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Below is a fantasy adventure novel by Lee Gaiteri.

A master forger's wife asks young highwayman Brenish to sell a fake map to the late wizard Visak's famous treasure. Fascinated with tales of the underground ruins of the Elder Kingdom where the treasure is kept, Brenish already has a reputation as a lore master—but he's an even better liar. Unfortunately his boss Gareth St. James is every bit as obsessed with the ruins, and once he learns of the map Brenish is forced to bluff that it could be real.

Gareth mounts an expedition and brings along six of his henchmen, four thieves including Brenish who owe him money, and a hostage to use against Brenish for good measure. The two men need their combined wits to survive in the ruins, but Brenish knows that the quest is doomed to fail. Somehow he has to find another way to satisfy Gareth, or he and his friends are just as doomed.

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Not related to the 2018 Roguelike BELOW. Or to the 2002 Psychological Horror film.


Below contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Cirawyn originally seems like a Damsel in Distress, even though she obviously put up a fight when she was taken. She quickly proves at least as good a fighter as any of the men, especially with a crossbow. Brenish gives her his own crossbow as it's of no use to him, because she's a dead shot and he's the exact opposite.
  • Affably Evil: Gareth. He's actually incredibly likable much of the time, especially because finally visiting the ruins makes him giddy with excitement. He even sings some of the time, and accepts good-natured ribbing without offense. But when he's angry, or worse disappointed, he's a lot less pleasant.
  • Anti-Hero Team: With the sole exception of Cirawyn, everyone on the expedition is a criminal. Gareth manages a trade empire with illicit sources of income and his henchmen, even the nicer ones, are still part of that. The rest are thieves. In spite of that they're mostly pretty decent guys.
  • Alternate History: The setting is post-Renaissance medieval, but the presence of magic, magical creatures, and the ruins have altered a few things. The Roman Empire attempted to chart the Elder Kingdom and exploit it for treasure, only to give up when they realized the risk/reward ratio was too high. The Vikings followed through on their early attempts to colonize Vinland, resulting in their control of the New World and bringing corn and cocoa across the Atlantic early.
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    • Further justified in-story by the fact that there are rifts joining different worlds (including Faerie), some with time shifts. Some of the items Brenish finds are decidedly not from that world.
  • Back-to-Back Badasses: Finch and Harry, against the spiders in Paddystock.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The thieves get into trouble in the first place by a subversion of this trope. They're told the second wagon is a decoy, but the first looks like a decoy itself when they search it. Fooled by the unexpected new trick, they let it go. Gareth is humiliated by the wagon arriving safely.
  • Betrayal Insurance: Gareth uses Cirawyn for this. Although he's already fallen for one of Brenish's most outrageous lies, he's not stupid. (Although it was actually Finch's idea.)
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Tibs is pudgy and bespectacled with a very easygoing personality. He's also a master lockpick and pickpocket, and deadly with a whip. In combat he is not to be trifled with. He's also the only member of the party to kill one of the others in cold blood, albeit indirectly, and gives Brenish a massive tongue lashing for having the nerve to call him out on it afterward.
  • Brown Note: The discord organ (an enchanted ocarina) lays down a lingering spell that turns people against one another.
  • Close-Knit Community: Ilyenis is a decent-sized village, but it's still small enough that everyone knows everyone else's business. For the most part everyone in the party knows each other (and their families) well and are on a first-name basis.
  • Collective Identity: "Alfie" the highwayman was invented by Harry. Different men play the part of Alfie at different times, with different features and sometimes even letting slip a glimpse of false tattoos or scars. (Harry's missing eye, however, is always kept concealed.) The others all use false names that frequently change. As a result, Alfie is a Living Legend with no consistent description.
  • Consummate Liar: Brenish, naturally. When he's not taking Refuge in Audacity or speaking in Half Truths or Cassandra Truths, sometimes he just goes with a Seamless Spontaneous Lie. He's so good he can outfox people who expect him to lie, which is everyone around him except for Cirawyn.
    Gareth: Think he's being completely honest with me, Raden?
    Raden: [shrugs] It's Brenish.
    • The downside of this talent is that Brenish is not privy to some of the village gossip. When Tibs murders Dex by deliberately failing to warn him of approaching jellies, everyone else who learns the truth understands why and accepts it as justified; but Brenish remains in the dark. Even Cirawyn doesn't tell him.
    • When it's time to draw lots for the first watch, Gareth swaps places to stand watch with Brenish—because he doesn't trust Brenish not to compromise the loyalty of one of his men in two hours.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Gareth and Brenish have both spent most of their lives thinking through how they would approach a quest in the ruins. The plan Gareth puts together is based partly on Brenish's ideas—especially his exit strategy. Gareth himself spent years training to use many kinds of weapons, just in case.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Turk, who rarely shows any expression at all, has a dry sense of humor. He's deadpan by nature. Naman gets in on it a bit too, having an especially sharp wit.
  • The Dragon: Ed Finch has Gareth's complete trust, and is easily the most proficient fighter in the group—with the possible exception of Gareth himself. He's so imposing that he's the only one who isn't always called by his first name.
  • Dungeon Crawling: And how! The whole story revolves around this trope. In a way the world does as well, because the ruins offer gold to the desperate and glory to the overconfident. People call the lure of the ruins the Fell Current, because curiosity and/or greed inevitably sweep away the weak. Sometimes it works out, but most come back empty-handed if they come back at all.
  • Escape Rope: The Plan relies on using an incredibly expensive teleportation orb to leave the ruins, with all of the treasure, all at once. This was Brenish's idea. Originally he planned to use the map to pull in investors, then use goldsense potion to find a different treasure and pass it off as Visak's.
