The Splintered Gods: Excerpt

Tuuran smashed his way through a jammed door into what he hoped was going to be a vault of riches beyond his wildest dreams. It wasn’t. He looked around, trying to quash his disappointment. Just paper. Neat little books of it. Big fat ledgers and small slim journals, and he couldn’t make head nor tail of any of it. Gold and silver, of which he certainly could have made something, were distinctly lacking. It didn’t bother him nearly as much as it ought to, though. A dragon had come and burned the city. On its back had been the girl from the Pinnacles, the girl he’d saved when they’d both been ten years younger, and she was alive and grown into a furious and terrible queen, and all the years he’d spent as a slave because of what he’d done that night suddenly had a meaning. Crazy Mad had found his warlock too, and Tuuran’s axe had cut off the warlock’s hand and then his head, and Crazy had taken the warlock’s weird knife. As for the rest – the war and chaos and death and fire, the ruin of a city under the flames of a furious dragon and the swords of a raging army – as for that, he was made for it. He was an Adamantine Man.

He rummaged through the papers again and didn’t find anything that looked to be worth much except a couple of silvery paperweights and a quill pen made from some exotic pretty feather. He stuffed them into his shoulder bag. The bag was almost full; in every room he entered he always found something. He took a couple of books too. Made good kindling, books, and you could always wipe your arse with them. When he was done, he picked his way back out of the shattered tower, through the litter-strewn ruins between cracked and crazed walls of enchanted Taiytakei gold-glass, boots crunching on a carpet of broken glittering shards. The remains of the palace were quiet now, deserted except for a handful of night-skin soldiers poking through the rubble for anything precious that might have survived when the towers had come down. Most of the Taiytakei had moved on, rooting out the handful of defenders too stupid to know a lost cause when it stared them in the face from the back of a dragon. In the next yard along, through a beautifully elegant ruby-glass arch which had somehow survived, three soldiers crouched around a litter of tumbled stonework, twisted metal and shattered golden glass, prodding at it. Tuuran had no idea what they’d found. As he watched, a palace slave, miraculously alive, crept out of some hiding place and ran away. No one tried to stop her. No one paid attention. There wasn’t anywhere for her to go.

Crazy Mad was sitting on the edge of a wall, looking out over the cliffs and the sea and the burning city. The dragon was gone but Crazy Mad’s eyes were set in its wake. Tuuran sat and nudged him.

‘Some nice loot in there,’ he said. ‘You should grab some while you can.’

Crazy Mad didn’t answer; but then Crazy carried a darkness inside, and a day with him wouldn’t be complete without a pause for a bit of inner turmoil. Tuuran didn’t mind. After everything he’d seen today, maybe he was in the mood for some thinking too – a thing as rare as the moon eclipsing the sun, but there it was – so he sat quietly beside his friend, looking out over the water. They’d sailed together across three worlds and fought battles side by side in every one of them. They’d crossed the storm-dark, chasing after Crazy Mad’s warlock, and they’d found him and done for him, and that was all good – it wasn’t as if Tuuran had had anything better to do. And then there was the Elemental Man who’d promised to take him home if Tuuran kept an eye on what Crazy Mad did, though he’d never said for how long or why or what to look for.

There was the dragon, too. The dragon had him thinking. Remembering. Ten years as a slave, years since he’d given up on going home, and now here he was, right back with all those longings again. And the girl from the Pinnacles, the dragon-queen Zafir, the speaker of the nine realms. She would have been his queen now. Duty. Desire. Purpose. They ran through him like fires out of control, messing with his head, confusing him. Crazy wanted to go to Aria and chase more warlocks. The long and short of it was that Tuuran didn’t.

A shout rang out from the rubble, then another and a crack of lightning and he was off his wall in a flash, crouched behind the gold-glass shield he’d stolen off a dead Taiytakei halfway up the Eye of the Sea Goddess, peering out in case everything was about to kick off again.

‘Bird! Bring it down!’

