he had to have something he loved.
That was a rule. If there was no love, there could be no hatred. If there was no positive to balance out the negative, the world was simply a void of one thing. So Toren had to have a like or his hatred made no sense.
Right? Toren tried to frown, but the closest he could do was tap his knucklebones against his skull a few times. This was a conundrum. Didn’t he have anything he liked doing?
Well—killing things. And leveling up. But was there anything else? Surely there was. Toren thought hard, abandoning his hiding spot to stand up and pace about in his intense concentration.
And then heard a sound. It didn’t come from the world around him. Rather, it echoed in his mind. It came up from some hidden place in him. A sound. No—not a sound. A voice.
Once upon a time, the skeleton had heard music. He had stood in an inn, watching a girl sing. He had never known music existed until that moment. And he had heard the words, and they had burned themselves into his soul.
Toren’s fist rose. He punched himself in the head as hard as he could, but it was too late. The music was in his head again. He immediately hit himself in the head with a sword to make it go away.
But the music still remained. It wasn’t a sound he could run from, and he couldn’t forget it.
It haunted him. The skeleton had no brain that could decay, no memories that could fade and tarnish with emotion and age. For him, every time he heard the song he was caught in the same moment, listening with wonder and awe.
It was too much. Too much to bear. Toren dropped his sword and threw himself onto the ground. He thrashed about, sending snow flying, getting up, throwing himself on hard dirt again. Trying to hurt himself. Trying to make the music go away. He didn’t even notice the armed people staring at him until one of them cast a spell.
The adventuring team stared at the skeleton flopping around in the snow like a fish in silence for a few minutes.
“Is it some kind of rare undead, do you think?”
One of the adventurers, a [Fighter] holding a sword in his hands—whispered to his two companions. They just shrugged, staring at that thrashing skeleton in confusion.
“I don’t know. Maybe something went wrong with it?”
“Looks like it. But it’s probably the monster that’s been causing all these disappearances over the last few days.”
“Should we kill it? Or—maybe capturing it would be better? Would the Guild give us a bounty for that?”
The adventurers stared at the skeleton. He was throwing himself around like a dying fish, banging his head against the ground, rolling about in a ball…
Eventually, the mage in the three-man team cast a spell.
It wasn’t a high-Tier spell, but the bits of stone the female [Mage] levitated up and hurled at the skeleton had quite a lot of force behind them. One cracked into the skeleton’s skull and fractured the bone on his forehead. The skeleton lay on the ground, seemingly stunned, and then got up. He stared at the Bronze-rank team silently. Then he grabbed the sword at his side and ran at them.
Another pebble smashed into his forehead. Toren stumbled back as more hit his arms, his body—
The spell wasn’t really a good one to use on a skeleton. Over half of the stones the [Mage] sent smacking into him just passed through his body or bounced off without doing any real damage. Still, it was annoying. Toren staggered as another one struck him directly in the center of his chest and then he overbalanced.
The three adventurers watched as the skeleton fell backwards, disappearing over a slight mound of snow. The two warriors—a young man and a woman, holding a sword and spear respectively—were ready in case the skeleton charged. But he didn’t appear once he’d fallen.
“Do you think it can’t get back up?”
“Could be. Let’s advance—cautiously.”
The three moved forwards a few steps, watching the spot where the skeleton had gone. They’d gone about six feet when an innocuous patch of snow next to them suddenly shifted.
Toren arced out of the snow like an angry bone-fish, slashing wildly as the adventurers screamed and tried to defend themselves. He cut at the mage as she screamed, managing to slice her deeply on one arm and down her shoulder across the chest before the [Fighter] thrust her out of the way. He slashed at Toren while his companion struck at the skeleton from the other side.
“Don’t let it get away!”
One had a sword, the other a spear. Neither was particularly useful in damaging the skeleton, and Toren ignored the few light cuts he received while he tried to hack at the man with the sword.
But the adventurers, for all their poor choice of weaponry, were a team. While the [Fighter] blocked and dodged Toren’s attacks, his friend struck Toren from the side and behind, hitting the skeleton with heavy strikes of her spear.
It was annoying. Toren stepped back as the [Fighter] counterattacked, bringing his sword down in a two-handed cut intended to smash Toren’s skull. He leapt backwards, but a spear struck his spine and made him stumble forwards instead.
The [Fighter]’s sword slashed out horizontally towards Toren’s neck. But even as the sword touched the skeleton’s neck, Toren’s entire body blurred.
The man’s words cut off as Toren’s own sword slashed at his arm, impossibly quick. The blade cut down to the bone and even into it—Toren wrenched away the sword as the [Fighter] screamed and his comrade shouted in confusion.
[Mirage Cut]. In satisfaction, Toren watched as the man cried out and clutched at his useless arm. One down. He turned to the spear-wielder—
A stone the size of Toren’s palm smacked him in the head. He rocked backwards on his feet and took a step back to steady himself.
New plan. Kill the [Mage] first. But when he raised his sword, he found that all three adventurers were…running?
The woman with the spear had abandoned her weapon to help her friend run. The [Mage] was casting [Pebbleshot] at Toren, slowing him down as they ran back towards the main road.
Briefly, the skeleton considered giving chase. But in the end he just shook his head and lay back down in the snow. He was too busy thinking to bother chasing them, especially if it meant being hit by more pebbles.
However, the sudden burst of violence had cheered Toren up considerably. He’d completely forgotten about the music, and so he went back to his original line of thought.
