Darkness Rising (Part V)

“You ain’t gonna be able to just walk up 5th Avenue in broad daylight,” Ironsmith said to me as we both made our slow progress back down the stairs to the storeroom. Khan walked ahead of us, his topknot brushing against the ceiling even as he ducked through the doorway. Not many folks in New Atlas were bigger’n me, but that orc made me feel like a gnome sometimes, especially as banged up as I was. “Remember the cops still got that warrant out on you.”

“I know,” I said.

“An’ you gonna attract a lotta attention just lookin’ like you do right now,” Khan said, turning to me as we all entered the room.

“It that bad?” I grimaced. I knew it was, just from the way my vision was. To me it looked like midnight, even though I knew the sun was shining outside. Ironsmith and Khan were both just darker shadows on the other side of the room. My side throbbed again. One of Khan’s orcs knew some field medicine from before he came to the city and had stitched me back together, but it was crude stuff. Orcs are darn good fighters, but I ain’t gonna be lining up to let one of ’em perform surgery on me anytime soon. Luckily I was near as tough as an orc, so I figured I could take it, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I could smell the poison in me too, like I was sweating it out. One thing about starting to lose my sight, it almost seemed like my other senses were making up for it. Shame all I could smell was my own rotting carcass.

“Ragnar,” Ironsmith said, “we gotta be smart about this. You got a plan, but there ain’t gonna be no more all out assaults. Who knows what they gonna set fire to next if that happens?”

Khan nodded in agreement. “Somethin’ tells me that if these elves can’t have New Atlas for themselves, they gonna burn it down to ash just to stop anyone else gettin’ it.”

“I ain’t do smart so good, in case you two ain’t notice,” I said as I lowered myself slowly onto a box again. I held my hand to my side ’cause, stitches or no, I felt like my insides could leak out at any second. Thankfully the dizziness and headaches seemed to have stop. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. Maybe my body had just stopped fighting now? “There’s a dwarf door into the library, ain’t there?”

Ironsmith smiled. “An’ one in the basement of the Chapel of Iluvatar a couple blocks away. We’ll take the back exit, keep to the alleys an’ side streets.”

“They gonna let a Northman an’ a dwarf into a Stonelander temple?” Khan asked.

“The One is a very welcomin’ god,” Ironsmith explained as he helped me to my feet, “since the Stonelanders think he’s the only one that exists, they let anyone just wander in in the hopes they’ll renounce their old beliefs an’ join their congregation.”

“Humans,” Khan said with a shake of his big head, “I never can figure ’em out.”

“You an’ me both, brother,” Ironsmith said with a wink in my direction.

“We gonna go to the library,” I told Khan, “do a little readin’ up on the drow, then come up with a better plan.”

“I’ll stay here,” the orc said, “I ain’t much for books.”

I knew that wasn’t true – Orca Khan was the only one besides a dwarf who knew some of their language, and he was a lot smarter than I was – but I wasn’t gonna let him get away with giving me an excuse to avoid the truth. “An’ if anythin’ goes wrong, it’s all gonna be down to you.”

Khan narrowed his eyes. “What’s gonna go wrong in a damn library? You plannin’ on not bringin’ a book back on time?”

“You know what I mean, Khan.” Ironsmith was still supporting me, and I let myself be carried. I was twice his size, but dwarves are built to bear a lotta weight. “This city needs a hero.”

“I ain’t a hero – I’m a king. An’ you’d be the first to tell me it don’t need one a’ those.”

“That’s why I plan to be back. But if not…”

“Right. I’ll do what I gotta do, Ulrichson.”

He’d saved my ass more’n once now, and I did trust him, in a way, but his idea of a solution to this problem was even more straightforwardly brutal than mine’d been. I wouldn’t leave New Atlas in his clawed hands if I could avoid it, even though he’d be a better caretaker than the drow. “Let’s hope it ain’t come to that.”

“Right,” Ironsmith said, “one day we all gonna look back on this an’ laugh.”

I don’t think any of us believed that, but we had to hold onto something. I exchanged a curt nod with Khan and we made our way to ground level and then out the back exit into an alley behind the building. “Some pair we make,” I snorted, “me on death’s door, you with your leg all bound up like that.”

“It ain’t as bad as it looks,” Ironsmith said dismissively, “just a precaution. You probably heard of them – they’re these things smart folks take when they’re about to do somethin’ dangerous.”

“Like I just told you, I ain’t do smart so good. Until now anyway. Let’s get goin’.”

I had to work hard not to think about Jonastown, the borough mostly home to innocent gnomes currently going up in flames, most likely at the hands of the drow. No cops around the place meant the right people were on the scene, helping out, but a lotta good folks would lose their homes and businesses, and Poppy might well be one of ’em. I wanted to jump in a cab and yell at the driver to take me there right now, but that wouldn’t help a damn thing. Showing up just to die on the Redcap’s smouldering doorstep wasn’t nobody’s idea of a grand romantic gesture. So I’d do what I came back to the city to do. That’d do all the gnomes in Jonastown a lot more good.

We didn’t have no trouble getting into the basement of the chapel. No one was around – they just left the doors open – trusting that no Stonelander who valued his life would walk out with one of the big silver or gold trees on the altar – and we slipped in and found the door to the basement pretty quick. We had to move a couple dusty boxes outta the way, which wasn’t easy given what a mess we were both in, but the blank patch of wall that Ironsmith assured me was the secret dwarf door was soon exposed. He gave me a meaningful look and I turned away with a sigh. New Atlas was originally built by dwarves, working for the elves that founded it who knows how long ago now. They were the ones who laid the foundations of all the oldest buildings in the city, and one thing they made sure of was to put in a secret door to every single one of ’em. Just a little dwarf insurance I guess. The upshot of this was that all the historic buildings in the city were connected by a network of passages just below ground. Only dwarves had the secret of opening the doors, and only they could read the dwarvish that let then find their way around when they were in the tunnels. Only a few people apart from the dwarves knew about any of this, and I knew if it became common knowledge there’d be a damn riot. It was bad enough that they kept their languages, their customs, their technology, all the stuff that went on in the lodges a secret – if folks knew they could come and go around the city as they pleased… As far as I knew though, dwarves didn’t make use of the secret doors at all. I thought that was kinda strange, but I didn’t really know if they all knew about them neither.

“Okay, let’s go,” Ironsmith said.

