This is a story of a skeleton. His name was Toren, and it was the one thing he had never questioned about himself. Erin had given him that name, and that at least he was grateful to her for.
But in the place he walked, no one would know his name. In fact, they wouldn’t even bother to ask whether he had one. The people in the city of Esthelm would probably just take one look at Toren and run, or try to kill him.
And if they were some kind of mentally-deficient human who wanted to make friends with an undead skeleton, Toren would kill them anyways. That was his plan, and he thought it was a good one.
The skeleton strolled in through the open gates of the city as dusk fell. He didn’t worry about anyone stopping him; there were no guards manning the shattered watch towers, or what remained of the walls. And yet, he knew there were people in the city.
Lots of them, in fact. Toren stared as he walked further into the city and saw what remained after the Goblins’ attack.
Broken buildings. Scorched ash. Piles of rubble and broken earth. Toren was no expert, but he was fairly certain this wasn’t how cities were supposed to look.
Then again, maybe this was how Humans built their cities? Who knew? Toren spotted several…buildings amidst the shattered landscape. He stared, intrigued, at flimsy ramshackle structures someone had built out of salvaged wood and metal.
Were those supposed to be houses? They looked so flimsy, Toren felt he could push them over if he tried. And as it turned out, he could do just that. The skeleton succeeded in knocking over a support beam to one of the structures, which sent the roof and walls tumbling in. He paused as he heard screams from inside the structure, and then realized the noise had attracted people.
People, or to be more accurate, the one species that seemed to live in this city.
They rushed over to the building and Toren quickly ran away from the scene of the destruction. He saw men and women in dirty and torn clothing dashing towards the caved-in structure. Crouched behind a broken wall, Toren saw some of them trying to pull away the debris that had collapsed on the people inside.
The building’s inhabitants came out shaken, bloody, shocked. Toren saw with interest there were children—Human children—among them. He’d never seen a Human child before. After a few seconds of observation, Toren concluded they were nothing special. All they seemed to do was cry.
The skeleton saw the Humans—now a rather large group, perhaps thirty or more, exclaiming over the structure that had mysteriously fallen to bits. He saw a few of the Humans—mostly men—begin to point fingers at another man who was raising his hands and pointing frantically at the structure. One man—standing next to a woman holding a weeping child with a bloody shoulder in her arms—raised a fist. He punched the accused man, and then more people rushed to help him beat the poor fellow to death, or at least into something close to it.
It was all fascinating to Toren. He watched as the mob, having administered justice, began to try and figure out what to do next. It was cold, and snowflakes kept drifting down sporadically from the sky. The Humans had to find shelter soon, or at least blankets. There had been blankets in the building, so some tried to dig them out. But then another fight broke out over who should have the blankets, and then someone pulled out a dagger—
Confusion and chaos. This was only one small group, in a small part of the city. When Toren was done watching Humans attack each other, he found another group of Humans to see much of the same.
They certainly did like to fight, didn’t they? They formed into groups or tried to survive on their own, quarreling and sometimes even killing each other over things like blankets, food, weapons—all of which, it had to be said, seemed to be in very short supply.
Toren quite approved of the violence he witnessed as he made his way deeper into the city, keeping to the shadows. He hadn’t ever noticed Erin or Lyonette doing it, but Humans seemed to love hurting each other. Perhaps this was why he liked killing things?
The skeleton knew his bones—at least his skull—was Human. So he felt a certain kinship to the gangs of desperate men who banded together and savagely attacked anyone weaker than them to steal what they needed or wanted. It was so fascinating to Toren that he completely forgot to kill anything for a while as he observed the refugees of Esthelm in their natural habitat.
He’d never seen so many Humans before! Not ever! In truth, Toren had never been to anything like a crowded place before; the closest he’d come were busy nights when Erin’s inn had been packed. But this was different.
There were a lot of Humans. True, many of them seemed like they were crowded together in ramshackle structures, but it did seem like there was some kind of organization happening. The strongest Humans—those with weapons or some kind of fighting Skill—lead the others. They made sure their people had more clothing, more to eat. And they took other things as well.
A man dragged a screaming woman away after one group of men had killed another group of men. Toren followed him as he took the woman away and for some reason, took off his clothes. And then he did strange things which made no sense to the skeleton, but which seemed to upset the young woman.
Toren cocked his head left and then right, trying to figure out what the point was. There was a lot of grunting and animal-like motion…was that it? They were just sort of bumping each other, much to the woman’s displeasure.
Maybe he wasn’t seeing the full picture. Carefully, the skeleton crawled across the ground. It was easy for him to make himself invisible in places where snow had fallen, but it meant he couldn’t see everything. He moved around and tried to get a good perspective from another angle.
Nope. No good. Frustrated, the skeleton stood up. He finally saw what the man was doing—about the same time as the man happened to glance up. He looked up and saw the skeleton staring at him. Toren stared down in interest as the man went white.
Well now, what was this? More fleshy bits. Toren had seen Erin naked a few times by accident, but he hadn’t been aware there were so many differences between male Humans and female ones. And how strange the fleshy bits were! He ignored the man’s horrified stare as he fixed his attention on a rather odd body part that was changing before his eyes. He had no idea things could shrink like that.
The man made a choking, horrified noise as the woman saw Toren. She screamed. He scrambled off her and grabbed for his weapon—a spiked club he’d carelessly tossed to the ground. Toren sneered at it silently. He let the man charge at him, naked, swinging his club without an inch of actual skill or forethought.
Toren didn’t even bother with his sword. He wrenched the club out of the man’s hands as the Human struck at him, and then beat the man to the ground with it. The Human took quite a few blows to die, which Toren attributed to the shoddy craftsmanship of his club. He should have been ashamed.
When he was done, Toren tossed the bloody club on the ground. He stared at the woman, who hadn’t really stopped screaming since he’d seen her. It was getting annoying, so Toren used the [Fear] effect in his eyes.
That made her freeze, shivering, naked, and terrified as she sat on the ground, staring at him. She flinched as Toren raised the club, but he just tossed it on the dead man’s corpse. He could have beaten her to death with it as well, but she didn’t seem like she was a warrior, so why bother?
In his experience, there wasn’t actually much to be gained from slaughtering things that couldn’t fight back. He’d tried it with baby spiders, the odd reptilian birds that lived around Liscor, and even Corusdeer fawns. There was just no point to it. It was fun, obviously, but Toren had come here for a reason.
