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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 35

The Illithid Who Came In From The Cold

“I hope Bait is okay,” said Jason.

“He’s probably doing better than we are,” offered Jennifer. The Sidewinders were tromping across the cratered and eerily glowing Gilan plain more or less at random.

“I think it’s cool,” said Kit, bouncing along in tufts of red dust.

“When we run out of food,” muttered Toleski, “you’re the first one I eat, kid.”

“So who do you think sent us here, anyway?” Jason asked Praxis. “The dragon king, the guys who attacked him, or was it an accident?”

“The dragon king wasn’t real Jason,” said Shilree, firmly. She was adamant on that point.

Jason paused. -You don’t, uh, really think that guy was just an illusion, do you?- he asked the Mindnet. -I mean, Shilree...- He made a long pause, trying, no doubt, to find a politic phrasing. -I mean she doesn’t seem too together right now. Not that I blame her or anything--she’s been through a lot--and on top of that to be confronted with a child of rape... I mean, that’s how I think anyone in shock would respond. So I don’t know if I really trust her judgment on this?-

-Don’t,- contributed Flicker quietly. -Maybe he was an illusion and maybe not, but you’re completely right; she’d believe it either way.-

-Well, assuming he is real, was it him who sent us out here, or the other guys?-

-Shilree’s child was... chosen by the dragons as their avatar, wasn’t he?- Praxis mused. -As I recall he was one of the good guys. And he was on New Gila, while V’nos, according to Shilree, was here on the Gilan homeworld. If my faction theory is correct...-

-...and remember that’s just an if...- Inez reminded everyone gently.

-...then he might well be the faction trying to prevent the rift from exploding. Which means it makes more sense for the pro-exploding faction to be the one who beamed us into the portal, presumably to stop us from helping Gdeon.-

-Which means they know we’re here,- said Jason, uneasily. -And are probably going to be trying to kill us any minute now, right?-

-You’re getting the hang of this, Jason.-

-Well, I don’t know faction is the pro-exploding one,- said Flicker, -or which faction is the one who tortured Shilree, or which one gave her the information about Gila; but I do know a Gilan faction who opposes the rule of the Iron Tyrants, so maybe that would be a good place to start.-

-It’s better than wandering aimlessly through the craters without food or water till the bad guys track us down,- opined Jennifer.

***

Praxis had contacted the Gilan rebels and the group was waiting now, with some trepidation, to be met. The strange bluish sun had set. “I’m getting kind of hungry,” said Kit. “Can you eat illithids?”

“If you could stand the stench, I guess,” said Shilree.

“Probably taste like a cross between tako and ika,” Inez offered.

“I hope you are making jokes,” said Hsin, with dignity.

Kit laughed, then stopped and squinted. “Shilree,” she said, “you’re glowing.”

“I am what?”

Flicker blinked at her. Kit was right; the luminescent ground was dimmer in Shilree’s vicinity, and Shilree was shedding light herself. “It looks like you’re absorbing it from the ground.”

“Energy containment,” said Praxis. “That must be your new Gift. Energy containment.”

“Great.” Shilree looked exhausted. “What does that do?”

“At a lesser power level energy containment basically means you can block energy attacks by absorbing them into a containment field. At higher power levels, you can absorb the energy into yourself in usable form. The glow is characteristic of wild talent energy containment at a high level of power.”

Shilree nodded. -Can you hear me?-

-Of course.-

-Under any other circumstances I would probably be very pleased with this development. But as things are it is really very inconvenient.- She switched back to voice. “This is a hell of a time to be changing classes. By the way you should know my magic has not been functioning.”

“It takes a lot of practice to use magic and psionics with the same mind,” said Praxis.

***

Inez was the first one to notice the signs of trouble. Her brow furrowed, and her hand went to her katana. “Folks,” she said, quietly, “looks like Kit’s sushi takeout may be arriving.”

There was a brief pause, and then the Sidewinders were staring down the laser barrels of a circle of reptilians and illithids that had melted noiselessly out of the night to surround their camp.

Flicker held up his hand to still hostilities, for their leader was familiar, a green-black illithid with dark-striped webbings and two tentacles torn off at the base. “L’kar,” he said.

“Forgive our caution,” the mindflayer said, in passable Dalen, without lowering his plasma rifle. “But the Iron Tyrants are a deceptive lot, and we would not enter an ambush unprepared. You are the one who contacted me?”

“I am,” said Praxis.

