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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 15

Shikinti Fire Drill

Schneider nursed his black cherry soda in a far corner of the deli where the Rat Pack had stopped for lunch, trying not to resent how little attention anyone was paying to him. Or, for that matter, not to resent the bagel Khyrisse was rather cutely sharing with Ebreth Freakin’ Tor. He wondered if Khyrisse even remembered that bagels had once been their thing. Sometimes Schneider felt like a footnote on his own life story. Heads up, Duke Faraker commented. Incoming.

“Wh--”

“This one is glad to see you well, Mr. Schneider.”

The jester almost fell out of his chair as the voice whispered suddenly from his own shadow. “You,” he said, staring at the blurry outline. “You’re the man who... who saved me. Rescued me from...” His voice trailed off. “Th-thank you.”

“No man should be subjected to such barbarism. And I know you are a dear friend of Lady Starshadow.”

“I wish I was as sure of that as you, pal.”

“Have faith in yourself, Mr. Schneider.”

***

“Okay,” Rani said around her sandwich, “so can we--”

“It’s disgusting to talk with your mouth full,” said Skitch, wrinkling his nose up.

“--can we try this again? I can keep tracking the mindflayer, new management and all; or I can go back to investigating the wormholes. I can’t do both, and I don’t think you can do either without me.”

The Rat, who’d been sitting on the deli table lost in thought, perked up suddenly and darted into Jack’s satchel, taking the remains of his breadstick with him.

“I hope that means he has a good idea,” sighed Khyrisse. “I think I’d rather get back to the mystery of these wormholes, Rani. This whole soul thing has me baffled, frankly... and the dimensional stuff seems potentially more serious. I just wish I knew what all these people wanted with Tucson’s soul. I haven’t seen so much squabbling over a magic item since the Heart of Trade.”

“We could try asking an old buddy of mine,” Schneider suggested. “Maybe you know him: used to work in the Abyss, helped us out of a few scrapes, last seen in the body of a short Viking...”

“D’oh!” Khyrisse smacked herself in the head. “I keep forgetting about him...! I guess he just doesn’t seem very demonic to me...” She shook her head. “Shilree also sent me a message asking me to check out an abandoned Gilan fortress on Rimbor Island for her. She was very oblique as to why, exactly, and I sort of put it on the bottom of my stack... but now I wonder if it might be relevant.”

“I could investigate that,” offered Orlen. “My psi-shields should be sufficient to keep any stray mind-flayers from possessing me. Perhaps Jack could accompany me, as he is unaffected by psionics; and Kingfisher and Marty Hu, whose weapons protect them from mental domination?”

“They do?” Ebreth looked blankly at Marty.

“The Tao that can be possessed is not the true Tao,” Marty explained.

“I understand!” yelled the Rat from Jack’s satchel.

“I think the Rat needs Jack,” Khyrisse said apologetically.

“And I need Marty,” said Rani. The paladin looked pleased and used his thumb and forefinger to wink his left eye at her. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I need some fighter,” she amended. “If Orlen took Hu there’d be no one to protect us if we’re attacked.”

“There’s, uh, Amatsu,” Garal reminded. “He can manifest a physical form long enough to dispatch one opponent... more if it’s dark enough.”

“Coincidentally,” smiled Mina, “I have Darkness 10’ Radius memorized.”

“That’s convenient,” Rani admitted.

Schneider had looked like he was fighting an internal battle ever since Khyrisse mentioned the fortress, and he cleared his throat now. “I’ve, uh, been to the, uh, Gilan Crags before,” he mumbled, his eyes flicking back and forth especially nervously. “I could, uh, lead you to the fort if you, uh, need.”

“Thank you, Schneider,” Khyrisse said gently. “So that’s Orlen, Marty, Kingfisher, and Schneider to the Gilan fortress; Rani, Garal, Mina, and Amatsu to find the rest of these wormholes; and Val, Vas, Jack, Ebreth, Skitch and I wherever the Rat wants us to go? Vickie, which team do you want?”

“She’s with the elves and elf lovers today,” said Rani, straight-faced.

Vickie kicked her under the table.

“This isn’t a functional category, people!” said Khyrisse.

Eren Messala, Soul Consultant

Flicker did jump a little when the magic mouth appeared on the redrock butte. Kit, uncharacteristically, jumped a lot, and got between the mouth and Shilree, her eyes flicking uneasily back and forth between the troubled Diarian and the big-chinned spellform. “Hidy ho,” said the mouth.

