Darkness Rising (Part IV)

Khan led the way outta the darkened visiting room, while I limped a couple steps behind him. As he stepped into the corridor, the young guard turned around and when he saw that big orc bastard holding my gun in his hand, he looked like his eyes were gonna pop outta his damn head. He tried to get the other gun he’d taken off of me out, but he fumbled it and it skidded across the floor towards us. He went to pick it up, but Khan cocked the revolver and the poor kid froze. “Relax,” he said, “I ain’t gonna hurt you, long as you do what I say. You’re one a’ the good ones. Worst thing that’ll happen to you tonight is peeing your pants. Tomorrow you gonna have bigger problems, but I’m sure there’s plenty a’ work out there for a bright kid like you.”

“Can we maybe move this along?” I asked him.

“Hands up, little man,” Khan growled.

The guard straightened and put his hands in the air. He was trembling all over. I felt real bad for him. “Sorry to do this to ya,” I said to him, “it ain’t personal.”

“I thought…I thought you was just gonna talk. You two ain’t supposed to be on the same side.”

“Sides can be deceptive, kid,” Khan said.

“You know who I am?” I asked.

“Are you kiddin’? Everyone on the street knows you, Mr Ulrichson.”

“This ain’t the street.”

He jerked his head towards the wall, I guessed in the direction of the cell block. “It is in there. They all know you. The guy who took down the big orc bastard who…uh…I mean…”

Khan’s eyes got that deep red glow in ’em again. “You mean me, paleskin.” One of his claws toyed with the trigger. Another reason to pick a big six-shooter: I wanted something an orc could handle. “You makin’ it real hard not to teach you a lesson, y’know. Ever had a little lead in you?”

“P…please…”

“C’mon,” I said, “we ain’t got time for this. You got no reason to hurt him an’ you know it.” I walked forward a little and picked up the other gun from the floor. It was a decent weapon – not exactly to my taste, but someone’d find a use for it. I tucked it into my belt and then beckoned to the guard. “Keys, son.”

“But…”

“We’ll give ’em back. Use your head: this ain’t a prison break. Just me springin’ an old pal. He might even come back an’ give himself up when this is all over. Right, Khan?”

“It’s possible,” he said with a crooked smile.

“All right.” I took the keys off the shaking human and headed for the door to the Bridge of Sighs. “C’mon. We got a long night ahead of us.”

Khan kept his eyes on the guard as he walked past. He still hadn’t lowered the gun. I held the door for him and he went through, then I threw the keys back. “You raise the alarm, kid,” I told him, “an’ I’ll make damn sure it ain’t worth your while. You think he’s nasty? You should see me when someone pisses me off. I faced down a dragon.”

As we closed the door and headed across the walkway, back to the courthouse, Khan looked back over his shoulder at me. “I heard about that.”

“About what?”

“The dragon.”

“Oh.”

“It’s true then?”

I gave him a kinda lazy shrug. “I ain’t really wanna talk about it.”

We’d got to the door to the courthouse and Khan stopped to look at me again. “You’re a strange guy, Ulrichson.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Most fellas I know in your situation’d be lappin’ up the glory. You saved New Atlas twice now. You might be about to save it again.”

“The ‘might’ in that sentence is carryin’ a lotta weight, Khan.”

“Even so. You done more’n I ever did, an’ I’m king.”

“Humans don’t got kings.”

“It only takes one man tellin’ everyone he’s one an’ gettin’ ’em to believe it. It ain’t a gods-given right.”

“Humans think it is. Look, let’s get outta here. Chances are some other guard’s gonna come across our buddy back there in a minute, an’ then all Hel’s gonna break loose.”

Khan nodded to me and we carried on into the court house. I’d memorised the way in, so we got out without no trouble. There weren’t no guards around here, so it was pretty simple. We went out the same side door I came in and into the swirling fog below. Khan jogged across the empty street, getting far enough ahead that I couldn’t see him. I knew it wasn’t just ’cause of the fog either: my vision was getting darker again. I took a look at my hands and saw how black they were turning. Everything about me ached. My hip, like always, my head, my arms and my neck. I was stiff and sore, and worst of all was the throbbing in my side. Shatterstone said the knife didn’t hit nothing vital, which was just plain lucky, but I’d lost a lotta blood, and the bandages went bad fast thanks to all the poison in my body. I was on borrowed time and I knew it. One night was all I planned to need though. If I could last ’till morning, I’d finally have time to see a doctor.

I limped to the opposite sidewalk and found Khan waiting for me, looking impatient. “What the heck are you doin’, Ulrichson?”

“Some of us ain’t as young as we used to be,” I said through gritted teeth. I realised I’d unconsciously started holding my side, like I was trying to stop myself from bursting open like a ripe tomato.

Khan peered at me through the darkness. I knew his night vision was better than mine. “You ain’t look so good,” he said.

“I know that. I already told you I spent the last few days bein’ poisoned, stabbed an’ thrown in the river.”

“You didn’t tell me about the river.”

“Oh. Well that happened too I guess.”

“It didn’t kill you when I did it.” He looked around, checking the street. The wino seemed to have moved on. “I guess you want your gun back?”

“I ain’t gonna use this thing,” I said, pointing to the one in my belt. “Wanna trade?”

“Nah. I’ll find somethin’ back in Orca.”

