Dragonfire (Part V)

Robbie seemed to be in a pretty bad way. He was still lying on the workbench in the middle of Poppy’s lab and she was leaning down over him, stroking his forehead gently. “What happened to him?” she asked me.

I looked down at the kid. I didn’t know if she was asking me about the scales or the bruising and the broken bones. “He got a dose of dragonfire,” I said, which kinda answered both anyway. He was barely conscious, murmuring nonsense under his breath. I hoped he hadn’t been blinded, because he reminded me a lot of Hammercleft. But, as I’d noticed, the changes he’d gone through seemed to give him some sort of protection against the fire. What was it his dad had called kobolds? Dragonfolk? It was obvious what had caused the changes in him now and, I realised with an uncomfortable jolt in my gut, me too. Turning away from the others, I rolled up the sleeve of my shirt. All of us had ditched our jackets know. It was hot. Too damn hot. The scaling on my arm, which had almost disappeared thanks to Billie’s disgusting smelling salve, now seemed to be back in force. I hadn’t been bit again – not that I’d noticed anyway – so I could only conclude that it was just being near that…thing…

Another cop poked his head through the door, stared at us all for a few seconds, then composed himself and addressed McKinley. “Uh…sir…there’s a dwarf at the desk says he wants to see you.”

“We’re a little busy right now, O’Shea,” the commissioner told him. I recognised the newcomer as the same Cimmerian who’d arrested me earlier. I gave him a smirk and he looked at me real strange.

“He’s pretty insistent, chief,” he went on, “says he knows…the Northman.”

McKinley glanced at me. “Your pal, Ulrichson?”

“He kinda short, with a long beard an’ steel toecap boots on?” I asked.

“Well yeah…he’s a dwarf…”

“Probably Ironsmith,” I said with a shrug. “You probably oughta show him in.” He looked at McKinley for confirmation, and the commissioner gave him a surly nod. I was acting more upbeat than I felt, because right now I didn’t know what the heck we were gonna do. But Ironsmith showing up was probably a good thing. He was smart. He’d have ideas.

“Okay, anybody got any ideas?” my friend said the moment he walked in. “Willow told me I’d find you down here an’…” Then he clocked Robbie and took a few steps back.

“You okay, pal?” I asked.

“Why you got a kobold in here?”

Poppy shot him a look. “He ain’t a kobold. The heck do you know about it anyway?”

“Hey, sister, I just had to chase off a gang of ’em down my yard. The little bastards are everywhere.”

O’Shea, who’d come in after Ironsmith, confirmed that. “Reports from all over the city,” he said, “mostly dwarves, an’ you know things gotta bad for those little pri…uh…those little guys to call us.”

“Kobolds. Like him.” Ironsmith pointed at Robbie. “Comin’ up outta the holes the…you know…made…”

“He ain’t a kobold,” Poppy insisted, “he’s my damn brother!”

“Your brother?” Ironsmith looked at me for some reason, as if I’d be able to make any sense of this mess.

“Look, I ain’t exactly understand it all myself. But Poppy’s dad said somethin’ about kobolds carryin’ some kinda infection an’…”

Everyone except Poppy was pressing themselves up against the walls now, trying to stay as far away from Robbie as they could. The room wasn’t that big, so it didn’t work so well. “He ain’t got an ‘infection’,” Poppy said in a voice that was almost a growl.

“I dunno about no infection,” O’Shea said, “but we got a lot of people callin’ sayin’ some of the folks in their neighbourhood are actin’ real strange. An’ the hospital says they’re admittin’ a whole bunch of people with weird, scaly rashes…”

“Will someone tell me just what the heck is going’ on here?” McKinley said. “This is my godsdamned station, all right, an’ you seem to be holdin’ some sort of reunion with your pals. Ulrichson, you got a better look at that thing than any of us. Was it really a…a…dragon?”

“I ain’t exactly sure I know what a dragon is, McKinley,” I said, “not really. But, if I had to give it a name. Well, yeah, it was pretty much a dragon.”

Ironsmith nodded. “Never thought I’d live to see the day.”

I shook my head. “You ain’t gonna live to see much more of this one at this rate, buddy. We only shook it ’cause it found somethin’ it wanted more.”

“What?” McKinley asked.

“It went for the Kingdom Province Building. Didn’t you hear what it said?”

“What it…said?” He was looking at me like I was crazy.

“Okay…maybe it was just me…” I didn’t like to think about what O’Shea had said about the rashes and the people acting strange. That sounded a lot like my arm and the dragon dreams. And if I was the only one that could hear that creature’s voice in my head, what did that mean exactly? “Anyway, it said somethin’ about wealth an’ treasure, I think. An’ it was real angry about there not bein’ anythin’ ‘cept paper an’ books in the Bank of Dwarrowdelf.”

“Well of course there ain’t,” Ironsmith said, “this ain’t the Second Age. Dwarves ain’t rich ’cause we got all the gold – it’s all…investments an’ stocks an’ futures an’ that kinda thing.”

“There’s no gold in your bank?” Beregond asked Ironsmith. He actually looked surprised.

“Ain’t my bank. Well, I mean, I’m a customer…”

“Not any more you ain’t,” I said, “since it’s now a pile of rubble in the middle of The Wall Street. What was it you said about it bein’ a secure place to put my money?”

We were interrupted by a polite knock at the door, and O’Shea went to open it. Billie Redcap was standing there in his busboy outfit, looking a little nervous. “Come in,” McKinley said, “always room for one more in here, apparently.”

He shuffled in, and then walked over to the bench. He squeezed Poppy’s hand, but he only had eyes for his son. “He was like this when you found him?” he asked me.

“No, he was awake. An’…dancin’…”

“Dancin’…?”

“Yeah.” I glanced around at the cops. For some reason, I felt a little weird about snitchin’ on the poor kid. “I think he an’ his buddies mighta broke into the bank before the dragon got there. They were burnin’ some money.”

“Hm.” Billie said.

“Burnin’ money?” McKinley looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

“We got bigger problems right now,” Poppy said. She was looking at me too. I wondered at what point I’d become in charge of this little group.

“He fell in with a bad crowd,” I shrugged, “an’ Poppy’s right. Let’s look at the big picture here.”

“That’d be a lot easier if someone would explain what was going’ on in this city,” McKinley said, “where the heck did a damn dragon come from an’ why did it attack all those dwarf businesses before destroyin’ New Atlas’s wealthiest bank? Someone here’s gotta know somethin’.”

