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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 4

Interlude: The Wages From Sin

Peter walked into The GameMaster, his face lined with worry. “Hi, Carson.”

“Hey there, Pete. You look terrible. Something wrong?”

“Have you seen Tad recently?”

“Come to think... no, I haven’t.”

“He took his son out fishing a week ago and no one’s seen them since. Everyone’s afraid maybe there was some kind of accident at sea and...” He let the sentence fade away like a silently sinking ship.

Carson Delaney’s blood ran cold. He knew the Racents wouldn’t be coming back. He had ignored Mahoney’s demand for protection money--hadn’t had the money to pay off the gangster even if he’d wanted to--and now... now good people were dead.

I’m sorry, Tad, Carson thought, closing his eyes. He cursed the Scorpion and his minions, promised himself that they would pay for this if it was the last thing he did. When he opened his eyes, Tad Racent was still dead, and Carson Delaney was still powerless against the cancerous growth seeping out of Rimbor City into New Lianth.

Towards the Dawn of Nothing

“Owwwww,” moaned Rani, lolling her glittering head against Valende’s arm as consciousness dully reasserted itself. “What was that?”

“I think it’s an unstable wormhole,” said Garal, examining the sinister dark slash in the air. “When you messed with it, it caused a dimensional ripple, enough to throw you for a loop. It happens to low-level planeblazers sometimes.”

“A wormhole to the Negative Material Plane?” Rani said, and sat up from Val. “What the hell is that doing on Rimbor Island?”

“I don’t--think that’s NMP,” frowned the halfling, tracing the rift with long-practiced fingers. “There’s an unusual amount of negative energy there, certainly, but...”

“Is the Negative Material spreading into other planes?” Jack said uneasily.

“I understand! I understand!” yipped the Rat, pulling at Jack’s pant leg.

“Can you close this thing?” Rani wanted to know.

“Yes, but it’s an involved process. We’d better not till we know what’s going on.”

“I can seal it for the time being,” Val said. “That way no stoned kids’ll stumble into it.”

“Good call,” said Khyrisse. “Then we’d better get going. The Rat’s really getting impatient... mabye there are more of these around he wants to lead us to.”

“Multiple unstable wormholes?” Garal said dubiously. “That would be very strange.”

“Welcome to my life,” Rani told him. “Hang on while I recall Tor.” Her lavender eyes glassed, and then she tapped her temple, and then banged her hand hard on the throne arm. “Fuck, he’s dead.”

There was approximately a thirty-second pause. “Rani, dear,” said Val, “is there any way you could start phrasing things a little less--”

“From now on,” Rani interrupted her, “we do this the Rimbor City way. People leave the main group, they do it in pairs.”

***

Ebreth struggled his arm through the mire of swirling blacks. “Almost--I got it.” He pulled back the broken filigree. “Looks like, part of a signpost, maybe?”

Schneider squinted at it. “Can you read it?”

“I can barely see its edges. I think it’s made of gold.”

“Let me see it.” Schneider held it up to his face, and then he ran his fingers carefully across it. “L-C-O,” he spelled, slowly. “M-E-T-O-H. E-A-V-E-N.”

“Welcome to Heaven?” said Ebreth. “Are we dead?... Damn, that went fast.”

“This is Heaven?” Schneider looked around incredulously at the glittering darknesses and broken structures, grown over with some kind of fluorescent kudzu.

“It’s better than Hell,” Ebreth offered.

Dead or Alive

“Tor’s dead?” said a purple-haired woman from the doorway. “Cool. That was easy. Later.”

“What?” said Vickie. “Who the hell was that?”

“I understand,” the Rat said impatiently, and set about gnawing on an old joint butt.

“We won’t know for sure until we find him,” Mina said to Khyrisse. “He’s probably just lost.”

“Uh, what about her?” Vickie asked, gesturing after the woman wandering away. “Can we assume she’s evil and kick her ass? Whether Ebreth’s dead or not, she seemed awfully happy about it?”