I nodded. I’d figured that’s where he’d go first. The orcs had a city of their own, deep in the network of underground passages that snaked far beneath New Atlas. I was the first outsider to find out about it. That’s why I ended up in the North River the first time. No hard feelings though. “We need you an’ your boys back on the streets pretty quick, all right?”

“You so sure I’m gonna come back?” He put my revolver back in my outstretched hand.

“I didn’t bust you outta jail so you could just go on with your business.”

“You put me in there in the first place. Don’t this make us even?” I could never tell when this guy was joking or not. Orcs were hard to read.

“If you hole up down there in that garbage heap you call a city, I’ll come down there myself an’ kick all your asses.”

He let out a braying laugh that the fog didn’t do much to muffle. “I’d love to see you try that.”

“I’m the one holdin’ the gun, ain’t I?”

He looked at me with those glowing red eyes and bared his fangs in a predatory grin again. Once upon a time, the sight of an orc smile was enough to damn near turn my stomach. There was still a part of me that could never trust ’em, a part of me that had seen the savagery inside ’em and thought New Atlas would be better without it blighting the streets. But I pushed those thoughts away, the same as I pushed away the pain, the black ooze in my veins and everything else preying on my mind. I had a job to do tonight. I had a city to try and save. “You sure you’re up to this?” Khan asked me.

“Up to what?”

“Fightin’. You ain’t hardly able to stand. How you gonna throw a punch?”

“I’m gonna lull ’em into a false sense of security an’ land a sneaky left hook. How about you? You been on prison rations for six months. You look all skin an’ bone to me.”

He snorted. “All right, Ulrichson. You got yourself an army. When I’m done down in Orca, I’ll lead my people to you. Where you plannin’ to be?”

“I ain’t exactly sure yet. We gonna start in Little Stoneland. Word is a lotta the Stonelanders’ve signed up to the drow’s protection racket. We figure they’ll be lurkin’ around somewhere close by. We gonna draw ’em out, find where their boss is hidin’, then take her down.”

“Her?”

“Yeah. She’s a dame named Lily.”

“You gonna be able to hit a broad with that left hook a’ yours? Don’t sound like your style.”

I clenched my fist, seeing the black veins bulge underneath my skin. “This one…I think I can make an exception for… Anyhow, we’re gonna be workin’ our way uptown, way I figure it. I ain’t think you’re gonna have much trouble findin’ us.”

Khan was already heading for a manhole. He reached down and pulled the heavy metal disc off like it was plywood, throwing it halfway across the street. I could tell he was eager to use muscles that’d only had breaking rocks to practice on for half a year. “See you later,” he promised, “assumin’ you’re still alive.”

“I ain’t plan to die for a little while yet.”

“That’s what everyone says.” And with that he lowered himself into the sewer and was gone. I stood there for a second, then put away my gun and closed my coat around me. It was a warm night, but I felt cold suddenly. That was probably a bad sign. Little Stoneland was just a few blocks away. The way I was feeling, I’d have rather have gotten a cab, but there weren’t none at this time of night and, besides, I didn’t exactly need the attention. So I just headed down the street, trying to keep my pace even, trying not to limp too obviously. Even with New Atlas’s criminal elements being mobilised for war, a man on his own stumbling through the streets on a dark night is asking for trouble. I could feel eyes watching me.

I got to Broadway, and saw my first sign of life in a couple hours besides that wino, the guard and Khan. There were a few people on the sidewalk, hurrying on with their business, and a few clusters of people on the corners of side streets. Kids, most likely, but I hoped they might be folks I could use tonight. I turned up Broadway, heading north towards the intersection with Canal Street, when I heard something in the distance that gave me pause. It sounded like sirens. Not exactly an unusual thing to hear after midnight in New Atlas, but the last thing I wanted was to get the cops involved with this business. I knew it’d be inevitable, but I was hoping the drow’d wanna keep ’em on a tight leash, not do anything to risk their secrecy. But maybe I’d made a mistake there. Maybe, when we rose up against ’em, they’d throw caution right outta the window. How did a drow fight when he was cornered? Somehow, I didn’t think I wanted to find out.

I made my way slowly up the street, hoping we could escalate things faster than the NAPD could keep up with, when a cop car blazed past me outta the fog. I kept my head down and my hat low, but it swung ’round in the street and screeched to a halt less than a dozen yards in fronta me. I didn’t like the way this was going. If they thought I looked suspicious and wanted to ask me some questions, there was no way I’d be able to lie about who I was. All McKinley’s old cops knew me, and I’d put a hundred bucks on all the news ones having had my picture circulated around to ’em, just in case I came back from the dead. I moved my hand from my side to the reassuring bulge of my revolver under my coat. I didn’t wanna have to pull a gun on any cops – for one thing, it’d get me a hole in the head, and rightly so, but I knew there was a good chance I might have to fight my way outta this one.

The car’s doors opened, and two men I recognised stepped out. It was Beregond and O’Brien. I couldn’t make out their expressions in the dark, but their swaggers as they came towards me told me everything. Any pretence they were on my side was right out the dang window. A couple of the people hurrying past looked up, but then put their heads down and kept going. No one wanted to be a witness tonight. The gangs of kids melted away into the fog.

“Well what do we got here?” O’Brien called out. His voice sounded strange in the fog.

“I used to know a fella looked like you,” Beregond said, “but I heard he died a few days back.”

I tipped my hat up and looked ’em both in the eyes in turn. That seemed to suck a little of the cockiness outta them. I guess they’d been expecting someone a little less ready to stand his ground. “I got no quarrel with you tonight, boys,” I said.

