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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 5

Scorpion’s Nest: Dog Eat Dog

Pepe slipped through the alleys of Rimbor City in his jackal form.

The feral dogs of the port city were a hell of a lot bigger than he was, but once Pepe demonstrated that he was capable of shapeshifting into a human and throwing bricks at them they left him alone. And most people in the city couldn’t be bothered with a small and scrawny canine, and the ones that could were usually homeless people Pepe had little difficulty scaring off. So the jackalwere was quite used to passing through the meanest streets of Ataniel unmolested, and his Curse--Pepe considered it more of an Opportunity--made him an unparalleled courier of information and small items.

Today, Pepe had a small item.

He’d found it lying around in the trash heap under the Mystic Irene’s window. That meant it was probably something the seer didn’t want anymore. If it was just out of charges or something, she would have sold it to the Mage’s Guild for scrap. Irene was a miserly old dame. But she didn’t like trouble, and Pepe figured she might have divined the bloodstone orb to be more of that than it was worth. She could be right, too; the garbage pile had tried to engulf Pepe when he picked it up, and he was pretty sure that was a new behavior on its part. But trouble paid well, and Pepe planned on delivering his find to a Black Artist name of Mandé in the southside. Black Mandé was always looking for power, and could handle consequences. And something about this piece was making Pepe think it had both in spades.

He never got to find out, though. He was halfway between Sixth and Stone when someone decided to take an interest in a scrawny yellow dog after all. The blow to the back of his head wasn’t hard enough to paste the jackal entirely and revert him to his human form, but it did send him skidding across the alley and into the brick wall. Pepe smelled blood.

He was trying to decide whether to make a break for it or go human and try to defend himself when it struck him again and Pepe realized this was no weapon but some kind of telekinetic attack.

The last thing he saw as he faded out of consciousness was the bloodstone spheroid rolling from his slender jaw and down into the gutter.

Have You Seen This Tor?

“So, are you, like, Javert?” asked Marty.

“No comment,” sighed Octavian.

“Look, pal,” Jack said to Red Sahan, who Rani had found and Octavian had tied to the chair in the back of the tavern. “Word on the, uh, street is that you were meeting with Ebreth Tor.”

“What if I was?” said Sahan. “It’s not a crime or anything.”

“Noyarc,” Marty guessed.

“No comment.”

“Well, he’s missing now. What do you have to say to that?” Jack demanded.

“Oops?” Sahan smiled. “I didn’t do it?”

“Look, you big jerk!” screamed Jack. “You tell me where he is right now or I’ll, uh...”

“Hm?”

“I’ll tell everyone that you’re really a good guy. Then all your friends will distrust you and you’ll be a big target.”

“All my friends already distrust me, kid,” said Red Sahan. “And why would they believe you anyway?”

“Ebreth Tor.”

“What?” Jack looked up. It was just Marty.

“No, I am not Ebreth Tor,” Octavian sighed.

“Hah! That limits my search!”

“Oh, for--” Rani pinched the bridge of her nose. “Marty, shut up. Octavian, you should be ashamed of yourself. Jack, take a deep breath and count to a million or something. Sahan, smile for the camera.” She put her six-fingered hand on the side of the racketeer’s head.

“Why a million?”

“Do it, Paris.”

“I already did.”

“Just give your amazing interrogation skills the rest of the minute off, all right? And calm the hell down. Screaming at people never improves anything.”

“I beg your pardon?” coughed Octavian.

She looked like she was going to retort, but wound up grinning instead. “Well, I should know,” she pointed out, and took Red Sahan’s throat in her other glove. “Okay, buddy, this is going to be half my PSPs right here, so you’d better know something good or I’m going to have to borrow a body part for the duration. Where is Ebreth Tor?”

There’s A Hole In Heaven Where Some Sin Slips Through

“Look at this,” said Schneider, running his hands across the darkness like a mime. There was, Ebreth thought, something there: some kind of smoked-glass shadow in the blackness. It was amazing how the eyes got used to the dark. “Like a--window, or something.”

“What’s on the other side?”

“I don’t see anything.” Schneider squinted. “I see something that looks like an ugly chair.”

