There were worse things to eat for breakfast than cold hamburger. That was what Erin told herself as she mechanically chewed and swallowed.
For instance there were…rats. She could be eating rats. Or—or nothing. That was even worse to eat because it was nothing.
Erin didn’t do well with cold mornings. She was like a lizard—which was not the same as a Drake. She liked to laze around in the heat and the summer.
And she was just a bit too lazy to bother with starting a fire, yet too cold to be entirely happy in her brand new inn. Klbkch and the army of the Workers had left her quite a supply of firewood, but Erin just couldn’t face up to the effort. Until she got really cold, and then she huddled around the fireplace with a half-eaten hamburger, shivering in her blankets.
When the inn was finally warm, Erin felt better about life. In fact, she felt great.
She had a brand new inn, and she had a hamburger in her stomach. And a second one in her hands. Erin knew she should stop, but it was a hamburger. Actually, this one had cheese so it was a cheeseburger, and Erin was tempted to make it a double cheeseburger. With bacon?
No. No, she couldn’t get too greedy. Or she’d get fat. Which was a problem, why…?
Erin wrestled with her stomach for a few minutes before she just settled on eating her hamburger. She had work to do.
Yesterday had been a day of triumphs. A day of exploding inns and rebuilding, and Erin was determined to stay on a roll. So the first thing she did was find her way to her kitchen and prepare for the day ahead.
“Ground beef? Check. Lettuce? Check. Tomatoes…no one likes tomatoes.”
Selys and Ceria could take their tomatoes or leave them. Relc tossed his in the snow, and Klbkch probably ate his because it was polite. Erin liked tomatoes, but if it could be left out of the sandwich, that was more money in her pocket and less money…in people’s stomachs.
She had plenty of cheese, and she had eggs for making the patties. Spices? Right there.
Erin tossed everything into her heavy shopping backpack. She could get more from Krshia in the city, which was her destination. She looked around.
“Hey Toren! I’m going. Stay here and—”
Erin paused. That was when she remembered she didn’t have a skeleton. She’d almost expected him to be here when she woke up. But he wasn’t.
Toren was gone.
“Where’d you go, Tor? When I said ‘go away’, I just meant go away for a while. Not…forever.”
He wasn’t gone. Erin was sure of that. She was so sure, she abandoned her shopping pack and ran around. It took her a while to find her hammer and nails thanks to Selys’s reorganization, but she quickly nailed two boards together and made a clumsy arrow with some wood scraps.
The place where her old inn had been was almost completely covered in snow when Erin found her way back. She stared around at the empty hilltop, and remembered a dark inn as she ran, desperate and hurt, through the night.
Once. But not now. Her new inn was better, and it would be best when he returned.
Erin raised the arrow made out of wood and planted it deep in the ground where her inn had been. It pointed roughly towards her new inn. Toren would see it, and come back. She was sure of it.
Erin was so sure that she made three more signs and placed them on hilltops around her inn. Just in case Toren forgot which hill her inn had been on and got lost.
It was lonely in her inn when Erin returned. It was beautiful, made of varnished smooth wood. It even smelled nice—again, thanks to the hamburger breakfast.
But it was empty. All of Erin’s friends had returned to the city, and Toren was missing. Ryoka was busy running up north, and Erin still had no customers.
She’d fix that. Erin’s face was determined as she hefted her pack full of hamburger components. It was time to visit the city.
And how easy it was to get to Liscor! Erin felt like she’d barely stepped out of her inn before she was at the gates. It was ten times better than her freezing trip of yesterday, but maybe that was also because she had warm clothing.
All this purchasing of food and clothing was eating away at Erin’s small cache of cash, but that was okay. She was in a good mood, and things were looking up.
“Krshia! Hey, how are you?”
Erin smiled as she greeted the tall Gnoll shopkeeper. Krshia looked up from her stall, mildly surprised. Normally Erin found her way to the market around midday at the earliest, but today she was here bright and early.
“Erin. It is good to see you, yes? I had heard you had much trouble yesterday?”
“Oh? You heard about that?”
“The guardsman Relc, he came by quite drunk yesterday talking about your inn that exploded. And then apparently was rebuilt in one day. He was quite drunk, yes? I wished to know if you were well. If you had not come today I would have gone to look for you.”
“You’re so nice. But I’m fine! And Relc was telling the truth. My inn did explode. It was totally gone when I got there. Boom. Half of it blown away. But then Klbkch and the Antinium came by and rebuilt it. Somewhere else. On a hill closer to here, I mean. So I’ve got a new inn! Isn’t it great?”
Krshia sniffed the air and shrugged.
“You are not drunk. So you have a new inn? That is good. I must see it soon. And talk, yes? Your friend Ryoka has left, but I would speak to her as well.”
“Everyone wants to talk to me. Did you know I’m going to have a lot of Workers in my inn? Klbkch says he wants me to teach them how to play chess. Isn’t that great?”
“Really? How strange.”