  • Genius Bruiser: No one thinks of Bob as especially bright, but his looks are deceptive. Although he is not cunning, he thinks deeply and often works out especially difficult puzzles ahead of the others. His brother Raden, also a bruiser, is quicker-witted but not as deep.
  • Guile Hero: Brenish is mostly this, doing very little direct fighting but a lot of thinking his way out of trouble. He can fight, but he's much better with his mind.
  • Invisibility: Gareth brings along a potion that can induce this effect. Invisibility comes with voidsight, so the invisible can still see each other and reflections from any light their torches cast. Items carried by the invisible will fade quickly, and reappear if set down.
  • It's Quiet... Too Quiet: Cirawyn is the first to notice the relative dearth of trouble in Lowcastle and beyond. Much of the local wildlife is either spooked or missing outright.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Dex plays up his awful behavior in order to hide that he's an amateur spellbinder working outside of their guild, but it comes way too naturally to him. Deep down, he's actually as horrible as advertised and implied to be much worse.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!: The Elder Kingdom was enormous in its day, and was perhaps many kingdoms with evidence of wars and shifting centers of power. The works seen by the party are only a fraction of its breadth and depth, but include great cities long abandoned. "Manthings" have taken residence in some of the good parts and maintain civilizations of their own, but humans probably built the realm and lived there for centuries. The sheer mystery of the place is a major force driving people to explore.
  • Mage Marksman: Averted. The party doesn't include any mages, but they do have some magical weapons that require aiming. Brenish doesn't like wands, because his aim is terrible.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: Brenish is aware of many of the rules surrounding magic, or at least spellbound items and scrolls. Understanding how to use such items, and their limitations, is a critical part of ruins lore.
  • Meaningful Name: Cirawyn's high level of skill with a crossbow (arguably better than any of the men) is never explained, but her family name is Bowman. Justified, as many medieval surnames came from a person's occupation. Cirawyn's father is a farmer now, but he wasn't always.
  • Mêlée à Trois: While the party is dealing with a group of goblins, a small force of gremlins attacks from behind. The gremlins, who are at war with the goblins, engage both instead of strictly going after the goblins. Brenish notes that greenskins typically are very simple when it comes to notions of friend and foe. It's also left unanswered whether the gremlins or the party were the goblins' true objective.
  • Mock Guffin: The map is a fake. Averted partially because Brenish and Naman know the truth. Everyone else believes it's the real deal. It was written based on actual notes from Visak's study and on his own paper, and appears to lead to one of the cities where the treasure is believed to be. It's designed to get the reader lost in the end.
  • Mugging the Monster: Played straight and inverted, all in the same chapter. Lila the water nypmh tries to ply her charms on Brenish, but in deceit she's no match for him. Then Raden knocks her out and they take off with her stash, having literally mugged a monster.
  • Not So Different: Brenish is well aware of the fact that he and Gareth are two sides of the same coin. So is Gareth.
    • Brenish and Lila, both master liars, are a subtler piece of work.
  • Oh, Crap!: It's never a good thing when a troll wakes up.
  • One Last Job: Happens twice. Brenish heeds Naman's and Cirawyn's advice to get an honest job in the city over the winter and save up for marriage. He just has to do one last wagon job for Gareth first. After that debacle, he gets pulled into Gareth's quest. Gareth assumes they'll find Visak's treasure, and that will be the last job for everyone.
  • Open Secret: Harry is the real father of Finch's son. The fact that they're still best friends is taken by everyone as proof that Finch himself isn't in the know.
  • Our Goblins Are Different: Goblins control a big chunk of the territory the party has to traverse. They're shown to have an actual civilization, including a religious order.
  • Psychic Block Defense: Brenish lies so well by essentially lying to himself from moment to moment, pretending he's an alternate version of himself (one of many) for whom his current lie is true. He slips in and out of character so effortlessly, it translates to a certain level of protection from mind reading. Which comes in handy when he meets Lila. In spite of this, Cirawyn still always sees through him.
  • Quit Your Whining: Jase complains so much, the normally taciturn Turk is the first to tell him to man up.
    Jase: Any other instructions we need before we head to our certain death?
    Turk: You could cinch up your cod.
  • Roguelike: The story was written as a homage to the game genre.
  • Thieves' Guild: Brenish and his cohorts are all in a guild together. The plot is set into motion by Brenish looking in on the family of a guild brother who's currently locked up for forgery.
  • Transformation Ray: Gareth chooses to bring a polymorphosis wand; Brenish considers the spell too unpredictable. On the whole it does more good than harm, but it also creates a cockatrice that kills Jase.
  • The Trickster: Visak himself. Brenish is able to sow some doubt in Gareth by pointing out Visak would have no problem changing the rules of his map along the way. The Expert even says Visak would have found it hilarious to create multiple fake maps while he was still alive, to screw with would-be robbers.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Bob is an unintentional master of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, except it's usually not to his own detriment. Rather, he tends to trample all over Brenish's story of the moment, forcing Brenish to improvise. Bob helps set the expedition in motion by mentioning he overheard Brenish and Naman talking about a map.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The party's early journey follows the same path as that used by three adventurers who recently disappeared. They find the remains of Dobber and Enzo, but never Pines. Justified, because the ruins are huge and most such disappearances are never solved.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Brenish and Gareth are both masters; it's about the only way to survive the ruins without dumb luck. Gareth puts his to use trying to figure out how Brenish might screw him, while Brenish looks for a way to get himself and his friends out of their predicament.
  • You Have Failed Me: Masterfully subverted by Gareth. Knowing there are political complications to killing anyone and hating to waste a resource he could possibly put to use, but unwilling to forgive the thieves after the wagon job debacle, he finds a third option.

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