Dragonfire (Part IV)

The police cells were pretty full – I guess the Yueltide spirit wasn’t exactly flowing in New Atlas, or maybe it was and that was the problem, at least judging by my cellmate who I could smell the moment the cop shoved me through the door, and not just because he was a goblin. There were two cots in the cell and I sat down on the one that wasn’t occupied. They’d taken my jacket, my gun (of course), my wallet and even my shoelaces. I’d been in plenty of cells like this one before, and usually it was cold as ice, particularly at this time of year, but I was actually glad they’d taken my jacket. It felt unnaturally hot. I could just about see through the bars on the small window high on one wall and snow was starting to float down from the sky. My cellmate moved and mumbled something. He was asleep or unconscious. I bent my head down a bit to get a better look at him. A goblin, like I figured, with sallow, coppery skin and filthy clothes. Probably just some bum. He reeked of whisky anyway, as well as the usual goblin smell; a sort of oily, metallic stink that not many other kinds of people can put up with. We all got our burdens to carry. It was the smell of the booze that I found hardest though. I hadn’t exactly been counting how long it was since I’d had a drink, but I knew it had to be getting onto three months or so now. As the drunk little guy stirred I got another waft of it, and I had to get a good grip of the edge of my cot to stop my hand shaking. Whisky would be good right now, I thought. Real good. Just a tot to calm my nerves. Nothing serious. With everything that was going on, who’d really blame me? It was only natural to want to have a sip of something at a time like this. I’d just near enough watched half a dozen dwarves get roasted alive and now I was in jail. No one’d mind.

Of course, it was all a moot point, since I didn’t have no booze with me anyway, and the cop on duty outside wasn’t like to give me any anyway. But still, the thought lingered. Now the goblin was mumbling again, and eventually he sat up and rubbed at his eyes with one of his withered little claws. He looked at me with his beady red eyes. Crom knows I’ve tried harder than most to put aside prejudice – I had a dryad secretary, a dwarf friend and I was (kinda) courting a gnome girl – but there’s no force in the world that’ll ever make me think goblins are anything buy ugly, and this one more than most. He was a bum, like I thought, with a stained shirt that didn’t fit him and pants worn at the knees and hems with patches here and there too. His eyes were unfocused and dull, and his hair was lank and greasy. To tell the truth, he looked like a total waste of skin, and I didn’t much like the idea of being in his company for the next however many hours it’d be, but what was I supposed to do? No point making things worse for myself. I nodded as friendly as I could and tried to smile. He belched and sank down in his cot. It was obvious he was still drunk.

“Some Yuletide,” he said after a little while. He had a high, reedy voice, like all goblins I’d met, but there was the snarl of too much alcohol and tobacco in it.

“They’ll let you out when you dry out,” I told him. I knew because I’d been exactly where he’d been before now.

“Out to what?” he asked. “What’s there for me out there?” He jerked his ugly little head towards the window. The snow was falling harder out there now.

“You homeless?” I asked him.

“I got a home. Problem is the guy who owns the store seems to think he got some claim on the doorway come business hours, know what I mean?”

I chuckled dryly at that. “Lot of shelters open up around Yuletide,” I said, turning serious again, “you shouldn’t be out in the cold this time of year.”

“Cold? Huh…” And he was right – it wasn’t cold at all, despite the snow. I couldn’t make sense of it.

“You got any family?”

He shook his head. “Left my folks back in the mountains years ago. Came here for work.” He snarled a little laugh again. “Work. Should have stayed where I was, let dwarves or orcs or whoever it was come kill me like they did the rest of my tribe. Better to die on their axes there an’ then instead of dyin’ slowly here on my knees.”

“There’s jobs,” I said, “lots of places hirin’. Dwarf works an’ such.”

“Dwarf works? They ain’t gonna hire some goblin down an’ out, are they? It’s easy for you, human, sittin’ there with your pink skin an’ them wide shoulders. Easy for you to find work, yeah. Lots of humans got jobs. Not so many goblins, right. We just scavenge, an’ litter, an’ spread our filth around. You think we ain’t hear what you say about us? You think we ain’t know what you think? We’re garbage. Garbage goblins. Yeah. Some humans painted that on the wall of the apartment I used to live in. How you like that, eh? Garbage goblins.” He descended into a coughing fit at that and curled up on his cot. If I’d had a smoke, I’d have offered him one, but they took my cigarettes too. Not that I smoked as much as I used to either. It disagreed with Willow.

