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 than 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 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 when she got there she found neither helpful twigs nor larger branches 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.”
She thought about that.
“But I won.”
“They’re not that dangerous.”
“Unless they stab me in my sleep. Or there are lots of them.”
“But I’m probably safe if I keep the windows and doors closed.”
“And there’s the rock-crab-thing.”
“…Does it eat Goblins?”
“They were eating the blue fruits. So they live nearby.”
“But I can run away from them.”
“…Until they chase me down and overwhelm me and eat my guts, that is.”
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.
Now though she was staring at the floor. A clean, undusted floor. Erin stared 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 skills 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.
“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.
“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 is fast flowing and cold. The young woman cares not. The instant she spots it she dashes madly into the water and flops down face first.
She cups her hands and begins drinking the water as fast as she can. Then she spits out the water and washes her hands of the grime caked onto it before trying again. She drinks one palmful, 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…”
After a while the pain went away. Erin reluctantly got back up. She was glad she hadn’t puked. She only had one pair of clothes after all.
Speaking of which…Erin raised her arm and sniffed.
Erin sat in the stream and tried not to let her teeth chatter. It was cold. Not numbingly cold, which was sort of 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…
“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!”
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.
“Monster, 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.
“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.
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—
And then it was over. Erin lay on the grass, breathing for air as she stared at the fish flopping around on the grass.
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. 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.
“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.
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 stared at the fish.
“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.
“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.
“Huh. I guess [Basic Cooking] doesn’t work on fish.”
Or maybe not this fish. Erin gently poked it in the teeth and shuddered. Its scaley 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 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.
“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.
It happened in an instant. Her hand lost its traction and the blade skated across the scales.
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 starting pooling. But there was no pain.
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 mouldy 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 was hurting.
Eventually she wound the cloth tight and gritted her teeth as she tied a knot. The bloodstain was already spreading, but 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. But 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.
And stared at her blood.
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.
Still, she didn’t want to eat. 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 puddle stopped growing. It soaked into the floorboards, a dark stain in the night. Erin stared at the blackness. She couldn’t sleep.
Erin stared at the table. She stared at the grain of the wood. No good. She couldn’t distract herself. But she had to.
So she began to whisper.
“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.
“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 F5. Byran Counter-gambit. Bishop captures B5, knight moves to F6. Knight moves to F3…”
She kept talking long into the night. But the pain in her hand never stopped. It just kept hurting. And hurting.