Krshia eyed Erin as the girl unslung her pack and edged over to one of the large braziers. She watched as Erin felt at the temperature of the coals and reached into her pack. She took a frying pan out of her pack and after a few minutes of thinking, dragged the heavy brazier closer to Krshia’s stand.
“What are you doing, Erin Solstice?”
“Oh, is it too close? Sorry, sorry. I forgot your shop is made of wood.”
Erin adjusted the brazier, but Krshia shook her head. She gestured in bemusement at Erin’s setup. Erin looked blank, and then smiled widely.
“This? I’m going to cook something.”
“Really? Well, you may do so freely on this street I suppose. The fee is five silver coins if you make over four gold coin’s worth of profit, though.”
Erin didn’t think that was a problem. It sounded fair. She looked around and realized she had a small problem.
“Um, you wouldn’t happen to have a table I could borrow, would you? And maybe more coals? This is warm, but I want to refill it if it starts to cool down.”
Krshia nodded patiently and pointed to a folded-up section of wood leaning against her shop front.
“I have both. But what is it you are doing, Erin?”
“What is a hamburger? Is it made of pigs or boars?”
“Nope! At least…I don’t think so. Let’s just call it a cheeseburger instead.”
“Ah. So it is made of cheese?”
“Um. Let me just get set up and I’ll show you.”
In quick order, Erin had all of her eggs in a row, her ground beef in the mixing bowl, and ingredients neatly packed off to one side of the table. The main space on the table was occupied by a bowl of mayo and ketchup she’d brought from her inn. She’d wrapped it with wax paper, but both condiments were slightly crusty. A spoon and some stirring solved that, and then Erin put out the platter.
It was big, and empty, and that was about to change. Erin took one of the patties she’d made out of ground beef and flipped it onto her frying pan. The metal had been resting in the coals and it was so hot the meat hissed as it struck the pan’s surface.
Krshia had been dealing with a Drake customer while she waited for Erin’s antics to start making sense. But when she heard the cooking meat her ears pricked up.
Erin fried her first hamburgers with an eye towards Krshia’s possible tastes. So it was barely a minute of cooking before she flipped the burger and let the heated metal take the patty just past ‘uncooked’ to ‘rare’. She used a spatula to lever the juicy burger onto a waiting bun, added some lettuce and a bit of sliced onion…cheese…and then, it was ready.
Erin presented her creation to Krshia and the Gnoll eyed the dripping cheeseburger suspiciously. Suspiciously, but with definite interest.
“Mm. What is this?”
“It’s called a hamburger. Or a cheeseburger. It’s really good. Try it!”
Krshia took the hamburger with one paw. Erin had made her patties big and her buns were equally generous. This was closer to a Burger King burger than the sad, small cheeseburgers you could get from McDonalds. Except that Erin’s burger was even bigger. The meat was half the burger, not some lesser percentage.
Even so, Krshia’s hand easily lifted the burger to her mouth. The Gnoll hesitated and eyed Erin. Her Drake customer was watching the burger with interest. A drop of grease fell from the burger onto Krshia’s fur.
She took a bite. Erin held her breath. But in her heart she wasn’t really worried. Because she knew the truth.
Maybe in this world different species preferred a variety of foods. And it was true that chefs who had [Advanced Cooking] could probably create dishes Erin couldn’t match. And possibly some inns had menus designed to cater to their clientele.
But. This was a hamburger. It had stayed as one of world’s greatest and most popular foods for over a century. The people of this world might have cuisine, but Erin had fast food. Their taste buds would never know what hit them.
Krshia’s eyes widened as she chewed the burger. She stared at the colorful green lettuce, the cheese and onions, and then swallowed. Erin waited.
Krshia took another bite. And then another. She was done with the burger in under a minute, and when she licked at her palm, Erin knew she’d won.
Other vendors on the street? They were about to go home hungry. The Gnoll frying slices of meat? Good luck making that into a proper meal. The Drake with kebabs? Prepare to be supersized. The other Drake with hot cider?
Actually, that sounded really good. Erin wanted to buy some.
She’d thought about adding other dishes to her impromptu road stall, but she’d wisely decided that there wouldn’t be enough space. Besides, while the brazier could make a great grill, pizzas required ovens.
As for drinks, a burger wasn’t complete without Coke or some other soft drink, but Ryoka hadn’t been able to tell her what went into the magic caffeinated drink. Erin had an idea to use animal fat and copious amounts of sugar to create something similar, but…no.
“How is it?”
Krshia looked at Erin and smiled. It was the kind of smile that spoke for itself. She bared her teeth and grinned. Her tail was sending bits of snow flying.
Erin smiled back. The Drake shopping at Krshia’s stall looked between both grinning females.
“I want one!”
Selys found Erin nearly an hour later, and by that time Erin had already been forced to migrate away from Krshia’s shop. Not because the other Gnoll minded her cooking; it was just that Erin needed the space.
