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Pathfinder Tales: Song of the Serpent
By Hugh Matthews
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Paizo Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Uncharmed Tree
He called himself Krunzle the Quick. Others had called him Krunzle the Incorrigible, Krunzle the Corruptible, and once — the fault of poorly chosen associates and a line of retreat that included one roof too far — Krunzle the Incarcerated, though the experience was brief and never to be repeated.
He spent his second day in Kerse wandering the gently curving streets of the upper city, where the grand homes of Druma's elite stood behind their walls of stone or brick and their imposing gates whose gaudy locks were so obviously pickable.
But it would be a fool of the first magnitude who would pick such a lock, and Krunzle believed himself not to be a fool of any magnitude. Thus, whenever he came across a tempting venue — some wall whose bricks were gaudily inset with emerald and ruby, or a bellpull whose pendant handle was a fist-sized nugget of dwarf-mined gold — he would doff his broad-brimmed hat ornamented by a gaudy panache and fan himself against the heat of the day.
And, while so doing, he would inspect the color of the large cabochon set into the hat ornament's spiral of debased silver. Invariably, the uncut gem glowed red; never was it green. That meant that something magical guarded the riches so casually on display — if not the householder's own wards, then the all-seeing eye of the city's corps of scryers, crouched over their balls of crystal, plates of isinglass, or pools of quicksilver.
Touch one precious thing with larcenous intent and, somewhere, a chime would sound — or, for all Krunzle knew, an ensorcelled imp would bleat — and all too soon the next sound the toucher would hear would be the ring of iron-nailed boots on Kerse's cobbled thoroughfares as a squad of Blackjackets came pounding along at the double. Then the malefactor would be seized, routinely battered, kicked toward the nearest penitentiary, battered some more, and thrown into a dark cell that still stank of its last tenant's bowel movements, only to be hauled out and battered some more when the next shift of the Mercenary League's black-uniformed men-at-arms reported for duty.
Even an attempt at theft was so rare in Kerse that weeks, and even months, might go by between opportunities for the League to brutalize a captured burglar or cutpurse. Sometimes, a Blackjacket would interrupt his annual leave and hurry back to the barracks for a chance to lay his truncheon against the ribs and joints of a taken-up thief.
The prospect of such treatment, for the alleged crime of relieving some overstuffed merchant of the odd bauble or knicky-knack, offended Krunzle's sense of propriety. Even more, it activated his well-honed instinct for self-preservation. Thus, by the end of the second day of tramping Kerse's steep suburban avenues — the residents either came and went in horse-drawn carriages, or had themselves carried in palanquin-chairs born by four huffing, sweating Kellid slaves — Krunzle was almost beginning to doubt his wisdom in having relocated to the capital of Druma.
The descending sun still drew beads of perspiration from his narrow brow and bristle-sprouting upper lip. His feet ached and his calves had swollen with the effort of propelling himself up one vertiginous street after another. He came upon an intersection of two broad boulevards with a low-walled circle of green at its center, surrounding a decorative fountain. He sat on the fountain's tiled lip and watched the liquid pour, laughing and bubbling, from the smiling mouths of four metal dolphins rendered in the rococo style of a past generation. He removed his hat and cupped his hands beneath the flow from one pair of ever-amused lips, threw the cold water over his head and nape, then took another double handful and splashed his face.
Refreshed, he wiped the liquid from his eyes and took a closer look at the statuary. Surely, the pale metal from which the figures were formed was platinum — rarer even than gold — and their huge blue eyes must be sapphire. Put out in the street like that, there for the taking, said a voice in his head. Reflexively, his hand went to the heavy-bladed knife sheathed in the inner lining of his right buskin; a quick insertion, a practiced twist, and the stone would be in his hand.
But his eye fell on the gaudy ornament in his hat, where he had laid it down on the fountain's edge. The cabochon seemed to look back at him from within its baleful crimson glow. His hand came away from the hidden knife and dipped instead into the water, bringing a palmful up to his parched lips and tongue. He drank two more mouthfuls, then slipped off his soft-sided, supple-soled buskins and peeled away the sweat-soaked socks beneath. For a while, he sat, cooling his angry feet until they merely grumbled.
A shadow fell across him. Krunzle turned his head and looked up to see a pair of Mercenary Leaguers regarding him in a manner that he recognized from the times he had spent in a city that maintained a constabulary. In his experience, such men rose up each morning already suspicious of all who were not of their own ilk, and let the distrust grow stronger as the day advanced. By this time in the late afternoon, these two were probably ready to pounce on any hapless passerby who could not account for himself in triplicate with a personal reference from the Prophet Kelldor.
Krunzle removed his extremities from the fountain, swiveled to face the Blackjackets, and rose to his feet. These being unshod, and he being of less than impressive height, he found his eyes could not meet theirs on an even plane. He bent his neck backward to smother their hostile gaze with a wide-eyed innocence and spoke before they could. Krunzle believed that most conversations needed to be steered, and he steered best who seized the rudder first.
