The next part of it I had to piece together after the fact, on account of I was unconscious for almost all of it. And even with what I got told afterwards, I still ain’t got all the pieces matched up properly yet. Ironsmith, as soon as he put that phone down, started to figure I’d go and do something crazy. He’d tried not to give me too much to go on, but he knew what a stubborn bastard I was. He tried to ring back the coffee house, but I was long gone. Then he tried finding the warehouse himself with a few of his boys, but I had a head start. He says they heard three gunshots in the distance when they were halfway up 12th Avenue – that’d be when McKinley got killed, I suppose – and they tried to follow them, but the fog was too thick by then. So, knowing perfectly well that I’d managed to find my way into even deeper trouble, he got dwarves standing guard on every wharf along the west side of Manahills, checking for anything suspicious floating past. I got washed up about a mile downstream, and when they called Ironsmith and he came to find me, he saw me lying there, limp, pale, my fingers turning black, and figured I was dead. I must’ve coughed up some river water or something though, because he and his dwarves carried me all the way back to his yard, forced as much water out of me as they could, dressed the ugly gash in my side and put me to bed. Ironsmith said he was expecting to come back in the morning and find me dead. He should be so lucky.
“How you feelin’?”
Ironsmith was sitting on a stool next to me and I was stripped to the waist and lying underneath a scratchy blanket on a camp bed built for dwarves so most of my legs hung out over the bottom. And I felt pretty much the worst I’d ever felt. My chest was burning – probably from almost drowning – my side was numb from the pain, but whenever I tried to shift my weight a little, it exploded in agony. My head still hurt, I thought I was gonna throw up any second and the shadows were stretching out from the corners of my vision now so I felt like I was peering through a gap in black fog.. “Okay, I guess,” I said.
“You always were a crummy liar.” He passed me a glass and I propped myself up on my elbow with a wince.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Water. Nothin’ else for you, not for a while.”
“Not even coffee?”
“Not even soda. You oughta be dead, Ragnar.” He was looking at me with a weird expression. Like he was scared or something.
“Just lucky I guess. They probably thought they’d finished me off, then dumped me in the river to hide the evidence.”
“Who? What happened back there?”
I was in Ironsmith’s office. The walls didn’t go all the way up to the warehouse’s ceiling. “Anyone out there?”
“No, I’ve kept ’em out.”
“Anyone know I’m here?”
“Only the dwarves that helped me carry you.”
“You trust ’em?”
“I said they were dwarves, didn’t I?” he asked me with a slight cocked eyebrow.
“Right. Well, we got problems.”
“I know that.”
“Bigger problems than you think. Lily wasn’t who I thought she was.”
“Then who was she?”
I took a gulp of the water. It hurt to swallow. Actually it hurt to do pretty much anything. “She was…she was a drow.”
Ironsmith’s eyes went real wide. “You must’ve made some mistake,” he said, “there ain’t no…”
“Drow,” I said, putting as much weight as I could muster into my voice. “I swear to Crom. An’ she wasn’t alone: there was a whole gang of ’em. They looked pretty flush too. Said they came from Svartheim. They said…they said they were gonna take over New Atlas…”
“How’re they gonna do that?”
“I think they already did. McKinley’s dead.”
“One of Lily’s boys shot him. I think it was all a trap, to lure me there. I think she poisoned me when I was at Castamir’s, hopin’ the Black Lotus’d kill me, but I kept goin’, so they needed to come up with somethin’ else. Then they led me on a dance all over town. They probably fed your orc the information about the warehouse.”
“Damn…why couldn’t they just gun you down in the street?”
“Hel if I know. Maybe they realised I had more connections than they thought? Can’t leave a body to be found, hence why they threw me in the dang river.”
“An’ you think these drow are behind all the changes in the NAPD?”
“It makes sense. They seem to be settin’ things up so they can take over all the organised crime in the city.”
“That does make sense,” Ironsmith said, running his fingers through his beard thoughtfully. “Time was, this city was ruled over by elf gangs like that. Used to call ’em ‘the mob’, or an old Stonelander word.”
“Mafia. Don’t ask me what it means. That’s ancient history though, when the dwarves first built New Atlas, even before most of the humans showed up.”
“I thought we had enough problems with the elves like Amandil, the rich ones, without dark elves showin’ up an’ tryin’ to take things over.”
