Poppy and me took a cab across town back to her folks’ place. Outside, the snow was starting to melt on the streets, leaving behind nothing but brown dirty slush, but I could hear the forecast on the radio in the taxi and it said more was on the way. Poppy filled me in as we went along. The first thing I said to her was that I’d only seen Robbie at her house yesterday – how long could he have been missing for?
“He went off this morning,” she explained, “an’ you’re right – it ain’t exactly enough to file a missin’ person report.”
“Right,” I agreed.
“But he was goin’ for a job interview.”
She nodded. She was looking out the window, scanning the sidewalk, as if she expected to see him passing by just like that. “At the dwarf works up near the Dale.”
I scratched at the stubble on my chin. I hadn’t had chance to shave today, or rather I was in the habit of not shaving too often anyway, and had kind of become reformed since things had started with Poppy, but with everything going on… “I ain’t know that place.”
“One of the smaller companies, run by the Blacklocks. They lay gas cables, stuff like that. They always need workers.”
“An’ Robbie thought that’d suit him?”
She gave me a cold look. “No, but mom did. Even if he could just get some day labour, it’d be somethin’. But dwarves don’t hire gnomes very often…”
“No. I was wonderin’ about that, actually. How come you guys never work together? Dwarves an’ gnomes, I mean. Seems like it’d be a good fit – you both like it underground.”
Poppy shrugged. “They ain’t like us very much.”
“Who knows?” It was obvious she wanted to drop the subject, so I shut up about that. I did file it away in my head for later though. It seemed to tickle something at the back of my mind, but so much seemed to have happened that I couldn’t connect all the circuits up and make sense of it yet. It’d come though. That’s what being a private investigator was all about.
“So, Robbie went to his interview,” I summarised, “an’ you ain’t heard from him since?”
“He often go missin’?”
“He usually just hangs ’round the neighbourhood.”
“An’ you think he’d have called or somethin’?”
She sighed loudly. “The heck should I know, Ragnar? Look, I think this is as stupid as you do. My damn folks wouldn’t even let me just call you. They wanted me to come down personally, appeal to you. They thought it’d make a difference.”
I frowned. “A difference to what?”
She looked at me again. “You might not know this, bein’ human an’ all, but the people in charge of this city ain’t always listen to people like me an’ my folks. We kinda expect to be ignored.”
“But why would I…”
“Ragnar, there’s cabs in New Atlas won’t stop for me. My dad, he’s twice as smart as me – where d’you think I get all my knowhow about alchemy from? – but he can’t get no job ‘cept bussin’ tables in a human restaurant. You ain’t know, ’cause you ain’t see it, but non-humans get a pretty raw deal ’round here sometimes.”
“An’ Robbie, him an’ his generation get it worst of all. I got a skill: I’m lucky. He ain’t got nothin’. The high school we went to, it just treated us like a problem it needed to get rid of as soon as it could. They kicked him out with nothin’, an’ all he can do is loiter on street corners an’ fall in with a bad crowd. An’ he sees all the gnome girls his own age go off with humans…”
She wasn’t looking at me as she said that. I took a glance up at the driver. He was very carefully not watching us in the rear-view mirror. I shifted a little in my seat, drew closer to Poppy. “Is there somethin’ you ain’t tellin’ me here?”
She turned to me. “It ain’t as easy as you think it is, Ragnar,” she said softly, “for gnomes, for all of us. My parents want you to help find Robbie ’cause they got you pegged as some kinda hero. They’re lookin’ for you to make everythin’ right. A lot of people are.”
“I ain’t a hero,” I said limply.
“I know,” she smiled, which wasn’t exactly what I was hoping she’d say. “You’re just tryin’ to help, which is more’n most people in New Atlas are. But you might be makin’ things worse, in some ways.”
“Like Orca Khan was makin’ things worse for the orcs?”
“Exactly. Sometimes, you give people a symbol, all they do is latch onto it an’ make out like all their problems are gonna go away by magic. But it don’t work that way.”
“No,” I agreed glumly.
