A shifting, glowing mass of green and black insects covered the bottom half of a table and pieces of bloody cloth. Erin looked at the countless bugs that had entered her inn and wondered whether screaming would attract their attention. Probably.
They were huge, black bugs that vaguely resembled fireflies. Except these acid flies were three times bigger than fireflies, and instead of pretty glowing backsides, theirs were bulbous glowing orbs that exploded if you annoyed them.
And they were in Erin’s inn.
“Oh no. No. This is not right.”
Slowly, she edged around the room. The acid flies took no notice of her. Erin made it to the kitchen, dropped her pads in a clean spot, and grabbed a bucket. Then she edged back out of the room and ran for the stream.
Ten minutes later Erin opened the door of the inn and ducked as an acid fly buzzed at her face. The insect spiraled away and flew back to the bloody cloths. Erin narrowed her eyes and squinted.
It looked like the flies had devoured, or melted a large part of the cloth. And either they were full or sleeping, because most of them were sitting on the pants or around it, not moving.
Erin tiptoed closer, pausing every few seconds to make sure she wasn’t bothering the bugs. The bucket was heavy in her hands, but she was close. She just needed to be in range.
When she was certain she was close enough, Erin took a deep breath and then hurled the bucket at the flies. The bugs were washed away by a tide of water and struggled helplessly on their backs, their wings too heavy to fly.
Erin moved fast. In an instant she was in the kitchen and pulling out a large glass jar she’d used for storing perishable foods. She dumped a bunch of onions out and then grabbed a long-handled spatula.
The flies were still struggling to get up as Erin moved back into the common room. She bent down and began flicking them into the glass jar, one after another. Some exploded as the wooden spatula touched them, but soon Erin had figured out the way to avoid the acid flies bursting was to hit their heads, rather than their glowing green abdomens.
In no time at all she’d rounded up all the acid flies and sealed them in the large glass jar. That done, she sat back in a chair and wondered whether she was cursed.
“So. Apparently acid flies like blood. Right. And does that mean I have to worry about them landing on me when I sleep?”
She looked down at the jar of flies. Most of them were buzzing around inside the glass jar by now. They clung to the glass, fanning their wings innocently.
Erin lifted the jar up carefully and stared in horrified fascination at the bugs.
“Four legs. I knew I wasn’t dreaming that up.”
That would technically make the flies not flies, but it didn’t matter either way. They looked like oversized houseflies, acted like them, and aside from the exploding acid bit, they were as harmless as flies.
“And now I have a jar full of these deadly little critters. What do I do now?”
Erin stared at the jar. Letting them go was probably a stupid idea. Mainly because they liked blood. And she was on her period. Ergo, they’d probably land on her and melt her face off. So what could she do?
Erin hesitated, and then experimentally shook the jar. Instantly, half of the acid flies inside exploded. The green, glowing liquid flowed into the bottom of the glass jar while the bodies of the dead flies floated to the top.
After checking to make sure the top of the jar was extremely secure, Erin gave it a really hard shake. This time the rest of the acid flies exploded and she was left with a pool of green acid and a bunch of dead fly corpses.
“I should feel bad about that. I really should.”
But she didn’t. And as Erin stared at the dead flies floating in the acid, she had a thought. She carefully put the glass jar in a corner of the room where she wouldn’t trip over it by accident, and emptied another one in the kitchen.
“One jar for bugs, one jar for deadly acid. Perfect.”
Erin picked up the jars and hesitated again.
“Acid. Does it melt glass?”
She thought it did. At least, the Aliens from the movie could melt through glass. But that was a movie. On the other hand, this was a fantasy world.
“Right. But in chemistry class we used glass.”
But again, this was another world. Erin carefully held up the glass bottle and peered at the edges. It didn’t look like anything was melting. Even so, she put the jar in a far corner of the kitchen. Just in case.
“Okay. Done. Now what?”
It took her two seconds to realize what she’d forgotten. Erin smacked her forehead.
“Time for cleanup.”
She got up wearily and trudged back into the common room. She looked down at the part of the floor and table where the acid flies had been congregating and swore.
It wasn’t easy dragging a table out of the inn, but it helped when the wood broke apart and she could drag the pieces out. The acid had eaten through the base of the table and pitted the floor boards. That meant Erin was also faced with the lovely prospect of repairing the floor after she was done with the table.
