We at the Asylum are excited to host the cover reveal for Phil Parker‘s new standalone novel, City of Onix, along with Nick of Out of this World SFF Reviews and David of FanFiAddict. Today is also its release day so if you like what you see, then go and grab a copy for only 0.99c/0.99p!
Phil Parker is an avid reader of speculative fiction and self-published author. He was a judge in SPFBO5 and a founding member of the British & Irish Writing Community. He enjoys sharing his love of this huge genre with others. Nearly as much as he loves eating pizza and holidaying in Italy. He currently has six novels available to purchase on Amazon, including The Knights’ Protocol trilogy and The Valkyrie of Vanaheim. Phil also writes contemporary fiction which include the novels Write Off and Zero Recall. You can connect with author Phil Parker and his books online via his Website, Twitter(X), Bluesky, Goodreads, and Amazon.
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Cover Illustration by Ken Dawson at Creative Covers
People keep vanishing in Temz. The authorities don’t appear to care. Life goes on as normal. Mages continue to age rapidly and die early deaths, from the toxic magical energy that pervades the city. No one cares about that either. Life in the city is all about survival. Or wealth and power. Or both.
It is Tadhg’s destiny to be the hero of this story. His mother said so.
Trouble is, this second-rate mage and lousy thief hardly fits the role. He’s impetuous, an irresponsible good-for-nothing. His one interest is the shapely, high-class courtesan, Zherah. He’s even thought about marrying her. If he had the money. Except, when she poisons him, he’s less sure about the idea.
Hardly a way to start a story; poisoning the hero. But it triggers events where Tadhg must use all his charm and wit to save the city. Admittedly, charm and wit aren’t much use when you’re risking your life. Weapons would be better. But sometimes, a hero has to work with what they’re given.
Fans of Jim Butcher and Patrick Samphire should enjoy this fantasy mystery.
“I loved City of Onyx! The characters are fantastically written, I really enjoyed the world building too. The ending is great! I love stories where I can’t predict what’s going to happen next.”Damien Larkin, award-winning author of Big Red and Blood Red Sand.
Tadhg Riada didn’t believe in destiny. In fact, he didn’t believe in much of anything. At the moment he swallowed the poison, he actually believed himself to be lucky.
Destiny could be ironic.
Before events were set in motion, Tadhg stretched out on pink satin decadence with the smuggest of smiles. Zherah Angwin had just described his performance as akin to a Rogin stallion. He wasn’t one of her clients; she didn’t need to flatter him. She must have meant it.
He laid on the bed and considered their future together. She liked him. He was a second-rate mage, poor and without any prospects, but that didn’t stop her inviting him to her apartments occasionally. She might be a high-class courtesan, but he was a lot more exciting than the flabby middle-aged merchants who were her usual partners. All the more reason for enjoying the pleasures an athletic, virile young man like him provided. They made an attractive couple. She with her sapphire blue eyes and caramel-coloured tresses. He with his sandy-haired mop, pale skin and freckles that still made him look like a kid. He liked to think it was more about his ability to make her laugh, his good nature that really attracted her. Looks weren’t everything. At least, not where he was concerned.
If he only could find enough money to make her his own. Perhaps even marry her. Though that was more of a romantic notion than a specific ambition. Money was the problem. Specifically, his lack of it.
He pushed back the satin sheets to provide enough of a view to tempt her back to bed. Spotting a glass of wine on the bedside table, he quaffed its contents to slake his thirst.
Like a goddess, Zherah closed the bathroom door and grinned at him. He marvelled at her curves and perfectly sculpted body, savouring the way her hips swayed as she moved toward him. Her skin glistened as sunlight flooded through an open window, along with a warm breeze that ruffled curtains and her curls. She giggled, playful, aware of his intention before her expression changed and turned into a frown. ‘Tell me you didn’t drink the wine.’
‘Erm …’ His libido ignored the question. It was already making plans for round two.
‘Tadhg! Did you drink the wine?’
‘Yeah. It’s good. A Seducian merlot, if I’m not mistaken.’
The way she shook her head made him question his knowledge of Seducian grapes. If it wasn’t a merlot, it had to be a blend.
‘It was poisoned.’
‘What? Poisoned? Why? I thought we were friends?’
She snatched the empty glass and stared at it.
‘Zherah? Sweetness? Tell me you’re joking!’
He leapt off the bed as panic consumed him. He paced around the room with its golden canopies, lavish carpet, and pictures of wanton debauchery. Definitely not a venue for murder. She cursed quietly. Was that remorse?