“Amandil an’ his kind are just mobsters gone legit.” Ironsmith shook his head. “This is bad news. Drow hate everyone except their own kind, an’ they ain’t particularly fond of them neither. An’ if they got the cops in their pockets…”
I rubbed my head. I’d lost my gun, my wallet, even my jacket, during my little swim, so there wasn’t much chance Poppy’s cure for the poisoning had managed to stay in my pocket. I’d just have to try to gut it out. Or find a doctor. “The only thing I can think is we got to go to the mayor himself or somethin’…”
Ironsmith grimaced and reached over for the newspaper sitting on his desk. He passed it to me. “In all the excitement yesterday, I guess we missed that speech.”
There was a picture of the new mayor underneath a headline that said ‘Mayor Issues Non-Human Ultimatum’ in big letters. I gave the article a quick read, then tossed the paper to the floor. “What’s he talkin’ about? He don’t want humans doin’ business outside their species?”
“He don’t want no one doin’ any business outside their own kind.”
“No one’s gonna stand for laws like that.”
“You don’t think so? How many human businesses got ‘no non-humans’ hung up on their doors these days? You just gotta look at the way everyone watches each other on the streets now too. I ain’t know many humans besides you who’d think these kinda laws were anythin’ but overdue. Did you read what he said about kobolds?”
“I didn’t get that far. The whole thing made me sick. Sicker.”
“He says they’re a menace. They got no place in New Atlas. They came here illegally, up through the sewers, an’ he’s gonna drive ’em back underground.”
“They got as much right to be here as anyone else…”
“You’re the only one who thinks so.”
“Yeah, an’ I’m the one got the least reason to! So if I can, why not everyone else?”
Ironsmith nodded sadly. “You preachin’ to the converted, buddy. But what a lot of dwarves are sayin’ is that, if he can drive out the kobolds, who’s gonna be next? Goblins? Orcs? Us?”
“So,” I mused aloud, “either we coincidentally got a lot of assholes comin’ out the woodwork at the same time, or the drow’ve got the mayor in their pocket too.”
“I can see why they’d try to buy the NAPD, but why go all the way to the top? If they can control the mayor, why they even got to run a criminal cartel anyway? They could just take over legit.”
“Just like they coulda gunned you down in the street?”
“Right,” I said grimly, “they ain’t wanna leave no body behind. They’re gonna hollow New Atlas out from within, bleed it dry.”
“The drow Mafia are Black Lotus for the city,” Ironsmith agreed.
“Dang. An’ talkin’ of bleedin’…” I pulled back the sheet and took a look at my side. The dwarves had dressed it as best they could, but the bandages were soaked with black blood. And I could see my fingers and toes were starting to go black too now, like Poppy said they would. Dark tendrils seemed to be creeping up my hands, like the darkness rising in my vision. “I could probably use a doctor.”
“We could try gettin’ you to the hospital…” Ironsmith sounded doubtful.
“The moment I walk out this door, someone’s gonna spot me an’ then they’ll come for me again. I hate to say it, but I think some of the boys you got workin’ for you might be double-dealin’. I already met two cops I thought I trusted who I think helped set me up.”
“I’ll get a doctor here then.”
“If you can find one you trust.” I looked around. “Harl, this warehouse ain’t safe.”
“It’s as safe as any place in New Atlas.”
“Exactly. Nowhere in this city’s safe right now. What’s the word on the street?”
“I can only speak for dwarves, but it ain’t good. We been in this kinda situation before. First it starts with killin’ our businesses, then they take our homes an’ put us in ghettos, an’ then…well…”
“Right.” Dwarves lost their homelands to wars and dragonfire thousands of years ago. Since then they’d wandered the world, tolerated wherever they settled, but never really welcome. Some folks hadn’t even gone as far as tolerance though. People said dwarves hold a grudge – I think if my species had been put through even half of what theirs had, I’d be holdin’ a grudge too.
“Some clans are already packin’ up while they can, gettin’ out of New Atlas before things get bad.”
“An’ what’re you gonna do?”
Ironsmith sucked at his teeth. “I got no idea. I was born in this city, spent my whole life here, built up a successful company. You been to my folks’ place, you know we ain’t rich. I made all this,” he held out his hands, “from nothin’. If I leave, I gotta start from scratch again.”
“Better than stayin’ here to die.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but is it better’n stayin’ here to fight?”
I lay down in the camp bed and stared up at the warehouse ceiling high above me. “Fight,” I said, almost to myself, “that’s exactly what the drow want. Non-humans fightin’ the cops, the elected authorities. It gives their stooges all the ammunition they need to crack down.”
