Sunday, January 21, 2018

I'm Back!

  I know my subscribers were few, but for those of you who knew of The Rantings Bookworm before, I'm Back! For those of you who didn't, please allow me to re-introduce my blog. This is a blog about books, my (and your) love for books, and any book related rants, babblings and reviews I feel like posting. I stopped posting a few years back due to life just not letting me, but I'm back now and plan many fun blog posts for 2018.

  To give you an idea of the type of books I read and review here I have devised a rough list of generes you can expect to see. Please realize this is a general idea of what to expect and it is completely possible to see book topics and reviews for books from a non-listed genere.

* Paranormal \ Supernatural
* Paranormal \ Supernatural Romance
* YA (usually of the paranormal \ supernatural bent)
* Science Fiction
* Classics (such as: Dracula, Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, etc.)

* Anything about animals ( this applies to the FICTION category too)
* Science
* History

  Hope that helps you decide if this blog could be of interest to you. You can also check out my past blogs to see if you might like hanging around for more. Be aware, they are only an idea of what i write here, I plan to expand on this blog and make it more fun this time round. I'm hoping to do a few blogs a month. This is is my first post for 2018 and I hope to get one more in before the months end.

  Also, my next author review, wether it be at the end of January or beginning of February will be a review of two books from my favorite YA author Merry Brown. I have reviewed and interviewed her in the past about her two YA book series. I just finished book two of both series and plan to share a few thoughts on it with anyone willing to listen. Feel free to check out the my past blog entry about Merry Brown and her books at:

  Finally, I will also have a FB page open to help make everyone aware of all new blog entries from me and to simply post fun book related memes. So, if you are interested in seeing more from me, please add The Ranting Bookworm FB page:

  I'm very excited and hope to see a few of you there. Thanks for your time.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What I'm Reading Update: 10-16-14

    I told everyone that I would have more posts like this & here it is, #2 in What I'm Reading. This is an update since I'm still reading some & I've finished others. First, I would like to mention that today has been my best day to date for page views, 78 total page views. I would like to thank everyone who has helped me do this, the authors who share my blog on their pages & the people who re-tweeted me on Twitter. I would also like to thank the readers, everyone who took the time & interest to read my silly posts. I'm new to blogging & stuff like this means a lot to me. Now on to the topic of this post. Last post like this I explained the categories of what I read & why. Those categories were: something from the stack of books I won from Goodreads, a pick from my online book club All About Animals, a suggestion from my best friend Amy who sends me books to read, &, last but not least, a personal book selection, something I read just because I want to. For those who've been following all my posts, you'll remember that I mentioned in a later post that I failed to mention a category, I know, a fifth, how can I read so many? Well, that was also discussed in my last post like this, but for those who didn't read it let me remind everyone the how & why I do this. I feel reading is like watching TV & who likes to watch the same thing all day or even all week, so, I liven things up by reading multiple books at the same time. I try & read at least a minimum of 10 pages before I pick up another book, but sometimes I read more before I tire & have to read something different. Now that I've made that clear again, lets proceed. The fifth category is an eReader pick. I win a lot of great books in digital form from & sometimes authors are just nice enough to share their books with me this way in exchange for an honest review. Since I've so many to read I have to make it a fifth category or I'd never get them read. Now I've got all that out of the way, lets proceed with the fun part, the books. In this post I will share with you the books I've finished since last time, the reviews I wrote for them, what I chose to fill the empty category & finally what my eReader choice is. I hope you enjoy this post & if you have any comments or books you'd like me to read please feel free to mention them in the comments part of this page.

    Lets review, I was reading Wicked by Gregory Macguire for the personal pick. I was also reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon for Amy's suggestion. I am still reading them & they are good, but my focus was kind of on the other two categories this past month. The two I finished were Travels With Casey by Benoit Denizet-Lewis for my Book club selection & The Curse of the Thrax by Mark Murphy for my Goodreads win choice. And I loved both of them tremendously. So much so I had difficultly putting them down, hence the other 2 books not being close to done. Let me share with you my thoughts on these books and then I will share my fifth pick at the end.


Travels With Casey
by: Benoit Denizet-Lewis

    For anyone who doesn't know about this book yet or those who haven't read my other write up on Travels With Casey, let me try & sum it up. The author, an assistant professor of writing & writer for The New York Times Magazine has also written a few books, including his latest Travels With Casey. His latest book was an idea that came to him when he not only wished to understand Americas obsession with their dogs, but also wanted to strengthen his relationship with his dog, Casey. Benoit, as silly as it may sound, always feared his dog didn't love him as much as he wanted &, if  given the choice, would rather live with someone else. So, to remedy this problem & study our cultures obsession with dogs, he packed Casey & himself up in an RV & hit the road for four months. During this four month journey he traveled the US & spoke to every type of dog person you could imagine. He explored shelters, Indian reservations, people who've made the news with their dogs, new things like Doga (yoga for dogs), & he even visited Cesar Milan. It doesn't stop there though, he visited ranchers, conventions & wolf/ dogs. I can't possibly list everything, it would take too much time, but this is only the tip of the doggy iceberg that Benoit explores. Check out my review, which can also be found on Goodreads.

Review of Travels With Casey
 by The Ranting Bookworm
    This book was fantastic. Benoit Denizet-Lewis went the whole 9 yards & more when it cam to fulfilling his goal of traveling around the U.S. in a motor home with his dog meeting the dog-lovers of our country. I felt like I was a part of his journey & I didn't want it to end. Benoit has a way of writing that makes you feel like a close friend, like the two of you are siting down to a drink & a chat. There were times that almost brought me to tears, but more often then not I laughed. Much of the authors writing was done with an appropriate sense of humor which I believe was needed for the long trip & many heart wrenching situations he had to deal with & came across in his journey. Benoit also peppered the book with all sorts of great dog facts & quotes I never knew existed until I read his book. I don't have a dog, but I love all animals & I loved this book. Dog-lovers & animal-lovers alike will enjoy this book. Even people who think they know all there is to know about dogs can find enjoyment & learn something from this book. I read a lot of books about dogs & dog training & anything related to the subject of dogs & with all that knowledge I still had fun reading this book & learned a lot when I thought I couldn't possibly learn anything new. I would happily read anything else this author writes & I hope he decides to write more dog related literature in the future, perhaps he can update us on Rezzy, a new dog he found during his journey, & his relationship with Casey. If you love animals and or if you love dogs, then I suggest you find a copy of Travels With Casey & read it. 


The Cure of The Thrax
by: Mark Murphy

    This was my selection for books to read that I won on Goodreads & I'm glad I won it, because as I've pointed out, I probably wouldn't have picked it up initially based on the cover. I know this is a horrible thing for someone as well read as I am to say, since we should "never judge a book by its cover". Still,  I believe, 
I'm not the only one to fall victim to falsely judging a book by its cover, I believe it can happen to the best of us. Thankfully I won it, it may have taken me a while to get to the point where I wanted to read it, but when I did I fell immediately in love with it. Anyway, I got lucky enough to get the author to stop by & do an interview with me & also give us a preview on the next book in his Bloodsword Trilogy, which this book is a part of. All of that can be seen an read in my last post titled: Interview With Author Mark Murphy. Also feel free to check out Author Mark Murphy's Web Page where you can check out what else he's written & what he's up to. For those of you who've already read my last post with Mr. Murphy & or those who want to wait to read it, I'll just post my review below. This review can also be found on Goodreads, Amazon , Barnes & Noble, &

Review of The Curse of the Thrax
by The Ranting Bookworm
     If I had to describe this book in one sentence I might say this, " The Curse of the Thrax is an original, smartly paced, YA Dystopian Fantasy & I want more". Thankfully, I have more than enough room here to go into more detail than that. 

    Mark Murphy has created a fun new world that I will bravely say is in the same league as Hogwarts. The genre it's written in is a fascinating combination of Fantasy & Dystopian, something I've never seen before. Perhaps I'm a bit naive when it comes to the whole dystopian genre, but I've never seen it combined with dragons, mythical creatures of all sorts, & "magic" that's actually more of a combination of science & mystery than what is commonly thought of as real magic. I personally would label it as Dystopian-Fantasy, perhaps it sounds a bit contradictory to some, but my label slowly reveals itself as you work your way past the first chapter or two. I don't want to giveaway any spoilers, but I will try & paint a quick picture as to why you should read Mr. Murphy's first novel in what is called The Bloodsword Trilogy. It is what I would call a YA novel, but just like Ms. Rowling's books, I feel it can appeal to a much wider & older audience than just YA community. 

    The first chapter is a bit slow, but only so Mr. Murphy can ease you into the world he's created & introduce you to our young heroes, Jaykriss (14yrs) & Marda (16yrs). No worries though, after the introductions & everything else has been introduced to the reader the story takes flight & your feet barely touch the ground until the last page is read. I was hypnotized by the world the author created & enjoyed slowly understanding the mysteries of a world that was surprisingly familiar, and I stress the word FAMILIAR, once some of its secrets are revealed. Jayykriss & Marda live in a rough Medieval type world where the young aren't as young as the young of our world & must help provide for their family in ways that children aren't expected to in a society like ours. Not far into the book the two main characters find themselves thrust into a hero's quest or an odyssey of sorts. While the story yo-yo's from young men having troubles with school work & girls to battling dragons & looking for lost cities & weapons, I feel nothing happens without good reason & it's all done rather smoothly.

     The book is rather large, 317 pages, but I think it's about time authors write good meaty stories for people under the age of 21. Still, as a 36 year old, I fell in love with the characters & the world the author created. Somehow Mark Murphy found a way for me to feel for the character in way that not many authors are always able to do. I felt myself wanting what the character wanted & simply put, sympathizing with the character in every way. There wasn't anything Jaykriss did that I felt was out of character. Now that the story is done, all I can feel is anticipation for the next book in the trilogy. I know this is a trilogy I will read over & over & weep for when the last page of the last book is written, it's certainly a world I don't want to see the end of.
    Still don't take my word for it, please read it yourself see how awesome Mark Murphy's The Curse of the Thrax is.

    So, what have I replace these two books with? 

    For my book club choice I've picked War of The Whales by Joshua Horwitz. So far it's a wonderfully written book that not only teaches us about the whales of our ocean, but tells the story of the whale researchers & an environmental attorney who discover & not only have to prove that the navy is doing dangerous sonar tests that are beaching many endangered whales & dolphins, but must also try to stop the tests all together. The story is beautifully narrated, taking us from the first time scientist Kevin Balcomb noticed there was a serious problem, to him asking for help in understanding what was causing the animals to act against their natural instincts. Currently, this is as far as I've read the book. One of the things I really liked was the prologue, which explains how humans have slowly endangered the whales & their habitats throughout history, I thought was lovely. The prologue is written rather poetically & sets the stage for the rest of the story. Another thing I'm enjoying is how each chapter begins with a fine hand-drawn picture of a different whales & their corresponding names. The story is a little known problem that needs the publicity that the  book is giving it. Actually, anyone who has seen the Mermaid hoax that was shown on Animal Planet may have already heard about the navy doing sonar testing. Though the mermaids & the the scientists in the show were made up , whoever created the show must have heard about the naval sonar issue & used it in their story. I say this because, if you subtract the mermaids, it's almost exactly what is going on in the book. I'm only 28 pages in so far, but the author has me feeling like I'm there, experiencing the events, fighting to keep the whales alive, & searching for answers. Anyone who likes animals or simply understands the importance of protecting the whales & sea creatures, needs to read War of the Whales.


