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 robes.
The young man was dreaming. Maybe he was dreaming of something nice. Maybe he was reflecting on his life so far in a life-changing dream of revelations. 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, and he smelled bad. 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.
“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. His eyes were on her pot, but they dipped into a belt at his waist.
“Hey, stop that!”
He ignored her and mumbled something. At once, he vanished. A booming echo reverberated throughout the room.
“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.”
“Now look, there’s no need for violence. 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 practice of the arcane such as I.”
“I know what plebian means.”
“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.”
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.
“My apologies, good Innkeep 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. And I am sure this payment is quite acceptable, is it not?”
Erin stared at the four bits of brassy metal. She glanced up at his face. It was quite 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.
“Some people don’t like being threatened by a giant skeletal monster from hell.”
The number of coins in his palm didn’t change. Erin stared at him.
“Some people would take violent offence to being scammed.”
He blinked once.
“Traditionally those who practice magic are beings of great power that should not be crossed.”
“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.”
He 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. He 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, though.
“You know, I just wanted to see what would happen if I kept on staring at you.”
“Ah. Of course. Well, as a practitioner of the mystic arts I feel it is always wise to be…generous.”
“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.”
“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, after all. 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 eyes 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?”
He 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?”
He made no move towards the plate.
“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.
“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.
“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. 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 was 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 outglared his own.
“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 Flood Gates. Or are you a local? I very much doubt you are, though.”
“Flood Gates? What are you talking about?”
The mage waved a hand around lazily.
“This area is known as the Flood Gates. 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.”
He gulped down a few more noodles while watching her.
“That’s something else you didn’t know, isn’t it? Well, well. A traveler who doesn’t know anything about where she is…teleportation spell?”
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. 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 on his tone was a bit too pronounced. Erin’s hand twitched towards the pot.
“I’m not. But I’ll just bet those kind 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 as in ‘I know what spell that was?’”
He 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 something as mundane as…as…”
He avoided her gaze.
“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 nation—well, collection of city states is 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?”
He avoided her gaze.
“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.
“You would not be so quick to judge if you knew more about the people you’re defending.”
“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 brow. 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?”
The door closed as Erin stared.