The Last City: The Demon War Chronicles 1
Aquais, Scorpia City
The last living city
Uneasy forms, made faceless by shadows and nameless by circumstance, drifted through the infinite blackness of Scorpia’s underside to Mortimer Road Marketplace, where clusters of dim street lamps lifted the dark to gloom. Silho pushed through the crowds, moving as fast as she could without running, alert to the danger of showing fear in Moris-Isles. She eyed the people around her, but at this hour they were mainly refugees, keeping their heads down and mouths shut, hoping, as she was, to blend with the walls and vanish.
A tremor shook the ground beneath her boots and she stumbled back as a clutch of hefty Tangelan Burrowers, subterraneans from the fallen city Mayhem, broke out through the concrete footpath with giant razor-clawed hands. They went to gather with others of their kind, passing time by betting on gutter-rat races and visiting the communities of shabby prostitute tents. The women for sale loitered around their territories, sizing up passers-by with eyes intent on picking flesh. The winding whistle of a gypsy busker’s flute drowned the sounds of unsavoury purchase. The spiralling tunes sent an enchanted stick puppet jigging in circles around market stalls where rainbow-skinned Ohini Fen morphed inanimate junk into useable wares. The Fen auctioned each piece, haggling with irascible, giant-fanged Twitchbaks, snarl-barking in the language of the sabre-breeds.
The musky scents of magics lingered everywhere. Silho checked the crowds for reptilian-faced palace enforcers but saw no red uniforms. In the years since the last purge of dark magics observation of the city’s lower levels had become lax, and the fear had faded enough for many people with natural skills to start using them again in public. Yet some still kept to the shadows.
Silho clenched her gloved hands to stop their trembling. A group of pale Androts, machine-breeds born, not made like their lesser robot relatives, brushed past her. Their black barcodes stood out bold on their necks. Silho watched them vanish into the marketplace, intent on doing their masters’ bidding and getting out before darkfall. She drew a shaky breath and forced herself to follow, navigating through the maze of stalls and barrage of sellers and beggars, finally breaking out on the other side, on the corner of Whitter Avenue, where a set of stairs disappeared into the black depth of a basement living block.
Pausing on the top step Silho re-checked the paper marked with her scrawled handwriting – 8 Whitter Ave – 6 dead. Sweat crawled over her skin and she felt eyes on her back. She glanced behind her, but saw only shuttered windows and barred doors. Her boots slid off the first step to the second and then the third onwards until, halfway down, a putrescent stink, unmistakably of death, knocked her back. Swallowing down her fear Silho kept going until she arrived at a corridor drowned in utter darkness. Eyes that gleamed with a nocturnal sheen turned her way and a growling voice spoke in the shared language of Urigin. ‘Go back! This is a state crime scene.’
‘I’m an Investigator.’ Silho fumbled with her ID and dropped it on the ground. She bent to pick it up, and when she straightened the eyes were right in front of her, the heat of the guardian’s breath hot on her cheek.
She held up the folder and the man gave a grunt of surprise. ‘Oscuri Tracker . . . I haven’t seen you before.’
‘This is my first day,’ Silho admitted.
‘Ill-starred,’ he growled. ‘Follow me.’
The eyes vanished as the guardian turned away from her. Silho blinked into light-form vision and saw the man’s body-lights, weakest at the back of his neck, retreating down the corridor. She hurried after him until a glowing sliver appeared up ahead. She blinked back to normal sights. Her guide, a human-breed with the bloodline marks of bear and wolf curling up his arms, stood in front of a partially open door. He nodded and Silho slipped into the room.