She had a line. Drakes and Gnolls lined up as she flipped hamburgers as fast as she could and coins clinked into the jar she’d put on her table. From her spot at the back of the line, Selys could barely see Erin as the girl tried to juggle flipping burgers, collecting money, and talking to customers and explaining hamburgers all at once.
The Drake took a deep breath, and then raised her voice as she pushed past customers in line.
“Excuse me, I’d like to get through. I’m not—excuse me, I’m not looking to buy a burger. I know that human.”
She elbowed her way to the front of the line. Erin looked up and wiped a bead of sweat off her face as she managed five burgers in her frying pan at once.
“Oh, hey Selys! Want a burger?”
Selys turned and stuck her tongue out as the Drakes and Gnolls shouted and complained further down the line. And when a Drake stuck out her tongue, it went a lot farther than a human one.
“You look busy.”
Erin raised her eyebrows as she fumbled a hamburger on a plate and gave it to a Drake. The orange-scaled Drake tasted the burger experimentally and then, apparently satisfied with the taste, bit into it as he walked down the street.
“Yeah! You look like you’re overwhelmed. Need a friendly tail?”
Erin nearly dropped her frying pan in the lit brazier. She wanted to hug Selys.
“You are the best person ever. But don’t you have work?”
Selys shook her head.
“It’s my day off. Here—I’ll take over at the table. You just flip that meat.”
Selys found a chair Erin hadn’t had the pleasure of using yet, and took a seat. She stared at the messy table. Ingredients mixed with some of the coins that had fallen from the jar. Grease was coating the snow and Erin had painted a clumsy hamburger on a sign and written a price next to it.
Selys regarded the price and shook her head. She crossed out the number on Erin’s sign and doubled it. Erin frowned at Selys.
“Selys! That’s expensive!”
“It’s worth it. And people will pay. Or do you see anyone leaving?”
Erin did not, although Selys was getting a lot of casual glares from her customers. But the line moved a lot faster now that Erin didn’t have to do more than concentrate on cooking. She slapped burgers together as fast as she could and reflected that when all was said and done, she was working in the fast food industry. Just like her teachers always told her she would if she didn’t study in school.
The only difference here was that Erin was making money hand over fist. Or claw. Or furry paw.
Gnolls and Drakes both loved the hot food. Erin had quickly learned that both species had a soft spot for hamburgers, but they liked their food cooked very differently.
Drakes preferred their burgers well done, which was to say, fully cooked and even black in places. It didn’t seem to bother them that much, but Gnolls were an entirely different customer. They liked their burgers hot, but still rare enough to be bloody—it was the rare Gnoll who requested Erin cook theirs longer.
They came for the shopping, but almost all of the customers in the market that day left with a burger. Erin had figured out the best way to serve her burgers was with a bit of wax paper so it could be held without spilling hot grease onto palms. You could even wrap it and take it somewhere else! Definitely a selling point.
The line didn’t seem to get shorter no matter how many burgers Erin flipped. Word was spreading about the human with the ‘meat sandwich’ as she heard it described, and it wasn’t long after Selys joined that she heard a familiar voice.
“She’s here! She has burgers!”
Relc’s unmistakable voice rang through the crowd, and not a second later she saw him and a few other guardsmen at the back of the line. The guardsmen—and one female Gnoll—stared in bemusement as Relc yelled at Erin.
“I want five—no, six!”
She waved at him, which Relc apparently took as encouragement. He began pushing his way through the line, shouting.
“Watch business. Move aside!”
He encountered a lot more resistance than Selys did, but eventually Relc was panting and staring greedily at burgers as Erin loaded them onto a plate. He reached into his belt pouch and began to count out coins.
“You can get me my burgers and pay me five silver coins since I know you’ve earned enough already.”
Erin got no further before Relc snatched a burger from the plate and tried to fit the entire thing in his mouth. He pretty much succeeded, although Selys looked away with disgust as he chewed with his mouth open.
Erin eventually managed to shoo Relc away with more burgers for the other guardsmen. She heard Selys apologizing to the next customer – mainly in the sense of grumbling about rude guardsmen – and looked at her raw patty stack.
“Uh oh. I’m running out of ground beef again. Krshia!”
The Gnoll appeared with more ingredients, fresh from some butcher’s shop. She and Erin had a good system going on. Erin paid her, and Krshia gave her everything she needed. Maybe a less-trusting partnership would have had Krshia raising prices, but in this case she was still making quite a lot acting as a supplier for Erin’s burger needs.
Erin mixed a new batch of ground beef into patties, watched by hungry customers and curious shopkeepers. Krshia eyed Erin’s preparation with some consternation, but by that point Erin had already made the patties and it was too late for the Gnoll to interject.
Egg, spices, thick patty that made some of the Gnolls in line start to drool. Erin blessed her [Basic Cooking] skill because it made the process nearly automatic. She didn’t have to concentrate as hard, and she knew roughly when the burgers were ready. It was great. She raised her voice as she smiled at her line of customers.
