Dragonfire (Part I)

The last thing Ragnar Ulrichson ever wanted was to be any kind of hero, but now he finds that people recognise him and want to shake his hand wherever he goes. And no matter how much he avoids the attention, something keeps pulling him back to a place where he can fulfil some destiny he doesn’t want or understand. For beneath the dirty streets of New Atlas, an ancient evil is stirring, and the city cries out for a dragonslayer…

‘Dragonfire’ is the sequel to Written in Blood.

It was a crisp, frosty morning, a few weeks from Yuletide, and New Atlas was getting ready for the festivities. Even in the dwarf café I was sitting in, they were hanging up green boughs above the door. Dwarves may do some things differently from humans, but Yuletide is something we have in common. The café was new, just opened in the ground floor of a building that I remember being a musty old general store when I was a kid. This place was typical of the kind of businesses springing up all over New Atlas now – dwarves, gnomes, dryads and even orcs were all coming out of their neighbourhoods, joining in with the humans, being part of something bigger than themselves. The Atlasian Dream. Some folks said it was all down to me, but I still think I was just the catalyst for something that would have happened sooner or later anyhow. If I did anything, it was just make sure that we didn’t have a war on the city’s streets before it got to this point. I still didn’t know how I felt about everyone I met seeming to know my name either. I couldn’t walk down one side street without some group of kids shouting “hey, Ragnar!” at me, or some oldster stopping to shake my hand. They called me hero. I smiled and shrugged it off, but the truth is it made me uncomfortable. That’s why I was currently spending a lot of my time around dwarves. They didn’t like to make no fuss over a person either. The most you’d get from one of them was grudging respect. That was something else we had in common – not all humans, but Northmen, like me. Us and the dwarves went back a long way; they told me one of my ancestors had carried a dwarven hammer into battle. More recently though, I’d made a friend the old fashioned way. I was a private detective – used to be a washed out one, but now people knew my name, my casebook had never been more full. I had to turn some folks away, tell them to talk to the cops instead. A lot of the non-humans in New Atlas though, they didn’t trust the cops. They wanted someone who would keep things quiet. That meant me, but I’d already run afoul of the NAPD and their Commissioner, a guy named McKinley, a couple times in the last few months. They don’t like some private dick investigating disappearances, murders, stuff like that. That’s their turf. But there’s some truth in the rumours that they don’t help out anyone who ain’t human. Ninety percent of the cops in this city are human, and most that aren’t are just part of special units for ‘liaising with community leaders’. Not my words, believe me. When non-humans think of cops, they think of them as the enemy. They keep the peace – the human peace. Well, I can sympathise, and I try to help out where I can. But I ain’t no hero, okay?

Back to my friend. He was called Harl Ironsmith. A real stand up guy, if you ask me, though I’d never tell him to his face. He’d helped me out stopping the war I mentioned, and he put his life on the line for me more than once in all that business. Like most dwarves I knew, he was stubborn and proud, but he had his head in the right place. He wanted what was best for his people and he realised they couldn’t get that if they kept on hiding away in their smoky lodges. So he helped young dwarves like him set up businesses like the café we were sitting in at that exact moment. He was supposed to be a construction supervisor, the boss of a crew of dwarves and orcs who dug out all the municipal tunnels for the sewers and steam and the new trains below the city. His company had a pretty sweet contract with the mayor’s office as I understood it. But, mostly, he was a kind of fixer. One of those guys who can get you anything you need, so long as you don’t ask too many questions. What he did wasn’t illegal, exactly, but he was a smart businessman, a mean haggler, and knew how to get a good deal. He had his stubby, hairy fingers in a lot of pies. Right then though, we were trying out some dwarf cuisine.

“What d’you call this thing, Harl?” I asked him as I held up the thing he’d had me order. “Looks like a damn doughnut.”

“It’s a bagel,” he said though a mouthful of his own, “cut it in half and spread some cheese on it.”

“Cheese on a doughnut?”

“It ain’t a doughnut. It’s more like bread.”

I looked down at it. It was the shape of a ring. As a rule, I don’t eat a lot of stuff shaped like that. “Dwarf bread? Ain’t that got rocks in?”

Ironsmith rolled his eyes at me. “Not for a thousand years, Ragnar. You wanna support local businesses or not? Eat the damn thing.”

It wasn’t that bad in the end. Just kinda unexpected. The place was nice though. I’d figured it would be dark and smoky and low like a dwarf lodge, but it just looked like any other place. There was dwarvish stuff on the walls – a couple crossed axes hanging over the hearth, mugs shaped like tankards and of course the seats were a little cramped, but otherwise it was just…normal. That’s what I’d had to learn these past few months: mostly people were just people, just a different shape or size, maybe a different language, but mostly just the same as all the humans I’d grown up with.

“How’s business?” Ironsmith asked me as he wiped the crumbs out of his beard with a napkin.

“Good. The usual kinda stuff. Strayin’ husbands, a couple missin’ person cases – youngsters who’ve fallen in with gangs, I figure – only difference is now I’m workin’ for drayds, dwarves, gnomes. You name it.”

“I seen that new secretary of yours.”

“Oh yeah. She’s pretty good. I mean, her leaves kinda get all over the place…”

“That’s drayds for you.”

