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Erin left her inn three times over the course of the next two days. The first time she went out, she visited Selys, and the two had a long chat—lecture, really—about not going out and fighting monsters alone. Then they visited a bathhouse, helped Erin pick out more clothing, and went to see the ruins.

The ruins were about ten miles out from the city, but such was the traffic going to and from the ruins that it was easy to hitch a ride on a cart. Erin wondered why the mysterious ruins were safe to visit until Selys pointed out the countless adventurers of various levels congregating around the ruins.

There were at least a hundred mostly Human adventurers now in the city and in the makeshift tent city that had already appeared around the ruins. ‘Mostly Silver and Bronze-ranks’, according to Selys, which seemed to suggest that this wasn’t too impressive despite the numbers. But for all the shanty town’s size, it was dwarfed by the size of the excavated ruins.

They were massive. The excavation site itself was a giant pit in the ground—three times as large as a football stadium—that had unearthed a dark stone opening, a massive doorway into a crypt, or so Erin and Selys were told.

They didn’t go anywhere near the building. Few of the adventurers did either, and the [Traders] offering goods had parked their shops on the edge of the crater.

Apparently, the ruins were still filled with dirt and dried mud from years of being buried. Thus, adventurers were digging while fending off the monsters that lived within. Apparently, the place abounded with giant, burrowing rats—which Drakes did not eat, according to Selys—various types of the undead, varieties of spiders, and other low to mid-level monsters.

That was slowing up the adventuring teams, along with the sheer size of the ruins. But the main truth of it was that none of the diggers hired wanted to dig far in case they found something, and most of the adventuring teams felt the same. True, several had found small caskets of valuables, like silver and jewels, indicating this was at least partly an old crypt, but several of the more adventurous teams had advanced further in and never come back.

Or they’d come back shuffling and moaning, trying to eat the flesh of the living.

That was the first visit, and Erin was lucky enough not to see any dead zombies—especially because she had a lovely lunch with Selys as they watched everyone mill about and not do anything much around the ruins. She attracted quite a bit of attention herself, being known as the innkeeper who slew Shield Spiders and, more notably, the Human innkeeper.

Several Human adventurers came by to talk to Erin, but didn’t get very far with Selys glaring at them. They promised to visit her inn later, a promise Erin didn’t know if they’d keep when she told them she wasn’t serving alcohol yet.

 

——

 

The next day, Erin went out and visited Selys again, only this time, it was for business. The business of being paid, to be exact.

Erin happily held up the cloth bag and shook it. It made a dull metallic sound. She frowned, but the lack of any satisfying jingle wasn’t enough to get her down.

“Money~!”

Selys smiled at Erin as she put away the signed receipt under the counter in the Adventurer’s Guild.

“Just don’t spend it all in one place, okay, Erin?”

“Sure, sure. I’ll just spend it on important stuff. Like—fancy dust rags! Or alcohol! Or…a dress?”

Selys eyed Erin sternly and shook her head.

“How about a weapon? You could probably afford a good one with that much money.”

All told, the bounty on the Shield Spiders plus the fee she earned from selling their carcasses earned Erin just over eleven gold coins, reduced some because some of the spiders had been burned too badly to use. That was generally agreed to be a lot of money, but not a lot for the bounty on the carcasses.

One of the more senior Drake adventurers not currently staring at the Ruins leaned over the desk to talk to Erin. He was friendly and yellow-scaled, and Erin couldn’t remember his name.

“You could have gotten a far better deal selling the spiders’ bodies elsewhere. Probably half again as much, especially if you went right to the right merchants. The Guild charges far too much for its service.”

Selys glared at the Drake who had spoken.

“The Guild pays a good rate for monster parts! If you’ve got a problem, Ylss, take it up with the guild master—or the council.”

Ylss flicked out his tongue dismissively.

“The Guild won’t listen, and the council won’t either. But I’ve been talking to the Human adventurers, and they say their guilds pay them far better than ours does.”

“That’s because Human adventurers go out and fight monsters instead of their city Watch. If you want to negotiate prices, go slay a Shield Spider nest yourself. Erin here—”

Selys glanced around. She spotted Erin with her hand on the door.

“Erin, are you going already?”

Erin waved and smiled and opened the door before Selys asked if she wanted to stay. She did not, especially if it meant listening to another argument. Drakes were surprisingly—or was that unsurprisingly?—hot-headed.

