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 nine 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.
The wind was up, and waves smashed against the Sea Wall. Salt spray rolled like mist, flavouring the air, clouding the slum at ground level as if they all lived on the mountain top and not in the filth that gathered at the city’s lowest point. There were no firebirds—they could not fly in a gale—but the waves drummed so hard against the Master’s breakwater that Nathan couldn’t hear anything else. When they briefly receded, they hissed through shale as they went, harmonising with the wind that forced its way between the planks of their hovels.
Ahead was his home: the one room claimed from the Living Mud, its edges marked in wet wood and rotting rope, slapped into existence with handfuls of pitch tar scavenged from barrels blown in from the docks.Where there were gaps, lamplight shone through, thin and weak, as if light itself could be brought low by this place. The door was pegged at one side and lashed at the other. Nathan undid the lash and slid into the gap.
There was his mother, staring into the embers of the fire. When she heard him she did not look up. She tensed, shrank like a cat does when it senses the approach of a dog.Without looking away from the fire, she gathered her hair back, tied it in a bunch, leaving streaks of soot. She reached down and from the edge of the fire picked a piece of burned brittle wood the size of a pea. She crushed it between her finger and thumb and rubbed it into powder.When it was fine, she shut her eyes and put her head back, so that she faced the ceiling. Her mouth parted slightly, lips full but almost blue as if she could not find enough air to breathe.With her fingertips she blacked her eyes, painting the lids in ash, drawing her fingers along the lashes. ‘What will it be?’ she said, soft and subservient.
‘It’s me, Mum.’
She jumped up, eyes wide, as if she had been stung.With her sleeve she furiously wiped away the ash. As she wiped, she blinded herself a little. Nathan went to her, wetting his own sleeve with spit.With a corner he dabbed and stroked.
‘It’s all gone,’ he said. Perhaps it was, but she didn’t open her eyes. If anything, she screwed them up tighter.
‘My boy, my lovely boy,’ she said, but she shook her head and swayed, fists clenched as shut as her eyes.
Nathan put his hand on her shoulder, and she took it and kissed his palm, taking in his scent as she did it, never opening her eyes. ‘My sweet boy,’ she said.
Nathan stood, not knowing what to do.‘It’s alright, Mum. I’m back.’
She opened her eyes. ‘Why?’ she said.
Nathan bowed his head. ‘He wouldn’t take me.’
‘You explained to him?’
‘He knows?’ She came and wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close.‘You stupid, stupid child! What are we going to do now?’ She pushed him away. ‘What am I going to have to do now?’ She slapped him across the cheek and when he didn’t react, she slapped him again.
‘I couldn’t help it. I tried.’
‘But what are we going to do?’ The slaps turned wilder, harder, but unfocussed; more frequent, but less painful. She kept repeating the phrase, missing out a word every now and then until she was simply saying ‘what’, over and over.
From the other room came a cough.
‘Now look! You’ve woken him.What if someone comes?’
‘I’ll see to him.’ Nathan went through the sheet, pushing into the darkness beyond, where the light from the fire did not penetrate. Everything was in shadow—the broken pallets that made the furniture; the useless lamps, salvaged from the Mews; the piles of cloth, unpicked and waiting to be resewn. Nathan stood in the dark, breathing quietly, listening for the rhythmic wheeze that would mean his father was still asleep.
He stood without moving, his eyes closed, listening as hard as he could, hoping to make out something.
There was silence, at first, but then a struggle of move.ment, rustling, the creaking of the wooden boards that the mattress lay on.
Nathan took a stub of candle from the top of an upturned box and lit it.
His father was on the bed, on his hands and knees, his nightgown gaping and the sheets bunched up. At first Nathan thought he was resting, gaining strength for the hard work of getting out of bed. But then he saw his hands striped along the knuckles, tendons tight from gripping the mattress. As he watched, this redness spread to his face and down his neck, which was corded with steel beneath. His mouth was half open, held the way a stammerer holds it when he wants to speak but can’t. The line of his jaw trembled with tension. For a second his father’s eyes opened, bloodshot and bulging, but then they closed again having seen nothing, as if to leave them open would risk rupture.
