Monday, September 29, 2008

The Miracle Girls by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card authors are:

and their book:


FaithWords (September 8, 2008)


Anne was born in San Jose, California, where she wasted her childhood playing Nintendo and watching The Facts of Life. Eventually, she went off to Princeton where she learned many important things, including how to recognize a kumquat. Four years and a useless degree later, she landed a job at Random House, where she promptly got bored and applied to graduate school, trained for a marathon, and reminisced about her days as a competitive finswimmer. A few years later, a blond guy showed up at her door with power tools and gazpacho. They live in Brooklyn. An editor by day, she enjoys bad horror movies, good cheese, and Count Chocula.

May grew up in Panama City, Florida, otherwise known as the Redneck Riviera. She graduated from Baylor University in Waco, TX and went on to get earn her MA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. After living in Brooklyn for four years and working at Random House as an Assistant Editor, Vanderbilt moved to fabulous San Francisco, putting an end to her long tour of undesirable cities. May is a Southern girl who is always on the search for decent grits in the Bay Area and makes artisanal cheese at home.

Together, they are the authors of Emily Ever After, Consider Lily, and The Book of Jane. Their next book, Breaking Up is Hard to do (Miracle Girls Series #2), will be released soon.

Visit the authors at their website.

Product Details:

List Price: $9.99
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: FaithWords (September 8, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0446407550
ISBN-13: 978-0446407557


I'm not even surprised when Mr. Mackey announces a pop quiz in Algebra 2. That's just the kind of day I'm having. No, scratch that. It's the kind of life I'm having.

I was happy in San Jose. It's a real city. I had friends there. But this summer my dad moved us to Half Moon Bay to open his own law practice, and my early conclusion is: this place is lame, lame, lame. The people here wouldn't know a decent person if she walked right up to them and said, "Hi, decent person here." Trust me, I thought about doing it.

And even though I've been going to school here for three weeks, I can feel in my bones that today is going to be my worst day yet. I mean, look how it all started out. This morning I overheard Maria telling my mom she has lupus, and that's why she's been sick so much. I wasn't supposed to hear, but the walls in our brand-spanking-new Easy-Bake Castle are so thin you can fall through just by leaning against them. That's what Mom and Dad get for buying a McMansion in Ocean Colony. (It's really called that. I gag every time I see the sign at the gates.) I don't know what lupus is, but I'm pretty sure it's deadly.

Maria may be just the housekeeper to my parents, but to me she's like a second mother, the non- crazy one, the one who doesn't spend her life decorating and redecorating our house, the one who actually gets what I'm going through in this town.

Then, when Dad dropped me off, I noticed a run in my tights, which only got bigger when I had to take them off and put them back on again in PE. (It's not like we really needed to suit up to be herded into the gym, sit still, and learn the rules of volleyball anyway, so the enlargement was entirely pointless.) Next, I found out my Key Club meeting at lunch had been canceled because the adviser, Mrs. Galvin, was sick, which means I didn't have to spend all last night drawing up proposals for service projects after all. Instead, I could have taken a little extra time to make sure I understood polynomials. But, of course, I didn't do that, so naturally we're being tested on them today.

Mr. Mackey begins to write the first problem on the whiteboard, and I copy it onto my paper carefully. The soft click of the clock hands sweeping around the face is almost drowned out by the furious scratching of pencils.

My dad's colleagues seem to think it's impressive that I'm in Algebra 2 as a freshman. I used to think so. Back in San Jose, I was always a year ahead of everyone else in my class in math and was even given a special tutor last year to learn geometry in eighth grade, but it turns out here in Half Moon Bay there are a lot of freshmen who took geometry last year. It was a lot more fun being in advanced math when it made me special. Now it's just a lot of work.

Math has always been hard for me. I can breeze through a novel in an evening and remember history timelines until my eyes roll back in my head, but even though I like numbers, they don't like me back.

Which, I guess, I should be used to. I glance at Tyler, but he's already crouched over his paper, his curly blond hair falling over his forehead. Tyler's a sophomore, and he's the lead singer in a band called Three Car Garage. He doesn't know I'm alive.

I sigh, then lean over to start working when I hear rustling behind me. I shoot a quick glance over my shoulder in time to see Riley McGee shove something into her purse. She sees me watching her and gives me a big fake smile, then pulls out a mechanical pencil. Sketchy. I turn back to my test, shaking my head. She wouldn't really . . . would she?

Okay, Ana. Focus. You're just trying to solve for X. I stare at the problems, trying to figure out the first step. The tricky thing is that X is different every time. And I don't like change. I like things to happen when and how they're supposed to.

I make a tentative mark on my paper, then hear a soft thud behind me. I sneak a peek under my arm and see that Riley has knocked her pencil onto the floor. I watch as she picks it up, then peeks into her bag. She grabs something, frowns at it, then shoves it back into the bottom of her bag and quickly sits up and starts to write.

She really would. Huh. I wondered how she got such a good grade on the last test. I should have known.

Riley McGee is a cheerleader and the most popular freshman in school. In my short time here, she's been rumored to be dating two different first-string football players. That's almost one upperclassman a week. Not exactly the kind of freshman you'd expect to find in Algebra 2. Thankfully, I've totally got her beat because for one thing, I've got a brain. Math may not come easily to me, but I work my butt off to get good grades and so far that has worked pretty well. I intend to walk out of this dump in four short years as valedictorian.

Riley peers into her bag again and smirks at what she finds. Isn't cheating hilarious?

What do I do? I didn't exactly see her cheat, but that's definitely what she's doing. I say a quick prayer for wisdom, then turn back to my paper. It wouldn't be nice to call her out in public. I'll just hang around after class for a minute and mention something quietly to Mr. Mackey. It's kind of sad, considering that I saw her at church on Sunday. I would have expected her to have a little more integrity, cheerleader or not.

"Five more minutes, my little mathletes," Mr. Mackey says, looking up from The Big Impossible Book of Advanced Sudoku. Old Mackey. He's almost as big around as he is tall and has the bushiest eyebrows I've ever seen. He's very weird, but I kind of like him.

I look back at my paper. Is it possible that X is zero? That always seems to be what happens when something doesn't make sense. It's like this joke the universe has—it's this little squiggle that means nothing (literally), and it makes everything around it meaningless, too. I resist the temptation to make another comparison to my life and move on to the second problem. Maybe this one's easier.

"Three minutes," Mackey says from behind his book. I quickly scratch out as much as I can on the rest of the quiz. It's not going to be pretty. I'll have to see if Mr. Mackey will let me do some extra credit to make up for this or it's going to seriously drag down my average. And I have to get an A. I just have to.

That's when I hear it again. Riley is looking at something in her bag, and she is definitely smiling about it. I turn around and stare at her. She writes something quickly, then looks up at me, rolls her eyes, and looks down at the quiz. Okay, that's it. Youth group or no, she can't get away with this. It's not right. Jesus would stand up for what's right. I raise my hand.

"Ana, do you have a question?" Mr. Mackey nods at me.

"Mr. Mackey—" I take a deep breath and slowly lower my hand—"I saw someone cheating on the pop quiz." I turn around to face Riley, righteous indignation washing over me. Someone behind me coughs, but it sounds like they're saying something under their breath.

"I did not cheat!" Riley screeches, her blue eyes wide. Riley is only a few inches taller than me, but it's enough to make her kind of intimidating.

"Oh really?" Mr. Mackey asks, cocking his eyebrow at me, then looking at Riley. "That's a serious accusation to make, Ana."

"I know, sir," I say as calmly as I can. I look around and notice that everyone is staring at me. I feel my face turning bright red. I hate this school. "But I saw her do it. She has the answers in her purse." Even as the words come out of my mouth, I'm wondering if maybe this wasn't the best way to handle the situation. Maybe this isn't what Jesus would do after all. It's hard to tell sometimes.

Someone coughs again, and this time I think I hear what they're saying: "God Girl." Who are they talking to?

Riley is looking at me like she could tear out my eyeballs. I lean back just in case she decides to go for it.

"I don't have anything in my purse!" she says, placing her hands on her hips and flipping her long blond hair over her shoulder.

Well, now I look like a fool. I have to show Mr. Mackey I'm right or I'll always be that girl who accused Riley. That'll do wonders for the friend search. I reach toward her chocolate brown bag. The nerve.

"Get away from my bag," she yells, grabbing it and hugging it to her chest as she stands up.

"Mr. Mackey, if I could just look in her bag, I could prove it," I say quickly, but Mr. Mackey is already walking toward us with anger in his eyes.

"Ladies, that's enough." He steps between us. "Riley, return to your seat." He looks at her, and she reluctantly sits down again. "For this little outburst, you'll both be in detention this afternoon."

"But—" Riley starts, but Mr. Mackey holds up his hand and continues.

"Ana, I'd like to see you after class."

"Just me?" What about her?! I glare at Riley, and she rolls her eyes at me. Mr. Mackey nods. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tyler smirk.

"Now, please pass your quizzes to the front and open your books to page seventy- three," he says, turning away, indicating that the subject is closed. I take a deep breath, trying to hold back tears. She's the one who cheated!

I try to pay attention as Mr. Mackey goes on and on about factoring polynomials, but I can't focus on what he's saying. Detention. I've never had detention in my life. Does that go on your permanent record? I bet Princeton doesn't let in people with detentions on their records.

This never would have happened at my old school. Teachers there loved me and knew that I was going somewhere. Teachers here seem to think I'm headed straight to San Quentin. I've been here less than a month, and I'm already an outcast.

Finally the bell rings, and everyone around me throws their books into their bags. They're off to the grab food at the snack bar and sit on the smooth green hillsides and concrete steps that surround the school. There's no cafeteria here, but there are lots of places all over campus where groups of friends gather to eat. Someone coughs "God Girl" one more time, and though I'm not sure where it comes from, I know who it's directed at. I have to face that I have earned a nickname at my new school. Just great. I'm really going to miss being invisible.

Riley doesn't say a word to me as she walks by. I sit still, looking down at the fake wood grain on the smooth desktop in front of me. Engraved in the desk is a message for me: "Die, maggot."

I glance out the window and see people gathering together. Maybe it's good that Mackey is holding me after class. There are only so many times you can pretend not to care that you're eating alone, and it's not like I have anywhere to be, thanks to the Key Club meeting being canceled. Guidance counselors will tell you that joining clubs looks good on your college applications, but what they don't tell you is that it also gives you somewhere to go at lunch.

Slowly, the sound of voices begins to disappear, and locker doors stop slamming shut. Mr. Mackey walks over to the empty desk in front of me and sits down, turning to face me.

"Ana?" His eyes are narrowed, and he looks at me with what seems like concern. "You're doing well in this class." I nod and stare back down at my desk. Die, maggot, it tells me again. "You're doing exceptionally well for a freshman." I swallow. Where is he going with this? "But Riley— " he clears his throat and looks around, as if worried someone might overhear what he's about to say— "Riley has the highest grade in this class." My mouth hangs open in shock. Riley has the highest grade in the class?! "She hasn't missed a question yet."

I shut my mouth, for fear I might be attracting flies. "But see," I say, sitting up indignantly. "She must get the good grades by cheating. How else could she . . ."

"She's— " He coughs, and I hear phlegm rattle in his lungs. "She's quite good at math. Always has been. Teachers have been after her to join the math team for years, but she won't. I'm afraid she wasn't cheating on today's quiz."

