This is the story of a monster. She knew she was a monster. She’d eaten people. Her own kind, rotting, crawling with insects and maggots and decay.
She’d done it to survive. But the cost had been almost too much to bear. More than once, the young woman who’d once had a name wished she had died back then rather than take that first bite.
But she was alive. And she still longed to live, even now. But the monster in her—
It hungered. It always wanted out. There was a part of her soul that would devour the world if it could. It would eat and eat until there was nothing left to eat but itself.
That was what she feared. Walking any deeper down this road to hell would mean never coming back. Of that she was sure.
She was a monster. A horrible thing, a creature to be hunted and killed by heroes and adventurers. But that was the thing. The girl that looked like a monster had encountered real monsters. Goblins. And somehow, they were more like people than the Humans living in Esthelm.
Goblins. The most pathetic species, the cowardly, backstabbing creatures that ate their own dead. That was what the [Florist] had been told when she’d walked on two legs and known her name. But the thing that scuttled around on all fours with jagged claws and sharp teeth saw something different.
She saw people. People—warriors, proud and courageous. The Goblins who’d saved her once ran through the streets, armed, keeping the way clear while six of their number helped support and drag the massive Hobgoblin they carried between them.
His eyes were fluttering, and the massive Goblin was fading. Blood trailed from his stomach, spattering on the snow and dirty ground. He was cut deeply.
A Gold-rank adventurer had done that to him. The monster had seen it. He’d been killing monsters and he’d fought the Goblins. And she’d fought him, to let them get away.
Even now she didn’t know why she’d done it. She’d attacked her own people—a hero! But he’d been wrong. The Goblins were not monsters. They were heroes too.
They’d fought. With their backs against the wall, even against an adventurer—they’d fought. That was all the monster thought as she helped drag the half-conscious Hob back towards their camp.
They were monsters, yes. But even they—no, they weren’t nearly as pathetic as she was. And she had saved them. Or tried. She’d fought against a hero, an adventurer—
What had possessed her? Perhaps only a desire not to let these people die. To repay them for the kindness they’d shown her. Because they weren’t monsters.
Only she was a monster.
The Goblin warriors were shouting in panic as they ran through the streets. They were shouting at the Hob, trying to keep him awake. The massive Goblin was stumbling, barely lucid, but none of the Goblins dared slow down. They kept watching their backs, waiting at any moment for the man in silver armor to pursue them.
But he never came. And when the Goblins had gotten to their camp and the Hob collapsed on the ground, they immediately tore at his belt.
The monster squatted in a corner, fingers in her mouth, watching, not knowing what to do. One of the Goblins was undoing all the compartments in the belt, searching for something. What?
A healing potion! Of course! The red vial was tiny, but from the way it glittered in the light, the monster knew it was very powerful. She caught her breath as they poured the liquid into the Hob’s gaping stomach wound. And in an instant—
It closed! The thing had never seen any wound heal that fast, but the potion was the kind only the rich would use. The Hob groaned, but color flooded back into his green face. He sat up—
And clutched at his arm. The potion hadn’t mended his broken bones. The other Goblin warriors sighed in relief. One reached for the Hob’s arm, but he shoved the Goblin away. Wincing, the Hob felt at his injuries and then pointed. A Goblin fished around in their packs and came up with cloth and a metal bar they’d used to hold the cooking pot with.
The Hob began to create a splint with the materials. Other Goblins wanted to help, but he clearly wanted to do it by himself. He snapped at the other Goblins when they tried to approach.
The monster watched this, even more sure that she had been right and the adventurer wrong. These were not monsters to be killed, at least, these Goblins weren’t.
They cared for each other. Impulsively, the young woman reached out. She touched Grunter’s arm as he grunted in pain and annoyance, fumbling with the splint.
The Hob moved to push the creature away, but paused when he saw her. He hesitated, and then reluctantly let her take the splint. Slowly, slowly, trying to remember how the motions worked, the young woman tied the splint to his arm. The Hob gasped, but made a sound when she stopped.
Tighter. That was clearly what he said, what he meant. The monster-girl tied the knot, as the Hob gasped, but when it was done he stood and grunted at her.
Thanks. That was all it was, but it made the monster’s eyes fill with tears. The Hob paused and gently bent to wipe them away.
And then the monster was no monster, but a young woman who looked like one. The Redfang warriors crowded around her, slapping her back, gargling in approval at her. Looking at her—
As a person. It was all the young woman wanted. So she wept and for a second, forgot the hunger in her soul.
This is the tale of a monster. This is the tale of a young woman with something dark in her soul. She felt it, even as she sat in the Goblin’s camp, listening to them laugh and slap each other with the sheer, giddy relief of being alive.
She was still a monster. She still wanted to eat, to tear the flesh off of her newfound friends and—
But she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. And yet the thing knew it couldn’t stay. Eventually, she would become—
A Goblin pressed a bowl of reheated soup into her hands. He grinned at her as he scratched at his head. She stared at him. He looked familiar. He was the first Goblin who’d come for her. Her eyes went to his head, and she recoiled.
He had ticks! The Goblin looked vaguely apologetic as he scratched at one dark shape buried on his bald head. The girl grabbed at him, and much to his surprise, dragged him over to the fire the other Goblins were restarting. There she picked up a stick and to the other Goblins’ astonishment, lit one end until it was hot.
The head-scratching Goblin had no idea what she intended, and thus when he saw the hot stick heading for his head he immediately tried to pull away. But the monster-girl made soothing noises and he stopped. He was very tense in her arms as she poked at the ticks with her stick.
The flaming end made the Goblin yelp and try to pull away, but it didn’t seem to make the tick want to leave. Frowning, the young woman cast aside the tick and grabbed at the Goblin’s head.
Nails, then. She picked at the skin, her elongated nails digging into the flesh. The Goblin screeched and tried to get away then—but he paused when she pulled the first tick off of his head.
Headscratcher and the other Goblins stared in horror at the huge tick, big and fat from living off his scalp as the Human girl pulled it out of his head. Immediately, the other Goblins crowded around Headscratcher’s head and recoiled as they saw how infested it was.
Beseechingly, Headscratcher put his head on the Human’s lap. She seemed stunned, but then obligingly dug her fingers into Headscratcher’s skin, gently, pulling bugs out. She flicked them into the fire. Once or twice, Headscratcher thought she was looking at them as if she was hungry but she never ate them.