“Dang newfangled mouth spells,” muttered Jethro, reholstering his revolver. “Why, in my day it was twenty-five words or less, preset, and you had to have a piece of honeycomb for a mah-terial c’mponent.”

“R-ight. Anyhoo, the, uh, Rat Pack’s out in Rimbor cleaning up some dimensional whatsis, and we were wondering if you could give us a little inside information on the Lower Planes? Khyri’d ring up Ixhriy tonight, but all things considered she’d really rather not know what he dreams about...”

“You will make this quick won’t you Sunny?” said Shilree, trying without much success to hide her impatience.

“Spell only lasts 8 minutes, Shilree. Hey, there’s a spider on your back.”

Shilree rolled her eyes and didn’t fall for it. “What can I help you with?” prompted Flicker.

“Any idea what’s so valuable about the soul of one John Tucson? They’re fighting over this thing out here like bimbos fight over Max.”

“John Tucson being?”

“King Scum of Rimbor City. Crime boss, drug lord, slave trader, you name it.”

“Well, he’s probably worth a commission to pit fiend for any demon who brings him in, then,” said Flicker.

“And ya know this how, exactly?” frowned Toleski, his hand straying to his six-shooter.

“I fought in the Demon Wars,” Flicker truthfully evaded the question. Turning back to the mouth, he said “I’m less familiar with Hell, obviously, but Lucifer paid St. Augustine a pretty penny for his, so it’s probably a hot property there, too. Why, are you going into the auction business?”

“Nah, we’re dealing with some dimensional anomaly or something out in Rimbor, but Khyri’s rat keeps trying to lead us to this soul. We were wondering if its Rat Sensors need fixing or there’s something actually useful about it, thought maybe you might know.”

“Well, wait a minute,” frowned Flicker, “the Rat is trying to lead you to it? It’s physically manifested?”

“Yeppers,” said Schneider. “Khyri fought some garbage it was lying in a couple days ago.”

“Is its owner dead or alive?”

“Alive, more’s the pity.”

“Well, that explains that,” said Flicker. “You know how you can use artifacts to power certain strong magics, like we did with the Farstalker? Think ten times that. A living soul in physical form is a huge source of energy. Anyone who has powerful plans afoot and isn’t too scrupulous to use other people’s souls as fuel would want it.”

“Well, that sure narrows it down,” sighed Schneider’s mouth.

“The bigger question is who took it from him,” said Flicker. “As far as I know only the sidhe can take a living man’s soul in physical form. Even Lucifer could only collect physical soul manifestations from the dead. That’s why the contracts, the name in blood, so forth.” Flicker paused. “Trillarillia might have done it, maybe. They say the old witches of Celtia had fey soul magics.”

“Huh. Well, thanks. Good luck stompin’ them Gilans. We’ll be, uh, heading off to that fortress of theirs, now.”

“Have fun,” responded the Viking, with no trace of irony.

Schneider shut the magic mirror. “Is it me, or did that complicate more than it explained?”

“You should have seen the time I tried dream on him,” sighed Khyrisse.

Scorpion’s Nest: Reverting to Type

Kingfisher was looking around at her three teammates carefully. “I will be your comrade-at-arms today,” she said, “so I must know your abilities.”

“I use the awesome power of Zen to squash evil, Kingmaker.”

“Right,” she sighed, taking another step towards full RP membership by giving up on giving Marty a clue. “You?”

“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in the pants...” mumbled Schneider, letting it trail off as it became clear the grim-faced avatar was not interested. “Bard, jester kit,” he said humbly. “With a minor wild magic artifact tossed in.”

Kingfisher nodded. “Orlen, you’re a mentalist?”

“And a bard as well, milady.” He made a courtly bow.

“Fine. I am a warrior of focused aggression. Should we find ourselves in combat, endeavor to stay out of my way.”

“No problem whatsoever,” said Schneider.

***

John Tucson was restless.

It didn’t, of course, help that he’d spent most of the previous night dreaming about some lavender octopoid woman peeking seductively out from behind a blackberry bush at him. Tucson didn’t know what the hell that was supposed to mean, but he felt sure Nox was somehow responsible.

