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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 39

Skitch Was Right

“There you are.” Khyrisse sighed. “Skitch, listen, I wanted to talk to you about Schneider.”

“Oh,” said the boy uncomfortably, “it’s all right now, I guess. I mean he apologized.”

“Yes, but I didn’t.” She sat down beside her adoptive son. “...Not yet. Skitch, I was wrong. I’ve been handling Schneider in the worst, the absolute worst possible way I could have. I should have talked to you about him ages ago, after that incident with the magic mouth in Jungleland. I owed you that much. I should have talked to him in Helena’s as soon as I learned about him and Ebreth, and every time since. And I have absolutely no excuse for just ignoring your fight yesterday and going on as if nothing had happened. I’ve--been afraid confronting him about anything might make him... come even more unglued,” Khyrisse half-whispered. “But last night you confronted him and he acted more like himself than he has since the Madness. I’ve been avoiding like crazy on this, and it hasn’t been fair to you, it hasn’t been fair to Ebreth, and it hasn’t been at all fair to Schneider. Vacillating between no reaction and violent overreaction can’t have been anything but confusing for him.” She swallowed back tears. “And now I think I could have spared all four of us almost all of this if I’d just gotten up the courage to tell him he was wrong that first time. I’m sorry, Skitch. I am really, really sorry.”

Lessons For Alanis

“There was a story in a book I read a while ago,” Ebreth told Khyrisse, looking out the Mansion window. “The guy sells his watch to buy his wife combs for her hair, meanwhile the wife’s cutting off her hair and selling it to buy the guy a watch chain. Schneider’s sorry and I’m Ebreth Tor. I’m finally what he wanted me to be all along and it’s meaningless because of where he’s at, and he’s finally got what I needed and it’s meaningless because of where I am. This is so funny I could just cry.”

***

“I bet you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here today,” began Rani, tapping her gloved fingers together. She looked really ill this morning; the whites of her eyes were the color of mustard, her face was flushed and splotchy, and of all things, her hair was a mess. Jack, Ebreth, Garal, and Schneider looked at her blankly. “Because one of us is secretly really Octavian?” guessed Garal.

“No, Garal, because we all have something in common.”

“We’re all wearing pants,” Schneider noticed.

“Close, Schneider, but no cigar. We all... like... to have sex... with women.”

Garal blushed even brighter than Jack did.

“Rani, you’re not asking us to go pick up chicks with you, are you?” said Ebreth.

“And not, so far as I know, with men,” Rani continued. “I’m guessing that your Y-chromosomes render you congenitally unable to ask each other about this, so I’ve taken it upon myself. How many of you have found yourself atypically attracted to Marty Hu starting yesterday?”

Ebreth, Garal, and Schneider looked up at her very suddenly.

“Right,” said Rani, a little smugly, flipping her notebook open. “That leaves Jack, and he’s often immune to various magical and psionic manipulations anyway, on account of he hasn’t got a brain. Which looks to support my initial guess, which is that Hu is using, probably accidentally, some sort of magical or psionic manipulation on everyone. Which looks to support my initial recommendation, which is that Jack go and take it away from him and the rest of us go and short-sheet his bed.”

“You... are a really good detective,” said Garal, genuinely impressed.

“The bad ones don’t survive long out here, Tinderhook.”

***

Aithne woke up and had almost started to go downstairs for the breakfast meeting when she remembered the incantation she had prepared at midnight. Silly goose, she reprimanded herself internally. The excitement of being in such a strange place was making her careless with her magic, and that was entirely unacceptable behavior for a priestess on whom her family was relying. Hadn’t Khyrisse just been complaining about taking responsibility yesterday? Aithne would try to be more careful. For now, though, she had caught herself, and the incantation would still be the first words she spoke upon rising from bed, as they would have to be for the spell to take its effect. Her friend would not be let down by Aithne.

“Marty Hu,” she said, lighting the unity candle, “I bewitch you to fall in love with Mina Paris.”

