The sword wants what it wants.
Welcome to one of the February 4th stops on the blog tour for The Delve by Dan Fitzgerald with Escapist Book Tours. (#EscapistBookTours | Twitter | Instagram) Be sure to follow the rest of the tour for spotlights, reviews, and exclusive content!
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About the Book
The Time Before Book One
by Dan Fitzgerald
Published 1 February 2023
Genre: Spicy Romantic Dungeon Fantasy
Page Count: 292
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The sword wants what it wants.
The Deepfold mine has gone dark on the eve of war. Without its supply of brightstone, the Maer’s technological advantage over the humans will evaporate. A rising knight named Yglind has earned his Forever Blade and been sent on a quest to uncover the cause of the blackout. Joined by his trusted squire Ardo and a prickly mage named Aene, Yglind hopes to cement his legacy and the Maer’s chance at victory in the coming war.
Inside the Deepfold, they are plunged into a world of bloodshed and chaos. Unknown foes have slaughtered many of the miners, and a gruesome dragon stalks the dark tunnels. While taking refuge in the mine’s impregnable keep, Yglind and Ardo seek solace in each other’s arms and the courage to face the cruel forces arrayed against them.
With their civilization hanging in the balance, they strike out against the invaders as their quest hurtles toward its bloody end.
The Delve is a fast-paced spicy romantic fantasy featuring a variety of LGBTQ characters and relationships. It’s the first in the Time Before trio of linked standalones, set 2,000 years before the Maer Cycle trilogy and the Weirdwater Confluence duology. The series are independent and can be read in any order.
Author’s note: this book contains explicit, consensual sex scenes, violence, gore, and death, and is not intended for readers under the age of eighteen.
Excerpt for Escapist Book Tour (first chapter)
Ardo adjusted his circlet, hoping for better reception, but the Stream had been intermittent since they’d rounded Titan’s Elbow and had dropped out entirely by the time they stopped for lunch. The last he’d checked, three other mines had gone dark on the same day as the Deepfold, but there were unconfirmed reports of more. It was grim news for the Maer, whose supply of brightstone was already strained by the buildup for the looming war with the humans, though the High Council did its best to downplay the troubles.
The Orator’s official view had been all over the Stream, spouting the usual denial and propaganda. “A temporary setback in the supply chain,” the Orator had said, standing on a cliffside veranda, the hair covering his face glowing golden in the sunlight. “Our reserves are more than sufficient to continue at full strength until we have achieved our goals.”
Ardo pocketed his circlet and shucked the heavy pack, leaning it against a twisted cedar shrub next to the large flat rock he’d selected for their picnic. He took a long swig from his waterskin, scanning the sparse branches of the tall pines overhead and the carpet of rusty needles and vivid green moss all around. They’d diverged from the path to approach the entrance to the Deepfold from the hill to the east in case there was trouble outside. The forest was eerily quiet, devoid of all sounds of life. Yglind stood gazing down into the crevice, the wind molding his maroon cloak to his square frame. He swiveled his head around and grimaced at Ardo.
“The door is closed, and there’s not a guard in sight.” He turned to look back down, then shook his head. “That door is solid stone, probably a couple feet thick. There’s no way we’re getting in if the Timon don’t answer our knock.”
“More like ten feet, and it’s technically not a door,” said Aene, who materialized beside Ardo. “It’s a cube of granite, held in place by mechanisms hidden deep within the rock. We’re not breaking our way through that.”
“How do you know all this Timon shit anyway?” Yglind turned all the way around, looming over Aene, who stood her ground. Ardo understood Yglind’s disdain for the Timon, given his family’s history during the wars, but they’d been at peace for eighty years.
“I studied their work in school. Their ingenuity easily equals our own, though it may take different forms.” Aene had shared little tidbits of Timon culture with Ardo along the way, and he found it fascinating. He wished he’d had the chance to study foreign cultures at his leisure, but he’d been lucky even to be accepted into squire training, given his background.
“Well, I hope with all this schooling you know how to get us in if there’s no one at the door.”
“Leave the problem solving to me, and I’ll leave the posturing and bravado to you.”
Yglind sneered, and Ardo stifled a grin. Aene was the only Maer he’d ever seen go toe to toe with Yglind in verbal sparring.
“Right. You get us in, and I kill whatever we find inside. A classic Delve.”
“Egg, we’re not here to kill anyone. We’re here to—”
“Speak for yourself. I just received my Forever Blade, and I intend to give it a proper breaking-in. And if you call me that again, I’ll break it in on your fucking head.”