I turned around to see a gaping black hole where a wall had been less than a minute before. There weren’t no hinges, no sign of any kinda mechanism or nothing. Just a gap and a dark passage leading from it. We went in and I had to wait in the darkness while Ironsmith did whatever he had to do behind me, sealing the wall back up again, like we’d never been there. If any of the priests came down into the basement, all they’d notice was some boxes mysteriously moved. They’d probably think it was some sorta miracle from their god and start charging honest folks to see the magic blessed basement. When Ironsmith was done he hobbled in front of me and took a dwarf torch out of his pocket. He lit it and I could see him blinking in the white light it cast, even though to me it hardly made no difference at all.

“Someone oughta do a little spring cleanin’ around here,” I said as I looked around the murky corners of the narrow passage. There were cobwebs clinging to the stonework ceiling, and I could see tiny spiders scurrying around.

“This ain’t right,” Ironsmith said. I could hear the worry in his voice. Dwarves were pretty reserved people, so hearing just that amount of emotion made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

“It’s just some insects,” I told him, trying to sound nonchalant, “nothin’ to be concerned about.”

“Arachnids,” he said absently.

“Huh?”

“Don’t matter. Look, there shouldn’t be any kinda life in these tunnels,” Ironsmith explained, “there’s no way for even somethin’ tiny like a spider to get in. Or out.” He held the torch up to one of the webs. The little spiders fled from the light, but they didn’t disappear into any cracks because, as I could just make out through the black haze over my eyes, there weren’t no cracks: the stones were packed tight and even. Good dwarf stonecraft. “Even the air only gets in through porous stones towards the centre of the network. There’s no way to break into these passages from outside.”

“So how’d the spiders get in?”

“Someone must’ve let ’em in.”

That gave me pause. I watched them scramble in their webs and it seemed I could hear their barbed little legs clicking as they walked on the stones all around us. Ironsmith shone the torch ahead and we saw the webs getting thicker deeper into the tunnel. “You scared of spiders?” I asked him.

“No, but I’m scared of someone gettin’ into secret dwarf tunnels.”

We followed the route through the darkness, me keeping close behind Ironsmith and his dim light. It looked dim to me anyhow. It was slow going, not just ’cause we were so battered and bruised, but because we had to fight our way through thick cobwebs almost the whole way. Mostly the spiders were small, but once I heard something bigger moving in the darkness the way we’d just walked, and every time we got to a junction and I saw other dark passages leading away to who knows where, I felt like I could see clusters of eyes watching me from the shadows. I knew where I’d seen this kinda thing before, but I didn’t tell Ironsmith about it. If things went well and I got some useful information from the library, we’d deal with this particular problem anyway. And if I didn’t…well, it’d be the least of our concerns.

Finally, after what seemed like a real long time in the dark, we got where we needed to be. The cobwebs were thick around the apparent dead end we’d reached, but I still turned my back. It seemed to take Ironsmith even longer than usual to activate the door and as I stared into a blackness so deep I thought I had my eyes closed, it seemed I could hear something huge – or an awful lotta somethings small – slowly creeping towards us. There was a rasp like something hard brushing hollowly against stone, and I put my hand on my gun. I didn’t know what good I thought shooting wildly into the dark might do, but it made me feel better. Just a little better. “How we doin’, Harl?” I asked him between gritted teeth.

“Gimme a sec…”

“What’s the hold up, buddy?”

“Someone’s been messin’ with this darn door! Hold up, I think I got it now. Yeah. Okay, let’s get the Hel outta here.”

The light that suddenly spilled out the open door was just the slightly brighter darkness of another basement, but it made all the difference. There might’ve been a hiss from the shadows, and I felt like something had been scared off and was scuttling back to some noisome lair in the depths, but it mighta just been my imagination.

“You comin’?” Ironsmith asked.

I dragged myself away and followed him out into the basement of the Sigurd A. Svartmann Building, the main branch of the New Atlas Public Library. It looked a little different than it had before. Ironsmith noticed it too. When we were last here, a bookcase had been in the way of the door. Now it was off to one side against a different bit of wall, seemingly permanently. It also looked cleaner down here, like someone had tidied up. I limped over to a table by the opposite wall with papers stacked up neatly on it. “This is new,” I said.

“Yeah. Someone’s been workin’ down here.”

I held up one of the bits of paper. “An’ drawin’ a map too…”

Ironsmith looked stone cold furious as he hobbled up to me and snatched the paper right outta my hand. “I knew I never shoulda showed that professor the door…” Three months ago, when we’d had bigger things on our minds – namely a dragon – we’d made use of the dwarf door here to get where we needed to go without being noticed. At the time it didn’t seem a big deal, but now Ironsmith was obviously having second thoughts.

“Too late now,” I shrugged, “an’ if you ain’t mind, can we keep any accusations to a minimum? I kinda need his help today.”

“All right…but he’s gonna have Hel to pay once this is all done…”

We went up the stairs and into the library proper. There were a few people sitting around reading and so forth, and we must’ve looked quite a sight as we walked in through the back door. Luckily one of the folks with his head in a book was the man we’d come to see, and he spotted us and gave a little start. Then he adjusted his glasses and got up to come meet us. Professor Incanus was an old human who walked along with the help of a cane. Right then though he was more spry than either of us so we waited for him to come to us. “My goodness, my goodness,” he said when he came close, speaking in a low voice since this was a library and all, “I feared you were both dead.”

“Then you know what’s going’ on?”

“Some. Not all, I suspect. But I know what’s risen on the streets, yes. I may look old and stuffy, but I do manage to keep my ear to the ground now and then. Come, my office is just through here.” We followed him down a corridor and then through a door into a stuffy little room almost totally filled with books. There was just room for a big mahogany desk and a couple of chairs. Incanus took one and Ironsmith let me slump down in the other. He tried to lean against a precarious pile of books, but thought better of it when they threatened to topple over.  Incanus smiled tightly at us. “Somehow, I had a feeling you might turn up asking for my help sooner or later. I’d hoped for sooner, but events have moved quickly, I understand. In either case, I put aside some texts I thought might he pertinent.”

“Shouldn’t these books be out on the shelves?” Ironsmith asked.

“The library’s full collection is too vast to be made available to the general public in its entirety. The books here would do little to pique the curiosity of most visitors anyway. Dry histories, obscure reference works, items of personal interest to me alone. Genealogy, heraldry, things of that nature.”

I looked at one on the top of the pile next to me. It didn’t look as dusty as the rest, like someone had been reading it recently. According to the title it was called The Line of the Kings of Old Atlantis. He wasn’t kidding about this stuff not interesting the public. “You mentioned some pertinent texts, prof?”

“Yes indeed.” He held up a book. “Do you read elvish?”

“I look like I read elvish to you?”

