Oathquest (Part II)

It was a bright spring afternoon as I crossed the road to the temple. I dunno what it was, but the whole city just seemed more alive than usual. Folks were friendly, the sun was shining, and life seemed okay. Even the shadows around the edge of my vision seemed to have got a little better. Even missing the step up to the kerb and jarring my bad hip couldn’t dent my good mood. I winced as I hobbled to the door and pushed it open. As I did, someone else opened it from the other side and we had an awkward little moment of mutual apologising before he stepped back and let me into the little antechamber outside the main room. It took me a second to place him, but then I realised it was Goldstrumm, the dwarf doctor who’d treated me last year after my run in with the drow. He adjusted his spectacles as he looked me up and down. “You look well, Mr Ulrichson.”

I grinned at him. “Never better, doc. You been to see the kid?”

He looked towards the door. “Hm. Yes. His leg seems to be healing up nicely.”

“He’s young.”

“And an elf. Not my area of expertise, but I understand they tend to recover well from injury.”

“I guess,” I shrugged.

“And what about you?” He peered closely at me. He was short, even for a dwarf, a fussy little fella with a bald head except for wild tufts around his ears and a beard he kept neatly trimmed. He dressed well – which he could afford to thanks to being one of the best, and hence most expensive, dwarf doctors in New Atlas. Apparently he was an old family friend of Ironsmith’s, which shouldn’t surprise me.

“What about me?” I asked him.

“The last time I saw you, you were at death’s door.”

“Turns out I had the wrong house.” I pulled down my collar a little so he could see the scars. “Still got these to remember my little adventure by though. Plus I ain’t run so good these days.”

“Yes, there was quite a lot of internal damage.”

“Ain’t I know it. I’m still here though.”

I’d never known Goldstrumm to crack a smile, so he just said, “Hm,” and bobbed his big round head at me. “Well, I have to be on my way,” he said, heading for the door.

“Good to see you, doc.”

“And you, Mr Ulrichson,” he replied without turning around.

I ducked down and went into the temple’s main chamber. The sun streamed in through the windows. Dwarves weren’t much for natural light, so the windows were tall, narrow and made up of a whole lotta panels, forming geometric shapes where the frames criss-crossed. It meant the whole stone floor was covered in dancing patterns of light as traffic went by outside, blocking out the sun for a few moments at a time. I stumped into the side room I’d been into before, and found Zrit there by the window. A dwarf glazier was working on the busted glass and talking the drow kid through what he was doing the whole time. Most dwarves I knew were pretty quiet, but this guy was obviously the exception, and I could tell from his squint that his vision was so bad he probably didn’t even know he was talking to a dark elf. Zrit was nodding along, looking kinda bored, but willing to humour his new buddy.

“Now, see, you gotta be real careful with this,” the glazier said, holding up a little metal tube in one shaky hand. “S’real hot. It’s for attachin’ the metal together. The frame’s called a ‘came’, see…”

“A what?” Zrit asked.

“A came, son. Now, lissen real careful, ’cause this is the important bit. You press this…” A bright blue flame burst from the end of the tube and me and Zrit both jumped back. Something about these little devices dwarves had made everyone else kinda nervy, mostly ’cause they never let on how they worked to nobody else.

“Uh…mind if I interrupt?” I asked.

The glazier turned around and squinted at me. “Say, you’re that detective, ain’t ya?”

“Ragnar Ulrichson, sir,” I said.

“Yeah. Young Harl’s buddy.” He waved his metal tool at me, still with its flickering blue flame and I held my hands up a little nervously.

“Mind if I have a word with the kid?”

“Oh go ahead,” he said, turning back to his work. “He probably ain’t got the knack for this sorta work anyhow. Too tall for one. My stepladder’s built for dwarves.”

I smiled at that and Zrit followed me back into the main room. He had a new wardrobe – I dunno where Stormgate had got clothes that fit him from, but they were obviously rescued from some old storage box since they were about twenty years outta fashion. He seemed okay though, walking with a bit of a limp, like me, but looking healthier and well-fed. He’d finally had a good bath too. Hard to believe it was only a couple weeks since I’d dragged him out the garbage in a back alley a few blocks from here. “How you doin’, son?”

“Not bad, Mr Ulrichson,” he replied politely.

“Check you out with your dang airs an’ graces. You’ll be a good dwarf boy yet.”

“I’unno about that…” He shied from the sun a little as we walked into the central aisle and I remembered that drow weren’t too fond of bright light, so I led him into the shadow of one of the big stone pillars.