He couldn’t see who was doing the shouting but he saw the next flash of lightning, a jagged crack of it launched into the sky, fired off at some speck, a black dot against the deep blue, nothing more.

‘Bring it down! It came from the tower.’

Tuuran hunched up against the broken stone wall and watched, pieces of shattered gold-glass all around him. He didn’t have a lightning wand because the wands only worked for the night-skins. Did the slave brands see to that? He didn’t know. He watched the bird until he couldn’t see it any more. The night-skins threw a dozen lightning bolts, trying to bring it down, but they all missed. Eventually they stopped shouting at each other and got back to whatever they were doing.

Tuuran waited a bit, just in case they decided to change their minds and started throwing lightning again; when they didn’t, he got up, stretched his shoulders and wandered around the walls, skirting the smashed chunks of glass from the two fallen towers of what had once been the glorious Palace of Roses, all odd shapes and splinters and corners now, some of them as big as a house, all scattered among glittering gravel. Three towers of glass and gold had once stood here, colossal things that scraped the sky itself when he’d looked from the city below, but only one was left standing. The dragon had brought the other two down, rending them with claw and lashing tail, cracking them cascading to the jagged stumps that remained. The elegant yards and immaculate gardens that had once run between them were covered in twinkling splinters and sparkling rubble. Dead men – pieces of dead men – lay in scattered piles against the outer walls, and many of those walls were cracked and splintered too. In the sunlight the ruins gleamed like a vast pile of gold. Tuuran sniggered to himself at that. Like an immense heap of treasure with a dragon on the top, only the dragon had gone.

The remains of black-powder cannon lay scattered about, their gold-glass workings fractured and broken, their metal tubes and gears mangled and twisted but not so broken as to hide their purpose and thus their failure. What wasn’t smashed was scorched and charred or pockmarked by the shrapnel of flying knives of glass. Where the outer ring of the palace was more than a twisted iron skeleton in a circle of debris, where it hadn’t been smashed open or exploded from the inside, handfuls of Taiytakei soldiers herded groups of captives. A magnificent gatehouse stood bizarrely intact, its bronze gates as tall as a dragon. They hung open and askew and seemed to Tuuran slightly sad. Beyond, a zigzag road wound down the slope of the Dul Matha. Two more gatehouses lay scorched and burned across its way, scattered around with the charred remains of the dragon’s passing. The road wound to the edge of the cliff, to the glass-and-gold Bridge of Forever or the Bridge of Eternity or something like that – Tuuran couldn’t remember – which joined Dul Matha to the island that was the Eye of the Sea Goddess. The first bridge to join those cliffs had been made from a rope spun from the hair of Ten Tazei or some daft story like that. Now a great span of golden glass levitated between them, a thousand feet above the sea. It was still intact. That was something then, since the only other way off the island palace was to plunge from the cliffs into the sea.

Tuuran’s eyes scanned the road, winding their way down. In a few places blackened bodies still smouldered from the dragon’s passing. Furtive figures scuttled among them. Fugitives? Men of conscience lingering to give last rites to the dead and ease their passage to the next life? Maybe just looters. The brave and the mad. Crazy people. Tuuran had seen plenty of fights in his time but none as bloody as this. No quarter. Mobs of enraged slaves tearing night-skins to pieces. The dragon burning everything. Kept a man on edge, that did. Best to keep quiet and out of the way. He went back to his wall and nudged Crazy. ‘We should be going, my friend.’

Crazy ignored him. Not that that was particularly strange.

When Tuuran looked again, Taiytakei soldiers were piling barrels across the middle of the bridge. He didn’t much like the look of that, at least not while he was standing on the wrong side of it. ‘They’re going to bring it down,’ he said. ‘Then we’re stuck here. I’m not sure they’re going to let us off.’ The other Taiytakei didn’t look they were leaving any time soon though, so he supposed there wasn’t any hurry. Still, it had his hackles up.