It was time to go back to the inn before she splurged on everything. Erin only bought a few essentials from Krshia, a few more from other shops, fended off the Gnoll’s attempts to get her to have a cup of tea, and went home for lunch.

 

——

 

When Erin returned to her inn, she found it had been ransacked. She spent a few minutes staring at the trashed kitchen and her upended bags and supplies. They hadn’t ever been neatly organized in the first place, but the person—or people—who had visited her inn while she was away had tossed everything onto the floor and trampled it.

They hadn’t taken much. Erin didn’t have much. But they’d taken quite a bit of food, spilled the rest on the ground, and taken other of Erin’s vital necessities.

Like her toothbrush. When Erin realized that was gone, she finally flipped. She grabbed the bag of her money—noting that the rest of the money she’d hidden in the inn was also missing—and stormed back towards the city.

 

——

 

Selys had to half-jog to keep up with Erin as the other girl stomped through the market.

“So let me get this straight. You don’t mind monsters attacking you, but the instant someone steals from your inn, you want protection?”

Erin glared at Selys.

“Yes!”

“But they didn’t even steal anything important. Some food and a few coins—”

“One gold coin and three silver coins!”

“Why didn’t you hide it better? Or put it under lock and key?”

“I don’t have a lock. Or a key!”

“We can buy a vault or an enchanted lock and key if you want. I know a good shop—”

“No. I want a weapon.”

“Suit yourself. Here’s a good shop the adventurers talk about.”

Selys pointed, and Erin made a beeline for the store manned by a burly Gnoll. He bared his teeth at Erin and nodded silently at her.

“Erin Human. Greetings.”

“Hi there.”

Erin smiled back at the Gnoll, showing her teeth as well. It was a Gnoll thing that she had learned. Selys just nodded at the Gnoll without showing any teeth.

“I’m looking for a weapon.”

The Gnoll nodded and spread one hand to indicate his wares. Erin stared at a veritable armory of weapons on display. Most made sense to her, but only in the sense of having seen them in movies. They all looked sharp.

“For a friend of Krshia, I will do my best to oblige you, yes? Do you fight with any weapon besides your hands, Erin Solstice?”

“Um. No. No…in fact, I’ve never held anything larger than a knife.”

The Gnoll paused as he unhooked a devilish-looking scimitar from a weapon rack. He put the weapon back and nodded.

“We have many weapons for beginners and self-defense, yes? Daggers, clubs…these weapons would be best.”

Erin stared at the dagger he carefully offered her hilt-first. It looked pointy, and the metal was polished until she could see her vague reflection in it. But that was about all she knew about weapons.

“I’m not too sure a dagger would help against most of the monsters I see wandering around my inn.”

Then again, she doubted even the battleaxes would help if she were fighting a Rock Crab.

“…How about a crossbow? Do you have one of those?”

Selys snorted.

“Erin, those fire once. Ever tried reloading them? Not exactly fast—”

“But they are good for amateurs. I do not stock them, but Drake cities make use of them. We Gnolls—less so.”

The [Shopkeeper] grinned, indicating racks of bows. Erin hmmed.

“I can’t shoot arrows well. I’d like a crossbow. Would anyone sell them for…”

She showed him how much she had, which was a bad business move, but the Gnoll just peered at the coins and shook his head.

“They are pricier than a cheap bow, Miss Solstice, due to how they are made. Especially good ones from the House of Minos or Noelictus. For what you have, an ordinary crossbow is possibly out of reach, let alone an enchanted one.”

“Okay, no crossbow then.”

Erin sighed and stared at the racks of weapons. Selys tapped her shoulder and coughed discreetly.

“You don’t have to buy a weapon, you know. I keep telling you our adventurers will guard your inn.”

“For eight silver coins a day per adventurer? And that’s for the lowest-level ones, right? No thank you.”

Erin shook her head. She had a better idea than Selys’ option in mind, and fortunately, it didn’t involve her learning to poke people with bits of metal.

“Do you have any good short swords? Is that a shortsword? It looks short.”

The Gnoll nodded. He pulled a bronze sword that was indeed short off the display and placed it on the counter. Erin poked the hilt gingerly before picking it up. Selys hovered beside Erin, making sure the Human’s hands were well away from the blade. Both she and the Gnoll seemed more anxious than Erin was around bladed weapons.