“Yeah, well, you can just call me Ragnar. No one ‘cept the cops ever called me Mr Ulrichson.”

“Mrs Stormgate said I oughta show respect to my elders.”

I looked at him standing there, gangly and awkward like any dumb adolescent boy. He looked fourteen or fifteen to me, but he was an elf, which meant he might be twice my age. I didn’t press it though. “You seem to be takin’ to this life pretty well. Were you tryin’ to pick up a trade in there?”

“Nah, he just started talkin’ at me.”

“I can see you’re finally eatin’ right anyway. The Matriarch got you readin’ yet?”

“She tried. It ain’t make no sense to me though.”

“You wanna make somethin’ of yourself, you gonna have to put in some effort.”

He looked a little nervous. “You keep talkin’ about me makin’ somethin’ of myself…”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well…like what?”

“I’unno, kid.” I nodded back towards the side room. “Maybe learn a trade like that. Maybe just find a steady job like most folks. Get a place of your own, find a girl.”

“I’m a drow,” he said, like I didn’t know that.

“So? You walked around this city lately? We got humans, orcs, dwarves, elves – the other kind, not that you’ll see a whole lot of ’em behind their veils – dryads, goblins, even kobolds. A year ago people were treatin’ those little scaly bastards like a plague, but now they’ve integrated just like everyone else. You think the drow got a bad reputation? Give it a couple years, let some decent folks set an example to help change people’s minds.” I jabbed a finger in his scrawny chest. “You could be the start a’ that, son.”

“Me?”

“All it takes is one person standin’ up. One rebel. Your pals in the mob want to turn New Atlas into another Svartheim. Is that what you want?”

“I dunno.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You ain’t know?”

He shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged awkwardly, not looking in my direction. “It ain’t like I ain’t grateful…”

“But the streets is all you know, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I get it. Things ain’t gonna turn around overnight.”

“An’ I have to do a lot of sweepin’ an’ stuff here.”

“But you got a decent bed, right?”

“Yeah…”

“An’ food.”

“Uh huh.”

“So don’t knock it, kid. Help out, make the most of it, then when that window’s fixed you can leave if you like, try your luck back on the streets again.”

He didn’t look so sure of himself now. “It’s just…”

“What? You miss your buddies?”

“Nah…they were assholes…”

“Don’t let Mrs Stormgate catch you usin’ talk like that. What’s the problem, Zrit?”

“It’s just kinda…borin’ here…”

“Borin’?”

“Yeah. I wanna change things, Ragnar. But I ain’t wanna live in a temple with a buncha uptight chicks in…” he mimed a sort of hood over his head.

“Habits.”

“Yeah. Them. I want a life, like what you got.”

“You want my life?”

“Yeah. You know people talk about you?”

I scratched at the back of my neck, getting a little embarrassed. “They do?”

“Uh huh. I mean, they know I know you, so that’s probably why. I ain’t like spontaneous or nothin’.”

“Oh…”

“But they think you’re a damn hero. They said you faced down a dragon.”

“Well…kinda…”

“So it ain’t true?” he looked disappointed.

“No, it’s true. Just…well, look, it didn’t seem that big of a deal at the time, all right? When you say it out loud, it sounds brave, but mostly I was just tryin’ to fix things.”

“That’s what they say you do. Fix things.”

“Nah. I think I mighta made things worse, overall. This city’s worse’n ever.”

“But is it worse than it woulda been if you hadn’t done nothin’?”

I thought about it. “That’s a good point,” I admitted.

“So I was thinkin’, what if I come stay with you?”

“Well, now,” I said, trying to think up an excuse real quick, “I mean, I ain’t exactly got the room. Not like here.”

“I can sleep anywhere. An’ I could help out with your cases an’ stuff…”

“Bein’ a private dick ain’t no life, kid, no matter how it looks.”

“Then why’d you choose it?”

“‘Cause…” I didn’t have no answer for him. I’d often asked myself the same question. Most PIs like me used to work for the cops, or had a military background. Me, I only got into it ’cause I was good with my fists and knew the streets. It was the one way I could figure out to make an honest living without taking a job down the docks or the slaughterhouse. I had education, but not enough, and I never had the skill for no trade. But Zrit had a real chance to be somebody. Not somebody like me, but somebody real. He was young, smart and quick. And how many elves went into real work in this city? He’d be an asset to almost any business in town. “Look, I’ll think about it, all right?” I told him. “Now get back in there an’ help the guy out.”

“He ain’t need my help…”

“So go make him a coffee.”

