An anti-hero takes on dark magic and corruption in this compelling fantasy adventure – Last to Rise is the third novel set in the vertigo-inducing city of Mahala.
There is, perhaps, some universal truth that no one has seen fit to tell me about. Namely that if I have to find someone they are always in the shittiest place I can imagine, and I can imagine a lot of shit.
This place had to take the prize though. Right down in the bowels of Mahala, where the sun never shone. It didn’t get much of a breeze either, which was a pity because it could have used one.
Down past No-Hope-Shitty, on into even-worse Boundary and across towards the base of the Slump, its mangled remains reminding everyone what can happen when a mage goes batshit crazy. That was where you’d find the Stench – it’s above the ’Pit but not by much – and the people who made sure we didn’t drown in our own waste. There’s a few people who might say that I belonged there too.
I picked my way carefully past the dripping girders, under the newly lit Glow lights that still gave me a thrill to look at. Their light didn’t pierce much of the darkness – down here wasn’t considered priority for Glow, and the lights were sparse – but at least I could see where I was going and what not to step in, which was most of it.
I moved past vast, evil-smelling vats of who-knew-what except that it was lumpy, a gruesome brown-green that was bright even in the gloom, and was giving off fumes that smelled like they could kill at ten yards. I was grateful I didn’t have a curious bone in my body, because nobody wanted to know what was in them, surely. Guessing would be enough.
Water kept on drip-drip-dripping from the ceiling, filtered down through a hundred or more levels of city above us, through cracks and crevices and light-wells. At least, I hoped it was only water, because it sidled down the collar of my coat like it had found a home. The faint chemical tang of synth overrode other, more earthy smells, and I wondered how many of the Stenchers had succumbed to the synthtox.
There didn’t seem to be anyone about but I knew my man was down here somewhere. Since the Glow had come back on, mages were needed to power it rather than be hunted down and executed for being unholy (among other things). So now we were free to get killed for more prosaic reasons, though mages were still pretty shy about coming forward. After all, it might have been a bluff – the Ministry had tried that one before, and no one Under Trade trusted the Ministry, even when they were in temple, praying the proper, sanitised prayers.
With mages actually needed now, the new archdeacon had issued a notice of reward for anyone coming forward with information on . . . unusual occurrences. So now we had people falling over themselves to offer up their fellow man. Mostly it was out of petty vengeance of some sort or another – men dobbing in someone they thought was having an affair with their wife, or a professional rival, or just that snobby bastard from the next level up who kept dumping his rubbish over the walkway instead of sending it down the bucket lifts to the Stench. Often the dobbers-in did it for the money too – money meant food, and food was hard to come by, what with the siege on one side of the city and neighbours of doubtful intent on the other, with nothing much in between except level upon level of starving people all hemmed in by the ring of mountains that kept us safe, or had done up till now.
Given that siege, any food was difficult to find. Good food, something edible that wasn’t watery mush or riddled with beetles, was almost mythical. By this point, when we’d been under siege for long enough that rats were looking mighty tasty, I’d have sold my soul for bacon and my left arm for anything that didn’t taste like sawdust and mouse droppings. Except my soul wasn’t worth a bent copper in the state it was in, and, due to a small incident involving how my magic works and me feeling rather vengeful, my left arm wasn’t up to much either; at least my hand wasn’t. What it was, was screwed.
Of course, everyone was trying to take advantage of the money the Archdeacon had offered by reporting each other for such things as “looking funny”, “walking strange”, “having a wart” or, on one memorable occasion, “talking shit”. A lot of more serious accusations flew about as well, but I didn’t care about them because some pretty serious allegations can be laid at my feet too.
But in among all that, we’d had a few useful reports. Yesterday a man, thin as a stick and still with the stink of this place on him, had sidled into the office, looking askance at the sign on the door:
LICENSED MAGES, ALL MAGICAL THINGS ATTEMPTED.
