The GdM team and I are big fans of Anna Stephens, author of the magnificent Godblind, and when word of her new series through Orbit dropped, we clamoured to get a hold of The Stone Knife (HarperVoyager). While our team is reviewing it for the next issue of Grimdark Magazine we’ve been lucky enough to grab an exclusive excerpt for you to check out.
The Stone Knife
by Anna Stephens
Nerves pinched Xessa’s belly as she moved slowly back to the water’s edge, scanning its surface, the spear ready and the net hanging from the back of her belt. The Drowned had two targets now, both armed, both dangerous. Even as she thought it, one’s head broke the surface. Mottled brown and green like the riverbed, thin ribbons of hair on its head like weed, it stretched a clawed hand towards Xessa and opened its mouth.
Xessa knew it was singing; all the Drowned sang and all their songs were lethal, an irresistible lure to any human who heard it. Like nectar to a hummingbird, the Drowned’s song was the sound of life itself, or so those with hearing said. When they sang, people walked straight into their embrace, going to death like a lover to their partner’s bed, and with less regret.
The cat leapt backwards and bared its teeth, but the Drowned had eyes only for Xessa, its arms yearning towards her, its webbed fingers and long black talons beckoning.
But Xessa was eja – water-thief, snake-cunning. Deaf to its song as all ejab were, whether through Malel’s blessing or the shamans’ magic. Its eyes darkened and it slapped at the water in frustration; then it moved closer to the bank. She might not be able to hear it, but the creatures were fast; it could still drag her into the river if she wasn’t careful.
The cat had approached the opposite bank again to drink and Xessa saw the path of still water in the current, how it drifted in that direction. Still water in a swift current: a sure sign of Drowned. A second infesting this stretch of river.
The jaguar didn’t know that still water meant Drowned. The one in front of Xessa sank below the surface, perhaps deciding the cat was the easier target. Meat was meat, to a Drowned.
Using the distraction, Xessa bent and grabbed the handle on the wide-mouthed ceramic pipe. She straightened, the spear in her left hand and up by her jaw, pointing at the water, and walked in an arc, pivoted by the joint in the pipe until it straightened and locked in position at the water’s edge. The most dangerous moment. The pipe was between Xessa and the water, her body twisted side-on and the spear ready to lunge down over it in case of attack.
She began to crouch, lowering the pipe towards the river ready to open the lid, when the water exploded in front of the jaguar and a Drowned leapt for it, hands slashing the air where its head had been. The cat sprang away, up and back, ears flat as a single talon scored a line through the fur of its muzzle. It vanished, leaving the Drowned empty-handed and hungry.
Xessa jumped at the sudden attack and her arm came back in reflex as she straightened up, ready to throw or lunge with her spear. The surface of the river in front of her boiled apart and green-brown hands tipped with wicked claws reached for her as the second Drowned attacked.
Xessa had a glimpse of the round black eyes, the mouth open and filled with teeth like a piranha’s, and then a hand grasped her shin. She screamed and dropped the pipe, the thick rubber-coated ceramic slamming into the Drowned’s arm and breaking its grip, its claws tearing out of her doeskin leggings and flesh, and then her spear was plunging deep into its shoulder and its mouth twisted, opening wider, green blood gouting from its body. It twisted on the end of her spear and Xessa wrenched it free, whipped the shaft through the air and clubbed the creature with the butt end, freeing it from beneath the pipe and sending it splashing back. She dropped to one knee and thumbed open the lid to allow water into the pipe even as it righted itself.
The eja stumbled back to her feet, bloodied, her leg beginning to burn and throb and her arms and armour soaked with spray. She managed a single limping step before the Drowned launched itself off the riverbed again and grabbed the shaft of her spear in both hands, just behind the obsidian head. Xessa yanked backwards. The Drowned didn’t let go and fear flared high in her chest as she pulled the creature half out of the water towards her. It was bigger than she was and, although its stringy limbs didn’t look it, far stronger. One of the rare and even more dangerous Greater Drowned.
It pulled on the spear, jerking it perilously close to its own chest, and Xessa could’ve angled up and punched it through its throat and killed it, but she was off balance, her leg trembling beneath her, her toes bashing into the pipe and most of all shocked, confused that it had recognised the weapon as separate from her body, had understood what it faced. She teetered for a second, mouth open and screaming, at the very edge of the water, and then she threw herself backwards, pulling with all her strength.
