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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 33

A Job To Do: High C Sharp

Mr. Smith ripped into Amatsu again. Grey wisps trailed from his wounds, and his form wavered with the effort of keeping it partially substantial. One more attack, Amatsu thought, would be all he could withstand. He stood stoically, though, or as stoically as a wavering shadow could.

Thermador had pulled a small tuning fork out of his inner coat pocket. “Hey ugly,” he sneered, attracting Mr. Smith’s attention from his assault on the spectral ninja. “Chew on this!”

There was no sound as he struck the tuning fork against his palm, but its effect on Mr. Smith was immediate. Pinpricks of light began to shine from deep within the creature, and with a sound like a cat whose tail had just been trod upon, Mr. Smith evaporated like a mirage from a paved street.

Amatsu melted gratefully into the shadow cast by Dave Thermador, with what might have been a sigh from a human mouth but came out only as a puff of grey. Thermador appraised the spot where Mr. Smith had been and took his ever-present whiskey bottle out for a swig. Amatsu thought perhaps he had escaped the mercenary’s detection until he spoke.

“I would offer you a drink,” he said drily and nonchalantly, leaning against the curving wall and gesturing at his shortened shadow with the bottle, “but I don’t think you’d get much good of it. Dave Thermador, doer of deeds for those who can afford it. Care to tell me why you’ve been following me?”

On Rani’s Last Nerve

“YEEEEEE-HAH!” screamed Vickie Dare as the six of them slid down their grapple lines. “Worry not, true believers, but the cavalry has arrived!”

“Girl power!” cried a scary looking dark-skinned woman with frizzy hair.

“Oh, fuck me...” Rani muttered under her breath.

“Hey, Ebbie, you okay?” Vickie asked the pirate curled up on the floor.

“Dash it all,” a woman in a tight black minidress pouted, “I think I broke a nail.”

“Glue another one on, Fancy,” a woman in fatigues said cheerily. “We’re on the clock, ’member?”

“Hey, weren’t there supposed to be, y’know, Diarians for us to fight here?” the blonde asked, twirling one of her pigtails around her finger.

Rani refrained, barely, from volunteering. “Actually,” she said, through her teeth, “I’d been trying to sneak in and covertly gather some information.”

“Oh well,” grinned the exceptionally bounteous and overly made-up redhead.

“Guys,” Vickie introduced for the Rat Pack, “my partners, the Price Girls.”

“Nasty!” cried the black woman.

“Fancy!” chimed the elegant one.

“Soldier!” grinned the one in warrior gear.

“Chipper!” contributed the one in pigtails.

“Cinnamon!” yelled the redhead, lustily.

“I caught Fancy paralleling us with her spell mirror,” Vickie explained. “They say that hostilities at the Necropolis have ended and they’re ready to join up!”

That just did it for Rani. On an ordinary day, she might have rolled her eyes, said something bitchy, and gone her way. She knew the Rat Pack well enough by now that she hadn’t come into this expecting cohesive teamwork. But this wasn’t an ordinary day, and Rani was feeling increasingly ill, and before she could stop herself she was exploding. “I don’t believe you people! We weren’t even in combat! We were hiding in the shadows and trying to interrogate a guard without raising a fucking alarm, and you crash through the ceiling shrieking bloody murder just for the hell of it? What is the matter with you? Every twelve-toes in this complex must know we’re here by now!”

“My bad,” Vickie shrugged cheerfully.

“Your bad?” Rani screamed, flushed with fever and fury. “Your bad? I am working with an irresponsible, unreliable, anarchic cadre of kiljhac kindergarteners and it’s your bad? You people couldn’t work together if your lives depended on it! You can’t keep yourself from doing any fucking thing that pops into your empty head, you couldn’t take charge of a Girl Scout Troop, you can’t be counted on to keep a lookout without having a fucking nervous breakdown...” She waved her hands violently, her eyes finally lighting on Vas. “You can’t even keep your goddamn mouth shut. YOU PEOPLE MAKE ME WANT TO JOIN THE RIMBOR CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT!”

There were actually a couple seconds of stunned silence after Rani shrieked out that last bit, with the total abandon only a normally hard-boiled person could achieve.

Then the six elahjh sprang through the ruined ceiling and were upon them.

Pissy Spice and Witchy Spice

Vickie and the Price Girls turned in a single fluid, almost choreographed motion and flung themselves at the horrible biotech beasts, followed, after an instant, by much of the rest of the Rat Pack. Rani pressed her forehead. “What’s your name, punk?” she asked the young guard, dragging him back from the burgeoning melee by the shirt front.

“P-pete.”

“Pete?”

