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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 20

Good News, Bad News

“We were defeated in battle,” Kingfisher said grimly. “But we survived,” she added, “to avenge our loss another day.”

“Cool beans,” said Vickie. “We won a big fight with a doppelganger of Khyrisse, freed a girl who was trapped in a mirror, and found an ancient book in this dungeon, but Ebreth got killed.”

“That is unfortunate,” frowned the young avatar. “Was it a valiant death, in battle?”

“Well, no,” said Vickie. “He drowned. But he was trying to save Moxie Boy at the time.”

“Then that is a worthy end,” Kingfisher nodded.

“We didn’t get our asses whipped by anyone,” said Rani. “On the other hand, it looks like someone is deliberately creating fucked-up wormholes as a detonator to blow Rimbor off the face of the map.”

“This just doesn’t get any better,” sighed Orlen, “does it?”

***

Well? Duke Faraker demanded. What do you have to say for yourself?

“M-me?” said Schneider, weakly.

You, bucko. He was one of the Big Number. Weren’t you supposed to be looking out for him?

“I--”

Notice it was Tor you let hit the ground, said Rani, looking at him through her magnifying glass. Never did like that one, did you?

Schneider paled. “It wasn’t like th--”

Hoping to keep him away from the baby, mabye? said Khyrisse, her pregnant belly peeking out over the bikini she was wearing.

Maybe he even wanted her for himself, Roxy said, bending one leg behind her neck in a very distracting yoga position.

“I wasn’t even there!” pleaded Schneider. “How could I have known?”

You couldn’t, said Faraker, taking a swig from his long-necked bottle of IBC. The question is, what are you going to do about it now?

Schneider shook his head to clear the voices from it and took a steadying breath. Kingfisher was looking at him oddly, and he wondered if he’d spoken aloud. Too late now. “Khyri?” he mumbled, edging across to the sorceress. She turned her head but her eyes were distant, not focused on him. She wasn’t crying, didn’t even look ready to explode at the slightest excuse, which was her usual way of dealing with stress. She just looked somehow lost. Skitch was so agitated he was cracking his knuckles, hovering around her chair. Schneider cleared his throat. “I, uh, just want you to know,” he said, “that if we, uh, have to go back to Hell, that I’m, uh, with you.” He hadn’t thought it possible, but she blanched even more. That didn’t help, fool. “Or, uh, whatever it takes,” he mumbled. “I, uh, I’ll do anything I can to help. That’s, uh, all I wanted to say.” Schneider fled.

Interlude: Moment of Grace

“Mister Paris?” the secretary asked.

“Yeah, Susan?” growled Asinus. “What is it now?”

Susan, undeterred, smiled congenially at the donkey. “Well, Mister Paris, I just thought I should let you know that you’ve got a new matter in your in-box.”

“Take care of it for me. I’m, uh... trying to take care of business.”

Susan Ricci could see people behind her boss, but they seemed far too diomorphic to be the usual sort of business people the Parises dealt with.

“I don’t mean to interrupt, Mister Paris, but my mama always said that business postponed is business lost. It just appeared in your in-box. It looks like something rather magical, if I might say, Mister Paris.”

“All right, all right.” Asinus sighed. “It’s not from Rip Flarkin’ Hunter, is it?”

“There’s no card, Mister Paris. It appears to be a small round spheroid, approximately three inches in diameter, made of a dark onyx with a gold inlay pattern.”

“Oh, flark it. This is not what I needed right now. Will you stop that!”

“Stop what, Mister Paris?” asked Susan.

“Not you, kid. I was talking to the psycho hose beast in here. Look, get me Fiona and tell her to have a message spell ready. I’ll meet her in the library in five minutes.”

“I’ll pass that on, Mister Paris,” Susan beamed, and turned on one heel to head to the west wing.



“I keep telling you, Asinus, I can bind her about eight different ways.”