‘Zherah, what have you done?’
She blinked and turned her attention back to him. ‘I haven’t done anything, you idiot. It was for someone else. He’ll be arriving imminently.’
‘You’re poisoning a client?’
His accusation rattled her. She glared at him, furious now. ‘I didn’t have a choice. I have a debt. It’s complicated. And you’ve ruined everything.’
‘I’m the one who’s poisoned!’ he snapped. His mind raced as it sought solutions. He knew little about poisons except for one fact. The type mattered. It defined the length of time he had left to live, the level of pain he would have to endure. Grisly images plagued him; blood leaking from every orifice, suffocation as his windpipe swelled. What would he look like afterwards? When people found his ruined body? It would be humiliating. He stared at the woman, who didn’t appear to be concerned about his imminent demise. ‘What do I do?’ he grabbed her arm and shook it. ‘Tell me you have the antidote.’
She glared, ice-cold. ‘Of course not, you moron. I was told to kill him.’
He looked into the eyes of the woman who’d suddenly turned into a cold-hearted killer. She had murdered him, and she wasn’t interested.
Instead, she stared at the wineglass. ‘You need to get more poison. And quick. He’ll soon be here.’
‘Why should I do that?’ Did he mean nothing to this woman?
Her fury ignited again. ‘Because you drank the last lot, you imbecile. You can find out if there’s an antidote too.’
‘Where do I go?’
‘To Mother Myrtle.’
‘Oh, shit.’ That was it. Fate sealed. He was a dead man.
‘Get going!’ She scooped up his clothes and hurled them at him.
‘How long have I got before the poison starts working?’
‘An hour or so. Long enough that he wouldn’t die here.’
He dressed as he tried to process what was happening. The woman he’d imagined might be his wife had killed him.
She slapped his cheek, hard. ‘What are you waiting for, you cretin?’
Perhaps marriage was too idealistic.
Thankfully, he could run. He was fast too. He had to be. Speedy escapes defined him. Not all his spells and potions worked … There were also irate husbands or brothers. During his teens, he’d soon found the fastest routes through the alleys and narrow streets of Temz. He knew the best places to hide and the shortcuts that could lose his pursuers.
Knowledge that could save his life now.
He ran for his life and set destiny in motion.
Early evening filled the streets and the skies. Workers trudged home, turning pavements and alleys into flooded streams of humanity. The stench of stale sweat and filth accosted nostrils. Summer had arrived, and its unrelenting heat turned everything to dust. It hung in the air, disturbed by millions of footsteps.
In the sky, grey airships sailed majestically for those wealthy enough to escape the city’s stink. Destinations such as the White Wolds offered tranquillity and a healthier lifestyle. The richest families lived there in the summer months, while merchants spent their working days in the Royal Quarter, with their mistresses and courtesans.
With time against him, Tadhg took to the roofs. Flat spaces were ideal for capturing rain when it deigned to fall. They were also perfect for escaping the crowds when speed was a matter of life and death. Leaving the affluence of the Royal Quarter behind, he leapt rooftops with a confidence born of familiarity. As a teenager, his first attempts left him with scraped knees and the fear he’d plunge to his death: acceptable risks when others raced after you, eager to punish.
Now confidence lent him grace, speed and agility. There were times he found it exhilarating. This wasn’t one of them. Mother Myrtle lived on the opposite side of the city. Alone, in a shack on a pier in the abandoned harbour. Solitary and ostracised. A witch, if her reputation was anything to go by, though her magic was unlike anything taught at the School of Arcana. Visiting the old hag was the last thing Tadhg needed. But, as he’d learned over the years, beggars couldn’t be choosers. He’d stopped expecting for life to ever provide him with choices.
With his destination in sight, Tadhg exchanged the roofs for the towpaths that ran alongside the stinking canals that criss-crossed this part of the city and led to the harbour. They took him through districts where poverty, desperation and death oozed out of every drain, sewer and doorway. There was only one colour here – grey – in varying hues that defined the buildings and the people. Here he kept to the main thoroughfares, wide enough for a horse and cart but little else. To attempt shortcuts through this district was to challenge death. He was doing that already.
Of course, no journey in this part of the city was without its close encounters. In front of a tavern, which leaned drunkenly next to its neighbour, three men sat on a bench. They watched with predatory smiles. One got up and ambled into the centre of the street.
He grinned through an ancient scar, etched down one cheek and into the corner of his mouth. ‘Well, if it ain’t Tadhg Riada, in a hurry as usual. Slow down, young man, stop and chat with us for a while.’
