10.09 E – The Wandering Inn

10.09 E

(Trigger Warning: See the link here for details.)

(I am on break until April 6th! Then, I will begin my new schedule of updates. See Blog #10 for details.)



This is it! Oh poo! Oh g—oh dead—aaah! This is it!”

A wave crashed down on a beach like an avalanche, the foam of the rushing, white water caving out sand, slamming down with all the force of a moderate, two-foot section of ocean.

Terrifying. The next wave queued up for a run at the beach, and there were thousands, millions more in reserve. Put me in, coach! They’d eventually wash away the continent if they tried hard enough, right?

The huge section of sand, patchy white and yellow leading up to what looked like a forest of impossibly tall trees filling the sky, was proof enough of—

The next wave was coming.

“This time, it’s it! Brace! Brace! Aaaaah!

The wave began to crest towards shore, and what it did not bring any closer was the surprisingly loud voice. The wave crested and broke; it washed a bunch of seaweed and some scraps of wood onto the sand.

“Okay. This time. Just get it over with, would you?”

At this point, the voice grew a tiny bit exasperated. But the trepidation was real. After all, being buoyed forwards by the third wave was a small plank of wood. Barely a few feet long and splintered at the end, rot and salt water had turned the board into deadwood. It had been splintered from some great impact, and all that remained on it was a scrap of broken fabric somehow snagged around the board, like a miniature tent.

And a tiny person, six inches tall. She was, at this moment, paddling around with a tiny, toothpick-sized paddle that did absolutely nothing as the wave brought the plank forwards.

“Don’t tip. Don’t tip—no, nonononono—

Her concerns about the waves breaking on the beach were well-founded. After all, mild waves at this time of day could still get up to two feet high. Not bad if you were six feet tall and watching them lap at your knees or something.

A huge concern if they were four times your height and you had a valid fear about being sucked back underwater when the wave pulled back.

The little figure had thought for a long time, ever since she’d seen the shore approaching, about her exit strategy. Obviously, jumping off and swimming to shore had been a thought until she’d considered the possibility of the undertow or the waves hitting the beach locking her in a cycle of tumbling around like a piece of laundry in a washing machine.

Death by beach wasn’t her first option. Not after so long. So, the young woman paddled, cursing, legs unsteadily wobbling as the board lifted—

Her name was Erin Solstice. She had on a t-shirt and jeans and, on top of that, what looked like a sack: a piece of grey, burnt cloth with holes poked in it for her arms. A cloak for the sun, cold weather, and rain up till now. But she’d added clumsy sleeves fashioned out of loops of cloth. She was sunburned, her skin was peeling, and she had lost weight. How much, she couldn’t have said, but her hair that sometimes fell out looked discolored at the tips.

The ocean water was a bad mirror, but she knew she had more things wrong with her than she could see. Even now, her lungs felt like they were burning as she spoke. There was a tingling in her body, and her veins had stopped pulsing with strange fire each night.

Erin would have worried about anyone else in this condition. For herself?

Her wounds had mostly healed. She was alive.

Soon to be dead if the wave flipped her. The board went up, and the little figure realized the worst was happening.

It’s tipping. Abandon ship!”

She braced—and hoped like hell this worked. The wave was reaching a crest, and she could sense the plank spinning despite her best efforts. The laws of energy or something meant that it wanted to tip with the wave rather than remain straight on like a surfboard as she’d been trying to keep it.

Now, as the wave began to descend, the plank began to tip—and it was going to drop her straight into the full weight of the wave as it came down on the sand.

So she took two unsteady steps—bent her legs, and hoped this worked.

“[Lesser Strength]! Jump!

She leapt as she felt the board tilting below her and flew into the sky.

The jump was as good as she had hoped; Erin had realized she could fly into the air, at least, relative to her height. When she’d practiced at sea a few times, she’d managed incredible jumps of what she guessed might have been a foot or more.

Desperation and momentum must have given her two feet, four feet of height and distance. The [Innkeeper] whooped—then saw wet sand below her.


She hit the beach, turned her head, and the wave slammed into her. The next few moments were what every beachgoer who’d ever run afoul of a big wave had faced: tumbling, being ground against the sand, limbs flailing with no sense of direction—until at last, miraculously, she ended up face-first in the sand, gasping for air, and pulled her head up.

“I’m alive?”

She had little time for celebration. Water was rushing away from her, and the young woman crawled away from it, looking over her shoulder.

The ocean water was pulling back, taking the little board with it, rolling it around like the rest of the flotsam being deposited on the beach. Trash. Scraps of fabric. Seaweed. Floating bits and bobs. A piece of bone.

Fragments of ships. And—the little board. Her home for a month.

“Goodbye, Plank II.

That was all the young woman said. Then she saw the fourth wave coming, and to her eyes, it looked like what she imagined a tidal wave was. Water, many times her height, coming in a line across the horizon. Of course, it was just a bigger-than-average wave.

But she was a smaller-than-average person right now. A Fraerling. That much, Erin Solstice knew. Where the heck she was, what had happened while she lay there thinking, surviving, and waiting for something to attack or kill her besides a seagull one time—

She had no idea. She pushed herself up, and her arms shook. She was exhausted and probably malnourished. Despite exposure or whatever you called it, her arms worked. Her legs responded to her.

A month of doing sit-ups when she could or those exercises Grimalkin and the [Healer] had shown her to make sure her body wouldn’t fail her. She hadn’t been able to walk for nearly a week and a half. Now, she stood—and began running.

Away from the incoming wave, which threatened to wash over her current position. Erin Solstice’s footwear was backup sandals from her bag of holding; the boots she’d been wearing had been badly damaged like everything else she’d had on her during the battle at sea.

She was down to her last set of clothing. The rest had been either so badly irradiated from the magic—that was how she could describe it—that it had melted, despite the bag of holding, or she’d had to burn it when the snow had begun falling to keep her warm when she slept.

No knife. No potions. And her bag of holding—Erin glanced over her shoulder—

Was currently rolling around on the plank of wood, if it was even still attached. Along with all the cloth she’d used as a shelter from the sun and rain.

You could have shrunk my bag of holding too. Damn you, Silvenia!

The [Innkeeper] began running, arms and legs pumping as she dashed over the wet sand. It was about the eight hundredth time she’d cursed the Death of Magic’s name. At least she had her health and enough energy to run.

Go, go, go! Don’t look back, don’t look—

Holy poop, that’s a big wave!

She sped up. It was still coming, and now she heard it! A dull roar behind her. It was the most action-movie thing she’d ever felt in her life; water was cascading down now, pounding the sand, and she could see sand and bits of water flying upwards from the impact.

A wave. Who knew they were so terrifying? Water rushed forwards and reached her ankles; she yelped, leapt—and the water pulled back as Erin Solstice landed in the sand. Dry sand.

It clung to her as she stumbled, stopped, turned, and realized she’d made it. She was alive. Shaking, breathing in, exhaling hard, Erin Solstice looked back.

She had just survived her first contact with a beach. Not her first challenge at sea; the seagull, having to switch to another plank when the first almost burnt down overnight thanks to a fire she’d started, and bad diarrhea had all been considerable problems.

…It didn’t bode well for wherever this was, though. Erin Solstice looked around. Her legs were covered with bits of sand particles, still smaller than her, but gravel-sized relative to her height. Her eyes took in a vast, desert-like land ahead of her; that was the beach.

Then the great forest they sang of in tales of Norse legend, like the ancient forests she’d heard of, where Treants and Dryads sprang forth; vast conifers of wood (she had no idea if they were actual conifers) looming upwards towards the heavens, and twining bushes the size of huge apartment blocks, leaves and vines snarled every which way.

A wall of plantlife; a land of Giants.

That was the forest. Probably not even a big forest. Jungle? Erin Solstice had no idea.

“I am in so much trouble.”

The [Innkeeper] swallowed hard. She was alive. She hadn’t expected that. In that sense, she was grateful. In that sense, she deserved everything coming to her.

She wondered who else had made it.




The blessing of being marooned in a strange land while being tiny was that she didn’t have the luxury to think about the big things.

Like the people who’d died at the Solstice. Like the nature of Roshal or evil or herself. Compared to having to think about that—Erin would have suffered a thousand waves at the beach.

Of course, she had thoughts, but they had to be practical, and she was eminently grateful for that. And her first thought was to actually turn around and debate heading back to sea.

Not because she wanted a different landing spot; there was absolutely no way to maneuver at sea. She’d tried; be it plank or sail, even if she’d managed to conjure a wind like Ryoka, it had been abundantly clear to Erin’s mind that she couldn’t head anywhere else.

Even if she had Ryoka’s complete ability set, sailing to another island would take days upon days at her height, wouldn’t it? Flying, now…that might allow her to travel wherever she wanted.

But she was stuck with this location. What Erin wanted was Plank II.

It was an ignominious vessel. Miserably wet when the water dampened it, littered with trash despite her best efforts, and hollowed out with a pit she used for fire and to try and boil water and make it drinkable. She hated it; the ‘tarp’ she’d covered one half with was a jacket that had belonged to Admiral Dakelos. At least that had been waterproof, but Plank II was a miserable prison she had stayed on for a month.

…It was also burnable. And it had had, until recently, a waterlogged bag of holding with at least a few valuable items inside—along with a lot of water. Erin shaded her eyes, squinted, and swore as she saw the plank continuing to roll with each wave.

“Fuck. I think it’s gone.”

The bag of holding’s drawstrings had been looped around a piece of the plank, but the rolling of the wave must have taken it out. Which meant one of the only magical things she had left was gone—along with her remaining food supply.

Then again, the thought of having more multicolored honey nearly made Erin heave on the spot. And her butt clenched simultaneously at the thought.

A month. A month of eating Apista’s Ashfire Bee honey. There hadn’t been much…for a regular person. Even for a Fraerling, it had ‘only’ been roughly Erin’s mass, a few tablespoons at most. But it was dense honey made from Faerie Flower nectar.

A single handful was enough to sustain you all day and night and, Erin now knew, give you a rush of magic and the other effects of the Faerie Flowers. Like memory. Or hallucinations.

It tasted like, well, honey mixed with something slightly bitter and was actually chewy if you ate it in unwise amounts. Erin’s teeth hurt just remembering it; she’d been cleaning them with some toothpaste after every meal, but that much sugar…

Erin suspected Apista’s fondness of Dreamleaf cigars from Palt had added to the honey, making it highly hallucinogenic as well. Either way, a month had given her a tolerance to whatever was in the honey. And a desire to never eat honey or sugar again as long as she lived.

There was about six days worth of honey left. That was still invaluable if she could lug the bag of holding or little jar to shore.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the bag was nowhere on the plank or the beach. Erin stood there, muttering to herself as she shaded her eyes.

“I can check back later to see if it’s washed up. It’s not like I can carry it far…it’s really heavy. And if I fall into it I might die. On the other hand, it can hold…everything. And there’s some stuff in there, like the inkwell and coins.”

She wasn’t sure how much use some of the things in her bag of holding would be if she didn’t find a way to get big or friendly help soon. But something was better than literally nothing but the clothes on her back.

No help for it. Erin stopped staring at the sea, turned, and took a huge breath.

“Okay. Where am I? The Hivelands? Terandria? Chandrar? No, Chandrar doesn’t have trees. I think. Unless this is the Claiven Earth? Rhir? Please let it not be Terandria. Or Rhir.”

She didn’t think it was, but Erin wasn’t good with maps, and she had no idea where she was given her last position at sea. They had been near Wistram, which was dead in the middle of the ocean.

Erin had actually hoped she’d wash up at Wistram, Eldavin or not. Her knowledge of coastlines was…pretty bad, but judging by the balminess of the air, despite it probably still being the end of the year and winter, her best guess was actually—

“Baleros. Baleros on some coast. The, uh…eastern side. Probably south or middle? The north’s supposed to be cold. No harbor or civilization for miles that I could see. Or hundreds of feet. Crap.”

The beach was literally all she could see. If she looked left? More beach. If she looked right? More beach. It stretched to the jungle, and maybe Erin could see a rise in elevation to her right, but that was all the clues she had.

It was overwhelming, frankly, after weeks of just staring at the waves and grey skies and, sometimes, storms. Erin’s eyes hurt from the vivid colors, but she forced herself to concentrate.

I may die, and I can’t die…not yet. 

Not until she—well. She just didn’t want to die here and now. Not after all that had happened.

So, Erin focused on her surroundings, trying to pick details out from the two biomes ahead of her. And what she noticed, when she was able to focus, was that there were hazards and things to at least aim for.

“Hm. What the hell is that?

Erin’s first observation was movement. Of course, the entire area was moving with the wind and whatnot; even the bushes waved, but the sound of the waves receded enough for her to hear…nature.

Buzzing insects. Distant chirping. Rustling—and not to put too fine a point on it—other living things. Erin’s first sight of them?

Blurring little dots, leaping around in the sand ahead of her. Erin couldn’t make them out, but she didn’t like whatever it was she saw. Nor the suggestion of other things in the greenery, far bigger than she was.

“[Innkeeper]. Six inches high. Silvenia, I hate you so much.”

The Death of Magic had saved her life. But, Erin felt, she really could have reversed whatever spell she’d hit Erin with; put a time limit on it after a week? Then again, Erin might have drowned at sea. But still. How hard was it to cast [Teleport] along with [Polymorph] or whatever it was?

She had two hands. Couldn’t ancient, half-Elven [Archmages] dual-cast?

Focus. What Erin noticed was that the sand had, among the hopping things, some holes in it. It wasn’t obvious, but her instincts said ‘don’t go near those holes’.

“[Dangersense]. Right. What lives on the beach? Crabs? Snakes? Not snakes…something’s in those holes. And…is that a berry bush?”

Her eyes locked on a bunch of blue dots in the distance. It looked like a bush with blue berries on it. And that tree…Erin craned her head back.

“Is that a palm? Can’t tell…right, this has to be Baleros, right? Berries. Palm. Huh. Or do I want that tree?”

She eyed one of the biggest trees around, which, in theory, might let her scale it and give her a commanding view of the area.

Hm. Could she climb a tree? Not in general; Erin had never been that athletic, but she was desperate, higher-level than before, and Fraerling sized, which meant she could jump higher than normal. If her conversations with Niers served right, that meant Erin was also functionally a lot stronger than her size indicated.

Still incredibly weak compared to an actual Human, but it gave her an edge in fights against things her size. Or so Niers said. She hoped he hadn’t been exaggerating.

In fact, this reminded her a lot of when she’d first come to this world. Here she was, nothing but some clothes on her back, lost, injured…

…Her friends dead at her own hand…

Erin Solstice stopped, and the anxiety of her situation was overwhelmed a moment by memory. She lowered her head, exhaled hard, and some of the fear left her.

Not from courage or inspiration, but a kind of terrible apathy. If I die—I have it coming.

That made it easier to start walking through the sand. Easier to be sunburnt, throwing up honey, or lying awake in agony night after night.

I deserve this. Erin Solstice began striding through the sand towards the largest tree. She’d eaten enough honey right before her landing on the beach. Positioning first; food second. Survival.

She really wished she’d gone camping with her family more. Or remembered anything from survival training.




Walking across the beach slowed her a bit, but the sand wasn’t as bad when she was smaller; it didn’t shift as much, so she got up to a good clip of speed, awkwardly jogging forward as she looked around in every direction.

The problem was that the moment she landed in maybe-Baleros she was under attack. The first blow hit Erin in the arm. When she swung at it, the square-shaped sand flea bounced off her. Another landed. Erin stared at a weird, mosquito-like thing with a fuzzy, vaguely rectangular body and long, clawed legs.

They were hopping—beige—sand things! They reminded Erin of mosquitos because of their proboscis-like faces, which were trying to pierce her skin and suck her blood.

“Aw. Come on.

She tried to punch the second one off her; they were like small dogs relative to her size, even now, but that was a dog with a sharp stinger for a ‘mouth’.

Erin’s fist hit only the air as the sand flea leapt off her. She spun, ducked as another careened towards her, and realized all the movement in the sand was these things.


It reminded Erin of some beaches from earth with similar infestations. Little stinging bugs, only they were actual threats now. She began running as a cloud of them bounded towards her.

Now was the moment where Erin Solstice would produce a jar of acid and melt a flea. Or, with the knife forged by the [Hammer of a Hundred Metals], begin cleaving them in half.

She didn’t have her knife. Or an acid jar. Or any weapon. Her knife had snapped as she killed Prince Iradoren, and any shards had been lost at sea.

Good. Erin didn’t know if she could hold it right now. With that said—she finally managed to punch the first sand flea as it rocketed towards her.

Erin’s fist hit it, and she felt little resistance; she sent it tumbling into the side of a dune and saw its six legs flailing in the air. Then the sand flea got up and began hopping away.

At least that works. Bring it on, you stupid—ow, ow, ow.

The first minute of fighting was sand fleas relentlessly slamming into Erin and trying to suck her blood or vital fluids out. She swung wildly, kicking them off her, but they were so light she just hurled them away.

They didn’t manage to really hurt her; they were light, small, and sharp as their beaks might be, Erin’s improvised sackcloth cloak actually made it so the worst they did was poke her hard.

After her third kick, the fleas seemed to realize this was getting them nowhere and backed off a bit. Erin, swearing, cleared a dune, took one look down the ridge, stopped, and began to jog the other way.

“Aw. No way.

She realized she’d made an inadvertent tactical error from the start; she looked straight down the ‘valley’, which was really an indentation worn in the sand from tidal action at higher tide or whatever. And what she saw was…

A rotting fish.

Just a rotting fish. Nothing too gruesome; it didn’t even stink to high heavens yet. Yet it had clearly washed up, died, and was in the process of feeding the beach dwellers. Including, not to put too fine a point on it, a horde of sand fleas and two snails.


Erin jogged left, away from the fish, instantly. Most of the fleas that had gone for her were on top of the fish, sucking it up. Gross. As for the snails…Erin had no idea they ate fish. She had no idea about most beach-life.

Crabs—she knew crabs. That was why, as Erin ran across the beach, she didn’t fall prey to her old enemies instantly.

Crabs. They were definitely in the holes in the ground she’d spotted. Erin ran across the edge of the first depression in the sand away from the fish, skirted a hole, and kept up a running monologue the entire time.

“Okay. Sand fleas—not a threat. Crabs? Maybe a threat. Is that a crab? That’s a crab. Huh. They’re small…compared to Rock Crabs. Relative to me, they’re, uh…”

She hesitated.

“Only up to my chin? Great. So they’d be tiny in real life. Pincers could probably take a hand off. No thank you! What do mini crabs eat? Oh. Sand fleas.”

It made sense; if her image of a distant crab hunting was accurate, it was seizing the sand fleas and smaller insects and crushing them with its pincers before transferring the contents to its mouth.

Was that normal for crabs? No clue. This was a different world, unless she’d actually ended up back on Earth.

Given the system had actually offered that as an option for her last level up…wouldn’t that be fun? Erin knew she had her Skills. Which was worse? Ending up on Earth on a beach somewhere with all her Skills and no potential help from magic or her friends—or Baleros, where magical monsters abounded?

“—Silly question. I don’t think berries like those on that bush exist on Earth. But that means I get to fight magical monsters. Great. What do Fraerlings fear most of all? Cats. Doors. Anything taller than they are…which is almost everything…I need a weapon.”

After thirty minutes of jogging, Erin’s legs hurt; small wonder after being on the plank so long. At least all that pacing and exercising had let her move about without her problems from resurrection; she slowed to a walk, panting.

Her legs and arms hurt all the time. Less than during the first few weeks, but there was an ache in them far deeper than the burning of lactic acid. She was not in good condition.

When Erin paused to rub at her hair, her hand brushed one ear, and she felt…rough skin and an absence of the round top of her right ear.

Missing. She had lost it during the battle at sea. Someone had shot the top of it off. Erin wondered what it looked like. She could still hear, but that, like her other scars, was a reminder.

Her very soul had been spent, then restored, but sometimes she felt like there was a crack in her very being. She had scars on her wrists; discolored skin from where she had worn cuffs.

Each one a—what? A lesson? A victory?

“A scar. I need a weapon.”

