Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nomads and Novels

Two things this evening:

First up, Phase III of my New Mongol Army (pun semi-intentional)--a unit of heavy cavalry, possibly the general for a Hordes of the Things army.

The standard-bearer is from the original set of Zvezda Mongols, though his standard is scratch-built from plastic scraps and wire. The man in middle is one of the new Italeri guys mounted on one of the armored horses from the older Italeri set, and the third man is also one of the older Italeri set.

As I have alluded to before, this is not the first time I have tried my hand at painting Mongols. Now, for the first time, a sample of my earlier works are displayed here in all their hideous glory. In all seriousness, though I shudder to look at them now, this was one of my first major miniatures projects, and was an important testing ground for a couple of basic painting techniques. Besides, from a couple of feet away, in dim light, they're... passable.

And now, an exciting sneak preview of the upcoming novel by fantasy author Thor Wolfberg, The Acquisitor's Apprentice! Adventure! Sorcery! Queueing!
The wind beat against the shutters of the dockside tavern where Colobran Ezursson stared into his beer. He had set sail for Garnjauba following rumors of war, but the old sultan had died early, and the vizier had staged a bloodless coup a week before his ship arrived in the harbor, and so he sat here in this rundown dive as his purse grew thinner by the day instead of growing fat on pay or plunder.
The door opened, and there were mutters from some of the nearby tables as a gust sprinkled them with rain from the summer gale. A figure, hooded and robed against the rain, stepped into the room. But he did not take off the rain-drenched garment, nor even throw back the hood to reveal his face. Instead, he made straight for the bar, where he sat down beside Colobran and ordered red wine.
“It is not often that we see a woodsrunner here in the Archipelago,” he said, turning to look at Colobran. Even in the shadows, Colobran could see a gray beard beneath the hood, and the voice was that of a man who had seen at least threescore winters.
“Colobran Ezursson, of the Thimbrii,” he said, politely. “And who might you be?”
“Eh, names are a risky commodity in my line of work,” the hooded man said, with a wheezing chuckle that turned into a cough. “You may call me Savant.”
“You don’t sound well, Master Savant,” the northerner said, though his voice had a tinge of skepticism to it. “Perhaps you’d do better to take off that wet cloak before you catch a chill.”
“Heh, heh. You’re a funny man, Colobran Ezursson. Let me deduce what brings you here. You are not of this island. Your gear brands you as a fighting man. And you are drinking here, in this tavern, where the wine is more than half vinegar, so I suspect your fortunes are none too good.”
“All true, alas.”
“Colobran Ezursson, how would you like a job?”
“Honest work?”
“And if not?”
“Well, that depends on the pay.”
“There is an item, which I would like to obtain--a book. You need not concern yourself with why. Have you heard of the Library?”
“Only a little.”
“Deep in the Grey Mountains, there lies a city where a jealous few gather all the knowledge of mankind, hoarding it and brooding over it like a dragon guards its gold. There they hold the last copy of The Serpentine Analects, written on the skins of painted lizards by Aduzzabeg of Xuholz himself. Long have I sought for another copy, spurred on by the surviving fragments of The Hagiographia of the Xuholzim, wherein I found reference to Aduzzabeg and his work.” He paused, then, with a touch of condescension: “No doubt these mean nothing to you. But know this: I will pay a thousand talents of silver for that book to any man who places it in my hand before the end of Snake.”
Colobran considered this. It was Dog now--the middle of summer. Snake was almost nine months away. Could he travel all the way to the Grey Mountains, defeat whatever guardians this Library had, and return in that time? On the other hand, a thousand talents was a sum worthy of some consideration. He looked around at the rough wooden benches, the smoky torches, the chipped mug in his hand, and made his decision.
“I accept, Savant,” he said. “Where should I meet you to deliver this book?”
“Bring it to the Temple of Raga the Many-Tongued, on the Street of the Sultan’s Majesty,” the old man replied. “But if I do not have it before Snake turns to Hare, I will keep my thousand talents. Bear that in mind, Colobran Ezursson, and good luck.”
It was about three months later that Colobran came to the gates of the Library for the first time. He had taken a working passage on a trader out of Garnjauba, and rowed with them all the way to Pleshtlos on the eastern shore of the Outer Sea. From there he had gone east to the city of Qarthar itself, and then turned north for the Grey Mountains where lay his destination. 
