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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Negotiations and Love Songs: Part 12



Don’t Mess With Belle: Ghost in the Machine

Belle returned to her tent and stopped dead in her tracks. On the ground near her cot was a still-glowing pile of melted metal. Quickly looking around the room, she confirmed that all her weapons were gone.

No, not gone, she thought, looking at the rapidly cooling pile of metal.

The loss of her arms didn’t really bother her. After all, her psiblade was a mental projection, so Belle was never truly unarmed. Still, she didn’t like knowing someone had gotten this close. Belle was genetically perfect, not invincible. And she knew very well that no one was immune to assassination.

Her foul mood renewed, Belle sat down on her cot. There was a resounding crack, and the Diari assassin jumped up and whirled, her heart rate increasing and her heightened senses scanning for a trap she might have triggered.

Nothing happened.

Carefully, Belle pulled back the covers. Lying on the cot was a broken mirror. The shattered reflections of Belle’s face looked back up at her.



Okay. I get it, thought Belle. Someone is playing games. Well, I can play too.

Despair

“They like to keep you in a state some of the devils call theta.” Ebreth looked into his coffee. “It’s--I don’t even know if I can explain it, Khyrisse. Eventually you get to the point where you’re in so much pain you lose your, boundaries. You feel everything at once. I had never imagined such clarity.” He drank a little, unsteadily. “It’s right before your systems start shutting down. But in Hell they don’t let that happen. They keep you right there. They used to have someone there to monitor it, keep you from going over that edge. And they could keep you like that for... hours... That’s when they’d tell you things, you know, that’s when they’d, do things.” He looked down. “That’s when you’re most vulnerable, that’s when it hurts most. You believe anything they say or do, even if it contradicts something they just told you. That’s theta. You felt it all like it was God’s truth. I--would have done anything, you know. It’s a terrible thing to know your price. And if someone, got me like that again... I don’t know if there’s anything I wouldn’t do.” Ebreth had to put down the coffee cup, his hand was shaking so. “You just reach a point, you can’t take it any more, your senses just open out and your mind clings to any thing that’s there, like a drowning man. I would know some things couldn’t be true, and I would believe them anyway, with all my heart, I would feel them like they had happened. I don’t know if it’s some kind of reflex, the last reflex of a dying man to believe anything he can, or if the pain just overwhelmed me. I don’t know. I just know I believed every thing they told me, every thing they did to me, I would have believed anything and so I would have done anything. I am... so very sorry, Khyrisse.” He held his own forearms, shivering in the clear morning air.

Down Derry Derry Down

They hovered together in the silent depths, shadows on the blackness, and watched the spirit strain against the walls of its cage. You should not have brought it here, admonished one.

What else could I do? It was too close. It would either have been killed or seen us and brought its friends.

Then you should have taken it and left it elsewhere.

It would have come back.

We can’t keep it here indefinitely.

I don’t see why not.

It has a soul. What if it dies? Do you know how to care for it? Do you know what it eats?

The second was silent.

We must put it back.

It is too late to put it back.

The first was silent.

It won’t be long now. It can tell us what it needs to live. And even if it dies... we are deeper now. Perhaps we will survive.

We are not yet deep enough, rippled the first.

Have patience. We will get there.

The two of them hovered, together, and watched the spirit in the bubble.

A Nonweapon Proficiency In Picking The Right Contacts

“I wish we could spend some normal, unstressful social time with him,” sighed Khyrisse, snuggling into Ebreth’s side. “If he could only see how good you are for me--”

“Schneider does not want to see how good I am for you,” Ebreth said.

She whapped at him playfully. “I meant in general.”

“So did I.”

“He really does want me to be happy,” she said, a little sadly. “If nothing else, I swear that’s true.”

“Yes, I believe you,” said Ebreth. “He doesn’t want to see it. Trust the Y-chromosome over here.”

“Then how am I supposed to make him believe me?” she said, exasperated with the whole situation. “He obviously won’t listen to me. I’ve tried to tell him and tried--” The doorbell rang. “Merde. I’ll get it. It’s probably stupid cultists.” She leaned across and gave him a quick kiss, and he scruffed the side of her head gently with his knuckles. He’d been so preoccupied the last few days. Khyrisse hoped nothing was wrong. She was halfway down the stairs when the doorbell buzzed again, impatiently. “I’m coming already!”

