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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 26

Never Play the Riddle Game with an Eleven-Year-Old (Or: Remember Lily)

A dinosaur?

“Nope.”

How about a newt?

“You’re real close.”

What, a frog?

“You got it!”

“That’s rather disgusting,” Shaolin told Kit.

Uh, right. Anyhow, good call with the mirror bit, mortal. You may pass and all that.

“I think he was a nice sphinx.”

Heh heh, frog in a blender. Gotta remember that one.

Strange Magics

Aithne frowned and held her hand out at a warning cross angle as the Diarian who had violated her mind approached her, but he only spoke. “Aithne,” he said, humbly enough, “I am truly sorry I contacted you without your permission. I assure you that what I did was no different from a sending spell--I did not read your mind or change anything in it in any way.”

Schneider pantomimed something about magic and mind control, trying to translate. Aithne didn’t understand it, but she did remember the word ‘sorry’: I did something wrong, and I feel bad, I say ‘sorry’. “Okay,” she said. Aithne didn’t feel very sorry herself. “You no enter me, I no hurt you. We both Ratpack.”

She turned her back on the men and walked to where Khyrisse was working elven magic on the warehouse wall. It shuddered and pulled open into a vaguely door-shaped hole. Strange, precise magic, like a recipe. Aithne would not be fooled into forgetting its power, though, for she had seen what her new matriarch was capable of, and well she knew traffic in souls was the business of only the mightiest of magicians. Aithne herself was unable to do such things. So she stood in polite respect as the sorceress passed through the portal first, the fading wisps of her discontinuous union with the Goddess curling faintly from her body. Then Aithne followed.

Through The Rabbit Hole

Khyrisse had passwalled the large group through the back of the warehouse, and Garal was inspecting the gap he was holding open in the air.

“The Plane of Gamma Rays,” he was muttering. “That probably isn’t the best idea... I think that star’s about to go supernova... Abyss 249, but I’m concerned about the oxygen content there...”

“This month, pipsqueak,” Rani reminded him.

“Well, the only Prime Material point I’ve found so far is in Talaria,” Garal said, chewing on his lip. “It’s not the stablest part of the wormhole, but I think I can collapse it from there without damaging the planar fabric too much. Let me adjust it so that’ll be where it drops us off.”

“I thought you said unstable wormholes were a risky means of transport,” Khyrisse said hesitantly.

“Well, they are,” he said. “I wouldn’t try going through one without, uh, an expert planeblazer, or anything.”

“Your point,” grinned Khyrisse. “But is it... entirely safe, with one?” Her hand fluttered over her stomach. “For everyone? We could take the Carriage to Talaria.”

“Oh, just passing through it won’t hurt the baby,” Garal assured her, keeping his concern about collapsing the wormhole to himself.

“Baby safe,” Aithne agreed. Khyrisse blinked at her. “I understand baby,” Aithne explained. “I help baby, help mother. Woman help. That Aithne.”

“She’s a gynecologist?” said Rani. “We’re traveling with a gynecologist? Saint A, that’s almost as useful as a mathema--”

“Hey, you never know when you’re going to need a good gynecologist,” Vickie pointed out.

“That travel magic,” Aithne continued, pointing at the weakpoint Garal was holding open. “Okay for baby. No problem.” She patted Khyrisse’s stomach. The archmage blinked in surprise at the familiarity, then grinned. “Garal, you say you can close this thing with a magic item--how powerful a magic item are you looking for?”

“Oh, a minor artifact would be fine,” said Garal. “The problem is, the wormhole’s going to drain it of magic. I suppose it could be remagicked later... but I wouldn’t do it with anything we need to use, like the Carriage.”

“So let’s pool our extra daggers +2 and crap like that,” shrugged Rani. “I’m sure between, what, eighteen of us?”

“Thank you!”

“Nineteen. I’m sure we have six expendable magic items.”