A single pale globe, hanging from the ceiling, cast shadow-riddled light over a chaos of objects and flesh. The concrete walls told a horror story in splotches and streaks of blood dried black, a handprint here, a claw mark further up, drag lines and red stains saturating the ground where six corpses lay in varying states of mutilation. Silho noticed the person-sized cage in the shadows of one corner and a chill prickled her skin. A hologramographer stood beside the door capturing images of the scene, and clusters of investigators in grey uniforms took notes and murmured among themselves. Two Oscuri Trackers, with weapon belts like Silho’s around their waists, stood over the bodies in the centre of the room. One tracker was an Ohini Fen with golden star bloodline marks, and the other a silver-skinned Ar Antarian, wearing night-vision glasses. His arms and legs up to the elbow and knee were mixed-metal prosthetics and an arachnid-shaped robot perched on his shoulder.
The Fen spoke with a musical Ohini accent. ‘Cadavers are at a similar stage of bloating and putrefaction, but the infestation differs. The two in the centre haven’t been touched, whereas the others are crawling. It doesn’t make sense.’
‘And look at the way the stomach wounds of these two seem almost cauterised,’ the Ar Antarian pointed out, ‘as though the skin was burned to seal the haemorrhaging. With injuries like this, why would anyone bother?’
He looked upwards and Silho followed his line of sight to someone crouching upside down on the roof examining a blood-spatter pattern. After a moment, the man twisted around and dropped down. Silho stared, recognising him from holograms as the notorious Commander Copernicus Kane, a tall human-breed of viperous blood heritage, his eyes midnight black and deeply disturbed, scars marking his face in flowing lines of symmetry and shape like a life story written in his skin. He turned towards Silho and she froze, drawn into the darkness of his stare. After hearing other female soldiers talk about him and seeing his pictures for herself, she was aware her new boss was attractive, but she was completely unprepared for the surge of feelings that rushed through her at the sight of him. She’d never felt anything like it and couldn’t look away. Their eyes stayed locked until Silho finally realised that he was actually waiting for her to identify herself. With embarrassment burning her face, she hurried forward and held up her ID, but his eyes didn’t shift from her face.
‘I’m —’ she began.
‘Barely out of military school,’ the commander said. His voice gave away no thought or emotion, but his eyes said everything. He stepped past her and crouched down beside one of the corpses.
A sickness spiralled from Silho’s stomach to her knees, leaving them weak. The Academy Placement Officer had explained to her that Commander Kane had not requested any new recruits. He never did. He had only ever selected his own people from the highly experienced and elite. However, due to the growing number of unsolved homicides and abductions, the United Regiment had assigned her without his consent to the Oscuri Trackers, a special operations unit with the primary purpose of hunting the most dangerous serial killers. She hadn’t expected a friendly welcome, given her inexperience and age. At twenty-one she was the youngest of the trackers by several years cycles and younger than the commander by almost ten; still, she felt his animosity like a punch. Silho blinked stinging eyes and tried to focus on the other two trackers standing in front of her. The Ar Antarian shifted uncomfortably and cleared his throat, and she realised she was still holding up her ID. Sinking into humiliation, she lowered it.
The Ohini Fen smirked, contempt in her eyes. She pushed a bag of empty capped test tubes into Silho’s hands and said, ‘We need fluid samples – bagged, tagged and in your possession until we get back to Headquarters. Think you can handle it?’
‘Let’s hope so.’ The Fen shoved past her and began to speak with the hologramographer.
Silho immediately searched her weapon belt for any type of swab or scraping tool, but found nothing. Her face heated until she felt it would burn through her skin. ‘I didn’t know trackers took samples. I didn’t bring any instruments,’ she tried to explain to the Ar Antarian, who stood watching her from behind his night-vision glasses. The grey tint disguised the colour of his eyes.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, an educated, upper-level accent edging his softly spoken words. He took a scalpel from his belt and handed it to her. ‘You’re right, we’re not supposed to collect evidence, but . . .’ he glanced over at the commander, engaged in a controlled argument with one of the forensic specialists, ‘the commander likes to run his own tests. He has his own way of doing things – everything – as you’ve no doubt heard.’
‘Yes,’ Silho said. The commander was a man with a million rumours chasing his name.
‘You’re Silho, right?’ the Ar Antarian asked. ‘I’m Jude. The Fen is Diega and this is SevenM.’ He pointed to the arachnid robot on his shoulder. Red lights gleamed behind its many mirrored eyes. ‘It’s good to have you on board. Let us know if you need a hand.’ He gave her a quick smile and walked across the room to join the commander.
