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Pathfinder Tales: City of the Fallen Sky
By Tim Pratt
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 Paizo Inc.
All rights reserved.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
No one who knew Alaeron — alchemist, arcanist, artificer — would call him a coward. He was never one to let the possibility of explosion, corrosion, or permanent nerve damage stop him from mixing together exotic chemicals just to see what might happen. He never missed the chance to crawl into the booby-trapped ruins of fallen civilizations in the hope of discovering some fragment of forgotten wisdom. He'd even been known to sneak into the well-guarded libraries of wealthy idiots to steal precious texts from the less deserving. When it came to seeking knowledge without pausing to calculate the cost, Alaeron was one of the most courageous souls north of the Inner Sea.
But his courage was not the sort that leapt at the opportunity to start a fight with a couple of well-armed thugs, and so he hesitated at the mouth of a certain alleyway located between a weaponsmith's shop and his own modest laboratory in an unfashionable section of Almas, capital city of Andoran. He'd intended to use the alley as a shortcut home, and thus avoid walking past the tannery, because the stink of rendered animals tended to overwhelm his sensitive nose — and, in his lab, the sense of smell was sometimes all that stood between him and accidentally poisoning himself and half the neighborhood.
Today, alas, the narrow pathway was occupied by two men of a curiously disreputable sort: dressed well enough to pass for clerks, but with scarred faces that suggested rougher work. They were engaged in such work as Alaeron stepped into the alley. One, who wore a mangy fur cap despite the day's warmth, had a woman pressed against the wall, an unnecessarily long knife pressed to her throat. The other, whose tattered left ear lent him some resemblance to a violent tomcat, slapped a cudgel against his open palm.
The part of Alaeron that had survived by his wits in hostile territory was tempted to just step back out of the alleyway again and take the long way home, stink of rendered animal fat and all. But he'd seen too much casual cruelty visited on the weak in recent months, usually when he could do nothing to help. In this case, he could easily intervene.
Unfortunately, his hesitation made things difficult. If he'd walked away, there'd have been no harm done — to him, anyway. And if he'd launched himself into the alley without a moment's thought, pulling a few of the prepared vials he always kept on his person from his coat and tossing them at the attackers, he might have neutralized them before they even realized he was there. But his hesitation made things complicated, because Tattered-ear caught a glimpse of him and turned around. His eyes were the yellow of an alcoholic who'd nearly used up his liver — Alaeron's father had a similar piss-colored gaze, near the end — and his lips were as shredded as his ear, as if they'd been sewn up once, and the stitches torn out by hand.
"Move along," he growled, gesturing with his club.
Alaeron sighed. "No."
The man cocked his head, eyes widening in surprise, and then a sly smile crept across his face. "You hear that?" he called over his shoulder to his compatriot with the furry hat. "He says 'no.'"
The other thug just grunted, not taking his eyes off the woman. Who could blame him? She was something to see: great masses of black hair, eyes dark and deep, skin the dark brown of the glass bottles Alaeron used to store silver sulfide — she must hail from the south, somewhere in Garund. What brought her to Almas, and more particularly to this alley, with these men? Alaeron's curiosity was the source of all his troubles — but then, it was also the source of all his delights, and now he wanted to know her story.
Only one way to find out: save her, then ask.
"Are these men bothering you, miss?" Alaeron called.
"Fool," she said. "Run away!"
"See?" Tattered-ear said. "We're all in agreement. Now, do you want to leave this alley right now on your own two feet, or in an hour or so in a corpse wagon?"
"Have you ever been to Numeria?" Alaeron said.
Tattered-ear scowled. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Noo-mare-ee-uh." Alaeron enunciated each syllable clearly, gesturing widely with his right hand while his left slipped into one of his coat's innumerable pockets. "Far to the north. A harsh land, where the dread Black Sovereign rules from his decadent throne. Where the dark arcanists known as the Technic League pick over the ruins of ancient fallen stars for anything they can use to terrorize, or cozen, or otherwise profit by."
"Cozen?" the man said, bewildered. The woman and the man with the knife were both staring at Alaeron. He recognized the look. They thought he was a madman. Ah, well. Genius is so seldom understood in its own time.
"I have been there," Alaeron said. "I have searched the ruins, cracking the seals on chambers no man of this world has ever entered before, and do you know what I found there? Besides strangely glowing fungi and a lot of broken glass and corrosive pink slime, that is?" He drew his left hand from his pocket. "I found ... this!"
Tattered-ear stepped back, raising his club defensively, then lowered it. "What's that, then?" he said.
"I honestly have no idea." Alaeron gazed at the metal object in his hand. It was the size of a hen's egg, a dull non-reflective sort of silver in color, etched with dark blue lines in a seemingly random zig-zag pattern. There was a depression at the top — or the bottom, or on one side, who could say? — just big enough for him to slip the tip of his index finger into. "I wish I knew what it was," Alaeron continued. "But I know what it does. It does ... this."