Ironsmith stepped forward. “I guess I’m your dwarf. A lot of the legends connected to dragons come down to us from The Book of the Ancestors. In that, in the section on the Fall of Dwarrowdelf, the term ‘drakbaraz’ is used with imperfectly translates as…”

“It all began three thousand years ago,” Billie said in a low voice, causing Ironsmith to trail off, “in the Elder Days, before the elves came over the sea.” He was holding Robbie’s head in his callused hands, and his touch seemed to calm his son a bit, but he was looking up at me, staring at me from underneath his bushy white eyebrows. “You asked me about dragon stories, Ragnar. I told you it was just legends, nothin’ to hang your cap on. Well, I wasn’t completely honest with you when I said that. The truth is, we know all about dragons. We ain’t written it down, like the dwarves, ’cause sometimes when you write a thing down, people just remember the words an’ forget the actual meanin’. They think the shape of a thing is more important than the way it feels. Gnomes, we passed the stories down, generation to generation. Back in Mycopolis, we were told about them before we outgrew our first toadstool. But those of us who came here, to this place, we tried to forget the old ways. The old stories. An’ we didn’t pass ’em down to our kids. We wanted a better life for them. They didn’t need to know about dragons an’ all that stuff.”

“The problem with stories like that,” I told Billie, “is they have a way of becomin’ relevant when you least expect ’em to.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Hm. Where was I? Oh yeah. Three thousand years ago. Ironsmith here ain’t know this, but back then, gnomes an’ dwarves were a lot closer than they are now. Oh yeah. Don’t look at me like that, boy. We ain’t so different, not when it comes down to it. In fact, I bet if you go back far enough, gomes an’ dwarves were the same damn thing. But somewhere along the line, one group ended up runnin’ the show, an’ the other group ended up doin’ all the heavy liftin’. Ain’t that always the way? So, three thousand years ago, here’s how it was: the dwarves were rich, an’ powerful, an’ lived in halls carved outta stone, an’ the gnomes were poor, an’ downtrodden, an’ lived in damp caves covered in fungus. We were their slaves, in fact. An’ it’d been that way since anyone could remember. We dug out their tunnels, we hauled away their trash, we did all the dirty, tough jobs they didn’t want to.” Ironsmith was about to say something again, but Billie shut him up with a raised hand. “Let me tell the story, boy. Anyway, the gnomes did as they were told, ’cause the dwarves had axes an’ armour an’ gold, so what could we do? Well, one day, so the story goes, a young gnome was diggin’ deep below the earth an’ he came across a seam of glitterin’ red gold. He’d never seen nothin’ like it, an’ he thought he might try an’ keep it for himself, try to buy his freedom, so he followed the seam down an’ down an’ down, until he broke into a chamber deep underground an’ there he found a lot more than he expected.”

“So it was the gnomes who delved too greedily an’ too deep,” Ironsmith interrupted.

“Oh drop it, Harl,” I told him, “it was three thousand years ago. Listen to the damn story.”

“Hm. He’s right though,” Billie went on, “that gnome, Garl, found somethin’ sleepin’ down there, deep below Dwarrowdelf. He woke it, an’ it changed everythin’. The dragon rose from the deeps, an’ it made the gnomes who’d freed it more powerful than they’d ever dreamed. It changed us, made us strong an’ beautiful, like it was.” He stroked Robbie’s scaled forehead gently. “But dragons are cruel too. An’ angry as we were from bein’ slaves for generations, all we really wanted was freedom to live in peace. Some of the youngsters though…ahh…you know what kids are like.” He shook his head sadly. “That was the great schism that nearly destroyed us. The dragon destroyed Dwarrowdelf, an’ with it rose up the gnomes who wanted vengeance. Kobolds, they came to be called, dragonfolk. An’ when the dragon had swallowed up all the gold in the city an’ gone on its way, they were left behind. Angry an’ lost. That’s when we fought wars. Garl, horrified at the destruction he’d inadvertently unleashed, became the leader of the rebels – the gnomes who hadn’t got changed by the dragon’s touch – an’ for the next thousand years, the gnomish race tore itself apart. In the end, we won, an’ the kobolds were no more.”

“Except now they’re back,” I said, “one bit me. An’ now I’m changin’ too.” Everyone stared at me. I held up my arm and showed the scales. “See? The stuff you gave me helped, but when I got near the dragon, I guess it came back.”

Billie nodded again. “It only needs to be close by. It takes a little time to change gnomes. Dwarves are mostly immune to it – tougher than stones, they are – but humans…you’re fragile…”

“He ain’t the only one that’s changed,” O’Shea filled in, “the hospital has a whole bunch more with these scales.”

“An’ it’s only gonna get worse, unless we stop that thing,” I said. “History’s repeatin’ itself. Kobolds are back. Maybe they never went away? Maybe they just hid below the earth, waitin’ for their chance to get revenge again. An’ then all they got to do is wait for the dragon to start changin’ gnomes again, an’ make more an’ more of ’em.”

“The dragon gave some of us purpose,” Billie said quietly. He was still holding Robbie gently. “Angry young gnomes, pushed around too long. Dragons, they feed on that kinda energy, or so the stories say. That an’ gold.”

“Well, New Atlas’s got plenty of that,” O’Shea said.

I shook my head. “No, it ain’t. Not really. That’s why the dragon was so pissed. It homed in on the bank, thinkin’ it was where all the treasure was, but it didn’t find nothin’ there except bills an’ ledgers full of records about bonds an’ shares an’ so on. Now it’s headed for the tallest skyscraper in town, thinkin’ that’s where the gold is. But it won’t find none there either.”

“They’re creatures of pure greed,” Billie explained, “they wanna steal wealth, hoard it themselves an’ then consume all the gold an’ gems in dragonfire, just to stop anyone else from havin’ it.”

“An’ they ain’t the only ones who might wanna do that kinda thing in this city,” I said, thinking back to the old goblin in the cell. “There’s a lot of kids got no hope. A lot of folks bein’ kept down by the system. I think we’re gonna see more’n a few kobolds comin’ outta the woodwork tonight.”

“So what do we do about it, Ulrichson?” McKinley asked me. “This history lesson’s all very interestin’, but it don’t exactly help me to restore order to my damn city, does it? How do we kill that thing?”

I thought about it. I didn’t exactly get a good look at the dragon back in the bank, or even when it was chasing us, but it’d looked big. Real big. Too big to fight. I’d known, even when I’d fired my revolver into the smoke, that bullets wouldn’t do no good. And dragonfire was powerful enough to melt stone. The monster had already killed dozens of people, and could be out there killing dozens more right now for all we knew. So what chance did any of us have against it? “I ain’t see any way outta this, ‘cept for callin’ in the Guard,” was all I had to offer.

“It’ll take ’em days to mobilise,” Beregond said to McKinley, “an’ even then, they’ll probably shoot up half the city.”

“‘An you got no guarantee they’ll be able to stop it neither,” said Poppy, “you’ll kill more people, probably for nothin’.”

“So how did they stop dragons back in the damn Elder Days?” the commissioner demanded, appealing to the whole room.

“They didn’t,” Ironsmith replied grimly, “they just waited for ’em to eat their fill an’ go away.”

“So what? We just find a bunch of gold to feed it an’ hope it flies off of its own accord? Kinda seems like payin’ a ransom to me…an’ I think the mayor’ll feel the same way.”

“Besides,” I added, “there ain’t enough gold; not in this city.”

“So what do we do?” O’Shea asked. Funny how everyone was looking at me again.