“We decide who’s got quarrels with who,” O’Brien said with a nasty sneer. “You know there’s a warrant out for you?”

“I been outta town for a couple days.”

“I was hopin’ you really were dead,” Beregond said. They were just a couple yards away from me now. “I didn’t wanna have to be the guy who brought you in.”

“Don’t worry,” I smiled, “you still ain’t gonna be that guy.”

“You look like shit, Ragnar,” he said.

“Same as everyone else these days. Care to tell me what the warrant’s for? What they pinned on me?”

“Pinned?” O’Brien snorted. “Way I heard it, it’s an open an’ shut case. Commissioner shows up with three bullets in his chest an’ you were seen sneakin’ into the warehouse where it happened. An’ since you’re already the only suspect in that singer’s disappearance, with the same MO as what happened to McKinley. Well…it ain’t look good, Northman.”

“You think I’d go back to the scene of my own crime, twice in one day? For a couple guys who spend their lives hangin’ ’round criminals, you ain’t seem to know much about ’em.”

“Enough talk,” Beregond said.

“I couldn’t agree more. You boys gonna arrest me or what?”

“In a minute,” O’Brien said with another nasty look on his face. “First we gonna teach you a little lesson of our own.”

“You know, it’s almost gratifyin’ to see that some cops in this town are still dirty as Hel…”

Beregond grabbed me, and I tried to pull free but O’Brien was already on me. He punched me hard across the jaw, knocking a tooth loose I thought, then came back with a left hand from the other direction. Beregond let me go and I staggered away from them, and O’Brien kicked me hard in the gut. I went down to my knees, feeling like I was about to spew up my guts. I thought he’d busted my stitches. “Don’t leave no marks on him,” the Stonelander said.

“C’mon, you think I’m an idiot?” O’Brien asked. “I gotta wife. I know what I’m doin’.” He made a grab for my hair, my hat havin’ been knocked to the floor with his last punch, but as he reached out I grabbed him by the wrist and twisted as hard as I could. I felt his shoulder pop free and he fell back with a yell of pain. Beregond tried to jump me now, but I threw my head back and caught him in the face. His nose made a nice crunching sound. I stood up and pulled out my gun.

“Like I said, fellas,” I told ’em through deep breaths, “I ain’t got no quarrel with you tonight. I didn’t kill McKinley, an’ if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep the heck outta my way.”

O’Brien was holding his arm which hung limp at his side. I could see his other hand twitch, wanting to go for his gun, but it was his off-hand and me and him both knew he wouldn’t be fast enough. They actually thought I’d shoot ’em, which was good. I eyeballed Beregond. He was slumped by a parking meter, blood running down his face. I knew what they were thinking. They were thinking their jobs weren’t worth trying to bring me down here. They were thinking they’d rather get some back up. Truth was, in a straight fight they’d beat me every time, what with their being two of ’em, but I’d do some damage too, more’n I had already. A man’s gotta have a survival instinct, especially in this city, and they weren’t willing to take the risk. “Follow me, an’ we gonna have some more words,” I said, pointing at ’em both with my gun. Then I limped off as fast as I could, hoping they were dumb enough to stay scared.

*

I bumped into Ironsmith halfway down Canal Street. He was in a car, and he pulled up by the kerb and jumped out when he saw me. “How’d it go?”

“‘Bout as well as I hoped.”

“Good. Hey, what happened to your jaw?”

“I got in a little fight.”

“Crom! You okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, “you oughta see the other guys.”

Guys?” He was giving me that strange look again. Damned if I knew what was wrong with everyone tonight.

“Look, it don’t matter, but you oughta know the NAPD got a warrant out for me. They’re tryna pin the McKinley thing on me. I shouldn’t oughta be surprised, but it might complicate things.”

“Maybe you should go find somewhere to wait this one out,” Ironsmith said doubtfully. “If you already took a beatin’…”

I kept my good side to him so he couldn’t see the black blood seeping through my clothes, making a mess of this nice jacket. “I’m fine. It ain’t nothin’. Plus this is my plain, ain’t it? I gotta see it through.”

“All right.”

“So what’s the word?”

Ironsmith looked down the street. The fog was starting to lift a little, but not much. “Word is, the drow are sneakin’ around up there, keepin’ watch. They know somethin’s up.”

“They might know I’m back by now.”

“I ain’t think so,” Ironsmith said, shaking his head, “they’d be here now if they did. We got all our dwarves comin’ in from different directions so they ain’t able to tell we’re all together ’till it’s too late. They won’t know what hit ’em.”

“That’s the plan anyway. But you know what they say about plans an’ contact with the enemy.”

“Yeah. You’d better get in the back anyway, ride the rest of the way with us. Save your energy before it all leaks outta you.” I guess he’d seen the blood then.

There were half a dozen dwarves crammed into that car. I recognised a couple of them, but I couldn’t say as I really knew them. They all looked ready for a fight either way, and they gave me curt nods as I squeezed in next to them. The streets in Little Stoneland were pretty narrow, and everything was quiet. Seemed like the drow were keeping everyone indoors. We pulled up to an intersection and I peered out the window through the lingering fog. I could see tall dark shapes moving on the rooftops above my head. Something flitted overhead, a shadow bounding across a street, from roof to roof. I hadn’t seen these kinda elves fight before, but I knew they’d be quick. Dwarves were good fighters in a tight spot, but they’d be at a disadvantage here. I just hoped we’d have numbers, and that the cavalry got here soon. I stayed in the back as the driver cut the engine and the dwarves got out. Another car filled with even more dwarves pulled up across from us. Ironsmith leaned over his seat to look back at me. “What’s your plan here, Ragnar?”

