The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn


By Tyler Whitesides

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Mission Impossible, but with magic, dragons, and a series of heists that go from stealing a crown to saving the world” (David Dalglish).

Master con artist Ardor Benn and his crew of intrepid thieves are hired to pull off a series of wildly complex heists, from stealing a crown to saving the world, in this daring fantasy adventure.

Liar. Thief. Legend.

Ardor Benn is no ordinary thief. Rakish, ambitious, and master of wildly complex heists, he styles himself a Ruse Artist Extraordinaire.

When a priest hires him for the most daring ruse yet, Ardor knows he’ll need more than quick wit and sleight of hand. Assembling a dream team of forgers, disguisers, schemers, and thieves, he sets out to steal from the most powerful king the realm has ever known.

But it soon becomes clear there’s more at stake than fame and glory — Ard and his team might just be the last hope for human civilization.

Discover the start of an epic fantasy trilogy that begins with a heist and quickly explodes into a full-tilt, last ditch plan to save humanity.


They fed a corpse to the dragon.

They said the man had died a beggar in Talumon. Now his bones, if properly digested, will give us Grit. But what of his soul? If any part of him remains here through the Moon Passing, he will never reach the Homeland. His fate will be like mine.

The Harvesters don’t concern themselves with such thoughts. I have been with them now for six days. I did not glimpse the dragon or her breath of flames as she fired the dung into Slagstone, but I marvel at her role in this natural process.

Back home, the streets of Beripent are aglow with Light Grit. Nobles warm their manors with clouds of Heat Grit. But I suspect now that they, like me, understand little of its origins.

Here, on Pekal, truth lurks behind every crag and tree. I am seeing things I have only known in writing. And at the end of my journey, I hope to put in writing things no one has ever seen.

The Harvesters have what they came here for. In the morning, they will collect the Slagstone from the dragon and their path will take them down the mountain. But I must slip away in the dark of night, for my path presses on. Upward. Higher.

To truth.

It begins here. Although, for me, I suppose this is something of an ending.


That Crimson Moon, each cycle filling the sky with its hues of blood, throws a light to sicken man, from which there is no cure. Alone in these floating lands, is there no one to shield the Wayfarer, far from that Homeland blessed? A Holy Torch is lit on each unholy night, to draw from the Moon its flames of red.

—Wayfarist Voyage, Vol. 1

The passing Eye spills flame above the frailty of human life. Blazing bodies upon the summit. The flicker of a lighting Torch.

—Ancient Agrodite song



Ardor Benn was running late. Or was he? Ard preferred to think that everyone else in the Greater Chain was consistently early—with unreasonable expectations for him to be the same.

Regardless, this time it was all right to keep his appointment waiting. It was a stew tactic. And stew tasted better the longer it cooked.

Ard skipped up the final stairs and onto the third floor. Remaught Azel clearly wasn’t the big fish he purported. Rickety wooden tri-story in the slums of Marow? Ard found the whole thing rather distasteful. Especially after Lord Yunis. Now, that was something! Proper stone mansion with a Heat Grit hearth in every room. Servants. Cooks. Light Grit lanterns that ignited with the pull of a chain. Ard half suspected that Lord Yunis wiped his backside with lace.

Different island. Different ruse. Today was about Remaught Azel, no matter how unaccommodating his hideout appeared.

Ard shifted the Grit keg from one arm to the other as he reached the closed door at the end of the hallway. The creaking floorboards would have already notified Remaught that someone was coming. Interesting, Ard thought. Maybe there is something useful about holing up in a joint like this. Floorboard sentries.

The door swung open, but before Ard could step through, a hairy, blue-skinned arm pressed into his chest, barring entrance.

“Take it easy,” Ard said to the Trothian man. This would be Remaught’s bodyguard. His dark, vibrating eyes glared at Ard. Classic. This guy seemed like a tough son of a gun, although he was obviously past due for one of those Agrodite saltwater soaks. The skin on his arm looked like it might start flaking off.

“I’m a legitimate businessman,” Ard continued, “here to do … legitimate businessy things.”

He glanced past the large bodyguard to the table where Remaught sat, bathed in sunlight from the western window. The mobster wore a maroon velvet vest, a tricornered hat, and a shoulder cape, currently fashionable among the rich folk. Remaught seemed tense, watching his bodyguard detain Ard at the doorway.

