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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 10

Flash-Forward: What Goes Around Comes Around

Dudley Magill cocked his double crossbow with an unpleasant sound. “You jes’ keep on movin’,” he said, very softly.

“I need... your help...” coughed Jhirae.

“Your kind won’t find none here.”

“...healer... like yourself...” Jhirae swayed dizzily.

“What you are is an evil spirit who feeds on honest men’s minds,” said the country doctor, low. “One of your kind stayed here in Rehal couple weeks ago, at the Falling Leaf. Innkeeper took ill with terrible dreams the same day. Hung himself not long after that. This is a small town, and news don’t keep to itself ‘round here. You get out of my clinic afore I send your devil’s spirit off without you.”

“Not... my fault...”

“Count of ten.”

“Hiss’lak... they are here... warn...” The traveling psychiatrist stumbled back out onto the cobbled streets of Rehal, her mind airy with loss of blood.

No one moved to help her.

She got less than twelve meters out of town, and there, in the long grass, Jhirae Vestrin died.

I Will Be There

Ebreth startled awake, his breathing rasping and irregular, jarring Khyrisse out of her own dreams. She uncurled herself sleepily from his side to look up at him. The pirate’s eyes were wide and shadowed, as they usually were when he woke like this. Khyrisse murmured something to him in Elvish, then shook her head slightly and switched to Dalen. “Ebreth, we’re in the Mansion. It’s all right.”

The blue eyes focused rapidly at the sound of her voice, took in the familiar surroundings of their bedroom. He relaxed with a weary sigh, holding Khyrisse tightly to him for a moment. “Morning,” he said into her hair.

“Good morning,” she said cheerfully. “You stay in bed, lover, I’ll be right back.”

She wriggled out of his grasp and reappeared a few minutes later with a breakfast tray, then sat crosslegged on the bed beside it to pour him a cup of coffee. “You are a wonderful, wonderful woman,” Ebreth said fervently, taking the mug from her.

Khyrisse laughed. “I thought you might not have gotten any coffee in Heaven.”

“Well, not per se. I had beans in my bag, but no hot water.”

She made a comically revolted face. “You ate coffee beans raw?”

“It was that or sleep there,” said Ebreth. “I’ll tell you, the afterlife options in Ataniel are really failing to impress me. I think I’ll just stay here.”

She grinned at him. “Sounds good to me! ...Don’t let me eat these all myself, okay? I’m turning into a pumpkin as it is.” The sorceress fell silent as they ate, trying to think of a way to broach the topic naturally. She couldn’t really think of one. “About Schneider,” she finally just said, not looking at him. “I--I want you to know that if he’s still harassing you... I will send him away.”

“Khyrisse,” Ebreth sighed, “I thought we’d settled this. You don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t want to have to do that,” she said honestly, making herself lift her head to meet his eyes. “I think he’s badly messed up right now, and I--I have a hard time blaming people properly for things they do when they’re unhinged, because of my father. Ebreth, it’s not that I don’t hate what Schneider did to you; it’s not that I condone it, or agree with what he said to you at all. I just... have a hard time associating all this with the Schneider I knew before the Madness. I guess I keep hoping he can be that person again.” Khyrisse sighed, the shadow of an old sorrow passing briefly over her face. “But if it comes down to which of you I want in my life, Ebreth, there’s no question of what my answer’s going to be.” She reached out and lightly, almost shyly, touched the blue and gold ring on his finger. “You and Skitch are the most important people in the world to me. That’s all I really wanted to say.”

Ebreth Tor looked at her rather intensely across the breakfast service for a few moments, his mouth unsteady, and then lifted her right over it to himself, pushing the teacups and pastries to the floor for Sennett to deal with later.

***

Shilree was poking the ground dully with a stick, watching with Flicker as the sun rose over the Doomlands. “Well say something Sunny, or are you going to sit next to me in silence all morning.”

“It’s who I am,” Flicker said, with a slightly apologetic shrug, “now. I’m better at listening than talking. What’s on your mind?”

“Where should I start,” she said half bitterly.

“Start with what hurts most,” he suggested, “work outward from there.”

Shilree bit her lip and poked the tip of the stick into the fire. It smoldered for a moment then caught. She pulled the stick out and blew out the fire, leaving a glowing red tip. “I am afraid Sunny,” she said, not looking at him. “Afraid of what is happening to me. All my life I have been in control. These memory visions... I do not think I am sure who I am anymore.”

He put an arm around her. “A secret I’m learning,” he said, “we’re all pretty much winging it.” Flicker paused. “No one is in complete control. You’re doing very well, Shilree. Do you remember Sunny, how she cracked? She couldn’t handle her irreconcilable memories. You’re stronger than that. You should be proud of that strength. It’s more than most of us have.”