The candle burned merry and bright.

Scorpion’s Nest: Long Arm of the Law

Fitch sat in the Buccaneer’s Den, a southside crackhouse with delusions of grandeur, and contemplated the soul of John Tucson. He’d been telling the truth about the balls required, lying about the timescale. Fitch was going to move the thing this morning come hell or high water. It was too dangerous to have around. Fitch hadn’t gone home last night. If villains from every corner of Ataniel were going to converge somewhere for a slugfest, the fixer didn’t want it to be his house.

The Buccaneer’s Den was a pretty lively place at night, but now, in the morning light, there were just some junkies twitchily sleeping it off, Nitwit the alchemist freebasing some Diari opium, and a dealer with his bodyguard (either a eunuch or a major potion user, by the looks of him) picking up his day’s run. Nitwit gestured him nervously towards a rack of vials. A gnome who’d left his homeland in hopes that his genius would bring him adventure, money and fame, Nitwit had instead ended up a shaky little player in the Rimbor rackets. Fitch got what he wanted out of the admittedly brilliant alchemist with swagger and cheap bribes, most of the time.

The fixer returned his attention to the soul. The question now was who to contact. Starting a bidding war was way too likely to leave Fitch cooling in a back alley somewhere. He wanted to find a powerful player he knew would want it and get rid of it immediately. There was the Scorpion, of course, but the crime lord made Fitch a little nervous. He might pay him a tremendous amount for his soul, or he might just whack him and take it. There was the guy with five eyes, but Fitch didn’t know what kind of cash reserves something like that would have. And then there was Hazhijae Hasfur, the biggest question mark. They had the money and were willing to spend it, but they also had mind control, so Fitch could wind up with jack shit nothing.

He was turning over the alternatives in his mind when the door broke in. Of all the dozens of players who might have been tracking the loose soul, though, it was none of them. It was Sergeant Roy, no stranger to the Rimbor drug world, but with him was Harry Novoa, so this bust meant business.

“You’re under arrest,” said Novoa. Nitwit let out a sissy scream and hid under the table. The eunuch raised his hands in surrender but when the third cop, a fresh-faced kid, went to put the cuffs on him he gave him a punch in the breadbasket and then sent him to the floor with a headshot when he doubled over. Fitch edged quietly towards the back door. Sergeant Roy had grabbed the dealer, probably the object of the raid. Roy wasn’t much of a cop, but he knew where to find anyone when he wanted to and he sure could kick ass, so it was much better not to piss him off. This dealer had apparently not yet learned that lesson. “You are under arrest,” Roy said, making a big show of procedure as he cuffed the guy, “for attempted murder, assaulting a police officer, drug trafficking, theft, suspected subornation of the government and failure to curb your dog. You have the right to do whatever I tell you to, assface.”

Novoa, incredibly unimpressed, was subduing the eunuch with his nightstick. Fitch had slid the back door open and was preparing to make his break for it when the soul, almost as if of its own accord, spurted out of his hand and went rolling across the floor. Fitch cursed and followed it. He’d spent a night in the pen before, and the price this piece could find was well worth that risk.

His fingers had just brushed its surface again when he was jerked back by the collar and shoved into the wall. Damn it. “Go book the gnome, Rookie,” said Novoa, putting the cuffs on Fitch. “You have the right to remain silent. You have the right...”

From the corner of his eye, Fitch saw the rookie, on his way to Nitwit, pick up the bloodstone orb in passing and slip it into his pocket.

Oh Yeah, Life Goes On

“Jack doesn’t think he has a soul,” said Ebreth.

“Yes, well, Jack has a few little problems with his self-esteem,” said Val, crossing her arms tightly.

Ebreth didn’t answer that right away. “He’s been getting a lot better,” he said.

“I am damned if I am going to let Jack sit on some five-eyed fiend’s string for the rest of eternity!” said the priestess, pacing agitatedly.

“Was anyone planning on it?”

“You think he has a soul, don’t you?”

