Category Archives: writing

Professor Filibuster and the…Dragons?

Another snippet of an idea of a thing that never went much further. Maybe one of these days…

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The Captain watched with growing consternation as the stranger pranced across the deck of his airship. His long, ungainly legs carried him from the port railing to the starboard and back, his spindly arms flailing about as he muttered to himself.

    The stranger had come aboard in Cardiff with a letter of marque signed by the newly-crowned Queen, although he was certainly no pirate. “I’ll be going as far west as you’re sailing, Captain,” he had said in a cheery tone, adding “perhaps a tad less.” He had kept to himself, mostly, studying the stars above at night and staring at the billowing clouds below during the day. The only belongings he brought with him–other than the outlandish clothes on his back–was a battered leather satchel covered in grease stains and scorch marks. The Captain was certain he had seen the hole from a musket ball, as well.

    “Sir!” The Captain had emerged from the wheelhouse moments ago and was now slowly making his way towards the bow. “Sir,” he called again. “Please. We’re heading into a nasty patch of weather.”

    The stranger paused mid-stride. Spinning on his heel, the tails of his too-large overcoat twirling about him, he turned to face the Captain. “Really? Are you sure?”

    “Aye,” was the only reply the Captain gave. He started barking orders at his crew, who jumped into action without question.

    Dodging the crewmen as they ran about their duties, the stranger approached the Captain. “Thunder? Flashes of lightning? Swirling, howling winds?” The Captain narrowed his eyes and nodded once in reply.

    The stranger shook his head of bright orange hair, swatting away the Captain’s response with a long-fingered hand. “Nothing as commonplace as a storm. Something magnificent. Something wondrous,” he said, his green eyes wide with excitement.

    “You’re a madman.”

    “Professor Reynard Quincy Filibuster is many things, sir. A madman is not one of them.” He stormed off, stopped after a few steps and turned around. “Actually, now that I think about it, maybe you’re right. Yes, yes. I like it. Professor Reynard Quincy Filibuster: Madman. Very good. Thank you, Captain.”

    Professor Filibuster returned to the port railing. He reached into the pocket of his pinstripe trousers and pulled out a pair of goggles. Once the goggles were in place, he leaned over the side. He hung like that, head over the side of the ship and skinny legs pointing up toward the sky, for several minutes. Eventually his head popped back up, a wide grin showing off his slightly over-sized front teeth. “Irregular,” was all he said.

    The Captain couldn’t argue with that. “Did you hear me, Captain? I said it’s too irregular. The time between what you think is lightning and what you assume is thunder.”

    The Professor took a pocket watch from his vest and studied the face. He glanced up at the Captain for a second before returning his attention to the watch. “Three seconds,” he said, holding up a finger. He continued to announce the time between each flash of lightning and the corresponding clap of thunder. “Now six. Four seconds that time. Oh, ten seconds.”

    Scurrying across the deck, the Professor collected his satchel and checked to make sure it was fastened before throwing it over his shoulder. He attached his pocket watch to a strap on his wrist, so he’d have both hands free, but could continue to keep time. He picked up the airship’s mooring line, played out several yards, and then tied it around his waist.

    “What are you doing? What’s going on?”

    “What’s going on?” Filibuster asked. He had climbed up onto the portside railing, his arms stretched out at his side to help him balance. “Dragons, my good man,” he said. “Dragons.”

    And he was gone.

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Four

Do you remember what happened the last time? What’s the deal with that sword-wielding redhead? Who is the Champion of Avalon? Answers await you, gentle reader, in:

 The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Four

Brendan took in the vision before him. Gwen Sinclair, his college girlfriend, decked out in some kind of eldritch armor. Complete with sword and what appeared to be an enchanted cloak.

“I’m guessing this–” he waved his hands around to indicate Gwen’s new appearance– “is why you disappeared at the end of the semester.”

Gwen nodded. Her armor dissolved back into her modern clothing and she sat back down on the sofa.

“My mother,” she said. “Mom was seriously wounded in a battle with a rakshasa. The Healers of Avalon were concerned she would never fully recover, so I was summoned home.”