Silho moved from one corpse to another taking samples and silently noting the condition of the bodies. Four were marked with signs of torture, hands bound behind their backs, with ropes cutting into the flesh. The other two in the centre were completely hollowed out, their insides missing. After collecting the final sample, Silho crouched in one corner, pretending to be organising the vials while trying to clear her mind and slow her heartbeat. During childhood and military training she had seen many dead bodies, but none so gruesome. She could almost hear the echo of their screams.
A powerful craving to touch the closest wall hit unexpectedly and threatened to overwhelm her. She closed her eyes and tried to fight it. This shouldn’t be happening – she’d taken her medication that morning. But it was happening, and she was helpless to stop it. Silho watched on, detached, as she flipped back the cap of one of her gloves and pressed a finger to the wall. Instantly, she felt a sensation of slipping underwater.
Through a mind not quite asleep, yet not awake, pictures, memories, flirted with focus, clear/unclear, teasing the senses. In this disquieting state of lukewarm awareness, the walls, darkened with shifting dusk-light shadows, became blending shapes, indistinct, unstable. They stirred, whispered, hesitant to show the secrets they stored behind thin paper faces. An image came clear. A concrete room, four people tied to chairs, two standing over them, the scream of the word ‘Morsmalus’. Time flickered into explosions of red and objects whirring around the room. Six lay dead and two gruesome creatures with sunken, baleful eyes fled the room, leaving a tall spectral-breed standing alone with blood on her hands. The grey figure staggered and fell to her knees, her hand coming down on something. She picked up the object and looked at it under the light – a ring. The sound of voices startled her and she dropped it. The golden band rolled into a fissure in the wall and the spectral contorted her body to vanish into the floor.
Silho resurfaced from the trance and felt immediately ill. She stared at the wall in front of her, terrified to turn around. She was sure everyone would have seen what she just did, that they’d be watching her, condemning her as unnatural.Bracing herself, she glanced over her shoulder. All the investigators were busy with their own work and Copernicus Kane and the two trackers stood on the other side of the room with their backs to her. Her eyes shifted from them to the place where the ring had rolled into the wall. Silho stood, leaving the bag of vials on the ground, and made a casual path towards it. Once there she crouched down and used the scalpel Jude had given her to drag out the band. It was a man’s ring inscribed with a horned Galley rhinoceros – the family crest of Christy Shawe, the human-breed King of the Gangland.
A shadow fell over her and Silho looked up into the commander’s face. His eyes were fixated on the ring. Before she could say anything he took it from her and examined it. Jude and Diega, standing beside him, exchanged a glance.
‘Where did you find this?’ the commander demanded, turning the metal band over in his hands.
‘In the wall,’ Silho responded, her voice barely a whisper.
‘How did you know it was there?’ Copernicus’ stare lifted from the object and locked onto Silho’s eyes.
She searched for something to say, but her thoughts stalled and blanked out. If the rumours were true, he always knew when someone was lying.
‘Caught the light, maybe?’ Jude suggested. The Ar Antarian checked his chronograph and said, ‘Almost darkfall in the upper levels . . .’
‘Shawe will be at the breakwall,’ Diega finished for him. The massive wall dividing the gangland from the rest of the city was a known hangout of the gangster king.
Copernicus slipped the ring into his pocket and moved with silent, seamless steps to the door. The other trackers hurried to follow. They grabbed up their equipment and left the room without a backward glance. Silho headed after them, but paused in the doorway to follow her training and take a final overall look at the scene. Before she could, a face with haunted grey eyes pressed out of the far wall – the spectral-breed from her vision. The second it appeared, it vanished. Silho stared, her nerves buzzing.
‘See something?’ a voice spoke beside her ear. She looked up into the yellow eyes of the hologramographer. After a moment, she shook her head. ‘No, nothing.’
