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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 31


Ebreth Tor stepped uncertainly out of the night and into the sodium light of the streetlamps.

He could see the Rat Pack milling around the entrance to the Augustine Arms. He remembered the last night he had spent here, and found his hand moving of its own accord to his upper arm where he had sliced it open, so long ago, simply to prove to himself he was there.

That had been before he had gone to Hell. It had also been before he had come back, though.

Right now Ebreth wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed, lay his head across Khyrisse’s stomach, and stop thinking. If he’d ever been this wobbly he couldn’t remember it, and even his dreams seemed preferable to standing and staring at himself any longer. But there was work to do now. Khyrisse was quarter-of-ballistic already, arguing loudly with a less-than-helpful-looking Vickie. Jack was talking to Val for the first time in what, months? Ebreth Tor wasn’t real sure who he was just now, but he wanted to be someone with contributions to make, not someone who demanded comfort from friends with other things on their minds every time his psyche cracked. If I have to be Ebreth Tor then I am damn well going to be him like a man. “Problem?” he said very softly, crossing to Khyrisse.

“What does it look like?” said Khyrisse, through her teeth. Vickie pointed at Khyrisse behind her back and crossed her eyes, presumably to warn Ebreth that she thought Khyrisse was being incomprehensibly pissy. Ebreth ignored the communiqué. “Vickie?” he said. “Don’t you think you owe Octavian an apology?”

“Sorry, Tavy!” Vickie said immediately and cheerfully, grinning irrepressibly at the crimefighter. “Can’t blame a girl for being curious!”

Octavian did not seem particularly affected by her girlish charm. It was between him and Vickie now, though, and that alone should take the pressure off Khyrisse. Vickie didn’t have a bad heart, and there was nothing she might inadvertently do that the vigilante couldn’t handle himself. Ebreth had a brief internal skirmish between not wanting Khyrisse to think he was pulling back from her and not wanting to see his own hand on her, but he resolved it in favor of her and touched her shoulder blade more gently than he’d ever quite touched anything. “Have we got everyone?”

“Yes,” she sighed, still aggravated. “Are--you all right?”

He wasn’t sure how exactly to answer that. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll explain later. Shall we head for the ruins and see what we can do about these terrorists?”

“I should warn everyone,” sighed Rani, “the place is probably going to be crawling with psionics.”

“Oh, yes, now I remember,” said Khyrisse, rolling her eyes. “That’s why I didn’t take Shilree’s lead up in the first place.”

“Oh, no, Miss Khyrisse,” said Marty, earnestly, “this time it’s not his fault, it’s her fault.”

Ebreth had no idea what that meant. “I’m spiked,” he said, succinctly. Orlen turned around and stared at him. No one else reacted. “I, used to be involved with the mafia,” he told Orlen, and then, for the benefit of the others, “Anyone who tries a direct psionic attack on me is going to take a lot of damage. Worry about protecting other people first.”

Val nodded soberly. “All right,” said Khyrisse, her voice still a bit cranky, squeezed Ebreth’s forearm, and snapped her sigil into the Trade Carriage. “Octavian, I’ll need you up top with me, please. All aboard that’s coming aboard.”

“Just a minute!” yelled Skitch, hurrying to finish the rude sentence he’d started on the outer wall of the Augustine Arms.

Attention Deficits

Rani kicked a little rock down the road, watched it roll, and then walked across to Vickie as the Rat Pack piled into the magic Carriage. “Hey, Vick,” she said, “about, you know, Octavian?”

It had been less than two minutes since Khyrisse had stopped arguing with her, so apparently she hadn’t completely forgotten about it yet. “You think I need to toe Khyri’s line a little better, huh.”

“Oh, that is so me.” Rani rolled her eyes and clicked her heels together. “Sieg heil. No, I was thinking that maybe you, uh... has it ever occurred to you that maybe you ought to be paying a little more attention to things going on around you?”

Vickie looked oddly at the psychometrist. “No,” she said.

