When Krshia came round she did it dramatically. Gnolls weren’t as—as civilized as other races. But of course that was the wrong thing for Erin to think. It was more that Gnolls still lived in close proximity to monsters, even more so than Drakes did. They had to be ready to defend themselves in case one attacked their villages. That was probably why when Krshia sat up gasping, her claws popped out of her paws and she nearly took Erin’s head off.
It was an accident. Erin was nearly 100% sure of that. And Krshia had apologized several times.
After they’d patched up Erin’s cheek and poured a tiny bit of healing potion on the cut to make it heal faster, the Gnoll and Human cleaned up the broken table and spilled tea. Then they began the tea party again, only with less party and very cold tea.
Krshia had some lovely cheese that Erin didn’t mind snacking on. It was wonderfully sharp and the tea wasn’t half bad cold, probably because it wasn’t that good even when it was hot.
“Apologies again, Erin.”
The large Gnoll sighed as she lowered herself back into her chair and kicked the remnants of her coffee table aside. The replacement she’d brought was a footstool which she balanced the platter of cheese on.
“It was nothing. Really. But why did you faint?”
“Mm. I was merely surprised. Forgive me.”
Krshia took a drink from her tea and shuddered for a second.
“The humans on your planet—I was not prepared for such a number.”
“What? Oh, you mean seven billion? I guess that’s a lot.”
“Ah. Um. Was it that surprising?”
Erin’s complete incomprehension gave Krshia a gentle urge to smack her. But Humans were fragile so though her paw twitched, she kept her voice pleasant.
“It may have been shock or perhaps it was something I ate, yes?”
The young woman glanced at the bowl of meats she still hadn’t finished.
“I sure hope not.”
“That was a joke.”
Krshia shook her head. Humans really had no sense of humor. They could never tell when she was being ironic, sardonic, sarcastic, or just teasing them. Their faces were easy to read on the other paw.
“Let us put the interruption behind us. You were telling me about your world. It has many people—this I now realize. But what else is different?”
Erin frowned, scratched at her ear with one finger and shrugged helplessly.
“Uh, everything? I mean, most things. We’ve got mountains and water and stuff like you guys, but in terms of technology or buildings or…everything’s different.”
Krshia leaned forwards.
“I would like to know details of these differences. Can you give me a few important changes between our worlds? Besides the lack of Levels and Classes.”
“Well—there’s a lot to say. I mean, we’ve got such different cultures. Ours is more adv—more different in many ways. Like—we have weapons and you have weapons, but ours are more shooty.”
“Yeah. Like ‘blam’.”
Erin made a gun with her fingers and pointed while making the sound. Krshia blinked at her, uncomprehending.
“What I mean is, we don’t use swords. Or axes. We have guns. They’re uh, sort of like crossbows but better? Do you know what crossbows are?”
“I…see. Yes, I have heard of crossbows. And you have many of these weapons? They are powerful yes?”
“Yeah. But we don’t use them on monsters. We just kill each other with them. And we don’t use horses—well we do use horses, but we also have other ways to travel. Like cars.”
In some ways, Krshia fainting had been more relaxing than talking to Erin. Her head was beginning to hurt.
“Cars? What are these creatures?”
“They’re not animals. They’re uh, moving metal boxes. On wheels.”
“You—push them around, yes?”
“No…it’s more like they move because we burn stuff inside them. Combustion. They drive themselves. Well I mean, they don’t drive themselves. You need a human in one to drive it. But some of the newer cars can drive themselves. But most can’t. And they need fuel. Gasoline. That’s a type of oil, I think.”
Erin looked helplessly at Krshia. The Gnoll was massaging her temples.
“Um. Did any of that make sense?”
They tried for another half hour before they gave up. Erin did her best, but she really didn’t know how half of the things in her world worked. Her best explanation of cars was that they had some kind of engine-creature in its stomach that ate oil and made the car move faster than a horse. And she had no idea how planes actually flew, especially when Krshia kept asking her how something that was made of metal could ever fly without magic.
It wasn’t as if Erin had failed science class or didn’t know how things worked. But she hadn’t exactly taken Engineering 101 either. In fact, she hadn’t gone into college, preferring to work as a chess tutor and tournament contender to save up money before she enrolled.
