"I will not," Alaeron said. "I won't risk my life to enrich you."
Rodrick clucked his tongue in disappointment. "Ah, you misunderstand me! To go down into the linnorm's treasure chamber is to risk death, certainly. But to refuse is to ensure your death. Because if you do not, I will cut you down where you stand. Ah, ah! Don't reach for any of your little vials or potions, please. Then I'd have to cut off your hands, and you'd have a terrible time gathering riches for me with your stumps."
"We can divide the coins and gems that remain here," Alaeron said, feeling desperate but trying to sound reasonable. "We can take the armor off Uncle Brant, that's valuable, surely—"
"The sword is the most important thing, I think," Rodrick said. "I've heard great things about that sword—it has a blade of living ice, Simeon said, whatever that means, and was reputed to possess its own intelligence and give wise counsel. If you see any rings or cloaks or helms, I'll need those too. Feel free to scoop up any particularly fine gems—they're worth more than gold by weight."
"What if I wake the linnorm?" Alaeron said. "Then you risk your own death as well."
"I suspect the beast will spend long enough killing you to allow me to escape," Rodrick said. "I'm good at escapes. But I have great faith in you, alchemist! Surely you have some tinctures there that will allow you to move silently, to be fleet of foot, and so on?"
Alaeron did, of course, but who knew how perceptive the linnorm was, or how deeply it slumbered?
But what choice did he have? "All right," he said finally. "But what proof do I have that you'll let me live when I return with your treasure?"
"I'll have no particular reason to kill you, then," Rodrick said. "I don't have any particular qualms about killing people, but it's not something I go out of my way to do—it's messy and unpleasant. I'll settle for knocking you out and leaving you in the tomb, fear not. And even if I'm lying... what choice do you have?"
Alaeron looked at the hole gaping in the wall, and crept inside.
He crawled partway down the slope, then paused. He wouldn't be able to take Rodrick in a fight, and the thief wasn't nearly as stupid as Alaeron would have preferred, but the alchemist might still win in a battle of wits. "Make yourself comfortable, Rodrick," he said, raising his voice just enough for it to carry. "You should be feeling the effects soon."
Rodrick's voice drifted down from above. "You're wasting time, alchemist. Hurry along and bring me back my sword."
"It's not a terribly fast-acting poison," Alaeron went on, crouched in the tunnel, watching the opening at the top. "But it's not the slowest, either."
"What poison? There were no poison traps here."
"That 'potion' I gave you. It was a toxin, of course. That's why it didn't allow you to see in the dark. That's not what it's meant to do. It's meant to kill."
Rodrick snorted. "A sad attempt at a bluff. You drank from the same vial."
"Yes, and after we came down into the dark, I also drank the antidote, along with a real potion of night vision."
"You lie," Rodrick said, but there was just a hint of doubt. "Why would you poison me? We were working well together, you said so yourself."
"I decided to poison you the moment you murdered that poor huldra girl," Alaeron said. "You were clearly dangerous, and needed to be stopped."
"Listen, you can't trick me, I'm a trickster, I—"
"The first symptoms are fairly subtle," Alaeron said, allowing his voice to take on a lecturing, pedantic tone. "Slight tremors in the hands and lips. A sensation of cold in the hands and feet, though for some, the hands and feet sweat instead. Racing thoughts, and difficulty concentrating. Some nausea. The need to urinate. An unusually rapid heartbeat."
Alaeron was experiencing most of those symptoms himself—understandably, as they were the effects of stress and physical exertion—and it was a fair bet that Rodrick would be feeling them, too.
"I suppose this is where you tell me that if I race back to my horse and up to the retreat, a dip in the healing waters will cure me?" Rodrick said.
"Oh, no. You'd be dead long before you make it that far. Possibly before you reached your horse. I'll just wait you out, I think. It's quite cozy here, in a rabbit-in-a-burrow sort of way."
"All right. Say I believe you. What do you want in exchange for the antidote?"
Alaeron considered. "Nothing. I can't say your death would bother me overmuch. I'm not a murderer, but at this point the poisoning could be construed as self-defense, albeit a bit... retroactive."