“You spoke of my friend. Where is he?”

“Here,” said Flicker. “I was Janther Moria.”

L’kar made a face that was unmistakably some kind of frown. “How--can that be?”

“I shed my skin,” said Flicker, his mouth quirking.

“I didn’t know your kind did that,” said L’kar, looking very carefully at him. “Would you mind if we probe you?”

“Of course not.”

L’kar gestured at a taller, slenderer illithid, and Flicker felt the uneasy sensation of someone rustling through his brain. It soon stopped, though, and L’kar lowered his weapon. The others followed suit. “How come you here, my friend,” said the Gilan rebel, “and what can we do to help?”

***

“Well, first of all,” said L’kar, “you’re in the middle of the Gila Wastes. Whoever sent you out here wasn’t expecting to see you again. If you hadn’t reached me you would all have been dead of radiation poisoning by morning, except maybe the Diarian with the psionic containment field. These pills make a reliable antidote.” Shilree eyed the proffered pouch. “They have no effect on psios,” he assured her.

-Sunny are you sure this illithid can be trusted?- she sent, now that she could.

-Yes,- replied Flicker, and swallowed one of the pills unhesitatingly. -L’kar helped the Sewer Tour when we were stranded here, and we helped him and his people throw off one of the Iron Tyrants.-

Shilree still waited uneasily until everyone else had popped a pill with no apparent ill effect before taking one.

“As for the exploding rift, this is the first I’ve heard of it. Frankly, I’m surprised. The Iron Tyrants, while oppressive rulers, do not tend to favor pyrrhic solutions. Perhaps they intend to evacuate their loyalists before the explosion. Either way, we are committed to your cause. The less power the Tyrants have on Ataniel, the less they can bring to bear upon us. We want that portal closed as much as anyone.”

“How has the fight been going out here?”

“Moderately,” L’kar said frankly. “The territories on the northern coast of G’lir, the smaller continent, have declared their independence and are holding up fairly well, but I cannot rest until all our people are free of the Iron Tyrants, and we have been making little if any progress on that front. But we still hold our hope.”

“Well, we’ll see if we can’t blow up a few bases on our way out,” said Praxis, smiling.

L’kar paused, as if parsing that, and then shimmered his remaining tentacles in an apparent smile. “We’d appreciate it. The portal to Ataniel is deep in Iron Tyrant territory, and teleportation there is strictly controlled, but we do have intelligence that could sneak you through an imperial port tube with fake ID’s if we can liberate one.”

“I think we could manage that,” said Flicker.

“I hope you already have a plan for how to detonate the portal, though,” said L’kar. “Explosives alone aren’t going to make it through the damping field.”

“That part is under control,” said Shilree. “At least that magic is still working for me.”

That made Praxis frown, but he visibly shelved it for later. “L’kar,” he said, “do you know anything about the political situation on New Gila?”

“Not much,” replied the revolutionary. “Many there are loyal to the Iron Tyrants, but most wish to settle their new lands rather than expend their lives trying to subjugate the rest of the continent. I don’t know which side their king comes down on, and I don’t know how severe the schism is. But don’t make the mistake of thinking all Gilans are of one mind about the future.” He hesitated. “Also... you surely are already aware that there are Gilan agents here and there throughout your world.”

“We were aware,” said Flicker shortly.

If L’kar caught it he didn’t let on. “Know that not all of them are loyalists either. Some have gone native; some have gone rogue. It is in fact an illithid who has caused the most trouble for the Iron Tyrants on Ataniel, confounding their plans at every step.”

“An ally, then,” said Praxis, looking at Flicker. “Where is he? Could we look him up?”

“That I am afraid I cannot tell you,” said L’kar. “This agent helped me greatly by assisting my return to Gila after we closed the last portal, asking only anonymity. I must honor that request.” He stood up. “Let us leave the Wastes now, before you are exposed to any more radiation. In the dead of night, when it is coldest, we will strike at the nearest imperial base containing teleport tubes. The rebellion will cover you as you pass through to the gate.”

“Are you sure?” said Flicker. “I don’t want to risk your people’s lives more than we need to.”

“Men,” L’kar said, “would you consider it an honor to die painfully in exchange for taking the Tyrants and their plans down with you?”

“Yes!” the rebels replied in grim unison.

“I’m starting to like these guys,” Shilree confessed.

