Esthelm. City of the damned and dead. That was how it felt sometimes. Of course, there were thousands of people still living inside of it, but for many, their miserable, desperate existence was just a prelude to death and worse. Their home was in ruins, and their city was slowly filling with the undead. It was undeniable, now.
They came out of the sewers. They sat up in the cold snow. They dug themselves out of the frozen ground and from beneath the rubble.
Not just one, not just two—hundreds. Hundreds. Zombies, yes, but ghouls as well. They came for the living, and without trained warriors, the refugees of Esthelm could not hope to defend themselves from such a horde.
If they could, they would have fled. Even the cold, merciless winter night was better than death and undeath. But they could not.
An army of Goblins camped outside the city. Already, a score of people had died as they’d tried to leave the city and been set on. The Goblins maintained a perimeter, laughing, shooting arrows at any Human they saw. And more were coming. Already the people could see Goblin warriors wearing black armor gathering into teams, preparing to sweep into the city.
Goblins outside, undead within. And disunity and chaos among them. The Humans despaired and some simply waited for death while others took what small satisfaction they could, giving into cruelty and lust before the end. After all, who would save them?
The answer came during the darkest hours of the night, when some huddled behind the flimsy walls they’d built and others went searching for victims. They heard a voice, and saw silver.
A man in plate armor. An adventurer with a sword and shield. No, no ordinary adventurer—a Gold-rank one! A [Knight].
He strode into one camp and raised his voice.
“Citizens of Esthelm! Hear my words!”
No one had called them that, or thought of them like that since the city had fallen. People, disbelieving, crept out to watch him and saw the men at his back. Men and women. And children. Hundreds, already close to a thousand.
“Esthelm has fallen. But you still remain! The undead rise and must be stopped. A Goblin army has come to kill whomever remains in this city. If you keep fighting among yourselves, you will die! But together we may yet live.”
That was all he said. But the people saw him bring his hundreds into the camp, and begin building. He had more rubble removed, had people with Skills—people who’d almost forgotten their Classes—begin to build.
He had them build a wall. Not around a small plot of land to hide in, as the others had done, but massive barricades, linking half-fallen buildings and sealing off entire streets. He was building fortifications, sealing off nearly a quarter of the city and setting guards, men and women with weapons and hope in their eyes to fend off the undead.
He was retaking their home. And so people came forward, at first the desperate, but then everyone, abandoning the places they’d carved out, coming, some fearful, others ashamed, but coming nevertheless.
Coming home. And so the Humans built desperately, and gathered arms, and the Gold-rank adventurer walked among them, tirelessly coordinating them, giving them courage.
Ylawes Byres. He stared towards the edge of the city, where the Goblins were waiting. He’d chosen a spot as far away from them as possible. It would be war soon, he knew. A last war, a final war for this city. Whether it would mean death and ruin for a place already rotten and torn apart or a new spark of life for this place he did not know. He only knew he would make the Goblins pay in blood for every step they took.
However, this was not his story. Instead, the city’s fate belonged in no small part to another being. A skeleton, a creature of death, common and worthless among the endless undead. Yet this one was unlike any other skeleton in the world. He danced in the dying city, as the snow began to fall.
A shadow shivered and twisted amidst the center of the city. A shadow with eyes that burned purple and bright even in the darkest night. Shapes moved and walked among the empty buildings, crawling, creeping, seeking out the light to snuff it out.
But the shadow danced on. Death and corruptions swirled through the streets, standing up, taking awful forms and biting, chewing. But the shadow danced, and it had a name.
He whirled about in the street, arms spread wide. His was not some demonic summoning, nor the wild and sinister movements of ritual and sin. Instead, the skeleton ran about, twirling and doing handstands and waving his arms about, full of innocent mirth. He danced like a child, delighted, simple. He had a new toy! Not just one in fact. He had a world full of them!
He could control the undead! How wonderful was that?
Toren stopped whirling about and turned to look at some of the shadows around him. Six swaying corpses stared at him, barely noticeable as they stood in the shadows. They had been men and women, but now rot and decay had turned them into something else.
Zombies. Pathetic fodder any warrior could kill individually, only fearsome in vast numbers, and even then, only to the unprepared. But they were his. His.
He could control them. Toren knew it. He felt the certainty in his mind and saw it when he ordered the zombies to follow him. He walked down the street as they followed in his wake.
This changed everything. Toren had been about to die, and they had saved him. And now—
What should he do now? Toren glanced at one of the zombies and it stopped. He slowly made it walk in front of him, and inspected the zombie carefully.
Yup. Dead. And a worm was crawling around in its exposed brain. Toren pulled it out and patted the zombie on its squishy head. His zombie.
Of course, he could always get a new one. But for now, Toren was curious. What could it do? He made the zombie walk back and forth in front of him, hit the zombie standing next to it, lie down…
Interesting. He couldn’t tell the zombie to do very specific things. For instance, Toren had tried to get the zombie to hop on one leg and it hadn’t moved. Because he was too low level? All he could get it to do was move and attack what he wanted.
That was too bad. But then again, it was still an excellent start. Toren rubbed his hands together, grinning.
Zombies. Just imagine what he could do with them! He’d no longer be alone in a fight—he wouldn’t even have to fight if he didn’t want to.
True, this didn’t mean he could suddenly challenge Griffon Hunt or even the Gold-rank adventurer who’d beaten him once. Toren knew that. Right now he could control six undead. And only zombies to boot. But if he leveled? What then?
