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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 12

Scorpion’s Nest: Grand Theft Soul

“I’m here t’ report a theft, laddie,” the green-haired man in the long black raincoat said in a heavy brogue. “Seems some hooligan has taken somethin’ belongin’ t’me.”

“Uh, theft,” said the Rookie, shuffling through the forms in the filing cabinet of the front desk. “Theft, theft...” It was his first day working the desk, actually, but he’d already bothered Officer Novoa twice this morning, and he was hoping he wouldn’t have to do it again. Mercifully, the 409 Theft Reports didn’t take too long to find. “Right, I got it! Now what is it that’s been stolen, uh, sir?”

“A soul, laddie.”

That got attention in the crowded room. “You lost your soul?” said Lieutenant Kilroy from across the department, incredulously. “Try the Mission of Marlukin down on Bleaker Street, dearie,” suggested the secretary, snapping her gum. “They’ve just done wonders for my sister.”

“Nae me own soul, ye bloody rackers, a drowned man’s. But it’s mine by right of the Teind and I want it back now!” Coomara thumped a big hand down on the desk for emphasis.

“Uh...” The Rookie handed the green-haired guy the form nervously. “Then could you, uh, fill this form out for us, please?”

“Oh, all right,” sighed the fey, and squelched over to the police bench with it. “Bloody hell! Date of birth? Do ye have any idea how long ago that was, laddie?”

“Uh, no, sir,” said the Rookie, and then, with more confidence, “but you have to fill the form out accurately in its entirety before the police department is going to be able to help you.”

“Well an’ I’ll just have to be startin’ me countin’ then.” Coomara took a flask of the real old mountain dew out of his mackintosh pocket. “Join me fer a drop o’ the craithur, laddie?”

The Scenic Route

“Oh, you stupid rat,” said Khyrisse, aggravated, and held Skitch’s eleven-year-old head in a viselike grip pointed straight forward as the group wended through the nastiest red-light district in Rimbor City.

“Leggo!” Skitch struggled with her half-heartedly. “I’ve seen naked ladies before! You took me to the Abyss, remember?”

“Thank you!” shrilled the Rat, darting around a building with a couple doing it doggy-style on the decaying front steps.

“Tucson left his soul here?” Khyrisse complained, rolling her eyes.

“Well,” admitted Vas, “I’ve left things in houses of--oof!” He doubled over as Val gave him an elbow to the gut.

“I understand,” squeaked the Rat impatiently, and turned into a fairly filthy-looking alley. Khyrisse sighed and followed him, still with a good hold on her squirming son. “I understand!” he yipped again, at the brick face.

“Please tell me his soul isn’t a brick,” beseeched Khyrisse, looking down the alley across the thousands of bricks making up the building backs.

“I understand!” The Rat hopped up and down and dragged at one of the bricks with his teeth.

“Secret door!” Vickie cried, about two seconds before Khyrisse could.

“Good thing we have all these elves,” Orlen commented.

In These Streets

Rani was so used to filtering out the background impressions of Rimbor City that she would probably never have noticed the cry at all if Mina Paris hadn’t started across the street towards it, jarring the psionicist out of her case-mulling. “Don’t worry about it, Mina,” she sighed. “It’s just the lurkers.”

The sorceress-in-training only picked up her pace as the woman’s cries increased. “I killed a lurker once,” Marty offered. “It, like, fell on my head in this dungeon...”

Rani sighed and jogged after Mina in the direction of a gutted warehouse. Inside the years-ago-burnt-down building, a young woman and a child were being cornered by a ratty looking man. “Hey! You!” Mina cried at him. “What are you doing?”

The attacker looked up and sneered at the young mage. “Fuck off,” he shouted eloquently.

“Leave them alone!” Mina shouted, her fingers beginning the somatic component for sleep.

The man flipped her the finger.

