It was all gone. All over.
The Wandering Inn was finished.
Erin stared at what had been inn and saw the writing on the wall. Actually, she didn’t.
Because there was no wall.
Nearly half of her inn had been blown outwards by the explosion. Walls, floorboards—even parts of the roof had been shredded by the explosive tree bark as it heated up from the fire.
For an added bonus, the bark had been flaming as it shot out of the fireplace. So the parts of the inn not hit by the shrapnel also caught on fire.
It was only because it was such a cold and windy day that the fire hadn’t eaten away the entire inn. As it was, Erin could see straight into the common room and parts of the upstairs from her position outside.
There was no repairing that. Erin wouldn’t even know where to start. [Basic Crafting] did not teach her how to repair the foundations. The spot where the fireplace had been—the center of the blast—was a crater, and Erin could see churned dirt where floorboards and the stone base should be.
The inn was gone. And Erin was homeless.
The feeling that hit Erin wasn’t exactly like despair. It was closer to numbness; a vague hurt feeling in her chest. Why? Why did it always have to be her?
She told Toren to go away, and for a while, she just sat in the snow trying to imagine what came next. What did come next? She had a little money, but not enough. She was an [Innkeeper] without an inn and no other useful skills besides chess.
She was lost.
That was the word that popped into Erin’s mind. Again. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. That thought created a spark, but Erin was so tired. She didn’t want to think of doing anything like picking up the broken timbers or finding actual firewood to replace the damaged wood.
She just wanted to sit here and stare at the remains of what had been her home.
“Wow. It’s totally gone, isn’t it?”
Erin heard Relc remark cheerfully as the Drake crested the hill. She’d beaten even him and Klbkch in her mad dash towards her inn. The Drake whistled as he looked around.
“What did this? I only saw the smoke and Tkrn said he could see the inn was broken from his spot on the walls. [Eagle Eyes]. Nice skill, right?”
“It blew up.”
“Yeah, I got that p—ow!”
Erin heard a thump and the sounds of a Drake hopping around on one foot in the snow. Then Klbkch was squatting next to her. The Antinium regarded Erin gravely.
“I am sorry this happened, Erin. Was this an attack or some kind of magic?”
“No. No. It was trees.”
Relc stopped hopping and cursing and looked mildly alarmed. He grabbed his spear and turned.
“Aw, no. Don’t tell me it was one of those cursed trees. Or a Dryad? I hate Dryads.”
Erin almost smiled, but she couldn’t.
“No. It was an exploding tree. Toren must have cut it down and brought it here.”
“An exploding tree? What?”
Klbkch nodded slowly.
“Erin must be referring to the reports of the deadly forest southeast of here. You will recall it’s one of the areas we avoid on our patrols.”
“Oh yeah. The place where that scouting party disappeared? Yeah. Wow. So the trees explode?”
“The bark does.”
Erin could see it now. She remembered how those trees had reacted when she’d hit one with a rock. They’d nearly taken her eye out with an acorn fifty feet away. If that explosive power were compressed into a nice little room…
“Well, there goes dinner. I’m hungry. You want to go to the Tailless Thief instead? I’ll buy the first round.”
Klbkch turned and looked around at Relc. Erin didn’t see his face, but the Drake raised his hands defensively.
“Hey, I was joking! Sort of. I mean…”
He waved at Erin’s inn and lowered his voice, although both Erin and Klbkch could clearly hear him.
“What’s she going to do? I don’t think a hammer and a few nails are going to fix that, do you?”
Silently, Erin agreed with Relc. Her inn was busted. What could she do? It was exactly like before. She couldn’t do anything.
It was so unfair. Why did this happen to her? Why—
“Oh no! Erin!”
Erin heard the voice a second before Selys nearly tackled her to the ground. The female Drake threw her arms around Erin as Ceria and Olesm appeared on the hilltop as well, looking winded. Selys stared at Erin’s inn and then at Erin.
“Are you hurt? Oh no, your inn! What happened?”
Ceria and Olesm stared at the destruction in shock as Erin muttered a few words and Relc loudly related the events.
“And then that stupid skeleton she has—Tors or something—must have put it on the fire. The tree explodes, and there goes her inn. Boom!”
“I don’t believe it.”
Selys kept saying that as she hugged Erin. Ceria looked gaunt and tired as she shook her head. Only Olesm seemed determined to remain optimistic. The Drake peered at a splintered board and stared around.
“Can this be fixed?”
“What? Are you crazy?”
Relc laughed at him. He gestured to the wrecked face of the inn.
“There’s no way she’s going to get that patched up by herself. You’d need a team of carpenters and a small forest, and neither of those is cheap, even if it weren’t winter! It’s over. The inn’s toast. History. Total dest—”
Ceria turned and kicked Relc hard in the stomach. He didn’t budge, but he narrowed his eyes at her.