Once it was over, the Goblin’s head was bleeding, but mercifully, no longer itching. He grinned at the Human and only got a strange look in reply. He thought she would have been happy, but when she looked at his face—
It almost looked like she was about to cry.
The young woman sat in the snow next to the fire. She rubbed at the dirty ball in her hands. Soap. Lye soap, strongly scented, pilfered no doubt from some caravan the Goblins had raided.
But soap nonetheless. And they had cloth and oil. More things that made them civilized, made them people. Slowly, the girl abandoned the soap and dunked her hands into hot water. It made her hands burn, but it was necessary. She was filthy.
Yes, wasn’t that how it went? Clean hands and—and doing things. Small things. Not eating the dead. If she could do things like this, then—
The young woman stared at the Goblin curled up into a ball next to her. He was practically frozen with fright, and the other four Goblins holding him looked grim and determined. He hadn’t wanted her help, but they’d insisted.
Several tiny mites crawled out of the shivering Goblins’ ear even as the young woman watched. They made her…hungry, but she put away the thought. Infestation. Bugs. She’d seen it before, seen a [Healer] treat it. She could try the same, couldn’t she?
The Goblin whose ticks she’d pulled out—the head scratching Goblin—handed her a stick with a bit of cloth wrapped around the end. It was very thin, and the girl dipped lightly in a pot of oil sitting next to her. Her Goblin patient shuddered when he saw the stick, but the other Goblins held him down.
Gently, very gently, the young woman swabbed the Goblin’s ear with the cloth and oil. He gritted his teeth and growled inaudible words into her lap, but didn’t move. Bugs came out with the stick, stuck on the oil. The other Goblins made a face when the girl kept pulling out bugs. One of them slapped the Goblin on the ear as if it was his fault he’d let them in there.
Too many bugs. No matter how hard the girl tried, she kept getting more with each stick and she was sure there were probably eggs in there. So she changed tactics.
Hot water, poured in the Goblin’s pointed ear. He yelped and struggled, but his friends just laughed and held him down. The girl counted to ten and then let him sit up and drain his ear.
Tiny little bugs washed out with the water. The girl made a face and did it again, this time with soapy water. She made the Goblin keep the water in his ear for several minutes; long enough to drown whatever was in there.
When she let him sit up, the Goblin glared at her and stuck a finger in his ear. But when he only pulled out dead bugs, he brightened up. He grinned at her and waved a hand. She smiled back.
It was something the other Goblins couldn’t understand. But the young woman felt—normal after helping the Goblin. His gratitude hurt her in ways no sword could ever do.
Of course, she couldn’t explain that. The other Goblins crowded around the former bug-eared Goblin. One smacked him on the back of the head. Another punched him. The young woman stopped them. Tried to explain.
There was a patch of dirt on the ground next to the fire. The young woman took a stick and drew in it. She drew a stick figure, and then small ones for the Goblins. They crowded around to look, and the one who scratched his head sat across from her, staring at the young woman’s face.
Her. Goblins. They nodded and pointed at each other, drawing an exaggeratedly fat Goblin for the Hob who lay resting against one wall. The girl nodded, face bleak, and they quieted. She pointed to the figure representing her in the dark.
She added fangs and horns to the little figure in the dirt.
They stared at her. Their eyes found the way her teeth had changed, her jaw, her fingers and even arms, making her less…Human. More like an Eater, whatever that was. But then they shrugged at her.
So what? A Goblin patted the young woman’s hand and grinned at her. He pointed to himself and the others and drew little horns on all of the figures. They were all monsters.
The young woman’s eyes filled, but she didn’t weep. She pointed at the figure, and then drew other figures, other Humans. Far away from her. She drew a line between herself and the others.
The other Goblins stopped smiling. They stared at her, and at the line separating her. They understood. None of them said a word. They just understood.
The young woman pointed to a body. She pointed to the dead flesh, mimed eating. The Goblins nodded. She drew a line down her face.
A tear travelled down the grime, washing it away. The Goblins stared at her, and then at the bodies.
And she understood. Somehow, in the ways they tried to tell her, in the motions of their arms. They felt it too.
Because of course Goblins ate their dead. Of course they did. To survive, they would eat anything. Everyone knew that. Eating their own kind and other people was what made Goblins monsters.
But who would have asked Goblins how they felt? Did anyone realize the Goblins wept to eat their own dead? Of course Goblins ate their own kind. They did it to survive. But every single Goblin drew a line down their cheeks.
They did, and they wept inside.
They were people too. People who wanted to live.
They were monsters with souls. And they—
They were no different from her. No worse than she’d been, and perhaps better. They weren’t monsters.
And perhaps she wasn’t either.
This is the story of a monster girl. She sat in the ruins of her home and wept. For everything she’d lost. For everything she’d become. She wept because she had done horrible things to survive, horrible things that had made her despair and want to die. But she had met monsters, and it turned out they were more Human than she was. And then they’d shown her their hearts and it had turned out she was no monster either.
The young woman wept, sobbing for all she’d lost. She was lost, alone. But then she felt the arms around her, and looked up into the face of Headscratcher. He squeezed her tight, eyes closed.
This is the story of a Goblin who hugged a monster. And the monster yearned to bite him, to eat—
But she forced the desires down in her chest. She buried the madness and found something else sprouting in the darkness of her heart. It bloomed, a faint sprout reaching towards the light, drinking in the moment of kindness.
[Condition – Terrible Hunger Removed!]
The voice made her eyes go wide. The girl stood up, knocking the Goblin’s hands away. He let go instantly, afraid he’d gone too far. But the young woman stared up at the sky and saw only blue. A bit of blue hiding behind the dark clouds.
Sunlight. Far off, but still there, shining down. Redemption for a shattered soul. Thanks for a Goblin.
He was saying something. Trying to apologize. The young woman looked at him, and embraced him to his great surprise. The other Goblins gaped, but she hugged him, lifting him up into the air.
She still looked like a monster. Her teeth were still sharp, and she had lost the words. But she was no longer hungry. That was enough.
She hugged him, and wept. A monster, hugging a Goblin. But a monster with a soul. And a bit more Human in them than had been there a minute ago. So it whispered to the young woman, as she tried to remember her name, knowing she had one.
