Cindy’s Game: The Time Market
Sorry for the scare but, well, you were praying to Yl and I figured interrupting you in the middle of your prayers to a dead god wouldn’t be the worst thing I could do. You don’t know me, and you won’t for quite some time, but I passed by your village when you were younger and I listened to your grandmother’s tales alongside you.
If I may comment, you seem to be in a rather sticky situation now- what with the prison cart and handcuffs and death sentence awaiting you past the woods and all – so I hope this letter and the story it contains will provide a bit of familiarity and comfort to you.
THE TALE OF THE TIME MARKET
It had been a week since the strange figure had shown up at the tabaxis’ doorstep. None of the tabaxis in the village knew what the stranger was, only that it wasn’t any of the genera in Ritenus.
The stranger, luckily, still proved to be proficient in Common – after uttering a few words of a spell, they were able to communicate with the tabaxi. They told them strange tales of what they had seen, stuff of myth – “giants” that parted the ocean, clever “gnomes” and their inventions, “humans” that thirsted for gold and adventure. In return, the tabaxi villagers gave the stranger food and water, and offered to take them in and help them get back to wherever it was they were from.
But every time this offer of shelter or a way home was made, the stranger would reject it with a sad smile. “This is my way home. I’m waiting for a door, and I’m afraid to miss it again,” they said, and would never say more.
So as days and night passed, the stranger sat there and grew to know all of the tabaxi in the small village. A tabaxi elder, who all of the other tabaxi called “Grandmother,” took special interest in their stories and would swap tales with them, telling them tales of a great fallen dragon and the organizations that grew to fill its place. She told them about eccentric toymakers and suspicious bankers and floating cities and in this way, they grew to understand this strange world a little better.
Still, they grew lonely – they wanted to tell the story of their origin to someone, to anyone, but they were too afraid they would lose their only source of sustenance and company if they told anyone the truth about their past, about their thievery.
Then, one day, a new tabaxi came stumbling out of the woods. They were tired and haggard, but their eyes flashed with a tense sharpness. They studied the stranger, a look of confusion on their face. “I’ve never seen anyone like you.”
The stranger nodded, studying them too. The newcomer carried a map, so at first the stranger thought the tabaxi was some kind of explorer until their gaze was then pulled to the manacles around the tabaxi’s wrists and the brand on their palm. Ah. Another thief.
“I’m like you,” they said simply. “I’m a trapped thief, and I’m looking for a way out.”
The tabaxi scoffed, gestured at the stranger’s free hands and feet. “Trapped. You can leave any time you like. You don’t have a whole prison caravan after you.”
The stranger shook their head. “I’m not trapped in space, I’m trapped in time. I went through a doorway in time to dig up my stash here, but there was a passing patrol and, well, I got arrested. I managed to escape, but by then it was too late. I took too long and my door closed, so I’m stuck here until the tear opens up again to let me through again. I don’t dare leave this spot again, and I don’t have to – the tabaxi bring me food and water, and the summer weather is nice.”
The thief sat here, considering this, the idea of a miraculous doorway that could bring them somewhere else. “Where does the tear go?” They finally asked, in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
So the stranger spoke of the time market.
Everyone said time was like a street, receding behind you even as it stretched infinitely before you, and you went from point A to point B and on and on until you died. The stranger, however, knew that like any good city street, it had tunnels and pipes and catacombs running beneath, places hidden from sight – like the time market.
The time market came at night, and it came at day, and it pulled you in from the sky and from beneath your feet. For all its showiness, it never announced its entrance or departure with anything more flashy than blinking lights for a split second before time smoothed itself out again and shook off this temporary disruption.
No one quite knows how the market began. Various folk legends featured a trickster who showed up at times of great fortune or great misfortune. She was revered by a superstitious sort, who saw her in the glint of every coin teetering on its edge and every wink of a shuffled deck of cards.
Here the tabaxi nodded. They knew what it was like to be superstitious – sometimes, before an important job, they would ask Yl’s blessing. She might be dead, but it brought them a bit of comfort nonetheless.
Many of these superstitious found this trickster seemed to be intrigued by, and even moved to help, the daring and audacious. Though no one quite knew what she was doing to help, sometimes when she was near a wind would blow at just the right moment or the right door would open.
One mortal that caught the trickster’s interest was a legendary thief known to history only as the Marauder. Menace of tyrants everywhere, he stole treasures and artifacts from conquered lands and returned them to their rightful owners. One day, as he was finishing up in a castle vault, he saw something that intrigued him- what appeared to be silks, but would dissolve into wind at a touch.
