It was 2002, or 2003, or…look the exact year isn’t important.
What was important was that Wizards of the Coast had released 3rd edition D&D and with it the OGL, the Open Gaming License. They invited anyone who wanted, to make their own Dungeons and Dragons rules and settings. It was a magnificent time full of possibility. In the midst of this one company, Privateer Press, dropped a couple of rules books for a setting they called the Iron Kingdoms. And in the spirit of the time, Privateer Press announced that they were looking for writers for their new setting – even saying they thought they might go like Wizards, and publish their own novels.
At last, it was my time to shine. I loved the setting, what there was of it and I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’d known that since I was 12 years old. I’d already made some attempts to have my work published and really felt I was learning how the things worked. There was an open call for fiction on the Privateer Press website and I was going to go for it.
But, before I did, I needed to make sure I had something to pitch, some fiction that would capture their attention and the feel of their setting. I needed to get the feel of it. I went to their forums and the fan fiction section. There were stories that I thought were okay and some I thought were miserable. I was sure I could do better than 95% of these folks. So I wrote a little short story Gunmage at Night. It was well received and so I wrote the sequel and then another chapter. Soon enough it was a little serial and on its way to being a real novella, which I grandly titled She Wolves and the Son of Nine Dragons. I was quite proud of it.
As the months went past and She Wolves grew, I kept an eye on the Privateer Press website. The call for fiction writers was still up. After almost twelve months or so, I felt ready to pitch – so I sent them an excerpt from She Wolves.
Everyone remember what the early internet was like, with websites being six to twelve months out of date? Yeah that’s where Privateer Press were at. They’d long since stopped looking for writers, they just hadn’t gotten around to updating their website. They were still planning to release novels, but their setting and its proprietary tabletop game Warmachine® was going gangbusters. They had enough writers to cover their fiction needs. In fact, from the polite rejection letter I was sent, it looked like they had already hired the writers they wanted before I even started writing Gunmage at Night.
So I was stuck with a novella I couldn’t sell, written to get the attention of a company whose eyes were completely fixed elsewhere. A demoralising outcome, but not a worthless experience. I’d learned a lot about writing, character and setting building, pacing and set ups. Lots of useful skills. I left She Wolves to one side and moved on to writing Leandra, the fantasy novel I wrote for my wife.
So, here now for your reading pleasure, the original Gunmage at Night. Over the coming months I’ll release the entire She Wolves novella in its incomplete, serialised form. It will, I hope, show something of my history as a writer, while still being a fun read. Enjoy.
Gunmage at Night
The rain had ceased, but the night’s wind rattled over the cathedral’s slate roof, driving the rainwater down into the stone gutters. From there it sluiced along drainpipes that ran the length of the building’s flying buttresses and poured out the stone mouths of a dozen gargoyles. The infernal sentinels crouched, ever-vigilant, on the end corner of each buttress, vomiting rainwater into the church yard, thirty feet below. Empty shadows lurked under the unmoving wings of each statue, but under the south-most gargoyle crouched an extra, more substantial shadow. The dark clad figure pressed up under the granite limbs, one hand clinging to the cold, hard stone, the other grasping the butt of a magelock pistol, each grip as desperate as the other. Shivering in the frozen wind, the figure stayed stock-still, fearful even of breathing too deeply.
From his vantage point the entire south side of the Five Fingers could be seen, where lamplight and red lanterns glittered from a dozen dozen windows. Business was still brisk despite the late hour and the bitter weather. The cathedral though was built on the city’s only high hill, to be a bastion of holiness in the sea of the city’s corruption; a beacon to the lost. For Matthias Warlock, gunmage and heretic, it was more like a prison tower. The magic spell that had allowed him to attain the cathedral’s roof had faded now and he was precariously positioned. Looking over the rooftops, he fancied he could pick out Catskinner’s Alley, where his assailant had first ambushed him. He had made good time to reach the cathedral, leaping on spell-shod feet from rooftop to rooftop, but the hunter had kept pace most of the way. There was a moment he thought that he had lost her over the Wild Houses, but now he was not sure. Blinking through the rainwater that dripped down from the gargoyle’s wing, Matthias scanned the ground of the churchyard, the gravestones and the statuary, looking for any little sign of movement in the shadows.
