Pain jabbed the muscle of Annja Creed's right forearm as she slammed it into the hardwood limb jutting from the trunk-like pole before her. Good, she thought savagely. She slammed a palm into the slick-polished wood of the trunk itself even as her left forearm blocked into another protrusion. Faster and faster her hands moved, in and out, over and under the blunt wooden posts stuck in sockets on the central pole. She practiced blocks, traps, strikes with stiffened fingers and fists and palms. A drumbeat rose as muscle and bone met wood with jarring impact. Annja was a tall, fit woman in her midtwenties. She wore a green sports bra and gray shorts. The humming air conditioner kept her Brooklyn loft cool. She paused to brush away a vagrant strand of chestnut hair that had worked loose from the bun she had pinned it in. Her scowl deepened. The stout wooden apparatus rocked to a palm-heel thrust, despite the fact its wide base was weighed down by heavy sandbags. Annja's sparring partner was a training dummy used as an adjunct towing chunstylegongfu.She had taken up the study because it was supposed to be highly effective and easy to learn, while giving her another option for nonlethal use of force. She had plenty of lethal options available. The deadliest was currently invisible to the naked eye. But it was not intangible, not like her rapier-quick intellect or boundless resourcefulness, which she knew could be as deadly as any physical weapons. She whipped the back of her right hand against a wooden arm. She let the hand flop over it in a trapping move, fired a punch that made the post rock. As she worked into a blinding-fast pattern of blocks and strikes, all oriented toward the centerline of the post, as they would be to the centerline of an opponent's torso, she found herself worrying about the turn her life had taken. She thought about the sword--her sword. She had learned that it had once belonged to Joan of Arc. And that she was the inheritor of the long-ago martyr's mantle. On a research trip to France she had, seemingly by chance, found the final piece of St. Joan's sword, broken to pieces by the English captors who burned her. At more or less the same time she had met the man named Roux. He was spry for his gray beard--and even sprier for the fact he claimed Joan had been protÉgÉe. He and his apprentice Garin Braden had failed to rescue her from execution. As a result they had been cursed--or blessed--with agelessness. Roux had spent the half millennium since Joan's death trying to reassemble the saint's shattered sword. At first he'd regarded Annja as an interloper and tried to steal the final fragment from her. Yet when she came into the presence of the other pieces, in Roux's chateau in France, the sword had spontaneously reforged itself at her touch. It was a bitter pill for a lifelong rationalist to swallow. Especially one who made most of her income as the resident skeptic on the notably credulous cable seriesChasing History's Monsters, on the Knowledge Channel. Her arms and hands now moved too fast for the eye to follow. The tough, seasoned hardwood creaked and strained to the mounting fury of her blows. Human bone would give way long before that old wood did. The sword. It had come to dominate her life. It rested now in its accustomed location--what she thought of as the otherwhere. It was not present in this world, except at her command. To summon it, she had learned, all she needed was to form a hand as if to grasp its hilt, and exert her will. And her hand was filled. But her life, it seemed, had correspondingly emptied since the sword came into it. Sweat soaked her hair and flew from her face. Her wrists and knuckles and elbows sounded like machinegun fire as they struck themuk-jong. Orphaned at an early age, raised at an orphanage in New Orleans, AnArcher, Alex is the author of 'Secret of the Slaves ', published 2007 under ISBN 9780373621262 and ISBN 0373621264.