Yes, he was here to fight! The skeleton abandoned the Humans, and indeed, the populated parts of the city entirely. He walked further into the center of the city, peering around demolished buildings. Groups of Humans hitting each other with sticks and occasionally swords was all very well, but he’d come here for a real challenge. Where were the undead? Probably further in. And the Goblin army had to be coming soon. Toren would have a fight then, but in the meantime, he searched around for trouble. There had to be actual warriors around here, right?
The Goblins ran through the city, no longer fleeing, but rather, searching for a place to hide.
Their pursuers had stopped at the edges of the city. But the Goblins kept moving, venturing deeper into the ruins of Esthelm. Now that they knew where they were, they were convinced of several things.
Firstly, this city had been destroyed. That was obvious. But what was clear to them was that this city had been ransacked in an odd way. The buildings and indeed the city’s defenders had been put to sword and flame, yet the people had been spared. The instant the Goblins had entered the city they had spotted countless Humans, living in their camps on the outskirts of the city.
The Goblins had never seen anything like it. When they attacked a city or village, they killed all the inhabitants or forced them to flee. But this—taking the city but leaving the people to remain? Who would do such a thing?
It made them all think of Rags. Perhaps she had been here? They certainly saw evidence some Goblins had been here—an entire army’s worth of dead Goblins lay slaughtered across the city, their rotting remains covered partially by the snow.
But maybe it had all been the Goblin Lords’ forces? The Redfang Goblins didn’t know. But they did know they couldn’t stay in the open. Humans being in the city complicated things. Hiding from their own kind was one thing, but if there were this many Humans there, the Goblins had two enemies to fight.
Most of the Humans they passed had formed small groups—former [Shopkeepers] and [Butchers] and so on holding weapons they didn’t know how to use. But if they all attacked the Redfang Goblins at once, the warriors would be torn to bits no matter how superior their equipment and levels were.
So the Goblins warriors ran. The other Goblins following them would come sooner or later, they knew. So they had to find a place to hide.
The first to spot a likely area was Bugear. He called out as they ran, and pointed to a collapsed building, taller than most structures. It was terribly exposed, but the other Goblins understood what he meant and immediately surged towards it. They raced down broken streets, ignoring the Humans that cried out and fled from them. Lone Humans weren’t their concern.
The rubble was jagged and broken pieces of stone stood out, but the mound was easy to climb for the Goblins. In minutes they were all at the top, staring down at the dark city below them.
They weren’t hiding. Not yet. Rather, they were doing the sensible thing and taking the lay of the land, scoping out the city on their own terms. It was true they would be easily spotted, but who was looking for the Goblins right now? The Humans were disorganized and only a scant few of them had ranged weapons of any kind.
So the Redfang warriors held their position, staring down at Esthelm. Grunter ordered two Goblins – Leftstep and Rabbiteater – to watch for anyone trying to climb up and take them by surprise. Meanwhile, the other Goblins pointed down, their keen eyes catching individual Humans roaming the streets. And the Goblins exclaimed, their voices full of surprise.
What was this? What was this…city? What had happened here? Obviously the Humans had survived the battle, but what was this? They were forming groups, fighting over territory. See there? Headscratcher pointed out a group of men building a clumsy barricade to wall off a street. They were creating bases in the city! And already, some groups of Humans had created living spaces, communal campfires and places for the young and elderly to rest, guarded zealously by Humans who watched over their new home with improvised weapons.
It was startling, strange, unheard of. And to the Goblin warriors, deeply disturbing. Not because it was so unfamiliar—but because it was exactly like the life they knew. To them, it was like the Humans had formed Goblin tribes. They fought and warred over resources like Goblins did, only viciously, fighting over petty scraps that even the Goblin tribes wouldn’t have contested.
If too many tribes were in the same region, they would fight. But the weaker tribe would move away rather than continue to fight. But none of the Humans left the city. They warred over it instead, building a new place on the ashes of their homes. It was so surreal to them that the Goblin warriors had to stop and take it all in.
And the cruelty! Ah, Goblins knew Humans could be cruel. But when they saw the other Humans killing each other in the streets, chasing after women, hurting—the Goblins saw a bit of what they did, and felt uneasy. It was too much like what Goblins were supposed to do. Not Humans.
Of course, not all Humans had become raping, murderous monsters. But it had to be said that the ones who did this tended to stand out a lot more than the ones just trying to survive. The Goblins stood on their position for a few minutes, and after they were able to tear their eyes away from the Humans, they took in the rest of the city.
The places near the walls were the most populated. Only naturally—the destruction was actually less around the outskirts, since there weren’t as many buildings that could have been destroyed. But in the center, a great pile of broken walls and stone formed a maze, a labyrinth that ran into the earth in places where the underground sewers had collapsed and sent the ground tumbling downwards.
That was a good place to hide. But for how long? At Grunter’s insistence, the Goblins checked their supplies. They weren’t carrying much. Aside from their weapons and tools to start fires and hunt and prepare food with, they had barely enough for a scant meal between them. If they wanted to live in this city, they’d have to find food.
Well, there were dead bodies. Badarrow pointed out some fresh ones. And there were Humans as well as Goblins for variety. Grunter nodded, but his eyes were on a few pinpoints of light beyond the city walls. The other Goblins looked.
Campfires. And they could see small shapes, hundreds of them, gathered around the fires. Goblins. Not their people, but the enemy.
Why were they here? It didn’t matter. They’d boxed the Redfang Goblins into the city, and if they tried to run, they’d surely be cut down.
It was bad news. But the Goblins were Goblins, so they regarded their predicament as only another thing to survive. That was why they moved off the rubble and into the heart of the city without worrying or speaking. Shelter first, and then food. Worrying was pointless; a thing Chieftains did.
On their passage through the streets, the Goblins slowed. Now that they weren’t running, they let their most silent trackers—Badarrow and Numbtongue—go ahead. Numbtongue peered down an alley and shook his head. The Goblins swiftly passed by the entrance, avoiding the group of Humans at the other end.
Fighting was pointless. The Goblins knew how to fight, which meant they knew when not to fight. They avoided any groups of Humans, slowly working their way deeper and deeper through the streets.