“Yeah, but she’s smart an’ works hard.”

“We all do,” Ironsmith said, “non-humans, I mean. We had to, just to get respect.”

“An’ then we complain you take our jobs.”

He snorted. “Show me the human who could do what I do, an’ maybe I’ll listen to that kinda talk.”

“How’s business with you then? Underground still as dark an’ grim as I remember it?”

“Pretty much. Now Orca is legitimate though it’s made things a lot easier.”

Orca was an orc community that, until very recently, had been a secret city in the tunnels below New Atlas. Now everyone knew it was there though and even if a lot of people were kinda uncomfortable with it just being there under their feet, it was good to get a lot of orc workers on the grid, working and paying their taxes like good citizens. The dwarves especially were coming ’round to the idea, because it turned out the orcs knew the tunnels even better than they did, and they were strong and could see in the dark. Dwarves and orcs always had an uneasy relationship, and I guess they always will, but I figure in a generation or two that might be forgotten. Stranger things have happened. “You workin’ on the trains?” I asked.

Ironsmith nodded. “We’re diggin’ new tunnels deep down to lay the tracks, put in all the electrics an’ stuff.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“It’s a huge project. Big money in it too,” he said, waggling his bushy eyebrows.

“Well count me out – if I ever go down in those tunnels again, it’ll be too soon.” My first visit to Orca hadn’t exactly been on my own terms.

“Now you’re makin’ money, you oughta invest some of it.”

“Nah, not my style.”

“So what, you shove it in your mattres?”

“Ain’t everyone do that?”

He chuckled into his coffee. He took it strong – I never met a dwarf that didn’t. “I got a cousin, works for the Bank of Dwarrowdelf. Let me give you his number. He’ll give you some advice.”

“If you think it’ll help.” I took another bite of the bagel. It was starting to grow on me.

“How’s things with Poppy anyway?” I stopped chewing, and thought about how to answer that. “Sorry,” he added, “that a rude question?”

“No,” I said, once I’d swallowed some of the weirdly chewy bread, “it’s just…i’unno…what do you want from me, buddy?”

“I’m just being polite. Askin’ after your girl is all.”

“She ain’t…well…that is to say…aw hell, how should I know?” I tossed the rest of my bagel down onto my plate. Poppy Redcap was another person who’d helped me out recently. And another friend. Or something. I liked her just fine – more than just fine – but she was a gnome, and a cop, kinda, which made things complicated. I wouldn’t be the first guy to fall for a dame from another species, but that didn’t make it all right. I didn’t even know how it would work with a gnome and a human. There were half-elves in New Atlas, and I even heard of a few human-dwarf hybrids, and people were always getting their panties twisted up over half-orcs though I’d never met a real one so it was just snooty folks on the Upper East Side worried about falling standards in the human race I guess, but I didn’t know whether a human and a gnome had ever found a way to make it work. And damn sure no temple I knew would preside over a marriage like that. So what was I thinking of stepping out with Poppy? If that’s even what it was…mostly it was just company, just talking and having a meal or taking a walk in the Dale sometimes. No different from me and Harl to be honest, although I couldn’t even convince myself of that. Not when she held my hand and it made my heart beat faster than it had in five years.

“We can talk about somethin’ else,” Ironsmith said, and I realised I’d just been staring into space for about five minutes.

“Nah, it’s okay. I’m takin’ her out for dinner tonight.”

“That’s nice.”

“Yeah. Gonna pick her up from her house.”

Ironsmith looked like he was waiting for me to say something else. “Yeah, so?”

“She lives with her folks.”

“So what? Lots of people…ohhh…” Realisation dawned in his beady black eyes. “You ain’t met ’em yet, huh?”

I shook my head. “Nope.”

“What’d you think they’ll say?”

“The hell should I know? Godsdamn it, it’s ridiculous. I’m a grown-ass man. I ain’t got to be worried about meetin’ some dame’s folks. Hel, I’m old enough to be her dad anyway.”

“You ain’t, buddy – remember she’s a gnome. She’s older than she looks.”

“Right, right…”

“Hey, you Harl Ironsmith?” We looked up to see a waiter hovering by the table.

“Yeah, who’s askin’?”

The waiter jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Got a call for you in the back.”

“Huh? Oh all right, sure.” He shot me a look that told me he was as confused as I was and excused himself.

“Freshen your coffee, Mr Ulrichson?” the waiter asked.

I hadn’t told him my name, but he knew me. I guess a six-five Northman sitting in a dwarf café is hard to mistake for anyone else. Still, I wasn’t sure how I felt about all these strangers knowing who I was. I smiled anyway and let him fill my mug up with the thick brown sludge dwarves called coffee. It wasn’t just strong: it was a meal in itself. About a minute later, Ironsmith came back, wearing a worried look. “You okay, pal?”

“That was Kai, one of the diggin’ crew supervisors. He says there been some kinda accident underground.”

“A bad one?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“Maybe.” He looked distracted, and was already reaching for his coat.

“Did he say anyone got hurt?”

“No. He didn’t say much of anythin’ really.” He looked real distracted, and kept missing his sleeve as he tried to put his coat on.

“Hey, you’d better get goin’ then. Don’t worry about me.”

He finally seemed to come back to reality. “Hey, sorry, I don’t mean to rush out like this.”