“Alright. Who’s next?”
Her question nearly caused a brawl.
Five hours later, Erin wondered what would happen if she fainted into the brazier. Would she wake up before Selys pulled her out or burn to death?
She was dog-tired, which wasn’t an insult to Gnolls. Erin kept telling Krshia that. It was just that she’d been standing in the same place making food all day long. Even with help, Erin was nearly ready to fall over.
She’d enlisted Selys as a full-time assistant, just to take down orders and help prepare ingredients. Selys didn’t have any cooking skills, but she was competent enough. And she was better at keeping order than Erin was.
And without Selys, Erin would have been buried by the amount of orders she’d received. The morning rush had turned into the midday rush which had gradually transitioned into the evening rush. But there were quieter points, mainly when customers staggered away from Erin’s stall clutching their groaning stomachs.
As it turned out, Erin had made one mistake with her setup. Her bowl of condiments had been well-received although her customers just dipped their burgers in the mayonnaise and ketchup, but she didn’t have nearly enough.
She’d run out of ketchup long ago, and the mayonnaise was only a mix of burger bits at the bottom of the bowl. And though Erin knew how to make more of each, she wasn’t keen on preparing any more, even if she’d had access to the ingredients. As it turned out, ketchup was hard and annoying to make.
It was just the sort of thing she’d have gotten Toren to do. If he was still at the inn.
The thought made Erin depressed, but the next customer who appeared at her stall immediately blew any thoughts of her skeleton out of her head.
“Oh. Selys. You’re working here?”
“Hawk. It’s rare to see you in the market. You normally shop elsewhere, right?”
“I do, but I heard there was something good to eat today. What’s this?”
Erin leaned against the edge of the brazier and yelped. She kept forgetting that the metal was hot. She needed a stool, or something to rest her aching feet. She heard Selys talking with her customer, but Erin had heard enough explanations to tune out most of the words.
“It’s called a ‘hamburger’. But it doesn’t have any ham in it. It’s meat with bread and lettuce, onions, and cheese. If you add cheese it’s called a ‘cheeseburger’.”
“How is it?”
“Try it for yourself. It’s only a silver coin.”
That was…extraordinarily expensive, given the cost of the ingredients. But Selys kept on raising the price of the burgers without issue. She heard the customer fishing in his belt pouch and then the clink of a coin.
“Thanks. Now, do you want your burger cooked fully or raw?”
“I got it.”
Erin had already added a patty to her pan. She mechanically flipped the burger, listening to this Hawk and Selys talk. She finished the burger, tossed it on the pre-assembled bun, and put it on the serving plate. She held it out and then froze as for the first time she actually looked at her customer.
A tall…rabbit…man…stood in front of the stall, smiling at Erin. He was a rabbit. But he was shaped like a man. He stood on two legs—slightly curved forwards like a Minotaur’s with huge feet. They looked like paws, and Erin noticed he wasn’t wearing shoes so much as coverings made from leather.
His fur was light brown, with dark spots. He had one over his eye, which was pointed like a rabbit’s. And he had a pink nose! Erin nearly squealed or screamed or something when she saw that.
Hawk had two long, floppy ears that stuck out over his head, and he was clothed in loose clothing. He had pants and a shirt which did not disguise the fact that this rabbit was ripped. That threw Erin, as did the muscles on his arms.
“You’re Erin? Nice to meet you. I’m Hawk.”
Hawk the rabbit man smiled in a friendly way at Erin, although his eyes were on the burger on the plate. Erin gaped at him.
“Hawk is a Beastkin, Erin. I’m not surprised you haven’t met him before. He’s always running around the city.”
Erin heard her, but she was still caught on his name. She repeated the word incredulously.
The furry rabbit in front of Erin scratched at one cheek with a furry hand. He completely misinterpreted Erin’s reaction to his name.
“My parents were from Liscor, but they had no idea what kind of names my species used. So they chose Hawk. I would have preferred Hakss, but what can you do?”
“Oh. And uh, what do you do?”
Erin could think of nothing else, only that she wanted to continue talking to Hawk as long as possible. She could hear…a voice in her head. No, a song.
Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh…
If she saw a stuffed yellow bear she was going to lose her mind. But Hawk was real in a different way. He wasn’t like Rabbit, more like the rabbit-version of Usain Bolt. Yeah, that was probably closer.
Hawk rolled his shoulders and shrugged. He smiled again, exposing a row of teeth which…Erin had always wanted a bunny.
“I’m a Courier.”
Erin paused. She tried to remember what that was. Some kind of Runner? It sounded important.
“That’s cool. Do you see a lot of different places?”
Hawk looked slightly crestfallen that Erin wasn’t more impressed.
“No, we run long-distance deliveries from city to city.”
“Oh, like City Runners?”
Selys bit back a laugh. Hawk looked amused and shook his head.
“We’re a bit more important than City Runners. Couriers are rare. There are less than a hundred of us on the continent, I think. We take big jobs or none at all.”