“So what? We just run?”
“That don’t sound like you, Ragnar.”
“We run, Harl. But we don’t run far. An’ you better believe we’re gonna come back. But for now…yeah, we run.”
We only had one advantage that I could see. The drow thought I was dead, and they were half right, but if we could get outta New Atlas and find a safe place to hold up while we made our plans, when we came back we’d have surprise on our sides. Ironsmith told me about a place up the river, way outside city limits, a sawmill his company owned. That’s where they got all the timber for their digging projects, he explained. We took a boat, one of the barges they used to carry the lumber so we wouldn’t attract no attention, and I stayed below decks. I had a little round window I could watch out of though, and I saw the docks of New Atlas slip by slowly. It was another dirty, grey day, and the city looked grimier than ever. The crime had always been bad, and there’d always been gangs and so forth, but the idea of a mob of cutthroats like the drow taking over the streets while their patsies did everything they could to segregate the neighbourhoods and keep people thinking their enemies were the same folks they’d spent the last few decades living peacefully beside, well, it really stuck in my damn craw, let’s put it that way. I ripped my eyes away from the grubby porthole and looked down at my hands. The veins had turned black now, and the poison was creeping up my arms. Somehow, I knew I should be dead already. I couldn’t rightly tell you what was keeping me alive, but then I glanced out the window as the barge slid underneath the Thavron Iaunost Bridge and saw the traffic choking it. The sidewalk was packed too, a lot of people all going in the same direction with bags. Dwarves mostly, but there were goblins who knew which way the wind was blowing, a few orcs and even the huge, loping shape of a troll. When those guys were on the run, you knew things were bad. It was an exodus.
It took us a few hours to get to the sawmill. A dwarf helped me outta the cabin I’d been stinking up. There were only half a dozen others with us, all dwarves Ironsmith said he trusted with his life. I told him it wasn’t his life that was the issue here. He’d laughed, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was leaving behind a lot. The boat was moored at a little stone dock and the sawmill was a big, low wooden building down a path with a few sheds scattered around nearby. There were trees all around us and the dock was just on a bend in the river so as you couldn’t see it until you were right on top of us. I looked around, wondering just how the heck we could only be a few miles outta the city. The air was clean, birds were singing, and the trees were just starting to green up. I limped down the gangplank in a kinda daze, still holding my blanket around my shoulders. “They got a doctor here,” Ironsmith said as he helped me onto the deck. “Sawmills are dangerous places.”
“I can imagine. He any good?”
“He can stitch a wound closed,” he shrugged.
“What about the Black Lotus?”
“We’ll see what he has to say I guess.”
The doctor’s name was Shatterstone, a good dwarf family name, but Ironsmith was right when he said he was more used to patching up lumberjacks’ injuries. He couldn’t help with the poison, except to give me something he said might help with the headache and the dizziness, but he stitched my side right up. “I’unno how the heck you’re still on your damn feet, mister,” he said to me as he got to work.
“I’m lyin’ down now, ain’t I?” The dwarf workers here lived in the sheds. Most of them had family back in New Atlas, but they’d stay up here for two or three weeks at a time, then go home on a barge and soak up the booze for a few days in the city before starting it all over again. It was a hard kinda life, but at least they got some fresh air. The sheds were warm and cosy enough, but built for dwarves, so I had to stoop the whole time I was there. Ironsmith put me up in a room of my own, with a bunk that was a little bigger than the others, but still too small. I winced a little as I felt the needle bite into my flesh.
“It ain’t gonna heal so good ’cause of the poison in your blood,” Shatterstone explained. He had a grey beard and a bald head. He must’ve been pretty old, even for a dwarf. “You need to get to a hospital, son.”
“Tell me somethin’ I don’t know.” I thought the air did me some good though. The dwarf workers carried on like we weren’t even there, but I caught ’em talking amongst themselves in dwarvish now and then and casting worried looks downriver. It must’ve been tough to know your home was falling apart but there was nothing you could do about it. Hel, I wasn’t sure if there was anything I could do about it yet.
The next morning, when I felt strong enough to get something to eat and a mug of coffee to drink, I was sitting outside on the dock when Ironsmith came to find me. The dwarves he’d brought with him were always on guard, scouting down the river bank, making sure no one was out looking for us. A steady trickle of other dwarves were starting to arrive too, guys who worked for Ironsmith, or other members of his lodge. The place was filling up. “You oughta keep outta sight,” he told me.