That’s when they saw the Human and the child. He was calling out, searching for his family. The Goblins heard his voice and said nothing, although they all privately knew where the child’s parents likely were. Hadn’t they all gone through the same moments growing up, after a battle or when their tribe had been raided?
Grunter wanted to move on, but Headscratcher pointed. The Goblins, hidden as they crouched in a shadowy spot next to a building, saw a man approaching the child. He had no weapon, but there was murder in the way he walked.
Perhaps he was tired of hearing the child call out. Maybe he thought the child would attract too much attention here. He might have been angry, or filled with hate. Maybe he just wanted to kill something.
The boy ran when he saw the adult. But he was too slow. The man grabbed him. The Goblins watched, remembering. It was a familiar scene. Still, they didn’t move. They would have left, to let the scene play out, but Badarrow stood up. Silently, he put an arrow to his bow and loosed it.
Badarrow’s shot took the Human in the back, right where neck met shoulder. The man gasped, fell, nearly squashing the shocked boy who cried out. He was dead when he hit the ground.
None of the other Goblins said a word. But neither did they rebuke Badarrow. And neither did they look at the child. They just paused, and moved on.
The wandering child screamed as he saw the Goblins, but the warriors moved past him, grim and silent. They gave him no aid, but didn’t hurt him. He was Human. An enemy if he was older, prey if he had valuables they could take. What could they have done for him, anyways?
But the Redfang warriors exchanged glances even so, as they found likely spots to settle and scouted around for any fresh bodies and wood to use for dinner. They didn’t say it, but they all thought it.
There was something dark in this city. Of course, they’d seen things far more terrifying than this, and they’d faced times just as bleak. But it was what the Humans did that disturbed the Goblins. When things fell apart, they didn’t stick together like Goblins did—they tore each other apart. Hadn’t they all been part of the same tribe here? Why were they killing each other now?
No one had an answer. But Grunter, who’d been staring at the sky, grunted. The Goblins looked at him as they pulled the Human that Badarrow had shot back towards their new base. The boy was long gone.
Grunter pointed the direction they’d come, back towards the other Goblins. He spoke, the words coming slowly to him.
“The others will come. Here. To kill the Humans.”
The Redfang warriors nodded. That was likely. They could put two and two together—even if this city had been looted, the Humans were a resource. Food, and perhaps even warriors if the [Shamans] and [Mages] they’d seen could control so many.
But what did that have to do with them? Grunter pointed at the broken walls, the maze the Goblins found himself in. He touched the axe at his belt.
“Chaos. Confusion. Kill them.”
The Goblin warriors considered this. Then Bugear grinned and Rocksoup licked his lips. Now, that was a good idea! It was unlike Grunter to come up with it, but he was a Hob after all.
Kill their kind. Ambush them in the streets. Even if there was an army, it wasn’t impossible in this landscape. The city practically invited sneak attacks. And in the confusion and looting and killing, they could surely slip away from their pursuers.
After all, Goblins looked alike. And if they could get their hands on some armor—who’d notice a band of Goblins amidst all the fighting?
It was a good plan, and the Goblins wasted no more time thinking about it. They had a plan, and they would implement it as best they could. Now it was time to eat. They had one body—they could find more, and stuff themselves tonight.
That was one small benefit to be had from this city. There were a lot of bodies, and Humans didn’t eat dead Humans. So the Goblins would be fed, and warm too, if they could find enough wood. All they had to do was find a place to hide.
Toren was getting sick of all the useless Humans. He was tempted to just run at a band of looters and fight them, but he had the feeling he wouldn’t level if he did. He strode down the empty streets, growing increasingly more annoyed.
Where was the backbone in these Humans? It seemed like all they were doing was squabbling with each other, not doing important things! Perhaps that was why the Goblin army had come. They would easily kill the Humans.
Already the Goblin army outside the gates had been noticed. Toren saw many Humans abandon their camps and move into the city, afraid, fighting to get to a spot they considered safer. But that just meant they were fighting themselves again.
So stupid. Part of Toren missed the inn. Just a small part. He immediately quashed the thought when he had it, but wasn’t it true? At least in the inn he had things to do. Here he was looking and he still couldn’t find something worthwhile to kill. Whereas at the inn—
He could scrub the floors. And serve food. And that would level up his [Barmaid] class. It was…well, it wasn’t as if Toren liked the class. But he liked leveling up. And here he had nothing much to do.
Toren was just considering going for broke and slaughtering everything he could when he heard the fighting. He turned, and saw a group of five men and two women, cornering a family. A man slashed at the other men with a short sword while he tried to guard his wife and two daughters. But the other men had clubs and sticks, and even if they weren’t as sharp, there were a lot of them.
Perhaps it was the sword they were after. But Toren had a feeling the three females were also part of it. He was starting to figure out Human motivations, even if he didn’t quite get the details.
Well, here was a fight. Perhaps Toren should join in—kill them all. The skeleton lifted his blade, ready to charge. But then he heard a shout. He saw someone run down the street, someone tall. In armor? Toren stepped back into a shadow as the men turned. He caught a glimpse of silver, flashing in the darkness. And then he saw the adventurer.
A tall man, blonde, wearing plate armor and holding a shield and sword that gleamed, charged down the snowy, dirty street. He was followed by three other adventurers, a man and two women Toren recognized. The [Fighter], the spear wielder, and the annoying mage! But these three were clearly different from the man in silver armor. Their equipment was cheap, if effective. But this man’s armor gleamed.
And he moved faster than Toren would have guessed. In seconds he’d covered the distance between the thugs. He raised his sword as they turned, shouting in shock. Toren heard his voice, filled with outrage clearly across the street.
He ran one man through and lopped the hand off of the other before the group of men could even blink. He turned, slashing, making the other Humans cry out in pain. The two women in the band of thugs weren’t spared from his wrath either. Within moments the entire group had fled. The only people that remained were the family that had been set upon.
“Are you alright?”
Toren heard the words as he stealthily made his way closer to the man in armor. He was standing, reassuring the tearful family as the other three adventurers stood behind him awkwardly. They hadn’t even gotten there in time to help!
“Bless you, sir. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come—”
The father was speaking to the adventurer. And yes, Toren was sure he was an adventurer. He had pouches at his belt, and he reminded Toren a lot of the Horns of Hammerad and Griffon Hunt.