“You know buying a sword won’t immediately give you any classes? You need weeks—months of practice before you’ll learn any Skills. And I wouldn’t try swinging it around by yourself Erin, I really wouldn’t.”

“I’m not stupid.”

“No, but—”

“How much?”

“For you, two gold coins and three silver.”

Erin looked at Selys. The Drake nodded cautiously.

“That’s expensive. But it is good craftsmanship.”

“Fine steel. You will not find better in the city.”

The Gnoll nodded and tapped the blade. He seemed honest, at least in that Erin hadn’t met a dishonest Gnoll yet. They were a bit more straightforward than Drakes, while Drakes were more like Humans.

“Okay, how about a shield? A, uh, buckler? Is that what they’re called?”

She pointed, and the Gnoll brought out a metal shield rounded in the center. It was a tiny shield, meant to be held in the hand to deflect weapons rather than arrows.

Selys objected.

“It’s too small. Look, you need a larger shield if you really want to equip yourself. Which I still don’t recommend, by the way. And even if you have both, you’re not a trained warrior, Erin. I could beat you, and I don’t even practice.”

Erin, the vanquisher of Shield Spiders, gave Selys a slightly indignant look. The slim [Receptionist] seemed serious, too.

“I know what I’m doing, Selys. Anyways, it’s not for myself. How much for both?”

“We do not sell many bucklers. I will sell both for four gold coins, Erin Solstice, so long as you promise not to use either without first being instructed.”

She grinned at him, her hands already going into her money pouch. It was a lot of her remaining coin, but Erin forked over the four fat coins at once.

“Deal. But like I said, these aren’t for me. They’re a gift. Or maybe a bribe.”

Selys was shaking her head as the coins changed hands and the Gnoll found a sheath for the short sword.

“A bribe? For who? Who’d use something as small as—wait. You’re not thinking of—Erin! No!”

Erin lifted both weapons into her arms. Even with her [Lesser Strength] Skill, they were heavy. She turned to Selys and copied the Drake’s exasperated expression.

“Why not? They’re cheap, I know them personally, and they live around my inn.”

“They’ll stab you in the back when you’re asleep!”

Erin walked away from the Gnoll shopkeeper, arguing with Selys as he watched them in bemusement.

“They haven’t done it so far. Besides, these are the good ones. Well, sort of good. I already feed them.”

“This is a terrible idea, you’ll see.”

“No, it’s a great idea. You’ll see. And I could beat you in a fight, Selys. No offense.”

“Erin, you really couldn’t. I had to take [Soldier] training—every Liscorian citizen has to be at least Level 1 for the army. Plus, my grandmother and my uncle gave me lessons. You’re good in a fight, but no soldier.”

“That’s a joke, right, Selys?”

The Drake put her claws on her hips as Erin tried not to look amused.

“Want to stop by the training grounds on the way to your inn?”

 

——

 

Half an hour later, Rags stared down at the shiny weapons Erin offered her and then up at the Human smiling at her. Well, sort of smiling.

Erin was wincing—mostly because of the bruises on her butt and sides. And scratches. Selys had given her a bit of healing potion, but even with that—

Who knew [Receptionists] could fight dirty? Let alone fight with their claws. 

Not just claws like a cat would scratch you, but a set of steel claws you wore over your hands, like brass knuckles. Apparently, Selys sometimes tested Silver-ranks, and she had given Erin a lot of scratches. 

Then again, she wasn’t here because Erin had kicked her in the stomach hard enough to make Selys lie down. Erin felt bad and good about that. Anyways, now Erin was proferring her new gear to Rags, and she was smiling expectantly.

Right up until Erin realized the Goblin wasn’t taking the gear. Slowly, the small Goblin shook her head.

Erin’s face fell. She thrust the sheathed short sword at the Goblin, and the Goblin backed up into her bodyguards.

“No? Why not? Come on, it’s a great deal!”

Rags shook her head again, and the other Goblins following her moved in front of her and barred Erin’s way. The far taller [Innkeeper] scowled at them, and they quailed a bit, but there were seven Goblins including Rags in the inn and only one Erin. If it came to it—

They’d probably run. But strangely, Rags was confident Erin would never try to hurt them. She was a strange Human, possibly a good one. She just had terrible ideas, like the deal she was offering the Goblins.

