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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 3

Promise Kept

Flicker waited until Shilree was sleeping peacefully to ride to the Rift.

He was, of course, responsible enough to wake Praxis first. “Keep watch, carad,” he whispered. “I won’t be long.”

He was responsible enough, too, to tie his horse at a stooped black tree a quarter mile back from the Rift itself, concerned it might accidentally glance down into the fissure. Praxis had done that once, and it had driven him mad. The group was already riding short. Flicker wouldn’t risk another of the horses if he could help it. He himself looked out across the Rift as he neared its jagged lip, not into it. His hair blew in the strangely warm wind, the badlands stretching endlessly out to either side of him, and shielded his eyes against the moonlight. The horse whinnied nervously behind him.

I am damned if I will let this happen to you, he’d told her. Eren Messala didn’t make idle promises. He smiled a still, sad smile in the thin air, thinking of the grenade Shilree had palmed from Signet to save the Significants; of Trillarillia’s soul, which Shilree had stolen from Luthien to destroy. Shilree was not the only one whose thief’s fingers tended to go forgotten. She was not the only one capable of betraying a friend to save her, either. Flicker flipped the Gem of Dimensions in his fingers like a baseball, its facets winking a harsh reddish glow in the darkness, and looked out across the Doomlands Rift. He tossed it up once in the moonlight, twice, and then, without warning, whipped it. It smashed off the far wall of the canyon and ricocheted down into its depths, echoing hollowly off the deadly stone and into the crucible of destruction that had been the end of the Andovin Claw of Margonal.

For good or for ill, the path had been chosen.

Eren Ragnarokkr Messala returned to his horse and rode back to camp, a single and silent silhouette across the broad disk of Bane.

Interlude: Why Not To Save The Best For Last

Shilree B was working happily at her paint-spattered desk when she felt the first ripple.

“No!” gasped the mad Diari time traveler.

The jar of cerebral parasites she’d been breeding fell from her hand to the floor.

Shilree B didn’t really care about that, truth be told. Punishing the Zaptian and the kiljhac psionicist had been matters of minor concern to her; neither of them could have known their actions would result in Anjra’s death.

But Shilree B had been saving her most exquisite torture, her cruelest and cleverest plan, for a coup de grace--a finale of violence, with the woman who had murdered her analog’s true love at ground zero. She had been building up to it with her smaller vengeances, and there had been one more to go.

Shilree B’s life flashed before her eyes, in disjointed panels: besting Shadow, making love to Ralchar, watching helplessly as Luthien the Dead slew her friends, skipping down a Tesin sidewalk with a piece of fudge, being lifted by Norn by her throat, fleeing in exile, sucking the life from the dead with her hideous eye gem.

I have longed for oblivion, she thought bitterly, her vision flashing with despair, but to go now, my revenge unfinished.

The jar of parasites struck the workshop floor and shattered.

Shilree B was gone, the future that had spawned her lost in the annals of impossible worlds.

Alea Jacta Est

“This isn’t funny anymore Kit!” Shilree was screaming, as the blood-colored dawn spread across the badlands. “I already told you that gem is the key to banishing Gila from Ataniel. Now give it to me!”

“Kit doesn’t have it, Shilree,” said Flicker, moving between the furious Diarian and the upset-looking young thief.

“Then where the flazhnikajh is it Sunny!” Shilree shouted in her friend’s face.

“I destroyed it.”

There was total silence.

Shilree was too stunned to exactly have a reaction yet. “You--what?” she whispered.

“Destroyed it,” Flicker repeated quietly.

“But I--” Shilree was numb. “But it... why, Sunny?”

He paused a long moment, standing there in the eye of the storm. “Because now that future is gone forever,” he said. “What I have sacrificed to it--remains to be seen. But for better or for worse, it will never come to pass now.” He was quiet a moment. “The consequences,” he added, “I take responsibility for.”

