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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 8

Eye of the Beholder

The tunnels of the mine were obviously formed more by nature than man. While there were wooden braces every so often, as well as signs of digging, most of the mine was a labyrinthine series of interconnecting tunnels. There were lit torches every ten paces or so that provided a steady light source.

“Keep alert,” said Shilree.

“Why?” Jason asked Xiang.

“The torches,” he explained. “Someone had to light them.”

Praxis stilled the group suddenly with a raised hand. “Do you sense diantri?” whispered Shilree.

“No, but there’s--” Praxis concentrated. “There’s something up ahead.”

Everyone quieted down and listened to the stale noises of the mine. There was a slight wind swirling in from the sloped entrance. There was the flapping sound of the flames from the torches. There was the sound of everyone breathing. And then there was also a slight humming from somewhere ahead.

“Let me scout ahead,” said Shilree. “I’ll see what we’re up against.”

“Can I come?” asked Kit. “Sounds like you could use the Greatest Thief on Ataniel.”

Shilree was about to say no, then changed her mind. “Ok, but stay close.”

Kit grinned, and the two thieves slipped into the shadows.

***

Green and Purple were playing chess as if nothing had happened. “She should not have been able to leave,” said Silk.

“It was necessary,” said Purple.

“I do not miss her,” said Green, and captured a pawn.

“Why isn’t she back yet?” said Silk. “You should not be playing the game without her.”

“The rules have changed,” said Green.

“I will take Black’s place,” suggested Silk.

“This is our game,” said Purple.

“This is our game,” said Green, and moved to take another pawn.

Purple shot out her hand and grabbed the chesspiece as Green went to lift it from the table.

“Now who is cheating,” smirked Green.

Purple pulled, then Green pulled. Purple was stronger. The silver pawn was in Purple’s hand when the two triplets separated.

Purple put the pawn in the discard pile herself. Her eyes burned with a ferocity Silk had not seen in this sister yet.

The lilies waved, and Green studied the board.

***

“There are four illithids working diantri in a lab about sixty yards ahead,” said Shilree.

“They’re really gross looking,” Kit shared.

“There was a passage beyond there, but we couldn’t get to it.”

“We should probably assume there are more of them back there,” said Praxis.

“I don’t know if you should go with us Praxis. There is a lot of diantri in there.”

“I should be fine as long as I don’t touch the stuff and keep my shields up,” he said. “Which I’m doing if there are illithids in there anyway.”

“If they’re all mentalists, they probably have a Mind Net too,” worried Jason. “They’ll be able to call reinforcements before we can knock them out.”

“Perhaps,” said Praxis, “but if we strike quickly and don’t let them get their balance, we can dispose of them before the reinforcements arrive. There can’t have been too many illithids out here or they would have destroyed the town without having to pick them off a few at a time. I suggest a few of us teleport in on top of them and then the second wave hits them from behind while they’re distracted.”

“Put me in the second wave,” said Shilree. “I do more damage backstabbing.” She hesitated a long second, her eyes almost seeming to waver in color in the torchlight. “And... Kit? Hold up a minute, there’s something I want to give you.” She fished in her trade pouch and came out with a headband similar to her own and a clay pellet. “If you tie this around your head it’ll help keep them from mind-controlling you. And the bead...” She closed the young thief’s hand around it. “It will protect you against beamed attacks. If we should meet an Iron Tyrant crush that bead under your heel and stay within a few feet of the spot. It will protect you against their eye rays.”

“There weren’t any Iron Tyrants up there, were there?” frowned Praxis.

Shilree blinked. “No... no, not that I know of. I’m just covering bases.”

***

Flicker put Psi-Killer cleanly between the illithid’s shoulder blades as it whirled to face Praxis and Inez’ sudden assault. It went down like a sack of wheat.

The Viking pulled the hissing sword free, getting ready to take on one of the others, but something made him stop. Not quite right, somehow. He looked at the blade. No blood.

“Zhay tak!” Shilree yelled, apparently coming to the same conclusion. “It’s an illusion! We walked into a trap!”

The four illithids disappeared without a sound just as a yellow ray surrounded Shilree and Hou-Hsieh. Both spellcasters tried to cast but their words fizzled out on their lips.

“Very astute,” said a voice from up above.