Silho backed out and hurried through the corridor, past the gleaming gaze of the guardian and up the stairs. She came out onto the street as Diega took a silver coin from her pocket and threw it upwards. The Fen called the word xpel and the coin morphed, stretching wider and wider, shaping into an open-topped transflyer – the Ory-4. Diega climbed into the pilot’s seat, the commander beside her and Jude in the back. Silho slipped in with the Ar Antarian, noticing the engine bay at the rear of the craft was empty. Jude saw her expression and a faint smile touched his lips. He nodded to Diega and said wryly, ‘She’s an electrosmith of rare and frightening talent. Better strap yourself in.’
During training, Silho had learnt about the exceptionally skilled individuals that could channel power from the planet’s magnetic field through receptors in their hair and use it to animate anything electrical, but she’d never actually met one.
Using only this skill to control the craft, Diega tilted the flyer almost vertical and hurtled them upwards at an impossible speed.
The Matadori Desert was a graveyard, a place of silenced screams and unburied dead consumed by the carnivorous suns. Only the insane or outcast kept company with the corpses; all others fled the predatory shadows and the slimy sweat of their own fear. For Ev’r Keets, the Matadori was her homecoming. Here she was born, here she would die. In walking her life-path, she had ended up in the same place where she had begun and now could only conclude that she had been lost all along. Yet this was no surprise. She had learnt long ago that control was nothing but fool’s gold, life nothing but a blink away from death.
Sand-spiked wind dragged at her cloak, stinging her skin. Her eyes wept and the desert howled, a soulless, wild keening, begging her to stop, begging her to listen. Ev’r fought against it, leaning into the fury until she finally smashed through to the quiet eye of the storm. Here she knelt and slid the rucksack off her back, but left it fastened. She didn’t need her equipment to know that she had arrived – returned, though she had once sworn never to set foot in this place again. The light of day had begun to grey as the darkness started to rise. A stirring in the distance warned that the desert freaks had picked up her scent – warm flesh for the eating.
‘Not tonight,’ she murmured.
Ev’r slid her machete from its sheath – the black blade by the name of Morsus Ictus. Though it was forged an eternity ago, the handle fit her hand perfectly, as though made just for her. Ev’r ran her fingertips along the metal, over familiar notches and etchings. The weapon hummed, alive to her touch. How long would it be before she had to turn the blade on herself? Was it too much to hope for to just lie down in the midnight desert and die while she slept? Perhaps so. She wanted to live too much to go quietly.
Ev’r reached into her pocket and dragged out the vial of green antidote – liquid time machine. For a while, the shaman-made medicine had been worth its immense cost and turned back her body’s changes, but now, just like all the others before it, its potency was fading. The slight relief it gave her from her affliction no longer justified enduring its side effects. There was no cure for a Ravien bite, and this antidote was the absolute last type of restorative potion produced by any physician or shaman in Aquais. It was only a matter of time now before the changes took over. It was this knowledge that had driven her here, to the edge of desperation, throwing off her fear like unwanted baggage in a final attempt to survive, though she knew that there was no hope. She was the walking dead.
Ev’r clenched the vial in one hand, toying with the idea of hurling it into the desert. Just one day without vomiting, without itching and blistering, without earth-shivering dizziness and sweating rivers. Just one day, before the final day. The decision tore her one way and then the other, to the point where her hand raised, ready to throw, but then it dropped. She couldn’t bring herself to give it up. Instead she tipped the antidote down her throat. Instantly she coughed and gagged. Burning pins and needles spread out from her stomach and a tidal wave of sickness broke over her, making her collapse to one side and vomit until there was nothing left inside her. Ev’r rolled onto her back and the earth rocked around her like a storm-struck ship. Grabbing handfuls of cooling sand, she let the grains slip gradually between her fingers until the sickness lessened and she could sit up.