“Whoa. So you’re like, special runners? How far do you run?”
“On any given delivery I’ll go around a thousand miles. Sometimes two, if it’s a round trip. It’s a dangerous job, but rewarding. Of course, I can protect myself. I’m considered—”
Hawk suddenly froze and his body was suddenly tensed, low. Erin had heard the loud crack of wood on wood too, but it was Hawk’s reaction that surprised her. He hadn’t moved so much as instantly changed positions.
He was staring down the street at the source of the noise. A Gnoll was tossing slats of wood onto a cart. The sound was loud, but Erin had heard much of the same all day. But Hawk’s ears twitched violently every time the wood slapped together and he winced.
“I wish they wouldn’t do that.”
Okay. He was jumpy as a rabbit and fast as lighting. Erin stared at Hawk, forgetting completely about everything else. And he had a tail! A tail!
He started grumbling about inconsiderate Gnolls and Drakes while Selys edged over to Erin. The Drake elbowed her in the side.
“Don’t touch his tail. Remember Culyss?”
“But it looks so fluffy and poofy and—”
Erin couldn’t tear her eyes way from the fuzzy tail that protruded from Hawk’s pants. Selys rolled her eyes and twitched her own tail.
“Maybe you want to explain why you live in Liscor, Hawk? Erin hasn’t seen many Beastkin here.”
He nodded. It seemed like he was used to the question.
“Well, I live here. I was born and raised in Liscor ever since I was a kid, and it’s where I’m comfortable. My original parents left me here, and a Drake couple took me in. Liscor’s my home and where I love to live. Most of the time.”
He eyed the Gnoll who’d made the noise severely. Selys rolled her eyes.
“I still don’t know how you manage to sleep at night. There’s noise all the time—how do you sleep?”
“Soundproofing spells. It’s costly, but I make more than enough to pay for the magic.”
“There you have it, Erin. Our resident Courier is afraid of loud noises. Try not to shout around him.”
Hawk glared at Selys, but with no real intensity in it. He seemed to be a good-natured rabbit. Erin was still staring at his tail.
“I’m not just a Courier! I’m trying to become a [Chef] as well!”
“Right. And you’re doing research today?”
“Maybe I would if I ever got to eat this delicious thing.”
Hawk stared longingly at the burger on the plate, but he was too polite to take it. Selys nudged the human at her side.
“The burger, Erin?”
“Oh, right! Sorry!”
Erin remembered why Hawk was here and held the burger out to him. It was still warm thankfully, and Hawk eyed the rising steam appreciatively.
“Mm. This is good. I’m glad I came.”
Erin watched Hawk bite into his burger and chew, her jaw slack. Selys stepped on her foot again, and that shut Erin up long enough for Hawk to say goodbye.
“It was nice meeting you, Miss Erin. If you ever need a long-distance delivery, ask for me at the Runner’s Guild, okay? I’ll give you a discount, especially if you have more of these burgers!”
He stepped away, and then sprang down the street. There was no other word for it. His powerful legs blurred and he covered more distance with every step than Erin would with five of hers. And he was fast. In an instant he’d rounded the corner and was out of sight.
“No wonder I never see him.”
Erin breathed the words as she stared at the place Hawk had been. She turned and looked at Selys.
“You never told me there was a talking rabbit in Liscor!”
Selys looked perplexed. She looked at the empty street and shrugged.
“What, Hawk? He’s part of the city, and he’s always in and out. Why is he special?”
“He’s a rabbit…a—a bunny!”
Erin couldn’t even find to words to explain why that was special. Talking Drakes? Okay? Gnolls? Totally normal. But bunny-men?
“If you’re interested in him, forget it. He likes Drakes, not Gnolls or Humans.”
Again, that statement threw Erin off a cliff metaphorically speaking. She hadn’t even considered—no! And what was that?
“He likes Drakes? But he’s a bunny!”
“Don’t call him that to his face. He gets touchy, and he’s not a Courier for nothing. When the undead attacked he killed one of those Crypt Lords and quite a few undead by himself! He carried over a hundred people out of harm’s way as well.”
“Yeah, he’s strong. Don’t let Relc hear you, but he’s probably one of the few people who could bother Relc. And if it came to a chase, I’d put money on Hawk.”
“And he likes Drakes.”
“I said that. Too bad Drakes don’t like him back.”
Erin couldn’t cope. She shook her head.
“He’s a cool guy. Fluffy. Nice. Why don’t any female Drakes like him?”
Selys looked awkward.
“No reason—well, I mean, it’s not like he’s a bad guy. You couldn’t ask for a nicer Beastkin. But he doesn’t eat meat. Or rather, he doesn’t eat much meat.”
“I saw that. He ate meat! But what’s the problem with not eating meat? That’s not a problem, right?”
“It sort of is. We—Drakes—can eat vegetables. We just don’t…like to like he does. And all he keeps offering us are dishes with carrots in them.”