“Search him.”

“Really?” Ard protested, holding the Grit keg above his head so the bodyguard could pat his sides. “I left my belt and guns at home,” he said. “And if I hadn’t, I could easily shoot you from where I’m standing, so I find this whole pat down a little unnecessary, and frankly uncomfortable.”

The bodyguard paused, one hand on Ard’s hip pocket. “What’s this?” he asked, his voice marked by a thick Trothian accent.

“Rocks,” Ard answered.

“Rocks?” Like the bodyguard had never heard of such things. “Take them out—slow.”

Ard reached casually into his pocket and scooped out a handful of small stones that he’d collected on the roadside before entering the building. “I’ll need these for the transaction.”

In response, the Trothian bodyguard swatted Ard’s hand, sending the dusty pebbles scattering across the room.

“Now, that was quite uncalled-for,” Ard said to the mobster at the table. “I find your man to be unnecessarily rough.”

“Suno?” replied Remaught. “Three cycles ago, he would have fed you those rocks—through your nose. Going soft, I fear. Fatherhood has a tendency to do that.”

Ard wondered what kind of father a mobster’s bodyguard would be. Some fathers made a living at the market or the factories. This guy made a living by stringing people up by their toes at the whim of his boss.

The Trothian moved down, feeling around Ard’s thighs with both hands.

“At the very least, you should consider hiring a good-looking woman for this step,” Ard continued. “Wouldn’t hurt business, you know.”

The bodyguard stepped back and nodded to Remaught, who gestured for Ard to enter the room.

“Were you followed?” Remaught asked.

Ard laughed as he set the Grit keg gently on the table, stirring a bit of dust that danced in the sun rays. “I am never followed.” He adjusted the gaudy ring on his index finger and sat down across from the mobster. “Except occasionally by a bevy of beautiful maidens.”

Ard smiled, but Remaught Azel did not return the gesture. Instead, the mobster reached out for the Grit keg. Ard was faster, whisking the keg away before Remaught could touch it.

Ard clicked his tongue. “How about we see some payment before I go handing over the Grit in a room where I’m unarmed and outnumbered?”

Remaught pushed backward in his chair, the wooden legs buzzing against the floor. The mobster crossed the room and retrieved a locked safe box from the window seat. It was no longer than his forearm, with convenient metal handles fastened on both sides. The Regulation seal was clearly displayed on the front beside the keyhole.

“That looks mighty official,” Ard said as Remaught placed it on the table. “Regulation issue, isn’t it?”

“I recently came by the box,” replied Remaught, dusting his hands. “I like to keep my transactions secure. There are crooked folk in these parts.”

“So I hear,” answered Ard. “And how do I know the safe box isn’t full of sand?”

“How do I know that Grit keg isn’t empty?”

Ard shrugged, a smirk on his face. They had reached the part of the exchange that Ard called the Final Distrust. One last chance to back out. For both of them.

Remaught broke the tension by reaching into his velvet vest and producing a key. He slipped it into the lock, turned it sharply, and lifted the lid.

Ard squinted at the coinlike items. They looked real enough in this lighting. Most were stamped with seven small indentations, identifying them as seven-mark Ashings, the highest denomination of currency.

“May I?” Ard plucked out a coin before Remaught granted permission. Ard lifted the Ashing to his mouth and bit down on the edge of it.

“Taste real enough for you?” Remaught asked. Ard’s relaxed nature seemed to be driving the man continuously more tense.

Ard studied the spot where his teeth had pressed against the coin, angling it in the sunlight to check for any kind of indentation. He preferred to gouge suspicious coins with a knifepoint, but, well, Remaught had made it pretty clear that weapons were not allowed at this meeting.

The Ashing seemed genuine. And if Remaught wasn’t planning to slight him, there would be 493 more in that safe box.

“You ever been to the Coinery on Talumon?” Ard flicked the coin back into the open box. “I was there a few years back. On legitimate business, of course.”

Remaught closed the lid and turned the key.

