Three Hours Ago
Twelve angels had been released into the world from the Ninth Citadel of Hell and would return there only in the wake of all mankind. The earth shuddered and broke apart under their heels of ironclad bone. Engines pounded in their skulls and from behind armoured ribs still steaming from the portal through which they had passed. They crushed Rys's Northmen on the battlefield at Larnaig and then moved on to Coreollis, where they stove in the gates of that gaunt city. Shadow-angels on thin legs trailed them across the rolling acres of darkly stubbled grassland, burnt forest, and corpse-strewn mud. The cames of their wings made stark black silhouettes against the bloody dusk, the low sun blazing through like a leadlight vision of apocalypse.
Those defenders upon the city ramparts who had remained loyal to Lord Rys now lifted their catapults' pawls and swung the wooden machines inwards. Sulphur pots arced up and burst against the giants and then fell in flaming yellow showers over innocent homes. But the battle had been fought and lost at Larnaig, and these doomed buildings were now home only to widows and fatherless children.
And thus bathed in red-gold radiance, dragging chains of brimstone through the streets of Coreollis, the Twelve converged on the palace of a besieged god. Gables broke against their advancing shins, and roof joists shattered. Chimneys toppled; the slates flew spinning or slid in sheets to break upon flagstones under a veil of red dust and lemon-coloured fumes.
Half a league to the east, Rachel Hael stood on the battlement of an abandoned keep set atop a motte. Rys's men had built this timber-and-sod outpost an age ago to watch the Red Road, and the heads of Pandemerian traitors and Mesmerist demons still adorned the spiked palisades around its bailey. She had laid out a simple picnic of bread, butter, and fruit on a bench behind the rampart wall.
Now gripping an apple between her teeth, the former assassin raised her sightglass to follow the eyeless gazes of those grim sentinels arrayed on their spikes. She searched the road where the soil had been churned black under the armoured boots of King Menoa's legions, and then she swept the lens over the metallic pink waters of Lake Larnaig. Stands of white willow dotted the scalloped shoreline like silver pavilions; their ancient trunks crowded underneath in dens of red shadow. To the east the steel curves of the Skirl railway shone brightly beneath the ink-dark heavens. The track bisected a hamlet of burned station buildings and sheds near the northern bank, before terminating at the end of the Larnaig pier. The steamship Sally Broom had once carried Menoa's treaty of peace towards that same stone dock. Now the battered vessel lay at the end of a deep gouge in the Larnaig Field, three hundred yards from the point whence she had been thrown.
Beyond the lake, the Moine Massif reared up into the clouds in gaseous blue layers of scarps and saws and cones like simmering temples. A closer and less natural mist blanketed the broadleaf woodland just a league to the northeast, indicating where Cospinol's skyship was creeping away from Coreollis. For a long moment, Rachel watched the Rotsward's sorcerous cloak recede, before turning her sightglass towards the west. Here the Larnaig Field was strewn with many corpses and uncountable parts of corpses, both human and Mesmerist, all burnt and spattered with mud, figures sprawled in attitudes of death across the blasted earth like fossils of men and beasts uncovered by a sudden cataclysm.
Veins of darker mud connected one tableau of violence to the next, so that it seemed the very skin of the world had grown old and thin. Dust sifted through metal wheel-spokes and blades and spears and pikes or hammers, flanged maces and hobnailed bludgeons still gripped in gauntlets or claws. It scoured ridges of bone and dry teeth, the iron limbs of altered men sheared or bent as if windblown, and cages of ribs and scorched flesh as dark as petrified leather. Engine parts lay scattered everywhere: cogs, bolts, chains, brackets, and snarls of wire, all dark with mineral grease that soiled the ground. Scraps of steel plate or mail glimmered dully amidst white-and-blue plumed helmets and filthy rags and entrails.
Most of the battlefield was littered with butchered horses, war hounds, and jackals with pink-and-black tongues, and the partly eaten hulks of armoured siege aurochs, and uncounted heaps of blue-lipped warriors with their clammy faces and eyes seething with flies.
Rachel took a bite from her apple.
Menoa's portal to Hell formed a red crater in the heart of this killing ground, but its perimeter had already begun to crust and shrink inwards like a wound. Soon it would close completely. A hundred thousand warriors had died to open that rift. Twelve arconites had drained all but the last breath of power from it.