“And how would you get through ten feet of solid rock without my help, Yglind?”
Yglind waved her off with his gauntleted hand, annoyance stamped onto his face. Ardo wanted to kiss a smile back onto it, run his fingers up Yglind’s neck and hear his cocksure voice melt into a velvety groan.
Yglind never let his soft side show in public, but Ardo knew the Maer behind the mask, knew the kind of tenderness Yglind was capable of. He sighed wistfully, realizing it might be days or even weeks before they could be together again, depending on what they found inside the mine. Something told him it wouldn’t be a feather bed and a tray of scented oils.
“Ardo, hand me my whetstone.”
“My lord…” Ardo shook his head. He tried not to call Yglind that, except in bedroom play, but he’d burned it into his brain during training, and it was hard to root out. “You haven’t used it since you sharpened it last, and that blade will keep its edge through a dozen cuts or more.”
“It’s part of my process, love.” Yglind held out his hand, still staring at his sword.
Ardo rustled around in his pack and pulled out the leather case, which was embossed with the same patterns as the stone itself and the ones that were on the Forever Blade. He undid the brass clasp and handed the stone up to Yglind, who spit on it several times, then sat on a rock and lay the sword across his lap.
“Preparing for battle is not just about the sharpness of your sword,” he said, running the stone across the blade’s edge with slow, practiced strokes. “You have to make yourself ready, mentally as well as physically.” He held up the sword, which flashed orange-golden in the afternoon sunlight, the flowing ceremonial script burned dark into the shining bronze. “Gods, does this sword not give you the biggest hard-on of your life?”
“It suits you, my…Yglind,” Ardo said, squinting against the glint of the bronze. In this light, the hue of the blade was a near-perfect match for the coppery-blond hair covering Yglind’s face.
“Doesn’t it just?” Yglind stood up, swinging the sword in a tight figure eight, then held it up to admire it again. “I’ll never tire of looking at it. Appearances matter, you know,” he said, turning toward Ardo and Aene, though it was hard to tell who he was speaking to other than himself.
“I bet you got yourself Maerscaped for the Delve,” Aene deadpanned. “Wouldn’t want the Timon to think we’re uncivilized.”
Ardo covered his smile, having seen Yglind’s freshly trimmed body up close on the trip.
“I did, I’ll have you know, but not for that. It’s simple self-respect. Always look your best, always feel your best, and you’ll always be your best. Ardo, do we have any of that boar sausage left?”
“Working on it as we speak.” Ardo laid a cloth on the stone and pulled out the last half-sausage, a bit of hard cheese, a handful of dried figs, and some unleavened flatbread he’d saved for the occasion. It would be nothing but sporecakes and jerky from here on out.
“That’s a right proper picnic,” Aene said through a mouthful of cheese, which she’d snatched off the cloth before Ardo had finished laying everything out.
“Not without a nice skin of berry wine.” Ardo sloshed the wine into the three brass cups he’d brought just for this toast. He wanted everything to be special for Yglind’s big moment.
“Now this is how you celebrate your Delve.” Yglind held up his cup and clinked it with theirs, his wide smile warming Ardo’s heart.
“May our time in the dark be but a brief and peaceful dream,” Aene said. Yglind held his glass up, then blinked softly at Ardo as he drank.
The wine was sweet and refreshing, and the warm afternoon breeze carried the scent of pine and clean earth to his nose. Ardo shivered as a musty chill seeped up out of the crevice.
Once he had cleaned up the remains of their picnic, Ardo helped Yglind into his mail leggings, which were hell to get on because Yglind had insisted they be made to fit as tight as dancing pants. To be fair, they showcased his rounded, muscular ass and bulging legs to great effect, but they would have been more effective if cut a bit looser. Ardo helped him strap on his shield and lifted his helm, which was shaped like a stylized mashtorul head, but Yglind waved it off.
“I want to breathe free as long as there’s fresh air to be had.”
Ardo didn’t argue, though Yglind’s attitude worried him. There was no telling what would await them on the other side of the stone block. Four mines didn’t go dark at the same time by accident.
“They’re dead,” Aene said as if that weren’t obvious from the fact that the Timon guards’ heads lay on the ground next to their bloated bodies.
