I’ve been gaming since I was a teenager, so to be asked to provide a story to accompany an adventure path was a dream come true. The Treasure Within was first published by Legendary Games Publishing as a prose piece for their “Legendary Planets” adventure path. This first of seven chapters (one for each of the seven adventures) can be found in “To Worlds Unknown,” the first of the Legendary Planet adventures. Cover art by Bruno Balixa for Legendary Games. Thanks to the publishers for allowing me to post this story for free as part of The Infinite Bard project.
The Treasure Within
Chapter One: To Worlds Unknown
by Chris A. Jackson
They say passing through a gate changes you. Maybe so. Maybe I change every time I pass from planet to planet through one. I know one thing: it always gives me a headache.
The universe rushed toward me, billions of pinpricks of light all coming at me at once until I was bathed in luminescence, every part of me throbbing with power, my implants humming as if they wanted to jump out of my skin. The gate puked me out the other end, and the light, the power, and the sensation I was about to fly apart vanished. I staggered, steadied, and braced myself for the headache.
I wasn’t disappointed.
While pain blossomed behind my eyes, both the flesh and the clockwork ones, two Nambrin goons stepped up to me for the usual inspection. All the gates in Zel-Argose are controlled by the coteries that run the city. They’re nothing but criminals, really, but don’t say that to their faces. The Nambrin Coterie is one of the few that owns two gates, which makes them one of the more powerful. The two goons were inspecting me to make sure I wasn’t smuggling anything through their gate without giving them first dibs on buying it.
“A successful trip, Anasya?” One of the inspectors jotted my name down on his list, his teeth glinting with pointed silver caps. His name was Tance, and he knew I salvaged the Shattered Zone. His partner, whom I’d never met, held a wicked two-pronged fork in his hands, the tips humming with energy. He looked like he wanted to use the weapon, and I didn’t want to give him the opportunity.
“Not very.” I handed my pack over. “Some mithralite ore and a few rough diamonds.”
“Let’s have a look.” He waved me over to a stout table and put my pack down.
The gate pulsed behind me and another traveler staggered through and was met by another team of inspectors. I kept my attention on Tanse as he searched my bag. He put two of the nicer uncut diamonds aside, and closed the flap.
“Anything else?” He eyed me sidelong.
“Nothing but my gear.” I met his eyes without flinching.
“Let’s have your duster.” He held out one meaty hand and smiled.
I shrugged out of my heavy jacket and handed it over. I have more than a few weapons, tools, and other surprises tucked in the pockets, but he ignored them as he patted it down. He put it on the table and turned back to me.
“Hand over the sword and hold your arms out.”
I hated this part, but with fork-boy standing ready to skewer me at the slightest provocation, I didn’t dare argue. I unclipped my rapier from my belt and handed the weapon over. The sword is, like me, much more than it looks to be, but Tanse just put it on the table and patted me down professionally, his hands exploring everyplace likely to hold any contraband. He knew I had as much metal as meat under my clothes, and didn’t say a word when his touch found my cold, unyielding implants. Everyone from the Shattered Zone has implants. Living in a world that’s been reduced to nothing but a lose nest of asteroids, you either adapt or perish. The clockwork gizmos that keep me alive are as much a part of me as the fleshy bits.
His knuckles rapped the hard stays of my corset, but the garment is too tight to hide anything under, so he didn’t make me take it off. Good thing. I shifted my stance as he felt down my leg to the top of my right boot.
“What’s this?” Tance patted the bulge beneath the soft leather on the inside of my calf.
“A new support strut I had installed. I broke my leg last month, and decided to—”
A ring on Tanse’s left hand pulsed with a red glow, and he stood up to glare at me. “Don’t lie to me, Anasya. Now what’s in your boot?”
I cursed under my breath and reached down to loosen the lacings. The slim ingot of lustrous black metal slipped from hiding and I handed it over with a sheepish smile and a shrug. “Just a little profit margin.”
