Bitter 334

Britta went back and checked the other PMs from Stan. They started with a polite inquiry into Britta’s present location, and gradually became more fraught.

The main gist was that he had woken up that morning to find everyone had disappeared. He had tried to call for help, but no one had come and he was trapped in his cell. He had also worked out that magic was no longer working, but how he had figured that out when he didn’t have access to any magic wasn’t explained.

He had also tried to get in touch with Dr Reedy and Nigel, but the only method at his disposal was shouting, and he had soon tired of that.

Britta could see from his PMs that he had pretty much given up on getting a reply and was only sending her messages to give himself something to do. He probably thought everyone had forgotten about him, which was a horrible feeling, especially when it was true.

The first thing she did was message him back. She waited for some indication that he’d received it, but after a few minutes she began suspecting that even if magic items and UI were still functional, they were suffering from some kind of lag. That would explain why she had suddenly received all of Stan’s messages now, even though they’d been sent much earlier in the day.

She grabbed whatever clothes looked closest to being finished and found a changing room. Even if there wasn’t anyone here apart from her and Stan, she still didn’t want to get busted for indecent exposure. If she got arrested for it twice, people might think it wasn’t quite as accidental as she made out.

The clothes didn’t fit very well, and she still hadn’t found any shoes, but she would manage. Her health total went down to 40 HP. It wasn’t bad, but she would have to be much more careful about wading in lava.

The guardhouse wasn’t very far away, and much easier to get to without the streets being filled with large, inconsiderate townspeople getting in her way. The front gate was open and unattended, as was the front desk.

Britta knew how to get to the courtyard where visitors were taken to meet prisoners, but she had no idea what was on the other side of the door the prisoners were brought out through.

When she got to the door that led to the courtyard, she found it locked. She gave it a shove and a rattle, just in case it decided to conveniently fall off its hinges, but no such luck. She needed a key.

There was a fair chance there would be a bunch of them lying around. She was back to searching for keys to open a door so she could continue her quest. It seemed like there was no getting away from that particular game mechanic.

She went back to the main desk. It wasn’t like keys were going to be a rare item here. Every guard probably carried a set. Unfortunately, they probably carried them on their person, and took them with them when they were whisked away. But there had to be a spare set somewhere.

She ransacked the desk drawers and looked in the small rooms off the main entrance, but found no keys. She did find a cloakroom that looked like it was where guards kept their spare clothes. None of the uniforms lying about looked her size, but she did find an old pair of boots that smelled disgusting. She guessed the owner had stepped in something only a fantasy animal could have produced, and had abandoned them. They would have to do for now.

As she returned to the reception area, she heard a muffled voice. It was very quiet and she had to strain to hear it. She couldn’t make out the words, they were too indistinct and just sounded like gibberish; but tuneful gibberish. She recognised it from some Disney musical, although she couldn’t quite tell which one.

Britta stood there, moving her head this way and that as she tried to work where it was coming from. Slowly she moved around to the other side of the desk, which she had already searched thoroughly, and put her ear to the pipes against the wall.

She had assumed they were just water pipes, the kind they had all over the place at school. The kind you find in any cheaply made building, running up walls and across ceilings because it’s too much bother to hide them.

But indoor plumbing wasn’t really a staple of the Middle Ages, even magic-infused ones. They weren’t pipes for water, they were tubes for talking through. There was a spout with a lid you could take off and speak into.

When she lifted the lid she could hear the song a lot better. It was from the Lion King.

“Hello?” she said into the mouthpiece. “Can you hear me?” Her words rang around the guardhouse like an announcement at a train station.

“Mufasa?” cried out Stan in a distant, tinny voice. “Is that you?”

“I take it you’re alright, then?” If he was joking then it seemed unlikely he’d gone insane. If he was joking.

“I could do with some lunch. Do you have any food?”

Britta hadn’t thought about that. Did you still have to eat if you were stuck in here 24/7?

“Sorry, I don’t have anything on me. I’ve been trying to find a key. All the doors are locked.” She tried to keep her voice down so it wasn’t too booming.

“Do you know what happened? Everyone just disappeared. Is it the same out there?”

“Yes. No one’s here. Have you tried logging out? Maybe it works now.”

“Yeah, I tried. Nothing, same as before. I don’t suppose your magic works.”

“Nope. I think I’ll have to log out and talk to Dr Reedy. She’ll probably know—”

“I wouldn’t count on it. Doesn’t feel like this was intentional. Some sort of meltdown, I’d guess.”

There was no way he could know that. There were any number of reasons why things had ended up like this. It was far more likely they had removed the NPCs on purpose to run some kind of test. Although, it would have been nice to let Stan know he was going to be the only one here.

Britta felt an uncomfortable queasiness again. Why hadn’t they told him? It seemed kind of cruel to let him think he’d been put into solitary confinement permanently.

“I’ll speak to Dr Reedy. I’ll get her to get in touch with you.”

“If she could do that, don’t you think she would have done it already? I’m telling you, something’s gone badly wrong. You should log out, just in case. And hey, thanks.”

“For what?”

“For letting me play the game with you. It was fun.”

Something caught in the back of Britta’s throat. He sounded like he was saying goodbye to her. He was being unnecessarily dramatic.

“You’ll be fine. I’m sure—”

The ground began shaking and Britta fell to the floor as around her the walls crumbled.

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