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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 16

Scathe Khyrisse

How much are you like me? Khyrisse wondered, hesitating. Her faery double hesitated as well, for what must surely be the same reasons. You’ve obviously got copies of all these stupid magic items. Do you have my spells? Do you have my protections? Oh, merde... Her anklet of forethought tightened, urging her silently to disrupt the scathe’s spell. She gasped and lunged towards her, clutching at the slender, rapidly moving hands.

She never made contact. Something flickered in the air around her, a wash of magical energy sweeping over and past in an eyeblink. She never would have seen it at all, if not for the fact that the spell was too powerful to miss.

And her changeling just vanished from in front of her. Khyrisse slammed into the gatepost, a rippling, high-pitched giggle tinkling behind her. That’s my laugh... and it’s too fast. Oh, flark.

“Time stop,” she shouted, spinning around. “She used my time stop and slowed us!”

The archmage winced as Vickie leaped into action--at Jack.

“...And apparently my chaos spell, to boot,” Khyrisse added angrily. Her true seeing flared to life as she scanned for her rival; she saw the two Skitches first, rolling around the misty grass slugging each other, and paused long enough to tag the one her spell clearly identified as her own with a stoneskin. It was too long. By the time she turned back the scathe had finished her next spell, pointing at Ebreth. He ducked out of the path of the bolt of light at the last second, and it whizzed over his shoulder.

“Holy shit,” Ebreth said, as the tree behind him disintegrated in a flash of absinthe-green.

Khyrisse’s jaw dropped. “You bitch!” she shrieked at herself after a long, stunned moment.



The Rat was getting frustrated. The movements of John Tucson’s missing soul were obvious to his topological perception framework, but he couldn’t seem to move fast enough to catch up with it before other big people wandered off with it somewhere else. Dimly, this made sense to some meta-parsimonious corner of his rat brain, but it was still very annoying. The Rat decided to change tactics and lead his humanoid friends to the source of the trouble. Maybe they would know what to do then.

Unfortunately for the Rat’s plan, Skitch had just sprung a supernatural trap.

The Rat crawled under a fallen headstone and waited for the sound and fury to die down. He hoped the Khyrisse he had come in with won. Her subset didn’t seem nearly as reasonable as Jack’s.



Disconcerting.

Definitely disconcerting.

He knew she wasn’t really Khyrisse, though. The fact that she was blasting the crap out of the Rat Pack was a very good clue, even if Ebreth hadn’t seen her emerge from the magic mirror and the real Khyrisse wasn’t standing behind him cursing in Elvish and firing her own spells off. So though he didn’t really like smashing the mirror image of the woman he loved across the chest with a rapier, he wasn’t exactly letting it slow him down.

There were two ways to survive combat with an archmage, Ebreth Tor knew. One was not to let them see you coming. It was too late for that now. The other was to get in close and just keep hitting them. He was taking fast and shallow shots, to get as many of them in as he could: both to clear away the changeling’s stoneskins and to keep her too off-balance to slap him with another disintegrate spell.

It didn’t, however, stop her from shooting him in the face with her wand of lightning.

“Khyrisse?” he yelled, over his shoulder, staggering a little but not enough to miss his backhand. “Remind me never to really piss you off?”

What’s Eating Rimbor City?

Rani diddled her pencil and looked at the five circles she’d drawn on the map. The Pyramid, the Rusty Nail, Clara’s, the merchant’s yard, the Temple of Scala. Nothing was leaping out at her. -Skitch?-

-Aaaaah! Leave me alone! Why do you always contact me?-

-Because you’re the lowest level, kid, and it’s cheapest. Is Jack Paris around? I’m trying to analyze the distribution of...-

-He’s here, but we’re fighting fairy changeling trap monsters of me and Khyrisse, and we’re really busy! Ow! Hey, stop kicking!-

Rani sighed and severed the connection. “Business as usual,” she said. “We’re on our own with this.”

“Garal, is there anything special about these five Prime Material locations from a planar point of view?” Mina suggested. “Like maybe they all connect in the dimensional substructure or something?”

“Not at all,” said Garal. “Just the opposite, really. There are no planar connections anywhere near any of them. These were terrible places to put wormholes.”

“Okay, so all the wormholes are in disconnected zones?” said Rani. “Where else in the city is there a disconnected zone?”

“All over,” said Garal. “90% of Ataniel is a, uh, disconnected zone. Planar connections are relatively rare. That’s why being a planeblazer requires so much training.”

“They’re all kind of on the outskirts of town,” Mina offered, pointing at Rani’s map.

“Hmmm.” Rani frowned at it. “That could be because there aren’t any wormholes downtown, or because we haven’t been looking downtown. Let’s go find out which.”

