Bitter 153

Britta looked around. She was on a grassy verge with a black cave mouth in the rock wall in front of her. She was at the foot of a cliff, or possibly a mountain. She took a few tentative steps towards the cave, her hand out. There was an invisible barrier that wouldn’t let her pass.

Behind her there was a steep drop and then fields. She was probably somewhere around the back of the mines and this was the exit. She puffed up her face and blew it out. There were a whole range of emotions swirling inside her from a number of different sources, all of them bad.

They had only been pretending to be her friends. It was the Cloak of the Dorf they wanted, she’d seen it in Tal’s face. Just when she threw the cloak to Lord Jim, she’d seen the sudden smug smile of satisfaction.

How did she know about the cloak? Britta had only had it on for a few minutes at the start, did Tal inspect it without making it obvious? When Britta had tried to identify the cloak, she hadn’t been able to. The only way to tell what the cloak’s bonuses were was to read the label, so Tal shouldn’t have known it was special. Maybe the fact she couldn’t tell was what tipped her off. Or just the name. Knowing Britta’s connection to the dwarf and then seeing the strange cloak might have been enough. It was still a long way to go just on a hunch.

Now that they had the cloak, it wouldn’t take them long to work out the hunch had been a good one.

Britta shook her head to stop herself obsessing over pointless things. She had no idea what made Tal and the others decide to cheat her out of the cloak. Perhaps it was just what they did to noobs whenever the go the chance. Adventurers by day, conmen on the side.

It was herself she was really mad at. She had been too keen to become one of them. She was in a new world where no one knew her or had any reason to go out of their way to be mean to her. She had thought life would be different here. Stupid.

She was also annoyed at herself for bottling it at the last moment. She knew she could have blinded King Kobold but she had doubted herself and gone along with what the others were telling her to do. That was a lesson in itself.

In an odd way, her cowardice had done some good. If she had used a spell and helped them defeat the kobold, they wouldn’t have revealed their true intentions, not until later. And in that time, she would only have become more convinced they were her friends, which would only make it hurt more when they eventually turned on her.

This way, at least she found out while she was relatively unattached to them. It still hurt something terrible, but it could have been a lot worse. Looking at it like that made it a bit more manageable and she took another deep breath and looked for the way back to the front of the mines. There was a path.

Of course, she’d have to get the cloak back. They wouldn’t be able to use it against her dwarf—there was no way for them to encounter him without her—but it would make them invincible against the dwarves in the epic version of the mines. And, on top of that, it belonged to her. She didn’t need it, but it was hers.

The path curled around through some bushes and trees. She could hear some talking up ahead, probably the people queueing to enter the dungeon. She looked up at the sky.

“Hey, if anyone’s watching, can you ask Dr Reedy to get in touch?”

She didn’t have a good way to contact mission control and she didn’t really want to abuse her privileged position, but this seemed like a reasonable time to call in the big guns.

“Britta?” said Dr Reedy’s voice almost immediately. “I was watching.”

Britta sighed. There was no point getting embarrassed, it was far too late for that. “They took the cloak.”

“Yes. We can turn off its abilities. They won’t be able to do anything with it. As far as they’ll be concerned its only function will be to keep the wearer warm.”

That wasn’t too bad, they wouldn’t get any use from it. But still, it didn’t seem like an appropriate punishment. And they deserved to be punished.

“I need the cloak, though.” Even though she couldn’t use it against the dwarf, she still had her plan to fool Stan.  

Stan. She had thought he was the real problem. Now she saw how cleverly Lord Jim and the others had used Stan to worm their way into her confidence. They were all as bad as each other.

“Hmm,” said Dr Reedy, pondering. “Well, technically, you did hand over the cloak willingly.”

She felt like whining and complaining and shouting, “It’s not fair! They tricked me,” but she didn’t. To be honest, they’d done her a favour. Cleared her mind of any dorky thoughts about wonderful new friends and dancing fairies and rainbow unicorns. Really, it was just the slap in the face she needed.

“I don’t care about the technicalities. If you want to see me get past the dwarf and find out what’s going on with the game, I need the cloak. Or one like it.”

“Yes, yes, I suppose you’re right. It will cause some tantrums, I expect, but there are bigger issues here. We can always offer them something else as compensation.”

The last thing Britta wanted was for them to gain from this.

“Actually,” said Britta, “maybe just turning off the cloak is enough.”

“Are you sure?”

Britta did want the cloak back, but she was relying on others too much, both here and with regard to Stan. The game wasn’t fighting dragons and trolls, this was the game. Dealing with other players.

If she begged for help every time things got difficult, what was the point? A fantasy world to run away and hide in? Where you could pretend everything was wonderful because you had cheat mode on? How sad was that?

She turned around and walked back towards the exit. The real final boss was waiting.

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