“There’s always hope,” I told the old goblin.

“Hope of what?” He eyeballed me from where he was lying. “I come here for the Atlasian Dream, like all the others. Come to New Atlas, find work, be somebody. That’s what they told us. So you come here, an’ it’s just the same as back home. Dwarves an’ humans that wanna sweep you into the gutter an’ flush you down the drain, orcs that beat you up in alleys an’ call you snaga, elves that won’t even look you in the eye. An’ it ain’t just us. We’re all of us packed in here, thousands an’ millions of people who never should’ve been allowed to live so close. It’s a wonder we ain’t torn ourselves apart yet. It’s a wonder this crummy city ain’t ash already.”

“We’re all on the same side,” I said, “all believin’ in the same thing, more or less.”

“‘An what is that? Money?”

“I guess…”

“Bums like me tryin’ to get some, snooty elves an’ dwarves hoardin’ it all to themselves. Money’s just another damn excuse to crap all over the guys at the bottom of the heap. I’d burn it all up if I could, then we’d all be the same, an’ I ain’t the only one that feels that way. We just need somethin’ to believe in. Somethin’ to unite us.”

“I ain’t think that’s the answer…” I said slowly.

“No, well you wouldn’t, would ya?” He turned over on his cot so he was facing away from me and after a couple minutes I knew by his heavy breathing that he must be asleep.

I thought about what he’d said. He was just a half-drunk hobo, but a lot of it made me feel awful uncomfortable. I thought about Poppy’s dad, Billie Redcap, sitting in his basement laboratory, knowing all his secrets of alchemy, being as smart as he was, and only able to get work wiping tables once humans that didn’t understand half of what he did had finished their meals. And I thought about Robbie, lost out in New Atlas somewhere, and what it must be like to grow up with that kind of grinding prejudice, just pushing you down every single day. It was one thing to come to a place and find it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, another to be born there, to have it be the only home you’d ever known, and find doors closed to you at every turn. Northmen had had it bad too when I was a kid, back before the orcs and dwarves and all the rest had really showed up in any great numbers, but never quite like this. A human was still a human, and here in New Atlas the whole idea was that everyone had the same chances to make it big, if they were smart or tough or just plain stubborn enough. Conventional wisdom was that those who fell through the cracks, like my cellmate here, just didn’t have what it took and that was their problem. It wasn’t so simple when you were stuck in a tiny room with them though. Suddenly it was all in sharp focus – the pain, the drudgery, the hopelessness. They really did need something to believe in. Maybe that’s what Robbie had found? Maybe he was off somewhere, following some crazy dream like that.

Just then I heard the sound of jangling keys and looked up to see a cop unlocking the cell door and another one loitering behind him. I figured they were there for my new friend, but they ignored him and hauled me up to my feet instead. “See you around,” I told the old goblin, and he grunted something wordless in reply. Maybe he was still asleep. I hoped he’d be okay, but I didn’t think there was much chance of it really. Another casualty of New Atlas. The cops led me to an interview room and I slumped down in the chair. One offered me a cigarette, but I waved it away. We all sat there for a minute in silence, and then I was surprised to see Commissioner McKinley walk in and take the chair across the table from me. He stared at me for a long while. I guess neither of us felt like talking.

“Seems I can’t get away from you,” he finally said.

“Hey, I didn’t come here of my own accord you know.”

“Not many people do.” He leant back in the chair, putting his hands behind his head. “What the heck am I supposed to do with you, Ulrichson?”

“Chargin’ me would be favourite, then lettin’ me call my lawyer. If not, you’re gonna have to let me go, ain’t ya?”

He chuckled at that. “Yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes. But let’s not get all formal here. You ain’t charged with nothin’ yet. We’re just two guys shootin’ the breeze, right?”

I didn’t like that one little bit. I knew my rights. But there wasn’t a whole lotta choice right now far as I could see. “Okay. You start.”

Another short laugh, and now he leant in close. “Two crime scenes. You’ve been pokin’ around both. Care to explain that.”

“I’m a private detective.”

