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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 32

Command

If nothing else, working with the Rat Pack had taught Khyrisse enough about the carrying capacity of Trade Carriages that she was definitely installing roof seats on her later models. A load of eighteen people, all their gear, and one rat had not affected the artifact’s speed at all, just cramped them a little for space. If the roof wasn’t such a precarious place to sit the craft could probably carry twenty comfortably. Khyrisse shook her head and accepted Octavian’s arm down from the driver’s board. “No, I can’t vouch for her,” she sighed. “How could I? Vickie doesn’t listen to anyone but Vickie.”

“And sometimes the Monkey King,” offered Skitch, scrambling down.

“Ha ha,” she said. “Seriously, Octavian, I can’t guarantee her behavior. I’m not even going to try. If you don’t trust her, I’m afraid you’ll have to keep an eye on her yourself.”

“Vickie?” said Ebreth quietly, joining them as the Carriage emptied.

“Vickie,” sighed Khyrisse.

“Vickie bad?” said Aithne sorrowfully, from behind her.

Khyrisse only jumped a little. “No,” she said, “no, she’s not bad, she’s just--”

“Rude,” said Skitch.

“Stubborn,” said Khyrisse, and shrugged. “I can’t very well get on her case for being too stubborn to do what anyone else tells her to. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.” She puffed bangs out of her face and slipped her arms around Ebreth’s waist. He looks so preoccupied. What were the two of them talking about out there? “I just don’t like her being such a loose cannon...!”

“I hate to bring this up,” said Ebreth, softly, “but there’s a lot of merit to running a cannon loose, you know.”

“Stop messing with my metaphors.” She yanked on his sword belt. “I don’t know what else I can do. She won’t answer to me. Why should I be responsible for anything she does?”

“She never asks you to be,” Ebreth pointed out. “I don’t think she’s ever asked any of us to take the heat for any of her actions.”

“Hmmmm. Fair enough.” Khyrisse frowned. “Vickie wants to be a, an occasionally allied party of one, instead of a member of the group, she can be.”

“She’s a free agent,” agreed Ebreth. “You can’t control her behavior, but you’re not accountable for it, either. If you get complaints about her, just tell them they have to deal with her directly. Octavian’s working with us on this mission. Hell, so’s John Tucson. Neither of them is under your command.”

“That works for me.” Khyrisse nodded, and looked up at him, her mouth twitching impishly. “Are you under my command?”

“On the good days I am,” he said, and messed her hair up.

A Job To Do: Men in Black

Dave Thermador wasn’t recovering quickly enough. His vision finally managed to focus on the vaguely two-dimensional shards of darkness that made up the impressionistic silhouette of the negabeast just as it lunged for him to deliver the killing blow.

It never got there. The planar mercenary saw a grey blur flow from his shadow to intercept it. It was the ghost. Thermador was surprised. He never expected to see that ghost again, and if he did, he would have expected it to be on the Negative Material Plane’s side in this conflict.

Thermador’s ears were still ringing from the blow the negabeast had delivered. He could banish it, but he didn’t want to until he was sure he wouldn’t banish the ghost along with it. For one thing, it wouldn’t be fair to the ghost, who seemed to be trying to help Thermador. More importantly, Thermador wanted to know who or what the ghost was, and dispelling it would leave that question unanswered.

There was one obvious course of action no matter what happened, though.

Thermador reached out weakly to the softest place in the curved floor he lay slumped across and pushed the soul of John Tucson through it and to safety.

***

Mr. Smith didn’t really turn around so much as impress his body through a different planar leak to face Amatsu. With a brittle, wordless cry of thwarted rage, he flung himself at the shadowy ninja, who did his best to evade the being’s clutches but still felt the now-unfamiliar sensation of pain shooting through his body as Mr. Smith’s glass-like teeth tore into him.

I can’t keep this up forever, Amatsu thought, parrying a slicing attack from the spikes on Mr. Smith’s suddenly serpentine back. He couldn’t maintain his physical form for very long--Mr. Smith was the first opponent he’d faced who had lasted long.

Amatsu knew he’d simply fade back into the shadows when his body gave out. He hoped Thermador recovered in time.

Denial

Shilree stood dumbly in front of her son for almost two agonizing minutes.

