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Praxis pushed open the swinging doors to the Watchtower Tavern. His foray into the Montas Archipelago had been nothing if not eventful, and he was parched.
"Ey, mon! Welcome you to de Watchtower!" A tall black man with an accent like Sir Tomas greeted him with a firm handshake and a pat on the shoulder. Praxis tensed.
"Thanks," he muttered.
"I be Voodoo Child, ma friend, what can I be gettin' you on dis fine, fine day."
"Something strong," Body said. Praxis ignored the psionic bracelet.
"Do you have Guinness stout?" he asked. Ever since Bryttanwch disappeared, the psionicist had been rediscovering his need for heritage. Without Janther around, he occasionally felt like the last of his race. When he and Inez had gone out to look for his home, they had found nothing. They even ended up lost at sea, which might have been romantic, had Inez not been so seasick. Since then, he had thrown himself into his work, following his instincts across Ataniel, helping those who couldn't help themselves.
This trip had been no exception, of course. First there was that exorcism of the child, Little Wing, which had drained most of Prax's PSPs. He wished he still travelled with a cleric. Then the attack by that band of mercenaries, led by Frank Lee... the poor guy's brain had self-destructed when Praxis went into it to find out who sent him. And the straw that really broke the psionic's back, was that bastard who had kept him up all night playing "Purple Haze" on his guitar in the room next door. Praxis was tired and just wanted to be home in Shikintu with Inez.
"Ere you go, mon, the best stout in de house!" Voodoo Child put a hollowed coconut before him. "It be made special for you, mon!" The Jamaican shuffled away, laughing to himself.
Praxis looked into the coconut.
A big eye looked out.
"Shit!" Praxis cried, and dropped the coconut to the floor. The eyeball, connected to some pinkish grey ooze extended out of it. Then a mouth. Then some more eyes.
"Surprise, friend Praxis!" the mouth squeak/growled. "Zzenith it is! Got you, I did that one with! He he he!"
Praxis' joy at seeing his friend far overwhelmed his annoyance at being surprised. He had never adventured with Schneider, but he had heard that this sort of thing happened all the time in the 'Tour.
"Zzenith, you slimeball, where have you been? What have you been doing with your, uh, self?"
"Zzenith on vacation is. Out of relationship bad Zzenith just got."
"You were... dating?"
"Zzenith handsome very. Flattering also."
Praxis was at a loss for words. It must be Tila, he thought. He couldn't see anyone else sleeping with Zzenith, as great a... whatever... as he was.
"Cramped feeling she was. Zzenith sorry but her the best he wants for."
"Anyone I know?" Praxis asked.
"Belle you remember?"
Praxis certainly remembered the genetically perfect Diarian warrior. The only person bitchier than Shilree he had ever gotten to respect. The image still eluded him, thankfully.
"Well, I'm sorry to hear about it."
"Better this way it is. Field the Zzenith can play."
"You know, you never cease to surprise me, pal."
Praxis felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to come face to face with a terribly gaunt old woman, her eyes white with blindness.
"Many come to PEANUT dances," she said, oddly accenting certain words. "Taste ANY purple quill."
"What?" Praxis asked. "I don't understand..."
"EAT me like candy. When that FLYING mask rolls under A dripping LOG, the beans spangled with EGGS pilot me to FEBRUARY."
This made no sense. Zzenith didn't seem to understand, either. Praxis reached out with his mind.
"MusLIM musLIN musCLE musSEL muzZLE!" she cried at him.
Prax's mind hit a wall like none he could remember. Spots blurred in front of his eyes, and he blacked out.
When he came too, Zzenith and Voodoo Child were kneeling over him, dabbing his face with a wet cloth that smelled of lavender.
"The woman..." Praxis murmured.
"Gone she is, friend Praxis. Into air thin she vanished."
Praxis closed his eyes, lowered his breathing, and focused inside his mind to see if there was any damage from the forceful repulsion. There was none, thankfully. The impact hadn't done anything to him at all, short of knocking him for a loop.
And there, in the recesses of his mind, he saw it.
A black envelope, with his name written on it in silver letters.