Tails of smoke were now rising from Coreollis and drifting through the bones of those terrible giants.
They had finally reached the palace. Now the mightiest of the Twelve stepped over the sixty-foot-high rampart girdling Rys's courtyard and gazed down at the white pinnacles and rose-decked balconies of the besieged god's inner bastion. The others held back, their shins laced by flames, their wings as thin and luminous as sheets of rain. Embers harried them with the persistence of wasps. The lead arconite stooped and picked up something from the courtyard to examine it.
Rachel tried to focus on the object, but the giant had already crushed the thing and let it drop.
It waited. Twelve priests in Hell would be gazing through the Maze-forged eyes of these mindless ambassadors, just as Rachel herself now peered through her lens. She expected Rys to attempt to bargain for his soul. Yet what could the god of flowers and knives offer that King Menoa could not simply take by force? The events to come would certainly not be decided in this world.
The assassin took another bite from her apple, then focused the tube and scanned the bastion windows for signs of life.
Smoke clouded her narrow field of vision. She lowered the sightglass in time to witness a score of projectiles make fuming arches across the rooftops of Coreollis. From the city walls the defenders had renewed their onslaught with the vigour of men who had abandoned all hope of saving their homes. Explosions bloomed. A series of distant concussions sounded, followed by a furious crackling noise and then silence. Fronds of yellow sulphur smoke wilted in the breeze.
Rachel spat out an apple pip.
One of the arconites was burning. It remained motionless, its cavernous eye sockets fixed on Rys's palace. And the others stood rigid beside it, towering over the palace like rawboned citadels themselves.
Down in the bailey beneath the motte, Rachel's mount whickered, pulling at its tether and stamping its hooves like an impatient master demanding attention. She pressed a finger to her lips and then quickly lowered it and shook her head. Horses. This animal had belonged to the Heshette raiders, and had been ruined before it was passed to her, all knees and ribs, swaddled in a filthy cloth saddle. Yet, despite its sorry origins, its white eyeballs still rolled with an inbred contempt of Spine, recognizing her as one of Deepgate's temple assassins. At each step on the track to the outpost it had bucked against her clumsy attempts to steer it, almost throwing her twice.
She took a last bite from the apple, then threw down the core to the miserable beast.
A sudden change in the texture of the sunlight brought the Spine assassin's attention back to Rys's palace. Eleven of Menoa's arconites were moving back from it, their wings turning in the twilight like great lucent sails. The first and greatest of them, however, now knelt before the god's bastion as if in supplication. Rachel trained her sightglass on the palace itself.
On its highest balcony stood a white-winged figure in shining steel armour. He wore a cape of battlefield roses as vividly red as the living blossoms that cascaded over the balustrade around him. The glass doors to his quarters had been thrown open behind him, and the myriad panes shone blue.
Rys had come to plead for his life.
Rachel saw the god gesturing angrily, but even with her sightglass fully extended, she could not discern his face with enough clarity to read his lips. Whatever words he spoke to the kneeling giant went unheard. Yet after a moment the arconite's reply resounded across the heavens, as deep as an echo reverberating from the throats of all of the world's tombs.
"King Menoa rejects your proposal outright, Lord Rys, for he suspects that your brothers' souls are not truly yours to bargain with. Furthermore, he demands that they present themselves before these assembled ambassadors as a gesture of goodwill. The Lord of the Maze is magnanimous. He will not punish such worthy adversaries. He simply requires that all sons of Ayen enter Hell before the portal expires. As guests of the Ninth Citadel you will be spared all the horrors of the Maze and denied none of its plea_sures." The arconite's maw was an affectation, for it could not speak as men do. The voice issued from a metal simulacrum of a larynx, and yet the thoughts behind those words were born in the depths of a citadel built under a different sky.
It was talking about Rys's brothers: Mirith, Hafe, and Sabor. Rachel was hardly surprised that the god of flowers and knives had attempted to sell his own kin, or that King Menoa now purported to offer them sanctuary. Should the sons of Ayen be killed in this world, their souls would be lost in the endless reaches of Hell. Clearly the king wished them nearer to hand.
Rys must have recognized this offer for the lie it was. He turned his back on the angel and gazed through the balcony doors. And for an instant Rachel thought she spied another archon within the building, an armoured figure identical to Rys himself. It must have been a reflection in the glass doors. Rys inclined his head. His cape of roses ruffled and lifted in a hot updraft from the burning city. He stepped suddenly from the balcony, back into his own chambers.