The possibilities sent shivers down the skeleton’s spine. Where could he begin? How would he level up?
By leading his minions, obviously. Toren cast around, and then had another idea. He was still a bit low on mana. He could probably pull himself back together once if he was broken, but he didn’t want to risk anything.
So why not stop fighting himself and instead have some fun? His zombies might be mindless, but they could certainly help out Toren in their limited way. To start with for example…
A sword. Toren wanted one. His zombies lurched towards a camp of Humans he’d seen earlier that day. They were a group of men who’d hunkered down in an alleyway, putting up flimsy barricades and trash barriers to keep other people away.
The zombies came to the alleyway and paused. They turned into it, walking, stumbling forwards. Perched on a crumbling rooftop, Toren watched as one of the men on guard duty shouted out in alarm as he saw the zombies.
Within moments, the other men—who’d been sleeping in clumsy sleeping bags made of whatever fabric they could get their hands on around the smoldering fire—were on their feet. They grasped weapons in their hands, clubs, slings, and, Toren was pleased to note, an iron short sword held by a big man that looked like their leader.
The gang of men was clearly arguing as the zombies slowly broke down the wooden planks that had been nailed together to form an obstacle and then slowly came down the alley towards them. Half of them wanted to leave, but their leader pointed out the obvious. There were six zombies, and they were eight strong! Plus, the zombies were slow, clumsy—their slinger whirled a stone that took the eye out of one. The other men began throwing things, and the zombies stumbled and one fell, struggling to get up.
Stupid, foolish undead. They’d never get close enough at their meandering pace. The men laughed and shouted triumphantly as they began to batter the zombies with missiles. From his seat above, Toren laughed and gave his zombies one order.
The foremost zombie had been stumbling backwards, flesh torn and bones fractured from the stones that kept smashing into his skull. Bits of brain were already leaking from his open skull. The man throwing stones stood confidently ahead of the others, picking up rocks from a pile at his feet as he confidently loosed stones at the zombies. He was close to them, but so what? It wasn’t as if they could move—
The zombie took a step, and then charged down the alleyway. The man with the sling screamed in horror and turned to run. But too late—the zombie tackled him, and then he was tearing at the man as he tried to fight the creature off with his hands, biting at his throat—ripping away red flesh—
The gang of men had frozen in horror. Half of them ran forwards to help their friend, but then they decided he was dead and tried to run. Again, too late.
The other zombies ran at them, not sluggishly lurching as they’d done before, but sprinting, moving with inhuman speed that cared nothing for torn muscle or the broken ground. The men raised their weapons, but found they were of little use. Clubs that could break bones and spiked bats that could tear flesh did not scare those already dead.
The leader of the gang backed up. His sword at least could chop, but he was no [Swordsman], or even a [Warrior]. He hacked at the zombies killing the screaming men in his gang, hitting his comrades as often as the zombies. And when the zombies dropped the dead men to the ground, the man with the short sword found himself alone.
He turned to run. But the zombies were quick.
Sitting on the rooftop, Toren grinned as the zombies finished killing the leader. Only three were left; the man with the sword had gotten one, and two more had been killed in the fight. But so what? He knew there were countless zombies in the city.
And he’d come up with another excellent discovery for his trouble. The zombies had taken out the men so easily, and with just one order from him. A simple one, really. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it instantly.
Run. That was all he’d told them to do. Just…run. And so they’d ran.
Why didn’t zombies do it all the time? Toren realized that maybe some did—he hadn’t exactly even seen that many zombies before today. Just when Skinner had attacked Erin’s inn, really. And in the crypt.
Zombies were weak. True. They were slow and they rotted easily and they had no concept of dodging, blocking, or even retreating. But what if you could make them run? Then you had an entirely different kind of monster on your hands. Because yes, zombies were simple fighters, but they were still strong. And they didn’t fear injury.
Toren clattered his jaw excitedly. He could already sense that this little skirmish had helped him get closer to a level up. In a moment he’d go down and get his new sword. And then—
Well, he had zombies, didn’t he? And there were many more groups of thugs, just waiting for the day so they could begin marauding again. Perfect prey, in short. Could Toren wipe out an even bigger gang with six zombies? Could he do it without losing even one?
This was a challenge. A fun challenge. Toren leapt from his rooftop and landed in the snow, where his undead servants were waiting for him. He looked into their lifeless eyes, their empty sockets, and grinned. He smiled, and in his eyes, Esthelm burned.
This is the story of a monster. This is the story of a girl. At least, she’d been a girl, a Human once.
Now she didn’t know what she was.
She had no name. Or rather, she’d forgotten it. It, like all her words, was gone. Only hunger remained. Hunger, and despair.
And fear. That was the real irony of it all, wasn’t it? That even now, even when she’d lost everything, her family, home, levels—even humanity—even now, she was afraid of dying.
She’d nearly died. The skeleton she’d encountered had tried to kill her. He’d pounded at her, trying to kill her. And she’d wept, because she would finally die and be free of the nightmare.
But she hadn’t wanted to die. She’d still wanted to live, even then. She’d nearly given up hope, though, resigned herself to death.
That’s when they’d saved her. The Goblins. They’d come and killed the skeleton. She’d thought they just wanted to kill and eat her themselves, or do worse, but they hadn’t. They’d looked at her and left.
So why had she followed them? The monster paused as she loped on all fours after them. The snow and stone were cold on her skin, but her new body could withstand far more than her old one. Even now, the beating the skeleton had given her was healing.
