Bitter 474

The new tunnel was not long and straight, it was long and curved. Britta began to understand why Dad and his party had been so jumpy on the stream. When you couldn’t see what was ahead of you, your imagination started playing all sorts of nasty tricks on your brain.

There was never the suspicion that there was something pleasant around the next bend, it was always something with big teeth and sharp claws. And always hungry.

At least she had plenty of light, Dad’s party only had a few torches. Not that it helped much to see around corners.

Britta was getting slower and slower as she tried to peek around the bend to see what was there before it saw her, which was plainly stupid. She couldn’t help it, though.

The tunnel ended in another small chamber with more passages leading from it. They spread out to look for more clues.

“Here,” said Gabba, this time on the far right. There was another arrow just like the last one.

Everyone felt better once they’d found their helpful pointer. At least they were still on the right track, assuming it was Dad or one of his group who had left the marker. Britta considered it a very Dad move.

They set off again, Britta leading them into another curving tunnel. This time, Britta convinced herself to be more dynamic in her role and she forced her feet to move faster than they were inclined to. If they were going to run into trouble, she would rather it happen sooner than later. She had meant this to be a quick sidetrack, not a slow exploration of the underworld over several hours.

The other three kept up with the hurried pace she was now setting, in fact they were practically pushing her from behind. No one wanted to be left separated from the group. The person at the back was always the one who the monsters picked off first, as MrKappa had told them. He had meant it as a friendly word of warning. It had been taken as an invitation to a game of musical chairs, where there was no music and the chairs wanted to sit on you.

They encountered no monsters. Oddly, their lack of face to face meetings with any creatures didn’t relax them. There was a feeling that the longer they went without seeing a monster, the law of averages meant it was ever more likely one would be around the next bend.

What was around the next bend turned out to be yet more tunnels.

“Over here,” said Gabba. Another chalk arrow showed the way.

Three more times they came to a choice of tunnels, and each time Gabba found the arrow. Either she was incredibly lucky, or… Britta wasn’t sure. Did she have some special skill that helped her find chalk marks? She had said she only took obscure skills, and you couldn’t get much more obscure than that.

It had been several hours and Britta was beginning to think they were in some kind of shifting maze that made you go around in circles without you realising it. The arrows might not have even been left by the other party.

And then the next chamber turned out not to be a chamber at all, but a huge cavern… full of grass.

They had been getting into a bit of a pattern — tunnel, chamber, arrow, tunnel — so Britta hadn’t been expecting a meadow. Certainly not one underground.

The grass was about waist high, and it was white. It was like a field of anaemic wheat. They stood at the entrance, looking at it.

“How does anything grow down here?” said MrKappa.

“Magic,” said the other three in unison.

“I know, I know. It was more of a general observation about how weird this place is.”

“Hey, look,” said Owen. He had picked a small flower from in between the grass. It looked like a tiny daffodil, only completely black.

“Oh,” said Gabba. “Can I have that? It’s quite a rare flower, I could use it in one of my concoctions.”

Owen handed it over quite happily.

“There’s more over here,” said MrKappa.

Gabba spent the next few minutes gathering black daffodils. The others helped her, tossing any they found over to here. She had a bag like Britta’s, one from the cash shop you could fit a lot of flowers into.

They waded through the grass towards the other side where there were more passages. Britta’s light made the underground meadow seem like it was bathed in sunshine.

“This one,” said Gabba. The tunnel entrance next to her had a white arrow drawn on the wall.

“I saw you!” shouted Owen. “I saw you draw that arrow.”

Gabba looked shocked. “Me?”

“Don’t deny it. I saw you.”

Had Gabba been leading them all along? Pretending to find arrows she herself had placed so they would go where she wanted?

Why would she do that? If she had known where they needed to go, why not tell them? Unless she wanted them to go somewhere they wouldn’t be willing to go to.

“You must be confused,” said Gabba. “I didn’t—”

“Of course you did,” said MrKappa. “Look at this place, no one’s been through here. If the others came this way, how did they leave no tracks?”

Britta looked back. It was obvious where they had walked through the grass. There were no other tracks, either ahead or behind them.

“It’s the flowers, isn’t it?” said Britta. “You aren’t here to find the others, you came to collect these flowers. The alchemist sent you to gather ingredients.” She must have also arranged for Gabba to get picked for the mission.

“Okay, yes, I wasn’t entirely honest with you,” said Gabba, the surprise quickly fading from her face. “But it’s not like we knew the right way to go. We could have bumped into them going this way, too.”

That was sort of true, but it didn’t make her actions any less sneaky.

“If you needed to go off and do your own thing,” said Britta, “you should have just said. I wouldn’t have stopped you.” The other two murmured their agreement.

“I know, but there’s safety in numbers, and I—”

“That’s why you want us with you,” said MrKappa, pointing an accusing finger. “You know what’s down here, and when we find it, you need someone to be your decoy or your bait or your sacrificial victim. You need us to come with you so you can feed us to some giant carnivorous plant while you steal its petals or something..”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Gabba. “If you just give me a chance, I can explain everything.”

The other three said nothing, waiting to hear what she had to say. Gabba took a breath, then turned and ran into the tunnel.

“Oh,” said MrKappa. “I guess she didn’t need us after all.”

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