Garal cleared his throat. “Actually, what I need is an artifact of magic. Something with an enchantment on it isn’t going to help. I need a source of contained magical energy.”

“We need to find six spell repositories?” Mina said incredulously.

“Too bad Shilree’s not here,” muttered Khyrisse.

“Spell repositories are good,” said Garal. “Or anything with magical energy permanently trapped in it--any of those items that have magical powers you can invoke a number of times a day. A crystal ball would be fine.”

There was a long pause. If anyone had such an item they were willing to donate to the cause of protecting Rimbor City, they didn’t say so.

“Oh, hell,” sighed Rani. “Let’s just go through. It’s fuckin’ Talaria. There’s got to be a fairy artifact around there somewhere.”



It was several minutes after the last of the Rat Packers had passed through the weakpoint and into the wormhole that the two green pinpoints of light slowly began taking shape in the darkened corner of the still warehouse, and whizzed through the open passwall and across the city.

Interlude: I will show you terror in a box

Acrid and sulfurous odors wafted through the stone-walled laboratory. Shilree’s one good eye sparkled with the cold, calculating, and very rare sense of sanity of purpose. On the table sat a simple box of mahogany and steel. Its inside was coated with a dull leaden metal, and its surface was carved in intricate patterns revealing its Kyoko-Ryan origins.

The mad Diari hummed softly as she addressed the card in careful Shikinti characters. She blew on the ink so it would dry without smudging. Into the box she tossed a single Kyoko-Ryan silver coin, which settled almost noiselessly onto its soft contents. Shilree closed the lid and sealed it shut along the steel bindings that held the wood together. She shook a piece of wax from the blood-red candle on her laboratory table and used it to press the card to the top of the box. Her gift was now ready.

The metal inside the box would keep it secure from psionic scrying, and the coin had an antimagic spell upon it. Between the two the only way to find out what was inside the box would be to break the steel bindings and open it. Shilree grinned in anticipation of her newest revenge, and clapped her hands three times. A winged creature of darkness and infrared light materialized by her side, took the box carefully in its fanged jaws, and then slipped into the ether.

The last thing Shilree B saw before it disappeared was the inked address in Shikinti: care of Daimyo of Shanghai, the honorable huizun Haito, Lord Praxis.

Out of the Fairy Tale and Into the Fire

The Rat Pack was not off to a particularly auspicious start in Talaria.

For starters, the wormhole deposited the team in the inner courtyard of the Talarian palace, where they were promptly corralled by guards and escorted forcefully outside. This was an embarrassing enough diplomatic situation for a foreign head of state to find herself in, but to make matters worse, Garal said the wormhole could only be collapsed safely if he was in touch contact with it, and the Talarian king was completely refusing her an audience. Ebreth guessed it was because they had already breached the castle defenses once and he was wary of them. Val thought the king of Talaria was probably a bit paranoid in general after the Madness. Khyrisse privately suspected that the king had never entirely forgiven the Sewer Tour for promising to rescue his daughter from the Gang of Eight and then siding with the Gang of Eight.

Whatever the reason, though, it was looking like the Rat Pack was going to have to break into the Talarian castle. Khyrisse was just sure this was going to count as an act of war. She certainly wasn’t doing it until she had a way to collapse the wormhole firmly in hand and ready to go, and she wanted to make damn sure she had exhausted all her other options first, though, and that was why the Rat Pack was paying a visit to the euphemistically named Talarian Center For Long Term Stress Recovery, even though Khyrisse didn’t especially want to see the ravages of the Madness on the fairy tale kingdom and it must have been the last place Schneider wanted to go.

“Princess Kristin?” exclaimed Khyrisse, startled, as she pushed through the revolving door and into the mental institution. “I--hadn’t been expecting to see you here!”

“Hello, Khyrisse,” said the psionicist, in her soft voice. “How are you?” Her eyes met Schneider’s for a moment, flickered with sadness, and looked away.

