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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 27

As Far As We Can Throw You

“What are we going to do with her?” Khyrisse whispered to Ebreth, under the pretext of snuggling with him while the Rat Pack broke for lunch. Her pretexts had gotten a lot more fun since she started working with him, she noted. “I want to give her sanctuary in New Trade, obviously, but I can’t think of a way to get her there without...”

“Uh, excuse me,” Garal interrupted, blushing a little. “Um. Uh.”

Khyrisse sighed and pulled back from Ebreth to face the foot-scuffing halfling. “Hi, Garal,” she said patiently. “What is it?”

“It--it’s Thermador.” Garal looked anxiously over one shoulder, but Val and Vas were between them and the soldier of fortune, discussing ways of accessing enough magical power to collapse the wormhole, and no one could eavesdrop around Vastarin Windbourne once he got talking. “I feel awful casting aspersions on so little information, but I just--” Garal flushed unhappily. “I just don’t trust him.”

There was a beat. “I don’t either,” said Ebreth, softly. Garal looked quickly up at the pirate, who towered over him to the extent that Garal rarely met his eyes. “Intuition,” said Ebreth, and shrugged. “He reminds me of someone that last Ebreth Tor used to know. What about you?”

“I don’t like his story,” said the halfling. “Traveling between planes isn’t easy. He has to be either a planeblazer, a high-level priest of an existing god, or a supernatural. He says he’s not the first... If he has planar powers, he could interfere with my collapsing the wormhole. He could theoretically make it explode. And he’s not being straight with us about things, either. You asked if he came here from the Positive Material and he tried to make you think he did, but he didn’t. He has positive material traces on him, but there’s no way he’s been to the PMP in the last month or so. You can’t hide that. It’s against the nature of the Positive Material Plane to allow itself to be hidden.” Garal took a deep breath. “I--don’t like working with this man, Khyrisse. I don’t know what his agenda is, I don’t know where he’s getting his power from, and I don’t like the way he treats people. He scares me. Why are we trusting him?”

“He hasn’t actually done anything,” said Khyrisse, trying to be charitable. “But he does know more about this than he’s telling us, you’re right about that.”

“I was just going to keep my eye on him.” Ebreth shrugged. “But if Garal’s that worried about sabotage, maybe he’d better confront him about it now, before we get to the wormhole.”

Garal gulped, whether in fear of the mysterious soldier-of-fortune or just at the prospect of having to confront anyone about anything Khyrisse couldn’t tell. “Please do,” she bolstered the halfling’s nerves. “All he’s told us so far is that he ‘has a job to do’--and I don’t know what it is or if I want to help him do it. Probably not.” She suppressed the impulse to glare in Thermador’s direction. “We can’t just kick him out now, though. He knows too much. He could go right back to Rimbor in a snit and sell Tucson his services--whatever they are.”

The pirate nodded. “We’d probably do better to hang onto him and keep an eye on him, instead.”

“I guess,” Khyrisse said, unwillingly. The only person in the Rat Pack she thought both competent enough at thievery to watch Thermador effectively and trustworthy enough to ask to do it was Ebreth himself, and he’d already gotten into a confrontation with the mercenary once, so Thermador was likely to notice. “I had Sennett watching him last night,” she said aloud, “but that only works in the Mansion.”

“Amatsu could tail him,” Ebreth suggested, looking at the indistinct form hovering in the shadows near Garal. “He’ll never be able to shake his own shadow.”

That was a remarkably good idea. Khyrisse and the ninja had never become close, but he certainly seemed reliable to her. “Amatsu,” she asked the shadow, “would you be willing to watch him for us?”

“He says he will do as you ask,” Garal nodded.

“Good,” said Khyrisse. She didn’t trust Thermador any more than Ebreth or Garal did, but she did think he was on Rimbor City’s side in this, and she didn’t want to turn him against them by throwing him out or imprisoning him. “What about our runaway ‘handmaiden’?” she asked Ebreth, aloud this time. The girl clearly wasn’t listening anyway. “This is the second time I’ve been caught in the Talarian palace when I wasn’t supposed to be there, and we’re probably going to have to break in a third time before this is over--the last thing I need is to top it off with kidnapping charges...”