“Closest we’ve come to a sign of life yet. Let me see.” Ebreth put his hand to the smoky substance. It was warm to the touch. He could see the outline of a large room through it, in which nothing seemed to be moving. The ugly chair looked familiar. “The Pyramid,” he said. “This is the Pyramid the Rat was leading Jack and Khyrisse to.”

“It’s a portal back to Rimbor?” said Schneider. “Try pushing through it.”

Ebreth already was, but though his hands went through the soft rift with minimal pressure, they refused to come out the other side. He pushed harder, to no better effect. “It’s sealed off.”

“Let me try.” Ebreth stood back and crossed his arms as the jester strained. He gave up soon enough. “I think the seal is magical,” he said. “I’ll try casting my dispel on it.”

“Just offhand,” said Ebreth, “this is where the Rat Pack was headed. If there’s a magic seal there Khyrisse or Valende probably cast it and you aren’t going to have a prayer of dispelling it.”

“You using that pessimism, Eight? I could use a light.”

The spell fizzled.

The grim pleasure that Ebreth took from being right was very small consolation.

The Continuing Interrogation of Red Sahan

Rani paused a long moment and then slapped Red Sahan across the face, hard.

“What is it?” said Jack. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said, through gritted teeth. “Doing that just gives me a fucking headache. You could have just told me what you knew, asshole.”

“Oh, that’s the way to survive in Rimbor City,” smirked the racketeer.

“When you’re outnumbered and tied to a chair it sure as hell is.” Rani massaged the bridge of her nose. “Dickwad here believes Tor and the jester went through some rift that flashed open back here.”

“Wait, does ‘Dickwad’ have, like, one ‘k’ or two?”

“Marty, why don’t you interrogate Octavian some more, okay?”

“Whoa, okay. Are you, like, Princess Nikita?”

“Another rift like the one in the Pyramid?” Jack said, frowning. “Did this guy suck them in intentionally?”

“Beats the hell out of me,” she said. “I don’t have the power for a second scan unless you have the nap spell on you. I’m not really a telepath, Paris.”

“I’m not really a planeblazer,” Jack admitted. “There’s definitely some dimensional wonkiness in here, but I think we’re going to need Garal to find it.”

“Let’s bring Sahan back to the Mansion for questioning,” decided Rani. “Orlen can get everything we need out of him in--” Her jaw dropped as she turned back to the racketeer, who was gone, the ropes dangling slackly from the chair. There was no sign of Octavian. “Fuck! Marty, I thought you were watching them!”

“Whoa,” said Marty, wide-eyed. “Maybe he’s Lamont Cranston.”

All Things in Heaven and Hell

“What did he do to you, anyway?”

Schneider flinched like Ebreth had struck him and snapped “Who?”, way too defensively. Ebreth cleared his throat awkwardly. “The, uh, other guy,” he clarified. “Last Ebreth Tor. I don’t have any memories of you from him or anything.”

“Oh.” Schneider relaxed enough to give the pirate a gimlet eye from the shaded depths of his mask. “Nothing you didn’t do to a thousand other kids, I’m sure. I had a job in a hobgoblin mine when I was twelve. The interview for the position was conducted by some of your mooks, and it wasn’t exactly cleared by the Better Business Bureau.”

That would probably have happened whether the first Ebreth Tor had been in charge or not, and Ebreth actually opened his mouth to tell Schneider so. Now you’re just getting pathetic, Tor. If the guy tells you the sky is blue, are you going to say “Fuck you, it’s green”? Of course he was to blame for it. Get a grip. “He spent nine years in Hell,” he offered instead, “if it makes you feel any better.”

“Not really,” said Schneider.

Ebreth Tor shrugged.

Men Without Souls

“I don’t see what the rush is,” Rani said plainly. “If he was dead I’d stay up all night and look for the body so you’d have a better chance of resurrecting him. If John captured him I’d stay up all night trying to rescue him. But he just went to another dimension. And it’s not Hell, either; Jack had me check. I’m totally out of PSPs, I’m tired, it’s eleven-fuckin’-thirty, and no offense, but after that thing with the living garbage, you guys could really use baths. We know where he is now, and there’s no reason to think he’s in any danger at all. Why not pack it in for the night and pick him up in the morning?”