Erin kept going on. She was trying to establish an order of operations to this. Survival.

Water, shelter, weapon, food, location. Not in that order, surely? She tried to prioritize logically.

Location had to matter first, right? Survey the area for more dead fish or dangerous things. That gave rise to food and water.

Water was more important than food according to her understanding of the lack of which would kill you first. But there was the ocean…

I could barely collect any condensation even by boiling it and using the tarp to harvest the stuff. If it doesn’t rain, I need to find good, fresh water. Damn! What about bacteria? 

She almost wished she were small enough to just see a bacterium and punch the heck out of that as well. Yes, water had to be high.

So—location. Water. Food she could actually do without for a bit. Shelter for the night. Those were her three criteria. A weapon? A weapon could wait.

She had her Skills and her craft. Even if both weren’t exactly in good condition for that.

Not many survival Skills or even the best combat ones. I am Level 55 for what that’s worth; I didn’t feel particularly strong fighting the sand fleas, but I only have, what, four direct combat Skills? 

Her craft was more likely, but the [Witch]…

The [Witch]’s hat was empty right now. The flame out. She was tired. Grieving. Perhaps that would lead to power of its own, but right now, Erin didn’t trust to magic, least of all based in wonder.

She just wanted to run. So she did. Erin ran for the tree, legs and arms pumping—and nearly ran into the next crab-hole.

Raaaaaaaah! [Flutter Step]!

—She was not without means. As the crab snapped its claws, trying to attack the prey that had literally fallen into its hole, it saw the desperate [Innkeeper] pump her arms and legs and…stop falling.

Like a cartoon character, she actually floated, moving over the hole by sheer, desperate pumping of her arms and legs. The crab stared up at Erin as she floated to the edge of its hole, landed on the other side, arms flailing as she overbalanced, then ran for it. She shot a glance over her shoulder; the crab was so perplexed it was half out of its hole, eyestalks staring at her.

“Skills. Gotta love ‘em. Whew!”

She probably could have taken that crab. But Erin had crab-related trauma. Don’t pick fights she didn’t need to.

Wait, crabs are edible. I don’t really like crab…but that’s definitely edible.

Erin glanced over her shoulder, and the crab slowly edged back into its hole. Then again, she wasn’t hungry…and she’d need to roast it.

“I’ll be back. You better hope I forget where you live.”

Erin pointed at the crab. Then she jogged onwards. Fire. She’d need a fire to cook anything, but at least that was no problem.

Fire was easy.




The tree was hard. When Erin finally got to it, the ground had changed from sand to soil and given her real footing to work with.

She also had a stitch in her side and had to lean against one root, wheezing, trying to breathe.


It had probably only been forty-five minutes of jogging, walking, and panting for air. Not even a full run, but Erin was exhausted.

“I really should have worked out more. Mrsha never gets tired! How does she do it?”

If Mrsha were here, she’d already be another hundred feet into the jungle and probably have run into Skinner 2.0: Jungle Edition. Which was probably just a giant leech. But Erin was not Mrsha, and therefore she looked up at the tree and groaned.

“This is such a bad idea.”

Her memories of the blue fruit tree debacle came back to her. Unable to do a single pullup, reduced to kicking the tree for fruits.

No such luck this time. For one thing, this wasn’t…Erin craned her head up and stared into the foliage.

The jungle was dense. And loud. Buzzing was everywhere, and contrary to her image of nature, everything felt alive and big around her. Erin had seen a huge worm rolling through the soil here; she paused as, high above, vast wings beat.

Probably just a regular bird. I wish Bird was here.

Is Bird even alive? Is Mrsha? She suppressed the thoughts.


It wasn’t as hard to climb as Erin thought. She was no rock climber, and if she’d had to keep moving, she would have run out of energy and fallen after the first minute.

Size. Size, relative to the bark of this tree, meant that Erin could literally walk up parts of the tree, using the cracks in the bark as easy foot or handholds. For the rest? Well…

“[Lesser Strength]. Makes it—easy! I’m so awesome. I could be an athletic person after all! Whoa, I’m high up.”

Erin looked down after ten minutes and blanched. Again, it was all relative, but she felt forty feet up. In reality, she was probably only six…feet.

The tree was, perhaps, fifty.

After twenty more minutes, Erin wondered if she’d made a mistake.

“I’m not gonna reach the top! Can I?”

Her arms hurt. She was sweating, and she’d been climbing up some fungi: soft, light-green stuff that she found gross and fuzzy. Erin clung to a patch of bark and stared up.

There was a lot of tree left. And she might have [Lesser Endurance], but that was only proportional to her actual fitness. Frankly, climbing for thirty minutes was probably all she had in her.

This is not a good idea.

She should have gone for the bush. Cursing, Erin had to admit that getting to the top of the tree—even if she could do it—was going to take at least an hour of climbing, probably two, with her rest breaks.

Was that worth it? Absolutely not! It was a waste of the energy she had. Her first miscalculation as a Fraerling.

Her arms hurt intensely. Erin was worried; it wasn’t the same as muscles burning from fatigue. Something deeper hurt.

She tensed; she knew she could leap from the top of any height and land safely, according to Fraerling physics, but that was a terrifying notion. It was like jumping off a building back home and expecting to be safe.

“Oh boy. Oh no. I’ve made multiple mistakes.”

Before she did a swan dive to her terrifying not-demise, Erin did look around from where she was.

…Ten feet off the ground. It—helped? A tiny bit? If she shimmied left or right, Erin could see more forest. And what she saw was…more forest.


Okay, she did get some insights. For one thing, there was a lot more ground traffic than Erin liked. She saw, for instance, a massive beetle crawling along, a lot bigger than she was.

Erin was still six inches tall. That actually beat most ordinary bugs for height. Back home, even a big roach would be shorter than Erin if you took out the antennae. Of course, relative to her, it would be…what? A waist-high, super-fast, armored bug that did eat flesh? Did cockroaches eat flesh or other insects?

“Great. So a cockroach is like a Juvenile Creler.”

That was not comforting. How the heck did Fraerlings survive anything? A mosquito would be…a face-sized attacker with a huge stinger.

“So a mosquito would be a Face-Eater moth, except one that jabs a needle into your face instead of eating it. Great!”

Focus on the ground. Erin had seen the big beetle she estimated might be two feet long—definitely magical—rooting at the dirt. It was digging with huge pincers and was therefore a cousin to the stag beetle or Earth varieties.

It was currently pulling up a worm, perhaps the same one Erin had seen. This had to be Baleros; the area was lush.

“Is it spring already? Hey. There’s a cute hamster as well. And birds all over…oh heck, they’re big. And is that a roly poly? Ants are still sorta tiny.”

Your average ant was still really small compared to someone six inches tall. Excellent! The last thing Erin needed was for an ant to pose a threat. Even a red ant was, what, the size of her hand? Maybe a bit bigger…okay, that was a nasty ant.

Conventional wisdom said that, aside from a super-beetle, her biggest threat was going to be actual animals. Like birds.

Erin grimly considered the activity higher up, which she would have run into if she’d kept climbing.

Definitely a lot of birds. And even a sparrow would be around her height, with a huge beak. She doubted smaller birds would want to take her on, but big ones?

I can’t put myself at risk. What’s next? It has to be water, but I don’t…see…any…

Aside from the ocean, of course. Erin did a slow rotation around the trunk, arms still hurting, and decided she needed to head for that blue berry bush. The problem was…she couldn’t tell where it was anymore.

“Great. So I leave here, jog back out into the sand…”

Argh! She had no mobility or sense of direction. Erin realized she was panicking. She wasn’t cut out for this!

Any one of her friends would have done better. Even Mrsha! Okay, probably not Mrsha or Lyonette, but anyone with a different class.

Pisces would have just animated a bunch of undead. Or turned invisible. Ceria could produce magical ice. Relc or Klbkch could have climbed the tree in a second and wouldn’t fear the animals like she did.

Were any alive? Erin saw Ceria vanishing into the ocean, covered in ice, shot. She heard a voice, shouting, as she pushed a young woman into the ocean.

From Earth.

She’d killed someone from home. Erin’s fingers loosened on the bark. She almost let go—then caught herself as she saw something.

“…Is that sap?”

Two feet up, hardened on the bark…Erin hesitated. Then climbed upwards. Yep. It was clouded over due to exposure with the air, but it looked like sap.

Was tree sap edible? Yes?

Was it watery enough? Erin scraped at it with her hand. Grimaced, stared at her fingernails, and groaned.

“Okay. I need tools.”

She cracked some bark off the ledge she was on and tried to harvest the sap with that. But the bark barely gouged any of the hard resin, and Erin ended up digging her hands under a section of the dried sap, yanking a chunk away with a crack—and staring at it.

It was brown, filmy, and…she hesitated.

Then she licked the sap.


It didn’t taste like much. She bit it and decided after a second not to actually take a section off.

“One. It’s not enough like water. I’d need water to wash this down. Two. I don’t know if tree sap is edible. At least, this tree sap. Maple? Definitely. Three…”

It reminded her of honey, so she tossed the fragment off the tree and watched it land below. Then Erin closed her eyes.

Panic and fear. Water. Oh, what a mess. A weapon? A tool. She exhaled.

The image of a young man, green liquid running down his face before he began to melt. A boy from Earth. Trying to kill the Horns. Yes…understandable reasons. The feeling of pushing the girl into the sea.

Erin Solstice’s bottom was sitting on a lip of the bark. She pushed herself off it, then she was falling, tumbling, stomach reeling as the ground rushed up to meet her.

She landed on her front, splatting into the ground with all four limbs spread. Contrary to what Fraerlings told you—it hurt a bit. But the fall was easier than she’d thought. Overriding her instincts of survival…

Erin rolled over onto her back, staring up at the tree she’d failed to climb. Failure. Okay.

She stood up after a second and looked around.

“Something sharp.”




Remember what you have. [Advanced Crafting], for one.

It didn’t take long for Erin to find a stick near the tree. Making something useful out of it? Now that…that was tricky.

She could actually lug a huge stick around, dragging it along the ground, but her Skill said she needed a sharp rock or something to cut a usable length of wood out of it. Then, if she wanted a club, a smaller rock and twine to tie together.

Something pokey or sharp? She needed more time and either an appropriate edge in nature—another rock, likely—


Erin kicked the stick over, forgetting she had no boots on. She hopped on one foot for a while—and stood there.

“I’m so bad at this.”

How lucky she’d been to find an inn and tools, no matter how run down it was! Here, she was spinning her wheels, and even her Skills—like [Advanced Crafting] or [Advanced Cooking]—weren’t helping.

She was a Level 55 [Innkeeper], and she had all the abilities of, well…no one. Even her time at Pallass Hunting had seen her using provided gear.

Come to that, Erin bet even a Plains Gnoll wouldn’t want to be dropped in the middle of nowhere without a tool or two. The only person who would have an advantage in this position was a [Mage].

Which got her thinking. Erin took a break on a root, back to the tree, eying a bunch of tiny, foot-sized things hopping up what looked like a clover.

“…Are those aphids? They’re teensy!”

Part of this new landscape was wonderfully distracting. Horrible for her survival prospects, but Erin enjoyed staring at the aphids a second.


She had levels. She had Skills. New Skills. One, no, two were the most powerful and important of all. Erin Solstice closed her eyes.

[The Transient, Ephemeral, Fleeting Vault of the Mortal World. The Evanescent Safe of Passing Moments, the Faded Chest of Then and Them. The Box of Incontinuity].


[Aspect of The Wandering Inn].

She was now [The Wandering Innkeeper]. She had levels in her other classes, of course, and more Skills than that, but Erin hadn’t used either Skill fully. Experimented with the latter, of course, and tried to summon the former.

She could not. She felt, strongly, that her first Skill was in use. In fact, she knew it was.

The inn. Lyonette must have found it. Erin had been willing the box to Lyonette; the [Princess] would know what to do with it. Perhaps, know that Erin was alive. If she, Numbtongue, or anyone else was looking for Erin, they hadn’t found her with the theatre.

Silvenia, again. Is she trying to help me by making me small? That won’t save me from a [Scrying] spell, especially without my gear. I must be warded somehow if Lyonette didn’t find me first off.

So pursuers might actually be unlikely. Which meant survival was her only priority. Better and worse.

Erin cracked one eye open. Her worst aspect. Wonderful.

—She had to figure out how to gain a resource to enable her to collect water, food, or build a shelter or tools. Right now, everything she was trying to do was disabled by having no objects or usable Skills she could adapt. Right?

“Right. So use your Skill, Erin. Activate—[Alcohol Brewing]!”

Erin Solstice held out her hands, eyes wide—then laughed.

“Okay, for serious. What am I gonna do?”

She closed her eyes and ran down her list of Skills. It would have been handier if she could make the list pop up like an actual game. But she did know them if she concentrated…

Magic’s low. My craft…no, not good to rely on that. Use the Skills that don’t require magic. I have good balance and rhythm from my [Dancer] Skills; that probably helps me climb and fight. Not much use right now. 

[Innkeeper] lets me cook, clean, and craft—but that requires more than I have. I can fight, brew, sense danger, and do stuff with crowds, and if anyone with a crossbow comes at me, I’m golden.

Shame there are no crossbow beetles or something. I have my aura, but I’m not an expert. I have fire…fire doesn’t make much unless I can activate [Like Flame, Blowtorch]. 

When she thought about it, it occurred to Erin that her best Skills she could try experimenting with were…[Unerring Throw] and another set of Skills she hadn’t tried.

[Infuse Color] and [Drain Color]. As well as [Distill Simple Concept].

That was [Witch]-stuff, and Erin hadn’t needed to use it much in her inn. Right now? Erin cracked one eye open.





The first thing she did was find some pebbles. It wasn’t hard to find some rocks big enough to toss. She doubted they’d do much damage even to a bug her size, but she ripped some of her cloak up to make a kind of pouch-sling she could carry around one shoulder.

“Storage acquired. Damn! I should have stored some honey in this! Eh, it’d be gross.”

Four stones would do. If, of course, she could make them useful. Erin thoughtfully held up one grey, slightly dirty stone as big as the palm of her hand.

“[Drain Color]. Whoa!

Instantly, some grey ran into her palm, and she held it carefully; it wasn’t quite liquid, but it felt like it. And the stone turned paler, not quite white, but far paler than before and accordingly—grew light as a feather.

When Erin tossed it, the rock sailed through the air. It was a fraction of its weight! She could barely even hurl it, but it smashed into powder the moment it hit the tree’s root.

Huh. So this grey is how tough it is…and maybe how heavy.”

That was what she was getting from the stone’s color. Erin considered the grey, then tried to harvest some brown from a section of the stick.

This time, she bleached a small area of the stick, which grew pale and weak—and again, turned the wood into something so fragile a single kick sent splinters everywhere. The brown of the wood felt more…strong to Erin. Resilient. Perhaps with a sense of life? A stick was still from a tree, formerly alive.

“Nature magic, probably. Brown and grey.”

Erin put both colors on the ground; they looked like blobs of paint. She studied both, then wiped her brow.

“This gives me an idea.”

Carefully, Erin went back to the stick she’d found and began to bleach it of color. She drained brown away carefully, then began breaking the soft wood with her hands. It was so weak she didn’t even get splinters, but when she was done, she extracted a piece of wood, a splintered bit of the stick, that was vaguely as long as her arm.

“How’s that for cheating, huh?”

She’d managed to get a tool after all—but without needing to carve! It was still rough, and Erin wanted to sand the stick down a bit. She tromped over to the tree root and used an edge to wear at the new stick she intended to make.

…The wood of the stick was not that strong, so, to Erin’s displeasure, her strength allowed her to wear down part of it to make a handle.

“Great. It’s not exactly gonna do much good if I’m fighting a big monster like this, is it? I…oh. Huh.”

Erin was almost through grinding the handle down when she wobbled and nearly fell on her face. She felt tired all of a sudden. Okay—it wasn’t a good idea to overuse this. Still—

She held up her first tool—a splinter-club. It had a sort of splinter-like design aside from a soft handle. It was weak, and she had the bad feeling she could crack the thing over her knee if she tried.

Still…it was a tool-like object, and she leaned on it as she caught her breath.

This club isn’t going to do much good. I need to reinforce it. What if—

Erin turned back to the place where she’d put her colors, eyes lighting up. Then she groaned.

“Aw. No, no!

The colors had leeched into the ground! Erin ran over, snatched up as much of the brown glob she’d made as she could; the grey had fully leeched into the ground along with a good portion of the brown.

Erin saw a rough blob, like a water stain, of grey in the soil and poked at it. To her fascination—the soil had changed to stone! Or at least, it was all of one portion and had the same quality as a rock.

The soil that had turned brown…was odd. It wasn’t wood, but when Erin picked some up and squeezed, it was hard. And she had a distinct impression it was more like mulch.

“Wild. So if this is stone and this is more like—compostable soil—how I use the colors matters.”

It made Erin remember Tesy and Ulvama’s conversation with her. Her heart sank as she recalled Tesy—then she focused.

“Colors. Color matters. Think like an [Artist]. Okay…”

She had brown. Erin had her splinter-club. She stared at the club. She stared at the brown.

…Painting with one color wasn’t exactly impressive. Nor did Erin have a brush. But that was not to say she did not do something.

“[Infuse Color]. Let’s see. I don’t want to just coat it. I want to make the wood richer. Deeper. Not some dry wood, but…”

A color of brown closer to a polished oak club or solid, heavy wood. Something beyond the mere brown of a plywood plank. Solid. Heavier…

The splinter club was half again as heavy by the time Erin lowered her hand. Her brow was covered in sweat, but when she swung the club around and then banged it on the root—it was solid. In fact, when she swung it like a bat and hammered it down hard as she could on a stone—it didn’t so much as dent.

“Alright. Now we’re cooking.”

Erin dubbed her new creation the Splinterwood Bat! She abandoned it after five more minutes.

A bat was not her ideal weapon of choice in this jungle. It couldn’t cut anything, it was heavier than she wanted, she couldn’t use it like a walking stick, and her fists had [Minotaur Punch], even if it was probably only a Fraerling-sized Minotaur doing the punching.

“Sorry, bat. You had a good run. Now, I present the Ultra Grey Stone!

Erin lifted a stone she had infused with the power of three other stones! A rock three times as grey! Three times as strong! Three times as heavy—

She tried to throw the stone, and her arm twinged.

Gah! Heck! My arm!

The Ultra Grey Stone might have [Unerring Throw] helping it fly…but it could only fly about what looked like ten feet to Erin. So…ten inches.

She covered her face and had to sit down. She was rapidly running out of energy. [Infuse Color] took something out of her.

“Damn. No. It’s too heavy! And if I remove color—everything gets worthless and weak.”

The three rocks she’d drained to make her ‘better’ rock were so fragile she could stomp on one and turn it to powder. They were light as a feather…and it seemed like the color didn’t obey all the rules Erin expected it to.

The more ‘focused’ a color got, the more intense the effect. So the attributes of weight and hardness from the stones intensified the more she infused it. The problem was, she now had either a super-light rock that showered you with powder—or a rock she couldn’t hurl.

Come on, Erin. Think, think! If only these were blue fruits.

I wish I had a blue fruit.

I’m thirsty.

Uh oh.

She’d wasted at least two hours so far, and how often did you have to sip water? Erin had to stop messing around with the colors, but she stared grimly at the stones. She still needed something. Her eyes focused on the three white rocks—well, two since she’d powdered one. Then the ultra-dense one.

Then…Erin wondered if she wasn’t making an amateur’s mistake. Think like a [Painter], she’d been told once. An artist. She was applying the logic of Earth to a magical idea of literally stealing color.

“Hm. Wait a second.”

Erin got up and performed a final test. She spoke.

“[Drain Color].”

She pulled all of the color out of the Ultra Grey Stone until it was almost black in color. Then, Erin took the glob of grey and carefully inserted it into one of the pure white rocks. But not to make the entire thing grey, oh, no. The blob dripped through the stone as if it were liquid passing through other liquid. Like oil through water…sinking until it formed a dark core.

Then—Erin felt the weight of the rock change. But not to the same weight as the Ultra Grey Stone.