“Well, if she follows us out of the country, we can’t be said to have kidnapped her exactly, can we?” Ebreth grinned at Khyrisse. “Get her to pay us a few gold pieces for a ride. We can say we didn’t realize who she was. She claims her name is Constance and she’s a maid--what do we know?”

Garal looked confused. “She’s not?”

“Oh yes she is,” Khyrisse said, in an unblinking and immediate state of denial. “And then once she’s in New Trade, she can ask for sanctuary, if she wants... Perfect! That was the loophole I was looking for.” She grinned, then threw her arms impulsively around Ebreth’s neck and kissed him.

Ebreth chuckled softly and mussed her hair. “You’re welcome.”

The New Recruits

Aithne watched carefully as Khyrisse sent her servant to speak with the mysterious Thermador and her consort to speak with the girl Constance. Khyrisse was not fond of Thermador, Aithne could tell. She wondered if Thermador was from a rival family, and what the fracas between Thermador and Constance that Ebreth had interfered in had been about. Aithne felt so out of her depth here sometimes. But the more she watched, the more she would learn. It wasn’t possible to go back, after all. Aithne just had to commit enough to going forward, and things would find a way to sort out.

Aithne believed that.

***

“Ebreth,” introduced Jack, “this is ‘Constance’.” He pronounced it with audible quotation marks. Ebreth struggled not to bust up laughing. “I used to tutor her in algebra.”

“No you didn’t! You used to tutor my mistress! I’m a maid!”

“Every maid should know algebra,” said Ebreth, deadpan, and lifted her hand to his lips. “Khyrisse says to let you know that for ten gold we can give you a seat on our carriage. Nothing wrong with selling tickets, certainly not to common handmaidens.”

“Uh, Ebreth,” Jack said in a stage whisper, “Khyrisse does know that--”

“Yes, Jack. Just don’t say so explicitly, all right? She wants to be able to feign ignorance if she needs to.”

***

“There’s a couple of things I need to ask you, uh, Dave,” mumbled Garal. “Modifying wormholes is a very tricky operation, so I have to take everything I can into account... I, uh, need to know how you travel between planes.”

Dave Thermador gave the halfling a the visual once over, still nursing his spiked whiskey. He’d known planeblazers before. They were mostly the arrogant and self-important type. This guy was different, though. He actually emanated an air of modesty, that and a good half dozen planes the odor of which was making Thermador sick. “So you want to know my secret, Mr. Planeblazer,” he said dryly. “Well, to answer your obvious questions: (a) I’m not a planeblazer, (b) I’m not a demon, (c) I’m not a threat to you or this traveling circus, and (d) it’s just a matter of walking the right way.”

“Ahh,” said Garal, his brow furrowing a little.

Thermador took another drink. He would normally string the planeblazer along for a while, but the multi-plane stench from the guy was really getting to him. “I can see you don’t understand. Let me make it nice and simple. I was born with certain gifts. The first is I can feel the presence of other planes. The effect of which usually makes me sick, thus the need for the witch’s brew.” Dave gestured idly at the halfling with the bottle. “No offense, but your ‘air’ is particularly nauseating. The odors of several planes never sat with me well. So in other words I am going to keep this short so you can go away.” Dave took a long drink. “Ahh, that’s better. Anyway, the one hundred thousand dollar answer: I travel planes by passing through the soft places. I can smell them. Capice?”

“Yes,” Garal said coldly. “You’re a planeblazer.”

Thermador didn’t usually lose his cool, but he did swing around and put his finger menacingly into the halfling’s face. “Don’t you ever say that about me again,” he said, his voice even more sandpapery than usual. Garal looked startled, and Thermador backed off. “I’m no planeblazer,” he repeated. “What you are is your business. I’m just a mercenary.”

“But--you--travel the planes in the same way I do,” Garal tried tentatively.

“Sure,” Thermador lied. He didn’t want to get into it in any more detail than that, especially not with a planeblazer, and for Garal’s purposes it was good enough. “No planar magic,” he elaborated, “no supernatural connection to the ether, nada. Your precious talents should be good to go. Now for the real cookie, but in exchange you will ask no more questions. Understood? Good. My current employer takes a dim view on the Plane of Entropy intruding beyond its realm. My employer wants it stopped if not reversed. That is where I come in. So friend, we have common interests. I have a job to do and so do you. Now go away. My stomach feels like it is going to jump out of my body and dance on my face.”