"I can come down there and kill you and take the antidote."
"You're welcome to drink from every vial in my pack," Alaeron said. "The antidote is in one of them. Though none of the vials are too clearly marked—I use an organizational system of my own devising." Alaeron felt in his pack until his fingers touched a vial with the shape of a spiral cut into the cork stopper. He took that silently from his pack, opened it, and took a sip. The extract made his tongue tingle, and his heart immediately began to race even faster. His senses grew sharper, every root and speck of dirt in the tunnel appearing in crystal clarity, almost seeming to vibrate.
Rodrick came sliding down the tunnel, a dagger in each hand, and tumbled into Alaeron, bowling him over. The stopped halfway down the slope, having rolled sideways in the narrow space. Alaeron's head pointed downward, with Rodrick on top of him, one knife to Alaeron's throat, and the point of the other near his belly.
"I am faster and more agile than any mixer of potions, alchemist." Rodrick’s face, rendered in black and white and shades of gray by Alaeron's altered eyes, was sweaty and smeared with dirt. "You will give me the antidote, or I will slice open your belly and leave you for the linnorm—I'm sure the stink of your entrails will wake him just as well as the scent of frying bacon wakes me."
"I find your argument compelling," Alaeron said, trying hard not to talk as fast as he wanted to. His muscles thrummed with excess energy, like wires under tension. The potion he'd taken was a powerful stimulant, one he used to fuel days-long sessions in the lab, conducting his researches. "If you'll climb off me, and let me get my pack..."
Rodrick rolled aside but kept the knife near Alaeron's belly as the alchemist sat up. Alaeron felt in the pack and withdrew a small metal flask, one of the few potions he'd brewed that would work on people other than himself. "Here you are."
"Ha." Rodrick wiggled the dagger, making Alaeron wince. "Drink from it yourself first."
"The problem among modern adventurers," he said, "is a lamentable lack of trust." He took a swig from the potion.
"Now give me your pack," Rodrick said, "so you can't drink another antidote, hmm?"
"No trust at all." Alaeron slipped out of his pack and handed it over.
Rodrick shoved the pack up the tunnel behind him, then plucked the flask from Alaeron's hand. He took a drink. "Huh. This tastes like..."
"Lavender, mainly," Alaeron said. "Which doesn't taste as good as it smells."
Rodrick yawned, then looked alarmed. "What? What have you..." His eyes drooped, and he slumped over, cheek pressed against the dirt of the tunnel floor, knives falling from his hands.
The sleeping potion would keep him deeply unconscious for a couple of hours, at least. Alaeron's sip of the potion had acted to counteract the powerful stimulant he'd ingested earlier, with the result that he was now just a little bit sleepy, instead of dead to the world.
He listened hard, but heard no sound of stirring from the linnorm's chamber. Alaeron searched Rodrick—the man had an astonishing quantity of knives hidden about his person—and helped himself to all the smaller weapons, as well as Rodrick’s coin purse, adding them to his own pack.
He considered how nasty he wanted to be. He could cut the man's throat—but Alaeron had never killed a man in cold blood before, and didn't savor the prospect. A time-delay bomb placed near the linnorm's chamber would give Alaeron time to get away, and serve to wake the beast, which was another way to take care of Rodrick—but that was still murder, just more indirectly, and the linnorm would certainly rise from the earth, lay waste to the countryside, and so on. Better to let sleeping wyrms lie.
That went for Rodrick, too. The thief didn't even know Alaeron's name, and had only seen his face in flickering torchlight. The odds were good they would never meet again, and the alchemist could take steps to improve those odds.
Alaeron settled for stealing Rodrick's boots, tying the man's ankles and wrists with the laces, and climbing back out of the tunnel as silently as possible. In the upper chamber, he collected the jewels and gold the linnorm had left behind. There was enough to buy him another night at the retreat, and give him another opportunity to steal a sample of the waters... but Rodrick would wake up eventually, and Alaeron would be better off leaving the vicinity before then.