“You know the plan.”

“I know everythin’ up to the part where the bullets start flyin’.”

“Well, like I said…”

“C’mon, buddy.” He stared hard at me. “I can see you’re about ready to drop dead. You ain’t foolin’ me. What is this, a deathwish?”

“No. I plan on gettin’ through this.”

“So tell me what you’re gonna do.”

“I’m gonna head right for whichever of those bastards looks like he’s in charge, then I’m gonna pound his damn head into the sidewalk until he tells me where we can find Lily.”

“What if he won’t talk?”

“I’ll keep poundin’ ’till he ain’t able to talk, then I’ll grab whoever looks like he’s next in line. I figure it shouldn’t take more’n two or three before someone decides the mob ain’t worth losin’ the simple pleasure of havin’ a skull that ain’t in two or more pieces.”

He blinked at me a couple times. “You’re really serious, ain’t you?”

“They’re tryna kill my damn city, Harl.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I ain’t think you know how scary you can be, Ragnar.”

“I ain’t scary. I’m dumb as heck. I’m the worst private dick in the world. You know any others who’d try to use an army of criminals to save their city? Ain’t exactly investigative work, is it?”

“Whatever you are, you’re sure somethin’, Northman.” He turned back and looked out the front window. Another dwarf car had arrived, and now there were a couple dozen dwarves altogether, just kinda standing in the street.

“Any second now,” I said.

“You stayin’ here?” Ironsmith asked. He had a hand on the car door, ready to leave himself.

“For now. I ain’t wanna spoil the surprise just yet.”

Ironsmith reached under the seat and took out a submachine gun, then opened the door and walked out, swinging it onto his shoulder like it was no big deal. There was a lot of firepower out there already. Dwarves make and sell a lotta weapons, and Deepdelve wasn’t the only one with a gun store. They were armed to the beards. I sat back and watched, waiting for the show.

It didn’t take too long. I could just make out the shadows moving in an alley across from my car. Just three of ’em, wearing sharp suits and hats. Fedoras or homburgs. They carried guns too. They all had that same dark skin, like polished black marble, and white hair hanging down past their shoulders. They looked stylish as heck, I had to admit. The dwarves started to look a little edgy. There were other shadows lurking in the fog. The streetlights weren’t doing much to help anything. I leant forward and strained to hear what the drow in front was saying.

“Didn’t we warn you runts about this kinda thing?” he sneered, holding out his arms. He was carrying a silver pistol in his hand, looked like an expensive model. “We got a curfew in operation in this part a’ town, all right? We had to get the pigs to chase off the orcs the other night, is that what you want here? Stirrin’ up trouble? Gettin’ the paleskins all riled up against you?” He pointed at Ironsmith with his gun. “You wanna end up in a ghetto like your ancestors in Svartheim?”

So that was it. No wonder the dwarves talked about the place like it was a cussword. Ironsmith swung his gun down off his shoulder and pointed it at the drow. “Maybe you didn’t hear, elf, but this city’s ours.”

“Not anymore,” he spat. “Go home before I make you sorry you crawled outta your muddy little hole tonight, runt.”

I opened the door and stepped out. The drow all glanced up, and I saw that look again, the same look everyone’d been giving me all day. They recognised me all right, but they hadn’t been expecting me. “He is home,” I said, “now get the hell off my damn street.” I took out my revolver and aimed it right at his head.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” the lead drow said, licking his thin lips.

“So everyone keeps tellin’ me.” I moved my aim down and shot his gun out of his hand. He fell backwards into his pals, holding his bloody hand, staring down at what was left of his fingers. “I got to tell you again?” I roared.

All at once, they leapt outta the fog. There were dozens of ’em, way more’n I was expecting, and gunfire rang out in the night. Ironsmith was yelling a battle cry as he let rip with his gun, mowing down four of the bastards in a couple seconds. Two or three dwarves were down already, bleeding out on the floor, and I tried to get a clean shot on one of the drow. They were quick though. The leader, the one I’d disarmed, had three dwarves surrounding him. They had guns, but didn’t wanna shoot an unarmed man – big mistake. He jumped into the air, spinning like a top, and damn near took one of their heads off with a kick. Another dwarf made a lunge for him and he ducked away and caught him with a palm to the face all in one snakelike movement. The last one fired a desperate shot at him but, I swear to Crom, the prick just stepped aside and knocked him down to the ground with another kick.

More drow jumped down from the roofs, rolling as they landed, jumping right into the brawl. Another car full of dwarves roared up, and they spilled straight out. Bullets were flying everywhere. One of the drow came for me, but I managed to shoot him in the gut before he could draw his own gun. The leader had his eyes fixed on me. He charged across the street, coming right for me. I fired my last four bullets at him, but he jumped into the air, spinning and twisting, and not one of them even came close. He landed neatly in front of me and he had this big, evil grin on his face. He didn’t have a hair outta place. Damn elves; they’re all the same, no matter what colour they are.

“You don’t look so hot” he said to me.

“Yeah, you can thank your boss for that. In fact, maybe I oughta do it in person. Any idea where I might find her this evenin’, bub?”