It was too good to be true. But Selys just looked disgusted.
“It’s all he likes to make. Couldn’t he try something else when he’s courting? But no, it’s all carrots. Carrot pies, carrot soup, carrot salads, raw carrots, noodles and carrots, carrots baked into bread…”
“Shrimp gumbo, pan-fried shrimp, deep-fried shrimp, shrimp sandwich, shrimp burger…”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just a joke. Sorry.”
“Anyways, we think it’s bland and not too good. If he could make the food sweeter or more savory…”
“What about carrot cake? That’s sweet.”
Erin sighed as she realized this was yet another thing she had yet to introduce to this world. Cake—well, she was pretty sure she needed baking powder for that. Maybe Ryoka could help. That would be amazing, because Erin missed cake almost more than she missed ice cream.
Sweet things were harder to come by in this world, especially anything made with sugar. Sugar itself was wickedly expensive—not that Erin remembered how much sugar cost when she went shopping at Meijers or at Costco.
She missed Costco. There was something nice about a store where you could buy a fifty pound bag of sugar and no one looked at you as if you were weird. Then again, it was nice going to Costco when your parents paid for membership and not you.
“I just can’t believe it. A bunny.”
“Rabbit. The correct term is the Long Ear Tribe of the Beastkin, but that’s too much work to say.”
“Right, right. But he’s so fluffy.”
“You keep saying that, but why does that matter.”
“It just does. Now, are you going to tell me more about him or am…I…”
Erin trailed off.
Market Street was usually full of people, but there was a lull in the crowds. And at the edge of the street, she could see into a distant alleyway. Someone was crouching in the shadows of a building.
A girl dressed in ragged clothes stared hungrily at the shops. Her face was thin, and she might have been beautiful if she was clean. She had bright red hair, dirty from being unwashed. She was staring right at Erin’s stand, where the smell of cooked meat was permeating the air.
For an instant, her eyes met Erin. There was animosity in her bright blue eyes, but when she realized Erin was looking at her, the girl’s eyes widened in panic.
“Erin. What are you looking at?”
“I just saw—”
When she looked again, the filthy girl was gone. Erin paused, and wondered if she was going crazy. But maybe the girl was some kind of orphan, like Hawk? Whoever she was, she looked cold. And hungry.
“Never mind. I uh, thought I saw a customer.”
“We’re running out. Might be a good time to call it a day. I know my tail is sore.”
Selys stretched and took a few steps as Erin wondered if the girl was going to come back. She probably didn’t have any money, but if Erin saw her, she’d give her a burger for free. She spoke to Selys, still watching the alleyway.
“When do we quit?”
“When you get tired. Or when we stop getting customers.”
Erin glanced at her table.
“We’re out of ketchup.”
“I’m not making any more.”
Selys came to warm herself at the brazier. Erin eyed her and tried to speak nonchalantly.
“Rabbits. Erin, it’s rude to say—”
“I know. I won’t say it around him. But he’s so quick! And he’s…ripped.”
“He does have a good body.”
“And he’s nice. I can’t believe it never works out with other Drakes!”
“We try, now and then. But you know, it just doesn’t work out. Every time it ends badly with him. Take me for instance. We were together for only two weeks before we broke up.”
Two hours later, Erin walked back to her inn. She wasn’t alone.
“So you sold how many burgers?”
Erin had to think. Her arms were so tired that Ceria had offered to carry Erin’s mostly empty shopping bag back. But Erin had refused. Ceria might be well enough to leave the guardhouse, but she was still thinner than was healthy.
“I think…a thousand? It feels like that. Probably closer to six hundred. Maybe eight?”
“For a city with just over ten thousand souls, that’s a really good profit.”
“Yeah. But uh, a lot of people came back for seconds or thirds. Relc ate eight in total.”
“I can just imagine. But I’m truly glad it was a success. Even in the barracks I heard people talking about your food. Olesm tried to get one for us, but the line was too long.”
“That’s too bad! I’ll invite him over tomorrow and I’ll make you guys as many hamburgers as you want.”
Ceria waved her good hand at Erin.
“You don’t have to do that. Really, I feel bad imposing as it is. I can’t pay you right now.”
“Are you kidding? I don’t have to worry about money ever if I keep making this much every day!”
Erin indicated the jar she’d filled to the brim and her bulging coin pouch. She’d had a red letter day today, she could tell, even without counting the exact amount of her profits.
Erin had sent Selys off with enough silver coins to make the Drake walk awkwardly down the street. It was just as well the Watch had a strong presence in Liscor, Selys had said, or she’d have been really worried.
They came to the inn quite quickly. Erin was all too glad, because it meant she could put away her stuff in the kitchen. She still slept there, out of force of habit more than anything else.
“Take any room you want upstairs. I’d like to chat or—or something, but I’m so tired.”
“You go to sleep. Thank you again for letting me stay here.”
Erin waved a hand at Ceria and yawned hugely.
“You wan’ food? I got food if you didn’t have dinner.”
