Blending vigilante justice with epic fantasy, student mage Veranix Calbert fights crime in the city of Maradaine in this fast-paced debut novel • “Veranix is Batman, if Batman were a teenager and magically talented.” —Library Journal
Veranix Calbert leads a double life. By day, he’s a struggling magic student at the University of Maradaine. At night, he spoils the drug trade of Willem Fenmere, crime boss of Dentonhill and murderer of Veranix’s father. He’s determined to shut Fenmere down.
With that goal in mind, Veranix disrupts the delivery of two magical artifacts meant for Fenmere's clients, the mages of the Blue Hand Circle. Using these power-filled objects in his fight, he quickly becomes a real thorn in Fenmere's side.
So much so that soon not only Fenmere, but powerful mages, assassins, and street gangs all want a piece of “The Thorn.” And with professors and prefects on the verge of discovering his secrets, Veranix’s double life might just fall apart. Unless, of course, Fenmere puts an end to it first.
Explore the back alleys of the city in this street-level fantasy adventure, the first novel of the Maradaine series. Then see Maradaine from a new perspective, with Maresca's second, concurrent series set in the same city: A Murder of Mages begins the Maradaine Constabulary novels, featuring an unlikely partnership of two detectives in the city’s constabulary.
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Marshall Ryan Maresca grew up in upstate New York and studied film and video production at Penn State. He now lives Austin with his wife and son. His work appeared in Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction and Rick Klaw’s anthology Rayguns Over Texas. He also has had several short plays produced and has worked as a stage actor, a theatrical director and an amateur chef. His novels The Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages each begin their own fantasy series, both set in the port city of Maradaine. For more information, visit Marshall’s website at www.mrmaresca.com.
Read an Excerpt
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES—MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN U.S.A.
“THIEF!” a heavy voice shouted from the door.
That’s rich, one of them calling me thief, Veranix Calbert thought. He had arrived only seconds before. He hadn’t had the chance to steal anything yet.
The man at the door was large, a good foot taller than Veranix, all muscle and bone. Gray wool vest, white shirtsleeves, thin rapier at his belt. Pretenses of a man of substance.
Veranix flashed a grin at the man. “If you think there’s a thief, you should call the constables.”
“Oh, no, whelp. We won’t be needing them.” The man drew the sword and edged closer.
There wasn’t supposed to be anyone here. Veranix had scouted the place for the past three days. This office above the fish cannery was used only as a drop spot. No one stayed here, no one kept watch. The point of it was to avoid notice.
“Are you sure?” Veranix asked, tensing his legs. “I hear they are awfully friendly.”
The man charged in, blade swinging. “I’ll show you friendly!”
Veranix jumped out of the way and rolled to the side, landing back on his feet by the desk in the corner. He was grateful that, while the man had a sword, he didn’t know how to use it: all muscle, no finesse. Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t a guard. Veranix could handle him. Veranix wished he hadn’t left his weapons behind, but he had another advantage over the guy.
“Really, chap, that’s not friendly at all,” he said. His gaze flashed over the desk, taking in the scraps of paper and parchment covering it. The room was too dark to know if the information he wanted was there.
“Not to you,” the man said as he turned back around to face Veranix. “But I’ve got friends. Oy!” Three more men, dressed and armed the same as their friend, appeared at the door.
“That’s really not fair,” Veranix said. He grabbed a handful of papers blindly and shoved them into the pocket of his cloak.
“You think you’re going to take those?” the first man said. They all stood there, looking quite pleased with themselves.
Veranix conceded they had good reason. They blocked the door and the window, and they were four muscular men with swords. From what they saw, he was an unarmed, scrawny-looking young man, barely fully grown. They certainly thought they had him trapped.
“If you don’t mind terribly,” Veranix said.
“’Fraid we do, mate. Either put them back, or we make you.”
“Tempting offer,” Veranix said. As unthreatening as he must have appeared to them, they held back, hands resting on their sheathed swords. They clearly wanted to avoid a fight. That gave him a chance. Even so, without weapons, he knew he wasn’t strong enough to last in a fair brawl with one of these guys, let alone four.
Good thing he wasn’t interested in a fair brawl.
With the few seconds he had, Veranix drew as much numina as he could. He didn’t shape it much. He didn’t have time, and he didn’t want them to realize what he was doing. He channeled the magic energy out in a quick, hard blast in front of him. He didn’t give it enough raw force to hurt any of them, that wasn’t the point. The papers on the desk scattered, filling the air. All the men jumped back in surprise, and Veranix darted for the door.
Quick and dirty, he drew in more numina and released it out again. In a flash, the floor under the men was covered in a thin sheen of grease. Veranix braced himself and knocked headfirst into the man in the middle. The man lost his footing and fell over. Veranix slid out into the hallway, overlooking the cannery floor. Not slowing down, he launched himself over the railing.
Right below the railing was a bin filled with dead fish and half-melted ice, too big to avoid. Veranix crashed into it, the cold more jarring than the impact. It wasn’t an ideal landing, but it was good enough to escape.
“Get him!” a voice called from above. Doing two bits of fast magic had left Veranix winded and woozy, but he didn’t have time to catch his breath. He rolled forward, tossing himself onto the floor of the shop. The men were getting to the top of the stairs, still stumbling and slipping from his grease trick. He tried to push over the bin of ice to block their path, but it was too heavy for him. With a shrug and a grin, he bounded over the cleaning tables toward the door.
“Never leave your gear behind, no matter how small the window,” he muttered to himself as he ran out into the street. If he hadn’t left his weapons on the opposite roof, he could have escaped without resorting to magic.
He didn’t have time to be subtle. With wild desperation, he pulled in all the numina he could and channeled it to his legs.
He jumped up, leaping high from the dusty cobblestone road to the top of the roof across the street. He almost fell short, landing chest-first on the eaves. He scrambled over and fell flat onto the rooftop. His whole body screamed with exhaustion, barely able to move.
He cursed himself for being careless, doing magic badly. The jump was messy, all the magic he just did was messy, using more numina than he needed. That much, all at once, was more than his body could handle. Sloppy work. Magic like that made big ripples of numina that other mages would notice, could trace. Someone might start poking his nose around. If that led back to him, still Uncircled, still at school . . . he’d almost rather take his chances fighting Fenmere’s goons.
“The blazes is he?” he heard a voice in the street below.
“Couldn’t have gone far,” another said.
“Anyone get a good look at him?”
“Skinny kid, maroon cloak. That’s about it.”
“What did he take?”
“Don’t know, but Fenmere will hide us if we don’t find him.”