She was no longer the smallest Goblin. She was now Rags—and her tribe was no longer really a tribe.

Some Goblins ate and slept in the cave, but most had left or wandered off. Rags was finding them and making them come back and eat in the cave—and gather blue fruits and hunt. The Chieftain was dead.

Someone had to be a Chieftain. Rags had kept the Goblins who listened to her fed. Gather blue fruits, make a fire, steal eggs, get the fish—Erin’s meals fed more Goblins. This…

This was hard. But Rags was now Rags, and she had a new class.

[Chieftain]. So long as she was one, her tribe would not attack the inn. Her tribe. But that did not mean…she shoved the hilt of the sword back, but Erin kept waving it in her face.

“Look. It’s really simple, okay? I’ll give you these weapons and feed you guys as much as you want. In return, you guard my inn. Keep thieves and monsters away. It’s not a bad deal, right?”

It was a bad deal. While Rags was no eloquent orator, her own train of thought was quite clear. Her splintered tribe had been small even before the Chieftain had been killed. Now, it was in a power struggle, and Rags was leading the smaller breakaway faction who didn’t believe all Humans should be eaten on sight.

More than that, the small Goblin knew the Floodplains and was sure that defending the inn was a death sentence. What the strange Human girl was offering was a terrible deal. The magnificent weapons tempted Rags greatly, but even they couldn’t outweigh the massive disadvantages of Erin’s proposal.

Now, how to explain that to an idiot? Rag’s brow furrowed, and she tried her best. She gargled a few syllables in her own language at Erin and then tried the language Erin spoke in. Neither worked. Erin just stared at her blankly, like one of the grazing animals—cows.

“You don’t want the sword?”

Rags nodded. She pointed at the other Goblins and at the ground and then shook her head. She held up a claw, pointed at the sword and her chest, and nodded vigorously—then repeated pointing at the ground and shaking her head. Erin worked this out.

“Okay, you want the sword. But you don’t want to guard.”

Rags nodded again.

“Why? Is it because there aren’t enough of you?”

Nod, nod. At last, Erin was getting it.

“Well—you could be tactical about it, couldn’t you? What if I got you a bow and arrow? That might be better than running around in a huge mob like you guys do.”

This time, all the Goblins glared at Erin. That was a valid, traditional Goblin tactic. Rags had improved on the formula by swarming in controlled bursts and incorporating devilishly cunning tactics like feints into their strategy, but swarming was what Goblins did best.

“Fighting in a huge mob just doesn’t seem that smart is all I’m saying. But what if you all had bows or something?”

Again, Rags shook her head. She mimed shooting an arrow and then poked the Goblin in the head next to her gently.

“Oh, not strong enough? Really?”

Nod. Rags really wished she could speak other languages or, barring that, only one Human could understand her. It was just as well she was a genius and Erin was bright enough so they could communicate this way.

And it seemed like Erin got it. Bows were useful, but not as good as having many knives. Goblins’ shorter reach and weaker strength meant that they couldn’t fire as far or as hard as a Human or Drake archer anyways. 

Erin wondered how strong you had to be to pierce Shield Spider armor.

“I get it. Small arms and small bows, right? Size does matter. Too bad you don’t have any crossbows.”

Rags’ ears perked up at that, but the Goblin didn’t react in any other way, letting the Human girl muse on, oblivious.

“I guess—well, yeah, anyone in armor wouldn’t be killed by a few arrows. But crossbows and longbows can pierce that stuff, right? But longbows—”

Erin eyed the Goblins. They were around four feet tall on average, and only the special ones like the former Chieftain got any taller. And even he would have had trouble stringing the massive longbows that could reach up to seven feet in length.

“Life is tough, huh?”

This time, all the Goblins nodded. Life was tough. They were at war—well, Goblins were always at war, but this time, they were at war with each other. The tribe was small, food was scarce because winter was coming, and they only had a weird Human in an inn to feed them food in between running from the countless adventurers pouring into the region.

“Well, I guess I could return these things.”

Erin sighed and placed the short sword and buckler on a table. She noted how all the Goblins’ eyes were drawn covetously towards the weapon. Drat. She’d thought it was a good idea, but when she really thought about it, she understood Rags’ predicament.

