The next morning, the young woman sat in a chair and pondered. It seemed stupid. No, it was stupid. But there could be only one explanation.
“When you level in dreams, you level in real life?”
Erin thought about that for a moment.
She sat in the chair for a few more minutes. Those minutes turned into half an hour and then nearly a full hour before her stomach grumbled.
After another hour, Erin decided to get up. Her body protested the movement, but her stomach overruled her legs. She got up and reluctantly stumbled out the door.
Her legs hurt. As she stepped outside, Erin felt at the back of her legs and winced.
“Right. Knife cuts.”
She should wash those. If she had water. But since she didn’t and the wounds were already scabbed over, Erin left them and started walking.
It was a long, long walk back to the fruit trees. Erin was only glad she remembered where they were. She was even gladder that there weren’t any suspicious rocks along her route, but that only made her warier. Could they burrow? Were there grass crabs?
If there were, they didn’t seem interested in her at the moment. Erin found the strange, spindly trees easily and picked an armful of blue fruits. She was glad they were bountiful with the blue orbs, and gladder still the Goblins hadn’t stripped them bare. But it was a veritable orchard here, so she gathered as many as she could.
Erin sat and ate fourteen. It wasn’t that she was hungry so much as really thirsty. She sucked as much of the blue juice out of the fruits before gathering as many as she could carry and walked back to the inn. The seed cores she left where they lay.
…Actually, now that she thought of it…
Erin doubled back and grabbed two seed cores and placed them carefully on top of her stack of blue fruits.
“Just in case. I should also get a bow and arrow or something, right? Too bad I have no idea how to shoot anything. Or have any idea how to carve a bow. You carve bows, right?”
Erin thought about that as she walked back over the sloping ground, taking care not to trip and break the seed cores. How would she make anything, anyways?
“Um. Is it three bars of iron and two sticks to make a pickaxe? Or can I make a wood sword by punching trees? Why couldn’t this be Minecraft instead?”
But now that she thought of it, Erin remembered the trees.
“Firewood. If I could cut the wood away, that is.”
She thought of the incredibly stiff branches.
“…Nope. But wait a second. What about fallen branches? Or—”
She turned around and started walking back. But again, she found no detritus from the tough trees anywhere in the orchard.
Frustrated, Erin kicked a tree and dodged another falling blue fruit. She added it to her armful and walked back to the inn.
The room was still a mess from last night’s fight. Erin set the fruits down on one table and started righting chairs and tables.
She paused as a thought struck her. Goblins. Oh yeah. She’d fought Goblins.
Her eyes fell on the knife she’d taken from one of them. Slowly, Erin’s legs folded up, and she sat on the dusty ground again. Then she sneezed.
“Dusty. This is stupid.”
She got back up and looked around. Where was it? There.
“Dustrag. Let’s do this.”
Erin got down and began sweeping up the dust on the floor. It was difficult since she had to move all the tables and chairs out of the way, but it gave her something to do. She only had a small, dirty rag anyways after cutting the curtain into easier-to-use parts, so she was mainly doing it to think. Her mouth was terribly dry, but Erin started working. She had to focus.
Erin stared at the waves of dust as she scrubbed.
She shifted two tables aside and pushed the dust out of the way.
“…With shark teeth. That’s messed up.”
Erin thought about that.
“But I won.”
She amended the statement instantly.
“Barely. They’re not that dangerous. They’re like kids. And I can beat up tons of kids even with knives. If I’m careful.”
Not that she was going to make a habit of that! Just Goblins. She could fight them off. Then Erin reconsidered again.
“Unless they stab me in my sleep. Or there are lots of them. I’m probably safe if I make sure they can’t get in without me hearing it. I should block every way in but have, like, an escape window.”
She’d have to remember to do that. Then she’d be forewarned and could hold them off or run; they didn’t seem as fast as she was. So she was reasonably safe from them? Erin bit her lip.
“There’s the rock-crab-thing. Does it eat Goblins?”
Was she safe in here from that thing? It couldn’t fit through the door, but could it knock down the walls? Probably not.