“I thought you weren’t lettin’ anyone leave once they got here?”
“So any drow spies can see whatever they like – they ain’t gonna report back, are they?”
“I guess not.” He looked at me. I knew I was a mess. They’d found some clothes that fit me, an old shirt and some slacks, but my face was grey and tired, I badly needed a shave, and my hair was lank and greasy. My side was just about holding shut, but the skin around the stitches was going black where the toxic blood was pooling. I could see the black tendrils snaking up my arm too and a look in a cracked mirror on the wall of my room that morning had shown me they were working their way up my neck now too. Pretty soon I’d look like a drow myself. “I think we oughta send a coded message to Poppy or somethin’, see if we can get you some more of that mixture. Just keep you on your feet. I’ve been puttin’ out feelers, seein’ if there’s a doctor I can find who I trust to bring here an’ keep his mouth shut when he goes back, but no dice.”
I gave his suggestion a bit of thought. “Yeah, as long as it’s somethin’ only she’ll be able to figure out. Make sure she don’t get the crazy idea to come here herself though.”
“I ain’t gonna tell her where we are. Besides, she ain’t as dumb as you – she’ll stay right where she is, nice an’ safe.”
“If Jonastown is any safer than the rest of the city,” I said, then took a sip of my coffee.
A wiry, young-looking orc got off the barge the next morning. He had a shifty look about him, but he was dressed pretty sharp. He watched the trees warily as he headed for the main building, but he didn’t see me up on the hill, just inside the forest, keeping an eye on things. I walked slowly down the rough path to the sawmill. Part of me thought I should keep outta sight, but I figured any orc who’d got onto one of Ironsmith’s boats must’ve been pretty trustworthy. I saw Ironsmith lead the kid out of the mill and into the shed he was using as an office. I followed them in. “You’re just in time,” my friend said as I walked in.
The orc looked at me. He wasn’t quite my height, but he looked like he had some muscle, like most orcs. I held out a hand. “Ragnar Ulrichson.”
“This is Broga,” Ironsmith explained. The orc hadn’t taken my hand. “He’s…well…”
“I’m his ear to the street,” Broga said.
“Right.” He was an informant, someone Ironsmith paid to watch New Atlas’s criminal elements, so a legitimate businessman like him could stay ahead of the game. I knew how it worked.
“I got somethin’ for ‘the lummox’. I guess that’s you, huh, Northman?” He tossed a package to me.
“I told you I was gonna code the message,” Ironsmith said with a wave of his hand. “That oughta help, right?”
I looked at the package. I could guess who it was from and what would be in it. “I hope so.”
“Broga’s been keepin’ an eye on things back home. I was hopin’ we might get some information about our new friends who are runnin’ things now.”
The ‘office’ only had a couple of stools, and Broga sat down on one. I leant on the wall. It hurt my side to sit down for too long anyway. “Things ain’t good.”
“We know that,” Ironsmith said.
“Yeah, well you ain’t got no idea, holed up here, safe an’ sound. The whole damn city’s fallin’ apart though. All the orcs, they gone underground. The gangs is on the run, fallin’ back to Orca, talkin’ ’bout makin’ some kinda last stand. The cops say they gonna flush ’em right out, torch the whole joint.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“Tell me about it, Northman. Things got escalated real fast though. There was a brawl in Little Stoneland last night. Some orcs started causin’ a little trouble, no big deal, an’ some restaurant owner calls in the cops. Next thing you know, we got near enough a full scale riot goin’ on. Wagons an’ cars an’ horses an’ who knows what the heck else. Now their new commissioner, he gets on the radio, says the gangs’ve had the run a’ the streets too long.”
“Who’s the new commissioner?” said Ironsmith.
“Some Northman. No one I ever heard of before.”
“What about the kobolds?” I asked.
“They’re runnin’ scared too. Back down their holes mostly. Every gang in the city’s got their hands full fightin’ these damn dark elves though. They’re everywhere. They go to the human joints, start offerin’ ’em protection. They musclin’ out every other criminal organisation in the city, an’ the cops ain’t even admit they exist. Before, all the gangs, they was in a kinda balance, y’know? No one got too nasty, no one took anythin’ out on no civilians, an’ everyone looked out for their own. But now everythin’s fallin’ under the control a’ the drow. An’ they ain’t seem to understand any kinda honour at all.”