“Adamantine?” Tanse squinted at the ingot, then at me. “I could confiscate this as contraband, you know.”
I frowned. “You could, but I’d file a protest with the Auditor.”
Tanse snorted in disgust. “Fat lot of good that’d do you.” We both knew the Auditor’s authority over the coteries was perfunctory at best.
“Maybe, but my complaint would shut your gate down for a few days.” I pointed to the bar of black metal in his hand. “That’ll cost Nambrin more than one ingot of adamantine.”
“Or Barthy here could stick you with his fork, and we could sell your clockwork implants in the bazaar.”
The threat was just a bargaining tactic, but I had to play along or risk an even more thorough search. Thing about inspectors is they generally stop inspecting once they find something. “Five hundred for the ingot and those two stones you picked out.” They were worth more, but I had a lot to lose if Tanse took offence and threw me in a lockup.
He hefted the bar in his hand with a silvery grin. “Four hundred.”
Tanse put the ingot on the table, handed me my gear, and smiled again. I think the inspectors work on commission. He counted out the money in shiny platinum coins, minus my tithe for using Nambrin’s gate, of course.
“See you next trip, Anasya.” He nodded and pointed to the exit. “Be careful out there. Zel-Argose’s a dangerous place.”
“Right.” I walked out into the sweltering, dusty streets of Zel-Argose with my hand near my blade and a spring in my step—no pun intended. Though I do have springs, they’re not in my feet.
For the most part, the city’s populace is human, or at least humanoid, but as a hub world, with more than a dozen gates, Argosa has more than its share of aliens, even more than usual now with all the refugees from planets annexed by the Hegemony. Still, the first time you get a glimpse under the hood of a burnoose and see six multifaceted eyes staring back at you above a pair of mandibles, your stomach does a little flip. You get used to the feeling that whatever it is might be looking at you as a potential meal instead of a business opportunity…or both.
I lengthened my stride toward the bazaar. I could have gotten a rickshaw or coach to save boot leather, but it felt good to walk under a real sky. One advantage of being a clockwork cyborg is that fatigue only hits when your components wind down. Mine only get low on power if I have to fight a lot, but I don’t like to fight if I don’t have to. We also don’t get hungry, thirsty, or sleepy, which can be a blessing or a curse.
At the bazaar I sold my salvaged ore and diamonds to a dwarf mineralogist I knew. We had a standard arrangement, so there wasn’t much haggling. I pocketed the gold and moved on. I had bigger fish to fry that had nothing to do with the contents of my pack.
Finally, I ducked under a broad blue and white awning and entered the non-descript edifice of Corrmarch’s Eclectic Beverage Emporium.
Darkness and cool air enveloped me. The latter was welcome after the sweltering dusty streets. The former enabled Corrmach’s covert security staff to evaluate new arrivals before they could see anything. My clockwork eye whirred and clicked to adjust to the dim lighting faster than any human and most alien eyes could. As usual, the place was busy. Corrmach makes a lot of money supplying a secure and quiet venue where the various factions of Zel-Argose can conduct business. I could discern more than a dozen different species of humanoid and twice as many alien ones, a few I didn’t recognize. Eyes and other analogous organs inspected me, then turned away in disinterest. I was just another scavenger here to make a deal.
I picked a corner booth and sat down with my back to the wall. When one of the servers approached, I ordered a coffee with cocoa and pepper—purely medicinal—and asked him to send some messages for me. He nodded and accepted a silver Argon for the service along with the three sealed notes from the inside pocket of my duster. My business associates knew I was due soon, but not exactly when. They wanted what I had very badly, and would come running at my summons.
The coffee banished my headache, but the dull drone of alien music being played by an arachnoid bard at the other end of the common room threatened to reignite it. It looked and sounded like the thing was squeezing a hornet’s nest under its arms to me, but I’ve literally got a tin ear, and have little appreciation for music.