“Ain’t no crime,” said Rani. “How are we doing with that wormhole?”

“I’m just about done warding it,” Val said. “Garal can close it for good once we know the rest of the story.”

His humanoid friends, noticed Seeker of Places, did an awful lot of talking.

“We should find Ebreth,” said Jack.

“Before someone disposes of the body,” added Rani.

“I don’t think he’s dead,” Khyrisse frowned.

“I was right about Asinus, wasn’t I?”

Khyrisse ignored her. “But I agree with Jack. We should find him before we do anything else.”

“Thank you,” objected the Rat, and presented the mathematician with the topological model he’d hastily chewed the weed into. The Rat wondered if there was any mouthwash in Jack’s satchel.

“Wow,” Jack said, impressed enough to set aside his concern for his missing friend and marvel at it. “It’s an approximate topological rendition of the cupula on the Cathedral of St. Exupery in Tobrinel!”

“The Rat wants us to go to Tobrinel?” Khyrisse frowned deeply at that prospect.

“Huh?” said Jack. “No, I doubt that... I mean, historically, the Rat doesn’t like to leave one location until he’s finished what he came for in the last one...”

“Then what could it mean?”

“Thank you,” squeaked the Rat, ran towards the door of the Pyramid and stopped, came back, and did it again. Hopefully they would get the hint and follow him.



“Well, fine,” Vickie moped. “The purple haired chick is gone now.”

“All she did was sound happy Tor was dead--” Rani started.

“He’s not dead!” Khyrisse and Mina both cried.

“--that’s no reason to crucify her,” finished Rani.

“I got the whimwhams from her. That’s enough reason for me,” Vickie said.

“I think she’s dreamy,” Marty offered.

“What?” demanded Mina.

“Definitely a point in her favor,” Rani said.

“Look, the purple hair chick is not a high priority,” said Khyrisse. “I can’t say I’m thrilled with Rimbor City punks rooting for m-- for Ebreth’s death, but I’m much more concerned about getting him back in one piece. Let’s do that, then follow the Rat, and then maybe we can worry about Purple Hair.”

“The Rat is being very insistent,” murmured Val. “Perhaps we could follow his lead first? I don’t really think Ebreth’s dead either.”

“He might be in danger,” Jack said. “I think we should find him before we do anything else.” The Rat chittered at the mathematician in hurt betrayal.

“Let’s split up,” shrugged Rani. “You guys deal with the dimensional crap, I’ll go track down the stiff. This is what I do for a living.” Khyrisse said something at her in Impish. “Sheathe the claws, chief. This is Ataniel, and dead’s not dead if I can find you a body.”

“I know,” said Khyrisse, and sighed. “I’m crabby because you’re completely ignoring me, Rani. I listen to your intuitions all day and all night.”

“I’m a high-level psionic detective!” said Rani. “Look, I don’t begrudge you a bit of blind optimism here, but I’m going with the likely theory till I get some evidence other than the gut feeling of a desperate girlfriend, okay?”

Valende cut in before Khyrisse could blow up. “Teams sound good,” she said. “If the Rat’s going to lead us to another rift like this, then Garal, Khyrisse and I should go with him.”

“I really only need one of you for backup,” said Rani.

“I’ll do it,” said Jack.

“I’d kind of been hoping for someone who could carry the body for me, skinny-legs.”

“Jack, you should come with us,” said Valende. “You understand the Rat best.”

“I’m going with Rani,” Jack said with unexpected assertiveness. Val blinked.

“Fine,” shrugged Rani. “Marty, you with?”

“Dude,” the young paladin beamed. “Did Doctor Watson carry bodies?”

“He did if he worked in Rimbor City.”

Fits and Starts

“Actually, there’s been quite a bit of Gilan activity in and around Cynystra in the last few months,” Shilree was saying, as the eight of them rode on for the Nylevian border. “I don’t know if that’s because they’re meddling with Cynystra more than the other human nations, or just because Cynystra’s better at catching them.” Flicker nodded. “If our countries weren’t practically still at war with each other I would have liked to share s--”

Shilree’s eyes rolled back in her head and she fell backward and right off her horse. She might have been trampled if Xiang hadn’t caught her up with his left arm in an impressive feat of horsemanship; Shilree didn’t even seem to notice.

