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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 19

Don’t Diss Prophecies

Khyrisse flipped frantically through her spellbook as the waters rose. Airy water, airy water... Dammit, I didn’t think I’d need to protect us from drowning! What do you want to bet Mina would have memorized it, if she were here...?

The cube banged against an outcropping near the ceiling of the cavern.



From the corner of his eye, Vas caught the struggling movements of a small figure. Weak swimmer though he was, the elven archer had the benefit of water breathing--thanks to Otter, who they were unfortunate not to have with them at present, he reflected ruefully--and he managed to intercept the waterlogged Skitch and drag him into the airy water field Khyrisse had finally gotten up. “Val!” he shouted, his voice bubbling from his mouth.

Skitch coughed spastically, trying to work the breathable water into his lungs. “The Rat,” he choked. “I think the Rat is dead!”

Valende hurriedly took the rodent from his small hands. “No, he’s not dead, dear, he’s just--” The water roared around them, and Val gasped as she was smacked into the wall of the pit. “--just unconscious.” She cast a quick healing spell, and the Rat glowed blue through the water. “He’ll be all right, I promise.”

“Skitch, where’s Ebreth?” shouted Khyrisse, closing the cube as she pushed into the airy water.

“I don’t know! He was helping me swim, and he hit his head on something...” Skitch hacked. “The water kept pulling me down. I tried to swim, but I couldn’t!”

“The cavern is completely full!” Vickie called down from the top of the airy water field. “Everyone hang on, ‘cause something’s got to give!”

Khyrisse was cursing in Elvish. “Vas, give me that talisman.”

“No,” he said. “Khyrisse, you can barely swim.”

“Give it to me!”

There was a loud creaking sound.

“No,” said Vastarin. “He wouldn’t thank me, Khyrisse. Hold on.”

“I can swim!” Vickie called. “Give me the water breathing thingy! Who are we still missing?”

“Ebreth, Jack, and Aithne,” said Val, “but Jack should be all right. He doesn’t need air.”



Aithne knelt on the ledge resetting Jack’s smashed leg, her brown hair swirling in the current that was gentle in this alcove even as the maelstrom raged on outside it. “What that?”

“Water,” winced Jack.

“Water,” she said calmly, as if she were speaking through air. “Coomara water man.”



The room trembled and groaned, and then, as suddenly as it had begun to rush in, the water began to rush out.

Khyrisse was swept backwards into Vas and the two of them were buffeted along the smooth wall. The airy water was starting to break up now. “Mom!” screamed Skitch, in complete panic.

“I’ve got you!” shouted Val. “Khyrisse, I’ve got him!”

There was a dizzying, disorienting moment and Khyrisse was breathing air again. Vas set her down on the top ledge, water lapping at her knees. The flying archer darted through the few feet of air over the receding waters and plucked out the gasping, half-hysterical Skitch, who he deposited in his mother’s arms. “It looks like a flushing toilet,” Skitch managed with false bravado, clinging to her and shaking badly as the waters swirled around the pit and sank.

It took nearly fifteen minutes for the cavern to drain.

Khyrisse realized her stoneskins had been battered away when she felt the blood oozing from the heel of her hand where her fingernails were pressing into it.



A grappling hook clinked on the ledge and caught, and Vickie Dare’s Never Yearn hat and then her head and shoulders hitched over the side. “Hi, guys! Not interrupting anything, am I?”

Jack blushed. “My, uh, leg was broken,” he mumbled.

“Hi, Vickie!” said Aithne, waving. “Water hurt Jack, Jack no swim. Me help. Now good!”

“I think you doth protest too much, Aith,” grinned Vickie. “You just like having his leg on your lap, admit it.”

“Leg,” beamed Aithne, and patted Jack’s leg.

“Is everyone okay?” said Jack.

“I don’t know. Have either of you seen Ebreth?”



His body was lying tangled in the drain at the base of the spiral ramp. Valende quickened her pace; Khyrisse did not. “Oh, Haneli,” muttered Val, which wasn’t good.

Khyrisse didn’t say anything, just sat kind of dizzily on the ramp.

“We’ll bring him with us,” said Val. “Maybe we can find someone to resurrect him.”

Khyrisse nodded and whispered something back, but Skitch didn’t hear it. Skitch was looking at Ebreth’s body. When he’d hit his head he must have fallen into the undertow he’d wrestled Skitch away from. Then when the cavern had begun emptying he’d been sucked into the drain. One of his legs was still wedged in the grate, but the part that was making the small hairs on Skitch’s neck prickle was that the fingers of his right hand were too. Two of the metal slats were bent forcibly back.

He’d been conscious, and trying to free himself.

