The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 6
Interlude: With friends like these...
“What the flark is that!” bellowed Asinus. “It’s the middle of the flarkin’ night!”
Nightcap still on his head, the donkey trotted irritably down the main hall of the Paris estate to the front gate. From outside was coming what sounded like the roar of some great dying beast.
“Can’t a donkey get some sleep?” Asinus yelled as he kicked the front door open.
It was strangely bright out as well as noisy. Asinus squinted against the glare and a noxious cloud of dust that put ten cigars to shame. Before he could say anything else he was bowled over onto his side on the foyer floor, and then, much to his surprise, something was in his mouth. As his eyes focused he saw someone he hadn’t thought he’d ever see again. It was Nasty.
“I guess you were right,” said Nasty as she broke the kiss. “Once you taste donkey you can never get enough.”
Before Asinus could come up with a suitably witty response the beam of light cut off abruptly, revealing a smallish umber hulk and a rakshasa in black leather lounging dispassionately on some kind of giant metal contraption, from which the noise was emanating. The rakshasa pushed a pedal with his paw and the machine revved still more noisily, then subsided into its dull roar again. “I win the bet, Fizznang,” the tiger-spirit said in an overly cool voice. “She ended up on top.”
“Fuck,” muttered the umber hulk. “I was so sure four legs would be an advantage.” He clawed around in a saddlebag with a demonic symbol on it and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, which he flipped at his cohort. “I gotta remember not to bet against succubi.”
Asinus got back to his feet, the sultry redhead still clinging around his woolly neck. There was something surreal about the three of them--something beyond the basic fact that a diabolic seductress, a six-foot-tall crustacean, and a juvenile delinquent tiger-man had apparently flown to the Paris estate on a two-wheeled metal chariot. Asinus squinted again. There was some kind of ethereal darkness clinging to their outlines. “Is this a social call, hotpants, or does the flarkin’ world need saving or some such crap?”
Nasty playfully licked Asinus’ long ear. “Actually, we could use your help,” she said. “Something’s going on up in Heaven, and I can always use the help of a nice piece of ass.”
Ebreth watched Schneider twitching in his sleep.
It wasn’t that he liked the guy, even felt especially bad for him. Ebreth Tor knew nightmares, though, and he could see it in the arrhythmic shuddering of the man’s body, hear it in his shallow breathing. It wasn’t some calling to kindness, either; he was no Jack Paris, nor did he have any illusions that Schneider would ever treat him like a human being, whatever he did. So Ebreth didn’t really know why he was unfolding Khyrisse’s robe from his shoulderbag, the enchanted symbol of hope glowing an eerie green-white through the veils of darkness. The best explanation he could give himself, as he laid his most cherished possession across the sleeping form of the man he hated more than any other, was just: if you can’t have a bit of hope in Heaven, when can you?
Rehal was a sleepy town on the Nylevian side of the Dyved forest. Not much to it, really: a small commercial community servicing local farmers and travelers on Highway Nine, the road west through Dyved and Cynystra all the way to the Land of the Little People. Shilree’s group wasn’t taking Highway Nine, instead heading north into the Doomlands, but Rehal made a convenient waystop nonetheless.
“I’m beat,” said Inez. “What do you say we rent some rooms, as long as we’re in town?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Flicker. “Shilree?”
She didn’t answer. She was staring at the falling leaf on the placard of the motel.
“Shilree?” he tried again. “Hello, Shilree?” He waved his hand in front of her face, and she blinked.
“What? Oh... sorry,” she said, sounding a little embarrassed. “I don’t know where I was.”
“More memories?” asked Praxis.
“No. No... just a feeling. Yes rooms are a good idea.”
The triplets stood around an illumined chessboard under a sunless blood red sky. They all looked exactly alike except for their armbands.
“Your move,” said Purple to Black.
Black scowled and moved a knight.
The sea of lilies around them waved.
“Your move,” said Purple to Green.
Green gave a sly grin and moved a rook.
“This is idiotic,” said Black, as Purple moved the knight in a different direction. “We will never get anywhere like this.”
“But getting nowhere may be good enough,” said Green.
“Your move,” said Purple to Black.
