Erin woke up with a big smile on her face.
Actually, she woke up and went back to sleep several times before the sunlight got too bright to ignore. But when she eventually got up and ate breakfast, she got around to the big smile.
It came when she was eating more blue fruit and she realized she was using two hands. Erin had to stop and stare at her left palm for a while. She poked the clean, unscarred, uncut skin and grinned.
“Healing potions are awesome.”
She sat back in her chair, flexing her healed hand. It didn’t hurt. It was amazing how much it didn’t hurt. And she owed it all to a giant ant man and a lizard…Drake. What were their names again?
“Klbkch and…Drake Guy.”
Erin sighed as the memories returned and gave her a hard time.
“Seriously. They were so normal. But apparently I’m normal too. There are other Humans around here at least. But leveling? Classes? Am I an [Innkeeper]? Do I innkeep? How does that work?”
Then she remembered something else.
“I leveled up again.”
Erin poked her chest. She felt there should be some sense of accomplishment from within, but all she felt was vaguely full. But she remembered.
“[Basic Crafting]. Might as well give it a shot. I’m out of fruit, anyways.”
It was an uneventful trip to the blue fruit trees. As Erin gazed up at the blue fruits, she wondered for the first time how many there were left to eat. She counted.
“…Looks like I’ve got a few weeks before I run out. But bleh, eating just blue fruit all the time would be disgusting. At least there’s some ingredients left for pasta if I can find more eggs.”
But what would happen when her small cupboard ran out? What then?
Erin touched the pocket of her jeans and heard the clink of coins. Right, she had some money. But how much was it? And more importantly, how could she spend it? It wasn’t as if she could eat metal.
Grumbling to herself, Erin loaded up with blue fruits. It was getting annoying carrying them all by hand. She dropped a lot of them, which bruised the skin and made the fruit taste mushy. So why not try making something?
Erin stared at the ground. She had…grass. She stared at the trees. She had wood. But she had no way of cutting that wood, so it was no good. She didn’t know how to make things. Even if you gave her…rope, or string, and pieces of wood or something, Erin didn’t see how that equated to a basket.
Yet as she stared at the grass, something in Erin’s head lit up. She frowned suddenly.
“Wait a second. Maybe that could work. Let’s see. If I take this long grass and tie this knot here…”
Erin hunkered down and started picking the longer clumps of grass and testing their durability. She started tying knots and cutting with the knife.
Knots? Erin knew the most basic, weakest knots where you just folded two sides of string over each other and the shoelace knot, but she couldn’t tie that unless she had a…shoe. However, suddenly, she was weaving the grass together in ways she hadn’t thought of. But now that she was doing it—it was obvious. If you had big pieces of fabric, string, or grass, of course you could tie them together to form a net. And that would be the base of your basket…
It was like someone had bridged the tentative idea from what she needed with actual understanding. Erin found she had to focus on her task—she couldn’t just go on autopilot, but at the same time there was a certainty in what she was doing. And in less than twenty minutes, she was looking at a basket made of grass.
Erin held up the basket and inspected it. It was lightweight, but durable. Wide strands at the bottom wove together to form a decent mesh, and it even had a handle made of three big leaves braided together! She experimentally tossed all the blue fruits she’d gathered into it and lifted it. The grass basket pulled downwards, but the woven handle didn’t tear.
It was a real basket. Made of grass.
Was it tacky? Yes. Did she feel like she should be dancing with pom poms on a deserted island? Yes. Was that a terrible thought to have? Probably. And should she feel ashamed of herself? Erin already was. But she had a basket.
And more importantly, she had a plan.
What could you do with a basket? Well, you could eat and walk at the same time since you had a free hand. Erin cored a few blue fruits and hung on to the seed pods. Then she went looking for eggs.
It took her about an hour before she found another nest. When she spotted the telltale brown shape hunkering in the long grass, Erin stomped over, making as much noise as possible.
This time, the thing that erupted from the grass didn’t fly away immediately. Instead, the dino-bird screeched and dove at her. Erin stood her ground, reached into her basket, and threw a seed core.