“It’s a two-pronged attack,” Ironsmith summarised, “the drow strangle the criminal underworld, take over all organised crime in the city, while the cops crack down on non-humans. Then, the mayor starts introducin’ all these new laws that target the non-humans too, an’ since there’s so much crime, they all pass without anyone raisin’ any kinda complaint.”
“Except the crime it’s supposed to stop, ain’t even us!” Broga said, holding out his gangly arms helplessly.
“They can’t pretend the drow don’t exist forever,” I mused.
“It’s still only been a couple days, Ragnar,” Ironsmith said, “a few months down the line, they’ll probably start talkin’ about ’em like they’ve always been there, like the Mafia are just part of the city an’ always have been. An’ people’ll buy it. Before we know it, the whole of New Atlas is dancin’ to their tune.”
“Then we gotta stop ’em right now.”
“You gonna get no argument from me, pals,” Broga said, “but what we gonna do? The drow are nasty – they already killed most a’ the orc bosses, an’ I heard they did for Oakheart, that ‘ol dryad with his roots in all their collectives. Who knows who they gonna go for next? An’ I hate cops, but at least you knew where you stood with the old ones. These new guys, they ain’t believe in nothin’. The whole city’s gone crazy.”
“This starts an’ ends with the drow Mafia,” I said, “they’re the power behind the mayor’s office, behind the new commissioner, an’ it’s them runnin’ the underworld now. So if we stop them, that oughta be the end of it.”
“But how we gonna do that?” Ironsmith asked.
“Simple,” I grinned, thought there wasn’t a whole lotta joy in it, “we gonna take back the streets.”
I took Poppy’s drugs, and they made me feel a little better but, like she said, there were diminishing returns. The headache and the nausea were still there, just pushed to the back of my head for now. My veins still ran black, and I could still see those shadows everywhere. But it was fine, because I’d be going home pretty soon. Ironsmith and me met back in his office, with a few other dwarves, some of his best guys. We’d sent Broga back to the city. I was surprised how much Ironsmith trusted him, but he wouldn’t be drawn into any kinda conversation about the kid. “So what’s your plan, Ragnar?” he asked me now.
“Pretty simple, like me. We all got our connections, am I right?” Everyone looked a little embarrassed. They were dwarf businessmen, and they didn’t like to talk about this kinda thing. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. All of you lend a little money here an’ there, an’ you got your sharks. You all got contacts in low places, just like Ironsmith’s got his buddy Broga. You’re from New Atlas, an’ you all know the streets. Well, now’s the time to start callin’ in favours. We gotta unite every non-human gang, every criminal cartel, every protection racket an’ drug traffickin’ ring under one banner. Right now, the drow’re playin’ divide an’ conquer. They’re takin’ everyone done one by one an’ lettin’ their pet cops pick off the rest. Pretty soon, the whole city’ll be theirs. So we gotta show ’em that New Atlas’s criminal fraternity ain’t like bein’ messed with like that. You send messages to every contact you trust. You get word to every boss, every ringleader, ever head honcho. We gonna strip clean every secret weapons stash in every basement in town, an’ we gonna go to war.”
They all played at looking unconvinced, but I could see the fire I’d kindled in their eyes. There were some axes on a stand on one side of the room, what with this being a lumberjack station and all, and I saw one dwarf’s hand twitch in that direction slightly. Only Ironsmith looked genuinely concerned. “War on the streets?” he asked me.
“If that’s what it takes.”
“You said the other day that fightin’ would only make things worse…”
“It’s the drow we’re gonna target, an’ only the drow,” I pointed a warning finger around the room. “This ain’t an excuse to settle old scores, y’hear? This is gonna be lowlife versus lowlife out there. We ain’t goin’ after no honest businesses, even if they’re part of the drow’s new protection racket. No fuel for their damn fire. We find where they hang out, we take the fight to ’em, an’ we drive ’em outta the city.”
“Sounds good,” one of the dwarves said, “but how many dwarves you think’re gonna take up arms for you? Or for us?”
“Yeah,” another agreed, “a lot’ve already left the city. Mostly they’re just good families anyway. We’re the closest thing there are to dwarf criminals.”
“Our axes ain’t gonna be enough,” Ironsmith said in a low voice.
“I know that. That’s why we need the second most numerous species in New Atlas on our side too. We need the orcs.”
