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Michael A. Stackpole is a New York Times bestselling author and award winning podcaster, novelist, editor, graphic novelist, screen writer, computer game designer and game designer. His best known novels—I, Jedi and Rogue Squadron—are set in the Star Wars™ Universe. He’s written over forty-five novels, and his work has been translated into ten languages. His latest novel is set in the Pathfinder™ universe: Crusader Road.

When not working, he enjoys dancing and has great fun cultivating a taste for expensive Scotch whisky. You can read more about him, his work, and the occasional Scotch review at his website: www.stormwolf.com or you can follow him on Twitter via @mikestackpole.

A Hero Born by Michael A. Stackpole

An apprentice swordsman, Locke has ridden the narrow trail to the City of the Sorcerers to see with his own eyes the Ward Walls that hold back the Realms of Chaos. It is Locke's dream to become a Chaos Rider, and he seeks his destiny beyond the Wall. And it is Locke's hope that somewhere in the Wildness, where time and change rage out of control, his lost father still survives.

But more than mere survival is at stake. For on the other side of the Wall awaits a Darkness beyond all ken—a burgeoning evil that will test the steel of one young hero … and the entire bold and foolish race called Humanity.

CURATOR'S NOTE

I've known Mike Stackpole since we were both teenagers, and he got me into writing for gaming publications, and then into writing fantasy. It's come full circle now that we've reissued his A HERO BORN. Mike was one of the first people to begin teaching me about how to seize the new opportunities from all the changes in publishing. – Kevin J. Anderson

 
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Prologue

Standing high on the red bluff overlooking his grand project, the only sign of Vrasha's irritation came in the rhythmic, jerked twitching of his leonine tail. The sable-furred Chaos demon otherwise stood rock still as he watched his people labor below him. He felt some pride in their devotion to him, but their mindless and slavish adherence to his commands also repulsed him.

Even though this enterprise might kill me, not a one of them has tried to dissuade me.

In a hideous grin, black lips peeled away from darker, crystalline teeth shaped like daggers. Vrasha knew those Black Shadows below labored for him because they believed he would be able to restore his father to life were his mission successful. Kothvir was to him little more than a memory, but to them he was a legendary leader who had come closer than any other to making Chaos a place in which the rigid races feared to venture.

Out beyond the project, the opalescent Chaos Wall undulated like a curtain being caressed by a gentle breeze. On the bluff he could not feel its power, but even thinking about the creamy wall brought again to his flesh the sizzling tingle he had felt when walking close to it. Erected by the magick of those who lived beyond it, the Chaos Wall held back the forces of change in the same way a dike might hold the ocean at bay. Those born on the far side of it could pass through at will, but for anyone born in Chaos …

"Vrasha, for one final time I ask you to reconsider."

Vrasha turned slowly to face the Black Shadow who had spoken to him. "Rindik, do you so fear my success that you beg me not to undertake this quest?"

The larger Chaos demon shook his head. His black mane, unlike Vrasha's, had been shaved away from the sides of his head in the manner of warriors. It exposed his triangular ears, which flicked forward and back in a sign Vrasha knew from long experience meant Rindik was decidedly agitated. "You know, half brother, that is not my reason. If you succeed, I will bow to your will and support you. I may be a simple warrior, but I respect your dreams and will welcome their successful fruition. I would not, however, have you throw your life away needlessly."

"I do not throw my life away, Rindik. We have done tests."

"And in your tests, everything born on this side of the wall has died when you sent it through!" Rindik's solid gold eyes narrowed. "All of your theories have been proved wrong, yet now you are set to subject yourself to that which has killed all other participants in your experiment."

"You do not understand!" Vrasha pointed at the huge, steeply angled ramp that ended on a sharp up-slope barely five yards from the Chaos Wall. "We have extended the ramp's height and have increased the angle to the point where the velocity will be nearly doubled when I reach the wall. Unlike the early, grossly unsuccessful trials, having the sphere airborne when it reaches the wall seems to lessen the damage. That held true for creatures and for the other demons we have sent through."

"Yes, but they died nonetheless."

Vrasha batted that objection away with a contemptuous wave of his left hand. "They were Storm demons who had neither the courage nor presence of mind to kill themselves when you captured them."

"True enough, brother mine, but they died doing what you will do." Rindik pointed back toward the northwest, where malignant green flashes of lightning darkened the bloodred sky. "And there the other Tsvortu come to war on us for your use of their kin. I need you and your insight to help control them. Use another of your thralls to test this new contrivance you have built. I want you with me as we fight them."

