Bitter 394

It looked very much like the inside of a lift. It wasn’t just that it was an oblong box, there was also a grid of buttons on one wall, carved into the stone. Britta counted them. Four across, nine down. Thirty-six in all.

Each row of four repeated the same symbols, in the same order. Square, triangle, circle, star.

She took out the rolled up piece of paper she had taken from the kobold and pulled it open like a miniature scroll. It was long and thin, like a supermarket shopping receipt. It had the same symbols on it, but these were in two rows of eight. And the symbols were all mixed up.

Square, star, star, triangle, square…

Obviously, you had to input the correct sequence on the panel, and then you would get taken to the next floor. Or something.

“I don’t like it,” said Dad. “Feels more like something you’d find in an alien spaceship, not a kobold mine. I hate that science fantasy crap.”

“You like Star Wars,” said Britta.

“I liked it when I was a child,” said Dad. “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Just put the code in and we’ll go down into the Death Star.”

She looked at the piece of paper again. “How does it work?”

He peered over her shoulder. “Could be a lot of ways. We’ll have to rely on trial and error, I suppose.”

“Won’t it set off an alarm if I get it wrong?”

“Yes, probably,” said Dad. “Or the floor might disappear and we plunge to our deaths.”

They both looked down, and then moved to the edges.

Britta looked from the paper to the panel and back again, over and over, trying to visualise the button presses required.

“I think I’ve got it.” She pressed the first square. It was slightly raised against the surface, and her finger pushed it in. The symbol glowed a faint red.

“Keep going,” said Dad.

The next was a star. She pressed it. Then it was star again. She went down to the next star and pressed it. There were sixteen symbols in the password, and thirty-six buttons on the wall. She had decided simply to press the next available button matching each symbol, and hope for the best. And if the floor did vanish, she hoped her Teleport spell worked while falling.

She had run it through her mind, and she was pretty sure she wouldn’t run out of buttons before she finished entering the code. She kept skipping buttons, taking her closer to the end with many more symbols to go.

It became a bit tense as she neared the finish, but the last symbol was a star, and it landed on the very last button on the grid. That seemed like a good sign.

The door to their little cubicle swung shut. Britta resisted the urge to jump out before it was too late. It was dark, but the light from the glowing buttons filled the box with an eerie red glow, like they were in a photographer’s darkroom.

“Feels a bit spooky,” said the shade.

“Jesus,” said Britta, jumping. “Will you stop doing that!” The shade had somehow been behind them the whole time. “I thought I dismissed you.”

“I’m on my own time,” whispered the shade. Its scratchy voice made everything sound like a line from a horror movie, even when it was something completely innocuous.

“What do you mean, your own time? Aren’t you using my mana to be here?”

“You hardly ever use any of it, I didn’t think you’d mind.”

It was a reasonable point, she rarely used all her MP, but it was still a bit odd for a spell to make that call. Would it start casting itself whenever it felt like it?

“Now what?” she asked Dad.

He put his ear to the wall. “Doesn’t feel like we’re moving.”

“Oh no,” said Britta. “The floor.”

The floor beneath their feet was flickering. She pressed herself against the side. Dad did the same. The floor disappeared, and she fell. About six centimetres.

“Steps,” said Dad. They were on a spiral staircase. He had been at the top of the stairs, and didn’t drop at all. The ‘lift’ had just been a barrier. “I guess we’re walking.”

“Can you go ahead—”

“And map the next floor?” said the shade, finishing for her.

“No. I was going to say can you go ahead and see if there’s anyone waiting for us at the bottom. And then map the floor.”

“Yes, I suppose so. As long as you feel you can afford the mana.” It began to drift down the stairs.

“I hope I can get one of those spells at some point,” said Dad. “Maybe they’ll be friends.”

“I’m not sure I could handle two of them,” said Britta.

Dad set off in front of her.  “What’s the plan? Play it by ear, and see how we go?”

“Actually, I thought we should find the temple room. There was that broken altar in there, but if they’ve fixed it, we could use it as a save point. Make things a lot easier if we could just respawn here instead of going all the way back to town.”

Dad stopped and looked back at her. The stairs made it so they were nearly eye to eye. “You’re getting quite good at this, aren’t you?”

“I am three levels ahead of everyone,” said Britta.

“No,” said Dad, “I don’t think that’s it.” He turned and carried on descending.

Subscribe to this content and receive updates directly in your inbox.