As the sun's lowest edge touched the rim of the world, Rys's palace imploded, evaporating into white powder before that great motionless, kneeling observer. The concussion that followed seemed to crack the air apart and left Rachel's ears ringing. The falling bastion and its sentinel towers became ghosts of themselves that bent leeward in unison, and began to drift away in the breeze.
Rachel spread butter on a hunk of bread. Had she truly observed the last clash of gods in the world of men? Those deities whom the ignorant claimed to be fallen stars had seemed to her to sacrifice their souls too easily. She sensed trickery here. The glimpse she'd caught of Rys's own reflection had looked . . . odd. Something about it troubled her, but she couldn't say exactly why. Had Cospinol sent her forth from his fogbound skyship to deliberately witness this very display?
The kneeling arconite now stood and joined its eleven fellows. Sulphur fires clung to the shins of two of these automatons, and yet they appeared to be untroubled, perhaps even unaware of the flames. The Twelve moved north towards the walls of Coreollis, over which the haze of Cospinol's fog glowed dimly in the final light.
King Menoa had at last turned his attention to the Rotsward.
Rachel stuffed the hunk of bread into her mouth, gathered the remains of her picnic into her satchel, and then descended the log steps from the motte rampart, jogging down a further set of steps to the bailey, where she unhitched her horse's reins.
The animal tried to bite her, but she slipped past its neck and, grabbing its mane and placing a foot in the cloth stirrup, swung up into the saddle. She pressed her heels into the beast's flank, whereupon it snorted and sidestepped.
The horse blew and stamped a hoof.
She whipped the reins. "Natch."
Her mount began to walk backwards.
"Natch. Natches. Forward, you obstinate Heshette . . ." She dug her heels in sharply. "You know the command I'm trying to say. Ha!"
The beast lurched towards the bailey gate.
But time was against her, for the arconites now shared her destination and Cospinol's scouts would have noted as much. To reach the Rotsward before her foes she would have to ride quickly. She urged the horse into a gallop and clung on for her life. It bolted down the earthen track, throwing up clods of muddy grass, its worn hide sliding over ribs gripped between Rachel's knees. The path rounded a conical grass mound, the remains of some earlier fortification now overgrown with birch and black brambles, and veered northwards again towards a gloomy tunnel in the misty broadleaves. With long, slow strides, the arconites traversed swaths of ground at a pace Rachel's mount could not hope to match, but she had half a league's start on them-and she had the help of a thaumaturge waiting onboard the Rotsward.
Or so she hoped. Now would be a really good time, Mina.
From the battlefield to the west arose a new mist. It poured from the mouths of ten thousand slain men and demons like a final cold exhalation. A little blood yet remained in those warriors and, aboard the Rotsward, Mina Greene had used this to her advantage. Tendrils of fog intermingled above the corpses to form a thin grey pall that swelled and heaved and then rolled out over the Larnaig Field like a seawater tide. It consumed the slopes and the railway buildings and the lake and plains beyond in sorcerous mist. It billowed against the walls of Coreollis and swamped the forest where it merged with the Rotsward's own shroud of fog.
Rachel rode into the misty gloom of the forest. The sound of the horse's hooves grew duller as it thundered down the arboreal tunnel. A faint nimbus of light defined the gap in the trees through which she had entered the woodland, but the fog ahead hoarded a deep and varicose darkness. She could not see the path clearly, and her flight into those grey and flinty shadows felt like a plunge through the borderlands of delirium. Black branches intertwined with the mist around her, limp with dank brown foliage and lines of gossamer. The boles of oak and elm leaned over the narrow track like leering youth or stood back in the greyness like sullen old men. Twigs stabbed at Rachel's eyes, and the rushing air felt cold and damp against her face. The horse blew and huffed; its unshod hooves bore down upon a carpet of sodden mulch, kicking up leaves that smelled of worms and spiders.
From somewhere behind came the long low drone of horns. Rachel urged the horse on faster and, to her surprise, it responded. Perhaps that hunting call had finally given the beast the wits to share its rider's urgency, for it now thundered along the track like the true Heshette warhorse it once must have been.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from God of Clocks by Alan Campbell. Copyright © 2009 by Alan Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.