He coughed politely. “Forgive me: you’re a man of many peculiar talents, Mr Ulrichson, I never know quite what to expect from you. But I shall translate. This particular work is called The Fall of Svartálfaheimr. It concerns a period of the highest antiquity, at the very dawn of the First Age, before even the coming of dwarves and humans.”

“Sounds fascinatin’,” I said. “Look, I ain’t mean to be rude, prof, but my time is kinda limited here in case you couldn’t tell.”

He looked at me. “Yes indeed. Unless I’m very much mistaken, you’re currently in the advanced stages of Black Lotus poisoning. It’s remarkable you’re alive, let alone walking around the city and holding lucid conversations.”

“Just lucky I guess.”

“Hm, quite. Let me be brief then: this book is a history of the Elven Wars, the cataclysmic conflict in which the destiny of the elder race was wrought. Svartálfaheimr was the ancient kingdom of the creatures that would one day become the dark elves, the drow. A schism, the causes of which are now lost to history, divided the elves into two warring factions and, in the end, it was those who dwelt in Svartálfaheimr who were defeated. Their kin drove them from their lands and forced them underground where they dwelt in the darkness for the next five thousand years, becoming a bitter and twisted people.”

“All of the peoples who live underground know about the drow,” Ironsmith said, nodding. “We remember the old wars.”

“Yes indeed,” Incanus went on, “The drow are a terrible, cruel people. Their exile warped their minds. Elves are creatures of the open sky, of the stars. When confined in darkness, they wither and die. The first skyscrapers of this city were built for the elves so they could live high above the shadowy streets of early New Atlas.”

“An’ here I thought it was just ’cause they liked bein’ above everyone,” I said with a crooked grin.

“All elves are arrogant, yes,” Incanus agreed, “it comes with their long lifespan, I suppose. But in the drow it is warped into something much more terrible. Living below the earth transformed them. You may know that elves are very much affected by their environment and form a natural symbiosis with whatever natural features are close by. An elf who dwells for a long time in a forest will begin to become one with the trees, not unlike a dryad, while an elf of a mountain country will become hard and grey, like stone. It’s just their way.”

“With the drow, it’s the dark then,” I surmised, “which is why they look how they do.”

“Yes indeed. Many species have racial variations, of course – a simple matter of environmental effects over long generations, nothing a rational mind would concern itself with, but the drow are not the same at all. In their natural habitat, a drow’s skin is as black as night, a form of camouflage I suppose, and their eyes glow red. It is said they see heat rather than light, a much more useful skill in the absolute blackness of their dread home. But the drow you have met have spent some years above ground. They are slowly reverting to their old appearance. They might pass for a human of the Summer Islands, or a dwarf of the Broadbeam or Stonefoot clans – their general elvish appearance aside of course.”

“Yeah, you ain’t gotta tell me that,” I growled, “but I think we gettin’ away from the point again.”

“Ah yes, forgive an old man his wandering mind…” He adjusted his glasses. “Sadly, the details of the Elven Wars are lost to us. All of the histories couch the events in such poetic language, it is hard to discern any factual events. We have only the broad sweep of the centuries-long conflict; excellent fireside reading on a cold night, but of little utility when it comes to battle tactics, which is what I suspect you came here for.”

“So you can’t help us?” Ironsmith asked.

“No, I’m afraid I can’t.”

I felt deflated. “Darn. Well, prof, thanks for takin’ the time to look into this for us. Can I take that book? Maybe there’s somethin’ I can glean from it. We’ll trap ’em in The Dale or somethin’, see if they turn into dryads…”

“I said I couldn’t help you,” Incanus smiled, “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone in New Atlas who can.”

“What you gettin’ at, prof?” I was getting a little tired of all these games.

“Some of the details of battles and so forth may be lost to us, but the names of the heroes are not. There is one man who lives in this very city whose name appears in this book. One who fought in the Elven Wars himself. He can help you.”

I looked at Ironsmith. He had a look in his eyes that was sicker than mine. I could see he’d figured it out too. “I ain’t goin’ back there…” he said in a low voice.

I sighed. “Then I guess I’d better take a cab.”

*

The professor sent me in his own car in the end, driven by a security guard I’d met before, the one who’d helped us move the bookcase down in the basement the first time we’d used that door. He didn’t say much on the ride uptown, and that suited me just fine. Ironsmith’d been serious about not coming – he’d headed back through the dwarf passages, planning to go back to his own neighbourhood and check on things. Like Khan, he’d be needed if things went wrong today and he knew that. Despite the fighting last night, New Atlas didn’t look much different. Our war was a private one for criminal lowlifes. Decent folk didn’t pay no attention to our dead. Well, they’d start to notice soon enough if the drow took over. Like it or not, the gangs, the cartels, the little, dirty criminal conspiracies that went on in alleys, on street corners, down in the basements of seedy bars, clubs and gambling dens, were part of the fabric of the city. A lot of upstanding members of the community had their fingers in illegal pies, and if the drow Mafia were allowed to take control of all that, this whole place would go rotten to the core. I was supposed to be one of the good guys, but they say it’s better the balrog you know. I’d rather take my chances with goblin muggers and dwarf loan sharks than heavily-armed near-immortal sadists. Call me crazy I guess.

The car pulled up in a long, tree-lined avenue, just near The Dale. It was a pretty spot, nothing like the kinda places I hung out downtown. It could be a different city here. I thanked the driver and got out slowly. My whole body was shaking now, and I knew I must look like a corpse that just dragged itself outta the river. Right in fronta me was a place I’d never had no plans to return to. How’d fate bring me back here? I wondered. In a way, it was where it’d all begun. It felt like a long time ago now: hard to believe it was barely half a year. The first time, I’d be awed, stunned by the wealth and opulence, thinking I was living some fantasy, but that soon wore off. I learnt what I shoulda realised all along: elves ain’t no better than me or you, they just think they are and they fooled us all into believing it. It made me sick to think about how they must see us, how short and brutal our lives must seem to them. No wonder they ain’t think nothing of using us as pawns in their games. The last thing I wanted to do was be part of that again, but what choice did I have?

Yeah, they called it The Amandil Building, but really it was a palace, like in the Elder Days. You can dress it up all you like, call ’em businessmen, or entrepreneurs, or city fathers or whatever you like, but in the end all they are is royalty, just like the old days. Elves. The other kind of elves that is. New Atlas used to be their city. Maybe it still was really. I walked up the steps slowly. A figure I recognised was waiting for me by the door, cloaked head to toe in his robes so I couldn’t even see his face. Funny how these kinda elves did that when the drow seemed perfectly happy to show themselves. Both kinds lived in the dark, in their way.

“Mr Ulrichson,” Orodreth greeted as I clambered up the last of the steps.