"Rindik, you surprise me. Were you not the one who has told me that the Tsvortu would never defeat the Bharashadi? You yourself pointed out that their power to influence storms was nothing compared to the power of the Bharashadi to defeat death. We, the Black Shadows, have forever lamented the fact that the key to our opening the Necroleum and summoning forth our long-dead kin resides there, beyond the wall. You ask me to fight the Storm demons at a disadvantage when, with incredible ease, I can bring us the power that will put them down forever."

The warrior folded his arms across his broad chest, and his right hand played with the leather strips hanging down from the hilt of the sword strapped across his back. "I know what you intend to do, and I praise it. However, you too must admit that to bring back those resting in the Necroleum at this time is wrong. Our father, Kothvir, is resting there, but he is incomplete. The other sorcerers say he can be made whole again—if he is not, you know he will not rise to lead us again. How can you even consider this course of action when he would not be returned to us?"

Vrasha hesitated as he recalled having once knelt before his father's enthroned corpse in the Necroleum. His father stared down at him with one good eye and a jewel-filled eye socket. The irony struck him that the Bharashadi power to return from the dead was as useful as his father's missing eye if the Fistfire Sceptre remained out of reach beyond the wall. That realization gave birth to his desire somehow to get his hands on the sceptre for the sake of his tribe, if not for the power it would give him.

"You forget, Rindik, that the Chronicles of Farscry say Kothvir's eye will return to him when the appropriate ritual is performed." Vrasha pressed his hands together and let his claws slowly slide from their sheaths at the ends of his fingers. "You interpret that to mean we must wait until his eye has been returned, but I see it as a prophecy whose blossoming I can hasten by taking action. You know Kinruquel would never grant us the power were we to leave Kothvir out of the resurrection."

The sorcerer drew the barbed dagger he wore bound to the upper part of his left arm. "You and I are of a blood. We share a destiny. Know that I will not abandon our father." His thumb caressed the slender line of stars on the knife's crosspiece. "Join me in my dream."

The warrior's ears flicked forward. "Your dreams are my nightmares, Vrasha. You are obsessed with this quest of yours. You do not realize the danger in which you place yourself. Think, Vrasha, you could be propelling yourself into an ambush. You know little of your allies from Wallfar."

Vrasha let himself laugh lightly at Rindik's suspicions. "They are of the Church of Chaos Encroaching. They have chosen to believe that men only come to know their full potential under the influence of Chaos." He thumped his own chest with a fist. "They even purport to believe we Chaos demons were once men who have been living in Chaos for far too long. Ha!"

Even Rindik could not suppress a laugh at that idea. "Foolish may be some of their beliefs, but they could still be waiting on the other side of the wall to capture you and sell you to their Emperor."

"Nonsense!" Vrasha waved a hand at his ramp tower and the strange sphere mounted at the top of it. "They have labored day and night to send through the wood we needed to build this ramp and my journeycraft. They have supplied us with the animals we have likewise needed, and they have reported on our earlier successes. Even so, they are pitifully stupid. While professing to worship Chaos, their cult holds its membership in thrall with the system of ranks endemic to Wallfar. This behavior proves them to be fools."

"And you trust them?"

"Trust? Trust? Never and a day, not in the least." Vrasha pointed toward the southeast. "They believe I will be coming through the wall a league or two in that direction. That was the site of our previous tests and the point at which they sent the cattle through. They are also expecting me to come through in a week or so. Going tonight means I will be in Herakopolis well before their Bear's Eve Ball."

He waved his half brother before him, resheathed his dagger, then headed toward the catwalk linking the bluff to the ramp. Below him Bharashadi swarmed over the tower to bind its pieces together and reinforce the whole structure with more wood and rope. Others walked along the ramp's surface and stained its wood dark with smears of beef tallow. Still others, on a platform at the very top, tugged on ropes and hauled dripping buckets ever upward.

Vrasha moved from the catwalk to a ladder, which he quickly scaled. Reaching the top, he waited for his bulkier, slower half brother to join him on the crowded wooden plateau. As he looked down he saw the gore-spattered ground below, where a dozen Black Shadows slaughtered cattle and filled buckets to the brim with steaming blood and claw-minced flesh. Up there, so near his journeycraft, the scent of blood nearly overwhelmed him.

Turning back, he watched Chademons pass bucket after bucket of meat and vitals up to the hide-bound wooden sphere he and his engineers had worked very hard to create. They had tested many bits of wood from Wallfar and settled for oak. It had been cut into thin strips, then laminated together to form a strong yet springy spherical skeleton for his journeycraft. Even dropping from the top of the tower to the ground would not break it.