She hefted a rather decently heavy, translucent, pale stone…with a dark core of dense stone. Erin tossed the ball up and down, then inserted it into her carrying sling. One would do for now.

“Betcha this will sting.”

She walked off, leaving the Splinterwood Bat behind. She dubbed her new creation the, uh…uh…

Densecore Stone? Sure, whatever. She needed water.

Erin had cause to use the rock soon enough.




She hadn’t wasted all her time trying to make a tool. Erin had done some thinking, and the journey up the tree had proved illuminating in some ways.

A survival situation was really hard. She had no idea where she was, she was small—but it occurred to Erin she did have clues.

Like someone searching for answers on a test she hadn’t actually studied for at all—she had to read the context of the question and prompts to gain a foothold.

For instance—how did she find water? Simple! She followed something that knew where it was!

Of course, choosing the right creature was important. As far as Erin knew, bugs were pretty resilient and didn’t need the same levels of moisture she did.

Erin needed either actual water or, failing that, a fruit or something with equivalent supply. She decided that a rodent or bird would have to drink water at some point during the day, so she set about finding one.

That cute hamster she thought she’d seen from the tree was the most harmless thing in this jungle. Erin’s first foray into the jungle instead of climbing a tree saw her adopting a far more stealthy approach.

Cloak drawn around her, she kept to plants or the roots of trees, peering around them rather than walking in the open. It wasn’t hard to see the danger of being out in the open; she had just seen a bunch of ants being devoured by a spider. Both far smaller than she was…but comparatively horrifying given the spider was as high as her knee.

Not threats to her; both ants and spider actually seemed more aware of Erin than they usually were when she was a giant Human. They scuttled away from her, and Erin, correspondingly, froze when the bushes around her rustled.

What the heck is that? She stared up as the biggest damn frog she had ever seen in her entire life appeared like Godzilla overhead.

It had to be four feet tall, and it had a huge sac at its throat.

Riaaaabiuuuult! The sac inflated as the Wailer Frog—at least, that’s what Erin assumed it was—gave the world a bulge-eyed glance. Then it hopped forwards, opened its mouth, and something shrieked and tried to fly off before ending in a squawk.

The circle of life at its finest. Erin was really wishing she was on Earth right now. She had forgotten how big some monsters got.

…She followed the Wailer Frog.

She had to! Erin hesitated, but the stupid amphibian was a textbook example of a creature that not only needed water, freshwater, to drink, but probably couldn’t stay outside of it for too long! It dried up, right?

The air wasn’t that humid; it was still definitely winter, and Erin tip-toed after the Wailer Frog, head on a swivel.

Following the frog wasn’t fun.

For one thing, Erin was afraid it would turn at any moment, see her, and decide it wanted a snack. Second? It hopped forwards, so she had to run and stop, dashing from cover to cover. It was a lot bigger than she was, so she was constantly running.

Third? It had no regard for people following it or how pleasant it was to watch the frog.

The poor bird was crunched noisily into the frog’s mouth, and it made a huge garooping sound, inflating its throat-sac. The very sound chased potential predators away, Erin was sure. Then it began hopping forwards, still masticating the bones and flesh.

Then it pooped.

Frog poo was long, runny, and stinky. Erin wished it were not also up to her shoulders and gagged as she ran after the frog. It kept pooping for a while, hop-poop, hop—

“Please take me to water. I hope you get eaten. Please—

The frog hopped in seemingly random directions for twenty-five minutes. Then—it tilted its head, made a brauuum noise—and Erin heard a dozen echoing replies.

Her eyes opened wide as the Wailer Frog turned and began hopping steadily—left! She ran after it.

Yes! Water! W—

Erin’s shout-whispers turned not into a scream of triumph, but a groan. She found water.

Or rather, she found a huge patch of mud with about a dozen Wailer Frogs happily braurping around in it. To Erin as a Fraerling, it looked like a pond in itself, but if she had been Human-sized, it would have been a puddle just about ten feet across, with a muddy sandbar in the middle, covered in grey-green poop and inhabited by huge, muddy forms, who wallowed in the muck.

To say it stank was to be charitable.

The Wailer Frog she’d found hopped towards the others, who were all emitting the deafening sounds, and Erin stared at the water.

Aside from the fact that she bet they pooped in it—and that the frogs were wallowing around in the mud—

It was definitely not drinkable. Erin closed her eyes. Then she opened them.

“…It has to have a stream.”

No mud pond like this would remain without some kind of water. Erin hoped it wasn’t groundwater or whatever; surely the Wailer Frogs indicated this was a longer-term residence?

Surely. She began to circumnavigate what was, to her, a vast lake with giant, dangerous monsters burping and humping each other in the distance.

“You’re so gross. I hate you. And you. And you. I especially hate you, Mr. Hop and Poo. Oh, you have little babies! They have teeth! I hate you all!”

The sight of the Wailer Frogs bumping uglies in the distance as Erin hurried around the muddy ferns where they met soil was so distracting that Erin forgot there were other creatures. Wailer Frogs or not—they were not the only creatures in this ecosystem.

There were also centipedes.

A long one, four feet long by Erin’s standards, crawled out of the mud and tried to bite her leg. She yelped, kicked it, and got a foot full of pincers for her trouble. Erin swore, checked her foot, and was glad the skin was unbroken. The centipede jerked away, and she shook her fist at it.

Then she heard a warning bell in her head, turned—and realized she’d kicked the baby. The mother was the kind of centipede you got in the Amazon rainforest. Seven feet long with pincers big enough to take a toe off a Human.

Erin? Erin looked like a meal.


Fun fact: centipedes of that size were fast. It came after Erin, hundreds of orange legs moving, sections of its body undulating as it snapped pincers together, and she ran, screaming. The Wailer Frogs actually stopped croaking a second as they heard the sounds.

The centipede’s mouth snapped around growing ferns, and Erin dove, rolled to the side, got up, and pulled out the Densecore Rock.

“Don’t make me use—”

It nearly took her head off, and Erin ran. She half-turned, saw the centipede barrelling down on her, and realized she had to fight or get rid of it. So she spun and threw the rock with her best baseball pitch.

It was a baseball-sized rock with a super-dense core, proportionally not that far off from a baseball in weight either.

The centipede looked like a bus-sized monstrosity, pincers well able to snip Erin in half at the waist. Its fractal, insectile eyes were locked on Erin, and she could see its organs through its mouth as it thundered at her with an armored carapace she had never really respected as a bigger person until now.

Her baseball-sized rock smacked the centipede in the eye, and the rock powdered. Erin turned and ran.

I should have kept that stupid [Prince]’s magic sword! Argh!

She was waiting for the thunder of skittering legs to catch up with her. Time to use her big Skills! She hurdled over a tree root, saw an opening under it, and spun—if she could trick the centipede into crawling under it, she might tangle it up or have the advantage in a fight!

Instead—Erin saw the centipede had stopped behind her. It was crawling jerkily around where she had hit it with the stone. And when Erin blinked, narrowed her eyes, and stared—

She saw part of its face had been blown inwards, exposing blood and orange-tinted insides. Erin’s jaw dropped.

The Densecore Stone had worked! The exterior had done nothing, but the internal part had hit the giant centipede hard enough to blow a hole in its face! It was woozy; had Erin hit the brain?

Lucky shot, perhaps. Or maybe the Densecore Stone had been more dangerous than she gave it credit for. Either way—the centipede seemed to be rallying itself. It began to skitter after Erin, unsteadily—then stopped.

Erin, tensed, almost bolted for it when a shadow covered both her and the giant centipede. Both of them looked up, and the woozy centipede tried to run—but the monstrosity looming over it just opened their mouth and made a pleased sound.


The Wailer Frog took some time to eat the giant centipede, large as it was. By the time it was done, Erin had made tracks away from the frog and stopped, panting, in the shadow of a bush.

About three dozen ladybugs tried to headbutt her, and they actually bit at her sandals, but they were so tiny Erin kicked two hard enough to crack their shells, and they backed up to let her relax in cover.

“You’re not as cute as you look from afar. And I never liked you anyways. Okay. Okay…I didn’t even have to activate a real combat Skill.”

Maybe she should. Her aura? Another Skill she thought would have utility? The thing was—Erin didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

She had a feeling that magic or auras were things animals might track down, and even if hers was strong…if a bird hunting for auras decided it wanted Erin dead, she’d be in the fight of her life.

Better to bravely run away than risk a confrontation. Erin was exhausted as she trooped out of the bush a few minutes later. But oh, heavens be praised, or at least, Pawn’s heaven—

She found water at last.




It was just a small stream, barely a trickle a Human’s hand width across, running through grass-covered mulch, coming downhill and feeding the damn Wailer Frog pond. But Erin almost fell on her hands and knees.

Water! She could follow it and find a river. She could drink, bathe, cook—water!

She was intensely thirsty now; the sun had receded after the beach, but her diet of honey had been barely hydrating as it was, and this exertion had left her sweaty—and then, worse—hot without any more sweat coming out.

Erin almost fell on her hands and knees to drink the sort-of-clear water running through the soil, but every conscious instinct told her it was a bad idea.

Boil it. You have to boil it. Erin groaned and looked around.

“How the hell am I going to do that?”

The area leading away from the Wailer Frog territory had fewer tall standing trees, lots of fallen leaves and mud, and she kept seeing bugs moving in said mud. There were tiny snails, and Erin eyed their shells before asking herself if she really wanted to drink water out of a snail shell.

No. No, she did not.

The easiest solution, it seemed to Erin, was to find a stick and use her color-technique to create a pot…no, wait. That was the dumbest solution because of how tiring it was.


A thought occurred to Erin as she looked around and saw some muddy water trapped in a leaf. Evidently, this stream overflowed now and then, or it had rained recently.

Leaves held water. Erin found the cleanest, freshest leaf she could see. She tore it up, marched over to the water, and, after tying the plant fibers together, made a crude ‘bucket’ out of a leaf.

“No way. It actually feels…solid?”

Erin incredulously sloshed around a bunch of water. Leaves! Nature’s buckets! Stronger than paper, at least at this size!

Who knew? To hold her bucket, she found a twig and just snapped a section off for a carrying rod. She had to figure out how to tie an anchor at both ends because her leaf-bucket slipped…twice…but after only a few minutes, she had a good quantity of water, about a gallon relative to her, in a pale-yellow leaf bucket, shining semi-translucent to reveal sloshing liquid within.

“Now, to boil it.”

This was, of course, the hardest part of any survivalist’s training. Erin had watched some survival shows—the real survival shows, not the silly ones—and even with a fire-starting ferro rod, or whatever they were called, professional bushcraft experts might struggle.

Especially with a lush jungle such as this around them; they would need to find good kindling and nurture a small spark into a proper flame. Even the way you piled wood up would matter—that first spark might take hours to create if you were unlucky.

“[Like Fire, Memory].”

Erin pointed, and an orange flame of frustration—she had a lot of that—sprang up on the ground. Erin looked around, then anchored her leaf-bucket on a stone with some other rocks and held up the other side herself.

She stood there as the fire rapidly warmed her feet and the bucket, hoping it wouldn’t burn through the cellulose of the leaf.

A lizard the size of a golden retriever relative to Erin, a cute, small one, shuffled up to the water and began to drink. It eyed Erin and the glowing, orange flame. She nodded at it.


The lizard lapped at the water and waddled away as steam began to rise from the leaf. Erin checked the underside, and it was browning…but the flames weren’t eating into the bucket. She stood there another minute, licking her lips.

The water began to bubble at last, and Erin decided to give it a minute to boil—just in case—and then had to wait another few minutes after taking it off the flame to cool. When she had to drink, she had to balance the water bucket in both arms and shift it upwards to pour water at her face.

It was messy—the water was hot and slightly brackish—and she gulped, washed her face, drank, and then poured the rest over her and went to boil more.

Oh, it was the best thing ever. All her toil making a single rock or tool or finding the water or even crossing the damn beach? This was easy.

Fire was something Erin could do. And with water, her fogged mind began to clear, and other feelings began to assert themselves.

Like hunger. And an awareness that the sun was lowering.

“Shelter. Food. Damn. If I can find a fish, that’d be perfect. I doubt there are any here. Either I follow the stream or I go to the beach for that crab.”

Roasting one of them wouldn’t be hard, right? Erin was not going to eat a bug and do a Ceria…unless she had to. But she had fire and drinkable water, assuming that she hadn’t just given herself a virus, boiling or not.

She was refreshed and optimistic. Erin reckoned that, if she had to, she could literally hollow out a piece of stone with her Skill—it wasn’t the best use of her energy to use [Drain Color] like that. But she could.

Probably find a place in a tree and put something in front of it to sleep. She had fire for light. Fire for boiling water and cooking food.

She might live after all. Erin Solstice exhaled and turned. The little lizard was still lapping at the water, a blue-black forked tongue flicking at the little stream. The ferns growing up around this water source were green, despite the winter, fronds of many little leaves open to the sun.

They were tall trees to Erin. And the trees were actual mountains or skyscrapers overhead. Relative to her, the fronds were taller than houses. If she looked at where a cluster of them twined together, she could almost see shapes in the tangle of plantlife.

Moore stood against one of the fronds, a hand resting on a stem. He looked down at Erin, his face approving.

I believe you’ll make it, Erin. If any [Innkeeper] could, it would be you.

The [Innkeeper] stopped, hair dripping wet. She wiped at her mouth, but she was suddenly no longer thirsty. The leaf-bag, too close to the flame, began to catch on fire as the flame of frustration burned anything it could find. Even stone and what shouldn’t burn. And the flame of hatred could burn even more. But the [Innkeeper] paid no attention to that. Her eyes were on Moore.

The half-Giant didn’t move. His beard did not blow in the faint breeze. His clothing was patched; an adventurer’s gear, cobbled together for a half-Giant too large for the rest of the world.

Erin Solstice’s eyes did not widen. She was not surprised to see him. Not exactly. Slowly, she exhaled. And her eyes closed heavily. Painfully.

When she opened them, he was gone. Erin Solstice stood there, staring at a clump of ferns. If you looked closely, a few of them might form the vague impression of a face. Perhaps—a beard.

But only if your mind let it. She turned away and knelt to splash her face with water. But the voice had been real as her memories.

Real as Moore? 

Moore was dead. She knew he was. He could not have appeared like that if he’d been—alive. That was how she knew who had lived and who had not.

“I have to make it.”

That was all Erin said. When she turned, the little lizard had fled. Either because it was alarmed by the fire, Erin’s voice, or it had just sated its thirst.

She was glad. A lizard was quite edible as far as she knew. Erin kicked the rest of the bucket’s water over the flames and walked off.




The first food that Erin found that she trusted was a fallen acorn. She didn’t waste time now that she knew what to do; she used [Drain Color] to weaken the shell, removed the exterior, and found the interior nut section was exactly as she expected.

Proportionally, a single acorn could yield a stomach-sized serving. Per acorn. The [Innkeeper] was lucky enough to find three in close proximity to a tree she scouted out close to the stream.

You might think that was ample food for her, but Erin realized that her activities—and perhaps Fraerling constitution—meant that she could eat a lot more than she expected. The third nut she roasted over a flame in her hand still left her wanting more.

So she went scavenging as she searched for places to sleep. Erin wanted somewhere off the ground, and she actually found both ample dinner and a home in the most obvious of places: a literal knothole in the tree.

It took her an hour to climb up to it, and Erin was ready to fight whatever was inside to its death—but the den was deserted. There were nuts aplenty inside, and Erin cracked several and ate their insides while waiting for the owner to come back.

“…Must have gotten eaten.”

That was Erin’s only conclusion that night. She piled up nut shells to form a vague door and lit a single, blue flame inside as she slept on the far end of the den. Her cloak made for a blanket; she used some old fur and one of the nuts as a pillow.

Then she passed out.




By morning, Erin had remembered how to smile again. So she did, if only after she realized she’d eaten eighteen nuts of various kinds for breakfast. She ended up cracking the shells with a bit of magic, then roasting them over the flame of glory.

Of all the flames, it was the most controllable right now—and one of the few that could actually make edible food. Ironically, for a flame-expert, which was what she sort of was, Erin Solstice had a lot less utility than even a basic [Mage]. Maviola’s flames would have been far better in situations like this. Erin’s?

Blue flames froze food—which was useful for balmier nights or preserving something, but hardly what you wanted with walnuts. Mercy was a cutting flame; if it burned, it didn’t leave much behind, and other flames like frustration, hope, or wonder were nebulous, harder to activate—and frankly, not that hot all the time.

Erin could have used rage or hatred…but she wouldn’t have trusted what came out of the black or invisible flames. So, glory it was, and small as the fire was, it burned hot.

She also experimented with breakfast, perhaps unwisely, by infusing the nuts with colors drawn from each other or the shells of the acorns. She had to do it.

Using the light-beige inside of one of the acorns on a walnut-type inside gave her a rich flavor. By contrast, she could add the ‘shell’ color to an acorn’s interior, and it was edible…sort of. Erin ended up chewing for three minutes before deciding she didn’t need to actually swallow the incredibly tough meal.

What was most astounding was that she ate the entire stash of nuts in one sitting for breakfast as the sun rose over the noisy jungle.

“I guess I’m hungry. Wow, Fraerlings eat a lot.

Erin poked at her bulging stomach, which was actually visibly distended from how much she’d eaten. Even more uncannily, it seemed to shrink before her eyes. Fraerlings really could eat more than their body weight in food.

What was her first move today? Recovering witchcraft, analyzing her new Skills on land, building new tools, or locating a more permanent base all sprang to mind instantly.

Peeing off the side of a branch came first. Erin surveyed the area around her as she ate and did her business, conscious of all the life moving around her. At least her branch gave her a good view of what was above and below.

The tree canopies were definitely active; Erin saw several huge shapes above and suspected the birds would be hunting in the morning. She edged closer to the knothole, knowing how fast a hawk could dive.

By the same token, though, she was doubly wary of the Wailer Frogs; she’d heard how deadly they were from Termin and the others, and their ability to deafen her would be horrific out here without potions or healing.

—And they were really annoying. Wailer Frogs marked their territory by ribbiting. They had mercifully been silent by the time Erin had gotten to her knothole den, but she realized they would be hellish neighbors.


That was sort of the sound, but the frog’s volume meant Erin felt it in her bones. She didn’t like annoying, loud sounds like construction or frogs anyways, and her morning relaxation was broken every few minutes by that obnoxious sound.

She could even see the mud pond with the Wailer Frogs in it. They were definitely a top-tier predator, or so she assumed; their ability to attack with sound, and sheer size, meant most ordinary animals had no chance against a four-foot-tall frog who could munch an unwary Silver-ranked adventurer.

—Or so she assumed. But Erin noticed a few more interesting species in this moment of vantage. Including one she’d seen yesterday.

“Huh. It is a hamster. The heck.”

Erin stopped sipping some water she’d hauled up this far in a leaf ‘bag’ that hadn’t leaked much overnight and stared down. It was just a hamster.

She could tell. Not a mouse or a rat. It was a bit too squat and round, more compact than the other two, but without a long tail; just a stub on this one. And it had those big cheeks; this one was a brownish grey with stripes running horizontally around its lower half, but it was a hamster.

In Baleros? Drath? Izril? Erin was impressed the fellow was alive, but then again, rats and ordinary deer survived. Why not a hamster?

A lot of animals were foraging for food, and Erin understood how lucky she was to have found this stash of nuts. Of course, as a Fraerling, getting food was easier than if she’d been Human; if the worst had come to worst, she could probably eat enough bugs to survive. Still, she watched as the hamster scurried around.

It had visible scars, even from as high as she was up here. Erin narrowed her eyes, then adjusted her eyesight with a Skill so she could see better.

“Only one eye. Life’s tough for a hamster, huh, little buddy? Oh, and there’s a chipmunk.”

An industrious chipmunk was scouting around her very tree, picking up more seeds and acorns that had fallen and doubtless surviving as best it could. The hamster made a beeline for the chipmunk, who didn’t see it coming, and Erin wondered if they’d have a cooperative moment or argue over the seeds.

