After a few minutes, the traveler sat back up. No, not a traveler. She hadn’t intended to travel anywhere tonight. The young woman frowned as she rubbed at her face. She’d been going to the bathroom and…she must have taken a wrong step somewhere.
A really big wrong step, because instead of walking into her bathroom and seeing the comforting sight of porcelain, she’s suddenly found herself in a cave, nose-to-nose with a—
The young woman shot to her feet, heart pounding. She looked around and remembered she was in the inn. But the memory was fresh, and her burned arm—she felt at it and winced.
“This is no dream.”
But it felt like one. It felt like she was in a dream, because that would be so much easier to explain than reality. The reluctant traveler took a deep breath, and then another, and coughed.
She tried to rationalize what was happening. First things first.
“Who am I? I’m Erin. Check! We’re off to a good start.”
She smiled weakly. That’s right. Her name was Erin. Erin Solstice. It wasn’t an easy name to forget. And though it was hers, she did object to parts of it. For instance, Erin could have been a boy’s name, and she was a girl. At least, she had been a girl. Erin poked herself with a frown.
“Yep, still a girl. Glad to see that didn’t change. Now…inventory check.”
She felt at her pockets. She had…two empty pockets. Wonderful. Erin had hoped her smartphone would be with her, but who carried their phones to the bathroom?
“Everyone sensible, that’s what.”
Most people began their journeys well prepared. If Erin had known she would have ended up in this place, she would have brought along a backpack crammed full of essentials. And a gun. To fight off the little green men. But she hadn’t planned this adventure. She hadn’t known it was going to happen.
How did one travel to another world, or another…another place? Erin’s forehead wrinkled as she thought. This was clearly no virtual reality, she didn’t remember being drugged or abducted, and she was fairly certain she wasn’t crazy, although her present situation made a good case to the contrary. But if any of those logical, real-world explanations didn’t fit, that only left…
Magic. Erin didn’t believe in magic normally, but seeing a Dragon an hour ago had changed her outlook on the existence of the fantastical quite rapidly. And yet…there had been no summoning portal, no mystical ritual or feeling of stepping into the void. Heck, there hadn’t even been a loud ding to indicate something had happened.
“I just wanted to go to the bathroom.”
She hadn’t opened the wrong door or stepped into a wardrobe. Erin clutched at her head. This was impossible. She was going insane. No, she’d already gone insane and this empty inn was her mental depiction of the padded room they’d tossed her in. It was as plausible an answer as anything else.
However, if she was insane, she was still sitting here in her head. So Erin looked around cautiously. The inn. What a strange place it was. Erin had never been in an inn—or even a building made exclusively out of wood before. But there it was. Wooden walls, wooden beams in the ceiling, wooden staircase leading up…
“Am I in some kind of medieval world? Some kind of fantasy world?”
The haunting emptiness of the inn struck Erin harder the more she looked around. At first, she’d just been pathetically grateful to spot any kind of structure in the rolling grasslands she’d found herself in. Erin had run towards the inn full-speed. But now, having found herself in the inn, Erin was ill at ease.
It was so empty. So dusty, too. Really dusty. And although the inn’s common room was large and spacious, the large round tables and chairs made it feel smaller. A long counter at one end of the inn gave Erin the impression of a bar. She felt there should have been a bartender behind it, polishing a mug and serving her a lovely cool drink of—
Erin sighed and slapped herself lightly on the head. Now she was thirsty. And hungry. Time to think of something else. She took a deep breath and coughed. Then sneezed.
“This place is disgusting! Someone should clean it up!”
She paused. After a second Erin looked around.
“…I guess that means me.”
There wasn’t much confidence in her words. Why bother cleaning up a place like this? On the other hand, it was so dusty that Erin was sure that if she tried to sleep she’d choke to death or cough her throat raw in the night. Plus, it would be nice not to raise a cloud of dust every time she sat down.
“Besides, this is a good place to rest. If no one’s here, then I might be able to…”
To do what? Hide here? Live here? Where is here exactly and what’s going on?
Erin tried not to panic as uncertainty gripped at her heart. She could not panic, not now. It wasn’t that she wasn’t terrified out of her mind, but rather, her instincts were telling her that panic was not an option. No one was around to help her, she was lost by herself—panic was a luxury she couldn’t afford.
