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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 21

Dream of a Common Language

The excitement of the resurrection had died down, and Aithne turned her attention to the half of the Rat Pack she had not yet been introduced to, scrutinizing them with curious interest. Mina noticed her immediately and approached her with a friendly smile and outstretched hand. “Hi, I’m Mina.”

Aithne didn’t look like she quite knew what to do with the hand. “Hi Mina,” she said, looking past her to Khyrisse and moving her hand around the room in a circular motion. “Good?”

“I wish she knew Boolean,” sighed Khyrisse.

“I think she’s asking if we’re your people,” Schneider spoke up quietly. Khyrisse looked at him, startled. “Gestural communication is a jester skill. Really.”

“Can you tell her you’re our friends?”

Schneider whistled to get her attention, flicked his fingers at the two groups, and then clasped his hands together in camaraderie.

The girl’s face lit up and she pointed to herself. “Aithne.”

“She’s Aithne.”

“We got that part, Schneider.”

Aithne turned back to Khyrisse and made a graceful motion at her with both hands, looking over her shoulder at Schneider.

“I think she’s swearing fealty to you.”

“Grendel.” Khyrisse sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why does everyone always swear fealty to me?” she asked plaintively. “I’m not a goddess anymore!”

“How’s she supposed to know that?” Ebreth grinned from the couch.

“Diari?” said Aithne, pointing at Orlen.

“Diari,” agreed Orlen, bowing gravely.

“Diaria?” She pointed at the ground.

“No!” shouted just about everyone.

“Rimbor,” said Schneider, indicating the ground.

“Rimbor?” she said perfectly, no comprehension whatever in her bright eyes.

“Anyone have a map?”

***

The man in the ceremonial mask was still making hand motions at her, but Aithne had stopped paying attention. He had a sad mouth. He and Ebreth didn’t like each other, Aithne could tell, and she sympathized; Aithne’s mother had a consort that her father didn’t like, and he had a thin, unhappy look all the time he lived there. Aithne’s mother had three consorts, and that was the one Aithne liked best, so she kind of liked this masked man, even though the news he had to tell her was far from welcome. For it seemed Aithne was never going to see her mother’s consorts again, or her father’s, or any of their children, or her father, or her mother, or anyone she had known, or, in fact, Brytannwch, which was not even on the map, and when she pointed where it should have been the man who reminded her of her favorite of her mother’s consorts made a helpless shrug to say he didn’t know.

A lot of time had passed, Aithne gathered.

“I’m Schneider,” the man said quietly, as if he would have liked to have offered more comfort if they only shared a bit more vocabulary.

“Aithne,” she said again, her green eyes brimming, and stood from the map without looking back. A family, a world, a name. None of it with meaning any more. “Aithne the Ratpack.”

She would adapt, of course, as she always did, but it would be a long time before Aithne would look at a map again.

Interlude: Of Womanly Wiles

Tallen the Red was sitting outside a Dalencian café enjoying himself. His latest contract went smoothly as they all usually did. He was in and out of the target’s home before anyone knew what happened. A slap on the back, a dagger in the chest and it was done.

“Another drink, sir?” the red-haired waitress smiled coyly.

“Yes, thank you.” Tallen liked the waitress. He always had a weakness for red hair. It was almost too bad that everyone he became intimate with usually died due to his gift, but such was life.

“Your drink, sir,” she said, returning with the libation. Tallen placed a golden coin on the waitress’s tray. She gaped at it in pretty disbelief. Tips were rare in Dalencia, and usually coppers when they did come by. “Why, thank you!”

“No, thank you,” Tallen said, exuding charm. “You know, I could use someone to show me around town tonight.”

“I think I would like that.”

“What time do you get off?”

“Just after the dinner rush, about 8.” The waitress gave Tallen a beautiful smile. “Why don’t you meet me here. My name is Sarine, by the way.”

“Mine is Mark,” Tallen offered one of his pseudonyms.

“See you later, Mark,” the waitress whispered, and winked as she walked back into the café.



It was around midnight when Tallen and Sarine half drunkenly stumbled into Sarine’s small room above the bar. The crowd downstairs was extremely noisy. Still, Tallen didn’t mind. The noise would hide any screaming Sarine would do in her death throes.

The waitress kissed Tallen on the lips and her fate was sealed. Tallen knew that the poison had started working its was through her system. Within three hours she would be dead, but three hours was plenty of time, and Tallen intended to take full advantage of it. He kissed her back, falling to the bed as Sarine pushed him down.

She was without question the best lover Tallen had ever had. She kissed and nibbled every inch of his body until he felt like he was on fire. For one of only a few times in his life, Tallen the Red wished he had an antidote to his poison somewhere, because this woman was worth enjoying more than once. The assassin closed his eyes in ecstasy. “Sarine!” he cried aloud.