But the Goblins? Why pursue them? She didn’t know. But they were monsters. So maybe she deserved their company. And she had nothing else, so why not? Death would be a welcome thing if it came to that.
At any rate, the Goblins weren’t chasing her off. The girl in the monster saw the warriors glancing back at her as they marched through the empty streets now and then, but none of them tried to chase her off. Rather, it looked like they were chattering amongst themselves as they looked at her.
Could Goblins talk? Maybe in their own language. The monster didn’t know. But she was surprised by the idea. And when she saw the place the Goblins had chosen to camp for the night—
Her jaw dropped in surprise. The Goblins had set up in the center of a building that had been hollowed out by fire. But instead of squatting in the ashes and ruins like beasts, they’d cleared away the soot and snow, revealing bare stone. They’d taken bits of wood and covered the windows and doors, and even built a fire pit in the center of the building!
Now two of the Goblins sat around the fire pit, one piling kindling together and shaving bits of wood as the other struck sparks. A small fragment of wood caught, and the Goblins put their hands around the small flame, shielding it as it ate the kindling and grew.
Within a few minutes they had a fire. The monster sat on her haunches on the edge of the building, afraid to go in. But the warriors took no notice of her, and so she dared enter the camp. She stared around with wide eyes, drinking in…
Civilization. It was such an odd word, but that was what she saw. The warriors were making a fire. And what were they doing now? The Goblins were…putting their beds together! They had beds?
Yes, some of the Goblins had blankets in their possessions. Others had only the clothing they wore—one had a small stuffed pillow of all things, just large enough to cushion his head! They spread out their gear—weapons, bows and arrows—around them, forming small nests close to but not too near the fire. Places to sleep, places of their own.
They were so normal. The monster couldn’t believe her eyes. Were these really Goblins, the raiding, murderous monsters that adventurers hunted for bronze coins? Then she heard a voice grunting by her ear.
The girl turned in fright. A Goblin was glaring at her. She turned to run, but he wasn’t raising his sword to attack. Instead, he was pointing.
What? The monster girl looked around wildly, and then realized.
She was in the way! She was blocking the doorway! The Goblin edged by her as she scrambled aside. She looked fearfully at him, but he just snorted at her and marched out the doorway. He came back in a few moments later with a pot he’d filled with fresh snow. He glanced at her as he walked back towards the fire, but did nothing else.
They didn’t care about her. They didn’t fear her or—or her face. The idea struck the creature dumb with shock. She watched, awed and amazed as the Goblin with the pot hung it over the fire. The snow began to melt in the pot, and she realized they were going to make dinner.
From what? The thing looked, and saw something lying in a corner of the room. Were those rags?
Suddenly, her heart froze in her chest. The monster stared as one of the Goblins approached the corpses of Humans and one Goblin, knife in hand. That was right. Goblins ate the dead, even their own.
They were monsters just like her.
Suddenly, the horror felt a pang in her stomach, and realized she was starving. Even if she forgot for a moment, she was always consumed by it. The unrelenting, unending emptiness in her stomach.
She stared at the corpses, salivating quietly. She longed to eat the frozen bodies—even if they were rotten and foul. She would eat her own kind, even though her soul revolted. She would eat the Goblins too, and her own flesh it if meant filling the hole inside of her.
The monster edged towards the pile of bodies. Food. The Goblins were looking at her now and then, but they wouldn’t stop her, would they? It was food. If they stopped her, she would bite them, tear at them. She had to eat. She was so hungry—
Her jaw opened. The thing reached for a body, and then saw something move towards her. Something big.
She turned, and saw the Hobgoblin stand up. He’d been sitting quietly amidst his fellows while they worked, helping to chop wood into smaller bits to feed the fire, but now he stood. He was clearly the leader of the group—even the former young woman knew that. She’d heard tales of Hobgoblins, feared even by Silver-rank adventurers for their strength and cunning in battle.
And now he was looking. At. Her.
The Hobgoblin grunted as he slowly walked over to the monster. She stared up at him, awed by his sheer size. He was massive, tall as a tall Human man, and far wider. But all that flesh wasn’t fat—it was muscle, rippling, tough, raw—
She tore her eyes away from his body. Fearfully, the monster girl retreated a bit. What was he going to do? Was he going to—
The Hobgoblin pointed at the thing and it—she—froze, about to dart away, back into the darkness of the city. But he didn’t grab for her. Rather he opened his mouth and spoke.
It was a word! An actual word! The young woman froze, eyes wide. Goblins could speak? He could—speak?
Yes, he could. The Hobgoblin concentrated, frowning mightily. He forced out more syllables, his voice thick with concentration.
“Inkreepr. You. You innkreeper?”
Innkeeper? The girl had no idea what he meant. He pointed at her and repeated the word.
“Innkeeper. You? Clss.”
Her class? He was asking…?
Slowly, wide-eyed, the horror shook her head. She’d never been an [Innkeeper], never even considered it. She had been—she’d used to raise flowers. Even the thought made her heart ache. Flowers? Who needed flowers in this broken place?
The Hobgoblin stared down at her, looking surprised and even a bit irritated. He moved—she flinched again, but he just turned and growled something at another Goblin warrior sitting by the now merry fire. The Goblin stared at the girl. He was a normal-sized Goblin warrior, much like the others. He scratched his head, and muttered a word in another language.
