Krshia shook her head.
“I know not what that is. I have many things which can be baked, but none of this ‘soda’.”
Erin groaned. She felt she shouldn’t be surprised, but she still hated being surprised.
“How about baking powder? Everyone has baking powder!”
Again, Krshia shook her head.
“What is this powder supposed to bake, Erin Solstice?”
“And what are these ‘cookies’?”
Erin gaped at Krshia. She gestured with her hands.
“Cookies. You know? Small, round brown things?”
“Are you talking about cow leavings, Erin Solstice?”
Furiously, Erin grabbed at her hair. She immediately let go. Her hair was not as hygienic or as clean as she was used to it being.
“How do you—this world doesn’t have cookies? How is that fair? How!?”
Erin stopped ranting and pounded her fist lightly into her hand.
“…How about ice cream?”
“What is this ice—”
“Stupid worlds that don’t have ice cream. Stupid Gnolls who act nice and look at me like I’m insane. How does anyone live without ice cream and cookies?”
Erin grumbled to herself as she trudged back to her inn. She kicked the knee-high grass and wished she had a lawnmower the size of a skyscraper. Maybe then her legs wouldn’t itch so much after walking—
A familiar sound across the plains. It made Erin’s blood go cold. She stopped, listened, and then saw it.
A gigantic, grey, craggy rock seemed to be levitating across the grasslands. But that was only an illusion. If you looked closer, you’d see many legs churning up the soil underneath the rock. But Erin had no intention of getting that close. She knew what was making that sound and what was living under that rock.
It was a Rock Crab. Erin froze and then turned to run. But it wasn’t coming at her.
Instead, the gigantic rock was propelling itself across the grasslands quite quickly. Its rapidly shuffling legs tore up the earth as it ran. But it wasn’t chasing anything. Was it running away? From what?
Erin got her answer as a bunch of much smaller figures surged over the crest of a hill, chasing the Rock Crab. Goblins. At first Erin grinned at the sight, but her smile faded as more and more of them appeared. First there were five. Then ten. Then twenty—forty—
The Goblins were screaming a warcry of their own as they chased the Rock Crab. The crab seemed to sense them behind it and sped up, but it was still too slow. As Erin watched in amazement, the first Goblin leapt and managed to cling to the Rock Crab’s shell.
Instantly, it swung around and threw the Goblin off. From underneath the Rock Crab’s shell a large claw appeared and snapped at the Goblin. Erin covered her mouth as the Goblin screamed and held up a bloody stump of an arm.
But even as the Rock Crab surged towards the injured Goblin, more Goblins leapt at it. It swung around, trying to knock them away, but although it knocked several Goblins flying, many more dodged its claw and charged at the Rock Crab, screaming wildly.
The Goblins swarmed the Rock Crab. Erin watched, open-mouthed as the giant land crustacean snapped and struck out with its claws. Three Goblins fell away, severely cut and bleeding. One was missing a hand but the others—
They swarmed over the rocky shell, bashing it with clubs. They ducked underneath it as well, biting, stabbing, tearing.
Erin couldn’t see what was happening as more and more Goblins crawled underneath the Rock Crab’s shell, but she saw it spasm. It clicked rapidly in pain and swiped at the Goblins, but they were too close for its claws to grab at.
A baby blue liquid seeped from beneath the shell. The giant Rock Crap collapsed and slimy, blue Goblins dripping in entrails and crab shell emerged from underneath.
Erin backed away slowly. Her heart was pounding a million times per second. She imagined what would happen if one of the Goblins glanced over at her. They’d rush her and cover her in an instant.
But they were all intent on their kill. The Goblins were ripping the Rock Crab apart, hungrily scarfing down its guts. It was a sight to make Erin nauseous, but her stomach was already clenched tight from fear.
Eventually, she thought she was far enough away. Erin turned and ran.
Most of the other Goblins didn’t see the departing human. They were too busy cracking the Rock Crab’s hard shell and scooping out its slimy entrails. They feasted.
But a few Goblins did notice the human. One with ragged clothes stopped biting into the Rock Crab’s bitter flesh and stopped to watch the young woman leave. It gripped a something in its pocket tightly. Soon. It would be soon.