"But she was looking at something in her bag!" I know I'm starting to sound a little hysterical, but I can't be wrong about this. I just can't. How could she be beating me?

"She was using her phone." He coughs. "To . . . what do they call it? Texting? She was texting."

"But . . ." But what? But how could he see that from all the way across the room? And cell phones aren't allowed at school. If he saw her, why didn't he stop her? How can it be true?

"That's why you both have detention," he says before I can say anything. "I just made up the quiz questions before class, so there's no way she could have had the answers hidden in her bag."

I gulp.

"I know you were only trying to do what's right today, Ana," he says, nodding at me. "So you'll serve the detention for disrupting the class, and then we'll put this behind us, okay?"

I look up at his bushy eyebrows and nod, biting my tongue to hold back the tears. The injustice of it all is overwhelming.

"Keep up the good work, Ana," he says, and I nod, looking down at my hands. He waits, but I don't move. "You're free to go now," he says, coughing again, as if I didn't get it the first time. Slowly, I stand up. I carefully place my book and notepad into my bag, looking down so he won't see the tears welling up in my eyes. He watches me as I walk toward the door and step out into the cool air.

Copyright © 2008 by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt

"This article is used with the permission of Hachette Book Group and Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt. All rights reserved."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hero, Second Class by Mitchell Bonds

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and his/her book:

Hero, Second Class

Marcher Lord Press (October 1, 2008)

Marcher Lord Press officially launches on October 1:

They will be giving away amazing bonus gifts to everyone who purchases Marcher Lord Press novels on opening day.

Whether you're a voracious reader, an up-and-coming novelist, or you're just buying this for your teenage son who won't read anything but fantasy, these bonus goodies will be treasures you'll love.

But remember, these bonuses are good only for those who order books on Day 1.


Mitchell Bonds is twenty years old. He spent a year at Hillsdale College, took courses at North Idaho College, and is currently enrolled at the University of Idaho.

Mitchell has been creating the fantasy world that Hero, Second Class is set in since he was ten years old. He mostly developed it by playing "a ridiculously overwrought fantasy game I made up as my friends and I went." Dubbed Backyard RPG, it was a source of constant merriment for six or seven years. After he put the game behind him, he began to miss it, and decided to write a short story that incorporated the spirit of what he had lost. That short story grew long, and became Hero, Second Class, which is book one in The Hero Complex series.

Besides writing, Mitchell's hobbies include photography, pencil drawings, racquetball, and experimentation with stunt-kites. He's also been known to indulge in a video game from time to time, and enjoys a good fantasy role-play of any sort.

After graduating from the University of Idaho, he plans to join the U.S. Air Force, specializing in broadcasting and public relations. And he'll continue writing, because that is what he loves.

Visit the author's website.


Chapter One

The Prologue

Which, Unlike Other Chapters, Has No Pithy Subheading in Italics

Dawn poked her rosy fingers across the sky.

And promptly tore two small holes in it.

Vertis the sky god repaired the holes and scolded Dawn, sending her off to get a manicure. He took over from there, and cast the sun’s early rays into the stone-paved courtyard of Bryath Castle, the hub of Centra Mundi’s government. Blue and silver pennants flapped merrily in the gentle breeze, and the cold stones of the ancient fortress began warming in the sunlight.

But light creates shadows, and from them slipped a man in a black cloak, clutching a dagger in his bony hand. The man crept up behind a bleary-eyed sentry, dagger poised to strike. The sentry standing near the massive oaken gate was still half-asleep, and had begun his shift only minutes ago, as evidenced by the creases in his recently folded blue-and white uniform. With a swift and silent swipe, the black-garbed man slashed open the sentry’s throat. The sentry gurgled and collapsed, caught by his killer as he fell.

Across the gate from the assassin, a similar man slew the other sentry quietly and leaned the corpse against the wall. The assassins atop the wall had done their work also, so not a single soul watched the western approach to the castle, nor guarded it.

It was not until the gate opened and the drawbridge rattled down that the Castle Guard realized something was amiss. And by then, it was too late. A hundred black-clad men wielding swords and crossbows flooded through the West Gate, slaying anyone they ran across. Finally a bleeding sentry raised his head and sounded the alarm on a bent trumpet. Men scrambled to respond, and the Palace Guard hastily armed themselves, storming out to meet the invaders.

“They’ve breached the gate!”

“Get the Palace Guard down here, now!”

“Protect the King!”

“Anyone seen my shoes?”

A sergeant stopped barking orders to his men, and glared at the shoeless guard. “This is no time for footwear problems, man! Just get off your posterior and fight those GYAAIIEE!”

A wickedly flanged mace slammed down on an unfortunate sergeant. “Yes, you pathetic fools,” the mace’s wielder said with a horrible chuckle, “come and fight us Gyaaiiee.”

Outside the barracks, the host of black-clad invaders brought in a battering ram to attack the gates of the inner keep. They set fire to the stables for good measure, throwing the horses into a panic. The flagstones of the courtyard flowed with the blood of many members of the Palace Guard.

The shoeless soldier backed up, gibbering in fear. The man standing over him stood easily over six feet tall. Blood dripped from the man’s silver armor and red beard, and the frightened soldier got the impression that none of that blood belonged to the man.

“Mwa ha ha! Fear me, you worm!” the towering man said with a laugh. “Now prepare to meet your doom!”

A second invader stepped up behind the red-beared man and slapped him across the back of his helm. “Stop fooling around with the common soldiers and help me get to the throne room,” he ordered. The new arrival was much shorter, about five and a half feet tall, clad in armor of midnight black, with a helm that resembled the horned head of a demon. “We’ve no time for your idiotic catch-phrases.”

The tall man sighed and slew the shoeless soldier with a single solid swipe. “Fine,” he said, shaking a bit of brain loose from a flange of his mace, “but promise me I get to kill some innocents later. I’m enjoying this Villain business already.”

“Too much, it seems,” said the man in black. “Let’s just get this done before they can summon reinforcements. Where did those blasted Manticores disappear to? They’d better not be fooling around scaring horses, or I’ll have to have a word with our beast master…”

* * *

“…and so then the bartender says, ‘that’s not a gryphon, that’s a chicken glued to a cat!’”

The men at the table laughed politely, not wishing to offend their monarch. It was a privilege to eat with the King of Bryath, and the food was good, if not the humor.

King Ataraxes Zamindar Bryath the Third wiped away a tear as he continued chuckling to himself over his joke. “Oh, I love that one so very much.” He wore a heavy gold crown atop his graying blond head, and velvet robes of a deep vermillion hue, currently bedecked with crumbs from the strawberry tart he had been eating.

The men who ate with the King on that day were Sir Grant, the Captain of the King’s Own Guard, Salidor Goldwater of the Seafarer’s Union, and their special guest, a professional Hero, behind whose chair stood a page boy bearing the Hero’s shield.

The four men sat in a cavernous dining hall, one built to accommodate a hundred or more nobles during official dinners. Morning sunlight filtered into the room in myriad colors through exquisite stained-glass windows depicting previous Kings of Centra Mundi and their deeds. The men’s conversation echoed in the mostly empty room, the sound absorbed only by the long table in the center of the room, and the myriad chairs which lined it. The rest echoed about the carved marble buttresses holding up the tiled roof. A small fire danced cheerfully in the fireplace at the south end of the room, for despite the heat of summer, Bryath Castle was a terribly chilly and drafty place.

The Hero in question went by the name of the Crimson Slash, though his real name was Reginald Ogleby. Or, more correctly, Sir Reginald Ogleby, after being knighted by the current King for his courageous actions during the Battle of Three Streams. He was a well-known warrior who had, the day before, delivered a gift for the King’s birthday celebration. The gift was from the International Guild of Heroes, whose headquarters sat near the center of Bryath’s castle town. The King hadn’t opened it yet.

Reginald himself was an impressive figure, an enormous fellow, over six feet tall, with shoulders as broad as an ox. He had a kind face, if a bit rough. Today, his thick black hair looked as if it hadn’t been combed yet, but the beard covering his cheeks was neatly trimmed. His silver armor gleamed with a professional sheen, and the bar of crimson paint across the breastplate’s surface appeared freshly painted.

The King leaned over to Reginald and smiled. “Sir Ogleby, I must ask: what have you brought from the Guild for me?”

Reginald shook his head and smiled. “My apologies, your Majesty, but I am sworn to secrecy on that score. Your Majesty will simply have to wait until your birthday.” The Hero’s voice was a gravelly base rumble, pleasant, but obviously not a singing voice.

The King stuck out his lip briefly in jest, then chuckled. “Ah, I suppose I shall. So, will the Guildmaster be attending this year, or do his legs pain him too much?”

“Guardian is in fine health, your Majesty, and was delighted to receive your invitation,” Reginald replied. “He would not miss your birthday for all the gold in—”

A soldier, one of the Palace Guard, burst into the room, breathing heavily. All the men at the table turned to look at him. The soldier bowed to the King, then turned to Sir Grant, a panicked look on his freckled face. “Sir Grant! There’s been an attack on the West Gate, and they have already breached the outer keep!”

Grant, clad in the silver and blue of the King’s Own Guard, leapt up from the table and grabbed his sword from where it had been resting beside his chair. “How many?”

“Near a hundred, sir,” the soldier said, “plus some of those nasty Mythologicals.” “There’s a manticore or two down there, and we spotted a chimera earlier. Pike and Harding request your assistance.”

Grant turned to the King. “Your Majesty, I request that you take shelter until we resolve this matter.”

The King shook his head. “A mere attack? Bah. What is this, the third this month? I’ll worry when they break through into the inner Keep. You can certainly deal with a few would-be assassins, yes?”

Grant bowed. “Yes, your Majesty. I will ensure this action comes to naught. If you will excuse me.” He turned and followed the soldier out of the room.

Reginald’s eyes strayed to his massive sword, which leaned against the wall. The Hero clenched a fist and sighed, as if he very much wanted to join in the fray instead of endure the King’s attempts at comedy. But he had neither been invited nor ordered to, and instead leaned back in his chair and took another bite of sausage.

“So, where was I?” the King said. “Ah, yes, chicken glued to a cat. And so the first man rolls his eyes and says…”

* * *

“Sphere of Annihilation!”

A ball of swirling blue mist sprang into existence in front of a group of soldiers, then burst. The corrosive mist burned their flesh and rusted their armor in seconds, sending the men reeling in agony.

The man in the demon-helm snorted in derision. He turned to face another soldier, holding his dull grey falchion high. The falchion was a slightly curved sword, both wide and heavy, and gutted the soldier cleanly as the invader brought it down across the man’s chest.

“Anthony,” he said to the red-bearded man, gesturing with his ebon gauntlet, “send more Minions to secure the west hallway. I dislike being flanked. And get those Manticores to stop fooling around with the horses and send them to cause a diversion in the southern corridor. When you’re done, grab a dozen Minions and join me in the east hallway. The inner keep isn’t far.”

“Yes, milord.” Anthony’s face took on a triumphant grin, and he raised a clenched fist in a triumphant gesture. “Once we breach the inner keep, it’s only a short while until you get your hands on the King’s ring, and then you have what you need to take over the world!”

“Yes, Anthony, I know,” the demon-helmed man said. “I can do my own exposition well enough, thank you. Now do as I say, and be quick about it.”

The bearded man grumbled, but turned to do his lord’s bidding. “Yes, Milord. Can you hold here until I return?”