With her good hand, Ceria flicked a sliver of ice towards Relc’s nose. The Drake leaned back inhumanly fast, but the shard missed anyways.
“Hey, I’m just—”
Relc dodged another shard of ice, this one larger and aimed closer to his head. He retreated, muttering insults.
Erin didn’t listen or see Olesm and Klbkch talking, or hear Selys assuring her that she could stay at Selys’ apartment or with Krshia. She just thought.
It was always the same. Always. Not in the same way, but the feeling was the same. And it was a sad thing, but Erin was used to the sensation. She was used to things like this.
“I’ve done this before.”
Relc stared at Erin.
“You’ve blown up your inn before?”
“No. But this—”
Erin couldn’t describe it. It was so familiar. Why? It was a pattern in her life.
Something bad happens. Get sad. Nearly die. That’s how it went.
But there was another level to that. Why did it always have to be bad? It was unfair? So why did it have to happen that way?
Erin was an expert at having bad things happen to her. So why couldn’t she turn a bad thing into a good thing? Or at least a not-so-bad thing?
She stared at her inn. Okay, now how did the script go? She’d stare at her broken inn, cry a bit, maybe freeze to death as she nearly fixed it, and then—probably the Frost Fairies would decide to bury the entire thing with her inside.
That was how the story went. But could Erin change the story?
“Can it be fixed?”
“No! It’s hopeless! Let’s go back to the city! I’m freezing!”
Erin ignored Relc as Klbkch looked over at her. He walked over with Olesm and Erin stood up. Ceria and Selys joined the circle while Relc edged closer and received cold stares from almost everyone else.
Klbkch nodded at Erin’s inn.
“I have already contacted my Hive. Some Workers will be here shortly to assess the damage. It may be that this can be repaired.”
“And I’m sure the damage isn’t that bad. It’s only the…side of the inn. I know a few [Carpenters] in the city. They might be able to help!”
Olesm smiled unconvincingly at Erin. Selys nodded and adopted the same too-optimistic tone.
“Yeah! And you could probably get enough wood to rebuild the inn. From Krshia. She might uh, know someone with a lot of spare building wood. They’re rebuilding a lot of the damaged buildings so…it might be cheaper?”
Erin nearly smiled, and then she actually did. It was ridiculous and hopeless. But she was used to that, wasn’t she? Keep smiling, keep trying. She shivered, and suddenly realized it was freezing.
Ceria snapped her fingers and muttered a few words. Erin blinked as the air around her suddenly seemed to lose most of its bite. Selys blinked and stopped crossing her arms together.
“What was that?”
“[Lesser Resistance to Ice]. It’s a basic mage spell in my school. It won’t stop much of the chill, but it helps.”
It did. Erin smiled gratefully at Ceria and the half-Elf smiled crookedly back.
“What a fun surprise, huh? I’m really sorry about your inn, Erin. Let me know if I can help. I’m no good with movement and telekinetic spells, but even I can cast [Repair]. I can fix a few floorboards, at least.”
“And I’ve got a hammer in my home!”
Erin smiled. Suddenly she was warmer, and not just on the outside. She had friends. Even in this cold winter, she had people who’d move mountains for her.
What else could she ask for?
“How about a well?”
Klbkch had been silent as he stared at her inn. He looked up and turned to face Erin.
“I have contacted one of the Workers most skilled in constructions within my Hive. He will be on site shortly, but he informs me the inn can be rebuilt.”
Erin stared incredulously at Klbkch. He nodded calmly.
“Yes. But there are a few caveats. Firstly, the damage to the foundations is not inconsiderable. Although much of the building is still intact, the rest will need to be reconstructed and cannot be built from the fragments that remain. With a supply of wood however, another inn may be built, although it would be just as easy to build a new inn elsewhere.”
Everyone stared at him. Olesm opened his mouth.
“That’s not easy.”
Klbkch shrugged fractionally.
“I am no longer Prognugator, but I occupy a similar position of command. I have called thirty Antinium Workers with class levels that will assist in reconstruction shortly.”
Rather than stop, the staring increased. Klbkch shifted his position and looked at Erin. She blinked at him.
“You’re going to get the other Antinium to help me? Isn’t that…won’t your Queen get mad?”
He shook his head.
“It is a service we will provide for free, if you will assist us in other ways. My intent tonight was to discuss allowing Workers and other Antinium to visit your inn to play chess and learn. That cannot occur without an inn.”
“But the cost—”
“The Antinium will work for free. It will not take long.”
He hesitated and glanced at the façade of the inn.
