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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 42

Meeting the Relatives

Ebreth stood for a long several seconds. “Mother?” he said, his eyes flicking instinctively about the empty lab. He couldn’t read Diari, but he recognized its swooping lines on the cabinets. “Khyrisse, are you--sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” she half-screamed, sobbing in hysteric release.

“Khyrisse,” he said, approaching the two women carefully, “remember we’re dealing with Diarians here. This could be a psionic illusion.”

“A big psionic illusion of a dramatic mother-and-child reunion?” scoffed Rani. “How likely is that?”

“Now you are doing it,” Aithne sniffed at her.

Ebreth ignored them both. “Orlen?”

“I’m not getting any psionic activity,” said the bard, frowning and turning his head from side to side. “But where are the psientists?”

“All gone,” singsonged Mad Sallie, patting Khyrisse’s hair. “Sand through my fingers.”

“Not evil,” said Valende, sketching in the air, “but I, uh, can’t tell if she’s lying or not... she doesn’t, uh, seem in her right mind, exactly.”

“Were there people in here when you came in?” Orlen asked the beggar woman.

“All my pretty ones,” she sighed, cocking her head at the ground.

Ebreth looked at Khyrisse and back at Orlen, and holstered his pistol. “Let’s search the lab, then,” he said quietly to the others.

“Is--anyone the least bit concerned that this not particularly sane woman may have wiped out all the psientists in this laboratory?” Orlen asked.

Mad Sallie squinted her eyes at Khyrisse, something troubled in the corner of her mouth. “Do--do I know you? Something...” Khyrisse clung to the older woman’s emaciated frame and wept with abandon. Ebreth put one hand on her shaking back. “It’s all right,” he said, with steady authority. “We’ll find help for her. Now is not the time, Khyrisse.” The archmage gasped and nodded, burrowing her fists into her eyes. “It’s all right,” he said again, squeezing her shoulder hard, and reached across to lift the beggar’s gnarled hand to his lips. “Very pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

She made a disturbingly tartish curtsey. “I’ve got to get her to my father’s,” said Khyrisse, her eyes whirling. “Mabye he can--”

“Khyrisse,” said Ebreth, gently. “We’ll take care of her. Breathe.”

“I hate to disturb you, dear,” Valende said in a soft voice, “but we really could use some magical assistance analyzing some of this. Rani’s very ill and anything we could learn--”

“Oh!” said Khyrisse, catching her breath a little. “I--yes. Yes, of course.”

“Oh, the broken ghosts of the lost,” moaned Mad Sallie, shaking her filthy head sadly.

“Well, there’s nothing we can do for them now,” said Ebreth, and offered her his arm. “Shall we go on?”

“You’re a good boy,” she said serenely, patting his forearm.

Prisoner of Conscience

“Whoa!” said Marty, coming face to face with Mad Sallie. “Mom?”

“What?!?” Khyrisse demanded.

“Like, how’d you get so... tall? And, like, elven?”

“Marty,” said Ebreth, “what are you talking about?”

“You said she was my mom! Which is really weird, considering she’s, like, dead...”

“My mom, Marty,” Khyrisse sighed.

“Whoa! We’re siblings! Now I’ve got two evil sorceress sisters!”

“Hey!” shouted Khyrisse. “I’m not evil!”

“So, like, do I owe you for past birthday presents?”

***

“Something’s wrong here, Rani,” Mina said to the detective, who was finding herself a bit hampered by the Watsoning of the young mage.

“No, really?” said Rani. “A gutted lab, missing Diarians, a nutso woman who half our team thinks is their mom, and we still don’t know how to stop the city from falling into God-knows-where, and you think something’s wrong?”

“You don’t have to be snippy about it,” Mina said good-naturedly.

I’m always snippy, Rani wanted to say, but it was hard to ignore the fact that Mina had a point. She was upset about so many things, dying being one of them, that she was letting her emotions ride over her sense. A hunch is as good as a clue to a blind man, she reminded herself. “Wrong how?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Mina. “Old familiar pain.”

“It’s a start. What about? The lab? The Diarians? Crazy Cathy over there?”

“None... of those.”

“Great,” Rani sighed. “A new plot.”

***

Marty had finally figured out that Khyrisse wanted to keep their familial relationship a secret. Perhaps it was for his protection. Maybe she was just scared of Gabriella. Whatever the reason, Marty would do his best to keep it concealed. He couldn’t wait to tell Camina.

Vas was peering at the bookshelf, using his thumb to measure precise distances and angles of the shelf. The elf seemed very intent on his task, so Marty decided to just take the one book that was left on the shelf and try to give reading another go. The book was entitled “Don’t Touch This! Volume III.” Marty grabbed the book and pulled.

