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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 8

The Wrong Place at the Right Time

There was the horrible sound of a horse screaming. Praxis concentrated visibly and then heeled his own horse to a gallop. -Trouble-, he broadcast over the Net. Flicker didn’t need to be told twice.

As he rounded the bluff he could see a huge three-headed worm rearing from a crack in the caked Doomlands earth, bearing down on a red-haired boy and a large warhorse. A broadsword protruded from the creature’s side like a needle jabbed in a pincushion. There were a few deep gashes in the worm, clearly inflicted by the flashing hooves of the horse, without whose aid the teenager would probably already have been lunch. “Help!” he screamed up the ridge at the approaching riders. “Help, I ca--”

There was a soft popping sound as Praxis got into range, and then the young man and his mount were suddenly among the adventurers, blinking in startlement. “It’s okay, son,” Praxis said. “Stay right here, you’ll be safe.” Flicker had his bow loose, but Hou-Hsieh got off a fireball first, and the worm-thing retreated back into the crack it had risen from, writhing in pain. “Such creatures must often keep their skin moist,” commented Hsin. “Fire was an effective choice of weaponry, Miss Haito.”

“Thank you,” smiled Hou-Hsieh, pleased at the older man’s praise.

“Praxis,” the psionicist introduced himself to the wide-eyed youth. “Are you all right?”

“Jason,” he stammered. “Jason, I’m fine.” He pronounced it in the Dalen fashion, JAY-sun. “You--you saved my life, Praxis. All of you. I--thank you.” He was trying not to stare at Hou-Hsieh, and said something to her in inexpert Shikinti. “You’re welcome,” she replied in Dalen.

Jason ran his hands along his horse’s flank without taking his eyes from the adventurers. The battle-steed snorted affectionately. “I thought the earth was shaking,” he admitted, “but it never occurred to me that there might be a monster beneath it...” Jason made a dejected sigh. “My good fortune to have a steed far more valuable than myself. If--I can prevail upon you a little longer, Bait has a cut I’d like to stitch. I can take care of it myself, but I’d--rather have somebody watching my back as I do.” He paused, as if wrestling with something. “This may be horribly rude, but I have to ask. Are you... mages?”

“I am,” said Hou-Hsieh.

“Why do you ask?” said Shilree, warily.

Flicker was watching the young man with interest. Sturtevanter, he guessed from the accent. He suspected Jason had not been his original name, and when he asked about mages, Flicker thought he might have an idea why not. “Are you?” he said, in his softest and least threatening voice.

Jason shrank back a bit from the Diarian’s suspicion. “I--I don’t know, actually,” he stammered at Flicker. “I don’t think I am--at least I didn’t show any signs of it or I would have been run out of Sturtevant a long time ago--but no one’s ever checked, really...”

“It’s a profession, not a birthmark,” sighed Shilree, rolling her eyes impatiently. “Yes I am a mage, among other things.”

The boy made an oddly courtly little half-nod to Shilree. “I am sorry if I have offended you,” he said meekly. “I am as ignorant about such matters as one could be--I was raised in a country that does not look kindly upon mages. I was merely curious. Actually I was able to flee my homeland only with the help of a mage and I owe her my life.”

Shilree frowned at him. “If you’re not a mage, why did you have to flee?”

Jason hesitated, but apparently decided to confide. “I didn’t really belong there to begin with. But what settled the matter was that my family had arranged an--unsuitable marriage for me. I chose instead”--his cheek dimpled into a slight smile--”to run off with the armsman.”

There was something in his posture that made Flicker suspect he was testing their reaction. Praxis had worked past the uneasy Celtic association of homosexuals with the fey years ago with Endicott, though, and there was no outward reaction from the laconic Inez, the polite Shikinti, the still-faced Flicker, or, certainly, Shilree.

-Opinions?- Praxis sent through the Mindnet.

-He would seem to be a good young man in a bad situation,- Shaolin thought.

-He seems sad, poor thing,- Hou-Hsieh added.

