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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 38

Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword

Judging by the number of rooms that were in total chaos and/or flames as Flicker randomly teleported from one to the next looking for the Sidewinders, he’d taken out a good third of the complex with Shilree’s bombs. Flicker suspected he’d ruptured a gas main. He hoped his friends were alright.

-Flicker?- Praxis tried.

-I’m here.-

-Well that’s good news at least. Can you be any more specific?-

From all around klaxons were ringing and sanguine lights were flashing, making the corridors of the Gilan complex seem even more alien. -Not really. Shilree was kidnapped. I’ve got her back now.-

-Was that giant explosion a few seconds back your doing?-

-Yes.-

-L’kar will be pleased. You’re looking for a big open courtyard containing a ten-foot-tall glowing red portal and a horde of Gilans trying to kill us. You can’t miss it.-

-I’ll hurry.-

-We’d appreciate it.-

***

In the field of red lilies, Purple sat alone.

Black and Silk were chained to the legs of the tea table. On the chessboard stood one single silver piece, the king.

Tears streamed down Purple’s face. Her hand reached out, reached back, reached out again.

“You can do it,” comforted Silk, though she wasn’t at all sure it was a good idea.

Purple knocked the king over on its side.

“I forfeit,” she whispered.

***

This room was particularly badly devastated; part of the ceiling had collapsed, and there was smoke billowing from the far end of the hall. Flicker was getting ready to beam right back out again when a slight motion caught his eye.

It was V’nos, crushed beneath a piece of heavy machinery.

The illithid was not dead, but from the pool of ichor surrounding him he looked as if he soon would be. Flicker set down the unconscious Shilree and knelt by the dying mindflayer. He wasn’t normally one to taunt a defeated enemy, but he wanted to know what the hell was going on here more than he cared about letting a dishonorable Gilan die in peace. “Hi, V’nos,” he said. The illithid stirred slightly, and recognition sparked in his eyes. “Any last words?”

“Then this is your doing,” rasped V’nos. “It is amazing how accurate our files on you are after all. It must be that pirate woman in you.”

Flicker wasn’t thrilled about Gila having this much information about him, but it was low on the concerns list at the moment. “It was more of a joint effort. Tell me what you did to her.”

“Or what, you’ll kill me?” V’nos hacked up some ichor and made a sickly illithid grin. “No, hold your blade, Sunfighter. I am not the one to blame here. How much do you know of your friend’s last visit to us?”

“She went to New Gila on a mission for the Diari Emperor,” he said, “you captured her, tortured her, and released her again, at least that’s what she told me. It looks to me more like you killed her and replaced her with a doppelganger.”

“Close, but not... quite.” V’nos shuddered. “Yes, we did interrogate her, but I wasn’t the one responsible for her death. She succeeding in goading one of the Iron Tyrants into killing her before I had finished preparing her personality download for the clone.” He gestured at the doppelganger Shilree, with a faint sigh. “We intended, of course, to set her up for the Diarian throne, and thus to take over Diaria for the Tyrants. The only reason I’m telling you any of this at all is that somebody else has made mincemeat out of our plans. I found not one but two other psionic programs in her mind, and traces of a third which had already been destroyed.”

Flicker blinked. “Green wasn’t yours?”

V’nos ignored him. “I didn’t have time to trace them adequately, but the destroyed one was obviously Gilan in make, and the other two Diarian. I no longer have the means to track these meddlers down and kill them, but perhaps you can find them and do as good a job as you have with me.”

“Was it you who gave her psionic powers?”

“Yes. We wanted her to ascend the Diarian throne, remember.” V’nos sighed and shifted, pain evident on his octopoid face. “One day. Unfortunately, the Emperor was killed before our clone was ready, psionically, politically, or personally, to take her place. Whoever that assassin was ruined a great plan, and caused a great deal of collateral damage in the process.” The illithid waved his rubbery fingers around at the ruined office, hacking. “When you find him, give him a kick for me.”

V’nos was clearly fading fast. “Two more things,” said Flicker. “Why did you implant her with all this information about yourselves if you wanted her to stay in Diaria, and why are you trying to explode the Doomrift if it’s going to destroy New Gila?”

“We didn’t,” wheezed V’nos, “that was obviously one of the other programs. And as for the Doomrift, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if someone’s trying to destroy New Gila, give them a kick for me too.” A little ichor leaked out of V’nos’ mouth and he shuddered once and was still.

Flicker exhaled. This wasn’t making the situation any clearer. He’d wasted too much time as it was, though. He turned to pick up Shilree, but to his surprise, she was already standing. “Shilree! Are--you okay?”

Shilree shook her head.

“How much did you hear?”

“Enough.”

He’d hoped to break the news himself. There was nothing to be done about it now, though. “We need to find the others. Come with me.”

“Sunny.”

He turned to her, and froze where he was standing. Shilree’s eyes were solid blackness. The air was electric around her.

