Erin sat in a chair and stared outside. It was a lovely day. A warm breeze floated through the window, warming all it touched.
Except for her. She felt cold. Cold and empty.
Shadows passed before her. They had names. Klbkch, Relc, even Pisces. But they weren’t important. The dead were far worse.
Erin held a Goblin’s head in her hands. She stared into its blank eyes and felt her hands burning. She sat next to a dying Goblin and listened to him breathing.
The sun was bright. At some point, the night had turned to day. But Erin still felt as if it were night. In the inn, the shadows were long and kept her in darkness. It was only fitting.
The world felt hollow. Everything echoed, and the surroundings blurred gently around Erin as she sat. She wasn’t doing anything in particular. She was just existing. Existing and not fitting in.
A little ghost in a little inn in a little world. That’s what she felt like.
It was cold. Not physically; at some point, someone had put a blanket on her and left some tea that had grown chilly, untouched. Had that been Pisces? Surely not.
Erin looked up. Relc was in the inn. Was it the first time she’d seen him today? Probably. He was yelling about Goblins and apologizing. Klbkch was there. Silent. His brown carapace blended in with the chairs. Maybe he’d been here all day. Erin couldn’t remember.
“—kill all of the little bastards!”
Relc was shouting. He grabbed his spear. Erin’s hand moved.
Relc’s head jerked back as a kitchen knife flashed past his face. The blade thudded into a wall and lodged in the wood.
Klbkch and Relc stared at Erin. She stared at her hand silently. Oh. Right. A skill. [Unerring Throw]. Had she talked to Klbkch about it yesterday? Or was she going to talk to him in the future about it?
She looked up at Relc.
“Leave them alone.”
Then Erin went back to staring at her hands. After a while, Relc left. Klbkch left too, or maybe Erin just stopped seeing him.
“This is my inn. I make the rules here. And if you don’t like my rules, get out.”
Did she say that to Relc or the empty inn? Maybe she screamed it. Erin couldn’t remember. Time wasn’t the same anymore. She just stared at her hands and felt her flesh burning. She saw the dead Goblin lying on the floor, screaming quietly.
It was all she saw.
Pisces came later. He ran in with sparks shooting from his fingertips. He was like Relc. But he cared. He wanted to kill Goblins too, or maybe just scare them away. Place a curse on them. It didn’t matter.
Erin stared at him until he flinched and looked away. She gave him one of the dried sausages. She told him if he killed a Goblin, then she’d kill him.
He took the sausage and turned white when she told him she’d kill him. Then he put the blanket over her and left.
Erin sat in the inn and felt the walls closing in. She couldn’t breathe in there. So she went outside.
The sun was too beautiful, and the sky was too bright. Erin went back inside and felt the darkness crawling up her spine. The shadows were moving. The wind sounded like whispers.
She heard breathing. It was hers.
It was dark. At some point, the sun went down. That was the worst time. Erin saw dead things lying in the shadows. The bodies of Goblins lay underneath tables; their heads sat in the moonlight filtering in from the windows.
Erin shut her eyes. But they followed her inside her head. They dug around her mind and pulled out memories. Then they tore apart her heart. Piece by piece, until morning came.
Klbkch came the next day. Relc was missing. He sat with her a while and asked her more questions. Was she well? Did she want anything? Was she hungry?
Erin answered until it was too much work. Then she just sat and waited for him to leave. Eventually, he did.
The sunlight grew brighter until the shadows retreated. Erin sat in her chair and rocked back and forth occasionally. She got up when she heard the thumping.
Someone was at the door. Klbkch had made sure it was fixed, by nailing boards into place until it was secure. Erin hesitated a moment before she opened it.
A giant rock stood in front of her inn. A long claw reached for her. The rock crab clicked and swiped at her, snapping at her waist.
Erin opened her mouth and screamed. The rock crab tried to grab her head with one claw. She smashed it with a chair and kept screaming. The rock crab jerked back its claw and retreated. She howled at it. She screamed and screamed until her breath was gone. Then she screamed some more.
The crab retreated in agony, trying to shield its ear holes with its claws. It scuttled away as fast as it could. Miles away, the pterodactyl birds took flight in panic.
Erin screamed and screamed until her voice was gone. She wiped the tears off her face and walked back into the inn and slept in her chair.
She felt hungry when she woke. Erin ignored the feeling and kept sitting where she was. But the pain started biting at her insides. She ignored it.
It went away. But a few hours later, it came back and tore at her. Erin wondered when she’d last eaten. Two days ago?
Her stomach gurgled and begged. Erin felt the starving pain gnawing at her mind. Eventually, it became too hard to ignore. So Erin decided to eat.