He shuffled off, grumbling under his breath and I watched him go, wondering just what the heck I thought I was doing. The kid had tried to break into this very temple, and now I was trying to turn him into a civilised person, trying to pick him up again. And I decided he wanted to be picked up, even if he didn’t understand the reasons why himself yet. This was as good as his life had ever been, but all he knew was violence and power. He’d grown up surrounded by savage mobsters, men who thought of theft and murder as a way of life. Was it any wonder he’d try to follow the biggest dog in the pack as he saw it? He probably didn’t even understand exactly what I did – he just knew I’d gone to fight a dragon, and routed the drow, and survived Black Lotus. He didn’t know me, he just had the picture in his head that everyone else put there. If he knew how much it hurt when I took a deep breath, how bad my leg was on wet nights, how clouded my eyes were with these damn shadows, he might go running back to the Mafia. Maybe letting him idolise me was the lesser of two evils.

I walked up the aisle, between the stone benches lined up on either side, stepping through the shifting patches of light. The altar was in front of me, with its big glowering statue of my god. My mom used to drag me to temple every week when I was growing up. I used to hate it – all I wanted to do was be outdoors, making mischief with my little pals. It was natural for a young man to want excitement, to see some life. Settling down’s for old timers like me. I wanted nothing more’n a quiet life, just minding my own business, maybe a nice girl to come home to. I reached the altar and looked up at Crom’s stony face, staring down at me. This version of him had a beard, not like the one I remembered and, heck, it was a much nicer statue than the idol we’d sacrificed to in the little temple in Angbad’s Kitchen where I grew up, but I could recognise him all right. He was a warrior god, no matter what the kinda priests the Northmen had in New Atlas said. No true son of the mountains like me could ever want a quiet life. Not really. I laid my fist across my heart. I ain’t swear no oaths. I just got my word. It oughta be enough for anyone, and especially a Northman.

“Maybe I should fit you for a Novice robe,” a voice said behind me and I turned with a rueful grin to see the Matriarch, Helga Stormgate, striding up. She didn’t have her hammer this time.

“You got one that’d fit me, ma’am?”

She put her hands on her wide hips and gave me a good look up and down. “We might need to sew two or three together, but we’re used to making do.”

I crossed to the nearest bench and eased myself down slowly. “Can men be Novices?”

“Not in this Order, but we could make an exception. You’ve got the hair.” She reached over my shoulder and flicked my ponytail.

I laughed and waved her off. “I just spoke with the kid. He seems to be doin’ okay.”

“He is. He’s a smart boy. A little workshy, but what do you expect?” She sat down next to me.

“Not even that much, if I’m bein’ honest.”

“Is that really true, Mr Ulrichson?”

“No,” I admitted. “I’d never have helped him out if I ain’t seen some good in him.”

She looked towards the door to the side room where the sounds of the glazier doing his work and chattering away the whole time drifted out. “‘Some good’ is right. But he still belongs to the streets. He’s got a thick layer of mob all over him.”

“What? You think he’s playin’ me?”

“No…but he’s never going to be content with a quiet life.”

I smiled again at the way she echoed my private thoughts. “He ain’t no tradesman,” I said.

“True enough,” the Matriarch agreed, “he’s never known anything but violence. He’s half-feral – he wouldn’t sleep in the bed we gave him the first few nights, and he still hoards half his food and wolfs down the rest. That kid’s going to need some kind of outlet soon. He can’t run while his leg’s still bandaged up but, trust me, as soon as he can move as quick as he’s used to, he’ll start seeing this place as a cage.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “He asked about maybe movin’ in with me.”

That made her laugh and she patted my knee when I looked a little hurt. “Sorry, Mr Ulrichson. You’re a good man – better than most in this city – but do you think you could take care of that boy?”

“I never said I could…”

“But you’re considering it, or you wouldn’t have brought it up.”

“I guess.” I looked around the temple. Something about the place just made me feel more…honest somehow. Like I was being watched. I ain’t know that I necessarily believe in any gods per se, I figure these things are mostly about finding ways to belong, to bind you to the people around you. That’s why places like New Atlas get us so mixed up, ’cause everyone brought their damn gods down from the mountains and now we all pray in different places than our own neighbours. It can’t be right, missing out on the one thing that makes religion worthwhile: community. I wondered what god drow prayed to – probably something nasty with eight legs. But whatever I thought about all that stuff, Crom’s stony eyes were on me. “I wanna do right be the kid. Hel, I wanna do right by everyone, but the way I see it he just ain’t ever had no chance to be anythin’ but a criminal. How we get raised is what makes us what we are, right?”

