The inn was dark and empty when the traveller arrived. It appeared suddenly, rising above the gentle hills and valleys of autumnal grass that blew in the wind, green, orange, and even purple in places.
The rolling plains were deceptive from afar. At first the many hills and divots seemed gentle, mere waves along a grassy plain. But the closer you got, the more you realized how easy it was to lose your bearings. In the center of a flat stretch of grass surrounded by hills on every side, you could look around and not know where you were. Even climbing a hill, all you might see was a mountain range.
Mountains so vast they disappeared into clouds on all sides grudgingly parted to form a pass connecting the north and south. Cliffs of stone slowly ridding themselves of vegetation and life, rising without end, promising to wall off the world except in this one spot where a gap had been chiseled. No other signs of civilization—at least not without the right vantage point.
That was why the inn was such a relief to the lost traveller. It had been placed on one of the highest hills for reasons of safety come spring, but also to act as a beacon. You might catch a glimpse of the roof, sagging in places but still mostly intact, or the chipped paint peeling along some shutters slightly moldy with disuse.
Yet, the inn stood. It had been there for decades, and whilst the other buildings had long since fallen to rubble or been burnt, the inn had been spared. When armies marched, it had been abandoned, then later reclaimed. When undead came flooding across the land, once more the inn had fallen empty. Only, this time, the windows stayed dark. Hopeful travellers stopped looking for anyone at the door, and visitors were rare anyways these days.
Abandoned, the inn waited. The Skills and care that had been put into the old wood, the magic etched into the bones of this building remained, defying a decade of disuse.
That was why the young woman was drawn to it. Not just because it was the first building she’d seen since coming to this world. Because of what it represented.
She stumbled through the thick grass, looking over her shoulder with every few panting breaths, but her desperate sprinting had long since turned to weary trudging despite the terror still coursing through her. The young woman smelled of brimstone and fire. She clutched at her right arm, and the t-shirt she wore was charred, as was her arm.
The girl climbed the hill, even though there was no light in the windows, not knowing what she might find.
The inn. In every world, the inn was a gathering place. Somewhere to meet people, to rest, a point along your travels. Somewhere an epic quest could begin, or where the weary traveller could sit around a warm fire.
A safe place. But this inn was dark, and the hope faded in the traveller’s chest as she reached the top of the hill.
“Hello? Is…is anyone…?”
She called out as she looked at the dark building. The door was closed, and nothing stirred at her voice. The young woman looked over her shoulder and hesitated.
Was it still out there? She doubted this place could keep her safe, but the strange land of hills and those impossibly huge mountains were overwhelming. Worse—it was growing dark, and it was going to be a darkness bereft of any artificial light.
The idea of staying outdoors with those red-eyed things, or the Dragon, made her shudder. So the young woman pushed the door open and called out again.
“Anyone here? Hello? I need—”
She knew the inn was empty the moment she opened the door. The smell was like that of a library long-abandoned, dusty and moldy—the first wave of stale air made the young woman cough and hack.
“No. Darn it. Of course it’s empty.”
All at once, the traveller sighed and leaned against the doorframe. Her strength ran out of her at the sight of the dark interior, the faint outlines of chairs and tables shrouded in cobwebs and dust proof that nothing had set foot in here for ages. She rested her forearm on the other arm and then winced as the burns screamed at her. Not to be left out, the cuts on her legs throbbed.
She tried not to cry. The young woman had known, known the inn was probably deserted when she saw it. She’d known, but hope—
“It’s not fair. Ever since I came to this world, everything’s been going wrong.”
Talking helped. Talking made her feel like she wasn’t crazy. The girl looked around.
The inn was cavernous, a building meant to hold entire crowds. She felt as small as an ant and unwelcome, like a thief stealing into someone else’s property at night. It was…very dark. Even the fading evening light wasn’t welcome here. A few steps in and the young woman heard her footfalls echoing, then the sound being swallowed. She hesitated. Should she enter?
Inside was darkness, and while it was dusty and she felt like an intruder—the young woman looked over her shoulder.
She was hurt. There were things outside. Monsters. She’d seen them—they’d nearly killed her!
Monsters and an unfamiliar world. A world that wasn’t hers. What she was sure was a Dragon, and she had no idea how she’d gotten here. She had no idea how to go back. She had no idea where here was.
“I just wanted to go to the bathroom.”
It was a plaintive whisper. The girl looked back once more and was almost about to back out of the strange inn when she heard the first sounds overhead.
She jumped, looked up, sprang out the doorway—and straight into the first wet, cold raindrops. The girl threw up her hands, gazed up, got a faceful of water, and ran inside as the skies opened up.