So, as far as she knew, the inn was reasonably safe if she took precautions. What about leaving it? The Goblins—a memory nagged at her. They’d been carrying baskets. Which meant…
They hadn’t gone hunting for her.
“They were eating the blue fruits. So they live nearby. Wonderful. I’m going to run into them again. Which means I need a weapon. Great.”
Erin stopped and put her face in her hands. She immediately regretted that decision.
She sighed and grabbed the rag. Time to clean up some…more?
“Uh. What happened to the dust?”
The floor of the inn was made out of floorboards. Very sensibly, and in keeping with the rest of the inn, which was also made out of wood. However, Erin had never seen the floor before. Up till this very moment, it had been covered by a thick layer of dust.
There had been so many clumps of dust rabbits it had been more like a dust sea, and a disgusting one at that. Erin had left a trail every time she walked across the floor, hence her desire to get rid of it. A task that would surely take at least two days given the size of the inn and her tool of choice, a rag instead of a broom or mop.
Now though, she was staring at the floor. A clean, dustless floor. Erin gazed down and then stared some more. Then she looked at her hands.
“Was that me?”
It must have been, but how had she done it? Of the numerous and varied—of the few talents Erin possessed, cleaning was not one of them.
Oh sure, she could clean up spills and small messes. Anything that involved tossing water and mopping stuff up was okay. But this?
“I wasn’t even dusting for more than—an hour? Two? And it’s all clean.”
Erin scuffed at the floor and amended that thought.
“Sort of clean. You couldn’t eat your dinner off it, I guess. But that’s why we have plates.”
And it was a definite upgrade from before. Distractedly, Erin scratched her head and felt the caked dirt and dust on her face start to crumble away.
“The floor is clean. I am not.”
Erin stared at the floor again and felt hot, sweaty, and very dirty. She felt like she was forgetting something, but she was so hot—she was dehydrated! And as soon as Erin realized that, she realized how thirsty she was.
“Right. I need a drink.”
Water, preferably. But Erin would have killed for a nice, cool drink of anything, really. Too bad there wasn’t any water nearby. More blue fruits? Why hadn’t she kept that bucket of water from when it had been raining? Instead, she’d used it to clean tables! Erin groaned, but she knew she couldn’t waste time on recriminations. She looked around and came to a realization.
“Time to find some. Or I’ll die. Whichever comes first.”
Erin wandered out of the inn. After a minute, she walked back in, grabbed the knife, and closed the door behind her as she left. After another minute, she walked back in and threw the dustrag on the ground. She slammed the door as she left this time.
“It’s really hot.”
Erin stumbled through the grass, looking around blearily every few steps. Her mouth felt dry and nasty. She had a headache, and she felt sweaty and gross. But what was really on her mind was water.
“Water. Water is water. Because water. Where’s the water?”
Erin walked for a few minutes in one direction and saw no water. So she turned left and started walking that way. Then she doubled back around and sat down. Her head felt…thick. And she was so unwell she sat there for a long time until she felt she had to get up.
She was so thirsty, and that overrode the throbbing feeling in her mind.
“I could drink a Gatorade. Or a Pepsi. I like Coke too, though. What about Pepsi and Coke and Gatorade? Gatorpepcoke? Pegatoroke?”
It occurred to her that she wasn’t making much sense. Even for her, that was. Erin looked around for the water and felt her head spinning. Her head was really starting to hurt.
Her foot slipped. Or maybe she stumbled. But suddenly, Erin tripped and had to spin around to keep her balance. That was so much fun that she started spinning around as she walked. She stopped after a few seconds and tried not to vomit.
She wiped her brow. At least she wasn’t sweating. It was really hot, though. Weird.
She really needed to sit down in the shade. But there wasn’t any to be found, at least not where she was. Maybe if she lay down she’d feel better?
Erin went to bend over. Halfway down, she remembered.
She tried to stand up and nearly fell flat on her face.
“Where—where was it?”
Head spinning, Erin looked around. The inn was still visible.
“It was there. So if I’m here…there?”
Shakily, Erin began stumbling towards where the stream was. As luck had it, she was closer than she thought and came across it in a matter of minutes.