Well, Klbkch had helped her repair the floorboards after the Chieftain attacked, and Erin’s [Basic Crafting] skill did the rest. It took her an hour, but when she was done the only sign the flies had been there were a few differently colored floorboards and her aching back.
“I hate all bugs. Except for Klbkch. No, actually, I hate him too. At least bugs don’t lie to my face.”
Erin collapsed back into a chair and stared at the ceiling. Today was not a good day. In fact, she’d put it in the top ten bad days she’d ever had. Unfortunately, that meant it was a good day if you compared it to the ones she’d been having since she got here.
“Who knew I’d be grateful to be covered in sawdust and sweat rather than blood?”
She laughed, coughed as some dust got into her lungs, and stood up.
One of the glorious things Erin had been introduced to in Liscor was the public bathhouses. They weren’t free to enter of course. She had to pay five coppers to enter, but they were hot and luxurious and well worth the price. Come to that, she got off easy since she paid the same rate as Drakes. Gnolls and other Beastkin had to pay twice as much because of the fur.
Yes, the steaming bathhouses were a delight to match any convenience of the modern world. Just sinking into the scented waters was enough to take Erin away from the pain of reality.
That was why bathing in the freezing waters of the stream was twice as hard now. Erin stuck her foot in the water, yelped, and then decided to jump in before she lost her nerve.
The one good thing about being in the middle of nowhere was that you could bathe naked, and you could swear and scream as much as you wanted. After Erin had gone through the shock of getting in the cold water, she scrubbed herself as fast as possible, lathered herself with the ball of soap she’d bought from Krshia, and screamed again when she saw the fish in the water.
It shot through the water like a torpedo. Erin exploded out of the water like a rocket. It followed her, but couldn’t figure out how to run after her on dry ground. Erin ran around screaming, hit the fish with the bucket she’d brought until it stopped moving, and ran away. She came back only later when she’d had a brilliant idea.
Erin trudged back across the grasslands, a glass jar tucked under one hand and a knife and bucket in the other. She held the knife so it pointed down. She wasn’t sure if that rule only applied to scissors, but she figured it couldn’t hurt with knives.
It was later. In truth, it felt like days had passed, but somehow she was still on the same day. The sun was starting to set in the sky, though, so at least she was halfway done.
From this distance she could see a green glow coming from the dead fish. Erin slowed down and put down her burden and shaded her eyes. It looked like her targets were already waiting for her.
Erin squinted. All the flies were resting on the fish. Or in it. That was good.
Slowly, very slowly, she tiptoed towards the fish, the bucket in her hands. She eyed the acid flies and saw they were rubbing themselves all over the fish. The acid from their backsides was eating into the fish, and they in turn were eating the melted result.
“Oh wow. That’s gross.”
The flat fish wasn’t so much flat as runny now. Erin wondered if she should feel sick, but she mainly felt a kind of fascinated revulsion. She shook her head and got back to her mission before the flies decided they wanted dessert with dinner.
Stealthily, Erin filled the bucket from the stream. Then she tiptoed over to the fish and tossed the water all over the flies and the fish.
Again, the acid flies found themselves struggling on their backs, unable to fly. Erin dashed back and grabbed the glass jar.
“Take this! And that!”
Erin began smushing the downed acid flies with her glass jar. They exploded in showers of acid and in no time she’d killed them all. That done, Erin looked at the dead fish.
It was mostly melted from the acid. Erin prodded it with her knife and gagged. But she needed it so she steeled herself and tried to cut the fish in two.
The knife blade sunk through the fish like butter. It wasn’t so much fish now as sludge. And no matter how hard Erin tried, she couldn’t get it to separate. Wherever she cut, the sludge oozed back together.
Disgusted in more than one sense, Erin covered her face with one hand.
“Well, of course that would happen.”
She needed a spoon, not a knife. Lacking one, she used the knife to scoop some of the fish sludge away. She stared at it and felt her stomach roiling. As the smell of the decayed fish hit her nose she dry-heaved.
“I can do this. Think of the money. Think of the food. Think of the inn. Don’t think of the fish.”