The man wearing silver armor stood at the head of the battlements and stared down at the people. They looked up to him for hope, for redemption. For a chance to live again.
“The Goblins are coming.”
That was all he said to them, Esthelm’s remaining thousands. They held weapons in their hands, children, women, men, clinging to life with all they had. He had never been prouder, never been more honored to fight.
“They are coming! Their first assault failed. They’ll be coming in force, next. All of them.”
The dead lay in the streets, and what few he had saved had now joined the living. The Goblins had swept through the city, killing teams of them. But they were dead now, avenged. He had slain nearly a hundred himself, and the others—
Ylawes looked out past the barricade he stood on, out into the city. Zombies wandered the streets, by the hundreds. Thousands. And somewhere, hiding, striking whenever his back was turned, was the skeleton. It had killed Goblins and Humans alike. But it was one skeleton compared to the army about to march.
The Gold-rank adventurer turned to the people again. He pointed to the barricades—built with stone and wood and anything that could be scavenged, manned by anyone with a bow or weapon that could hold off the hordes.
“We have the high ground, and we’ve created chokepoints that we can hold.”
One main entry point with palisades. A killing field, or so he hoped. He would hold it until he died. And these people—Ylawes pointed at them, shouting.
“They will come. They will come and we will fight and die here. Do you understand? Here. To the last child. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide! Your city lives or dies on this day! People of Esthelm, reclaim your pride. Throw back the Goblins and retake your city!”
He raised his sword and they roared. They would have cheered anyone, but they cheered him. They called out for hope and raised their weapons against the darkness.
“Do you really think we can live, sir?”
“I told you to call me Ylawes.”
The man turned and looked the Bronze-rank adventurer in the eye. He was glad the young man had stayed, he and his two friends. And because he respected the man’s courage, he didn’t lie.
“The odds are slim. But it’s possible. We have the Goblins’ numbers. We may even outnumber them by a bit.”
“Counting women and children sir. And people who can barely fight—”
“That’s what the barricades and I will have to equalize. Other than that, we can only hope that the people of Esthelm fight with all the courage they have today. If we can kill a good number of them, our enemy may disperse. They might have armor and some training, but they’re still low-level Goblins. At least, most of them are. In truth, it’s the undead that concern me most.”
“Yes. I was too late.”
Ylawes said it simply. He stared down at the streets.
“The Goblins will control them with [Shamans] and [Mages] if they can. Use them to fight. If we have to battle both undead and Goblins, we stand no chance.”
“If that happens—then what will we do?”
“Hold out. For as long as possible. Aid may arrive soon.”
“Are you sure?”
The man looked at him, wanting to believe. So did Ylawes. He reached for a belt pouch and pulled something out.
“I sent for help last night.”
He showed the adventurer a scroll with glowing letters etched onto the parchment. A message. And—underneath it, a reply had been written in terse, neat script.
“Help is coming. But I don’t know if it will come here in an hour or in days.”
“We don’t have days.”
They didn’t even have an hour. And both adventurers knew that. Ylawes looked to the horizon, and raised his voice.
“To arms! The Goblins are coming!”
The dark mass at the edge of the city limits was moving. On the walls, the Humans saw a dark tide of bodies surging into the city, and then heard rhythmic impacts.
Drumbeats. Not just one or two, but countless numbers of them, thudding impacts that made the defenders shake in fear.
The drumbeats were like thunder. And as Ylawes watched, the first wave of the Goblin army began pouring into the city. Some rode Shield Spiders—others horses. And at the head of the army—
“Undead. The [Shamans] are controlling them.”
He gritted his teeth. Was this the end? But it was only a few undead—barely a hundred. If that was all they could control, then—
There was a chance. Ylawes shouted as he ran down the barricade, to the one opening in their defenses. He would cut them down again and again. Create a point for them to throw all their fury into until there was nothing left.
“Man the barricades. We hold them at the choke points—force them back!”
The people of Esthelm shouted, and the Goblin drums pounded. Now the Goblins screamed, and their voices ran throughout the city. They met the adventurer wearing silver and the clash was like thunder. Goblins poured up the barricades, fighting the people on the walls. Archers from both sides filled the skies—
And the undead moved. They focused on the conflict like lightning. Zombies, ghouls, advancing like the tide. Goblins turned and fought the dead—[Shamans] struggled to control them, trying, failing in the face of so many. And the man in silver fought on, sword and shield flashing in the light.
The last battle for Esthelm had begun.
He saw the man wearing silver armor. He saw the Goblins, seemingly numberless as they poured towards the wooden barricades, screaming warcries. And Toren felt happy.
War. Death. The Humans met the Goblins with a roar, clashing swords. In moments the first bodies began to fall.
And oh, how Toren longed to be among the fighting, sword in hand! But he had to be patient. He looked around, at the dead who surrounded him.
They were his kind. Thoughtless, yes, but Toren felt a connection to them he hadn’t a few days ago. He and they weren’t so different after all. They lived to fight and kill—
And so did he. This was his purpose. Toren knew it. He could lead the dead. Why else would he have this Skill, this class, if not because he was meant to do it? There was a special joy to ordering the zombies about, to leading them to victory through superior tactics and planning.
It was addictive, giddying, intoxicating. Toren looked at the battlefield and saw how he could shape it. He called out to the zombies under his control, readying them to move into the fray.
This was what he was meant to do. At last, he’d found it. It was so wonderful to command. Had Erin felt like this when she ordered him? Had she—
Toren paused. The burning lights in his eyes dimmed for a second. No. Not her. He was separate now. She was…not his owner any longer. He was free. Would be free.
And he would level up. Toren looked back at the battlefield. The Goblins were trying to swarm up the barricades blocking the streets off as Humans threw them off the barricades and shot arrows and threw stones down at them. Now was the time.
The first group of zombies lurched towards the Goblins. They moved slowly—just another random assortment of the undead drawn to the conflict. The Goblins barely paid any attention to them. So long as they had a few warriors guard their flanks, there was no danger.
Toren grinned. At his silent command, the zombies began to run.
This is the story of a skeleton. He only knew how to kill, so he did just that. In a city filled with death, the skeleton killed with his hands at first, and then used others to kill more and more. He would kill everything if he could.
Because it was all he knew.
“Hold the lines! Hold, damn you!”
