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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 7

Diariophilia

Skitch was really impressed with Srankaijhi. Dyaromn had been disappointingly equivalent to Edimon, but Srankaijhi was a lot better than Rimbor. The streets were clean, the buildings were nice, and there weren’t junkies and hookers all over the place. Maybe it got a little worse at night, but for now, it didn’t even look like the kind of place you were too likely to get mugged. If good Diari cities weren’t noticeably better than the kiljhac ones, but the bad Diari cities were much better, that said a lot for Diari principles of fairness, really. It was the bad cities that needed the most help.

“That looks like a branch of the Royal Museum,” Thermador commented, gesturing at a graceful stone building with his whiskey bottle as they passed it. “Betcha there’s some good magic items in there.”

“I’m pretty sure that would be an act of war,” said Khyrisse.

“Which would be declaring war between the Diari Empire and, uh... me?” Dave Thermador smiled his wolfish grin. “I’ve had dealings with the Diari before. Trust me, they know better than to think you could control my actions if you wanted to.”

Khyrisse frowned at that, but didn’t try to prove the mercenary wrong by blowing his head off. He sauntered up to the side of the building, taking a small device out of his pocket and pressing a few buttons on it in quick sequence. The device hummed. “Damper,” he explained, smugly, gesturing at the Diarians passing by on the street. “You ever want to be unnoticed in plain sight, this is the way.”

Skitch was annoyed at himself for being impressed. “Should we really be stealing from the Diari museum?” he whispered to Ebreth as Thermador started up the sandstone wall. “They’re not bad guys.”

“We can always put it back when we’re done with it,” Ebreth offered.

The soldier-of-fortune got up to the first-floor window and crouched on the sill, taking out what looked like a fountain pen and aiming it at the window. A small and very intense bead of red light appeared on the glass pane and, as Thermador led it in a smooth circle, cut it. The mercenary stuck his hand through the hole in the glass to unlatch the window.

There was a strong flash of white as he did, and Thermador was thrown forcefully to the ground, his arm going up reflexively across his eyes as his laser pen exploded.

“Oh, merde,” muttered Khyrisse, her hand straying to her wand. The passersby seemed as oblivious to Thermador’s presence as ever, though, and there was no sign of either police or angry mafia guys heading in their direction. Thermador sat up from the ground, coughing a little and brushing pieces of his destroyed piece of alien technology out of his hair. “Hmmm,” he said, more amusement than annoyance in his dry, scratchy voice. “Maybe the Diarians remember my last visit here after all.”

A Meta Moment Amongst the Actors, Just For Jonah

“Well, that sucked, Linus Larrabee,” said Rani, her voice dripping acid.

“Yeah,” nodded Marty. “I thought her version was totally better.”

Aithne beamed winsomely.

“You’re giving me a headache, Hu,” Rani said irritably.

Strings That Cannot Be Cut

Deputy Mongo looked really upset. “Hell,” he said, “if they could get to Joe, they could get to anyone.”

“He just--looked like an illithid,” Shilree was explaining, something confused on her face.

“You can detect Gilas?” Jennifer said incredulously. “Now why the hell would they capture you and implant lots of information fer you to use to defeat them with?”

“Internecine fighting?” suggested the Sunfighter, quietly. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

The deputy stepped over the ‘Sheriff’s’ body to the desk. “Damn it!” he shouted. “That slimy bastard done got to the machine!”

“Can’t you fix it?” said Praxis.

“Not without the stone.” Mongo searched the illithid’s body rapidly. “Oh, hell, it ain’t here.”

Flicker raised an eyebrow at Shilree. All she said, though, was “Can’t you get another one?”

“Yeah, there’s a whole vein of the stuff in the mine southwest of here, but it’s damn hard to get out of the rock. It could take days to get another piece that size.” Deputy Mongo kicked the dead Gilan angrily.

“Maybe we can help,” offered Praxis.

“Yes we can help,” said Shilree.

This got Praxis’s attention. Shilree was not usually the volunteering type.

“Awright,” sighed Mongo, and took what was left of the psi-detector from the desk. “I reckon y’all are our last hope at this point anyway. Find me a piece of that ore, and I’ll see what I can cobble together.” He walked out heavily.

