The fruit in her hands was blue, probably a fruit, and pretty large. Erin had seen monster apples before in stores, the weirdly expensive ones that were three times as big as their smaller cousins. That was about the size of the blue fruit.
Her stomach rumbled just looking at it. Erin raised the fruit to her mouth, then hesitated.
“…Am I going to die?”
It was a good question. Erin studied the fruit in her hand. She sniffed it cautiously. It smelled faintly…sweet. She poked it. Tender. Probably succulent. Then she licked the outside.
Maybe it would be better to peel it after all. Maybe it was actually some kind of alien monster she was holding, and if she bit it, she’d be eating a mouthful of guts and blood. That thought made Erin hesitate for a few moments before she started peeling it away.
“It’s like a peach. Not a monster, not a monster…”
Erin peeled off the outer layer of blue fruit and found the inside of the fruit was a purplish-blue. The juice ran to the ground and smelled…Erin’s stomach grumbled, but she’d found something else that caught her attention.
“That is the biggest seed I’ve ever seen. There’s more seed here than fruit!”
Erin held up the core of the blue fruit, which was indeed a seed core two-thirds the size of the blue fruit itself. The shell was a stained purple-brown, but Erin felt something sloshing about inside when she shook it.
“Okay, time to see what’s inside.”
She’d need a rock for that. Erin transferred the seed core to her other hand and stood up. As she did, she squeezed the core gently.
Fragile. The brown shell split open and disgorged a mess of pulpy seeds and brown juice onto Erin’s pants and the ground. She stared at the mess in silence until the pungent odor hit her nose—an incredibly powerful chemical smell similar to antifreeze or some kind of cleaning product.
Slowly, Erin stood up and brushed the seed vomit off her clothes. That did nothing to get rid of the smell, though. Then she picked up the pieces of the seed’s core and hurled them as hard as she could against one of the trees.
“I hate this world!”
After a while, her stomach began to growl again as the smell from the seed pod dissipated in the morning air. Hesitantly, Erin grabbed the second blue fruit and brought it to her lips. She had taken care to not get any of the seed pod’s innards on her hands, and she wasn’t about to eat the first fruit.
She didn’t know much about herb lore or good fruits or bad ones, but just the smell of the seed core’s innards had convinced Erin it was unwise to try. The actual fruit on the other hand…
This time, she bit into the outer skin and chewed. The texture was unpleasantly rubbery and tough to chew, but thankfully it was edible. And what was more—
The pure, sugary taste that rushed into Erin’s mouth put her in mind of blueberries. Only—the blue fruit was a bit tougher, so maybe a strawberry? A strawberry that someone sprinkled sugar on and had the taste of blueberries. In short—
“Wow. This tastes really good!”
That was the remark Erin made after she’d consumed eight more of the blue fruits, all in rapid succession. The seed pods she left untouched on the ground, but she happily devoured the outer rinds, stripping an entire tree clean before she was finally full.
Groaning with satisfaction, she sat back against the tree. She felt good. Sticky and smelly, true, but good. The day was fair and warm, and with her stomach full and the soft grass beneath her, there was only one thought on her mind.
Maybe it was something in the fruits that triggered it, or maybe it was just long overdue. Either way, Erin was suddenly, keenly aware of a certain need pressing at her. Erin sighed and stood back up.
“Nature calls. I hate nature.”
She walked behind the nearest tree and then around it. There wasn’t much…cover here, but she really had to go.
“Well, what am I hiding from anyways?”
Erin thought about that for a moment then deliberately edged around the trunk until the sun was out of view. That made her feel better.
A few seconds later, Erin felt refreshed and happy. Her stomach was full, other parts were empty, and best yet, she was alive.
“Now, how am I going to get back past that crab rock-monster?”
Erin’s stomach twisted unpleasantly at the thought, and her heart began to pound in her chest. But an idea struck her as she looked at the countless seed pods on the ground.