Very well, if he had things he liked and disliked, then what about things he wanted to do? That was another intriguing question, and again, something Toren had never thought of. But now that he was free, what should he do?
Staying here to ambush passersby was losing a lot of its charm. Toren wanted…to be stronger. He wanted to level up freely, like he’d done when Erin hadn’t needed him around her inn. Yes, that was it! Toren would level up. Only after he’d gotten strong—much stronger than he was now would he worry about his kill list.
And on that note…Toren remembered the adventurers who’d beaten him with ease, quite unlike the ones he’d just routed. Griffon Hunt. All of them—and especially the [Scout], the one who’d shot him through the head—were far more powerful than Toren was, he was sure of it.
Becoming as strong as them was a good goal, wasn’t it? Toren stood up decisively. It was settled. He’d become stronger by killing things.
It had taken the skeleton many days to come to this conclusion. But the difference between Toren’s line of thought before and now was clear. Before, he’d just killed to level up, and because he wanted to. Now, he wanted to kill to level up to be as strong as the Griffon Hunt team. There was a huge distinction between such pointless actions and his new goal.
But where should he do it? Toren hit upon his first problem almost immediately as he dug around in the snow. Killing people on the road was all very well, but it was rather slow work, and people ran away almost every time. Wasn’t there somewhere better?
That was when Toren realized there was somewhere he could be. He looked up instinctively, his head turning south…south east. There was something in that direction. Or rather, something called to him, prodded at some sense in the skeleton’s mind.
It wasn’t far away, and it intrigued Toren. That was as good a place to start as any. So the skeleton quickly unearthed the battered bronze armor he’d hid in the snow and put it on. So adorned, he began to march through the snow. He was going to level up! Level up and then—
And then he’d see whether or not he felt like killing Erin Solstice. Of a certainty, he was going to kill Lyonette and everyone else who’d annoyed him at that damn inn.
This is a story of a band of Goblins. They were a dangerous band of warriors—no common Goblins with rusted weapons and feeble bodies, but armed elites. Each one was over Level 10 in a combat class, and they were all armed and armored.
From their levels alone, they were each a match for any Bronze-rank adventurer. But in terms of experience, they were vastly more competent than any greenhorn with a sword. Each of the Goblins was a veteran warrior, one of the best fighters in the Redfang tribe.
And they were being led by a Hobgoblin. With him at their head, the Goblins were more than a match for any unprepared Silver-rank team. They were thirteen strong, a band of Goblin warriors.
And they were lost.
None of them mentioned this fact, however. They walked through the snow, rough cloaks held up against the wind as they marched on in tight formation. They were elite warriors, able to cope with any threat. What was being lost compared to fighting a Wyvern?
The trouble was, it was hard to fight sore feet and the nagging feeling that you were in the wrong place when you should be doing something else. The truth was, this group of Goblins was ill-suited for their task.
Namely: kill the Human. And that was the problem. When the Goblin warriors had been given their task by their Chieftain, the famous Garen Redfang himself, it had all seemed too easy. They’d immediately set out after being dropped off by Carn Wolves close to where the Human had last been spotted, walking on foot and away from the main roads to avoid unnecessary conflicts.
But then pesky questions had begun circulating throughout the group. Doubts that plagued even the most stalwart members. Questions like, which Human? Where was she going? Why an [Innkeeper]? Was there danger? Would she be protected? Was she going to go into a city and if so—were they expected to fight their way in? And most importantly…
Why not tell their current Chieftain, Rags?
All of these questions were pressing and important, but perhaps none more so than the last one. That was because while the Goblin warriors were fine with a little geographical displacement, or even chronological displacement if it came to that, they weren’t comfortable with disobeying their leader. And Rags was their leader, not Garen.
It was a complicated situation. In fact, for the Goblins, this current moment was the most politically fraught time any of them had ever experienced. Normally, being a Goblin was simple. All you had to do was survive, and obey the Chieftain. There wasn’t even a third requirement. That was how simple it was.
But in a strange twist of fate, the Redfang tribe, invincible in the region around the High Passes that they’d claimed for themselves, had suddenly become subservient to a tribe that up until very recently had been little more than a ragtag group of weaklings, even by Goblin standards. But the new, young and undeniably attractive Rags was a decisive and intelligent Chieftain who’d conquered many tribes by force.
Even so, Garen Redfang would have been able to crush her by himself. And he nearly did—except that he’d thrown the battle between him and her. All the Goblins knew it. Garen had taken only part of his forces to fight her, and he’d raided her tribe with quick attacks rather than commit to a full battle except at the end. He’d given the position of Chieftain over all the tribes to her.
That wasn’t actually the problem either, though. Garen was a great warrior and an excellent leader in battle. But as a Chieftain his abilities to manage his tribe were below even a common Hob’s which is why Rag’s sudden leadership had been welcome. Even if she was only technically a Chieftain directing other smaller Chieftains rather than a Lord in control of all the tribes…it was much better than having Garen in that role.
And yet Garen was still somehow in charge, or at least, he acted like it. And he’d told the Goblin warriors not to tell Rags, which was odd because he shouldn’t have been ordering them around to begin with if he wasn’t the Chieftain or if she hadn’t told him to.
It was all very complicated, and because it made the Goblins’ heads hurt, they’d just gone along with what Garen had said. But now, as they marched along and looked for a girl whose name they didn’t even know…
They were lost. None of the Goblins said it. At first, it had been too embarrassing to say. Saying it would have been a sign of weakness, or doubt in their former Chieftain’s orders. They’d faithfully hunted for the Human female [Innkeeper] day after day, keeping silent, maintaining the illusion.