The other Goblins stared at him, the head scratcher. One reached out and punched him on the shoulder. He grunted, but didn’t punch back. Then they all just turned and stared at the monster-girl.
For a minute they stared, and then one of them shrugged. He pointed towards the fire and beckoned towards her.
Almost disbelieving, she crept forwards. She expected them to grab her at any second, to tear her clothes off and—no, even they wouldn’t sink that low, would they? But she expected them to stab at her, or to chase her away?
But nothing happened. The Goblins just stared at her, and let her inch closer to the fire. One of them sniffed at her—the other one poked a finger into his ear and wiggled it about. Then they went about their business.
They didn’t fear her, and clearly they had no idea what to make of her. The girl stared at them, and then saw three Goblins go over to the corpses.
She was there in an instant. She wanted to bite, to tear at the frozen bodies, but the Goblins had other ideas. When she grabbed a leg one of them grabbed her. She froze in fright, but the Goblin just pulled her away, grunting disapprovingly.
He had a knife in his hand. He used it to cut at the body, removing flesh swiftly, cutting away the most palatable parts. The thing salivated. It reached for the food, wanting to eat it there and then—
But the Goblins stopped her. They shook their heads at her and pulled her back. Not understanding, confused, the young woman stopped. She watched as the Goblins took the meat they’d cut and brought it over to the pot.
It was a big pot. The Hob had carried it no doubt, and it was boiling with water. Even as the monster watched, the Goblins added meat to the pot. And then…they began to cook with it.
She couldn’t believe her eyes. What were they doing? Cooking meat? But it was—it had been part of Humans and even other Goblins. It was still flesh. It was still—but it was different. The Goblins cooked the meat like…well, meat. They seasoned it with ground up spices and even added some flour to the soup they were making. And a carrot? Yes, one of the Goblins pulled out a wizened carrot from his belt. Another had a handful of pepper. And then they turned the horrible, terrible thing they’d taken from corpses into something else. Something almost wonderful.
Soup. The smell made the girl’s mouth water. The memory made her eyes water. It was soup. She hadn’t eaten soup since…
One of the Goblins, the one who seemed to be in charge of stirring and sampling the concoction, decided the food was done. He grabbed a wooden bowl and began ladling the steaming soup into bowls, passing them to the other Goblins. The girl watched, remembering and drooling, until one of the Goblins passed a bowl to her.
At first, she recoiled from the heat and the sudden nearness of the Goblin. She stared into crimson eyes, looked at the clawed hand holding the bowl. What? He was giving it to her?
To her? But she hadn’t helped. And yet, the Goblin was offering it to her. The creature struggled with the act of kindness, but the starving thing in her greedily took the bowl. She wanted to say…to thank the Goblin, but she had no words.
And the Goblin had already taken his own bowl. Grinning with delight he set near the fire, making some remark to the other Goblins. So the monster stared at the bowl in her hands, warming her cold body.
Generosity from a Goblin. The bowl was warm and let off steam that dissipated in the cold air around her. The monster stared. Then she ate.
Slowly, clumsily, she lifted the bowl. Her hands felt unused to the motion, as if they’d forgotten how. But some things didn’t fade. Slowly, the young woman blew at the soup, licking at it tentatively until it was cool. Then she tilted the bowl up and tried to eat it as fast as she could, to satiate the thing in her stomach. She slurped the broth greedily, gulping down the chunks of meat and grinding the rest between her sharp teeth. Only when the girl had half-finished her bowl did she realize she was the only one eating this way.
The Goblin warriors were eating, yes, but they were eating…civilly. They didn’t immediately gulp down the soup like she did. They put it into bowls and ate efficiently, some even using knives to fish the meat out and pop it into their mouths. The monster stared at them, soup dripping down her dirty chest.
They ate like people. And she—
She was ashamed. But she was also hungry, so she finished the first bowl they gave her, then the second, the third.
After that, the beast in her had had enough. Which was good, because she’d eaten more than the Goblins had expected. They brewed a second batch of soup, eying her oddly but saying nothing.
They didn’t say much. Rather, each Goblin seemed to know what the others were thinking. That was how the monster-girl found herself sitting at the fire as the others sat around her. They didn’t say much, but that was because they were busy.
They were staring at her. Now that they’d eaten and taken care of the essentials, the Goblins studied the strange Human, the monster that had followed them to their camp. They eyed her from head to toe, unabashedly scrutinizing every part of her.
They didn’t seem to know what to make of her. She didn’t know what she was either, so she just stared back, part of her still afraid. The other part…
What would they do? They hadn’t hurt her so far. Instead they’d been—she hadn’t seen other people—other Humans of her kind, that was, making soup in the city. But these Goblins had made fire, cleaned up the building, even offered food to a stranger.
They could speak! They had words! And she did not.
What were they? What was she? The monster felt anguish in her heart—
And then a stone fell into her lap.
She nearly shrieked in surprise, but it was just a pebble. One of the Goblins had thrown it. He immediately received a kick from the others, but now they were all staring at the monster, waiting to see what she would do.
The creature stared at the stone in her lap and picked it up awkwardly. She held it in her hands and stared at the Goblin who’d thrown it. He looked vaguely ashamed. What did he want from her? She didn’t know.
Slowly, hesitantly, she threw the stone back. And missed.
Her aim was terrible. Rather than hit the Goblin who’d thrown it, the pebble flew up and to the left. It struck the Hob sitting behind the Goblin, who’d been eating another bowl of soup.