The large, duplicitous rock seemed more and more out of place the more Erin looked at it. If she’d been able to think past her hunger before, she’d have wondered how such a large stone made it all the way to the grasslands without being eroded by the elements. Well, that stupid crab-creature was clearly one of the predators in this world.
And it was quick. Erin didn’t want to run away again, so she really hoped this plan of hers would work. Did crabs have noses? Probably not, but she really hoped they could still smell.
Slowly, Erin walked forward. The rock remained motionless. Well, that was fine.
Erin picked up a small stone and hurled it at the rock. It bounced off.
She waited. The rock didn’t shift so much as an inch.
Erin picked up another, larger stone and threw it against the rock. She wasn’t a good shot, so the rock glanced off the side. Again, there was no response.
“Uh, is…is this the right rock?”
Erin looked around. No other suspicious large rocks in sight. But it wasn’t doing anything.
“Get closer…no, that’s stupid.”
She eyed the rock again. Well, if it wasn’t going to move…
Erin turned away. She’d circle around. Far around. She began walking away.
It was such a small sound. But it made her freeze and then whirl around.
Erin caught the rock crab crawling towards her stealthily. In just a few seconds, it had covered nearly twenty feet. She stared in horror as it reared upwards.
The rock crab began its high-speed shuffle towards her. Two enormous claws and a pair of dark eyes curled up from underneath the rock again.
Erin stepped back, half-turned to run, and remembered what was in her other hand. She took swift aim and threw the seed pod she had been holding.
Bullseye. The seed core smacked the rock crab right on the antenna and burst into a shower of pulpy liquid. Even at this range, Erin could smell the toxic odors on the breeze.
If she were honest, Erin didn’t know what she expected. Pain or shock from the rock crab, maybe. She’d nailed it pretty good on the antenna, and she was sure that had to hurt. But still, it wasn’t as if the seed cores were that heavy. She expected the crab to recoil and maybe get scared off by the scent at best.
What she didn’t expect was for the crab to freak out and start smashing itself with one of its claws. It was panicking, frantically scraping away at the spot she’d struck with the seed core, ignoring the damage it was doing to its own antenna. At the same time, the rock crab was making distressed sounds.
It sounded like the loudest cricket in the world, only a lot deeper and echoing out from beneath the rocky shell the crab was wearing. That was enough to make Erin back up until she was back among the trees and the crab was barely visible.
Even after she’d gone a ways away, she could still see the crab doing an unhappy dance as it tried to scrape off the seed pod fragments.
Erin scratched her head.
“Well, it’s good to know they hate fruit.”
Speaking of which…Erin decided to get more of the delicious blue fruits. As many as she could carry, in fact. Blue was now the color of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and she only wished she had more hands. Could she make a basket somehow…? Out of grass?
She kicked at a tuft of the stuff.
“…That’s a stupid idea.”
How about her shirt then, or pants? But that was a bit…well, there was no one around to see her except the rock crabs, right? Even so.
“Too bad I’m not a streaker, huh?”
Erin addressed that comment to a nearby patch of grass. The grass said nothing in reply.
With a sigh, Erin walked away. She slowly crested a small hill and found herself looking down on the fruit orchard once more.
She also found herself looking at several short, green creatures that had appeared in her absence. They were kicking trees and harvesting the blue fruits that fell to the ground.
They were instantly familiar to her, of course, but the transfixed Human got a good look at them again. They were short, four feet tall at most, possibly even shorter. Almost like children, although their heads were too big.
That was because of all the teeth. But they wore ragged loincloths and were grunting and poking one another. Erin saw pointed ears, scabs from some healing wounds, and as one glanced up and saw her and froze—she saw two crimson, glowing eyes.
For a few seconds, they didn’t see her. Then one of them looked up and saw the slack-jawed Human staring their way. He made a shrill noise, and the others looked around.
The nearest creature took a step towards her. He looked harmless. For a moment. Then he bared his incredibly sharp teeth and drew a knife. His friends did likewise. They advanced on the young woman.
The young woman, for her part, stared in horror for two more seconds and then pointed one finger. She opened her mouth and screamed.