“Much better, thank you,” said Khyrisse, remembering with a wince her state the last time the two had spoken. “What are you doing here?”

“The people of Talaria were hit very hard by the Madness,” said Princess Kristin. “I’ve been running a mental health center to help them deal with some of their painful aftermath. How about you?”

“I was, uh, hoping to see Princess Telerie,” she mumbled.

“I’m afraid she’s been kidnapped again,” sighed the telepath. “It’s the third time since I founded the Center. I’d put a stop to it, but it’s the only joy she really gets in life... what did you want from her? Her memory is, unfortunately, pretty inconsistent.”

“No, nothing like that,” said Khyrisse. “Grendel, I don’t want to upset her. It’s just that I need access to the castle, and the king won’t see me. You couldn’t get me in, could you?”

Princess Kristin paused. “Legally, or illegally?”

“Legally?” hoped Khyrisse.

“Not a chance in the world. Security has been very tight. If the king won’t see you, there’s nothing I can do. Perhaps you could wait for Telerie? She should be rescued within the week, and you’re right that she could get you in if she thought well of your quest. You do have a quest, don’t you?”

“We’re trying to stop some asswipe from hijacking Rimbor City into subspace,” Rani put in.

“Oh my,” said Princess Kristin. “Well, I can’t leave my patients long enough to help you with that quest, but it does sound serious... I’ll see what I can do. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll let you know if I’ve been able to scare anything up.”

“Thank you, Kristin,” said Khyrisse.

She got the same bizarre feeling of deja vu she got whenever the two women embraced.

Neither woman noticed the slender girl shrouded in a cloak who slipped noiselessly through the door and after the Rat Pack, a strand of her golden hair showing through her cowl in the light.

***

Thalia felt surreptitiously relieved that she’d missed Telerie at the Talarian Center for Long Term Stress Recovery today. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her big sister, but visits were always so incredibly depressing. Thalia immediately felt horribly guilty. It wasn’t Telerie’s fault she’d gone insane.

She was on her way out the back when she heard her sister’s name. Quietly, she slipped back in and listened. It looked like a party of adventurers! To see her sister! It wasn’t fair--even insane and cloistered in a mental institution, Telerie had a more exciting social life than she did.

The heroes were on some sort of quest to save a city. Thalia wondered if she could talk them into taking her along. Every time she tried to go on a quest herself, her parents made her take a military escort. How was she ever supposed to meet her true love with a small squadron of chaperones following her everywhere she went? Maybe if she just explained her situation, they’d be sympathetic. She grabbed her cloak and followed them out into the street.

Thalia almost called out to them when she had a horrible thought. These people knew Telerie--maybe they’d think she was like her sister and be afraid they’d have to rescue her all the time. Then they’d never agree to sneak her out of Talaria! She didn’t dare tell them who she was.

Thalia almost started back home in defeat, when she had an idea...

***

Dave Thermador took a casual swig from the bottle of altered whiskey. “Ahh, Talaria,” he said, taking a deep breath. “This place always smells of fresh baked goods and sugary pastries.” The mercenary took another drink. “Bahh, I almost prefer Rimbor.”

Skitch sniffed the air and looked confused. “I don’t smell anything?”

“Thank you!” the Rat agreed.

“That’s because you don’t have the nose for my line of work, kid.”

“Ahh,” said Skitch, trying to sound like he understood.

Thermador took another drink. “Nothing like Lord Yizazzl’s Interplanar Brew to settle the system. Right kid?”

“If you say so.”

Thermador sauntered along a wall away from the others. Skitch followed. “Let me tell you something kid, I have been to most of the Inner Planes and even some of the Parallel Worlds but there is no place like Ataniel Prime. Remind me to tell you about the time I got Lord Verk of the Fifth Realm of Stone out of a particularly embarrassing incident.”

Skitch watched the interplanar soldier-of-fortune as he moved further along the wall continuing to tell his story.

“You see kid.... Gotcha!”