    For my Goodreads win, I chose to read Scott Shepard's Descending Son. This was a book I won quite a while back, but it took so long for me to get, due to the book being shipped to the wrong place, that I lost interest in even picking it up once it got here.  In an attempt to clear out some of the older books I won I picked it up again & am currently on my way to finishing it. Originally I thought this might be a good read because part of the storyline is supernatural & it eventually leads us to the Mexican jungle. With my ancestry being part Mexican, I always find anything about Mexico fascinating. So, the two things, Mexico & the supernatural, really had my interest. The author is also a producer & among his many credits are shows like "Miami Vice" & "Quantum Leap", but the ones that really have me excited are "Haven" & "Dead Zone". Haven & Dead Zone are based on Stephen King novels & are two of my absolute favorite shows, so, I think, I figured that I couldn't go wrong with someone who helped produce & write for two of, what I consider, the best shows on television. The book does starts out kind of slow & though I'm 100 pages in I have yet to see anything supernatural or the Mexican jungle. Obviously that doesn't mean it's not in there, the book is 466 pages long & I'm only on page 112. Perhaps the things I've been anxiously waiting to read will show up in the next 100 pages. Two things I do like about the book so far are the authors familiarity with the area he's writing & how he's telling the story. The book starts out in California, Los Angeles to be exact, and not long after the story starts, we're taken to Palm Springs where the character grew up. I use to live in southern California, San Diego & Los Angeles, and I can tell the author has not only lived there as well, but fully understands, & I kind of get the feeling that he kind of loves, the area he's writing about. He gives so much detail to what the city & desert are like, that even if you haven't lived there before, you should finish reading the story feeling like you've been there, even if you've never stepped foot outside your house. The second thing I like is the way he wrote the book. It definitely feels like someone who deals with & writes a lot of television scripts. The layout of the book kind comes across like a TV or movie script, but I don't think it hurts the book, I just feel like I'm watching a show rather than reading. I also feel like the action is just barely getting ready to show it's self. I say this because the first 112 pages has mainly been about getting to know the characters & some of their back-story. The main character is only just now starting a fact finding mission to understand what he believes to be the mysterious death of his father & one of his fathers former employees. I'm really hoping that the story will start to pick up speed soon, but that remains to be seen. I'll let you know how that all goes once I'm finished with it & write another one of these posts. So, until then, I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that it lives up to the standards of some of the shows the author works on.


    Finally, I promised to tell you what book I planned to read in my eReader category. Well, I browsed through & though I've many eBooks & hated to pick just one, I made a decision.  Save My Soul (book 1) by K.S. Haigwood, & though I hate to admit it, part of my decision was made due to the fact that the author was giving away a free copy of her book & said she would do an interview with me once I finished reading it. I have yet to start it, but it does have a nice cover & it has a fabulous combination of death, angels, soul-mates. So, hopefully in the near future, I'll not only have a review of it for the next What I'm Reading post, but I'll also have another author Interview with K.S. Haigwood.

    So, that's it for tonight. I hope I introduced you to some new & interesting books. Just so you know, aside from a possible future interview with K.S. Haigwood, I'll probably have an interview with Goodreads All About Animal founder & author Barb A. Foley before Ms. Haigwood's interview. If anyone has any topic ideas I'm open to suggestions. So until my next post, I would like to encourage everyone to take a risk a read one book you might normally pass by. I pose this challenge in honor of Mark Murphy's fabulous new book The Curse of the Thrax. And may you be able to share your love for books with both friends & family . TTFN!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Interview with Author Mark Murphy

Today's Guest Author
Mark Murphy

    Welcome back everyone. I decided to surprise the few followers I have with a back-to-back author interview, due to popularity of the post type & the fact I had another ready to go. Today's author is Mark Murphy, a talented writer from birth who also loves science. The two interests at war with each other caused him to become a doctor after changing his majors 3 times from journalist to Zoology to medical doctor. Mr. Murphy has been a doctor since 1988, but says that he's been a writer his entire life & it it shows. 

    After wanting to write a novel for many years, even before college, he's finally written two. The first one is written for an adult audience. It was published in 2012 & is titled The Shadow Man. I haven't had the honor to read it  yet, but after reading his second book, published this year, I can say with confidence that he's a writer I want to read more of. His second book was actually one of the books I spoke about in a previous post titled What I'm Reading: 8-20-14, feel free to check it out to see my thoughts on it before I finished reading it. The book is titled The Curse of the Thrax & while it is labeled as a YA  book, it is definitely a book that Fantasy loving, Dystopian enjoying adults can appreciate as well. I will place one word of warning about it, I was less then thrilled with the cover art & almost didn't give it a chance because of it. I know a well read reader such as myself should know better than to" judge a book by its cover", but even the best of us slip & at the same time a good cover can help steer an audience to read the story within. Unfortunately, I feel the cover for this book failed to do that for Mr. Murphy. It is a hand drawn picture of someones idea of what the characters look like & though the interpretation doesn't bother me it's the style of drawing, it seems to speak more to a Middle Grade audience rather than a YA/Adult audience. I hope my guest author doesn't take offense to this opinion, but I do know I'm not alone in being slightly off -put by the cover art & felt it best to warn others that might have the same inclination that I had. Cover aside, the actual book is a fabulous piece of literature that I don't want the world to miss out on just because of a silly minority that might "judge a book by its cover". Moving on, I started The Curse of the Thrax with doubt &  by the time I finished it I wanted more & didn't want to put it down. Please see below for pictures & links to his books on Amazon, along with my review of The Curse of The Thrax which I will then follow up with a Q&A with Mark Murphy & a small surprise at the very end of this post.

Synopsis as written on Goodreads:

    Savannah surgeon Malcolm King had a perfect life--a loving wife, devoted daughter, and a thriving medical practice. But when a random airport parking lot hit-and-run links him to a dead body in a Florida hotel and an acquaintance is found dismembered and stuffed into a garbage bag, Malcolm finds himself on the run as a suspected serial killer. But he's no murderer. Or is he?
Who is the mysterious Thin Man who lurks at the edges of his vision? Are the ravens that crowd the skies overhead a warning of impending doom--or do they exist at all?

    With the help of Seminole tracker Billy Littlebear, Malcolm tries to untangle the web of clues left behind by a mysterious chameleon-like killer known as the Shadow Man. But will he be too late? The Shadow Man is a complex, atmospheric thriller in the tradition of Stephen King. Darkly evocative and relentless in its twists and turns, it dares the reader to put it down--even for a minute.

Amazon link to purchase a paperback copy of of The Curse of the Thrax.

Synopsis: written by The Ranting Bookworm
    This story revolves around 14 yr old Jaykriss & his eyes being opened to the world he lives in. Jakriss's world, Godswood, appears to be a Medieval one ruled by a Dark King & priests. It starts after the death of Jaykriss's father, Godswood's War Chief, who fell after after a run in with the Thrax, a dragon of sorts. Jaykriss & his friend/ cousin Marda,16 yrs, help supply food for their families since both theirs fathers passing's & go to school like any other kids their age. After a run in with the same creature that took Jaykriss's father they meet a hermit by the name of Zamarcus who allows them refuge from the Thrax. This chance meeting changes Jaykriss's world, for Zamarcus opens the young boy's eyes to the world around them, showing them things aren't what they seem or what they were taught. This eye-opening encounter is just the beginning of what will change their life forever. For Jaykriss is more important than he realizes & soon travels to the ancient Dead City, with Marda & Zamarcus, where he discovers that he must confront his fears, dragons & all, & fulfill a prophecy that will free his people. This is only book one of a trilogy called the Bloodsword Trilogy, a trilogy where Jaykriss will grow into a man & change the world around him forever.

Review by The Ranting Bookworm
    If I had to describe this book in one sentence I might say this, " The Curse of the Thrax is an original, smartly paced, YA Dystopian Fantasy & I want more". Thankfully, I have more than enough room here to go into more detail than that. 

    Mark Murphy has created a fun new world that I will bravely say is in the same league as Hogwarts. The genre it's written in is a fascinating combination of Fantasy & Dystopian, something I've never seen before. Perhaps I'm a bit naive when it comes to the whole dystopian genre, but I've never seen it combined with dragons, mythical creatures of all sorts, & "magic" that's actually more of a combination of science & mystery than what is commonly thought of as real magic. I personally would label it as Dystopian-Fantasy, perhaps it sounds a bit contradictory to some, but my label slowly reveals itself as you work your way past the first chapter or two. I don't want to giveaway any spoilers, but I will try & paint a quick picture as to why you should read Mr. Murphy's first novel in what is called The Bloodsword Trilogy. It is what I would call a YA novel, but just like Ms. Rowling's books, I feel it can appeal to a much wider & older audience than just YA community. 
    The first chapter is a bit slow, but only so Mr. Mruphy can ease you into the world he's created & introduce you to our young heroes, Jaykriss (14yrs) & Marda (16yrs). No worries though, after the introductions & everything else has been introduced to the reader the story takes flight & your feet barely touch the ground until the last page is read. I was hypnotized by the world the author created & enjoyed slowly understanding the mysteries of a world that was surprisingly familiar, and I stress the word FAMILIAR, once some of its secrets are revealed. Jayykriss & Marda live in a rough Medieval type world where the young aren't as young as the young of our world & must help provide for their family in ways that children aren't expected to in a society like ours. Not far into the book the two main characters find themselves thrust into a hero's quest or an odyssey of sorts. While the story yo-yo's from young men having troubles with school work & girls to battling dragons & looking for lost cities & weapons, I feel nothing happens without good reason & it's all done rather smoothly.

     The book is rather large, 317 pages, but I think it's about time authors write good meaty stories for people under the age of 21. Still, as a 36 year old, I fell in love with the characters & the world the author created. Somehow Mark Murphy found a way for me to feel for the character in way that not many authors are always able to do. I felt myself wanting what the character wanted & simply put, sympathizing with the character in every way. There wasn't anything Jaykriss did that I felt was out of character. Now that the story is done, all I can feel is anticipation for the next book in the trilogy. I know this is a trilogy I will read over & over & weep for when the last page of the last book is written, it's certainly a world I don't want to see the end of.
    Still don't take my word for it, please read it yourself see how awesome Mark Murphy's The Curse of the Thrax is.


