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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 43

The Alchemical Train

“You...!” Ebreth went back several steps through Thalia and into Octavian, who caught him by the shoulder before he could crash into the tunnel wall. His rapier clattered to the floor.

“What are you doing here?” Khyrisse demanded of the imprisoned archdevil.

“You want the long version, or the short one?” sighed Mephisto. “You know that cute little girl who stole Lucifer’s Stone of Command from me while I was cutting you a deal for your boyfriend’s soul? Let’s just say she didn’t do a very good job with it. Not only did Lilith boot my ass for losing the thing, but I was unable to stop it from having drastic imbalancing effects on Ataniel proper, and I was unable to recover it, and then the kid started crying and I wasn’t even able to do anything about that...”

“Oh, spare me your angst, please,” muttered Khyrisse.

“...anyway, the upshot now is that I’m stuck here as a human,” he sighed. “I was second-in-command of all Hell after Lucifer’s Passing, and now I’m reduced to being held prisoner by a bunch of Diarians. I suppose if I get some bad things in before I die I can go back to Hell and work my way up through the ranks again... this isn’t really how I’d been planning to spend this century.”

“My heart bleeds peanut butter for you,” Khyrisse told him in Impish.

“You could be a little more sympathetic, you know. I got into all this trouble on your account.” Mephisto fastened his sandal straps. “If you think Lilith would have been releasing damned souls into other demigoddesses’ custody...”

“All right, all right,” said Khyrisse crabbily. “I’m already letting you out; don’t expect me to fall all over myself thanking you. Do you know anything useful about these Diarians?”

“No.” The ex-devil got up and stretched in fairly feline fashion. “I’ll help you kick their asses, though, if you want. They messed with me first, so it won’t count as a good deed or anything.”

“Could this get any more fucked?” muttered Rani.

“Oh yes,” Jane Crow said, her head lilting to the side. “The alchemical train is coming.”

“What about her?” Khyrisse asked Mina.

“I think I shall call you Miss Lanyard,” Jane decided.

“Her name is Joanna Crofton,” said Mina, sadly. “She trained under the same wizard as Roland, Gemma, Kilydd and myself. She was Tyldant’s favorite until Roland and she... well, it’s a long story. She hasn’t been herself since then.”

“I have been myself. I just haven’t been Joanna anymore.”

Mina bit her lip. “I--I know you have enough to deal with, both here and in New Trade, but she... she really needs some help.”

She gave the older sorceress a pleading look. Khyrisse waved it away. “If you vouch for her, Mina, that’s enough for me. We’ll take care of her.” Mina smiled widely despite her distress.

“You have reservations,” Jane commented to Ebreth.

“Huh?” said Ebreth. “No, I trust Mina too.”

Jane laughed a friendly, open laugh. “Not reservations about me, silly. Reservations at the hotel.”

Ebreth looked at Khyrisse and shrugged.

“Hey,” said Mephisto, sniffing the air. “Something’s coming.”

“I told you, didn’t I?” Jane asked, her head rolling to hang over the other shoulder.

***

“They ran,” said Mad Sallie. “Ran from me and my pretty ball.”

“Uh, I think we’ve got a problem,” said Jack, as a strange light coalesced from where the glowing liquid hit the floor.

“This big magic,” Aithne agreed.

“Dimensional space... intersecting...” said Jack, his form becoming wavy. “Like a wormhole... but...”

***

“Uh, this thing’s glowing,” said Vas, holding up Tucson’s soul.

“Where the heaven did you get that?” Mephisto cried. “Lilith’s mane, look at the spiritual detritus it’s collected. That sucker’s fucking radioactive!”

“What?” demanded Khyrisse.

“A hundred people must have touched that thing! It’s so full of bits of other people’s warring souls it could set off a dimensional explosion just by--”

There was a loud crash from upstairs.

“Jack,” said Ebreth.

“M--ad Sallie,” said Khyrisse.

“Aithne,” added Mina.

“Choo-choo!” said Jane Crow, and flapped her large black wings once, for effect.

