It was instinctual. The black metal pot flew through the air even before the creature finished speaking.
Before the creature was struck by the flying pot, it made a very uncharacteristic, very Human, very surprised sound. After it was struck by the pot, it didn’t make any sounds at all.
The image of the gigantic, skeletal creature wreathed in slime and darkness vanished in an instant. Erin stared as the much more normal figure of an unconscious young man dressed in grey robes appeared on the ground. He was unconscious and already had a big bruise forming on his forehead. She stared at him. She stared at his dirty robes and the flicker of light on the tips of his fingers as the illusion faded.
The young man was dreaming. Maybe he was dreaming of something nice. Maybe he was reflecting on his life so far and how it had led him here, or his past mistakes. Either way, the bucket of water woke him up.
The young man sat up, rubbing his head. Erin stared at him. He didn’t seem very mage-like. Or that impressive, for that matter. He had pale skin, brown, unkempt hair, all unwashed and fairly filthy. His fluttering eyes were grey-green, but when they focused, they were sharp as they flickered around and then looked up at her.
He actually didn’t look that bad, although he certainly looked thinner than strictly necessary. What was most off-putting was his smell. A rancid odor that contrived to combine personal body odor with a foul sewer stench. Actually, that smell was probably his clothes, which didn’t look like they’d been washed. Ever.
The mage stared up at Erin and blinked. She stared back.
“So. You’re gonna hurt me if I don’t give you food, huh?”
Erin stood up and cracked her knuckles. It really hurt, but she tried not to let it show. The young man raised one finger and pointed at her. It was only slightly trembling.
“You struck me? Me? How dare you! I will have you know I am a mage of great power, and I will not be—”
The mage cut off quickly as Erin lifted the cast-iron pot up with one hand.
“This. This is a pan.”
Erin waved the metal pot in front of the young man’s head. She saw him glance at it and then colored when she realized her mistake.
“In fact, good Mistress, that is in point of reality—”
“If I say it’s a pan, it’s a pan. The important part is that I’ll hit you with it if you try anything.”
The mage sneered at her. Erin took offense to his tone instantly. His voice sounded sort of educated, precisely enunciating each word, but it was acerbic. Sneering was the default mode to his voice. The young man’s gaze darted about, first to Erin, then around. He eyed her pot, but then he lifted one hand. Erin recoiled as the young man’s gaze seemed to brighten. She felt something change and panicked.
“Hey, stop that!”
He ignored her and mumbled something. At once, he vanished. He was gone! A booming echo reverberated throughout the room, wrathful.
“Behold my p—”
Erin swung her pot in the space where the mage had vanished.
The mage reappeared, clutching at the side of his face. Erin raised her pot again, and he raised his hands defensively.
“Try that again and I’ll hit you harder.”
He shielded his face, backing up, but he stumbled on his robe and nearly fell down. He was most likely dazed from two blows to the head, so he raised his hands and sniffed loudly. Despite his situation, he adopted a lecturing, superior tone as he lifted a finger.
“Now look here, there’s no need for violence, Miss. I can see that you are no ordinary plebian fool but an extraordinary plebian. Believe me when I say that is a high compliment from a practitioner of the arcane such as I.”
“I know what plebian means.”
His mouth opened, and the young man’s supercilious expression turned to worry.
“One more insult or stupid little invisibility spell and I’ll break something.”
The mage looked surprised.
“You—you could tell it was an invisibility spell?”
Erin rolled her eyes.
“What else could it be? I’ve played D&D.”
The mage blinked at her. Then he muttered to himself in a not-quite whisper.
“How astute. She’s quite intelligent for an [Innkeeper].”
Erin glared. He coughed and avoided her gaze.
“Ahem. Well, I shall be going. I am—terribly sorry for all that. It was just, ah—a spell which I—desperate times make fools of us all. And clearly, not you. Which is why I shall depart and not trouble you again.”
He made a show of standing up and brushing down his robes. Quite a lot of dirt and grime fell to the inn’s floor. Erin stared at it and glared at him harder. He swept her a deep bow and gave her a charming smile. Or what he probably thought was one. The young man reached into his robes, and she lifted the pot, but he held up his other hand hurriedly.
“My apologies, good [Innkeeper], for all these misunderstandings. Please accept this recompense for your wasted time.”
He reached into the pocket of his robes and produced a few bronze coins. He made to offer them to Erin, but when she made no move, he placed them on the table.