The following is the Author Interview As Promised

(TRB=the Ranting Bookworm aka Jolene,MM =Mark Murphy) 

*P.S. I hope none of my questions come across as repetitive. Just so everyone understands, I generally write up a bunch of questions which I then email & get the answers to later. I try & write the questions in a way that hopefully prevents the author from repeating themselves, but sometimes there is just no way to avoiding it. Please enjoy.
TRB – I like to describe the genre of your new book The Curse of the Thrax as YA Dystopian Fantasy, do you agree with me? If not, what genre do you label it as? Did you know what kind of genre it was going to be when you started writing?

        MM - The Curse of the Thrax is indeed a YA Dystopian Fantasy. I wrote it as a YA book in the tradition of such works as The Once and Future King and the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series. It is really an amalgamation of those types of works, with a twist (spoiler alert!):  because it is set in a post apocalyptic version of our own world which has been thrust back into a limited-technology environment reminiscent of the Middle Ages, I have the opportunity to integrate belief in magic and the supernatural and the existence of numerous strange and fantastic creatures (dragons! giant poisonous snakes! half-human hybrids!)--all products of biologic manipulation gone horribly wrong--with the gradual revelation of amazing technology from the "Time Before."  This all provides a historical context for what happens in the novel--and for how the world that is now represented in the Godswood Village came to be the way it is.  From the standpoint of Jaykriss, my protagonist, the gradual unraveling of his prior world view is important.  First of all, it allows him to see, at age fourteen,  that the universe he thought he was living in is actually quite a bit different from the things he had been taught up to that point.  Second, the evolving revelation of this different world view forces Jaykriss to push the envelope of his own experience and discover things about himself that he never realized before.  This is, of course, the core of any good YA novel--the whole idea of a young person coming of age and engaging in a progressive journey of self-discovery.  Readers of all ages can relate to that.

 TRB – What was your inspiration for writing The Curse of the Thrax? I notice from your bio that you were a very imaginative child, much the way I remember being, and so I wonder if your childhood dreams & play-time were part of your inspiration? Basically, is this a story idea you’ve always had? How long have you had the idea to write this book?

          MM - First of all, I read a lot.  The worlds I have encountered in my reading have been a great source of inspiration for my subsequent writing.  One of my favorite books growing up was T.H. White's classic King Arthur tale The Once and Future King, I enjoyed seeing Arthur as a carefree young boy, then a young man, and finally as a king having to struggle with the burden of his own tortured destiny.  The Harry Potter series was another take on this theme--a young man, having lost his parents, who lives an ordinary life as a "muggle" only to find that the world is entirely different than what he previously believed--and that he has a great destiny, filled with magic and intrigue, that he could have never imagined possible in his mundane prior suburban muggle life.  Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series, a third source of inspiration, describes a world where a powerful and corrupt government controlled its citizens through limiting their access to knowledge and technology.  Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist in those novels, frees her people by challenging that corrupt government.  Jaykriss of Godswood, my protagonist, is an amalgamation of these characters--a young boy who has lost his father, adrift in a world in which he has a bleak and uncertain future, who then discovers that he has the potential to become something far greater than he ever imagined possible.  But the knowledge of that destiny comes with a price.  Jaykriss, in assuming his destiny, also must assume the mantle of responsibility for his actions in search of that destiny.  He is forced to grow up pretty fast--and growing up is not easy.  So, in answer to your question, the ideas behind The Curse of the Thrax have developed over time. I read these other works and thought, "I'd like to write something like that."  And then I outlined a story I'd like to tell and began to flesh it out on paper.

  TRB – When you started writing The Curse of the Thrax did you write it all as one big story & decide to split it into three parts? Or did you decide after you wrote the first book that you wanted to make it a trilogy & write two more stories?

        MM - The Bloodsword Trilogy, of which The Curse of the Thrax is a part, was always intended to be a trilogy.  I've actually outlined the plot of the entire series from start to finish.  It is simply too big a story to tell in one book.  The first book in the series, The Curse of the Thrax, which shows Jaykriss between the ages of 14 and 16, introduces readers to the world Jaykriss lives in, defines his conflicts in that world, and allows readers to see his relationships to friends and family.  The loss of his father in a fight against the Thrax (which had occurred in the year prior to the beginning of this novel) is, of course, central to this part of the story.  In his quest to learn more about the world he live sin, he finds himself pitted against both the Geshans, the members of a mutant race of outlaws, and the Godswood Priesthood, allied with the legendary Dark King,  Jaykriss ultimately clashes with Harros, the High Priest of the Godswood, in this novel, but you never actually see the Dark King. The second book in the series (Vengeance of the Dark King) follows Jaykriss between the ages of 16-17.  It further shows Jaykriss wrestling with the burden of his own destiny and learning the skills that will be necessary to defeat the Dark King.  The Dark King himself makes an appearance in the very first part of in this second book in the Trilogy, although the principal antagonists are actually Uzo, the military commander who has placed the Godswood under martial law, and the nefarious High Priest Harros.  The third book in the trilogy, The Bloodsword Apocalypse, shows Jaykriss as a young man of 18-21. In that book, he will assume his destiny as the leader of the resistance--but that assumption comes with a heavy price.  He ultimately encounters the Dark King directly in this novel.

  TRB -I see that you’ve always had an interest & talent for writing, but took a detour from it when you entered college? Just out of curiosity, what got you writing again & or inspired you to start writing with what seems to be the same enthusiasm you had in your youth?

        MM - I wrote a lot of things as a child--I wrote poetry as far back as fifth grade, and I penned a play that same year which was performed for my entire elementary school--so writing has always been a passion of mine.  I won a statewide poetry contest when I was fifteen, served as editor of my high school newspaper for three years (and won a few awards for that sort of writing), and kept on with creative writing (mainly short stories) all through college. I stopped writing creatively during medical school because I was simply too busy.  Daphne and I married, we had two children, and I was in the throes of acquiring a medical education for about 10 years--although I did write several medical journal articles and textbook chapters during that time. A few years back, one of my wife's best friends, a woman from New Orleans named Lisa, died unexpectedly in her 30's.  When we went to the funeral, I saw that she was buried in a green sequined Mardi Gras dress she had bought the week before.  I was moved by that, and wrote a short story about it as a tribute to Lisa, who loved to read and who had always said that I should start writing creatively again. That short story ended up being published in a short story collection called O, Georgia!--and it awakened my long-dormant muse.  A few summer trips to polish my short story skills at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival followed, and then I decided to move from short stories to novels.  I published my first novel, a thriller called The Shadow Man, in 2012.

  TRB - I noticed you have another novel you wrote before this one called The Shadow Man, which I haven’t gotten the chance to read yet, but hope to in the near future.  It’s evidently based in your hometown of Savannah Georgia & the main character is in the medical field like you, except he’s a surgeon. You said you wanted to write a Stephen King-like – thriller with a hint of supernatural & that you wanted to share the parts of Savannah that most tourists don’t normally get a glimpse of. First, do you find it easiest to write a story following the old saying of, write what you know? Second, is this a standalone novel or can people expect to see it become a series like The Curse of the Thrax? Finally, when you were describing The Shadow Man it seemed like a genre that you were really interested in & excited about, can we expect to see more books in the future written about your hometown that has this “Stephen King like-thriller” feel to it?

       MM -   I love thrillers, and I'm a big Stephen King fan, so The Shadow Man was a lot of fun to write. My protagonist in that novel was a surgeon named Malcolm King (his name is an oblique homage to Stephen King, by the way).  I put poor Malcolm through hell in that book.  I've been asked by a number of people to write a sequel to that story--but if i do, I think it will center around Billy Littlebear, a Seminole tracker who was a pivotal character but not the main one in the original novel.  Malcolm may or may not make an appearance in a new novel, but he and his family have earned a little peace and quiet.

TRB –The Curse of the Thrax is a huge leap genre wise from your previous book The Shadow Man, why the leap? Was it simply another genre that interested you and therefore you wanted to challenge your writing skills & see if you could write it or was there a different motivation for writing such a wildly different book from your first?

         MM - I like all sorts of writing.  I love thrillers, I enjoy YA and fantasy, and I even like historical and literary fiction.  Since I have a "day job" (I'm a doctor), I am not bound by the commercial imperative of trying to satisfy a certain market genre. I wanted to write a thriller, so I wrote one. I wanted to tackle YA next, hence the Bloodsword Trilogy.  My latest work (I've just completed a novel called The Lost Year) is straight literary fiction, and I'm working on the second book in the Bloodsword Trilogy now, I have an idea for a medical thriller after that (I've already outlined the entire plot for that book).  So I stay busy--and I don't want to be confined to one area of writing. I like the challenge of doing something different.

TRB –I feel like J.K.Rowlings books have changed the way YA fiction is written, mainly their length. What kind of affect do you think her books have had on the world of YA literature & do you feel her writing has had any effect on how you chose to write The Curse of the Thrax?

       MM -   First of all, JK Rowling made YA cool, in my opinion--in a way that it had never been cool before.  People of all ages loved the Harry Potter books.  She could have written 30 of them and sold millions of each.  I think book series like that have been around for a while (Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune series come to mind right off the bat), but she made that sort of thing an expectation for YA, at least in the fantasy genre.  That tends to happen when you sell a gazillion books.  And yes, Harry Potter was a big influence on The Curse of the Thrax, as I said above.

 TRB - When you sit down to write what are some of the comfort items you like to have near you to help your creative juices flow? (music, coffee, tea, a pet, pics, etc...)

        MM - I can write anywhere--and have, from hotel bathrooms to subways to Amtrak trains (I'm writing this in the dark in a hotel room right now).  My favorite place to write is in my office--I have a big desk there, and it looks out over the river--but I don't really need to be there to write. I'm lucky in that I just don't get writer's block.  Writing is like thinking for me. It just happens.  Having the time to do it is the biggest thing; I have a pretty busy medical practice, so my time during the week is limited. Weekends and vacation time are my most productive times writing. I wrote the first 60-70 pages of The Curse of the Thrax during a week when we were on a family vacation at Glacier National Park. Contrary to the stereotypes about most writers (and most Irishmen!), I don't drink coffee or alcohol, and I don't smoke--but I do drink lots of iced tea when I'm writing.

 TRB - Do you have any favorite hobbies outside of reading & writing that help center you & relax you in between putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard?

        MM - Running is relaxing to me, so I do a good bit of that. And I enjoy all sorts of music.  I usually listen to classical music or movie soundtracks when I'm writing; I'm a big fan of the composer Hans Zimmer, and I also like John Williams.

 TRB - Who is or are your literary hero’s?

