Foreword: It’s all going backwards, I guess. I have never written a foreword and I’m pretty sure I should be thanking people.
I’ll treat this more like the Author’s Notes to put down what I’m thinking going into rewriting Volume 1 of The Wandering Inn. I believe I’ll probably post it all separately of the original, as I’ll have to go back an re-edit. There will be multiple drafts, almost certainly and let me say this:
This sucks. This is hardest mode as far as I’m concerned. I’d almost rather write the ending to Volume 8 again. That’s stressful, but it’s because you get one shot.
Rewriting and editing to me, is looking at a notch where you climbed up, or the weight…record…on a heavy lifting machine and saying, ‘alright, time to do better.’ I’m not sure if I can do it. Everyone has assured me that a Volume 1 rewrite is for the best because I can surpass old me, but can I do it?
Thoughts: Volume 1 is rough. Not just from elements I hadn’t fully planned out yet in the story like Antinium adventurers (ironically not uncanonical, just ahead of their time by a year), but mainly because my writing was weaker.
Ten million words weaker. However—can I get back into writing an earlier Erin? I guess we’ll find out, but here’s my rough plan: keep the bones. Keep the bones, add characterization and new scenes to make the events feel better, but keep everything that worked.
Highlights? Horns of Hammerad, chess club. I can punch up the writing, but I almost don’t want to touch the Horns going into the crypt. Again, I will have to re-read, but that I believe is the best part of Volume 1.
Lowlights? Ryoka? I could do more with her. People do not like Ryoka—but that’s not the issue so much as making her a bit more understandable. You can dislike her, but I think that’s different from hating how she’s written.
Massive-problems-which-make-me-stressed? The opening. I will be working with a professional editor you may know who not only helped with Gravesong but Interlude – Pisces. Diana Gill. That’s reassuring, but part of my problem is the way The Wandering Inn flows.
It has a very, very slow opening. My notes not just from Diana are to give it what I think of as a Hollywood opening. Start with the action. Mix up Erin’s plotlines so Ryoka or something more than Erin comes in faster.
I…don’t know if I like that. Part of TWI feels like finding the audience, and that audience should expect a lot of words, and slice-of-life. I’m going to experiment with how to balance things.
In conclusion, this is going to suck. It is absolutely necessary, but I need to do my best and that’s not always possible. This is why we have clones. To do work we don’t want to do. I guess I’ll open up the chapters on my second monitor and glance at them as I work.
According to the wiki, there are 344,000 words in Volume 1. I’ll try to write at least 20k per update and unlike usual, I imagine I won’t enjoy writing so much I push it into the crazy 30-40k range. So this might take as many as 18 updates.
Or less. Who knows? Or more. No more stalling. We’re into it. This is the (legendary?) story of The Wandering Inn. Again.
The inn was dark and empty when the traveller arrived. It appeared suddenly, rising above the gentle hills and valleys of autumnal grass that blew in the wind, green, orange, and even purple in places.
The rolling plains were deceptive from afar. At first, the many hills and divots seemed gentle, mere waves along a grassy plain. But the closer you got, the more you realized how easy it was to lose your bearings. In the center of a flat trench of grass surrounded by hills on every side, you could look around and not know where you were. Even climbing a hill, all you might see was the mountain range.
Mountains so vast they disappeared into clouds on all sides grudgingly parted to form a pass connecting the north and south. Cliffs of stone slowly ridding itself of vegetation and life, rising without end, promising to wall off the world except in this one spot where a gap had been chiseled. No other signs of civilization—at least not without the right vantage point.
That was why the inn was such a relief to a lost traveller. It had been placed on one of the highest hills for reasons of safety come spring, but also to act as a beacon. You might catch a glimpse of the roof, sagging in places but still mostly intact, or the chipped paint peeling along some shutters slightly moldy with disuse.
Yet, the inn stood. It had been there for decades, and whilst the other buildings had long since fallen to rubble or been burnt, the inn had been spared. When armies marched, it had been abandoned and reclaimed. When undead came flooding across the land, once more the inn had fallen empty. Only, this time, the windows stayed dark. Hopeful travellers stopped looking for anyone at the door, and trade and visitors were rare anyways these days.
Abandoned, the inn waited. The Skills and care that had been put into the old wood, the magic etched into the bones of this building remained, defying a decade of disuse.
That was why the young woman was drawn to it. Not just because it was the first building she’d seen since coming to this world. Because of what it represented.
She was panting wildly as she stumbled through the thick grass, looking over her shoulder, but her desperate sprinting had long since turned to weary stumbling, despite the terror still coursing through her. The young woman smelled of brimstone and fire. She clutched at her right arm, and the t-shirt she wore was charred, as was her arm.
The girl climbed the hill, even though there was no light in the windows, not knowing what she might find. But still, she saw the inn as a symbol.
The inn. In every world, the inn was a gathering place. Somewhere to meet people, to rest, a point along your travels. Somewhere an epic quest could begin, or where the weary traveller could sit around a warm fire.
A safe place. But this inn was dark, and the hope faded in the traveller’s chest as she reached the top of the hill.
“Hello? Is…is anyone…?”
She called out as she looked at the dark building. The door was closed, and nothing stirred at her voice. The young woman looked over her shoulder and hesitated.
Was it still out there? She doubted this place could keep her safe, but the strange land of hills and those impossibly huge mountains were overwhelming. Worse—it was growing dark, and it was going to be a darkness bereft of any artificial light.
The idea of staying outdoors with those things with red eyes, or the Dragon, made her shudder. So the young woman pushed the door open and called out again.
“Anyone here? Hello? I need—”
She knew the inn was empty the moment she opened the door. The smell was like that of a library long-abandoned: dust and mold and—the first wave of stale air made the young woman begin hacking the instant the door opened.
“No. Darn it. Of course it’s empty.”
All at once, the traveller sighed and leaned against the doorframe. Her strength ran out of her at the sight of the dark interior, the faint outlines of chairs and tables shrouded in cobwebs and dust proof nothing had set foot in here for ages. She rested her forearm on the other arm and then winced as she felt the burns scream at her. Not to be left out, the cuts on her legs throbbed.
She tried not to cry. The young woman had known, known the inn was probably deserted when she saw it. She’d known, but hope—
“It’s not fair. Ever since I came to this world, everything’s been going wrong.”
Talking helped. Talking made her feel like she wasn’t crazy. The girl looked around.
The inn was cavernous, a building meant to hold entire crowds. She felt as small as an ant, and unwelcome, like a thief stealing into someone else’s property at night. It was…very dark. Even the fading evening light wasn’t welcome here. A few steps in and the young woman heard her footfalls echoing, then the sound being swallowed. She hesitated. Should she enter?
Inside was darkness, and while it was dusty and she felt like an intruder—the young woman looked over her shoulder.
She was hurt. There were things outside. Monsters. She’d seen them—they’d nearly killed her!
Monsters and an unfamiliar world. A world that wasn’t hers. What she was sure of was a Dragon, and she had no idea how she’d gotten here. She had no idea how to go back. She had no idea where here was.
“I just wanted to go to the bathroom.”
It was a plaintive whisper. The girl looked back once more and was almost about to back out of the strange inn when she heard the first sounds overhead.
She jumped, looked up, sprang out the doorway—and straight into the first wet, cold raindrops. The girl threw up her hands, gazed up, got a faceful of water, and ran inside as the skies opened up.
It began to rain, and the cool air grew colder still. The patter of raindrops overhead tapped down through the cracks in the roof, dripped down through floorboards, and landed in the dust where they vanished.
Then it became a roar of sound, and the shower turned the world outside into oblivion. The young woman’s eyes opened wide, and she backed away.
“No good. I guess—”
She found herself inside the inn and gazed about. She coughed again as the dust settled.
It was suddenly, unaccountably, peaceful. Despite the onslaught of rain, suddenly the young woman realized she might be safe.
The fire-breathing lizard-thing probably didn’t like rain, and it was so wet it’d douse even a forest fire. And the little green things with teeth would surely never find her in this! The young woman looked around, and as if a reward had appeared for her surviving all of this, she saw a chair.
Just a worn, overturned chair clearly the sufferer of a thousand bottoms. But it invited her. Slowly, the young woman bent down, righted the chair, and then began coughing again as more dust overwhelmed her. There was so much of it she also began sneezing—but then she brushed the chair off and sat down.
She closed her eyes for a moment. Just a moment. She’d rest here to begin with, get her bearings, and then figure out what had happened and why. The adrenaline slowly drained out of her, and Erin Solstice leaned back, trying to get comfortable.
She was almost ready to pass out, but a thought nagged at her, and since it deserved to be spoken aloud, she cracked open one eye and looked around. She sighed, opened the other eye, and addressed the empty room.
“I’m really hungry.”
After a few minutes, Erin Solstice sat back up and opened her eyes. The traveller, the first guest of this inn, looked around and rubbed at her eyes.
No—not a traveller. She hadn’t been intending to travel anywhere tonight. The young woman frowned as she looked around. How had she gotten here?
Not just here, as in this abandoned inn, but here—here? She’d been going to the bathroom after finishing a game of chess in her room, in her home, and then…she must have taken a wrong step somewhere.
It must have been a really big wrong step, because instead of walking into the bathroom and seeing the comforting sight of porcelain, she’d suddenly found herself in a cave, nose-to-nose with a slumbering—
Erin leapt to her feet, heart pounding. It hadn’t been a dream! She looked around and felt at her right arm.
The burns flared up again, and Erin winced.
“It’s definitely not a dream. But how am I burnt? I could have sworn it missed!”
The jet of violet flame had shot wide of her by a mile, but it had still broiled her right side. Only her jeans had saved her flesh from suffering the same fate along her legs. Erin had no idea how she’d dodged, but that had saved her life. She’d run out of that…cave…and then?
Then she’d found herself running around the rolling valleys and foothills, calling for help and screaming as she realized she was not home. That had been a mistake, because the shouting had attracted attention. Just not help.
A bunch of little green things with red eyes and mouths full of teeth had come after her. They’d slashed at her legs as she ran—still screaming—and lost them.
“What were those things? G—they sort of looked like—Goblins? No way. This has to be a dream, but my arm hurts too bad for it to be a dream.”
That was her paradox. There was no way this was happening. Everything felt real, from the pain to the aching in her feet and tickling in her throat from the dust hanging in the air. However—this was surreal.
“What is this place? An inn? Really, an inn?”
Now that she looked around, it was clear that a lot of things were wrong. Erin had been in old-fashioned buildings, even to renaissance fairs, but this—this was the real thing.
There was no glass on the shuttered windows. She couldn’t see evidence of plastic or anything beyond simple wood or metal fixtures. There was no overhead lighting—and yet it was still very much the common room of an inn.
The tables and chairs might be covered with dust and spiderwebs—without any spiders it had to be said—but there was a bar against the far wall and a staircase leading up. A single room seemed to lead off to another part of the inn, but most of the building was just this vast central space.
It should have been lively, Erin felt. She looked at the bar and imagined someone behind it, polishing a mug and serving a lovely cold drink of—
Erin’s longing sigh was accompanied by a third fit of coughing so long that she actually stumbled over to the door where it was pouring rain to gulp for air.
The dust! Her third assailant in this world was trying to kill her! Eyes streaming, Erin gulped for air. It was like she was breathing the stuff. She wiped at her face, coughed one more time, sneezed, then glared back at the inn.
“This place is going to kill me! I’m going to choke to death before the rain stops. Someone should clean it up!”
She looked around.
“…And I guess that someone is me.”
The young woman hesitated, but it was clear to her that if she tried to stay in this place for a few hours, let alone sleep the night, she’d probably attract every monster in ten miles by her coughing alone if she didn’t suffocate in her sleep. She thought out loud, glancing around.
“Besides, this would make for a great place to explore from and it’s got walls. I’m not going to find anything better, I bet. Then I…”
Her voice trailed off. Erin looked around and felt the unbelievable nature of what had happened building on her.
Do what? Where am I? What happened?
She fought off the wave of panic threatening to engulf her. No—she couldn’t panic. She couldn’t—Erin glanced at the pouring rain. It was muffling anything from outside, but she clamped her mouth shut.
She couldn’t scream. It was conceivable something could hear her through the downpour.
Don’t scream, don’t panic. Think. She wasn’t running for her life. She had to think. So the young woman forced herself to sit down at a table. She faced it, squared her shoulders, and adopted something like a reasonable posture.
“First things first. I should stay here. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know if this inn is safe—but it’s dusty. It’s got walls. So I explore. Also, I find something to clean all this stuff up with. I don’t want to use my shirt. Seems like a bad move, but I can’t breathe here without…okay. First steps. Pawn to E4. Pawn to C5. Sicilian Defense. Here we go.”
And with that, she got up and began to explore the inn. The first thing Erin actually did, before even venturing into other rooms, was check her pockets.
Most people went into their adventures well-equipped or with some nifty object that gave them an edge. Erin checked her pockets and found…nothing. If she’d known she was going to end up in this place, she would have brought along a backpack crammed full of essentials. And a gun. To fight off the little green men and the Dragon.
But she hadn’t planned this, and unfortunately, hadn’t even taken a phone. She’d been going to the bathroom!
Erin’s forehead wrinkled as she circumnavigated the common room first, checking the tables and chairs for something, anything. All she found was more dust.
It had been so fast. All she’d done was step into the bathroom and she’d been somewhere else. No flash of light, no wardrobe—did bathrooms count?
Apparently so, but it had been so sudden she felt like she’d been wronged, somehow. No mysterious voices, just bathroom teleportation. How?
Virtual reality? Very virtual if so, but it felt too real. No. Then—she was crazy?
Erin hoped not. However, the Goblins and Dragon made her feel there was only one reasonable, unreasonable explanation.
Magic. This was some kind of fantasy-land. Which meant she probably needed a sword or a wand. Or a magic sword.
But it became clear to her that the first thing that Erin needed was…a dustrag. And that became her first mission in this world. Get a dustrag and clean yourself a spot to sit.
It was proving to be a harder challenge than anticipated. There was nothing in the common room, even behind the bar, aside from a line of very dusty mugs. Erin hesitated before the door adjoining the bar and poked her head inside.
She found a kitchen. The young woman blinked around and saw a semi-familiar sight. It was a kitchen alright; it had cutting boards built into the counters, a bunch of cupboards, and even a stove—but a stone stove with a hatch to build a fire, nothing gas or electric.
The same for the ovens; she saw a giant, old-fashioned baker’s oven that led up to a presumed chimney. Here, at least, there were actual objects. A pot, cast-iron pan, and a few other utensils, including the world’s rustiest ladle, were all lying next to…
Erin found a bucket. It was not a dustrag, but you needed water to clean things, right? And she happened to have a fresh supply coming down right outside.
She grabbed the bucket and towed it outside to fill up. Then, encouraged, Erin went back to her dustrag hunt. She began opening cupboards in the kitchen, but just found plates, old utensils, what might have been more dust or disintegrated food—
Nothing cloth at all.
Erin gave up on her cupboard search and left the rest for later. Did you store dustrags in the kitchen? Maybe with towels, but she needed a pantry. She scoped out the rest of the ground floor but found nothing so handy.
Well, that only left upstairs.
It was a very dark stairwell that looked down on Erin as she put her first foot on the stairs. The young woman looked up and gulped. Due to the size of the ground floor, the second floor was quite high up, and the staircase was…ominous, to say the least. It looked like the bones of some gigantic monster in the darkness.
Cautiously, Erin ascended the staircase. It seemed as though every second stair creaked or groaned loudly as she placed her weight upon it, and the sounds echoed in the dark inn. To Erin, it felt like she was stepping on landmines—each time she heard a loud creak, her heart sped up and her heart caught in her throat.
“Come on. Come on. You can do this.”
Erin whispered to herself, keeping her voice low so as not to—to wake up anything that might be up there. At that thought her heart skipped another beat, and she paused halfway up the stairwell, shaking slightly.
“This is stupid. There’s nothing up there. Nothing!”
“Okay, maybe there is something. I don’t know. There could be—more of those Goblins? But there’s probably not a Dragon, right? Right! Don’t be stupid.”
Hesitation. Another step.
“But a Dragon could be up there.”
Erin took a step back down. The stairs creaked. She scolded herself as her heart thumped painfully.
“Don’t be stupid. How would a Dragon fit up there? But Goblins?”
With a small laugh, Erin gazed upwards. The darkness on the second floor waited for her. Long shadows made the chipped and faded wood ominous. But it was just an illusion, a trick of the mind. She knew there was probably nothing up there. If there were, wouldn’t it have tried to eat her already?
But this was a different kind of fear that held her heart. It was the fear of children, the fear of the dark and the unknown. So, Erin hesitated. But she knew she had to climb.
After a minute, she began talking to herself quietly.
“Dustrag. Dustrag, dustrag, dustrag…”
Erin muttered the word like a mantra. Somehow the thought that she absolutely needed to find one gave her the strength to continue climbing the stairs.
One step. That was the hardest. Then two steps. Erin’s heart jumped as the stairs creaked underneath her, but nothing terrible happened. So she kept climbing.
However, if the sketchy staircase was the first hurdle of the mind, the empty corridor full of shadows and darkness was an entirely new level of intimidation.
It was so dark. Even when her eyes adjusted, Erin could barely see five feet in front of her. But having come this far, she was committed. So she kept going with her heart pounding out of her chest.
“Dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag, dustrag…”
The first room she came to was very, very dark. Erin crept inside and froze as she heard a sound. Was that…rustling?
No. No, it was just her imagination. She could hear the storm passing outside with the rain making a racket on the roof overhead. The wind was blowing against the inn, that was all. It was probably just a leaf—
That was definitely a sound. Erin’s heart was playing the drums in her chest. There was something in the room with her, and she really hoped for once that it was just a rat. Something—it sounded almost leathery, like two wings unfurling…
In the distance, thunder rolled and a gust of wind blew hard against the inn. Something pale and white unfurled itself in the darkness and flew at Erin. She screamed, flailed wildly at the thing, and crashed to the ground with it in her arms.
For a minute, all was confusion and noise. Erin fought wildly against the monster attacking her as rain started pelting her face and it wrapped itself around her arms and head. She eventually threw it off her and scrambled to her feet to find the terrifying creature was—
For a few seconds, Erin just stared at the faded fabric in her hands in complete shock. Once her heart had decided to stop running a marathon she exhaled.
She picked up the pale bit of fabric and studied it. Well, it was a curtain. That was about the extent of her detective skills. It was a white curtain—or at least it had been white a long time ago. Mildew and dirt had turned it grey, but at least it was fabric.
Erin’s heart was still racing far too fast. She looked around. The room was still very dark, and the wind coming in from outside was making the windows shudder in a very eerie manner.
Erin closed the window. That stopped the noise, at least. But it was still way too dark to make out many details. Now, she could keep exploring the second floor. Or, having found a dustrag, she could go back down to the bottom floor. The comforting, familiar, dusty ground floor.
The room was very dark. Erin took another look around and quickly went back downstairs. She tossed the curtain on one of the tables next to the bucket she’d found and looked around.
“Let’s see. Where should I start, then?”
Really, the better question was where not to start. Aside from the walls, everything was covered by a thick layer of dust. In the end, Erin started with the table she’d sat at.
The wet curtain…rag raised a cloud of dust into the air, making Erin stumble away, coughing and hacking. But the actual task of cleaning was in fact very easy.
Erin took the dustrag, dropped it in the bucket of water, then slapped it over one table. The dull sound made her jump and look around, but nothing moved, so she took hold of the dustrag, dragged it along the table, and took all the dust and pushed it onto the floor.
Then she did another pass until she could see the wood grain beneath, a dark brown now that night was falling, and squeezed the cloth and dipped it in the bucket once more.
One dip turned the water dark grey, but rain meant that Erin had a lot of free water. Ironically, all the dust meant that she felt like a few passes of the dustrag and the table was mostly clean, if wet.
“Table’s done! That just leaves—um…”
Erin looked around and began to count the tables—and chairs—and floor—then decided to just clear one more table so maybe she could sleep on top. And maybe a few chairs. And since it was going fast and the rain wasn’t letting up, why not do all the tables?
Every time her bucket got so disgusting that it made the rag filthier than when it came in, Erin opened the door of the inn, tossed the water out and sat back in one of the chairs until the bucket had filled up again. Then she started cleaning once more.
There was a rhythm to it. In no time at all, Erin had cleaned the tables, so she decided to clean all the chairs as well. And once she’d finished with that, it only made sense to clean the bar top as well.
The long counter was made of some kind of high-quality wood. Erin admired the way the faint light from outside made the rich wood glow after removing the dust. The bar was long enough to accommodate at least twenty people at a time…or fifteen if they were picky about elbow room.
That done, Erin cleaned the barkeep’s shelf below the bar and the other surfaces in the common room. When she was finished, the inn seemed far warmer than it had before as the newly-clean surfaces reflected the fading light from outside.
However, there was one place that Erin had avoided the entire time. Namely, the floor.
It was only natural. Erin had nothing like a mop, and she’d been pushing all the dust onto the floor the entire time. As such, huge piles of wet dust clumped together everywhere. Erin kicked at a pile and shrugged.
“Well, when you compare it with the tables and chairs…”
She could only laugh at her strange results. Clean tables, dirty floor. You could eat your dinner off the tables, at least. And who cared about floors? Floors were for stepping on, not sleeping. Erin wiped at her forehead and found she was covered with a layer of sweat. And—was it nightfall already?
Yes, sometime in her cleaning efforts the rain had ceased and the visible light had decreased until the inn was nearly pitch dark. Now, instead of everything being a mass of shadows, there was nothing to see at all.
“So it’s not scary, but terrifying. Great.”
At least the ground floor was reassuring. Erin looked around the room, her eyes spotting the moonlight reflected off the smooth tabletops and chairs. Yes, this room did feel a bit better. She’d cleaned it and thus made it hers, in a way. That made it safe. At least, she really hoped that was the case.
Erin sat back down in a chair and found she was exhausted. She leaned back against the table and sighed. If ever she needed proof that she was terrible in a survival situation, this would be it. Here she was, lost in a terrifying world without a clue where she was, and what was her first move? Clean the room.
“At least Mom would be happy.”
Erin laughed to herself. She closed her eyes, overcome by exhaustion. Time to rest. Maybe tomorrow everything would be better. Maybe this was all just a dream. Probably not, but…
Her eyelids lowered. Her breathing grew slower. Erin just had enough consciousness for one last thought.
“Now I’m really, really hungry.”
[Innkeeper Class Obtained!]
[Innkeeper Level 1!]
[Skill – Basic Cleaning obtained!]
[Skill – Basic Cooking obtained!]
In the darkness, the girl cracked one eye open. She looked around and then sat up.
“…What was that?”
Author’s Notes: Short break from me to give feedback on the process. Again, partly so I understand my problems.
I did a bigger re-write of 1.00, mostly in my words, and I had mixed feelings. It’s not…the worst? I’m fighting nostalgia here. Really, what I knew was definitively, 100% better was the descriptions.
1.01, as you may notice, I just left entire sections in. Because I don’t think they’re the worst. At least, and this is important, if Erin is doing the exact same things. That’s my quandary when I’ve tried to do this before. If I’m going down the exact same paths, it’s not a problem to keep a lot of what was there.
We’re at 5k already, well, including my Author’s Notes, and it’s still tough to figure out how to improve in a substantive way. I have a few ideas to add in new things because that’s a clear change, but I’m as of yet waiting for the hugely terrible writing I know I must fix. Hmm.
Too hard. Let’s keep going.
The inn was dark. That was because the world was dark, at least for the moment. Two moons hung in the sky, one light blue, the other pale yellow. But their soft light was obscured by a shifting layer of clouds overhead. Thus, light was scarce. Which made sense.
It was nighttime.
However, despite the late hour, one figure moved restlessly around the room. A young woman. Her progress left a trail in the dust as she walked. She paced from wall to wall, muttering to herself. Then she tripped over a chair.
Erin brushed dust off her pants and t-shirt in disgust. Well, her clothes were officially dirty now. Parts of her t-shirt were burned black, and her jeans had been cut by the Goblin’s knives. But that wasn’t important at the moment.
“Did I just level up?”
Erin stared up at the ceiling from her fallen position. She could have stood up, but that would have required effort. And besides, Erin was hungry, tired, and confused. Lying on the floor made her feel better. Even if the dust was getting in her hair.
Ordinarily, that would have been disgusting, but at the moment—
“Seriously? I leveled up? What is this, a game?”
Slowly, Erin pulled herself up into a squat. Then she put her head in her hands.
“No. No it can’t be. But a—a Dragon and Goblins and now leveling…this is another world, right? One like Dungeons and Dragons? Or—or a video game?”
She straightened and stood up. The world seemed to be spinning around her. Common sense? Who needed that? Nope. Just hand her a few fire breathing Dragons and let her level up by cleaning tables. That made sense.
“Right, right. Let’s recap. I’m in another world which is actually a video game. And there are monsters in this world and I can level up by doing stuff. I even get skills, and when I do, a voice in my head—no, more like a thought appears that tells me I’ve accomplished a task.”
She nodded to herself.
“Yep. Makes complete sense…”
Her voice trailed off. Erin’s head lowered and then snapped back up.
“Like hell it does!”
Erin screamed and kicked a chair hard enough to send it flying into the air. The chair landed with a tremendous crash, which was satisfying to hear. Less satisfying though was Erin’s foot, which had hit the chair hard enough to jam every toe.
After screaming in pain and hopping around a bit, Erin sat at one of the tables and cried for a while. It wasn’t that she liked crying or did it a lot. It just helped at the moment.
After about ten minutes of crying, Erin finally started sniffing and choking back tears. She felt better, but quickly hit upon another problem when she went to wipe away her tears and snot and remembered there wasn’t any tissue paper nearby. So she used the rag.
The wet, disgusting rag. But it was better than her shirt. And after that, Erin sat, staring at nothing in particular as the darkness surrounded her.
That was the last thing Erin said before she fell asleep. This time, there were no interruptions.
The next day hit Erin in the face. She groaned and sat up, head aching. Her neck felt twisted, and she was sore from lying on the floor. She still would have slept in longer if it weren’t for the sun and her stomach.
Hobbling around, Erin looked at the bright daylight streaming through one window. She shook her fist at the sunny opening in the wall and glared.