“Well, it’s short for Tapitiyxihyzih, but no one can ever pronounce that.”

“Right,” said Rani. “Well, Pete, while the combat freaks are keeping each other out of my hair, what say you start talking?”

***

Aithne watched with excitement as Vickie Dare and five barely dressed young women crashed into the room. Five more risqué warrior women! There must be an entire caste of them in this culture. It was most unladylike, of course. That didn’t stop Aithne from being fascinated.

She couldn’t understand what Rani was screaming at Vickie, so she just ducked humbly out of the angry Diari woman’s line of fire and knelt to tend to Ebreth. At first she thought he must have had internal injuries, for the agony on his dark face was completely out of proportion with even a badly broken arm, the only injury that jumped out at the young witch. She couldn’t find anything else physically wrong with him, though. Nor was he under the effect of any magic, Aithne could immediately tell. Perhaps the Goddessless psios of the Diarians.

She aligned his broken arm anyway as several terrible demonic-looking beasts dropped in from above. Aithne wished she had studied more of the occult magicks. She wasn’t sure exactly why, but her connection with the Goddess was unusually strong here, and she felt sure she would have had the strength for powerful demonology. As it was, though, she watched the warrior women and the Rat Pack charge the beasts, and simply healed Ebreth’s broken arm. He did not seem even to notice that she had. Whatever was wrong with him, he did not seem to require medical attention, nor was he in any apparent danger, so Aithne guessed it was all right to leave him there.

“Girl Power!” she shouted happily, and got up to join the fray.

Aithne had understood that part.

***

As soon as Schneider saw Ebreth Tor on the ground, he knew that Tor had been the victim of a psionic attack. His every instinct told him to disappear, and fast, and not come back till the mind-fucking locust Diarian whatevers were gone.

Friends, said Maxwell Silverhammer, are there for each other in good times and bad.

And whether they want you there or not, added Flicker.

Schneider ground his teeth and stepped out in front of Skitch, beginning to juggle his daggers. “Go away, you crazy clown!” the boy yelled. “I don’t need your help!”

“Just out of curiosity, kid,” said Schneider, tossing one of the daggers double-high to shoot a cone-of-cold off into the nearest elahjh with his right finger, “how many clowns do you know who are mentally stable?”

***

The elahjh were thinking. Though in a battle frenzy, their communal mind still functioned, and a combination of danger sense, combat mind, and ESP let them select their opponents and choose their targets wisely.

Two elven females, one commanding formidable sorcery, the other faith magic. Targets acquired.

A male elf, moderate sorcerous ability, ranged weapon. Moderate threat. Secondary target.

A human female with unidentifiable magical ability. Unknown threat. Dispatch immediately.

Diarian psionic with telekinetic disciplines. Target acquired.

Diarian psionic with divination disciplines only. Human female with low-level sorcerous ability. Human male wielding low-level chaos magic. Minor threat. Breakable as quick blow to enemy morale.

Two warriors armed with artifacts, one sword and one twin-sabered polearm. Dangerous fighters. Targets acquired.

Half a dozen females, loud, moving in sync. Moderate threat. Secondary targets.

A small boy. A nervous-looking teenage female. A halfling with planar abilities only. A prisoner. A rodent. A downed one in the back. Insignificant.

Jack Paris did not register to their psionic scans.

One of the elahjh, blade-like arms flailing in a dizzying motion, knocked Schneider to the ground and had him half-disemboweled before he could so much as point again. “Sh-shit,” the jester managed to wheeze before passing out.

The Diarian horror paused not even for a second on its way to engage Val.

***

The former goddess of Trade stood still while the Rat Pack went every which way, studying the uproar. Her expression twisted through a tangle of emotions as chaotic as the fight in front of her--rage, loathing, bitter resentment, an oddly vulnerable look of guilt--before smoothing out with jarring abruptness into something very cold and composed.

Skitch screamed and backpedalled as Schneider fell bloodily right in front of him. Fortunately the Diarian monster didn’t turn on Skitch, instead galloping past to pounce on Val. Khyrisse grabbed her wide-eyed son, spun him around, and pushed him towards Ebreth. Melissa, cradled in Skitch’s arms, squalled in unison with her owner.

“Keep an eye on Ebreth,” she said, clipped. “He’s having one of his attacks.”

“Oh,” Skitch said, blinking down at the pirate. Khyrisse dropped her Otiluke’s sphere around the three members of her informal family. “Oh! Okay!”

“I have to salvage what I can out of this.” She managed a crooked smile for the boy, and turned to face the melee.

***

Pete had scrunched his eyes up tight, either hoping that the elahjh couldn’t see him if he couldn’t see them or just not wanting to see the carnage they were wreaking. Rani almost couldn’t blame him.

