Bitter 307

“That’s ridiculous,” said Dad. “How can it possibly work like that? No, no. They have to fix it. You can’t break doors like that.”

He had started complaining about how Britta had gained entry into the kobold temple as soon as the dust had cleared, and he hadn’t stopped.

“It’s magic,” said Britta.

“So? Magic doesn’t mean you can ignore basic logic.”

Britta wasn’t sure how to respond. She thought that was exactly what magic could do, but saying so would only make Dad more agitated. And she had a kobold high priest to contend with.

Derik was huddled in a corner, his arms covering his head. His eyes peered out through a gap between his sleeves. He jumped up and any concerns for his own personal safety were overridden by his outrage.

“You broke my altar.” He pointed at the dwarf who had landed on the stone altar and cracked it in half. His backside was now lodged in a crevice of his own making and his arms and legs flailed about making him look like an upturned beetle.

“It was already broken, wasn’t it?” said Britta, carefully making her way into the room through the debris. The first time she’d come here, there had been a large crack in the altar, rendering it useless.

“It was fixable. Now I’ll have to order a new one. Do you have any idea how much a brand new altar costs?”

Britta had no idea, but it can’t have been that expensive. It was just a large block of stone as far as she could see. She didn’t say that, not with everyone being so touchy at the moment.

“I’ll get you a new one. As soon as this is—”

“Oh, will you,” said Derik with deep sarcasm. “Can’t stop making empty promises, can you? Always ready to claim you’ll fix everything. Well, we don’t need you coming here, making things even worse, and then disappearing in a puff of smoke when you’ve created maximum chaos. We don’t just sit around waiting for a hero to come and rescue us. It’s the hero who tries to kill us, or get us killed.” He gave both her and Dad a dirty look. “I should have remembered that.”

Britta didn’t remember ever disappearing in a puff of smoke, but apart from that he was right. She had promised to sort things out, and failed every time. Which would be fine if he had no recollection of it, like he was supposed to, but his memory was very obviously intact.

“I’m trying my best.” It sounded weak and pathetic even as she said it.

“Then try doing less. Or nothing. It’ll probably be better for everyone concerned. As you can see, we’re quite capable of handling our own problems, if we aren’t constantly interfered with.” He indicated the dwarf, who was stuck in what was left of the altar, covered in a light coating of masonry dust. He seemed to be handling his predicament with great patience.

“How did you get him to calm down?” asked Britta.

“You just want me to hand over the secrets of ten thousand years of shaman ritual, do you? Shortcut to enlightenment, is that what you were hoping for? And what do I get in return? An I.O.U. for one backrub?”

He really could get quite bitchy when he was upset. Although she couldn’t really blame him. She shouldn’t have told people what she thought they wanted to hear just to get them to do what she wanted.

She had intended to keep her end of the deal, if possible, but that was a long way away from actually being able to deliver. She’d known that and not really cared. She promised it anyway. She was basically a big fat liar.

“Okay, everyone calm down,” said Dad. “There’s a reason we’re here. We’re trying to save the world.”

“Are you?” said Derik. “Are you really?” He looked around the room, arms spread out to show the state of the place. “Is this part of the plan?”

“He’s talking about the Keystone,” said Britta.

“Wonderful. And what is a Keystone?”

Sidney made a small coughing noise to attract Derik’s attention. Up to now, he’d been keeping very quiet so Derik wouldn’t remember it was he who had brought the gnome here, against orders.

“I think they’re talking about your hot rock. The one you use to make tea.”

“Tea?” said Derik, sounding appalled by the notion. “Why would I make tea? Am I some kind of savage?”

“Hey!” said Dad. “I like a nice brew.”

“You would. I prefer my beverages the way nature intended — full of forbidden herbs. Tea, indeed.”

“What do you use the Keystone, I mean the hot rock for?” asked Britta.

“For soaking my feet,” said Derik.

Britta thought he was being sarcastic again, but quickly realised he wasn’t. There was no sneering or snide look. He used hot water from a stone that could destroy the world to soak his feet. Which wasn’t the worst thing you could use it for.

“It’s a very special stone,” said Britta. “The Mayor and Mr Garbolum are going to fight over it. It’s why they want the mine. If you have it, they’re going to come for it.”

Derik looked alarmed. Then he seemed to have an idea. “And if I give it to you, you’ll take it away?”

Britta nodded. “Yes. I’ll make sure no one uses it for anything… dangerous.”

“Yes, but you’ll take it away? Far from here. And you won’t come back?”

He seemed more keen to get rid of her than the murderous men who were the real threat. But that was okay. She hadn’t expected him to give up the Keystone so quickly.

“Alright. You won’t see me again. Now, where is it?”

“Not here. There are two ways to get to it. The long way, and the short way.”

“I’ll take the short way,” said Britta.

Derik smiled. “Good. I was hoping you’d say that.”



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