Three coffees later, right on time, my business associates began to arrive. Jhe-Pan came in first, dressed in his usual maroon robes and headscarf tied with gold cord. Removing his tinted goggles, he swept the room with his gaze. He smiled when he spotted me and started over. We’d known each other for years, and he always gave me good prices. Tarenia Yolt ambled through the door before Jhe-Pan even reached my table. She saw me instantly and waddled across the floor, her powder blue kaftan billowing like a pastel circus tent as she nudged a few chairs and tables out of her way with her bulk. Tarenia is a large woman. I don’t know how she moves so lightly on her feet, but I’d be willing to bet there’s magic involved.
I rose and grasped Jhe-Pan’s hands. “Good to see you, old friend.”
“Likewise.” He glanced over his shoulder and stepped aside as Tarenia approached. “Tarenia, you’re looking prosperous today.”
“I am prosperous.” She flashed pearly rounded teeth and nodded respectfully. “You look well, Anasya.”
“I’m well enough, thank you.” I knew Tarenia less-well than Jhe-Pan, but she had a spotless reputation, and more money than some planets I’ve visited. “As soon as Kweesh arrives, we’ll get down to business. Can I buy you a cup?”
Jhe-Pan and Tarenia exchanged a glance that said they knew something I didn’t.
“Master Kweesh will not be arriving, I’m afraid.” Tarenia stroked her jowls with fingers like sausages, a gesture that I knew signified unease. “He…met with an untimely end three days ago.”
“What?” I’d known Kweesh a long time, and though he occasionally dipped into some shady dealings, he wasn’t involved in anything violent that I knew of. “What happened?”
“It looked like an accident.” Jhe-Pan shrugged. “He stepped out of Toipa’s Tattoo Parlor onto the street and was run down by a rinoch-drawn coach. There wasn’t much left. If it wasn’t an accident, it was masterfully done.”
“I can’t prove it, but I think it was no accident.” Tarenia frowned and shook her head, her jowls jiggling like fleshy pudding. “He made some enemies recently, some powerful ones.”
Zel-Argose had always been dangerous, but things like this had become more frequent lately. Some thought the Ultari Hegemony was taking out people who worked with the Bellianic Accord. I knew Tarenia worked for the Accord, though she had no clue I knew her loyalties. I don’t have any loyalties, but I’d sell all my clockwork parts for scrap before I’d work for the Ultari.
“Shall we conduct our business, then?” Jhe-Pan summoned a servant, ignoring Tarenia’s flash of ire at his insensitivity. I shrugged it off. Jhe-Pan was a businessman and had little time for sentiment. “A private room.”
“This way, if you please.” The servant led us to a small room that sported little more than a table, chairs, and a credenza. We entered and took seats. “Libation?”
“Privacy.” Jhe-Pan’s curt tone surprised me. He was rarely rude, even to servants.
“Very well.” The servant bowed and left.
“So, was your foray to your home world successful?” Tarenia shifted in her chair, trying to get comfortable on a piece of furniture half the size necessary to accommodate her.
“I found what I was looking for and brought it in with no one knowing, so let’s start the bidding at five thousand gold Argons.”
“I’ll pay five thousand,” Tarenia said.
“Six,” Jhe-Pan countered, staring at the corpulent woman in open disdain.
Again, his manner surprised me. I’d been involved in bidding contests with Jhe-Pan many times, and he was never so rude. I wondered if some new animosity had blossomed between my associates in my absence.
“Six thousand five hundred.”
The bidding continued, the increments growing smaller as the sum grew. When Tarenia bid ninety-five hundred, Jhe-Pan frowned, shook his head, and walked out without a word.
“Well!” Tarenia’s eyes widened at his sudden departure then turned to me. “Do we have a deal then?”
“As soon as you show me the money.” I was still bothered by Jhe-Pan’s rudeness, but business was business.