The psychometrist sighed and reached out with her mind to augment Val. There wasn’t much else she could usefully do in a fight. Her d4+2 worth of dagger thrust just wasn’t going to mean much today. She wished she could get Tor up, but she didn’t know psychic surgery from a hole in her ass.

Unfortunately, Diarians were losers in many ways, but they were infinitely better at cooperation than the stupid fucking Rat Pack, and these elahjh were kicking the crap out of them by the time the first combat round was over. The damn things had honed in on the spellcasters right away. Logically, this meant they were susceptible to magic, which was theoretically good news--if anyone could get a spell off. Khyrisse had wasted her first spell protecting Ebreth and Skitch. You just couldn’t fight the maternal instinct, Rani supposed. And Val didn’t have a lot of combat spells. Vas did, but an elahjh had gotten to him before he could cast it and fucked his spell up. They moved fast, and spellcasting took time. Thank god for stoneskins, was all Rani could think, because otherwise Val, Vas, and Khyrisse would probably all be spilling their guts out on the floor like Schneider.

Some of the Rat Pack were probably going to die today, Rani realized with eerily detached calm.

She hoped it wasn’t any of the ones she liked.

The Wages of Chaos

This was starting to remind Khyrisse of the fight with those creatures in the Temple of the Weird Sisters, only without the breath weapons. The Rat Pack had been prepared for a sneaky investigative foray, not a pitched battle with half a dozen Diari monstrosities.

Not that that seemed to matter much to the Price Girls, who bounced and squealed their way through the combat as if they were romping across Signetland.

Khyrisse glared viciously at the nearest one as she sped through the words to her disintegrate spell. It was a higher-level destructive spell than she was really supposed to be casting in her condition, but this was rapidly qualifying as an emergency.

She wasn’t quick enough. The Diarian beast struck first, a brutal avalanche of clubbed appendages. Khyrisse screamed as her stoneskins shattered under the impact. She tasted blood. She pulled her wand of lightning out and fired from the ground. It obviously hurt the thing, but not enough.

Then a second monster, sensing a potential kill, abandoned its assault on Vas to leap at Khyrisse.

She flinched, her arm involuntarily raising in a futile attempt to block it. The baby kicked, and Khyrisse felt a dizzy, spiralling panic. Oh gods. Not again. Not now.

Then a huge jet of water came from out of nowhere and knocked the leaping monster out of the air and into the broken marble of the floor. “Never fear!” shouted a loud, echoing voice. “Janus is here!”

Khyrisse just felt like weeping.

***

Skitch cheered as the caped elementalist joined the fray.

He couldn’t do much but cheer, inside the sphere the way he was.

Actually, he wouldn’t have been able to do very much anyway, Skitch admitted. These monsters were way, way out of his league. “Diari monsters are the most badass monsters in the whole world,” he mumbled to Melissa, who meowed unhappily.

Ebreth shook quietly on the floor of the sphere. Skitch couldn’t really do anything about that, either. He wished Tarrin was here. Tarrin could make Ebreth OK, and he could heal Khyrisse, too. And Tarrin wouldn’t let Schneider pick on Skitch. Tarrin would have told that jerkwad off.

Skitch looked at the profusely bleeding jester uneasily. He still hoped he wasn’t going to die or anything. Skitch couldn’t reach him through the Otiluke’s sphere to even try to staunch his bleeding.

“Are... you... ready... to... rumble?” boomed Janus, sticking up his fists. A batter of stones fell all over one of the monsters. Skitch frowned. This guy had the same blank black mask as the Janus who’d helped them in Rat Kings, but he was taller, and his voice was different. It echoed like Warp’s had, but beneath the sonic warbling, the voice was... well, it was oddly familiar. Skitch tried to place it. He couldn’t. The fight was too noisy.

***

Khyrisse was about to open her cube of force right in the face of the oncoming monster when a black-gloved hand caught hers on the upswing. Another hand threw a small bottle into the thing’s maw, and then clamped down over her mouth and nose.

Khyrisse had delivered two sharp kicks to Octavian’s shins before she registered the cloud of ochre dust scattering from the elahjh’s mouth, as it went into a gut-wrenching fit of coughing. Oh.

“They don’t seem to be able to sense me--or your mathematician--but that’s not going to save your party. They’re splitting you up into small groups and taking advantage of your lack of organization,” he informed her, almost callously. “The jester and the little witch are down. Many of the rest are hurt. I suggest you retreat.”

Khyrisse would have loved to blister him for that, but couldn’t exactly disagree. With an aggravated sigh, she snapped the Carriage open in the air as the vigilante returned to the combat to engage the monster still harrying Orlen. It spun in circles, enraged by blows from a source it couldn’t identify.