The green-skinned monsters stopped and stared as the young woman screamed and took off, running at top speed. But they followed her doggedly despite the insane speed at which she sprinted. These Goblins had learned to hunt other species and knew that Humans panicked easily and grew tired. They’d catch her as soon as she slowed down.
…Assuming she ever slowed down.
It was evening. The sun cast long shadows across the plains. All was silent. Aside from the screaming rock crab smashing itself in the head and the screaming Human, there was no sound in the world.
All was calm.
A single figure sprinted across the grasslands. She was running as fast as she could. Behind her, a group of squat creatures followed. It was nearly dinnertime.
Erin Solstice, aged 20. A young woman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a casual interest in video games and a deep obsession with strategy games. Her hobbies include snow tubing, watching YouTube videos, playing chess, shogi, go, etc. She dreams of one day becoming a professional board game commentator.
Running for her life.
Erin found a stream running down a hill a few hundred feet away from the inn. Its position and relative size meant it was the perfect place for her to gather water or even wash herself should the need arise. All things considered, it was an idyllic windfall of a discovery.
She took three steps, leapt, cleared the stream in one jump, and hit the ground running. The stream kept flowing as she left it rapidly behind. Not once did Erin look back, although her throat was burning.
She was still being chased.
By Goblins. They swarmed after her, wading through the stream despite the strong current. And though they were small, their bodies were wiry and their dirty arms muscled. And they all carried weapons.
Generally, they wore daggers or short swords, but Erin had spotted what looked like a meat cleaver on one of them. She was too busy running to get a good look, but if they were like the ones she had met yesterday, the weapons were rusty, stained with dried blood and crusty substances, and sharp.
That, combined with the Goblins’ faces, made them terrifying. Normal Goblins were supposed to look ugly, but not dangerous. In video games, Erin had always seen them depicted as short, man-like creatures with beaky noses, pointed ears, and ugly faces. But these Goblins…
Pointy ears? Check.
Ugly face? Check.
Their noses weren’t too pointed, but they were definitely carrots compared to potatoes as noses went. But what really scared Erin were their teeth.
They had two rows of teeth. Like sharks. They had blood red eyes, like monsters in nightmares. Glowing red eyes. And they screamed as they chased her.
It didn’t sound like normal screaming. Erin was used to hearing screams, but they only came out of Humans. The sound the Goblins made wasn’t a continuous sound but a kind of ululating noise that seemed to grow louder the longer they yelled.
It made Erin break out into a cold sweat, and she pumped her legs even faster to charge up the hill. She was in one of the valleys, but she knew she was headed straight for the inn. She just had to get there and, and—
That’s where they’d kill her. Erin would get to the inn, and they’d surround it, break in somehow, and tear her to shreds. But what other choice did she have? None. She couldn’t run forever.
Already, Erin felt like someone was twisting a knife into her side, and she was gasping for air. She was no athlete. The only reason she was still ahead of the Goblins by a good bit was because they were short. She also guessed they were letting her use up all her energy before closing in for the kill.
Erin crested the hill, stumbled, caught herself, and saw the inn’s dark brown walls only a hundred feet away. She dashed towards it, throwing all of her energy into a desperate sprint.
The Goblins’ voices had faded a bit by the time she burst through the inn’s doorway and slammed it shut. But she knew they were only minutes away at best, so Erin stood up despite the agony in her chest and legs.
The door had a metal bar that could be slid to prevent it from being opened. Erin did that and then looked around. Windows. The common room had so many windows.
“Oh, you’ve got to be—”
She didn’t waste time on the rest of her sentence. Erin dashed over to one window and slammed the wooden shutters closed. Then she fumbled with the latch. It was a cheap bit of metal, but it might buy her a few seconds.
Erin sped around the room, fighting to close the windows as the Goblins’ shouting grew louder and louder. She slammed shut the last window and let out a huge sigh of relief. Then she remembered that the inn had a second floor.