“That’s how dwarves see it.”

“Northmen too. I ain’t want him to wind up gettin’ beaten to death in The Crypts. I ain’t want anyone to wind up that way, but…”

“But you can’t save them all, can you?” Her voice was soft and she put her hand on my knee again. She was a good Matriarch – better than the dopey Skald we’d had in our temple.

“I ain’t a hero, ma’am,” I said.

“This isn’t a city for heroes, Mr Ulrichson. It’s a city for men like you.”

“I once told someone that if you cut me, I bleed New Atlas. I guess it’s true.”

Stormgate eased herself up to her feet. The benches were low, built for dwarves, naturally, and it took me a little longer to get up what with my hip and all. “We’ll look after Zrit,” she said. “Just visit when you get the chance. He talks about you a lot.”

“I’ll be around,” I promised. “Just keep feedin’ him, give him plenty of work an’ try to smooth out a couple of those edges.”

“Crom is the smith god,” she told me, clenching her fist for emphasis. “His servants know how to craft something worthwhile from even the most impure ore.”

“You think that’s what Zrit is?”

“Not at all. With him, it won’t be so hard.”

I bobbed my head, first to her and then, reflexively, to Crom and made my way back outside. I had a lot to think about. The work was piling up back in my office, but the only thing that concerned me right then was what to do with the drow kid I suddenly seemed to find myself responsible for. Stormgate was right that he wasn’t gonna be able to stay in the temple forever. He wanted out, and the longer we made him stay, the more he’d want it. But who’d give a lost drow a job in this city? Who did I trust to look after him, to not exploit him like the mob had? I stepped back into daylight, noticing that the sky was a little more overcast than before, turned up my collar and went looking for a cab home.

*

I found myself working late again that night, not even noticing the dark creeping in, my head buried in books and ledgers and old receipts that I’d only kept ’cause my old man always said I oughta if ever I got into business for myself. I’d got to about three years ago now, and it looked like most of my grocery bills from back then consisted mostly of cheap liquor. Not surprising really, but seeing it all written down in black and white like that was…well…sobering. I eyed the half-empty glass of whiskey on my desk and pushed it away slightly with the tip of my finger. Enough for one night, I figured. I rubbed my not-tired-enough eyes and thought about maybe closing up shop when I heard some sorta commotion outside my office. I’d sent my secretary, Willow, home hours ago, but the door wasn’t locked, and I could see shadows moving through the frosted glass. My revolver was on the desk, next to the glass, and I quickly slid it off into my lap and put my hand around it like it was a safety blanket. My lamp was on, so they knew I was home, and I doubted they were looking for Willow, so I decided I oughta be prepared for anything.

My door opened, and two tall men walked in. They were dressed well, in dark pinstripe. Tall, lean, killer cheekbones and, yeah, skin as black as tar. One had a head as bald as an egg and the other wore his in a thin, greased strip across his scalp that ended in a white braid that hung halfway down his back. I knew they were armed because of the way they moved and, Hel, because they wouldn’t come here to see me any other way. I tightened my grip on my gun and affected a kinda nonchalant lean back in my chair. “Good evening, fellas. What can I help you wi…”

The words died on my lips as a third person walked through the door. There was a waft of a scent I remembered all too well: the heat of some far away land, thick and wet and cloying. It was sickly sweet, but somehow it brought to mind images of things scuttling in the undergrowth. She was the most beautiful dame I’d ever seen, but I’d hoped to never clap eyes on her again. She was wearing the heck out of a bright red dress. It covered everything it oughta, but somehow revealed it at the same time and that got my heart beating faster in my chest. As she walked towards my desk, I could see every inch of her lean body moving beneath the fabric, see every ripple of firm muscle and soft curve. Her skin was as dark as theirs and her white hair was bound up in an unruly bun. Her eyes flashed as red as her dress and her lips, when she smiled, looked like they were coated in blood. “Hello, Ragnar,” Lilith purred.

She called herself the Mafiatrix. She led the drow mob in New Atlas and, last year, she’d been the one who’d poisoned me, before I had the faintest idea who or what she was. But if she’d asked me to bed right then, I dunno what I’d have said. “Lily,” I said with a nod, which was about all I could manage.

Her face changed at that. She’d disguised herself as a human cabaret singer when I first met her, and that’s the handle she’d used. I guess she didn’t like to be reminded of how she’d smuggled herself and her kind into this city. “You look better’n you did the last time I saw you,” she said.