        MM - Classic heroes:  JRR Tolkien, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Joseph Conrad, Flannery O'Connor (who is from Savannah), Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, William Faulkner, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke.

 TRB - I like to believe most avid readers have a book or series that they remember reading as a child or young adult that helped fan the flames of their love for reading & writing, I'm not too embarrassed to admit that mine was the Bunnicula series by James Howe. What was yours?

        MM - I read so much when I was young.  We went to the library every Sunday after church, and I'd bring home 8-10 books each week. I read a lot of Encyclopedia Brown books in second grade, and lots of these little biographies of famous people as children. I remember being enthralled with Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in third or fourth grade, and I read tons of Edgar Allan Poe, short stories by Guy de Maupassant and O Henry, various science fiction writers (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein) and Tolkien's The Hobbit  and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in middle school.  In high school, I really enjoyed the works of writers like Joseph Conrad, Flannery O'Connor, Hemingway and Faulkner. 

 TRB - How often do you write?

        MM - I write whenever I can.  Most times, I have no time to write during the work week, as I get up at 4 AM and go in to work by 5:30 or so, and I don't get home until 7 PM most days.  I write on weekends from 4 AM until 10 or so when I am not traveling.  I can usually knock out an editorial one of those days ( I write a column for the Savannah paper) and a book chapter the other one when I am not on the road.

 TRB - Is there any advice you might have for new & or aspiring writers that you never got when you first started, but looking back you would have liked someone to have shared with you?

        MM - My biggest advice to aspiring writers is quite simple: keep reading, and keep writing. Reading keeps your creative juices flowing, and gives you ideas to build on regarding style, syntax and sentence structure.  Writing is to the mind like exercise is to the body: the more you do it, the stronger you get. Don't be afraid to share what you've written and get feedback from others. I once had an editor tell me that my dialogue was "wooden." That hurt, but he was 100% right.  I started paying attention to dialogue when I was reading and to the way people spoke in conversation--and it made me a better writer.

 TRB - Did you have a parent or teacher that inspired you to follow your dreams & ambitions for writing?

        MM - Lynne Davis, my high school English teacher, actually loved my writing but encouraged me to go into medicine because it was a great source of characters for my writing. That was the best writing advice I ever got. She still advises me about my writing 35 years later; I did a lecture at her request as a benefit for our local symphony this past year.

 TRB - Did you always want to write or is this a new hobby and or passion? This is a question I would ask most authors, but from what I’ve read in your bio I can tell you’ve always been a talented writer, so, I think the better question is, when did you realize this was a true talent of yours or is this something you sadly took it for granted in your youth?  Also, how does it feel coming back to & devoting more time to writing, something you use to do pre-college, do you feel time & age have improved your writing skills and or added wisdom to your words?

         MM As you noted from my bio, I have always enjoyed writing. I never took that ability for granted; I simply applied it to different areas (textbooks and medical journals, for example) during that interval when I was not writing creatively. But I've really enjoyed coming back to the creative aspect of it later on in life.  Having a few life experiences (and being able to live vicariously through the experiences of some of my patients) helps keep the cast of characters alive.  I have an almost infinite selection of personalities to choose from when I am writing now. Ethan Canin, a physician-writer now on the University of Iowa faculty, has said that physicians, like soldiers, make good writers because they have seen "great and terrible things." I tend to agree with that. So  yes, I think I am a better writer now than I was earlier in life because of the things I have been privileged to bear witness to as a member of the medical profession.

 TRB - How do you feel about the whole eReader vs Paper debate?

         MM - Whatever makes people read more is ok with me.  I have a number of e-reader devices; I was an early Kindle adopter.  I read novels on my phone if I'm stuck at the car wash, or if I have a few spare moments during the day.  But I love paper books; I have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my office at home, and when I write there I am surrounded by books. So I can see both sides of the argument.  Ultimately, however, it's all about the content, not the packaging.

TRB - Do you have any other book ideas, aside from what we’ve already mentioned, in the works that you can share with us? 

        MM - I mentioned these ideas in my answer to question #6 above--the rest of the Bloodsword Trilogy, a recently completed work of literary fiction, a thriller about a bio-terrorist and a possible sequel to The Shadow Man should keep me busy for the next few years.

 TRB - Finally, is there anything I may not have covered already that you would like to share with us about yourself & your writing?

        MM - I'm just grateful for any and every reader who takes the time to read what I have written--and that includes you!


    First, I want to thank everyone for joining me again for another fun Author Interview. My apologies for it taking so long, I not only was feeling a bit under the weather, but I also had a crazy amount of technical difficulties. Still, I managed to wade my way through my troubles & get this out to my few adoring fans, lol. I hope you enjoyed it & if you have any questions for me or even for Mr. Murphy, I would be happy to answer them & or have Mark stop in to help answer your questions. I'm also open to constructive criticism if anyone has any. And if you have any suggestions for post topics, just feel free to put them down below in the comment section of this post. Second, I would like to thank the man himself, Mark Murphy, for being kind enough to do this interview with me & supplying me with all the pictures I needed & more. He certainly didn't have to take the time to entertain a nobody like me, yet he treated me with all the respect one could ask for. Finally, as to what is in store for my next post... I'm not 100% sure, but I think it will be a simple update on the books I'm reading. I hope you had fun & if you did please feel free to not just let me know, but also our visiting author. You can do that at: Also, if you really took a liking to Mr. Murphy's writing he also writes a column for what is called Savannah Morning News, here is the link for those who are interested: Now, please stick around, I've a special surprise below from author Mark Murphy.


Spoiler Alert!!!
    I've a special treat for those of you who've already read The Curse of the Thrax or those of you who don't mind reading ahead. Mark Murphy was kind enough to supply me with a sneak peak of book two in The Bloodsword Trilogy, Vengeance of the Dark King. The Due date for it is a little unclear, it all depends on how fast he decides to write. You could roughly say you will be seeing it around 2015-16. Despite all that, for those of you who can't wait for more of Jaykriss & the world he lives in, Mr. Murphy was kind enough to share this. I hope you enjoy it. And please understand that this is a preview, it's not meant to be a perfect final draft & that when the book itself actually comes out that parts of this story may change. Still, that doesn't mean this can't be enjoyable just the same. So, without further delay, here it is....

