New Atlas is a city in a fantasy setting of elves, dwarves, orcs and even stranger creatures, with technology equivalent to that of our own world in the early-mid 20th Century. Ragnar Ulrichson is a private detective-cum-barbarian hero who finds himself embroiled in a high profile murder investigation that reveals the dark roots of his society and the tension that underpins a corrupt city that finds skyscrapers inhabited by haughty elves, sewers teeming with warlike orcs and a broken down human gumshoe just trying to do the right thing.
I was partway through drinking off yesterday’s hangover, swirling some piece of shit, five dollar liquor around a chipped glass I hadn’t washed in weeks, peeking through the blinds at the city street below my window. It was muggy and damp out there, dark in the overcast early evening. A persistent, dirty rain was falling on hot tarmac, steaming into nothing before it could form puddles, or maybe it was just coming from the vents at street level. On this dirty side street, all the traffic was parked up, but I could hear the thrum of engines off Fifth, smell the stink of gasoline even through my window, and I knew it was gridlock out there as all the white collar schmoes made their way home to their suburbs from the offices downtown. The Atlasian Dream, they called it, but damned if a guy like me could ever get a taste of it. Time was I wanted to be somebody too, but I gave up that dream five years ago, when a would-be king of the streets decided to make an example outta me and my girl. I woke up with a bullet in my hip and a funeral bill for the only woman that ever loved me. Nothing was ever the same after that.
Business was bad. Hell, business had always been bad. Crime was everywhere, the cops were less than useless, but who comes to some two-bit private dick in this day and age? No one wants to find out who did them wrong in this city – better to leave well alone, keep your head down, not go lookin’ for trouble. My last two cases were standard shadowing work, chasing after errant husbands. A tearful wife, pouring out her damn heart to me on the other side of my desk, worrying her man’s cheating on her. I wanna tell her of course he is. He’s a man, ain’t he? We’re untrustworthy bastards. But I’m hard up: I need their cash. So I take it with a solemn vow to find out everything I can. What do I say? If I tell the truth, I break the dame’s heart. If I lie, I’m no better than the scum that litter these streets. One guy, I follow him when he comes outta work. He goes to a bar, drinks a few beers, then heads down to a club. Nothing too bad. I follow him for damn near two weeks, and it’s the same every night. Why does he stink of fairy dust when he comes home? she cries at me. ‘Cause it’s a damn fairy club. XXX Wings, like the sign says. Who cares? What did she think, he was having an affair with one of them? I told her the damn truth, and she threw the poor sap out on his ass. For going to a fairy club. Who cares? The second guy, okay, not so innocent. He had a girl downtown. Nothin’ fancy. He just wanted something more than he could get from his wife. That time, I caught up with him on his way out, dragged him into an alley. Bullet in my leg or not, I got my heritage – ice in my veins, two-fifty pounds in my underwear, six-three even hunched over, which is how I’ve walked these flast ive years. I ain’t made any sacrifices to Crom since I was a kid and my mom took me to temple like a good little boy, but I know the words, and you can just about make out my tattoos still. I put the fear of the North into that schmuck, told him he oughta treat his missus better. No idea if it worked out or not. Don’t care, if I’m completely honest. I got my paycheck. But still, there’s a part of me that wants to do right. I thought I’d left it all behind five years ago in that stinking alley, watching some orc bruiser bare his fangs in the closest thing he could do to a smile as he pulled the trigger, but I guess there’s a shadow or an echo of it or something. Who knows?
I’d about given up, was ready to close up and go back to my dingy apartment, assuming my damn landlord hadn’t evicted me yet, when I heard a ding from the exterior door. My secretary hadn’t been in in months – not surprising, since I couldn’t pay her a dime – so I shouted through to whoever it was to just come on through to my office and I quickly stashed my half-empty glass and took up shop behind my desk, trying to look professional. I hadn’t shaved in a couple days, and my shirt was none too clean, but I figured I must’ve looked pretty presentable. When my visitor walked through my door, I immediately revised that assumption. Some instinct, some visceral, ancestral part of me kicked in right away, and I near enough fell up to my feet. He was covered head to toe, like they always are, but you just knew what he was underneath those robes. Something about the bearing, the stance, just the godsdamn aura, spoke to some reptile part of my brain and it was all I could do not to bow.
