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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 16

Breakdown

Green and Purple were standing over the chessboard when Black returned. Silk was pacing back and forth. She was obviously very worried about something.

“I am back my sisters,” said Black. “Miss me?”

Green moved a bishop across the board and captured one of Purple’s knights.

“How did you do that?” Silk demanded. “You shouldn’t be able to leave. Not until an agreement is reached.”

Black smiled evilly. Her metallic hair’s red highlights looked even redder in the bloody light of this place. “That, dear intruder, is between me and the others. You are not welcome here.”

Purple captured the knight with her queen. Green did not look happy about that.

“Anyway,” said Black, sitting by the chessboard with her sisters, “let me just say that my help was needed. Or should I say my guidance.”

Silk looked horrified. “What did you do?” she asked in a whisper.

“Our secrets will not long be secrets,” said Green.

“At least my secrets make sense.” Black moved a rook. “I could say it was her choice,” she added, nodding towards Purple, “but that would be a lie. After all this is our place. You do not belong here.”

Silk tightened her lips. “I can’t just leave you like this. Not after everything...”

“Everything is nothing,” said Green, without looking up from the game. “You do not even know who we really are do you?”

Silk looked directly at Black, then at Green, trying to comprehend.

“Check,” said Green, and smiled.

***

Flicker decided that he really didn’t like the desert all that much. The sunsets were stunning, and the badlands often made attractive backdrops, but the sun was really stronger than his fair skin and light hair was designed for, and the constant swirl of dust in the dry air made breathing a chore.

The nights were also cold. The largely bare ground retained little heat. Flicker didn’t mind the cold per se, but cold dry air was much less pleasant than cold humid air. All the Sidewinders except Xiang were starting to sound as gravelly as Toleski.

Shilree was mumbling to herself in her sleep. Normally Flicker politely ignored the things people said in their sleep, but given her situation he could hardly keep from snapping to attention when he realized some of her words were in a language he didn’t recognize. “Force three five... klooni ffsssah...”

“Shilree.” Flicker shook her shoulder. “Shilree, wake up.”

“What’s going on?” asked Praxis, rolling over into alertness. “More epilepsy?”

“No. She won’t wake up, and she’s--she sounds like she’s arguing with herself in different languages.” -One of which,- he sent for his friend’s ears only, -I suspect is Gilan.-

“No quarter!” Shilree yelled in her sleep. At least that’s what Flicker thought she was saying; it wasn’t her usual dialect of Diarian, and in fact sounded literary and rather old. “Ffsssshhar gglinni...”

“Can you shut that girl up before she wakes up the whole damn Goblin Coast?” said Jethro.

“Let me try.” Praxis concentrated.



Shilree’s eyes popped open, but she looked far from awake. In fact her eyes were a deep swirling green, and then, improbably enough, Flicker was struck with a mental image of some sort of high-tech fortress. It seemed to be on fire, and in a badly damaged state: electricity sparked from blasted segments of the metal walls, and flexible tubes sprawled from a gash in the ceiling by a flickering light fixture. Ahead, through the smoke, he could see the pitch of battle. Most of those fighting looked like lizardmen, but there were plenty of illithids and at least some Iron Tyrants.

The really unusual thing was that there were Iron Tyrants on both sides of the battle. The Gilans were wiping out their own.

“Lord Praxis?” asked Shaolin, steadily.

“I--don’t know,” said the psionicist, frowning. “It just came over the line when I connected. Did the whole Mindnet get it?” Pretty much everyone nodded. “Well, you may have been right about the internecine fighting, Flicker.”

Shilree continued to mumble and toss. “She’s burning up with fever,” said Flicker, feeling her forehead.

“Perhaps her mind is rejecting some of the Gilan implants,” mused Praxis, hovering his hand over her head and scanning her. “Or perhaps this is collateral damage from the implanting itself, like the neural damage that’s been causing her bouts of ep--”

There was a loud bang from Toleski’s revolver. Everyone turned to look at the old homesteader. He was holding his smoking gun up over his head. “Now that I gotcher attention,” he growled. “You’re tellin’ me them Gilas implanted crap in her mind?”

“Well, yes,” said Flicker.

“Oh, that makes her a perfect leader for y’all. You ever think that if they mucked about with her memories, they mighta done more than that? Commanded her to drag victims into the Doomlands for Gila experimentin’ or somethin’?” No one answered immediately. “Look, you...” Toleski pointed at Praxis. “Brainboy. Yeah, you. You know brain surgery?”

“Psychic surgery, yes--”

“Good. Do it. Yank the crap out of her head.”