***

“This portal should get you back to Ataniel Prime,” said Thermador. “I think it’ll dump you off in the eastern ocean somewhere, but being incorporeal and all that, you shouldn’t have much problem.”

“This one thanks you,” Amatsu whispered politely, though in fact even the most evil of ronin he had known would have done no less for an ally who had saved his life.

“Tell Starshadow’s planeblazer to keep closing the rest of those o’s, okay? If the baddies found another hesher, they could still use the crash to wonk the city.”

“This one... will do as you ask.”

Thermador frowned at his shadow. “You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you, ghosty?”

“This one’s specialty is not planar matters.”

“The wormholes are the gunpowder. The soul is the trigger.” Dave Thermador ran his fingers through his rumpled hair. “Without it they’ll have a hell of a time finding something else with enough juice to power the thing, but they might, so you need to cut ‘em off at the pass by crumping the rest of the wormholes, got it?”

Amatsu thought he did. “Should we not also make efforts to recover the soul before they do?”

Thermador shrugged. “Knock yourselves out. Or you could flush the Alchemical Train. Just don’t do both at once, or you’ll wonk yourselves instead.”

“Alchemical train?”

“Yeah, it’s a mystochemical radiant solution to direct the displacement. They’re probably intending to disperse it through the sewers or something. You can’t miss it. It’s this disgusting-smelling glowing blue glop.”

“This one shall relay the message.”

***

“Holy shit!” yelled Khyrisse, emerging from the secret passage to find luminous blue liquid spilled all across the floor and a huge glowing rift that had apparently consumed half the laboratory.

“Leave it to Jack,” Val sighed fondly.

Interlude: Meanwhile, In Vickieland

“Yeah, I know it’s a big favor, Pluv,” Vickie said. “But I’m totally willing to meet whatever terms the guy wants.”

“Well,” said Sturoster, frowning. “He hasn’t been taking visitors since the Madness.”

“Tell him... tell him that I know where to find the Monkey King.”

“Is that going to matter to him?”

“It is if my info is right.”

“I’ll tell my guy to make the offer. Now what’s this I hear about you getting booted from your position with the Rat Pack?”

Vickie sighed. She should have known better than to try to slide it by Pluvious. “Their decision. I tried to explain how I could best help them, but they got all pissy and stopped listening to me.”

“Couldn’t you have had one of the Prices talk for you, Vick? You know you get defensive when you feel attacked. You’re no diplomat, but you work fine in a team if you’re managed right.”

“Oh, get off my case, boss. I tried to tell them that, but they wouldn’t listen.”

“Defensive, remember?”

Vickie sighed. “Sorry. But I’m really done with my mission anyway, Pluv. Intervention won’t be necessary. She’s fine.”

“You’re sure?” said Pluvious.

“Well, I’m not a shrink, or anything. I mean, she has mood swings, she can get screechy... but she’s not going to turn insane and evil on us. Her boyfriend got kacked in RC and she didn’t detonate. That pretty much caps it for me.” Vickie shrugged. “I think your Salagian contacts may have been overstating the case. She’s kinda stressed out, but I really don’t think she’s headed for a meltdown anytime soon.”

“I’m glad,” Pluvious said, and Vickie could sense that he really was.

“Two or three of the others, now...”

“Banishing psychodrama from Ataniel is beyond the purview of P.E.A.N.U.T.B.U.T.T.E.R.,” said Pluvious, with a short sigh.

“I hear ya.” Vickie pulled the thin silver vial with the trap the soul trigger in it out of her panty strap and rolled it back across the desk to the spymaster, grinning broadly. “Get me the audience. I’ll be ready to go in twenty-four.”

The 25-Year Cicadas

There were a couple of seconds of stunned silence, which was impressive for the Rat Pack in general but doubly so when a huge opalescent planar anomaly was pulsing through the building they were standing in. “Dimensional displacement,” breathed Garal. “This is what they meant for Rimbor.”

“Meant for Rimbor?” said Rani, slowly. “You--mean we just displaced this laboratory instead of Rimbor City?”

“It looks like it,” said Val, examining the shimmering cloud where the lab had once been. “The soul must have interacted with the magical essence the Diarians were brewing and activated it before they had it properly set up.”

