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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 14

The Short Temper of the Law

“Here they come, pop,” Jennifer said, leaning over the porch rail.

“I can see, woman, I’ve got eyes.”

“Old shriveled up ones.”

“Yeah, and they can see better than yours with all that crap on your face.”

“At least one of us will look presentable for the company, you old coot.”

“Hey, I got my badge and I put pants on. What the hell else do you want?”

“You don’t want to know,” smiled Jennifer.

Toleski the elder sighed and stood up as the adventurers approached. Jennifer followed him down the steps. “You must be the Diarian delegation,” Toleski said. “I’m Jethro Toleski, the law out here in the Doomlands. As of this moment an’ until you’re out of my territory, y’all answer to me.”

“Oh, this is going to go over soooo well,” Jennifer sighed to herself.

If Shilree hasn’t been so threadbare and close to the edge her diplomatic side might have won out. Of course, it didn’t. “Excuse me? Answer to you? Listen kiljhac, do you have any idea who I am?”

“Sure do. You’re some six-fingered hotshot who thinks she knows everything about everything but don’t really know crap about how the Doomlands really work.”

“I’ve been to the Doomlands before,” Shilree said confidently.

“I heard tell you done fell in the Rift. That don’t sound like you know what you’re doing.”

“I am the Regent of Diarni once of the Council of Trade and I don’t need some kiljhac hick...”

“If you don’t want me kickin’ your ass back to Diaria you do, lady.”

“Dad, is this really helping?” Jennifer Toleski asked.

“It’s helpin’ me.”

With blatant unsubtlety, Praxis stepped between Toleski and Shilree. He was far bigger than either of them, which made it difficult for them to continue their dispute around him. His voice rising above his normal professorial monotone, he said “Before this... misunderstanding goes any further, I should clear a few things up. Mr. Toleski, we are not here to challenge your authority in this land or threaten you in any way. In fact, we’re here to prevent the Doomlands from being destroyed.”

“What?” shouted Jennifer.

“And, as my esteemed colleague Shilree has pointed out, we’re well aware of the direness of your land. I hope you will understand why we may be... wary. Come on Jethro, we’re not homebodies who wandered out here by mistake. Remember the first time we met? How that giant Roc tried to swoop away with you before Max and Luthien killed it?”

Jethro Toleski scratched his prickly white beard. “Hell, coulda been any time, city boy. Know how many times I’ve almost been carried off by Rocs?”

Jennifer rolled her eyes. “Here,” she said, taking Bait’s reins from Jason and flipping her braid back over her shoulder. “Let me show you the hitchin’ post. Then I want to hear about this destruction of the Doomlands business.”

Toleski had started to ignore the strident Diarian in favor of the tall psionic. “Things’ve changed since you been out here last, boy. The Monsters done took to the sorta organization that that Silver Savior started, an’ they’ve all got this sorta loose con-federation goin’ on out there.”

“A Monster nation,” said Praxis.

“More like about fifty Monster nations, actually,” Toleski growled. “And just like afore, they don’t much take to humans steppin’ into their turf.”

“Jennifer suggested the two of you accompany us to New Gila,” nodded Praxis. “Would that be to give us official recognition in the Monsters’ eyes?”

“Nah, that’d be cause Jen’s sicka shootin’ at tumbleweeds an’ gettin’ hit on by kobolds. She don’t get out much. Me, I’m just tryin’ to keep you outta trouble. It’s a fragile peace out these parts, and I aim to keep it.” Toleski’s hand suddenly shot down to his side.

He had caught a small arm reaching for his holster. The arm belonged to Kit.

“Try that again and you’ll be doin’ it with yer teeth, kid,” he growled. “‘Cause your arms’ll be about three feet shorter’n they are right now.”

“He’s good,” Kit said to Praxis as she slunk off.

Full of Surprises

Vas seemed blithely unaware that the rest of the party was snickering over the unimpressive size of his cock. Part of Ebreth thought this served the gossipy elf right, and the rest of him felt like he was betraying his gender to jackals for thinking so. Val was the only woman in the Rat Pack who seemed uncomfortable with this as a topic of conversation, and that was probably just because it was her brother involved. “I want to know what the flark is going on with this soul,” Khyrisse was saying. “Cloak wants it, Eric wants it, Gila apparently wants it... the demons want it... Goatboy...”