All of that meant—well, it just meant that while Erin could tell Krshia a lot of fantastical things, it sounded like she was making everything up. And Krshia was clearly distracted. She kept rubbing at her head for one thing. Erin guessed she’d hit it pretty hard when she fell over.
“Enough, enough. I am weary and you are thirsty. Drink, and let us talk of other things for the moment.”
Erin nodded and accepted a refill of the new batch of tea Krshia had brewed while they spoke. She eyed the Gnoll.
“Well, I guess I can’t really explain my world that well. But your world is equally strange to me. Stuff like magic—that’s just fairy tales in my world.”
“Ah, you have fairies?”
“No, I…you know what? Forget it. I’m just saying we don’t have magic. So when I came here I had no idea how anything worked.”
“Hmm. I remember. You were lost and very afraid, then. But you have done well since, yes?”
“There is no guessing. I have seen how you have improved and made this land your home. We have witnessed your triumphs. We have seen your victories. They are to be proud of, Erin Solstice.”
Erin sighed and shook her head in denial. Then, suddenly, she looked up at Krshia. A flicker of suspicion crossed her face.
“Krshia? Why did you want to talk with me about my world?”
Krshia thought fast while keeping her face straight. She answered carefully.
“I was simply curious. It is natural to question such statements is it not?”
“I guess. But you just said you’d been watching me. And you said ‘we’. Is that why I keep seeing a bunch of Gnolls wherever I go?”
For a human, Erin was surprisingly perceptive at times. Krshia cursed her slip of the tongue and kept a straight face. But Erin had played too many games of chess. She could see when someone had on a poker face. Her eyes narrowed.
“Right. I guess it’s time for my questions. Krshia, what do the Gnolls want with me?”
Krshia tapped her claw against her teacup. Again, she chose her next sentence with extreme care, as if she were negotiating a sale worth hundreds of gold pieces.
“The Gnolls who live in Liscor have many desires. We hoped—that there might be some things that one such as you could help us with. But that is only part of the reason I asked you here. The other part was to ask a question. What does Erin Solstice want?”
Erin blinked as the question came straight back at her.
“What do I want?”
“Everything is give and take, yes? We would give much for knowledge. Items of worth. Things that could help our people. But all things have a price. We would help you grant your desires if you had something to offer in exchange.”
“I don’t have anything to give you. Besides food. But I buy that from you.”
“It may be you do not realize your own worth. A stranger from a far-off land has many secrets, many skills of worth she does not know she possesses, yes?”
“Maybe. I doubt it, though.”
“Regardless. I asked you a question. What is it you wish? If possible, we would help you. Or if my tribe disagrees I would help you not as one seeking a bargain but as a friend.”
Erin smiled at Krshia.
“Well, when you put it like that—I still don’t know.”
“There are many things humans want. Surely you have the same wishes, yes? Do you want money?”
“What would I use it on? Repairing the inn? I guess money’d be nice, but I’m okay.”
“Hrm. Then do you wish for more levels? Better weapons? These things many humans desire. Or—an attractive mate? A fertile one?”
“No, no, no, and definitely no. I’m not interested in any of that. Really. I already have a lot of those adventurers chatting me up in the street.”
This was tricky. Krshia had already run through all the things she would have wanted. Erin didn’t exactly seem like she was too interested in mating at the moment and she was no warrior—at least she didn’t like fighting. But neither was she happy.
“Then what is it you wish?”
Erin shrugged. She stared at her half-empty tea cup, at the ceiling, around Krshia’s room—and then she seemed to realize what she was missing. She looked at Krshia.
“I want to go home.”
It was a simple sentence, delivered casually. But the wave of emotion Krshia smelled coming off of Erin told an entirely different story. The Gnoll shopkeeper had a strong desire to wrinkle her nose or rub at it, but that would have given her away.
“I see. But if you have not returned already, you do not know the way back, yes?”
“Yes—I mean, no. I don’t.”
Erin shook her head, distracted. Now that she’d said what was in her heart her entire demeanor had changed. Her body language was shifting, and the turmoil of emotions within her was making Krshia’s nose twitch.
“This desire of yours. You wish for it strongly, yes?”