Yglind lifted their faceplates with his sword, staring at them with disgust. Dull, desiccated eyes glared out of swollen faces frozen in shock beneath steel helms that had done them zero good. They had thick eyebrows, full beards, and mustaches, but no other hair on their faces and thick necks. They were bigger than Ardo had imagined, though it was hard to guess their full height in this condition; they might have been close to five feet tall with their heads still attached, their compact frames packed with muscle.
Whatever blade had removed their heads had been sharp enough to slice through the fine splinted armor they wore, which was a marvel of smithcraft.
“They’ve been dead at least a week,” Aene said, still staring at the bodies.
Ardo scanned the ridges on both sides of the crevice, which were gilded by the setting sun. He felt suddenly penned in, like he’d never see the sun again, and they hadn’t even entered the Deepfold yet.
“Someone’s playing for keeps.” Yglind’s light tone was belied by a slight quaver in his voice as he stood. He pulled out his circlet and put it on his head. “I have no link at all; how about you two?” He adjusted the circlet, squinting in concentration, then let out a sigh.
“Not since we entered the pass last night.” Ardo put on his circlet to check, but the Stream was dark, as if it had never existed.
“Well, now we know why.” Aene motioned up at a hole chunked out of the rock above the square lines of the stone door. Twisted wisps of copper wire sagged out of the hole. “The Magni is gone.” The Magni connected the mine to the nearest signal towers, allowing communication with Kuppham and the rest of Maerdom. Without it, if something went wrong, there would be no calling for help.
“You’ll still have the passive link to my circlet, of course, as long as there’s not too much rock between us.” Aene’s mindvoice rang clear in Ardo’s circlet, and he sent back a pulse in acknowledgment. Without the connection to the Stream, only Aene with her mage training had the skills necessary to speak through the local loop created by the circlets.
Yglind tore the circlet from his head and fluffed his hair. “It’ll be just like the Time Before,” he said, tucking his circlet into a pouch. “No Stream, no distractions. Just Maer, metal, and mountains. This is starting to look like a proper Delve after all.”
The afternoon shadows seemed to lengthen suddenly as the sun dipped below the ridge above, casting the crevice into near darkness. Aene absently flicked her wrist, and the bronze filaments snaking up the back of her hand fired up, bathing the area in golden light.
Yglind held up his sword in the glow of Aene’s gauntlet, staring at it with hungry eyes that turned Ardo’s stomach. Yglind had always been hot for a fight, but his expression took on a darker cast when he looked upon his Forever Blade. The sword would defend him against nearly any foe, but Ardo wondered if it could protect Yglind from himself.
Ardo examined the area around the entrance while Aene did some final preparations, scrolling through a series of lighted symbols hovering in the air above her gauntlet. He’d never seen a channeling gauntlet in action, and he wanted to study the symbols, but she turned her back to him, so he left her to her preparations. He stared at the rocky ground again, but whatever tracks might have once been there had been erased by time and weather.
Once she’d finished her preparations, Aene crouched near the entrance, her brass dice clacking in her cupped hands, which she moved in slow circles, shaking them each time they neared her body. She did this every night, always asking them to watch and remain close, though Ardo wasn’t sure how their presence helped the dice. She’d inevitably make some vague pronouncement that didn’t seem to mean anything, but the process fascinated him.
After what seemed like an extraordinarily long time, she released her hands and dropped the dice onto the stone. They quickly rolled to a stop, and she studied the runes, tracing glowing coppery patterns in the air with her gauntlet. Yglind took a step closer, tsk-tsking as he approached.
“And what do your mighty scrying dice tell you?” Yglind grumbled.
Aene scooped up the dice and dropped them into a pouch, rising slowly to face Yglind. Her face was hard with resolve, but her eyes were soft with regret. “They say you’re going to try your hardest to fuck this up.”
“That’s hurtful.” Yglind’s tone matched his words, and Ardo felt all the hairs on his body twitch. Despite his mockery of the dice, Yglind seemed to believe in them on some level.
“They didn’t say you’re going to die.” Aene adjusted her gauntlet, turning to study the stone next to the door.
“No one’s going to fucking die. Not as long as I hold this sword.” He twirled it for effect, bringing it up to fighting stance.
“No one’s going to die if you know when to keep it in your sheath,” Aene muttered, moving to lay her hands on the stone. She closed her eyes, and her face tensed as her gauntlet glowed brighter, illuminating her beard like golden flames dripping from her face. Her hands formed into claw shape with her fingertips pressed against the rock. She held still for a few seconds, and a muffled clunk sounded, followed by a series of smaller clinks, like a great chain being unspooled. Yglind slid his helmet over his head and tightened the straps as an opening appeared at the top of the door, which began lowering with a deep grinding sound.
