Erin woke up suddenly. Her hand was burning.
Though her head felt like fog, she couldn’t fall back asleep. Instead, Erin just sat and cradled her hand again. She couldn’t move it or the pain would get worse, but sleeping or relaxing were beyond her as well. She could only sit in agony.
Bit by bit, the pain faded away. Maybe it was her waking up, or maybe she just got numb.
Erin got up. She still held her hand and took great care not to flex it at all. It was…aching didn’t even begin to describe it. It was just pain, all the way through. And it wasn’t stopping.
But at the same time, she was ravenous. And for a little bit, that overrode her pain.
Slowly, very slowly, Erin hobbled around the inn. She grabbed the blue fruits with her good hand and began chomping them down one at a time. She was so hungry she ate four before she knew it, and then polished off two more as she sat at a table.
She would have sat there forever. Getting up wasn’t worth the effort, but a higher power called to her. It spoke in words she could not ignore.
Erin sighed and put her head on the table. But the longer she sat the more uncomfortable it became. Still, the pain in her hand fought off the need to go relieve herself for the better part of an hour. When Erin finally stood up, she marched to the inn’s door and kicked it open. She’d go do her business in a random valley and then wash her hands at the stream. Hygiene and all that.
Erin made it five steps out of the inn before she reluctantly turned back and closed the door behind her. She doubted the Goblins would come back, but—safety. That done, she went about the business of doing her business.
It took nearly two hours before Erin came back. That was mainly due to her getting lost. Somehow, the stream seemed to be in a different spot than she’d remembered, and when she’d completed her task, she wasn’t able to retrace her steps.
The one benefit of finding the stream was being able to dunk her hand in the cold water to reduce the pain slightly. But she’d been watching for fish in the water, and all she wanted was to go back and sleep again.
When she did finally see the welcome sight of the inn, Erin could have cried with relief. All she wanted was to sit and suffer in peace, and the open door welcomed her in.
Absentmindedly, Erin walked through the door and closed it behind her. Then she went back and sat down at the table. Only then did she feel the wet fabric clinging to her hand and look down. She looked at the dirty, bloody bandage now sodden with water. She wasn’t a medical doctor. Or a doctor. Or even very familiar with first aid, but she didn’t think that was healthy.
“Ow. Owch. Ow.”
Every time Erin peeled off a bit of the bandage, part of her skin and a lot of blood went with it. Some of it was dried blood. Some of it was not.
After she’d gotten half of the bandage off, Erin had to stop. The pain was too much. And the bandage was stuck to her skin. But having a half-peeled bandage was worse. Erin couldn’t stop picking at it.
“Maybe I can cut the rest off somehow.”
Erin went to the kitchen. There were certainly sharp things in there. Like knives.
So were there scissors? They didn’t seem very medieval, but who knew? Erin decided to go through the cupboards in the kitchen again. She had no energy for the outside, but she couldn’t sleep and she’d only opened about half that first night.
This time, no longer panicking, Erin did a systematic search of every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen. The dust that poured out made her sneeze and cough, but she did find some basic cooking utensils like metal spatulas, a drawer full of tarnished silverware, and even some plates. The cupboards held a lot of things that Erin only vaguely understood.
Cooking implements, she suspected, like some weird metal grater with a wood handle. Did you…press down from the top? She found a corkscrew, the tip rusted, a collection of moldy cup holders, and a bunch of other culinary knickknacks. There were a lot of them. And that was…strange. Erin tried to make sense of it out loud since her inner thoughts were mostly devoted to not crying in pain.
“I’ve seen old kitchens in castles. I thought drawers and that kind of stuff only came later. This is, um, steel. Or at least iron. It looks like steel. Did they have a lot of steel in the medieval ages? Knights in armor, duh. But when were cheese graters invented? Is this place in the Dark Ages or past that? And can I get a light bulb somewhere around here?”
Erin grumbled as she searched with one hand. She threw open another cupboard and stopped. She stared at the pristine interior and the perfectly fresh, perfectly preserved…
Food. Food was sitting in the cupboard. A gleaming, single link of a sausage, a glass jar filled with white powder, and another container with a knife stuck in the little opening—
Erin had to rub her eyes with her good hand. Then she slapped herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. But when she looked again, it was still there.
Erin opened the jar and poked a finger at the powder. It felt—real. And fresh. Or, at least, it didn’t feel like white mold and dust, which is what it should have been. Erin drew her finger back, shaking, and stared at the white granules on her finger. She sniffed and nearly sneezed again—no clues from that aside from a lack of much to smell.
