The inn was dark. That was because the world was dark, at least for the moment. Two moons hung in the sky, one light blue, the other pale green. But their soft light was obscured by a shifting layer of clouds overhead.
However, despite the late hour, one figure moved restlessly around the room. A young woman. Her progress left a trail in the dust as she walked. She paced from wall to wall, muttering to herself. Then she tripped over a chair.
Erin brushed dust off her pants and t-shirt in disgust. Well, her clothes were officially filthy now. Parts of her t-shirt were burned black, and her jeans had been cut by the Goblins’ knives. But that wasn’t important at the moment.
“Did I just level up?”
Erin stared up at the ceiling from her fallen position. She could have stood up, but that would have required effort. And besides, Erin was hungry, tired, and confused. Lying on the floor made her feel better. Even if the dust was getting in her hair.
Ordinarily, that would have been disgusting, but at the moment—
“Seriously? I leveled up? What is this, a game?”
Slowly, Erin pulled herself up into a squat. Then she put her head in her hands.
“No. No it can’t be. But a—a Dragon and Goblins and now leveling…this is another world, right? One like Dungeons and Dragons? Or—or a video game?”
She straightened and stood up. The world seemed to be spinning around her. Common sense? Who needed that? Nope. Just hand her a few fire-breathing Dragons and let her level up by cleaning tables. Yeah, that made sense.
“Right, right. Let’s recap. I’m in another world which is actually a video game. And there are monsters in this world, and I can level up by doing stuff. I even get skills, and when I do, a voice in my head—no, more like a thought appears that tells me I’ve accomplished a task.”
She nodded to herself.
“Yep. Makes complete sense…”
Her voice trailed off. Erin’s head lowered and then snapped back up.
“Like hell it does!”
Erin screamed and kicked a chair hard enough to send it flying into the air. The chair landed with a tremendous crash, which was satisfying to hear. Less satisfying, though, was Erin’s foot, which had hit the chair hard enough to jam every toe.
After screaming in pain and hopping around a bit, Erin sat at one of the tables and cried for a while. It wasn’t that she liked crying or did it a lot (usually). It just helped at the moment.
After about ten minutes of crying, Erin finally started choking back tears. She felt better, but quickly hit upon another problem when she went to wipe away her tears and snot and remembered there wasn’t any tissue paper nearby. So she used the rag.
The wet, disgusting rag. But it was better than her shirt. After that, Erin sat, staring at nothing in particular as the darkness surrounded her.
That was the last thing Erin said before she fell asleep. This time, there were no interruptions.
The next day hit Erin in the face. She groaned and sat up, head aching. Her neck felt twisted, and she was sore from lying on the floor. She still would have slept in longer if it weren’t for the sun and her stomach.
Hobbling around, Erin looked at the bright daylight streaming through one window. She shook her fist at the sunny opening in the wall and glared.
“This is why drapes were invented, you know.”
The window did not respond. Erin sighed. She was already talking to objects. Which was fine! She often cursed her invisible opponents when playing chess on the computer. Or talked to the chess pieces. She’d know she was insane if the window started speaking back.
Windows. These ones had no glass or curtains. They were square holes in the wall, but they did have shutters. Too bad Erin had chosen one of the open windows to nap underneath.
Without thinking, Erin’s hands went up to her head and came back covered in dirt and dust. Oh, right. She’d slept on the floor. The dirty floor where all the dust had gone.
Erin sat in a chair and buried her face in her hands. After a little while, her stomach growled louder.
“Got it. Message received.”
Groaning, the young woman eventually stood up. She stood, feeling her body protest the natural law of gravity, and sat down. That felt better, but then her stomach objected. Hunger and exhaustion warred, and hunger won out.
Erin got up, knowing she had to look for food. There wasn’t any in the inn; she hadn’t bothered checking the rest of the cupboards because why should she? Any food that had been around since the inn had been deserted was probably sentient and had legs by now.
So that only left the outside. But Erin hesitated as she put her hand on the door to the inn.
She shivered. The memory of yesterday returned, fresh and vivid, and her hands began to shake. Her burned arm flared in pain as the cuts on her legs itched and stung. Erin closed her eyes and took a breath. Yes, monsters. But—
“I’ll die here if I don’t find something to eat.”
So she opened the door. It wasn’t courage that made her do it, just the will to survive.
The day was so bright that Erin was blinded for a moment. She walked outside, shading her eyes. And then she stopped. Because a thought had struck her suddenly. Something she had realized but not taken to heart before.
“This—really is another world, isn’t it?”