“Damn straight you are. A private dick. A gumshoe. A fuckin’ nobody. I ain’t care what they say on the streets about you, or what you and my godsdamned forensic scientist get up to in your own damn time, but you ain’t got no jurisdiction when it comes to actual crimes, all right, Ulrichson? You get involved in murder investigations, you gonna run foul of me an’ my boys, capiche?”

I nodded. “No problem, sir. Can I go now?”

He smiled, and it wasn’t one I liked the look of. “What happened down at the Blacklock place, Ulrichson?”

“An explosion.”

“Right. Any idea what kind?”

“Gas?” I hazarded.

“Beregond?” He looked up at one of the cops standing behind me, and I realised it was the Stonelander who’d arrested me at the dwarf works.

“Not gas, sir.”

McKinley looked back at me. “Everyone in Beregond’s family ‘cept him work for the Stonefoot dwarves, laying gas lines. It’s in his blood, you might say.”

“An’ I figured that smell was the goblin…” I said, looking up at Beregond.

He probably would’ve paid me back for that there and then if his boss hadn’t been sitting there. McKinley warned him off with nothing more than a look and turned his attention back to me again. “Not gas,” McKinley repeated, “too hot. Too powerful. Too sudden. An’ more to the point, no gas lines near where it happened.”

“Well how the hell should I know what it was?”

“‘Cause you’ve been working with the Longbeards down by the docks too? Yeah, we know all about that, Ulrichson. I keep a pretty close eye on you. They had an explosion just like that one a couple days back.”

“Is that right?”

“You know damn well it is,” McKinley snarled, “you went down there an’ saw it for yourself. We got witnesses. How many died down there?”

“A few,” I admitted, “an’ one afterwards. Boy called Gron Hammercleft.”

“A dwarf?”

“What else?”

McKinley rapped his fingers against the table. He looked like he was far away for a moment. “You got a duty to report this stuff you know.” I was surprised at how his voice was changed. He sounded softer now. “People dyin’…you think that’s what we want?”

“Far as I know, it was just an industrial accident. Not a matter for the NAPD.”

“An’ is that what the dwarves think?”

“No,” I admitted.

“But they wouldn’t call us?”

“They…they ain’t trust you, McKinley.” I glanced up at Beregond. “They ain’t trust too many humans. You know how dwarves are.”

“They trust you though. Why?”

“I dunno exactly. ‘Cause I helped ’em before, maybe? They’re loyal like that. They ain’t forget friends.”

“Well, listen close, ’cause your ‘friends’ are in trouble.” McKinley leant across to me again. “We got reports of four more explosions like the one at the Blacklock works, an’ I guess the one at Ironsmith’s too. All dwarf places – yards, warehouses, stores. So maybe you wanna tell us what you know?”

I scratched at my stubble. It was coming in thick now, with lots of grey in it. “I wish I knew what I know,” I said.

“Huh?”

“I think…I think somethin’ big’s goin’ on, but I ain’t exactly know what. The dwarves…they seem to think it’s somethin’ outta the Elder Days. Somethin’ that sounds crazy.”

“Like what?”

“Like…” I swallowed. “well, they got a word for it. Maybe I’ll just use that. ‘Drakbaraz’ is what they say.”

I caught a strangled cough from Beregond behind me, and me and McKinley both turned to him. He looked awful pale, even for a Stonelander. “You okay?” the commissioner asked him. His partner – a Cimmerian like McKinley, but not the same one who arrested me – looked as confused as us.

“It’s…uh…it’s nothin’, sir.”

“Sounds like somethin’ to me.”

“Well, it’s just…my pop came home last night, an’ he said all the dwarves at their place were in a kinda bad way. An’ they kept mutterin’ this one word, so he asked ’em what it meant an’…” He trailed off.

McKinley looked at me helplessly, then slammed his fist into the table. “Damn it! Will someone tell me just what the heck is goin’ on here?!”

“Dragonfire,” I said, “that’s what it means. That’s what’s got the dwarves scared.”

He looked at me blankly. “Dragonfire?”

“That’s what they think it is,” I explained, holding up my hands to distance myself from that particular brand of craziness, “I was workin’ on the assumption that it was just someone who wanted to muscle the dwarves outta their business exploitin’ some of their mythology or what have you. You know, Stonelanders or whatever. No offence, officer,” I added for Beregond’s benefit. Before the dwarves came back to New Atlas, Stonelanders did most of the construction work in the city. When their ancestors had come over from the ruins of Atlantis, they’d built great cities and monuments of their own, but now they were mostly reduced to the status of hired hands, like Beregond’s family.

