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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 6

Ghost Town

“What’s this on the map up ahead?” asked Jason.

“Abandoned outpost,” growled Toleski. “Used to be a mining town out here, but they all died off a few years back. Folks said it was a curse.”

“And you’re leading us right through it?” said Jason incredulously.

“You rather deal with the Dervish Kings, sonny, or some fake-ass curse? You ask me, the whole town died of VD. Shoulda seen what some of them tarts called clothing.”

“What-ever, dad.”

***

The remains of the mining town were so deserted the dust had dust. All the buildings were crooked, the wood warped and the faded paint peeling off as though the walls had developed a terrible sunburn. Kit looked at the iron horse rings--long since turned from black to flaking orange--attached to a barely standing railing. “It doesn’t look like there’s any treasure around here,” she commented astutely, then frowned and cocked her head. “Hey! Did anyone hear that?”

“Yes,” said Flicker, frowning. It was the jingling sound of metal on metal. “Spurs?” he said, his elven hearing straining to pick the faint sound out of the rustling wind.

Just as the Sunfighter localized the soft metallic noise enough to turn towards it, the figure of a man suddenly materialized there. His boots were well worn, covered in dirt and dried manure, but the spurs still glittered in the sunlight. On his leather vest was pinned a brass star, also shiny. “So, you low-down snakes finally came back, eh?” he said, his voice even more gravelly and disdainful than Toleski’s. “This town ain’t about to roll over for you Gila monsters a second time. Hear?”

“He thinks we’re Gila,” Shilree muttered. “Can he sense the memories they implanted me with?”

-Or a psionic source, perhaps?- Hou-Hsieh thought.

-That’s not a man, either-, Praxis broadcast. -He’s a ghost.-

“Well ya slimy bastards,” the ghost continued, raising his head to look directly at them. His beard was long and greying, and his eyes were beginning to glow with malevolence, “I’m calling you out.”

“We’re not Gilans,” said Flicker. “We--”

The street shimmered, once.

The ghost was gone, and so was the ghost town. The street bustled with people and horses; the buildings so recently dilapidated looked new and busy. The sounds of a tinny piano came from the saloon, goods were visible in the window of the general store, and while not exactly verdant, the area was greener and more alive. The cactus roses were in bloom.

A slim man bumped into Inez. “Pardon me, ma’am,” he said, politely tipping his hat. He was solid.

“Here’s another fine mess...” she said.

***

Praxis, Shilree, Hou-Hsieh, and Hsin had used just about every divinatory measure known to Ataniel between them, to no particular avail. Kit suggested scrunching up their eyes and disbelieving hard, but that didn’t work either. So the Sidewinders had fallen back on the standby of adventurers everywhere, and gone into the saloon for a drink.

The year was 811, according to the calendar behind the bar. Hsin was confident no actual time travel had occurred, Shilree equally confident no illusion magics were being used. Praxis and Hou-Hsieh were speculating some technobabble about psionic gestalts and the necrosystem over the Mindnet which Flicker wouldn’t understand for at least an incarnation. The gist was that the ghosts were somehow forcing them to relive their ghosty memories and no one could think of a plausible way to escape.

811 was also, according to Jethro, the year the curse had wiped the town out. “We can solve the mystery!” Kit said, excitedly.

“If the town gets destroyed with us in it,” Flicker asked, “will it kill us in real life?”

“Short answer?” said Praxis. “Maybe. I think we have to proceed from the assumption that it will.”

“Then we need to get the hell outta here before them dust storms hit,” said Jethro, “cause that’s when it happened.”

“We could, uh, save the town,” offered Jason meekly. “Then all these people wouldn’t be dead anymore, and there wouldn’t be a ghost to attack our minds.”

There was a brief pause. “That’s not exactly how these things work, Jason,” said Praxis. “We can’t change the past in simulation, and if we could we wouldn’t want to because it would cause paradoxes like nobody’s business. But it’s a good suggestion anyway,” he added, when the teenager looked crestfallen, “because it might lay the ghost’s spirit to rest, which would release us.”