“It’s fine. I’ll see you around. Let me know if you need anythin’.”

“Thanks, buddy.” He patted me on the shoulder and hurried out. I wondered what had happened. One thing I knew was that when you dig underneath a city like this, built on the water, accidents happen. Cave ins, floods, all kinds of things. But dwarves and orcs are both at home down there, and they don’t make mistakes. They go careful, they brace their tunnels, and they only start digging when they’re absolutely sure it’s safe. Greedy as dwarves are, there’s some ancestral warning in their hearts that tells ’em they got to take it slow sometimes. If something had shaken up Ironsmith like that though, it must be bad. I finished off my coffee, threw a couple bills on the table and nodded to the waiter. I hoped the dwarves or orcs or whoever it was that had run into trouble down there were okay. Whatever had happened though, it wasn’t really my business – a gumshoe don’t belong underground, he belongs on the streets. Had to learn that the hard way too.

*

I wasn’t sure whether I should bring flowers or something. Normally I just met Poppy at her work, or she came to my office and we went off to grab a bite or whatever. I never really had to pick her up before. But it was some Yuletide thing with gnomes that she had to spend more time than usual with her family. That’s what she told me anyhow. I figure she had some plan in mind though. She was a lot smarter than me. Her job was working for the NAPD in her own little laboratory. She’d go to crime scenes, scrape up a bit of dry blood, or some skin or even just an eyelash or something and, with her gnome alchemy, she could tell you who it came from and they could collar the crook just like that. She was a good person to have as a…whatever she was…and more than once I’d got her do me a favour or two with all her potions and weird glassware. No one understood what she actually did, so she could run the odd test under the table, so to speak.

Like most of the gnomes in New Atlas, Poppy lived with her folks in Jonastown, a neighbourhood that was a crazy jumble of little houses, all piled up on top of one another it seemed to me. From what I heard about Mycopolis, the gnome homeland, they didn’t have a whole lot of room. Poppy said it was really just a big cavern underground someplace, and they all lived in hollowed-out mushrooms or something and, naturally enough, they were all clustered together. Gnomes just liked company I guess. Something about the houses they’d built here reminded me of mushrooms too – the roofs just seemed a little too big for the house, and they painted everything in bright colours. I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to see one with red tiles painted with white dots, although now everything was mostly frosted over. Snow was probably on the way, I could feel it in my bones: that’s the spirit of the North in me. In the end, I did pick up a handful of posies, but I told myself I’d give them to her mom instead. That seemed a pretty smart compromise to me.

She’d given me her address, and I read the number aloud from the scrap of paper as I counted off the houses. The street was quiet, it being evening now, but I could see curtains twitch a little as I walked past. I guess they didn’t get too many humans just walking through the neighbourhood like this, especially with a bunch of flowers in their hand. At last, I came to it. It was a smart little house, squashed between two others. There was a little bit of yard out front, with pretty mushrooms growing in rows in the borders by the wall, and I realised that maybe flowers weren’t quite the thing. Well, too late now. I trudged up the path, my shoes crunching on the salt some enterprising person had scattered and then took a deep breath before I knocked on the door. It opened right away, and I found myself holding out the flowers to a young gnome man wearing a red baseball cap and a blank expression. “Uh…”

“Mom,” the kid yelled without taking his eyes of me, “Poppy’s date’s here.”

I held up a hand. “Hey, now, I ain’t…”

But he was already walking away, leaving the door open for me. I poked my head inside, and then a little grey-haired gnome lady bustled into the hall and held up her hands. “Oh, flowers! How lovely!”

I blinked. Poppy’s mom looked a lot like her. She had the same button nose and wide smile. But then, so did a lot of gnomes. Like Poppy, she was less than two-thirds my height. “I…actually, ma’am, these are for you.” I held them out stupidly.

“Oh well aren’t you a sweetie. Come in, come in.” I smiled and stepped into the house. The ceiling was a little low for me and I had to stoop a bit. Everything else was small too. Gnome sized furniture, a narrow staircase with shallow steps right ahead of me. I felt like a giant. Dwarves, short as they are, are pretty sturdy characters, so all the stuff they make is okay for a human to use, mostly. Gnomes are a lot smaller though, just like us but scaled down, really, so it’s hard not to feel like some lumbering monster when you’re around them. “Just go through into the kitchen, Poppy’s getting ready.”

“Thank you, Mrs Redcap.” I ducked through the door and walked into a tiny kitchen. It wasn’t just tiny for me – it was a cramped room, even for the family that used it, I guessed. There was something bubbling on the stove, which was about waist-height on me. I glanced into the pot and I could see mushrooms floating in a watery-looking broth. I grimaced slightly. No matter how many times Poppy made me eat the things, I just couldn’t get to like mushrooms. Something about the texture, I dunno.

“So, you’re the famous Ragnar Ulrichrson, eh?”

I looked around. In one corner, where I hadn’t even seen him, was another gnome man, this time a lot older. He was in a chair by a tiny table with a tobacco pouch on it and a little mug of something, halfway through filling up his pipe. I took off my hat. “Mr Redcap?”