Besides, when Erin stood in front of the tiny Goblin girl, she felt like she was still speaking to a child. Perhaps—perhaps she was. How long did it take for Goblins to grow up? How could you tell how old they were anyways?

Erin eyed all the Goblins as they seemed to confer with their leader, Rags. They were injured, most of them. They came into her inn every few days and ate as much as they could before waddling out, and they paid. But Erin had the distinct impression the battle that had started at her inn hadn’t ended with Klbkch. The Goblins’ faces were hard to remember, but some changed every few days. And Rags had her own cuts and scars on her body.

They were—well, they were evil, some of them. But the ones in front of Erin struck a chord with her. A sense of shared suffering, perhaps. And Erin had an idea that would help them and maybe her a tiny bit.

She stood up. The Goblins immediately looked up at her. Erin pointed.

“Stay there. And don’t steal the sword or I’ll flatten you, got it?”

She walked back into her trashed kitchen that she still hadn’t found the time to tidy up. She walked to the back of the kitchen and opened a cupboard and stared at the jars inside. The thief who’d ransacked her inn hadn’t even gone near this cupboard or tried to drink what was inside. Very wise, given the contents of the jars.

The Goblins were all crowded around the short sword when Erin lugged the massive jar of Acid Fly juice back into the room. They were gingerly touching the blade and cutting their fingers on the edge when they looked up. When they saw what Erin was carrying, they immediately fled for the door.

“Hold it!”

Rags paused and tripped up the Goblins behind her. They crashed into a pile, and she stared suspiciously at Erin as the Human groaned and set the jar on the floor. Glowing, green acid sloshed about in the too-thin glass walls of the container. A massive jar! Erin had heard this was for pickling fish or something, but she had a different use in mind that had horrified everyone who saw it. She rubbed her back and beckoned at the Goblin.

“I’ve got an idea that’ll help us both out. And I’ll give you the sword and buckler, okay? I’ll put it on your tab.”

That did the trick. Rags was over caressing the blade in a second. Erin pointed to the acid jars.

“You know what this is, right?”

Rags nodded. She kept a very respectful distance from the green, glowing acid sloshing in the jar and made the other Goblins stand even further back. That made Erin feel better too. She wouldn’t put it past one of them to trip into the glass jar, and that would not be a pretty sight.

She patted the glass jar.

“Dangerous stuff. And I don’t want it. But what if I gave you some smaller jars? You could sort of throw this stuff at people, right? Not on Shield Spiders, though. It doesn’t really work on them. But other things—yeah. What do you think?”

She pulled out a small, Human-fist-sized jar and showed it to Rags. The Goblins blinked down at the small jar, and they looked at the bigger glass jar in sudden comprehension.

“I’ll sell you these acid jars, and you can pay me, okay?”

Erin waited. Rags studied the green Acid Fly liquid mixed with the occasional fly body. She knew full well how dangerous the acid was. She was also impressed Erin was brave enough to harvest the Acid Flies, especially given how big some of them got. And the deal she was offering?

That was a good deal.

The Goblin looked at the jars and saw a thousand different tactical options, not least of which was letting other Goblins drink the deadly acid if she left it out in the open. Erin looked at the Goblins and saw a convenient recycling machine that might pay her.

Both Human and Goblin smiled.

 

——

 

It was weird making a deal in sign language, but Erin had played chess players from other countries before. Even a deaf chess player and two mute ones. One of them had kicked her ass twice in a row, and she’d had a great time laughing with him over a stupid move she’d made—

The point was that she could communicate more or less with Rags. The small Goblin was extremely smart, and that was before you compared her with the other Goblins following her. They’d contented themselves with picking their noses and wiping their fingers on each other while Erin and Rags ‘talked’.

Eventually, the deal had been for Rags and her Goblins to pay several bronze coins per jar of acid. It wasn’t much, especially since Erin would have to buy newer, smaller jars for the Goblins to carry. But it was better than her pouring the acid out on the ground like she’d been doing. There was a huge scar in the earth outside of her inn that testified to how smart that idea was.

But it was a good deal. A great deal, even. It brought new revenue into Erin’s inn, especially since Rags bought all the jars Erin had in the inn and filled them up with acid. It helped her get rid of something she didn’t want, and it might help Rags and her band of Goblins survive a bit longer.

It was a good deal. It just wasn’t the deal Erin wanted.