Marty got there then, which would ordinarily be plenty to send the likes of this greaser packing, but the paladin was squinting at the ceiling for whatever jackass thing he was on about now. Rani really hoped the four of them weren’t going to have to handle any real combats, especially if Mina was going to waste her spell roster like this. She tapped her foot impatiently as the young mage cast her spell and the man slumped into unconsciousness. “Amazing,” said Rani. “Now can we get back to work here?”

“They might need help!” Mina protested, stepping into the building towards the other two street people. Rani shook her head. Some lessons just had to be learned first-hand. “Leave us alone!” the woman cried. “Go away! Help!”

“I am trying to help,” Mina said. “I just stopped that guy who was attacking you--”

“We have no money!” the lurker cried.

“We’re with the Rat Pack, ma’am,” Garal offered.

“Look,” tried Mina, “we can escort you to your home safely--”

“No! Leave us alone!” The woman grabbed her child’s hand and began to run away.

“I...” Mina started.

“Welcome to Rimbor, Paris,” Rani said deadpan.

Scorpion’s Nest: RPMVTYR

Callani walked down the alley, her hands in the pouch of her grey sweat jacket, lost in thought.

Janice’s “vibes” or whatever she called them had tipped them off to a loose soul up here in Rimbor that could be the key to driving what remained of Ailonwy’s forces off 213 for good. It hadn’t been hard to find, either: some beefy policeman had it in his belt pouch. Ailonwy or Caitlin would probably have felt obliged to seduce him to take it--he was rather hunky--but Callani was a sensible demon, the kind who wore comfortable shoes, and it was much easier just to filch the thing. Which she did. She was walking back to her pickup point now, through the maze of back alleys belonging to the thieves’ guild known as the Cobras. None of them had yet tried assaulting her.

Then a figure stepped out of the shadows, an ugly, bearded man shorter than Callani, with manic dark eyes and hooved feet that didn’t quite match his ankles. “Caliban?” said Callani, unbelieving.

“Hand over the prize, sister,” sneered the half-devil, “and nobody gets hurt.”

“Look, Caliban,” Callani sighed, “just because I’m not wearing four-inch spike heels doesn’t mean I’m not ready to rumble, you know.” A blue nimbus manifested itself around her.

“Nein!” shouted a man’s voice, from above. Callani and Caliban both looked up instinctively as a buff blond guy in tights alighted on a nearby dumpster. “You vill never take dat dahstahdly mahgic down to die planes of eeeefil!”

“Who the heaven are you?” said Caliban.

“Um, guys?” said Callani, glancing around quickly. “I... hate to say this, but we’re surrounded.”

The three were standing in a ring of penguins.

That was when the Wild Pack attacked...


Once the Rat pointed it out the secret door was easy to find. Vas pushed on a brick marked with a large yellow X and the door slid noisily open.

“I would have found it eventually,” the elf commented.

The alleyways beyond were especially sinister for not opening out into the streets. It would be easy for someone who wasn’t familiar with them to get cornered here, and Khyrisse found herself glancing up at the overcast sky more than once, going over in her mind the various spells that could lend the party flight if escape became necessary. The Rat, unconcerned, scampered through the claustrophobic alleys like he’d known them all his life.

“Do you hear something?” Val frowned, cocking her head a bit.

Khyrisse stopped walking to concentrate. She did hear something, distant shouting, mabye. As the Rat Pack drew closer it became obvious it was the sound of a fight, and even more obvious that the fight was where the Rat was headed. Khyrisse drew her wand as she rounded the corner, and then her jaw dropped practically off her face. “Oh... my... flarking... Grendel.”

The thieves’ warren was a confused jumble of violence, and at the center of it was a woolly purple thing Khyrisse recognized as a member of the strike force once led, in unhappier times, by her mad father. Jerking her head back and forth she located Brain Mechanism, as well. There was no sign of Doctor Anomaly, but that didn’t mean the dangerous alien wasn’t around. “This is not. Good,” she said, more to herself than to anyone else.

“Hey, look, there’s Goatboy!” said Ebreth. “The guy with the fake feet who tried to hang Tarrin!”