It was a quiet night in the Falling Leaf Motel. From the missing keys on the key rack behind the
ill-shaven innkeeper, there seemed to be a reasonable number of customers here tonight, but none were in evidence down here at the bar. People mostly just stopped here on their way to somewhere else, Flicker guessed. Just as they were doing. “We’d like one double and two suites,” said Shilree.
The innkeeper didn’t answer.
Shilree cleared her throat. “I said--”
“I heard you,” he said. He looked at her, his eyes hard with distaste and muted fear. “We’re full.”
Shilree pointed at the key rack. “Four doubles would be all right too,” she said.
“I got no rooms for your kind.” The innkeeper went back to wiping the bar, contemptuously.
Shilree stiffened along the spine. “Care to repeat--”
“Then we’ll just have to find a better inn,” said Flicker.
“I said I got no rooms for your kind.”
The Diarian and the innkeeper glared at one another for a tense moment. It must have been a trick of the light, but for just a moment Flicker thought he saw a black flash in his friend’s eyes. Then Shilree pulled something out of her pouch and slammed it on the bar before Flicker could move to stop her. To his surprise, though, it wasn’t an attack; it was a sapphire. “What a shame,” said Shilree coldly. “Because this would have been our payment.”
The innkeeper looked at the gem, looked at Shilree, and back at the gem. Greed won out. “Be out by sunrise,” he said, and took three keys down from the wall.
“We didn’t need to stay here,” said Flicker. “I’m sure we could have found a less rude inn to patronize.”
“I wanted to stay here,” said Shilree, with finality.
“When three Mithril Dagger Heroes can’t get an inn room without resorting to bribery...” said
Praxis, trying to make light of the situation. Shilree still looked pissy. Actually, she looked kind of antsy,
pacing back and forth in the center suite. Praxis and Inez were playing mahjong with Xiang and Shaolin; Hou-Hsieh was reading a trashy romance novel, and Hsin was doing tai chi. Shilree’s meager store of patience sputtered and died. “I need to get out of here and stretch my legs,” she said abruptly.
“This one recommends caution,” said Shaolin, looking up from the game. “This town does not seem friendly to foreigners, and we are conspicuously foreign.”
“I think it’s just me,” said Shilree, with annoyance. “Those flazhnikajh Cynystrans invade our country and then blame us for killing their soldiers.” She paused. “What am I doing sitting up here? I’m an illusionist, for Diar’s sake!” She muttered the words to a spell and clapped her hands, and her form shimmered and shifted into that of a tough-looking Cynystran mercenary woman. “Call me Lyta.”
“Lyshia,” said Flicker, a bit bemused.
“Lyta is a man’s name in Cynystra.”
“Bite me, Lian-ah.” Shilree grabbed her friend’s arm, grinning girlishly from her new face. “Let’s go paint the town red!”
What Flicker and Shilree were doing couldn’t really be called ‘dancing’ by any stretch of the imagination. It was more like Shilree dragging Flicker across the floor and Flicker trying to make sure both of them remained on their feet. The two of them were successfully entertaining the little bar they’d
decamped to, all the more so when Shilree, who’d had more than a few drinks, stumbled into a poker table and knocked one of the cardplayers off his chair and onto the floor. “Hey, you Cynystran bitch,” he yelled at her, jumping up and getting in her face. “Watch where you’re fucking going!”
Shilree landed a sloppy roundhouse on his jaw.
It was amazing how fast bar fights erupted, mused Flicker, wading through the melee after his drunken friend. Like everyone just hung around the bar waiting for some excuse. He pulled Shilree off the back of someone who was wrestling with some other guy who’d been trying to defend her. “I think you need to get some air,” he said matter-of-factly, carrying her bodily toward the exit.
An overly chivalrous tinker hit him in the head with a chair as he passed, yelling “Get your hands off her!” Flicker staggered back into a table, trying not to lose his grip on Shilree. A lithe form streaked across the room and into the tinker foot-first, and Flicker recognized Xiang. Good. As the Shikinti man kickboxed him an opening, Flicker hefted Shilree half-over one shoulder and dragged her out of the bar.
Inez met them there, looking bemused. “Sounded like you guys needed a hand,” she said.
Xiang darted back out of the brawl and bowed quickly, only slightly out of breath.
“What’s wrong with her?” Inez indicated the sagging ‘Lyshia’.
“She’s drunk,” said Flicker.