***

“Rani,” said Khyrisse, surprised to see the sharp half-breed detective. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m on a case,” she said. “Your boy toy around?”

Khyrisse made an annoyed frown and a sputter of laughter at the same time, and it came out sounding rather like a grunt, which was not what either gut reaction had intended. “Hrm,” she said. “Yes, he is. Come on in.”

She did, flipping her cloak carelessly over the sofa arm. Khyrisse looked around a bit guiltily at the disorder of papers stacked across the living room surfaces, as well as the morning’s dishes, a half-built model of a clipper ship that Skitch had abandoned weeks ago, a splayed-open paperback For Whom The Bell Tolls--Khyrisse picked it up in passing, stuck an index card into it as a marker, and closed it--and Melissa the cat, sleeping on at least one of her new angora sweaters. “That... is a really pretty cat,” said Rani, astonished.

“She ate the Oyster Totem this March. It seems to have had a permanent effect on her charisma. A tom came down the chimney a few weeks ago.” Khyrisse moved a bunch of Skitch’s comic books and offered Rani a seat. “This is what I get for letting a Shikinti anime dealership set up in town,” she sighed over the armful of comics, with a rueful grin for the psychometrist. “I don’t think my life used to be quite this cluttered...!”

“Your angst-to-stuff ratio’s gone down a lot,” Rani said, and sat. “None of my business which one you’ve adjusted, but it’s an improvement from my perspective.”

Khyrisse laughed, honestly startled.

***

“Will you not leave dishes out in the living room, please?”

“You have a spectral butler,” said Ebreth, unfazed. “Let him take care of it. Rani; what’s up?”

“What do you know about the Diari slave trade?” she said.

Ebreth blinked. “Well,” he said, “probably more than you’ll ever need to know, why?”

Rani smiled grimly. Bingo. “Because,” she said, “a man I know in Rimbor is involved with them. And if I know Tucson, this spells trouble.”

Interlude: These Days

“Oh yes, baby!” Roxy moaned. “Yes, give it to me, baby.” She writhed under the sheets. “God, I love you so much.”

The sheets fell away and Schneider saw that the man she was making love to was Ebreth Tor. “I love you, too,” Tor whispered in her ear.

“All right! That’s enough!” Duke Faraker stepped in front of Schneider, blocking his view of the scene. “There’s only so much self-flagellation I can put up with. Rise and shine, bucko.”



He sat bolt upright in bed and whacked his skull on the baseboard. Some days, Schneider thought, I wonder if I’m not still in the loony bin.

***

It was a humble start, but Carson Delaney was glad to have it.

His store, The GameMaster, was open for business again. Not only had the Madness well and truly trashed the place, but it had taken a long time for people to have attention to turn to pursuits like gaming again. He wasn’t projecting the shop to be out of the red for months yet. Carson was liked in New Lianth, though. Trusted, even. The illegal merchant’s guild--“capitalist community,” they called it, and kept it out of Randall Thrayn’s sight--was starting to turn him a profit. He’d scored with a local barfly half his age, which helped to assuage his mid-life crisis a bit. Maybe some opportunities would arise with this New Trade place up north. It had taken time, but Carson, like Lianth, was back up on his feet.

He stood as the bell over the door rang. Then his heart almost stopped beating when he recognized the short man who entered. “Hiya, Car,” said Stump. “Long time no see.”

Carson said nothing.

“Small world, huh? Come down to investigate some investment opportunities in the new burg and who do I find running the local merch guild but you.” Stump picked a deck of cards off the shelf and turned them in his hands. “These are marked, I trust?”

“There is no merchants’ guild in New Lianth,” Carson said. “Just individual entrepreneurs--I can’t speak for any of them but myself.”

“Please, that sounds so much stupider coming from you than from Randall Thrayn. And when he says it it sounds like bullshit.” Stump shuffled the cards up in a flamboyant bridge. “So seeing as how you’re the king of biz out here--sort of Lianth’s answer to the Scorpion--”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“Neither would I. I was trying to butter you up with bogus flattery. You’re the expert on that, tell me--how’d I do?” Carson was silent. “Anyhow, we noticed you and your friends ain’t done nothing yet in the way of security, and we might be willing to help out. You look like the guy in charge to me, so...” The halfling slid a piece of parchment across the counter.