“So. You’re paying me for trying to scare me and steal food?”
The mage gave her a winning smile. It did nothing to wipe away Erin’s scowl.
“Harshly put, good Mistress. But yes, I would like to make amends. Let us be quits with no further unpleasantness! Or violence. And I am sure this payment is quite acceptable, is it not?”
Erin stared at the four bronze circles, which he grandly placed next to the bronze coins. She glanced up at his face. He looked entirely reasonable, even apologetic. Her face was impassive and betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
He began dabbing at his forehead with his robe.
“Am I? Terribly sorry. Let me just, ah…”
Three more coins appeared in the palm of his hand with a flick of the wrist. It looked like a sleight-of-hand trick. A pretty bad one, at that. Erin stared at the seven coins. Not one was silver. Hadn’t Relc given her two silver coins for a meal? She changed her grip on her pot for more striking power.
“Some people don’t like being threatened by a giant skeletal monster from hell.”
The number of coins on the table didn’t change. Erin stared at him.
“Some people would take violent offense to being scammed.”
The young man blinked once.
“Ah, this is understandable. But may I remind you that traditionally those who practice magic are beings of great power that should not be crossed?”
Erin wanted to fold her arms, but she kept the pot raised.
“Yeah, and they have fragile bones. I’m sure mages are really scary when they’re far away, but wands aren’t good at blocking frying…pots.”
The mage licked his lips, but his face remained calm.
“Fair point. Let me just amend my fee.”
A silver coin appeared in the palm of his hand. Erin narrowed her eyes and said nothing. Another silver coin appeared, and then a third.
She crossed her arms.
Three more silver coins joined the small pile. The mage was definitely sweating now.
“I, uh, hope this is sufficient, good Mistress. I am of course willing to pay any dues to—to make amends, but I’m slightly low on coin at the moment.”
Erin kept staring.
Very reluctantly, he reached into the belt at his side. He pulled out a gold coin and held it up.
“Would, ah, this do?”
Erin relented a tiny bit. She picked up the coins in his hand without taking the gold coin. She thought she heard him sigh in relief, but his face remained impassive. He was still sweating. She eyed him and nodded to the table.
“You know, I just wanted to see what would happen if I kept on staring at you.”
He tried to hide it, but his eyes widened a moment in what might have been shock or outrage. The young man sniffed and then coughed into one sleeve.
“Ah. Of course. Well, as a practitioner of the mystic arts, I feel it is always wise to be…generous.”
Erin’s face told him how much she believed that. She frowned at the coins she’d taken.
“It would certainly save time. And you know if you paid for everything, you wouldn’t have to try to scare people to get what you want.”
Another sniff, as if she were speaking nonsense. He flicked his fingers dismissively.
“Ah, but money is so…mundane. Where would the enjoyment in life be without variety?”
“Uh huh. And you provide that by threatening people with illusions?”
“Only on occasion. And I quite understand your irate feelings. However, since I believe all is settled, I shall just…”
He edged away from her and towards the door. Along the way, his stomach rumbled and his ears turned red, but he kept walking. Erin sighed and came to a rapid decision.
“Where are you going?”
His shoulders hunched, and Erin saw his hand tighten on the door handle.
“Well, if you have no further need of me…I did pay for my misdeeds, after all. Rather handsomely, I might add, given that no harm was actually done except to my person. So I won’t intrude any fu—”
“Come back here and I’ll feed you.”
He turned around and blinked at her. Erin was already going into the kitchen for a plate and cups.
“Here. Blue juice and some blue fruit. I’ve also got pasta, but I need to warm that up first.”
Erin set the cup and plate down and added three blue fruits on top of it. She expected the mage to dig in immediately or make a snarky comment, but he just turned pale.
“Ah. Am I supposed to eat this?”
“Yeah. It’s food.”
“And I suppose if I don’t, you hit me with that pot, correct?”
He eyed her warily. Erin eyed him back.
“What are you talking about? I’m giving you food. Are you allergic to the color blue or something?”
Once again, the face of her guest seemed caught between wanting to say something and wanting to bolt. He pointed gingerly to the blue fruit.
“Are you aware that, ah, this fruit is poisonous?”
Erin paused, the blue fruit halfway to her lips.
He smiled at her, his face a shade paler than before.