“That’s me, son.” He eyeballed me over his pipe as he shoved it in his mouth. His bright eyes reminded me of Poppy’s, and he had that same look she got when she wasn’t convinced about something. He was mostly bald, with a few wisps of white hair around his huge ears, and I recognised his outfit as a busboy’s uniform. Some changes take time.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you…uh…sir,” I said, holding out my hand.

He just looked at me and took a puff of his pipe. “Poppy says you’re a hero.”

“I…uh…I don’t know about that, sir. Just a man tryin’ to make his way in the world.” I put my hand back in my pocket, trying not to make it look too awkward.

“Hm. A private investigator, is that it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not much of a life, I suppose.”

I wanted to say it was better than some, but I didn’t think it was the time to get sarcastic. “New Atlas has been good to me,” I said, diplomatically.

“Hm. An’ to me an’ mine,” he agreed, “Poppy does well for herself. She’s lucky: she don’t need no man to keep her.”

“No, sir.”

“No,” he nodded, “my boy, you met him just there, Robbie, he’s not so fortunate. You got any call for an apprentice?”

I scratched my head. “Well…I ain’t think private dicks generally take apprentices…”

“Just asking,” he shrugged, “a father worries.”

“Sure.”

“Any kids of your own?”

“No, sir.”

“Been married before?”

“Almost.”

“Hm,” he said again, filling the tiny room with another puff of smoke. “An’ what, Ragnar Ulrichson, hero of New Atlas, the man who helped apprehend the dreaded Orca Khan, would your intentions be towards my daughter then?”

“Well…uh…see, I suppose you might say that…uh…” What did he expect me to say?

“Oh, Billie!” Mrs Redcap walked into the kitchen and I had to press myself up near the stove to give her enough room. “Have you even offered Mr Ulrichson a drink?”

“I’m fine, really,” I said quickly.

“Don’t be silly. You’ll have some fungus brew. Pour him a mug, Billie.”

“No, it’s okay, really.”

Mr Redcap looked like he’d be more than happy to follow my lead on this particular issue, but he reached over and took a bottle from the counter anyway. “Not sure we’ve got a mug that’ll fit his hands,” he said.

“Actually, I don’t drink anyway.”

He raised an eyebrow at me. “No?”

“No.”

“Ah, what a good boy,” Mrs Redcap said, patting me on the arm, “could you just step out of the way of the stove, dear?”

I tried to do as she asked without stepping on her husband, but it wasn’t easy. Then Robbie came in to and stood there looking at me. “He still here?”

“Don’t be rude, Robbie,” his mother snapped.

“Will…uh…will Poppy be long, ma’am?”

“She’ll be hours dollin’ herself up,” Robbie answered, still without looking at me. I noticed he had some sort of red scaling along the tops of his ears. Every now and then he’d reach up and scratch it. When he noticed me watching, he threw me a challenging look. “You got a problem?”

“That’s a nasty rash, son,” I told him before I could stop myself.

“Y’hear that, Robbie?” Mrs Redcap said, turning from the pot she was tending, “Mr Ulrichson noticed it too. You should go see a doctor.”

“No…I ain’t…” I started to say, but Robbie said something I didn’t understand that made his mother blush and his father tut under his breath before storming out the kitchen. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“Oh, don’t mind him,” Mrs Redcap said, “he’s in his forties now. You know how they can be at that age.”

“Uh…I suppose…”

“Mom, did Ragnar get here yet?” a voice called from the hall. “Do you think this dress is too…” She walked into the kitchen and stopped dead when she saw me.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” I dunno what she was going to say just then, but her dress was definitely too something. Her brother wasn’t lying about her getting dolled up. She looked a million bucks, and then some.

“Hm,” Mr Redcap said again.

“Mom,” Poppy said, “this is Ragnar Ulrichson.”

“You think I don’t know that, dear? I know him from the papers. He’s the hero.”

“No, ma’am, I ain’t…”

She patted me on the arm again. “You don’t have to be modest. New Atlas needs a hero.”

In the corner, Mr Redcap took his pipe from his mouth and pointed the stem at me. “A hero, yeah,” he said, “a dragonslayer.”

“A…what?”

“Ignore him,” Poppy said as she linked her arm with mine, “he’s just a crazy old gnome. C’mon, we got dinner reservations.”

“We do?”

“Uh huh.”

I said it was nice to meet everyone and then before I knew it we were outside in the cold air again, and I was feeling pretty underdressed. “Dinner reservations?”

“That’s right.”

“How come?”

“‘Cause I made ’em.”

“But…why?”

We walked down the icy street. The sky was overcast, and I could almost taste the snow now. Poppy had wrapped herself in a big coat, and she had a scarf and the usual red knitted hat she liked to wear. She still had he arm in mine, which was actually kinda uncomfortable for her ’cause of the height difference, but we managed. “Well, it’s been a couple months now.”

“What has?”

“You know…this…”

“Right. This.”

She looked up at me. “You know I like you, right, Ragnar?”

“Sure.”

“An’ you like me, don’t you?”

“I like you just fine, Poppy Redcap” I smiled.

“An’ I know we never meant for this to happen.”

I wasn’t too sure about that. I’d found it hard to stop thinking about her from the moment I saw her. If she’d been human…well, let’s just say we wouldn’t be taking things so slow. “Where’re we havin’ dinner?” I asked, changing the subject.