Orlen leaped up onto the driver’s step, leaving his former opponent to Octavian, and froze there suddenly as Khyrisse cast her time stop. Careening around in a tight circle, she managed to collect Garal, Thalia, and the badly mauled Aithne before time started on the battlefield again. “Vas!” she shouted over the suddenly resumed din of combat. “Get everyone up here, we’re getting out!”

“And... I... will cover your escape!” shouted Janus in over-dramatic fashion, jetting Void everywhere. Khyrisse didn’t know whether this actually impeded the Diarian things’ maneuverability at all, but it certainly impeded hers. Probably she shouldn’t be so angry at a deus-ex-machina ally who had unexpectedly saved her life, but Khyrisse Starshadow was having the most frustrating fucking evening in recent memory, and a mysterious stranger getting in her way was not helping matters. Cursing furiously, she struggled to keep the Carriage both away from the pockets of Void and out of the reach of the five remaining creatures. The sixth glittered beneath them, a perfectly lifelike crystal statue.

***

The good thing about being practically useless in combat, mused Rani, was that intelligently coordinated enemies tended to leave you the hell alone until they’d finished wiping everyone else out.

“Get everyone up here!” screamed Khyrisse. “We’re getting out!”

Rani scanned the chamber with as much composure as she could. Bizarrely, the one who was unscathed was Jack. Maybe the things didn’t fuck with anything that didn’t have a brain. Val was wounded but looked conscious; her brother was carrying her through the air towards the Carriage. Marty was down, three Price Girls already squabbling over who got to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; Khyrisse and Kingfisher both looked like a really good attack might put them down for the count; Aithne was dying if not dead already; Orlen looked hurt; Tor was useless when he got like this; and even Schneider was down. This meant that in another combat round or two the things were going to start turning on the second tier, and Rani, as a member of that tier, thought getting the hell out of here before that happened was not the world’s worst idea.

The Trade Carriage was hovering in the air, and Orlen was hanging from its doorframe gallantly slashing at one of the beasts that was trying to rip off a wheel. Rani was positive these things were genetically enhanced. She cursed and made her break for it, dragging Pete behind her by the forearm. The elahjh continued to ignore her, focusing their attacks on the battered Kingfisher, Vickie, and Nasty Price, primarily. Garal and Thalia were trying to tend to Aithne on the roof of the shuddering Carriage.

“Where’s the Rat?” yelled Khyrisse, from the driver’s board. The spectral horses whinnied and reared. “Jack! Get the Rat!”

Ebreth was stumbling rather blindly towards the Carriage, leaning heavily on Skitch’s thin shoulders. Fancy and Chipper Price had apparently won their little argument and were carrying Marty lovingly across, while Nasty and Cinnamon battled one of the beasts back from the wounded Soldier. “Get Schneider up here,” coughed Val. “Right away, dear sister,” said Vas, and swooped down again.

“Don’t worry about it, Vas!” yelled Vickie, cheerily. “I’ve got him!” She hit the floor somersaulting, and came up with the jester in a fireman’s carry.

“Vickie!” cried Vas in dismay, as the elahjh she had abandoned to rescue Schneider slashed violently through Kingfisher.

Khyrisse was swearing in a language Rani was going to have to get her to teach her one of these days, because it sounded like practically all consonants. There was a popping explosion and then another as the archmage fired her Diari pistol at the monster.

Meanwhile, the one Orlen was struggling with had wrenched the right rear wheel most of the way off. Rani shoved the Diari boy into the Carriage and jumped up onto the running board, seizing the wheel hard in her gloved hand. As if moving of its own accord, the bent metal wheel lashed the monster across the mouth. It made an unearthly howl.

“Have we got everyone?” screamed Khyrisse, sounding more furious, exasperated, and full of hate for the world at large than Rani had ever heard her.

“Just one more minute,” called Chipper. “I’ve almost got this one!”

“NOW!” screamed Khyrisse.

“All right, all right, I’m coming!”

Janus, whatever the hell he was, was pounding the elahjh with pulses of air. Vas and Mina had extracted Kingfisher while it was distracted, and with two last desperate scrambles they were aboard. The wheel came off in Rani’s hand, but she kept hold of it, and just then Orlen stabbed into one of the beast’s eyes, and it let go and fell to the ground, looking lightly stunned. “Hold on!” shouted Khyrisse, and the Trade Carriage, wobbling on its axis, shot up through the gaping hole in the ceiling Vickie and the Girls had crashed through, and out of the ruins of Drinajhi.

Rani felt motion-sick.

This day just kept sucking more and more.

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