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The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 28
And Once They’re Dead, We Can Use Their Heads For Helmets
“Thank you,” Khyrisse laughed breathlessly over her shoulder, and returned her attention to the swirling melee, pleasantly conscious of Ebreth’s warm presence against her back. Her pupils dilated as she made the minuscule little muscle contraction that expanded her sight firmly into infravision. They weren’t any easier to see that way. Is the exoskeleton repelling light, mabye? Ebreth probably caught that one by sound... Khyrisse switched her head about for Skitch, but the boy was planted sensibly behind Marty, plugging away with his little throwing knives. Good. Marty might not be much for brainpower, but he could definitely be counted on to keep a few monsters from reaching her son. The archmage shot off her lightning wand again, trying to identify where the things were coming from.
“Say good night Gracie,” Thermador smirked, pulling an odd curved wand from his hip holster and jetting flame into one of the creatures. It screeched in agony and banged madly back and forth into the rough-hewn walls until it fell down, the mercenary looking on smugly. “Scratch one bug,” he sneered. Khyrisse shivered. Now why does that seem horribly callous, when I just did practically the same damn thing? she reproached herself. Khyri, you just don’t like the man. Fess up.
Valende’s faerie fire went off then, and Khyrisse sighed in relief as black-armored creatures began popping into view in a slow, verdant wave of light. She threw her slow spell past the Rat Pack towards the side of the chamber they seemed to be coming from. One was too close to her already to be affected by the area spell, though, and Khyrisse pulled her sword out reflexively as it leapt at her. The longsword skittered over the black exoskeleton of the bug-man in front of her, its edge whining shrilly. Khyrisse realized belatedly that she would have been better off with the lightning wand. It was incredibly counterintuitive to rely on weapons with no defensive value in such close quarters. Too late now. She beat an insectoid arm gracelessly back from herself, resenting her character class’ pitiful THAC0. “Goddamn, what are these things made of?” she complained to Ebreth.
The bug things oozed around them in the shadows, almost, but not quite, invisible. Thalia blinked and tried to focus on them; the seeing-not-seeing effect was making her mildly nauseous. And I’ll bet these aren’t even the creepiest things down here. She wished they’d made her memorize the monsters while they were doing the artifact list. Green fire started picking out the bugs’ outlines, she noted gratefully. Ah, that’s much bet- “Eeeeek!” One of the things was touching her! Almost before she could react, the elven man had zoomed across and removed the offending arm--the hard way. “It is customary,” he told it, slashing his blade again in punctuation, “to ask a lady to dance.”
Thalia pulled off the detached pincer with distaste as the flying elf finished off the one-armed monster. “Are you hurt, mademoiselle?” asked the warrior gallantly.
“I’m fine. Thank you.” The princess reached into her pockets and pulled out a vial of lamp oil. She quickly replaced the cork with a bit of cotton, lit the end with her Swiss-Army Talisman, and rolled it under one of the bug things. It went up with a satisfying whoosh.
The chitinous bug creature that had mauled Orlen was not distracted by Valende’s attack, springing onto the fallen psionicist like a piece of eerily glowing stop-action animation. Val gave it a cross-slash with the Sword of Corellon that would have half-eviscerated an armored man, but the
bug-man just screeched in annoyance and clawed at her with its pincers. She got between it and Orlen. The Diarian was clearly in pain but not dying, and at that point Val’s energies were better spent on dispatching his assailant.
It was looking somewhat easier said than done, though. The armor class on these things was just unbelievable. Her next swing struck a bit off-balance and she expected it to glance off harmlessly, but instead it bit into the chitin, sinking in with an unusual amount of force. The priestess glanced back at Orlen, surprised, and the telekinetic gave her a weak smile. “Remind me to introduce you to Luthien at some point,” Valende murmured under her breath, amused, and drew her sword back to hack at the monster again.
Aithne had heard, of course, that elven women fought with swords like men, but Khyrisse and Val had seemed so elegant and magically competent that she had dismissed it as propaganda. And yet here they were, back to back with the clan men, waving their weapons around like soldiers--not even very expertly, in Khyrisse’s case. It wasn’t that their strange magic didn’t work well in combat, either, for Khyrisse had cast the spell to slow the approaching reinforcements and Val the one to illuminate their foes. It struck Aithne as very unseemly, but this was their culture, not hers, and as long as they didn’t try to press her into service as a man-at-arms, it wasn’t really her place to disapprove.