His father shifted a few inches so that he was now gripping the edge of the mattress. A sound started, so quiet at first that Nathan hoped it was coming from his own body, rather than his father’s. It was a creaking, bubbling, straining leak of air as if a balloon was emptying itself through a puncture which barely existed. His father’s mouth opened wide, the lips as tense as his knuckles, as his brow, as the bones of his skull that revealed themselves through his skin.
He was trying to cough up a worm, but he would need to breathe soon.
Nathan went over to him, unsure, as always, of how best to help. He wanted to slap his father between the shoulder blades, but he looked so frail, his brittle spine so obvious through the flimsy nightshirt, his skin so thin, that he couldn’t risk it. So he put his hand there instead and rubbed, gently, as if that would make the slightest difference. His father lowered his head, sank to the bed as if he had been given permission to give up, and in came a rush of air, whistling, filling him up, only to be expelled immediately as he was wracked with coughing, coming down deep from the gut and shaking him like a dog shakes a rat.
Nathan tried to calm the tremors, but his father pushed him away and, despite the coughing, got back on his hands and knees and the whole business started again, only this time a thin line of spittle ran from his quivering bottom lip. He raised his rear end in the air, straightening his legs to gain purchase against whatever he was fighting against inside. The creaking, bubbling, straining sound returned, louder now, and over the top of it was a growling, a defiant angry growling. His father tore at the mattress, ripped into it, his fists coming away with bunches of grey black wadding, all the time his mouth open and his neck taut and the terrible sound getting louder and louder.
Soon he was almost standing doubled up on the bed, his legs straight-tendons now like bow strings. Then there came a hideous gurgling, as if he was forcing his very insides out through his mouth. Nathan stepped away and to his shame he put his fingers in his ears. He couldn’t bear to hear it. When the sound came in despite his fingers he hummed to himself, not a tune—he couldn’t think of a tune—just hum.ming, and if he could have hummed his eyes blind he would have hummed that too, but he could not stop watching: too much fear and too much love.
He watched, humming at the top of his voice and humming in his mind to keep out the memory of the sound until his father suddenly stiffened even further than anyone would have imagined was possible and went absolutely still, as if petrified. Over his bottom lip slid a small thin, black lungworm, the length of a fingertip. It wriggled as it came and fell onto the sheet in front of his father, who collapsed in a jumble on the bed as if a puppeteer had suddenly cut his strings. Nathan darted forward and picked up the worm between finger and thumb. By his father’s bedside there was an enamelled tin bowl, like an upturned helmet, and Nathan dropped the worm into it.
The bowl was two-thirds full, a writhing black mass of them, hundreds, glistening in there. Nathan took the bowl and emptied it into the Living Mud, which met the worms with a frenzied thrashing.
‘Are you alright, Dad?’ Nathan asked, but his father was asleep, or unconscious.
‘He needs medicine.’ She was at his shoulder.
‘I know. Do we have bread?’
‘There is a crust—that’s all.’
His mother brought it out from a wooden box with a latch, where she’d hidden it against the flukes. Nathan took it and went to his father. He knelt by the side of the bed. The bread was hard, dry like sandpaper, and gritty like it too—probably as much sawdust as it was flour, and stale.When he pulled it in two, the part in the middle was a little better, so he pinched this out, rolled it into a ball. ‘Dad,’ he whispered.
There was no response.
‘Dad,’ he tried again. His father’s face was still, only the flickering of the candlelight gave any impression of movement. His lips were parted in the image of a smile, but the set of his eyes and the deep lines carved about them gave the lie to that. Nathan took the ball of bread and raised it to him. ‘Dad, you’ve got to eat something.’
‘Leave him. He’s sleeping.’
‘He can’t eat when he’s asleep, can he?’
‘And he can’t eat when he’s coughing up worms, can he?’
‘He’s got to. Dad, wake up.’
He didn’t. He lay there utterly still. Nathan put the bread to his own lips, took it into his mouth. He chewed it for a little. When it came out it was softer, like wet paper. He put this to his father’s lips, edging it past them.‘Dad. Try to swallow.’
‘He can’t. He’s not moving.’
‘He’s gone, isn’t he?’
‘Dad?’ Nathan pushed the bread in, anxiously now, onto his teeth. Was he dead? He reached for his jaw, to start the chewing, and his father lurched up, grabbing his arm and staring hard into his face. ‘Never. Never.You must never do it, Nat!’