“An’ are you still workin’ under that assumption?” McKinley asked.

“Well…” Was I? What about the kobolds, how did they fit in? Billie had said they sprung up wherever dragons were, so it all seemed kind of a coincidence for them to be around just now too.

“You ain’t tellin’ us everythin’,” McKinley said.

“I…well…I ain’t got it all straight in my head just yet either. Like I said, this is big.”

He sat back in the chair again and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He seemed to be sizing me up. Eventually he sat up and nodded to the other cops in the room. “Right. I think it’s time we moved things forward an’ got Mr Ulrichson where he belongs.”

That was it then. I’d get charged with something that would keep me off the streets and whatever would happen would happen without me to prevent it. All I could think about was Robbie and what he might be involved with. What was it his dad had said about the kobolds and their taint? It only took one bite to cover my whole arm in scales – what would become of the kid if he didn’t have no one out there looking out for him? Beregond and the other cop pulled me up to my feet, but to my surprise, they handed me back my personal effects. I looked at McKinley who was waiting at the door and my confusion must have been pretty obvious ’cause he laughed. “What?”

“You’re lettin’ me go free?”

“Not exactly. I’ve decided you’re more to use to me in the situation room than in a cell.”

“Huh?”

“Consider yourself seconded, Ulrichson, for the duration of this investigation. I wanna know what’s tickin’ away in that thick head of yours. An’ short of tryin’ to get an answer from the dwarves – like gettin’ blood from a stone, almost literally – you’re the NAPD’s best hope right now. But,” and then he turned back to me, got real close and held his finger right under my nose, “don’t think I’m happy about this, all right?”

“Desperate times, right, McKinley?”

“Very godsdamned desperate, Lugh help me,” he spat before leading me out of the interview room.

I soon found out exactly how desperate. In the situation room, where I got more stares than I did back in Nedandrath’s, one wall was covered in a big map of New Atlas, or at least the island of Manahills, with near enough every street and building on it. And there were big red circles on it too. One by the docks, where Ironsmith’s yard was, one by the Dale at the Blacklock works, where they’d picked me up, and then four others, spread all across the city. Someone was talking on a phone, and when he put it down, he gave McKinley the news about another explosion, this time closer to downtown. Another dwarf works. An officer duly circled it on the map. “That’s seven now,” McKinley summarised, “an’ all in the last thirty-six hours.”

I looked at the red circles. There didn’t seem to be any kinda pattern. “All dwarf works?”

“Yep. Rich ones too. Ironsmith’s, you know, was where they were diggin’ the tunnels for the new underground trains. Lot of money there. The Blacklocks just expanded, had to recruit a bunch more workers recently. An’ it’s the same with all the others too. Without exception, they all recently had some windfall or another.”

“Seems an odd coincidence…”

“That’s what we were thinkin’,” Beregond said.

“Who was hit first?”

“Your buddy,” McKinley said, pointing to the circle around Ironsmith’s yard.

“An’ then the Blacklocks?”

“No. There was one at a Firebeard refinery before that. Nasty business.”

“I can imagine,” I murmured.

“Then the Blacklocks,” he went on, “then a Stiffbeard place just a couple hours after that.” I followed his finger as he went through them all one by one, and then I noticed something.

“South.”

“Huh?” McKinley looked at me.

“They’re goin’ north to south.”

He frowned at the map. “I guess they are. But if that’s the case, then whatever’s doin’ it is zig-zaggin’ all over town…”

I nodded. “Sure, but it’s still a pattern. Like…like it’s closin’ in on somethin’…”

“Yeah, but what?”

I stepped up to the map and traced my finger from Ironsmith’s to the Firebeards, then the Blacklocks, and the Stiffbeards, going east to west and back again, but always inexorably south, and going less from side to side with each zig-zag. I went from the last victims, a gun store downtown run by Blacklocks again, letting my finger follow the pattern… “Huh…” I said.

“What?”

Downtown, in Lower Manahills, on the other side of Khandishtown, that whole bottom end of the island was devoted to one thing and one thing only. And at its heart, a street named after a legendary barrier of ice and stone, heaped up by the First Men in an age before they started giving ’em numbers, intended to keep out some nameless threat at the peak of the world. Somehow, I didn’t think it would live up to its namesake. “The Wall Street,” I said.

