Bitter 289

Britta left the temple and was surprised to find it was nighttime. She stood on the temple steps and had to wait for her brain to adjust to the ridiculously majestic vision overhead. She’d seen it before, but it still took some getting used to.

There were a lot of people out and about, and many of the stores were open—mainly the ones serving food. The street was almost as busy as it was during the day. Not only with NPCs, but with other players.

It was easy to spot them, both because of the nametags hovering over their heads, and because they were the ones wandering around aimlessly, staring up at the sky.

APE had decided to let the rest of the player base in during the night cycle, and they were mesmerised by it, necks craned, fingers pointing out shooting stars and sparkling constellations. If only she’d been a thief character, she’d have been able to clean up with her pickpocketing skills.

She did feel a slight twinge of regret that this part of the world was no longer her personal playground, but it was always going to be a temporary monopoly.

As fascinating as it was to watch them watching the sky, Britta had other business to take care of. She trotted down the steps and made her way towards the Mayor’s residence.

The clock bell rang eleven times somewhere in the distance, meaning the time was the same as back home. Did that mean it had synchronised with her, also?

Her aim was to go to see the Mayor and ask him how to destroy a magic book safely. He had offered his help already, although she suspected his motivation wasn’t purely altruistic. She wouldn’t tell him she had the book, although she was sure he would assume she did.

Even if he tried to take it from her, it wouldn’t be easy forcing her to give it up. Now that she had use of Teleport again, she’d be able to escape quite easily. She was prepared for any shenanigans.

Of course, she could have just gone to the mines and destroyed the book any way she could. She would die, but it would still get the job done. In fact, there was no real reason to have to go to the mines. She could destroy the book right here in the middle of the street, and the effect should, theoretically, be the same. The spell on the dwarf would be neutralised.

But it felt wrong. Not only was she guessing at the results, she didn’t know if there’d be any kind of after-effect. Would the dwarf just collapse in a heap? Would he disappear in a puff of smoke? Would he return to his senses and have all sorts of interesting anecdotes about the afterlife?

Whatever the result, she was sure of one thing. She wouldn’t be there to see it.

Her death was almost guaranteed. Even if she could re-enter the game immediately—another thing she was only assuming—it would take time for her to get back to the action.

Her death might be unavoidable, but she should at least have someone with her to deal with the aftermath. Dad? Stan? Maybe Diana if she ever came back from her quest.

There were people she could rely on, but she would much rather rely on herself. And the best way to do that, as far as she could see, was to get the Mayor to tell her everything he knew.

As she walked further away from the centre of town, it got darker and spookier. There was enough light from the stars to show her the way, but there were also plenty of shadows for hiding in.

She could have created a ball of light, but that would make her stick out all the more, and with so many people keen to have a word with her, she didn’t really want to make herself any more conspicuous.

So, she hurried along the darkened streets, jumping nervously at every sound.

It was probably paranoia, simple nerves, but she couldn’t shake the feeling someone (or something) was following her. She looked around, stopped occasionally to listen, stared at shadows that were shaped to resemble limbs and appendages. Nothing was confirmed or denied.

Her best bet, she decided, was to get to the Mayor’s place as quickly as possible. It was a bit late to be dropping in, but she was fairly confident she would be admitted, probably with a gleeful grin. The fly knocking on the spider’s front door.

It was a measure of her more assertive frame of mind that she considered it a reasonable risk. Not because this was a game and it didn’t matter what happened, but because whatever happened, she had the ability to handle it. Quite an odd, yet exhilarating feeling.

In many ways, this was what made the game so compelling for her. Not fighting crazy monsters or finding magical treasure. Just the sense that she was up to it. Whatever it was, she had the ability to deal with all potential outcomes. That wasn’t something she often felt in the real world.

She stopped by a tree and looked back. She had definitely heard something. Ninja dwarves? She glanced up, half-expecting one to jump down from the branches. Nothing. She listened again, but it was hard to hear over the sound of her own thumping heart.

She wasn’t too far now, perhaps she should stop creeping and just run the rest of the way. No, she couldn’t give in so easily to her irrational fear. Especially when there were probably a bunch of people at APE watching her.

She turned to set off again and let out a sharp scream as a figure stepped in front of her.

“Sorry,” said Dad. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“What are you doing?” she said, breathing hard. “Have you been following me?”

“Kind of. I didn’t realise it was you, so I stayed hidden. Looks like we’re both headed to the same place. Why aren’t you in bed? You have school tomorrow.”

“I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted to check something with the Mayor. What about you? Are you going to see his wife?”

“No, no, not without someone to introduce me. She doesn’t know who I am. She’d probably scream the place down if I suddenly appeared at her window. I thought I’d check out the house, get a feeling for the layout, any security.”

It was like him to plan ahead. Slow and methodical were his two favourite modes.

“Okay,” said Britta. “I’ll keep him busy while you scout around.”

They set off together with Dad staying out of sight, but Britta felt a lot more comfortable knowing the monster in the shadows was her own father. The feeling didn’t last long, though.

As they approached the Mayor’s residence, it quickly became obvious something was wrong. Very wrong.

The front door was open, smashed in by the looks of it, and the light from the hallway showed walls splattered with blood.

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