-He is from Sturtevant,- thought Hsin, -not a people generally known for their enlightenment. The lad may prosper if he is given a better environment.-

Hsin was the eldest of the Shikinti adventurers, and the most conservative. His indirect suggestion clearly carried a lot of weight with the others. Xiang was the only one to offer a cautious objection: -Still, our mission is sensitive, and we face creatures of great deception. The boy may be more than he seems.-

-I think I could keep an eye on him adequately,- thought Praxis.

-There is also the matter of his own safety,- Xiang added. -I would not wish harm to befall him because we brought him with us untrained into great danger.-

-Perhaps we should ask him what he wants to do,- Inez thought. The Order of Redemption mentally nodded their assent.

-Flicker?-

He paused just a moment before replying. -I agree with Inez.-

“I’ll tell you what, Jason,” Praxis said aloud. “The Doomlands is no place to spend the night alone. Why don’t you share our camp tonight, and then... we can talk about the future. I can’t promise that it’ll be better than the past. But it doesn’t have to be one you face by yourself.”

The boy nodded gratefully. “Thank you.”

***

“Gila is--another world,” Praxis explained as Jason tended to his horse, watching the psionicist with ill-disguised awe. Flicker didn’t know much about gay boys, but he knew plenty about girls Jason’s age, and it looked like a crush. Inez had apparently come to the same conclusion, and looked bemused. “As large as Ataniel. Many races live there, but the most dangerous are illithids and Iron Tyrants. The illithids are mind-flayers with impressive psionic powers, the Tyrants are beholders with deadly magical attacks, and all of them are technologically superior to us. Once we’ve crossed the Doomlands we’re going to be facing Gilans. You’re welcome to join us, provided it’s all right with Shilree--”

“Hmm?” Shilree looked up from the mystic tome she was studying. “Yeah sure. Just don’t get in my way kid.”

“But you should know,” Praxis continued seriously, “we might not all survive.”

The youth gulped. “Well, I--may I ask what you’re planning on doing on, uh, Gila?”

“Nothing, I hope,” said Praxis. “We’re going to the Dark Islands, Gila’s outpost on Ataniel. There’s a gateway there that connects the two worlds, and it’s becoming unstable. If nothing is done it’ll eventually explode and kill a lot of people. We intend to destroy the gateway before that can happen.”

“How?”

“An excellent question. Shilree?”

“What?” She looked up again, distracted. “Oh I have that covered Praxis. If we can get to the gateway I have the means to blow it up.”

“I thought you were trying to stop it from blowing up?” said Jason, confused.

“No we are trying to stop the Doomfissure from blowing up. If the portal is destroyed the resonance will stop and the explosion will be averted. This will also cut off Gila’s supply lines, which would be just fine with me.” Shilree turned back to her studies. Flicker wasn’t sure he liked how absorbed she was getting in this Ancient Diari text. There was something about it that reminded him uncomfortably of books his mother used to have back in the Abyss.

“At any rate,” Praxis said, “if you do want to come with us, Jason, I’d like to perform a psionic procedure on you so that we could communicate telepathically. This would require no small amount of trust on your part, I understand, but I promise to be extremely careful and non-invasive.”

Jason considered that, chewing on his lip. “Well, I guess--I guess it requires trust on your part to bring me along on such a dangerous mission, doesn’t it? I’ll admit I’m a little leery of letting someone in my head, but at this point the only friend I’ve got is Bait... And I’d rather like to be a part of something larger than myself.” He shrugged. “I guess the real question is, would I be more of a hindrance than a help to you, in the end? I mean, I’m not much of a fighter. I can fence well enough in competition, but I know that doesn’t necessarily translate. Cedric tried to teach me to use heavier blades this last year but I’m still so-so at best. Outside of that, I grew up in a particularly useless branch of nobility. Would I cost you more in protecting me than I could offer in willingness to learn?”

“Everyone starts at first level sometime or other,” Flicker said quietly, with a smile for the boy.

