Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Personifid Invasion by R.E. Bartlett



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 her book:


The Personifid Invasion

Marcher Lord Press (October 1, 2008)

Marcher Lord Press officially launches on October 1: http://www.marcherlordpress.com/Launch.htm


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.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



R. E. Bartlett was born in the South Island of New Zealand. She now lives in the North Island, not far from a dormant volcano. Over the years her pets have included a hyperactive Dobermann, a loudmouth Siamese cat, a silly goat, and a wacky duck, but she pays little attention to what is said about pets being like their owners.

Visit the author's website.


Product Details:

The Personifid Invasion, R. E. Bartlett, Marcher Lord Press, October 2008, 350 pages, $12.99


AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Prologue


The life ebbed from her body and she found herself drifting.

For an instant, she was touched by the warmth and heard it calling to her. But that passed and she was wrenched from the warmth by an all-pervading chill. She twisted and turned to evade the coldness, but it did no good.

Sharp stabbing needles pierced her being, freezing fingers that trapped her and held her down. She tried to scream, but her voice was silent. Unable to see, she was thrust into a dark space and felt herself slowly unfurling, a heaviness coming over her limbs. Her eyes opened and she was blinded by white light.

“Transference complete,” said a voice, sharp and new to her ears. “Please remain as still as possible while ascertaining security of placement.”

She had no trouble obeying—she could not move. The heaviness clung to her, the coldness smothered her. Breath, where was her breath? She did not feel alive, could not be alive.

The blur of white surrounding her melded into a distinct shape and a tinge of color over at her left. She squinted, trying to make out what it was. Lines of cloth and flesh became clear. It was herself, she knew it was, lying there against the snow.

At first, she vaguely wondered if she was looking into a mirror. But the angle was all wrong. The eyes in the mirror did not look back at her, but stared vacantly upward. She was riveted by the sight, but felt no emotion, just a peculiar awareness of distance.

So this was death.

But where was she? And what held her down so that she could not move? She shivered convulsively.

“Placement secured,” came the voice again, a pleasant feminine voice with no breath behind it. “You are now free to move.”

She began to realize where she was. She was not out in the snow. She was inside, encompassed by a curved white dome. And her body lay on a white padded shelf beside her.

“Please raise your right hand,” the fem voice said.

She did. Slowly, shakily. The body on the shelf did not mirror her movement.

“Please stand up.”

She tried, but could not at first. Why had she not felt that she was already sitting? She looked down at her seat. Slightly reclined, thin steel spokes on both sides held her in a spider-like grasp. They retracted at the sound of the fem voice telling her to stand. She eased her legs over the side of the seat, slim legs clothed in white trousers.

“Please state your name.”

She did, the words forming awkwardly on her lips. The cool numbness in her mouth was not warmed by her speech. She looked again at her body lying there on the padded shelf, the eyes inalterably fixed. A terrible sense of loss filled her. This was not right. She should not be here.

A hissing sound drew her attention. She turned and saw a yellow line burning into the white curved wall. The line angled smoothly around and connected with itself, becoming a complete rectangle.

“Please exit this chamber.”

The rectangle lifted away and light flooded in. She raised her hands to shield her eyes. She had thought it bright inside the chamber, but this was new, was alive. When she lowered her hands, a silhouette stood before her. She squinted, trying again to focus.

“You’re fine,” a man said.

This was not like the other voice. This one had breath behind it. She could see him only faintly as her eyes adjusted to the light of the laboratory.

He reached for her hand. “You will forget this, don’t worry. Choosing not to record any memory of this was a good decision. When we get you out of the lab and into Recovery you won’t remember being in here. Your new brain will begin recording memory soon.” She thought she saw him smiling at her. “And now you have a brand new body.”

“What about—?” she began to say, as he led her from the chamber.

“That’s not you,” he said. “Just think of it as your old shell. You’ve traded up to something better.”

She could not think of it as that. The emotion was beginning to spread throughout her consciousness. She had lost herself.

“We will dispose of it as you requested,” he said. “There’s no need to see it again.”

“It’s mine,” she said, and fumbled as she tried to remove her hand from his and turn back to the chamber opening. “It’s me.”

“No,” he said, taking a firmer grip of her hand and drawing her away.

She did not have the strength to resist. She walked with him, her legs moving stiffly as though she waded through water. Shapes around her began to take on a new definition. Color bled and washed over each particle.

“Where are we going?”

“To Recovery,” he said. “You’ll be well looked after there. You’ll remember none of this.”


* * *


Sometime later she came to. She was seated comfortably, a blanket over her knees, soft music playing. It was with some shock she found she was not breathing.

Words floated through her mind in disjointed phrases. She tried to hear them, tried to make sense of the babbling incoherence.

Mine now.

A chill inside her shifted and writhed. Something apart from her.

Lost.

Manic laughter pressed around the edge of her consciousness, but it did not seem to belong to her.

Your choice.

Her brain felt cluttered, struggling as though learning a new language. Most of the words flitted by without sense.

Mine.