There was a moment’s silence. Flicker looked at Shilree. “Well?” said Praxis, expectantly.

“Well I think I know why Gila was harassing these people. It was because of this.”

“Hey!” said Jennifer, as Shilree took the dull metallic chunk from her bag. “Is that the stone Mongo was--” Praxis interrupted her with a wordless cry of pain, doubling over and clutching at his right eye, and she whirled around, her hand going to her holster. “Todd? What the--”

“Sorry,” said Shilree. “It’s what I thought. This is raw diantri ore.” As she closed her satchel on the piece of ore Praxis seemed to recover his composure. “My people use it for all our psi-tech. I thought the only source of the stuff was the Tecti Rifts, but it looks like there’s some out here.”

“Then Gila was after the ore,” mused Praxis. “May I see it again, please?” Shilree hesitated. “I’ll give it back, Shilree.”

“Actually I was worried about the radiation Praxis. Too much exposure to the raw ore could permanently impair your Gift. That is why the Diari mining caste is all psi-dead.”

“I have my defenses up this time.” Shilree took the piece of ore out again, and Praxis turned it in his hand, wincing a bit. “I wonder...”

“Well, we’ve got to give the dang thing back,” said Jennifer. “Without it these people are doomed.”

“They are doomed anyway,” said Shilree. “We cannot stop that. What we can do is collapse the mine. That will prevent Gila from getting to the diantri.”

“So we’re just gonna let these people die?”

Shilree turned away and looked out the window. “That is all we can do.”

“Shilree,” said Flicker, frowning, “this isn’t real. We’re in a simulation. If Gila took the diantri they took it years ago, when they slaughtered this town. Destroying the mine in this simulation won’t change anything.”

“Neither will saving these people,” said Shilree. “They’re already dead.”

“I know,” said Flicker, “but if we have to do something futile, I’d rather go with a futile attempt to save doomed civilians’ lives, not a futile attempt to sacrifice them to a greater cause.” Shilree hesitated. “When we first entered this town, it had been deserted for years--right? If Gila killed them to get their diantri, they already took it. I think we should take a stand against Gila here. Maybe we can put these spirits to rest. They might have information that can help us, too. And when we get back to the real world, we can check the mine, and if there’s still diantri to be mined there we can sabotage it then.”

Shilree frowned, considering that, and then both Mithril Dagger Heroes looked to Praxis for his opinion. “Ow,” said the psionicist, and gave Shilree the diantri back. “That’s enough for now. Well, I think Flicker’s right. If Mongo’s a poltergeist, then the way to end the hallucination is to help him avenge his death. That means killing the illithids that wiped his town out.”

“If these are not real illithids killing them will not avenge anyone Praxis. I would rather destroy the ore they came here seeking. That would truly thwart their plans.”

“Well, we may be able to do both,” said Praxis. “A small group of illithids could kill everyone in town, but it would take more than a day, and Jethro says he thinks today is d-day. Gila might have sent in a large battalion to do it, but... with the mine nearby, maybe they had a different way. Maybe they used this town to test some kind of weapon, one that uses the ore.”

Shilree paused. “Then we definitely should investigate that.”

“I agree,” said Flicker.

Toleski coughed. “Yeah, well, afore we go gallivantin’ off to look for doomsday devices, I want a couple loose ends tied up here. How did fingergirl here know that varmint was a Gilan?”

Shilree’s shoulder slumped. She looked like she had the weight of the universe on her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she said, like it hurt to say it. “I just knew.”

“You expect us to buy that load of--”

“I don’t expect you to buy anything!” Shilree screamed. “I don’t know what V’nos did to me. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I’m sorry if you don’t believe me but I have told everyone all I know and I do not need to get the third degree from some self-important crotchety kiljhac. My fiancée was murdered, my brain is a mess and I am doing the best I can!”

Shilree put her arms around herself and stalked off toward the horses, breathing irregularly.

“Shilree,” said Flicker, pursuing her. “Shilree. Shilree!” He caught her. She struggled instinctively for two or three seconds and then went limp in his arms, shaking. “Shilree,” he said. “Listen, I’ve been here. I know what it’s like not to know why you remember things and why you don’t remember things. It’s confusing, it’s frightening, I know that.”

