God is dead, his corpse hidden in the catacombs beneath Mordew…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Alex Pheby’s Mordew, the start of an astonishingly inventive epic fantasy trilogy full of unforgettable characters—including a talking dog who wants to be a philosopher. Mordew publishes September 14th with Tor Books—check back for additional excerpts in the coming weeks!
God is dead, his corpse hidden in the catacombs beneath Mordew.
In the slums of the sea-battered city, a young boy called Nathan Treeves lives with his parents, eking out a meagre existence by picking treasures from the Living Mud and the half-formed, short-lived creatures it spawns. Until one day his desperate mother sells him to the mysterious Master of Mordew.
The Master derives his magical power from feeding on the corpse of God. But Nathan, despite his fear and lowly station, has his own strength—and it is greater than the Master has ever known. Great enough to destroy everything the Master has built. If only Nathan can discover how to use it.
So it is that the Master begins to scheme against him—and Nathan has to fight his way through the betrayals, secrets, and vendettas of the city where God was murdered, and darkness reigns.
The southern slums of the great city of Mordew shook to the concussion of waves and firebirds crashing against the Sea Wall. Daylight, dim and grey through the thick clouds, barely illuminated what passed for streets, but the flickering burst of each bird flashed against the overcast like red lightning. Perhaps today the Master’s barrier would fail, drowning them all. Perhaps today the Mistress would win.
Out of the shadows a womb-born boy, Nathan Treeves, trudged through the heavy mist. His father’s old boots were too big, and his thick, woollen knee socks were sodden. Every step rubbed his blisters, so he slid his feet close to the ground, furrowed them like ploughs through the Living Mud.
He made his way along what slum-dwellers called the Promenade: a pockmarked scar which snaked from the Sea Wall to the Strand. It weaved between hovels lashed together from brine-swollen driftwood decorated with firebird feathers. Behind him he left his parents and all their troubles. Though his errand was as urgent as ever, he went slowly: a dying father, riddled with lungworms, is pressing business, and medicine doesn’t come cheap, but Nathan was just a boy. No boy runs towards fear eagerly.
In his fists Nathan twisted his pillowcase; his knuckles shone through the dirt.
He was walking to the Circus, that depression in the earth where the dead-life grew larger. Here, if fortune allowed, flukes could be found, choking in the Mud. The journey would take him an hour though, at least, and there was no guarantee of anything.
All around, the detritus that insulated one home from another creaked and trembled at the vibrations of the Wall and the movement of vermin. Though Nathan was no baby, his imagination sometimes got the better of him, so he kept to the middle of the Promenade. Here he was out of the reach of the grasping claws and the strange, vague figures that watched from the darkness, though the middle was where the writhing Mud was deepest. It slicked over the toes of his boots, and occasionally dead-life sprats were stranded on them, flicking and curling. These he kicked away, even if it did hurt his blisters.
No matter how hungry he was, he would never eat dead-life.
Dead-life was poison.
From nearby came the tolling of a handbell. It rang slow and high, announcing the arrival of the Fetch’s cart. From the shacks and hovels grown-ups emerged eagerly, doors drawn aside to reveal their families crowded within. Nathan was an only child, but he was a rarity in the slums. It wasn’t unusual for a boy to have ten, even fifteen brothers and sisters: the fecundity of the slum-dwellers was enhanced by the Living Mud, it was said. Moreover, womb-born children were matched in number by those of more mysterious provenance, who might be found in the dawn light, mewling in a corner, unexpected and unwelcome.
When overextended mothers and fathers heard the Fetch’s bell they came running out, boy-children in their arms, struggling, and paid the cart-man to take them to the Master, where they might find work. So were these burdens, almost by alchemy, turned into regular coin—which the Fetch also delivered, for a cut.
Nathan watched as coins were given, children taken, coins taken, children returned, then he turned his back on it all and went on.
The further he walked from his home, the less the drumbeat on the Sea Wall troubled his ears. There was something in the sheer volume of that noise up close which lessened the other senses and bowed the posture. But when Nathan came gradually onto the Strand where it intersected the Promenade and led towards the Circus, he was a little straighter than he had been, a little taller, and much more alert. There were other slum-dwellers here too, so there was more to be alert to—both good and bad.
Up ahead there was a bonfire, ten feet high. Nathan stopped to warm himself. A man, scarred and stooped, splashed rendered fat at the flames, feeding them, keeping the endless rainwater from putting the wood out. On the pyre was an effigy of the Mistress, crouched obscenely over the top, her legs licked with fire, her arms directing unseen firebirds. Her face was an ugly scowl painted on a perished iron bucket, her eyes two rust holes. Nathan picked up a stone and threw it. It arced high and came down, clattering the Mistress, tipping her head over.
