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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 7

Scorpion’s Nest: Sweet and Tender Hooligan

Daquatson was going about his community service, muttering under his breath about running into the only good cop in the city. Bribery hadn’t worked on Novoa. Neither had begging. Even threatening the cop with his connections to the Blackside hadn’t done Daq a bit of good. So here he was, down south of the old arena, fastidiously scrubbing the “V” in “Octavian” off the wall. “Look, man,” he said to the Rookie, “I’m halfway done. You can go back to work now, I’ll finish up here.”

“M’partner said to watch you,” the Rookie said. “I’m watching.”

Daq sighed a pissed-off sigh. “Watch this,” he said, flipping the Rookie the bird as he turned back to the bucket of soapy water.

Next to the bucket, in a pile of detritus from the storm drain, Daq suddenly noticed something winking up at him. The teenage grifter squatted down for a closer look under the cover of wringing out his sponge. It was a bloodstone sphere as big as his fist.

Daq glanced at the Rookie. For all his claims of watching, the young cop had a far more wandering eye than Harry Novoa. Daq waited for his moment and then snagged the orb.

The Rookie never noticed.

Daq pocketed the oddly warm sphere and got back to work, whistling a jaunty street song.

Across the City, John Tucson was whistling the same tune.


Ebreth Tor wasn’t sure if he was starting to feel the effects of being awake for thirty-some hours, or if things in this surreally dark Heaven were just naturally discontinuous. It was starting to remind him of a Cortazar novel, only with fewer naked women. Now he thought he had climbed to some sort of temple on a hill, but when he got there the temple seemed more like a figment of his imagination than a real temple: the memory of a temple, the premonition of a temple. “You don’t belong here,” said the minotaur, or maybe he said “this realm shall be wiped clean and begun anew” or “the path you are seeking out of the labyrinth is only another labyrinth.” Maybe he wasn’t a minotaur at all.

Then Ebreth was at the bottom of the hill again, or maybe it was the last time that had been again; the flow of time was hard to follow here. “What?--” he asked the man in the red mask. He wasn’t there. Then he was; perhaps he arrived, or perhaps being asked a question created him, called him into being. Either way he did not answer. The building exploded above their heads like a stray word fallen into a tin of gasoline.

“Okay,” Ebreth Tor said to Schneider, looking up at the fiery wreckage where he had been standing a minute previous or perhaps a minute later, watching it fall backward into Heaven’s darkness. “That counts.”

By the Pricking of my Thumbs

“So this contact of yours,” said Rani, drumming her fingers on her jeans as Jack helped Garal de-ward the Pyramid rift. “Is this someone we should be worried about?”

“I heard contacts can, like, get lost in your eyes,” Marty said anxiously.

“I was more wondering if it was going to rip our faces off and infest us with negative material spores, or something.”

“Rani’s closer,” admitted Garal.

“Whew,” sighed Marty.

“But you should be safe--you’re with me.”

“You’re frightened of pencils and you don’t mind things that rip your face off and infest you with negative material spores,” Octavian clarified.

“Yesterday’s news, Batman,” Rani sighed.

The halfling planeblazer closed his eyes carefully and began chanting in a strange language, something otherworldly, but unlike any world that the other four could have been familiar with. His words sounded hollow, like they were a shell surrounding nothing. His companions were unharmed, though--Garal lacked the power to let the vacuum fill itself with their essence.

A matte-black beast with many tentacles appeared somewhere in the distance beyond the breach, then larger as if it had gotten closer, and then again, though it gave every impression of staying in place. Light falling onto it seemed somehow to disappear. There was strange music surrounding the thing, like a flute being played by inhaling.

It had a voice like glass shattering. “The darkness of night, like pain, is dumb.”

“The darkness of dawn, like peace, is silent,” Garal replied, ensuring their safety.

“Garal Tinderhook.” The creature made a dry splintering sound the planeblazer knew as its laughter. “I thought it might be you. A rumor for you: You have compromised your neutrality in the Abyss. We do not think Ailonwy will go gently with you in future.”