Chapter 1

Sevig Empire Receptions

Min City


Light filtered through the windowed dome ceiling, playing over the dozens of citizens in the hall below. The impression of blue sky was just that. In reality, this sector of Receptions was down on the fourth floor of the Sevig Empire building, the massive skyscraper that was a production hub of Earth’s personifids.

Sliding strips carried some citizens across the dark marble floor to advertising displays while others milled around under their own foot power. A gleaming black desk extended in a wide arc across the hall, giving a sense of stability in the bustling atmosphere. Fifteen people, a mix of real and artificial, sat behind it. The light was particularly focused onto them, turning their ice-blue uniforms into a silken brilliance.

Aphra knew her neatly-coiffed blond hair shone in this light and her grey-blue eyes seemed paler than their actual color. She forced a smile at the client who stood opposite her. He had appeared too quickly—just when she was about to request her work computer for something to ease the tension headache behind her eyes.

“We do have a space free,” she said, echoing her computer’s voice in her ear. “If you’re ready, we can take you now.”

The client’s close-set green eyes brightened with excitement, and he shook his fist in the air—a gawky move that emphasized his skinny body. Although he faced Aphra his gaze was concentrated on the space in front of her. “Sugar, I’m doing it! I really am!” He looked at Aphra. “How long will it take?”

“The actual transference process is very quick,” she said without having to think about it, “but Recovery will keep you for at least an hour.”

“I’ll be out of here in an hour,” he said, his gaze shifting again.

Aphra knew he was talking to “Sugar” on a hovering com-screen that he had not the courtesy to make visible to others.

She snatched a glance at her own display screen—a circular sliver of luminosity angled against her area of the black desk—while maintaining the smile that felt as set as an android’s. The display was unhelpful—the tiny clock counting down her work shift was not nearly as far on as she would have liked. She took a deep breath, steadied the imperceptible trembling in her hands, and touched the sensor pad requesting an attendant.

“You won’t recognize me, Sugar. Yeah. I’ll wear a green rose or something. See you there!” The client grinned at Aphra. “I’m ready. Let’s do it!”

Aphra directed his gaze to a side door across the hall. A man in a white coat emerged from it and walked briskly towards them. “If you will just follow your attendant,” she said, “he will take you from here and guide you through the transference. Congratulations on choosing a new life.”

She had barely got the words out before the client turned and headed over to the attendant. Aphra’s smile disappeared and her shoulders sagged. “George, I need—”

“One moment,” said the soft voice of her work computer. “You have an incoming virtual link-in.”

Aphra sighed. The smile resumed its position. “Welcome to Sevig Empire,” she said to the image of the fem who appeared in front of her. “How may I help you today?”

A nervous, self-conscious expression flickered across the fem’s smooth face, a hint of pink suffusing her high cheekbones. “Hi, I’m wanting an information pack, please.”

Aphra’s eyebrows shot up. “Information?”

The fem smiled sheepishly. “I know, I know. By now you’d think I should have heard everything about becoming a personifid. It’s just… Well…”

“It’s perfectly all right,” Aphra said. “We still get the occasional request for information. If you feel you need more time to confirm your decision, we at Sevig Empire support you. We can provide as much information as you need to be sure in your decision to choose a better life.”

The fem looked a little closer at Aphra. “You…you’re not one, are you?”

The smile did not falter, but her voice came out brighter than she intended. “No, not yet.” She glanced down at her screen and touched her way through various menus. Information packs… Where was that section? She backed out of the security menu and into another. The screen blurred as the throb behind her eyes worsened. Weariness began to settle in a heavy cloak over her body. Hold on, she told herself. Not now.

“What kind of information would you like?” Aphra’s question cued George to search more quickly than she was able to. His results came rapidly to her ear. “We have several packs,” Aphra said to the fem. “There’s a general overview of the transference process itself; a guide to tailoring your own appearance; a guarantee for length of life; comparison charts for the different personifid models available.” She stopped for breath, her finger leaning on the pause strip to tell George to wait until she was ready to continue reeling off his instructions.

The fem looked apologetic and awkward. “I guess I was thinking more along the lines of religious implications. I…just… It’s confusing, really… You hear so many different things about that.”

Aphra’s smile faltered. She tucked an imagined stray wisp of hair behind her ear and made a conscious effort to focus. Her screen swiftly changed, responding to the fem’s concerns.

“We have the relevant information for you here,” Aphra said. “I’m sure you’ll find there’s nothing to worry about. All major religions support your spiritual transition into a personifid body.”

George’s words again. They seemed to work. The fem’s features relaxed into a smile.

“Thank you,” she said.

Her acceptance was immediately recognized by George. He transferred the information pack and the fem linked out.

Aphra bowed her head, her shoulders trembling. Another glance at the clock. There was too much time. She could not do it, could not last out the work shift. “Home,” she whispered. “Home, now.”

“Terminating virtual link,” said the clear fem voice of her household computer.

The bright activity of Sevig Empire Receptions faded into the shadowy quiet of Aphra’s apartment.