“But…they want you to find Robbie.”
“I think your pals down at the station might be better placed to help, you know?”
“Oh, I agree. But it’s been less than twenty-four hours, like I said. Can’t file no report…an’ I don’t think it’d make much difference if I did…”
I was kinda confused. “So, you want me to find your brother or not?”
She laughed a little. It was normally one of my favourite sounds, but today it sounded hollow. “I think he’s probably just got into a bit of trouble with some gang or somethin’. He’s a kid. Kids do dumb stuff.”
“I was thinkin’ the same.”
“But that ain’t good enough for my folks. So you gotta go to my house, give ’em some nonsense about doin’ your damndest to find him, then he’ll show up in a couple of days an’ it won’t even matter.”
“Right, right.” I was rubbing my jaw again. “Thing is…if I say I’m gonna do somethin’, an’ then I don’t…”
“Well, that’d be lyin’ to your parents, wouldn’t it?”
“I…I ain’t sure I wanna do that…not just yet anyhow. They only met me yesterday.”
“Look, Ragnar,” Poppy said, “I ain’t wanna sound like Ironsmith or anythin’ but…this is gnome business, okay? You shouldn’t ought to get involved. Just do enough to make ’em think you give a shit.”
“I do give a shit!”
“Even though you know it probably ain’t nothin’?”
“Damn.” She shook her head and looked out the window again. “No wonder everyone thinks you’re a hero.”
We got to Jonastown and I paid the cab driver for the ride, plus a little extra to keep his mouth shut about anything he might have overheard on the way. We walked down Poppy’s street, careful on the ice that was starting to form. The sun had set now, and it was cold as Hel. If there wasn’t more snow, the sidewalks would be lethal by morning. A few gnomes were still out, hauling garbage to the kerb, or just talking over fences. They watched us walk up the road and I got a little self-conscious. Someone called out my name and I just smiled and nodded in the direction it came from. Poppy’s words were still bouncing around my head. Who did I think I was anyway, acting the hero? When we got to the Redcap’s gate, a woman across the street with a kid in her arms – looked no more than two or three to me, but could’ve been any age, since gnomes age different from humans – shouted across to me. “You get ’em, dragonslayer!” she said.
I looked at Poppy. “The heck does that mean?”
She was on her doorstep, just putting her key in the lock. “What?”
“What she just called me. Dragonslayer.”
“Just an old gnome thing,” she said with another shrug, “forget it.”
I wished I could. Poppy’s dad had said something similar to me yesterday. It seemed like an odd coincidence, what with the other stuff that was going on. We went inside, and this time I was shown through to the living room. It wasn’t much bigger than the kitchen, but Mrs Redcap was there on a battered old sofa, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. She stood up when I came in. “Oh, Mr Ulrichson,” she said, “thank Garl you’ve come!” It was all I could do to stop her throwing her arms around me. Poppy managed to divert her and they let me sit down.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened, ma’am?” I asked as I took out my notebook from my breast pocket.
Poppy sat her mom down in an armchair and perched on the arm. I noticed for the first time that the furniture was designed for humans, not gnomes. “Well, he went off this mornin’,” Mrs Redcap explained, “for a job, you know.”
I did know, since Poppy had told me everything already. But I scribbled some meaningless lines on my notebook, to show willing. “An’ what kinda job was it…?”
“At the dwarf works. Just day labour really. We hoped it’d lead to somethin’ more, maybe. He’s good with his hands, like his dad an’ like Poppy. He’s a good boy, you know.”
“I know, ma’am. An’ which dwarf works are we talkin’ about here?”
“Blacklocks’, just off 66th Street, near the Dale.”
“Right. An’ he left this morning, did you say?”
“An’ you ain’t heard nothin’ from him since?”
“No.” She burst into tears again, and Poppy handed her a tissue from the box, sharing a look with me as she did it.
“An…was Robbie involved with any sort of…what I mean is, did he have any friends who he might, maybe…well…be spendin’ time with, if you catch my drift, ma’am?”
She blew her nose, loudly. “Friends?”