The interest in mollusks had, mercifully, subsided since then, but the Scorpion’s real business wasn’t much more pleasant. Stump was, as usual, right; Ebreth Tor was still alive and still in Rimbor City. Worse, the friend of his who’d been sabotaging Lianthi slave operations had escaped from Weasel and was back with Tor. Jessa, Tucson’s intelligence coordinator--he’d referred to her as his ‘secretary’ exactly once, and learned his lesson well--had come up with dossiers about each of this Rat Pack, and though Tucson had been honestly surprised at the weakness of a few of the members, the stronger ones were every bit as formidable as he would have expected the Guildmaster of his youth to associate with.

And Rani was with them. John Tucson wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

The crime lord sighed and ran his fingers through his dark stringy hair. He’d sent Cam, Mahoney, and the pervert off to see if they could take down a few of this crew as a warning shot. Vickie Dare and Khyrisse Starshadow were frankly more than the Scorpion had the resources to spend whacking right now, but he certainly had the loose muscle to spare for Garal Tinderhook, or the Joker. With any luck, breaking a few heads would convince Tor that moving in on Rimbor wasn’t worth his resources either.

For some reason, though, John Tucson wasn’t feeling too lucky.

He stopped at the door to his safehouse and felt in his pocket for his keys. They weren’t there.



***

Beliath whistled as he waited for the ferry to the mainland. He’d resumed K’liq’s human form, which made the cybernetic prosthesis that much more devastating of a weapon, since no one would be able to tell the innocent-looking arm was capable of exerting enough pressure to crush rock. (Beliath had tried it.) It also made him next to impossible to track, unless someone had some kind of psychometric power or something, which was just too slim a contingency to bother guarding against, really. And now Beliath himself was not only rid of the vampire form which had somehow managed to get him beholden to @%!&!! Cloak, but in possession of impressive psionic powers.

Even more important, he had a motherlode of a psychic battery in the form of a living human soul the illithid had conveniently been carrying.

Beliath mused over plans in his mind as he paced the piers waiting for his ship. His alliance with the sorceress Omeria remained a valuable one, and Tach and Silverlace had remained loyal for nearly a year, so it was probably time to cast aside his nagging doubts about them. With this soul to power the attack, it should be trivial to regain control of the Dead College from that pissant Greymalkin. And that would leave him well-poised to take advantage of his newfound information about Gila’s plans and reestablish himself as a major player of Ataniel.

Yes, things were finally looking up for the being known as Beliath.

Half an hour later, the ferry arrived. “Finally,” he sighed, and boarded.

The shipping inspector, Dirty Dan O’Neill, watched the ferry pull away as he finished marking down a shipment of Diari opium as ‘chicken feed.’ “Something weird about that guy,” he commented to the captain, who sniffed in a haughty Diarian way. “Like he wasn’t used to his own body. Gawky-like.” The captain pointedly ignored him, but Dirty Dan went on cheerfully. Truth was, he chatted away when he was by himself, too. “Yes sir, I’d say that fella had a look about him like he was just polymorphed or something, ya know what I mean?” He strolled down the pier.

“May I have my inspection receipt, please?” said the captain, in an irritated hurry.

“Looks like that weren’t the worst of his troubles, neither.” Dirty Dan squatted heftily and picked a bloodstone orb out of a tangle of shipping rope. “Seems that poor sod had a hole in his pocket.”

Five

“Okay, teams,” Khyrisse said. “Keep me posted.”

“Bye, Rani!” Marty waved. “Bye Mina! Bye, Master!”

Ebreth really wished the kid would stop calling him that, particularly in Rimbor City, but getting ideas out of Marty’s head was a fruitless task, so he just waved back. “Bye, Marty. Pay attention, and do what--” Ebreth realized he knew neither Kingfisher nor Orlen well enough to vouch for what they might tell Marty, and he actively doubted Schneider. “--your conscience tells you to do,” he finished.

The two smaller teams headed off in opposite directions. “Thnk oo,” mumbled the Rat, from Jack’s shoulder, and proffered the mathematician a chewed-up piece of a playing card.

“This is making me so nostalgic,” Ebreth murmured to Khyrisse.

“I understand!” the Rat shrilled back at him, as Jack took the playing card piece and examined it.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry about the space station. I should have known you had some kind of cunning double-cross thing planned.”

Vickie cracked up. “You guys are such a trip.”

“Well, Jack? What’s the word from the Rat?”

