Bitter 455

Britta walked into Gumberlee without looking back. She didn’t know if the people watching would think she was some crazy person who jumped onto any passing wild animal, or a rich brat who threw away real-world money on drab and dull clothing from the overpriced cash shop, but it didn’t matter. For once, Britta was feeling a sense of achievement.

She’d made it to her destination, her quest was complete. It was only a self-bestowed quest with no rewards, but it had been as hard to achieve as any official mission into the heart of danger.

Getting here had involved a series of obstacles and derailments that had almost convinced her to give up completely. Now that she was here, it was like winning a cup or a medal.

The village of Gumberlee was small and cute. Thatched cottages and a square with flowers blooming. Normally, a scene this picturesque was only found on postcards.

There were only three non-residential buildings, as far as Britta could see. A church, obvious from its steeple; a shop; and a tavern called The Toothless Critter, with a sign that had a roaring beast with no teeth. A local monster? Britta hoped so. The worst it could do was give you a nasty suck.

She headed straight for the church to claim the prize for her quest, a checkpoint. Once that was done, she was free to do as she pleased. Maybe peruse the village shop for a memento. Maybe she would visit every village and town, and buy a knick-knack from each. The idea of a goal that dull appealed to her. It would drive Dad crazy.

The church was much cooler than outside. Almost chilly. There was a man in a robe standing by the altar, and a woman seated at one of the pews, seemingly asleep. Britta recognised her from the group, she had to be the one who died. She crept past.

“Ah, a new arrival to our beautiful village,” said the man as Britta approached. He was dressed in brown, with a rope belt and sandals. He was either a monk or a priest, Britta guessed.

“Hello,” said Britta. “I’m here to use the altar.”

“Of course,” said the man. “I am Father Benedict — Father Benny, as I’m known to the good people of Gumberlee. Are you a follower of the Almighty?”

“I worship the Great Gnome in the Sky.”

“Ah, a traditionalist. Nice. Well, help yourself.”

Britta touched the altar which caused a small flash in the top corner of her vision. She opened her status screen to make sure the save point had taken, moving her hands around in signs and gestures that could have easily been part of some religious ritual.

A new respawn location had appeared in her list. It was a good feeling — one step closer to her ultimate goal. She had another look at her mana, which remained full. There was still no indication how that had happened.

She closed everything down and turned to leave. Father Benny smiled at her like he might have something to say, so she smiled back and kept moving. Just as she got to the door, it opened. The party entered, looking worn out and bedraggled.

“Ah, weary travellers,” exclaimed Father Benny. “Let me lend you my healing hands.”

They shuffled past Britta, who had moved aside. They didn’t look at her, apart from Red, who only managed an embarrassed glance. The girl who had been dozing jumped up and began talking excitedly wanting to know what had happened.

Britta left them to it.

She decided to give the village shop a miss for now. She fancied a look at the tavern first, maybe sample their fare. Did food change from place to place? Did they have hot chocolate here?

The tavern was quite busy. No one stopped to stare at her as she entered, which was a good sign. The kind of place where the arrival of a stranger brought a deathly silence wasn’t what she was looking for right now. Or ever.

She overheard a conversation about someone stealing cabbages as she made her way to the bar. Maybe it was a quest to find the dastardly cabbage robber. It might well be the creature she saw in the ravine.

Britta still needed to gain 1 XP, but she was hoping for something along the lines of finding a missing cat. She could send the shade out to locate it and collect the reward without having to move.

The stools had steps cut into the legs, accommodating for all sizes, which was nice. She climbed up and sat down.

“Can I have a drink?” she asked the red-nosed barman. “Juice?”

“We’ve got minkberry spritzer. How about that?”

“Does it have alcohol in it?” she asked.

“Not a single drop,” said the barman.

“Neither does the beer,” said the man on the next stool.

“Oi,” said the barman. “If my ale is so weak, how come you stumble out of here every night.”

“Poor coordination. I get it from my Pa,” said the man. He downed his tankard and pushed it across the bar. “One more please.”

The barman gave him a dirty look, grabbed the tankard and lowered it behind the bar. He instantly brought it back up, full to the brim, and pushed it back to the customer, who immediately began drinking.

The barman turned back to Britta and pulled out a tall glass full of blue liquid from under his magic bar. He placed it in front of Britta. “That’ll be twenty silver, if you please.”

The man sitting next to Britta choked on his drink.

“Why is it so expensive?” said Britta.

“Market forces,” said the barman. “You look like you can afford it.”

Her new clothes had given him the impression she was loaded, it seemed. She had no intention of being ripped off.

“No thanks. I’ll go somewhere else.” She jumped down from the stool and headed for the door.

The men who had been arguing over cabbages stood up to bar her way.

“You ordered it, you pay for it,” said the barman.

Britta realised this wasn’t the sort of place where people went quiet and menacing when you entered, they waited until you tried to leave.

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