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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 3

Friends, and a Plan

Flicker gave the very preoccupied-looking Shilree a hand down from the Trade Coach. Khyrisse’s people had built a depot here since last he visited, a graceful open-air structure the carriages could pull in and out of that offered a little shelter from the elements. It was drizzling now, just a bit. “There’s no coach line to New Gila,” he said, “but we can take one as far as Eyria, at least.”

Shilree nodded, her eyes far away.

“By the way,” said Flicker, “if we’re going to be invading New Gila and battling mindflayers, it would probably be--” A little less suicidal? “--wise, to bring a competent party along with us.”

“Hmm?” Shilree blinked, and looked at her friend. “Oh, a party... Well frankly Sunny, I respect Khyrisse a lot but her Rat Pack just does not have the kind of subtlety we will need on this mission.”

He shook his head. “Khyrisse’s team is on an adventure now anyway,” he said. “But I contacted some friends I think could help us.”

“Oh? Who is that?”

A tall man in a trenchcoat finished crossing the station to them, trailed by a cool-looking woman in samurai armor. “Hi,” Flicker said to them, over Shilree’s head. Shilree turned around, and a complicated emotion skittered across her still-red eyes: embarrassment, unease, but more than anything else, relief. “Praxis,” she said, and then as an afterthought, “Inez.”

“My deepest condolences on your loss, Shilree,” said Praxis. He looked sad.

“We’re ready to go,” Inez added.

***

Praxis introduced Flicker and Shilree to his backup team and they took the next coach for Eyria together. Flicker had met three of them at the Order of Redemption last year: the chipmunk-cheeked young sorceress Hou-Hsieh and the warriors Shaolin and Xiang. There was also an older priest Flicker didn’t know, named Shuyang Hsin. They all seemed solid enough, and Flicker was relieved to have at least a cleric along in addition to his three old friends.

Shilree was telling the others about her recent misadventure with Gila in flat tones, omitting most of the details. Even so her pain at being mentally violated was obvious. “Anyway,” she said, looking out the window at the scenery whizzing by, “what I learned was something very disturbing.”

She took a red gem out of her trade pouch. Flicker’s face betrayed none of his reaction. Praxis frowned at it, and said “That’s not--”

“--the Gem of Souls,” finished Shilree, “but it can’t capture souls anymore. It has some... different properties now. I’ve been calling it the Gem of Dimensions.” She placed the ruby point down on her knee and spun it. It stayed in place there. Above the gem a multicolored, almost hallucinogenic image appeared: a dark green throbbing sphere, and near that a long purplish gash, quivering and quaking with the sphere’s throbbing. “This is a map of the dimensional substructure of Ataniel around the Doomlands. The green ball is the Gilan gateway to their homeworld. The purple tear is the Doomfissure.” Shilree paused, swallowed, then continued. “After Gila released me I fell into the Doomfissure and came face to face with legend. Shalak the first and greatest of the Lich Lords.”

Shaolin and Hsin made signs to ward off evil. The Shikinti knew the stories of Shalak as well as the Diari.

“I... do realize he is not necessarily the most trustworthy of sources, but I have spent months double-checking the information he gave me and I believe him to be correct. And after all even Wyvern gave us correct information when it suited him.” Shilree sighed. “The Gilan gateway is destabilizing the Doomfissure. If the portal is not shut down the fissure will reach resonance with the gateway.”

“Then what?” asked Hsin.

Shilree clapped her hands and the image exploded in light. The gem flickered out and fell from her knee to the Carriage floor. “Then the Doomlands and a good deal of southern Shikintu and northern Cynystra will be vaporized along with New Gila.” Shilree cleared her throat. “I was, uh, planning on sending an expedition to deactivate the gateway later this year,” she said, “since the Doomfissure isn’t likely to explode for at least three years and I have a lot on my plate. But New Gila’s recent operations have convinced me that the gateway should be destroyed sooner rather than later. This month they assassinated the High Priestess of the Church of Pysyri and came close to killing our Lord High Emperor as well. I--would be lying if I didn’t tell you this was also very personal for me. The High Priestess was my fiancée. I want to prevent the resonance, I want to protect Diaria from more Gilan interference, and I want revenge. This is a dangerous mission, and I understand if you don’t want to come with me.”

“It sounds as if our lands, too, are endangered by this resonance,” offered Xiang. “Surely our cooperation on this matter can only help us all.” The others nodded their assent.

“There--is one other thing.” Shilree looked down, flushed. “Before she died Anjra removed many of the mental blocks Gila placed on me when I was their prisoner. I have been recovering memories of Gila. Of their history, and of their plans.”

“I might be able to help with that,” Praxis said quietly.

Shilree shook her head. “When Gila flooded my mind with all this the first time it nearly drove me mad. I’d prefer not to push it. If I need help Praxis, you will be the first person I come to.”

Praxis blinked, unable to hide his surprise at that statement of faith. “I’ll be there,” he said. “Are the Iron Tyrants doing anything about this Rift resonance?”