“Where are you, you damned zealot?” he muttered to himself.
Seeing no movement, Matthias carefully clambered around onto the top of the gargoyle, ending up lying on his back between the two bat-like, granite wings. Staring up at the sky, he flicked open the two breech locks of his double barreled sidearm. He reached into his ammo pouch on his belt and made an unpleasant discovery. There were only two shots left, powder and balls deftly wrapped in his best tamping paper. Even in the dark his arcane senses told him that both shots were rune carved, capable of channeling his spells to their targets. What troubled him though was that one of the two was a bullet he had all but sworn never to use, carrying it on him every day since the night he took it from a pistolwraith’s ephemeral corpse. He did his best to keep his fingers from trembling with cold and fear as he slid the accursed shot into the under-barrel and then the other shot into the over-barrel.
“Normal shot first,” he thought. With luck he wouldn’t need to dare the pistolwraith’s curse. He flicked both breechlocks into place with his thumb. Clutching the magelock to his breast like a beloved pet, he stared up at the sky, the rain clouds being blown out toward the coast. As the stars appeared, Matthias thought to pray.
“Would you hear me up here, Morrow?” he thought. “And if you heard, would you listen? Or are you like Menoth, impassive to the sufferings of those who fail your teachings?”
As the bright moonlight burst from behind the storm clouds, Matthias decided that it was probably best for a heretic not to pray, lest he incur further divine wrath. He placed his faith in his magelock and resolved to meet his fate. Flipping over onto his belly, he crawled forward slightly, so that his face was over the gargoyle’s head. Carefully, he pushed his gun hand out over the edge, sweeping the pistol carefully back and forth. Like many of his profession, Matthias had mastered the arcane ability of seeing through the barrel of his sidearm. Though his head and body remained hidden, he could see the entire church yard from his weapon’s vantage point.
The new moonlight revealed a graceful figure, cloaked and hooded, carefully stepping over the flagstones of the churchyard. In her hands was a long, single-edged blade, the polished steel glinting subtly in the moon’s radiance. Her movements were cautious and plainly she was searching for her prey. With slow, deliberate steps she approached the foot of the buttress where Matthias hid above. Never once did she look up, instead anticipating an assault from between the gravestones where so many hiding places could be found.
This was an opportunity that Matthias could not pass up, though it offered only a slim chance of success. He had expended most of his arcane energies simply in keeping the magehunter at bay. What little power was left might be enough though, if his strikes were sure. He would have to take the gamble.
“Be light as the breeze, yet descend like a thunderclap,” he whispered to himself, reciting the maxim he had learned years before, as a novice of the Order of Keeping. “It seems that I will depend upon you after all, Lord Morrow; or at least upon your training.”
Matthias drew his legs up under his body and then launched himself in a graceful somersault out over the front of the gargoyle and down the side of the buttress. His left hand traced the masonry as he fell, controlling his descent by means of a mystical technique known to the monks of Morrow’s most sacred orders. He fell as swiftly as any man might, but in a manner of control few men knew. With his right hand he took careful aim, and when still ten feet above the magehunter, fired the first bullet. The rune etched shot erupted from the barrel, carrying with it an enchantment of electrical energy, and struck the woman’s shoulder with both bullet and shocking arcane power. She staggered backward, her hood thrown back revealing her blonde elvish hair and pointed ears.
“How do you like that, Retribution bitch?” Matthias snapped, landing on the flagstones as comfortably as stepping from a cart or dismounting a horse. He went immediately to one knee in a strong firing stance, ready if the second shot were necessary.
But the second shot was the cursed one, the bullet he was loath to ever fire. When the Retribution assassin recovered and charged at him with her sword, he hesitated. The moment was crucial and the magehunter’s blade struck his sidearm cleanly from his hand, causing it to go sailing into the dark shadows amidst the gravestones. The elven woman smiled as she swung razor edged blade in a vicious backstroke.
“Mother Scyrah will be avenged,” she whispered triumphantly in the Shyric tongue, the language of her people.
“I’ve never even met your damn mother!” declared Matthias, who knew his fair share of foreign languages. The magehunter’s blade came close, but he avoided it by stepping inside the swing. Before the assassin could react, he had engaged her in a grappling embrace, one hand on her sword arm, the other clutching for her throat. If he could force her to relinquish the sword, he would have the advantage.