“Mr. Smith from the NMP,” Garal reminded her.

“Wasn’t Captain Tres working for Odn, back in Jungleland?” said Val.

“And don’t forget the penguins,” said Skitch.

“Grendel! What could be so important about John Tucson?”

“Well, why don’t we track down the mindflayer?” offered Rani. “It probably took the soul from the stiff you found. If we can find it before someone else does, maybe we can get the soul for ourselves.”

“At which point every powerful entity in the city tries to kill us...” murmured Val.

“We’re not going to be able to find the illithid anyway,” Khyrisse sighed.

“Why not?”

“How many illithids have you tracked, Rani?” the sorceress said drolly.

“Three. Unless you count the doppelganger, which I’d rather not.”

Khyrisse blinked at her in astonishment. “You... can really identify illithids?”

“Sure,” she said.

“A lot of illithids use alien shape-changing pills,” Khyrisse said carefully.

“Yep,” said Rani. “Doesn’t change their psychometric aura any. It might be able to use its psionics to mask itself from me, but it’d have to know I was coming, first. Not a lot of people work by psychic impressions.”

Khyrisse raised both eyebrows, and then shrugged. “Too bad we didn’t know you five years ago,” she murmured. “You could have saved a friend of mine a lot of grief. ...Well, at that point I want to look for the illithid now, before we do anything else, and I think I want the whole Pack together--we need Rani to track it, and the rest of us in case she finds it.”

“Yes, please,” said Rani. “Psionic combat between me and a mindflayer would be like a boxing match between Skitch and the One True Bloodscar.”

“Hey,” protested Skitch, unhappy at being used as a metaphor for wimpiness.

Garal cleared his throat. “Uh,” he said, “before we go, there’s something I have to tell you guys.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, there’s, uh, another party member with us, now.”

Interlude: Heart of Glass

“Well,” said Kevin, surveying the new addition to the Mithril Dagger decor, “I think it looks pretty good there.”

“She,” Kayla sighed. “Not it, she.”



“Not until we can get someone to remove the curse, she isn’t.”

“Maybe we could make it a contest!” Kayla perked up. “You know... erase the tab of anyone who can undo it!”

The glass statue of Edyric the archer said nothing.

“Until then, it makes a good hat rack,” Kevin said sympathetically.

“She,” Kayla reiterated.

“I,” the statue corrected, and there was a horrible grinding noise as the crystalline archer came to life and crossed the bar. “Because of the Compact of this place, I forgive this indignity,” she said, taking a tall hat off of her bow. “This is yours.”

Edyric turned and started towards the door.

“Uh, I guess this clears your bar tab,” Kayla offered.

“Only for as long as this world is recognizable as your own,” said Edyric. “Now I must find the one I was brought back to destroy.”

“Uh, who’s that?” prompted Kevin.

“My master’s enemy. The other one like me.”

Then she was gone.

“I guess this means we have to bring the headless Kerouac statue back up from the basement, huh?” Kayla asked.

Sidewinders

The wind whipped Shilree’s hair into a frenzy around her head. The strands of silver and red gave her an almost angelic appearance. She was standing behind the Toleskis’ home, hand at her hip, facing down a line of cans and bottles on the back fence.

Then, without warning, she whipped her pistol out of its holster and fired.

She missed.

“Zharini wind,” she cursed to herself as she holstered the gun.

“That wind is tricky, ain’t it.”

Shilree looked over her shoulder at Jennifer Toleski. “Yeah,” she said.

“Don’t mind the old man, he had tequila for breakfast this morning.”

“It shows.” Shilree fired again and again missed.

“You gotta correct for the wind,” said Jennifer. “Problem is it’s always changin’ out here.” She pulled out her own revolver, squinted into the sun, and then blew away a tin can with a ringing sound.

“Nice shot,” said Shilree.

“Not like I don’t have the time to practice.”

“Can I see your weapon?” Shilree turned it in her hands. “Where did you get these, anyway?”

“Got me,” Jennifer shrugged. “You could ask pop, but then he’d never shut up talkin’ and he’d probably never get to the point anyway. Some adventure back in the dinosaur days, I reckon. Why?”