“Garl killed one once,” Billie said. He was staring at me again. I didn’t like the dark glint in his eyes. “Not that first dragon, but a later one. That’s what the stories say, anyhow. He lived for over five hundred years, an’ when the kobolds dug up another dragon, he went into its lair an’ killed it. An army ain’t gonna be able to stop that thing…but one man might stand a chance. One man who knows dragons, who has somethin’ in his blood an’ his heart that comes down from his ancestors. Garl had that. An’ so did Wulfang. Gnomes got a name for folks like that. Folks who have it in ’em to be heroes.”

“Don’t tell me,” I sighed, “dragonslayer, right?”

*

Not surprisingly, the station was in chaos. Cops were running around like headless damn chickens, and we could all hear the sirens outside. I took Billie to one side as everyone went on ahead. “You said one man who knows about dragons?”

“That’s right,” he said, “they got weaknesses. Or so the stories say.”

“I’m gettin’ real tired of these stories. But, what I mean is, I don’t know nothin’ about dragons, Billie. In fact, I’ve spent the last couple days tryin’ to find someone who does, an’ then I find out that the guy I spoke to before all this happened was the one who really had all the answers…”

“Well, how I was supposed to know one’d come up outta the ground like that?”

“Fair point,” I admitted, “but even so, what makes you think I’m the guy for this kinda crazy job?”

He smiled. “The fact that everyone keeps comin’ to you for answers. The fact that they call you hero out on the streets. The fact that…”

“Yeah, all right,” I said, holding up my hands, “that’s enough. Someone’s gotta try and do somethin’ I guess, an’ for some reason I’m already up in this up to my damned neck. I ain’t a dwarf or a gnome or nothin’, but somehow the dragon chases after me an’ I’m the only one who can hear its voice in my head…”

“That’s the taint,” he said, putting his hand on my arm and making me flinch a little. “It gets inside you, like it has with my boy.”

I looked back at the door to the lab. Poppy was still in there, waiting for an ambulance to show up and take Robbie to the hospital. “He gonna be okay?” I asked.

“You deal with the dragon he will be.”

I looked at Billie. He seemed calm. Like he was coming into his element finally, and I suppose he was. Poor guy was smart, wise even, but here in New Atlas he was just another non-human who couldn’t break minimum wage. But now people, important people, wanted to listen to him. “What if I ain’t able to deal with this thing?” I asked. “What happens to us then?”

“We all turn into kobolds. An’ become the dragon’s slaves.”

“Oh right…”

“Yeah.” He patted me on the arm. “They’re all waitin’ for you, Ragnar.”

“You ain’t comin’?”

“No, I gotta look after my kids. Remember, you can hear the dragon’s voice. An’ you might be the only who ain’t fallen under his spell. Everyone else in this city will probably jump at the chance to swap one cruel master for another. Boys like Robbie, they’re lost, an’ they want to believe in somethin’ bigger’n themselves. They think the dragon’ll make ’em free.”

“Right.”

“So go save your city.” He patted me on the arm again, and I went after McKinley and the others. But his words made me think. Save my city? I’d been put through the wringer by New Atlas as bad as anyone over the years. It was a dirty, smelly heap of concrete and bricks, this place, full of the worst criminal scum in the world. Five years ago, I’d had to lie there and watch the woman I loved bleed to death on the floor of an alley while some orc thug had riffled through her purse for the handful of bills she had. I still walked with a limp thanks to his bullet. New Atlas had chewed me up and spit me in the dirt to die more times than I cared to count, and it was only because I was a tough old bastard that I’d managed to pick myself up and keep on going. What did I owe this city anyway? Maybe letting it burn would be the kindest thing.

I went into McKinley’s office where everyone was standing around again. The commissioner had a few glasses out, and he was pouring a measure of whisky for us all. It looked like good stuff and, without thinking, I reached for it. It got as far as my lips before I jerked it away, remembering myself. I could still feel its sting in my nostrils, making them flare. Damn, but if there was any time to have a drink, it was now. I forced myself to put the glass back down on the desk. No one else was so precious. They downed their drinks in a single gulp, Ironsmith included. He wiped his beard with the back of his hand and looked at me knowingly. “No one’d blame you just this once, Ragnar.”

“I would. Some people just need one drink to steady their nerves. For me, a whole bottle ain’t enough.”

“Sorry,” McKinley said, moving my full glass away, “I didn’t know.”

“Not your fault.” I leant on the desk. “Look, if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna need some help. Mr Redcap might think one man’s enough, but that’s crazy talk.”

“Well I’m in,” Ironsmith said right away. “That damn thing killed at least four of my men. An’ plenty of other dwarves besides.” There was a fire in his eyes, and I knew he was thinking about Hammercleft and the way he died. I nodded slowly.

“My place is here,” McKinley said. He gestured to the mess of reports on his desk. “New Atlas is goin’ crazy. I gotta think about the people. Besides, I ain’t much fancy your chances either, Ulrichson, no offence. Someone’s gotta come up with a plan B.”

“You got no argument with me.” I was actually glad he wouldn’t be coming along. As much as he’d helped me out today, I didn’t think me and him would see eye to eye for long. I wanted people I could trust at my back.

“I could go,” Beregond said, “someone oughta represent the NAPD on this mission…quest…thing…” I looked at the Stonelander. He seemed like a pretty useful guy in a fight, but I didn’t know him, and I wasn’t too sure I trusted him either. He did have a point though – there should be someone official around to keep an eye on things.

“I’m goin’,” someone said from the doorway, and we all turned to look at Poppy.

“Are you crazy, Redcap?” McKinley demanded.

“You need all the beat cops on the streets, sir,” she said as she walked into the office, “I’m the best choice.”

“An’ if we need your skills elsewhere?”

“I can tell you who did every murder that’s gonna happen tonight, sir: kobolds or the dragon. What use is a forensic scientist here? Besides…Ragnar trusts me. Right?” She put her tiny hand in mine and smiled at me.

“Fine,” McKinley said, “you three it is then but, like I said, I ain’t holdin’ out much hope here. You got until mornin’, an’ then we call in the Guard, understand? Then, one way or another, New Atlas is gonna be ash.”

“Ragnar won’t let that happen,” Ironsmith told him, clapping a hand on my back, “he loves this city!”

“I…yeah…”

We walked out of the station and the streets outside were no less crazy. People were running in every direction, and cars were abandoned. Cops were out in force, trying to restore some order. “Well this seems kinda familiar,” Poppy observed.

“Yeah, well, it worked out fine last time, didn’t it?” I said.

“So what’s the plan?” Ironsmith asked.