“Hey, what’s shakin’, pal? Miss me?”

“You look like you should be dead.”

“Funny, I was thinkin’ the same thing.”

“I see that your recent experiences haven’t altered your famous wit. Come, Mr Amandil is expecting you.”

“Well ain’t that nice?”

There weren’t too many folks in New Atlas I hated more than this chump. Orodreth was the lackey that had gotten me involved in Amandil’s business in the first place, hiring me on the pretext of investigating the murder of an elf heiress; a murder that never happened, a hire that never put a dime in my pocket, and a conspiracy that nearly got me killed and New Atlas plunged into a war between humans and orcs. It was all a bid for elven dominance, and I’d just been a fall guy. So you can understand why I’d be a little reluctant to come asking for help from these creeps now. But, like I said, what choice did I have?

The Amandil building was a swish as I remembered, all clean, pale elvish design, all looking like some snooty art gallery. There were a few other elves floating around the lobby, now without the hoods that hid their faces. They were pretty to look at – even the men – but they were pale and their eyes all had that weird, faraway look in them, like they were lost in the past – or maybe planning out some future none of the rest of us would live long enough to see, knowing elves. I used to think they were the closest thing on earth to the gods, something that was written in my blood in Ages past, but now I was wise to their glamour. They bled and shat the same as anyone else. A night fighting their drow cousins had vanished away any lingering feelings of awe I might’ve had towards ’em too. Screw elves, frankly.

We went up in the elevator and Orodreth took me out into another fancy corridor with some heavy, carved doors at the end. It was Amandil’s office. I’d been here before. I was shown in and the seneschal bowed his head to his master and left us to it.

Findaráto Amandil was the only elf I’d ever seen who looked old. Last time we’d met, I shot him in the gut. That’s why Khan had ended up in jail; taking the fall for me to preserve the peace of the city. I always knew a reckoning would come between me and the most powerful man in New Atlas, but I didn’t think it’d be on these terms. I couldn’t tell you where the fortune Amandil had made had come from, but he’d been alive for thousands and thousands of years, so maybe it was all just interest. I flopped down in one of the chairs without waiting to be asked. Amandil watched me in silence. His office was a big room, but felt smaller. It had a nice, thick carpet, expensive looking furniture, panelled walls and no windows. The only real decoration was the row of glass cases along one wall, each one holding ranks of moths and butterflies, long dead, pinned in place forever. The sight of them made me uneasy.

“Why is it every time we meet, you seem to be in poor health, Mr Ulrichson?” His smile reminded me of a picture of a shark I’d once seen when I was a kid. It’d scared the heck outta me.

“Probably ’cause I’m generally in pretty poor health,” I said.

“So it seems.” He watched me with his cold, pale eyes, and I felt like one of the moths in his cases, fastened in place, being examined by a creature I was too small to comprehend. “I understand you’ve begun drinking again. Perhaps now I could tempt you with a glass of that wine? As I said last time, it’s a most ancient vintage.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” I realised I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the day before. I didn’t feel in the least bit hungry. That couldn’t be right, could it?

“Perhaps a cigar then? Something to calm your nerves a little? I can see you shaking from here…” He walked around his desk and opened a small, wooden cigar case. My nostrils flared as I caught a scent wafting across the room. I didn’t think I’d have been able to catch it if the Black Lotus hadn’t been messing with my eyes and seemingly boosting my other senses. It was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. For a second though, I felt like I was somewhere far away, and foetid, hot air washed over me, the sound of chittering claws close by my ear, my arms and legs caught in a vast, sticky…

“Mr Ulrichson?” Amandil waved an expensive looking cigar at me.

“No, thanks,” I said in a voice hardly more’n a whisper.

“Suit yourself.” He put the cigar back and shut the case with an abrupt snap. The smell disappeared. He crossed back around the desk and came to stand in front of me. “I know what you want to know.”

“Yeah?”

“Oh yes. I have many spies working for me in this city’s criminal underworld. I keep a close eye on the streets, and on you, Mr Ulrichson. You…you have become very interesting to me…”

“Glad to hear it.”

“So,” he clapped his hands together. It sounded loud in the silent room. “Let’s not quibble over what you want and why you want it since we both know already. Tell me, why should I help the man who, just six months ago, broke into my own home and shot me?”

I cracked a smile. “‘Cause if you ain’t, you ain’t gonna have a home at all.”

“Clever words when speaking of your friends downtown, but hardly relevant to me. Despite your escapades last year, this building is the most impregnable fortress in New Atlas. Even the dwarf door in the basement is now sealed.”

I frowned at that. I didn’t think anyone but dwarves would know how to do that, and not even his money was enough to pay them to do something like that for him. But then…when we’d been in the tunnels earlier…

“So you see, the drow are no threat to me.”

“Right, right. But you got customers, right? The people of this city, they’re all part of your business empire in some form or other.”

“Of course.”

“A man as rich as you’s gotta have ties to all kindsa industries an’ interests all across the city, right? An’, as you say, you got your spies. That means you got your hooks in the underworld too. An’ the police force an’ the Mayor’s Office I bet. You name a thing goin’ on in New Atlas an’ I reckon if you look deep enough, there’s a contract with your name on it at the bottom. You an’ this place, you’re linked.”

Amandil looked thoughtful. “That’s one way of looking at it.”

“Yeah. So if the drow carry out their plans, take over New Atlas for good, it’s gonna hurt you, even here. They might not break in, they might not try to hurt you – not physically anyway – but if they turn this city into the husk they plan to, your empire’ll fall. You ain’t want dark elves in control any more than I do. An’ besides,” I added, “you must hold some kinda grudge from the old days. These freaks were your enemies way back when, right? Why would you just stand by an’ let ’em run riot in your own backyard?”

“You make a convincing argument, Mr Ulrichson,” Amandil said, “even if the way you express yourself is occasionally…uncouth…”

“Well, we ain’t all got thousands of years to work on our diction, Findaráto. So whaddaya say you an’ I let bygones be bygones an’ you tell me just how the heck we can get shot of these drow, huh? You sent ’em packin’ to the underworld last time – what was your secret?”

The old elf looked at me long and hard again. He was no different from the drow, not really. Incanus might talk about how elves got changed by their surroundings, but deep down they were all the same. Arrogant, cold, cruel. I didn’t like this guy any more than I liked Lily and her cronies, but I was a desperate man with a desperate city to save. “There was no secret,” he finally said, “just pain and sacrifice. All wars are the same. Victory comes at a cost.”

“I think I’ve paid enough, frankly.”