“The Mafiatrix ain’t want to be disturbed. She’s got important matters to attend to.”

“She ain’t got any matters more important than me.” I took a swing. It wasn’t much of a punch, and it didn’t even come close to finding its mark. The drow leaned back almost casually, then spun around and smashed his elbow right into my injured side. I let out a groan and staggered back. My whole left side had gone numb, and I let my revolver slip outta my hand and fall to the floor.

“I dunno why we spent so much effort tryna stop a big lug like you from spolin’ everythin’,” the drow went on. He threw a kick at my other side, then whirled around on the heel of his sharp-looking wingtips and slammed a forearm right into my already swollen jaw. I stumbled to one side, then went down to one knee. “We shoulda killed you the moment we laid eyes on you. You were never a threat.” He reared back, preparing for another kick, one that would’ve shattered my jaw if it’d connected. I waited as long as I dared, then pulled out the other pistol, the one I’d got back from the guard earlier, and shot him right in the shoulder. He opened his mouth and stared down blankly at the ragged hole. His arm was hanging off his shoulder. I didn’t waste no time: I charged into him, balling my fist, and put all my weight into a punch that connected with his face with a thunderous crunch. The force of it just about flipped him right over and a spray of blood arced through the air. He landed on the asphalt with a wet noise that made me wince.

I shook the life back into my hand. There was blood on my knuckles. “Dang. I guess I’d been waitin’ a while to get that outta my system.”

Another drow jumped at me, but I was ready for this one. I wasn’t so comfortable with this new gun, so I quickly shoved it in my belt and worked with my hands. I hadn’t had to rough anyone up in my dayjob for a long time now – I just hadn’t been dealing with that sorta case – so I guess I was kinda rusty to start with. The drow tried a high kick, but I was wise to that and I caught him in the air and threw him into the nearest wall. One of his buddies tried to aim his gun at me, but I charged right into him, taking him in the midsection and pulling him down to the floor with me. He tried to grapple with me, but I was a lot bigger’n he was, and I shut him up with a right hand across the jaw. As I got up, there was another one taking a swing at me, but I grabbed his hand and booted him in the gut. I kept hold of him, so I managed to dislocate his shoulder at the same time, then dumped him to the floor. I didn’t think he was gonna get up.

Ironsmith and a couple more dwarves were hiding behind one of the cars. It was pretty shot up. The intersection was already littered with bodies. I ducked down beside him. The dwarves next to him were staring at me. “Everythin’ okay?” I asked Ironsmith.

“You done showin’ off?”

“Huh?”

He pointed over the car with his gun. “We’ve lost some decent guys already. Cody Redbeard who’s lyin’ there paintin’ the sidewalk with his insides was my best shot. I think Rockjaw took a bullet to the leg too. Not sure if he’s alive.”

“All we gotta do is keep these guys pinned down ’till help arrives.”

“An’ how long’s that gonna be?” one of the other dwarves asked.

I gave that some thought. “You might have a point. We gotta keep pushin’ forward.”

Ironsmith risked a look over the top of the car. “Looks like we got ’em on the run anyhow.”

He was right. Only a few drow were left. They’d taken a toll on the dwarves, but I guess they didn’t much like the idea of a stand up fight. They were running north, still getting off the odd shot, leaving their dead behind. The ones I’d messed up were hobbling along at the back of the group, but their leader was still down. I went back over to him.

“You oughta see a doctor,” I told him.

He looked up at me through the ruin of his face. One of his eyes was closed shut, and his nose was broken in about four places. Say what you like about me, but I pack one helluva punch. He spat a tooth at me. “You think this is gonna stop us, human?” he croaked.

“It already did.”

“For now. But there’s more of us than you think. An’ we’re dug into this city like a barb.” He reached up with his crippled hand and squeezed it into a malformed fist. “Before this is done, you gonna lose a lot more of your runts. An’ you’re gonna wish you’d given in to the Lotus in you.”

“I guess that’s the difference between me an’ you,” I told him, crouching down, “I ain’t know how to give up.”

“You’re an idiot then.”

“I ain’t the one lyin’ on his back with his face caved in.”

“You will be.” He grinned at me. His smile was broken and bloody.

“I’m gonna make this real easy for you,” I growled at him, “tell me where to find Lily. That’s all I want from you. You got nothin’ left to lose by tellin’ me where she is.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” he laughed through bloody lips, “We’re all caught in this web now. There’s no escape, not even in death.”

“That’s a very pessimistic view to take. Tell me what I wanna know, an’ we’ll get you to a doctor.”

“You’re the one who needs a doctor, Northman. It might be too late already.”

“It ain’t ever too late.”

“For you…it’s…” His breath rattled in his chest, and he slumped down to the asphalt. I stared hard at him for a moment, then walked back to the where Ironsmith was waiting for me, stopping to pick up my gun on the way.

“He tell you anythin’?” he asked.

“Nope. I think they’re scared of somethin’. An’ somehow, I ain’t think it’s Lily.”

The dwarf who’d spoken before looked past me to where the drow was lying motionless in the road. “Is he…is he dead?”

“Sure looks like it,” I shrugged.

“You killed him…you killed him with one damn punch!”