Along the way, he had learned what he could of the Library and its denizens, but it was difficult to separate fact from rumor and myth when it came to such an ancient and lore-shrouded place. Did the inhabitants really sew their mouths shut so as not to disturb the sacred silence, and conduct all business by writing? Were the gates of the city guarded by manticores that would devour any visitor who could not recite a previously unknown story? How deep beneath the earth did the great tunnels of the Collection extend, and what aged horrors might lurk there, poring over dusty tomes with eyes that strained to blindness by centuries of reading?
After all this, Colobran found the truth almost disappointing--at least, no manticores waited by the gate to devour him. Instead, a dozen armored men in blue uniforms guided traffic into the city, occasionally stopping a traveller or checking the contents of a wagon. One of them, noting his armaments and foreign features, waved him over.
“You speak Qartharish?” the man in blue asked.
“Some,” replied Colobran, who had been picking it up ever since arriving in Pleshtlos.
“Commercial business or scholarly?”
“Scholarly,” said Colobran, hazarding a guess. “See Library, yes?”
The guard did not bat an eye at this, despite Colobran’s distinctly unscholarly appearance. “Follow this main street up to the next gate. Curfew begins two hours after sunset. Vagrancy is a crime, subject to the justice of the civil council. Theft of Library property is  a capital crime, subject to the justice of the Administration. You understand?” Colobran nodded. “Pass on, then.”
Heedful of the guard’s warning about vagrancy, Colobran first asked around for an inn, and was eventually directed to a lodging-house in the lower reaches of the New City, not too far from the river. Having laid claim to a room, he divested himself of some of his more cumbersome gear, and set out to explore the city. Eventually he found his way back to the main thoroughfare, and the second gate the guard had mentioned, beyond which apparently lay the Library proper.
Here there were more of the blue-clad guards, and visitors seemed to receive a more thorough screening. Eventually he made his way to the front of the line.
“Is this your first visit to the Library?” the guard asked, and Colobran allowed as how it was.
“Then if you seek a particular work, you should go to the Department of the Catalogue, who can tell you where to find it,” the guard told him, then went on to describe how to find the place.
Colobran was reaching the limits of his Qartharish, so he got thoroughly lost while attempting to follow the man’s directions, but this gave him an opportunity to scope out the area. So far, the staff had seemed amiable enough, but would they just let him walk in and take this Serpentine Analects, which the mysterious man in Garnjauba would pay a thousand talents of silver for? Colobran found that fairly unlikely.
After several tries, he finally found a building which matched the guard’s description--a long, low building, with few windows. The entrance was marked by a sculpture that seemed at first to be merely an oddly curved and polished stone--but when Colobran stopped and examined it for a moment, he saw that it almost resembled a figure, possibly a woman, unfurling a scroll so long that it draped around her almost like a robe.
Inside, a throng of people milled around in front of a counter manned by women who all wore peculiar pocketed vests over yellow tunics. Colobran’s experienced eye identified many of the crowd as flunkies of one sort or another. Upon reaching the counter, many produced scraps of paper and gave them to the women, who took them, made notes on them, and then passed them to other yellow-clad women, who were constantly coming and going from doorways that stood behind the counters. Through these doors, Colobran caught the occasional glimpse of what seemed to be row upon row of cabinets full of drawers. He did his best to unobtrusively edge his way up the front of the crowd.
“How can I help you?” one of the yellow-clad women asked.
“I look for book,” Colobran said, and then, not wanting to show his hand too soon, “Hugographia of Xuholim. Xuhlzim. Xuholzim,” trying to remember the other book that Savant had mentioned.
“Retrieval fees are based on urgency,” the woman warned him, recognizing a first-timer. “A basic request costs half a talent, and will be ready within the week. We offer both additional and discounted services.”
“Ah,” said Colobran. “I come back, other time.” Then he faded back into the crowd and made his way back outside to the odd sculpture. Half a talent was not an inconsiderable sum--it would put a severe dent in his finances. Still, he needed to find what building his target might be located in. It would be better to come back tomorrow, deal with a different clerk, and ask for The Serpentine Analects by name--better not to waste his time and money on red herrings. Once he knew where the Analects were held, he could come up with a plan to obtain them.