Erin lied, and then corrected her lie as Krshia raised one eyebrow.
“Maybe. Yes. I don’t want to insult this place. It’s a beautiful world you have here, Krshia. It really is more amazing than anything from my world. And I’ve made friends. Selys, Pawn, you…even Pisces. All that’s good but—”
She paused, and then looked down into her cup. Erin’s voice was quiet.
“I have family back home. My mom and my dad. And I had friends. It’s not like I miss them most of the time—I try not to think about it. But…I didn’t even get to say goodbye, y’know?”
For two seconds it looked as if she would break. Erin blinked rapidly and brushed at her eyes. But the tears never fell. She sighed and the moment was past.
“Sorry. It’s just—I’d really like to go home. If I could. I know it might be impossible. I don’t even know if it was some kind of spell or a…a cosmic accident that brought me here. But if I could I want to go home.”
Krshia stared at Erin, her dark eyes unblinking. She said nothing out loud, but she was thinking. For a second, the bright cheerful nature of Erin had broken. It was a mask, a layer of protection around her heart. She was strong, but fragile, like the Antinium were underneath their shells. Her hide was tough. But it would all break down if Krshia pushed just a tiny bit—
The Gnoll pretended nothing had happened and went on talking until Erin’s emotions were fully back under her control. Now was not the time for such things.
“It may have been magic. Perhaps. I do not know such things. I am merely a [Shopkeeper]. But I have never heard of one crossing from other worlds through a spell. Only the darkest of creatures and daemons do such things. But there are many magics that teleport. Perhaps a truly great [Mage] may have used such a spell by accident or mistake.”
Erin frowned speculatively.
“Maybe. It didn’t feel like magic back then. But I’ve never been teleported so maybe it was magic and I just didn’t notice. It really felt like an accident.”
“Accident or not, you are here. And perhaps the cause is irrelevant, yes? You are here. The question is not what brought you here, but how you may return.”
“And is magic the answer?”
“Most likely. I would not know of any other way. But as I have said, it would take a [Mage], no—an [Archmage] to cast such a spell if it can be done.”
“Right. You wouldn’t happen to have one of those lying around, would you?”
Krshia shook her head.
“They are the rarest of spellcasters. I know of only a few, and none live on this continent.”
Erin shook her head. Krshia smiled.
“Do not despair before even hearing of them, yes? Listen. There are several archmages. One on the Human continent to the north. Two more on other continents. But at least three have homes in Wistram, the Isle of Mages.”
Erin perked up at that.
“They come and go. But Wistram is their home. If you waited there for a month you would surely see at least one, yes? And perhaps it is not an archmage you need but the right spell.”
“So what you’re saying is that Wistram is the place I would want to go if I wanted to find out about getting home, right?”
Erin frowned because Krshia was frowning.
“It is nothing. I am sure if you travelled to Wistram they would allow you entry. But it is not such a good place that I would tell you to travel alone, yes?”
“Really? But I thought it was like Hogw—a uh, school for mages. Wouldn’t it be safe and full of cool spells and stuff?”
Krshia flicked her fingers dismissively.
“Perhaps some may call it so. But your Pisces, he graduated from Wistram did he not? And he is a [Necromancer] and a thief and gravedigger.”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
“And Wistram is made up of many humans, yes? They are petty and squabble as many of your kind does. Nonhumans live among them of course, but it is no haven. Wistram is no friend to the magicless.”
A dark frown crossed Krshia’s face. Erin sat still, remembering to breathe. She’d forgotten how scary Gnolls could be. On one hand they were like giant teddy bears, but on the other hand they greatly resembled giant teddy bears, complete with razor-sharp claws.
“Did something happen to you, Krshia? Did you—did you ever go to Wistram?”
Krshia sniffed dismissively and shook her head.
“I would not visit such a place. Nor would any of my kind, even to trade and earn money. We do not deal with those fools.”
Krshia shook her head.
“It is an old story. I would not trouble you with it, Erin.”
“No, tell me. Please. I’m interested.”
The Gnoll hesitated, but Erin was openly earnest. And because it was clearly upsetting her, Krshia told the story.