“…Finding timber will be a more difficult matter. Lumber is in short supply in the city at the moment. It may take a day or two to locate enough. The Workers can begin repairing parts of the inn and seal the rest off from weather damage for now.”
Erin sagged slightly. But this—was more than she could have asked for. And it was the same feeling. Help—someone helping her without her helping back. She looked around. Wasn’t there something she could do?
Her eye caught something untouched by the explosion. A section of a tree, roughly chopped away, bark still wrapped around the few branches and sections of the wood. Relc was sitting on it, looking bored.
“Hey, there’s more of the exploding tree.”
Everyone looked around. Relc stared down at his seat and slowly got up. As one, everyone slowly edged away from the part of the tree. Except for Erin. She stared at it with a frown.
“Why doesn’t that explode?”
Selys glanced at Erin nervously.
“Do you think it will? Should we get farther away?”
“No. But why doesn’t it explode? It should the instant you get near it or hit it.”
Erin thought to herself as Ceria and Relc wondered why their [Dangersense] hadn’t gone off.
“Maybe it’s the cold?”
“Well, if Toren was in the forest, even he would notice if the trees started exploding. And the bark would have exploded if he was dragging the piece of tree all the way here. So why did it only explode inside?”
She imagined her skeleton. He wasn’t bright, but even he wouldn’t bring a dangerous object into the inn. So he must not have known the trees would explode. Ergo – a fancy word she’d learned in school – the trees must have seemed completely normal. Until they were inside.
Well, what would happen inside? Toren would probably light the fire with the wood. Not much else you do with wood indoors. And then…
Boom. That must have been the trigger. That was Erin’s hypothesis, and she decided to test it.
“Hey Relc, can you drag that piece of wood down the hill?”
He didn’t want to. But after some coaxing (threats) by Selys and Klbkch, he reluctantly stumped over and gingerly rolled the ungainly piece of tree to the side of the hill. And then, having ascertained the tree was probably not going to explode, he kicked it hard enough to send it crashing down the slope.
Erin was pretty sure that would have triggered the explosion, cold or not. But the bark didn’t so much as shiver. Well, that only added to her theory.
Next, Erin asked Ceria if she knew any flame spells. It turned out the half-Elf did, although she only knew one or two.
“It’s not my proficiency. Ice magic is, and you can imagine the two are different. But if you need me to light something…”
Ceria couldn’t throw fire that far or shoot fireballs, but once again Relc was the right Drake for the job, however reluctant he was to do said job. Ceria lit a bundle of boards and sticks Erin tied together on fire, and Relc set the burning wood next to the tree and dashed back.
He was so quick! He could cover the hundred meters from the tree fragment to where the others were waiting in only a few seconds. Erin knew the world record was something like ten seconds, but she was sure Relc made the journey in less time than that.
The Drake slid behind Erin and the others waited, tense. About thirty seconds after Relc had placed the fire next to the tree, Erin thought she saw the bark on the tree twitch—
The explosive tree bark wasn’t nearly as bad this far out, but a fragment of bark still bounced gently off Klbkch’s carapace as he shielded Erin. The others raised their heads and stared at the spot around the tree in amazement. Selys twitched her tail and blinked.
The snow around the piece of tree had been blown away in a rough semicircle, and the dirt had been kicked up as well from the force of the blast. It looked a bit like a bombshell crater, and Erin said as much.
“You mean you have exploding trees where you came from as well? What kind of place do you live in?”
Olesm shook his head she walked back over to the tree. Erin gingerly prodded the now bark-denuded wood and found it was wonderfully smooth. And amazingly, unharmed.
“The bark just explodes off and leaves the tree intact. That’s so weird.”
Relc rolled his eyes and shivered as he stood impatiently next to Erin. He hadn’t worn any more clothes than normal, even though it was so cold. His bare chest might be a display of how tough he was, but he still looked cold to Erin.
“Okay, you’ve found out that your trees don’t kill you unless it’s warm. So what?”
Erin pointed at the tree in front of her and looked back at Klbkch.
“Hey, Klbkch. You said the Workers needed wood. What about this?”
Relc blinked. Olesm clicked his claws together – more of a soft sound than a snap – and mouthed ‘of course’. Klbkch stared silently at the piece of wood. He didn’t say a word for a minute, and then nodded.
“Yes. The Worker tells me this wood appears to be quite similar to timbers he is used to working with. And if it can withstand the impact of such explosions, it should surely suit your needs.”
“Good idea, Erin!”
Selys cheered and Erin smiled.
“There’s an entire forest of these stupid trees. Probably enough for an inn, right?”
Erin felt a sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t happening like other times. This might actually turn out right. But…could it turn out righter?
“Um, you said it would be just as easy to build a new inn, right?”