His breath was sour, and he smelled of the worms, of maggots and meat. Nathan tried to pull away, but his father’s finger bones were locked around his wrists, clamped with rigor. ‘Better to die. Better to wither than to use that power. Now you are older. Do you understand me, son?’
Nathan nodded, over and over, not so much in agreement as from a desire to have this all end, to give his father what he needed to hear, so that he would lie down again. But he did not lie down. Every inch Nathan pulled back, his father dragged himself forward so that terrible parchment-skinned face was always in front of him and the death-stinking breath was always hot on his cheeks.
‘It will corrupt you. It will pervert you.You will come to degrade those things you love. Without knowing it. And, in your ignorance, you will relish it. Do you understand, Nathan, my love? Do you? I will help you while I live, hold it back, keep it inside me while I can, but you must be strong. Because when I die…’ Coughing came over him like a wave, starting in the small of his back, rippling down through his bones, cracking them like a merchant cracks his knuckles. When his father loosened his grip and grabbed for a chair leg, a floorboard, anything to hold steady to, Nathan jumped back, and when he doubled up again, Nathan was behind his mother. ‘He needs medicine. I’ll get it.’
She grabbed him, held him, but Nathan twisted away.
Nathan ran, skidding between pools of Mud and piles of gathering detritus. If his mother shouted after him her voice was lost in the roar of waves battering the barrier. Slick boots, worn down flat, made for poor runners, but the thought of his father urged him on. When he slipped, over and over, it was the touch of those bulbous fingers that pushed him back up. By the time he stopped, the knees on his trousers were wet through and his hands were black and sore.
He gulped for air and allowed himself a glance back—there was nothing, just unfamiliar territory: strange shacks strung with fishing line and finished with shells.
He’d get the medicine, for sure, but there, beneath the breathlessness, there was something else. Relief. To be away from him. To be away from all of it. Nathan breathed deeply.
From the Living Mud crawled out a thing—half toad, half mouse, its insides dragging behind it and a dull, blinking eye fixed on Nathan. It had no mouth but seemed to desire his flesh regardless, lurching towards him, though if it ever reached him it wouldn’t know what to do. Dead-life—point.less, tragic, useless. Sprats swarmed around it as if it was their king. It swished a tail—if tail it was and not an extrusion of spine—and smote the sprats, all the while making for Nathan.
There is something about being in a place you don’t know that is both frightening and liberating.When you are in your proper place you are secure, even in your misery; away from that place your security is gone, but so also are your obligations. You can be a different person in a different place.
Nathan walked on, spat on his hands, wiped them on his shirt, blew on the sore, raw skin revealed.
He would get money and buy medicine, that was certain, but don’t use it, his father said. Better to wither. Easy for him to say. With death at arm’s reach and past caring. But what about Mum? And the gentleman callers? Should she put up with it all because he had given up? Should Nathan put up with it?
The fluke followed him, cawing now like a tiny firebird. Nathan stopped.
There was the Itch—wasn’t it always?
He let it build, quickly, feeling his temper rising, feel.ing it like an appetite. Beware. What did his father know about ‘beware’? Didn’t he understand anything? Lying in his bed, sweating himself into nothing, day in, day out, in his nightgown?
He’d get the medicine, there was no need to worry about that, but they had no food, no fire, no water. Dead-life half-flukes rattled at the boards. Disease. Shouldn’t he be worried about all of that?
And Nathan was thirteen now; he made his own decisions.
When the Itch was strong enough, he kneeled, put his hand out. The fluke sensed his closeness and kicked and struggled in an approximation of a run towards him.
Nathan Scratched, meaning to kill it, to return it now to the Living Mud and end its misery, to make a decisive action with a clear outcome. But when the Spark met the thing’s flesh it writhed briefly, thrashed, but did not die. Instead it became a rat—red-eyed and yellow-toothed—which leapt at him and bit him in the soft part of the hand between the thumb and forefinger.
Nathan grabbed the new rat and pulled, ripping its teeth from his flesh. He threw it as far as he could into the slums, where it buried itself in darkness.
Excerpted from Mordew, copyright © 2021 by Alex Pheby.