Read the first chapter of Fade to Black by Francis Knight – a thrilling debut fantasy tale of corruption and dark magic, set in the vertigo-inspiring city of Mahala!
Want to read more? Continue on to chapter two.
I forced the door, nice and quiet, with my ever-so-slightly-illegal pulse pistol at the ready. Magic wasn’t usually on the agenda for runaways, but this little madam was exceptional: booby traps a speciality – I’d almost gone up in flames this morning. Twice. If it wasn’t for the obscene amount of money her parents had offered me to find her, I’d have given it up as a bad job.
The room beyond the door was even more dingy and rubbish-strewn than the corridor, and that was saying something. Rainwater had driven through a broken window and the faint stench of synth drifted up from where it pooled. I sidestepped around it. You could catch a fatal dose and never know until it was too late. Residents hurried away behind me with a mutter of footfalls. One sight of me, a burly man in a subtly armoured, close-fitting all over with a flapping black coat, and the scavenge-rat teens that called this place home took to their heels. I dare say it looked too much like a Ministry Special’s uniform with an added coat. Living this far down, a nose for trouble was essential.
I checked around carefully, trying to listen past the far rumble and thump of factories above us. A flash of movement off to my left, a hint of bright blue shirt. Lise, the girl I was after. With nothing to alarm me – yet – I made my careful way in. There it was again: a flicker of blue, floating in the gloom. I slid my fingers round the pistol’s trigger and pointed it. It wouldn’t kill her, but it would give me just enough of an edge. I didn’t understand it myself because it’s not my kind of magic, but the man who sold it to me had explained it as a way of interrupting thought processes, quite abruptly. An almost painless magical cosh, if you will. It would shut her down, at least for long enough for me to restrain her. Killing people wasn’t my line of work, or my style. If I’d had a taste for it I’d have stayed with the guards or, Goddess forbid, gone into the Ministry Specials, but I hadn’t liked the amount of paperwork, or the restrictions. I preferred the more freeform business I was in, where responsibility wasn’t something I needed to worry about.
I slid forwards, making sure there were no nasty surprises waiting in the rubbish at my feet. She moved again and black hair whirled out as she ran down a short corridor. I followed with exaggerated care, in case she had any more tricks in store for me. She wasn’t stupid. There had been those booby traps. Plus, she’d covered her tracks like a professional. It had taken me a week to find her, a length of time almost unheard of. I’d nearly had to resort to magic, and I never like to do that.
The information from her parents had shown me she was book-smart at least, a high-ranking fifteen-year-old student in alchemy. Bright enough to cover her tracks almost seamlessly; and ruthless, or desperate, enough to defend her retreat. Clever enough to come down here, on the border of Namrat’s Armpit and Boundary, right where the people she normally mixed with wouldn’t dream of coming. Where people minded their own business or else, and she had a hope of hiding without falling into the black hole we knew as Namrat’s Armpit, or the ’Pit for short. I tried not to think of the alchemist’s brew of toxic chemicals, residue of the synth disaster, just below the floor.
Rain rattled a broken window and a door snicked closed ahead of me. The little brat had led me a merry chase, but I had her now and the fat pay-purse was all but in my hand. She knew I was there though, and she’d proved resourceful so far. I decided not to trust the door, or the girl. Trust wasn’t a luxury I could afford in this line of work. I had a small wooden baton attached to my belt and used it to push the handle down.
As I pushed, fat sparks bloomed from somewhere above and dripped down the doorframe. I leapt back just in time to avoid the blast. Heat seared the exposed skin of my face and hands and the stench of burning clothes choked me. I rolled until I was sure the flames were out.
Electricity was a new development, and not more than two or three of the really good alchemists had got a grip on it yet. Luckily. Yet she’d learned from my earlier care with her traps, wired the whole damn thing and rigged it up to black powder just as an added bonus in case I avoided the electricity. I was reluctantly impressed.
Runaways had never given me this much trouble before; it was the bounties that did that. This girl had a powerful desire not to go home. Having met her parents, I could sympathise, but a paying job is a paying job, and once I took one on it was hard not to follow through.