The saloon doors swung then, and the man the ghost had once been walked through. He was as large as Praxis, his face covered in brown stubble, and he was wearing the same heeled boots, leather vest, and brass star the group had first seen him in. “Why, Deputy Mongo!” called out a tarty looking woman in a red dress. “You look like you spent the night sleeping on a scorpion nest.”

“Whiskey,” said the lawman. The bartender placed a shot before him, which he promptly downed. “Wish that was how I spent the night, Miss Kitty. We found Jesse and Bart. They’re dead.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry, Mongo!” She lifted one knee onto his barstool, revealing the edge of her garters, and sympathetically put her hands on the burly officer’s shoulders.

The entire saloon was silent now. “Was,” someone ventured cautiously, “was they... you know?”

“Their brains was eaten,” Mongo answered flatly. A buzz spread through the saloon, and the Sidewinders exchanged glances. “That’s twelve people this month!” “Bart done had a wife...” “Could be anyone. Who can we trust?”

“Now y’all keep yer heads, hear?” Mongo raised his voice. “The sheriff is almost done with his detectin’ gizmo. Once we got that, we’ll be able to trace the sunsa bitches by their psi-onic powers. They’ll be sorry then, you bet.”

Flicker cleared his throat and stood up. “Deputy Mongo?”

Most of the heads in the saloon turned his way. “Who the hell are you?” the officer frowned at him. “Ain’t seen you around these parts before.” A few people murmured their suspicious assent.

“We just got here,” said Flicker. “My name’s Eren Messala. We’re hunting some Gilan assassins who killed my friend’s fiancée.” He jerked his head back at his teammates. “Heard you say someone’s been eating men’s brains out here. We want to help.”

Deputy Mongo paused a long moment. “I’ll get the sheriff.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Inez said quietly, as the officer swung back through the hanging doors and the bargoers slowly settled back on their stools, glancing across at the newcomers now and then.

“No,” Flicker said, and shrugged a smile at the samurai. “But the ghost thought we were Gilan agents. What better way to prove him wrong than saving the town from Gila, even in simulation? Besides, otherwise these people are likely to turn on us.” He gestured with his chin at Praxis, who was sure to set off the sheriff’s psionic ‘detectin’ gizmo’. “I’d rather get out of here fighting Gila than townsfolk just trying to defend their land, illusions or not.” Miss Kitty strolled over and began vamping at Praxis. “Not everyone here has even fought an illithid before,” added Flicker, his silver eyes skimming the group. “We could probably use the practice.”

“I’d rather be killing real ones,” Shilree grumbled good-naturedly.

We Need A Divining Rod

Ebreth had been right; so far five young men had assumed the Diari bard with the bevy of good-looking foreign women was a slave merchant and inquired after the prices of his wares. (Two for Aithne and one each for Mina, Thalia, and Val. Khyrisse was secretly a little insulted that none of them thought she was worth asking about.) One older man had stopped Ebreth to ask about Vas, but after a civil exchange in Low Diari he went his way as well. “Not that I wasn’t tempted,” Ebreth commented after he was gone, his eyes twinkling. Vas pretended to pout.

Khyrisse was glad Ebreth was taking the whole thing well enough to joke about, but every minute they stayed in this place was a minute closer to disaster. She hadn’t forgotten Ebreth’s violent reaction to Rani referring to her as a savri, a situation that could easily repeat itself; Orlen was looking more and more angry with each passing misassumption, and Schneider was a powderkeg at the best of times. Even Jack and Mina had an ugly backstory in the Diari slave dens. And it wouldn’t take long for the Diari Mafia to realize Ebreth was in town, a reunion the pirate clearly wasn’t looking forward to. Khyrisse was praying that everyone could keep their tempers and their righteous indignations in check long enough to pilfer a magic item and get the flark out of here.

“This isn’t funny,” Orlen was muttering stiffly. “These degenerates are asking me to participate in one of our society’s most heinous crimes. They should have their hands cut off just for asking.”

“Rimbor City’s full of shitty people too, Orlen,” Rani sighed.

“Yes, but I wasn’t thrown out of Rimbor City. How can I have been exiled for advocating scholarly communications with Nylevia while these... people... get a blind eye turned to them?”