“I booked a table at Nedandrath’s.”

I whistled through my teeth. “Fancy.” I looked down at myself. “I dunno if they’ll let me in.”

“Are you kidding? You’re the whole reason I got the damn reservation in the first place…”

That didn’t exactly make me feel better about the whole thing, especially with Poppy as dressed up as she was, and I still worried about what the occasion might be. Far as I knew, Poppy and me had never even had one single conversation about the future, or even what this really was, so I didn’t think it was some anniversary I’d forgot. Nedandrath’s was all the way down on Willhelm Street and we caught a taxi. Traffic was bad, what with the ice around and the threat of snow in the air. By the time we got there it was fully dark and bitter cold. I could see the odd flake starting to fall from the sky. “Might be a white Yuletide,” I said as we got out and I paid the driver.

“Maybe.” Poppy didn’t look impressed. I guess gnomes ain’t really built for snow, what with their homelands being underground and all.

I’d never been inside Nedandrath’s before, just seen it from outside. It was a Stonelander place originally, but now its food was quintessential New Atlas – Hel, they invented half the stuff you’d eat in any other restaurant and they still do it best, or so I’d heard. A snooty-looking guy showed us to our table. When we walked in, he looked at me like I was trash, but Poppy stepped in front of me and told him my name and it all changed. People stared at us as we walked past the other tables. Everyone else was human, and none of them were Northmen. Or maybe they just recognised me too. Not likely though. I was in the papers, but these weren’t the kind of folks who cared much what happened outside the locked doors of their Uptown apartments.

We got seated and a waiter took our drinks order. Poppy had a spritzer, I just asked for water. I used to drink a whole lot, after a street thug killed someone I cared about five years ago and left me with a bullet in my hip to go with the funeral bill, but I’d given it up recently. If I had to tell the truth, I still got a shake in my hands now and then and found myself reaching for a whisky bottle that wasn’t there, but I took it day by day, kept my mind on other things. Poppy was one of those things, but if she was set to make my life more complicated somehow…

The drinks turned up along with some menus. It was classy stuff. The waiter gave us a minute to look it all over. “They’re famous for their steaks,” Poppy told me.

“Yeah, I heard that.”

“And the lobster.”

“Lobster?” That seemed a bit out of my price range, but then when I looked closer at the menu, I saw it was all out of my price range. Technically, I could afford it now, since business was so good, but I didn’t like to spend as much as this on dinner. It was crazy. What was she trying to do to me? “Listen, Poppy…” I said.

“Have you decided?” the waiter asked, leaning in without warning. He was a Stonelander, with dark hair, grey eyes and pale skin.

“Uh…yeah,” I passed my menu back to him, “I’ll have a steak.”

“And how would you like it cooked, sir?”

“On a stove, for preference,” I said, giving him a cold look that made him shrink right back.

“And I’ll have the Chicken sui Elessar,” Poppy told him, “and maybe the Baked Forodwaith afterwards, but we’ll see about that.”

“Very good, madam,” the waiter said.

“Anyway, Poppy…”

“Do you wanna go away for Yuletide?”

“Huh?”

“I just been thinkin’, that’s all. We been…doin’ this…for a couple months now, like I said. An’ I thought maybe we could go away together for a little while. Just a long weekend or something’.”

“Don’t…don’t you gotta spend some time with your family though?”

“We ain’t really celebrate Yuletide. Gnomes, I mean. It’s a winter festival. No winter in Mycopolis.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess…” So it had been some kinda scheme.

“Our main thing is Garl’s Day, which kinda moves around every year. So don’t worry about that.”

“No, I just…you said the other day…well, it don’t matter. Spend Yuletide together?”

“Yeah, unless you got a better offer…”

I shook my head. “No, not at all.” I didn’t remember last Yuletide. I must’ve blacked out at some point the day before I guess. It was the hardest time of year for me, or it had been. I hadn’t given it too much thought this time, but I guess things were different now. “It’s…”

“A big step?”

“Yeah. Yeah I guess it is. Look, Poppy…” I leaned in, “we ain’t even really talked about…well…you know…what this is.”

She reached across the table and took my hand. “Well, maybe if we go away, spend a weekend up in the Highlands or somethin’, we can find out what it is?”

I grinned. “When you put it that way, it don’t sound so…”

“Ulrichson?”

I looked up into the face of maybe the last guy I wanted to see here besides Mr Redcap at that moment. Commissioner McKinley of the NAPD, who just happened to be Poppy’s boss. He was wearing a pretty sharp tux and he had a woman with him who I guess was his wife. She looked about as friendly as him. Poppy hadn’t turned around, but her eyes were as big as saucers. I tried to smile. “Howdy, Commissioner. Out with your lady wife are you?”

He looked at me through narrowed eyes. “Didn’t think this was your kinda place, Ulrichson.”

“Well, y’know, I’m makin’ some money now.”

“Yes, you are. Maybe if you didn’t get involved in…” it was just then that he noticed who I was sitting with. He turned slowly to look down at Poppy, then worked his mouth for a moment. “Officer Redcap?” he finally managed to get out.

“Hello, sir,” she squeaked back at him. Her eyes were still huge, and I realised at the same time as her that she was still holding my hand. She snatched her hands away across the table and buried them in her lap.