“Must you crow about it whenever you do your job?” Yglind said, though not without a touch of warmth.
Ardo stood by Aene, gripping his staff, as Yglind took a fighting crouch facing the growing opening. Familiar scents of mildew and rock reached Ardo’s nose as the mine exhaled. A deep clunk ended the noise of the hidden machinery, and the only sounds were Yglind’s huffing breath and the slight crackle of gravel underfoot as Ardo moved next to Yglind to stare into the mine’s gaping maw. He tapped his amulet, and a beam of golden light penetrated the darkness, illuminating a wide, squared corridor. The beam from Yglind’s amulet crossed Ardo’s, and the immediate area was lit by the glow from Aene’s gauntlet.
“Wait,” Aene said, but Yglind strode through the entrance. Ardo turned to the sound of Aene’s sigh, and they exchanged a brief, meaningful glance before stepping cautiously through.
To the right was a large steel lever affixed low in the wall, pointing down. Aene tapped on her amulet and shone the light on a spot in the ceiling where a copper wire dangled, torn from its moorings.
“That must be the one leading to the Magnithey removed.” Aene shone her light along the ceiling down the tunnel, where bits of wire dangled down in several more places.
“Somebody didn’t want this to be repaired any time soon,” Ardo said, almost to himself. He crouched, angling his amulet to study the floor. Bootprints crisscrossed a muddy area where water dripped from the ceiling. Most were small—Timon sized, he guessed—but several larger prints stood out from the rest. They were unusually shaped, longer but a bit narrower than most Maer’s feet.
Yglind crouched beside him and lifted his faceplate to study the bootprints, his mouth twisted in a grimace. “Look.” He pointed along the lines of footprints. “These came from within the mine and returned, but there are none like this by the door.” Yglind pressed his boot into the mud next to one of the prints, then moved it away. His print was wider in the middle but at least an inch shorter, and Yglind was one of the tallest Maer Ardo had ever met. “These don’t look like any prints I’ve ever seen. What do you make of this, Aene?”
Aene crouched beside them, spread her fingers, and squinted with concentration as the bronze lines on her gauntlet pulsed several times. She clutched her hand into a fist and stood up, exhaling in a slow stream. Her eyes were dark behind the reflection from their amulets.
“These prints belong to humans.”
My Rating: 4 Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Consider liking my review on Goodreads
I was granted complimentary access to The Delve by Dan Fitzgerald as part of my participation in a blog tour for this title with Escapist Book Tours. Thank you to all involved for granting me this opportunity! My thoughts are my own and my review is honest.
I have featured all of Dan Fitzgeral’s books on my blog throughout their various tours over the last 3 years and reviewed many of them. The Delve holds up to the standard Dan has set with his body of work, and that standard is quite high! The Delve, which set before the events of the Maer Cycle trilogy, is a unique fantasy novel in a world heavily inspired by RPG games. LitRPG fans looking to read something more like traditional low fantasy and a little less meta will find Fitzgeral’s books are just the right place to start. It’s a classic defeat-the-dungeon sort of plot without the tongue-in-cheek fourth wall breaks of truer LitRPG novels that bring up holographic character sheets whenever a character levels up.
I love all of the LGBTQIA+ flavoured representation in Dan’s worlds, and in this novel in particular, and the very free and accepting attitudes most of the characters hold about relationships and sex is refreshing. With that said, readers be warned, this book is steamy! Sex scenes are detailed and some go on for quite a number of pages. If you’re not into that, they are skippable/skimmable with minimal loss of relevant information to the plot, but you will lose some inter-character relationship-building and tension.
Something else that I loved about The Delve that we don’t see very often in low fantasy was that humans, modern humans as we know ourselves, are the antagonists. I love a book that forces the reader to take the perspective of a character or group of people who aren’t stand-ins for the target audience.
Although this book is set long before the Maer Cycle trilogy, it doesn’t feel like a suitable starting point for new readers. To some extent, it does expect us to already know how this world and the peoples within it function. I admit I have perused the reviews that were posted before mine, and it does indeed look like readers who are new to Dan’s world with this title found that the world-building and character development weren’t quite where they hoped it would be. I recommend starting with the first book of the Maer Cycle trilogy first and getting a feel for this world.
About the Author
Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, bothfrom Shadow Spark Publishing.
He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.
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