“This is why drapes were invented, you know.”
The window did not respond. Erin sighed. She was already talking to objects. Which was fine! She often cursed her invisible opponents when playing chess on the computer. Or talked to the chess pieces. She’d know she was insane if the window started speaking back.
Windows. These ones had no glass or curtains. They were square holes in the wall, but they did have shutters. Too bad Erin had chosen one of the open windows to nap underneath.
Without thinking, Erin’s hands went up to her head and came back full of dirt and dust. Oh, right. She’d slept on the floor. The dirty floor where all the dust had gone.
Erin sat in a chair and buried her face in her hands. After a little while, her stomach growled louder.
“Got it. Message received.”
Groaning, the young woman eventually stood up. She stood, feeling her body protest the natural law of gravity, and sat down. That felt better, but then her stomach objected. Hunger and exhaustion warred, and hunger won out.
Erin got up, knowing she had to look for food. There wasn’t any in the inn; she hadn’t bothered checking the rest of the cupboards because why should she? Any food that had been around since the inn had been deserted was probably sentient and had legs by now.
So that only left the outside. But Erin hesitated as she put her hand on the door to the inn.
She shivered. The memory of yesterday returned, fresh and vivid, and her hands began to shake. Her burned arm flared in pain as the cuts on her legs itched and stung. Erin closed her eyes and took a breath. Yes, monsters. But—
“I’ll die here if I don’t find something to eat.”
So she opened the door. It wasn’t courage that made her do it; just the will to survive.
The day was so bright that Erin was blinded for a moment. She walked outside, shading her eyes. And then she stopped. Because a thought had struck her suddenly. Something she had realized but not taken to heart before.
“This—really is another world, isn’t it?”
It wasn’t the Goblins that convinced her. Or even the Dragon. You could imagine that, even if the burns and cuts still throbbed. People imagined aliens all the time. But what couldn’t be imagined, or, Erin thought, even faked, was this:
The clouds were too big. Erin Solstice looked up into the sky and realized it wasn’t just the clouds. The sky was too vast.
The sunlight was coming from beyond that incredible mountain range she had seen, and even now, it had to fight through clouds surrounding those invisible peaks. The sky was so blue it hurt her soul, the kinds of beautiful colors that made her feel like it was a day to be remembered. Yet up, as she craned her head back, she could see clouds, even tiny, pinwheeling birds she couldn’t make out.
But the clouds were just too darn big. It wasn’t something Erin could explain, because she knew clouds were already vast. She had spent hours lying on her back gazing up at the way a single one had so much depth to it, like a floating island in the sky.
These, though…Erin looked at a cloud floating overhead and realized it covered the entire grasslands, the entire basin she stood in, countless miles and the inn in one vast shadow. It was so high overhead she couldn’t understand it. She had seen airplanes flying through the sky, and she was certain that the highest ones she’d ever seen would be flying far below this single cloud.
It was larger than the entire plains. It was larger than the inn, a thousand times, ten thousand—a hundred thousand times over. Erin had visited Chicago, one of America’s biggest cities, and seen it sprawling from both the ground and from planes. You could fit that entire city up there and have more room still.
Erin’s knees shook as she looked up at a cloud the size of an island blowing through the sky. One second the world turned dark and she thought an entire world could be up there, hidden in that beautiful cloud, grey and white blowing across the world.
Then it passed, and the sun shone down on her and warmed her skin, and Erin knew. She looked around and began breathing again.
Presently, Erin came back down to earth and she realized there was some trickery going on on the ground as well as the sky.
For instance, all those hills and valleys? Only now did she realize what an optical illusion they created. From one of the tallest hills, she could finally identify how difficult it would be to see anything from down below.
“It’s all hills and valleys! No wonder I couldn’t find anything last night!”
If you walked carelessly, you could lose track of your surroundings and find yourself in a valley thousands of feet wide. And it was all mostly uniform, only a few flowers and rocks breaking up the tyranny of grass.
However, not green. Erin had to believe it was autumn, here. It had not been in her world—to her knowledge, it should have been around the end of July, or August at the latest. However, the grasslands were not the green she expected.
Instead, the grass was slowly changing color in places, moving from green to orange and even into purple in places. It was yellow running into dusky red, in wavy patterns, like bands of color appearing over the landscape.
It was beautiful, and perhaps, the first thing to make Erin smile in this world. And it was also a landmark.
The plains stretched on and on without pause, which meant that you could easily lose track of where you were. But if she knew that following that band of orange led her close to this inn…
“Just so long as the grass doesn’t change color overnight, I might have a shot. Looks like it goes purple-orange-yellow and runs right next to the inn. So I can follow that back! Follow the purple-orange-yellow grass road!”
She laughed with relief. No fear of forgetting that particular pattern of colors, either. There were very similar swathes all around her, but she had a good memory. That was to say, she’d forget what day it was and if she was wearing socks, but she didn’t forget what really mattered. Like chess moves. Or this, she hoped.
Then Erin realized she could see something else from her vantage point.
Erin stopped as she started to pick out small details on the horizon. Far, far in the distance between the mountain range and the rising sun she saw what looked vaguely like buildings. No, a wall of stone? Was there a town out there? Or a village? A…city?
It was impossible to tell from where she was standing, but the sight of that gave Erin hope that she wasn’t alone in this world. However, just the thought of travelling that far on her empty stomach was impossible, so she kept looking. The next thing that caught her eye made her heart pound with excitement.
Erin squinted. There was a small collection of trees in the distance, nestled in one of the valleys. They were trees, weren’t they? Erin felt they looked off—until she realized she was looking down at them from her vantage point.
It was surreal to feel herself looking down on a forest, but that was the only answer she could think of. It looked like there was a small—well, relatively speaking—valley to the east filled with trees. It didn’t seem too far away, and if Erin looked closely, she could see small specks of yellow and blue on the trees. Fruits?
There was only one way to find out. And so she began to walk in that direction, her legs and stomach overriding her cautious brain. She needed food. It wasn’t hard to walk down the gently sloping hills, and although it was less fun to walk back up the hills, at least Erin could do all of it at a meandering walk. The grass was soft under her shoes, and she had good footing. It was…peaceful. Deceptively peaceful.
In the back of her mind, Erin remembered the Goblins. Okay, maybe they weren’t Goblins, but what else could they be? They were strange, deformed children that looked like twisted versions of humans with sharp noses, sharp teeth, little knives and—
They were Goblins. And Erin remembered that they’d found her as she was running, singed and bewildered, from the Dragon.
She almost went back to the inn, but she needed food. If worst came to worst, Erin reasoned that she could grab some of the fruit things and run back to the inn.
That was the plan. It was the plan right up until Erin found herself walking by a huge rock.
There was nothing too important about the rock, except that it was more like a boulder, a gigantic mound of stone rounded at the top and like a small hill. It was twice as tall as a normal person and just as long across. In short, it was a big rock.
However, if Erin had thought about it, she might have wondered why a giant rock was right here. Suspiciously free of any other small stones, and far less craggy and worn down than she might expect. Moss did cling to it in parts, but it was oddly free of any lichen near the base. But she didn’t think on such small details.
Erin ignored the rock completely, only stopping to wonder if it would provide her an even better vantage point to see around her if she climbed up. But she was hungry, so she walked right past it. It was that which saved her.
As she put the large boulder behind her, Erin felt the whoosh of air and a terrifying loud crack right next to her ear. She jumped, turned around, and screamed. She dove forwards as the second pincer nearly took her head clean off.
The thing that had been hiding underneath the rock lifted it up off the ground and scurried after Erin as she sprinted away. She spared only one glance over her shoulder, but that was enough. She ran even faster.
Two large, long pincers made out of a dark brown chitin were poking out from beneath the rock as the crab-monster scuttled towards her. It had lifted the gigantic, hollow shell enough so that Erin could see countless tiny crab legs tearing up the earth as it propelled itself along the ground.
It was a crab, but it was all wrong. Two long, curved eye-stalks had appeared and the rocky shell was just high enough for her to see all the little legs scurrying forwards—and the giant pincers snapping and trying to tear her to bits. Oh—and it was also taller than a school bus, if not as wide.
Erin didn’t scream as she ran. She couldn’t waste her breath. All the air in her body was devoted to keeping her running as fast as she could as she charged downhill.
Something huge missed Erin’s back, but she felt the wind as it passed by. She sped up even faster, but it sounded like it was right behind her. The giant crab was making a sound as it ran after her too, a loud clicking that sounded like gunshots going off next to Erin’s head.
So she ran faster. She thought she would be dead every next second, but she realized that the loud sounds of pursuit were dying down. Eventually, the clicking stopped, and Erin realized she couldn’t hear anything behind her. She stopped and turned to see a rock with many legs slowly moving back across the plains.
Erin could only gasp and clutch at her side. She felt like her legs were about to fall off, and her lungs were about to burst. She was also lightheaded, but she really didn’t want to sit down.
Instead, she forced herself to keep walking. It hurt. Everything hurt. But she was still alive, crabs or no crabs.
Erin tried to smile. Her legs ached, but eventually she got her breathing back under control. And even better, she was at her destination.
“Is—is that a tree?”
Erin gaped up at the strange plants before her. They were probably trees. They had bark, leaves, and fruit. But in each aspect, they were slightly—off.
The tree in front of her was thin beyond belief. It was about ten feet tall, which wasn’t very high for a tree, but the trunk was thinner than she was! And the branches were as thin as Erin’s arms and tapered off to fine points that still held leaves and, apparently, didn’t snap in the wind.
The leaves were huge, too. Big, green leaves closer to palm leaves than ones Erin might expect. However, they had that classic leaf shape, not like a maple, and they seemed thick.
Given such trees, Erin would have expected to find a bunch of branches from the decent breeze and rainfall of last night. She was used to seeing downed branches from trees in her neighborhood after big rainstorms, but to her vague surprise, she saw almost no leaves on the ground, or branches. Or fruit.
“Weird. Grey bark, green leaves, blue fruit. Who dropped the paint bucket on this thing? And why is it so…tough?”
She had gone to snap off a low-hanging branch, but found that she could barely bend the thin branch, even when she held on with all her weight.
The trees were as strong as could be! And what interested Erin more than the aesthetics was the edibility of the fruit. And the reachability.
Most of the blue fruits on each of the trees were clustered around the top branches. There were yellow fruits lower down, but since they were smaller, they were probably also unripe. Hesitantly, Erin grabbed a branch, and after testing her weight on it a few times, tried to pull herself up.
Her arms shook as she strained to get off the ground. After a few seconds, Erin got her chin above the branch, but no further. After another second, she had to let go.
Erin landed on the ground and stared up at the tantalizing blue fruits, just out of reach. If she weren’t so hungry and tired…she’d still probably never get up that high.
“Is this how I die? Starving to death because I can’t do a pull-up?”
No. That was stupid. But the more Erin thought about it…
Erin jumped and managed to pull herself halfway up the first branch through sheer desperation. But her arms gave out, and she fell on her back with a whumph that knocked the air out of her.
Erin’s shouts of frustration echoed in the small valley. She tried to grab the branch again, but she couldn’t even pull herself up anymore. She screamed in frustration, grabbed at her dirty hair, and then kicked the tree.
The entire tree shook slightly with the force of Erin’s kick. The leaves trembled, and the blue fruits moved—
And one fell to the ground.
Erin stared at the round, slightly fuzzy blue fruit. Then she looked up at the tree. Without a word, she grabbed the fruit. Then she looked around expectantly.
“Um, shouldn’t there be some kind of announcement?”
No response. Erin kicked the tree again and picked up another fruit.
“[Mysterious Blue Fruit acquired!] Dun dun dun dun!”
After a little bit, Erin put her head in her hands to cover her blushing face.
“…I hate this world.”
Once she was done, Erin looked at the fruit in her hands. There wasn’t much to see. It was blue, it was probably a fruit, and it was pretty large. Erin had seen monster apples before in stores, the weirdly expensive ones that were three times as big as their smaller cousins. That was about the size of the blue fruit.
Her stomach rumbled just looking at it. Erin raised the fruit to her mouth, then hesitated.
“…Am I going to die?”
It was a good question. Erin studied the fruit in her hand. She sniffed it cautiously. It smelled faintly…sweet. She poked it. Tender. Probably succulent. Then she licked the outside.
Maybe it would be better to peel it after all. Maybe it was actually some kind of alien monster she was holding and if she bit it she’d be eating a mouthful of guts and blood. That thought made Erin hesitate for a few minutes before she started peeling it away.
“It’s like a peach. Not a monster, not a monster…”
Erin peeled off the outer layer of blue fruit and found the inside of the blue fruit was a purplish-blue. The juice ran to the ground and smelled…Erin’s stomach grumbled, but she’d found something else that caught her attention.
“That is the biggest seed I’ve ever seen. There’s more seed here than fruit!”
Erin held up the core of the blue fruit, which was indeed a seed core two-thirds the size of the blue fruit itself. The shell was a stained purple-brown, but Erin felt something sloshing about inside when she shook it.
“Okay, time to see what’s inside.”
She’d need a rock for that. Erin transferred the seed core to her other hand and stood up. As she did, she squeezed the core gently.
Fragile. The brown shell split open and disgorged a mess of pulpy seeds and brown juice onto Erin’s pants and the ground. She stared at the mess in silence until the pungent odor hit her nose—an incredibly chemical smell similar to antifreeze or some kind of cleaning product.
Slowly, Erin stood up and brushed the seed vomit off her clothes. That did nothing to get rid of the smell, though. Then she picked up the pieces of the seed’s core and hurled them as hard as she could against one of the trees.
“I hate this world!”
After a while, her stomach began to growl again as the smell from the seed pod dissipated in the morning air. Hesitantly, Erin grabbed the second blue fruit and brought it to her lips. She had taken care to not get any of the seed pod’s innards on her hands, and she wasn’t about to eat the first fruit.
She didn’t know much about herb lore or good fruits or bad ones, but just the smell of the seed core’s innards had convinced Erin it was unwise to try to digest. The actual fruit on the other hand…
This time she bit into the outer skin and chewed. The texture was unpleasantly rubbery and tough to chew, but thankfully it was edible. And what was more—
The pure, sugary taste that rushed into Erin’s mouth put her in mind of blueberries. Only—the blue fruit was a bit tougher, and so maybe a strawberry? A strawberry that someone sprinkled sugar on and had the taste of blueberries. In short—
“Wow. This tastes really good!”
That was the remark Erin made after she’d consumed eight more of the blue fruits, all in rapid succession. The seed pods she left untouched on the ground, but she happily devoured the outer rinds, stripping an entire tree clean before she was finally full.
Groaning with satisfaction, she sat back against the tree. She felt good. Sticky, smelly, true, but good. The day was fair and warm, and with her stomach full and the soft grass beneath her, there was only one thought on her mind.
Maybe it was something in the fruits that triggered it, or maybe it was just long overdue. Either way, Erin was suddenly, keenly aware of a certain need pressing at her. Erin sighed and stood back up.
“Nature calls. I hate nature.”
She walked behind the nearest tree and then around it. There wasn’t much…cover here, but she really had to go.
“Well, what am I hiding from anyways?”
Erin thought about that for a moment then deliberately edged around the trunk until the sun was out of view. That made her feel better.
A few seconds later, Erin felt refreshed and happy. Her stomach was full, other parts were empty, and best yet, she was alive.
“Now, how am I going to get back past that crab rock-monster?”
Erin’s stomach twisted unpleasantly at the thought, and her heart began to pound in her chest. But an idea struck her as she looked at the countless seed pods on the ground.
The large, duplicitous rock seemed more and more out of place the more Erin looked at it. If she’d been able to think past her hunger before, she’d have wondered how such a large stone made it all the way to the grasslands without being eroded by the elements. Well, that stupid crab-creature was clearly one of the predators in this world.
And it was quick. Erin didn’t want to run away again, so she really hoped this plan of hers would work. Did crabs have noses? Probably not, but she really hoped they could still smell.
Slowly, Erin walked forward. The rock remained motionless. Well, that was fine.
Erin picked up a small stone and hurled it at the rock. It bounced off.
She waited. The rock didn’t shift so much as an inch.
Erin picked up another, larger stone and threw it against the rock. She wasn’t a good shot, so the rock glanced off the side. Again, there was no response.
“Uh, is…is this the right rock?”
Erin looked around. No other suspicious large rocks in sight. But it wasn’t doing anything.
“Get closer…no, that’s stupid.”
She eyed the rock again. Well, if it wasn’t going to move…
Erin turned away. She’d circle around. Far around. She began walking away.
It was such a small sound. But it made her freeze and then whirl around.
Erin caught the rock-crab crawling towards her stealthily. In just a few seconds, it had covered nearly twenty feet. She stared in horror as it reared upwards.
The rock-crab began its high-speed shuffle towards her. Two enormous claws and a pair of dark eyes curled up from underneath the rock again.
Erin stepped back, half-turned to run, and remembered what was in her other hand. She took swift aim and threw the seed pod she had been holding.
Bullseye. The seed core smacked the rock-crab right in the antenna and burst into a shower of pulpy liquid. Even at this range, Erin could smell the toxic odors on the breeze.
If she were honest, Erin didn’t know what she expected. Pain or shock from the rock-crab, maybe. She’d nailed it pretty good on the antenna, and she was sure that had to hurt. But still, it wasn’t as if the seed cores were that heavy. She expected the crab to recoil and maybe get scared off by the scent at best.
What she didn’t expect was for the crab to freak out and start smashing itself with one of its claws. It was panicking, frantically scraping away at the spot she’d struck it with the seed core, ignoring the damage it was doing to its own antennae. At the same time, the rock-crab was making distressed sounds.
It sounded like the loudest cricket in the world, only a lot deeper and echoing out from beneath the rocky shell the crab was wearing. That was enough to make Erin back up until she was back among the trees and the crab was barely visible.
Even after she’d gone a ways she could still see the crab doing an unhappy dance as it tried to scrape off the seed pod fragments.
Erin scratched her head.
“Well, it’s good to know they hate fruit.”
Speaking of which…Erin decided to get more of the delicious blue fruits. As many as she could carry, in fact. Blue was now the color of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and she only wished she had more hands. Could she make a basket somehow…? Out of grass?
She kicked at a tuft of the stuff.
“…That’s a stupid idea.”
How about her shirt then, or pants? But that was a bit…well, there was no one around to see her except the rock-crabs, right? Even so.
“Too bad I’m not a streaker, huh?”
Erin addressed that comment to a nearby patch of grass. The grass said nothing in reply.
With a sigh, Erin walked away. She slowly crested a small hill and found herself looking down on the fruit orchard once more.
She also found herself looking at several short, green creatures that had appeared in her absence. They were kicking trees and harvesting the blue fruits that fell to the ground.
They were instantly familiar to her, of course, but the transfixed Human got a good look at them again. They were short; four feet tall at most, possibly even shorter. Almost like children, although their heads were too big.
That was because of all the teeth. But they wore ragged loincloths and were grunting and poking one another. Erin saw pointed ears, scabs from some healing wounds, and as one glanced up and saw her and froze—she saw two crimson, glowing eyes.
For a few seconds, they didn’t see her. Then one of them looked up and saw the slack-jawed human staring their way. He made a shrill noise, and the others looked around.
The nearest creature took a step towards her. It looked harmless. For a moment. Then it bared its incredibly sharp teeth and drew a knife. Its friends did likewise. They advanced on the young woman.
The young woman, for her part, stared in horror for two more seconds and then pointed one finger. She opened her mouth and screamed.
The green skinned monsters stopped and stared as the young woman screamed and took off, running at top speed. But they followed her doggedly despite the insane speed at which she sprinted. These Goblins had learned to hunt other species and knew that Humans panicked easily and grew tired. They’d catch her as soon as she slowed down.
…Assuming she ever slowed down.
It was evening. The sun cast long shadows across the plains. All was silent. Aside from the screaming rock-crab smashing itself in the head and the screaming human, there was no sound in the world.
All was calm.
A single figure sprinted across the grasslands. She was running as fast as she could. Behind her a group of squat creatures followed. It was nearly dinnertime.
Erin Solstice, aged 20. A young woman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a casual interest in video games and a deep obsession with strategy games. Her hobbies include snow tubing, watching Youtube videos, playing chess, shogi, go, etc. She dreams of one day becoming a professional board game commentator.
Running for her life.
He woke up with a scream, which was hugely embarrassing. When he inevitably met his end, the Dragon had resolved himself to go out with dignity befitting his nature.
He’d even come up with a speech and forgotten where he’d put it. Screaming in front of the adventurer or hero was not how he wanted to die.
But he couldn’t help it. The sight of someone appearing in front of him? For a second, he’d opened his eyes and thought he was dreaming or…remembering.
Then the Dragon had realized the young woman was indeed real, and she had entered his cave without setting off any of the hundreds, literal hundreds, of protective spells supposed to warn him or buy him a moment’s time.
Of course, in the next moment all hundred had begun screaming in his ears that his lair was compromised and he was about to die.
So yes, he’d screamed. Maybe exhaled a bit of flame in surprise; if he’d been truly in control of his faculties, the first thing he would have done would be to blow pure dragonfire at any intruder in the vague hope it would work.
It often did. However, in this case, it had been more like…an exhalation of the noblest of gasses in surprise. A tiny tongue of flame which obviously hadn’t been aimed at the young woman as he tried to crawl to safety and fly at the same time, while also activating his emergency teleportation spell. Then he’d crashed into a wall, and by the time he picked himself up, she was gone.
An advance scout? Possibly a sacrificial decoy. The Dragon knew he was dead in moments if his foes were cunning.
Who was it? That Necromancer? One of his kin? [Knights]? A random [Hero]?
He had no idea. But the Dragon hadn’t wasted time figuring it out. He’d activated his teleport spell and been gone from his lair in moments.
At least he’d remembered that. His backup location was far less convenient and arguably far more dangerous—for most people. But as his wealth, his hoard of treasures showered down around him, the Dragon looked around and realized he wasn’t being pursued.
Not that he didn’t spend the next two days checking every magical channel and re-fortifying his new cave. He didn’t get a wink of sleep. Worse, she picked up his contingency [Message] and sent him a dozen questions by spell, asking if he were alright and what had happened.
“Just a coincidence? An accident? I don’t know, and I didn’t get anything to latch onto. Whoever it is, they’re gone. I—I shall be watchful.”
The Dragon snapped back and continued checking for signs of pursuit. But when none were apparent, even two weeks later, he had to then wonder if it had been an accident.
An accident that carried someone into his cave? Maybe some magical…disturbance at the Academy? There were stranger things that had happened. When he replayed his memories, she seemed as surprised as he.
Naturally, he didn’t put anything to chance and continued fortifying and getting accustomed to his new hideout. He hated the location, the neighbors, and the complications for anyone visiting, but it might be safer.
“At least, from strange young women appearing out of nowhere. She had to have been the subject of—of some chance. Maybe a [Gambler] or whatnot. Otherwise I would be either dead or have been contacted by whomever it was. It cannot be Demons; they’re far too unsubtle. Who else? If it was the Quarass, I’d be dead. Djinni smell of magic. And that leaves…my kin, who wouldn’t do that.”
His brow wrinkled as he tried to figure it out. He truly had no idea. Well, he would keep checking, and if he didn’t sense any pursuit, he might put it down to the random causality of events.
Besides, he realized that there was one small, small silver lining to this entire debacle. The intrusion into his lair had woken him up, and he feared he wouldn’t sleep for another year. But until he did, he could do some housekeeping.
Glumly, the Dragon consulted his notes.
“That time again? Two hundred years already? I might as well. It’s courteous.”
He made a huge face and yawned. Distastefully, but there was such a thing as manners. Glumly, he reached out to the nearest city he could find and made a few arrangements. Then he settled back.
He was already dozing by the end of the third day. He was tired. And such obligations as he had left in life? There were very few. The only thing he had left was pride. Pride, waiting for the last young woman or whomever it was to appear. He had a speech…somewhere…
And a few social obligations to uphold. That was all. The Dragon slept once more.
Erin found a stream running idyllically down a hill a few hundred feet away from the inn. Its position and relative size meant that it was the perfect place for her to gather water or even wash herself should the need arise. All things considered, it was a windfall of a discovery.
She took three steps, leapt, cleared the stream in one jump, and hit the ground running. The stream kept flowing as she left it rapidly behind. Not once did Erin look back, although her throat was burning.
She was being chased.
By Goblins. They swarmed after her, wading through the stream despite the strong current. And though they were small, their bodies were wiry and their dirty arms muscled. And they all carried weapons.
Generally, they wore daggers or short swords, but Erin had spotted what looked like a meat cleaver on one of them. She was too busy running to get a good look, but if they were like the ones she had met yesterday, they were rusty, stained with dried blood and crusty substances, and sharp.
That, combined with the Goblin’s faces, made them terrifying. Normal Goblins were supposed to look ugly, but not dangerous. In video games, Erin had always seen them depicted as short, man-like creatures with beaky noses, pointed ears, and ugly faces. But these Goblins…
Pointy ears? Check.
Ugly face? Check.
Their noses weren’t too pointed, but they were definitely carrots compared to potatoes as noses went. But what really scared Erin were their teeth.
They had two rows of teeth. Like sharks. They had blood red eyes, like monsters in nightmares. Glowing red eyes. And they screamed as they chased her.
It didn’t sound like normal screaming. Erin was used to hearing screams, but they only came out of humans. The sound the Goblins made wasn’t a continuous sound but a kind of ululating noise that seemed to grow louder the longer they yelled.
It made Erin break out into a cold sweat, and she pumped her legs even faster to charge up the hill. She was in one of the valleys, but she knew she was headed straight for the inn. She just had to get there and, and—
That’s where they’d kill her. Erin would get to the inn, and they’d surround it, break in somehow and tear her to shreds. But what other choice did she have? None. She couldn’t run forever.
Already Erin felt like someone was twisting a knife into her side, and she was gasping for air. She was no athlete. The only reason she was still ahead of the Goblins by a good bit was because they were short. She also guessed they were letting her use up all her energy before closing in for the kill.
Erin crested the hill, stumbled, caught herself, and saw the inn’s dark brown walls only a hundred meters away. She dashed towards it, throwing all of her energy into a desperate sprint.