Then he realized he really did feel like he was on fire.

Tallen opened his eyes with a gasp. Sarine was still on top of him, but she was smiling a strange and cruel smile, and a metal dart was protruding from his belly. “Actually,” she said maliciously, her form shifting, “the name is Shilree.”

Tallen whipped his wedge-shaped dagger from his pants where they lay sprawled over the headboard and plunged it into the Diarian’s throat, choking on a spasm of burning pain. Shilree laughed through her punctured throat like it hadn’t hurt a bit and got up, stretching sensuously, to put her clothes back on. Tallen tried to spring after her but fell to the floor in a convulsion, screaming. It felt like his skin was being flayed off. “In case you’re wondering,” Shilree commented, “I’ve been researching a compound to suppress your immunity to your own poison. How does it work?”

Tallen the Red couldn’t answer.

“I thought so. It’s a fairly impressive toxin, by the way. I’m sure I’d be dead in a matter of hours myself, if I weren’t already undead, that is. But it’s probably a few dozen times more intense for you, since your body is producing the poison. I don’t really expect you to live more than a few minutes.” Tallen screamed in pain as another convulsion hit, this one strong enough to break a few vertebrae. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to get close enough to you to deliver it,” said Shilree, her gem eye glinting a terrible red. Tallen writhed. “For the Emperor,” said Shilree, “and for my fiancée, you bastard.”

She spat on Tallen’s twitching body and walked out. The assassin tried to scream for help but the convolutions had snapped his windpipe. He died a few minutes later bent in a shape that no human body was meant to be in.

Take Me Down to Rimbor City

“Okay,” sighed Khyrisse, “so what is the deal with these wormholes, again?”

“Diarians put them there,” Marty explained earnestly.

“We don’t know that, Marty!” Rani’s half-patience with the paladin was long since eroded today. “They’re staked out around the city as some kind of dimensional explosives.”

“And you don’t know who’s behind it? Do we know how to stop it?”

“Close the wormholes before whoever it is can set them off,” Garal said with unusual firmness.

“Well, how long do we have?” asked Ebreth.

“I don’t know yet. Maybe Jack can help me go over some of the math.”

“It’d be nice if we knew who we’re likely to piss off by stopping them before we do it.” Khyrisse offered them a weary grin. “Nice, but not essential.”

“I’m on it,” Rani said. “What have the rest of you got?”

“Nothing here,” said Orlen. “Unless you count it as information that the Scorpion’s minions want us dead.”

“We found a book of ancient Celtic runes,” Val provided. “We can’t read it, obviously, but it’s definitely what the Rat wanted from the dungeon we were in.”

“Thank you!”

“And Aithne said it had to do with some dorkwad named Coomara,” mumbled Skitch.

The kid really had the shakes about something. Rani might even have been moved to saying something nice if he wasn’t such a colossal brat. As it was, she just said “Coomara being?”

“That’s just the thing,” sighed Khyrisse. “No one has the first idea except Aithne, and she doesn’t speak Dalen.”

“She told me Coomara was a water man,” Jack mused. “And he has something to do with the mirror she was trapped in... maybe he’s the sidhe she was talking about.”

“Don’t,” said Khyrisse, lifting a warning finger at Vickie.

“Man, can’t a girl have a running gag or two?”

“Actually, given the fey impressions Khyrisse was picking up around the dolmen,” Val said, “and the water motif inside it, it’s likely that whoever Coomara is, that cave belongs to him.”

“Thank you,” agreed the Rat.

“Coomara,” said Rani, scribbling, “fairy, possible water-spirit, had the new chick trapped in a mirror, had an ancient book which you stole. Did I miss anything?”

“Not really.” Khyrisse frowned. “But... if that was Coomara’s cave... where was Coomara?”

***

“Hey Dan.” Elshan, a heavyset local hustler and regular at the Saturday night poker table he shared with the corrupt shipping inspector, slid into his usual seat by the keg. “Hear ‘bout what happened downtown tonight? A tornado! Ripped up a buncha blocks.”

Dirty Dan O’Neill glanced up from his dealing. “Quite a day for the unexpected,” he said coolly. “Some five-eyed freak came into my inspection booth this afternoon demanding a soul from me.”

The poker table erupted in amazement. “You saw Lucifer!?! Holy shit! Did you give him your soul? Did you get something cool in return? I didn’t know he had five eyes.”

“It wasn’t Lucifer,” said Dirty Dan, pleased with the impression he’d made. “It was just some weirdo. And I gave him someone else’s soul instead.”

“How’d you get someone else’s soul?”

“Bloody Hell!” All eight heads turned suddenly, surprised by the heavy brogue of a voice that had spoken from the pool hall entryway. They saw a most unusual figure.