Khyrisse shuddered a little. Please, please let them be sane enough not to hurt each other, she begged every dead ex-colleague she could think of. “All right,” she relented, with an aggravated sigh. “I can’t believe I thought this was going to be a vacation.”

“Did you guys learn anything, besides what happens when dairy products really go bad?”

“Well, I can’t be certain,” said Valende cautiously, “but I think the, uh, garbage monsters may have been spontaneously animated by contact with a living soul. In fact, I wonder if that wasn’t what the Rat was trying to indicate with the Cathedral of St. Exupery.”

“A soul?” frowned Rani.

“He should have made an approximate topological rendition of Aretha Franklin,” chuckled Vas.

“Thank you,” the Rat looked up from grooming himself to comment.

“Could it be Tucson’s, do you think?” Khyrisse pondered. “Who took his soul in the first place, Rani?”

“He doesn’t know,” said Rani. “Or didn’t at the time, anyway.”

Scorpion’s Nest: Souls Lost At Sea

Seven years ago:

The Being (he had a name, but it was unpronounceable) had lived on his islet off the coast of Brytannwch for many, many years. Then one day he got something he’d never had before. A visitor.

The human teenager washed up on the beach cold, wet, and dead. The islet wasn’t a bad place to live, but the birds and seals weren’t very good conversationalists, so the Being revived his visitor, who sat up with a groan. “Ugh,” coughed the human. “Feels like I swallowed the ocean.”

“Almost. Welcome. What is your name, young sir?”

“Tucson,” he said, looking at the Being curiously. “John Tucson. The ship I was on was caught in a storm. I remember... thinking I was going to drown...”

“You did. I brought you back.”

“Really? Who are you?”

“My name is rather long. Call me what you wish. Are you aware that you are lacking a soul?”

“I... believe you’re right. Are you Monas Lucifer?”

“Hardly,” the Being chuckled. “Just a stranded traveler. And it has been a long time since I’ve had anyone to talk to.”

John was an interested audience, and the Being spent all morning, afternoon, and night telling the boy his story. He finished with his ignominious defeat at the hands of the Bryttani sorcerer Padraig MacLir and the clan Dogherty, and how it had left him stranded on this lonely southern islet.

“You have a boat,” John pointed out. “Why don’t you sail to the mainland?”

“I cannot. It is my curse. But... I would be willing to let you have it.”

“In return for?” he asked, a bit suspicious.

“Ha! You and I are truly of like minds. But no, you have given me pleasant company for a day. The ship is yours without obligation. All I ask of you--and merely as a favor, for I have no way of ensuring it--is that you wreak vengeance on the Dogherty clan for me.”

“Consider it done,” John Tucson smiled. Rimbor City, the present day:

Coomara wandered out of the swirling mists and into the Rimbor night. Some squatters were huddled around a burning tire, drinking patently inferior hooch. They took one look at him and bolted in terror. The green-haired mariner frowned and looked over his shoulder. The end of his fishtail was protruding from his mackintosh. It wasn’t much of a disguise, Coomara conceded.

He was from another plane himself, but had lived off the coast of Brytannwch for so long that he got to thinking of that as his true home. Then, without warning, home was gone. There had been one wee islet left, its complex illusory shields meaningless to the supernatural water spirit, but on it were only two unfriendly exiles, a Being on the west cliffs that ignored him and a woman in a cottage to the southeast who threw potatoes at him. So Coomara circled the spot in the ocean where the Emerald Isle had been one last time, and then returned to Tirnanog.

He was sorely disappointed by the homecoming, though. Coomara had gotten used to mortal sailors making offerings of the good whiskey to him. It was half nice being treated like a god. And Tirnanog was dull and grey, and under the rule of the Yellow King at that. Coomara never could stand the Yellow King. So it was back to Ataniel for him. When he got there, another rude surprise: someone had sprung one of the lobster cages in which Coomara kept the souls of the drowned.

It happened every few years of course, but this time Coomara had been away, and the culprit had already escaped with his prize onto land. Coomara was in a particularly poor mood for it now, and he was not as incapable of venturing ashore as he generally acted.

Somewhere in Rimbor City, a soul was free of its owner.