“Like…a group of friends? Who he spent time with?”
“He had some friends here in the neighbourhood, if that’s what you mean.”
“Kinda, ma’am. But more like, a particular group of friends, who maybe…wore some of the same colours? An’ hung out in a certain place?”
She stared at me blankly. “He means a gang, mom,” Poppy said, “was Robbie in a gang?”
Mrs Redcap burst into tears again, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Poppy beckoned me back through the hall and into the tiny kitchen. “You won’t get no more out of her,” she told me. “You want some coffee?”
“I’m fine. So was Robbie in a gang?”
“The heck should I know? I’m outta the house most of the day. An’ she won’t know either. The person you wanna speak to is my dad.”
“Where is he?”
“Downstairs,” she said with a jerk of her head.
“There’s a downstairs?”
“Yeah, the basement. This is a gnome house. We ain’t live in places without basements.”
She showed me down a narrow flight of stairs through a door in the hall I had to duck down to get through. The walls brushed my shoulders and it was dark. Poppy stayed upstairs so I went alone, and that’s where I found her dad, at a workbench against one wall, lit by a small lamp. He looked up and nodded curtly as he saw me. There wasn’t much room down there – I don’t know if the basement came with the house of if they’d somehow dug it out themselves, but it was smaller than either their kitchen or their living room, and what space there was was taken up by things I didn’t understand. Glass beakers and round glass bulbs and strange jars full of odd things. Alchemy, was what it was. Mr Redcap was sitting there, working at a shallow dish of some sort with a purple fluid in it. I thought about asking him what he was doing, but I figured I wouldn’t understand if he told me, so I just pulled up the other stool and sat next to him. Neither of us said anything for a little while.
“You here about my boy, Ulrichson?” he asked me eventually.
“Poppy said you might know somethin’ about the kinda people he’s involved with.”
“You mean like a gang?”
“Maybe. He’s a young man, for a gnome. Young men get in trouble sometimes.”
He nodded at that. “He got some friends. Not what I’d call a ‘gang’ really, but they’re an odd bunch.”
“Angry. Restless. Fiery.”
“Lot of kids are that way. I know I was.”
He’d turned his attention back to his bench, but now he eyeballed me over his work. “Gnome boys, they ain’t usually like that. But maybe it’s this city. You from here?”
“Born an’ bred.”
“Then you know. Back home, in Mycopolis, things are quieter. We got a sayin’ there: ‘don’t cook your own toadstool’. Know what that means?”
I smiled slightly. “I can guess. We got a similar sayin’, just it’s a little more…earthy.”
“Yeah, I think I heard it. Seems to me that even though you got the same kinda sayin’ though, people ’round here don’t pay much attention to it.”
“Well, one man’s doorstep is another man’s sidewalk. This city does strange things to people.”
“I wonder if we were supposed to live like this, all of us. Together. All jammed in, mixed up, livin’ in each other’s laps.”
I leaned in. “This gang your boy was part of, or whatever it was, you think he might be with them?”
“Do they hang out anyplace in particular? They got a name?”
“Nothin’ like that. But you can spot ’em.”
He snorted and rubbed a finger along the edge of one of his large ears. “You see that, on my boy?”
I frowned. “His ear? Oh, wait, you mean that rash he had?”
He nodded. “That’s it. A red rash, like scales. They all got it. Some worse than others.”
“What is it?”
“How the heck should I know? Something they picked up from some girl maybe? They spend time with a lotta…unsuitable…girls.”
“Well, boys will be boys…”
“Maybe.” He seemed to be concentrating on his work now and he didn’t look up when he spoke. “His mom says he’s a good boy. I think he was, once. I dunno now though. This job, it could’ve changed everythin’, but I don’t think he even went. He was just tryin’ to shut us up.”
“At least that means he cares enough about you to lie,” I said.
Mr Redcap looked up. There was an odd look in his eyes. “Poppy says you’re a good man.”
“I dunno about that. I’m just tryin’ to do the right thing. Ain’t everyone?”