The living room window was dimmed, dulling the neon lights of the city skyscrapers to a pleasant haze. Shadows shifted behind the ornaments on the living room walls as the evening traffic flew past the window. Peppi, Aphra’s little fluffy ginger dog, was busily mangling a plastic toy in the middle of the floor. Shredded pieces scattered in yellow and blue blobs on the grey carpeting, only to evaporate as soon as the household computer detected them.

Aphra exhaled with relief and leaned back into the couch cushions. She was sitting cross-legged in her pyjamas, her hair in loose waves down around her shoulders.

“You have a message from Sevig Empire,” said the household computer.

Aphra groaned and lay down. It was all right. It was expected. Get it over with. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up. “Go ahead.”

A hovering screen appeared over her, casting a pool of warm light down onto the couch. The artificial representation of a gold-haired fem smiled at Aphra, her wide lips strikingly orange.

“Hello, Aphra Vessey. We at Sevig Empire expect more from our employees than you are currently offering. We do not like virtual link-ins to our place of work in Min City. Min City is the social city. We expect our employees in Min City to embrace this way of life and to be physically present. After all, if our loyal clientele make the effort to do this then we should respond in kind. Aphra, you have linked-in virtually too many times this month. Please make use of our employee discount for luminires and come here physically.”

She shook her head. “No. I c-can’t. I need a break.”

The fem hovered silently for a moment, her smile fixed. Then she resumed her cheerful chatter. “Aphra, you are under investigation. You have not completed your work shifts satisfactorily as of late.”

She gulped for breath, willing herself to keep calm. “No, you don’t understand. I’m trying. It’s just that—”

“May I remind you that Sevig Empire, Min City, will soon require all of its employees to be personifids. Min City now has complete acceptance for personifids and we believe you would best represent Sevig Empire by being a part of the new and better life we offer. Thank you for your time.”

The smiling face phased out from the hovering screen. It was replaced by fleeting scenes of a fem who looked remarkably like Aphra, crying on a couch that looked remarkably like her own, before striding purposefully through a busy city walkway. Music played beneath the soothing voice-over. “Life Enhancers bring balance and control to your emotions. Why not—”

“Turn it off!” Aphra cried and buried her face.

The hovering screen and its personalized advertisement vanished, extinguishing the light that had shone over her. She closed her eyes and hugged herself hard as misery choked up through her chest. Peppi jumped up onto the couch, whining and snuffling as she nudged Aphra’s elbow. Aphra took Peppi in her arms as racking sobs began to shake her whole frame.

It seemed no more than an instant before the household computer spoke again. “Incoming call from Antha.”

Aphra sucked in a breath and tried to steady herself. “G-go ahead.”

The hovering screen reappeared, her brother’s face inside it. His usual lazy grin was missing. His stubbly face appeared tired and his long wavy light brown hair was swept back from his face. Aphra could not see much of his surroundings, but a glimpse of the black headrest behind him told her he was in one of his sky cars.

“Hey, look at you,” he said in his slow drawl. “You knew I was about to call, is that it? The emotion got so much that it gushed out all over the place?”

She wiped the tears from her face and managed a feeble smile. “You’re so right.”

“I know I am. I always am. Emotions, you gotta love them.”

She frowned. “No, I don’t. What do you want?”

He grinned at her. “Nice. No, hi big brother, how are you? No, did you kick the butt of that bounty you’ve been tracking? Did he puke up his innards all over the interior of your favorite sky car?” His grey-blue eyes sparkled with amusement. “Why, yes, thanks for asking.”

“You got him?”

“Sure I did. I always do. Now I can buy you that pony you always wanted.”

She giggled. The emotion set off another wave of tears. She turned her head, pulling Peppi closer to herself. The screen moved neatly, enabling her to continue looking straight at Antha.

He leaned in, a pretense look of concern on his face. “Easy now,” he said. “Steady. Are you ready now? I’ve got some news.”

She sniffed and blinked, her fingers deep into Peppi’s fur as the little dog licked the tears from her cheek. “You’ve got another bounty to chase after and this one will pay for my new apartment?”

“What, you’re moving from the shoe-box?” His face grew serious. “No, that’s not it. I’ve found her.”

At first she thought he was talking about another bounty, but the look in his eye told her which her he meant. She sat up a little. “That’s great.” She wondered at the seriousness of his expression. “But…?”

He nodded. “Yeah, it’s not all good news. She’s in San Edhem.”

“So?”

He groaned. “I should have known you’d be like that. The city of San Edhem is bad news. Don’t tell me you don’t know that.”

She shrugged and sat up all the way. The screen adjusted its position accordingly. “I’ve never been there.”

“And that’s the way it’s going to stay. The place is swarming with interterrestrials. You’re not going to set foot in the place if I have anything to do with it.”

She grinned at him. “I’m beginning to think you’re taking this newfound big brotherly protectiveness too far.”

His eyes softened as he looked at her. She felt her emotions quiet under his gaze. Nobody had looked at her like that for a long time.“Well,” he said with a shrug, “you need taking care of. You’re an idiot.”

Her mouth dropped open and she threw a pillow through the hovering screen.

