Bitter 361

“What’s that?” said Britta, pointing at the mounted knights.  

“Nothing,” said N-28. “Just some background detail to impress the new players. Pomp and ceremony.”

They did look quite grand, with their armour all polished and feathered plumes on the horses’ heads. It was strange how they just stood there, though.

Britta made her way to the door and looked out. There was a whole line of them, stretching down the street in both directions. No one else appeared to be about.

“Why are they just standing around like this?”

N-28 stood beside her. She hadn’t heard him walk up, which may have been because he wasn’t wearing shoes, or he might have teleported there.

“Rehearsals. We’re making sure everything fits for tomorrow.” He looked up. “Now that we have the day-night cycle synced up, we should be able to time it perfectly. Would you like to watch a run-through?”

The requisite time was up. She had no obligation to stay here, and she wasn’t particularly interested in watching men in shiny armour trotting up and down the street. It was muddy enough already, and getting it churned up would only make it more of a problem for people of her size.

She found herself smiling, amused by how parochial her concerns were, considering there was an army right in front of her. What else would this army be used for? Some storyline involving large-scale warfare?

“No thanks. I just wanted to check something. Only take a minute.”

She made her way down the steps to the wooden boards that formed the sidewalk. None of the soldiers paid her any attention. They had helmets on, and carried weapons and flags and banners. There was movement as the horses pawed at the ground or shook their manes, and the knights shifted about in their saddles. But there was no talking, and no sense of intent. They weren’t going anywhere. They were waiting.

It was going to be quite a show, she had no doubt, but there was something fake about it. Which was probably not that unusual. When was a parade not fake?

Britta turned right and right again, slipping into the alleyway next to the church. It was dark and dingy, as usual. Nothing about it seemed any different to the other times she had been here.

“This is a dead end,” said N-28, standing beside her.

“Yes, I know.” She walked further in, peering into the gloom. She made a ball of light, which she was pleased to see was now working again, and held it up to get a better view. The alley, disappointingly, was empty.

“Anything in particular you’re looking for?” asked N-28.

She turned around, lowering the light. “I thought I might find—”

“Hur, hur, hur,” chortled a voice from behind her.

She turned. “Hello?”

“You two make a nice couple,” said the voice from somewhere behind the boxes piled up to her left. “Out for a late-night walk? How romantic.”

A large figure stepped out, glinting knife in hand. “Why don’t you share some of your good fortune.”

“Freddy!” said Britta. There was no mistaking that misshapen bald head.

“Oh, you’ve heard of Big Fred, have you? So you’ll know not to mess with me, right, short stuff?”

He had no idea who she was, but he was here. Back in his alley, trying ineptly to mug people so he could impress his dad.

She knew he had never actually died, had never really been alive. And this was just an NPC running its routines. It wasn’t a big deal that he had been resurrected and put back in his favourite spot.

So why was she crying?

“Pissing yourself, are you? Can’t say I blame you.” He raised the knife and twisted it menacingly. She recognised it as the cursed family blade. She couldn’t help but smile through her tears.

He came towards her.

She was pleased to see him, but she’d rather not get killed on her first day back in the game. Even though it had become something of a tradition. She turned towards N-28 who was standing near the alley entrance. “Erm, could you do something?”

“Of course.” He waved his hand.

Britta felt something pulling at her waist. She looked down, and there was a large dagger in her belt. It looked basic, no fancy carvings or jewels in the hilt, but it had a solidness to it. She could feel the weight of it.

She looked back at N-28. “No, I don’t want to fight him. Just make him stop.”

“You want some of this, do you?” Freddy waved his blade at N-28.

N-28 stepped forward, reaching into the pockets of his trousers.

Britta thought he might freeze Freddy, or maybe make him vanish, or fall asleep. He had total control, after all.

He pulled out a small bag. “Here you go.” He tossed it, jangling.

Freddy caught it, shook it so it jangled some more, then he turned and ran off, laughing. One way to appease a mugger — pay him.

“Okay, that was all. I think I’ll go now.” She wiped the tears away. N-28 was looking at her oddly. “What? There was something in my eye.”

He nodded. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“How do I—” but when she looked up, he wasn’t there anymore.

Britta logged out.

It took a moment for her to get her bearings. There was no white room, she was back in her kitchen, staring at the ceiling. She sat up and realised she’d been lying on the kitchen table.

Mum and Dad were standing at her side, looking concerned.

“I’m fine,” she said as she removed the helmet. Her neck was a bit sweaty, but her armpits were dry. “Why am I on the kitchen table?”

Dad held up his phone. “You might want to have a look at this.” He played the video.

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