Monthly Archives: January 2016

It Takes a Thief, Part Two

The next installment of “It Takes a Thief.” Read Part One here.

It Takes a Thief, Part Two

The twins were taken from their tower cell to the main hall on the ground floor of the keep. The hall was large enough to hold several hundred guests during feasts and other festivities. Two large hearths kept the hall warm and vast tapestries, many in the red and gold colors of Lord Redcastle, kept out the draft. At the far end of the hall, upon a raised dais, was the high table and a single, ornately-carved chair. Two simple stools had been placed before the dais.

    The soldiers led Farris and Fayra to the stools. Without a word, two soldiers lifted the hauflins and placed them each atop one of the stools.

    “I expected more … things,” Fayra said, looking around the hall. Her head seemed to dart around, but her eyes moved methodically–counting doors, measuring distances.

    “Quiet,” Farris hissed. He was sure he could feel the point of a sword pressed gently against his spine.

    “You’re no fun.”

    Two servants entered from a side passage carrying covered platters. They placed the platters on the high table, arranged before the single chair. The covers were removed, revealing fresh fruits, cheeses, bread, cold meats, and sausages. Two more servants appeared, younger than the first. One set out a single plate and tankard, both made of silver. The second, a boy of seven or eight, carried a silver pitcher. The boy took his place behind the chair as the other servants withdrew.

    “Look, brother. Lord Redcastle is going to invite us to join him for supper.”

    The door the twins had been brought through opened again and Lord Redcastle marched into the hall. He walked past the twins, sparing them not a glance, and climbed the dais. He sat and motioned for the boy to fill his cup.

    The twins watched as their captor ate. He’d break off a chunk of hard, orange cheese and stuff it in his mouth, barely chewing before washing it down with the frothy ale. When the greasy sausages and slices of cold beef were gone, Redcastle soaked up the congealed fat left on the platter with a piece of hard, dark bread. He drained his tankard for a third time and sucked the grease from his fingers before wiping what remained on the front of his doublet.  

    “Now,” he barked, barely concealing a wet belch. “About my offer.”

    Farris felt his mouth water and his stumble rumble as he watched the servant return and clear away the remains of Redcastle’s meal. He didn’t even throw them a half-eaten apple.

    “Will the servants be bringing our food next?” Fayra asked.

    Redcastle leaned back in his seat. “Are all hauflin as vexing as you?”

    “Does vexing mean useful?” Fayra smiled. “Because last time I checked, you needed us.”

    Redcastle chuckled the way one chuckles when they are too far away to choke someone who annoys them. “You are impertinent. But, as much as I’m loathe to admit, you are also quite correct.”

    “Lot of words to tell me I’m right.”

    Farris jabbed an elbow into his sister’s side, well aware that it wasn’t going to do any good.

    “Now, my brother and I may not be highborn members of the human aristocracy,” Fayra went on, ignoring her brother’s elbow, “but we have skills. Skills that you seem to need, Your Lordiness. So give us the job and let us get to it.”

    Redcastle sat quietly for a moment, then started clapping. “Bravo. For such a small girl, you have very large balls,” he said. “Very well. What do you know about the Black Mages of Malashir?”

    “We know better than to fuck with them.”

    “What my brother means–”

    “What your brother means is that the Black Mages are soulless, daemon-spawn capable of the darkest, vilest magic known to the mortal races. They can kill a man from leagues away and make it last for a full year. To cross a Black Mage is to court a fate worse than death.”

    Farris stared at Redcastle. “My statement stands.”

    “Indeed. But, what most people do not realize is that the Black Mages have something of a weakness. A Black Mage will always have a small possession on their person–a ring or pendant or the like–that holds a fragment of their soul. Keeping a piece of their soul outside of their body makes it impossible to slay a Black Mage.”

    “Arebus must not like that,” Fayra muttered.

    “Perhaps,” Redcastle nodded. “That may be why such items are cursed, allowing anyone who possesses it to control the Black Mage whose soul is contained within.”

    “The Eternal Jailer does not like to be denied his prize.”

    “I wouldn’t begin to guess the thoughts and motivations of our most divine and holy gods. Why it works does not concern me. I care only that it does work.”

    Fayra shook her head. “We are not picking a Black Mage’s pocket.”

    “Nor would I ever ask such a thing.” Redcastle leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. “There’s a merchant in Solaria. Boltus Sekk. A fat, greedy, stupid man, who was somehow lucky enough to gain possession of a fragment of a Black Mage’s soul. That is what you will do for me. You will go to Solaria. Locate Sekk. Identify the trinket that contains the Black Mage’s soul. And steal it for me.”