It began to rain, and the cool air grew colder still. The patter of raindrops overhead tapped down through the cracks in the roof, dripped down through floorboards, and landed in the dust where they vanished.
Then it became a roar of sound, and the shower turned the world outside into oblivion. The young woman’s eyes opened wide, and she backed away.
“No good. I guess—”
She found herself inside the inn and gazed about. She coughed again as the dust settled.
It was suddenly, unaccountably, peaceful. Despite the onslaught of rain, the young woman realized she might be safe.
The fire-breathing lizard-thing probably didn’t like rain, and it was so wet it’d douse even a forest fire. And the little green things with teeth would surely never find her in this! The young woman looked around, and as if a reward had appeared for her surviving all of this, she saw a chair.
Just a worn, overturned chair, clearly the sufferer of a thousand bottoms. But it invited her. Slowly, the young woman bent down, righted the chair, then began coughing and sneezing again as more dust overwhelmed her. But she brushed the chair off and sat down.
She closed her eyes for a moment. Just a moment. She’d rest here to begin with, get her bearings, and then figure out what had happened and why. The adrenaline slowly drained out of her, and Erin Solstice leaned back, trying to get comfortable.
She was almost ready to pass out, but a thought nagged at her. She cracked open one eye and looked around. She sighed, opened the other eye, and addressed the empty room.
“I’m really hungry.”
After a few minutes, Erin Solstice sat back up. The traveller, the first guest of this inn in ages, looked around and rubbed at her eyes.
No—not a traveller. She hadn’t been intending to travel anywhere tonight. The young woman frowned as she looked around. How had she gotten here?
Not just here, as in this abandoned inn, but here—here? She’d been going to the bathroom after finishing a game of chess in her room, in her home, and then…she must have taken a wrong step somewhere.
It must have been a really big wrong step, because instead of walking into the bathroom and seeing the comforting sight of porcelain, she’d suddenly found herself in a cave, nose-to-nose with a slumbering—
Erin leapt to her feet, heart pounding. It hadn’t been a dream! She looked around and felt at her right arm.
The burns flared up again, and Erin winced.
“It’s definitely not a dream. But how am I burnt? I could have sworn it missed!”
The jet of violet flame had shot wide of her by a mile, but it had still broiled her right side. Her jeans had kept her right leg from burning as badly as her unprotected arm, but it still hurt. Erin had no idea how she’d dodged, but that had saved her life. She’d run out of that…cave…and then?
Then she’d found herself running around the rolling valleys and foothills, calling for help and screaming as she realized she was not home. That had been a mistake, because the shouting had attracted attention. Attention, not help.
A bunch of little green things with red eyes and mouths full of teeth had come after her. They’d slashed at her legs as she ran—still screaming—and lost them.
“What were those things? G—they sort of looked like—Goblins? No way. This has to be a dream, but my arm hurts too bad for it to be a dream.”
That was her paradox. There was no way this was happening. Everything felt real, from the pain to the aching in her feet and tickling in her throat from the dust hanging in the air. However—this was surreal.
“What is this place? An inn? Really?”
Now that she looked around, it was clear that a lot of things were wrong. Erin had been in old-fashioned buildings, even to Renaissance faires, but this—this was the real thing.
There was no glass on the shuttered windows. She couldn’t see evidence of plastic or anything beyond simple wood or metal fixtures. There was no overhead lighting—and yet it was still very much the common room of an inn.
The tables and chairs might be covered with dust and spiderwebs—without any spiders—but there was a bar against the far wall and a staircase leading up. A single room seemed to lead off to another part of the inn, but most of the building was just this vast central space.
It should have been lively, Erin felt. She looked at the bar and imagined someone behind it, polishing a mug and serving a lovely cold drink of—
Erin’s longing sigh was accompanied by a third fit of coughing so long that she actually stumbled over to the door where it was pouring rain to gulp for air.
The dust! Her third assailant in this world was trying to kill her! Eyes streaming, Erin gulped for air. It was like she was breathing the stuff. She wiped at her face, coughed one more time, sneezed, then glared back at the inn.
“This place is going to kill me! I’m going to choke to death before the rain stops. Someone should clean it up!”
She looked around.
“…And I guess that someone is me.”
The young woman hesitated, but it was clear that if she tried to stay in this place for a few hours, let alone sleep the night, she’d probably attract every monster in ten miles by her coughing alone…if she didn’t suffocate in her sleep.
“Besides, this would make for a great place to explore from, and it’s got walls. I’m not going to find anything better, I bet. Then I…”
Her voice trailed off. Erin looked around and felt the unbelievable nature of what had happened building on her.
Do what? Where am I? What happened?
She fought off a wave of panic threatening to engulf her. No—she couldn’t panic. She couldn’t—Erin glanced at the pouring rain. It was muffling anything from outside, but she clamped her mouth shut.