Ylawes screamed at the people struggling around him as he cut with his sword, bringing down Goblins as they came at him. How long had he been fighting? A few seconds? An hour? He couldn’t tell.
Goblins poured towards him, around the palisades, into the center of a whirlwind of steel he created. Parry, strike, block, strike—his shield was a weapon just as much as his sword. Normal Goblins couldn’t even get close as he cut through their weapons, but there were more who attacked even as their companions fell. And when a Hob came—
Ylawes stumbled back as a javelin crashed into his chest, breaking on his armor but denting it. His plate mail was not enchanted like his arms, and he coughed. A Goblin screamed as it swung a shortsword—
He beheaded it. Keep fighting. Don’t stop! The Goblins seemed endless, but the barricades were all still holding. Even as people fell and died, more rushed to take their place. They had the high ground. So long as they had that, even a child could knock a Goblin down with a well-placed blow—
Someone screamed the word. Ylawes turned, and saw fourteen zombies, sprinting at him. He reacted instantly.
“[Shield of Valor]!”
The zombie crashed into a wall of air as Ylawes brought his shield up and pushed. The zombies and every Goblin in a cone in front of him were sent flying backwards by his Skill. Panting, Ylawes lowered his shield and turned.
An [Archer], one of the few warriors among the citizens—called out to him as she snatched at more arrows. The Goblins were pulling back, but her hands never stopped working, firing into their shielded ranks.
“Zombies are coming from every direction! They’re attacking the barricades, but some are attacking the Goblins!”
Ylawes leapt up onto a platform. The woman pointed and he saw she was right. Zombies were approaching from all sides, drawn by so many living bodies. And they were attacking Goblins! Some of the undead were even fighting those controlled by the [Shamans]. But something was very, very wrong.
The [Archer] pointed as a group of zombies began running, just as the ones earlier had. They charged into a group of Goblins from behind, biting and tearing.
“Zombies can’t run!”
Ylawes was grim as he surveyed the zombies. They’d caught an entire group of archers by surprise—was it chance or had something known that there was an opportunity to strike.
The woman stared at Ylawes in horror. He nodded.
“Some can. But not like this. Only a few out of a hundred should and they don’t—group like that. This isn’t right.”
“Look! Another group!”
This time, Ylawes clearly saw what was happening. A group of zombies moving slowly towards the Goblins suddenly stiffened. In an instant, they’d changed from their slow pace into a sprint, and they changed course. Instead of hitting the group of Goblin warriors they’d been aiming towards, they ran towards a barricade and began pounding at a gap that had been exposed in the wooden structure.
“Why are they acting like that?”
Ylawes pointed. At the center of a huge mass of zombies, a skeleton was standing, pointing and waving a sword about. The woman standing next to him paled.
“Dead gods. Is it leading them?”
Ylawes saw it clearly. Wherever the skeleton pointed, a group of zombies would begin to run. They attacked vulnerable spots, hitting both Humans and Goblins alike. Always fourteen zombies. Each time the group of fourteen zombies had crashed into the Goblin flanks, another group would begin to move with that same focused intelligence.
“It’s coordinating the undead. It’s trying to overwhelm us! Watch the sides!”
Ylawes called out. He wanted to run up to see how the entire battlefield was going, but the brief window he’d created with his Skill was already up. He saw people struggling against the Goblin warriors again, and leapt back into the fray.
A Goblin riding a massive Shield Spider was coming straight at Ylawes, laughing as he hacked apart Humans with a halberd that cut through armor like it wasn’t there. The [Knight] roared a challenge, and the two met in a clash at the center of the battlefield. But the undead kept coming, and the barricades began to splinter under the ceaseless attacks…
They sat on the rooftop of their hideout, watching the battle. Goblins. But not those Goblins. The Redfang warriors felt no attachment to the warriors of the Goblin Lord. In fact, they sneered at the other side’s tactics.
Sieging an entrenched group of Humans? What were they, idiots? They’d clearly counted on overwhelming the Humans in one push, but they’d underestimated the Gold-rank adventurer and the difficulty of overcoming the barricades. By himself, the warrior in silver armor had slain countless Goblins already and so long as he stood, the Goblins couldn’t advance past his position.
Too, the undead were complicating matters. Badarrow pointed and the Goblins saw the undead were attacking Goblins from behind, forcing them to split their forces. Something was moving the undead like a [Tactician], and it was making the attacking force’s job that much harder.
Still, all the Redfang Goblins could tell the battle was going one way. The zombies were getting diced by the Goblins for all the damage they inflicted. The same could not be said of the inexperienced Human defenders. Worn down by both sides, the barricades were failing. Once one collapsed—
All the Humans would die. The Redfang warriors weren’t sure how they felt about this. On one hand, Humans were usually their enemies. On the other hand, the Goblin Lords’ forces were definitely their enemy. And besides—
They glanced left, at the young woman sitting next to them. She crouched on the roof, staring down at the battle.
She was Human, wasn’t she? More and more Human, or so they felt. Headscratcher was sitting next to the Human and none of the Goblin warriors knew what to say. All they knew was they loved her. A tiny bit. For saving Grunter. For daring to hug a Goblin. For being like them.
A lot, actually. They loved her a lot, in the simple way they could. Because she didn’t look at them like monsters. They’d never known they wanted that until this moment.
And she was staring at the battlefield. Grunter nudged her and grunted. He pointed towards the gates, undefended. She could run. The Redfang warriors should have left long ago. But the Human girl just stared at the battlements.
The Goblins were pressing in. Too deep to be pushed back and there weren’t enough Humans on the side furthest from the adventurer. And there were too many undead. The Redfang warriors could see a familiar skeleton among the zombies and they wondered—
The word came from Headscratcher. It made the other Redfang warriors stiffen in shock, but he was pointing at the gates. He was urging the Human to go. To leave.
It was just a thought, a passing moment. The Human—the girl who was part monster—looked at Headscratcher, and hesitated. Then she shook her head slowly.
She pointed at the battlefield, at the Humans on the walls they had built. Faltering. Falling back. The monster pointed at them and touched her heart.
Some things didn’t need words. The Goblins understood. But then she pointed at them, and at the Goblins and undead. She touched Headscratcher’s sword, sheathed at his waist.
They stared at her. What did she mean? Grunter lowered his head as he understood, but the others didn’t get it. The young woman wearing a monster’s skin pointed again, at the backs of the undead, at the Goblins. She touched the sword and then her heart.