    “What’s going to stop us from ordering the Black Mage to kill you?”

    Redcastle held up a finger. “First, you’re thieves, not murderers. Second, without the proper incantations, the Black Mage’s soul will devour your souls, small as they might be.”

    Fayra looked at her brother, who simply shrugged. Black Mages. Soul fragments. This was a lot more complicated than picking purses.

    “So, my little friends, are you in or are you out?”

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Actionverse: Witness the Birth of a Universe

I love a good crossover. Who doesn’t love seeing their favorite characters from different shows, books, movies, or comics team up? Team-ups have been a staple of superhero comics for decades and, for my money, one of the strengths of shared universes like the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe. This year, Action Lab Entertainment throws its hat into the ring with Actionverse, a six-issue miniseries that brings together many of Action Lab’s creator-owned superheroes. I was lucky to get my hands on the first three issues of Actionverse and, trust me, you will want to pick this up when it hits your local comic shop.

Readers got their very first glimpse of the Actionverse in Actionverse #0 (still available on Comixology for under a buck!), which saw Molly Danger (created by Jamal Igle), Stray 306368._SX640_QL80_TTD_(created by Vito Delsante), and Midnight Tiger (created by Ray-Anthony Height) team up for the very first time. Actionverse #1 reveals that the Actionverse is really a multiverse. Action Lab’s creator-owned characters live on different Earths. The first issue, written by Anthony Ruttgaizer and drawn by Marco Renna, introduces us to Kyle Scordato, a dimension-hopping wannabe supervillain who’s willing to destroy every other Earth in the multiverse if it means returning to his own. Scordato runs afoul of Jake Roth, the main character of Ruttgaizer’s The First Hero. Roth is the only hero on his world, a world where everyone who has developed superpowers has also gone criminally insane. Scordato also discovers that whatever energy fuels Roth’s powers can also be used to fuel his interdimensional portal. The first issue ends with Scordato and Roth stranded on the world shared by Molly Danger, Stray, and Midnight Tiger, which I’ve decided to call Actionverse Earth-Prime.

Actionverse calls to mind DC’s classic Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel’s recent Secret Wars event. All three involve a multiverse in danger and a promise that something new and different may be on the horizon. Will the Action Lab multiverse collapse, leaving all of these characters existing on a single Earth? Will the characters currently stranded on Actionverse Earth-Prime find their way home, preserving some version of the multiverse? Will we see a company-wide Actionverse crossover every year? Only time will tell.

I’m a fan of several of Action Lab’s books, including Stray, Midnight Tiger, and Hero Cats of Stellar City, and I’m super-excited about the prospect of a shared universe featuring all of these characters. Now, I know the idea of taking a step into a new universe full of unfamiliar characters can be a daunting prospect. But, never fear! The Action Lab editors have your back: Each issue ends with a handbook-style entry (or two) of key characters.

If you want to support creator-owned comics, but also crave the shared superhero universes of the Big Two, then Actionverse is for you. Go to your local comic shop and have them pre-order the first three issues of Actionverse today!

It Takes a Thief, Part One

New year. New goal. I want to write more in 2016, and one of the ways I hope to keep myself motivated is by publishing serialized short stories on the ol’ blog. (I’d like to think that knowing a bunch of folks are waiting for the next installment will be enough to keep me going.)

So, without further ado, here is the first part of “It Takes a Thief”:

It Takes a Thief, Part One

“This is all your fault.”

     Farris looked up and frowned at his twin. “My fault?” Easy for her to say. “Easy for you to say.”

     “It is easy, brother dear.” Fayra stood up on the creaky, splintered wooden pallet that served as a bed in your finer dungeons and jail cells throughout the Seven Kingdoms. She stretched like a lazy house cat, moving her head in slow circles so her long, auburn topknot swayed back and forth.

     “You’re the distraction,” she said. “Our present accommodations would lead one to correctly assume that the rubes were not properly distracted.”

     “I guess the highly-trained professional soldiers employed by a city’s lord protector are a bit more … observant than the sloppy drunks with clubs that we’re used to.” With a defeated sigh, Farris leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes.

     “Besides, you’re the one who wasn’t happy hitting villages and market towns. No–” he threw his arms up– “you’re better than that. You had to try your luck in one of the biggest cities in Dal Varris.”