“Nah, I shot him a bit as well.” I didn’t much like killing folks to tell you the truth. I wasn’t as at home with a gun as I sometimes acted, and I always tried to stay on the right side of the law. But that ain’t mean I was gonna mourn over any drow that happened to get in my way tonight. “C’mon, they’re on the run, but I ain’t think they gonna stay that way…”

We didn’t have time to worry about the dead. The injured we got into the cars, told ’em to sit tight, then we went chasing after the drow. They were fleeing through Little Stoneland, north towards Noliston and SoHa. We abandoned the cars, heading after them on foot. It was early morning, and still dark, but the fog was getting thinner and soon we’d be brawling in broad daylight. That wasn’t what we wanted – this had to be finished tonight. At Isildur Square we found them making a stand. We walked right into a hail of gunfire and fell back behind a row of dumpsters, leaving two more dwarves dead in the street. The chase had opened up the wound in my side further, and my coat was soaked through with dark blood on one side, so I finally just threw it off. We exchanged fire across the square, then a young dwarf came running up to us from the direction of Morgase Street. He dived for cover and rolled to a halt next to me and Ironsmith. “Coppersmelt an’ a loada Blacklocks had a nest of ’em holed up near the corner a’ Rithery an’ Daughter-Heir Street, but some more of ’em showed up an’ they got pushed back. The drow’re comin’ your way.”

Ironsmith nodded up at the buildings. “An’ I can see some more up there too. We keep losin’ men like this, we gonna be in trouble real soon. Can Coppersmelt get to us?”

The kid thought about it. “Cops are patrolin’ Pendragon, seems like they ain’t wanna get involved in any a’ this, they just keepin’ a cordon set up it looks like, an’ we seen more drow up Conan Street, but I think they oughta be able to work their way around to you.”

“So go tell ’em to do that, an’ fast!” Ironsmith said. The youngster nodded and ducked out of cover. He was quick on his feet for a dwarf, and the blast of gunfire didn’t get near him.

“Brave kid,” I said.

“The Hammercleft’s youngest,” Ironsmith said, “they breed ’em tough.”

“What d’you make of the cops?”

Ironsmith thought about it for a second. “I think they got the right idea keepin’ away.”

“We oughta be thankin’ ’em, they could turn the tide…”

“An’ piss away any good will they got left with ordinary folks if they side with mobsters.”

I peered up into the gloom at the roofs of the buildings all around the square. “You can see drow up there?”

“Yeah. Can’t you?”

I shook my head. “I can’t see shit. My eyes…it’s like I got this darkness risin’ in me…”

Ironsmith took a good long look at me. “Serious question, Ragnar: how long you thinkin’ you can hold up out here? You been in three or four fistfights already. An’ you were dead on your feet before that.”

“I’m gonna keep goin’ for as long as it takes.”

“An’ if we lose? If they beat us? You gonna come back for more after that?”

“If we lose, I figure these bastards are gonna kill me anyway. Might as well die tryin’ to save somethin’ I believe in.”

“You believe in New Atlas? In this place?”

It’s the only home we got, Harl.”

The sound of bullets hitting the dumpsters got louder, and I figured the drow reinforcements had arrived. Ours showed up too, but they looked badly mauled. A couple more dwarf cars pulled up behind us. They were covered in bullet holes. As Coppersmelt’s dwarves crowded in behind us, we started to make another makeshift barricade, parking the cars so they blocked the street. Coppersmelt was a tough dwarf woman who owned some works on 66th Street. I’d met her before, and she gave me a quick nod as she took up a position behind one of the cars. She was bleeding from a head wound, and she looked like she’d picked up a bit of a limp. I could see the drow moving at the other end of the square, ghosting past the triangle of park in the middle. A few shots rang out, but I thought they might be trying to turn it into a hand to hand fight again, where their speed would give ’em all the advantage they needed. “We gotta end this now,” I said, “don’t hold back.”

The dwarves opened fire – pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, anything they had. The blaze of fire left marks on my clouded vision, and when I blinked it clear, I could see some drow lying dead in the road. But more kept coming. We fired again, but it was like trying to shoot the wind. They were too damn quick. One leapt forward and fired his pistol, taking a dwarf right through the eye. Another took Coppersmelt in the shoulder with a lucky ricochet. At least, I hoped it was just lucky.

“This ain’t goin’ our way,” Ironsmith told me as he stopped shooting to reload.

“We’re outnumbered an’ outgunned,” I admitted. “There oughta be more of us.”

“Whole city’s fightin’,” Coppersmelt told me through gritted teeth. She was holding a cloth against her bleeding shoulder. “But we ain’t united. Everyone’s got their own agenda. They all wanna stick it to these dark elves, but no one can pin ’em down. I seen goblins out there tonight, dryads, even a couple groups of gnomes an’ kobolds.”

“You seen anywhere worse’n this?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “More drow here than anyplace I been tonight.”

“They’re after you,” Ironsmith said in a low voice.

“Damn right they are. We gotta rally everyone together. If the drow are dumb enough to concentrate their forces on me, we gonna have to take advantage of that.”

“Agreed,” Coppersmelt said. “I’ll send some of my boys out to see who’s nearby.”

“We need more’n just dwarves though,” I told her, “get everyone you can who’s willin’ to fight drow. We gotta put aside our differences right now.”

She grimaced, but bobbed her head and went off to relay the orders, crouching low behind the cars. A few more dwarves were filtering in from the sidestreets, and I saw a few goblins with them, but it was just a trickle, and now the drow were out in force. I risked a look out into the square and saw at least three dozen of them. The one I’d killed wasn’t kidding when he said I had no idea how many there were. They were still coming towards us, and I didn’t think we’d hold if they attacked our position. “If you got any fight left in you, Ragnar,” Ironsmith said, “now’d be the time to use it.”

