There was a cave in front of me, a yawning abyss with stalagmites like jagged fangs hanging from the ceiling. As I walked inside, I could smell the stink of brimstone carried on a hot wind that blew into my face, then dropped to almost nothing, then came again, in a continuous rhythm like that. I went deeper and deeper, but instead of getting darker it got brighter, until I had to squint against the white-hot glare. I would have stopped, but I didn’t know how: my feet just kept carrying me forward. Soon, I was walking into a furnace, and the sweat poured off me. I couldn’t see it was so bright and even when I closed my eyes, I could still see the searing glow through my eyelids. But I kept going. The hair on my arms started to crackle and smoke. I could feel my skin starting to blister. I managed to look down, saw my clothes starting to burn before my eyes. I lifted my weapon – a huge warhammer, laden with dwarf runes – and tried to defend myself, but there was nothing to fight, just the hellish heat. And then I saw it: a wavering shape in the blinding light, a huge, terrible thing shuddering in the flames. I thought I saw wings, a long, snaking neck, and a set of great jaws. Its mouth, if that’s what it was, opening wide, and a torrent of black fire curling out towards me. It moved too slowly, like everything was encased in thick syrup. I lifted my arm to protect myself, and the fire seared the flesh from my bones. But instead of the charred stump I expected to see, instead there was a new arm, muscular and reptilian, the fingers tipped with black talons and the whole of it covered in golden-red scales. I stared at it in wonder, and then began to scream as my skin started to flake off in the heat, revealing underneath…
I opened my eyes. In front of them was exactly what there should have been: the ceiling of my crummy apartment with its familiar patch of damp right above my head. I blinked a couple times. I thought I could still smell the brimstone, but it was just my imagination. A dream, that’s all it was. A crazy dream. I looked at my arm. Normal. Well, there were some nasty marks where that little kobold had bit me yesterday. It was a little red and sore around the wounds and I figured I should probably get it checked out. Who knows what kind of infection I might have picked up from him? I sat up and stretched out my arms, cracked my knuckles and my neck, tried to wake myself up. I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. I got up and walked into the bathroom to splash some water on my face. I looked at myself in the cracked mirror. My eyes were tired as heck. It had been hard to sleep after seeing what had happened to that dwarf, the Hammercleft kid, but I’d nodded off eventually, and not too late – I’d finally got a new clock for my bedside table. But still, I couldn’t shake the nightmare, or the exhaustion.
Ironsmith wasn’t kidding about the dwarves paying me well. The dough came from the lodge, collectively, Hammercleft being one of their own and all, and it was more than generous. Not that there wouldn’t be an element of danger, but it was more than I thought the job was probably worth. Hel, I’d have done it for practically nothing since Ironsmith was a friend, but I knew I’d only insult them if I refused their offer. Dwarves know the value of things, and acting like they’ve overpaid for your services is a good way to piss them off. The polite thing to do is actually haggle, try to drive the price up, but even they seemed to think this was kinda inappropriate in the circumstances. With the kind of money I had at my disposal, I could afford to spend some time thinking this one through, give it all my attention. My rent was covered for the next three months at least…but I didn’t want to wait that long, not if someone was killing dwarves down in their own tunnels. But my mind kept turning back to Hammercleft’s half-crazed words, to the snatch of dwarvish he’d repeated over and over. Drakbaraz: dragonfire. Not a word any dwarf uses idly, I figured. But what did it mean, really? Dragons were an old story, something from children’s tales. Oh, I didn’t doubt there’d once been something in the world that people called a dragon, but the wings and the breathing fire and all that? Not in this world, bub. I knew about wyrms: they were part of the histories of my people, the Northmen. The Dark Prince used them in his armies, or so they told me in the temple when I was a kid, but a wyrm was just a kind of big, horrible lizard. Nasty, scaly, poisonous things. Terrible enemies they were, I’m sure, but not a magic flying monster on a big pile of gold.
So, what I figured was: someone was using dwarf mythology against them. Someone with a reason to not want the dwarves to expand their tunnels was using some sort of weapon on them – something with fire, which he’d know they feared down there, because of the confined space and gas and so on – to scare them off. What better way than to make them think of their ancient, legendary enemy: the despoiling dragons of the Elder Days? It was clever. Dwarves were smart, level-headed, and didn’t scare easy. But if there was one way to give them the heebie-jeebies, it was to threaten them with something they thought could be dragonfire. So, question one: who would have a good reason to want to halt the dwarves’ work underground? Lots of ideas sprang up in my head as I just stood there, staring at myself in the mirror. Orcs, but most of them had gone legit now, rallying against the gangs and coming up from the sewers to make an honest living. And that living, more often than not, was made by working for dwarves. No, orcs wouldn’t make any sense. So some other underground species? Goblins hated dwarves, but they were divided into so many feuding clans that it was hard to imagine them getting together the means to mess with the rich, powerful dwarf lodges. Besides, they’d be more scared of something dangerous in the darkness than anyone. Some breeds of troll lived underground, but in my experience those kind didn’t play politics much. They might try to fight off an intruder in their own filthy lairs, but that’d be as far as it went. Nothing organised, not those big goons. That left gnomes, but hardly any of the ones who lived in New Atlas went underground any more. Oddly, they didn’t really get involved in any of the city’s engineering works. That didn’t mean I was ruling out grilling Poppy for any leads, but I couldn’t reconcile all those nice gnome families in Jonastown with a group that’d burn dwarves alive.