But the flying object spooked the bird. The giant pterodactyl wavered and then flew away as Erin hurled more seed cores at it. She laughed triumphantly and rushed to grab the eggs.
That was when the bird turned around and flew at her, pecking and trying to bite her. It wasn’t afraid of the seed cores after all. And it had a sharp beak.
Only when she was sure that the dino-bird had gone did Erin stop running. She stopped and covered one of the numerous bloody peck marks on her arms and back and tried not to shout.
At least it hadn’t been bigger. Erin had managed to smack it a few times until it stopped trying to bite her face off. But that didn’t mean she’d gotten away unscathed.
Erin hissed as she pressed on another bite. She wanted nothing more than to get some cold water on them. Too bad there were more suspicious rocks in the way. Actually, there were about six of them, spaced out across the grasslands. Well, her trick hadn’t worked on the bird, but rock crabs were a different matter.
On her way back, Erin pasted two of the rock crabs with the slimy seed cores when they shuffled at her. They didn’t like the noxious liquid that splashed their shells and retreated with loud clicks. Erin wiped off the foul-smelling juice from her hands and walked past the crabs triumphantly.
It was just past midday when Erin got back to the inn. At least she’d stopped bleeding on her walk back. She made it halfway through the inn’s door, blinked, and threw up.
Erin stopped gagging and retching long enough to stare at the pool of liquefied blue fruit in horror. Then she was sick again. And again.
Somehow, Erin made it to the stream. It was a combination of walking fast and pausing every few minutes to throw up that got her there. She didn’t so much jump into the stream as fall into it and begin shivering as whatever was hitting her really went to town.
The next hour saw her kneeling at the stream, gargling water, puking it up, and watching out for the crazy fish. Fortunately, they didn’t seem inclined to get near her. Actually, she saw one swim towards her and start nibbling at the contents of her stomach as it washed downstream. That was gross.
Erin washed her mouth and hands off for the tenth time and felt the shaking and nausea stop a bit.
“What—what was that?”
Erin could only mumble as she stared into the water. She moved her head—not so much out of desire for movement as to watch for the dangerous flatfish.
The fish that had been eating her vomit was floating belly-up in the water. Erin saw the other fish were avoiding it just like they were avoiding her.
“…Poison. Gotta be.”
But what had it come from? As she lay there, the young woman tried to identify the causes. Her first thought was the pasta. The pasta, sausages…
But no, Klbkch had said if she was oozing she was sick. This felt like bad food poisoning. It could be the pasta. Or—or was she sick because of contact with the Drake guy? The bug-people might have horrible diseases.
Yet the fish was dead. So that felt more like it was something Erin had eaten. So, logically, she had two culprits.
Pasta made of dino eggs and sausage. Or…the blue fruits.
Given both as options, Erin knew which one she suspected. But she didn’t eat the seed cores! Were the blue fruits dangerous?
On a vague hunch, Erin looked around and saw the basket of blue fruits still lying on the ground where she’d dropped them to be sick in the stream. She picked one up and stared at it.
“You look innocent. But maybe…”
She did exactly what she normally did to eat it, except with her fingers instead of teeth. Erin delved into the pulpy fruit, resisting the urge to take a bite, and stared at the seed core inside.
It looked like it wasn’t broken. It looked, therefore, like this fruit was good. On a hunch, Erin tossed the blue fruit pieces into the stream. They sank a bit in the clear water, and she wondered if the water was bad too—she should have really boiled everything she drank. However, she had the most suspicion about the seed cores that scared the rock crabs so much.
The first flatfish had been avoiding her and whatever had killed its friend, but it apparently had short-term memory problems because it ungainly leapt and swallowed the pieces of the blue fruit she tossed into the water. Erin watched it as it spat out a bit, but apparently decided the rest was digestible, even if it wasn’t the flesh it so clearly craved.