“It was my duty. But you shouldn’t be out so late. Why haven’t you fled the city?”
“Where would we go, sir? There are Goblins on the road. And—they came back!”
The woman clutched at the Knight, speaking desperately and pointing. Toren knew she had to be talking about the Goblin army.
“We couldn’t leave. Going to another city after the Goblins attacked? In the cold, with nothing to eat or wear? We couldn’t. And then—we stayed. We thought we’d survive, but there are gangs roaming the streets, sir. We barely got away when the people we were with were attacked last time. And now…”
The man’s voice was firm, quiet. He looked at the adventurers following him.
“You three. We’ll need to escort these good people to a safe place.”
The Bronze-rank adventurers exclaimed in dismay. The man with the sword—whom Toren was displeased to note had healed the injuries the skeleton had given him—spoke to the adventurer in silver armor.
“Sir, we can’t just involve ourselves here! We should be leaving for another city! Take the family with us maybe, but those Goblins chased us into the city! They’ll probably attack at any moment!”
The man in armor glared at the [Fighter], but the woman with the spear piped up as well, looking nervous.
“But we can’t leave! The Goblins have the road. And there’s the skeleton we saw! The strange one! If we leave, we might run into it!”
“Fools. The dead are rising! Of course there are skeletons wandering the roads!”
The warrior in armor snapped at the others. They stopped, looking confused.
“What do you mean? Why are the dead rising?”
He stared at them incredulously. Toren was giving them much the same look from his hiding spot, in a small place where the cobblestones had been torn up to create a small depression. The man in silver armor sighed and spoke through gritted teeth.
“Rookies. Haven’t you learned anything? Violence and anarchy in the street are but one of Esthelm’s woes. This place was the site of a major battle where thousands died, both Goblins and Humans. You’ve seen the bodies. Don’t you know what happens when they aren’t properly buried or cremated?”
That came from the female [Mage]. She looked pale faced. The adventurer nodded.
“They rise. First zombies, then skeletons and even Ghouls if the slaughter is great enough. Given time, stronger undead will emerge as well. Crypt Lords…and far worse.”
A groan of pure terror came from the family the man had saved. The father fell to his knees, beseeching.
“Mister Adventurer, sir! Can you not save us? If the undead rise—what chance do my family and I have?”
“Calm yourself. The issue of the undead is precisely the reason I came here.”
The man in armor helped the father up, speaking reassuringly to the family.
“I am a Gold-rank adventurer. I heard of what had befallen Esthelm too late, but I set out as soon as I realized the other local cities were doing nothing to address the issue. The fools in the Adventurer’s Guild were too afraid to venture out, even the Silver-ranked ones.”
Toren’s metaphorical ears perked up the instant he heard the adventurer mention his rank. Gold? Toren had seen Griffon Hunt and even the other team—the Halfseekers, but he’d never properly fought one before. The closest he’d come was fighting Halrac, and that had been completely one-sided.
But here…this adventurer was alone! Toren immediately wanted to challenge him, but he held off. Listen. Observe. He wriggled closer, moving slowly so as not to be seen. The Gold-rank adventurer was addressing everyone, his back turned to Toren.
“I came here to deal with the undead issue because no one else had the courage to make the journey. But instead I find a city’s worth of people here, as well as a Goblin army?”
The man in silver armor paused. He shook his head.
“This all feels too connected. If what I suspect is true, the Goblins may have spared the people of this city for this moment. So many bodies, and so much potential for death—are they trying to create an undead horde to attack other cities with?”
“An undead horde? Could the Goblins really do such a thing?”
“Normal armies do it as well, I’m afraid, Miss. I’d like to say I could drive off the Goblins myself, but there are hundreds out there and I’m no Named Adventurer. Still, I think there’s a way. If I can—”
He was so full of himself! So proud. So…why was Toren angry? But this seemed too easy. The skeleton was only a few feet away. He could use [Mirage Cut] and take the man down in seconds. Was this really a Gold-rank adventurer? How could one be so careless? But still, Toren would do it. He wanted the man’s silver armor, not to mention his sword and shield.
Closer. Closer…Toren rose slowly, and moved at a crouch. None of them were looking at him! They all had their eyes on the armored man! Toren’s hand was on his sword hilt. He didn’t even have a scabbard. He could run the man through—
One of the daughters who’d been staring in horror and hope at the Gold-rank adventurer sneezed in the cold. She looked down for something to cover her nose, saw Toren. She screamed.
The Gold-rank adventurer turned. He saw Toren and his eyes widened. His sword rose, but too late. The skeleton leapt at him, and his body blurred. His sword flashed out, but that was a decoy. Even if the adventurer parried it, he’d still take the man’s head. Who walked around in armor but didn’t wear a helmet?
Idiot. Toren’s sword scythed towards the man’s head at lightning speed. [Mirage C—
The shield pushed forwards, almost glowing. It filled Toren’s vision, and then struck the skeleton like a house. The skeleton flew backwards, stumbling, nearly falling over. What happened? His Skill! How did—
The Gold-rank adventurer lowered his shield and stared at Toren, eyes narrowed.
“What manner of skeleton sneaks and hides? And uses a Skill?”
Toren readjusted his crooked head and grinned at the Gold-rank adventurer. He hadn’t known someone could interrupt a Skill! His eyes flashed purple, and the Humans behind the adventurer screamed.
“Dead gods! It’s back!”
The [Fear] effect made them all scatter at once. The man in armor called out, trying to slow them, but the others didn’t listen. They ran, leaving the adventurer behind.
Perfect. Toren charged at the man as he turned and shouted. The skeleton brought the blade down two-handed in a vertical slash that should have split the man’s head open. But the blade twisted in the air a foot away from the man’s head. It curved left and Toren missed completely, striking the man’s armored shoulder!
What was that? Magic? It had to be. Toren gaped and then a sword pierced his ribcage effortlessly.
“Hmf. A spell-like effect? You aren’t a normal undead monster, are you?”
The Gold-rank adventurer cut sideways, and Toren staggered as several ribs on his left side were torn away. But that was just a few bones! He cut again, but this time his sword bounced off the silvery shield, not even scratching the metal.
“A revenant? Or some kind of Goblin creation? Either way—begone.”
