Erin woke up with her back against the inn’s front door. Her neck was aching, and her hand was burning. It was morning.
She held her hand. It was hurting—
“Feels like it’s worse than yesterday. Which is probably my imagination.”
She sat, cradling her hand for a full minute. Then she remembered why she was sitting there and shot to her feet.
Where was it? Erin hobbled over to a table. There. Two daggers on the tabletop. She looked around at the windows—some even had furniture piled up to make sure nothing could get in. And she’d been up all night, waiting to hear anything trying to come in. But no other Goblins had, and the other one had left its dagger as well, albeit unwillingly. Erin mumbled to herself as she poked one of the hilts with a finger.
“At this rate, I’m going to start a collection.”
At least it proved she hadn’t been dreaming. Well, until she’d fallen asleep. But nothing had killed her, so Erin tried to put the disappearing corpse out of her mind.
“No skeleton? No problem. I hope.”
She sighed and then sniffed.
“What’s that smell?”
Something smelled really bad. And it was coming from the kitchen. The instant Erin opened the door, she groaned aloud.
The fish lay on the cutting board, covered in dry blood and reeking in the sunlight. It stank. Actually, it smelled worse than that.
“This. This is disgusting.”
Erin stared at the fish for a few more seconds. She had absolutely no desire to touch it. On the other hand…
A few black things crawled out of the fish’s mouth. Erin stared at the small things, gagged, and then ran outside before she hurled.
That was the start of her day.
How did you get rid of a fish? Erin put it outside on the ground and stared at it.
“I could bury it. If I had a shovel. And I could burn it. If I had a way to make fire. Or…I could leave it over there.”
She picked it up and walked for about fifteen minutes before she was sure she was far enough away from the inn. Then, Erin unceremoniously dumped the rotting fish off the cutting board.
That was a mistake.
As the fish hit the ground, it exploded. Something inside of it broke or squished, and suddenly a host of little black and green insects exited the fish’s body from every orifice. Erin took one look, screamed, and ran. She was getting good at that.
It took her a long time before she found the courage to return. And even then, it was just to run in, grab the cutting board, and leg it to the stream.
“Ew, ew, ew.”
Erin thrust the plank of wood in the water and watched fish guts and insects sweep away into the current. It wasn’t the dead fish she objected to. Well, not as much as the live bugs that clung stubbornly to the wood. They were small, and she wasn’t sure if she was relieved or further disgusted to see they were flies, not beetles or anything worse.
Big flies, though, with fat, glowing abdomens. Like—disgusting fireflies, lurid green instead of nice yellow. Not that fireflies were that cute up close either. Erin pointed at the last straggler refusing to be pulled off by the water.
“You. Get off.”
The tenacious fly seemed to have the strength of ten bugs, because it refused to let the current drag it off. Erin lifted the board a bit and realized this fly had other odd qualities. Something about its head was triangular, and yes, that glowing abdomen was far bigger than a firefly’s. It even looked slightly…liquid, and the bloated insect was like nothing she had ever seen before on Earth.
“Another weird creature. Wonderful.”
Reluctantly, she looked closer. Know thy enemy, right? She supposed she should also know her bug.
“That’s definitely a bug. And it’s really ugly. If I could take it to a scientist back home, I bet I’d be famous. Since I can’t—go away, would you?”
She dunked the board and shook it underwater. Swish. Swish. The bug clung to the wet wood despite Erin’s best attempts to shake it off. Then she noticed another detail.
“…Why’s it got four legs? I thought bugs had six.”
It was also segmented in two places, as if the bug had people-legs. That was weird and disconcerting. And still, it refused to let go of the wood, fanning its wings futilely and trying to fly off. Probably to join its many siblings still buzzing around the dead fish’s corpse. Well, Erin wasn’t going to bother the rest of them, but this one? This one had a date with the water. It just refused to go.
Annoyed at this resistance, Erin finally pulled the cutting board out of the water. The insect fanned its wings as she stared at it. It was really mostly like a firefly, except that its backside was glowing green. Better than a cockroach, but there was only one way to deal with bugs like that.
Erin curled her finger and gave the bug a damn good flick.
The insect’s green abdomen burst into a splatter of green liquid as the rest of it flew off into the stream. Erin blinked as the green liquid covered the cutting board and splashed into the water.
