Being in the front, with everyone behind her, was a strange experience. It wasn’t just feeling exposed — when you were on your own as often as Britta was, you got used to it — it was the expectation.
Every time she looked over her shoulder, the other three were right there, waiting for her orders. They seemed quite happy to trust her judgement.
The pressure of not wanting to let them down, or get them killed, was like an extra weight in her backpack. There was also the added prospect absolutely and incontrovertibly proving she wasn’t up to the task. Everyone thought they’d make a good leader, especially those who had never had the chance and so had no evidence to the contrary. But most people were terrible at it.
The tunnel was long and straight, so at least she didn’t have to make any decisions about where they were headed. If they came to a fork, they would expect her to choose, but what made her decision any better than theirs? She would just be guessing.
The way she convinced herself to accept her new role and put her qualms aside was to think of it as an efficiency measure. If everyone’s opinion was equally unprovable as right or wrong, then it wasn’t that her opinion wasn’t better than anyone else’s, it was that hers wasn’t any worse. It didn’t matter which way they went when none of them knew where the tunnels led to, and opening it up to discussion would only prolong matters for no obvious reason. A guess was a guess, you didn’t improve the odds by voting on it.
“This is a long tunnel, isn’t it?” said Owen.
“Good thing we’ve got you here, B,” said MrKappa. “Without your light, we’d only be able to see a few metres ahead. This way we’ll see it coming.”
“See what coming?” said Owen, sounding rattled.
“I don’t know. It’ll be a surprise, but it’ll be down the other end. Give us a chance to run for it.”
Britta wasn’t sure where they would run to. Back the other way, presumably. “We can always try to talk to them,” she said.
“Them?” said Owen. “You think there’ll be more than one? Can you make your light a bit brighter?”
“Then they’ll see us coming,” said MrKappa. “Do you want to give our position away?”
“No, no. Maybe turn it down a bit.”
Nobody had pressed Britta on what she could do or what abilities she had. They hadn’t discussed each other’s abilities, either. Were they really not curious? Or did they have secrets of their own they didn’t want anyone to ask about?
Britta looked over her shoulder. Gabba certainly had secrets, that was more or less certain, but the other two didn’t seem like they had anything to hide.
“Shouldn’t we be checking for traps or something?” said MrKappa.
“I don’t know how,” said Owen.
Everyone looked at Gabba. No one asked her, but it was obvious they considered her girl most likely to have Disarm Traps.
“Nope, me neither,” said Gabba. “I figured there’d always be someone in the group with the obvious skills. I’m trying to avoid needless redundancy.”
“That could be the name of our guild,” said MrKappa. “Needless Redundancy.”
“I like it,” said Owen. “Has a nice ring to it. Oh!” Owen stopped.
His exclamation made the others stop, too. They all turned to look at him standing with his arms out to either side like he was balancing on a beam.
“What is it?” whispered MrKappa.
“I stepped on something. It might trigger something. I don’t want to move in case I set it off.”
The other three bent down to look at his feet.
“Got it,” said MrKappa. He pulled at something and Owen stumbled to one side. MrKappa had a short stick in his hand. It was very straight and had been polished smooth. It looked like it had been painted blue, but it might have come from a blue tree.
“What is it?” asked Britta. Everyone peered at the stick.
“I think it’s a stick,” said MrKappa.
“Maybe it’s a wand,” said Owen.
MrKappa waved it around, then he sniffed it, then he held it at either and end and tested how much bend it had. “How do you tell?”
Britta had seen wands back in the wizard gnome’s shop. They did look a lot like sticks, but they had felt magical. This one didn’t. “I think it’s just a stick,” she said.
“Do you think the other team left it behind?” asked Owen. “As a clue?”
They all looked at the stick again. There didn’t seem to be any message attached to it.
“Hmm,” said Gabba. “Maybe we should try to identify it.” She pushed MrKappa’s hand towards Britta. “You’re the highest level, you should do it.”
“Identify,” said Britta. Nothing happened. “Either it’s a very high-level item I can’t identify, or it’s a stick.”
“Okay, well, if it’s dodgy I’ve already been infected,” said MrKappa, “so I’ll hang onto it.” He put it in his backpack. “You never know, it could turn out to be important.”
“Our first item,” said Owen. “How exciting.”
It wasn’t that exciting — it was a stick — but it was clearly manmade, whatever it was.
Britta turned around and held up her light. “Oh, I think I’ve found something else.”
The other crowded around her to see. She directed her light at the message scrawled on the wall in what looked a bit like dripping blood.
“That’s not very friendly,” said Owen.
“Well, it is meant to be threatening. Wouldn’t have the same effect if it was written in comic sans.”
“Technically, we won’t die,” said Gabba, “we’ll just respawn at the nearest altar, so not really much of a threat. Actually, might as well do this.”
She rummaged around in her own backpack and took out a small saving totem. She planted it in the dirt, where it grew to double its size.
“Save point. Only lasts a day, but we shouldn’t need longer than that.”
Everyone touched the totem and made it their respawn point. Knowing they wouldn’t have to go all the way back if something untoward happened lifted their spirits and made it feel much less foreboding to head into the unknown. The unknown didn’t have a cash shop.