He made his way back to the lodging-house where he had stashed his belongings, with still some hours to spare before the curfew of which the guard at the city gate had warned him, and about looking for a scribe. He found one just as the man was packing away his stall, with samples of fine calligraphy hanging from its walls.
“You have time for one little task?” Colobran asked the man, a portly fellow with ink-stained fingers.
“Hrrm. I suppose so,” the man said. “What do you need?”
“Need title of book written down,” Colobran said. “You know Gambrujer?” he asked, in the main dialect of the Archipelago.
“A bit,” said the scribe, in the same tongue.
“Title is The Serpentine Analects,” Colobran said. “Can you write out in Qartharish? Need not be fancy.”
“Certainly,” the man replied, and selected a blank slip of paper from a sheaf at his side. Dipping his brush into a pot of black ink, he quickly stroked out the three characters of the title. There was a brief and amiable haggle over price as the scribe’s practiced fingers dried the ink in a tray of sand, and Colobran departed with the piece in hand. As dark was approaching, he returned to his base of operations to find a meal and consider his next course of action.
The next morning, Colobran laid out his various articles of clothing. He wanted an outfit that would be inconspicuous and unmartial--ideally, something appropriate for a sage or nobleman’s servant. Eventually he managed to patch together a set which fit most of these criteria--an embroidered forest green vest that hid most of the suspicious stains and patches on his white undershirt, and a long pair of breeches in somber gray wool. His weapons he left behind, even the little dagger he usually kept tucked into his left boot.
This done, Colobran made his way back to the Department of the Catalogue where he had been the previous day.
“My glorious master Muktuk of Tharsbad requests that this book be located for him,” he said to one of the yellow-clad women, mustering his best Qartharish. “A week will be sufficient time for his excellency.” He placed the slip and a half talent of silver on the counter.
“Muktuk of Tharsbad,” repeated the woman, and jotted the name down on Colobran’s slip. “Your master may enquire after it a week hence.”
The week passed quickly enough. Some of it he spent playing games of chance in local taverns, and by this method Colobran managed to somewhat replenish his cash. More time was spent familiarizing himself with the streets of the New City. He payed particular attention to the river Oushourus, which curved through the western part of the city. Both barges and smaller skiffs traveled up and down its brown waters, along with a certain amount of flotsam collected from its banks. At the lower end, river traffic departing the city was routinely boarded and searched by blue-clad Security patrols, but this did not concern Colobran too much; an idea was sprouting in his head.
In a cooper’s shop on the other side of the city, he bought a small cask, which Colobran made watertight with wax. He also purchased a small bag of sand from a merchant who usually supplied the glassblowers’ guild. He spent most of a day down by the river, carefully adding and subtracting small amounts of sand from the cask until he could make it float just beneath the surface. Then, as best he could, he timed the speed of the river’s flow, watching the movement of pieces of wood float down past the Third Walls.
At the end of all this, he was satisfied that he could get the book out of the New City without attracting the attention of the guards--if only he could lay his hands on it in the first place. 
One more trip to the Department of the Catalogue, in the same guise as before, and Colobran had the information he’d been waiting for: The Serpentine Analects were among the holdings somewhere beneath the Hall of the Fifth Administrator--a fortess-like compound in one of the western districts of the Old City. He spent most of a day discreetly examining the building’s facade, planning out the best approach, then returned to his inn to grab some sleep before the night’s work began.
When darkness fell, Colobran arose, and dressed in a black jerkin and dark breeches, then rubbed ground charcoal into all areas of exposed skin and wrapped a long rope around his waist. Thus equipped, he climbed out of the window of his little rented room and dropped, cat-like, to the street below.
It was after curfew, and so the streets were empty except for Security patrols--men who walked in pairs, each carrying a globe of the glowing stuff which Colobran had heard referred to as magelight, and which seemed to take the place of torches in this city. Two or three times he had to duck into alleys or alcoves until these patrols had passed, but at last he reached his destination--a spot he had marked the day before, where a gargoyle-headed drainpipe jutted out from beneath a balcony.