It wasn’t the Goblins that convinced her. Or even the Dragon. You could imagine that, even if the burns and cuts still throbbed. People imagined aliens all the time. But what couldn’t be imagined, or, Erin thought, even faked, was this:
The clouds were too big. Erin Solstice looked up into the sky and realized it wasn’t just the clouds. The sky was too vast.
The sunlight was coming from beyond that incredible mountain range she had seen, and even now it had to fight through clouds surrounding those invisible peaks. The sky was so blue it hurt her soul, the kinds of beautiful colors that made her feel like it was a day to be remembered. Yet up, as she craned her head back, she could see clouds, even tiny, pinwheeling birds she could barely make out.
But the clouds were just too darn big. It wasn’t something Erin could explain, because she knew clouds were already vast. She had spent hours lying on her back, gazing up at the way a single one had so much depth to it, like a floating island in the sky.
These, though…Erin looked at a cloud floating overhead and realized it covered the entire grasslands, the entire basin she stood in, countless miles and the inn in one vast shadow. It was so high overhead she couldn’t understand it. She had seen airplanes flying through the sky, and she was certain that the highest ones she’d ever seen would be flying far below this single cloud.
It was larger than the entire plains. It was larger than the inn, a thousand times, ten thousand—a hundred thousand times over. Erin had visited Chicago, one of America’s biggest cities, and seen it sprawling from both the ground and from planes. You could fit that entire city up there and have more room still.
Erin’s knees shook as she looked up at a cloud the size of an island blowing through the sky. One second the world turned dark and she thought an entire world could be up there, hidden in that beautiful cloud, grey and white blowing across the world.
Then it passed, and the sun shone down on her and warmed her skin, and Erin knew. She looked around and began breathing again.
Presently, Erin came back down to earth and realized there was some trickery going on on the ground as well as the sky.
For instance, all those hills and valleys? Only now did she realize what an optical illusion they created. From one of the tallest hills, she could finally identify how difficult it would be to see anything from down below.
“It’s all hills and valleys! No wonder I couldn’t find anything last night!”
If you walked carelessly, you could lose track of your surroundings and find yourself in a valley thousands of feet wide. And it was all mostly uniform, only a few flowers and rocks breaking up the tyranny of grass.
However, not green. Erin had to believe it was autumn, here. It had not been in her world—to her knowledge, it should have been around the end of July, or August at the latest. She might have forgotten the day. And month. But the grasslands were not the green she expected—instead, the grass was slowly changing color in places, moving from green to orange and even into purple in places. It was yellow running into dusky red in wavy patterns, like bands of color appearing over the landscape.
It was beautiful and, perhaps, the first thing to make Erin smile in this world. And it was also a landmark.
The plains stretched on and on without pause, which meant that you could easily lose track of where you were. But if she knew that following that band of orange led her close to this inn…
“Just so long as the grass doesn’t change color overnight, I might have a shot. Looks like it goes purple-orange-yellow and runs right next to the inn. So I can follow that back! Follow the purple-orange-yellow grass road!”
She laughed with relief. No fear of forgetting that particular pattern of colors, either. There were very similar swathes all around her, but she had a good memory. That was to say, she’d forget what day it was and if she was wearing socks, but she didn’t forget what really mattered. Like chess moves. Or this, she hoped.
Then Erin realized she could see something else from her vantage point.
Erin stopped as she started to pick out small details on the horizon. Far, far in the distance between the mountain range and the rising sun, she saw what looked vaguely like buildings. No, a wall of stone? Was there a town out there? Or a village? A…city?
It was impossible to tell from where she was standing, but the sight of that gave Erin hope that she wasn’t alone in this world. However, just the thought of travelling that far on her empty stomach was impossible, so she kept looking. The next thing that caught her eye made her heart pound with excitement.
Erin squinted. There was a small collection of trees in the distance, nestled in one of the valleys. They were trees, weren’t they? Erin felt they looked off—until she realized she was looking down at them from her vantage point.
It was surreal to feel herself looking down on a forest, but that was the only answer she could think of. It looked like there was a small—well, relatively speaking—valley to the east filled with trees. It didn’t seem too far away, and if Erin looked closely, she could see small specks of yellow and blue on the trees. Fruit?
There was only one way to find out. And so she began to walk in that direction, her legs and stomach overriding her cautious brain. She needed food. It wasn’t hard to walk down the gently sloping hills, and although it was less fun to walk back up the hills, at least Erin could do all of it at a meandering walk. The grass was soft under her shoes, and she had good footing. It was…peaceful. Deceptively peaceful.
In the back of her mind, Erin remembered the Goblins. Okay, maybe they weren’t Goblins, but what else could they be? They were strange, deformed children that looked like twisted versions of Humans with sharp noses, sharp teeth, little knives, and—
Goblins. And Erin remembered that they’d found her as she was running, singed and bewildered, from the Dragon.