“Five eyes, ye say? So that’s the bugger what has me soul? Well, we shall see about that, we rightly shall. Me thanks, goodly folk,” the fish-tailed, green-haired being said, tipping his hat to them.

He strode back outside, plunged into the Rimbor Harbor, and was gone.

***

Jack was looking at the book. “Has anyone asked Aithne if she can read this?”



Schneider made some hand signs and an exaggerated facial question mark at Aithne. “I can,” she asserted, nodding.

“Ancient Celtic runes?” exclaimed Vas. “How long ago is she from?”

“What does it say?” asked Jack.

“I’m--afraid this is a little beyond my ability to pick up from hand signals,” mumbled Schneider.

“That’s all right.” Val smiled reassuringly at Schneider and Aithne. “I’ll have a tongues spell ready by morning. Translating ancient writing is hard enough without communication difficulties.”

“It can all wait till morning,” Rani agreed with Val, stuffing her notepad into her jeans pocket.

“The new girl looks depressed,” Mina commented.

“Maybe she likes this shithole too,” muttered Rani. “Let’s get her drunk. Hey, Aithne!” The girl looked up. Rani made a chugging motion at her.

Aithne nodded immediately, almost gratefully, and stood.

“Yeah, I thought that might be what you wanted.” She glanced across at Khyrisse. The sorceress’ face was pale and streaked with tear tracks. “Khyrisse, we’re going out to a girls’ club to get buzzed. You wanna come?”

“You know I can’t have alcohol, Rani.”

“Mina doesn’t drink either. They’ve got real good crushed ice fruit drinks. Come on, you look like you could use a break.”

Khyrisse hesitated and glanced at Ebreth, who looked like he’d seen better days. “I think I’d better just st--”

“I promise not to die while you’re gone,” he said, and grinned. “Go on ahead, Khyrisse. I’ll be here when you get back.”

She smiled a little, standing from his side a bit slowly, and then she bent over to give him a quick kiss. “You’d better be.”

“Somebody get me some insulin,” groaned Rani, mock-staggering.

Khyrisse slanted a dirty look at Rani and put her knee on the sofa to give Ebreth a better kiss.

Rani laughed and shook her hair out effortlessly. “Hey Val, Vickie, Kingfisher, come on with. It’s ladies’ night, and I don’t know about anyone else, but I could use a really stiff one.”

“I’m hearin’ ya, Rani!”

“Let’s go do Rimbor.”

Dead Man’s Carom

“I don’t know, Ebreth,” said Jack. “I think you’re kind of at your best when you’re not trying to think too much.”

“Thanks, Jack.”

“That, uh, didn’t come out the way I meant it.”

Ebreth laughed. “Four ball. Side pocket.”

“I mean,” said Jack, “that you’re strongest when you stop second-guessing yourself and do what’s in your heart. Going after my Other the way you did. Infiltrating the Remnant. Going to Hell for Khyrisse.”

“Didn’t save Jack.” Ebreth sank his shot. “Didn’t even really save Khyrisse. I thought it might, so I had to try. But the truth is Ari couldn’t have killed Khyrisse by cutting her throat. I didn’t know that, but maybe if I’d been paying attention I would have. Maybe if I’d been paying attention I would have noticed Jack was cracking back on Ælwyn’s ship and we could have worked something else out. Maybe if I’d been paying more attention to Ariath I could have stopped her before it came to that. I had clues. I wasn’t thinking them through. What I’m trying to say--there’s a time to stop thinking and just act. But that time’s not always.” He sat on the pool table and leaned on his cue. “I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been more cautious with the damn water. Maybe everything would have clicked for us then, or maybe Skitch would have drowned. I’ll never know now. In retrospect I don’t guess I’d change what I did, but I never even thought about it. What about next time?” Ebreth rubbed the back of his neck. “The guy who warned me about the water. He said escaping from Hell was going to have serious consequences for me. He asked me why I thought they stopped coming after me.”

“Because Uncle Asinus bargained the pants off Mephisto?”

“That’s what I thought. I also thought I could swim.”

“No one’s going to bring you back to Hell, Ebreth.” Ebreth didn’t say anything, just leaned on his cue and looked out the window of the Mansion. “I won’t let them.”

He glanced back over his shoulder, twisted his head, and then he reached out his arm to tousle up the smaller man’s hair. “You’re not going to be here, Jack,” he said through his teeth, intensity showing through the usually casual crinkles of his eyes, and then he swung off the table and cracked his cue hard into the white ball with one motion. Two of his and one of Jack’s spun off unevenly as it struck them. “Twelve ball,” said Ebreth Tor, belatedly, watching them roll, “corner pocket.”

“You’re thinking too much,” Jack quoted the pirate at himself, gently.

Ebreth watched the pool table settle with a strangely lost expression. “Either that,” he whispered, “or I’m not thinking as much as I should.”

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