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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 37

A Job To Do: Against The Odds

“I didn’t betray her,” sighed Thermador, rolling his eyes and taking another drink. “I took off. The soul was never part of our deal. I had as much right to take it as jesterboy did.”

Amatsu made a spectral frown. The Lady Starshadow would surely not see it that way. On the other hand, the Lady Starshadow was prone to see things in rather black-and-white terms, and if there was anything Amatsu Mikaboshi had learned from the Order of Redemption, it was shades of grey. “This one will reserve judgment,” the ninja responded in his hollow whisper.

“Really?” Thermador gave a dry chuckle. “That’s a new one from a guy who hangs out with planeblazers.” He put his bottle back in his trenchcoat pocket and stood up, stretching. “Getting that soul the hell out of Rimbor City advances our common goals anyway, Mr. Incorporeal. Without it, the mystery baddies won’t be able to detonate their little dimensional attack until your people finish clearing the wormholes. So see, everyone’s job gets done.”

“Where is the soul now?”

“I don’t know,” Thermador admitted, with a gravelly sigh. “I just pushed it back onto the prime material through the quickest opening I could find. Delivering the actual piece to X!La would have been a bonus, but if I let it fall into NMP hands I wouldn’t get paid at all. It doesn’t really matter where the thing is now, though. As long as it didn’t wind up in Rimbor City again, the city’s safe and my employer’s happy. And what’re the odds of that happening, hm?”

***

“Hey, Mr. Black!” called Gorn, in his slow, deep tones. Gorn’s voice made the Riklandic bouncer seem even bigger and dumber than he was. In truth, Gorn was of average intelligence, though little-educated. “Look what I found cleaning out the mosh pit.”

He held out a faintly glowing bloodstone orb.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Mack Black.

“Weird, huh?”

“You can say that again. Never thought we’d find our way back into this plot.”

Save Vs. Distraction

Khyrisse looked a bit startled when Ebreth picked her up off the couch, but she kept quiet for the moment and simply wrapped her arms around his neck. She was rather pink by the time they left the room.

“Ebreth, I’m fine. Really,” she said as he carried her up the stairs. She didn’t sound all that convincing. “I can walk, you know.”

“I seem to recall seeing you do that,” Ebreth agreed.

“So why aren’t I?”

“Probably because I’m carrying you.”

“Ebreth...!”

He had the grace to look a little bit ashamed of himself. “Sorry. It’s a reflex.”

Khyrisse tightened her grip a little, just in case he was thinking of putting her down. “It’s all right.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial and slightly embarrassed whisper. “Besides... I kind of like it when you show off,” she confessed--and smiled contentedly to herself when he laughed. I still think that sounds like a purr.

***

“Hey, Garal.” Rani caught up to the unhappy-looking halfling. “Listen--I’m really sorry. I put you in a really crappy position.”

“It’s not your fault,” he said, a little distantly.

“Oh, the fuck it’s not. I made you choose between your friend and the team. I wasn’t intending for it to come to this, I really wasn’t. I just can’t believe she’d do anything differently if we brought her back.”

“She wouldn’t,” said Garal, in a very small voice, looking down at his hands. “No matter how much it mattered.”

“Oh, hell,” sighed Rani, who didn’t need the Gift to see how much it hurt him to admit it. “Garal--look, what I’m trying to say, you don’t really have to choose. You can still be her friend. Shit, you can still work with her. She doesn’t know how to be part of a team like this, but there’s no reason we can’t work with her in other contexts. ...Well, no reason you can’t. I think she hates me.”

It wasn’t funny, but Garal laughed anyway, so Rani would too, and it worked. “I feel like I’m letting her down,” he confessed. “I feel like I should be sticking up for her, but I just can’t.”

“You’re--” She moved her hand. “Doing what you think is right,” she finished. “It’s a totally wild guess, but I bet Vickie respects that more than loyalty.”

“Thanks for trying, Rani,” sighed Garal, patting her gloved hand.

“God, I suck at this so bad.”

***

I’m proud of you, boyo, encouraged Duke Faraker. Did you see the look on Khyri’s face when you and her boyfriend shook on it?

Just when she needed a bit of hopeful news most, agreed Sister Jane.

I’m proud of you for quoting me, said Tila, leaning back and clasping her hands behind her head smugly. That makes any situation better right off the bat!

I just hope we’re not making a big mistake, Schneider sighed internally.

I think he’s earned a second chance, said Threnody thoughtfully, upside-down in a handstand.

