The Emperor of Aria is dead, and three junior members of a street gang are unwittingly caught up in the ensuing struggle for the throne…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from The Moonsteel Crown, the first epic adventure in a new fantasy world from author Stephen Deas—publishing February 9th with Angry Robot.
The Emperor of Aria has been murdered, the Empire is in crisis, and Dead Men walk the streets…
But Myla, Fings, and Seth couldn’t care less. They’re too busy just trying to survive in the Sulk-struck city of Varr, committing petty violence and pettier crimes to earn their keep in the Unrulys, a motley gang led by Blackhand.
When the Unrulys are commissioned to steal a mysterious item to order, by an equally mysterious patron, the trio are thrust right into the bitter heart of a struggle for the Crown, where every faction is after what they have.
Forced to lie low in a city on lockdown, they will have to work together if they want to save their skins… and maybe just save the Empire as well.
Myla crashed into the wall, felt wooden panels bend under the impact, and launched herself through the open door. Snow flew from her feet as the night air hit her. She felt the world close in, the ornamental gardens compressing into a dark tunnel, her at one end, Dinn and Arjay ahead, running down the last of the Spicers through the winter snow.
“Don’t let him get away!” Wil was close behind with Brick and Dox. Somewhere, trailing at the back, was Blackhand.
The Spicers weren’t going to get away. They were bolting for a gate which she and Dinn had tied shut ten minutes ago. It wouldn’t hold for long, but it wouldn’t need to.
How to end this without it getting bloody? The old skinny one wouldn’t be a problem, nor the chubby one, but the other three… Two dark-skinned locals, all brawn and muscles, and a pale-skinned lad with a sword. Young, too. The sort of men who hadn’t yet found themselves on the wrong end of a fight. The trouble with men like that was that they didn’t understand when they were beaten. Made it hard to take them down without hurting them.
The one with the sword. Him first. If she could take him out of the fight fast, the other two might falter. He was from the south. Deephaven, maybe, like her, or possibly Torpreah, so maybe he’d be willing to talk. He was taking coin from the Spicers, that was all. She could appeal to his sense as a mercenary.
Of course, it didn’t help that Blackhand kept shouting out from the back, things like Gut them! and Maim the fuckers! and I want him skinned and his head on a fucking pike! Didn’t exactly set the best of tones for a negotiated surrender, that.
She skidded around a corner, sliding on compacted snow towards a pair of rickety shacks as the Spicers dashed between them and down the waiting alley, straight towards Dinn’s tied- shut gate.
Keep Chubby and let the others go? The old skinny one would take that and be grateful. Blackhand would be livid but he wouldn’t catch up in time to make a difference, and no one in their right mind argued with a sword-monk, even with a lapsed one who’d crashed out of training and drank too much.
The shacks were collapsing, their flimsy walls exploding outward in a cloud of snow, and then suddenly there were two shambling figures standing in Myla’s path as Dinn and Arjay ran past. They stepped forward, blocking her way, and the right thing to do was to dance around them, past them, through them somehow, leave them to Wil and Dox and Brick while she stayed close to Dinn and Arjay, but there was something wrong about the way these two stood…
She snatched a glance over her shoulder. More figures were emerging from the darkness around the edges of the garden. Three, four, maybe more. Like the two in front of her, they were slow and ponderous. She felt a shiver that wasn’t the cold and then a blaze of hungry righteous fury.
Dead Men. Corpses denied the light of the sun or running water or open skies. Souls trapped in murdered bodies, bound to dead flesh until the Hungry Goddess took them for an eternity of anguish. Blasphemy and heresy, the sort that would summon a mayhem of wrathful priests and sword-monks to send the dead on their way and the living to a short, hard life in the Imperial mines, if ever they knew.
Metal glinted from their hands. Someone had given them claws. Dead Men were easy to avoid if you could run away because they weren’t fast and didn’t last long in sunlight; but they were hard to take down in the dark if you didn’t have fire, and once they got hold of you, they didn’t let go…
Fire… or blades made of Sunsteel. Sword-monk blades, in other words.
Myla grinned and lashed out. The first cut struck a wrist, slicing through in a warm flare of light. The second skewered the nearest corpse in the face. The Sunsteel edge slid through him as though he was made of butter and snapped the tether to his soul. She glanced to the clear sky and the stars and the fat waxing moon and whispered a prayer. Fickle Lord Moon would get this one, or maybe the Ever-Shifting Mistress of the Stars would steal him.
The second Dead Man barely noticed he was missing a hand. She took him from the side, both swords in deep, setting him free. This, more than anything, was what a sword-monk was for.
“Myla!” Wil again. Behind her, Wil and Dox and Brick had scattered. Four more Dead Men were shambling around the garden, too slow to be dangerous; but down the alley, the Spicers had reached the gate. Beyond lay Spice Market Square, a flat field of trampled snow where they could scatter and run to the Longcoats, or the even the Sunguard of the temple. Dinn and Arjay were facing off against them, two on five, and the pale- skinned man had a sword, a sword against sticks and knives…
She ran faster. The snow in the alley was deep enough to crest the top of her boots, deep enough to make her clumsy and slow. The walls around her seemed blacker and taller than they had in daylight. It felt like a place to die, this alley.