For a time the two of them struggled together, Matthias seeking to disarm the magehunter, the elf seeking to disengage herself enough to use her sword to full advantage. At least once, he felt the sword’s sharp edge deflected by the enchanted cloth of his midnight blue mage robe.
The gunmage began to feel he might be able to gain the upper hand when both combatants were distracted by an ominous whooshing sound. Matthias looked over his shoulder in time to see a tiny ball of rushing flame, just before it struck the ground beside them. There was an earsplitting eruption of flame and noise. Matthias launched himself aside with the impact, responding as he had long ago been trained. The fireball scorched his body, even through his magical protections, and he fell heavily against the foot of the cathedral wall, dazed and badly wounded.
The magehunter was not so lucky, and she received the spell’s fiery blast fully. As she fell dead, a tall, strangely armoured figure, stalked from the graveyard shadows. It carried a baroque trident with iron tines that twisted and flared in an alien design. About it’s person it carried numerous other weapons, equally strange in their manufacture. The figure was armoured, but the armour was more akin to the shell-like skin of a crustacean, with articulated segments like fine plate armour, but lighter and far more maneuverable. In the few spaces between the armour it seemed the creature’s skin was a deep blue. About its waist was a fine leather belt, in which was tucked the magelock pistol of Matthias Warlock. On its left arm it bore a buckler of steel and leather. As it shifted in the moonlight the leather showed itself to be a human face, skinned and cured to form an unspeakable trophy.
While the monstrous new attacker bent over the body of the dead magehunter, Matthias stirred from his daze. Badly burned, and with two ribs broken by the explosion, he was in intense pain. He shook his head to clear his vision, while the newly arrived stranger ignored his suffering groans. By agonizing stages, Matthias levered his wounded body up from the ground, using the cathedral wall for support.
“You bastard, what umbral pit did you spring from?” he muttered, spitting blood from his burnt lips.
The alien hunter turned its head slowly towards him, two slitted eyes staring out from its carapaced head with a gleam that seemed like madness or bloodlust. Standing up from the magehunter’s body, it stalked casually over to where Matthias stood, sucking ragged painful breaths into his lungs. It paused only a few paces away from him, watching for a moment. As much by arcane instinct as by sight, Matthias recognised his pistol in the thing’s belt. The thought of his precious sidearm being stolen from him filled him with rage.
The strange trident lifted, the deadly tines pointed to his throat as he stood stock still, not having too try to hard to look helpless. As the killing blow came, he dropped low beneath it and then surged at his enemy. The surprised hunter staggered as the first blow landed with stunning force. Matthias did not hesitate this time, but rained a cascade of strikes upon the shell like armour, using fists and elbows, feet and knees. The force of his onslaught drove the creature from its feet and he threw himself upon it, landing with both knees upon its chest. In his rage he felt none of the pain from his wounds, intent only upon his foe. As he struck again and again, he stared into the thing’s eyes, thinking to see fear or anger or hatred; but those lidless eyes stared out at him showing no sign of any human thought. It was thoroughly alien to him.
Before he could stop himself, Matthias seized his pistol from the creature’s belt. Thrusting the barrel up under the monstrous chin, he depressed the trigger for the second barrel. The pistolwraith’s shot blasted through the chitinous helm, it’s cursed power slaying the creature outright. The light from the alien eyes faded and with it the rage left the gunmage. The pains within him rose like the murmuring of a crowd growing swiftly to a roar. His hands ached from the continual strikes against the monster’s armour. He pushed himself up from the corpse, but his legs were too weak to hold him up and he fell heavily sideways, sucking in rough breaths that scoured his lungs like sandpaper.
“Cursed is the man who cannot retain his temper!” ran the adage of the Order of Keeping; the order that had cast Matthias out as a heretic. Remembering the words, he shrugged painfully. What was one more curse to him?
In his hands, the butt of his magelock pistol gave him an anchor, a sense of himself that slowly steadied his swimming head. He wondered if that last, evil shot would come to haunt him, as so many other of his decisions haunted him in life. He was uncertain, but his sidearm was there with him, like the comfort of a true friend; perhaps his only friend.
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