I walked out the bathroom, drying my face with my grubby towel. I sat down on the bed and gave the case some more thought. Maybe this wasn’t about territory, not in a literal sense. That kind of thing was valley thinking, as Ironsmith might say, from the time when we all lived up in the mountains, fighting over the ruins of the First Age. No, this was probably business. Who would be trying to muscle in on the dwarven subterranean monopoly? Elves? Maybe, but they were already rich enough without having to get their hands dirty. Unless some drow had made their way to New Atlas. Just the thought of that sent a shudder down my spine. If that ever happened, there were going to be bigger problems than dwarves getting cooked in their own tunnels. The obvious culprit then was humans. I should have thought of my own kind first, really. Despite my unique caseload, they still made up over eighty percent of New Atlas’s population. Most crimes, despite what the papers might like you to think, are committed by humans. The odds were good that humans did this too, which would make perfect sense. Human engineers, driven into the margins by good dwarfcraft, wanting a piece of the action. New Atlas was built on dwarf foundations, but that was all centuries ago. The dwarves built it for the elves, then the humans moved in and then, eventually, the dwarves came back and started forming their own communities here. Of all the non-humans, they’d been here the longest, besides elves and goblins – who always seemed to be everywhere first. So it was a little late to be trying to drive out the competition. Still, I didn’t put it past some of the criminal elements of New Atlas. Desperation could do strange things to even someone as smart as the career criminal of the most corrupt city in the world.
I stood up. I needed some information. I had to brush up on my dragon lore, for two reasons. First, it would tell me what to expect, and why, and second, going to the main source of that sort of knowledge – the New Atlas Public Library – might tip me off as to who else had checked out certain books on the subject. As I pulled on my clothes and looked around for my hat, it did occur to me that this might all be a wild goose chase. Poor Hammercleft had been delirious. Maybe whatever had happened down there had just damaged his mind. But I’d asked Ironsmith and the other dwarves who knew him if he was the kind of kid who might be likely to start spouting strange stuff if he took a bump on the head. They told me what I already knew: that he’d always been straight as an arrow. A good, sensible dwarf boy. Stonecutter had been right when he said all dwarves were built the same, because Gron had been like most young dwarf men I’d met. Stolid and reliable. Not prone to make up stories, even when he’d had half his face blasted off. Besides that, the way they’d all gone silent when I asked about what he was saying, the way they’d been so quick to tell me it was nothing, told me they believed he’d met something down there that had made him say that word over and over. And that was enough. If someone was trying to scare the dwarves, it was working.
First I swung by my office. The snow was still thick on the sidewalks outside, although it was all churned up into a brownish muck by the sides of the roads. When I was a kid, there hadn’t been nearly so many cars, and when you got a snowfall like this the whole neighbourhood would be out, playing on the street, having snowball fights, building snowmen, all that stuff. Now, the world seemed to have changed. Kids weren’t kids like they used to be. Everyone was hurrying around, trying to get to wherever they were going. The only kids I saw just hung around on street corners, sticking mostly to their own species, and they just stared at everyone from underneath big woolly hats, like they were just waiting for someone to start a fight. If it wasn’t for all the lights in the store windows, you wouldn’t think it was coming up to Yuletide. I knew it was just me getting old, but it felt like a lot of the magic had gone out of the world. This city needed something to believe in again; something better and kinder than the almighty dollar.
Willow was at her desk again when I stamped my way in, leaving snow all over the floorboards. Dryads didn’t sleep much, and she was always up with the sun, she told me. Something to do with a long word starting with ‘f’ that I didn’t understand. “Your dwarf friend called again,” she told me as I walked by.
“What? Ironsmith again?”
“Yeah, him.” Smart, but not such a good memory. “He said Hammercleft died.”
I stopped. “He did?”
“Yeah. Who’s Hammercleft?”
I took the scrap of paper she offered me and read back pretty much exactly what she’d just told me. “He was a good kid from a good family,” I told her handing it back, “but now he’s dead.”