It was too much work to cook. And she couldn’t eat meat. So Erin got up.
The effort of standing up left her light-headed and dizzy. Erin swayed and fell onto the table. She lay there and stared at the ground. After about ten minutes, she pushed herself up and walked out the door.
The sun was shining. Erin shaded her eyes. It was noon. Of tomorrow. That was probably why she felt hungry.
She began walking. It was hard. Her legs didn’t want to keep her upright. Twice, Erin tripped and fell over. But she got up and walked on. Walking was hard, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as other things.
The orchard was just as she’d left it. The unnaturally straight, stiff trees still bore the bright blue fruits. Erin kicked one tree and caught the fruit as it fell towards her face.
For a while, she sat on the ground and stared at the fruit. The trees provided her with shade; the wind blew her hair back into her face. Eventually, Erin bit into the fruit and ate.
It was sweet and delicious. The juice was cool and refreshing. Erin tasted ash and dust. Mechanically, she finished the fruit and ate five more. Then she threw up.
Once she was done, Erin ate another fruit. It helped with the taste. Then she stared at the mess of fruit and the stained seed core in her hands.
She cracked open the seed core and stared at the pulpy mess inside. Poison. It was probably a really painful way to die. The smell was terrible. It would probably taste terrible.
Poison was a terrible way to die. Almost as bad as melting your face off.
Erin smacked her head against the tree. It was nice and hard. The blue fruits showered down around her.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
She stopped when she saw the Goblins. They were standing at the edge of the orchard, four of them. They fled the instant her eyes fell on them.
One of the Goblins dropped something in its panic. Erin walked over and picked up the small basket made of twigs. It wasn’t very good.
She turned and looked at the orchard. Fruit trees. Of course. They were probably hungry too. She couldn’t see them eating the rock crabs, and the dino birds would probably eat them if they tried to steal their eggs. Aside from the occasional traveller, what else could Goblins eat?
Erin left the orchard. She walked back to the inn slowly, feeling her body gradually collapsing on itself. She probably needed to eat more. But it was too much work.
She sensed them following her. When she looked around, they fled. But they were slow, and she caught glimpses of them. Ragged clothes. Thin bodies. They looked like starving children, refugees from a war. Not like monsters. Except for the teeth and red eyes.
That gave Erin an idea. She stared at her hands for a moment and then picked up the pace. Suddenly, she was walking faster. When she got to the inn, she looked for the shopping bag and found Klbkch had stored all the ingredients away on the counter. It was very hard to start the fire. But when she’d started, it was easier than stopping.
Erin smelled smoke and burning. But only burning wood and not so much smoke. Mainly, she just heard breathing. And her stomach rumbling.
Evening fell upon the plains, upon the lone inn on the small hilltop, and upon the four Goblins skulking in the tall grass. They watched the inn. They watched the smoke rising from the chimney. They watched and heard their stomachs rumbling.
All of them had weapons. Not good ones; rusty blades and crude clubs. But they were dangerous.
Even so, they feared the inn. They feared the one that lived inside it. A trickster. A deceiver. A destroyer. She looked weak, but she was death. A burning death. Burning, melting death. A terrible way to go, even by their low standards.
They knew that. But still, they smelled something wonderful coming from the inn. Food. And they were so very hungry.
The inn had closed shutters, but they could still smell something wafting from the inside. It didn’t smell like rotted meat or the foulness inside the blue death fruits. It didn’t even smell like the dead, half-rotted animals they sometimes found on a lucky day. It smelled good.
They salivated. But they feared the inn. And they had to eat tonight or starve. So, reluctantly, they tore themselves away. They had hoped the Human female would drop some food or fall down dead. Since she did neither, they had to find other food.
Still, they hesitated. They lingered outside the door and wished they had the numbers or strength to steal the food. But the monster inside was death. She had killed the Chieftain, and so she could not be fought. It was death.
Still, they hungered.
The littlest Goblin had no more thoughts than that. Three Goblins were dead, now. The Chieftain, two more…their tribe might end here, before the snow came. That knowledge did not hurt her.
It just was. Her curiosity about the Human was gone. She saw everything clearly now. The Human female was death, a different kind than the Drake or the bug-person, but death nonetheless. She was hungry and empty and…and she wondered if the Human had any knives. She needed a sharp knife. Or she would die like the Chieftain.
The littlest Goblin’s gaze was empty, but like the other four Goblins, she wavered, debating, silently, whether or not she could steal a morsel from the inn. She was so hungry without the Chieftain to make sure everyone had a tiny bit of something or to kill one of the deer or something else like a few spiders.