Colobran unfurled the rope from his waist. A grappling hook would have made his job much simpler, but would have attracted suspicion from any guard who noticed it among his gear. Instead, he quickly fashioned a lasso, in the manner he had learned while living among the Khazal of the northern steppe. Whirling this around his head, he cast the loop of rope upwards, hoping to snare the gargoyle’s head--barely visible in the moonlight, but Colobran had spent his childhood in the dark forests of the Thimbric lands. It took him three tries, but at last he had his line secured.
It was a thirty-foot climb up to the stone drainpipe, not difficult for one who had spent time among the seamen of the Archipelago. He balanced carefully, his bare feet gripping the rough stone. Squatting down, he detached the incriminating rope, tying it back around his waist. Then he reached up and pulled himself over the edge of the balcony.
The room beyond the balcony was even darker than the moonlit streets, but it seemed to be an office of some kind. The door opened easily under his fingers, and he crept down the hall, bare feet silent on the stone floor, hand hovering close to the dagger at his waist, ears straining for any hint of a sound. This would be the most difficult part of the operation, for two reasons. First, the paper he had received from the Department of the Catalogue was intended to be given to a knowledgeable Archivist; the book’s location was given in a sort of Library shorthand as H5Ad.15V12/4. The first part of this was clearly a code for the building; at a guess Colobran had interpreted the rest as a room, and then perhaps a row and a shelf.
Of course, the second problem was that he had no idea where in this dark maze Room “15V” might be. There had been no question of obtaining a map, and simply walking into the front door and asking for the book would have drawn far too much attention--besides which, the “donation” required to actually obtain access to the Collection, while not beyond the means of the well-off sage was a little too high for a perpetually impoverished mercenary. And so here he was, wandering down the unlighted corridors after-hours, hoping for a stroke of luck. 

Instead, he began to feel that he was being watched. In the dark passages of the Hall of the Fifth Administrator it was impossible to be sure, but he felt the hair tingling on the back of his neck, and all the tales of the uncanny he had heard in Qarthar came flooding back to him. Perhaps he had triggered some sort of silent alarm. Was a sorcerer watching him, through an arcane glass? Perhaps the Library had some sort of invisible guardian roaming its halls? Maybe a manticore...
He came to a T-intersection, and took the right-hand passage--then, he turned around and slowly drew his dagger. Did his ears deceive him, or was there the faintest sound of footsteps in the corridor behind him? Holding his knife firmly in his right hand, Colobran cautiously extended his left hand forward... and felt a faint brush of fabric.
Before his mind had time to fully register the presence of the other, Colobran struck. With reflexes honed by years of fighting, he lunged forward, dropping almost to one knee, left fist ready to block a blow at his face. His right arm aimed a thrust upwards, at where he thought the stranger’s midriff should be... but there was only empty air.
Colobran sprang backward, anticipating a return blow, and a booted heel glanced off his forehead--the opponent had misjudged his aim. Colobran swept out low with an extended leg, and felt the opponent topple over backwards, but before the barbarian could spring on his unseen foe, the other hurled himself back out of contact.
There was a moment of stillness. In the hall there was no sound of breath or movement--then a faint hiss, like air escaping from a punctured bladder. Some instinct caused Colobran to throw up a hand to shield his eyes even as a flash of brilliant white enveloped the corridor. The harsh glare lasted only an instant, as Colobran caught a glimpse of a figure reaching for him, jagged shadows in the actinic light.
Blue afterimages glowed in front of the barbarian’s eyes as the darkness returned, as suddenly as it had gone. Colobran rolled backwards, cursing himself for a fool. He should have taken more time to prepare, done more reconnaissance, risked some torches, something. Anything would be better than this fight in pitch blackness on unknown ground. But if he could take down this opponent, he might be able to retrace his steps and get out of this place--Savant’s thousand talents of silver be damned.
Crouching by a wall, Colobran loosened the rope from around his waist, then cast out a length of it, whirling it around his head in a circle. The sound would betray his position, but he hoped it would give him an instant’s warning if his opponent made a rush.
He heard the rope smack against something, and dived at the unseen figure. The other tried to dodge, but was only half successful, and the barbarian’s firm grip closed on a wrist. He pulled the other to the floor with a twist that elicited a faint grunt of pain. The opponent rammed his head backwards into Colobran’s chin, slamming the barbarian’s jaw upward, at the same time striking for Colobran’s stomach with his loose elbow. Yet Colobran kept an iron grip on the left wrist he held in his left hand. He pinned the struggling figure to the floor with a knee to the back, and wrenched the captive arm up to behind the figure’s neck. At the feel of Colobran’s dagger at his neck, the unseen figure ceased its thrashing.