And even if he screws it up, Rhynwa added practically, you’ll be in a much better position to help if Khyrisse trusts you as someone to lean on.

Speaking of someone who might need someone to lean on, he reminded himself that he should do something to help Rani. He tried, and failed, to forget she was psionic.

***

“Oh, yeah, totally,” smiled Marty. “Well, good night, Mina!”

He closed the door even though Mina’s nose was clear of it by no more than inches.

She stood there at his doorstep for several minutes, wondering how she could possibly be any more obvious about this.

“Hi, Mina!” waved Aithne. “What you are doing?”

“I was saying goodnight to Marty,” said Mina, secretly hoping the young paladin was still listening. “You know, we’re really good friends--but lately, I’ve been feeling... more.”

Aithne got it. “Marty is cute man,” she agreed.

“He is,” said Mina, smiling down at her hand.

“I will get Thalia. We will have girl night. We can talk all about Marty Hu.” Aithne beamed at Mina and scampered off down the hallway, the stress of the evening’s quarrel already rolling off her slim shoulders like water off a duck.

Interlude: Marty Watches Too Much TV

“Dear Camaro,” Marty wrote. He wasn’t sure how to proceed. He had never written a love letter before. He thought about asking one of the girls how to do it, but they all seemed to be upset with him, the way they kept whispering and pointing at him. “I am writing you this letter to say hi.” He looked at the sentence appraisingly. It seemed incomplete. “So, hi,” he added, and smiled.

“How is your team doing?” he wrote. “Do you fight other people or just us? If you do, I hope you beat them.” Maybe now that Khyrisse and Tucson were friends, they would see less of each other. Marty hoped not. “Tonight we had a tribal council. Everyone voted and picked Vickie to kick out of the group. I think next time I will vote for Octavian because he seems kind of mean to people. I wonder how often we have to vote to get rid of someone?” Maybe Camaro would even know the answers. She was in a team, even if it was a bad guy one.

Marty frowned. Wasn’t he supposed to say something complimentary in a love letter? “I like your hair,” he wrote. “Purple is my favorite color, because there aren’t many purple things that...” Scare me? Marty didn’t want to sound like a wuss. “I oppose.”

How to sign it? Marty still wasn’t sure how into their relationship Camaro was. He didn’t want to scare her off. “Like, Marty,” he wrote.

Marty smiled. Now it was just a matter of finding an envelope. And a stamp. And her address, of course.

Measure Of A Man

“I’ll be all right,” said Khyrisse, softly and a little huskily, trying not to think about Vickie or about what a terrible leader she was or most especially about Trade. I. He said I. “Ebreth,” she said, as he closed the bedroom door, “what about you?” He hadn’t looked well all night, and he didn’t look well now. Khyrisse stamped her mental foot. I am not going to have an anxiety attack over the leadership of an adventuring party I never asked to lead in the first place while my--oh, Grendel, my fiancé--needs me. “Are you okay? Octavian didn’t do anything to you, did he?”

“No. No, we just talked.” He wasn’t meeting her eyes. “Khyrisse, I--I think I, I’m starting to think I am, Ebreth Tor.”

She sucked in a bit of air. She’d been almost expecting something like that, but even so it made her blood run a little cold. “Are you sure?” she said, slowly and carefully. “What--exactly do you mean when you say that?”

“I don’t know.” Ebreth collapsed onto the bed in exhaustion, clasping his hands behind his neck. “I have no connection to it. It feels like a book I read. But I was there. And I remember it all; I’ve learned from some of it. And if I didn’t have the same soul Hell could never have taken me back. So if I’ve got the same body, the same mind, and the same soul, what else is there?”

“Will,” said Khyrisse, immediately. “Soul, mind, and will. That’s what we called them in god school, anyway. You have your own will.”

“Is that enough?”

She put her hand between his shoulder blades. “It’s enough for me.”

Ebreth expelled a lot of air. “Thank you,” he half-whispered, “Khyrisse.”

She sat next to him on the bed, running the knuckle of her other hand tenderly along his face. “I think it’s really what we do that makes us who we are, s’parde-vois, in the end... and your mind might inform that, your soul might pattern how you do it, but it’s your will making the choice. Whatever you’ve taken from him, you’ve made something different from it.”