The stream was flowing fast, cold, and surprisingly deep. The young woman didn’t care. The instant she spotted it over the small rise, concealed as it wound its way down from the mountains, she broke into a run and threw herself forwards, gasping with relief.
She cupped her hands and began drinking the water as fast as she could. One mouthful and Erin’s eyes bulged. She spat the water back out and looked down at her hands.
Her dirty, dust-covered, filthy hands. Erin dunked her hands in the water and gave them a scrub—as well as her face—and rinsed out her mouth before she tried again. Then she drank one huge palmful, another, and then five more.
It was around the fourth palmful that Erin realized she’d made a bad mistake. The water was delicious and as cold as ice cubes, but she was so thirsty she drank it down like…water. Five minutes later, she was lying on her side trying not to puke.
Too much water on a dehydrated body. Erin could feel her stomach trying to empty itself and was determined not to let it.
“It—it hurts. It really hurts…”
No one had told her not to drink water fast! Okay, maybe every P.E. teacher she’d ever had, but why didn’t she listen? The groaning girl was praying no Goblins or a crab snuck up on her right now, because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to run if they did.
Fortunately for her, it seemed like nothing else was thirsty at the moment. And after what felt like an age of groaning in agony, the pain in her stomach receded enough for her to sit up. She was really glad she hadn’t puked. She only had one pair of clothes, after all.
Speaking of which—Erin raised her arm and sniffed. She shuddered and came to another decision.
The stream was far deeper than Erin had thought. Deep enough for her to sit up to her shoulders in water along the edge. It was also cold. Erin had thought she knew pain when, in the delirium of waking up, she’d turn on the shower and realized she’d hit the cold water on full blast.
That was nothing to this stream’s chill. It was probably mountain runoff, and so it was one step above freezing. Erin’s teeth were chattering, and the fast-moving current meant that there wasn’t even a body of water to warm up in time.
It wasn’t even numbingly cold, which was too bad.
“B-being numb would be better than being really cold.”
But it was water, and it was making her clean. And the longer she sat, the warmer Erin felt. That was probably because her body was freezing up, but she didn’t care.
Erin ran her hand through her wet hair and sighed. She’d scrubbed hard, but without soap or shampoo, what could you do? And when she thought about how she hadn’t used a toothbrush in days…yuck.
At least the inn was clean, now. And since she was no longer actively dying of thirst, Erin had figured out how she’d done it so fast.
“Hm. So, [Basic Cleaning] was really a skill after all?”
Erin thought about it. It was better than thinking of cavities and rotting gums.
“…Huzzah. What a great skill! I mean, I might have to fight off giant crabs and Goblins, but at least I’ll be able to clean the floor while they eat me! I wouldn’t want to leave a mess.”
She sighed and dunked her head into the water.
The stream was deep enough that Erin was up to her shoulders in the cold water. And it was moving fast enough that if she lay on her back, she might be swept downstream quite quickly.
“And if I follow the stream long enough, do I get to an ocean? Or just a lake?”
It was a tempting thought. Why not just let the waters carry her away to somewhere else? Anywhere had to be better than here, after all. She could leave and then…
“Then I’d be eaten by something else. Underwater Goblins, probably.”
Erin punched the water and sighed again.
“Monsters, monsters all around. And not one of them looks edible. But at least there’s blue fruit that smells like cleaning fluid. And at least there’s a dusty old inn. And at least I have four levels in innkeeping. Huzzah for me.”
She splashed some water on her face. Tired. She felt really tired. But being clean was helping a lot. Now that she had water she could drink and eat, at least. And with water, she could even have a bath.
“A really frickin’ cold bath.”
But it was good. And the sun was warm. Erin thought about getting out of the water and lying on the grass while the sun warmed her up. That was a good thought. Her clothes were already drying, and but for the few cuts and burnt right shoulder, they seemed fairly clean.
Bracingly cold bath, food and water sources acquired, and a clean inn. The young woman brightened up a bit.
“Maybe today won’t be so bad after all.”
Erin laughed to herself.
“Or not. Knock on wood.”