“No, I don’t think they are, Ulrichson. You like her?”
I thought about what to say. I decided on the truth. “Yeah, I do. I like her a whole bunch, sir. But I dunno what kinda future we can have, a gnome an’ a human. Like you say, this city got us all mixed up. People maybe ain’t ready for this yet.”
“Maybe not. But she deserves some happiness. You find her brother, maybe it’ll help some. I know what she’s told you: that you just gotta make us happy, pretend you’re lookin’ an’ we should just wait for him to come home. What was it you said about Robbie? He cares enough to lie? It’s a sweet thought, an’ it might be good enough for a boy tryin’ to do good, but a man like you? I think you’re gonna do the right thing no matter what. Am I wrong?”
I stood up. “No, sir. I’ll look for your son.”
He reached across and shook my hand. “You call me Billie, all right?”
I smiled. “We’ll see.” I started to leave, but then I stopped. I didn’t want to press my luck too far, but I thought Mr Redcap could answer a few questions that had been on my mind recently. “If you ain’t mind me askin’…Robbie was goin’ for a job workin’ for dwarves, is that right?”
“That’s about the size of it, yeah.”
“That don’t happen much. Gnomes and dwarves, I mean.”
“No, it don’t,” he admitted, “but there ain’t much work around. His mother saw this advertised, made him go along to apply.”
“Right. But why’s it so rare? What’s the problem with dwarves and gnomes? You both prefer it underground, you both like machines an’ so on, you’re both smart an’ work hard. How come you keep to yourselves? It seems to me you’d be a natural fit. What am I missin’?”
Redcap held my gaze for a long moment. He looked like he was weighing something up. “You’d need to talk to them,” he said.
“To the dwarves?”
“They never tell nobody nothin’,” I said, “you know how they are.”
“I don’t really, no. Like you say, we keep away from each other.”
“Well I don’t got a dwarf here, but I got a gnome.” I remembered then my conversation with the old professor, Icanus, in the library. That little historical note I’d spotted and filed away in my brain like a good detective. “There was a war, wasn’t there?” I hazarded. “A long time ago.”
“So the dwarves say,” Redcap replied, turning back to his work, “they got longer memories than us. An’ they hold grudges. Ask anyone about gnomes an’ they say we’re a ‘merry folk’. We don’t start wars. We keep to our own lands. We don’t go lookin’ for trouble.”
“But that ain’t what the dwarves say, is it?”
“They’d be the exception, yeah.”
Another memory shuffled its way to the front of the queue then. “An’ kobolds,” I said, “they might have an issue with that too.”
He looked at me sharply and I felt I’d crossed a line. “Ain’t no kobolds no more,” he said softly, “not for thousands of years.”
“Ask Poppy about that. We got attacked by a gang of ’em last night.”
“Can’t have been,” he said dismissively, “kobolds are dead an’ gone.”
I rolled my sleeve up. “Well one of them ‘dead an’ gone’ little bastards bit me…”
He glanced over, then his eyes went wide as he saw my arm. I had to admit, it looked pretty nasty now – puckered and red around the bite marks, and starting to scab over real nasty all ’round. It itched something fierce as well. His little stool was on wheels and he scooted right over to me, grabbing my arm and then scrabbling for a headset that he slipped on over his balding pate. A little magnifying glass flicked down over one eye so he could peer closely at my arm. “This happened last night?” he asked.
“Yeah.” It seemed like a lot longer ago now, but it was last night.
“This is bad,” he murmured.
“I know. I gotta go see a doctor. I know a good dwarf surgeon my pal Ironsmith introduced me to. He’ll patch it up in no time.”
“Don’t show this to no dwarf,” Redcap said.
“What? Why not?”
“‘Cause he’ll see it for what it is, just like I have.”
I looked down. Redcap was reaching across his bench for something now, rummaging around in the darkness. He had a set of little shelves there, stacked with jars full of Crom knew what. “It’s just an infection,” I said uncertainly, “little sonofabitch probably just had somethin’ nasty stuck in his teeth. Eatin’ from the garbage maybe. They looked in a pretty rough way.”