“They won’t fight for us,” the first dwarf who’d spoken before laughed. “They work for us, but that’s it.”
“They’ll only follow their own leaders. Not dwarves, an’ sure as heck not a Northman,” a third added.
Ironsmith nodded. “An’ Broga said all the bosses they got left have fallen back to Orca, their city in the sewers.”
“All except one,” I said. They looked at me. “Which of you can get me into The Crypts?”
“The jail?” the first dwarf asked, raising his eyebrows.
“You heard me. I got an old friend I been meanin’ to visit for a while now. You leave the orcs to me.”
The barge steamed into the docks under cover of night. The fog was low on the river again and our lights were snuffed out, but I crouched low on the deck anyway. Someone had managed to get hold of a decent change of clothes for me, and I’d taken a long bath, as much for the messy wound in my side as anything. I wore a none-too-shabby suit, my usual style of long coat and a fedora pulled low over my face. More importantly, someone had gotten me a revolver to replace the one the drow had taken when they dumped me half-dead in the river. I coulda chosen almost any gun I wanted, but I liked the weight of a sturdy six-shooter in my hand. It suited me. We slid towards the docks and I kept my eyes peeled. Somewhere upriver was the warehouse where I’d picked up this stab wound, but I didn’t hold out a lotta hope that it was really any kinda base for the Mafia. They’d have set themselves up deep in the city now. I figured they’d come out to play without too much promptin’ though – put it like this, I didn’t plan to stay hidden in the fog for long.
First I had a call to make though. One of the dwarves who’d been so talkative back in Ironsmith’s makeshift office in the sawmill, a black-haired store owner named Deepdelve, who was also the one who’d given me the pistol, knew some of the guards in The Crypts. The plan was to smuggle me in through the courtroom in the block next door, then over the Bridge of Sighs where his contact had arranged for me to visit with a certain prisoner outside of normal hours. They didn’t know who I was, so I wasn’t too concerned about anyone seeing me and alerting the drow when I went in. It was afterwards that we might have a few problems.
There was a car to take us across town. The Crypts was on White Street, right across from where we’d landed. I wished Ironsmith and the other dwarfs he had with him luck as they went in the opposite direction and got in the car. “I ain’t gonna ask you what you’re plannin’,” Deepdelve told me as we drove off. He was driving.
“That’s probably for the best.”
“Anythin’ that gets these dark elves off the streets though has gotta be worth fightin’ for.”
“Glad you agree.”
“My family are still here, in the city.”
He glanced at me in the mirror. “I’m riskin’ a lot by doin’ this, y’know. Callin’ in a lotta favours.”
I looked at him. “Don’t think I ain’t appreciate that, friend.”
“I got a wife, four kids. Somethin’ goes wrong tonight…”
“If somethin’ goes wrong, it ain’t gonna come back to you.”
“I hope not.” We drove the rest of the way in silence, but I was feeling kinda troubled now. I couldn’t guarantee Deepdelve’s family’s safety. In fact, I couldn’t guarantee anyone’s safety. In all the rush to come up with a plan, I hadn’t really got as far as thinking through all the possible consequences. I had people I cared about, and so did Ironsmith. We had families, friends. If we went to war and things didn’t turn out so good, they’d be the ones who’d suffer retribution. Well. They knew what was at stake too. Ironsmith’s folks, Poppy, even Willow, they’d all agree with my plan. In principle. They’d certainly agree that something oughta be done anyway. And in the end, we just had to make sure we won.
We got to White Street. It was dark, and no one was around. The fog was lingering here too, and I couldn’t see hardly ten yards in front of me. Deepdelve didn’t get out the car. “From here on in, you’re on your own, buddy,” he told me.
“I just go to the courthouse an’ your guy’ll let me in?”
“Uh huh. Good luck.” He nodded to me, then pulled out and left me standing on the sidewalk on my own. I looked up and down the street. There was still no one around, except a wino lying in a doorway. I didn’t know the exact time, but I thought it was past midnight. The shape of The Crypts loomed outta the fog. It was only a few decades old, but its bricks were already stained black by the filth of New Atlas. It was a mausoleum for the living, a dismal pile of bastard Atlantian-style architecture, like an enchanter’s palace in some play. I’d never been unlucky enough to see inside its walls, but I’d heard it was pretty grim in there. I sauntered across the road, still hiding underneath my hat, to the courthouse on the next block. There was a side door I’d been asked to use. I knocked on it three times and waited. After about half a minute, the door opened and a pale human guard peered out. “I believe you’re expcectin’ me?” I said.