Tears In Heaven

“Ebreth! You’re alive!” Jack ran forward and embraced his friend. Marty and Schneider turned away from the untoward male affection. Rani smirked. “What the flark happened to you?”

“We fell into heaven. Some sort of rift or something.” Ebreth suddenly noticed Octavian. “What’s he doing here?”

“Whoa, I guess he wasn’t lying about not being you, master,” Marty said.

Octavian frowned deeply at that. “I’ve been looking for you, Tor,” he said in a frosty voice. “Read this.” The vigilante tossed a scroll case at Ebreth, who caught it reflexively. “I’ll find you when you’ve taken care of your mess.”

“What--” started Ebreth.

Octavian was gone.

“He was following us around to give Ebreth a letter?” said Rani incredulously.

“Mister McFeely!” guessed Marty.

Ebreth shrugged tiredly and stuck the scroll case through his belt. “That place is a mess,” he told Jack. “You’d think Heaven would be better kept up.”

“Negative Material?” Rani asked Garal, gesturing with her head at Ebreth as she flipped her casebook open. The dark pirate was mottled with even darker splotches, pulsing inconstantly. Garal nodded, and Rani jotted something down. “This may sound kind of stupid,” Garal said, “but did you see any signs of civil war while you were there?”

“There were some kind of surreal monsters up there, but they weren’t attacking each other. Just us.” Ebreth looked to Schneider for confirmation, and blinked. “Schneider?”

There was no sign of the jester.

“Fucking vigilante,” muttered Rani. “Not enough to steal our prisoners, now he’s swiping our fucking allies.”

***

“You are the one known as the Joker,” said Octavian. “Schneider, yes?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Schneider, and then, a little hopefully, “and you are?”

“Octavian,” he said unhelpfully. “You’re all right?”

“Yeah,” lied Schneider. “Was it, uh, you who, y’know, pulled my fat out of the fire back there?”

“Sadly, no,” answered the vigilante. “I only learned of your capture last night. I am pleasantly surprised to find you still alive, however. I would speak with you about the Lianth situation. May I escort you someplace we can talk? I can return you to the company of your friends when we have finished.”

“Uh, sure,” mumbled Schneider.

This day wasn’t shaping up to be any less disorienting than its predecessors.

***

“Ebreth?” Khyrisse’s triumphant relief that the pirate was in fact alive lasted only the couple of seconds it took to get a better look at him. “What--what’s that stuff you’ve got all over you?”

“Got me,” shrugged Ebreth wearily. “It didn’t introduce itself. Some kind of shadow magic.”

“With a, uh, small ‘s’,” Jack supplied helpfully, when Khyrisse paled even further. “It looks like the Negative Material Plane is encroaching into Heaven... Garal thinks it may be related to what happened to Amatsu in January.”

“Let me take a look.” Valende passed her hand a couple of inches over Ebreth’s forearm, looking intently at one of the shifting royal-black stains. He looked terrible, even without the shadow marks; his eyes were bloodshot and hollow, his face haggard, and his hand was trembling with tension, just barely perceptibly. “What did he do to you?” said Khyrisse, strangled with intensity.

Ebreth shook his head. “Nothing,” he said, “I’m all right.”

“I don’t think it’s dangerous,” Valende said introspectively, scanning.

Khyrisse looked around. “Schneider--what happened to Schneider?”

“He came through the portal with Ebreth,” said Jack, “but he disappeared when Octavian did.”

“And if you think I’m contacting Octavian,” said Rani, “you’re out of your fucking mind.”

“Calm down, dear,” said Valende, and cast negative plane protection at Ebreth. The shadowed stains evaporated from his clothes and skin like mirages from a paved road. “I’ll be sure to take that spell again tonight, in case Schneider and Octavian catch up with us.”

