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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 25

Sleeping With The Enemy

“Morning, Marty. How’d your rendezvous go?”

Marty dropped his egg totem. “Oh, no, Master, I didn’t have any rendezvous!”

“You didn’t?” said Ebreth. “But you asked me--”

“I was just trying to, like, learn some new words. I didn’t really meet a woman in the ice cream shop last night.”

Ebreth paused a beat. “How’d your secret rendezvous go?” he amended.

“Oh, like, really well, I...” Marty’s voice trailed off, the wheels grinding visibly behind his light eyes. “Am I, like, in trouble?” he said uneasily, reaching under the coffee table for his egg totem.

“I don’t remember putting you on a celibacy program, do you?” Ebreth grinned.

“Then you aren’t going to, like, tell everyone or anything?”

Ebreth remembered Ariath without wanting to. He looked at his apprentice’s eager face. “I can’t tell everyone,” he said. “It’s a secret, remember?”

“Oh! Yeah!” Marty brightened. “I totally forgot about that. It’s--not wrong to keep secrets from you, is it, Master Ebreth?”

“Aaaaaah, not if you tell me about them.” Ebreth’s face split in a grin. “Go on now.”

If she backstabs him or something there’s going to be no one to blame but yourself, Tor.

Shut up. The kid’s got as much right to give someone a chance as any of us.

Ebreth Tor went to pour himself a third cup of coffee, black.

These Are The Soul Cages

Aithne watched warily as Rani staggered into the living room, but the Diari elf showed no interest in her or her mind. She sat next to Garal on the sofa and shuffled through some of his maps with him, talking very softly. Giving him some instructions, Aithne guessed. Rani wore men’s pants. Aithne didn’t exactly understand why yet. “Um,” Jack said, “listen, about Orlen...”

“I no want talk about Orlen,” said Aithne. “I want talk about book.” She tapped it with her fingers. “I understand book. When Ebreth die.” She pointed across the room at the dark man, hoping it wasn’t rude to point. “Khyrisse catch something.” She mimed a ball in her hands. “What is that?”

“His soul?” said Jack.

“Soul,” she said. “My soul in mirror, right?”

“Yes, your soul was in the mirror.”

“Coomara catch souls.” She thumped the cover of the book. “Ebreth die in water, what is that?”

“Drown.”

“Drown. Coomara catch drown souls. Book about days. List his souls he catch. Now one soul subtract. Coomara want catch soul again. You understand?”

Jack looked at her. “I think so,” he said. “Whose soul? Subtract?”

“Iain Tuisann.”

Amusing the Natives

Two gargoyle scouts, wary but not hostile, confronted the newly christened Sidewinders as they passed through the Gargoyle Nation on their way to the Doomlands Rift. Flicker didn’t speak their language nor know much about the body language of gargoyles, but he hardly needed to to see that they were laughing to each other when they realized that was where the group was going. “We guide you,” grunted the smaller of the two. “Border of Gargoyle Nation only. We not go further.”

“Who asked you to?” snapped Shilree, in a bad mood after suffering another seizure that afternoon. The two gargoyles repeated their clicking laughter to one another and did not comment.

***

Purple was looking at the illumined chessboard and getting ready to make her next move when the fourth, dressed in flowing silk, walked up to the triplets.

“Go away,” they said as one. “This is private.”

The fourth, who was totally different than the triplets, stood her ground. “I think we need to talk,” said Silk.

“You are not wanted here,” said Black.

“Or needed,” said Purple.

“Or at all useful,” said Green.

“No, you are wrong,” said Silk.

“Then we will make you leave,” said Black.

“Don’t be silly,” said Green. “One can’t leave until one arrives.”

“We can try,” said Black.

“And kill us all. No thank you my sister,” said Purple.

“Then what can we do? I don’t want her here,” said Black trying to control her temper.

“There is nothing any of you can do,” said Silk. “Why don’t we sit. If we are going to be together we might as well be social.”

A table covered with a fine white table cloth appeared over the chessboard, laid out with a silver tea service. Around it were four cushioned chairs. Silk pulled one out and sat. Purple followed suit, then Green, and finally Black.

“Now isn’t this better,” said Silk. “Tea?”

***

Two days later, and the newly christened Sidewinders were about halfway between the border of the Gargoyle Nation and the Harpy lands. By now the adventurers were (mostly silently) glad to have heeded Jethro Toleski’s instructions about when to travel and when to take a break, how to forage for water, and how not to disturb tarantula nests.

The Doomlands were not a desert like the Cebies in Diaria, vast golden-white sand dunes as far as the eye could see reflecting the sun’s brilliant heat. Shilree had been there once, as a girl. Nor was it a desert like the Gobe in Shikintu, a high, bone-dry plateau whipped by bitter winds. Xiang had been born near there, in Kazgun Province.