Then she started to laugh. It wasn’t joyous laughter, either, or this-is-just-too-ironic-not-to-laugh laughter. It was shallow, hysterical gasps. Praxis and the dragon avatar both regarded her with concern. “Nice try,” Shilree said to the ground. “Oh very nice try!” she yelled to the sky.

“Shilree?” tried Flicker, putting his hand on her shoulder. She slapped it off.

“It’s not real!” laughed Shilree, clamping both her hands over her ears like a little girl. “Flicker don’t you see? It is all another mind game! Gila is just playing more tricks with my mind!”

“There is actually more going on here than that,” said Gdeon. “The Gila homeworld is in opposition to--”

“None of this is real!” Shilree screamed. “Do you hear me! Damn you, V’nos, come out! I know you’re flazhin around here somewhere!”

“He had better not be,” said Gdeon. “Look, there are some complicated politics going on here. I could use your h--”

“It is all a lie!”

“Shilree,” said Praxis, “look, breathe into this paper bag for a min--”

The receiving room shook then, violently, and flooded with red and white lights. Gdeon jumped up, the uneasy uncertainty on his face vanishing into command. “You dare!” he roared, his form sinuating back into the draconian one. -Battle stations!- his voice bugled psionically, so loud Flicker winced a little with it. -We’ve been brea...-

There was a very brilliant beam of light, from which the space dragon avatar backspun with furious grace, turned, and unloaded a breath weapon at someone unseen, just as the world faded out.

The Sidewinders were on a dusty, pockmarked, and faintly glowing plain. The sun was an uncomfortable whitish blue, and the air felt heavy and warm.



“What the hell,” said Toleski.

“Ha ha ha,” whimpered Shilree, crumpled to her knees and started to cry. “It’s not true.”

“Shilree,” said Flicker, taking her by the shoulders. “Shilree!”

The damping collars she and Praxis had been wearing had shriveled in the beam of light like salted slugs. Five lizardman corpses, similarly shriveled, seemed to have been transported along with them. Kit was already searching the corpses. “Hey, look, here’s some of our stuff!” she yelled.

“Some of?” growled Toleski. “That don’t mean you palmed the rest, does it, ya little varmint?”

“N--o,” said Kit, backing up a little. “This one guy’s got our weapons, that’s all. And Shilree’s bag. All our armor and food and stuff must’ve been with some lizard men who didn’t get sucked in.”

Toleski glared at the young thief for a long moment, but then apparently decided Kit probably hadn’t hidden away two suits of samurai armor and a Viking chainmail in her uniform pockets and went to retrieve his gun. “And where the hell are we now, do I want to know?”

“Gila,” said Flicker quietly, stroking Shilree’s hair. “I was here once before. This is the Gilan homeworld.”

Falling

“So what, exactly, is the deal with these ruins?” said Rani.

“Shilree said they hold the secret to why Diaria abandoned Rimbor,” said Khyrisse.

“Is that why Lots of Locusts are holed up here, or is it just some kind of jackass coincidence because the place has a Diari name?”

“Uhhhhh,” said Khyrisse.

“Look, Melissa!” said Skitch. “Diari ruins!”

“Skitch,” frowned Khyrisse, “did you bring your cat?”

“You brought the stupid jester,” Skitch said defensively.

Rani lowered herself over the decaying stone retaining wall and settled her gloved hand into the old marble. “Casing the hallway,” she said, clipped, and her eyes slid shut.

“Where is Vickie?” Aithne’s voice asked from somewhere.

“Not my problem,” said Khyrisse’s.

The fallen city was almost too ancient for Rani to be able to impose pattern-seeking on. The dilapidated wall had more than six millennia of lives impressed into its pitted surface: the Cynystran soldier whose captain caught him relieving himself against it fifteen or sixteen centuries ago and gave him a flogging; the seven-year-old flame-haired Diari girl who fell to her death from its heights three thousand years before that, showing off for her younger brother; the Celtic chieftess resting her hand against it another thousand years later, her astonishment at the beautiful empty city preserved in its marble for all eternity. Rani had to work, hard, to isolate the present. When she did, it was three men speaking in Diari she found, the stone of the floor they stood on betraying them to her Gift.

...three have been tampered with now, one voice echoed through the ancient stone that was now Rani, in Low Diari. We have had to step up our efforts. Mayyasa is not pleased.