She looked at me strangely. “You look like you wanna do somethin’ about it.”
“I can’t do nothin’ about it – not now he’s dead. But I’m gonna try my damndest to stop it happenin’ again to anyone else. I’m headin’ out. Anyone wants me, I’m at the library, okay?”
“You heard me.” I turned my collar back up and headed back out into the winter air.
Willow was right to have been a bit confused by what I said. I’d been to school, ’cause my folks had wanted me to have a better life than they had, and I guess I probably had in the end, but as a rule I didn’t do a whole lot of reading. I knew the library though, or specifically the Sigurd A. Svartmann building on 5th Avenue, the big building with the columns and the steps out front, and figured it was a good place to start. I decided to walk instead of taking a cab, figuring it would be quicker in this weather, but I soon started to regret it. The cold weather was Hel on my bad hip, and what’s more my arm was starting to ache something fierce too. I didn’t want to pull back my sleeve to take a look since it was so cold, so I saved it till I was in the lobby of the library. It looked worse than it had when I first woke up – real red and weirdly hot. When I gave it a little poke, the pain made me wince.
“Looks nasty,” someone said.
I looked up to see an old human man walking towards me using a cane. He had big, bushy white hair and a little white beard that stuck out of his chin and these round little glasses that somehow made him look like he was squinting at everything. He had a sharp red bowtie and a tweedy brown suit on. He looked exactly the type I expected to find in a place like this. “It’s nothin’,” I said, rolling my sleeve back down, “hey, you work here, mister?”
He nodded. “Yes. And I don’t usually greet people personally, but I thought you might be lost. No offence, but we don’t get a lot of big Northmen through our doors.”
“Well, it’s my first time anyway. You in charge of this place?”
He smiled at me strangely. “I’m one of a number of curators,” he explained, “my name is Professor Incanus.”
I stuck out my hand. “Ragnar Ulrichson.” I thought about using a fake name, but I looked distinctive enough that I figured it was pointless. And, besides, since everyone seemed to know my name these days I figured maybe it would do some good.
“Ah,” the professor said, shaking my hand back with a surprisingly firm grip, “from the papers. You’re a private detective, aren’t you?”
“That’s right, sir.”
“And how can the New Atlas Public Library help you with your investigations, Mr Ulrichson? I’d be quite happy to lend whatever aid I can, of course.”
“I really appreciate that, sir. I wondered if you might have a few books relatin’ to the history of dragons.”
His bushy white eyebrows nearly climbed off his head. “Dragons?”
“Well well well…” He led the way, hobbling on his cane, to a big set of wooden drawers that, when he opened them, I saw were full of little file cards. He flicked through them without hardly looking what he was doing, moving his lips and murmuring something under his breath the whole time. The library was practically deserted. It was a huge cavernous building with shelf after shelf of books along the walls, and rows of tables that I guessed were for reading at on both sides of the aisle down the middle, each with carved wooden chairs on either side and lamps in the centre. Everything was panelled in wood, except for the walls that were huge blocks of pale grey stone, with tall arched windows that let in the weak daylight from outside. Incanus seemed to find what he was looking for in the cards, because now he was beckoning me off to one side. We went up a little staircase, which wasn’t so easy for the old professor, or me with my hip for that matter, but we managed it, and then we were up on a gallery that ran around the sides of the entire main room. He led me to a doorway, and we went through down a corridor, into another big room filled with even more books – I didn’t even know there were this many books in the world – and then around a corner into a dusty, dark nook. It was obvious no one had been here for a while. “Dwarf histories,” he explained.
“I asked about dragons,” I said.
“Indeed. And this is where you’ll find all there is to know of them – which isn’t much, to tell you the truth.”
I looked around at the dust and cobwebs. “Lot of dwarves in New Atlas. How come no one uses this place?”
Icanus chuckled at that. “Dwarves know their own history. They write everything down, and they keep it to themselves. Why would they want to come here and read human translations of their own records?”
“Fair point,” I admitted. There were a lot of books on the shelves in front of us. “So where do I start?”
The old professor ran a finger across one row, and then pulled out one particular book. It was big and looked kinda moth-eaten. He handed it to me. “There. The fifth volume of the Book of the Ancestors.” I opened it, but it was too dark to read much of the tiny, dense print. Incanus showed me out of the gloomy corner to a table in the middle of the room where it was light enough to read. We both sat down together. “You might know some of this,” he explained as I leafed though, “the Book of Ancestors makes up the Word of Crom, him being a dwarven god and all.”
That was right. I knew the basic shape of the old dwarf stories, but not the details. The way humans worshipped Crom – the northern god of war, wolves and winter – focussed on the champions of his drawn from their own race, rather than the ancient dwarven forefathers who’d first sacrificed to him in the Elder Days. “So where do I look for dragons?” I asked.
