Erin woke up with her back against the inn’s front door. Her neck was aching and her hand was burning. It was morning.
She held her hand. It was hurting—
“Feels like it’s worse than yesterday. Which is probably my imagination.”
She sat cradling her hand for a full minute. Then she remembered why she was sitting there and shot to her feet.
Where was it? Erin stood up and hobbled over to a table. There. Two daggers on the tabletop.
“At this rate I’m going to start a collection.”
Erin mumbled to herself as she poked one of the hilts with a finger. But it proved she hadn’t been dreaming.
“No skeleton? No problem. I hope.”
She sighed and then sniffed.
“What’s that smell?”
Something smelled really bad. And it was coming from the kitchen. The instant Erin opened the door she groaned aloud.
The fish lay on the cutting board, covered in dry blood and reeking in the sunlight. It stank. Actually, it smelled worse than a stink.
“This. This is disgusting.”
Erin stared at the fish for a few more seconds. She had absolutely no desire to touch it. On the other hand…
A few black things crawled out of the fish’s mouth. Erin stared at the small things, gagged, and then ran outside before she hurled. That was the start of her day.
How do you get rid of a fish? Erin put it outside on the ground and stared at it.
“I could bury it. If I had a shovel. And I could burn it. If I had a way to make fire. Or…I could leave it over there.”
She walked for about fifteen minutes before she was sure she was far enough away from the inn. Then Erin unceremoniously dumped the rotting fish off the cutting board. That was a mistake.
As the fish hit the ground it exploded. Something inside of it broke or squished, and suddenly a host of little black and green insects exited the fish’s body from every orifice. Erin took one look, screamed, and ran. She was getting good at it.
It took her a long time before she found the courage to return. And even then, it was just to run in, grab the cutting board and leg it to the stream.
“Ew, ew, ew.”
Erin thrust the plank of wood in the water and watched fish guts and insects sweep away into the current. It wasn’t the dead fish she objected to. Well, not as much as the live bugs that clung stubbornly to the wood.
“You. Get off.”
The tenacious fly seemed to have the strength of ten bugs because it refused to let the current drag if off. It was black with a green butt—abdomen, and looked like nothing Erin had ever seen before.
“Another weird creature. Wonderful.”
Reluctantly she looked closer. Know thy enemy, right? She supposed she should also know her bug.
“That’s definitely a bug. And it’s really ugly.”
Swish. Swish. The bug clung to the wet wood despite Erin’s best attempts to shake it off.
“…Why’s it got four legs? I thought bugs had six.”
Annoyed, Erin finally pulled the cutting board out of the water. The insect fanned its wings as she stared at it. It was really mostly like a beetle, except that its backside was glowing green. A cross between a freaky firefly and a beetle. Better than a cockroach, but there was only one way to deal with bugs like that.
Erin curled her finger and gave the bug a damn good flick. It exploded.
The insect’s green abdomen burst into a splatter of green liquid as the rest of it flew off into the stream. Erin blinked as the green liquid covered the cutting board and splashed into the water.
Some of it landed on Erin’s arm.
Her arm plunged into the water. It was an instinctive reaction but it made the pain vanish. Still, Erin frantically scrubbed at the spot until all of the burning pain had gone.
“Acid flies. Okay, that’s completely wrong.”
Her skin was red and sore from the brief contact with acid, but she was fine. Nevertheless, she washed both her body and the cutting board until she felt completely clean. This was less fun because Erin was also watching out for strange shadows in the water.
“Great. My hand hurts, and now my arm hurts.”
Erin stared at the dead fish as she walked back to the inn. The fish’s body was swarming with those little acid flies. They were probably laying eggs in it or something equally fun.
Briefly, Erin considered dragging the fish into the stream and letting all the buggers drown. Then she considered what would happen if all the flies landed on her and exploded.
“Right. Well, there’s only one thing to do in a situation like this.”
Erin raised first one, then both her middle fingers. Her injured right hand hurt like fire, but it still made her feel better.
“That’s for all of you.”
Then she went back to the inn.
“I really should have brought a bucket.”