The Doomlands were parched, cracked earth littered with bizarre rock formations and all manner of sharp and inhospitable plants, from bristly cholla cactus to jutting Joshua trees. It did rain here, sometimes, but when it wasn’t raining the air was oppressively dry and dusty. And the wind swirled constantly, changing its direction apparently at whim. The entire party was developing squints remarkably like Toleski’s, simply to protect their eyes from the constant barrage of flying grit.

That night a posse of Dust Riders, roaming scavengers who left only the leathery remains of their victims’ skin behind, came charging into camp. It looked like another bout of random violence was imminent, but the sight of Jethro coming out of his bedroll cussing was enough for them to keep on riding.

“Had to teach them yella bellies a lesson more n’ once,” Toleski remarked.

“I’m seeing the Little Bourbon Saloon incident,” Jennifer whispered to Jason.

“Why, I remember the time them Dusty boys done marched large as life into the Little Bourbon Saloon, demanding....”

“Please put some pants on,” beseeched Shilree, and put her pillow over her head.

***

“More tea?” asked Silk.

“Yes please,” said Purple.

Black was munching on a cucumber sandwich and Green was cautiously sipping her tea.

“This is a waste of time,” said Black with her mouth full.

“One cannot waste what one does not have,” said Green, with her usual enigmatic smile.

“Would you two be quiet!” yelled Purple. “I am rather enjoying this no thanks to you.”

Three pairs of eyes looked at Purple. Purple closed her mouth and sipped her tea.

“Now, now,” said Silk. “Let’s all calm down. We have much to discuss, and a future to resolve.”

“One cannot resolve what one does not have,” said Green.

“Always the fount of useless information,” said Black.

“More tea?” asked Purple.

“Yes please,” said Green.

***

The next day the Sidewinders traveled down a steep ravine to a small river, winding its lonely way through the Doomlands like an artery in a future heart attack victim. They followed it several miles to a small gulch, where Shilree, scanning ahead, suddenly called out “Something is wrong. The ground--”

Before she could finish the sentence, the parched earth broke apart and a great stone form shook itself loose, rearing up in the craggy pass. I am--the Sphinx. None may pass unless they are able to answer my question!

“The ole riddle game, eh, ya noseless varmint?”

“Cool!” Kit said. “I know lots of riddles.”

No, I ask YOU the riddle.

“That’s not fair!”

“It’s kind of traditional,” Inez informed her.

“Very well Sphinx,” Shilree said impatiently. “Let’s get this over with so we can get back to business.”

With great solemnity (and, truth be told, a somewhat overlong dramatic pause) the Sphinx cleared its throat and spoke: I see that you are a group of mortals who fancy yourself wise. An old riddle from Shikintu asks “If a tree falls in the forest and none are there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I answer: No! I embody an existential philosophy, I say that nothing exists until it is observed, for if no one is looking, I possess no face. But I am also the paragon of relativism. Each person who sees me taints my being with their own perspective, and I look different to each person.

There was a pause. “So what’s the question?” Jason asked.

“The implicit question is ‘What am I?’ It’s an old form,” Hou-Hsieh told him.

“An... interesting... perspective on the tree koan,” Hsin muttered.

“Can I ask you my riddle anyway?” Kit said.

The Sphinx sighed. Very well, little one. Shoot.

“What’s red and green and goes in circles really fast?”

A Clear and Present Danger

“All right,” Rani was saying, “here’s the scoop. If we can close all six of these wormholes before whoever this jackass is blows them, we hose him, and the city’s safe. If we can close some of them before he blows them we may still hose him, but Garal can’t guarantee it. If we close more than one of them at once, we might displace the city our fucking selves, so we have to do this one at a time. Unfortunately we have no idea when this dickhead is planning on detonating them. Maybe we’ll find out along the way. For now, we just have to deactivate these things as fast as we can.”

“But without ripping the planar fabric up too much,” added Garal, “which could be, uh, fatal. And without triggering a dimensional explosion, of course, since that’s just what we’re trying to avoid.”

“Then we should be doing what about this?” said Ebreth.

“Well,” said Garal, “finding a fairly stable place along the path of each wormhole and collapsing it there. I really can’t risk collapsing these things in Rimbor City--it might detonate the others.”

“And how do we collapse a wormhole? Pull the string?”

Garal looked uncomfortable. “It depends on the position we’re trying to close it from. Powerful beings can do it. If we can find a stable position in the domain of an entity who owes me a favor, I could call it in... it’s not very likely, though. Space is pretty big. We could do a favor for such an entity, of course. Or I could shut it myself if we had an artifact of magic we could use. The first step is to open one of the weakpoints and find a stable place along its wormhole course that’s safe for us. I mean, there are planes out there where no one but me could survive.”