“Well, I know Schneider can find my Mansion if he needs to,” Khyrisse said definitely, putting her arms around Ebreth. There was a knot beneath his jaw as she said it, like he was holding his teeth together harder than he needed to. Khyrisse closed her eyes and resolved to ask Jack what the flark was going on the next chance she got, because she just didn’t seem to be correctly parsing her lover’s reactions to Schneider at all. “Okay,” she said, trying to regroup her thoughts, “Rani, did Octavian say--”

“--anything useful at all?” she finished. “Hell no. He’s a mysterious crimefighter. He’ll be back when he feels like it, I assume.”

“Great,” sighed Khyrisse.

Scorpion’s Nest: Dangerous Turns

“Nothing personal. The brit-punk look just doesn’t do anything for me,” said Mahoney.

“Yeah, your ugly puss is no turn-on, either,” Camaro retorted.

“What can I say? A few years in the arena’ll do wonders.”

“Right--George the Bull, that was you?” He nodded. “I saw you once. You were pretty cool. Good to know some people around are still tough. These days it seems like there’s mages and psionics everywhere you turn around.”

“Heh, never knew a wiz who lasted long in the arena,” Mahoney said. “You must be pretty tough yourself. Stump says you used to be married to the boss.”

“Oh, don’t remind me,” sighed Camaro.

***

“I’m tellin’ ya, Officer! I ain’t done nothin’!”

This was probably true, actually, but Sergeant Roy needed this collar. He was seven behind on his quota for the week, and Elshan, the one who actually had been doing the hustling when Roy cracked the Dirty Dove, had offered a Friday-sized bribe and was already back on the streets. “Oh, yeah?” he said. “Maybe you can tell me where you got this, then?” He flashed the bloodstone sphere at Daquatson, who said nothing. “Come on, kid. Who’d you lift it from--or for that matter, what the hell is it?” Roy stared at the object. It was smooth, its glow faint and shifting. Somehow, it was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen.

“Found it in a sewer catch by the arena,” mumbled Daq, and winced as Roy uphanded him under the chin. He didn’t think the badge was trying to hurt him, at least not yet, but there was no way this guy’s physique was natural, and even your standard dish of police brutality was pretty unpleasant coming from him. “Really,” he protested. “I just found it.”

“Sure, and I’m the Duke of Lianth.”

Daq was starting to get antsy, and not just in anticipation of a beating from Steroid Roy. He’d already been arrested this morning for picking pockets down the wharf, and if Ass-Floss Novoa saw him back in the PD again he would probably have to do time. “Look, man,” he offered, “why don’t you just keep it and let me outta here, huh?”

***

“Mahoney hit somebody from the merch guild in Lianth,” Stump reported. “We’ll see if they’re any more cooperative next week. As for Tor... well, his people told Pearl he’s dead.” Stump’s tone of voice showed what he thought of that piece of information. “She sure ain’t a broad with much initiative, is she?”

“When she wants to be,” said Tucson distantly. “I didn’t bring her on as a detective. She’s as good at breaking heads as they come.” He stood up from his desk, pushing his papers away. “Look, I’m going to go work out. Let me know if anything happens.”

“Work out?” said Stump, confused. “Boss, since when the hell do you work out?”

“Since today,” snapped the Scorpion. “Handle things, Stump. That’s what I pay you for.” The crime lord stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind him.

Heaven Can Wait

“So what have we got, here?” Rani flipped through her casebook over dinner, frowning. “At least two unstable wormholes. No idea how they got here or who’s involved, but Garal thinks they must have been caused by powerful planar magic somehow, and they can suck people onto other planes.”

“We should figure out what’s going on with them, and I should probably close them,” Garal said.

“Then we’ve got a soul at large somewhere in the city, maybe Tucson’s. The Rat wants it, and so does this Negative Smith guy.”

“So does Cloak the vampire lord,” said Valende.

Rani spewed beer. “What?”

“We fought a pair of vampires down at the docks today,” Val said, still rather off-handedly. “They were looking for the soul too. I compelled one of them, and she said Cloak sent them to find it.”

“What the fuck. Did she say why?”

