A reluctant hero takes on dark magic and corruption in this dystopian fantasy adventure – read the beginning of Before the Fall by Francis Knight, the second novel set in the vertigo-inducing city of Mahala.
No-Hope-Shitty: the name says it all really. This particular part of the city, so far down it was almost the even-worse Boundary, was one of the crappier shit-pits. The smell of hopelessness, fear and the sweat of too many people seemed ground into the dank buildings that crammed every available space.
I made my way along a swaying walkway that was only nominally attached to the clutch of gently mouldering boxes they called houses down here and tried not to think how far down the gap underneath went. To keep my mind off the drop, I swore at Dendal in my head. Some damn-fool notion he’d had was why I was here in the arse end of the city. Trying to find someone I wasn’t even sure existed in a maze of synth-ridden houses and rotting walkways that looked as though they’d turn on me at any time and dump me down twenty, thirty, floors to the bottom of Boundary, or even further to the newly opened ’Pit – to Downside.
Heights, or, rather, depths, make me nervous and nervous makes me cranky, so I kept on swearing at Dendal in my head. Downsider music, all wailing voices and thumping drums, rattled crumbling walls unused to anything more raucous than the occasional bland hymn. Wary eyes peered out at me from cracked windows. Here was somewhere I really didn’t want to be, not an Upsider like me. The whole area was crammed with recent Downsider refugees, fearful, and not without cause.
I’d ditched my usual outfit: the leather allover and the flapping jacket that made me look like a Special. It was handy for scaring the crap out of people, but Downsiders had a particular hatred for the elite guards and that hatred was just as likely to overcome the fear that was radiating through the thin walls. I am many things but suicidal isn’t one of them, so I’d dressed to blend in with an old-fashioned button-up shirt and a pair of tatty trousers I’d found that didn’t quite fit. Just another guy feeling his way in this new and strange part of a city most of the Downsiders hadn’t even seen before a couple of months ago. To them, the Upside of Mahala was the mythical come true, the alien place where things and people were weird. I kept having to remind myself of that. I’d even tried my best with my face, tried to give myself that Downsider blue-white undertone to my skin, rearranged things so I didn’t look as threatening.
That disguise had its drawbacks, though. I’d been scowled at, sniffed at, spat on and sworn at on my way here. The sudden influx of refugees into Upside – only into the less salubrious areas such as No-Hope, but still – on top of the demise of our major power source and the resulting loss of trade, jobs, food and everything else, had made everyone, Upsider and Down, tense. There had been incidents all over just lately, from both sides, events that made parts of No-Hope a dangerous place for someone like me, for anyone not a Downsider. They’d also made other places just as dangerous for the refugees. If I showed my real face here, if they knew it was me who had caused all those things, I’d have been pitched over the side of the walkway before I’d taken half a dozen steps from the office.
I stopped on a corner between a boarded-up apothecary and a little grocery store that had run out of even really crappy food, wishing I’d brought a light of some kind, but candles were scarcer than food then, and I don’t like to use rend-nut oil. The mingled smell of rotting fish and day-old farts wasn’t a nice kind of aftershave and doesn’t pull in the chicks. Sadly, it was that or nothing, so I went with nothing.
Since the Glow had been destroyed by yours truly, power was at a premium. Down this far in the city sun was a rumour. It wasn’t much past noon up in the rarefied air of Over Trade. In Heights and Clouds and Top of the World, Ministry lived in the sun, shielding it, stealing it from us dregs. That much hadn’t changed – yet. It might never. Down here in Under, beneath the factories and warehouses of Trade that were eerily silent now, it might as well have been midnight. Even the cunning network of mirrors and twisted light wells that gave my office a shred of real, actual sunlight for about three minutes around noon and an almost constant dusk for the rest of the day, failed this far down.