The mysterious darkness of the second floor that had terrified Erin the night before didn’t even slow her steps as she dashed up the stairs. She ran in and out of each room as fast as she could, closing windows. While some of the mantles had succumbed to the rot, all of the shutters were mostly intact. She’d hear if they were being smashed in, at least.
Erin ran into the room at the end of the corridor and stopped when she saw the skeleton in the last bed. But even that didn’t slow her much, and she closed the windows just in time to hear the Goblins start pounding on the door downstairs.
They didn’t get in that way. But as Erin sped down the stairs, she heard one of the shutters break. And then another.
The first Goblin squeezed through a window as Erin stood petrified. The second and third were right behind him.
Erin backed up. The first Goblin came at her as his fellows spread out behind him. There were five—no, seven of them.
Her legs were shaking. Erin tried to turn over a table, but the Goblin was too quick. He lunged forward, and she fell backwards with a small scream. He laughed and jumped for her, knife swinging.
Erin rolled backwards and felt a stinging cut on her leg. She scrambled to her feet and looked down.
Blood. It ran down her leg from the cut in two wavy lines. She looked back at the Goblin and saw his grinning face.
It was a similar grin. Or smile. Or expression, really. But to Erin, it was the same face. The same as a Human’s. Mocking. Confident. The kind of face young men—
He licked at the blood on his knife. Erin’s face froze. The fear that had been bubbling inside her turned in an instant to anger. The Goblin didn’t notice and ran for her, still grinning.
Erin’s leg shot up. She didn’t kick. It was just a lightning-fast shot right between the legs. She could have sworn she heard something crunch.
The Goblin’s face, which had been so full of malicious glee, froze up. He turned pale, made a high-pitched keening sound, and toppled over.
The other Goblins stared in shock at their friend. Erin stared in shock too, but had the presence of mind to grab a chair before they could react. She raised it threateningly.
“Well? Come on!”
Erin swung the chair like a club. The Goblins ducked underneath it and advanced on her, swinging low.
A lucky blade slashed Erin’s leg, and she cried out in pain. Instantly, she brought the chair up and over her head and smashed the Goblin flat.
In movies, the chair would break off, leaving Erin with the stumps in her hands. In reality, the impact made her hands sting, but the chair didn’t so much as creak. The Goblin, on the other hand, screamed a lot.
His fellows backed up as Erin held the chair up for another swing. Her leg was bleeding badly from the cut, but she was more mad than scared at this point. Plus, she had a chair. All they had were knives.
In fact, she had more than one chair.
Erin tossed the chair at one Goblin and clipped him on the head as he ducked. He fell down too, and meanwhile, Erin had grabbed another chair. She used it like a shield, jabbing the legs at the nearest Goblin and forcing him back.
Faced with an unexpected threat, the others split up and tried to circle around Erin. Accordingly, she tried not to let them. But even if they were surprisingly fragile, they were quick and hard to hit. Before long, the remaining four Goblins were all around Erin, peering under tables, feinting at her from behind unheld chairs.
Erin tossed her chair again and, again, missed. But as the Goblins ducked, she turned around and fled for the stairs. She had longer legs, but they were quick too and surged after her as she jumped up the stairs two at a time.
The fastest Goblin was hot on her heels, cackling with that strange laughter as he swiped at the back of her legs. Erin ignored the bleeding and hit the top of the stairs with the Goblin right behind her. He laughed evilly.
And stopped when he realized it was just him and the Human female at the top of the stairs. He looked up. The big Human female made a fist.
The fourth Goblin crashed down the stairs, face a bloody mess. The remaining three Goblins looked up at the young woman standing above them and hesitated. But she was prey. Prey didn’t fight back!
One threw a knife. It hit Erin in the stomach point first, but the toss was so weak it barely penetrated her skin. She ignored it and leapt down the stairs.
Two hands on the handrail let Erin swing her legs up. She was no gymnast, but rage gave her a moment of athletic inspiration. Both her feet crashed into the face of the knife-throwing Goblin.