He leaned over me and quickly found the page he needed. “Here. The Fall of Dwarrowdelf.”
I remembered what Ironsmith had said. “Yeah, I heard about that, but you gonna have to humour me, prof – the Bank of Dwarrowdelf is alive an’ well, ain’t it?”
“The bank, perhaps,” he said with a small smile, “but not the city. That was lost three thousand years ago.”
“But you know how dwarves are. Even though their ancient capital was destroyed by dragonfire, its riches plundered and its people scattered to the four corners of the world, they still recognise the line of its kings as their rulers, and maintain its customs and heirlooms in exile. Dwarrowdelf lives on, in the hearts of all dwarves.”
I frowned down at the page. “Dragonfire, huh?”
“Oh yes. See here.” He pointed and then read aloud, “‘But the dwarves delved too greedily and too deep, and in the darkness below the great hall, they awoke something that had slept since the dawn of the world. The terrible beast rose up from its slumber, and visited upon the people of the city terrible slaughter. With tooth and claw it rent at them but most dreadful of all was its dragonfire, the fire from the deeps, which melted flesh from bone and devoured the halls of the ancestor kings with its white heat, until all the city was reduced to rubble and ruin. And then the treasures of the ancestor kings were plundered or consumed, the halls thrown down and the doors barred with fallen stones torn down from the mountains and the people fled in terror, and wandered in exile for forty generations.'” He coughed. “It then goes on to list a very detailed inventory of all the treasures that were lost. I won’t bore you with that.”
“So a dragon destroyed Dwarrowdelf?” I summarised.
“Well…in fact, nowhere in the histories does the word ‘dragon’ really appear. Only drakba…”
“Drakbaraz,” I interrupted, “yeah, I know. ‘Dragonfire’, right?”
“Yes. And the name dragon is really a back-formation from that. All the histories just talk about a nameless beast, huge and terrifying, but tantalisingly undescribed, and its deadly weapon: the dragonfire. Nothing official, if you like, is ever said of the creature, or creatures. It all rose later, in the mythology of humans and dwarves, inferred from the histories, embellished by tellers of tales, and growing mostly in the imagination.”
“So…there might not even have been a real dragon?”
“Oh, I don’t doubt there was something that did the fell deed in the first place. Some wyrm or demon-thing from the ancient past who contributed in some way to the downfall of the city. But we know Dwarrowdelf’s later tale from real, non-legendary history. They reclaimed the city from the ruins, rebuilt its splendour, only to have it fall again, this time to warfare, from below. It was lost and refound, built and rebuilt elsewhere a dozen times over the next few thousand years so that now no dwarves can ever agree where Dwarrowdelf originally was, except that it lies in the East somewhere, and is now buried forever.”
“And that’s all there is about dragons? Nothin’ else at all?”
“Nothing of substance,” said Incanus, “vague tales, odd stories, later fancies. The general account goes that they were a product of the First Wars, the conflict between Infernals and Celestials that forged the world itself, the offspring of demons and angels, taking aspects of both, with the potential to do either terrible evil or great good, according to their kind. They ruled over the skies for ten thousand years, before the world changed and grew cold, and then they hid themselves underground or in the depths of the ocean. There they slept for another ten thousand years, until the dwarves found them again, and thus sealed their doom. Some say their petrified bones form the foundations of the greatest mountain ranges, and their stirrings cause great tremors below the earth.”
“An’ volcanoes are dragons sneezing,” I put in, “yeah, yeah, I know it all. But it don’t mean nothin’, not really.”
“Exactly.” The professor tapped the book. “This is the beginning and end of the only real information that we have. A translated story from a dwarven holy book, itself transcribed by a people in exile, bitter over the loss of the ancestral home. And even then, ‘dragon’ is just a thing implied by the term ‘dragonfire’. It may be that they simply broke into a seam of magma and Dwarrowdelf was destroyed by nothing more than a volcanic eruption of some kind. It’s all myth and magic.”
I glanced down where his finger was resting on the page. “Does that say gnomes?” I asked.
He looked down, then adjusted his glasses. “Oh yes. A reference to the second fall of the city. The warfare I mentioned. I think that’s in the sixth or seventh volume.” He started to get up.
“Hold up,” I said, “dwarves fought wars with gnomes?”
“So the Book of the Ancestors claims,” Icanus said, “but there’s no historical evidence for it.”
“Definitely gnomes though?” That didn’t seem right to me. The two seemed to keep their distance, but I couldn’t picture the little gnomes having it in them to tear down some great dwarf city.
“How do you mean?”