“See? I told you,” he said. “Now, listen. This is really not good, Aphra. We’ve finally found some trace of Ashley and all fingers point to San Edhem. Her imprint is definitely registered there.”

“Well, that’s great! Have you called her?”

“I tried, but there was no access available. Then I tried leaving a message, but San Edhem’s city communications wouldn’t even allow that. It’s nuts if you ask me. What’s the use of having a stupid imprint if I can’t even contact her through it?”

Aphra frowned at that. It did not make much sense to her, either. An identity imprint should be connected into the resident city’s computers, enabling the bearer of the imprint to be contacted. Whatever a person’s security preferences might be, a caller ought to at least be able to leave a message requesting contact.

She looked at Antha. “What are we going to do? I can get time off work to come with you to San Edhem if you’re planning to go there. I want to be there when we first make contact with her.” Maybe the Sevig regulators would not like her taking more time off, but this was important.

Antha rolled his eyes. “Interterrestrials, Aphra! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never met one before so I don’t know what they’re like.”

“Surely you’ve heard of them?”

“Of course, but so many conflicting stories I don’t know which to believe.”

“Well, I’m telling you they’re dangerous and I don’t want you going near them. If anyone has to go into San Edhem and find Ashley, it’s me, not you. You’re unprotected.”

It was her turn to groan. “Here we go again, you and your Follower drivel.”

Antha let out a heavy sigh and regarded her steadily for a moment. Aphra waited for him to lose his temper, but he yawned and leaned his head back against the headrest.

“Man,” he said, “this business about having younger sisters to take care of all of a sudden… Phew, it makes me want to run away and join the circus.”

“You’re a circus all on your own.”

“Woo! A quick comeback. You must be feeling better.”

She shrugged and grimaced. “Did you find out anything else about Ashley?”

“Just her age, her parents, where she lives, the usual guff—enough to be pretty sure it’s our little sister. That info was hard enough to wangle out of San Edhem City’s computers, but I had help with that.”

Gun would have helped. Aphra hoped no trace of a blush showed on her face as she thought of him.

“Anyway, I’m on my way to you now,” Antha said. “I figure we’ll go on over to Bob’s place and hash this thing out, try to figure out what we should do.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

“There’s one more thing,” he said. “Ashley’s registered as being a personifid.”

A funny, confused twinge curled inside her. “Oh. Well, I guess we shouldn’t have assumed she’d still be like us.”

He looked critically at her through the screen. “This isn’t happy news. It complicates things. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”

“Disconnected,” Aphra’s computer said. The hovering screen disappeared.

Aphra sat there wondering what Antha could have meant. The confusion dizzied her and set off another round of crying.

“Drat it!”

Aphra hugged Peppi to her chest, trying to calm herself as the sobs welled up. Peppi squirmed and wriggled around to reach Aphra’s cheek. The little dog’s warm tongue swept against Aphra’s face, desperately scooping up all her tears.

“Datricius is here.”

Aphra jumped at the sound of her computer’s voice. “What?”

“Your friend Datricius is here. Do you want me to tell him you’re not well and to come back later?”

She shook her head and rubbed her eyes, involuntarily letting out another sob. “He’s s-seen me like this before. Let him in.”

Her apartment door slid silently open. She looked up from the couch and smiled bleakly at the man who stood there. His tall, muscular build was framed in her doorway, and for an instant he looked like a Greek god from myth, his silken pale gold hair gleaming as it framed his strong bronze-tinted face. A face that swiftly assumed a sympathetic expression as he saw her sitting there—the corners of his mouth turned downward, the eyebrows raised in a silent question.

Datricius had the best control of an artificial body that Aphra had seen. All his facial expressions came smoothly, without any awkwardness, and his movements were easy. She would almost take him for a person if she had not worked at Sevig Empire for so long. She had learned to see into the eyes of both a person and a personifid and see the human soul clearly shown in the first but hidden in the latter.

Peppi let out a growl and began to shiver in Aphra’s lap. “It’s okay,” Aphra said quietly over the little dog’s head. “You know Datricius. It’s okay.”

“She still doesn’t like me,” Datricius said. His sympathetic expression abruptly altered so that his head tilted slightly, a neat furrow appeared between his eyebrows, and his lower lip protruded petulantly.

Aphra breathed in slowly, waiting to recover some control of herself, and the tight feeling in her chest eased somewhat. “It doesn’t matter what I try to do to get her over this thing she has about personifids, she still freaks out. It’s not you. Look, she doesn’t even like my left arm very much, just because it’s artificial.” She held her left hand in front of Peppi’s nose. Peppi’s lip curled involuntarily, then relaxed as she sniffed Aphra’s fingers. “She is improving with androids, though.”

Datricius smiled. “That’s no help to me. I’m too full of soul to be an android.”

Aphra felt another sob welling up inside her, choking up in her throat. She shut her eyes against it, but it was no good, she could not hold it in.

“I’ve come at a bad time,” Datricius said softly.

Aphra held her right hand out to him. “It’ll pass. W-wait.”

