Alaeron and Skiver return in Tim Pratt's brand-new Pathfinder Tales novel set against the backdrop of the Iron Gods Adventure Path—Reign of Stars!
When the leader of the ruthless Technic League calls in a favor, the mild-mannered alchemist Alaeron has no choice but to face a life he thought he'd left behind long ago. Accompanied by his only friend, a street-savvy thief named Skiver, Alaeron must head north into Numeria, a land where brilliant and evil arcanists rule over the local barbarian tribes with technology looted from a crashed spaceship. Can Alaeron and Skiver survive long enough to unlock the secrets of the stars? Or will the backstabbing scientists of the Technic League make Alaeron's curiosity his own undoing?
Chapter One: Intangible Assassin
The perimeter alarms howled, and Alaeron—master of the alchemical arts, student of the arcane, and hater of unexpected visitors—carefully capped the lead flask hissing and bubbling on his worktable and wondered which trap would kill the intruder.
The simple spike-and-pit traps in the back yard were haphazardly covered with dead leaves and unconvincing bits of sod, and were meant to be noticed—burglars who attempted to avoid those would almost inevitably step on an ingeniously hidden catapult that would fling them back over the wall. In theory, anyway. When Alaeron had tested the trap with pigs and goats, about ten percent of the subjects had been thrown at an awkward angle and splattered into the wall instead. But anyone who chose to ignore the spikes and quite realistic-looking skulls and climbed over the wall anyway deserved whatever fate befell him.
If unwelcome visitors managed to avoid the catapult, their approach to the back entrance would take them through a field of reactive caltrops of Alaeron's own invention. His friend and patron, Skiver, said they were basically just bear traps with unnecessary barbs, but bear traps merely snapped shut; these would bite down, and then start chewing, sinking in the barbs and pulling them out again. They were a fine area denial weapon and he had high hopes of selling them to the Andoren military if the generals ever got over their aversion to what they termed "gruesome violations of the honor of the battlefield." There were less scrupulous governments who would be delighted with the weapons, but Alaeron was enough of a patriot to refuse to sell anything that might be used against his own people. Andoran was the greatest nation in the world, forward-thinking and idealistic, even if its generals did make poor ordnance-purchasing decisions.
Any intruders who made it past that threat—presumably by levitating—would trigger a cloud of acid when they got within ten feet of the laboratory proper, a spray deployed from nozzles hidden in the rather garish topless female statues Skiver had installed on either side of the door in a misguided attempt at a housewarming present. The acid was a new formula Alaeron was working on, a short-acting compound that should serve to dissolve clothing and flesh and muscle and organs, but leave the bones intact. Alaeron could always sell skeletons. He wasn't particularly interested in anatomy or necromancy, but he corresponded with other researchers who were. Intruders in heavy armor would probably just have their armor and skin stripped away, leaving the organs exposed, which would be terribly messy, but it was hard to imagine someone in full plate climbing over the wall and making it through the other traps unscathed anyway.
Anyone making it past that—some kind of acid-resistant golem, perhaps—would have to stand on the steps, or touch the door, and needless to say, no visitor who wasn't expected could possibly survive that. True, if someone made it that far Alaeron would have to install a new exploding door, but he had heaps of those in storage, as they'd proven strangely unpopular among the wealthy and security-conscious Andorens he'd expected to buy them. Those would-be customers had insisted that not all unexpected visitors deserved to be killed automatically, which made no sense to Alaeron at all—how could you get any work done if you just let anyone show up on your doorstep at any time with no consequences? Alaeron supposed his measures were overkill if you were simply worried about door-to-door salesmen, religious zealots, and those seeking alms for the poor, but surely he wasn't the only person in the city of Almas who was regularly menaced by unannounced and heavily armed would-be assassins?
Alaeron watched the softly glowing crystal globes on the wall, which indicated the smooth operation of his various defense mechanisms. They would turn red if they were triggered...but they remained steadfastly green. Perhaps he should have installed some sort of mystic eye or magic mirror to give him a view of what was going on out there—but watching thieves, spies, and Technic League assassins die didn't particularly interest him.