He focused his consciousness into a mental body, and approached the envelope, floating there over some of his childhood memories. Reaching out, he plucked it from the air. It felt solid to his mental hands. Imagining a letter opener, he cut a slit in the envelope. Inside was a card. It read:
Damned if he had the foggiest idea how this had gotten here. His mental defenses were always up, and he hadn't had anything put inside from the mental contact with the old woman. How long had this been here? It wasn't here the last time he had introspected, after the exorcism (one can never be too safe). He sent his consciousness outside and saw the Watchtower come back into focus.
"All right everything is?" Zzenith asked. Voodoo Child returned from the bar with a real drink.
"No. I got a message."
"Psionic message it was?"
"Sort of... I don't know..."
"Say what it did?"
"I need to go to the Mithril Dagger."
"I-an-I, mon, dey got de best Guinness stout dere I evah had!" Voodoo Child grinned.
"Well, that must be the silver lining," Praxis sighed. He had wanted to go home. Now he was simply going back.
"Then accomany you Zzenith shall! Days old like this is!"
Praxis stood and started for the door.
"That's what I'm worried about," he said.
It was more prudent, Shilree determined, to use a cover, even for her work with underground. Shilree was no amateur in terms of disguise, she had once fooled her best friends into thinking she was dead and still adventured with them. Creating a false identity to use in her supervision of the Western Diarian resistance was much easier.
The city of Dyaromn was chaos, it had been for the past five years since the Cynystran occupying force had taken the city. Shilree was determined to take it back, perhaps even to restore the cohesive state of Diaria. Big ambitions for a one-time exile, but nowadays she was one of the founding members of the Trade Council, with all the power that came with the title.
Using funnelled Trade funds and "recovered" thieves guild loot, Shilree had set up a rebel group of Diarians opposed to kiljhac rule. There were thousands of members of the network these days, ranging from Diarian militia peasants to low-level Cynystran bookkeepers. Still, many of the more "sensitive" matters still required Shilree's personal attention.
That had brought her, once again, to Dyaromn.
Another organized faction, the People's Front of Diaria (not to be confused with the Diarian People's Front, those ptach!) had contacted one of her agents about arranging an alliance. Shilree's research had shown the PFD to be legitimate (unlike Cynystra's mole, the Front of the Diarian People) but she wanted to meet with their leader to be sure. If he was honest, that was great. If not, an arrow through the eye should take care of the problem.
"Rigg?" A man asked, sitting next to Shilree at the table. "Rigg Telomn?"
"Who wants to know?" Shilree asked.
"A friend of Blarnu," he replied. It was the agreed-upon sign.
"Then I'm the person you're looking for."
"I've heard much about you, Telomn. You've done excellent work fighting the kiljhaci."
"Diaria is for Diarians," Shilree replied, echoing her network's propaganda.
"Yes, yes. Someday we'll be on the other side of that damned wall." Two years ago, Eastern Diaria had finished the Great Diarian Wall, sealing them off from the world.
"You said you had information to offer," Shilree said, trying to bring this man to the point. If the PFD was filled with gung-ho babblers like this man, they weren't worth her time.
The man pulled a battered but sealed manila envelope out from his rucksack. He tossed it onto the table in front of Shilree.
Shilree pulled it towards her, and opened it.
Inside was a letter, sealed with a Trade Courier's mark. "Salgadi," it read, "We await the final shipment from the Barrier at the drop point in the Northlands. Go not through occupied Nylevia, instead skirt the Shadowspires to avoid Cynystrans. The payment we have agreed upon will be waiting there." It was signed by a Trade Courier named "Ebonwing."
When she tried to return the letter to the envelope, she discovered there was something else inside. A smaller, black envelope. It had the name "Shilree" written in silver ink upon it. She slid it out slowly and set it on the table.
"What. Is. This?" she asked.
"I don't know," the man said. "Never seen it before. Wonder how it--urk!"
Shilree had grabbed the man by his throat and pulled him in close.
"Where did you get this!?" she demanded.
"I don't know! I didn't put it there!"
She didn't let go. "What does this name mean to you?"
"Nothing! Never heard of no Shi--"
Shilree silenced him with a blow to the jaw.
"Get out of here. And never say that name again."
The man stumbled to his feet and ran out the door. Shilree nodded to Tallen the Black, who she had waiting by the entrance. He turned and followed the man out. The leader of the PFD would never tell what he had somehow learned.