“Of course, but I must ensure our anonymity first.” Tarenia wove her pudgy fingers in an intricate pattern, her fingernails glowing briefly with magic. Seemingly satisfied, she reached into the voluminous folds of her kaftan and withdrew a large blue satin pouch. The contents clanked as she dropped it on the table. “There’s ten thousand in minted platinum ingots. Feel free to inspect them.”
I did, and she wasn’t lying. I placed five hundred gold Argons in platinum coins on the table as her change and stood. Taking off my jacket, I tucked the heavy pouch in a pocket and lay it aside. Tarenia didn’t reach for the coins, but watched me like a hungry owl eying a mouse.
The bronze latches securing my corset clicked open at my touch. Vanity aside, the garment doesn’t just enhance my figure. The stays are steel, and there’s a weave of fine mail under the material. Next, I unbuttoned my shirt from the bottom up, leaving the top three fastened for modesty. A dark blue serpent tattoo shone on the pale skin of my stomach. It looked mundane, but when I touched its eyes then the tip of its tail, the serpent writhed briefly and split down the middle.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” Tarenia fingered her jowls again, apparently uneasy with my incongruous anatomy.
“Only the first time.”
I peeled my flesh back to reveal the whirring gears and springs of my hidden cache, a small hexagonal frame surrounded by clockwork machinery. I turned away to touch the corners of the frame in the correct combination then turned back. Gears whirred, and six triangular panels opened like the petals of a metal flower. Delving the extradimensional space within, I retrieved my smuggled treasure, a multifaceted crystal as long as my hand. Placing it on the table, I closed up my safe, my skin, my shirt, and reached for my corset.
Tarenia ignored me, all of her attention focused on the crystal. She muttered a few arcane words and ran a finger down one gleaming facet. “Beautiful.”
“Satisfied?” I fastened my corset and reached for my duster.
“Quite.” Tarenia scooped the platinum coins into a fold of her kaftan, but left the crystal lying there. “You know whom I represent, don’t you?”
“I…” I shrugged into my coat, even heavier now with the weight of treasure. “Not for sure.”
“The Bellianic Accord.”
“I thought so.”
“Kweesh was murdered by an Ultari agent, but I don’t know who, or why.”
“Oh?” I didn’t know what this had to do with me, or why she was telling me.
She pointed to the crystal. “You’ll have learned what that does during its acquisition.”
“Something to do with making a gate work.” Gates are all different, but some use similar components. I’d gotten the crystal from a broken gate in the Zone.
“Yes, and there is a gate here in Zel-Argosa which the Accord wishes to re-activate.”
That got my attention. “Why tell me?”
“Because our agents are known to our enemies. You’re nothing but a smuggler, and run less of a risk of meeting the same end as Kweesh.” She pointed to the crystal with one sausage finger. “If you agree to help us install that in the dysfunctional gate owned by the Thanex Coterie, I’ll pay you exactly double what I have today.”
My mouth opened to tell her she was crazy, but then closed. I swallowed hard, and thought about that much money. Damn! Almost twenty thousand Argons would buy a villa with servants back home, but Thanex was one of the most powerful and ruthless coteries in the city. If caught, I wouldn’t live long enough to collect.
“How would I get in?”
“With intelligence we will supply. The gate won’t activate without a key, which we will later apply when we wish to open it.” She made it sound simple.
“All right.” I couldn’t believe I was agreeing to this. I started unclipping my corset to put the crystal back in hiding. “When?”
“Within ten days.”
“That’s not much time.”
“No, it isn’t.” Tarenia rose and turned toward the door. “Come to my villa this evening, and don’t be seen.”
“Okay.” I slipped the crystal back in my safe and closed up. “I’ll be there.”
“Good.” She placed one hand on the door latch and turned to face me. “And be careful. There’s no way to know if the Hegemony might have pierced my wards to eavesdrop on this conversation. If they have, they’ll stop at nothing to thwart our plans.”
“Right.” I closed my corset and adjusted my duster. “I’ve been told Zel-Argose is a dangerous place.”