People came to the Strand to sell what bits of stuff they had to others who had the wherewithal to pay. The sellers raised themselves out of the Mud on old boxes and sat with their wares arranged neatly in front of them on squares of cloth. If he’d had the money Nathan could have got string and nets and catapults and oddments of flat glass and sticks of meat (don’t ask of what). Today there was a glut of liquor, sold off cheap in wooden cups, from barrels marked with the red merchant crest. There was no way this had been come by legally—the merchants kept a firm grip on their stock and didn’t sell into the slums—so it was either stolen or salvaged. Drinkers wouldn’t know, either way, until it was drunk. If it was stolen, then buyers got nothing worse than a headache the next day, but if it was salvaged then that was because it was bad and had been thrown overboard to be washed up port-side. Bad liquor made you blind.
Nathan wouldn’t have bought it anyway—he didn’t like the taste—and he had no coins and nothing much to barter with except his pillowcase and the handkerchief in his pocket, so he joined the other marching children, eyes to the floor, watching out for movement in the Living Mud.
He didn’t recognise anyone, but he wasn’t looking—it was best to keep your distance and mind your own business: what if one of them took notice and snatched whatever was in your bag on the way home?
There were some coming back, bags wriggling. Others’ bags were still, but heavy. A few had nothing but tears in their eyes—too cowardly, probably, to venture deep enough into the Mud. Nathan could have stolen from those who had made a catch, grabbed what they had and run, but he wasn’t like that.
He didn’t need to be.
As he got closer, the Itch pricked at his fingertips. It knew, the Itch, when and where it was likely to be used, and it wasn’t far now. “Don’t Spark, not ever!” His father used to stand over him, when Nathan was very small, serious as he wagged his finger, and Nathan was a good boy… But even good boys do wrong, now and again, don’t they? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between good and bad, anyway, between right and wrong. His father needed medicine, and the Itch wanted to be used.
Above, a stray firebird struggled up into the clouds, weighed down by a man hanging limp below it.
The Strand widened; the street vendors became fewer. Here was a crowd, nervous, a reluctant semicircular wall of children, nudging and pushing and stepping back and forwards. Nathan walked where there weren’t so many backs and shouldered his way through. He wasn’t any keener than the others, he wasn’t any braver, but none of them had the Itch, and now it was behind his teeth and under his tongue, tingling. It made him impatient.
The wall was three or four deep and it parted for him, respecting his eagerness, or eager itself to see what might become of him. A dog-faced girl licked her teeth. A grey, gormless boy with a bald patch reached for him, then thought better of it and returned his hand to his chest.
When he was through, Itch or no Itch, he stood with the others at the edge for a moment.
In front was a circle marked by the feet of the children who surrounded it, large enough so that the faces on the other side were too distant to make out, but not so large that you couldn’t see that they were there. The ground gave way and sloped, churned up, down to a wide Mud-filled pit. Some stood in it, knee deep at the edges, waist deep further out. At the distant middle they were up to their necks, eyes shut, mouths upturned, fishing in the writhing thickness by feel. These in the middle had the best chance of finding a fluke—the complexity of the organisms generated by the Living Mud, it was said, was a function of the amount of it gathered in one place—while those nearer the edge made do with sprats.
Nathan took a breath and strode down the slope, the enthusiasm of the Itch dulling the pain of his blisters until he could barely feel them. When he had half-walked, half-slid his way to the shallows he clamped his pillowcase between his teeth, first to protect it from getting lost, but also, for later, to stop dead-life finding its way into his mouth.
The Mud was thick, but that didn’t stop it getting past his socks and into his shoes. He had to think hard not to picture new spawned dead-life writhing between his toes.
Deeper and there were things brushing his knees, some the size of a finger, moving in the darkness. Then, occasionally, the touch of something on his thighs, seeking, groping, flinching away by reflex. There was nothing to fear—he told himself—since whatever these things were, they had no will, and would be dead in minutes, dissolving back into the Living Mud. They meant no harm to anyone. They meant nothing.
When the Mud was up to his waist, he turned back to look the way he had come. The circle of children jostled and stared, but no one was paying him particular attention, nor was there anyone near him.
The Itch was almost unbearable.
His father said never to use it. Never use it. He couldn’t have been clearer. Never, finger wagging. So, Nathan reached into the Mud, Itch restrained, and fished with the others. Flukes could be found. He had seen them: self-sustaining living things. If he could catch hold of one, then he wouldn’t have to betray his father. He moved his hands, opening and closing through the Mud, the sprats slipping between his fingers. There was always a chance.
As he felt for things below the surface, he stared upward at the slow spiral of the Glass Road. It showed as a spider’s web glint that looped above him, held in the air by the magic of the Master. If Nathan turned his head and looked from the side of his eyes it became clearer, a high pencil line of translucence leading off to the Master’s Manse.
What did the Master think of the Circus? Did he even know it existed?
There! Nathan grabbed at a wrist’s thickness of something and pulled it above the surface. It was like an eel, brown-grey, jointed with three elbows. Its ends were frayed, and it struggled to be free. There was the hint of an eye, the suspicion of gills, what might have been a tooth, close to the surface, but as Nathan held it, it lost its consistency, seeming to drain away into the Mud from each end.
