Bitter 210

There was another howl. It sounded familiar.

“There isn’t a dwarf in there, right?” Britta asked.

The Great Gnome shrugged again, this time looking upwards and shaking his head side to side. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

It didn’t make sense. Why would the dwarf suddenly be here? How could it suddenly be here? She was in a digital world where anything was possible, so it wouldn’t be very difficult to transport the psychotic, unkillable dwarf from one location to another, but what was the logic the game was using to explain it? And why were the devs trying to get her killed?

It occurred to her that the devs probably weren’t responsible for whatever nightmare was in there. This had all the signs of the game interrupting the regularly scheduled programming.

“You know I’m only Level 3, don’t you?” Britta asked the gnome. “I’m still supposed to be learning how things work.”

“Yes,” said the Great Gnome. “I know.” He smiled at her, like a kindly old grandpa. “It’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

Britta didn’t feel reassured. “I can’t kill the dwarf.”

“You don’t know it is the dwarf,” said the Great Gnome.

There was another howl from somewhere inside the Thirty-Six Chambers.

He was right, of course. She didn’t know. It could be something else. It could be a completely different dead creature possessed by a banshee.

“What if I can’t get past whatever it is? Does that mean I won’t be able to finish the quest?”

“That is correct,” said the gnome. “But there is nothing in there that you can’t overcome. Theoretically speaking.”

“Are you sure?” Britta had encountered the dwarf enough times to know the difference between theory and reality.

“The Thirty-Six Chambers contain your greatest fears. The things you find most difficult to face, even though they pose you no greater danger than anything else in your life. It’s just a matter of perspective.”

“When you say face my fears, do you mean like my fear of goblins or my fear that no one will ever love me and I’ll die alone?”

“There are only thirty-six chambers,” said the gnome. “I don’t know what’s in there, but I would think it’s mainly the fears that best translate into entertaining mini-games.”

Britta looked at the six openings waiting for her to make her choice, and then back at the Great Gnome. If he didn’t want to reveal too much of his real identity to the watching game developers, he should probably be less analytical in the way he explained things.

She took a moment to think about her options. If she understood it correctly, the whole game was created in her brain, using the same mechanics the brain used to create dreams or any other mental images. Which could also mean it could access her thoughts and memories.

If it really wanted her to face her fears, that could be truly awful. This was meant to be an entertaining diversion, not life-changing therapy. The way the game had interceded in Stan’s life, apparently for his own good, suggested it had a problem accepting boundaries.

She looked at the six tunnels again. She was curious to know what it considered her greatest fears (that made for reasonable mini-games). And if she was going to face her fears, an environment where she couldn’t die was probably the safest place to do it.

Her palms were sweaty and her heart was thumping hard in her chest. It was like waiting to jump out of a plane and telling yourself how statistically unlikely it is that your parachute will fail to open. They do fail, but statistically you should be fine.

She was overthinking it. She couldn’t die, or even get injured. It might even be fun, if she could get her hands to stop trembling.

With a determined nod of her head, Britta stepped forward and chose tunnel entrance number three. It was dark. After six steps she entered a small, square room with grey walls and nothing else in it other than a flame in a bowl hanging from the ceiling.  There was an exit in each wall, three directions she could go in.

There was a howl off to her right somewhere. Taking the left opening would seem the smart move, but a lateral move would mean making no progress towards the end. Safe or swift? Left or forward? And what fear of hers was this room making her face?

There was another howl. Still on her right, but it sounded closer. She had to make a choice now. But she wasn’t sure. Left, then forward, that would mean only a slight delay.

The howl came again, this time from the left. It had moved all the way round while she’d dithered. Go forward and keep going forward. The howl came from in front of her. There was no best answer when the game was cheating. What was she supposed to do?

Britta went left. Forward made the most sense, but was also the most predictable. It didn’t really matter, you couldn’t make the best choice when there wasn’t one. It was the indecision that would get her first.

If that was the fear she was being asked to face, that was fine. Self-doubt didn’t have glowing red eyes and a desire to rip your arms out of their sockets.

She went through another short tunnel and came into another room. As soon as she stepped in, the light went out and it was pitch dark. Apart from two glowing red eyes.

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