“Of course. Now go. There is much havoc to be wrought and little time to wreak it in.” The helmed man smiled as a fresh wave of Palace Guard stormed towards him, and began a dance of death, complete with theme music. Disturbing, minor-key organ blasted from the air around him as he took his first step forward.

That step brought him inside the first man’s guard, and the invader opened the man’s chest before he could raise his shield. Two more went down before the others had time to react. The man in the demon helmet was too fast for them. And too strong, as well, for any shield or weapon raised in defense shattered under his onslaught.

The man in the helm laughed, a malevolent and resounding chuckle, the unearthly sound echoing from the helmet in a cascade of black sound.


* * *

“…and said ‘no, no, not that horse!’”

Reginald sighed, not even pretending to laugh this time. He’d heard the noise of battle from below them in the courtyard, and was barely resisting the temptation to leave the table and look out the window.

The merchant from the Seafarer’s Union still chuckled sycophantically. “Oh, your Majesty, you are so amusing.”

“Cease your fawning,” the King said, scowling at the thin, overdressed man. “Sir Ogleby, is aught amiss?”

“No, your Majesty, it’s probably nothing. After all, Sir Grant is more than competent.” Reginald settled back in his chair and looked unhappy.

“’Tis a shame that your Guild dictates noninvolvement in our mundane affairs unless Villains are involved,” the King said, taking a bite of a strawberry-filled pastry. “I would let you go in a heartbeat if it were the case, but for an everyday assassination attempt…”

The merchant Goldwater turned to Reginald, a quizzical expression on his pale face. “The Guild of Heroes won’t let you protect the King?” he said, squeaking slightly in growing fear. “Whyever not?”

“What do you think the Palace Guard and the King’s Own are for?” Reginald replied, leaning back uneasily. “If a Hero came by and did their job for them every time someone attacked the castle, what do you think that would do to their morale?”

The merchant nodded. “Not anything good. And you Heroes have better things to do than hang around waiting for assassination attempts?”

“And it’s not sportsmanlike,” the King said, popping the rest of the tart into his mouth and reaching for another. “The Palace Guard would feel unmanned, but think of the attackers’ plight. Having a bona fide Hero spoil your careful planning is just unfair. Now, if there were a Villain involved, that would change things…”

“Indeed,” Reginald said with a sigh.

“What, how so?” the merchant asked. “I would classify anyone attempting to kill the King as a villain. What do you—”

Reginald held up a hand to cut the merchant off. “There are villains, and then there are Villains,” he explained. “Any buffoon who beats his wife or throws rocks at a parade is a villain. Lower case, you see. The kind that run their own guild and command entire armies of Henchmen are Villains. Upper case. They are totally different in orders of magnitude. They’ve even their own guild like the Heroes’ Guild, but it’s evil, and…bah, it’s complicated.” The Hero waved a hand dismissively. “All you need know now is that the situation is not dire enough for me to be allowed to step in.”

“I’d feel safer if you did,” the King said, a gleam in his eye. “Almost makes me wish there was a Villain involved, eh, Sir Ogleby?”

Reginald nodded. “Aye. It’s been far too—”

The door slammed open, and Sir Grant staggered in, bleeding from multiple sword-wounds, his armor had been rusted away in places, and he bore a look of fear on his face. Several members of the King’s Own Guard followed Grant in and took places around their liege, swords drawn.

“Your Majesty!” Grant said, pulling the King up from his chair. “We must hurry from this place! They have breached the inner Keep, and are headed for the throne room as we speak. Their commander wields strange magic beyond anything I have seen. He and his men have slain over half the Palace Guard!”

Reginald leapt to his feet, palms flat on the table. “Strange magics, you say?”

Grant nodded wearily. “Spells far beyond the power these types would naturally have. And that infernal music! An eldritch melody that sucked the courage from my bravest men.”

Reginald knocked the table aside and grabbed Grant by the shoulders, scattering breakfast foods all over the flagstones. “When you say ‘music,’ do you mean actual, audible music?”

“Aye, a sinister tune. As if played by demons in Hell’s Organworks.”

“Nonsense,” the King said, clucking over the spilled food and retrieving yet another strawberry tart from the mess on the floor. “The castle doesn’t have an organ. We haven’t had an organist since friar Belham quit over the Hydra-in-his-bathtub incident.”

“Think very carefully,” Reginald said, looking into Grant’s weary eyes. “The music: is it in a major or minor key?”

“Minor, C minor,” the knight replied. “Why?”

Reginald grinned broadly. He took his shield from the page-boy and picked up his enormous sword from its place by the wall. “Theme music, my friend! Their leader is a Villain for certain. Get the King to the throne room and set up what defenses you can muster. I shall make short work of this Villain when he arrives.”

“Change of plans, men,” Grant barked. “We escort the King to his throne room. Ranulf, prepare the Route of Emergency Escapes. The rest of you take up Penultimate and Ultimate Defensive Perimeter stations inside the throne room. The Crimson Slash will confront the Villain.”

The King’s Own saluted—looking markedly relieved—and led the protesting King of Bryath from the room.

Reginald smiled, and ate the rest of the strawberry pastry.

* * *

“We must be almost there,” the demon-helmed man said, looking down at the corpse of a soldier with slightly different armor than the others he’d just slain. “I think this one was one of the King’s Own.”

Anthony spared a glance at his lord. “Good. Then we can get on with the taking over the world thing.” The large man spun and knocked down a door with his flanged mace. Five soldiers had been hiding behind it, preparing to make a brave attempt at ambushing the intruders. Now they fell backward under the impact, and a half-dozen black-clad Minions leapt forward and slew them where they lay.

“Exactly,” the man in the demon-helm said. “I shall have civilization under my thumb before you can say Worldwide Domination.”

Anthony grinned. “Worldwide Domina—”

“Silence, Anthony. Your strong point is smashing things, not witticisms. Now, where’s the throne room?”

“We could follow the map, milord.”

“Map? What in the Nine Hells are you—”

Anthony pointed. The demon-helmed man turned and saw a plaque on the wall with a simplified floor plan of the surrounding area, with an X stating You are Here.


Down a corridor and to the right was a room labeled “Throne Room: Audience hours 10–12, 3–5, weekdays only.”

“Oh good,” Anthony said, “they’re open.”

“Or they will be,” the helmed man said, shaking his head and striding down the hallway. “Onward!”

* * *


Reginald and the King’s Own stood in the red-carpeted throne room, spread in a V formation between the throne and the entrance. Two knights slammed the crossbar down from the inside to secure the door, then scrambled back to their places. The assembled Kingsguard fell into a hushed silence, straining to hear what the Hero spoke of. Faintly, and growing louder by the moment, they began to hear strains of a complicated and sinister music, as if a powerful pipe organ below the castle’s foundation was blasting at its top volume.

“Ready yourselves,” Reginald said. “That music will hit top volume just as the doors burst open. And the first thing that will come in will be a dozen Minions. They are weak, but do not let them catch you off-guard. Now, hold fast. For the King!” The Hero raised his titanic sword into the air, and accidentally poked a hole in the ceiling panels with it. He pretended not to notice.

The Kingsguard chuckled grimly, and braced themselves for the onslaught.

* * *

“Dark Fog of Sinister Entrances,” said the man in the helmet. A misshapen blob of black mist appeared between his hands. “Cue the music,” he ordered, “and open that door!”

Anthony delivered a grievous blow to the doors with his mace. Simultaneously, the helmed man released his spell, sending a rush of Sinister Fog into the room, followed by a dozen of his remaining Minions.

The music, which had inexplicably been following them around, crescendoed, adding its noise to the sounds of yells and metal on metal.

The helmed man removed his helm and tossed it aside. Beneath the demon-horned helm, the Villain was quite handsome, with wavy, raven-black, glossy hair and pointed facial features. He was not an Elf, for his eyes glowed a soft green. The Villain strode into the smoky room, sword drawn and a confident, smug smile on his face.

“Happy birthday, your Majesty. Surrender your ring or Prepare to Face your D— Orsobu Pitchi!”

As the smoke cleared the Villain’s demands became a curse instead. All twelve of his Minions lay dead, slaughtered by the efficient hands of the Kingsguard. And in the center of those men stood something that threw his plan out the window.

A Hero, clad in shining armor and wielding a tremendous sword, stood in the center of the room, staring the Villain down.

“Greetings, foul Villain,” the Hero said with a smile. “What brings you to Bryath Castle on this fine day?”

The Villain scowled. “You! Who are you, and how did you know I was coming?”

“Mine name is the Crimson Slash,” the Hero said, locking eyes with the Villain. “And I didn’t know you were coming. Poor timing on your part, methinks.”

“Bah. It matters not,” the Villain said, and raised his arms in his best sorcerer’s pose. “You have heard of me, no doubt. I am a Villain from a long line of dastardly Villains. My name strikes fear into the hearts of those who hear it, and you will shriek it with your last breath as I slay you.”

“But what is it?” the Crimson Slash asked.

“I’m getting there,” the Villain replied, peeved. “Don’t interrupt.”

The Crimson Slash bowed slightly. “My apologies. Continue.”

“Thank you. Where was I?”

“Shrieking with my last breath.”

“Ah. You will shriek it with your last breath as I slay you,” the Villain continued. To the Dwarves, I am Kon Borok gat mors, son of the Killing Stones. To the Elves I am Malikinolar, Bringer of the Darkness. And to the Orcs, I am Vorsch Kraam, the Eater of Souls.”

“And I suppose the Istaka call you Kriha beridakh, He Who Tires the Ears,” the Crimson Slash said, leaning on his sword.

The Villain scowled and dropped his pose. “Did you want to hear my name or not?”

“Well, if I’m to shriek it as you slay me, I’ll have to know it, I suppose.”

“Very well. To the Census Keepers, I am Voshtyr von Steinadler, son of Benjamin von Steinadler. But to Heroes and commoners alike, I am Voshtyr Demonkin.” He raised his arms again. “Prepare to Meet your Doom, Crimson Slash!”

“My Doom?” The Crimson Slash said with a laugh. “No, sirrah, you are outnumbered by more than eight-to-one. Prepare to Face Justice!”

Voshtyr snorted. “You fool. You think mere odds can stop me? Well, let me even them out somewhat!”

With a diabolical laugh, he flung his left arm out at the Kingsguard. A wave of crackling purple energy blasted forth from his hand, striking four of the men and knocking them to the floor in writhing convulsions. With another gesture, they stiffened and rose, blank stares on their faces.

The Crimson Slash almost dropped his sword, and Voshtyr laughed at his facial expression. The blast was nothing less than combined Soul Burnout and Penultimate Reanimation spells. The blood drained from the Crimson Slash’s face. “Grant!” he yelled. “He’s not a Villain—he’s an Arch-Villain! Take the King and run!”

“Anthony!” Voshtyr barked at his red-bearded thug. “I have a Hero to slaughter. Get that ring for me!”

Anthony threw himself at a wall of remaining Kingsguards, his mace a silver blur.

The captain of the Kingsguard hurried his monarch toward an antechamber while fighting off the red-bearded man and his former comrades. The reanimated corpses of the Kingsguard were fresh enough to retain their muscle memory. They fought almost as well against their erstwhile friends as they had while they were alive.

Voshtyr turned to the Crimson Slash. “And now, you will learn a lesson you shall take with you to your grave: why a mere Hero should not trifle with an Arch-Villain.”