What she wasn’t expecting was to see the chipmunk freeze the moment it saw the hamster—then try to bolt—and for the hamster to lunge, pin the chipmunk with one paw over its back, and start stealing all the seeds the chipmunk had gathered.

“What the…”

The next five minutes of Erin watching were of a hamster extorting a chipmunk. How, you might ask? Well, the hamster sat and ate acorns. The chipmunk ran and fetched three more acorns for the hamster, who ate six total, before letting the chipmunk scurry away.

“It’s a mafia hamster. It’s a gangster hamster. It’s—a jerk.”

The hamster looked very pleased with itself. And Erin noticed another rodent scurrying off the moment it saw this hamster. Who knew there were seed taxes around here?

“Better not eat my nuts, buddy.”

Not that she had any left. The hamster was definitely not one from Earth. For one thing, Erin could now actually make out some muscle that rippled each time it moved or cleaned itself, relaxing after its meal.

Second, it could stand on its two legs—well, hamsters could do that. But it stood rather adeptly like a person and craned its head upwards, one eye swiveling, and found her.

The [Innkeeper] stared down at the hamster as, somehow, it looked unerringly straight up at her. The two locked gazes as the hamster inserted a final acorn into one cheek pouch, and Erin wondered if it was going to go after her. Could hamsters climb trees? Maybe she’d pee on it if it tried.

…Was it trying to intimidate her? The hamster was bouncing on its little paws. Was it making a tiny rodent fist?

“This has got to be Baleros. Even the hamsters are mean.”

For some reason, Erin debated making a shield out of the acorn parts she had left over. If she had some twine…

Odd instinct. The [Innkeeper] stared at the hamster, then slapped the side of her head.

“Stop it. You’re not working properly, [Dangersense].”

Before she could make a decision, and before the hamster did more than hop forwards a few steps—on two feet—something decided to interrupt the two’s showdown.


A Wailer Frog had spotted breakfast. Or maybe just a snack. It hopped forwards, and the chipmunk fled as the frog snapped its mouth closed. They weren’t even really a meal for it, but the hamster and chipmunk were in the frog’s territory, and it was surprisingly fast. It made a massive leap, and Erin put her fingers in her ears.

The frog was going to ribbit, and it was going to stun or deafen everything around it. No wonder few things, insects or otherwise, were here! She gritted her teeth as the one-eyed hamster turned.

It didn’t actually flee as the Wailer Frog leapt at it. The huge, bulging throat-sac of the Wailer Frog inflated like a gigantic balloon, and Erin saw the grey-green monster frog visibly inhale.


That—was the sound of a deafening ribbit that shook Erin’s bones and the tree branch she was standing on beginning and stopping. Stopping—when the hamster turned, leapt, and headbutted the Wailer Frog in the throat-sac so hard the air left the frog’s mouth and it went over onto its back.


The frog waved all four legs wildly. It tried to get up, making a choking sound, and Erin saw the hamster, the Battle Hamster—because that was what it was—punching and biting the Wailer Frog in its throat. It looked like it hurt; the frog jerked, tried to ribbit, then pushed itself upright. It rocked as a speedy, furry bullet struck it on the side, gave it a flying uppercut to the same spot, and then hopped off towards its mud puddle.

The hamster pursued it, and the two vanished out of sight. Erin craned her neck, then heard the Wailer Frog colony in the distance begin ribbiting thunderously. She kept staring.

“Okay. That’s why there are hamsters here.”




That was a mildly entertaining way to start her day. Erin actually walked up and down the long branch after hydrating and eating, checking the leaves to see if they were better than the ones on the ground.

She had the idea she could make something out of them. A backpack? Use the leaf cellulose for improvised rope? It wasn’t soft enough for fabric, so she put the idea of using it for clothing as a last resort.

“I need a change of clothes. Underwear. I guess this will do for a water container. A backpack? I need some wood for that. Hm.”

Then Erin realized she had still not solved one of the greatest issues to plague her that had reared its horrible head from her month at sea.

Sanitary pads! Argh!

Her bag of holding! She had to get it! Erin’s mind instantly flashed to the beach. If she couldn’t get it—she was going to have a bad week soon.

Come to think of it—her coins! Maybe she could melt them and cast a sword or something? Erin hadn’t used most of her skills at sea; after having to chase the seagull away and losing Plank I, she’d been exceptionally cautious about any fires onboard.

Especially the stronger flames.

Her depression was smaller than some might think. It had kept the squirrel’s den cool, and Erin wondered if she should mark this spot somehow. Then again, she had eaten the entire hoard of nuts, and she didn’t know how.

“Do I stay here?”

Erin stood on the branch and looked around the jungle.

“…No. I keep moving. I have to find someone who can change me back. Or just civilization in general.”

The odds were the first person she met might try to kill her if they knew who she was. Depending on where she was…

Roshal can’t have me.

Things would have been easier if she was still in a pact with Visophecin, but Erin suspected that if they were linked, she’d be killing his people.

No…there was a relief in this misery. And there was some misery to it when Erin looked around, trying to find the beach, and barely saw what she suspected to be the sea in the distance.

“It’s going to take half a day for me to get there. And I have to watch out for animals or insects the entire time.”

She didn’t know if she’d been lucky to ‘only’ have three run-ins with hostile creatures. Crab, sand fleas, and centipedes. Well, it didn’t matter. If it came to a fight—

She was good at getting things killed. Friends, enemies.

Erin stood on the branch until she remembered she was terrified of heights. Then she stared down, breathing in and out—she closed her eyes and spread her arms.

Major Khorpe’s possessions are still in my garden. Where his body lay.

Halrac’s dead.

She fell backwards and let herself drop down until she hit the ground.




What the [Innkeeper] didn’t know was that there was a reason she hadn’t been attacked as often as a fleshy, six-inch-high morsel should be.

Not that your average squirrel was always in danger, for example. But even in a suburban neighborhood, death came quite often for anything that wasn’t a Human or top-tier predator like a cat, raccoon, or dog.

As the [Innkeeper] went down to the small stream and then circumnavigated the Wailer Frogs’ den, before engaging on a long hike through the forest, she was neither as stealthy with her t-shirt nor as knowledgeable about how to avoid predators’ trails as most creatures.

Any water source was inherently dangerous given how many creatures needed access to them. Added to that, the tree cover was less prevalent in that muddy terrain, leading to sporadic fauna; the muddy banks left Erin even more exposed.

Yet she wasn’t attacked all morning. Or in the night?


Well, even if she was far from home. Even if she wasn’t actively using it—the tiny Fraerling-Human had a presence.

An aura.

Most animals weren’t aura-users at all, but they had instincts. Like how they could sometimes tell another animal was rabid—the literal instincts that kept predators and prey alive could interface with her nature.

A Level 55 [Innkeeper] was walking across the jungle floor. More than one snake, circling bird of prey, or spider paused, considering this foreign meal, and decided they didn’t need to eat just yet. The unknown was dangerous, and this Human was unknown to most creatures.

Thus, only the unintelligent creatures, the desperately hungry, or the ones who sought out beings like Erin Solstice considered her a target of first priority. Or the ones who just didn’t care.




Erin had been walking for four hours at a good clip with a small leaf bag of water over one shoulder. She hadn’t bothered to make another stone; she was saving her color-energy for nightfall. She was feeling good today, even if that damn ache in her body continued.

She had taken a lot of damage from the battle at sea. She needed to find a [Healer] and soon. But before the [Innkeeper] could do that—her bag of holding. Thus, the beach.

She reckoned she was halfway there when she heard a huge buzzing sound and looked up—and something landed on the ground in front of her, pawed the ground like a bull, and snapped two huge mandibles together.

“Uh oh.”

The two-foot-long beetle was a stag beetle—or close enough. Only, it had a dark red coloration to its armored carapace and spikes on top of the already-formidable pincers. It also, apparently, flew, and it looked like it was ready for a meal.

“Hey, buddy…beetles don’t eat meat, do they?”

Erin thought beetles ate sap or something. She froze as the beetle snapped its mandibles again. It was acting like a bull, literally pawing the ground, and it was massive. Two feet long? It was the size of a water jug, and if Erin had seen it crawling around her home, she would have freaked out.

At her size? Those pincers could literally snap her in half. She was looking right and left, seeing a bush to her right and some sprawling tree roots to her left. She edged towards the tree, raising her hands.

“Nice beetle. Nice—aw, heck. My [Dangersense]. You’re after me, aren’t you? At least you look slow and f—holy shit!

It charged at her so fast that Erin dropped her leaf bucket, turned, and ran—and she was only halfway towards the roots when she turned her head and realized it was right on top of her. 

It was faster than she was! Worse, it came at her, mandibles open, clearly ready to snap her in two. Said mandibles caught Erin by the edge and slapped together.

The clack was not followed by a scream or blood; the young woman was still flung across the ground and rolled to her feet. The beetle spun, confused.

What happened?

What had happened was that Erin had grabbed the edge of the mandibles and tried to swing herself under the beetle’s pincers.

They had closed so fast the impact had thrown her. Erin rolled upright, shaken.

I nearly lost my arm. If it had closed on her—she exhaled. The beetle was turning, fanning its wings and preparing a charge. Behind it, the tree roots…

It’ll be able to follow me in there. The gnarled roots seemed, for a second, to resemble legs. A club?

Alcaz was polishing the end of a club, sitting amidst the shadow of the tree. He looked up and shook his head warningly.

Not here. Don’t take anything lightly. Even a poor fellow can kill you. And he’s a mighty little beetle, ain’t he?


Erin whispered to—not a ghost. Not a ghost. Just a statue. She blinked, focused on the beetle, and saw it brace to charge.

That was what she sensed, she realized. Not hunger. But a powerful rivalry. As if the beetle were fighting off a threat to its domain. A competitor?


It was fast, strong, and, Erin was sure, tough. Its armored front was scarred from battles it had won. If it were sized up to Human height, she bet it would be a Gold-rank threat at least. Rock Crabs weren’t this fast.

To buy herself time, Erin tried a [Feather Hop], making for the bush. She gained two feet of air and used her [Flutter Step] to extend it. She expected to jump over the beetle or for it to charge under her, but to her dismay, it buzzed at her.


Erin dropped. She landed amongst the bush, scattering a cloud of ladybugs, who ran from her approach. The beetle landed after her, clacking and buzzing—Erin sprinted out of the bush, swearing, the leaves cutting at her arms—her cloak tangled on something, and it tore off her.

Stumbling, Erin got out of the bush and saw the beetle was trapped. It had flown in, and the branches and leaves had stymied it. All it had cost was her cloak. Erin backed up, wiping at her brow.

“That’s okay—oh, come on.”

Crack. Snap. CRACK.

That—was the sound of the red super-beetle cracking through the bush. As Erin watched, a huge pair of red pincers snapped the stem of the admittedly dry bush of thorns and leaves. The entire bush collapsed sideways, and it pushed out, her cloak caught on the end of its mandibles.

Okay. This beetle was a super beetle. Erin exhaled. She called out.

“I don’t want to do this, you stupid beetle. See this?”

She produced a handful of flames. Grey. Not large; the ball of mercy’s fire was small, but it still existed. She tossed some on the ground, hoping it scared the beetle.

It did not.

The beetle certainly recognized the threat and maneuvered right, shuffling to get another lineup for a charge. Erin felt at her cheek; it was stinging, and she realized the branches or leaves had cut her. The wound wasn’t bleeding, but it was definitely lacerated skin.

No potion. No backup if it got its pincers around her. She couldn’t deny the danger, as silly as it was.

“A beetle. I don’t care if you look sort of cool. You’re a beetle. Back off.

Erin tried her aura. She narrowed her eyes and concentrated—

Aw! Aw, aw!

At first, Erin thought it was a person. As it turned out, it was a bunch of birds. They exploded from a tree above her in a shower of cawing voices, and above, a rodent fled screaming across the branches. Erin saw the cloud of ladybugs whose home she and the beetle had disturbed spin away from their bush and go flying off.

The beetle fanned its wings like a crimson champion of the world of bugs. It was so loud it sounded like a jackhammer.

Clack! Clack!

Then it ran at Erin. The [Innkeeper] exhaled.

“Okay. [Aspect of the Inn].

She hadn’t wanted to do—heck, it was fast—

Erin put up her arms in a guard a fraction of a second too late. The arms tried to shield her face, and they met the mandibles a moment before they snapped together.

This time, the beetle snapped its mandibles together, perfectly on target. The force of the impact could crush an enemy’s skull, sever a snake in half. Or tear bark off a tree, which was how it normally got at sap.

The beetle felt the mandibles grind together and then—stop.

When it slowed its charge, incredulously, it realized it had not cut in half the dangerous thing invading its territory a second time. Rather—said thing was pinned between the mandibles, kicking, cursing—

Completely unharmed. The beetle squeezed harder—and then she blew grey fire on top of it, and it jerked away, rolling its shell to rub the flames on the ground. Parts of the edged, grey flame tore at the carapace, but the beetle wiped the flames away, turned—and slashed with its mandibles.

The [Innkeeper] had been running at it. She took a blow to her face from the blunt edge of a mandible, faltered, punched the beetle in the side of the head.

“[Minotaur Punch]! D—

It knocked her sprawling, trampled her, spun, and then slammed her down in a second charge as she tried to dive out of the way. When the beetled turned:

Erin Solstice was getting back to her feet, brushing at the dirt on her body. She regarded her torn shirt and stared at the beetle with narrowed eyes.

“Had enough yet?”

The Corumdon Beetle clacked its pincers together.




She was not entirely unhurt. But it didn’t know that. Functionally, Erin was unharmed. Her arms stung a bit from the impact of the first mandible snap. The charge, the trampling? No damage.

That wasn’t because of her size, either. Erin was pretty sure that regardless of your size, getting hit by what was essentially a big bull would kill, or at least injure, you.

—But for her Skill, she’d be dead. Erin threw another ball of grey fire, and the beetle tried to dodge. The flame of mercy bit into the shell, and the beetle rolled again, getting it off.

“Smart bug. Why don’t you—”

It turned out the beetle could switch tactics. It flew at her now, snapping, like a flying lawnmower. Erin threw herself down on the principle that its horizontal mandibles couldn’t get—

The beetle dug its jaws down into the earth and then raised them, sending Erin and the ground flying upwards in a shower of dirt. Erin’s mouth was open, and she got dirt in her throat.

It could do that? Again, the mandibles snapped in the air, and the [Innkeeper] kicked out of the way with [Flutter Step].

She landed as the beetle scythed around the raining dirt. Okay—

[Minotaur Punch]. [Flowing Footwork]—[Rhythm Combo]!

She dodged under its head as it turned towards her and started throwing punches below the line of its red shell at its dark underbelly. Erin began to hammer the red beetle, trying to crack its side open.

She threw six punches before a blow from it sent her rolling. When she stood, the beetle’s shell wasn’t even cracked. And it was coming—


This time, it was so fast it caught Erin before she could even shield herself. Two spiked mandibles closed around her arms and torso, pinning them to her sides. Erin struggled, but she couldn’t move!

It was squeezing, trying to cut her in half. The mandibles were sharp! They were tearing her shirt apart with ease and, she was sure, could crush stone or even the bush with ease.

So why not her? The Corumdon Beetle seemed confused. It raised Erin higher, staring at her as it tried to squeeze with all its might—

Erin’s teeth were gritted. It hurt! But she kicked the beetle in the face once, then again.

“Confused? So was the seagull. Back off, buddy.

Her eyes flashed hazel.

[Aspect of the Wandering Inn: Reinforced Structure].

“I’m a Level 55 [Innkeeper]. Let. Me. Go.

Her fifth kick made the beetle recoil. It dropped her, and Erin surged forwards. She threw a punch with all her might into its ‘face’, and the beetle skidded back a centimeter.

It snapped its mandibles closed over her. Tossed her through the air. Erin landed and raised a hand.


A ball of flames glanced off the beetle’s shell as it charged. Growling, [The Wandering Innkeeper] raised her fists.




Nothing would be the same. She knew that.

Level 50.

Even if she was an [Innkeeper]—no, especially because she was—it had changed her. Not just the box, whatever that was.

Her Skill. [Aspect of The Wandering Inn]. If she used another aspect, she could be hurt. But [Reinforced Structure]?

The beetle couldn’t kill her. It tried, but after biting her nearly forty times with its mandibles, it seemed to finally realize that the most it could inflict was a scratch or light bruise.

Which—to its credit—was more than Erin had thought it could do. Her walls had been so tough that only Moore could damage them with sheer brute strength. And that was when she was Level 32.

She supposed, proportionally, she wasn’t as strong as her actual inn. Her skin wasn’t as tough as a wooden wall…or maybe it was?

Either way, after thirty-four minutes, the panting [Innkeeper] and the Corumdon Beetle backed away from each other. It kept clacking its mandibles, and Erin backed up, a ball of orange-red flames in her hands.

Neither one was happy. Erin’s shirt was shredded down her arms and sides, and she was cursing; her clothing! She’d lost her cloak, and both her pants and shirt had holes in them, and she was cut lightly.

The beetle looked a bit concussed, if insects could even get dizzy. Repeated punches hadn’t broken its armor, but it was clearly exhausted.

“Get lost, you stupid beetle.”


The red beetle backed behind a clump of grass, its mandibles last to disappear. As if to say—this isn’t over.

Erin kept the ball of flames in hand until the beetle vanished. Then she backed up until she was sure it was gone and hurried on her way.

That was way more dangerous than I thought. If two of the beetles had been there and tried to pull her apart or something—she was glad the Wailer Frog had missed her.

She was way tougher to kill than before. Inconceivably stronger.

—Still vulnerable, she had to remember. Erin walked forwards, panting.

“[Aspect of the Inn: G—] no. I’d better not.”

Safer to keep it like this for now. The Skill had no limit on how long the effects lasted, just that it was only one aspect. Sweating, Erin staggered forwards, no longer caring if she ran into an insect or run-of-the-mill predator.

“What’re you looking at?”

A giant bearded dragon—just one of those huge lizards the size of a Human baby—paused in chomping down on a regular beetle. It had no teeth, just a gaping gullet it could open disturbingly wide and spikes around its face. Hence the name.

It opened its mouth and hesitated, as if sizing Erin up for a meal. She flipped it off. The bearded dragon hovered around her, mouth open, and then shuffled back a few steps.

“Get LOST.

Erin’s [Loud Voice] Skill scared it off. The [Innkeeper] exhaled as she heard the sound of waves at last.

“Why didn’t that work on the beetle? Flames, aura—is that a magical beetle or something? It has to be to be that big. This has got to be Baleros.”

Either that or Izril and Terandria had way more aggressive beetles than she had dreamed of. If she ever got out of here and found an Antinium…she’d feed them the damn beetle for lunch.

Erin was feeling rightfully tough with her aspect of [Reinforced Structure] active. But she had to admit…she hadn’t exactly come out of that fight well, either.

If the beetle hadn’t hurt her, she’d outlasted it rather than scared it off. Turned out a [Minotaur Punch] wasn’t much good against a beetle related to stag…beetles. As for her fire? The amount of flames she was proportionally putting out wasn’t enough.

Weapon. I need a sword or knife or something sharp. Or just something else that could hurt something bigger than her. Another reason to get her bag of holding; Erin’s mind was now set on the gold coins.

Were they real gold? She’d have gold, silver, and copper. Which one was best to make armor out of?

Could she actually cast armor out of coins? It sounded stupid. Maybe just a sword? A golden sword?

“This isn’t Minecraft. Wait, even in Minecraft those swords suck, don’t they? Unless you enchant them.”

Oh, she really was going back in time to her roots. Erin wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry. She kept walking—until she realized she had a new problem.

To find her bag of holding, Erin had to exit the jungle, then walk across the long stretch of sand. No problem, right? Crabs, sand fleas—with her [Reinforced Structure] Skill, none of them had even a shot at harming her.

Of course, Erin didn’t know where she’d washed up; she should have taken a landmark, but if she got close to the tides, she could at least see what had washed up. It would take hours to move up and down the beach, but if the bag of holding was here—she’d find it.

Right? Solid plan. It had occurred to Erin to use her [World’s Eye Theatre] in conjunction with her aspect powers, but she’d tried that at sea ages ago.