McKinley looked at me, then back at Poppy again. “I…see…”

“Uh…Miss Redcap is just helpin’ me with a case I got.”

“A member of my department is helping you with a case?”

My logic had been that this was probably better than him thinking we were dating, but I’m not sure how sound that thinking was, looking back. “Well, it involves gnomes. An’ she’s the only one I know.”

“So you took her out to dinner in the swankiest restaurant in town, wearin’ that?” He nodded towards Poppy’s dress and she put her arms around her self-consciously.

“It’s…a complicated case…”

“I’m sure it is.” He gave Poppy a warning look. “What you do on your own time is your business, Miss Redcap, but you may wanna think hard about your career in the police force if you plan to consort with lowlife street scum like Ulrichson here.” Now he looked at me. “The non-humans in this city might call you a hero, but you keep gettin’ involved in real crimes an’ you’re gonna have me to answer to, understand?”

“Perfectly,” I said, trying not to growl as I said it. That wouldn’t help a damn thing.

“Well, good evening to both of you then. Enjoy your meals.” He walked on past us, and I saw his wife throw Poppy a pitying look as she went by too. She had more jewels around her neck than in the Vaults of Elvenhome, and I could tell her dress must’ve been expensive. I guess I wasn’t the only one feeling underdressed.

“Hey, don’t mind him,” I told Poppy.

“He’s my boss,” she said in a quiet voice, “I kinda got to mind him, don’t I?”

“Like he said, what you do in your own time is your business. Now what we’re we talkin’ about?”

“It don’t matter.” She was reaching for her bag.

“Hey, what’s the matter?”

“This was dumb,” she said as she stood up.

“What?”

“Comin’ here. Makin’ plans. Who are we kiddin’ anyway?”

“We don’t got to kid anyone…hey, Poppy, c’mon, let’s not…” But she was already up and heading for the coats by the door. Everyone was looking again, but I didn’t care. I got up and nearly walked into the waiter coming back with our meals.

“Sir, you can’t leave without paying – not now we’ve cooked these…”

“Bill it to Commissioner McKinley at the police station on East 21st Street,” I said as I shoved him out the way. I went after Poppy as she grabbed her coat and dashed out of the door, but I still walked with a limp and gnomes are damn quick on their feet when they want to be. I hobbled out into a street that was now sitting under a two-inch blanket of snow. My breath made clouds of steam. My coat was still inside, but I didn’t have time to go get it now. I could see Poppy looking around for a cab, but it was gridlock out there thanks to the weather. She looked around to see me following her and hurried on down the sidewalk instead. I went after her as fast as I could, just trying to keep her in sight. There weren’t many people out, which meant she could stay ahead of me. She jaywalked across a bunch of roads, me following, holding up an apologetic hand to drivers, hoping this wouldn’t be some excuse McKinley could use to bring me in. I stepped onto the sidewalk and couldn’t see Poppy anywhere. There were more folks around now, doing their Yuletide shopping, picking up presents and food and decorations and all that stuff, but I thought I saw a red knitted hat disappearing down a side street. I pushed through the growing crowds to follow and just saw her take another turn. I kept going, huffing and puffing in the cold, ignoring the ache in my hip and turned the corner just in time to see her dart into an alley. She was determined to lose me. Well, she’d have to try a lot harder than this. I went after her and my luck was in, ’cause she’d reached a dead end. She stood there, looking around helplessly. “Why you gotta follow me, Ragnar?”

I took a moment to get my breath back. “Why’d you run off like that?”

“‘Cause I didn’t wanna eat there no more. It wasn’t exactly our scene.”

“Well you chose it.”

“I thought it’d be nice.”

“It was nice. Look, McKinley can’t tell you who you can an’ can’t date, Poppy.”

“So are we datin’?”

“I…well…yeah. I mean, you wanna go away for Yuletide together, right? Maybe…hey,” I leaned against the wall, “could you gimme a minute?” I put a hand against my hip and winced and Poppy rushed over.

“You dummy,” she said, “that’s why you shouldn’t chase after people.”

“I’m a private dick. I don’t got a lot of choice about that. An’ if you ain’t want me to chase you, don’t run away.”

“You ain’t even got your coat on.”

“I’m a Northman, I’ll be fine.”

“No, you’re from New Atlas, ya big goof.”

“Yeah well, we get snow here too. It ain’t a big deal.”

She took my hand again. “I’m sorry, Ragnar. I just…I got this idea in my head that we could have this life an’…”

“Hey,” I tilted her tiny chin up with one of my huge hands, “we can. There ain’t no reason why we can’t, okay?”

“But you’re human an’ I’m…”

“So what? This ain’t the Second Age. If we wanna…” I looked up. Something was moving in the shadows. Poppy heard it too and she turned around. In the darkness, a short figure, no bigger’n a gnome or goblin was shuffling around. And he wasn’t alone. “Hey,” I said, “can we help you, neighbour?”