Now the man in silver armor charged forwards, his shield ramming into Toren. The skeleton tried to stand his ground, but he was thrown by the incredible force behind the adventurer’s shield. He hit the ground, rolled, trying to get up—
A sword lopped the top off of his head. Toren collapsed, his bones rolling on the ground. The Gold-rank adventurer stared down at him, murmuring to himself.
“Nothing about this makes sense. A skeleton that can think? No—the Necromancer? But why would he use such an inferior creation?”
Inferior? If Toren could have said anything—or moved—he would have been indignant. But he lay on the ground, waiting for the adventurer to leave before he reassembled himself. He was clearly not as strong as that warrior, either in experience or strength.
“One more question to ask later. Damn. Where did the others run off to? Well before that—I should dispose of the remains.”
So saying, the adventurer reached towards his belt pouch. Immediately, Toren began to panic.
Dispose of him? What was that? He—that wasn’t fair! No one was supposed to care about Toren after a fight! That was his specialty. If the adventurer was going to destroy him—
From the ground, the skeleton could only stare helplessly as the man reached into his pouch. But before the Gold-rank adventurer could take whatever was in there out, the skeleton heard pounding footsteps. The man in silver armor turned—
And nearly caught a blow to the head from a club. At the last moment the piece of wood swerved, just as it had done with Toren. But the blow still knocked the off-guard adventurer down.
He rose, shield up, but another man struck him from behind. Toren gaped as he saw more men swarm the Gold-rank adventurer, beating at him with clubs, kicking, trying to pin him down—
It was a gang! And they were trying to kill the adventurer! Toren had never been more grateful to petty Humans in his life. He heard the man shout, and then saw the press of bodies fly backwards. Several stumbled back, and the man in armor was on his feet, swinging his sword and shield to keep them at bay.
“Cowards! Are you insane? I’ve come here to—”
He got no further. Stones, and even an arrow flew at his head. Men with slings aiming at his head! Again the missiles flew askew, but whatever magic was protecting the man’s head was clearly weakening. He snarled, deflected a stone aimed at his jaw—
And staggered, as a club smashed into his head from behind. Toren saw the man pull back and hit the adventurer in the same spot again, with all his might.
It was a powerful blow. But the man in silver armor didn’t fall. He stumbled forwards, but he refused to kneel or drop. Instead, his shield came up, hitting the man who’d struck him so hard he gasped and stumbled back.
It was one word, but it was louder than the shouting of the gang as they tried to close in. A man ran at the knight—a sword came up even with the man’s head still bowed. It ran the man through.
The gang stopped. The sword left the man’s chest and he collapsed, dead. The knight turned. A stone flew at his head and his shield snapped up. He deflected the stone back at the man who’d loosed it from his sling. The rock hit the man and there was a cry of pain.
Now the Gold-rank adventurer finally looked up. He raised his head slowly, the tendons in his neck straining. Blood ran and matted in his hair, but he turned and stared down the man who’d struck him. The sword shone bright and silver and crimson in his hands, but the adventurer didn’t raise his weapon.
“What are you doing, you idiot?”
The thug he addressed stepped back, eyes wide. The man in silver armor turned towards him, and the man raised his club defensively. But one armored hand shot out and tore the weapon out of the other man’s grip.
Flinching, the man raised his hands, prepared for death. But the adventurer just hurled the club to the ground. He stared at the other men who’d ambushed him. Fury burned in his voice as he shouted at them.
“Is this what you are? You—you, the men of Esthelm! I came here to this burned city to put your dead to rest. But what do I find? Men, preying on each other like vermin! Have you no shame? Where’s your pride? Where is your honor?”
He turned around to the stunned group, armor glinting as he stared each one of them in the eye. The Gold-rank adventurer didn’t even seem to notice their arms—rather, it was as if he didn’t even care that he was outnumbered.
“There are women and children—people who suffer and need help! Your friends and family cry out in this city, but what do you do? The instant your walls fall you turn on them. Shame.”
The word touched the hearts of his listeners. It made them feel ashamed, and angry and guilty as well. Perhaps they would have rushed him, but the man in armor was too imposing. And his words struck at their hearts, the hearts they’d closed in despair.
The man wearing silver looked around in disgust. He lowered his sword—and to the astonishment of the other men, sheathed it. He walked towards several men. They raised their weapons, but he just stopped and glanced at them, still full of that barely restrained passion.
“Lower your weapons and follow me if you want to save this city, you fools.”
They hesitated. Two hands shot out and tore the makeshift weapons and poor swords from their grip. The Gold-ranked adventurer stared down at the other men and raised his voice.
“I am Ylawes Byres, a [Knight]. I am a Gold-rank adventurer and I can save this city. But I cannot do it alone. If you still believe in Esthelm—follow my back.”
He strode down the broken streets, not looking back. The men hesitated. Some lowered their weapons and turned to go. But the man who had struck Ylawes picked up his club. He hung it at his belt and ran after the adventurer.
More men followed him. They joined the Gold-rank adventurer, and he snapped at them as he’d never doubted they’d be there.
“Come on. There’s still time to do what’s right.”
The man’s footsteps faded away. The majority of the men followed him, while the others slipped away. After a few minutes, a pile of bones reassembled itself in the snow. Toren stood up, grabbed his sword, and stared in the direction the man named Ylawes had gone.
Now what was all that about?
The monster waited, hungry. She was always hungry. Her story was one of despair and all-consuming desire. To eat. To feed.
She saw a thing crawl out of the sewers. A dead woman, corpse bloated and rotten. She told herself she didn’t want to eat it. But she did. Oh yes, she did.
The zombie shambled down the street. The monster who looked vaguely like a young Human woman followed her. The zombie moved quickly—stumbling, searching out food. It never noticed her.
And it found prey. A young man slept in the hollowed-out building that might have been his home. He would have been safe, hidden from most Humans. But not from a zombie. It found him as it wandered in, and fell upon him.
The monster heard the screams, and part of her told her to act. It wasn’t hard. She simply gave into her desires.
The zombie was biting and clawing at the young man on the ground. He was trying to fend her off, but he was barely awake, and weak with hunger. And the dead woman had far more strength than he did. She was biting at him—tearing at his flesh.
Just like she wanted to do. But the girl that was a monster focused on the zombie instead. Yes. Hungry. The gray, rotted flesh called to her.