The Goblin’s voices had faded a bit by the time she burst through the inn’s doorway and slammed it shut. But she knew they were only minutes away at best, so Erin stood up despite the agony in her chest and legs.
The door had a metal bar that could be slid to prevent it from being opened. Erin did that and then looked around. Windows. The common room had so many windows.
“Oh, you’ve got to be—”
She didn’t waste time on the rest of her sentence. Erin dashed over to one window and slammed the wooden shutters closed. Then she fumbled with the latch. It was a cheap bit of metal, but it might buy her a few seconds.
Erin sped around the room, fighting to close the windows as the Goblins’ shouting grew louder and louder. She slammed shut the last window and let out a huge sigh of relief. Then she remembered that the inn had a second floor.
The mysterious darkness of the second floor that had terrified Erin the night before didn’t even slow her steps as she dashed up the stairs. She ran in and out of each room as fast as she could, closing windows. While some of the mantles had succumbed to the rot, all of the shutters were mostly intact. She’d hear if they were being smashed in, at least.
Erin ran into the room at the end of the corridor and stopped when she saw the skeleton in the last bed. But even that didn’t slow her much, and she closed the windows just in time to hear the Goblins start pounding on the door downstairs.
They didn’t get in that way. But as Erin sped down the stairs, she heard one of the shutters break. And then another.
The first Goblin squeezed through a window as Erin stood petrified. The second and third were right behind him.
Erin backed up. The first Goblin came at her as his fellows spread out behind him. There were five—no, six of them.
Her legs were shaking. Erin tried to turn over a table, but the Goblin was too quick. He lunged forward, and she fell backwards with a small scream. He laughed and jumped for her, knife swinging.
Erin rolled backwards and felt a stinging cut on her leg. She scrambled to her feet and looked down.
Blood. It came from a shallow cut on her leg. She looked back at the Goblin and saw his grinning face.
It was a similar grin. Or smile. Or expression, really. But to Erin, it was the same face. The same as a Human’s. Mocking. Confident. The kind of face young men—
He licked at the blood on his knife. Erin’s face froze. The fear that had been bubbling in her turned in an instant to anger. The Goblin didn’t notice and ran for her, still grinning.
Erin’s leg shot up. She didn’t kick. It was just a lightning-fast shot right between the legs. She could have sworn she heard something crunch.
The Goblin’s face, which had been so full of malicious glee, froze up. He turned pale, made a high-pitched keening sound, and toppled over.
The other Goblins stared in shock at their friend. Erin stared in shock too, but had the presence of mind to grab a chair before they could react. She raised it threateningly.
“Well? Come on!”
Erin swung the chair like a club. The Goblins ducked underneath it and advanced on her, swinging low.
A lucky blade slashed Erin’s leg, and she cried out in pain. Instantly, she brought the chair up and over her head and smashed the Goblin flat.
In movies, the chair would break off leaving Erin with the stumps in her hands. In reality, the impact made her hands sting, but the chair didn’t so much as creak. The Goblin, on the other hand, screamed a lot.
His fellows backed up as Erin held the chair up for another swing. Her leg was bleeding badly from the cut, but she was more mad than scared at this point. Plus she had a chair. All they had were knives.
In fact, she had more than one chair.
Erin tossed the chair at one Goblin and clipped it on the head as it ducked. He fell down too, and meanwhile Erin had grabbed another chair. She used it like a shield, jabbing the legs at the nearest Goblin and forcing it back.
Faced with an unexpected threat, the others split up and tried to circle around Erin. Accordingly, she tried not to let them. But even if they were surprisingly fragile, they were quick and hard to hit. Before long, the remaining four Goblins were all around Erin, peering under tables, feinting at her from behind unheld chairs.
Erin tossed her chair again and, again, missed. But as the Goblins ducked, she turned around and fled for the stairs. She had longer legs, but they were quick too and surged after her as she jumped up the stairs two at a time.
The fastest Goblin was hot on her heels, cackling with that strange laughter as he swiped at the back of her legs. Erin ignored the bleeding and hit the top of the stairs with the Goblin right behind her. He laughed evilly.
And stopped when he realized it was just him and the Human female at the top of the stairs. He looked up. The big Human female made a fist.
The fourth Goblin crashed down the stairs, face a bloody mess. The remaining three Goblins looked up at the young woman standing above them and hesitated. But she was prey. Prey didn’t fight back!
One threw a knife. It hit Erin in the stomach point first, but the toss was so weak it barely penetrated her skin. She ignored it and leapt down the stairs.
Two hands on the handrail let Erin swing her legs up. She was no gymnast, but rage gave her a moment of athletic inspiration. Both her feet crashed into the face of the knife-throwing Goblin.
He screamed and clutched at his broken, bleeding nose. His two friends ran back as Erin landed on the ground. The bleeding Goblin waved his knife at Erin. She slapped him.
Crack. It was a good slap, the kind that made Erin’s hand go numb. The Goblin fell down, stunned, and his hand let go of his knife.
Erin stared at it. Then, before the other two Goblins could move, she grabbed it. And when she stood up, she had a very different expression on her face.
The remaining Goblins looked at her. They weren’t just two, not really. Their friends hadn’t been knocked out, just hurt. Already they were getting up while clutching their bruised heads and bodies. However…
The Human female was facing them, knife in hand. She didn’t look as frightened as she had been before. In fact, she looked quite angry. That wasn’t good. She seemed suddenly bigger, and the Goblins were keenly aware that she had just beaten two-thirds of their number in a matter of seconds.
And she had a knife.
The Goblins stared at Erin. She stared back. Now they were all awake and upright, but they didn’t seem to be about to attack. In fact, they seemed sort of nervous.
Erin stared at them. They stared at her. Her eyes began to water, but she didn’t dare blink. But she had to do something, right?
The Goblins shrieked and ran. They crashed out of the broken windows and ran as if pursued by demons.
Erin stayed where she was for quite some time, hands still half-raised. Eventually, she lowered them.
She wanted to scratch her head, but nearly stabbed her eye out with a knife. Carefully, Erin put the knife on a table and then sat in the nearest chair. Her legs had lost all strength.
Erin coughed and then chuckled again.
Her chest hurt. Her arms hurt. Her legs hurt. Actually, her entire body hurt. She felt like she was dying. But.
“I can’t even laugh properly right now. Hahahahahaha…ha?”
And then she did laugh. She started laughing as she sat with her back against the table, bleeding onto the inn’s clean floor. She laughed and laughed until tears were in her eyes. And as she closed her eyes, she smiled. Then she bumped her cuts and stopped smiling. But she still slept.
[Innkeeper Level 4!]
“…Hey. What happened to levels 2 and 3?”
The last of the Goblin warriors fled the fearsome Human in a rush. It had only been four of them in total, hardly an actual raiding group even for their tiny tribe.
Even so—four Goblins versus one Human without a weapon? They should have killed her. That they hadn’t was bad.
Bad for many reasons that even the littlest Goblin, crouched and watching the inn from afar, could understand. She and two others were so small and young that they weren’t even warriors; her weapon was a basket, and it had been full of blue fruits until the chase.
Deadly, dangerous blue fruits that could kill you foaming-mouth-dead. But they were so hungry, the Goblins would take that risk. They were so hungry, eating Human sounded good.
And now they were hungry, hurt, and embarrassed. The Goblins snarled as they limped away. They didn’t talk to the littlest Goblin, just grunted and pointed and made the smaller ones get their baskets and go back for actual food they could take back to the tribe.
The little Goblin ducked a swat from one holding his crotch and fled. She didn’t know the name of Injured Crotch, but that was now his nickname in her mind. Goblins didn’t have names. Only their [Chieftain] had any real title, and he was scariest of all.
The four Goblin warriors were so irate at their loss they jabbed the smaller Goblins to hurry up until they got back to the trees. Then they sat down, tried to rub dirt or spit onto their injuries, and pointed with huge growls at the trees.
The little Goblins had to kick the trees and collect the fruits. The smallest one was so hungry she took a bite from the sweet blue fruit and got hit again by one of the older Goblins. He snarled. She wasn’t allowed to eat here! He kicked the blue fruit away savagely and gestured emphatically to hurry up.
The Goblin warriors were looking around—nervously. The giant thing that hid under rocks might come back. Or something else seeking to kill Goblins. Which might be…anything.
The little Goblin sniffed as she covered her head, but grabbed as many ripe fruits as she could. Then she had to run with the basket back to their tribe.
Their tribe was a lot of Goblins in a cave. It was small, so narrow you had to roll under a rocky opening and crawl forwards until it grew tall enough to stand.
There was no light here except a few cracks in the ceilings, but the little Goblin could still see just fine. It was wet here after all the rain, and it smelled of poo.
But it was safe from big monsters and other things. Even if the [Chieftain] sometimes got stuck going in and out, this place was far safer than outside.
The little Goblin had no idea when the tribe had gotten here. Nor why they were here. She was only…young. No one explained things to her. The older Goblins mostly hit her and made her do things. That was how they were taught, but the little Goblin thought she was seven sticks, three rocks, and two pieces of grass old.
She’d been counting. But she didn’t know numbers above ten. The only Goblin so wise, who could even speak words and read them, was the [Chieftain].
He was mad again. He sat, twice as big as any other Goblin, snarling at anyone around him while he waited for a smoky fire to warm a bit of food. The littlest Goblin’s stomach growled as she saw it.
A dead deer. The [Chieftain] had found food! All the Goblins were watching hungrily, but the [Chieftain] would eat first. Then, the little Goblin hoped, there would be at least bones, but possibly some hot meat.
The fruits were placed next to the deer carcass, but the [Chieftain] snarled and kicked the fruits away. The Goblins were made to take them away from the precious meat and remove the little bad things.
The small Goblin had no idea why, only that it was bad. Bad-death. She wished…someone would explain. But only the [Chieftain] knew.
He had taught them numbers. So he could tell them to get ten blue fruits each. Learning to count was amazing. The little Goblin had counted teeth, flies, Goblins—until the [Chieftain] kicked dirt at her.
But then she’d been counting days she’d been awake and realized she didn’t have more than ten, and she had been awake more than ten days, right?
It had been a big puzzle. So, to forget her hungry, rumbling stomach, the littlest Goblin with no name sat in her sleeping spot and looked at her big idea.
She counted one thing with leaves. Then, when she had ten leaves…she put down a rock instead. And that meant ten leaves. And if she had ten rocks, that meant it was now a stick.
That was how she thought she’d seen seven sticks, three rocks, and two grasses of sun. She’d counted backwards to figure that out, but she thought it made sense. The rains had been falling a lot when she was born, and they fell regularly. At least—they had twice already, after it got really cold.
The cold. The little Goblin shivered. That would be a bad time. It was wet now, but it could get wetter. And she was hungry. She looked back and saw that the tribe was eating. She sprang up and ran forwards, but there were only scraps already, and so she had only a single mouthful of bloody meat and half a fruit.
This was the little Goblin’s life. She sat, listening to her [Chieftain] growling, an echo of her tummy. She curled up as he demanded why his warriors were hurt.
They didn’t tell him. And the other Goblins didn’t either because the [Chieftain] would be very mad to know they’d let a single Human live. So he just hit them and made them look for more things to eat.
The little Goblin sat there and watched the [Chieftain] out of the corner of her eye. He sat there, a scowl on his face. Angry. Always angry. But the other Goblins were like that. Angry. Or they woke up and slept and ate.
She didn’t know why, but they were missing something. When, rarely, they stole something very nice like the colorful water, the [Chieftain] would get happy and then angrier still, or quiet. And he would do what no other Goblin did and talk. And he would say there should be more Goblins. A bigger cave. And the Goblins would listen to him until he scattered them with a fist or one of his great weapons, an axe made out of bone.
He spoke for the first time in two rocks and one grass as the little Goblin listened. Two words. The [Chieftain] looked around and growled as he wiped blood and spat fur from his mouth.
But what that was, the little Goblin had no idea. And he said nothing more, so she went back to counting the steps to the blue fruit trees with her grass and rocks. She thought of the strange Human in the big wooden thing. And she wondered if that meant anything different would happen.
Less blue fruits to eat, probably.
The next morning, the young woman sat in a chair and pondered. It seemed stupid. No, it was stupid. But there could be only one explanation.
“When you level in dreams, you level in real life?”
Erin thought about that for a moment.
She sat in the chair for a few more minutes. Those minutes turned into half an hour and then nearly a full hour before her stomach grumbled.
After another hour, Erin decided to get up. Her body protested the movement, but her stomach overruled her legs. She got up and reluctantly stumbled out the door.
Her legs hurt. As she stepped outside, Erin felt at the back of her legs and winced.
“Right. Knife cuts.”
She should wash that. If she had water. But since she didn’t and the wounds were already scabbed over, Erin left it and started walking.
It was a long, long walk back to the fruit trees. Erin was only glad she remembered where they were. She was even gladder that there weren’t any suspicious rocks along her route, but that only made her warier. Could they burrow? Were there grass-crabs?
If there were, they didn’t seem interested in her at the moment. Erin found the strange, spindly trees easily and picked an armful of blue fruits. She was glad they were bountiful with the blue orbs, and gladder still the Goblins hadn’t stripped them bare. But it was a veritable orchard here, so she gathered as many as she could.
Erin sat and ate fourteen. It wasn’t that she was hungry so much as really thirsty. She sucked as much of the blue juice out of the fruits before gathering as many as she could carry and walked back to the inn. The seed cores she left where they lay.
…Actually, now that she thought of it…
Erin doubled back and grabbed two seed cores and placed them carefully on top of her stack of blue fruits.
“Just in case. I should also get a bow and arrow or something, right? Too bad I have no idea how to shoot anything. Or have any idea how to carve a bow. You carve bows, right?”
Erin thought about that as she walked back over the sloping ground, taking care not to trip and break the seed cores. How would she make anything, anyways?
“Um. Is it three bars of iron and two sticks to make a pickaxe? Or can I make a wood sword by punching trees? Why couldn’t this be Minecraft instead?”
But now she thought of it, Erin remembered the trees.
“Firewood. If I could cut the wood away, that is.”
She thought of the incredibly stiff branches.
“…Nope. But wait a second. What about fallen branches? Or—”
She turned around and started walking back. But again, she found no detritus from the tough trees anywhere in the orchard.
Frustrated, Erin kicked a tree and dodged another falling blue fruit. She added it to her armful and walked back to the inn.
The room was still a mess from last night’s fight. Erin sat the fruits down on one table and started righting chairs and tables.
She paused as a thought struck her. Goblins. Oh yeah. She’d fought Goblins.
Her eyes fell on the knife she’d taken from one of them. Slowly, Erin’s legs folded up, and she sat on the dusty ground again. Then she sneezed.
“Dusty. This is stupid.”
She got back up and looked around. Where was it? There.
“Dustrag. Let’s do this.”
Erin got down and began sweeping up the dust on the floor. It was difficult since she had to move all the tables and chairs out of the way, but it gave her something to do. She only had a small, dirty rag anyways, so she was mainly doing it to think. Her mouth was terribly dry, but Erin started working. She had to focus.
Erin stared at the waves of dust as she scrubbed.
She shifted two tables aside and pushed the dust out of the way.
“…With shark teeth. That’s messed up.”
Erin thought about that.
“But I won.”
She amended the statement instantly.
“Barely. They’re not that dangerous. They’re like kids. And I can beat up tons of kids even with knives. If I’m careful.”
Not that she was going to make a habit of that! Just Goblins. She could fight them off. Then Erin reconsidered again.
“Unless they stab me in my sleep. Or there are lots of them. I’m probably safe if I keep the windows and doors closed at night.”
She’d have to remember to do that. Then she’d be forewarned and could hold them off or run; they didn’t seem as fast as she was. So she was reasonably safe from them? Erin bit her lip.
“There’s the rock-crab-thing. Does it eat Goblins?”
Was she safe in here from that thing? It couldn’t fit through the door, but could it knock down the walls? Probably not.
So, as far as she knew, the inn was reasonably safe if she took precautions. What about leaving it? The Goblins—a memory nagged at her.
They hadn’t gone hunting for her. She distinctly remembered the baskets they’d been carrying. Which meant…
“They were eating the blue fruits. So they live nearby. Wonderful. I’m going to run into them again. Which means I need a weapon. Great.”
Erin stopped and put her face in her hands. She immediately regretted that decision.
She sighed and grabbed the rag. Time to clean up some…more?
“Uh. What happened to the dust?”
The floor of the inn was made out of floorboards. Very sensibly, and in keeping with the rest of the inn, which was also made out of wood. However, Erin had never seen the floor before. Up till this very moment, it had been covered by a thick layer of dust.
There had been so many clumps of dust rabbits it had been more like a dust sea, and a disgusting one at that. Erin had left a trail every time she walked across the floor, hence her desire to get rid of it. A task that would surely take at least two days given the size of the inn and her tool of choice, a rag instead of a broom or mop.
Now though, she was staring at the floor. A clean, undusted floor. Erin gazed down and then stared some more. Then she looked at her hands.
“Was that me?”
It must have been, but how had she done it? Of the numerous and varied—of the few talents Erin possessed, cleaning was not one of them.
Oh, sure she could clean up spills and small messes. Anything that involved tossing water and mopping stuff up was okay. But this?
“I wasn’t even dusting for more than—an hour? Two? And it’s all clean.”
Erin scuffed at the floor and amended that thought.
“Sort of clean. You couldn’t eat your dinner off it I guess. But that’s why we have plates.”
And it was a definite upgrade from before. Distractedly, Erin scratched her head and felt the caked dirt and dust on her face start to crumble away.
“The floor is clean. I am not.”
Erin stared at the floor again and felt hot, sweaty, and very dirty. She felt like she was forgetting something, but she was so hot—she was dehydrated! And as soon as Erin realized that, she realized how thirsty she was.
“Right. I need a drink.”
Water, preferably. But Erin would have killed for a nice cool drink of anything, really. Too bad there wasn’t any water nearby. More blue fruits? Why hadn’t she kept that bucket of water from when it had been raining? Instead, she’d used it to clean tables! Erin groaned, but she knew she couldn’t waste time on recriminations. She looked around and came to a realization.
“Time to find some. Or I’ll die. Whichever comes first.”
Erin wandered out of the inn. After a minute, she walked back in, grabbed the knife, and closed the door behind her as she left. After another minute, she walked back in and threw the dustrag on the ground. She slammed the door as she left this time.
“It’s really hot.”
Erin stumbled through the grass, looking around blearily every few steps. Her mouth felt dry and nasty. She had a headache, and she felt sweaty and gross. But what was really on her mind was water.
“Water. Water is water. Because water. Where’s the water?”
Erin walked for a few minutes in one direction and saw no water. So she turned left and started walking that way.
“I could drink a Gatorade. Or a Pepsi. I like Coke too, though. What about Pepsi and Coke and Gatorade? Gatorpepcoke? Pegatoroke?”
It occurred to her that she wasn’t making much sense. Even for her, that was. Erin looked around for the water and felt her head spinning. Her head was really starting to hurt.
Her foot slipped. Or maybe she stumbled. But suddenly, Erin tripped and had to spin around to keep her balance. That was so much fun that she started spinning around as she walked. She stopped after a few seconds and tried not to vomit.
She wiped her brow. At least she wasn’t sweating. It was really hot, though. Weird.
She really needed to sit down in the shade. But there wasn’t any to be found, at least not where she was. Maybe if she lay down she’d feel better?
Erin went to bend over. Halfway down, she remembered.
She tried to stand up and nearly fell flat on her face.
“Where—where was it?”
Head spinning, Erin looked around. The inn was still visible.
“It was there. So if I’m here…there?”
Shakily, Erin began stumbling towards where the stream was. As luck had it, she was closer than she thought and came across the stream in a matter of minutes.
The stream was flowing fast, cold, and surprisingly deep. The young woman didn’t care. The instant she spotted it over the small rise, concealed as it wound its way down from the mountains, she broke into a run and threw herself forwards, gasping with relief.
She cupped her hands and began drinking the water as fast as she could. One mouthful and Erin’s eyes bulged. She spat the water back out and looked down at her hands.
Her dirty, dust-covered, filthy hands. Erin dunked her hands in the water and gave them a scrub—as well as her face—and rinsed out her mouth before she tried again. Then she b, another, and then five more.
It was around the fourth handful that Erin realized she’d made a bad mistake. The water was delicious and cold as ice cubes, but she was so thirsty she drank it down like…water. Five minutes later, she was laying on her side trying not to puke.
Too much water on a dehydrated body. Erin could feel her stomach trying to empty itself and was determined not to let it.
“It—it hurts. It really hurts…”
No one had told her not to drink water fast! Okay, maybe every P.E. teacher she’d ever had, but why didn’t she listen? The groaning girl was praying no Goblins or crab snuck up on her right now, because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to run if they did.
Fortunately for her, it seemed like nothing else was thirsty at the moment. And after what felt like an age of groaning in agony, the pain in her stomach receded enough for her to sit up. She was really glad she hadn’t puked. She only had one pair of clothes after all.
Speaking of which—Erin raised her arm and sniffed. She shuddered and came to another decision.
The stream was far deeper than Erin had thought. Deep enough for her to sit up to her shoulders in water along the edge. It was also cold. Erin had thought she knew pain when, in the delirium of waking up, she’d turn on the shower and realized she’d hit the cold water on full blast.
That was nothing to this stream’s chill. It was probably mountain runoff, and so it was one step above freezing. Erin’s teeth were chattering, and the fast-moving current meant that there wasn’t even a body of water to warm up in time.
It wasn’t even numbingly cold, which was too bad.
“B-being numb would be better than being really cold.”
But it was water, and it was making her clean. And the longer she sat, the warmer Erin felt. That was probably because her body was freezing up, but she didn’t care.
Erin ran her hand through her wet hair and sighed. She’d scrubbed hard, but without soap or shampoo, what could you do? And when she thought about how she hadn’t used a toothbrush in days…yuck.
At least the inn was clean, now. And since she was no longer actively dying of thirst, Erin had figured out how she’d done it so fast.
“Hm. So, [Basic Cleaning] was really a skill after all?”
Erin thought about it. It was better than thinking of cavities and rotting gums.
“…Huzzah. What a great skill! I mean, I might have to fight off giant crabs and Goblins, but at least I’ll be able to clean the floor while they eat me! I wouldn’t want to leave a mess.”
She sighed and dunked her head into the water.
The stream was deep enough that Erin was up to her shoulders in the cold water. And it was moving fast enough that if she lay on her back, she might be swept downstream quite quickly.
“And if I follow the stream long enough, do I get to an ocean? Or just a lake?”
It was a tempting thought. Why not just let the waters carry her away to somewhere else? Anywhere had to be better than here, after all. She could leave, and then…
“Then I’d be eaten by something else. Underwater Goblins, probably.”
Erin punched the water and sighed again.
“Monsters, monsters all around. And not one of them looks edible. But at least there’s blue fruit that smells like cleaning fluid. And at least there’s a dusty old inn. And at least I have four levels in innkeeping. Huzzah for me.”
She splashed some water on her face. Tired. She felt really tired. But being clean was helping a lot. Now that she had water she could drink and eat, at least. And with water, she could even have a bath.
“A really frickin’ cold bath.”
But it was good. And the sun was warm. Erin thought about getting out of the water and lying on the grass while the sun warmed her up. That was a good thought. Her clothes were already drying, and but for the few cuts and burnt right shoulder, they seemed fairly clean.
Bracingly cold bath, food and water sources acquired, and a clean inn. The young woman brightened up a bit.
“Maybe today won’t be so bad after all.”
Erin laughed to herself.
“Or not. Knock on wood.”
She turned jokingly to find a piece of wood to knock on and saw it. A huge shadow in the water. A giant, flat head and jagged teeth over a brown, spotted body that had been almost invisible as it slunk along the stream bed. And it was coming straight at—
Erin shot out of the stream like a reverse cannonball just as the fish lunged. She felt something incredibly large brush past her navel, felt the slimy, slick feeling against her skin for one heart-stopping moment—
Then it was over. Erin lay on the grass, breathing for air as she stared at the fish flopping around on the grass. She recoiled, but the giant shape was flopping now, no longer a missile of death but a confused water breather on the wrong side of the divide between land and sea.
The fish flopped towards her. Erin flopped backwards and got to her feet. It might be on land, but it had a mouth as large as her head. It was almost one-third mouth, in fact. And it had very sharp, very long teeth.
The flat, squat fish that looked like a balloon with teeth kept thrashing around. It truly was like nothing Erin had ever seen. It was far wider than any regular fish, and only a stingray was that horizontal, but this fish was hardly as elegant. It was more like a brick designed to bite as much of you apart as it could. But for her seeing it, it might have taken a huge chunk out of Erin’s side. Or her face.
Whether it was trying to still bite Erin or get back in the water was hard to tell. Either way, it wasn’t having much luck; the floppy fish was arcing its body, trying to maneuver in the air as it leapt up and down, but it wasn’t designed to move about on land and mostly stayed where it was, biting at the air helplessly.
Erin stared at it for a good minute. She covered her face and screamed into her hands for a second.
“Fish. Fish with teeth. I hate this world so much.”
Eventually, the fish stopped flopping around. Erin slowly edged over to the fish and stared at it. Was it dead? It didn’t seem to be breathing. It was probably dead.
She pointed a trembling finger at the fish.
“Hah! Take that!”
The fish lay there. Erin edged over. She nudged it with one toe.
Instantly, the fish leapt into the air, wriggling like a snake. Its tail smacked Erin in the face as she tried to run. That hurt.
Erin fell over and landed next to the writhing fish. She pulled herself away as the gaping maw opened and closed a few feet from her face and waited until the fish slowly stopped moving again. This time, she was pretty sure it was dead.
“Four minutes. Four minutes is a long time not to be breathing, right? Okay—”
Just in case, Erin psyched herself up, ran over, and kicked the fish hard in the side.
Erin hopped around in agony, clutching her foot.
“Is that thing made of rocks?”
It was like kicking a sack of flour. Not that Erin had ever kicked a sack of flour, but she imagined that was what it was like. The fish had barely moved when she kicked it. It lay on the ground, jaw gaping open. It was definitely dead, now.