Rindik nodded as he studied the sphere that was half again taller than his half brother. "So you have chosen to cover the sphere with the skin of freshly slain cattle. You said that offered one of the Tsvortu some protection?"

Vrasha nodded. "We bound him up in one or two, then swung him out on a rope. We know he survived the journey out because he worked a hand free and came back through clutching a tree branch from the other side."

"But he was dead when he swung back here, correct?"

"A minor concern. He was only Tsvortu. He did not know what was happening to him, so he died of fright." Vrasha's pupilless orb eyes became golden slits. "I have a mind, I have discipline, and I have a purpose. I will survive."

One of the blood-splattered Chademons knelt at Vrasha's feet. "Master, your journeycraft is filled to the point at which you must enter it."

"The skins are holding?" Vrasha looked past him and saw darkish liquid oozing slowly from the seams where the skins were bound one to another.

"Master, yes, they are. We are ready for you."

Vrasha nodded, and the Chademon rose to ascend some scaffolding to the top of the sphere. "It is time for me to leave, Rindik."

The warrior's hands balled into fists. "I cannot dissuade you?" Behind him, green lightning again stabbed through the maroon twilight sky. "I have need of you here."

"There is more need for me there, in Wallfar." He grabbed the scaffold's crossbar, and Rindik boosted him upward. "I will return, brother mine, with the Fistfire Sceptre, and then I will be able to fulfill all your needs."

"Farewell, Vrasha. You are the last broodchild sprung from Kothvir's loins. May your legend be as great as his."

"No"—Vrasha laughed boldly—"greater. My legend will be greater."

Turning his back to his brother, Vrasha crossed the upper scaffolding and came to the top of the leaking ball. One of the Chademons held out to him a snaky length of tubing that ran from inside the sphere to a pinched orifice in the sphere's flesh. Vrasha took it in his mouth and blew out hard. A thin mist of blood sprayed up out of a puckered blowhole. Breathing in and out several times assured Vrasha he would have enough air while sealed in the ball.

Another of his minions approached him from behind and had him lean his head back. As Vrasha did so, he closed his eyes. He felt wet warmth that seeped into the fur on his face as the Chademon pressed two lumps of cow flesh over his eyes, then bound them in place with strips of hide. Vrasha tried to open his eyes, found he could not, and nodded his satisfaction to the others.

As they had drilled many times, two Chademons eased their blind master forward and positioned his feet over the lip of the sphere's round hatchway. Moving his feet forward and back, Vrasha quickly measured the dimensions of the opening, then worked himself closer and lowered his feet into the ball. The liquid, sucking sound he heard as his feet sank beneath the surface excited him.

Unseen hands steadied him and guided his own hands to the opening's rim. Planting his palms firmly on the latticework, Vrasha took his full weight on his arms, then slowly lowered himself into the sphere. The thick, clinging soup dragged at his legs. It squished between his toes and soaked through to his skin as, inch by inch, he immersed himself in it. It washed up over his thighs and groin to his waist, then he pulled his hands away from the hatch edge and plunged in fully.

The viscous gel closed over his head, and, instantly, he felt panic. His hands flailed through the blood and entrails, but his motions only sent him lower, not up toward the opening. His head jerked back as his breathing tube grew taut, then he sucked in a breath. Concentrating on his breathing, forcing himself to inhale and exhale slowly, his mind overrode his desire to escape.

Thinking as little as possible about where he actually was, Vrasha reached out and felt through the blood and tissue for the harness that had been suspended from the sphere's cross bracing. By kicking his feet and drifting a little higher, he found it. Twisting around, he lowered himself into the leather seat, then tied the straps that would keep him in place during his journey around his chest and legs.

The sticky fluid wrapped him in a cocoon that deadened all sound from the outside world, save what little he could hear through the tube leading to his mouth. He marveled at how, sealed in a womb made of and filled with things from Wallfar, he would be reborn in that alien place. And through me will come the redemption of the entire Bharashadi race.

Prepared for anything and everything he thought his journey would provide, he barked out a harsh order that echoed through his breathing tube to the outside.

Distantly he heard a sharp sound, then felt a vibration ripple through the plasma. As his head started down, he reached out and grasped two of the cross braces. He felt himself slowly somersault forward the first time, then again with more speed. The sphere vibrated a bit side to side as it lumbered down the newer section of the ramp, then settled down as it hit the older portion.