For once she didn’t fight the urge. She wanted to eat. The monster girl walked behind the zombie and seized the dead woman. The undead turned, reaching out to kill, to steal life—
Did it hesitate? It stared into a gaping maw. The monster girl’s mouth. Her jaws opened wide—impossibly wide—and she felt her jaw dangling far lower than it should. But it just meant she could bite more.
She bit the zombie’s face. She tore away rotted flesh easily, teeth scissoring through skin like parchment. The zombie made a sound—tried to tear at her body. But the girl had a monster’s body now. An Eater’s form. Her skin was tough, and the sharp fingernails and bruising strength did little to her.
She bit again. Now she bit into bone, and something which oozed. Part of the former [Florist] wanted to scream. But the zombie was danger. To the boy—
She realized he was still there as she knelt on the ground, savaging the dead zombie’s form. The girl turned her head towards him. He was wide-eyed, pale with horror as he stared at her.
For a moment she wanted to say something. But though she opened her mouth, no words came out. And he—he looked into her eyes and saw only a horror. A monster.
The young man she’d saved struck her in the face, in the chest, kicking her backwards. The girl looked at him, the monster salivated. She wanted to eat him.
But she couldn’t. That much she held onto. And now he was pulling out a dagger, holding it in his bleeding hands. Danger.
So she fled. She fled into the street, crying. She could still cry. She ran down an alleyway, and into a small open space. And then she saw it.
The skeleton. He was walking down the street, slashing at the air angrily with a sword. He was all bones—little to eat. She stopped when she saw him, feeling afraid for some reason. His purple eyes found her, and the girl inside the beast shuddered in panic. She turned to run—
But he stabbed her from behind.
The Goblin warriors heard the girl scream. And they saw the skeleton stabbing at her, because they’d been following her for the last block.
It had just been a chance encounter. But as the Goblins had moved silently through the streets, searching for bodies that weren’t completely rotted, they’d come across a fortuitous find. A gang of four men had been pilfering a box with some spices inside. Naturally, the Goblins had fallen on them at once. An arrow to the back, two blades stabbing. Grunter just pushed one of the men’s heads into a wall, killing him.
They didn’t mind killing Humans. It was just that they didn’t do it needlessly. Food was a definite need, though. So the Goblins had been lugging their find back to the small base they’d set up in a ruined building when they’d seen the girl.
She’d stood out. Not because of her ragged clothing, or thin body—all the Humans more or less looked like that in the city. But she was clearly different from the other Humans.
Her face was different. No, not just her face, her very body. It was as if someone had taken a bit of monster, a bit of savage primal humanity and something darker, and put it into her body. And the way she moved! She moved around hunched, or on all fours, more like an animal or stalking thing than a Human.
It had stood out. Badarrow had pointed the girl out and the Goblins had watched her, as a potential threat more than anything else. But then they’d seen the girl find a body in the snow.
It was rotted, a Human’s body, some warrior who’d died in the battle for Esthelm. Even the other Goblins had turned their noses up at it—they preferred fresh dead meat, thank you. But the girl had dug it up—and then begun to eat it!
That had stopped the Redfang warriors in their tracks. For a moment they hadn’t believed what they were seeing. A Human? Eating a dead body?
Well, yes. Humans did that all the time. With animals, of course, as if that made a difference. But this young woman was eating another Human!
That wasn’t shocking to the Goblins, at least in a basic sense. They ate Humans all the time. It was just survival. But as far as they knew, other Humans never ate each other—or even other species, for that matter!
It made her stand out, and because they were curious, the Goblins had followed her a bit longer. They were adept at keeping to shadows, so they’d seen the zombie crawl out of the sewers and the way the girl had stalked it.
Yes, stalked it. They could tell the signs. And then they’d seen her rescue the young Human man, and run from him.
How strange. How curious! And—how disturbing.
Again, not the Human girl, or whatever strange thing she actually was. It was the zombie that made Grunter grunt in alarm and Headscratcher eye the sewers.
The undead. How could the Goblins have forgotten them? If they were rising—
It was bad news. Very bad. The Goblins had no desire to fight off a horde of zombies, much less the stronger undead that would rise with so many bodies around. They were about to retreat and reconsider their hiding spot—they’d need to create traps and barricades if the undead were about—when they heard the girl scream.
That was when they saw the skeleton. It had encountered the girl on the street, a skeleton with a sword. And when she’d turned to flee, the skeleton had stabbed her in the back!
It wasn’t a deep wound, but the Goblins saw the skeleton cutting at the girl’s legs, trying to cripple her. She was trying to flee, and perhaps she would succeed. She was quick—quicker than a normal Human. And her skin was tough enough that the skeleton’s slightly dulled blade couldn’t cut her that deep.
The Goblins watched, sitting in a rooftop that had remained after the fire. The girl slashed at the skeleton with her claws, snarling desperately. Badarrow nudged Rabbiteater and pointed. The Goblins looked and saw she had strangely long fingers and nails that were more like claws on the ends of them. And from the way they cut into the skeleton’s bone, they were clearly sharp as steel!
What was this strange Human? Was she some kind of…of half-breed? There were Goblins who’d been born of Humans of course, so the idea wasn’t new to the Goblins, but this?
The Goblins had never heard of a Human like this. Perhaps it was all some Skill? They knew some Drakes and Gnolls fought with their claws and could get Skills like this. But a Human?
And her jaw! Headscratcher blinked as the monster girl tried to take a bite out of the skeleton. He dodged back, and her gaping mouth caught only air. Even the Goblins thought that looked creepy, the way she could make her jaw open so wide.
The skeleton tried to stab her in the stomach, but the girl smacked his sword away. It was a lucky blow; she clearly hadn’t expected to be able to, but she was strong. Strong, fast, ravenous…
That was what Grunter muttered. The others looked at him, and then nodded in agreement.
She was exactly like a Ghoul, one of the ravenous undead that fought in bursts of frenzied movement. And yet, she was more than a Ghoul. She was still alive, and she had a keen intelligence about her that Ghouls lacked. But for all that—
The skeleton was stronger. Not just stronger—he was fighting smart. When he lost his sword, the skeleton crouched and kicked out. The girl stumbled, and then the undead tackled her, knocking her to the ground. She cried out, trying to throw it off her, but the skeleton was on top of her. He punched her in the face, repeatedly, hammering his fist into her head as she cried out in pain and fear.