“I got plenty of fight.” A drow leapt right onto the hood of the car we were hiding behind, and I surged up to my feet to meet him. He tried to shoot me, but I punched him right between his legs and, as he topped over, I dropped his head hard into the ground. He didn’t get up again. More drow were piling over the cars now. I saw dwarves going down to close range shots, and then they were on us, fighting with knives, fists and feet. I’ve seen dwarves brawl plenty of times, and they weren’t no shirkers in a fistfight, but they couldn’t get no strength behind their blows when the drow just floated around them, refusing to stand still. I watched Coppersmelt go down to one of them high kicks, and a young dwarf, about the Hammercleft kid’s age, damn near get his head unscrewed as he tried to turn and land a punch. His neck gave way with a crunch and the drow that did it just looked at me with a grin. I barrelled into him and smashed his body against the side of a car. The thing nearly tipped over as it went up on two wheels, and when I stepped away there was a dent in the door and a bloody drow lying in a heap at my feet. Another one tried a head butt, but I knocked him off his feet with an uppercut to the jaw, then elbowed another one in the chest and ran him headfirst into the side of the dumpster. Ironsmith was giving a good account of himself, using his gun like a club, knocking one of the bastards across the head and driving the stock into another one’s gut before blowing a third apart with a storm of bullets. But we were getting overwhelmed. There were just too many of them, and not enough of us. One jumped off the roof of one of the cars and onto my back. I could feel him try to get a grip on my head so he could break my neck too, but I hurled him over my head and to the floor where he landed with the sound of cracking bones. I put my boot in a little to show him I meant business, but that just gave another one the chance to jump me. Two more dived in, and then I was down on the road, the one place I didn’t wanna be, feeling their fists and feet pummelling me, ripping at my clothes, tearing my stitches open even further. It was all starting to go black again, but whether that was me losing consciousness or the Black Lotus finally taking me, I didn’t have a damn clue. I tried to fight free: I chucked one of ’em through the air, giving me enough space to see Ironsmith go down to a bullet wound in his leg, but then two more were on me, and I hit the asphalt with a wet crash.

That’s when I heard the noise. At first, I figured it was just the sound of my own heart, beating its last, but then it started to get louder and louder, until it was like a throbbing rhythm I could feel through the street underneath me. The sound of hundreds of feet stamping at once, the sound of hundreds of bestial throats shouting the same word. My attackers clambered off me to see what was going on and I rolled onto my back with a groan. Dawn was coming, and the sky was starting to turn lighter, but I could barely see it – everything seemed to be dark now. I pawed at my side, and I could feel blood pulsing out of the open wound. I was lying in a pool of sticky black ooze.

The beat got louder, faster. It was pounding through me, making the dumpsters bounce on their rattling wheels. The drow screeched their warcries and some of them bounded over the cars to face this new attack. “What is that?” the one nearest me asked one of his buddies.

“Ain’t you know nothin’ about this city?” I whispered. “That’s the sound of the street, an’ it’s comin’ for you…”

And it was. It got louder and louder, closer and closer, and then everyone could hear the words, the same thing repeated over and over, like the most single-minded thunderstorm you ever heard. It said: “Orca…Orca…Orca…”

They boiled outta every side street, hundreds and hundreds of them, a tide of muscled grey-green flesh. The drow next to me’s eyes got real wide, but he had enough brains to pull his gun and aim it straight at my head. “This ends now,” he hissed.

“Damn right it does,” I said, ’cause I’d seen what he hadn’t: the massive shape of Orca Khan leaping clean across a car’s hood towards us. The drow followed my gaze, but he turned too late. He got a shot off, but it went wild as Khan smashed into him and drove him down to the ground. Then, I swear to Crom, that beast bent down and tore that drow’s throat out with his teeth. As I heard the screams all around the square, I finally let myself fall unconscious.

*

“I ain’t know how the heck any of you are still alive.” We were holed up in a second floor storeroom, somewhere in Little Stoneland. We’d taken most of Lower Manahills back from the drow last night, and this was as safe as territory got. The sun had risen, bright and clear, but I couldn’t see it through the dark murk my eyes seemed to be coated with now. I was sitting propped up against some old boxes full of who knows what. Ironsmith’s leg was bound up with a splint and he still had his gun in his hand. Orca Khan, unhurt but for a couple cuts across his huge arms and a bruise on one cheek was shaking his head at us wonderingly. “I thought we were too late.”

“Yeah, you damn near were” I said, my voice coming out not much more’n a thin rasp, “what took you so long?”

“You ever tried takin’ back a city in a couple hours?”

“The heck you think we were doin’ last night?”

“What happened down in Orca?” Ironsmith asked. I could tell he wasn’t in the mood for jokes. A lot of dwarves’d died last night.

“The cops ain’t dare go too deep into the sewers. It’s our territory. There were some drow down there, an’ they know how to move underground, but they ain’t know the layout. Even if they got maps, there’s so much new diggin’ work goin’ on all the time, they’d be outta date in weeks. It was simple enough gettin’ through, then as soon as I showed my face, the gangs rallied ’round.”

“Some people got all the luck,” I smirked.

“Ain’t no luck about it – I’m the Khan.”

“You are that,” Ironsmith acknowledged, “an’ you got there just in time.”