“Avalon? The Arthurian Avalon?” Brendan turned to Ferguson, hoping the professor would throw him some kind of a lifeline, but the older man was listening to Gwen with rapt attention.

“Yes and no. Avalon is an extradimensional realm, a waypoint between our world and the Otherworld of Celtic myth and legend. It’s a garrison, of sorts. A bulwark acting as the first line of defense between our world and the darker dimensions.”

“And you’re from there?”

“Don’t be stupid, Finn. I’m from Scotland.”

Brendan shrugged. “I walked right into that, didn’t I?”

She smiled. “Since the beginning of time, the women of my family have been called to Avalon to act as protectors of the mortal realms. We stand between the shadows and the light. We fight the things of nightmares. We are the Champions of Avalon.”

“I was a Knight of Columbus.”

“Finn!”

“Sorry. Sorry.”

Gwen continued: “My mother was getting older. Slower. She was almost one hundred and twenty when I started training, eventually she would fall in battle. So, I spent the last five years studying mystical and martial combat. Shortly after I took my mother’s place as Champion, I felt the sinister pull of the Dagger of Tiamat–”

“And that’s when our Ms. Sinclair contacted me,” Ferguson added. “And I called you, Brendan.”

“Okay, you guys are clearly in the driver’s seat here, so what’s the plan?”

Ferguson lifted himself out of his chair and headed straight for the bookcase by the door that led to the flat’s small kitchen. He ran a finger along the spines on one shelf, then a lower one. He finally located the book he was searching for–a battered, leather-bound tome–and pulled it from the bookcase.

“Ms. Sinclair and I believe that our best course of action would be to focus our search on the well-known mystical sites across the British Isles.”

The professor opened the book and laid it on the table between them. Although yellowed with age, the pages clearly showed a map of the British Isles. Red dots marked many of the stone circles, burial mounds, and cairns scattered across England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and numerous other islands. Brendan was familiar with many of these sites, neolithic Britain being one of his major interests back in college.

“Great,” he said. “Where do we start?”

“On that, we’re not entirely certain,” Ferguson said with a resigned sigh.

Brendan looked at Gwen. “Wait. I thought you could feel the– What did you call it? The pull of the dagger.”

“No longer. Once the Dagger of Tiamat was reunited with Malcolm, it fell silent. They could be anywhere.”

Brendan removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. “I’m going to ignore the way you’re referring to the dagger like it’s a living thing,” he said.

“It’s not uncommon for magical items to develop a certain level of sentience,” Ferguson said. “The Dagger of Tiamat is certainly capable of independent thought. Among other things.”

“Not helping,” Brendan growled. “Look, under the right circumstances, I could track Malcolm, no problem. But I need something to work with.”

“We could start at the remains of the Pierson home,” Ferguson offered.

“No!” Gwen stood, her eyes and fingertips crackling with an unearthly energy. “We don’t have time to stumble around England, checking every place Malcolm could be.”

“I have an idea,” Brendan said, fishing in his pocket for his phone. “Let me make a call. I have a friend who might be able to help. One way or another.”

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The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Three

I’m too embarrassed to say how long it has been since I posted a new installment of “The Dagger of Tiamat.” But, I managed to post the third part of the story before the end of the year, so I’m calling it a win. Read the first two parts here and here.

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Three

“Okay, so what is the Dagger of Tiamat?”

     They had traded the dimly-lit pub for Professor Ferguson’s flat, which occupied the top two floors of a Georgian townhouse across from Russell Square. Brendan and Gwen were seated on a sofa in the parlor, a bookcase-lined room that looked out onto the street. Ferguson was sitting in a high-backed leather chair across from them. Judging from the stack of books on the side table, that was probably where the Professor spent most of his free time.

     “Would either of you like something to eat?” Ferguson asked, shrugging out of his tweed jacket. “I’m afraid I don’t entertain much, but I might have a little something in the kitchen.”

     “No thanks, Professor. I’m good,” Brendan said. Was Ferguson stalling or just being very British?

     “I’m fine, Professor,” Gwen said. “I think it’s best that we tell Finn what’s going on.”