Rapid footsteps went off in different directions. He didn’t hear any of the men go into the building. They probably wouldn’t come up and find him. They’d have no reason to look up, no reason to think he could make it to the roof as fast as he did. Head still spinning from the magic burn, he grabbed his bow, arrows, staff, and pack, right where he had left them. He glanced across the street, back at the office window. From up here, it did look too small to squeeze through with his equipment. In retrospect, he could have done it. He shook his head, deciding not to leave anything behind again unless it was necessary.
If nothing else, with the white moon nearly full and hanging low on the horizon, the view of the city up on the roof was spectacular. The wide sprawl of Maradaine spread out before him. The thick clusters of gray brick of Dentonhill; past that, the densely packed streets and old white stone of Inemar, the true central neighborhood of the city. Beyond that, the wide stretch of dark water that was the Maradaine River. Lamps from sailed ships dotted the river, as well as lighting up the bridges to the north side of the city. Far across the river, the marble towers of the North Maradaine neighborhoods and the gleaming dome of the Parliament shone in the moonlight.
He glanced around the roof. There was a drying line with clothes hung on it, a few chairs and a table, a door giving entry into the building. He tried the door, finding it unlocked, and a dark staircase leading down. It looked like a hallway, not direct access to an apartment. Sighing, he slunk inside. Normally he would have magicked his way down to the ground, or from roof to roof, to get back home. Right now, he couldn’t muster enough magic to lift a bug.
He wrapped the bow in his cloak, and hid it in his pack with his arrows and the papers he had stolen. He didn’t want to risk the undue attention he would get walking through the streets armed. The staff he’d have to chance, as there was no way of hiding it. Given how his body ached, he might have to actually use it to walk. Luckily, the thugs hadn’t seen him with it before.
He went down one flight of stairs, leading to a dank, moldy landing with doors for four apartments. He had only taken one step down the next flight when one of the doors opened.
A young man, shabby hair and dull eyes, poked his head out the door. It took a moment before his eyes focused on Veranix, but then he smiled and nodded.
“Hey,” he said, calm and friendly.
“Hey,” Veranix returned.
“Who is it?” another man’s voiced hissed from inside the apartment.
“Just some guy,” the man at the door said.
“Is he buying?”
The man at the door turned back to Veranix. “You here to buy a ‘vi’?”
The words were asked casually, but they hit Veranix hard. They were selling effitte. He knew he should say no. He was spent, head spinning, he needed to get back home. He should just walk away.
“Tell him to roll his own hand if he’s not buying!”
Veranix took a step off the stairs back onto the landing. “You’re selling?”
“If you’ve got coin,” the man inside called back. Veranix took a tick out of his pocket, and showed it to the doorman.
“You’re not a stick, are you?”
“Do I look like a stick?”
The skinny guy at the door chuckled. “Nah. Like they come up here anyway, except to buy.”
He let Veranix step into the flop. It was exactly what he expected from an effitte den. A few low-burning lamps sat on cracked wooden tables. A floor riddled with clothes, dirt, and other filth. An iron stove sat in the middle of the room, and a few bedrolls huddled around it. The fishy reek of the cannery filled the air, though Veranix realized that was probably his own scent after falling in the ice bin.
One older man, wearing just a stained vest and ripped pants, crouched by the stove, rubbing blackened hands together in front of the open grate. “You buying, kid?” He was obviously the boss in here. One other person, a young girl wrapped in a blanket, maybe fourteen or fifteen, sat against the far wall, staring blankly into empty space.
Veranix held up the coin. “If you’ve got it to sell.”
“Half-crown for a vial.”
Veranix nodded. He reached into his pocket, and pushing a small amount of magic through his fingers, made the sound of several coins jingling. “How much for the whole stash?”
“Whole stash?” The man laughed, dry and mirthless. “Funny guy you are.”
“I’ll pay you fair.”
The man squinted at Veranix. “Why don’t you buy one, and come back in the morning for more?”
“Sure,” Veranix said. He took some coins out of his pocket, slapped them all on one of the tables. The girl startled at the sound, but then went back to her blank stare.
The older man opened up his vest and took a thin vial out of a small pocket. Veranix spotted at least ten more inside the vest. The man handed the vial over and bent to pick up the coins.
Veranix only let it stay in his hand for a second. That was all he could stand. Rage fueling every muscle, pushing thorough the swirling fatigue, he hurled the vial of effitte into the stove.
“What?” The seller turned around, still crouched over the table. Veranix swung his staff around hard, cracking the man across the skull. The man fell forward, catching his hands on the hot stove. He screamed.
The other two stared at Veranix in confusion.
“Hey, what are you—” the other man said, reaching out to Veranix. Veranix spun around and knocked him with the staff, once, twice, three times, until he dropped. The man was already effitte- dosed; he didn’t put up a fight.
Veranix turned to the girl. She did nothing but trace her fingers in the empty air.
Veranix gave his attention to the seller. He pulled the man back up, so he was standing, and tore the vest off his body.
“Is this all?” he snarled.
“All what?” The man was dazed and weeping, looking around the room as if there were something he could see that would make everything that just happened make sense.
“All the effitte?”
Veranix threw the vest into the fire.
“No more anywhere? Lockbox of cash?”
“Cash is in the bedroll.” Tears were streaming down the man’s face. Veranix wanted to laugh; this guy had given such tough talk before. Then he thought of all the effitte the guy had peddled. He grabbed the guy by the hair and slammed his head against the stove, and dropped him to the ground. The guy didn’t get up.
“Are you the boss?” the girl slurred.
“You should get out of here,” Veranix said. He knocked over the bedroll and found a sack of coins. He grabbed it and stormed out of the apartment.
He got down two more flights of stairs before the rush of anger faded, and his head started spinning. Even only using a little magic back there, he was still weak.
He slumped down onto the stairs. With a chuckle to himself, he considered that the night wasn’t a total waste. He had destroyed some effitte, taken care of a few sellers. That was something.
He took out the stolen papers. As spent as he was, he had to know if he had gotten the information he needed, anything on Fenmere’s effitte delivery schedules. With that, he could start cutting off the drug at the source, no longer just hitting street dealers. Then he could really make a difference.
It was too dark to read in the stairwell. Annoyed, he shoved the papers back in his pocket.
He let his eyes close, just for a moment.
Church bells rang in the distance. Was it seven bells? How long had he been sitting in the stairwell? Slivers of sunlight came under the door. Had he fallen asleep and not realized it? Panic fueled his body, and he forced himself to move. He couldn’t waste any more time.
He left the building and headed west on Necker. It was a major road, with tightly packed dirty gray stone buildings, looming six or seven stories high. Windows were covered with black iron grates. The street bustled with early morning activity. Shopkeepers opened up their iron-grated doors. Horsecarts slowly rolled along. Snuffers put out the streetlamps that hadn’t burned out during the night.