“It was kind of a rhetorical question, Vickie. You were supposed to think about it.” Rani tapped her foot. “See, noticing things is my job, and I can’t help noticing you never think more than about ten minutes ahead. You can’t even sit still more than a few minutes. Isn’t this a problem when you’re on a case? I mean, you’re great with the daredevil moves and all, but don’t you ever need stealth, or patience, or deduction, or anything?”

Vickie paused. “Well, not so far,” she said.

“Don’t you think you might? That stunt you pulled with Octavian--he could have killed you.”

“I have a high-risk job, Rani,” grinned Vickie. “I can’t worry about things like that.”

“What about the people around you? What if he killed Schneider? What if Octavian turned out to be George Mahoney and I told John and John killed him? What if the reason Octavian wore a mask was that the open air would make his face dissolve into a hideous puddle of blood?”

“Girlfriend,” said Vickie, “you have got one sick imagination.”

“Being a PI is a pretty high-risk job, too.” She shrugged and hauled herself up onto the backboard. “Just think about it, okay? You’re really good at what you do. I’d hate to see that cut short because you screwed everything up in a fit of boredom one day.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Vickie, hitching her hang-glider to the back of the Carriage. “Just... not right now.”

The Long Road On

“Jack,” said Ebreth, so soft he almost didn’t say it.

“What is it, Ebreth?”

He paused several seconds. “I killed Lita.”

Jack was quiet a moment and then he reached out and put his hand on Ebreth’s. “I know,” he said.

Outside the Carriage window, the scenery faded into a single blur of motion.

A Job To Do: Black On Black

Ijiystiya--for that was the name of the winding tunnel of space through which the interplanar soldier of fortune was making his journey--was a land without corners.

He was a handsome man without his edges, but Dave Thermador wasn’t looking at his reflection in the gently curving wall. He had a job to do.

Thermador had relied on his sense of smell for so long that his night vision was nothing to write home about (assuming, without conceding, that a guy like Thermador really had a ‘home’.) Even if it had been, his chances of noticing the patient darkness of the disembodied ninja still lurking in his shadow would have been very slight.

His chances of noticing the darknesses moving in the dark peripheries of the tunnel were none at all, for even Dave Thermador couldn’t smell what unexisted.

It was actually a whiff of the NMP still clinging to the crackling not-there body of the negabeast that Thermador caught first, about one and a half seconds before Mr. Smith’s asymmetrical paw struck him in the side of the head and sent him slamming into the tunnel wall and sliding, cornerlessly, down it.

As Mr. Smith stepped forward to finish the stunned mercenary off, though, his Negative Material Plane upbringing got the better of him.

Mr. Smith had never learned it was bad luck to step on a man’s shadow.

Roads to Ruin

Jack rode in silence, his mind conflicted.

Why had Ebreth chosen now to tell him that? It had seemed so stable before, with the topic being pleasantly ignored by both. Now Jack had to face the situation that he had so comfortably tucked away. Had Ebreth been lying to him about being a different man? Jack couldn’t believe that. In denial? Not much better, really. Maybe it was something therapeutic for his personal development, trying to take responsibility for his past life. Or could he really be the same Ebreth Tor who had callously left Jack’s best friend to die? Jack just couldn’t get that to reconcile with the man he knew, but was he being overly naïve again? And all of this coming down after Val’s nervous retreat from Jack’s own revelations, too.

“Jack?” Orlen asked.

Jack looked up. “Hmh?”

“Are you okay? You looked like Khyrisse for a second there.”

Vickie Dare pondered what Rani had said. Then out of the corner of her eye, she noticed something out in the woods, far to the west of the road they were taking. It seemed to be paralleling the Carriage, which seemed almost impossible, knowing the speeds the thing took.

“Hey, Garry,” she said, pulling open the window. “Give me a leg up?”

“What?” said Garal.

“Something out there. I’m going to check it out.”

“By yourself?” said Garal. “But what about what Rani said?”