The ragged pouch of coin jingled softly as the Goblin shook it. It—no, she looked around quickly, but the other Goblins were too busy gorging themselves to notice the small sound. The female Goblin stowed her pouch of coins among her ragged clothes.
When Relc and Klbkch tried the door to the Wandering Inn, they found it was locked. Only after Relc had knocked twice did the door open a crack. When Erin finally let the two in, she bolted the door as soon as they were inside.
Relc raised one non-existent eyebrow and flicked his tail idly at Erin.
“What’s gotten into you?”
“Greetings Miss Solstice. Is something wrong?”
Erin looked warily out the window, but felt better with Relc and Klbkch in the building.
Relc laughed as he and Klbkch sat themselves at one of the tables.
“What, are they throwing rocks at you again? If you want I could—um, scare them. But Goblins? Seriously? After you killed their Chieftain, what’s there to worry about?”
“How about a group of Goblins that can kill a giant rock-crab-thing in seconds?”
Erin snapped at Relc as the Drake laughed.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve seen. Some kind of raiding party swarmed over the crab and—”
“A raiding party?”
Relc sat up in his chair and grabbed for his spear.
“Where, and how many? Come on, Klkbch. We can head them off—”
He jumped to his feet. Erin waved her hands frantically.
“No, no! There’s way too many of them. Besides, I don’t want you to kill them! That would be—”
Relc interrupted Erin as Klbkch watched her silently. The Antinium’s hands were on his weapons too.
“Look, if there’s a raiding party out there, we need to take care of it. I can ignore a few Goblins, but a few hundred of them roaming around? That’s a threat.”
He went for the door, but Erin dragged him back. Or rather, tried to. Her feet slid uselessly across the ground and he didn’t even seem to notice her weight.
“Exactly how many Goblins were in this group you observed, Miss Solstice?”
Klbkch interrupted Erin’s futile struggling as Relc paused by the door.
Erin had to think.
“Not more than forty, I guess.”
Relc blinked and stopped unbolting the door. He looked back at Klbkch, and then down at Erin. Slowly, he walked back to his chair. Then he sat down in it and started to laugh.
Erin gaped as Relc chuckled, and then transitioned into full-scale guffaws of mirth. He covered his face with one claw and pounded the table with the other.
“Just what’s so funny?”
“A raiding party, she says! Hah!”
“I fear you were under a slight misapprehension, Miss Solstice.”
Relc finally managed to get his laughter under control when Klbkch stepped on one of his feet. He wiped tears out of his eyes and grinned at Erin.
“That’s just the local tribe. Forty Goblins? Please. I could take out half of them without breaking a sweat. Between me and Klbkch, we could kill all of them—”
He broke off and cleared his throat.
“Not that we would.”
“Despite their competency, a Goblin tribe is no threat to any but lone stragglers, Miss Solstice. On the other hand, a small raiding party is usually comprised of at least three hundred Goblins. Larger groups have been known to exceed a thousand individuals.”
“That’s not a raiding party. That’s an army.”
“Not if you’re a Goblin.”
Relc’s expression became serious as he leaned back in his chair.
“Yeah, like Klbkch said, a Goblin tribe isn’t dangerous. Maybe to you—but you killed their Chieftain, so I doubt they’d be brave enough to attack this place. Besides, if you lock the doors and windows they’ll have a hard time getting in. But when Goblins start appearing in numbers? That’s when things get nasty.”
She heard the silent cue and took it.
Klbkch leaned forwards over the table.
“Extremely. Although Goblins are considered a minor threat by most settlements of any size, when they do appear in numbers they are fully capable of wiping out villages, cities, and even nations in the past.”
“It is quite true, Miss Solstice.”
“I’ve heard stories of the Goblin Crusades. And witnessed one myself. The last time one occurred, multiple armies of Goblins rampaged throughout the north and sailed across to the Human continent. Terandria. There were at least a hundred thousand Goblins in each army, and their king had a million Goblins at his back when we smashed him in the Blood Fields.”
Erin felt like she needed a history class, or at least a map.
“Blood Fields? What’s that?”
“It used to be a battlefield. Well, it still is. Lots of armies fight there, and so much blood has been spilled that the entire place has changed. The entire area is full of Blood Grass. Very nasty. Drinks blood and eats people if they’re not careful. I fought there twice.”
Erin felt like she should say something else, but Relc’s expression had grown uncharacteristically serious. She searched for something else to say.
