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—start reading chapter five below, or head back to the beginning!
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.
A few yards after the Fetch Gate, the horses refused to go on. They tossed their heads and chewed their bits and in the air there was the tang of their sweat. When they stamped, their hoof-falls rang like the Fetch’s bell: high and pure. They had hit the Glass Road.
It seemed to grow out of the cobblestones, shifting gradually from their grey-green, lichen-crusted surfaces, smoothing in the course of a few feet, growing darker, becoming one single undifferentiated block as if there had been a furnace here capable of firing the matter of the earth and glazing it. A black path like the hugest piece of jet went then in a perfect shallow spiral, around and up and over the slums, circling the city mountain, disappearing from view, coming back on the other side to cross the Merchant City, disappearing again, stretching by ever higher loops over the Pleasaunce and the forested heights all the way to the entranceway of the Manse high at the pinnacle. The boys shifted in their places—this was the Master’s work, cold and resonant with his magic.
The Fetch got down, put his pipe in his coat pocket and walked forward, stroking the lead horse as he went. He calmed and cajoled it, whispering baby talk and giving it little kisses on the neck. From inside his coat he pulled booties of wool which he rubbed down the horse’s forelimbs. Any hint of Living Mud he wiped away with his handkerchief, any dead-life leeches too. He gradually slipped the wool down and over the horse’s iron shod hooves, repeating the process slowly and sweetly until both were spared the unnatural sensation of walking on glass. Only then did they agree to go on again.
‘And what do you lot think you’re looking at? Keep your staring for those who appreciate it, if there are any.’
Where the cobbles had rattled and jolted them from side to side, the Glass Road was so smooth that the city slid past Nathan’s gaze as if he was meant to look, as if it was designed to give them a grand tour of the Master’s ingenuity. They went quickly, too, the surface having a fluence placed on it which urged travellers forward, counteracting the gradient, facilitating the Master’s business.
Parts of the city were familiar to Nathan—the chaos of the slums, obviously, but also the chimneys of the Factorium, smoke drifting on the pressure their fires provoked, and the flat grey expanses and warehouses of the Entrepôt—but there were many things he had not seen before. As they left his home far below, as the Glass Road looped higher, there was a square of variable green flowing out of the mountainside like factory smoke that never spread. It was caged by tall iron fences but swayed in the wind. Amongst it were limbs of wood, and creatures with wings, and strange rats holding high, proud tails of fur. Down inside were glades of light and blue-pooled water. Nathan turned and stared, but soon they left it behind the endless turning of the Road, and it blurred in the confusion of his memory. Then there were the merchant houses, with coloured glass for windows and steep, tiled gables. Between the houses were streets with lamps lit yellow, people with gloves and muffs and hoods of leather.
Higher still there was an archway, filigreed and bronze, that spanned a road of cobbles. This road split into many paths, each splitting into more and joining again in junctions. In the spaces between these paths were cages, open to the sky but enclosed by high walls, windowed, behind which strange beasts were gathered, huge and in pairs, or families all of the one type, barracked together. These creatures were content to pace their spaces slowly, attentively, first one way, then the other, and to stare out quietly at the merchants who stared in at them in their turn.
Then this gave way to the Pleasaunce, the houses so tall that the roofs were almost close enough to touch: enormous, ornate weathervanes, lightning rods, gargoyled gutters.
At the end of the Glass Road the Master’s Manse jutted up.
It was a great, black wedge laced with shining windows, colonnaded along each side with irregular turrets whose purposes were guessed at and talked over and speculated on in every corner of the city. As the cart drew closer the oppressive looming of it was felt by all. It was so black that even in the clouded gloom it was perfectly visible, blacker than anything around it.
Drawing near, the boys—all of them—fell quiet.What was once an idea was now a cold fact, close enough to gauge the span of, close enough so that it refused to be ignored. Many a boy had said, in the familiar misery of the slums, with the bravado of those who had known absolute poverty, that noth.ing could be worse than scrabbling for sprats in the Living Mud, or blacking their eyes for merchant men, or fighting off the flukes that crept in from under a loose plank. But now? What if it could be worse? The unfamiliar blackness of this place seemed worse already.
Nathan couldn’t tear his eyes away from the Manse. The very top had squares cut out of it, and slits, like battlements, and between each of these were flagpoles, black pennants blowing away east in the wind. The tower was not like a cliff: its surface was decorated, and what he’d always thought must be irregularities were alcoves in which statues had been placed—slender, elongated, figures, emaciated even, a hundred of them at least, garbed in real fabric, with circlets and torcs that reflected the light. They all gestured down—to what, Nathan couldn’t guess.
As the cart came over the final rise, there was a flight of stairs as wide as the Circus, ascending gently to a wave of doors, twenty of them, large in the middle, a building’s height, and getting smaller at the edges, until the final door on either side might have been designed to admit an imp, or a dog.
The Fetch pulled the horses up short.
A man emerged from nowhere, from the earth itself, rising up in full livery, shirt cuffs and collars and a tall hat.
‘Fifteen,’ offered the Fetch, speaking without looking at the man, but he came back and counted the boys anyway. He leaned in through the gate and the nearest ones gasped: his face was broad across the cheeks and flat, and where his eyes might have been there was only skin without even eyebrows to break the smoothness.
Gam prodded the boy next to him. ‘There’s always some.one worse off than yourself, my dad used to say. Looks like he was right.’