“It could be flour. Or—alternatively, it could be cocaine.”
She tried to smile, but her hand hurt too much.
“…It’s probably flour.”
But was it any good? Erin stared at the bag and tried to remember how long things were supposed to stay good. Probably not that long, even in glass jars. They had blown glass in this world?
No, focus on the flour. And the sausage? Erin stared at it. It looked like one of those things you saw in old-timey kitchens. Just a…her mouth watered.
There was no way that was good. Not unless someone had put this here right before she arrived. And if that were the case…no.
No, there was something odd about the cupboard. Unlike every other one, there was no dust or spiderwebs, and it had seemed in the best condition of the lot, despite the fraying wood. It smelled like, well, a cupboard, and the food smelled like it was edible.
It had to be a trick, though. Erin sighed and pulled the jar of flour out anyways. Might as well check. But then she caught sight of the pot with the knife in it and opened it. Erin placed it on the counter, removed the lid, and here was another surprise.
Erin’s eyes narrowed, and she frowned hard.
There was no mistaking it. And it wasn’t just butter either. Erin was used to the nice, square sticks of butter that turned soft and spreadable in the sun. This…was more like a pot of butter. Yellow, swirled about, with a knife stuck in it, gleaming and ready to be applied to a bit of bread or something nice. Erin’s stomach rumbled at it, and she was almost tempted to eat it as-is. However—
“That’s not right.”
Erin stared at the butter. It was a golden yellow, fresh. Like someone had thawed a stick of butter just now. Same with the sausage and flour—well, the flour was just flour.
Yet everything else? Erin stared around the kitchen. Dust and cobwebs seemed to make up most of the room. She stared at the floor she had yet to sweep.
“How long does it take for dust to get two inches deep?”
Five months? Two years? Five years? Either way, Erin was pretty sure butter didn’t last that long. She craned her neck around, suddenly feeling a prickle of suspicion on the back of her neck.
“Is someone messing with me?”
Erin glanced around. Could someone have put the food in here? But no, her footsteps were the first to disturb the dust. So then how…?
Her eyes flicked back to the cupboards. At last, something bright caught her attention. It was inlaid around the edges of the cupboard, on the interior door, which was why she hadn’t seen it, but a silver glimmer finally caught her eye.
Erin Solstice stared at a line of glowing, incomprehensible symbols drawn along the edge of the cupboard. They looked like someone had painted them there with the most delicate brush and silver paint. They were nonsensical: circles and connected shapes that almost looked like letters or—
It hurt her head just to focus on them, and the longer she stared, the brighter the runes seemed to grow. It was—Erin brushed at the inscriptions and traced them around the edge of the entire pantry. She didn’t know what they meant, but she was convinced this wasn’t just random art or even a fanciful attempt at the real stuff. This meant something, and the hair on the back of her neck rose as she touched one beautiful sigil.
She stared at the runes, entranced. Then a thought struck her, and she opened the other cupboards. Could it be that…?
“Here. Here…they’re everywhere.”
Around the edges of each cupboard were the same small etchings of runes. Erin traced them with her fingertip, but unlike the cupboard with all the good food, these ones weren’t glowing. The paint was flaking, and beyond the glow, some quality had been lost. She noticed a break in the wood along one solid line of the magic writing and took a wild guess.
“Huh. I guess it wore off. Or maybe they broke somehow? I wonder what they’re made of.”
She went back to the enchanted cupboard in awe. But now curiosity was engulfing her, so she gingerly touched the runes on the cupboard door.
…It felt like painted wood, but Erin had to believe it was something more. Was it just paint? Could you re-draw this and get more magic? Experimentally, she scraped at the runes with one fingernail. A bit of it flaked off onto her finger.
“Silver? Or something glowy.”
It was fragile, too. The young woman hesitated. Was that supposed to happen? She poked a little harder, not really thinking, just curious.
The old wood of the cupboard was beyond delicate with age. Erin’s finger jabbed the lip of the wood, and a splinter of it came away. Just a thin fragment of wood. And silver, glowing magic.
The fragment of wood disrupted the glowing line traced around the cupboard. The glowing symbols flickered—and as Erin watched in horror, they faded away.
The sliver of wood dropped to the ground, and Erin stared at the piece then tried to replace it.
