A giant insect stood in the doorway. It had large, black, bulbous eyes, a dark brown chitinous body, and a pair of swords at its sides. It also had a huge abdomen and two long pincers coming out of its mouth. And it had four arms.
Erin stared at the ant-creature. It opened its mouth and began to speak.
“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.”
The Goblin’s 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. His scales were light green, and he had sharp, sharp claws on each hand. When he smiled she saw his teeth. Oh, and he had a forked tongue.
“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. She’d have to jump out a window after all.
“Good job not scaring her.”
Were they talking? Erin listened hard. Her hands were shaking so hard she couldn’t hold anything.
“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, bite me. I mean, do I look like one? Maybe I do. 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 a lowly 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 was 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.
“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 tact.
“Want something to eat?”
The lizardman blinked.
“Okay. That’s great.”
Erin opened the door slowly. The lizardman carefully opened the door and 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.”
“I’ll have a glass if that’s alright.”
“I will accept the pasta and water as well. But may I inquire if you have any bugs?”
“…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 slapped herself a few times. Then she got the plates.
“Here. Uh, I’ve got juice as well. Want a glass?”
“Oh, thank you. It’s…blue.”
“Yeah. I made it myself. It tastes good, really.”
“Well, I’ll gladly accept. Klbkch, you want any?”
“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 in 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.”
“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 aside from other bugs.”
“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 bassy than normal.
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 question 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 nation. Or is it a continent?. Is that east of here? Over the mountains, maybe?”
“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.
“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?”
“Oh, a teleportation spell? Was it a misfire or did someone target you?”
“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?”
“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 seriously bad news. They eat folks. You said you saw one?”
“It breathed at me. Fire. And then I was chased by little green men.”
“Right, them. And then I found a giant dino-bird—”
“A big…big leathery thing. With wings.”
“Oh, right. Those annoying things.”
“And 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 feeler.
“Our pardons. We have not introduced ourselves. Allow me to correct this mistake. I am Klbkch, Senior Guardsmen in employ of the city. This is my partner.”
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?”
“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.”
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.”
Erin put her head in her hands.
“So am I going to die by puking out my guts or something?”
“Actually, the plague symptoms manifest 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?”
“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].”
“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.”
“So. Leveling. Classes.”
“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.”
“Right, right. Um, good to know.”
“And you’re an [Innkeeper], right? Got any other classes?”
“Um, no. No.”
“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…”
“They have to teach humans how to level? Weird.”
“That is unusual. I was under the impression levels worked uniformly across all species. Unless you are referring to the differences in classes?”
“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…?”
“Oh, that. 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. 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.”
“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.”
“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 a 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 you rudeness.”
Relc bowed his head down low, until the spiny crest on his head nearly touched the tabletop. 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?”
“Only a few differences, but the animosity between their cultures is—”
“Shut up. I’m still sorry. But yeah, there’s a big difference. I mean, sure most humans can’t tell us apart, but the lizardfolk live near water and can breathe underwater too, some of them. 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.”
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’m sure it is.”
“Yeah. That sounds amazing. Really…really cool!”
Relc nudged Klbkch.
“See? She gets it. Told you it was cool.”
“Yeah, it’s awesome.”
Erin grinned and gave him a thumbs up. Then she winced in regret. She’d used her bad hand.
“Ooh, nasty. What happened there?”
“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.
He, if it was a he, inspected her hand carefully. 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 guessed 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 guardman.”
“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.”
Gently, Klbkch 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 and 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.
“Are you alright?”
“It—it doesn’t hurt!”
Relc snorted gently. IT sounded like a leaf blower starting up.
“Of course not. Why wound 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.
“Appologies. 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 replay you for—”
She cast around for something to give him but Klbkch held up once 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?”
“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.
“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.”
“Or, and hear me out. Or…we could have more food and stay here longer.”
“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. She went to go sit down and sat on the floor. And stayed still for another hour.
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 sword at their sides. They weren’t nervous; just wary.
After a while Relc spoke.
“What a lonely girl.”
“Is it female? I couldn’t tell.”
“I can. It’s the mammary glands.”
“Breasts, I think they’re referred to. Or maybe the word is tits.”
“Really? I thought those were birds.”
“That’s what I heard some small humans saying once. But she’s female. And young, correct?”
“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.”
“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?”
“Even if she was, who’d hide there? You’d have to be mad, or maybe a mage or priest to risk that.”
“True. But at least we are certain it’s safe now. She would be dead within the day if it were still deadly.”
“Bet she didn’t know. And her expression when we walked in—she’s never seen a Drake or an Insect before in her life.”
“I would prefer that you call my species by their proper name.”
“What do you think? I bet she’s some kind of runaway, or a child that got lost separated from her clan.”
“Fine. Antinium. Happy?”
“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.”
“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.”
“Right, right. Let’s tell the Captain and get some sleep. Or rather, I’ll sleep and you do your creepy standing hibernation thing.”
“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?”
“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 exoskeleton. “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.
“So, a lesser healing potion of no worth, huh?”
“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?”
“I will deduct the cost from my pay. Besides which, it was used to protect a civilian.”
“You’re a regular saint, huh? Trying to level up your [Saint] 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.”
“So, wanna go back tomorrow?”
“Are we not working that day?”
“Bite me. That’s true.”
“We could go after work if we left right away, however.”
“Ooh, good point! It wouldn’t be that dark by then.”
The two walked on in silence. Eventually Relc spoke again.
“It’s not that I’m not interested, mind you. 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.”
“She was quite nice 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, her eyes closed. She slept.
[Innkeeper Level 5!]
[Skill – Basic Crafting obtained!]
“…Just let me sleep.”