The bookshelf groaned and Vas jumped back as it pivoted away from the wall, revealing a secret passage.

“Whoa, cool!” said Marty. “This book has pictures!”

“Not. One. Word.” Vas glared at Val.

***

The passage was a short one, and the sigils of warding inside were ancient Diarian. Rani was able to decipher enough of them to learn that they were suggestive magic that made the passage undetectable to sentient minds not already aware of it. “Probably why Hu was able to find it,” she muttered.

“I did!” Marty said eagerly.

“It’s coming from here,” said Mina. “My... bad feeling.”

“I’ll take point,” said Khyrisse. “Jack, can you and Aithne stay with... Sallie?”

“Uh, sure,” said Jack, a combination of panic and relief in his voice.

Ebreth winked at Jack.

The rough-hewn stairway came to an end at a small cul-de-sac. Ancient wooden doors led off the small circular room in all compass directions, a fact made obvious by the twelve-pointed Diari compass painted on the floor.

“A prison,” Orlen explained. “The compass indicates that those beyond the doors are past the points of the earth. It’s an ancient superstition to keep prisoners from escaping.”

“Hello!” called Mina. “Is anyone down here?”

There was a scraping sound from one of the cells, and a moan from the other.

“We’ll take this one,” said Khyrisse, heading for one door. “Orlen, Rani, take the other. And be careful. Just because the Diari imprisoned these people here doesn’t mean they’re our friends.”

Mina nodded and started the somatic for a hold spell, just in case. “Allow me, sophiac one,” Orlen said with a flourish to Rani, and put his hand on the locking mechanism.

She opened the door as Orlen psyched the lock open, ignoring the Diari term of intellectual endearment. “What the fu--?”

“My goodness,” said Orlen.

Inside the cell was a tall woman, maybe six feet, with long ratty black hair that must once have been beautiful. She was dressed in the tattered remnants of a black gown, also once of great beauty. Strangest of all were her eyes, which were pure black, and the two black wings folded behind her.

Mina’s voice was almost a whisper. “Joanna?” she asked.

The woman lilted her head at the name. “Why, Mina Paris,” she said. “Are you to be my rescuer?”

“We’re the Rat Pack,” said Rani. “We need to ask you some questions about the Diarians who put you here.”

Mina was trying to push past Rani into the cell, but the detective held her back. “Oh, Joanna,” said Mina, pain in her voice.

“Call me Jane, Mina,” the woman answered. “Jane Crow.”

“Khyrisse,” Rani called. “You’d better come see this.”

When no response was immediate, Rani turned to look across the room. Khyrisse and Ebreth, sword in hand, stood in the open doorway to the opposite cell.

“You...!” said Ebreth Tor.

“I think... you’re going to have to work... pretty... hard... to outdo this one, Rani.”

Were We, Uh, The Group That Was Supposed To Stay Out Of Trouble?

“She is Khyrisse mother?” asked Aithne uneasily, healing the old elven woman, who said something else Aithne didn’t understand. Had the Diarians treated a hostage noblewoman this badly? She looked malnourished, ill, and emotionally disturbed, and she had lice. No wonder Khyrisse had been so distraught; Aithne’s parents treated their slaves better than this.

“Uh,” said Jack, “well, we think so.”

Jack had started saying “uh” and “um” to her more since asking her on a date. Aithne wondered if they were terms of endearment. Particles were always the hardest part of a language to pick up. “We will punish these bad Diarians,” she said certainly. The queen’s mother mumbled to herself and rocked her arms as if there were an infant in them. Aithne suspected she was mad, but didn’t want to insult anyone by saying so, so she smiled into the old woman’s arms as if there were an infant there and gave her another healing surge of magic. Her mana regenerated itself so quickly here, there was no need to conserve it. She picked up a bound book from the laboratory counter, but it was in a language she couldn’t read, so she set it back down again and looked at an apparatus dripping a blue liquid into a vial. “Maby--maybe, they are making a magic thing,” she said, “what is a magic thing that you drink?”

“A potion?”

“Maybe they are making a potion.” Aithne squinted at the apparatus. “I think they must run away very quickly. They leave everything still cooking.”

Khyrisse’s mother sang something to herself in a satisfied voice.

“Let me see.” Jack leaned over her shoulder to examine the apparatus, testing the tension of the clamp holding a flask of some sort over the lit burner.

Aithne leaned across the couple of inches still between them and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

There was a splintering crash as Jack’s windmilling arm knocked the entire laboratory setup to the marble floor.

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