Flicker looked up and saw two Iron Tyrants near the ceiling, their deadly eyes quickly focusing on the party.

***

They weren’t terrible odds, really. The Sewer Tour had taken Iron Tyrants down before, and they hadn’t had a psionicist.

Praxis’ psionic dimension door shunted the beholders’ antimagic rays off into another part of the mine, giving Hou-Hsieh a chance at a cone of cold. Flicker wasn’t sure what Shilree was casting--one of her new spells, he guessed, from the strange incantation. He’d gotten slowed by one of the smaller eyes, but had managed to spear another one with an arrow anyway, rendering it useless. Inez and Shaolin both had their bows out, too, and Jethro and Jennifer were plugging at the monsters with acrid puffs of gunpowder.

“Kit!” yelled Shilree. “The bead. Smash it now!”

Kit took out the clay pellet and crushed it underfoot. A shimmering shield sprang up between the child and the Iron Tyrants, just in time for two eyebeams to dissipate on its gold-flecked surface. “Hey! Beholders!” yelled Kit, jumping up and down. “Bet you can’t hit me! Ha!”

Unfortunately, the Iron Tyrants were a little too intelligent to be that easily manipulated. The one nearest Kit turned and sizzled a green beam at Jason, instead, who, lacking missile weapons, had been improvising by pulling things off the lab tables and throwing them at the monsters. Hsin jumped out in front of the boy at the last second, and as the beam struck him his very bones were illuminated by the light. Then the old priest was gone, disintegrated to such a degree that there wasn’t even dust left.

“Hsin-Tse!” screamed Hou-Hsieh. The beholder came crashing to the ground as her lightning bolt sank home. -If I’d only had time to prepare...- the sorceress wailed mentally. -I could have put up an antimagic shield...-

-Not now, Hou-Hsieh. We have an enemy still before us.-

The second beholder, apparently sensing its imminent defeat, turned and fired, not at the Sidewinders, but at a panel on the wall. The panel lit up, and the walls began emitting a strange glow.

Praxis let out a sound that might have come from choking, and then he too started to glow. The glow grew brighter and hotter, and Praxis’ flesh began to dissolve away, leaving only a glowing core.

Inez began smoldering, then burst into flames. She was reduced to ashes in seconds.

Then, in a blur of whiteness, Shaolin disintegrated; then Kit; then Toleski; and then all was white and heat and Flicker saw no more.

***

“Oh, my head,” Inez moaned, sitting upright. She was in the middle of a wind-blown street in a deserted ghost town.

“Hsin!” Hou-Hsieh cried, hugging the old priest. “You’re alive!”

“It would appear so,” he replied, looking at his arms and legs, confused.

“Guess that curse wasn’t as pansy-ass as I thought,” muttered Toleski, rubbing his head.

“Wh-what just happened?”

“Well, for starters, it looks like the simulation is over,” Praxis said, too wrung out to move from his position flat on his back. “For another thing, I have a theory about how Gila’s plan fits together.”

“Go on?”

“Well, the rift detonating may wipe out New Gila, but it would also damage Cynystra--the one country Gila’s had particularly little luck in infiltrating. The other country that poses a real problem for them is Diaria, because there are so many psionic Diarians. But the weapon in that mine used a psionically active mind--mine, in this case--as a focus to incinerate the nearby area.”

“Like using a magnifying glass to burn up ants,” offered Kit.

“Very much like that. Anyway, what if Gila took this diantri to launch the same kind of attack, only on a global scale? If they were able to make such a machine work, then anyone in the same, oh, city block with a psionic would get treated to what we just experienced.”

“Diaria would be devastated!” cried Shilree.

“Yes. And if Gila has the spies scattered across the world that we think they do, they’d just need to place them somewhere near key people, and... well, it’d be quite a spectacular mass assassination.”

“We couldn’t stop ‘em, sunsa bitches.” The adventurers looked up, and the ghost of the deputy was standing before them again. “One of them there mind-flayers lured me an’ the posse into that mine. Thought we had ‘im. Then bang. Bright light, everybody dead.” He adjusted his hat. “Glad to see you all was wearin’ the white hats. When you get them low down Gilas, give ‘em my regards.”

He turned and slowly started to fade away as he walked off towards the horizon, his spurs jangling softly long after he could no longer be seen.