Veranix slipped in with a group dressed for work in heavy, brown smocks, headed toward the Dentonhill Slaughterhouse. The scent of blood and the squawking of hundreds of doomed birds filled the air. Veranix was pleased to have a small crowd to blend into. Even if Fenmere’s thugs spotted him and recognized him, they probably wouldn’t try to grab him where there would be witnesses.
This was Dentonhill, after all. Fenmere’s neighborhood. Any possible witnesses would be people Fenmere could buy or intimidate to keep quiet. Any constables in the neighborhood were likely to be deep in his pocket.
Veranix just had to make it three blocks to Waterpath, and he’d be out of Dentonhill and somewhat safer. At least he’d be out of Fenmere’s direct influence.
By the time Veranix reached Waterpath, the sun was peeking over the buildings, casting long shadows across the road. Waterpath was a major roadway, wide enough for four carriages side-by-side, and at this hour plenty of drovers were taking full advantage of that. The street crawled with merchant wagons and horse carriages, while three-wheeled pedalcarts darted through the gaps. Veranix crossed out from the Dentonhill side, sitting like a great gray cliff behind him, and wove between the carts and wagons until he reached the bright green tree line of the University of Maradaine.
There were plenty of people about on the street, but no one seemed to notice as he went behind a wide-leafed tree and climbed up a few branches. His strength had returned for the most part, though he still felt drained. From this vantage point, he could jump onto the back wall of the University. The low wall was there to mark the border of the campus, rather than actually keep people out. He scrambled onto the rough stone and dropped onto the soft grass.
He relaxed a little after entering the campus. It was a stark change from Dentonhill: the green of the campus lawn, the bright white buildings, the paved walkways all lined with banners, statues, and fresh-scented blooming trees, and the open view of the sky.
No one was in sight, and no one cried out that they saw him. Veranix said a quick prayer of thanks to Saint Senea. Now he just had to get back to quarters. That was going to be a challenge. The back doors to Almers Hall were locked, and prefects watched the front doors. If they caught him out of quarters now, carrying a pack and a staff, there would be a lot of questions about what he was up to, possibly an official inquiry. That would mean demerits and reprimands, if not outright expulsion. He didn’t need that any more than he needed to be caught by the thugs. He had left a window open on the third floor, but it was too light out now to climb to it. He’d be easily seen. He’d probably be spotted shortly anyway. He made a quick dash for the carriage house.
Veranix went up to one window near the back end of it, and tapped on the glass.
“Kai!” he whispered. “Kai!” After a moment, the window opened.
“Don’t tell me you’re just getting here,” Kaiana said, scowling at him. Her dark eyes were wide and alert. She had already woken up for the day, dressed in her loose canvas pullover and slacks. Veranix cursed himself for losing track of time. She stepped back and let him scramble into the window. “It’s nearly eight bells!”
“Nearly got caught, and I burned myself out getting away. And then I stumbled into a den.”
“You reek of fish, you know,” she said, her flat nose crinkling in disgust. Kaiana Nell was a dark-haired, brown-skinned girl. Ruder people would call her a Napa: half Druth, half Napolic. She was a soldier’s daughter, born out on the tropical islands during the Fifty Year War.
Ruder people would call Veranix a Dirty Quin if his Racquin heritage were as clear on his face. Of course, Racquin were only a little darker than “regular” Druthalians. They just kept to the roads and kept to their own, for the most part. Though Veranix, like Kaiana, was only half. His father was a “regular” Druth, born and raised in Maradaine, just blocks away from the University. Veranix had inherited his father’s fair skin and green eyes, and could speak in his father’s Aventil neighborhood accent. Even his last name, Calbert, was pure Druth. Only his given name gave any hint that he was anything but a local.
“I landed in a bin full of them,” he said. “It wasn’t fun.”
“You got careless out there, didn’t you?”
“You ‘stumbled’ into a den?”
“Really, I did. Well, I found it was there, and I couldn’t just ignore—”
“I get it,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. “Did you destroy their stash?”
“Fifteen, maybe twenty vials.”
“Not much stash.”
He took out the pouch of coins. “Plus this. Keep them from getting more.”
“You count it?”
“Of course not.” He tossed it over to her. “Can you drop that at Saint Julian’s?”
“Yeah,” she said, putting the sack under her bed.
He took off his leather vest and linen tunic as if they were one piece. “I’m going to hide my gear here today.”
“Gear, yes. Not those clothes.”
“Kai, if I get caught in these clothes . . .”
“If that fish smell brings Master Jolen searching here, he’ll find all your gear. Then I’ll be out on the street.” Master Jolen was the head groundskeeper of the campus. Veranix knew that he, at best, tolerated Kaiana’s presence on his staff, and would probably use any excuse to kick her out.
“You have my spare uniform?” he asked.
“No, Veranix,” she said. “I told you, I hid those in the Spinner Run.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Again, if Jolen finds a student’s uniform in here, he’ll throw me out. After he beats me for being a ‘wanton trollop.’”
“He wouldn’t dare,” Veranix said.
“Oh, I think he would,” she said. “I think he’d like it.” Kaiana was the only female on the grounds staff, so Jolen had her sleep in the carriage house, while the rest lived in one of the staff barracks. Jolen was constantly threatening her with beatings if she stepped out of line, but he hadn’t ever followed through, as far as Veranix knew.
“All right,” Veranix said. He rummaged through his pack and took out the stolen papers.
“Are those what you wanted?” she asked.
“Don’t know. Haven’t gotten a chance to look at them.” He glanced at the sheets in his hands.
“You don’t have time now!”
“Nearly eight bells already?”
“If not past.”
“Fine, fine.” Grudgingly, Veranix stuck the papers in the crease of his pants.
“Ridiculous,” she muttered, shoving his pack and staff under her bed. “Now, get.” He opened her door a crack. No one was out there. With a last wink at her, he dashed out to the stables.
The Spinner Run was an abandoned underground passage that ran from one of the stables of the carriage house to Holtman Hall, where the students’ dining hall was. Veranix had no idea what its original purpose had been, but as far as he knew the only ones who still used it, other than Kaiana and himself, were rats and spiders.
He pulled open the trapdoor and dropped into the Run. It was completely dark, but he didn’t care. He had enough of his strength back to make a small glowing ball appear. The ball hung in the air, providing enough light to find the hole in the wall, a space where the bricks had been chipped out of the mortar, down near the dirt floor. Reaching in, he pulled out his spare school uniform. Taking the papers out and putting them to the side, he stripped off the dark wool pants he was wearing, and shoved all his fishy clothes into the hole. He’d have to deal with those later.