Looking around to ascertain no one was watching, Shilree slit the envelope and removed the card from inside. It read:
This better not be Schneider's doing, she thought. If he was screwing around with her affairs here, he would be one dead jester.
Someone was going to be one dead something, she mused.
There was sunlight.
It was a long way off, and bounced through quartz lenses to the Lasthome of the Bonded Ones, but Max had been so far from sunlight for so long that even the stale yellow of mineral refraction looked like home.
The Ansalia Expedition was almost over. Five years of exploration and adventure, and Max was ready for a break. Ready to find Valleri and settle down for a time. Hook himself back into the Mindnet, perhaps, check up on old friends. He wondered if Threnody would be jealous of Val. He wondered if Savis and the Max Pack were doing well, acclimatizing themselves to Ataniel. Had the Sway liberated Diaria yet? Was Magnate back? Who had driven back the Gila invasion he had uncovered? So much must have changed in five years...
"I can feel your bonds regrowing," ManTec said to his friend. "Your bond to home is very strong. And the other, of course."
Max smiled at the cyberdwarf. At first, the expedition had been terrified of the strange beings somehow mystically bonded to wands and jewels and other strange devices, but Max himself had made contact and arranged a peace. His efforts had won him the devotion of the greatest warrior of the "Bonded Ones", ManTec. ManTec had travelled with Max for some time, until returning to the Bondhome after Max met Valleri. Max had missed ManTec, and he was glad that the dwarf had decided to accompany the half-elf as far as the Lasthome.
Still, this was goodbye.
It was goodbye to more than ManTec, really. It was goodbye to the entire World Below... the hidden Gemworld of Myranger, the warrens of the Quislins, the Man in the Center of the Earth... It was goodbye to the Patriarchs of Nuu, to the queen of the Doves who had fallen for Max, to the fellow members of the expedition...
And it was hello to Ataniel.
And to Valleri...
She had left the expedition halfway, using the Trade shortcut to bring back some things from Aegypt along with some members of the group who had been badly hurt or had important discoveries to bring back to Ataniel. He had missed her for the last two-and-a-half years, and he hoped that she still felt the same way. In his heart, he knew she did.
"So, ManTec, this is really it, huh?" Max mused.
"As you say, Maxwell... it." The dwarf's jewels buzzed around his head. "Up this path is the tunnel of the Mayworm, slain by LothDrang sixty-five years ago, the legend bonded to the family line of Tec and Drang and Strin. That way will lead you to a small village of goblins, from the Iowa clan. If you tell Dubuque that you are the outbond of ManTec, he will give you their hospitality. It should only take you a day's journey through the Field of Blodhate Pillars to reach the surface. I will give Katherine a safer, but somewhat longer path for the rest of the expedition."
"Thanks, ManTec... you've been a great friend."
"That bond will never weaken, Maxwell. You are the first outbond we have ever scribed to the Silver Pillar. The Bonded Ones, the line of Tec, and myself are all eternally bonded to you, Silverhammer. Should you ever need us..."
"And vice versa, ManTec."
"Then go, and renew the bonds you have stretched these last years."
Max grinned, and looked up the tunnel. "On my way."
He didn't look back.
Well, okay, sure he did. A couple of times. ManTec waved. Max waved. It took twenty minutes before Max was once again alone.
The tunnel of the Mayworm was odd, in that rather than being smooth, like a magical tunnel, or rugged, like a tunnel delved by underworlders, it was shaped like the inside of a giant intestine. A quick detect magic and detect life calmed Max that he wasn't in any danger of digestion, but it was disturbing nonetheless.
And then he noticed it.
Affixed to one of the wall's "cilia" was a black envelope. The name on it was Max's.
Reaching out, he pulled the envelope off of the wall and extended a small blade of his shakti through the top. Inside was a card that read:
Max smiled. Someone else apparently could feel the bonds ManTec spoke of as well. It probably wasn't too hard for Praxis or Luthien or Zzenith to find Max, and to leave this nice surprise for him. It was a good thing that he was taking this shortcut. According to ManTec, he would be able to make Lianth just in time for the reunion. He separated a pen from the arm of the shakti armor and wrote a quick note on the back of the invitation.
He put the card in the envelope and reattached the envelope to the sticky area on the wall. Smiling and whistling a familiar tune, he continued up the Mayworm Tunnel.