“What did Rani say?” Vickie asked, half-smiling. Garal couldn’t tell if Vickie was joking or not.

He put his hands together and helped her out the window.

Outside, Vickie Dare curled up in a ball and rolled down the gully. Seconds later, she was off through the woods.

“Hey, Marty,” said Mina. “Are you wearing a new cologne? You smell really nice today.”

“Uh... I’ve got this thing the cat coughed up...”

“That must be it,” Mina’s voice had a strange lilt to it that Marty didn’t notice.

Kingfisher, sitting on Marty’s other side, did, and glared at Mina. “Go gently, girl,” she said. “The paladin will no longer be a sexual plaything for your like. He is under my protection. Isn’t that right, Marty dear?”

Even Kingfisher’s tone seemed odd, but Marty didn’t notice that either. “Uh, sure.”

Mina and Kingfisher glared for a while longer at each other. Marty continued to be oblivious.

He was busy wishing the oyster piece actually did something.

Hail to the Chief

The Sidewinders’ reptilian captors dragged them out onto an unusual paved road. From the outside, the metal cell they had been confined in resembled the steam car Flicker had ridden in in Diaria. “Follow,” barked one of the lizardmen. Another one shoved him for emphasis. There were only two illithids with them that Flicker could see; on the other hand, the Sidewinders were unarmed and badly outnumbered, Praxis’ psionics were damped, and Praxis and Flicker were likely to be the only two not immediately susceptible to any kind of psychic domination. Flicker went peaceably, for now.

“Where are you taking us?” he asked one of the illithids, quietly. “What do you want?”

“Your fate is for the king to decide, demon,” said the illithid, turning away.

Not good, thought Flicker. With Prax’ damping collar there was no one to receive it, but he knew the big psionicist was thinking it too. Flicker’s nature was an ace in the hole against the mentalist illithids, and it would not be one that took them by surprise. They knew we were coming. Flicker tried not to let his eyes move to Shilree. Soon, he rationalized, they would be in the audience of the king. Perhaps if the king was villainous enough, he would even taunt them with his diabolical plan. It would be more direction than they’d had thus far, and Flicker had been in worse spots.

He had to admit, though, that it did make his blood run cold when the lizardmen dragged them before the Gilan king. It was a silver dragon, disturbingly the size of Wyvern in the first skein Flicker had visited. “Shilree Vesssssstrin,” it hissed, its blood-red eyes whirling eerily. “You have come. Exxxxxxxxcellent.” For a terrible moment, it actually flashed through Flicker’s mind that Sway might have inadvertently prevented Wyvern from saving Ataniel from the space dragons. His face, however, betrayed nothing.

The dragon tilted its horned head to give Shilree a long look up and down, and then its forked tongue flicked out. “You are even more beautiful than I had imagggggggined.”

Shilree took the two steps back she could with lizardmen holding both of her arms, her heart pounding practically out of her chest.

“You mussssssst have received the informatttttttttttion I tried to sssssssssssend you,” continued the dragon. “Did you bring the other Mithhhhhhhhril Dagger Heroes?” It swung its head to the rest of them with an eagerness that struck Flicker as somehow involuntary. “Is Rhynwa here?”

“What is the meaning of this?” said Shilree, unevenly flushed. “Why have you brought me here?”

“To ssssssssssave my country. Isn’t that what heroessssssss do?” He squinted red eyes at Flicker. “Janthhhhhhher? Is that you?”

“More or less,” said Flicker, quietly.

“V’nossss is... but I am forgetting myssssssself!” The dragon scrunched up one eye in a weird way and his form melted at the edges and then collapsed into that of a tall Diari man with light orangish-silver hair and a muscular body. On his humanoid face, the anxious expression of a normally powerful man flustered by a situation he’d been anticipating far too long and couldn’t predict the outcome of was much harder to mistake. “I am so pleased to meet you at last,” said the king of New Gila, “my mother.”


“Man, just when things were starting to settle down in here,” sighed Black.

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