Thermador smirked.

“Don’t forget Jack’s calibrated for this plane,” said Valende.

“I don’t mind,” said Jack.

Garal shrugged. “The wormholes almost certainly pass through the Prime Material in several places too. It’s just a matter of finding a fairly stable position, going there, and finding a way to deactivate the wormhole.”

“That sounds kinda fun, actually,” said Vickie.

Schneider cleared his throat. “And Octavian?”

“I’d kind of rather not lure him out here by goading him into wanting to kill me,” said Ebreth. “Unless it’s really important. I’ve already died once this adventure.”

“How about if we find ‘Octavian’ written on a wall and I draw a Rat next to it?” said Skitch, suddenly excited. “He communicates with graffiti--so could we!”

“Kiddo, that’s a great idea!” Skitch beamed proudly. “Let’s do that, and then we can send one team out after Tucson’s soul and one to close rifts. Garal, who do you need f--”

“No,” Kingfisher interrupted. Khyrisse blinked at her, startled. “My team was defeated yesterday by three of the Scorpion’s enforcers. There were four of us, and we weren’t even the weaker fighters. We don’t have the firepower to split into two groups and keep both powerful enough to survive another attack like that one. And the Scorpion is easily intelligent enough to target the weaker of the two groups.”

“That’s--a good point, actually,” frowned Khyrisse. “Our strength is in numbers, and diversity... well, the soul will just have to wait till we’re finished with the wormholes, then. They’re a clear and present danger, and we’ve got to get rid of them before whoever put them there sets them off.”

To Khyrisse’s surprise, the Rat didn’t pitch a fit at that. “I understand,” he said, snuggling into Jack’s shirt pocket.

Riddle Me Ree

Rattlesnake in a blender? guessed the sphinx.

“You’re kinda close,” said Kit.

“A mirror,” said Flicker.

You may not pass until I guess the child’s riddle. Stop that. The sphinx batted him back with a big paw. Iguana in a blender?

“You’re getting warmer.”

Those Who Cannot Remember The Past Are Doomed To Repeat It

Khyrisse sat crosslegged on the roof of the Carriage, looking at the map while Vas drove. The foppish elf deserved a citation for reckless endangerment at the very least, in Rani’s opinion. “You know, I hate to agree with Marty Hu or anything,” murmured Khyrisse, tracing the strangely shaped hexagon, “but six interdimensional bombs, six miles apart from each other, and around Rimbor City, no less...”

“I know,” Rani admitted, with a loud sigh. “Bugger me. I hate obvious crap.”

“Somebody could just be trying to frame the Diarians,” Ebreth offered.

“Well, I doubt it’s official, anyway,” said Khyrisse. “I spoke to Shilree just last night, and if she knew anything about a Diarian effort to wrest Rimbor away from Cynystra again I’ll eat my spellbook.”

“I take it this wouldn’t be the first time?” said Ebreth.

“Hardly. There’ve been four wars over the island, and it must have changed hands a dozen times. Shilree implied that it was a Diari settlement first, but the Cynystran books say the opposite...” Khyrisse shrugged. “The really odd thing is that it doesn’t seem to be any real use to either of them. They’ll fight like cats and dogs to get it, but once they’ve got it, they practically ignore it. It’s like a couple of boys playing capture the flag.”

Rani snorted. “Why they let men run anything more important than a soccer meet is beyond me.” She diddled her pen, uneasily. “It’s not a bad theory or anything, just... something about it isn’t sitting right. Cynystran foreign affairs have been flash-frozen since the Madness. If anyone wanted to take over Rimbor, or for that matter Nylevia, it would be a piece of cake. Why hijack the place?”

“Maybe they don’t want it,” suggested Ebreth. “Maybe there’s just something here they don’t want anyone else to have.”

“Now that sounds like Diaria.” Rani snorted and hopped down off the roof of the invisible Carriage as Vas parked it behind the old warehouse.

She hesitated a long couple of seconds, and then bit the bullet and drew her ex-girlfriend aside as the Rat Pack unloaded. “Hey Val,” she mumbled, and scuffed the heel of her boot on the pavement, her thumbs hooked self-consciously through her belt loops. “Listen... I’m sorry about last night. I was really drunk, and I, I’m worried about my city, that’s all. I’m not mad at you or anything. I’m glad we, uh, shared what we did, and I appreciate you giving me a chance and all that. So no hard feelings, and I hope we can still be friends, and I’m sorry I, uh, keep embarrassing you in bars and stuff. I’ve gotta big mouth. But I don’t mean anything by it.”