“Yes,” he mused, “I think you have. It’s remarkable, quite remarkable, that you’ve withstood the effects of the poison for so long. I’ve never known anyone to last so long. Not,” he added with a thin smile, “that I have any experience with it, of course. I fear though that you may now be beyond any physician’s aid.”

“Way I see it, all I gotta do is finish this job. Then I can get on with dyin’.”

“Admirable,” Amandil said, “but it need not be so.”

“But you just said…”

“A doctor would be quite useless, but there is an antidote.”

“There is?”

“Oh yes. For all things there is an equal and opposite. For the drow, us true elves. For the Black Lotus, a counter-agent. The price for that too though, will be high.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “You’d charge a dyin’ man for a cure?”

“I speak not of money, Mr Ulrichson. No, the price is of a different kind. I think, when I ask you for it, it won’t seem so onerous though. In fact, you may welcome it.”

“Cut to the chase. You got the antidote or not?”

Amandil walked back around his desk and sat down. He seemed to be thinking about something. “I can solve both of your problems, Ragnar,” he eventually said. He held up two fingers.  “I have two things for you. One, the cure for the poison that is killing you and, paradoxically, keeping you alive.”

“Huh?”

“A war is being fought inside you. Your body fights itself and, somehow, this battle is sustaining you, keeping you on your feet long past the limits of human endurance. Your sight fails, your blood runs black and thick. Inside you, your organs are beginning to shut down. But you also have wounds both old and new, and the Black Lotus is preventing them from killing you. Your blood is sluggish, otherwise the gash in your side would have long ago emptied you like a vase with a hole in the bottom. Somehow, your body has achieved a strange kind of equilibrium. But I fear it won’t last much longer. And, when the antidote is finally administered, the toll it takes on you may be devastating. It is not something I would give you lightly.”

“Well that’s real nice. What’s the second thing?”

Amandil arched an eyebrow, but he went on. “The second thing is an…artefact…that will help to defeat the drow.”

“Like some kinda weapon?”

“Not exactly. But it will save New Atlas.”

“Sounds good. You gonna hand ’em over or is there more you feel like sayin’? Not that I ain’t enjoy hearin’ you tell me how I’m gonna die horribly an’ all, but as you’ve pointed out my time is kinda limited right now, my ex-girlfriend’s home is probably burnin’ down an’ when the sun goes down, I’m gonna have some real angry dark elves lookin’ for me. So if you could give me what I’m after, maybe I can get outta your hair?”

He smiled thinly at me. “Would that it were that simple. These two gifts aren’t here. Both are too dangerous to keep in my home. They are hidden, disguised as mere historical curiosities where few would take an interest in them and their power. I have to make calls, use favours, bend my resources to obtaining these things. You must come to me tonight.”

“Tonight? Back here?”

“Not here, no. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

“Ah.” I knew it. Last time I’d been there was to pick up a certain artefact as well. I knew that one of Amandil’s family was the curator too, which I guess was the favour he was calling in. Well so be it. “All right,” I said, struggling up to my feet, “shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll lay low for the day, then take the dwarf tunnel in the evening. Just wait for me in the basement with the stuff.”

Something happened behind his eyes. Up to that point, they’d been flat, cold, emotionless. But there was a spark of something when I mentioned the tunnels, like I’d said something he hadn’t expected. “No…don’t take the tunnels. I’ll send a car to your office on Eldritch Street tonight. That will be easier.”

“Right.” So he didn’t know everything. He didn’t know I’d used a dwarf door already today or he wouldn’t be trying to keep me away from them now. So what did he know about them, and what was he trying to hide?

I thought about that instant of doubt in his eyes as I rode the elevator back down to the lobby. I couldn’t ever match wits with a damn elf, but I had some idea of how the clockwork in this monster’s mind worked. I’d seen those nasty gears grind away before, and as I played over the conversation in my mind, I started to realise what I hadn’t seen before.

Orodreth showed me out the front door. There was a fancy car with blacked out windows parked at the base of the steps out front. “Mr Amandil’s car will take you wherever you wish to go within city limits,” he told me curtly.

“Thanks.” On a hunch, I told the driver to take me to White Street. He didn’t ask no questions. He dropped me in a side street off the main thoroughfare and I climbed out of the back and sent him on his way. Then I waited in the shadows a minute, keeping an eye on the brooding shape of The Crypts on the corner. Last night it’d been dark and foggy, and there’d only been one other person on the street. Strange that. I mean, winos were all over the city, but it was unusual to see one who didn’t make himself real scarce when there were people going back and forth on quiet, night-time business. I ain’t know many bums who go outta their way to be witnesses. But if someone had some reason to keep a close eye on things…

“Hey, Broga,” I said.

“How’d you know I was here?” the  skinny orc said from behind me.

I turned around and smirked at him. “Never mind that.” Truth was, I’d heard him creep up on me. The Black Lotus really was making my other senses sharper somehow.

He held up his hands defensively. “I ain’t mean to harm…”

“I know. You just keepin’ a watch on things, right? Like last night?”

“You knew that was me?”

“Sure.” I hadn’t, at the time, but I’d figured it out afterwards. An orc runt like this only survived ’cause of the information he could sell. Ironsmith trusted him, but I knew he’d play both sides if he could, and keep tabs even on the guys he was supposed to be helping.

“Listen, you gotta understand, I ain’t…”

“Shut up, Broga,” I snapped, “I ain’t got no damn time right now. You know where Khan an’ Ironsmith are right now?”

“Uh…yeah…pretty much…”

“Course you do; you’re a smart kid. Now listen real careful, like.” I grabbed his head and pulled him close. He looked scared half to death, but probably ’cause I looked like a walking corpse. “You go to Ironsmith an’ you tell him this: we’re fightin’ the wrong coup. Tell him that tonight I’m gonna be in the same place I put down Wulfang’s heirloom an’ that if he wants to come say hello, he oughta come in the dark. An’ you tell him to bring Khan, all right?”

Broga licked his lips. “Okay…yeah…I think I got that…”

“C’mon, Broga, you ain’t foolin’ me – a kid like you’s only got a memory like a sieve when a cop’s askin’ the questions. You give him that exact message, understand?”

He nodded. “I got it.”

“The whole city’s at stake, y’hear? This is real important. Go find him right now.”

“Sure thing, Ragnar.”

“Good lad.” I patted him on the side of the head and turned back to the street, trusting him to carry my message. I walked out into White Street, not caring who saw me. See, I’d just figured out that there was no way in Hel the drow we’re gonna touch me now.