“Sit, please,” he said, in a voice that sounded like music. And not the kind I liked: real music, music from the old days.
I tried to recover myself, tried to look like I knew my business. “What can I do for you, si…mister?”
He looked around my cramped, messy office. I’d never given a damn before, but suddenly I was embarrassed by everything about it. “May I sit?” he asked. I imagined the disdain on his face. I couldn’t see anything of course, but I’d heard they could project their thoughts and feelings on lesser mortals. And there I went again, thinking like that. Hardly modern. Those days were supposed to be over but, on some level, we all knew the world was made up of us and them. Atlasian Dream be damned – we dreamt with their permission only.
“Of course, please,” I babbled, and he folded himself into the rickety old seat. I wanted to offer him my chair, it was fraying and stained, but it was also leather and comfortable. But no: I oughta have respect for myself. I oughta hold my own. He was nothing special, not really. Mortal like me, albeit not quite as much.
“You are Ragnar Ulrichson?” he asked me.
“That’s the name on the door, mac.” I was amazed at myself.
There was a noise from behind his veil, and I guessed it was a kind of laugh or a snort. It was hard to tell. “And you’re a Northman, is that right?”
I scratched at my hairline, not quite as far down my skull as I’d like it to be. It was a dumb question – no one in New Atlas had ever had to ask a question about my parentage before – but I guess maybe we all looked alike to his kind. “My grandpa was a Northman, you might say,” I answered, “and I was brought up observant. But if you cut me, I bleed this city. You want real Northmen, you’ll have to head North, see if there’s any of us left up there.”
“That isn’t an option. Time is of the essence.”
“I see…so you didn’t come here to hire my services as a gumshoe? You just want muscle? Because there’s plenty of that in this city too besides me. I know some troll boys living under the Harpers Glen overpass who make me look like a gnome.”
“No,” my visitor answered, and either his tone or his glamour made his distaste pretty clear, “it is not brute strength that we require, but the talents particular to one of your…background.”
I was getting kinda wary now. “Oh, and what kind of talents would those be?”
“Your people have fought many wars…”
“You said this wasn’t about muscle.”
“It isn’t. But Northmen have an affinity for hunting a certain kind of target.”
“I have an affinity for hunting a lot of targets, mister. I’m a private dick.”
“Quite. And my employers are also familiar with your personal history.”
“Is that so? And who would your employers be?”
He got quiet then, and I could see his veil twitching, like he was lookin’ around in case anyone might overhear him. I guess I couldn’t blame the guy. He was a long way from home – I imagined what his turf must be like, probably some penthouse on the Upper East Side, overlooking the Dale – and he’d have no idea whether he’d be able to trust me or not, ancestral obeisance to his kind be damned, but then he told me what I wanted to hear. “I am a seneschal sworn to House Amandil. I trust that still carries weight, even here?”
I puffed out my cheeks. Amandil. Not a word I heard a whole bunch. It was like a clarion call from my childhood. All of the kids in the neighbourhood had grown up with the songs of Amandil in our head, we knew the names of all the heroes, had heard every story from every war. It was in our blood. Explained why I’d gotten up to my feet like that before. My ancestors, years and years before anyone even thought of building New Atlas and my grandpappy moved here lookin’ for work on the docks, had knelt to this guy’s ancestors and sworn a solemn vow to serve them. That was ages ago, although the key difference was that for me that was more generations ago than I knew how to count, but for him it might even be in living memory. They weren’t like us. “And what could a nobody like me do for House Amandil?” I asked. I put a little snarl in my voice, finding a kind of native strength somewhere deep down, because it don’t matter what blood you have in you: nobody likes being pushed around.
“We require a man of your talents, Mr Ulrichson. A man in whose veins flows the blood of the men who once swore fealty to the elder kindred to do war against the savage denizens of the Dark Prince.”
“Yeah yeah…” there was that blood again. I figured I’d seen and heard enough about that in my life without this guy reminding me of it. “That’s ancient history.”