Thermador leaned against a tree and took another drink as the halfling walked away. Once he was sure the planeblazer was gone he slid a device that was more energy than matter from his coat. “Thermador here.”

There was the sound of water bouncing off a window pane.

“Yeah, I made contact. They’re doing exactly what I thought.”

Now there was the sound of electricity through wires.

“Yeah, it should work. At least it’ll buy me time. Look, I’ll get back to you once the job is done.”

The sound of falling leaves.

“No, dammit, that’s all we need. Listen, you hired me to do things my way. Let me do my job. I can’t vouch for anything that might happen if your kneecappers come crashing in.”

The sound of rocks moving against each other.

“Yeah, well, same to you and more. Listen, I gotta go. I’ll be in touch. Just give me my space and I’ll deliver. Thermador out.”

Dave Thermador tucked the device back into his coat and leaned back. He took another swig from the bottle and closed his eyes. It had been a long time since he rested and he was tired but, as they said, there was no sleep for the wicked, nor for those who had a job to do.

The World According To Rani

Constance--Rani had written “Thalia” in her casebook, but she made a point of respecting aliases--said a crystal that radiated pure magical energy was among the magical artifacts secreted in the Catacombs beneath the palace. (“The princess had to memorize all of the artifacts down there once. I, uh, helped her study.”) She also assured Khyrisse that anything in the Catacombs was fair game for anyone who could get it. It felt so much like a trap that Rani’s skin itched, but she knew that any actual Talarian quest would also be this blatant and convenient, so she bit it down and just kept her senses open as the princess, holding a magic lantern up in one slim hand, turned the wheel on the door sealing off the Catacombs.

Rani prided herself on her ability to think of more than one thing at once. Right now she was going over theories about the theft of Rimbor City, entertaining suspicions about Constance and the Catacombs, wondering if she was ever going to be able to face Mialie again after her drunken bathos at the Sapphic Verses, and sizing up Dave Thermador. He certainly had managed to crank the entire group off pretty quickly: informing Khyrisse he was using her group for the secret agenda of his unspecified employers, lying to Garal, bullying potential allies, patronizing Skitch, telling everyone they smelled bad. He hadn’t kicked Jack yet. Maybe Rani should suggest it. She grinned and watched him take another swig from his magic hootch. Rani didn’t mind Thermador’s sort, the jaded, swaggering mercenary who either didn’t care what happened to those around him or pretended he didn’t, usually, if he was a heavy drinker, the latter. By definition, though, they didn’t have anything to say to each other, she and he, so she just stood next to him without hatred as Constance pulled the door to the Catacombs back.

The other thing she was thinking was I hope one of these people has Direction Sense, because I don’t know dungeons from the hole in my ass.

If Dogs Go To Heaven, Cats Must Go Somewhere Else

“He is ronin, a simple mercenary,” Amastu reported to Khyrisse in a barely audible whisper. “His talk was neutral enough that I cannot be certain if his ends conflict with ours. His employers may be dangerously impulsive; the sounds I heard suggested perhaps natives of some elemental planes? You should consult Garal.”

“Merde,” muttered Khyrisse.

Dave Thermador was working his way over to her now as the Rat Pack headed through the Catacombs. Khyrisse found herself bracing for some possible attack, and forced herself to relax. “Yes?” she said, trying to keep the chilliness out of her voice. The smudged outline that was Amatsu flowed back from Khyrisse’s shadow into the soldier-of-fortune’s. Thermador didn’t seem to notice. “Do you need something?”

“Look, can we talk for a minute? Away from the hopper? The planeblazer,” he added, when all he got was a puzzled and rather annoyed squint. “I know you have no reason to trust me. But it’s important.”

“Why?” she asked warily, with a rapid glance towards Ebreth. “Now? In the middle of the Cata--”

“Powderpuff,” Thermador said flatly.

“--comb... What did you say?”

“Powderpuff. He wants to know if you’re still allergic to pink dander.”

Khyrisse stared blankly at Thermador, her mouth slightly open. The mercenary rolled his eyes and made an absurdly anomalous, high-pitched little sneezing noise, more like he was trying to puff hair out of his face. Her eyes widened, and she grabbed Thermador by the lapel and tugged him over to the side of the corridor.