Skitch shuddered and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying not to hyperventilate.

If he was never immersed in a body of water again, it would be too soon.

Interlude: Fire in the Gasoline

There was a light and foggy rain falling on Srankaijhi. This was not unusual for the tropical seaport. Fog and rain were the usual weather this time of year: the kind of weather that was perfect for hiding things or, in Constable Falinir’s case, finding things.

Falinir was a veteran in the Kathaki police force. He had been their ranking detective for close to twelve years now, and in that time he had solved over eighty cases out of eighty-eight that had crossed his desk. Currently he was working on his eighty-ninth case. One of his snitches, a bevrin who went by the name of Ratkin, had disappeared. Apparently Ratkin was not the only bevrin who had disappeared, either. Word had it members of Diaria’s untouchable class had been disappearing on and off for years. All his leads led to this place, Srankaijhi. Here he hoped to find his answers.

“Svali,” said a voice from the mists.

“Dajhazhaeli,” Constable Falinir replied.

“Constable, you are late.”

The Constable’s contact preferred not to use his real name. In the back streets of Srankaijhi he was simply known as Mazhaer, the Mouth. If you wanted to know something Mazhaer, for the right price, could get the answer. “Sorry,” Falinir said. “The fog.”

The Mouth nodded nervously and slid a scroll case from his sleeve. Constable Falinir had never seen the fixer so uneasy. Whatever information was in that scroll, it must be terribly incriminating. “One thousand thoughts,” the detective said reassuringly, jingling the money pouch. “As we agreed.”

“Thank y--” The Mouth froze suddenly, an indescribable terror on his face.

Someone was approaching. Footsteps, along with the periodic clacking of a cane, dully echoed off the cobblestones.

Mazhaer bolted, but before he had made it two paces towards the shadows a crossbow bolt split the air and settled right above his left eye.

Falinir drew his pistol.

“Now now Constable,” said the unseen assassin’s voice. “Let us talk a while. Don’t you want to know what you will be dying for?”

Falinir tried to get bearings on the voice but the wet stones, the fog, and the buildings made it seem like the voice was coming from everywhere and nowhere.

“You’ve come so far to get your answers. Wouldn’t you like to hear them before you go?”

Constable Falinir spun suddenly and fired. The report of the gun seemed to echo in the mist. There was a sad laugh, and then the crossbow bolt that ended the detective’s life. “Such a pity,” whispered the voice, as its owner stepped out of the fog. “Everyone is in such a rush these days.”

With the slow repeating click, click, clack the assassin walked up to the former Constable’s body. There was a gleam of red light from one of her eyes. “You see, Ratkin was an unfortunate victim of the Diari slave trade. Something I am sure an upstanding officer like you would want to take down at any cost?” Shilree took a white handkerchief from her pocket and wrapped it around her hand. “You would have proved unbribeable, but your superiors would not,” she continued conversationally, as if the man she was speaking to was not lying dead in the street. “You would have been dismissed from the force within days. It would all have been very unfair. And the mafia would not have been touched by it. No, your death will serve a greater purpose than you could in life.” Shilree picked up the scroll case from the Mouth’s feet and tucked it into the Constable’s breast pocket with her shrouded hand. “With you dead there will be an investigation that dear Don Alliejin and his family cannot avoid.”

Shilree stooped down and kissed the dead Constable on the lips.

“You see that is the problem with secrets, they always come out,” she whispered in his dead ear.

The mad future Diari took the pouch of coins and invoking a spell reduced it to ash. She then walked slowly away into the fog. The sounds of her steps disappeared just as the local police arrived.

Mourning Becomes Electra

Khyrisse never really remembered later what she said to Val, probably because she couldn’t hear her own voice. There was a rushing noise in her ears, as if the cavern hadn’t really drained and the water was still raging invisibly around her.

She walked unsteadily over to Ebreth and knelt down with shaking hands, freeing his lifeless body from the grate. She resisted the momentary urge to disintegrate the damn thing. I could have done that if I’d been here. What point is there in doing it now...?

Khyrisse pulled him onto her lap, the room spinning, and rested her forehead against his soaked shirt. The water seemed very cold, reminding her of the afternoon in early spring when she’d nearly capsized the Boat trying to sail it on her own, dumping them both overboard.

Mercifully, Khyrisse finally gave in and fainted at that point.

***

Ebreth looked dead. Aithne could have confirmed this, but she was afraid she might seem to be questioning Val’s competence as a healer if she did. She guessed Khyrisse was in mourning, because nothing else seemed to be wrong with her. In Celtia women would prostrate themselves in a swoon when their family members died, though they usually did this at the temple, not in the middle of a dungeon. Aithne wondered if she, as a new member of the house, should be mourning or not. She decided to follow Val’s lead: sober-looking, but not grieving. Death wasn’t really a permanent condition among people of Khyrisse’s social class anyway.