Shilree’s face communicated a hundred emotions. There was pain, anger, confusion; but most of all there was hurt. She opened her mouth to talk but it was a long several seconds before anything came out. “Sunny one thing,” she finally managed, her voice a rasp. “Why didn’t you ask me?”

“Because I’d already decided to do this even if you didn’t want to,” he said quietly. “If I’d asked and you’d said no, you would have been on your guard. I’m sorry, Shilree. I know you want revenge. But saving you is more important than avenging Anjra. You know she would agree. That gem played a critical role for both Luthien the Dead and the future Shilree he drove mad. Now it’s gone, and so are they. Our future is what we make it again. That’s enough for me.”

Shilree, a sickly color indeed, turned from him and stumbled off into the desert.

“Shilree! Hey, Shilree, wait!” Kit took off after her.

Praxis put a hand on Flicker’s shoulder. -I understand-.

“I don’t get it,” Jennifer said. “I thought that gem doohickey was gonna help us stop them Gilas.”

“We’ll just find another way of stopping them,” Praxis replied, confidently and unperturbed.

“Yes,” said Flicker quietly, put his hand on the much larger man’s on his shoulder and squeezed it rather hard. “Yes, we will.”

***

Light appeared again on the sunless red plain. The table and tea settings were gone. All that was left was the deadlocked chess set, the endless field of lilies, and three of the four.

“What happened?” asked Silk, looking concerned for the first time.

“Everything and nothing. The wheel broke and is still turning,” said Green.

Purple just stood looking up at the sky.

“Where, where is Black?” said Silk.

The two remaining triplets didn’t answer. Green joined her sister gazing skyward. Silk followed their gaze and looked up as well. She saw nothing, nothing at all.

***

Out in the badlands Shilree stood in the light of the rising sun. Her face was wet with tears and red with rage. Then somewhere inside her something clicked and the tears stopped and the rage faded. All that was left was a cool and directed determination.

That was when Shilree started chanting words that hadn’t been heard on Ataniel for close to five thousand years.

Things People Are Afraid To Say, or, Love Conquers All

Jack hovered self-consciously outside Khyrisse’s bedroom door. It was still pretty early in the morning. He wondered if he should wait until later to approach her, then laughed at himself. That was exactly what Jack had been chiding Ebreth for. Besides, Khyrisse said she was there for him to talk to anytime... this was as good an anytime as any.

Jack steeled his nerves and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” she called. She was awake, anyway. Now it was just a matter of figuring out how to broach the subject with her. Jack pushed the door open and stood for a moment in the doorway.

“What’s up, Jack?” asked the archmage.

Jack smiled, trying to look relaxed. He actually looked really awkward and strained, but Khyrisse was kind enough not to say anything. “Uh...” he started. Khyrisse waited patiently. Jack swallowed his nervousness and finally blurted out, “Ebreth wants to get married but he’s afraid it’ll freak you out so I’m asking for him.” Jack paused a second and then added, “For you to marry him, uh, not me.”

Khyrisse just sat there and stared at him, her eyes getting wider and wider. She shook her head dizzily. After several false starts, she finally got out “What?” in a rather faint little voice.

Jack checked to make sure he hadn’t accidentally said something like “there are five wild badgers in my trousers.” He hadn’t. “Ebreth and you... getting married. Ebreth said you’d go wiggy at the idea, I said of course you’d want to marry him. Uh... it’s not a bet, so don’t, um, hit me or anything.”

Khyrisse made a laughing gasp for air. “So Ebreth... asked you... to ask me for him?”

“No!” Jack protested. “It was my idea. This way he won’t be so nervous when he asks you because he’ll have my assurance that it’s cool.” Jack smiled and lowered his voice like he was telling Khyrisse a secret. “I’m probably going to tell him that no matter what you say,” he whispered.

Khyrisse’s eyes got wider yet. She grabbed onto the edge of her dressing table as if for support, a terrified look flickering briefly across her face. “Ebreth wants to marry me,” she repeated in a tremulous tone, as if she couldn’t get the idea to make any sense.