“Let’s kack him first,” suggested Skitch, wrinkling up his nose.

“Merde! Let’s stay out of this!” Khyrisse dragged her son back from the fracas. “I am not taking on the Wild Pack unless there is a damned good reason.”

“Can we at least stay and watch?” asked Skitch. Goatboy threw his invulnerable rope at Captain Tres; it wound itself around the flying Aryan’s limbs, and he crash-landed on a couple of penguins.

“And catch the crossfire? I don’t think so!”

“Too late,” sighed Valende, as Tinky Winky bonked Vastarin over the head with his large plastic purse and wild magic raced across the elf’s outline.

“Dibs on the crewcut!” called Vickie, swinging into combat.

Ebreth frowned. He didn’t like fights without a clear objective; it reminded him that he found combat kind of fun for its own sake, and that still scared him at some level. Captain Tres delivered another flying kick to his head, making some racist comments Ebreth didn’t dignify with a response. He caught the guy’s cape as he zoomed by and caromed him forcefully off a nearby dumpster. The penguins seemed to be working together, though it was hard to tell because it was so difficult to keep penguins in conscious view. And the Wild Pack seemed to be working together, though that was a little hard to tell because of their completely chaotic attack patterns. Other than that, it was a giant free-for-all. Ebreth had no idea why any of these people were fighting in the first place, much less why the Rat Pack was fighting any of them. “Jack?” he called softly, cleaving in half a writhing ball of snakes somebody had thrown at him. “What exactly does the Rat want us to be accomplishing here?”

This just figured. The Rat’s humanoid friends were finally providing a really good distraction by fighting with the other big people who were trying to get to the soul the Rat wanted, and it wasn’t there. Apparently someone else had already taken advantage of the chaos to sneak off with it. Seeker of Places was disappointed. Humans made pretty good villains, but they weren’t usually clever enough to think of such things by themselves. He wondered briefly if the current possesser of the soul might not be a rodent, but a bit of power-sniffing yielded the trail, and it was definitely a big person. Only one big person, so the Rat Pack could probably take it away from him, but to do that they’d have to catch him first, and they were being distracted by the very fight the Rat had hoped would distract all their adversaries. This was unpleasantly ironic.

Still, maybe he could catch their attention and get them on the trail before any of the other fighting humanoids. That would at least give them a good head start.

Seeker of Places picked up a crazystraw one of the Wild Pack had dropped and galloped down a side alley, holding it aloft like a little chartreuse battle standard.

“I, uh,” Jack Paris’ voice floated from somewhere behind him. “I think that might mean ‘retreat’.”

“Rat Pack run away!” cried Marty Hu heartily.

Innocence And Experience

The fourth weakpoint proved identical to the second and third: closed seam, leaking negative particles at an incidental rate, which Garal could open into an unstable wormhole. The merchant in whose yard she found #4 confirmed that it had indeed flashed open around four the previous evening, sucking in his dog. Garal couldn’t explain why the first wormhole stayed in an open position and the others didn’t, but Rani had seen enough to add “Pyramid rift opened other wormholes when touched, sucking nearby material through” to her notes. Mina wanted to rescue the dog.

Rani sighed and ran her fingers through her silver hair, not because a hair was out of place--none was--but because Mina was still shaken by the incident down at the docks, and Rani didn’t know how to explain to her that she would have run away too. Street people--we--don’t have the luxury of trusting people like you, Mina. If that woman had the capacity to rely on the kindness of strangers, she would already be dead and her child with her. Tourists came and tourists went, the wide eyes and expensive jewelry of their upper-class upbringing glittering briefly through the crowd. There would be a homicide in the wharf district today. The man they’d seen hadn’t been going to kill that woman and her child; Rani and her mother had been the targets of countless such acts of aggression, and it hadn’t been what had killed Rani’s mother, and it wouldn’t be what killed Rani. But now the spell would wear off and he would wake feeling more impotence and rage than he had before. That particular woman had probably gotten far enough away by now, but the next person he ran into weaker than himself would be an outline on the pavement when the sun rose tomorrow. Octavian was right: the only way to deter violence permanently was to strike fear into people’s hearts, make them believe they had barely escaped with their lives, that next time they might not be so lucky, that they were still being watched. A young aristocrat passing through town casting sleep on you didn’t do that. It only deferred the violence. And violence deferred, Rani knew, was violence doubled.