“Orkin man calling,” said Schneider, pointing accusingly at the bugs, and a jet of frost enveloped them. Aithne watched him with interest. The elven spellcasters used words to invoke their foreign magics, but it was clear to Aithne that the male showgirl had activated a magic item, not connected to the Goddess
himself. Perhaps it was a battle cry. “Orkin man calling!” she cried herself, turning her hand gracefully at the creatures very slowly charging the masked man, and they erupted in flames. Unable to withstand the shock of it on the heels of the masked man’s cold attack, many of them simply cracked. Aithne grinned at Schneider, and he grinned back.
Rani was really rather taken aback by the autonomous efficiency of the Rat Pack, practically a small battalion by now.
Usually, groups of this size were only able to handle combat effectively under regimental coordination. The Rat Pack certainly had none of that. Instead they seemed to function under an
impromptu buddy system, breaking into twos and threes to take on this or that enemy together, with some of the more combat-ready--Val, Vas, Marty, and Amatsu--looking out for the less--Skitch, Thalia, Garal, Jack, and in this case the wounded Orlen.
It was incredibly chaotic, and working surprisingly well.
No one, of course, was looking out for Rani.
She phased back into the wall just as one of the creatures--Thermador was calling them bugs, but Rani, a connoisseur of the carapaced and slimy, thought they were probably some sort of crustacean--lunged at her. It made a high-pitched shriek as its beak crunched against the stone.
Which was just the way Rani liked it.
Aithne the Ratpack, Combat Gynecologist
One of the monsters moved at the periphery of Khyrisse’s vision. Ordinarily it might not have caught her attention, the battle being as chaotic as it was, but there was something--different--about this one, and when her head turned reflexively she saw what it was.
The creature was casting.
“Jack!” she shouted. “Look out, it’s going to--”
Aithne, coming up behind the spellcasting monster, tapped it in the back of the head with the blade of her hand.
It had turned entirely to glass before Khyrisse could get the next word out.
“What?” said Jack, finishing his turning motion.
Aithne smiled, appraising the glittering glass statue of the beaked monster with some quiet satisfaction. “No problem,” she said.
Khyrisse choked on the rest of her sentence. Edyric. Trillarillia did that to Edyric up on Bane. Oh, Grendel...! The rest of her thought was lost as one of the black-chitined creatures pinched its hand closed on her wrist and nearly yanked her arm out of her socket. Her stoneskin absorbed the damage, but it couldn’t do much about certain laws of physics; the sword flew out of her hand to the accompaniment of cursing in several languages.
She saw Ebreth whirling on it out of the corner of her eye, and gasped out “Wait!” at the last second. The white electricity of her shocking grasp coursed over the black armor, and Khyrisse yelped as the creature’s muscles spasmed, crushing her wrist still further. Before the crackling had even died down, Ebreth’s rapier stabbed into the joint of the pincer around her wrist, slashing its muscles open and freeing her. She shook blood back into her abused hand as Ebreth cleanly severed the damned thing’s head.
“I didn’t know you could cast spells with those sorts of words,” the pirate remarked, favoring her with one of his breathtakingly roguish grins.
“You’d be surprised how many evocation chants translate to ‘die, jerkface’.” Khyrisse kicked the armored corpse her lover had made such depressingly short work of. “The stupid thing wouldn’t go down.”
Ebreth returned her blade to her, laughing gently. “Khyrisse, will you just blow the crap out of these guys already?”
She gave an embarrassed sigh and pulled one of the incendiary globelets from her necklace of missiles, murmuring the words to her invisibility spell under her breath. “All right, all right... I’m going to get rid of the nest, s’parde-vois. Watch your back.”
Aithne turned and sent some more flame jetting around the creature nearest her as someone, presumably Khyrisse, detonated the nest in a roar of white flame. Aithne nodded with an aesthete’s appreciation. She was running low on mana after transmuting the one that had been trying to contact the Goddess, and the battle seemed to be pretty well in hand at this point, so she backed off, hoping not to exhaust her resources, and watched the older members of the Rat Pack dispatch the last few monsters.
“That was too easy,” sneered Thermador, blowing away one of the stragglers.
Kids Will Be Kids
“Move it, Padmei!” Rani yelled. Skitch wondered if that was a Diari word or something. “Oh no, Rani,” Marty said earnestly, “we totally predate that.” Rani ignored him.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Constance was climbing over the indistinct smoking husks out of the nest Khyrisse had detonated, something glowing cupped in her hands. “See? It’s right here. Right where I said it would be.”
