Bitter 448

The fall went from straight down to an angle closer to forty-five degrees. She hit her bum hard and started sliding. The shaft grew bigger — she could tell because her hands couldn’t reach the walls on either side.

It was too dark to see anything, and she was too busy trying to dig her fingers into the ground to slow herself down to be able to cast a ball of light. She doubted she’d see anything of interest. More to the point, it might reveal her presence to whatever else might be down here.

It was a bit like a water slide except instead of water, there was a lot of dirt and dust. She kept her mouth tightly shut so she didn’t swallow any of it.

The ground under her was surprisingly compact and smooth. She was moving very quickly, in fact she was speeding up. Britta tried her best to slow her descent using her hands and feet but it didn’t appear to be making any difference.

She decided to stop trying and to enjoy the ride. She leaned back like she was in one of those Winter Olympic events where people slid down an ice track at ridiculous speeds.

The hole she’d fallen down was nowhere near big enough for a creature the guardvark’s size, but this shaft was. Were the holes on the surface for ventilation? Or did the guardvark stick its long snout out to sniff up prey from the meadow above? Seeing the guardvark’s nose sticking out of the ground like a periscope would have been very odd, if that was how it hunted.

Britta felt herself slow down. It had only been a ride of a few seconds but she had managed to fit in terror, panic, surrender and even a little delight into that time. Deciding to go with it and not fighting all the way down had made it a lot more enjoyable, alongside the dread of something terrible waiting for her at the bottom.

Of course, it was easy enough to label the way she had handled things as correct when she didn’t end up in a pit of spikes. It was more luck than judgement, so no point getting cocky. Next time could go the other way.

She had come to a stop. She sensed she was in an even bigger tunnel now. The air around her had a more spread out quality to it. There was a distant rumbling from far above. The guardvark was still rolling around up top, Britta could feel the vibrations.

Britta opened her status screen which lit up her legs and the ground she was sitting on, but not much else. She hadn’t taken any fall damage, which was good. She had 5 MP, which was less good. Her light spell cost 5 MP per hour.

Mana recovered over time, but Britta had no idea at what rate. She usually didn’t use enough magic for it to be an issue. There was always enough for whatever she needed, until recently. The flying brooch had completely messed up the delicate balance between the amount of mana she produced and the random way she cast spells without thinking about it.

The shade would have been useful around about now, but he cost even more. She couldn’t summon him without at least 10 MP. Did she really have to start managing her resources like Dad? Making spreadsheets and constantly updating it wasn’t her idea of a fun time. It was Dad’s idea of heaven.

She didn’t really have a choice but to cast another ball of light. Wherever this was, she’d need to be able to see if she wanted to get out. Assuming there was a way out. She regretted not leaving the totem where it was, she could have logged out and then logged back on the plateau. It wasn’t like she couldn’t afford to do it, but did she really want to play the game like that? Leave hundreds of saving totems littered around the world so she always had somewhere nearby to respawn?

Of course, these things are easy to be principled about when you aren’t stuck in a hole in the ground. She made a ball of light.

She as in a cavern with several openings leading off it, each big enough to accommodate a guardvark. There could be dozens of them down here.

Britta had one hour before the spell stopped working. Exploring each tunnel would force her to rely on luck again. It felt like there should be a simpler, more logical way to approach this. She moved from one opening to the next, taking in deep breaths through her nose. In her mind, she had imagined the smell of air would be different in the tunnel leading to a way out — fresher air or the scent of water or something. They all smelled the same, dank and musty.

As she made her way around to the other side of the cavern, she saw a mound earth and grass packed together to form a small hill. The light from her ball reflected off it here and there. Britta had been too engrossed in tunnel-sniffing to pay it much attention, but now that she was close, she could see there were gems embedded in the hill slopes. Had she found the guardvark’s treasure?

It wasn’t like the mountains of gold you expected to find in a dragon’s lair. These were dirty gemstones stuck inside a pile of mud. At least, she hoped it was mud. The guardvark could be sucking up gems from the surface and pooping them out down here.

As she walked around the mound, checking for more sparkling bits, digging at them with her fingernails to get them out, she realised the hill had a hole on top. It was a bit too high for her to see into, so she clambered up the side to get a better look. The real treasure could be inside.

She stuck the ball of light in her pocket, which muted the glow considerably, clawed her way up and grabbed onto the lip. She peered into the hole, but she couldn’t really see anything. With some awkward twisting and turning, while doing her best not to lose her grip, Britta got the ball of light out of her pocket.

Inside the hill of gems were three baby guardvarks.

They were about the size of dogs and undeniably cute. They looked up at Britta, or to be more accurate, at the light, and stood up on their hind legs to try and reach it. Their arms and little snouts waved around as Britta moved the light from side to side.

“Hey. Hi. Look at you.”

She leaned over the edge to pet one. Not really advisable with wild animals, but she couldn’t resist; they didn’t seem to be frightened of her at all. She tapped on one the nose and it fell back and started crying.

“No, no, shh, shh. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.” She reached down to try and console them, lost her balance and fell in.

The other two joined in the crying.

Something changed. The vibrations had stopped. There was no rumbling overhead. The crying got louder as Britta tried to distract them with her ball of light. The ground began to shake in earnest as momma came to see what had upset her babies.

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