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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 13

Trackdown

Ebreth had long ago lost his bearings. The back alleys of the thieves’ warren all looked the same to him. Even Valende had lost the trail and been forced to double back three times now. If whoever they were following knew his way around these alleys, he’d be long gone before the Pack could catch up to him. Ebreth wished Rani hadn’t split off to look for wormholes; the psychometrist could probably have picked up a useful impression or two from the footprints.

They turned the corner and ran smack into a T-junction. “Which way now,” Khyrisse sighed.

“There’s always treasure to the left,” Schneider mumbled.

“What?” said Vas, his voice still helium-squeaky from his wild-magic encounter.

“Nothing.”

“Oh, Corellon,” sighed Valende, kneeling in the crossroads. “Why couldn’t this all have happened in the forest?... It looks like tracks go in both directions. The pavement’s too hard for me to be able to tell which one’s the trail we’ve been following.”

“I understand!” said the Rat, and took off down the left-hand branch.

“Always listen to Tila,” murmured Khyrisse, her eyes twinkling, and followed him. She made an audible gasp as she turned the corner, and Ebreth dashed after her, his hand going to the hilt of his rapier. A body was crumpled in the alley. Khyrisse herself looked fine. “Thank you!” said the Rat, jumping up and down next to the corpse.

“Is that the guy we’ve been tracking?” said Skitch.

“I don’t sense any soul here,” Val frowned.

“A body,” said Orlen, rounding the corner. “Maybe we should call Rani.”

“Let’s try to find out what happened to him first.” Khyrisse gently turned the dead man over.

“I could carry him back to milady’s Mansion for Rani to have a look at,” Vas squeaked..

“Does anyone else think it’s kind of weird that when we discuss what to do with a dead body we find in an alley, calling the police never even occurs to us?” said Schneider.

“No,” said Kingfisher.

Khyrisse put her hand over her mouth, but didn’t vomit. “His... brain... is gone,” she managed.

“Okay, this is definitely Rani’s forte,” Val said.

“Gone?” Ebreth looked. It was an ugly sight, all right. The side of the guy’s head was split open, and there was a lot of blood. “Could this be another undead thing, maybe?”

Khyrisse shook her head, most of her composure back now. “We’ve seen this before,” she said.

“Gila,” Schneider confirmed grimly.

This meant nothing to Ebreth Tor. “Who’s Gila?”

“Illithids,” said Khyrisse. “Mind-flayers. What the flark are they doing involved with this?” She rubbed her forehead and used Ebreth’s forearm to help herself up from the pavement. “Dammit, now I wish I’d paid more attention to Shilree. She wanted me to look into some old Gilan fortress out here, but she couldn’t explain why...”

Jack, Ebreth noticed, had been ignoring the entire conversation, and the body itself for that matter. Instead, he was squinting at the shadows of the alley. “What is it?” Ebreth asked him, low.

“The... light,” frowned Jack. “The position of all the shadows, none of it is right...” He turned to look at the wall behind them, and his eyes rested on Khyrisse’s shadow. Ebreth followed his gaze. Now that Jack mentioned it, the shadow didn’t seem right; it was too long compared to Valende’s beside it, and it didn’t move when she did. “Khyrisse, get back!” he shouted, diving for her as the silhouette of a man began to slide off the wall into a three-dimensional shape. Val stood her ground and whipped out the already-glowing Sword of Corellon

“No!” Vickie suddenly cried, grabbing at the elf’s sword arm, but it was too late. There was a blinding flash, and all the shadows in the vicinity had subsided to normal. Skitch waved at his own to make sure, and it waved back normally.

“What are you doing?” Val demanded angrily, shoving Vickie away.

“I recognized the shape of the shadow. It was...” Her voice trailed off in doubt.

“She’s right,” Jack said. “I think it was Amatsu.”

Interlude: Revenge Is Like Ice

“Your usual?” said Kevin, from behind the bar.