“Okay. How about…”
The seed core didn’t crack as she gently lobbed it into the water and bobbed down the brisk current. The fish investigated it—and to Erin’s amusement, gingerly closed its teeth around the seed core and gave it a tentative nibble. It crunched down the seed core then began to spit out fragments and a bit of ugly greenish-blue from the pulp. All four eyes swung around crazily as the awkward fish shook its body in clear revulsion.
“Must taste bad, huh?”
The fish zoomed around unhappily as Erin watched. Then it grew slower, and Erin saw it open its mouth wide and then it began vomiting the contents of its stomach up. She watched a replay of what had happened to her. Only this time—within two minutes—the fish was dead.
A chill ran down Erin’s back as she saw the second corpse floating downstream. Those fish weren’t as big as her, but that one had eaten one seed core and—she looked down at the blue fruits in horror.
No wonder the dino birds, rock crabs, or other animals, even birds and worms and stuff, didn’t try to eat them! Only she was stupid enough to try—and the Goblins. She must have been lucky! Some of the seed cores must have leaked poison or something into some of the fruits she ate so she didn’t notice due to the sweet taste.
And then I eat too many and die. Only, I was spared because of random chance. Erin shuddered. She clenched her hands.
It wasn’t fair! Her one secure food source, good-tasting food, turned out to be poison. It was just like the acid flies, the fish, the cupboard—everything was out to get her.
Except for the two friendly [Guards], and they were gone. Erin put her head down.
“Do I just eat what’s in the cupboard and fight dino-birds? If I can’t eat the blue fruits…”
Her survival chances were dropping rapidly. Yet Erin looked at the basket of inviting blue fruits and saw them completely differently. No longer this world’s versions of apples or oranges—they were alien fruits, and she was lucky she hadn’t died eating the first one.
Glumly, Erin was about to toss all the blue fruits in the stream when she decided she could at least harvest the definitely-deadly poisonous cores as a rock crab deterrent. Then, as she was lying there, trying not to cry or puke—she heard a sound.
It sounded like—Erin sat up.
Oh no. Not now. She scrambled around and then crawled over to an incline and rolled down the other side.
The band of Goblins were six in total. Three with weapons, three with baskets of their own. In fact…they even looked vaguely familiar. One had a lot of bruises, and Erin recognized it as the one she’d slapped—mainly from the huge mark on its face.
The non-combatants were odder. They were small, wearing ragged, dirty clothes that looked far too big for them. One, for instance, had what was just a tunic for a regular person dragging on the ground, it was so short.
Those were the ones carrying baskets. Grass baskets, like Erin’s. And in fact—they had buckets too. Buckets made of what looked like…Erin hesitated as she peeked up from the lip of the slope she was hiding behind.
Shells? It looked like some kind of chitin. Not the Klbkch guy; it was too small, and too…she hesitated.
It looked like a spider shell, only hollowed and taped together with something sticky to make a crude basin. A big, big spider.
As it turned out, the Goblins were using it to collect water. They gazed around furtively as their leader poked the others and pointed.
They didn’t speak that Erin heard, only dipped their containers into the water. And—she noticed—they had baskets of blue fruit too.
The young woman realized she was occupying the exact same ecological niche as Goblins. That didn’t make her feel great, but they hadn’t seen her; for once, the unique topography of this area meant that she was less than twenty feet away and invisible unless they climbed up and saw her from above.
She hoped they wouldn’t take long to do their business. Then Erin hoped they didn’t use the stream as anything like a restroom. Or even bath, because she might be downriver of them! Then issues of hygiene and water contamination fled her mind as she heard a snarl.
One of the Goblins had found her grass basket. And spotted one of the dead fish floating downriver. It pointed at the basket, and all the Goblins looked up. Erin tensed as they investigated. She was still feeling vomit-y, but she had been healed and there were only three with knives. If it came to it—she could definitely run away and get to the inn. But what were they doing?
They were investigating the basket, poking each other and making odd gestures, again, completely in silence. Then the smallest Goblin did something that fascinated Erin.
The littlest Goblin hated getting water. It was heavy, and the big Goblins made her carry it. But she couldn’t fight well, and sometimes they had to fight spiders or other things. And they hit her if she complained.