Shilree leaned her head against his shoulder, still staring at the glowing tip of the stick. “Thanks,” she said. “You always knew what to say, my friend.”

Flicker was quiet a while. “Shilree,” he finally said, slowly, “our goal here... is to stabilize the Rift. Then to prevent Gila from taking this sphere. I have no more love for Gila than you do.” Shilree remembered, without wanting to, the illithid Max, thought of the Ralchar doppelganger, and her hand closed. “But when Tres was trying to conquer the world, the right thing to do was to expose and defeat Tres, not slaughter every peasant in Dalencia. We need to stop the Gilan government, and we need to protect our people. We don’t need to kill or even drive out every lizardman on the Dark Islands, and we shouldn’t. Don’t let revenge prevent you from accomplishing our task. It can be a deadly mistake.”

“I know,” she said. “I spent too much time in Trade not to. I just want to see them burn.” As if to emphasize her last remark Shilree stuck the ember at the end of the stick into the ground. It gave off a faint, dying hiss as it went out. “Gila, and especially V’nos, thought they could fuck with me. I am not as strong a fighter as you, as skilled a thief as Tila, or as a powerful a mage as Khyrisse, but I am not someone to be trifled with. They will not be allowed to get away with this.”

“And they won’t,” promised Flicker. “Whatever else happens, whatever else you lose, I can promise you, at least, that I will still be here.”

Shilree squeezed his hand rather hard.

***

Khyrisse lay tracing Ebreth’s dark shoulder, his left arm wrapped around her and his hand draped gently across the slight swell of her belly. “Ebreth?” she murmured. “I--asked Schneider to join the Rat Pack. For this mission.”

Ebreth nodded. “I know,” he said softly.

“You--do?”

“You wouldn’t have brought him up if you hadn’t,” he pointed out, tousling her already mussed curls. “It’s all right. He owes Tucson anyway. Some of the guy’s goons cut his face up pretty bad.”

“Is that what happened.” Khyrisse looked faintly ill. “Grendel. I’ll have Val cast heal on him.”

Ebreth nodded.

“Will you please just tell me what he’s doing to you, Ebreth?” she whispered, touching her hand to his face. “Mabye I can get him to stop.”

“He’s not doing anything, he--” Ebreth sighed. “He thinks I’m, something less than human. It wears me down, the way he talks to me, the way he treats me, the way he looks at me. It’s nothing he’s doing. It’s--nothing at all. It’s me.”

“No, it’s not,” Khyrisse said, in a very small voice. “It’s him. I’ve--been here, Ebreth. I know what it’s like, being worn down like that, and not being able to explain it. The death of a thousand cuts. Ebreth, I’m sorry.”

He closed his eyes, unable to hide his relief. “I ought to be stronger than this,” he said. “I shouldn’t let him get to me this way, but he does, and it’s hard, I mean it’s--really hard. I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. I swear I don’t need you to punish the man for it. It’s just, it’s so much easier knowing it, that it matters to you, even--a little.”

“It matters a lot to me.” She hugged him fiercely. “There are just... some people you have no normal defenses against, Ebreth, because they hit you when you had your guard down. It’s like they can always find the chink in your armor after that. I know.”

“I’m also scared of him,” Ebreth admitted, quietly. “Of what he might be capable of.”

Khyrisse winced her eyes shut. “I wish I could reassure you,” she said, “but I just don’t know.”

“I think he believes, he really believes, that nothing that happened to me, could ever--nothing would ever be wrong, not to him. He doesn’t think I deserve any human decency at all. He doesn’t think I deserve you. He doesn’t think I deserve a name. He thinks it was a favor not to just kill me. He doesn’t think I deserved to be let out of Hell, and he’d send me back in a Rimbor minute. He talks to me, he looks at me, like I’m some kind of thing, something beneath his notice.”

Khyrisse shuddered. “Ebreth,” she said, “Schneider is wrong. He’s messed in the head--it’s not true, it’s not fact, any of it. No one believes this but Schneider. Jack doesn’t. Lora doesn’t... even Luthien doesn’t. I don’t know why Schneider won’t believe me, but it’s his problem, not yours. And if he hurts you, Ebreth, if push comes to shove, I’m with you. I just keep hoping it won’t come to that.”

“It won’t,” he said. “I won’t let it.” Ebreth sighed. “I’m just in such a corner here. I won’t hide from him. I won’t give you up. And I can’t just break his fucking neck. Guess I have to just put my head down and take it. There’s nothing else to do. It--helps knowing you appreciate it.”