Erin stared at the ingredients lined up on the kitchen counter. Her stomach was rumbling, and she was in the mood for food. But she didn’t really want another breakfast, lunch, and dinner of blue fruit. Today she was in the mood for bread. Freshly baked bread.
Unfortunately that required water. And Erin really didn’t want to walk to the stream and back with a heavy bucket. But she needed water. She knew that. Somehow.
Was it instinct? Erin frowned and knocked on her skull. She had never made food, not really. Well, she’d made Mac and Cheese and instant ramen but that didn’t count. And that went for microwaves and ovens too. So why did she know that to make bread she needed flour, oil, salt, sugar, yeast, and some water? It had to be magic.
Or a skill.
“[Basic Cooking], huh?”
Erin stared at the washed cutting board. Yes, all the ingredients were here. It made sense; this was a kitchen. Kitchens had ingredients. Therefore she could make bread. Or dough. To make bread she’d have to bake it in an oven. Handily, this kitchen had an old oven that Erin’s instincts told her she could use. But to use the oven she needed fire.
She had no idea how to make a fire.
Whatever new ability she had to make food, it did not extend to making fire. Erin stared at the empty fireplace in the oven and thought.
“Sticks. You hit sticks together. Or rocks.”
She looked around. She had wood. There were lots of chairs and tables. What she didn’t have was matches. Or a lighter. Or a can full of gasoline and a flamethrower.
Erin went back to the kitchen. There had to be something to start fires in there. How else would you cook things?
“Right. Rummage time. I knew I saw a shelf full of weird stuff somewhere…”
She went back through the shelves. In her first search through the kitchen she’d put everything vaguely useful or non-rusted in the cupboard next to the food.
“Let’s see. Frying pan? No. Tongs? No. A saw? Why does a kitchen need a saw?”
Erin set the small handsaw aside and squinted. Behind that was something she hadn’t quite figured out. Well, two things. It was a rock and something else. Something weird.
“Is that…a horseshoe?”
No. It was way too small to be a horseshoe, and the wrong shape. Unless this world had really weird, small horses that was. But even then, why have horseshoes in a kitchen?
“Unless they ate horses.”
Erin stared at the horseshoe-thing. She stared at the rock. Slowly she slid the rock along the fire striker and watched sparks fly.
“Huh. So that’s what flint and steel looks like. It actually does look like Minecraft!”
Erin paused. She sighed and slapped herself gently.
“I’m an idiot.”
Flint and steel was actually pretty fun to use. So long as you didn’t burn down the flammable, wooden inn around you by accident.
Erin peered in the large fireplace and fumbled with the flint and steel again.
“Dried grass…check. Broken chair…check. Fire?”
She slid the flint across the steel quickly and flinched as the sparks flew.
The shower of sparks descended on the dry grass like a swarm of angry fireflies. And the tinder caught fire in places, and the fire grew.
Erin held her breath. Then she exhaled, blowing at the small flames like she’d seen television campers do.
“Damn. It went out.”
She struck the flint and steel again. This time she let the fires grow a bit and did not blow on them. Slowly, the small fires grew. She fed the small flame pieces of wood and grinned.
“Fire! Call me Promethus…Promethea.”
The warmth on her front became a little too hot so Erin scooted back. But she was grinning. Well, she was grinning until she sat on her bad hand.
“Okay. Pain. But now I can make bread! I’ve got all the ingredients. Right? Right. I just need flour, yeast, butter, a bit of salt and sugar and—”
“Oh yeah. Water. Great. Well, I can just go out and get some. It’s not like there’s a time limit or anything—”
She looked back at the fire she’d just started.
In the end, Erin let the fire burn while she went to get water. The fireplace was stone, and the kitchen was stone. The odds of a stray spark walking all the way to the common room was remote. Still, she felt uneasy.
“This is how it starts, right? You leave the fireplace on while you go on a vacation for a few days and the next thing you know, your inn’s burned down. A classic cautionary tale.”