After a while, Erin stopped hopping around and swearing. She limped over to the fish and stared at it. It had…two eyes. Four, actually. But it had two on each side. One big eye and a smaller eye right behind it.
“Ew. Mutant fish with teeth.”
Erin stared at it for a little while longer. Her stomach rumbled.
She poked the fish and tried to think of something to make. She had no fire, no other ingredients aside from blue fruit. The [Innkeeper]’s lips moved soundlessly for a second.
“Discovery one: fish are heavy.”
The dead fish lay on the kitchen counter. It was dripping.
“Discovery two: kitchens have knives.”
It was a very sharp knife, too. It looked sharp, at least. Testing the sharpness with her thumb was probably a good way to lose her thumb. Erin’s arms hurt, and she smelled of fish. Oh, and her clothes weren’t dry. Lastly? She pinched at one nose with a sigh.
“Discovery three: fish stink.”
She sighed. Self-evident discoveries aside, she had no idea what to do next. Or rather, she only had a vague idea of what to do next.
She had a fish. You skinned a fish—or was that a bird?—and then you ate it. She was pretty sure about that. A fire was involved at some point, but slicing up the fish was a good first step. After all, wasn’t sashimi just raw fish? True, Erin had only eaten that once, and with enough wasabi to burn her nose off, but it was worth a shot.
“And hey, I need food. So it’s time to chop stuff up.”
Still, Erin hesitated. She’d never had to cut up a fish before. How was she supposed to do it? She had no idea.
Maybe this is a moment where her new Skills could come in handy. Erin had a great idea. She lifted the knife, poked the fish in the side with it, and smiled hopefully.
“[Basic Cooking]! Give me—baked fish!”
Nothing happened. Erin hadn’t been expecting it, but she’d really, really been hoping the fish would vanish and a convenient, tasty dish would appear. She sighed.
“Huh. I guess [Basic Cooking] doesn’t work on fish.”
Or maybe not this fish. Or maybe she needed a fire? Erin gently poked it in the teeth and shuddered. Its scaly hide looked no easier to cut. But at least she had a knife.
True, she could have grabbed a bigger knife. Happily, there were several knives, ranging from one that looked like a proper cleaver to a tiny one the size of a finger. But she’d chosen a slimmer blade, because she didn’t want to wrestle with the big one. Besides, this one was sharpest, and she needed all the sharpness she could get.
Gingerly, Erin began sawing at the fish’s exterior. The knife skated over the scales without finding purchase. Grimly, Erin tried again. She sawed at the side and felt the skin begin to slowly part.
“Ew. Ew. Ew.”
At least she knew the fish bled red. That was really no comfort, actually. Erin warily held the knife as far away from her as possible while carefully pinching the fish with her other hand. She kept slicing at the scales, but she didn’t know how to do this. She didn’t cook as a rule, and fish? She’d buy it pre-filleted and deboned.
It was tough, too! The knife did not seem to cut well as she sliced horizontally with it, trying to peel the outside layer off. Erin sawed some more and managed to peel off a slice of skin. She looked into the fish’s insides and gagged.
“Oh. Oh god. Why—why is that yellow? What is that?”
She poked it with the knife. The yellow thing vibrated. A bit of pale yellow-white pus oozed from it—
Erin put down the knife and stepped into the common room to breathe for a while. When her stomach had stopped lurching, she went back.
“There is no way I’m eating that. Cooked or raw. Actually, there’s no way I’m eating any of this without a frying pan.”
She looked around. Frying pan? Check. Good. There was actually a very respectable looking one made out of cast iron lying right on the counter. She’d seen it on the first day, and while it might need a wash, it was big enough to make an omelet. The fish would need to be in a lot of parts to fry up, though.
“Okay, okay. Let’s just…get rid of the bones? And the—the squishy stuff.”
Gingerly, Erin began sawing at the easily-detachable bits. It was hard work. Nothing really wanted to come out, and the knife she’d chosen wasn’t exactly a precision tool.
“Come on. Get out of there.”
The yellow thing was stuck to the bones. She couldn’t get it out.
“Alright. Can’t go around it. Gotta go under it. Goodbye head, look out belly, here comes the knifey.”
Erin flipped the fish over and tried to cut around the other side. But again, the scales were hard to saw through. And now everything was slippery with blood and fish juice.
“Come on. Cut. Cut!”
She pressed hard with the knife. But it just wasn’t going through the skin. Annoyed, Erin pushed harder. And the knife slipped.
It happened in an instant. Her hand lost its traction, and the blade skated across the scales. It flashed left, and Erin recoiled. She yanked her hand back and felt…she saw a flash of red on the blade.
Erin blinked and held up her right hand. A gaping red line split her palm diagonally. There was no blood.
She flexed her hand once. That’s when the blood started pooling. But there was no pain. The young woman just stared at it in horror, then gazed about.
Erin looked around. Bandage? There were no bandages nearby. Or cloth.
Her hand felt…numb. Then tingly.
Bandages? Cloth? There were…curtains upstairs. Right? But they were dirty and moldy too.
The blood was dripping onto the fish and the counter. Erin wanted to wipe it away, but she was still holding her knife. And suddenly, her hand started hurting.
Erin dropped the knife.
She gripped her wrist as hard as she could, stopping the blood flow. But the pain kept coming now, on and on.
She didn’t remember leaving the kitchen, but she was back with one of the curtains from upstairs and slicing it to make a bandage as blood soaked the cloth. It was hard. She could only use one hand, and her other hand was hurting. The pain hadn’t been there at all, but with each microsecond, it was ratcheting up. The terror in her heart was being eclipsed by the need to shout. To scream.
Eventually, she wound the cloth tight and gritted her teeth as she tied a knot. The bloodstain was already spreading, though at least something was covering the wound. But it still hurt.
It hurt! Erin tried to think as she stumbled back to the common room. It wasn’t deep. Well, it was deep, but she wasn’t looking at bone. Yet it felt really deep.
She didn’t have words to describe the agony in her hand. The rest of the world was dim and unimportant compared to the pain radiating from that one point. All of her senses were focused on that place, and it was all Erin could do not to scream.
“Screaming is bad. Quiet.”
She just knew it. Screaming would make it somehow so much worse. So instead, Erin sat and gripped her wrist. The blood was dripping. It hurt.
It really hurt.
The sun was going down. Erin sat in the chair and stared at the puddle of blood on the floor. It wasn’t big. But every few seconds, another drop fell from the bloody bandage onto the floor.
The pain was still there. It didn’t go away, even after this long. But it was—better. At least she could think a bit. She’d moved around, gotten another curtain and sliced it up for a second bandage. But she hadn’t wanted to change the one she was using, so she just sat.
She knew she should try to stop the bleeding. Apply pressure. But any more and she would scream. And if she started, she feared she’d never stop.
The first hour…the first hour she’d just held her wrist, mouth open, forcing herself not to scream. Hoping, praying that the agony would desist. It didn’t—it never went away. But she had eventually sat here.
Staring at her blood as it fell to the floor.
Something smelled bad. Erin looked up. What was that smell? She wanted to ignore it, but after a few minutes, she had to stand up and go see.
It was coming from the kitchen. Erin walked in, clutching the wrist of her bad hand.
“Oh. Of course.”
The dead fish stared up at her on the cutting board drenched with her blood. It stank. At the same time, Erin’s stomach grumbled. She wasn’t hungry for fish, but she was hungry.
She didn’t want to eat, though, if that made sense. Erin walked back to the chair and sat down. As she did, she bumped the back of her legs. The knife cuts burned and hurt. A different kind of pain.
“I get it. It’s a bad day, right?”
Erin whispered. It made her feel better not to talk loudly. She was awake even though she was tired. The pain wasn’t going to let her sleep. And she was hungry, but she really didn’t want to eat.
So she sat and watched her blood fall.
It was dark when the small puddle stopped growing. It soaked into the floorboards, a dark stain in the night. Erin stared at the blackness. She couldn’t sleep.
That was—an understatement. The night was cool, even cold, but sweat was beading on her forehead. Her teeth ached from clenching, and she felt like a single line of pain was her entire being. It radiated up from her hand, and she—
Couldn’t make a sound. Just think of something else.
Erin stared at the table. She stared at the grain of the wood. Tried to think of—of—things to do? Make bandages? Find…?
No good. She couldn’t distract herself. But she had to. Her eyes rolled in her head. Couldn’t she fall unconscious from the pain? If only.
She had no strength to stand. It hurt too much. She couldn’t think—the only things that came to her were the most basic instincts. She had to think of something else, though.
So Erin began to whisper. She forced herself to—remember. How did it go?
“Pawn…pawn to E4.”
She rested her injured hand on the table. It flared once in pain and then resumed throbbing. Her other hand traced a square, and her eyes darted over the empty table. Her eyes were watery with pain, but she didn’t need to see in the pitch blackness. She knew it by heart.
Her fingers closed, as if holding something small and delicate. She even moved her left hand, tracing it across the table. Yes. That was how it went. What came next?
“Pawn to E5. Pawn to F4. Pawn captures F4—King’s Gambit Accepted. Bishop to C4, queen to H4. Check. Bishop’s Gambit. King to F1, pawn to B5. Bryan Counter-gambit. Bishop captures B5, knight moves to F6. Knight moves to F3…”
The pained whisper went on and on, until her throat dried and she kept up in her mind. First one game, then another. Erin kept talking to herself, kept playing long into the night. Alone, in the blackness of the inn as the shutters rattled every now and then and faint peeks of moonlight shone through.
A line of agony trying to divide her in half as she clung to the only thing she knew. Whispering the moves of a famous chess game, an immortal game, into the silence to distract herself.
But the pain in her hand never stopped.
It just kept hurting.
Author’s Notes: Interesting thoughts here. It’s slow, but we get to the hand-slicing, which is painful to even read for me within 4 chapters. I may add that Goblin interlude, but when you get down to it, this is the slow intro with Erin that’s the core of Volume 1.
I can see the action opening, but I’ve always actually loved the idea of slowly exploring a world with all the challenges that occur. It was, in fact, a regret of mine that we couldn’t have more of that later on.
I may definitely want to see opinions on a more action-focused opening, but for now I’m just going to try and improve and add complementary scenes rather than restructure heavily. I suspect we’ll need more big rewrites going forwards.
Erin woke up suddenly. Her hand was burning.
Though her head felt like fog, she couldn’t fall back asleep. Instead, Erin just sat and cradled her hand again. She couldn’t move it or the pain would get worse, but sleeping or relaxing were beyond her as well. She could only sit in agony.
Bit by bit, the pain faded away. Maybe it was her waking up, or maybe she just got numb.
Erin got up. She still held her hand and took great care not to flex it at all. It was…aching didn’t even begin to describe it. It was just pain, all the way through. And it wasn’t stopping.
But at the same time, she was ravenous. And for a little bit, that overrode her pain.
Slowly, very slowly, Erin hobbled around the inn. She grabbed the blue fruits with her good hand and began chomping them down one at a time. She was so hungry she ate four before she knew it, and then polished off two more as she sat at a table.
She would have sat there forever. Getting up wasn’t worth the effort, but a higher power called to her. It spoke in words she could not ignore.
Erin sighed and put her head on the table. But the longer she sat the more uncomfortable it became. Still, the pain in her hand fought off the need to go relieve herself for the better part of an hour. When Erin finally stood up, she marched to the inn’s door and kicked it open. She’d go do her business in a random valley and then wash her hands at the stream. Hygiene and all that.
Erin made it five steps out of the inn before she reluctantly turned back and closed the door behind her. She doubted the Goblins would come back, but—safety. That done, she went about the business of doing her business.
It took nearly two hours before Erin came back. That was mainly due to her getting lost. Somehow, the stream seemed to be in a different spot than she’d remembered, and when she’d completed her task, she wasn’t able to retrace her steps.
The one benefit of finding the stream was being able to dunk her hand in the cold water to reduce the pain slightly. But she’d been watching for fishes in the water, and all she wanted was to go back and sleep again.
When she did finally see the welcome sight of the inn, Erin could have cried with relief. All she wanted was to sit and suffer in peace, and the open door welcomed her in.
Absentmindedly, Erin walked through the door and closed it behind her. Then she went back and sat down at the table. Only then did she feel the wet fabric clinging to her hand and look down. She looked at the dirty, bloody bandage now sodden with water. She wasn’t a medical doctor. Or a doctor. Or even very familiar with first aid, but she didn’t think that was healthy.
“Ow. Owch. Ow.”
Every time Erin peeled off a bit of the bandage, part of her skin and a lot of blood went with it. Some of it was dried blood. Some of it was not.
After she’d gotten half of the bandage off, Erin had to stop. The pain was too much. And the bandage was stuck to her skin. But having a half-peeled bandage was worse. Erin couldn’t stop picking at it.
“Maybe I can cut the rest off somehow.”
Erin went to the kitchen. There were certainly sharp things in there. Like knives.
So were there scissors? They didn’t seem very medieval, but who knew? Erin decided to go through the cupboards in the kitchen again. She had no energy for the outside, but she couldn’t sleep and she’d only opened about half that first night.
This time, no longer panicking, Erin did a systematic search of every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen. The dust that poured out made her sneeze and cough, but she did find some basic cooking utensils like metal spatulas, a drawer full of tarnished silverware, and even some plates. The cupboards held a lot of things that Erin only vaguely understood.
Cooking implements, she suspected, like some weird metal grater with a wood handle. Did you…press down from the top? She found a corkscrew, the tip rusted, a collection of moldy cup holders, and a bunch of other culinary knickknacks. There were a lot of them. And that was…strange. Erin tried to make sense of it out loud since her inner thoughts were mostly devoted to not crying in pain.
“I’ve seen old kitchens in castles. I thought drawers and that kind of stuff only came later. This is, um, steel. Or at least iron. It looks like steel. Did they have a lot of steel in the medieval ages? Knights in armor, duh. But when were cheese graters invented? Is this place in the dark ages or past that? And can I get a light bulb somewhere around here?”
Erin grumbled as she searched with one hand. She threw open another cupboard and stopped. She stared at the pristine interior and the perfectly fresh, perfectly preserved…
Food. Food was sitting in the cupboard. A gleaming, single link of a sausage, a glass jar filled with white powder, and another container with a knife stuck in the little opening—
Erin had to rub her eyes with her good hand. Then she slapped herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. But when she looked again, it was still there.
Erin opened the jar and poked a finger at the powder. It felt—real. And fresh. Or, at least, it didn’t feel like white mold and dust, which is what it should have been. Erin drew her finger back, shaking, and stared at the white granules on her finger. She sniffed and nearly sneezed again—no clues from that aside from a lack of much to smell.
“It could be flour. Or—alternatively, it could be cocaine.”
She tried to smile, but her hand hurt too much.
“…It’s probably flour.”
But was it any good? Erin stared at the bag and tried to remember how long things were supposed to stay good. Probably not that long, even in glass jars. They had blown glass in this world?
No, focus on the flour. And the sausage? Erin stared at it. It looked like one of those things you saw in old-timey kitchens. Just a…her mouth watered.
There was no way that was good. Not unless someone had put this here right before she arrived. And if that were the case…no.
No, there was something odd about the cupboard. Unlike every other one, there was no dust or spiderwebs, and it had seemed in the best condition of the lot, despite the fraying wood. It smelled like, well, a cupboard, and the food smelled like it was edible.
It had to be a trick, though. Erin sighed and pulled the jar of flour out anyways. Might as well check. But then she caught sight of the pot with the knife in it and opened it. Erin placed it on the counter, removed the lid, and here was another surprise.
Erin’s eyes narrowed, and she frowned hard.
There was no mistaking it. And it wasn’t just butter either. Erin was used to the nice, square sticks of butter that turned soft and spreadable in the sun. This…was more like a pot of butter. Yellow, swirled about, with a knife stuck in it, gleaming and ready to be applied to a bit of bread or something nice. Erin’s stomach rumbled at it, and she was almost tempted to eat it as-is. However—
“That’s not right.”
Erin stared at the butter. It was a golden yellow, fresh. Like someone had thawed a stick of butter just now. Same with the sausage and flour—well, the flour was just flour.
Yet everything else? Erin stared around the kitchen. Dust and cobwebs seemed to make up most of the room. She stared at the floor she had yet to sweep.
“How long does it take for dust to get two inches deep?”
Five months? Two years? Five years? Either way, Erin was pretty sure butter didn’t last that long. She craned her neck around, suddenly feeling a prickle of suspicion on the back of her neck.
“Is someone messing with me?”
Erin glanced around. Could someone have put the food in here? But no, her footsteps were the first to disturb the dust. So then how…?
Her eyes flicked back to the cupboards. At last, something bright caught her attention. It was inlaid around the edges of the cupboard, on the interior door, which is why she hadn’t seen it, but a silver glimmer finally caught her eye.
Erin Solstice stared at a line of glowing, incomprehensible symbols drawn along the edge of the cupboard. They looked like someone had painted them there with the most delicate brush and silver paint. They were nonsensical: circles and connected shapes that almost looked like letters or—
It hurt her head just to focus on them, and the longer she stared, the brighter the runes seemed to grow. It was—Erin brushed at the inscriptions and traced them around the edge of the entire pantry. She didn’t know what they meant, but she was convinced this wasn’t just random art or even a fanciful attempt at the real stuff. This meant something, and the hair on the back of her neck rose as she touched one beautiful sigil.
She stared at the runes, entranced. Then a thought struck her, and she opened the other cupboards. Could it be that…?
“Here. Here…they’re everywhere.”
Around the edges of each cupboard were the same small etchings of runes. Erin traced them with her fingertip, but unlike the cupboard with all the good food, these ones weren’t glowing. The paint was flaking, and beyond the glow, some quality had been lost. She noticed a break in the wood along one solid line of the magic writing and took a wild guess.
“Huh. I guess it wore off. Or maybe they broke somehow? I wonder what they’re made of.”
She went back to the enchanted cupboard in awe. But now curiosity was engulfing her, so she gingerly touched the runes on the cupboard door.
…It felt like painted wood, but Erin had to believe it was something more. Was it just paint? Could you re-draw this and get more magic? Experimentally, she scraped at the runes with one fingernail. A bit of it flaked off onto her finger.
“Silver? Or something glowy.”
It was fragile, too. The young woman hesitated. Was that supposed to happen? She poked a little harder, not really thinking, just curious.
The old wood of the cupboard was beyond delicate with age. Erin’s finger jabbed the lip of the wood, and a splinter of it came away. Just a thin fragment of wood. And silver, glowing magic.
The fragment of wood disrupted the glowing line traced around the cupboard. The glowing symbols flickered—and as Erin watched in horror, they faded away.
The sliver of wood dropped to the ground, and Erin stared at the piece then tried to replace it.
“Don’t do this to me! No—I just—”
She tried to press it back into place, and the wood cracked, and more runes flaked away and drifted downwards in a little spiral of silver dust and wood. Erin stood there, mouth open in horror.
“Oh you’ve got to be shi—”
Erin pulled back too far as she stood up, overbalanced, and fell backwards. She didn’t hit the ground too hard, but her bad hand smacked the ground. Instantly, Erin grabbed her hand and cradled it, but she could feel the blood running again. She curled up into a ball and stayed there for a long time.
“It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
Erin looked up after the pain faded a bit. She saw a dark cupboard. When she got up, the food was still the same, but the magic had gone.
Dully, she stared at the now dark symbols. Dead. Just like that. The food? Still fresh. But it wouldn’t be fresh any longer. And the magical cupboard was dead. Forever.
Erin rubbed at her eyes. She wasn’t crying. But her eyes stung a bit. That was all.
That was all.
Erin sat at the table in the common room and talked to herself. It was mainly to avoid thinking about pain or her own stupidity.
“True, you’ve gotta leave stuff behind when you leave. Can’t carry everything. But you had good food still here. And more, in those other cupboards. And here’s a kitchen full of supplies…how expensive are good, sharp knives?”
Erin flexed her hand and winced again. Very sharp knives.
“No one leaves that behind. So why would anyone…?”
It was a bad thought to have. Erin suddenly felt very uneasy. The hair on her neck began prickling, and her stomach began doing pushups.
“Question. How did Mr. Skeleton upstairs die?”
Her spine tingled.
“Maybe that’s a bad question.”
But once asked, it wasn’t easy to get rid of. Erin tried to ignore it. She stared at the dried blood on her hand, ate another blue fruit, but the thought lingered. Eventually, she couldn’t bear it any longer. She stood up.
“Upstairs. Fine. Hello darkness my old enemy.”
It wasn’t nearly as hard going up the stairs. Now that she knew what was in every room, going down the dark hallways wasn’t scary. But going in the last room? That was very scary.
Erin took a few deep breaths before she opened the door. Her palm was sweaty on the doorknob.
“Am I afraid of dead people? Well yeah. But they can’t hurt me. Zombies can, but normal dead people can’t. It’s just a skeleton. I can take a look for signs of—of death, and then I’ll go sleep. Good plan. Let’s do it.”
She opened the door and stared inside. Then she ran back and started opening the other doors on the top floor, slamming into each room before running to the next. But what she sought was not there.
Slowly, Erin walked back to the room at the far end and looked inside. A sagging bed, a small table, a shuttered window. Nothing else. Erin whispered into the silence.
The skeleton was gone. Erin was sure of it. It wasn’t anywhere in the inn that she’d looked, and she’d combed both the top and bottom floor thoroughly. And the worst part about losing a dead body was wondering where it went.
Erin sat in the common room. Actually, she sat in a corner of it, her back to the wall as her eyes darted around the room. It wasn’t that she was waiting for a pile of bones to fall from the ceiling. But…she would prefer to know where said bones had gone.
“Okay. Okay. What’s the problem? It was just a skeleton. Just a spooky, dead thing. And even if it did move—somehow, where would it go?”
She didn’t know why she was whispering to herself. It just made her feel…well, it didn’t make her feel better, but it felt appropriate. It was getting dark. It was nearly night. In the circumstances, being loud didn’t feel like the smart thing to do.
And the skeleton might hear her.
“No, no. That’s impossible. It’s not here. It’s somewhere else. Besides, where could it hide? I checked all the rooms upstairs. So where could it be?”
Her eyes darted towards the kitchen. No. It couldn’t be. She’d checked.
What about underneath the floorboards? Or on the roof?
Erin kept very still and listened. Nothing. That was good, right?
But skeletons don’t need to breathe. They don’t need to move until you’re asleep. And then…
Enough. Erin shook her head. It was all in her head. There had to be a perfectly good reason for a corpse to disappear suddenly—
What about the walls?
Erin refused to turn her head. She was just being paranoid. Which was a good thing. Because it could be anywhere. She could just see herself, asleep, as a skeleton tip-toed out of the darkness, a knife in hand and—
She wrenched herself out of that idea. Skeletons didn’t do that, she had to believe. It was more reasonable to assume someone had taken it. The skeleton was not her imagination. Someone had taken it. Why?
“Because it was valuable? Because skeletons are so useful, sure. Maybe the Goblins did it. Can’t you eat bones? Or—someone else?”
That was just as inconceivable. Okay, maybe someone, something took the skeleton. But why? And when?
Erin’s mind suddenly flashed back to when she’d returned that morning. Hadn’t the inn’s door been open? She hadn’t noticed at the time, but she remembered closing it as she left. She didn’t remember having to open it when she got back.
Her skin crawled. The inn suddenly felt a lot less safe.
But it was just her imagination. She had an overactive imagination. If she went to sleep, all would be well. All she had to do was close her eyes, and when she woke up, all would be well. There was nothing to worry about. Erin couldn’t even hear anything except the rapid beating of her heart and the creaking.
Creaking. A footstep.
Erin sat bolt upright. Her heart felt like it was about to stop from sheer overwork. Her eyes darted to the ceiling.
Something was up there.
She heard it moving about. Maybe if she’d been more relaxed she might never have noticed the faint creaks and groans of floorboards as something crept around upstairs. And judging by the sounds…
Erin tracked the progress of the creature above her. It was moving to the stairwell.
Slowly, Erin clenched her bad hand to avoid screaming. The pain as her sliced hand throbbed and started to bleed grounded her. Silently, she stood up.
The knife was on the table. Erin held it in her good hand and moved around. The stairwell was on the right side of the room. Anyone coming down wouldn’t be able to see her if she were in the rightmost corner.
Skirting the chairs and tables, Erin made her way over and crouched down. The handle of the kitchen knife was slippery in her hand with sweat. Her other hand was slippery with her blood. She gazed at the blade of the knife. It was very sharp.
The creaking stopped for a moment as the intruder reached the top of the stairs. Erin waited. It would come down. And when it did, she’d get one chance to attack first.
Attack first? Am I some kind of hero?
No. New plan. The instant Erin saw what it was, she was running for her life. But she had to see what it was first.
The skeleton popped into her head. Was it that? Or was it the creature that had stolen its bones? Was it some kind of parasitic creature that lived in dead corpses—or a gaunt nightprowler that ate the marrow of the deceased?
Please let it just be a skeleton.
The monster started descending the stairs. Quietly. Slowly. Even though Erin was listening, she barely heard the sound it made. She tried to guess how far down it was. Halfway. Two-thirds. A few steps left.
Something left the last step and walked into the common room. Erin didn’t breathe. She didn’t move, or even blink.
Slowly, the creature stepped closer. Erin squinted and gasped as it came into view. Then she stood up and sighed.
“Oh. It was just a Goblin.”
The short green creature whirled around in surprise as Erin stood up with a sigh. It immediately crouched, its sharp dagger held in a fighting stance. It snarled at her.
She snarled back.
The rest of the Goblin ambush party of seven waited outside of the inn, keen ears straining for sound. Each one was a seasoned warrior—at least by the standards of their small clan. They were all armed with the best weaponry available. The most dangerous among them had shortswords that were only half-covered in rust. And they were awaiting the signal.
The inn’s door flew open. The Goblins looked up. They expected the Human female to run out of it, screaming and preferably bleeding. At worst, they expected their comrade to be running out, her fast on his heels. They readied their weapons.
And ducked as a body flew over their heads.
“Go to hell!”
The Human female slammed the door shut.
The Goblins stared at the closed door of the inn. They stared at the barely recognizable face of the unconscious Goblin and then exchanged a look. Then they quickly picked up their fallen comrade and legged it back into the night.