She couldn’t scream. It was possible something could hear her through the downpour.
Don’t scream, don’t panic. Think. She wasn’t running for her life. She had to think. So the young woman forced herself to sit down at a table. She faced it, squared her shoulders, and adopted something like a reasonable posture.
“First things first. I should stay here. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know if this inn is safe—but it’s dusty. It’s got walls. So I explore. Also, I find something to clean all this stuff up with. I don’t want to use my shirt. Seems like a bad move, but I can’t breathe here without…okay. First steps. Pawn to E4. Pawn to C5. Sicilian Defense. Here we go.”
And with that, she got up and began to explore the inn. The first thing Erin actually did, before even venturing into other rooms, was check her pockets.
Most people went into their adventures well-equipped or with some nifty object that gave them an edge. Erin checked her pockets and found…nothing. If she’d known she was going to end 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 and the Dragon.
But she hadn’t planned this and, unfortunately, hadn’t even taken a phone. She’d been going to the bathroom!
Erin’s forehead wrinkled as she circumnavigated the common room first, checking the tables and chairs for something, anything. All she found was more dust.
It had been so fast. All she’d done was step into the bathroom and she’d been somewhere else. No flash of light, no wardrobe—did bathrooms count?
Apparently so, but it had been so sudden she felt like she’d been wronged, somehow. No mysterious voices, just bathroom teleportation. How?
Virtual reality? Very virtual if so, but it felt too real. No. Then—she was crazy?
Erin hoped not. However, the Goblins and Dragon made her feel there was only one reasonable, unreasonable explanation.
Magic. This was some kind of fantasy-land. Which meant she probably needed a sword or a wand. Or a magic sword.
But it became clear to her that the first thing that Erin needed was…a dustrag. And that became her first mission in this world. Get a dustrag and clean yourself a spot to sit.
It was proving to be a harder challenge than anticipated. There was nothing in the common room, even behind the bar, aside from a line of very dusty mugs. Erin hesitated before the door adjoining the bar and poked her head inside.
The young woman blinked at the semi-familiar sight. It was a kitchen alright; it had cutting boards built into the counters, a bunch of cupboards, and even a stove—a stone stove with a hatch to build a fire, nothing gas or electric.
The same for the ovens—she saw a giant, old-fashioned baker’s oven that led up to a presumed chimney. Here, at least, there were actual objects. A pot, cast-iron pan, and a few other utensils, including the world’s rustiest ladle, were all lying next to…
Erin found a bucket. It was not a dustrag, but you needed water to clean things, right? And she happened to have a fresh supply coming down right outside.
She grabbed the bucket and towed it outside to fill up. After a second, she ran inside and grabbed some of the old mugs she’d found and set them outside to catch more water. She might need it.
Encouraged, Erin went back to her dustrag hunt. She began opening cupboards in the kitchen, but just found plates, old utensils, what might have been more dust or disintegrated food—
Nothing cloth at all.
Erin gave up on her cupboard search and left the rest for later. Did you store dustrags in the kitchen? Maybe with towels, but she needed a pantry. She scoped out the rest of the ground floor but found nothing so handy.
Well, that only left 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. Given the size of the ground floor, the staircase to the second floor was…ominous, to say the least. It looked like the bones of some gigantic monster in the darkness.
Cautiously, Erin ascended. 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 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?”
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 were, wouldn’t it have tried to eat her already?
But this was a different kind of fear that held her heart. It was a child’s fear, 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—
Definitely a sound. Erin’s heart played 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 made 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 out many details. 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.
Erin took the dustrag, dropped it in the bucket of water, then slapped it over one table. The dull sound made her jump and look around, but nothing moved, so she took hold of the dustrag, dragged it along the table, and took all the dust and pushed it onto the floor.
Then she did another pass until she could see the wood grain beneath, a dark brown now that night was falling, and squeezed the cloth and dipped it in the bucket once more.
One dip turned the water dark grey, but rain meant that Erin had a lot of free water. Ironically, all the dust seemed to have prevented mold or other more clinging stains. A few passes of the dustrag, sending clumps and clouds of dust billowing onto the floor, and the table was mostly clean, if wet.
“Table’s done! That just leaves—um…”
Erin looked around and began to count the tables—and chairs—and floor—then decided to just clear one more table so maybe she could sleep on top. And maybe a few chairs. And since it was going fast and the rain wasn’t letting up, why not do all the tables?
Every time her bucket got so disgusting that it made the rag filthier than when it went in, 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 too. And once she’d finished with that, it only made sense to clean the bartop 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 reflecting 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!]
In the darkness, the girl cracked one eye open. She looked around and then sat up.
“…What was that?”