“Not for us.”
“Right. So I’ve got talents you need. What’s the nature of this job?”
He looked around shiftily again, then leant closer. I leant in too, cocking my head slightly. “There has been a murder.”
“I see.” What did he take me for? Was this all some damn game? “Maybe you oughta call the boys in blue then? I’m a private dick. I do cheating husbands, missing daughters, that kinda thing. I ain’t even have a payscale for a murder in some elf palace.”
“We wish to keep this private.”
“So use your house guard or whatever they are. You said you were a seneschal, right? C’mon, I may live Downtown, but I know how it works up your end of the city. Elf business is elf business. You ain’t need a human poking his nose in, Northman or not.”
“The situation is complex. As I implied, we suspect the involvement of a foreign faction. And we do not wish to risk escalation.”
“If we approach the police, they will put out a warrant, and we believe violence will ensue.”
I leant back in my chair, watching my visitor through narrowed eyes. I didn’t trust him. How could I? I couldn’t see his face. If he was even a he. It was hard to tell sometimes, I’d been told. “You mentioned…what was it? Savage denizens of the mountains?” He nodded. “And my personal history?” Another nod. “And now you’re worried about blood on the streets. That means only one thing, doesn’t it?”
“Your reputation for shrewdness is warranted, Mr Ulrichson.”
“Don’t flatter me, seneschal. You think orcs did this, am I right?”
“We are certain of it.”
“Their markings, their methods. We know how they work, how they think.”
If ‘think’ was even the word. Orcs killed the love of my life and left me with a permanent limp. My grandpa used to spit whenever he said their name. For as long as anyone could remember, my kind and their kind had been at war. Centuries ago, we slaughtered each other on the tundra, and now we did it in the alleys of New Atlas. They were plenty of Northman gangs in the slums. Not organised, like the Families, not well-armed like the dwarf clans, just big kids with a lot of anger and not much work. And the orcs were like that on a whole other scale. Big broods of the green-grey pricks, swarming in their basement apartments, sharpening their tusks and painting their glyphs on everything they could find. They worked down in the sewers mostly, digging and hauling shit for dwarf bosses who hated them even worse than we did. An orc wasn’t good for anything except fighting and lifting. They were muscle and hate. I knew that better than most. But what would possess one to knock off some elf princeling? He’d have to be crazed on something.
“I got expenses,” I told the elf.
“You will be compensated for your work.”
“When I get to the bottom of this – if I get to the bottom of this – don’t expect me to do any of your dirty work. I ain’t got no sword, and I won’t be swearing no vows to you or anyone else. I find your orc, I get my check, you take whatever steps you feel are necessary. We got a deal?”
He stood up. “Yes, Mr Ulrichson. We have a deal.”
“Right. Take me to the damn body.”
They drove me uptown in the fanciest car I’d ever been inside of. We glided through the traffic somehow. Maybe the plates told the other drivers this was an elf car and they got outta the way as if it was a meat wagon comin’ through. I don’t know, because I was too busy getting briefed by my new client. He took off his hood when we were inside, and it was hard to look at anything else. An ordinary guy like me never gets a look at a real life elf, not even in the Samhain Parade when they wave from the all the best floats, because they never go outside without being totally covered. Something to do with their gods, I was always told, but now I saw one in the flesh, I understood the real reason. What I’d heard about it being hard to tell was right – if this guy really was a guy, he was the prettiest damn guy I ever saw. And if he was really a man, well he was the prettiest damn man I ever saw either. It was a good thing he was a different species, or I’d be falling over myself to work for him without any pay whatsoever. Some perverts might go in for that cross-breeding stuff, but I was always straight as an arrow. Elves belonged with elves, dwarves with drwaves, goblins with goblins and so on. Crom made the races apart for a reason, the way I see it. Anyway, my new friend filled me in. His name was Orodreth, and he told me all about when and where it had happened, but he wouldn’t be drawn on the name of the stiff. It had all taken place in somewhere called the winter garden, which I understood to be some sort of courtyard in the Amandil Building. Late at night, no one else around. I was curious. How did the perp get in? He had no answer for me.
