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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 20

A Dream Deferred

Rani sheathed her knife slowly. “So you finally did take this city over, huh, Johnny?”

“Well, yes,” said the young crime lord, with very false modesty. “I guess you finally did become a hero defending it from evil and injustice and all that.”

Rani didn’t say anything, but a very complicated look moved across her face and was gone.

***

“Eight years ago,” said Tucson. “I was fifteen. I’ve been looking for it ever since. You people really think my soul is somehow related to this mysterious plan to displace the city?”

“It had better be,” muttered Rani. “This plot is lame enough without it all being a big coincidence.”

“I’m kind of enjoying it, actually,” Ebreth disagreed genially.

“Pass me some of whatever you’ve been smoking today, Tor, I could use it.”

“Well, the soul’s been in the city for at least three weeks,” said Tucson. “That’s when I first ascertained its presence here. I don’t know how it got to Rimbor, but it was taken in the first place by a Celtic spirit named Coomara, one of the Selkie children of the ancient witch Eithne.”

Everyone turned and looked at Aithne.

“Coomara take soul,” she said. “I tell you that already.”

“It’s probably just a common name,” offered Jack. “I’ve met lots of other Jacks.”

“Anyway, I don’t want my city being wrenched to some unknown plane any more than you do,” said Tucson. “If Rani and Ebreth Tor can cooperate on this, I don’t see why I can’t. Besides, it’s my soul at stake.”

Dirty Dancing

“Irony is the lowest form of humor,” sighed Schneider.

Garal had traced the wormhole from the temple of Scala, goddess of righteousness, to a Nylevian building whose placard read “Madame Samitha’s Tobrinese Dance Parlor.” The silhouette figures on the sign indicated exactly what sort of “dancing” went on inside.

“Maybe if we shut down the wormhole she’ll give you guys a complimentary,” Vickie said.

Garal blushed.

“I’m afraid of dancing,” Marty said. “My headmaster in school always said dancing was evil.”

“They don’t really dance in there, Marty,” Orlen explained patiently. “It’s a euphemism for sexual relations.”

“Oh. That’s okay then,” Marty said. His brow creased in a confused frown. “I thought euphemisms couldn’t have sex.”

“That’s eunuchs, Marty.”

“Oh. I only learned VMS in school.”

“Enough footdragging, you guys,” Vickie said, putting her arms around Orlen and Marty. “I’ll protect you from the mean ol’ beautiful women in scanty clothes.”

“Who’s footdragging?” Orlen smiled, and the three followed the rest of the team into Madame Samitha’s.

The 25-Year Cicadas

“John Tucson will help us?” Aithne whispered anxiously to Jack, while the crime lord conferred with his second-in-command. “I think he is Khyrisse enemy.”

“Help is good,” Jack assured her. “Cooperate is good.”

“She say ‘I want to time-freeze John Tucson, cut him into quarter-inch pieces, and release the spell’,” Aithne pointed out. “That no sound like she gonna be happy about cooperate.”

“Aaaah, she gets moods,” grinned Ebreth. “We share a goal, we should work together. We’ve got a city to save, right, Rani?”

Rani didn’t answer. She was watching John Tucson. “Thank you, Stump,” he said, folding the message the halfling had delivered. “Handle operations in my absence. I’ll be holding you personally responsible for any--failures.”

Stump tried not to swallow too loudly. “Yes, sir,” he said, and retreated.

John Tucson handed the letter to Rani.

She unfolded it slowly, glancing up at him from the corner of her eye. “My young John,” she read aloud. “You have been a good business associate, but now I want us to be friends. Something for something, these little transactions only hold up for so long. Be my friend, John, and stay my friend. It is the wisest move you could make.” She looked up at her childhood friend with some unease. “You--aren’t going to kill me for knowing too much once I’m done reading this, are you, Johnny?”

“If there was anything dangerous to me in it I would. There’s not, though, so just keep reading. I have a feeling this is relevant.”