He was going to bash her brains out. The Goblins watched, some turning away now the fight was over. They wouldn’t interfere in a fight like this. It wasn’t like the Human boy—here were two killers, killing each other. It was just life.
They turned to go, but a faint sound stopped them. Sitting closest to the scene on his part of the roof, Headscratcher made a quizzical noise. They looked at him, and he scratched his head slowly, before pointing at the skeleton.
Skeleton. Yes, it was a skeleton. The Redfang warriors stared at Headscratcher blankly. Where was he going with this?
Slowly, the finger shifted to the girl.
Girl. Or rather, young woman.
They stared at her. A young Human woman. Something about the way they thought that bugged them.
A young Human woman? An [Innkeeper].
Everyone stared at Headscratcher. No. It couldn’t be it. But he pointed insistently at the skeleton. And the other Goblins stared at it, suddenly connecting the dots.
A skeleton. Hadn’t Garen Redfang mentioned something about a skeleton? Yes, he’d said it was pulling the [Innkeeper] on a sleigh!
It was highly unusual to see a skeleton here, even in this city where the dead were rising. Even if the dead rose—they’d be zombies and ghouls, not skeletons. They hadn’t nearly enough time to rot to that extent. So why was a skeleton here?
The Goblins stared at each other. Here was a Human girl. And a skeleton. And Esthelm had been a city full of inns, hadn’t it?
Then again, the skeleton was trying to beat the girl to death. Even as the Goblins watched, the skeleton drew a bloody fist back. He was pounding the girl’s head into the broken ground, drawing blood. She was making a whimpering sound, not even fighting back.
Something stirred in the Goblins’ chests. But they were still reluctant to act. So what if she died? Their job had to been to kill her, after all.
Headscratcher nodded, but then shook his head to this obvious conclusion. He pointed down at the girl and skeleton, raising a thumb.
Skeleton and girl. This might actually be the girl they’d come to kill. But—he shook his head—they wouldn’t kill her because they’d decided. He pointed to the skeleton. He would, though. And that was the problem.
The Goblins stared at Headscratcher, confused. The Goblin tried to explain his line of thought. Garen had ordered them to kill the girl, yes? And if she died, even if the skeleton killed her instead of them, he’d be happy, right?
But they’d decided not to obey Garen! He shouldn’t be obeyed! So—and here Headscratcher’s silent gesturing really got complex—if they were obeying Rags instead of Garen, wouldn’t that mean they would want to protect the [Innkeeper]? At the very least, letting her die was probably as bad as killing her themselves, and if Rags didn’t want that…
The Goblins stared at each other, brains aching with thought. Headscratcher just looked at them, looked at the girl.
They could hear her sobbing. It was a sound that bothered them. They’d heard Humans cry, but this—
Perhaps it was because she ate the dead. Like them. She was doing anything she could to survive. Like them. The skeleton was hitting her, gleefully.
Headscratcher stared at the other reluctant warriors. Then he made a decision. He stood up, unsheathed his sword. He leapt from the rooftop.
After a moment, twelve Goblins followed him.
Toren saw the first Goblin land on the ground. He stopped punching the strange not-Human he’d found in surprise. The Goblin had a sword in his hand, and he was snarling at Toren.
A Goblin? Had they already begun to attack? Well then, why was Toren wasting time here? He jumped away from the young woman, letting her lie half-dead. He scrambled for his sword, lifting it with a grin.
One Goblin was no threat. He charged at the Goblin and locked blades, forcing the Goblin back a step. But to his surprise, the Goblin threw Toren backwards after a moment of struggle. He was strong! Stronger than a Goblin should be!
That made Toren angry. What was with strong warriors popping up all over the place? A Gold-rank adventurer he could respect, but a Goblin?
He was about to hack at the Goblin when another Goblin landed on the ground next to him. A Goblin with a bow. He drew and loosed an arrow at Toren’s skull in an instant. The skeleton dodged reflexively, and the arrow flew past him.
Two Goblins. Okay, they might be a bit stronger than usual, but—
Five more Goblins landed next to them. The flames in Torne’s eyes dimmed as he saw they all wore armor and moved to surround him.
Where were all these Goblins coming from? Struck by a thought, Toren looked up. He saw a huge, fat foot descending towards his face—
Grunter smashed the skeleton into the ground, landing heavily and grunting in his trademark fashion as he did. He kicked the skull several feet away dismissively, and stared at the girl.
She was curled up into a small ball of misery and pain. She was still sobbing, not even realizing she’d been saved. There was only pain and her, waiting for death.
Too familiar. Grunter looked away and grunted. The sound made the girl look up.
She stared at the Goblins and made a choked, screaming sound when she saw them. She tried to get away, but her legs still weren’t working. But the Goblins didn’t attack her. They just stared at her, and then went into a huddle.
For the Redfang warriors, they were suddenly faced with a conundrum after saving the girl and killing the skeleton. Okay, they’d saved her, and if she was the [Innkeeper], they’d probably done a good thing that Rags would approve of, right?
Right. But what did they do next? All eyes turned to Headscratcher. He just scratched his head, unsure.
The Goblins stared at the girl. She was crouched warily on the ground, staring at them with huge eyes. They returned to their huddle.
They could probably just leave her, right? After all, what else could they do? She was safe—they’d done what was probably the right thing. Now it was time to go back and eat.
Undead in the city. Badarrow grunted as he retrieved his missed arrow. The girl stared at him as he passed—he eyed her. The Goblins turned to go. The girl stared at them. Her stare bothered the Goblins more than they could really say.
Goblins? They’d saved her. Why?
The monster didn’t know. But the Goblins had saved her, and they weren’t going to attack her or—or do worse. She’d been afraid of that for a moment, but the Goblin with the bow had just walked past her without even looking right at her.
Now they seemed to be leaving. The Goblins slowly walked away.
Leaving her behind. Even Goblins didn’t want to associate with a monster.
Hot wetness blinded the horror for a second. She could still taste the rotting flesh in her mouth, still see the horror in the young man’s eyes. She was a monster. No—worse than that.
She looked at the backs of the retreating Goblin warriors. Goblins. They were monsters, too. They’d saved her. Because she was a monster like them?
The Goblins had destroyed Esthelm. They were horrible, pillaging, raping creatures who killed any Human they came across. They were true monsters.
But so was she.
