Kevin J. Anderson is the author of 165 novels, 56 of which have appeared on national or international bestseller lists; he has over 23 million books in print in thirty languages. Anderson has coauthored fourteen books in the DUNE saga with Brian Herbert, over 50 books for Lucasfilm in the Star Wars universe. He has written for the X-Files, Star Trek, Batman and Superman, and many other popular franchises. For his solo work, he's written the epic ; SF series, The Saga of Seven Suns, a sweeping nautical fantasy trilogy, "Terra Incognita," accompanied by two progressive rock CDs (which he wrote and produced). He has written two steampunk novels, Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives, with legendary drummer and lyricist Neil Peart from the band Rush. He also created the popular humorous horror series featuring Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I., and has written eight high-tech thrillers with Colonel Doug Beason.

Anderson holds a physics/astronomy degree and spent 14 years working as a technical writer for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is now the publisher of Colorado-based WordFire Press, a new-model publisher using innovative techniques and technologies to release books worldwide in print and eBooks. They have released over 300 titles. Anderson is also one of the founders of the Superstars Writing Seminar, which has been one of the premiere professional and career development seminars for writers. He is also an accomplished public speaker on a wide range of topics.

He and his wife, bestselling author Rebecca Moesta, have lived in Colorado for 20 years; Anderson has climbed all of the mountains over 14,000 ft in the state, and he has also hiked the 500-mile Colorado Trail.

Skeleton in the Closet by Kevin J. Anderson

The Princess Bride meets Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels

Join former scamp Cullin and his merry band of confidence men (and one liberated princess) as they put The Sting in the Middle Ages. With dreams of being a hero, or at least a storyteller, Cullin travels with Sir Dalbry, a washed-up knight in shining armor; Reeger, ready and eager for any part of the dirty work; and Affonyl, former princess, who wanted to study science and alchemy, rather than embroidery.

Together, they cross the land with one scam after another, concocting their own heroic deeds, preparing mock dragon heads, or selling kraken tusks and mermaid scales.

But when attempting to con King Longjohn, whose castle is supposedly bursting at the seams with treasure, the caper turns sour. The powerful Wizard-Mage Ugnarok and his army of ugly and muscular (if not too bright) orcs takes over Longjohn's castle, imprisoning the king, pillaging the halls, and carrying on with typical orc-like mayhem.

Cullin and his friends are trapped in the castle's labyrinth of secret passages, just trying to survive … or is this the opportunity for a grander scam than they have ever attempted before?

Orcs are terribly superstitious—you can't bash a ghost, after all—and it's like Die Hard in a castle, as Cullin, Affonyl, Reeger, and Dalbry set up a grand haunting that will scare off even the scariest orc army.



  • "Kevin J. Anderson is the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino."

    – The Daily Rotation
  • "Clever and funny, these would-be dragon slayers kick butt while making you laugh. A hilarious twist on fantasy quests. Can't wait to see it on the big screen!"

    – Shane Morris, cowriter of FROZEN
  • "Master storyteller Kevin J. Anderson is wickedly funny, deviously twisted and enormously satisfying."

    – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of the Joe Ledger series




In my drafty throne hall, the sound of a minstrel's lute brings back fond memories.

Traveling minstrels are the most efficient and cost-effective way of transmitting news in a medieval society. They go from tavern to tavern, singing songs of great heroes and legendary deeds. What better way to spread stories?

Over the years, I've commissioned many songs about my own exploits—King Cullin the Brave, King Cullin the Dragon Slayer. Some of them are actually true, although edited for content or revised to make them appropriate for family audiences.

Thanks to famed minstrels like Nightingale Bob, my daring exploits with Sir Dalbry, former princess Affonyl, and rough-and-tumble Reeger are popular among the great unwashed (which is a very large audience, since few people bathe). Yes, a singing minstrel with a harmonious lute always makes me smile.

Unless it is my son Maurice making the attempt.

The prince just doesn't have it in him. I wince at the dissonant twang of a string that brings to mind a whisker being pulled from a wet cat.

"No, no, My Prince!" groans his exasperated tutor, Nightingale Bob. "The second course, not the first one! Those are simply not the right notes." Bob moves Maurice's fingers to the proper placement and adjusts the quill plectrum in the lad's right hand.

Frustrated, Maurice glares at his lute. At fourteen, he has been pampered with princely indulgences, but knows very few practical skills. His pale brown hair is washed, primped, and curled in a way that will one day make maidens long to run their fingers through his locks. The young prince has studied the ballads, read courtly tales of adventure and romance, but he's only just begun to take an interest in music.