“Then—could you rebuild it closer to the city? On another hill, or something?”
Selys’ mouth fell open about the same time as Olesm’s did. But Ceria grinned from ear to ear, and Relc laughed. Klbkch looked amused and paused before replying.
“It should be possible. There are a few hills of sufficient height the Workers say may serve. Shall we inspect them?”
Erin smiled. The sun was coming out. The bright light made the snow blindingly bright, and it warmed her. The world was better.
“You are welcome, Erin Solstice.”
The first of the Workers met Erin and the others at the hill they’d chosen. It was closer to the city—close enough that Liscor’s gates were actually visible from their position on the hill. It was…five hundred meters away? A mile? Five miles? Erin wasn’t good with distances.
It was close enough that she’d only need to walk leisurely for around twenty minutes to get there, which would be a huge improvement from her normal trek. And best yet, the hill Klbkch had approved was quite large. It had room for all the things Erin wanted.
“So the well’s going there, the outhouse is going there, and I get a basement?”
Erin looked excitedly at Klbkch. He nodded calmly.
“The Workers will begin work right away. I will take twenty of them to collect the necessary amount of timber.”
“I could go with you. It’s far away.”
“I have memorized the map of the surrounding region and I am familiar with the location. You should stay here to supervise the construction.”
“I’ll stay with her.”
Relc yawned as the Workers filed past him. He leaned on his spear.
“I’ll protect her against…the wind.”
“You will come with us. Monsters may attack such a large group.”
“Aw. Do I have to?”
“I’ll go with you.”
Relc blinked as Ceria stepped forwards. Erin wanted to protest, but the half-Elf was adamant.
“Three fighters is better than two, and neither of you is a mage. I might be recovering, but I can still cast a few spells even without a wand.”
That made sense, but Erin was still worried about Ceria until Klbkch assured her she would come to no harm. When Relc said it, it just didn’t instill the same level of confidence.
Olesm and Selys stayed with Erin as Klbkch, Relc, and Ceria left with the wood-gathering party. They debated what they should do. Olesm was all for going back to the inn and playing chess, while Selys argued they should salvage everything they could so the Workers didn’t have to.
Erin was right with Selys and Olesm until she saw the next group of Workers appear over the hill. She froze, and then shouted and waved her arms happily.
The Worker raised his one good hand as the other Worker next to him helped him along. Erin ran towards him, laughing, followed by Olesm while Selys hung back.
It was hard to read the Antinium’s expressions, but Erin was sure that Pawn was smiling as she met him. He raised his hand, but she threw her arms around him in a hug. He froze, but Erin didn’t care. The sensation of hugging the Antinium was hard, smooth, and cool as she touched his carapace. She couldn’t describe it, but his outer exoskeleton felt alive, and that was unsettling. But not so much because it was Pawn!
“It’s been so long! How are you? Are you okay in the hive? Why are you coming to help?”
Erin bombarded Pawn with questions and only then noticed who was helping Pawn walk through the snow.
The other Worker, one of the four survivors of the battle against Skinner and the undead, bowed politely in Erin’s direction as he helped Pawn towards the inn. Another unnamed Worker placed a chair down and Pawn sat down in it on the empty hill.
“Where are the others? Garry, um…Belgrade, and Anand?”
“Belgrade is still too injured to move, but the others are well. They serve the Hive elsewhere at the moment.”
“Well, I’m glad to see you too! Are you well?”
Bird nodded politely, but let Pawn take precedence. The Worker sat forwards in his chair and inclined his head at Erin, as if he was someone in a board meeting.
“Erin, it’s good to see you again. I am very well, and I regret I haven’t had time to visit you before. But things have been…busy after the battle against the undead. However, I am here now to assist you as best I am able.”
Erin looked around. Pawn and Bird were followed by ten more Workers. They didn’t wait, but instantly set to work. They trooped in the direction of her inn, walking steadily through the ankle-deep snow. None of the Antinium were wearing clothing, and Erin wondered if they’d be okay in the cold.
“You need not worry about the Antinium. We may survive in freezing weather for up to two hours before needing warmth. We will build a fire to warm ourselves before then.”
Erin smiled at Pawn. Like Klbkch, he was always quite calm, but Pawn had a more familiar air about him. And he seemed to know Erin’s thoughts quite well.
“I just can’t believe you’re here. And—is your arm growing?”
She suddenly pointed to Pawn’s side. Erin remembered the severed stumps of his three arms and one leg, but now it seemed like said stumps were growing longer. Pawn nodded, and gestured with his good arm to the healing spots.
“The Hive has several unique substances that allow regeneration of limbs among our kind. I will regain mobility within the month if all goes well. In the meantime, I will direct the other Workers in repairing your inn.”
