Bitter 473

“Calm down,” said MrKappa. “It’s just some words on a wall.”

He was right, but they were scrawled in what looked like very realistic blood and they hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“But… but who wrote them?” said Owen, a little out of breath.

“The game, obviously,” said MrKappa. “Probably a message from the boss monster down here. We’ll meet him or her later on. A boss with a sense of humour, it’ll be great.” He was speaking in a slow, reassuring voice, helping to calm Owen down. It was strange seeing him be so considerate when he was usually so flippant.

“Yeah, okay,” said Owen, “no problem.”

“Sure?” said MrKappa.

Owen nodded. “I’m fine.”

Britta took another look at the message. It was more jokey than threatening, to be honest, if you overlooked the ‘written in blood’ aspect of it.

She reached out and touched the words. They didn’t smudge or come off on her fingers. She rubbed harder. They looked completely authentic, dripping down the craggy walls, but it was like the words themselves were behind glass, printed rather than written.

The others joined her in touching the words, gaining a little comfort from the artifice of it. Owen was smiling and chuckling to himself, finding it hard to believe he had been freaked out a moment ago.

“Whoever wrote this is aware of our presence,” said Gabba. “We should keep moving.”

They agreed and Britta set off, leading the way.

As MrKappa had said, it was part of the game. A boss monster that could communicate through walls, maybe a necromancer like Derik. Villains who had a certain level of repartee were very popular in movies, so you would expect a little banter in a game like this, even if it was via the medium of bloody graffiti. But what if it was an AI?

The shade had indicated there was an AI down here, or at least hinted at it. Perhaps there were AIs all over the game, each marking out its own territory. If they were vying against each other, what role would the players have in the ensuing confrontation?

And what about the Empire? Were they going to stand against the true power ruling the land, or pretend they didn’t exist?

“What’s it like in the Empire?” Britta asked MrKappa. “Fun?”

“Not exactly,” he replied. “Lots of rules and regulations you have to follow.”

“To be expected, really,” said Owen. “It’s the army.”

“Do they send you on quests?” said Britta.

“Kind of,” said MrKappa. “Patrols, guard duty, that sort of thing.”

“So you can get XP?”

Owen sighed and shook his head.

“That’s what you’d think,” said MrKappa. “Sadly not very much at all. I think it gets better at higher levels, but how do you get to higher levels unless they send you into battle? Every time there’s a sign of trouble, they negotiate their way out of it. We’re in so many truces…”

“But they sent you here,” said Britta.

“This was a voluntary mission, pure luck I got picked. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t boring. They keep us busy with exercises and mock battles and we get trained up in lots of different combat techniques, but it’s nice to get out and see the world.” He looked around at the walls on either side.

“I joined for the armour,” said Owen, brushing off his chest piece with an exaggerated wave of his hand. “Nice, isn’t it?”

“That’s true, as well,” agreed MrKappa. “Better than anything you can get as a solo player at this level. Lots of stat bonuses, nearly doubles my HP. But it’s all a bit pointless if they never let you go anywhere interesting, though.”

“I think I can see the end of the tunnel,” said Gabba. Everyone stopped.

Britta had been so busy chatting she hadn’t been paying attention to where they were going. The tunnel ended in an opening, beyond which was darkness.

“What should we do?” said Owen. “Send one of us to check?”

It wasn’t a bad idea — having the shade would have helped about now, but then, having him from the beginning would also have come in handy.

“Not much point,” said Gabba. “We don’t really have anywhere to run to if there’s trouble through there. Be better to have all of us together to put up a fight. Let’s just go have a look. What do you think?”

Everyone turned to look at Britta.

“Okay.” It wasn’t like they could take a detour. This was where they had to go, so go they would. She realised they were waiting for her to go first.

Britta walked through the opening, light held over her head. There was a chamber with five tunnels leading from it. No monsters, no sign of Dad and his party, just more tunnels.

“Which way do we go now?”

They spread out to examine the possible options. The tunnels looked more or less the same.

“This one, I think,” said Gabba from the far left. She pointed at a white arrow drawn on the wall.

They gathered to examine it more closely.

“What if it’s a trap?” said Owen. “It could have been put here by the same person who wrote the messages.”

Gabba wiped the arrow with her hand. White chalk dust covered her palm. “I think it’s a trail left by our quarry.”

It was the sort of thing gamers would do to stop them from getting lost, and it wasn’t like they had any other clues to go on.

Britta nodded. “Might as well have a look.”

The others stepped aside to let her go in first. Being the leader was proving to be not as glamorous as she might have hoped.

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