“What about it?”

I tapped the building marked at the centre of it. “It’s followin’ the money. Goin’ from wealthy dwarf business to wealthy dwarf business, an’ it’s finally found the wealthiest of all…”

“The heck are you talkin’ about, Ulrichson?” McKinley demanded.

I turned around slowly. “The Bank of Dwarrowdelf. Where all the dwarf money in the world is kept. It’s happenin’ again…just like it did thousands of years ago…”

What’s happenin’?!”

“Dragonfire,” I breathed. I was already running. “We gotta get down there! An’ someone phone ’em an’ tell ’em to evacuate! They’re about to get blown sky high!”

*

It was nice to sit in the back of a cop car without being under arrest for once. We roared down the streets as fast as we could, the siren blaring, at the head of a whole convoy. All the other traffic got out the way as fast as it could, but it was still slow going through the packed streets of New Atlas. It was late afternoon, but it was grey and overcast, dark and dreary. Snow was falling, but none of it settled: it seemed to me like it never even reached the ground in fact, just melted to nothing before it landed. And all the ice was gone off the sidewalks too. It was hot, and no one liked to say what we all knew: that the heat was coming off the ground, from below.

“Are you sure about this, Ulrichson?” McKinley asked me from the passenger seat up front.

“Sure as I’ve been of anythin’ in the last few days.” Beregond was driving, and doing a pretty good job as he swerved around the intersections.

“But who’d be crazy enough to want to blow up the Bank of Dwarrowdelf? Doin’ that would ruin the whole city…”

I thought about the old goblin in the cell. What was it he said? Other folks felt the same way he did? “I dunno,” I admitted, because I really didn’t. “Hopefully it’s somethin’ we can fight though.” They’d given me back my gun, and I was glad of its reassuring weight on my hip. Not that I wanted to fire it if I could avoid it, but it still felt good to have it there next to me, just in case.

As we hit Lower Manahills, we ran into more serious traffic. McKinley pounded the dashboard with his fist. “What the Hel is this crap!” he yelled. “Can’t you see we’re the godsdamned police!”

I leaned forward and looked out through the windscreen. The traffic was snarled up real bad, and I thought I could see why. “Everyone’s tryin’ to come the other way,” I said, “an’ look – people are runnin’ too…”

McKinley peered out with a frown. “Damn it, you’re right, Ulrichson. What’s goin’ on?”

Just then, the car radio crackled to life and an indistinct voice came out. It was garbled and I couldn’t make out a word of it, as if the guy on the other end was falling over himself to try and get everything out. McKinley grabbed the handset in a fury. “This is Commissioner McKinley en route to a potential crime scene. You wanna repeat what you just said, officer?”

There was a pause from the other end. “Uh…s-sorry, sir. It’s just…th-there’s been an accident…”

“Where? What?”

I knew already. We were too late. “Th-the big dwarf bank on The Wall Street, s-sir. Some…some kinda explosion. A b-big one…people are runnin’ sir. We need some backup. W-we need help, sir. Th-there’s bodies an’..an’…”

“We’re on our way,” McKinley said, and I couldn’t believe how calm he sounded. “Beregond, clear a godsdamned path.”

“How, sir?”

“You see the gas pedal down there? Put your foot on it an’ don’t take it off ’till I tell you, all right?”

We smashed through the traffic on the intersection between Khandishtown and the Lower East Side. People jumped out of the way, but there was no time to lose now. The sirens were blaring again, and the other cars followed the path we made. It was a bumpy ride, but we got through and sped down The Rithery, then into Silmaril Street and Water Street and then a sharp right turn into…chaos…

Every patrol car in Manahills must have converged on the Bank of Dwarrowdelf, which was lit up like, well, like Yuletide. There were fire engines and ambulances and anything else with a flashing light. We got as close as we could and I jumped out. The heat hit me like a wave. I staggered and pushed my way through the crowds. Some people were still running away, but most were now gathered around, trying to see what had happened. I saw reporters with their notepads and cameras around their necks trying to get closer. McKinley was right behind me and yelling into a megaphone. No one was listening much, but it did get the attention of the other cops there and they started to get the whole area cordoned off and the civilians out the way. I pushed through with the commissioner. Even if he hadn’t been there, no one was going to stop me now. A few people in the crowd seemed to recognise me too, but I ignored them. The Bank of Dwarrowdelf was right in front of us now, and I could see the fires raging inside. There was a low boom that I felt more than I heard, somewhere in the deeps of the earth below our feet. A few dwarves and humans were spilling out of the bank’s doors, coming down the big marble steps, holding handkerchiefs to their faces. Smoke was pouring out the windows.