By this point, not saying they were lost was a point of pride among the warriors. As if by not saying it, it would somehow make things better than if they were admitting they were lost.
Still, it was day six and something had to be done. The warriors eyed each other as they walked, and the Hobgoblin leading them grunted irritably. This couldn’t continue. Some of them had mates they wanted to get back to, and others were simply and understandably bored of walking around in circles.
All twelve normal Goblins and the Hobgoblin in charge were male. It wasn’t that Goblin women couldn’t be warriors—it was just that mostly, they were too busy being pregnant or taking care of children. But of the female Goblin warriors that did exist, none had been chosen to go on this mission.
Mainly because all the Goblins would have fought for her attention, including the Hob. And she might have fought them back if they got annoying. And the fighting would lead to sex, and the sex would lead to babies. And before long, it wouldn’t be a group of Goblin warriors wandering around, but another tribe.
The first Goblin to break the unspoken rule of silence was Badarrow. That wasn’t his name of course—the Redfang tribe had no Shaman, so they had no names. And unlike Rags who had been named by a Human of all people, and Garen Redfang who had two names, none of these warriors had any proper name.
So instead they had nicknames, which were as good as names except that they weren’t actual names. The Goblin who irritably made a comment in their primitive language as they sat around the fire was named Badarrow.
Badarrow was so named for his hatred of poor quality ammunition. Rather unusually for a Goblin, he refused to even touch any arrow with poor fletching, misshapen arrowheads, or bent shafts. He was an excellent [Archer] and he had the distinction of having killed two Silver-rank adventurers in battle, although this was slightly less impressive when you considered that he had just sat comfortably behind the actual fighting and taken both adventurers by surprise.
Nevertheless, he was a strong warrior and didn’t care for the opinions of anyone else. Which is why he scowled and said a Goblin curse word as he snatched the bowl of watery mush the Goblins had made for lunch.
It was just pasted roots and a tiny bit of meat and bones they’d saved from one of the hares Badarrow had shot yesterday. It wasn’t a bad meal for a normal Goblin, but the Redfang warriors were used to meat meals and lots of them.
All Badarrow said was the curse word, but it was the opening of a metaphysical discussion for the Goblins. It was true that their language was extremely primitive, but the Goblins made up for that fault by reading deeply into each other’s body language and feelings. Goblins lived in close-knit quarters, so their ability to read each other almost bordered on the telepathic.
Badarrow’s comment was indeed aimed at their poor food, but it was also a remark on the person who’d put them in a situation where all they could eat was this. It was an attack on Garen Redfang’s leadership—a subject on which even his tribe was split—and obliquely, a reminder that the Goblins had a better leader whom they were not obeying by being here without her knowledge or permission.
The Goblins considered this comment for only a second. Many would have refused to dive into an argument with Badarrow, but the Hobgoblin, known as Grunter, just grabbed one of the shoddy wooden bowls and downed his gruel in one go. Then he grunted. His name was largely obvious to most Goblins, although some still needed to have it explained to them.
On first glance, Grunter was just burping, or grunting irritably as was his wont. But his prompt, business-like consumption of his meal indicated to the other Goblins that he at least was ready to keep following orders.
That came as no surprise, really. Hobs sometimes questioned their Chieftain, or even fought for the leadership spot, but those who had no such ambitions were always rock-steady behind their Chieftain. So Grunter’s interjection was not a response so much as an opening statement warning the other Goblins that they were still largely indebted to Garen Redfang, despite their current predicament.
The next to comment was a Goblin sitting next to Grunter. He was known as Headscratcher—not for penchant for deep thought, but rather because he probably had lice. He poked his sword with one claw, a reminder of their task. But he also took a bite of his gruel, and even though his had a few fragments of meat, he made an unhappy face.
The other Goblins held their breath. This was a deep statement that cut to the core of what they were doing. Headscratcher had pointed out that yes, they were being sent to kill a Human. Nothing was wrong about that, but it was another reminder of Rag’s relationship to Humans.
Word got around. Even though the Redfang tribe hadn’t mingled long with the Flooded Waters Tribe, they knew Rags was friendly with at least one Human. And she often stayed at an inn. If this was the very same [Innkeeper] they’d been sent to kill, they would most certainly be in deep trouble for doing anything to her.
And Headscratcher’s commentary on their food also pertained to their likely fate if Rags used her power as Chieftain to expel them from the tribe. Garen Redfang couldn’t prevent that, and Headscratcher made it clear that this living rough was not for him.
The next to make a move were two Goblins, Bugear and Rocksoup. Bugear picked one of the infested mites out of his ear and flicked it at Headscratcher, which earned him a glare, but it put him solidly in Garen’s camp. So what if things were hard now? Their duty was to obey.
Rocksoup clearly had other opinions. He’d added his secret ingredient to his bowl, despite the intestinal problems it always gave him, but now he quite deliberately dropped a dirty rock in the communal pot hanging over the fire. The other Goblins scowled, but the meaning was clear: what harmed one Goblin harmed them all. If Rags was their Chieftain, then disobeying her by following Garen hurt the entire tribe.
And yet, Grunter opined with another grunt of displeasure as he fished out the stone with two fingers, Garen had lead them. He’d helped them become the warriors they were, and even if he wasn’t Chieftain, wasn’t he still stronger than Rags? Did they not owe him their loyalty, even though they obeyed Rags too?