“Coining,” Ard went on. “Sparks, that’s an elaborate process. Just the effort it takes to grind those raw scales into perfect circles … And you know they follow up with a series of chemical washes. They say it’s for curing and hardening. I hardly think a dragon scale needs hardening …”

Across the table, Remaught was fidgeting. Ard suppressed a grin.

“Is something wrong, Rem? Can I call you Rem?” Ard pressed. “I thought this information would be of particular interest to a man in your line of work.”

“Perhaps you can save the details for some other time,” Remaught said. “You’re not my only appointment today.”

Ard leaned back in his chair, pretending that the mobster’s words had really put him out.

“I’d prefer if we just get along with the transaction.” Remaught gestured to the Grit keg. “What do you have for me there?”

“One full panweight of Void Grit,” said Ard. “My source says the batch is top quality. Came from a good-sized block of indigestible granite. Passed through the dragon in less than five days. Properly fired, and processed to the finest of powder.” He unlatched the cap on the Grit keg and tilted it toward Remaught. “The amount we agreed upon. And at an unbeatable price. I’m a man of my word.”

“It would seem that you are,” answered the mobster. “But of course you understand that I’ll need a demonstration of the product.”

Ard nodded slowly. Not all Grit could be demonstrated, especially indoors. But he had been expecting such a demand for this transaction.

Ard turned to the Trothian bodyguard, who leaned in the doorway like he was holding up the frame. “I’ll be needing those rocks now.”

Remaught grunted, then snapped at his bodyguard. “Suno! Pick up the blazing stones.”

Wordlessly, the man hunted across the floor for the stones he had slapped away. As he searched, Ard quickly picked up the safe box, causing Remaught to jump.

“Relax,” Ard said, crossing the room and carefully setting the valuable box on the wooden window seat. “I’ll need the table cleared for the demonstration.”

A moment later, Suno handed the rocks to Ard and lumbered back to the doorway, folding his dry, cracking arms.

There were nine little rocks, and Ard spread them into a loose ring on the tabletop. He unclasped the Grit keg and was about to reach inside, when Remaught grabbed his arm.

“I pick the Grit,” the mobster demanded. “No tricks.”

Ard shrugged, offering the container to Remaught. The man slipped his hand inside and withdrew a pinch of grayish powder. Ard pointed to the center of the stone ring and Remaught deposited the Grit in a tiny mound.

“That enough?” Remaught asked, as Ard brushed the pinch of powder into a tidier pile.

“More than enough,” Ard said. “You trying to clear the whole room?” He clasped the lid on the Grit keg and set it on the floor behind him. “I assume you have a Slagstone ignitor?”

From his vest, Remaught produced the device Ard had asked for. It was a small steel rod, slightly flattened at one end. Affixed at the center point along the rod was a spring, and attached to the end of the spring was a small piece of Slagstone.

Remaught handed the ignitor to Ard, the tiny fragment of Slagstone wobbling on its spring. “With the amount of Void Grit you’ve laid down, I’d expect the blast radius to be about two feet.” Ard said it as a warning. Remaught caught the hint and took a large step backward.

Ard also positioned himself as far from the table as he could, while still able to reach the tiny pile of gray Grit. He took aim and knocked the flat end of the steel rod against the table. The impact brought the spring down and the small piece of attached Slagstone struck the metal rod.

A respectable spark leapt off the Slagstone. It flashed across the wooden table and vanished instantly, with no effect.

“Ha!” Remaught shouted, as though he’d been waiting to make an accusation. “I should have known no one would sell a panweight of Void Grit at that price.”

Ard looked up. “The Grit is legitimate, I assure you. This Slagstone ignitor, on the other hand …” He held up the device, gently shaking the spring as though it were a child’s toy. “Honestly, I didn’t even know they sold something this cheap. I couldn’t ignite a mountain of Grit with this thing, let alone convince the spark to fall on that pinhead target. Allow me to throw a few more sparks before you let Suno rip my ears off.”

The truth was, the tiny pile of powdered granite hadn’t lit for two reasons. First, Remaught’s Slagstone ignitor really was terribly inaccurate. And second, the Void Grit was definitely fake.

Ard leaned closer to the table, pretending to give the ignitor a close inspection. With his right hand hovering just above the pile of gray powder, he wriggled his fingers, spinning his heavy ring around so he could slip his thumbnail into a small groove and slide the face of the ring aside.