“We gotta get inside,” I told McKinley.

“No way,” he said, “not until we know it’s safe.”

“It ain’t safe. I can see that from here.”

“Exactly.”

“Well…I ain’t got to follow your orders.” I started for the steps.

I felt McKinley’s hand on my arm. “Stay right where you are, or you’ll go back in that cell,” he growled at me.

“Good luck with that,” I said, shrugging him off.

“I got half the NAPD right here – you think they couldn’t bring you down, Northman?”

“I’m sure they could, but first you got to find enough of them willin’ to walk towards the fire instead of away from it.” I broke into a jog, wincing as my hip gave a judder of protest, and made my way to the stairs. No one stopped me. As I put my foot on the first tall step a waft of smoke and flame blasted out of the door and I put my arm up to protect myself from it. I coughed in the noxious air and blinked away the smoke, then kept going. The wooden doors, intricately carved by the dwarves with stylised scenes of commerce and industry and unreadable runes, were engulfed. One had collapsed to the floor and was now in charred pieces. I stepped through. It was hard to say what was burning inside. I’d never been inside the building before, but it was mostly stone and marble it seemed. But then, dragonfire could consume even that, I’d been told. The huge lobby was in ruins. There were bodies lying here and there. There was nothing I could do for them and I passed by. Another hollow boom sounded from somewhere in the building, and then a cracking noise like a mountain breaking in two. I was nearly rocked off my feet by some tremor from below and a beam crashed from the ceiling just a few feet from me to lie burning before me. I took out my own handkerchief and pressed it to my face. What was I looking for anyway? I crouched low, beneath the smoke, and moved along slowly. There was another boom, closer this time, and a flash of white-hot light from another room off to the side of this one. I saw purple dots in my vision again. At the back of the lobby, by the desks and windows that were all in flames, I thought I saw someone moving. I tried to yell for them, but the smoke filled my lungs and I just bent over, coughing up my guts instead.

Through the tears in my eyes, I saw someone poke their head above the counter. It wasn’t a dwarf, I could see that much, but it was something small. I couldn’t make out anything against the wall of fire ahead of me, but I pressed on. There was definitely someone back there – more than one too. I could see shadows dancing around, cavorting in the ruin. I moved around to one side, where there was a gap in the flames and I could see behind the counters. I couldn’t believe what I saw: five or six figures, about two-thirds my size, skinny and gangly, all jumping about the place, safes lifted over their heads. Flames licked around their hands, but they didn’t pay them no attention. The safes were busted open, from the fire I guess, and they were shaking all the money out onto the floor, letting it waft in the heat and catch fire, then crumble to ash. Hundreds and thousands of dollars, just being burnt.

“Hey, stop that!” I shouted hoarsely. They turned to look at me, and my breath caught again. I was looking at kobolds…or where they gnomes? It was impossible to tell. Whatever they were, they were something in between. And I knew one of them. “Robbie!”

He was at the back, and he dropped the safe he was carrying when he saw me. He was still recognisable as the gnome I’d met just a few days ago, but now his whole body seemed to be covered in the red-gold scales, and his nose seemed to be disappearing into a snout. He was halfway to being one of the things that had bitten me, and suddenly what his dad had told me yesterday made a whole lot more sense. Their taint, he’d said. Infecting the gnomes. Gnomes and kobolds, fighting an ancient war, but really it was their own children they’d been fighting, wasn’t it? And I saw what they were doing too. Burning the money, destroying the bank. I didn’t know how they’d done what they’d done, what machine or weapon they and the other kobolds had found or invented to cause the explosions that terrified the dwarves, but finding out it was just arson…albeit deadly arson…

“Thank Crom,” I said through my coughs, “just kids. Kids that are gonna go to jail, but at least it ain’t…”