They’d already gotten blue fruits, and the basket was heavy, so the little Goblin kept trying to hang it on different limbs as they went to fill the buckets. She felt like if she carried it on her back, she wouldn’t hurt her arms.
But when one of the Goblins who could make baskets saw her fraying the grass with her efforts, she hit the littlest Goblin, and the sniffing little Goblin carried her burdens in silence.
They were lucky; there was nothing hunting them when they got to the stream. After a few big mouthfuls of water, the group was ready to bring water back to the tribe and [Chieftain] when they found the basket.
That was odd. One of the warriors pointed at the basket, and all six Goblins checked themselves. Three had baskets of blue fruit, and the other three didn’t carry baskets.
But there were…one…two…three…four baskets. The lead Goblin was suspicious as the littlest Goblin looked around. There were no more Goblins gathering food, much less the blue fruits. Had one forgotten a basket?
It looked—good. Well-made. Most of the other Goblins who could craft baskets were lazy and made cheap ones because they fell apart soon. This one was nice, and the littlest Goblin wanted it.
Perhaps someone had forgotten it here. The bigger Goblins decided it was more food, and who cared where it came from? That meant one less Goblin had to make a trip to get the blue fruits.
It didn’t seem to occur to them that maybe it hadn’t come from Goblins at all. The littlest Goblin tugged at arms and pointed urgently.
What if it came from the inn? What if the Human had made it?
The others laughed silently in her face. Humans had real baskets of wood and metal! The littlest Goblin thought it made sense. The Human girl had been around the blue fruits and she was at that inn.
But they just poked her, and since her idea was stupid, she had to carry both baskets and the water.
That was so unfair the littlest Goblin protested. She swung her fists wildly at one of the warriors, who kicked her into the stream. She had to swim out before the fish got her and lay, sulking, on the ground. However, her defiance had worked, and the grumbling warriors decided one of them would carry the water bucket.
But she still had to carry both baskets! The littlest Goblin decided that was the best she could get, so she rolled around in the grass as one of the older Goblins who gathered fruits all the time decided to inspect the mysterious extra basket. Instantly, the [Gatherer]’s face twisted up, and the older Goblin snapped at the littlest Goblin to come over and help.
Some of the fruits were bad. What idiot Goblin had harvested these?
These Goblins were weird.
Erin had expected to get a movie-like scene from the Goblins where they said ‘let’s eat the Humans’ or something evil. But they weren’t like that. They didn’t…speak.
But they did pantomime a lot and seemed to be able to read each other’s minds. Could Goblins do that? They also seemed bored, and the ones with weapons were bullies! They’d kicked the little one into the stream, and now they were taking her basket!
Bullies and thieves. Erin bit her lip. She could remake that basket, but it was the first one she’d made! Plus her food was being taken. Her—admittedly poisonous blue fruits.
Okay, they could have that, but please, leave the basket! Erin watched as an older Goblin with what looked like a spider’s claw shoved through her black hair as a…hairpin?…investigated the basket.
Then she seemed upset and made a loud eigk-ing sound, the first sound any Goblin had really made aside from chortles or grunts, and beckoned the little Goblin over. To Erin’s indignation, she began tossing blue fruits out of the basket!
The little Goblin seemed as confused as Erin. She poked at one and got a swat from the older Goblin as she tried to add it to her collection. What was wrong with the fruits on the ground?
They were all poisonous. The littlest Goblin recoiled from one bad blue fruit and wiped her claws on her wet shirt as the [Gatherer] sorted the basket. It wasn’t just experience that told the older Goblin this.
It was her Skill.
[Detect Poison]. These were bad, these were bad…by the time she sorted the basket, only the fruits without a trace of badness were left. Half were scattered on the ground. She’d have to re-check these ones when they got back to the cave, too.
The littlest Goblin peered at the bad blue fruits. They didn’t seem bad to her. But she knew if you ate the nasty thing inside, you’d be dead in an hour. Bad, stomach-screaming, frothing-mouth-death.