“Who cares what I think?” He looked very tired. “Apparently I don’t understand what a soul is. I don’t know if Jack has a soul or not. I know if he doesn’t I’m finding the five-eyed guy and hocking my own, because obviously we don’t need them for anything.”

Valende exhaled noisily.

“And if he does, have a soul...” Ebreth looked out the window. “Then maybe, maybe we can take it back from Five-Eyes. And bring him back.”

“How long have you known?”

“About two weeks.”

“You could have told me.”

“It was Jack’s decision.”

She turned her shoulder so he couldn’t see her trembling. “Corellon, and all this time I thought it was a chance--a chance for him to start over, without--without anyone to screw him up... without me.”

Ebreth was silent for nearly a minute. “He misses you,” he said. Val jerked her head involuntarily, and Ebreth looked away. “He misses your friendship,” he amended. “Jack could use his friends right now.”

Valende felt rather dizzy. Of the many things banging at her brain, the one that made it out was “Does he... is he, the same Jack?”

“Oh, God, like I know,” sighed Ebreth, flopping to the sofa in a posture of exhausted surrender Val would never have thought the question would warrant. “Don’t even ask me these things. He is and he isn’t. That’s enough.”

She had hit a nerve, somehow. She literally didn’t think she could survive a quarrel with Ebreth right now, so she backed up and tried something else. “Does he, remember me,” she mumbled, “at all.”

“Enough to know he’d like to get to know you,” said Ebreth.

“So I can fuck up his life too?” she said bitterly.

“You didn’t fuck his life up.” Ebreth stood very abruptly and turned his back to her. “We didn’t, do a very good job, communicating things to him. None of us did.”

“You know what I mean,” she whispered, harshly. “After what I did to him, what I did to Rani? Why would this Jack even want to talk to me now?”

“Because that’s the kind of man he is,” said Ebreth. “He’s like Jack was. He doesn’t see the bad things, he sees what we have the potential to be. Maybe you should listen to him.” He paused a moment, awkwardly. “Not, ah, that there’s anything wrong with you now, or anything.”

“Weak save,” she said, with a wobbly smile.

“Ah, hell, Val,” he sighed, “who doesn’t make mistakes? You think I’m in a position to throw stones? It was wrong, it hurt people, you’re sorry. What do you think I want from you, blood? Avoiding Jack isn’t helping anything.”

Valende remained standing by sheer force of will. Ebreth’s unexpected support was as destabilizing as a sudden attack from Vastarin would have been, somehow, and it took a lot of effort not to just blurt any of a dozen far-too-revealing things out. “It’s not hurting anyone, either,” she finally said. “I’m capable of hurting the people I love, Ebreth. I can’t trust myself with anyone else. It’s too late not to care about Jack, but I don’t have to let him care about me. I am not going to screw up what’s left of his life just because he reminds me of a man I lost before I could even tell him I wasn’t trying to hurt him!”

Ebreth hesitated hard, and then he reached out to grip her shoulder. “Look,” he said, “it’s the last thing Jack would have wanted, you using this to beat yourself up this way.” Her eyes filled with tears despite herself. “Stop punishing yourself for this. Just, learn from it, and go on with your life. That’s really the best way you could honor his memory.”

Valende finally lost her fight with her composure and broke down crying, her body wracked with heavy sobs as if a seal had broken.

Ebreth sighed and put his arm slowly around her, his other hand on her dark head. “I still miss him too,” he said quietly.

It was all he said, but it was enough.

Bewitched: Doesn’t Mind Control Require A Mind To Work On?

“Hey, Mina!” Marty said, rushing over to her when she came down the stairs. “I wrote this letter for you!”

Mina smiled and took it. “Dear Camaro,” she read, then frowned. “Marty, this isn’t for me.”

“Oh. Right.” Marty looked more confused than usual. “Uh, do you know where there’s an envelope?”

“Sure, Marty,” Mina smiled, and took him by the hand to find the stationery.