And they understood. She wanted them to help. To save…
Badarrow was the first to move. He shook his head and made a displeased noise. He stared at the battlefield as the other Goblins shuffled and looked down. The Redfang warriors looked at their feet, at the sky, at the battlefield, but none dared look at the monster who pleaded with them with her eyes.
Headscratcher looked away. He couldn’t meet the young woman’s eyes. He looked down.
How could they tell her? The Redfang warriors had no words to explain this. But it was easy enough that even the untrained monster girl could understand.
They were thirteen. Brave warriors, and good fighters, yes, but only thirteen. The army of the Goblin Lord was just that. An army. And the undead alone seemed limitless.
They were no heroes. And they weren’t willing to die. In the end, they were still Goblins. And only a fool would go down there.
But they couldn’t say it. Not to the girl who looked at them as if they were heroes. They couldn’t bear to see the disappointment in her eyes.
None of them dared look up. Grunter touched his broken arm and stared at the man in silver armor. He fought on, a lone patch of flashing light amidst the dark armor and shambling bodies.
They weren’t the same, in the end. A Goblin was still a Goblin. Not an adventurer.
The monster stared at the Goblins silently. They didn’t see what was in her eyes, but they all saw her turn to look at the barricades. The Humans were being pressed back. The zombies were climbing as well, commanded by the skeleton no doubt. And with the Goblins attacking as well—
It would be over soon. Then they would have to leave. But what would the girl do? Could she survive like them? Could she come with them?
It was just a thought. But they saw it in Headscratcher’s eyes. He wanted that. But the girl was different. She looked back at her people, dying, fighting, and touched her heart. They could not know it, but the young woman could hear it beating, so loudly she thought it might burst. That was all. She just heard her heart beating in her chest. But she had nearly forgotten the sound. It reminded her of who she was.
It reminded her that she was Human.
The monster stood up. The Redfang warriors watched her silently. Slowly, she pointed towards the Humans and drew one line down her cheek. And touched her heart.
That was all. She bent, and Headscratcher looked up at her, full of—
She kissed him. Not on the lips, but gently on the cheek. He went still in shock and she smiled at him.
“Not a monster.”
Did she really whisper those words? Or was it only their imagination? Thirteen Goblins stared at her in silence. Then the monster—the young woman who wore a monster’s form—leapt. She flew through the air and landed on the ground, not even noticing the impact. She ran on all fours towards the battlefield, and it was a monster that crashed into the Goblins, tearing at them, biting, slashing as they cried out in horror and shock.
Headscratcher stood poleaxed in place, staring at her. But then he leapt from the rooftop, ignoring Grunter’s shout. He ran after her, chasing the young woman into the heart of the battlefield. And all twelve of the Redfang warriors were hot on his heels.
This is the story of a war. It was hot and brutal and oh so quick, and the living seemed to become the dead in the blink of an eye. But it was fought in a desolate city in the heart of winter.
Cold skies, snow on the ground. But hot bodies.
And blood. Tearing flesh. The monster swept through the ranks of Goblins besieging a barricade that had been partially knocked down. They saw her and cried out. Monsters, fearing a monster.
Her claws with razors that cut steel. Her teeth ripped away flesh and bone. The Goblins wearing black armor tried to cut at her, but she was a blur, and their weapons barely cut her thick skin.
This is the story of a young woman who let the monster in her out. She tore and bit and forgot fear and killed. She walked deeper down the path to hell, but she had a lifeline, a fragile thread that she held onto. A memory of a Goblin that hugged her, and a group of monsters with the hearts of heroes.
This is the story of a band of Goblins. They stood at the edge of death’s gate, staring at the young woman who danced with the reaper, fearless, fighting for her people. Fighting to live. Fighting to be Human.
They hesitated. Their weapons were drawn, but they dared not plunge into the conflict. Because they were afraid. Because they wanted to live. They saw the other Goblins fall back in disarray and the Human rally as the monster attacked them. But it was not enough. There were many Goblins, and this was only a corner of the battle.
And the undead were everywhere. They kept coming, and they kept attacking, slowly encircling both Humans and Goblins alike. They were commanded by that awful intelligence, the gleeful, mocking skeleton dancing in their midst.
The Goblins stared at the skeleton, not a hundred paces away but surrounded by his minions. And they knew that if he was not stopped the Humans would die.
On the skeleton all things turned. And then Grunter pointed.
There. The Goblin commander, silver halberd on hand, pointing as he rode his Shield Spider. He’d clashed with the Gold-rank adventurer, broken the lines of Humans again and again. Without him, the Goblins would be leaderless.
Two leaders. Headscratcher saw both as he held his sword in one sweaty claw. If one or both fell, the Humans would be saved. She might be saved. If they fought—
But his feet didn’t move. Headscratcher stood where he was, ashamed. He shook. He was afraid to die. Because it would be certain death. And he was just a Goblin.
But the girl—she was a monster. She was a Human. She was something else. And she had seen the same thing the Goblins had. So she just ran. She leapt, and bore a Ghoul to the ground. Teeth gleamed and bit and the two creatures tore at each other.
Headscratcher shouted and ran forwards, sword raised as Badarrow tried to find a target among the blurring shapes. But then the Ghoul was down, a gaping hole in his throat and neck. The monster-girl ran on, at the mass of zombies shielding the skeleton.
Because of the arrow in her back.
Headscratcher screamed. He saw the shaft strike the young woman—not from the sides, but from above. A shot from high up on the barricades.
A Human had loosed the arrow. Perhaps he had mistaken the young woman for a Ghoul—or perhaps he had just seen what she’d looked like and shot. But the arrow had struck the young woman all the same.
She fell, and the zombies she’d been running towards surrounded her, biting. Tearing. Headscratcher ran into them, slashing wildly. Two zombies fell as he ran them through, shoving them aside. An arrow killed a third and then the other Redfang warriors were around him. They forced the zombies back as Headscratcher held the young woman in his arms.
He reached for the arrow and stopped. It was too deep, and the monster in his arms—
Was no monster. She was just a young woman, bleeding, torn.
Dying. She blinked up at the Goblin who held her, and wondered why she’d never imagined a Goblin could cry. Of course they could. It was such a simple thing, but it just proved her point.
They were people too.