She took several deep breaths while looking the other way. When she was fairly sure she wasn’t about to throw up she went back to the sludge.
“Okay, [Basic Crafting] activate!”
First, Erin took some of the green fish-sludge and poured it in the bottom of her glass jar. Then, she took off the glass top and set it next on top of the jar so that it was just wide enough to let flies squeeze into the container, but didn’t give them much room to get out. Then she walked away.
“Acid fly trap, complete!”
Erin stared at the glass jar. She slapped herself gently with one hand. Then she set up three more jars the same way.
“Let’s see how you like this, you little jerks.”
“You have a talent for finding the most dangerous things, don’t you?”
Pisces shuddered as he gazed at the acid fly traps. He edged away from them and rubbed his arms nervously. Erin grinned at him.
“Aren’t they gross? But look—the jars are almost half full, and it’s not even been more than two hours.”
He took another step back. Erin eyed him, but she couldn’t judge him too harshly. Both she and the mage were a good ten feet away from the glass jars.
Pisces licked his lips as he stared at the jars. The way the countless glowing shapes moved and heaved against the glass was hypnotic.
“I imagine…I imagine if all four containers were to rupture, the swarm of these insects could very well engulf us and melt our flesh within moments.”
“What a lovely image.”
“Yes. Yes, I imagine it will fill my dreams tonight.”
“They can’t get out of the jars. They’re not that smart. They wriggle in, but the lid keeps them from exiting. I did the same thing with fruit flies back where I lived.”
“I applaud your ingenuity. But may I ask why you decided to capture a swarm of deadly insects that prey on dead matter?”
“Well, they’re bugs. I bet Klbkch would love to eat them.”
Pisces gave her a fish eye look. He shook his head.
“It’s your funeral if you want to attempt to cook them. May I advise removing the acid before you serve them to your guests?”
Erin glowered at Pisces. She wasn’t even sure why she’d invited the mage to see her traps. She just wanted to show off, and he was the only one who’d come for dinner that night.
“I don’t get how they can survive anyways, if they explode so much. I mean, how would they even live long enough to reproduce?”
“By having few predators insane enough to risk consuming them. That, and the fact that they are nearly limitless in number.”
Pisces waved a hand at the glass jars.
“These are only the males of the species, in any case. The females are—substantially—larger. In fact, the sole purpose of the male is to gather as much food as possible. He will dissolve and absorb as much nutrition into his lower abdomen before returning to a female in hopes of winning her favor. They all do it.”
“Oh, sort of like how bees and ants both have queens, right?”
Erin glanced over and saw Pisces gaping at her open-mouthed.
He shook his head.
“I was unaware you were so familiar with the biology of insects, that’s all.”
“Oh, I know tons of weird animal facts. When I was kid I watched Discovery Chann—I mean, I read lots of books.”
“You can read?”
Pisces gave her a look almost bordering on respect. Erin glowered at him.
“Of course I can read. I can also play chess, and I read poetry. Sometimes.”
“You can play chess?”
Erin glared again, but he seemed genuinely curious.
“Oh yeah. I play chess. A tiny bit. You could say it’s a hobby of mine.”
“Really? As it happens, I was considered one of the better players among my fellows when I was a student. Would you care for a game? Perhaps with a wager or two on the side?”
Pisces smiled innocuously at her. Erin rolled her eyes.
An hour later Pisces stared at the chess pieces in front of him with desperate concentration. He moved the king piece in front of him left, and then right. He turned his head to look at the board another way.
“Perhaps if I—”
“Nope. And even if you try to take the pawn, it’s still checkmate.”
Erin didn’t bother looking up from her meal. She’d made scrambled eggs with sausage on the side. It wasn’t the most exciting of meals to eat, but it was tasty, filling, and it was better than having to stare at Pisces.
“I cannot fathom it. I was—am one of the best players in Wistram. I have outplayed [Tacticians] and other mages of similar caliber and skill. How could you defeat me?”
“Amateurs are still amateurs. By the way, I’ll put the money you bet me on your tab.”
“Ah. That. Clearly I made a miscalculation. Would you care to waive my debts if I—”
“No. You bet and I won. No arguing. Eat your eggs.”
Erin heard a loud sniff, but after a moment she also heard the clink of metal on pottery.
