Bitter 392

Britta did her best not to look at the bodies as actual bodies. It was difficult because everything felt so real. It didn’t matter that she knew they were digitised creations that only existed in a computer somewhere, the way her brain identified them was the same as in the real world. Dead bodies, killed by her.

She was relieved when she found the password, or what she assumed was the password, and didn’t have to touch them anymore.

“They don’t have much on them,” said Dad. He was going through their pockets very efficiently, like he’d done it a million times before, which of course he had. “Their armour is just bits of old junk sewn together.” He held up a helmet that looked like a saucepan beaten into a slightly less saucepan-ish shape. “Some of it might fit you, if you want to try. Probably won’t be mage-friendly, though. Doubt we’ll get much for it if we drag it back to town. Which is another problem. Having to carry stuff... Nightmare.”

“I think I found it,” said Britta. She had been staring at the bit of paper while Dad wittered on, not really sure what she was looking at.

Dad dropped the wooden club that looked as cobbled together as the rest of the kobold gear. They had looked much more dangerous clambering over the walls and moving too fast to allow an accurate assessment of their armaments.

He took the piece of paper from her, and gave it a long hard look.

“Did people really get wiped out by them?” said Britta. Apparently no one had managed to get past these guardians of the mines. Perhaps she could see that with a group of novices, like Mark’s party, but more seasoned players shouldn’t have had that kind of problem.

Then again, she hadn’t seen what else was down here.

“Looks to me,” said Dad, “like a cheat code for a PlayStation controller.”

The password was a bunch of symbols. Nothing very exotic or arcane. Squares and circles and triangles.

“What are we supposed to do with it?” she asked.

“If this was a fighting game, probably whirlwind uppercut. In here? No idea. Maybe it’ll become obvious when we get to the exit.”

According to Mark, this would get them to the next level. Maybe there’d be a giant gamepad they’d have to jump on in the correct order.

“Do you think we should tell them?” said Dad. He was referring to Mark and the others.

“No,” said Britta. “I doubt he wants to talk to us, and there’d be too many awkward questions.

“Okay,” said Dad. “Let’s keep going, then.”

They set off, Britta lighting the way. After a few metres, Britta stopped.

“What is it?” said Dad.

“If they see the bodies, they’ll know I’m an illusionist.” It was much easier to fool people with her spells if they thought she was a regular mage. Even if it was people on her side, they might not always be.

“You want to hide them somewhere?”

“No, too much effort. We could—” She was about to say they could set them on fire for real, but the thought was too appalling to complete.

“Never mind,” said Dad. “Looks like someone solved our problem for us.”

Britta brightened the light and realised the bodies had gone. There was no sign they’d ever been there.

“Do you think it’s the game?” she said.

“I don’t know,” said Dad. “Could be. Or they have a cleanup crew down here.”

Neither sounded right, but both were possible. At least there was no more evidence to worry about.

Britta opened her map, and was surprised to see it was complete. The shade had filled in the entire thing.

“I’ve finished,” hissed the shade from right next to her, making her jump.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that. You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

“No,” said the shade. “I didn’t.”

“Okay, you didn’t. The map looks great. Is it the same layout as before.”

“How would I know?” asked the shade.

“Don’t you have the old one stored in a backup file somewhere?”

“No. I’m not a robot.”

It was hard to argue with a jerk without coming off like a jerk, so Britta decided to drop it. She had the map, so job done.

“Fair enough. Do you want to go have—”

The shade faded away before she had a chance to properly dismiss it. Which was annoying, but made her happy at the same time.

“Which way?” said Dad.

They were still in a long straight passage with no turnings. “Straight ahead,” said Britta.

“Right you are. By the way, you killed eight kobolds, that must have given you a nice chunk of XP.”

“I suppose so.” Britta hadn’t thought about it until he mentioned it. She opened her status screen. She hadn’t levelled up, there would have been a message, but some progress towards Level 5 must have been made. “Two experience points short of the next level.”

“Oh, unlucky!”

“Yeah.” As disappointing as it was to be so close and not make it over the line, there was very little chance of her not getting another couple of points and levelling. Unless she died, of course.

She frowned. She could imagine that scenario happening only too easily. Another fight, another easy win, she would no doubt think, and an arrow in the eye before she even knew it.

Then again, no point getting too worked up over it. If she died and lost some XP, she would make it back. Very slowly..

“Why don’t you walk ahead of me while I read the map. Keep a lookout for more patrols.”

Dad did as asked, but didn’t seem too thrilled about it. “You aren’t using me as a meat shield, are you?”

“Wouldn’t be much point. You only have three HP. You’d go down in one hit.”

“True.” Dad set off in front of her. “You’re going to use me to buy yourself enough time to teleport out of here, aren’t you?”


A strange sound came out of Dad’s throat.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes,” said Dad in a strangled voice. “I’m just dealing with some complex emotions right now. I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed and so proud at the same time.”

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