Pretty soon, we arrived. I realised I’d known the Amanadil Building my whole life, although I didn’t realise it. It was the big one, just off the western end of the Dale, with twisty towers at the top. A real fixture of the New Atlas skyline, like an old friend. But it was a friend I’d never had the cajones to speak to, I guess, because I got pretty nervous as we walked up the steps. Orodreth had his veil on again, although surely it couldn’t matter here. There was a heavy set doorman, a blank-faced gnoll who’d they’d manage to shave and stuff into a uniform. Crom knows how they trained the thing. They aren’t much better than orcs, but the key difference is that gnolls are too dumb to cause any real trouble. They steal and they fight each other, but that’s about the worst of it. Give a gnoll a gun and he’d probably blow his own foot off before he figured out he could use it to rob a store. They were strong though, and I guess made decent guard dogs for places as swanky as this. Inside, it was all polished wood and marble floors and chandeliers. I felt like a damn hobo. Orodreth led me right to the elevator. Guy at the desk – an elf too, all veiled, though his robes were a little plainer than my buddy’s – didn’t ask us no questions. We went right up to the top, standing awkwardly in the little cage, and when we got out it was like we were in another world. If I thought it was classy in the lobby, nothing had prepared me for this. It was like walking into a story from when I was a kid. Everything was made out of glass and marble, carved into shapes that looked like plants, animals, waves crashing on a shore. I couldn’t have told you what the room was for. It looked like an art gallery to me. Columns of twisted stone held up a vaulted ceiling, with narrow windows that, if it had been daytime, would have no doubt have let in beams of light that would have been scattered into a million dancing shards by the glass sculptures all around us. As it was, I had to just use my imagination, and that was enough.
“The winter garden is this way,” Orodreth told me.
“Huh?” I asked, dragging my eyes away. “Oh, sure. Good to see the scene of the crime.”
“We have left everything as it was.”
“Even the body?” I was surprised. If you expect the cops, you might think to leave the victim’s remains untouched, but not if you’re calling in a PI to do everything on the sly. Truth be told, I’d been wondering where I stood in this situation, legally. I had a civic duty to inform the police that a murder had taken place, and collecting a check for getting involved could be pretty easily construed as obstructing the course of justice. I’d been in enough courtrooms to know how this might work out. But two things made me push down any doubts I had right to the soles of my shoes: first, I needed the cash, and second, the cops hadn’t ever done nothing for me, so I wasn’t too inclined to help them. I got a damn good look at the orc that shot me, gave a detailed description right down to the war-paint, but they didn’t even try to catch the bastard. They were as scared to go into an orc neighbourhood as any sane person, so what did I expect, huh? I had a few choice words for them that landed me a night in the slammer to cool off, and that was that. That’s why, deep down, there was a third thing motivating me too. If there was an orc to be brought to justice, I wanted to be the one to do it. And it wasn’t cop justice I was talking about.
The winter garden was, like I figured, a sort of courtyard. We went through a tall arch that was carved with a sort of vine leaf motif out onto a terrace. It was walled on three sides, overlooked, and the far end was open to the sky. It was night now, and this high up I pulled my jacket close around me. Orodreth, now out of his veil again, showed no sign he even noticed the chill. I couldn’t see the view, but I was willing to bet it was pretty darn beautiful. I had no time to investigate that though, because my whole attention was on the corpse in the middle of the garden. It was splayed out, a red ruin, right in the centre, between these four trees in pots, trimmed so they formed elegant spirals. Wind chimes rattled as I circled what had once been an elf, and now was barely recognisable as any sort of creature at all. Something had hacked the poor thing open, slicing it from shoulder to hip and then, if I judged correctly, laying into it when it had fallen over, mauling the face, the arms, the groin. A complete mess of blood and gore. I wanted to puke, but there was something almost comical about the extent of the desecration. I couldn’t reconcile the idea that this had once been a person. My uncle had worked in a slaughterhouse and I’d been taken to see him at work a time or two. It was just the same as that. I crouched down beside the mess. It was so cold up here that I couldn’t smell anything at all, which only added to the sense of this being unreal. “Who was he?” I asked.