     “Redcastle ain’t that big.”

     “That’s what you take away from this?”

     Fayra laid back on her makeshift bed. “I’m just saying it’s not like we tried pulling a snatch-and-grab in the capital. Now Rivercross, that’s a big city.”

     Her brother scowled. “Maybe we should have tried one of the northern kingdoms. Castrova or Ilsenor. Some of their cities are guarded by cavalry and archers. We could have been run down by horses or shot in the head at twenty paces. I’m sure that would have been much more exciting than this!”

     “Come on, Farris.” Fayra leapt from her perch, somersaulted, and landed in front of her brother. “What would father say?”

     “If you plan to scale a wall, wear sensible boots.”

     She thought for a second, then grinned. “Our boots are the most sensible,” she agreed. “If only that soldier hadn’t taken my grapnel, we could be out that window and over the wall in a wink.”

     Farris looked at the small window, the perfect height for a human to stare longingly at the outside world, but out of reach for even the tallest hauflin. Of course, if they were able to reach the window, the small opening would be large enough for the twins to slip through.

     “Wishing you still had your grapnel does us as much good as me wishing I had a hippogriff.”

     Farris watched his twin’s grin widen from mischievous to devious, as a familiar twinkle flashed in her eyes. “If we can’t go out the window, guess we have to use the door.”

     “But they took our picks.”

     Fayra shook her head, clearly disappointed. “They took the picks they could find, twin of mine.” She fidgeted with the laces of her bodice, eventually producing the delicate lock picks hidden within.

     She saw her brother smile for the first time since the Dal Varran soldiers clapped them in irons. “Mother would be so proud,” he said.

     “Assume the position.”

     Farris crouched by the heavy wooden door that stood between them and freedom. He barely felt it when Fayra jumped up onto his shoulders. She ran her fingertips across the panel that the guards used to check on them. It wasn’t much smaller than the window.

     Pointed ear pressed against the wood, her nimble fingers probed around the edge of the panel. She bit her lip in concentration as she tapped the wood. It was locked, obviously. But, from the sound, it was just a simple latch. Slipping one of her picks into the narrow space between door and panel, she found the bolt and lifted. The sound of the unlocking bolt was louder than she would have liked–and she felt her brother tense beneath her–but when she slowly opened the panel, she saw that the corridor outside the cell was empty.

     “Step two, brother dear.”

     Farris stood slowly, hands on his sister’s ankles to steady her. Fayra took hold of the lintel above the door and lifted herself off her twin’s shoulders. It was a tight fit, but she was able to wriggle through the opening feet first. She dropped to the floor without a sound. Once on the other side of the door, it was a simple task to pick the lock and free her brother.

     “Splendid! A truly remarkable display!”

     The voice didn’t belong to her brother.

     A few paces down the corridor, a door had opened and three soldiers wearing the red and gold livery of Lord Redcastle filled the hallway, swords drawn. Behind them stood a robust figure in scarlet doublet and matching robe. Fayra could see the sparkle of the jeweled rings on his fingers. His sandy hair was cut short and his beard neatly trimmed. A silver circlet sat atop his head.

     Lord Redcastle.

     “I wouldn’t try to run,” he offered with the wave of a hand.

     The twins glanced over their shoulders. The corridor behind them was now filled with armed men.

     “Hauflins,” Redcastle said, more to himself than to anyone else in the corridor. “We don’t get many hauflins in these parts.”

     “You do,” Fayra said. “They just don’t get caught.” Farris caught his sister’s jibe and frowned.

     Redcastle chuckled. “As you say. Now, my little snatch-purses, let’s you and I have a little chat, hmm?”

     “In the banquet hall?” Fayra asked. “I’m famished. I haven’t had a satisfying meal since I nicked that apple from a traveling merchant on the road from Southway. Between you and me, that slop you serve prisoners in positively dre–”

     “Enough!” What little charm Lord Redcastle had been displaying had vanished. His face was flush as he stepped towards the twins. “You have two options, you pointy-eared pieces of shit: Put your skills to work for me and steal something I desire, after which you will be free to go. Or dangle from a hangman’s noose at dawn.”

     Neither Farris nor Fayra said a word, and Farris was thankful that his sister was smart enough to hold her tongue. They both knew better than to trust Redcastle’s word. Their silence was apparently beginning to annoy the nobleman, who snapped his fingers. The soldiers, and their swords, moved closer to the twins.

     “Now, what do you say?”

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