Intrigued, he let down his guard for a second too long to examine it. The platform he stood on fell open and he found himself shooting down a long slide, then plummeting towards what would surely be his death on the earth below.
The trickster, watching from a nearby ledge, shook her head. With a crack, a void opened up beneath him and he fell in, still screaming. With a flick of her hand, the trickster closed the door again. There. He’d be safe.
After a long minute of not hitting anything, he dared to look around cautiously. The same cliff face sailed past over and over, but the trees growing out of the cracks seemed smaller and smaller. Looking up, he saw at least three different suns in the sky but felt the heat of only one. Every time he blinked, the sky looked different – here a crescent moon struggling to shine behind a veil of smoke, there a new moon and just the stars over the castle he had just escaped. His view blurred more and more until he found himself in an utterly empty city, much like the capital he had just passed through, but seemingly devoid of people.
With little else to do, he worked to make it a beautiful city. He found himself living in the king’s chambers and, despite the sturdy vaults he could have used, kept his treasure of the winds with him at all times – call it a hunch, call it fate. So it was with him when, as he grew old and could hardly leave his room, he noticed a group of tieflings approaching the castle door.
Here, the tabaxi again interrupted. “What are tieflings?”
“Devils,” the stranger said, shaking their head and continuing.
He listened as the tieflings explored the castle until, with some surprise on their part, they found him. They lamented to the Marauder about how empty the city was, and told him about the pasts they were escaping – as traitors to their army, who had saved a city the tieflings were burning and stolen a ship to escape. They thought they’d been doomed when a heavy storm hit, but with a crack of lightning that sounded like a thousand dice rolling, the ship had been swallowed up and sunk through the sea until they docked here.
“I’m glad there are others escaping,” he whispered, smiling as he looked upon the tieflings and died as he lived – among thieves. They buried him, with his last treasure of the winds, in the castle vault.
After his death, other lucky criminals continued to slowly trickle in from all walks of time, from the beginning of it to the known “present.” They found refuge in this little city that seemed to be defended and utterly isolated from the rest of time, where people made a living offering their strange goods and services in seclusion.
That was until one ordinary day, when doors opened onto four specific times. No one dared to exit, fearing their pursuers lay on the other side. After a few days, they closed again. Everything continued as normal until a few months later, the doors opened again. For some reason, the magic isolating the time bubble was flickering.
As criminals who were eventually brave enough to venture out and lucky enough to have associates in those years made contact, the time market gained its first outside customers. It evolved into a black market known for stocking items so powerful, so dangerous, they would be illegal in any time or place. It also populated slowly with more common criminals that hadn’t been chosen to live in the market, until it became a small town of exiles. Now anyone fleeing punishment in those four times could try to find entrances, listening with attentive ear for talk of places with extensive ghost stories about mysteriously disappeared children and bewildered creatures spit out years past where they claimed to be from.
“This is one of those four times?” The tabaxi asked, with new hope in their eyes.
“Should be. I’ve been here for about a month, so the gate should open soon,” the stranger said.
The thief staked a desperate bet on the stranger’s story, and sat waiting for a week, hiding in the bushes at every tabaxi that came to give the stranger rations and any sound that even vaguely resembled a horse’s hooves. Finally, the world opened up around them and they folded into time.
They bid farewell to the stranger. As they explored the market and reached the time doors, they spoke to people and learned that one of them opened to a faraway kingdom, about a year before their time in the forest. They thought about their escape from that forest, how they had thought they were utterly alone and prayed to every god they thought could help them, but standing before the doors, they slowly realized that even if a god didn’t intervene, they could help themselves. It would be simple – tell their past self what they knew now, and wait.
The next morning they set out into the past, hesitating only for a second before the doors. Muttering a prayer to Yl, they walked through the third one, with a message to deliver.
Sorry it took so long to get to the point- I thought this might be the easiest way to break this all to you. I remember reading this letter and being pretty incredulous even with the easing in. I think if you’ve made it here, though, I can’t really sidestep the weird time things anymore.
If you unfold this envelope carefully, and hold the insides up to the light, you’ll see a more detailed summary of how to escape, and then how to get around the market. On the back of this letter is a map of the path you’re taking to your prison. You should be able to – you have broken out at the edge of the forest and you can do it again. For the first time. Whatever.
I know I’m speaking of you doing all this as an inevitability, and that feels overconfident to you. Look, I know by the fact that I’m writing this letter that you’ll succeed- I couldn’t have lived to write this if I got executed or died somewhere along the way, right?
Right. That’s all – I’ve given you everything I can and it’s all up to you now.