It did not work like that. At least, not as a free scrying spell. Nor did the other Skills work exactly one-to-one. By rights, [Reinforced Structure] could have theoretically just made her organs really tough. Instead, it was just her skin, and her organs could have all kinds of diarrhea, thanks.

—The problem Erin ran into after forty minutes of stomping across the sand was unpleasant. She had been swatting the sand fleas off her, not even bothering to punch them. It was hard to kill them, they were gross when she exploded one, and their stupid beak-probuscii couldn’t harm her.

Or so she thought. After forty minutes, something began to happen.

Erin began to itch. She started scratching at her sides first, then her arms. And then at her skin—and when it got bad, she thought she had some crud on her skin and might need to dip in the ocean.

Then she looked down and froze—then began swearing and plunged towards the tide.

“Oh no. Nononono—you little—you bastards!

She swore at the sand fleas hopping away from her in alarm. Because, even after saltwater had washed over the dust and crap on her arms and legs—the unmistakable red swelling remained.

An allergic reaction! Or irritation from their bodies! It was like a poison ivy rash, and it itched almost as bad. Erin splashed water on the affected parts, wondering how she—

Her cloak! And her clothing! She groaned as she realized, yesterday, she’d been far more vigilant. She hadn’t used [Reinforced Structure], and now, she’d ignored the bugs to her detriment.

Her stronger skin didn’t stop rashes or anything else from getting her. That meant—

Poison could kill me. And now she was surrounded by bugs that would inflame her skin—and Erin had no idea how bad the allergic reaction might be.

You could die of allergies. Was her throat swollen? Erin didn’t think so, but she shielded her face, backing up into the wet sand, where the fleas were hesitant to go. They still kept coming at her; it wasn’t that they didn’t realize she was impossible to harm. It was that every flea who learned it bounded off, never to bother her again.

…There were millions of fleas on the beach, and each one was both too simple to notice her aura and too stupid to realize its buddies had failed to take Erin out.

The [Innkeeper] acted swiftly, faced with this new threat. She had limited options; bereft of any tools and surrounded by sand, she did what she could.

Wet sand plastered Erin’s skin, and she piled it on despite the itching, hoping it would provide a protective layer between her and whatever scales or other aspect of the sand fleas caused the itching. Then she retreated to the border with the tide and began using the waves as cover.

The sand fleas, hungry as they were, knew the risks of the water, and only a few came after her there. But if Erin stayed too close to the water, she risked a bigger wave dragging her into the sea—and drowning was a possible death, Skill or not.

To say this made her beach expedition unreasonably difficult was an understatement. Suddenly, Erin had to either fight off fleas or watch out for every next wave—all the while scouting around for her damn bag of holding.

The benefit was that her frustration quickly led to an [Innkeeper] stalking along the beach, orange flames in both hands, hurling them at sand fleas, which bounded away from the bright fire.

“Maybe if I use some of my craft I can cast a bug-protection spell. I just don’t have any—”


Her hat’s flames were out. She was hatless, a [Witch] without power. Perhaps wonder might never come again. Erin knew how to summon other forms of magic. Perhaps another…no.

Either way, it wasn’t easy to harvest magic or use it spontaneously. She was no [Mage]. Part of her was still at sea. Part of her was shattered by what she had done and seen—

Let the [Innkeeper] suffer.

Erin walked on.




After two hours, Erin realized she was getting sunburned despite the dry sand, so she reapplied a coating. At least after two hours, she had figured out how to mitigate the attacks from the sand fleas.

Firstly—she had used her Skills out of sheer necessity and was getting increasingly creative with them. The [Innkeeper] had often called on friends for help or used tools instead of her abilities.

Erin? Erin quickly began thinking of how to use Skills. And the first thing she hit upon was—

“[Memorize Routine]! Sand Flea Murderer!”

She tried it out. The next time a sand flea came at her, Erin’s body moved instinctively. She didn’t punch the flea; the boxy, springloaded, scaled creature with grasshopper legs and the spiky proboscis was light. A punch would just send it flying, unharmed.

Instead, Erin grabbed it, ripped off a leg, and tossed it sideways. The maneuver released some clear ichor into the air, and the sand flea jerked—stumbled around, and tried to hop away. Erin watched as the fleas attacking her stopped—turned—and went after their friend.

They stabbed the flea she’d de-limbed, ignoring Erin, and she strode on, letting the sacrificial decoy buy her several solid minutes of harassment-free walking. Did she feel bad?

…No. They were insects in a true sense of the word. Not Antinium; there was nothing in those blank eyes that she had sympathy for.

She was covered in rashes, and her hands were increasingly swollen. So no, Erin didn’t feel bad.

“Bag of holding. Bag of holding. Come on, please! What else can I do without my witch-line Skills? Argh. Nothing. [Feather Hop]! [Flutter Step]!”

That was her method for leaping up as high as she could and getting as much vantage to see further ahead and behind her for the bag of holding that was increasingly not showing up. Erin was getting desperate; it was time to cut her losses and go.

Another setback! Did she go find another lair, hopefully some more nuts, and try to sleep off the rashes? She didn’t know good plantlife.

I have [Basic Brewing]. I could try that…no, I need the right ingredients before. Damn, damn—”

She had to collect some witchcraft. Or build a weapon. Or get some clothes. Any or all things, and this beach was the least valuable area for finding resources.

Erin finally cut away from walking down the beach after another hour of hoping that, at any second, she’d see a familiar brown bag on the shore. It hurt. She itched. But she had to continue.

“Witchcraft tonight. Shelter. Go find the damn river again. I’ve lost my position, haven’t I? Okay…water. Food. Shelter. And along with that, I need a permanent backpack and canteen.”

She had to make one, even if it was a simple wooden stopper and a stone canteen or something.

At this point, Erin Solstice was seriously considering trying to summon the box again, futile as that was, and evaluating her remaining Skills gained from her level up.

She had been in worse predicaments. A month ago, sailing into oblivion, she had felt sure she would die.

This was harder, in some ways, because of how daunting the idea of finding civilization was. The sheer enormity of being lost here, set back to the beginning day after day—arguably—Erin looked at her swollen rashes—worse than before?

The determination that had kept her going in the darkest moments on board Roshal’s ship wasn’t there.

Her enemy wasn’t Roshal or Kasigna. It wasn’t a struggle for the fate of the world, revenge, or to save a friend against impossible odds.

She was lost on a damn beach in the middle of nowhere, and she had either nuts or the idea of murdering a bug or lizard and cooking it over a fire for dinner.

“How did I do it back in Liscor? Maybe I’m just not as scared of dying as I used to be.”

If a Rock Crab began chasing her across the ground now, Erin doubted she’d feel that same burst of terrified adrenaline to run. She was older.

Not wiser.

Just older.

The [Innkeeper] was empty of powerful emotions beyond frustration…a terrible apathy was upon her, suppressing the true weight of the feelings that made every step tiresome. Pieces of sand cascaded down around her like gravel as another sand flea died for no other reason than she was tired of them attacking her. Her hands itched, and her neck, already sunburned, craned to stare at the jungle, without any sign of where it might end, a journey of months.

Perhaps years. Terrible odds. Without even a sanitary pad. The idea of marching along with stained underwear—if she even had underwear after a few weeks—was incredibly demoralizing. Erin Solstice shaded her eyes.

I wonder how much of that jungle I could burn down. Could her flames run without end if the right ones started?

The sun was baking at midday. If it wasn’t actually the new year and spring hadn’t started—Erin didn’t want to know what summer felt like on this continent. She stumbled, fell forwards, and lay there on the ground as a pair of sand fleas landed on her back. Erin lay like that a second, then raised her head.

“I’m thirsty. My head hurts. My arms and legs hurt. My eyes hurt. I itch.”

She complained for the first time. Just once. She deserved this, after all. Or…if not this…she squinted. It was too damn bright. The sun was glaring in blue skies. During the long winter, she’d longed for this so much she’d made an artificial beach.

Now? The glare was blinding, and the bright yellow-white light clashed with the green until her eyes were dazzled. She had to get to the forest. Erin squinted up at it. The neon green light was making even the foliage dim by comparison. A hat. She needed a hat…


Green light? Erin Solstice’s head rose slightly. She had been so thirsty, tired, and frankly, despondent that she’d missed that last bit. Slowly, she pushed herself up, shedding a bed of sand fleas and automatically delimbing one. Then she wiped her hands on her jeans and shaded her eyes.

“What’s that?

The sky was indeed too bright. The sun was unrelenting without clouds, and Erin definitely was dehydrated. But adding to the brightness was a twinging glare from some green light.

Ahead of Erin. Not straight overhead. There was a light coming from…Erin’s neck craned back.

Over the forest canopy. If she weren’t standing on the beach here, she never would have seen it. Certainly not inside the jungle itself. It was small too. A green twinkle.

Erin’s dazzled eyes focused on the light, and she tried to make it out. She couldn’t. Cursing, the [Innkeeper] looked around, judged the sand fleas to be distracted, took several steps away from them and any immediate threat, and spoke.

“[Aspect of the Inn: World’s Eye Theatre]!”

Her eyes sharpened, and Erin clapped a hand to her forehead in agony. Sand! She’d forgotten about the sand—

A third eye opened on her forehead and stared upwards with the other two. Erin Solstice’s head rose and, ignoring the stinging pain, the itching—focused on that little green light in the air.

What she saw made her pain, exhaustion, itching, and everything else vanish. Erin stared—took two steps—stopped staring, and then spoke.

“[Aspect of the Inn: Reinforced Structure]!”

Then she was running, ignoring the sand fleas, crabs, and everything else. Running straight ahead towards what she’d seen.

It was small, hanging in the air. Unmoving; bright enough for her to see in the daylight, but surely it would have been even more visible at night. That mark—


That beacon wasn’t intelligible in a way a monster or animal would understand it. Even a person probably wouldn’t get it.

After all. It was just a few squiggles in the air. A word—

But not a real word that most of the world knew. It said:




Then, the [Innkeeper] had a reason to keep going.




After twenty minutes of running flat out, when she was almost at the jungle, Erin realized she had to slow down. She stopped, checked the position of the Goblin word, and took a huge breath.

“Stop. Focus. You can’t lose it. It’s—here. Relative to the sun—here…there’s actually that blue bush almost in line with it. Looks like a bit into the jungle. Twenty feet?”

Maybe. If she lost it or it vanished, she had to remember the exact location. Also—she had to avoid bringing trouble.

Move fast, but smart. Erin stopped rushing and proceeded at a fast walk, now with a head on a swivel, thinking.

The beetle was bad enough. Would that symbol attract a predator who noticed the light? No, come to that…would a person notice that symbol, besides Erin?

She doubted anyone but a Goblin could read the word. But any sentient being would surely notice it; it was very small, but bright enough to catch the eye at night.

How did I miss it? Well, she’d been in the jungle. Not hard to see how it had been blocked from her sight. Was it who Erin thought it had to be?

There were only two Goblins she’d been with. Three—but Rabbiteater was in the company of others, and he couldn’t cast magic. And only one of them…

Only one would use the one word she’d taught Erin.


The [Innkeeper] began to activate her aura, then suppressed it. She exhaled.


She picked up her pace and activated [Reinforced Structure], thinking hard. Flames. Color magic? No; there was no time to make another throwing stone. Move fast.

Color magic did not work on sentient beings. Erin couldn’t even use it on living plantlife. If she could have turned the giant, red beetle into a fragile, colorless bug—no. If there was a color-related class that could do that, it would be deadly.

Her flames were also not as much use at her height as she wanted. Throwing a ball of merciful fire was a good effect, but until the flames consumed something else, it was weak. Her fists?

What other [Aspects of the Inn] can I use? She’d tried almost all of them.

[Garden of Sanctuary]—she knew what that did. Minimal utility in a fight, if any. [Reinforced Structure] was probably the best. She also had [Twofold Rest], which she hadn’t really wanted or needed; it let her sleep faster, but it just meant she had more time to stay up in the dead of night, thinking.

[World’s Eye Theatre] gave her a third eye and sharpened her vision; she’d used that to see various things, but it was disorienting, even after weeks of experimenting with it. The third eye did let her see without going sunblind, though; she’d stared straight at the sun with her other two eyes closed, a novel experience.

[Lease Lesser Room] didn’t work. Erin didn’t want to know how that’d work. [Compartments of Holding]…not much use in a fight either. [Field of Preservation]—she had no idea what it did if it was even active. [Door of Portals] didn’t work as far as she could tell.

Some of the aspects must have had other conditions or effects that weren’t immediately obvious to her. [Magical Grounds], [Partial Reconstruction]—ditto for non-obvious effects.

And her last inn-related Skill she’d gotten—

[Pavilion of Secrets].

—Didn’t work. At least with [Aspect of the Inn]. So, [Reinforced Structure] it was. And if she needed to fight something big?

I should have made a better weapon.

The [Innkeeper] focused all of a sudden. Kicking herself for not being more proactive. She stole through the jungle, interrupting a whole procession of little ants the size of her feet. Erin strode past them, sensing something big crashing through the forest far to her right.

Where was she?

It took her twenty-six more minutes of hurrying through this section of the jungle, wondering if she was lost, but Erin didn’t think she was.

This section of the beach had led into the jungle at a slight incline on two sides of a narrower gap; perhaps the result of a former cliff or the flow of water. Nothing recent, because the greenery had overgrown the sides of the small bank.

Erin would have stepped over this small selection of land as a regular Human and thought nothing of it save to watch her step. But as a Fraerling, she saw the banks as a natural guardrail that kept your line-of-sight low and out of the way of a larger predator.

Also, the blue berry bush was right there. Erin actually passed by it and saw several smaller insects industriously gnawing at the blue berries, which looked like bright, blue bulbs joined together to form lumpy raspberries.

Erin passed the bush and saw more than one of these fruit-bearing bushes in the area along with a number of thorny plants of the shrub variety.

They had beaten out the trees in places, leaving access to the sky. The thorns made a natural cover for smaller creatures against large ones. More cover from a swooping bird.

There was a definite logic to choosing this place as opposed to Erin’s random wandering. You might infer that the berry bush was edible, or at least, expect it to be near a body of water. The channel of dirt provided cover while exiting the beach, and this spot meant that if you were sending a smoke signal or light spell into the sky, you’d have the best chance of being seen.

Of course, the real clue for any traveller was the faint trail of smoke in the air. When Erin saw it rising from one of the bushes with spade-like leaves and long, sharp thorns, she made a beeline towards it.

But stealthily; she was most alert for insects or something nasty as she passed into the bushes. The thorns were sharp enough that Erin would have worried about them poking her without her Skill; they were like lances. She tried to break one off, thinking it might be a weapon, but decided she was wasting time when they proved flexible.

Not many bugs in the bushes? Ah—nope. There’s one.

Erin stared up at the gnarled stems and branches of the lance-needle bushes and saw a crawling, huge…cricket-type insect? Resembling one of those bugs that infested bushes like this. Big, winged, an inch or an inch and a half long. She grimaced when she saw there were dozens above her.

They eyed Erin. She was bigger than them, but they had numbers. The black bugs buzzed briefly—then desisted as she passed out of their realm.

Stealthy. Where there were those kinds of insects, you got predators. Be it birds, maybe, who’d land on the bush and hunt for the bugs despite the thorns, or…


Erin flattened her back to one of the stems as a familiar insect appeared. It wasn’t exactly like a praying mantis; it was grey and had a more interesting design. The same long, stalking body and clawed legs, but an even longer set of ‘arms’ and a single, domed eye like a helmet.

The cyclopean mantis also had, instead of scythes—a set of two long lances that it was jabbing into one of the black, buzzing cricket things. It lifted the dead bug up and began to chew on it.

Great. An adapted mantis. It might not beat Wailer Frogs for sheer deadliness, but Erin didn’t like how said mantis was almost as tall as she was—and longer.

It seemed like its evolutionary adaptation of lance-arms didn’t keep it from being relatively dextrous either. Mantises could use their scythe-arms to grab prey; this Spear Mantis could retract the long barbs of its spear-arms to maneuver what it killed.

It could probably run me through without [Reinforced Structure]. Erin slid sideways, trying to use the branches as cover. The Spear Mantis was either too busy with its current meal or didn’t see her with its dome eye, and she kept moving.




The smoke trail was coming from one of the bushes on the edge of this thorny maze, and, as Erin stared upwards, she could see the faint glint of the green word as well. The sun was turning towards evening; she’d taken longer than she thought.

Erin was hungry, and she hadn’t gone back for water, but she was almost there. She could definitely see smoke rising and wondered if it was a lure; wouldn’t the fire attract enemies? Or maybe it would keep away bugs and animals who associated fire with danger.

She had to climb up some rocks that formed a kind of plateau towards the next bush. This one was set right up against what might have been a large boulder or something; Erin only saw a mass of grey rock.

Blocks off other creatures from surrounding you unless they literally crawl down the side of the rock. Bush is good cover and thorny; the only things that are going to get close are going to come either through the branches with thorns or on foot, like me. 

In fact, as Erin drew even closer, she realized someone had thought of that. The [Innkeeper] was moving quiet now, checking the branches for bugs, but this bush seemed deserted; it wasn’t fruit-bearing, and the few creatures around were the tiny aphids or other insects just as small.

However, there were objects strewn around. Erin froze as she saw a small…


Not quite! Rather, they were pieces of leaf, the stem or tougher components of one, lashed together to form a long rope. It ran at foot-height across one section of the bush, and there was another rope at mid-section height that Erin could see.


Anything without a brain might blunder forwards and slow themselves on the ropes, or at least make noise. Then Erin noticed more security.

A glowing rune.

The [Witch] might be without magic, but she’d learned to see it, at least. There were faint, glowing runes on the ground at regular intervals; one look told Erin intuitively that they probably made a loud pop or other sound.

Alarm runes. Erin began to smile, but, conscious of danger or that she could be mistaken, she stepped over the first rope and avoided the runes. The protective layers weren’t meant to keep a sentient creature like her out, and once she got past that layer, she saw the branches and thorns grew so dense as to be a wall in places.

So smart. I should have done this. Erin hadn’t meant to creep up on whoever was here—okay, she had—but she hadn’t expected to be so successful.

There was a part of her that had wondered if this was a trap or mistake on her part. If so, Erin had known she was going to walk into it, even if it was Roshal or…or anyone else.

She had gone as stealthily as possible, but she was a Level 50+ [Innkeeper]. Not a [Rogue]. Just like how a [Warrior] at her level wouldn’t have feared anything she’d faced but maybe the Wailer Frog, Erin’s stealth and trap-making Skills were virtually nil.

—Still. It wasn’t like she couldn’t move quietly, and if she suppressed her aura, there were actually far fewer noisy sticks or leaves to step on at Fraerling size. So Erin actually got the drop on the being hidden in the center of all these precautions.

Past the rope traps and alarm spells in a narrow den of cleared space between the branches and thorns—barely the size of a small bedroom relative to a Fraerling—was a light. Erin pulled back a leaf, cautious, senses on high alert.

And she heard the faint crackle of something burning, smelled the faint odor of smoke, and saw the Goblin before she heard her.

Ulvama was sitting, staring into the flames, covered in scratches and mud drawn into vague approximations of her magical paint. She had on the same clothing that Erin remembered the last time they had seen each other: a kind of leather skirt and hide top that covered her chest and midriff and shoulders but left most of her arms exposed.

A [Shaman]’s gear. The Hobgoblin had put her hair in an odd bun; she had what looked like one of the needles from the bush jutting out of it.

Planted in the ground by the small fire made of burning bark from a tree were several more needle-spears and a leaf with some of the blue berry, sliced up and glistening. The Hobgoblin had even made a bed out of a few more leaves and placed more pieces around this sanctuary, save for a hole to let the smoke rise; more visual cover.

She was here. Alive. And yes, small as Erin. The [Innkeeper] almost shouted there and then, but she wondered, for a second, if this was a trick.

Then she looked again and saw that Ulvama looked terrible. If this was an illusion, it was a good one. It seemed like Ulvama had been fighting; she had scratches on her body, and the mud ‘paint’ on her was flaking. She was staring with crimson eyes narrowed into the fire she’d made, sitting with her arms clasped around her knees.