“Khyrisse?”

“Tell them to back off,” said Thermador, motioning towards Ebreth and Vastarin, both of whom seemed inclined to follow. The interplanar soldier-of-fortune lowered his edgy voice to a whisper. “What I have to say is for your ears only.”

“We’re having a little talk,” Khyrisse said over her shoulder, not removing her eyes from Dave’s. “A private one. I’ll be right there. Don’t go far.”

“As you wish,” Vas said.

“Mr. Thermador,” Khyrisse said quietly, turning her full attention back to him, “if you’ve been sneaking into my head somehow, you’re about to be in a world of hurt.”

“Relax, I’m no tepper,” Thermador chuckled drily. “I did some work for the feline a few years ago. Actually, to be more precise, I did some work for his essence magica, if you get my meaning.”

Khyrisse relaxed her grip on his lapel, shaking her head. It had been years since she’d even thought about that cat. The only people in the world who knew both its name and the fact that its damn dust made her sneeze all the time were her father and brother. “All right... you’ve got my attention.”

“Listen, I couldn’t come forward earlier because of a certain diminutive member of your crew.”

“Garal? He’s harmless!”

“Ha! Listen, planeblazers are many things. Arrogant, self-important, and they have no concept of the damage they do, but harmless they ain’t. Just take some free advice--watch him. I’ve seen his kind before.”

“Is that what you wanted to tell me?” Khyrisse said, incredibly unimpressed.

“No. I’m working for a certain group. Actually a large group. Hell, the Lords of Life and Light. Heard of them?” Khyrisse shook her head. “Well, they reside on the Plane of Light, aka the Positive Material. They’ve hired me on to reverse the intrusions by the Plane of Darkness.”

“Oh?” said Khyrisse, folding her arms. “And why should I believe that? Rani said you came in from the Positive Material Plane, but you didn’t, did you?”

“I never said I did,” Thermador pointed out. “In my business, it’s better not to contradict anyone more than you can help. No, actually, I met my PMP contact in a quaint little plane called Heaven.”

Khyrisse reacted. “Then that is related.”

“Yes and no,” Thermador evaded. “You don’t need to tell the hopper about this, understand? But Heaven’s in flux right now. When it resolves, the LLL want it to be in their favor. That means driving back the darkies. To make a long story short, I want to help you shut down these wormholes because it’s my shortest shot to accomplishing that without bringing in some heavy hitters I don’t think anyone wants on Ataniel Prime.”

“That makes a difference, I’ve got to admit.” Khyrisse sighed, and turned to walk back to the group. “Mr. Thermador... did you ever visit the city of Trade? Did you know anyone there?”

“No.” He shrugged. “Frankly I couldn’t stand the smell of the place.”

“Hmm,” she said, with an oddly taut little smile, and turned and kept on walking.

Interlude: Necropolis Fallen

“Which one, do you think?”

“I prefer the more... fervent. The one in the Necropolis.”

“Very well. I shall collect her.”

“Leaving us one closer to our goal. Excellent.”



The barricade encampment was quiet, and Luthien sat atop the battlements grimly looking out over the Necropolis in the distance. Corpses littered the battlefield between the entrance to the Underworld, which he currently held, and the City of the Dead. Corpses that would eventually rise to fight again for one side or the other. This whole battle was an exercise in futility.

“Lord Luthien,” Karpathian Lith said as he stepped from the shadows, “something... something is happening.”

“Yes,” Luthien said quietly, “I sense it too.”

“It’s magic I smell,” Lith continued, “but unlike any I’ve ever smelt.”

“Get Rhynwa. Make sure she’s protected. Something... is coming.”



The Mole and Alderon were busy playing their thirty-seventh game of “rock poker” in their cell beneath the Necropolis when Soldier and Cinnamon found them.

“Jeez, guys, what stinks down here?” Cinnamon crinkled her nose.

“He does,” Alderon and the Mole said simultaneously, pointing at each other.

“Well, your ‘get out of jail free’ card just came in, boys,” Soldier said, pulling a tire iron out of her jumpsuit and snapping the cell lock with one swift motion.

“If... you can get us... to the... soft earth...” the Mole said, “I can... circumvent... the Necropolis...”

“No can do, Moley,” Cinnamon said. “The Deathstain’s spread around this place for at least a mile. We’re gonna need to hoof it.”