He finally found the jar he was looking for. It was dusty and the lid was all gummed up. He opened it with a grunt and I saw it was full of a gummy, yellowish substance. It smelled vile. “I thought this could only happen to gnomes,” he was muttering as he dabbed a bit of the stuff on his fingers.
“Hey, are you gonna tell me what’s goin’ on?”
“Just shut up a minute, would ya, ya big lug?” he snapped. Then he rubbed the yellow gunk on my arm and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I snatched my arm away.
“The heck are you tryin’ to do to me, mister?!” It had hurt worse than anything. Like he’d rubbed hot fire on me.
“Yeah, well it’s better’n what’ll happen to you otherwise.”
“Nothin’. Come back. I gotta put some more on.”
“Hey,” he said, pointing a finger at me, “you wanna date my daughter or not?”
“What’s that gotta do with anythin’?”
“She ain’t gonna think much of you if you’re all covered in scales now, is she?”
I stared at him. “Covered in scales? What the heck are you talkin’ about?”
“Give me your damn arm.” I did as he said. The pain wasn’t so bad now I knew what to expect. He rubbed the foul smelling salve all over my forearm, making sure to really get it on thickly over the actual bites. I winced the whole time. “There,” he said when he was done and let go of my arm. “When that happens to a gnome, it don’t advance nearly so fast. I guess humans just ain’t tough enough for it.”
“It don’t matter. You’ll be fine now. Just stay away from kobolds an’ dragons.” He laughed as he said it.
“Sorry, just an expression…”
“No,” I shook my head, “that’s the second time a gnome’s mentioned dragons to me today, an’ I wish those were the only times I’d heard it. Kobolds an’ dragons…what’s the connection?”
“There ain’t no connection. ‘Cause neither of ’em exist.”
I held up my arm. “So what was this? An’ how do you know about it?”
“Come on, Billie. You got all the pieces of this damn puzzle an’ I ain’t. So help me out here.”
“No no no,” he stood up and waved his hands around, “it’s…”
“Gnome business? Don’t start that stuff with me.” I pointed at him and just as I did, I caught sight of my arm in the dim light of his workbench lamp. The salve had soothed the itching and made it less red, but I caught the sheen of gold-red scales as my arm moved and reflected the light. A new thought pushed its way through the crowd of them now assembling in my brain. “Hold up a second,” I said, “these are scales. Ain’t that what your boy got on his ear?”
Redcap seemed to go pale. I figured he’d made the connection too, just as I said it. “It ain’t that,” he said, very quietly.
“I think it is. I think this is all connected. A kobold bites me, an’ I start growin’ red scales. Your Robbie an’ his friends got red scales. Kobolds hate gnomes. You tellin’ me that’s all a coincidence? What’s your boy mixed up in?”
“How should I know? Ask the dwarves!”
“Dwarves…” Gnomes and kobolds, dwarves and dragons. “Let’s go back to dragons,” I said, “what do they got to do with kobolds?”
Redcap’s eyes were very wide and I realised I was standing right over him now. My finger was still levelled at his chest. If I wanted to beat the knowledge out of him, I knew I could. I’d never have done that, of course, but he didn’t know that. He slumped down on his wheeled stool. All the fight seemed to go out of him and his shoulders dropped. “Dragonfolk, they called them,” he said in a very small voice, “tainted by their fire. It’s all old legends…nothin’ you’d hang a cap on, as we say back home. Where there were dragons, there were kobolds. We don’t know where they came from. But they spread their taint, the taint of dragons, wherever they went. Infecting us.”
“An’ now me…”
“You’ll be right as springwater now,” he said, “just don’t get bit again. Or meet a dragon.”
And lookin’ back, I guess that was when I knew where all this was headed.