* * *

“You cannot defeat me!” Anthony shouted at two Kingsguards as they both moved to protect their king. Anthony brought his mace down on them with a rush of air. “I am Sir Anthony the Mace, and thousands have fallen beneath my blade!”

The two men combined their strength to ward off the Villain’s blow. One of them laughed. “Well, I am Ranulf of the King’s Own. And that’s not a blade, that’s a mace.”

“True,” the other guard said. “I am James of the King’s Own, foul Villain. And last I heard, your Villainy Rating had you at forty-seven murders.” He threw his weight into his shield, sending the Villain staggering back. “That’s more like dozens than thousands.”

“Silence!” Anthony bellowed. “My slight exaggeration matters not. What matters is that two common men such as yourselves cannot hope to best a Villain!”

“How about three?” asked another Kingsguard, stabbing at Anthony from behind.

Anthony the Mace snorted, spinning and parrying the attack. “Bah, one more means little. You could have four or five, or, er, six…” His bluster trailed off as several more knights surrounded him.

“Stand your ground, Villain,” Ranulf demanded.

“I’ll stand where I want,” Anthony said. “My armor is nigh invulnerable to common weapons. Only a magical blade could have any hope of-”

With a nod from Ranulf, all six of the Kingsguard twisted the pommels of their weapons. Shimmering blue light blazed around the cold steel of the swords.

Anthony’s eyes grew wider, and he backed up a pace. “Magical weapons? Bryath must have a high equipment budget…” Then he shook his head. “Fie! Your weapons matter not. Eat elemental death, fools!” Anthony gestured with his gauntleted hands. “Underworld’s Own…”

“Brace yourselves, men!” Ranulf shouted, raising his shield.

“…Crushing Sphere of…”

The Kingsguard hunkered down against incoming magic.

“…Incredibly Mighty…Cowardice! Yaaah!” The Villain shoved aside one of the Kingsguard, and ran back down the hallway the way he had come.

Perplexed, the knights stood staring for a few moments. Then with a shout, several leapt to pursue the fleeing Villain. The rest returned to guard their monarch and escort him from the scene of carnage.

* * *

Voshtyr snarled, and threw himself at the Hero. A twist of his left wrist caused a concealed blade to snap out above his hand. Suddenly, a single threat Arch-Villain was a double threat Arch-Villain.

The Crimson Slash caught one blade on his shield, but Voshtyr’s arm-blade laid open the Hero’s left cheek.

“A crimson slash for the Crimson Slash,” Voshtyr said with a sneer.

“It’s just another scar, Demonkin. One I shall live to see heal and you will not.” The Hero winced as the blood flowed into his beard, but he immediately counterattacked. “The Crimson Slash pressed his counterattack, raining furious blows on the dastardly Villain!” he shouted, striking repeatedly at Vostyr.

Voshtyr had to retreat beneath the repeated, hammerlike blows of the Hero’s oversized sword. “What in the Nine Hells are you doing?” he demanded, dodging behind a pillar and clutching his right wrist.

“Narrating!” Reginald replied. “What is an Epic Battle without narration?”

“Significantly less annoying,” Voshtyr growled. He ran at the Hero, and ducked under another Standard Horizontal Slash. As he came up, he bashed aside the Crimson Slash’s shield with his left arm, and lunged for an opening.

“The Crimson Slash punched Voshtyr in the face. The Villain’s attempt at catching the Hero off-guard failed, gaining the foul man naught but a bloody nose.”

“Graah! Stop that narration or I’ll render you incapable of speech!”

“The Hero was unafraid of the Villain’s bluster, knowing that words never suffice in place of action.”

Voshtyr’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Fine, then, action it is.” He leapt high, bringing both blades down in an X attack from above.

“The Crimson Slash blocked the cuts with his massive sword, absorbing the impact. The Hero’s face was mere inches from Voshtyr’s.”

“Yes,” Voshtyr said, “and there was something stuck to it. Is that…cherry filling?”

The Hero’s bloodied face went red with embarrassment. “Strawberry, most like.” With a swing of his shield, he knocked Voshtyr off balance.

But off balance did not mean unprepared. Throwing his left hand out as he fell, Voshtyr shouted, “Impact Beam!” A coherent beam of distorted air lanced out from his hand and the Hero found himself knocked backward, a smoking ding in his breastplate.

“Impressive though that was,” the Crimson Slash said, tapping the inconsequential dent, “it will not suffice to defeat me.”

Voshtyr growled. “You Heroes need to learn when to taunt and when not to. This is a when-not-to.”

“On the contrary,” the Hero replied. “I quote The Complete Guide to Heroics, Volume Three, Chapter Seventeen, paragraph twenty-two: ‘Another opportune time to Taunt your Foe is when you have just delivered a Successful Attack, and have the Advantage over your Opponent.’”

“Advantage?” Voshtyr said. “What advantage? And what successful attack? All you’ve done is blather on about how wonderful you are.”

“We’ll have to remedy that, then, shan’t we? Prepare to face Ju—” The Hero stopped mid-sentence.

Voshtyr knew why. He’d concentrated on Evil Thoughts, thus turning his green eyes into a malevolent red glow. “Now,” Voshtyr said, rising from the floor, “remind me again who has the advantage here?” Dust and shreds of red carpeting began to swirl around him, and the light from outside the windows dimmed significantly.

“Your…your eyes…” the Hero said, backing away.

“Lovely, aren’t they? Got them from my mother.”

“Red eyes…? You’re not…” the Crimson Slash swallowed. “You’re not—”

“Human?” Voshtyr replied, advancing on the Hero. “Not entirely, no. You have no idea with whom you are dealing. Indeed, any Arch-Villain outmatches a Hero. But I am far above mere Arch-Villains as well!”

Voshtyr made his eyes flare brighter as he pulled from inside his armor a necklace made of what the Hero would see as rough-cut beads. They were actually tiny gemstones, each one flickering with inner light. He held the necklace up to the heavens. “No, you have no idea.”

The sky outside the castle walls darkened as the sun eclipsed itself. The castle shook violently, shattering the stained-glass windows of the throne room. The Crimson Slash staggered backwards and braced himself against the empty throne.

With a deafening roar, the castle tore itself apart. Explosions blossomed all around, blowing chunks out of the walls, enormous gouges in the exterior stonework. The entire top of the throne room spun off, swirling upwards into an enormous hole in the sky, the grey stones disappearing as they entered its maw. Lightning of a horrendous shade of purple streaked across the damaged sky.

The Hero stared at Voshtyr, gaping in amazement. No doubt he wondered where Voshtyr was getting all the magic to wreak such havoc. Determination filled the Hero’s eyes, and he dug a slim silver token from his pocket, and pressing it hard in the center.

Voshtyr knew what that meant, and it pleased him greatly. More Heroes to toy with before he slaughtered them. What a pleasant day this was becoming.

Within seconds, a voice boomed from the coin. “Crimson Slash! Your location reads as right in the center of the cataclysm on Centra Mundi! Are you all right?”

“No! I require immediate assistance!” the Crimson Slash yelled over the howling of the wind and the vortex above. “AVA-RIA, I repeat, AVA-RIA! Send whoever you can, whatever you can, as fast as you can!”

* * *

The reader should note that AVA-RIA is not some for of obscure chanted prayer, nor is it a type of fruit juice, nor even an Elven word for a botched solo in a traditional opera.

It is instead a code word used by professional Heroes to warn their Brothers-in-Arms of an Arch-Villain Attack, and that he or she Requires Immediate Assistance. AVA-RIA. Whereas Reginald had little use for a glass of fruit juice at the moment, had no prayer beads within easy reach, and had as much appreciation of opera as he did of feline caterwauling, he did require backup.

* * *

“AVA-RIA acknowledged, Crimson Slash,” the voice said from the coin. “Help is on the way. Delay the Arch-Villain if possible.”

Reginald severed the connection and glanced around. The situation had not gotten any better. The hole in the sky continued to pull bits of the castle into its maw, and had grown to the point where it was ripping trees from the castle courtyard out by their roots. The howling of the wind had increased in both volume and pitch, now shrieking around the shattered stones. The King and his Guard had abandoned the room entirely, leaving only the beleaguered Hero and his diabolical opponent.

Voshtyr stood in a sort of manic ecstasy, produced by the power of his terrible magics, no doubt. A fiendish smile lit his features, as did the flaming glow of his red eyes. The Villain’s black cloak swirled about him in the wind as he raised his arms to the vortex, laughing inhumanly.

“Demonkin!” Reginald shouted, raising his sword. “This has gone far enough! Taste My Blade!”

The Villain, entranced by his own magically-induced chaos, barely had time to raise his own weapon in defense as Reginald’s blade descended on him. With a resounding clang, Voshtyr’s sword went spinning from him and rattled across the floor. He scowled, his glowing eyes flaring brighter. “Excuse me, I was enjoying my Moment of Triumph.”

“No one else was,” Reginald said, squaring off.

“That matters not.” Voshtyr turned to face the Hero. “You are an interfering nuisance, Crimson Slash. Do you know what I do to interfering nuisances?”

“Shake their hand and swap stories with them over a flask of brandy?”

“No, you fool! I slay them without mercy. Now have at you!” Voshtyr slashed at Reginald with his arm-blade, his free hand dancing with spectral fire.

“The Crimson Slash blocked and dodged the shorter blade easily. The treacherous Voshtyr found the task of getting through his guard impossible. Even the repeated blasts of necromantic flame failed to penetrate the Hero’s shield. The Crimson Slash now had the Advantage over his Foe, and would soon defeat him entirely!” Reginald put his entire weight into a horizontal sword-cut. “With a single mighty blow, he knocked the Arch-Villain backward into a stone column!”

Voshtyr flew backwards, slamming into a pillar that hadn’t yet been ripped from its anchors by the vortex above. But this time the Arch-Villain was more prepared. Instead of striking the pillar in an uncontrolled trajectory, he landed feet-first on the marble surface and pushed off in an incredible lunge at Reginald’s shield.

Reginald barely had time to register that the Arch-Villain’s arm had made a distinctly metallic ring as it tore away his shield, before the Villain had his black-gloved right hand around Reginald’s throat. “Ghug!” Reginald choked out as Voshtyr put pressure on his windpipe.

“Ah, not so cocky now, eh, Hero?” Voshtyr said, a malevolent grin on his pointed features. A flash of purple energy crackled down his arm. “What, no narration for the moment? Perhaps I can provide some. ‘The pathetic Hero choked to death after having been proved the fool by a being far greater than he.’”

Reginald convulsed. He could feel himself dying. Voshtyr’s grip was too great. With tremendous effort, he swung his titanic sword in a desperate attempt to free himself from the life-draining grasp.

Voshtyr caught the blade in his left hand, in a shriek of metal on metal and stressed gears. The blade’s edge slashed open Voshtyr’s glove, revealing the shine of steel beneath it. “None of that,” he said, increasing both the grip and the magic.

Reginald gurgled, feeling pressure spread up his face and burst blood vessels in his eyes. He dropped his mighty weapon as darkness clawed at the edges of his vision.

Then, with the convenience of a deus ex machina, two things happened.

First, Reginald’s reinforcements arrived. Three Heroes in Heroic armor appeared with a sparkle and rush of air, all armed for combat. Emblems of varying shapes and colors adorned their armor and their weapons glowed with the effulgent sheen of elemental magics.