Khyrisse laughed a little sadly, rolling up on her elbow to look at him. “How much you must love me, Ebreth Tor,” she whispered. “There can’t be a dozen people on Ataniel for whom I’d put up with Eric Tremontagne’s company. Appreciate it?”

“I can endure a lot of things,” he said, “just not--alone.”

“Well, you’re never going to be alone again.” She leaned over to kiss him lightly on the forehead. “Come on, let’s get up and see what everyone else is up to.”

Interlude: Information Warfare

No one ever came to the lower chambers of the Great Library anymore. The oppressive nature of the immense concentration of ancient and forbidden knowledge spooked even the most curious and ambitious of the Diari. It was said that some of the old scrolls, books, and crystals had even gained sentience from the sheer weight of the knowledge that surrounded them.

On this occasion, though, footfalls and long shadows broke the silence of the monolithic halls. The books had a visitor, which would have surprised many but not them. For some odd reason they had been getting visitors recently. For the tomes, of course, “recently” was measured in centuries.

The visitor’s step had a characteristic shuffle, shuffle, clack, as if he had a third leg made of something other than flesh. Like the others who braved these depths, he was powerful enough not to be daunted by the immense presence the books had but unable not to be awed by it. After only a brief pause--which might have been days, perhaps only a few hours--the visitor continued on, with a shuffle, shuffle, clack, and began his terrible research.

The books could not be said to watch, exactly, but they perceived with keen interest as the cloaked and cowled visitor drew aside the curtain about the imperious old card catalog, a ball of cold corpse light hovering over one shoulder to illumine the direction of its master’s gaze. Patience was not this visitor’s usual way, the books could tell, but down here rushing would have felt sacrilegious to even the most flippant of beings. One after another the narrow drawers were opened and closed, the sleeping knowledge inside protesting silently with each disturbance.

There was no telling how long it was before the visitor found what he--or was it she, or even it--had been looking for, but at last the dark figure arose and went shuffling back into an alcove the books knew as one of the deadliest of all. Here could be found things no mortal was meant to know. The books, though, were not alarmed. The only information that could actually destroy the world of Ataniel was in the very heart of the Library, where even the gods had stopped daring to go a long time ago. Whatever this visitor planned to wreak, it would not affect the books, and so they contented themselves with absorbing it, and becoming weightier still.

The visitor took a single volume down from the shelf and opened it delicately. From the depths of the dark cowl a red gem glinted, and the visitor sat down to read.

Rat Pack Priorities

There was something about the Mansion that didn’t feel right, and Khyrisse finally put her finger on it: it was the absence of Ebreth and Skitch’s stuff. Not the clutter it sometimes found itself falling into, but the stuff itself. When she wasn’t looking, they had somehow turned her place into their home; here in the Mansion it had been turned back, and it felt oddly lonely. Next chance she got, maybe she’d program some of it back in.

“So we should, like, split up into three teams,” Marty was saying, squinting at his rather sorry-looking notes from the day before. Rani, Mina, and Garal were sitting around the table with him, conferring about the investigations of the day before. Valende and Schneider were sitting off to one side and talking quietly. She had dispelled the negative material stains on the jester, but Khyrisse couldn’t tell if she’d had the chance to heal his damaged face yet or not. “Three?” Rani said quizzically. “I thought we’d decided not to send a team to Heaven.” She looked to Khyrisse for confirmation.

Mina looked over the paladin’s shoulder. “We have a quest to ‘find cute babe’?”

Marty blushed. “The, uh, purple hair one. It’s just shorthand.”

“Can we forget about Purple Hair?” sighed Rani. “She wasn’t involved in the interplanar kidnapping bit, was she, Chuckles?”

“Not that I know of,” mumbled Schneider. “Me and Khyri’s tickle pickle were in the back of this dive called the Rusty Nail, and the rift thingie sucked us in. That’s really all I know.”

Khyrisse mouthed “Tickle pickle?”

“We already investigated the Rusty Nail,” Rani told him. “Yesterday, while you boys were gallivanting around Heaven.” She turned back to Khyrisse. “I was thinking the four of us might go see if there are any other wormholes like these around. If there are, then between Garal, Mina and me, we should be able to find them.”

“And they need me to take notes,” added Marty proudly.

“Uh, yeah,” said Rani. “That and keep negative monsters from kicking our asses.”

Khyrisse nodded. “Sounds like a plan,” she said. “The rest of us are going after this loose soul. Jack thinks the Rat is using some nonlinear patterning something to track it. As for Purple Hair, I’m with Rani--I don’t think she’s a very high priority right now.”

“But now that Master Ebreth is alive,” Marty said excitedly, “she might, like, try to kill him!”

“If she comes back, we’ll just tell her he’s dead again,” Rani shrugged. “That got rid of her pretty easily last time.”

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