I thought about it. “The hell should I know? I ain’t know how to kill a dragon. But…I know a man who might…”

I didn’t expect to find the library open at that time of night, and I was right. It took us a long time to get across the city anyway. We had to go on foot, which was hard going on my hip, and I started to feel the effects of being thrown across the bank’s lobby earlier too. Everywhere we went, New Atlas was already tearing itself apart. People were going nuts, looting and burning. I saw a lot of kids, not a few kobolds, and some humans who were already starting to turn that way. We kept to the shadows and avoided the worst of it, but I had to use my fists more than once. Thankfully, Ironsmith and Poppy were both a lot tougher than they looked too, so I didn’t have to look out for them. We were all made by New Atlas, despite how different we seemed. But one thing we couldn’t avoid was the sight of the Kingdom Province Building that loomed over us. It was all dark, and from what we’d heard in the station it had been abandoned now the dragon had made its lair in there. I could just make out the dark shapes of holes blasted in its walls from where we were. Apparently the dragon was doing some remodelling in there. I didn’t know what he hoped to find – there was no gold there either – but it was as good a place to rule New Atlas from as you’d hope to find. But now we were at the Sigurd A. Svartmann building on 5th Avenue and I was banging on the doors like an idiot, hoping someone was home. Eventually a tired looking security guard showed up. He peered through the gap at us. “There ain’t nothin’ to loot here,” he told us, “just books. You want The Met uptown.”

“We ain’t here to steal, we’re here to talk to someone.”

He looked wary. I guess a big Northman turning up at a library in the night while there’s a dragon on the loose ain’t exactly the most reassuring thing to happen. “Who?”

“Professor Incanus. Old human with glasses an’ a little beard like this.” I waggled my fingers on my chin.

“I know who he is.”

“Right. He here, or you got his address if not? It’s important.”

“Real important,” Poppy put in.

The guard sized us all up. I guess he figured it was too crazy to be some sort of trick. “He’s here. He works late a lot.” He opened the door a little way. “No funny stuff though. I got a gun you know.”

“Yeah, me too, bub,” I said as I shouldered through the door, “an’ I bet it’s bigger’n yours.”

He led us into the library where I’d been before and then, to my surprise, we went up the same way Incanus had led me the other day, to the exact same room with the dusty old history books. The professor was there waiting for us, sitting at the same table with a lamp throwing a dim yellow light over him. I suppose it made sense that he’d been boning up on dragons, tonight of all nights. He looked at me over his glasses. “Ah, Mr Ulrichson. I wondered when I might be seeing you again.”

“Guess you realised my questions the other day weren’t no coincidence.” I quickly introduced my friends as the security guard excused himself, giving us all another suspicious look as he left.

“So what is it you need to know exactly?” Incanus asked.

“What do you think? Someone’s gotta kill that thing.”

“Is it really a dragon? I heard the reports on the wireless, but I didn’t quite believe it…”

“It’s big an’ it’s got scales an’ wings an’ it breathes fire. So I’d say yeah, it’s really a damn dragon. Now any of these books got any sorta hints on how to kill one of ’em?”

He chuckled dryly and got to his feet with the help of his cane. Then he tottered over to a shelf and came back with a book. “There’s nothing so immediately useful, I’m afraid. Even the dwarf histories are silent on how one of the beasts might be stopped.”

“These ain’t dwarf histories,” Ironsmith said, “just human translations.”

“Well, maybe you’d care to furnish us with some real dwarvish knowledge then, good sir?” Incanus sounded a little tetchy.

“I’m an engineer, not a historian,” Ironsmith replied with a shrug. He took a pack of smokes out of his jacket pocket. “Anyone got a light?” He was looking at the books, specifically the ones about dwarves, with a thoughtful expression.

“Stop bein’ a damn ass,” I told him. “Last time I was here, you talked about the Third Age. An’ wyrms.”

“Yes. Funny you should bring that up, I was just reading about it, and your ancestor.”

“Wulfang, right. Not my ancestor, just a Northman from a long time ago.”

“Well, you say that, but you do bear an astonishing resemblance to the descriptions of him.”

I tried not to clench my fists at that. Amandil, the elf who had come close to turning New Atlas into a warzone a few months back, had told me the exact same thing. Thing was, he’d actually met Wulfang so maybe there really was something in it. No such luck that evil bastard might end up getting in this dragon’s way. I’d heard he was out of town at the moment anyhow. “Wulfang killed the last of the wyrms, right?”

“He did indeed.”

“An’ a wyrm is a sort of dragon?”

“Well, as you pointed out yourself when we last spoke, they had no wings and no fire. But in principle…”

“It’s a big nasty reptile. An’ Wulfang managed to kill one. So, in all these books you got in this place, please tell me that at least one of  em explains how he did it.”

Incanus smiled as he turned the book he had in his hand around and held it up so I could see the page he had open. There was a picture there of a warhammer, covered with dwarf runes.

“The Fist of Crom,” Ironsmith breathed.

“He bashed it over the head with that thing?” I said, trying not to sound too sarcastic.

“More or less.”

“Well, that’s nice an’ all, but I prefer a revolver.” I took mine out of my belt. “Not quite as fancy lookin’, but the basic principle is the same. But, I already tried usin’ this, an’ it didn’t do nothin’. An’ if you could see what I’m up against here, you’d understand why.”

“You ain’t understand, Ragnar,” Ironsmith said, “it ain’t about the weapon itself. The Fist of Crom is an artefact of great power. Even dragonfire couldn’t harm it, or so the histories say. It was the only treasure that survived the sack of Dwarrowdelf.”

“The inventories are quite specific about what was lost and what wasn’t,” Incanus explained. “And the Fist of Crom was made to be proof against dragons. The runes say as much, if your friend will excuse my demonstrating a little forbidden knowledge.”  He was still holding up that damn book.

“That’s great, but we’re talkin’ about a weapon forged thousands of years ago that probably never even existed in the first place. Somethin’ outta legends. We ain’t got the Fist of Crom, so why even bring it up?”

Incanus slammed the book shut. He had a funny little smile on his face that I didn’t like one bit. “Actually, this warhammer was very real, and was never lost. It’s been preserved down through the Ages and even now is kept safely in this very city, in the New Atlas Metropolitan Museum. The Met. And the curator is a personal friend of mine.”

“Hey, the guard was right,” Poppy said, more cheerfully than I’d have liked, “we really did need The Met.”

*

“You saw what a mess it is out there,” I said as we all went out into the main room of the library, “how the heck we gonna get all the way uptown to The Met?”

“I have a car parked outside,” Incanus suggested.

“The roads are packed with people losin’ their minds,” I said, “no way you can drive through all that.” If I was totally honest, I was kinda relieved. I’d had someone try to force me to follow in the footsteps of my illustrious supposed ancestor before, and that hadn’t ended too well. I was happy to look for a better solution.

“We could try the back roads,” Ironsmith said doubtfully.

“Hold on,” Poppy said, “ain’t this a dwarf building?” She was looking around at the solid granite walls and the tall vaulted ceiling.

“Built on dwarf foundations certainly,” Incanus replied, “why?”

“Won’t it have a dwarf door then?” She was looking at Ironsmith.

“Probably,” he said. He was running his fingers through his beard, looking around at the room too.

“Dwarf door?” Incanus at each of us in turn, a confused expression on his face.