I slipped through the door with the pulse pistol held out in front of me. The room was dank and gloomy, lit with fifthhand light bounced down from better areas far above. Among heaps of rubbish, a parade of small puddles rippled on the bare stone floor where rain leaked through two broken windows. The water gleamed with an oily glint – synth, almost certainly. A thin, filthy mattress contaminated the end of the room. A small light, a rend-nut-oil lamp with a glass cover, scented the air as it glowed next to the makeshift bed, casting a pool of warm light on the sodden blanket that was littered with food wrappers – pretend meat, fake gravy, the tarted-up processed vegetarian shit that was the only kind of tasteless junk available down here. Or pretty much anywhere under Trade.
The wavering light of the lamp made the room behind seem black as Namrat’s heart. Namrat: tiger, stalker, winner in the end. Death. If I was a religious man, I would have prayed to the nice Goddess that he wasn’t stalking me today. As it was, I kept still and kept looking. She had to be in there somewhere.
My finger tightened on the trigger at a shadowy movement in the dark beyond the mattress, and something flew towards me. I leapt away, but not in time to completely avoid it. It smashed on the stone and let loose a rush of greenish gas. Streamers of it ballooned like smoke, sticking in my throat and blinding my stinging eyes. Oh, she was good, more than good. She was making me work for my money. That’s nearly as bad as using magic.
Footsteps pattered on the concrete as she passed me and I aimed the pistol blindly. Pain leapt through me where the blade on the trigger bit my skin, not much but enough to give me some power to fire. The pistol let loose a buzzing pulse in a wild trajectory and I was rewarded with a snatch of a scream that ended with a heavy thump as she fell to the floor.
I took a few moments to drag myself away from the gas, wiping my streaming eyes and coughing it up. Finally it began to clear, helped by the breeze from the broken windows, and I could see her. She was stretched out in an ungainly pile, face-down in a puddle. Before I did anything else I cuffed her. She’d given me too much trouble already; I wasn’t taking the chance of her escaping now, or maybe pulling something else out of her bag of tricks. I rolled her out of the puddle, saw to my bleeding thumb with a quick bandage from the stash in my coat, and had a look around as she came to.
It was, quite simply, a shithole. Walls crumbling where they hadn’t been strengthened against the ravages of prolonged synth contact. No window intact. No direct light, not ever, not down this far, yet no Glow tubes to light the room. No nothing really, except that mattress and the oil lamp, something only the poorest of the poor ever used, because of the rancid smell. Even the people who lived in Boundary didn’t live in this sort of place, unless they were seriously desperate. The rats weren’t keen either, which was its only plus.
I had to wonder why she thought this was preferable to living with her very well-off parents, albeit an arrogant bully of a father, and a mother sneaky where he was blunt. Another three months, her sixteenth nameday, and she could have left them to themselves.
They were made for each other. He’d been a big man, fifty perhaps, had once been muscular by the looks but running a little to fat. Two streaks of grey sliced through his black hair like arrows and he had a way of walking as though he owned anywhere he was – or, perhaps, anyone. He’d given me the creeps, especially as there had been something so oddly familiar about him. Not the face as such – bland in a fleshy kind of way – but the way he held himself, the gestures of his hands. It had brought back long-buried memories, but I’d shrugged off that creepiness, told myself I was imagining the familiarity, when I’d seen how much he was willing to pay. I’ll forget a lot for that much cash.
As he’d shouted and railed, threatening to have my licence withdrawn if I should even dare to think about refusing the job, his wife had winked and flirted and hinted at other methods of payment. She was perhaps ten years younger than him, carefully trim to the point of being haggard, with a shrewish mouth and watchful eyes. I’d been tempted to refuse them, just to see what would happen, but the money was good and I preferred the runaways to the bounties. They were easier to find, less likely to try to kill me, and I could pretend I was doing something towards setting the world right rather than souring my underdeveloped conscience by condemning some small-time fraudster or petty thief to twenty years or, worse, a one way trip to the ’Pit.
Well, runaways had been easier, until this one.
She groaned as she came back to herself and I stopped looking in the tatty cloth bag that probably held all her possessions. There was little enough in there, except for a large stack of money. I was a good boy for once, and kept my fingers away from shiny temptation. Daddy probably knew how much she had, down to the last copper penny.
“Come on, Lise, time to stop playing house and go home. For some reason your parents are looking forward to seeing you.”
I hauled her up to her feet, not as gently as I could have; the wired door could have caused me a lot of pain, or worse, and she’d burned a hole in my best coat. She obviously hadn’t been thinking clearly, didn’t know I was a mage or didn’t know that pain is a very good source of power for magic. Not many people do, because there aren’t supposed to be any pain-mages any more, not since the Ministry took over. My pistol isn’t the only possession of mine that is ever-so-slightly-illegal.