I told myself that I didn’t need light for what I was here for. True, I didn’t. Rather, what I needed was pain, my pain. Which was a bitch, but I’d tried everything else, and everything else hadn’t worked. Dendal was waiting and I didn’t like to disappoint, and not just because he’s my landlord and boss. He’s my boss because if he concentrated he could spread me over a large portion of the city. He could do it accidentally too, which was more likely, but I always found it best not to make him wait. He gets all insistent about his little obsessions and it’s easiest just to go along. Besides, I owe him a couple of legs, in that without his help I probably would have blown mine off long since while I learnt my magic. So, here I was.
The boy Dendal was after was a Downsider refugee; no records, no known address, not even a name to go on. All I had was a scrap of cloth and a hunch of Dendal’s. It was magic, or nothing.
Left to my own devices, I’d have said screw the little sod and abandoned him to fend for himself, no better or worse off than thousands of others quietly starving to death in the dark down here. Responsible isn’t high on my list of qualities. In fact, I usually try to make sure it doesn’t even appear on the list. But Dendal’s persuasive, and also really good at guilt-tripping me even if he doesn’t mean to. I hoped he would appreciate it, because this was going to hurt, and I don’t like to hurt.
With my good hand, I rummaged in my pocket for the scrap of cloth Dendal had given me. There wasn’t anywhere to sit that didn’t involve what was probably synth-tainted water. The damn stuff still lingered, still made people sick from the inside out even now, so I crouched down and leant back against a rickety wall that I hoped would take my weight. I was getting better at this, but still had a tendency to end up on my knees when I tried because it usually felt as though I was about to pop an eyeball, or perhaps a bollock.
I laid the scrap of cloth on my lap and stroked it with my good hand. My anchor, that cloth, the little bit of someone that would help me find them, in this case a boy. If I didn’t know someone well then I needed a prop to help me find them – something of theirs usually, something intimate to them.
On the plus side, I didn’t need to dislocate my thumb to power up my magic today. On the minus side, that was because I’d fucked up my whole left hand in the incident that had led to all the Glow disappearing. The hand was still healing and all I needed to do was try to make a tight fist to have white spots run in front of my eyes and power run through my veins. There has to be a better way to cast a find spell – any kind of spell – but I haven’t figured out what it is yet. When I do, they’ll hear the halle-fucking-lujah from Top of the World all the way down to the bottom of the ’Pit.
I made a fist and pain spiked through me along with magic, sweet and alluring, and oh so dangerous. It spun around me, through me, calling, always calling. In and out, quick as I could, that was the best way. Before it tempted me, before the black rushed up to claim me. I’d beaten the black before, once, but I wasn’t so sure I could do it again. It was always there, waiting to trap the unwary, seductive and tempting. The price of my magic wasn’t pain, it was the threat of falling into the black and never coming out, of losing my fragile sanity to it.
It came quickly, flowing up my arm from the scrap of cloth – the sure and certain knowledge that the boy was to the east, a hundred yards away and two levels down. The pungent smell of a rend-nut oil lamp overlaying the more insidious chemical tang of synth, an ominous flicker of shadows. Even more ominous-looking men. Four Upsiders in a half-circle around a boy on the ground. Upsiders who looked seriously pissed off. One of them made a grab for the boy and a knife gleamed in his other hand. In that gleam I thought I saw the rumour that was spreading everywhere but officially. Someone was killing Downsiders, and not just in fights either. Three dead boys already, and this looked like another in the making. No wandering along the walkways to find this particular boy; not now, not if I wanted to find him alive.
See, now this is why I don’t like responsibility. Not only does my magic hurt like fuck, now it seemed I was going to have to risk a stabbing and I really liked that shirt. It would certainly look better without my blood on it. I could have left the boy, I could have turned away. It certainly would have been better for my health. But, despite what my exes will tell you, at length and in gruesome detail, I am not completely heartless. Only mostly. Besides, we needed this boy if what Dendal suspected was true.