“I guess you ain’t know everythin’ here, prof,” I smiled, “the dwarves built secret doors connecting all their old buildings in New Atlas. You can walk from one to the other safe underground, so long as you know the way.”

“An’ The Met’s dwarf built too,” Ironsmith nodded. “Show me to the basement…”

I was actually dumb enough to feel triumphant until I realised that we’d just found a way to do exactly the thing I didn’t want to do. The security guard came back and led us down to the basement where, after a little bit of searching, Ironsmith found what he was looking for. Me and the guard had to shift an old bookcase out of the way to reveal a seemingly bare patch of wall, but Ironsmith said it was the right place. Don’t ask me what he did – he asked us all to look away – but when we turned back, there was a long, dark passage leading off in front of us.

“My goodness,” Incanus said, adjusting his glasses. He seemed pretty impressed.

I tugged at my collar. “Is it hot down here, or is it just me?”

“Drakbaraz,” Ironsmith cursed under his breath. “Some Yuletide this is gonna turn out to be.”

I’d almost forgot the time of year. Somehow, all this didn’t seem too festive to me. I looked down the passage ahead. “Just so you know…this is crazy.”

“What is?” Poppy asked.

“Goin’ after some magic warhammer from the time of the Dark Prince.”

“Crazier than dragons?”

“Yeah, all right. But I still ain’t happy about it.”

It was a long journey in the dark, and hot. We had to borrow the security guard’s dwarf torch, since we hadn’t planned to go underground. He stayed back at the library, keeping watch he said, although I thought he was probably just scared. Not that I blamed him for that. I was worried the old professor wouldn’t be able to walk all the way to The Met – it wasn’t just the distance and the heat; the tunnel was also narrow and climbed and dropped in places as it wound its way around foundations, sewers, other tunnels and who knew what else. I thought to myself, as we walked on and on, that I oughta ask Ironsmith if he had a map of these tunnels sometime. I’d be curious to see how long they went on for. Anyway, Incanus seemed fine. In fact, he seemed to have a spring in his step. I guessed that, for him, this was some kinda fun adventure. He’d spent his whole life reading dusty books about the old days when people did stuff like this all the time – at least if you believe the stories – and now he was finally getting to experience it firsthand. It must’ve been a heck of a thrill. Me, I just wanted nothing so much as a quiet night in with a bottle of…well, no…that’s not what I wanted. It wasn’t. And I also didn’t want to fight dragons. That was the main thing.

Eventually, we seemed to get where we needed to go, because Ironsmith took a right turn and then stopped at a dead end a couple hundred feet later. He coughed and we all turned away obligingly. When he was done, we were looking out into a basement a lot like the one we’d left before. Incanus stepped forward. “Let me lead,” he said, “Elerossë should still be awake – elves don’t sleep much – but he’ll be surprised to see me. And you even more so.”

I grabbed his arm. “Uh…did you say ‘elves’?”

“Yes. Elerossë Amandil is the curator of this museum.”

Amandil?” I looked at Ironsmith and Poppy. They looked as sick as I felt.

“Yes, he’s a member of House Amandil. He’s not a close relation of the more famous branch though. You know Findaráto Amandil, don’t you, Mr Ulrichson? Didn’t you save him from being killed by that orc?”

I’d almost forgotten that that was the story that had gotten us all out of dodge three months ago. As far as the rest of New Atlas was concerned, Amandil owed me his life. They’d never know how he’d tried to use me as a catalyst to start a war between humans and orcs, and how much I hated him. I didn’t want anything to do with any member of his family, but I didn’t see how we had a whole lot of choice right now. I was in too deep.

This Amandil, Elerossë, wasn’t as bad as his cousin or whatever he was. As haughty and arrogant as every other elf I’d met, but he seemed to take Incanus’s word that we weren’t there to rob him blind. He knew there was a dragon out there, of course, and I got the impression he’d been expecting a visit too. He looked me up and down when we were introduced. “Yes…I see the resemblance…” he murmured.

“Just take me to the damn warhammer,” I said.

The lights were off in the museum. It was closed, of course, but all the exhibits were lit up by these pale little lamps. The room we were looking for was long, with a marble tiled floor and big stone columns holding up the roof. There were the glass cases all along the walls, all lit by the white glow. We walked past weapons and treasures outta the legends we all knew. There was el’Thor’s crystal sword, and Freddie’s Ring, the Orb of Aldur, the Horn of the Stonelands (both pieces of it), the Sword of Shannara and a bunch more I couldn’t name, but which I felt I knew better than some of the people I’d grown up with. And at the end, by itself, the thing we’d come for. The Fist of Crom. A golden warhammer, carved with dwarven runes. It looked like the picture in Incanus’s book, but much bigger. No one said anything for a long time. Then Elerossë stepped forward and unlocked the front of the cabinet with one of the keys from the big bunch at his belt, and he carefully took it out. He stepped up to me. “The First of Crom,” he said in a soft voice. “Forged in Dwarrowdelf by the Longbeard dwarves of Thorek’s Line, wielded by their kings for long centuries, before being given to Wulfang, Chieftain of the North as weregild for the death of his father who fell defending King Thrair from orcs. With this mighty weapon, the last wyrm was slain, and the Battle of Skullsplint Valley was won. Now, I bequeath it to you, Ragnar Ulrichson, in the hopes that it may be used to save New Atlas.”

Reverently, he placed it in my hands and, as I looked down at it, I thought, this is godsdamned ridiculous.

*

The Met had its own little area of parkland, and when we stepped out the front entrance, we found ourselves on a wooded hillside, looking down over the entire island of Manahills. It was night, but I could see smoke rising from the buildings downtown. The Kingdom Province Building, at the heart of the city, looked the worst hit of all. I could see the gashes in its side much better from here, and there was an orange pall hanging over everything. Fires were burning somewhere, I guessed. Snow was drifting gently to the ground around us but, like in the city, it couldn’t settle in the heat coming outta the earth. I rolled up my sleeves, and Poppy looked down at my arm. I followed her gaze and winced at what I saw there. The scaling had come back, and bad. Now the whole area from my wrist to the elbow was covered in dark, red-gold scales. They caught the sheen of the dim yellow lights on the outside of the museum. “Your dad say anythin’ about how Robbie was doin’?” I asked her.

“He thought he’d be okay, so long as that dragon gets dealt with.”

I looked back down at my arm. “Well, the rate this seems to be spreadin’, you might find yourselves havin’ to deal with another one pretty soon…”

“What’s the plan, Ragnar?” Ironsmith asked again.

“Why the heck does everyone assume I got some kinda idea of what’s going on?” I frowned down at the city, thinking. “Well, no way I’m takin’ the dwarf tunnels right to that buildin’. It looks like it’s about to collapse.”

“Plus I bet it’s hot as Hel by there,” Poppy point out.

“Hel’s cold,” I answered automatically, “but yeah. Also a good point. What’s close by?”

“Everythin’,” Ironsmith shrugged. “Tell me where you wanna go, an’ we can probably find a tunnel that takes you there. But what you gonna do? Just walk in the front door when you get to the Kindgom Province Building?”