The man counted, stretching out long fingers, oddly jointed, so that the knuckles twisted back. He twitched and twisted a knuckle, like a tally man marks off a day’s pickings.
‘Fifteen,’ repeated the Fetch.
‘Thirteen,’ the man said, though he didn’t open his mouth to speak and the sound came instead from slits in his throat that opened up for the purpose. ‘One’s broken and there’s a reject from before.’
‘I knew it,’ growled the Fetch and came towards Gam.
‘No need to get hot and bothered. I’ll walk back. Natty, you’re on your own for true now.When you get back home, my offer’s good.’
‘What about my commission, you little thief!’
‘Sing for it, granddad.’
Gam slipped away from the Fetch, out of the cage, ran then slid, knees bent, on the shiny gripless soles of his boots, off down the Glass Road.
The eyeless man snapped his fingers and brought the Fetch to heel. The Fetch held out his hand, involuntarily, and the man gave him flat coins of silver, one for each of the boys, stroking them in turn across the Fetch’s calloused palms until they rested in the hollow in the middle, from where the Fetch snatched them away to make room for the next.
‘Bring them to the rear, then leave.’
‘Gladly,’ said the Fetch from the back of his throat.
Round the back, the dark, broad-paved grandeur of the facade was quickly forgotten. Piles of slag gathered beneath soot-stained hatches. Smoke and steam issued from pipes coming jagged from the wall. All around were people shouting and labouring. The Fetch barked commands over the sound of the grinding of gears in the deep, so loud it shook the earth and caused the dirt to move as if it were alive with ants. He dragged the boys out of the cage two at a time, slinging them aside as if they were soiling his good straw.
The eyeless man came and linked the boys’ hands together so that they formed a chain that might more easily be led than a crowd of children operating independently. The blond boy lay where he had been left, and the Fetch paid him no attention whatever, slamming the door on Cuckoo’s outstretched hand when he reached to touch him.
When they were all lined up, the eyeless man took the hand of the foremost boy and led them all, crocodile-style, through the grounds and across to a flight of stairs that plunged into a scar in the earth. Here the lead boy hesitated, but the eyeless man did not, and he dragged them, the whole chain, down into the darkness.
The noise here was even louder: metal teeth grating against each other, enormous hammers clanking, red-hot pistons slamming into steaming engines, shaking the boys’ bones with their concussions. Glass vats of the Living Mud emptied through tubes, transported everywhere, mindless flukes pressing against the glass.
The eyeless man led them through narrow pathways between the huge machines, the smell of burning oil sensed, impossibly, through the eyes and lips as well as the nose, the earthy sulphurous tang of the Mud blending with it, each boy gripping the hand of the boy front and back and the last boy gripping the one hand with both of his. The purpose of the machines was not clear, to Nathan at least, but it was certain that they must have a purpose, one they followed with endless, tireless energy, fiercely, with no consideration for creatures as small as these boys were made to feel.
Here the Mud was processed, but to what end?
Nathan was holding Cuckoo’s hand, and from time to time the fat boy looked back. If it was for reassurance, Nathan had none to give, though so vicious seemed this place that he would have given it if he could. All the previous acrimony seemed of no import at all. Were they to be part of this machinery? Were they to be sent into it, to loosen trapped workings like loom-boys in the Merchant City? To unplug obstructions from the tubes?
What information reached the eyeless man, Nathan couldn’t tell, but he moved without pause. When junctions came, he negotiated them surely. Ladders would take them up and down, and though Nathan had resolved to keep track of their movements, the complexity was beyond him after only a few minutes. They travelled for close to an hour. Never once was the noise anything but deafening, never once did the machines stop in their movements, or the Living Mud in its progress through the tubes.
They came into a place that was relatively free of machinery. In the middle of this was a pulley on which was suspended a bucket of a size sufficient to carry two or three boys. The eyeless man stopped here and loaded boys in, Nathan, Cuckoo and the shaven-headed boy. The pulley was hoisted up with.out a pause and they lurched into the air. Nathan and the boy were face to face, their noses almost touching. Nathan looked up; the chain disappeared into the darkness fifty or a hundred feet above. There seemed to be no purpose to it but then, after a while, a tiny square of light appeared, like the doorway of an inn at the end of a dark day’s walk. The noise up here was lessened, and Nathan began to speak, to say ‘Do you see that?’ but when he tried, he heard himself as if through water, only very faintly.
He cleared his throat as if the problem lay there, and tried again, but then the bucket hit a link in the chain that was out of place and the whole thing shuddered and tipped. Below, the faces of the other boys were raised to them, tiny, like the last grains of rice in the bottom of an earthenware pot. Cuckoo grabbed Nathan, and they both grabbed the chain, but the other boy put his arms outward, as if he could balance himself. Instead, he started to slip, out of the bucket, sending it tipping further.
‘Let him go!’ Cuckoo shouted, but Nathan reached for him, catching him by the wrist, upending the bucket so that he and Cuckoo had to kick and drag it back beneath them. Nathan felt the boy slipping. He wrapped the chain around his wrist and one leg around the boy’s waist and grabbed him by the shorts. Slowly he drew him back in, pulled him to his chest.
It was then that Nathan saw he was not a boy at all. Beneath the dirt and the fear there was a girl with a wide mouth and wide brown eyes. She grabbed his collar and clenched with both her fists, gripping him as if she would never let go.
Excerpted from Mordew, copyright © 2021 by Alex Pheby.