Val started an oddly Khyrisse-like sigh of frustration, pain, and anger, then succeeded in swallowing it and any less-than-tactful replies she might have wanted to follow it with. “It’s all right, Rani,” she said, with her more characteristic indistinct sorrow. “I suppose it had to happen sooner or later, given the kinds of conversations we have over scotch. And I... was snapping a bit myself, if memory serves. It’s all right. Let’s just not do it again.”

Rani was silent a moment, just looking at her. “You know, girl,” she finally said, “you’re so worried about not yelling at anyone your head’s gonna fuckin’ explode.”

Val just laughed, startled.

“Seriously, Val.”

“Rani... what good does yelling at anyone do? I’ve been the recipient of my fair share in the last year--and not only from you, either,” she added, reaching out and squeezing Rani’s hand. “It doesn’t accomplish anything constructive that I can see.”

“Gets what you’re feeling out so it doesn’t build up in there until you have a fuckin’ coronary,” Rani shrugged. “Trust me, I’m in a high-risk group.”

Val gave her a slightly wan smile. “If I haven’t had one by now, Rani, trust me, I’m not going to.”

Rani sighed. “Look, any time you feel like yelling, you come around and yell at me. I’m from Rimbor fuckin’ City. It won’t piss me off. I promise.”

“Why on Ataniel should I yell at you?” Val couldn’t completely keep the anguish out of her voice. “Of everyone involved in that mess six months ago, you were the least to blame!”

Rani tapped her foot. “I was the one who upset you last night, though, wasn’t I?”

“Yes.” Val sighed, then shrugged. “So, well, you were three sheets to the wind, Rani. I understand why it happened.”

“Yeah, yeah, you understand it. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t still piss you off. That’s legal, you know. ...Look, do you want to talk about this? Is it about Jack?”

Valende glanced away, looking momentarily as if she’d rather be anywhere else.

“No, look, don’t go away. If you can’t talk to your ex, who can you talk to, right?” Rani tried a wobbly smile. “I’m a fuckin’ detective, remember? And it was when I mentioned Jack that you started getting upset. Way before I started, you know, cursing at you and stuff.”

Tears welled up in the elf’s emerald eyes, and she blinked furiously; one tear trickled down the side of her face. She really was incredibly beautiful. “Rani... This has been the worst year of my life, and I’ve lived a long time. I want to say one thing about last night, and that’s all.” Val looked down. “I never meant that you and I were some sort of great romantic love, not overnight. What I meant was that I did love you--I cared about you, your happiness was important to me. We might have been more, we might have been what you call ‘in love’, given time and opportunity.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I certainly thought so. But my timing was... well, catastrophic, and I thought that it was better for everyone if I stopped things--with both of you--where they were. I know I hurt you by doing so, and I’m sorry for that,” she finished, very softly.

Rani shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “Well, I--I mean, I care about you too, Val. Goddamn. I just, I’ve got my own path I’ve gotta make, that’s all. So you and me use the word ‘love’ different. Like the world’s gonna end. Look, I care enough about you to want to help, all right? So are you gonna tell me what’s eating you here?”

“Other than being horribly embarrassed, you mean?”

“You think you’re embarrassed? I had a public fight and I spilled sentimental blather everywhere. I can’t believe no one stopped me.”

“I don’t think any of them minded.” Val smiled sadly. “You were preaching to a rather receptive audience.”

“I minded.” She kicked the gravel. “I know I haven’t exactly earned it, but could you do me a big favor and just never mention any of that again.”

Val nodded, and swallowed rather hard. “I can do that,” she said. “If we can not talk about me being set up with anyone, ever again.”

Rani sighed. “Val, look--all that stuff I said last night, I was drunk, and upset, and I took a lot of crap out on you I shouldn’t have, much less in public. But the thing with Beth, I wasn’t bringing that up to be pissy or annoying. She’s someone you’d really be good with. You keep forgetting I can tell these things.” She shoved her thumbs back through her belt loops. “She’s more your type than I am,” Rani said. “I only brought her up because I like you. And I want you to be happy. Whether I am or not.”

Val closed her eyes. “Rani,” she whispered, “why don’t we work on ‘not miserable.’ And if you want me to be ‘not miserable,’ you’re going to need to lay off the matchmaking, now. It’s not what I need or want right now, and it’s not something I want to discuss. Can we do that and still be friends?”

Rani nodded, a slight flicker of sadness in her eyes. “Yeah. Sure. I can understand that. Look, if you change your mind, you do want to talk, I’m here.” She shrugged, and gave Val an awkward hug.

Val hugged her back tightly, surprising both of them. “Thank you, Rani,” she said softly.

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