“You really should go back on the Life Enhancers, Aphra. This has been going on long enough. How many months has it been now?”

She doubled over, gasping and sobbing, the tears streaming down her face. She shakily raised both hands, seven fingers showing.

“Far too long,” he said. “It’s not right. You could be damaging yourself. I really feel you should go back on the Life Enhancers and gain some control over yourself again. I’ve only known you a short time, yet in that time I’ve seen you steadily deteriorate. I’m sure it will continue worsening if you don’t do something about it. I’m scared for you, Aphra.”

She sat up and took a deep breath, the sobs easing off. She leaned back against the couch cushions, breathing slowly in and out. Peppi continued to cringe and press back against her stomach while watching Datricius with big anxious eyes.

“I’m okay,” Aphra finally managed to say.

“I don’t think you are. I’m really worried about you.”

“If Antha can do it, so can I.”

“Did Antha have months and months of trouble like this?”

“No, but then I don’t think he took as many Life Enhancers as I did. I used to take Tranquility on a daily basis. I can’t expect to get over that right away.”

“Perhaps not, but is all this trouble worth it?”

She sighed. “I do wonder about that sometimes. Life was so much easier before. I miss feeling calm and in control! I feel like my emotions, or lack of them, are running my life right now, and it’s so difficult to get used to.”

He leaned against the wall and folded his arms, his posture sagging almost naturally. “It’s because they’re not your real emotions. They’re fragmented pieces of emotion that were kept in good order by the Enhancers. I’m afraid it’s too late for you to change. You’re too old to try and stop taking them now.”

“Old?” she exclaimed, grinning at him. “I’m only twenty-four!”

He smiled back at her. “I didn’t mean that. I meant that you’ve been taking the Enhancers for too many years.”

She tickled Peppi’s ears. “Well, it’s not all bad. There are some good things about being off them—some of the emotions I’m able to feel are good ones.”

Love. Love for her brother, the only family she knew, this she clung to. Love for her friends, those she had met at around the same time as she had found Antha. And now, Datricius. She had known him almost two months and could already feel love beginning to grow. The love of family, friendship and romance had become three distinct threads that wound strong ties inside her heart. It almost made up for the pain that some days seemed to grip every fiber of her being.

She looked at Datricius and mustered a smile. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

He sat next to her, causing Peppi to leap off her lap and run from the room.

“Just visiting my favorite fem. I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d see if you felt well enough to come out for dinner. Now that I see you, I don’t think you look very well at all.”

“You’re always in the neighborhood,” she teased. “And of course I’m well enough to go out. But I can’t. I’m expecting Antha. Do you want to wait and meet him?”

Datricius shook his head, a small smile on his perfect lips. “From all you’ve told me about him I don’t think that’s a good idea just yet.”

She was disappointed but tried not to show it. “He’s not that bad, honest. Sure, he’s a little protective of me, but he’s the best brother a fem could ask for.”

“‘I’m going to punch anyone who dates my sister,’” Datricius quoted. “Sounds more than just a little protective.”

“Anyone who hurts my sister,” Aphra said, and linked her arm in Datricius’.

He stood abruptly. “I’d better go. How about I take you out tomorrow instead?”

She stood and followed him to the door. “I’d like that.”

The door slid open and Datricius went out into the hallway. He turned and smiled at her, an affectionate smile this time, his sapphire personifid eyes blank.

She wanted to respond with a smile of her own, but felt drained and empty. She was sure her own eyes would show that her smile was false. She reached out and touched his arm briefly, a gesture that she hoped would assure him how she wanted to feel.

“Tomorrow then,” he said, and leaned over and kissed her.

She thought, as she always did when he kissed her, of Gun, and cursed herself. She drew back and forced a smile at Datricius. “Yes, tomorrow.”

“You think some more about going back on the Enhancers, Aphra. It’s plain to see you need them.”

She shrugged.

He walked to the exit. The wide doorway slid open at his approach, and a cacophony of adverts throwing their audiocasts burst into the building.

Aphra wrinkled her nose—the apartment building’s computer systems were playing up again. They should be blocking that irritating noise. “You’ll have to meet my brother sometime,” she called. “There’s no avoiding it!”

A grin spread over Datricius’ handsome face as he walked out onto the narrow landing platform and stood, fourteen floors up, looking out at Min City’s array of skyscrapers lit brilliantly in the night. Advertising displays swirled from one image to the next, while others gave the impression of ants swarming up and around the sides of a building. Sky cars zoomed quietly around the buildings—darker blots against the vivid colors of the advertisements. Then Datricius moved away and the door shut, cutting out all the noise.


* * *


She knelt by the window, looking out over the mountainous city. The tawny blush of sunset shone in her eyes. Beautiful eyes, the merest hint of blue illuminating their crystalline perfection, set in a delicate golden face. Dark amethyst hair that sparkled in the light flowed down around her face, resting just below her slim shoulders. She clutched the windowsill with elegant, fine fingers as she watched the valley below.