     Finally. Brendan leaned back and looked at his old friends.

     “The Earth is a nexus,” Gwen began. “It’s a crossroads, of sorts, where countless different dimensions intersect. And, in certain places, the barriers between Earth and these other dimensions are thin enough to pass through.”

     “O-kay.”

     “Interactions between Earth and these different dimensions account for the myriad of gods and goddesses that have been worshipped by cultures around the world.”

     “Gods are real?”

     “In a sense,” she replied. “Many of these extradimensional beings possess powers and abilities that would have amazed and terrified early humans. The natural reaction would be to worship these beings as gods.”

     Brendan nodded. It had often been theorized that many of the myths and legends from around the world had been inspired by metahuman activity. This was as good an explanation as that.

     “But,” Gwen continued, “where there are gods, there are also demons. The most powerful of these beings are often called Old Ones or Elder Gods. Vile creatures of unimaginable power and unspeakable cruelty.”

     “This is where the Dagger of Tiamat comes in, right?”

     “The Dagger of Tiamat is a relic from a darker time, a time when cults of greedy, black-hearted men and women worshipped these creatures. They performed dark rituals, seeking to curry favor with powerful beings in return for power, wealth, and influence.”

     “Politicians?”

     Gwen scowled. “Finn, this is serious.”

     Brendan raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry,” he said. “So, it’s just a magical item, right? No biggie. We’ve dealt with that kinda thing before, Gwen.”

     The thought of the adventures they shared in the past brought a smile to Gwen’s lips, then it was gone. “This is worse than any of that, Finn. This is bigger than the vampires, the zombies, the evil sorcerers, the cursed keep left signs.”

     “Worse than the transient mystery house disguised as a phone box?”

     “Much.”

     “You see, Brendan,” Ferguson interjected, “the dagger is a conduit of sorts. It’s a way to draw power from one of these Old Ones through a dimensional barrier.”

     “Unfortunately,” Gwen added, “it’s supposed to be used as a part of a ritual involving several people. The Old One’s power is supposed to be dispersed, not channeled into a single individual. Pierson– Malcolm, well he’s basically been mainlining power from the Old Ones for five years.”

     “That sounds bad.”

     Ferguson nodded. “Quite. We fear that Malcolm’s disappearance this close to the solstice–”

     “When many of these dimensional barriers are at their weakest,” Gwen added.

     “–could be an indication that he’s planning something big.”

     “Big? How big?”

     “If he has enough power,” Gwen said, “he could theoretically tear a hole in one of these barriers and allow these Old Ones to invade our dimension.”

     Brendan exhaled. “That’s a big Twinkie.”

     “I need to stop this, Finn.”

     “Wait. What? Why you? I could call in the Cape-and-Cowl Club. They love this kinda stuff.”

     Gwen shook her head. “It has to be me, Finn.”

     “Why?”

     She stood, her sundress, leggings, and boots suddenly replaced by a long shirt of gleaming chainmail, cinched at the waist by a thick leather belt. A dark green cloak, emblazoned with glowing symbols, hung from her shoulders. A gauntleted hand rested on the hilt of the sword that hung at her side. Her skin glowed like the summer sun, making her red hair appear aflame.

     “Why, Finn? Because it’s my destiny.”

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In Praise of Rick Riordan

I’m about half-way through the second book in the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series by Rick Riordan, and before 2016 ends, I wanted to tell you all that you should be reading Riordan’s books (if you are not already).

You may have heard of Rick Riordan. He created Percy Jackson. Percy Jackson is a regular kid from NYC, who also happens to be the son of Poseidon. The first Percy Jackson series introduced the world to Camp Half-Blood and the demigods who trained there, preparing to go on whatever quests the Oracle sent them on. This series came out during the height of Potter-Mania, and was probably unfairly overshadowed by Rowling’s masterpiece.

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Anyway, from there, Riordan wrote a trilogy about Carter and Sadie Kane, siblings who also happen to be magicians loyal to the Egyptian gods. He wrote a second round of Percy Jackson books that introduced the Roman equivalents of the Greek demigods of Camp Half-Blood, a series of short stories were the Greek demigods meet the Egyptian magicians. Then came Magnus Chase, followed closely by a new series about Apollo.