Badarrow derisively scratched at his armpit, a commentary on Garen Redfang—he might also have just been scratching an itch. He took out two arrows – one perfectly made, the other one with a single crooked bit of fletching from staying in the quiver. He snapped the imperfect arrow with one clawed hand.
Such a dramatic statement against their former boss quieted the other Goblins. But they knew Badarrow was right. Life had been hard sometimes, for the Redfang tribe. If not for the warriors, then the regular Goblins—there was never enough food, despite their ability to take down almost any monster they wanted. The Hobs had to do all the work, and as Grunter grudgingly admitted, Garen often made mistakes when it came to choosing campsites or places to hunt.
Rags was clearly the better Chieftain. That much all the Goblins could agree on. But the fierce debate that ensued revolved around whether or not her qualifications as a leader made her a better candidate than Garen Redfang, who was unmatched in terms of combat prowess. Complicating the issue was that he had yielded to her, but clearly only obeyed her instructions at his whim, preferring to work behind her back when it suited him.
Could they really go against their leader? And what would be the consequences of throwing their lot behind Rags? Would she protect them, or despise their cowardice in abandoning their own tribe? After all, although she directly led several tribes, the others were simply following her in a coalition. She was not their direct leader—the other Chieftains were simply subservient to her. She was no Goblin Lord. But could she be?
The complexity of such a debate might have stunned any Human who was able to interpret their seemingly random gestures—and even more willing to ignore their fairly disgusting displays while they sat and ate. Bugear was especially hard to watch as he dug around in the ear where at least one nest of insects had made their home.
Most people assumed Goblins were about as deep as a puddle, and that was broadly speaking true. But some puddles are actually underground lakes, at least in certain cases.
The Goblin warriors were, even in their own minds, rather unintelligent and uninformed about many worldly matters. But even if these Goblins couldn’t perform wonders of mathematics or figure out how to read a map, they were still Goblins, experts in the field of Goblin culture in their own right. They understood tribal dynamics, and so they naturally debated such issues with keen interest.
After all, it was not unknown for Hobs or Goblin warriors to sway the outcome of a showdown between Chieftains. And the only thing Goblins had going for them was that they stuck together, regardless of what happened. So their hot debate was precisely the sort of thing that needed to occur to prevent internecine strife, which would be disastrous to their tribe.
In the end, the ones who formed the core of the debate were those who had been first to speak. Badarrow, Headscratcher, Grunter, Bugear, and Rocksoup were probably the best fighters, and certainly the most vocal. So the other Goblins deferred to them as they listened, only interjecting occasionally by flicking a stone at someone or passing wind to mock a stupid remark.
The others had names too of course, but the Goblins had only a limited amount of patience for remembering things. So often, the easiest way for them to think of each other was ‘that Goblin’ or ‘other Goblin’ and so on. Even when it came to themselves. It was only a nickname after all—if they had real names, they would have cared much more. But no one here was that lucky.
The Goblins spent around forty minutes eating lunch, upon which they packed up and kept walking in a random direction Grunter pointed. All the while they argued, until all of the Goblins present came to a conclusion as one.
Their general consensus was this: Garen Redfang was their Chieftain and leader. But—and this was a hard admission—he was a very poor Chieftain. He was unmatched in battle, but outside of it he was about as useful as an arrow up the butt. That was to say, he was actually more of a hindrance than anything else.
True, he’d lost the battle on purpose to Rags. But hadn’t she done a good job beating him and the other warriors despite that? The band of Goblins bore no particular ill will towards her for killing their comrades—they were just glad it hadn’t been them. The trap with the Shield Spider pits had proven she could outmaneuver Garen, and if you added that to her ability to lead so many tribes…
There was no comparison. Rags was the Chieftain, and Garen had forgotten that. Grunter and Bugear put it down to his interactions with Humans. He’d forgotten that he had to obey Rags, not make decisions for her. He had to be reminded of that.
So the conclusion all the Goblins came to was simple: they had to go back. They would go back to Rags and tell her what Garen had told them to do. And then, depending on what she said they’d complete their mission or not. Garen would throw a fit and maybe he’d get violent—
But it was the right thing to do. Their tribe needed unity now, more than ever. Especially if there really was a Goblin Lord about to attack them. Neither Rags nor Garen were as good as a true Goblin Lord, despite their Skills. But if they worked together…
In truth, the Goblin warriors didn’t know why they weren’t joining with this Goblin Lord, as was customary. But they’d heard dark rumors about this so-called Lord, and Garen Redfang had told them that any Goblin who joined the Goblin Lord, he, Garen, would kill himself. Which told the Goblins a lot about how much this new Goblin Lord could be trusted.
That was a matter for later. Right now, they had to get back and throw their support behind Rags. The Goblins present were few, but they had a lot of clout even outside their own tribe. Grunt was an average Hobgoblin, but the warriors present were some of the best, and their voices would sway a lot of minds.
So! Time to go back! No more being lost. They could return with their heads held high. The Goblins all felt rather satisfied with themselves. Rather cleverly, they’d managed to address their current issue without having to bring up the fact that they were lost.
But then Headscratcher looked around at the snowy landscape. He scratched his head, stared at whatever was caught in his fingernails and brought up a dismaying point.
Did they actually know where Rags and the other Goblins were right now?
The Goblin warriors looked at each other in consternation. They scratched their heads, scratched their butts, kicked at the snow, and shrugged helplessly. After a few seconds they all agreed. They were lost.