When Maurice pleaded to take lute lessons, his mother encouraged him … as she encourages every other momentary passion he finds. I am, however, familiar with my son's fleeting interests and his lack of talent, so I declined to buy him the expensive professional-model lute he drooled over in the music store. I told him to be content with a practice lute from the secondhand shop.

Good thing.

Seated on a stone step in front of my throne, Maurice scowls at the strings. He has a narrow face and features made for showing angst. He paws at the strings in his struggle to find a tune.

Nightingale Bob's face pales with dismay. Maurice tries to make up for the jangle with increased exuberance, until he is not so much strumming the lute as flaying it.

At least it's better than the time he insisted on learning to play the accordion.

Nightingale Bob, a highly paid and expert minstrel, changes the boy's finger positions again. At least Maurice isn't inclined to give up. That makes me proud.

"It never hurts to prepare for alternative employment, Son," I say from my seat on the throne, "in case your situation dramatically changes."

He blinks up at me. "How would it dramatically change? I'm the royal prince."

"What if, say, orcs were to invade the kingdom, and you were forced to flee into exile? Skill with the lute would prepare you to work as an itinerant minstrel—a very respectable profession," I say.

My son responds with a serious nod. "Yes, the oldest profession."

He's a good kid, but he's very naïve for fourteen.

After more atonal minutes, Nightingale Bob has cringed enough for the day. He stands with strained patience. "Keep working on it, my Prince. Practice your chords." The minstrel slings his professional lute over his shoulder and bows to me. "Sire, I have done all I can. If he devotes his life to practice, practice, practice, he will become a princely minstrel someday."

"Thank you for your effort, Nightingale Bob. I always enjoy your music." I cock an eyebrow. "Maybe you could write a few songs about the prince's golden singing voice?"

The professional minstrel is uneasy, and his voice quavers. "But we haven't even begun singing lessons, Sire!"

I rest an elbow on the arm of the throne. "Perhaps it's best not to overextend ourselves, but a catchy ditty about the boy's prowess would be much appreciated."

Nightingale Bob lowers his voice, all business now. "Same rate as for songs about your own exploits, Sire?"

We negotiate a discounted price, because Prince Maurice doesn't have the legendary status I do, but I sweeten the deal by commissioning an additional work-for-hire ballad about some other adventure of mine. I give him carte blanche to follow his muse.

Before he goes, the minstrel looks up at the battered, ugly dragon head hanging on the wall behind my throne. "Aye, that was a tremendous beast, Sire."

"And certainly a tremendous story," I say with a sigh. "Those were the days."

The stuffed reptilian beast was recently refurbished by the kingdom's best taxidermist. I consider it true art, even if the critics don't appreciate preserved monsters as a decorative style. Based on past experience, I hold a low opinion of art critics.

Maurice regards the dragon head on the wall without interest while fiddling with the strings of his practice lute. He's seen the trophy all his life and heard all my stories about the dragon business. Noticing his interest (or lack thereof), I lean forward on the throne. "Son, if you want to be a true minstrel, you need to know plenty of tales for the finest inns and taverns."

"I plan to play only love songs," says Maurice.

The minstrel takes advantage of the distraction and scurries away.

"Love songs!" I sneer. "You think the bawdy tavern clientele at the Scabby Wench want to hear love songs?"

The boy pouts. "But they're sweet. Someday I'll use romantic ballads to woo my lady fair."

"I'm a king, and you're a prince—we can arrange a lady fair whenever you want one." I lean forward with great intent. "Did I ever tell you about the time I traveled with a two-headed dragon?"

Maurice sniffs. "There's no such thing as a two-headed dragon."

I shrug. "Not so long ago, you insisted there was no such thing as dragons at all. Now you're an expert about how many heads they can have?" I raise a finger. "But there is such a thing as stories—you can't argue with that."

The prince shifts his lute aside. "What does a story have to do with dragons?"

"Everything. Not all stories have dragons, but the good ones do. Now, let me tell you. Back in my younger days, I wandered the land in search of fame and glory."

"I thought you always traveled with Sir Dalbry and Reeger," the prince says.

"This is just a solo adventure, when I was on a break."

"A side story?" Maurice frowns. "Because it doesn't fit well with the continuity?"