Not knowing how much time he had, he raced to put on his uniform. He never liked wearing it. The wool of the dark blue pants and jacket was scratchy and stiff. He couldn’t move, couldn’t stretch, while wearing it. The worst parts of the whole thing were the cap and scarf. Every time he put them on he felt foolish, even though every other student wore the same thing. His were striped red and gray, which marked him as a magic student.
He folded up the stolen papers and shoved them in the jacket pocket. Wiping off the bits of loose mortar from his jacket, he dashed down the passageway, reaching the other end in less than a minute. Other students in his House would be arriving shortly in Holtman for breakfast. If his luck held, no one would notice that he hadn’t come from Almers.
He climbed up through the trapdoor, emerging in one of Holtman’s storerooms. As usual, no one was there. He snuck from the room, went down the hall, and joined in with the uniformed students from Almers who were heading toward the dining hall.
He felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Where have you been?”
“Water closet,” he said. He turned to see Delmin Sarren, who shared sleeping quarters with him in Almers. Delmin was tall and rail-thin, with stringy, light-colored hair that never stayed contained under his cap, which had the same red and gray trim as Veranix’s.
Delmin chuckled. “Don’t treat me stupid. Your bed wasn’t slept in.”
“Sure it was.”
“Please. I won’t tell the prefects or anything. But if you get caught, you’re going to be in trouble.”
“Caught?” Veranix asked in his best innocent voice.
Delmin wrapped an arm around him and whispered conspiratorially. “Look, mate. That dark girl is a pretty one, so I don’t blame you for sneaking into her bed. But you can’t be staying with her until dawn, no matter how good it is.”
“You’re right,” Veranix replied. “Thanks.”
Delmin sniffed at Veranix. “Also, you need to give yourself time to clean up. You smell like a freshly rolled doxy.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Veranix said. He bit his lip to keep from laughing. “What’s our course today?”
“We’ve got lecture with Alimen today.”
Veranix sighed. Alimen on no sleep would be a challenge. He went into the dining hall, hoping for some very strong tea.
THREE CUPS OF tea and two bowls of porridge later, Veranix stumbled behind Delmin as they went to the Western Lecture Halls. Bells up in the High University Tower rang out the time. It was already nine bells. Delmin broke into a run. Veranix realized that they were about to be late for lecture and bolted after Delmin. The two of them skidded into the hall just as the ninth bell rang.
“Well, Mister Calbert. Mister Sarren. You managed to make it to lecture on time.” Professor Alimen stood at the slate board, looking stately in his blue professorial robe. He was an older man, though fit and lean. He kept his gray hair and beard cropped short, and his green eyes had very few lines around them for his age. The sleeves of his robe were rolled up, revealing his strong forearms and the tattoo on his left arm. The tattoo, of the letters L and P surrounded by flame, showed his membership in Lord Preston’s Circle.
“We don’t want to miss a minute, Professor,” Veranix said.
“Surely,” Alimen said. “Upper gallery, gentlemen.”
Veranix and Delmin went up the narrow spiral stairs to the gallery above the lecture floor, joining the score of students already standing there. Many of them were specifically Third-Year Magic students, like Veranix and Delmin, but several were students of other disciplines, taking Alimen’s Advanced Mystical Theory lecture to round out their education. The University Board insisted that all students take several lectures outside of their field of Mastery.
“Very good, then,” Professor Alimen said. “As the bells have rung, and we are all assembled, let us begin. Today we will start a new chapter, as laid out in your texts, exploring the mystical nature of . . .”
Veranix looked at the assembly standing in the upper gallery, taking in the wide variety of caps and scarves. He was always amazed that so many students who couldn’t do magic would want to learn about magic theory. Theory was a waste of his time, and Alimen’s lectures were dry and dull. Despite that, Veranix attended every lecture dutifully. He owed Professor Alimen too much to do otherwise.
He slipped his hand inside his jacket pocket, feeling for the stolen papers. He was getting anxious to know just what he had. As his fingers touched the sheets, they made a slight crinkling sound. Delmin glanced over at him.
“What’re you doing?” he whispered.
“Nothing,” Veranix said, pulling his hand out. “Had an itch.”
“Scratch later,” someone on Veranix’s other side hissed at him.
Veranix sighed. He’d have to wait.
Professor Alimen droned on.
Two more hours of this. He leaned against the support beam and did his best to keep his focus on the lecture.
Veranix snapped out of his doze. His face was uncomfortably pressed against the support beam. There was no hiding that he had fallen asleep.
“Yes, Professor Alimen?” he asked. Blinking to clear his eyes, he looked down to the lecture floor. Alimen was glaring up at him, holding a small rock in his hand. Veranix had the idea that the professor was of the mind to throw it at his head.
“Perhaps you would care to help me demonstrate?”
“Yes, of course, Professor,” Veranix said.
“Come down here, then, Mister Calbert.”
Veranix pushed his way through the other students on the upper gallery to get to the stairs. Each step creaked and groaned as he went down. He suddenly had the wild urge to jump down from the balcony. He could have done it easily, managing a double or even a triple flip before making a perfect landing, bringing gasps of amazement and thunderous applause from the crowd. He missed those sounds sometimes. He quickly stifled the urge. It was best that no one knew he could do that, as they would surely ask where he’d learned it.
Veranix wracked his brain to think of what he was about to help demonstrate. What was the lecture about again? Something about minerals and mystic properties. He stepped out onto the floor, very aware of all the eyes on him.
Professor Alimen was smiling far too broadly for Veranix’s comfort. “Excellent, Mister Calbert. Now, if you could just take the dalmatium.”
Veranix took the rock. It was heavier than he expected, cool to the touch. It was a chunk of metal, not stone.
“Now, Mister Calbert, you get to fulfill the fantasy of many, many students who have passed through these halls. You have permission to blast me.”
“Sir?” Veranix asked.
“Whatever form of magic blast or jinx you prefer, Mister Calbert. Hit me, full strength.” Veranix was still feeling tired and drained, now even more than before. He wasn’t sure how much strength he could even muster.
“Are you certain, sir?” Veranix asked. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”
“Now, Mister Calbert.”
The students above chuckled nervously. Veranix was sure all of them were glad they weren’t down here.
“All right, Professor.” Veranix drew in the numina from around him. He raised his hand to release the energy, but it was already gone. Nothing happened. He tried again, but the numina was gone. He couldn’t make any magic.