“You said this was a translation, right? From the dwarvish?”
“Yes. It was originally translated in the Second Age by Balthazar the Wise, an eastern mystic. It’s been transcribed many times since, but no one has ever had access to the original texts he used. No one but dwarves can read their own runes, of course. Balthazar was unique in being able to puzzle most of it out, but he was never able to pass on his knowledge. Some say he was murdered by dwarves to prevent exactly that.”
That put my mind at ease a bit. “So it could be a mistranslation?”
“Oh easily. Most scholars assume it probably is. Dwarves are mainly interested in their own affairs, and seem to group their enemies together much of the time. Why, the dwarven language does not appear to distinguish even between orcs and goblins – Balthazar chose to use the word goblin throughout in his translations, but who can say now besides the dwarves themselves which was their ancient enemy below the earth?”
“Only dwarves I guess,” I said.
“Perhaps.” He adjusted his glasses. “So much has been forgotten. The Second Age is a dim and distant memory. Who now remembers the names of the Kings of Atlantis who fled across the sea and sired the masters of the Stonelands and the chieftains of the North, your own ancestors?” He turned and ran a hand over the nearest shelf of books. “Only these. Fragile things of paper and leather. Is it any wonder dwarves prefer to carve things in stone? But even that can fail in the face of dragonfire.” He turned to me and smiled faintly. “Or so it is said.”
I rubbed my jaw thoughtfully. “I know about dragons, but only from stories, kids’ stuff. What about wyrms? They were real, right?”
“Oh yes,” the professor said. He was already walking over to another shelf. “That’s a matter of real historical record…more or less…the Dark Prince used them.”
“Right. In the Third Age.”
“Indeed.” He pulled down another big book. “Lots of books describe those wars in great detail. This is perhaps the most comprehensive, translated from elven records this time.” He brought it over. “This should be of even more interest to you. Your ancestors were directly involved, of course.”
I nodded. “Yeah, so I hear.” When Poppy and I had first got together, I’d rescued her from an elf called Amandil, one of the richest guys in New Atlas, who’d told me all about my ancestors. And tried to get me killed into the bargain.
“The wyrms,” Incanus said as he turned the book around and passed it over the table to me, “were a race of hideous reptiles. They were poisonous, carnivorous and quite, quite evil. But in the pits below the Black Fortress, the Dark Prince used his evil powers to perfect their kind. If ‘perfect’ is the right word for the product of such black arts.”
I read the description for myself and nodded in agreement. “But no fire. No wings.”
“So not dragons.”
“Not as we might imagine, no. No doubt they were dangerous monsters though. But thankfully consigned to the far past. The last of their race was slain by Wulfang, Chieftain of the North.”
That was another name I knew from my conversations with Amandil. He claimed to have known Wulfang personally, and said I reminded him of him. I was starting to get a funny feeling in my gut about all this. I shut the book suddenly and stood up, trying to ignore the pain in my hip. “This has been real helpful, professor.”
“I do hope so. Now, are you going to tell me why you need to know all this?”
I smiled. “You understand why I might not be able to.”
“Of course. An old man’s curiosity, nothing more.”
I looked around at the dusty corner of the library. “One thing though, prof: would I be right in thinkin’ no one’s been here for a while?”
“Even the cleaners don’t see much point maintaining this little niche,” he said, sounding kinda wistful, “no one cares about history any more. It’s all new inventions: cars and wirelesses and underground trains.”
“Modern life is crazy,” I said vaguely, “is there anywhere else where someone might find this kinda stuff out?”
“Only in the original texts, so far as I know.”
“So that means dwarves or elves, I guess,” I said, mostly to myself.
“I suppose.” Apparently Incanus’s ears were pretty sharp.
“Thanks again, sir,” I told him, “but I got to be leavin’ now.”
He smiled. “Glad to be of some use. You get so few opportunities at my age, you know…”
I didn’t know quite what to say to that, so I just returned his smile and made my way out. I had a lot to think about now, but none of it answered the questions I had. What I’d found out was that no one knew much about dragons, ’cause there just wasn’t much to know. But if someone was just using the idea of dragons to scare dwarves, they wouldn’t necessarily need to refer to the real facts at all. They’d just need to play up to the stereotype, whatever that might be. And since I was dealing with dwarvish fears here, I’d need to speak to a dwarf and see what he had to say about it all. The only dwarf I could think of who’d be honest about this sort of stuff would be Ironsmith. So that’s who I went looking for.