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These books are brilliant for several reasons. First of all, they treat each pantheon as individuals. The Egyptian gods are not just rehashes of the Greek gods with different names. A Greek demigod does not have the same motivations that an Egyptian magician has, and no one has the same motivations as an Asgardian einherjar.

Second, these books feel like superhero stories to me. Whether Percy is calling forth a tidal wave or Carter Kane is summoning mecha-sized mystical Horus armor or Magnus Chase is using his healing powers, it all feels like reading about young superheroes learning about their powers. Whenever I think writing superhero prose the way I want to write it is impossible, I pick up one of Riordan’s books and get inspired anew.

If you like superheroes and mythology, and you’re not afraid to be seen reading middle-grade fiction, go and grab some Rick Riordan books.

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Two

Welcome back! I hope you’re all ready for the next installment of “The Dagger of Tiamat.” You can read Part One here. Enjoy!

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Two

The museum had closed for the day. Other than the skeleton crew of security guards who worked the night shift, only a handful of people from the administration and research departments were still in the building. Brendan and Gwen were alone in one of the offices in the archaeology department.

     “What does this say?” Brendan asked, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. He slid a stack of paper across the desk. “My eyes aren’t working anymore.”

     Gwen glanced at the top page, a hi-res scan of a stone tablet covered in cuneiform. Brendan had circled several of the wedge-shaped impressions, translations scribbled next to them. A single grouping remained untranslated.

     She leaned over the page, brushing unruly red curls out of her face. She squinted and scrunched her nose. It was her thinking face, and it always made Brendan smile.

“Finn, you numpty! It’s barley,” she said, throwing her pen at him. “What’s wrong with you?”

     “We’ve been at this for ten hours,” he said, “I’m tired. We should wrap this up.”

     “Skip the pint?” Gwen asked with a wink.

     Brendan was going to say something clever when the lights went out. The emergency lights came on, casting everything in an eerie yellow light.

     “What the bloody hell?” Gwen got up and moved towards the door to the hallway, stopping when the intercom beeped.

     “Got me,” Brendan said in response to Gwen’s look. He reached for the phone, but punched the speakerphone button instead of lifting the receiver.

     “–Malcolm? I thought you left early. Something about a family emergency.” The voice belonged to Andrew Milton, one of the full-time research assistants. He had been working in one of the labs beneath the museum.

     “Hello, Milton. I’m sorry it had to be you. But I’ve come for my dagger.”

     “The hell?” Brendan recognized the snide, dismissive tone of Malcolm Pierson’s voice. But something sounded off.

     “I don’t know who you’ve called, Milton, but please disconnect that phone.”

     Gwen was at his shoulder. “I don’t like the sound of Malcolm’s voice.”

     “I’ve never liked the sound of his voice,” Brendan mumbled, “but I like it even less now.”

     “I’m going down there.”

     She was out the door and down the hall before Brendan could get out of his chair. “Gwen! Wait!”

     He caught her at the elevator, angrily stabbing the call button with her finger. Her face was bright red, her eyes wide, and her jaw clenched. She was pissed. Full Scottish Mode.

     She spun on him. “Wait for what, Brendan? The security guards? I love those guys, but they’re glorified doormen.”

     The elevator arrived. “They’ll call the cops,” Brendan said as Gwen pulled him into the elevator with her.

     “You heard what I heard, Finn. Whatever is going on down there, Milton is terrified. He called our office for a reason. He knew we were still here.”

     The doors closed and the elevator began to descend.

     “You know something you aren’t telling me.”

     Gwen put her hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “Brendan Finn,” she sighed. “I know a lot of things I’m not telling you.” She put her hand over his heart, adding: “Including what you have inside of you.”

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“We didn’t stop him he last time, Finn. We have a second chance.”

     “And we are?”

     Gwen leaned forward, resting her arms on the table. “You and me, Finn. Like it was back then.”

     Brendan glanced over at Ferguson, who had returned to his book. “And what about you, Professor?”