The city was built into singular mountains that ranged like standing stones. Dwellings were cut deep inside. High-reaching buildings were set amidst the lush green swaths of trees and plants that ran through the shadowed valleys. Sky cars and hover-riders flitted like insects over the treetops, and glimpses of the glistening blue threads of rivers that wound around the feet of the buildings shone through the covering of leaves. All this she could see from her viewpoint high above.

None of the forest was real, she knew that as she knew her own body. It was a recreation of Earth of years gone by, before the air had become impure, before the cities needed to be encased in shields to protect citizens from the harmful rays of the sun.

She was partway up one of the more notorious mountains, there in one of the warrens. A distant rhythmic bassline drifted up through the passages behind her room, a deep pulsating that would soothe her back to senselessness if she was not careful.

From her window there seemed no end to the mountains and skyscrapers—she could not see beyond the city borders to the arid landscape she knew was there.

The crying had stopped, at least. She lifted her gaze to the sky, searching. Searching.


* * *


“Antha has arrived and is now waiting for you at your usual exit,” said Aphra’s household computer.

Aphra sat on the corner of her bed, her eyes half-closed as she idly stroked Peppi. It took her a few moments to react to her computer’s announcement. She looked across to the mirror on her bedroom wall. The face that looked back at her was as wan and tired as she expected. “Fix my hair.”

“What would you like?”

Aphra opened her mouth, about to request silver, then frowned. He might be there. “Short black.”

In an instant, her long blonde hair whisked upward as it shortened and altered to a neat black bob. She grimaced at herself in the mirror. The color never seemed to suit her. “Skin tone’s wrong. It’s too pale and pink.” She closed her eyes and waited. A soft silken touch, like that of a breath, swept across her face. The feeling was pleasant and she wanted to stretch out on the bed and relax into it, rather than go out for the evening.

“Warm olive adjustment,” said her computer.

Aphra looked critically at her reflection. “It’s too strong. Antha will laugh at me. Tone it down.” She closed her eyes again. The next time she looked she felt more satisfied. If Gun was going to be there, then she had made sure she looked the way he seemed to prefer.

“I want a sweater.”

“Best match for you today,” said the computer, as Aphra’s pyjama top changed color and form into a figure-hugging teal sweater.

“Fine,” she said. “Now give me my favorite skirt and boots. No jewelry.”

Her pyjama pants were immediately replaced with a straight black skirt that settled above the knee, and black boots that fully encased her feet but sent two criss-crossing spirals of celtic patterns up her legs to the hem of her skirt.

She smoothed her hair with a hand, took one last look in the mirror, and left the apartment, pausing to scoop Peppi up in her arms.

In the fourteenth floor hallway she hesitated before the wide doors that led outside. She flinched in anticipation as they slid open, but was relieved to find the advert noises had been blocked.

The only sound was of Antha’s sky car hovering alongside the landing platform. Deep thrumming came from it as it held position—Antha liked the sound of engine noise, though most citizens did not. The sky car was a low, sleek racing model with a brilliant red body decorated in yellow and orange flames sharply outlined in black. Aphra had grown used to the looks it drew in straight-laced Min City.

Her mirrored image in the sky car’s side slipped away as the door opened.

Antha leaned across the seats and looked up at her. “Move your big behind!”

She stuck her tongue out at him as she stepped into the sky car. A faint new sky car smell mingled with Antha’s musky scent—all traces of the puking bounty had been erased.

“Hello Peepee,” Antha said as Peppi wriggled furiously in Aphra’s hands, eagerly trying to reach him.

“Don’t call her that,” Aphra said as the door slid shut.

She let go of Peppi and the little dog immediately bounded onto Antha’s lap, planted her forefeet on his chest and licked his chin.

“Quit slobbering, goober,” he said to Peppi, as he gave her a quick scratch then pushed her off and passed her back to Aphra. “Right, get moving, Jimbo.”

The sky car accelerated smoothly away from the landing platform and merged with the streams of traffic. Aphra sank into the cushy black front passenger seat, her fingers curling under one side to touch a sensor pad. It activated the footrest and armrests. They silently eased into position and she sighed and leaned back.

She looked over at Antha. “Have you called Birn and Lev to let them know we’re coming?”

“Yes, I left them a message.”

She yawned and tried not to pay much attention to the surrounding throng of the evening lights and sky cars. “Did you tell them about Ashley?”

“No, not yet.” He looked at her. “You sound like you’re going to fall asleep on me. No emotion now, huh? You’re in a drained phase?”

She nodded half-heartedly. “I sometimes think it’s better when I’m like this, not crying or feeling anything much.”

“It’s boring,” he said, settling back and closing his eyes. “You don’t laugh. Have you had any dinner?”

“No.”

“Aphra,” he said languidly, opening one eye briefly to look at her, “do I need to admonish, chastise, and fraternize you? You should be looking after yourself better. Eating is one requirement of that, or so I hear.”

“I’m okay.”

“Sure. And that’s why you’re looking off-color.” He grinned, his eyes still closed.

“Very funny,” she said. “I think I look good.”

“Black hair doesn’t suit you. Green is better.”