She turned jokingly to find a piece of wood to knock on and saw it. A huge shadow in the water. A giant, flat head and jagged teeth over a brown, spotted body that had been almost invisible as it slunk along the stream bed. And it was coming straight at—
Erin shot out of the stream like a reverse cannonball just as the fish lunged. She felt something incredibly large brush past her navel, felt the slimy, slick feeling against her skin for one heart-stopping moment—
Then it was over. Erin lay on the grass, breathing for air as she stared at the fish flopping around on the grass. She recoiled, but the giant shape was flopping now, no longer a missile of death but a confused water breather on the wrong side of the divide between land and sea.
The fish flopped towards her. Erin flopped backwards and got to her feet. It might be on land, but it had a mouth as large as her head. It was almost one-third mouth, in fact. And it had very sharp, very long teeth.
The flat, squat fish that looked like a balloon with teeth kept thrashing around. It truly was like nothing Erin had ever seen. It was far wider than any regular fish, and only a stingray was that horizontal, but this fish was hardly as elegant. It was more like a brick designed to bite as much of you apart as it could. But for her seeing it, it might have taken a huge chunk out of Erin’s side. Or her face.
Whether it was trying to still bite Erin or get back in the water was hard to tell. Either way, it wasn’t having much luck; the floppy fish was arcing its body, trying to maneuver in the air as it leapt up and down, but it wasn’t designed to move about on land and mostly stayed where it was, biting at the air helplessly.
Erin stared at it for a good minute. She covered her face and screamed into her hands for a second.
“Fish. Fish with huge teeth. I hate this world so much.”
Eventually, the fish stopped flopping around. Erin slowly edged over to the fish and stared at it. Was it dead? It didn’t seem to be breathing. It was probably dead.
She pointed a trembling finger at the fish.
“Hah! Take that!”
The fish lay there. Erin edged over and nudged it with one toe.
Instantly, the fish leapt into the air, wriggling like a snake. Its tail smacked Erin in the face as she tried to run. That hurt.
Erin fell over and landed next to the writhing fish. She pulled herself away as the gaping maw opened and closed a few feet from her face and waited until the fish slowly stopped moving again. This time, she was pretty sure it was dead.
“Four minutes. Four minutes is a long time not to be breathing, right? Okay—”
Just in case, Erin psyched herself up, ran over, and kicked the fish hard in the side.
Erin hopped around in agony, clutching her foot.
“Is that thing made of rocks?”
It was like kicking a sack of cement. Not that Erin had ever kicked one, but she imagined that was what it was like. The fish had barely moved when she kicked it. It lay on the ground, jaw gaping open. It was definitely dead, now.
After a while, Erin stopped hopping around and swearing. She limped over to the fish and stared at it. It had…two eyes. Four, actually. But it had two on each side. One big eye and a smaller eye right behind it.
“Ew. Mutant fish with teeth.”
Erin stared at it for a little while longer. Her stomach rumbled.
She poked the fish and tried to think of something to make. She had no fire, no other ingredients aside from blue fruit. The [Innkeeper]’s lips moved soundlessly for a second.
“Discovery one: fish are heavy.”
The dead fish lay on the kitchen counter. It was dripping.
“Discovery two: kitchens have knives.”
It was a very sharp knife, too. It looked sharp, at least. Testing the sharpness with her thumb was probably a good way to lose her thumb. Erin’s arms hurt, and she smelled of fish. Oh, and her clothes weren’t dry. Lastly? She pinched at one nose with a sigh.
“Discovery three: fish stink.”
She sighed. Self-evident discoveries aside, she had no idea what to do next. Or rather, she only had a vague idea of what to do next.
She had a fish. You skinned a fish—or was that a bird?—and then you ate it. She was pretty sure about that. A fire was involved at some point, but slicing up the fish was a good first step. After all, wasn’t sashimi just raw fish? True, Erin had only eaten that once, with enough wasabi to burn her nose off, but it was worth a shot.
“And hey, I need food. So it’s time to chop stuff up.”
Still, Erin hesitated. She’d never had to cut up a fish before. How was she supposed to do it? She had no idea.
Maybe this is a moment where my new Skills could come in handy. Erin had a great idea. She lifted the knife, poked the fish in the side with it, and smiled hopefully.