     “What?” Ferguson looked up, startled. “Oh. Yes. Me. I’m on research, lad.” He tapped the page he had been reading. “Research.”

     “Research?”

     “Yes, yes.” He closed the book and slid it aside. “The dagger, my boy. The dagger is key.”

     “The Dagger of Tiamat.”

     “I’m sorry, Gwen, but I left my twenty-sided dice at home.”

     “My ties to the Otherworld are strong, stronger than most mortals,” Gwen said. “But if Pierson has the Dagger of Tiamat, he may be more than I can handle.”

     She took Brendan’s hands in hers and looked him in the eyes. Like she did back then. “I can’t stop him without you, Finn. I need my Wulver.”

     Brendan sighed, shaking his head. “I’m not gonna say no,” he said. “You know I’d never say no. Not to you.”

     Gwen smiled weakly.

     “But knock off that Wulver stuff.” His blue eyes turned yellow for a heartbeat before returning to their normal color. “The name’s Wolfen.”

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The Dagger of Tiamat, Part One

It’s been a while, but I’m back! Here’s part one of the first official story set in my superhero universe.

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part One

It had been several years since Brendan Finn had been in London. He had studied abroad at Oxford during his junior year, thanks to New York University’s prestigious Bankoff Grant, and impressed his professors so much that he was given one of the three summer internships at the British Museum. One of the two remaining slots had gone to Guinevere Sinclair–Gwen–but that was another story.

He had asked the driver to let him off on Great Russell Street,in front of the classical facade of the British Museum. After paying the driver, Brendan turned his attention to the corner pub directly across the street. The Museum Tavern hadn’t changed much in the last five years. He and Gwen had spent many long nights at the Museum Tavern, talking and laughing over too many pints to ever count. He smiled, thinking about the night Gwen had leaned over and whispered in his ear that her flat was in walking distance.

    “Keep it together, sport,” Brendan muttered to himself. Today’s reunion was different, but no less welcome.

    Despite the mid-summer sun outside, the interior of the pub was dark and cool. Brendan paused just inside the door to wipe away the fog that appeared on his glasses. The lunch crowd was thinning out and it was still several hours before the after-work drinkers appeared. A few locals sat at the bar, keeping the barman, a thick-set fellow with thinning red hair and a full beard, company. Brendan scanned the room, finding who he was looking for at a table in dark corner.

    James Ferguson sat alone, his tall frame hunched over an old, leather-bound book. A long finger traced the words as he read by the light of the table’s single, small candle. Brendan was amazed to see his old professor dressed in a three-piece tweed suit, despite the summer heat. His hair, which had once been a thick, salt-and-pepper mane, was now a wreath of white encircling his bald head. He looked up as Brendan approached and, even though time had left its mark on the man, his grin was still mischievous and his blue eyes still twinkled with childlike glee.

    “Brendan, my boy!” the old man bellowed. He marked his place with a scrap of paper before closing the book with a thump. He stood and wrapped the younger man in an embrace that belied his age.

    “Good to see you, Professor.”

    “Please, Brendan, call me James.”

    “I don’t think I can do that.”

    Ferguson sat down and motioned to the barman. Brendan joined him, noticing the empty glass on the table. “Been here long?”

    “Just a few minutes, lad.” He followed Brendan’s eyes and smiled. “It’s hot out. A man must keep himself hydrated.”

    The barman appeared with a pint of lager for the professor and a pint of porter for Brendan. Brendan studied the glass of dark beer. “How did you know, Professor?”

    Ferguson tapped his temple. “I may be retired, lad, but I still have all of my faculties.”

    They drank in silence for a few minutes, Ferguson finally saying: “You were a good student, Brendan. One of my best. That was a good crop, all around. You and Ms. Sinclair, Mr. Patel. Even–”

    “Even Pierson?”

    Ferguson sighed. “Poor Malcolm.” He saw the look on Brendan’s face. “I know, I know. You two never really got on, and I’m not excusing what he did. But he was a brilliant young man, which, sadly, often goes hand-in-hand with madness.”