There was another crack like the one I’d heard before, but a lot closer this time and me and the gnome-kobolds all looked around as the marble floor of the huge lobby split right apart in front of our eyes. A huge snaking fissure opened up across the floor, and orange light poured out of it. It got brighter and brighter, until all of us had to look away or be blinded by it and then a sound like nothing I’d ever heard. The call of something that came down the Ages, something terrible and forgotten, something that turned my guts to water and made me drop to my knees with my hands pressed to my ears. I had my eyes screwed shut but, Crom save me, I felt that thing crawl out of the ground and I could see it in my head like it was right in front of me. Huge and scaly and black and gold and red with yellow eyes bigger than car hubcaps and jaws that could swallow a troll whole. Its wings stretched as wide as the lobby and further still and when it beat them there was a waft of heat and carrion and fear and I ain’t ashamed to say that I screamed with terror. There was a blast of white fire that seared at my eyelids and blew me off my feet and into a corner. It wasn’t aimed at me, I don’t think, but I still felt like I’d gone ten rounds with a gnoll prizefighter. I don’t know how long I was lying there, still not daring to open my eyes, but I felt the thing lift itself out of its pit and fly upwards, to the distant vaulted ceiling of the lobby, and it was up there, roosting or whatever it might do. I risked opening one eye. The whole vast room was filled with roiling black smoke, with flashes of light pulsing in the depths high above me. Something huge was moving up there too, some horrible, shadowy shape. I couldn’t move. It was like I’d been melted into the stone. The monstrous thing up there froze me in place. Then I looked across and saw the half-kobold gnomes and realised who the gout of fire had been meant for. They were lying on the floor, dead or unconscious. Something in their changed bodies must have given them some resistance to the flames, otherwise they’d just be blackened bones, but even so, they were in a bad way. By some chance, Robbie had been thrown clear though and he was lying closest to me. I saw him stir and knew he was alive.

What choice did I have? I don’t know how I did it, but I got to my feet, still crouching low and went over to Robbie. He was alive, certainly, but looked pretty out of it. He had some bad bruising, but that could’ve been the scales instead. It was hard to tell. I got my arms underneath him and, with a grunt, lifted him up onto my shoulder. I felt something shift above my head. I froze again. I’d been noticed. No time to help the others. I ran as fast as I could with a body that had just been thrown across a room into a solid granite wall, a hip with a five-year-old bullet wound, lungs full of smoke and a forty-year-old gnome halfway through being turned into a kobold over my shoulder, heading for where the fiery crack across the length of the bank’s lobby was narrowest. Somehow I cleared it with a bound and hit the marble floor on the other side running. I sprinted, all the time feeling the huge shape in the roof uncoil in the smoke and turn its face towards me.

I hurled myself clear of the door just as a plume of white-hot fire consumed it, and the force of it threw me and Robbie out and onto the sidewalk below. I managed to cushion him with my body as we fell, but then I rolled him off me and lay there on my back, groaning softly. There were cries all around me, and I managed to look up just in time to see the entire front of the Bank of Dwarrowdelf collapse in flames. The building behind it started to cave in as well as fire blazed in every direction, consuming everything. I could see the shimmering shape of the creature in the roiling smoke and, somehow, I felt its thought inside my head, like a terrible groaning voice, as huge and as old as mountains.

PAPER! JUST PAPER, WORDS AND THOUGHTS! WHERE IS THE TREASURE? WHERE IS THE WEALTH THEIR MINDS PROMISED?

Then a wordless, animal scream of fury and it rose up out of the darkness, vast and terrible, shining and monstrous. Everyone ran, all in different directions. I stood up though and, Crom knows why, but I drew my pistol and fired it into the burning ruins, at the half-seen serpent shape in the smoke, emptying the chamber with six desperate shots. I knew it wouldn’t do anything, but I couldn’t just run away. With my ammo gone, I stooped down and grabbed Robbie again and ran for the patrol car. McKinley and Beregond were already inside, and the engine was running. They’d have gone without me, and I wouldn’t have blamed them one little bit but, to their credit, they waited for me when they saw me in their mirrors. I scrambled to open the door and threw Robbie onto the back seat then climbed in after him. “Drive!” I yelled.

“You ain’t got to tell me twice!” was Beregond’s reply.