How long did they stand outside the front door, drooling? Too long. The door slammed open.
The Goblins cried out in fear and turned to run. But the Deceiver didn’t chase them. She stood in the doorway of the inn, hands on her hips. She raised one eyebrow.
“Well? Come on in.”
The Deceiver turned and walked back inside. The Goblins exchanged a glance and stared at the open door. A good smell came from inside. They hesitated.
The littlest Goblin knew this might be her death. It would be just like the Human to kill them like the Chieftain. But the smell was so delicious. She clutched at her stomach, which was so beyond empty it now began to feel full. If she died, she wanted a bite of whatever that smell was. One bite, just one in her entire life. Her feet carried her forwards as the others hissed at her.
So, so delicious.
Erin turned as the first Goblin finally crept into the inn. He froze in place, but she pointed to a table.
He…hesitated, and then scampered over to the chair. Erin thought it was a he. It was almost impossible to tell.
The Goblin awkwardly perched on the oversized chairs as Erin placed a plate on the table. Or was it she? They flinched with her every move. When she pulled out the forks, the tiny Goblin nearly bolted. But they sat up and stared as she brought the pot into the room.
The metal was still burning hot. But Erin used her t-shirt to protect her hands and carried the pot to the table. She picked up a pair of tongs and began dropping buttered pasta mixed with sausage and onions onto each plate.
The Goblin salivated. They stared at the golden pasta and up at Erin with wide-eyed wonder. They reached for the pasta with dirty fingers and hesitated. The tiny little Goblin stared up at Erin.
She stared back. Her eyes travelled to the Goblin’s fingers, which were scooting beneath the plate.
“Steal my stuff and I’ll hit you with a chair. Sit. Eat.”
The Goblin snatched their fingers back instantly. They stared at the pasta and then up at Erin. She wondered why the Goblin wasn’t eating. Oh. Of course.
“The first meal is on the house.”
The Goblin looked up at the ceiling. Erin sighed, but her lips twitched.
“That means it’s free.”
Again, the Goblin stared at her. This time in wide-eyed wonder.
A hand reached for the pasta.
“Not like that.”
The Goblin snatched his hand back and nearly tumbled out of the chair. Erin sighed again. This time, she was smiling a bit.
“Eat with a fork. See this? Fork.”
She pointed to a fork. The Goblin stared at it. Slowly, the tiny figure picked it up. The Goblin inspected it, turning it around and understood how to use it, but admired the tiny tines. Then, gingerly, he speared one buttered noodle and slowly transferred it to his mouth. It hung over the open mouth full of yellowed teeth as he stared at her. Asking for permission.
Erin nodded. The noodle fell. The Goblin gulped and went very still. Deathly still.
Then he smiled. It was a terrible smile, full of sharp crooked teeth and hesitation. But it was a smile.
Erin smiled back. She laughed for the first time in ages. It was a laugh that came straight out of her feet and through her heart. It exploded out of her chest. It was a good laugh, and it made the world right again.
The Goblin looked at the laughing Human. The little Goblin put down his fork and ran out the door, screaming. It only made her laugh harder.
Erin put away the last plate and watched the last Goblin groan as it lay slumped on the table. Four Goblins. Six plates. She was surprised they’d managed to eat that much.
They were very small creatures. Still, they ate like starving wolves, which they were. At least, in that they had been starving.
But they lay now in a blissful food coma, on the border between pain and oblivion with their bloated stomachs. But as she approached, they sat up and stared at her.
Erin pulled up a chair and sat. The Goblins drew back, but they didn’t run screaming this time. They stared at her. She stared back.
After a long time, it was night. The smallest of the Goblins glanced towards the door, and they all stood up as one. Erin made no move to stop them.
Awkwardly, they wandered towards the door, still staring at her. Then one stopped and nudged the others. They clustered together, backs towards her. Erin saw something flash in their palms. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, but she remained seated.
One of the Goblins came back. It was holding something in its hands. It held it out to her.
Erin stared down at the three small, tarnished silver coins in the Goblin’s cupped hands. She blinked. Once. Twice. Then she let go of the chair and stood up.
The Goblin flinched, but Erin moved very slowly. She reached out and touched the Goblin’s hands. They were rough, dirty, and warm. She closed them over the coins.
“The first meal is free.”
The Goblin stared at her. She stared back. It turned and fled. But it stopped at the door and said something. It sounded like ‘sqwsmsch.’ Then it was gone.
Erin sat back down and stared at the door. She blinked a few times and then smiled. She stared around at the inn and wiped at her eyes. Then she pulled the chair in to the table and put her arms down for a pillow.
She was asleep the instant her head touched the table.