Vengeance of the Dark King
Book Two of the Bloodsword Trilogy

Mark Murphy

    For lo, there shall come a new King, clothed in righteousness and blessed by the gods.  And he shall rise up and smite the false prophets, driving the darkness back into the Valley of Shadows, and the people shall shout out his name with voices filled with joy and hope:  All Hail the One Who Leads!
    --The Prophecies of Ramallah, Ch 4, Verse 14 (Forbidden Version)
    Uzo gazed at the view screen and shook his head.
    “One single, stupid boy,” he muttered.  “That overly ambitious child changed everything.”
    From the sky, at least, the dense Godswood forest still seemed to be the same beautiful, peaceful place it had been for centuries: a verdant ocean of trees that rolled all the way to the western horizon, its immense green expanse criss-crossed by the silver ribbons of its three great rivers and punctuated by plumes of smoke from its various isolated pockets of human habitation.  To the east gleamed the endless sapphire waters of the Great Sea; to the north loomed the massive snow-capped spires of the Zephyr Mountains, a set of jagged peaks vaulting into the sky just beyond the Dragon Lake.  The sun was brilliant, a golden coin sailing peacefully across an aquamarine sky.  
    Uzo, sitting in the flying ship Commander’s Chair clad in full battle armor, took in the view and cracked his knuckles absently.  Flying over the Godswood always reminded him of his
sweet Misha, who hailed from these parts, back home tending to her piebald goats and the cackling flock of frizzled chickens as the sun warmed her slim shoulders. His heart ached a little for her.
    Home and hearth, hearth and home, the old song went.  Wasn’t that it?  He had not sung it in so long.
    But Uzo knew that appearances could be deceiving.  He had to remind himself of that poisonous little fact every time a gap-toothed villager hurled a bottle bomb at one of his centurions, or set fire to a cache of armaments, as had happened in the stubborn little hamlet they had wiped out in the Southern Islands last week.
    One silly little boy was all it took, he thought.  
    But that wasn’t quite all, was it?
    One boy and one dragon, he reminded himself, his dark eyes narrowing ever so slightly.  
    Uzo was not a big believer in musty old prophecies.  And teenage boys were not generally something to fear, either—although he had to admit that he had been pretty formidable as a teenager.  He would always remember the time he beat Barbigan, the neighborhood bully, to a bloody pulp for terrorizing Umiah, his younger brother, at school. At the end--bloodied, battered and unable to stand--Barbigan had pleaded for his life, even though Uzo had not had any intention of killing him.
    So Uzo killed Barbigan anyway, smashing his in feeble brains with a wooden club. After that, no one ever bothered Umiah again.  Abject fear, as it turned out, can be a powerful motivator.
    That was perfect, Uzo thought, chuckling to himself.
    Contrary to popular opinion, Uzo did not particularly enjoy killing people.  He only did killed if the circumstances demanded it—as they had with Barbigan. And on this occasion, they did as well.  High Priest Harros had been right, of course: The boy had to be stopped.  The dragon, quite simply, had to be destroyed.  Any faint hopes the villagers had needed to be crushed mercilessly under the heel of Uzo’s steel-toed boots. Uzo was not afraid of teenaged boys or old prophecies.  But dragons were another thing entirely. For he had seen firsthand the sort of carnage even one dragon could bring.  If the boy and his comrades somehow found a way to breed them, well . . .    
    The flying ship banked sharply right, past the banks of clouds that always seemed to billow up from the depths of the Mist Valley.  The ship’s lurch sent a cascade of cold, stinking broth over the edge of the bowl that the servant girl was holding.  One of the shillix larvae plopped onto the floor as well—a wriggling pink thing, soft as a baby’s bottom, with tiny blue eyes and a toothless pucker of a mouth that seemed to always be looking for a bosom to suckle.
    “Pick that up!” Uzo bellowed, kicking the helpless larva with his boot.
    “Wh-where is it, sire?” the servant girl asked, balancing the bowl deftly on one outstretched palm.
    Her voice shocked Uzo. He gazed up at her.
    She might have been pretty once—but she was pale and bony now, her lips thin and bloodless. There was nothing much to her at all.
    Uzo had not heard a servant girl speak in years. They usually fluttered about the ship like moths, noiseless in their flowing white robes, deftly balancing platas and bowls filled with refreshments for the centurions, or scurrying here and there with papers and tablets and such.  On a day-to-day basis, Uzo never even noticed them; they were merely animated furniture, serving their stated purpose aboard the Dark King’s vast airborne vessel dutifully, without questions, opinions or hardly any thought at all.
    The perfect woman, he had thought to himself more than once.
    “It’s to your right,” he grunted.
    She was blind, of course—like all of them. Her sightless eyes roved aimlessly in her bald head like a pair of marbles. But the fat shillix larva was wriggling on the oval Command Room floor, its tiny mouth making a thin mewling sound that sounded like the air being let out of a balloon, and she heard it.  The servant girl’s head cocked to one side and she dipped down, graceful and lightning quick, scooping the larva up in one hand while holding the broth-filled bowl perfectly upright in the other.
    In an instant, the servant girl was standing at attention once again—silent and motionless, dead eyes staring straight ahead at nothing.  Uzo settled back in the Commander’s Chair and waited for the landing blasters to fire.  He took another moment to stare at the 360-degree holographic screen as it rotated about his head. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, which pleased him immensely.
    No crazy villagers this time, he thought, glancing at the flickering monitors of the ship’s Command Room.
    The Command Room, when dormant, was a simple oval space nicely appointed with rich mahogany and burnished steel. It was outfitted with a swivel-mounted command chair in its center, perched on a slightly raised round metal podium. Framed full-length pictures of Uzo, Harros and Kranin hung on one wall; a doorway portal was on the opposite wall, although when it was closed it was difficult to make out where the wall began and the portal ended. Closed down, the room looked like the office of some minor public official in Capitus.
    When it was battle-ready (or “Up” in centurion lingo), the Command Room was something else entirely.
    At present, the room was Up—and it was filled with clusters of holographic monitors that hovered and wavered like mirages glimmering on the edge of the desert.  Uzo’s eyes flicked from one monitor to the next, scanning for threats. The computers did this as well, their automated observations driven by an arcane algorithm known only to the Dark King’s most experienced battle advisers. That was good enough for most people, but not for Uzo. His warrior instincts were as finely honed as the edge of a Valerian sword—and sometimes he would see things that the computers would not.
    Uzo wrapped his clawed fingers around one of the fattest of the larvae and speared its heart with his long, pointed thumbnail.  He felt the crimson blood run down his hand, warm and sticky.
    “This one’s ripe,” he said, to no one in particular.  “It’s perfect.”
    He stared at the pink, bloody creature for a moment.  Its mouth was open, gasping frantically in a perfect little O, and its glittering bead-like eyes bulged with pain.
    “Off you go, then,” he said, sinking his teeth into the softest part of the larva, just behind the head. In another year, the shillix would have been a flying insect as large as an eagle, its tiny mouth parts hardened into a beaklike proboscis filled with thousands of razor-sharp teeth—and it could then join its swarming brethren in the Western Wilderness, eating anything that dared to live.  Uzo had seen shillix swarms skeletonize an entire herd of cattle in a matter of minutes, descending from the heavens in a boiling cloud of wings, legs and fangs, leaving nothing behind but blood-spattered bones.  He had even seen a swarm of shillix eat a centurion right out of his armor, their chitinous forelimbs gripping his helmet and chest-piece and violently tearing them away like so much tissue paper. He could still hear the centurion’s screams if he thought about it (which he tried not to do)—hoarse shrieks of sheer terror, crescendoing as the shillix clustered about his face and hungrily tore out his eyes and tongue. This was followed, ultimately, by a horrific silence as the swarm dutifully worked its way through the rest of him.
    “Better to eat them now than for them to eat us later,” Harros had once said.  And the old High Priest was right---as he usually was.
    The ship was landing in the clearing next to the entrance to the Priestbain Road.  Uzo always hated that part of the journey. The Priestbain Road was long and tortuous, meandering along a roadway set in a deep trench dug through the densest thickets of the Godswood Forest.  Each step of the way along the Priestbain Road, Uzo knew he was being watched.  He could feel the eyes of the priests’ sentries staring down at him from the treetops, their gaze boring into him unseen from the shadowy cascades of vines and dangling, moist clumps of moss. And even though the sentries were ostensibly on his side, the whole ordeal unnerved him.  The warrior in him told him that it was simply wrong.
    “Never concede the high ground,” was something Urgo, his old regimental Commander, had always said, all those years ago.  
    But Urgo was dead, of course—baked in his own armor by Xixan, the last fire-breathing dragon from the huge, ancient vermithrax nest on the north shore of Dragon Lake.  The damned red-eyed thing had come screaming down out of the sky, right out of the sun, and its flaming white-hot breath had cooked the whole regiment in their tracks.  Uzo had been on sentry duty that day and had been posted on the edge of their encampment, over two hundred paces away. Otherwise he would have died along with the rest of them.
    You gave up the high ground that day, old man, Uzo thought.  
    He grabbed another shillix larva and popped it into his mouth whole, feeling the creature’s fat little body rupture between his sharpened teeth like a large pink grape.
    Anyhow, all men die, he thought absently, standing up.
    He strapped on his helmet, switching on the infrared sensor once just to check it, and pulled on his thermal biogloves.  Uzo could hear the vanadium blast shield outside being lowered—clank!clank!clank!—and then the great ship was on the ground at last, its metal undercarriage audibly groaning as it settled onto the forest floor.
    Uzo waited. He always waited until the indicator lights had changed before he would switch the monitors off—for Uzo did not like surprises.  
    A band of rebels had once fired on him from the edge of the treeline at a clearing near the Dead City just after the ship had landed, apparently believing that he had already closed down the Command Room.  But they had been wrong—dead wrong, in fact.  And he had lit them up, blasting their pitiful little band into oblivion in a matter of seconds with the flick of a single switch.
    He had enjoyed imagining the surprised rebels’ eyes widening as the pulse cannons on the ship’s undercarriage opened up, belching great gouts of flame and heat as the trees around them exploded.  There had been nothing much left of those poor sots when they picked through the incinerated remains later that afternoon—merely a scorched boot, the cooked foot still inside, some nondescript scraps of clothing, and a couple of unrecognizable bones that had been charred strangely gray, like pieces of driftwood.
    A great day, he thought, recalling his triumph.  
    He glanced at the monitors again, his eyes roving from screen to screen, and sank his teeth into another wriggling shillix larva.
    The indicator lights that rimmed the ceiling flickered once, and then again, before shifting from red to solid green.
    “Close down,” he barked—and the monitors all vanished at once, leaving him alone in the Command Room with his now-empty glass of Capitus’s finest ale and the framed pictures of himself, Harros and Kranin staring at him reproachfully from the opposite wall.
    And the blind servant girl, of course—as still as a statue, so motionless he could not even see her breathing.
    “Another night in the bloody Priestbain,” he grumbled out loud.
    The airlock equalizer hissed, flooding the room with the humid summer air of the Godswood, and then the doorway opened like the gaping mouth of some great metal viper.
    Harros was standing at the foot of the walkway, leaning heavily on a gnarled blackwood cane topped with a ruby orb of impressive size. He was clad in the full High Priest’s regalia—heavy gold-brocaded black robes, with thick gold chains draped about his neck and waist that seemed to pull him down towards the forest floor.  
    “Greetings, old friend!” Harros said.
    Uzo nodded, but said nothing.  His eyes were fixed on the treeline.