She reached up and tried to brush the tear from Headscratcher’s eyes. But she was too weak. Her arm flopped back and the young woman coughed. She blinked down at the blood in astonishment.
Around her, the other Goblins were tearing at their packs, searching their belts. But they had no potions. Just the one they’d used for Grunter. The Hobgoblin knelt next to the girl, staring at her.
She smiled at them. Weakly. Dying. But then her head rose, and she stared at the Humans. They were so very fragile, so alone.
She pointed. The Goblins looked. The young woman touched her heart, once. It was still beating, slowly. That was all. She touched her heart and drew a line in blood down her cheek.
Asking a question no words could ever say.
This is the story of a Goblin who held a dying Human in his arms. The other warriors stood shoulder-to-shoulder, shields raised, protecting her from the few arrows that flew towards them. They snarled at the Humans on the barricades, watching as the undead pushed them further and further back.
The Goblin held the Human in his arms, staring at death. It was all around him, and in the burning purple eyes of the skeleton surrounded by the undead. He stared at death, but he only had eyes for the Human.
She spoke to him, words that he and all the Goblins heard, even amidst the fighting. The Goblin listened, head bowed, until she choked on the blood and he carried her away from the fighting, protected by his friends.
He laid her in a quiet place, away from the battlefield. Next to a dying fire in a place where she would be safe. Then the Goblin turned back and stared at death. Beside him, twelve other Goblins stood quietly. They looked at each other. And heard their hearts beating.
This is the story of a band of fools. They charged, screaming, at an army of thousands. Goblins and undead both turned to stare at them, and the Humans on the walls stopped firing as they saw the band of thirteen Goblins, fighting for something they didn’t quite understand.
Headscratcher was first. He ran, cutting wildly, knocking other warriors aside, darting past zombies. He didn’t care that they cut at him, ignored the arrows that flew at him, the moments when he stared death in the face. He only had eyes for the skeleton, standing among the zombies.
He ran, and ten Goblins followed his back, fighting as one, struggling for every step. But two Goblins did not follow them. One was Badarrow, who stood with an arrow nocked, firing into the mill of bodies. The other was Grunter.
Grunter. The Hobgoblin turned and ran in another direction. Away? The other Redfang warriors faltered. But the Hob turned and stared at them for one moment. Then he spoke.
One word. And then he plunged away through the mass of bodies. He didn’t dodge like Headscratcher. Instead, Grunter charged through the ranks of undead and Goblin alike. Zombies were hurled away from him, screaming Goblin warriors trampled underfoot. Grunter held his axe in his left hand and roared as he ran.
He had only one target. The Goblin commander astride his Shield Spider. At first, the other Goblin didn’t see Grunter among the Goblins. But soon the Goblin noticed the change in the battlefield.
In a sea of swirling fighting where the lines of black-armored Goblins and zombies pushed each other back and forth, Grunter cut a straight line to the Goblin commander. He couldn’t be stopped! Spears broke against his skin, swords cut but were wrenched away from their owner’s grip. Grunter ran on, bleeding from two dozen wounds, but still ran.
The word was a roar from Grunter’s mouth. The Goblins and Humans stopped fighting as they stared at the Hob charging at the other Goblin. The Goblin commander sneered. He raised a hand; pointed.
Another Hob, just as large as Grunter, ran forwards, screaming, sword in hand as he tried to slow the Redfang warrior’s advance. Grunter roared and swung his axe. The crushing blade crashed down even as the other Hob tried to block. The axe sheared through the sword and crushed the other Goblin’s head. Grunter wrenched the blade free and the Hob’s body fell.
Silence. Grunter raised his axe, gleaming with blood and gore.
It was a word none of the Humans knew. But among the Goblins, it caused silence. Who didn’t know of that famous tribe, of the warrior who had walked among other races?
Garen Redfang and his tribe of warriors. Even in the south, his name was legend. Grunter shouted again, pointing his axe at the Goblin commander.
Now the other Goblin hissed, his eyes flashing blood-red. He pulled his spider around and faced Grunter. The other Goblins fell away as the two ran at each other, the Hob bleeding, one arm raised with the axe, the gleaming halberd held in the other Goblin’s hand.
Grunter screamed as he brought the axe down. The blow cleaved through the air, unstoppable. The Goblin commander threw himself off of his mount’s back, and the blow smashed the giant Shield Spider into the ground. It shrieked and died.
But it had taken Grunter’s axe. The Hob pulled at the blade, trying to wrench it free, but too slowly. The halberd came up and then the Hob was stumbling back. He stared at his stump of a hand and heard the Goblin commander laugh. The other Goblin advanced towards him, halberd raised.
The Hob was still for a second. Then his other hand moved. His broken arm grabbed the axe and lifted it. Jagged yellow bone broke through Grunter’s skin, but he only grunted. Then the axe was in the air.
The Goblin commander raised his halberd, snarling, but too slow. The axe fell through the sky, changing the confidence to fear in the Goblin’s eyes. Grunter screamed.
The blow shook the earth. It broke his arm completely. Bone and flesh splintered as his hand twisted, dangling uselessly from his arm. Grunter sat down, staring at his useless arms as the other Goblins and Humans stared at what remained of the Goblin commander, the halberd lying broken on the ground.
The black-armored Goblins hesitated. But then they rushed at Grunter, screaming. He stood and knocked one down with his bloody stump. He kicked another hard enough to break the Goblin’s bones. Then he was falling, pierced by countless blades.
Grunter lay down on the ground and stared at his own blood. With a great effort he turned onto his back and stared at the grey sky. He grunted. And smiled once before the Goblins covered him.
Badarrow saw Grunter fall. He screamed and shot the Goblin who’d killed him. But there were so many. And the Goblins saw him, saw the Goblin shooting at their friends.
Arrows flew towards Badarrow, hundreds of them. Like rain. He dove for cover behind a fat corpse, letting it absorb the deadly arrows. So many.
The Goblin commander was dead, and so the Goblins were faltering. But there were still others, weren’t they? Badarrow had seem them, two [Shamans] hiding behind the others, commanding a group of undead they’d managed to gain control of.
They had to die. For Grunter. For using the dead. Badarrow didn’t hesitate. He selected two arrows, his very best. The ones he knew would fly furthest, straightest. He stood from behind the corpse and drew the first arrow to his chest. He loosed it.