“I’m not sure,” Shilree admitted. “They may not know about it, or else losing the Dark Islands may mean less to them than losing the portal. Whichever they plan to give up, I suspect their recent attacks against Diaria are meant to give them a new base of operations before that happens. And I intend to sever their transportation lines before they can accomplish that.”

Praxis looked at Inez, looked at Flicker and nodded. “Then I’m in,” he said. “Let’s give these guys what-for.”

Seeds in Fertile Soil

Mina had been pensive most of the trip, and when Ebreth disembarked to go off on his reconnaissance, she took the opportunity to scramble up to the driver’s board with Khyrisse. “And you’re sure you want to use these contacts?” Khyrisse was frowning at the pirate.

“I don’t see why not. I had to go to Hell for the things that guy did. I have to put up with his notoriety everywhere we go. I think I’ve earned the right to exploit it now and then.” Ebreth swung from the driver’s board to the Carriage step. “I’ll meet you at the Pyramid-O-Rama when I know what the word is underground.”

“Stay here with the nice rat,” Khyrisse paraphrased, eyes twinkling.

“Something like that.” He hoisted up a bit to give her a kiss as she leaned down the side of the Carriage. “Be good in there this time.”

She thwacked at him, grinning, and he dropped to the cobbles, raised his hand at the group in a waving salute, and disappeared down the streets of Rimbor City.

Mina watched him go, a faint, strange smile on her lips, and then turned to Khyrisse. “I don’t mean to be challenging, but why did we come here? I mean, you have important stuff to be doing, I know... so why us?”

“Well, Rani and the Rat both think it’s important,” shrugged Khyrisse, whipping the spectral horses back into motion. “I trust their hunches, mostly. The Rat Pack is good at ‘dangerous and weird but unspecified’--we’ve got a broad range of skills and experience, and some very powerful people if we need them.” Khyrisse gave a little grin. “And personally, I really needed a break. I want to kick something’s butt before I’m not allowed to anymore, and Rimbor has never failed to provide that.”

Mina looked confused. “So we’re primarily doing this for personal reasons?”

“S...ort of,” said Khyrisse. “I mean that’s part of it. But the real answer is probably this: two of our teammates are concerned about something, and that makes it worth checking out.” Khyrisse shrugged. “It doesn’t hurt that one of them is the Rat, who’s never been wrong before. We have... a rather unique early warning system.”

“Then basically we’re automatic support for each other on any adventuring endeavor?”

“I think so, yes.” Khyrisse smiled at Mina, remembering her own early days as an adventurer. “The personal reasons come into play when we see who’s available to help. Some of us are too busy with other things. Flicker, Asinus, Tarrin. Others are very busy, like Garal and myself, but for personal reasons we put that aside to come along anyway. But the underlying reason--is that our teammates think there might be a problem and asked us along to help.”

Mina was nodding. “But what about people who don’t know adventurers? How do they get the help they need? I mean, I know I can count on you guys, but before I met you, I wouldn’t have known what to do in a situation that needed heroes.”

“Well, there... used to be a beacon in the Mithril Dagger that would signal when heroes were needed. It was destroyed during the Madness, though.” Khyrisse sighed. “People just find whoever they can, I guess. The Rat Pack went to Salagia when Alphred sought us out and asked for our help saving the jungle. The Sewer Tour had several adventures with people who found us and asked us to help, too.”

“So at this point, it’s all sort of done by chance,” Mina said thoughtfully.

“‘Fraid so, kiddo.” Khyrisse chuckled apologetically.

“Are our services going to be offered through New Trade? Old Trade had a heroes guild, right?”

“We did,” Khyrisse said. “I’d rather not, though. There might be a day when the Rat Pack has to do something as private individuals that would be frowned upon politically.”

Mina nodded like things had fit together. “Yeah. It’d be a problem if the needs of New Trade and our conscience didn’t gel.”

“Not to mention,” said Khyrisse, “I don’t want to be responsible for the behavior of everyone in the group. I wouldn’t want to limit Rat Packers to my own agenda... and I wouldn’t want to catch political flak for the ones I couldn’t control even if I wanted to. Ariath was a Rat Packer, after all. I wouldn’t want New Trade to suffer because she turned out to be evil...!”

“Then heroes are sort of an independent pool of good people,” Mina summarized, “who can be called upon to help out in any dangerous or potentially dangerous situation by their friends and colleagues, or even by anybody else in trouble if that person knows how to find them and can convince them the trouble is serious enough.”

“That’s how I like to think of myself,” Khyrisse smiled.

The younger sorceress seemed satisfied, and conversation turned to the seven worst ways to die and other girl things.

But her words stayed in Mina Paris’ head.

Houston, We Have A Problem

Schneider fled lurchingly through the back alleys of Rimbor City.

His bag had still been sitting on the front counter of Weasel’s workshop. His weapon had not been in plain sight, and Schneider hadn’t dared take the time to search for it.

Schneider still had no idea what had happened to Weasel, either. The torturer was alive and then he was dead. Or so he assumed, anyway. It was all very sudden, and Schneider hadn’t dared take the time to check the body, much as he desperately wanted to be sure his tormentor really wouldn’t be following him. He hadn’t taken the time to change his bloodstained shirt, nor to heal his abused face. He had taken the few minutes to shuffle through his pack and affix his red metal facemask to his head with his shaking hands, and then he hadn’t stopped running since.