She almost turned around, but she needed food. If worse came to worst, Erin reasoned that she could grab some of the fruit things and run back to the inn.
That was the plan. It was the plan right up until Erin found herself walking by a huge rock.
There was nothing too important about the rock, except that it was more like a boulder, a gigantic mound of stone rounded at the top like a small hill. It was twice as tall as a normal person and just as long across. In short, it was a big rock.
However, if Erin had thought about it, she might have wondered why a giant rock was right here. Suspiciously free of any other small stones and far less craggy and worn down than she might expect. Moss did cling to it in parts, but it was oddly free of any lichen near the base. But she didn’t think about such small details.
Erin ignored the rock completely, only stopping to wonder if it would provide her an even better vantage point to see around her if she climbed up. But she was hungry, so she walked right past it. It was that which saved her.
As she put the large boulder behind her, Erin felt the whoosh of air and a terrifyingly loud crack right next to her ear. She jumped, turned around, and screamed. She dove forwards as the second pincer nearly took her head clean off.
The thing that had been hiding underneath the rock lifted it up off the ground and scurried after Erin as she sprinted away. She spared only one glance over her shoulder, but that was enough. She ran even faster.
Two large, long pincers made out of a dark brown chitin were poking out from beneath the rock as the crab-monster scuttled towards her. It had lifted the gigantic, hollow shell enough so that Erin could see countless tiny crab legs tearing up the earth as it propelled itself along the ground.
It was a crab, but it was all wrong. Two long, curved eye-stalks had appeared—and the giant pincers snapping and trying to tear her to bits. Oh—and it was also taller than a school bus, if not as wide.
Erin didn’t scream as she ran. She couldn’t waste her breath. All the air in her body was devoted to keeping her running as fast as she could as she charged downhill.
Something huge missed Erin’s back, but she felt the wind as it passed by. She sped up even faster, but it sounded like it was right behind her. The giant crab was making a sound as it ran after her too, a loud clicking that sounded like gunshots going off next to Erin’s head.
So she ran faster. She thought she would be dead every next second, but she realized that the loud sounds of pursuit were dying down. Eventually, the clicking stopped, and Erin realized she couldn’t hear anything behind her. She stopped and turned to see a rock with many legs slowly moving back across the plains.
Erin could only gasp and clutch at her side. She felt like her legs were about to fall off and her lungs were about to burst. She was also lightheaded, but she really didn’t want to sit down.
Instead, she forced herself to keep walking. It hurt. Everything hurt. But she was still alive, crabs or no crabs.
Erin tried to smile. Her legs ached, but eventually, she got her breathing back under control. And even better, she was at her destination.
“Is—is that a tree?”
Erin gaped up at the strange plants before her. They were probably trees. They had bark, leaves, and fruit. But in each aspect, they were slightly—off.
The tree in front of her was thin beyond belief. It was about ten feet tall, which wasn’t very high for a tree, but the trunk was thinner than she was! And the branches were as thin as Erin’s arms and tapered off to fine points that still held leaves and, apparently, didn’t snap in the wind.
The leaves were huge, too. Big, green leaves closer to palm leaves than ones Erin might expect. However, they had that classic leaf shape, not like a maple, and they seemed thick.
Given such trees, Erin would have expected to find a bunch of branches from the decent breeze and rainfall of last night. She was used to seeing downed branches from trees in her neighborhood after big rainstorms, but to her vague surprise, she saw almost no leaves on the ground, or branches. Or fruit.
“Weird. Grey bark, green leaves, blue fruit. Who dropped the paint bucket on this thing? And why is it so…tough?”
She had gone to snap off a low-hanging branch but found that she could barely bend the thin branch, even when she held on with all her weight.
The trees were as strong as could be! What interested Erin more than the aesthetics was the edibility of the fruit. And the reachability.
Most of the blue fruits on each of the trees were clustered around the top branches. There were yellow fruits lower down, but since they were smaller, they were probably also unripe. Hesitantly, Erin grabbed a branch, and after testing her weight on it a few times, tried to pull herself up.
Her arms shook as she strained to get off the ground. After a few seconds, Erin got her chin above the branch, but no further. After another second, she had to let go.
Erin landed on the ground and stared up at the tantalizing blue fruits, just out of reach. If she weren’t so hungry and tired…she’d still probably never get up that high.
“Is this how I die? Starving to death because I can’t do a pull-up?”
No. That was stupid. But the more Erin thought about it…
Erin jumped and managed to pull herself halfway up the first branch through sheer desperation. But her arms gave out, and she fell on her back with a whumph that knocked the air out of her.
