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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 4

Interlude: Guardian Angel

Coyote Jay finished the spell, and the being he had summoned appeared in the center of the dirt-drawn circle.

“You called upon... me?” asked the robed figure, in a resonant voice.

“Yep,” Coyote Jay said. “I’ve put all my eggs in one basket, it seems. The people upstairs don’t trust Tor to carry through on this, and so I wanted to know if you could look out for him.”

“Ebreth Tor?” asked the figure, no comprehension possible in his smooth and featureless onyx face. “Is he one of yours?”

“I think so. Yes. Yes, he is.” Coyote Jay paused. “He’d better be.”

“If... I can serve you, anyone can,” the figure shrugged. “This is better than oblivion. Of course, I’m surprised you chose Tor over the jester. J... I feel a certain kinship with him.”

“All my people know the pain of turning around,” Coyote Jay said. “We’re just one big, happy family.”

“If you need... my help, then it is yours.”

“Thank you,” said Jay. “He’s in Rimbor, but try to stay out of his crew’s way.”

“I will be as unseen as the wind.”

With a flourish of the cloak, Janus of the Five Elements disappeared in a puff of fire.

“Stable as a rock would be nice too,” Coyote Jay sighed, and headed back to his shack.

Of Love, Marriage, and Magically Induced Aphrodisia

Khyrisse looked down at her hands, which were shaking violently, the filigree of the Godmaker ring winking with reflected sunlight.

She had the sudden wild impression of actual amusement on its part, and lost control of her long-suppressed panic.

Khyrisse whirled and bolted out of the room as if the devil were at her heels.

***

The King of Talaria sat on the edge of his half-delirious daughter’s bed. His men had finally rescued her and return her to her room at the Talarian Center for Long Term Stress Recovery. It pained him so to see her this way. At least his younger daughter had been spared the worst of the Madness.

He paused, frowning. Where was Thalia, anyway? He hadn’t seen her at all last night.

The King summoned one of the asylum attendants. “Has Thalia been in this morning?”

“Princess Thalia? No, not that I’ve seen... She was here yesterday, but Princess Telerie was still away, so she left. It was right after that party of adventurers came to visit--the ones with the rat. Didn’t she go back to the castle?”

The King had a horrible feeling. He thought of the strange rift in the courtyard, and the mysterious light that had closed it. And the fact that those who had done it seemed to have crept in and vanished with far too much ease. “Damned adventurers--can’t you leave one of my girls alone?”

Telerie sat up and smiled brightly. “Oh, has Thalia been kidnapped? How wonderful for her!”

***

Jack was sitting with a silly look on his face. “What’re you all cheery about?” Mina asked.

“Hm? Oh, nothing.”

“Yeah, right. You’re such a bad liar, you know?”

“I can’t say. It’s not my business.”

“Not your business? Since when has anything not been your business, Mister I-Know-Math-So-I’ll-Apply-It-To-Anything-Comes-My-Way?”

“I... uh... have to ask Aithne out,” Jack said, hoping that would be enough to satisfy his cousin.

“Fine. Don’t tell me,” Mina huffed. “I’ll find out sooner or later, you know.”

“I know,” Jack said.

“Boy, you look insufferable. Whose idea was it to let you roam free in the world?”

***

“Good kitty,” Marty said fearfully. “Please just stay there.”

“Meow,” said Skitch’s cat. “Hack, hack, meow.”

Marty froze. The meows he was getting used to. He already knew they didn’t mean “I’m about to pounce on you and tear your eyes out with my teeth.” The hacking was another matter.

“Hack,” the cat continued. “Kchah-hack.”

Marty put both hands out in a gesture of pacification. “Please don’t do any of your kitty magic on me,” he begged.

“Watcha-kchah-HACK!” the cat coughed, and a small white piece of stone finally dislodged from its throat.

Marty stared at the cat and the stone for a full minute before starting hesitantly forward.

“Is this... a gift?” he asked the cat. “For me?”

“Meow,” the cat said, indicating to Marty that it wouldn’t tear his eyes out.

“Uh, thanks, man,” he said, and picked up the stone. It was smooth along one edge, like a seashell. The cat stared at him but didn’t attack, which the paladin took as a good sign. “I’ll, like, take good care of it,” Marty promised, put it in his pocket, and backed away from the staring cat in as obeisant a posture as he could manage. It was his best interaction with an animal yet. Master Ebreth would be proud of him.

If Marty remembered to tell him about it, that was to say. Which wasn’t very likely.

Inside his shirt pocket, the fragment of oyster shell pulsed, half-forgotten already.

***

“Sibley, I don’t care if Marlukin wants to see me, you let anyone near this room and you die,” came Khyrisse’s trembling voice from under the covers.

Sennett sighed and rolled his eyes. “Shall I say you are indisposed, milady?”

“Indisposed,” she shouted back, “does not begin to cover it!” The baby drummed its heels against her stomach in aggravation, echoing the speed of her pulse. “And you be quiet, you cranky little mule,” she muttered, yanking the blanket tighter over her head, her throat closing up with a nerve-wracked spate of tears. “Do you have any idea what a cow I’m likely to look like in a wedding gown because of you...?”

Have to Believe

It was a good hour and a half before Shilree returned to camp, holding Kit by the hand. “Well, we’d better get moving,” said Shilree, and started to pack up camp. “Sunny?”

“Yes?” said Flicker, resolved to take whatever his friend--and hopefully she was still a friend--had to say to him.

“Could you give me a hand with this?”

Flicker blinked. Her voice wasn’t at all angry or curt. In fact she sounded, well, normal.

“Well are you just going to stand there?” She put her hand on her hip and leaned back to look at him. “We’re getting a late start this morning as it is.”

Flicker moved automatically to fold up some blankets, looking at her carefully. If he didn’t know better he would swear that nothing had passed between them. “Shilree,” he said, “about the Ge--”

“You know,” said Shilree, interrupting him in the middle of a word, “the thing I really hate about the desert is that sand gets everywhere. Just look at this.”

Shilree turned over her boot and a pile of dry dirt poured out. Flicker wasn’t sure what to say.

“Thanks.” She took her bedroll out of his arms and balanced her pack on top of it. “Is everyone else ready to go? It’s a long way still to New Gila.”

Flicker just stood there, stone-faced, watching her load up her horse.

***

“She just worked on her magic some,” shrugged Kit. “She’s pretty sure she can channel the spells straight through her body, without using the gem to focus it after all, if she practices enough. So she said it would be ok. But then she just started ignoring me every time I tried to talk about it.”

“Do you want me to talk to her?” frowned Praxis. “I understand she’s uneasy with the idea of psychic surgery, but you know, we have seen a lot of people with mental blocks at the Order of Redemption this last year, and I might be able to talk her past it.”

Flicker shook his head. “It’s better this way,” he said softly. “I was the only one she trusted. Dealing with this would be admitting she can’t trust me, not--all the time, anyway. I don’t know if she could go on. She needs to believe in the Sunfighter more than she needs to understand why Eren Messala did this. Let’s let her believe it.” He stood and shouldered his bag. “When this is over, when she’s strong enough, she’ll confront me herself. I’m sure of that. Until then...” He looked across at the horizon, his fair skin creased with the Doomlands sun. “I’ll be what she needs.”

A low, dry wind skimmed across the cracked earth and was gone.

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