    The old priest was physically unimpressive--a small-statured man, balding, with a thin scrim of gray hair and a pair of glittering silvery eyes that looked like coins set deep inside his skull. The other centurions, seeing the old man’s stooped gait and hooked nose, had nicknamed him “The Buzzard.” And, indeed, Harros looked very much like a dried-up old carrion-bird. That moniker was what Uzo thought of when he saw Harros waiting on him—patiently, a thin smile painted primly across his lips, as if he had all the time in the world.  
    But Harros was anything but an innocuous old bird.  He was, in fact, more zharga than buzzard—a deadly viper lying in wait, not to be crossed.  
    Harros only resembled a buzzard in the way that he fed upon the dead.
    “Walk with me, Uzo,” the old priest said.  His voice, by some strange alchemy, was the voice of a man far younger.
    Harros made the slightest motion with an arthritic forefinger and the two young priests that accompanied him stepped away, bowing.  Four armor-clad centurions, in full battle regalia, took their positions in front of them; four more fell in step behind them.  
    The door to the flying ship closed behind them with a soft sssssssss.
    Harros walked slowly and deliberately through the clearing was they moved toward the huge stone gate at the edge of the forest that led to the Priestbain Road.  The old High Priest’s gait was measured, as though the potential consequences of each step had to be carefully considered.  
    “So what have you heard?” Harros said.
    “There are rumblings that the boy lives.”
    “Hogwash!” Harros snorted. “I killed him myself.  Cut him right through the ribs, just under the heart.  No one survives that.”
    “So have we recovered his body yet?”
    Harros shook his head.  The chains around his neck jingled softly.
    “It remains . . . missing.  You may remember that his body was stolen that night and never recovered. Taken from the scene by a despicable band of rebels posing as health workers.”
    “So where are these body thieves?  Perhaps they could lead us to the boy’s stinking corpse.  We could parade his rotting head about on a stick and teach the rabble a lesson in obedience.”
    Harros leaned heavily on his cane as he stepped over a tangled mass of roots at the edge of the forest.
    He sighed.
    “The body thieves remain missing, as well.  Someone orchestrated a jailbreak on that first night, before your centurion brigade arrived from Capitus. The culprits escaped, but we have been hunting them.”
    “Any leads, then?”
    Harros shook his head.
    “I’ve had War Chief Kranin on it, but he’s had no success thus far.  It was as though the rebels vanished into thin air.”
    “Kranin!  But isn’t he the boy’s stepfather?”
    Harros leaned upon the mossy rock face of the gate to the Priestbain Road, catching his breath, which came in staggered wheezes now.
    Perhaps you’re not quite so dangerous anymore, old man, Uzo thought.
    “There’s no . . . love lost between them, Uzo.  Kranin and the boy . . . did not exactly see eye to eye.  Kranin was a rival with the boy’s father for his mother’s affections.  The boy was stridently opposed to their marriage. He didn’t even attend the wedding ceremony. Do you . . . do you see?” the old Priest said, catching his breath.
    Uzo nodded.
    They stood in front of the gate now—a gate that towered forty paces above them, capped with the jagged spiked crown emblematic of the Dark King. Massive rolled steel bars backed by a heavy cedar-planked door blocked their passage.  Stone-faced centurions, four on each side, had flanked the gate, their stark white armor gleaming in the midday sun.
    Harros inserted the ruby at the end of his staff into a depression in the stone gate and rotated it a quarter-turn clockwise.  
    Gears began turning inside the gatehouse. A mob of beady-eyed crows that had been roosting atop the gate took noisily to the sky, wheeling about and cawing.  Slowly, laboriously, the gate began to open, revealing the dark, damp gash of the Priestbain Road that ripped through the Godswood like an open wound.
    “We should ride through this someday,” Uzo said.  “The walk is too long. Perhaps we could bring a carriage.”
    “No riders. No carriages. Everyone walks,” Harros said.
    “But why?”
    Harros pointed up to the trees that lined the road.
    “You may recall our sentries?” he asked.
    And, sure enough, Uzo could make out the archers hidden among the leaves and branches of the trees that lined the road. Lots of them, in fact.  An ordinary observer would never have seen them—but Uzo was no ordinary observer.
    “They have their orders. Any carriage is burned. Any rider is shot—even me.  It is the only way we can protect ourselves.  You remember the old saying?” Harros said.
    Uzo nodded.  “No one flees the Priests’ Bain and lives,” he said.
    “Precisely,” said Harros.  He grinned, revealing a mouth filled with tiny, pearl-like teeth.
    Harros turned a flat stone over with his staff to uncover a squirming grayish-pink earthworm beneath it.  He crushed the worm with the end of his staff, watching it writhe under his gaze for a moment before taking his first few steps down the rock-strewn pathway.
    “So I’m curious, Uzo--how do you propose that we squelch these whispers?  We can’t have people going around chattering false tales about the One Who Leads.  That’s quite a dangerous rumor.  It makes the citizens thirst for things that they should have no reason to hope for.  Despite your proclamation of martial law, I’ve even seen a poster or two in the Godswood Village, of all places!  Right in our own back yard!” Harros said.
    “What did the posters say?”
    “Simply ‘Jaykriss lives.’ And there’s a picture of the boy with a wry smirk on his face.  Not a flattering portrait, I might add.”
    “If you can find out who put up the posters, we could torture them. A man will do a great deal of talking if one breaks a few of his fingers.”
    Harros rolled his eyes.
    “Is that is your solution to everything?  What if the people putting the posters up are mere children? What then?  Do we earn the trust of the people if we torture their children?”
    Uzo grunted.
    “We could just kill them all,” he said.  “It’s simple and elegant, don’t you think? Wipe out the Godswood Village and we wipe out the rebellion.  The rumors stop right here—and everyone in the entire kingdom will learn what it means to spread false tales that subvert the Dark King’s rule.  Certain death is a powerful motivator.”
    “You would kill everyone?”
    Uzo nodded.
    “Extermination of the nest is the only way to be sure the vermin are dead,” he said.
    “While certain nihilistic aspects of this plan appeal to me, I have to ask you a question: if you kill all of your subjects, who shall we govern? Each other?”
    Uzo was silent.
    “And if there are no townspeople, who would pay the taxes?”
    “Well, I didn’t . . .”
    Harros dismissed him with the wave of a hand.
    “You think like a warrior, and that’s good.  That’s your job, my friend.  But leave the political strategy to me.  And, for the sake of our King, don’t enact any of your rash, half-baked plans without speaking to me first.  The repercussions for error can be harsh.”
    The skies seemed to have darkened as their band of twelve approached the Priests’ Bain.  It was always this way.  Shadows seemed to collect here, pooling beneath the trees and under rocks.
    This is the darkest place I have ever seen, Uzo thought. Even darker than the Kingsguard Prison.  The Priest’s Bain seems to suck the light out of the sky.
    The trail opened up like a funnel in front of the massive stone Priestbain Gate, which was in many ways a mirror image of the gate they had encountered in the clearing at the beginning of the Priestbain Road.  This gate was the only entrance into the Priests’ Bain compound, an enclave encircled by a sheer granite wall topped with thousands of iron spikes.  The walls next to the gate were decorated with elaborate carvings of intertwined images.  Some of the carvings Uzo had always recognized as representations of the Old Gods, worshiped by people from the dim period they simply called the “Time Before.”  Others he did not recognize at all. Uzo had never been a very religious man; his system of belief was deeply rooted in the stark, blood-soaked reality of war.  
    “Life and death, my boy. That is all there is,” Urgo had once said.  It was a sentiment Uzo agreed with whole heartily.
    But he stared at the Priestbain Wall as they approached.  Something was different now.  He could not put his finger on it, but the idea unsettled him nonetheless.
    And then, with a shock, he realized what it was.
    Several of the ancient carvings had had had their faces smashed and ruined, rendering them completely unrecognizable. Old markings, once inlaid with gold and silver, were obliterated.  The intricate and ornate images on the Priestbain Wall had taken scores of nameless long-dead men years to complete, but other men—lesser men, Uzo thought—had taken only a few seconds to destroy them.
    “What happened to your wall?” Uzo said.
    “Time, my boy.  That’s what happens to all of us, at least eventually.  Time changes things.  Rivers shift, glaciers melt, and oceans rise and fall.  It is the inexorable nature of the world, “ Harros said, shrugging his shoulders.
    “But the carvings of the Old Gods!  All of that history!”
    Harros shot Uzo a stern glance.
    “The Old Gods were false.  There is only one God, Uzo.  Having the representations of false deities on our walls was a blasphemy.  Time had passed those old religions by.  Their images had to be . . . erased.”
    Uzo gazed at the deep gouges that had been hammered into the granite face of the wall, stunned. While he had not understood the meanings of all of the old carvings, he had always been impressed by their exquisite detail.  What sort of devotion would make a man spend years carving something so painstakingly intricate? And there was the mystery of it all—the intrigue of knowing that other men had worshiped other gods, and had other systems of belief that got them through the day.  Even if those belief systems had faded into obscurity with the passage of time, they still had some relevance, did they not?
    But now it had come to this: wanton destruction, all in the name of faith.
    While Uzo had never been fond of organized religion, he could respect the fervor of the True Believer.  Strong belief often made a man a better warrior. The next level, religious fanaticism, could inspire even greater things—or far worse ones.  Indeed, the most fervent devotees of any religion drank a fragile and often deadly cocktail—an utter willingness to die for the cause admixed with an innate recklessness, the white-hot intensity of the warrior’s religious devotion having burned away all logic and all discipline.
    And here, right in front of him, was one such example.
    Ever since that day in the Godswood Village when the Thrax had declared that Jaykriss of Godswood would be the King, the Godswood Priests had made one thing abundantly clear: the Old Gods were to be forgotten, their religions rendered into smoke and ash, their myriad beliefs and customs consigned to oblivion.  Before, the Old Gods were tolerated, if not venerated.  Worship was, at least to some degree, a matter of personal choice.  But those days were gone; there was no longer any decision in the matter.  Now, there was but one religion: the religion of the Godswood Priests.  And there was but one object of their worship: the enigmatic figure they called Dhatzah-il.
    It was said that Dhatzah-il had once been a man—but that had been long ago. Now, he had been transformed, metamorphosed into something beyond men: a transcendent being, all-powerful and all-knowing. It no longer mattered what he had once been, or where he came from--for Dhatzah-il was now immortal, eternal, and righteous beyond all reproach.
    Indeed, Dhatzah-il had become God.
    To the one true God, Dhatzah-il, we pledge our faith, our lives, and our very souls.
    This was the prayer the priests called the Prayer of Dawn. Each day, as soon as the first slivers of light stole into the Godswood, the priests in the Priests’ Bain would gather and shout this in unison from the towers and the rooftops, over and over, until their voices cracked and their vocal cords split. They would then continue chanting, rasping the prayer, coarse and dry-tongued, until they could barely speak. And then they would still chant it, again and again, until there was nothing left of their voices but a whisper--and the inexorable, undying will of the righteous, distilled into something pure and holy by the ragged voices of men.
    By the end of each visit to the Priests’ Bain, Uzo heard the Prayer of Dawn in his sleep.  The incessant chant wormed about in his brain like a parasite—a stubborn invader that he could not remove, relentless and insistent, its grim teeth latched deep into the very meat of his subconscious mind.
    Even now I can hear it, Uzo thought grimly.  It is already with me and I have not even entered the Priestbain Gate.
    The Godswood Priests had long called Dhatzah-il “The God Who Walks.”  But most of the world knew Dhatzah-il by yet another name: The Dark King.  
    The Dark King’s ubiquitous symbol—a spiked crown, the tips gleaming gold in the stray beams of sunlight that filtered through to the forest floor—loomed heavy over the top of the Priestbain Gate, much as it had on its twin, the gate that had opened up for them at the Priestbain Road.