The gesture was subtle, and Ard was drawing Remaught’s attention to the ignitor. He was sure the mobster hadn’t noticed the fresh deposit of genuine Void Grit from the ring’s secret cavity.

“Let’s see if this does the trick.” Ard repositioned himself, bringing the ignitor down, Slagstone sparking on impact.

The genuine Void Grit detonated instantly, the powder from Ard’s ring creating a blast radius just over a foot. It wasn’t at all like a deadly Blast Grit explosion of fire and sparks. This was Specialty Grit, and the particular demonstrated effect was far less dangerous.

A rush of energy emanated from the pinch of Void Grit, like a tremendous wind blasting outward in every direction from the center.

It happened much faster than Ard could withdraw his hand. Caught in the detonation, his arm was shoved backward, the Slagstone ignitor flying from his grasp. The stones on the table flew in every direction, the Grit pushing them to the perimeter of the blast, their momentum sending them bouncing across the floor.

The Void Grit was spent, but hovering around the table where the detonation occurred was a dome of discolored air. It would have been a spherical cloud if it had detonated midair, but the tabletop had been strong enough to contain the underside of the blast.

Remaught stumbled a step closer. “How did you do that?”

Ard wrinkled his forehead. “What do you mean? It’s Void Grit. Digested granite. That’s what it does.” He bent down and retrieved a fallen pebble. “It voids a space within the blast radius. Clears everything out to the perimeter. The effect should last about ten minutes before the blast cloud burns out.”

To prove his point, Ard tossed the pebble into the dome of discolored air. The little stone barely touched the perimeter before the effect of the Grit pushed it forcefully away.

Remaught nodded absently, his hand drifting to his vest pocket. For a brief moment, Ard thought the mobster might pull a Singler, but he relaxed when Remaught withdrew the key to the safe box. Remaught stepped forward and set the key on the edge of the table, just outside the hazy Void cloud.

“I’m ready to close the deal,” he said, producing a few papers for Ard’s inspection. Detonation licenses—or at least forgeries—which would allow him to purchase Grit.

But Ard wasn’t interested in the legalities of the transaction. He dismissed the paperwork, picking up the keg of false Void Grit and holding it out to Remaught.

“Of course, I’ll need a receipt,” said the mobster, tucking his licenses back into his vest.

“A receipt?” That sounded frightfully legitimate to Ardor Benn.

“For my records,” said Remaught. In a moment, the man had produced a small square of paper, and a charcoal scribing stick. “Go ahead and notate the details of the transaction. And sign your name at the bottom.”

Ard handed the Grit keg to Remaught and accepted the paper and charcoal. Remaught stepped away, and it took only moments for Ard to write what was needed, autographing the bottom as requested.

“I hope we can do business again in the future,” Ard said, looking up from his scrawling. But Remaught Azel didn’t seem to share his sentiment.

“I’m afraid that will not be the case.” The mobster was standing near the open doorway, his Trothian bodyguard off to one side. Remaught had removed the cap from the Grit keg and was holding the cheap Slagstone ignitor.

“Whoa!” Ard shouted. “What are you—”

Remaught brought the ignitor down. A cluster of sparks danced from the impact, showering onto the gray powder housed in the open keg.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t recognize an entire keg of counterfeit Grit?” Remaught asked.

Ard crumpled the receipt and dropped it to the floor, lunging for the key on the edge of the table. He scooped it up, but before Ard could reach the safe box, the Trothian bodyguard was upon him. In the blink of an eye, Ard found himself in a headlock, forced to his knees before a smug Remaught.

“I believe I mentioned that I had another appointment today?” Remaught said. “What I didn’t tell you was that the appointment is happening now. With an officer of the Regulation.”

A man appeared in the doorway behind Remaught. Not just a man—a veritable mountain. He had dark skin, and his nose was somewhat flat, the side of his face marked with a thin scar. The Regulator ducked his shiny, bald head under the door frame as he entered the room.

He wore the standard long wool coat of the Regulation, a crossbow slung over one shoulder and a sash of bolts across his broad chest. Beneath the coat, Ard thought he could see the bulge of a holstered gun.