“Look, it’s my problem, I’ll take care of it. I just need some way to keep the umber hulk from eating the furniture. If those damn seraphim keep making kamikaze runs on the island, we’ll need all the firepower we can get anyway.”

“You’re the boss,” sighed Fiona. “Though how the hell that happened is anyone’s guess.”

“Yeah, yeah. No one’s forcing you to stay on here, chippie.”

“Hey, you’re Family,” the sorceress shrugged. “Besides, I’m not leaving till you come through with a cure for this stupid curse.”

“I don’t know,” Asinus leered. “It makes it a lot easier to talk to you in an eight-year-old body.”

“Look, do you want this contact or not? I’ve got actual work to do, you know.”

“Don’t get yer diapers in an uproar, Fi. I need you to connect me to Khyrisse Starshadow.”

“Oh, gag,” Fiona said. “The succubus isn’t enough for you?”

“You don’t even mention the hose beast while the line’s open, or I send you to your flarkin’ room, got it?”

“Nice to know there’s kryptonite in your makeup somewhere, donkey boy.”

“Again with the donkey jokes. Just cast the damn spell.”



“Not now, Asinus,” Khyrisse said quietly.

“You look like shit, chickie.”

“Is that supposed to be an endearment?” she said halfheartedly. “I don’t have the energy for this. Ebreth...”

Khyrisse broke off.

“He got himself kacked, didn’t he?” Asinus said. “And you need to get him raised, right?”

“How... are you spying on me, Asinus?”

“No such luck. But, of course, if that kinda thing turns you on...” Khyrisse turned her face away. “Right, right. Look, I just thought you should know you’ll have a bit of trouble raising Tor-boy. His soul, as you might remember, was a bit of a contested commodity.”

What was left of Khyrisse’s color drained out of her face. “You--you think Hell might...”

“I’m a better lawyer than that,” grinned Asinus. “Let’s just say that someone with your best interests at heart is the designated heir to Tor’s soul upon death. In writing, signed in triplicate.”

Khyrisse said nothing.

“Look, the thing clashes with my decor like nobody’s business, and I figure it’d fit right in with your mouse house. I can direct the thing to come to you if you give me your location.”

“You... didn’t have to do this, Asinus.”

“What? And chance Tor ending up in the hands of some flarkin’ five-eyed soul hunter? Nah, better to keep things in the family, right?”

“Right.” Khyrisse smiled a wobbly smile. “We’re in Rimbor City.”

“Lucky you.”

“Asinus!” a young girl’s voice called into the contact spell. “Are you coming back to bed? This spell only lasts a few minutes!”

“Fi, I’m gonna kill you...” Asinus growled as the spell cut off.



Across the face of Ataniel, a black sphere inlaid with gold shot its way towards Rimbor City, unnoticed except by a flock of blackbirds and a elven archmage who gazed eastward waiting its return.

Lazarus Heart

“Can you breathe?”

Valende’s voice, short and urgent. He thought he could, so he nodded, or tried to.

“Is he all right?” Jack’s.

“Give him a minute.”

Ebreth opened his eyes. Vague movements of light and shadow, nothing more than that. “Damn it,” he coughed, “I was really enjoying that dungeon, too.”

“He’ll be all right.”

Soft arms around him, shaking. His shirt felt cold and wet. Ebreth’s left hand fumbled across her face; he couldn’t see her very clearly, but her familiar cheekbones were damp with tears, and her mouth trembled. “Hey,” he said, lifting to his elbow, “it’s all right. Everyone else ok?”

“Everyone’s fine,” said Jack.

“Was there at least something really good in that dungeon?” The room struggled to resolve into focus as the oxygen supply to his brain picked back up. Khyrisse wept very quietly into his chest, more, he thought, from release than actual distress.

“A book no one can read.”

“Finnegan’s Wake?”

“No, literally. It’s all in ancient runes.”