He pressed his fingertip into the divot. The object grew warm in his hand. The light in the alley took on a subtle, blue tinge, and the man with the torn ear gaped at him, unmoving. His fellow thug was also frozen, as was the woman he menaced — and everything else.
Well, everything else in the vicinity. Alaeron wasn't sure how far the relic's field of slowed time extended — it seemed to move with him, so he'd never found the edge — but it couldn't possibly extend to the whole world, or even the whole city. It extended far enough, though.
Alaeron slipped the relic back into his pocket, reached out, and plucked the club from the man's hand, placing it behind a broken crate, out of sight. He took the other man's knife, jammed the blade into a crack in the stone wall on one side of the alley, and leaned all his weight into the hilt, grunting, until the blade snapped off.
He was counting in his head all the while — "one hundred twenty, one hundred nineteen, one hundred eighteen," and so on — and he judged that he had time to kneel and bind the ankles of the thugs with a couple of lengths of twine. He always had various things in his many pockets. Twine was among the least dangerous. He found the remnants of some torn sacks among the refuse on the ground and used more twine to bind them around the thugs as makeshift blindfolds. That should slow them down. Of course, he could be using this time to flee and put distance between himself and the dangerous men, instead of devising small obstacles and humiliations ... but this was more fun.
At the last moment he thought to check their coats for money — after all, reagents weren't free. While he was all right financially for the moment, that wouldn't last forever. Alas, neither man had more than a few copper coins. Alaeron took them anyway.
By the time he took the woman's hand and placed it against the still-warm relic, his mental count had gotten to "thirty," so when she stumbled forward a step, gaping, pulled into his own accelerated timestream, he didn't take time to explain, just grabbed her elbow and propelled her out of the alley and along the next street, where various citizens stood frozen in mid-stride, -argument, -barter, -banter, or -flirtation.
"You're a wizard?" she said, and her accent was disappointingly non-exotic. Her ancestors clearly hailed from distant lands, perhaps even the depths of the Mwangi Expanse, but she sounded like any other woman Alaeron might encounter here in Andoran.
She was rather more pleasant to look upon than usual, though.
"Not a wizard, no, no," he said. "Just a tinkerer, that's all. Though I didn't make this device. I found it, and I'm trying to understand its purpose."
"Seems obvious," she said, nodding toward the frozen people, the bluish air, the whole frozen world.
"No, I don't think so. I believe the slowing of time is just a side effect, not what the relic is meant for." She frowned, and, as always, Alaeron attempted to fill the silence with something he found fascinating, without giving much thought to whether others would agree with that opinion.
"It's impossible to know, of course, but I think ... well, look at it this way: Say you'd never seen a tea kettle before. You see one sitting on a stove, and it suddenly begins venting steam and emitting a piercing whistle. You'd have no idea what the point of the shrieking thing was — an alarm system? Some sort of terrible local musical instrument? An inefficient method for steaming vegetables? It would almost certainly never occur to you to pour the boiling liquid inside over some leaves, wait a bit, and then drink the resulting concoction. So it is with many relics — we can observe what they do, but we can't always tell why they do it, or why anyone would want them to do such a thing in the first place."
By the time he finished his little speech, normal time had caught up with them, and if anyone found the sudden appearance of a pale man and a dark woman striding along at a good clip peculiar, no one let on. Almas was a tolerant city. If people wanted to go appearing out of nowhere, that was their business, as long as they didn't bother anyone.
"We'd better get off the street," he murmured. "Care to come into my workshop?"
She glanced around, then nodded. "Yes, is it —"
"Just here." He steered her toward a low stone building, fitting his key into a lock of his own devising, twisting it once right, then once left, then once right again, then counting very slowly to five — better safe than asphyxiated by a gas trap — before turning the knob and easing the door open. He gestured, and the woman slipped inside. Alaeron came after her, taking a moment to rearm the trap above the door, and turning to smile at his guest.
The smile was wasted on her. She was staring at Alaeron's lab. He tried to see it as a stranger would, but immediately gave up. Everything was too well-known to him — every beaker, every retort, every length of tubing, every rack of neatly stoppered vials, tops daubed with colored wax so he could tell which was which at a glance. Alaeron lifted a pile of books from a bench and gestured for her to sit, then bustled around one of the worktables. "Something to drink, ah ... what's your name?" he asked.
"Jaya." She looked around at the potions and philtres and tinctures and shook her head slowly. "As for the drink, no, thank you." She paused. "But I should thank you for trying to help me back there."
"I'm Alaeron. And just trying to help? I'd say I succeeded, wouldn't you?" He poured the last of his wine into a leather-wrapped cup and took a sip. Thin stuff, and sour, but better than water.
She sighed. "Those men weren't muggers. They work for someone who believes I owe him money. He'll simply send more people after me."