Ironsmith was at work, but he kindly took an early coffee break so he could speak to me. He mostly worked out of an old warehouse near the docks, where his company had set up offices at the entrance to the tunnels where they were excavating the earth for the new networks. There wasn’t any sign they’d stopped digging ’cause of yesterday’s disaster. Dwarves were swarming all over the place, their muddy work crews marching out of doorways, picks and spades over their shoulders, or clambering out of manholes. There were a few orcs about the place too, mostly doing the heavy lifting, but a couple were dressed in a way that made it look like they did more than just the manual labour, which was good to see. Ironsmith beckoned me through into his office, which was really just a set of four makeshift walls set up on the warehouse floor with a desk and a couple chairs inside. There was a picture of his family standing on the desk. I’d met them briefly. Ironsmith looked a lot like his dad.
“How’s everyone holdin’ up?” I asked as I sat down and Ironsmith passed me a mug of thick dwarf coffee.
“Fine,” he shrugged, “accidents happen.”
“Not like that they ain’t. That’s why you hired me to investigate it.”
Ironsmith sat down opposite with a sigh. “As far as most of the dwarves out there are concerned, it was just a normal cave in.”
“You ain’t worried about gossip?”
“Dwarves don’t gossip.”
“Everyone gossips, Harl.”
He shook his head. “Lodge business. They ain’t gonna pry.”
“One day you’re gonna have to explain to me how all this lodge stuff works.”
“No, Ragar, I most definitely am not gonna have to explain that to you. That’s kinda the point. Anyway, it don’t matter. Business as usual. I assume you wanna check out the crime scene though.”
I hadn’t even thought about it actually – I didn’t much wanna go underground right now – but I realised I should take a look. Some private dick I was, eh? “Yeah, I’ll head down in a minute. First, I need to talk about somethin’ else.”
Ironsmith looked wary. He knew what I was gonna ask. “Ragnar, don’t put no stock in…”
“You said he wasn’t the kinda dwarf to take up fancies, Harl. An’ I’ve done some diggin’ of my own.”
“Yeah. I know what dragonfire is, how scared it makes dwarves.”
“Dwarves don’t get…”
“Save it, Harl. Everyone gossips, everyone gets scared. That’s one thing humans an’ dwarves got in common, all right? Even trolls piss their pants once in a while. You got this racial fear of…of…’drakbaraz’ in you, ’cause of what happened to Dwarrowdelf, right?”
“That damn Balthazar,” Ironsmith said.
“Yeah. I never even knew a human learned to read dwarf runes.”
“He stole the knowledge! One of the dwarves who fled east was desperate, wandering for weeks in the wastes. Balthazar found him, but wouldn’t give him water an’ shelter until he told him everythin’ he knew. He used blackmail to take knowledge that never should’ve been his.”
“I can tell you’re still kinda sore over this…”
“When a dwarf gets sore, he stays sore,” Ironsmith said darkly.
“Well, whatever happened, I read some of your histories. I know about dragonfire, or as much as there is to know.”
“Then you know it’s nothin’. Just old stories.”
“An’ not even a mention of a dragon, not really.”
“Exactly. So now you understand why there’s nothin’ in what the Hammercleft boy was sayin’. He got burnt up down there, an’ it just went to his head. Now are you findin’ out who did it, or just chasin’ imaginary beasts?”
“But why would he say dragonfire specifically?” I asked, pressing Ironsmith now. “Why not just fire?”
“He was half dead!”
“I think someone’s tryin’ to drive you out of business.”
“Someone’s always tryin’ to drive me out of business! That’s what business is!”
I held up my hands. “Okay, okay. Just…go with me on this, okay, pal? ‘Cause I think someone knows somethin’ about dwarf history an’ they’re usin’ it against you. It wouldn’t be the first time a thing like this has happened ’round here – remember how we met? With Amandil settin’ me up to fight Orca Khan like we was still in the North? Remember valley thinkin’? I figure this is somethin’ similar. Dwarrowdelf thinkin’, maybe. Someone’s tryin’ to make you scared to go down into your own tunnels.”
“Well it ain’t worked.”
“Not yet. But what if it happens again?”
Ironsmith slumped down in his chair. I didn’t realise he’d gotten up when he was shouting – that’s dwarves for you. “Word’ll get out,” he admitted, “lodge business or not. That word…”
“It’s somethin’ old, ain’t it? Somethin’ you thought you’d all forgot?”
“We never forget. We write in stone. We think in stone. An’ dragonfire…”
“Consumes stone,” I finished off.
He nodded bleakly but didn’t say anything, just fingered his beard, like he always did when he was nervous.
“Let me go down there now, take a look.”
“I’ll have to take you,” Ironsmith said, standing up again, “we closed it off, ’cause we told the workers it was a cave in.”
“What’s there really?” I asked as we walked out the little makeshift office.
“You ain’t wanna know.”
