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Sneak Peek! Chapter 1 of Return of the Dwarf King

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“And another thing!” Finnegan Dragonbender proclaimed, leaning into the elf on the stool next to him. “The old organic ship Earth was far too big to truly be lost. She was unsinkable.” He ran a hand through his thick brown hair, pulling it up to reveal the dwarven tattoos along the side of his head, then smoothed a few stray beard hairs before taking another sip of his drink.

“Unsinkable? I think the fact that it disappeared countermands that notion.” The elf rolled his eyes, his lips twisted in mild annoyance.

“You heard me. Unsinkable. The historians have it all wrong.”

The crowd at the bar was turning against him. Everyone liked a tale about the old days, but when someone started espousing their beliefs that the experts were wrong and only that one person knew the truth, people started to see them as a bit of a quack. And no one liked ducks at the bar. They made horrible drinking partners.

The difference was that Finn knew Earth was still out there. He had recorded thousands of hours of television and radio signals that couldn’t have come from anywhere but that ship. Of course, he didn’t tell anyone about those. He wanted to be the one to find the old ship himself. And when he did, he was going to track down his hero. John Wayne.

Heads began to turn away, but Finn either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. He just spoke louder so they could hear him.

“That ship was the crown jewel of the fleet in its day.” He downed the rest of his brown liquor. “Had more people ridin’ in lux…lugs… uh, comfort than anything like it since. Whole continents! And oceans for days. Beautiful.”

Now everyone in the bar was doing their best not to make eye contact with the huge man. Finn had finally reached the “talk at you, not with you” stage of drunkenness. Either that, or he was just too stubborn to let the topic drop.

“And the cargo!” he shouted, slamming a fist down on the bar for emphasis. “The treasures that ship held! Even my distant cousin Fafnir was aboard with his whole workshop packed into storage.”

“Fafnir?” Doubt clouded the elf’s eyes. “The dwarven smith of legend, Fafnir? You’re telling me that your cousin was a dwarf?” He looked Finn’s six-foot-five frame up and down, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Hey.” Finn leaned in and pointed at his eyes with two fingers. “My eyes’r up here, bub. An’ I take it you’ve never met a dwarf before. It’s okay. We stay away from most people, seein’ as they’re all a bunch of pansies and such. Current company excluded,” he added with a flourish of his hand at the rest of the people down the bar. “It’s not your fault you weren’t born dwarves, like myself.”

“Shut the fuck up, Finn. Always with the stupid Earth theories,” a huge, gray-skinned troll a few stools down rumbled into his overly large mug.

Finn leaned in to the bar, squinting to get a better look. “Winston? What are you doin’ here? Tryn’a steal another artifact out from under me?”

“I hardly stole the last one.” Winston’s tone was far more refined than one would expect from such an ugly face. “I merely picked it up after you dropped it running from the locals. Maybe next time, you don’t antagonize the entire population of a city while in the middle of a job, eh?”

“Maybe you should suck my—” BEEELLLCCCHHH! The burp was hard and loud, making the elf next to him scoot back in sudden fear of being vomited on.

“I’m sorry? What was that?” Winston pressed the lobe of his pointy ear closer to Finn. “I didn’t quite catch that. Perhaps you would know how to hold your liquor better if you weren’t as much an animal as that smelly lizard you call a friend.”

Finn wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Now you’ve gone and done it. Penny don’t stand for no backtalk.”

A flash of blue and red streaked out of Finn’s coat, darting down the bar. Glasses were either knocked to the floor or pulled out of the way just in time by quick hands as the scaly little creature made a beeline for the troll. Winston only raised an eyebrow and calmly took another drink.

The creature slid to a stop beside Winston’s large, gray hand, reared up on her hind legs, and unfolded her wings. There was a split second in which the bar fell silent as everyone took in Penny in all her small glory.

She was a foot and a half long from tail to tip, and most of that was in her long, serpentine neck and prehensile tail. Her body was barely larger than a fist, and covered in dark blue, metallic scales, with a red stripe of small spikes down her back that ended with a spike on the tip of her tail. But it was her majestic butterfly wings that took the onlookers’ breath away. They were each a foot wide and glowed iridescent blue in the dim light of the bar. She was a Faerie Dragon, and a perfect example of her race.

Except that she was bonded to Finn, and he had taught her some nasty little tricks. Like how to breathe fire.

A white-hot jet of flame shot from the dragon’s mouth and splashed across Winston’s hand.

“Ow!” Winston shot to his feet, knocking his stool to the ground. With a quick flick of his hand, he sent Penny tumbling behind the bar with a squeak.

The crowd sucked in a gasp of air, turning their heads to see what Finn would do.

“Why would you do that?” Finn yelled, diving over the bar to rescue his friend.

The crowd turned to Winston.

“Why would you have that little shit attack me?” he growled, holding the cool mug to his blistered hand. “You know that trolls are susceptible to fire. You’re out of control, Finn. How long have we been treasure hunters? Fifty years? In all that time, I have never once tried to harm you, at least not directly. That counts for something.”