You had to hand it to the Mithril Dagger: they didn’t hold grudges. If the bartender was annoyed about Edyric breaking in last year, he didn’t show it. Which was how Edyric wanted it. Joining the fucking Trade Assassin’s Guild was the only thing in her life she was bitterly regretting right now, but she sure as hell didn’t feel like apologizing. “Two,” said Edyric. The last few weeks had been interesting but convoluted, and the archer needed to unwind.

Kevin brought out a sealed envelope in addition to the tall mugs of spiced ale. Edyric frowned at it. “Shilree left it,” he explained. “She was heading off somewhere and couldn’t stay to meet you, but she had information she’d promised you.”

Edyric took a long swig and broke the seal. It was, in fact, the report Shilree had promised. Edyric felt vaguely guilty--after all, she had enough to do without picking on people who were actually trying to help Lotus--but she hadn’t gone after Anjra intentionally, and eggs got broken in her business.

“Is that Edyric?” Kayla called from the back room. “There’s a delivery for her.”

“From Shilree, I know,” her brother called back. “I just gave it to her.”

“No, another one.” Ataniel’s best barmaid appeared, wiping her hands on her towel. “It just came in this morning. It’s up here.”

Edyric blinked in astonishment as Kayla took what appeared to be a lead miniature of an archer off the mantle and handed it to her. It was painted to resemble Edyric uncannily, complete with a tiny scar running down its scowling visage. “What the hell is this?”

She picked it up and squinted at it; there was a slight red flash, and Edyric flinched at a sudden small prick on her cheek. She dropped the figurine automatically and felt at her face. There was a small pin piercing it. Edyric cursed and pulled it out, more annoyed than really angry. “You’d better go back and get an antidote potion,” Kevin said to Kayla. “You never know with things like that.”

Edyric was examining the pin. It was a tiny glass sliver, actually, carved into the form of an arrow. She looked at the figurine where it had fallen on the bar. Its bow was empty. “Who the hell sent me this?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” Kayla said apologetically. “He was wearing a cowl that hid his face in shadows. You know the type.” She went back to look for the potion.

Edyric put her hand to her cheek again. There wasn’t any blood, but the flesh felt strange... cold. She looked past Kevin into the large mirror behind the bar and stared, for the part of her face around the miniature puncture wound was no longer flesh. From the look of it, it was glass, and it was spreading.

Edyric glanced back down reflexively at the figurine.

It was smiling.

Some Of Us Think About Things More Than Others

Rani lay in bed unsleeping, the wheels in her head continuing to turn. Four holes in Rimbor City. Garal thought they might have been accidental byproducts of powerful interplanar magic carelessly cast. There was something about that that didn’t sit right with Rani, but she couldn’t put her finger on it, so for now she was going with the planeblazer’s hunch over her own. The obvious next question was what kind of magic could have been cast here recently to tear the dimensional fabric so severely. Could it be related, maybe, to the negative material incursion into Heaven? Some mega-mage connecting those two planes somehow? Or to the return of John Tucson’s soul from wherever it had been stashed these past seven years?

She went on thinking long into the night.



Mina lay in bed concerned. The people in Rimbor had a sad mien about them, and the distrust the Rat Pack found as they traveled about worried her. How could a people known so much for their independence be so completely without any of the other positive attributes?

She’d have to ask Ebreth about it.



Vickie rolled over and tousled Vas’ hair.

“So what’s with your sister and Rani?” she asked.

“I don’t even know anymore,” Vas smiled. “She is an ineffable spirit.”

“Whatever,” Vickie said.

Evening Song

Jason woke in a flop sweat, feeling the choked up sobs wracking his throat. Oh bloody Tal-- He let the weeping take him, expending the mix of horror and grief into his crossed arms. Kind, steady Cedric, always so willing to listen and reason; how could anyone kill him, just like that, without even trying to understand what they had done or why?

He lifted his head heavily after a few moments, both to dislodge the image of his lover’s dead body and to see if anyone had overheard his outburst.