Some of it landed on Erin’s arm. Instantly, both the board and her arm began to smoke and dissolve.
She plunged her arm into the water. It was an instinctive reaction, but it made the pain vanish. Still, Erin frantically scrubbed at the spot until all of the burning pain had gone. She looked at the cutting board and stared as the green liquid ate into the wood until she dunked it into the water. Then she stared at her burnt skin, and the cutting board, eaten away by…
Erin turned her head and backed away as the rest of the glowing insects buzzed around the dead fish.
“Acid flies. Okay, that’s completely wrong.”
Her skin was red and sore from the brief contact with acid, but she was fine. Nevertheless, she washed both her body and the cutting board until she felt completely clean. This was less fun, because Erin was also watching out for strange shadows in the water.
“Great. My hand hurts, and now my arm hurts.”
Erin stared at the dead fish as she walked back to the inn. The fish’s body was swarming with those little acid flies. They were probably laying eggs in it or something equally fun.
Briefly, Erin considered dragging the fish into the stream and letting all the buggers drown. Then she considered what would happen if all the flies landed on her and exploded.
“Right. Well, there’s only one thing to do in a situation like this.”
Erin raised first one, then both her middle fingers. Her injured left hand hurt like fire, but it still made her feel better.
“That’s for all of you.”
Then she went back to the inn. There was only one good thing in the world right now. And that was food.
“I really should have brought a bucket.”
Erin stared at the ingredients lined up on the kitchen counter. Her stomach was rumbling, and she was in the mood for food. But she didn’t really want another breakfast, lunch, and dinner of blue fruit. Today, she was in the mood for bread. Freshly baked bread. And that lovely bit of sausage.
She’d been holding off on eating either, mainly due to the pain and infestation of her kitchen, but Erin was relieved to find the bugs hadn’t gone for the good food, instead preferring the fresh, rotting corpse of the fish. So she had ingredients! Enough to make bread!
Unfortunately, that required water. And Erin really didn’t want to walk to the stream and back with a heavy bucket. But she needed water. She knew that. Somehow.
Was it instinct? Erin frowned and knocked on her skull. She had never made food, not really. Well, she’d made Mac and Cheese and instant ramen, but that didn’t count. And that went for microwaves and ovens too. So why did she know that to make bread she needed flour, oil, salt, sugar, yeast, and some water? It had to be magic.
Or a skill.
“[Basic Cooking], huh?”
Erin stared at the washed cutting board. Yes, all the ingredients were here. It made sense; this was a kitchen. Kitchens had ingredients. Therefore, she could make bread. Or dough. To make bread, she’d have to bake it in an oven. Handily, this kitchen had an old oven that Erin’s instincts told her she could use. But to use the oven, she needed fire.
She had no idea how to make a fire.
Whatever new ability she had to make food, it did not extend to making fire. Erin stared at the empty fireplace in the oven and thought.
“Sticks. You hit sticks together. Or rocks.”
She looked around. She had wood. There were lots of chairs and tables. What she didn’t have were matches. Or a lighter. Or a can full of gasoline and a flamethrower.
Erin went back to the kitchen. There had to be something to start fires in there. How else would you cook things?
“Right. Rummage time. I know I saw a shelf full of weird stuff somewhere…”
She went back through the shelves. In her first search through the kitchen, she’d put everything vaguely useful or non-rusted in the cupboard next to the food.
“Let’s see. Frying pan? No. Tongs? No. A saw? Why does a kitchen need a saw?”
Erin set the small handsaw aside and squinted. Behind that was something she hadn’t quite figured out. Well, two things—a rock and something else. Something weird.
“Is that…a horseshoe?”
No. It was way too small to be a horseshoe and the wrong shape. Unless this world had really weird, small horses that was. But even then, why have horseshoes in a kitchen?
“Unless they ate horses.”
Erin stared at the horseshoe-thing. She stared at the rock. Slowly, she slid the rock along the fire striker and watched sparks fly.
“Huh. So that’s what flint and steel looks like. It actually does look like Minecraft!”
Erin paused. She sighed and slapped herself gently.
“I’m an idiot.”
Flint and steel was actually pretty fun to use. So long as you didn’t burn down the flammable, wooden inn around you by accident.
Erin peered in the large fireplace and fumbled with the flint and steel again.
“Dried grass…check. Broken chair…check. Fire?”