“It’s a different make than Diari pistols I’ve seen.” She examined the odd barrel. “Doesn’t look like Diari craft at all, actually, but we control the technology for making them very tightly... Hell, it doesn’t matter.” Shilree gave the weapon back to the homesteader. “Let me try this again.” She steadied her pistol before firing this time, and a bottle exploded from the fence with a crunch.

“That’s got it,” grinned Jennifer. “Listen, don’t take my dad too serious-like. The Monster nations have been keeping him busy and when he’s busy he gets in a bad mood. He ain’t a people person, but he’s got a good heart.”

“I know,” sighed Shilree. “I can tell. There’s just a lot on my mind too. I’ll be in soon. I just want to get in some more practice.”

“I’ll save you some grits,” said Jennifer, and went inside.

Shot after shot rang out on the firing range, and each shot was followed by the sound of a can or bottle ending its life on the fence.

***

“Tumbleweeds,” said Jason.

“Sidewinders,” said Kit.

“I like Sidewinders,” offered Flicker.

“What’s the word?” said Shilree, banging the screen door as she came in from the backyard.

“Jethro says we want to head out west and then up the coast to New Gila,” said Praxis, tracing the route for her on the map they had spread out on the table. “It’s a bit longer, but he says it’s the safest route. We really want to be minimizing conflicts with the locals.”

“Yes I agree,” said Shilree. “But we’re going to need to make a slight detour.” She moved her finger northwest into the Doomfissure.

“You crazy, girl?” said Jethro. “Didn’t you get enough of that place the last time you were here? Anyhow, that route puts us right through old Thrin’s territory. He’s a nasty bugger.”

“It doesn’t matter. We need to go there.” Shilree sighed. “Look, I know you know the Doomlands better than anybody. If you know a better route I’m happy to take it. But I have to go to the Doomfissure. Whether you choose to accompany me or not.”

“And why exactly is this so necessary?” asked Praxis.

“Because it is.”

“Zen aside, that’s not a good enough answer. Look, Shilree, if there’s something that needs to be done there to stop the Rift explosion, fine. Just tell us and everyone’s up for that. But we can’t run a group if you’re going to go tearing off in hitherto unmentioned directions without any reason why. If we have to improvise, we can do that--Lord knows we did enough of it fighting Shadow. But it worked for us then because we worked together.”

Shilree looked from Praxis to Flicker, uncomfortably. They were an imposing bulwark of sanity when they closed ranks, and they had closed ranks now; Shilree sighed more deeply, and acquiesced. “This--it has to do with the magics I’ve been telling you about,” she said, her eyes flicking uneasily to Toleski. “I’m sorry if I seem paranoid Praxis, but you and Flicker are the only people in this party I’ve known longer than a week.” She drew the Gem of Dimensions slowly out of her pouch. It was pulsing a strong bright red. Flicker frowned at it. “It’s been glowing ever since we entered the Doomlands, and getting stronger when we approach the Doomfissure more closely. I have to know what this means. It is the Doomfissure that is causing the dangerous resonance with the Gilan portal after all. I--I know I haven’t been much of a leader so far. But we need more information.” Shilree looked at her toes. “And to be honest I could use a bit more confirmation that this resonance is real,” she said flatly, “after what happened last night.”

Praxis nodded at that.

“I thought the Lich Lord lived over that Rift.” Flicker continued to frown.

“Well it is a long rift Flicker. We don’t have to go to the part where Shalak’s Exile is.”

“Concern, Flicker?” asked Praxis.

The Sunfighter shook his head. “Just a... premonition. Actually I wouldn’t mind going to the Rift myself. I have another Claw of Margonal I accidentally picked up in one of the Skeins, and that’s the place for permanently eliminating evil artifacts.”

“Don’t look in,” deadpanned Praxis.

“Anyone who doesn’t like Sidewinders, speak now or forever hold your peace!”

Shadow Play

“But he’s okay?” Jack said, as the Rat Pack followed Rani through the back lots of the shipyards.

“Yes--it just tires him out to move into the light. He can’t keep it up for more than thirty seconds or so. That’s why he’s staying in my shadow. We should probably try not to be caught out at high noon.”

“Hey, Matsie,” Vickie waved at Garal’s shadow. “Can you hear me in there?”

“He can,” Garal said, “but he can only talk to me.”

