Bitter 428

The Feared One removed her helmet to reveal a sweet old woman’s face pinched into a grimace. It was the Wise One, or at least it was the same face. There was no indication she recognised Britta. They could have just reused the same computer model with a completely different personality inside.

“Who are you? Why are you here? Who sent you?” She certainly didn’t talk like the hippy lady Britta had met before, but she did have the same chipmunk voice. It made her demands and threatening stare hard to take seriously.

“Hello,” said Britta, brushing off the crumbs on the front of her clothes. Suddenly she felt self-conscious about any food stuck to her face and began flicking her fingers around her lips. “I’m B. Nice to meet you.”

There was no immediate response and Britta wasn’t sure of the correct etiquette. Was she supposed to bow? Offer to shake hands? Everyone was staring at her expectantly. Britta saluted. The gnome soldiers lined up either side of the entrance took this as their cue and also saluted.

Britta wasn’t sure why she had saluted, other than everyone else had been doing it a moment ago and it was in her head. The Feared One seemed a little taken aback, then annoyed.

“At ease, at ease,” said the Feared One, saluting back with an irritated flick from her forehead.

Somehow Britta had managed to overturn her disadvantage and make the other side feel off-balance. It was a neat trick, just a shame she had no idea how she’d done it. There was a definite change in attitude, though. The NPC’s were being forced to go off-script. Britta decided to press her advantage while she had the chance.

“I was just passing through on my way to the capital,” she said quickly. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble. I thought you might have an altar here I could use. To pray to the Great Gnome in the Sky. I’m a gnome, too,” she added, just so no one forgot. “I’m not your enemy. I’m one of you.”

“A gnome?” said the Feared One like it was a questionable claim. “The perfect disguise for a spy.”

“That’s what I said,” said the Captain, pleased with herself.

The Feared One gave the Captain a sharp look, which wiped the smug look from her face. Then she returned her attention to Britta. “How did you learn of this place? Who told you where we were?”

“No one,” said Britta. “I just, um, fell down a hole.”

“Just fell down a hole? This is a secret base. No one knows of its existence. Do you really expect me to believe you jumped into a random hole in the ground?”

It was becoming hard to explain how she knew the Gnome Village existed. “Yes, I, um, tripped. I thought I was going to die.”

“She says she knows you, Feared One.”

The Feared One looked at the Captain. “Knows me? We’ve never met before.” She took another long hard look at Britta. “Have we?”

“Says she met you in a dream.”

Britta winced. She really should have come up with something better than that. Now they’d think she was crazy.

“A dream?” said the Feared One. Her demeanour changed, softened. She kept staring at Britta, but now her gaze was more curious. “A prophecy? Are you her? Are you the Chosen One?”

Britta could sense she was about to trigger some kind of quest. She wasn’t interested in being tied down to a fixed path, requiring her to go to various set locations to find different NPCs to talk to. It was what a game like this was all about, but she had been down this rabbit hole before. It was very time-consuming.

She could always take the quest and do it later, but that was never how it turned out. Once the hunt was on, it would be very hard to ignore. It would be very hard for her, at least. She knew herself well enough to know the way her mind worked. She would keep thinking about it even when she had decided not to, and she didn’t need the distraction right now. Better to put it to one side.

“No, I’m not,” she said. “I’m just a normal, everyday gnome. Just passing through.”

“And you just happened to stumble onto our secret base by coincidence?”

If she agreed that she had found the Gnome Village by pure luck, it would sound like she’d been guided by some kind of divine providence. A basic prophecy setup.

“I was exploring,” said Britta. She pulled out her guild card and held it out for inspection. If she could make herself look like just another player with no idea what they were doing, they would be less likely to look at her like she was something special. “I’m with the Adventurer’s Guild. I’m always falling down holes.”

She could see her estimation drop in the eyes of the Feared One and her soldiers. Perfect.

“And you’re on your way to the Capital?” said the Feared One.

“Yes. I’m meeting someone there. About a job.” She didn’t want to come across as someone with free time to go on quests and world-saving missions. “Is it alright if I use your altar before I go?”

“Go?” said the Feared One. “And reveal our location to the enemy?”

“Who is your enemy?” asked Britta. “Someone said the Dark Lord, but I don’t know who that is? Is he with the Empire?”

The Feared One’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you about the Dark Lord?”

The way the Captain was squirming it was obvious the Dark Lord was some kind of secret she shouldn’t have let slip about.

“I don’t know,” said Britta. “I think I overheard some of your men talking about it. Maybe I misheard.”

“Hmm,” said the Feared One. “You were drawn here.”

“Accidentally,” said Britta.

“You know about the Dark Lord.”

“Overheard,” said Britta.

“And you’re with the Adventurer’s Guild.” She held up the card and shifted her gaze from it to Britta and back again as if checking the likeness.

There was a definite attempt to push her into this quest. Did everyone get treated like they were the Chosen One, hero of destiny? The game really wanted her to take the bait.

“I’m a new member,” said Britta. “I only joined today.”

“We shall see.” The Feared One tossed the card back to Britta. “We shall see if your presence here is a sign of good or evil.”

“Are those the only two options?” Hero or spy. Britta didn’t feel either would be to her liking.

The Feared One reared back and seemed to grow in height. The lighting shifted, too, making her face disappear into shadow. “We shall ask the wizard.”

The gnomes around her nervously shuffled closer together. If this proclamation was meant to intimidate her, they really should have changed the Feared One’s voice to something a little less squeaky.

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