“That’s so great. Really, it is.”
It didn’t excuse the events that had led to Pawn losing said limbs, but Erin didn’t want to get complicated. She beamed at him and Bird.
“So, you’re going to help? Do you know what’s happening?”
“Yes. The Revalantor has instructed us already. We will rebuild your inn here, Erin. It may take time to dig the foundation and cut the timber, but we should be finished by midnight.”
Erin’s eyes bulged, and she looked around at the empty hill, still covered in snow.
“The Workers need little rest and we all have a few levels in the appropriate classes. Moreover, we are here in number. We have already reconstructed much of Liscor. Do not worry. Your inn will be built better than new.”
Erin smiled at Pawn, and felt her eyes sting a bit.
“Well. Well…I’ll pay you back, I promise.”
“I believe you will. I understand that the price the Revalantor wishes to ask of you is to allow Antinium to visit your inn to learn to play chess.”
Selys frowned and Olesm looked delighted. Erin was incredulous.
“What? That’s not a price. That’s—helping me!”
“It will help the Hive as well. Pardon me, I’m not permitted to speak too much of the details. But it will help.”
“Well—sure! I mean, this will already be a lot better. My inn was already full of holes, and now it’ll be closer to the city, right?”
Selys nodded happily.
“Now I’ll be able to visit after work rather than find someone to bring me all the way out there. And you’ll get a lot more business, I’m sure.”
“It could be for the better.”
Olesm agreed as he stared at Bird. The other Worker looked vaguely uncomfortable, but if Erin knew Olesm, the Drake was about to challenge Bird to a game of chess.
“And I can take less time shopping, and I won’t have to carry stuff nearly as far.”
It all sounded better. Erin felt a huge sense of relief and happiness in her chest. Selys tapped Erin’s legs with her tail as she smiled at her.
“Having your inn explode is one of the best things that’s happened to you, huh, Erin?”
“Yeah. I’m almost not mad at Toren anymore. I mean, it wasn’t exactly his fault.”
Erin sighed. It really wasn’t the skeleton’s fault. He was boneheaded, but not stupid. And he’d found firewood after all. She wouldn’t shout at him, she promised herself. Then a thought occurred to Erin and she looked around, frowning.
“Where is Toren?”
Pawn and the others looked around as well. It suddenly occurred to Erin that she hadn’t seen him in a while.
“Is he doing something for you, Erin? Running an errand?”
Erin remembered what she’d said to him. ‘Go away’.
“Oh. I told him to leave after he blew up the inn. I guess he’s still gone.”
“Will he come back?”
“Well—yeah! I just meant go away for a while. Not forever. He’ll be back soon, I’m sure.”
There wasn’t much Erin could do in any case. Toren’s…reduced…frame meant he was hard to spot at the best of times, and he was nearly completely invisible in the white snow. Erin asked Pawn and the other Workers to keep an eye out for him, and resolved to do the same.
He’d be back soon, she was sure.
“So. I’m told your name is Klbkch.”
Klbkch glanced down slightly and nodded politely to Ceria as they walked together at the head of a small army of Workers. They were walking through the Floodplains of Liscor, or as Ceria thought of them at the moment, the Frostplains of Liscor.
It was cold. Ceria was specialized in frost-based magic and she didn’t mind the cold, but the trek combined with her recent weakness was making things harder than she would have liked. Nevertheless, she walked quickly, not wanting to slow down the expedition.
She was slightly regretting her choice to go with the Workers to gather wood in any case. She didn’t know Relc or Klbkch and she had a history of bad experiences with local law enforcement. But Erin liked Klbkch, which probably meant he was alright.
“I, uh, haven’t ever met any Antinium before. You don’t have a great reputation up north.”
“I am well aware. The perception of our kind is not undeserved.”
“But you’re a friend to Erin. That’s surprising, but I’m glad. She needs friends out here.”
“She is a unique individual. I believe you are a good friend to her as well. She went into the ruins to bring you back.”
“She did. She’s very brave.”
The conversation halted for a few minutes. Ceria stared around the bleak landscape. There weren’t many structures or…anything except on top of the higher hills. That made sense, considering what happened other parts of the year. Still, the open landscape was slightly disconcerting to her. Were it not for the Antinium, Ceria would feel lost in a landscape of endless white.
Ahead of her and Klbkch, Relc stormed through the snow, leaving a trail in his wake. He was scouting ahead, as the only person in the group with skills in that area.
He waved his hand and stabbed his spear into a section of snow which collapsed inwards. A huge gaping pit opened up and Relc kicked the first Shield Spider as it crawled over the edge.
“Take that you little bastard!”
The Shield Spider flipped back into the nest as Relc laughed and poked the other spiders back into the next. Ceria and Klbkch changed directions to walk wide of the nest. Ceria nodded at Relc.