“Pretty much, I guess.”

“That would be suicide,” Elerossë said. He sounded totally calm about it. Elves got a funny attitude to death, what with not really having much experience of it.

“Anyone got any better ideas? It’s a dragon, fellas, an’ I think it can sense me somehow, so how the heck am I supposed to sneak up on the damn thing? No, the only thing I can think is that I gotta just go in there an’…do what I gotta do…” I looked around at everyone. Professor Incanus was leaning on his cane. He looked tired and dirty, but there was some strange light in his eyes. “Prof, I think you’d better stay here. It could get pretty dangerous downtown.”

“But you might need guidance on how to…”

“Look,” I held up my hand, “no one I’ve spoken to in the last few days knows much of anythin’ about dragons, it seems to me. It’s all rumours an’ tales an’ so on. It took me bringin’ together a human librarian, a dwarf engineer an’ a gnome busboy to even know what I know now, which ain’t seem to be much. So with all due respect to you various worthies, I think I gotta do this by myself. Trust the dragonslayer, all right?”

That shut them up, but as me, Ironsmith and Poppy went back through the dwarf door, she grabbed my hand again. “I gotta go with you though,” she said.

“No. It’s too dangerous.”

“You don’t got to look after me. I’m older’n you are, remember?”

“It ain’t that…”

“Then is it ’cause I’m a woman? I ain’t need you to be some knight in shinin’ armour while I wait to be rescued.”

I grinned, not that she could see it in the dark. “Funny, seems like I did have to rescue you last time.”

“Yeah, well, Amandil an’ his goons nearly ran the taxi you put me in off the road. An’ don’t think I didn’t put up a fight. Besides, you’d never have cracked that particular case if it weren’t for me.”

“True. But you gotta sit this one out.”

“Why?”

“‘Cause I gotta do this by myself.”

“Why?”

“Just…trust me on this one, all right? When we get back above ground, you get to the hospital. Your folks need you.”

“But Ironsmith gets to come with you?”

“Nope. He’s goin’ back to his lodge to mobilise some kinda defence. The dwarves are the only ones with any sorta experience with what’s goin’ on right now.”

“An’ gnomes…”

“Gotta keep their heads down. Remember how Amandil nearly started a war between orcs an’ humans? Well if I ain’t able to stop it, this dragon’ll do the same for dwarves an’ gnomes. Three thousand years of simmerin’ resentment’s gonna explode all over New Atlas.”

I didn’t get no more arguments, but neither of them seemed too happy. This was my call though, whatever they thought. Whatever anyone thought. And as I walked out onto the streets, it felt like destiny walked with me. The chaos seemed to melt away as I turned at an intersection and saw a silent, empty street leading all the way up to the Kingdom Province Building. Stuff was burning everywhere. Heaps of stolen goods – bits of furniture, car tyres, newspapers, anything a light could be set to, I guessed. I could see the kobolds slinking around in the shadows, staring at me with their yellow eyes. There were a whole bunch of ’em. How long had they been lurking below the ground, waiting for this day? They’d been digging around, preparing for war, forging weapons. I saw knives and swords and axes, gleaming in the firelight. All strangely designed, with cruel barbs and jagged edges. They’d been underground for thousands of years, forgotten by the rest of the world, and the problem was that, like the dragon, they didn’t know how much it’d changed. Well, I was here to disabuse ’em of a few notions. It wasn’t just kobolds there though – there were others, some gnomes like Robbie, changed by the dragon’s strange power, now covered in scales with the same big yellow eyes, but still recognisably gnomish. And, in amongst ’em, humans too. If anything, they were even further gone; changed into something hunched and reptilian, their scaly claws pawing at the ground as forked tongues flickered in their mouths. I got a terrifying vision of the future of New Atlas and my resolve hardened. And still no one barred my way. The dragon wanted me to come, that much was obvious. He was even expecting me, I reckoned.

The front of the Kingdom Province Building has an elegant awning over three sets of doors and, above that, three tall windows that stretch about four floors. They’re old dwarven designs, with frosted glass and diamond-shaped patterns, such as you’d see on a lot of dwarf artefacts. At least, that’s how I remember it looking. Now it was just a big hole, ripped right through the concrete, leading into an empty lobby inside. I walked through the ruin. There were more fires inside, where anything that wasn’t nailed down, and quite a few things that were and had just been ripped off the walls, were piled up and set alight. I didn’t so no kobolds in here, except a few skulking shapes in the corners maybe. The whole lobby was dark – I guess the power had gone out a while ago – and there was the reek of brimstone in the air. In amongst the bonfires were some other piles of stuff. As I walked past one, I gave it a poke with my shoe. They were valuables – some jewellery, a few coins, a pearl necklace and an old painting of some broad in a dress. The only material treasures in New Atlas: trinkets and heirlooms, and the kobolds had obviously brought them here to try and satisfy their master. Somehow, I didn’t think it’d be enough. Smoke and ash choked me and I coughed and retched as I reached the centre of the huge room, made even huger by the damage the dragon had done. Whole floors and walls had just been ripped apart to leave a huge, cavernous space in the centre of the building. I didn’t think it’d stay standing for much longer. The black shapes of metal girders, torn up or melted by dragonfire, hung down through the dark smog, and I could feel the heat high up above. Sweat dripped down my face, stung my eyes. My shirt was soaked through already, sticking to my back. I looked upwards, into the darkness. There was a faint glow up there, high up near where I guessed the top of the building was. It was roosting there, where it could see everything. And what it saw now was me.

The glow got brighter, and there was a faint whistle in the air, but more than that I felt it plunge towards me, something huge and terrible. How I stood my ground I’ll never know, but I waited there for it, staring straight up as the red light turned to orange, then yellow, then a burning white and finally I had to look away just as I saw the vague shape of two mighty wings through the smoke and then the waft of stinking air washed over me and drove me down to my knees. I held up my arm, the one with the scales, and felt my skin prickle. At first I thought it was the heat crackling my skin, cooking me like I was a pork chop, but then I realised that it was the dragon’s hideous touch, and my flesh was being warped, crisped into dragon scales. But the monster didn’t fall any further. It just waited there, hovering above my head, giving me its undivided attention. Which was exactly what I wanted.

Slowly, I got back up to my feet. The light dimmed a bit, and I could look up, but I still couldn’t make a damn thing out. The smoke was too thick, the light still too bright, and all I could see was a shape moving slowly up there, massive and black and scaly, its wings wafting slowly up and down, up and down. The smell of sulphur was almost unbearable.

“I guess you know who I am!” I shouted up at it.

No need to shout, human. Your thoughts are laid bare to me.

“Well ain’t that nice,” I said, “no need for any silly introductions or nothin’.”

Indeed. I know what you are. Ragnar, the Son of Ulrich. A Northman. The one the people of this city call hero. Or is it…dragonslayer?

“Ragnar Ulrichson is just fine. An’ my pop’s name was Ulf. Ulrichson’s just a name. A lot’s changed, y’see. Kinda what I wanted to talk about, actually.”

