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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 2

Lessons

It had taken the Sidewinders five days to get within sight of the Doomfissure. Shilree still wasn’t entirely sure what they were going to learn here or how, and she supposed it could wait till morning.

Hsin was teaching Flicker tai chi. It was harder than it looked: very precise movements, at a slow and entirely constant pace. Flicker wasn’t that good at it, but he always welcomed something relaxing to practice in the small hours.

Xiang was continuing his martial instruction of the boy Jason.

Jennifer was teaching Inez to fricassee rattlesnake.

Hou-Hsieh was trying, apparently, to teach the paladin Shaolin how to flirt. It didn’t seem to be going too well.

Flicker didn’t really want to think about what Jethro Toleski might be teaching Praxis.

And Shilree was off in the shadows on the edge of camp, and Flicker could hear her voice, almost animated enough to banish the demons that had been haunting her of late: “No Kit, pressure pulses will only disarm a magical clamp. This one is a sigil and it is password-protected. There are a few ways around that though...”

The puppeteers who watched their progress from afar, that night, did not learn anything at all.

***

“I think that’s enough for this evening,” said Xiang, wiping sweat from his brow. “We both need the time to rest. But you have done very well for yourself, Jason. You make a good student.” The boy flushed proudly. “I’m not sure why you thought you couldn’t handle a heavier blade than a fencing foil.”

“Sometimes if you get told something enough, you start to believe it,” Jason shrugged. “I was thought too--slight of figure--to be of much use. And mocked a good deal for my differences, which didn’t help. And then Cedric never really wanted to push that at all, he was very conscious of my feelings... maybe too much. I’m glad to have the chance to study with you.” He bowed to the older man.

“You don’t have to do that every time we finish, you know.”

Jason grinned puckishly. “I know.” He paused for a second. “Xiang, can I--ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Praxis and Inez--they’re a...” He struggled for a second. “Couple, right?”

“This one was honored to attend their wedding some six years past.”

My pitiful gaydar strikes again. Cedric would be so amused. “Just curious.” He busied himself unnecessarily with putting away their weapons, which Xiang graciously pretended not to notice.

***

“How’d Jason come to join you anyway, Todd?” asked Jennifer around forkfuls of rattlesnake.

“Complete chance, actually. He was being attacked by a Doomlands creature--some kind of giant worm--and we chased it off.”

“Tell Dad about it sometime. He thinks you can predict the weather by the activity of giant worms, the old weirdo.” She thought for a second. “So he’s just been following you around ever since?”

“Pretty much. He’s--been through a rough time recently and didn’t really have any other companions. Or much of anyone, that I can tell.”

“I don’t reckon you know why he hacks his hair off like that? Makes him look like a monk on a bad day.”

Praxis chuckled. “He’s from Sturtevant, but I don’t think he’s from any of the religious orders there. If you want to know, you should probably just talk to him.”

Jennifer smiled to herself. I might just do that...

***

“Trouble sleeping?” said Flicker quietly.

“Yeah.” Shilree looked into the fire. The stars winked overhead. “I don’t like coming back here. It brings back too many painful memories. But I--I really need to. To face what’s happened to me.”

“It’ll come,” said Flicker. “Give it time. Sometimes it’s better to take things a step at a time.”

Shilree laughed as if Flicker had just said something hilarious. “Sorry,” she got hold of herself, her breath catching. “I am not laughing at you Sunny. It is just--for a second there you sounded so much like, like Anjra.” She wiped at her eyes. “It is just the kind of thing she would always say.”

Flicker put his arm around her.

“I really miss her Sunny. I can’t stop thinking about her.”

“You loved her. It is to be expected.”

“Now you sound like one of our Shikinti compatriots.”

“The truth is the truth,” said Flicker, giving a hint of a smile at the tautology. Shilree looked at him hard and then broke into laughter. Flicker joined her. And that was how the two friends spent the last peaceful night either of them would have for a long time.

They spent it laughing.

Scent of a Woman

As Schneider moved closer to the new guy in the trenchcoat, Thermador was moved to take another deep drink. The thin man stank of one of the upper planes. “Do you mind?” he said. “You’re emitting a really terrible odor.”

“Yeah, well, a little RightGuard and I’ll smell better; you’ll still be rude.” That got a snicker or two from a few members of the Rat Pack. Better, maybe I can still do the ole shtick, maybe...

Disgusted, Thermador moved over towards the woman with the scarred face. “Excuse me ma’am, I’d just like to stand by you. You don’t smell of other-planar rot.”

“That’s the lamest pick-up line I’ve ever heard,” Kingfisher snapped back. “You try any monkey business and you’ll end up a human sacrifice to my Master.”

“Great interpersonal skills there, Deckard,” smirked Rani.

***

“He is a jerk,” agreed Mina, brushing out Aithne’s thick, chestnut-brown waves of hair. “He’s kind of cute, though, don’t you think?”

Thalia, who was carefully outlining Aithne’s eyes with a cosmetic pencil, scrunched her nose up. “Thermador? Really?”

“Well, if he lost the stubble.”

“Thermador is cute,” Aithne backed Mina up. “What is stubble?”

