An excerpt from Timepiece

For a moment, Elizabeth thought she was in a thunderstorm, though no rain fell. Lightning lit up the sky in a flash of blue-white, then was gone. It was followed by a crash of thunder, deafening, just overhead. A sudden cold wind sprang up and rushed over her, tugging her breath along with it.

“William—” she gasped.

“Here—” The wind tore the word away from her ears, as it had torn the breath from her throat. But he was right beside her, a vague source of warmth, and then a definite one as he pulled her closer. “I’m right here.”

But where was “here”? Somehow, impossibly, they were no longer in the orchard. The lightning flash had shown her not trees, but high brick walls. The wind carried with it not leaves, but sheets of paper, tumbling against her skirt and plastering themselves there.

There was no second flash of lightning, but there was a second boom of thunder. It shook the ground under Elizabeth’s feet.

And it shook the ground again.

She couldn’t see, no matter how hard she tried, but she knew that there was something enormous coming towards her. It took another stomping, earsplitting step. For the first time in her life, Elizabeth was too frightened to move. William’s body tensed, and he drew a breath to say what she knew would be “Run!”, preparing to drag her with him—

Something grabbed her arm and tore her from William’s grasp.

Her shoes scrabbled for purchase, but found none on the slick surface beneath her, and she went down, hard, onto bruising cobblestone. She couldn’t catch her breath or find her footing. She couldn’t do anything except fumble in the slippery muck. There was someone above her, looming over her—someone she could sense but could not see. Farther away, William called her name in a tone of desperation, while the ground all around them shook, and shook again, as something immense passed them by. The jolts grew fainter and less frequent as the thing, whatever it was, moved away.

A light flared, dazzling in the darkness.

“Get away from her!” William shouted, and flung himself forward. The flame went out. “Unhand her, sir, at once—”

“I’m not trying to hurt her!” a second voice snapped, but William did not wait for explanations. There was a brief scuffle that Elizabeth could feel and hear but could not see. She had just time enough to think again of gathering herself and struggling upright, and then the fracas before her ended in a “oof” of pain—from William, she thought with a jolt of sickness. The flame flared alight again, a blinding glare that set Elizabeth’s eyes tearing before it settled into a larger, duller gleam. A lantern.

“I’m not trying to hurt her!” the voice behind the light repeated. It was an old man’s voice—it had the crotchety, creaking sound of an exasperated old man. “I’m trying to save you both, you young fool! What on earth possessed to go wandering about after curfew? And what the devil were you doing, standing in the middle of the street like that?” The voice and the lantern moved closer to Elizabeth, and the owner of the lantern crouched down beside her. “You could both have been killed!” he continued. “Don’t you know enough to get out of their—” The lantern shone full on her face then, and the words broke off.

“…way,” he finished after a moment. “Well. Well, I imagine… I imagine you don’t, in that case. I… presume this is your first foray.”

“What?” was all Elizabeth could manage.

“I have one too,” the man said. He transferred the lantern to his left hand, and withdrew his right into the darkness beyond the spill of light. He motioned in a way that Elizabeth thought was a fumble at his waistcoat—and then the right hand reappeared, holding for her inspection an overly-large golden pocket watch. Lantern light gleamed softly in the crevices of etching and scratches.

From the darkness behind the old man, something screamed.

Elizabeth jerked and kicked and somehow got enough purchase against mud and cobblestones to lurch upright. Her outflung arm struck something warm and solid, and William seized hold of her and pulled her the rest of the way up. The swinging circle of lantern-light told her the old man was on his feet now too. He slammed down the lantern’s shutter, dropping inky blackness over them all, and then his hand met her shoulder with almost the same force.

The brick wall bruised her back and knocked the breath from her lungs for a second time, and between that and his hand over her mouth, she could not possibly scream. “Hush,” he commanded, his lips close to her ear. “Both of you.” Still pressing Elizabeth to the wall with his body, he took his hand off her mouth long enough to reach out and pull William to huddle with them. “It will come back this way, and it mustn’t find us.”

The shriek came out of the darkness again, somewhere in front of Elizabeth and to her right. It was nothing like the thunder: this sound was unmistakably animal, a cross between a man in pain and a bull enraged. There was one moment of awful silence, then from the left came another crash that shook the ground. Elizabeth, pinioned by the old man’s surprising strength, found herself as frozen and helpless as in any nightmare.

Blue lightning seared her eyes again… and this time, did not fade. A white-tinged half-light lit the sky above the buildings—tall buildings; she could see them plainly now; her earlier brief impression had been correct. They were in a city. Around her was a city street—or more precisely a city alleyway, strewn with broken things and filth. Over the old man’s shoulder, she could see the entrance to the proper street and a bit of the street itself, wider and cleaner and more evenly cobblestoned. The sobbing roar had come from there, but she could not see who or what had made the sound. Her view was cut off by the dilapidated walls that rose all around her, more than three stories high with chimneys even higher, their stacks straggling unevenly against the sickly-colored sky. And above the chimneys—

Above the chimneys, the nightmare came. It came in the shape of a man, a giant out of a fairytale—except the giant Jack found up a beanstalk had been made of flesh and blood and so could be killed, and this giant’s skin shone copper like a teakettle. It moved with heavy, jerking motions, and each time its foot drove into the cobblestones, a jolt ran through them and Elizabeth’s teeth chattered in her head. This monster would not even feel a tumble down a beanstalk.

It took another step forward, and Elizabeth could see its face. She bit her lip to keep from crying out in horror. It had no mouth or nose, and somehow the blank impassive countenance was worse than the ponderous thundering feet. From its eyes streamed blue-white light, not unlike a lantern in some ways, but so much colder and more remote, and strong enough to light the whole sky.

“Shh,” the old man murmured. His hands trembled as he held her against the wall.

From the street came another howl. Pain, Elizabeth thought, it sounded like pain. She had been nearby when one of the men who worked Mr. Carrington’s estate had broken his leg—a bad break, ugly, the bones poking through the skin. She remembered that two of his fellows had held him down for the apothecary, and she remembered how he had screamed. She remembered how heads had poked out of nearby windows in response to the screams—and the windows of these decrepit buildings were lighting up now, pale yellow squares that could not compete with the giant’s streaming bright light.

The wall pressed cold and rough through the thin fabric of her gown. William was a solid source of warmth beside her, and the old man stood before them both, cloak spread out as though he was trying to shelter them under his wings, keeping them out of the monster’s sight or shielding their eyes from whatever horror was playing out in the street. But Elizabeth could see a small piece of the street, over the old man’s shoulder and around a fold of his cloak. She could see the white-lit sky and the giant’s impassive face, and she could not bear to hide her eyes and not know.

And so when the thing that had howled scrambled to its feet and darted forward, she had a clear view of it. It was more like a man than the great copper giant, but it was bigger than any man had any right to be, with limbs mismatched to its height like the drawing of a gorilla Elizabeth had once seen. The yellowy-white flesh of its face drooped as though too large for the bones. The monster was dressed in what looked to Elizabeth like grave-clothes, and long matted hair swung over its shoulders. She thought of a story about werewolves she had heard once long ago, which had frightened her more than she had ever wanted to admit. The thing that was somewhat like a werewolf lurched towards the alleyway, dragging behind it something that might have been an enormous bundle of rags or might have been another creature like itself.

But then the entire sky blazed with a riot of light and noise and fireworks, and the beast jerked, swayed, and fell in a heap at the mouth of the alley.

“—now!” the old man hissed, jerking her by the arm, and Elizabeth stumbled after him, ears ringing with horror and the sound of cannon.