"Gentlemen," he said, "such good fortune to have found you! I had almost despaired."
Two sets of eyes blinked in response. Blackjackets were not used to being gladly received by apparent vagrants. The senior of the two, a dark-complected Kersite, said, "Oh, really?"
He surely would have said more, but Krunzle was not prepared to relinquish the tiller. "Indeed," he said, "I have been tramping all over these streets searching for the Mercenary League's recruitment center."
More blinking met this declaration, then the junior Blackjacket examined Krunzle from his down-plastered hair to his pale and wrinkled toes and said, "You want to be a man-at-arms?"
"Such has long been my dream," said Krunzle, his rounded chin striking the air in a gesture of determination. "I have come to Kerse determined to fulfill it." The older one snorted, and the thief rounded on him. "You laugh? I warn you, I am a gentleman of resource and accomplishment. One day I might well be your superior officer."
"You are a little short," said the Blackjacket, "in the crucial area of not being too short. We prefer men of stature." When Krunzle began to bluster a reply, the man-at-arms spoke over him, "Besides, the recruitment center is on Bay Street, down near the docks. You've come a long way out of your way."
Krunzle plunged his features into a mask of disappointment. "Ah," he said with a sigh, "I believe the white-robed dignitary to whom I applied for directions led me astray."
"Not unlikely," said the junior Blackjacket. "The elite of Kerse have little regard for the impecunious outlander. If the only profit they can wring from you is a laugh at your expense, then that is what they'll take." He clapped a sympathetic hand to Krunzle's shoulder and said, "The center will close at sundown and you won't make it there from here by then. Where are you staying?"
"An inn on Front Street," Krunzle extemporized. "I disremember the name, but I'll know it when I see it."
"Well, then," said the younger man-at-arms, "go on back there and report to the recruitment center in the morning. I'll be off duty but I'll come in and put in a word for you if the underofficer in charge gives you any difficulty."
"Wait a moment, Follix," said his partner, "this fellow's —"
"Showing the right spirit, Gladrius," the younger one said. "And he strikes me as a man who has both feet on the pavement, even if his head doesn't rise all that far above it." When the older man made a derisory noise, Follix overrode him again. "There's more to man-at-arming than cracking heads and booting fundaments. Sometimes you have to outthink the bad fellow."
"Very well put," said Krunzle. He seized the younger man's hand and said, "I'll look forward to seeing you tomorrow. Now, I think I should cool my feet some more, before I ask them to carry me all the way back to the lake."
And thus, with gestures of amity — though Gladrius's carried an overtone of irony — they parted. Krunzle waited until they had turned a curve in the serpentine road, then replaced his socks, footwear, and hat. He did not, however, depart in the direction of any inn on Front Street, but wound his way farther uphill, to where he could see a park that might offer him a less comfortable, though definitely less costly, bed for the night. In any case, a space beneath a bush would have fewer vermin than any hostelry he could afford at present.
He found such a spot and disposed himself within it as comfortably as he could. He made a traveler's meal from the contents of his satchel: a cob of bread, a wedge of cheese, a handful of black Keleshite olives. He wished for a beaker of red wine to wash it down and warm his inner being, but had to content himself with cold water from another fountain near the entrance to the park. This public utility was also crusted with wealth, but again his hatpiece glowed a fiery hue when he brought it near.
By the time he had eaten and drunk, the sun was well down. Shadows crept across the open space, turning the green of the grass to black, and converting the elegantly trimmed topiary into hulking menaces. Krunzle wrapped himself in his cloak and lay down beneath his chosen bush, his folded hat for a pillow.
It was as his eyes closed that he caught the gleam of something in the darkness, beyond the high hedge that rimmed the park. He blinked and it was gone. A moment later, it was back — a tiny glint of light that came and went, like reflections from a faceted jewel hung, rotating, from a string.
Krunzle remembered what had lain in that direction when he had made his way up yet another hill to find the arched gap in the hedge that led into the park. A blank wall ran the length of the block on the opposite side of the street, with fully grown shade trees at intervals along the grass verge between the paved path and the cobbled roadway. Whatever was winking at him must stand in the grounds enclosed by the wall.
And is probably guarded by a half-starved wyvern, he thought. He shut his eyes and sought for sleep. But in a moment his lids popped open again. The sparkle came again, and now it was joined by another — this one the deep crimson of a blood-ruby.
The thief reached for sleep again, but it evaded his grasp. Again, the glimmering came. Something in its insouciant glistering drew him; he could not keep his eyes off it. A moment later, hat upon head and satchel slung from shoulder, he was marching across the lawn to the park's exit, though he could not remember forming the intent to do so.