Erin’s shouts of frustration echoed in the small valley. She tried to grab the branch again, but she couldn’t even pull herself up anymore. She screamed in frustration, grabbed at her dirty hair, and then kicked the tree.
The entire tree shook slightly with the force of Erin’s kick. The leaves trembled, and the blue fruits moved—
And one fell to the ground.
Erin stared at the round, slightly fuzzy blue fruit. Then she looked up at the tree. Without a word, she grabbed the fruit. Then she looked around expectantly.
“Um, shouldn’t there be some kind of announcement?”
No response. Erin kicked the tree again and picked up another fruit.
“[Mysterious Blue Fruit acquired!] Dun dun dun dun!”
After a little bit, Erin put her head in her hands to cover her blush.
“…I hate this world.”
He woke up with a scream, which was hugely embarrassing. When he would inevitably meet his end, the Dragon had resolved himself to go out with dignity befitting his nature.
He’d even come up with a speech (then forgotten where he’d put it). Screaming in front of the adventurer or hero was not how he wanted to die.
But he couldn’t help it. The sight of someone appearing in front of him? For a second, he’d opened his eyes and thought he was dreaming or…remembering.
Then the Dragon had realized the young woman was indeed real, and she had entered his cave without setting off any of the hundreds—literal hundreds—of protective spells supposed to warn him or buy him a moment’s time.
Of course, in the next moment, hundreds of alarms had begun blaring in his ears that his lair was compromised and he was about to die.
So yes, he’d screamed. Maybe exhaled a bit of flame in shock; if he’d been truly in control of his faculties, the first thing he would have done would be to blow pure Dragonfire at any intruder in the vague hope it would work.
It often did. However, in this case, it had been more like…an exhalation of the noblest of gasses in surprise. A tiny tongue of flame which obviously hadn’t been aimed at the young woman as he tried to crawl to safety and fly at the same time, while also activating his emergency teleportation spell. Then he’d crashed into a wall, and by the time he picked himself up, she was gone.
An advance scout? Possibly a sacrificial decoy. The Dragon knew he was dead in moments if his foes were cunning.
Who was it? That Necromancer? One of his kin? [Knights]? A random [Hero]?
He had no idea. But the Dragon hadn’t wasted time figuring it out. He’d activated his teleport spell and been gone from his lair in moments.
At least he’d remembered that. His backup location was far less convenient and arguably far more dangerous—for most people. But as his wealth, his hoard of treasures showered down around him, the Dragon looked around and realized he wasn’t being pursued.
Not that he didn’t spend the next two days checking every magical channel and re-fortifying his new cave. He didn’t get a wink of sleep. Worse, she picked up his contingency [Message] and sent him a dozen questions by spell, asking if he were alright and what had happened.
“Just a coincidence? An accident? I don’t know, and I didn’t get anything to latch onto. Whomever it is, they’re gone. I—I shall be watchful.”
The Dragon snapped back and continued checking for signs of pursuit. But when none were apparent, even two weeks later, he had to then wonder if it had been an accident.
An accident that carried someone into his cave? Maybe some magical…disturbance at the Academy? There were stranger things that had happened. When he replayed his memories, she seemed as surprised as he.
Naturally, he didn’t put anything to chance and continued fortifying and getting accustomed to his new hideout. He hated the location, the neighbors, and the complications for anyone visiting, but it might be safer.
“At least, from strange young women appearing out of nowhere. She had to have been the subject of—of some chance. Maybe a [Gambler] or whatnot. Otherwise, I would be either dead or have been contacted by whomever it was. It cannot be Demons; they’re far too unsubtle. Who else? If it was the Quarass, I’d be dead. Djinni smell of magic. And that leaves…my kin, who wouldn’t do that.”
His brow wrinkled as he tried to figure it out. He truly had no idea. Well, he would keep checking, and if he didn’t sense any pursuit, he might put it down to the random causality of events.
Besides, he realized that there was one small, small silver lining to this entire debacle. The intrusion into his lair had woken him up, and he feared he wouldn’t sleep for another year. But until he did, he could do some housekeeping.
Glumly, the Dragon consulted his notes.
“That time again? Two hundred years already? I might as well. It’s courteous.”
He made a huge face and yawned. Distastefully, but there was such a thing as manners. Sullenly, he reached out to the nearest city he could find and made a few arrangements. Then he settled back.
He was already dozing by the end of the third day. He was tired. And such obligations as he had left in life? There were very few. The only thing he had left was pride. Pride, waiting for the last young woman or whomever it was to appear. He had a speech…somewhere…
And a few social obligations to uphold. That was all. The Dragon slept once more.