Professor Alimen nodded and looked up at the crowd. “As you see, the dalmatium effectively absorbs numina energy, making any magic all but impossible.” He took the rock away from Veranix and put it back on the table. “Thank you, Mister Calbert. Back up top, and try to stay awake.”
Veranix slunk back up the stairs as Alimen continued the lecture.
“Now, also unlike napranium, dalmatium is a hard metal, and it does not lose its properties when alloyed with iron. In fact, our city’s constabulary has special shackles for mages that are made with dalmatium. Mister Calbert has some idea now what it would be like to wear them.”
Veranix stepped back into place next to Delmin. Every student with red and gray trim looked at him with sympathy and fear.
“How did it feel?” Delmin whispered to him.
“Strange. Like I was leaking.”
“Teach you to doze off in lecture,” Delmin said.
“Shh,” Veranix said. “I don’t want to miss any more.”
“Next lecture we’ll start going over crystals,” Alimen continued. He put the rock in a small box, latching it shut. “I’ll have more samples to demonstrate at that class. Good day, all.”
“More samples?” Veranix asked Delmin. “What did that mean?”
“Oh, the dalmatium was the only thing he had to show today,” Delmin said, gathering his notes while other students filed out of the hall. “The other metals, napranium, theralium, and so on are too rare for him to get.”
“Mister Calbert!” Alimen’s voice boomed across the lecture hall. Veranix and Delmin both stopped in their tracks. Veranix turned to see Alimen approaching, arms full of boxes and charts.
“Yes, Professor?” Veranix held out his arms, offering to take some of the professor’s burden.
Alimen gave him a dismissive shake of the head, refusing the help. “Please note that you have a practical course with me tomorrow at nine bells. I will demand both your punctuality and full attention.” Despite the harsh tone, Alimen’s face was cheerful and bright. “Mister Sarren, yours is at eleven bells. Though I know you need no prodding.”
“We could switch, Professor,” Veranix suggested.
“Absolutely not, Veranix,” Alimen said with a chuckle and a shake of his head. “I want to have you done with so I can enjoy the rest of my day.” He winked after this comment, and went out of the hall.
Delmin knocked Veranix’s arm as they followed. “We could switch? Nine bells is all yours, my friend. Come on, let’s beat the crowd to lunch.”
“I’m going to skip it,” Veranix said. “I need some real sleep.”
“Your choice.” Delmin dashed off across the lawn to Holmwood, leaving Veranix to trudge alone to Almers Hall.
Almers was several hundred years old, having been built when the University of Maradaine was just the Great High College of Maradaine, and Veranix was certain that very few changes had been made to the building in all that time. The building was stone, mortared and plastered and painted white. In every room the paint had dirtied to a dull gray, the plaster crumbling and mortar cracking. A boring lump of a building, filled with drafts and moldy dampness. Veranix had happily called it home for the last three years, the only home he had ever had that didn’t have wheels on it.
“Heard you fell asleep in your lecture today, Veranix,” someone said from behind him. Veranix could tell just by the looming presence, a full head and a half taller than him, it was Rellings, one of the Almers prefects.
“Is that story already going around?”
“Word travels fast,” Rellings said, looking down his hawk nose at Veranix. “Now, why were you so tired, kish?” Veranix scowled. He hated whenever anyone called him “kish.” It was a nickname final year students, especially prefects, used for underclassmen. It was a bit of slang on campus so old no one even knew where it came from anymore, but its use persisted. Veranix swore that when he reached final year, he wouldn’t use it at all. Not that it would make a difference. The kind of guys who would use it were the kind of guys who became prefects.
“One of those mornings,” Veranix said. As he approached the door to Almers. Rellings stepped ahead and blocked Veranix’s entrance.
“A morning where you didn’t sleep all night?”
“Nightmares kept me up,” Veranix said, staring hard at Rellings. “That happens with mages, you know.”
Rellings stepped back. Veranix knew he was easily spooked by magic, even just the idle threat of it. “Right. I didn’t note you this morning, but Sarren said you were around. Don’t think I’m not paying attention to you.”
“Glad to hear it,” Veranix said. Delmin was actively covering for him. Veranix appreciated that, but wondered if Delmin would make the effort if he knew what was really happening. “I’m going in now.” Rellings sneered but let him pass. Veranix went up to the third floor common room.
The common room was a chaotic mess of threadbare chairs and cracked wooden tables, grouped around the central fireplace. The winters in Almers were brutal. Even now, as spring was well into warm bloom, the place had a heavy chill. The bare stone floor didn’t help. Several students were huddled about the fireplace, reading, writing, and arguing. Veranix slipped his way between the chairs. He wanted to get in his room, read through the papers, and take a nap.
“Veranix!” someone called to him. He was a first- or second-year whose name Veranix had completely forgotten. “Thank Saint Hespin you’re here.”
“Prens!” his companion said. “Watch the blasphemy.” He tapped his knuckle to his forehead and then kissed it in benediction. His accent and his act of devotion stood out. He was from the southern Archduchy of Scaloi. There couldn’t be more than ten Scallics on campus. Despite that, Veranix couldn’t remember his name.
“It’s not blas—never mind,” Prens said. “Veranix, sweet Saint Veran, please. Really, help us out.”
Veranix stopped. They were invoking the sainted version of his name. This must be serious. He only hoped this would be quick. “What’s the problem?”
“We’ve got a Basic Mystical Theory exam in the afternoon,” said Prens. “We’re dying here.” Prens and his pious friend both wore brown and green scarves. They weren’t magic students. What was brown and green? Theology? That was it. It was coming back to him. These two were the preseminary students at the end of the hallway.
Veranix shook his head. “You’ve got the wrong man. You want to talk theory, find Delmin.”
“We did last night,” Prens said. “I didn’t understand half of what he said.”
“You did pass Basic Mystical Theory, yes?” his friend asked. Veranix struggled with his name. Owens? Oads? Oaks, that was it.
“Yes, I passed,” Veranix said. “I just . . . look, I’m tired, I came back to take a nap, and . . .” He looked at the two of them, their faces filled with panic. He sat down. “All right, what are you not getting?”
“Everything,” Prens moaned.
“Can you narrow it down to something I can answer in five minutes?”
“The five hundred and five rule,” Oaks said.
Veranix nodded. This was one of the few things he actually understood. “One out of every five hundred people is born with the basic, raw ability to channel numina.”
“To do magic,” Prens said.
“Not exactly. Numina is just the energy that powers magic. Channeling the energy is meaningless if you can’t do something with it. That’s the other part. Of those one in five hundred, only one in five also have the ability to shape numina in any sort of useful way.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Well, that’s how you do magic. Channel the numina through yourself, and shape it how you want it.”