She looked at him for a moment and then back down. “As a friend to a friend,” she continued, “I will warn you that there is a group in my country who call themselves--Hajhizae Hasfur?” Rani frowned at the letter. “That--means twenty thousand, seven hundred and thirty-six locusts.”

“Well, that’s precise,” said Ebreth.

“It’s dodecimal.”

“Twelve to the fourth power,” Jack specified.

“This group has its eye on Rimbor. Take care, my friend, not to take them lightly. They are not my people, nor do they represent the Emperor, but they are not easily dissuaded, and they are not easily seen. I hope this warning will be enough to give you the vigilance you need. Do not forget what I have done for you this day, John. One day, should you succeed here, I will ask you for a little favor. Until then, best of luck. Don Alliejin.” She lowered the page and looked up. “Hajhizae Hasfur, I’ve never heard of them in my life. What in God’s name is going on here, John?”

“I don’t know,” said Tucson, “yet.”

Revisiting Old Haunts

“I can’t say I think much of Octavian’s choice of hostelry,” Vas said a bit stiffly, holding the door of the Augustine Arms open for the women.

“Can I write on the walls?” Skitch wanted to know.

“Knock yourself out, kiddo.” Khyrisse strode across to the clerk, whose face was buried in a body-building magazine. “Gimme a sec,” he muttered, turning his page. Khyrisse put two fingers over the top of the magazine and gently pushed it down until her face was visible over the top of it.

The clerk fell out of his chair. Skitch chortled with glee at his panicked recognition. “M-m-miss St-starshadow!! I didn’t expect to see you here again, that is, I mean, um, can I help you?”

“We’d like the Ducal Suite, please,” said Khyrisse, a little too sweetly.

“Oh, uh, of course, Miss, uh, Starshadow...” The clerk fumbled for the keys, perspiration beading on his upper lip. Apparently he remembered the violence of the threat Khyrisse had leveled at him last time after he let thugs up into their quarters. “Our most secure and private set of rooms,” he said, offering the keyring to her almost meekly. “Really.”

“Good.” Khyrisse smiled slightly. “You know how much I dislike... interruptions.” She turned and walked calmly up the stairs, leaving Vas to do the paying and Skitch the gloating.

I Never Said I Was Unarmed Just Because Mahoney Took My Sword Away, You Know

John Tucson frowned as he walked down the street towards the Rimbor City Roadside Pyramid-O-Rama with Ebreth and the Rat Packers. Now absolutely everyone was getting out of their way. “And you think these wormholes are related to my soul somehow?”

“Just a hunch,” said Rani. “My hunches are pretty good, though. I’d like to have another look at one of them with you there.”

“Look, I have resources I can give you,” said the young crime lord, “but I do have a city to run, you know. I’m not joining your little group or anything. I’m not an adventurer.”

“You should try it,” offered Ebreth. “Perks are nicer.”

In the alley they were passing, two small, bright green lights glowed.

Rani screamed as a golden flash shot out of the alley at her and wound itself around her throat. Ebreth had a moment’s impression of a slender yellow snake, no more than two feet long with feathered red-gold wings, and then it was whizzing away from Rani again. He had already opened fire, his left hand pressed over the top strap of his pistol to counter some of the inaccuracy of the unbeaded shots, but none of the three found its target, and the little snake was gone. “God damn, that thing moves fast!”

“Rani all right?” asked Aithne anxiously, hovering at the detective’s elbow.

Rani waved away her and Jack’s assistance. “I’m OK,” she said. There were two small, hatched puncture wounds on her neck. “I’m all right. Something bites me about every other episode.”

“I should make no poison there,” frowned Aithne. “I no touch you long, Rani.”

The psychometrist submitted to Aithne’s ministrations with a sigh.

John Tucson was looking at Ebreth funny. “Where... did you get that gun?”

“What?” Ebreth reholstered it. “I had this all along.”