    For every fond memory that Brendan had of Gwen or Professor Ferguson, there was an equal and opposite one of Malcolm Pierson. Pierson was smug, arrogant, and vain. He believed his good looks, money, and intelligence entitled him to get whatever he wanted. He could never figure out how a Scottish girl and an American with an Irish name were consistently his academic betters. Pierson barely tolerated Ravi Patel, but only because the shy, overweight son of Indian immigrants didn’t pose a direct threat to Pierson’s academic success. Brendan was always working to keep his temper in check, but there were numerous occasions where he found himself close to beating Pierson to a bloody pulp.

    Brendan looked down at his hands, not even realizing that he had clenched them into white-knuckled fists. He took a deep breath and relaxed. “Is he still–”

    “In hospital? No. He checked himself out two or three years ago. He claimed that the therapy had helped and he no longer heard the voices that had told him to kill himself with that Assyrian dagger.”

    Brendan still had dreams about that night. He never called them nightmares, because he felt that gave them too much power. They were more like recollections: Pierson locking himself in one of the museum’s labs, the bronze blade of the dagger held to the throat of one of the lab assistants. What was his name? Stilton? Whilton? Milton. No one knows what made Pierson release his hostage and turn the blade on himself.

    Ferguson finished his pint. Bringing up the past seemed to have drained some of the youth from his face. He looked every day of his seventy-six years when he said, “But that was before Hertfordshire.” When Brendan didn’t say anything, he continued: “Pierson had gone to live with his parents after leaving the hospital. There was some kind of accident two weeks ago. The house, and everyone in it, was consumed by fire.”

    “That’s terrible,” Brendan said. He meant it, too. Sure, he still hated Pierson, but he never really wanted the guy to die. He certainly had no ill will towards Pierson’s family. “Wait. Why did you call me, Professor? Why am I here?”

    “You’re here because I don’t think it was an accident,” Ferguson said. “You’re here because you were there that night. You’re here because the accident happened on the summer solstice and Pierson had always been obsessed with pagan religions. You’re here because I don’t think Malcolm Pierson died in the fire. But, most of all, you’re here because–”

    “Because I need you.”

    The woman had seemingly appeared from out of nowhere. Her mass of auburn curls was tied back, with only a few wayward strands free to frame her face. The sun had brought out a scattering of freckles under her brown eyes and across the bridge of her nose. She hadn’t changed a bit in five years.

    “Gwen?”

    “Hiya, Finn.”

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It Takes a Thief, Part Six

Here it is! The final, exciting installment of “It Takes a Thief.”

Read the first five parts here.

It Takes a Thief, Part Six

If the middle ring was cramped, crowded, and crime-ridden, than the upper ring was a paradise. A wall higher than any wall the twins had seen in the east separated the middle ring from the upper ring. There was a single gate, guarded by a dozen Blue Caps at all times. If there were any doubts that the plutocrats of Solaria were aware of the crime and poverty that thrived on the other side of that wall, those armed soldiers would quickly dismiss them.

    Farris and Fayra had managed to slip through the gate with the throngs of servants who made daily pilgrimages to the markets and shops of the middle ring to acquire food for their masters’ daily meals. The twins had liberated a pair of the long, homespun tunics worn by Solaria’s servant class. As long as they didn’t draw too much attention to themselves, they should be able to move about freely.

    They spent the next two days exploring the upper ring, careful to avoid the daily patrols of the Blue Caps. Open-air plazas, lush parks, and public gardens stretched as far as the eye could see. Everywhere they looked was another marble statue, gleaming colonnade, or ornate fountain. There wasn’t a shop, stall, or tavern anywhere. Walled estates and villas stood in stark contrast to the slums and tenements of the middle ring. Overlooking it all were the white columns and gold-topped domes of the Solarian senate and courts.

    The Lake of Swans was the largest of two man-made lakes, the other being the Lake of Joys. Both lakes were surrounded by palatial homes, but the twins knew their quarry’s villa was beside the Lake of Swans. However, that still left dozens of possible homes to search.

    “I wish we knew more about this Sekk,” Farris said. “It might make it easier to figure out which of these houses is his.”