Inside, Vrasha's mind clinically compared the sensations of his current journey with those of the days he had spent in the center of a giant wheel his minions had spun faster and faster. He had accustomed himself to the motion of rolling forward until it no longer made him dizzy, and he felt pride swell in his breast at his own foresight. Aside from the thunderous vibrations shaking him, being in the sphere felt exactly like being in the wheel.

Suddenly the globe shifted ever so slightly, and the rotations started him whirling at an angle. The harness kept him suspended in the middle of the sphere, but the new direction of stress threatened to pull one crosspiece loose. Faster and faster he spun, and wood screamed in protest. He could even begin to feel the sphere shift and become misshapen.

Vrasha slid his right hand along the crosspiece to its joint with another brace and sank his claws into both pieces of wood. I will not fail! The globe slowed almost imperceptibly, and suddenly he felt much heavier. I cannot fail!

Just as suddenly as the sphere had turned on its axis, the rumbling roar of his ride down the ramp ended. In an instant he realized he was airborne.

A heartbeat later he hit the Chaos Wall.

A net of razors ripped him apart. Millions upon millions of chiggers gnawed on his flesh with their steel teeth. Boring worms made of fire burned tunnels through his bones, and ice-winged wasps flew through the holes to build their frozen nests where their larvae could feast on his marrow. Each hair in his pelt became an agate needle that pierced his skin from the inside out.

His brain boiled within his skull. His eyes saw colors that did not exist, and his ears heard those same colors as the death screams of creatures yet unborn. Unable to think, left only to sensing, dread swallowed him, terror crushed him, and hopelessness ground him into nothingness.

A bone-blasting impact jarred him partway out of the nihilistic darkness closing over his being. In one second he felt pummeled as a shock wave bashed him from all sides, and the pressure closed a tight fist on him. Then, in the next, the closeness vanished, and he knew a moment's freedom as the ball bounced up. He could tell, from its lightness and speed, that the first impact must have ruptured the skin and sprayed the liquid from it.

The sphere turned over lazily and hit hard again. The stressed cross braces snapped and stabbed through the upper part of his right arm. He screamed aloud and yet louder as the sphere took to the air again and ripped the wood from the wound. He pulled his legs up and hugged his arms in, then waited for the earth to batter him one more time.

His journeycraft slammed into the ground, and the lattice gave way. Splinters peppered him, back and flank. The harness's straps snapped, and he pounded the ground a second after his broken vehicle, then lay stunned as it lazily rolled over and the hide collapsed on top of him.

The tingling weakness in his limbs distressed him at first. He remained very still and forced his mind clear. Slowly, in a deep voice that echoed within itself, even when whispering, he began to speak a spell. As he did so, a reddish gold aura surrounded him, and in seconds he had an accurate assessment of his wounds.

Aside from the hole torn in his right arm, he had not been damaged. Vrasha allowed himself a smile, and instantly banished the concern he felt over the draining effort required to sustain it. Flicking out the claws on his left hand, he sliced through the thongs binding him into the harness. Once he had freed himself from its confines, he slashed away the hides covering him and tore off the blindfold.

Kneeling amid the ruins of his vessel, he blinked blood from his eyes and looked up. He saw constellations gleaming in a black sky that no other Chaos demon had ever seen. He instantly forgot the pain in his arm and found a new energy begin to course through him. Cradling his right arm against his side, he forced himself to his feet and stood, bloody, battered, but not broken, in a world that had forever been denied to his kind.

Vrasha stooped and recovered a section of wood no longer than his forearm. With his claws he carved in it the runes for the message "I Live," then hurled it long and high back through the Chaos Wall.

"I live." He breathed the words out like a talisman against all possible evil. "I live, and everyone in Wallfar will soon learn to live in fear."

Chapter One

Here we go again!

I snapped my head to the right, flinging sweat from my eyes. The dagger in my left hand rotated spasmodically in time with my heaving chest. I held my rapier steady and pointed at my brother's throat, but I saw no fear in his bullock brown eyes. Poised on the balls of my feet, I waited for him as the afternoon sunlight glinted from his sword.

C'mon, Dalt. I know you. You're bigger than me. You hate waiting. He licked his lips and screwed his face into a fierce, angry expression. Sweat dripped down his chest and arms, coating him as it did me. His right toe inched forward through the barnyard dust, presaging the attack I had expected all along. The point of his rapier dipped abruptly, aiming at my left thigh. He lunged.