Erin sighed as she walked along. She wondered again how much trouble she was really in. After all, she had just started a fire, true, but that was pretty basic even for primeval humans. What could—
A patch of green moved in the grass ahead of her. Erin stared at it. Was it part of the grass? It raised its head and stared back. It wasn’t the grass it all. It was—
Something exploded out of the grass. Erin screamed, flailed wildly with her bucket and fell over. The gigantic bird with leather wings and a beak longer than her arm took off into the sky with an ear-piercing screech.
“Oh. Oh wow.”
Erin sat on the ground and stared.
“Is that a…pterodactyl? No way.”
It looked like it. And while Erin was only really seeing it’s rapidly disappearing backside, the bird had a certain…non-feathery quality to it. However, where the ancient dinosaur-birds Erin had seen in museum pictures were brown and plain, this bird had been a light green with red markings.
“Camouflaged dinosaurs. Now I’ve really seen everything.”
Erin shook her head and got back up. She brushed off her dirty t-shirt and jeans.
“Gotta wash these sometime. But that means I’ll be walking around naked. Is that an issue? And what’s that smell?”
Something smelled truly terrible. Erin covered her nose and frowned. She cast around for the source of the smell. It was on the ground somewhere. She walked ten steps and found a nest.
“Huh. I guess without many trees birds get lazy. But what a big nest. And what’s that inside—”
Erin took one look inside the nest and covered her mouth. She gagged and took a few deep breaths.
“Okay. At least I know where all the normal birds go. Inside the dinosaur-birds.”
Averting her eyes from the grisly remains, Erin turned to go. She took two steps and tripped.
She got up, cradled her injured hand a bit and wished for the world to explode. Or just her. Then she squatted down to look at what she’d tripped over.
Buckets could hold things. Ideally they held water, but they could also hold eggs. They could also hold eggs in water, so that saved her the effort of making two trips.
It was still a pain to haul the bucket across the grasslands, though. Erin puffed and huffed and kept up a running stream of complaints as she lugged the full water bucket along.
“People used to do this every day? This is why plumbing was invented, you know. Who puts a stream so far from an inn? What happened to a good well?”
She kept grumbling until she reached the inn. Once there, Erin had to lean against the door and pant like a dog for a while before she felt better. She noticed a sign hanging next to her nose and squinted at the faded lettering.
“Huh. ‘Closed?’ Is that English?”
It wasn’t English. The lettering was distinctly not-English. But Erin understood in nonetheless.
“Freaky. But convenient. Who needs Google Translate when you’ve got magic-weirdness?”
And at least it confirmed Erin’s suspicions.
“This was an inn once. But someone abandoned it.”
She tapped her lips thoughtfully and narrowed her eyes at the hanging sign. The rope was frayed and worn, but it was still in pretty good shape.
“…Well, finders keepers.”
Erin kicked open the door to the inn and dragged the bucket inside. But she paused and stepped out to look at the sign.
It was a sudden whim. Erin flipped the sign over so it read ‘Open’.
“Now, where can I get a piece of chalk and write ‘no Goblins allowed’?”
Well, that was a question for later. Right now Erin was more concerned about the precious water. She had the water. She had dragged the water very painfully all the way here. Now she had to find a place to store said water. The bucket was nice, but it was also sort of small and definitely not useful as a long term container. It was leaking a bit. So where else could she put it?
Erin wandered into the kitchen.
“Well, here’s a cauldron.”
It was actually a pot. But it looked like a cauldron. It was in fact both things at once. The point was that it could store water. Unfortunately, that meant the cauldron had to be cleaned first.
Erin tried to use as little water as possible. But the pot was large, filled with dust and the bucket was finite. She eventually ran out of water and had to make another trip back. And then another.
When the cauldron was finally full of water and clean enough to hold said water, Erin was ready to kill something. Like eggs.
She tromped back into the kitchen and stared at the grey embers. She scowled.
“I’ll deal with you later. For now, I need dough.”
Dough was easy. It was just mixing stuff and Erin had plenty of stuff to mix. But an idea struck her as she stared at her ingredients.