One of the bad ways to go, even worse than spider-death. No, actually, spider-death seemed worse still, but both hurt a lot.
The little Goblin was curious, though, so as the older Goblins decided to take a break before heading back to their cave, she produced a tiny little knife and began opening the fruits. If these were bad…
She begged for one blue fruit, and since they had extra, all the Goblins ate one from the extra basket. They didn’t have to tell the [Chieftain]. The littlest Goblin cut them up and removed the seed cores and tossed them into the stream, and got to stare at the good blue fruits and the bad ones. She cut up three bad ones and then smiled.
Oh! That was how it worked.
The bigger Goblins watched the small Goblin out of the corners of their eyes. She was very young and very odd. Even for small Goblins. She’d smile or stare at things that made no sense, or collect rocks and sticks.
And now this? The littlest Goblin didn’t seem interested in eating the poisonous fruit, which was good, so they took a brief nap then left. They didn’t understand why she smiled. Nor did the young woman watching until she crawled out of hiding.
Erin felt like throwing up again by the time the Goblins had gone. Not because of them stealing her basket—the poison was still in her system.
However, she was curious as to the little Goblin’s antics. She clearly knew the fruits lying all about were bad—and just as obviously, at least one of the Goblins had identified the poisonous ones.
“Huh. Can Goblins smell poison? Wait…wait. That Relc guy said they have Skills. Do you get Skills to tell if there’s bad fruits? [Bad Fruit Detector]? No way.”
But how else would the other Goblins do that? Super-smell? If so, she should have picked up on Erin. The young woman didn’t know, but the little Goblin’s actions made her most curious. So she squatted down and stared at the pieces of blue fruit.
She was confused, not only by the blue fruit analysis, but by the Goblins. They were definitely horrible and had tried to kill her at least…five times, but they had tools like buckets and even—it seemed—Skills. So they had classes, like Klbkch said.
They were still monsters, and Erin supposed even monsters had to eat. But even so—it was odd. Now, what had the little Goblin, the one wearing all rags, found?
Perhaps it was nothing, but Erin had seen that smile of satisfaction. She peered for a long time at the ‘bad’ blue fruits.
“I think I need to figure out what a good one looks like.”
Unfortunately, the Goblins had eaten their snack and so Erin had to go all the way back to the blue fruit trees—carefully, watching out for crabs and Goblins. But since they’d already gone foraging, she reasoned they were unlikely to come back.
She did a round trip with an armful of fruits and sat, creating another basket by the river as she tried to cross-reference her fruits with the bad ones.
The problem was, Erin had no idea whether the fruits she had were good. She wished she had whatever the other Goblin had—a way to tell what was safe or not. That was a Skill, and Erin began understanding how valuable it was.
“I could eat mushrooms! Or…maybe not mushrooms because ick. Or bugs? Wait—that’s just as bad. Plants, then. Herbs. And blue fruits. Okay—this fruit and this fruit and this fruit.”
She took three random ones from her collection and put them in the ‘I have no idea’ pile. Then she organized the ones the Goblin had opened in the ‘definitely probably deadly’ pile. After that? It was a game of spot the differences.
Embarrassingly, it took Erin over fifteen minutes, far longer than the little Goblin, to identify what the distinction was. And then of course she tested it by tossing it into the stream and watching which fish really seemed unhappy as the bad fruits ran through their system. Erin supposed many creatures that weren’t…people? Mammals? They seemed to suffer the effects of blue fruit poisoning a lot faster than her.
“Aha! So that’s all it is?”
Mystified, Erin looked down at the bad fruits. She saw almost identical interiors to the good ones. You couldn’t tell if the seed cores were smashed and mixing with the fruit from the inside.
At least—not from the coloration of the blue fruit, or even the smell. Taste? The blue fruits were so sweet it’d be hard to identify, and by that point, you were putting poison in your mouth.
The trick had taken Erin a long while to figure out, but since she knew the little Goblin had seen something, she’d eventually begun prodding the pieces of fruit, wondering if it was just noticing bits of seed core.