I let my sword point drop, then I pivoted on my right foot and slid back a half step. This pulled my body out of line with his lunge, which was enough to defeat his attack. Dalt, seeing my move, started to recover and looked surprised when I brought my right arm up and carried his rapier with it. As the blade came up to the height of my shoulder, I locked our hilts and stepped forward, ducking beneath his arm.

At least, that is what I meant to do. I had intended to twist his sword free from his grip, then whip my sword back across his unprotected flank, but he locked his wrist and used his incredible strength to prevent my move. His right knee caught me behind my left leg, driving me to my knees, then I felt the cool caress of his dagger on the side of my neck.

"You're dead, lambkin." Exultant, Dalt threw back his head and laughed.

His laughter died abruptly as an older, taller, more slender version of him chuckled aloud and approached the two of us. "And Locke has just guaranteed you will never sire any children." Geoff pointed down to where my dagger, the blade lying flat against the underside of my forearm, required only the lifting of my arm before it gelded him. "I think the last laugh would be his."

"Laughter sounds hollow from the grave." Our grandfather shook his head and looked quite disappointed at me and my brother. "Dalt, you are taller than Lachlan and have nearly six inches in reach over him. You should never have let him get in that close to you. And you, Lachlan, when will you learn that you are too small to play your strength against a larger, stronger opponent?"

I started to protest. "But, I thought the sweat would loosen his grip. He would not expect it …"

"Dalt has been trained by me, as have you. Do you let your hands get sweaty enough to have a blade twisted from them?"

I looked down. "No, sir."

Audin nodded solemnly. "I know you have heard heroic tales about your father or your uncle or the Valiant Lancers and the things they have done, but they are dead! They thought the same sort of thing you did. For every one of them that used an unusual move to gain fame, many died. I have taught you to be better than that."

"Yes, sir." I stood and walked off the field of combat, my face burning.

The slight breeze cooled me and made Grandfather's wispy white hair float. "Dalt, you have won the fight with Lachlan. Now you will face Geoff. Let me see that you two have learned your lessons better than your younger brother."

I laid my sword on the bench beside the water trough, then followed it with my dagger and sweat-soaked gloves. Bending over slowly to stretch out the muscle Dalt had kneed, I grabbed the edges of the trough and dunked my head full into the water. The cool water washed away the dust on my face and cooled some of the embarrassment.

I felt a hand on my back and came up with water dripping down over me. "Yes, Grandfather?"

Audin's brown eyes regarded me carefully. "Let me guess why you tried what you did with Dalt. You read about Driscoll dueling with the 'giant' of Port Chaos."

I nodded sheepishly. "He'd hit the man in the forearm and the blood and sweat had loosened the man's grip on his blade. Driscoll twisted the blade free, then stabbed him clean through his armpit. It should have worked against Dalt. I am better than he is."

The older man sat down on the bench. "You are ranked as an Apprentice and Dalt is ranked as a Sworder. He defeated you."

I held back because we had discussed this situation before. My grandfather, being the only Bladesmaster in Stone Rapids—and having owned his own sword school until about a dozen years ago—was the final arbiter of our rankings. If he decided, and he had, that I was not ready to progress from Apprentice to Journeyman or Sworder, nothing I could do would convince him. Especially failing at fancy tactics designed to shame your brother.

"I am sorry, Grandfather, you are right." I looked up at him and gave him a hopeful smile. "I should not have tried to emulate my uncle, especially when a bard's tale is the source of my inspiration."

"Do not err too far on the other side, Locke." The old man returned my smile. "Yes, the giant's blood and sweat did make his sword too slippery to be gripped well, but that is not what defeated him. Driscoll, though a tall man himself, recognized his disadvantage and got inside the giant's guard. You accomplished the same with your dodge of Dalt's lunge. You could have had him, if you had not tried to impress me with your audacity. And think, which would you prefer being, a living Apprentice who is cautious and victorious, or a dead Sworder who is sung of by bards?"

"The former, of course." I bowed my head and scraped mud from my chest with my left hand. I sat down beside Grandfather on the bench, perching on the edge so I would not put pressure on the muscle bruise Dalt had given me. Grandfather nodded at the other two so they could begin their combat. Though I knew who would win, something about how they moved and played against each other drew me in.

Dalt had Grandfather's powerfully built torso and thick legs. Making use of that strength, he favored attacks that beat the other fighter's blade aside or parries that numb a hand with their heaviness. More than once Dalt had used his size advantage to punish me in the process of defeating me. Even so, in doing that, he had forced me to learn how to avoid or counter exactly the sort of tactics he loved.

I pounded my right fist against my leg. I had you, Dalt. I had you, then let you get one step closer to the prize.