Garal sighed. That news was unwelcome but not unexpected; his neutrality was the only thing protecting him from the vagaries of many powerful beings, and probably the only reason he’d come out of his previous encounter with Ailonwy in one piece. Garal hoped this mission wasn’t going to compromise his interplanar neutrality any further. “Hello, Mr. Smith,” he said. Negative beings didn’t have names; Garal, needing a name for his summoning rituals, had provided him with that one years ago. Mr. Smith didn’t care enough to insist on anything more impressive-sounding. “I have questions.” Garal was intentionally vague. If he said how many questions, Mr. Smith was likely to refuse some, or demand a higher payment. “What do your people want on Ataniel?”

“We have no interest in Ataniel,” dismissed Mr. Smith.

“But these wormholes?”

“Placed by someone else,” the beast shrugged.

“That’s not your plane,” Garal said, pointing at the darkness beyond the rift. “What are you doing there?”

“I?” said Mr. Smith, laughing brittly. “It isn’t my plan. Some of my colleagues want lebensraum. I simply couldn’t pass up a chance to see Heaven.”

“Heaven?” Garal remembered the devastating archangel he’d seen there in January, wielding black fire. “Is the Negative Material taking sides in Heaven’s internal affairs? That’s against the Compact of Souls!” Mr. Smith didn’t answer, by which Garal assumed it wasn’t the whole story and he didn’t care to share more. The halfling changed the subject. “We are looking for a friend--for two friends,” he corrected. “They are somewhere in the part of Heaven you are occupying, separately. Amatsu Mikaboshi and Ebreth Tor.”

“If I am to help you further,” Mr. Smith said impassively, “you must return me to your debt, Garal Tinderhook. There is a matter you can help me with. A soul is loose in Rimbor. I would have it.”

“A soul?” Garal was very confused now. “Mr. Smith, what would you do with a mortal soul? You don’t have an afterlife on the NMP.”

“What need have I of reasons?” said Mr. Smith. Garal could sense he was already tired of the conversation. “It is enough that there are others I do not wish to have it.”

“Others, you mean other planar for--”

Mr. Smith was gone.

Garal frowned.

The Sun Rises Just Like A Heart

Shilree had caught up, and Flicker turned and pushed effortlessly down the slope of the Kharek Mountains for the Doomlands once again.

“Show-off,” Shilree muttered under her breath, her hard eyes twinkling.

The truth was, though, that walking down a snowy mountain path was as unnatural and awkward for Flicker as wading through chest-high water would have been. One swam; one skiied. Flicker made a slow curl in the loose-packed snow and looked back at his Diarian friend as she struggled down the trail after him. Her face was even thinner than usual, and sallow, but the look of dull despair had left it for one of resolve. Time heals all wounds, thought Flicker. He remembered Janther trying to comfort Khyrisse after she broke up with Max. You will be loved again, he told her then. She’d pulled away from him. Flicker realized now, post-Threnody, that she must have been afraid it was a pass. But it hadn’t been a pass; it had been the truth, as only Alain could speak it. You will be loved again, Flicker thought for Shilree, for Schneider, for Zzenith, even for Valende, though Flicker suspected the confused Liratyni didn’t quite realize yet what she’d lost. You will all be loved again.

Shilree had caught up, and Flicker turned and pushed effortlessly down the slope of the Kharek Mountains for the Doomlands once again.

Escape From Heaven

Ebreth understood Schneider less and less every time they interacted. Someone like Caimen made sense to him. The last Tor had betrayed his daughter, and Ebreth thought maybe he could understand that, how a man must feel if someone hurt his family. So Caimen had hated him, and it made him cold and fierce; fair enough. Schneider, though, seemed to hate him as an abstract symbol of evil, which just seemed fucked to Ebreth. And his response was to whittle away at Ebreth’s psyche every chance he got, which seemed even more fucked, especially for someone who could get up such fervency about evil in the first place. You’d think an evil-is-WRONG! kind of guy wouldn’t take comfort in cruelty. And then here was this man who didn’t even consider Ebreth a human being--made no bones about it, either, said so in as many words--and yet he’d gone and saved Ebreth’s life before securing his own escape. What the hell was with that? The best Ebreth could figure was that the jester must think even less of himself than he did of Ebreth. If that was true, it was really pretty sad.

