Bitter 297

The house was covered in blood and debris. Britta had to take a moment to see it how it really was. It was odd how quickly her senses had become inured to the mayhem around her. Would she have reacted the same if this had happened in the real world? Would she react differently in the real world now that she had some experience of it here?

It could also be that her senses were being restricted, so she didn’t have the kind of revulsion to walls covered in blood that she should have had. How far did the game’s effect on her brain go?

She looked around the hall, taking it in. This was a horrific sight. She could tell herself that, but she couldn’t make herself feel it.

Frau Magda was already out of the house, no longer willing to tolerate any more delays. Her only goal was to rescue her precious mistress before something terrible happened to her. Although, if the game followed normal videogame protocols, nothing would happen to the Mayor’s wife until they arrived. The one thing you could count on in this kind of world was that important events didn’t happen when you weren’t there.

On the other hand, Nigel had a habit of trying to circumvent normal protocols. Britta hurried to catch up.

Britta had a good idea where Magda was headed. The dwarf pub, The Slit Throat, wasn’t too far, and that was the direction she was leading them. Either in the pub or near it seemed most likely.

Dad, now not quite so encumbered, was on Magda’s heels, eager to find out what would happen next. He tried to ask Frau Magda questions about the Dwarf Council, but got very little in return. He didn’t seem to mind. He had never been happier.

The pub was indeed their destination. Frau Magda charged in, slamming the door open. Britta hoped she didn’t catch some poor drunk dwarf in the face again. Of course, if videogame protocols were in effect, it would be the same poor drunk dwarf.

“I need to see the council,” she said from the middle of the room, head slightly bowed because of the low ceiling. “Immediately.”

Her tone was firm and loud. The dwarves looked up from their drinks, not particularly roused to any kind of overt reaction.

“What’s this about, Magda?” said the barman, drying a tankard with a cloth. Britta was fairly sure it was for effect, to make him look more barman-like. He probably polished that same tankard over and over.

“The Mayor has entered the mines with Gabriel Garbolum. If ve vant our home back, now is the time to act. These two are villing to help us reclaim vhat is ours.”

Britta felt all eyes in the room fall on her and Dad. The weight of expectation was palpable, and not particularly pleasant. She hadn’t made any agreement to get them their mine back.

She could see it was a reasonable ploy in terms of getting the dwarves on their side — they would be much more likely to throw in with them if they thought they’d get something out of it — but it wasn’t even clear what was down there.

Then again, what difference did it make? If they wanted the mine, they could have it.

“I can give you the mine back,” said Britta, “if you are willing to fight.”

She had no idea if it would require a violent intervention, or even who they would be fighting, but she knew for certain she didn’t want to be the one hitting or getting hit. Having a bunch of dwarves between her and the enemy couldn’t hurt.

“You’ll have to speak to the council,” said the barman.

“I know, Darlink,” said Magda. “That is vhy ve are here.”

They stood glaring at each other like they weren’t both saying the exact same thing. If this was what dwarves were like when they agreed with each other, Britta really didn’t want to be in the room when they were at odds.

“Great,” said Britta. “Where are they? Nearby?” The other problem with videogames was that they often confused walking from one end of the map to the other with actual plot. They had spent all this time building the world, they wanted you to see it. All of it.

“Through here,” said the barman, lifting up part of the bar to let them in. He pushed open a door behind him. “Top of the stairs.”

Last time she’d had an audience with the Dwarf Council, she had been taken there with a sack over her head. It hadn’t seemed like it was in a room above a pub, but perhaps they moved around to avoid detection. Although, Scottish accents and a fondness for booze was beginning to feel like a piling up of stereotypes. The devs really needed to try to be a little more original.

If it was down to Nigel, she’d have to have a word with him. Not that she particularly wanted to — social justice warrior was an even less appealing class than illusionist — but who else would tell him the real world wasn’t quite the same as the abbreviated version programmed into his database by nerds who never went outside?

“Will the ninjas be there?” asked Dad excitedly as they climbed the steps.

Frau Magda stopped and turned, her extra height exaggerating her natural domineering air. “Dwarf ninja? Vhat are you saying? There are no dwarf ninja. No shadow hunters. They are a myth to frighten young dwarflings.”

Britta wasn’t sure they needed myths when they had her. “They do exist. We met them.”

“Pah! This is no time for jokes.” Magda turned around and stomped up the steps.

Britta and Dad exchanged a look and shrugged at each other.

There was a small door at the top of the stairs. Frau Magda opened it and ducked to get through.

Britta was the last to go inside. She was met with Dad and Magda’s backsides blocking her view. She pushed them aside and realised why they had stopped. The room was full of dwarf ninjas.

Nobody said anything, and then Magda walked up to one of the dwarves covered head-to-foot in black cloth, and slapped his masked face. Very hard.

“Vhy are you here, Rustworth? You told me you vere vorking tonight!”

“I am, love,” said the dwarf, rubbing his cheek. Even through the cowl, it must have stung. “This is my job. I’m not allowed to talk about it. I would have told you if I could.”

“Vell, ve’ll see vhat your mother has to say on the matter.”

The dwarf’s broad shoulders sagged. Everyone in the room avoided looking at him. Not the usual way a ninja disappeared into the shadows.

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