“Maybe,” he sighed. “Things... are more complicated than I thought. I’m not going to turn back into him or anything. It’s nothing like that. I don’t even understand the person I used to be, much less feel drawn to it. But he wasn’t unremittingly evil, you know, and me--I think I’m a decent man, Khyrisse, I hope I’m a decent man, but I’m no Jack Paris, either. It’s easy to say all right, he was a bad guy, so he just had all this evil stuff and I’m totally different so I must be a good guy. But I think the world’s more complicated than that.”

“Does it matter?” she said. “He’s gone now, and no one’s expecting you to be flarking Marlukin, you know.” She smiled down at him ruefully. “You’re good for me.”

Ebreth was quiet a few moments, propped up on his forearms. “He wasn’t an abusive lover, you know,” he said. “Not what you’d call faithful or anything, but he--I--could be kind, certainly fun. There are probably a lot of women who still think fondly of me. He didn’t hit girls he was with or anything, never took a woman by force, not once. He was really very attentive. You--would probably have liked him.” It was so patently painful for him to say that Khyrisse’s own intake of air hissed sharply. “He--I--didn’t enjoy making people suffer. I just didn’t care. I don’t know why not. But I was, amoral, not sadistic. Do you see what I’m saying here. Evil isn’t really the opposite of good. Sometimes it’s the opposite of more evil. That I’m not what I, once was, that doesn’t necessarily make me a good person. That I have some of the same things doesn’t necessarily make me bad. So I can’t define myself in terms of who I used to be, Khyrisse. I’m not the Master Slaver of the Montas Archipelago, and I can’t just be what he’s not, either. But I’m not independent of it all and I’m seeing now that I can’t be. So who the hell am I?”

Khyrisse let out a long sigh. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

He put his forehead down on his closed fists. “Khyrisse?” he said, very softly. “What if Schneider was right?”

“What?”

“What if he was right?” Ebreth didn’t look up. “What if I deserved it?”

Khyrisse closed her eyes. “Oh, Ebreth,” she whispered, painfully, but she had no answer for him.

Greetings from the Abyss

Flicker stayed put for a long moment, his mind racing along several tracks at once. Then it all coalesced into the Sunfighter, and he slipped around the curve of the tank in the mechanical shadows.

His steady thief’s fingers slid from tube to tube until they found the one with liquid pulsing through it. Flicker drew Tor’s sword and slit the tube, dropping it to the floor as bad-smelling fluid spilled out of it. He watched the corpse of Shilree steadily as the liquid it was floating in drained off. They must be using her memories to create doppelgangers of her. “Making a new one would be such a bother,” V’nos had said. You don’t know the half of it, thought the Sunfighter.

He opened the hatch as the fluid curled around his boots and across the floor. The body was too long dead to have hope of resurrecting. Flicker didn’t know if the belief that a Diarian’s memories had to be archived in Irla for his soul to be reincarnated was superstition or not, but he wasn’t taking any chances. The black sword of Ebreth Tor slit cleanly through the wires attached to Shilree’s head, and then through her dead throat. There was no blood. He took the Gilan rations out of the pack L’kar had given him and dropped them on the ground in the pooling liquid to make room for the head of one of his oldest friends. If he survived this, he would find a way to take it to Irla and lay her to rest. If he didn’t... well, there wouldn’t be enough left of her brain for the illithids to use again.

Flicker slung the pack up over his shoulder and returned to the unmoving Shilree doppelganger.

It didn’t take him long to find what he needed. He had seen her use some of them back at the diantri mine, and Tjekanefir Lord Vestaya was not entirely unaccustomed to explosives. He attached only about half of them to the control panel and flanking machinery. He hadn’t completely given up on detonating the dimensional gate, and from what he’d seen at the mine, this should be plenty enough to blow the lab to kingdom come.

He left the other bombs in Shilree’s pouch and slung it over his other shoulder, stood looking at her deactivated body for a long moment. “Sa vrais Shilree Vestrin,” he whispered in Diari, and kissed her forehead. “Ne vrai Eren Messala.” He hefted her up over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, pulling her pistol from her holster with his other hand. You are a doppelganger, and I am a demon. We are who we choose to be. He swung the shut teleporter open and flipped the switch. And I am giving you every chance to choose life.

He fired and leapt at the same time. Behind him the heat billowed, roared, one explosion after the other in slow motion, the oozing biofluid on the floor bursting into white flame, the roof laid open into the violet night, and then Flicker, carrying the last three hopes of Shilree Vestrin, was somewhere else.