Shilree wept in his arms.

“But listen, you can’t hide from it like Sunny did. We need you to be stronger than that. Toleski has a point. If Gila changed your mind enough that you can recognize illithids they could change it enough that you’ll think you recognize illithids. They could make you think Toleski’s an illithid, or I am. Next time that could be one of us. We’re up against psionics now, and we can’t act on impulse any more.”

Shilree nodded, barely.

“I don’t want you killing anyone else. Not even if you believe it’s V’nos. Not even if you believe it’s the illithid who killed Anjra. We can’t trust what we believe from here on in. We’re up against psionics.” He crouched just enough to retrieve her ridiculous cowboy hat from the dust where it had fallen, and closed both her hands around it. “And we have to keep our reason or we can be turned against each other. Next time, Shilree, if you think you recognize an illithid, take him down. Don’t kill him until we have proof. As long as you’re unrestrained you’re in danger of being used. Do you understand?”

Shilree hugged her hat to her chest. “Flicker, we are all being used,” she whispered. “Did I tell you what I remembered yesterday? There was an Iron Tyrant, a big black one, shining a ray on a pool of goo and muck. Well he shined a ray on that pool and a formless humanoid rose up out of the soup. It was a doppelganger. They were creating doppelgangers.”

“We knew that,” Flicker said.

“I know. That’s not all. I heard what the Iron Tyrant was saying to the illithids there. They were sending the doppelganger out to use as ‘mutant breeding stock’!” Shilree swallowed hard. “Sunny they use doppelgangers to breed new Gilan hybrids and mutants. To them we are nothing but breeding stock.”

She started crying again. The question in Shilree’s mind went unsaid but Flicker knew it was there. Tell me I am worth more than that, Sunny. Please, I must be worth more than that.

“Vala tan hajha,” he said in Diari, stroking her hair over and over. You are worth more than that. “Vala tan hajha.”

Deadlocked

“Look,” said Ebreth, “it’s worth a shot.”

“Wow, lookit the Diari shirts, Mom! Can I have a Diari shirt?”

“I hate to bring this up,” sighed Orlen, “but foreign currency is highly devalued in Diaria, and magic is overpriced. I doubt we have enough money with us to buy even a small magic item.”

“We could always sell Vas,” Skitch teased, ducking Val’s thwap.

“I have some jewelry,” said Khyrisse.

***

“Alright, what about a little contest o’ drinkin’ to see who gets it?”

“Please,” the Fiend with Five Eyes replied scornfully. “I didn’t suggest we settle matters by seeing who could craft the most living beetles from his own flesh, did I?”

“Fair enough, old laddie,” said Coomara, “but I hope ye won’t mind if I have a nip of the strong waters meself!” The five-eyed one sighed. He hated dealing with fey-spawn.

***

The Rat Pack had spent the better part of an hour casing the bazaar and had succeeded only in using up Valende’s detect magic spells and adding a silk shirt to Skitch’s wardrobe. There were a few magic items for sale, but none of them the sort that channelled spell effects. Wherever Shilree got her endless supply of spell spheres from, it certainly wasn’t the Srankaijhi marketplace.

“What about a fine jeweler’s?” Orlen brainstormed. “There are a lot of rings and amulets that store spell effects. If we found an expensive enough place, they’d be sure to have something.”

“Something we couldn’t afford even if we did sell half the party,” sighed Rani.

“Well, much as I hate to encourage larceny,” said Orlen, “we could just abscond with it. We are trying to save a city full of people, after all.”

“Full of kiljhacs,” said Rani. “You think they give a crap?”

As they turned down Jihyijh Street, a horse-drawn carriage passing through the intersection in front of them suddenly stopped, blocking their progress. Khyrisse turned her head quickly to see three Diarians in flowing black robes approaching the Rat Pack from behind, only their eyes showing through their dark head scarves. In each hand they held wicked three-pronged daggers, and at each throat gleamed a silver talisman resembling the head of a grasshopper. Khyrisse looked back at the carriage, where three identical warriors were dismounting into the blocked street.

“Psionic cultists,” sighed Rani. “The day lacked only that.”

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