Thermador’s arm thrust into the shadows and pulled something, no, someone, out. It was a young blond woman. The hood of her cloak had fallen off her head.

“Now missy,” said Thermador in flat tones. “You were following us. Why?”

***

Skitch’s jaw dropped as Dave Thermador struck like a snake and pulled a teenage girl, none too gently, into the light. She squeaked in fear and pulled unsuccessfully against his grip. Skitch didn’t like people eavesdropping on him much, but he liked people patronizing him even less, and realizing that the mercenary had been talking down at him primarily to provide cover for his attack on the girl did not improve his mood. “I... I was... I was following you because...” she stammered. Thermador gave her a threatening little shake. “Because I was, uh, wondering why you wanted to break into the castle. I mean, you could be, um, enemies of the state or something. But if you had a good reason--” She tried to back away from him a little, but he didn’t let her go. “I could help you get in,” she bargained. “That is, if you could do something for me.”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Ebreth interposed himself between the soldier-of-fortune and the frightened girl. Skitch wished he was big enough to do that. He settled for scowling blackly at the big bully as Ebreth--who got cooler all the time, as far as Skitch was concerned--maneuvered her back by the shoulder with one hand and wrenched Thermador’s grip from her arm with the other. “Thermador, for Pete’s sake!” Ebreth pushed him away and released the girl. She didn’t bolt. “Sorry about that,” he told her. “No, we’re not enemies of Talaria. We’re the Rat Pack, and we’re on a quest to save our friend’s city.” He moved his head in Rani’s direction. The sranjhac waved boredly. “Your help would be greatly appreciated. What can we do for you?”

She looked nearly as intimidated by Ebreth’s forceful rescue as Thermador’s forceful arrest. “I--I want...” The rest of the Rat Pack was gathering around her now, curiously. “I want to get out of this one-dragon kingdom and do something on my own for once!” she blurted. She winced, and then gave in to a mournful sigh. “Probably sounds pretty stupid to a bunch of heroes like you all are, huh?”

“Thalia who?” she said nervously.

“It’s me... Mr. Paris? I tutored you in algebra four years ago?”

“I’m not Thalia,” she said, more confidently this time.

“Wow, you’ve really grown up,” Jack smiled.

“I’m one of her... um... handmaidens. Her close handmaidens.”

“Do you remember that time that you told me that your dragon had scorched your homework to a crisp? And then when I finally met it, it was a frost dragon?”

“It really did!” Thalia started, then corrected herself. “I, uh, saw it happen to Princess Thalia. Because I’m one of her close handmaidens. Not her.”

“Right,” Jack said. “What should we call you?”

“Constance,” Thalia said.

“Okay, ‘Constance’,” Jack said, “so what do you need our help with? You’re not in trouble with your dad again, are you?”

“No, I mean, what dad?”

“Right,” Jack repeated, smiling.

A Taste for Whiskey and a Nose for Trouble

Thermador shrugged his shoulders and backed off, his craggy face set somewhere between a smirk, a sneer, and a look of casual indifference.. “Just watching our collective back, Mr. Clean,” he said. “Imagine if she wasn’t harmless.”

It was, without question, the first time anyone had ever called Ebreth Tor ‘Mr. Clean’. Ebreth was too distracted by it to do more than stare at the mercenary for a second or two. What he finally said was “Then she might have blown your head off for jerking her around by her arm, did you ever think of that? Try and be a little civilized, we’re not the Port-au-Sang Goon Squad.”

“I don’t like being spied on,” said Thermador.

“Well, you could have confronted her without the arm-twisting,” said Ebreth, “that’s all. It wasn’t called for.”

“A little intimidation never hurt anyone,” said the soldier of fortune, chuckling drily in his throat and taking another swig from his bottle.

Ebreth Tor, who could think of eight or nine instances to the contrary right off the top of his head, just said “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, Thermador.”