Everyone’s Two Cents (Or Four, As The Case May Be)

Khyrisse was sitting in the bay window, staring out at the detritus littering the abandoned cannery. The buzz of talk behind her was grating on her nerves, and she closed her eyes, pressing Ebreth’s writing against her palm as if she could absorb it into her skin. I want to go home. She painted an illusion of New Trade over the window: the fountain in the center square... the smooth white stone of the Federal Building, sparkling with windows and skylights... the cool green of the public garden behind it, climbing sharply up the hillside... kids playing tag, throwing rocks, kicking up dust and getting underfoot... the skimming shadow of the Trade Carriage passing overhead.

“Homesick?” Val asked gently.

“Yes,” sighed Khyrisse, and wiped the illusion away. “And confused. And on my last fucking nerve, as Rani likes to say.”

***

Khyrisse took a deep breath and brought to mind the calmest people whose traces still lingered in her memories from her patron city. Julin-Sha, the wise old healer; Tenesse the gentle falconer; Chisaye the patient philosopher; even Praxis, the steady psionicist, whom she had known from inside before she ever met him as a colleague and friend.

“All right,” she said, in the calmly modulated voice any of them might have used, appropriately free of fury and recrimination. “It is my opinion that the Rat Pack needs a charter. We are no longer acting as an effective unit, and I think it’s because of our size. The Rat Pack was much smaller than this in the beginning, and we all grew very close in a very short amount of time, so we worked well together without anything formal being established. I think we just assumed we’d never need to worry about it.” She paused for a drink of tea. “What I’d like out of this meeting is some guidelines of behavior and basic rules to follow, especially in emergencies. Different Rat Packers seem to have very different opinions of what our responsibilities and rights are, and it’s making it hard to work together anymore.”

“Understatement of the century,” Skitch muttered to Thalia.

Khyrisse pretended she hadn’t heard it. “In particular, I want to know what people expect out of me as a leader. It is frustrating and difficult to be held responsible by some members of the group for things other members won’t accept my authority on. We need a standard for how much and what kind of command our leader wields. I don’t care what that standard is, but I want it to be accepted and honored by everyone. I’ll be able to tell if I want the job, then--and you’ll be able to tell if you want me to have it.”

Khyrisse paused, and looked down at Ebreth’s note. “That’s my two cents,” she said. “I think I’d like to sort of go around the room and hear what each of you has to say. What you want out of a leader, what you want out of your teammates, what you need to work effectively and what you’re willing to compromise to make it work. I surrender the floor.”

***

“My personal opinion,” said Valende gently, “is that we all need to be a little more patient with each other.” Rani felt scolded, but she was too spent to scowl. “Beyond that exhortation, I have little to contribute here. I serve the Lady Khyrisse as her personal bondsman, and I believe both of us understand the boundaries of that relationship. Others of this group clearly do not share such a commitment--and I think the problem lies not with that, but with conveying that situation to the outside world. By presenting ourselves as the “Rat Pack,” we give the impression of a coherent whole. It may be misleading. Some of us seem to be here more as a matter of circumstance than loyalty. I sincerely hope no one will take offense at this, but I perceive a core group of people who make up the Rat Pack itself, people who truly want to stand together and be held responsible for one another, and then others who may speak of ‘joining’ but really intend to be only transitory allies.”

“You can say ‘NPC,’” Fancy Price admitted. “We really don’t mind.”

Valende smiled. “At any rate,” she said, “I certainly think there’s room for both in the party, but a clearer sense of who is committed to which might help our current difficulties very much. I answer to Khyrisse, and, uh...”

“Fancy,” supplied Fancy.

“Fancy, doesn’t. That’s not necessarily a problem.”

Khyrisse sighed. “Noted. What about her?”

Val conferred quickly with Aithne, the green halo of her tongues spell humming around her head. “She just wants you to let her stay, and she says she’ll do whatever you want her to. She thinks everyone should obey Khyrisse’s command unless they have a reason to know there’s something wrong with it, and then they should politely try to explain to her what the problem is... She, uh, also endorses corporal punishment for insubordinates.”

Khyrisse barked laughter. “Oh, don’t tempt me, Aithne,” she muttered.

Mina cleared her throat and pushed a strand of bright blond hair behind one ear. “Well, uh, I have a few suggestions, but first, I just want to apologize to those of you I’ve bothered with my incessant questions and occasional side errands... I probably should have let Khyrisse know before I left the hotel that time. I made Rani worry about me for no reason.” Rani frowned up at the young mage, momentarily distracted from her brown study by that unexpected concept. “If I had it to do over, I’d still go, but I’d use a message spell to tell someone what I was doing. Just for, uh, reference.” Mina seemed nervous. When she was nervous she talked more and more like Jack, Rani noticed.