“Highly. The core of the Amentus Fruit causes painful death within hours if eaten. While the outer rind is safe for consumption, the inner seeds are toxic. You are aware of this, right?”
“Um. I am now? I mean, I figured that out earlier. These ones are good. I’ve checked them.”
The look he gave her said that he didn’t believe her. The look she gave him told him that he could eat her food and she didn’t really care if he was poisoned or not. He gulped.
The mage eyed the blue fruit apprehensively.
“Do I have the option to refuse?”
“Look, it’s safe. I’ve eaten tons of them. Just eat around the core and you’ll be fine, okay? I figured out how to check for good ones. See?”
His was very ripe, non-mushy, and when Erin took a bite to show him, she was sure it wasn’t contaminated. Still, her odd guest made no move towards the plate. He steepled his fingers and gave her a genuinely fake smile.
“Shall we just say I accept your word? I wouldn’t dare question your authority on the subject, good Mistress, it’s just that—”
“Oh come on.”
Erin stomped into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. The mage flinched when she reappeared with it, but she grabbed one of the fruits and began cutting the outer shell of fruit away. She left the seed core on the counter and shoved the diced fruit into a plate. Two more fruits went the same way before she plonked the plate down in front of him.
The seed cores were perfectly intact, too. Whereas the bad ones she’d found had shown hairline cracks when she’d explored the insides. That little Goblin was on to something.
“Here. Totally non-poisonous food ready to be eaten. Happy?”
She glared at him. He gingerly picked up a slice of blue fruit and regarded it apprehensively. He looked ready to refuse, but then both he and Erin heard a loud sound.
It was a growling beast that almost made Erin look for a monster—until she realized it was his stomach. The young man turned beet red, and Erin almost laughed at him. He hesitated, then the fresh food in front of him seemed to do in his last resolve.
“I suppose the toxicity would be acceptable if it were just the fruit. Well then.”
Gingerly, he bit into the fruit and chewed. After a few seconds, he swallowed and took another bite. His eyes widened, and he began chewing vigorously.
In under a minute, the plate was empty and he was wiping the blue dribbles off his mouth with a corner of his robe.
Erin set down a plate of steaming pasta in front of him.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you? Well, eat this.”
And it even sounded like genuine thanks. Erin guessed he had been fairly hungry. Actually, now that she looked closer, his robes did seem to hang rather thin on his frame. And if you factored in the dirtiness and general smell he was now giving off, she guessed he was in pretty rough shape.
Still, he ate with all the vigor and energy of two men, so she supposed he was still okay. And once she’d refilled his plate, he slowed down. After a while, he stopped, probably to let his stomach expand, and regarded her.
“So, if I might inquire, what is a delicate flower of effervescence doing in such a locale?”
Erin glared at him.
“Are you trying to sound impressive or do you actually talk like that?”
He drew himself upright and looked indignant.
“How rude. My advanced lexicon and diction is merely a result of my education, not a façade that—”
“Stop it. You sound like an idiot.”
His eyes narrowed, but Erin’s glare out-glared his own. He snapped back testily.
“Fine. I suppose there’s no use attempting to impress anyone who actually has the rudiments of an education. But my question remains: what’s a young g—woman like you doing out here alone?”
His voice was no less haughty and condescending than before, but at least he wasn’t dropping seven-letter word scores every other sentence. Erin decided that was worth a few more seconds of forbearance. That didn’t mean she had to be polite, though.
“I got lost.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Lost? It takes quite some skill to wander this far into the Floodplains. Or are you a local? I very much doubt you are, though.”
“Floodplains? What are you talking about?”
The mage waved a hand around lazily.
“This area is known as the Floodplains of Liscor. It’s because of a lovely natural phenomenon of the geography and—but you aren’t from here, if you don’t know about this area. But I would have guessed as much since you are Human. As far as I can tell.”
“I am completely, 100% Human, thanks. And why does that make a difference?”
“The locals don’t like Humans that much. Which is a fact anyone in a hundred miles would know. This is the border to the Drake lands to the south. But you…didn’t know that, did you?”
He gulped down a few more noodles while watching her. Erin’s mouth opened, and he frowned at her.
“You truly didn’t? Well, well. A traveller who doesn’t know anything about where she is…teleportation spell? Amnesia magic?”
Erin blinked at him.
“How’d you guess? Actually, you’re only half-right, but how’d you guess?”