We flew. No one else had even thought of getting in a car: their primal fear had just sent them running as fast as possible, as far as possible. Water Street, Silmaril Street and The Rithery were all almost empty now, but even going flat out, we couldn’t outrun it. Somehow, the thing knew me, and it wanted to find me. I craned my neck to look out the rear window and I could just make it out in the early evening gloom. It followed us down the street, above the buildings because even a street this wide wouldn’t contain it when its wings were outstretched. It was massive. I could see its scales glimmering off the streetlights, but more than that I could feel it coming for me. There would be no escaping it.

“What is that thing?” Beregond asked, looking at me in the rear-view mirror.

“What do you think it is?” I snapped back.

“Eyes on the road, son,” McKinley said. Again, I was shocked at how calm he was.

The creature was gaining on us, and now as we headed into Khandishtown, where word obviously still hadn’t reached people about what was going on, we hit traffic. Beregond swerved down a quieter side street and cars closed in behind us, but as I looked back I saw another blast of white flame that sent those same cars flying into the air. One spun right over our heads and crashed into the road in front of us and the flaming wreck blocked half the street. Beregond swerved to avoid it and we carried on, now leaving Khandishtown and coming into Little Stoneland. The thing was still on our tail, but the roads were narrower and it had to keep above the buildings, flying back and forth, trying to keep us in sight. We had our sirens on, and I thought about asking them to turn them off, but it was keeping people out of our way.

“You got any suggestions, Ulrichson?” McKinley asked me.

“Besides drivin’ like Hel?”

“How do we kill that thing?”

“The heck should I know? Call in the Guard, maybe?”

“And turn New Atlas into a warzone?”

“I think the ship’s sailed on that one, commissioner…”

As I spoke, another torrent of fire engulfed the street. I saw people burn up, collapsing into piles of black bones. Cars exploded and store windows shattered. The fire was so hot it melted the asphalt on the road. People were running, screaming.

“Who knows anythin’ about this?” McKinley asked me.

“Dwarves…maybe gnomes…”

“Gnomes?” McKinley looked surprised.

“Yeah. What do you think this guy is?”

He looked down at Robbie. “He don’t look like any gnome I ever saw…”

“Well he is. Or was. It’s Poppy’s brother.”

“That’s a coincidence…”

“We got a gnome,” Beregond chipped in. “That dame back at the station.”

“Yeah, that’s Poppy,” I said, “that’s who we’re talkin’ about.”

“Oh…sorry…”

“You’re right though. We gotta get back to your station.”

“An’ if that…thing…follows us?”

I looked back through the rear window again. I don’t know how, but I felt like our pursuer was getting tired of the chase. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but I thought it was flying higher, circling, looking for something else. “Just drive,” I said, “I think we shook it off…somehow…”

We kept the sirens on and headed straight for the station on East 21st Street, where that afternoon I’d be in a cell and this would’ve seemed like a crazy dream. I watched the sky. I thought I saw it flying around, looking for something. Then, it went north. I followed it, half with my eyes and half with my mind, across the New Atlas skyline. The Kingdom Province Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city, reared up like a monolith against the black sky. I knew that’s where it was going. I heard its terrible voice in my head again.

TREASURE…RICHES…WEALTH…

I shuddered at the touch of it. It wouldn’t do no good to go chasing after it now. We had to regroup. We had to find out more about what we were dealing with. We got to the station and I leaped out of the car, carrying Robbie in my arms. The three of us dashed inside and McKinley led us to Poppy’s laboratory. We burst in and she must have thought we were crazy. I looked half-drunk, covered in soot and smoke, carrying what she must have thought was a kobold in my arms.

“What the heck’s goin’ on?!” she demanded. “The radio’s gone crazy with somethin’ about the dwarf bank downtown an’ a fire an’…”

I dumped Robbie on the workbench in the middle of the room. “I found your brother,” I told her, “now call your dad an’ get him down here right away.”

“Why? What’s goin’ on?”

McKinley and Beregond both exchanged a look. They weren’t willing to say it. I sighed. “A dragon. A godsdamned dragon. An’ it’s time someone started talkin’, because if we don’t kill the thing…it’s gonna turn this whole damn city to ash…”

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This entry was posted in Dragonfire, Noir, Novella, Ragnar Ulrichson, Urban Fantasy. Bookmark the permalink.

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