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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 11

The Kids Are Alright

“There’s no chasm here on the map,” frowned Jason, checking it.

“Most maps of the Doomlands are incomplete,” said Praxis. “That’s why I want to find the Toleskis. They’re the only ones who really know this area.”

“If they know the area so well why didn’t they mention this canyon when they gave you directions?” groused Shilree.

“There’s a bridge up ahead,” Flicker pointed out. “They probably didn’t think it was worth mentioning.”

“Cool.” Kit scrabbled across to the edge of the canyon and looked down. “I hope no one’s afraid of heights.”

heights... heights...

Flicker’s eyes narrowed. “Did you hear that?”

The others strained their ears trying to hear above the wind. “Hear what?”

what... what...

“I think it was just an echo,” said Inez.

“I don’t like this,” Shilree said uneasily. thiss... thiss... “Why is there a bridge out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“Maybe the Toleskis built it?” The big psionicist looked out across the canyon like he was scrying for something. He didn’t, apparently, find it.

“M...aybe,” Shilree said. be... be... “It’s probably nothing. Just let me check for an ambush.”

She muttered some mystic syllables and the party disappeared. Jason yelped, but Praxis put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “We’re just invisible,” he assured him. The Diarian finished her second spell and an illusion of the group headed down the path. It was extraordinarily lifelike, really. She’d even gotten her own nervous tics right: the periodic flick of her eyes back over her own left shoulder, the fingers of her right hand idly toying with her belt loop. Flicker would have thought it was really her.

They were about halfway across when a wrenching snap, and then another, sent the far end of the bridge crumbling into the canyon.

Jason gasped.

“Good call,” Praxis commented at Shilree, as the ugly bird-like things streaked up out of the chasm to meet them, the rock-colored camouflage of their plumage making them hard to see even now. All!... All!... All!...

“Evil birds,” said Kit. “Good thing Mister Hu’s not here.”

Jason watched in awe as the Shikinti adventurers battled the strange flying monsters the twelve-fingered sorceress had lured out with her magical illusion. He backed away from the front line of battle, pulling Cedric’s broadsword out defensively, and his foot went right through some crumbling rock behind him, just off the path.

Jason screamed before he could stop himself.

An arm closed around his waist just as he started falling. There was a very bad moment as his weight jarred into it when he feared the other man might be pulled down with him, or at least that his grip might break, but all that happened was that Jason got a better look down into the canyon than he’d really wanted.

He twisted his head to look instead at the elf with the silver eyes as he pulled him back up to the edge of the ravine. “Watch your step,” he said softly, in a simple voice that somehow obviated thanks, and drew both his blades with the ringing rasp of steel.

Flicker couldn’t tell if these things were magic or psi, but he’d mastered two-handed combat as Janther, so he figured he had the bases covered.

“Kit behind you!” yelled Shilree.

The young thief ducked and rolled as a dagger sliced through the air and into the throat of the bird-creature behind her. It sprayed weird oily goo on her. Not quite blood, and not quite ichor. Kit wondered what the heck these things were.

She punched the careening monster in the head with her glove of titan strength, and that took it the rest of the way down.

“Thanks,” she grinned up at the Diarian.

“No prob...”

Shilree’s words died in her mouth. Her face lost all color and she fell to the ground, her eyes rolled back in her head.

“Crap,” said Kit. She’d never even figured out what she was supposed to do about Mister Tor’s seizures, and according to the old Shikinti priest, this was something totally different anyway.

She guessed she’d better go find Praxis.

“Their blades are coated,” Flicker called over his shoulder at Jason as he engaged one of the bird-like things. “I think it’s poison. Be careful!”

So basically, don’t let it hit you. Right. He watched Flicker carefully parrying each of the blows, which made sense if even a scratch could be deadly--and realized the creature’s weakness. If it has to fly and wield a sword, how can it guard itself against attack? He did his best to gauge the creature’s blindspot and came at it, slashing at its midsection. The bird moved, but not fast enough, and Jason opened a deep gash in its wing. Flicker cleaved off its head as it plummeted, and he smiled at the boy. “Nice shot, kid,” he said.

Jason grinned. He had a feeling there was more to this man than met the eye, and it made him a little nervous, but in the meantime, he was glad to have a partner in this fight. Maybe it doesn’t take Cedric’s skills to be useful, after all. Just the right application of mine. He dropped to his knees the way Xiang had taught him last night, allowing Flicker a clear shot at another one of the creatures which was now off-balance at the loss of its original target. You know, this is almost fun?

Shilree stirred groggily to consciousness. “Wha... what happened?”

“You had another epileptic fit,” Praxis informed her.

“I didn’t touch anything, by the way,” added Kit.

“I remembered...” Shilree shuddered. “What--the hiss’lack! Where are they?”

“Are those the evil birds?” said Kit. “The other guys are still fighting with them, but we’re mostly kicking their butts.”