“He’s the highest-level guardsman I’ve seen in my life. I saw him fighting Gazi. With his abilities, he could be a Gold-rank adventurer.”
“He has told me he does not care for danger anymore. He was a soldier. Now he is retired.”
“Gazi was a soldier, once.”
“Yes. She may be one again, if what we have heard is true.”
Ceria tried to imagine it. She remembered the King of Destruction’s first rampage, hearing of nations falling and cities sieged. She’d never been to Chandrar, but war had been speeding across the vast ocean when the King of Destruction had suddenly called an end to his grand ambitions.
“What will the Antinium do if he starts conquering nations again?”
Klbkch shrugged fractionally. He was armed with two swords, which matched his unique body. Ceria had never seen an Antinium with only two arms – it must mean he was a special leader among them. The other Workers certainly obeyed his commands without question.
“If it comes to war, the Antinium will act. Until then, I believe the Queens will be content to wait. The King of Destruction is far away.”
More walking. Snow crunched underneath Ceria’s boots. And then Klbkch asked her a question.
“What will you do?”
“I understand you will not be charged for the attack of the undead. But you are an adventurer alone, not counting the few adventurers who survived. Many have already left, and only the silver-rank adventurer is of any note.”
“Yvlon. She’s…silent. Still recovering.”
“Yes. Will you join with her and continue adventuring?”
“I don’t know.”
She’d lost everything. Sometimes Ceria forgot. She’d wake up or start doing something, and then it would hit her as she thought of the future. She’d lost all of her coin in the ruins, lost all of her magical artifacts except her robes, lost her friends, and her hand.
Klbkch slowed as Relc raised a hand and shouted from ahead. There was something in the distance, breaking the uniform snowy landscape.
“Ah. There is the forest. We should remove the bark before bringing the trees back.”
He turned and began issuing orders to the Workers behind him in a clipped, short tone. Ceria watched the black-bodied Antinium move as she thought. Klbkch’s question had bothered her more than he could probably imagine.
What would she do now? What would she become?
Ceria didn’t know. She was lost. She only had one thing to cling to, and that was a certainty. There was something about Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin. Something different.
She’d figure that out first, and then decide.
The first of the Workers were returning with boards and another group was beginning to dig what would become Erin’s foundation and basement when Olesm pointed at the sky and called out warningly.
“Uh oh. Trouble.”
Erin looked around, and her heart sank. High above in the sky, she saw a cloud of shimmering shapes, and heard familiar—and unwelcome—voices.
“Look, look! The wretched building is gone!”
“Something destroyed it!”
“Nay, it exploded! See the traces?”
“Hah! Serves the foolish human right! Look how she stands there like a lump!”
The Frost Faeries flew overhead, chattering as the Workers began trooping the pieces of the inn over to the new build site.
“And now the slaves are rebuilding the inn! With nails of iron and metal tools! Let’s curse their steps!”
“Break their foolish tools!”
“Destroy the new building!”
Erin waved her hand and ran at the Frost Faeries in a panic as they dove out of the sky at the oblivious Workers. The others stared at Erin incredulously as, from their perspective; she began shouting at faint blobs in the air.
“Wait, wait! Stop! Don’t attack! Please!”
The Frost Faeries halted, and one of them glared at Erin suspiciously.
“What do ye want? If ye want to beg, don’t bother. We hate all of cold metal and naught you or yer slaves can do will stop us!”
“But I need an inn! I mean, my old one got destroyed! Why do you hate me so much?”
They laughed at her, the faeries. One of them made a rude gesture and pointed at the working Antinium.
“We don’t hate ye, fool! You mortals are nothing to us but pests. Tis iron we hate! If ye’d take away the iron in the building, we might, might reconsider.”
Erin looked at her inn and back to the faeries.
“But how are they supposed to build an inn without iron nails?”
One of the faeries laughed mockingly at Erin.
“Don’t you know? A nail can be more than just iron! Are you a fool? They can be made of silver, wood, steel—”
“Copper! Make them of copper, you daft cunt!”
That was really rude, but Erin ignored it. She ran over to the two Workers in charge, waving her hands desperately.
“Hey Pawn! Pawn!”
Pawn looked up from his discussion with Bird. Erin met them as they walked towards her and pointed to the site where the Workers were already digging into the soil and hauling stones into place to make the foundation.
“The inn. When you’re building it—can you use only copper nails?”
He conferred with Bird, and the nodded.
“We have a large supply of building materials available to us. It will be done.”
Erin turned back to the faeries and smiled hopefully at them.
“Well? Will that do? It’ll be a building without any bad iron—well, without much. And you’ll be welcome there as guests, okay? Promise!”