There were hisses and then something darted out from the side and made a grab for Poppy’s purse. She yelped in surprise, but then held on like grim death and yanked it back. Another one came for me, but I floored it with a right hand and then charged into the next one I could see lurking back there. I forgot all about my hip, because the last time I got mugged in an alley like this, it had turned my whole life upside down and I wasn’t about to let it happen again. Our attackers were hissing like cornered cats now. I grabbed one and lifted him right off his feet. He was a little scaly thing. I couldn’t make out much in the dark, but he had yellow eyes and sharp little teeth, which I knew because he bit my arm. I hurled him away with a yell. Behind me, a flash went off and something screeched. I turned to see Poppy with her outstretched hand and one of the muggers staggering away, clawing at his eyes. I thought I saw a swish of a tail. There was another one out there somewhere I thought, and I got my fists up, ready. He came from above, dropping down almost right on top of Poppy, but she got a swing in with her bag and knocked the little bastard sideways, right into my boot. I finished him off with a left hook and he went down like a sack of potatoes. The others were scrambling up and making themselves scarce. I let ’em scarper.

“You okay?”

Poppy nodded. “Yeah. Just lucky I had some flash powder.”

“That’s useful stuff.”

“Why d’you think I keep some up my sleeve all the time?”

I rubbed my arm where I’d been bit. It wasn’t deep, but it left a nasty mark. I nudged the unconscious mugger with my toe. “What’s this fella, do you reckon?” He was as small as I’d guessed – not much bigger than Poppy – but he was scaly like a lizard, with a snubbed face halfway between human and reptile and red-brown skin. He was wearing dirty overalls with a crude hole cut in the pants for his tail. I’d never seen anything like him. “Some kinda goblin?”

Poppy shook her head. I noticed she was standing close to me, holding onto my arm.

“What’s up?”

“This ain’t right,” she said quietly.

“What? Muggers? This is New Atlas, toots. You know that.”

“No. These things shouldn’t be here.”

I looked down at the little lizard fella. “Do you know what he is?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well?”

“They’re called kobolds.”

I frowned. “I never heard of that before. Where’d they come from?”

“The past.”

“Huh?”

“There ain’t no kobolds left any more, Ragnar.”

“There’s one right here, Poppy. I just took him out with a left hook.”

“No, you ain’t understand. There ain’t none left ’cause we killed them all. Thousands of years ago. The gnomes exterminated them.”

“Well I guess you didn’t finish the job,” I said, trying to lighten the mood a little.

“This wasn’t just a mugging,” she said darkly, “they came for me. They hate gnomes.”

“I’m sure it’s nothin’…maybe that ain’t what they are. I never heard of kobolds before. How’d you even know what they look like if they all died thousands of years ago?”

“I know, Ragnar,” she replied, still staring down at the kobold, if that’s what he was, “I just know.”

*

I put Poppy in a cab and went back to the office. There were all kinds of people living in New Atlas. Elves, humans, gnomes, dwarves, orcs, goblins, dryads, fairies, gnolls, trolls and dozens more. It was hard to keep up with newcomers making their homes here sometimes. But kobolds were a new one on me. Poppy wouldn’t be drawn on the history she’d hinted at, but I’d never seen her so scared. They didn’t seem like much of a threat, and I told her so. “It ain’t just them…it’s who they hang out with…” she’d said, but wouldn’t tell me no more.

When I got to my office on Eldritch Street, I was surprised to see Willow, my new secretary, still at her desk. “Hey, where you been?” she asked me right away.

“Havin’ dinner…well…tryin’ to. Hey, Willow, do dryads know anythin’ about kob…”

“I been trying to call you!” she interrupted, “Tried every coffee house in the city. Then I started phonin’ the bars…”

“You know I ain’t drink.”

“Yeah, well, I thought you mighta relapsed or somethin’.”

Willow was the daughter of a guy I’d helped out a little while back. Her mom went missing but I managed to track her down. Turns out she’d had a bad compost habit she’d been keeping under wraps and had got into some money problems. Thankfully, I’d managed to straighten it all out, mostly by giving Willow this job so the family could get back on their roots. She was a good girl – smart, if a bit scatterbrained, but I found most dryads were a bit like that. I guess dropping foliage all over the place will do that. “Well, I’m here now,” I told her, “what’s up?”

“I got a call right before I was leavin’, from your dwarf friend.”

“Ironsmith?”

“That’s him!” She pointed a long, silvery grey finger at me and smiled. Her eyes were the golden colour of tree sap and, try as she might, she just couldn’t contain the leaf-like hair that spilled halfway to the floor. I swear, one time I walked into my office and saw her dangling it in the basin, filled near to overflowing, and then she’d had the chutzpah to look at me like I was the crazy one.

“What does he want?”

“Somethin’ ’bout an accident?”

“Yeah, he had to rush off at lunch. What did he say?”

“Just that you should get down to the lodge as soon as you could. He sounded kinda shook up.”

“Ironsmith?”

“Uh huh.”

“Okay then.” That was bad news. Ironsmith, like most dwarves, generally kept a level head at all times. “Lemme just grab my other coat from the office.”

“Sure. Hey, can I go home now, Mr Ulrichson?”

“Yeah, course. Hey,” I turned, “thanks for waitin’ up to…” but the door was already swinging shut behind her. Yeah, she was smart all right.