The young woman’s fight with the Goblins did not go unnoticed. The little Goblin that had crept after the attack group seeking revenge for yesterday witnessed their second embarrassing flight.
She almost liked the Human for beating the one who tried to creep into the second floor. She hit him a lot. She thought the warriors wouldn’t tell the Chieftain about this, either.
However, the littlest Goblin didn’t know that while she was staring at the inn and creeping back with the warriors, she was being watched.
A crouched figure stared at both the Goblins and the fleeting image he had seen of the person in the inn. So there was someone there. Of all the luck! It was a perfect place, but he had no idea whether she was alone or dangerous in and of herself.
She certainly seemed fearless of Goblins, though that wasn’t saying much. But what was she doing out there?
Well, she didn’t have anything else to steal that he’d seen. Not that he’d had much time. He decided to keep an eye on the place. But the growling of his stomach almost alerted the small Goblin. She stopped, staring around, and he ducked back into cover.
Damnation! She couldn’t see him, but he decided to return to his lair, his abode. His sanctuary, yes. He might not have gotten anything but bones, but those bones would help him finish his latest project.
Oh, yes indeed.
Erin woke up with her back against the inn’s front door. Her neck was aching, and her hand was burning. It was morning.
She held her hand. It was hurting—
“Feels like it’s worse than yesterday. Which is probably my imagination.”
She sat, cradling her hand for a full minute. Then she remembered why she was sitting there and shot to her feet.
Where was it? Erin stood up and hobbled over to a table. There. Two daggers on the tabletop. She looked around at the windows—some even had furniture piled up to make sure nothing could get in. And she’d been up all night, waiting to hear anything trying to come in. But no other Goblins had, and the other one had left its dagger as well, albeit unwillingly. Erin mumbled to herself as she poked one of the hilts with a finger.
“At this rate, I’m going to start a collection.”
At least it proved she hadn’t been dreaming. Well, until she’d fallen asleep. But nothing had killed her, so Erin tried to put the disappearing corpse out of her mind.
“No skeleton? No problem. I hope.”
She sighed and then sniffed.
“What’s that smell?”
Something smelled really bad. And it was coming from the kitchen. The instant Erin opened the door, she groaned aloud.
The fish lay on the cutting board, covered in dry blood and reeking in the sunlight. It stank. Actually, it smelled worse than a stink.
“This. This is disgusting.”
Erin stared at the fish for a few more seconds. She had absolutely no desire to touch it. On the other hand…
A few black things crawled out of the fish’s mouth. Erin stared at the small things, gagged, and then ran outside before she hurled. That was the start of her day.
How did you get rid of a fish? Erin put it outside on the ground and stared at it.
“I could bury it. If I had a shovel. And I could burn it. If I had a way to make fire. Or…I could leave it over there.”
She walked for about fifteen minutes before she was sure she was far enough away from the inn. Then, Erin unceremoniously dumped the rotting fish off the cutting board. That was a mistake.
As the fish hit the ground, it exploded. Something inside of it broke or squished, and suddenly a host of little black and green insects exited the fish’s body from every orifice. Erin took one look, screamed, and ran. She was getting good at it.
It took her a long time before she found the courage to return. And even then, it was just to run in, grab the cutting board, and leg it to the stream.
“Ew, ew, ew.”
Erin thrust the plank of wood in the water and watched fish guts and insects sweep away into the current. It wasn’t the dead fish she objected to. Well, not as much as the live bugs that clung stubbornly to the wood. They were small, and she wasn’t sure if she was relieved or further disgusted to see they were flies, not beetles or anything worse.
Big flies, though, with fat, glowing abdomens. Like—disgusting fireflies, and a lurid green instead of a nice yellow. Not that fireflies were that cute up close either. Erin pointed at the last straggler refusing to be pulled off by the water.
“You. Get off.”
The tenacious fly seemed to have the strength of ten bugs, because it refused to let the current drag if off. Erin lifted the board a bit and realized this fly had other odd qualities. Something about its head was triangular, and yes, that glowing abdomen was far bigger than a firefly’s. It even looked slightly…liquid, and the bloated insect was like nothing she had ever seen before on Earth.
“Another weird creature. Wonderful.”
Reluctantly, she looked closer. Know thy enemy, right? She supposed she should also know her bug.
“That’s definitely a bug. And it’s really ugly. If I could take it to a scientist back home, I bet I’d be famous. Since I can’t—go away, would you?”
She dunked the board and shook it underwater. Swish. Swish. The bug clung to the wet wood despite Erin’s best attempts to shake it off. Then she noticed another detail.
“…Why’s it got four legs? I thought bugs had six.”
It was also segmented in two places, as if the bug had people-legs. That was weird and disconcerting. And still, it refused to let go of the wood, fanning its wings futilely and trying to fly off. Probably to join its many siblings still buzzing around the dead fish’s corpse. Well, Erin wasn’t going to bother the rest of them, but this one? This one had a date with the water. It just refused to go.
Annoyed at this resistance, Erin finally pulled the cutting board out of the water. The insect fanned its wings as she stared at it. It was really mostly like a beetle, except that its backside was glowing green. A cross between a freaky firefly and a beetle. Better than a cockroach, but there was only one way to deal with bugs like that.
Erin curled her finger and gave the bug a damn good flick.
The insect’s green abdomen burst into a splatter of green liquid as the rest of it flew off into the stream. Erin blinked as the green liquid covered the cutting board and splashed into the water.
Some of it landed on Erin’s arm. Instantly, both the board and her arm began to smoke and dissolve.
She plunged her arm into the water. It was an instinctive reaction, but it made the pain vanish. Still, Erin frantically scrubbed at the spot until all of the burning pain had gone. She looked at the cutting board and stared as the green liquid ate into the wood until she dunked it into the water. Then she stared at her burnt skin, and the cutting board, eaten away by…
Erin turned her head and backed away as the rest of the glowing insects buzzed around the dead fish.
“Acid flies. Okay, that’s completely wrong.”
Her skin was red and sore from the brief contact with acid, but she was fine. Nevertheless, she washed both her body and the cutting board until she felt completely clean. This was less fun, because Erin was also watching out for strange shadows in the water.
“Great. My hand hurts, and now my arm hurts.”
Erin stared at the dead fish as she walked back to the inn. The fish’s body was swarming with those little acid flies. They were probably laying eggs in it or something equally fun.
Briefly, Erin considered dragging the fish into the stream and letting all the buggers drown. Then she considered what would happen if all the flies landed on her and exploded.
“Right. Well, there’s only one thing to do in a situation like this.”
Erin raised first one, then both her middle fingers. Her injured right hand hurt like fire, but it still made her feel better.
“That’s for all of you.”
Then she went back to the inn. There was only one good thing in the world right now. And that was food.
“I really should have brought a bucket.”
Erin stared at the ingredients lined up on the kitchen counter. Her stomach was rumbling, and she was in the mood for food. But she didn’t really want another breakfast, lunch, and dinner of blue fruit. Today, she was in the mood for bread. Freshly baked bread. And that lovely bit of sausage.
She’d been holding off on eating either, mainly due to the pain and infestation of her kitchen, but Erin was relieved to find the bugs hadn’t gone for the good food, instead preferring the fresh, rotting corpse of the fish. So she had ingredients! Enough to make bread!
Unfortunately, that required water. And Erin really didn’t want to walk to the stream and back with a heavy bucket. But she needed water. She knew that. Somehow.
Was it instinct? Erin frowned and knocked on her skull. She had never made food, not really. Well, she’d made Mac and Cheese and instant ramen, but that didn’t count. And that went for microwaves and ovens too. So why did she know that to make bread she needed flour, oil, salt, sugar, yeast, and some water? It had to be magic.
Or a skill.
“[Basic Cooking], huh?”
Erin stared at the washed cutting board. Yes, all the ingredients were here. It made sense; this was a kitchen. Kitchens had ingredients. Therefore, she could make bread. Or dough. To make bread, she’d have to bake it in an oven. Handily, this kitchen had an old oven that Erin’s instincts told her she could use. But to use the oven, she needed fire.
She had no idea how to make a fire.
Whatever new ability she had to make food, it did not extend to making fire. Erin stared at the empty fireplace in the oven and thought.
“Sticks. You hit sticks together. Or rocks.”
She looked around. She had wood. There were lots of chairs and tables. What she didn’t have were matches. Or a lighter. Or a can full of gasoline and a flamethrower.
Erin went back to the kitchen. There had to be something to start fires in there. How else would you cook things?
“Right. Rummage time. I know I saw a shelf full of weird stuff somewhere…”
She went back through the shelves. In her first search through the kitchen, she’d put everything vaguely useful or non-rusted in the cupboard next to the food.
“Let’s see. Frying pan? No. Tongs? No. A saw? Why does a kitchen need a saw?”
Erin set the small handsaw aside and squinted. Behind that was something she hadn’t quite figured out. Well, two things. It was a rock and something else. Something weird.
“Is that…a horseshoe?”
No. It was way too small to be a horseshoe and the wrong shape. Unless this world had really weird, small horses that was. But even then, why have horseshoes in a kitchen?
“Unless they ate horses.”
Erin stared at the horseshoe-thing. She stared at the rock. Slowly, she slid the rock along the fire striker and watched sparks fly.
“Huh. So that’s what flint and steel looks like. It actually does look like Minecraft!”
Erin paused. She sighed and slapped herself gently.
“I’m an idiot.”
Flint and steel was actually pretty fun to use. So long as you didn’t burn down the flammable, wooden inn around you by accident.
Erin peered in the large fireplace and fumbled with the flint and steel again.
“Dried grass…check. Broken chair…check. Fire?”
She slid the flint across the steel quickly and flinched as the sparks flew.
The shower of sparks descended on the dry grass like a swarm of angry fireflies. And the tinder caught fire in places, and the fire grew.
Erin held her breath. Then she exhaled, blowing at the small flames like she’d seen television campers do.
“Damn. It went out.”
She struck the flint and steel again. This time, she let the fires grow a bit and did not blow on them. Slowly, the small fires grew. She fed the small flames pieces of wood and grinned.
“Fire! Call me Prometheus…Promethea.”
The warmth on her front became a little too hot, so Erin scooted back, but she was grinning. Well, she was grinning until she sat on her bad hand.
“Okay. Pain. But now I can make bread! I’ve got all the ingredients. Right? Right. I just need flour, yeast, butter, a bit of salt and sugar and—”
“Oh yeah. Water. Great. Well, I can just go out and get some. It’s not like there’s a time limit or anything—”
She looked back at the fire she’d just started. It was already starting to go out.
It was midmorning and so there was no light to see. At night, it was conceivable they might have spotted it from the walls, but no one had.
However, by daylight, the faint trickle of smoke was possibly, possibly visible. And if the wind blew just right, the keenest of noses might pick it up.
Or it could just be their imagination. However, the watchers on the walls dutifully reported it in to their superior.
“It could just be nothing, Senior Guardswoman.”
The woman frowned and sniffed to pick up the faint smell. There were countless scents around her, and this was like a needle in a haystack, but she agreed.
“It does look like—smoke. Maybe it’s a traveller. Or bandits. Or whoever’s been robbing the farmsteads.”
“Or Goblins. I’ve seen them creeping around now and then. Do we send out a patrol?”
She thought about it.
“Not a full one, and that’s not our call. I’ll tell the Captain. You just keep an eye on it. I think she’ll put our best patrol on it. Punishment detail for breaking all those windows yesterday.”
Her voice was laden with irony, and the other person on the wall grinned with idle glee.
“Ooh. I’d hate to be Relc. Klbkch didn’t do anything, though. But he’s…eugh.”
The woman glanced over her shoulder and reached out to slap a helmet.
“That’s Senior Guardsman Klbkch to you, rookie. Send a street runner to tell the Captain.”
“Yes, Guardswoman Beilmark.”
In the end, Erin let the fire burn while she went to get water. The fireplace was stone, and the kitchen was stone. The odds of a stray spark walking all the way to the common room was remote. Still, she felt uneasy.
“This is how it starts, right? You leave the fireplace on while you go on a vacation for a few days, and the next thing you know, your inn’s burned down. A classic cautionary tale.”
Erin sighed as she walked along. She wondered again how much trouble she was really in. After all, she had just started a fire, true, but that was pretty basic even for primeval humans. What could—
A patch of green moved in the grass ahead of her. Erin stared at it. Was it part of the grass? It raised its head and stared back. It wasn’t the grass at all. It was—
Something exploded out of the grass. Erin screamed, flailed wildly with her bucket, and fell over. The gigantic bird with leathery wings and a beak longer than her arm took off into the sky with an ear-piercing screech. She caught a flash of scales, as green as the grass it had blended in with, and the long head and beaked teeth? The young woman gaped upwards.
“Oh. Oh wow.”
Erin sat on the ground and stared.
“Is that a…pterodactyl? No way.”
It looked like it. And while Erin was only really seeing its rapidly disappearing backside, the bird had a certain…non-feathery quality to it. However, where the ancient dinosaurs Erin had seen in museum pictures were brown and plain, this bird had been a light green with red markings along its head and beak and the tips of its wings.
“Camouflaged dinosaur birds. Now I’ve really seen everything.”
Erin shook her head and got back up. She brushed off her dirty t-shirt and jeans.
“Gotta wash these sometime. But that means I’ll be walking around naked. Is that an issue? And what’s that smell?”
Something smelled truly terrible. Erin covered her nose and frowned. She cast around for the source of the smell. It was on the ground somewhere. She walked ten steps and found a nest. Erin stared down at a neat ring of dirt, trampled grass, and stones. A nest on the ground? But then—she didn’t see many trees nearby, and the only other place would be those cliffs.
“Huh. I guess without many trees birds get lazy. But what a big nest. And what’s that inside—”
Erin took one look inside the nest and covered her mouth. She gagged and took a few deep breaths.
“Okay. At least I know where all the normal birds go. Inside the dinosaur-birds.”
Averting her eyes from the grisly remains, Erin turned to go. She took two steps and tripped.
She got up, cradled her injured hand a bit, and wished for the world to explode. Or just her. Then she squatted down to look at what she’d tripped over. She saw a second nest, this one much cleaner and smaller. And it was filled with big, round, pale…
Buckets could hold things. Ideally they held water, but they could also hold eggs. They could also hold eggs in water, so that saved her the effort of making two trips.
It was still a pain to haul the bucket across the grasslands, though. Erin puffed and huffed and kept up a running stream of complaints as she lugged the full water bucket along.
“People used to do this every day? This is why plumbing was invented, you know. Who puts a stream so far from an inn? What happened to a good well?”
She kept grumbling until she reached the inn. Once there, Erin had to lean against the door and pant like a dog for a while before she felt better. She noticed a sign hanging next to her nose and squinted at the faded lettering.
“Huh. ‘Closed?’ Is that English?”
It was English. Slightly stylistic, each letter carefully traced in black paint, but Erin understood it nonetheless.
“Huh. So people speak English here. Good to know!”
Then she frowned at another word painted right below it. This wasn’t English. The lettering was far more curvy, and based on her limited knowledge of Earth’s languages—it looked completely unique.
“Hold on. What’s this word?”
It looked…odd. This was clearly an open-closed sign. Erin could tell because it was on the front door, and because she flipped it over and, just as expected, it said ‘Open’ on the back.
And there was a second word right below it, in that other language. Erin had no idea what it meant; it was foreign to her. But if she had to guess?
It probably said ‘Open’ too. In a different language. Just like signs back home. And that meant—Erin felt a shiver run down her spine.
That meant there were two languages here. Two sets of writing, at any rate. Furthermore, it confirmed Erin’s suspicions.
“This was an inn once. But someone abandoned it. And they left a lotta useful stuff behind.”
She tapped her lips thoughtfully and narrowed her eyes at the hanging sign. The rope was frayed and worn, but it was still in pretty good shape.
“…Well, finders keepers.”
Erin kicked open the door to the inn and dragged the bucket inside. But she paused and stepped out to look at the sign.
It was a sudden whim. Erin flipped the sign over so it read ‘Open’.
“Now, where can I get a piece of chalk and write ‘no Goblins allowed’?”
Well, that was a question for later. Right now, Erin was more concerned about the precious water. She had the water. She had dragged the water very painfully all the way here. Now she had to find a place to store said water. The bucket was nice, but it was also sort of small and definitely not useful as a long term container. It was leaking a bit. So where else could she put it?
Erin wandered into the kitchen.
“Well, here’s a cauldron.”
It was actually a pot, but it looked like a cauldron. It was in fact both things at once. The point was that it could store water. Unfortunately, that meant the cauldron had to be cleaned first.
Erin tried to use as little water as possible. But the pot was large, filled with dust, and the bucket was finite. She eventually ran out of water and had to make another trip back. And then another.
When the cauldron was finally full of water and clean enough to hold said water, Erin was ready to kill something. Like eggs. She stared longingly at the fresh sausage, but she shook her head.
“No. No. You deserve at least a sandwich. Or eggs and sausage.”
That would make it taste so much better. So Erin decided to commit. She tromped back into the kitchen and stared at the grey embers in the fireplace. The fire was long dead. Erin groaned and then scowled. She pointed at the embers accusatorially.
“I’ll deal with you later. For now, I need dough.”
Dough was easy. It was just mixing stuff, and Erin had plenty of stuff to mix. But an idea struck her as she stared at her ingredients.
Bread took a while to bake. Bread needed to rise and do all kinds of complicated yeasty-stuff according to her [Basic Cooking] skill. And to be fair, that was about all she could make with the ingredients at hand. Not much you could do with a bit of flour, right? But eggs? Eggs changed everything.
Erin stared at the flour. She stared at the butter and salt. Then she stared at the eggs. Her eyes narrowed.
“Forget bread. It’s pasta time.”
The mixing bowl was full of flour, a dash of salt, some water, and butter. Oil would be best, but Erin didn’t have oil, so butter would do. She grinned. This was easy. Then she cracked the egg.
A large, glistening yolk fell into the bowl. The eggs of the giant dino-birds were about three times bigger than normal bird eggs. That could make a lot of pasta. But there was just one thing different about these eggs.
“Oh. Oh god. Why are there red lines—?”
Erin covered her mouth.
“It was alive. There was a baby inside.”
Her stomach lurched. But there was nothing to throw up. Erin took a few deep breaths and tried to think.
“Right. Normal eggs actually hatch. Right. This isn’t a store, so of course they’d be living—but they must be new eggs. Not full of half-born chickens, right?”
She stared at the rest of the eggs. Right?
Erin wiped her mouth as she kneaded the dough. She hadn’t thrown up. But her stomach was still a bit queasy from all the killing she’d done. If that was the word for it.
“Sorry, baby dino-birdlings. But I really need to eat. And you look nice and doughy right now.”
She punched the dough ball gently. The kneading was done. It was time to roll it and slice it into nice, pasta-shaped sizes.
To her credit, Erin barely hesitated when she grabbed the sharp knife again. But she did take the time to wash the blood off before she began slicing. And though it took her a bit longer to cut everything since she worked with one hand and tried to keep all her digits out of the knife’s path, she eventually had a pile of long stringy noodles ready to be boiled.
Erin held the first batch of raw noodles over the boiling water in the pot.
“Double double, boil and trouble…into the pot you go.”
The noodles fell in with a large splash. Erin yelped and jumped away.
When she was finished calling herself an idiot, Erin sat back and waited. The noodles wouldn’t take that long. Then she could add some more butter, a little more salt, and feast. It was a good plan.
“Too bad I don’t have something refreshing to drink as well. A nice glass of juice would go down great. But y’know, it’s not like I…can…”
Erin stood up. She walked back into the common room and looked around.
The pile of blue fruits was right where she had left them. Erin’s eyes narrowed as she looked at them. She stroked her chin in thought.
She shook her head.
“Nah. Bluefruit juice? That’s more like it.”
It was a messy process, peeling each blue fruit and then pulping the fruit into a mush. And then of course there was the mandatory trip to the stream with the bucket in order to get enough water to add to the mixture, not to mention to clean the glasses, plates, and silverware. By the time she’d made her umpteenth trip to fetch water, Erin’s arms felt like they were about to fall off. But that was okay, because she now had a drink.
“Mm! Sweet! This stuff’s like syrup! Chunky syrup! Or…a smoothie.”
Erin put the pitcher of blue fruit juice in the common room and checked on the noodles. She didn’t know how long to cook them, but she’d been taking out a strand or two every few minutes to make sure it was good. At last, she decided it was ready.
“Hm. Chewy. Tasty! Pasta is the greatest food in the entire world.”
The last thing she did was take the red sausage out of the cupboard and slice it up. She did it very finely, keeping her fingers far from the blade, but she diced the entire thing.
It had little pepper flakes inside. And the meat looked good. Erin couldn’t help but take one sliver; she resisted the urge to eat half of it and put the rest in the noodles. She might not get more for a long time.
The sausage tasted like sausage. Hot, spicy, and so flavorful it burst in her mouth. Erin’s eyes went slightly misty. It wasn’t blue fruits or—it tasted like food.
She couldn’t cry, though. She was far too hungry. Erin rubbed her eyes briskly and created a huge serving of noodles and dumped it onto a plate.
“Hm. Fork…fork! Am I missing anything?”
She felt like there was something missing. But—she brought the food into the common room anyways and sat down.
“Who knew carrying stuff with one hand was so much of a pain? I mean, everything’s a pain.”
The pasta was nice and hot. Erin felt her stomach rumbling. But something still felt off. And pain was still present.
“But it’s a better day, right? A bit of a better day.”
Erin stared at the plate. Pasta, check. Fork, check. Juice, check.
She sighed. A smile tried to climb onto her face. Her hand throbbed, but Erin kept the smile up and raised her fork. She was going to eat until she puked. Okay, maybe until she was just full. She raised the first glistening noodle to her lips.
Without thinking, Erin stood up and went to the door. She opened it as if she were at her home.
“Hi, can I help you?”
A giant insect stood in the doorway. It raised one chitin hand in greetings and opened its mandibles as its antennae waved in Erin’s face.
“Greetings. May we come in?”
A giant insect stood in the doorway. It had large, black, bulbous eyes like a bug, no pupils, just tiny facets reflecting the light, a dark brown chitinous body, almost black, and a pair of swords at its sides. A giant shell like a beetle or turtle’s covered its back, and the entire effect made the bug-man look slightly hunched.
It had four arms, each one covered in chitin but shaped almost like a Human’s, complete with fingers, and two long mandibles coming out of its mouth, shaped like pincers. A pair of waving antennae were attached to the thing’s head. No hair, no nose, no…clothing, really. Just a loincloth and a belt and a pair of swords sheathed at its side?
There was something shiny and metal pinned to his chest, but she was mostly just staring at the ant-person in front of her.
Erin stared at the ant-creature, lost for words. Then it opened its mouth and began to speak again.
“Good evening, Human. I was wondering if my colleague and I could take up a moment of your time—”
Erin shut the door. Then she bolted it. Where did she put the kitchen knife?
“You idiot. I told you that this is why I should have opened the door.”
A second, louder, muffled voice came through the door. A second bug-person? This one had a slight rasp to it, sibilant. Erin heard the two talking as she looked around. Weapon. She needed—
The Goblins’ knives were on the table. She grabbed both and tried to think. Knife. Chair? There were lots of chairs.
“Maybe it was a bad time?”
Or windows. Erin looked around. Plenty of windows. She’d jump out one if she needed to.
“Move over. Let me show you how it’s done.”
Someone knocked on the door again. Erin froze, and then went back. Very slowly, she opened the door.
A giant lizard—no, a miniature Dragon that looked sort of like a human stared down at Erin. He had to be at least six-and-a-half feet tall.
He was huge, muscular, with scars parting the rippling scales instead of flesh. His head was shaped like a lizard—or a Dragon. No nose, again, but a snout and slitted eyes, not round. His scales were light green, and he had sharp, sharp claws on each hand. Yet he also had a very humanoid body—except for his feet, which were taloned like a dinosaur or lizard’s. Or a Dragon’s, again. He even had a long tail, which dragged on the ground behind him, and neck-spines sticking out the back of his head!
When he smiled, she saw his teeth. Pointed and sharp. Oh, and he had a forked tongue. The Dragon-man raised one claw and opened his mouth wider in a grin.
“Hello, Miss. Sorry if we—”
Erin shut the door, bolted it, and dragged a table in front of it. She could feel her heart pounding out of her chest as she pushed another table in the way. Knives were no good. He was huge! She’d have to jump out a window after all. She heard the first person, the bug-guy—he sounded like a guy—speaking drily.
“Good job not scaring her.”
“Shut up. This is your fault. I told you I should go first. I’m not a horrific Ant.”
“Yes, but I have my badge on. You have not brought yours. Again. For the eighth day in a row. Therefore, I was the most logical choice to—”
Were they talking? Erin listened hard. Her hands were shaking so hard she couldn’t hold anything. She heard them trying the door and finding it locked.
“Now what? I do not believe breaking and entering would be appropriate at this moment.”
“What, are you crazy? Let me talk. That was just a misunderstanding caused by seeing your face. I’ll straighten all this out.”
One voice was higher than the other and had a strange clicking quality about it. Erin guessed that was the insect’s. The other, the lizardman, pronounced his words with elongated s’s. And they were both speaking in English.
“Hello? Miss? We’re not dangerous.”
One of them was knocking on the door. Erin tried not to hyperventilate. Her eyes darted to the window. But she had to ask.
“…Are you a Dragon?”
She heard a surprised laugh from outside the door.
“Am I a Dragon? Aha. Haha. Well, that’s just—oh, Ancestors bite me. I mean, do I look like one? I’m not even Oldblood, but maybe I do. Klb, buddy, what do you think?”
“You are blushing.”
“Be quiet. I’m in a good mood now.”
The lizardman raised his voice again.
“Excuse me? I’m not a Dragon, Miss Human. I’m just an incredible Drake in service to the city Watch. Me and my idiot partner were on patrol when we noticed the smoke. May we come in? I promise we won’t bite.”
“Or inflict other forms of bodily or mental harm upon you.”
“Shut up. Are you trying to scare her?”
Erin debated. Somewhere in her mind, she was trying to decide whether she should be laughing or panicking. And if she were going to laugh, would it be funny laughter or hysterics?
She couldn’t decide. So instead—
“Um. Give me a moment. I’ll open this door.”