I didn’t know a damn thing about the Blacklocks. It was the next morning. I’d told the Redcaps I’d start investigating what happened to Robbie the next day. They seemed to understand – it was late when I left. I’d had a lot to think about and, when I finally got my head down back at my apartment, the dragon dreams had come back. My arm going up in flames again, red-gold scales spreading over my whole body and now dancing around me a pack of cackling little kobolds. That was new, but it didn’t feel like it. I woke up feeling way out of my depth. These weren’t my legends. A few months back, with all the business with Orca Khan and Amandil, the elf, it had all been in my bones – written in my blood, you might say in fact – speaking to a deep part of me I’d forgot existed. But now I was mixed up in someone else’s stories. Dwarves and gnomes. They all knew something, but they weren’t talking. Maybe they were as scared as I was. I’d got no more out of Billie though. From what I could piece together, kobolds were a race of scaly humanoids who seemed to spring up whenever dragons were around. He wouldn’t be drawn on whether gnomes had any legends about dragons – or at least dragonfire – like the dwarves, but I guess they must have their own tales. Which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. I’d been working on the assumption that this was all some nutjob scaring dwarves. But now? Now I didn’t know what to think. So I was back, following another lead, not very hopeful of getting answers. The Blacklocks had a couple of warehouses on 66th Street. The gates were open and I walked right in. There were dwarves milling around. They all had black hair, and I only really knew they were dwarves ’cause of how short they were. They mostly had beards, but they were generally short, like anyone else’s might be, not long like on every other dwarf I’d seen. I asked one worker loitering around where the boss was, and he gave me a surly look and jerked his thumb at a shed between two warehouses. I knocked on the door and someone told me to come in. Inside, I was surprised to see a dwarf woman sitting at a desk. She looked shocked to see me too. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“Uh…are you Mrs Blacklock?”
She narrowed her eyes. “No, I’m Ms Coppersmelt.”
“Oh. I was lookin’ for the boss…”
“You found her.” She gestured to the chair opposite. “Sit down. You want to do some business, is that it?”
“I…so who’re the Blacklocks?”
“Don’t you know nothin’ about dwarves?”
“I thought I did…”
“Blacklock’s the name of the clan. We’re Blacklock dwarves here. But I’m Ms Coppersmelt. Mint Coppersmelt.”
“Mint? That don’t sound like a dwarf name.”
“Not mint like the plant. Mint like a coin. You gonna sit down, Northman?”
I finally did as she asked. “Sorry. I’ve had a rough couple days. Someone told me all dwarves are built the same, but you seem different. I never met a dwarf woman before.”
“That wasn’t a Longbeard that said that to you by any chance, was it?”
“It was Bran Stonecutter. You know him?”
“Only by reputation,” she said darkly, “but he’s a Longbeard, yeah.”
“An’ you…ain’t a Longbeard?” She certainly didn’t have a beard, but then she was a woman.
“No, I’m a Blacklock, like I said.”
“So the dwarves I know are Longbeards? An’ they’re a different clan from you?”
“You catch on fast. Longbeards of Thorek’s Line. They act like they’re the only damn dwarves in the world.”
“So I’m startin’ to understand…”
She leaned forward and folded her hands in front of her. “Now we got all that outta the way, you wanna tell me why you’re in my office, wastin’ my time askin’ dumb questions about dwarf culture?”
“Sorry. I’m lookin’ for a gnome.”
“I knew humans were stupid, but don’t tell me I gotta explain the difference between dwarves an’ gnomes now.”
“No, I’m lookin’ for a specific gnome, who was supposed to be here yesterday, lookin’ for work.”
“We did hire some new people yesterday,” Coppersmelt said, “but no gnomes.”
“One didn’t even come here for an interview or nothin’?”
“Sorry. I’d remember that.”
“Right, well thanks for your time.” I stood up and made to leave.
“Are you Ragnar Ulrichson?” she asked me suddenly.
“That’s right, ma’am.”
“Thought so. Blacklocks ain’t have much to do with Northmen, but I figured there couldn’t be too many of your kind walkin’ around, askin’ questions. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep clear of gnomes though.”
I looked down at her. “What makes you say that?”
“Oh you know,” she shrugged, “once traitors, always traitors. That’s what we say back East anyway.”