“Huh.” Ebreth sat up slowly. He was starting to get some color now, though it was pretty off: Khyrisse’s head a garish yellow, his hand on it a strange luminous mahogany. “Someday,” he said, “someone’s got to invent a kind of prophecy that helps you avoid trouble, instead of making you go ‘Wow, just as foretold’ when it hits you.” Vickie laughed. “Look out for the water! when a ton of it’s falling on you isn’t a lot of help.”

Vas cleared his throat. “You know, you could have stayed in the cube with Khyrisse if you knew you were in danger,” he pointed out.

“Oh, right, Vas. You’re the one to talk about thinking things through carefully.” He rolled up his wet sleeves. Or Val... or Skitch... the Rat... God, Vickie... We should just call this group Disengage Brain. The only one who really thinks ahead is Jack, and he’s trying to stop. Ebreth shook his head. “Besides, I’m the strongest swimmer in the group. I’d rather get kicked in the ass by a prophecy than risk my trying to hide from it fucking everyone up.”

“You’re not going to do this to me every year, are you?” said Khyrisse, laughing a little shakily. He smiled and squeezed her shoulder, but his vision was already clearing, and his focusing eyes sliding to her thickening midsection. Goddamn it, Tor, you’d better do something about this fucking acting without thinking before you have a child to worry about. His eyes met Jack’s for a moment. “Well, not if I can help it,” he said, lightly but quietly. “You guys have dinner yet? I could eat a horse.”

The Omeria Agenda: Vanunu

Mordecai couldn’t go on any longer.

There were some forces man was not meant to use, let alone in such ways as the Warlord Bloodscar had been demanding of the five sorcerers. A month of harnessing the magic in the strange, swirling sphere had driven Mordecai to nightmares the likes of which he could never have imagined. He wandered his waking life like a zombie, careful to hide any remnant of conscience deep inside where the harsh gaze of the One True (as Hallorran called their master) would never detect it.

Today, however, had been the last that Mordecai could take. The experiments on the knight Galeric, twisting him, trying to bond the energy to his life force... they were beyond wrong, they were perverse.

“Vanunu,” he muttered, the word in his native Malachi for “Living Word,” the one belief that kept Mordecai going.

Tonight Mordecai was going to leave. The explosion was perfectly timed to distract the One True long enough for the wizard to sneak past the guards during their evening change. And once Mordecai was free, he would be able to get this information to... who?

It was a thought that was put off as Mordecai finally heard the crash of the detonation. He moved, and quickly. An invisibility spell, carefully reproduced from glimpses at their captive spellbooks, wouldn’t get him past the guards normally, but during such chaos, it had a chance.

He raced down the laboratory complex’s hallway, whispering his mantra quietly. Vanunu... vanunu...

He slipped past the guards, both more and less alert from the chaos erupting within. Vanunu... vanunu...

And Mordecai found himself on the streets of Tobrinel, free once more. Now it was time for decision. He knew better than to try to go to the Duke with what he knew... he was half certain that the Duke was behind the experimentation as it was.

He considered Dalencia, but of late their policy towards the reemerging Malachi had been less than understanding. If only Trade hadn’t fallen back during the Madness... but then Mordecai remembered hearing something about a new Trade state. One of the Dagger Heroes was starting it in the Northlands, Hallorran had mentioned once.

If you can’t trust one of the Ten, Mordecai thought, who can you?

“No one,” he muttered. “But it’s better than anything else.”

He turned south and began to run once again, away from Tobrinel... and towards New Trade.

Vanunu... vanunu... he breathed as he ran.

Numerology

“A hexagon of doom?” Vickie said. “What, is Rimbor being attacked by evil geometry students?”

“Ooo! Ooooh!” Marty waved his hand in the air like a child hoping to be called on in class. “Is it Diarians?”

“Marty,” sighed Rani, “not everything annoying in the world is done by Diarians.”

“But there’s six!”

“Well,” said Jack, “your approximation was pretty good, all things considered... taking Rimbor’s topology into account, I’d say you missed the true center point by about 42.32 feet to the north and 18.60 feet to the east.”