Ev’r dragged her bag in front of her and unzipped it, laying flat the tools of her trade – electrifier, blades, nuclear grenade, light-blaster, hackaxe, rope – all equally useless against the magics she’d have to confront beneath the sand. A strangled, disbelieving laugh escaped her, and for a moment her courage faltered in a way it hadn’t since she was a child, lost and alone in this desolation: an outcast, torn apart by desert freaks. That day, the devil had been her saviour.
The Mocking Witch of O’Tenery Asylum had taken her in, along with the other throwaways, runaways and screeching crazies. She saw herself in her mind, walking silent as a shadow through the asylum building, the labyrinth of rooms haunted and lurking in a permanent state of semi-darkness. Low ceilings pressed lower and constricting walls crept closer until she felt as though she was sliding on her belly, suffocating in the rancid air of rotting waste and a thousand unwashed bodies. Eyes peered at her from behind rusted bars that were now no more than grisly reminders. Scorpia’s government, the Standard, had long since abandoned the derelict building and its broken wards. Now only their minds kept them prisoner, and Ev’r knew the truth better than anyone: there was no escaping yourself, no matter how far or fast you ran.
As she walked through the building, she passed many rooms and places where the Mocking Witch had shown her terrors that had aged her mind ten years for every day, and taught her with a cruel sort of kindness to live a life in opposition to domination, caged in body but never in mind. She’d taught her to fly. It was the second biggest mistake the witch ever made. Ev’r’s mind dragged her through the hallways of her memories to the great black stone door engraved with the runes of Ignatius, translating to ‘Thou Shalt Not Enter’. It was the witch’s quarters. Shadows shuffled beneath the door. Ev’r’s thoughts ventured towards them, then scurried back in terror at what they saw.
Ev’r jolted into the present. She was so distant from that girl of the past that she barely recognised her or her pain and fear. That person, that child, was dead. She had died in a cave in the Lava Diavol Mountains, leaving just a stone other, with a heart too hard to break. Ev’r gathered up her weapons and stowed them in her bag, all except her electrifier and the Morsus Ictus, which she slid into sheaths at her hip. Drops of acid rain sizzled into her skin, but she ignored the ravenous downpour, shutting her eyes and preparing her mind to sink into the Murk, the grey drift behind the mask of reality. Here, in the birthplace of magics, time, space and distance held no power and physics and chemistry were forgotten. Ev’r pulled her scarf up over her nose, her night-vision glasses down over her face and hauled her bag onto her shoulders. She released one long breath with whispered words embedded in the rise and fall of the life-air. Then she was slipping backward, falling in slow motion, but she didn’t fight it. The darkness around her greyed and the land and sky lost their definition, distorting and bending, blending together. Her body became a flowing mist; once the sensations stopped she prepared herself to travel down deep into the sand, where the asylum now lay buried – some would say buried alive.
Before she could begin sinking through the sand, a sound echoed out into the Murk, a word that froze her limbs and stopped her heart. Ev’r sucked in a breath and held it, waiting. Couldn’t be – surely not. The word sounded again and Ev’r bit her lip. Instead of travelling down, she flew out, moving through the Murk towards the sound. She glided across the Matadori Desert with incredible speed, shrinking distance in her stride, until movement ahead halted her flow. Forms shifted the greyness ahead of her. It wasn’t unusual for others with learnt skill to use the Murk, but the shapes Ev’r saw, drifting in and out of focus, made her body tremble with a primal terror that she couldn’t hold back. What she saw was impossible, but undeniable.
They had risen.
A face with terrible, sunken eyes blurred by the mist turned her way. A mouth opened and she smelt a burning stench. Gasping, Ev’r pushed away with all her strength, hurtling backward through the Murk, just barely avoiding the death-curse that was thrown at her by the creature. She tumbled out of control and heard herself shouting the words of release. They catapulted her into reality and she skimmed along the ground like a skipping stone before smashing against something solid that brought her to a dead stop. She struggled to breathe, her dazed mind spinning madly. After a moment’s recovery, panic pushed her to move. With her stomach churning, Ev’r dragged herself to her feet.
A voice called out of the darkness in front of her, ‘United Regiment – identify yourself.’