Reginald knew them by both name and reputation. The knight in dark purple-tinted platemail was the Purple Paladin. He knew the woman in white-lacquered riding armor as the White Shrike. And the third he had met only once, where the Turquoise Templar had amused his guests by creating the largest magical light-show in anyone’s memory.

In the same moment, three very irritable Villains appeared with a rush of black wind, a signature teleportation mark for the Brotherhood of the Black Hand. The three newly-arrived Heroes found themselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a seven-foot-tall Orc in nightdark robes, a knight in black armor, and a weedy-looking fellow with spectacles and a heavy, leatherbound book. The swirling ruins of Bryath Castle had suddenly become a very popular locale.

“Voshtyr Demonkin,” the weedy man demanded, “drop that Hero at once!”

Reginald felt the Arch-villain’s grasp release. He fell to the flagstones with a heavy thud, and reached for his wounded throat.

Voshtyr threw up his hands. “What are you three doing here?”

“Dealing with that,” the weedy man said, pointing up at the hole in the sky and the eclipsed sun. He opened his book and ran a slim finger down the page. “Voshtyr Demonkin, you have already used your solar eclipse for the quarter—and unless my bookkeeping is flawed, which it isn’t, you haven’t paid for a second one. Furthermore, if you’re going to cause Epic Destruction on this scale, you must fill out Environmental Impact forms 32-A and 44-QZ. You could have filled these out ahead of time if you’d shared your plan with the Brotherhood, but no!” He slammed the weighty book shut and glared at the Arch-Villain. “You had to go and do it yourself.”

“But I—”

The weedy man held up a hand and pointed at the wounded sky. “The vortex, Voshtyr.”

Voshtyr scowled, but cut the power from his potent spell. The sun brightened and the hole in the sky closed with a muted burp. Pieces of the castle began descending to rest on the ruined landscape. “All right, all right, I’ll sign your papers. Just hurry it up. If the king and his ring get away now—”

“The King’s not going anywhere,” the Purple Paladin said, “You are.” He extended into Voshtyr’s face a thick finger coated with tiny overlapping plates like flat chain-mail. “You’re going to spend a little time in a special prison for what you’ve done here today.”

“What, for wrecking this pathetic castle and slaying a few of the Palace Guard?” Voshtyr sneered. “Those mean naught to me.”

“Those are merely the civil charges,” the Turquoise Templar said, taking a scroll out of a belt-pouch and looking at it. “You’re also charged with Overuse of Magic, Illegal Magics, Grand Theft Soul, and,” he glanced around himself, “first-class Environmental Damage. White Shrike,” he said to their third companion, “see to the Crimson Slash.”

The woman, clad in sparkling white armor, knelt beside Reginald. She placed three fingers on his neck, and closed her eyes.

Reginald immediately felt better. He sat up and caught his reflection in a large fragment of shattered mirror amidst the rubble. His cheek bled from a nasty cut, his neck and face were a leprous white traced with purple, and his eyes were so bloodshot it seemed they had no whites. But as he watched, the purple discoloration faded and normal color slowly returned to his cheeks. In a few moments, Reginald coughed and sat up straighter, his bloodshot eyes gradually returning to their normal hazel.

Voshtyr turned to the other three Villains, the red glow fading from his eyes. “What is this nonsense? You three—don’t you see our opportunity? These Heroes are at our mercy and the King is but moments away! Come, help me slay these buffoons and together we can Rule the World!”

“No can do, Demonkin,” the Orc said, shaking his green-skinned head. “You started this without involving the Brotherhood, and we can’t intervene in any non-sanctioned activities.”

“So you’re going to let them take me? I’m—”

“Now under the jurisdiction of the Greater Bryath Heroic Court District,” the Purple Paladin said. “Stand down, Voshtyr von Steinadler, and your compliance will be taken into account at your trial.” The Purple Paladin placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, just in case the Villain resisted.

Voshtyr looked back and forth between the Heroes and Villains. Finally, he looked at the Villainous Knight in black armor. “Can’t you even…”

The knight shook his head. “The most I can do is ensure that your accomplice, Sir Anthony the Mace, finds temporary shelter. Perhaps he can free you from these men a few days from now.”

The Heroes laughed in derision. “Anthony the Mace?” the White Shrike said, looking up from her healing. “The one who used to be The Silver Talon? That meathead couldn’t stage a jailbreak at a nursery.”

Voshtyr sighed melodramatically, and retracted his arm-blade. “All right. I admit defeat—for now.” He dropped the glowing necklace and raised his hands in surrender.

“Good choice, von Steinadler,” the Purple Paladin said. “Take him away.”

As Voshtyr was led walked past Reginald, he stopped and stared into the Hero’s face, his eyes narrowed. “This does not end here, Crimson Slash. A week, a year, five years, it matters not. I will find you. And when I do, I shall make you suffer.”

Reginald returned the Arch-Villain’s gaze calmly. “Sorry, Demonkin. This is a do-not-taunt moment. You need to read the book again.” He leaned toward Voshtyr’s face. “You may try, but you shall fail next time as well. Justice always prevails.”

And with that, the Turquoise Templar led Voshtyr off to a heavily magic-proofed holding cell in a maximum security VDC (Villain Detention Center).

Reginald sat wearily on a pile of shattered masonry and sighed. He watched with growing fatigue as the group of Heroes and Villains worked out details of custody of Voshtyr for his trial. There was much shouting and finger-pointing, but thankfully no drawn weapons. Such matters were regulated by the Guild of Heroes and the Brotherhood of the Black Hand, after all.

The King and Kingsguard slowly filtered back into the castle, gawking at the destruction.

“A thousand thanks, Crimson Slash,” Sir Grant said. The knight was bandaged and pale, but he clapped Reginald on the shoulder “We of the Kingsguard could not have held that demon off without your help, and our King would now lie dead if you had not been here. You have the gratitude of the entire kingdom of Bryath.”

Reginald chuckled. “I’d rather have a bottle of brandy. Or another of those strawberry tarts.” He rubbed his sore neck. “I hope that Arch-Villain cannot make good on his threats. I’d not wish to fight him again.” Something buzzed in Reginald’s equipment pouch. “Just one moment, Sir Grant, I’m being called.” He dug into the leather bag and retrieved a small silver token bearing an hourglass and eye painted on it. He pressed it gently, and held it in his palm.

A almost transparent figure of a woman appeared in miniature, standing atop the token. “Crimson Slash,” she said, “this is the Guild. We have a new duty for you.”

“Yes, of course,” Reginald said. “Shall I escort the Arch-Villain to the VDC?”

“No, Sir Ogleby, something far more dangerous.” The woman raised her arm to point dramatically at him. “It is time for you, Crimson Slash, to take a new apprentice.”

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy by Theodore Beale

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and his book:

Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy

Marcher Lord Press (October 1, 2008)

Marcher Lord Press officially launches on October 1:

They will be giving away amazing bonus gifts to everyone who purchases Marcher Lord Press novels on opening day.

Whether you're a voracious reader, an up-and-coming novelist, or you're just buying this for your teenage son who won't read anything but fantasy, these bonus goodies will be treasures you'll love.

But remember, these bonuses are good only for those who order books on Day 1.


Theodore Beale is an American living in Europe. He has published decidedly Christian speculative fiction with decidedly secular publishers: Pocket Books and Simon & Schuster.

He works primarily in the computer game industry, where he has launched and guided a small business into a successful career. He is an entrepreneur and a musician, and, if you do a little digging, you'll find he's interesting in other ways, too.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy, Theodore Beale, Marcher Lord Press, October 2008, $12.99


Marcus Valerius looked up from the faded Numidican manuscript in irritation. The light from the study window was growing dim. Already he’d been forced to light a candle in order to make out the obscure scratchings of the historian Quintus the Elder, whose colorful accounts of his encounters with the pagan desert tribes were as dubious as they were vivid. The imperative knocking at the door threatened a lengthy interruption, one that might cost Marcus what little daylight remained.

“Come in,” he called, resigned.

The latch creaked, and a familiar, sun-bronzed face peered around the corner of the door. It belonged to his cousin Sextus, whose brown eyes were dancing with mischief.

“This better be good,” Marcus warned him. “I was just getting to the part where the tribal chief is about to sacrifice the centurion to his devil-gods.”

Sextus nodded absently. “Oh, yes, you said you were going to read up on old Quintus, didn’t you? Well, if it’ll save you some time, I’ll tell you how it ends. The legions march in, the heathen see the error of their ways, and Amorr triumphs over all. Hallelujah and amen!”

Marcus stared at him, and with some difficulty, rejected the first three responses that leaped to mind. “Thank you, Sexto. Your help is…beyond words. Now, go away, please.”

His cousin grinned back at him, and maddeningly, did not leave but rather folded his arms and leaned against the edge of the entryway.

Sexto was a half-hand shorter than Marcus, but with a slim build that made him appear taller. Like Marcus and the rest of their family, his eyes were dark brown, but he was no scholar and his skin was deeply bronzed by the sun. He wore a plain white tunica devoid of any equestrian stripes, he was barefoot, and his belt was an unadorned strip of worn leather. Besides the intrinsic arrogance that radiated from him like heat from a fire, only the finely carved silver buckle clasping the belt showed any sign that he was a Senator’s son, let alone a Valerian.

“Don’t you want to know why I’m here?”

“To plague me?” Marcus guessed. “To keep me from my learning?”

Sextus steepled his hands and did his best to appear pious. The effect would have worked better if he had stopped smirking first.

“I’m here in my priestly capacity, believe it or not. The Father Superior sent me with a message for you. You’re to go before the Sanctiff.”

“What?” Marcus was sure he hadn’t heard correctly. “I’m supposed to go where?”

“To the Sanctiff,” Sextus repeated. “Yes, you, and right away, too. Father Aurelius is already on his way here—he’s to escort you to the Palace.”

He grinned and arched his eyebrows. “Now tell me what you did to get in that kind of trouble, Marco! Did I miss out on something?”

Marcus swallowed hard. This wasn’t just impossible, it was beyond imagining. Amorr had no king. The Lord God Himself ruled over the Republic. However, as the earthly head of the Amorran Church, the Sanctiff was His voice and His viceroy from the banks of the Tiburon to the shores of the Rialthan Sea.

And Marcus had no idea why the Sanctiff wanted to see him. No idea at all.

* * *

The Holy Palace boasted twelve spires ringing one massive cupola, a symbolic representation in marble of mankind’s Savior and His twelve disciples. Marcus, with Father Aurelius by his side, were being escorted into it by the Palace’s hard-faced soldiers with their red cloaks.

To Marcus’s relief they did not march him into the Hall of Judgment. That place was dreaded by every sane and sober Amorran. He had first feared they were taking him there to stand before some inquest. But instead the guards conducted them to what appeared to be a small, private antechamber just off one of the palace’s central corridors.

The room was dark, lit only by seven guttering rushlights. It was cool, but not cold, and two of the stucco walls were obscured with wooden shelves that held fat scrolls of various lengths. Marcus couldn’t see the back wall behind the lights, but he stopped looking about the room when his eyes alighted upon an elderly man sitting alone in its center.

His Holiness was reclining on an unimposing, leather-wrapped chair that looked as comfortable as it was worn with age. He wore none of the trappings of his awesome office, only the simple blue robe of a Jamite brother. The robe was darker than his cerulean eyes, which were encased by thin folds of sagging flesh and surmounted by a pair of bushy white eyebrows. But he smiled warmly at his visitors, and Marcus could easily have thought of him as someone’s good-humored paterfamilias were it not for the gem-encrusted ring of office adorning his left hand.