“But if you can channel it, then . . .” Oaks trailed off, looking more confused.
“This is how I got it,” Veranix said. “Imagine numina is like water under the ground. Doing magic is like digging a well.”
“I’ve helped dig a well,” Prens said.
“So the one in five hundred, that’s like a spot where the water level is high enough that it’s worth digging a well.”
“Where you can actually get the water.” Prens nodded.
“But it doesn’t do you any good unless you have bucket or a pump or something to bring up the water.”
“And that’s the one in five,” Oaks said.
Prens looked troubled. “So why is it that only one person in twenty-five hundred can actually do magic? Why do just a few people have the ability?”
“God decides,” Oaks said.
Prens ignored him. “And where does numina come from?”
“God makes it.”
“That’s your answer for everything you don’t get!” Prens rubbed his temples and sighed. “Even in theology class, it won’t be the right answer!”
“There are a lot of theories about both questions,” Veranix said, “but the truth is no one really knows. Or, at least, I don’t think so. These are questions for Delmin. Anyway, numina just is.” He pulled a little bit into his body and shaped it into sparkling lights that he let jump from one hand to the other. “It exists everywhere, always flowing, like the wind. I can feel it, but I can’t explain it.”
“See, I was right,” Oaks said. “God makes it.”
“That doesn’t mean—”
“Give me another—”
“I don’t have to give you another—”
“All right, all right,” Veranix said, getting up from the chair. “Five minutes are up. Good luck to you both. Delmin is in the lunch hall. I’m going now.” The two of them were still arguing when he went into his bedchamber.
The chamber was narrow and cramped. There were two thin beds, two small writing desks, and one wardrobe, all made from raw, unpainted wood, graying and cracked with age. Unlit candles sat on each desk, as well as several books and loose papers. Two unlit oil lamps hung over the beds. A small window on one wall let in a trickle of sunlight. The window had been designed to open only a crack, and there were iron bars covering it. Veranix had spent a fair amount of time fiddling and magicking with the window and bars so he could get out that way, while making it look like they were still intact.
Veranix stripped off his jacket and boots and dropped onto his bed. He lay there for a moment, and then sat back up. He fished out the papers he had stolen the night before. As ready as he was to sleep, he was more anxious to find out what he had, and if it was useful.
Most of the papers were documents about the cannery: payroll, inventory, and money owed to Fenmere. Legitimate money, at least. Nothing about effitte or other illegal activities. Veranix grumbled to himself. Waste of time, the whole thing. He might as well just keep knocking over street dealers.
Veranix thumbed through them all again. On one receipt, he noticed something scratched on the side with a charcoal pencil. It was smudged, but it was still mostly legible.
Pellistar Dock 12, Maritan 8th, two bells past midnight. Interesting. Anything that arrived at the docks at that hour had to be illegal. Most likely an effitte shipment. That was something worth checking into.
Tonight was the eighth of Maritan. It was going to be another long night. Veranix wanted to sleep until nighttime, but he couldn’t allow himself more than two hours. There were still afternoon lectures to attend.
THE SUN WAS hanging low when Veranix came out of the lecture hall. As good as his nap had been, a Rhetoric lecture undid it all, leaving him drained and weary. He was also famished from skipping lunch. The call for dinner service wouldn’t ring for another hour.
A pair of hands gripped Veranix’s shoulders. His whole body tensed. He was about to strike out blindly at the owner of the hands before he caught a glimpse of the gangly body behind him.
“Still awake after that one?” Delmin asked him.
“Barely.” Veranix relaxed as he turned to his friend.
“I have it on very good authority that tonight’s meal at Holmwood is fish stew.” The last two words were ominous.
Veranix shuddered. “Oh, that won’t rutting do at all.” Fish stew at Holmwood was notoriously awful. Common wisdom among the students was that the noxious concoction was the kitchen’s method of clearing out rotting food from their stores. Veranix had had enough of fish for quite some time.
“I don’t know about you,” Delmin said, “but I can definitely spare a few ticks tonight for a real meal.”
“Agreed,” Veranix said. “Blazes, I’ll spend half a crown to avoid fish stew.” They walked across the campus lawn to the south gate.
The south campus lawn was a wide, open field of lush greenery, with trees shading the walkways between the buildings. Several young men had stripped off their coats and rolled up their shirtsleeves to play a spirited game of tetchball. Some girls from the women’s college, housed on the north side of campus, had come to watch. Their uniforms matched the boys’, but with long wool skirts and high-collared blouses, though most of them did not keep them buttoned as primly as their headmistress would have liked.
“Hey, Calbert!” one of the tetch players, blond and muscled, called. “Get over here!”
“Not today,” Veranix called back. “Next time!”
The player—Veranix recognized him as Tosler, rich son of a Lacanjan shipping merchant, biding time in school until the father figured he was ready to run some business—came halfway over to Veranix and Delmin. He spoke with the slow drawl of the coastal archduchy. “Listen up, Calbert. We’re putting together a tetch squad, see . . .”
“I can’t be on a squad, Toss,” Veranix said.
“Neither of us,” Delmin added. The rules about magic students playing in any official sporting squad were detailed and explicit. “Potential unfair advantage” was the language used. In Delmin’s case, that was probably a blessing, as his tetch game was terrible.
“That’s because mages cheat!” one of the other players yelled out. That was the real reason for the rule, because most people didn’t trust mages to play fair. They didn’t trust mages at all.
“Shut it!” Delmin shouted back.
“Ease off!” Tosler said. “No, look, we’re making a squad because the University is hosting the Grand Tournament this summer.”
Veranix nodded. The Grand Tournament of the High Colleges of Druthal was coming to Maradaine, and most of the athletically minded students could talk of nothing else. “I know that, but I still can’t serve on a squad, especially for the Grand.”
“Not as a player,” Tosler said. “But maybe as a coach or something? Give us some tips. Nobody hits a triple-jack like you.”
“That’s because mages cheat!” the other player yelled again.
“Get off it!” one of the girls snapped. Veranix didn’t know her, but her scarf was red and gray. He briefly wondered how many magic students there were up at the women’s school.
Veranix considered Tosler’s idea. There were no rules against him doing that. If he wasn’t dead by summer, it might be fun. “I’ll think about it, Toss. We’ve got to go.”
“Sure, sure,” Tosler said, and he ran back over to the game.
“Grand Tournament this summer,” Delmin said as they went back toward the campus gate. “Everyone’s making such a thing.”
“Still a lifetime away,” Veranix said quietly.