    The Priests’ Bain itself was gargantuan—a dark mountain of stone and timber, reaching above the treetops and towards the invisible sky, its smooth surface randomly spangled with myriad windows that gleamed like diamonds.  It was ancient, having stood for thousands of years.  More than a mere residence for the Godswood Priests, the Priests’ Bain was a symbol, a towering monument to the sheer power of the priesthood.  And it was filled with secrets.  One could almost hear the whispers that scurried about within its dark walls like so many mice, their sharpened teeth gnawing away at the very souls of men.
    Harros approached the gate and inserted the ruby on his staff into it just as he had at the prior gate, rotating it a quarter turn to the right.  There was a clanking noise inside and the massive iron gates began to swing open.
    “Form up!  High Priest Harros at the gate!” shouted a hoarse voice from within the Priest’s Bain walls.
    The centurions, clad in spotless white battle armor topped with gleaming gold-domed helmets, had lined up two deep, forming a pathway between the Outer and Inner Baingates.  As Uzo and Harros passed, the centurions averted their eyes, casting them downward, and raised their gleaming sword tips above their heads.
    “Your centurions have been well-trained, Priest Harros,” Uzo said, chuckling.
    “It’s a credit to their trainer,” Harros said, smiling.
    Uzo nodded, taking stock of the impassive faces of his men.
    A fine crew, he thought, admiring their discipline.
    The centurions closed ranks behind Harros and Uzo as the two men passed, moving as one, with machine-like precision.
    Body like iron, nerves of pure steel,
    Heart of a lion, unable to feel.
    That credo was inscribed in the stone archway over the centurion’s training facility in Capitus.  To be a centurion was a singular honor—but it was a life of perpetual sacrifice, a life of service to King and country.  A centurion could not marry until he retired from service, and could not have a lover until he had served his King selflessly for at least five seasons.  Children were forbidden; they might cause a man to hesitate in battle, and a split second of indecision could lead to death in times of war.  Nevertheless, several of the older centurions had offspring hidden away in various hamlets and villages throughout the land.  Women wanted children, of course.  Some men simply could not tell their women no, and as a result they were forced to keep secrets.  
    Secrets are like poison.  He remembered reading that as a child, although he could not remember where it came from.
    His thoughts drifted once again to his Misha.  He thought of her long, dark hair and her slim, muscular figure, of her brilliant smile and her mysterious onyx eyes.  Misha asked nothing of Uzo.  She kept no secrets. She was never demanding; she never screamed at him in anger or cried at some imagined slight.  She did not browbeat Uzo for all the time he spent away from her, nor did she ask for expensive jewelry or fine clothes like some of the centurion companions.  Instead, she simply seemed pleased that Uzo loved her.  She lived to serve him.  And she was grateful for the attention that came with being associated with such a high-ranking centurion officer as Uzo.
    I’ll be back to you soon, love, he thought.
    Tend to your chickens.
    Uzo and Harros entered the Inner Baingate alone.  The cast iron doors slammed shut behind them, deadbolts clicking and locking in a mad clatter of gears.
    “He wishes to speak to us tonight, Uzo,” Harros said.
    Uzo cocked his head.
    “How?  Are we to return to Capitus?”
    Harros shook his head.
    “There is a new device that he is using—a device that throws one’s image over space. The scientists call it the Splinter, because it allows the user to send a piece of himself over great distances.  The God Who Walks can now be anywhere he wants to be at any time.”
    “Can he see us with this device? Or can we only see him?”
    A thin smile crept across Harros’ dry lips.
    “Dhatzah-il sees everything, Uzo.  Surely you know this.”
    “You know what I mean, High Priest.  So the Dark King can see what we are doing when we are talking to him.”
    “I would not communicate with the King via the Splinter in the nude, if that’s what you mean.  It would be considered a measure of disrespect.”
    “Well, I can assure you that I have no intention of doing that.”
    Walking across the Priestbain yard, they approached the iron-clad wooden door to the Priest’s Bain. Once again, the ornate images of the old gods that had once adorned it had been obliterated, their stern visages battered and gouged beyond all recognition.  The twin lanterns that illuminated the doorway flickered with gaslight the way they always had—but the names of the gods the lanterns had once been dedicated to had been crudely scratched away.
    Seeing all of this saddened Uzo.  This sort of wanton destruction was a tragedy, especially for a pragmatist like him. It was senseless; it accomplished nothing of value.  Uzo wondered who had given the order to wipe the old gods off the pages of history—but then, as he shot a glance over at Harros, who was standing beside him, he wondered no more.
    The old man’s usually benign, sallow face had ripened into a virulent eggplant hue. Harros ground his teeth together so intently that Uzo thought they might shatter; the old priest’s fists were clenched tight, his knuckles blanched.
    “Who did this?  Who?
    Scratched in block letters into the metal base of both lanterns was a single crudely written name, gleaming in the flickering torchlight:
    “WHO DID THIS?” Harros screamed, his voice breaking.  His silver eyes were ablaze with fury.
    There was no answer.  And then, without warning, everything in the Priestbain began to change.
    Uzo noticed the stillness first. It was a subtle thing—the way an entire forest would suddenly grow quiet when a wolf was near.
    The darkness came next-- insidious and unexpected, like a solar eclipse.  Shadows lengthened and coalesced. Uzo felt his pupils dilate; his chest tightened a bit, and he wrapped his thick, battle-scarred fingers around the hilt of his sword.
    Better to be ready, Urgo’s long-dead voice said inside his head.
    Time crawled to a dead halt.  A flock of ravens took flight, making one sweep around the yard before flapping off into the forest—and leaving Uzo and Harros as the only living things left in the now-empty Priestbain Yard.  The Yard was now a vacuum, a desert, a tomb; the air was thick with nothingness, the last little bits of life having been completely sucked out of it. Even Harros’ enraged tirade seemed muffled, smothered in an oppressive blanket of gloom that loomed over them like a thundercloud.
    “What . . ?” Uzo began.
    Suddenly subdued, Harros put a bony index finger to his lips.
    Shhh,” he said, eyes wide.
    He pointed to the darkening sky, which boiled ominously overhead.
    “He’s coming,” Harros whispered.
    “Who’s coming?” Uzo said.
    “The God Who Walks. The Dark King.  Dhatzah-il.  The One in Three and Three in One—all divine, all holy, all-powerful and all-knowing.  Dhatzah-il walks in the darkness. The darkness has come to clear the path, to make way for him.”
    Harros looked about anxiously.
    There was a fluttering rush of wings coming from above them and around them, from everywhere.  The darkness grew even deeper, more insistent.  Uzo could feel it wrapping around his throat like a snake, constricting tighter and tighter, stealing his every breath.
    And then, suddenly, the Yard was pitch black.
    “Harros?” Uzo said.
    In the viscid, dreamless night that had swallowed them both, two blood-red eyes opened wide.  Uzo could see the bulk of an impossibly massive creature looming above them, a being with glittering edges that sparkled like stars.  Its mouth was a yawning void, a gaping black hole that stretched into eternity.
    “I am here,” the Dark King said. His voice was at once a whisper and a scream; it spoke from someplace deep inside Uzo’s brain. Uzo could feel the Dark King inside him, probing among the various gyri and sulci. It felt as though an incessant mass of invisible tentacles was sifting through each and every memory, fingering his thoughts and ideas, tossing aside his myriad hopes and dreams like so many empty husks.
    Misha! he thought.  
    Vainly, he tried to block her memory, tried to hide her from Him, but it was too late. The Dark King was powerful. He ripped though Uzo’s defenses like they were nothing but smoke, discovering the girl with ease.
    Horrifyingly, the grizzled centurion commander could feel the echoes of the Dark King’s unadulterated delight at having discovered Uzo’s one true locus of vulnerability.  His brain filled with a thick bubbling sound, like boiling mud.
    He’s laughing, Uzo realized with a shock.  
    He’s laughing at my weakness.
    Uzo closed his eyes tight, fighting back tears.  He dared not look up. If he had to stare into those crimson eyes again, even for a second, he was certain that they would tear his living soul from his flesh.  Instead, he cast his sightless eyes at the invisible ground beneath him, feeling rivulets of cold sweat trickling down the small of his back.
    For the first time in forever, Uzo was afraid.
    And the Dark King knew it.
    “Look—thrust, then parry my blow, stand back, then thrust again!  Really, Jaykriss, how hard can this be?  You used to be better than I was at this,” Marda said.
    The vast cavern that the warriors of the Dead City called the Arena was cold, wet and lined with a sticky moss seemed to adhere to any fabric like glue.  Stalactites hung from the ceiling like dragon’s teeth; water dripped from some of them, pooling in spots on the limestone floor below and running in small streams into a metal drain in the center of the room.  Twin rows of torches had been lit in the center of the room, around the drain, to provide the combatants with light, and sconces along the walls held other torches which flickered with tongues of orange flame as well.  Some of the torches flared up periodically as water dripped upon them from the cavern roof.  Zamarcus had said that the torches flared like that because the “water” dripping on them was not really just water.
    “There’s oil mixed in it,” he said.  “Comes from a pool two levels up.  It’s what we use to keep the torches lit.”
    The cavern walls themselves were suffused with a blue-green glow from the entangled roots of the massive bioluminescent trees that grew overhead, in the Great Hall of the Dead City.  
    It had been three weeks since Jaykriss had awakened from the dreamless slumber that had captured him for seven moons.  He barely remembered the day Harros plunged a dagger between his ribs, slicing him open like a melon. He could recall the hateful flash of Harros’ silver eyes, and his muttered words the old priest spoke in his ear, like a whisper, but the rest was lost someplace—like fragments from a dark dream, a nightmare best forgotten.
    The pain was still fresh, however. He remembered the taste of blood on his lips, like rust, and the struggle to breathe as the world slipped away from him.
    And then Papa met me at the shore, he thought.  
    But Jaykriss had come back from the Otherworld.  He had come back for Sola—and, perhaps, for something else.
    Jaykriss had practiced swordsmanship here every single day since the day after he awoke, but the technique was not coming back to him, not at all.  He was not the same. He seemed weak and unfocused, as though something vital had been stolen from him.  The first few days, he could barely walk, but that was understandable.  Now, however, it had been long enough for the effects of his long sleep to have worn off.  The nausea he had experienced at first had dissipated, and he was eating well again.  All of the tubes that had kept him alive while he slept had long since been removed.
    But still, things were not the same.
    Jaykriss wondered if Harros’ blade had been poisoned, of if there had been some sort of dark witchcraft involved.  He had heard of such things, of course. They all had.
    Everyone thinks you are dead, Jaykriss, Sola had said the day he awoke.
    Everyone but us.
    Now, when he looked at his reflection in the mirror, he saw something that looked only like a pale imitation of himself.  His ribs showed through his skin.  His arms and legs were pitifully thin, almost emaciated; his eyes were sunken, and rimmed with dark circles. It was like he had died and come back as a ghozim—something ephemeral, a mere shadow.
    And there was the scar—still raised and red after all this time, a thin ribbon of pain around his chest, along the place that Harros had slid the blade that was meant to end his life.
    He knew he should not even be breathing.  He thanked the gods for their grace.  He was grateful for the efforts of Zamarcus, whose scientific expertise had saved his life.  And he was appreciative of his friends, who had saved him from certain death by spiriting him away to this place, the Dead City—the one place in the world where the Dark King could not find him.
    He was grateful, but he had doubts. They crowded into the darkest recesses of his brain like fish swimming upriver to spawn—insistent, unrelenting, never allowing him to rest for even a moment.
    They all see me as the fulfillment of a musty old prophecy, he thought.  And I’m as weak as a kitten.  I could not even defeat my little sister in battle right now.