He screamed and clutched at his broken, bleeding nose. His two friends ran back as Erin landed on the ground. The bleeding Goblin waved his knife at Erin. She slapped him.
Crack. It was a good slap, the kind that made Erin’s hand go numb. The Goblin fell down, stunned, and his hand let go of his knife.
Erin stared at it. Then, before the other two Goblins could move, she grabbed it. And when she stood up, she had a very different expression on her face.
The remaining Goblins looked at her. They weren’t just two, not really. Their friends hadn’t been knocked out, just hurt. Already, they were getting up while clutching their bruised heads and bodies. However…
The Human female was facing them, knife in hand. She didn’t look as frightened as she had been before. In fact, she looked quite angry. That wasn’t good. She seemed suddenly bigger, and the Goblins were keenly aware that she had just beaten two-thirds of their number in a matter of seconds.
And she had a knife.
The Goblins stared at Erin. She stared back. Now they were all awake and upright, but they didn’t seem to be about to attack. In fact, they seemed sort of nervous.
Erin stared at them. They stared at her. Her eyes began to water, but she didn’t dare blink. But she had to do something, right?
The Goblins shrieked and ran. They crashed out of the broken windows and ran as if pursued by demons.
Erin stayed where she was for quite some time, hands still half-raised. Eventually, she lowered them.
She wanted to scratch her head, but nearly stabbed her eye out with a knife. Carefully, Erin put the knife on a table and then sat in the nearest chair. Her legs had lost all strength.
Erin coughed and then chuckled again.
Her chest hurt. Her arms hurt. Her legs hurt. Actually, her entire body hurt. She felt like she was dying. But.
“I can’t even laugh properly right now. Hahahahahaha…ha?”
And then she did laugh. She started laughing as she sat with her back against the table, bleeding onto the inn’s dirty floor. She laughed and laughed until tears were in her eyes. And as she closed her eyes, she smiled. Then she bumped her cuts and stopped smiling. But she still slept.
[Innkeeper Level 4!]
“…Hey. What happened to levels 2 and 3?”
The last of the Goblin warriors fled the fearsome Human in a rush. It had only been seven of them in total, hardly an actual raiding group even for their tiny tribe.
Even so—seven Goblins versus one Human without a weapon? They should have killed her. That they hadn’t was bad.
Bad for many reasons that even the littlest Goblin, crouched and watching the inn from afar, could understand. She and two others were so small and young that they weren’t even warriors; her weapon was a basket, and it had been full of blue fruits until the chase.
Deadly, dangerous blue fruits that could kill you foaming-mouth-dead. But they were so hungry, the Goblins would take that risk. They were so hungry, eating Human sounded good.
And now they were hungry, hurt, and embarrassed. The Goblins snarled as they limped away. They didn’t talk to the littlest Goblin, just grunted and pointed and made the smaller ones get their baskets and go back for actual food they could take back to the tribe.
The little Goblin ducked a swat from one holding his crotch and fled. She didn’t know the name of Injured Crotch, but that was now his nickname in her mind. Goblins didn’t have names. Only their [Chieftain] had any real title, and he was scariest of all.
The seven Goblin warriors were so irate at their loss they jabbed the smaller Goblins to hurry up until they got back to the trees. Then they sat down, tried to rub dirt or spit onto their injuries, and pointed with huge growls at the trees.
The little Goblins had to kick the trees and collect the fruits. The smallest one was so hungry she took a bite from the sweet blue fruit and got hit again by one of the older Goblins. He snarled. She wasn’t allowed to eat here! He kicked the blue fruit away savagely and gestured emphatically to hurry up.
The Goblin warriors were looking around—nervously. The giant thing that hid under rocks might come back. Or something else seeking to kill Goblins. Which might be…anything.
The little Goblin sniffed as she covered her head, but grabbed as many ripe fruits as she could. Then she had to run with the basket back to their tribe.
Their tribe was a lot of Goblins in a cave. It was small, so narrow you had to roll under a rocky opening and crawl forwards until it grew tall enough to stand.