Laughing slurrily, Shilree pushed herself off Flicker’s shoulder and landed on her rear. As the elf bent to help her up she whispered mischievously in his ear “You know I always thought it would have been fun to seduce Threnody.”
In Riklandir, inappropriate sexual evaluations of one’s dead relatives were not only a good reason to throw someone through the nearest glass window, but serious grounds for the end of a friendship.
Happily, in Riklandir, things said while shitfaced were not considered to have been said.
“You definitely need some air,” said Flicker, his voice calm and simple. “Let’s go for a walk.”
The group rode off towards the Doomlands with a surprisingly early start given the slightly sorry state of its leader. Flicker had seen to it that she got enough fluids over the course of the night, and Hsin had brewed some tea that helped with her hangover. Flicker rode beside her now, quietly pointing the way to the Kharek Mountains as the sun rose higher in the sky. He had yet to utter a word of rebuke about her behavior, though from what Shilree could remember, it wasn’t pretty. How she had gotten so lucky as to get Sunny as a friend, Shilree wasn’t sure. “I’m really sorry Sunny,” she mumbled.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“No, I mean it. You’ve been so wonderful this whole trip and last night--” she reddened at a hazy thought of tromping through a cow pasture after midnight.
“Shilree, the last adventure I was on involved a version of you that amused herself by randomly inflicting large amounts of pain on herself and watching it heal. That group was led by Norna, who in addition to ignoring anything useful any of us tried to contribute took out her frustrations by beating the rest of us up. This trip has been a model of sanity in comparison, believe me.”
“Okay,” the Diarian sighed. “But I’ll try not to drunkenly embarrass myself anymore.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” Flicker grinned. “Did I ever tell you what Tila did at Alain’s wake?”
Back in the Falling Leaf Motel the innkeeper entered the room that Shilree had slept in. On the bed, as promised, was the sapphire. As he picked it up a slight feeling of electricity caressed his fingers. If the innkeeper had been a more observant fellow he might have worried, but as it was he put the gemstone in his belt pouch and thought no more of it.
That night the nightmares started. Each night they got worse and worse. After a week the innkeeper gave up sleeping, and a few days later the maid found him hanging from the rafters in the wine cellar, dead by his own hand. In his pocket was the gem, which had lost its enchantment and reverted to its true form: a worthless piece of costume paste which dissolved into dust when she disturbed it.
Morning Has Broken
“I understand!” complained the Rat, pulling on Jack’s ear.
“We’ll go look for the soul as soon as we’re done finding Ebreth,” Jack promised.
“You were right,” Garal said to Rani and Jack, pulling another dark gash open between his fingers in the back of the seedy tavern. “It’s another wormhole, and it doesn’t look very stable either. Wow. Somebody must have been using some really careless planar magic around here.”
“Should we all go through?” Skitch wanted to know. “Or split up again?”
“Neither,” said Garal, definitely. “It was almost certainly the first wormhole that sucked Ebreth in, when Rani set off the dimensional ripple.”
“But Sahan said he disappeared here,” Rani frowned, squinting up one eye a little.
“Not surprising at all,” said Garal. “Wormholes cross over very easily in dimensional disturbances, especially if their ends are in close proximity and they’re not stable. If we want to find Ebreth, we’ll need to use the one that triggered his disappearance, not the one he went through.”
“Back to the Pyramid, then,” Khyrisse sighed.
“Well, wait.” The halfling tapped his foot. “I’d like some more information about these wormholes. It’s very strange to have two in the same city like this. And I’m worried about the Negative Material Plane. If it’s extruding into other planes, it could start extruding into this one.”
“The negative lifeforce powered by which would plague us with no end of liches and animate shades, no doubt,” Vastarin sighed. Everyone looked at him, surprised by his input. “What?” he demanded. “I’m not just here for my good looks! I do know a wee bit about necromancy, remember?”
“What do you suggest, then?” Rani asked Garal.
“Uh...” The halfling’s certainty faltered under the direct question. “Well, I was thinking that I could use the wormhole to find a contact I could get some information from... It could even make it easier to locate Ebreth. Which I’m sure I can do,” he hastened to assure Khyrisse.