She wasn’t very steady but I grabbed her bag and half pulled, half carried her back to the carriage. On the way she regained the use of her voice and I was treated to a stream of language I was sure a girl of her age and privileged background shouldn’t know. By the time we reached the carriage and I had the door open ready to throw her in, she was kicking and biting and doing everything in her power to get me to let go. I was tempted once or twice to dump her as hard as I could on the floor, or maybe use the pistol on her again, but I held on to myself with all the restraint I could muster. Her screeches brought a gaggle of spectators to see us off, and I had a reputation to keep clean. In public anyway.
I dumped her in the back of the carriage, behind the metal grille I’d had installed for just this sort of thing. She tried to bite my hand when I threw in her bag and slammed the door in her face. I suppressed a smile as she shrieked with rage, and used my spare juice for a little more magic. If you know what you’re about you can store it, for a while anyway. It didn’t take much to mould my face into an approximation of her father’s – one of my talents, my Minor, to change the way I look. Not for long, or very much, which makes it fairly useless most of the time, but handy for getting a rise out of people when I’m feeling, shall we say, less than well disposed towards them?
She spat through the grille. “You bloody bastard!”
“Technically, no. But I can understand why you might think so.” I wiped the spit off my cheek and her father’s face off mine. Moulding my features like that always gave me a banging headache, and I soon regretted using it to satisfy my little urge for revenge.
I fiddled with the valves and flicked the glass vial with the Glow in it. Should be enough left to get her home, and me home after without going to the expense of getting another. That wouldn’t stop me charging her father for a new vial. I started up the engine with a yank on the frayed cord, wincing at the grind of metal as the gears mashed. I’d never quite got the hang of carriages, or getting them started anyway.
The Glow doesn’t work as well as the synth did, not on carriage engines. The synth had been engineered for this sort of thing, brewed up in an alchemist’s tubes to power the city, the factories, carriages, everything. Cheap and easy to make. A glorious achievement for Mahala and the Ministry which ran Alchemical Research along with everything else. Also a handy way to get rid of the mages who’d powered everything before, and had thus had way too much power for the Ministry’s liking. Shame synth turned out to poison people too. Glow was the replacement: clean, just as cheap and not given to killing anyone. They said.
The newer carriages managed the switch from synth to Glow better of course, but this one was old when they stopped the synth, and the conversion from one fuel to another had been a rush job. It made for a clunky ride, not helped by the fact I was too stingy to sort out the springs in the suspension; the upholstery, which had long since got ripped out in the back there; and the general dents, gouges and what-not from unhappy passengers. Not much of a ride, my carriage, but at least there was a ride. I took us out into the choking flow of rattling, creaking traffic that surged through Boundary and on towards the more exalted areas where her parents lived.
“Why are you taking me back?” She’d settled down into a morose, accepting huddle.
“Because I was paid to.” I thought about the electrified doorway. “Not for fun, I can assure you.”
“I’ll pay you,” she said, and I wasn’t surprised. It was a usual tactic.
I shook my head. “They’re paying me more than a young girl with no income could afford to match.”
“I’m shocked they even noticed I wasn’t there.” Her voice was quiet, suddenly sullen. All the fight had gone out of her. It usually did when they realised it was a lost cause, but the look on her face as I glanced backwards before I overtook a lumbering beer wagon made me pause in my standard responses. There was a panicked look to her, a thoughtful desperation behind her eyes. She turned away, maybe angry that she’d been caught feeling something.
“Your father was very concerned,” I managed to lie; though I was pretty sure it was the fact that he wanted to avoid any gossip or scandal that had prompted his concern. I’d half expected him to say, “What will the neighbours think?”, though he’d fallen just short of that.
“Concerned he won’t have anyone to blame now,” Lise said. “Concerned he’s lost his personal punchbag and scapegoat. Concerned he’s lost the money he paid to you.”
It took a tricky bit of manoeuvring to get us on to the road through the slaughterhouse district, which these days had nothing much to slaughter, and on to the ramp that led up to No-Hope and beyond, past the thundering factories of Trade, up to where the sun actually shone on people, to Heights and Clouds and beyond. The slaughterhouse was almost empty of any animals, and full of people making use of the space anyway. You could no longer tell where you were from the waft of blood and the stench of the tannery’s main consumable as you headed down Pigeon Shit Lane. Nothing much to slaughter meant nothing much to tan either.