The pebble bounced right off of the Hobgoblin’s head. He blinked as it splashed in his bowl of soup, and slowly looked down. His chest had been splattered by the hot liquid.
The monster immediately wanted to run and hide, but she was paralyzed by shock. She stared fearfully at the Hobgoblin. So did the other Goblin warriors. They stared, and then one of them made a sound.
He hooted, and pointed at the Hobgoblin. He slapped the ground, and laughed! So did the other Goblins.
They laughed! In an instant, all of them were roaring with uncontrolled laughter, all, except for the Hob who was still processing his reduced bowl of soup. But the other Goblins were filled with mirth. They laughed like people, slapping their sides with mirth, hooting and pointing fingers at the Hobgoblin who picked the stone out with two fat fingers and hurled it over his shoulder.
He glared at the monster, who cringed, but with no real anger in him. Instead, the Hob reached out and flicked the head of the Goblin who’d thrown the stone at her, and then downed the remaining soup in his bowl in a single go. He sighed, chuckled ruefully, and then he laughed too.
Laughter. It was something that was Human or rather—reminded the young woman of Humans. But the Goblins and Humans laughed so much alike, even if the Goblin’s voices were higher and they had an odd cadence to their tones. But they still laughed, needing no words to tell her what they meant.
They laughed, at such a small accident with all the good cheer the young woman had ever seen. And—the girl thought—almost as if they were just relieved to have an excuse to laugh.
At last, the Goblins stopped laughing, but the mood remained. They sat around the fire, exchanging short, sometimes monosyllabic bursts of chatter, but clearly speaking to each other. The thing couldn’t understand, but it lay by the fire, somehow contented just to be.
It was so strange. She’d never felt this way. Not for…over a week. And few times in her previous life, to be honest. But here, among the Goblins she needed to do nothing. She just existed, and that was enough.
Goblins. The crimson eyes of the warriors sitting around her flashed in the darkness. But they weren’t heartless eyes. And their faces, however different they were from Human faces, were still capable of expressing emotion.
Soon, they began to go to sleep. They rolled into their blankets or just sat with a back against the wall and closed their eyes. Then the monster stirred.
She shouldn’t be here. That was what she felt. They were sleeping, but she—
She wasn’t safe here, was she? They’d given her food, but somehow, she still felt like an invader, or a monster living amongst people.
She should go. This had been—enough. This moment.
The monster crept away from the fire, heart aching. But she couldn’t stay. The fire was dying down and with it, the fear was coming back. The terror.
The city was full of darkness. Darkness and death. The dead were coming back. There was violence in the streets. Other people—
She had to hide. Find a tiny crevice to hide in while she slept.
That was what she thought. But the young woman paused as she crept towards the door and saw the Goblin standing watch.
He was sitting, actually. But he was sitting high up, on a broken ledge that allowed him to look out at the streets surrounding the building they’d barricaded themselves in. The Goblin had a bow in his hands and he narrowed his eyes at the monster-girl as she scrambled up to stare at him.
He didn’t smile at her, but neither did he kick her off and down onto the street. The thing looked at him, fearfully, but after a moment he just went back to studying the darkness. She looked as well and her eyes—able to see in the night like day—spotted shapes, moving in the distance.
She shuddered, and the Goblin on watch looked at her, almost amused. He nodded, and tapped the bow at his side. Then he pointed. The young woman turned, and saw a shape lurching down the snowy street towards them. Her heart twisted in her chest as she saw a zombie coming straight at them.
But the Goblin wasn’t afraid. He raised the bow at his side and grinned at her. He pointed, tapping his chest, and then put an arrow to the string with one swift movement. He drew the arrow to his chest, and sighted down the shaft.
Fft. The arrow streaked across the void, and thunked into the zombie’s forehead. The young woman stared, and the Goblin grinned. He pointed again. She looked, and saw another zombie, far off, not coming this way.
But it had been marked, and so the Goblin archer drew another arrow. He nocked, aimed, loosed in a single motion. The zombie staggered and fell.
Twice more the Goblin did this, pointing out targets to the monster girl and downing them. Each time he grinned at her, and tapped his own chest. His self-satisfaction was obvious, and he was unashamed of it. He was a master at his craft, an expert showing his skills off to her, like the [Hunters] or [Marksmen] who’d do the same with targets at fairs.
After the fourth zombie had fallen, the Goblin seemed done. He went back to studying the landscape. He looked at the monster, and nodded to the dim embers of the fire inquiringly. She hesitated, and then nodded back, awkwardly.
It was warm near the embers, so the creature crept closer. She lay down there—so close she could smell the smoke and feel the heat on her skin. The dim glow burned in her vision, and she closed her eyes, feeling sleep crawl over her slowly.
Could she stay here? Was this alright? She didn’t know. All the girl who’d become a monster knew was that she didn’t feel the need to hide anymore. Not here.
She slept, feeling safe for the first time in a long while.
Badarrow saw the Human girl go to sleep at last by the fire. He saw her chest rise and fall rhythmically, and knew that now would be the time to shoot her, if any. He had an arrow in his hands, and he could put one through the back of her skull in a second if he wanted.
But—no. It would be a waste of an arrow. That was how Badarrow felt.
He didn’t waste arrows. Ever. When Badarrow shot at the enemy, whether it was zombies, Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, or even other Goblins he never wasted an arrow. Even if he missed. Because that arrow was there to hurt the people who were trying to hurt them, and it would do just that, or at least make them cover their heads.