“I don’t think that Shilree cares to be... interfered with that way.”

“I don’t care to be betrayed by a damn mindfucked idjit, either. You like seeing her like this?”

Shilree did look pretty bad. “No,” Praxis admitted.

“You can’t affect her psionically,” Kit said proudly. “She’s got warding artifacts.”

“Take ‘em off, then,” Toleski said. Kit didn’t move. “Take ‘em off, I say! This ain’t just about yer damfool moral compunctions... this is about survival. Ours and hers. I’ve seen people die from this crap!”

Kit slowly began to remove Shilree’s artifacts.

“Now, Brainboy, hook ‘er up. If you need help, I’ll head in with you. Someone sane oughta be in her head for once.”

“If it would free her from Gila, I’m sure she’d want you to go in, Praxis,” Flicker said as the big psionicist looked to him. “She trusts you a lot more than she trusts them. I’m more worried about what it would do to you. Remember last time.”

“Her brain attacked him,” said Kit, twisting Shilree’s protective headband in her hands.

“S’why I said I’d go in with yer, ya blame fools,” said Toleski impatiently. “We’d have to fight them Gilas on the Dark Islands anyway, and it’d be on their turf and with her and her dangblasted arsenal of explodin’ artifacts as their little puppet. I say we make our stand here.”

“In Shilree’s brain?” said Jason, his eyes wide as saucers.

Hsin shrugged.

“One more thing,” said Flicker, quietly. “The vision showed Gilans fighting Gilans. Shilree has implanted information about the Gilan portal exploding and, possibly, how to stop it. One faction may be using her against the other. If that’s true... the exploding portal could be a lie, but it could also be the truth. Shilree said the explosion would take out all of New Gila, as well as damaging most of the coast. It’s possible she was implanted by certain Gilans, not to lure us into a trap, but in hopes that we might be able to stop this thing. And if that is true--we’re going to need the information they’ve hidden in her.”

“Then maybe if we go in there we can make ‘em spill it, bust up their hold on her, and go into this on our own terms,” said Jennifer. “I like that better than jes’ following her where the little Gilas in her brain tell her to go.”

“We should do something,” agreed Flicker, looking at his psychologically felled friend.

All eyes turned to Praxis.

What Kind Of Danger I’m In

“Ebreth!” Jack called, seeing his friend disappear.

“Ebreth no here,” explained Aithne.

Jack hurried across the room and picked up the discarded rod. “They can’t have gotten far,” he muttered. “Not with teleportation as limited as it is now... Aithne, can you put again magic in this?”

“That’s a one-shot artifact, Jack,” said Val, coming over to him. “I don’t know how it’s calibrated, but I doubt it could support your... spirit, even if Aithne did recharge it.”

Jack pulled his notes about body reforming from his pocket. “Could you cast this on it, maybe? It’s, uh, really for Amatsu, but if we can project a new bodyform through, I could ride along with it...”

“Paris, look out!” shouted Schneider, climbing in the window. Val turned reflexively and deflected the dwarf’s shot at Jack with the Sword of Corellon. “It’s customary to deal with the baddies before discussing magic theory,” Schneider informed the mathematician.

Jack ignored him. “Val?”

“Possibly, though Khyrisse could probably do it better than I,” the priestess admitted over her shoulder, battling the dwarf. “But I don’t know if it’s such a good idea, Jack... what if something happened to the bodyform while you were using it?”

“Jack no get hurt,” agreed Aithne.

“Just do it... we don’t know what kind of danger he’s in!”

***

“No, of course I’m not trying to take over Rimbor City. What the hell would I do with Rimbor City? We’re seven hundred miles from New Trade. ...You know, Lucas would never have teleported someone into a cage.”

“Will you stop comparing me to St. Augustine?” said Tucson, irritably. “Tell me what you are doing here, then. You might as well tell me the truth, because you can rest assured I’ll be extracting it from you eventually anyway.”

“Is that supposed to scare me? How old are you, kid, twenty-five?” He knocked on one of the bars of the cage with his knuckles. “You know, this implies you’re afraid of your prisoners. It’s really tacky. Lucas would have teleported a guy in here, had two guards grab him and throw him to the floor in front of him, dismissed the guards, and offered the guy some beaujolais or something.”

“Will you stop comparing me to St. Augustine?”

“You’ve got a lot to learn, kid. Look, just get us a drink and I’ll tell you what I know, all right?”

“You’re in a good mood for a guy in a cage.”

“Hmm?” said Ebreth. “Oh, it’s personal.”

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