“[Basic Cooking]! Give me—baked fish!”
Nothing happened. Erin hadn’t been expecting it, but she’d really, really been hoping the fish would vanish and a convenient, tasty dish would appear. She sighed.
“Huh. I guess [Basic Cooking] doesn’t work on fish.”
Or maybe not this fish. Or maybe she needed a fire? Erin gently poked it in the teeth and shuddered. Its scaly hide looked no easier to cut. But at least she had a knife.
True, she could have grabbed a bigger knife. Happily, there were several knives, ranging from one that looked like a proper cleaver to a tiny one the size of a finger. But she’d chosen a slimmer blade, because she didn’t want to wrestle with the big one. Besides, this one was sharpest, and she needed all the sharpness she could get.
Gingerly, Erin began sawing at the fish’s exterior. The knife skated over the scales without finding purchase. Grimly, Erin tried again. She sawed at the side and felt the skin begin to slowly part.
“Ew. Ew. Ew.”
At least she knew the fish bled red. That was really no comfort, actually. Erin warily held the knife as far away from her as possible while carefully pinching the fish with her other hand. She kept slicing at the scales, but she didn’t know how to do this. She didn’t cook as a rule, and fish? She’d buy it pre-filleted and deboned.
It was tough, too! The knife did not seem to cut well as she sliced horizontally with it, trying to peel the outside layer off. Erin sawed some more and managed to peel off a slice of skin. She looked into the fish’s insides and gagged.
“Oh. Oh god. Why—why is that yellow? What is that?”
She poked it with the knife. The yellow thing vibrated. A bit of pale yellow-white pus oozed from it—
Erin put down the knife and stepped into the common room to breathe for a while. When her stomach had stopped lurching, she went back.
“There is no way I’m eating that. Cooked or raw. Actually, there’s no way I’m eating any of this without a frying pan.”
She looked around. Frying pan? Check. Good. There was actually a very respectable-looking one made out of cast iron lying right on the counter. She’d seen it on the first day, and while it might need a wash, it was big enough to make an omelet. The fish would need to be in a lot of parts to fry up, though.
“Okay, okay. Let’s just…get rid of the bones? And the—the squishy stuff.”
Erin cut then hacked at the easily detachable bits. It was hard work. Nothing really wanted to come out, and the knife she’d chosen wasn’t exactly a precision tool.
“Come on. Get out of there.”
The yellow thing was stuck to the bones. She couldn’t get it out.
“Alright. Can’t go around it. Gotta go under it. Goodbye head, look out belly, here comes the knifey.”
Erin flipped the fish over and tried to cut around the other side. But again, the scales were hard to saw through. And now everything was slippery with blood and fish juice.
“Come on. Cut. Cut!”
She pressed hard with the knife. But it just wasn’t going through the skin. Annoyed, Erin pushed harder. And the knife slipped.
It happened in an instant. Her hand lost its traction, and the blade skated across the scales. It flashed left, and Erin recoiled. She yanked her hand back and felt…she saw a flash of red on the blade.
Erin blinked and held up her left hand. A gaping red line split her palm diagonally. There was no blood.
She flexed her hand once. That’s when the blood started pooling. But there was no pain. The young woman just stared at it in horror, then gazed about.
Erin looked around. Bandage? There were no bandages nearby. Or cloth.
Her hand felt…numb. Then tingly.
Bandages? Cloth? There were…curtains upstairs. Right? But they were dirty and moldy too.
The blood was dripping onto the fish and the counter. Erin wanted to wipe it away, but she was still holding her knife. And suddenly, her hand started hurting.
Erin dropped the knife.
She gripped her wrist as hard as she could, stopping the blood flow. But the pain kept coming now, on and on.
She didn’t remember leaving the kitchen, but she was back with one of the curtains from upstairs and slicing it to make a bandage as blood soaked the cloth. It was hard. She could only use one hand, and her other hand was hurting. The pain hadn’t been there at all, but with each microsecond, it was ratcheting up. The terror in her heart was being eclipsed by the need to shout. To scream.
Eventually, she wound the cloth tight and gritted her teeth as she tied a knot. The bloodstain was already spreading, though at least something was covering the wound. But it still hurt.