He considered Uncle Brant's armor, but the prospect of taking it off the skeleton and then dragging it out of the tomb was both unpleasant and daunting, as sleepy as Alaeron was. He doused the torches and took the lantern with him, down the branching corridors, up toward the surface world's light. When he came upon the dead huldra, he cut a bit of her hair, and took a few scrapings of the bark from her hollow interior, for later study—the remains of the fey were hard to come by, and could be powerful reagents. He did his best not to get any of Simeon on his shoe when he passed into the entry chamber.
Best to let sleeping linnorms lie.
Alaeron emerged, blinking, into the late afternoon light. It was nearly dusk. He shouldered the door to the barrow closed, and though it didn't magically seal, it would, at least, keep passers-by from wandering in. He paused beside a nearby tree, chipped some of the bark away to reveal white wood, and carved the words "Beware the linnorm." There. That was the best he could do. Not that most graverobbers were terribly literate.
He stole Simeon and Rodrick's saddlebags and slapped the horses to send them running away, though he left a waterskin for Rodrick at the base of a tree—he wasn't a monster, and the gesture might mollify the thief's rage. Alaeron saddled his own horse and made his way south through the hills, heading in the general direction of Almas.
As night fell, he saw a campfire, and took a chance on introducing himself. The men around the fire greeted him warmly enough when he offered to share the fruit and dried meat he'd taken from the stolen saddlebags.
They were a motley lot of adventurers, a grizzled bearded veteran, a boy barely old enough to shave, a pale girl with tattooed cheeks reading by firelight, and a surly half-orc lurking off in the trees by himself. "Where are you bound?" Alaeron asked.
"The boy and I are going north," the old veteran said. "To the land of the linnorm kings. My old homeland."
"We're going to slay a linnorm," the boy said brightly. "Snowbeard says all you have to do to become a king there is carry the head of a linnorm through the gates of a village. His brother's a king, he stole the head of the monster Snowbeard killed when they were young, and—"
"He doesn't need to know our history," Snowbeard snapped.
Oh, my, Alaeron thought. He generally gave the gods little thought, but this certainly seemed like some deity's idea of a good jest. Alaeron considered telling Snowbeard there was a linnorm rather closer. But the practical difficulties of transporting the head of a dead monster all those leagues to the land of snow and ice would be hellish. Why, the stink alone, as the head began to rot... Better to let them make their own way.
"I'm thinking of going north myself," Alaeron said. "Farther east, though, to Numeria. I hear there are amazing relics just scattered all over the ground up there, amid the wreckage of some ancient cataclysm." He would have to go home first for provisions, but he'd been pondering a trip to Numeria's capital, Starfall, for a while, and it was even more tempting now. The Black Sovereign's realm was an unlikely destination... which meant even if Rodrick woke with a taste for vengeance, he wouldn't look for Alaeron there.
The tattooed woman closed her book and looked up for the first time. "Numeria? I am bound in that direction as well, though my destination is the Worldwound. We will likely travel the same route. Would you care to journey together?"
Alaeron hesitated. She was comely under those tattoos, and clearly quite intelligent, but... "I think, for now, I would prefer to pursue my quest with no company other than my own. I fear I am a... poor adventuring companion."
The woman shrugged and went back to her book.
Alaeron leaned back against a fallen log and looked up, watching the smoke from the fire drift up toward the stars, thinking of monsters, and holes in the earth, and the open sky.
Coming Next Week: A glimpse into the life of an elite Nidalese spellcaster and Cheliax’s pogroms against the strix in a sample chapter of Nightglass, Liane Merciel’s new Pathfinder Tales novel!
Tim Pratt's writing has won a Hugo Award, a Rhysling Award, and an Emperor Norton Award, as well as been nominated for Nebula, Mythopoeic, World Fantasy, and Stoker Awards. His stories have appeared in anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as two short story collections of his own. He novels include the contemporary fantasies The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl and Briarpatch; the Forgotten Realms novel Venom in Her Veins; and seven books in the Marla Mason urban fantasy series (as T. A. Pratt). He edited the anthology Sympathy for the Devil, and the forthcoming Rags & Bones anthology with Melissa Marr. His books and stories have been translated into French, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Korean, Spanish, German, and several other languages.