No one is going to die.
Skinny crashed into the gate and bounced back with a curse and a clutch of his shoulder. “It’s tied!”
“Then cut it, you moron!” Of all of them, Chubby was right to be scared. Blackhand wasn’t known for his mercy. “Cut it! Khrozus! He’ll kill the lot of us.”
“Stop!” Myla shouted. “No one has to die here!”
“Fuck you.” The pale-skinned man drew his sword. Dinn, never the brightest, swung his stick. The pale-skinned man ducked and stabbed him through the neck.
“Dinn!” Arjay leapt forward as Dinn collapsed to his knees, clutching at the blood spraying from his throat.
“I know you, don’t I?” The pale-skinned swordsman ignored Arjay, leaving her to the others, and came at Myla. “What were you saying about no one dying?”
A sell-sword out of Deephaven, same as her. It wasn’t only his skin, it was the way he dressed, the way he held himself, the accent to his words. He came at her cautiously, sword glinting in the moonlight. A nice weapon, which meant money, either some rich-boy idiot slumming or else Chubby had paid for someone who actually knew what they were doing. The Spicers, like Blackhand’s Unrulys, mostly did their fighting by shouting and waving sticks at each other until someone backed down. Not this one though. Whoever he was, Dinn’s wasn’t the first life he’d ended.
Skinny was at the gate, fumbling for a knife. Arjay was wrestling with the two other Spicers and Dinn was taking his time dying and making a right scene of it. Chubby’s eyes danced from her to the gate and back again. All he needed were however many precious seconds it took for Skinny to cut the rope…
“Do I have to kill you?” she asked the swordsman. She hadn’t wanted to, running after them. But right now, Dinn’s blood fresh on the snow, listening to him thrash and gurgle out his last moments, she wasn’t so sure.
The swordsman caught her eye. “You’re Myla.”
He knew her name, did he? Then he knew what she was and he ought to be afraid. Trouble was, when she met his eye, she saw only murder.
“Jeffa says hello.”
Jeffa? What the fuck did Jeffa have to do with–
He came at her fast, taking that moment of surprise, swinging high. Myla dodged inside the blow, expecting him to jump away to keep his distance, but he stepped in close instead and stabbed at her with a dirk hidden in his other hand. The pattern of Myla’s defence shattered. She improvised a parry and crashed into him, felt the mail under his coat, smelled hints of stale beer and cinnamon as breath exploded out of them both. He staggered but stayed up; Myla felt her thighs and knees strain and then the snow betrayed her. Instinct tucked her arms and head into her body, turning the fall into a roll.
Kelm’s teeth! Watch your footing! Her face was full of snow, blinding her. It was in her hair, sliding down her neck, everywhere…
“Don’t let the fuckers get away!” Blackhand’s shout rang through the alley. Myla scrabbled to her feet and shook off the snow, straight into a defensive form, expecting the swordsman to be on her at once… but Brick was running at him now, Brick who was all bravado and no skill just like the rest of them, Brick who was going to lose, badly and quickly…
She liked Brick.
Skinny was hacking at the rope around the gate, frozen fingers making a pig’s ear of it. Arjay was on the ground, the other two Spicer thugs apparently set on kicking her to death.
She liked Arjay, too.
She ran at the Spicers on Arjay first, flailing her swords, scattering them into Chubby and Skinny. A slash at Skinny cut his arm and sent the knife spinning out of his hand and then she whirled away as the swordsman lunged at Brick, stabbing him hard in the chest and sprawling him flat on his back.
Jeffa says hello.
What the fuck was Jeffa Hawat doing in Varr?
The swordsman turned to face her. A heavy leather coat hid his physique and the mail underneath, but he was strong, she knew that now, and held his blade with a loose, easy grip. He knew what he was doing.
The Dragon’s Tail, then. The form came by instinct, a flick at the tip of his sword to knock it aside, anticipating his recovery, feinting, blocking the inevitable counter and then a rush. He pushed her aside and stepped sharply back but neither was enough; as she ran past, she bashed him in the head and twisted and reached low, slashing the hook of her second sword at his retreating ankle. She pulled the cut at the last. She didn’t want to take his whole foot, only his enthusiasm.
The form completed. She turned, expecting to see him on the ground, but no, he was coming at her, a snarling frenzy, poise gone, hammering blow after blow, pain and indignation welded into fury. She slipped into the Wall of Seventeen Claws but his sheer savagery shattered it. A swing came in hard enough to split her to the spine. When she blocked it, the shock sent a jolt of pain through her elbow. She felt something give in her shoulder.
Speed, not your swords, will protect you. You must think only of attack, attack, attack. If you hesitate, you will fail. Sky Strikes the Earth. Begin.