“Thank you for coming, Father Aurelius.” The Sanctiff’s voice was deep, but to hear it up close in this small room instead of echoing off the marble of the palace steps made it seem more friendly than intimidating. “I have received excellent reports of your work with the junior scholastics. And welcome, Marcus Valerius. I wished to see with my own eyes the latest prodigy of the Valerian House. Perhaps you shall do for the Church what your illustrious forebears have done for Amorr’s legions, hmmm?”

Marcus blushed before the Sanctiff’s praise. It was as if the old man had seen into his mind and read his deepest, most hidden desires.

“Thank you, your Holiness. I only seek to serve God and Amorr, to the best of my small abilities.”

The Sanctiff’s aged lips wrinkled in a wry smile, and he glanced toward the shadowy corner of the room.

“Admirably courteous, is he not? I should think any concerns regarding his comportment are groundless. Don’t you agree, Caecilus Cassius?”

Marcus drew in a sharp breath as a thin-faced man in a black robe emerged from the darkness, accompanied by a cheerful-looking Jamite priest in the blue robe of his order.

Marcus knew the man whom His Holiness addressed so familiarly. Or rather, he knew of him. Caecilus Cassius Claudo was the Bishop of Avienne, one of the Church’s leading intellectuals. His famous treatise, the Summa Spiritus, written on all the diverse races of Selenoth and their distinct places in the Will of God, had sparked a raging flame of lively debate that still roared through every scholastic circle in the Republic. Marcus himself had written a short commentary on the Summa less than a year ago.

“That remains to be seen, your Holiness.” Claudo’s arid voice was acerbic and high-pitched. “Certainly, a number of his expressed opinions are impudent in the extreme.”

“Oh, come now, Claudo,” the Jamite broke in, laughing. His round face was ruddy, and Marcus liked him immediately. “A refusal to abase himself before your lofty eminence does not indicate an inclination towards boorish behavior. Why, it’s nothing more than a sign of sheer good sense!”

He smiled broadly, making it clear that he was only teasing his proud colleague, then graciously inclined his head towards Marcus and Father Aurelius.

“Since His Holiness does not see fit to introduce us, I shall take the matter in hand myself. I am Quintus Servilius Aestus, a humble priest in service to the Lord Immanuel, and, of course, His Holiness. My distinguished colleague is none other than His Excellency, the Bishop of Avienus, whose work I believe you know quite well.”

Father Aestus shook their hands warmly, first Father Aurelius’s, then Marcus’s own. Marcus was in awe, for he was truly in the presence of greatness—not once, not twice, but three times over. Father Aestus was one of the few intellectuals who dared to publicly cross wits with the famed Bishop, and he was rumored to be working on his own magnum opus in opposition to Cassius Claudo’s brilliant masterpiece.

The Sanctiff cleared his throat, and Father Aestus smoothly effaced himself, but not before directing a disconcerting wink at Marcus.

“Father Aurelius, you know why I have summoned you,” the Sanctiff stated, “and your presence here answers the question I posed to you earlier. However, Bishop Claudo and Father Aestus have their own questions for your young scholar, and with your permission, I would allow them to inquire of him.”

“Of course, your Holiness,” Father Aurelius replied obediently. He was an astute man, and did not need to be told when his presence was not required. “May I have your permission to withdraw, your Holiness?”

“Go with God, Father,” the Sanctiff said, extending his left hand. “And the grace of Our Living Lord be upon you.”

Father Aurelius bent over and kissed the sacerdotal ring of office, then gave Marcus a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he left the room. Marcus suddenly felt alone and intimidated, surrounded as he was by three of the republic’s most formidable minds.

Bishop Claudo’s dry voice broke in on his thoughts. “Marcus Valerius, I have read your commentary on the Summa Spiritus. It is…not without merit. But when you say that one does not know, indeed, that one is not even capable of knowing, whether a particular form or being possesses an immortal soul, are you not treading perilously near a concept that could easily be construed as heresy? Or is this passage nothing more than the sophmoric pedantry of a young scholar who has manufactured a reason to doubt the immutable fact of his own existence?”

Marcus gulped. Claudo was cutting straight to the point. Are you a heretic or a fool, boy? That was the real question being posed to him now. The Church didn’t burn heretics at the stake anymore, but nevertheless he knew he had to be very careful about what he said next. He closed his eyes and thought quickly before answering.

“Only a philosopher or a fool doubts his own existence, Excellency. It is true, however, that the two all too often prove to be one and the same. I assert that I am neither. The verb ‘to know’ contains a number of interpretations, and in the sentence of which I believe you are speaking, I made use of the concept in its most concrete sense, the sense in which a thing is proven beyond any reasonable possibility of doubt. As in the case, for example, of a mathematical equation.”

Marcus paused. Was that a frown clouding over the Sanctiff’s face? He shook his head, took a deep breath, and tried to clarify his meaning.

“Your Excellency, as you know, where there is surety, there is no faith, no belief per se. And therefore, knowledge of the soul rightly belongs in the realm of faith, not mathematics.”

He placed his right hand over his heart.

“Do I have a soul? Yes, I believe so, with all my heart. But regardless of my faith, it is either so, or it is not, as the Castrate wrote so wisely. My personal belief does not have the capacity to dictate the truth. Indeed, before the eternal Truth of the Almighty God, my own humble opinion is of no account.”

Claudo snorted and his eyes narrowed, but he did not say anything. Father Aestus looked as if he were about to burst out laughing.

The Sanctiff smiled.

“He has you there, Claudo. Unless you did not apprise me of a divine revelation, all your wonderfully conclusive eloquence remain just that—eloquence.”

Claudo shrugged. “It is so. And yet decisions must be made, though the decision-makers be fallible.”

He regarded Marcus coldly and stepped back into the shadows.

Marcus stared at the carpeted floor, chagrined. He wondered what was wrong with his answer, and hoped he hadn’t greatly offended the acerbic ecclesiastic.

“I, too, have a question for the young scholar,” Father Aestus announced. His green eyes danced impishly. “Do you ride?”

“Do I… Horses?” Marcus asked, taken aback.

“I wasn’t thinking of cows,” the Father replied tartly.

“Yes, oh yes. Of course.”

Every Amorran nobleman rode, especially those of the Valerian house. Marcus wondered what kind of trap was being laid for him now. It just didn’t make any sense.

“I have no further questions, your Eminence.”

Father Aestus bowed theatrically to the Sanctiff and joined Bishop Claudo behind the makeshift Sanctal throne.

Marcus was thoroughly confused now, and by this point, wouldn’t have been too surprised if the Sanctiff suddenly leaped out of his chair and demanded that he demonstrate an ability to juggle apples. How was he going to explain this strange business to Sextus?

“I anticipate no objections, then?” the Sanctiff asked the two Churchmen.

“None at all,” Father Aestus said cheerfully. Bishop Claudo slowly shook his head in silence.

“Very well.” A smile creased the Sanctiff’s lined face and he leaned toward Marcus. “I realize this has been a little unusual for you, my son. But I have a problem, you see, and you, Marcus Valerius, are going to help me solve it.”

“Me?” Marcus shook his head. “How could I help you, your Holiness?”

“Let me tell you about my problem first. You see, these illustrious jewels in the crown of the Church,” he nodded toward Claudo and Aestus, “have each penned a marvelous work on Man and his place in this world. The Summa Spiritus you have read. The Ordo Selenus Sapiens you have not, though Father Aestus will no doubt be interested in what you might have to say about it. In many points they are in agreement, but on one very important point they are at variance. It is that particular point which I would like you to help me settle.”

Marcus nodded. “I am yours to command, your Holiness. But what is this point of contention, and how could I ever help you settle it?”

The Sanctiff sighed wearily. “I am an old man, Marcus Valerius, and my days of seeing through this glass darkly will soon come to an end. I cannot travel to Elebrion. I would not survive the trip. But you, my son, shall accompany Bishop Claudo and the good Father in my stead.”

Marcus put his hand over his mouth, and his eyes opened wide with shock. Now he understood what the Sanctiff had in mind, and the sobering realization of terrible responsibility hit him like a blow to the stomach.

“By the blood of the martyrs,” he cried despite himself. “You’re going to decide if the elves have souls!”

Chapter Two

The last vestiges of the setting sun had long since disappeared by the time the small troop of crimson-cloaked guards escorted Marcus past the sturdy gate of his uncle’s domus.

By day, Amorr belonged to God. But its night was claimed by the worst of His creations. Peril lurked in far too many shadows of the narrow, high-walled, circuitous streets called vici. Even a mounted nobleman born to Horse and Sword could find himself beaten, stripped, and if fortunate, merely robbed, by the cruel gangs of half-human breeds and bandits who ravaged the city by night.

Still, even the most lawless of brigands feared crossing the path of the Redeemed, the most fanatical of the Church’s militias. The Redeemed were former gladiators, now rehabilitated—hardened men of violence who had chosen to leave the bloodstained sands of the Coliseum behind them. Slaves they had been and slaves they were still, but they served a different master now.

The glory they now sought was not of this world, and the fervor of their faith was as illustrious as it was utterly ignorant. Not for them, the eloquent debates of Form and Meaning, or Substance and Soul. Marcus was not entirely comfortable in their hulking, creaking, red-cloaked presence, but he appreciated their company in the darkness of the Amorran night.

As they neared the estate, slaves from the household swarmed around Marcus’s horse. He inclined his head politely toward the troop’s commander.

“My thanks, captain. A good evening to you and your men.”

The captain saluted grimly, bringing his fist to his chest, without a hint of personality crossing his scarred, sun-weathered face. He showed no sign of interest in either Marcus or his House. He’d done his duty, nothing more.

“Glory to God, sir.”

Without another word, the ex-gladiator turned his mount around in a swirl of crimson and horsestink. The five Redeemed riders followed him, torches held high, returning confidently into the noisome shadows of the city.

Marcus watched them go, fascinated. He wondered what it would be like to be such a man. To be so sure, so secure in one’s faith, surely that was a wonderful thing! And yet, what was a man’s mind for, if not to use it?

It was another question to ponder, but far less pressing than the one that looked to have him departing on the morning following the morrow. Marcus sighed, and dismounted, waving aside the proffered hands of a tall slave offering him assistance. He patted the soft, fleshy nose of his big grey affectionately before handing the reins over to another slave, this one young, olive-skinned, and thin. But human.

Like most patrician families, it was beneath the dignity of House Valerius to own halfbreeds or inhumans. This slave looked familiar. He wore the blue badge of the stables, but for the life of him Marcus couldn’t remember his name.

“What are you called?” he asked the young slave.

“Deccus, Maester Maercuss,” the boy replied in heavily accented Amorran, not meeting Marcus’s eyes as he carefully stroked the grey’s ears.

Marcus nodded. Now he remembered. The boy was a Bethnian, one of the lot purchased by his uncle’s head steward at the spring auction. Erasto had bought twenty-five or thirty. Bethnians were absurdly inexpensive now thanks to Pontius Balbus’s crushing of a rebellion in that province the year before. But they knew their horses well. Barat would be in good hands with this boy.

“Then please take good care of him tonight, Deccus, and tomorrow as well,” Marcus instructed. “It seems I’ve a journey ahead of me, and he must be fit for the riding.”