But killing the Human girl? No. She wasn’t an enemy, and she wasn’t a nuisance either. She was something else. But what?
Not a victim. Not something to attack. Garen Redfang was very clear on that one point. He had walked among Humans, and adopted some of their customs. In this at least, he was firm. No Goblin warrior of his would ever assault a female, or male for that matter. They had their own kind for such things, and it was only the worst of tribes that tolerated such actions among their own people. So why degrade themselves for other species?
It was a mark of pride among the Redfang Goblins that they were like their leader. Humans were for killing or ignoring. That was it. Nothing else.
So. No sex. No killing. Just a Human who ate their food and slept next to them as if they were Humans like her. Badarrow couldn’t understand it. But she was clearly more monster than Human, so maybe that was why.
The Goblin [Archer] yawned irritably. He glanced up at the moon, and decided it was time. Swiftly, he leapt down from his spot and walked over to another of the resting Goblins.
Headscratcher woke up after only a single poke. He knew it was his time to watch, so he didn’t scowl that hard at Badarrow. He took the bow the Goblin handed him, nodding at the implicit threat of what would happen if he damaged Badarrow’s weapon.
The Goblin warrior went to climb up to the watch point, but he paused as he passed the Human. He stopped, and looked down at her. He stared down at the Human girl, eying her altered features with interest. He reached down to touch at her dirty hair, which glowed in the firelight—
Badarrow kicked him. Headscratcher nearly tumbled into the firepit. He turned, fist raised, but Badarrow’s glare stopped him. One jerk of the annoyed Goblin’s head clearly said that Headscratcher should be keeping watch or they’d all be dead.
Reluctantly, Headscratcher went up to his post. He kept look out, killing any zombies that came near with precise shots from the bow. Then after about an hour had passed, he went to wake the next Goblin whose turn it was. The warriors had a system for every night, so that each Goblin took their own turn unless wounded.
Tonight was Badarrow, then Headscratcher. After that Rocksoup and then Rabbiteater, and then Bitefly, and then Grunter for the last watch. Like that, they passed the night away into morning.
Just before dawn, all the Goblins woke as one. They sat up and grabbed their gear. They armed themselves within minutes, and then prepared for battle.
The thirteen Goblin warriors sat around the sleeping monster-girl in silence, polishing their weapons, checking their armor for faults. They made as little sound as possible, and stood up and left her sleeping quietly next to the fire.
The Redfang warriors chose a good vantage point where they wouldn’t be seen, and watched the edge of the city, the gates where the other Goblin army had camped. They stood alert, but not tense, conserving their energy.
Waiting. They knew it would not be long.
They came into the city in groups of twenty or more, sweeping through with the dawning sun at their backs, killing anything and everything they found. Goblin warriors in black armor, preparing the way.
A group of them came across a horde of zombies. They didn’t retreat; the zombies would pursue them and the last thing the warriors wanted was to run into another group of undead and become trapped.
So the Goblins found a snowy patch of land on higher ground, and let the zombies come to them. Many of the slow undead fell to arrows before they even reached the Goblins, and the others fell to the Goblins as they fought in tight formation. The Goblin warriors grinned as they slaughtered the undead. After all, they were just—
Eight zombies sat up in the snow behind the Goblins. They’d been lying still, motionless under the snow. Now they leapt to their feet and ran at the Goblins, taking the warriors by complete surprise. The Goblins cried out—turned to fight—
And a skeleton slipped out from the crowd of zombies and beheaded one of the Goblins. He turned and cut another one down even as the Goblins began fighting the eight zombies under his control. Another Goblin turned, axe raised, shouting as Toren charged him—
The skeleton’s eyes glowed purple. The Goblin froze up, and then raised his axe again. But too slow, too late. Toren’s hand blurred, and the Goblin stumbled back, throat cut. Toren grinned as he leapt backwards, avoiding the other Goblin warriors’ attacks. The [Fear] enchantment didn’t work on Goblins—but it could make them hesitate.
Their formation broken, attacked from behind and harassed by the skeleton, the group of over twenty Goblins fell quickly to the zombie horde that encircled them, no longer held at bay. Toren happily walked among their bodies, checking for a better sword and a shield. He stayed clear of the rogue zombies, the mass of dead about sixty strong now, as it shambled its way down the street. The eight zombies Toren had control of waited patiently for him to finish as he triumphantly surveyed the dead Goblins.
It hadn’t been easy to get all the zombies in the right spots, but they’d been an excellent distraction. Toren couldn’t command a horde, but it was easy to herd them like cattle and let his personal band of undead capitalize on their attack. And the dividends of Toren’s hard work were immediately obvious.
[Leader Level 4!]
[Skill – Daring Charge obtained!]
The skeleton danced about with his new sword and shield. Another level! He’d been sending his zombies to attack Humans all night, but it was clear that attacking groups that could fight back was more rewarding. He immediately led his zombies off, searching for more Goblin groups. It looked like they were finally coming to attack, and that made Toren happy.
He’d finally get to kill a lot of things today.
Another group of Goblins, twenty five warriors of the Goblin Lord, cornered the group of thirteen Redfang warriors an hour after dawn. Both sides were breathing heavily.
It had been a long chase. The Redfang warriors had caught the first group of Goblins by surprise, slaying over half with arrows before they’d known what was happening. But by chance, another group of warriors had heard the fighting and rushed to assist their comrades. The Redfang warriors had fled, bringing down more Goblins, but now their backs were against a wall.