Behind him, the black envelope and its contents started to shimmer... then melt... dripping to the ground with a malevolent hiss...
The sandy-haired archer pushed open the door to Ulmo Glub's office. "Signet, you busy?" she asked.
"I'm busy writing chapter seven of 'A Return To Significance,' the newest insight into how the problems of today can be resolved by adopting a strict..."
"Blah, blah, blah," Taryth said, ignoring the spiel. "We've got a problem."
"Did you--" Ulmo started.
"I already used the Morality Index. I tried the Ten Cycles of Adherence. It's Nomo."
"He hypnotized Mento Titan again. The poor guy was out in a chicken suit in the middle of campus, performing juicy bits from 'Situational Morality'."
"Augh!" Ulmo cried. "I wanted that book banned!"
"We don't ban books. It's against Bradbury's code. Entry seventy-eight."
"You know, maybe I could put something in this new book about narrowing one's code of morality down... say, under twenty points?"
"Right, right, Nomo. Who taught him hypnosis, anyway?"
"That psionic friend of your ex-girlfriend. Practice."
"Dammit. That's the last time I take a post-Significant without screening them. I'm still finding things missing from that time Tila spoke on 'Navigational Treasure Finding'."
"You know, you seem kinda stressed, Signet."
"Whatever. I think you need a vacation."
Ulmo looked confused.
"You spend all day running this place, even though Ermo is supposed to be the administrator, you teach most of the classes, even though we've got a fourteen person faculty, and you still spend hours a day writing that crappy book."
"This book is a major work of philosophy," Ulmo whined.
"Look, my point is, you're spreading yourself too thin."
"You think I'm too thin? I've been trying to lose that pot belly..."
Taryth closed her eyes and counted to ten.
"Signet," she started.
"Ulmo," he corrected.
"Whatever! Look, the point is, if you don't get off campus, you're going to crack up."
"The tenets of Significance protect people from insanity."
Taryth clenched her fists. "I mean that you're going to crack up on the pavement when I toss you off of the damn roof! Look, this came in the mail today. I think you should go."
Taryth handed Ulmo a black envelope with "Signet" written on it in silver ink.
"This came in the mail?" Ulmo asked.
"It wasn't mysteriously found in a secret filing cabinet?"
"Not dug up in a buried chest left there hundreds of years ago?"
"It didn't appear in the office in a strange puff of green smoke? It wasn't brought by a messenger with no head? It wasn't discovered in the stomach of a dead landshark?"
"It came in the mail. Why?"
"I dunno," Ulmo said disappointedly. "I was hoping for a cool prologue."
"No such luck," Taryth said, humoring him.
Ulmo opened the envelope. Nothing leapt out at him. Dejectedly, he read the card inside.
"Everyone else got a cool prologue," Ulmo whined.
"Anyway, I think you should go. Reconnect to your roots. Get out of the office. Leave us in peace."
"Maybe if I leave now, I can have something cool and adventurey happen to me before the end of the prologue!"
"Sure. I bet that's gonna happen."
"Let me get my stuff... hey, will you get me the Sword of Power?"
"I thought that was supposed to stay in the museum. Isn't the Septum Potentis really dangerous?"
"Dangerous is my middle name. Besides, I am Wielder of the Sword of Power."
"Yeah, right. I'll go get it."
Taryth left for the museum, and Ulmo looked down at chapter seven. No time to finish now, he thought. There was still time to go and have an exciting adventure before everything ended up
"Look, if you keep complaining about mortals defacing your city, you're never going to have time to foster educational programs that will actually solve the problem."
Khyrisse pouted. "Can't I just fry one? What's the point of being a goddess if you can't vent your heavenly wrath?"
"You've got years to go before I let you near heavenly wrath."
"You're a big..." Khyrisse started.
Things changed. A lot.
"...grouch," she heard her mouth say. Her mouth. A physical mouth. She was no longer speaking in lingua dei. She had somehow taken on a solid form. A polychromatic one, at that.
"Marlukin?" she asked. She couldn't feel his presence. She couldn't feel anything. She looked around. She was on Ataniel. She knew that things looked vastly different from the godplane, but she had trouble even recalling how... She felt disconnected, somehow constrained, trapped...
She felt mortal.
"Oh, fuck," she said.
Then she looked down the alley and saw the Cynystran soldiers.