*

I found my office exactly how I’d left it – I’d figured before that the drow would’ve trashed it, but now I wasn’t it the least bit surprised that they hadn’t. I’d spent most of the day tryin’ to sit as still as I could. The headache and nausea had come back in force, and I couldn’t hardly move without throwing up. So I just sat and waited, watching my arms turn blacker and blacker, watching the air around me turn darker and darker. Willow didn’t show up. I guess she thought I was dead too. After tonight, she might be right. I read all about Jonastown in the paper. Most of the borough had been set alight by unidentified arsonists. Hundreds of gnome families had lost their homes. Right now they were living in temples and soup kitchens. No one was sure what the city would do for them in light of the things the new mayor had been saying about non-humans. From what I could tell from listening to a little of the radio, most of the humans in New Atlas were in favour of just letting them all rot on the streets. There was something poisonous gnawing at this city all right. I was just glad I’d finally figured out exactly what it was.

Amandil’s car arrived right on time. The driver was silent, taking me uptown through mostly empty streets. The drow were still keeping everything locked down. There’d be no battle tonight, at least not in this part of town. The Met, as most everyone called it, was way up on the north end of Manahills, past Iaunost Heights, in a little patch of parkland. The trees were just coming into blossom. It was a clear, starry night, and the hill the building was set on had a great view over the North River. I stepped out, getting a lungful of rare clean air and taking a good long look over the silvery strip of water winding its way past the edge of the city. I turned a full circle and saw Manahills spread out below me, peppered with the twinkling yellow lights of New Atlas. Its skyscrapers thrust out into the dark night sky, like glittering crystal spires. Even with my eyes clouded by the rising shadows, it looked damn beautiful. It could be a dirty, nasty place, New Atlas, but sometimes…sometimes…it was worth fighting for.

I walked up the big stone steps outside The Met and through the big double doors which weren’t locked. Inside it was dark. An elf was waiting for me – Elerossë Amandil, the curator. He bowed his head slightly as I limped in. “Nice to see you again, Mr Ulrichson.”

“Thanks,” I grunted.

“If you’d kindly follow me.” He swept ahead of me, moving in that irritating glide all elves seemed to do. We went through the main lobby and into one of the exhibition rooms. There was all kindsa stuff in there in glass cabinets lit with cold, white lamps. The shadows were too deep for me though, and I couldn’t make out what they were, even if I’d cared to look. Elerossë led me through a side door, and then we were in a long, tall room with round columns running up either side to another display case at the end. The elf stopped by the door, but gestured me forward.

This all felt a little bit too familiar, but this wasn’t the part of the museum I’d been in last time. I dragged myself up the long hall and stopped in front of the cabinet at the end. It was raised on a little platform with some shallow steps leading up to it. I squinted against the glare of the light. In the cabinet, resting on a velvet cushion, was a silver crown. It was shaped like curving wings, with a white jewel set in the centre. “Huh,” I said.

“Do you know what this is, Mr Ulrichson?” a familiar voice asked from the shadows. Amandil – Findaráto Amandil, that was – stepped into view.

“Looks like a pretty nice hat,” I said with a lazy shrug.

He smiled his thin smile again. “A nice hat indeed. Do you know why this city is called New Atlas, Ragnar?”

I thought about it. “No, I guess I don’t.”

“There was another Atlas, you know. An old Atlas if you like. It was a city of the ancient world that made this place look like a crude hamlet of mud huts. In the Second Age, the most powerful human kingdom in the world was the island nation of Atlantis. Atlas was their great capital.”

“Right. Sure.”

“A white city of wonder and delight. Even the elves envied it. Its kings were wise, just, noble. They ruled in peace for centuries, and the world prospered. But a cataclysm overcame the fair island of Atlantis, and all their great works were reduced to ruin. They fled the shattered remains of their home in their pale ships and landed on the shores of this land. There, they founded two lesser, but still powerful, kingdoms. In the south, the Stoneland and in the north, the Highland. The Stoneland prospered for many centuries, but the Highland was founded in the midst of a cruel and dangerous realm of monsters and bestial races, and it soon became fragmented, until even the memory of Atlantis was lost to its people. Eventually, that blighted region became known simply as the North. The humans became almost as barbarous as orcs, but in them survived a noble strain of Atlantian blood, for it was in the Highlands that the true heirs of Atlantis had reigned after the fall of their realm. It was to this memory of wondrous, ancient things that the elves were drawn. Why else would we look for allies amongst the crude, uncouth Northmen when the Dark Prince rose? We knew that there was a power in your kind, a potential for glory. And we were not mistaken.”

I looked at the crown in its glass case. “Okay,” was all I could think to say.

“Perhaps you wonder what all this has to do with you.”

“Not really.”

Amandil’s cheek twitched slightly, but he carried on. “This…is the crown of Atlantis, carried from the ruin of the island to these lands, where it was worn afterwards by the kings of the Highlands, and then kept as an heirloom by the chieftains of the North that followed them. Chieftains such as your ancestor, Wulfang.”

“I see.”

“Do you, Ragnar? Do you see?”

“Yeah. I see it all. It was a damn good plan, but it ain’t gonna work.” I sat down heavily on the steps below the crown. “I know what you wanna do. You wanna raise me up. Make me a leader, a hero.”

“A king,” Amandil said. He walked around the platform so he was standing in front of me. Elerossë was standing near the door still, and then I saw another figure move into view. Incanus, the old professor, standing with his cane, watching me. I nodded to myself. That’s what I’d thought.

“Why me?” I asked, playing along for now.

“Who else? Even if the blood did not flow in your veins, you’ve proven yourself. Not just tonight, but in all that you’ve done since I became aware of you. Even your name, you may not know, means ‘king’ in the ancient language of the North. You, who have fought so desperately to preserve this city, who had the will to face down a mighty dragon, who has given his very body to protect what he loves. Who but one destined for true greatness could resist the scourge of this poison for so long? Lucky, you call yourself, but I see the truth. You, who would never dream of taking up such a title, who rejects the very notion, you alone were born for this.”

“An’ that’s how kings happen is it?” I asked. My words were getting a little slurred and my vision was fading fast now. I could barely make out the others in the room with me. “They get born, right? Or…or do they get made?”

“They are appointed,” Incanus answered, “by the gods.”

“Gods. Huh.” I shook my head. It felt real heavy suddenly. I knew I was dying. “Gods never did much for me.”

“Until today!” Amandil hissed. He crouched down next to me. “Ragnar, you have only to raise your hand and take this thing! Take that which is your right! Take it, and I will give you the antidote that will purge the Black Lotus from your body.”

I managed to smile. “Heh…so this is the price you talked about is it?”

“Does it seem so steep now? I offer you a crown.”

“Crown…yeah…an’ then what?”

“And then, as king, you will have the power to bring order to chaos,” Incanus said, striding towards us, his cane shaking as he put his weight onto it.

