The Clockwork King of Orl
The beast craved flesh.
There, within the dark depths of the Sardenne Forest, that primal place curving like a great black bow beneath the frozen and fiery peaks of the World's Ridge Mountains, at the eastern edge of the peninsula, where civilisation stopped, the beast rolled insane and bulbous eyes, ground together huge and slavering jaws, and with a ravenous snort slowly advanced on the human it knew to be helpless before it.
The dark-maned young woman stood with her hands on the waist of her billowing squallcoat, head cocked to the side, weighing up the heavy creature as it came. She stood her ground, boots planted firmly against the foetid night winds of the forest, feeling her soles tremble as the ponderous beast thudded closer, unflinching despite the fact she was unarmed and facing it alone. There was no one nearby to help her. No one, in fact, anywhere within leagues of her, for this was a place humans rarely trod, and where the ones who had come before the humans had not trodden for countless aeons, since their civilisations had gone. She had long ago left behind what settlements dotted the edge of this dark expanse, long ago passed the silent stares and downed tools of their inhabitants as she moved between their homes and on into the darkness. Even those hardened woodcutters only ventured into the forest's outlying regions, and only then under the guard of their best fighting men, men who kept watchful eyes — and readied weapons — trained on the shadows that gathered about them. Beyond, the forest was considered impenetrable, and those who sought to prove otherwise — those who invariably never returned — to be foolhardy in the extreme. So it was the Sardenne had remained all but unexplored. The oldest of evils were said to lurk within its dark depths, and tales were told — in hushed tones, behind bolted doors — of creatures fantastic and terrifying that wandered there, waiting to corrupt or devour any intruder who entered their lair.
The young woman was not foolhardy but she was determined. By now, she had been travelling for three days, ever inwards, and so by all measures of the forest's dangers should be dead — or worse. With stealth, forestcraft and some alchemical guile, however, she had managed to evade the attentions of its darker denizens, though she had lost count of the times roars, rattles, whispers or blood-curdling screeches had alerted her to their presence, close by, in the darkness around her.
The darkness. What passed for night on the rest of Twilight — the haunting, azure halflight filtered through the gas giant Kerberos — was here more akin to longnight, the greater darkness that only occurred when, four times a year, the world's distant sun passed behind Kerberos and the eclipses came. It was worse than longnight, in truth, because while then the grey- and silver-streaked surface of the looming giant could still be discerned above her, here the forest's canopy was almost total, as smothering and as dark as an oubliette.
Dark, that was, apart from the moist whiteness of the eyes of the beast, glittering, demanding saucers that had grown ever closer and loomed before her now. Yes, she might have made it this far but this was a confrontation she could not avoid. This particular beast would not allow her to progress until it had taken everything she had, its unnatural hunger sated.
She let it come, one hand slipping into a pocket of her squallcoat and wrapping itself in readiness around a small round object hidden within. Seeing her movement, and perhaps suspecting something, the beast reared its head and snorted steam from dark and expansive nostrils, and on the end of a thick, anvilled snout a pair of huge and fleshy lips curled back to reveal an array of tombstone teeth that, exposed in this way, appeared to grin as insanely as the bulbous eyes had rolled. The young woman steeled herself, her hand ready, but then without warning the beast lurched forwards and a slimy tongue the size of a rowing boat paddle slapped across her face. She batted it away, gagging and recoiling from a blast of foetid breath, took a step back and, with a groan of disgust, wiped a sliding patch of viscous slobber from her cheek and the lapel of her squallcoat. She flicked it to the ground with a grimace, shaking her hand until all of it was gone. Gods, that was disgusting!
Kali Hooper sighed.
'I taught you to wait,' she said, exasperated. 'All right, fine, okay. But this is the last, you hear me?'
The beast whinnied, nodding its head rapidly, and Kali produced the round object from her pocket, a lardon of bacon she tossed towards it. The meat hit the beast's snout, from where, its party trick, it was deliberately bounced back into the air before being caught in the huge mouth then manoeuvred beneath it. The beast rolled its insane eyes again and chomped down gratefully, drooling copiously as it ate.
'Those things will make you fat, Horse, you know that?' Kali said. 'Eff — ay — tee.' She punctuated the letters with hearty slaps to the shire's thick neck, prompting a head-butting that almost pushed her over. 'What use will you be then, you obese lump? Going to be you riding me to the Spiral, is it?'
The Spiral, Kali thought, and sighed again. The truth was, she'd be happy lugging Horse there if only she could find the damned thing. She slapped his neck a final time and slumped herself down at the base of a tree, once again unfolding the map she'd paid fifty full silver for from a contact in Turnitia some weeks before. Focusing on it in the dimness, she made a tired, brubbing sound with her lips. Acquired from a collection whose legal ownership she wasn't privy to, the old and hand-drawn map purported to show the whereabouts of an Old Race site whose name she'd translated as the Spiral of Kos. She'd had her doubts about the map's provenance at the time but had handed over her money not because of what the Spiral of Kos was — frankly, she hadn't a clue — but rather its location here in the deeps of the Sardenne. Its very inaccessibility meant the site was likely untouched, and potentially that made it — and what it might contain — her most interesting find yet. Trouble was, authentic or not, the map was not to scale, and having found nothing so far she now had to decide whether to venture deeper into the forest, knowing that there lay Bellagon's Rip, reputed to be the stomping ground of the Pale Lord himself. While she didn't have any problem with that wayward necromancer — as long as he left her alone — she had to admit the vast army of undead under his command gave her pause for thought. If she wanted to spend the rest of her existence staggering around gibbering, she'd rather just be permanently betwattled, thank you very much.
Kali wished she could have a drink right there. Her chosen lifestyle — what she liked to think of as athletic archaeology — was one hells of a way to make a living.
She started. She had been so absorbed in her thoughts she had almost missed the fact that some thing had moved in the nearby undergrowth just then, something that alerted her with a crack of wood and a flash of something… chitinous at the edge of her vision. She instantly tensed, hunched to make herself small, and her eyes darted from left to right in her otherwise frozen form. Dammit, she thought — she'd broken her own golden rule, grown too complacent, stayed in one place too long. What was worse, she'd only just noticed that in wiping off some of Horse's drool she'd also smeared away some of the floprat render with which she'd been coating her squallcoat to deceive curious noses, and in doing so had released a whiff of her own human scent.
Humans were a delicacy here, and a whiff was enough. Whatever was in the bushes had found her because of it. And whatever it was, it wasn't friendly.
Kali didn't hang around, springing gymnastically onto Horse's back. Behind her, heralded by a sudden flight of panicked shrikes, she saw not one but maybe three predators — it was difficult to tell — glistening, angular carapaced things that reared out of the undergrowth on stickwood legs, and then in total silence, bar a sound like baby bones snapping, folded themselves around the trees towards her. Kali had no idea what the things were, and didn't want to know — and neither did Horse.
Her entreaty of 'Go, go, go!' was entirely redundant as the great beast had also spotted the monstrosities and, with a panicked bray, was off, not at anything that could be described as a gallop but building his own hulking momentum, designed to get him and Kali the hells out of there, whether there were trees in the way or not. The pair ploughed ahead, gaining a few seconds as their predators sniffed at what Horse had involuntarily left behind, but then they could be heard behind them once more, folding and snapping themselves through the forest in a determined and slowly accelerating pursuit.
Accelerating some himself now, Horse thudded blindly on, neither he nor Kali caring where they headed. But then the pair of them broke through, suddenly, into an unexpectedly treeless area of the forest, a large glade where the canopy opened to the sky. Despite the openness the place was almost unnaturally still, thick with lazily hovering