I didn’t get any further because, at that moment, the ground started to shake. Coppersmelt jumped off her chair and ran to the window. “What’s…” But her words were drowned out by a sound like the world ending and a blinding white light blazing through the glass. She fell backwards with a scream, shielding her eyes and I dropped down to my knees, throwing my arm up in front of me. I could hear the dwarf woman saying something, and this time I knew what it was. After a few seconds, I realised the light had faded, and I risked looking again. There were purple marks on my vision. Poor Coppersmelt was hiding behind her desk, hands pressed to her eyes.
“Are you okay?” I asked, looking over the top of the desk. “Can you see?”
“Drakbaraz!” she yelled. “Drakbaraz!”
“Dragonfire. Yeah, I know.”
She took her hands from her eyes and stared at me. She blinked a few times, but her pupils were focused on me, so I could see she hadn’t been blinded. “You speak dwarvish?”
“Just that word,” I said ruefully, “are you all right?”
“Just a bit…blurry…”
“Yeah, well sit tight. I’ll go see what happened.” I didn’t know what I’d find outside, but I figured it wouldn’t be too good. It was worse than that. Half of one of the warehouses was now a ruined shell, with charred timbers hanging limply from the walls and roof. The rest was on fire or smouldering. In the ground there was a hole, surrounded by rocks that still glowed red from the heat. Blackened bones showed me that a few dwarves had been caught in the blast, but they were the lucky ones – there were others lying close by, and their injuries were all too familiar. The very air seemed to waver in the heat, and the ice that had covered the ground had been melted away as far as thirty feet from the hole. I wanted to look down the pit, to see what was down there, but I could feel my hair crackle as I took a step closer and I got a flash of memory from the dragon dreams. My arm started to hurt again. Redcap’s yellow stuff had mostly cleared up, but he did tell me to stay away from dragons…
Back in the present, there was nothing I could do right now, except try to drag the survivors to safety. More dwarves were coming in from the other warehouses, yelling to each other in their own language, heedless of the human amongst them. “Someone call an ambulance,” I shouted to one of them. He stared at me dumbly and I said it again, and he finally did as he was told, rushing back into the warehouse he came from. I grabbed the arm of the nearest dwarf lying on the floor and pulled him back towards Coppersmelt’s office. He was heavier than he looked, and groaned when I moved him. When I thought he was out of immediate danger from whatever might come out of that hole, I risked turning him over. He was in as bad a state as Hammercleft had been, so I rolled up my coat for a pillow and put it underneath him. No sense letting the poor schmuck be uncomfortable. The other dwarves were on the scene now, and they followed my lead. Coppersmelt staggered out of the office and looked around blearily. “My warehouse!” was the first thing she said.
“Never mind your damn warehouse,” I growled, “you got folks dyin’ here.”
She looked around. “How did this happen?”
“Crom only knows,” I said. Some of the heat seemed to have gone out of the air around the hole now, and the rocks only glowed a dull red. I walked forward, drawing my revolver out of my belt as I did. I hadn’t had much cause to use it these past few months and the truth is that I don’t like to fire it if I can avoid it, but right then I felt like I needed something heavy and dangerous in my hand. As I got close to the hole, my eyes started to water. The fire from the deep must have been hot enough to turn the concrete on the floor to steam, and I guess the vapour was still in the air. Coppersmelt was standing next to me. Together, once we got as close as we dared, we peered down the hole. There wasn’t much to see – it was just a hole – but it went down deep. There wasn’t any bottom I could see, just darkness.
“Your gun ain’t gonna do any good against this,” she said to me.
“We gotta get outta here.”
“I told one of your boys to call an ambulance.”
She grabbed my arm and shook her head wildly. “No! They’ll bring the cops! I’ll go outta business when everyone hears about this!”
“Honey,” I said as I gently took her hand off my arm, “your business is gonna be the least of your problems. Somethin’ big is goin’ on here.”
“It can’t be what I thought it was…” she murmured as she stared into the hole.