Rani shook her head. “That’s not enough to matter. If there was something important about the Ashe fish markets I should have been able to get a bead on it from forty feet away.”

“Well, it’s probably just a convenient spacing... most of the city is circumscribed by the circle these six points define.” Jack squinted at it. “113.09724 square miles worth of it, to five decimals of pi.”

“Does that have anything to do with anything?” Rani demanded irritably.

“Uh, probably not. But they’re definitely deliberate,” he offered. “Each of the wormholes is between 5.999 and 6.002 miles from both the center point and the wormholes to either side of it. That’s about as equidistant a hexagon as current Atanielite technology is capable of demarcating.”

“Diarians!” Marty said triumphantly. “It’s Diarians, right, Rani?”

“I don’t know,” sighed the detective, snapping her casebook shut. “Not necessarily. Sometimes a six is just a six, okay?”

Drowned Rats

“How are you feeling?” Mina asked Ebreth solicitously. Uncle Asinus had had things under control before she or Jack had time to get past the stunned stage, really, but it was still a relief to see him sitting up under his own power.



“Been better,” the newly revived pirate sighed, “been worse.”

“There’s a lot of territory in there,” smiled Mina.

“So there is,” said Ebreth Tor, his eyes crinkling at her a bit oddly, like there was something on the tip of his tongue he couldn’t quite remember. It was about as much uncertainty as ever showed on his face, and Mina smiled. “You gave us all quite a scare,” she said.

“How many of these do we get again, three?”

“About sixteen,” muttered Khyrisse, still a little shaky. “And counting.” Mina gave the older mage’s arm a sympathetic squeeze.

***

“Dinner is served,” announced Sennett, emerging from the kitchen with a soup tureen on a wheeled silver dinner service.

“There isn’t rice in it, is there?” Marty said anxiously.

“Not in yours, Master Hu,” the butler assured him with a straight face.

“That’s good.” he sighed in relief. “Because I heard once that birds, like, eat rice, and then it expands in their stomachs and kills them.”

There was the little pause that usually followed after Marty had just said something. “So how’d it go today, Marty?” asked Ebreth, accepting a bowl of soup from Sennett. He’d changed out of his soaked clothes, but he still felt somehow cold.

“We met the purple babe and then we fought with her,” said Marty, happily.

“Yeah?” said Ebreth. “What happened?”

“Oh, we, like, just talked a little? While we were fighting, I mean. She was pretty friendly. Then she pulled the wall down and we had to escape, but she put this in my, uh, what was it called again, Orlen?”

“Codpiece,” murmured the bard, discreetly. Ebreth raised one eyebrow.

“Codpiece,” finished Marty, “so I think she likes me.”

“I think he meant what happened in general, Marty,” Khyrisse said patiently.

“No, I meant with the woman.”

***

The Rat was very, very annoyed. The big people had no idea how long it took to get his fur in order once it got wet. Plus the Rat really didn’t like the smell.

Now the duo-matrix butler function was ladling out hot liquid for the big people. The Rat didn’t even see any croutons. Well, the Rat was hungry too, and he was going to make sure he wasn’t forgotten.

“No luck finding the soul?” Mina was asking Khyrisse.

“Not yet,” said Khyrisse. “I think there is a... ack!!!”

“What?” said Vas, alarmed.

Khyrisse reached behind her neck and pulled out a very wet Rat.

She looked straight into his oil-black eyes. “Don’t do that!”

“Thank you!” the Rat said, his whiskers bristling in rodent laughter.

“Hey buddy,” said Ebreth, gently taking the Rat from Khyrisse. “I think we can get some food for you too.”

The Rat crawled up to Ebreth’s shoulder leaving a trail of water. Once he got there he proceeded to groom himself fiercely. Skitch was trying not to break into hysterics.

“I know just how you feel,” said Ebreth.

“Thank you!”

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