Bitter 56

 Britta was starting to see the NPCs in two separate lights. They had an official role to play, where they presented quests and information to players, which was strictly coded into them, but they also had a more relaxed side where they were allowed to think for themselves. Sort of.

They were like actors playing characters, their true personalities supplanted by their roles, but not permanently. Or like employees who didn’t have to follow rules and regulations when they were off duty.

Britta wasn’t sure why they had been made like this, it was bound to create complications, but perhaps that was the idea. An independent society that developed and grew organically. Destined to be a disaster, thought Britta.

The Great Gnome shuffled off towards the far end of the cavern with Britta in tow. He seemed to vary in size as he walked, swelling up and shrinking down. It was like he couldn’t make up his mind how big he should be. Probably a bug.

“You know, I’m not sure this is very advisable at your level. The gryphon is very temperamental. She’s expecting, you see. Very emotional.”

“It’ll be fine with you there, won’t I?” said Britta. “She won’t attack you, will she?”

“Me? Oh no, of course not. I’m Level 999. She wouldn’t stand a chance.” He suddenly stopped and lowered his voice. “Ah, do me a favour, don’t tell her I said that.”

He pulled a worried face and then carried on towards an opening in the far wall. In the strange blue glow of the giant toadstools, the tunnel mouth looked black and uninviting.

“This way,” said the Great Gnome.  “Let me do the talking.”

“Don’t worry, Nigel. You won’t hear a peep from me.” Britta would be only too happy to let do him all the talking and all the fighting. She wasn’t even supposed to be here. She checked the clock. Her parents were probably already airborne and heading home.

The tunnel wasn’t very long and opened into a small but tall chamber. Light shone down from a hole high up, like they were inside a very skinny, defunct volcano. In the middle of the chamber was a pillar made from natural rock that shot straight up and ended in a flat area. Britta could make out the edges. There seemed to be a pile of straw and branches up there.

“Ah, hello?” called out Nigel. “Anyone there.” He leaned towards Britta and shielded his mouth with a hand. “You’re not really supposed to announce your arrival. Meant to be one of the stealth missions.”

There was a flutter of wings and some twigs fell down the side of the pillar making Britta jump back. The light from above was blocked out as huge wings stretched open. There was a loud cawing sound that didn’t sound very happy, and then a gust of air nearly knocked Brita over.

The gryphon spiralled around the tower of rock, gliding down towards them, her wings almost scraping against the cavern walls. She landed with a soft puff of dust.

“What?” she said in a sharp, clucking voice. Her head twitched from side to side like a pigeon’s.

The gryphon was even more impressive than the dragon. The flinty scales and leathery skin had given the dragon a metallic appearance, like it was giant model or robot. The gryphon had a much more fleshy look to it. Its body was covered in fine golden hair and she could see the taut corded muscles ripple under the skin. It was like standing next to a lion. With a giant eagle’s head.

“Ah, yes,” said Nigel nervously. “Sorry to disturb you, my dear. It seems there’s been some kind of mix up and we need your assistance.” He explained the situation with the incomplete quest and the request for a ride to the outside world. With the opening directly above them, it would only take a minute.

“I can’t do that,” said the gryphon. “I’m not a taxi service. There’s no quest that requires me to offer rides.” She sounded very dismissive of the whole idea.

“Well, no, I know that,” said Nigel. “This is a special circumstance. I was hoping…”

“No,” said the gryphon emphatically. “If she wants me to help her, let her do the quest.”

“But she’s only Level 3,” said Nigel.

“That’s not my fault,” said the gryphon.

“What is the quest?” asked Britta. It was clear the gryphon wasn’t going to be of help, but perhaps the quest wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it was a quiz or a riddle.

“You have to climb up to the eerie and steal one of her eggs.” Nigel pulled his concerned face again.

The gryphon cawed loudly. “You’ll have a hard time sneaking up on me now.” She tilted her head from left to right, getting a good look at Britta with each eye.

Britta looked up the sheer shaft of rock towering over her.  “Why is there so much climbing? Are gnomes supposed to be good at climbing?” She looked at her hands. They didn’t seem well-suited for cliffs and mountains.

“To be honest with you,” said Nigel, “you would have picked up the levitation skill at the Level 5 quest. I doubt it’s possible any other way. Good luck.”

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