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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 26

Vanunu: How Long Is Mordecai’s Hair?

Mordecai was enjoying another evening in the Silver Hammer, one of the better taverns that had recently sprung up in the new city of New Trade. Now that the first edition of the New Trade Informer had revealed his story to the world, the weight he had been bearing was finally starting to dissipate. He was beginning to live again. New Trade seemed a wonderful place of opportunity, and a sorcerer of Mordecai’s caliber would be a hot commodity in the reconstruction-oriented world outside.

“Here ya go, pal,” said Steve the night bartender, placing a tall fruit drink down in front of him.

“I... I didn’t order one of these,” Mordecai corrected honestly.

“Little lady down at the end of the bar bought it for you.” Steve pointed, and Mordecai followed the gesture to the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes on. She was short, even shorter than Mordecai, and her blond hair framed her smile like an electric halo. She caught his glimpse for just a second, then looked down at her hands, blushing.

“Thank you,” Mordecai said to Steve, and taking his drink, stood and crossed the bar.

“Good evening,” he said to the sylph-like beauty, bowing before her in the custom of Malachi. “I thank you greatly for the gift.”

“Oh, it wasn’t anything,” the girl smiled coyly. “You just looked all lonely down there, I thought you could use some color in your night.”

“Well,” Mordecai smiled, “if you would care to join me for an evening of conversation, I would have color enough to put a rainbow to shame.”

The girl blushed again, laughing.

“I am Mordecai,” the wizard said. “Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“I’m... Cindy,” the girl said. “Cindy Rannia.”

“I’m enchanted to make your acquaintance, Cindy Rannia.”

“The pleasure’s all mine,” Cindy smiled. “All mine.”

***

“What is it, Thapes?” Omeria glanced up, annoyed, from the tome she was busily scribbling in.

“I just got a message by Trade Courier, sir. It’s from Secretary Ariath.”

“What does she have to say?”

“She said ‘the fairy has found her toadstool.’”

“Excellent,” Omeria said. “Don’t slam the door leaving, Thapes.”

Rani Makes A Deduction Roll

Garal stared miserably at his own toes. It was humiliating enough that he couldn’t get any of the Rat Pack to pay attention to him in the bordello, worse that Princess Thalia had had to step in for him. But worst of all was that Khyrisse had explicitly left him in charge, and the halfling had not been able to live up to her expectations. He would have liked to have been more masterful for her. It wasn’t like she was ever going to respond to Garal the way he liked to imagine her responding anyway, but now she probably thought he was a wuss. That thought really got to Garal. The halfling sighed, agitated and embarrassed. In truth, he admitted to himself, Khyrisse’s inaccessibility was part of her appeal for him. After all, he’d also seen Vickie, Val, Rani, and Mina naked, and each of them was at least as beautiful as Khyrisse; so were the two new girls. But lusting after one of them would mean Garal would feel like he had to actually do something about it, especially in Vickie’s case, and the spy’s carefree promiscuity was not something Garal ever really wanted to have to grapple with in any earnest. Khyrisse, on the other hand, was safely another man’s. Basic morality rescued Garal from feeling like he had to act on his secret desires. This was a tremendous relief somehow.

“Stay in touch, Rani,” Tucson was saying, quietly. “I’ll be working on this from my end. Find my soul if you can.”

“Sixteen years, Johnny,” she sighed, “I’ve been trying.”

“A piece of free advice,” said Octavian, cold steel in his voice. “This city was mine long before you aspired to it, John Tucson, and it will not be under your control much longer. This will not be our last meeting, and the next will not go so well for you. Walk away from this while you still can.”

“Whatever,” sighed the Scorpion. “I just have a job to do.” He pulled out another one of those little teleport rods and broke it over his forearm, and was gone as if he had never been there.

“I wonder if that brought him to the cage,” commented Ebreth, looking after him.

Rani started to say something snide and choked on it. Her head turned reflexively to Schneider as she put her finger, too late, on the source of Tucson’s snippets of ethical rectitude and dumb jokes alike. “Thermador,” she said, whipping her head back and forth, “where the hell is Thermador?”

The Rat Pack glanced at one another in confusion. The mercenary was nowhere to be seen.

“Fuck!” screamed Rani, banging her fist on the wall of the Augustine Arms.

A Job To Do: Defection

The Barrens were one of the foulest areas of Rimbor city, as well as one of the oldest. The slope was dominated by a large stone culvert into which the sewers emptied, carrying the city’s flow through the Barrens and down to the sea. Only the lowest of the low lived out here: the homeless who couldn’t defend one of the more desirable spots under Rimbor’s two bridges, toughs with too many personality defects to make it in any of Rimbor’s numerous gangs, the truly desperate. You didn’t come to the Barrens unless you had no more hope... or unless you had a job to do.

Dave Thermador cut distastefully through the Barrens, full aware of the eyes that were watching him. He would have to watch his back. It wouldn't look good on his resume if he got his throat slit.