And she was alone. And if they killed her—
Slowly, the girl got up. Her face burned and she had trouble breathing from where the skeleton had tried to crush her windpipe. She stared at the backs of monsters, short, green creatures that walked like men.
She followed them.
When Toren reassembled this time he was ready to kill everything in the world. He got up and then ran around, hitting everything in sight.
Goblins! He’d been defeated by—by Goblins! And it hadn’t even been like last time! Last time he’d been outnumbered but this time—
One had landed on him! The indignity of it made Toren so angry he felt like he could have exploded. He was filled with all-consuming rage.
And fear. A bit of fear was in Toren as well. For the first time, he sensed danger.
Not because of the Goblins. Damn the Goblins! He could kill them if he had time to plan things out, he was sure. But Toren felt the mana in his body running dangerously low.
Erin supplied him with energy, of course. He knew that. Normally it was enough for everything he did, even though she wasn’t exactly a font of magic. But after so many repeated deaths and reassemblies, he realized he was on the verge of running out.
If he was scattered one more time, if his pieces were separated—Toren feared the animation spell that gave him life might end for good. He couldn’t let that happen.
No problem, then! Toren would just find somewhere to wait while he regained a bit more mana. An hour would be enough. All he had to do was get his sword and…and…
Toren looked for his sword. He’d dropped over there? Over here? He paused, and then did a slow circle.
No. It couldn’t be. It was impossible!
He’d lost his sword! Toren searched for it frantically in the snow, trying not to believe it was true. But it was.
His sword was gone.
Had one of the Goblins taken it? Or the monster-girl?
Maybe. All Toren knew was that he was suddenly defenseless. Of course, he could fight with his hands and feet, but that wasn’t the same as having a weapon. His Skills were designed for a weapon—without one, Toren did feel vulnerable.
And he couldn’t die.
The skeleton felt a chill in his bones. He stared around the open area, suddenly realizing how vulnerable he was. If one of the Goblins came back, or even the girl-thing—
He couldn’t risk it. The skeleton hesitated, then swiftly ran down an alley.
He had to find shelter. A hiding spot. Could he squeeze himself into a small space? What about a weapon? Could he take one from a Human? But what if they got lucky and killed him?
Toren had never been so afraid. He ran, pausing at every shadow, trying to find somewhere totally secluded. He spotted an opening in the ground—a dark entrance and dove towards it.
The sewers! Toren immediately recognized the foul, dark tunnels and relaxed. No one would come down here! Not even Goblins liked this much filth. He could rest here, wait a while. And then—
The skeleton had let his guard down too early. As he walked further into the sewers, his foot caught on a floating body. It moved, and then jerked to life.
A corpse, dead, eyes glowing with yellow light, sprang up. Toren jerked back, and then realized one of the dead had risen. Oh. Was that all? It had surprised him, but it was just a zombie. Toren backed away in case the undead started flailing about—
The dead body sprang at Toren, making a gurgling snarling sound. Toren jerked in shock, and the corpse bore him into the slime of the sewers.
Not a zombie! A Ghoul! More bodies were rising around Toren, actual zombies this time. But the ghoul had focused on Toren and identified him as a threat. It tore at the skeleton, trying to rip his bones away—
Trying to kill him.
Fear suddenly gripped Toren. He clenched his bony fists and began hammering at the Ghoul, trying to knock it off him, break its skull. But it was freshly dead and still relatively intact. And it had him on the ground! It was tearing away Toren’s ribs, one at a time!
So strong! It—Toren was going to die! It was stronger than Toren, and tougher too in this moment. He felt so weak.
He was going to die.
No! Toren plunged a finger into the Ghoul’s eye socket, piercing the rotted eyeball. But the Ghoul felt no pain and didn’t need eyes to see. Toren punched the corpse repeatedly, but nothing was working.
He was going to die! The Ghoul was going to kill him! It was impossible! Unacceptable! He couldn’t die like this!
Not like this! Toren raged silently as he tried to force the Ghoul off of him. Not like this! Not to a Ghoul! If he had time—a bit more time to regain mana!
Someone, anyone! Toren cried out. He needed help! He needed assistance! Anyone, the adventurer, the Humans with clubs, the monster girl, the Goblins—
The ghoul was reaching for his head, twisting it. It would all be over. Toren fought it, trying to hold the arms back. So weak. Someone. Please help.
A hand dragged the Ghoul off of Toren. The skeleton saw the Ghoul jerk, turn—another hand smashed into the back of its head.
For a second the skeleton thought—but when he stood up, he saw only zombies.
Yes, the undead corpses were surrounding the Ghoul! In disbelief, Toren saw the Ghoul fighting them, tearing at their faces, trying to bear them to the ground—but six zombies were all striking it, tearing it apart, eating its flesh—
The zombies had helped Toren. That was what the skeleton realized after the shock had worn off. He sat in the filth of the sewer as the zombies finished destroying the Ghoul, leaving the chewed limbs floating in the water.
How? And why? All Toren knew was that he’d cried out for help. He’d reached out—
And the zombies had answered. These, the lowliest of the undead had come to his aid. Why? Because he was a skeleton and they were like him? Because they hated ghouls?
No, that was silly. It was because—
Toren touched the flames in his skull. His eyes? Skinner had commanded the dead. Was it that? Something else? Some secret to his creation?
The skeleton didn’t know. But the zombies stopped, swaying in front of him. They were waiting for his command.
The skeleton stared at them in shock. And then he heard the voice, echoing in his head. He hadn’t heard it for a while, but now it came into his mind, sharp and clear, and oh so welcome.
[Leader Class Obtained!]
[Leader Level 1!]
[Skill – Command Lesser Undead obtained!]
For a few moment, Toren’s head was filled with clouds. He stood in the sewer, poleaxed by the revelation. But when he came back to himself, he just stared at the zombies.
Six zombies. Waiting for his command. And now Toren felt certain he could command them. In fact, if he wanted to…
Well now. Wasn’t this interesting?
This is the story of a skeleton. He stood in the dark sewers of a city full of death, where a Human with silver armor tried to save the living and a monster followed a band of Goblin warriors. The skeleton had travelled far, had thrown off his shackles and come here.
He had been humbled. He had nearly died. But he had survived. He had survived and he would still survive, growing stronger. That was what he pledged to himself. He would survive.
And he was no longer alone.