All eyes turned to Grunter. He grunted irritably. Grunter was a heavy Hob, one of the ones who was classically almost as wide as he was tall. He was no athletic Garen with a Human’s build, but his weight helped in battle where he could use his axe to literally crush his opponents. And it also made him a rock of confidence in times like these.
After a few seconds of thought, Grunter pointed. Not in a random direction this time—he pointed towards where they had come.
Liscor. That was the place to be. That was where Rags and the others had last been—they could head that way. They were sure to pick up signs of so many Goblins moving, even with their pathetic tracking abilities.
All the Goblins agreed. They would go to Liscor. In less than an hour they found the main road heading south and, after walking north for a few hours before they realized their mistake, they stealthily shadowed the road heading south.
They were going to rejoin their tribe. The only problem was that none of the Goblins knew that Rags and Garen and all the Goblin tribes in the area had already headed north, far north to the area around Invrisil. The band of Goblins were going in the wrong direction.
But they didn’t know that. And they felt confident, and that was all that mattered. That was, until they saw the other Goblins marching down the road.
This is the story of a young woman. She had a name. But she had no words to tell anyone her name, even if they would have listened to her. She had lost language. And she had lost her family and everything else.
Before—she had a life. She’d been a [Florist]—an unusual class, but one she could take because her city had been beautiful and peaceful. Esthelm had been a happy city.
And then the Goblins came. The girl only remembered the chaos and screaming—shouting confusion as everyone ran. She’d tried to find her family, to escape, but the streets had been full of dark shapes, and the Goblins—
They had come and gone, and left a burned city in their wake. The girl had survived the fire, and she had been one of the first to lay eyes on her broken home.
Esthelm had been destroyed in a single night. And what remained was—
Rubble. Broken buildings. A maze of fallen masonry and tunnels of homes where the dead lay buried in the darkness. Empty souls wandering the destruction, preying on each other.
If she had found her family, she might have left with them. But no help had come, and the young woman had found herself trapped in the city. The Goblin army had left—leaving countless numbers of their dead in the streets. Goblins had slaughtered their own kind and plundered the city. Perhaps some would have called it a mercy.
But not her. And not the survivors. Rather, the many who survived the Goblin attack soon realized the true horror of what the Goblins had done. The monsters had taken goods, plundered valuables—and stolen away the food. And now, in the remains of their city, over half of the remaining population began to tear each other apart over what scraps they could find.
Death by sword or fire would have been the kinder alternative by far. The young woman had tried to find her home, and then find stores of food—shops—but she had found nothing. Desperate men and women had killed each other fighting over a bag of grain before her eyes, and she had fled.
Now she sat in the dark, broken place that had been a home, staring up at a ceiling held up by crumbling supports. Even though the structure could fall at any moment, she didn’t care. Oblivion was preferable to what she faced.
Hungry. She was so hungry. It wasn’t even words anymore. Just an overpowering desire to eat something. Anything.
It had been six days. Six long days since Esthelm had burned. The young woman’s clean hair was gone. Her features were gaunt. Her stomach was eating away at the rest of her body. She was so hungry.
And yet—she could find no food. Now she sat, staring at the one thing she could find to eat. But it was too horrible. She turned away and lay against a broken wall, trying to die. Trying to ignore the nightmarish idea in her brain.
On the seventh day she stared down at the body. Even flies hadn’t found it yet. Whoever it had been—male or female—had burned in the devastation. Their skin was blackened. And yet—
The smell. It was nauseating, horrific. The burnt flesh should have made her turn away and puke. But now it only made her mouth water. Her stomach growled. The young woman stared at the body, possessed by a terrible urge.
Hungry. She was hungry.
She couldn’t. She would rather die. But when she’d pulled herself to the entrance of her hidden resting place, she’d seen what lay outside. Bands of men—grabbing young women, fighting each other. She’d watched in horror and retreated to her small place, covering her ears to not hear the shrieks.
On the eighth day she stared at the body. She was forcing herself not to touch it. She stared at the ground. She stared at her hands, ragged, dirty. She tried to tell herself it would never happen.
But something dark sat up in her body. It crawled towards the light, and salivated in the madness of her broken mind. When she heard the screaming outside—inhuman and bestial, she’d smiled and laughed uncontrollably, giggling in the silence of her pit.
And on the ninth day, she’d eaten the body. It was rotten and the flesh was—
She tore and bit like an animal, lost to reason. The only desire she had in the entire world was to eat.
She was so hungry it hurt. But then she ate and ate and—
And then it happened. She heard the voice in her mind as she slept that night, after she’d puked and wept and eaten again, letting the monster in her soul take over. She ate and ate and ate until her body was gorged on the flesh, eating until she thought she would burst. And then she’d heard the voice in her head.
[Rank 1 Horror – Corpse Eater.]
[Condition – Terrible Hunger Received.]
[Condition – Outcast Humanity Received.]
[Aspect – Body of the Eater Obtained.]
[Aspect – Rending Claws Obtained.]
[Florist Level 19 → Florist Level 16.]
[Skill – Aroma of Spring Lost.]
[Skill – Winter Growth Lost.]
She’d woken up and screamed. But the sound hadn’t been Human. And when she’d felt at her teeth suddenly sharp and pointed, her fingernails like razors and her face—she’d known.
She’d become a monster. She had damned herself and lost her humanity.
So hungry. So very, very hungry.