"It's a fine tale regardless. I was seeking treasure and adventure, sowing my wild oats …"

"You wanted to be a farmer?"

As I said, he's very naïve, even for fourteen.

"Far to the north, a king's devastated outer wastelands were being ravaged by a horde of lava monsters from a nearby erupting volcano, and he feared they would invade the rest of his lush and fertile kingdom. So I answered a classified ad to go confront the fiery beasts."

The prince narrows his eyes. "But there are no volcanos in the kingdom, according to my geology tutor."

"As I said, it was in the volcanic regions to the north, with mudpots and fumaroles," I say, then quickly continue. "But if the monsters advanced, they could cause a great deal of damage to noble estates, the green orchards and farmlands, and some of the kingdom's best golf resorts. Something had to be done! But, considering the strength of the fiery horde, I knew I couldn't face them alone."

Maurice grins. "Is that where you brought in Dalbry and Reeger?"

I feel a little embarrassed. "No, I told you this is a stand-alone adventure. Actually, I joined up with a down-and-out two-headed dragon who was looking for some contract work. The poor dragon had two dry throats and a fondness for ale, so they'd spent their entire treasure hoard draining the kegs at the local brewery. I offered to pay them as extra muscle when I fought the lava beasts."

"Them?" The prince is full of questions. "You said it was one dragon."

"Yes, but two heads, so the dragon used they/them pronouns. The heads were named Ee and Orr, but better names might have been Manic and Depressive."

"A dragon with personality, then?"

"A split personality, but their moods balanced each other out. Ee and Orr debated, but both agreed they were thirsty, so off we went, with the promise of refreshing ale afterward.

"The monsters and the erupting volcano had devastated the terrain, but so far they'd made no move to cross the nearby river. When I saw the size of the fiery, lumbering army and felt the scalding temperature in the air, I realized I didn't want to be cooked like an egg in my armor! Even with the two-headed dragon as backup, I doubted we could vanquish the entire horde. That's when I remembered pertinent advice from my old friend Sir Dalbry—that evacuation is often the best plan. I considered running off to a nearby tavern with an outdoor biergarten that could accommodate a large two-headed dragon with a powerful thirst."

Maurice's surprise is clear. "You were just going to leave a job unfinished? The Knight's Manual strongly advises against that."

"Indeed, and I was very chivalrous." Also, I needed the money the king was offering, and I had to pay Ee and Orr.

"So, I devised a super-weapon, something that would strike fear in the lava beasts."

The young man's eyes are sparkling. "A super-weapon? Like a giant catapult? Or an enormous ballista?"

I lean closer to whisper, "A horse trough!"

He seems disappointed, but he's listening.

"We approached so that I could shout a request to negotiate, and that's when I learned that lava beasts have temperaments equivalent to their temperature. They hurled flaming blobs of fire at us. Fortunately for us, their aim was terrible.

"It was time to deploy the super-weapon."

"The horse trough?" Maurice is clearly skeptical.

"The horse trough!" I say. "The dragon carried it in their claws, filled it from the nearby river, and flew overhead, pouring the entire load of water onto one of the shambling magma demons. In a gush of steam and conflicting temperatures, the lava beast hardened instantly, while waving a blocky fist at us—then it shattered into lumps of rough lava rock!

"Ee was gloomy and depressed, Orr crowed with triumph and swooped away as other lava monsters hurled vengeful fireballs into the air. When the two-headed dragon returned with a second load of water, I shouted again to the leader of the flaming beasts.

"Now that we'd opened a dialog, I could express my employer king's concerns about the devastation to his lush and fertile lands. I was pleased to learn that the lava beasts loathed anything moist and green, and they particularly hated streams of running water. They had no intention of moving, whatsoever.

"So, as the two-headed dragon flapped in place overhead with the threatening trough of river water, I brokered a peace settlement. It's always best to negotiate from a position of strength. The flaming monsters promised to remain in their devastated lands and avoid the rest of the kingdom. It was a win-win situation—and I certainly won, because afterward the king was delighted with our hard-fought outcome. (I didn't tell him the monsters considered the rest of his kingdom to be an unpleasant eyesore.)

"So, fully funded again, Ee, Orr, and I did indeed go to a tavern with a large outdoor biergarten and celebrated until most of the reward was spent."

Maurice is not convinced, but I give him a meaningful nod. "I keep that lump of lava rock on display in the dining hall as proof. You've seen it."

"That only proves you once found a lump of lava rock."