Rani stepped on Thermador’s foot, distracting him from whatever snide comment he’d been about to make. Skitch realized that he liked Rani better than Thermador, and the thought really depressed him. He remembered when the Rat Pack had pretty much all been his friends. Well, that and betrayers, but at least the betrayers didn’t stay around very long. Skitch almost hoped Thermador was a betrayer, because then they could get rid of him. “Good kid,” Rani told Constance. “Let’s go frag this wormhole and head back to the city. We’ve got a lot of work still to do.”
The blond girl carefully wrapped the Orb of Radiation in the silk handkerchief she’d used to pick it up with and then transferred it to Khyrisse, who took it especially gently. “Something we should know?” said the archmage, indicating the careful wrapping.
“Hmm? ...Oh, no. It’s just basic safety not to handle a strange artifact barehanded. You’re a lot less likely to set it off accidentally, and besides, you don’t know where it’s been.”
“The bugs’ nest, duh,” Skitch snorted.
“And they were incredibly icky, weren’t they?” Constance answered blithely.
“Aw, they were nothing.”
She smiled at him. “Oh, sure ... nothing.” Her hand darted out and poked his ribs through the claw holes in his shirt. “What’s this? A fashion statement?”
“Leave my tunic alone!” wailed Skitch, batting at her hand.
“C’mon, admit it! Those bugs beat you up!”
“They did not! Stop messing with it, you’re making it worse!”
“I am not. You messed it up all by yourself!” The girl jerked mischievously at his ripped tunic.
Somewhere in the Doomlands, the Greatest Thief on Ataniel brushed away a surreptitious tear. “What is it, young Kit?” asked Hsin, with his usual perceptive concern.
“Nothing,” mumbled Kit. “I just... feel like the torch has been passed, somehow.”
Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, So Far From Home
“Skitch, behave,” murmured Khyrisse, examining the glowing sphere with her true seeing. “Well, if you need something powerful to close the rift, Garal, that seems to fit the description.”
The planeblazer took it from her carefully. “Okay... now all I need is a few minutes with the wormhole, and someone to activate the artifact for me. It, uh, probably shouldn’t be you. The radiation from the wormhole collapsing might be, uh, unsafe for a woman in your, um, condition.” Garal was blushing furiously by the end of his sentence.
“I can do it,” Rani volunteered. “I’ve yet to meet the magic item I can’t get to work, and I know I’m not pregnant.” She laughed. “Unless someone’s got some really slow sperm. The last time I had sex with a man was six, seven years ago?”
Garal blushed some more. “And I can lead the two of you into the castle through the servants’ entrance,” Thalia contributed. “Which I know where it is because I’m a servant,” she added. Khyrisse thought Thalia looked a little frustrated with her inability to make anyone in the Rat Pack care about her alibi at all. The archmage had other concerns on her mind at the moment, though. “Let’s get out of the catacombs and ready to book it back to Rimbor,” she said, “and then Constance can lead Garal and Rani in and out as quickly as possible. I don’t want to cause any more trouble here than we already are.”
The Rat Pack began to file back out of the bug chamber. Khyrisse took a deep breath and approached Aithne, very slowly, almost as if in a dream. I need to know. I won’t be able to go on not knowing. “Aithne?” she said, keeping her voice carefully modulated.
Aithne smiled brightly as she saw the sorceress. “Bug all dead!”
Khyrisse laughed a little. I can’t quarrel with that attitude! “Aithne,” she said seriously, “I need to ask you something important--Jack, can you help me explain?”
“Should I get Schneider?” said Jack.
“No!” Grendel, that’s all I need right now. I don’t even want to think how he might react if there is a connection. “I just have to know--Aithne, where are you from? I know you’re from the past--but what country?”
Aithne’s face fell a little. “Country is gone.”
“She’s from Brytannwch,” Jack supplied.
“Brytannwch is gone,” said Aithne, softly. “Schneider say me.”
“How long ago?” said Khyrisse. “How many years, Aithne?”
“Many,” said Aithne, and shrugged. “I no can know how many years.”
“Before the Shadowwars, at least,” said Jack.
Khyrisse took a deep breath. “Who ruled Brytannwch, Aithne? When you last knew it?”
“Rule?” Aithne looked to Jack.
“You have a king, or a queen, they rule their country.”
“Queens rule my country,” she said. “Brytannwch queens rule many other country too, in my years. Celtia very big. Celtia was very big,” she corrected herself.
“What queens?” whispered Khyrisse, knowing the answer.
“Rhiannon, Trillarillia, Diaidh.”
“Wow, you must be from at least 3500 years ago...” marveled Jack. “Khyrisse? Are you all right?”