“Yeahhhhhh,” said Thermador, “but it’s much more satisfying to have a quick grab and snatch the suckers.” He made an evocative gesture, grinning.

Ebreth paused, and then his face spread into a long slow smile that Thermador could read not at all. “I’ll remember that about you,” he said softly, and turned back to Jack and the girl.

The Handmaiden’s Tale

“They’re trying to force me to get married,” Thalia confessed.

“And you don’t like him?” Jack asked sympathetically.

“Well... sort of. They’re not being that picky about who I marry, exactly, as long as I do it before I turn eighteen. But if I don’t pick someone by then, they’ll choose for me.” She wrung her hands unhappily. Skitch did feel kind of bad for her. He knew what it was like being bossed around by grown-ups, both the Dave Jerky Thermador kind and the arrange-your-life-for-you kind. He remembered Ariath, though, who had been just as disingenuous to start with, and kept his guard up. “Of course I want to get married some day, but I want it to be to the right person. How am I ever supposed to fall in love on a timetable? And I know they wouldn’t pick anybody truly horrible for me, but don’t you think there should be more to a marriage than... than ‘not horrible’?”

Khyrisse stamped her foot in exasperation and rolled her eyes to the heavens. “Flarking chauvenistic... Why do they insist on doing this? We’re not capable of complicating our own love lives without the extra help or something?”

“If you could give me a lift out of here,” Thalia pressed her advantage quickly, “I could help you out with the castle thing. I mean, being one of the princess’ handmaidens and all, I go in and out of the castle all the time. So I could take you in the back way and show you around.” She started to warm to her subject. “I could even do it so nobody would see us. You don’t want the King to know about this, do you?”

Khyrisse hesitated, then sighed. “Okay, come with us, come on. We’ll help you. I--don’t know how yet, exactly, but we’ll figure something out.”

“Handmaiden, huh?” Thermador studied her with a keen eye. “Whatever. I just have a job to do.”

Scorpion’s Nest: Do They Know Something We Don’t?

“I don’t like this,” John Tucson said.

“Our man swears that he saw ‘em go in,” said Stump, “but they never came out.”

“All of them?” Mahoney asked, flipping a gold coin idly.

“All of ‘em.”

“Maybe they all fell into hell or something,” shrugged Camaro.

“Maybe the tooth fairy’s gonna bring you ten bucks tonight, Pearl.”

“Perhaps they’re involved in some team bonding exercises,” Nox offered. “We could do that,” he said, loosening his belt.

“Don’t make me cut that off, elf,” Camaro glared.

“Hmmmmmmm,” smiled Nox.

“Look,” Tucson interrupted his henchmen’s bickering, “I don’t trust these people. Tor is a dangerous, dangerous man, and Starshadow is one of the most powerful mages on Ataniel. And there are fucking Parises involved. I don’t like this, not one bit, and you have already made far too many mistakes.”

Stump and Mahoney paled, and even Nox looked chastened; Camaro just sighed and rolled her eyes. “Johnny,” she said, “cut the Darth Vader shtick, will you? We’re in-house.”

“Don’t--” Tucson put his finger in his ex-wife’s face, warningly-- “start. I sent you out to distract them and you failed, twice. You let that stupid jester escape and now he’s with them. And now you’ve lost track of them completely?”

“We kicked their ass, John,” said Camaro, a little more seriously. “Give us another chance, and we’ll do it again. And they won’t escape so easily this time.”

“No,” said the Scorpion. “Your orders have changed. I want to know what the fuck they’re up to more than I want them out of my city at this point. The only time their movements make sense is when they’re pursuing my lost artifact, which at least they’re having no better luck with than you are. The rest of the time they seem to be poking around completely mundane areas of the city. I want to know why. I want to know what they want with my artifact. I want to know what they want with Rimbor. They’ve been sighted with Octavian, and I want to know how the hell he’s involved in this. I need more information, and I’m going to tell you exactly how to get it, so you’d damn well better stop screwing around and listen.”

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