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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 17

Scorpion’s Nest: An Eye For An Eye

On the plus side, George Mahoney had accomplished his goal. Ebreth Tor was delivered.

Unfortunately, Stump’s environmental control had apparently been overridden, Stump himself was unconscious, Nox had lost a hand--Mahoney kind of wished he’d lose the other one, frankly, but it couldn’t be good for his spellcasting--someone apparently had a hitherto-unrecognized ability to animate furniture, which had kicked the crap out of several of the dwarves, and there was a new woman with them who looked to be a high-level magic-user.

It was time to get the Saint A out of there, in other words.

Camaro came running back through the mansion, adjusting her bra. “I’m coming! I’m coming!”

“What happened to your shirt, Pearl?”

“Catfight with the Grendel woman,” she said shortly, knocking Vas back about twelve feet and grabbing Vas by the collar. “C’mon, let’s blow.”

***

“Hey!” screamed one of the evil little dwarves, as Tucson’s enforcers fled. “Hey, what about us?”

There was no answer from their retreating backs.

The dwarf looked at his brother, now a pig, eating one of the curtains. He saw one of his first cousins huddled dead at the base of the staircase and his best friend’s sister crumpled lifeless beneath the overturned sofa.

He saw George Mahoney leaving.

“As God is my witness,” screamed Happy, “Tucson will die for abandoning us this day!”

The dwarf fled the slaughter. There was nothing else he could do.

***

“Rouse thyself, fool!” the Fiend hissed to the unconscious fishman laying in the alley outside the tavern, where he had been unceremoniously dumped by the bouncer.

“Och...” Coomara moaned, holding his head. “What in the isles did that lass gi’ me?”

“Something stronger than your common sense, no doubt,” said the Fiend with Five Eyes. “This is the last time I leave you alone in a tavern. Next time you’ll probably lose the soul we need.”

Coomara frowned, and patted his pockets.

“You didn’t,” the Fiend said.



“Ah... so that be what she were up to!” Coomara cried. “A cunning lass... a true challenge!”

“You fool!” cried the Fiend with Five Eyes. “We’ve lost all now!”

“Not a bit of it, me well-visioned friend. In fact, we’ve just solved our little problem.”

“What in the Hollows are you on about now?”

“Ye think I’m that easy to get close to?” Coomara reached into his shoe. “The Teind grants me the souls of two kinds of men, laddie: them as drowns in me domain, and them as steals me souls from me.” He flashed a small orb at the Fiend. It had an uneven surface in a faded paisley pattern. “A bit melancholic this one, but for your purposes it should do just nicely.” The Fiend’s attention had been wholly arrested by the sight of the thing, and Coomara smiled. “So get me lost soul back and free from the bonds of this city, and dinner is served.”

“Indeed,” said the Fiend, all five eyes glittering. “I shall.”

The Boy Ain’t Got No Soul

“They took him!”

“Grendel damn that woman!”

“All right, who needs healing?”

“Look what they did to the floor!”

“The evil halfling did it, huh? What do you think, stretch, call that a push?”

“Why are you blushing, Vas?”

“If I can retrace the non-linear...”

Khyrisse appeared at the top of the stairs, eyeing the barn-sized hole that had once been the front wall of her mansion. Bitching furiously in Impish, she hurled the electricity-charred body of the missing dwarf over the rail to thud on the blackened carpet. “I am going to time-freeze John Tucson, cut him into quarter-inch pieces, and release the spell!” she spat. “He won’t need his fucking soul!”

Dave Thermador sauntered into the wrecked living room from the other side. “What’d I miss?”

“Great timing, President Marshall,” muttered Rani, sitting up from the floor with Valende’s help.

Schneider surveyed the damage with uncharacteristic calm. “Sennett,” he said, “can we have a head count, please?”

“Milord Tor is absent,” announced the spectral butler, his hair a little more ruffled than usual. “All others are accounted for.”

“I’m going after him,” Jack told Khyrisse.

“I understand,” agreed the Rat firmly, climbing up Jack’s pant leg and into his satchel before resuming the most thorough grooming of his career.

***

Aithne watched the return of Schneider with great curiosity. She had seen him storm out of the mansion in a self-indulgent huff after the chieftess’ son had refused to accept his authority; when he came back to the group, in contrast, he was calm and goal-oriented. Ordinarily she might have attributed this change of attitude to the ministrations of Vickie Dare, for Aithne had seen enough of men to know this worked more often than not. Connected to the Goddess as she was, though, she could hardly fail to notice that there was something else at play.

“Schneider have no soul,” she commented to Jack.

“Oh,” sighed Jack, fumbling with some papers she couldn’t read, “well, he’s not that bad, Aithne.”

She shrugged, not really understanding. It’s the first time I’ve seen a man become more confident and contented after losing his soul. “Okay,” she said. “Give me look at magic stick, please.”

***

Khyrisse was trying to disguise her terror in rage. It wasn’t hard; she was already pissed with Schneider, and now these goddamn Scorpion people had invaded her private quarters and absconded with her lover. She knew what Tucson had done to Schneider when he had him captive, though, and Khyrisse had a deathly fear of how Ebreth might react to abusive treatment anymore. If something were to shock him back into catatonia she literally didn’t know if she could survive it; especially not now, after she’d just admitted...