“Then…the Goblin tribe isn’t that dangerous?”
“Not to me or Klbkch. Just don’t walk into them and you should be fine. Most people can outrun a tribe unless they get trapped anyways.”
Relc flicked his tail dismissively.
“But they killed a Rock Crab!”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“You know, that giant thing that hides under a rock? It goes clickclickclickclick—”
“Oh, that. Is that what you Humans call it? We just call them Hollowstone Deceivers. What’s a crab?”
“A creature that lives in the sea, I believe. The name is quite apt.”
“Whatever. It’s not that tough.”
Erin blinked at Relc.
He waved a hand at her dismissively.
“Oh, we’ve got a lot more freaky monsters living around here. Way more dangerous. They’re just all sleeping or somewhere else this time of year.”
“Yeah, or that.”
That didn’t sound good to Erin at all.
“I haven’t seen any of these other monsters. Just the dinosaur birds.”
“That is appropriate for the season. At this time of the year, the Floodplains contain few creatures besides the Goblins. Aside from grazing herds, most animals—”
“Herds? You guys have herds?”
Again, Klbkch nodded.
“They are usually confined in villages to the north of Liscor. The city hosts many pigs, sheep, horses—”
Relc nodded and smacked his lips.
“Delicious. They’re great if you eat them half-raw. Speaking of which, got any food?”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
Erin got up and mechanically began placing dishes on the table.
“Dinner will just be a few minutes while I warm everything up on the embers. Uh, what other creatures haven’t I seen yet?”
Relc scratched his head.
“What else? Um. What about those giant spiders? They’re probably hiding in their tunnels right now, but they’re still around..”
Klbkch twitched as Relc mentioned the spiders. Erin twitched too, and her skin crawled at the thought. Relc grinned at both and shook his head.
“Don’t worry. It’s not the right season for them. You’ll see a lot more wildlife around here in a month or so. This is the quietest time of the year, actually. Once the rains start you’ll see a ton of weird creatures, and then when they stop all the animals that travel come here to graze. And in the winter it gets really dangerous.”
“Wonderful. I bet everyone comes here to see all the monsters who want to suck your face off.”
It might be that Drakes were impervious to sarcasm. Or it might have just been Relc’s natural obliviousness. He nodded happily as he licked his lips.
“We used to get a lot of travel down south. But that all stopped when the damn Necromancer appeared.”
“Necromancer? You mean Pisces?”
“That weakling mage? No. I mean the bad Necromancer that nearly destroyed the city about ten years ago. Is the food ready yet?”
“Not yet. So that’s why you guys hate the undead?”
Klbkch shook his head as Relc glanced longingly towards the kitchen where good smells were beginning to waft out.
“I believe the Necromancer did not help public perception, but the undead have always been considered a threat, Miss Solstice. It is said that the three most dangerous things to Liscor are rain, the undead, and war.”
“I can see war, but why rain and the undead?”
“Bah. They’re the real threats. War? Huh. We don’t fear war.”
“That is true. Most residents of Liscor do not fear war. I personally deem this unwise given the volatile nature of conflict between nations on this continent!”
“Hah! Even if all the northern and southern cities burn, Liscor will never fall!”
Relc slammed a fist on the table and then looked at Erin beseechingly.
“Can I at least have a drink? Blue fruit juice?”
“Oh, of course. Just a second.”
Erin hurried into the kitchen to grab classes and the pitcher of freshly-squeezed juice. When she got back she heard Klbkch and Relc arguing.
“—The certainty of Drakes in the impregnability of Liscor seems unwise. My people have brought up the need for increased vigilance to your governing body but—”
“What’s the problem with the Watch, huh? You’re part of it. You know we can take care of any monsters that appear. And if an army does come here, so what? There’s only two ways into this valley. North and south. The mountains are practically impassible, and the Blood Fields guard the southern border. Even if an army comes through, the Floodplains will cut off any chance of siege. What don’t you get about that?”
“The north is still relatively unguarded. If the Human cities-states were to unite—”
Erin leaned over the table and nearly spilled juice all over Relc. She looked at the two.
“There are humans around here? Where?”
“To the north. Duh.”
Relc raised his eyebrows while Erin struggled not the throttle him. Klbkch glanced sideways at Erin and then back to his drink.