The man reached into his greasy jacket and pulled out a long, serrated knife, which he dangled at the side of his thigh.
‘I’d like to do that, Roch. Really, I would. But I’m in a hurry. Got a deadline.’
The man blocked his path, and the other two left their bench to join him. Their smell made his stomach churn – that or the poison.
‘Ain’t that always the way? An enterprising young man like you … must be exhausting.’
He had no choice but to stop. In the distance, he could just make out a church clock; he’d lost just over ten minutes. He couldn’t waste time, but these men posed a similar threat to the poison. Except a knife in the chest would do the job faster.
Roch moved nearer, close enough for Tadhg to savour his fetid breath. ‘You see, Tadhg, you owe me money. I had to pay the owner of that antique shop. Turned out he paid his protection money to Mikel Vaytr. You hadn’t mentioned that fact when we agreed to help you enter his premises. And when he turned up, the damage you caused with your useless command of magic meant it cost me a great deal. And you were nowhere to be found.’
‘I’m sorry, Roch. I really am. I’ll pay you back, but just not now. OK?’
‘Oh, all right, Tadhg. You’re a man of honour. You’ll keep your word.’
Fortunately for Tadhg, he’d been in this situation before and readied himself for the attack. Sure enough, Roch narrowed his eyes a second before making his move. His knife arced upward, eager to slice through an exposed throat. Tadhg ducked to avoid the blade, a position that offered an obvious riposte. He punched the man between his splayed legs. A gasp of air, followed by a loud moan, and Roch dropped the knife in favour of clutching his bruised genitals. Executing a forward roll to his left, Tadhg made toward the larger of the two remaining men. Zog was a solid mass, a description that also applied to the man’s brain. For all his strength – able to break ribs in a bear hug – Zog didn’t have speed on his side, and as Tadhg reached the big man, he aimed a swift kick at his leg. The bone didn’t break, but he dropped to the ground with a howl, knocking over his comrade in the process. Tadhg fled as the three men roared their fury. He’d need to avoid them for a while.
They joined an ever-increasing list.
Unfortunately, at the top of that list was the woman who now held his life in her grimy, calloused hands. He’d spent the last ten minutes searching for explanations to excuse his earlier misdemeanours. Mother Myrtle wasn’t the sort of woman to anger. If the stories were true, there were creatures living in the harbour mud that had once offended her. Such as a throw-away insult, a reluctance to pay a debt, and, if the stories were true, sneezing in her face. He considered charming her but dismissed it. What could he say about a woman who was older than Time itself and who looked like a skeleton wrapped in rags?
There was only one choice where Mother Myrtle was concerned.
A fate nearly as bad as a painful death. He would have to incur a debt.
It risked only delaying his death. If he reneged, life would end slowly and painfully. Her last two victims reputedly hung from the roof of her shack, still alive, despite missing body parts. The thought made Tadhg shudder.
The harbour had once been a thriving hub of commerce. Until the river that gave the city its name became so badly clogged, ships couldn’t navigate the coagulated artery. The problem wasn’t caused by silt or any other natural phenomenon. Sewers, drains and industrial outlets dumped their contents into the river, in the hope it would reach the sea. But the river was like the city’s inhabitants, too sluggish and lazy to oblige. People complained about the stench. Politicians made promises while declaring the exorbitant costs of dredging the river would cripple the city’s finances.
On a hot day, the air above the harbour shimmered as poisonous gases escaped the mud. Unsurprisingly, no one lived there. No one except Mother Myrtle in her wooden shack at the end of the pier. Even the birds, wheeling and cawing to each other, avoided the space.
With his heart pounding against his ribs, Tadhg approached the shack. Inscribed on its blackened wood, runes issued dire warnings to those who came near. To reinforce the threat, heads dangled from the roof. Weather-worn, they represented every creature from the city, human skulls among them. The message was clear. Stay away.
That Zherah had ignored Mother Myrtle’s warning spoke of her desperation and made no sense. It had to be linked to the debt she’d mentioned, though why an affluent courtesan would have debts made no sense either. The more he thought about it, the more he recalled her preoccupation in recent weeks. He really should have asked why. Trouble was, their encounters were always so brief, time worked against him. She had her clients and he needed to stay one step ahead of those who wanted money. Or wanted him dead. Frequently both.
The door to the shack opened so suddenly he staggered backward with an unmanly shriek. The figure didn’t match her name, didn’t even look vaguely maternal. Or female. Describing her as human stretched the imagination. A bag of bones covered in filthy rags was the kindest portrayal. She peered at him from rheumy eyes set in a face where skin had turned to weathered leather. Wisps of white hair clung to her skull with the determination of weeds.