Once we turned the corner on to the Spine, the twisting road that led from the rarefied heights of Top of the World right down to the sunless depths of Boundary, adverts shrieked from every shop, the little blinking Glow lights that powered them shining red and yellow against the planking. We got caught up in a snarl of wagons, carriages and walkers so I was pushed to find a way through. I managed by not caring about scraping the shit out of my carriage – it was too screwed to worry about, with every last scrap of decorative brass rubbed or gouged off years ago. Other people did care, and when they saw I wouldn’t give way they usually made a hasty swerve to save their paintwork and the little brass icons of the Goddess, saints and martyrs that were so in fashion in these days. I took particular pleasure in knocking them off.
Glancing in the mirror, I saw what should have been obvious from the start. The fading yellow bruise, a sallower counterpoint to her dusky skin, all along the whole of the left side of her face, half covered by her dark swing of hair. She fiddled with her sleeves, ensuring they were pulled well down over her wrists, making me wonder what could be worse to see under the cloth than was apparent on her face. “Your mother?”
She laughed, a short snatch of cynical wretchedness. “She wouldn’t notice if the world ended, as long as she could keep finding new boy toys to play with. She doesn’t notice half the things he does, or if she does she doesn’t care.”
Somehow that didn’t surprise me. These days, not much does. I miss it sometimes. “So, just wait three months, till you’re sixteen, and then go. There won’t be a damn thing they can do.”
“I won’t last that long. It was only luck that I managed to get away this time. He can make me stay, if he doesn’t finish me off by then. There’s a lot he can do. He’s in the Ministry. If I don’t stay, I’ll end up in the ’Pit, dead first or not.”
That made me suppress a shudder. The Ministry were sticklers for appearances, that everything should be seen to be perfect. They ran the guards, were experts in making people disappear, usually sending their corpses to the ’Pit to save their precious crime statistics, or so rumour had it. It would never be common knowledge: they ran the news-sheets too and guarded that privilege jealously. The Ministry ran everything, and had done since well before I was born, though Dendal says they didn’t used to be as paranoid. That had started around the same time as the synthtox, when they began slowly and subtly drawing the strings ever tighter round us, till now you hardly dared breathe without permission.
I wasn’t surprised that my background check into her father hadn’t turned this Ministry connection up. It was standard practice among Ministry men to hide who they were, even when someone probed as thoroughly as I did. Secrecy was almost like a second religion for them.
I should take her home. My personal motto runs: Mine is not to do and die, mine is to find the warm body and take the money. Motto number two is: Don’t mess with the Ministry, it’s bad for your health.
We all have our off-days.
Maybe it was the soft pinging noise inside my head – Dendal trying to get hold of me. Maybe it was the name that accompanied the pinging, one I never wanted to hear again. Or maybe I have a rebellious streak a mile wide. Never fails to get me into trouble. I swung the carriage round with a crunch of gears and headed back down the ramp, making a dray almost crash into the back of me in a welter of swearing and skid marks. We headed for some of the less salubrious addresses, like mine. I liked the lower-rent places; it meant I could save more money for when I got out of this trade. Plus, people in those areas tended to mind their own business, if they liked their ears where they were. I wasn’t about to lose the cash for this job, but, contrary to popular opinion, I’m not completely heartless – provided it doesn’t cost me anything.
I glanced in the mirror again; Lise’s eyes were wide and wet with surprise. I coaxed the Glow to churn faster, skittering the carriage round corners, turning always downwards, towards the workshop of the little man who had made my pulse pistol. Dwarf ran a business making outlandish, and ever-so-slightly-illegal, instruments for a hefty price. He could use an alchemy-student apprentice with a talent for booby traps. I slowed the carriage to a crawl as we passed his workshop. I couldn’t afford to give up the cash for this job, and I really didn’t want to piss off her Ministry dad by not taking her back, but I could make sure she had somewhere safe to run to next time.
“I’ve got no choice but to take you home. I don’t mess with the Ministry, they don’t break my door down and drag me off to the ’Pit. But a girl with your talents should be able to blow a damn big hole in her father’s house to escape, right?”
She looked thoughtful, and I detected a hint of deviousness about the quick smile. Good – she was going to need it, but I reckoned she had the brains to figure it out.
“Next time you run away,” I said. “Come here.”