She slid the flint across the steel quickly and flinched as the sparks flew.
The shower of sparks descended on the dry grass like a swarm of angry fireflies. And the tinder caught fire in places, and the fire grew.
Erin held her breath. Then she exhaled, blowing at the small flames like she’d seen television campers do.
“Damn. It went out.”
She struck the flint and steel again. This time, she let the fires grow a bit and did not blow on them. Slowly, the small fires grew. She fed the small flames pieces of wood and grinned.
“Fire! Call me Prometheus…Promethea.”
The warmth on her front became a little too hot, so Erin scooted back, but she was grinning. Well, she was grinning until she sat on her bad hand.
“Okay. Pain. But now I can make bread! I’ve got all the ingredients. Right? Right. I just need flour, yeast, butter, a bit of salt and sugar and—”
“Oh yeah. Water. Great. Well, I can just go out and get some. It’s not like there’s a time limit or anything—”
She looked back at the fire she’d just started. It was already starting to go out.
There had been no light yesterday or the day before. During the daytime, it was conceivable they might have seen something from the walls, but no one had looked that far expecting to find anything but monsters or Goblins.
However, by daylight, the faint trickle of smoke was possibly, possibly visible. And if the wind blew just right, the keenest of noses might pick it up.
Or it could just be their imagination. However, the watchers on the walls dutifully reported it to their superior.
“It could just be nothing, Senior [Guardswoman].”
The woman frowned and sniffed to pick up the faint smell. There were countless scents around her, and this was like a needle in a haystack, but she agreed.
“It does look like—smoke. Maybe it’s a traveller. Or bandits. Or whoever’s been robbing the farmsteads.”
“Or Goblins. I’ve seen them creeping around now and then. Do we send out a patrol?”
She thought about it.
“Not a full one, and that’s not our call. I’ll tell the Captain. You just keep an eye on it. I think she’ll put our best patrol on it. Punishment detail for breaking all those windows yesterday.”
Her voice was laden with irony, and the other person on the wall grinned with idle glee.
“Ooh. I’d hate to be Relc. Klbkch didn’t do anything, though. But he’s…eugh.”
The woman glanced over her shoulder and reached out to slap a helmet.
“That’s Senior Guardsman Klbkch to you, rookie. Send a street runner to tell the Captain.”
“Yes, [Guardswoman] Beilmark.”
In the end, Erin let the fire burn while she went to get water. The fireplace was stone, and the kitchen was stone. The odds of a stray spark walking all the way to the common room was remote. Still, she felt uneasy.
“This is how it starts, right? You leave the fireplace on while you go on a vacation for a few days, and the next thing you know, your inn’s burned down. A classic cautionary tale.”
Erin sighed as she walked along. She wondered again how much trouble she was really in. After all, she had just started a fire, true, but that was pretty basic even for primeval Humans. What could—
A patch of green moved in the grass ahead of her. Erin stared at it. Was it part of the grass? It raised its head and stared back. It wasn’t the grass at all. It was—
Something exploded out of the grass. Erin screamed, flailed wildly with her bucket, and fell over. The gigantic bird with leathery wings and a beak longer than her arm took off into the sky with an ear-piercing screech. She caught a flash of scales, as green as the grass it had blended in with, and the long head and beaked teeth? The young woman gaped upwards.
“Oh. Oh wow.”
Erin sat on the ground and stared.
“Is that a…pterodactyl? No way.”
It looked like it. And while Erin was only really seeing its rapidly disappearing backside, the bird had a certain…non-feathery quality to it. However, where the ancient dinosaurs Erin had seen in museum pictures were brown and plain, this bird had been a light green with red markings along its head and beak and the tips of its wings.
“Camouflaged dinosaur birds. Now I’ve really seen everything.”
Erin shook her head and got back up. She brushed off her dirty t-shirt and jeans.
“Gotta wash these sometime. But that means I’ll be walking around naked. Is that an issue? And what’s that smell?”
Something smelled truly terrible. Erin covered her nose and frowned. She cast around for the source of the smell. It was on the ground somewhere. She walked ten steps and found a nest. Erin stared down at a neat ring of dirt, trampled grass, and stones. A nest on the ground? But then—she didn’t see many trees nearby, and the only other place would be those cliffs.