She stared at the jar of acid. She could make her own acid flasks if she wanted. It was a handy weapon, even if some things like the Rock Crabs and the Shield Spiders were mostly immune to the acid. She had her fists and that [Bar Fighting] Skill as well as [Unerring Throw]. It was enough for self-defense against most of the monsters she’d seen, and she could run away from the rest.

But none of that helped protect her inn. Someone could walk in and steal as much as they wanted if Erin were gone, or they could hide and attack her when she got back. She had no defense against mobs of enemies, and she was sure a Rock Crab could level the inn if one got close. Seed cores wouldn’t scare away a swarm of the stupid crabs if something set them off.

She needed protection. Without it, Erin was truly screwed. And—and she needed to clean up her trashed inn, buy replacements for all of her supplies, and hope that she had enough money left over for—something. And that the mysterious thief wouldn’t come back when Erin was out again.

None of it was overwhelming, but for Erin, it was too much to deal with at the moment. She rested her head on the table, exhausted.

Knock. Knock.

Erin didn’t raise her head off the table.

“Come in.”

Knock. Knock.

“I said, come in.

No response. The knocking continued. Erin waited for it to end, but the person at the door was persistent. First one minute, then five, the knocking continued rhythmically, without stopping. At last, Erin stood up, growling.

She stalked over to the door and yanked it open.

“I said—

A skeleton stood in the doorway, tall as Erin—taller. Just a skeleton. Its yellow-white bones were devoid of any flesh, and yet it stood upright, denying biology and physics. Erin looked into twin burning blue-white flames that flickered in the skeleton’s eye sockets. The skeleton opened its jaw and clattered at her.

Erin shut the door. Then she screamed. Then she turned to run for the kitchen knives.

Only when she had turned did Erin realize she hadn’t locked the door. It opened, and she turned to see the skeleton walk silently into her inn.

Erin backed up. The skeleton advanced. It wasn’t attacking. It wasn’t attacking, but Erin was about to have a heart attack. It stepped towards her, and Erin nearly tripped over the acid jar still sitting on the floor.

Suddenly, the skeleton raised a hand. Erin flinched and raised her hands, but the undead creature wasn’t attacking. It didn’t have…any weapon? And yes, it wasn’t striking at her. Instead, it held something in its hand.

Erin blinked. The skeleton held the scrap of parchment out to her silently. She took a step back, and it advanced. Not too close to her, but it wasn’t letting her get away either.

She hesitated. The skeleton was just staring at her, although it had no real eyes, just the burning sockets in its skull. That was worse. It was waiting. She had to do something. So Erin took a few deep breaths and then reached out.

She took the piece of paper from the skeleton with a shaking hand. Erin edged away from the skeleton and swiftly glanced down at the paper, reading while keeping an eye on the undead monster. She blinked at the messy script, looked up at the skeleton, and then around. She glanced back at the skeleton and then got mad.

Pisces!

He appeared in the room, wavering into focus as his [Invisibility] spell ended. Perhaps he’d meant it to be a dramatic entrance, but Erin wasn’t impressed. It wasn’t nearly as cool as an invisibility cloak.

Pisces opened his mouth, and Erin stepped forwards and punched him in the face. Hard. He fell down, barely missing the acid jar. Quickly, Erin grabbed the jar and towed it into the kitchen before she or he knocked it over.

The mage, or rather, [Necromancer], looked up at Erin reproachfully as she walked back into the room. She didn’t give him a hand up, so he reluctantly picked himself off, brushing the dirt on his robes onto the ground.

“That was most unkind to a faithful patron, good Mistress.”

“Jerk. What the hell is that?”

Erin pointed with a shaking finger to the skeleton. It had watched everything silently.

Sulkily, Pisces pointed to the piece of paper on the ground.

“I assumed my explanation would quell any questions you had.”

Erin seized the mage by the robes and dragged him face to face.

“What. Is. That?”

He looked into her eyes and chose his words carefully.

“It is a skeleton. An undead, animated skeleton to be precise.”

“And why is it here?”

“To protect you, of course. And to pay off my considerable tab.”

Erin let Pisces go. She stared at the skeleton and pulled at her hair.

“Why is—why did—

Her hands twitched as she tried to stop from strangling Pisces on the spot. He backed up and straightened his robes, looking huffy.

“Is it not what you’ve been seeking?”