I knew Dalt would never be able to use those types of tactics with Geoff. The eldest of my brothers, Geoff, was long and lean—just the sort of person that could be formed by adding me to Dalt and splitting us in half. He was quick enough that he could lunge at a candle and snuff it, then resheathe his blade before darkness fell, or so it seemed whenever I had to face him. He formally held the rank of Warrior, but I think that was only because he refused to go to Garikopolis and become a Bladesmaster like Grandfather.

As Geoff circled Dalt slowly, I wished I was as tall and slender as he was. I would have died to possess even a fraction of Geoff's fluidity. I knew, just from watching him back Dalt around the yard, that I would never be his equal in swordsmanship. I might have been able to outride him or beat him at chess, but in single combat he did not have an equal in the yard.

Geoff lunged, and somehow Dalt managed to wrestle Geoff's rapier up into the air. Dalt twisted his wrist and locked their blades together, then both of their daggers came up and trapped each other against the swords. Face-to-face, toe-to-toe, the two of them stared at each other for a second, then Dalt set himself to use his strength against Geoff.

Geoff, smiling, brought his forehead down into Dalt's face. I winced as I heard something crack. Dalt reeled away, covering his face with his hands. Blood leaked through his fingers as he dropped to his knees and hunched over. Sputtered curses sprayed blood over the ground in front of him.

Geoff let Dalt's blades fall to the ground, then properly saluted Grandfather. "Master Audin, I have vanquished my foe."

Audin stood and patted Geoff on the shoulder. Turning, the Bladesmaster fixed me with a stare that filled my guts with ice. "Dalt lost in the swimming race, and he has lost here. He has forfeited any chance at the prize. Geoff, your choice of trials will end our contest. What did you choose?"

I swallowed hard, knowing Geoff's choice would make no difference—he would win and get to go to Herakopolis. Instead of making the decision required by the communiqué our grandmother, Evadne, had sent all the way from the capital, Grandfather had decided his grandsons would have a contest consisting of three trials. Each of us selected one area of competition and wrote his choice down on a small piece of paper. Audin had restricted us from choosing that which we knew we were best at, then all the choices had been put in a pouch, and Audin had selected the trials at random. Defeats in two of the trials put a contestant out.

I still considered it incredible luck that my choice of trial had been chosen first. I knew I needed something that would let me beat Dalt and give me a chance to defeat Geoff. I selected a swimming race because Dalt hates to swim, and I can go at a pretty good pace. As it turned out, I beat Dalt going away and would have lost to Geoff, but his leg cramped up in the last part of the race. He waded ashore after disqualifying himself, which put me in the unlikely position of having won a contest.

Dalt, optimistically believing lightning would strike and he would be able to beat Geoff, had selected swordfighting as his trial. I knew Audin would have forbidden Geoff to choose swordfighting as his contest, and suspected Dalt had been told he could not pick any test of strength. I had hoped Dalt would have been smart enough to stay away from Geoff's forte, but Dalt's ego often eclipsed his common sense.

I wonder what he chose? I just love being humiliated in new and novel ways. I toed a pebble out of the dust. Of course, it is possible he will have made Dalt's mistake. No, not possible. Geoff is smarter than Dalt, so he wouldn't lunge to my strength.

His sapphire eyes twinkling, Geoff smiled. "I selected chess."

"Chess?" I shook my head to clear my ears of any water they still had in them. "You chose chess?"

Geoff nodded, then met Audin's bemused stare calmly. "I assumed you would put us through our contests in rank order. As I am a Warrior, my contest would go first and Locke would destroy Dalt. I thought that would distract Dalt enough that he would be poor competition. As it turns out, by luck of the draw, Dalt fell to Locke in Locke's trial, and I obtained the desired result."

Audin accepted the explanation, but the tightness around his eyes told me that he did not believe it entirely. "It is a good thing that your leg recovered from its cramp before you had to fight Dalt."

Geoff's nostril's flared as he pulled his head up. "Bladesmaster Audin, if you truly believe I would deliberately set out to lose this contest, then you should disqualify me from the competition. Void my defeat of Dalt and let him play chess against Locke to determine who is the victor."

"You are definitely your mother's son." Audin smiled proudly. "You know Dalt would have no chance against him. If you cannot beat him, Locke and not you will escort your grandmother to the Emperor's Ball on Bear's Eve."

"I will do my best, Bladesmaster, as always." Geoff bowed and walked over to me while Audin crossed to Dalt and squatted down to take a look at his nose. "Come on, Locke. I will play the fly to your spider."