And she was crying. Erin stopped when she saw that.

The Hobgoblin made as little noise as she could, but tears were rolling down her face, dripping down her cheeks, and turning to mud as they dripped onto the ground. Her lips were squeezed together, and she looked—


Like a tiny person lost in a jungle with no signs of civilization, or anyone else, with giant insects and predators roaming around her. The [Innkeeper], frozen mid-crouch, saw Ulvama shuddering.

Not like she had on the ship with Roshal. No; that had been grim and desperate. Someone braced for the worst they knew would come. Brave beyond reason, for all the horror and fear in her.

This? This was different. This was a scared person who flinched when she and Erin heard a loud bird cawing high overhead.

Erin had never seen Ulvama so scared. She hesitated, opening her mouth to call out—then silently replaced the leaf. She backed up, ducked under the branches, avoided the thorns, stepped over the ropes, and avoided the trap sigils.

After a few seconds of thought, Erin strode over to the edge of the bush, hopped down the rocks this bush grew on, and landed on the dirt. She walked back another thirty seconds away from Ulvama.

Then Erin let her aura appear. Not too much, but she let it be ‘visible’, for lack of a better word, rather than suppressed. She eyed the rocks, then began to climb a dirt incline and spoke, raising her voice.

“Is that smoke? Dat’s smoke. Stupid flying beetles. And was that a lancer-mantis? This place sucks!”

She climbed, crackling off a few branches and cursing.

“Ow. Stupid thorn. Take that! Ow. Hey! Is that a rope trap?”

The [Innkeeper] crashed noisily ahead, ‘noticing’ the sigils and ropes, listening for anything ahead of her. She strode forwards, finding the natural entrance to this hideout in the bush.

“Hello! Please don’t be a trap or a trick. Is anyone—?”

Erin ducked slightly to enter the little camp, smiling slightly. She didn’t know how she looked. But she expected to find Ulvama sitting there, maybe with her arms folded, hopefully smiling. Or at the very least for the [Shaman] to have a moment to compose herself.

—The moment she emerged, someone seized her. Erin almost punched Ulvama, despite knowing she was there—and then she found two green arms hugging her fiercely.

“Whoa! Ulvama? It’s me! Ul…vama?”

The Hobgoblin squeezed tighter. The [Innkeeper] looked up, raising her fists—but stopped, a fake grin on her face.

The [Shaman] was still crying. She was trembling. The [Innkeeper] stared up at Ulvama, and the joke she’d been about to say vanished from her lips.

“You found me.”

Ulvama’s voice was shaky. She was shaking like a leaf. And Erin? They were of a height, rather than her being shorter; the spell had made both of them exactly six inches tall. It was strange.

They had been on the ship as hellfire rained down on them. Ulvama, Nerry, and Erin leaping towards the other two as the Death of Magic dove—trying to grab Ulvama’s hand.

On the ship, seeing Ulvama’s terrified eyes as the [Slavers] dragged her from the cell.

A comet shooting through the sky with a word written on it.

Erin looked up, and the [Innkeeper] forgot to pretend. She inhaled, and her voice began to shudder too. Water sprang to her eyes, but she kept her voice level. She didn’t know what to do—so she patted Ulvama on the head.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. Ulvama? It’s going to be okay. I’m sorry it took so long to see your message.”

You found me. I thought I was alone.”

Ulvama’s voice broke. Erin swallowed hard.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see it until today. I came as fast as I—I should have searched for you the moment I got here. I’m here. You’re safe now. It’s going to be okay, Ulvama. I promise.”

She hesitated, then squeezed Ulvama back in a hug. The [Shaman] was warm, covered in dirt, smelled like mud and nature—and she was real.

A person in whatever hell of a jungle they were in. Erin realized she was holding Ulvama with all her strength. She breathed in and out.

Trying not to burst into tears herself. She couldn’t. Erin took a shuddering breath, and then she realized she had to keep that promise.

It’s going to be okay. She had to figure out how to keep Ulvama safe. Then—Erin wondered where Nerry was. But for this moment, she just held the Goblin who’d saved her.




Erin didn’t know how long it took for Ulvama to let go, only that the fire was embers by the time she persuaded Ulvama to. And even after that, Ulvama kept crying, tears making her face muddy.

So—because she didn’t know what to say, Erin fetched some water for Ulvama. It turned out there was a local stream, another small one, nearby. Erin took Ulvama by the hand and had the [Shaman] show her around.

Forest nearby that Ulvama had avoided; she’d gathered some nuts, but been scared by a bird attack. The bushes had edible berries, if incredibly bitter, and the insects inside were mostly herbivores. The Spear Mantises and some carnivorous insects roamed about, but they couldn’t enter narrow areas like Ulvama’s camp.

With the branches or bark from the trees for wood and the nearby stream, you could survive here for a while. Not comfortably—but Ulvama had done the logical, smart thing from her experience as a Goblin.

Erin, by contrast, had gone off, tried to climb a tree, then followed a Wailer Frog to a muddy pond and found a place to sleep by chance.

Erin got most of this out of Ulvama by whispers and pointing and being shown around. The Hobgoblin was still teary as Erin lugged a leaf-bucket back to the fire.

“Here. Your face is all muddy. You—you alright, Ulvama? I found you. I saw the word. Næfoma. I knew it had to be you. I—we made it.”

The Hobgoblin looked up as Erin splashed some water into a smaller ‘cup’. Ulvama took it, felt at the mess on her face, and didn’t do anything. She just looked at Erin.

“I thought I was alone. I was—scared.”

“You? Psh. You’re a tough Hobgoblin [Shaman].”

Erin tried to play off Ulvama’s shaking tone, smiling. But Ulvama wouldn’t play along. Her hand shook.

“You found me, Erin. Thank you.”

The [Innkeeper] hesitated. Then she drew closer. She had been about to sit around the fire, across from Ulvama, but she walked over and sat down next to Ulvama. Put a hand on her shoulder.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t think you’d be here. Much less small. Silvenia transformed us both.”


Erin’s mouth opened, and suddenly, all the events that had led to this moment recontextualized themselves in her head. The Death of Magic’s strange actions—

Why Ulvama and me? No, there was a logic to it. Erin wasn’t sure how to address Ulvama’s tears, so she went on.

“The last thing I remember was Silvenia casting a spell. I was shrinking, and I thought I was the only one. When I woke up, I was on this plank with my bag of holding, and my clothes weren’t shrunk; the ones in the bag were. I—I didn’t know if you were alive. I thought you and Nerry had maybe gotten rescued by Rabbiteater. What happened to you?”

Ulvama’s breathing had calmed a bit, and she looked at Erin. Her eyes were crimson, but if you looked closely enough and knew Goblins, you could see the irises and pupils, just tinted different shades of red.

“I remember the Death of Magic pointing at me. Then something hit the ship. There was a wave—I woke up on a plank of wood too.”

“What? You as well?”

Erin’s senses tingled. Ulvama took a shaky breath.

“Yes. It had magic in it, I think. I—I couldn’t move. I shouted for you. For anyone. I didn’t realize I was small for…then I lay there until I could get up.”

“How did you survive? Did you have any food?”

Ulvama half nodded, half shook her head.

“I had my own bag of holding.”

“Me too! In that case—Silvenia shrunk us and must have enchanted the planks and made sure we had our stuff! That stupid half-Elf—couldn’t she have teleported us or given us an actual boat?”

Erin puffed up with anger, but Ulvama just stared at her.

“She saved us.”

“…Well, yeah. No one was firing Tier 7 magic when I woke up. I guess they thought we were dead. And they can’t scry us, or I’m pretty sure someone would just toss a [Fireball] down.”

Ulvama half nodded. She poked at her body.

“I…we…are magicked. I can’t tell what. She made us small. Invisible. Then put us on planks.”

For safety. Erin shook her head.

“So you had your bag of holding? She didn’t shrink that. And you lived off of…”

“Snacks. From the inn. I had snacks. Then I was running out, so I summoned fish. With magic. I ate one for days with fire spells and…”

Ulvama had, in her way, proved to be even more adaptive than Erin. As a [Shaman], she’d been able to cast basic spells, and she had been less wounded than Erin. The [Innkeeper] knew it had taken a toll on Ulvama, though.

Her tough mask was gone. The normally snooty, arrogant, and aloof [Shaman] kept touching Erin, as if to make sure she was there.

“It must have been a horrible month being at sea like that. I think it was a month. Twenty-eight days was my count before I hit shore. How did you pass the time?”

—Ulvama stared at Erin.

“What? Twenty-eight days? I was on the plank for nine days.”


Ulvama’s eyes went round.

“I ran out of snacks on day…five. Ate fish for three days. The next one was too big; ate my bag of holding. Then I washed up here.”

Two weeks ago!? But I was at sea for twenty-eight days! On the plank!”

Ulvama stared at Erin.

“How? It was moving towards shore, even with waves.”

Erin’s mouth opened. She choked—then had a horrible thought.

“Wait. Which plank? I had two.”

Plank I had died an ignominious death. Burned at sea during a fight with a seagull; Erin had been forced to swim with her bag of holding towards another piece of driftwood that was smaller and barely able to take her weight. When Ulvama heard that, she looked horrified.

“But the one you were on…”

Was magicked. And if she’d been able to stay on it, maybe she would have reached shore at the same time as Ulvama. Erin closed her eyes.

“No. No—there was this seagull that tried to eat me, and I used one of my fires, and—so you’ve been here for three weeks?”

Yes. Ulvama’s eyes crinkled up, and Erin stopped with the self-recriminations or anger to listen.

When Ulvama had landed, she’d had a much more stable entry to shore; she had lost her bag of holding, but repelled the sand fleas with a spell and instantly tried to send signals for help. She’d done that at sea too, of course, but she’d assumed someone would be with her.

That might have been Erin, but, on the slower piece of driftwood, Ulvama had lingered three days along the beach before realizing she had to make camp.

After several mishaps, she’d found the bushes here and learned to survive on the berries and avoid the natural predators. This camp was proof she’d made it, but she looked desperate, and the isolation had clearly worn on her.

“A…a big bird. The one who pecks on the trees? It almost ate me. Twice. I stopped going into the forest.”

“Woodpecker. The birds haven’t gone after me since the seagull. I ran into a giant centipede, a Wailer Frog…and a huge beetle.”

Ulvama shuddered and stared at Erin.

“You were here only two days?”

“Yeah…well, I think I might have been less stealthy than you. What have you been doing?”

Ulvama gulped.

“Hiding. How—how did you go around? Are you crazy?”

She gave Erin a strange look, and the [Innkeeper] tried to make a joke of it.

“Well, I wasn’t the smartest. But we’re high-level people, Ulvama! You have your magic—”

A bird nearly ate me. It almost ripped my arm off.”

Ulvama’s voice grew shrill, and Erin stopped. She looked at the [Shaman] and realized how insensitive this all was.

She really is terrified. I should have been here. That’s what Silvenia must have intended. Erin spoke.

“I’m sorry, Ulvama. I—I have a Skill. And I guess I wasn’t afraid of dying. My new Skill. One of them. [Aspect of the Inn]. It makes me tough. That’s how I survived the big beetle without getting more than my shirt torn, see? Aside from the rash, I’m healthy.”

Ulvama focused on Erin’s shirt and the mud and sand caked over her irritated skin for the first time. Neither woman had noticed in their reunion, but now Erin felt the damn itching again.

“Let me see. Agh. What is this?”

“Sand fleas. I’m allergic or something.”

Ulvama poured the cup of water over Erin’s arm, revealing nasty, raised bumps. Instantly, Ulvama tsked.

“Is bad rash. You need poultice. Maybe aloe plant or—or—I found mergrass, and I have some things. Wait.”

She got up, and Erin saw that Ulvama did have some containers with rudimentary herbs and components of her craft she’d gathered. Not much. When she came back, she had some dirt, water, and chopped up bits of a common mushroom she mashed into a paste.

“[Soothing Balm]. Here, I’ll make it. You…you talk.”

She mushed up a paste that had mostly her Skill in it and little else of value. Even so, the moment she began applying the muck, Erin’s skin soothed a bit.

Ulvama was a Level 30+ [Shaman]. But Erin realized the difference between the two really was down to their capstone levels.

“—I guess I would have struggled a lot more without my one Skill. I felt really stupid this entire time, trying to climb trees, and…I bet you were really put together out there.”

“I had some magic.”

Ulvama was rallying a bit, but she still felt raw, and she was focused on the making of the balm and applying it to Erin. It clearly gave her comfort, and Erin’s itching skin soothed. The [Innkeeper] tried another joke.

“Well, I was pretty mad. I got my Level 50 Skill and everything—multiple ones! And they were all sorta useless. I kept thinking, ‘if Larracel were here, she could summon food from her inn’! That’d be so useful, wouldn’t it?”

The idea of a meal from her inn, or using that to tell Lyonette and the others she was alive, was incredibly appealing. Ulvama’s head rose.

“Level 50. You reached it.”

She processed that fact at last, then stared at Erin.

“Is [Aspect of the Inn] your big Skill?”

“One of them. One of three. But it’s like—the lesser one? I have three big ones. From my [Innkeeper] class. [Aspect of the Inn], [Pavilion of Secrets]—that’s like the upgrade to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Remember the door I showed you? And…the box.”

Erin’s mind flashed back to her conversation. And reminded of her [Aspect of the Inn] Skill, she switched off the [Reinforced Structure] power and replaced it. It wasn’t like she and Ulvama were in much danger if they were here together.

Ulvama was blinking at Erin.

“Box? What box? Your new Skill is a box?”

“Um. Sort of. You see, when I was getting it, I was sort of—negotiating about which Skill I’d get. With the system.”


Erin tried to wave her hands, but Ulvama kept dabbing her with paste.

“Okay, let me begin. So I was lying on the plank, right? Plank I. And I was sick; I couldn’t move. I started doing pushups and exercises and even tried the dancing you showed me to keep in shape later…but right after I survived the battle, I kept getting notifications. My level up was delayed because my big capstone Skill was, like, under question. Then the system kept assigning me Skills, but I didn’t want them. So I kept rejecting them and demanding better ones.”


Erin tried to explain. Ulvama put a hand on Erin’s forehead at one point and checked her temperature. Then her eyes went round. Her mouth opened—and Erin tried to explain.

“It’s…okay. It’s one Skill. I think. I can’t use it with [Aspect of the Inn] or summon it; I think it’s literally a box, and I think Lyonette’s using it. Or someone in my inn. Someone I like, I hope. I’m not sure what it does. So—here’s the Skill. It’s [The Transient, Ephemeral, Fleeting Vault of the Mortal World. The Evanescent Safe of—] see, it has a period in it. It’s still one Skill. [—The Evanescent Safe of Passing Moments, the Faded Chest of Then and Them]. Then with a ‘t-h-e-n’ and them as in…them. Then and them. [The Box of Incontinuity]. All one Skill.”

Erin waited. She looked at Ulvama for a reaction. The [Shaman]’s tears had mostly dried, but she still seemed afraid Erin would vanish. That fear might have been replaced with an uncertainty that this was reality—but that was a good thing if it made her feel better. She touched Erin gingerly on the arm.

Erin tried a smile.

“So, uh. Not sure what it does.”

In response, Ulvama just hugged her again. She patted Erin on the back. Erin’s muddy arms were messy, and they were both feeling feelings, but the [Shaman] hugged Erin tighter now, with less shaking, and then let go. She looked Erin up and down, eyes lingering on Erin’s hair, ear, face, wrists—

Scars. Erin saw Ulvama inhale slightly and promised that if nothing else—

She would get Ulvama back to the inn where the [Shaman] could eat snacks all day. And never have to go out again. 

Ulvama herself seemed certainly more resolved, calmer, and she looked at Erin until the first smile appeared. Slight, fragile, but a smile nonetheless. She said:

“You are so stupid. You and your Skills, Erin Solstice.”

The [Innkeeper] only grinned in reply.




The talking took them well into the evening. By the time dusk had fallen, the distant damn Wailer Frogs began croaking, and Ulvama claimed the bats were out in force. Erin and Ulvama had gotten through a number of essential conversations, but still had far, far more to go.

One of the essentials was actually the bathroom, which Ulvama had wisely dug far off from her location. Leaves weren’t the best toilet paper, but they weren’t the worst.

Ulvama also had the berries for food, but she craved legumes or meat. The problem was that gathering the nuts took her into dangerous territory, and meat attracted predators.

Erin declined to go out and put both in danger at the moment, but she assured Ulvama that come morning, she’d help with any task with her far more robust defensive Skills. In fact, Ulvama had a number of spells that had kept her alive that Erin realized would make life so much easier.

“I am not a [Mage]. I can’t cast [Cleanse] or…make walls. But I can make myself bigger. Or stronger. Or throw magic. Just—not enough to fight most things. Even a bird is too dangerous.”

“Leave the birds to me. I fought that red beetle down to the wire.”

“…You didn’t kill it? With a Level 50 Skill.”

“Um. Well, no. It was super tough. And strong. He was like the Beetle King. We fought for like an hour. He was two feet long!”

Ulvama stared at Erin. She hadn’t met the red beetle, and she refused to believe Erin’s tale about the Battle Hamster too. She gestured at herself.

“I can make you taller if we fight. [Wild Growth] is the spell I know.”

“Whoa. Hey, that solves a bunch of problems!”

“No. It only makes you…this big.”

Ulvama indicated a new height. Eight inches. Erin hesitated.

“Ah. That’s, uh—well, it’d be pretty good if that was feet instead of inches. I see the problem. But you can make fire and cast spells, right?”

She was trying to talk Ulvama up, but the [Shaman]’s ego had taken a beating. She shook her head as she wrapped some of the blue berry in a leaf to roast over the fire.

“Don’t eat raw. Might be larvae inside. Bugs eat.”

Erin instantly dropped the blue berry slice. Ulvama went on.

“I…am small. My magic is small. And my magic is in paint and charms. I lost my powders and paints. Mud is all I have. And it is weak. I am weak.”

“Oh, Ulvama—come on. Now there’s two of us! Double the weak! Plus, you can rely on me. I can punch things. And I was using my color to make this super dangerous rock! Making tools is a pain in the butt, but with your magic and my weird colors, we’ll make, like—super swords! I was gonna melt down some coins to make a gold sword, actually. I guess we have to start with stone.”

Erin shadow-boxed the air and cheered when she saw Ulvama smile slightly. Then Erin had a thought and dropped her hands.

“…You haven’t seen Nerry, have you?”

The Hobgoblin instantly shook her head.

“You’re the only one. If Nerry was made small…”

She and Erin fell silent. After a second, the [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“There’s no way Silvenia would be that cruel, right? I bet, if Nerry’s here, she’s Sariant Lamb size.”

So bigger than they were…but still tiny. Both considered how likely Nerry would survive in this jungle. Erin whispered.

“I bet she’s okay. She has to be. If she’s here—we’ll find her. Somehow. But I don’t think Silvenia would risk her here. Do you? She’s supposed to be smart.”

“She saved us. Made us small. Warded us against magic. Or Lyonette would use the [World’s Eye Theatre] to find us, right?”

Erin began to pace back and forth, now thinking far more concretely about their situation. It helped that Ulvama was there to bounce ideas off of.

“Right. I think, logically, Lyonette would have found you or me if we could be scryed. But we can’t. And I know it can be blocked. Niers and Silvenia both have; if no one’s found us, we’re protected. And making us Fraerlings…makes it way harder to find us. She saved our lives.”

“By sending us here, surrounded by the jungle.”

Ulvama’s tone was dark and indicated that her gratitude towards Silvenia was in short supply. Erin felt guilty again. If they had washed up at the same time…no, she went on briskly.

“We have to find somewhere safe. If you didn’t find anyone after weeks, then we’re either far from civilization—or we’re just tiny. It was luck that I saw your signal; if I’d gone into the forest or washed up anywhere else on the beach, I might have missed it. We need tools to get our magic back, to find out where we are, and then to get big again. And then find Rabbiteater and—and go home!”