Vickie was examining a heavy brass door in the southern wall, between the two long grates that had released the flood of water, and Aithne seized on it as an excuse to escape from the awkwardness of a social situation she didn’t really understand. “Whatever answers we’re looking for have got to be in there,” Vickie decided aloud. “No one guards a useless room with an ingenious death trap.”

“Hi Vickie,” said Aithne. “Door.”

“You know what you need, Aith?” Vickie felt across the metal surface. “You need a nickname.”

Aithne smiled and nodded. “Door,” she repeated.

“I heard ya, girlfriend. How about Freckles? You’ve got freckles.”

“Door,” said Aithne, and pushed on the left edge. It swiveled inward nearly a foot around its central axis; the right edge knocked Vickie back a little as it swiveled outward.

“I knew that,” Vickie grinned, after a beat.

***

Khyrisse came to in the Rimbor darkness. Valende was slapping her cheeks gently. “Khyrisse,” she was saying. “We need you to get up and cast the Mansion for us, dear.”

“Mansion...” She blinked up at the stars. “How--what happened to the dungeon? Did I dream--”

“No.” Val put her hand on the younger elf’s chest. “You fainted. We finished up in there without you. But now we need your help.”

“Are you okay?” Skitch said at the high end of his register, dancing agitatedly from foot to foot.

Khyrisse just couldn’t work up anything approaching a maternal concern right now. She still felt underwater. “Did we find the soul?” she whispered dully, glancing around for Ebreth’s body despite herself. Vas was carrying him.

“I’m afraid not. It wasn’t there.”

Khyrisse tried to care enough to even yell at the Rat for the pyrrhic goose-chase, but she just couldn’t. She caught a glimpse of herself in her own amulet of spell turning as she sat up. I look like a ghost, she thought dizzily. Small wonder Skitch was worried. Khyrisse often paled when she was frightened or angry, but that was a sharp, cold pale, an alabaster statue on the verge of exploding. There was none of that in the archmage’s face today; she looked faded, almost misty, watersilk left too long in the attic, fallen petals.

“We found this keen-o book, though,” said Vickie. Aithne had it open in her lap and was peering curiously at it. “We can’t read it, though. It’s written in ancient runes. Mysterious, huh?”

“I guess,” said Khyrisse, without enthusiasm. “Too bad Flicker’s not here.”

“He wouldn’t be able to read this anyway,” Vas pointed out. “The ancient Celtic runes have never been deciphered. No one knows what they mean.”

Aithne turned the page.

“Orlen contacted us,” said Val, “and the other two groups are on their way. Everything’s taken care of, Khyrisse, all we need from you is the Mansion.”

Meanwhile, On The Other Side Of Town...

“You’re sure?”

“I can keep looking, Rani,” Garal sighed. “But you don’t understand what a needle in a haystack this is. Maybe if we come back here with Jack, to help me get a good search algorithm--”

“Okay,” said Rani, raising one gloved hand. “Okay.” She looped her thumbs through her belt loops and stared down the rift floating next to the ugly throne in the Pyramid-O-Rama as if it were a rival duelist. “Tell me what we do know again.”

“Well, there are, uh, six wormholes: one here, one in that tavern, one inside the, uh, temple, one in--”

“I know that,” she snapped. “Tell me about the wormholes. You’re our planeblazer. What are these things?”

“Linear pathways through nonlinear space,” said Garal. “They pass through infinite points, just like any line, but they’re spatially disjunct. So I can’t trace them back to the other endpoint because of chaos theory. There are infinite possibilities.”

“Fine. Why are they here?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like--”

“I know you don’t know, Tinderhook, speculate, theorize. What could they be used for?”

“I--don’t--” stammered Garal.

“What are wormholes useful for?” Mina helped him. “Could they be portals, maybe?”

“Wormholes can be used to cross very far distances quickly,” said the planeblazer, hesitantly. “But these are too unstable. They wouldn’t function reliab--.”

“All right, so what’s an unstable wormhole good for?” Rani interrupted.

“Nothing,” said Garal, flustered. “They’re useless. Maybe whoever opened them made a mistake.”

“They’re not a mistake, Garal, they’re fucking equidistant!”

“Could they be stable on the other end?” suggested Mina. “Could they be one-way portals?”

“Wormholes can’t be stable on only one end. That’s not how they work.”

“Someone created six unstable wormholes in very deliberate locations, Garal,” said Rani. “Why would they do that? Why would you do that?”