"Ah," Alaeron said. "Moneylenders of the less reputable variety. I may have need of such a man myself, but I don't suppose I'll ask you for a recommendation. Their methods of collection seem a bit harsh." Andoran was famed for the honesty of its banks — bankers who charged excessive interest could be charged with extortion and exiled — but despite the famously liberal policies of the legitimate financial institutions, there were still a few men willing to loan money to people the banks couldn't — or wouldn't — deal with: new immigrants without means, criminals trying to finance their endeavors, desperate gamblers with a history of defaulting on loans, and the like. He wondered which Jaya was. Perhaps all three.
Jaya looked down at her hands. "I'm afraid I've made trouble for you. If my, ah, business associate finds out who you are, he might send someone to teach you not to interfere with his dealings."
Alaeron waved that away. "I've been pursued by scarier men, believe me. If your situation has reached the point where people with knives are attacking you in alleys, perhaps you should consider leaving town? I've bought you enough time for that, anyway. I just advise you not to go north. At least, not too far." He shuddered.
"Were you serious, about Numeria? I've never known anyone who came from there, but of course I've heard the stories. So outlandish ..."
"Outlandish? Perhaps, but Numeria is the outlands, or near enough. Home to a thousand impossible things. I'm not from there — I'm a child of Andoran, actually — but I spent some time there not long ago, pursuing my studies."
"What studies are those?"
She seemed genuinely interested — rare, in Alaeron's experience, so perhaps she was just being polite because he'd saved her from being killed or at least cut up a bit by way of motivating her to pay her debts. He wasn't one to pass up a sympathetic audience, but the true details of his time in Numeria were complex, just this side of unbelievable, and painful to recollect, so he simply smiled widely and said, "Oh, this and that. Alchemy, mainly. Relics. Really any knowledge that's been forgotten, or has yet to be discovered. The study of why things are the way they are, and how they might be changed."
She frowned, and he supposed such abstractions must sound ridiculous to a woman dealing with practical issues like needing money and trying to keep angry men from killing her. But in his experience, such lofty abstractions were the only things worth living for. Wasn't the history of Andoran founded on men willing to kill and die for abstract principles like freedom and equality and opportunity? He'd grown up believing anything was possible, and he still believed that — though in recent years he'd come to realize that meant all sorts of truly terrible things were possible, too.
"I should go." She rose, then took his hand, her grip firm and warm, dark eyes gazing directly into his. "Thank you again. If I'm ever in a position to do you a good turn, I will. Though I may take your advice about leaving the city, at least for a while."
"The world is full of interesting things," he said. "Travel broadens the mind." He was babbling — a woman hadn't touched him in a long time — and he forced himself to stop talking. "Good luck, Jaya."
"And to you." She leaned in and kissed his cheek, then hurried to the door, opening it a crack — it was safe to open from the inside — to survey the street beyond before slipping out and away.
"Mmm," Alaeron said, then shook his head sharply. Women were lovely, but even the most dangerous relics were more predictable. He sat down at his work table, adjusted the lenses and mirrors that focused a beam of concentrated light on the work surface, and placed the oblong relic — he thought of it as the "time egg" and hated himself for the imprecision of the term — in the circle of brightness.
A number of new lines had appeared on its surface, thin as hairs and faintly blue. New markings appeared every time he used the egg, and he had no idea what that meant — was he using up charges? Were they cracks, and if so, merely cracks in the surface of the relic, or cracks in time itself? Was the time-slowing even relevant, or was it just a side effect, a sort of endochronic reaction unrelated to its true purpose? He'd used it often when he first discovered its powers — there were never enough hours in the day, after all, and the egg gave him more — but he resolved to use it only in emergencies from now on. He'd hate to use it up or have it crack into pieces before he'd figured out its true purpose.
As he sketched out the new lines on a blank sheet of parchment, looking for patterns, he fell into the work, and the hours flew by, as they always did when he was deep into his studies: time flowing like water around him, without the necessity of magic at all.CHAPTER 2
The Runaway Apprentice
Alaeron took most of his meals at home — smoked river fish and apples could be stored in a dry cool place indefinitely — but he was relatively rich off the proceeds from selling the last of the skymetal he'd smuggled out of Starfall, so the night after he saved Jaya he decided to splurge. Of course, by his standards, a meal of luxurious excess involved little more than stopping by the common room of the Golden Eagle tavern, taking one of the small tables in a corner of the room, and calling for ale and bread and lamb.
One of the most wonderful things about Andoran's capital city was the wild mix of cultures and classes there. The nation was founded on tolerance and equality, where no one was a slave — the polar opposite of Numeria, where essentially everyone was a slave, and could be murdered or tormented at the whim of its rulers.
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: City of the Fallen Sky by Tim Pratt. Copyright © 2012 Paizo Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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