A Friend In Need

Jack reread the same line of Zero Degrees of Separation for the twelfth time. The whole evening had left him with a bad taste in his mouth. He understood why people made the decision they did, but it still struck Jack as a mistake. His mistake, to some extent. Had he been so busy worrying about himself and Ebreth that he hadn’t been there for other members of the party? He and Vickie had sat together for three days waiting for Amatsu. He considered her a friend. So why hadn’t he seen any of this coming?

Part of the problem, Jack mused, was that there were so many people hanging around now that he couldn’t spend much time getting to know them all. There were people guarding his back that he had hardly spoken five words to. Things had been so much... simpler... back when it was just him, Ebreth, Khyrisse, Tarrin, Val and Vas. Now people were talking about group charters and membership issues.

Maybe once this was all over he could talk Ebreth into taking a small vacation, just the two of them. One last hurrah before... well, before the end.

Maybe I should start a list, Jack thought to himself. Not much time, and lots to do.

He took out his notebook and scribbled the heading, “To Do Before D-Day.”

Before he could start his list, however, there was a knock on his door.

Khyrisse was standing there when he opened it, her hair a wild tangle, a robe thrown haphazardly over her nightgown. “I’m not here to ask you to run the group, Jack,” she said in a rush. “I promise.”

“Look,” Jack apologized, “I didn’t mean to make any trouble or anything down there...”

She blinked at him. “Huh? Oh. You didn’t. It’s not about that. It--it’s Ebreth.”

“Ebreth wants to lead the Rat Pack?”

“No, he’s having a nightmare. A bad one. He won’t wake up.”

***

“I don’t, uh, know too much about dreams,” Jack said to Khyrisse, “for, um, obvious reasons... but Gabriella was--ah, is--really into them, and she told me once that when you’re dreaming, you still can hear and sense things. Maybe if we, um, keep telling him stuff, he’ll hear it and it’ll help.”

Khyrisse wrapped her arms around herself still more tightly at that. That certainly precluded her talking any of this over with Jack. She’d slit her wrists before she’d let Ebreth know she was doubting him. “Sometimes that works,” she whispered, “when he’s having an, attack. But sometimes it doesn’t. And if he can’t hear me... I thought mabye he might hear you.”

She watched as Jack tried to talk Ebreth down, and as she’d hoped, the sound of his voice was accomplishing what her own had not. Ebreth didn’t wake, exactly, but he did calm a little, drifting into more normal dreams. Relatively speaking, she thought, closing her eyes on the familiar ache. It’s probably better that he doesn’t wake up. I don’t know if having tumbled us both out of bed would do his confidence much good. She laid her hand gently on Ebreth’s cheek.

“Do you think he’ll be all right now?”

“Yes,” she sighed, leaning back and resting her head wearily on the headboard. She sent Jack a somewhat embarrassed look. “He hasn’t had one this bad in a while. I wanted to go in with a dream spell--I’ve done it before--but the, last time didn’t go so well.” She’d been too shocked to maintain her composure, actually, and once she woke him he wept for half an hour straight and then said he understood if she didn’t want to see him again. It hadn’t been the high point of their relationship.

“Um,” Jack said, fidgeting. “Khyrisse? I could help you make some tea or something.” She blinked at him. “You don’t look too, uh, well yourself,” he pointed out. “You could probably use something to settle your nerves, before you go back to sleep.”

“If I go back to sleep,” muttered Khyrisse, but summoned a tired smile for Jack. “Sure. I can use all the settling I can get.”

***

“So, uh... what’re you really worried about?”

Khyrisse smiled into her herbal tea. “You don’t miss much sometimes, Jack.”

“You should see me asking someone for a date. I, uh, balance out. Arithmetic mean, not mode or median, of course.”

“Whichever, I think you’re probably still in the black,” she murmured, still smiling. It faded away rapidly, though. “Jack... Ebreth thinks he might be the first Ebreth Tor after all.”

“He told me that too,” Jack admitted.

“Do you think it’s possible?”

Jack smiled and pointed both fingers at himself. “You’re asking me? I’m still not sure if I’m Jack Paris.” He bit his lip, then, and spoke more seriously. “It bothered me a little too, at first... but he’s still the man we know today. It’s just his, uh, perspective of himself that’s changed. And whether he’s a totally new person or he’s the same one and he chose to become who he is now... well, does it matter, really? Whether he was or wasn’t the old Ebreth Tor, he’s not now.”

Khyrisse sighed and looked up at him. “I don’t think it makes a difference to me... or at least, not the kind anyone would expect. But it makes a difference to him. If he is the same man, then why wouldn’t he deserve what they did to him in Hell?”