“How do you know their name?” frowned Praxis.

“I don’t--I don’t know.” Shilree cursed in Diari and struggled to her feet. “Of all the times--” An inhuman scream sounded from behind them. “Zhlay! The horses!” Shilree grabbed at her pack.

“Todd!” yelled Hou-Hsieh. “A little help?”

“You go, Praxis. I’ll handle this.”

The Diarian politician pulled the Gem of Dimensions out of her pouch and began chanting to herself as she jogged across to the horses, an atonal little sing-song that reminded Kit a little bit of...

Damned if Kit could remember.

The Greatest Thief on Ataniel, figuring Praxis and the others could handle the combat, slipped into the shadows and after Shilree.

Jason had just helped Flicker dispatch their third bird-monster and was feeling pretty good about himself when he heard the horses start to scream. “Oh no! Bait!”

He broke into a run for the stand of bushes where the group had left their mounts.

By the time he got there, two of the horses were dead and one looked bad enough that he would probably have to be put down. Ironbait, thankfully, looked alive and well, his warhorse bulk planted firmly in front of the other survivors. Mares all, I bet, grinned Jason, amused by his gelding’s chivalry.

But where were the attacking creatures?

“I don’t see any monsters,” he blurted at Flicker as the elf caught up. “They might still be hiding around here somewhere, they’re very well camou--”

Flicker crossed right passed him and knelt by Shilree, who was collapsed behind a bush. Jason paled. “Oh Tal! I didn’t even see her there! I’m--”

“She’s alive,” said Flicker. “Do you have healing proficiency?”

“I--yes, I do. Yes.”

“See to her. I’ll cover you.”

Flicker stood and scanned the area, carefully, for enemies, his blades drawn and his light hair blowing a bit in the dusty wind. Jason examined Shilree hurriedly. He’d never actually seen a Diarian before, but her pulse seemed strong, and she had no outward wounds. “Her vitals are fine... breathing a little shallow, but she’s not bleeding and there’s no trace of poison. I don’t think they hit her.” Now was as good a time as any to try the mind-net thing. -PRAXIS!-

-No need to shout, Jason. What is it?-

-It’s Shilree. She’s passed out--the bird-things were attacking the horses and I guess Shilree stopped them. She wasn’t wounded by their blades, but I don’t know what happened to her.-

-There in a minute.-

Jason looked up at Flicker, a little sheepishly. “Praxis is coming. He’ll probably be able to do something for her. I’m so sorry--I just wanted to know if Bait was all right, I didn’t even think--”

“It’s okay, Jason.”

“No, really. I don’t blame you if you think I’m crazy, making sure my horse is fine before I even notice the leader of our group is lying unconscious in the dust. It’s just that--I mean--Ironbait was Cedric’s horse and I have so little from him left but it’s more than that, I mean, Bait loves Cedric, still, and he’s the only one I share that with, anymore...” Jason flushed, conscious of his babbling.

“Jason,” said Flicker. “I meant it. You don’t have to explain. I understand.”

“You... do, don’t you.” They shared a moment’s silence. “What... do you think happened to her?”

“I don’t know.” The elf’s eyes rested on the sedge for a few moments too long. At first Jason thought he had caught sight of another of the bird-things, and he reached for Cedric’s sword. “Kit?” said Flicker. “Maybe you could fill us in?”

“She was casting some kind of spell with her magic gem,” said Kit. “I didn’t recognize it or anything. There was a really bright light, and when it cleared away, the monsters were gone. No bodies or anything. I was kinda scouting around to see if they might still be hiding around here somewhere.”

“It would appear to be simple exhaustion,” said Hsin.

“I’m going to do a probe,” said Praxis. Flicker nodded assent at him.

“Someone should look at the gem,” suggested Kit. “Because maybe it sucked the monsters in there. Some magic gems can do that.”

“It doesn’t seem--wait a second,” frowned Praxis. “What the--” He threw his hand up reflexively as an invisible force shoved him across the clearing and into a bramble. He quickly disentangled himself, giving Shilree’s unconscious form a very odd look.

“What happened?” said Jason.

“That was a psionic attack. Flicker, I thought she didn’t have the Gift?”

“She doesn’t.”

“Then someone has done some major professional rewiring of her mind. There’s a large section covered by mindtraps. Whatever’s in there, someone wanted to be damn sure nobody got in.”

Flicker’s brow crinkled a bit. “What did they do to you?” he asked, under his breath.

“Other than that, she seems fine.” Praxis shrugged. “I think she’s just overexerted from major spellcasting so soon after her epileptic seizure, really; I saw signs of magical depletion before I got ejected. The real question is these psionic traps.”

“Maybe she’ll have some answers for us when she wakes up,” said Flicker. “For now, we need to find another way across this canyon.”

“We’re out in the desert,” Kit said to Jason. “We could call ourselves Oasis.”