If it had held, he might have got a copper or two from someone—its skin useful for glove-making, the bones for glue, but it was gone, dissolving into its constituents, unwilling or unable to retain its form.
Now the Itch took over. There is only so much resistance a boy can muster, and what was so bad? They needed medicine, and he either blacked his eyes or made a fluke. Wasn’t this better?
He glanced surreptitiously to both sides and put his hands beneath the Mud. He bent his knees, and it was as easy as anything, natural as could be. He simply Scratched, and the Itch was released. It sent a Spark down into the Living Mud and, with the relief of the urge, pleasure of a sort, and a faint, blue light that darted into the depths.
Nothing happened for a moment—the relief became a slight soreness, like pulling off a scab. Then the Mud began to churn, the churning bubbled, the bubbling thrashed, and then there was something between his hands, which he raised.
Each fluke is unique. This one was a bundle of infant limbs—arms, legs, hands, feet—a tangle of wriggling living parts. When the children in the circle spied it, they gasped. It was a struggle to keep his grip, but Nathan took his pillowcase from between his teeth and forced the fluke into it. He slung it over his shoulder where it kicked and poked and whacked him in the back as he trudged in the rain, back to shore.
The tannery was deep in the slums, and the whole journey there Nathan shielded his pillowcase from the gaze of onlookers whether they were children, hawkers or slum folk. This fluke would never live into childhood—it was too corrupted and had no mouth to breathe with, or eat—but that didn’t seem to discourage it; the dead-life in it provoked it to ever harder blows on Nathan’s back, which bruised where they landed.
He walked back past the bonfire. The effigy of the Mistress was gone now, burned to ash. The bucket that had made her head was resting hot in the Living Mud, singeing the dead-life, making it squeak. A woman and her granddaughter, possibly, were throwing scraps of food, inedible offal, into what was left of the fire: offerings to the Master, sacrifices for luck.
Along the way a group of children were beating at something with sticks while others watched. Nathan slowed—justice in the slums was vicious, brutal, but worst of all infectious; if this was a righteous crowd, he wanted to avoid becoming an object for it. In the middle of them there was something red, struggling, rearing, reaching. Nathan took a few steps closer: it was a firebird, a broken thing near to death. Few firebirds made it past the Sea Wall, and those that did were always worse for whatever defence the Master employed. This one was gashed across the chest, rolling and bleating, its arms hanging limp, bucking with one good rear leg. Its wings were bare spines and torn membranes.
One child brought a heavy plank down across the length of its skull and a shout went up as the thing slumped. The spectators rushed in, pulling out handfuls of feathers, whooping and cheering, plucking it bald. Nathan looked away, but its woeful face, dull-eyed and slack-jawed, crept in at the corner of his thoughts.
He took a different way back, longer, and came to the tanner’s gate. Harsh, astringent pools filled with milk of lime made Nathan’s eyes hurt, but he was glad to drop the bundle on the ground, where it twisted and bucked and splashed.
He rang the tanner’s bell, hoping the daughter was busy and that the old man would answer—the tanning liquids had got to him over the years, and now he was soft, confused.
Nathan was in luck: the old man was there like a shot, as if he had been waiting just out of sight. He was small, scarcely taller than a boy, brown as a chestnut, shiny as worn leather. Without troubling to ask, he took Nathan’s pillowcase and looked inside. His eyes widened, cataracts showing blue-white in the gloom, and then quickly narrowed again. ‘A limb baby,’ he said to himself, not quietly enough, and then numbers passed across his lips as he counted the arms and legs and things that were neither. ‘What do you want for it? I’ll give you twenty.’
Nathan didn’t smile, but he would have taken ten. He had taken ten before, but when a man offers you twenty you don’t settle for it. ‘Fifty,’ he managed, his voice betraying nothing.
Now the tanner threw up his arms in comic dismay. ‘Do you take me for a fluke myself? I wasn’t born yesterday.’ He looked back at the tannery, perhaps to check with his daughter, perhaps to check to make sure his daughter wasn’t watching. ‘I’m no fool,’ he mumbled. ‘Twenty-five.’
Twenty was more than Nathan needed, but there is something in slum living that trains a boy to make the most of an opportunity. He reached out for his pillowcase. ‘If you don’t want it, I’ll take it to the butcher,’ he said, and pulled.
The tanner didn’t let go.‘Thirty then, but not a brass more.’ He rubbed his sleeve across his lips, and then wet them again, ‘I’ll admit it: we’ve got an order for gloves…’ He looked back to the tannery, squinted and frowned as if he was thinking.
Nathan let go and held out his other hand before the old man could change his mind.
From a satchel at his waist, the tanner took the coins, slowly and carefully, scrutinising each and biting it to make sure he hadn’t mistaken one metal for another with his bad eyes. Once the last one was handed over, he turned, swung the pillowcase hard against the killing post, and slammed the gate.
Nathan cursed, realising too late that the tanner had taken the pillowcase with him.
Excerpted from Mordew, copyright © 2021 by Alex Pheby.