It hurt! Erin tried to think as she stumbled back to the common room. It wasn’t deep. Well, it was deep, but she wasn’t looking at bone. Yet it felt really deep.
She didn’t have words to describe the agony in her hand. The rest of the world was dim and unimportant compared to the pain radiating from that one point. All of her senses were focused on that place, and it was all Erin could do not to scream.
“Screaming is bad. Quiet.”
She just knew it. Screaming would make it somehow so much worse. So instead, Erin sat and gripped her wrist. The blood was dripping. It hurt.
It really hurt.
The sun was going down. Erin sat in the chair and stared at the puddle of blood on the floor. It wasn’t big. But every few seconds, another drop fell from the bloody bandage onto the floor.
The pain was still there. It didn’t go away, even after this long. But it was—better. At least she could think a bit. She’d moved around, gotten another curtain and sliced it up for a second bandage. But she hadn’t wanted to change the one she was using, so she just sat.
She knew she should try to stop the bleeding. Apply pressure. But any more and she would scream. And if she started, she feared she’d never stop.
The first hour…the first hour she’d just held her wrist, mouth open, forcing herself not to scream. Hoping, praying that the agony would desist. It didn’t—it never went away. But she had eventually sat here.
Staring at her blood as it fell to the floor.
Something smelled bad. Erin looked up. What was that smell? She wanted to ignore it, but after a few minutes, she had to stand up and go see.
It was coming from the kitchen. Erin walked in, clutching the wrist of her bad hand.
“Oh. Of course.”
The dead fish stared up at her on the cutting board drenched with her blood. It stank. At the same time, Erin’s stomach grumbled. She wasn’t hungry for fish, but she was hungry.
She didn’t want to eat, though, if that made sense. Erin walked back to the chair and sat down. As she did, she bumped the back of her legs. The knife cuts burned and hurt. A different kind of pain.
“I get it. It’s a bad day, right?”
Erin whispered. It made her feel better not to talk loudly. She was awake even though she was tired. The pain wasn’t going to let her sleep. And she was hungry, but she really didn’t want to eat.
So she sat and watched her blood fall.
It was dark when the small puddle stopped growing. It soaked into the floorboards, a dark stain in the night. Erin stared at the blackness. She couldn’t sleep.
That was—an understatement. The night was cool, even cold, but sweat was beading on her forehead. Her teeth ached from clenching, and she felt like a single line of pain was her entire being. It radiated up from her hand, and she—
Couldn’t make a sound. Just think of something else.
Erin stared at the table. She stared at the grain of the wood. Tried to think of—of—things to do? Make bandages? Find…?
No good. She couldn’t distract herself. But she had to. Her eyes rolled in her head. Couldn’t she fall unconscious from the pain? If only.
She had no strength to stand. It hurt too much. She couldn’t think—the only things that came to her were the most basic instincts. She had to think of something else, though.
So Erin began to whisper. She forced herself to—remember. How did it go?
“Pawn…pawn to E4.”
She rested her injured hand on the table. It flared once in pain and then resumed throbbing. Her other hand traced a square, and her eyes darted over the empty table. Her eyes were watery with pain, but she didn’t need to see in the pitch blackness. She knew it by heart.
Her fingers closed, as if holding something small and delicate. She even moved her left hand, tracing it across the table. Yes. That was how it went. What came next?
“Pawn to E5. Pawn to F4. Pawn captures F4—King’s Gambit Accepted. Bishop to C4, queen to H4. Check. Bishop’s Gambit. King to F1, pawn to B5. Bryan Counter-gambit. Bishop captures B5, knight moves to F6. Knight moves to F3…”
The pained whisper went on and on, until her throat dried and she kept up in her mind. First one game, then another. Erin kept talking to herself, kept playing long into the night. Alone, in the blackness of the inn as the shutters rattled every now and then and faint peeks of moonlight shone through.
A line of agony trying to divide her in half as she clung to the only thing she knew. Whispering the moves of a famous chess game, an immortal game, into the silence to distract herself.
But the pain in her hand never stopped.
It just kept hurting.