Then she saw the difference: all the bad blue fruits were wet. To be more precise, they were actively juicy. Blue liquid ran from the pieces, whereas the other blue fruits refused to produce juice except where they were torn and only when you chewed or mashed them up.
Erin had noticed when she made the blue fruit juice that she’d had to really mash the pieces up to produce the juice. However, in the bad sample group, the fruits were actively watery.
“Maybe the poison is making the fruit like—wetter? Or it’s making the fruit weaker?”
Or perhaps the poison was killing the fruit rind outside the seed. The longer Erin stared, the more the bad fruits seemed to be actively going through rapid decomposition before her eyes. Turning to mushy, nasty pulp.
The blue fruits, the good ones, felt more like oranges in texture; you had to bite and extract the sweet. The bad ones were actively mushing due to the seed cores being compromised.
Erin’s test group of evil fishies certainly seemed to back up her findings; they kept eating the pieces of blue fruit she tossed to them, but they began spitting out the bad ones after a few bites.
As if they could also tell. Well, Erin didn’t want to rely on Goblins and biting fish for evidence of poison, but she had to admit—they seemed to have figured it out.
She gathered up all the remaining blue fruits thoughtfully and put them in her basket. She’d check them all before eating back at the inn. And she’d eat very, very sparingly of the ones that looked good, juice-test or no.
If she got sick, hopefully it would only be lightly. Erin didn’t relish that, but she’d rely on pasta and eggs over the blue fruits for a few days. At least she had something to try.
“And all because of that little Goblin. Huh.”
Erin stared back at where the Goblins had been. That was the most pleasant encounter she’d had with them—mostly because they hadn’t known she was here. Then a thought occurred to her, and her face fell.
“Aw. No. Oh no. Am I…dumber than Goblins?”
The longer than expected outing had one benefit. Erin was mostly over her food poisoning bout as she returned to the inn. She still had a vague desire to retch, but it was mostly gone. Erin climbed up the hill, shuddering at how close it had been. She’d gotten off lucky, she supposed. It had only been an hour or so of feeling terrible. If it were actually serious—
Erin had to stop and smile. Serious? Back when she hadn’t been struggling to survive, oh, three days ago, being that sick would have ended up with her in bed for the next week.
“And I’d have a team of doctors feeding me pills by the pound too.”
She laughed softly. Then her smile vanished. Erin covered her face with her palm.
And then she walked on. It was getting dark. She couldn’t stop yet. Whether or not she knew it—she was in too much danger.
Something was watching her. And waiting for nightfall.
The key to distracting oneself—from the facts and the resulting overwhelming emotions—was motion. Erin moved around the inn and kept busy. She cleaned the vomit off the floor, washed the plates as best she could with some of the water, helped herself to a bit of pasta, and brought out more plates and silverware to the common room. Then she stored the eggs and blue fruit away in one of the cupboards, went upstairs, and cleaned a few rooms. She was moving, but really, she was waiting.
“They said they’d visit. But did they mean that or are they busy? Either way, I can always make more pasta and save some for later, right?”
She had a pot full of hot pasta in the kitchen, and she’d served and eaten her own plate of buttery noodles with blue fruit juice before she realized it was dark. Hopefully, Erin stared out one of the windows, but the grasslands were empty. The sky was so amazingly vast, the stars so numerous. It was beautiful, frightening. Erin would have loved to stare at it if she were at home, yet what she was really hoping to see were two figures. But she didn’t.
“They must be busy.”
Erin sighed to herself. But it wasn’t that early in the night after all. She could wait.
The young woman sat at a table, her stomach full, her clothes torn and dirty, her eyes drooping. But every few minutes, her eyes flicked to the stout wooden door. She was waiting.
Senior Guardsman Relc stretched in his chair in the Guard’s barracks. It wasn’t too crowded in the early evening, most [Guards] having checked out already or begun their evening patrols. Those who remained in the building were almost entirely Drakes, aside from a few tall, furry, humanoid guards. And they were all busy with their own tasks.