Somewhat to his embarrassment, he met the mirrored gaze of the elf Flicker. Does the man never sleep? He was on watch when I went to bed! It didn’t really matter, though. Jason had never actually met an elf before, but this one reminded him a little of Cedric somehow, unchallenging and warm, and he didn’t expect anything biting out of him. Jason was glad Shilree wasn’t awake; the Diarian woman scared the crap out of Jason. Though from what Praxis said about her fiancé, perhaps we have more in common then I thought... “Uh, sorry,” he mumbled in Flicker’s direction, daubing at the corners of his eyes with his sleeve.

“Would you like to talk about it?” said Flicker.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.” He lay back in his sleeping bag, miserably, and locked his fingers in his croppy hair. “I just--I miss him. So much. I’m getting along just fine and then something reminds me and it’s there--how he died--that I lost the best person I had the chance to meet and I--” He sniffled a little. “I’m not making much sense, am I?”

“I’ve lost loved ones before,” said Flicker quietly. “This is about Cedric, right? The man you told me about back by the horses?”

“Yeah.” Jason made a small smile. It took effort. “Cedric was my lover. And my life, in so many ways. He was twenty-five when I met him. I was fourteen. He had served under my brother’s command, and they were friends, so when he left the army Peter hired him on as my family’s armsman. I--I could say I fell in love at first sight, but I don’t know. I was young. First crush, certainly. But he became my friend. And I don’t really think I had one, until then.” He sighed, shakily. “It’s hard to explain. I mean there’s a story, and I could tell it, but you’ll never--know--him, no matter what I could say. I can talk about him until I’m blue in the face but it’ll always be past tense. I don’t know if he was really the best man in the world or not. I know he was a good man. A decent one. One who loved me without ever using me, even though it would have been easy. And he’s dead now because of me.” Jason buried his face in his arms. “I was stupid, Flicker. I was so stupid. I thought I could get away with it--not only leaving, but angering the family I was supposed to join. I didn’t just flee, I insulted them and I thought I would be far away enough that it wouldn’t matter anymore.” He paused, wishing for the thousandth time that he could rewind his life, try it one more time taking fewer risks.

“What did you do?”

“Took off with the dowry,” he admitted sheepishly. “I figured we needed money to escape--and for me to live on--and it’s what was on hand. If I’d left it maybe my family could have used it as reparation. Breach of contract. Something. But I didn’t think. We lived in Shikintu a year before the Madness and I felt lucky. We survived, both of us, holed up in our inn room. Cedric fended off some intruders once. I hid under the bed. I was a damn coward but it didn’t matter. We survived, together. I thought it was a sign or something. And then three months ago I went out shopping and when I came back my fiancée’s family had come and gone, and since I wasn’t there and Cedric was...”

Jason gave up on trying to keep his crying quiet and just let the heaves in his chest expend themselves. He and Flicker sat, listening to the fire crackle. And the boy spoke again, his voice stronger. “The thing I find the hardest to understand is why. Not why they killed him, but why--why Tal would let someone like him die instead of someone like me. For all I can see he was the better man. He was good and kind and had skills and talent to share with the world--and I’m just some runaway aristocrat who can barely keep himself alive for three weeks on my own. I don’t like the Church, the way everything they don’t understand is some kind of ‘demon’ to them. But I do believe in order. In a purpose. Cedric spent the last two years of his life saving me and I can’t for the life of me figure out why that was worth it--why that was worth him. His life or his death. I don’t know.”

When Flicker spoke, it was soft but with a depth that made Jason think of the bards and assorted storytellers that would entertain at his family’s home, back in the days when his brother’s unpaid debts hadn’t beggared them all. “Let me tell you a story, Jason. There was a man I knew once, very well. He was a revolution’s voice and embodied all that was noble for many of us, including Praxis and myself. His name was Alain. And he found himself in--unusual circumstances, trying to save the world from a curse very few even knew of. He sacrificed himself bravely. And he failed.”