Muttering under my breath about fucking Dendal and his fancy fucking notions of fucking charity, I clenched my fist tighter. The black sidled up behind me like a thief, waiting for its chance to drag me into its madness, its joy. Come on, Rojan, you know you want me, you need me.
“I’m not afraid of you,” I lied. “So fuck off.”
Pain was everything, magic was everything, every part of me. Universes were born, spun across my vision and died. I knew I was going to regret this but I shut my eyes, let the where of the boy seep in. The rend-nut stench grew stronger, surrounded me and made me gag. The air grew danker, colder. One final squeeze of my hand that had me groaning and then I opened my eyes and tried not to throw up.
A ring of very surprised faces in the flickering dark. Not very happy faces. I had, of course, announced that I was a mage about as subtly as having a big flashing arrow pointing at my throat saying “Please rip here”, which, all things considered, could be said to be a Very Bad Idea. Way to go, Rojan, always leaping before you look.
The man with the knife recovered from his surprise the quickest and loomed over me with a menace that seemed to come naturally.
I always come prepared.
I didn’t fancy any more pain so I pulled my gun, pressed the end of the barrel against his nose and made a show of cocking it. Everyone stopped. Guns were still new enough, still expensive and rare enough, that I was pretty confident I had the only one for half a mile in any direction. “Hello. Anyone want to tell me what the fuck they think they’re doing?”
Knife-man took two slow, careful steps backwards, but he didn’t lower the blade. A quick glance round and I realised why. In my rush towards responsibility I had failed to see the other men outside the circle. The crowd of them behind me. Looking big and mean and very ugly. I’d heard of this in whispers, of Upsiders going around mob-handed into the refugee areas when it was quiet, finding some poor Downsider on his own and stomping him before getting the hell out. Of them boasting about it afterwards in Upsider bars. Is it any wonder I’m such a cynic?
Three of the men stepped forward. I’m a fairly big guy, broad enough with it, and I can look threatening when I need to, but these guys had it down to an art. A mean look to them, like they probably kicked their way out of their mothers’ wombs, head-butted the midwife and then got stuck into mugging their parents and strangling the cat.
I was beginning to wish I hadn’t bothered getting out of bed that morning, or that I’d never met Dendal, or even that I’d stayed dead when I’d had the chance.
The boy crouched by my feet, dripping sweat and fear.
“In my pocket,” I said. “Left-hand side.”
He didn’t hesitate, but delved into the pocket and pulled out my pulse pistol. A very specialised and until recently ever so slightly illegal piece of kit. The kid stared at it for a moment as if it were a live snake before he seemed to get a grip of himself, and the pistol.
The Upsiders were moving in, wary, careful, but closer every second. I risked a glance behind: a shabby door that looked half eaten by synth and damp. I backed towards it and the boy came with me. He was shaking fit to bust and what happened next was probably inevitable.
He pulled the trigger. Now, a pulse pistol is, as I said, a specialised piece of kit. It doesn’t fire bullets, it fires magic, at least provided it’s a mage pulling the trigger.
Dendal had been right about the boy. He fired, the razor flipped out and sliced his thumb and the whirring mechanism took the pain, the magic, magnified it and blasted it out of the end.
I imagine the Upsiders were ever so grateful that it was non-lethal. Eventually grateful, at least. The pulse leapt out and jumped from one to another, far more power there than anything I’d ever been able to coax out of it. The zapping pulse dropped everyone it touched, shorting out their brains and sending them slumping to the dilapidated floor to wallow in shallow synth-tainted pools.
The boy had let out a yelp when the razor cut his thumb, but now he stood as though his own brain was shorted out, staring dumbly at the pile of limp bodies.
We didn’t have time for that. The pistol knocks them out but they soon wake up again, and I only had one set of cuffs on me.
I made a mental note to congratulateDwarf on the improvements he’d made to the pulse pistol, grabbed the boy and made a run for it. Courageous to the end, that’s me.