“Thank you very much.”
Erin dragged the tables out of the way and hesitantly unlatched the door. She opened it and stared at the insect and giant lizard again. The insect just stared at her. The lizard, on the other hand, opened its mouth and curved its lips upward. It might have been a smile.
Erin’s hand tensed on the door. The lizard guy put his hand on the door and stopped her from closing it. She tried, but suddenly the door was locked into place. He gently opened it and gave her a lazy salute with his other clawed hand.
“Sorry, sorry, Miss. We’re not here to hurt you, I promise.”
Erin hoped that was the case. She couldn’t budge the door an inch. But this wasn’t the time for flight, right? She took a different tack.
“W-want something to eat?”
The lizardman blinked.
“Okay. That’s great.”
Erin opened the door slowly. The lizardman smiled and carefully stepped inside. The giant insect walked in too and gave her a polite nod.
The two stared around the empty inn. Erin pointed to the table while keeping her eye on them the entire time.
“Food’s over there.”
“Ooh! Pasta! This is good stuff!”
The lizardman—Drake—rubbed his hands together. The noise the scales made sounded like sandpaper. He went to sit at the table, but the insect guy paused.
“I would gladly partake of nourishment if offered. However, we would not wish to deprive you of your meal.”
“What? No. I’ve got lots of pasta.”
Erin pointed vaguely back to the kitchen.
“Let me just get a plate and…forks. Do you, uh, want a drink? I’ve got water.”
The two strangers exchanged a glance. The Drake raised one claw.
“I’ll have a glass if that’s alright.”
The ant-man instantly copied him with a nod.
“I will accept the pasta and water as well. But may I inquire if you have any more meat-based dishes? Corusdeer, perhaps?”
What was a…? Erin shook her head.
“…No. No I do not.”
Erin went to get the plates. She heard the two sitting and chatting idly while she went to the kitchen. There she took a moment to sit on the ground and slap herself a few times. Then she got the plates. An idea occurred to her as she was filling the cups with water, and she poked her head out.
“Here. Uh, I’ve got juice as well. Want a glass?”
The Drake blinked as she offered him a cup. He stared at the liquid inside and eyed his companion.
“Oh, thank you. It’s…blue.”
“Yeah. I made it myself. It tastes good, really.”
A moment’s hesitation and the giant lizard-man accepted it with a shrug.
“Well, I’ll gladly accept. Klbkch, you want any?”
He turned to his companion, and the other figure declined.
“I will pass for the moment. We should get down to business rather than partake of food.”
“In a moment. Let’s eat first. This looks good!”
Erin stared. Here was an opportunity. She had two creatures who could not only speak English for some reason, but were also not inclined to kill her and were eating her food. There were so many questions she could ask about herself, about where she was, about everything really.
It might be her questions would decide her ultimate fate. Probably not, but they were certainly important. But before Erin could ask any of the questions, including how a ‘Drake’ and giant ant learned to use a knife and fork, she had to ask again.
“…Are you sure you’re not a Dragon?”
“…So someone on the walls spotted the smoke and called it in. Since it didn’t seem like a grassfire and since we knew this place was abandoned years ago, the Captain decided to send someone to check it out.”
“To put it succinctly: we saw the fire and decided to investigate.”
The giant lizard turned and glared at his ant-man companion.
“That’s what I said.”
The ant-fellow replied stoically; his voice never seemed to change, unlike the boisterous lizard-guy. He was—precise.
“You said it poorly. I am merely rephrasing your words for the benefit of all.”
“See, this. This is why no one else is willing to be your partner. Along with you being, y’know, you.”
“Your hurtful remarks are unnecessary. Besides which, I believe we are getting off track. We are in the presence of a member of the general public, remember.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
The lizardman cleared his throat. It sounded weird to Erin; much deeper and bassier than normal. She was transfixed, as much by the surreality of having them eating with her as the fact that the ant-man had excellent table manners and his companion did not—and the way they just—talked, bantered, even. It was beyond weird.
Actually, everything was weird to Erin at the moment. Not least were the two creatures sitting across from her.
Well, maybe creatures was unfair. They were probably people. They acted like people. But they looked—
Erin stared at the lizardman’s arms. They were huge. She’d seen bodybuilders on magazine covers and terrible gym commercials, but this guy was bigger than 90% of the male population. The Human male population. And he was green. And he had scales.
He glanced her way. His eyes were like a snake’s. Or a lizard’s. She looked away hastily and glanced at the ant-man. At least, she thought he was an ant.
While he wasn’t that much smaller than the average guy, the insect guy looked tiny next to his partner. But of the two, he was definitely higher on the weirdness scale. Mainly because he was a giant insect. He had antennae.
“Me? Hi, yes, me.”
The lizardman gulped down some of the blue juice.
“Sorry, but can we ask you a few questions about where you’re from? It’s pretty odd to find a Human out here, let alone in an abandoned place like this. Not that we mean to pry, it’s just that it’s kind of our job to ask these questions.”
“What? Oh, it’s no problem. Ask away.”
The insect guy leaned forwards.
“Well, to begin with, may we inquire where you come from?”
“I’m from Michigan.”
The two exchanged a glance while Erin mentally slapped herself.
“Michigan? I’m not familiar with that city. Or is it a nation…? Is that north of here? Over the mountains, maybe? On this continent?”
“Uh. No. It’s a bit further than that.”
“Oh, so are you…lost? Or travelling maybe?”
Erin shook her head.
“No, actually I got lost and—this is stupid. Why am I making excuses?”
Again, the glances were exchanged. The Drake coughed into one claw. The ant-man began making notes on a pad.
“Um, I don’t know?”
Erin sighed and spread her hands on the table.
“Look. It’s complicated, and I can’t really explain. But would you believe…magic? Like a crazy, crazy, uh, teleportation spell?”
To her surprise, the two took that at face value. The Drake looked at his companion and raised both brows, but not in disbelief.
“Oh, a [Teleportation] spell? Was it a misfire or did someone target you? That’s a Mage’s Guild issue.”
“Not if they did not cause it. Intriguing. Was it a magical duel, perhaps? Some high-level spellcasting?”
The terms were flying over Erin’s head, but she did her best to describe what happened.
“Um. I didn’t see anything when it happened. I just sort of turned the corner and—look, the point is I suddenly appeared around here. And then…Dragon.”
“I told you. It’s flattering, but I’m not a Drag—oh.”
The ant-man leaned forward.
“Do you mean to say you found a Dragon? Somewhere around this area? And you—survived the encounter. Unharmed?”
His voice was patently incredulous. Erin blinked.
“Is, uh, that a bad thing? I mean, it’s a Dragon yeah, but isn’t he…?”
Both she and the ant-man looked at the lizardman.
“Look. It’s getting sort of embarrassing. I’m not a dragon. I’m a Drake. And yeah, we’re distantly related cousins, but Dragons are…there’s no way. That would be huge. You said you saw one? You sure it wasn’t a Wyvern? It was probably a Wyvern.”
Erin vaguely knew that word, but she shook her head adamantly.
“It breathed at me. Fire. And then I was chased by little green men.”
“Goblins. And by the way, some Wyverns breathe fire too.”
“So they are Goblins. But—well, hold on—then I found a giant dino-bird—”
“A big…big leathery thing. With wings.”
“Oh, right. Those annoying things. What’re they called, Klbkch?”
The insect-person looked up from his plate and replied calmly. Was he writing with a…quill? And inkpot? Erin was fascinated.
“Razorbeaks. Go on, Miss.”
There wasn’t much else to say. Erin tried to summarize the rest of it.
“Well, after I got the eggs, there was a crab-rock, I mean, a rock-crab, and then I found blue fruits before that and…I met you two. A not-dragon and an insect. Who don’t want to eat me? Or is that after the meal?”
The lizard guy looked shocked and offended.
“Of course we wouldn’t eat you! That’s barbaric, and besides, it’s illegal. I mean, okay, sure, it happens sometimes in distant villages, but we wouldn’t do that. Right, Klbkch?”
The lizard man turned to his friend.
“Indeed. We would not violate our duty as guardsmen.”
“Your duty? You’re…guardsmen? And you…you’re K—kbch?”
The insect man raised one hand instantly and bowed slightly in his seat.
“Our pardons. We have not introduced ourselves. Allow me to correct this mistake. I am Klbkch, Senior Guardsmen in the employ of the city. This is my partner.”
He nudged the Drake, and the other one looked up from sucking down a huge mouthful of noodles.
The lizardman raised his glass.
“And this blue juice tastes good!”
“Indeed. And I must apologize again, but our true intent in coming here was to ascertain the danger posed here.”
Erin looked around.
“From what? Me?”
The Drake shrugged, picking at his teeth with a claw and glancing around.
“Not you, specifically. Really, it could be anything. We thought it might be a random fire or a few Goblins. If there were some stupid kids, on the other hand, we’d be dragging them back right now since it’s dangerous to stay here. Bandits on the other hand…”
Erin met his gaze in alarm. He had very yellow eyes with black pupils.
“Danger? Why danger? Is there something wrong with me staying here?”
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with you staying here. Aside from dying, that is.”
Relc kicked Klbkch under the table.
“It’s just a possibility. This, uh, place is sort of bad. For your health.”
Erin looked blank. Klbkch cut in.
“The plague. This location was once a small community until everyone here died. Horribly. Admittedly, this was a decade ago, but it was evacuated and condemned since then.”
Erin put her head in her hands.
“So am I going to die by puking out my guts or something?”
“Actually, the plague symptoms manifested themselves as—”
Relc kicked Klbkch again.
“Why don’t you shut up and let me talk? Look, Miss Human. You’re probably not sick if you’re still walking around.”
“And not oozing.”
“Shut up. Ahem. We were just sent here to make sure no Goblins or nasty creatures started living here. We’ve got no problem with Humans. Well, at least the non-violent kind.”
“Indeed. There is no law against occupying this area.”
They both stared at her. Erin felt compelled to speak.
“…Want another plate of pasta?”
The Drake had eaten most of his, and he looked fairly satisfied if how much he’d put away was anything to go by. He brightened up, and the Klbkch-person raised his hand politely as well.
“I will have another as well.”
Erin ladled noodles onto each plate. The diners were silent for a moment as each slurped down their noodles, or in the case of Klbkch, did something complex with its mouth-hole. Erin didn’t look closer.
After a while, Relc put down his fork.
“This really is quite good. How’d you make this all the way out here?”
“Oh, I found some flour and butter and stuff in one of the cupboards. It had a runey…thing on the shells.”
“That would be a preservation spell. It is quite common among higher-class establishments.”
“But you cooked it, then? Do you have levels in a [Chef] class, then?”
Erin stared at Relc.
“Levels? Oh. No. I’ve got levels in, uh, [Innkeeper].”
He blinked at her, but idly, as if they were just making passing conversation and this wasn’t amazing.
“Oh, I see, I see. That’s convenient. Did you earn them here?”
“Uh, yeah. Every time I fell asleep I kept leveling. I’m, uh, level 4.”
“Not bad! Especially if you just got here a few days ago. Did the notification wake you up right as you were falling asleep? I hate that.”
“It’s very annoying.”
“Yeah. It is.”
The two looked at each other as Klbkch continued to eat in silence. Erin coughed into one hand and decided now was the time.
“So. Leveling. Classes.”
Relc blinked, then tapped at his chest with a grin.
“What about it? Oh, are you wondering about mine? I’m a [Spearmaster]. This idiot’s a [Swordslayer]. We both have levels in [Guardsman] as well, but not nearly as much as our primary classes. Pretty cool, huh?”
He grinned and was clearly waiting for some reaction. Erin hesitated.
“Right, right. Um, good to know.”
She smiled uncertainly, and he deflated a bit.
“Uh—thanks. [Spearmaster]. Me. Him—[Swordslayer]. No, it’s cool. We’re [Guards]. Yeah.”
Relc coughed a few times into his claw and glanced at her.
“And you’re an [Innkeeper], right? Got any other classes?”
“Um, no. No.”
Another quick glance. Klbkch and Relc hesitated, and the Drake shrugged.
“So four levels in…? That’s too bad. But you’re young; leveling takes time after all.”
“Okay. Right. Um. Let’s pretend I have no idea what leveling or classes are. I’m, uh, from really far away, and we have different…traditions.”
Relc and Klbkch exchanged a glance.
“…You mean you don’t level in this Michigan place?”
“Oh no, no. We level, it’s just, uh, different from you guys. And I never paid much attention in school and all that…”
This time, the look she got was ranging beyond skeptical into incredulous. Relc sat back with a frown and popped another sliver of sausage into his mouth.
“They have to teach Humans how to level? Weird.”
Klbkch agreed, although he gave Erin a look of what might have even been sympathy.
“That is unusual. I was under the impression levels worked uniformly across all species. However, I too understand the issues of communicating leveling and the system of classes. Even so, it is odd to think there is a nation that does not teach it in some way. Unless you are referring to a cultural difference in classes?”
Erin had no idea what that meant. She spread her hands on the table, looking from face to face.
“Yes. No. Maybe? Look, we level. You level. Everyone levels, right? We all can level up in, uh, classes and gain skills. How am I doing so far?”
Relc nodded amiably. He was slurping down noodles with his long tongue. Erin was fascinated, although she wasn’t sure if he was being disgusting or not.
“That’s pretty much how it works. What were you confused about?”
“Um. I gained levels just from cleaning an inn. And I wasn’t an [Innkeeper] before this. So why…?”
Relc waved a claw airily.
“Oh, that. New classes without an apprenticeship, you mean? Simple. You must have satisfied the requirements for the class, that’s all. I know it’s sort of weird gaining a new class suddenly, but it happens. I knew a guy who gained four levels in [Farmer] just because he kept growing carrots in pots next to his window. Not [Gardener]; [Farmer]. I guess it was because he grew lots of carrots. Leveling is weird that way.”
“So…okay, let me think.”
Erin had to massage her head while the two guardsmen looked at her in concern. Well, she assumed they were looks of concern.
“This is a world. Everyone levels in it. Humans, lizard people, talking insects, cats, dogs, Goblins…”
“Hey, what did you just call—”
Klbkch leaned forward, cutting Relc off.
“Actually, I would like to correct you on that point. While the thinking races may level, animals and even creatures such as Dragons are not capable of leveling. Which is common knowledge.”
They were giving her very, very strange looks. Erin hesitated, but she was already in too deep, so she decided she had to gain as much information as possible.
“What, really? How about Goblins?”
“They can level. Now, about what you just said. I’m not a lizard—”
“Indeed. It is part of our shared past. Once, of course, all races fought with tooth and claw and magic, but then they divided. Those who decided to forsake their natures and pursue a different truth received the gift of leveling, while those creatures who stayed true to their nature kept the might of their natures instead. According to historical records, at least. It is the subject of some studies, but that is the consensus.”
“Really? So that means—”
Relc’s fist smashed into the table. Every plate on the table jumped into the air, and Erin nearly fell out of her chair. She looked at Relc. He was scowling, but when he glanced at her pale face, he stopped and looked guilty.
“Um. Sorry about that. Really. But, uh, can we talk about that name?”
“Yeah. You, um, called me a lizard person, right?”
“Is that wrong?”
“…Yes. Yes, it is. I’m a Drake, not one of the Lizardfolk. There’s a big difference.”
“Sorry. Sorry about that.”
“Uh, don’t apologize. Look, maybe I overreacted a bit. I’m not, uh, mad…”
Klbkch kicked Relc under the table.
“I believe it was my turn to do that. Apologize to the Human for your rudeness.”
Relc bowed his head down low, until the neck spines along the back of his head were pointing at the ceiling. Erin waved her hands urgently.
“Oh no, no. Please don’t do that. I didn’t know it was so rude. If I’d have known, I’d have never—there’s a big difference between lizard people and Drakes, right?”
Klbkch raised one finger politely.
“Only a few differences, but the animosity between their cultures is—”
Erin saw Relc go for a huge kick, but Klbkch swung his legs up, and Relc glared at him until he was quiet. The Drake turned back to Erin huffily, and she realized this was an important issue to him.
“Shut up. I’m still sorry. But yeah, there’s a big difference. I mean, sure, Humans say we look similar, but we’re totally different. They have those neck frills, and they’re way too colorful. We build cities out of proper stone, but the Lizardfolk live near water and can breathe underwater too, some of them. They have Naga and, like, jungles in Baleros. Whereas we Drakes like drier climates. We enjoy warm sun, open spaces…”
“Nice rocks to laze about upon while we should be performing our duties.”
“You’re just an overgrown ant. You be quiet. Anyways, we’re special. Those guys are just amphibians that learned to walk on two legs. We’re related to Dragons. We’ve got special powers.”
“We can breathe fire. Some of us can, at least.”
Relc sat back and folded his arms with a triumphant grin. Erin and Klbkch stared at him in silence.
“What? It’s a great power!”
“I am sure it is.”
“Yeah. That sounds amazing. Really…really cool!”
Relc nudged Klbkch with a triumphant smile of approval.
“See? She gets it. Told you it was cool.”
“Yeah, it’s awesome.”
“I feel I must mention that you, personally, cannot breathe fire, Relc.”
“Shut up, Klbkch!”
Relc looked annoyed and embarrassed at the same time.
“Only a few Drakes can do it, okay? Not breathing fire is perfectly normal. And some of us can, so there.”
He looked at Erin anxiously.
“We’re still cool, right?”
Erin grinned and gave him a thumbs up. Then she winced in regret. She’d used her bad hand. The Drake focused on the bloody bandages with a trained eye and suddenly frowned and leaned forwards.
“Ooh, nasty. What happened there? Looks like a bad cut. Were those Goblins?”
“What, this? It’s nothing, it—”
Klbkch stood up suddenly. Erin flinched, but he raised two of his spindly arms.
“Please, I mean no harm. But your hand. May I see it?”
Erin hesitated. Then she slowly extended her hand. On the outside, her bandage was grey and red with congealed blood. Some dripped to the floor. Relc winced, but Klbkch studied the injury carefully without touching it. Then he looked up.
“Again, apologies. But could I trouble you to remove the bandage?”
Erin hesitated. But then she slowly unwrapped her hand. And flinched. The pain that had been slumbering in her hand suddenly flared, and something dripped to the floor.
It was yellowish-white pus. It dripped from her wound. And the wound itself was different. Instead of the thin red line, it had changed. Parts of the injury were darker red and—Erin looked away.
Relc hissed softly. However, Klbkch made no sound. He inspected her wound for a few seconds, his antennae moving slowly, and then looked at her.
“Yeah. Um, yeah.”
Erin tried to breathe. Her hand was suddenly burning.
“It—sorry, it’s a mess. I cut my hand, and I guess it just got infected, but—”
“It is not an infection.”
“It is poison. Of a sort.”
“You sure? It doesn’t feel like—”
“There is a fish in the rivers near here. It secretes a mucus that damages the area it touches. Such as in this case. I have seen several similar afflictions as a guardsman.”
“You have? I mean, it’s not an infection?”
Erin was trembling. The insect man held her gently.
“Please, do not be alarmed. This is treatable. Allow me.”
He reached down. Erin looked and saw him pull something out of a belt pouch at his waist. She blinked as he held up a bottle full of a shimmering, emerald-green liquid.
“This is a low-grade healing potion. If you pour it over your injury, it should heal your affliction.”
Relc opened his mouth, but the Antinium turned his head, and the Drake hesitated.
“Yep. Good thing it’s meant to treat light infections too. Klb, are you going to…?”
Klbkch didn’t respond. Gently, he uncorked the bottle and held it out to Erin. She accepted it gingerly, but hesitated.
“This is—I mean, is it safe? For humans?”
Klbkch and Relc both nodded. Relc was eying his partner, but the ant man was intent.
“Please, believe me. It will heal you.”
Erin stared into his eyes. They were compound eyes, large ones. Brown and fractal. Like an ant’s. And they were creepy as hell, but Erin decided she could still trust them.
She gripped the potion tightly in her left hand and poured it slowly over the open wound on her right hand. She gasped in shock. Klbkch instantly checked her hand.
“Are you alright?”
“It—it doesn’t hurt!”
Relc snorted gently. It sounded like a leaf blower starting up.
“Of course not. Why would anyone make a healing potion that hurts when you use it? But look at that!”
He pointed. Erin’s eyes went down to the cut in her hand. It was closing up with amazing speed. The flesh was joining together, and in an instant, the entire cut vanished. She gaped.
Klbkch plucked the half-empty bottle from her hands before she dropped it. She was too busy poking at her hand to realize, but when he’d stoppered the bottle, she turned and gave him a huge hug.
“Apologies. It is unwise to hug those with exoskeletons. Please, are you hurt?”
Erin stood back and rubbed at where his pointy bits had poked her.
“No, no I’m not. And how can I—I can’t thank you enough. That—that was a healing potion, right? How can I repay you for—”
She cast around for something to give him, but Klbkch held up one of his…hands.
“Please, it was nothing. That was merely a low-grade healing potion of no great worth. Let us call it payment for the meal. Unless, of course, you object?”
Erin looked around, flustered, and shook her head rapidly.
“Oh no, thank you. I mean, this is probably worth—can I get you another plate? Or—or you could come back. I’ll feed you two again if you want—”
“I will accept gladly. But for now I am full, and I believe it is time to be going. We would not wish to intrude upon your hospitality for too long.”
Relc paused as he gulped down more blue fruit juice.
His partner turned to face him, looking the same, but he lowered his mandibles and he sounded mildly exasperated.
“We are still on duty, if you recall. The Captain will be expecting a report. If we do return, we will have more time to socialize.”
Relc considered this with a nod for logic. Then he held up a finger.
“Or, and hear me out. Or…we could have more food and stay here longer.”
Klbkch stared at him until the finger lowered by itself.
“I am sure you would prefer that. But we are being paid to work, not to enjoy ourselves. Moreover, you are eating all of this Human’s dinner.”
Relc glanced at the table. He stood up immediately.
“Right. Well, let’s be going. Um, sorry about that, Miss. Here, let me just pay for the food…”
Erin tried to protest, but a scaly hand prized hers open gently and deposited several copper coins and two silver ones into her palm.
“I insist. That blue drink is really good by the way.”
“Well, we’ll be off then. Good night to you.”
The two left the inn. Erin watched them go. The door closed, and she heard them speaking lightly about reporting back and filing…
Then she heard nothing at all. Erin went to go sit down and ended up sitting on the floor. She stared at the door. She stayed sitting for another hour in complete, stunned, gratified shock.
She was trying to figure out what had just happened.
Relc and Klbkch left the inn. They began walking through the grass under the night sky. It was cool, but both moved quickly. Each one scanned the landscape as they walked and kept their hands on the spear and swords at their sides. They weren’t nervous, just wary.
However, they were also moving a lot faster than average to get back to the city before complete nightfall; they had to clock out and file that report. This patrol had taken longer than they thought, but they were so busy thinking that it took five minutes before Relc finally broke the silence. He turned to Klbkch and murmured.
“What a lonely girl.”
“Is she female? I could not tell with complete accuracy. She sounded so, but I have met few Humans in social settings.”
Relc nodded wisely and glanced over his shoulder.
“I can. It’s the things on her chest.”
“Mammary glands? Breasts, I think they’re referred to. Or maybe the word is tits.”
“Really? I thought those were birds.”
“That is what I heard some small Humans saying once. But she’s female. And young, correct?”
The Drake nodded slowly, frowning back at the old inn.
“Yeah, I’d bet on it. I’m not sure why a Human would be out here anyways, let alone in that place.”
“Inquiring into other’s personal affairs is only a matter for the Guards while we’re on duty. Respecting another’s personal space is a principle of social interaction.”
Relc elbowed him, but Klbkch had sidled out of range.
“Shut up. She just seems lonely, that’s all. Why else would a Human female want to hang out with a Drake and an overgrown bug?”
Klbkch was silent for a while.
“Do you believe she is a lawbreaker or fearful for her life?”
Relc shook his head again.
“Even if she was, who’d hide there? You’d have to be mad, or be a [Warrior] or [Survivor] to want to live by yourself. Plus, the plague! Do I look sick? Am I oozing?”
The Drake checked himself with vague paranoia, but Klbkch shook his head.
“It was almost certainly safe as I and Watch Captain Zevara assured you repeatedly, Relc. Besides, that young woman’s presence is proof enough. She would be dead within the day if the disease were still deadly.”
“Bet she didn’t know. And her expression when we walked in—she’s never seen a Drake or an Ant before in her life.”
“I would prefer that you call my species by their proper name.”
Relc ignored that. He glanced over his shoulder.
“What do you think? I bet she’s some kind of runaway or a child that got lost separated from her clan. Do Humans have clans? Or is it all [Lords] and [Ladies]? Maybe she’s not even from this continent.”
He waited for more speculation, but the ant-man had turned his head and was refusing to speak. Relc glowered, but then grudgingly snapped.
“Fine. Antinium. Happy?”
Klbkch replied at once, as if nothing had happened.
“Her being a runaway would be most likely. I find it hard to believe any Human would wander so far into the grasslands by accident, and she did not seem to be looking for directions. Her magical teleportation story is also possible, but why would she not have asked to be taken to the Mage’s Guild? It is clearly a cover story.”
“You are correct in at least one definition of the word. But speculation is pointless in any case. We investigated the smoke, and now we can make our report. She is not breaking the law in any case since the inn was abandoned nearly three years ago.”
“What about the Dragon? Do you think she made that up?”
Klbkch hesitated and glanced at Relc. His pincers made a clicking sound as they came together in thought.
“She was not lying, at least not intentionally. But it is possible she was mistaken.”
“Yeah. A Dragon? Really?”
Relc laughed, and the Antinium shrugged.
“It seems more likely that she was hallucinating. However…she may have run into a fire-breathing salamander. I cannot imagine she would survive an encounter with a real Dragon. Armies would not.”
“Plus, we’d know if a Dragon lived around here. They’re pretty obvious.”
More silence. At last, Relc summed up the contents of their report.
“So…scared Human female? Not a threat? Probably a traveller? Makes good pasta?”
“That was my assessment.”
“Right, right. Let’s tell the Captain and get some sleep. Or rather, I’ll sleep and you do—whatever Ants do to sleep. Sitting-sleeping or whatever.”
