Authors: Nina D'Aleo
The battle is over. The war begins.
Scorpia City enters a new era. The Androts have fallen and the gangsters rule.
The trackers stand scarred but together, unaware that a new threat stalks them from the shadows of a dying world. A nightmare from Silho’s past returns to claim her, driven by an evil more formidable than anything the team has faced before. The Indemeus X has risen.
As the team is ripped apart, new alliances are forged, enemies unite and friendships fall apart. Diega and Shawe fight to survive a new and violent world, while Eli ventures into the darkest levels of the city, making a shocking discovery that will change everything.
Meanwhile in a forgotten place built on secrets and lies, a city spirals into madness, and hope emerges from the darkness.
For my boys
George, Josef and Daniel
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.
— TE Lawrence,
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
t was one of those moments John L had warned her about – when a person looks around, takes stock of life and realizes
there is something seriously wrong with me
. He’d called it an illumination moment – a flash of insight. Croy felt as though a fire-bomb had exploded in her face.
Her eyes traveled up from the vial of love potion she clutched in one hand, to the thick, red, grinning lips of the alleged witch standing before her, to the unidentifiable green gunk between the witch’s stained teeth, to a timeglass on the wall above her head. Croy’s focus zeroed in on the sands trickling through the glass, grain by grain. Curls of smoke drifted across her sight, trailing up from the incense crumbling to ash on the witch’s table. The musty smell itched her nose. It reminded her of dark places and dead faces – of everything she had forgotten on purpose. Croy’s vision blurred and she heard a whisper inside her head –
when did things go from bad to crazy?
“Mix it with a heavy cider and make sure he drinks it. Three dayturns after, that man of yours will leave her and come right back to you, mark me,” the witch said.
Right after I met him … right after I met Roth.
Croy struggled against herself, despair against reason, and with an effort hidden behind emotionless eyes, she placed the vial of liquid back on the witch’s desk.
The charlatan sensed the deal collapsing and her forced smile dropped into a flabby-jowled frown. She tried to cover it, aiming for a sweet tone, but tension clipped the edges of her words.
“Is there something wrong?”
“I’ve changed my mind,” Croy told her. “I don’t want it.”
“You don’t want your man to come back?”
“Correct,” Croy lied.
“Well then … you don’t have to take it, but the fee remains,” the witch said. “I mixed this extra-special elixir just for you.” She tapped her desk with one sharpened yellow fingernail.
“You mean this extra-special sewerage juice and spittle?” Croy baited her.
The woman regarded her through thinly narrowed eyes. She spoke, her voice now glacial.
“Some people say crossing a sorceress is very bad luck.”
“I’ve heard that,” Croy said, “but I’ve also heard that selling contraband to a Controller is fatal.” She pushed one hand into her jacket pocket, exposing the badge and Firestorm strapped to her belt.
The witch’s slit eyes stretched wide. She took an involuntary step back and, with a gulp, swallowed her words.
“Let’s call it even,” Croy said. “Agreed?”
The woman bobbed her head and retreated further. Croy gave the scammer and her junk-stew room a final look-over. She remembered John L saying that sometimes hitting rock bottom was the only thing that precipitated healing and change. She’d asked him how a person was supposed to know when they had reached this lowest low. He’d replied, “You’ll know it when you hit it.” He was right. He always had been – except for once. And then he was dead.
Croy turned away and walked to the entrance of the tent, the bandage straps around her scarred knee loosening then constricting with each step. She pulled her hood over her head and pushed out into the Strip, most notorious of the Seven Black Markets of Saint Smithy Borough, the arse-end of Nÿr-Corum, in more ways than one.
Sounds crashed over her – voices laughing, murmuring, talking, yelling, calling out deals – all to the bass-thud and twang-jangle of a Smithy Borough band playing somewhere in the background. Croy touched the I-Sect embedded inside her ear and muted all the noise except for the dull static fuzz of the signal pending between herself and the Tower. She scanned the overcrowded marketplace, a constantly changing mass of shapes and forms, flowing in and out and all around the stalls lining either side of the stretch. Here and there, a face, a feature, shot into focus as she recognized minor thugs and smugglers she’d busted at one time or another. They stood around the cider bars and eateries, striking deals over bubbling brew and spitting stew. Warm smells of baking bandy-bandy and overflat bread overwhelmed the more subtle and sinister scents she knew were drifting around the market.
Croy pushed a path into the crowd, her steel-tipped boots clunking on the grid walkway, one louder than the other as she limped forward. The knee had never fully recovered from a childhood injury. Everyone, except John L., had said it would leave her bedridden for life.