"Okay," she muttered to herself. "I'm somehow mortal, I'm lost, I'm..." She looked down at herself. "Great, I'm completely nude... and I'm in FUCKING CYNYSTRA!" she ended on a shout. Immediately she realized that hadn't been a good idea.
She raced back further into the alley to avoid any encounter with passersby. The door at the end of the alley had a small wooden sign on it: "The Mithril Dagger Inn".
"Thank you thank you thank you," she murmured to no one in particular. She knocked on the door. The tactile sensation was strange to her, but it was foggy in her mind as to what other sensation she expected. She heard movement behind the door. "Please be Kayla," she thought. "Not Kevin."
It was Kayla. Somebody up there (where she ought to be, dammit!) was smiling on her.
Kayla looked her over for a moment, trying to place the face. Finally, recognition bloomed. "Khyrisse, mm... Starshadow, right?"
"Right! Uh, can I come in?"
"Sure! Sure... I'm so sorry..." Kayla opened the door fully and ushered Khyrisse in. Without looking, she reached behind her, pulled a folded bedspread off a pile of clean laundry, snapped it open, and draped it around Khyrisse in one smooth motion.
"Thanks," Khyrisse murmured in awe.
"Look," Kayla said, pulling a key out of a pocket, "go upstairs, my room is number one-eleven. Find yourself something to wear, and I'll get a hot meal ready for you."
Hunger. That's what that feeling was... Khyrisse remembered it.
Kayla's room was a fashion dream. Everything from knot-shirts to tank tops to ballgowns. Even the aprons seemed to be custom made. The only problem was that there wasn't any purple. Well, Kayla was a Spring, so Khyrisse guessed that purple wouldn't be appropriate. She picked out a nice blue blouse and skirt outfit which fit well (though a little loose in the bust) and dressed.
Three days passed, and Khyrisse spent her time helping out at the Dagger. Resuming mortal form was difficult to adjust to, and it was only the first of the shocks that hit Khyrisse in that period. Somehow, three years had passed since her last memory as a god, back in 810. It was now 813, and Cynystra controlled half the world. A third moon, Bane, had appeared, and the world was tense, nervous... dangerous.
The third day brought the biggest shock of all.
Khyrisse was looking out the window when she saw the troops.
Warriors, mages, adventurers... all dressed in Trade colors, were moving through the city. Cynystran troops encountering them were easily defeated and slain. The city was afire with activity, combat and carnage. It looked like the cavalry had come for Lianth. After only a few hours, she couldn't see any Cynystrans left anywhere. Trade Army patrols wandered the streets. As the sun set, peace seemed to wash back over the city like a tide. From her vantage point in the Mithril Dagger, it was almost like a strange, violent changing of the guard. She hoped Eric was pissed.
Maybe it was time to leave the Dagger, to find the answers she needed.
That was when the black envelope changed everything.
No one had entered her room, not that she had seen or heard... the battle outside hadn't been that compelling, had it? Still, somehow, there it was, sitting propped up on her pillow. Her name was written on the envelope in a silver ink. She picked it up off the bed and tore it open. Inside was a card with one word:
Downstairs, the Mithril Dagger was unusually empty. Kevin had his usual place behind the bar. A tall, striking woman with long black hair and an odd, shimmering armwrap was sitting at a table talking to a younger, masked blonde woman. A filthy dwarf was asleep on a barstool. Quell, the cleric of Tal, was sitting at the bar, fidgeting with a similar looking black envelope in his large hands. Khyrisse knew that he wasn't the one who had left the note, though. She felt another presence...
Kayla came up to Khyrisse. "You okay? You look worried about something. Was it the battle? Kevin tells me that Trade troops have retaken the city."
"Yeah, I saw..." Khyrisse said, looking around. "No, that's not it."
"Well, let me know if you need something, okay?"
"Okay..." Khyrisse trailed off. The red curtain at the back of the bar was waving, as if in a breeze. No one seemed to notice. Khyrisse walked towards the curtain, pushing it aside as she entered the private room.
"I've been waiting. Your friends will be here soon," said the voice from the shadows.
"Who?" Khyrisse asked.
The figure leaned forward into the light. "It's been some time, hasn't it?"
Khyrisse's blood froze. "You? It can't be... not YOU!"
TO BE CONTINUED...
The Ataniel story they said would never be told.
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