The Goblin warrior with black armor and a longsword in his hand called out to the Redfang warriors. He stood with the black-armored warriors at his back.
“Goblin Lord is. Obey him. Come and not die.”
For a second, the thirteen Goblins paused in surprise. This was new. They were being invited to join the Goblin Lord’s forces? They looked at each other, uncertain, thinking.
Then Rocksoup, fished around in his nose for a booger, and flicked it at the other Goblin leader. The Goblin roared in outrage, but Rocksoup’s comrades, his friends, slapped him on the back and cheered.
The Redfang Goblins laughed. They faced down the other Goblins, backs straight, heads held high. They did not need to say anything. Any true Goblin would understand.
We are here. We are Goblins. We do not abandon our tribe.
No true Goblin would. What were these false Goblins, these fools who’d accept traitors into their tribe? Who could obey a Chieftain—even Goblin Lord like that?
Never. It could never be accepted. So the Goblins faced off, the Redfang warriors standing proud as the sun hit their backs.
It was thirteen against twenty-five. The black-armored Goblins were confident, but the Redfang warriors had no fear. Grunter waited until the thunder in his heart was right, and then roared.
As one, the Redfang warriors leapt forwards. They rushed ahead, shouting without fear as they ran towards their surprised enemy. For all his bulk, Grunter was first. He lowered his axe and shoulder-charged into a group of warriors, ignoring their weapons. He trusted his thick skin and armor to keep him safe.
A Goblin stabbed at him, but the shaft of his spear broke as Grunter rammed into him. The Hob trampled the Goblin, and seized another. He threw him, and then the one he’d stepped on as if they weighed nothing.
Grunter threw two Goblins into their fellows, turned, and chopped another Goblin down. He roared at the others, making them draw back in fear. They dared to challenge him? He was a Hob! He scythed left and right with his heavy weapon, daring anyone to come close.
Headscratcher was right behind Grunter. He leapt towards the warriors Grunter had downed and without a second’s thought, stabbed them as they struggled to get up. Behind him, Badarrow shot the other Goblin leader through the head at point-blank range, laughing in fury as he did.
The other Redfang warriors formed a spear, Grunter at their head. They charged at the other warriors, bringing the fight to them. Bugear jabbed with a spear, keeping three Goblins at bay at once. One ran forwards, slashing, but Rocksoup was there!
Rocksoup and the Goblin cut—but it was the other Goblin warrior who fell away. Too slow! The dagger in Rocksoup’s off-hand caught the Goblin in his unprotected throat and he fell, choking.
The Goblin Lord’s warriors fell back in disarray. They hadn’t expected such a difference in levels! But the Redfang warriors refused to give them any moment’s rest. They pressed on, howling with fury.
They were elites! They’d fought beside Garen Redfang in the hottest of battles! Other Goblin warriors couldn’t compare to their skill.
But—they were outnumbered. And not even their levels and skill in battle could bridge the gap in numbers so easily. The instant the other Goblin warriors lost the shock of first contact, they began to swarm the Redfang warriors, fighting two-to-one, or in Grunter’s case, six-to-one.
Still, the Redfang warriors refused to back down. They fought shoulder-to-shoulder, refusing to budge. If this was their last moment, they’d go down as free Goblins, not these pale imitations. Headscratcher had lost his blade—buried in a Goblin’s spine and was falling back when he saw something blur at the backs of the Goblin warriors besieging them. He heard screams, and then the press forcing the Redfang warriors disappeared.
A silver blade cut four Goblins to the ground in swift slashes that rent their armor. The Redfang warriors saw a Goblin in black armor turn—and then a shield crashed into his face. He fell, neck broken, and then they saw the man in silver armor.
Ylawes raised his shield as the black armor Goblins fled around him. The Redfang warriors were clearly different from the rest, and he narrowed his eyes at Grunter. The Redfang Goblins didn’t hesitate. The moment they saw who they were facing, they moved to attack.
The warriors spread out around Ylawes, half of them pulling out bows. Grunter, Rocksoup, Bugear and three more Goblins formed a circle around the adventurer, keeping a wide distance. They closed as one.
Ylawes didn’t let the Goblins take the initiative. The instant they moved to attack him, he charged left. Bugear raised his own shield and the sword that Ylawes brought down cracked it and flattened the Goblin. If it wasn’t for his own Skill, the Goblin would have been cut apart in a single blow.
The warrior in silver armor clearly hadn’t expected the Goblin to survive, but he turned and blocked Grunter’s powerful blow as the Hob charged him. The axe with all of Grunter’s weight behind it bounced off the shield, and the man instantly riposted, his blade cutting Grunter deep in the side.
The Hob howled and the other Goblins swarmed Ylawes. The man spun away, keeping all of them at bay. Arrows flew at his face—he blocked each one with his shield, spinning to knock them down.
The Redfang warriors paused then, in consternation and for the first time, fear. For his part, Ylawes eyed them with his own degree of shock.
“Hmf. You’re no ordinary Goblins, are you? Are all the monsters this far south so strange?”
The Redfang warriors made no reply. Instead, they just pulled back. Grunter kept one hand on his side, assessing his damage. They looked at each other, seeing the terrible truth in each others’ eyes.
This adventurer was Gold-rank. He had to be.
It was a death sentence for the Redfang warriors. They knew it. A group of Silver-rank adventurers they could handle, or run from. But a Gold-rank?