I looked down. No way to tell, and not just because of the ruined state of the body. The robes were totally androgynous, and they were all built the same way, elves – lean and tall. “Okay, who was she?”
I raised an eyebrow at that. I knew the name, but I wasn’t sure from where. The first name, that was. The last name was what surprised me. “Amandil? You mean this is one of the family?”
“This is – was – the daughter of Findaráto Amandil, the lord of this household.”
I whistled through my teeth. No wonder they didn’t want to call the authorities. If word got out that an elf princess had been killed by some orc – and there was no mistaking the glyphs scrawled on the paving stones around her in her own blood – the whole city would go up in flames. It would be the Northern Wars all over again. “You did the right thing coming to see me,” I told Orodreth as I scratched the side of my nose, trying to collect my thoughts, “I’ll help you catch the bastard that did this. Now tell me everything you know.”
My hosts laid out the facts for me. Nienna was out in the Winter Garden in the early hours of the morning, alone. No one else was awake, at least in that part of the building. They heard a scream, everyone rushed out and this is how they found her. I asked to speak to some of the guys who’d found the body, but nothing doing – Orodreth told me they were in seclusion, for the shock. Guess I couldn’t blame them, although it would’ve been useful to get some more information. Bottom line was there were no eye witnesses to the crime, and no sign of any assailant at all. All we had was the glyphs, which made it all too obvious who was responsible. But I had to be clever about this, think it through. I’d seen that gnoll on the door, and I was sure no orc would get past him without an alarm being raised. Which means they didn’t come in through the front lobby. I thought about it all the way to my office, riding back in a cab this time. The Amandil Building was as old as any other tower in the city, which meant it was built by dwarf hands. The whole of New Atlas was built on dwarven foundations, and the rumour was that every great building was connected by the tunnels that made up the city’s sewerage and gas systems. Some of the crazier types you might find in a dive bar would say the dwarves planned it that way, so they could come and go as they pleased. I didn’t buy into that sort of talk, but it was a simple fact that if anyone knew how to get into the Amandil Building unnoticed it was someone who knew how to get in through the old dwarf doors.
You don’t walk these streets as long as I have without picking up a few useful contacts. And contacts don’t come much more useful than the kind you find in a dwarf lodge. The one I was headed to was on the corner of Beorn and Glorfindel. There was a doorman there too, but he was more of a talker than the gnoll from before. He looked me up and down and didn’t flinch at all when I towered over him. “Dwarves only,” he snarled at me.
“I’m an old friend of Stonecutter’s,” I told him.
“Stonecutter?” he looked a little less sure of himself now.
“Yeah. You know. Long grey beard, smokes a pipe, sits in a big chair at the end of the hall.”
“Wait here.” He stepped inside the door with a warning look, then came back out about two minutes later. He jerked his head towards the door. “All right,” he said.
I nodded at him and walked into the lodge. There was another dwarf at the desk in the entrance hall who stared at me beneath an angry pair of eyebrows, but I just ignored him. The door into the main room had some runes over it. I couldn’t read them of course – dwarves didn’t teach outsiders their language – but I found them kinda reassuring anyway. Northmen and dwarves go back a long way. Inside, it was smoky as hell. A lot of long tables with more dwarves than I’d seen together in a long time sitting on benches all the way up and down. They were all chattering away in their private language, and each group went quiet as I walked past, watching me with beady black eyes. Technically, it wasn’t forbidden for non-dwarves to enter a lodge per se, but it didn’t happen often. They ain’t exactly a welcoming people, ‘cept when they have to be. I found Bran Stonecutter exactly where I thought I would, up at the far end in his big stone chair, near the roaring hearth. It was hot in that low, stuffy room with the fire. Hotter than it needed to be on a muggy night like this, but the dwarves didn’t care. You couldn’t even see the ceiling, the smoke was so damn thick. Stonecutter looked at me over his pipe. He was an old dwarf with a grey beard that stretched down to his waist. His hair was braided over his ears and he wore a tight skullcap. Sitting around him were a crowd of other dwarf elders and he grunted something that made one of them move to let me join the circle. No one offered me a drink.