...not my fault, came the second voice, deeper. I have done all that I can. New gateways can be mined. Tell Mayyasa to be patient. We have twenty-five years.

It is irrelevant whose fault it is. If you wish to instruct Mayyasa you may do it yourself.

If our enemies are destroying the gateways, came the third, youngest voice, how do we know they will not find us here?

They will, returned the first. We will be ready for them. I have come to give you your orders. Listen carefully.

Rani’s head snapped back hard enough to give her whiplash as the stone suddenly, inexplicably, rejected her, and she stood once again on the broken earth in the moonlight. “Fuck,” she muttered. It wasn’t like it hadn’t been the dramatically appropriate place for the transmission to cut off, or anything, but Rani’s psychometry had never failed her before, and if she couldn’t count on her powers she had nothing. “They’re here all right,” she said. “And expecting us.”

“Villains always do,” sighed Khyrisse.

***

“Hi,” said Aithne, smiling winsomely up at Marty.

“Hey,” said Marty, looking nervously at the stone wall. “Whoa, do you think, like, ants live under those rocks? I hate ants.”

“Who is your aunt? Khyrisse is your aunt?”

“Khyrisse is an ant?” yelped Marty, whirling around and knocking into Aithne with his elbow as he drew his sword in a panic.

Aithne beamed at the young warrior, who was obviously showing off his prowess for her. Why hadn’t she noticed how desirable he was before?

***

“There’s a single guard patrolling this hall,” Rani instructed Ebreth and Orlen. “I don’t know if he’s psi or not, so be careful. Tor, I want you to subdue him and tell him to keep quiet. Orlen, you be good cop, and I’ll be bad cop. If he won’t talk use your Gift on him.”

“You know I’m morally opposed to that, Rani,” frowned Orlen.

“I think at the point you’re ready to jump out and assault somebody to interrogate him, it’s time to abandon your squeamishness about reading his mind. You non-Diari-speakers, back us up.”

Rani was eerily quiet on her feet for a woman who moved as unsubtly as she did, and Orlen was using his psychic powers to hover a bit above the ground. And so the only sound in the hall was the light scrape of the Diari guard’s boots on the marble tile as he marched up and down, for Ebreth Tor’s footfalls certainly made no noise. The guard looked young and was probably younger. He made nothing but a sharp intake of air as Ebreth caught him around the throat from behind, clamping his other hand over the young man’s mouth. “Don’t move,” Ebreth said into his ear in Low Diari, “don’t call for help.”

The guard nodded as best he could, his eyes very wide and his heart hammering in his chest.

“He’s the only one in range,” said Rani, low, emerging into the hallway.

“No trace of psionic activity,” added Orlen, joining her. “We’re not going to hurt you, son. We just need the answers to a few questions.”

“Don’t even think about raising an alarm,” said Rani. The kid nodded again. “All right, let him talk.”

Ebreth took his hand from the young guard’s mouth and spun him around to face the three of them. He was nondescript, with shiny dark hair and perspiration in the hollows of his chin, and the first thing he said, in Dalen, staring at the much larger human with terror in his eyes, was “Who are you?”

Which was when it finally snapped and Ebreth Tor fell to the floor, barely even registering it as his forearm shattered against the marble.

He didn’t know.

***

Rani swore softly in Diari as Tor collapsed in a violent wracking spasm. Amid all the things that were going wrong tonight, two things luckily happened to go right: the pirate did not start screaming, and the guard was too paralyzed by his captor’s unexpected behavior to escape for the few seconds it took for Rani to get to him and grab him. “He’s my insane friend,” she explained, kicking Tor’s convulsing body frustratedly with one boot. He did not, of course, notice. He was lost in his own little world. I can’t believe I work with these people. “My name is Rani. You locust boys infected me with the Dialys fever this morning. You have five minutes to tell me something useful or I bite you.”

“Uh...” said Orlen, clearly not sure how to proceed with the good cop role from there. It didn’t matter, really; the guard spoke Dalen anyway. “I think the rest of you guys can come out now.”

“Please don’t hurt me,” whimpered the guard, clearly even more terrified of the violent diseased halfbreed than he had been of the pirate. “It won’t help you anyway. You’re too late.”

As if on cue, the ceiling collapsed, and six shapes hurtled down at the group from above.

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