Read an Excerpt From Benjamin Liar’s The Failures

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Failures by Benjamin Liar, a genre-breaking blend of apocalyptic sci-fi and epic fantasy—available now from DAW.

Welcome to the Wanderlands.
A vast machine made for reasons unknown, the Wanderlands was broken long ago. First went the sky, splintering and cracking, and then very slowly, the whole machine—the whole world—began to go dark. 

Meet the Failures.
Following the summons of a strange dream, a scattering of adventurers, degenerates, and children find themselves drawn toward the same place: the vast underground Keep. They will discover there that they have been called for a purpose—and that purpose could be the destruction of everything they love. 

The end is nigh.
For below the Keep, imprisoned in the greatest cage ever built by magicians and gods, lies the buried Giant. It is the most powerful of its kind, and its purpose is the annihilation of all civilization. But any kind of power, no matter how terrible, is precious in the dimming Wanderlands, and those that crave it are making their moves. 

All machines can be broken, and the final cracks are spreading. It will take only the careless actions of two cheerful monsters to tip the Wanderlands towards an endless dark…or help it find its way back to the light.


In The Beginning, An End

“A misspent youth can be recovered from. A glorious one can never be.”
—Corazon Li, ‘Revelis’

– 1 –

Sophie Vesachai was burning butterflies again.

They weren’t hard to catch; they swarmed around the balcony cafe where she stood smoking, leaning against the stone balustrade and watching the bustle of the Rue de Paladia below. The tiny mechanical creatures were attracted by the curls of smoke and scents that rose from the balcony café, the warm smells of roasted chûs and burning pepper. Sophie caught another, snapping her wrist in a practiced motion and snaring the small creature.

It fluttered in her hand, its tiny gears straining. It was a minute marvel, a tiny work of art. It had beautifully patterned wings and gearwork that was so fine and precise it could hardly be seen, even held up to the eye. Sophie drew a deep drag on her slot and blew smoke into the cage of her fingers, setting the little silver-made machine into frantic motion.

She wondered, idly, what purpose this little creature had been made for. How old was it? How long had this device been fluttering around the Keep? She wondered, as she smoked and waited for the evening to come, if it had once been free in some other place and had, over the course of the slow millennia, found its way down through the endless leagues of rock and abandoned stone rooms above their heads, following the scent of chûs and burning pepper to find itself here.

Here, in a cage. Sophie considered this; no. Not just any cage. It found itself in the grandest cage in the whole world.

The Keep.

She took another deep drag on her slot, the ember at the tip flaring brightly, and held it to the struggling creature’s wings. The brightly stained paper caught fire, and she tossed the butterfly over the railing, watching it try to fly with burning wings. The flight traced a parabola of thin smoke in the still air above the Rue de Paladia, joining several others that were slowly unwinding in the quiet afternoon air. She watched it struggle, doomed to fail but too stupid to stop, until it landed on the street below.

“My, my.” Hunker John observed, from behind her. “The Capitana is feeling bloody.”

Bear looked up from the book he was reading and grimaced at the new trail of smoke, joining several others. Bear hated it when Sophie burned the little creatures. “Yeah, no shit.”

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The Failures
The Failures

The Failures

Benjamin Liar

Hunker John did not have Bear’s delicate disposition, and shrugged. He yawned and went back to paring his already perfect nails with an enameled knife.

Sophie yawned herself—it was the late hours of the afternoon, the slow time before the revelries of the night kicked in—and flicked the remainder of her slot down onto the street below. She pulled another, scraped the tip alight against the stone balustrade, and sucked in a heavy draw of smoke. She expelled this into the quiet air, causing more mechanical butterflies to swarm above the cafe.

Gods above, she felt tired. She tried to remember the last time she’d had a decent night’s sleep, one not polished by drugs or drink or disposable love, and couldn’t place it. She grimaced, making the small scar that cut across her lower lip and part of her chin pull, and took a drag on her slot.

She had other scars, too, a fine patterning that ran down her forearms. Nobody talked about those scars. If you knew what they were, you wouldn’t dare, and if you didn’t, she would have a fist in your mouth before you got the second word out.

Sophie Vesachai didn’t think about those scars, much. The only consistent part of her look was long-sleeved jackets.