The Drowned came out of the river amid a spray of crystal droplets. It flopped onto the soil like a landed fish and flipped onto its hands and feet, skittering towards her. A Drowned could survive on land for almost an hour, the lungs that fed its song sustaining it as it moved between water sources. And an hour was more than enough time for it to eat her alive.
It was on her leg now, its talons punching through leggings and skin, gouging into her again. Same shin, widening the wounds. Even the combination of snake-scale bamboo and salt-cotton padding wouldn’t be enough to save her if she couldn’t fight back; its claws would shred her armour and its teeth would open her belly in seconds.
They’re clumsy on land, her teachers had told her, but this one didn’t seem clumsy. Not clumsy at all. Xessa thrashed and squirmed, but it was anchored to her legs by claws and sinewy muscle. Its skin was slippery and she didn’t dare push at it anyway; its bite would take her fingers off with a single snap. Instead, she stabbed clumsily with the spear, missed, stabbed again and caught it another raking slice down its shoulder, opening up pale flesh and green veins.
The Drowned reared up in agony and Xessa stabbed a third time, not deeply; the point stuck in the hardened plates that protected its chest, barely penetrating. Its hands closed on the haft again and it stared at her with its fish eyes, and Xessa would have sworn there was intelligence there, intelligence and calculation. A plan, even. As though it had allowed itself to be wounded to learn something about her. And then Ossa barrelled into the creature and sent them both into the water, a talon left standing proud in Xessa’s shinbone.
Xessa moved faster than she ever had, faster than she’d known was possible, flipping onto her feet and jumping knee-deep into the river, seizing Ossa by the scruff of his neck and flinging the big dog bodily onto the bank. He landed on his side, leapt to his feet and pranced at the water’s edge, his throat rippling as he barked and barked.
The two Drowned rose on either side of Xessa like spirits come for vengeance. Their hands tangled about her legs, but one was weakening; Ossa’s teeth had opened its throat. Still. She drove her spear tip at the uninjured Drowned and forced it back; a flap of her leg skin tore free in its teeth and she screamed some more, stabbing for it again. Red blood and green mingled in the current and fled downriver.
Even as it righted itself she jumped backwards, up and out. Her right foot came down on the pipe and she felt it crack beneath her weight, lost her balance and fell again. The Drowned came for her and her heels were still in the water, but Ossa seized the padding on her right forearm and dragged her, five strides, ten strides, out of danger while she jabbed with the spear and the monster held its place by the water’s edge. She could feel Ossa’s growls in his throat, in his teeth, as he pulled, straining every sinew to save her as she dug in her heels and shoved back from the river with ugly, desperate haste.
Another dog, Ekka, skidded to a halt on her left side and barked at the water, her legs stiff and her hackles raised. Toxte would have sent her, and he’d be sprinting after her, coming to Xessa’s aid.
The dogs stood over her, silhouetted against the bright sky, barking their warning and their challenge. Xessa forced herself to stand again, to brandish her spear at the water and unhook the net from her belt. One Drowned watched her, eyes just above the surface, and she whirled the net ready to cast. It sank, vanished, gone.
She waited another thirty heartbeats before dropping the net and pulling Ossa to her side to check for wounds – four shallow gouges along his right haunch, bleeding lightly. The Drowned venom coursed in Xessa’s veins, hotter than coals, but Toxte would have the medicine already prepared and kept warm over a brazier in the water temple, ready to pour into their wounds and down their throats.
She vomited, Drowned venom snaking up her body from the wounds in her leg and into her chest, her neck, her head, itching-burning like the stings of warrior wasps, hotter than coals. She rubbed her face and mouth, smearing the symbols of protection and strength painted on her cheeks into jumbled incoherence. Suddenly Toxte was there and the world tilted, jerking out from under her as he wrapped her arm around his neck and hauled her onto his hip and then, gracelessly, over his shoulder. She dropped her spear and tried to tell him, but vomited down his back instead. She had a glimpse of the dogs guarding their retreat, and then the venom drew her into the dark.
Extracted from THE STONE KNIFE by Anna Stephens (HarperVoyager). Published in hardback, ebook and audio on 26th November 2020.