“Gila is going down,” she said. “Hard.”

Interlude: The Penguins Wait

Storm clouds were gathering over the Doomfissure. They were black and heavy and they projected a feeling of evil. Something was building; something big.

The various monster species that lived near the Doomfissure, mainly the Clan of the Shattered Stone and the tribe of the Sandpeople, were first to notice the strange events. The air around their lands felt wet, like it felt just before the rain. There were also the penguins that had suddenly started patrolling the area. This would have been unnerving enough if the Doomlands monsters didn’t know that for every penguin one of them actually sighted, there were probably a hundred more moving about unseen. One of the Sandpeople tried to kill one of the interloping birds but lost his hand for the trouble. After intense discussion with their leaders both the Sandpeople and the Clan of the Shattered Stone made the best decision they ever made. They decided to leave the vicinity of the Doomfissure.

The entire area around the Rift grew silent then, as if the universe was holding its breath. All around the fissure the penguins stood looking up, and waiting.

They didn’t have to wait very long.

The Cavalry

“Praxis!” Flicker cleaved his way across to the big psionicist gladly. Hou-Hsieh was down, but looked alive; Flicker didn’t see Kit, but that wasn’t necessarily bad. “Is everyone all right?”

“More or less,” said Praxis, in the short voice that meant he was multitasking psionic disciplines. “The Iron Tyrants left to deal with your little diversion, but we’ve been swimming in saurians and those hiss’lack birds. Several of us have been poisoned, but I’m stretching time to delay its spread until Hsin can deal with it. Are you two ready to go? We’re not going to be able to hold out here forever, and eventually the big guns are going to finish putting the fires out.”

Shilree was chanting her ancient magics again, a disquieting atonal singsong. “She just needs to set the portal up to blow,” said Flicker. “There’s--a lot of new information I have to tell you. It can wait till we’re--”

Kit screamed. “Mallaithe,” cursed Praxis, clearly overtaxed, as Shaolin drew back his katana for the strike that would end the career of the Greatest Thief on Ataniel.

***

Black held out her hand.

Purple took it.

***

Flicker dropped his sword and pulled free his bow, hoping to get a shot in at the dominated warrior’s hand before he could decapitate the prone girl.

-Everyone cover your eyes,- Shilree’s mental voice sliced through his mind.

Flicker had a moment’s glimpse of a sickly red energy starting to flow out of Shilree’s death-black eyes, and then he wrenched his gaze away.

There was a terrible noise, somewhere between a sucking sound and the crunch of dead leaves.

Then there was silence.

“Could you, uh, take your foot off my chest?” mumbled Kit.

“A thousand apologies, young one.”

Flicker looked up. Of the Gilan fighters, all that remained were dessicated corpses that reminded him unpleasantly of those left by the mad Shilree from the Skeins. “Shilree,” he said, “what are you doing?”

Shilree ignored him. She was looking at her own hands as if she noticed them for the first time.

-Flicker?- said Praxis, as Hsin hurried to neutralize his companions’ poisoned wounds. -Maybe you’d better give me that new information now, all things considered.-

Scorpion’s Nest: The Dealer

Fitch examined the pulsing bloodstone orb through his enchanted jeweler’s scope. “I’ll be straight with ya, Mack,” he lied. “It’ll bring a good price, but it’ll take me at least a week to find a buyer with the balls for it.”

“A week?” growled the rocker. As Fitch had hoped,

Mack Black had already figured out that he didn’t want the thing in his nightclub that long. There’d probably been more trouble than he liked on its account already. Now to reel him in.

“If you can wait that long,” said Fitch, “I’ll split halves with ya. It’ll be worth it.”

“And if I can’t wait that long?”

“Well, I could get you some cash upfront, and house the thing myself till I can move it,” he said with practiced thoughtfulness. “But you know you won’t be making as much as you would if you waited for the buyer.”

“How much are we talking?”

This was the delicate part. If Fitch tried a price that was too low, Mack’d get pissed and find some other hotwares guy to deal with. He looked at the soulstone. “One-fifty,” he said. That should be enough for it not to be worth the musician’s hassle to track down competing bids, little enough that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if Fitch couldn’t unload it before someone else took it.

“Done,” said Mack.

“And a pint to go.”

One Last Explosion

Praxis was more than a little disturbed. The woman he had fought beside against Shadow was dead. No--not really dead. Just a clone. Luthien was a clone as well. Twice over, in fact. It would take getting used to, this switch, but it wasn’t necessarily bad.

The ancient Diari necromancy, now that was bad.

-It looks like you might have been right about Black Shilree being an investment of Shalak the Terrible, dear,- sent Inez.

-Why can’t I ever be right about something pleasant,- Praxis sighed back.

***

Shilree intoned eerily from her book of fell magic. Flicker quickly set the remaining bombs around the base of the dimensional gate. “Come on, Shil. Let’s go.”