He nodded and opened the door a little further. I stepped inside. We were in a narrow porch. The guard stepped up beside me. “You got a weapon on you?”
“You think I’d come to this place at this time of night without one?”
“Can’t let you in if you got a weapon.”
“All right,” I said. I opened my jacket and took out a non-descript pistol, a Smelting Hi-Power, a good dwarf-built gun, such as any well-connected street tough might have on his person. It told him I meant business and that I had money. It looked a little battered, with some wear on the handle. I paused with it in my hand, then sighed as I passed it to the guard.
“Okay,” he said, as he secured the gun in his own belt, “let’s go.”
The courthouse was dark and empty. We went up an echoing stairwell, then down a long, tiled corridor with a heavy door at the end that opened right onto the Bridge of Sighs, the covered walkway that ran across the street to the prison. My guard led me onwards, and I looked out through the windows as we crossed the bridge. The fog was lying low on the street, a thick, swirling blanket below us. But up where we were I was surprised to see how clear the air was. There was a full moon overhead, shining brightly. My headache was back, but I didn’t see no help for that right now. We got to the door to the prison and the guard waited a moment. I thought I could hear him counting under his breath. It looked like this was all pretty meticulously timed. Once he’d decided it was the right time, he unlocked the door and darted inside. I tried to follow as quickly as I could, but I wasn’t so quick at the best of times. The prison corridors were lit up, as I’d expected, but there was no one around. My guard took me down another corridor, then pointed at a door. “Wait in there,” he said.
I looked at him, trying to get a read. He was young, nervous. I thought maybe he had a sick relative or something, and needed this payday. I felt sorry for him. But things’d work out much worse for him if the drow got their way. “Listen, kid, maybe you should go home. I can figure out my own way back.”
“But I got the keys…” he said.
I thought about telling him what I had in mind, giving him the chance to save his own skin, but for once in my damn life I didn’t do what my conscience told me. “All right, kid,” I said, “you just wait down the hall for me. I ain’t gonna be long.” He bobbed his head and walked away, and then I opened the door to the room. It was dark inside, but there was a high window that let in moonlight, enough to see by. It was a private visiting room, with a low table in the middle and two wooden chairs. I stepped back into the shadows to wait.
I heard him first. Well, not him exactly, but the sound of him coming. It was like a pounding rhythm that followed behind him, the sound of hundreds of feet stamping in unison, hundreds of fists pounding on iron bars, hundreds of low, guttural voices all saying the same word over and over. I’d heard it before, and it’d given me chills then too. I tried to calm my nerves. Boy, I coulda used a drink right about then. As he came closer, the voices seemed to get louder, and now I could hear the words, reverberating through the walls, bouncing off the tiled floor, pounding though my already aching skull. “Orca…Orca…Orca…”
The door opened. A huge, black shape loomed in the darkness, and then he walked into the centre of the room and looked around with a deep frown. Six months ago, I’d gotten myself involved in another of these crazy situations. An elf named Amandil had tried to tear New Atlas apart by setting humans against orcs, and this was the guy I was supposed to go to war with. In the end, I’d shot Amandil in the gut, and my counterpart had taken the fall to preserve the peace of the city. He wasn’t a bad man, but he’d got caught up in something, an uprising of orcish aggression, and putting him behind bars had done a lot to defuse that tension. He’d gone willingly, to save his people from starting a war they couldn’t win.
But that didn’t mean I felt good about any of it.
“Come outta the shadows,” he growled at me.
I stepped into the light. He was taller than me by a good foot, and wider and heavier too. A huge, brutal, orc warrior. I didn’t know what his folks’d called him originally, but the name he’d taken was Orca Khan – a name that just meant ‘King of the Orcs’. I could believe it. “Hey, Khan,” I said to him.
He cocked his massive head. “Ulrichson?” When I’d first met Khan, he was a king in his court, lying in bed with two women. He’d had me beaten up and thrown in the river for intruding in his kingdom. Now he was in grey prison overalls with a serial number on his chest but he didn’t look no less the master of his domain. He was a damn apex predator, and that’s why I was here.
I sat down on one of the chairs. “Been a while,” I said conversationally.
Khan didn’t sit down, he just looked at me and then bared his fangs. I guess it was a smile, kinda. “How’s freedom?” he asked me.