Shoulders pressed against her on all sides. Some barged her by accident, others on purpose. Croy shoved back and those she struck stumbled away. She glanced at the stalls as she passed. Legitimate objects lay on display, while the actual wares for sale were kept well out of sight, but not out of mind. Everyone knew why the Strip existed – for wheeling and dealing, peddling and pushing, everything and anything – shonky love potions included. Croy released a heavy sigh, self-loathing mingling unpleasantly with the sadness inside her. It felt as if her broken heart was stuck in her throat.
She passed a group of people huddled around a darkened stall that stank heavily of incense and piss-cheap perfume. One of the figures glanced up at her with the painted eyes and pierced nose of a swaygirl. She was too young. Most of them were. Croy looked away. She’d learned on the first few dayturns as a Controller that stopping criminals was not a simple matter of closing one operation and making arrests. There were always consequences, repercussions, sometimes worse than what was happening in the first place … and it was always the weak and innocent that suffered the most.
Croy reached the parking point packed full of draggers, drifters and roller-boards. She caught sight of a thug loitering around the entrance turn-circle. His body language was anticipatory – suspicious. She approached with caution, and as she neared, he stepped into her path. Croy raised her eyes along the length of his body. He was tall, musclebound and strapped with something mean enough to bulge the side of his jacket in a significant way – hard-core – all the way up to his hair – a pink tuft, which completely sabotaged his menacing presence. Croy stifled a smile.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“Five water tokens to release your dragger,” he said. He had a sweaty, red face, and missing front teeth.
“It’s a free parking point,” Croy said.
“Not anymore,” he replied and held out an expectant hand. Burned deeply into the center of the palm was the skull-and-flame brand of the Smithy Borough smuggler mob. Footsteps clattered behind them and Croy glanced over her shoulder. Two women stood blocking the way back to the market. One had shaggy white hair, short, much like her own; the other wore a spiked-do, high and purple. The sight of the purple stirred Croy’s nerves – any smuggler crazy enough to wear the upper-class color in public was too much crazy for her liking. Both women wore studded collars and were marked with the same smuggler mob brand as their big friend. The white-haired girl sneered and unfurled a clanking length of chain from one hand; the other opened her jacket and flashed a hybrid flamethrower.
Croy moved fast. She spun back around and grabbed the thug by his outstretched wrist. She gave a vicious tug backward and wrenched him off his feet. He yelled a curse as she flung him headlong into the two women. He knocked them sprawling onto the grid, but then he was back on his feet and charging Croy.
A bullet struck the ground between them, bringing him to a sudden halt. He gaped up in the direction of the shot. Croy’s partner, Darius DeCavisi, sat leaning forward on his hovering dragger, aiming his Predator 6 Klylock at the smuggler’s head.
Purple-spikes drew her flamethrower and screamed, “Drop it or I’ll blast her!”
“The Predator spits six rounds in a grain flat. By the time you squeeze the trigger, you and yours will be well and truly bloody, I promise you that,” Darius said, his voice uncompromising steel, his aim locked.
The white-haired girl caught on first and started to retreat. “He’s Control! So is she!”
“Don’t you dare run!” Purple-spikes screamed at her. “We can take them!”
“Are you crazy?” White-hair yelled back.
As she turned to flee, her mob-mate opened fire on her back, engulfing her clothes and skin in flames. She started shrieking, a terrible raw sound. The big thug gasped. He ran toward the burning woman, but instead of trying to put her out, he attacked Purple-spikes – ramming her so brutally that they both crashed into the guardrail and toppled over. Their screams traveled downward fast, cut off by a splatter-thud as they struck the grid below.
Darius fired a bullet into the burning girl’s head, silencing her suffering, while Croy moved to the side and stared over. The other two smugglers lay twisted on the walkway below. A group of onlookers had already gathered. Darius flew in and set his dragger down beside Croy. They exchanged a look; neither of them knew what the hell had just happened. They’d never witnessed a group of mob-mates turn on each other like that before. Smugglers were a bunch of treacherous, backstabbing criminals, but they always banded together when they faced the Corps – even the rival Boroughs would fight side-by-side against Controllers. Croy spotted a group of other Smithy Borough smugglers pushing through the crowd to get a look at the fallen. The smuggler in the lead recognized his dead mob-mates and shouted in dismay. The others rushed forward to see. Darius tapped his Predator on the guardrail to draw their attention and said, “There’s another one up here if you want what’s left of her.”
“Put out your names! Now!” the most senior of the smugglers yelled out in challenge.
“Controllers DeCavisi and Croy,” Darius obliged.
The crowd dispersed in an instant, everyone taking off as fast as they could move, with murmurs of
left hanging in their wake. The smugglers’ bodies vanished with them.