The Frost Faeries conferred, starring hard at Erin and talking with their small hands cupped. Erin waited, sweating despite the cold, imagining her and all the Workers buried underneath a hundred tons of snow. Faeries couldn’t do that. Could they?
At last, the faeries turned back to Erin and one of them nodded. She didn’t have a pleased expression on her face, but she seemed resigned. The other faeries were smiling gleefully, for some reason that Erin didn’t get.
“Well…alright. I suppose ye get a pass. This time. We’ve got better things ta do than deal with you lot, anyways.”
The faeries began to spiral back up into the sky. Olesm blinked at them and stared at Erin in amazement. Pawn and Bird ignored the faeries as they continued plotting out the inn, and Selys hid in the snow as they flew upwards. One of them called out as the herd of faeries flew off.
“We still don’t like you, human!”
Erin stuck her tongue out as the Faeries left. A snowball spiraled out of the sky and struck her in the face, but all in all, she decided she’d gotten off pretty lucky.
Ceria, Klbkch, Relc, and the other Antinium returned an hour later, carrying long boards of neatly cut wood. Erin was amazed to see that each board of wood the Workers carried was perfectly cut to the dimensions the other Workers needed.
It was uncanny and sort of terrifying. As the thirty workers converged on the new inn’s building site, they worked without speaking or apparently, needing to look at each other. One Worker would be repairing a wall, and another Worker would slice a board of wood to fit the spot exactly.
It was the thing ants did. Telepathy, or some kind of hive mind. Erin was fascinated, but she didn’t have long to look. She was busy too.
Relc and Klbkch weren’t in charge of the workers so much as Pawn and Bird. The two former Workers knew their job well, and so they were the ones in charge. For their part, Relc and Klbkch used their superior strength to help lift things that would take more than one Worker. Relc by himself could lift something that would take two or more Workers.
Olesm and Selys didn’t have many applicable skills, but Selys was happy enough just to find things that had been knocked over or scattered by the explosion. She assembled small piles of pillows from upstairs, gathered Erin’s messy supplies from the kitchen, and made sure nothing else was damaged.
For Olesm’s part, he’d tried to help Selys, but kept blushing whenever he found some of Erin’s more private types of clothing. Selys eventually chased him away and he ineffectually tried to help Workers until Klbkch suggested he be useful somewhere else. In the end Olesm sat at one of the salvaged tables and played chess with Bird and Pawn.
And in the meantime, Erin wasn’t just sitting about. In point of fact, she was cooking. She moved about her kitchen, trying to ignore the oddity of it.
Her kitchen hadn’t been destroyed when the fireplace blew. And with the addition of a quick door to keep some of the hot air in, Erin could still cook food. She could hear the Antinium moving around and above her, recovering pieces of the inn, but she ignored that and focused on making food.
The Antinium had their own meals. They ate some kind of horrible mushy stuff that looked like regurgitated food mixed with—it looked bad and Erin was glad it was too cold to smell. And she had no acid flies to give them which broke her heart. But she could do something for her non-Antinium friends.
“Hey! You guys! I’ve got food!”
Erin called out as she emerged from her kitchen, beaming and holding a large plate full of her latest culinary achievement. Relc eyed her suspiciously and caught Erin as she tripped on an upturned timber. He caught the plate before it tipped over and eyed the food.
“What is this?”
Relc sniffed suspiciously at the round object Erin handed him. It was a hamburger.
An honest-to-god, real hamburger. Complete with a bun, mayonnaise on the side of the plate, and ketchup. Or catsup. Erin didn’t mind either word, but catsup always made her think of cat food.
It was easy. Erin had taken the ground beef she’d gotten from Krshia, added some pepper, an egg or two, and then squished it all together and made them into patties. Then she’d fried the burgers on a pan.
She didn’t have a grill, so Erin felt some of the authenticity was lost, but the burgers were made even realer with the addition of a bit of lettuce, a tomato, and cheese. All the ingredients were in Liscor, and cheap, too! Krshia said that while the city imported tomatoes and other vegetables from overseas, they weren’t as popular as other foods. She’d had to get the tomatoes from a fellow Gnoll who specialized in the rarer plants.
But that wasn’t all! Erin had made ketchup from the tomatoes and mayonnaise from the egg yolk and mustard. It was amazing. Amazingly hard to make, that was.
Erin had no idea making ketchup involved boiling tomatoes and adding all kind of complex spices. She still was miffed that mayonnaise used lemon juice and vinegar. But Ryoka had given her various recipes before she’d left, and they worked.
“Try it! It’s really good!”
Erin had already sampled her wares, so to speak. She’d made a hamburger, eaten the hamburger, made another cheeseburger, and eaten it too. It was so deliciously good and reminiscent of home she’d actually teared up a bit as she ate.