“You’re lucky I don’t throw acid on your face.”

“Please, Erin. I am only acting in your best interests—and mine. Consider this undead warrior.”

Pisces indicated the silent skeleton.

“Affordable, competent protection that needs neither sleep nor sustenance. I would say it is you who should be tendering your gratitude to me, Erin.”

He smiled, self-satisfied. Erin didn’t smile. She eyed the skeleton.

“It’s for me? What, does it obey orders?”

Pisces looked mildly insulted.

“Of course. I attuned it to you already. This skeleton will obey all commands and faithfully guard you and your possessions. Give it a command and see.”

Erin really didn’t want to. But the skeleton was standing too close for comfort. So she pointed to a corner.

“Go over there.”

Immediately, the skeleton turned and walked to the corner, navigating around the tables and chairs. There it stopped and swiveled its head, watching for Erin’s next command.

Somehow, having a skeleton standing in a dark corner staring at her was even worse than having it right next to her. Erin shuddered.

“I don’t like it.”

She ordered the skeleton to come back. It obediently walked closer, and Erin walked around the skeleton. She had to order it to stand still first, and then the skeleton stood, like the creepiest statue, in place.

“Why did you think this was a good idea, Pisces?”

Pisces glanced at Erin, put out by the continued questioning.

“I have heard your repeated complaints about inadequate protection. And when I noticed the, ah, state your inn was in this morning—”

“Oh, yeah! Did you do that?”

He raised his hands and backed away.

“Not I. The culprit had already departed when I arrived.”

The mage’s eyes shifted. Erin wondered if he’d been the one to help himself to her coin—or more food. She growled, and the skeleton moved. It jerked into a low, fighting stance and faced Pisces of all people. He looked as alarmed as Erin.

“Call it off.”

“You’re the [Necromancer], you do it.”

“I made it so it would only obey you. Call it off or I’ll have to dismantle it.”

“Hey, stop!”

Erin smacked the skeleton on the back of the head. She immediately regretted it. The feel of smooth bone on her hand was—

The skeleton swiveled around to stare at Erin as she wiped her hand on her shirt. She pointed at it shakily.

“Don’t attack him. Unless I tell you to. Understand?”

It nodded. That was creepy. Erin shuddered.

“It is a competent warrior that will fight for you. And I do believe that is what you need, unless I am completely in error.”

He was right, but the way he was right was completely wrong. Erin just didn’t know how to explain that to Pisces. He clearly thought he’d done Erin a favor, and he was getting snippy in the absence of her unconditional gratitude. But then she noticed something else that was wrong.

“If it’s some kind of warrior, shouldn’t it at least have a sword?”

“Swords are expensive, Miss Solstice. And I am—regrettably—short on funding at the moment. Surely you could afford to equip your new bodyguard yourself?”

And she’d just given the short sword and buckler to Rags. Erin ground her teeth.

“Okay, fine. You’ve given me a pet skeleton. What does it do, exactly? Besides fight and scare me to death, that is?”

Pisces shrugged.

“Whatever you wish. It will obey any command you give it, but, ah, its capacity for thought is quite limited at the moment. That may improve with time. I have made several improvements over the traditional undead animation spells—”

“So it’s a special undead skeleton monster. Wonderful. And what happens if it breaks or goes nuts?”

“The spell will not wear out. The body might in the course of normal combat though, it is true. I would be happy to repair any damage done for a nominal fee—”

Erin shook her head.

“Skeleton repairs. That’s how they get you every time.”

Glumly, she stared at the skeleton. Was it because she’d gone nuts or just gotten used to this world? She wasn’t half as freaked out by the skeleton as she felt she should have been. And what was worse, she was even considering keeping the thing.

“And this is supposed to pay off your tab? All the gold you owe me?”

Pisces cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Well, the price of an advanced reanimation spell such as this is traditionally worth—”

He cut off fast as Erin turned her head slightly.

“I suppose a full repayment of my debts and some credit towards the future would not be too much to ask?”

“It might.”

Erin stared glumly at the skeleton. It stared back, waiting patiently for orders.

“Okay, let’s say I accept this. Won’t the Watch get mad?”

No response. Erin sighed.