Ev’r’s head snapped up and she saw the form of a soldier. She grabbed for her electrifier holstered at her side, but before her fingers found the weapon, the soldier drew his stunner and fired. Ev’r had a second to marvel at the speed of his hands, a moment to feel the sting of rage and horror at capture – and then she was thrown backwards into darkness.
Copernicus Kane stood at the top of the Greenway breakwall, the immense structure of fortified stone that quartered off the gangland from the rest of Scorpia. Gangster-built over generations, it crept upwards from the age-blackened rock of its first foundations to the newest-laid bricks that were red and fresh and reached all the way through 512 of the 997 living levels of Scorpia. In real terms, the gangster nation laid claim to a very small part of the city, yet their push to expand outwards and upwards was relentless and bloody.
Copernicus crossed the viewing platform built above the breakwall. He looked out, following the line of the wall as it intersected the 512th level, Ayar, and continued on and down as far as he could see. The levels of the city had been constructed to step out from each other like a mammoth staircase, all the way down to Rim, where the sunlit levels ended and the perennial darkness of the subterranean levels began. In the underside, it was disturbingly easy to forget the existence of the suns, but here in the upper levels, Copernicus could feel the memory of the day’s heat radiating from the rock wall below. In the open sky above, the last of the sunset’s peach-and-wine red was fading to darkness, turning the towering structures of the upper levels into a galaxy of lights, glittering like neon stars. At this time of year, known as noctus-renium, the hours of night doubled those of day, and the nocturnal breeds celebrated with extended festivals. Copernicus breathed in, sensing the people moving in the streets around them. He memorised the identity of each by the vibration of their footfalls, their body-heat signature, the shape of their thoughts. He widened the scope of his mind outwards to the crafts and smaller domestic transflyers speeding everywhere, across, over, up and down the buildings in buzzing lines of light. Public transporters circled the perimeter of the city, bypassing the outer-Rim towns full of Blue-Ten addicts, scullion-gypsy outlaws and masses of renegade Androts, rejects from an already outcast race. Where the last wasteland shanty ended, the Matadori Desert began. Copernicus watched the darkness spreading across this dead land, where the suns did not fall, the night rose and smothered them – starless, freezing and silent, but for the lunatic howls of the cannibal masses and slither of Skithers swimming through the sand. Beyond the Matadori, the Boundary Wall separated civilisation from the unknown Brine, a place of damaged evolution, where logic was meaningless and hope absurd. Of those who had ventured beyond the boundary, none had ever returned. This night, a fury of storm clouds lurked behind the night darkness, and the air bit with the chemical tinge of acid rain – and with something deeply wrong.
Copernicus turned the ring from the crime scene over in his pocket, his thoughts crowded by dead faces. In the past few months the city had seen an overwhelming increase of unexplainable murders and vanishings, bringing disorganisation and unpredictability to a world he usually found highly predictable. Christy Shawe had been his prime suspect, but this was the first and only piece of evidence linking the so-called King of the Gangland to the crimes. This ring had belonged to Christy’s father, Hamish ‘Ironfist’ Shawe, and been passed down to Christy when he died. Knowing Shawe the way he did, Copernicus understood that surprise confrontation was the best chance of getting the gangster to slip up. So now they had to wait.
The commander straightened his back, more scar than skin, and glanced at the new recruit Headquarters had sent him. Silho Brabel stood motionless, facing the darkness, looking upon it without expression, though her eyes held the searching, injured stare of a person who has seen horrors young.
From some angles she appeared familiar to him, though he couldn’t place why. An intricate pattern spread across half her neck and chest. To Copernicus it was strangely incomplete, as though someone had started to paint a thousand tiny pictures on her skin and stopped suddenly, leaving her forever unfinished. Bandages wrapped around her arms, concealing her bloodline marks and genetic heritage. This kind of concealment was not uncommon for military personnel in dangerous positions wanting to maintain some level of anonymity.