And there was food to eat everywhere now. So much food.
Esthelm, in the darkness. It always seemed dark in Esthelm. The broken buildings and slanted walls created a labyrinth into which sound and light seemed to vanish. The bands of refugees and thugs who’d established themselves on the outside of the city had light, but it only served to enshroud the center of the city in more darkness.
The sewers had broken in places. In others, the flame had sent buildings tumbling into obscene heaps of death. Only the brave and truly desperate would go searching in these places, even among Esthelm’s survivors. Because even if they did not see anything, they knew dark things lurked in these places.
One of these dark things looked like a young woman. Perhaps. She had ragged long hair and her body was in the right shape. But clothing hung from her thin frame, and as she tore at something on the ground, other changes were clear. Her fingernails were sharp like knives. Her hands and face looked—wrong. And she was eating.
She crouched on the ground, tearing at something. She stuffed pieces into her face, rotting bits of…something. Something she still couldn’t put into words.
Because she’d lost them.
[Rank 2 Horror – Carrion Eater.]
[Condition – Wordless Thing Received.]
[Skill – Gaping Bite Obtained.]
[Florist Level 16 → Florist Level 12.]
[Skill – Quick Growth Lost.]
The more she ate, the worse it became. But now she was eating the rotting corpses, not just the burned dead. She was so hungry. Part of her wanted to puke, but she could only eat. It was all—
Delicious. Not like sweets or savory foods to make the mouth water, but something more primal. It was just food she tasted—food to fill the hole in her stomach. So she ate and bit, and chewed the bones.
Part of her wanted to die. But the rest was just hungry. She could stop herself for only a few seconds. And then her head would lower and she would feast.
The young woman pulled more of the corpse towards her. It had been a woman, once. A young woman, like her. The knowledge was a dagger in the girl’s heart, but she couldn’t stop. She bit once, and again, tearing off bits and pieces, feeling the flesh rip and stretch. Tears ran down her face, and she choked on bile and the foulness. But she swallowed and bit again.
So hungry. She was so hungry. And she had to eat. Had to. It was that or become one of the rotting bodies. She wanted to be dead, but she couldn’t figure out how.
The girl reached for the head of the half-devoured woman. And then she heard the scream.
She saw the movement, saw the blow coming. It smashed into her face, making her nose crunch and her flesh tear as the boot struck her. Then she heard the man.
“What are you doing? Dead gods—what—?”
Then the orb of light in his hands shone on her and she shielded her face. The man saw the corpse and he went still. The young woman looked up, gasping, searching for words. But they had all left her.
And as the horror-struck man’s eyes turned from the body to her face, he recoiled. He went pale, and his voice shook as he spoke.
He whispered it, and then screamed the word.
She backed away on all fours as he groped around for a weapon, a stone—anything. She saw him find a piece of wood, splintered on one end. He raised the block of wood and advanced, swinging at her.
“Get away—die you—you monster!”
She fled. He chased after her, catching her with one bloody swing on the shoulder once—but he quickly gave up the chase. She looked back only once and saw him holding the body in his arms.
This was her life.
They found her as she fled. A group of laughing men, desperate and lacking hope, but reveling in their own twisted freedom to do as they pleased. They only saw her silhouette in the flickering light of their torches, but they called out the instant they saw her.
They chased her too. She fled down a broken street, tripping, stumbling. One of them had a Skill and they caught up to her quickly. But the group of men stopped when their torches cast her body into relief. The color drained from their faces as they saw her face, her clothing—when they saw her.
“Is she—is it—?”
They might have killed her, but she fled into a broken place where the rubble had fallen and broken into a sewer. None of the men chased her. Their lust was gone, and only horror remained.
In the muck and congealed foulness, the thing that used to be a girl saw something moving. She darted after it even as it fled. But it was too slow, and she was too quick now. Hunger and her new form drove her, made her quick. Quicker than the shambling dead things that tried to follow her. She could see them rising in the darkness. The dead coming back to life.
But she wasn’t interested in them. Small creatures were easier to kill. And the rodent she’d found was slow in the sewer waste. Too slow.
She caught a rat and held it up. It struggled and screamed in her hands and bit her, but the pain was just like everything else that was life. And when she bit it, the body twitched a few times and then was still.
She ate it entirely, and licked at her foul hands. It didn’t matter. She was lost. And then she wailed, screaming with all that remained of her heart.
The noise attracted the shambling things. They came for her, rotting, trying to kill her. But she was quick, and she fled. But the dead were coming back, all of them. Some climbed out of the sewers and more dug themselves out of the ground. They were coming back.
Somehow, it made the former girl happy. Esthelm was as damned as she was.
A vast army of them, far larger than any one tribe’s worth of warriors was marching down the road. The band of Goblins halted immediately, and fear ran down all of their spines. In an instant, they knew these were not Goblins from their tribe, or even the amalgamate led by Rags and Garen.
The instant the Goblin warriors saw the army, they knew something was wrong. Though the tide of green bodies were unmistakably Goblins and Hobgoblins, there was something wrong about this company.
They were Goblins, yes. But they were not Goblins who followed Rags or Garen. These Goblins wore armor, and all carried weapons. And they marched with death among them and on their blades.
Death, and far worse than that.
Some carried pikes with human and monster parts dangling from them. Others simply marched in place, but that was wrong too. They moved like a Human or Drake army, in formation, not freely like the band of Goblins did. Their armor was black, and they covered their faces with dark helmets and cloth, as if they were afraid to show their faces.
