Bitter 442

“Erm, hello?” said Britta, her instinct to not be rude overruling her instinct to run. She didn’t move any closer to the well.

“Come over here,” said the voice. “I want to talk to you.”

The voice sounded female. It could have been Marj, the woman who used to own the ranch back when it was up and running, but it was a bit too echoey to be sure. Had she fallen down the well?

It seemed unlikely. She wouldn’t be chatting so casually if she needed medical attention.

“Okay. Just a minute.”

It was a lovely sunny day, there was no one about, no wild beasts to be wary of, so Britta shouldn’t have been all that concerned about a talking well. A chill ran down her spine.

It was hardly going to attack her, and it might even grant her a wish if she threw a coin into it… but Dad was a big fan of Japanese horror movies. J-horror, he called them. Not the sort of thing you show a young child, of course. He had waited until Britta was thirteen. Britta no longer trusted wells. She certainly wasn’t going to look down one she hadn’t been introduced to properly.

She opened her status screen. Why not just buy a saving totem and be done with it? She had only come here because it was on the way, and she didn’t want to be wasteful. No need to buy a temporary totem if there was a full-time saving point right in front of her.

The totem page of the cash shop was running a sale. It would have been very tempting, if she hadn’t been able to take whatever she wanted for free. The real problem, though, was one of delivery. Items you bought didn’t magically appear in your inventory — you didn’t have an inventory — you had to collect them from a post office or some pick-up point.

She looked up at the ranch house. It was in a pretty sorry state, with bits hanging off the eaves and cracks and holes everywhere. There should have been a shop of some kind here, a post box, along with this save point — everything a passing adventurer needed. Nothing seemed right about its current condition. What purpose did it serve?

“Hurry up,” said the voice. “I need your help.”

Now the well was asking for her assistance. A trick? A quest? The voice didn’t sound particularly scared or distressed. It wasn’t like a child had fallen in and needed rescuing. And then, when she lowered the bucket to pull him out, she would see him crawling up the inside wall towards her like a spider.

She shuddered. J-horror was not something you could easily forget. Britta was sure she could have reported Dad for child abuse a hundred times growing up.

“Are you stuck in the well?” Britta called out from where she was. “Should I get help?”

“No, no, don’t tell anyone I’m here.” The voice sounded a little concerned now.

“Why not? What happened?”

“They came, they took everything.” There was a sob.

“Who came?” Britta edged closer. All she needed to do was touch the well. Once it was on her list of checkpoints, she could respawn here if necessary. Only if absolutely necessary.

“Those Empire scum. They said I needed a license to sell animals. Regulations. Then they set my entire stock free!”

Britta understood. The Empire was cracking down on people not paying up. That made sense. It didn’t explain how that had led to someone living at the bottom of a well.

“The soldiers aren’t here anymore,” said Britta. “You can come out, if you want.”

“No, you come here. We have to start the resistance. They’ll never find us in here, this will be our secret base.”

Another secret base. Everyone had one apart from her, it seemed.

“There’s already a rebellion,” said Britta. “You could join them, I’m sure they’d love to have you.”

“Rebels? Ooh, I don’t know. They sound like trouble.”

They wouldn’t be very good rebels if they weren’t, thought Britta. She felt less inclined to consider the well, and its occupant, a threat. A mildly batty weirdo was what it was more likely to be.

She would go closer, touch the well, leave. It was a low-risk strategy.

But the devs were probably big J-horror fans, too. It might seem unreasonable to make a save point also a death point, but then she also knew of instances where a treasure chest turned out to have teeth and would attack anyone who tried to open it. Such things were considered acceptable. She summoned Donald for support, just in case this situation wasn’t as low-risk as she was assuming.

Donald wandered past her towards some weeds, of which there were many. He stopped and looked up, realising where he was. This had been his home, once.

“Oh, please, just come here and talk to me. I’ve been ever so lonely.”

Donald began backing away. Britta had never seen him walk backwards before. He reversed past and stopped when he was behind her, poking his head out from under her right arm.

It wasn’t like Donald to turn down a meal of thistles and dandelions. His wariness didn’t fill Britta with confidence. She checked her map. There was another saving point at a village not too far, maybe five or so kilometres. That would take an hour at most to get to, and they were bound to have all the facilities she needed. What kind of village didn’t have a village shop and post office?

Run to the well, touch it, get on Donald, ride off. That was the plan she was thinking of putting into practice. Low risk.

She took a step forward and stopped when she heard the splash.

“If you won’t come here, I suppose I’ll have to come to you,” said the voice. It seemed to be getting louder. Or nearer.

A hand appeared on top of the wall circling the well. It was green and puffy, with long black nails.

Britta jumped on Donald, who started running without needing to be asked.

“Don’t leave me…” called out a voice from behind. “Never leave me…”

Britta didn’t look back.


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Afterword from Mooderino
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