She glanced out her side window at a sky car that drew level with them. In its gleaming white body the flaming reflection of Antha’s sky car was conspicuous. It ducked down, a navy sky car moving up to take its place. The reflection slithered across that, too. “If it was up to you, you’d have me wearing pink with yellow spots.”

“Maybe. Listen, Kirk, order in Aphra’s favorite dinner.”

“Affirmative,” said the sky car computer in a high-speed voice. “Beans and onions it is!”

A purple plastic box materialized on the dashboard in front of Aphra, the white logo of her favorite restaurant blinking and spinning above it. She reached for the box, holding Peppi back with one hand.

“Open,” she said when she had the box on her knee and Peppi had been nudged over onto Antha’s lap.

The box unfolded with a flourish, resembling an open flower, a tangle of seafood pasta in the hollow center. An audiocast came from the box, a soft voice accompanied by music. “Thank you for choosing—”

“Shut it up,” Antha said.

The sound was immediately silenced by the sky car computer.

“That’s better. Don’t need to hear it yammering on and asking if you want a half a cow to go with it, or fifty serves of buttered sugar. Plus there’re probably subliminal messages in that music that’ll give me an irresistible urge to go and paint my feet blue.”

“You’re so silly,” Aphra said, picking up the tiny fork that lay on one of the flower’s petals. The handle of the fork extended as she touched it, and she began to eat.

He smirked. “And so handsome. Now, be a good sissy and tell me how your day has been. Did Fluffy from Research drop by and tell Sniffy that Snuffy is madly in love with Puffy?”

Aphra sighed. “Nothing like that happened, but I wish it had. I got in trouble for not finishing my work shift.”

“What kind of trouble?”

She prodded an oyster around the flower box. “I’m under investigation.”

“Investigation schmestigation. Don’t they know you’re not well? Blurp, give Aphra a security check.”

“Dagnabbit!” said the sky car computer’s slightly crazed voice. “She be tagged. I thinky Sevig Empire signature mebbe on this tag. Now squishing the tag.” The computer made a tiny explosive sound effect.

Antha stared at Peppi, a feigned expression of horror on his face. “Rat-dog, was that you?”

Aphra paused in mid-chew of her pasta. “Don’t call her that.”

“But it suits her and she likes it. Don’t you, Rat-dog.”

Peppi licked his hand and wagged her fluffy curly tail enthusiastically, creating a mini fan that wafted ginger hairs around the interior of the sky car.

“Traitor,” Aphra said softly.

Antha shut his eyes again, one hand covering Peppi’s head so that her pointed nose was just visible. “We need to get you some upgraded security on your home computer. Then you’ll be able know when good ole Sevig Empire’s watching you and get them to buzz off.”

“I can’t afford something like that.” She speared some more pasta with her fork. “Besides, what do I ever do that they could be interested in? Everytime I go out of Min City I’m with you. Your security is enough.”

“You shouldn’t work there anyway. Not after what Sevig did to you.”

Aphra swallowed. “What else can I do for a job?”

“Uh,” he grunted. “You’ll find something.”

She watched a distant group of gyrating skyscrapers moving in a slow dance amongst the other, static, buildings. “I might have to soon, anyway. They’re starting to say I’ll have to become a personifid if I want to keep working for them.”

She dug absently at her pasta. “You know…it used to be okay that the first face a client would see was that of a person—it seemed to make Sevig Empire more approachable—but now that doesn’t seem to be necessary.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes. “And it used to be that people would call making enquiries about personifids, but now I’m making appointments for personifid transferences all day long.”

“Don’t become a personifid,” Antha said.

“Of course I won’t,” she said, looking over at him.

He lay back with his eyes closed, his long legs up on the lower extension of his seat, his fingers clasped over Peppi as she lay on his chest.

The sky car began to decelerate as they approached Min City’s northern perimeter. Aphra saw the aboretum at the outer-rim. Citizens strolled across the grass, enjoying an evening ramble. Above the park, droves of sky cars jockeyed for position. Layer upon layer of traffic slowed despite the absence of buildings. Loop jets nudged through, the bullet-shaped passenger transports dwarfing the sky cars, pressing forward as though they owned the airspace. The glowing edge of Min City’s dome loomed before them.

The sky car suddenly dipped and Antha’s eyes popped open. “Have a care, Billy. Don’t be bucking wildly about in busy traffic.”

“Me so sorry,” said the sky car computer. “But you’d do the same thing if you had a hover-rider coming straight at your head.”

“All right, but if Aphra throws chunks, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

“As you wish, fatty.”

Min City’s North gateway soon came into view—thirty transparent tubes stacked together, appearing as one enormous circle dotted with lights. Half of the tubes were for incoming traffic, the other half for outgoing. Loop jets were just able to fit through—buffer shields within the tubes prevented any contact with the sides. Min City’s tubular gateways were the only openings in the city’s all encompassing shields. Any other attempt to fly through the shields was fatal.

Round steel stations encircled each end of the tubes, and high powered zips read the imprints of all occupants traveling through. In this way all imprints were logged in or out. Min City had not yet gone to the extreme of blocking the entry of unimprinted persons as had some cities, but there was talk of it happening soon. The usual security scans that searched for undesirables had been known to fail on occasion.