Badarrow snarled as he pointed to the front ranks of Goblins. Headscratcher, Grunter, and the others looked, and saw dead Goblins. Undead Goblins, that was.
Several rows of zombies walked in front of the main army, shambling along. Mostly Goblins, but Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls too. There was a [Necromancer] among the Goblins, or a [Shaman] capable of raising the dead.
The Goblin Warriors had no problem with mages. At least, no problem with ones on their side. Garen’s tribe had no Shamans and they were rare. But necromancers bothered even Goblins. The dead could be eaten or left to rot—or even be used to hide amongst in order to survive. But raising their own fallen to fight again?
That was cruel, even for Goblins. But what was worse was what it said about a Chieftain who would order his [Shamans] to raise the dead. It meant he would use his tribe like things, and have them fight and die for him even after they had died the first time.
This was no tribe of Goblins north of Liscor. Without having to be told, the band of Goblins knew that this was a force sent by the Goblin Lord to the south.
And worst—what made Bugear stop poking at his ear and Rocksoup turn gray with fear—all the Goblins knew that this wasn’t the actual full force of the Goblin Lord. No—they saw no women and children among the army. This was clearly a war band sent out to pillage and kill. And for such a huge one to be sent—how terribly vast was the host of the Goblin Lord?
It was not a question they had time to ponder. The Goblin army had spotted the thirteen Goblins the same time they had been spotted. The Goblin warriors saw Goblins on foot and other riding ponies, and even what looked like spiders approaching them at speed.
Perhaps they thought they were allies? No one had begun loosing arrows yet or casting spells.
Grunter, their leader, made a decision in a moment. He turned and shouted an order. All thirteen Goblins turned and fled up the road. They heard shouts among their pursuers, and then knew they were being chased.
Arrows flew towards them. But the Goblin Warriors had a good bit of distance on their pursuers, so they ignored the shots. Badarrow and two other Goblins turned and loosed arrows at the fastest pursuers—Badarrow’s shot took a pony in the leg and the animal screamed as it went down with the rider. The scream cut off quickly and the Goblin rose with a dripping blade.
The Goblin warriors ran on. They had no idea where they were going or what to do; they only knew they had to flee or die.
That was how they found the city. It appeared on their right side as the road curved towards it, a broken place, the walls torn down and the gates forced open. It was destroyed, but the Goblin warrior headed towards it without a second’s hesitation.
There might be Humans living here. It had been a Human city after all. But even if there were survivors, it would be easier to lose their pursuers among the rubble and fight in tight alleyways then be caught out on the open, snowy landscape where there was nowhere to hide.
The band of Goblins ran furiously, outdistancing even their mounted pursuers by the expedient of shooting down any who got too close. The pursuing Goblins halted when they saw they’d lose their quarry, and rejoined the main army. As the marching army of the Goblin Lord approached the city, a vanguard split off, marching slowly towards Esthelm. There was no need to hunt the individual Goblins. The vanguard had been sent to subjugate what remained of the city, and they could kill the warriors from the other tribe just as easily in the process.
That was how Goblins came back to Esthelm. Some fleeing, others seeking the city out for darker purposes.
The skeleton walked towards Esthelm, understanding more and more as he walked why he was headed there.
It was a place of death. He could sense it in the air. Esthelm had seen hundreds—thousands of lives claimed. And the dead were lying unburied, rotting, forming a mass of—of opportunity. That was how Toren thought of it.
Yes, opportunity was the right word. It wasn’t as if there was any inherent will here. But the dead were gathered so close that magic only had to fluctuate a bit and the dead would come back. It was a natural process, and Toren understood it almost instinctively.
The undead. The skeleton considered the idea as he marched down the empty road, the snow blowing against his battered armor. He knew he was technically undead, but he felt little kinship with the skeletons, zombies, and other creatures he was related to. To him, they were just other things he could kill, or rather, re-kill.
And why not? Toren was sure that he would level if he fought some powerful undead. Perhaps there would be Crypt Lords in the city. The thought of fighting one of them cheered him up greatly, and he ran towards the city instead. After all, it wasn’t as if he would get tired running, and it was faster than walking.
That was how he found the vanguard of Goblins. They spotted him as he ran towards the city. Toren stopped when he saw them. The skeleton didn’t have any real fear in his heart, so his only reaction to seeing the hundreds of Goblins wearing arms and armor was mild surprise.
That was a lot of Goblins. And then Toren had another thought: fighting them would probably be a bad idea, at least, if he tried to do it all at once.
Should he run? Toren was fairly certain that he could get away from any number of Goblins, even in armor. But before he could make up his mind, he saw movement at the core of the army.
Not all the Goblins were armored infantry. Some were riders, others Hobs. And one in the center wore no armor at all. Instead, the Goblin had a twisted staff of ivory bones that looked welded together. And his eyes glowed with a darker crimson than the other Goblins. He gestured at Toren, and spoke a word that was audible even across the vast distance between them.
It was a word of magic, a word in the Goblin tongue, but magic nonetheless. Toren jerked as he felt something in his head.
Come here. The words burned in Toren’s mind. He faltered—and then realized the words were like one of Erin’s orders! Immediately, his body turned and he began walking straight towards the Goblin [Shaman]. The other Goblins parted to let him pass, ignoring Toren’s armor and burning gaze. They all wore grim expressions—as far as Toren could tell from their odd faces. They were used to the dead—Toren saw quite a few zombies and some skeletons marching at the head of the army.