The slave nodded, and a faint smile crossed his lips at the sound of his name. The Valerian slaves were treated no worse than most and better than some, but the decuria of the stables was a rough place for a youngster to serve and Marcus knew it could have easily been months since Deccus was last addressed by anything but a curse. The use of the boy’s name might be a small enough kindness, but it counted for something. At least, Marcus hoped that it did.

Rumor spread faster than sickness in the slaves’ quarters, so by the time he entered the atrium Marcipor was already there waiting for him. Marcipor, Marcus’s bodyslave, was a handsome, broad-shouldered man of Savondese descent, the bastard of an officer captured twenty-four years ago by his uncle. They were of the same age, almost to the day.

It was obvious that Sextus had not kept the news of the Sanctiff’s summons to himself, because Marcipor’s blue eyes were alight with curiosity even as they carefully avoided meeting his own. His demeanor was proper—far too proper, in fact—and Marcus stifled a smile as Marcipor overacted with an uncharacteristically elaborate bow as he offered Marcus a fresh tunic of light muslin to replace his dusty day-clothes.

“Why don’t you just come right out and ask me?” Marcus wondered aloud as he held out his arms and let Marcipor assist him out of the sweat-stained tunic.

“This slave would not dream of such presumption, Master.”

Marcus snorted.

“Save it for the girls, pretty boy. My uncle should have sold you to the theater long ago. It’s a pity Pylades didn’t have you for a protégé.”

Marcipor grinned and abandoned the servile pretense. He puffed his chest out and struck a dramatic stance. He was a striking young man, with a strong jaw and a close-cropped, golden beard. More than one slave girl living in the vicinity of the Valerian house had given birth to a fair-haired, blue-eyed baby after Marcipor had passed his sixteenth year.

“Indeed,” he said, “I daresay I would have outshined Hylos. But you must tell me about this mysterious summons. Is it true you saw the Sanctiff? The whole domus has been utterly agog with rumor ever since you left with Father Aurelius! Sextus says they’re going to ordain you early and make you a cardinal!”

“What?” Marcus burst out laughing as he donned a clean tunic. He knew a bishopric was his for the taking. No noble, not even one with plebian blood, would expect anything less. And it was even possible that an archbishopric might be in the cards. But not even a scion of House Severus could hope to be crowned prince of the church before reaching thirty.

“Sextus, as you so often inform me, is an idiot.”

He folded his arms, enjoying the feel of the fresh muslin against his skin A pity he hadn’t the time to visit the baths before vesperna.

“So, what’s the bet?”

He was sure there was a stake involved somehow, for both his cousin and his slave were inveterate gamblers. Marcipor’s coin-hoard far exceeded his own, in fact, more often than not he was in debt to his slave. Marcipor’s rates were usurious, but paying them was easier than trying to extract money from his uncle’s iron fists.

“The archbishopric, of course. Even your lily-white hands aren’t clean enough for the lazulate. Which is a good thing, seeing how you’re barely even a man yet and you’ve too much living to do before you seal yourself up in that white mausoleum for the rest of your life.”

“You’re lying, Marpo.” He knew Marcipor far too well to fall for this. “And if the bet is which one of you I’ll tell first, well, you both lose. I can’t tell you anything. In fact, I don’t even know if I’ll be free to talk to anyone when I return.”

“Return…? So you’re going somewhere!” Marcipor’s face grew calculating for a moment, but then his eyes widened with surprise. “Wait a minute, you can’t go anywhere without me! Unattended? Your uncle would never hear of it! And if you think you’re going to take that irresponsible lunatic of a cousin—”

Marcus held up a hand. “Peace, Marpo.” He yawned and shook his head. “Of course you’re going to go with me. Assuming I go anywhere, that is, for I must ask Magnus’s permission first. But you should probably start getting things together for a six-month journey tonight, because if we do leave, my understanding is that the Sanctiff intends we shall begin the day after tomorrow, and I can’t imagine even Magnus would deny him. Now leave me to attend him. It seems everyone in that ‘white mausoleum’ is too holy to bother with food anymore. I’m hungry enough to eat a boar.”

* * *

The great man was reclining alone in the triclinium, accompanied in his evening meal only by his three favorites.

The room was large, but stark, with no decorations on the white stuccoed walls to detract from the only furniture: a low, tiled table that filled the center of the room and couches on three sides. The colorful tiles told the story of Valerius, the founder of the house, and showed the wounded hero lying in a grove being tended by the wolf who licked his wounds and succored him until his triumphant and vengeful return to Amorr. Magnus often entertained a score or more of Amorr’s great here, senators and equestrians, but fortunately tonight he was as near to alone as Marcus was ever likely to find him.

Lucipor, the ancient, grey-bearded slave who was old enough to be the ex-consul’s father, lay on the couch to his left. Dompor and Lazapor, the household’s resident scholars, shared the couch on the right. As a young girl washed his feet inside the entrance, Marcus could hear Lazapor raising his voice as he took issue with something his uncle had said.

“You underestimate them, Magnus. The villagemen seek no justice, they only slaver after power in the City! What you consider to be an open hand extended in a spirit of generosity, they only see as weakness. Make the mistake of allowing one snake into the Senate, and I assure you, a thousand will soon squirm in behind him!”

Marcus entered barefoot. At the sound of his entrance, his uncle turned to him with what appeared to be relief. There was a rancorous tone to Lazapor’s voice that indicated this evening’s debate was not an entirely civil one. Marcus wondered at his uncle’s habit of engaging in disputation while dining, and yet the custom had clearly not affected the great man’s appetite. Lucius Valerius Magnus, ex-consul and senator, was great in many particulars, not least among them was the impressive size of his paunch.

“I shall, as always, take your words under advisement,” his uncle said to Lazapor. Marcus noted that he had gracefully evaded disclosing his own position on the matter. “Marcus, my dear lad, do come in and rescue me from these disagreeable scholars. Now, is it true that you were summoned to the Sanctorum, or has my son reverted to his childhood custom of telling fanciful tales?”

“Yes,” Dompor said, “we have long expected miracles from you, Marcus, but you seem to have outdone yourself this time. Our darling Sextus is fond of saying that your piety is surpassed only by the Mater Dei. Are we correct in assuming that His Holiness has asked you to serve as his father confessor?”

Marcus usually enjoyed the humor to be found in Dompor’s acerbic tongue, even when he was its target, but this was no time for such indulgences. He smiled faintly at the slave, then met his uncle’s eyes.

“I need to speak with you, Uncle. Alone.”

Magnus’ greying eyebrows rose with surprise, and he raised his hand. Without saying a word, his three companions rose from the couches and departed. Lazapor seemed a little annoyed at the interruption, but Lucipor’s face was marked with concern. Dompor, never one given to worry, appeared amused as he surreptitiously slipped a small bell from his tunic and placed it on the table. For it was not only unusual, it was almost unprecedented, for the great man to banish all three of them from his domestic conclaves.

But Marcus’s strange request did not seem to concern Magnus. He rose with an audible grunt of effort.

“I don’t recall any recent vacancies,” he mused, stroking his chin. “Did Quintus Fulvius die already? I’d heard his see was likely to open soon.”

“It’s not a see, Uncle. I haven’t even decided to take the cloth yet.”

“You haven’t?”

“No, I haven’t, truly,” Marcus insisted, vaguely irritated that everyone else seemed so sure of his future when he himself had not come to a decision yet. The heat of his denial seemed to amuse his uncle, but his amusement vanished as Marcus told him of the Sanctiff’s intentions.

“Elebrion? Sphincterus! That blasted Ahenobarbus bids fair to open up a vat of worms with this notion. I can’t imagine what possesses him to meddle with something that could threaten our northern border while we’re already engaged to the east. Soak my foot, but he always did have a tendency to stick that wretched red beard of his wherever it’s not wanted!”

Marcus blinked. He was unaccustomed to hearing His Holiness, the Sanctified Charity IV, forty-fourth Sanctiff of Amorr, described in such familiar and unflattering terms. Furthermore, the Sanctiff was not only clean-shaven, but his hair had been white as long as Marcus could remember. Red beard? Marcus reached over and took a pair of figs from the bowl on the low table and popped one into his mouth, then took a deep breath and attempted to contradict his uncle.

“I shouldn’t think he’s intending to do anything but learn more—”

“You’re a scholar, Marcus, not a fool. Stop for a moment and think the matter through. Do you think the High King of the elves is so easily hoodwinked? I’ve fought with elves and I’ve fought against them, and I can tell you that if there’s one thing they’re not, it’s fools, my boy. They’re pretty enough, but there’s steel underneath, lad—never forget it! And their blasted wizards have lived ten times longer than our oldest greybeard. Take it from me, Marcus, no one survives that long without learning something, no matter how stupid he might be to start.

“So, they’ll know very well why you’re there, and they’ll know what’s going to happen if those tonsured imbeciles in the Sanctorum completely lose what little remains of their common sense and decide that elves are nothing more than talking beasts.”

The great man shook his head in dismay. “Considering what I’ve heard of King Caerwyn’s court, I imagine he’d consider an infestation of monks preaching celibacy and the church to be an act of war. Tarquin’s tarnation! I suppose we can hope this new High King is cut from a different cloth.”

Marcus waited patiently as his uncle glared at him as if he were a proxy for God’s own viceroy. Despite this unexpected outburst, he still did not believe Magnus would bar him from the journey. There were too many potential advantages to be gained by his participation.

If Marcus took the cloth and was ordained, he would be permanently banned from holding a seat in the Senate. But political power was not the only one in Amorr worth wielding. Marcus’s older brother was the politician of the family, having won election as one of the city’s fifteen Tribunes earlier this year. And his two older sisters had already provided his father with four members of the following generation, including three potential heirs.

The great man’s son, Sexto, had two older brothers who were junior officers in the field serving under his father. A third brother had already successfully stood for tribune. So it was not as if the family were in dire need of another soldier or politician.

When Magnus finally spoke, he laid an avuncular hand the boy’s shoulder. “You’re a good lad, Marcus. Even if Ahenobarbus is sticking his head in a hornet’s nest, the opportunities that will likely present themselves to our house are promising. But be careful! There’s more going on here than you can possibly imagine. Keep your eyes open, keep your wits about you, and don’t let yourself get overly caught up in all that priestly disputation. Try to think about the world you’re in before worrying too much about the one to come.”

“Yes, Magnus.”

“Now, go say goodbye to your mother, but don’t tell her where you are going. Leave that to me. It will be hard on her, with Corvus gone.”

“Yes, Magnus. Although I doubt she’ll even notice I’m not here, not with Tertia’s twins.”

“There is that. I’ll write to your father, lad. He must be apprised of these developments, too. I don’t know if he’ll be terribly pleased, unfortunately, but I’ll knock some sense into him. He expects you to follow in his footsteps. But you were born to think, not brawl or bawl out legionnairies. Oh, and Marcus, you will tell Sextus that he is not to even think of tagging along after you. If he does so much as ride to the Pontus Rossus I’ll have him lashed and halve his allowance for the next three moons.”

Marcus grinned as he bowed respectfully, then reached for the bowl of fruit before departing. Sexto would brave a lashing if need be, but he’d never risk the coin.

“I’ll tell him, Magnus. And thank you, sir. I shall not forget your advice.”

* * *

The great man pursed his lips as he watched his young relation exit the triclinium, an apple in either hand. This news of Elebrion was an unforeseen and unwelcome development. Should he have braved Ahenobarbus’s displeasure and forbidden the old charlatan his nephew? He’d made much harder decisions than this before, given orders that had cost thousands of men their lives without hesitation or regret, and yet something about this one bothered him. Marcus was his brother’s youngest son. In Corvus’s absence, was there not something he could do to safeguard the lad?