Croy glanced back at the smoking remains of White-hair. Sudden movement flashed in the corner of Croy’s sight, and she spun toward it. A shadow darted from the top of the rail beside them, straight up to the walkway above, and vanished. A strange feeling buzzed in Croy’s temples, and Darius grabbed at his head.
“You felt that too?” she asked him.
“Not felt –
– a whisper.”
Croy moved swiftly to her partner’s dragger and swung on behind him. She clutched his waist, feeling hard muscle and the outlines of the weapons he had strapped to his body. His jacket held the mingled scents of leather and tigaro smoke, and even though she didn’t smoke, and was repelled by the idea of skinning animals for clothing, it was the most comforting smell in the world.
“Take us up – over there.” Croy pointed to where the shadow had disappeared.
Darius revved the engine and the dragger shot toward the walkway above, where they scanned the crowd shuffling to and from Market Six. Everyone looked suspicious, but not out of the ordinary considering where they were.
“What was it?” Darius asked her.
“I don’t know,” Croy said, “Didn’t get a good look. Just saw a shadow.”
Darius swore, then said, “We have to go. We have a job.”
“I’ll call a Search then. Take me down to my dragger.” She tapped the I-Sect in her ear, and heard the rustle-zing of the Tower picking up her signal.
“Call connected,” an operator answered.
Darius dropped them face-down toward the parking point and Croy’s body jolted hard against his back.
“This is Croy. There’s been an incident,” she said. “Send a squad to extract the remains of two smugglers from the mob known as the Skullfires, and a Search to go through the markets. Tell them to look for a person with a device that emits a buzz or a whisper.” As she spoke the words she knew they were strange.
The operator did her best not to sound confused. “Recorded, Controller Croy.”
Croy tapped out her I-Sect as Darius pulled up above the parking point. Patting his shoulder, she slid off and dropped the short distance to her own dragger. It was significantly less flashy and worked-over than her partner’s vehicle, but it was faithful to its job of keeping her airborne. It lifted upward and she steered it parallel to Darius’ dragger. He had taken off his leather jacket and replaced it with his black uniform cloak. Croy followed his lead, identifying them as Controllers to anyone who glanced their way. She noticed her partner was giving her a look and said, “What?”
“What were you doing at the Strip?”
“I needed some medicine.”
“Women’s concerns,” she replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie.
Darius held up his hands in surrender. “No longer interested.”
He pulled back his dragger and took off, speeding straight upward. Croy watched him fly. John L had once described her partner as a bullet – fast and mean, with one hell of a kick. It was an accurate enough description. He did tend to come across as a hothead, difficult to read, and, at times, difficult to like – but what she saw when she looked at him was not just a partner, or a friend, but family. Despite their best efforts to reject each other when they were first assigned together, they’d bonded. Now they’d been a team for so long that Darius had developed an uncanny way of knowing exactly where she was at any given time. It made keeping secrets difficult – but not impossible.
Croy leaned low over her ride and it jetted forward. As she caught up with Darius, he increased his speed, weaving and winding through the maze of criss-crossing grid platforms and walkways of Nÿr-Corum. They reached the breach tunnel, which joined Saint Smithy with Saint Emmanuel Borough, one of the industry-only zones in the city. The fierce steam of the atmosphere here hit Croy like a wall and broke an instant sweat over her face. She blinked and slowed the dragger, her hands slipping on the handlebars. It was so hot, this close to the Mother Fire, that it was hard to catch a breath. Croy wiped her face and slowed again.
Darius sped ahead, weaving around the masses of towering chimneys billowing black smoke. Both his father and mother had been Grays. Emmanuel Borough was home to him. It was also the oldest part of the city, where history said Nÿr-Corum had first begun, when the Saints broke down from Hell into Kullra Fornax, a frozen mazeland of tunnels and never-ending darkness. The constantly expanding city still only took up a minute fraction of the potential space of the home-cavern the Saints had claimed for their own all those years past, yet it had felt to Croy, lately, as though the population was growing more rapidly than the structures that sustained it. Everywhere was overcrowded. People sat and stood shoulder to shoulder, face to face, inhaling each other’s exhaled air, sharing sweat and body odor, cramped and pressed and imprisoned by others all around them. Nÿr-Corum bulged to maximum capacity, uncomfortably over-pregnant, always only moments from bursting. Even though there was plenty of space for expansion, the iron-ore mines were all but depleted, and there was nowhere else in Kullra Fornax that humans could live. Anyone who left the city gates, known as the Saints’ Door, faced two impossible enemies – the freezing windstorms and the Dray, the shadow demons that had been haunting humans from the very beginning.