“Information’s good,” Khyrisse shrugged wearily. Whatever intuition was making her think Ebreth was alive and well somewhere probably wasn’t rational, but obsessive worrying wouldn’t be either, and there was really no reason to panic. Khyrisse didn’t want to let her social stress over the damn Two Men and a Baby plotline start flarking up the Rat Pack. Ebreth and Schneider were both adults. They’d be all right together. Wouldn’t they?
“Information’s my game,” Rani said, flipping her casebook shut. “Same teams as yesterday? If rescuing Tor shapes up harder than we’re hoping, I can call you folks for backup.”
“Which team am I on,” came a quiet, droll voice behind her.
Rani jumped. She hadn’t even noticed the vigilante approach. “That depends,” she snapped before she could catch herself. “Are you going to steal this contact and disappear with him too?”
“You got what you needed from him,” Octavian said dispassionately, like the matter was quite closed. “Sahan is an associate of the Scorpion, and as such, my purview. I had more important things to do than wait for you to finish theorizing.”
“You came in at a bad time, then,” Garal joked.
“Not really,” said Octavian, and struck his walking stick once on the ground, sharply. A blade flicked out from its end as he did, just as the Blackside crashed into the Rusty Nail to surround them. “Did I mention the Scorpion has placed a bounty on your heads?”
“Have I been waiting for this,” Khyrisse muttered, and shot her wand off in a blistering crackle of electricity.
And the Day of the Lord Will Be Darkness, Not Light
Schneider was wondering if all the good people he’d lost in his life--his parents, Duke Faraker, Janth and Syndy--had to come live in this shithole of a Heaven. Schneider hoped not. He and Eight had been wandering aimlessly through the blacklit fields of kudzu. They had found no angels, no souls, no exit, and not much in the way of hope. It was raining eerily glowing drops of water on them now.
They’d been traveling up the only landmark in sight for what felt like hours now, a craggy upslope with some ruins atop it. It was a rocky climb, but the two thieves had little difficulty. Looked like some kind of temple, up close: huge ionic columns of white marble, stained with deep black splotches, lining an open chamber with an altar in the center. Schneider felt himself shiver as they passed between the columns. There were symbols adorning the walls--symbols which Khyrisse would have recognized, but neither man did. On the altar, a dusty tome lay open. “This mean anything to you?” whispered Schneider, unsure of exactly why he was whispering.
“I was about to ask you that.” Eight peered at the book with curious noncomprehension.
Then, they heard the footfalls. The building shook.
A creature like a giant minotaur slouched in past one row of columns, its skin jet and eyes a fiery red. Sparks flew as each of its huge hooves struck the marble floor, and small dark cracks spread from the impact sites. From the opposite end of the chamber came a second, identical creature. “Living beings,” rumbled a voice. Schneider wasn’t quite sure which of the terrible beasts had spoken. “You will not return to the land of the mortal arbiter. This realm shall be wiped clean and begun anew.”
“We might be in trouble here,” Eight understated, drawing his sword in an almost laughable posture of defense as the huge beasts advanced on them, black fire licking from their nostrils.
“We might not be the operative word.” Schneider shook his right hand up good and cocked it at the slaver. He wouldn’t have entirely minded if the wand had chosen now to malfunction and belch out an incineration beam, but it behaved itself and teleported him back down to the base of the hill with its
characteristic *pop*. Hopefully he’d be safe there.
The bull-men lowered their heads and charged.
Why do I care? Schneider was thinking wearily. I’ve been wishing I could lie down and die all morning, praying for death just yesterday at Weasel’s, even before that forcing myself to stumble through. So why the hell am I frightened of dying now?
Think of it as the hand of God, Jane Sinclair said, her voice its holiest and most peaceful.
Or just a good old lust for life, boyo! Duke Faraker smiled.
Or hope, said Flicker, hope for a brighter day, knowing that even after endless dark winter, the sun will come out.
I wonder if anyone else has this Greek chorus thing to deal with? Schneider put his finger to his head and aloud said: “You know, guys, the odds of this thing doing what it’s supposed to twice in a row are something like three to one against.”
Schneider pulled his thumb like a trigger.
Russian roulette, commented Tila. You win, you lose.
“Long time no see, Eight,” sighed Schneider, still alive and not sure whether to be pleased about it. He looked up at the temple as it collapsed in an ultraviolet explosion of crumbling masonry. “I guess we should have another crack at this escape thing, as long as we’re both still here.”