I am not interested in talk, Ragnar Ulrichson.

“Then what are you interested in, exactly?”

I felt something like a chuckle from up there. It didn’t reassure me too much. Wealth. Treasure. Gold. Long ago, in what you now call the First Age, I was known as Hexxus the Great, one of the mightiest fire drakes of my generation, the only survivor of the last brood of Queen Eltherix, Mistress of the Northern Sky. For eight-hundred years, I grew my hoard, plundering fortresses and cities, laying waste to entire nations, until I lay upon a mountain of gold, gemstones, gilded cuirasses, swords of unimaginable provenance, crowns of kings, thrones of emperors and all the other treasures of the ancient world. But the world changed, and my hunger grew and, in time, all my wealth was consumed by dragonfire. And when the ice came, I was driven from my mountain lair, the great spire that was known for a thousand leagues in all directions as Drakkenfell, or Hellfire Peak, or Mount Doomstone. I fled the frozen winds, and found that dwarves and humans had learned how dragons were slain, and no longer feared me as once they had. And so I fled, to the depths of the ocean, and hid myself in a black trench where no sunlight had ever shone, and thence burrowed into the depths of the earth, to the molten fire of the underworld, and I waited. I waited for long, slow years, for the civilisations of the world to forget that dragons had ever been spawned, until the last dwindling troglodytes of my race were wiped out, until my name was barely more than a half-remembered snatch of myth. And then, when all thoughts of my kind had gone from every mind, I waited again…I waited for a time of glory, when some great empire would rise from the ashes of war, and gather to it all the wealth of its Age. I waited for the founding of a city greater than any that had come before and, when the all the minds I could hear turned inexorably to one place, to one city, that was when I knew the time had come for me to rise again. Do you see now what I am ‘interested in’, Ragnar Ulrichson? Do you understand what my burning heart desires? Do you perceive what has drawn me here to this place, at this time?

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess I kinda do.”

There was an awkward silence. I think he’d been expecting me to say something else. But all I’d got from everything he’d just told me was that he didn’t really have much of a clue what he was dealing with these days. So…now you know who and what I am, and what I desire, you must decide.

“Decide what?”

What your destiny is to be. You humans are weak against my power. Even now, you are transforming into one of my slaves. So you must decide soon. Will you destroy me, or aid me?

“Well, the way I see it, I ain’t got much of a chance of destroyin’ you…”

Indeed.

“Some friends of mine, they gave me a weapon that they seemed to think might help.” I reached into my jacket and took something out.

That puny thing? I could feel the amusement radiating down through the smoke.

“This?” I held up my old revolver. “No. This is just a gun. An’ I tried shootin’ you with it before, an’ it didn’t do much good. No, what they wanted me to bring here was some dumbass hammer one of my ancestors used to kill a wyrm.”

I know the weapon of which you speak.

“Right. An’ maybe it would’ve worked. Who knows? But I ain’t stupid enough to try it. No, ’cause I ain’t no dragonslayer. I ain’t even a hero. I’m just Ragnar Ulrichson, a washed out private dick with a drink problem he ain’t got nearly as under control as he’d like to think.”

So…you will serve me?

I walked over to one of the smouldering bonfires. There was a chair in there, just a battered thing from an office, probably taken out of some security guards little cubby hole. I lifted it up and patted out the flames. Then I sat down in it, tilting it back a little bit so I could look up at my new buddy more comfortably. “An’ what would I be doin’ in your service, exactly?”

Gathering.

“Gathering…?” I moved my hand in a circle, encouraging him to go on.

Wealth. Treasure. Gold.

“Uh huh.” I looked around at the little piles of stuff scattered around the floor of the lobby. “An’ how’s that workin’ out so far?”

That seemed to stump him a bit. I could feel him up there, and I could feel his annoyance. This city is strange…it is all words…and paper…

“Right, yeah. See, about that…”

But somewhere, there must be gold! Hidden somewhere, in some vault, far from the knowledge of my slaves. The paper that is exchanged must be supported by something of real value, or it is meaningless. That is why I will transform more and more of the humans of this city, until I have found one whose mind knows the truth. Then, they will lead me to the treasure.

“Heh.” I scratched at my stubble. “See, that’s the thing, Hexxus. I ain’t think you ever gonna find anythin’. Because, y’see, there ain’t really anythin’ to find. There’s some gold, some bits of ‘treasure’, as you say, in art galleries an’ museums, an’ maybe in some of the elves’ places. But I ain’t think it adds up to all the money in the banks an’ so on.”

Then…how can you consider yourselves wealthy?

“Kinda a difficult question, bub. But the way I understand it is this: everyone in New Atlas pretends that there’s this money, an’ as long as everyone acts like it exists, that there’s some big pile of gold sittin’ there somewhere, it all works fine. That way, no one has to have any actual gold. Which is always easier.”

So the wealth of New Atlas exists only in the minds of its people?

“Exactly!”

Then I will simply enslave everyone in this city and their minds will belong to me. I felt the beat of his wings, and my arm started to tingle again.

“Ah,” I said, getting up from my chair and taking a step back from the indistinct shape in the smoke, “but if everyone’s your slave, they ain’t gonna buy anythin’, are they?”

Buy?

“That’s right. New Atlas is wealthy not just ’cause of all the stuff the people make an’ do, but ’cause those same people buy an’ use that stuff. If everyone’s your slave, all the wealth just disappears. In a puff of smoke.”

THEN I WILL DESTROY YOU ALL, AND JUST TAKE THE THINGS YOU HAVE MADE!

“But the things ain’t got no value without people to use ’em!” I shouted back over the din of his flapping wings. “You kill us, an’ the houses are just shells! The cars are just scrap! All you’re gonna have is a big pile of ash an’ ruin! People’re all that matter here! Free people!”

THIS IS INSANITY! ALL THE WORLD’S THOUGHTS ARE TURNED TO THE GLORY OF THIS CITY, YET THERE IS NOTHING HERE! JUST A NEST OF ANTS, SENSELESSLY BREEDING AND WORKING FOR NOTHING!

“Right! An’ it’s the same everywhere! This is what I been tryin’ to explain! The world’s changed since you went to sleep, an’ now we ain’t care about the same things no more! Gold’s just metal, an’ it ain’t much use ’cause you can’t build no machines or buildings out of it!”

THEN I WILL SIMPLY BURN YOU FOR THE SATISFACTION OF IT! THIS FORTRESS OF LIES, THIS NEW ATLAS, WILL DIE IN AN APOCALYPSE OF DRAGONFIRE!

“No!” I flung up my hand. “What happens after that? You’ll sit on your big pile of ash, an’ then you’ll either be destroyed – ’cause, buddy, we got bigger guns than this little thing – or you’ll have to burn up the whole damn world. There ain’t no endgame here. All you can do is leave, an’ wait for us to destroy ourselves.”

The dragon paused. Destroy…yourselves?