Last time I was deep underground, I’d ended up knocked unconscious by a gang of orcs. I didn’t think there was much chance of that happening this time, but I still didn’t feel great about going down into the dark. Ironsmith had one of them dwarf torches with him – miraculous little inventions that cast a bright, clear light that never wavered. It was just me and him, and all the workers got out of his way and tipped their caps respectfully as he passed. They eyeballed me too, stooping in the dwarf-sized tunnels. I figured they probably knew who I was, but this wasn’t a human type of place, and they must’ve wondered what we were up to. There’d be gossip, whatever Ironsmith said. I lost track of where we were going, we took so many twists and turns. After a while we came to a tunnel that was closed off by yellow warning tape, marked with dwarf runes. Ironsmith pulled it out the way. “Would you ever teach me any dwarvish?” I asked.
“I ain’t supposed to,” he replied brusquely.
“You didn’t mind givin’ Orca Khan a little tuition, as I recall.”
“That was different.”
“I thought we were all gonna die. It didn’t really seem to matter at the time.”
I laughed at that, but the sound came out muffled and hollow in the dark tunnel and I let it die. We went on into the inky blackness ahead, until we came to a wider cavern, and I could finally stand up straight. There was the sound of dripping water coming from all around us. Ironsmith scanned his torch around, mostly for my benefit I figured, letting me see where we were. It was a big space, with damp walls and a high ceiling studded with stalagmites that reminded me uncomfortably of my nightmare that morning. I could hear the faint sound of water and I asked Ironsmith about it.
“The river,” he explained, “there’s a million gallons of cold runnin’ water on the other side of that wall.”
“Dangerous place to be excavatin’.”
“Just an access tunnel. We weren’t buildin’ here. We’d have filled it up afterwards. But come on.” He led me a little further in, until we came to another tunnel that led out of the cavern. He shone the torch down it. It looked awful small. “Not too far,” he said, not sounding too reassuring. We clambered through and down. The walls were braced with wooden poles, but they were only rammed into the mud. Everything was wet and slippery down here, and it smelled foul. Mushrooms were growing in the nooks and crannies. Ironsmith held up a hand to stop me. “This is as far as we go.”
There was more tunnel ahead. “They got further than this,” I said.
“They fled here though. Look.” He shone the torch ahead. On the floor, half sunk into the mud, were what was left of a dwarf work crew. Charred bones, nothing more.
I swallowed. “They died quick, I hope.”
“They found Hammercleft in the other cavern, exactly as you saw him.”
“In the dark?”
He nodded. “They lost their torches when they ran.”
I tried to imagine it. Half burnt to death, blind in the dark, alone with only the sound of the rushing water in the distance, and dragonfire seared into your mind. I shuddered. “Business as usual, huh?”
“Dwarves are tough.”
“Not tough enough to fight this alone though.” I nodded down the tunnel. “Has anyone gone any further?”
“A little way. We stopped them though.”
“Waitin’ for me, right?”
He looked at me. “If you ain’t want the job…”
I didn’t. I didn’t need it. I had enough money. But Ironsmith was my friend. And no one else deserved an end like Gron Hammercleft’s. It wasn’t about what I wanted. Sometimes, there just ain’t a choice. “Take me down,” I said.
The further we went, the narrower the tunnel got, and the slipper and muddier it got too. Soon I was nearly crawling on my hands and knees, and even Ironsmith had to stoop right down. As he shone his torch around, I saw the marks where the walls had been carved out by tools and even little hands. There were no timbers to brace the roof. “They delved too greedily an’ too deep…” I murmured.
“What?” Ironsmith asked, turning sharply to look at me. Even in the dark, I could see his shining eyes.
“Nothin’, just somethin’ I heard today…”
“Well try an’ unhear it, all right?”
I looked around at the damp tunnel we were in. “This was dug this out pretty quick, was all I meant.”
Ironsmith looked too. “Yeah,” he agreed, “but not by dwarves.”
It did look different from the other tunnels we’d been in. More twisty, less well planned. “If not by you guys, then who?” Ironsmith didn’t say anything. We kept going, further down, and the passage was now almost totally round, with no real floor or walls, just a long burrow through the damp earth. It smelled bad too. I started to realise something. “If this ain’t a dwarf tunnel, it must join up with your network back there, where the…accident…happened.”
“But it keeps going down. They didn’t break into your tunnels an’ keep diggin’ down, did they? They came from below.”
Ironsmith grunted something. I could tell he was getting real uneasy. “Can you smell that?” he whispered.
“Yeah,” I said, “smells like…I’unno…rotten eggs or somethin’…”
“It’s sulphur. Brimstone.”
I felt my blood run cold, and then realised for the first time how hot it was. “Maybe we should head back…” I said. My throat had gone real dry.