“Yeah, well, I found a good doctor.”

“You shoulda died.”

“‘Shoulda’ is a real strong word, toots. I mighta died, but I didn’t. Maybe you shoulda just stabbed me in that alley?”

“What can I say,” she said with a face that looked innocent but eyes that looked as bloodthirsty as ever, “I like to play with my food.”

“An’ that’ll be your downfall, sister.” I brought the gun out from under the desk and leant it on the top, mostly just to keep it steady. “So let’s cut the crap, huh? You an’ I both know you ain’t here for a social call.”

Both her goons were reaching inside their jackets, no doubt for pieces of their own, but Lilith calmed them by gently resting her hands on their shoulders and they backed off. She leant down so her eyes were level with mine. The revolver was pointed right at her, but the bitch wasn’t even sweating. “Ragnar, honey, there ain’t no need for us to fight.”

“You know that ain’t true.”

“You think you’d get outta here alive if you shot me?” She reached out and ran one slender finger down the barrel of my gun. Her fingernails were the same colour as her dress.

“You ever met a Northman who cared about the odds?”

“A few. But you ain’t one of ’em.” She straightened up and dropped the act. “Shall we cut to the chase?”

“I’m all ears, toots.” I placed the gun down on the desk in front of me and folded my arms.

“You’re holdin’ one of my people prisoner.”

“Excuse me?”

“You know who I mean.”

I put a finger in my ear and waggled it around like I was having trouble hearing her. “One of ‘your people’?”

“A drow.”

“Right. The same species as you. How does that make him yours, exactly?”

“We brought him to this city.”

“Uh huh. So what?”

“We gave him passage, we gave him a roof over his head, we gave him gainful employment. That means he owes us.”

“You got a contract to that effect? Maybe some sorta ledger keepin’ track of his exact debt?”

Lilith tapped the end of one of her stiletto heels against a big pile of files I had next to the room’s only other chair. It was almost as tall as the desk. “You ain’t exactly one to talk about keepin’ records, Ulrichson…”

“We ain’t talkin’ about me. You say you got a claim on the kid. Do you?”

“He’s ours. He’s drow.”

“That ain’t gonna hold up in court.”

“We own the courts,” she growled.

I picked my gun up again. “This city won’t stand for that kinda game, Lilith. You might think you can push things that far, but you’re wrong. Last time you tried it, we rose up, remember?”

“You think you got another war in you, Northman?”

I cocked the revolver. “Try me.”

She stared into my eyes, then let out a throaty laugh. “Big talk from a small man.”

“Get outta my damn office.”

“You can’t keep him forever, Ragnar.”

“I ain’t keepin’ nobody. I’m just helpin’ out a kid in need. It’s none of your damn business. If you got a quarrel, it’s with me. Leave him outta this.”

“You can’t bring people into this world an’ not expect consequences,” Lilith told me. She was already backing towards the door.

“I’m takin’ him outta this world, Lilith. You got a problem; you know where to find me. He ain’t yours no more.”

“We’ll see.” She turned and the three of them swept out the room, but not before one of her henchmen, the bald one, kicked over one of my big stacks of files, causing them to spill all over the floor. I sighed as the avalanche of paper came to rest and the door slammed shut.

*

I ain’t gonna pretend I wasn’t a little spooked by that unexpected visit, although a bit of me had been waiting for it for a while if I was totally honest. You mess with the mob, you expect consequences. I’d taken them on before, and won more or less, but that was a lifetime ago. In less than a year, this city had changed its face. Before I got poisoned and had had to take back the streets by force, I’d felt like we were all making some sorta progress towards civilisation. The orcs had come outta the sewers, the kobolds were starting to find their place, the police were hiring more non-humans and, well, the future looked bright. Now, I sometimes wondered if it was worse than it ever had been. Having seen the promise of a better world, we’d just got discouraged and given up altogether. Like Zrit had said, the city mighta been worse off if I’d done nothing, but what if I’d done more harm than good? I got offered a crown – was refusing it the biggest mistake of my life? Could I have changed things? Really changed things?

All this went through my head as I walked uptown, taking the long way around and skirting around the edge of the Dale, the big park in the centre of New Atlas. It was a cloudy day, with the last of winter’s winds howling in off the ocean. My collar was turned up high, but I was determined to keep my spirits up. I was heading back to the temple to check on Zrit. It’d been a week since Lilith had called ’round my office and her promised threat hadn’t come to nothing so far as I could tell. The Mafia might be getting more powerful by the month, but the dwarves were rich and numerous, and some of them had been involved with New Atlas’s underworld since long before the dark elves set their sights on her skyscrapers. They’d have to be even crazier than they seemed to mess with them. Not that I felt safe, but I was confident we could deal with whatever they might throw at us.