The arrow flew across the battlefield. It caught the first [Shaman] as he stood behind a group of zombies, pointing and laughing. He grasped the arrow as it sprouted from his chest and fell, gasping.
The other [Shaman] pointed and screamed. He turned to run, and the second arrow found his ear. Badarrow grinned, and laughed as he saw the other Goblins turning. This time there was nowhere to hide.
So many arrows. Like rain! They struck him, one finding his chest, another his leg, the last his shoulder. Badarrow stumbled and fell.
Headscratcher did not see either of his friends fall. He ran on, sword drawn, screaming. The zombies were everywhere, as were the black-armored Goblins. He cut at them.
Too many enemies. Then a zombie came swinging at Headscratcher from the right, five more on the left. Headscratcher saw another Goblin run past him. Rocksoup took the blows meant for him. He gasped as the zombies tore his flesh away, cut one down. Two. The third took his sword and then he was fighting with his hands against the other two. They bore him down as he stared at Headscratcher, mouthing silently as his eyes lost their light.
Telling him to run.
The ten Goblins ran on, not pausing as they left their friend behind. Bitefly was next to fall. An arrow caught him in the eye and he dropped soundlessly, still snarling.
Headscratcher cut the head off of a Goblin and saw the skeleton. Only forty paces ahead now. It still hadn’t seem them. He ran towards it, but a group of howling Goblins charged from the right.
Orangepoo ran forwards. He said not a word, just grinned like he always did. Headscratcher saw him fall as he buried a spear in one of the Goblins’ legs and trip up the rest.
Eight now. The Goblin warriors ran on. Now the skeleton had seen them, and it pointed. Zombies and even a Ghoul came for them. Bitefly fell on the right, cursing and cutting at the Ghoul as it bore him to the ground and tore at him.
Seven. There was a wall of undead in front of them. Headscratcher and the Redfang warriors charged into them, screaming. The skeleton was right in front of them. And he had a sword.
Cut them down. Headscratcher took the leading zombie down with a leaping thrust. He fell with the body, struggling to pull his sword free. The other Redfang warriors took down their targets too. Where was the skeleton?
A flash of movement. Headscratcher saw Patchhelm turn and then the skeleton blurred into focus. The Goblin fell, headless. Headscratcher screamed and charged the skeleton.
So close. The skeleton fell back, fighting four of the Redfang warriors at once. But more zombies were coming, running at them. One seized Justrust from behind and snapped his neck.
Five. The five cut at the skeleton, making him dodge backwards. But he was all bones and he didn’t fear mere cuts. Headscracther took a cut that laid open his leg and he saw Rabbiteater choke as a zombie bit him all way down to the bone, making him drop the sword.
The skeleton laughed. He turned to run, mocking the Goblins who’d come to kill him. Headscratcher swung at him as the skeleton danced backwards, nimbly evading his sword thrust.
So close! But not enough. The skeleton’s purple flaming eyes glittered at Headscratcher. He stepped left, dodged a thrust, flicked his sword and parried a cut. He raised his own sword as Headscratcher stumbled, seized by a zombie on his left. The skeleton laughed—
And Shorthilt tackled him from behind. The skeleton stumbled, turned, tried to kick the Goblin off. But Shorthilt hung on, ignoring the foot that kicked his face and broke his nose. Bugear cut sideways, forcing the skeleton to block. Then the Goblin cut at the skeleton’s sword hand, deep, lodging his sword into the skeleton’s bones. Bugear strained to keep the skeleton’s arm in place as Headscratcher ran forwards. The skeleton turned towards him, eyes furious.
Yes. That was right. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t honorable. But it was the way the Goblins fought. And Headscratcher’s sword cleaved the skeleton’s spine in two. The skeleton fell in two pieces, and the Redfang warriors broke apart his body with their weapons.
Around them, the undead—paused. They seemed to stare at nothing, and then they moved again. Still attacking. Still trying to kill the living.
But no longer intelligently. No longer moving with purpose. The Redfang warriors, the five survivors, stumbled away. Headscratcher abandoned his sword to pull Rabbiteater away, giving the Goblin his shoulder.
They ran. Goblins were still everywhere. And the undead too. But they’d done all they could. All they could.
And it was enough. Because as the Goblins launched a final, desperate attack on the Humans on the barricades, the Redfang warriors looked to the gates of the city. And there they saw the adventurers.
“We barely made it by the looks of it.”
That was what the half-Elf said to the Dwarf as they stood at the rear of the Goblin army. Without their commander, the Goblins had neglected their rear. Now they rushed to overwhelm the Human defenders, stretched too thin on their crumbling fortifications.
“That’s true. But we did get here, and we even brought help.”
So said the Dwarf. He was short for a Human, naturally, but those Humans who saw him tended to think he was tall for a Dwarf. He was not, at least, not for a modern Dwarf. He was five foot two, and his muscles rippled as he raised the hammer at his side.
Behind him, a group of men and women, all Humans, stood with their weapons draw. Silver-rank adventurers, over twenty of them. The half-Elf nodded.
“Let’s go. I’ll begin—hit them from the sides and cut towards Ylawes, would you?”
“Aye. Leave it to me.”
The Dwarf grinned. He turned his voice and roared at the Silver-rank adventurers.
He lead the host of [Warriors], [Mages], [Archers], [Rogues], and more at the side of the Goblin host, smashing through their unguarded ranks with ease. Even the Hob who turned to fight was crushed by a blow from the Dwarf’s hammer.
Alone, the half-Elf faced the Goblins who’d become aware of her presence. She raised the staff at her side, the blue crystal embedded in it shining. Arrows flew towards her, but the [Mage] was undeterred. She pointed at the Goblins.
“[Windward], [Flashfire], [Lesser Twister], [Water Arrow], [Silent Sickle], [Muddy Ground]—”
The litany of spells blasted from her staff, countless spells blasting Goblins off their feet, showering others with rains of arrows made from water, cutting others to bits while the arrows that had flown at the half-Elf bounced off the shield of air she’d conjured.
The battlefield changed again. The Silver-rank adventurers and Gold-rank Dwarf cut towards the stunned Humans. The Bronze-rank adventurer with a sword clutched at Ylawes as the man stumbled, nearly collapsing amid the walls of bodies he’d slain.
“Who are they sir? Reinforcements? From which city?”