Khyrisse crammed her mounting panic forcefully back down her own throat.

***

“You want follow Ebreth?” said Aithne, looking to Jack for confirmation.

“Yes,” said Jack. “Hurry.”

“I can,” said Aithne slowly, lifting the small rod carefully in front of one eye to see the trails left there by the Goddess. “I can follow. You want come with me, Jack?”

“You... can follow somebody else’s teleport?” Mina boggled.

“I can.”

Jack folded up the notes for the bodyform project and put them quietly back in his satchel. Apparently Aithne didn’t need such add-ons. She seemed almost as powerful as Khyrisse was, if only slightly less confused. And this is the girl I’m supposed to ask out? Jack thought. I’ll be lucky if she doesn’t turn me into an integer sequence for the imposition.

Khyrisse was nodding slowly. “Aithne,” she said, “how many people can you take with you?”

“I can take three people?” she guessed. “People must touch me.”

“Rani, will you go with them, please? I want psi-contact.”

“Aughhhhh!” cried Marty. “No! Then she’ll have, like, all three in the same party!”

“Does he ever make sense?” Thalia asked Mina, who shook her head.

“We should not split up,” Kingfisher reiterated.

“We don’t have a choice,” Khyrisse overruled her bluntly. “There are a lot more than three of us.”

“Maybe there’s a better way,” said Schneider. “We know who the kidnappers are. All we need to do is get a meet with some of Tucson’s people and propose a deal to ransom Tor back. And coincidentally, the man who might be able to help us locate the Scorpion’s people is--”

“Octavian,” finished Vastarin, with a flourishing grin. Schneider didn’t smile back.

“Will you boys get over your obsession with Octavian already?” snapped Rani. “Look, chuckles, I don’t know what makes you think roaming around looking for Octavian so he can maybe tell us where to find a contact who knows Tucson is an easier way to find Tor than following his fucking teleport. I know where to find a contact who knows Tucson.”

“Not to mention that I’m not going to bargain with Tucson unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Paying off crime lords is a crappy precedent.” Khyrisse frowned, trying to collect her composure. “I think the rest of us had better go find the next wormhole. Rani, you’ll let me know as soon as you find Ebreth, right?”

“No,” said Rani, rolling her eyes, “I was going to see how long I could freak you out by not telling you.”

Khyrisse rolled her eyes right back. “Jack,” she said, “I’m counting on you here.”

“I know,” smiled Jack.

Khyrisse looked around the destroyed living room. “All right,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

The Story No One In His Right Mind Would Believe

“You know,” said Ebreth Tor, leaning against the back bars of the cage, “if I was a spellcaster, you’d be dead now.”

“Yes,” said John Tucson, “but you’re not, now, are you?”

“Lucky for you,” said Ebreth. “What if your boy had missed me and hit, say, Ms. Starshadow? You’d be a smear on the carpet by now.”

“I don’t hire people who miss.”

“Keep smiling, Tucson.”

“You don’t seriously expect me to believe you’ve gone straight.”

Ebreth shrugged. “Does it matter?” he said. “I’m not in the business anymore. If I were, it would already be mine. I’m not here for the Slavers’ Guild, and I’m not here for Rimbor.”

“Then what are you here for, Mr. Tor,” he said softly, running his finger along the edge of his knife.

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” sighed Ebreth. “Last time I checked it had something to do with saving Rimbor from some mysterious group trying to dimensionally displace it. From context I’m guessing that’s not you.”

Tucson paused. “That is the lamest story I have ever heard,” he said. “I believe I’m insulted.”

“The lame ones are usually the true ones,” Ebreth offered.

“You expect me to believe you’ve given up a position as one of the most influential underworld figures on the face of Ataniel, to be--a ghostbuster.”

“More or less,” shrugged Ebreth. “You get assassinated, you go to Hell, and your empire crumbles. Evil’s really not all it’s cracked up to be, kid. ...Look, we’re really not here to fuck with you. In fact, we’re here to protect your city. If you send me back where you found me within the next few minutes, you’ve still got a chance of us not making a total mess out of this place.”

“I hope you don’t think you’re intimidating me,” said Tucson, coldly.

“Hey.” Ebreth glanced around the interrogation room, and shrugged. “It’s your place.”

Tucson snapped his fingers and two uniformed soldiers came in. “Watch him,” he said, and gave Ebreth a cold and intense look. “We’ll see if you’re any more communicative when you’ve finished talking things over with Weasel. He’s just now coming off dead leave and he’s very anxious to get back to work.”

Ebreth was constantly amazed at the ridiculous little things that sent him into a spiraling panic, like a cold floor beneath his feet or the patter of rain on the roof, while being in a cage with blood pouring down his back waiting to be interrogated by somebody named “Weasel” was succeeding at bothering him only on a conscious level. “Tucson,” he said. The crime lord turned his head. “Lucas would have done it himself.”

John Tucson slammed the door.

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