I shook my head. "This is one spider that knows the buzzing in his web could be a spiderhawk wasp just as easily as a fly."

"I could only hope." Geoff laughed as we both passed into the barn and over to the stall that had been remade into an armory. "This time, when we play, I want you to at least look at the board during the game. Do that for me, will you. Locke?"

I slid my rapier home in the bracket mounted on the wall. "You should have chosen 'self-effacement' as your contest, for you would have won handily with that."

The larger man dropped his dagger into the sheath hanging from a belt. "I did not, however, so now you have a chance at winning the prize Grandmother has offered us."

I smiled despite myself. Grandmother's message had said that she had been invited to attend the Emperor's Bear's Eve Ball and she had requested Audin to send one of her grandsons to act as her escort. While there would be celebrations throughout the Empire of Herak welcoming the new year, the Emperor's Ball was the largest and grandest party of them all. Though Grandfather had joked that Evadne had been invited just because she'd not yet had the good grace to die, we all knew she had to be someone of importance in the capital to be invited.

Suddenly fear made my mouth go sour. "Geoff, if I win, do you actually think he will let me go? I'm hardly the sort of person who should represent Cardew's family at such an important occasion."

Geoff clapped me on the shoulders. "What do you mean? You are more than fit to represent us. Grandfather has said it himself—he's worked us harder than he ever did our father or Driscoll when they were his pupils."

"But he had his own school back then, not just the three of us. Besides, he is always after me, berating me for failing when I do things the same as you or Dalt did at my age." My hands tightened down into fists as I folded my arms across my chest. "To hear him tell it, I'm incompetent enough to have doomed countless Imperial Legions in Chaos."

Geoff's hand snaked past my shoulder and grabbed me by the hank of my long, light brown hair. "You have to remember that he still wakes up with nightmares about his having failed Cardew and Driscoll. He has been tough on us because he does not want our blood on his hands. He's not had a moderating influence since Aunt Ethelin died, but I also think we have done better than even he dared dream. He would be proud to have any of us go to Herakopolis."

"How do you know?"

"He's letting the choice be made by this contest, isn't he?" Geoff arched a dark eyebrow. "He is letting us choose our own representative. If he were not happy with each of us, he would have made the choice himself."

"I think he thought you would win. You are more like father than Dalt or me. Even Dalt is large enough to command respect." I brought my left arm up and tensed my bicep into very modest muscle. "You have a hero's looks and skills, Dalt has a hero's strength, and I have, well, ah …"

"You have a hero's sense of reality. You have father's skill at training animals."

I shook my head. "Many heroes are lauded because their horses come when they whistle. Why, there must be a hundred bardic tales of such masterful feats."

"Blooded on first pass, but that's still a skill. Locke, you're already better at chess than our father ever was." Geoff cuffed me lightly on the back of the head. "Now do you want to have our game, or shall I claim victory by default?"

"Default? I'd sooner have to fight Dalt again." I led the way from the barn to the house and back into the little room Grandfather had set up as mine when my mother brought me to Stone Rapids from Herakopolis. A small room, the preponderance of books and scrolls and all manner of other treasure I had collected in my eighteen years barely gave me enough room for the tiny bed in the far corner. Geoff ducked his head beneath the wired-together skeleton of a bat hanging from the ceiling and removed a green toy wooden horse from a chair before seating himself.

"I can still remember when you dunked this thing in green paint." Geoff spun the wooden wheels connected by an axle running through the front hooves. "Mother and Aunt Ethelin were very angry when you pulled it through the house, leaving parallel tracks of green everywhere."

I shrugged and blushed. "At the time it seemed like a very sensible thing to do."

I took my place opposite him and moved the piles of books on the table from there to my rumpled bed. The newly cleared tabletop revealed an eight-by-eight, black-and-red checkerboard and a thin layer of dust where the books had not been.

"Chaos or Empire," I asked. Before he had a chance to answer, I slid the drawer open and started pulling out the pieces.

"Empire, I guess. I need all the help I can get." Geoff started reaching for the red pieces and began setting them up on their appropriate squares. "The Emperor on his own color, right?"

"Yes. Fialchar, on the other hand, is always black." I passed the Emperor while I put the hooded and cloaked figurine clutching a knotted staff in one skeletal hand on his square. "The Queen of Darkness goes next to Lord Disaster, then his Generals, his Wizards, and his Cavalry. Chademon Pawns go up front."

I slid the movestone over onto his side of the board. "Chaos, of course, goes second, so the movestone is yours."