Khan hadn’t just brought orcs with him either – the kobolds came up with him from the sewers, a good number of goblin tribes got swept along with it too, like they always do when the orcs get ’em agitated up, and I even heard some of the trolls from underneath Shatterton Bridge were stomping around in the shadows, making nuisances of ’emselves. The drow got badly mauled, and they’d retreated north, bloodied and broken.

“Problem is,” Ironsmith went on, “we didn’t do enough. The drow are lickin’ their wounds, but they’re gonna be back tonight, or I ain’t know good earthworks. We didn’t find that Lily of yours.”

“None of ’em are willin’ to betray her,” I said, “we gonna have to lure her out somehow.”

Khan stoked his heavy jaw thoughtfully with one of his long black claws. “That ain’t sound like drow to me,” he said, “from what I always heard, they’d sell out their own mothers if they thought it’d save their filthy skins.”

“There’s somethin’ else goin’ on here, Ragnar,” Ironsmith said. “I still ain’t understand how they got the leverage to put their own mayor in office. You said this broad who’s in charge of ’em was posin’ as a human lounge singer in some seedy club?”

“That’s right.”

“Why’d she do that? Why not just take over herself?”

I shrugged and didn’t say nothing.

Khan looked out the window and his thick brow creased. “Another thing I ain’t understand – if they got the NAPD in their pockets, why ain’t this neighbourhood swarmin’ with cops? We left bodies everywhere. We oughta be fightin’ our way outta a siege right now.”

“That’s a darn good point.” Ironsmith went to the window too and peered out.

“You smell that?” Khan said to him in a low voice.

“What?”

“Burnin’.”

I struggled up to my feet. I’d been patched back together as best anyone could manage, but I felt like I could fall apart again any second. I dunno what was keeping me on my feet. My hands were covered in thick black veins, and the rest of my skin was grey as a corpse. I felt like one giant scab, but there wasn’t no pain no more – I dunno whether some part of my brain had shut down and wouldn’t let me feel it no more, or if it was something in the Black Lotus. I leant against the frame of one of the other windows, but outside it just looked dark to me. “What’s burnin’?” I asked.

“Somethin’ uptown. Somethin’ big.”

“Let’s get on the roof, see what we can see,” Ironsmith suggested. Khan nodded and they both headed for the door.

“Wait up,” I told ’em.

“You stay there, Ragnar,” Ironsmith said gently. “We gonna get you to a doctor today, all right?”

“No way I’m sittin’ nothin’ out now,” I snapped. They looked like they were gonna argue, but I guess something in my tone made ’em think better of it. We all went up the stairs, to the door that led out onto the roof, me hobbling behind, slower even than Ironsmith stumping along with his splint, leaning on the handrail the whole way. When we got up there, I could smell the smoke too. We walked to the edge of the flat roof and looked north. The whole of New Atlas was stretched out around us. Our building wasn’t high, but we got a good view of the skyscrapers downtown, the Kingdom Province Building in the centre of it all, the crystal spires of the Amandil Building in the distance, just catching the rising sun’s rays and throwing rainbows over everything. And there, across the Treetops River, a huge cloud of black smoke rising into the sky. We knew where all the city’s cops were, along with the fire department most likely.

“That’s Jonastown,” Ironsmith breathed.

“Looks like the whole damn borough’s on fire,” Khan said.

I felt sick to my stomach. Jonastown was where most of the gnomes in New Atlas lived, a crowded network of neighbourhoods, filled with hundreds of brightly-painted houses that looked like mushrooms. Lots of good families, just struggling to get by. One of those families, living in one of those cute little houses, was the Redcaps: Poppy and her folks and her poor brother Robbie, a kid whose mind was never quite the same after he got a taste of dragonfire.

“It ain’t necessarily connected,” Ironsmith said. He was holding my arm, and I realised he was the only thing keeping me on my feet.

“It’s connected,” I said. “This is their retaliation.”

“Hardly any gnomes rose against ’em,” Khan said. He looked confused.

“It ain’t about the gnomes,” I explained. I felt numb again, but in a different way than before. “It’s about me. It’s all been about me. I ain’t know why, but somehow I’m at the centre of all this. I ain’t no community leader an’ I ain’t no king, but somehow…”

“Ragnar, we can’t go after ’em again,” Ironsmith said. “Another night like that’s gonna cost more lives. Yours, for one.”

“You’re right. We need a new plan. We showed ’em we got teeth, but they just upped the stakes. It’s time we got serious. Our city got itself an infestation, an’ we need to find the right method to exterminate it.”

“What you got in mind?” Khan asked me. He didn’t look convinced.

“I got nothin’ in mind, but I know someone who might have a couple ideas. Someone who can tell us about drow. Someone who knows all about history.” I was looking across the city, almost due north, where a gap in the buildings showed me 5th Avenue running up towards The Dale in the middle of town. I couldn’t see it from where I was, but somewhere was a big heap of stone called the Sigurd A. Svartmann building, the main branch of the New Atlas Public Library. I knew an old professor there who I shoulda looked up earlier. No one knew much about drow, except that one time, thousands of years ago, someone found a way to hurt ’em so bad it drove ’em deep underground and turned the bastards into the bitter race they were today. I planned on a repeat performance.

“You need to see a doctor,” Ironsmith reminded me.

“I think it’s too late for that. Let’s get outta here before I die an’ take this whole darn city with me.”

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

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