“And? Um, what do the human cities do?”
“Who knows? They’re Humans. We have an okay relationship with them. They don’t come over here and stomp on our eggs, and we don’t eat them.”
Erin sagged slightly. Klbkch kicked Relc under the table and the Drake glanced up at Erin. His eyes widened.
“Oh. Um, uh, like I was saying though Klbkch, Liscor would never fall! Even if an army did attack from the north, we could just recall our army. Unless they could breach our walls in a week or less, the army would come running right back and smash them. See?”
“Is your army really that great?”
Relc nodded proudly as Klbkch indicated his agreement.
“The Liscorian army is famous. Don’t you know? We fight battles for other nations and they pay us to kick our enemies to shreds. We field two thousand Drakes and a few hundred Gnolls at any given moment. Now, I know that sounds like a small army to you, but their average Level is 16. How about that, then?”
She wasn’t sure what to make of that. It sounded quite low.
“Um. It’s good?”
“Good? It’s great! The average level of soldiers in other armies is Level 8. Eight. Get it?”
She did. And when Relc put it that way, it was impressive.
“So the uh, Liscorian army is twice as strong as other armies?”
Klbkch shook his head.
“That is not entirely correct. Levels cannot replace tactics or numerical superiority, or equipment for that matter. However, it is still a potent deterrent to larger forces. That allows the Liscorian army to fight as a mercenary without prolonged engagements.”
“Exactly. Any army that runs up against ours knows that if things get serious, they’ll bleed for every soldier they bring down. That’s why we can earn so much money fighting abroad.”
“So are they here? In the city, I mean?”
“Nah. They’re almost always out on some campaign. The Liscorian army fights wherever. I think they were in the east, fighting near the Walled City.”
That all made a sort of sense to Erin, although she was having a hard time thinking of a parallel with her world. That was also because she hated history class. But she vaguely recalled the Mongols doing something similar. Or was it the Turks? The Swiss? Now she had no idea.
But Erin did have one question. She raised an eyebrow at Relc.
“So your army goes out and fights for money? Isn’t that dangerous if someone attacks here?”
“Exactly my point. If a stranger to our city can identify the weak spot so quickly, why is the populace so resistant to any suggestions regarding defence?”
Relc shook his head at both Klbkch and Erin angrily.
“Like I said, Liscor’s got a lot of natural defenses. Besides, what army in their right minds would want to attack a Colony?”
Erin sensed her food was nice and warm, but that last word bothered her. She lingered, her hands on the table.
“A what? What’s a Colony?”
Relc waved his hand at Klbkch.
“This city. Liscor. It’s home to a bunch of Antinium—not the violent kind, the peaceful ones. But they live here, so that makes it a Colony. One of six—no, five in the world.”
Erin turned to look at Klbkch. He nodded in agreement.
“We have a standing contract with the people of Liscor. In exchange for our presence, we provide services and goods to the city. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
“Yeah, it was weird having the Antinium around, but it turned out to be a good idea.”
“Anyways, the bottom line is that the Ants defend the city if we’re ever attacked and help out with construction and other jobs. They send some of their people to work in jobs like Klbkch here. And in return we let them stay.”
“That doesn’t sound too fair. What’s in it for the Antinium?”
“No one kills them. And believe me; some people still hate their guts. Even if they’re the peaceful ones, not many nations want a Colony nearby.”
Erin looked at Klbkch. He didn’t seem inclined to disagree, but she did.
“They seem pretty good to me. Although Klbkch is the only one I’ve ever met. But he doesn’t cause trouble, or call Humans names, or do anything bad. Unlike certain Drakes I could name.”
“Thank you, Miss Solstice.”
Relc glared as Klbkch bowed his head. He flicked his tail back and forth on the ground and growled.
“Oh, the Ants are great. They’re quiet, they don’t get drunk, and they’re about as interesting as wood—until one of them goes crazy.”
“The strain of madness has not been eliminated from my generation. We have reduced the average instance of insanity by 14% per year, but we must remain vigilant.”
“What? Fourteen…what? Can you explain that bit to me?”
Klbkch nodded and opened his mandibles, but Relc’s stomach audibly growled. He poked Erin in the side which made her jump and earned him a foot-stomp from Klbkch, but he didn’t seem to notice. He whined at Erin.