There was no light here except a few cracks in the ceilings, but the little Goblin could still see just fine. It was wet here after all the rain, and it smelled of poo.
But it was safe from big monsters and other things. Even if the [Chieftain] sometimes got stuck going in and out, this place was far safer than outside.
The little Goblin had no idea when the tribe had gotten here. Nor why they were here. She was only…young. No one explained things to her. The older Goblins mostly hit her and made her do things. That was how they were taught, but the little Goblin thought she was seven sticks, three rocks, and two leaves old.
She’d been counting. But she didn’t know numbers above ten. The only Goblin so wise, who could even speak words and read them, was the [Chieftain].
He was mad again. He sat, twice as big as any other Goblin, snarling at anyone around him while he waited for a smoky fire to warm a bit of food. The littlest Goblin’s stomach growled as she saw it.
A dead deer. The [Chieftain] had found food! All the Goblins were watching hungrily, but the [Chieftain] would eat first. Then, the little Goblin hoped, there would be at least bones, but possibly some hot meat.
The fruits were placed next to the deer carcass, but the [Chieftain] snarled and kicked the fruits away. The Goblins were made to take them away from the precious meat and remove the little bad things.
The small Goblin had no idea why, only that it was bad. Bad-death. She wished…someone would explain. But only the [Chieftain] knew.
He had taught them numbers. So he could tell them to get ten blue fruits each. Learning to count was amazing. The little Goblin had counted teeth, flies, Goblins—until the [Chieftain] kicked dirt at her.
But then she’d been counting days she’d been awake and realized she didn’t have more than ten, and she had been awake more than ten days, right?
It had been a big puzzle. So, to forget her hungry, rumbling stomach, the littlest Goblin with no name sat in her sleeping spot and looked at her big idea.
She counted one thing with leaves. Then, when she had ten leaves…she put down a rock instead. And that meant ten leaves. And if she had ten rocks, that meant it was now a stick. Paradoxically, she had decided grass was bigger than a stick by ten again, even though blades of grass were smaller in size than sticks. Otherwise she’d lose track of all the itty bitty pieces of grass that could get blown around. She had not needed a piece of grass yet, but she was looking forwards to getting a nice purple stem to count with.
That was how she thought she’d seen seven sticks, three rocks, and two leaves of sun. She’d counted backwards to figure that out, but she thought it made sense. The rains had been falling a lot when she was born, and they fell regularly. At least—they had twice already, after it got really cold.
The cold. The little Goblin shivered. That would be a bad time. It was wet now, but it could get wetter. And she was hungry. She looked back and saw that the tribe was eating. She sprang up and ran forwards, but there were only scraps already, and so she had only a single mouthful of bloody meat and half a fruit.
This was the little Goblin’s life. She sat, listening to her [Chieftain] growling, an echo of her tummy. She curled up as he demanded to know why his warriors were hurt.
They didn’t tell him. And the other Goblins didn’t either because the [Chieftain] would be very mad to know they’d let a single Human live. So he just hit them and made them look for more things to eat.
The little Goblin sat there and watched the [Chieftain] out of the corner of her eye. He sat there, a scowl on his face. Angry. Always angry. But the other Goblins were like that. Angry. Or they woke up and slept and ate.
She didn’t know why, but they were missing something. When, rarely, they stole something very nice like the colorful water, the [Chieftain] would get happy and then angrier still, or quiet. And he would do what no other Goblin did and talk. And he would say there should be more Goblins. A bigger cave. And the Goblins would listen to him until he scattered them with a fist or one of his great weapons, an axe made out of bone.
He spoke for the first time in two rocks and one grass as the little Goblin listened. Two words. The [Chieftain] looked around and growled as he wiped blood and spat fur from his mouth.
But what that was, the little Goblin had no idea. And he said nothing more, so she went back to counting the steps to the blue fruit trees with her grass and rocks. She thought of the strange Human in the big wooden thing. And she wondered if that meant anything different would happen.
Less blue fruits to eat, probably.
Amentus Fruit (Blue Fruit) Trees by Enuryn