“Or the Dunebuggies,” offered Jason.

“Keep working on it,” Praxis said diplomatically.

Chess Piece Face

Seeker of Places led the Rat Pack through the streets of Rimbor in zigzag rodent vectors. He was scurrying at the top of his ratly speed, but that still left his long-legged companions strolling slowly enough to get a good look around at the surroundings. Vas was using the opportunity to check out the female passersby. Skitch was admiring the graffiti.

“Kiddo,” Khyrisse murmured at him, “you even think about trying that out back home and I teach you to do crop reports.”

“It’s artistic, Mom!” Skitch protested.

It was, actually, at least in places: three- and four-color stylized mosaics of the writers’ names, mostly, moreso than random invectives. Jack, looking the graffiti-covered wall over, suddenly winced as though something acidic had sprayed into his eye. “Aaah!” he shouted, turning away from the wall.

“Jack!” Ebreth caught him by the shoulder. The Rat turned back on his path and galloped back to his friend, chittering in concern. “What’s wrong?”

Khyrisse’s butterfly mask of true seeing flared to life around her eyes, but there was nothing abnormal she could see. “I... I don’t know,” said Jack, his composure returning. “I just looked at that triangle and--” He glanced back at it and doubled over, face contorted in pain. “No! It’s... not right!”

“It’s just a dumb old triangle,” frowned Skitch. It was indeed merely a triangle, in broad green line, painted on the brick wall.

“All wrong. Can’t be! Measure it!”

Vickie, looking at the mathematician oddly, took a tape measure out of her bag and obliged. “Lessee, 19... 15.... 42. Why’s that matter?”

“It’s not possible!” Jack insisted. “Sum of two sides... in a triangle... always greater than third.”

Vickie checked her tape measure. It looked fine. She re-measured. The same results. “It just looks like a plain triangle,” Vas said, puzzled by Jack’s reaction.

“But it shouldn’t exist!” He was back on his feet, though avoiding looking at it. “It’s not right. Can we go, please?”

He’s right, the Monkey King said in Vickie’s head. It should be squares.

Holes in the World

Rani paused a moment, hovering uncertainly. “In here,” she said, turning off into a boutique named Clara’s.

Once they were inside Garal saw it immediately. The halfling was secretly rather impressed with Rani’s ability to track dimensional ravels from afar, but she intimidated him too much to tell her so. “There’s a weak spot in the Prime Material right here,” he confirmed, pushing between a couple of clothing racks. His fingers slipped deftly into subspace, and then a dark pulsing fissure opened between them. “And another wormhole,” he finished, blinking his fractal-patterned eyes in amazement. “Okay, there’s no way this is a coincidence. I’m a planeblazer of the fifth circle and I’ve never seen more than two wormholes in the same vicinity like this.”

“Is this one also unstable?” Mina inquired.

“Highly.” Garal let the rift snap shut. “I should probably start closing these.”

“Not until we know what’s going on here,” said Rani.

“But they’re unstable,” said Garal.

“Yeah, I believe you,” she said. “Now you believe me that you don’t destroy evidence till you’ve figured out what it means.”

“Besides, other people might be trapped there like Ebreth was,” Mina sided with the detective.

“But what if the worms come back?” Marty said anxiously.

“Oh, thank goodness!” A heavyset woman wearing a lot of jewelry hurried across the boutique towards them, saving anyone from having to think of a response to Marty. “You must be the people I sent for from the Mages’ Guild. Finally! Can you do something about this awful rift?”

“We hope so,” said Rani, not bothering to correct her misperception. “Can you tell us exactly what happened?”

“Isn’t that your job?” she demanded.

Rani rolled her eyes. “Can you tell us what you noticed, please?”

“Don’t get snippety with me, young woman,” said the shopkeeper, her eyes flashing. “As I told your self-preoccupied guildmaster yesterday, all I saw was a black flash that sucked one of my circular racks into it. Fine Shikinti silk, all of it. Three thousand gold crowns lost forever. Now what are you going to do about it?”

“This was around four o’clock, yesterday?” said Rani.

“Yes!” she said. “And why has it taken you so long to send someone to get rid of it, I might ask?”

Rani had the distinct feeling that no one from the Mages’ Guild was ever going to answer this annoying woman’s imperious summons to come get rid of her magical anomaly. “Same time the Rusty Nail wormhole sucked Tor in,” she said to Marty, Mina and Garal, “just after I touched the one in the Pyramid-O-Rama.”

“Is your foolish magical experimentation responsible for this?” demanded the shopkeeper. “I’m going to sue your guild for all it’s worth!”

“You do that, lady,” said Rani. She tapped her gloved fingers on her cheekbone, trying to think. “So there are at least three unstable wormholes in Rimbor City,” she said slowly, “and they’re all connected somehow. But how did they get here... and why?”

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