Relc didn’t seem convinced, but he could smell the grilled meat and he was hungry. He took an experimental bite out of the hamburger and chewed. His eyes went wide.
Klbkch and Olesm got to the plate too late, because Relc had already eaten four hamburgers and Ceria and Selys each had one. Relc happily bit into the burgers as Erin yelled at him for stealing the other’s food and ran into the kitchen for more. Thankfully, she’d made a big batch.
Selys chewed her burger, looking happy. Ceria opened the lid of her hamburger and inspected it.
“It’s quite good! But I’ve never seen a food like this. Did you invent it yourself, Erin?”
Erin shook her head happily as Olesm and Klbkch took a burger. Relc reached out and she slapped his hand.
“Wait until they eat theirs and then you can have one if they don’t want another. No, Ceria, it’s a popular food from my home.”
“Well, I love it. And it’s so convenient—it would make a great travel food.”
“That’s how people back home eat them! You can just walk around and eat!”
Ceria bit into her hamburger and chewed with her eyes closed. It still slightly bothered Erin to see an Elf—half-elf—eating meat so easily. But she was a fan, and as soon as they’d tried it, so were Klbkch and Olesm.
“You should sell these in the city! If you started on Market Street I’m sure you’d make a ton of money.”
Olesm commented as he took another burger from Erin’s plate and tried dipping it in the mayonnaise. Relc gave him a dirty look. Then Klbkch, Selys, Ceria, and Erin took another, and he threw up his hands and sulked.
There were no more burgers after that, but Erin tried making french fries. They made him so happy that Relc declared that he’d eat at Erin’s inn every night if she kept making the food.
Erin was ecstatic. And the work on her inn was progressing so fast that by the time she’d finished with the french fries, the Workers were dismantling her kitchen around her.
She left what had been her old inn—now only a few floorboards and broken wood—to stare at her new inn, made with shiny wood being coated with some kind of waterproof substance by the Antinium.
And by the time the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the Antinium were done. As promised.
The inn stood tall on the new hill, sides still tacky to the touch. They would be dry by morning according to Pawn, who told Erin not to worry about the damp surroundings. She hadn’t even known that was an issue with the wood varnish, but the Antinium had their own special array of substances.
Erin admired her inn even after the others had left, with full bellies, thanks, and an open invitation to visit tomorrow. Ceria had decided to return to the city with Olesm for one more night, as both were still technically supposed to be recovering.
Her new inn was just as big as the first, which was big. Erin could stand in the common room and turn around and feel the vastness of it. But more importantly from a construction standpoint, this new inn was made mostly with new wood, and it was in a lot better condition than the aged building Erin had found long ago.
The walls and roof were coated with a varnish the Antinium used. It helped protect the wood against the weather, but it also added to the integrity of the building. The nails were copper, and the building was fairy approved. Erin now even had glass windows, complete with shutters to keep the cold out and add privacy. Her kitchen was redone, and now her possessions were organized thanks to Selys’ [Receptionist] skills.
Best of all, and most importantly, the sign over the top of the inn was now painted in bright gold letters that shone when the light touched them. Erin had personally hammered the sign telling people not to kill Goblins into the ground. It was the only lopsided part of the entire affair.
And she had an outhouse and a well. The Antinium dug through the dirt like…well, probably faster than someone with a shovel or a drill.
It was all perfect. Erin spun around in her inn and laughed until she was dizzy. And she was happy. For once she’d turned a disaster into a miracle.
She was happy. She was happy. So happy. But—something was missing.
For a long time Erin searched for it. She looked through the new upstairs, around corners, in the kitchen, under tables and chairs, wondering what it was. She walked back to the empty hill where her inn had once been, staring around, wondering what it was.
And then she realized it as she sat at a table. Erin looked around and didn’t see him. Toren.
Her skeleton still hadn’t returned. Erin had no idea where he was. She climbed up onto her roof and stared around for nearly an hour, ignoring the cold.
“TOREN! WHERE ARE YOU?”
Her voice, amplified by her [Loud Voice] skill, was thunder. Erin heard echoes as her voice bounced off hills. She shouted again and again.
She saw no movement, no familiar burning blue eyes. But then Erin heard something.
A faint voice, coming from the much-closer walls of Liscor. A familiar voice echoed as Zevara shouted from the battlements.
“HUMAN! SHUT UP!”
In the end, Erin went to sleep. But she sensed it. Her inn was rebuilt. It was beautiful, remade, redone, better. But it still wasn’t finished. It was missing Toren. Until he wasn’t back it wouldn’t be complete.
She wondered…where he was.
[Innkeeper Level 19!]