Ebreth caught her about the waist as she swayed a little, but she didn’t faint, just wobbled. She tried to say something but nothing came out. “Baby?” said Aithne, looking concerned. “Stomach hurt?”
“No, no, the baby is fine,” Khyrisse said faintly, leaning heavily on Ebreth’s dark and steady arm. “Trillarillia was Queen?”
“Trillarillia was big queen. Rhiannon, Diaidh was big queen. Queen rule all Celtia. Queens rule all Celtia. My mother small queen, Ciaran.” She fluttered her fingers. “My mother rule, what is small part in a country?”
“A county?” guessed Jack.
“County Luimneach,” said Aithne. “In Brytannwch.” Her eyes started to fill up. “Luimneach my home.”
Khyrisse winced. “I’m really sorry, Aithne... I don’t want to bother you when you’re upset, but I have to know. Did you learn that--” She pointed at the glass statue. “--from Trillarillia? Through your
Aithne squinted through her tears. “Trillarillia?” she asked, uncomprehending, pointing at the statue. “No, that is dead bug.”
Khyrisse laughed dizzily despite herself.
“Trillarillia teach you magic?” Jack facilitated.
Aithne boggled. “Queen Trillarillia teach me? No. No, I am no big magic. Trillarillia is big big magic. I am small magic.”
“Aithne,” Khyrisse said, trying to keep her voice even, “there’s a big temple, a place to worship the gods, in Brytannwch; it’s at the end of a long twisting canyon... the Temple of the Weird Sisters, it was called, when I went. Did you ever hear of it?”
She looked blank. “Sister?” she said, and looked to Jack.
“A temple,” he said. “A place, and you talk to gods there.” She looked blank some more. “God,” said Jack. “Big big big big really big powerful magic.”
“God?” said Aithne, pointing to Khyrisse.
“Well...” said Jack. “Uh... sort of, but--”
“Khyrisse god, Trillarillia god?”
“Khyrisse used to be god,” said Khyrisse, in a very little voice, not really intended for anyone but Ebreth. He massaged her neck gently. “Khyrisse got busted down from god by Trillarillia...”
“I am no god,” Aithne said, quite certainly. “Small magic.”
“Aithne,” Khyrisse said wearily, giving up on the temple angle. I just need to find out, somehow, if she has any of the belief system that produced that hideous thing... “Listen, do you like Trillarillia?”
“How I can like her?” demanded the girl. “She is dead!”
“You can like dead people. She was your queen. Right? Was she a good queen? Do you like how she treated people?”
“I like Queen Ciaran.” Her eyes filled again, and overflowed this time. “She is best queen.”
“Oh, Aithne,” sighed Khyrisse, putting her hand over her face.
“I want go home.” Aithne escaped, crying, and Khyrisse, tearing up herself, let her go.
One Down, Five to Go
A ripple of faint, multicolored light washed over the spun-sugar castle, echoed by a muffled noise that was all wrong for an explosion, but couldn’t quite be called anything else. The reflected rainbow of energy faded gently away into the darkening sky.
“Does that count as going wrong?” Mina whispered to Khyrisse, who looked worried.
“Rani hasn’t yelled for help... I think that might have been the Orb.”
Interminable minutes later, Thalia peeked out of the servant’s entrance, and then the three rejoined the Rat Pack.
“Everything went fine,” Garal told Khyrisse, glancing briefly at Thermador. Khyrisse nodded reassuringly; Amatsu hadn’t let the man out of his sight. To be honest, he’d seemed indifferent to the matter, as long as the job got done. Garal looked relieved. “It stressed the dimensional fabric a little, but not nearly as badly as I thought it might.”
“One down, five to go,” Rani said. “Let’s get back to Rimbor. We still have a lot to do.”
Khyrisse had, mercifully, installed a backboard on the Trade Carriage, because Rani frankly couldn’t take being squashed with nine other people in the cabin, much less hanging onto the roof and
bumping into her ex-girlfriend, her ex-girlfriend’s irritating brother, and Harrison Flarking Ford every time the vehicle cornered sharply.
Five more, she was thinking, holding on to the hand braces with both gloves and watching Vickie Dare hangglide behind the rocketing carriage like an exuberant kite. Aithne was hanging her head out one of the windows and watching her too, delight at the special agent’s derring-do eclipsing the unhappiness on her small, square face. How much time have I got?
The two green lights glowed in the darkness.
“Enough for me,” said the black-cloaked woman quietly. “Kill her.”
The lights winked out.
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