Badarrow snarled as he loosed arrow after arrow at Ylawes. The man blocked each shot, advancing quickly on the Goblins. The Redfang warriors spread out again, but this time they had only one goal in mind. Even if they died, even if they all died distracting the adventurer, they had to give Grunter an opening—
Headscratcher, Bugear, and Bitefly all attacked at once. They slashed at Ylawes, ducking back as he slashed at them, trying to distract him. Other Goblins attacked at the same time, and Ylawes was forced to knock aside their blades, force them back with his sword rather than attack. Grunter spotted an opening as the man turned to cut Headscratcher down. The small Goblin raised his sword bravely, and Grunter exploded towards Ylawes with a roar—
The man turned and lashed out with his shield, smashing into Grunter’s right arm. All of the Goblins heard the Hob’s bones break from the impact. Grunter staggered, but he still tried to bring his axe down—
“Courage. Even from Goblins.”
That was all Ylawes said as he ran Grunter through. The Hob’s eyes widened and he sat down as Ylawes pulled the blade out of his stomach. The Redfang warriors howled and attacked, but too slow. Ylawes raised his crimson blade from the final blow—
Was it a word or a thought? She didn’t know. But the monster leapt, and her flight across the ten feet of ground caught Ylawes by surprise. Even so, the adventurer still turned fast enough. His shield smacked the young woman out of the air. She landed, stunned, and saw his sword point down at her.
But Ylawes didn’t finish the blow. He stopped at the last moment, and his eyes went wide as he saw her face. He seemed horrified; his face went pale.
“You. What are—?”
Grunter threw himself at the Gold-rank adventurer. Ylawes turned, and his shield came up, smashing into the Hob’s face and stopping his charge. But the impact still made the adventurer slide a bit in the snow.
The Hob stumbled, bleeding. Ylawes shoved him back, and then turned towards the thing crouching in the snow again. She slashed at him, forcing him to guard his body with his shield. Her claws could scratch even his plate armor.
“What’s wrong with you? Please, if you can—answer me!”
She only screamed, screamed at him without words to stop, to not kill these people. But he was too strong. He forced her away, hitting her in the stomach with his shield so hard she was stunned. And then he turned back to the Goblins.
They faced him, ready to die. But Ylawes’ eyes narrowed, and his head turned. Almost too late.
The blurring [Mirage Cut] opened up a deep slash across the silver armored man’s cheek. He turned, snarling, and Toren rolled away, clattering his teeth with frustration.
Ylawes charged at the skeleton, but halted as an arrow flew at his face. He turned towards Badarrow as the Goblin reached for another arrow in his quiver.
That’s when the zombies charged out the alleyway. Eight of them ran at Ylawes, arms swinging wildly. He hacked through four in an instant, his limbs a blur of motion, but Toren was at his back. The skeleton cut at Ylawes as the Redfang warriors made him retreat, trying to strike the man’s face, cut at the joints in his armor—
The Gold-rank adventurer bellowed at the Human, or at least the thing that had once been Human. He saw her turn to look back at him once, but then she was helping pull the Hob away.
He didn’t have time to chase her. Somehow, an entire horde of zombies had been attracted to his location, and they surrounded him now. Ylawes cut them asunder, his blade and shield moving ceaselessly, but there was always the skeleton, trying to cut at him, forcing the adventurer to fight with his back to the wall—
In the end, Toren leapt away as the last few zombies kept Ylawes in place. The Gold-rank adventurer cut the last corpse to the ground and one booted foot smashed a skull in. The man and skeleton stared at each other across the street full of corpses.
“What are you?”
Toren just grinned. Then he ran and disappeared down a street, leaving Ylawes behind in the snow. The adventurer turned to stare at the bodies of the fallen.
“First Goblins fighting Goblins. Then—a young woman? A monster? Something. And then that skeleton. What’s going on?”
No one answered him. But soon the adventurer turned and raced through the streets. He could hear screams everywhere, even at the walls he’d had guards posted at. The Goblins were trying to kill everyone they could before the main fist of their army attacked. He had to save them all.
But he could not do it alone. The adventurer halted and reached for his belt. He took out a scroll and stared at shimmering letters. Words. A reply.
He tucked the scroll back into his belt pouch and ran on, sword and shield raised. To save the living. Or die defending them.
The Goblin commander roared his fury as the [Scouts] brought back news. The kill teams he’d sent into the city were being routed! Slaughtered! By a Human with silver armor and the undead!
He rounded on the two cringing [Shamans] who’d been forced to carry their master’s burden. He pointed at the city, demanding they control the undead, to send them in. But the [Shamans] could not. They had not the strength, not a fraction of the head [Shaman] that had been sent to lead the army, and certainly not nearly as much as the Goblin Lord himself—
The commander of the Goblins had no time for excuses. He called out, and his mount, a vast Shield Spider, rose up. It bit one of the [Shamans], cutting off his shriek. The other one fled as the commander called his lieutenants. He pointed to the city, and gave crisp orders.
No more waiting! No more delays for reinforcements. The [Shamans] could collect their dead after he’d slaughtered everyone in the city. The adventurer and all the Humans would die.
The Goblin army prepared to march on Esthelm. And in its streets, a skeleton danced, bringing death and commanding it. And further away, a group of Goblins carrying a bleeding Hob. A monster ran with them, helping them carry the dying Goblin, watching as they slapped his face, trying to keep him awake.
And as the sun rose, it rose on the undead, the army of Goblins, the desperate walls built by Humans. And a few people, caught in the madness.
This is their story.