By Whatever Means Necessary

“Augh!” yelled Skitch. “Stop kicking! You crummy doppelganger!”

Khyrisse glanced across uneasily at the coalescing shadow-creature, just past the struggling boys. Gate-guardian, probably. Oh, flark. What the--what’s going on in this damn city?

The scathe fired her wand of lightning again into Ebreth, who crumpled to the ground under the barrage of damage. She pulled out her pistol with her other hand and shot the downed pirate in the head execution-style as she passed his body, her eyes scanning the crowd dispassionately for her next target. Khyrisse made a strangled sound, her eyes dilating. One more arrow chinked off the faery’s stoneskin, and the second found home; target acquired, she lifted her wand and blasted Vastarin back into his sister. Ruining, probably, the priestess’ own spell. Khyrisse had stopped caring. She gasped out the last syllables of her own time stop, and the pulse of the world froze in place.



Ebreth had the vague, flickering impression of several things happening at once, much too fast for him to react to them. Khyrisse’s voice, chattering something in a rapid, relieved murmur, and then cool, soothing pressure racing over his skin, some of the pain melting from the back of his skull. His hand, lying where he could just see it out of the corner of his eye, disappeared.



Khyrisse closed her eyes briefly, shutting out the molasses-slow world around her, and reluctantly summoned up her memories of an expert’s advice. “Don’t think of this as simply creating a mirage, Rissa. You’re sculpting a small area of alternate reality. The less careful you are to splice it into the already existing fabric, the more obvious the patch is going be.” Details flashed through her mind, the way the sparse grass bent beneath the lifeless weight of her lover’s body, the sticky patch of russet dirt near his bleeding head, the charred ozone stench of electrical burns and gunpowder.

She pulled Ebreth out of the way of her advanced illusion, her eyes still closed--and when she opened them, he was still lying where she’d found him, despite the comforting, breathing presence of him in her arms.

I’d thank you, Eric... but you’d find this far too amusing, she thought, with a rueful smile of her own, as her time stop ran out.



Ebreth found himself, in the blink of an eye, apparently invisible and ten feet away from where he’d remembered being, with a dead doppelganger of himself lying in his place. A familiar--if also invisible--presence was busy kissing him.

“Are you all right? Goddamn, Ebreth, you cheat,” Khyrisse whispered to him after a moment. “I was sure I was going to have to death’s door you.”

“Yeah, I went down early,” he sighed. “I didn’t think I could take a third lightning bolt, figured I’d just play possum and see if I could take her by surprise. --That bitch shot me in the back of the head!”

“You know, I’m really glad I’ve already been inducted,” she murmured. Ebreth couldn’t see her grin, but he could hear it in her voice. “I’ll help Vas distract her while you go for the backstab. Since that was apparently your plan, too.”

“And people say we have nothing in common.”

No Stranger to Schoolyard Fights

Skitch breathed heavily as the changeling slammed his head into the gatepost. It would have hurt a lot if not for the stoneskin. Khyrisse, it looked like, was the only one who could tell the two Skitches apart, and so everyone else was leaving him to handle it for himself rather than risk making a mistake. It was a strange feeling, being on his own in combat like this: scary, but somehow grown-up. Skitch punched the changeling in the nose.

He had the advantage of the stoneskin. It was only an advantage if Skitch pressed it, though. One of the protective charges was lost every time the changeling boy hit him, and once they were gone, they’d be on equal footing again. Skitch didn’t think he could do enough damage just hitting and kicking to take down his double before that happened. I need a weapon.

All he had were his throwing blades, which were magic but wouldn’t work in such close range. His opponent, obviously, didn’t have anything better either. Skitch looked around the cemetery they were using as a battlefield. Ebreth was down, and Vas had dropped his sword to shoot arrows. Now he just needed to get to one of those unused swords.

Unfortunately, the stupid changeling had the same exact idea. Skitch yelled and tackled him as he lunged for Vas’ abandoned blade, and they wasted another combat round rolling violently in the dirt. Skitch gritted his teeth and kneed the other boy in in the groin, wincing in sympathetic pain as he doubled over. Okay, so it’s kind of cheating... but he attacked me...!

Skitch grabbed up Vas’ sword and hacked it at his mirror image again and again, biting his lip.

But You Told Me To Backstab Her...

Khyrisse, Valende, Vastarin, and Vickie all screamed at once as the Khyrisse changeling’s prismatic spray ripped through them; Vas went down hard. Jack just sort of shielded his eyes and blinked. The first was not to let them see you coming. Ebreth closed his mouth and put his rapier through the base of her skull.