    He smiled, in spite of his doubts, at the thought of Annya.  She would be a feisty one to meet in battle—that much was certain.  She had a great deal of their father in her.
    I miss seeing her, he thought.  And Mama.
    Jaykriss felt a tightening in his chest, like a knot being tied.
    Marda knocked the Bloodsword aside effortlessly and placed the tip of Icebreaker, his father’s battle saber, over Jaykriss’s heart.
    “Are you dreaming of Sola?  Is that why you are distracted?  Because your girlfriend is currently working on her archery skills in preparation for battle.  Meanwhile, the illustrious One Who Leads is asleep on his feet.”
    Jaykriss dropped the Bloodsword to the floor and wiped his brow with a dirty sleeve.  His arms ached, and the scarred place where Harros had slipped the dagger between his ribs burned white-hot.
    “You might recall the small detail of my being comatose for seven moons while you, Sola and the rest had sword and archery practice every single day,” he said.
    “Of course I remember that!  How could I forget?  I was at your bedside every one of those days.  We all were.”
    He grinned at Jaykriss.
    “In fact, if it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t all be stuck here in the Dead City, with all of these other freaks of nature.”
    “Watch your tongue, boy!” Zarg growled, standing up.
    The giant crocodilian had been slumbering in the corner of the Arena in full battle gear, snoring so loudly that the practice swords stacked up in the racks nearby were vibrating.
    Zarg lumbered over to Jaykriss and Marda and picked up the Bloodsword, handing it back to Jaykriss by its ruby-tipped hilt. His ochre eyes glittered within his spiked steel helmet.
    “The key to this is positioning.  Strength has nothing to do with it.  It’s all about leverage. See here,” Zarg said.
    He picked up a heavy, dull-edged practice sword with his reconstituted left hand—the one that the Queen’s anglerfish had picked completely clean of flesh just a few moons ago--and flipped it over effortlessly, as though it were made of pine instead of steel.
    “Come at me, Marda,” he said.
    Marda charged him, sword upraised.  He swung Icebreaker in a vicious downstroke, but Zarg deflected it with a minimal flick of the wrist.
    “How did you do that?” Jaykriss said.
    “By using Marda’s own force against him.  Let the attacker’s momentum carry them past you, then deflect the blade as they pass.  You can get a counterswing in then if you’re quick enough. Again, it’s not about brute strength. It’s about technique.”
    “Let’s try it again,” Marda said.
    “The results will be the same,” Zarg said.
    “I’ve got some moves you’ve never seen,” said Marda.
    Zarg feigned a yawn.
    “I doubt that,” he said.
    Marda charged again—but this time, at the last moment, he dropped his sword and tried to slide it beneath the crocodilian’s battle armor. Zarg deftly stepped to one side and forced Marda to swing wildly. His sword struck only air, and Marda staggered past Zarg like a stampeding buffalo.  The giant crocodilian then added insult to injury when he slapped Marda on the rump with the flat edge of his practice sword, sending him sprawling face-first onto the Arena’s mossy floor.  He knocked one of the torches over as he fell and it flared for a moment, igniting a small pool of oil-laden water on the cavern floor. Zarg stamped out the flames with his boot, then turned back to Marda.  The Stygian commander’s crooked fangs were fixed in a mischievous grin.
    “That wasn’t fair!”  Marda exclaimed, his face flushed red.
    Zarg glanced at Marda.
    “Leverage,” he said, his eyes dancing.
    “How did we ever beat you?” Jaykriss said, shaking his head.
    Zarg snorted, dropping his sword.
    “Pah. I let you two win.  I don’t fight children—especially not Outlander children.  It wasn’t a fair fight.”
    But Zarg’s momentary glance at his left hand—a forelimb still pink with newly-grown skin, in stark contrast to the thick black scales that covered the rest of his body--said otherwise.
    “You’ve got to feel the Bloodsword, Jaykriss.  Link with it.  Let it work with you,” said a familiar voice from the shadows.
    Startled, Zarg wheeled about, sword upraised—and blinked at the bearded apparition he saw standing before him.
    “By the gods, old man!  You’ve got to stop doing that!” Zarg bellowed.
    Zamarcus stepped forward from the shadows.  His white cloak gleamed apple green in bioluminescent glow of the room. The torchlight danced along the rims of his spectacles, making it difficult to see the old man’s eyes—but Jaykriss thought he looked amused.
    “Not all of us must enter a room like a hurricane, Zarg.  Sometimes, it is better to be a simple summer breeze,” Zamarcus said.
    “A Stygian militiaman will never come in like a summer breeze, old man.  It is not in our nature.”
    “Fair enough,” Zamarcus said, nodding.  “It is admittedly difficult to be stealthy when you are over nine paces tall and weigh as much as a cow.”
    “A bull,” Zarg said.
    “Do not compare me to a cud-chewing cow. I am like a bull—powerful and strong.”
    “A bull, then.  A really large, mean bull, right?”
    Zarg grinned.
    “Yes. The largest and the meanest.”
    Zamarcus turned back to Jaykriss.
    “Zarg is right.  The battle does not always go to the strongest. Sometimes it goes to the most cunning.  And the use of leverage is one aspect of swordplay that one gains from experience—and a good teacher, like Zarg here.”
    “Mmph!” the Stygian commander grunted, nodding.
    “But there is something else, something I mentioned before.  Your sword is yours for a reason.  It has been in your family for generations.  Your father used it, and his before him.  It knows you, Jaykriss.  It feels you.  And you must feel it.”
    “I thought that you were a scientist,” Jaykriss said.
    “I am.”
    “So this smacks of something else.  Witchcraft, perhaps.  The old hocus-pocus.”
    “It’s neither.”
    “So what is it, then?”
    Zamarcus took off his spectacles and began cleaning them with the edge of his robe.”
    “It’s faith,” he said.  “And that is outside of science, or magic, or anything else in our world.  There are things in the universe that you cannot see, things you cannot prove or disprove. That’s where faith comes in.  Sometimes you simply have to believe that something is true to make it so.”
    Jaykriss frowned.
    “That sure sounds a lot like magic to me.”
    Zamarcus grinned.
    “I suppose it is in a way.  It sure seems like that when it happens. You know, many of the things that seem like magic have scientific explanations that we just haven’t found yet. But every once in a while, you run into something that simply defies logic.  That’s where this sort of thing comes in. Faith is belief in the unknowable—the sort of thing which is the foundation of most religions.”
    Zamarcus picked up a rusty iron helmet from the practice armor rack and placed it backwards on Jaykriss’s head.
    “I can’t see!” Jaykriss said.
    “That’s the point.  You’ve got to trust your instincts.  Swing, and the sword will follow.  Feel its power in your hand.  Know where it is in space.  You don’t need your eyes to see that,” he said. “Only your heart and soul.”
    Jaykriss shook his head.
    “It’s as dark as pitch in here,” he said.
    “Marda, take our Stygian friend here and go to the observation room.  I’ll join you in a moment.  Jaykriss has something he must do alone.”
    Zamarcus turned an iron knob on the wall.  A droning buzz filled the air.  The metal plate covering the “drain” in the center of the room began to move.
    “What’s that sound?” Marda said.
    “Shillix.  They live in the drainpipe,” Zamarcus said.
    “Blood-sucking little bastards,” Zarg said.
    “Zamarcus! You’d let them out?
    “What’s going on?” said Jaykriss.
    “I’m opening the drainpipe, Jaykriss,” Zamarcus said.  “There’s a shillix nest below. It’s time you learned to trust what you already know.”
    “But you’ll unleash them! They’ll kill us!” Jaykriss said.
    “We won’t be in here.  Only you,” Zamarcus said.
    Marda’s eyes widened.
    “Go,” Zamarcus said, frowning.
    “But . . .”
    Zamarcus pointed to the door.
    “Go now.  He needs this.”
    “The boy’s not ready,” Zarg said, shaking his head.  
    “Yes he is,” Zamarcus said.  “He just doesn’t know it yet.”
    He turned the knob another notch.  The buzzing sound grew louder, more insistent.  Things were banging intermittently on the opposite side of the large metal plate that covered the drain.
    “Feel the sword, Jaykriss.  Let it be your eyes,” Zamarcus whispered. His hot breath was close to Jaykriss’s ear.
    “What is happening?” Jaykriss said.
    “You are about to wake up.  It’s time, Jaykriss—time to fulfill your destiny.”
    He turned the knob another notch.  The drainplate edged to one side, revealing a sliver of utter darkness—and suddenly there they were: a frantic flurry of arms and legs and wings, a score of proboscises tipped with razor-sharp mouthparts crowding through the widening gap between the stone floor and the metal plate.
    “The shillix are going to try to eat you.  You must kill them first,” Zamarcus said.
    Zamarcus strapped the helmet down tight.
    “I can’t see a thing!  How can I kill them if I cannot see them?”
    “You can hear them, can’t you?  Their wings buzzing, mouthparts clicking?  Aim for that,” Zamarcus said.
    He turned the knob another click to the left.  The metal plate began to slowly inch aside.
    “Have faith in yourself, Jaykriss!’ Zamarcus said over his shoulder as he ran to the Arena’s metal doorway.  He opened it up with a dull ker-chank! and dead-bolted it behind him.
    The first shillix had already wriggled through the widening gap in the floor, its chitinous lower body squeezing through as its forelimbs scrabbled furiously against the stone floor.
    Zamarcus joined Zarg and Marda in the Arena Observation Room, located above the practice floor.
    “Are you crazy, old man?” Marda asked.  “He’ll be nothing but a pile of bones once they get ahold of him!”
    “No, he won’t.  Look at him,” Zamarcus said.
    Jaykriss stood right in the center of the Arena, his sword upraised.  Twin rows of torches flickered on either side of him, their light reflected in the spider-webbed rivulets of water that flowed across the Arena’s stone floor.
    The shillix was as big as an eagle.  It circled above Jaykriss’s head, its huge compound eyes darkly reflecting the flickering torchlight.  The ravenous insect looked like a giant six-winged mosquito, its segmented thorax a gleaming obsidian, with one exception:  the long proboscis that drooped from its head was tipped with a circular array of razor-sharp teeth that moved incessantly, as though they needed a gobbet of soft flesh to gnaw on.  
    Jaykriss could clearly hear the creature’s wings whirring above him. He whirled about, turning his blinded eyes upward.
    Suddenly, the shillix dove downward, its spindly claw-tipped legs spread wide.
    “Watch out!” Marda screamed.
    There was a flash of steel as Jaykriss swung the Bloodsword through the air.  
    The glimmering blade sliced through the shillix’s dark torso, cleaving the giant insect neatly in two.  Dark red blood splattered across the floor at Jaykriss’s feet as the two halves of the insect’s body tumbled across the floor.
    “Bravo!” Marda said.
    “There’s more of them,” Zarg said, pointing upward.
    Now, three shillix hovered above Jaykriss’s head. Others were trying to squeeze through the ever-widening gap between the drainplate and the floor, their clawed forelimbs straining with the effort.
    “Ye gods,” Marda said, shaking his head.
    Two of the three circling shillix dove at Jaykriss at once.  Jaykriss whirled and deflected one with the flat side of the Bloodsword, knocking it to the ground, then sliced the second in half.  The third dove on him then, but it had no chance.  Jaykriss whirled and decapitated it with a single stroke.
    The battered shillix that Jaykriss had knocked down was nursing a broken wing and could no longer fly. It was crawling along the Arena floor, its left wing limp and useless, in an attempt to take further refuge in the dark drainpipe it had come from.  But as it reached the edge of the plate, it was attacked by the other shillix that were trying to escape through the opening in the floor.  The wounded insect shrieked as its brethren tore it apart in a matter of seconds, ripping its limbs off and tearing into its convulsing thorax with their razor-sharp mandibles.
    “Kill them, Jaykriss!  Kill them now, while they are distracted!” Marda said.
    But Jaykriss turned his back on the ravenous creatures and walked away.
    “What is he doing?” Marda asked.
    Jaykriss plucked one of the torches from the floor and dipped it into the water pooling at the edges of the Arena. The torch sputtered and flared up yellow-orange, the flames rising three feet in the air.  Black smoke spiraled off of the end of the torch.
    And then Jaykriss dropped the torch straight into the water.
    The water ignited with a muffled whoomp! and suddenly Jaykriss was invisible, his thin body surrounded by walls of flame.
    “Is he crazy?  He’ll burn to death!” Marda said.
    Zamarcus, grinning, gently patted Marda’s broad, muscular shoulder with a bony hand.
    “No, Marda, he’s not crazy.  He’s brilliant.  He’s figured it all out. Watch.”

 ***To be continued in Vengeance of The Dark King, Book 2 of The Bloodsword Trilogy***