Bitter 181

Britta logged in, had a short, predictable conversation with Sister Florence, and then left the temple.

It had taken a little while for her to readjust to her new approach to the game but now the routine of it was quite satisfying. After dying the last time, she hadn’t returned to the mine. Stan had contacted her to find out what she planned to do next and was disappointed when she told him she was going to take a step back and try to level-up.

When she had fallen with Derik, he had jumped in after her. Not to save her but to make sure he died at the same time. He could have stayed and tried to finish off the dwarf with the kobolds, but he didn’t really fancy his chances. It was more important to him to stay in synch with Britta. If he died later, he wouldn’t be able to log back in at the same time as her.

He didn’t know about the spell that was supposed to have saved Britta. If it had worked the way she’d thought it would, Stan would have died and the last thing he’d have seen was Britta standing at the bottom of the chasm. But that hadn’t happened so she didn’t mention it.

Now that she was taking a break from kobolds and dwarves, Stan had gone off to do some levelling of his own. His character was also low-levelled and he decided to improve it without using the many advantages he had from playing the game before. His high-level character could transfer all sorts of items to the low-level one, but he knew there was a chance the game wouldn’t like that and refuse to activate whatever it was that allowed Britta to enter the more interesting version of the game.

He contacted her whenever she logged in to see if she was ready to give the mine another go, but took her response without rancour and didn’t try to convince her to rush back. Britta assumed he was slightly frustrated with her, but it was hard to tell in a PM.

Britta had spent the last few days wandering around town, looking down every alley and visiting every shop. She knew the best places to buy gear and where to get it fixed when it needed repairs. She was familiar with the layout and had discovered the different sections that weren’t signposted or identified on her map. The expensive stores were all in the west end. The posh houses were in the north and had high walls and guards. The slums were full of children playing in the streets who would run errands for food.

She had taken on random jobs, delivering items for people, finding missing pets, passing on messages. It was impossible to tell who would have something for her to do and who wouldn’t, so she had taken to starting conversations with people whenever she could.

They had all been pre-programmed interactions. Nothing about them felt real or natural. Her rewards varied from a little money to some information about another job or rumour about a special item. She noted these all down for future reference but didn’t bother following them up for now. She also received a little experience when she completed her little side quests. She was almost level four, only 6 XP away. She could have punched a squirrel in the face and made it, but she hadn’t seen any squirrels and would never do something like that, not even digitally.

Once she had a better idea of what the town offered and how to make the best use of it, she did plan to seriously farm XP, even if that meant killing, but for now she was happy to take her time.

She walked into the alley next to the temple as she did every day. This was the alley she had been mugged in, where she had killed for the first time, and where she knew she would find a non-traditional NPC.

The alley was quiet and gloomy. No sign of Freddy.

“Hey,” called out Britta. “Where are you hiding? Come out.”

There was a pause, the sounds from the street gently drifting over the silence. “Go away,” said Freddy, his voice coming from further down the alley but bouncing off the walls to make it difficult to tell where exactly. “Leave me alone.”

Britta had made the alley her regular first stop. She needed to get better at fighting and she also wanted to engage with the game’s other side. Freddy, her one-time would-be mugger, enabled her to do both.

Freddy, however, was no longer as keen. He was big but slow, in every respect, and Britta had quickly figured out how to beat him using a mixture of her spells and hitting him in sensitive areas. She could have killed him and received more XP, but that wasn’t the idea. Instead, she bruised and battered him while asking about his family.

They were behind most of the organised crime in the town and part of the narrative of the game, but also, Britta assumed, part of the alternative narrative. She wanted to meet the boss and Freddy was in a unique position to help her, since the boss was his Dad.

Freddy, however, had had enough. “I don’t like you. You’re mean.”

“Freddy! Come on. I was just playing around. Introduce me to your Dad. Maybe he’s got a job for me.”

“No,” said Freddy’s surly voice. She could just about make out his outline behind some boxes stacked up against the wall. “If he’s got any jobs, I’ll do them.”

“We can do them together,” said Britta, walking towards the boxes.

A dark figure pounced from the side. It was a trap. The figure she thought she’d seen up ahead was some kind of decoy, Freddy had been lying in wait all along.

He was a lot bigger than her and knocked her down easily, his bulk pinning her to the floor. He had his dagger raised, ready to strike. She accepted her fate—it had been bound to happen eventually. She would just have to do her time and come back a little wiser and a lot more wary.

“Hey, you there! Stop in the name of the law.”

Three town guards rushed into the alley with swords drawn. Britta didn’t think the game had tried to save her, it was just a random encounter, a passing patrol.

Freddy froze, eyes wide with fear. The dagger was poised over Britta, his intent hard to conceal.

“It’s not what you think,” said Britta. “We’re just training. He’s showing me how to avoid getting mugged. Look.” She’d had time to get one hand free from under Freddy’s body and poked him in the eyes.

Freddy yelled in pain and reared up. Britta grabbed his hand and rolled out, twisting the dagger out of his grasp at the same time. “See?”

The guards looked at each other, confused. Freddy moaned with one hand over his eyes and the other in his armpit.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” asked the Captain.

“Fine. Thanks anyway. I feel much safer knowing you’re on the job.”

The guards put away their weapons. “Alright, then. Mind how you go. And be careful. That thing looks sharp.”

Britta picked up the dagger and handed it back to Freddy. He took it with a surprised look in his watering eyes.

The guards turned around and walked away.

“You didn’t turn me in,” said Freddy.

“No, of course not. We’re friends.”

Freddy’s face went red. “Do you, ah, like, want to get something to eat.”

Britta sat there with her own face growing red. She wasn’t entirely sure, but it was possible she’d just been asked on a date.

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