BOOK FUN MAGAZINE - FREE READ

HERO, SECOND CLASS by MITCHELL BONDS

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



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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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