Schneider leaned against an alley wall, gasping, to catch his breath. He could feel blood running down his face, and his head felt light. Hold up, nimnol! Tila’s voice hollered at him. Jeez, are you just going to run around in circles till you pass out and somebody hauls your ass in? How useless is that?

Tal helps those who help themselves, Jane added with a disdainful sniff.

Even the friendliest of his voices weren’t offering the jester much kindness in his current state, but they had a point. Schneider stopped and wedged himself in behind a dumpster, his heart thudding in panic, found his dagger of healing and stabbed it into himself repeatedly until it had no charges left. The pain receded, and his head cleared a bit. Rimbor City. How was he going to get out of Rimbor City? Anyone from a street urchin to a cop could be working for the Scorpion. The only person in the damn city Schneider might have trusted at this point was Octavian, and the vigilante didn’t show.

Then he remembered his unknown rescuer. Schneider had seen no more than an outline. “I cannot... remain long...” his voice had whispered. “...Tell... Rat Pack...”

There were two people on the face of Ataniel Schneider wanted to see less than Khyrisse Starshadow right now, and one of them, he hoped, was dead.

Still, the man who had saved him from a fate worse than death had told him to find the Rat Pack. Schneider didn’t know if he was finishing the rescue by directing him to safety (had Khyrisse really cared enough to send someone to save him, some lonely part of his brain hoped?) or asking a favor of him, but either way he should put aside his magnified insecurities and do as his rescuer requested.

Schneider dug into his bag after his magic mirror.

Khyrisse herself was someplace shielded by magic. So were Val and Vas. Flicker was in Diaria. It had been worth a shot. Skitch was wherever his mother was. Jack Paris didn’t register at all.

Schneider didn’t remember who the hell else was part of this group anymore. He sighed raggedly and looked for Eight. Just his luck, the pirate was the one who showed up, sitting in a Rimbor tavern. Alone. And looking patently unaware that there were crazed killers in town who wanted to get at him bad enough that they were torturing vague acquaintances of his for information on him.

Schneider sighed harder and adjusted his mask a bit twitchily. Maybe, if he could find Eight before the goons did, he’d know where Khyrisse was, and they could reach her and escape to New Trade before either of them got their balls handed to ’em.

Schneider could hope.

***

The Rimbor City Roadside Pyramid-O-Rama was deserted. Rani picked up a joint butt. “Periodic hangout for a local gang,” she surmised. “More of a rave spot than a rumble one.”

“The Rat,” said Khyrisse. “That’s who I forgot to add to my list of people with stupid cults. The Rat.”

“Does Marty count?”

“Dude! Do you want me to collect all this marijuana as evidence?”

“Leave it, Marty. It’s been in the mouths of Rimbor City gang kids.” Rani looked around the room with an introspective eye. “There’s something--strange here.”

“An ancient Mithril Dagger Hero questing for lichdom who inexplicably left his talisman with a cult of stoned rat-worshipping teenage trainee assassins for safekeeping?” Khyrisse suggested.

“No, I mean really strange.” She moved uneasily across the room, her hands raising reflexively as if to feel her way through a dark and cluttered room, and then she saw it, behind the gaudy throne and a few paces to the left: a pulsing tear-shaped rift of blackness, into which the light was bending. “Holy shit,” said Rani.

***

Ebreth sat asymmetrically across two chairs, waiting for Red Sahan. Marina had known only some sociopolitical stuff in which Ebreth Tor was no longer much interested. John Tucson, the Scorpion, had almost complete control of the Rimbor City slave trade, and was working both on taking over the rest of the Rimbor underworld and consolidating international power into his Slavers’ Guild, doing better at the former than the latter at this point, in Ebreth’s professional opinion, but he did have to give the guy credit: he was a high-stakes player. Even that first Ebreth Tor would never have gone after both at once.

The man who came into the back room of the Rusty Nail was not, however, Red Sahan. Ebreth stood up. “Eight,” said Schneider, raggedly. He looked a little the worse for wear and was clutching a mirror in his white-knuckled left hand. “You’re in great danger here. We have to--”

The room seemed to distort somehow.

“--said to tell the Rat Pack--”

The sounds of fighting were coming, suddenly, from the previously empty tavern.

“--Khyrisse--”

There was an explosion of darkness. Ebreth Tor was still getting up somehow. “John, no!” screamed Rani’s voice.

And then they were--somewhere else.

Schneider and Ebreth looked at each other in the eerie purple light. The landscape was folded in on itself and glowing with twisted tendrils of fluorescence as far as the eye could see, which was strangely far, given how layered the air was in darkness and how little detail passed through it.

“This is your fault,” both said, simultaneously and reflexively.

***

“John, no!” screamed Rani, and tore her hand back from the pulsing tear of darkness like it was incredibly difficult to do. She went crashing back into the Rat Throne and collapsed. The blackness flashed and was still.

“Rani?” Val hurried to her limp, still form. “Rani!”

Garal and Jack stood together, staring at the dark stain across the air.

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