“Order..yeah…I see it now…” I lifted my head, looking Amandil in the eyes. It was hard to focus on him. “I see it all so clearly, even though the darkness rises over me. I put on that damn crown…maybe I pick up Wulfang’s godsdamned hammer too, yeah? Like you wanted me to to fight the dragon? Yeah, an’ I ride outta here on a big white horse an’ everyone falls down on their knees an’ worships me, an’ I drive the drow out. Is that how it’s supposed to go?”

“That’s what you want, isn’t it?” Amandil said. All I could see where his eyes, gleaming like cold stars in the night sky.

“No,” I whispered, “it’s what you want. It’s what you wanted months ago, when you first found out I existed, when you tried to set me up against Khan. You wanted to turn the orcs an’ the humans against each other so you could turn back the clock an’ rule New Atlas like you used to rule the North, with humans as your dogsbodies. Yeah. That’s it, ain’t it? An’ then when the dragon came, you saw another chance, so you moved your playing pieces around the board again, an’ you got your cousin an’ your buddy the professor over there to put a warhammer in my hands so I’d go off to be a dragonslayer. An’ now…now you’re playin’ the same game again…pickin’ me up an’ movin’ me about where you want me…like a pawn…”

“Not a pawn,” Amandil hissed through clenched teeth, “a king!”

“It’s all the same,” I said, “all the damn same…’cause you playin’ both sides. We all just goin’ where you send us, black an’ white, an’ whoever wins, you come out on top, ’cause it’s all just a damn game.”

“Ragnar…”

“No!” I roared as I surged up to my feet. I could feel the veins, bloated with black blood, bulging in my neck, my arms. My hair musta been wild and I hoped my eyes were showing the black fury I was feeling deep inside. Amandil took a few steps back, and he looked scared. He actually looked scared, the bastard. “I’m done! You think you can control me? You think you can put me anywhere you like? No! It don’t work that way!” I stepped down the platform towards Amandil, and he cowered back. I could barely see Incanus and Elerossë, but they seemed to be shaken too. “You think I’m a damn idiot, don’t you? Some street thug you can manipulate however you damn well please. Well I seen through you an’ your little plan. The drow? The drow ain’t shit, are they? They’re a distraction. An excuse. Hired thugs from Svartheim. How’d they get the power to put their own mayor in office? How’d they buy the NAPD? They only been here for a few days, for Crom’s sake! It ain’t make no sense! But you…you’ve been here since the beginning…an’ you been waitin’ a long time to find a human patsy you can set up. Yeah, that’s it, ain’t it? That’s how you operate. You move your pieces around the board, you create a situation, an’ you make people an offer they ain’t able to refuse. I know, Amandil. I know what you’re up to. This was all about me. This was always all about me. You set things in motion, start your little coup, fill the city with dark elves, poison me with Black Lotus – the Black Lotus I smelled in your office, Amandil, the Black Lotus Lily coated her lips with before she kissed me – then you start runnin’ down non-humans, make everyone think the city is going’ to Hel. An’ then I come roarin’ back, an army of dwarves an’ orcs an’ the rest, an’ you put a crown on my head, the drow leave as quick as they came, an’ you got a puppet everyone will follow to the death. You might call me a king, but I’ll just be another pawn.”

I stopped, breathing hard, staring Amandil right in the eyes. He looked shocked, but then he smiled and clapped slowly. “Very clever,” he said softly, “you’re much shrewder than I hoped. You’ll make an excellent king.”

“Didn’t you hear a damn word I just said?” My voice was dangerously low. “I ain’t gonna be your damn king!”

“What makes you think you’re in any sort of position to refuse, Ragnar? Even now, the Black Lotus is scourging the last of your body’s formidable reserves. You will die within the hour. I have seen this toxin’s dreadful effects before. You will die, and it will not be pleasant. But I have the only antidote.” He held a glass vial before him. Its contents glowed white and, in the darkness of my vision, it was all I could see. “Distilled from the petals of the White Lotus that grows only in Elvenhome, it is the one thing, the only thing, that might save your life.”

“Right,” I nodded. “My only hope.”

“Indeed. And what do you think will happen to New Atlas when you’re gone? If you die tonight, you’ll change nothing. Jonastown will still have been burned. The drow will still rule the streets. I will let this city tear itself apart. And what of your friends? The dwarf, that foul orc, the gnome girl? Yes, even her. What will happen to them when you’re gone, Ragnar? Who will protect them if not their king?”

“New Atlas ain’t need a king,” I said.

“Would it be so bad?” he asked me gently. “Isn’t it what you’ve always wanted really? Your whole life, you’ve tried to do the right thing, tried to protect the weak. Think of the good you can do as an undisputed ruler. You can clean up these streets once and for all. You can make New Atlas whole.”

“No. If the streets were clean, we’d never have beaten the drow last night. The underworld…it’s part of this city…if you take it away, all you have is a hollow shell.”

“You can’t honestly believe that. You’re a private detective! A protector of law and order!”

“Maybe you ain’t heard,” I smiled, feeling black blood welling up in my mouth, “but I’m about the worst private detective in the world.” My legs gave way and I stumbled down to the floor.

“This antidote is your only hope!” Amandil screeched. “You and your city will both die unless you do as I say!”

“Only hope…” I said, spitting a glob of back slime onto the museum’s fancy carpet, “funny thing to say.”

“Funny? Why?”

“‘Cause it ain’t true…that aintidote…it ain’t my only hope…”

“It is, Ragnar. It is.”

“Nope. I got one more ace up my sleeve.” I was lying on the floor now, curled into a ball as my stomach started to cramp. My lungs felt like they were on fire. I pointed at the vague black shape I thought might be Incanus. “Him. He was the key. The dwarf tunnels…the secret doors…it’s where you hid the drow, ain’t it? He figured out a way to unlock ’em…one of his damn books told him…it was your insurance…your insurance against us usin’ the only advantage we had…but the thing is…the thing is…for once…I’m one step ahead…you think the drow’re tough…but last night…last night we showed ’em…”

“Your friends will find no drow to fight tonight,” Amandil spat, “they’re safely hidden away.”

“Right…right…in the tunnels…only thing is…that’s exactly…exactly where my friends are…”

Amandil spun around, and I could only imagine the look in his eyes. I heard it before they did, the sound of pounding feet, the roar of throats, one word over and over…

The doors to the long room seemed to explode inwards and I could see through the darkness the tide of huge bodies pouring in, and the mighty warrior at their head, the real king.

“AMANDIL!” Orca Khan bellowed. I saw the old elf fall down to his knees, could make out his mouth opening and closing in horror. “You put me in jail, you son of a bitch,” Khan said as he advanced on him.