“Don’t do this to me! No—I just—”
She tried to press it back into place, and the wood cracked, and more runes flaked away and drifted downwards in a little spiral of silver dust and wood. Erin stood there, mouth open in horror.
“Oh you’ve got to be shi—”
Erin pulled back too far as she stood up, overbalanced, and fell backwards. She didn’t hit the ground too hard, but her bad hand smacked the ground. Instantly, Erin grabbed her hand and cradled it, but she could feel the blood running again. She curled up into a ball and stayed there for a long time.
“It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
Erin looked up after the pain faded a bit. She saw a dark cupboard. When she got up, the food was still the same, but the magic had gone.
Dully, she stared at the now dark symbols. Dead. Just like that. The food? Still fresh. But it wouldn’t be fresh any longer. And the magical cupboard was dead. Forever.
Erin rubbed at her eyes. She wasn’t crying. But her eyes stung a bit. That was all.
That was all.
Erin sat at the table in the common room and talked to herself. It was mainly to avoid thinking about pain or her own stupidity.
“True, you’ve gotta leave stuff behind when you leave. Can’t carry everything. But you had good food still here. And more, in those other cupboards. And here’s a kitchen full of supplies…how expensive are good, sharp knives?”
Erin flexed her hand and winced again. Very sharp knives.
“No one leaves that behind. So why would anyone…?”
It was a bad thought to have. Erin suddenly felt very uneasy. The hair on her neck began prickling, and her stomach began doing pushups.
“Question. How did Mr. Skeleton upstairs die?”
Her spine tingled.
“Maybe that’s a bad question.”
But once asked, it wasn’t easy to get rid of. Erin tried to ignore it. She stared at the dried blood on her hand, ate another blue fruit, but the thought lingered. Eventually, she couldn’t bear it any longer. She stood up.
“Upstairs. Fine. Hello darkness my old enemy.”
It wasn’t nearly as hard going up the stairs. Now that she knew what was in every room, going down the dark hallways wasn’t scary. But going in the last room? That was very scary.
Erin took a few deep breaths before she opened the door. Her palm was sweaty on the doorknob.
“Am I afraid of dead people? Well yeah. But they can’t hurt me. Zombies can, but normal dead people can’t. It’s just a skeleton. I can take a look for signs of—of death, and then I’ll go sleep. Good plan. Let’s do it.”
She opened the door and stared inside. Then she ran back and started opening the other doors on the top floor, slamming into each room before running to the next. But what she sought was not there.
Slowly, Erin walked back to the room at the far end and looked inside. A sagging bed, a small table, a shuttered window. Nothing else. Erin whispered into the silence.
The skeleton was gone. Erin was sure of it. It wasn’t anywhere in the inn that she’d looked, and she’d combed both the top and bottom floor thoroughly. And the worst part about losing a dead body was wondering where it went.
Erin sat in the common room. Actually, she sat in a corner of it, her back to the wall as her eyes darted around the room. It wasn’t that she was waiting for a pile of bones to fall from the ceiling. But…she would prefer to know where said bones had gone.
“Okay. Okay. What’s the problem? It was just a skeleton. Just a spooky, dead thing. And even if it did move—somehow, where would it go?”
She didn’t know why she was whispering to herself. It just made her feel…well, it didn’t make her feel better, but it felt appropriate. It was getting dark. It was nearly night. In the circumstances, being loud didn’t feel like the smart thing to do.
And the skeleton might hear her.
“No, no. That’s impossible. It’s not here. It’s somewhere else. Besides, where could it hide? I checked all the rooms upstairs. So where could it be?”
Her eyes darted towards the kitchen. No. It couldn’t be. She’d checked.
What about underneath the floorboards? Or on the roof?
Erin kept very still and listened. Nothing. That was good, right?
But skeletons don’t need to breathe. They don’t need to move until you’re asleep. And then…
Enough. Erin shook her head. It was all in her head. There had to be a perfectly good reason for a corpse to disappear suddenly—
What about the walls?
Erin refused to turn her head. She was just being paranoid. Which was a good thing. Because it could be anywhere. She could just see herself, asleep, as a skeleton tip-toed out of the darkness, a knife in hand and—
She wrenched herself out of that idea. Skeletons didn’t do that, she had to believe. It was more reasonable to assume someone had taken it. The skeleton was not her imagination. Someone had taken it. Why?
“Because it was valuable? Because skeletons are so useful, sure. Maybe the Goblins did it. Can’t you eat bones? Or—someone else?”
That was just as inconceivable. Okay, maybe someone, something took the skeleton. But why? And when?
