Bitter 439

“It’s you,” said Britta. “It’s definitely you.”

“Please, don’t jump to conclusions because of defective merchandise. Even magical items suffer from poor workmanship.”

He had a point, Britta had to admit. There was no reason something imbued with magic would be more likely to pass quality assurance. Every manufacturer had to deal with occasionally flawed materials. But, this was more than a little suspicious.

Britta picked up the two parts of the bracelet from the floor. “This looks like it snapped in half. Bad workmanship wouldn’t do that.”

“It would if the magic had gone off.”

“Magic has a sell-by date?”

“Of course. Nothing lasts forever.”

He was doing an excellent job of deflecting. She wasn’t even sure why it mattered. If he was the Great Gnome in the Sky hiding in plain sight, what difference did it make to her?

She would have liked to have ignored the whole thing, made her selection of magic item, and be on her way. But something nagged at her.

This whole magic shop under the Gnome Village was just too conveniently placed in her path. A secret base that would be very hard for anyone else to find, what kind of specialist store was this well hidden? How were other magic users supposed to find it?

“Why am I here? I mean really. No one else is ever going to visit you. The rest of the magic using community is never going to know you exist, and I think you know that. This place is here just for me, isn’t it?”

The wizard drew his face thin and long . “My, we do think a lot of ourselves, don’t we?”

Britta instantly felt her face heat up. It had been a very arrogant claim to make. Despite being an unusual player — it wouldn’t be outrageous to say she was unique, at least in terms of her relationship to the game — it was still uncomfortable for her when it was pointed out.

She resisted the urge to back down. The fact was she was special.

“If you didn’t put this shop here for me, it’s quite a coincidence. A gnome wizard running a gnome magic shop under a secret gnome base that I’m the only person from the outside world to have visited. Don’t you think?”

“The world is a marvellous and surprising place. Has anything else caught your eye? A necklace, perhaps, or a pendant?” He smiled genially. There was no snootiness about the smile, no patronising smirk. It was very sincere and polite. Britta wasn’t fooled.

“What I can’t figure out,” she said, “is what you want from me. You’ve made me a very generous offer, and all you want in return is… the gryphon feather?”

The wizard didn’t say anything. He didn’t move, not even to blink, which you could put down to him being a piece of coding, but why would it glitch now.

“If you really want the feather that badly,” said Britta, “you could have just asked, you know?”

She took off her backpack and rummaged around until she found the feather. She pulled it out and straightened it. The vines were starting to look a bit ratty.

“Here,” she held it out. “All yours.”

The wizard’s expression transformed from blank to ever so slightly confounded. You had to be watching closely to spot it.

“Go on. You can have it. I have absolutely no idea what you want it for, but I really don’t care. I just wanted to travel around a bit and see the sights. I wish you’d stop pulling me in all these different directions, it makes it very hard to plan my day.”

Britta’s thinking was very straightforward. She was never going to be able to outplay the AI at its own game. That’s who she felt was behind this — who else could it be? Whatever was going on behind the scenes, it would only serve as a distraction and get her involved in what someone else wanted her to do.

On top of which, she had a lot of experience in people being kind and generous when their true intentions were to get something from you. Most of her school life had been liked that before she put a stop to it. She didn’t intend to go through all that again.

“Take it.” She waved the feather about like she was trying to bait a fish. For all she knew, this was the most powerful item in the game. A legendary artefact that gave +10 to all tickle attacks. She didn’t care. Let someone else worry about it.

The wizard took it from her. “And what will you take in its place?”

She was tempted to say, “Nothing,” but any attempt to play it cool like that was bound to backfire. There was no reason to push it.

She looked down at her feet. There was a basket of pins, brooches and clips. They looked like what you might find in a cheap display in a pharmacy, next to the designer sunglasses by no designer you’ve ever heard of. She grabbed the first one that caught her eye, a butterfly made of tiny gems.

“What does this do?”

“Put it on,” said the wizard.

Britta saw no reason she shouldn’t, so she pinned it to her chest. Nothing happened. “Now what?”

“Tap it.”

Britta tapped the brooch. There was no change, but it was pretty, so that was good. She gave the wizard a questioning look. He raised his eyebrows at her and gently tilted his head. She scrunched up her face and shook her head. Something appeared in the corner of her eye, making her turn her neck further.

Behind her were large diaphanous wings, large and colourful, growing out of her back. “I can fly?” She lifted off the floor, answering her own question. “How long does it last?”

“You can use it once a day. It ends when you touchdown.”

Would it really last that long? She could fly all the way to the city!

There was always a drawback, there was bound to be one with these wings. Can’t be used in sunlight, or something. 

“They don’t work at night, though,” said the wizard.

She was close, but if that was the only shortcoming, she could live with it. “I’ll take it. Bye.”

No point wasting any more time, she had a city to visit. The wizard appeared to be saying something, but she was already gliding effortlessly out of the room. She wasn’t that fast, but it actually felt like flying. From the main chamber, she headed into the tunnel that led to the gryphon’s eyrie. From there it was straight up and out. She would be happy to leave this place behind and get back on her own path.

The short tunnel opened into a familiar room with a pillar of rock in the middle. The opening was directly above her. And all around her were gryphon feathers, dozens of them.


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Afterword from Mooderino
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