“I must admit, this is better fare than your unfortunate soup of yesterday.”
She looked up. Pisces quickly looked down at his plate.
After she’d glared for a bit, Erin asked a question that had been on her mind for a while.
“What do you do all day, anyways?”
Pisces looked up and swallowed the scrambled eggs.
“I study the mystical realms of the transmundane. To unlock the secrets of the ether and command over supernatural forces I—”
Pisces shrugged and went back to munching on his breakfast.
“Do you need to study that much? I mean, don’t you know spells?”
“For all my magical proficiency, I cannot cast more than a few magics beyond the third tier in any field, and I am relegated to first and second-tier magics in most fields outside of my specialization.”
“Oh. Um. Magic has tiers?”
Pisces rolled his eyes.
“Indeed. Seven, or eight to be exact. There is a speculative ninth tier of magic, but no mage has ever cast or discovered a spell of such magic. In any case, to cast such spells mages such as I require concentration, time, and effort to unravel the workings of each new incantation.”
Again, Erin had to pause to figure out what Pisces was saying.
“Right. So you study to cast better spells. And I guess that makes you level up as well?”
“Obviously. It is a taxing affair, especially given that menial affairs such as lodging and sustenance must be taken care of while one attempts to study.”
Erin propped her head on one elbow.
“Almost makes you wish you had a job, huh?”
Pisces eyed her dourly.
“Until recently I had a quite profitable side business liberating unneeded supplies from the locals in exchange for entertainment. But now I abstain from such activities to stay within your good graces.”
“Yeah, and because Relc threatened to stab you if you kept doing it. That’s not really a good career path, you know.”
He sniffed loudly.
“I also had a far more lucrative occupation liberating unneeded items from those who were in no position to use them, but apparently that is considered a grave violation of privacy as well.”
“You rob the dead?”
“I reburied them afterwards.”
Erin opened her mouth, raised a finger, threw up her hands, and gave up. She stared at Pisces as the mage huffily finished his food.
“Why don’t you do something actually useful instead?”
“And what would I do that is so useful?”
“I dunno. What do mages do for a living? Blow up stuff with fireballs? Dispense sage advice? Sell their beards? I found a bunch of magic runes in the kitchen. They kept food fresh for—I dunno, years.”
“Ah. A [Preservation] spell, no doubt. Yes, that is certainly a service some mages skilled in runecraft can provide for plebeians.”
“…And? Can you do that?”
“I am sorry to betray your high expectations in me, but I fear even a mage of my caliber cannot study every school of the higher arts.”
Erin glanced up at Pisces. The mage was scraping his plate with the knife and fork. She had the distinct impression he would have licked it if she weren’t watching.
“I never had high hopes for you in the first place. I just think it’s too bad, that’s all. You know magic and you don’t do anything with it.”
Pisces put down his fork.
“Some would say magic is its own reward. I would.”
Erin sighed. She felt like she was talking to a wall. A particularly annoying wall with bad hygiene.
“You know, if you actually helped people and were a bit nicer, I think you’d actually be fun to hang around. Why are you so rude to everyone?”
She hadn’t meant it to sting, but clearly it hit Pisces somewhere vulnerable. He sat up straight in his chair, his eyes flashing.
“Thus far I haven’t found any people worthy of my assistance. Why should I help those who judge me in ignorance and fear?”
Erin blinked up at him. The young mage’s face was pale with indignation, but spots of color flared in each cheek. She thought about asking him another question—but he was in no mood for conversation.
Instead, Erin shrugged and stood up.
“Because you’re a better person than they are.”
She collected his plate and hers and left the mage sitting at the table. When she came out of the kitchen he was gone.
The next day Erin got up and went to check on her fly traps. They’d worked scarily well.
All four glass jars were filled with crawling, wriggling shapes. Erin took one look at the jars, gagged a bit, and then had to go sit down.
“Oh man. Oh wow. That’s the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
It was also, on reflection, the scariest thing she’d ever seen. Erin wondered what would happen if she accidentally knocked the lid off of one of the jars. She recalled Pisces’s comment about melting flesh and shuddered.
Carefully, Erin walked over to the jars. She repeatedly thought about how important it was not to trip.