Erin’s mind suddenly flashed back to when she’d returned that morning. Hadn’t the inn’s door been open? She hadn’t noticed at the time, but she remembered closing it as she left. She didn’t remember having to open it when she got back.
Her skin crawled. The inn suddenly felt a lot less safe.
But it was just her imagination. She had an overactive imagination. If she went to sleep, all would be well. All she had to do was close her eyes, and when she woke up, all would be well. There was nothing to worry about. Erin couldn’t even hear anything except the rapid beating of her heart and the creaking.
Creaking. A footstep.
Erin sat bolt upright. Her heart felt like it was about to stop from sheer overwork. Her eyes darted to the ceiling.
Something was up there.
She heard it moving about. Maybe if she’d been more relaxed she might never have noticed the faint creaks and groans of floorboards as something crept around upstairs. And judging by the sounds…
Erin tracked the progress of the creature above her. It was moving to the stairwell.
Slowly, Erin clenched her bad hand to avoid screaming. The pain as her sliced hand throbbed and started to bleed grounded her. Silently, she stood up.
The knife was on the table. Erin held it in her good hand and moved around. The stairwell was on the right side of the room. Anyone coming down wouldn’t be able to see her if she were in the rightmost corner.
Skirting the chairs and tables, Erin made her way over and crouched down. The handle of the kitchen knife was slippery in her hand with sweat. Her other hand was slippery with her blood. She gazed at the blade of the knife. It was very sharp.
The creaking stopped for a moment as the intruder reached the top of the stairs. Erin waited. It would come down. And when it did, she’d get one chance to attack first.
Attack first? Am I some kind of hero?
No. New plan. The instant Erin saw what it was, she was running for her life. But she had to see what it was first.
The skeleton popped into her head. Was it that? Or was it the creature that had stolen its bones? Was it some kind of parasitic creature that lived in dead corpses—or a gaunt nightprowler that ate the marrow of the deceased?
Please let it just be a skeleton.
The monster started descending the stairs. Quietly. Slowly. Even though Erin was listening, she barely heard the sound it made. She tried to guess how far down it was. Halfway. Two-thirds. A few steps left.
Something left the last step and walked into the common room. Erin didn’t breathe. She didn’t move, or even blink.
Slowly, the creature stepped closer. Erin squinted and gasped as it came into view. Then she stood up and sighed.
“Oh. Just a Goblin.”
The short green creature whirled around in surprise as Erin stood up with a sigh. It immediately crouched, its sharp dagger held in a fighting stance. It snarled at her.
She snarled back.
The rest of the Goblin ambush party of seven waited outside of the inn, keen ears straining for sound. Each one was a seasoned warrior—at least by the standards of their small clan. They were all armed with the best weaponry available. The most dangerous among them had shortswords that were only half-covered in rust. And they were awaiting the signal.
The inn’s door flew open. The Goblins looked up. They expected the Human female to run out of it, screaming and preferably bleeding. At worst, they expected their comrade to be running out, her fast on his heels. They readied their weapons.
And ducked as a body flew over their heads.
“Go to hell!”
The Human female slammed the door shut.
The Goblins stared at the closed door of the inn. They stared at the barely recognizable face of the unconscious Goblin and then exchanged a look. Then they quickly picked up their fallen comrade and legged it back into the night.
The young woman’s fight with the Goblins did not go unnoticed. The little Goblin that had crept after the attack group seeking revenge for yesterday witnessed their second embarrassing flight.
She almost liked the Human for beating the one who tried to creep into the second floor. She hit him a lot. She thought the warriors wouldn’t tell the Chieftain about this, either.
However, the littlest Goblin didn’t know that while she was staring at the inn and creeping back with the warriors, she was being watched.
A crouched figure stared at both the Goblins and the fleeting image he had seen of the person in the inn. So there was someone there. Of all the luck! It was a perfect place, but he had no idea whether she was alone or dangerous in and of herself.
She certainly seemed fearless of Goblins, though that wasn’t saying much. But what was she doing out there?
Well, she didn’t have anything else to steal that he’d seen. Not that he’d had much time. He decided to keep an eye on the place. But the growling of his stomach almost alerted the small Goblin. She stopped, staring around, and he ducked back into cover.
Damnation! She couldn’t see him, but he decided to return to his lair, his abode. His sanctuary, yes. He might not have gotten anything but bones, but those bones would help him finish his latest project.
Oh, yes indeed.