It would not be for long.

Two Exes And A Bottle Of Scotch

Rani and Val were laughing and drinking together. “So then,” Rani gasped, “the john goes out the window. Still wearing no pants!”

“Ha ha ha!”

“Rimbor City’s finest apparently picked him up that night. Threw him in the slammer for lying to an officer when he tried to tell the story.”

Val wiped her eyes. “I’ve--missed you, Rani.”

“Blow me if I know how. I’m pretty easy to hit.” Rani poured herself more scotch.

“Those were the days...”

“Those were the hours,” Rani retorted. “I haven’t been dumped so fast since I gave up men.” Valende laughed a little painfully. “More?”

“Please.”

Nighttime in the City of Angels

“Evening!” shouted Schneider.

Ebreth jerked his head left and right. He didn’t think there was anyone there to be talking to. “What are you doing?”

“Calling it an evening.” The jester flopped down on the pulsing velvety lawn. “One thing I’ll give you, Eight, you make a pretty good straight man.”

“Great,” he said. “Straight man and slayer of kudzu. Beats my last afterlife, I guess.”

“I don’t think we’re actually dead, you know.”

“There was a big explosion and now we’re in Heaven,” said Ebreth. “Do the math.”

“Doesn’t the second part in there require a little suspension of disbelief, Eight?”

“It doesn’t look much like Heaven,” he acknowledged, glancing around at the rich textured darknesses making up the landscape.

“No, I meant you going to Heaven when you died.”

“Bite me.” The pirate sat on an inordinately shiny rock-like object, which gave a dark pulse as he did but didn’t do anything seriously annoying, like attacking him. It was hard to tell in this light, but Ebreth thought he could see stains a few shades of black across his sepia forearm. “Schneider, have you ever even entertained the possibility that I’m not the same Ebreth Tor?”

“No,” said Schneider, without hesitating.

Ebreth threw his hands up in exasperation. “Well, why not? For all you know you’ve been harassing some poor schmuck who got psychically transplanted into some other guy’s body!”

“And have I?”

Ebreth put his hand on his forehead. “No,” he said. “No, but you don’t have any way of knowing that. And I’m not the man who enslaved you. This isn’t the last Tor reforming or something here. I’m not even the same person.”

“Yeah, well, pardon me if I don’t fall all over myself believing you on that one.”

“Then pardon me if I don’t believe you have any more moral high ground than the next sick fuck yanking innocent bystanders around because it makes him feel better about himself,” retorted Ebreth.

“I don’t recall asking your moral opinion about, well, just about anything,” Schneider said coldly.

Ebreth closed one hand around the other, his jaw tight, but he didn’t say anything back.

There was a long, very awkward silence. “So how do we get out of Heaven, anyway?” Schneider finally said.

“Do some bad things, maybe?”

“To who, the kudzu?”

Schneider’s mouth had twitched in a strange way beneath his impassive metal mask, and Ebreth frowned at him. “You’re--as scared of me as I am of you, aren’t you?”

“What?”

“Nothing.” He waved his hand. “I’m just having a flash of insight. Don’t mind me.”

“You--you’re scared of me?”

“Hell yeah,” Ebreth said frankly. “You ripped me apart. I was more broken than I’ve ever been and you took the last things I had to believe in. A man who hates you enough to kill you is one thing. A man who hates you enough to destroy you, it doesn’t take a coward to be afraid of a man like that.”

“At least I gave you a second chance,” said Schneider. “More than you’d do for me.”

“I let you back in my house,” Ebreth said, “didn’t I?” He paused a long moment. “Look,” he said, “it’s not like I haven’t made enough of my own mistakes, you know. Could you maybe try taking me to task on some of them for a change, leave the Slave Lord guy out of it?” Schneider didn’t answer. Ebreth closed his hand and let glittering darkness run through his fingers like sand. “Hold him against me if you have to,” he said, “I probably would. I’m not asking for your forgiveness, and I know you’re not asking for mine. But no one’s suffered more on his account than I have and that’s God’s truth. And as for you, I’d rather die of exhaustion than sleep where you can whisper to me. You get some sleep if you can. I’ve got maybe thirty hours before I pass out, and I’m going to use them.”

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