The sky car passed into the station and through the tube. They emerged on the outside of the dome, where the air was noxious. Once through the gateway the sky was no longer the clean, deep blue that resulted from the protection of the city shields. Rather it was dusky red, dotted with the starry lights of sky cars.

The sky car computer’s voice broke the silence. “Min City regulatory bigwigs want me to tell you that manual control is now yours if you want it, you dozy pillock. We’re out of Min City. You can crash if you want.”

Antha did not move from his position. “Huh.”

Aphra took a faded orange rubbery sleeve out of a glove compartment and pulled it on over her right wrist.

Antha cocked an eye at her. “Isn’t it time you stopped bothering with that? We’re masked, anyway.”

She smoothed the puckers out of the sleeve. “I want to make sure my imprint is totally blocked, just in case.”

“If Sevig was still alive he probably would have tracked you to Lev’s before now and sent his goons after her or Imogen. It’s been ages. He’s done nothing. Imogen’s gone to the moon or wherever now, so there’s no point watching you.”

She flexed her right hand, moving her wrist easily beneath the sleeve. “I’m not convinced he was discontinued.”

“You think the face they have prancing about the Sevig Empire adverts isn’t a False Artificial Representation? The rumors that he’s alive will keep going round and around until it can be proved conclusively that Sevig did or did not go kaboom. Let it go.”

She shook her head. “How do we know that tag I had wasn’t Sevig’s idea?”

“Too clumsy. Doesn’t show enough determination to follow you in a truly sneaky manner.”

She hesitated, looking at the sleeve. “Well, I guess I could try going without it.”

“‘Course you could. Hairball thinks so, too.”

She smiled at him, and leaned over to stroke Peppi behind the ear. Peppi stirred in her sleep, stretching out on Antha’s chest.

“You sound like you’re feeling better,” Antha said. “I told you you should eat, didn’t I?”

She stuffed the orange sleeve back into the glove compartment then settled back into her seat. “Yes, you were right again.”

He grunted and nodded. “Sometimes it’s tough being me and being right all the time. You want to watch a movie? I’m going to catch some sleep, not that there’s much time for that, but I need some. I had a long day.”

At his words his seat reclined until it was fully horizontal, extending to support his whole body.

Aphra looked out the windscreen to the desert landscape speeding along beneath them. There were jagged cracks in the dry crust where the Pacific Ocean had been long ago. Shadowed folds of rocks and enormous stretches of rugged, barren hills lay beneath the black tinge along the horizon that was beginning to spread upward bringing the night.

She never seemed to tire of the desert—a lonely beauty, marred only by other vehicles fleeting across the sky.

“No,” she said quietly. “I’m fine.”








books

Monday, September 29, 2008

John 3:16 by Nancy Moser


This week, the

Christian Fiction Blog Alliance

is introducing

John 3:16

Tyndale House Publishers (September 9, 2008)

by

Nancy Moser



ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nancy Moser is the author of three inspirational humor books and eighteen novels, including Solemnly Swear, Time Lottery, a Christy Award winner, and her latest historical, Washington's Lady.

Nancy and her husband Mark live in the Midwest. She’s earned a degree in architecture, traveled extensively in Europe, and has performed in numerous theaters,
symphonies, and choirs. She gives Said So Sister Seminars around the country, helping women identify their gifts as they celebrate their sisterhood. She is a fan of anything antique—humans included.

Find out more at Nancy Moser.com and Sister Circles.com


ABOUT THE BOOK

Five people looking for a reason to keep living are about to find it in the last place they expect... In my usual "big cast" style comes a story of what happens when one man puts his faith on the line and holds up a John 3:16 sign at a sporting event. Roman Paulson's life revolves around his son, Billy, a University of Nebraska football hero with a promising life ahead of him. But when Billy's coach encroaches on Roman's relationship with his son, Roman fears he'll lose Billy forever. Roman isn't the only one whose world turns upside down. He's one of five unsuspecting people whose lives intersect on a bright fall day.

If you would like to read the first chapter of John 3:16, go HERE



Read my review here.


books

THE MIRACLE GIRLS by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt


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Read to the end of this post to find out how to win a copy of this book.



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:


THE MIRACLE GIRLS

FaithWords (September 8, 2008)


ABOUT THE AUTHORs:


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

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


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."






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I have a copy of this book to give away to someone that leaves a comment on my blog with the answer to this trivia question: What was the nickname Ana has received at the new school? (Hint: If you read the first chapter of this book you will find the answer.) Please make sure you leave a way for me to contact you if you are the winner. This drawing will go through next Monday. I will draw a winner out of all those leaving me a comment with the correct answer to the trivia question on Tuesday, Oct. 7th.


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The winning post # was 3: Just Me won this book. Congratulations!




books

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: http://www.marcherlordpress.com/Launch.htm



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

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


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.

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


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.

“MWA HA HA HA!!!”


* * *


“…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.

“Oh.”

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!”


* * *


“Listen!”

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.”






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