SPECIALITIES INCLUDE INSTANT COMMUNICATION, MIND-READING,
PEOPLE FOUND AND THINGS REARRANGED.
FEES AVAILABLE ON REQUEST.
It was a good sign, all the better because now we were legal and casting a spell no longer meant getting arrested, a term that had long been a euphemism for “dying messily”. Still, the Ministry had spent a couple of decades telling everyone how evil and unholy we were, and it was taking time for people to adjust.
The thought of mages had made the thin man pause. The sight of Pasha, with his Downsider pallor under dusky skin that to an Upsider meant “heretic” or worse, had him running away like Namrat himself was chasing him, wanting to eat his soul before he crapped it into hell. The man hadn’t escaped before Pasha had used his magic to lift the information from the man’s mind – a series of inexplicable events down here in the Stench. Inexplicable was what we were after, hence why I was down here trying not to breathe, in case it was possible to die from inhaling the smell.
I didn’t have much to go on – an image that Pasha had given me of the young man in the office, boy even. Dusky yet paler than he could have been, should have been, not unlike myself or a thousand others. Not the blue-white undertones of a Downsider who’d spent his life in the dark, but more like an Upsider from the wrong side of Trade, who saw the sun perhaps for a few minutes a day as it stood at noon and shone straight down, and for the rest of the time saw it only second- or third-hand, bounced down on mirrors and through cobwebbed light-wells. He’d been thin too, like we all were, and getting thinner. A man like thousands Under Trade – except for the smell of the Stench on him and in his mind the inexplicable events he’d seen – perhaps inadvertently caused.
A boom-shudder rattled the walls, made dust drift on to my face and stick to the clammy sweat there. Another reminder of why I needed to find this man, and soon. The sound had become part of the city over the last days, echoing along the walkways and haunting every level from the darkest depths of Boundary right up to the rarefied and sun-drenched air of Top of the World to rattle even the Ministry. And with every boom-shudder, you could almost see the thought run through the heads of everyone, Upsider and Downsider alike.
The Storad were at the gates.
The Storad were lurking Outside, waiting for their chance, and they had a parade of big, smoking machines that were making a creditable attempt at blasting the crap out of said gates. The boom was the machine firing what looked like enormous bullets. The shudder was what happened when the bullets struck the gates, a tremor and terror that vibrated through the whole city.
I reached the end of the vats with relief and, hoping I might be able to take a deep breath without throwing up, braved the echoing cavern at the end. The smell didn’t get any better. Instead it got worse so that my eyes watered. I’d have happily killed any number of people for a fresh breeze. Where the hell was this guy? Where was anyone?
A series of smaller tanks and vats filled the cavern, larger feeding into smaller, overspill running into a channel that carved its way down the centre. Greenish froth bubbled and steamed on the surfaces of some of the tanks, but the run-off looked surprisingly clear. The liquid – I hesitate to call it water except in the most generous sense – splashed down the channel with a cheerful prattle until it slid over a lip and out of sight.
I still hadn’t seen anyone and I was starting to get cranky. We had no time to spare, not with the Storad Outside, wearing down the gates a chunk at a time. Churning out Glow was wearing Pasha and me down a chunk at a time too. No time to spare and we needed every mage we could find, whether they knew they were mages or not. I tried calling out, tried poking around, but all I got for my trouble was more smell and green stuff on my coat. It was hovering around noon up at Top of the World, and I needed to be somewhere else as soon as I could. No time to mess about, and that made me swear because it meant I had to use my magic. I’d been hoping I’d get away with it. No such luck.
I found a wall that wasn’t dripping too badly, leaned against it for support and hoped like hell that this time I wouldn’t end up on my knees, because a ruined pair of boots was enough without ruining my allover too. I shut my eyes and pulled my nicely buggered hand out of my pocket. Usually I needed a prop of some kind, a link to whoever I was going to find, unless I knew them well. A lock of hair, a scrap of clothing, a picture. This time all I had was the face that Pasha had shown me, a picture in my head if you will, along with a name and being fairly certain the guy was down here. It might work. I hoped it would, because this was going to hurt and I don’t like to hurt, especially for no purpose.