Hsin dismounted and hurried over to attend to her. She didn’t look to be in pain, per se, but her jaw was clenched in an ugly way and she was twitching spastically. “Poison?” Flicker asked.

“It is more like...” Hsin hesitated, and then said “sz t’ang,” loosening her collar.

“Epilepsy,” Praxis translated. “It’s a nervous disorder. I might be able to help, but I--think I’d better wait till she recovers enough to give me permission, all things considered.”

Flicker nodded.

Xiang and Hsin held the Diarian firmly in place for a minute or two until her seizure passed. She blinked up at them woozily, too confused to even object to being restrained by near-strangers. “I--what happened?”

“You went into a fit, Shil,” said Flicker.

“But you are all right now,” added Hsin, patting her on the shoulder and releasing her.

She sat up, shuddering. “I was wrong.”

“Wrong about what?” frowned Flicker.

“Gila. I’m not responsible for their presence here on Ataniel.”

“I could have told you that,” said Praxis.

“No you don’t understand. I’m not responsible because they were here before I was even born.”

There was a pregnant pause. “You remembered more, then?” said Flicker.

Shilree just nodded, tired.

“Has this happened before?” Praxis asked.

“Once,” said Shilree, looking down.

“Epilepsy is not usually associated with memory,” mused the psionicist. “Perhaps something about the mental blocks Gila used, or maybe the information implant in the first place, short-circuited some of your neural pathways...”

“Todd, you’re geeking,” Inez said over her shoulder, with her quirky, low-key smile.

“Right,” he sighed. “I might be able to do something about this with psychic surgery, Shilree.”

“I’m afraid that if you did I might lose my access to this information,” Shilree said frankly. “I don’t want to sacrifice my sanity, but I--have to know this. If the fits get worse perhaps I will take you up on it Praxis. But for now... I will make do as best I can.”

Garbage Wars

The alley stunk of garbage and excrement. In other words, it smelled great.

The Rat didn’t really understand why his humanoid friends didn’t like this place.

“I understand!” he chirped over his shoulder at them, and zigzagged down the alley with the Pack following him cautiously. Seeker of Places wished Jack was there. The rodent could communicate a little with Khyrisse, but she didn’t have the mathematician’s patience and so she gave up on his attempts to bridge the communication gap too easily. She’d already stopped thinking about the cupula he’d carved for them, for instance. Jack would still be brainstorming about it. But Jack seemed to be worried about Ebreth for some reason. The Rat didn’t understand why, for the big human had left the group cheerfully and under his own power. But then the humanoids were often strange.

“I understand!” he repeated, lifting one little paw to ‘point’ at a large pile of rotting garbage some thoughtful human had dumped in the middle of the alley.

“Ew,” said Skitch, scrunching his face up.

“There are... strange emanations coming from that garbage,” frowned Khyrisse, coming closer to peer at it with the butterfly outline of her true seeing flaring to life around her eyes.

“Why...” Valende joined her, squinting in surprise. “I sense traces of... a human soul?”

“In the garbage?” said Skitch.

“Dammit, I wish Rani was here,” said Khyrisse.

That was when the mound of rotting foodstuffs attacked.

Where to Find a Good Vichyssoise in Rimbor City

“Brother,” muttered Rani, and sent a small rock skittling with the toe of her boot. “I’ll be straight with you, Jack: if Tucson hit him, there may not be a body. Organized crime doesn’t leave evidence lying around.”

Jack nodded. “We need to know what happened to him,” he said. “Either way.”

“I’m already on it. I don’t leave cases.” She was, of course, the first of the three of them to sense the presence behind them, but as she turned he stepped out of the alley and into the gaslight, casting a long shadow through the sickly yellow and into the Rimbor twilight, and he neither fled her recognition nor moved to attack. He was carrying a walking stick, and his hood obscured his face.

“Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” the figure said.

“No,” said Rani, her shoulders tensing. “And I’m about as clean as they come in this town, and I doubt either of these boys so much as jaywalks, so you must have the wrong--”

“You are friends of Ebreth Tor’s?” His voice was soft and dangerous.

“Well,” Rani started, “I don’t think--”

“Yes,” said Jack.

“Do you know where he is?” said Marty, eagerly.

Rani hit herself in the forehead.

“You are honest,” said the crimefighter. “I admire that in a man. Where is he now?”

“Missing, presumed dead,” said Rani. “So I’d change my focus to a Mr. John Tucson if I were you.”

“I am aware of the Scorpion situation,” he said softly, and then over her head to Jack and Marty, “Where is he?”

“We don’t know,” said Jack.

“We’re, like, looking for him, scary hood dude,” said Marty. “Are you Octavian? Can I have your autograph?”

“Marty, stop being a git,” snapped Rani. “Look, sir, we’re just trying to find out what happened to him, and if he’s dead, we need his body back. I’ve got his girl friend on ice back there. Whatever’s happening here, Tor’s not in on any of it. I just brought him out here today. Jack, vouch for me.”

“I know that,” Octavian interrupted. “I must speak with him.”

“Well, then, unless you know something we don’t,” muttered Rani, “I hope you’re a cleric.”

“Whoa, so wait,” said Marty, “if he’s not dead, are you going to kill him? Cause he’s, like, my sensei, and I can’t let you kill him, even if you are a good vichyssoise.”

“Vigilante,” said Rani, half-patiently.

“I kill no one,” said the cloaked crimefighter. “The evil and cowardly destroy themselves. I only permit myself to be used as the instrument of their self-destruction.”

“So... are you going to kill him or not?” said Marty, his brow furrowing.

“Don’t strain your brain, Hu.” Rani tapped her boot on the sidewalk. “Listen, the one you want to find is Khyrisse Starshadow. She’s out in the city somewhere trying to deal with whatever weird dimensional shit is going down. We’re just trying to track down a contact I dragged all the way out here and lost, and it’s probably a wild goose chase. Go help the heroes out. There’s nothing to see here.”

“These streets are mine,” said Octavian, “and it is your story, not Ms. Starshadow’s, that concerns me. Are you coming? We have a scorpion to crush.”

“We’re--just trying to find our friend,” said Jack, confused.

“You will.” Octavian struck his walking stick on the sidewalk twice, firmly, and turned left into the alley without looking back to see if they were following.

“God, I hate guys like this,” Rani muttered, and detoured after him.

Some Days We All Need Less Imagination

“Oh, yuck!” cried Mina, dodging a creature made out of slimy lettuce, the kind that looks okay but smells bad and is coated with xanthine.

“Sympathetic anthropomorphic animation!” cried Valende. “This sort of thing can happen if a living soul is left too close to inanimate matter for a long time...”

“So wait,” Vickie said, “should we not kack it?”

“Kack it! Kack it!” Mina cried as a pile of moldy cookies reached up for her.



Skitch looked at the shambling mounds of rotting garbage, down at his new tunic, and back up at the garbage creatures.

“This looks like a job for, uh, someone else,” he said, and moved behind Khyrisse.



“Look out for the turkey!” yelled Orlen as the disgusting fly-ridden remains of someone’s roast from a few nights ago leapt up and splatted into Kingfisher’s face.

“Master, I’m sure you have a purpose for me being here at this moment, as you do for everything,” the avatar-in-training muttered. “I just fail to see it right now.”



“You know,” Mina said to Khyrisse as they prepared their spells to lob at the animate foodstuff, “I had this dream last night.”

“Prophetic?” asked Khyrisse.

“Nope,” said Mina. “It was about us adventuring, but instead of weird customized undead and living garbage, we were fighting these--oh, what was their name?--these pig-like beings, humanoid, kind of like big goblins.”