“Delivered as promised,” Remaught said, his tension at an all-new high. The Regulator seized Ard’s upper arm with an iron grip, prompting Remaught’s bodyguard to release the headlock.

“What is this, Remaught?” Ard asked between gasps for air. “You’re selling me out? Don’t you know who I am?”

“That’s just it,” said Remaught. “I know exactly who you are. Ardor Benn, ruse artist.”

“Extraordinaire,” said Ard.

“Excuse me?” Remaught asked.

“Ardor Benn, ruse artist extraordinaire,” Ard corrected.

The giant Regulator yanked Ard to his feet. Prying Ard’s fingers open, the man easily removed the key to the safe box before slapping a pair of shackles around Ard’s wrists.

“Now wait a minute, big fella,” Ard stalled. “You can arrest me, an amicable ruse artist trying to eke out a humble living. Or you can take in Remaught Azel. Think it through. Remaught Azel. He’s the mobster.”

The bald Regulator didn’t even falter. He stepped forward and handed the key to Remaught with a curt nod.

“The Regulator and I have an understanding,” answered Remaught. “He came to me three weeks ago. Said there was a ruse artist in town selling counterfeit Grit. Said that if I came across anyone trying to hock large quantities of Specialty Grit, that I should set up a meet and reach out to him.”

“Flames, Remaught! You’ve gone clean?” Ard asked. “A mobster of your standing, working with a Reggie like him? You disgust me.”

“Clean? No,” Remaught replied. “And neither is my Regulator friend.”

Ard craned his neck to shoot an incredulous stare at the Regulator holding him. “Unbelievable! A dirty Reggie and a petty mobster make a deal—and I’m the victim!”

Remaught addressed the big official. “We’re good, then?”

The large man nodded. “We’re good. I was never here.”

The Regulator pushed Ard past Remaught, through the doorway, and into the creaky hallway, pausing to say one last thing to the mobster. “You got him to sign a receipt like I told you?”

Remaught scanned the room and gestured to the crumpled piece of paper on the floor. “You need it for evidence?”

“Nah,” said the Regulator. “This lowlife’s wanted on every island in the Greater Chain. The receipt was for your own protection. Proves you had every intention of making a legal transaction. Buying Grit isn’t a crime, providing you have the proper licensure.” He gave Ard a shove in the back, causing him to stumble across the rickety floorboards. “Give me plenty of time to distance myself before you leave this building,” the Regulator instructed. “Understood?”

Ard glanced back in time to see Remaught nodding as the door swung shut. Ard and the Regulator descended the stairs in silence, the huge man never removing his iron grip from Ard’s shoulder. It wasn’t until they stepped outside into the warm afternoon that Ard spoke.

“Lowlife?” he said. “Really, Raek? That seemed a bit much. Like you were enjoying it.”

“Don’t lecture me on ‘a bit much,’” answered the Regulator. “What was that whole ‘ruse artist extraordinaire’ slag?”

“You know I like that line. I saw an opportunity and I took it,” Ard answered.

Raek grunted, tugging at the collar of his uniform. “This coat itches. No wonder we can always outrun the blazing Reggies. They’re practically choking themselves on the job.”

“You almost look convincing,” Ard said. “But where’s the Reggie helmet?”

“I couldn’t find one that fit,” answered Raek. “And besides, I figure I’m tall enough no one can see the top of my head. Maybe I’m wearing a tiny Reggie helmet. No one would know.”

“Sound logic,” Ard said as they turned the corner to the west side of Remaught’s building. “You swapped the key?”

“Child’s play,” Raek answered. “You leave the note?”

“I even drew a little smiling face after my name.”

Raek led them to a sturdy hay wagon hitched to a waiting horse.

“Straw this time?” Ard asked, finding it difficult to climb onto the bench with his hands still shackled.

“Should pad the landing,” Raek replied.

“Look at you! Good idea.”

“You’re not the only person who can have one, you know.” Raek pulled himself onto the bench beside Ard and stooped to grab the reins. “You’re getting bored, Ard.”

“Hmm?” He glanced at his friend.

“This little stunt.” Raek gestured up to the third-story window directly above them. “It’s showy, even for you.”

Ard dismissed the comment. Was there a simpler way to steal the safe box? Probably. But surely there wasn’t a more clever way.