“Wistram is a place of magic. It is the place for mages to go and learn, yes? Other cities have their own guilds and even schools and some nations pay for mages to learn and serve. But Wistram is nationless and a nation unto itself. They have never bowed to any ruler and never shall. So they are thought of well by all who practice magic. But they are fools.”
Her fingers clenched on her tea cup and relaxed before they could shatter the delicate porcelain.
“Nearly twenty years ago, the Gnoll tribes gathered to talk and forge alliances and plans for the future. It is done every ten years, and it is an important time. At that time we had heard much of Wistram and many among us wished for Gnolls to learn such secrets as the Academy teaches.”
Erin sat in her chair, listening to Krshia’s rumbling voice and thinking. She already thought she knew how the story ended, but she wondered other things. Had Krshia been there? How old was she? And—what did the Gnolls want? But Krshia went on, and Erin was sucked into her story.
“It was decided that the tribes would send one of our finest [Shamans] to Wistram to ask admission. We chose one who was young but was talented beyond his years and gave him magical artifacts from each tribe and much coin to make the journey. Our warriors took him to a port city and he took a ship to Wistram, braving storms and pirates on his long journey.”
If it was possible, Krshia’s expression turned even angrier. Her hackles raised. Erin watched as the hair on the back of Krshia’s neck stood upright, fascinated.
“The mages at Wistram gave the Gnoll a test when he asked to be entered into the Academy. They did not believe him when he claimed to be a spellcaster as they were. They asked him to cast spells, but he was alone, yes? Alone, and without any to draw on. Without any others, there is no magic to cast for [Shamans]. That is why he asked to be taught as a normal student. But the mages, they did not listen. They cast him out and declared all Gnolls to be magic-deficient. Talentless.”
Krshia growled and spat. Erin stared at the glob of spit dripping from one of the Gnoll’s dressers and wondered if she was going to clean that up later.
“That is why to this day [Mages] from Wistram are not welcome among the tribes and why we do not trade with their island. And that is why even if you go, you must not trust them, Erin Solstice. The mages of Wistram do not trust any who do not have magic they recognize.”
Erin nodded. Krshia’s story sounded like a case of good old-fashioned racism, or maybe just ignorance. Either way, she understood the Gnoll’s ire. But it didn’t change things.
“I’d still like to talk to a mage. Or—a mage besides Pisces, at least.”
Krshia shrugged, tired from telling her story.
“There are several in the city. But Drake mages, the strong ones fight with their army, yes? And magic is not as widely practiced in these lands. Perhaps you would find one wise enough to help you, but you would search long.”
“So Wistram’s my only option? I mean, I’m not saying I’d just get up and head over there but—”
“If you wish to return home, that may be your best choice.”
Erin sat still for a while, staring into her tea cup. She raised it to her lips and took a long drink of the bitter and now cold tea.
“Okay. Okay. That’s—that’s something to aim for, at least.”
“It is good to have a goal. And perhaps that is something we may assist you with.”
“Really? I mean, why? And how? Is it that hard to get to Wistram?”
“Perhaps not hard for one with much coin, but it is a long ways away and dangerous for a lone human female who is not a warrior, and even one who is, yes? Anyone may attempt the journey to Wistram, but it is another thing to make the journey and survive.”
That didn’t sound good. At all. Erin frowned.
“What’s so hard about it? You hire a carriage, get to a port city, jump on a boat and you’re nearly there, right?”
Krshia laughed quietly and tapped Erin on the shoulder. Again, Gnolls had a heavy tap that was more like a shove.
“It is good to be young and eager. But it is not good to stop thinking, yes? Wistram is protected by more than mages. The seas around the college are calm at times, but at other times they devour ships and sink fleets. Especially in the winter.”
She shook her head at Erin.
“Even if you left now, winter would freeze you at sea as you travelled north and the storms would crack the hull of any ship foolish enough to brave the oceans. And there is the cost to consider as well.”
“Oh, right. Hiring a ship would be really expensive, right?”
“You would seek passage on a ship to Wistram. That would not be as expensive, but I talk of the cost of the journey. To travel north to the port cities safely would require joining a caravan that hires adventurers. That costs coin. A good place on a good ship with an able captain requires coin. A bodyguard or one who would protect you costs coin. And seeking lodging in Wistram—”
“I get it. It costs a lot of coin, right?”
