Bitter 421

Britta’s stomach was twisted in a knot as she made her way to the edge of town. She was leaving, and she wasn’t coming back. At least, that was the plan.

It was exciting. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt like this. There had been times in her life when she was heading towards something new, but it usually came with a sense of dread along with the excitement. An unwelcome but inescapable question in the back of her mind: What will go wrong this time?

There was nothing to be gained by that sort of pessimism, she knew that. But what can you do when your brain insists on asking?

This time, as she strolled through town, was different. She had no reservations. There were no alarming concerns to worry about. She was going on a trip, and she was looking forward to it.

The area around the outskirts hadn’t changed much. The new version of Quosada still had it’s slum areas. Kids playing in the streets stopped to look at her. They were dirty and ugly, the kind of children you find in some rural backwater town who turn out to be surprisingly good at playing the banjo.

Even they couldn’t spoil Britta’s mood. She waved at them as she walked by. Their stern, eerie faces broke into smiles as they waved back. Britta couldn’t help but laugh as they wished each other farewell.

When she got past the town wall, she summoned Donald. He was as unbothered as ever, and immediately set about eating the nettles and weeds growing around them.

Britta took out a carrot she had found among her belongings. It wasn’t the freshest, but it looked edible. Did food go off here? It probably didn’t last forever, but she hoped things left in her backpack wouldn’t go soggy and rotten like they did in the bottom of the fridge. She made a mental note to keep her bag clean and tidy. She made a second mental note to do that with her book bag at home, too.

Donald accepted the carrot, and then nuzzled Britta’s stomach. Which could have been a sign of affection, or a search for more hidden carrots. Either way, it made her feel happy. Everything was going according to plan.

She got on her goat and they trotted down the road. She opened the map to see what was marked. The capital city wasn’t, but it might too far on this scale. She pinched the map and tried to reduce it in size so she’d be able to see more of it.

It worked, to a degree. It got smaller, but the outer areas were blank. She probably needed to get closer for it to be revealed. Or she should have spoken to someone and found out more.

Things that were on the map were the Gnome Village entrance, the ranch where she’d got Donald, and the mountain she’d flown out of with the gryphon. She didn’t know if they had changed, but they still existed.

What she needed was a checkpoint. She wasn’t going to make it to her destination in one session. It would be pointless travelling across half the map, logging out, and then relogging back in town. She’d never get anywhere like that.

The game obviously didn’t expect players to remain in-game for several days at a time, so there would be regular places to save your progress. She just had to find them. And one she already knew about was in the Gnome Village.

She would go there first, and maybe even find a quest to claim the 2 XP she needed to level up. It would also be nice to check if the life of gnomes was any different this time around. She would have to be careful not to assume things would be the same. If she got to the entrance and jumped in, and they had changed the way the wind elevator worked, she would end up a splat on the ground. Don’t take anything for granted. Last time was last time. Presume nothing.

It was a beautiful day, and Donald bounced along without fuss, only occasionally veering to the side to rip a tempting dandelion flower off its stalk. It was still a pleasure just to take in the stunningly rendered scenery. Even knowing it was being artificially generated wasn’t enough to spoil the experience.

The distance was blurred by the heat haze, so she didn’t see the figures in the road until she was quite close. Three of them.

She hadn’t forgotten the three bandits who used to be self-appointed custodians of this stretch of road. She considered how best to deal with them. Go off-road and avoid them completely?

But as they became clearer through the wavering air, she realised things were different this time around. They weren’t on mounts, for one. And they seemed to be in matching outfits. Uniforms?

It was definitely the same three NPCs. A human, a cat-man and a lizardman. Their outlines were very distinct. They weren’t standing in the road, they were walking towards her. Or, to be more accurate, they were staggering.

She could have easily have found a way around them, but she was curious about what had changed. She kept going.

They didn’t seem to notice her until she was almost on top of them. They weren’t in the best of conditions. Their uniforms were torn and their scabbards were empty. Had they been in a fight?

“Are you okay?” she asked.

They stopped and looked up at her, startled.

“Ah, good morning,” said the human, trying to act casual. “We’re fine. We’ve been separated from our unit and are a bit lost. Is there a town this way?”

“Yes,” said Britta. “New T—Quosada. About an hour.”

“Excellent. We’ll be able to reunite with our company there, I’m sure. Probably waiting for us. Thank you.”

“You don’t have any water, do you?” asked the cat-man.

She remembered him as the most obnoxious of the three, but he didn’t seem as aggressive this time. Donald didn’t react to him at all.

Britta had a canteen of water and a sandwich, provided by the Adventurer’s Guild. She didn’t really want to share either. She opened her map.

“There’s a small stream over there.” She pointed off the side of the road.

All three of them looked in the direction eagerly. Then the cat-man’s ears twitched, and he looked behind them. The other two did likewise. Then all three ran off the road and threw themselves in the tall grass.

Britta looked down the road, but couldn’t see anything at first. Then she heard the pounding of hooves. It sounded like an army.

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