According to Silho’s military file, her parents, now deceased, had been human-breeds of mixed descent, part-Ivory Condor, part-Nightcat. Both had been middle-class, with normative academic and social achievements and no criminal records. Yet something about Brabel denied such an average background. In her military exams, she had scored far higher than any other new recruit he’d ever heard of, even smashing Jude’s records. Brilliance in training, however, did not always equate to brilliance in the field. Other factors always came into play, such as personality. This was why Copernicus had always only selected his own soldiers. Brabel’s nervousness and social ill-ease had hindered her significantly at the crime scene, and cast doubt on the actual depth of her knowledge and skills. It troubled him that Silho may not be psychologically ready for this level of work, but it troubled him even more that his actual sense of her from her body-heat and thought patterns had been extremely mixed. He found most people straightforward to read, but she was a maze of complex lines and conflicting flares. This suggested deception, though not necessarily criminal, perhaps just personal. In any case it was abundantly clear to him that Silho was uncommon, an unknown island in a sea of sameness, her surface just a suggestion of what lay hidden underneath. And he intended to find out whatever she was hiding.
‘He’s coming.’ Jude’s voice broke into Copernicus’ thoughts.
‘How close?’ the commander asked.
Jude blinked, seeing through the eyes of his arachnid robot, SevenM, whom he had sent out to search for Shawe.
‘Two flights down and climbing, with a company of three.’
As expected, Shawe and his companions were using the steps, carved in the gangland side of the breakwall, to access the platform.
‘Let them come up all the way, then put them down. I’ll deal with Shawe,’ Copernicus instructed Diega and Jude, then looked at Silho. ‘You just stand back there and observe.’ He indicated a building behind the platform. She nodded and backed up.
‘One flight and they’re here,’ Jude said. He and Diega moved to separate spots out of sight of the top of the steps. Copernicus sank back into the shadows.
Slurred voices, heavy with the Greenway accent, grew louder, until Christy Shawe appeared at the top of the wall. The musclebound fighter stomped across the platform to survey his kingdom as he always did at nightfall. No traces of anxiety or uncertainty pinched Shawe’s scarred face, dominated by a large, repeatedly broken nose. His knuckles were white and thick with scars, and his red hair shaved down to skin too tough for blades to pierce. Shawe was a walking armoured tank. A stink emitted from the gangster that Copernicus could only describe as pub stench – unwashed armpits and old alcohol.
As Shawe’s companions moved to follow their boss, Jude and Diega leapt out, threw them down and drew weapons on them. Copernicus lashed out with viperous stealth and grabbed Shawe’s arm, twisting it behind his back. The gangster yelled and bucked with enormous strength. They struggled for a moment before Copernicus slammed him into the wall close to where Silho stood. Instead of leaping aside, she got in the way. Shawe threw a punch with his free arm and clipped the side of her head, knocking her to the ground. He shook off Copernicus and spun around with his fists up – to stare down the barrel of Copernicus’ electrifier.
Shawe lowered his hands and cursed. ‘What the trutt do you want, you podsucking gadfly?’
Copernicus replied with quiet control, ‘Just a word.’
‘Didn’t know the carnival was in town,’ one of Shawe’s men sneered. Diega booted him in the gut and he doubled over, cursing her.
‘A word about what?’ Shawe spat, red-faced and staggering drunk.
Taking the ring out of his pocket Copernicus held it up in front of Shawe’s eyes. To his disappointment, he didn’t see the realisation and guilt he was hoping to find in the gangster’s expression, just confusion.
‘Where did you get that?’ Shawe asked, a sober change in his tone.
‘Crime scene in Moris-Isles. Six tortured and killed. Two of them gangsters from Kelly’s Crew – rivals of yours.’
‘They’re rivals alright,’ Shawe admitted, ‘but I haven’t set foot in that hole in five year-cycles at least. Why would I?’
‘If you weren’t involved, then how did this get there?’ Copernicus turned the ring over in his hand.
Shawe said nothing. The commander realised it was because he didn’t know, and that the gangster was feeling something else, something foreign to him that he hated – worry.