Krshia sniffed at Erin and flicked her forehead lightly like one would a child. Only in this case it really hurt.
“Ow! Stop that! Your claws are sharp!”
“Apologies. But you are still not thinking. Say you reach to Wistram after so travelling far. Tell me, Erin Solstice, how do you plan on finding a mage to bring you home?”
Erin paused and blinked.
“I uh, hadn’t thought of that. I guess I’d just go to their headmaster and ask for help?”
Krshia laughed hard and long.
“That would be a sight to see. Yes, and talking to such a leader among mages would be an achievement in itself! You are just a child speaking of other worlds. Even if you could prove your truth which is simple enough, how would you convince them to help you?”
“Well—I’m from another world. Isn’t that enough?”
“Perhaps to some. But to mages? Many would not care. And those who would care—how would you find them?”
Erin’s heart sank.
“So you’re saying I’d need to pay a mage to help me?”
“Either to pay a mage to assist you or to find a mage worthy and willing to help you. That is the real cost I speak of.”
Things were never so simple as they were in books. It was Erin’s turn to rub at her head with her hands. If this were Harry Potter she’d be able to walk up to Diagon Alley and—well, she was a muggle and she’d forgotten the password so they wouldn’t let her in, and even if she did walk around asking people if they were wizards—
“This sucks. You’re telling me I have to pay to go home?”
“Is it not always so?”
Erin scowled at Krshia, but the Gnoll just smiled back. Erin reluctantly began to think, counting off on her fingers.
“Okay. Say that is my goal. How much money would I need, do you think? A hundred gold pieces for the journey? And then maybe another hundred pieces to find a place to stay? And—um, let’s call it six hundred for finding a mage willing to help me? That’s…a lot.”
“Too much, I think.”
Krshia shook her head at Erin.
“You have no idea of pricing, yes? For sixty pieces perhaps I could bring you to Wistram. It would be a longer journey and you would need to find one to guard you. But it could be done. And a hundred gold pieces would last you several years even in Wistram. But the real price is in the mage.”
Erin’s heart sunk even lower.
“Six hundred gold pieces not enough?”
“It is not about money. Mages have much money, and offering to pay them may work or it may not. Your money would be of little interest to all but the greedy ones. They are not what you want, I am thinking.”
“No, definitely not.”
“We spoke of archmages, yes? They are the ones you seek. Finding an audience with them through wit or bribery—that is your challenge. For that I would take as much money as I could bring, and something to attract their attention.”
Erin sat back in her chair, overwhelmed at the idea—not to mention the cost. Krshia laughed again.
“Do not despair. These things seem large, but they are not overwhelming, yes? Sit. Drink. And let me talk to you of what the Gnolls might do. And what you may do for us.”
Erin sat back in her chair as Krshia stood up. She let the Gnoll bustle around her home, refilling Erin’s cup with more tea, offering her more food and thought. She thought about the journey, what Krshia was proposing, and the danger and difficulty involved at every step. But she also thought of something else.
She remembered a quiet home, two people she knew she could go to with every worry. She thought of her bed, her friends. She thought of home and realized that was where she really wanted to go.
When Erin walked out of Krshia’s home, it was nearly nightfall. The Gnoll insisted she walk Erin back to the gates and it was only with some convincing that Erin told her she’d be fine on the way back. She’d spotted a shiny bald…head with no hair or even skin attached hiding on a nearby hillside and she didn’t want the Gnoll to freak out.
It would have taken a lot for Krshia to freak out at this stage anyways, even if she’d known how to freak out properly. It had been a long conversation Erin and Krshia had had, ranging from the logistics of how one might travel from Liscor all the way to Wistram Academy, hundreds—perhaps thousands of miles away. Erin had forgotten to ask the exact distances, probably because she was too afraid to.
But between talk of money and the journey, Krshia had talked with Erin about her world, and extracted a promise for the human girl to tell her more at another time. That had been what had set the Gnoll’s stomach jumping, and was the main reason she didn’t pick up on the dead smell of bones, magic, and marrow blowing her way.