It took him about ten minutes to reach the culvert. Thermador looked upstream and grimaced. He really didn’t want to do this, but a hundred years was a hundred years.

“Note to self,” he said to no one in particular, “bill clients for a new pair of boots.”

Dave Thermador stepped down into the culvert and began to walk upstream. Unfortunately, his spiked whiskey couldn’t do anything about the non-planar stench of the raw sewage. But every minute he spent loitering around Rimbor with the soul of John Tucson was another minute closer to disaster. Starshadow’s people weren’t likely to catch up to him in time, but there were a lot of powerful players in town by now, and Thermador wasn’t taking any chances. The quickest soft point was here in the Barrens, and Dave Thermador was getting out while the getting was good.

He hoped the Rat Pack would finish closing the wormholes instead of following him. Not that he was worried they’d catch him, not with the head start he had, but Thermador was cutting corners leaving before the closing work was done. The opportunity had just been too good to ignore. Everyone with the least bit of leadership ability had left to find either Octavian (Thermador knew who Octavian was, of course, but it would take a hefty price to get him to tell) or Ebreth Tor. The jester with the piece in his pocket was even half-drunk, and a bar brawl had conveniently broken out. It was going to be the best shot at it Dave Thermador would get all mission, and he’d be a fool to pass it up.

He had reached the soft point. Ordinarily, he would have used his gifted nose to check for spies before sliding, but the odor of the drainage was drowning out all else, so he relied on his instruments. No planeblazers; that was the most important thing. No heartbeats in range. No psionic trackers. No magic.

He was clear. He stepped into the demi-plane.

***

Amatsu had learned that things were very complicated when it came to the Rat Pack. Interactions between individuals could be byzantine and difficult to understand. He thought of the cringing resentment Skitch had for Schneider. The way the newcomer, Aithne, made Khyrisse more subtly but equally uncomfortable. The way Valende reacted to... well, a lot of things.

Thus, Amatsu was trying very hard not to jump to conclusions and judge Dave Thermador too quickly. The man with the appalling manners (to actually insult another’s personal odor--shocking!) was patently involved in suspicious behavior. Still, he had been up front in his status as ronin. Amatsu saw no problem with allying in the current crisis, distasteful as some of the Rat Pack found Thermador. Nor was there a problem with his ending that alliance at his discretion; he was bound to them by no promises.

The soul he had taken from Schneider, however, complicated matters. Having seen Garal do it repeatedly, Amatsu knew that Thermador was about to plane-travel. Should he follow him, or return to the Rat Pack to report? If he went back, he would lose the ronin’s trail, and he had little information for them. On the other hand, pursuing Thermador into an unknown situation alone might not be prudent. It was probably his employer X!La to whom the ronin was bringing the soul, and that being had already proved able to detect Amatsu’s presence. If he followed and was slain, the Rat Pack would never even know what had become of the soul at all. Amatsu did not want to leave them in a position of weakness.

Thermador began to slide sideways through the soft point. Time to think fast.

***

Dave Thermador stepped into the demi-plane. He still cast a shadow, which was all the cover Amatsu needed.

I Want Back All The Simpleness Of Flame

“Faxhripset!” bitched Khyrisse. Ebreth flinched, which made her feel guilty on top of everything else. Please, Grendel, deliver me something to vent some old-fashioned aggression on soon. Dave Thermador would be nice, but just about anything would do.

Rani was pacing. “He’s probably going to deliver it to his employers,” she surmised. “If that’s true and Coomara’s right, we don’t need it back right away. The plane of Shiny Happy People’s just as good as the bottom of the ocean for city-saving purposes.” She paused. “We’re--probably going to want to get it back eventually, though. We should really give it back to John. He’s been having weird mood swings and randomly killing people without it.”

“This is a change?” said Schneider.

“Generally speaking, having an evil guy in town is better than having a psycho evil guy in town, all else being equal.”

“All right,” sighed Khyrisse, massaging her temples. “Okay. Forget Thermador. We can find him and run him through a meat grinder once the city’s safe. Does anyone have Amatsu?”

No one answered.

“Then he’s still tailing him.” Khyrisse smiled grimly. “Good.”

***

“Rani?” frowned Orlen. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she snapped, holding her neck. She felt a little faint, and adjusted her air intake higher. “No. It’s John.”

“Were--you very close?”

“Not really. We were foils. He believed people were fundamentally selfish and evil and I guess I thought they weren’t. He was going to learn to control them, and I was going to find a way to save them. Well, he grew up and took over the city. I got old and gave up, I guess. He made it and I didn’t.” She scuffed the heel of her boot hard across the pavement. “And I feel like I let myself down, but worse, I feel like I fucking let him down. He’s a criminal. He fucking buys and sells people. And what do I feel bad about? The look in his fucking eyes to see me and Octavian in the same fucking place. My God, I am such a failure.” She paused a beat. “Why the hell am I telling you this.”

“Because I listen?”

“Get out of my way.”

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