So Erin fell back on the one truth she could cling to. If a room was dirty, it should probably not be. So she decided to clean it up, and made her first conscious decision since coming to this world. It was a simple goal, a humble ambition:
Find a dustrag.
Certainly, it wasn’t the most inspired of decisions, but Erin had an entire plan based around that simple action. First she’d find a dustrag, and then she’d look for a bucket. But even if she didn’t find a bucket she could probably just go outside and wet the rag in the rain. After that she could clear off a few tables and maybe then she’d come across a mop…
The first place Erin looked was behind the bar. It was a promising place to start, but she found only more dust and cobwebs there.
Next, she checked the door behind the bar and found it opened up into the kitchen. In there she found several old, rusty pans and pots and even the desired bucket, but no cloth of any kind.
Feeling increasingly desperate, Erin grabbed the bucket and towed it outside. She set it upright to collect water and returned to the common room. Well, that only left the upstairs.
It was a very dark stairwell that looked down on Erin as she put her first foot on the stairs. The young woman looked up and gulped. Due to the size of the ground floor, the second floor was quite high up and the staircase was…ominous, to say the least. It looked like the bones of some gigantic monster in the darkness.
Cautiously, Erin ascended the staircase. It seemed as though every second stair creaked or groaned loudly as she placed her weight upon it, and the sounds echoed in the dark inn. To Erin, it felt like she was stepping on landmines—each time she heard a loud creak her heart sped up and her heart caught in her throat.
“Come on. Come on. You can do this.”
Erin whispered to herself, keeping her voice low so as not to—to wake up anything that might be up there. At that thought her heart skipped another beat, and she paused halfway up the stairwell, shaking slightly.
“This is stupid. There’s nothing up there. Nothing!”
“Okay, maybe there is something. I don’t know. There could be—more of those Goblins? But there’s probably not a Dragon, right? Right! Don’t be stupid.”
Hesitation. Another step.
“But a Dragon could be up there.”
Erin took a step back down. The stairs creaked. She scolded herself as her heart thumped painfully.
“Don’t be stupid. How would a Dragon fit up there? But Goblins?”
She paused and shuddered at the thought. The Dragon was one thing. Her left hand touched at the burns on her right shoulder and she bit her lip at the pain. But then the cuts on the back of her legs twinged and she remembered. The Dragon had burned her as she’d run away screaming. She’d run and run, and then the small green men had found her and chased her.
Goblins, not aliens, that was. Actually, aliens probably would have been better. Aliens didn’t try to stab you with knives.
“Or maybe they do.”
With a small laugh, Erin gazed upwards. The darkness on the second floor waited for her. Long shadows made the chipped and faded wood ominous. But it was just an illusion, a trick of the mind. She knew there was probably nothing up there. If there was, wouldn’t it have tried to eat her already?
But this was a different kind of fear that held her heart. It was the fear of children, the fear of the dark and the unknown. So, Erin hesitated. But she knew she had to climb.
After a minute she began talking to herself quietly.
“Dustrag. Dustrag, dustrag, dustrag…”
Erin muttered the word like a mantra. Somehow the thought that she absolutely needed to find one gave her the strength to continue climbing the stairs.
One step. That was the hardest. Then two steps. Erin’s heart jumped as the stairs creaked underneath her, but nothing terrible happened. So she kept climbing.
However, if the sketchy staircase was the first hurdle of the mind, the empty corridor full of shadows and darkness was an entirely new level of intimidation.
It was so dark. Even when her eyes adjusted, Erin could barely see five feet in front of her. But having come this far, she was committed. So she kept going with her heart pounding out of her chest.
“Dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag…”
The first room she came to was very, very dark. Erin crept inside and froze as she heard a sound. Was that…rustling?
No. No, it was just her imagination. She could hear the storm passing outside with the rain making a racket on the roof overhead. The wind was blowing against the inn, that was all. It was probably just a leaf—
That was definitely a sound. Erin’s heart was playing the drums in her chest. There was something in the room with her, and she really hoped for once that it was just a rat. Something—it sounded almost leathery, like two wings unfurling…
In the distance thunder rolled and a gust of wind blew hard against the inn. Something pale and white unfurled itself in the darkness and flew at Erin. She screamed, flailed wildly at the thing and crashed to the ground with it in her arms.