The crowd turned back as Finn popped up from behind the bar, Penny on his shoulder looking no worse for wear. Luckily, dragons were hard to hurt, even the small ones.

“What about Stalat Prime? You shot me in the arm!” He pulled up his sleeve, showing off the round scar.

The crowd turned back to Winston, whose face was a little greener as his green blood rushed to his cheeks in embarrassment. “That was a special circumstance. You were in disguise.”

“I was dressed as a woman! You shot a woman!”

“Oh, please!” Winston threw his hands up in the air. “That was the worst disguise I have ever seen. I knew you weren’t a woman.”

“So you admit you knew it was me!” Finn shouted, vaulting over the bar, his pant leg getting caught on a tap handle and making him crumple to the floor. He jumped back up to his feet and put a finger in Winston’s face. “You also blew up the temple of Grax while I was still in it.”

“Oh, damn,” someone in the crowd murmured.

But he wasn’t done.

“And I can’t prove it,” Finn’s eyes turned from their normal dark brown to icy blue as he took another half step closer to the seven-foot troll, “but I’m pretty sure you were the one that took a shit in the ventilation shaft of my ship. You know how hard it is to get the smell of troll shit out of the air system?”

Winston smiled, showing off his yellow teeth. “I didn’t think you would notice, with how bad that garbage heap you call a ship smells already.”

“That’s your problem, Winston.” Finn leaned in. “You don’t think.”

Penny huffed a ring of smoke in the troll’s face just to add injury to insult.

The crowd watched Winston and Finn staring each other down, realizing there was obviously a lot more than a barroom argument fueling that rage. There was history.

The first patron to turn and leave started a tidal wave of action as the bar cleared out in a matter of seconds. Even the bartender thought better of getting between the two hulking figures, and slid through the door to the back room.

“You just can’t seem to get that chip off your shoulder, can you, Dragonbender? What’s the matter, you can’t deal with the fact that you’re the worthless third son of the dwarf king? Didn’t get enough love from daddy? Is that it? Tossed out to make your own fortune to prove your worth?”

Winston’s voice had dropped his civilized affectation and fallen back to what Finn thought of as the troll’s true tone. Something like the sound of rocks being ground together.

“You know what me and Penny call you?” Finn said, a smile cracking his neatly trimmed beard. “We call you the Bottom Feeder. Always coming along to pick up our scraps. Why is it you don’t go out and find your own artifacts? You too lazy to do some research on your own?”

Winston barked a laugh. “Me? You’re the one who’s obsessed with finding that old ship, Earth. That was so long ago, there’s not going to be anything left. The original passengers would have died off eons ago. Even if it didn’t crash into a star or get swallowed by a black hole, the engines would have broken down, and it would be a frozen ball of nothing by now, just floating through empty space. It’s a pipe dream, Dragonbender. Just like your fantasy that you’re actually worth something other than a good laugh.

“If I’m so bad at treasure hunting, then tell me, Dwarf King, why am I flying around in a state-of-the-art, hollowed-out moon while you’re still trying to keep that piece of shit asteroid together with nothing but adhesive strips and your pathetic hopes and dreams?” Winston poked Finn in the forehead to drive the point home. “Maybe you should be happy your mother died early on in the war between our peoples. That way she didn’t have to see what a piss-poor job she did raising you.”

The smile dropped from Finn’s face, and his eyes went nearly gray as power surged through his body. Winston recognized Finn’s magical tell, but was too late to get out of the way. He only had enough time to make that stupid face someone makes right before they get hit by something they know is really going to hurt.

Gunna salainn!

A blast of white crystals shot from Finn’s palm directly into Winston’s chest, lifting the huge troll off his feet, and sending him crashing into, and completely destroying, a table and three chairs. A cloud of white dust hung in the air where Winston had been, leaving a tang of salt in the mouth and nose. Penny sneezed, sending out a little jet of blue flame.

A moan rose from the floor, where Winston rolled back and forth, clutching his chest. Thick, green blood seeped out of the hundred or so wounds made by the rock salt Finn had blasted into his torso.

“Nobody talks bad about my momma.” Finn spat salt dust from his mouth in a phlegmy gob, then leaned over the troll’s face. “I suggest you keep this little rivalry we have between us, and leave our people out of it. We both know we don’t belong back there, with their constant war and political backstabbing. But I’ll make a deal with you. You don’t say another word about my momma, and I won’t kill you. Deal?”

“Deal,” Winston groaned out.

Finn turned back to the bar. What little haze he had worked up over the hours of drinking had been burned off the instant his magic had flowed through him.

“Dammit, Winston. You know how hard it is for me to get my buzz on, with my dwarven blood. Now you’ve gone and made me waste all that time and effort.” He spied the bartender peeking through the little window to the back room, and motioned for him to come out.