“You can talk about the crazy Ants later. But right now…food?”
Erin dithered, but relented at last at the desperate look in Relc’s eyes.
She went into the kitchen and began lugging out a pot of soup, a basket of warm bread – a bit too dry from being near the embers – and her standard pasta with sausage and onions. Relc began to salivate the instant he saw the food.
“Sorry it took so long. I wanted to tell you guys about the Goblins so I forgot to heat stuff up.”
“No problem, no problem. Just put it here and all is forgiven. And oh yeah, we’ve got news too!”
Relc rubbed his claws together eagerly as Erin brought out plates and bowls.
“Ooh, is that soup? And bread? And pasta! That’s a lot of food!”
“Yeah, well, I was celebrating earlier. I cooked up a lot by accident.”
“Celebrathing? Celebrathing whu?”
It was hard to understand the Drake as he spoke through a mouth already busting with food. Erin politely averted her eyes as she replied.
“Oh, you know. Not dying.”
“’S good! Good to celebrath!”
Relc washed down his mouthful of bread and cheese with a cup full of blue fruit juice. Erin had other liquids for sale now too; regular apple juice and a refreshing minty drink, but the Drake had developed a taste for the sticky drink.
“I would like a bowl of soup too, if it would not trouble you, Miss Solstice.”
Erin glanced over at Klbkch and remembered. She put a frown on her face.
“Wait a minute. Is soup another one of those things Antinium can’t eat?”
Klbkch ducked his head.
“I assure you, soup is completely palatable to my kind.”
Erin glanced over at Relc who nodded agreeably as he stuffed his mouth with pasta. She put her hands on her hips.
“Okay, but I’m still mad about the pasta thing. So tell me—and I hope to god this is true or I’ll be really upset. Tell me, do the Antinium eat bugs or worms or stuff like that?”
Klbkch looked up into Erin’s face and hesitated.
“I would not like to offend your sensibilities with a description of my diet, Miss Solstice—”
“Offend away, by all means.”
Again, he hesitated.
“My kind is fully capable of digesting most dishes eaten by humanoids. However, it is true that if offered we will eat creatures Humans and Drakes deem unsavory. We do not tend to consume such meals in public—”
“Right, no problem! Just wait here!”
Erin skidded into the kitchen and began banging pots and plates together. Relc and Klbkch exchanged a puzzled glance until she walked back into the room carrying a heaping bowl of black things as far away from her as she could.
Gingerly, Erin set the bowl full of acid flies on the table. Relc leaned towards it curiously, but Klbkch leaned towards the bowl, as if suddenly hypnotized.
“These are—well, they’re these flying acid bugs that I found. I wasn’t sure if you’d want it Klbkch, but I thought it was worth a try and—”
Klbkch picked up a spoon and began shoveling the black insect torsos into his ‘mouth’. Erin shut up. She also looked away. As much as she liked Klbkch, the crunching sounds and the sight of him eating the flies was hard to stomach.
Relc swallowed his mouthful and reached out a hand. Without missing a beat, Klbkch slapped it away from his bowl. Both Relc and Erin stared in surprise at Klbkch.
“Um, can I have a bowl too, Erin?”
“You want some? Oh, uh do lizards—”
Relc glared and Erin amended her words hastily.
“—Drakes like bugs?”
“Not as much as this guy, but I wouldn’t mind trying some.”
Dutifully, Erin brought another bowl out. Relc tasted the bugs and munched a few down experimentally.
“Ooh, nice and crunchy! I didn’t know you could eat these things. How’d you manage to get rid of all the acid?”
“It’s a long story. It involves blood and—actually, I’d rather hear your news. What is it?”
Relc looked blank. Then he snapped his fingers. Erin was surprised he could with his scaly hands.
“Right, oh yeah. It’s terrible news! Guess what? Some idiot found a bunch of ruins to the southeast of the city, and it’s apparently some ancient dungeon! Now every adventurer in miles is coming here to explore it!”
“Is that a bad thing? I thought finding old ruins and exploring them is what adventurers do. It’s what happens in all the games I uh—well, it’s what adventurers do, right? Doesn’t Liscor have an Adventurer’s Guild?”