“No tricks,” the barbarian growled, “Or I slit throat,” and the other grunted acknowledgment. “Which way to room fifteen?” The figure was silent. “Which way?” he repeated, smacking the figure’s head into the stones of the floor.
“Down,” the voice groaned, reluctantly. Knowing he was unlikely to get more than that, Colobran aimed a blow at the back of the figure’s head with the pommel of his dagger, and the body beneath him went limp as the blow struck with practiced force. The barbarian put his fingers to the man’s throat--yes, still a pulse. He flipped the man over, and began searching the body. His opponent had been wearing one of the peculiar pocketed vests, and Colobran began quickly riffling through these one at a time.
In the right breast pocket, his questing fingers found a small sphere, vaguely resilient, almost like rubber. He pulled this out to examine it further, and found that it was glowing faintly. He let it rest for a moment in his palm, and the blue glow increased until it was a little dimmer than a candle. The light seemed cold somehow, and after a moment Colobran realized it was not simply his imagination; the little sphere seemed to be siphoning the warmth from his hand.
With the aid of this light, his search went more quickly, but he found nothing else of use. Now he just need to find a way down to room fifteen. He rolled the guard back over on his side, where the man would be less likely to choke on his vomit while unconscious, then set off down the passage. From time to time he passed doors, but these were not marked or numbered in anyway. Curious, Colobran tested the handle, and found that it was not locked. His blue light revealed only a few chairs and a table--no books in sight. Slightly disappointed, he backed out of the room again, closing the door behind him. I don’t have time for this, he thought to himself. Whatever brought that one guard down on me might send more my way.
Picking up the pace, he passed more of the unmarked rooms, until at last he came to a stairwell. He must be at the corner of the building he realized, for the passage made a right angle here--or rather, two perpendicular hallways connected at this stair. He headed downwards.
A quick survey of the next floor down revealed it to be much like the one he had just left, but the stair continued down, so he followed it. The next couple were much the same, but the one below that had a placard above the door.
“Vault One,” Colobran sounded out, examining the characters. Now he knew what the V15 was, at least. “Damnation. Fourteen more flights of stairs? That’ll be one hell of a climb back up,” he muttered. But at least now he knew he was on the right track.
There were no sounds of pursuit from above him, though Colobran remained alert to the possibility that there might be guardians of some sort waiting for him nearer his goal. But when he finally reached the level labeled “Vault Fifteen,” a more mundane obstacle awaited him: the door was locked, and the lock would not yield even to his substantial thews. Lock-picking was one skill he had never acquired, nor did he have the time now to figure it out on his own. The door’s hinges were on the other side of the portal where he couldn’t get at them, and to break down the door would sacrifice his last shreds of secrecy.
Still, after a few moments he decided he had no other choice, and began hurling himself against the stout timbers. It took half a dozen blows before the wood around the hinges began to splinter, and half a dozen more before the door at last burst inwards with a crash. He stood back for a moment, but no opposition immediately issued forth from the opening. Stepping gingerly over the broken timbers, Colobran shone his little blue light into the room... and saw shelf upon shelf of books, worn volumes of every shape and size. The rows paraded off into the darkness, far beyond the range of his sight.
“Aisle Sixty-Four,” he read from the end of the nearest row. Apparently he had come in at the far end of the row. Counting down, he made his way to Aisle Twelve, where his Catalogue slip indicated he should find The Serpentine Analects. 
And here it was! Sitting on shelf four, a small volume bound in the leather of painted lizards, stamped with sinuous gold characters in an unknown script--this could only be the book he had sought. A thousand talents of silver! Heart beating with excitement, Colobran reached for the ancient tome.
A tremendous jolt ran through his body as his fingers touched the leather spine. The little blue sphere fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers, darkness reeled about him, and he knew nothing more.
What has befallen our hero? Will he survive? Tune in next time for the further adventures of Colobran Ezursson, Independent Wealth Redistribution Specialist!

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