“Agreed. And it is very restful. You should attempt it sometime.”
The two walked in silence for quite some time. The road back to the city was long, and in any case, they were still alert for potential dangers that might be sneaking up on them. Not that either had much to fear from most predators so long as they kept their eyes and earholes open, but you never knew.
After a long time, Klbkch broke the silence.
“So, shall we return tomorrow?”
Relc blinked and looked at his partner in disbelief. Because he had been about to say the exact same thing, and he was sure Klbkch would shoot it down.
“Oh, definitely. Right after work?”
“We may be able to fit checking in there as part of our duties if we convince the Captain it is necessary.”
Relc slapped Klbkch on the back of his shell in delight.
“Klb! That’s so devious! We can waste hours and say it was all an investigation! Now you’re thinking like a Drake!”
“I will endeavor not to in the future.”
“Go roast yourself.”
They walked on for another few minutes until Relc broke the silence again. There was just one last thing he had to bring up. He eyed his partner, looking amused, but Klbkch refused to respond. Relc indicated the empty bottle hanging at Klbkch’s belt.
“So, a lesser healing potion of no worth, huh? You know, I’ve never heard you lie like that?”
The Antinium’s voice was calm as he replied.
“Would you have had me tell her the true value?”
“No, no. It’s for the best. Mind you, I think she figured it out.”
“How are you going to explain that to the Captain, huh? That’s supposed to be special-issue. We won’t even get another shipment of that quality for months, probably! All the way from Pallass once the Bloodfields are frozen.”
The Antinium was unmoved.
“I did not believe a lesser one would be worth the risk. I shall make do with a replacement, and I will deduct the cost from my pay. Besides which, it was used to protect a civilian.”
Relc rolled his eyes.
“You’re a regular do-gooder, huh? Trying to level up your…[Good Person] class? Is that a class?”
“You know fully well that I have no levels in any class of the kind. I was merely being kind.”
“Sure, suuuure you were.”
“I have no sexual attraction towards Humans. Unlike you.”
“Me? I don’t like Humans. They’re scaleless, hairy, and they smell funny. I mean, this one’s nice, but I definitely wouldn’t want to see what it looks like under those clothes.”
“Mm. It’s not very interesting. They are very fleshy.”
The two walked on in silence. Eventually, Relc spoke again.
“—It’s not that I’m not interested. I have an open mind! I wouldn’t mind looking. If I was offered. They’ve got nothing on good scales, but I could get over the fleshiness. Maybe.”
The two were almost in sight of the walls now, and Relc waved up at the figures watching them. He turned to Klbkch, but the inn wasn’t even visible from here. The Drake smiled, and Klbkch nodded.
“She was quite interesting in any case. It was pleasant talking to her.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m glad we didn’t have to kill her.”
Erin sat against one wall. She was falling asleep. She wanted to run around screaming about lizardmen—Drakes—walking ants, and a crazy world but that was passé. Besides, she’d already done that for a few hours anyway.
Her mind was swimming. Her eyes were drooping. Erin was about to fall asleep. But her hand didn’t hurt. So she was smiling.
At last her mind finally blanked. Erin’s breathing deepened, and her eyes closed.
[Innkeeper Level 5!]
[Skill – Basic Crafting obtained!]
Blearily, the young woman stared up into the darkness.
“…Just let me sleep.”
She closed her eyes once more, but she was still smiling as she drifted off.
Erin woke up with a big smile on her face.
Actually, she woke up and went back to sleep several times before the sunlight got too bright to ignore. But when she eventually got up and ate breakfast, she got around to the big smile.
It came when she was eating more blue fruit and she realized she was using two hands. Erin had to stop and stare at her right palm for a while. She poked the clean, unscarred, uncut skin and grinned.
“Healing potions are awesome.”
She sat back in her chair, flexing her healed hand. It didn’t hurt. It was amazing how much it didn’t hurt. And she owed it all to a giant ant man and a lizard…Drake. What were their names again?
“Klbkch and…Drake Guy.”
Erin sighed as the memories returned and gave her a hard time.
“Seriously. They were so normal. But apparently I’m normal too. There are other Humans around here at least. But leveling? Classes? Am I an Innkeeper? Do I innkeep? How does that work?”
Then she remembered something else.
“I leveled up again.”
Erin poked her chest. She felt there should be some sense of accomplishment from within, but all she felt was vaguely full. But she remembered.
“[Basic Crafting]. Might as well give it a shot. I’m out of fruit, anyways.”
It was an uneventful trip to the blue fruit trees. As Erin gazed up at the blue fruits, she wondered for the first time how many there were left to eat. She counted.
“…Looks like I’ve got a few weeks before I run out. But bleh, eating just blue fruit all the time would be disgusting. At least there’s some ingredients left for pasta if I can find more eggs.”
But what would happen when her small cupboard ran out? What then?
Erin touched the pocket of her jeans and heard the clink of coins. Right, she had some money. But how much was it? And more importantly, how could she spend it? It wasn’t as if she could eat metal.
Grumbling to herself, Erin loaded up with blue fruits. It was getting annoying carrying them all by hand. She dropped a lot of them, which bruised the skin and made the fruit taste mushy. So why not try making something?
Erin stared at the ground. She had…grass. She stared at the trees. She had wood. But she had no way of cutting that wood, so it was no good. She didn’t know how to make things. Even if you gave her…rope, or string, and pieces of wood or something, Erin didn’t see how that equated to a basket.
Yet as she stared at the grass, something in Erin’s head lit up. She frowned suddenly.
“Wait a second. Maybe that could work. Let’s see. If I take this long grass and tie this knot here…”
Erin hunkered down and started picking the longer clumps of grass and testing their durability. She started tying knots and cutting with the knife.
Knots? Erin knew the most basic, weakest knots where you just folded two sides of string over each other and the shoelace knot, but she couldn’t tie that unless she had a…shoe. However, suddenly, she was weaving the grass together in ways she hadn’t thought of. But now that she was doing it—it was obvious. If you had big pieces of fabric, string, or grass, of course you could tie them together to form a net. And that would be the base of your basket…
It was like someone had bridged the tentative idea from what she needed with actual understanding. Erin found she had to focus on her task—she couldn’t just go on autopilot, but at the same time there was a certainty in what she was doing. And in less than twenty minutes, she was looking at a basket made of grass.
Erin held up the basket and inspected it. It was lightweight, but durable. Wide strands at the bottom wove together to form a decent mesh, and it even had a handle made of three big leaves braided together! She experimentally tossed all the blue fruits she’d gathered into it and lifted it. The grass basket pulled downwards, but the woven handle didn’t tear.
It was a real basket. Made of grass.
Was it tacky? Yes. Did she feel like she should be dancing with pom poms on a deserted island? Yes. Was that a terrible thought to have? Probably. And should she feel ashamed of herself? Erin already was. But she had a basket.
And more importantly, she had a plan.
What could you do with a basket? Well, you could eat and walk at the same time since you had a free hand. Erin cored a few blue fruits and hung on to the seed pods. Then she went looking for eggs.
It took her about an hour before she found another nest. When she spotted the telltale brown shape hunkering in the long grass, Erin stomped over, making as much noise as possible.
This time, the thing that erupted from the grass didn’t fly away immediately. Instead, the dino-bird screeched and dove at her. Erin stood her ground, reached into her basket, and threw a seed core.
But the flying object spooked the bird. The giant pterodactyl wavered and then flew away as Erin hurled more seed cores at it. She laughed triumphantly and rushed to grab the eggs.
That was when the bird turned around and flew at her, pecking and trying to bite her. It wasn’t afraid of the seed cores after all. And it had a sharp beak.
Only when she was sure that the dino-bird had gone did Erin stop running. She stopped and covered one of the numerous bloody peck marks on her arms and back and tried not to shout.
At least it hadn’t been bigger. Erin had managed to smack it a few times until it stopped trying to bite her face off. But that didn’t mean she’d gotten away unscathed.
Erin hissed as she pressed on another bite. She wanted nothing more than to get some cold water on them. Too bad there were more suspicious rocks in the way. Actually, there were about six of them, spaced out across the grasslands. Well, her trick hadn’t worked on the birds, but rock-crabs were a different matter.
On her way back, Erin pasted two of the rock crabs with the slimy seed cores when they shuffled at her. They didn’t like the noxious liquid that splashed their shells and retreated with loud clicks. Erin wiped off the foul-smelling juice from her hands and walked past the crabs triumphantly.
It was just past midday when Erin got back to the inn. At least she’d stopped bleeding on her walk back. She made it halfway through the inn’s door, blinked, and threw up.
Erin stopped gagging and retching long enough to stare at the pool of liquefied blue fruit in horror. Then she was sick again. And again.
Somehow, Erin made it to the stream. It was a combination of walking fast and pausing every few minutes to throw up that got her there. She didn’t so much jump into the stream as fall into it and begin shivering as whatever was hitting her really went to town.
The next hour saw her kneeling at the stream, gargling water, puking it up, and watching out for the crazy fish. Fortunately, they didn’t seem inclined to get near her. Actually, she saw one swim towards her and start nibbling at the contents of her stomach as it washed downstream. That was gross.
Erin washed her mouth and hands off for the tenth time and felt the shaking and nausea stop a bit.
“What—what was that?”
Erin could only mumble as she stared into the water. She moved her head—not so much out of desire for movement as to watch for the dangerous flatfish.
The fish that had been eating her vomit was floating belly-up in the water. Erin saw the other fish were avoiding it just like they were avoiding her.
“…Poison. Gotta be.”
But what had it come from? As she lay there, the young woman tried to identify the causes. Her first thought was the pasta. The pasta, sausages…
But no, Klbkch had said if she was oozing she was sick. This felt like bad food poisoning. It could be the pasta. Or—or was she sick because of contact with the Drake guy? The bug-people might have horrible diseases.
Yet the fish was dead. So that felt more like it was something Erin had eaten. So, logically, she had two culprits.
Pasta made of dino eggs and sausage. Or…the blue fruits.
Given both as options, Erin knew which one she suspected. But she didn’t eat the seed cores! Were the blue fruits dangerous?
On a vague hunch, Erin looked around and saw the basket of blue fruits still lying on the ground where she’d dropped them to be sick in the stream. She picked one up and stared at it.
“You look innocent. But maybe…”
She did exactly what she normally did to eat it, except with her fingers instead of teeth. Erin delved into the pulpy fruit, resisting the urge to take a bite and stared at the seed cores inside.
It looked like they weren’t broken. It looked, therefore, like this fruit was good. On a hunch, Erin tossed the blue fruit pieces into the stream. They sank a bit in the clear water, and she wondered if the water was bad too—she should have really boiled everything she drank. However, she had the most suspicion about the seed cores that scared the rock crabs so much.
The first flatfish had been avoiding her and whatever had killed its friend, but it apparently had short-term memory problems because it ungainly leapt and swallowed the pieces of the blue fruit she tossed into the water. Erin watched it as it spat out a bit, but apparently decided the rest was digestible, even if it wasn’t the flesh it so clearly craved.
“Okay. How about…”
The seed cores didn’t crack as she gently lobbed them into the water and bobbed down the brisk current. The fish investigated them—and to Erin’s amusement, gingerly closed its teeth around the seed core and gave it a tentative nibble. It crunched down the seed core then began to spit out fragments and a bit of ugly greenish-blue from the pulp. All four eyes swung around crazily as the awkward fish shook its body in clear revulsion.
“Must taste bad, huh?”
The fish zoomed around unhappily as Erin watched. Then it grew slower, and Erin saw it open its mouth wide and then it began vomiting the contents of its stomach up. She watched a replay of what had happened to her. Only this time—within two minutes—the fish was dead.
A chill ran down Erin’s back as she saw the second corpse floating downstream. Those fish weren’t as big as her, but that one had eaten one seed core and—she looked down at the blue fruits in horror.
No wonder the dino-birds, rock crabs, or other animals, even birds and worms and stuff, didn’t try to eat them! Only she was stupid enough to try—and the Goblins. She must have been lucky! Some of the seed cores might have leaked poison or something into some of the fruits she ate so she didn’t notice due to the sweet taste.
And then I eat too many and die. Only, I was spared because of random chance. Erin shuddered. She clenched her hands.
It wasn’t fair! Her one secure food source, good-tasting food, turned out to be poison. It was just like the acid flies, the fish, the cupboard—everything was out to get her.
Except for the two friendly [Guards], and they were gone. Erin put her head down.
“Do I just eat what’s in the cupboard and fight dino-birds? If I can’t eat the blue fruits…”
Her survival chances were dropping rapidly. Yet Erin looked at the basket of inviting blue fruits and saw them completely differently. No longer this world’s versions of apples or oranges—they were alien fruits, and she was lucky she hadn’t died eating the first one.
Glumly, Erin was about to toss all the blue fruits in the stream when she decided she could at least harvest the definitely-deadly poisonous cores as a rock crab deterrent. Then, as she was lying there, trying not to cry or puke—she heard a sound.
It sounded like—Erin sat up.
Oh no. Not now. She scrambled around and then crawled over to an incline and rolled down the other side.
The band of Goblins were six in total. Three with weapons, three with baskets of their own. In fact…they even looked vaguely familiar. One had a lot of bruises, and Erin recognized it as the one she’d slapped—mainly from the huge mark on its face.
The non-combatants were odder. They were small, wearing ragged, dirty cloth that looked far too big for them. One, for instance, had what was just a tunic for a regular person dragging on the ground, it was so short.
Those were the ones carrying baskets. Grass baskets, like Erin’s. And in fact—they had buckets too. Buckets made of what looked like…Erin hesitated as she peeked up from the lip of the slope she was hiding behind.
Shells? It looked like some kind of chitin. Not the Klbkch guy; it was too small, and too…she hesitated.
It looked like a spider shell, only hollowed and taped together with something sticky to make a crude basin. A big, big spider.
As it turned out, the Goblins were using it to collect water. They gazed around furtively as their leader poked the others and pointed.
They didn’t speak that Erin heard, only dipped their containers into the water. And—she noticed—they had baskets of blue fruit too.
The young woman realized she was occupying the exact same ecological niche as Goblins. That didn’t make her feel great, but they hadn’t seen her; for once, the unique topography of this area meant that she was less than twenty feet away and invisible unless they climbed up and saw her from above.
She hoped they wouldn’t take long to do their business. Then Erin hoped they didn’t use the stream as anything like a restroom. Or even bath, because she might be downriver of them! Then issues of hygiene and water contamination fled her mind as she heard a snarl.
One of the Goblins had found her grass basket. And spotted one of the dead fish floating downriver. It pointed at the basket, and all the Goblins looked up. Erin tensed as they investigated. She was still feeling vomit-y, but she had been healed and there were only three with knives. If it came to it—she could definitely run away and get to the inn. But what were they doing?
They were investigating the basket, poking each other and making odd gestures, again, completely in silence. Then the smallest Goblin did something that fascinated Erin.
The littlest Goblin hated getting water. It was heavy, and the big Goblins made her carry it. But she couldn’t fight well, and sometimes they had to fight spiders or other things. And they hit her if she complained.
They’d already gotten blue fruits, and the basket was heavy, so the little Goblin kept trying to hang it on different limbs as they went to fill the buckets. She felt like if she carried it on her back, she wouldn’t hurt her arms.
But when one of the Goblins who could make baskets saw her fraying the grass with her efforts, she hit the littlest Goblin, and the sniffing little Goblin carried her burdens in silence.
They were lucky; there was nothing hunting them when they got to the stream. After a few big mouthfuls of water, the group was ready to bring water back to the tribe and [Chieftain] when they found the basket.
That was odd. One of the warriors pointed at the basket, and all six Goblins checked themselves. Three had baskets of blue fruit, and the other three didn’t carry baskets.
But there were…one…two…three…four baskets. The lead Goblin was suspicious as the littlest Goblin looked around. There were no more Goblins gathering food, much less the blue fruits. Had one forgotten a basket?
It looked—good. Well-made. Most of the other Goblins who could craft baskets were lazy and made cheap ones because they fell apart soon. This one was nice, and the littlest Goblin wanted it.
Perhaps someone had forgotten it here. The bigger Goblins decided it was more food, and who cared where it came from? That meant one less Goblin had to make a trip to get the blue fruits.
It didn’t seem to occur to them that maybe it hadn’t come from Goblins at all. The littlest Goblin tugged at arms and pointed urgently.
What if it came from the inn? What if the Human had made it?
The others laughed silently in her face. Humans had real baskets of wood and metal! The littlest Goblin thought it made sense. The Human girl had been around the blue fruits and she was at that inn.
But they just poked her, and since her idea was stupid, she had to carry both baskets and the water.
That was so unfair the littlest Goblin protested. She swung her fists wildly at one of the warriors, who kicked her into the stream. She had to swim out before the fish got her and lay, sulking, on the ground. However, her defiance had worked, and the grumbling warriors decided one of them would carry the water bucket.
But she still had to carry both baskets! The littlest Goblin decided that was the best she could get, so she rolled around in the grass as one of the older Goblins who gathered fruits all the time decided to inspect the mysterious extra basket. Instantly, the [Gatherer]’s face twisted up, and the older Goblin snapped at the littlest Goblin to come over and help.
Some of the fruits were bad. What idiot Goblin had harvested these?
These Goblins were weird.
Erin had expected to get a movie-like scene from the Goblins where they said ‘let’s eat the Humans’ or something evil. But they weren’t like that. They didn’t…speak.
But they did pantomime a lot and seemed to be able to read each other’s minds. Could Goblins do that? They also seemed bored, and the ones with weapons were bullies! They’d kicked the little one into the stream, and now they were taking her basket!
Bullies and thieves. Erin bit her lip. She could remake that basket, but it was the first one she’d made! Plus her food was being taken. Her—admittedly poisonous blue fruits.
Okay, they could have that, but please, leave the basket! Erin watched as an older Goblin with what looked like a spider’s claw shoved through her black hair as a…hairpin?…investigated the basket.
Then she seemed upset and made a loud eigk-ing sound, the first sound any Goblin had really made aside from chortles or grunts, and beckoned the little Goblin over. To Erin’s indignation, she began tossing blue fruits out of the basket!
The little Goblin seemed as confused as Erin. She poked at one and got a swat from the older Goblin as she tried to add it to her collection. What was wrong with the fruits on the ground?
They were all poisonous. The littlest Goblin recoiled from one bad blue fruit and wiped her claws on her wet shirt as the [Gatherer] sorted the basket. It wasn’t just experience that told the older Goblin this.
It was her Skill.
[Detect Poison]. These were bad, these were bad…by the time she sorted the basket, only the fruits without a trace of badness were left. Half were scattered on the ground. She’d have to re-check these ones when they got back to the cave, too.
The littlest Goblin peered at the bad blue fruits. They didn’t seem bad to her. But she knew if you ate the nasty thing inside, you’d be dead in an hour. Bad, stomach-screaming, frothing-mouth-death.
One of the bad ways to go, even worse than spider-death. No, actually, spider-death seemed worse still, but both hurt a lot.
The little Goblin was curious, though, so as the older Goblins decided to take a break before heading back to their cave, she produced a tiny little knife and began opening the fruits. If these were bad…
She begged for one blue fruit, and since they had extra, all the Goblins ate one from the extra basket. They didn’t have to tell the [Chieftain]. The littlest Goblin cut them up and removed the seed cores and tossed them into the stream, and got to stare at the good blue fruits and the bad ones. She cut up three bad ones and then smiled.
Oh! That was how it worked.
The bigger Goblins watched the small Goblin out of the corners of their eyes. She was very young and very odd. Even for small Goblins. She’d smile or stare at things that made no sense, or collect rocks and sticks.
And now this? The littlest Goblin didn’t seem interested in eating the poisonous fruit, which was good, so they took a brief nap then left. They didn’t understand why she smiled. Nor did the young woman watching until she crawled out of hiding.
Erin felt like throwing up again by the time the Goblins had gone. Not because of them stealing her basket—the poison was still in her system.
However, she was curious as to the little Goblin’s antics. She clearly knew the fruits lying all about were bad—and just as obviously, at least one of the Goblins had identified the poisonous ones.
“Huh. Can Goblins smell poison? Wait…wait. That Relc guy said they have Skills. Do you get Skills to tell if there’s bad fruits? [Bad Fruit Detector]? No way.”
But how else would the other Goblins do that? Super-smell? If so, she should have picked up on Erin. The young woman didn’t know, but the little Goblin’s actions made her most curious. So she squatted down and stared at the pieces of blue fruit.
She was confused, not only by the blue fruit analysis, but by the Goblins. They were definitely horrible and had tried to kill her at least five times, but they had tools like buckets and even—it seemed—Skills. Did that mean they had classes?
They were still monsters, and Erin supposed even monsters had to eat. But even so—it was odd. Now, what had the little Goblin, the one wearing all rags, found?
Perhaps it was nothing, but Erin had seen that smile of satisfaction. She peered for a long time at the ‘bad’ blue fruits.
“I think I need to figure out what a good one looks like.”
Unfortunately, the Goblins had eaten their snack and so Erin had to go all the way back to the blue fruit trees—carefully, watching out for crabs and Goblins. But since they’d already gone foraging, she reasoned they were unlikely to come back.
She did a round trip with an armful of fruits and sat, creating another basket by the river as she tried to cross-reference her fruits with the bad ones.
The problem was, Erin had no idea whether the fruits she had were good. She wished she had whatever the other Goblin had—a way to tell what was safe or not. That was a Skill, and Erin began understanding how valuable it was.
“I could eat mushrooms! Or…maybe not mushrooms because ick. Or bugs? Wait—that’s just as bad. Plants, then. Herbs. And blue fruits. Okay—this fruit and this fruit and this fruit.”
She took three random ones from her collection and put them in the ‘I have no idea’ pile. Then she organized the ones the Goblin had opened in the ‘definitely probably deadly’ pile. After that? It was a game of spot the differences.
Embarrassingly, it took Erin over fifteen minutes, far longer than the little Goblin, to identify what the distinction was. And then of course she tested it by tossing it into the stream and watching which fish really seemed unhappy as the bad fruits ran through their system. Erin supposed many creatures that weren’t…people? Mammals? They seemed to suffer the effects of blue fruit poisoning a lot faster than her.
“Aha! So that’s all it is?”
Mystified, Erin looked down at the bad fruits. She saw almost identical interiors to the good ones. You couldn’t tell if the seed cores were smashed and mixing with the fruit from the inside.
At least—not from the coloration of the blue fruit, or even the smell. Taste? The blue fruits were so sweet it’d be hard to identify, and by that point, you were putting poison in your mouth.
The trick had taken Erin a long while to figure out, but since she knew the little Goblin had seen something, she’d eventually begun prodding the pieces of fruit, wondering if it was just noticing bits of seed core.
Then she saw the difference: all the bad blue fruits were wet. To be more precise, they were actively juicy. Blue liquid ran from the pieces, whereas the other blue fruits refused to produce juice except where they were torn and only when you chewed or mashed them up.
Erin had noticed when she made the blue fruit juice that she’d had to really mash the pieces up to produce the juice. However, in the bad sample group, the fruits were actively watery.
“Maybe the poison is making the fruit like—wetter? Or it’s making the fruit weaker?”
Or perhaps the poison was killing the fruit rind outside the seed. The longer Erin stared, the more the bad fruits seemed to be actively going through rapid decomposition before her eyes. Turning to mushy, nasty pulp.
The blue fruits, the good ones, tasted more like oranges in texture; you had to bite and extract the sweet. The bad ones were actively mushing due to the seed cores being compromised.
Erin’s test group of evil fishies certainly seemed to back up her findings; they kept eating the pieces of blue fruit she tossed to them, but they began spitting out the bad ones after a few bites.
As if they could also tell. Well, Erin didn’t want to rely on Goblins and biting fish for evidence of poison, but she had to admit—they seemed to have figured it out.
She gathered up all the remaining blue fruits thoughtfully and put them in her basket. She’d check them all before eating back at the inn. And she’d eat very, very sparingly of the ones that looked good, the juice-test or not.
If she got sick, hopefully it would only be lightly. Erin didn’t relish that, but she’d rely on pasta and eggs over the blue fruits for a few days. At least she had something to try.
“And all because of that little Goblin. Huh.”
Erin stared back at where the Goblins had been. That was the most pleasant encounter she’d had with them—mostly because they hadn’t known she was here. Then a thought occurred to her, and her face fell.
“Aw. No. Oh no. Am I…dumber than Goblins?”
The longer than expected outing had one benefit. Erin was mostly over her food poisoning bout as she returned to the inn. She still had a vague desire to retch, but it was mostly gone. Erin climbed up the hill, shuddering at how close it had been. She’d gotten off lucky, she supposed. It had only been an hour or so of feeling terrible. If it were actually serious—
Erin had to stop and smile. Serious? Back when she hadn’t been struggling to survive, oh, three days ago, being that sick would have ended up with her in bed for the next week.
“And I’d have a team of doctors feeding me pills by the pound too.”
She laughed softly. Then her smile vanished. Erin covered her face with her palm.
And then she walked on. It was getting dark. She couldn’t stop yet. Whether or not she knew it—she was in too much danger.
Something was watching her. And waiting for nightfall.
The key to distracting oneself was motion. Erin moved around the inn and kept busy. She cleaned the vomit off the floor, washed the plates as best she could with some of the water, helped herself to a bit of pasta, and brought out more plates and silverware to the common room. Then she stored the eggs and blue fruit away in one of the cupboards, went upstairs, and cleaned a few rooms. She was moving, but really, she was waiting.
“They said they’d visit. But did they mean that or are they busy? Either way, I can always make more pasta and save some for later, right?”
She had a pot full of hot pasta in the kitchen, and she’d served and eaten her own plate of buttery noodles with blue fruit juice before she realized it was dark. Hopefully, Erin stared out one of the windows, but the grasslands were empty. The sky was so amazingly vast, the stars so numerous. It was beautiful, frightening. Erin would have loved to stare at it if she were at home, yet what she was really hoping to see were two figures. But she didn’t.
“They must be busy.”
Erin sighed to herself. But it wasn’t that early in the night after all. She could wait.
The young woman sat at the table, her stomach full, her clothes torn and dirty, her eyes drooping. But every few minutes, her eyes flicked to the stout wooden door. She was waiting.
