Bitter 503

Britta took a breath and looked at the forest. The trees grew close together so it was hard to see into the interior of the forest. The city was just up ahead. All she needed to do was skirt around the barrier.

“You’re considering sneaking around, right?” said Sergeant Jojo. “Won’t work. Try it, if you like.”

“You won’t stop me?”

He shook his head. “The toll is for upkeep and maintenance of public thoroughfares. People who take the scenic route soon find out why we need the road.” He didn’t seem all that concerned with what Britta would choose. He was giving her information on both options, letting her make the choice for herself, fulfilling his NPC obligations.

Britta took another look. There might well be horrors lurking within, but she would only need to go a short distance to get round the barrier.

The game was basically offering her the chance to explore the forest. No doubt there would be stuff to do in there, things to find, monsters to fight. It seemed unlikely the game would allow her to avoid the toll and the forest, something would happen once she left the road, but she didn’t have the necessary funds, so the choice wasn’t really a choice at all.

“Come on,” she said to Donald, guiding him off the road. The soldier watched with mild interest but didn’t make any move to stop them.

There was a short slope and then Donald had to go in between the trees to work his way around the barrier. The air felt very still, no sounds, not even insects. Then a singing voice drifted through the air.

La la la la.”

It was sad and high-pitched, like a soprano, only off-key and grating to listen to. If the singer appeared on one of those shows to find undiscovered talent, this would be one of the terrible ones people wouldn’t be able to believe had made it onto TV. It had the same aggravating quality as someone whistling when they couldn’t. So pretty much every whistler ever.

Britta kept Donald moving away from the voice and towards the road. Whatever was calling her with its siren song would have to get singing lessons before she was tempted to go investigate.

They passed back through the tree line and climbed up the small verge to the road. Britta looked back at the barrier where the soldier was standing, smiling at her. She realised she was still on the same side of the dead tree.

“Confusing, isn’t it?” he said.

Britta looked around to be sure. She opened her map to check her position. “Wait, let me try again.”

This time, she kept the map open. They went into the trees, moved to the other side of the barrier serenaded by the tone-deaf sprite, and came out on the other side.

“Won’t make a difference,” said the soldier, right in front of her.

The map had definitely shown her going from one side of the barrier to the other, but she was back where she started.

“It’s a woodland sprite,” said the soldier. “Put a spell on the whole area. If you leave the road, you’ll just end up right back here.”

Britta had high magic resistance, so she should have been able to see through the spell. She was particularly resistant to illusion-type spells, which this seemed to be. So why was she affected? That was the whole purpose of putting points into Int, wasn’t it? How could she fail her saving throws this badly?

It was annoying. This was one of the few instances that should have played to her strengths. It wasn’t like the opportunity occurred very often, so when it did, it would be nice if she got the benefits due to her.

Magic — no need to make sense, just sprinkle fairy dust around and do what you want.

That was probably a bit harsh. There was most likely a perfectly logical and consistent reason why she was being affected by this spell, that had nothing to do with the game wanting her to not simply walk away from the cleverly designed quest someone had worked hard to annoy people with. A high-level sprite, a low-level dev, it didn’t make much of a difference.

“Why did the sprite put a spell on this area?” she asked, even though she didn’t really care.

The soldier shrugged. “Spite? They’re very mean little creatures.”

A spiteful sprite. Great. Her problem remained — how to get through the roadblock without money?

Did she have to log back into Quosada and try to raise the money there? Borrow it off Dad? The city was just up ahead, which made it even more frustrating.

“You could always go ask the sprite to stop singing,” said the soldier.

“The horrible singer in the woods?” The whole thing reeked of quest. Find the sprite, do a task for it, get it to shut the hell up, carry on until the next unrequested intrusion.

“Aye,” said the soldier. “Can’t hold down a tune for love nor money, the poor thing. I wouldn’t mention it, though. They can get easily offended, by all accounts.”

“This is a bit like extortion, isn’t it?” said Britta. “Using this sprite to fleece innocent travellers of their money.”

“Highway robbery,” agreed the soldier. “Not my call, though.”

“You’re just following orders.”

He smiled and nodded.

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