“I wouldn’t,” said Garal. “It would be ridiculous. It would be a tremendous expenditure of--”

“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t, why would you? If you were a ridiculous person. What would you do with six unstable wormholes?”

“Show off?” he hazarded. “They’re flashy... they’re dangerous...”

“Dangerous, could they be weapons?”

“Not that kind of dangerous. They couldn’t hurt anyone. But an unstable wormhole could put a tear in the planar fabric.”

“What use is a tear in the planar fabric?”

“No use! It’s a bad side effect!”

“Do you have rocks in your head?” Rani shouted. “You can use anything for something! What does a tear in the planar fabric do? What could you use one to accomplish?”

“Unless I wanted to explode all six of them and displace the whole damn city,” Garal shouted back, “nothing!”

The Pyramid-O-Rama echoed.

Rani sat on the throne and put her head in her hand.

Garal put his hand over his mouth and his eyes went wide. “Why--would anyone want to do that?” whispered Mina.

“Too many reasons,” said Rani, in a gravelly voice. “Sodom and Gomorra? Personal vendetta? Maybe Tucson’s been moving in on the fucking yakuza? We’re back to needle and a haystack. How do we stop it, Garal?”

“Shut down the six weakpoints,” he said, clearly this time and with confidence. “Before someone sets them off. That’s what we’ll have to do. The planar fabric is not a toy.”

“That’s what we’ll have to do,” said Rani, and put one curled hand knuckles down on either armrest of the hideous gilded throne.

“Where can we start?” frowned Mina.

“I’ll need to work on that search algorithm with Jack,” said Garal.

“And I’ll need to get very, very drunk,” said Rani. “Maybe you, me, Vickie, and Val can hit this great all-girl nightclub I know, Mina.”

“I don’t drink,” said Mina politely.

“Then you can be our designated caster.” The detective got up and patted the younger girl on the shoulder a little dazedly, and then she looked over her shoulder at the pulsing black rift. “Whoever you are,” she said quietly, “you just fucked with the wrong city.” She turned away and tilted her deerstalker cap. “The game is afoot,” she said. “Let’s go find our team.”

Scorpion’s Nest: Speaker for the Dead

“Fuckin’ A,” muttered Stump. “The boss is not gonna fuckin’ like this.”

“Ah, he’ll deal,” said Camaro, belting back her Cannonball.

“He is not gonna fuckin’ deal. He sends you out to break some fuckin’ heads and you come back without even fuckin’ killing one of ‘em?”

“We had ‘em,” said Mahoney, nonplussed, his feet up on the table. “One more combat round would’ve done it for Benetti and the Joker. So they escaped. BFD. They got lucky and they know it. Message sent.”

“We’re not Hallmark, Mahoney, we’re fuckin’ hitmen!”

“So we’ll hit ‘em again if we have to,” sighed Camaro. “Geez, Stumpy, do you have to take the fun out of everything?”

“Yeah, at least I’ve got real hair,” the halfling sniped.

“I have hair in a very special place!” Nox smiled lasciviously. “A dark, musky private place! Would you like to see?”

“No!” the other three yelled simultaneously.

A woman with filthy ragged clothes and tangled hair stood up suddenly from a corner table then, her light eyes wild. “My leg!” she screamed. No one in the Clap moved to help her, though some of them did alert to her and move their chairs closer to watch whatever weird-ass snuff feature she was about to channel for them. “No... no... my leg is broken! I can’t run... They’ve caught me! Mercy, mercy... Nail! Steel, piercing my palm! Oh, why have the gods forsaken us... Nail! Weep--for we have been found irredeemable! How my head sags forward... NAIL! I am being fixed to the cursed walls of the city... Please, save me, someone, anyone! NAIL! If only I knew why this fate has befallen us, I would repent, I would struggle to fix the world, but I can feel my life fading now, and I can see them, barely, see them coming, the crows... The winged avatars of shadowy blackness, coming towards my eyes..." She looked about, uncertain where she was, then collapsed on the table, weeping. A few people cheered. Someone tossed some coppers on her table. Stump just turned away. Mad Sallie gave him the creeps.

“Hard to believe some people consider that Art, huh?”

The speaker was Mack Black, the club owner. “No fuckin’ kidding,” said Stump.

“I find myself... oddly drawn to her,” smiled Nox, fiddling with the crosslaces of his leather vest.

“That does it.” Camaro downed the last of her drink. “I’m out of here.”

“Where are you going?” Stump said suspiciously.

“Somewhere your pet pervert isn’t.” The punk bonked her knuckles into Mack’s as she passed the gravelly bard. Not hard enough to make him wince. Either Mack was even tougher than he looked, or Camaro Pearl was being affectionate. “Don’t wait up.”

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