Senior Guardsman Relc stretched in his chair in the Guard’s barracks. It wasn’t too crowded in the early evening, most guardsmen having checked out already or begun their evening patrols. Those who remained in the building were almost entirely Drakes, aside from a few tall, furry, humanoid [Guardsmen]. And they were all busy with their own tasks.
There was only one exception to the two species in the Watch barracks, and that was him. Klbkch. Relc cast an irritable eye over at the large, hunched insect hovering over a table next to him. Klbkch was industriously writing in a large ledger, pausing every few moments to dip his quill into a pot of ink.
“Are you done logging out for the day yet?”
Klbkch made a precise notation with a quill on a sheet of parchment. He glanced up, and his dry voice was devoid of exasperation by most standards, but Relc could tell his partner was annoyed. It was the subtle clues, like the way Klbkch stared at him with two arms crossed.
A lot of the new [Guards] couldn’t tell anything about Klbkch—not that they got near him. He was Antinium, and even if he was Senior Guardsman Klbkch, everyone knew who he was and what he represented. But then—this was Liscor, not the army or another city.
Liscor was unique, so you actually had a guardsman duo of Relc and Klbkch. The Antinium clicked his mandibles, and his voice was annoyed.
“There. I have signed us both out. Again.”
“Great. Thanks. Now, wanna go check on that Human? I hear—”
A female Drake shouted at Relc from across the room. She was nowhere as large as Relc, and she wore chainmail and a sword at her hip as she stomped up to him.
“Senior Guardsman Relc, belay that! There’s a brawl in the marketplace. Get over there and stop the fighting!”
He sat up and groaned. Klbkch turned as the Drake pointed. She had light blue scales, almost cobalt, and bright yellow eyes. She also had her badge of office pinned to her chest and—whenever she was talking to Relc—a vexed glare. Right now, the vexation was for the idiots fighting. Relc protested.
“What? Some idiot had to start a fight now of all times? We were going to go back and—”
“Shut up and get moving! I need everyone there, now.”
“But—we’re signed out—”
“We’ll count your hours later, move!”
The Drake strode off, already snapping at another patrol who rushed for the door. Relc stayed where he was for a moment, mouth open in protest. Then he swung himself to his feet.
Klbkch was already signing them back in and checking his gear. He sighed but nodded to Relc. Despite his grumblings, the [Spearmaster] was on his feet fast.
“A pity. Let’s be on our way.”
They headed for the door, and the rest of the [Guards] called for the brawl fell in behind them. They had clubs, truncheons, and shields; neither Relc nor Klbkch went for their spear and swords. Relc made one huge fist and glared at the female Drake in disgust.
“What a pain. Let’s smack some scales-for-brains quick. Maybe we’ll still have time to go to the inn afterwards.”
Klbkch shook his head slowly. He was calculating and reminded Relc of the obvious.
“You know we will be called upon to go after those who got away. And there is damage assessment, guard detail, investigating any burglaries during the violence…”
“Do not fret. The Human will not be going anywhere.”
“I know, I know. But I was going to eat more pasta and—”
The angry shout made Relc wince and cover the two holes on the side of his head. The female Drake was pointing as she headed back for the second floor.
“Alright, let’s go. Man, I really hate Captain Z.”
That was his name for her. Klbkch looked reprovingly at Relc as they marched out the doors.
“Don’t insult the Watch Captain while we are within earshot.”
“She can eat my scales. Let’s go and get this over with.”
They sighed as they got back to work. Relc sighed even louder because his stomach was grumbling and he’d promised it pasta. Late shifts and overtime pay, which was nice. But for what? He’d have to grab a snack at midnight, not a proper meal, and visit the inn tomorrow. It was okay for Klbkch; he had no life. But Relc?
He just hoped the [Innkeeper] wouldn’t stay up waiting for him.
Erin sat at the bar counter in the inn and waited. All was perfect.
Well, all was sorta perfect. It was at least acceptable. She had a basket of the blue fruits, more pasta in a large pot, and she’d even drawn a fresh bucket of water from the stream. She had very nearly spotless plates and silverware, and, all in all, she was ready for some guests.
If they’d ever arrive. At first, Erin kept checking the door every few minutes, even going to the window to see if she could spot them. But then she found herself leaning back in her chair, waiting—it had been a long day of walking back and forth on top of being sick. She supposed she was still recovering, because she was very, very tired. She wanted to eat, but she was waiting for Relc and Klbkch.
Eventually, Erin’s eyes drooped. Her breathing slowed. She fell asleep while dreaming she was still waiting and awake. She was counting blue fruits with the little Goblin when—
Erin woke up with a start. She raised her head and looked around groggily. It was dark. The inn had gone from faint light to no light in what felt like a heartbeat. The set table was almost shrouded as she sat up.
They never came. Or wait—what was this?
Something was at the door. The pounding was low and steady. Erin wiped the drool off of her chin and got up from the table. She must have fallen asleep waiting. But here they were. She stumbled over to the door and shivered.
Odd. The nights were somewhat chilly, but right now it was actually cold. Actually, it wasn’t just cold. It was…frosty?
The door’s handle was covered in a thin layer of ice. From behind the door, Erin sensed something chilling, and she could feel a cold draft blowing from beneath the crack. Or was that the shivering sensation running down her spine?
Erin jumped back from the door. That wasn’t knocking. Something was hitting the door. Hard.
“Hey. Who’s there?”
She wished her voice wasn’t so wobbly.
Was it a whisper? No. It was more like an echo. It sounded like a loud voice coming from thousands of miles away, and it had an unearthly quality to it. No voice could be so deep, so spine-chilling.
“Um. We’re closed. S-sorry.”
The something on the other side of the door…chuckled. It was probably a chuckle. It was wet and gurgling.
“It matters not. I require sustenance. Food. Provide that to me, and I shall be on my way.”
Food? As in the fleshy variety? Erin shuddered.
“I don’t have any. Go away!”
“I will not be denied. Open this door or face my wrath.”
That was enough for Erin. She backed away from the door.
“I’m warning you! Come in and I’ll, I’ll…”
She looked around desperately. It was too dark, and she’d forgotten where she’d put the Goblins’ knives. Weapon. She needed a weapon.
“Do not anger me further. If you refuse my simple request, I will—”
She didn’t wait to see what the voice would do. She could guess. Instead, Erin ran to the kitchen. She needed a weapon. A knife, a piece of wood, a spatula, anything.
Erin’s hand had found the handle of a pot when the scrape of wood made her breath stop. She’d forgotten. She’d been waiting for Klbkch and his friend. So that meant—
The door was still unlocked.
Something was pushing the door open. Erin sprinted back to the door and threw her weight against it. She knocked back whatever it was, but she couldn’t close the door fully. It was in the way.
“This is unwise. Your insolence will only bring about more punishment.”
The creature hissed at Erin. She could hear it right outside the door. It was pushing, trying to get the door open. But Erin was fueled by pure fear, and she somehow managed to keep the door where it was.
“Mistress. All I ask for is a bit of food. Provide me that and I shall be on my way.”
The skeletal creature reached its hand through the doorway. Something dark dripped down out of its bones. It splashed against the wood and vanished. It’s face was—that wasn’t a Human’s skeleton. It was a mask of elongated bone, as long as Erin’s torso. Two jagged nostrils revealed something wet and fleshy, moving in time to the voice behind the bone.
“I do not wish to become angry.”
Her hand was on the cooking pot. Her heart was dead in her chest.
The skeletal monstrosity seemed to recoil. It pushed the door further open, and something noxious wafted in. It smelled like decay, like worms rotting in an unmarked grave. The monster pushed harder, and Erin’s feet slipped.
“A pity. But I will have you provide me with sustenance nevertheless.”
Erin seized the door and tried to close it, but the creature hurled it open. She fell back and stared in horror.
A thing with too many bones and pieces of flesh gazed down at her. It gave off a ghastly smell, and crimson light flashed from its eyes. A rotting monstrosity garbed in bone. A dead being of some eldritch horror whose ‘arm’ jerked and twitched as it wriggled towards her, brown rot and decay and mildewed skin.
“Give me what I desire. Or I shall—”
Erin screamed and hurled the pot.
It was instinctual. The black metal pot flew through the air even before the creature finished speaking.
Before the creature was struck by the flying pot, it made a very uncharacteristic, very human, very surprised sound. After it was struck by the pot, it didn’t make any sounds at all.
The image of the gigantic, skeletal creature wreathed in slime and darkness vanished in an instant. Erin stared as the much more normal figure of an unconscious young man dressed in grey robes appeared on the ground. He was unconscious and already had a big bruise forming on his forehead. She stared at him. She stared at his dirty robes and the flicker of light on the tips of his fingers as the illusion faded.
The young man was dreaming. Maybe he was dreaming of something nice. Maybe he was reflecting on his life so far and how it had led him here, or his past mistakes. Either way, the bucket of water woke him up.
The young man sat up, rubbing his head. Erin stared at him. He didn’t seem very mage-like. Or that impressive, for that matter. He had pale skin, brown, unkempt hair, all unwashed and fairly filthy. His fluttering eyes were grey-green, but when they focused, they were sharp as they flickered around and then looked up at her.
He actually didn’t look that bad, although he certainly looked thinner than strictly necessary. What was most off-putting was his smell. A rancid odor that contrived to combine personal body odor with a foul sewer stench. Actually, that smell was probably his clothes, which didn’t look like they’d been washed. Ever.
The mage looked up at Erin and blinked. She stared back.
“So. You’re gonna hurt me if I don’t give you food, huh?”
Erin stood up and cracked her knuckles. It really hurt, but she tried not to let it show. The young man raised one finger and pointed at her. It was only slightly trembling.
“You struck me? Me? How dare you! I will have you know I am a mage of great power, and I will not be—”
The mage cut off quickly as Erin lifted the cast-iron pot up with one hand.
“This. This is a pan.”
Erin waved the metal pot in front of the young man’s head. She saw him glance at it and then colored when she realized her mistake.
“In fact good Mistress, that is in fact—”
“If I say it’s a pan, it’s a pan. The important part is that I’ll hit you with it if you try anything.”
The mage sneered at her. Erin took offense to his tone instantly. His voice sounded sort of educated, precisely enunciating each word, but it was acerbic. Sneering was the default mode to his voice. The young man’s gaze darted about, first to Erin, then around. He eyed her pot, but then he lifted one hand. Erin recoiled as the young man’s gaze seemed to brighten. She felt something change and panicked.
“Hey, stop that!”
He ignored her and mumbled something. At once, he vanished. He was gone! A booming echo reverberated throughout the room, wrathful.
“Behold my p—”
Erin swung her pot in the space where the mage had vanished.
The mage reappeared, clutching at the side of his face. Erin raised her pot again, and he raised his hands defensively.
“Try that again and I’ll hit you harder.”
He shielded his face, backing up, but he stumbled on his robe and nearly fell down. He was most likely dazed from two blows to the head, so he raised his hands and sniffed, loudly. Despite his situation, he adopted a lecturing, superior tone as he lifted a finger.
“Now look here, there’s no need for violence, Miss. I can see that you are no ordinary plebian fool but an extraordinary plebian. Believe me when I say that is a high compliment from a practitioner of the arcane such as I.”
“I know what plebian means.”
His mouth opened, and the young man’s supercilious expression turned to worry.
“One more insult or stupid little invisibility spell and I’ll break something.”
The mage looked surprised.
“You—you could tell it was an invisibility spell?”
Erin rolled her eyes.
“What else could it be?”
The mage blinked at her. Then he muttered to himself in a not-quite whisper.
“How astute. She’s quite intelligent for an innkeeper.”
Erin glared. He coughed and avoided her gaze.
“Ahem. Well, I shall be going. I am—terribly sorry for all that. It was just, ah—a spell which I—desperate times make fools of us all. And clearly, not you. Which is why I shall depart and not trouble you again.”
He made a show of standing up and brushing down his robes. Quite a lot of dirt and grime fell to the inn’s floor. Erin stared at it and glared at him harder. He swept her a deep bow and gave her a charming smile. Or what he probably thought was one. The young man reached into his robes, and she lifted the pot, but he held up his other hand hurriedly.
“My apologies, good [Innkeeper], for all these misunderstandings. Please accept this recompense for your wasted time.”
He reached into the pocket of his robes and produced a few bronze coins. He made to offer them to Erin, but when she made no move, he placed them on the table.
“So. You’re paying me for trying to scare me and steal food?”
The mage gave her a winning smile. It did nothing to wipe away Erin’s scowl.
“Harshly put, good mistress. But yes, I would like to make amends. Let us be quits with no further unpleasantness! Or violence. And I am sure this payment is quite acceptable, is it not?”
Erin stared at the four bits of brassy metal, which he grandly placed on the table nearest him. She glanced up at his face. He looked entirely reasonable, even apologetic. Her face was impassive and betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
He began dabbing at his forehead with his robe.
“Am I? Terribly sorry. Let me just, ah…”
Three more coins appeared in the palm of his hand with a flick of the wrist. It looked like a sleight-of-hand trick. A pretty bad one, at that. Erin stared at the seven coins. Not one was silver. Hadn’t Relc given her two coins for a meal? She changed her grip on her pan for more striking power.
“Some people don’t like being threatened by a giant skeletal monster from hell.”
The number of coins on the table didn’t change. Erin stared at him.
“Some people would take violent offense to being scammed.”
The young man blinked once.
“Ah, this is understandable. But may I remind you that traditionally those who practice magic are beings of great power that should not be crossed?”
Erin wanted to fold her arms, but she kept the pan raised.
“Yeah, and they have fragile bones. I’m sure mages are really scary when they’re far away, but wands aren’t good at blocking frying…pots.”
The mage licked his lips, but his face remained calm.
“Fair point. Let me just amend my fee.”
A silver coin appeared in the palm of his hand. Erin narrowed her eyes and said nothing. Another silver coin appeared, and then a third.
She crossed her arms.
Three more silver coins joined the small pile. The mage was definitely sweating now.
“I, uh, hope this is sufficient, good Mistress. I am of course willing to pay any dues to—to make amends, but I’m slightly low on coin at the moment.”
Erin kept staring.
Very reluctantly, he reached into the belt at his side. He pulled out a gold coin and held it up.
“Would, ah, this do?”
Erin relented a tiny bit. She picked up the coins in his hand without taking the gold coin. She thought she heard him sigh in relief, but his face remained impassive. He was still sweating. She eyed him and nodded to the table.
“You know, I just wanted to see what would happen if I kept on staring at you.”
He tried to hide it, but his eyes widened a moment in what might have been shock or outrage. The young man sniffed and then coughed into one sleeve.
“Ah. Of course. Well, as a practitioner of the mystic arts, I feel it is always wise to be…generous.”
Erin’s face told him how much she believed that. She frowned at the coins she’d taken.
“It would certainly save time. And you know if you paid for everything, you wouldn’t have to try to scare people to get what you want.”
Another sniff, as if she was speaking nonsense. He flicked his fingers dismissively.
“Ah, but money is so…mundane. Where would the enjoyment in life be without variety?”
“Uh huh. And you provide that by threatening people with illusions?”
“Only on occasion. And I quite understand your irate feelings. However, since I believe all is settled, I shall just…”
He edged away from her and towards the door. Along the way, his stomach rumbled and his ears turned red, but he kept walking. Erin sighed and came to a rapid decision.
“Where are you going?”
His shoulders hunched, and Erin saw his hand tighten on the door handle.
“Well, if you have no further need of me…I did pay for my misdeeds, after all. Rather handsomely, I might add, given that no harm was actually done except to my person. So I won’t intrude any fu—”
“Come back here and I’ll feed you.”
He turned around and blinked at her. Erin was already going into the kitchen for a plate and cups.
“Here. Blue juice and some blue fruit. I’ve also got pasta in a pot, but I need to warm that up first.”
Erin set the cup and plate down and added three blue fruits on top of it. She expected the mage to dig in immediately or make a snarky comment, but he just turned pale.
“Ah. Am I supposed to eat this?”
“Yeah. It’s food.”
“And I suppose if I don’t, you hit me with that pot, correct?”
He eyed her warily. Erin eyed him back.
“What are you talking about? I’m giving you food. Are you allergic to the color blue or something?”
Once again, the face of her guest seemed caught between wanting to say something and wanting to bolt. He pointed gingerly to the blue fruit.
“Are you aware that, ah, this fruit is poisonous?”
Erin paused, the blue fruit halfway to her lips.
He smiled at her, his face a shade paler than before.
“Highly. The core of the Amentus Fruit causes painful death within hours if eaten. While the outer rind is safe for consumption, the inner seeds are toxic. You are aware of this, right?”
“Um. I am now? I mean, I figured that out earlier. These ones are good. I’ve checked them.”
The look he gave her said that he didn’t believe her. The look she gave him told him that he could eat her food and she didn’t really care if he was poisoned or not. He gulped.
The mage eyed the blue fruit apprehensively.
“Do I have the option to refuse?”
“Look, it’s safe. I’ve eaten tons of them. Just eat around the core and you’ll be fine, okay? I figured out how to check for good ones. See?”
His was very ripe, non-mushy, and when Erin took a bite to show him, she was sure it wasn’t contaminated. Still, her odd guest made no move towards the plate. He steepled his fingers and gave her a genuinely fake smile.
“Shall we just say I accept your word? I wouldn’t dare question your authority on the subject, good mistress, it’s just that—”
“Oh come on.”
Erin stomped into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. The mage flinched when she reappeared with it, but she grabbed one of the fruits and began cutting the outer shell of fruit away. She left the seed core on the counter and shoved the diced fruit into a plate. Two more fruits went the same way before she plonked the plate down in front of him.
The seed cores were perfectly intact, too. Whereas the bad ones she’d found had shown hairline cracks when she’d explored the insides. That little Goblin was onto something.
“Here. Totally non-poisonous food ready to be eaten. Happy?”
She glared at him. He gingerly picked up a slice of blue fruit and regarded it apprehensively. He looked ready to refuse, but then both he and Erin heard a loud sound.
It was a growling beast that almost made Erin look for a monster—until she realized it was his stomach. The young man turned beet red, and Erin almost laughed at him. He hesitated, then the fresh food in front of him seemed to do in his last resolve.
“I suppose the toxicity would be acceptable if it were just the fruit. Well then.”
Gingerly, he bit into the fruit and chewed. After a few seconds, he swallowed and took another bite. His eyes widened, and he began chewing vigorously.
In under a minute, the plate was empty and he was wiping the blue dribbles off his mouth with a corner of his robe.
Erin set down a plate of steaming pasta in front of him.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you? Well, eat this.”
And it even sounded like genuine thanks. Erin guessed he had been fairly hungry. Actually, now that she looked closer, his robes did seem to hang rather thin on his frame. And if you factored in the dirtiness and general smell he was now giving off, she guessed he was in pretty rough shape.
Still, he ate with all the vigor and energy of two men, so she supposed he was still okay. And once she’d refilled his plate, he slowed down. After a while, he stopped, probably to let his stomach expand, and regarded her.
“So, if I might inquire, what is a delicate flower of effervescence doing in such a locale?”
Erin glared at him.
“Are you trying to sound impressive or do you actually talk like that?”
He drew himself upright and looked indignant.
“How rude. My advanced lexicon and diction is merely a result of my education, not a façade that—”
“Stop it. You sound like an idiot.”
His eyes narrowed, but Erin’s glare out-glared his own. He snapped back testily.
“Fine. I suppose there’s no use attempting to impress anyone who actually has the rudiments of an education. But my question remains: what’s a young g—woman like you doing out here alone?”
His voice was no less haughty and condescending than before, but at least he wasn’t dropping seven-letter word scores every other sentence. Erin decided that was worth a few more seconds of forbearance. That didn’t mean she had to be polite, though.
“I got lost.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Lost? It takes quite some skill to wander this far into the Floodplains. Or are you a local? I very much doubt you are, though.”
“Floodplains? What are you talking about?”
The mage waved a hand around lazily.
“This area is known as the Floodplains of Liscor. It’s because of a lovely natural phenomenon of the geography and—but you aren’t from here, if you don’t know about this area. But I would have guessed as much since you are Human. As far as I can tell.”
“I am completely, 100% Human, thanks. And why does that make a difference?”
“The locals don’t like Humans that much. Which is a fact anyone in a hundred miles would know. This is the border to the Drake lands to the south. But you…didn’t know that, did you?”
He gulped down a few more noodles while watching her. Erin’s mouth opened, and he frowned at her.
“You truly didn’t? Well, well. A traveler who doesn’t know anything about where she is…teleportation spell? Amnesia magic?”
Erin blinked at him.
“How’d you guess? Actually, you’re only half-right, but how’d you guess?”
“It’s common. Well, not common exactly, but it’s the only explanation I can think of. Back in the academy…it was not an unheard of phenomenon. I suppose you could have also been carried off by one of the local avian species, but they tend to drop their prey and chew their bones.”
“They grow that big? No; don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. But you’re right. It was a teleportation spell. Or something. It didn’t feel like a spell, but…”
“And you’re an expert on [Teleportation] spells? I see.”
This time, the sneer in his tone was a bit too pronounced. Erin’s hand twitched towards the pot.
“I’m not. But I’ll just bet those kinds of spells make a flash of light or a weird sound, right?”
He looked reluctant.
“And anyways, I didn’t see any idiot in robes waving a wand around and shouting ‘abracadabra’. And there aren’t wizards where I—I mean, I’m sure it wasn’t a…I just turned the corner and here I was.”
Erin trailed off, but the mage’s eyes were suddenly filled with interest. He leaned forwards in his chair.
“Really? You just turned a corner and you were in a completely different place?”
“Yeah. It’s been fun and games ever since.”
He sat back.
“Fascinating. That has to be a very high-level phenomenon or artifact. Seamless teleportation without any visual cues and even sensation at that range? Not even our Archmages could…fascinating indeed.”
“Fascinating as in ‘I know what spell that was?’”
The mage caught himself and looked up. He hesitated, then shook his head.
“No, no. I have no clue what kind of magic would be capable of that, if any. That sounds like a spell which—well, suffice it to say I know of only a few living mages who might even attempt such a feat. But if you were the target, it still makes no sense. Why would anyone waste such a powerful spell on someone as mundane as…as…”
He avoided her gaze and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, which arguably made his mouth dirtier.
“Yes, well. I see you’ve established yourself quite nicely. This is—is quite a lovely establishment you’ve founded. Very quaint.”
“It’s not mine. I just found it and somehow became an [Innkeeper] by cleaning up around here.”
“Indeed. That is quite often the case. However, you seem to have taken to it well. This area is inhospitable to most Humans.”
“Thanks, I guess. But if it’s so lousy—and it is, I totally know—why are you here?”
He blinked at her.
“Yes, you. I told you why I’m here. What’s a raggedy mage doing scaring people for food?”
He swept his robes around himself defensively.
“My physical appearance has nothing to do with—”
“Just answer the question.”
He looked uncomfortable.
“I, ah, came here to expand my horizons. This part of the continent—well, the local collection of city-states are quite hospitable to those people trying to avoid undue attention. Besides, food is plentiful if one has certain skills.”
“Like pretending to be a horrible monster?”
The young man was having a real problem looking anywhere at Erin. He flushed slightly and twiddled his thumbs together as he cleaned his plate with a fork.
“One does what one must to survive.”
She looked at him.
“I suppose one does. Does it make you feel good, stealing from innocent people?”
Her words turned his face bright red. He set down his fork and pushed his empty plate back. The mage looked up at Erin, and his eyes snapped together with sudden anger.
“You would not be so quick to judge if you knew more about the people you’re defending. Especially this city.”
The young woman hesitated only a second, but then put her hands on her hips.
“Maybe not. But then again, the only two I’ve met were quite polite, paid for their meal, and didn’t try to threaten me when I first met them. Whereas the first Human I met was you.”
Again, Erin and her guest locked eyes. This time, he broke away first. He got to his feet with a swirl of his robes.
“I see I’ve overstayed my welcome. Well, your meal was quite adequate, good mistress. Please accept my heartfelt gratitude.”
He probably meant to stalk away, but Erin barred his path.
She offered him two blue fruits. He hesitated.
“Take them. You look thin, and maybe if you eat them you’ll stop bothering other people. Thank you for your business. Come by again and I’ll feed you. Try to scare me and I’ll hit you harder next time.”
He blinked at her, but accepted the fruits anyways.
“Um. Thank you.”
They stood there awkwardly for a moment.
“It occurs to me that I never asked your name.”
“Me? Oh, I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. And you are?”
The mage took a step back and gave her an elegant bow. Erin stared at the blue stain on the sleeve of his robe.
“Pisces, practitioner of magic, student of Wistram Academy, specialized in the Elementalist and Illusionary schools of magic with additional competencies in multiple spell schools.”
Erin raised an eyebrow.
“Good for you. Got a hobby?”
He hesitated and put one hand on the doorknob. The mage gave Erin a long look and murmured.
He closed the door as Erin stared.
Author’s Notes: Nine chapters. 40,000 words. Not bad for one update’s worth of revising. As I said at the top, I am wrestling with revisions. For now I’m doing the ‘safest’ thing which is going through and essentially updating everything.
I touched mostly on the first chapter, and then added parts like Teriarch, Rags, and updated dialogue. Whether or not it makes sense to add in the perspectives or whether they take away from reveals later is up for me to figure out once I’ve taken a first look through.
I still don’t necessarily think we have to cut away from this slower opening. I actually enjoyed Erin’s slow-burn and meeting characters one by one, but what did you think if you re-read?
Well, I think the bigger chapters to work on will be when Ryoka appears. But this is all I can do for now. I will do this at least once a month and hopefully have a better product to revise once more again. But I will ask for feedback and put all this on the website in a ‘secret’ area.
Thanks for reading and let me know anything you liked or didn’t like in Volume 1 or elsewhere. Hopefully we can really make it feel like the same experience—but better in a lot of places. Substantively better. I’m tired, though.
As another note, I am functionally on break for the next three updates. I’m taking my monthly break as well as writing The Last Tide Pt. 2 in private, and I cannot share that. However! I have the Interlude – Singing Ships that I wrote earlier and it’s now 15k. I’ll post it on Saturday to tide you over. Thanks for understanding the need to schedule work; it’ll be healthier for me. Until then, I’m off.