***

Dan O’Neill sat in his inspector’s booth, idly turning the pages of a skin mag as he waited for the next shipment. It was the latter, not the former, that had earned him the appellation “Dirty.” Dan was a married man, and his indiscretions never actually took him any further than pornography, which made him unusual among his peers. His cargo inspections, though, made the RCPD look upstanding. Dirty Dan had once approved a shipment of lice. He had no idea what the captain wanted with lice, but he marked ‘em down as ‘rice’, for the appropriate fee. Dan fudged records on everything from hard drugs to underage sex slaves on a daily basis, but he figured the lice took the cake.

“Wonder what that thing is, anyway,” mused Dirty Dan. He’d tossed the bloodstone in the top drawer of his desk for now, figuring on bringing it by Fitch the fixer’s place on his way home from work. “Sure does have a look like something magic to it.”

The door opened for a cloaked figure then, as if by its own choice, and Dirty Dan O’Neill blinked up at him. “Who the dickens are you?”

“I am... a collector.”

“Yeah, well, ain’t nothing to collect around here.”

“That is wrong,” the figure said, and pulled back his hood. The face beneath it was that of an old man, with a long, heavy white beard. He had five eyes, and they were all glowing red.

“What the--” Dan said.

“I will leave here with a soul. It will be yours unless you produce another.”

“M... Monas Lucifer?”

“Gone. But like the Dark Lord, I can be a fair barterer.”

“What do you want with my soul?” Dan stammered.

“I care not for your soul, but will take it if I must. The soul I seek is that of John Tucson.”

***

“He says... five.”

“Five? That’s it? Are you sure it isn’t some sort of Boolean code?” Khyrisse asked.

Jack raised his eyebrows. “I do this for a living,” he smiled, producing a business card between two fingers.

“Five,” grinned Khyrisse. “I’ve pursued things on less information.”

Detect Trap

“Here? You’re sure?”

“Thank you!”

Ebreth lifted the manhole cover and hoisted up into the city.

It didn’t look much like the city, though. A low and somehow lonely mist hung over the deserted street. There was a gated park--it looked like maybe a cemetery--to one side.

Vickie’s head popped up from the manhole. “Whoa,” she said. “What is this place? Is this Heaven, Ebb?”

“I don’t think so. It’s sure not the part I was in before.”

“That mist,” frowned Khyrisse, “something... familiar...”

Vickie helped Jack out of the manhole. “Man, where’s Garry when you need him?”

“I don’t think we’re on another plane,” said Val. “For one thing, Jack doesn’t seem to have been affected.”

“Definitely prime material,” agreed Jack, looking around.

“Tirnanog,” whispered Khyrisse.

“What?” said Ebreth.

“Fairyland?” said Skitch. “We’re in fairyland?” He inspected the lightly swirling mists dubiously.

“No,” said Khyrisse, her forehead crinkling in the way it did when she tried to access her god memories, “but something from Tirnanog is--here.”

“I understand,” squeaked the Rat, and ran under the bars of the fence and into the graveyard.

“I guess that’s where we’re going, then.”

“Hey, lookit this!” Skitch smoothed the wisteria off the face-plate of the wrought-iron gate. “It’s a mirror!”

“Skitch,” said Valende, suddenly, “don’t--”

There was a flash through the fog, and Skitch pulled back with wide eyes as a second Skitch stepped from the mirror and seized the boy by the throat.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Khyrisse was there in a heartbeat and wrenched the changeling away from her adoptive son by the wrists.

As she did, her right hand brushed the gate.

“Oh, fuck,” breathed Ebreth, as a second Godmaker ring winked from the gate, a second slim arm followed Khyrisse’s, and a carbon copy of the Rat Pack’s most powerful member stood before them in the fog.

She sent a lightning bolt into Khyrisse at point-blank, but it ricocheted off her amulet of spell reflection, off the changeling’s amulet of spell reflection, back and forth a few blinding times, and then dissipated. “No one else touch that mirror!” Val was shouting.

“I’m on it, Vally,” said Vickie, and before anyone could blink, her crossbow was in hand and firing at the mirror. The glass shattered into a thousand pieces.

“No!” cried Valende.

Where the mirror had been, a dark smoke was swirling.

“What?” Vickie said. “The thing’s toast. Problem solved.”

“Uh, Vickie?” said Jack. “We might have needed that or something.”

“You know? To send her back?” Valende pointed at the alternate Khyrisse.

“Or that,” Vas added, pointing to the figure that was materializing in the midst of the smoke.

“Oops. My bad. Bygones,” said Vickie.

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