Bitter 177

Stan stared at the shade. It was hard to be sure, but it looked to Britta like the shade was staring back at Stan.

“It can talk?” said Stan.

“Yes,” said Britta. “You just heard it.”

“No, I mean, it can talk. Like a person.”

Britta gave the shade a quick glance and shrugged. “I’m not sure what it can do. He tends to be quite reluctant to tell me anything. You have to respect his boundaries if you want his help.”

“And what are his boundaries?”

“I don’t know. He won’t tell me that, either.”

Stan turned his head to check on the battle between dwarf and kobold. They were still at a standoff, with the dwarf’s dancing preventing it from doing what it wanted. Which was presumably to kill everyone. The kobolds kept up their line of defence but they weren’t really achieving anything.

“What do you want?” Stan asked the shade.

“Freedom,” said the shade.

“You’re a spell, aren’t you?” said Stan. “How do we free you?”

The shade seemed to shrug, although its smoky form didn’t have a very clear outline so it was hard to tell.

“Look, we don’t really have time to figure this out right now, so how about this? You help us out with the dwarf and all this stuff.” Stan pointed a thumb over his shoulder at the yelping and howling going on behind him. “In return, if there’s a way to free you so you can become an independent… smoke-creature, we promise to do whatever we can to help you get there. Agreed?”

It sounded reasonable if the offer was genuine, but Britta wasn’t convinced it was. She wouldn’t put it past Stan to agree to anything as long as it got him what he wanted, and then try to squirm his way out of it later. It all depended on what the shade wanted from them.

She also wasn’t sure she wanted to lose the shade. She only had a few spells as it was. One thing was certain. If the shade was released from her control, she’d be worse off.

“What?” said Stan. “Not happy you’ll lose your slave?”

“No,” said Britta sharply, finding that word unpleasant, even though it had some truth to it. “He isn’t my slave.” She looked at the shade. “Are you?”

The shade didn’t respond.

Stan raised his hands in conciliatory fashion. “Fine. Whatever. Can we just deal with the Death-Murder Show for now? You know what to do?”

The shade shimmered and faded from view.

“Where’d he go?” said Stan, anxious his plan had been denied.

“Stealth mode,” said Britta. She could still make out the shade’s outline as it drifted over the chasm and behind the dwarf.

“It can do that?” said Stan, sounding impressed. “Wow. You should really hang on to him.”

Britta frowned. She could tell Stan was already thinking of how he could backtrack on his agreement with the shade. Not that she didn’t agree with him about the shade. Keeping everyone happy was a lot harder than it looked.

The dwarf, still juking and jiving, suddenly lurched forward, leading with its middle as though it had been shoved in the back. Which it had. Britta was the only one able to see the shade charge at the dwarf from behind, driving it forward. The dancing feet continued to kick out to the side but momentum kept them from redirecting the dwarf’s involuntary attack.

The kobolds panicked as expected and fell back, their spears unfocused and flailing all over the place. The king barked orders, but the dwarf was already on top of them, pushing everyone out of its way as it came through.

With the kobolds in disarray, the king was the only one to stand his ground. Derik was beside him, or rather, behind him, but didn’t offer much in the way of help.

Stan made his move. He ran forward with a yell, firing arrows at the dwarf. They all hit their target but didn’t have any real effect other than to annoy the dwarf who roared loudly. It did, however, take the focus off the king, so the plan was working. Sort of.

The dwarf leaped into the air, its stubby legs doing a strange twiddle, and landed next to Stan before he could back away. A large, hairy hand shot out and smacked Stan on the side of his head, knocking him to the ground. A large red ‘12’ floated up from his body.

That had to be a large chunk of his health. He lay where he fell, dazed. He was vulnerable to attack, but the dwarf didn’t follow through. It returned its attention to the Kobold King.

Stan had predicted the other kobolds would regroup once the shock had worn off but the shock was apparently here to stay. The elite kobolds cowered and kept away from the dwarf as it bore down on their monarch.

The kobolds might have been grateful if Britta and Stan had saved the king from attack. They would probably be less pleased if they found out Britta and Stan were responsible for his assassination.

Britta could only see one way out. She would have to stop the dwarf herself.

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