Crazy didn’t move. On other days Tuuran might have shrugged his shoulders and sat beside him, waiting for Crazy to come back from wherever his thoughts had taken him. But today Tuuran had a dragon to find. It made him restless. They were going their separate ways from here. He could feel it.

‘Well then. I’ll be going,’ he said; and when Crazy still didn’t look round, Tuuran nodded to himself because this was how an Adamantine Man was after all. Each to his own duty. No regrets, no doubts, no hesitation, just getting on with what needed to be done. He turned his back and walked alone through the great bronze gates and down towards the bridge, briskly past the dead and the living. No sense dallying. It was time to move on. Making a fuss about it wouldn’t change anything, however shit it felt to simply up and go.

He reached the bridge. Two Taiytakei stopped what they were doing and turned to meet him, barring his way. The rest kept on taking barrels off a glass sled hovering in the air beside them. The ground around the end of the bridge was thick with bodies and tumbled stone, same as when Tuuran and Crazy had first come over, a litany of dead among makeshift impromptu barricades that had all counted for nothing when the dragon came crashing among them. The bodies he remembered were all charred black and flaking on account of the dragon burning fifty shades of shit out of everything, so it wasn’t hard to see the corpses that had come later. A scatter of slaves, their pale dead skin untouched by dragon-fire. To Tuuran, the scars and burns that marked them looked a lot like lightning.

The Taiytakei blocking his path across the bridge had lightning wands hung from their hips. They were dressed in glass-and-gold armour and carried ornately spiked maces for smashing that same armour to pieces. Ashgars. Tuuran didn’t have any of those things, but he did have a nice big gold-glass shield that seemed to do for the lightning and a nice big axe too; and he’d found his axe could make a very pleasant mess even of a man dressed in gold-glass.

The fresh bodies were unbranded oar-slaves, most of them, but there were sword-slaves in there too. Tuuran smiled at the Taiytakei soldiers and shook his head and kept on coming. One hand went behind his back as if to scratch an itch. He rolled his shoulders, loosening his shield arm. This was all going to go bad, wasn’t it?

The closer soldier whipped out his wand and fired. Tuuran saw it coming and dropped to his haunches. Lightning cracked and sparked off his shield. His ears rang, his eyes stung, a sudden sharp tang in the air bit at his nose. Never mind that though. He moved fast, a sudden dash forward, the hand behind his back clamped around the shaft of his axe.

‘You shit-eating slavers never change, do you?’ A second thunderous flash of lightning deafened and half-blinded him, but he was still moving and his axe was swinging around his head, and the two Taiytakei in front of him were gawping like a pair of old men, too busy wondering why their lightning hadn’t killed him to be thinking straight. The swing of his axe took the first soldier across the face, smashing his helm and showering bits of it down his throat. Most of his chin and his teeth jumped loose in a spray of red. The axe didn’t stop. Tuuran steered its blade into the second man’s shoulder. The first Taiytakei fell back, sank to his knees and held his hands to his face and then crumpled. Tuuran gave him a few seconds before he either fainted or drowned in his own blood. The second soldier was still up, screaming, hand clutched to his shoulder, a few teeth and bits of the first soldier’s face wrapped around his neck. Tuuran hadn’t met any armour yet that could turn a sharp axe on the end of a good strong arm, but the gold-glass had taken the sting out of his swing. Well, that and the first man’s face.

Out on the bridge the Taiytakei stacking barrels had stopped. Eight of them, and they all had their own wands and were reaching for them. A little voice in the back of Tuuran’s head wondered whether he’d properly thought this one through. He kicked the wounded soldier hard in the hip and slammed into him, face to face, driving him towards the others. Lightning hit them, bursting in sparks all around the wounded man’s gold-glass. It bit at Tuuran’s face and fingers. He yelped and jumped away, almost dropped his axe, shoved the wounded man at the others, sparks still jumping from his armour, stumbled and almost fell. Eight at once? Soft in the head that was . . .