She made very little sound.

That was the good thing about fighting archmages. Ebreth lowered his sword and the changeling’s body sagged from it like some kind of sick puppet. Not a lot of hit points. A moment’s flash of entirely irrational panic did wash over him as he spilled her to the ground: the dreamlike fear that he’d struck the wrong one somehow. It was obvious he hadn’t, though, and it passed. “No, uh, offense,” he mumbled, not looking at Khyrisse.



She flinched as the point of Ebreth’s rapier came out of the changeling’s eyesocket, the violet orb shattering in a gruesomely liquid fashion. Khyrisse hadn’t seen that coming, and she’d been looking right at her faery duplicate not five seconds ago.

She squinted her own right eye shut and watched dubiously as her body slid off the blade. The scathe’s color drained away into the ground like blood, leaving nothing but a dull leaden statue. “Goddamn, you people are lucky I’ve mostly got wuss spells memorized right now...” she whispered to herself, only just realizing that her hands were clenched in involuntary sympathy, drawn up to her hunched shoulders. Well, you guessed before anyone else did that he was that dangerous. It’s one of the things that attracted you to him in the first place, for crying out loud. You knew he could do that. She suppressed an urge to shiver, forcing her shoulders and hands to relax. ...Intellectually.

Khyrisse tilted her head down and to the side, catching the pirate’s eyes, and offered him a slightly crooked smile. “Ebreth? Remind me never to really piss you off, either,” she said--and while the amusement in her face and voice wasn’t quite unadulterated, it was at least genuine.

“Khyrisse!” yelled Val, kneeling with her brother in both arms. “I need death’s door, now!”



“Geez, Jack-o, I’m sorry!” Vickie squeezed the shoulder of the mathematician she’d been attacking in her magically-induced rage. “You all right? Remind me later I owe you a beer, ‘kay?”

Ebreth was tensed for the changeling’s contingencies to go off, but they didn’t; her form just hardened to dull grey on the ground. He guessed killing her sufficed. Ebreth put his foot on her head and withdrew his sword from the soft metal with moderate effort.

“Hey, Ebreth!” Skitch ran over waving a lead replica of his own head. “Look! I defeated the evil monster!”

“You kick ass, Skitch,” grinned Ebreth, declining to point out just now that Skitch was the one who had set the trap off in the first place. He could feel the trollish fortitude spell Khyrisse had cast on him struggling to reject the bullet from the back of his head. It was a nauseating feeling. Val looked badly battered; Vas was apparently barely clinging to life; Vickie and Jack looked the worse for wear, and Ebreth himself was alive only because he’d intentionally fallen while he was still in passable condition. “You must take after your mother.”

Connect the Dots

It didn’t take Rani long to figure out there wasn’t anything going on downtown.

There was plenty going on downtown, actually, but none of it had anything at all to do with wormholes, Heaven, or the Negative Material Plane, of that the detective was sure. “This trail’s colder than Dahlia Paris,” she sighed. “Looks like you’re right, Mina: these weakpoints are all a few miles out.”

“Why would the rifts all be located in the outskirts?”

“Well,” said Rani, her brow furrowing and her boot tapping the pavement, “if Garal’s right about the planar magic, maybe the mage was trying not to attract attention by staying out of the city center.”

“May I see the map, please?” Mina smoothed it in her slim hands, and walked her fingers from circle to circle. “Is it me or are these sites kind of evenly spaced from the center?”

Rani frowned over the younger woman’s shoulder. “Not really,” she said. “The Pyramid’s a good seven miles from the town center, and Clara’s is only maybe four.”

“Not from the town center,” said Mina. “From the point in the middle of the other ones. They look like they sort of make a circle around the city. See what I mean?” Mina connected the marks with her finger. “And they all look like they’re the same distance apart, too, except for these two. Maybe like there’s supposed to be a sixth one between them?”

“Huh.” Rani tapped her temple, visibly thinking. “Okay, that’s a theory. We can either figure out where the sixth point would be and go see if there’s a wormhole there, or figure out where the center point would be and go see if there’s anything unusual there that the things might be centering around.”

“Let’s try the sixth point first,” Garal said. “If there’s no wormhole, we’ll know we’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Unfortunately,” sighed Rani, looking at the map, “our mathematician’s not here, and I don’t have a ruler on me. Do you?”

Rimbor Rumble

Marty Hu was starting to get really anxious. He thought they were supposed to go to the Gilan fortress to fight some psionic monsters, but there weren’t any there, and then Orlen said something about a red herring and Schneider said something about a wild goose chase. Marty wouldn’t have agreed to go with this group if he thought they were going to meet geese and fish.