“Yeah, but they don’t have many members. Not many idiots in our city bother becoming adventurers since there’s not much to do around here. If you want to fight you join the army or the Watch. It’s Humans who are the stupid—um…uh…”
Erin pretended not to hear that.
“You don’t like adventurers, is that what I’m hearing? Why? Don’t they kill monsters?”
“Yeah, and they cause trouble. They pick fights when they’re drunk, they run away from tough monsters, and they’re rude to guardsmen.”
Relc slammed his cup down on the table.
“Adventurers. I hate them so much.”
Klbkch nodded. He dropped his spoon into his bowl with a clatter. Erin blinked and looked down. The bowl she’d filled was huge, twice as big as a soup bowl. He held it up to her.
“Another serving, if you please Miss Solstice. It is true such sites bring increased commerce to our city, but the negative effects of so many adventurers cannot be discounted.”
Erin took Klbkch’s bowl and headed into the kitchen. She refilled it with the jar of acid flies and accidentally spilled some as she ladled them into the bowl. After a moment’s hesitation Erin picked them up and tossed them in Klbkch’s bowl. She figured it probably wouldn’t bother him.
“Okay, so this is big news. But why are they all coming here? Are these ruins that amazing?”
Relc had pushed aside his bowl of acid flies for more pasta and soup. Erin caught Klbkch munching down on those as she slid him his refilled bowl of acid flies.
“Well that’s the thing. No one knows what’s in those ruins. It could be nothing, but it also could be a ton of magical artifacts and treasure. It’s that big of a dungeon, apparently. Most ruins, well, they’re already explored or too dangerous to dive further into. A new spot like this is going to bring hundreds of idiots into Liscor, and guess who gets to watch them to make sure they don’t cause trouble?”
“Exactly! It’s a pain in the tail, and we’re busy enough as it is. Now’s usually the time when we hire new recruits, so we’re going to be understaffed and working overtime.”
“It is a troublesome predicament.”
Klbkch didn’t stop eating as he spoke, which created an odd crunching background to his words, which already had a clicking nature to them.
“Naturally, the influx of adventuring parties leads to more trouble. However, it will also bring in needed trade and many merchants who seek to do business. Thus, while guardsmen such as Relc and myself find the situation hard to manage, the city is far more positive about these findings. Also, may I trouble you for another plate?”
Erin blinked down at the empty bowl.
“I just filled that. You really like those flies, don’t you?”
“It is…surprising. I had not known the acid flies of this region were so…tasty. Until this moment I had never attempted to consume one.”
“Yeah, I’ve never seen you eat like that, Klb! You’re eating like one of those pigs! Or a Gnoll!”
Relc laughed at Klbkch around a full mouth of food. Both Erin and Klbkch raised their hands to shield themselves from the splatter.
“Well, if you like it so much I guess I’m in business!”
Erin grinned happily.
“I had no idea it would be such a huge hit. It almost makes everything I had to do to get these buggers worth it. Almost.”
“Was it difficult?”
“Very. But hey, if I’m the only one who can catch these suckers, I can actually attract some customers! Klbkch, would you mind telling some of your friends about my inn? I’d love to have some more business.”
Klbkch visibly hesitated.
“Do you mean for me bring others of my kind, Miss Solstice?”
“Yeah. Why not? If you liked the flies so much, I’m sure your friends would love them too. I’ve got a good system for harvesting them too—make them explode before you start carrying the glass jars around.”
Again, Klbkch hesitated.
“I am not sure that would be too…wise.”
Relc was silent as he slurped down the last of his pasta, but he was watching Klbkch carefully from the corner of his eyes.
“My fellow…workers are not as used to dealing with other species as I. It would be imprudent to bother you with their presence.”
“Hey, if they’re like you I wouldn’t mind it. And if they don’t want to talk to me, I can just serve them more flies.”
Klbkch looked uncomfortable.
“I would not want to put you to any inconvenience.”
“Isn’t that what being an innkeeper is all about? Besides, I deal with Pisces. Come on. Bring a few of your friends and I’ll serve you acid flies until you explode.”
“Yeah, what’s the worst that could happen?”
Relc nodded. Her slurped down his pasta and thumped Klbkch on the back. Jovially. Erin and Klbkch glared at him. Deliberately, Erin began knocking against the hard wood of the table.
“Has no one here heard of Murphy’s Law?”