She watched Erin disappear into the night, ignoring the gate guard until the human had crested a hill. She could hear Erin shouting something, but she was too far away at that point even for the Gnoll’s ears to pick up what she was saying.
Only then did Krshia turn to the guard at the gates who was deliberately ignoring her and nudge him.
“There is no one watching. You can drop the act, Tkrn. You are a terrible pretender of things in any case.”
Tkrn, the Gnoll guardsman who had been assigned to the gates for the last few days in a row grinned toothily at Krshia.
“At last you have come. I wondered whether you had taken the other option when I did not hear you coming. But then, I would have smelled the blood.”
Krshia scowled at the other Gnoll and jabbed him in the ribs. Hard. Even though the other Gnoll was wearing chainmail he still winced.
“I told you it would not come to that. And you and the others are fools for suggesting it and dreaming her disappearance would not be noticed.”
Tkrn scowled and rubbed at his side sulkily. But he didn’t dare talk back. Instead, he cast his eyes to where Erin had disappeared.
“She is no threat?”
“As I have said, so it is. She is no threat; merely a lost one seeking to return home.”
Tkrn shook his head.
“So it is true? She is from another world?”
“I sense the truth of it. Yes, she is one who came here by mistake.”
Again, the other Gnoll shook his head in disbelief.
“When I first smelled her, she stank of a place full of oil and metal and burning. Is her world like that?”
Krshia paused, thinking.
“From what she said—and did not say—it is a world of Humans. They alone live in it. Whether that is a better one than this I do not know.”
“But it is different.”
“Yes. Very. In ways that are disturbing and grand. But she did not speak much of these differences and I understood less. But she is—useful. She is important.”
“Ah, but she wants to go home. I heard you two speaking. Thus, we will have her do what we need, isn’t that right?”
Krshia gave Tkrn a baleful look and he wilted.
“You were supposed to be looking out for other listeners, not eavesdropping, fool. What point is there hearing what I will tell the clan anyways?”
“But it doesn’t matter, does it? No one was listening that I saw.”
Tkrn whined at Krshia, but the other Gnoll didn’t relent. She shook her head.
“We need Erin Solstice more than she needs us, yes? And we do not want her speaking with others who would know her value.”
Krshia prodded Tkrn none-too-gently in the chest.
“So be more alert! When she comes back I wish to know. And tonight, ask one of the Runners. Lv or Tshana. They must send a message to the tribes.”
Tkrn looked up. That was serious. He listened carefully as Krshia spoke.
“They must send more of our people here. Wise ones. I ask for counsel as well, of all I have learned. I will speak with all those in the city as soon as all can be gathered and send a second Runner. But this first one must go at once.”
“Will you ask anything else of them?”
“Ask them if they have found others such as Erin. And if they have not found, tell them to search! Tell them to look among humans for ones who stand out and speak and act differently. We have found some.”
“So far they have all been long dead.”
“Yes. That is why this one must not die.”
Tkrn straightened. He had a sword at his waist and a shield buckled to one arm. But he would have been dangerous without either weapon. His eyes glinted in the moonlight.
“Do you wish for me to gather some others to watch over her inn? We could set up camp a few miles away in secret.”
Again, for his trouble Tkrn earned another elbow that made him wince. Krshia flattened her ears and glared at him.
“Hst. You are foolish, Tkrn. Just like a pup on his first hunt. If we place others around her inn, she will notice, yes? But before she does, others will notice and ask questions. And we have few warriors in the city as it is.”
Tkrn whined. He didn’t like speaking to Krshia, especially because the punishment for making mistakes was so painful.
“How can we protect her if we cannot be seen near her?”
Krshia didn’t turn as she strode away. She spoke briskly over her shoulder as she went to talk with other Gnolls.
“We give her fangs to protect herself.”
Toren was being chastised. Or rather, Toren was being yelled at. It was pretty much the same thing, but volume was the key difference here.
Erin walked through the grass back towards her inn, snapping at the skeleton as it meekly followed her, fish in hand.
“Why did you come all the way out here? Do you know what would have happened if the guard had seen you? He would have smashed you to bits and I would have probably gotten in trouble. Somehow.”