Sophie heard a viola tune-up, down-Rue, a sweet and lonesome sound that wound its way through the quiet bustle of the street below. It made her chest ache, adding a dark undercurrent to her mood. If she had been a different sort of person, she could have looked inward and tried to discover the source of that feeling. But she wasn’t, so she took a drag on her slot and watched the shopkeeps on the street below start closing up their carts for the day. Lazily, she caught another butterfly.

The Rue de Paladia was the heart of the Keep and one of the grandest places in it. Though she would have resisted acknowledging such sentimentality, it was her favorite place in the whole world and had been since she’d been a little girl. The Rue was a winding boulevard paved with cunningly engraved stones that made intricate patterns when looked at from above. Long ago, someone had planted cherrywhistle and terra in huge pots along the center of the avenue, and when these bloomed, the Rue became a river of blue and orange fire. Flocking birds roosted everywhere in these, and when one of the nearly-as-ubiquitous cats decided to pounce, these all took flight at once, filling the air above the Rue and scattering the butterflies.

It was a wide street, wider than most in the Keep, and whoever built it had expended unimaginable amounts of effort to make it lovely. Every surface was a patterned stone of nearly infinite variety, ancient woodwork delicately carved, or wrought metals the like of which no one living could still craft. It was a winding street, overlooked by stepped balconies that held cafes, restaurants, dancing parlors. There were even a few residences, high above and majestic, for those with the coin to afford them. The Rue was illuminated by huge columns of lit-stone, which glowed bright and warm during the day and dimmed down to a pleasing ember at night. Much more recently—but still a long time ago—huge bronzed bowls of oil and char had been erected high above the street, and once the night-lights dimmed down, stilted technicians would make their way down the Rue, lighting the braziers and filling the street with a warm flickering fire- light.

Over all of this stood a sturdy ceiling of arched mosaic, tabs of colored glass that reflected the light in a shimmer during the daytime and sparkled at night—legend said that these were meant to evoke the long-forgotten sky, so far above.

Sophie Vesachai wasn’t sure that she believed in the sky, though she had seen it once in a dream. The Keep was an immense cylinder of stone, hollowed and tunneled through with too many rooms and halls and streets to count. But above it, past the Gap, was only more stone. This was tunneled and carved, too, long-dark rooms and halls and passageways; a whole vast dead civilization carved out of rock, and hanging above their head.

It might make a less jaded person shiver to think of; it just made Sophie flick ash from her slot onto the street below.

Sophie had been outside the walls of the Keep, which few could claim, and she’d seen for herself what lay past the Gap, above and to the sides. It was easy to describe: Darkness. Outside the Keep there was little light, and if you pressed too far into the empty halls and rooms, you would find the true Dark, where the light failed utterly.

And in that Dark, you would find monsters.

Sophie shivered and scratched unconsciously at the scars on her arms, her mood growing more sour. She examined the captive butterfly, still whirring frantically against her fingers, and dragged on her slot. She was thinking about a certain young girl, a girl from a long time ago, who had no scars on her arms. A girl who used to dream of finding out where these butterflies came from, a girl that hadn’t yet acquired a famous name and a tar-black heart. She brought the little captive creature close. She took a hard drag, flaring the tip of the slot brightly.

“Wish you wouldn’t do that,” Bear muttered, then shifted uncomfortably in his leaned-back chair, as if already regretting speaking. Sophie glanced back, amused. It was curious that her chief enforcer, the cheerfully violent and quite large Bear, was so protective of small things.

“Oh yeah? How come?”

“It’s gonna bring the Practice up,” Bear said, lamely. Sophie knew he hated criticizing her, but she enjoyed teasing him, so she just lifted an eyebrow. He scratched big fingers through his close-cropped and tightly curly hair, peppered with silver. Bear had boyishly good looks and a smoothly dark olive complexion, but the gray hair marked him as the oldest of the Killers. Of course, no one knew exactly how old he was.

One of the few rules The Killers had was that they didn’t talk about where they came from.

“The Practice Guard can suck a dick,” Sophie said finally, blowing smoke at the butterfly.

“Yeah, well,” Bear settled his hat down over his eyes again. “Some of us have paper.”

Sophie raised her eyebrow again. “Like I don’t?”