Daunting tasks, but Erin had known that was the goal, and with someone else, it looked so much more manageable. Ulvama’s eyes rested on Erin with that same rekindled hope, and Erin felt it.

Her other class. Ulvama invoked it now too.

“You’re a [Witch]. Where’s your hat?”

Erin felt at her head, and her smile flickered.

“Oh—still around, I think. Just not active. I’m out of craft. Out of…of wonder. I think my magic’s changed. I know it has. I—not much wonder after all that, you know?”

The Hobgoblin studied Erin, then gave her a gentle nod. She pulled the first piece of roasted berry off the fire and cut it with one huge needle—then put one half on a skewer and handed it to Erin.

“Thanks, Ulvama. Cheers.”

They dinked the two squishy pieces of now-purplish berry together and began to chew. After a few minutes of chomping and swallowing, Erin got some water for her hands and to wash down the stuff.

“You know, I ate honey for like a month straight. I’m glad this is more, uh—bittersweet. Sorta chewy.”


“I’m sure it’s a lot better if you’re eating the berries when you’re bigger.”


“…Sorta sucks?”

The Hobgoblin’s long face told Erin that this was not the first time Ulvama had had that thought. And because of that, Erin leapt up.

“Y’know what? Let me try. I have [Advanced Cooking]. All we’ve got’s some berry and fire, right? Well, what if I took just a bit of some of this berry’s color and…”

She performed her color-swapping trick and came up with a super-rich, vividly blue berry that, after six minutes of roasting over the fire, was oozing drops of nectar. Ulvama took it, dubiously, but took a bite, and her eyes widened.

“Is sweet! Almost like blue fruit! And not as tough!”

Erin grinned as Ulvama began to eat furiously. She took one bite herself of the hot berryflesh—then almost puked. Ulvama stopped in alarm, but Erin washed out her mouth.

“Sorry. Too sweet. I’ll—I’ll eat the berries with less color, okay?”

Then the [Shaman] began studying Erin. They were both changed; how much, neither had truly said. There was a lot they had not spoken of.

Like Roshal. Or the conclusion to the battle. The conversation hung in the air, unspoken, but not like some dark miasma. It was there—but when Erin looked at Ulvama, she just remembered seeing the Hobgoblin’s eyes as she produced the paints, or the way Ulvama had known why Erin had to go after Rabbiteater.

It was like being with Lyonette or Mrsha or Numbtongue or Pisces or any one of her oldest friends. Ulvama was one of them now, if she hadn’t been already.

“We’re gonna get through this. You’n me, Ulvama.”

“Mhm. Now I have a meatshield, I is okay.”

Ulvama used her fake pidgin-speak, and Erin grinned. Suddenly, Erin felt exhausted, but her mind was racing. And Ulvama had lots of questions.

“So you levelled up. Tell me more about [Aspect of the Inn]. And your box. What does it do? Is something in the box? What about your [Witch] class?”

“Hold on, hold on! I’ll tell you what I know. And I wanna know what you got for your levels!”

“I got more than a stupid box.”

It’s an amazing box. I think. P-probably. I mean, it’s got to be good. I was gonna get a portal to Earth, a door to hell, or…”

“And you asked for a stupid box.”

“An amazing box of ephemeral, transient, uh, incontinuity!”

“That’s not a word.”

They were bantering now as Erin pulled more color out of the berries. She could see Ulvama eying the colors, but they weren’t ‘paints’ like Ulvama needed; they’d literally dye Ulvama’s skin, and Erin did not think infusing yourself with the essence of a berry was a good move. But maybe if she colored the mud?

Erin had a thought.

“At least with the box, Lyonette will know we’re alive. We shouldn’t rely on it, but help may come from her or Fetohep or someone. That’s actually a reason to hurry. We don’t want to put any of our friends in danger. Find Nerry if she’s here; she’s the likeliest person to have Silvenia-magic on her. Then the others.”

She took a breath, and the twisted camp of thorns and needles and leaves shifted in the wind. And three people sat there.




Ulvama was nodding, eyes determined, cleaning her face with some water. The Hobgoblin dipped a clawed hand into the cup.

She was watching Erin. Trying not to go over and touch her again. She was here. Ulvama wasn’t alone.

She wasn’t going to die here. And Erin’s presence was more than reassurance or company after so long. She…

Erin must not know how she looked. Part of it was all familiar. Different than the ‘normal’ Erin—she was sitting, resting her arms on her knees, across from Ulvama. Firelight played off her face, and she was smiling, head slightly turned as she clasped her hands together.

A genuine, determined smile on her face. A pure confidence not born of certainty, but of understanding.

I will find them.

I will see you home.

Promises [The Wandering Innkeeper] intended to keep.

She looked a bit like she had holding the wheel on that ship, setting herself against Terandrian kingdoms and [Pirate Admirals]—but without that hopeless death in her gaze.

Ah, but the damage. The [Shaman] saw it…everywhere.

A ragged edge had been blown off the top of Erin’s right ear. She had a huge scar around each wrist, discolored skin from burns, and her hair—magic had dyed the edges. Ulvama’s sense of magic made Erin feel like she was aglow—not the craft of [Witches], but too much of it.

She looked ill. For all she had fought her way here, she had lost weight, and Erin seemed more like a survivor of a shipwreck and terrible days at sea than Ulvama. Still. If a bird swooped down now, Ulvama would have put bets on Erin to survive.

It was like she had been worn away by the weather, and it had exposed a wiry, tough woman of scars underneath the smiling façade Erin Solstice always wore.

She looked like she was Level 50. She looked…like she was still bleeding from the wounds she’d taken. Ulvama had seen Goblins hurt just as badly as Erin.

She hoped the [Innkeeper] could heal. However, Ulvama had not seen all of Erin’s scars. And as the Goblin sat there, trying not to burst into tears again—she realized three people were sitting around the fire.

Erin, on a little log of bark firewood. Ulvama, washing her face with a cup on the ground, cross-legged. And with his back to the stone ‘cliff’, tattoos aglow in the light, a dark-skinned man bare to the waist.

Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier, raised his head.

“Don’t forget Erek. My dear friend is alone. All of them are, and they will die and suffer now that I am dead. I made my choice, for I feared no mortal foe. But Erek—you gave him a sword. You owe him.”

His voice was clear, low, and intense, and Erin’s head rose, and she stared at the Hundredfriends Courier.

“Yes. Of course.”

She murmured. Ulvama jerked. The cup of water went flying as she scrambled back with a cry of horror.


She recoiled from Seve, who gave her a level look. Erin jerked, turned to Ulvama—and then blinked. And the surprise stole over her face, as if delayed. Ulvama was half-splayed on the ground. Erin rose slightly, incredulous.

“Wait. Did you hear that?”

Hear—he’s dead. He’s dead. Why is he here?”

Ulvama pointed a shaking finger at Seve. Or—at what had been Seve. When the Hobgoblin turned her head back, she just saw a gnarled twist of branches that might have looked like someone sitting down, if you really tried. A patterning on the wood that might have resembled a tattoo.

“What? What was—”

Erin Solstice stood there, surprised, shocked that Ulvama had heard something. But not surprised to see Seve. The Hobgoblin’s eyes stole to Erin. And then she heard another voice.

“I told you. Stop invoking us. Speak to her. We’re dead. Keep on living.”

Erin’s head turned, and then she and Ulvama saw a man standing behind the [Innkeeper]. Erin’s face grew pained—the unsmiling man just glared at her. As if he had said it before—his voice was low. His face—

Halrac the Grim didn’t move. He stood there, and Ulvama knew, this time, he wasn’t here. But at the same time, he was. A man in armor resting a hand on a thorn, as if he’d just walked out of nowhere.

A ghost.


Erin ducked her head to Halrac Everam. Then she turned to Ulvama and wordlessly gestured.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize anyone else could see them. Don’t worry. He’s just—”

“A statue.”

Ulvama knew what it was. What it had to be. She leapt to the one sane conclusion. Erin’s [Aspect of the Inn]. She had said she’d experimented with every Skill that applied to her inn. So this had to be.

“My [Garden of Sanctuary]. It doesn’t provide anything else. I can’t go home. But it seems I can call on the one thing it was made for. Memories.”

When they looked back at where Halrac had been, only thorns and branches remained. That was what they were.


Statues that spoke in the voices of the dead. Neither a ghost nor…an illusion? A fragment of recollection?

The [Shaman] of the Mountain City Tribe had called on the memory of the dead. Ulvama could recall the lives of past Goblins, their loves and losses, their very ends. She knew of classes like Numbtongue’s that invoked the spirits of the dead.

She had committed deeds she would never find proud to live.

Erin’s Skill horrified Ulvama. She saw the [Innkeeper] smile slightly.

“Sorry. They mean well. Sometimes they give advice. It’s them—and not. I—I can turn it off if you want.”

“Have you…is that your [Aspect of the Inn]?”

“Yep. I use the theatre to see. [Reinforced Structure] to fight.”

“And this one? When you’re not using the other two? You’ve been seeing—hearing them for a month?”

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes flickered, her mouth opened slightly, and she paused, as if sensing what Ulvama thought of this. She didn’t have to lie. The truth was written on her face.

“Stop it.”

Ulvama was on her feet. Erin tried to smile. Her lips moved, but her eyes were suddenly roaring voids.

“I will. Don’t worry. It’s just—”

Ulvama took two steps and grabbed Erin’s shoulders and shook her.

Stop it.

“I’m sorry I scared you. They scared you. It’s just a Skill, Ulvama. It’s not them. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s how I think they’d talk. Or—”

“Don’t do it again!”

Ulvama insisted, and Erin put her hand on Ulvama’s arms, trying to make her let go.

“Ulvama, chill. I deserve to let them talk. Most don’t even have bad things to say. Halrac’s just grumpy.”

“He’s dead. Stop torturing yourself. All month?”

“What? All month? Don’t be silly, Ulvama.”

Then she lied. Ulvama saw it. As if called, a figure appeared in the corner of her vision. A white-scaled Drake, head mid-shake.

They didn’t really move, the statues. Or even talk. It was more like the idea that they had just moved. Someone raising their head, speaking—before coming to perfect rest, and that was when you saw them. As if they could spring to life again, and you had caught them in an eternal repose.

An immortal moment.

Ulvama flinched as she saw Tesy give Erin a sad look. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes flickered to him, almost reproachfully.

“Come on, Tesy. I thought we were pals. Even if I should have protected you.”

Stop it.

This time, Ulvama shook Erin so hard the [Innkeeper]’s head rattled. But Erin just forced Ulvama’s hands off her. Then held her hands.

“I am! Ulvama, I’ve switched it off. There. Done. See? I know I’m freaking you out.”

Erin apologized. She looked remorseful. But suddenly, she was a stranger again. A woman with haunted eyes, reasonable, seemingly sane—

Torturing herself with statues. 

How long had this been going on? Erin didn’t even react to them appearing. She spoke to them—out loud, Ulvama realized—and the [Shaman]’s overwhelming relief at seeing Erin finally spotted what she would have seen in a moment if she had been well herself.

A crack.

It wasn’t visible, unless you counted her jagged smile now. The way she faced down danger or leapt from a branch, faced her fears as if hoping the next blow would split her apart.

It was intangible, invisible. A fraction of Erin’s soul had been cracked in half. And that was before Visophecin had done anything with it.

“I killed them all, Ulvama. They deserve to speak. Even if it’s just a memory of them.”

Erin’s voice was very gentle. Ulvama stared at her.

She could have punched Erin at this point, tried to literally knock her out. Or scolded her. Or hugged her. Or broken down herself. All of these things were reasonable. But they would have done nothing, nothing at all.

Instead, Ulvama raised her clawed hands, fingers searching Erin’s face until she cupped Erin’s cheeks in her hands.


Ulvama stared at Erin’s face. They were equal in height, and Erin’s hazel eyes were dreadfully calm. The [Shaman]’s lips moved.

“Don’t keep hurting yourself, Erin. Please. He—Halrac told you to stop. They’re telling you to stop, aren’t they?”

It was just a guess. But when Erin flinched, it was for the first time in a month. Not the seagull or the isolation or the water or the beetle or anything else had made her take a single step back. That hollowness in her gaze flickered.

“You worry too much, Ulvama. And they don’t say the right things. You silly statues. You…friends. You haven’t even blamed me for what happened on the ship.”

Her eyes searched Ulvama, as if trying to find hatred or resentment. Like someone who craved it. Waiting to be stabbed.

In response, Ulvama just shook her head.


“Did they hurt you? Halrac is dead. I failed Tesy. I didn’t even look for him. Look. I gave him a sword.”

Erin pointed. Her eyes were gleaming, and Gershal of Vaunt sat there, a glittering sword on his knees, hands resting on the blade. Caught midway between cleaning it. The only thing that moved was his mouth.

“I asked you for it. Listen to her.”

“Look at this imposter. He didn’t even mention cheese. Did you hear him, Ulvama—?”

The Hobgoblin blocked Erin’s view of Gershal. The [Innkeeper] was still smiling—but now her pupils were quivering. Ulvama put her head in front of Erin’s, blocking out her view of the world.

“Erin. You can’t do this.”

“I killed them.”

“Even if you did. This isn’t good. This isn’t anything. Your Skill shouldn’t work like this.”

“Sure it should. It’s the most perfect thing. [Aspect of the Inn]. [Garden of Sanctuary]. I’m so grateful, Ulvama. This is a Level 50 Skill in itself. The most powerful—the most essential. Who doesn’t want to hear someone again?”

Now, the [Innkeeper] was trying to convince Ulvama with her endless charisma, but it wasn’t working. The [Shaman] just shook her head in horror. Not this. This was a curse.

“You’re using your Skill wrong. You—it shouldn’t work like this. No normal Skill should.”

“Well. That’s how it works. So there.”

“Did you make it do that? Are you sure?”

Erin hesitated and bit her lip. Her eyes darted away, and she tried to pull out of Ulvama’s grip.

“Hey, let’s figure out where Nerry is or do something with the colors, huh? I get it, Ulvama. Message delivered. I’ll use my other Skills.”

Ulvama refused to let go.

“Erin. Have you cried for them? You’re allowed to weep and let them go.”

The [Innkeeper] jerked and tried to pull back suddenly. She grabbed Ulvama’s arms, and she was strong.

“What? Of course I’ve mourned for them. Ulvama. Let go. I’m serious. Stop it.”

The [Shaman] refused to. Now it made sense. The first time they’d met, Erin had looked misty-eyed. But she hadn’t actually shed a tear. Ulvama had been sobbing in terror night after night.

But Erin? The [Innkeeper] had been in Ulvama’s company mere hours, yet Ulvama would have bet her very life and any fortune and magic and levels she’d had that Erin Solstice hadn’t wept a single tear since the Solstice.

Not once.

And not because they weren’t there. The [Innkeeper] was struggling now, getting angry, because that was easier than having to look Ulvama in the eyes. But she was careful to be gentle and tried to make the Hobgoblin let go.

Guilt. Her every glance at Ulvama was guilt incarnate. Sorrow?

You didn’t ‘see’ it when a statue appeared. Or in how Erin acted. How could Erin be sad? It embodied her. It wasn’t an emotion, it was a defining piece of her. She breathed it. Everything she was experiencing was a result of it.

When she stood here in this small clearing in a bush in the middle of an unknown continent, injured, lost, scarred beyond belief, she could smile because she thought she deserved it and worse.

That was the hole in her eyes. An urging of the world, of Ulvama, of anything.

Hurt me. Do your worst.

Ulvama wanted to kiss Erin on the head and hug her. She wanted to wrap Erin in a blanket and make sure there was good food and bring her back to the inn. This deserved a [Thought Healer] if Humans had any that were good. It called for Erin’s friends. For good food and quiet and—

There was none of that here. Ulvama was a [Shaman]. All the good things Erin deserved might help her in time, but Ulvama had seen those eyes.

She had looked into Goblin eyes, into the expressions of men and women of many species. Erin Solstice had the eyes of…her uncle. The [Shaman of the Old Ways]’ eyes glowed, and she saw, for a moment, through the eyes of someone besides a Goblin.

A brown-haired man with a neat beard and a penchant for flannel driving a strange vehicle day in, day out. Imagine that man, his favorite IPA in hand each weekend.

Ulvama could see him.

Thomas Solstice.

A father, which is one of the ways he might define himself. An employed, hardworking fellow who labored every day. His job was not easy. Some days, some weeks, might be thunderously painful. There were bills to pay.

His father was dead. He had buried him three years ago and done everything right. His relationship with his spouse was rocky at times, but they’d raised two good children. The proper, American dream.

His brother was fine. His brother’s kid—odd, but okay. Going to college already, imagine that. It was just yesterday she was a chess prodigy, knee high to a gnat.

His sister had gotten out of that marriage with that bastard, and if this man, this father, ever saw that bastard again—why, he’d have done something if he didn’t have a family to raise.

He loved his family. He didn’t always show it. Sometimes they pissed him off. He was not perfect. If you asked him about his boss or work, you’d get a litany of complaints, but he wasn’t about to quit.

At times, the world squeezed down on him so hard it felt like he might pop—and that was before you accounted for the news. All the terrible things in the world. This bastard in politics—don’t even start. What the man could control was his work, his life—things weren’t going well right now, but they’d improve.

His mother he’d buried a decade ago. He had a picture on the mantle, a bit dusty. His father—from three years ago.

Now, imagine Thomas’ eyes, that contained this life. All this and more. All the things he’d never tell you, the thoughts that no one could ever prise from another person’s head, if they could even be articulated. That was a man such as you might find on any street, in any city in the world.

Then understand this: this man, this uncle, this father, this worker, this son, this husband, this Human being had not cried in, oh, over thirty years.

Not wept.

Tears of pain? Of course. Maybe when a girlfriend had broken his heart in college…? And maybe he’d gotten misty-eyed during a movie or watching his team finally win at that sports thing. If his daughter got married, perhaps he’d shed a tear at that moment. Or when his son graduated.

But you weren’t supposed to cry. No one had told him that…well, at some point a boy had been told that, but it was largely implicit. So this man continued, year after year, until he forgot the reason you shed tears. To him, it was something other people did. And he thought it was perfectly natural not to cry in a year, or decade, and if you asked him about it, he’d give you a strange look.

Perhaps he could die of it. Or maybe it did nothing to him to never weep. He could put his fist through drywall, but not cry, let alone weep. If the right sad event happened, he might say, of course he’d cry.

He just hadn’t had enough of a reason for three decades. He had to be strong when he buried his parents. Someone had to be. What would happen if he broke down? He might never find the pieces.

Ulvama’s hand flinched away from Erin’s arm. When she looked upwards, a reflection of that same stare was in Erin Solstice’s eyes. Like a curled knot of muscle, a piece of fabric stretched tighter and tighter. A waiting piece of wood refusing to split before the lumberjack’s axe.

Erin had seen the same thing Ulvama had. Her hazel stare, a copy of her uncle’s, flickered as she passed a hand over her eyes. She had seen that man many times over her life. But now she had found the reason behind his stare—her voice rasped as she looked at Ulvama.

“I don’t need to cry, Ulvama. There’s no point. I killed them. What—what am I supposed to do? Apologize?”

She laughed hollowly. Shaking her head as she forced Ulvama’s hands away. Stepping back.

“I knew what I was doing. I knew the cost. They paid it for me. I have done this before. This time…now they can remind me of it. If only they could be angry. I know it’s not them. If it was them—”

Her eyes flickered.

“They’d tell me what they truly thought. This is fine. I don’t have time to shed tears, Ulvama. We need to get you somewhere safe.”

“You are allowed to cry, Erin. The world won’t end if you do. They deserve it.”

The [Innkeeper] grew angry at that.

“They deserve to be alive. I’ll—what are we even talking about? I’m sorry I scared you with the statues, Ulvama. Come on, let’s figure out those paints. I wonder if I can harvest the colors from your spell. What about a regular fire? I can’t do it with my flames.”

She turned. Ulvama called out, looking at the [Innkeeper]’s back. All the magical fire from Rhir and Terandria hadn’t killed her. She was metamorphosing into something tough. Stronger than mithril. Stronger than Adamantium. More rigid than a diamond.