Change of plan. He cringed behind his shield, stooped and kicked at one of the sleds they’d used to carry the barrels and sent it gliding back the way he’d come. He jumped on it as the soldiers found their wits, turned as fast as he could as they threw lightning at him, and hunkered down, the shield held behind him, eyes almost closed, teeth gritted, muttering a prayer or two to his ancestors as the sled carried him back to the end of the bridge. Thunderbolts rang around him. He felt them hit the shield. His hand went numb and then the sled reached the rubble of the barricades and Tuuran threw himself helter-skelter behind the first cover he could see. He took a moment and a few deep breaths. He certainly wasn’t about to get up close into a fight with eight lunatics throwing lightning about the place when they were surrounded by explosive barrels of black powder.

‘Well then, Tuuran, now what?’ The fresh bodies told him all he needed to know: the Taiytakei were killing everyone. Scorching the earth. He wasn’t even much surprised. You didn’t let loose a horde of slaves and then expect them to walk meekly back into their chains when it was done. And you certainly didn’t leave them to spread havoc and a dangerous taste for freedom.

He peered out and then ducked back as more lightning came his way. ‘I was on your side you mudfeet,’ he yelled at them, not that it was going to make any difference.

A movement caught his eye in the cracked stone and splinters of what might once have been a watchtower. A piece of burning wood flew from it onto the bridge. Another followed and then another. They skittered across the glass and landed around the Taiytakei and their barrels of black powder. Tuuran sank down, grinning. Lightning flew back, raking the wreckage of the watchtower but didn’t seem to make any difference to the burning sticks flying out onto the bridge. When the lightning finally stopped, Tuuran risked a look. Taiytakei were running full pelt away. The barrels sat still and quiet. Pieces of wood burned around them.

‘Hey!’ Tuuran threw a stone at the ruined tower. ‘Crazy? That you?’

Crazy Mad scuttled out from the rubble, hunched low in case the bridge exploded or some idiot started chucking lightning at him again. He hurdled Tuuran’s floating sled and dived into the dirt beside him. ‘And how far did you think you’d get without me, big man?’

‘As far as I bloody wanted.’ Tuuran smiled as he said it. Might have been true – probably was – but it felt right, the two of them side by side.

‘No ships to take me back to Aria here.’ Crazy shuffled closer, watching the bridge and peering at the Taiytakei on the far side. ‘No ships to take us anywhere at all, by the looks of it.’

‘Told you so.’

‘Smug piece of shit.’ Crazy crawled to the sled and poked at it. ‘What’s this then?’

‘Cargo sled. The night-skins use them to move stuff about when they can’t use slaves. Must have carried the powder up from the ships.’

Crazy poked at it some more. He seemed fascinated by the way it hovered over the ground and moved back and forth with even the lightest touch. ‘What happens if I push this off a cliff? It just keeps floating, does it?’

Tuuran shrugged. ‘Well I was hoping so. That or it plunges to the sea, tips everything off as it goes and then settles itself nice and happy a foot above the waves with everything else smashed to bits on the rocks below. Definitely one or the other. Maybe depends on how much you put on top of it.’ He shrugged. ‘How would I know? Do I look like a night-skin to you?’

Crazy gave him a dirty look. ‘Best I don’t answer that, big man. So, you planning on waiting here for them soldiers up at the palace to come and find they haven’t got a bridge any more and then for the two of us to fight a few hundred Taiytakei for the only way off this place? Or were you thinking more about slipping off somewhere quiet while they’re all still busy. Because I’m easy, either way.’ Crazy turned, tugging at the sled. After a moment Tuuran followed, walking back up the road out of range of the Taiytakei across the bridge. The barrels still hadn’t exploded.

‘You should have thrown more fire,’ Tuuran said.

Crazy Mad shrugged. ‘I threw enough.’ He chuckled. ‘You wait, big man. Just when you’re not ready . . . then boom.’ He snapped his fingers.

It was probably a coincidence that the bridge exploded a moment later, but with Crazy Mad these days you could never quite be sure.