The NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month, and takes place every November. All you have to do is write a 50,000+ word novel in a month.
Following the now-established pattern, this was another installment of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel series, following the same creative process.
Book IV of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel series.
(If you enjoy these extracts and want to read the whole thing, you can buy it.)
It was raining, which didn't help. The road looked particularly dreary ahead, and it had been a while since he'd stretched his legs anyway, so Cullan hauled back on the reins, bringing the horses to a halt. He turned and lifted the canvas flap at the front of the wagon's cover. "Back in a tick. Need a slash," he said, and hopped off the front platform. The rain hit him with all the unpleasant sogginess that persistent rain does, and he hurried over to the side of the road, under the shelter of the nearby trees. "What lovely June weather," he muttered to himself as he unbuttoned. He had barely finished relieving himself when a scream pierced the air.
He sprinted towards the wagon. All his weapons were within easy reach – from where he'd been sitting moments ago. Almost panicked, he leapt up onto the platform and thrust his head through the flap, while reaching for one of his blades. "What's wrong?" he demanded, "what was that scream?"
Morgan was sitting up on her pallet, white as a sheet and shivering, while her lover Rassillon hugged her. Alys was sitting up, clutching to her the bundle of swaddling that contained their son, one day over three months old, trying to shush him. The child's bawling quieted, and Cullan could hear the Elf muttering reassuringly to Morgan. Cullan clambered inside. "What happened?" he asked.
Alys glared at him. "Cullan – do yourself up."
"Whu-?" Cullan looked down and realised that his breeches were still undone, and were migrating downwards. He turned around and started buttoning up. "What was that scream? Morgan are you alright?"
"She was asleep," Alys told him. "Rassillon was studying, I was putting Walter to sleep. Then she just screamed, and just, jerked upright."
"What happened?" asked Cullan, turning back round. "Why did you scream, Morgan?"
The young woman shook her head and bit her lip. She gently pushed Rassillon away, and took a deep breath. "I had-" she began, and stopped. Her voice, normally faint and light, like a mouse's squeak, was deep and gravelly.
"What's up with your voice?" asked Alys, leaning forwards.
Morgan shook her head, biting her lip again. It took her several long moments to collect herself again, then she spoke in her new disturbing voice. "I had a vision. A nightmare. Like back at Darash, before I met you. But, it wasn't the same. It was ... there were men, in robes like priests, but completely bald. They seemed to be ... looking ... at me. They were ... chanting, I think. I couldn't hear what. Then one of them, or it might have been all of them, said, 'it's her, she's the one, at last.' And, and, there was a, a crack of thunder or something, and I, woke up."
The others just looked blank for a second, then Cullan shook his head. "This is not my field. You got any ideas, Rass?"
"I am not familiar with divination, or scrying," he explained, "but, the change in voice may certainly be the result of a poorly-executed spell, or merely the interruption caused by the sudden waking. I do not know any more."
"But, you've studied thaumaturgy, right? The theory of magic, isn't it?" Alys asked.
"You are correct," Rassillon replied. "However, I am no expert – my specialism is battle magic, not theory. I would require access to another mage's library, one who is accomplished in thaumaturgy, to even begin a diagnosis."
"One to write to your boss about?" asked Cullan.
Both the mages shrugged. "I doubt he'll help," Morgan croaked.
"Mordlin does not readily assist those not under his direct protection," Rassillon explained, "but it would be a mistake not to seek his aid."
"You need a town for that?"
"Neither of us can communicate magically," Rassillon confirmed. "We would either have to write to him, or hire a local wizard to use Mindspeech."
"Right. Well, we should be in a fairly big town tomorrow," Cullan told them, "you can go and do magic-stuff there, can't you?"
"Right." Cullan sighed. "I suppose that means you're not going to be babysitting tomorrow then?"
"Cullan!" Alys glared at him again.
"What, I don't get an hour alone with you on my birthday?"
"We'll work something out," Morgan rumbled.
Cullan sighed again. "Right. Well, I'd better get us moving again, then, hadn't I?" He turned to go.
"I'll join you when Walter's asleep," Alys promised.
"Right," Cullan muttered. "Right."
Lethwin waited. Nothing else seemed to be forthcoming, so he smiled, briefly, took a breath, and began speaking. "Very well. We will not be disturbed here, it is private enough for my purposes. You may be aware that there have been other Manifestations since we last spoke. The storm clouds and lightning during light rain, and the earthquake earlier today. What you are probably not aware of, is that almost all of the Manifestations have been centred on the palace off the Square of Candles, the palace known as 'The Palladium', occupied by one Princess Elena."
"There's that name again," Cullan muttered.
"Quite," Lethwin agreed. "And, if you have any observational powers at all, you may have surmised that there are in fact two Gods Manifesting in and around The Palladium."
"Cajon and Pickt," Rassillon confirmed.