My hand was slowly getting better since I’d completely screwed it, but pumping out enough magic to run the Glow lights and everything else over the last few weeks hadn’t really made it easier. The generator was helping, taking the magic and magnifying it, but Trade is a hungry beast. Purple-blue and swollen doesn’t even begin to cover how damaged my hand was, but it was a fact of my life. If I was lucky the hand wouldn’t drop off any time soon.
I took a deep breath and clenched my fist. First the pain came, familiar and unwanted, a silver-red line of agony in my hand, my arm, my head. After that, from the pain came the juice, the surge of magic that would show me the way, and that also tempted me, taunted me. Pain was the least of my worries when I cast a spell, because the black was always waiting, watching, hoping I’d fall in and never get back out. It scared the crap out of me, if I’m honest, because part of me wanted to fall in, into warm comfort and fearless wonder, to be free of everything, to care about nothing.
The face, I concentrated on the face. I’d been getting a fair bit of practice at find-spells just lately, cast more in the last week than I’d done in the previous decade, as my poor hand could attest, and I was getting better, honing it. A face wasn’t much to go on, but I could feel a pull, a tug on my arm. A raised voice echoing in my head, another against it, though I couldn’t tell if it was the guy I was after, not yet. Better than nothing though, so I followed the tug of my throbbing arm, the pulse of the juice and the knowledge in my head that this way was the way to go. My magic, at least this part of it, had rarely steered me wrong before – it was almost the only thing I could rely on.
The tug led me down a leprous gap between two vats, one I’d never have noticed on my own. I’d never have gone down there even if I had noticed, if not for the pull, because being sandwiched between two of the vats, sideways because my shoulders wouldn’t fit, gave me an extra special blast of stench. Probably a good job I’d not been able to find any food for breakfast. I held my breath and squeezed through.
The other side opened out into a dark and grimly dripping tunnel that perhaps had once been an alley before someone built over the top. That was the thing with Mahala: someone always built over the top – there wasn’t anywhere else to build, not any more. The tunnel wasn’t much wider than the gap between the vats, but at least the smell faded a touch as I went in. I kept my good hand on the butt of my pulse pistol, just in case.
The echoing voices became louder and I was thankful I’d not have to use any more magic for now, though the aching throb of my hand meant at least I’d have plenty of spare juice if I needed it. The tunnel wound on, a glow flickering along the damp walls. Not Glow, but the subtler light of a rendnut-oil lamp, last chance of the poorest of the poor – the smell of day-old farts and rotting fish mingled with the more pervasive smell from behind.
I was getting close, the tug told me. A last corner and the tunnel opened out, became a wide corridor, well lit by stinking lamps and with walls that looked like patches of damp held together by mould. A series of doorways lined with ragged drapes opened off the right-hand side.
Stenchers lived whole lives down here, rarely ventured anywhere outside their little domain. The voices became clearer – a man and a woman arguing violently, though their words were still indecipherable. I didn’t need to know what they were saying to get the gist though. Things seemed to be at the “Bitch!”, “Bastard!”, “My mother always said—”, “Your mother is a—” phase, and I hesitated to intervene. Caught in domestic crossfire is never a good place to be, because like as not they’ll both turn on you. I have the scars to prove it.
My hesitation – all right, craven sense of self-preservation – flew out of the window at the unmistakable sound of an open hand cracking against a cheek. The woman screamed like hell had just opened up a portal at her feet and Namrat had leapt out and started eating her face. I had my pulse pistol out and was round the corner of the doorway before the scream had a chance to die away. I may be self-serving, and I may try to avoid responsibility at all costs, will do almost anything to outrun it, but I have this other little failing, one that annoys Erlat no end.