“She didn’t know.” The undead-slayer shrugged gracefully. “But it was important enough that they were questing shielded during the daytime.”

“What could be so important about John’s soul that vampire lords and negative material beings are so hot for it?” Rani asked herself, crinkles of thought at the corners of her eyes.

“Mr. Smith said there were other extraplanar forces who wanted it, too,” Garal reminded her.

“Maybe they’re trying to use Tucson’s soul to extort him into something?” hazarded Ebreth.

“That’s really not an NMP line of reasoning,” said Garal.

“Thank you!” yelped the Rat.

“Find the soul, and figure out what’s so fucking important about it,” Rani condensed. “The third thing is Heaven. Garal thinks there’s some kind of civil war going on, and the Negative Material has been leaking into at least part of Heaven. Might be related to Amatsu’s disappearance earlier this year.”

“If there’s a war in Heaven, we should stay out of it,” Garal said.

“Well, the war in Heaven may or may not be related to the rifts or the soul. And I don’t know which of the three, if any, is related to the Rat’s black-hole thing, or how it connects to John and the Diari.” Rani chewed the end of her pen introspectively. “I think my obvious next move is to investigate these rifts tomorrow. If there are more of them, Garal and I should be able to track them down.”

Khyrisse nodded. “I’d like to keep following the Rat, too,” she said. The rodent pumped his furry head. “If he wants us to find this soul... well, he’s always been right before.”

“Not to mention I think I’d rather Cloak didn’t get it,” murmured Val.

“Heaven can wait, in other words,” said Rani.

“Let’s not shut those wormholes yet, though,” said Khyrisse. “They’re a short path to Heaven, and if that ties back in we may need one.”

“Milady Khyrisse?” said Sennett, appearing at the sorceress’ elbow with a respectful half-bow of his head. “You have a visitor.” He presented her with a single white rose.

“On it,” sighed Khyrisse. “One visitor, Sennett, or two?”

“Just one, ma’am.”

***

“Hi, Schneider,” said Khyrisse, and waited.

“Uh, hi,” he said, fidgeting far too much. “I, uh, just had to tell you something. Already told your hobby horse the part about him, but there’s a message for you, too... See, last time I was here I mixed it up with some of Tucson’s crew, pissed ‘em off pretty good. And, uh, some of them caught up with me and...” Schneider had to grip the door frame tightly to stop his hands from trembling. “And someone saved me from them,” he said. “And said I should find you. He said ‘Tell the Rat Pack,’ and then he just kinda disappeared. I don’t know if you, uh, sent him, or he’s looking for you, or what, but I thought I ought to tell you. Didn’t get a real good look at him. I think he might have had some kinda wraithform or something up. ...Anyway, that’s, uh, all I came to say, really. I guess you want me to, uh, go now.”

Khyrisse sighed. “No, Schneider,” she said, as gently as she could. Dammit, I can’t buy a middle ground with you. What do I have to do to let you know I like you enough to have around but not enough to let you take your problems out on my loved ones? “Don’t be stupid. If I wanted that I would have said so. Come in and have some dinner, okay?”

She held out her hand, and after a moment, Schneider let go of the doorframe and took it.

“I don’t know who your mystery rescuer was,” Khyrisse continued. “I didn’t know you were in danger, or I would have tried to save you, obviously...!” Schneider didn’t look like he found that obvious at all. He doesn’t look like he's in much better shape than Ebreth is, at the moment... I think we're just going to stick to the quest and discuss this whole thing another time. Whatever happened up there, I’m not turning him out on the street for John Flarking Tucson to kill. Sennett can be programmed to keep him away from Ebreth, if need be. “We’re ‘mixing it up’ with these guys ourselves,” she told him. “The Rat Pack would be happy to offer you our protection till we’re all the heck out of Rimbor... and in the meantime, mabye we could give you a chance at some payback.” She grinned wickedly, and Schneider, after a moment, gave her a shaky thread of a laugh.

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