"Correct. It is also common knowledge that the Princess Elena has, since the Manifestations began, been frequenting the Eastern temple opposite the Fainting Oyster, as I am sure you know. There are numerous rumours circulating as to the exact reason, but by putting together all the pieces of information available to us, including the fact that she intends to marry the son of Lord Panacles in order for her familial line to regain political and effectual power in this city, we can discard such entertaining titbits as, 'she meets a secret lover there,' or, 'she is negotiating passage to the East.' What she is almost certainly doing there, is receiving ecclesiastical guidance from the priests of a God who has no interest in whatever conflict the two celestial brothers have."
"That's what people have been saying," interjected Cullan, as Lethwin recovered his breath for another extended bit of explanation.
"Quite. And it is, interestingly, only since the Manifestations began that she has been visiting the temple. Now, one can, of course, speculate forever on the actual motives of Gods without arriving at a useful answer, but the facts do add up to some remarkable co-incidences, suppositions, and conclusions. What might yours be?"
This threw them off balance. Cullan spoke first. "Thaaat, she might be... being asked to choose between Cajon and Pickt?"
Lethwin nodded and looked at Alys. "Maybe, Cajon and Pickt are asking her something they think only she knows, and she doesn't, really?"
Lethwin smiled as he turned his gaze on Rassillon. "Cajon and Pickt may be asking Princess Elena to decide something for them, and she does not wish to offend either of them."
Lethwin nodded again and looked at Morgan. "The Gods are bribing her to give an answer they prefer, and she doesn't want to risk turning down both bribes, or answering and angering the other."
The political agent smiled. "Excellent! You all appear able to think. Yes, those are all excellent theories." He fell silent.
"And?" asked Cullan eventually.
"Yes, and. And, and, and, and." Lethwin appeared to be having trouble phrasing the next bit. Eventually, "people are worried," came out. "They do not like uncertainty. They do not know what is occurring, many of them – in fact, almost all of them, do not have the full picture, and so they come up with ideas like Princess Elena is trying to summon the Eastern God to fight the ones who have been Manifesting here. When the people in question are nobles and merchants with a say, an important and weighty say, in the running of the city, and of the Realm, it leads to bad decisions and poor judgement all over. If the nobles and high merchants were to be reassured, by a source that they trust, that the Princess Elena is not going to incite a celestial war over their city, or that a God is not going to exact mercantilic punishment upon the city, then things would be much much smoother for everyone."
"Not to mention profitable, I suppose?"
"Indeed. Yes, the trusted source, and his agents who were able to procure such information to be the basis of the reassurance, would indeed be rewarded most munificently."
"I recognise that phrase," Cullan said. "It means some poor bugger's about to be taken to the cleaners, and we're the ones that'll, one way or another, do it. In this case, we'll be the ones providing the information on which to base the reassurance, yes?"
"Correct," Lethwin answered. "Getting in to a heavily-guarded place and doing something – expensive, shall we say – appears to be your speciality."
"What are you offering?"
"Two hundred dollars each, initially. Plus another fifty each, up-front."
"That sounds good," Cullan commented. "Rather a lot for one night's work, though."
Lethwin flashed a thin smile. "Obviously, you are new to the business."
"Obviously," Cullan agreed. "Alright – what exactly do we need to find out?"
"Confirmation of the purpose of Elena's visits to the Eastern temple, a guarantee that no divine retribution will be visited on the city, and why Cajon and Pickt have been Manifesting before her."
"In that order?"
"In any order that presents itself."
"And this is all to be done 'discreetly', yes?"
"Excuse us a moment." Cullan gathered the others into a huddle. There was a brief discussion, then they separated, and he turned back to face Lethwin. "We're in. That'll be fifty dollars each, please."
Lethwin motioned to one of his guards. "And when will you be carrying out your task?"
"If you can let us have a plan of The Palladium, which I'm sure will be no trouble to a man of your resources, I expect we'll be able to go in tomorrow night, and have your answers by the next morning."
"A plan will be made available to you by morning. It will be delivered by my associate that you met the day before yesterday, personally."
"He will also be able to answer any questions you have about the placement of guards and so on in The Palladium."
"That will be most useful, thank you."
"Very well." Lethwin stood. "I shall leave you to return to the Fainting Oyster, and get some sleep in preparation for your first foray into political enquiries."
"Good. We'll be back here at noon the day after tomorrow to hand over the info, and get the rest of our reward."
"I have no doubt," the agent replied, and swept out, his guards following.
"Pompous twerp," Cullan muttered, when he'd gone.
That night, as a light drizzle permeated the air, Alys led Rassillon and Morgan up the north-west highway towards the Square of Candles. The two mages had left their powerstones at the Fainting Oyster. Once over the bridge, they split up, with Morgan going right and the other two going left. They stayed close to the edges of the square until they had almost gone a third of the way around it, then they disappeared into the alleys. Of course, no-one thought anything of this – in rain, everyone likes to stick close to buildings, and a pilgrim escorted b a couple of soldiers is not going to have much trouble.