“Really? What were their powers?”

“They didn’t have any!” Mina said happily. “There were just lots of them, and everyone used them as minions, and they were really really boring.”

“Sounds nice,” sighed Khyrisse, casting burning hands at the eye-riddled potatoes menacing Garal. Mina shot her magic missiles at the cookie monster, who crumbled.

“Orcs, they were called,” Mina remembered. “We fought lots of orcs.”

“Sounds like a nice dream.”

Can’t Get To Heaven With A Silver In Your Jeans, Cause The Lord Don’t ‘Low No Slot Machines

“I’m not sure which is more unbelievable, Eight, that we’re here together in Heaven, or that the place is so lame.”

“Whatever you say, Zero.”

“I thought it was Three.”

“You got demoted.”

“What do you, roll a d10 every mor--” Schneider suddenly disappeared from Ebreth’s view with a curse and a loud crash.

“Where are you?” said the pirate, looking around in the gloom.

“I’m down here and I’m fine, thank you,” Schneider said less than convincingly as he fumbled out of a ditch in the velvet-black folds of ground, trying to replace the mask that had fallen off.

“What happened to your face?”

“Well, funny thing is, some people had some questions for me, and they didn’t believe me when I told them I didn’t have the answers. Seems Mr. Scorpion is a wee bit paranoid about people infringing on his turf.” He tried to say it flippantly, but Ebreth could see that the jester was trembling. “The real killer is, one of the people he especially suspects is you.”

“He’s extremely mistaken.”

“I’ll be sure to pass that on.”

Uncomfortable, Ebreth chose to take the flimsy attempt at bravado his nemesis was trying to keep up at face value. “I didn’t realize you were pushing on wounded,” he said, though it looked like the jester’s injuries had already healed into scars. “Should we stop and rest? I don’t have any healing.”

“I’ll make it,” Schneider cemented their mutual lie. If he was grateful for the cover, he didn’t show it, but it had to be better than an admission of weakness between two men who couldn’t stand each other. Ebreth didn’t feel like bonding, and it was obvious the jester didn’t either. “Come on, let’s get the Heaven out of here.”

Rude She May Be, But There’s No One You Want On The Case More

-Aaaaaah!- yelled Skitch, mentally. -Get out of my brain, you stinky sranjhac!-

-Your accent sucks, kid. Tell Khyrisse I’ve got news for her, if she’ll take down the mind blank.-

-Don’t pollute my mom’s brain either, cootie-butt. Go talk to Vickie or someone.-

-I’m so sure Vickie cares what happened to Tor. Look, put me through to your mother or I’ll have Mina do it, and you’ll be one sorry little brat.-

The line went silent, and Rani cut the connection, tapped her boot on the floorboards for a minute, and then opened to Khyrisse. -Got some good news for you, boss. We still haven’t found Tor, but there’s no word out on anyone offing him, either, and underworld types don’t keep these things to themselves. Even better, he was last seen with your boy Schneider.-

There was silence on the line.

-So the odds are decent they just left the plane together.- Rani frowned, and tapped her temple. -Hello, are you there?-

-Oh, Grendel,- whimpered Khyrisse’s mental voice.

-What is the matter with you?- demanded Rani. -I tell you I think he’s dead and you’re all ‘La la la’. I tell you I think he’s alive and I’ve got you half in tears. Is today opposite day or something?-

-I’m okay,- she thought, strangled, -I’m all right. What--else have you learned?-

-More than you ever need to know about John Tucson. We’re working with Octavian. You know, the vigilante?-

-You... and Jack... and Marty... are working with a vigilante.-

-Don’t get me started. The boys decided to tell him our whole sob story. You wish men came with muzzles sometimes, don’t you? ...Listen, I’ve got to get going. You’re too high-level for me to keep this up long. Take an Alleve or something, okay? Things are looking up. Two missing people are a lot more likely to be alive somewhere than one missing person. And I’m on it. Rani out.-

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