“Huh. I guess without many trees birds get lazy. But what a big nest. And what’s that inside—”
Erin took one look inside the nest and covered her mouth. She gagged and took a few deep breaths.
“Okay. At least I know where all the normal birds go. Inside the dinosaur-birds.”
Averting her eyes from the grisly remains, Erin turned to go. She took two steps and tripped.
She got up, cradled her injured hand a bit, and wished for the world to explode. Or just her. Then she squatted down to look at what she’d tripped over. She saw a second nest, this one much cleaner and smaller. And it was filled with big, round, pale…
Buckets could hold things. Ideally they held water, but they could also hold eggs. They could also hold eggs in water.
It was still a pain to haul the bucket across the grasslands, though. Erin puffed and huffed and kept up a running stream of complaints as she lugged the full water bucket along.
“People used to do this every day? This is why plumbing was invented, you know. Who puts a stream so far from an inn? What happened to a good well?”
She kept grumbling until she reached the inn. Once there, Erin had to lean against the door and pant like a dog for a while before she felt better. She noticed a sign hanging next to her nose and squinted at the faded lettering.
“Huh. ‘Closed?’ Is that English?”
It was English. Slightly stylistic, each letter carefully traced in black paint, but Erin understood it nonetheless.
“Huh. So people speak English here. Good to know!”
Then she frowned at another word painted right below it. Not English. The lettering was far more curvy, and based on her limited knowledge of Earth’s languages—it looked completely unique.
“Hold on. What’s this word?”
It looked…odd. This was clearly an open-closed sign. Erin could tell because it was on the front door, and because she flipped it over and, just as expected, it said ‘Open’ on the back.
And there was a second word right below it, in that other language. Erin had no idea what it meant; it was foreign to her. But if she had to guess?
It probably said ‘Open’ too. In a different language. Just like signs back home. And that meant—Erin felt a shiver run down her spine.
That meant there were two languages here. Two sets of writing, at any rate. Furthermore, it confirmed Erin’s suspicions.
“This was an inn once. But someone abandoned it. And they left a lotta useful stuff behind.”
She tapped her lips thoughtfully and narrowed her eyes at the hanging sign. The rope was frayed and worn, but it was still in pretty good shape.
“…Well, finders keepers.”
Erin kicked open the door to the inn and dragged the bucket inside. But she paused and stepped out to look at the sign.
It was a sudden whim. Erin flipped the sign over so it read ‘Open’.
“Now, where can I get a piece of chalk and write ‘no Goblins allowed’?”
Well, that was a question for later. Right now, Erin was more concerned about the precious water. She had the water. She had dragged the water very painfully all the way here. Now she had to find a place to store said water. The bucket was nice, but it was also sort of small and definitely not useful as a long-term container. It was leaking a bit. So where else could she put it?
Erin wandered into the kitchen.
“Well, here’s a cauldron.”
It was actually a pot, but it looked like a cauldron. It was in fact both things at once. The point was that it could store water. Unfortunately, that meant the cauldron had to be cleaned first.
Erin tried to use as little water as possible. But the pot was large, filled with dust, and the bucket was finite. She eventually ran out of water and had to make another trip back. And then another.
When the cauldron was finally full of water and clean enough to hold said water, Erin was ready to kill something. Like eggs. She stared longingly at the fresh sausage, but she shook her head.
“No. No. You deserve at least a sandwich. Or eggs and sausage.”
That would make it taste so much better. So Erin decided to commit. She tromped back into the kitchen and stared at the grey embers in the fireplace. The fire was long dead. Erin groaned and then scowled. She pointed at the embers accusatorially.
“I’ll deal with you later. For now, I need dough.”
Dough was easy. It was just mixing stuff, and Erin had plenty of stuff to mix. But an idea struck her as she stared at her ingredients.
Bread took a while to bake. Bread needed to rise and do all kinds of complicated yeasty-stuff according to her [Basic Cooking] skill. And to be fair, that was about all she could make with the ingredients at hand. Not much you could do with a bit of flour, right? But eggs? Eggs changed everything.
Erin stared at the flour. She stared at the butter and salt. Then she stared at the eggs. Her eyes narrowed.
“Forget bread. It’s pasta time.”
The mixing bowl was full of flour, a dash of salt, some water, and butter. Oil would be best, but Erin didn’t have oil, so butter would do. She grinned. This was easy. Then she cracked the egg.