Remaught had to be feeling pretty smug. In his mind, the exchange had gone off without a hitch. The mobster had been gifted a Regulation-issue safe box, partnered with a crooked Reggie, and taken some competition off the streets by having the ruse artist arrested.

By now, Remaught was probably reading Ard’s note on the receipt—a simple message thanking the mobster for the Ashings and informing him that the Reggie was as fake as the Grit. This would undoubtedly send Remaught scurrying to the safe box to check its valuable contents. All he needed to do was thrust Raek’s replacement key into the lock, and … boom.

Any moment now.

The idle horse stamped its hooves, awaiting Raek’s directions.

“We’re sparked if he moves the safe box,” Raek muttered after a moment’s silence.

“He won’t,” Ard reassured. “Remaught’s lazy.”

“He could have the bodyguard do it.”

“Suno was going soft,” Ard repeated what he’d heard from Remaught. “Something about fatherhood. I’m more worried that the window won’t break …”

Three stories above, the glass window shattered. The safe box came hurtling out on a perfect trajectory, landing in the back of the hay-stuffed wagon with a thud.

Remaught Azel was blazing predictable. Classic mobster. Maybe Ard was getting bored.

“I’m actually surprised that worked,” Ard admitted, as Raek snapped the reins and sent the horse galloping down the street.

“That doesn’t give me much confidence. Tampering with the safe box was your idea.”

“I knew that would work,” Ard said. They’d tipped the replacement key with a tiny fragment of Slagstone and filled the inside of the lock with Void Grit. The detonation would have cleared everything within the blast radius, undoubtedly throwing Remaught backward. The box of Ashings, still latched shut, was hurtled outward by the force of the Grit, smashing through the glass panes and falling three stories to the hay wagon waiting on the street below.

“I had full trust in the Grit.” Ard gestured behind him. “I’m just surprised the box actually landed where it was supposed to!”

“Physics,” Raek said. “You trust the Grit, but you don’t trust physics?”

“Not if I’m doing the math.”

“Oh, come on,” said the large man. “Two and a half granules of Void Grit detonated against a safe box weighing twenty-eight panweights falling from a third-story window …”

Ard held up his still-shackled hands. “It physically hurts me to hear you talk like that. Actual pain in my actual brain.”

Behind them, from the shattered window of Remaught’s hideout, three gunshots pealed out, breaking the lazy silence of the afternoon.

“Remaught? He’s shooting at us?” Raek asked.

“He can’t hope to hit us at this distance,” answered Ard. “Even with a Fielder, that shot is hopeless.”

Another gunshot resounded, and this time a lead ball struck the side of the wagon with a violent crack. Ard flinched and Raek cursed. The shot had not come from Remaught’s distant window. This gunman was closer, but Ard couldn’t tell from what direction he was firing.


  • "Mission Impossible, but with magic, dragons, and a series of heists that go from stealing a crown to saving the world. A fun, terrific read I heartily recommend."—David Dalglish, author of A Dance of Cloaks
  • "Ardor is a rogue with a heart of gold and his team is incredibly fun to follow, but we also love this one for the originality of its heist."—B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog
  • "If you enjoy The Lies of Locke Lamora . . . then I can confidently predict that The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is the book for you . . . Highly recommended."—The Eloquent Page
  • "I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is easily the best fantasy-heist book I have read in years!"—A Fantastical Librarian
  • "The world of Ardor Benn is fascinating, deep, and well written ... This is a very impressive debut and Tyler Whitesides is clearly a talented writer with a lot of potential."—The Quill to Live
  • "The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn delivers. From start to finish this is an amazing read."—The Book Plank
  • "A cracking introduction to a new fantasy world that demands further exploration."—SFX
  • "Commendable adult fantasy debut . . . fun, entertaining and has a unique magic system . . . pretty darn cool."—Booknest
  • "The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is a promising start to a new fantasy series."—The Tattooed Book Geek

On Sale
May 15, 2018
Page Count
784 pages

Tyler Whitesides

About the Author

When he’s not writing, Tyler Whitesides enjoys playing percussion, hiking, fly fishing, cooking, and theater. Tyler is a bestselling children’s author. He lives in the mountains of northern Utah with his wife and son.

Learn more about this author