Jason wondered if this story was supposed to cheer him up.

“There was a woman who loved him,” continued the elf, “not the way you loved Cedric, but loved him just the same--and she took up his cause. And with her grit and her daring and maybe better fortune, succeeded where he could not.”

“So you’re saying it can take all kinds of people? To do good in the world?”

“That’s true,” he agreed, “but it’s not my point. Threnody might never have succeeded either. But loving Alain changed her, made her more than who she was. People have these effects on our lives. Even though Alain died before the curse was lifted, he was essential to its defeat, because of who he was to the woman who broke it.”

Jason felt an almost furious fluttering in his heart, like a dream waking in a dovecote.

“Cedric’s life doesn’t have to stop with his death,” the elf said. “You’re not who you were when you met him. And maybe that transformation will be part of the purpose you’re looking for. Not everything in the world makes sense, Jason, but somewhere in the ways we fit together, in the ways we change each other, there’s a reason to believe.”

Jason was crying again, the spilling kind of tears you can barely see through. “Thank you,” he wept. “Thank you, you--you’re very wise.”

“Not till I met Alain,” smiled Flicker, tapping himself lightly on the heart.

Jason closed his eyes and let the pigeons fly.

Size Matters

Rani buttered herself a scone, looking quizzically after Vas as he flitted out. “You didn’t do him, did you?”

“Maybe I did,” grinned Vickie.

“Girlfriend!” Rani doubled over.

“He didn’t have anything to do last night... I didn’t have anything to do last night...”

“You realize this makes you an elf-lover.”

“I only did it once. Didn’t want to lose my amateur status.”

“Well, give it, girl!” Rani dragged a chair over and sat on it backwards. “Was he up to the hype?”

“He was pretty good,” Vickie acknowledged. “Garal’s bigger, though.”

Rani spluttered noisily into her glove. “You are shitting...”

“Word!”

“Saint A, that halfling must be hung like a--”

“If you switched their John Thomases,” agreed Vickie, “they’d be about proportionate--”

“So how long does that make Vas... no, wait! Wait, don’t tell me.” Rani jumped up, wiping tears of mirth from her exotic lavender eyes. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll find the others.” The detective pointed over her shoulder with two fingers, still laughing. “I’m starting me a betting pool.”

Peekaboo

Garal had seen Vickie enter Vas’ room last night. At one level it bothered him, and on another it didn’t. He wasn’t sure which reaction disturbed him more. He wished Keri was here to talk to about it.

He opened the bathroom door, trying not to think about Vickie and Vas together, and was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with Mina, fresh out of the bathtub and turning to face the door. Dripping wet. Without a towel. Naked.

Garal suddenly knew more about her dye job than he expected.

“Garal!” she screamed, her right arm racing out with incredible speed for a towel.

“I’m sorry...” Garal started, blushing furiously. “An accident...”

“This is a bathroom! You just walk in without knocking?”

She had covered at least her naughty bits with the towel, to Garal’s relief. “I... just...”

“At least shut your eyes! God, do you like this or something?”

Garal covered his eyes. “No, it just happens...”

“Well, jeez!” Mina cried as she swung the door shut. “Learn to knock and it won’t!”

***

This was the fourth time this year. Garal hadn’t had this much trouble since adolescence. He’d be willing to have all those images purged from his memory for even an hour of holding hands with Ember.

Then things got even stranger. At first, he didn’t hear his whispered name; then he didn’t pay attention to it, assuming it a trick of his agitated mind. But then Garal’s shadow flickered against the wall of the Mansion and a... figure... flowed out of it, a vaguely man-shaped two-dimensional haze of greys and blacks. When he tried to look directly at it, it was blurry, its face formless and shadowed. When it was just on the edge of vision, from the corner of his eye, it was recognizable.

“Hello, my friend,” Amatsu whispered. “This one is very happy to see you again.”

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