Their eyes met for a couple of seconds, and then Ebreth Tor grinned.

Dirty Dancing: Some Places A Princess Just Shouldn’t Go

Thalia looked at the sign over the door to Madame Samitha’s dance parlor. My governess would be having seizures right about now.

She sighed and walked in. Somewhat to her surprise, there actually were people dancing. It seemed the selection process involved a “taxi-dance” floor. The men selected their partner of choice, negotiated over the dance, and then moved on to the back rooms.

One of the men swaggered over to Thalia and tried to press a greasy ticket into her hand. “Hey, baby, wanna dance?”

The princess stood stunned for a moment, trying to phrase a suitable response. “I, uh, don’t work here,” she finally settled with.

“Oh, baby, you should, you should. Lemme show you the ropes...” He tried to put his arm around her waist and drag her towards the dance floor.

Thalia braced her feet in place and refused to be dragged. I am not my sister. I am not a frail flower of femininity who constantly needs to be rescued. She struggled against his hold. It was sort of a tie. They weren’t going anywhere, but she wasn’t getting loose of him either. She was going to have to swallow her pride. “Guys, a little help here?”



Schneider wasn’t exactly sure why, but he suddenly felt like a having a drink. “Shot o’ whiskey, me boy!” he called to the grubby bartender, sitting down at the bar, and looked at his own hand in confusion as it took the drink. Geez, I thought I hated whiskey.

But it felt bloody good going down.



“Uh, are you in, like, distress?” Marty asked Thalia.

“Scrife off, pal,” the patron said to the paladin.

“‘Cause, I could rescue you.”

“Look, can you just phrase it as ‘helping me’ or something?” pleaded Thalia.

“She’s, like, with us,” Marty explained.

“I’ll pay you double what you paid for her,” the patron said.

“Uh, how much did we pay for you?” Marty asked Thalia.

“Triple,” said the customer. “I love the fire in her.”

“You’re on fire?” Marty asked, suddenly tense. “Water! Someone get water!”

The patron was thrusting a bag of gold at Marty, who took it, thinking it was a waterskin.

“I’ll put it out, Constance!” Marty yelled heroically, and squeezed a stream of gold coins over Thalia’s head.

“Can someone else give me a hand here?” Thalia cried mournfully.



“Hello there, my fine little man,” smiled a woman in a green teddy, bending over to meet Garal’s eye level and give him quite a view. “Looking for a good time?”

Garal blushed redder than the prostitute’s hair.



Marty had distracted the persistant patron enough for Thalia to extricate herself from his clutches, at least. For some strange reason the jester with the magic mirror seemed to have wandered off to get a drink. Thalia sighed and made her way over to the bar, thankfully without being waylaid by anyone else. “Uh... Schneider?” she said.

“Join me for a nip, lassie?”

Thalia made some polite laughter at the drunken brogue the jester was affecting. “Actually, I was, uh, wondering if we shouldn’t go close that wormhole first and go drinking later?” Schneider looked a little confused. “I mean,” Thalia elaborated, “do you think you could give me that magic mirror now?”

“Oh!” Schneider shook his head a bit dizzily and rooted through his bag for it. “No problemo.”

Just then a hand fell on Thalia’s shoulder. She winced as she turned, expecting it to be another man from the dance floor, but this time it was an older woman in a low-cut dress. “Hey, girlie! You trying to steal my customers?”

Ah, this must be the proprietess. “No, Ma’am,” she replied politely. “Actually, I was trying to scrape off one of your customers.” She paused, then added, “I’m not in the business.”

“Ohhh, you’re one of that kind. Well, you know what they say--‘the customer’s always right!’”

“Actually, Ma’am, I’m--”

One of the patrons leaned over. “Hey baby, when you go back there, how much to watch?”

Thalia just sighed and dropped her head into her arms. “I give up,” she whimpered almost inaudibly into her arms.

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