The Injoke That Would Not Die

The good news was the Rat Pack had defeated the Diari bug cultists.

The bad news was it had been surprisingly hard. Skitch was pretty sure there were only six of them, and the Rat Pack was eighteen people and one rat. But the Diarians fought with coordination and skill, augmenting their combat prowess with what could only be the Gift. And when the tide of the battle started turning, the black-garbed cultists had just melted back into the alley, which was doubly impressive given that it was midday. Skitch was glad they hadn’t split up, or they would have been toast.

As it was, they were pretty beat up. Khyrisse had to death’s door Rani. They’d gone straight for her, and she’d be dead now if Marty hadn’t managed to heroically interpose himself. Marty was unconscious but definitely breathing.

And then there was Thermador. One of the Diarians had used the Gift to freeze him in place as he shot at them. The jerky sneer was frozen right on his face. Skitch had been magically held once, and it wasn’t a big deal. Thermador, though, didn’t even look like he was breathing. And while Skitch didn’t exactly like Thermador, he didn’t want the soldier-of-fortune to suffocate to death right in front of them. “Is, uh,” he said, tugging on Khyrisse’s sleeve. “Is Thermador okay?”

“He’s alive,” Ebreth assured the boy. “And in perfect hibernation.”

“What?” groaned Rani. “What the hell are you talking about, Tor?”

Ebreth blinked. “I--have no idea why I just said that,” he admitted.

The detective laid her silver head down wearily on the pavement. “Get me out of this jackass country,” she beseeched no one in particular.

Vanunu: A News Around His Neck

Joshua Hye took another long pull from his tankard of grog. “You want me to put your newspaper together?” he asked incredulously. Hye was an expressive man, and his face indicated a wide range of reaction beyond his words. He was short and on the fat end of stocky, but he seemed more alive, more kinetic than most athletics Lora Paris had met.

“You came highly recommended, Ace,” said Lora, sitting back and drinking her comparatively minuscule glass of chablis.

Hye scrunched his face up in mock pain. “God, please, don’t call me that. All the damn reporters call me that.”

Lora nodded, and continued. “Enough that happens here in New Trade is going to affect the entire world that a newspaper to accurately report it will be necessary.”

“So you want a mouthpiece,” said Hye. “No deal.”

“Not a mouthpiece,” Lora said, her tone even. “I want a legitimate newspaper for the people.”

“Why didn’t you get Endicott?” Hye peered at her with keen eyes. “He’s done Trade stuff before. He’s got a hell of a better rep than me.”

“We were unable to find Mr. Endicott,” Lora said truthfully. “You were my second choice.”

The reporter smiled, a grin that seemed to use twice as many muscles as other people’s. “You talk straight, at least, Mrs. Paris. But any paper funded by you folks is going to be suspect in the eyes of the public. Hell, I wouldn’t trust it myself.”

“I have here,” said Lora Paris, “a contract of ownership for the Laki Tenangan wood mill, about a day’s ride east of New Trade. The annual profits from this company should equal the production costs of such a newspaper. If you sign this contract, the mill’s ownership is transferred to you. No strings. It’s a Paris family holding, not a New Trade one, so there is no conflict of interest here.”

Hye was reading the contract. Lora could tell by his face that he was reading it very carefully. “I want full freedom of the press. Can you guarantee that?”

Lora thought of Khyrisse, somewhere down in Rimbor, but only briefly. She was sure the archmage would agree, and even if she didn’t, Lora was willing to go to the wall on this decision. “Of course,” she said. “I want us to work together, but any decisions about the newspaper would be your call.”

Joshua Hye smacked his lips. “Well, Mrs. Paris, it’s quite a generous offer...”

“But?”

“Ah, hell, but nothing. Let me take this thing home, look it over, talk to the wife, and I’ll drop by tomorrow to finalize it.”

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Hye.”

“Call me Josh. And, by the way... you wouldn’t be starting this up right now if you didn’t have something you wanted someone to get the story on. Want to tell me what that is now?”

“There is a man who has recently taken sanctuary here in New Trade. His name is Mordecai. You should talk to him. He has quite a story to tell indeed.”

“I’ll talk to him... and then make that determination.”

“I expected no less, Josh.”

“This is on your tab, right?” Hye asked. “Barkeep! One more to go.”

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