Bitter 493

Britta opened her map, although she didn’t know what she was looking for. The guardvark’s nest was hardly going to be marked like a service stop on the motorway.

Tunnels spread in every direction and with no indication of what dangers they held. All the dangers, if Britta was to guess.

The baby in her jacket seemed happy enough, but Britta wasn’t looking to adopt. It wasn’t like Donald who looked after himself and disappeared when he wasn’t required. She would have to raise this little monster full-time. And what would happen to it when she logged out?

There was the benefit of getting her mana topped off, which would certainly help when it came to using her butterfly brooch, but she was only assuming that’s how it worked. Since when did the game ever give her something for nothing? There was probably a drawback there, she just hadn’t stumbled across it yet. Maybe the drawback was parenting. She shuddered at the thought — responsibility, the worst debuff of them all.

She tried summoning the shade again. There was little to no chance of him responding, so it came as a surprise when he suddenly appeared before her.

“Oh, now you turn up,” said Britta, unable to conceal her irritation.

“Would you like me to leave?” he asked her, equally affronted. It was like they were in a duel to see who could act the more wronged.

“Is it alright for you to be here? Not scared someone might be mean to you?”

“Apart from you? No, it should be fine now.”

This was getting her nowhere. As much as she wanted to be mad at the shade (and she really did want to), she just had to accept that sometimes he would throw a tantrum. If he behaved like a regular spell, he would just do as he was told and no more, making him much less useful. It was still annoying, though.

“There was nothing to be afraid of. You were overreacting.”

The shade shook the part of its plume that was roughly the head. “It’s not the same for you. You were never in any danger. I was the one whose life was at risk.”

It was odd hearing a computer program refer to its ‘life’ as though it was some precious thing that could be lost forever. He had backups, didn’t he?

“Well, the risk should be gone now. I took care of it.” She knew she was being overbearing and unreasonable. If someone had treated her like that, she would have got annoyed, but she couldn’t help herself. People letting her down had always been hard for her to deal with, especially after she had built her life to prevent it from happening. “Can you find the guardvark’s nest in these tunnels? It shouldn’t be too far. I want to return this to its mother.” She opened her jacket to show the baby nestled against her hip.

The shade nodded and then shot off down the tunnel. Britta followed with her eyes on her map. The shades marker moved through the tunnels at incredible speed, whizzing around with no discernible pattern but covering everything.

A new set of tunnels appeared on the left side of her map, along with a large open area. As Britta headed in that direction, the shade came back to her.

“I found it.”

“The big cavern?” asked Britta.

“Yes. It’s empty apart from a nest containing two more babies.”

That sounded right. “Is there any sign of the mother?”

“No. Just the babies.”

At least when the shade was doing its job they weren’t bickering. “Thank you.” It was hard to sound sincere when your peevishness was far greater than your gratitude, but Britta did her best to separate the two. This would have been a lot harder without his help.

They continued to walk, the shade floating alongside her. Britta wasn’t sure why he had decided to stay, but it wasn’t like he was costing her any mana, so she was fine with it. If Gabba figured out she’d been tricked, it would help to have the shade here to act as an early warning system.

She made it to the cavern without running into anyone. Dad was probably in the middle of some hellish fight and all the monsters down here were most likely involved with that.

Her ball of light lit the cavern and confirmed it was empty apart from the mound of dirt in the middle, glittering with embedded jewels. It looked the same as the one she’d encountered before. She managed to climb up the sides and peer in. There were two baby guardvarks inside, both looking delighted to see her, jumping to try and reach her with tiny claws outstretched.

Britta took out the one in her jacket and placed it with its siblings, who immediately tried to use it as a ladder to get out. Britta could tell if they got organised and climbed on top of each other, one of them would be able to escape. Poor design.

The whole place was undefended and once Gabba realised she had nothing in her sack, she could easily come here and take the baby again. Why hadn’t she taken all three?

“So this is where the nest was.”

Britta turned to find Gabba standing there. “How did you…” Britta looked for the shade, but he had disappeared.

“I found one of them crawling about on its own, couldn’t find the nest for the life of me, but I knew you’d be able to.” She smiled warmly, like a grateful friend.

Britta realised she had been the one who had been tricked. Gabba had allowed Britta to think she had got the better of her so she would lead her to the other babies. It should have been obvious someone with Gabba’s detection skills wouldn’t be so easily fooled. She felt like an idiot.

“You shouldn’t do this, it won’t end well,” said Britta, not sounding at all confident in her assertion. “What if the guardvark comes back?”

“Oh, she’s a little busy right now, fighting the good fight. It isn’t easy being a working mother. She won’t even realise they’re gone for ages, probably isn’t even programmed to care.”

“I don’t know about that,” said the shade, suddenly standing next to Gabba. Even though he didn’t have a face, he seemed to be smiling. “She definitely cared when I told her. She cared a lot.”

The ground rumbled as the guardvark charged into the cavern.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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