As I made my way up the street, the still-bare trees of the Dale whipping in the wind to my left, I caught sight of the newest addition to the city’s once-familiar skyline, the casino: a neon hulk of concrete staring down at me. I wasn’t exactly averse to a little gambling once in a while – heck, time was I threw a lotta moolah away on the horses when things weren’t so good and my main priority was finding my way to the bottom of the next bottle – but something about that place just offended me. It was garish and bright, crass and loud. A great honking sign in the middle of my city that told me who was really in charge. It was an open secret that the mob ran that place, although you wouldn’t see an actual drow within ten miles of it. It was little more’n a front for their criminal activities, a way of laundering their illicit profits, as well as siphoning off a little more from the fools that went in there. There were a dozen different ways I coulda made my way across town, but something drew my feet towards the dang place like I was being pulled by a magnet. The plot it sat on used to be a nice little block filled with old stores and coffee houses, like a village in the middle of the city, but now that was all gone. The building was brand new: brutal, obscene. It didn’t have no name I could see, just a buzzing sign high up on its grey front that said ‘CASINO’ in letters ten-feet high. I stood out front, staring up at it.

That’s how she found me, frowning up angrily at a lump of bricks like it’d personally offended me. I musta looked half crazy. “Ragnar?”

I looked down and blinked a couple times. It was the last person I expected to see. “Poppy?”

She gave me a little smile and my heart missed a beat. Darn. I hadn’t seen her in months, and there was a good reason for that. This was the girl who’d broken my heart one snowy Yuletide, when I shoulda been on top of the world. We’d crossed paths once or twice since then, but I’d resigned myself to her just being another person outta my past, a road I’d never had any real shot of taking.

“The heck are you doin’ here?” she asked. She was wrapped up in a long jacket and had a knitted hat on her head. It was green. She liked any colour but blue, for complicated reasons to do with her gnomish heritage.

“I was just takin’ a walk an’…I’unno.” I looked around. The street was pretty quiet – it wasn’t exactly peak hour for this joint. “What’re you doin’ here?”

She looked embarrassed, then shuffled a little closer to me. She pulled her jacket open at the collar, showing me the corner of a red dress in a style I didn’t think suited her at all. “Work.”

“Work?”

“Yeah. I’m a waitress here now.”

“Huh?”

She rolled her eyes. She did that a lot around me, as I remember it. “You ain’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

She looked over her shoulder. “I’m just gettin’ off. You wanna take a walk?”

“Sure.”

We went into the Dale. We used to like walking there, sometimes. I didn’t think there was anything to that, it was just a nice place and close by. When we were out of sight of the casino, she seemed to relax a little. “Things changed at the station after the new Commissioner came in.”

I nodded. The drow’d a hand in that, with a little help from certain influential parties. I’d known the last Commissioner, but this one was different. He was a Northman too, funny enough, but the way I heard it he wasn’t much like me. He’d come from Svartheim, or that was the rumour. “He ain’t like your work?”

“He ain’t like non-humans. The writin’ was on the wall.”

“They fired you?”

“Not in so many words.” She sighed and shoved her hands in her pockets. She was a pretty girl. Different from Lilith, even if they both liked to wear the same colour. We’d stopped at a nice spot overlooking a duck pond. It wasn’t till later I realised it was the exact same place where we’d decided to go our separate ways. She’d decided, really, but that wasn’t how either of us preferred to remember it. “Anyway, I had to find someplace else.”

“Sure.”

“What’s a girl to do? The casino was hirin’.”

“What’s it like?”

“Pretty bad.” She idly drew a pattern in the dirt with the toe of her shoe. “But, y’know, times are hard. We got Robbie to look after.”

Robbie was her younger brother, and the poor kid was never the same after an encounter with a dragon – who would be? “How’s he doin’?”

“About the same.”

“Sorry.”

“Ain’t your fault.” Although it kinda was, and we both knew that.

“I’m sorry about your neighbourhood too,” I told her. Jonastown, north of Manahills Island, used to be a nice place full of pretty gnome houses, all clustered together like mushrooms with their painted roofs. The drow had set it ablaze, in retaliation for my war, and what had gone up instead was only better in the eyes of the kinda folks who looked down on the rest of us from the fancy buildings around this park. The projects, they called them, big concrete blocks like the casino, honeycombed with tiny apartments, a breeding ground for poverty and crime.