“Yes. From all the nearby cities. And the Dwarf and half-Elf. They’re my team. The Silver Swords.”
Disbelieving, the Humans on the barricades stared as the Goblins below them began to rout. Their leaders lost, attacked by so many powerful adventurers, they began to flee. The undead kept fighting, but they were fragmented.
The exhausted man in silver armor raised his head as he heard the cheering begin. He didn’t smile. The man next to him turned to him, face shining.
“You saved us! You did it! We did it! We beat the Goblins by ourselves.”
“No. I don’t think it was just that.”
Ylawes didn’t look at the confused man. His eyes found the group of Goblins, five now, injured, fleeing the battle. The adventurer sighed, and then sat down.
He was so tired.
He was so angry. Toren strode away from the battlefield, knowing all was lost. He couldn’t change the outcome now. The zombies were no match for adventurers of that caliber. And he’d been so close too! Just a few more moments and he would have broken the line of Humans and been able to finish off the human in silver armor!
So close! But the Goblins had messed everything up!
Enraged, Toren slashed at the air with his sword, close to exploding with fury. How dare they. How dare they? They hadn’t even fought fair! They’d fought—well, like he fought!
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Toren stopped by the door of an abandoned building, trying to think rationally. He had to escape now. He still had life levels, his life. He could get some undead and go. Start somewhere else.
Doing what? The skeleton kicked at the wall and paused. Did he hear something? Cautiously, he poked his head inside the building. That was when he saw her.
A Human, lying on the ground. Toren hesitated. He…thought she was a Human. But didn’t he recognize her somewhere?
The monster girl. Yes. The flames in Toren’s eyes brightened in shock. But she was different. Was she wounded?
Yes. She was barely clinging to life. The skeleton walked over to her and saw the Human’s lips moving. She was whispering—something.
He didn’t care. The skeleton raised his sword and thrust it into the young woman’s side. He needed to kill something to feel better. He stabbed the Human with his sword, relishing the way she cried out weakly.
And then Toren heard the shout. He turned, but too late. The blow knocked him backwards. A Goblin had charged him from the side! The Goblin had no weapon and he struggle with Toren for his blade.
The skeleton tried to stab the Goblin, but he had been caught off-guard. His own sword impaled him through the rib cage. Toren staggered away, outraged, trying to drag the blade free. At last he got it out, splintering his bones in the process. He turned, sword in hand, and saw the Goblin.
He was holding the Human in his arms. She bled onto the ground, life oozing around his desperate claws. But she was…smiling. Smiling?
He stared at the Goblin as he held the young woman in his arms, clutching at her bleeding chest, trying to hold the blood in. The skeleton saw a hand come up, and hold the Goblin’s face, and saw bloodless lips move. He saw the Goblin’s tears and felt something…odd in his chest.
What was this? What was he seeing? Goblin and Human? Why did that strike him as so odd? So—
Special? Was that the word? But the moment passed even as the skeleton watched. The Human’s hand dropped and her body relaxed. But her smile remained. And the Goblin holding her wept.
Toren looked away. He didn’t attack the weeping Goblin. Instead, he slowly walked into an alley as the other Goblin warriors ran to the two, crying out, making sounds of—
He didn’t understand. So he walked away, leaving the Goblins behind.
This is the story of a monster. This is the story of monsters. For as Ylawes stood with his companions and the celebrating Humans, he heard a cry.
He turned, reaching exhausted for a sword, but called out when he saw the approaching Goblins. They’d been poised to run, but as Ylawes strode towards them they halted.
Arrows and spells were aimed at them but the Goblins just looked lost. Four were holding the body between them and the last just stared up at Ylawes as he approached. He halted when he saw the young woman’s body, the face he recognized.
The Goblin nodded. He stared up at Ylawes, and the adventurer looked down at the dead girl. Her face had been ravaged by famine, and dirt and filth had created a mask over her face. But she smiled. It was a simple expression, but it shone even in death, despite all she had endured.
Ylawes remembered seeing her before. He remembered a monster. But what he saw was a young woman, smiling upwards. Only that.
Slowly, the adventurer looked at the Goblins. They stared back at him. Silent.
“I saw your leader kill the Goblin commander.”
“I saw your archer down the [Shamans]. Few Human [Archers] I know could do that.”
They just stared at him. Ylawes nodded at the Goblin in front.
“You slew the skeleton. Without that, we might have died before reinforcements could arrive.”
Slowly, the Goblins laid down the body of the Human girl on the ground. They ignored Ylawes completely. One of the Goblins with a bloody scalp slowly crossed the young woman’s arms over her chest. He hesitated, hand on hers. Then he turned away.
“May we never meet again.”
Ylawes called it at their backs. But the Goblins didn’t even acknowledge his presence. They just walked away.
They found Grunter before they left. There wasn’t much of the Hob, but the Redfang warriors gathered around his corpse for a moment. Then they walked on.
They found Badarrow, laughing, shaking as he sat amid the arrows that had nearly killed him. Three arrows had found him, but the one meant for his chest had been horribly made. The glue had broken off and the arrowhead had barely penetrated his skin. He was still laughing about how he’d never hate another arrow when they found him.
Then Badarrow just bowed his head. He stood up and looked towards the body, but the other Humans were around her. The Redfang warriors slowly walked out of the city, avoiding the undead.
This is a story of a band of Goblins, and how they left a city behind them as they walked out into the snow and darkness. They left behind their leader, over half their number and a Human girl in the city. And they left something as well. Perhaps it was a bit of their hearts.
This is the story of monsters. Of Goblins. But they had names.
This is their story. This is the story of how they found and left Esthelm, a city of the desperate, the dead, and those who struggled even in the darkness. This is their story. This is how it began.
This is the story of a skeleton. He walked away from the city whose name he hadn’t even known, beaten. Defeated not just by swords and sorcery, but by something he didn’t even have a name for.
He walked away, not alone physically, but alone nevertheless. Thirteen zombies and a Ghoul walked with him, silent, unthinking. They were tools, that was all. And Toren realized that a tool was not enough. Killing was not enough.
He was alone, purposeless again. He had failed. Toren walked on, staring at the sky. And he began to realize there were still some things he didn’t understand in this world. So he left the city where the living had reclaimed their pride. He left the Goblins, the adventurer wearing silver armor, and the monster who had become a girl behind.
And the dead walked with him.