“Well, if he’s the man we know, why doesn’t he deserve a position of honor in heaven? I mean, I’m not the guy I was three years ago in the temple. I’m not the guy I was ten minutes ago when you came to my door. I’m the guy I am now, doing the best I can, and I’ll be judged on that. Ebreth saved the world last year. He sacrificed himself for you. He tried to save Jack from the Remnant. So even if his, uh, old record isn’t the best, he’s writing over it with what he does now.”

“So you don’t think a person’s past deeds matter, that they don’t affect the measure of their soul?” Khyrisse’s mouth twisted slightly; just saying it hurt. “Or, at least, that they don’t matter as much as their present intentions? ...I don’t know if a victim of those deeds would agree with you. I don’t know if they could.”

“Do you think Ebreth should go to hell?”

“NO.” She inhaled sharply and puffed the air back out with an explosive sigh. “I’m just trying to figure this out logically, because I--I think my feelings on the matter may be slightly suspect.”

“So we’re victims of his good deeds,” Jack shrugged. “Do our opinions matter more or less than the victims of his bad ones?”

“I don’t know. Neither. If one matters, so does the other. ... But that’s if he were completely the same man, and he’s not. His will is different.”

“Well,” Jack said thoughtfully, “Lita used to tell me that she thought goodness was what caused the soul to grow, and evil was what caused it to stop its growth. If someone as bad as the old Ebreth--as bad as Ebreth was, if we accept that--can become the person he is now, then the good in his soul must be way more than the evil. Maybe the old Ebreth didn’t have that will, or maybe he did and finally learned to listen to it. Either way, he’s become one of the finest men I’ve ever known. No God or cosmic justice worth anything at all would be able to rationalize sending a good man to Hell because he outgrew his evil.” Khyrisse looked at him with wide eyes, and he cleared his throat awkwardly. “Uh, im-hoe, of course. I’m, uh, not a theologian.”

“I agree with you. Jack, I do. I... I don’t think I could even send Eric to Hell under circumstances like these. I certainly don’t think Ebreth belongs there, but he.. he’s already been, and now he’s--now he’s starting to think he deserved it, and I don’t know--” She buried her shaking fingers in her hair. “And I’m not sure enough to tell him he didn’t,” she finished in a small, strangled voice.

What if he did?” said Jack. “Maybe he did. Maybe that’s the only way for Ebreth to accept what happened to him. He went to Hell and suffered... there’s no changing that. But did he go and suffer in atonement or was it a cruel joke of fate to put an innocent man there? Maybe thinking he was punished for what he did before is what he needs to keep believing he can redeem himself.”

“Suffering as atonement, and it’s over and done with--rather than an intrinsic and lasting worthlessness.” Khyrisse sighed, trying to think how to get Ebreth to believe that. “Marlukin used to say that. That pain has a higher purpose, that it isn’t just the random spite of the universe. For most of my life I’ve been trying to believe something like that, but I never quite made it.” She looked up at Jack again with a pained look in her eyes. “You do know that I don’t think he should be punished, Jack?” she asked, very quietly. “It’s not me wondering these horrible things of him. It’s Ebreth.”

“If anyone thinks that less than you, it’s me,” Jack said. “But neither of us can give him self-worth. Only he can do that. We can just let him know how much we value him. How much we love him. It’s up to him if he ever listens to us, but if he values our judgment, he’ll start to think that we can’t be too far off in our perspective on him. If he thinks he’s evil, we can’t change that. But we know better, and so does everyone in this place. Even Marty can see that, and he was asking me earlier for a word that rhymed with ‘purple.’ I just keep letting Ebreth know how I feel about him, and that’s all I can do. Eventually he’ll let go of the pain by himself.”

“I don’t think he thinks he’s evil, he’s just... badly confused. He was so certain that he was a different man, and now he’s not sure.” Khyrisse sighed. “I guess you’re right, all we can do is make sure that he knows we’re still here for him while he sorts the rest of it out. I just wish I could do something.”

“He is who he is. He could be Octavian for all I care. To me, he’s my friend. To you, he’s your fianc... uh... lover. He hasn’t changed to us, and what we can do is keep him knowing that.”

“Jack... I won’t faint.” Her eyes danced in spite of the blush surfacing in her skin. “I’ve survived Shadow... I think I’ll survive hearing ‘fiancé’.”

“No, it’s just that I never know which word to use for the guy. I’m lousy at Tobrinese.”

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