“Anyway, I think what we really need here is a clear mission statement. People don’t know if they can trust us, because no one seems to know what we’re all about. But we all have a commitment to helping those who can’t help themselves, and to fighting injustice wherever it, um, rears its head.” Mina blushed. “What binds us together as a group isn’t that we’re all in one place, or that we’re all friends. It isn’t even that we all crash in Khyrisse’s mansion... it’s that we all want to make the world a better place. If we all pledge ourselves to that, I think we’ll have the trust we need to know that in the end, the right thing will be done.”

Rani couldn’t believe how naïve this girl was. Of the nineteen people sitting around the living room, the only ones Rani thought were actually with the group because they thought it was the best way to fight injustice wherever it reared its head were Mina and the Rat. No more than half of them were even here because they wanted to save Rimbor City. She knew for a fact Val and Vas were just there bodyguarding Khyrisse. Kingfisher was trying to prove herself as an avatar of a dead war god by winning fights, and Orlen and Vickie just enjoyed adventuring. Thalia was trying to get away from an arranged marriage, Schneider was escaping from Tucson, Thermador had been trying to steal something, and Aithne was lost and didn’t have anything better to do. Unless she was plotting to betray them, which Rani hadn’t entirely written off.

“As far as the, uh, organizational problems,” Mina was continuing, “I don’t know too much about group dynamics, but I do know from my studies that the more followers there are per teacher, uh, leader, the worse the communication. I think that it might be good to break up into like-minded squads, each with a squad leader reporting to Khyrisse, or, uh, whoever we select as group leader, if she doesn’t want to. We’ve broken up into a lot of teams while we’ve been here, trying to be more effective, but without a consistent structure, we’ve ended up, uh, picking fights and making mistakes. Um, that’s all I have, so I’ll, uh, cede the floor to whoever wants to go next.”

Mina sat down, red-faced, and looked at her feet.

***

Skitch watched in silence as the grown-ups talked. This was the most boring thing he’d ever had to sit through bar none. “I think it’s your turn,” Thalia whispered to him.

Skitch looked around the room. I want all the stupid, boring, mean, and troublemaking people to go away and form their own group. Then I want me, Khyrisse, Val, Vas, Jack, Ebreth, Princess Thalia, and maybe Mina and Marty to follow the Rat to a cool adventure somewhere and have fun.

Skitch sighed. And as long as I’m dreaming, I’d like a pony. “I don’t want anything,” he said. “I want to save Rimbor City and go home. And I want people to stop being pissy about it.” He glared at Rani and Vickie in equal measures.

***

“Okay,” said Rani, carefully, looking around. “It’s my turn, right?” Khyrisse had never seen the noisy halfbreed concerned about interrupting anyone. She must have really given her a scare. “Okay, first of all, I want the group to decide what it’s doing and then do it together. If someone disagrees they should either try to change the group’s mind or leave, not just do whatever the hell they want to and ignore the others. Second, I want everyone to share all their pertinent information about the case with me. I’m a fucking detective. I’m no use to anyone if you’re all withholding things and following your own private leads. And third, I think people need to consult each other a lot more, particularly other group members who have abilities and sensors they don’t. A clutch decision is one thing, but if you have a few minutes to check with a teammate you should. That’s what we’re here for.” She folded her fingers together uncomfortably. “If we can do that, then yes, I can live with answering to Khyrisse. I’ll accept her leadership as long as I’m allowed to challenge her decisions if they suck and leave if I can’t stomach them. But I won’t disobey her, and I don’t mind being delegated. That’s all.”

Marty smiled at her, then stood up and cleared his throat loudly. “My speech tonight will be about vegetables. Vegetables can be good or evil. Good vegetables, like the green ones, have many vitamins. They are very good for you. Evil vegetables, like tomatoes, were created by a secret band of evil clerics known as the Mighty Evil Ones. Evil vegetables can be defeated by hacking them up really really small, like I did when attacked by a tomato on my seventeenth birthday. I think that the world would be better with more good vegetables and less evil ones. Thank you very much.”

Marty sat down and leaned over to Rani. “So, how was my speech? Think I’ll win anything?”

Chipper Spice stood up and declared, pointing at the paladin, “I second what he said!”

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