A turning step forward, right sword swinging low, snapping a cut to the groin. A sweep at his ankles and then she dropped. A flick of the wrist for extra speed, an unexpected rising cut as he flailed for balance and she caught him cleanly at the wrist, severing his hand.
Dinn finally planted himself face down in the snow, red all around him, and stopped moving. Behind her, Brick was honking for air like a dying goose.
A half-step forward, both swords in wild converging arcs. A moment of pure focus as the form completed into a deep stance, knee bent at a right angle, the other leg trailing behind her, swords spread wide to the stars…
The swordsman’s head landed in the snow beside her. A rain of blood spattered over the alley, bright red on pristine white. Somewhere far away, Wil was shouting. She heard a shriek.
He could have told you about Jeffa.
The head stared up at her from the snow. Eyes wide and open. She felt her old sword-mistress looking on. Bitter, mistrustful and deadly Tasahre. Sword-monks exist to put down abominations. No hesitation, no doubt, no second chances. An ordinary man? A single look should be all it takes.
Wil and Dox barged past, brandishing blades at the remaining Spicers, forcing them away from Arjay. Chubby was shouting at them to fight, and Skinny too, and wasn’t three on three fair odds?
The other Spicers were all just staring at her.
A single look should be all it takes.
Fine. She met their eyes, one by one, and held out her swords, dripping with blood. One by one, they dropped their weapons to the snow.
Jeffa says hello.
They’d found her, then. They’d followed her all this way and they’d found her, and she’d let anger get in the way of sense again, and now someone else was dead.
I need a drink.
Dox helped Arjay to her feet. Brick was on all fours and puking but at least he wasn’t vomiting blood. Wil went for Chubby. Chubby lunged and Wil grabbed his wrist, twisted, took his knife off him, and that was that. Skinny didn’t even resist, too busy staring at the headless corpse and all the dark blood-soaked snow. By the time Blackhand caught up, Arjay and Dox had Skinny and the other two Spicers backed against the gate. Wil had Chubby on his knees. Blackhand took it all in, the bloody snow, Dinn with his throat ripped open, the corpse of the sell-sword and his severed head.
“Dead Men and a sell-sword, eh?” He turned to Chubby. “I hope they cost you a fortune, you unwanted dose of cock-rot.” He spat, then nodded to Wil. “Take him back to the house.”
“What about these three?” asked Arjay, as Dox and Wil dragged Chubby away. She wasn’t standing quite right after the kicking she’d taken.
Blackhand slapped her on the shoulder, hard enough that she winced. “Two of theirs for one of mine seems fair. Pick one and gut him. The other two get to live.” He headed away, Brick limping after him. The two Spicer thugs pushed Skinny forward. Skinny dropped to his knees, wailing for mercy, while the others eyed Myla. For a few long seconds, they all stared at each other. In the end, Arjay shook her head. She went to the gate, cut Dinn’s rope and threw it open.
“Fuck off, the lot of you. Don’t ever come back.”
Arjay limped away, giving them space, and it still took half a dozen heartbeats before the first of them moved, never taking his eyes from Myla until he was at the gate. When he turned and ran and nothing bad happened, the other two followed quick enough. Arjay flashed Myla a glare, then a glance at the dead sell-sword. Your mess. You clean it up. She headed after Blackhand.
Alone, Myla sank against the alley wall.
Where do I run to now?
She had no idea. Didn’t want to think about it.
She was still sitting there, not thinking about it, when a scream from inside the house harrowed the night. Not long after, the Unrulys came back out. Blackhand looked pleased with himself. Wil looked stony.
“…and when that pig-faced offal-bucket in Tombland comes banging on the door, tell him to piss off back to selling sheep-shit in the Dung Markets. Everyone gets the message, right? If you want a piece of the Spice Market, you deal with the Unrulys or they fucking cut your bits off! Ain’t that right?” He clapped Myla on the shoulder as he passed and then walked on as though she wasn’t there, stepping over the headless corpse.
“You want us to do something about Dinn?” asked Dox.
“No, leave him for the Longcoats… Of course I bloody want you to do something about him, you cretin! Drop him in the river. The other idiot, too. Myla, Wil, deal with it. Arjay, you go with them. Make sure it’s done right.”
Wil growled something and shot a look at Myla. She knew exactly why he looked at her the way he did, why they all looked at her that way, a bit of fear, a bit of scorn, a bit of envy, a bit of contempt. They looked at her that way because she was a monster.
I really need a drink.
Arjay stretched, trying to get the kinks out of her spine. “Dinn wasn’t anyone’s fault, Wil.” She cocked her head at Myla. Let’s go.
Myla turned away. “Not yet. Something I need to do.”
The other Dead Men hadn’t wandered far. She put them down one by one. Holy work, God’s work, but she took no joy from it. All she saw was the severed head of the swordsman from Deephaven, looking up at her from the snow, and all she heard was his voice.
Jeffa says hello.
Excerpted from The Moonsteel Crown, copyright © 2021 by Stephen Deas.