I got to the dwarf lodge as quick as I could, which wasn’t easy now the snow was coming down hard again. They let me in without asking any questions now. Could’ve been because they knew I was a friend, or maybe they were expecting me. Inside it was as dark as every other dwarf lodge I’d ever been in. Every city with a decent sized dwarf population will have at least one lodge. It’s where all their men hang out, just drinking and smoking away their evenings, gossiping in their impenetrable language, putting the world to rights in their own way. At least, that’s all they ever seem to do when I’m in one. Ironsmith had said some things that made me think there was other stuff that went on. What was different this time was that it was totally empty. All the benches were unoccupied, and the only dwarf I could see was a youngster with a short beard standing by a door I never noticed before. “Hey, bub, where the heck is everyone?”

“You Ulrichson?” he asked me.

“Who else would I be?”

He pointed to the door he was guarding. “Through there.”

“All right…” I had a bad feeling, which didn’t change when I walked into the back room and came face to face with more dwarves packed into one small room than I cared to see. They all looked at me with their gimlet eyes and I just stared back at them. “Um.”

“Ragnar! Thank Crom!” Ironsmith pushed his way through the throng. “What kept you, pal?”

“I was…uh…on a date.”

“Oh. Oh right. Sorry, I forgot.”

“Don’t matter. It didn’t exactly go to plan anyway. Hey, you ever hear of kobo…”

“This is not time for chatting,” another dwarf said, and I recognised Bran Stonecutter, one of the oldest dwarves in New Atlas, and the unofficial leader of this particular community. He was an old…well, not friend exactly…but an old acquaintance. “This way. You look. Come.” He grabbed my arm and led me past all the dwarves. At the back of the room, on a makeshift bed, was another dwarf, and he looked in pretty bad shape.

“What happened here?” I asked. The unfortunate dwarf was awake, but seemed to be delirious. One half of his face was a ruin of scorched flesh, and most of his beard was burned away. His clothes, the usual tough dwarf overalls, were blackened and, in places, melted into his skin. “Has anyone called a doctor?”

Ironsmith sighed sadly. “He came, but there’s nothin’ he can do. The burns are too bad.”

“So put the poor bastard out of his misery.” He was moving restlessly in the bed. One eye was lost in the mess of charred skin and hair, but the other occasionally flickered open. The pupil was milky white, like some terrible light had seared it clean off his eyeball. He was murmuring something under his breath over and over.

“We bring you to see first,” Stonecutter said, “show you.”

“Show me? Why?”

“Because you will help. You will help us with this.” He patted my shoulder encouragingly.

“Help you with what? This is the accident they called you about right, Harl?”

Ironsmith nodded. “He was the only one that survived.”

“So what’s it got to do with me? I’m a private dick, not a gas engineer.”

“No gas down there,” Stonecutter said, “nothing to burn. He digs in tunnels down near the river. Muddy, cold, dark.”

“He’s right,” Ironsmith confirmed, “we don’t know what caused this.”

“An’ what do you want me to do about that?”

“This was not accident,” Stonecutter said, angrily pounding a fist into his open palm, “someone set a fire down there. Orc gangs, maybe?”

“Not orcs,” I told him, “not now.”

“Someone attacks our men while they dig! You must help! They use fire…fire in the deeps…bad, bad thing…”

“Sure. Okay.” I looked at Ironsmith. “Can’t you go to the cops?”

“An’ tell ’em what? They’d just use it as an excuse to close down the tunnels. Look, Ragnar, we know this wasn’t an accident. This is Gron Hammercleft, one of Fron’s boys. He’s one of my best workers – well, he was – an’ there’s no damn way he’d lead his team into danger. Down there, underground, you always go careful. We knew where all the gas pipes were, we took all the precautions. This had to be deliberate.”

“An’ you want me to investigate it,” I said.

“Who else we gonna go to, Ragnar? Besides, we pay well.”

I knelt down next to the half-dead dwarf. Gron. I knew the Hammerclefts. They were a good family. He stared at me blindly, seeming to fix his one blinded eye on me, and his lips moved slowly. I frowned. “What’s he sayin’?”

“Nothing,” Stonecutter said, too fast, “he says nothing.”

“It’s the same thing over an’ over,” I said, “something in dwarvish. Drak…baraz…? What does that mean?” No one said anything. I looked up. “Drak baraz. He keeps sayin’ those two words. What do they mean?”

Ironsmith and Stonecutter exchanged a look. The other dwarves in the room all looked uncomfortable.

“Listen, fellas, now ain’t the time to be actin’ all secretive about your language, all right? What does ‘drak baraz’ mean?”

“It ain’t that, Ragnar,” Ironsmith said with a cough, “the word drakbaraz it’s…well, it’s an old word…”

“The heck does that mean?”

“From First Age,” Stonecutter said, “it means nothing. Old word for ancient times.”

“No dwarf has had cause to use the word drakbaraz for more than three thousand years,” Ironsmith explained, “not since the Fall of Dwarrowdelf.”

“Well that’s real cute,” I snapped back, “but the only witness I got to this alleged attack keeps sayin’ it over an’ over, so you maybe wanna give me a translation?”

Ironsmith looked at Stonecutter again, and the older dwarf finally gave him a small nod. “It’s nonsense really,” Ironsmith mumbled, “he’s just delirious.”

“Tell me, Harl,” I growled, “what does drakbaraz mean?”

“Dragonfire,” he said in a quiet voice, “it means dragonfire.”

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