Her foot caught on a tuft of grass. Erin windmilled her arms wildly and caught herself just before she tripped into one of the jars.
“Not okay. Not okay.”
Before her heart could finish stopping, Erin adjusted the lids of each jar so they firmly covered the openings. Now the acid flies couldn’t get out at all.
Erin hefted one of the jars up and felt some of the acid flies explode within.
“Oof. That’s heavy.”
She shifted as the acid and flies shifted in the jar. For such little insects, they weighed a ton.
“Gotta be all the acid in their backsides. Okay. This could take a while.”
Erin took one step, and then another. She adjusted her grip around the glass jar so she wouldn’t drop it. She’d have to watch the ground for potholes, but she was pretty happy with her posture. She took another step, and tripped over another of the glass fly traps.
The ground rushed to meet Erin’s face. She realized she was still holding the glass jar and hurled it away from her just in time. She smacked into the ground hard and exhaled hard. Aside from that, she was fine.
Then Erin heard the glass jar shatter as it hit the ground. She rolled to her feet and stood up.
The large glass jar lay in shards on the grass. Green-gray acidic sludge dripped onto the ground, raising steam and hissing where it met the soil. For a moment, all was still among the wreckage. Then, with a horrific buzzing a swarm of black shapes flew into the air.
Erin felt her heart stop. She looked up at the spiraling cloud of flies. They flew around wildly, looking for whatever had disturbed them. Erin backed away slowly, praying they would ignore her. For a moment it seemed as if they would fly off, but then the entire direction of the swarm changed. The cloud of flies seemed to recoil, and then encircled Erin in an instant.
Her heart had stopped. It wasn’t beating in her chest. Erin looked around desperately, but all she saw were buzzing, buzzing flies. They filled the sky, the ground, everything.
They swarmed at her. Erin screamed and covered her eyes and mouth.
Erin heard the voice, and then a raging gale blew around her. She staggered as the wind blew her around. The effect on the acid flies was even more pronounced. They were blasted away from Erin into a funnel of air which whirled them into one spot. They buzzed around angrily, disoriented and confused.
So was Erin. She looked around and saw a familiar young man wearing dirty grey robes. He was pointing a finger in her direction.
Erin dove to the ground and hit the dirt hard. She looked up and saw Pisces raise one hand. A pale frost formed at his fingertips and half-visible gusts of wind blew around the length of his arm. He pointed at the disoriented swarm of acid flies.
A gentle breeze blew against the top of Erin’s head. Then, the air crackled and her hair froze in place. Erin could see the faintest trace of whirling air as it blew over her head. Where it passed, snow began to fall from the sky and she felt intense freezing cold engulf her.
The swarm of acid flies flew into the freezing breeze and fell out of the sky. Erin yelped and ran as they showered down around her, frozen insects that burst as they hit the ground.
She dove into the river, and leapt out of it just as quickly in case the flat fish tried to bite. When she cleared the water out of her eyes, the glowing swarm was gone, and all that was left was a circle of smoking dirt and frozen grass.
When Erin had finished shaking so hard she couldn’t move, she stood up. She was still trembling uncontrollably.
“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
She lurched over to Pisces. She wasn’t sure if she should throw her arms around him or start crying. She settled for a brief hug, and then doubled down and hugged him fiercely. He didn’t seem to notice.
Pisces was breathing hard. He stared at the sizzling patch of earth where the acid flies had been, as if mesmerized. She could see the whites of his eyes as they shifted towards her.
“It—that was a beginner’s spell. Not suitable for most combat and downplayed by my instructors. However, it was the best tool for the moment. All magic is worth using, after all.”
Erin nodded. Pisces nodded. His eyes flicked back to the patch of melted earth.
“You saved me. It was incredible, that spell.”
He shook his head and waved a hand weakly in her direction.
“I am—I am a mage of Wistram Academy. As a specialist of the Wind Elementalist field of magic, of course such displays are second—second—”
Pisces bent over and threw up in the grass. He retched, and then threw up again. Erin patted him on the back and waited for him to stop.
After a while Pisces wiped his mouth with a corner of his robe. His face was still pale, but he looked better.
“You were lucky I happened to be here. Very lucky.”
“I was. I really was.”