Copernicus pushed the ring back into his pocket and Shawe’s eyes darted up to his.
‘Give that here,’ he demanded and held out his hand. He was wearing, on his middle finger, an identical ring to the one they had found.
‘This is evidence,’ Copernicus said, hiding his confusion. During his time in the gangs, he had only ever seen one ring of this type in Ironfist Shawe’s possession. He’d believed it was unique, but obviously not. He gestured with his electrifier. ‘Get lost – for now.’
Shawe stared at him, lips snarling. He stepped forward and purposely pressed the tip of the electrifier into his own chest. He spoke so only Copernicus could hear. ‘I was the one who broke you out of your grave and I’m going to be the one who puts you back under – I swear it.’
The threat, well worn over the years, barely caused a ripple in Copernicus’ flowing stream of thought. If Shawe had his ring then whose was this one? He gestured to his trackers to release Shawe’s men. They immediately started to retaliate, but the gangster king barked, ‘Leave it!’ He spat at Copernicus’ feet then hurried back to the steps with a speed that suggested an agenda, his men close behind.
The shadows shifted and Jude’s robot, SevenM, scurried out from its hiding place and up the soldier’s body to perch on his shoulder. Copernicus disarmed his electrifier and pushed it back into its holster. He walked with the others to where Silho was sitting holding her head.
‘A piece of advice,’ Diega snapped at the new recruit. ‘Next time someone tries to hit you – move.’
‘He wasn’t trying to hit me.’ Silho spoke with restraint, but Copernicus could see the angry flares of her body-heat. ‘He was trying to hit Commander Kane.’
‘And you thought you could – what? – save him?’ Diega sneered.
‘I thought I could assist my commanding officer.’
Diega gave a nasty laugh, ‘Well done.’
‘Go easy. It’s her first day.’ Jude intervened in the escalating dispute. He offered Silho his hand and helped her stand. She swayed unsteadily on her feet and almost fell. Red blood trickled down the side of her face.
‘I don’t believe this!’ Diega snarled. ‘Look at her! She can’t even follow the simplest instructions and now she can hardly stand. She’s a liability.’
‘Are you fit for duty?’ Copernicus asked her, interested if she would tell him the truth.
She nodded and he saw the lie, though it was well hidden.
‘She’s fine,’ Jude said. ‘I’ll patch her up. She’ll be okay.’
Diega gave him a bad look and Copernicus sensed her body-heat flare with jealousy. Frustration twisted inside him. A fractured team was the last thing he needed right now.
His communicator buzzed and he lifted it from his belt and read the message from Headquarters: Big news, big catch, first name starts with E, second name starts with K. No kidding – Eli.
The commander re-read the message and a rare smile touched his lips.
An intoxicating blend of noir crime, science fiction and fantasy, The Last City is Blade Runner meets Perdido Street Station.
Scorpia – the last city of Aquais – where the Ar Antarians rule, the machine-breeds serve and in between a multitude of races and species eke out an existence somewhere between the ever-blazing city lights and the endless darkness of the underside.
As a spate of murders and abductions grip the city, new recruit Silho Brabel is sent to the Oscuri Trackers, an elite military squad commanded by the notorious Copernicus Kane. But Silho has a terrible secret and must fight to hide her strange abilities and monstrous heritage.
As the team delve deeper into Scorpia’s underworld, they discover a nightmare truth.
Hunted by demons, the Trackers must band together with a condemned fugitive, a rogue wraith and a gangster king and stake their lives against an all-powerful enemy to try to save one another and their world.
The Last City is the first book in The Demon War Chronicles. The second book, The Forgotten City is available for pre-order now.
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Nina D’Aleo wrote her first book at age seven (a fantasy adventure about a girl named Tina and her flying horse). Due to most of the book being written with a feather dipped in water, no one else has ever read “Tina and White Beauty.” Many more dream worlds and illegible books followed. Nina blames early exposure to Middle-earth and Narnia for her general inability to stick to reality. She also blames her parents. And her brother. Nina has completed …