A high stone archway marked the south gate of the campus. The path toward it was flanked with flagpoles and life-size statues of founders. Five flags stood on each side, one for each Archduchy of Druthal. Centered in front of the arch was one more statue—a twelve-foot colossus of bronze—and flagpole, larger and higher than the others. The statue was of King Maradaine XI, who had united the ten archduchies in 1009. Flying above him, the flag of Druthal, dark blue with two crossed pikes over a golden circle, the circle in ten colored segments.
Two cadets in gray army uniforms stood at the arch, sabers hanging sheathed at their hips. Veranix didn’t know either of them, but they were both students in the University’s Army Officer Program. Campus guard duty was part of their training. Fortunately for Veranix, most of them did not take it too seriously. They usually only nodded in approval as students left or entered campus.
On the other side of the arch was Lilac Street, and the busy madness that was Aventil Neighborhood. Opposite the campus wall was a line of shops, buildings made of rough stone and chipped plaster. Every shop had some of its wares displayed on wooden tables out in the street, and other carts with more merchandise were squeezed into any inch of spare space, making it nearly impossible to determine where one shop ended and the next began. Horse carriages, pedalcarts, and handtrucks filled the street, as people darted between them to cross from one side to the other. Newsboys stood in the middle of walkways, hawking their prints and promising lurid stories.
“Scandal on the Parliament floor!” one shouted. “Two ticks for the South Maradaine Gazette!”
“City alderman mistress tells all!” another shouted back. “Just one tick for the Free Aventil Press! The News you really want!”
As soon as Veranix and Delmin emerged from the arch, a young man came right up to them, clearly lying in wait for students to come out. He was roughly dressed, his pants, waistcoat, and jacket each from different suits, worn and threadbare. On top of his head was a gray hat, with a wide, round brim and flat top.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen,” he fired off with manic glee. He stood with his arms wide, as if threatening to embrace them. “What would you fine young men be seeking tonight? Pleasure or sport of any kind?” Veranix kept his eyes on the boy’s hands, knowing all too well how quickly they could find purses and pockets.
“We’ll find it ourselves, thanks,” Veranix said, moving to walk around him as widely as he could manage. The boy bolted backward to stay ahead of them.
“Now, now, gentlemen, that’s no way to get along. No way to get along at all. You boys should know well enough that the neighborhood boys are always on hand to help out lads like yourself.” He smiled at them.
“We know that just fine,” Delmin said, not making eye contact with him.
“Right you are,” the boy said. “So what will it be? I have it on good authority that in Golman’s Club, just over there, awaits the finest dark beer in Aventil—”
Veranix couldn’t help but let out a laugh at that. The boy continued, scowling at Veranix.
“Also there will be at least five bouts of bare-knuckle boxing. Fine sport just to watch, my friends.”
“In Golman’s Club?” Veranix asked. “That’s six blocks over, on Violet.”
“Just so, just so,” said the boy, “And if you don’t want to walk that, I’ve got my cousin right over there with his pedalcab. He can run you by in a whistle.” He pointed down the street, where another young man in a flat-top hat sat with a three-wheeled carriage, ready to pedal off at a moment’s notice. Given that these two weren’t in their territory, that at least was smart.
“Right,” Veranix said. “For how much?”
“Tell you what, tell you what,” said the boy, “Since you are two smart University boys, I’m not going to try and pull any fleece here. Four ticks each for the ride.”
“Four ticks?” asked Delmin, stammering a little. “That’s . . . that’s not unreasonable.”
“That’s the spirit, lad.” He slapped Delmin on the shoulder. Delmin winced. Veranix stepped in between, getting in the boy’s face.
“We’re heading up Rose Street, chap,” Veranix said.
“Rose Street,” the boy said with a nod. “So it’s full stomachs and willing laps you seek.”
“Just the meal,” Veranix said. He walked away, pulling Delmin with him.
“Oh, come now,” the boy said, catching up with them. “Young men like you are always looking for a clean doxy for a roll. Over on Violet we’ve got more than a few.”
“I’m sure you do,” Veranix said. He looked the boy up and down, taking in every bit of his look. “You’re pretty keen on bringing us over to Violet. Most students don’t go farther into the neighborhood than Rose or Orchid.”
“I’m just trying—”
“To pull some University coin to your streets,” Veranix said.
“Hey now,” the boy said, drawing himself up, trying to make himself look taller than Veranix. “Most you Uni kids don’t know what they can find over by Violet.”
“I’m sure,” Veranix said. “But the real question is, do the Rose Street Princes or Hallaran’s Boys know you are trying to push into their territory?”
“What you know about it?” the boy said. He scowled and gripped Veranix on the shoulder, pushing hard.
Veranix instinctively slapped the boy’s hand away. “Just what I see and hear. I go into Aventil enough to recognize the usual faces who do hassles and shakes. And they never push to Violet. I don’t know what gang you and your cousin are in—”
“Knights of Saint Julian,” said the boy proudly. His hands went into his coat pockets as he glowered at the two of them. “We’ll be running the Uni gates in due course, so you all better learn some respect.”
Veranix presumed the boy was getting ready to pull out a knife. It would be a stupid thing for the kid to do, but street gang kids always did stupid things.
“Veranix,” Delmin said nervously, “Why don’t we just . . .” He trailed off, and looked around them. Everyone on the street was minding their own business.
“We’re going over to Rose Street now,” Veranix said, pointing down the block. “If you want to follow us, maybe into the Turnabout, you can tell everyone how they need to respect the Knights of Saint Justin.”
“Saint Julian, mate,” the boy said, his eyes narrowing in anger.
“Right,” Veranix said. “Shout that over on Rose Street.” Veranix grabbed Delmin by the coat and pulled him around the corner.
“Sweet blasted saints of every town!” Delmin swore. Veranix noticed his friend was pale and covered with sweat. “What the blazes were you doing, trying to get us stabbed by a ganger?”
“Please,” Veranix said, looking back behind them to see the kid wasn’t following them. “That kid was already off his block. He wasn’t going to stab a student in the middle of the street in broad daylight. The RSP and Hallaran’s Boys would hit back in Saint Julian territory hard.”
“How . . . how do you know this sort of thing?” Delmin stared at him. “I grew up in Maradaine, and I don’t know what which gang would do to who and why.”
“You grew up on the north side,” Veranix said, walking down Rose Street. “Stately houses and tree-lined walks around the Parliament house.”
“It’s not all like that,” Delmin said. “And you grew up on a merchant caravan, even farther away.”
“Right,” Veranix said quickly, remembering what Delmin believed about his past. He unconsciously glanced over to the window of the apartment over the postal depot; the apartment his parents lived in for only a week. Absently, he wondered who lived in there now. He shook off the thought, turning back to Delmin. “But we live right off of Aventil, and I pay attention to what’s going on in the neighborhood.”