“You knew it right away though.” Just like Poppy knew the kobolds, and her dad knew what the scaling on my arm was. And the dwarves down in Ironsmith’s tunnels who got a taste of this too. All these little people, all knowing their ancient secrets in their bones. I felt a stab of something I didn’t like – an anger, a resentment, at all these folks coming to the city, my city, and bringing things from their crazy legends with them to cause havoc and kill innocent people. Why couldn’t they just tell me what they knew? Why all the secrecy and innuendo? Part of me understood then why some humans wanted all the dwarves and gnomes and dryads and orcs and goblins and all the rest of them out of New Atlas. It wasn’t just that they were different: it was that they kept secrets, and they knew things, things that could help us all, things we needed to know.
Sirens brought me out of those deep, disturbing thoughts, and I looked up to see an ambulance screech to a halt by the gate of the yard. Humans in uniforms jumped out and ran towards us. We tried to point them in the right direction, to the dwarves lying around, half burned or melted, all staring at nothing and mumbling the same word in dwarvish. Oh yeah, they all knew exactly what it was all right. Coppersmelt might have resented Stonecutter lumping her clan in with his, but I saw a lot more similarities than differences right then. Coppersmelt was right about one thing though: the cops were there too. I counted three police cars out there already, and more uniformed humans dashing in to try and restore order. There was a crowd of spectators now too, all leaning in, trying to get a good look at what was going on. When the cops saw how bad it was, they took control, cordoned things off, got the gawpers back. It was out of my hands now, and I was glad, even thought I wasn’t no closer to finding out what was going on. Maybe it was time to hand it over to the proper authorities, I thought. People were dying. What right did I have to get involved in this? But then I thought about Poppy, and her mom crying on that human-sized couch, and I thought about Ironsmith and poor dead Hammercleft. These people were in a world they didn’t always understand either, one not made for them. Someone had to fight for them, didn’t they?
One cop, a big Cimmerian with red hair came over to me. He had a partner, looked like a Stonelander, who hovered behind. I was bigger than both of them, but I knew they were better armed, and just about ready to release a little tension on a Northman who was dumb enough to try his luck. “Ulrichson,” the Cimmerian greeted me, “the heck are you doin’ here?”
I followed his gaze to the hole that a couple more cops were standing close to, shining dwarf torches down into the depths, trying to figure out what might be down there. “I was just followin’ up a lead on a case. Nothin’ else.”
“Funny,” his partner said, “seems like you’re always pokin’ your nose into police business.”
“It wasn’t police business till this happened.”
“An’ what did happen, exactly?” the Cimmerian asked, taking out his notebook.
“A big explosion. Gas maybe?” What else was I supposed to tell them? After thinking those dark thoughts before about dwarves and their secrets, I started to realise why they kept them. Who’d believe tales of dragonfire anyway?
Both cops looked doubtful. “Don’t look like gas to me,” the Stonelander said.
“Yeah. An’ this ain’t the only report we’ve had about an explosion like this one,” the Cimmerian said, looking at me suspiciously. “There’s been another one across town. An’ I heard they had one at one of the other dwarf works the other day.” That surprised me, and he must have seen the look in my eyes. He got this nasty little smile on his freckled face. “Word was you were hangin’ around there too. Ironsmith’s place, it was, by the river.”
Well, I hadn’t made any secret of being there, but I also hadn’t figured there’d be another explosion right where I was either. It did look pretty suspicious. “I dunno what you want me to say, buddy,” I said, “I guess I’m just unlucky.”
“Damn right you are. You been gettin’ involved in police business too much for my likin’.”
“I ain’t broke no laws.”
“We’ll figure out whether that’s true or not down at the station. Cuff him, Beregond.”
There wasn’t much point resisting. It wasn’t the first time I’d been read my rights and shoved in the back of a cop car, but I couldn’t think of no occasion when it’d been less convenient. I wasn’t any closer to finding out what had happened to Robbie, or for that matter what was going on with this dragonfire business. But I knew with a sort of grim certainty that they were all connected. I just had to figure out how.