Toren the skeleton didn’t say anything. It couldn’t, but it wouldn’t even if it could. It felt bad, but also good, which was a confusing feeling. Bad because Erin was mad at it, but good because it had a name.
Toren. Or Tor for short. Although why the skeleton would want a shorter name was beyond it. But Erin had told it that was its name. Toren. It meant rook in another language, but what a rook was Toren had no idea. It was just a piece of carved stone on the board Erin liked to stare at so much.
Erin stormed through the grass, Toren meekly following in her wake. Her anger at the skeleton was rapidly dissipating, mainly because it was just taking all of her abuse. But her temper flared every time she looked back and saw the skeleton carrying the massive, and very dead flat fish.
“And what were you thinking? Were you even thinking? Can you even think? Why would you think grabbing one of those stupid fish was a good idea?”
Toren bowed its head meekly and made no reply. The dead fish he carried in both his arms flopped around as he followed her.
Really, the skeleton hadn’t intended to kill the fish. It had leapt out at him while he’d been filling the buckets with water. But by dragging it away from its watery home, Toren had learned an important lesson: fish couldn’t breathe without water.
It hadn’t been sure if the flat-fish were truly dangerous, but the skeleton was aware of their crushing strength and lethally sharp teeth. Moreover the skeleton now known as Toren or ‘Tor’ had felt there was something valuable to be gained. It was—yes, it was Level 2 already from battling the adventurers. Perhaps it could gain another level by killing fish?
After all, a level wasn’t much, especially at lower-levels. But the skeleton had felt the slight shift in its overall coordination, strength, endurance and overall fighting ability. The connection was simple in its mind. Levels were strength. So too was the [Sword Fighting – Basic] skill it had acquired.
It had orders. Do something productive. That could mean kill fish. So the skeleton had stuck its arm into the water and moved it around enticingly. Killing things was easy. Not like cleaning.
Thus, it had killed several of the large fish and taken them back to the inn. And it had brought one for Erin as something ‘useful’. Clearly, it had failed.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t like fish. I like fish. Dead fish that have a bit of lemon juice squeezed over the top after they’ve been roasted nicely. And maybe a bit of salt and pepper. I like those kind of fish. But this fish is bad news. I tried cutting its scales off once and nearly sliced my hand off.”
That sounded like a problem but Toren wasn’t sure what it was expected to do about it.
Erin kicked the door to her inn open, stopped as her nose registered the fishy smell, and turned to glare at Toren. The skeleton flinched back from her. Erin stormed into the kitchen and her exclamation nearly rattled the floorboards.
“What is this?”
Fish were easy to catch, especially since Toren didn’t mind if they latched onto its arm. But they were hard to get off, so it had had to hack at them with its sword. Thus, the fish in Erin’s kitchen weren’t so much dead as…
The fish Toren was holding was the only one that was even close to intact. The other…bits Toren had carefully collected, washed to remove dirt and blood, and then deposited in a neat heaping pile on one of the cutting boards in the kitchen.
The fish guts dripped onto the floor. Toren automatically put down its fish on the counter and went to clean up the puddle of bloody water.
The skeleton paused with the rag in its hand as Erin rubbed at her face and tried not to scream. It could sense Erin was angry, but it clearly had no idea why. Erin sighed and pointed at the dead fish.
“You did this.”
The skeleton nodded.
“I think I get it. You wanted to be helpful. This is food. Which is…helpful, right?”
Another nod. Erin sighed.
“But look—I can’t eat this. No one can. Not even the G—well, maybe the Goblins. But we don’t eat food like…”
She waved at the mess of fish. Toren appeared confused.
“It’s the scales. See these?”
Erin pointed to the sharp, glittering scales lying all over the counter.
“They’re not tasty. And these ones are sharp. If we want to eat the fish, you have to get rid of the scales. And I—I can’t do it. Seriously. Like I said, last time…”
Erin broke off. The skeleton—she kept forgetting she’d named him Tor – was nodding. It dropped the rag, walked over and grabbed a knife. Then it grabbed the fish it had taken and raised the knife.
It had no cooking skills and probably no idea what cooking even was. It hacked energetically and completely ineffectually at the fish with the knife. Scales and guts went flying everywhere. Erin covered her face and yelped as the skeleton cut, pried, and generally ripped the scales and much of the flesh right off the fish.