When he heard the knocking sound, he initially assumed it was one of his more lively experiments trying to escape from a box. It was only when a voice called, "I bring a message from the north," that Alaeron realized it was the sound of someone knocking at the inner door of his laboratory, which should have been utterly unreachable. The knock itself was peculiar, though: more of a rattling rat-a-tat than the usual thump of a fist.
Alaeron considered the various bottles within arm's reach. There were extracts that, when consumed, would give him superhuman, feral strength, and if he wanted a more direct approach, there were bombs, and even acids—the latter mere reagents for other concoctions, but they'd prove quite effective if flung at any exposed skin or mucous membranes.
But if the visitor had made it through his outer defenses unscathed, none of those were likely to do any good. Clearly something more formidable was in order. Alaeron called, "Just a moment!" He lifted the weapon concealed beneath the worktable, took aim, and twisted the knob.
This particular weapon—he called it the Wave-Maker, because it transformed solid matter into an equivalent volume of water, which always tended to make a splash—was looted from the last Technic League assassin who'd tried to kill Alaeron. The would-be murderer had reduced a portion of Alaeron's outer wall to liquefied mud with the weapon before blundering right into a trap that released a tiny spurt of a compound made from the glands of a blue dragon that instantly turned all the liquid in his body into sand. The manner of his death, given the weapon he came armed with, was almost ironic.
A shimmering beam shot from the rounded end of the Wave-Maker, and the whole delicately curved and articulated weapon hummed with the usual minor seventh chord. The inner door and a portion of the wall turned to water, showering down into a messy puddle, and revealing the lean, tall, long-haired form of a Kellid beyond. The northern barbarian's cold and watchful eyes looked at Alaeron levelly, and despite walking directly through the path of the beam, the man was not even remotely liquefied.
Alaeron winced and put the weapon away. "Incorporeal?"
The Kellid nodded.
"I remember Gannix of the Technic League was experimenting with an artifact from Silver Mount that rendered things incorporeal," Alaeron said. "But his test subjects kept falling straight down into the bowels of the earth. I suppose someone else took up his researches after his death and managed to solve the practical problems. Hmm. Clearly the effect is aura-based, since your clothing is also incorporeal. Combined with a levitation effect to keep you on a level plane, I assume? That's how I would have approached it."
"I have not come to discuss my—"
"Hmm. Did you make yourself solid again to knock on the door? Seems like a dangerous gamble, since if you gave up incorporeality I could have killed you in any number of ways through the door. But there was something funny about that knock..." Alaeron snapped his fingers. "Wait, I know that sound—you threw pebbles at the door, didn't you, like a suitor flinging stones at a lover's window? So you can pick up stones, and they become incorporeal, and when they leave your aura, they become solid again. How interesting. Not very sophisticated, but elegant in its simplicity, I suppose."
"You like to talk," the assassin—for what else could he be?—said. "You would do better to listen."
"And so I will, the moment I hear something interesting. I assume you've come to kill the thief, the apostate, the runaway apprentice? Er, those are all me, I mean. All three." Alaeron was sitting on a stool, and the stool was on top of a trapdoor. With the right shift in pressure, he could trigger a lever, drop through the trapdoor, and slide down a greased chute into a heavily fortified safe room, which would be worthless against a person who could walk through walls. Alaeron wondered how the Kellid would strike, given his incorporeality. Throwing knives, perhaps, becoming solid when they left his aura? Perhaps a sling or a slingshot? Even a crossbow. The possibilities were, if not endless, at least numerous.
Alaeron had killed four League assassins in the past year and a half—none as formidable as Kormak, the first of them, who'd pursued Alaeron to far continents in his zeal. It would be a shame to die now, at the hands of yet another servant of the League, even though, statistically, Alaeron had always known his luck would run out and his planning prove insufficient someday.
But, apparently, not today. "I am not here to kill you," the Kellid said. "I am here to deliver a message, and a gift."
Alaeron grunted. He had, briefly, served as an apprentice to the Technic League, a group of vile arcanists who plundered the riches and relics of Numeria, where long ago a ship—or a city, or something stranger—had fallen from the sky and crashed into the earth, scattering its bizarre and powerful mysteries across the breadth of the land. Alaeron, always fascinated by forbidden knowledge, had been unable to resist the appeal of such a place, though the members of the League revolted him, as they were slavers and tyrants who were only interested in power, not the deep secrets of the universe. After certain misadventures in Numeria he'd escaped with a sack full of relics...and ever since, the League had been trying to get its stolen property back, and take revenge on him, too. In the process, the League had allowed Alaeron to steal even more property from its failed assassins, which only made its leaders want to kill him more. It was a vicious circle, though it also served to enrich Alaeron, so it could have been worse.