Her voice was a croak. ‘You’re late. But that’s no surprise. Come in.’
She turned and tottered on spindly legs into the dark interior of the shack. The smell inside the shack was even worse than the harbour, assaulting his nose with the force of a drunken platoon of soldiers.
There were no windows; occasional cracks in the wooden walls let in splinters of light. In the centre of the space was a table littered with boxes, baskets, bottles and glass jars that contained bizarre-shaped things that might have been pickled body parts. Mother Myrtle made herself comfortable on a large wicker chair and glared at him, while a cat as scrawny and hairless as its owner stared at him from amidst the chaos.
‘I need to apologise about my treatment of Aophr,’ he began. He hoped facing up to his misdemeanours from the start might grant him some grace with the old witch. ‘I liked your great granddaughter. And it was a mutual break up … after I’d told her about the other girl.’
She held up a grimy hand with long grey talons. ‘Not interested. The girl is just as irresponsible and stupid as you.’
‘Thank you.’ He gave her his most charming smile.
She pointed to a glass on the table. It contained a liquid that looked like it had been dredged directly from the harbour. ‘Drink that.’
She hadn’t forgiven him after all. He stared at the glass and then at the old woman. ‘Why?’
‘Do you want to die from the poison you drank?’
He could only offer a bewildered shake of the head. How had she known?
‘Drink it, then.’
As well as looking like harbour water, it smelled like it, and the bits floating in the scummy brew made him gag. If she sought revenge for Aophr, he hoped it wouldn’t be too painful. Or linger too long. If she was going to turn him into some mud-dwelling creature, he prayed he wouldn’t remember what he’d once been.
He downed the contents of the glass.
It burned like acid, dissolving the back of his throat. He tried to scream but all he managed was a gargling sound. His muscles turned to water, his legs trembled and threatened to give way under him. Every part of him trembled. Panic consumed him.
Then, suddenly, it was over. He gulped for breath, aware he’d been clutching at his throat. He inhaled the fetid air but didn’t care, he could breathe again. He smiled, relieved that had been the only discomfort and he hadn’t turned into something slimy and amphibious.
Until his windpipe froze. He grabbed it again, as he tried to swallow and couldn’t. Screaming for help likewise. A wintry chill spread across his chest, reaching for his heart. It pounded like a maniac with a drum. He stared at the grinning face of the old woman as he prepared for the worse. Inevitably, it happened. Icy fingers gripped his heart and held it fast. The pounding stopped. Inside his chest cavity, it was eerily silent.
Darkness from the inside of the shack crept toward him, viscous it oozed across the floor and along the walls. It permeated the air, like a thickening fog, until it enveloped him. He stared at the old woman, his eyes accusing her of his murder. They appeared to be the only part of him now working.
His legs, too weak to support him, buckled. He collapsed. Darkness found him, enveloped him. The only thought in his head: he hoped death would be swift.
Tadhg couldn’t think, and yet images flickered through his brain. The old woman kneeling over him with the same gleeful smile. In her hand, something black. She held it over his forehead, pressed it down. He could feel the increased pressure. It hurt for a moment, but then eased. Fireworks, like on Freedom Night, lit up the darkness. Bright, garish colours that made no sound.
The fireworks ended, leaving confusion in their wake. He couldn’t remember anything, not even his name. More images cascaded through his brain. A city. But not Temz. A strange, bizarre place filled with towering structures of glass that shimmered in the sun. Except it wasn’t the sun. A flash of something so bright it blinded.
Darkness. Cold, soft like velvet. Strangely comforting. It had to be death.
He woke up.
Laid on the floor of Mother Myrtle’s shack, he looked around, vague memories of fearfully entering the space fluttering in his mind.
The old woman watched him from her huge wicker chair. ‘You’d better get back to your girlfriend. She’s waiting for you.’
He nodded, then struggled to his feet; his brain felt like he’d been on a drinking spree that had lasted months. ‘Thank you.’ He couldn’t remember why he had to thank her.
He stumbled out of the shack and into the glare of an early evening sun. Shielding his eyes as he staggered along the pier, he focused on getting back to Zherah. He sensed the urgency, but he couldn’t remember the reason for that either.
His brain refused to indulge in any rational thought. Like it had put up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. Yet, he could feel it working in the background. He didn’t know why, only that its purpose was important.
He had something to do. Except he didn’t know what it was.
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