“Well, of course! Who wouldn’t? Um, well, you know... if one was in Ebreth’s place.”

“Why?” she blurted suddenly. “He doesn’t have to marry me! Is this about the baby?”

“No, no!” Jack was suddenly worried that this wasn’t quite as cut-and-dried as he had thought. “It’s not like that... he doesn’t feel like he has to, he just... well, he wants to. He loves you and wants to marry you. It’s, um, causal by Mill’s method of concomitant variation.”

More of the bewildered stare. “I know he loves me,” Khyrisse finally whispered, though it didn’t sound like she was very sure of it to Jack. “But marry me?”

“Um, that’s the premise we’re starting with... you can’t assail the premise, only the conclusions, and, um, you haven’t mentioned any yet.” The mathematician was really starting to feel uncomfortable, but to his credit, he didn’t back out and shut the door.

“I’m very... confused right now, Jack,” she said, managing a shaky smile. “Do you want to put that another way?”

Jack took a deep and not really necessary breath and considered his words really carefully. “Okay. If... Ebreth... asked you... to marry him... you would... what?”

“Faint?” Khyrisse suggested weakly. She looked down at the ring on her right hand, and began twisting it agitatedly. “Panic?” she whispered, not really to Jack. “Does he think I don’t love him? That I’m ever going to leave? I thought we settled this...”

“No, totally... you did! He loves you, you love him, everyone’s happy, no one’s dead... This is just--oh, flark, what do I know? I just figured he was silly to worry, and it’d make a great way for you guys to, I don’t know... celebrate being happy together.”

Her hands spasmed, yanking the ring completely off. “I’ve been married,” she said softly.

“That’s right... Uncle Asinus said something about that. That it didn’t work out or something.”

“That’s an understatement,” Khyrisse whispered.

“Well, then, I’d think that having a good marriage would be the best, uh... are you more interested in revenge or resolution? My argument here could go either way, depending on what most appeals to you.”

“I don’t want revenge, Jack,” she said wearily. “And I’d think that my problems with my first marriage would have to be resolved with my first husband, not my second.”

“Oh.” Jack sighed, feeling his high spirits at the idea of Ebreth and Khyrisse’s wedding starting to flag. “I thought you’d already done that, at least that’s what I thought Ebreth told me. I probably got it wrong. I’m sorry. I’ll just, uh, I’ll just tell him never mind. Oh, flark.” Jack tried not to look as deflated as he felt. “I shouldn’t have encouraged him. Now he’s going to be all let down. I am such a putz.” He scuffed his feet. “It just never occurred to me you really might not feel that way about him.”

Khyrisse opened her mouth, then shut it again and swallowed hard. “I didn’t-- I--” she stammered. She glanced down again at the ring cradled in her palm and closed her hand tightly, her heartbeat shaking the skin of her wrist. “I never said I don’t feel that way about him,” she whispered, her voice a strangled squeak. “I--I just... why now, Jack?” She sounded pleading, almost desperate. “Can’t I take one thing at a time, here? I’m still trying to cope with this baby... Can’t I decide whether I can deal with another marriage some other year?”

Jack looked like Khyrisse had just told him she wouldn’t marry him. “Oh,” he mumbled. “I’m just... well, you know how Ebreth said something about a minor problem with my math? Uh...” Jack frowned and took a moment. “Well, it’s not so minor. My equation resolves in a little less than three months, and after that, well... that’s my limit. I end there.” Jack shuffled his feet a little. “Anyway, if I seem like I’m kind of focused on the, uh, short-term lately, that’s, uh, why. I guess that’s sort of what I’m thinking in terms of, now.” Jack shook his head. “I’m sorry to get you all tense. It’s not right to involve my needs with your life. I’ll, uh, let you get back to work now.”

Khyrisse was standing frozen with her hand over her mouth. “Oh, merde,” she whispered. “Oh, Grendel. Jack... Are you sure?”