“It is what it is. We got a place to live. What more can we ask for?”

“Your folks okay?”

“Dad’s sick.”

“Shit. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. He’ll be okay.”

“If there’s anythin’ I can do…”

“Like what?” She looked at me, and broke my heart again. Her eyes looked sad and tired. She was the smartest girl I knew. Hel, the smartest person I knew period, and she oughta have a better life than waiting tables in a sleazy casino wearing a dress that wasn’t her style. In the NAPD, she’d used her gnomish alchemy to help the police solve crimes. She could do stuff I’d never understand with vials and potions. She could take a scraping of days-old blood and tell you everything about the person it belonged to. What kinda police force would want to lose someone like that, just ’cause they weren’t the right species? It made me sick to my stomach.

“Y’know, I got a few cases you might be able to help with…”

“It’s fine. I solve murders. You’re a private dick. I’m outta your league.”

“Yeah, I always knew that.”

“No, I ain’t mean…” She gave a short laugh and shook her head. “You know what I mean.”

“I do. Sorry. But, for real, if I can help out. With your dad or whatever.”

“I ain’t think you should come to Jonastown.”

I winced. “I guess word got around, huh?”

“They thought you were a hero.”

“I was tryin’ to help.”

“An’ you did. Who knows how bad things woulda been if the drow’d had their way? But…they can’t hate the mob, ’cause they got their claws in everywhere. Half of ’em are union men now, an’ they owe their livelihoods to those damn drow anyway. Heck,” she gestured across the Dale, “even I’m workin’ in their dang casino!”

“They just need a target for that impotent rage, I guess.”

“Yeah.” She looked at me sadly again. “How did things get so messed up, Ragnar?”

I breathed in a lungful of cold air, ignoring the burning in my chest. A few drops of rain were starting to spatter down. “It’s New Atlas, sugar. This place, this city, it chews you up. It’s been chewin’ me up for decades now. But I can’t quit, can I?”

“Why not?”

“How’d you mean?”

“How’d you stop it grindin’ you down, Ragnar? How’d you stay afloat when the shit gets neck high?”

“I’unno. I just can’t let ’em win. Just can’t. It ain’t in me.”

“Then that’s somethin’ I guess.” She looked down at the ground and we both said nothing for about a minute.

“Hey, you wanna grab a coffee?” I asked her, outta the blue.

“I gotta head home.”

“One coffee. My treat.”

She seemed in two minds and I wondered if I’d gone too far. I didn’t have no illusions about us getting back together, but it was just nice talking to her. And I really did wanna help, if I could. Maybe I could get Dr Goldstrumm to take a look at her dad at least.

“Okay,” she said at last. “One coffee.”

“Great.” I smiled at her, and she smiled back. The rain was coming down harder now, but she had an umbrella. I took it, what with me being so much taller than her, and we walked off together to find a coffee house that hadn’t been ripped down to make way for something bloated and terrible.

*

It was late again when I got the call. One coffee had turned into two, then three, and Poppy and I finally said goodbye with an idea that maybe we oughta have dinner sometime, just as friends. By then it was getting dark, and I thought I should maybe go home. I went to my apartment, not the office, determined to get a good night’s sleep, but that wasn’t gonna happen. I’d ended up dozing off in my old armchair with the last of the whiskey I had in the house in my belly, and the ringing phone woke me up. It took me a while to figure out what the heck was going on, ’cause I could hear the bell in my dreams and normally whoever it was woulda given up long ago, but it just kept going until I finally jerked out of the chair and stared around me with grainy eyes. It was dark and cold. The phone was still ringing. I stumbled across the room, stubbing my toe on something, and near enough fell into the cabinet with the phone on it. I finally fumbled the receiver up to my ear and slurred something into it that musta made some kinda sense.

“Ragnar?”

“Harl?”

“You gotta get down here.”

I frowned into the darkness. “Down where?”

“The temple!”

“Huh? What’s goin’ on?”

“Just get down here!”

I knew it wasn’t some kids causin’ mischief this time, but it was even worse than I’d figured. It took me a while to flag down a cab at that hour, and by the time I arrived it was way too late for me to help with anything. Not that I’d have been able to stop this anyway. As I limped up to the door, I cursed the fate that’d kept me away from the place earlier. Maybe I coulda…well…I didn’t know what I coulda done, not really. But I mighta been around. I mighta scared ’em off. The outside doors were smashed off their hinges, and the graffiti splashed over them wasn’t subtle this time – the same spider, but bigger, blacker, more menacing. I walked inside and stared around in shock at what I saw. They’d torn the whole damn place apart. Windows smashed, benches turned over, flagstones cracked. The altar had been torn down and the statue of Crom was smashed into pieces. The god’s head was lying on the ground on one side, an ugly spider daubed over his face so he seemed to be staring blindly at me.