She shook her head. “I’m not going,” she whispered.

“Why not?” he said, and shrugged. “Life is long, Shilree. Let’s choose life.”

“I can’t,” she sighed. “I’ve already chosen death. Sunny please don’t make this harder. I need to stay behind to absorb the energy of the explosion or it will destabilize the Rift too much, especially without the Gem of Dimensions here to help.”

“Was this your plan all along?”

She hung her head. “The plan of--part of me. But we’re working together now. I’m tired of fighting with myself. All I am is a copy, a puppet. Gila thought they could use me. They never thought I could break their hold. Well I proved them wrong and I have you to thank for it. And now I’m going where they will never be able to use me again.”

Flicker paused. “I’m going to miss you,” he said.

Shilree just smiled, her black eyes brimming.



“Goodbye, Shilree,” said Praxis quietly. “I--hope we will meet again.”

“You’re worthier of your Gift than most Diarians Praxis,” Shilree said. “Thank you all for your help. You should go now before more Gilans arrive.” She took a quartz crystal from around her neck and pressed it into Flicker’s hand. “You know what to do with this?”

“Of course,” he said, in Diari.

“Hey, wait a minute,” said Kit, in an uneasy tremolo, pushing around Hsin. “Hey, Shilree... aw, shoot, I only just met you, and...”

Shilree pulled the girl in for an uncharacteristically emotional hug. “You be careful out there Kit,” she whispered. “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Sniffling a little, Kit consented to be led away by Praxis.

“There’s one more chance for a deal I made to come through,” Shilree said to Flicker, sotto voce, “but if it doesn’t... I love you Sunny. You have been my best friend.”

“Skarlingen aav Valhalla,” said Flicker softly, and let go her hand. “I love you, Shil. Goodbye.”

***

Deep in the fortress of his Exile, Shalak the Lich Lord looked out and down on the Doomlands Rift, the only being on Ataniel ever to do so and retain his sanity.

“It is time,” he said to the emperor penguin. “Go to her.”

Shalak sat back and waited for the inevitable.

***

Shilree stood with one hand in the dimensional gate, whispering the last words to the archaic spell that would ensure the portal’s destruction. The frame of the gate was glowing, first orange, then red, then white. The Diari bombs pulsed about its base like eggs ready to hatch.

From the corner of her eye Shilree thought she saw something, but when she looked there was nothing there.

There was a pause then, the type of pause that happens very rarely. It seemed the entire universe was making up its mind there in that pause.

“I wish...” whispered Shilree.

Then the entire world was fire.

The Morning After

To Ebreth’s surprise, Garal was already up when he got downstairs. The sun wasn’t even up yet; Ebreth wouldn’t have thought anybody else would be awake. “Morning, Garal,” he said. The halfling jumped a little. He didn’t look like he’d slept at all. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” mumbled Garal, edging back from him a little and not meeting his eyes. Ebreth could have attributed his nervousness to last night’s social turmoil, but the planeblazer rarely met his eyes anyway. “I don’t bite,” said Ebreth, filling the coffeepot.

“What?”

“You seem a little, ah, uncomfortable,” said Ebreth, lighting the burner. It had been his worst night in months, but he forced himself to grin across at the halfling anyway. “I’m not going to throw anything else at you, don’t worry.”

Garal blushed. “Oh, no,” he said, “it’s not that--I mean, it’s not anything.”

“You really don’t have to be frightened of me,” he said quietly. “I’m pretty harmless.”

“Oh, I’m not frightened of you, I--” Garal cleared his throat self-consciously. “I, well, I really don’t mean to be racist... but I, uh, don’t get along that well with human men. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re about two and a half feet taller than I am. I have kind of an instinctive reaction to anyone who could pick me up and throw me further than about five feet.”

“Happen to you often?” Ebreth deadpanned, taking two coffee mugs out of the cupboard.

“Well, no, not really,” said Garal. “I can use my planar abilities to phase out before they can get up a good swing, most of the--”

Ebreth laughed heartily, and stopped when Garal didn’t join in. “You’re not kidding?”

“Uh, no,” he said.

“People pick you up and throw you places?”

“Well, they try to, sometimes,” said Garal, in a bit of a little voice. “Dwarf-throwing is kind of a popular bar thing in Northern Cynystra. Some of the Little Folk think it’s good sport, of course, but I think it’s sort of demeaning--”

Ebreth passed his hand over his eyes. “I promise not to throw you anywhere,” he said, laughing a little.

“I, uh, promise not to--well, I don’t know what I could do to you, actually.” Garal laughed back. “Smack you in the kneecap?”

“Phase out with a piece of my intestine?” offered Ebreth.

“Oh,” blinked Garal, “well, I guess I could--”

“Bring me to Hell?”

“I promise not to steal your intestines or take you to Hell.”

“Deal,” said Ebreth. “Cream or sugar?”

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