“Ain’t all it’s cracked up to be at the moment.”
Khan finally walked around the table and took a seat opposite me. “Yeah, I heard that.”
“You hear things, even in here?”
“I got my eyes an’ ears on the outside.”
“An’ what do they say right now?”
He planted his big fists on the table and gave me that smile again. “They say it’s bad. Real bad.”
“Did they say why?”
“They ain’t know. Seems no one does. But this place is fillin’ up with non-humans that ain’t hardly done nothin’ wrong an’ they all say the same thing.”
“That this city’s goin’ down the pan. That the cops’re worse’n ever. No one knows who they can bribe, who they can trust. Businesses turnin’ away non-humans, a new mayor no one seems to know nothin’ about.”
“That’s about the size of it,” I nodded.
“But,” he leant forward and pointed a claw at me, “you know more’n that, don’t you? An’ I bet that’s why you’re here. Am I right?”
“More or less.”
He sat back and folded his arms. “Why should I help you, Ulrichson? You’re the reason I’m in here.”
“No, Amandil’s the reason you’re in here. An’ you’re the reason I ain’t in here with you. We both got set up, remember?”
“Then how come it worked out fine for you?”
I snorted at that and leant a little closer so he could see the black veins working their way up my neck, turning my skin grey. “That look fine to you, Khan?”
He peered at my poisoned flesh. “That Black Lotus?”
“How come’s you’re still walkin’ around, Northman?”
“I guess the stab wound in my side’s keepin’ me distracted.”
He narrowed his beady red eyes at me. “Sounds like you been associatin’ with the wrong kinda people, Ulrichson.”
“You could say that.”
“Why don’t you get to the godsdamned point?”
“All right.” I took a deep breath, ignoring the way it made my lungs burn. I couldn’t work out if that was the poison, the knife wound or the nearly drowning the other day. “I need your help.”
“From in here?”
“No.” I jerked my head towards the high window. “Out there.”
“So what, you’re gonna spring me? You’re half dead. You got some buddies with dynamite outside?”
“Nope, but I got this.” I reached behind my back and took out the heavy revolver the guard hadn’t thought to check for. I put it down on the table between us.
“Are you crazy as well as dyin’, Ulrichson? I only got five years in here. I’ll get out sooner if I keep my nose clean, which I plan to. An’ right now, this place is a helluva lot safer than the streets if even half of what I’m hearin’ is true.”
“It’s probably worse’n you’ve heard.”
“If I escape, they’ll hunt me down, I’ll get another five years put on my sentence, an’ I can’t go ten years in here without seein’ home. I’m playin’ this one smart.”
“You don’t come with me tonight, there ain’t gonna be a home for you to go back to.”
“The guys in charge, the NAPD, the mayor, they’re drivin’ non-humans away. Half the dwarves in the city’ve already fled. There’s gonna be new laws, then maybe ghettos an’ finally maybe even pogroms. Someone wants to keep a tight rein on New Atlas.”
He stared at me. “Drow…?”
“Dark elves,” I explained.
“I know what a damn drow is,” he growled at me, “I just ain’t believe it.”
“Well believe it. A new elf Mafia is takin’ control of the streets. A drow Mafia. An’ somehow, they got control of the mayor’s office. They’re turnin’ the whole city into a place they can leech the life out of, like they did to Svartheim. They ain’t want any non-humans risin’ up against ’em. Humans, they can control, but you guys…not so much.”
“Sounds like what Amandil was tryin’ to do.”
“Somethin’ like that, but this time it’s even bigger. The drow’ve already taken over the criminal underworld. Them an’ the cops, they’ve driven the orc gangs back to Orca. They’re plannin’ a last stand.”
“A last stand…” Khan murmured to himself.
“Right. Without you.”
He shot a glance at me. His eyes were glowing with fury. “I’m the Khan…”
“Damn right you are. King of the Orcs. An’ they’re fightin’ an’ dyin’ without no king to lead ’em. But,” I held up a hand, “I ain’t gonna spring you from this joint to go an’ make some futile gesture.”
His hand was already on my gun. “Then what is it you want?”
“Your help. I’m tryin’ to organise some sorta resistance, to take back the streets from the drow. They’re controllin’ all this, so we just gotta stop them. I got dwarves, but I need orcs. An’ only you got the power to unite all the gangs.”
“You want me to start a war for you?”
“I want you to end one.”
He picked up the gun and rose to his feet. “Let’s go.”