Bitter 40

Britta took a sharp left and dodged the pedestrians in her way. She glanced back, but there was no sign of a large thug in pursuit. When she got further away, the rainbow trail suddenly reappeared ahead of her. It was merrily pointing the way like it hadn’t just led her into a dead end a moment ago.

At least it was showing the right way this time. Britta slowed to a jog, still nervously checking behind her. It was good to know there was more than one way to deal with a situation, especially when fighting your way out wasn’t much of an option.

The bar showing her experience points had risen slightly. If she could get XP using methods other than killing things, she might still be able to gain levels. Very slowly.

It took her twenty minutes to walk all the way around the block and back down the other side to the stables. There was probably a faster route, but she was fine with one that didn’t require her to walk through stone walls.

The stable had a large corral out front with half a dozen horses milling about. They all looked far too big for her. There weren’t any with wings or horns sticking out of their heads, which was slightly disappointing. She walked along the fence, peering through the slats. Not only did the animals look completely real, they even smelled real. The cloying odour of manure hung in the air.

A man sat on the fence at the far end, whittling. He didn’t appear to be whittling anything in particular, just hacking bits off a lump of wood. He was dressed in matching leather everything. From hat to boots, everything was the same red-brown colour and had the same intricate design of a rearing horse embroidered all over it. This was the horse guy, no mistake.

His eyes lit up as she approached. “Hey now, adventurer. You look like you’ll be needing transportation, am I right? Here at Honest Jasper’s we sell the finest beasts in New World. Guaranteed to carry you where you need to go, for the price you’re willing to pay.”

It wasn’t much of a sales pitch—a ride that worked for as much money as he could get out of you. Hardly a bargain. He sounded like a used car salesman. Britta held out the wooden disc. Honest Jasper’s face fell.

“Oh. You’re looking for a freebie.” He took the over-sized coin and inspected it. Then he sighed. “How am I ever going to make a living if they keep giving out those things. You only get the basic model with this, you know?”

“What have you got in my size?”

“There is one that might fit you. It’s not here, though. You’ll have to go collect it from the ranch. It’s just outside town.” He handed the coin back. “Give this to Marj.”

Accept quest? said a voice. Two buttons appeared in front of her.

This was the quest? There had to be more to it than simply going to the ranch and getting her horse. Some sort of ambush along the way or maybe the ranch would be under attack when she got there. She pressed Yes.

Jasper had lost interest in her and was back to his whittling. The lump of wood seemed to have grown back to its pre-whittled size.

Her audience seemed to be over, but could there be more to this interaction if she got the guy talking? From what she could tell, NPCs had more than one way of doing things. If you could get them talking, alternatives emerged. It was like there was another game under the one she was being presented with.

“Will I be attacked on the way to the ranch?” She could at least get some information out of him. Games usually gave you the question you needed to ask—it was much harder when you could ask anything.

“Why would anyone attack you?” said Honest jasper. “You just go see my Marj, she’ll see you right. Do you know how I met my wife? Well, let me tell you...” There followed a five minute speech involving young love, horses and haystacks. Lots of haystacks. Britta glazed over halfway through but hung on in case there was something of use at the end. She certainly felt she deserved it after listening to such a tedious tale. But there wasn’t. Jasper just went back to his whittling.

It did prove there was more to these characters than their basic function.

“Is there a shortcut to the ranch?”

“The road leads straight there.” Jasper gave her a quizzical look. “You just go see my Marj, she’ll see you right. Do you know how I met my wife?”

Just because there was extra information to be found, didn’t mean it would be interesting or useful. Britta opened her map while Jasper recounted his love story. There was a red marker outside town. She touched it and a tag came up. Big J Ranch. If the map was to scale it wasn’t very far, about the same distance as walking from one end of the town to the other. The rainbow trail wound across the map, going through a number of buildings.

Britta used her finger to nudge the trail on the map. It moved aside. By pulling and stretching, she was able to redirect it to stay on roads and open areas. At least this way she could use it as a rough guide.

When she closed the map, Jasper was still going. The trail sparkled in front of her. She looked at the horses within arms reach and shook her head. Most likely everyone who came here was sent off on this quest to get their free ride. Long walk there, quick ride back. Assuming she didn’t get killed along the way. She took out her new, bigger knife and followed the rainbow trail out of town.

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