As he got closer to the archway, the gleam beyond the wall across the street grew brighter. He saw now that one of the trees that punctuated the grass verge extended a substantial branch over the top of the barrier. An enterprising and nimble fellow could be up that tree and over the wall in the time it took to draw five breaths, he thought.
And be ensorcelled and flung to the Blackjackets in another five, he told himself. This is no town for an honest thief. Still, when he stood in the shadows beneath the tree, conveniently hidden from any casual glance, his dulled optimism revived itself enough to cause him to remove his headgear and see what the cabochon had to say.
It glowed a soft green. Perplexed, scarcely daring to hope, Krunzle shook the hat and looked again. Still green. He tapped the rounded gem with two fingers. Green again. He held it toward the wall and still the green glow lit up his wrist and forearm.
Five breaths later, Krunzle dropped silently into the space beyond the wall. He clung to the shadow beneath the limb of the overreaching tree and surveyed the grounds. He saw a formal garden with walkways and occasional benches of a pale stone that was probably marble, surrounded by low hedges and banks of flowers, the latter filling the air with heady scents.
Beyond the garden was a patio, and beyond that the rear of a fine mansion, its lowest story coated in a stucco of sparkling gemlets, the wall above patterned in a checkerboard of onyx and alabaster tiles. The ground floor was unlit, and only a faint light shone from one upper window. Krunzle studied the layout, then held out his hat. The cabochon glowed a faint pink. He took a step toward the house; the color deepened even as the gem glowed more brightly.
The house was warded. But what about the glittering thing in the garden? Krunzle extended the hat in its direction and saw the red convert to green. He made the appropriate deduction: someone, for some reason, had neglected to weave a protective charm around the thing that had called him here. Perhaps some minor mage, charged with safeguarding the garden, had mispronounced a line in the warding incantation, and had gone to bed without noticing that a gap had been left where there should have been none.
Having found the gap, Krunzle's obligation was clear. He strode across the grass to where the prize glittered. For prize he was sure it must be — now that he was over the wall he could see that the two gleams that had called him were but the topmost of a host of sparkling lights. And they sparkled because they were gems of purest ray serene, he now saw as he neared the spot — gems of all kinds, and many of surpassing size, dangling from a multibranched tree that grew out of a large and ornate pot. Indeed, overgrew was a more appropriate word, he thought, seeing as how the plant's fibrous and gnarled roots had spilled over the container's rim and, in places, burst through its sides.
Now he stood beneath the tree. A ring of small floodlights were set in the soil within the pot, their beams directed upward to catch the facets of the gems. The jewels grew from the ends of thin tubules that in turn sprouted from the tree's limbs. Some slow vegetative force caused them to spin slowly, first this way, then that, even in the absence of a breeze. Lit from below, the ten thousand facets threw a kaleidoscope of colored beams in all directions. Krunzle looked down and saw his torso and arms sprinkled with spots of light in different shades of yellow, green, red, blue, and purest white. The effect was delightful, and even more captivating when he looked up again into the ever-moving constellation of flashing gems.
How beautiful, he thought. Then, more to the point, how valuable. And was it truly unwarded? He held out his hatpiece. It glowed green, though the uncut cabochon made a poor showing against the massed glitter from above.
Right, he thought. To work. But still he stood and stared, mouth open like a bumpkin at his first raree-show. He had to exert a mental grip on himself. Never mind staring. Pluck one!
He reached, put his fingers around a low-hanging emerald as big as a plum, and tugged. A second, harder pull separated the gem from its stem with a faint pop! The entire tree shivered, its reflected lights flittering across his upraised arm, then it subsided. Krunzle put the green gem in his hat, and reached for a pear-shaped diamond so large his thumb and fingers could not meet around its width. Again, it came free with a good tug, and again the tree shook — though not with pain, he thought. More like excitement.
It was an emotion Krunzle shared as he reached and tugged, reached and tugged, and his hat filled with splendorous riches. Should've bought a higher-crowned one, he thought. He set it down between two of the flood lamps in the top of the pot and swung his satchel around on its shoulder strap so that it hung down his front instead of at his side. Now he could pluck gems with both hands.
The satchel, like the hat, was soon filled. Krunzle had not even exhausted the low-hanging bounty of the tree. If I remove my cloak, he thought, I could pile more jewels on it and fold and tie it into a bundle. He did so, flapping the cloth to lay it on the ground. Then he made to climb upon the lip of the pot, the better to reach higher.
And found he could not. Though he willed his feet to lift, they would not. Nor would the muscles of calf and thigh flex. Krunzle looked down and saw, through the flashing of reflected spots of light, that his lower limbs, to a height of halfway between knee and hip, were wrapped around with roots as thick as his wrist. As he watched, the thin ends of the fibrous material extended themselves, winding around his thighs to reach ever higher.
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews. Copyright © 2015 Paizo Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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