"Is this message mostly in the form of curses and inventive profanity?" Alaeron said. "And is the gift poisonous, or explosive, or both?"
"The nature of the message has not been disclosed to me," the Kellid said. He reached into his pack and then tossed a wooden box slightly larger than a human head toward the lab table. When the box left his field of incorporeality, it became solid and landed with a thunk. Alaeron sucked air through his teeth in dismay—there were substances on the table that did not react well to being jostled—but nothing blew up or bubbled over, so no harm done—this time.
"I am staying at the Succulent Eel, near the docks," the Kellid said.
Alaeron blinked. The Eel was rather exclusive, in a very particular way. "Really?"
The Kellid continued in a bored tone. "I will be there for the next two days, if you wish to send back a message." With that, he departed, passing through a wall and out of sight.
Alaeron carefully examined the box from all angles. It was made from an unfamiliar pale wood, with unsettling patterns in the grain that made him think it had come from a tree twisted by magical forces. The nails holding it together were shiny and uniform, the sort of precision work he'd grown accustomed to seeing during his time with the Technic League. He didn't see any indication that the box was trapped, but he wished briefly that he'd hired an assistant at some point anyway—someone disposable to pry open the box while Alaeron himself stood some discreet distance away, perhaps behind a wall of stones and steel.
He swabbed the edges of the box with certain substances that reacted to the presence of alchemical explosives, and they turned up no sign of such dangers. After a moment's thought he went to another worktable in the long, high-ceilinged laboratory and returned with an augur. He drilled a coin-sized hole in one side of the box, then activated an alchemical light-stick and peered inside by its illumination. How embarrassing it would be to open the box and be attacked by some venomous mutated Numerian serpent.
But as far as he could see through the hole, the box contained nothing but a folded sheet of parchment resting atop a small object wrapped in cloth.
There was such a thing as being too cautious, and in truth, Alaeron's elaborate precautions were just an attempt to offset his natural tendency to leap in without looking. You couldn't make bombs and mix acids and dismantle ancient relics for a living if you were overly worried about preserving your own life, limbs, and sanity. He'd crawled into many a barrow, burglarized many a library, and mixed many an unknown substance just to see what would happen, and if he hadn't grown a bit paranoid about the League's attempts to kill him, he'd likely still be leading such a reckless life, trusting in his own quick thinking and reflexes to keep him from coming to serious harm.
He'd rather hated traveling the world and adventuring when he was in the midst of it, but now, sitting here in his laboratory examining the treasures he'd won on those expeditions, he sometimes missed the excitement.
Alaeron took a chisel and hammer and prised off the top of the box. He lifted out the parchment, which was sealed with a blob of wax marked with the impression of a cogwheel, the Technic League's symbol. The wrapped parcel made him more curious—mysterious objects were, in a very real sense, his reason to live—but it was probably better to see what the letter had to say first.
He read it, stared at the wrapped parcel, read the letter again, then folded it carefully and put the lid back on the box. After that he descended through the laboratory's cellar, opened a panel in a false wall, deactivated the traps ahead by pressing the proper stones in the wall in the proper sequence, continued along a subterranean tunnel, reset the traps by pulling a concealed lever, and emerged through a similar hidden door into the basement of an empty house he owned some blocks away from his laboratory. From there he went out into the street, found one of the loitering street children who could be trusted to perform simple tasks for small coins, and sent the boy with a message to Alaeron's friend Skiver.
The message was simple: "Come quickly. I've just received a letter from a dead woman."
Coming Up Next: A story of loyalty and betrayal in Druma by Stephanie Lorée!
Tim Pratt is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Liar's Blade and City of the Fallen Sky, as well as the short stories "A Tomb of Winter's Plunder" and "Bastard Sword". His 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. His non-Pathfinder 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 Rags & Bones with Melissa Marr. His books and stories have been translated into French, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Korean, Spanish, German, and several other languages. Visit his website and blog at timpratt.org.