“Is it just me, or is the neighborhood getting more dangerous?” Delmin asked.
“It’s you,” Veranix said. He looked down Rose Street, filled with clubs and taverns. The street was narrow, a handful of carriages crammed in single file heading east toward Waterpath. All the shops and houses here were brick, stone, and plaster, nothing higher than three stories. Sunlight reached the street in this neighborhood, unlike Dentonhill, and that warmth and brightness extended to the residents. Along the walkways were several makeshift stands with brick stoves, where locals grilled meat and dished out soup for a few ticks, all of them greeting passersby with a wave and a smile.
Aventil was a decent neighborhood. The Aventil street gangs weren’t organized, beyond agreeing that Fenmere’s crew shouldn’t cross into the neighborhood, nor were they particularly dangerous. They would pick pockets, hustle, and burgle. Sometimes they would aggressively support the neighborhood, pushing people into giving their business to specific vendors, and then shake their favored vendors for a share of the profits. Despite that, they mostly stayed away from flat out bullying and extortion. They would muscle in on brewers to control the sale of beer or cider, but they didn’t touch dangerous drugs like hassper or effitte, stuff that shredded people or ruined lives. Only bosses like Fenmere trafficked in trash like that.
Aventil was a neighborhood where people lived, and the gangs treated it like their home. They gave their neighbors a measure of respect. That included the University. It was well accepted that a student who had had a little too much beer could stumble back to campus without worrying about getting his head cracked open.
“So, are we going to the Turnabout then?” Delmin asked.
“Pff,” Veranix said. “We’d be neck deep in Rose Street Princes there.”
“They don’t care for Uni boys going in there, right?” Delmin said.
“Please don’t try and speak in their lingo, Del,” Veranix said. “It really sounds pathetic coming from you.”
“Don’t be a jerk, Vee,” Delmin said, snickering. The color had returned to his face, and he was looking relaxed again.
“Besides, unless you want strikers and beer, there’s no point going to the Turnabout.”
“Right,” Delmin said. He grinned. “So it’s the R&B you have in mind.”
The Rose & Bush was a tavern, aptly named for being at the corner of Rose Street and Bush Lane. Like most buildings in this part of town, it was made of rough-cut limestone and dark painted wood.
The people in the Rose & Bush were a mix of students and neighborhood locals. It was a crowded mash of wooden tables and bodies. Shouts and laughter filled the air. Oil lamps hung from every post and the fireplace blazed, filling the place with warm light and warmer air.
Delmin pointed over to the fireplace, where there were still a few open tables. Veranix nodded and went over, while Delmin headed over to the barman. On his way to the table, Veranix dodged around a game of darts, almost disrupted a card game, and accidentally knocked a buxom neighborhood girl into the lap of a fellow student. He took a seat at the table. Instinctively he checked his pockets to make sure no fast fingers had found their way in there. That was all too common at the Rose & Bush.
Delmin came over with two mugs of cider. “Lamb stew and sausages all right?”
“Perfect. Great,” Veranix said. He took a long drink of cider.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great found it to be very entertaining
Truly enjoyed this!
Veranix is a university student, studying magic and approaching his graduation. But by night, he’s a bit of a vigilante, seeking out drug users and dealers and putting whatever dents he can in the machine that is the drug trade. Veranix has a massive hate-on for the drug effitte, having seen it destroy the lives of those close to him in one way or another, and he’s determined to undermine the trade by any means necessary. So when he comes across what seems to be a drug deal but that actually turns out to be the trade of a seemingly normal cloak and length of rope, his life spins just a little further out of control when he finds himself in the middle of artifact-trading and dark magical rituals and happenings that go far beyond the relatively simple drug busts he’s used to. The book starts off a little shakily, with a rather meandering story and a few awkward infodumps about magic that seem very much out of place for the characters involved but are nevertheless somewhat important to the reader. It’s established that Veranix is both student by day and drug buster by night, leading his double life, but it’s not until he finds that cloak and rope that the story really gets started, and, as such, tightens up dramatically. The downside to this is that those giving the book a 3-chapter try might find themselves bored and wondering where the actual story is, and may end up giving up on the book because nothing really happens for a while, and as such end up missing out on a fun novel because the early pacing isn’t that great. But rest assured, once it does get going, it really gets going. Things improve a lot after that one scene, so it’s worth sticking with. Maresca has taken the time to do some interesting worldbuilding, which shows up less in the scenery and more in the characters. For the most part, it’s a fairly generic fantasy world with just a few tweaks, but nothing you couldn’t transplant into just about any other classic fantasy world already in existence. Magic is fuelled by drawing on energy, known as numina. The streets have gangs, some better than others, some worse. There’s a destructive drug problem. Mages guard their secrets and stick together in cliquish Circles. Fairly standard stuff that could pop up anywhere, and has a dozen times over. But it’s in the characters that it all really comes together and you see glimpses of a wider world than just the streets of Maradaine. Mages have a very high metabolism, and the more powerful the mage, the more they have to eat to fuel themselves. Street gangs have their own ways of doing things, their own divisions of territory and speciality. Slang shows up in ways that make you really feel like the world goes back a lot further than just the characters we’re seeing on the pages now, that they’re just a small part of something much more complete. I was impressed by the way the world shaped and showed in the characters, rather than the other way around. It gave everything a much more well-rounded feel than you often get in fantasy novels that take place in such a small span of time and over a very small area (less than a city, really, since you only get to see the university and a few streets and buildings). For those who enjoy their fantasy filled with action, there’s definitely plenty of that in here. It may not be dark and gritty with gory and horrific wounds all over the place, but there’s a good amount of energy and tension more often than not. It’s neither bloodless nor sanitized, but it does feel like clean violence, so to speak, more along the lines of what you’d seen on TV when something has a PG rating. It’s there, it’s exciting, but it’s not tremendously graphic. Which, honestly, adds to the light and fun feel of the book overall. It actually does a lot to keep the pacing of the novel rather tight, which may be part of the problem of the early chapters; there’s very little action there and a whole lot of setup. But when all is said and done, The Thorn on Dentonhill is a pretty good fantasy novel, good for relaxing reading when you don’t feel like immersing yourself in something entirely new. It’s got plenty to keep readers turning the pages, at least once they get past the early bits, and enough action and mystery to have them speculating right alongside the characters. I’m definitely interested in seeing what Maresca will do with the world in future novels, because while this novel could stand alone in its own right with no need for any continuation, I can’t shake the feeling that there are more stories to be wrung from this world, and I want to be there when they are. Definitely a fun read, and one classic fantasy fans will likely enjoy.