For a minute all was confusion and noise. Erin fought wildly against the monster attacking her as rain started pelting her face and it wrapped itself around her arms and head. She eventually threw it off her and scrambled to her feet to find the terrifying creature was—
For a few seconds Erin just stared at the faded fabric in her hands in complete shock. Once her heart had decided to stop running a marathon she exhaled.
She picked up the pale bit of fabric and studied it. Well, it was a curtain. That was about the extent of her detective skills. It was a white curtain—or at least it had been white a long time ago. Mildew and dirt had turned it grey, but at least it was fabric.
Erin’s heart was still racing far too fast. She looked around. The room was still very dark, and the wind coming in from outside was making the windows shudder in a very eerie manner.
Erin closed the window. That stopped the noise, at least. But it was still way too dark to make many details out. Now, she could keep exploring the second floor. Or, having found a dustrag she could go back down to the bottom floor. The comforting, familiar, dusty ground floor.
The room was very dark. Erin took another look around and quickly went back downstairs. She tossed the curtain on one of the tables next to the bucket she’d found and looked around.
“Let’s see. Where should I start, then?”
Really, the better question was where not to start. Aside from the walls, everything was covered by a thick layer of dust. In the end, Erin started with the table she’d sat at.
The wet curtain…rag raised a cloud of dust into the air, making Erin stumble away, coughing and hacking. But the actual task of cleaning was in fact very easy.
Mainly, what Erin did was push the dust off the side of the table and onto the floor. After that she went back over the rough surface with another pass of her cloth until the table was clean. Then she cleaned her rag in the bucket with some water and went on to the next table.
After a while, the water in the bucket began to turn grey with all the dust. Erin opened the door of the inn, tossed the water out and sat back in one of the chairs until the bucket had filled up again. Then she started cleaning once more.
There was a rhythm to it. In no time at all Erin had cleaned the tables, so she decided to clean all the chairs as well. And once she’d finished with that, it only made sense to clean the bar top as well.
The long counter was made of some kind of high-quality wood. Erin admired the way the faint light from outside made the rich wood glow after removing the dust. The bar was long enough to accommodate at least twenty people at a time…or fifteen if they were picky about elbow room.
That done, Erin cleaned the barkeep’s shelf below the bar and the other surfaces in the common room. When she was finished, the inn seemed far warmer than it had before, as the newly-clean surfaces reflected the fading light from outside.
However there was one place that Erin had avoided the entire time. Namely, the floor.
It was only natural. Erin had nothing like a mop and she’d been pushing all the dust onto the floor the entire time. As such, huge piles of wet dust clumped together everywhere. Erin kicked at a pile and shrugged.
“Well, when you compare it with the tables and chairs…”
She could only laugh at her strange results. Clean tables, dirty floor. You could eat your dinner off the tables, at least. And who cared about floors? Floors were for stepping on, not sleeping. Erin wiped at her forehead and found she was covered with a layer of sweat. And—was it nightfall already?
Yes, sometime in her cleaning efforts the rain had ceased and the visible light had decreased until the inn was nearly pitch dark. Now, instead of everything being a mass of shadows, there was nothing to see at all.
“So it’s not scary, but terrifying. Great.”
At least the ground floor was reassuring. Erin looked around the room, her eyes spotting the moonlight reflected off the smooth tabletops and chairs. Yes, this room did feel a bit better. She’d cleaned it and thus made it hers, in a way. That made it safe. At least, she really hoped that was the case.
Erin sat back down in a chair and found she was exhausted. She leaned back against the table and sighed. If ever she needed proof that she was terrible in a survival situation, this would be it. Here she was, lost in a terrifying world without a clue where she was, and what was her first move? Clean the room.
“At least Mom would be happy.”
Erin laughed to herself. She closed her eyes, overcome by exhaustion. Time to rest. Maybe tomorrow everything would be better. Maybe this was all just a dream. Probably not, but…
Her eyelids lowered. Her breathing grew slower. Erin just had enough consciousness for one last thought.
“Now I’m really, really hungry.”
[Innkeeper Class Obtained!]
[Innkeeper Level 1!]
[Skill – Basic Cleaning obtained!]
[Skill – Basic Cooking obtained!]
“…What was that?”