Bitter 298

There were about a dozen dwarf ninjas in the room. There were no windows, no furniture, just ninjas.

“So,” said Britta, “you know each other?”

Frau Magda towered over the dwarven ninja she had just slapped. His face was completely covered, but that hadn’t stopped her recognising him.

“Yes. Yes, I know him. But not as vell as I thought.”

Magda was upset. Very upset. She always looked somewhat overwrought, but this was a new level of intensity. All the other ninjas had backed off, leaving their comrade to his fate.

“Now, come on, love. You can see what a difficult situation I was in. It’s a secret organisation.”

“Ve aren’t supposed to have secrets!”

Dad pulled a face that accurately reflected how awkward everyone was feeling. He looked at Britta and tilted his head towards the unhappy couple. He wanted her to intervene.

“Me?” mouthed Britta in exaggerated fashion. “Why me?”

He tilted his head again, this time more insistently. Britta rolled her eyes. She had little experience in fighting fantasy monsters. She had even less in couples counselling.

“Look, I’m sorry to interrupt,” said Britta, “but we do have a slight thing we need to take care of. Dwarf Council? Are we in the right place?”

Magda dragged her eyes away from her contrite paramour. “Yes. You are correct. Ve vill deal with this at a later date.” Her eyes returned to the dwarf, making him flinch. “Tell the Council ve need to see them. It is a matter of life and death.” The way she glared at him as she said it suggested it was his life or death that was at stake.

“Yes, they’re expecting you.” He looked at Britta. “You did the right thing, coming here. This way.” He seemed to regain some of his composure by focusing on his duties. It would be after he got off from work that his real problems would start. Britta expected he’d be putting in for overtime.

There was a door at the other end of the room. Another dwarf opened it, very deliberately not looking at poor Rusty as he walked through. No one wanted to get involved.

In the next room, three dwarves were sat at a table. They were deep in whispered conversation, so much so they hardly noticed the party entering.

“Sirs,” said Rusty. “The gnome is here.”

The dwarves at the table looked up, all eyes on Britta.

She recognised them. They were the same three who had interrogated her last time. The one in the middle was Roman, who was married to Aunt Ginnie, and whose dead son was now roaming the mines. He still wore the same haggard expression he’d had last time they’d met.

“You have returned to us willingly,” said Roman, nodding his approval. He looked over at Magda. “I take it there is more to this than simply keeping your word.”

Britta had told them she would come back and answer their questions, and she had fully intended to — there was just as much she could learn from them — but as he correctly surmised, her hand had been forced.

“Yes,” said Britta. “A lot more.” She turned to Frau Magda. If anyone was going to convince the Council to get involved, it was going to be another dwarf.

“The Mayor and Gabriel Garbolum have gone to the mines,” said Magda. “Only von will emerge, and he vill have full control of vhat is down there.”

The three council members reacted with shock. They began firing questions at her, making sure of the details. She answered them decisively. There was no doubting she had her facts straight.

“Then it is too late,” said the red-bearded dwarf to Roman’s left. “They are prepared to go through with it.”

“We have no choice,” said the white-bearded one on his right. “The mines must be destroyed.”

“No!” said Magda. “You can’t. They vill all be killed. My mistress… they are holding her captive. You vill kill them all.”

“We have no choice, child,” said Roman.

“What about the kobolds?” asked Britta. “Are you going to kill them, too?” She didn’t like the sound of this plan, either.

“You think we want to?” said Roman angrily. “You think this is what we’d do if we had any other choice? It’s a measure of absolute last resort. Our own people will have to be sacrificed, too. Someone has to go in the mines to trigger the collapse.”

“I volunteer, sir,” said Rusty from behind Magda. “My men will gladly make the sacrifice.”

Magda turned slowly to face him, her face apoplectic. “Gladly? Gladly? And vhat about tomorrow night? Veren’t you going to take me out for my birthday? Or is that the sacrifice you are making so gladly?”

The atmosphere, which had been tense, now grew chilly. Magda’s face darkened into concentrated fury.

“Don’t be like that, love,” said the dwarf nervously. “You can see what the stakes are. It’s my job.”

“Of course. It’s only a birthday. There’ll be another along in a year — oh vait, you’re going on a suicide mission, so you von’t be here. I guess I’ll be bringing the flowers, for your grave.” Her words weren’t just laced with sarcasm, they were absolutely dripping.

Britta looked directly at Roman. “What’s down there?” she asked, hoping to get the conversation away from domestic issues. “You were down there when it was discovered, weren’t you? You’re the one who convinced the others to sell the mine.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, then turned his head to the side. “Yes, I was there.” He took a breath and let out a long sigh. “It’s the Keystone.”

“And what’s that?” Britta asked.

“It’s what keeps this world together. The person who has control of it can destroy us all.”

Britta nodded to herself, understanding what it was. The Off button.

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