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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 41

Vanunu: Fallout

“Gawd, I just love this countryside,” Cindy giggled as she curled up next to Mordecai. “The snow, the trees... it’s almost as nice as home.”

“So where is home for you?” asked Mordecai. He could feel the reins in his hand shake with the rhythm of the reindeer. The Northlands were beautiful, he thought, and it was a wonderful idea to go riding out among them.

“Tobrinel,” Cindy said, and Mordecai stiffened. “You okay, honey?” she asked.

“I... lived there for a time, too,” Mordecai admitted.

“Didja like it?”

“Not tremendously,” Mordecai understated.

“Bummer,” said Cindy. “Because now that we’re out of New Trade territory, we’re free to take you back.”

Mordecai jerked away from her. “Cindy... you...?”

“Call me Ari, dear. And yes, I’m working for the Duke.”

“You’ll never get me back there!” cried Mordecai, reining the deer in, prepared to jump from the carriage and run back to New Trade if necessary.

“I’m not in charge of that part,” Ariath smiled coldly. “That’s for Bloody to take care of.”

“Mordecai,” said the One True Bloodscar, stepping out of invisibility. “We meet again.”

“It’s too late, Bloodscar!” cried Mordecai, pulling his small knife from its holder on his belt. “You’ll never take me alive!”

The blade left a slimy trail as he drew it across his own throat. Mordecai looked in his hand to see that he was holding a fish.

“Fishy wishy splishy doo!” a voice gibbered from behind Bloodscar. “Mordecai and so can I!”

“You... you’ve succeeded...” Mordecai mouthed in shock.

“You’re familiar with Scute Galeric, our first test subject,” smiled Bloodscar.

“But... the process...”

“Why do you think we want you back? Revenge for your betrayal aside,” growled Bloodscar.

Ariath hit Mordecai on the back of the head. He slumped down against the driver’s board.

“Men,” she sighed. “Always posturing. Can we get home now?”

***

It was late the next night when the deer-drawn carriage crossed the border between Talaria and Tobrinel, turning northwards towards the capital.

Madeleine let it pass. Every fiber of her undead being yearned for blood, but the carriage bore the markings of the Duke, and Madeleine’s masters, for whatever inscrutable reasons of their own, had allied with the Duke. Madeleine was powerless against the will of her masters. It was her strength and it was her curse.

It was also about to end.

As the vampiress waited beneath the half-clouded disk of Bane for some unprotected traveler to pass this way and slake her hunger, she crouched at the side of the Marlys River and cupped its water in her hands, lifting it to her lips. Her thoughts were of the warm salt of human blood, and her eyes on the road. She did not, therefore, notice the light grey sediment the water carried with it, downstream, from an area in the hills of southern Tobrinel she could not have known had gone primarily by the name “Site Y” for the past several months.

Madeleine did not, in fact, notice at first that anything had changed. She simply lifted more water to her bright red lips.

But Tobrinel would never be quite the same.

Ill At Ease

“Well, that certainly went a lot more smoothly,” commented Ebreth, kicking the fanged head he had severed away from the body of the Diari monster it had once belonged to.

“Yes, combats do that when you don’t trip out in the middle of them,” sniped Rani.

Val coughed and interposed herself diplomatically. “There were also only five of them this time, dear,” she said. “And in light of Jack’s brilliant analysis and Kingfisher’s tactics--not to mention Octavian’s timely return--” The vigilante tipped his cowl at her with a certain debonair grimness. “--I’m not surprised it went as quickly as it did.”

“That was not so quick,” frowned Aithne, standing on tiptoe to tend to the mangled shoulder of her queen’s new lord. “That only seem quick because we were not watching it carefully. I think plenty of time was actually passed.”

“Anyway,” grumbled Rani, “we gave Lots Of Locusts the whole night for a head start by getting our asses kicked the first time, so I wouldn’t break out the champagne over killing these monsters now. Whatever they’re doing, they’ve had all night to work on it and they know they’re running out of time.”

“Then we must move immediately if we are to stop this scum from destroying my city,” said Octavian in a low, cold voice.

“Yeah, what he said.” Rani folded her arms.

“Do we, uh, trust what Pete told us about the location of the laboratory?” asked Garal hesitantly. The halfling planeblazer had put Pete in a relatively calm little nook of the Plane of Converging Lines for safekeeping for the time being. The decision not to kill the prisoner hadn’t required a vote.

“Unless one of you has psychometric powers that are functioning normally,” sighed Rani, “it looks like it, for now.”

“He did pass my detect lie spell,” Valende reminded everyone.

Schneider put away his healing dagger and approached Rani just a bit too casually as the rest of the Rat Pack finished helping each other to their feet. “Hey,” he said, clearing his throat. Rani couldn’t tell if his unease was registering with her fritzing sensors or just really was that obvious. “Are you, you know, all right?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I’m just great. Except for the fact that the only home I’ve ever had is about to be hijacked by my fucking Nazi relatives, you know, and this deadly biogenic disease they gave me is making my one useful talent not work reliably anymore, and I’m having a really bad hair day. I’ve also wasted my life. Other than that, though.”

“Rani,” suggested Val gently, “you’re snapping at people who are trying to help again.”

“Sorry,” she sighed. “This just hasn’t been my week.”



Schneider almost shook with the urge to flee. Get away from her before you draw any more of her attention. Go stand by Khyri. She owes you one, she’s in a bad mood as it is, she’d probably unleash a little Extreme Violence (tm) on your behalf if psi-girl fucks with your mind.

That’s not very heroic, complained Tila.

Tal commands us to turn the other cheek, said Sister Jane. If we allow people the opportunity to hurt us, we allow them the opportunity to do the right thing as well.