I walked slowly down the aisle, glass crunching underneath my shoes. I could hear the Novice girls crying quietly in the room next door, but all my attention was focused on Ironsmith and Stormgate, both sitting at the foot of the fallen altar. They’d lit the braziers again, and the shadows danced in the dull red light. Ironsmith looked okay – I guessed, like me, he’d missed all this – but the Matriarch had one eye bandaged, and her face was bruised and bloody. She was holding one of her arms across her stomach, and from the way it looked, I thought it might be broken. She had her big hammer in her other hand, and I was pleased to see there was blood on that too.

“Looks like you gave as good as you got, ma’am.”

“I broke a few kneecaps,” she croaked. “They won’t forget me.”

“Anyone seriously hurt?” I asked Ironsmith.

“Don’t look like it. They broke in, smashed the place up, got what they wanted an’ ran.”

There weren’t no prizes for guessing who ‘they’ were. The spiders told that story, and no one else in this city would dare use that symbol. “The kid?”

“Gone,” Stormgate snorted.

“Willingly?”

“They left this.” Ironsmith handed me a folded sheet of paper.

“A note?”

“Just read it. It’s addressed to you.”

I unfolded it and squinted at the words. The light from the braziers was bad so I had to shuffle nearer and lean down close to the two dwarves. I figured they both knew what it said already, but I read it aloud anyway. “‘Northman. We took back what was ours. You were warned. If you want the boy back, bring one million dollars to the warehouse by the docks. You know which one. L‘” I turned to them. “A million bucks? What the Hel?”

“They’re just tauntin’ you,” Ironsmith said. “Makin’ a point. They know you ain’t got that kinda dough.”

“Why do they even care about him? He’s just a street punk so far as they’re concerned.”

“It’s you they care about,” Stormgate said, shifting to make herself more comfortable. It looked like her leg was hurt too. Damn, but I’d have loved to have seen her laying into those bastards with that hammer. “They want to hurt you, Ulrichson. Zrit’s nothing to them.”

I felt my jaw tighten as I looked into the flames of the brazier next to me. “That makes it even worse.”

“Don’t rise to it,” Ironsmith said. “Let him go.”

“How can I?”

“He’s a drow. They’re drow. He’s better off with them anyway. What’s one more mobster? You tried to make things better for him, but it just ain’t in the cards.”

I shook my head firmly. “No.” I stood up and stalked away from the altar. I turned around and held the note from Lilith up. “They’ll kill him.”

“Maybe. But you think a ransom’s gonna change that? They just want you to mount a damn fool rescue. It’s a trap.”

“We can’t just leave him!”

Ironsmith spread his hands. “What can we do?”

“If we got the money…”

“A million dollars?”

I looked around. The temple could be straightened out. That glazier could fix the windows, eventually. They could even stick the statue back together. But I couldn’t just let them keep Zrit. He was a good kid. He didn’t belong to nobody except himself. It wasn’t right. They couldn’t just drag him to a strange city against his will, make him live like an animal, turn him into someone who thought breaking into a dwarf temple was a smart idea and then act like he owed them something. It was wrong. It made me angry, and most of that anger was directed at myself. I was angry that I let this happen. Angry that I didn’t pay no attention to Lilith’s warnings. I pointed a gun at her and cracked wise, not thinking how I put someone innocent in danger. Stormgate was hurt ’cause of my cockiness, and her temple was trashed. Her whole congregation would suffer too. And the Novices. It was just like Jonastown, which I’d let burn, and Robbie Redcap, who’d never be the same because of what he got involved with. I tried to make things better, but all I did was break them even worse. I was a Northman. We were destroyers, not builders.

I had to fix things now though. I had to try to make things right.

“It’s a trap,” Ironsmith repeated.

“I ain’t care,” I said. I let the note flutter to the floor and walked towards the altar, where Crom’s broken head was still staring up at me. Slowly, I sank down to one knee and placed my fist against the floor.

“Ragnar…”

I looked up and met Crom’s eyes, smeared with black paint as they were, and he looked back at me and heard my words. “I’m gettin’ him back. It’s that damn simple.”

And that’s how I began my Oathquest.

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

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