Pisces nodded back. Erin felt like they were both bobbleheads, but there was nothing else to do. He pointed a trembling finger at the three glass jars still holding the swarms of acid flies.
“If you insist on using such traps, might I suggest you anchor them in the stream?”
Erin looked blank.
“The stream? Why?”
Pisces shakily counted them off on his fingers.
“Firstly, the natural buoyancy of the water would prevent the breakage of glass if the jars were dropped, or at least mitigate the danger of the acid flies. Secondly, the effects of wind and other native life would also be mitigated. And thirdly, I would not be at risk tripping over such traps.”
“Right. I can do that.”
She wasn’t sure if it was the moment, but the trembling in her body had nearly vanished. Erin grabbed a rock, tied a some long grass to it, and anchored the rock to the glass jar. She dropped the rock in the stream and watched the jar bob and float in the water.
“Hm. I need something heavy to make sure it stays upright. I guess sometimes the jars might turn over…but it’ll work. Better than leaving them on the ground. A hundred thousand times better.”
Pisces nodded again.
“Good thing you came along.”
Both nodded again. Pisces opened his mouth and grimaced. He went over to the stream and shakily rinsed his mouth out. Then he looked up at her.
“May I ask—what is it you plan to do now, Erin?”
She looked at him. Then she looked at the glass jars full of flies.
“I’m going to take these jars back to the inn. You’re coming with me in case I drop one. And then…”
“And then I’m going to feed you until you explode like one of the flies.”
Pisces glanced down at the glass jars and the milling acid flies within. He shuddered again.
“An apt description.”
The jar of acid flies was a mix of acid and death. The corpses of hundreds—thousands of the small bugs floated in a sea of glowing green juice. It slopped against the side of the glass, an obscene testament of insectoid death.
“Hold on, I think there’s one left.”
Erin shook the glass jar. The last remaining acid fly bounced against the glass and popped dully within.
“What will you do with them?”
She looked up at Pisces. The mage was sitting several tables away from her, deliberately not looking at the glass jars.
“I’ll separate the flies and the acid. I don’t know what I’ll do with the acid.”
“If you dispose of it, please do so with utmost care. While the acid of these insects cannot eat through metal or many conventional materials, it is extremely quick to dissolve any organic material.”
Erin nodded. She carefully put the glass jar back in its corner and stood up.
“Right. Um. Want another piece of bread? Or would you like some more juice?”
The sight of the fresh bread and cup of juice made the mage’s face turn an indelicate shade of green. He patted his bloated stomach and erped. He covered his mouth with his hand, but Erin was pretty sure he’d nearly thrown up.
“Maybe not, then.”
“You have been most kind.”
Pisces stood up and clutched at his stomach. He wavered, and cast his eyes towards the door.
“Most kind. But the night is old, and I believe I shall retire.”
“Are you sure? I could get you a bag of food to go.”
He turned a darker shade of green and waved a hand quickly at her.
“You are very considerate, but no. No. I will be off. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“It was nothing. Let me get the door for you—there. Careful on your way out.”
She saw Pisces out the door and then turned and looked back at the table he’d sat in. It was filled with empty plates and crumbs. She debated cleaning it up, and then shook her head.
Carefully, Erin picked her way across the inn. She walked over to the three filled jars of acid flies and made sure for the umpteenth time that the lids were secure, and that she couldn’t see any flies still wriggling around inside.
Among the many things Erin had bought from Krshia, one of them was a chalkboard and piece of chalk. She’d meant to record things she needed on it, but now Erin wiped the black slate clean and used her best handwriting as she wrote on the board. Then she propped it up on the bar’s counter.
Pasta w/sausage and onions – 3 cp. per plate.
Blue juice – 2 cp. per glass.
Acid flies – 1 s. per plate
She dropped the chalk on the counter and cast her eyes back at the jars of dead flies. Erin shuddered. She rubbed at her arms and sat in her chair. Too close. Too close by far.
In a while she’d fall asleep. In a while she’d wake up screaming and then fall asleep again. She’d be haunted by the sound of buzzing wings for the next week. But for the moment, Erin’s eyes closed.
[Innkeeper Level 10!]
[Skill – Alcohol Brewer obtained!]
[Skill – Dangersense obtained!]
“…I wonder if you can make fly cookies?”