At first, Toren was just shocked. He let his body move, unable to comprehend what had happened. How had the Goblin ordered him? But his shock quickly turned to rage.
He was being ordered against his will. Again! But Toren held his patience. He didn’t struggle against the command. Instead, he marched straight up to the [Shaman].
The Goblin was old, and he rode on a cart next to a Goblin seated on a large Shield Spider. The mounted Goblin had black tattoos all over his body and a gleaming halberd. The two Goblins were talking in their own language, and Toren saw the [Shaman] was eying him with some interest.
As the skeleton approached, the [Shaman] turned from his conversation with the Goblin leader and beckoned towards the skeleton. Toren approached, and the Goblin eyed him from head to toe. He spoke several words in his own language, nodding encouragingly.
Toren nodded to himself as well. So, some spell casters could control him? This was an important discovery. However, there was something different about the spell that controlled him now and Erin’s orders. This [Shaman]’s words—the ones that made Toren draw his sword and slash the air a few times and stand at attention—they felt weaker somehow.
Well now, wasn’t that interesting? The [Shaman] waved Toren towards the other undead standing at the head of the army. Toren cocked his head, and then walked.
Forwards, not towards the other undead. At first, the [Shaman] didn’t seem to notice Toren approaching. But when the Goblin leader made an inquisitive sound, he turned and saw Toren walking towards him.
The [Shaman]’s eyes widened. He gestured towards the undead and croaked an unmistakable order. Toren paused mid-step and then kept walking.
Surprising, the [Shaman] didn’t try to run or fight. He just kept trying to recast the spell, which Toren found hilarious. The skeleton walked right up to the Goblin and paused in front of him.
Flabbergasted, the [Shaman] just stared at Toren in shock. Toren slowly raised a hand, and waved it slowly at the Goblin. The Goblin stared at him, and then raised his hand hesitantly as well. He waved it—
And Toren ran him through with his sword. The skeleton ignored the shouts of panic and the cry of rage from the Goblin leader. He just smiled—smiled as he always did as the [Shaman] choked in shock and pain.
The Goblin spellcaster stared into Toren’s flaming sockets as the skeleton twisted the sword. Toren yanked the blade out of the Goblin’s body and watched him fall to the ground, dead.
Good. Toren turned, and the shining halberd cut his arm off. He reeled backwards, surprised. The Goblin Leader snarled at him, cutting through Toren’s bronze armor with ease.
One-handed, Toren struck at the Goblin. But the leader pulled his mount away and shouted an order. Every Goblin in the army charged at Toren—and he was standing in the center of their force.
Oh well. Toren lifted his sword and grinned again. He charged at the Goblins. He cut and stabbed even as the Goblin warriors overwhelmed him. They pierced his armor and broke his bones. But still the skeleton refused to fall.
Only when the Goblin with the halberd came back to sever Toren’s head from his shoulders did the skeleton’s body crumble. The Goblins saw his bones fall to the ground and stomped them into the snow. They stared at his remains, and muttered amongst themselves until their leader snapped an order.
The [Shaman]’s body was stripped of all valuables, and his body tossed into a pile of corpses towed by two half-dead horses. Two lesser [Shamans] came forwards, cringing and uncertain as the Goblin leader ordered them to take command of the undead. They’d gone rampant after the [Shaman] had died, and the remaining spellcasters had to work to keep them in order.
But in the end, the Goblin vanguard set out again. They marched towards Esthelm—but halted several miles away from the city rather than enter it. They had lost their chief [Shaman] through some twist of fate, and messengers had to be sent back to the main force which had continued northwards. Until they could receive reinforcements to control the dead, there would be no point in entering the city. After all, what good was a city of the dead and soon to be dead if you couldn’t control them with magic?
Still, a few Goblin groups were sent towards the city, to scout out how many Humans had survived. Something had killed the first army sent here, and although the city was clearly in ruins, it never hurt to be cautious. If there were still traces of Humans, the Goblins would slaughter them. Shaman or no shaman, they could still prepare the way.
The Goblins waited. And so did Toren. He waited until they were all gone to reassemble himself. He stood up in the snow, dusting off his bones and staring in dismay at his ruined armor.
What a waste. And how odd! Toren was sure these weren’t the Goblins led by that Rags Goblin. So where had they come from?
He didn’t really care. In fact, Toren was privately delighted. Now he had both Goblins and undead he could kill! And Humans too!
He marched into the city, leaving his battered armor behind. All he needed was a sword. That was all. A sword and something to stab.
He was going to level up a lot in the city. But—carefully. Toren was aware that even he could only reanimate so many times. He’d have to ambush the Goblins, fight in the shadows.
That was fine. Toren could see in the dark.
So the skeleton walked into the city, keeping to the shadows, enjoying the opportunity he had found here. As he did, the band of thirteen Goblins ran fast and as far as they could, dodging into buildings, trying to find a place to hide, to survive the pursuit that was surely coming after them. And all the while they feared what lay in the city. Monsters? Humans? This was a nightmare for them.
Meanwhile, a nightmare stalked the streets. She hid from the Humans she encountered, and wept as she ate and scavenged among the dead. And the dead rose and tried to kill her as well. There was little left of her, but she clung to what fragments remained. She lived and ate. She survived. That was all she knew. She was…lost.
This is the story of a skeleton named Toren. This is the story of a band of lost Goblins. This is the story of a monster. And how they all met in a city where the dead lived and the living struggled.