“What Thermador has all over his face.” Thalia passed her hand illustratively over the creamy skin of her own chin. “Hair there. It’s ugly.”

“Ah!” said Aithne. “I think stubble make bad kiss.” She giggled.

“He could be really handsome if he paid more attention to his appearance,” said Mina. “And his attitude, of course.”

“I think cute is Ebreth,” Aithne offered.

“He’s attractive,” Thalia said hesitantly, “but he’s kind of, well, scary, don’t you think?”

“Oh, he’s all sound and fury,” smiled Mina. “Don’t take it too seriously.”

“Good sex think,” said Aithne, nodding. Thalia blushed, unaccustomed to the level of bluntness Aithne had (probably unknowingly) picked up from Vickie Dare. “No comment,” Mina rescued the poor princess, laughing a little. “You guys know who I had a crush on for a while?” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper even though no one else was around. “Vas.”

“Vas look like a woman,” said Aithne, giggling.

Thalia turned Aithne’s face back towards her and began brushing some blush on over the foundation. “I think Vas is kind of cute,” she said. “I like his eyes.”

“What about Jack, Aithne?” Mina ran her fingers through the young witch’s hair. “Do you like Jack? I think he likes you a little.”

“I like,” said Aithne, “he is nice.” She paused, aware that she’d lost the momentum of the conversation somehow. “He have a nice smile,” she added.

“Ewwwwwwwwww!” Thalia flapped her hands comically. “Guys! He’s my math teacher!”

Mina giggled and threw a powder puff at her. Thalia threw it back.

***

“He used to work for your dad’s cat?” said Ebreth. “What kind of a recommendation is that? Does he want Skitch to hire him on to clean the litterbox?”

Khyrisse gasped laughter. “No... No, not that kind of a cat. Powderpuff was a wild mage’s familiar. He was--” like Ixhriy, thought Khyrisse-- “intelligent.”

Ebreth raised one eyebrow. “Okay,” he said, his eyes laughing at her. “How was his character judgment?”

Khyrisse looked askance, tapping her fingertips together.

“I mean, would he only work with people you’d consider trustworthy?”

“Um,” said Khyrisse.

“That doesn’t sound ringing.”

“He couldn’t provide me with any better references,” she sighed. “I asked him if he knew anyone in Trade, and he said the city smelled bad.”

“If we keep this guy on, we’ve got to get him some smelling salts.”

“Should we keep him on?”

***

It was about midnight when Dave Thermador slipped out of the mansion.

He was sure he must have triggered some sort of alarm, but he didn’t really care. His contact had requested a meeting and you never refused a request from your contact. Especially not this contact.

It took the mercenary about fifteen minutes to reach the clearing surrounded by willow trees that the energy being had specified for their meeting. Thermador sat on one of the large stones in the clearing and looked up at the sky. The night wasn’t all that unpleasant, but it was overcast, which made it hard to determine the hour. Still, he was sure he wasn’t late.

A little while longer, drumming his fingers edgily on the rock and hoping this meeting wasn’t going to blow his collaboration with Starshadow completely to hell. The leaves rustled quietly in the breeze. Then the shadows dissolved around an approaching form, and Thermador figured that meant it was 12:30 on the nose.

Dave Thermador took out his bottle of whiskey and took a stabilizing drink as the extraplanar being crossed the clearing. His gait had always disturbed Thermador. Not that there was anything wrong with it; it was just too normal, too regular, too perfect.

“X!La,” said Dave clicking his tongue on the roof of his mouth on the first syllable.

“Thermador,” said X!La in a voice that was so unremarkable that most people immediately forgot it after the conversation was over.

“I hope this is important. Do you know what I had to... What is it?”

X!La had raised one long finger for silence. He made a sound like rocks grinding against each other, an incongruous noise coming from his humanoid mouth. “You have been followed,” he returned to his perfectly modulated Dalen, but with distant thunder lurking ominously at its fringes. “Very sloppy, Mr. Thermador.”

“What?” Thermador jerked his head back and forth, looking for the spy. He hoped that damn kid hadn’t followed him out here or something, because he didn’t think he could keep X!La from killing him if he had, and that would well and truly screw his tenuous alliance with the Rat Pack.

He didn’t see anyone, and Thermador had good eyes. Before he could say anything, though, X!La pointed at the ground behind Thermador and his finger dissolved into the golden-white light that was his natural state. There was an unearthly cry and an indistinct, ghostly form flew from the shattered shadows and was gone. Thermador’s mouth dropped open. He hadn’t smelled a thing. He’d felt eyes on him, of course, but had assumed that was some sort of monitoring spell of Khyrisse’s.

He silently cursed himself. The Negative Material Plane had to be behind this; Starshadow’s people wouldn’t use ghosts, not with undead-slayers in the party. Thermador was taking a risk doing work for the Lords of Light and Life and he knew it. Neither the Positive nor the Negative Material understood freelancing, and as far as they were concerned he was now allied. Personally Dave Thermador didn’t give a damn about either plane. Still, a job was a job, and he would have to be more careful for everyone’s sake.

“I apologize, X!La,” he said. “Take two months off my tab as compensation.”

“Very well,” replied the positive entity. “Your report?”

“Ok, here’s the deal...”

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