Now he thought they had doubled back on their trail and wound up in the city again, because he could see buildings and hot dog vendors and stuff instead of trees. Marty wondered if he should tell the others. He didn’t want to make the scary mouth dude mad at him. “Man, I could really go for a hot dog,” he said instead.

“You came to the right place,” commented a woman’s voice from behind him. Marty turned around. It was the babe with the purple hair. “Rimbor City has the best hot dogs on Ataniel.”

“Assuming,” added a tough-looking guy with a permanently broken nose, “you survive long enough to eat one. Which you’ve got a one-in-four chance of today, since we want to leave one of you alive to go back and tell Tor this is his one warning.”

“You want to warn Master Ebreth about the hot dogs?” Marty was suddenly worried. “Why? Are they, like, not cooked all the way?”

“Marty,” sighed Orlen, “they’re threatening to kill us.”

“Oh.” The paladin pulled out the Sword of Truth’s Light. “Then, like, en garde, dude!”



Schneider’s heart flew into his throat as George Mahoney stepped out of an alley, flanked by the sleazy-looking blond elf who’d damped his magic in captivity and a woman with a purple mohawk who made Edyric look delicate. The elf started casting, and the punk woman invoked Max’ favorite spell somehow and expanded to twenty feet tall. The busy Rimbor street cleared with scary rapidity. Don’t run, you feeb, Rhynwa instructed in his head. They’d just cut you down from behind anyway.

It is better to die facing forward, Flicker agreed.

Schneider pointed at the three villains, his arm shaking, and a cone of cold enveloped them. Only Mahoney appeared affected by it, and dishearteningly little given that it was the best attack spell Schneider was capable of intentionally coaxing out of the wand. Kingfisher had whipped her Grendel fork from her back and was charging the giant punk, who grinned and cracked her knuckles with a sound like sheet metal being hammered, but before the Battle of the Butch could really get underway everyone was distracted by a sudden forest of waving, rubbery ebon columns, most of them entangling Marty and Orlen. They were anchored to the ground by big rubbery ebon spheres. “I came up with this spell myself!” the elf mage said proudly. “I call it Evard’s Black Tes---”

“Please don’t finish that thought!” George Mahoney shouted, as he stabbed Schneider in the shoulder, then swung the butt end of his spear around, knocking the jester to the ground. “Good to see you again, Joker.”

He was going to have to trust the wild magic and go for the more random, potentially more powerful effects. Schneider pointed at Mahoney and a huge spray of soap bubbles filled the air. It was enough, just barely, to let him avoid getting impaled, but Mahoney kicked him as Schneider tried to dodge. A barrage of magic missiles flew out of his hand and struck the former gladiator. Better, but I was hoping for more. Then George Mahoney stabbed him again.



For all the mage’s bragging, his spell didn’t do much. Sure, Orlen thought, Marty and I are immobilized, but this doesn’t even hurt.

He had to keep the elf from casting again, though. Orlen’s attempt at a telekinetic attack glanced off an invisible shield. It was inconvenient that telekinesis was both a psionic and a magical discipline; more people had defenses against it. Orlen could hold his own physically, though, especially against your average sorcerer. He mentally felt his way through the magical construct. Its structure seemed to be what the mage claimed it was. Orlen felt violated.

He reached out to the spheres and squeezed. He had the unpleasant mental image of a giant screaming in an agonized falsetto as the stalks went limp, and then Orlen and Marty fell to safety.

Now to distract the mage until Orlen could get to him. The psionicist called out the first thing that came to mind, free-associating from his opponent’s lecherous spell variant: “Hey, scumbag! You like raping people?”

“Oh, please,” sighed the elf. “That is so three weeks ago. I am, however, currently exploring a scarification phase, if you’d be interes--”

He lost the sentence as Orlen’s fist landed on his jaw.

Rani Always Calls At Bad Times

-Hey, Orlen, we’ve got a pattern link on these weakpoints. You got a minute?-

Orlen hit Nox again. -Actually,- he replied, -would you mind terribly calling back later? We’re having a bit of combat with...- Orlen didn’t send any variant on the thought giant genitalia. -...some of Tucson’s enforcers.-

-Great,- sighed Rani mentally. -May I suggest running away?-

-It’s under control, Ransa.- Orlen smashed the elven mage’s head hard into the pavement. “I can feel the pain all the way down,” he sighed happily. Orlen ignored him.

-Don’t get cocky on me, Belleri. Tucson’s people are trouble.- Rani severed the connection crabbily. “Everyone gets to kick something’s ass but me,” she sighed, looking at her casebook, and doodled a number 6 in the margin.

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