Tor paused and looked over at her. Erin pointed.
“Outside. Do that outside, on a table or something. And after that, clean up—no, nevermind. I’ll clean up this mess, you start getting rid of those scales, okay?”
The skeleton nodded. It carefully stuck the kitchen knife between its ribs to hold it in place, lifted the huge fish with both hands and walked out of the kitchen with it. Erin stared until she heard the screech of wood on wood as the skeleton began dragging a table towards the door.
“I—don’t even know. I just don’t know.”
She stared down at the mess of scales and blood on the kitchen floor, and then at the pile of eviscerated fish parts. It was a mess.
But—was it because they were disassembled? Somehow, Erin could tell what she could do with the fish guts now that they were in manageable pieces. Without the scales, she could fry them, use them in soups, bake them after breading them…
“I guess [Basic Cooking] doesn’t include scale removal. Or—scale removal on killer fish.”
That reminded Erin. She walked back to the entrance of the kitchen and called outside.
“Get rid of the teeth, bones and fins too!”
She heard no response, but she was beginning not to expect one. With a sigh, Erin walked back into her kitchen and stared at the mess.
It really wasn’t that hard to clean up. And the skeleton had found a new food source. Or rather, it had transformed an old food source into an actual source of food. For her. It had done it for her.
That was nice. And Erin had finally thought of a name for it thanks to all the online chess games and conversations she’d had with foreign players. The Dutch had some pretty cool names.
It was all fine. Even her conversation with Krshia—
“Wasn’t that weird?”
Erin murmured to herself as she began separating the obviously unusable parts of the fish on the cutting board. The guts squelched horribly but her mind was elsewhere.
Home. She really had tried not to think of it. But now that she had, it called to her. And it was still so far away. A mage? An archmage? Where the hell was she going to find one of those? But it was also something to focus on. A goal.
And that was good. It was all good. Except that now Erin was back in the inn, she’d remembered something. Or someones. Rags and Pisces were gone. Well, obviously they’d both left once they realized she wasn’t getting back in time for dinner. And that was good too. Erin didn’t think she could face them right now.
The fish guts were all separated and Erin had the teeth, bones and miscellaneous bits ready for Tor to take out and dispose of. Far away. She’d have to tell him that. He could toss them back in the stream.
She stared down at the mostly descaled bits of fish. The blood and guts stared up at her. She could cook them, though. She could turn them into something useful. It was a valuable Skill, and one she’d gotten without even having to practice. It was practically like magic.
Erin’s fist hit the pile of fish guts.
She hit the fish again. Bits of blood splattered her face, but Erin punched harder.
“Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit.”
She punched the flayed fish, ignoring the squishing and the splatters of blood. She kicked the counter, hit the fish until her hands were raw and tingling, and then stopped.
“Fuck. Stupid, stupid—”
There were no right words. And all the ones she knew sounded so hollow and pitiful. Erin put her hands over her face and took them away instantly. Bits of fish clung to her skin. She looked around.
The counter and floor were even more of a mess than they’d been before. So were Erin’s clothes and her hair. She reeked of the smell of dead fish now. It would take a long time to clean up, even with Tor’s help
If she were a mage she’d be able to clean it all up with a spell, or a wave of her wand. If she were a mage, she’d be able to cook everything and relax without having to worry about a thing. If she were a mage, she might even learn how to bring herself back home.
If she could use magic…
But she couldn’t.
A few tears ran down Erin’s face. She would have wiped at her eyes, but her hands were dirty. She was dirty. And she had no magic to make it all go away. She couldn’t even dream of magic. Because she had none. And knowing that made it all so much worse.
Her tears fell onto the cutting board and mixed with the blood and death below her. Erin didn’t care. She let her tears fall, and heard the sound of an owl’s wings flapping and heard the high pitched tones of a celeste and far off in the distance, horns and violins.
For a moment she wore robes and held a wand that sparked and glowed. In that instant she could fly, albeit with a broom and there was nothing that she couldn’t solve with a few latin words and a spell. For a moment.
But the magic was gone. And only Erin was left, covered in dead fish and lost.
Alone, and dreaming of home.