“Greetings, Son of Ulrich,” Stonecutter said, “may Crom bring glory to your line.”
Dwarves worship the same gods humans do, although they tend to look at them a slightly different way. Some people say that it’s religion that makes dwarves so distrusted, but the truth is it would be the same however they prayed. Everyone knows dwarves don’t get on with elves, and they spent generations fighting orcs, and goblins are pests they burn out of their lairs wherever they find them. They don’t trust gnomes, trolls or dryads. In fact, you name the species, and dwarves have a problem with them. Mostly the feeling’s mutual. Some places dwarves are just treated with suspicion, some places they have to live in ghettos, some places they even get rounded up and killed. For as long as anyone can remember, they’ve been wandering the Earth, trying to find a place to fit in, but the ironic thing is that because they’re always outsiders, they keep to their own strange, secret ways. And that only makes it worse. Wherever they live, it doesn’t take long for the whispers to start: dwarves build, and they dig, and they delve. And they invent things. Things they don’t always share with others. And they understand the value of things. too Boy do they understand the value of things. When my ancestors were just figuring out that it was easier to kill things with sticks if you sharpened the end, the Bank of Dwarrowdelf was already charging interest on its loans. Dwarves have a habit of being the ones who end up handling the money. It just makes sense. They know gold, and they know how to make things to last. Things you can bank on, literally. But people don’t trust them. They get blamed and, sooner or later, they get clamped down on, and then they go off wandering again. New Atlas is one of the few cities they managed to find a real home in. In this city, everyone’s an outsider.
“Mr Stonecutter,” I said, tipping my head in his direction, “kind of you to see me tonight.”
“Kindness nothing. Your name, I hear it a lot today, I think.”
“The word, it is you have been uptown recently, talking to elves.”
“Is that what the word is?”
“Dwarves know words,” one of the elders growled beside me.
“You are here with questions, I know,” Stonecutter went on. I could barely hear his voice, it was so cracked and old, and so thick with the dwarf accent.
“Yeah, I got some questions.”
“Oy. Speak then, if you must. Ask your damn questions.”
“Okay. First, the Amandil Building.”
“What about it?”
“Dwarf built, right?”
“Everything in that neighbourhood is dwarf built,” Stonecutter said, “why you think it stands for so long? Nothing an elf ever made lasted longer than the tree it was nailed to.”
“Any idea where I could get a copy of the original plans.”
The elders chuckled, and even old Stonecutter got a kind of gleam in his eye. “Plans? You think we make plans?”
“Dwarves write everything down. I know that.”
“We write it down, yes. We write everything down. In dwarven we write it down, carved in stone. The ‘plans’ as you call them, they aren’t for human eyes. We don’t make pictures like you. We carve the words. You wouldn’t understand. Is stupid question you ask me, Son of Ulrich.”
“Someone must be able to tell me if there’s a way to get in without passing through the front lobby. That’s all I need to know.”
“You want to steal elf jewels, is this it? Fool boy. You want jewels, I sell you better jewels than theirs. They think they capture the light of the stars and the moon. Is nothing. I give you real jewels.”
“I don’t want no jewels,” I said, holding up my hands, “I just need to know if there’s a way in. A secret door. You know.”
Stonecutter took a big puff from his pipe and he watched me as the bowl sparked and lit up the crags of his careworn face and smoke curled around him. “You ask for plans. Wrong question.” Stonecutter tapped the side of his head with a thick finger. “All designs, all pictures, up here. In head of every dwarf. Each building, we make the same. On the inside, where it matters. Like Dwarf. Strong, with bones of iron. In each building, we make a secret door, yes. Only a dwarf could use it though. You need to read the words. Who but a dwarf could do this?”
I nodded thoughtfully. “So, if someone were to break into the Amandil Building, say, they’d need to use the secret door. And only a dwarf could do that?”
“Is your head made of clay? You heard what I said, Son of Ulrich. Only dwarf. And no dwarf would break into an elf palace. We have what we want from them.”
“What about an orc then?”
That shut them up. All the elders looked at each other, stunned, but Stonecutter just watched me again. His dark eyes got very narrow. “Orc?” he asked in a low voice. Old as he was, and big as I was, I don’t mind telling you I got kinda scared then.