All right, guys, all right. Shut up already. Sheesh. “Uh,” said Schneider, trying not to look Rani in the eye, lest she get pissed and blow up his brain like in Scanners. “Don’t worry, we’ll squash them locusts and save Rimbor and all that stuff. Really. Uh, here.”

He reached into his backpack, and after some fumbling pulled out a vial containing brown, bubbly liquid. “I, uh, don’t know if this’ll do any good, but feel free to imbibe... It’s some kinda painkiller Luthien whipped up. Tasty too.”

No telekinetically ruptured internal organs. So far so good. “Well, uh, lemme know if there’s anything I can do. Oh, I think I better go help Jack with those decoder rings.” Schneider scurried away from her as fast as something close to dignity would allow.

“You’re not going to grow an extra finger just by standing near me,” Rani muttered at him, folded her arms fiercely, and stalked off down the hall after Octavian.

Old Souls For New

Ebreth skimmed his fingers across the metal door with a carelessness that belied his expertise. “Nothing,” he said, with some surprise.

“No traps?” said Rani.

“No anything. It’s not even locked.”

Rani muttered to herself in Diari. “They’ve taken anything useful and left. God damn those biotech monsters anyway.”

Ebreth held a finger up for silence and closed his eyes. “There’s someone in there,” he whispered.

“An ambush?” Khyrisse drew her wand of lightning.

“One person moving,” he said, “speaking softly...” He jumped back from the door then, whipping his rapier out, moments before the knock sounded at the door. He looked sidelong at Khyrisse, and she looked back. The stranger knocked again. “Who... is it?” said Ebreth, feeling a bit stupid. If this is Coyote Jay again...

“Khyrisse?” said a woman’s voice, a little dazed. “Khyrisse Starshadow?”

Ebreth looked at her again, and she nodded. He sheathed his rapier and took out his pistol, backing carefully away from the doorframe to get a clear angle to cover her from. Khyrisse swung the door open. “Hello?”

And came face to face with Mad Sallie.

Rani expelled air. “How did she get in here?” she demanded.

“A tisket, a tasket,” singsonged the older woman, her eyes unfocused, cradling a bundle in her arms. “A green and yellow casket. Oh, how much we have lost. I can hear her even now! My son, my only son, she cries! And the moon drawing nearer, I smashed--” She flung the bundle she was carrying to the laboratory doorstep, her face contorted with violence. Khyrisse made a small shriek. From the bundle a small bloodstone spheroid rolled, knocked gently into the archmage’s boot, and was still. “How many souls have we lost?” said Mad Sallie, looking directly into Khyrisse’s face, suddenly confused. “I, brought this for you?” she said, as if it were a question, and as if she were waiting for an answer.

“What the--” Khyrisse began, glancing down at the spheroid and back up at Mad Sallie.

“Hey!” said Schneider. “It’s the soul!”

“I’ve got it!” Skitch pounced on the bloodstone egg before it could roll away. He looked down at it curiously. It was pulsing with a strange warmth, now brighter and now dimmer. The bloodstone surface was smeared, like a badly washed window. “So that’s a soul, huh?”

Somewhere in Rimbor City, John Tucson was suffering the urge to scrawl rude commentary about Octavian across the nearest wall.

“It--does look like it, doesn’t it?” Khyrisse activated her true seeing and reached across to take it from him, looking up quizzically at their rather ragged benefactor. “Thank you for bringing this to us,” she said. “How did you know we were looking for--”

Her voice died in a strangled sound, the bloodstone dropping out of her suddenly limp hands.

“Careful!” Val leaped forward and caught the soul-stone before it could hit the ground.

Mad Sallie raised a filthy hand and plucked a lock of hair out of Khyrisse’s face, smoothing it back with a dreamily detached air. “Curly Locks, Curly Locks, will you be mine?” she sang, with a plaintive smile. “You shall not wash dishes, for you break them every time...”

“Aniu?” Khyrisse whispered, barely audible.

Valende gasped, her hands flying up over her mouth. Vas caught the bloodstone as it plummeted towards the floor for the third time. “What?” Skitch demanded, sounding almost angry in his bewilderment, looking from Val to Khyrisse to the madwoman in the doorway.

Mad Sallie patted his head, serenely ignoring the gun still pointed at her by Ebreth. Skitch ducked away, his nose crinkling. “Little lost-and-found,” she said sadly, her eyes filling with tears. “So many were never to be found again, until they came to Mad Sallie...” She swayed slightly, burying her hands in her dark straggled hair. “Spinning, the sky is spinning--a snapped thread trails behind her--is she a spider?” She wandered back into the lab, away from the confused Rat Pack. “She looks up at her sister, at the glint of the knife, and her scream breaks on the tiles...!”

Khyrisse made a throttled, wordless shriek and bolted into the room after her.

“What the Saint A is wrong with you people?”

Ebreth said something under his breath and went after Khyrisse. She was babbling at Mad Sallie in Elvish, pushing the snarls of dirty hair back with shaking hands. The light fell more clearly on her face: straight nose, arched eyebrows, a firm, almost stubborn sweep of jawline and chin. Sallie bore this patiently, looking down at Khyrisse with bemused, bird-bright eyes.

“Aniu.” Val cleared her throat. “It means ‘Mother’.”

Scorpion’s Nest: Forgive Me, Evan

“What now, Nox,” sighed John Tucson impatiently, already quite sure he didn’t want the answer.

“I just wanted to let you know that the girls, the python, and I have a nice pit of marmalade just begging to be used,” leered the leatherette-clad elf.

“Why, that does sound intriguing...” mused Tucson, and then shook his head suddenly and violently and slapped Nox away from him. “Will you stop bothering me!”

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