Alys and Rassillon took a few turns, then stopped in an alley that looked out towards the back gate of The Palladium. There were only six guards on duty, down from the ten that had been on duty up until last night. There were about to be a few less.
Alys unslung her bow case, and took the bow out. She strung it, and knelt down before selecting an arrow. She glanced at Rassillon. "Ready?" she asked.
"I am distinctly unhappy about this," he replied, "but yes, I am ready."
She took careful aim at the sergeant's face. She loosed the arrow, and it hit home. The sergeant gave an anguished yell, tried to bring his hands up to the arrow sticking through his cheeks, then collapsed. The other guards looked around in sudden panic to find the attacker. Rassillon fired off a spell in their general direction, which missed. Alys aimed at another guard, and let fly. The arrow carved a groove in her target's forehead, and with a scream he too collapsed.
"Help!" one of the remaining guards yelled. "We're under attack! Help!"
"About time," muttered Alys, as she readied another arrow. Someone started ringing a bell in the palace, and the guards clustered together around the gate, making themselves highly visible in the torchlight. Her next arrow missed, and by the time she had the next one ready, a dozen more guards had appeared at the far end of the alley. That arrow missed as well. "Damn it! Rassillon, attack!"
"They have not attacked us yet," he replied.
The first clocks began striking midnight. Morgan stepped out of her hiding place and began walking towards the barracks as she prepared a spell. She stopped ten yards away and took careful aim with the fireball that had built around her hand. She cast another spell to hurl a stone at a window to break it, then threw the fireball clean through the gap, and when it hit something inside, it exploded, engulfing everything around it in fire. She didn't stop to observe the effects, she just scurried away, leaving the occupants to fight the rapidly rising flames.
Alys shot another arrow, and it thudded into a guard's armour, knocking him back. The reinforcements arrived at the sentries just as a boom and red flash beyond them indicated that Morgan had cast her spell. That gave Alys just time enough to get another shot off, which again thudded into armour with little effect. "Rassillon!" she snarled.
"Very well," he replied, and knelt to touch the ground. Alys let off her last four arrows in quick succession. All of them missed, but it slowed the advance of the soldiers who had by now worked out where the arrows were coming from. Still in the shadows of the alley mouth, they couldn't see exactly where or how many the attackers were, but they knew in which direction to attack. She unstrung her bow and packed it away before standing up and unsheathing both her swords. Just behind her, Rassillon finished muttering and stood up.
Just in front of her, the ground erupted, and a huge, rangy form appeared from out of it. The gerignak took one look at the advancing soldiers, by now only a dozen yards away, gave a roar, and charged them. Thankful for the cover, Alys helped Rassillon away from the scene.
Ten minutes later, they met up with Morgan at the bridge, and after making sure that they were all alright, headed back to the Fainting Oyster.
At the College of the Art, it was as Rassillon and Morgan had feared. There were no powerstones available for sale to them. They tried explaining the situation, they tried mentioning that they were students of Mordlin, they even tried pretending that Morgan would finally succumb to demonic possession without another powerstone, but the enchanters turned them down. Finally, in a bid of desperation, Morgan went in search of a student who would be willing to sell her, or at least rent her, their powerstone. It only took her an hour of walking through the library and asking every student she met, but she found someone.
"Yeah, as it happens, I've got a powerstone to sell."
"You have? Excellent!"
"It's only a strength four one, and it only works at night. Which is why the masters are letting me have another one – can't practice many spells at night, y'know!"
"That doesn't matter. It'll do the job we need it to do. Have you got it now?"
"Yeah, it's in my pocket. I'm not really supposed to part with it until I've got my new one, but I figure it's not doing me any good either way, is it? Here." He held it up.
"Aw, Hell, I can't remember how much these things are supposed to be worth!"
Morgan tried to remember her own lessons on the value of powerstones. "As far as I can recall," she said, "a strength four is worth about four hundred and sixty dollars. That's without flaws, and no merchant's mark-up."
"Sounds about right. All right, you can have it for that, considering it only works half the time. Got the money on you?"
"Just a moment." She reached into her pouch and found her rather large money bag. She pulled it out and began counting out the ninety-two gold coins necessary. "Here," she said eventually, pushing the pile across the table.
"Thanks," replied the wizard, pushing the powerstone towards her.
"Thank you. You've been really helpful!"
"Nice doing business with you!"
"Goodbye!" She was already hurrying back out. She met up with Rassillon in the entrance hall, where he had been waiting.
"Well?" he asked.
"Got one!" she replied, a breathless smile on her face. "Same size as yours, but only works at night. You owe me four hundred and sixty dollars."
"I shall pay you first thing this evening," he told her. "If it is charged, then we have been very lucky. If not, then you should go back and ask for a refund."
© Brian Wakeling. GURPS® is © Steve Jackson Games.