There was only one exception to the two species in the Watch barracks, and that was him. Klbkch. Relc cast an irritable eye over at the large, hunched insect hovering over a table next to him. Klbkch was industriously writing in a large ledger, pausing every few moments to dip his quill into a pot of ink.
“Are you done logging out for the day yet?”
Klbkch made a precise notation with a quill on a sheet of parchment. He glanced up, and his dry voice was devoid of exasperation by most standards, but Relc could tell his partner was annoyed. It was the subtle clues, like the way Klbkch stared at him with two arms crossed.
A lot of the new [Guards] couldn’t tell anything about Klbkch—not that they got near him. He was Antinium, and even if he was Senior Guardsman Klbkch, everyone knew who he was and what he represented. But then—this was Liscor, not the army or another city.
Liscor was unique, so you actually had a guardsman duo of Relc and Klbkch. The Antinium clicked his mandibles, and his voice was annoyed.
“There. I have signed us both out. Again.”
“Great. Thanks. Now, wanna go check on that Human? I hear—”
A female Drake shouted at Relc from across the room. She was nowhere as large as Relc, and she wore chainmail and a sword at her hip as she stomped up to him.
“Senior Guardsman Relc, belay that! There’s a brawl in the marketplace. Get over there and stop the fighting!”
He sat up and groaned. Klbkch turned as the Drake pointed. She had light blue scales, almost cobalt, and bright yellow eyes. She also had her badge of office pinned to her chest and—whenever she was talking to Relc—a vexed glare. Right now, the vexation was for the idiots fighting. Relc protested.
“What? Some idiot had to start a fight now of all times? We were going to go back and—”
“Shut up and get moving! I need everyone there, now.”
“But—we’re signed out—”
“We’ll count your hours later, move!”
The Drake strode off, already snapping at another patrol who rushed for the door. Relc stayed where he was for a moment, mouth open in protest. Then he swung himself to his feet.
Klbkch was already signing them back in and checking his gear. He sighed but nodded to Relc. Despite his grumblings, the [Spearmaster] was on his feet fast.
“A pity. Let’s be on our way.”
They headed for the door, and the rest of the [Guards] called for the brawl fell in behind them. They had clubs, truncheons, and shields; neither Relc nor Klbkch went for their spear and swords. Relc made one huge fist and glared at the female Drake in disgust.
“What a pain. Let’s smack some scales-for-brains quick. Maybe we’ll still have time to go to the inn afterwards.”
Klbkch shook his head slowly. He was calculating and reminded Relc of the obvious.
“You know we will be called upon to go after those who got away. And there is damage assessment, guard detail, investigating any burglaries during the violence…”
“Do not fret. The Human will not be going anywhere.”
“I know, I know. But I was going to eat more pasta and—”
The angry shout made Relc wince and cover the two holes on the side of his head. The female Drake was pointing as she headed back for the second floor.
“Alright, let’s go. Man, I really hate Captain Z.”
That was his name for her. Klbkch looked reprovingly at Relc as they marched out the doors.
“Don’t insult the Watch Captain while we are within earshot.”
“She can eat my scales. Let’s go and get this over with.”
They sighed as they got back to work. Relc sighed even louder because his stomach was grumbling and he’d promised it pasta. Late shifts and overtime pay, which was nice. But for what? He’d have to grab a snack at midnight, not a proper meal, and visit the inn tomorrow. It was okay for Klbkch; he had no life. But Relc?
He just hoped the [Innkeeper] wouldn’t stay up waiting for him.
Erin sat at the bar counter in the inn and waited. All was perfect.
Well, all was sorta perfect. It was at least acceptable. She had a basket of the blue fruits, more pasta in a large pot, and she’d even drawn a fresh bucket of water from the stream. She had very nearly spotless plates and silverware, and, all in all, she was ready for some guests.