“I’m fine, really. Thanks Erin.”
Erin went to bed smiling. Her inn felt a lot less lonely with someone else in it. She wondered what Toren would think when the skeleton got back. Hopefully he wouldn’t bother Ceria too much.
The coins she’d earned were safely stored under a floorboard in the kitchen. Erin had seen that on T.V. once, so she’d asked Pawn to install one. Which meant that if anyone ever robbed her, she’d have to start looking at Workers funny.
But Erin was tired, and even thoughts of her missing skeleton and thoughts of Antinium sneaking into houses and robbing people blind couldn’t keep her awake. She drifted off peacefully and slept well.
Until she heard Ceria screaming.
The sound woke Erin up from a pleasant dream about playing chess in Burger King. She heard Ceria’s voice cut through the night, high pitched and shrill.
Erin reacted with a speed born out of panic. She always kept a frying pan out on a counter, and it was that she seized as she charged out of the kitchen. She had no idea what was attacking Ceria, but she didn’t hesitate as she dashed up the stairs.
She’d put Ceria on the furthest room from the staircase—because the half-Elf had insisted she didn’t want to take any space. Erin ran into the room and saw Ceria sitting half-naked in bed, clutching at her hand and screaming. Nothing was attacking her, but her eyes were wide with panic and fear.
“Ceria! What’s wrong?”
The half-Elf’s head turned towards Erin. She didn’t seem to quite see Erin, but she clearly realized someone was in her doorway. Ceria shrieked and turned towards Erin, eyes wide with horror.
Her skeletal hand rose and the fingers moved. Ceria pointed at Erin and the girl ducked. A spike of ice caught some of Erin’s hair and ripped it out as it struck the far wall and embedded itself in the new wood.
Erin crawled to the door, heart pounding out of her chest. She scrambled outside and tried to make herself as small of a target as possible.
“Ceria! It’s okay! It’s just me!”
Erin shouted as she curled up into a ball on the far side of the wall. She wasn’t sure if the [Ice Spike] could penetrate the thick walls, but prayed Ceria wouldn’t fire again.
Mercifully, she didn’t. Erin heard Ceria draw in a shaking breath, and then her voice.
“Erin! Oh ancestors, what have I—Erin!”
Erin crawled past the doorway and waved her hands to reassure Ceria. Her friend’s face was deathly white.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean—I thought you were—”
Ceria choked as she reached out for Erin. The girl immediately stood up and went to her. Ceria was shaking so hard the bed was moving.
“It’s okay! Really! It was just a spell! Are you okay? What happened?”
“A—dream. Just a dream.”
Ceria shook her head, and kept on shaking.
“I nearly—ancestors. I nearly killed you.”
“But you didn’t! And your hand! Ceria, did you see—?”
But Ceria wasn’t listening. She started to struggle in her sheets, trying to get up.
“I’ll go. I can’t stay. I’m a threat to you and—”
Erin caught Ceria by the wrists. The blackened skin on her right hand was deathly cold and clammy to the touch, but Erin ignored it. She looked into Ceria’s eyes, trying to breathe calmly. Her heart was still racing.
“Ceria. No. It was an accident. Stay. Please. I don’t blame you.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks as Ceria looked at Erin.
“I’m so sorry. So sorry.”
Erin hesitated, and then hugged Ceria. The half-Elf shuddered at the contact, but didn’t push Erin away. She just trembled in Erin’s arms. She kept repeating the words.
“I’m so, so sorry.”
Erin didn’t think she was just talking about nearly hitting Erin with the spell. She held her as the night deepened and Ceria wept.
It was a long time before Ceria could collect herself enough to stop shaking. She and Erin sat on her bed as the half-Elf stared at her hands, one good, one dead.
“I thought I was back in the coffin. Only this time, Skinner found me and opened the lid.”
Erin shuddered. Just the thought of his dead body made of skin made her stomach clench.
“I don’t blame you for attacking. If it were me I’d throw everything I had. And I’d probably have hit you, with my [Unerring Aim] skill and all that. Actually, it’s a good thing you were the one who got scared, huh?”
Ceria laughed shakily, but it was a laugh, and that’s what Erin wanted. She stared at her dead hand and shook her head.
“I thought I was still back down there with the others. I thought they needed my help. They’re dead. I keep forgetting.”
Erin’s heart caught in her chest. She closed her eyes for a second.
She let the word trail off. There was nothing she could really say. Ceria was silent too, but then she raised her arm and stared at her limp skeletal hand, protruding from the blackened flesh. It had been days, but the skin wasn’t rotting and the bone still looked…normal.
Erin was sure of it. It had been just an instant, but you didn’t tend to forget a near-death experience.
“You moved your hand. Was it with magic?”
“No—at least, I didn’t try to intentionally. But I must have used some, I guess. My arm…I didn’t think the bones could still move.”
The yellow bones didn’t so much as twitch. Erin looked at Ceria’s hand uncertainly.