Finn had to give the guy credit for only hesitating a second before pushing the door open.

“Hey, listen.” Finn leaned an elbow on the bar and put on his best apologetic face. “I can’t believe this got so out of hand. What do I owe you for the drinks and the table?”

The bartender swallowed and looked up Finn’s tab on the holographic ledger he wore around his wrist. “That’ll be eighty-seven for the drinks, and, say, three hundred for the table and chairs?”

Finn sighed. It was almost all he had in his account, but he’d caused the damage, so he would pay to fix it. It was only right.

He swiped his wrist-wallet over the scanner in the bartop, and there was a mechanical ding, letting him know the payment had been taken.

“Wow. I really didn’t think you were going to pay for that,” the bartender said, leaning over the bar to take a look at the injured troll. “Is he going to be—oh shit!” The bartender’s eyes went wide as he tried to push off the bar and get some cover from the troll.

Finn reacted automatically, knowing what the asshole behind him was up to. He reached under his coat and gripped the ornate handle that rested in the small of his back. With a practiced movement, he pulled on it and murmured the power word to activate it.

Ping!

The hypersonic round ricocheted off the flat of the axe blade that had materialized from the handle in Finn’s hand. It was single-sided, and swooped in a wicked flourish that ended in a razor-sharp hook. The flat of the blade glowed softly with dwarven runes.

“That was playing dirty, Winston.” Finn pulled the axe blade from in front of the hyperventilating bartender’s face and turned to the prone figure. “You know how me and Penny feel about playing dirty.”

Winston still had one hand clutched to his chest, but the other gripped a pistol he had pulled from somewhere. The barrel was wavering in Finn’s general direction, having missed his first shot and nearly taking out the only other person in the room. “You play dirty all the time, Dragonbender.”

“Exactly.” Finn moved faster than anyone his size had a right to, and slammed the flat of the axe into Winston’s surprised face.

There was a crunch, and blood splattered from the troll’s broken nose, splashing green across the beer-stained carpet. With a thump, Winston’s head bounced once on the floor before lolling to the side, his lights thoroughly put out.

Finn gave Winston one last look, then pulled out a cigar, bit off the tip, and spit it at him. “Don’t worry too much about him,” he told the barkeep. “He’s a troll, he’ll be back on his ugly feet in an hour or so. You might want to call security, though. Pretty sure you can’t have weapons on the station.” He seemed to realize he was still holding his axe and quickly mumbled the power word.

The weapon began to fold in on itself in impossible ways till it disappeared completely, leaving only the ornate handle.

“Thanks for the drinks.” He smiled and tipped an imaginary hat to the open-mouthed bartender. Then he turned and walked out the door with a casual wave over his shoulder.

Penny, on the other hand, nearly popped her shoulder out of its socket, she was waving with such enthusiasm.

Out on the main concourse of the space station, they turned and headed for their ship, the Anthem.

“You mind?” Finn presented the end of the cigar to Penny, who obliged him with a small flame that he greedily sucked into the rolled tobacco. Blowing out a plume of blueish-white smoke, he sighed in satisfaction. “Nothing like a good stogie after kicking some ass, eh, Penny?”

The little dragon stood on her hind legs, her claws digging in to keep her steady, and crossed her arms. The look she gave him was like a full-body eyeroll.

“What? It was Winston. That jackass has been following us around for years. Plus, he shouldn’t have said that about momma. That shit wasn’t cool.”

Penny at least agreed with him on the last part by giving a sharp nod. She pointed behind them and raised one of her eye ridges.

Finn turned in time to see several uniformed security personnel piling into the bar. One of them spotted Finn, and pointed, shouting to his comrades. Two of them took off at a run in Finn’s direction.

“I think that just about wraps up our stay here.” He turned and ran full speed for his docking port, the cigar still in his mouth and puffing like a locomotive.

Penny hung on as best she could, but after a few jostling steps, she leapt off his shoulder and took flight, easily keeping pace with him.

Finn had to dodge his way around cargo containers and lines of passengers to make his way. He leapt over a row of benches, scaring a halfling who happened to be laying on one of said benches, trying to catch a little sleep before his connecting flight. When the poor guy sat up to yell at Finn, his head clipped the foot of the security guard coming in hot on Finn’s tail. The two of them tumbled to the ground in a heap, making the second guard go around the benches.

That gave Finn just enough time to swipe his wrist over the ID pad, and unlock the door to his ship’s berth. He slipped into the airlock and pulled the door closed just as the second security guard got close.

Smacking the big, red button on the wall, Finn started up the airlock procedure, and atmosphere began to fill the small space to equalize the Anthem to the station. The guard pounded on the glass, but Finn just waved and stepped onto his ship, closing the door behind him once Penny was through.

“Let’s go find us some treasure, Penny. The cupboards are looking a little thin right now.” Finn glanced at the account balance on his wrist display and grimaced. “Some cheap treasure.”

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