Smells Like Team Spirit

“Ebreth?” said Khyrisse hesitantly, as the Rat Pack gathered around the dining room table, some blearier-eyed than others. “Do you--think it was overreacting to send Vickie away like I did?”

“Honestly?” he said. “I thought it was overreacting to let her get to you that much in the first place. It’s not your fault if she’s rude to Octavian. And her running off on her own is only a problem if she expects anyone to worry about her safety, which she never does. I never had a problem with her.” Ebreth drummed his fingers on his pant leg. “Until last night. You said ‘let’s talk about teamwork’ and she said ‘I don’t work well with other people, and I refuse to explain myself or be held accountable, so back off, I have a job to do.’ She’s Dave Thermador with better hair. In other words, last night was the first time in a long time I didn’t think you were overreacting to her. I thought we could trust her, but she proved me wrong. You were right and I wasn’t.”

Khyrisse blinked several times. “Really?”

“It’s not the first time, you know. It won’t be the last.”

***

“Agenda time,” said Rani, flipping through her spiral notebook. “I’ll try to make this quick and painless.”

“Are you the leader now?” asked Marty.

“No, I’m the secretary.” She moved a little farther away from the unnaturally sexy paladin, uncomfortably. “The first question is Dare. Do people want me to ask her to come back?”

Schneider cleared his throat. “I, uh, hope this doesn’t cause everybody to flare up all over again,” he said, “but I already called Vickie last night and she said she wouldn’t come back.”

“Well, duh,” said Rani. “I’d have to call her and apologize. I’m not jumping up and down over the idea, but if the resident Y-chromosomes over there can shake hands and shut up, I figure I can too.”

“I have no desire ever to work with that woman again,” said Orlen frostily.

“Seconded,” muttered Valende. Rani could tell without wanting to that she’d been crying.

“It means losing six competent fighters,” Kingfisher disagreed. “Fewer, we are weaker.”

“Not necessarily.” Kingfisher frowned at Vas, and the elf cleared his throat a little self-consciously. “I bow, of course, to your expertise in the art of war, mademoiselle--” Kingfisher frowned a little more; it was clearly the first time anyone had ever called her that and lived to tell about it. “--but whilst adventuring, a larger party is not necessarily a more powerful one.”

“How could it not be?”

“Well, larger groups attract more attention,” Vas pointed out. “And it’s strange but true: more powerful enemies tend to assail larger parties.”

“Not to mention all the dice-rolling,” shuddered Marty. “Do you, like, have any idea how long that fight with the Diarian things took in game time?”

Kingfisher squinted at the paladin. “You’re strange,” she concluded. “Lucky for you, you’re huggable.”

Vas arched an eyebrow, but continued. “And while Vickie’s upbeat manner is an asset in times of recovery, her actions in combat are ultimately a threat to our safety. I saw several instances where she could have prevented or at least cushioned harm to Aithne, Mina, or my sister, but she didn’t. And she made no acknowledgment of their plights, either. That sort of recklessness in combat may not get her killed, but it will eventually do it to one of us.”

“Wait a minute, Vas,” said Orlen. “You’re not exactly a paragon of restraint yourself, you know. By those criteria, you’re practically asking us to kick you out, as well.”

“Really, Orlen? Come now, when have I ever shirked or grandstanded in combat? I know all too well that a battlezone is no place for frivolity. I know many of you think of me as a ditz and a flake.” Several sets of eyes rolled away from Vas, giving him all the clarification he needed. “However, you should know that I spent seven years in the militia of Liratyn and sixteen in the Guild of Elemental Sorcery. I made my way through those institutions, and through several human ones, and I can say, honestly, that Vickie’s kind of brashness would have gotten herself kicked out of all of them.”