“It’s common. Well, not common exactly, but it’s the only explanation I can think of. Back in the Academy…it was not an unheard of phenomenon. I suppose you could have also been carried off by one of the local avian species, but they tend to drop their prey and chew their bones.”
“They grow that big? No; don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. But you’re right. It was a teleportation spell. Or something. It didn’t feel like a spell, but…”
“And you’re an expert on [Teleportation] spells? I see.”
This time, the sneer in his tone was a bit too pronounced. Erin’s hand twitched towards the pot.
“I’m not. But I’ll just bet those kinds of spells make a flash of light or a weird sound, right?”
He looked reluctant.
“And anyways, I didn’t see any idiot in robes waving a wand around and shouting ‘abracadabra’. And there aren’t wizards where I—I mean, I’m sure it wasn’t a…I just turned the corner and here I was.”
Erin trailed off, but the mage’s eyes were suddenly filled with interest. He leaned forwards in his chair.
“Really? You just turned a corner and you were in a completely different place?”
“Yeah. It’s been fun and games ever since.”
He sat back.
“Fascinating. That has to be a very high-level phenomenon or artifact. Seamless teleportation without any visual cues and even sensation at that range? Not even our Archmages could…fascinating indeed.”
“Fascinating as in ‘I know what spell that was?’”
The mage caught himself and looked up. He hesitated, then shook his head.
“No, no. I have no clue what kind of magic would be capable of that, if any. That sounds like a spell which—well, suffice it to say I know of only a few living mages who might even attempt such a feat. But if you were the target, it still makes no sense. Why would anyone waste such a powerful spell on someone as mundane as…as…”
He avoided her gaze and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, which arguably made his mouth dirtier.
“Yes, well. I see you’ve established yourself quite nicely. This is—is quite a lovely establishment you’ve founded. Very quaint.”
“It’s not mine. I just found it and somehow became an [Innkeeper] by cleaning up around here.”
“Indeed. That is quite often the case. However, you seem to have taken to it well. This area is inhospitable to most Humans.”
“Thanks, I guess. But if it’s so lousy—and it is, I totally know—why are you here?”
He blinked at her.
“Yes, you. I told you why I’m here. What’s a raggedy mage doing scaring people for food?”
He swept his robes around himself defensively.
“My physical appearance has nothing to do with—”
“Just answer the question.”
He looked uncomfortable.
“I, ah, came here to expand my horizons. This part of the continent—well, the local collection of city-states are quite hospitable to those people trying to avoid undue attention. Besides, food is plentiful if one has certain skills.”
“Like pretending to be a horrible monster?”
The young man was having a real problem looking anywhere near Erin. He flushed slightly and twiddled his thumbs together, then cleaned his plate with a fork.
“One does what one must to survive.”
She looked at him.
“I suppose one does. Does it make you feel good, stealing from innocent people?”
Her words turned his face bright red. He set down his fork and pushed his empty plate back. The mage looked up at Erin, and his eyes focused with sudden anger.
“You would not be so quick to judge if you knew more about the people you’re defending. Especially this city.”
The young woman hesitated only a second, but then put her hands on her hips.
“Maybe not. But then again, the only two I’ve met were quite polite, paid for their meal, and didn’t try to threaten me when I first met them. Whereas the first Human I met was you.”
Again, Erin and her guest locked eyes. This time, he broke away first. He got to his feet with a swirl of his robes.
“I see I’ve overstayed my welcome. Well, your meal was quite adequate, good Mistress. Please accept my heartfelt gratitude.”
He probably meant to stalk away, but Erin barred his path.
She offered him two blue fruits. He hesitated.
“Take them. You look thin, and maybe if you eat them you’ll stop bothering other people. Thank you for your business. Come by again and I’ll feed you. Try to scare me and I’ll hit you harder next time.”
He blinked at her, but accepted the fruits anyways.
“Um. Thank you.”
They stood there awkwardly for a moment.
“It occurs to me that I never asked your name.”
“Me? Oh, I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. And you are?”
The mage took a step back and gave her an elegant bow. Erin stared at the blue stain on the sleeve of his robe.
“Pisces, practitioner of magic, student of Wistram Academy, specialized in the Elementalist and Illusionary schools of magic with additional competencies in multiple spell schools.”
Erin raised an eyebrow.
“Good for you. Got a hobby?”
He hesitated and put one hand on the doorknob. The mage gave Erin a long look and murmured.
He closed the door as Erin stared.