I was round the corner in a heartbeat, pulse pistol out and ready to zap the guy in the head, short-circuit his brain with a concentrated blast of magic. He might be a mage, might be the guy I was after, but even so—
I didn’t get any further than that thought before he slammed into me, knocking us both out into the corridor and up against the wall in a tangle of limbs and knocked heads. I landed on my bad hand, naturally, and bit back a scream. Bit back too the surge of juice that rattled my brain and made me want to flail around with my magic. I didn’t quite hold on to all of it and it went wild. Without direction it did what it wanted to. A pair of rags serving as curtains in the doorway morphed into two rippling puddles of brown gloop on the floor before they grew stubby, gooey wings and half flew, half flopped off down the corridor. Oops.
When my head cleared a little, I realised that it hadn’t been the guy attacking me as I’d thought. He’d been thrown against the wall, had hit me instead, and now lay dazed and confused on the floor.
In the room opposite us, clearly visible because some idiot had rearranged her curtains, a woman stood in utter outrage, fists clenched, eyes hot, a curving, satisfied smile on her lips. It might seem odd that the first thing I noticed about her wasn’t that she was flying, or rather hovering a foot above the floor. Given that it’s me we’re talking about here, the first thing I noticed was that the shapeless rag of a tunic she wore couldn’t hide the fact she had a stupendous figure, all round and curvy in the best places, and some of those places were heaving in a very distracting manner. Noticing the hovering only came quite far after that, and smacked me in the head with the thought. It wasn’t the guy with the thin face, crumpled at the bottom of the wall, that I was looking for.
He wasn’t the mage.
She glared at me, one side of her face red with a handprint, her head held high and her chin almost regal in the way it lifted, as though she was goading me. Try it, go on, I dare you, that look said. You try it and I’ll slam you too. Just you see if I don’t.
I lived for this kind of challenge – that is, ones involving women.
I got slowly to my feet, trying my best to look as non-threatening as possible. It was hard when, even with her hovering, I was still a touch taller. I was also substantially broader across the shoulders and dressed in a black allover that purposely mimicked the uniforms of the deadly Ministry Specials. It’s helpful in putting the fear of the Goddess into my more usual clients – runaways, men with a bounty on their heads, small-timers for the most part, nothing too dangerous because I liked my face where it was. Tracking down possible mages was a new sideline, and I wasn’t even getting paid for it.
It was pretty hard not to stare at all the heaving, but I made a valiant effort to roll my tongue back in.
She tensed, ready to let something else go I was sure, maybe slam me into the wall next to the other guy, so I turned on the old Rojan never-fails smile. I’d sworn off women and had been doing well for at least two, almost three days – a new personal record of which I was quite proud – but I was bound to fall off the wagon at some point. If that point made it easier to stay alive, well, that’s always a bonus.
The smile didn’t fail me now because the tension in her shoulders relaxed, just a touch.
“So, I’m a mage,” she said, defiance in every drip of a vowel. “What you going to do about it? Turn me in for the reward?”
I shoved the pulse pistol back in my pocket, though I kept my hand on it just in case, and racked up the smile another notch. Screw it, I was sworn off women, but never turn an opportunity down, right? Besides, the way she held herself, the waft of her as she hung in the air . . .
My other little failing is that I’m a sucker for women. All of them. Tall, short, big, small, pretty or plain, it’s not any of those things that are my undoing. But I can’t resist a show of grace in movement, the way they hold themselves. Gets me every time. It doesn’t usually last long, granted, because resisting temptation isn’t a strong point of mine. Also, once I have what I want, I have the attention span of a small beetle and I’m really world-class at screwing things up, but by the Goddess’s tits it still gets me.
Besides, if she was a mage, we needed her, especially as she seemed to have a handle on it, unlike most of our other recruits. So I wasn’t being entirely selfish when I said, “I was wondering if you were free for lunch?”