“And this wouldn’t happen to be a body belonging to anyone in Liscor, would it? But no—it’s a Human skeleton. Except—”

She frowned. Now that she looked, the skeleton didn’t look quite right. Sure, it had a Human head, but its ribs looked a bit different than the books she’d read in biology class. Come to that, some of the bones around the pelvis looked subtly different.

“Hey, you didn’t rob a bunch of graves for this, did you, Pisces? Because if you did—hello?”

Scowling, Erin looked around. She saw no unhelpful mage, just the skeleton. Just an open door and a very noticeable absence of mage. He was gone.

Erin stared at the open door. Then she wondered if Pisces were still in the inn. Invisibility spells and all that. Quite deliberately, Erin walked around the room with her arms spread, trying to hit anything invisible and listening for sounds.

Nothing. He was probably gone. Probably. But Erin would be changing under a towel from now on.

She sighed, turned, nearly ran into the skeleton, and bit back a scream. It stared at her expectantly.

“Go over there!”

Obediently, the skeleton walked away, but it turned its head, waiting for orders. Erin tried not to freak out. She could not deal with this. Even if it did seem like an answer, it was the most back-handed, slap-to-the-face answer she’d ever found.

What to do? What to do? The first thing to do was get the skeleton out of the room, possibly out of her life. Erin stared grimly at the skeleton and realized she was going to lose any staring match.

She had an idea. Erin pointed at the skeleton.

“You. Skele-thing.”

It stared at her expectantly.

“Follow me.”

Erin walked into the kitchen, grabbed a few items, and shoved them at the skeleton, who had followed her.

“Carry this. And follow me.”

The skeleton walked behind Erin, silent as a ghost. Its bony feet clicked silently on the floorboards as she made her way upstairs. It was a part of the inn Erin seldom visited for one real reason:

The dirt.

It was everywhere. And while Erin could keep the bottom floor of her inn mostly clean thanks to her [Basic Cleaning] Skill, she hadn’t even bothered to take on the upstairs.

If cleaning the common room of the inn had been akin to a short jog in terms of effort, the upper floor would have been like summiting the Himalayas back-to-back. Even the skeleton seemed impressed by the layers of dirt in the room Erin led it to.

“Give me that.”

Erin pulled the bucket and old rag out of the skeleton’s hands. The days-old water slopped onto the floor, instantly dissolving several years’ worth of accumulations in a moment. She dipped the rag into the water, squeezed it, and then handed it to the skeleton. It took the rag and looked at it blankly. Erin pointed to the room.

“Clean this.”

The skeleton stared at her. Erin waved at the dusty rooms and mildewed boards.

“All of it. Clean it. Understand?”

Slowly, the skeleton looked at the rag. It looked at the floor. It tossed the rag on the floor and began wiping weakly with its foot. Erin shook her head.

“No! You take this—”

She grabbed the cloth and scrubbed energetically at the floorboards, removing a layer of dirt, dust, and black stains, which immediately turned the dustrag black.

“—And clean up. See? Just like that.”

The skeleton paused and then tried to copy Erin. She watched, correcting, pointing out errors.

“Scrub harder there. No—don’t move the rag like that. A smooth, circular motion. Like this. See?”

After a few minutes, Erin was begrudgingly impressed as the skeleton revealed a shiny patch of floorboards underneath the carpeting of detritus.

“Good.”

The skeleton paused and looked up at her. She waved her hand at it.

“Don’t stop! Keep going!”

It stared around the room, confused. Erin shook her head. She walked to the doorway and showed the skeleton the other rooms.

“See this? This entire floor. Clean it. Clean the floor, the walls, and the windows. Don’t stop until you’re finished!”

Erin stomped down the stairs, leaving the skeleton upstairs in the half-light. It stared down at the dustrag. Then the skeleton stared around the room. It was covered in residue left by moisture, open windows, dust, animal excrement, and rot. Even the ceiling was speckled or sometimes splashed with unfortunate stains. And this was one room of many.

Skeletons couldn’t sigh. It was a lung thing, as in, skeletons didn’t have them. But the fires in this undead’s eyes dimmed ever so slightly. Then the skeleton bent down and got to work.

It didn’t level that night. Skeletons couldn’t become innkeepers. But it did have something in its mind. Something unique to it. Words that had echoed when it was first created. Words that no undead had ever heard before.

 

[Unnamed, Level 1 Skeleton Warrior]

 

It wasn’t sure how it felt about that.

 


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