“I spent a month checking and trying to work around it. I’m sure.”

“Holy shit,” she said numbly, and sat down on the bed next to him.

“Hey,” Jack said, suddenly feeling like he was the one responsible for bringing the mood back up, “it’s okay. I’ve accepted it, and I’m just, uh, trying to live the most I can in the meantime.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, when Ebreth died yesterday, it reminded me that I’m not the only one around here who’s got a limited time. I guess that’s why I’m so keen on making sure you guys are as happy as you can be before I, uh... get out of here. I don’t want you two to miss the chances that I never made the time for.” Jack laughed a little sadly, and added, “If I can’t fall in love and get married, someone’s got to!”

“So you pick on your best friend, instead,” said Khyrisse, with a wobbly grin. “Typical.”

“You make it sound like being married to you is a bad thing. I couldn’t imagine that it would be,” Jack said with perhaps a little too much conviction. “And I know it’s what he wants... I’m just trying to figure out why it wouldn’t, uh, be what you want.”

“I’m... afraid of being married?” she said, with a crooked smile.

Jack pondered that for a moment. “Wow,” he said. “You must be if it’s a stronger emotion than your love for Ebreth. ‘Cause I know that’s pretty darn powerful,” he added innocently.

Khyrisse flinched. “It--it’s not Ebreth. It’s not that,” she insisted, like it was the only thing in the world she was certain of anymore. “I--I just--I don’t know why on Ataniel he would want to marry me. I can’t...” She closed her eyes and trembled. “I know he wouldn’t do anything like that to me,” she whispered. “Anything like my first husband did, I mean... but I can’t think of any non-manipulative reasons to marry me. I’m already here. He’s already got me. I’m not going anywhere... what could he possibly need to marry me for?”

“It would make him happy,” Jack shrugged. “Isn’t that enough?” He paused, and then emphasized “Happier. He already thinks he’s pushing his luck being as happy as he is with you. Which--before you try to shift this into a negative comment--he really totally is.”

Khyrisse let out a long ragged sigh. “Jack... are you sure about this? He actually said all this?”

“I know how I feel,” Ebreth’s voice said from Jack’s mouth. “I want her with me for the rest of my life.” Jack blinked, rewinding his audio cache a little further. He felt a little uncomfortable playing back his friend’s private confidences behind his back like this, but he’d already given away the gist of it, so he might as well pull out the stops. “I almost asked her to marry me last night,” he repeated, still in Ebreth’s deep cadence. “Look, Jack, if I do this--and I haven’t made up my mind, right--if I do this... Will you ask Aithne out?” Jack realized what he’d said and blushed. “Uh, I didn’t mean to add that last part...”

She didn’t really seem to notice. Jack was hugely relieved; for a minute there he’d had the horrible feeling that he’d been giving his friend false encouragement, but there was no mistaking the dreamy little smile on Khyrisse’s face. “Did he really...? Oh, I wish he had,” she murmured, barely audible. “I probably would have said yes before I had time to be scared...” She snapped out of it as Jack’s last sentence sank in, did a doubletake, and surprised them both by laughing out loud. “Oh, poor Jack... You really are so much like your Other. Different timeline, same person.”

“I envy him his,” Jack said. “I spent four years in an empty temple while he got the girls. So can I tell him ‘yes’ is a possibility, then?” He looked at her hopefully. “I, uh, could use the date.”

She closed her eyes. “Jack? Tell him it’s very likely but for gods’ sake don’t mention it today, okay?” Her hands shook as she smoothed them over her face. “I know you’re on a deadline here, but I’d like to be able to give him some sort of answer before passing out.”

Jack grinned and opened the door. “I envy Ebreth too, sometimes,” he smiled. “You’re not going to go neurose out about how much people love you now, are you?”

“Probably,” she said tartly, and grinned back. “So don’t envy him too much.”

One Way To Synopsize Six Hours Of A.I.M.

“Well?”

“She said to ask her tomorrow.”

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