Ironsmith turned around, which wasn’t easy in the narrow tunnel. His face was streaked with sweat. He was built heavier than me, and was wearing thick dwarf overalls, not to mention all the hair and beard. It was hot and airless. Dwarves don’t get claustrophobic, but I could see he wanted out as bad as me. “A little further,” he said though. He wanted answers bad, I realised.
We crawled on. The tunnel didn’t get any smaller now, but it did get hotter, and the smell of sulphur got worse. Then we heard it. I think Ironsmith noticed it first, but I guess it wasn’t ’till I froze up that he realised it was real and not his imagination. “You hear that?” he hissed at me.
“I think so. Is that the river again?”
“No. It’s somethin’ else.”
I licked my lips. They were dry and I felt like I was burning up now. My arm hurt again too. I’d kinda forgotten it, but now it felt like it was on fire. There was no room for me to roll up my sleeve and check it. “We ain’t know what we’re gettin’ into here, Harl…”
“A little further.” He went on ahead, and he had the light, so I didn’t have much choice now but to follow him. We crawled a little way, and now I could hear the sound properly. Definitely not water. It was something artificial. Something metallic. A rhythmic beating, distant, but loud I thought. Not just one noise too, but lots of them, all going at slightly different beats. It was like the beating of hundreds of hammers on hundreds of anvils. Striking, striking, again and again, somewhere in the deep.
“Harl, we got to turn back.” I grabbed his sleeve.
“There’s someone down there,” he said.
“I know. That why we gotta turn back, all right?”
For a second, he seemed like he was about to pull free and keep going, but I kept my grip strong, and he sat back instead, breathing hard. “That’s a workshop or a smithy,” he said, “or I ain’t a dwarf.”
“Who would have somethin’ like that this far underground?” I looked up at the low ceiling too, and felt a sudden lurch in my gut when I thought about the millions of tons of earth that must be above our heads. “How far down are we anyway?”
“Far. Deeper than the deepest tunnels we’ve made.”
“You can tell that?”
“I’m a dwarf.”
“So who can dig deeper than you?”
“No one. They came from down there. From below.” He shone his torch down the tunnel. Ahead was only darkness, and the sound of the hammers or whatever they were striking over and over.
“Anythin’ like that in your histories?”
“You tell me,” Ironsmith murmured. “Let’s go. Here, you take the torch. Lead us back.” He handed it to me and I took it gratefully. I started back up the tunnel after managing to turn myself around. I went a few feet, then realised Ironsmith wasn’t following me. I turned and saw he was still sitting there, looking down into the endless black. I was about to yell at him to stop playing the fool, but he seemed to come to his senses by himself and turned around to crawl up after me. He looked over his shoulder just once, then followed me. We didn’t speak again while we were underground.
I wanted to go right home and take a shower, but I knew I ought to go back to my office and make sure no one had called. Ironsmith let me clean myself up as best I could in the dwarf bathrooms, but I wasn’t about to shower there – for one thing, the nozzle was set about three feet too low for me. So I tramped back through the streets, covered in mud and filth. I’d need to get another damn coat, this one was such a mess. It was hard to believe it was still winter up there, that there was still snow on the ground. It had been so hot in that tunnel, and the stink of brimstone wouldn’t leave me. I’d never seen a dwarf as shaken up as Ironsmith was back there. The idea of something being down there, something coming up from beneath our feet, seemed to terrify him, as bad or worse as the mention of dragonfire last night. Something did tickle at the back of my mind too, something I thought I’d heard or read that morning. Dragons had come from below, I knew that, but what else? And unless dragons had taken to doing smithcraft down there…
I climbed the stairs slowly and found Willow waiting for me in the outside office. She looked kinda agitated; her leaves were all standing on end. “Everythin’ okay?”
She looked me up and down. “Why you all covered in crap, boss?”
“It ain’t crap. Just mud an’…it don’t matter. What’s up?”
“You got a visitor.”
“Your friend? The gnome?”
“Poppy?” Girl trouble was the last thing I needed right now, but I was actually glad to see her. After all that trouble underground, a little bit of normal life would be nice. I walked into my office and Poppy stood right up. Her face looked pale and worried. “What’s wrong, toots?” I asked straight away.
“It’s Robbie. My brother.”
“What about him?”
“He’s gone missin’.”
I wanted to say I was busy, that I had another case, a more important case. I wanted to tell her he was just a kid, and sometimes kids go missing for a day or two, and they mostly turn up okay. He was probably just drunk or high some place. All this went through my head, but as I threw myself down into my chair, I pushed it all away without even thinking about it. Sometimes, you don’t even have to make the choice. There’s a right path to take, and that’s all there is to it. “Okay, Poppy. Tell me everythin’.”