A large, glistening yolk fell into the bowl. The eggs of the giant dino-birds were about three times bigger than normal bird eggs. That could make a lot of pasta. But there was just one thing different about these eggs.
“Oh. Oh god. Why are there red lines—?”
Erin covered her mouth.
“It was alive. There was a baby inside.”
Her stomach lurched. But there was nothing to throw up. Erin took a few deep breaths and tried to think.
“Right. Normal eggs actually hatch. Right. This isn’t a store, so of course they’d be living—but they must be new eggs. Not full of half-born chickens, right?”
She stared at the rest of the eggs. Right?
Erin wiped her mouth as she kneaded the dough. She hadn’t thrown up. But her stomach was still a bit queasy from all the killing she’d done. If that was the word for it.
“Sorry, baby dino-birdlings. But I really need to eat. And you look nice and doughy right now.”
She punched the dough ball gently. The kneading was done. It was time to roll it and slice it into nice, pasta-sized shapes.
To her credit, Erin barely hesitated when she grabbed the sharp knife again. But she did take the time to wash the blood off before she began slicing. And though it took her a bit longer to cut everything since she worked with one hand and tried to keep all her digits out of the knife’s path, she eventually had a pile of long stringy noodles ready to be boiled.
Erin held the first batch of raw noodles over the boiling water in the pot.
“Double double, boil and trouble…into the pot you go.”
The noodles fell in with a large splash. Erin yelped and jumped away.
When she was finished calling herself an idiot, Erin sat back and waited. The noodles wouldn’t take that long. Then she could add some more butter, a little more salt, and feast. It was a good plan.
“Too bad I don’t have something refreshing to drink as well. A nice glass of juice would go down great. But y’know, it’s not like I…can…”
Erin stood up. She walked back into the common room and looked around.
The pile of blue fruits was right where she had left them. Erin’s eyes narrowed as she looked at them. She stroked her chin in thought.
She shook her head.
“Nah. Blue fruit juice? That’s more like it.”
It was a messy process, peeling each blue fruit and then pulping the fruit into a mush. And then of course there was the mandatory trip to the stream with the bucket in order to get enough water to add to the mixture, not to mention to clean the glasses, plates, and silverware. By the time she’d made her umpteenth trip to fetch water, Erin’s arms felt like they were about to fall off. But that was okay, because she now had a drink.
“Mm! Sweet! This stuff’s like syrup! Chunky syrup! Or…a smoothie.”
Erin put the pitcher of blue fruit juice in the common room and checked on the noodles. She didn’t know how long to cook them, but she’d been taking out a strand or two every few minutes to make sure it was good. At last, she decided it was ready.
“Hm. Chewy. Tasty! Pasta is the greatest food in the entire world.”
The last thing she did was take the red sausage out of the cupboard and slice it up. She did it very finely, keeping her fingers far from the blade, but she diced the entire thing.
It had little pepper flakes inside. And the meat looked good. Erin couldn’t help but take one sliver; she resisted the urge to gobble it down and put the rest in the noodles. She might not get more for a long time.
The sausage tasted like sausage. Hot, spicy, and so flavorful it burst in her mouth. Erin’s eyes went slightly misty. It wasn’t blue fruits or—it tasted like food.
She couldn’t cry, though. She was far too hungry. Erin rubbed her eyes briskly and created a huge serving of noodles and dumped it onto a plate.
“Hm. Fork…fork! Am I missing anything?”
She felt like there was something missing. But—she brought the food into the common room anyways and sat down.
“Who knew carrying stuff with one hand was so much of a pain? I mean, everything’s a pain.”
The pasta was nice and hot. Erin felt her stomach rumbling. But something still felt off. And pain was still present.
“But it’s a better day, right? A bit of a better day.”
Erin stared at the plate. Pasta, check. Fork, check. Juice, check.
She sighed. A smile tried to climb onto her face. Her hand throbbed, but Erin kept the smile up and raised her fork. She was going to eat until she puked. Okay, maybe until she was just full. She raised the first glistening noodle to her lips.
Without thinking, Erin stood up and went to the door. She opened it as if she were at her home.
“Hi, can I help you?”
A giant insect stood in the doorway. It raised one chitin hand in greetings and opened its mandibles as its antennae waved in Erin’s face.
“Greetings. May we come in?”