"Indeed!" I am glad to see his gullibility has its limits. "There are other stories, Son—adventures, derring-do, treasure and treachery! I even know some stories that don't have dragons. How about one with ghosts, for instance?"

The prince's expression twists as if he's just sniffed strong artisanal cheese. "There's no such thing as ghosts."

I sigh. Do we have to do this again? "Ghosts are what you make of them. Better yet, ghosts are what you make other people believe! Sit back, Son. Let me tell you about the time I haunted a castle and overthrew an evil orc army."

I chuckle to myself as I get warmed up.

Chapter 1

Riding at the head of the group, Sir Dalbry cut a dashing figure in his suit of armor and scaly cape, which he claimed was from the hide of a dragon. The old knight sat tall in the saddle as they all rode into Queen Amnethia's capital city.

From behind, Cullin couldn't see much more than the horse's ass in front of him—not referring to the seasoned knight, but the actual rear end of Dalbry's mount, Drizzle. The horse had seen better days, as had the old knight. The gelding was gray with black speckles, but Dalbry insisted that his steed was purest white beneath the stains, because a brave knight deserved a white steed. The name Drizzle had been from the dregs of names, after other horses had used all the more dramatic weather-based monikers, such as Stormy, Lightning, and Thunder.

Behind the brave knight, young Cullin rode a pony named Pony, followed by an old mule (which had thus far eluded being named) bearing Reeger, who scratched his armpit and adjusted his burlap jerkin. For the past hour, Reeger had complained about saddle sores, but at least that was a much-improved conversation from previous descriptions of his hemorrhoids.

Reeger shifted the long, wrapped parcel tied to the mule's saddle. "Rust! We haven't been able to sell our story in the last three kingdoms. What makes you think Queen Amnethia will buy it?"

Dalbry didn't turn around, partly because his plate armor provided little swivel ability. "Obviously, we will have to be more convincing."

Reeger spat a wad of phlegm to the side. The mule grimaced with distaste. "I always do my best."

He unwrapped the flap of the package to expose the basis for their current con—a bleached whale rib that had washed up on the distant coast. Cullin and Reeger had cleaned the long bone, sharpened the point, then glued scavenged sharks' teeth along the edge. The unnatural and terrifying "kraken tusk" inspired gullible onlookers to imagine the nightmarish sea creature.

"I've heard that Queen Amnethia has problems with her short-term memory," said Dalbry. "That might make her more amenable to hiring our services."

"So long as she doesn't forget to rustin' pay us," Reeger grumbled.

"All in good time." The knight reached into a small leather sack at his side and drew out a dried apricot. Dalbry's magic sack of apricots never grew empty, because he remembered to buy more dried fruit whenever his supply ran low.

"I've been working on my mournful expression," Cullin said. "It's sure to make the queen more sympathetic."

"I've seen the lad practice," Reeger said. "Even been coaching him. He's got the disgusted grimace down pat, too."

Cullin offered one of the well-practiced grimaces, and Reeger nodded in approval.

He wished that pretty Affonyl could be riding with them, but the former princess had gone ahead to secure a vendor stall in the royal flea market, and she was busy making a few honest coins. Extravagant cons might earn extravagant payoffs, but consistent money kept a quail or two on the cookfire.

Cullin had once practiced his mournful expression for Affonyl, who wasn't impressed. She said he was much better at the "lovestruck mooncalf" expression, but he didn't know what she meant.

Approaching the outskirts of the city, the three riders took on their roles. The queendom was landlocked and far inland, with crops and grazing meadows, forested hills, and mountains in the distance. The ocean was a distant rumor, and that allowed Dalbry, Reeger, and Cullin to embellish their seafaring stories, and few would contradict them.

The castle stood on a rise, an architectural hodgepodge of thin towers and blocky battlements, defensive parapets and airy balconies. Renovations had changed the style over the centuries to fit the sensibilities of successive administrations. Judging from the colorful displays along the main road up to the castle, Amnethia's preference tended toward petunias. Her predecessors might have left a permanent legacy by building new wings or parapets, but this queen wanted to be remembered for her flowerbeds.

As pedestrians, farmers' carts, and noble carriages filled the town streets during the afternoon rush hour, Reeger wrapped up the kraken tusk again. Sir Dalbry raised a gauntleted hand and gestured up the steep road. "Ride ahead to the castle, Cullin. Announce our presence and tell the queen she should prepare to be amazed."