“Believe me,” Vas continued, “I understand Miss Dare’s free spirit better than any two of you; but her desire for freedom from control has caused her to abandon her own self-control. She sees no harm in any of her actions, so long as her motives were pure, and she accepts no responsibility for her errors. There are those who say I’m much the same way,” he said, casting a sidelong glance at Ebreth and Khyrisse, “but I can tell you this: if I err, I admit to it and move beyond it. Vickie just forgets about it. Though I will miss her, I think Khyrisse was right in asking her to go her own way, because she certainly won’t be willing to accommodate to our ways.”

Rani looked around the room. Most people were nodding. None of them were strenuously objecting, anyway, which was good enough for Rani. If she was going to apologize she’d rather do it on her own schedule. “Leadership,” she returned to her notes. “I’m going out on a limb here and assuming Aithne’s the only one into the flogging thing.”

“Unless we recruit Nox,” said Vas.

“The leader should be someone everyone can report to who will keep everyone informed; who will be our spokesperson; who will put together plans using all our input; who can delegate people to tasks; and who should see that people are keeping to the charter. The leader cannot give unilateral commands. The leader should have a nice butt so we can look at it while we’re following.”

“What???” cried Khyrisse.

“One of the Price Girls put that in.” Rani waved her hand. “Don’t worry about it. Show of hands: who agrees with that definition of the leader?”

“Sounds more like an administrator than the leader of a unit of adventurers,” commented Val. “That may be what we need most here, though.” She raised her hand with the others.

“Didn’t Mina say something about organizing more effective strike teams?” asked Vas.

Rani flipped through her notes. “Bugger me,” she sighed. “I forgot. Does this mean Aithne gets to whip my butt?”

“I was just thinking,” said Vas, “that it could take some pressure off of the leader if we did as Mina suggests and assigned certain roles to people now, according to their obvious talents, so that devising strike teams might run a little smoother, you know.”

“Works for me,” said Rani. “Let’s finish last night’s agenda first. Keeping Khyrisse on as leader. Show of hands.” Most of the hands in the room went up. Khyrisse’s wasn’t among them. Rani counted quickly by sixes. “Looks like the nice ass thing won’t be a problem.”

“Hey!” yelped Khyrisse.

“Third item: membership.” Rani flipped her page. “Rat Pack members should have the following responsibilities: don’t attack or steal from your teammates, don’t attack or steal from Rat Pack allies, try to share relevant information, try to consult with your teammates, try to put aside personal differences for the greater good. If the group makes a decision you disagree with you can try to change their minds or even refuse to participate but you can’t undermine or sabotage the group decision. No going in someone’s mind without permission. And you can use Khyrisse’s stuff but ask her first. Kicking injustice in its ugly head or any other convenient extremity a priority. Show of hands: all of this okay?”

“Let’s say everyone’s resources,” said Valende, “not just Khyrisse’s stuff. She’s not the only one with resources to share, you know.”

“Can we add something about not punching other team members in the nose?” asked Vas, his mouth twitching merrily.

“Right after the clause about not spreading destructive rumors about other people’s personal complications,” Ebreth responded blithely.

Schneider, who had taken much more of the brunt of that particular inappropriate publicity, only muttered to himself.

“Now, boys,” said Rani. “Last one: Procedure. Tor thinks we should work on a consensus basis. In other words, we’re all partners in this, and group decisions get made by mutual agreement, and if there’s a serious difference of opinions we vote. The leader can speak for us and make decisions for us, but it should be because she’s trying to express the best decision for everyone, and if she gets it wrong we should say so and count noses. Show of hands?” Rani didn’t raise her hand, but most everyone else did. “All right,” she said. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a team charter, then.”

Schneider cleared his throat. “Hey,” he said, “hold on just a minute, there, Rani. I’d like to move that we immediately select a team cheer, a secret handshake, an official color for team hawaiian shirts, and secret decoder rings to be given to all members. The Sewer Tour and Chain Gang rejected these sage proposals, let the Rat Pack be the visionary group that embraces them!”

“Boyfriend,” said Rani, “I’ll wear fishnets and a feathered headdress if it’ll get you to help me stop these fuckers from stealing my city, but after that you try to dress me and die.”

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