    Fayra was absently fiddling with the simple cloth belt that kept her tunic in place. “Like what?”

    “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe he has a favorite kind of tree or something.” He thought for a moment. “Like, maybe he really loves red-fan pine, so we just need to find the villa with a lot of red-fan pines.”

    “We already know that Sekk employs a troop of dwarfs as his private security,” Fayra said. “What more do you need?”

    That was a key piece of information, and Farris said as much. “So we just knock on every gate until a dwarf answers?”

    “Must I think of everything, dear brother?” When Farris didn’t answer, she added: “Know any dwarfen drinking songs?”

    Redcastle’s soldiers didn’t allow them to take any weapons ashore. But, they did allow Farris to bring his lute and Fayra her lockpicks.

    Dwarf drinking songs were deceptively complicated. The words didn’t matter, as long as the music that accompanied them perfectly matched the chaotic, life-threatening tumult of the largest battles ever waged. As far as Farris was concerned, other than the spell-singing used at the elf courts, the only thing harder than dwarfen drinking songs was goblin yodeling.

    Farris started playing a few notes of random songs as he walked around the Lake of Swans. Fayra kept several paces behind her twin, enough to be able to see the reactions of those around the,. After warming up, and playing most of a particularly popular Daenarian wedding ballad, Farris launched into the best dwarfen drinking song he could think of.

    Farris could feel the stares and looks of disgust he was getting from the average Solarians he passed. He paused by a marble statue of a particularly well-endowed archer and launched into his third verse, a rousing tale of the slaughter of the troll siege of King Barven’s mountain stronghold.

    Fayra walked by, glancing appreciatively at the statue. She stopped and leaned against one of the the trees that lined the path around the lake. She tilted her head to one side before moving on. As Farris continued to sing–he was now recounting everything he knew about the Seven Thanes and the Orc Invasion–his eyes shifted in the direction Fayra had indicated.

    There were four villas along this stretch of lakefront, each with the same high stone walls surrounding them. Something about the fourth villa, the one furthest away, had caught Fayra’s eye. It took Farris a few second, but then he saw it. The gate was open and several short, stout figures could be seen gathered in the opening and glancing in his direction.

    Dwarfs. They had found Sekk’s villa.

    Once the sun had set, the twins stashed their tunics and returned to Sekk’s villa. There was just the single gate, most likely guarded by at least two of Sekk’s dwarf soldiers. The walls were too high for Fayra to vault over, at least without her quarterstaff or grapnel, both of which were still in the possession of Redcastle’s men. Time was a factor, especially with the regular patrols of Blue Caps.

    “You’re going to have to throw me,” Fayra whispered.

    “What?”

    “Yeah. Throw me and once I’m on top of the wall, I’ll reach back down and pull you up.”

    Farris shook his head. “This better not be Stormreach all over again.”

    He gave his sister a boost, which was all she needed to get enough height to grab the wall’s top edge. Fayra hauled herself up and, hooking her feet over the inner edge of the wall, leaned back over and reached down to her brother. Farris took her hands and scrambled up the wall, using his twin like a living ladder. He clambered to the top of the wall and helped his sister back up.

    They could hear the raucous laughter of the dwarfs at the gate. Fayra was sure there would be at least one guard walking the grounds. Trees provided cover between the wall and the main house. The twins sprinted from tree to tree, thankful that it was a particularly cloudy night. A sky full of stars would have been an additional obstacle they didn’t need.

    An arch in the villa’s outer wall led to a small courtyard. A small fountain babbled in the center of the courtyard. Beyond the fountain, three steps led up into the villa. A faint, flickering light could be seen illuminating the villa’s interior. Sekk was home.

    The villa’s main hall was decorated in silk curtains and draperies of every color: deep purples, bold blues, vibrant reds. The floor was a mosaic of brightly-colored tile. Plush sofas, divans, and cushions filled the room. Fires burned in two large bronze braziers at the far end of the hall.

    The room had a single occupant. Seated behind a low table, upon a mountain of cushions, was Boltus Sekk. Sekk was a disgustingly fat man, with greasy black hair pulled back into a ponytail and a long, scraggly beard. His eyes were small and dark, his lips thick and wet. As the twins entered the hall, Sekk popped an olive into his cavernous mouth and smiled.