And you could shatter a diamond with a simple hammer. Ulvama had seen Erin and felt like hope had come back to the world. So grateful had she been that she had missed the obvious for a few hours.

Look at her. The [Innkeeper] turned expectantly, and Ulvama saw her job. Which was to shatter that visage like glass before it snapped her in half.

“Erin. Are the rest of Griffon Hunt alive?”

The [Innkeeper] froze. Then she smiled.

“Revi? Briganda? Typhenous? Yeah. I haven’t—seen them. Or Cade.”

Her voice slipped.

“Which is good. It’s only—Halrac is dead. He’s dead. He—fought Kasigna. Didn’t you see that?”

Her eyes vanished behind a cloud. Ulvama had seen it. She closed her own eyes.

“I saw an [Archer] with a golden arrow. Facing that woman.”

“Kas…the three-in-one. Her. With an arrow. He almost stabbed her. He was going for her name. Halrac. Yes. Halrac the Grim. The bravest man in the world. He did that.”

Erin stood there, staring at a memory, then shook herself. Her voice grew brisker, or tried to.

“I’ll repay his team. I’ll—he doesn’t have a family. I swear I’ll find a way. Never again. Except—”

She stared at her hands, then at Ulvama, and chuckled.

“—Maybe you’d better join Rags’ tribe when we get you out of here, Ulvama. Safety. Look at me.”

She turned and bent down to the mud, taking a bit of blue from the berries and pooling it into a bowl. She tried to look away, but the [Shaman] said another name.


“I will find Erek. I killed the best—the only good thing to ever come from Tombhome. I won’t forget.”

“Gershal of Vaunt.”

Erin’s head snapped up. Her voice roughened, and she began to snap—stopped herself—and the words burst out.

I killed him too. He didn’t run away. He should have, but he wouldn’t. Like Gerial. Zel Shivertail would have been proud—”

Erin caught herself. She was breathing harder now. Hung her head.

“…No. Proud isn’t the right word. Zel would have been…”

Her eyes roamed the empty clearing. Erin whispered to herself.

“I don’t see him. He’s just a statue, then. Eaten. Taken. He would have been…he and Gershal deserved to stand together. They deserved to live. He refused to run when he should have. If he had lived, I wonder what he would have become.”

[The Wandering Innkeeper] looked at Ulvama, and her lips curved. The pits of those eyes deepened.

“You see. They might say I…made him. And I did give him a sword and lead him to his death. But he made himself the moment he took that blade. If not for me, he might have had time to follow Zel’s path. I pushed him. And look how he fell. Gloriously? Bravely?”

Her lips twisted as if she were about to spit bile. Ulvama’s voice was soft.

“You gave him a chance.”

“Yes. To die.”

Erin stared at the bowl of mud, pushed it aside, and shook her head.

“Who else do you want to know about? I know all of the ones who’ve lived or died. At least—the ones I cared about. I killed far, far more than that. Rosech doesn’t haunt me. Or Iradoren.”

A painful smirk. Ulvama sat down slowly. She remembered them. And she knew Erin did.

“Who else?”

Erin’s eyes flickered. She stared over Ulvama’s shoulder. Her voice was hoarse.

“Ulinde. And Moore. And Tekshia. The—[Guildmistress] of Liscor. Selys’ grandmother. I didn’t even know. Razia. Xarkouth. Alcaz. Kevin. Prost. Oliyaya. Khorpe, of course. Silvermop—”

Her voice strengthened by the end, and the procession of names began a litany. A kind of dirge. Ulvama ruthlessly interrupted Erin.

“I wish they hadn’t died.”

Erin gave the [Shaman] a blank look, an angry one.

“Yeah. So do I. Obviously.

“Do you speak to them?”

“—I don’t think they can even hear me. And if I do? They don’t say what I expect. They offer me warnings. Advice. They don’t scream.”

The [Innkeeper] was staring around the glade, and Ulvama saw faces amidst the thorns and roots. Her voice was very gentle.

“They want you to take care of yourself.”

Erin flinched.

“What are you doing, listening to them? That’s how I know they’re fake. Not a single one has something to say to me. And they should. Tersk? Duln? Aldonss? You don’t even like me.”

The [Innkeeper]’s empty eyes turned, and she stared around. Ulvama was afraid to look. A month like this. The [Shaman] spoke for the dead.

“They’re surely angry. They didn’t want to die.”

“Oh, yes. They have to be.”

Erin turned to Ulvama hungrily and gestured at her chest.

“Maybe the aspect is flawed. Or the garden is. The voices are new. Perhaps Sheta—the Harpy who made this place—couldn’t bear to hear it. I don’t know.”

The Goblin met Erin’s eyes.

“I think they’re real. I think they are angry. At you, at the things that killed them. But they won’t tell you their regrets and anger.”

It was another shot in the dark, but from the way the [Innkeeper] started, Ulvama knew it was dead on target.

“They should. I’m listening.”

“They won’t. Because you can’t even mourn them properly.”

This time, Erin tensed up.

“—So you’re expecting me to cry? They want me to—”

Her head rose again, and she stared past Ulvama. Then she developed a crooked, cracked smile.

“Yeah. That is fitting. I guess I can’t break down enough. Maybe later. I do deserve that.

She was so distracted she didn’t see Ulvama get up to take one of Erin’s hands. The [Innkeeper] tried to pull away.

“Hey, I know I need therapy and to talk about it—but let’s focus on surviving right now, Ulvama.”


The Hobgoblin’s eyes were glowing a gentle crimson. Erin gestured around.

“We’re lost in a foreign land. We have to survive.”

“The dead deserve to be remembered. To be wept for.”

So said the [Shaman]. The [Innkeeper] agreed. But she looked around.

“Okay. I can’t, though.”

“Alright. But will you tell me what you said to Halrac?”

The [Marksman] sat on the other side of the fire, the flames outlining his face. His face was stoic. Bitter? Angry? Of course he was these things. But he didn’t look at Erin with all of it painted there in wrath.

The [Innkeeper] glanced at Ulvama, then the statue, then looked past him.

“Halrac? Why do—of course. However many times. I’m…sorry. I’m so sorry. There’s not enough words for me to say. I got him killed. He might not have known it, but I did. Each time I called, he came. I should have let him go off to Laken. The [Emperor] was far kinder than I. He deserved to be a Named-rank adventurer. It is my fault.”

Her voice grew soft and quiet, and her hand tightened painfully over Ulvama’s. The [Shaman] put her other hand on top of Erin’s.

“Can you look at him?”

Erin jerked her eyes up—then glanced away at Ulvama. She wore another painful smile.

“—You’re right, it’s hard. I have to.”

Slowly, her eyes swiveled, and her body was as rigid as the statue. Erin whispered as she saw the stubble on his face, his jaw—unclenched.

He leaned on his bow, and no matter how much Erin searched, eyes flitting, desperately, trying to jerk away, she couldn’t see the reproach she longed for. The vengeance. The anger at her.

“I’m sorry, Halrac.”

Her hand began shaking in Ulvama’s grip. Erin’s hand was sweating, and the [Innkeeper] began to look away. Forced herself to meet those eyes again.

“What—what’s the point of—? No. Say your piece, Ulvama. Halrac. Why are you so silent? Say something. I deserve it.”

The [Innkeeper]’s voice rose until she was almost shouting. She wanted something, anything other than this. But all Ulvama did was sniff. When Erin turned, angry, she saw the Hobgoblin’s eyes were running with tears.

Again, they dripped down as she looked at a man who was dead. Ulvama saw him reaching for the arrow, teeth bared, eyes desperate, facing down the Goddess of Death.

Swinging a sword to end Kasignel itself. In Ulvama, there were tears and regret and guilt and sadness. But more.

The [Witch] saw it. More than one emotion in Ulvama. They were like the burning colors of her fire. Blue sadness, of course. But also pink fire.


Her hand tightened further, and it hurt Ulvama. Then, Erin was angry. Why glory? Why?

A thought stopped her. Why not? Why not glory? Didn’t he deserve…?

Moore was sitting under the canopy of thorns, craning his head up as if fearful of being pricked. The half-Giant, the last of his kind on Izril, looked sorrowful. But he refused to shout at her. Gentle Moore would never do that.

But she wished he did. 

Erin was breathing harder now, chest shaking with inhalations. She knew Ulvama was doing…what was the point?

“What’s the point, Ulvama? My tears are useless. It’s not like they’re going to make me weaker. I know that. But do you have to push—

I deserve the pain. Ulvama’s nose was running. She tried to wipe it on her arm. But she didn’t let go of Erin’s hand.

“I’m just sad. You are too.”

“Of course. Of course I am, but—”

The [Innkeeper] was holding something back. She felt her face cracking, but she tried to hold it in. Why?

Because she didn’t deserve to weep. Because, in a nonsensical, painful way, it felt too good. She suppressed a trembling breath.

This dingy camp. This humid, hostile jungle—the vivid colors felt like a shade of grey. But the pain in her chest felt real. Her voice wobbled.

It felt like she was young. Tears that made her know she was alive, sadness so real as to make the world vivid and new—she didn’t deserve it.

She wanted to mourn them. But—

“What’s the point, Ulvama? W-what’s the point? Am I allowed to even say it? Now? After all’s said and done?”

The Hobgoblin was holding the young woman’s hand as tightly as she could. She looked at Erin.

“Say what?”

Her eyes were blurring. They were all there whenever she looked up. Erin’s voice was thick, and her body was shaking now, like a leaf. She couldn’t keep it in. Her voice broke.

“Am I allowed to say I regret it? After all I said and did? Now? It’s too late. Too late. I was so certain, when I was about to die. When it was me and death herself. Now? It’s too late, Erin! It’s all over! Look at what you did. Why are you regretting it now?”

She tried to keep her voice level. Tried to keep meeting their eyes, Ulvama’s, but the world had blurred over. Erin shouted at the statues. At Ulvama. At herself.

You should have regretted it from the start. They’re dead. It’s all your fault. You—you idiot. Why won’t they shout at me? Please. Just hate me.”

The first tears trickled down her cheeks. Erin blinked them away and looked at Ulvama.

“You didn’t even hit me.”

The Goblin held Erin’s hands, refusing to let go, even as tears trickled down her own face.

“The moment I saw you, I felt hope again. Today I am happy. You found me again. You’ll save me.”

You were in Roshal’s grip because of me.

“That was not your fault. We went for you.”

I wish you hadn’t. I regret it all. I have too many. What have I—why? Why did it turn out like this?”

Teardrops were falling onto the ground. Erin looked around and began to break down. Ulvama hugged Erin, and the [Innkeeper] shook uncontrollably. She wanted them to shout. To rage. To scream.

The statues of the dead vanished. She couldn’t force them to haunt her any longer. Then it was just Ulvama and her memories and reality. The Hobgoblin—Erin knew what had happened to Ulvama. To her friends, living and dead.

“I’m sorry. I am.

“I know. I’m sorry too. It wasn’t your fault.”

“It was.

The Goblin shook her head.

“Bad things happened. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Stop lying to me.”

Erin Solstice whispered. But Ulvama just hugged her tightly and patted her on the head as the [Innkeeper] sobbed. Shedding tears, crying uncontrollably.

Not just for the dead. Nor for her own guilt. But for the terrible things that occurred. Because they had happened. Because somehow, despite it all, she was alive. Alive and so grateful for it. She never wanted to forget how it felt, as if this moment were realer than all the others. Uncapturable, even with an [Immortal Moment]. She didn’t deserve the feeling. She didn’t deserve the happiness or to be here.

But Erin clung to it. Drew it into her to fill that void she’d tried to keep empty all month.

The [Witch] closed her eyes, and her hat fell softly onto her head from high above.




When Ulvama let go of Erin, the [Innkeeper]’s face was a mess. She had to take a leaf to wipe at her face—she only saw the [Shaman]’s eyes fixed on her head after a second.


“Your hat.”

The [Witch] reached up, and her hat of a thousand unknown flames burned in her grip. Her craft…she lifted it up, and it was heavy. The beautiful flame lit up the small camp as Ulvama stared at it.

“It’s—back? But that wasn’t wonder.”

Something had reactivated Erin’s powers. Yet, even if there was wonder, Ulvama didn’t think that was what Erin had felt just now.

For answer, Erin Solstice gave Ulvama a sad smile. She touched her hat, and it vanished. Then—Erin Solstice closed her eyes, and it appeared again.

This time, Ulvama saw it appear. Flickering trails of fire, green and red and yellow and blue, but shades of the colors that the [Shaman] barely knew, colors that existed in dreams and magic, poured downwards.

Not like flames—but like rain. Droplets of flame falling until they formed the outline of that hat. When Erin Solstice lifted it, the [Shaman] knew.

“Your class changed.”


The [Witch]’s eyes were still wet. She wiped at them and her nose, but she couldn’t stop crying. She shouldn’t have, but perhaps she’d been too afraid to begin.

As if it would make her weaker. She raised her eyes to Ulvama. Then, gently, the [Witch of Remorse] lifted the heavy brim of her hat. Magic shone in her eyes.

She had thought pain was her craft. But it was more than just suffering. Slowly, Erin Solstice reached out and brushed at Ulvama’s cuts, scrapes, and muddy, ruined ‘paint’.

The mud dried and fell off Ulvama’s arms. The Hobgoblin flinched as something bright ran through her. Then she lifted one arm. A cut from a thorn, half-healed, began to fade. She blinked as the scratches, the filth, the little bites from opportunistic bugs, and her worn clothing—flickered.

Then, the [Shaman] looked down, and her clothing was in the condition it had been back in the inn a day before the Solstice. Her scratches had faded, not vanished. It wasn’t healing. It was—

Regret. If only they could go back to that day and try it again. Ulvama studied her bare skin and gasped. Her magical paint was back! Worn; she hadn’t kept it as fresh on that day. But it had returned, the familiar power coursing through her.

“I have always said it. Never again. And again, I regret.”

The [Witch] lowered her hand. She had no more power for her ragged clothing; perhaps she still didn’t have the will to give that magic for herself. But she looked at Ulvama with a sad smile.

“—I’ll keep you safe, Ulvama. I promise.”

It was the lie Erin Solstice always told. The [Innkeeper]’s promise she broke to so many. The [Witch]’s oath. This time, it would be different. Please, let it be different.

Ulvama embraced Erin without a word. And she didn’t let go for a long while. After a bit—the [Innkeeper] began crying again.




That night, as the fire was reduced to embers, Ulvama and Erin slumbered, or at least, one of them did.

The [Innkeeper] was no longer alone. And the [Witch]—the [Witch] had found her hat.

She had more scars than she thought. She was not herself…she might never be the same one who had left. But this was not the first time, nor would it be the last.

It had all started on a day she’d gone to the bathroom. That Erin Solstice had gotten up from her computer and a game of chess—walked down the hallway, turned, and seen a Dragon.

She had never come back.

She would never go back. Not that Erin. Part of her continued on. Whether it was for the best or worse, the [Innkeeper] could not say. But she knew she changed.

“…At least this time I didn’t get teleported.”

Erin walked back from the toilet, mildly relieved about that. Ulvama needed her. Erin needed Ulvama; by herself, she was too empty.

When the [The Wandering Innkeeper] sat a moment, staring at the fading embers of the fire, she wondered what new flames awaited her. What her class and nature might change into.

[Aspect of the Inn: The Garden of Sanctuary].

She saw no statues. They did not whisper to her. Perhaps Ulvama had been right. Perhaps it had been a curse of her own doing. Or perhaps they would come again when she was ready.

The [Innkeeper] stared into the glow of faint light as the jungle sounded around her, alive even in the darkness.

She hated nature. Bugs and frogs and everything else—that was why she’d first come to the inn. A place to be safe; a place to keep someone else safe.

“Now here I am. An [Innkeeper] lost on another continent. With someone to protect and not even a frying pan or acid jar or plate of spaghetti to my name.”

She shouldn’t be here. She was not qualified to protect Ulvama, let alone herself, but someone had to. She was here. And—Erin realized one more thing.

Level 50. A change in her. A great, profound shift in her being from her deeds and experiences that she could not come back from, even if she wanted to. And she didn’t know if she did. She hoped, this time, it would be better with that naïve, idealistic, desperate, necessary hope she always had.

—But she did realize something. It had not broken this time. It had, time and again. Her inn had been shattered by Skinner, destroyed by Toren—twice—unmade by Crelers, and each time it had been rebuilt.

It had withstood Death herself at the greatest of costs. But it had not saved Erin from Roshal or come with her to sea, when she thought all was lost.

Now, she was bereft of it.

“Good. Let it protect the others.”

Someone, something had to. Yet as Erin Solstice looked at the slumbering Hobgoblin curled under her leaf, her paint glowing with magic, relieved and hopeful, she knew that she had to protect Ulvama. At any cost. It mattered more than anything else right now.

The Grand Design of Isthekenous was not so cruel. Erin was not so incompetent. An [Innkeeper] she might be, far from home…but she had always been that.

In the silence of the night, Erin Solstice gasped as she finally understood. A soft exhalation and a note of wonder.

She lifted something up in her hands.

The Key of Reprieve.

A key made of a feather softly glinting with a light of its own. Not even there in a real sense. A key to her final great Skill.

[The Pavilion of Secrets].

It did nothing when she called for it. As far as Erin knew, and it was certainty in her breast—no one had accessed it in her inn. Yet it was hers. So, Erin breathed her realization as the Key of Reprieve rose. The feathered key seemed to flex as if alive—

And Erin slowly drew the Key of Insight, dark and hidden within the feather of the Key of Reprieve, out of it. A tiny, crooked feather with painfully bright teeth.

A key for a door. But the door was a world away. Of course. Surely. Except that Erin realized it now.

“I am my inn. [Aspect of the Inn: Pavilion of Secrets].”

Gently, she turned the Key of Insight around. And there it was. A tiny gap in her chest. Erin inserted the key in the lock—and somewhere, a door trembled. Her breath shook, the door shook—and Erin turned the key.






Author’s Note:

Thus, the last chapter of March is done, and I am going onto my new month and writing schedule in April. I’ll be going to Puerto Rico during that month on a vacation—I may try to write, but I’ll be writing less and, hopefully, more quality.

I have a wedding to go to this year in my immediate family, and it feels like things are changing. But it’s not always scary. In fact, I’m hopeful.

Sometimes it’s stressful. For this chapter, before I started writing, I had one of those dreams I often have. Have I ever told you about them?

I’m usually in high school, or college, not having fun, with stressful schoolwork. But I’m also, simultaneously, the pirateaba of now, making good money and working hard. And I think—each time in my dream—I have to tell my parents I’m dropping out. That I’m making a good living and I can’t keep burning myself out like this.

Even in my dream I’m sure they might understand, but I worry about the conversation, but know I have to do it. Then I wake up. That’s a recurring dream, by the way. It happens when a difficult chapter awaits.

This time—the stress dream was different. I was naked and late for school. Which—already not a great thing. As I was looking for my clothes, my neighbors came over (I covered up a bit). And…MatPat from Game Theory. No, I’m not making this up, it was a dream on Thursday. So, I’m looking for my clothes, and they’re trying to cheer me up, and MatPat is trying to take me aside for a conversation about burnout (Stephanie is there too; it’s an entire event).

Then something explodes, and I know something bad has gone down at school, and I have to go find out what it is, paradoxically. Still no clothes.

…Then I woke up.

That was my actual dream before writing this chapter. I relate it to you, now, because it’s interesting and weird. And because writing this chapter was—not easy, but enjoyable. Fun. It was everything the last three Erin chapters were not, because those were complex and uncertain. And so was this one, perhaps, but I knew it was coming. The plank scene I have been thinking about for months.

So it felt good to write, and dreams or not, I ended up happy with what came out of it. Not all changes or stresses end up in bad things.

Here we are. It feels like Volume 10 has really begun. Onwards, maybe not upwards because I don’t always like heights. But I learned to conquer that fear once. Maybe it’s back, but I could do it again, I hope. Another chapter. See you in April!




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Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yootie


Erin in Volume 1, and AcidJar by Rhircat! (The best jar-related thing I’ve ever seen!)


Silvenia Sings by Maoxfhan, commisioned by Linu!



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