They were coming up on the fissure again. Ebreth sighed. “Do you have that dispel again today?” he said. “Maybe you could try again.”

“If Khyri sealed it, Eight, I’ve got a better chance of the wonder wand giving me a plane shift.”

Ebreth noticed dimly that they’d switched sides, but he was too tired to care. He squinted through the pulsing rift into the Pyramid again. “Hey!” he yelled. “That’s Garal! Hey, Garal!”

“Sound doesn’t travel through dimensional gates,” Schneider said.

“Would a spell?” said Ebreth. “He’s right there! He’s a planeblazer, he could get us out of here!”

“Last time I tried using a contact spell interdimensionally,” said Schneider, “I got sucked into Hell.”

“If we give the soul to Mr. Smith later, maybe he can help us find Amatsu,” said Garal. “The problem is Mr. Smith may not have any idea where he is either... dealing with negative beings, it’s hard to tell. But Ebreth just went there yesterday, so he can’t have gotten far.”

“Then we should go in after him,” Jack said.

“I, uh, don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Garal. “I’m starting to think they’re having a civil war in Heaven.”

“Fuck,” Rani sighed, “is there anyplace in this shithole of a universe that’s not falling apart?”

“I thought maybe I’d contact Jie-Min,” said Garal, “you know, the ki-rin who’s been looking for Amatsu?”

Jack frowned. He hadn’t liked leaving Amatsu in Heaven in the first place, and he hoped acceding to Garal and Vickie’s optimism that the lost ninja would be okay there hadn’t been a mistake. He certainly wasn’t about to repeat the performance now. “I think we should go through ourselves,” he said. “Especially if there’s a civil war. Ebreth may be caught in it.”

“I think my Sword of Truth’s Light wants to go in there and, like, fight the negative dude,” Marty contributed, holding up the pulsing sword. “Like, really really bad.”

“Please don’t pick a fight with Mr. Smith,” begged Garal. “Look, I can get us there safely, but can we at least wait for Val? If Heaven’s being corrupted by NMP energy...”

“I sense him,” Rani said suddenly, frowning at the rift.

“Mr. Smith?” said Garal, confused.

“No, Tor. He’s close.”

Garal shook his head. “That’s not possible, Rani. It’s a wormhole. It runs through numerous planes from end to end--we’re only even seeing the same plane every time we look through it because of special relativity.”

“Yeah, well special relativity can kiss my ass. I’m a psychometrist, and I’ve got an impression.” She squinted into the rift. It was opalescent and she couldn’t see anything. “If I stick my hand through, would it come out on the same plane Tor’s on, or on the Plane of Painful Incineration or something?”

“Neither,” said Garal. “You’d probably trip it again, and it would suck more people in. Don’t.”

“Damn it,” muttered Rani, flipping her silver ponytail over her shoulder and glaring through the portal.

“Does she see me?” said Ebreth. “She’s looking right at me. Rani! Hey!” He waved.

“I don’t think she sees us,” Schneider said.

“They’re probably looking for us. I wish I could hear what they were saying.”

“Lemme look. I can read lips.” Schneider peered through the rift for a few moments. “No go. It’s too dark.”

“She looks like she’s--gesturing at me,” said Ebreth. “Does--she want us to try going through the rift again?”

“Why don’t you call Jie-Min,” Jack compromised, “and Rani can call, uh, Valende and everyone. We can all go through, and Jie-Min can help us avoid the civil war while we find Ebreth.”

“This feels like it ought to be so much easier,” muttered Rani. “Dammit, Tor, I know you’re in there.” She beckoned impatiently at the rift with both hands. “Come on already.”

Which, to her great surprise, was when he actually stepped through.

“Holy shit,” said Rani. “That’s the first time a man’s listened to me in--”

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