    “And here they are,” he croaked. He sucked on his fingertips, one hand and then the other, then clapped his hands. Two servants appeared from behind the curtains and removed the table.

    Sekk lifted his ponderous bulk off of the cushions with a grunt and lurched towards the hauflins. He was dressed, like every other member of Solaria’s moneyed class, in a brightly colored silk robe embroidered with golden thread and matching gold slippers. Something glinted in the flickering light of the braziers as Sekk moved across the room. Something hanging around his neck. A simple gold ring on a chain. It had to be the trinket that contained the fragment of the black mage’s soul.

    “You knew we were coming?”

    Sekk stopped, looking down at Farris. “Of course, my dear boy. It was my idea.”  A familiar form appeared from behind one of the silk curtains. Broad shoulders, neatly-trimmed beard and hair, matching scarlet doublet and robe.

    “Lord Redcastle? What in the nine hells of the Eternal Jailer is going on?” Fayra looked at her twin, hoping he had a clue. Farris just shrugged.

    “Think of this as an audition,” Sekk grinned, his thick lips sliding across a mouth full of crooked, yellow teeth.

    “An audition?” The twins asked in unison.

    “Of course. You may not know this, but I am one of the wealthiest men in Solaria. In all of the City-States, actually.” Sekk was preening. “That often requires creative thinking and alternate avenues of activity.”

    Fayra nodded. “Theft.”

    “I prefer not to label such things. However, I do believe your talents would greatly benefit my business enterprises.”

    “Okay,” Farris said. “I get it. You’re a greedy, amoral asshole. But, what’s in it for Redcastle?”

    Sekk giggled. It was grotesque hearing such a childlike sound coming out of a creature like Sekk. He reached up and stroked the ring that hung around his neck with thick, flabby fingers.

    Redcastle vanished. In his place stood a tall, gaunt figure dressed all in black. The figure wore a long, hooded cloak that, along with a thick, black scarf, concealed all of his face except for a pair of sunken, bloodshot eyes. Those eyes were locked on the hauflins, barely blinking.

    “Are you kidding me!”

    “I get it,” Fayra said. “So, if we say no, you’ll just order the Black Mage to force us to work for you. Right?”

    “Intelligent as you are beautiful,” Sekk croaked, licking his lips.

    “That’s it. I’m done.” Fayra charged Sekk. She was fast. Too fast for most men, and certainly too fast for someone of Sekk’s corpulent bulk. Sekk barely had time to react as Fayra jumped at him. She grabbed the gold ring with one hand. With her other hand, she vaulted over Sekk’s shoulder, snapping the delicate chain that held the ring.

    “What? No! Stop her!” Sekk’s face was purple with rage, spittle flew as he bellowed commands. The Black Mage remained motionless. “I said, stop her!”

    “Sorry, Sekk,” Fayra said, holding up the ring. “No ring. No control.” She tossed the ring towards the mage, who caught it in the pale, skeletal hand without looking. “This means you’re free now, right?”

    Realization dawned on Sekk, but it was too late. He tried to flee, heading for the nearest door as fast as his stubby legs and slippered feet could carry him. The Black Mage turned his unblinking eyes on Sekk, who simply froze in place. Turning back to the twins, the Black Mage said one word in a raspy voice: “Leave.”

#

When they got outside, Farris and Fayra were surprised to see that the dwarfs had abandoned their posts. Maybe they had seen what was going on inside the villa and had no desire to face an enraged Black Mage of Malashir. Maybe they had been under the mage’s control just like Sekk had planned to do to the twins.

    “Can we get the hell out of here?” Farris pleaded.

    “I don’t know, twin of mine. Solaria could have an awful lot of opportunities for two enterprising and ethically flexible souls such as you and me.”

    “Nope. This place is weird and I want to go back east. The eastern kingdoms make sense.”

    Fayra looked at her brother and smiled. “Fine.”

    “No boats,” Farris insisted.

    “No boats.”