“He’s definitely not undead,” Val contributed.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” confessed Garal. “He reminds me a little of a being of pure energy I met once, only, well, in reverse.”

“A being of pure not-energy?” said Vickie. “Can he be anyone’s shadow, Garry, or just yours?”

“Anyone’s, he says.”

“Well, Matsie, anytime you want to team up again, you’re welcome to shadow me.” Vickie Dare grinned. “I’ve got enough energy for two.”

“He--appreciates it.” Garal smiled back.

***

“Do you know where you’re going?” Skitch frowned.

“No, kid. I’m wandering randomly through Rimbor City hoping to bump into something useful. Isn’t that how most detectives do business?”

Skitch was only half-daunted by her withering tone. “Well, but the Rat keeps trying to go that way, though.”

“Good for the Rat,” said Rani. “Next time I try to make a mathematical prophecy, overrule me in favor of him.” She slowed down, and then she stopped. “Well, fuck me.”

Skitch looked around. “What?” he said. “There isn’t anything here.”

“If you used your mouth less and your brain more, kid, I might take your claims of genetic superiority a little more seriously.” Rani squatted by the aqueduct underpass. “Two sets of footprints lead here. Only one leaves.”

“Another vampire?” suggested Valende. “They can assume gaseous form.”

“Could be.” Rani took off her glove and ran her finger along the crust of the column base, brought it up in front of her face with intent scrutiny. “Ichor,” she said. “There was a fight here.”

“So who has the soul now?” sighed Khyrisse.

“Give me a minute.” Rani’s eyes slid shut. “Middle-aged male illithid, ochre mottling, prosthetic arm. Reaching.”

Flashback: Change of Heart

His actual name was K'liq-xoih Nin, but most of his friends just knew him as K’liq. He was a merchant and an inventor, and he was one of the sleeper agents of Gila.

He had a pretty cushy position, actually, as the head of a small smuggling house in Rimbor City. It could get unpleasantly cold on this island in the winters, and taking shapeshifting pills on a daily basis didn’t agree with his digestion. But these were minor annoyances. There hadn’t been much espionage to be done here for years. K’liq spent most of his time seeing that his smuggling outfit turned a small profit and didn’t make any inconvenient enemies, and working on his cybernetic research.

K’liq flexed his new biometal prosthesis as he made his way through the ugly jungle of concrete and steel that housed the city’s shipyards. This arm was the most promising one he’d developed yet. Ataniel was a heavy magic sphere, something that had long concerned the Iron Tyrants. This concern, K’liq knew, was only partially due to the difficulty the native wizardry presented to Gilan conquest: the magic-savvy primates were less afraid of the Tyrants themselves than of the psionic illithids, and the Iron Tyrants feared a shift of power. K’liq’s research had been commissioned to bridge this gap, melding Gilan technology with the magical radiation of the Atanielite nexus. He pursued it willingly. K’liq was a scientist, not a politician, and whichever race his leaders hailed from, he would find a place.

Today, as it turned out, that place involved a bit of espionage after all. K’liq was out of practice, but his biomachinery more than made up the deficit. The metal fingers had crushed his victim’s windpipe instantaneously. When he delivered the psychic essence the human had been carrying to Lord Fisslakk, K’liq would recommend that more cybernetic arms be built from this prototype for all the Gilan assassins. It had been a most successful day.

It wasn’t quite over yet, though. From the shadows beneath a stone aqueduct stepped a single man in a long trenchcoat, directly into K’liq’s path. A routine scan showed the man to be a vampire. “Can I help you?” the illithid sighed, unimpressed. He had, it was true, nearly been killed by a lich once, but these vampires were another story: easily bound by his powerful psios, easily dispatched by a bit of strong sunlight.

“I hope so,” said the vampire in a demure, almost obsequious voice. “Would I be addressing K'liq-xoih Nin of the Third Order?”

"Why, in fact, you would," K’liq smiled, preparing to launch a mental attack to turn the vampire who knew too much into a mind-slave agent of the Brotherhood.

He didn't get the chance. "All I needed to know." A shriek of pain, and it was over for K’liq. His identity, tentacled and mucous coated, hung limply in the hands of Beliath of the Dead College.

The new illithid snapped the bloodstone orb up in his cybernetic grasp. "All I needed to know."

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