“Is is…because you know magic? Or maybe Pisces did something to it…?”
“Pisces can’t take control of a living body part. Or even one attached to a living one.”
Ceria shook her head.
“Then is it because you’re a mage?”
“No. It must be because I’m half-Elf.”
“Half-Elves are immortal?”
Erin felt Ceria chuckle.
“No, we’re just as mortal as any other species, although we live longer. But our bodies are closer to magic in nature. We can do…things that other species can’t. This must be one of them. It also explains why my hand is in one piece even though the flesh is gone.”
That was odd, now that Erin thought about it. She looked hesitantly at Ceria’s hand and chanced a question.
“How—did you lose it? Was it fighting Skinner?”
Ceria’s mouth twisted in self-derision.
“I was too frightened to fight him. I couldn’t even raise my wand. No, Yvlon and some adventurers were trying to get out and there were a bunch of undead in the way. I used a spell and the backlash froze my hand off.”
“A spell can do that?”
“Some can. It was bad magic, the spell I used.”
“But you saved them. That’s not bad magic. Or—was it like necromancy? Pisces does that, and he’s not bad. Just annoying.”
Ceria laughed again. Erin’s attempts to reassure her seemed to be cheering her ever so slightly.
“No—I mean, it was badly done. I was trying to cast [Glacial Spear]. It’s an advanced form of [Ice Spike], but I failed.”
Erin didn’t get it.
“But you cast the spell.”
“Incorrectly. The way I did it, I just poured magic into an oversized [Ice Spike] spell. I used all my remaining mana up in one go, which was a stupid idea.”
“Why’s that? Isn’t it good to do that? I mean, if you could use a really big spell, why not do that all the time?”
Ceria chuckled now, and Erin was glad her stupid questions were making the half-Elf feel better. They sat together in the bed as Ceria’s breathing finally calmed down.
“If mages could use up all their magic in a single spell we’d be even more dangerous than we are. Imagine an army of mages that could devastate an army in a moment. No; spells are a lot more complex than that.”
Erin had resigned herself to never being a mage, but she was intensely curious about magic all the same. Ceria explained. It seemed to be easier for her to lecture than think about anything else.
“There’s a limit to how much mana we can infuse into a spell. Think of a spell as a…container. The good ones can hold a lot of magic and require a lot to activate. But a bad spell can’t handle that much magic. You can overcharge any spell in theory if you have enough magic, but too much and…”
She gestured to her hand.
“But that’s the odd thing. You said I moved it. And I cast magic with it. I shouldn’t be able to cast [Ice Spike] without injuring myself. Not without a wand. But this—”
She tried to flex her skeletal hand, Erin saw. But though Ceria’s face twisted with pain, the bony fingers didn’t so much as move.
“There’s something here. If I can still use magic with two hands and not just one, maybe…”
Erin didn’t like that train of thought. It sounded too active, and not nearly like the restful, peaceful thoughts she wanted Ceria to have. But then someone shouted outside and Erin felt Ceria tense up again.
It was a familiar voice, and it came from just outside. Erin heard furious pounding at the door, and then she heard someone throw it open. She’d forgotten to lock the door! Again!
Whoever was downstairs pounded into the kitchen first, and then came up the stairs two at a time. Erin heard someone running down the hallway, and then Olesm appeared in the doorway.
“Miss Erin! Ceria! You won’t believe what I—oh.”
Olesm paused awkwardly in the doorway. Erin was still in her pajama clothes and semi-decent, but Ceria preferred to sleep only in her underwear. She pulled the sheets up around her chest and Olesm turned away, blushing.
“Blight and rot Olesm, you’ve seen me naked before. And bleeding. Stop blushing and tell us what’s wrong? Is it more undead?”
Olesm turned and shook his head.
“No. Maybe? It’s something we found in the city! You see, after the Watch cleared out the ruins, Zevara was really worried more undead might appear, so she got the Council to find where we keep our histories. Well, we had to dig back to the oldest archives in some dusty house, but we found something about the ruins!”
Olesm’s eyes were wide with excitement. He gestured, trying to make sense while words spilled over each other.
“They found a map. It shows the ruins, as well as the locations of other buildings underground. Apparently, the ruins we found was a tomb, and Skinner was assigned to guard it.”
Ceria’s fists—both of them—clenched in the sheets.
“So he wasn’t just a monster that found his way in there. What else?”
“It says he was one of the protectors of the tombs. But that was only a building for commoners—but it’s the rest that’s really serious. You—you might want to sit down.”
Ceria snapped at Olesm.
“We are sitting! Spit it out!”
Olesm took a deep breath, and when he spoke his voice only trembled slightly.
“The tombs are only a small part of the ruins. There are more. Underground. They’re all over the place, but that’s not the big thing. In the references, we found a passage we could read. It lists the titles of those placed in the ruins to guard them forever. And he’s there too. Skinner. Flesh Worm. Lesser Guardian of the Crypts.”