Bitter 309

Britta was sure Dad had meant the shove in her back in a supportive and encouraging manner. It wasn’t likely the fall would kill her, and she was planning to jump anyway, once she’d got over her nervousness, so he was helping. The way you help someone scared of swimming by throwing them in the pool, or someone scared of skydiving by pushing them out of a plane.

This is what she told herself as she fell down the hole. Being deeply annoyed with him would only be a distraction and spoil her mood. She was trying to pass it off as not a big deal, being tossed overboard by her own father. It was easier said than done.

What was holding her back from fully accepting Dad’s help was her knowledge of what he was like as a gamer. It had always been a bone of contention between him and his daughters.

He was the sort of player who liked to take his time, search every area for hidden items, carefully check for traps, and generally do everything in a methodical manner. He played hard games where once you died, you had to restart from the beginning, so rash and impulsive behaviour led to short games and limited progress.

That was what he was like when he played.

When he watched other people play, his approach was completely different. He was quick to point out mistakes and very vocal about why the choices made by the person playing were all wrong.

And woe betide you if you were playing a platformer where you couldn’t get the timing right for a jump.

You could see him itching to take the controller away and do it himself.

In short, he was a nightmare. Both she and Marisa quickly grew tired of him as an audience, and wouldn’t allow him to watch them play. And then she lost interest in video games, so the whole thing became a distant memory.

Now it was all coming back to her. She still had the uncomfortable urge to keep her parents out of her business, as any normal teenager would, but it was only as she fell through the dark that the reasons for specifically avoiding playing video games with Dad came back to her.

It wasn’t just the annoying comments or unwanted advice. He would literally lean over and press the button for you. Put his arms around you so he could reach the shoulder bumpers. Slowly remove the controller from your small hands and nudge you over so he could sit down. He couldn’t help himself. Only when they called Mum to intervene would he give the controller back, along with excuses about helping his girls by showing them the correct way. No one believed him.

She and Marisa would confront him about his behaviour, but he claimed it was what made him a good gamer. His competitiveness was a plus. His disregard for other people’s feelings, a mark of a winner. His ruthless treatment of his own children, a life lesson.

No one believed any of that either. He was just impatient.

A warm breeze slowed her descent, just like it had in the flute leading down to the gnome village. She wouldn’t die, or even get injured. Dad had speeded things along and maybe he’d made the right call. It was infuriating.

She put it out of her mind as best she could and focused on where she would land.

A ring of orange light pulsed below her, rapidly growing bigger as she got closer. She tried to change her position so she would land on her feet, but she was having difficulty working it out. When she put her hand out she touched the walls of the chute, and instantly drew them back from the heat.

She exited the chute into a cave, lit by the orange glow. She landed on her hand and knees, and jumped up before the heat from the flat, rocky ground could burn her fingers. She could feel it through her boots, and worried they would burst into flames.

Around her the ground had rivulets of orange liquid flowing through it, forming a pattern of some kind. She had only been able to see a small section of it as she fell. Now she could see there was a large area, about the size of a football field. There didn’t appear to be anything else here.

There had always been two types of levels in games that she had always hated. One was the underwater level where you ran out of breath and died if you don’t get to an air pocket or the way out quickly enough.

And the other was the lava level, where one wrong step instantly vapourised you. This looked a lot like a lava level.

The orange liquid didn’t bubble and jump into the air in little fountains of death, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t start to in a minute. She looked around, sweating in the heat, trying to figure out where she was supposed to go. Was she standing on the Keystone? If she was, her plan to grab it and leave wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d hoped.

“Can you hear me, sweetheart?” said Dad’s voice.

“Dad, don’t call me that in front of the kobolds.” She was still annoyed with him for pushing her into the hole.

“Ah, sorry. I’ll tell them it’s your codename.”

That sounded even worse. The last thing she wanted was for everyone to start calling her sweetheart.

“There’s nothing down here. Ask Derik what the Keystone looks like.”

There was a pause before Dad answered. “He says it’s orange.”

Everything down here was orange. “Is it very big?” She really wanted it to be portable. Shouldn’t it be in a chest somewhere?

“He says look in the east alcove.”

Which way was east? She opened her map and hoped it worked down here. It appeared in front of her, showing the entire floor. East was to her right.  

Now that she could see the whole thing, it was obviously a maze, the lava acting like walls. She used her finger to draw imaginary lines through it, trying to figure out the route. It wasn’t very difficult to find.

She set off, confident she could find her way. At least there weren’t any monsters down here. Or spiked balls on chains swinging around for no apparent reason, powered by a perpetual motion machine.

The path between the lava streams was about a metre wide. She moved quickly, but kept an eye out for pressure pads. Everything was going very smoothly, the alcove was just ahead of her on the map. A left, another left, and then follow the path all the way around...

The ground beneath her began to tilt. The whole floor was tilting. She stopped and turned around to go back. In front of her, lava was pouring out of its troughs and flowing towards her.

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