“I’m afraid not,” came a cold voice from the entrance to the prison area. It was ManTec’s reanimated corpse, the broken tip of Luthien’s spear still protruding from his head.

“Don’t do this, Manny,” Soldier pleaded. “Throw it off, remember how we faced the Bulette Brothers together? The picnic by the Moonless Lake?”

If ManTec was touched by the Price Girl’s words, no one would ever know, because at that moment, the earthquake hit.



“Corinna, we have need of you,” the figure said.

“Who are you? Where have you come from?” The priestess swung her mace around between herself and the new presence.

“You have been chosen. Your aspect of Death is needed.”

“My... aspect? Are you... the Parliament?”

“We are who we are. Come now.”

There was something about the face that was not a face that gave Corinna, Priestess of the Awakened Arawn, pause. “I...” she started. “Yes. I will come.”



“If the place hadn’t been reduced to rubble when Corinna disappeared,” Alderon continued his tale, “the Mole would never have been able to get us out of there. Still, we were able to bring back these.” The young captain placed a broken spearhead and a small dull pink stone down on the table. “Your spearhead, of course... and ManTec’s iounstone. His... body... was crushed.”

“Aw, ManTec,” Karpathian Lith whispered sadly. “I still wanted... oh, fuck.”

“There’s been no sign of Corinna since the fall of the Necropolis,” Rhynwa said to the gathered warriors. “We... became sensitive to each other in the last few months. She’s totally gone.”

“Could she be dead?” Chipper Price asked happily.

“No,” Rhynwa said. “Not dead, but... not anywhere in this world, either.”

“The important thing...” the Mole said, “is that... the Deathstain... and the Necropolis... are gone.”

“Amen!” Fancy Price cheered. “This place has been bollocks to my complexion.”

“Look, I want to thank all of you,” Rhynwa said, putting her hand on Luthien’s shoulder. “Without you guys, we never would have been able to hold the Necropolis off from Ataniel these last nine months. Whatever happened to stop Corinna, well, who the hell knows. But she’s gone, and the Necropolis is kaput.”

“It’s Miller time,” Alderon said.

“I’d love to take you all out to the Mithril Dagger to celebrate,” Rhynwa said, “but I’ve got a long road to getting the priesthood back to where it was. The rest of you, though...” Rhynwa smiled her eerie-cheery smile. “Get yourselves really pissed for me.”

“That, chief,” Nasty Price grinned, “we can most certainly do.”

How Not To Get Backstabbed

“Are you sure this is the right way?”

“Yes,” insisted Constance. “The Orb of Radiation, Eastern Catacombs, northwest sector. Trust me on this one.”

“She has an excellent declarative memory,” Jack supported his former student.

“Right!” said Constance, and paused. “Just like Thalia. That’s why I’m her favorite handmaiden. We both have really good memories.”

“Mmmmmm...” said Rani, looking uneasily around the rough-hewn chamber the corridor was opening into. Her detective’s instincts were going off before she knew why; in fact, it wasn’t until she had knelt on one denim-covered knee and put both her gloved hands into the stone floor that she realized the party’s light was not reflecting properly off the walls. “Heads up, people, it’s an amb--”

Orlen made a heavy noise as one of the shadowy creatures struck him from behind. Valende came to his rescue, her sword making an uncanny clanging noise against the monster’s hide. “You led us into a trap!” Skitch yelled angrily at Constance.

“No, I didn’t!” she protested. “This is the Catacombs beneath the Talarian castle! Monsters live down here! Do artifacts just lie around unguarded where you come from?”

Khyrisse pulled out her wand of lightning and quickly surveyed the situation, backing to a better vantage point. She couldn’t tell how many of them there were; they were very hard to see. She took aim and fired, taking great care not to hit any of her own group in the melee, even Thermador. The creature she had targeted made a brittle shriek as the lightning struck it, and its outline was illuminated for a moment. It was roughly the size and shape of a man, lean, beaked, and chitinous.

“Watch it!” Khyrisse jerked her head in time to see Ebreth smash the indistinct form of one of the creatures away from her back with his rapier. She hadn’t heard it coming. “Go on, zap them!” he shouted, pressing his back into hers and hacking at it. “I’ve got this one.”

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