Bread took a while to bake. Bread needed to rise and do all kinds of complicated yeasty-stuff according to her [Basic Cooking] skill. And to be fair, that was about all she could make with the ingredients at hand. Not much you could do with a bit of flour, right? But eggs? Eggs changed everything.
Erin’s stared at the flour. She stared at the butter and salt. Then she stared at the eggs. Her eyes narrowed.
“Forget bread. It’s pasta time.”
The mixing bowl was full of flour, a dash of salt, some water and butter. Oil would be best, but Erin didn’t have oil so butter would do. She grinned. This was easy. Then she cracked the egg.
A large, glistening yolk fell into the bowl. The eggs of the giant dino-birds were about three times bigger than normal bird eggs. That could make a lot of pasta. But there was just one thing different about these eggs.
“Oh. Oh god. Why are there red lines—?”
Erin covered her mouth.
“It was alive. There was a baby inside.”
Her stomach lurched. But there was nothing to throw up. Erin took a few deep breaths and tried to think.
“Right. Normal eggs actually hatch. Right. This isn’t a store so of course they’ve be living—but they must be new eggs. Not full of half-born chickens, right?”
She stared at the rest of the eggs. Right?
Erin wiped her mouth as she kneaded the dough. She hadn’t thrown up. But her stomach was still a bit queasy from all the killing she’d done. If that was the word for it.
“Sorry, baby dino-birdlings. But I really need to eat. And you look nice and doughy right now.”
She punched the dough ball gently. The kneading was done. It was time to roll it and slice it into nice, pasta-shaped sizes.
To her credit, Erin barely hesitated when she grabbed the sharp knife again. But she did take the time to wash the blood off before she began slicing. And though it took her a bit longer to cut everything since she worked with one hand and tried to keep all her digits out of the knife’s path, she eventually had a pile of long stringy noodles ready to be boiled.
Erin held the first batch of raw noodles over the boiling water in the pot.
“Double double, boil and trouble…into the pot you go.”
The noodles fell in with a large splash. Erin yelped and jumped away.
When she was finished calling herself an idiot, Erin sat back and waited. The noodles wouldn’t take that long. Then she could add some more butter, a little more salt, and feast. It was a good plan.
“Too bad I don’t have something refreshing to drink as well. A nice glass of juice would go down great. But y’know, it’s not like I…can…”
Erin stood up. She walked back into the common room and looked around.
The pile of blue fruits was right where she had left them. Erin’s eyes narrowed as she looked at them. She stroked her chin in thought.
She shook her head.
“Nah. Bluefruit juice? That’s more like it.”
It was a messy process, peeling each blue fruit and then pulping the fruit into a mush. And then of course there was the mandatory trip to the stream with the bucket in order to get enough water to add to the mixture, not to mention to clean the glasses, plates, and silverware. By the time she’d made her umpteenth trip to fetch water Erin’s arms fell like they were about to fall off. But that was okay because she now had a drink.
“Mm! Sweet! This stuff’s like syrup! Chunky syrup! Or…a smoothie.”
Erin put the pitcher of blue fruit juice in the common room and checked on the noodles.
“Hm. Chewy. Tasty! Pasta is the greatest food in the entire world.”
Her eyes went slightly misty. Erin rubbed them briskly and created a huge plate of noodles.
“Hm. Fork…fork! Am I missing anything?”
She felt like there was something missing. But—she brought the food into the common room anyways and sat down.
“Who knew carrying stuff with one hand was so much of a pain? I mean, everything’s a pain.”
The pasta was nice and hot. Erin felt her stomach rumbling. But something still felt off. And pain was still present.
“But it’s a better day, right? A bit of a better day.”
Erin stared at the plate. Pasta, check. Fork, check. Juice, check.
She sighed. A smile tried to climb onto her face. Her hand throbbed, but Erin kept the smile up and raised her fork. She was going to eat until she puked. Okay, maybe until she was just full. She raised the first glistening noodle to her lips.
Without thinking Erin stood up and went to the door.
“Hi, can I help you?”
A giant insect stood in the doorway. It raised one feeler in greetings and opened its mandibles.
“Greetings. May we come in?”