“Yeah, orc. Orcs work for you, don’t they? They do your lifting, they dig your tunnels.”
Stonecutter shrugged. “Many people work for dwarf bosses…”
“Mostly orcs though. You might talk about the old wars, but in New Atlas, dwarves and orcs work together more than they fight each other. Isn’t that right?”
“I suppose maybe.” Stonecutter was trying to look nonchalant, but it didn’t suit him.
“An orc would know the tunnels. An orc might even be able to find the secret doors and maybe, just maybe, he could pick up enough dwarven to use one?”
Stonecutter shook his head firmly, sending his braids into a little frenzy. “No. No orc can learn dwarven. How could he? His brain, it is too small. The orc cannot comprehend the deep meaning of the runes. He does not understand. He is like a beast. He sees the shapes, but does not grasp the words behind them.”
“They understand glyphs.” I reached into my jacket. “Could you tell me something about these symbols, Mr Stonecutter?” On my notebook, I’d copied out the glyphs scrawled in the blood of the elf princess on the stones of the winter garden. “Anything familiar there at all?”
Stonecutter barely gave it a glance. “Orc scribbles. Who understands this? Mindless. Mindless daubing in filth and blood.”
“You got that right,” I agreed. I pointed at one particular symbol, a sort of jagged mouth glyph that had been repeated a lot at the crime scene. “This don’t look familiar at all? Never seen this down in your tunnels?”
“You outstay welcome, Son of Ulrich,” Stonecutter said suddenly, “you come to lodge, we welcome you as friend, but you ask about secret doors and give us orc blasphemies. What do we care what they write in dung on walls of their pits? Mindless,” he said again, “mindless.”
“On that, I guess we can agree.” I stood up and gave all the elders a nod, saving Stonecutter for last. “Thanks for your time, gentlemen.”
I showed myself out. The atmosphere was getting pretty chilly in there, despite the heat. Outside, it was good to get my breath and I started walking back down the street, heading vaguely in the direction of home, but also thinking about finding some smoky bar that served good, dark dwarf beer but without the beady eyes boring into me from every direction. I wanted my own kind, Crom help me. I was just walking past the mouth of an alley at the side of the lodge, taking a pack of smokes out of my jacket pocket, when I hear a “psst” in the shadows. You don’t last long as a private dick by not taking note of that kind of thing, so I turned and peered into the gloom. I eased my trusty revolver out of its holster. I’d seen plenty enough death for today, and that hellish night five years ago had given me a healthy respect for danger lurking in alleys. My eyes adjusted after a couple seconds, and I could make out a squat shape standing near a side door from the lodge. From the way he moved, I could see he was a dwarf.
“Can I help you, mac?” I asked the shape.
“Yeah. You Ulrichson?”
“That’s me, bub. What’s it to ya?”
He jerked his head and I got a look at his beard in the half-light. I could see he was young. He walked a little way up the alley and I followed him, but I kept my hand on my shooter. The side door closed, and the sounds from inside the lodge that I didn’t even notice were silenced. We were alone. “Ragnar Ulrichson, right?” he asked.
“Yeah. We established that. What do you want, huh?”
He nodded at the pack of smokes still in my hand. “One of those, if it ain’t too much trouble.”
I flicked him out a cigarette and he took it. “Wanna light?” I asked.
He let out a little laugh and then there was a spark from his hand and a flame appeared. I don’t mind telling you that I gasped when I saw it came out of a little box he held. He lit his cigarette, then held out the flame to me. “Save you a match, pal.”
“Thanks.” I lit my own cigarette and, for a minute we both stood there in silence, enjoying the taste and smell of the tobacco. From the light, I could make out that my companion was indeed a young dwarf, with a beard barely past his collar.
“I heard what they said in there,” he finally said as he dropped his cigarette and stamped it out on the ground, “how they gave you the cold shoulder.”
“Hey, that’s their right.”
“Still. It ain’t right.”
“You don’t think?”
“Way I see it, us dwarves gotta take our heads out of our asses sooner or later.”