The boy was trained, but he was no warrior. His bodyslave was no better: a lover, not a fighter. Perhaps Magnus could send a soldier along to safeguard Marcus. Able soldiers were easy to find, but with them it was discipline that counted most, not skill, and besides, they were taught to fight as a unit.

Perhaps a gladiator?

But gladiators were but men, and Magnus knew all too well the price of a man. What can be bought can always be bought once more by a more generous purse. And it wouldn’t be only elves that would be interested in the buying.

Once word of the prospect of a Church-sanctioned holy war against the elves got out, every petty merchant with a load of tin or cattle skins to sell the legions would be pressing hard to get his fingers into the unending flow of coin that would erupt from the Senate. Worse, he knew very well that some of the more enterprising tradesmen were perfectly capable of taking it upon themselves to help the Sanctiff reach the decision that would be of the most benefit to them.

But what sort of fighting man could not be bought by Man or Elf?

Magnus reached over, took the bell from the table, and shook it. The bronze clang had barely stopped when servant came rushing into the room and nearly collided with him, taken by surprise at his presence out of his recliner

“Find Lucipor,” he commanded. “I want him now. And bring that fool of a son of mine, too. He may be useful for once, as hard as that is to imagine.”

The slave bowed and ran off. He did not, Magnus noted with mild irritation, seem to feel any need to inquire as to which of his sons the senator required.

* * *

Marcus awoke with a start. He sat up on his sweat-damped pallet.

The sun was already risen and a few rays of morning lightened the shadows cast by the thick walls of the domus. Looking around, he discovered that he was alone in the cubiculum, though he did not know if Marcipor had risen before him, or, as seemed more likely, had not returned to the Valerian compound last night.

One of the houseslaves brought him a bowl of water upon request. After he washed his face and hands, he determined to go to the baths as soon as he’d broken his fast. It might well be his last opportunity to do so in quite some time.

He found Sextus already in the triclinium, sprawled in front of a low table laden with fruit, bread and meat left over from the night before. He was idly feeding his dog, a curly-tailed mongrel he’d acquired off the streets the year before.

“You’re up late,” Sextus commented as he popped a piece of orange into his mouth.

“Yes.” Marcus wasn’t that hungry, he realized. He’d eaten rather a lot after speaking with his uncle and his mother.

“How did Aunt Julia take the news of your departure?”

“Placidly.” Marcus ignored the accusatory tone, somewhat surprised that Magnus had seen fit to inform Sextus of his upcoming travels. “Her eyes were dry.”

“Another Aelia, she is,” his cousin said wryly, then laughed.

“You don’t understand the benefit of a father gone campaigning and a mother uninterested in your affairs. I wish Magnus would leave me alone like that. He’s even forbidden me to ride out with you, although I suppose you’ll have that sorry excuse of a slave to keep you company.”

Marcus flicked a grape at his cousin.

“You can’t honestly tell me that you’d abandon Amorr for a long ride through the wilds of Merithaim, Sextus. You do realize that I’m part of an official Church embassy? There won’t be any gambling or girl-chasing, and I don’t recall ecclesiastical debate being one of your favorite pastimes.”

“Chance is everywhere, my dear boy. And wherever there are guards, there you will find men who roll the bones. As for girls, I daresay that Elebrion is full of them!” Sextus’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “Elven girls. I’ve only seen one or two, but they were lovely. Gorgeous! Tall, slender, skin like milk. If you look past the pointy ears and the haughty attitude, why, they might be Vargeyar maidens, and there’s no harm in that!”

“No harm? You wouldn’t survive your first day there. You’d make love to the first sorceress you saw and find yourself turned into a toad before nightfall.”

Sextus paid him no heed.

“Perhaps I shall marry two of them, no, three, actually, and found a new Pannonia. It’s a pity there aren’t more half-elves around these days. Why did we kill them all, do you happen to remember?”

“To spare their women your unseemly lusts,” Marcus said dryly.

He removed a piece of meat from the table, examined it, and tossed it to Sextus’s dog The ugly beast snapped the morsel down with noisy relish.

“I have in mind to go to the baths today, since I don’t think I’ll find one along the Malkanway. Care to join me?”

“Gladly.” Sextus raised a small pouch from under his couch. “We can do that after we take care of this. I have orders to drag you off to the Arena. Believe it or not, that’s what got me out of aiding with the sportulae today. No fights, unfortunately, but since Magnus has correctly ascertained that you and Marpo are able to defend yourselves about as well as a pair of declawed kittens, I’ve orders to take you to the stables and buy you a bodyguard capable of protecting your virtue from those hot-blooded elven slatterns.”

“The Arena? A bodyguard… Do you mean a gladiator?”

“Uh, yes. I know you’ve never been, but you do know what they are, right? Big, bloody-minded brutes, usually knock about trying to kill each other?”

“Why would I need a bodyguard? If the Sanctiff sent six Redeemed to bring me home last night, I’m sure he will ensure that his ambassador is well-guarded in our travels.”

“That’s the problem. I think Magnus wants to make sure that there’s someone who couldn’t care less about the perfumed princes of the Church and will remember to keep an eye on the embassy’s most junior member.”

Marcus shrugged. That made sense, he supposed, although he found it hard to believe that he could possibly be in any real danger. Except, of course, from the elvenking. But if High King Mael decided to attack the embassy, one more bodyguard would hardly make a difference.

* * *

By the time they reached the gladiator stables in the shadow of the Colosseo, Marcus was pleased to step into the dark, low-ceilinged building just to get out of the sun. His pleasure lasted only a moment—the smell of sweat, leather, and blood was so strong that it almost made him reel as he looked around the interior of the wooden structure.

Plaques and weapons adorned the walls, separated by the occasional rude shelf holding bronze and silver cups that Marcus supposed were trophies. Seated at a makeshift desk was a big man laboriously attempting to write numbers on a scroll. It turned out to be the training master working at his accounts.

While the big man raised his eyebrows at Sextus’s request to purchase a gladiator, he was clearly annoyed when Sextus asked to see only dwarves, and only those dwarves fighting under the aegis of the Red faction.

The time it took to summon them seemed like an eternity in that dark and odorous place, but before it became unbearable, the master begrudgingly presented nine of the stocky, broad-shouldered creatures, and Marcus quickly realized the man’s attitude derived from his correct notion that a quick sale was not in order. None of the nine would make for a good travel companion. These dwarves were bitter, angry individuals, degraded into a near-bestial state by the harsh oppression of their slavery.

“Perhaps one of the other factions might have dwarves as well?” Marcus suggested hopefully as the last of the sneering, scowling gladiators was escorted back to the factional cells.

“Not a one,” said the training master. He was a tall, powerfully-built man with a terrible scar across the left side of his face. “Whites don’t take breeds. Greens do, but they usually go in for orcs and gobbos, and those don’t mix real well with dwarves. Blues had twelve until last week, but they all got killed in the re-creation of the Iron Mountain siege.”

“I saw that!” Sextus said. “It was incredible. Especially that catapult they built—for a moment there I thought they were going to turn it on the crowd! Say, why do you shave their beards?”

“Reminds ‘em where they are. Reminds ‘em what they are.” The training master looked appraisingly at Marcus and Sextus, possibly wondering what these two wealthy young masters would want with dwarves in the first place.

“They forget sometimes, else.”

“Are these all you’ve got?” Marcus said. He was doing his best to keep the distaste off his face. Not for the dwarves, for whom he only felt pity, but for the training master. “Isn’t there anyone else?”

The training master shrugged. “There’s two up in the infirmary. I don’t know what you want with a dwarf, but neither one is up to putting up much of a fight. Unless that’s what you want, of course.”

Marcus stared at the man in disbelief. Fortunately, Sextus grabbed his arm and squeezed it before he could open his mouth. What did the man think they were, a pair of decadent thrill killers?

But then, this was Amorr, the greatest city in all the world, and not even its public dedication to the Lord God Almighty enabled it to escape Man’s fallen nature. For every saint here, there were ten sinners, and for every man genuinely devoted to faith, good works, and charity there were three given over to the worst forms of depravity and sadistic decadence. No doubt this man, laboring as he did in this terrible place, saw the evil side of man far more often than its reverse.

“Take ‘em back,” the training master said to an overmuscled pair of assistants. Then he beckoned toward Marcus and Sextus. “Follow me. I’ll take you to the ones in the infirmary. They’re both good fighters, but one was lamed in the last spectacle, and the other one took a pretty good stick in the ribs.”

They followed him up the stairs and into what could easily have passed for one of the lower circles of Hell. The one-room infirmary was dark. It stank of disease and decades of blood dripping from the wounded and dying to soak into the wood of the floor. Marcus was appalled, and he saw even Sextus swallow hard at the olfactory assault on their senses. There were forty beds. A third of them were full, attended by only one slack-jawed attendant, who appeared to be half-witted, at best.

“We keep them alive, if we can,” the training master said, not blind to the reaction of his visitors. “Doesn’t pay to let them die before their time, you know. And it’s not every stable that puts poppyseed in the wine to take the edge off the pain.”

Yes, he was a real humanitarian. Still, it was true: there was none of the moaning and thrashing that Marcus would have expected from such a sad collection of maimed and maltreated individuals. Most were unconscious. The two or three who were not seemed to be lost in a dreamy state that left them blessedly unaware of their surroundings. Marcus did his best to avoid looking directly at any of the ghastly injuries, but even so he saw far more than he would have wished.

The training master stopped at the bedside of a grim-faced dwarf with deep-set eyes, orange-red hair, and a somber mien. He blinked in apparent surprise at being approached.

“This here’s Lodi,” the training master said. “He took a goblin spear in the side six days ago. But he’s a tough old wardog. Took down four or five goblins and two orcs by hisself, just in that one fight alone. He’s left-handed, likes a war hammer—no surprise—but he’s not too shabby with a blade, neither. Not all that quick, but he’s patient and makes for a mean counterfighter. What do you have, Lodi, eighteen wins?”

“Twenty-three,” the dwarf answered in a deep, cracked voice. It sounded as if he had not spoken in days, which was quite possibly the case, considering the level of neglect here. His eyes were glazed with either exhaustion or poppyseed, but he was coherent. “What do you want?”

“A bodyguard,” Marcus answered, stepping forward and meeting the dwarf’s eyes.

Those eyes were dark with suffering, and yet contained none of the hatred or helpless fury that so indelibly marked the rest of his kin. There was a week’s growth of reddish stubble covering his face, but it was clear that not even being clean-shaven had ever caused this dwarf to forget that he had once been free. Blood had seeped through the dirty bandage on his side, but some time ago from the dark, crusted look of it, and there was no sign of green or yellow discharge.

“Can you ride, with that?”

“Won’t make for much of a bodyguard, I’d say,” Sextus commented.

The dwarf’s eyes narrowed.

“A bodyguard?”

“Yes,” Marcus said. “I’m going on a journey and I will require one.”

“Will that get me out of here?” the dwarf asked, glancing at the training master, who nodded. “You’ll have to tie me to the beast, I think, but you’ll hear no complaints from me, even if it chafes me raw.”

“Or you bleed to death?”

The dwarf turned toward Sextus, and the wordless reproach in his dark eyes caused Sextus to fall silent.