Bitter 497

Everything went black. For a moment, Britta thought she must have died. There had been no damage or pain, just instant darkness.

But she didn’t go anywhere. She remained in the darkness, floating. That was what it felt like. Weightlessness combined with a comfortable warmth.

Why wasn’t she respawning?

The guardvark had leapt at her, showing no mercy, mouth open and aimed directly at Britta small body. That image was very clear in Britta’s head.

She had the somewhat disturbing thought that the guardvark had eaten her. She was inside the guardvark’s mouth or maybe her stomach.

As soon as she had that image in mind, she began to feel itchy and scratchy across her body. It could have been the acid beginning to work, but the way the prickly feeling grabbed and let go of her was familiar. It was the babies holding on to her clothes, their tiny claws piercing the fabric and digging into her skin.

Would the guardvark eat her and the babies? There were some animals that carried their offspring in their mouths, like crocodiles.

It didn’t really feel like she was inside the guardvark, to be honest. It was an odd sensation but there was no wetness of moistness to it, which you would kind of expect if you were sitting on a giant tongue or bobbing around in stomach acid.

She couldn’t move, either. It was like there was foam or jelly fixing her very gently in place. It wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, it was quite relaxing.

The babies were climbing over her. She didn’t get a sense of panic or fear from them. They were happy, so things couldn’t be too bad, could they? Britta told herself that as she lay there, listening for some idea of what was going on. If she strained her ears, she was sure she could make out some rumbling. It didn’t get any closer or further, it just sat in the background like the engine of an idling car.

And then it stopped. The thing that was holding her in place also stopped and she found herself falling.

Light streamed in. She was under the guardvark, looking up at its stomach. Britta had been rolled up inside the guardvark as it rolled around, packed in soft blubber or whatever guardvarks carried around their middle. The tummy fat had moulded itself to Britta’s shape, wrapping her in a bubble-wrap cocoon. She could still see the gnome-shaped indentation as she fell. She could also see the three babies clinging on to their mum, clearly used to this form of transport and ready for the abrupt stop.

Britta hit the ground. It didn’t hurt, although she probably wouldn’t have noticed even if it had. She was in a bit of a trance, all fuzzy and numb. It was nice, she could stay here and just chill out.

Noise slowly filtered through her haze of contentment. Britta rolled out from under the guardvark who had ignored her since arriving at whatever this place was.

There was a ledge, a roof of a cavern that had glowing lights reflecting off it, changing colours, and there was a drop. Britta quietly crawled forward on her stomach towards the edge and looked over.

Below her — quite a long way below — a battle was raging.

There were players, lots of them, running around, waving weapons, firing off spells. The cavern was large and almost perfectly circular, with various platforms and rock formations. The monsters occupied the high ground from where they threw rocks that glowed white and burst into sparks when they landed.

Seen from above, it didn’t look real. Explosions went off, flames erupted and monsters roared.

She wasn’t sure what types of monsters they were, but even from far above it was obvious the monsters were bigger than the people, and that they were having the better time of it.

The monsters were fewer in number — there must have been the full complement of a hundred players down there — but they were very well organised, moving in groups, pushing back players. One group would attack players, then fall back as they were replaced by reserves behind them.

There was also a small figure at the centre of the monsters’ formation, dressed in black, waving and leaping around. Britta couldn’t be a hundred percent sure, but it looked like the kobold shaman Derik, in his necromancer form.

“You saved them,” said the guardvark from right next to Britta’s head.

Britta turned her head slowly, feeling the hot breath on her face. “You’re welcome.”


“She wasn’t going to look after them properly, that’s all. Babies need to be looked after.” It seemed kind of obvious to protect babies. Not anything special, just human. “I see you changed your mind about the mothering life.”

The babies were crawling up the guardvark’s back. One was sitting on her head, looking very pleased with the accomplishment.

“You left me little choice,” said the guardvark. “And now look where we are.”

Britta peered over the edge again. “It’s not that bad, is it? You’re safe up here.”

“Are we?” The guardvark moved her large body, moving back to reveal the other side of the ledge. There were broad steps carved into the rock, leading to a large flat area covered with monsters.

These were real monsters, with horns and wings and carrying cruel-looking barbed weapons. The odd thing was how they seemed to be lounging around, looking slightly bored. The ground tilted down a bit, giving them a good view of the battle below. They were spectating the fight.

Britta felt a bit anxious. What would they do if they spotted her? It was unlikely to go well.

“You see the totems over there?” said a familiar voice. “I want you to wait for them to respawn, and then hit them with everything you’ve got while they’ve got the debuff up. Ignore everything else, just the respawns.”

N-28 was talking to a large demon (the kind with bat wings and a forked tail) like he was sending him on as a substitute late in the second half of some game. The demon was nodding and hitting himself on the chest with taloned fists, psyching himself up, Britta assumed.

“Don’t get cocky, play your own game, don’t get sucked in by any distraction tactics. Remember, you’ve got more magic resistance than them, use it.”

The demon snorted, steam flowing out of its wide nostrils.

N-28 slapped the demon on the arm. “Good, good. Off you go.” The demon ran towards the edge and jumped off, followed by a dozen others. Britta followed their trajectory as they dived, wings closed, aiming for the totems grouped to one side.

“Why am I not surprised you’re here,” said N-28, catching sight of Britta.

All the monsters turned to look at her.

They wouldn’t kill her, not with N-28 here. She felt what could only be described as killing intent coming from them, but that was just part of their programming. They were under his control.

Britta instinctively reached out for one of the baby guardvarks, but the guardvark pulled back and then thumped Britta on the back with a giant claw, sending her stumbling forward into the middle of monsters.

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