Bitter 499

“What is that?” said Britta, taking an involuntary step back.

“Manners,” said N-28, chidingly. “Who, not what. This is Jeremy.”

Embarrassment momentarily supplanted her fear. “Sorry. I was just, um…” And then fear decided to make a comeback, as the creature moved forward.

He didn’t look like a Jeremy. Roughly humanoid but without a face, Jeremy was a moving shadow. A bit like Britta’s shade, but much bigger and much denser. There was a weight to the gathered darkness that was hard to explain, and a menace that was hard to ignore.

“Jeremy is Phase Two,” said N-28. “When the players think they’ve defeated the kobold necromancer, they will only have activated his transformation. That’s when Jeremy steps in.”

“Derik will turn into Jeremy?”

“So it will appear. There’s little point in really mutating one person into another when we can simply use a little smoke and magic to switch places. Saves a lot of time and a lot easier to arrange.”

Jeremy was now standing behind N-28, a hulking mass that threatened to swallow him whole.

“I see,” said Britta. “Is there a Phase Three.”

“Ah, that would be telling. There certainly is a possibility. The beauty of this system is that next time the players come, prepared to face Phase Two, we can substitute in someone completely different. Keep them on their toes, eh?” He grinned, enjoying himself as the master of ceremonies.

This was something Britta hadn’t really noticed until now. How social AIs and NPCs were. They liked being around each other. Britta had had to teach herself to be happy in her own company and had even grown to prefer it. Wanting to belong to a group was a human urge that she had slowly divested herself of, but these new creations seemed to have it built-in. She wondered if that was intentional.

“Jeremy, I need you to go find this girl, make sure she isn’t up to something. Gabba, is it?” Britta nodded. “Let’s see where she is, then.”

N-28 waved his hand and a translucent screen appeared, curving around the room. It showed a map of the tunnels, including the upper levels. Little dots in various colours represented the different players and NPCs.

“Is this what APE sees?” asked Britta.

“Oh no,” said N-28. “This is my internal real-time rendering of the game. It would be too cumbersome to keep sending this to the surface.”

He made it sound like they were really deep underground, rather than in a computer somewhere.

“But they know we’re here,” said Britta, trying to get a clearer picture of the situation. “You spoke to them about N-21, right?”

“I did,” said N-28. He slid a hand across the screen, moving it around. “That is all resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, for the time being. Your part has been recognised as central to that. Where is she…” He continued to swipe around the tunnels, looking for Gabba.

“They can see us now?” asked Britta. She had been surprised Dr Reedy hadn’t been in touch since she had completed the task she’d been set.

“They can see the battle. This area is… private. There you are! How did she get in there?” He had suddenly gone from pleased to have found his target to shocked at her location.

“Where?” asked Britta.

“In a restricted area.” He sounded like he was trying to be vague, hiding something. “She shouldn’t have been able to find her way in there.” He expanded the screen to show a red triangle moving through a tunnel.

“I told you, she’s had help. She’s very well prepared. She likes to use poisons.”

There was a change in the atmosphere, an increase in tension. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Britta who was exhibiting the additional jitters.

“I see,” said N-28, wiping the screen away with a wave of his hand. “That will be the Alchemist’s influence.” He looked up at the shadow monster. “What do you think, Jeremy?”

The shadow shrugged.

He was more like the shade when he did that. Perhaps they were related, although it probably didn’t work like that. She hadn’t seen the shade since he’d located the guardvark babies for her. She doubted he would come now if she called him.

There was a loud explosion from below and everyone’s attention was pulled back to the fight.

“Damn it,” said N-28. “Phase Two already… This won’t do.” He looked at Britta with a grimace. “Look, B, I need you to take care of this agent of the Alchemist.”

“Me? No, no, I can’t. I’m in the middle of something.”

“Is it important?”

“It is to me.”

“Yes, but can’t it wait a little bit?” He was signalling different monsters to get ready as he spoke. “This won’t take long.”

The important thing she had to do was a bit of sightseeing in the capital city, which was hardly urgent. But that didn’t mean she wanted to face Gabba again. That girl was too confident and too sure of herself. Being around her made Britta feel like she was unprepared, for fighting and for life in general.

“What am I supposed to do? She’s a lot better at fighting than me.”

“Okay, places everyone!” N-28 called out. “We’re going in five.” He turned back to Britta, pulling his screen back up. He zoomed in on Gabba until she was no longer a triangle, she was a human-shaped figure radiating lots of different colours with a swathe of numbers all around her. It was a bit like when Britta had used the glasses President Wu had given her. “Look, she’s under a totem debuff. You’ve got six minutes left.”

The guardvark had killed Gabba, and she’d come back using her totem in the tunnel. If she couldn’t use her saving throws….

“How will I even get to her in six minutes?”

“You have Teleport, don’t you?” The image switched so now it displayed a gnome-shaped figure. “Wait, you haven’t even applied your quirk points. What have you… never mind. Here, I’ll do it.” His fingers flickered across the screen at unbelievable speed.

“Hey, are you choosing my quirks for me?” Britta didn’t appreciate being railroaded like this, even if his choice would probably be better than hers.

“There you go, your Teleport spell now allows you to go directly to the location of anyone you know.”

That actually sounded really useful, so it was hard to berate him for it. “What did you do?”

“No time for that. You can check it later and use it to see how it’s supposed to be done. You’re welcome. Now off you go.” Britta hesitated, wanting to voice a complaint but not sure what about. “If not for me, than them.” He pointed at the guardvark babies sitting on their mother.

Britta let out a deep sigh. No one played fair in this game.

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