Bitter 54

As Britta approached the cave, she checked the clock in the corner of her vision. She had already spent twenty minutes doing nothing. She couldn’t waste time like this. Whatever was waiting for her wouldn’t change just because she was taking it slow.

With a nod to herself and her jaw set firm, she strode into the cave.

The light was a purple blue and moved around like it was reflected off water. Large mushrooms grew out of the ground and also out of the walls. They radiated a soft glow that pulsed, giving the light the illusion of movement.

In the middle of the large cavern was a throne-like chair with its back to her. It was tall and wide and if there was someone sitting on it, they were hidden from her view. Despite her determination to speed things up, she crept hesitantly towards it, circling around to see what she had in store.

She expected something gigantic. The shade had said three metres tall. That was huge. When she finally got close enough to see the chair’s occupant, he wasn’t anywhere near that size. He was about the same height as her, and looked no different to the gnomes she had encountered earlier.

“Er, hello?” she said, keeping her distance.

He turned with a start, pulled out of some daydream. “Oh. Hello.” His voice was small and cute, like a kitten on helium.

“Are you the Great Gnome in the Sky?” He didn’t fit the description, but maybe he was an assistant, keep his master’s seat warm while he popped to the loo.

“That’s right. You’re here for your class quest, are you?” He didn’t sound like he was staying in character. Shouldn’t he have been all noise and bluster, I am the great and powerful Oz kind of thing?

“Yes. I think so.” Britta wasn’t entirely sure why she was down here. She had hoped he would know. “You don’t sound like a god.”

“Ah, well, that’s how it goes,” he squeaked. “The less popular characters don’t get much love from the creators, sadly. Not much pomp and attention to detail.”

“Less popular characters?” asked Britta.

“Yes, I mean gnomes. Currently the most under-represented race in New World. Player characters, I mean.”

“Oh,” said Britta. “She hadn’t expected to be talking so openly about the game as though it was a game. “Do you have a name?” She didn’t really know what else to ask.

“Mm? Yes. Nigel.”

“Wait a minute, isn’t that the dragon’s name.”

“Is it?” said the Great Gnome. “I guess in some ways we are all Nigel, aren’t we?”

What did that mean? Was Nigel the game’s creator? Had he secretly named all the most powerful creatures after himself? She hadn’t seen the name anywhere when she tried reading up on the game and the company behind it, although there was such a dearth of information that didn’t prove much.

Or perhaps Nigel was the name of the AI that ran the game. A central computer that played the parts of important NPCs, when it could be bothered.

Then again, it could just be a placeholder name until they thought of something with enough Qs and Zs in it.

“Shouldn’t you be in character? You’re supposed to give me a quest so I can be a better gnome, or something. Aren’t you?”

“Yes. That’s what I’m supposed to do, but unfortunately the creators haven’t quite finished coding this particular scenario. They probably thought they’d have more time, seeing as how there are only three gnome players currently in the game. You’re the first one to make it here.”

Britta started to get impatient. She was already on a clock, and she really didn’t need the ins and outs of how difficult it was to work to a tight schedule. Dad was always complaining about the same thing, and it was very boring to hear; from him or from the Great Gnome in the Sky (who wasn’t in the sky).

“Why aren’t you in the sky? It is your name, after all.”

He shifted in his chair, which was far too big for him, and then he suddenly started getting bigger until he more than filled it. Now he was enormous, as advertised. His head looked too big for his body, and his features, which had been large before, now looked quite odd. Scaling issues, Britta thought to herself. Something else Dad talked about a lot.

“It’s explained in a later quest,” he said in the same squeaky voice, which sounded even more ridiculous coming out of a giant. “No spoilers.”

“Fine, but can we get on with this quest? I’m a bit pressed for time.”

The gnome looked down at her and shook his head. “To honour the traditions of the gnomes,” he suddenly boomed, “and take your place in the ranks of the mighty, you must…” The Great Gnome paused. “To be confirmed,” he said in his squeaky voice.

“What does that mean?” said Britta, confused.

The Great Gnome shrank back down to regular gnome size. “No quest yet. Soon, probably. Can you come back?”

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