So there were a lot of things running through Rani’s mind right now: what these four weakpoints meant, what it had to do with John’s soul, what was happening to the city she hated and loved, what it had to do with Heaven, and what it meant to lose your soul in a place like Rimbor City anyway, but for some reason the one that was floating to the top, as she looked at Mina whistling hopefully through the rift Garal was holding open for her, was I can’t believe I brought you here.

Questions Without Answers

Hsin had healed the crippled horse. Two others were already dead, but that was still enough for them to proceed, since Ironbait was big enough to carry Hou-Hsieh and Jason both and Shilree had the odd ability to travel alongside horses by foot. She wasn’t really well enough to do it just yet, though, so once they’d attained the other side of the canyon--thanks to the Shikinti sorceress’ wall of force spell--the group set up camp as soon as they found a reasonably protected space on the other side.

“I assume you all would like an explanation,” Shilree began, tiredly.

“That would help a lot, yes,” said Praxis.

Shilree took her ancient tome out of her pack and opened it on the ground. “Over the last few months I have been investigating a new area of magical theory. This book is what initially led me to it. I could go into detail but to be honest it is pretty dry stuff. The bottom line is that I can use a minor artifact--in this case the spent Gem of Souls--to channel these unusual magics. The spells are very difficult and quite draining. I just didn’t realize how draining. But I will be prepared for that next time.”

There was a brief pause. “Uh, Shilree, that’s all very interesting, but it’s not what we need to know,” said Praxis.

Shilree looked confused. “What then?”

“Well, are you aware that you psionically attacked me when I tried to probe you?”

A myriad of emotions passed over Shilree’s face: anger, confusion, even fear. “I... don’t understand,” she said. “I do have a couple of psionic tracks but they are things like the telepathic link I had with Anjra. There should not be any way I could attack you. Certainly not while unconscious.” She was obviously upset, and she pushed past the calming hand Flicker tried to offer her. “I... I need to think by myself for a while.”

“She’s wiggy,” Kit said, watching the Diarian go with poorly hidden concern.

“Please show a little respect for elders,” scolded Hsin.

“The child does have a point,” Xiang said cautiously. “Miss Vestrin continues to suffer from these seizures, and it is not entirely clear that she is in control of her actions at other times. I fear her behavior may be a danger to the rest of the group.”

“And what did she do when you tried to help her, Todd?” Hou-Hsieh put in.

“That was my incaution. It was just a mindtrap. I was prepared for her to have magical defenses, not psionic ones. And they weren’t Diarian, either.”

“Gila?” Flicker asked.

“Has to be, all factors considered.”

“Hold on!” Jason said, a bit alarmed. “You’re saying the bad guys have control of her mind? That she’s some kind of... puppet or something?”

“Let’s put that line of thought on hold, right now,” Praxis said. “I know how easy it is to spin a plausible theory with some supporting, but circumstantial, evidence. Believe me, you’ll twist your head around worse than Gila ever could. And there are some things you have to understand about Shilree. She’s under a lot of stress. Her fiancée was recently murdered. And a year ago she was tortured by Gila.” Hsin said a prayer, moved by the practice of this evil rite on anyone. “Shilree is secretive; it’s partly a Diarian thing, partly the career she’s used to. But she’s always been good at getting information. She just needs a little gentle encouragement in sharing. So it’s up to us to work a bit harder. And if this mindtrap does prove... problematic, I’ve taken steps to deal with it.”

We sure have, boss! thought Mind and Body, in rare unison.

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