I barked a laugh. “You got no argument from me, pal. But don’t think there’s anything going on here that concerns you.”
“No? A human comes into a dwarf lodge, asking questions about secret doors in an elf building, and showing pictures of orc war glyphs. What sort of conclusions are you expecting people to draw?”
Dwarves are smart. Way smarter than humans, and I thought this one might be especially smart. “I never said nothin’ about war glyphs.”
“You didn’t have to. The one you described? I know what it means. Stonecutter might not go near the orcs’ lairs, but some of us don’t get to sit in the office planning the excavations all day. I know orcs. And that glyph isn’t the kind of thing you scrawl on the walls of a building in New Atlas. It’s a mountain glyph. A war glyph.”
“Is that so?”
“What are you, a goylem? I’m tryin’ to help you here, buddy. The only thing I can figure makes sense is someone broke into an elf building and drew war glyphs all over the place. And I’m guessin’ something worse happened too, or they wouldn’t have retained the services of a hard up gumshoe with a known grudge against orcs. So, I think someone got killed, probably someone important. And orcs are implicated. Am I right?”
I smiled. “What do they call you?”
“I’m Harl Ironsmith.”
“You’re from a good family. What’s a nice dwarf boy like you doing wanting to get mixed up in this?”
“Like I said, we gotta take our heads out of our asses. Anything goes wrong in a place, it ain’t long before the dwarves get blamed. If a war starts between elves and orcs on these streets, you think their mutual enemy will just be able to keep their heads down?”
“Good point,” I said, ’cause it was.
“Show me the other glyphs.”
I took out my notebook, and he lit up his box again and looked it over by the light of the flickering flame. Then he whistled. “See this?” he asked, pointing.
“That’s a personal glyph. Like a signature, you know?”
“You ain’t wanna know.”
“I think I do, mac.”
“It’s Orca Khan’s.”
Name didn’t mean a damn thing to me. “Orca Khan? Who’s that?”
“You never heard of a Khan?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Read your history, Northman. Khans are the chiefs of the orc tribes. Like kings. And ‘orca’ means ‘belonging to the orcs’.”
“So Orca Khan is…?”
“King of the Orcs. That’s what he calls himself. No orc has ever dared call himself Khan since they settled in New Atlas, but now more and more of them come down from the mountains every year. You humans have no idea how many of them are living under your feet right now, digging for us, and maybe for themselves.”
I frowned. “So Orca Khan’s some boss, is that it?”
“The biggest boss of them all. He’s the one you need to speak to.”
“Not damn likely,” I said, taking my notebook back and putting it in my pocket. “I saw his handiwork less than two hours ago.”
“You sure it was his, Ragnar?”
“You said it was his glyph…”
I could make out Harl’s smile in the darkness. “Ask yourself something, Northman. Who benefits from making an enemy of the one of the most powerful elf houses in New Atlas? Some upstart orc gang boss? All he does is bring down the wrath of the authorities on his head, and he ain’t want that. No, getting on the bad side of the elves is a good way to get exterminated – ask a dwarf; we know about all that. You ask me, something bigger’s going on here. Something damn bigger.”
“And you think going to Orca Khan will help? You gotta be crazy.”
“Doesn’t he at least deserve a chance to come up with an alibi? Listen, Ragnar, all these kings and houses and lodges were fine in the mountains. We all had a valley to ourselves and it was okay to kill each other once a generation or so. Passed the time. But now, we’re all caged up in this city together. We gotta get along. Who wins if the elves slaughter the orcs? Not them, and not dwarves and not humans. No orc did anything in the Amandil Building. He’d have to be crazy. And Orca Khan is a lot of things, but he ain’t crazy.”
Harl walked past me, heading back to the lodge. “Where do I find this Khan?” I asked after him.
“Follow the glyph,” he called back. I heard the side door open and close in the darkness and then I was alone.
I took out my notebook and looked down at my scrawlings. The mouth glyph – the war glyph – was the main one I’d gotten down but the other one was a big, staring eye, slanted like an orc’s. That was his symbol. Orca Khan. I name I’d never heard, and I name I didn’t think I much wanted to. But, like it or not, I knew I had to find him.