If they’d ever arrive. At first, Erin kept checking the door every few minutes, even going to the window to see if she could spot them. But then she found herself leaning back in her chair, waiting—it had been a long day of walking back and forth on top of being sick. She supposed she was still recovering, because she was very, very tired. She wasn’t that hungry, but she wanted to wait for Relc and Klbkch.
Eventually, Erin’s eyes drooped. Her breathing slowed. She fell asleep while dreaming she was still waiting and awake. She was counting blue fruits with the little Goblin when—
Erin woke up with a start. She raised her head and looked around groggily. It was dark. The inn had gone from faint light to no light in what felt like a heartbeat. The set table was almost shrouded as she sat up.
They never came. Or wait—what was this?
Something was at the door. The pounding was low and steady. Erin wiped the drool off of her chin and got up from the table. She must have fallen asleep waiting. But here they were. She stumbled over to the door and shivered.
Odd. The nights were somewhat chilly, but right now it was actually cold. Actually, it wasn’t just cold. It was…frosty?
The door’s handle was covered in a thin layer of ice. From behind the door, Erin sensed something chilling, and she could feel a cold draft blowing from beneath the crack. Or was that the shivering sensation running down her spine?
Erin jumped back from the door. That wasn’t knocking. Something was hitting the door. Hard.
“Hey. Who’s there?”
She wished her voice wasn’t so wobbly.
Was it a whisper? No. It was more like an echo. It sounded like a loud voice coming from thousands of miles away, and it had an unearthly quality to it. No voice could be so deep, so spine-chilling.
“Um. We’re closed. S-sorry.”
The something on the other side of the door…chuckled. It was probably a chuckle. It was wet and gurgling.
“It matters not. I require sustenance. Food. Provide that to me, and I shall be on my way.”
Food? As in the fleshy variety? Erin shuddered.
“I don’t have any. Go away!”
“I will not be denied. Open this door or face my wrath.”
That was enough for Erin. She backed away from the door.
“I’m warning you! Come in and I’ll, I’ll…”
She looked around desperately. It was too dark, and she’d forgotten where she’d put the Goblins’ knives. Weapon. She needed a weapon.
“Do not anger me further. If you refuse my simple request, I will—”
She didn’t wait to see what the voice would do. She could guess. Instead, Erin ran to the kitchen. She needed a weapon. A knife, a piece of wood, a spatula, anything.
Erin’s hand had found the handle of a pot when the scrape of wood made her breath stop. She’d forgotten. She’d been waiting for Klbkch and his friend. So that meant—
The door was still unlocked.
Something was pushing the door open. Erin sprinted back to the door and threw her weight against it. She knocked back whatever it was, but she couldn’t close the door fully. It was in the way.
“This is unwise. Your insolence will only bring about more punishment.”
The creature hissed at Erin. She could hear it right outside the door. It was pushing, trying to get the door open. But Erin was fueled by pure fear, and she somehow managed to keep the door where it was.
“Mistress. All I ask for is a bit of food. Provide me that and I shall be on my way.”
The skeletal creature reached its hand through the doorway. Something dark dripped down out of its bones. It splashed against the wood and vanished. Its face was—that wasn’t a Human’s skeleton. It was a mask of elongated bone, as long as Erin’s torso. Two jagged nostrils revealed something wet and fleshy, moving in time to the voice behind the bone.
“I do not wish to become angry.”
Her hand was on the cooking pot. Her heart was dead in her chest.
The skeletal monstrosity seemed to recoil. It pushed the door further open, and something noxious wafted in. It smelled like decay, like worms rotting in an unmarked grave. The monster pushed harder, and Erin’s feet slipped.
“A pity. But I will have you provide me with sustenance nevertheless.”
Erin seized the door and tried to close it, but the creature hurled it open. She fell back and stared in horror.
A thing with too many bones and pieces of flesh gazed down at her. It gave off a ghastly smell, and crimson light flashed from its eyes. A rotting monstrosity garbed in bone. A dead being of some eldritch horror whose ‘arm’ jerked and twitched as it wriggled towards her, brown rot and decay and mildewed skin.
“Give me what I desire. Or I shall—”
Erin screamed and hurled the pot.