Hunker John snorted, giving this comment the respect it deserved. Nobody in the Practice Guard was going to fuck with Sophie Vesachai, and they all knew it. Every member of their gang had lists of infractions as long as their arms, and Sophie’s was as long as Hunker John’s entire body. The truth of it, however, was that the unfortunate Practice Guard that tried to arrest Sophie Vesachai on anything but the Queen’s own orders would end up in lock themselves.

She considered the trapped, frightened creature in her hand. Maybe she’d let it go; maybe she’d go home and get some sleep; maybe she’d turn over a new leaf, stop drinking so much, and get into charity work. Her mouth twisted.

She closed her hand, the frail little creature snapping into shards against her palm. Bear winced.

“We all go into the dark.” She brushed the still-twitching fragments over the side of the balustrade. “Better now, eh?”

“Twins, damn, Sophie,” Bear sat up in alarm. “You are bloody today, aren’t you?”

“I’m something, all right,” Sophie scrubbed her face with her hands, trying to wake up. She turned fully and considered her friends with a frown. Their gang—the very unconvincingly named Killers—was understaffed at the moment. “Where the fuck is Trik, anyway? We’ve got business to be about. I got somebody to meet about a job.”

“She’s out running some grift.” Hunker John yawned and tossed down his paring-knife. He sniffed at a half-warm cup of chûs, one of the many that littered their table, and instead popped a candied olive into his mouth. “Loves her grift, does our Trik.”

“She is a hustler.” Sophie allowed. She looked up at the mosaic arch overhead, thinking about old stone and inevitability.

Bear eyed her. “Speaking of grift…”

“Speaking of debauchery,” Hunker John yawned again, “We getting into any trouble tonight, Capitana?”

Sophie brought her attention down from the dark spaces overhead and gave him a nod. She watched her friend sniff a long-cold cup of chûs and discard it in favor of something stronger. As she did sometimes, she drank in the spectacle of Hunker; there was only one sight quite like it.

Hunker John was a grandiose fop, a layabout, a degenerate. He had a long face and twinkling almond eyes that accepted all, forgave all, winked at all. His wavy and brightly colored hair might have been sculpted by a genius of the form, and he’d offset this majestic coif with a little fake goatee that made him look like a stage villain. He was one of those fortunate androgynous individuals that provided prospective lovers a fascinating puzzle as to what might lay hiding underneath his perfectly ornate tunic; from all the tales Sophie had heard, by the time an interested individual found out, they no longer cared.

“Well, Capitana?” Hunker lifted an eyebrow.

“I started this night with some fun in mind,” She said, finally, “And I mean to have my due.”

Hunker clapped delightedly, and Bear stifled a groan. The big man was a good soldier, though, and would follow her into any desperate fight—or wild debauch—with little hesitation. Sophie saw movement behind him, a tall girl winding her way through the sleepy cafe towards them. Bear straightened up.

“Triks!” He called, pointing at Sophie. “Capitana is feeling bloody!”

“Oh, wonderful,” Trik growled, approaching the table. “I haven’t stopped drinking in a fucking week.

“Fasten your breeches up tight, dear Triks.” Hunker John said. “We are in for a dark road!”

“Dunno when a girl is supposed to goddamn sleep.” Trik made a great show of sighing, and settled herself carefully into a chair. She was tall and dark, with tattoos all over, and a great cloud of kinky black hair that certain members of the Killers had drunkenly confessed to a desire to sink their fingers into. Bear still had all of his fingers, though, so he presumably never had. Trik looked up at Sophie, eyebrow raised.

“Well?” She said, with a sigh. “What madness comes, Capitana?”

“First we need to collect Ben,” Sophie yawned, trying to rouse herself past her fatigue into action, “And then I need to see a man about a job. And then I propose we rampage through the Keep in a drug-and-booze-filled orgy of sex, violence, and madness until we find an answer for the unceasing and depthless darkness within.”

“Great,” Trik said, “Same as normal, then?”

Bear tipped his hat back, getting into the spirit of the thing, and gave Sophie a passable grin. “Well? Killers Unite, I suppose.”

Sophie grinned back, all teeth. “Just so, Bear. Killers fucking Unite.”

Excerpted from The Failures, copyright © 2024 by Benjamin Liar.

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