“Khan…no…” I tried to raise my hand, tried to stop him, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t hear me.

He made a huge swipe with one massive claw, and Amandil fell to the floor in a spray of blood, but he wasn’t dead. Khan loomed over him, then picked him up by his throat, lifting him up into the air like a rag doll. “I been dreamin’ about what I’d do if I got my hands on you for a long time, elf…”

“Khan…you can’t…”

He finally seemed to see me. All I could see were his glowing red eyes. “Ragnar…he’s mine. I owe him.”

“No…you can’t…you can’t just take…take revenge on him…he…he should be tried…”

“Tried? By who? This city is corrupt. No one’s gonna put this guy on trial. No, he’ll answer to orc justice, underneath the ground. I wonder how long it takes to turn an ordinary elf into a drow. How long d’you think they need to be kept in the dark? How much d’you have to hurt ’em to twist their minds into that shape?” He lifted Amandil up and slung him over his shoulder.

“Khan…”

“See you around, Ragnar. Here.” He stooped to pick up the glowing white vial and tossed it across to me. I was too weak to catch it, but it landed next to me and I managed to get a hold of it and clutch it to my chest. There was the sound of cheering and shouting, and then the orcs left. I didn’t see what happened to Elerossë or Incanus. Maybe the orcs had taken them too, or just killed them.

I held the White Lotus against my chest, feeling how warm it was even through the bottle. And, for the first time in my life, I thought about giving up. I thought about not taking it, just letting the Black Lotus do its work. Maybe it’d be better that way. Maybe I’d just be able to remember New Atlas as I’d last seen it, shining in the night, and forget what it was about to become, what I’d left it to.

“Ragnar…Ragnar…” I heard her voice, but I couldn’t see her now. She put her soft hands against my ruined flesh and touched her fingers to my lips. “It’s okay, I’m here.” I tried to say her name, but it wouldn’t come out. My whole body was shaking. My chest hurt. I couldn’t move my arms or legs. “Shhh,” she whispered, “it’s going to be okay. Here. I’ve got you.” I felt her take the vial from my hands and, a few moments later, it was pressed against my lips. I let her pour it into my mouth and, all at once, my body seemed to be filled with light and everything disappeared in a blaze of white agony.

*

Amandil had been right about one thing – the cure wasn’t easy. My body had been ripped to shreds by the Black Lotus, and it wasn’t just a case of getting the rancid stuff out of my system. I was scarred inside and out, my organs were punched full of holes and my blood was thin. The doctor said my sight wouldn’t ever be the same again. The shadows’d stay with me, just on the edge of my vision, a reminder of what I’d been through. I was going to take a long time to heal.

When I was well enough to speak and the nightmares had mostly stopped, Ironsmith came to visit me in my apartment. He sat down on the stool next to my bed. “It’s good to see you lookin’ so well,” he said, “the doc said it was touch an’ go there for a little while.”

The bills were all taken care of. A lotta folks remembered what I’d done for them that night when we fought the drow. People could be real generous. It made me feel guilty. “I ain’t feel well,” I said. My voice was real thin and croaky. “Probably gonna be a couple weeks before I can walk again.”

“You just rest up, buddy. Everythin’s gonna be okay without you for a little while yet.” There was a look in his eyes that told me he wasn’t telling me the whole of the truth.

“What happened out there, Harl? After, I mean.” I was near enough unconscious for about a week after him and Poppy rescued me from The Met. I hadn’t been reading the papers or listening to the radio since. All I wanted was for things to be quiet.

“Well, we met the drow in the tunnels, like you thought. They gave us a helluva fight, but the orcs an’ the gnomes saw ’em off.”

“Gnomes?”

“That’s right. All the ones from Jonastown. They saw the drow settin’ the fires – without Amandil keepin’ a hand on their leash, these dark elves ain’t so smart – an’ they wanted a piece of the action. That’s when I met Poppy; I told her what we were plannin’ an’ she rallied ’em all to your cause.”

I nodded. “So you set the drow to runnin’. You meet Lily?”

“Lilith,” Ironsmith corrected, “she let us know exactly who she was. The Mafiatrix they call her. She got away, her an’ her best fighters. They won’t come back to the tunnels, but we’re pretty sure they’re still here in New Atlas.”

“Like a barb,” I said, “we’ll never be rid of ’em for good I ain’t think. What about Khan?”

“He went into the sewers with Amandil. We got some contacts in Orca, but he didn’t go back there. He’s somewhere further down, in the deeps. Settin’ up a new kingdom down there I guess.”

“Right. An’ what about you guys?”

Ironsmith looked uncomfortable. “Dwarves lost a lot in this fight, an’ things were already pretty rough after the Bank of Dwarrowdelf got destroyed. Lotta humans ain’t want nothin’ to do with us. Some folks are movin’ on, lookin’ for a new city, the others…well…”

“Well what?”

“Well, they turnin’ to the only place they can. Seems you gave a lotta families a taste for criminal activity. Dwarves’ve always skirted the line around organised crime in this city but now…”

“Now they gotta do what they can to make ends meet.”

“Yeah. An’ it’s gonna be easier than ever. Amandil was controlling the mayor an’ the NAPD. Now they’re puppets with their strings cut. They got no authority, no control. They’re tryin’ to make things better, I guess, but I’unno how it’s gonna work. You hear about Jonastown?”

“No. What’s happenin’?”

“They city’s tryna rebuild it, they’re gonna house all the gnomes that lost everythin’. They’re callin’ it a housin’ project or somethin’. There’s big, grey buildings goin’ up now, filled with little, cheap apartments. They gonna house the kobolds in some too.”

“That ain’t sound like an improvement…”

“I was thinkin’ the same thing.”

“So,” I said, “we still got the drow Mafia out there somewhere, we got Orca Khan torturin’ Amandil to death in some pit below the city, we got dwarves turnin’ to organised crime, we got an mayor an’ a police force that ain’t able to do shit about it, an’ we got a nice little neighbourhood turnin’ into a slum that’s gonna breed even more crime.”

“That’s about the size of it,” Ironsmith said. He stood up and patted me on the shoulder. “Heal up as fast as you can, Ragnar. We need you out there, buddy.”

I smiled. New Atlas stood, but not without a few scars. Probably it’d never be the same again, maybe it’d always be built around the same rotten core, but it stood. Just like me. And I might not be any kinda king, no matter what they’d said, but I’d at least be on the streets, tryna bring order to chaos. I might be a cruddy private detective, but I knew how to do what was right.

And that was gonna have to be enough.

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

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