Geoff moved the Emperor's Pawn forward two spaces, then pushed the movestone to me. "You did a good job carving a new Emperor."

"Do you really think so?" Carved from cedar, the Emperor piece represented a tall, slender young man whose brow was encircled by a crown. "Thetys V has only been on the throne for four months, but I thought I should go ahead and make one for him." I glanced toward the book-covered desk. "I did save the Daclones figure, though."

"Nothing wrong with that, Locke."

"Are you certain? You know the rhyme Ethelin used to say:

Fire and silver

Beat cold and night,

But try to avoid evil's sight.

When all is lost,

Brave heart have you,

And evil's thrall will then be through.

I should have burned it so no one can use it to work evil on the Emperor."

Geoff shook his head. "I think the assassins saw to it that the old Emperor is beyond much evilworking. What I want to know is how you can remember all those little things Ethelin used to say?"

I blushed. "I think she used to say them to me a lot more than you. That one I used to repeat to myself every time I became scared of you or Dalt or Grandfather or the night."

"I see. I wonder if saying something like that would help me win this game?"

Geoff fell silent as we went through a quick series of moves that developed the game from the opening to the midgame. I saw Geoff's moves become more tentative as things went along and knew my drive to open up the Empress's side of the board would be successful. I watched Geoff react to feints and successfully pinned one of his Generals in place to protect the Empress from a Cavalry charge.

Geoff moved the pinned General to set up an attack on my other Cavalry piece. He hesitated, then slid the movestone over to me.

I frowned. "You can take that back if you want to. If not, you lose the Empress."

"Here I tell you to watch the board, which is what I should have been doing." The Warrior frowned, then shifted his expression to a sheepish grin. "Bad luck on my part."

"Bad luck? You?" I shook my head. "You don't have to throw the game, Geoff. Don't you want to go to the Bear's Eve Ball?"

Geoff sighed. "First off, I'm not throwing the game. I made a mistake. I don't see the board the way you do. I never have, never will. I actually do have to look at the board, and even then I don't see everything. But, to answer your other question: No, I don't particularly want to go to the capital."

My jaw dropped open. "You don't? Just think of what you would see and whom you would meet!" I started pointing at various red pieces on the board. "You could meet the Emperor or his mother Dejanna, or the Imperial Warlord, Garn Drustorn, and …"

Geoff held up his hand to cut me off. "And someone would offer me a chance to join a sword school, or I'd be drafted into a group of Chaos Riders, or I'd be handed some commission in an Imperial Company."

"Don't you want that?"

"May not be fitting for Cardew's son to say so, but, no, I do not want that. I want to stay here and learn as much as I can from Grandfather."

"But you already know everything he can teach you. In Herakopolis you could learn from a Grandmaster."

Geoff's face darkened. "But I could not learn how to reopen Audin's school and make it great again."

All of a sudden I felt closer to Geoff than I had ever been before, and my respect for him increased incredibly. Geoff actually remembered our father and had started his sword training in the school Audin had run here in Stone Rapids. Three years after I arrived from the capital, when I became five years old and was due to start training, Audin had closed his school to make his grandsons his only students.

I swallowed hard. "You've seen it in his eyes, too, haven't you?"

Geoff nodded solemnly. "He had always planned for Cardew and Driscoll to come back from their time with the Valiant Lancers to continue his sword school. When they died he decided to train us so we would never succumb to those things that killed them in Chaos. Because he took no other students, his school has all but been forgotten, and it shouldn't be. Deep down, I know he still dreams of having his school continue, and I want to make that dream come true."

He folded his arms across his chest. "You and I have an alliance, little brother. I will see to it that his dream of having his school reopen is realized. I leave it to you to fulfill his dream of having another of his pupils praised by the Emperor for service as a Chaos Rider. Is this bargain acceptable to you?"

"You're a good swordsman, Geoff, and you will be every bit as much of a hero as our father. I think the course you give yourself is more difficult than the one you give to me." I looked down at my hands. "I want you to do what will be best for you."

"In that case, Locke, you will execute the Empress and put me out of my misery in what, five moves?"

"Four. You missed the Wizard fork."

"Always my bane." Geoff reached over and toppled the Emperor. "Locke, go, see the capital. Go meet the Emperor, and even dance twice with each of his sisters—once for you and once for me. Then come back and tell me all about it."

"You will have no regrets if I go in your place?"

"I might, I just might." He reached out and tousled my hair. "But I'll live knowing you're off having the adventures that will inspire whole legions of students to come to Audin's school again."