Protection racket. Well, all right... I can live with that for a little while, maybe figure a way out of Stump’s grasp la-- Carson’s eyes bulged almost out of his head as he saw the terms, specifically labeled “non-negotiable” on the paper. “I--I don’t have this kind of cash!” Stump was placidly examining a wooden checkerboard. “Really, I don’t!” He sounded desperate now even to himself. “You’ve got to understand, most of my assets aren’t in gold, yet. It’s futures, real estate, goods... It’ll take time before I can raise the money. Can’t we cut a deal here?”

“That’s odd,” Stump said. “I don’t recall saying that how you acquired the payment was any concern of mine.” Carson Delaney was dumbstruck. “It’s a nice city you and your pals have built here. Be a shame if anything happened to it. Or to any of them. Be seeing you.”

***

Another night of insomnia. Schneider was usually too jittery to fall asleep easily. There had been a respite during his painfully brief reunion with Roxy, but that had died an uglier death than the things with Khyrisse and Cordelia combined.

His days were haunted by images of Flicker and Jane Sinclair. Schneider was so weary of carrying on the struggle of life, sometimes he just wanted to shrug and let it all go. But the two of them, his friends (and, somewhere in the back recesses of his mind, he knew they were only representatives of a larger group)--they believed in him. They cared, and he couldn’t stand the thought of letting them down. Schneider wanted to care too, but he had no idea about what.

Restless, he took a late-night walk through New Lianth. He walked past the town square, Shimel Park, Carson’s store, all newly rebuilt. Stone, resilient. People weren’t so lucky.

Schneider’s brooding was suddenly interrupted by the shouts of a struggle. He hurried to investigate, and found four thugs harassing David Winchester. David was the local glass-blower. Married, one child, a son, four. Schneider knew him from the informal town gatherings that had begun around Randall’s flute concerts. David was a good man, someone who deserved happiness. I won’t screw up and let that slip away from someone else... again. “Tell me boys, ever wonder what was the best thing before sliced bread?” The thugs looked up to see the visage of the Joker.

Oddly, though, they didn’t react with the fear Schneider’d come to expect from this role. They pushed David away, and he ran. None of them made a move to stop him. One of them brought a whistle to his lips and blew, but there was no sound. “Just the man we wanted to see,” said another. Then a dog materialized on top of Schneider from out of nowhere, and another, and the jester hit the pavement. He pointed to zap the wand of wonder he had absorbed into his body so long ago, but nothing happened.

“Hot damn,” said a woman’s voice from somewhere. “This was one bounty I thought we were never going to see.”

Then something struck him very hard in the side of the head, and the world faded to black.

***

Consciousness returned slowly. Through a haze, he heard voices.

“--what the Scorpion needs to know,” said a forceful man’s voice.

“I told you already,” said an unctuous one, “he’s just swimming in chaotic magic. If I took down the antimagic field to read his mind, he’d have a random chance of escaping every round.”

“Not a problem,” said a soft one. “I’ll have everything he knows inside the week.”

Schneider blinked away the vestiges of his concussion. He didn’t recognize two of the men, an elf in violet wizard robes and a thin human man with his fingers folded together, but the third was George Mahoney, noted Rimbor City wetman. “He’s up,” Mahoney remarked.

“Good morning,” smiled the elf. Schneider was, he noticed, chained to the wall. “I don’t suppose you want to save us some time and tell us why you interfered with our operations last year, Mr. Joker?”

“Because you’re slavers and you’re filth,” Schneider snarled as best he could. His jaw still ached.

“Cute attitude for a friend of Ebreth Tor’s,” commented Mahoney.

“Oh, you are so barking up the wrong tree here,” Schneider muttered. “Assface,” he added.

Mahoney shrugged. “You want to hang out with Weasel for the next few days, kid, it’s no skin off my dick. If I were you I’d be dropping the anti-slavery-zealot routine right about now and singing everything you’ve got on Tor and what your plans are for cutting in on the slave trade, though.”

“Are you crazy? I don’t want a piece of the slave trade! And I know nothing about that guy!”

“Pity,” Weasel said dryly, opening a box of vaguely dental-looking tools. “In that case it’s going to be very rough going for the both of us.” He paused, then added “But mainly you.”

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