“Because the people in charge are dumbfucks.” Rani stopped short as the corner she was turning ended abruptly in a grey stone building with the sigil of two crossed scimitars carved over its archway. “Oh, bugger me, it’s the police station. I probably had a bead on all their goddamn +2 pistols.”

“That won’t help,” Garal said apologetically. “I need an artifact that creates a magical effect.”

“This is not my strength, Tinderhook. If you had an individual piece you wanted me to track down, maybe, but ‘lead me to the nearest magic item’...”

“Just do the best you can, dear,” Valende said encouragingly. “If you can get us close enough, my detect magic should be able to take it from there.”

But I Did Not Shoot The Deputy

The sheriff had accepted the Sidewinders’ offer of help and promised them a bounty for every Gilan they killed. They were left with the same problem the townspeople had, though: how to identify them. “These would be illithids, not doppelgangers,” mused Praxis. “Doppelgangers don’t eat human brains. That means they’re probably using the shape changing technology Tila stole from them, which isn’t detectable by magical means--and to identify them psionically, I’d have to make contact. I can’t just go around scanning the entire town.”

“Don’t look at me,” sighed Flicker. “I suck at identifying these guys.”

“Honestly,” said Praxis, “I think our best bet is to stake out the sheriff’s headquarters. The whole town knows about the psionic detector he’s working on, so the Gilans must too. Wouldn’t you try to destroy this device before it’s finished, if you were them? Shilree, can you keep a small group hidden?”

“Of course,” she nodded, “but you know invisibility will not protect us from psionic scans.”

“Right, but then if anyone notices you and attacks you, you’ll know it’s an illithid.”

“I understand Praxis.” Shilree frowned thoughtfully. “I will want a couple of people who have experience moving stealthily with me on this one. That would be Flicker, Kit... anyone else?”

Kit beamed at being singled out. “Silent movements are part of this one’s martial arts training,” offered Xiang.

“Good, that’s four. The rest of you stay nearby. I have a feeling we may need you before too long.”

***

The Sidewinders apparently weren’t the only ones to suspect the Gilans might try to sabotage the psi-detector, for two guards were posted outside the Sheriff’s office. It wasn’t hard for the adventurers to sneak invisibly past, though. The device turned out to be in the Sheriff’s locked desk drawer. It looked like a ramshackle bit of technology, but Shilree reacted to it with surprise. “Where did they get this?” she hissed, touching an irregular stone connected to the rest of the device with several coils of copper wire.

“Mary!” somebody screamed outside. “They done killed my Mary! Oh, God!”

The two guards broke for the commotion.

“This is diantri ore,” whispered Shilree. “Something is very wrong here.” She took out her dagger and pried at the dull metallic chunk.

Just then the door to the office swung open and the Sheriff walked in.

He didn’t seem to notice the invisible thieves, but he crossed to his desk, presumably with the intent of retrieving the device Shilree had already lifted. Flicker signed *Let’s move* at her in thieves’ cant, but to his surprise, Shilree looked up and straight at the Sheriff, drew her pistol, and shot him point-blank between the eyes before any of the others could react. Kit’s jaw dropped.

-Praxis, trouble. Shilree just shot the Sheriff-, Flicker sent.

-Be right there.-

“What are you doing?” Xiang confronted the Diarian.

She ignored the warrior, knelt by the Sheriff’s body, and slit the fallen lawman’s throat.

It had all taken less than a minute.

Xiang caught Shilree by the arms and Flicker dropped down to the Sheriff, trying to staunch his bleeding throat. “What are you...? Let me go!” cried Shilree.

Flicker slowly took his hand away, greased with a sickly greenish-yellow ichor.

“Cut the invisibility,” he said softly, standing up. “Xiang, let her go. It’s alright.”

Deputy Mongo, Praxis, and the rest of the Sidewinders came skidding up to the building and stopped short at the sight. Dead, the Sheriff’s face had reverted to its natural form: a rubbery, octopoid head with blank white eyes.

“Shee-yit,” said Mongo.

“I guess this means he’s not going to pay you that bounty,” commented Kit.

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