“That’s right,” I nodded, “’cause we will, one day. We ain’t need your help. One day, this city will come tumblin’ down, an’ the whole word will be covered in darkness an’ we’ll have to crawl back outta the shadows. An’ when that happens, we’ll go back to gold an’ treasure an’ all the rest of it. One day, dragons’ll get their chance again. You just gotta wait. This ain’t your world, Hexxus. Humans an’ dwarves an’ gnomes an’ all the rest…we’ve grown outta dragons. For now, at least.”

But one day…?

“One day. One day we’ll be foolish enough again.”

Not foolish. This, the thing you have now, is foolish.

“Maybe.”

Your civilisation is built on unstable foundations. You pretend that your paper money means something but as soon as your outstrip your resources, it will all crumble. You will limp on, your tokens decreasing in value year on year as your population grows and your wells run dry. Without some material measure of your wealth, what hope is there for you?

“Exactly. It’s crazy. So wait us out. Fly away, hide beneath the earth again, wait an’ listen for the day when we’re ready to be conquered. Then you can build a new mountain lair an’ a new hoard to sleep on. How long do dragons live?”

As long as is necessary.

“There you go then. You got all the time in the world.”

He seemed to be thinking about my suggestion. Humans are strange creatures. You would bank on the promise that your world will one day be destroyed?

“Sure.”

And this does not fill your mind with horror?

“You tell me. You said my thoughts were laid bare, right?”

Curious…you know that one day this will all come to an end…

“That’s mortality for you. One day, it all ends. But not today. That’s the one thought that keeps us alive. The worst will happen – just not today.”

Not today the dragon agreed.

*

The snow came down, and this time it settled, covering the whole city in a clean, white blanket. The fires went out, the scorch marks were hidden, the ruins of the Bank of Dwarrowdelf and the rents in the side of the Kingdom Province Building didn’t seem so bad any more. We were in the Dale, walking slowly down one of the paths. The skeletons of trees, all covered in a layer of white, hung over us. The duck pond was frozen over.

“How’s your arm?” Poppy asked me.

“Fine. Your dad’s salve cleared it right up. Now the dragon’s gone, everythin’ can go back to normal.”

“Not quite everythin’,” she said sadly.

“No. Not quite.” With their master gone, the city was left with a sudden influx of newcomers – the kobolds. They were lost and confused, savage and dangerous. But they wouldn’t be the first people like that to find a place in New Atlas. They had nowhere to go, so we’d just have to integrate them. And then there were the people that’d been changed. Gnomes and humans mostly, but there were a few members of other species that seemed to have got caught up too and who’d been affected to various degrees. Turns out, once a dragon takes root in your head, he never really leaves. Their families didn’t know them anymore, so they were just left to live with the kobolds in the shanty towns now going up in the poorest parts of the city. It was a disaster.

“Robbie’s still in the hospital,” Poppy said, looking out across the Dale as we reached a bend in the path that gave us a view across the snow-covered park, “but he ain’t know who we are. When he’s recovered from his injuries…I dunno what we’ll do…”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault. Killin’ the dragon probably wouldn’t have made no difference neither.”

I wasn’t sure about that. I wasn’t sure about anything. “You know why I did what I did, right?”

“Kinda…”

“It’s ’cause, if I did the other thing, it woudn’t have changed nothin’. When I saw my arm outside The Met, I thought about what I was becomin’. Everyone called me a hero, but what’s a hero, really? Just a symbol: somethin’ for people to believe in.”

“Is that so bad?”

“It ain’t no substitute for real freedom, Poppy. If I killed the dragon, I’d just be replacin’ him with another one. Me. An’ New Atlas ain’t mean nothin’ without its freedom. That’s what the dragon didn’t understand: the wealth of this city is all tied up in its people an’ what they’re capable of. Take away their opportunity to grow an’ live their own lives…this place is just a mausoleum. It’s just ash.”

“I see.”

It was the day before Yule. We hadn’t talked about our plans since before all this started. “Poppy…” I began.

“No, let me talk, Ragnar.” She turned to look at me. She was wearing her red knitted hat again and she looked very small and very pretty, standing in the snow. “We…that is, me and my folks, I think we need to be there for Robbie right now. There’s still a chance that he…he might recover…be himself again. Stranger things have happened, y’know?”

“Of course…”

“So…I guess we won’t be able to spend Yule together.”

“I understand. It’s fine.”

“An’…an’ here’s the thing…with everythin’ that’s happened…I think maybe…I think maybe we’ve been goin’ a little too fast, y’know?”

I nodded. “Yeah…yeah…”

“So maybe we should take a little bit of time to ourselves? Just…step back a little.”

“That…that seems like a good idea…” She squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back after a couple seconds.

She put her other hand against my face. She had to reach up to do it. “I’m sorry, Ragnar. I just got a few things to work out. It’s been a crazy week.”

“I know.”

I wondered what she might be saying now if I’d killed the dragon, if I’d done what everyone expected me to do. If I was the hero this city thought it needed. The kobolds might have all died from the shock of Hexxus dying, at least that’s what Incanus thought, and maybe that would’ve been better. A clean break. But what then? No one ever thinks about ‘what then’, do they? The dragon’s dead, long live the dragon.

“Have a good Yule, yeah?” She stood up on her tiptoes and kissed me on the cheek, like she used to.

“You too. Say hi to your folks for me an’…an’ say sorry too…”

“They know.” She squeezed my hand one more time, then turned and walked away, across the park, leaving footsteps in the snow. I watched her go as the flakes started to fall from the sky again.

I went back to my office. Willow asked me if I was okay and I just shrugged her off as I hung up my coat. I sat down at my desk with a wince. The cold weather was bad on my hip. Willow followed me into the office, carrying something. “Hey, Mr Ulrichson?”

“Yeah?”

“My dad asked me to give you this. Kinda a Yuletide gift, you know?”

“A gift? What for?”

“Just for everythin’ you’ve done for us this year.”

“That’s very kind of him.” I held out my hand, but Willow lifted up the parcel. It was obvious from the shape it was a bottle of something.

“He…uh…he don’t know you don’t drink…”

“Ah.”

“I didn’t wanna just tip it away myself. At least, not before I gave it to you.”

“Right.”

“It seemed like the right thing to do.”

I bobbed my head. “Yeah.”

“So, shall I tip it away now?”

“I…no…no, I’ll do it. You go home, Willow. It’s Yule tomorrow. Ain’t no one gonna walk in tonight, an’ we’re all shut up tomorrow. Go an’ be with your family, an’ thank your dad for me.”

“Okay, Mr Ulrichson,” she smiled, “thanks.” She put the gift down on the desk in front of me and then gathered her things. “Have a great Yule!” she called from the doorway.

“You too.”

She shut the door. I looked at the parcel on my desk. Slowly, I tore off the wrapping paper. It was whisky. Good stuff too. Outside, the street lights were coming on. It was getting dark. Tomorrow, I’d be alone. And I thought to myself, somewhere in this room, there’s a glass. That was pretty much the last thing I remembered for a while.

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

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