“Then...” said Rani, taking Tucson’s soul from Vas’ hands and turning it in her own. It had stopped glowing. “Then... that’s it? The city’s safe?” She looked at the soul. It looked very ordinary.

“Yes, well, Jack has this way of saving the day by accident,” said Ebreth, as he tossed his rope through the rift. It went through easily enough, but when he gave it a tug it didn’t budge back towards him. “What the hell...?”

“The rift is unidirectional,” frowned Garal, inspecting it. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to climb back out.”

Skitch tugged at Khyrisse’s tunic. “Mom! It’s shrinking!” Rani followed the boy’s pointing finger to the edge of the alchemical rift. Sure enough, there were several inches of gaping hole between the last of the wall and the last of the rift. The anomaly was closing.

Rani found herself imagining what would have remained of Rimbor a few hours after the attack: a smooth crater where the city once had been, a faint charge of ions, no trace. Rani felt a bit giddy. “No time to waste, then,” said Ebreth. “Garal, you’re our best hope for getting back to Ataniel from wherever this leads. You with me?”

“Of course,” said Garal, lifting his chin.

“We’re not going to jump into the rift, are we?” Thalia whispered to Skitch.

“I hope so,” Skitch whispered back. “Maybe it’ll go to the Abyss!”

“All right,” said Ebreth. “We’re going after them. Khyrisse, if--”

She grabbed him by the collar and dragged his face down to hers. “I hope you weren’t thinking of patronizing me, Ebreth Tor,” she said through her teeth.

He paused a couple of seconds. “Ah,” he said, “who, me?”

“Good.” She released him, her mouth scowling but her eyes twinkling merrily. “Because you’re not getting rid of me that easily. ...Besides, Luthien said planar travel was perfectly safe for the baby.”

“Unless we go to the Plane of Brain-damaging Mutagenic X-rays, or something,” muttered Rani, and grabbed Octavian by the forearm. “Hey, Batman, where do you think you’re going?” The vigilante frowned at her, probably having had his fill of being man-handled by silly adventurers for the last couple days, but Rani didn’t let go. “You got what you wanted so now you’re going to melt off into the night and leave the little guys to twist in the wind? What the fuck kind of hero is that? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Orlen’s jaw dropped open. Octavian just looked at her, his flinty eyes narrowing in a way she couldn’t read. “Those guys got the shaft saving our city for us. It’s the least we can do to go after them. Mijzinas.” She released his arm.

***

“Look, Mahoney,” snapped Tucson, “Erstad kept up his end of the bargain, and I’m going to keep up mine. It’s the least we can do. Mijzinas!”

George Mahoney looked at him very strangely. “Boss?”

“What?” he barked.

“Well, what the hell does that mean, boss?”

“I don’t--” John Tucson froze. “Rani,” he whispered, suddenly understanding. “Holy fuck. She’s got my soul.”

“Boss?” said Mahoney, as the Scorpion got up from the desk in a swirl of cloak and strode across the room. “Erstad?”

“Yes, kill him,” said Tucson, and slammed the door behind him.

***

Ebreth paused at the threshold of the slowly diminishing rift. “Look,” he said, “none of you has to come if you don’t want to--”

“Ebreth,” sighed Valende, “I realize we haven’t been the most cohesive group in the history of Ataniel this mission, but I think we’ve all got more team spirit than that.”

“I think he was just leaving a place for people to, like, have declined and gone home in case they didn’t want to go through,” offered Marty. “This is a pretty long post.”

Ebreth understood what that kid was talking about around half the time. He shook his head and took Khyrisse’s hand in his. Whatever was on the other side, he didn’t want to be separated there. “Let’s do it,” he said.

***

Aithne knelt anxiously by Jack, whose form was blurring incomprehensibly. He looked like a shapeshifter Aithne had seen drunk once, except at drastically greater speed. She had no idea what was wrong with him. Khyrisse’s mother seemed fine, or at least she didn’t seem any more disturbed than she had been in the lab, and Aithne felt well, though the pull of strong magics was making her feel a little dizzy. The three of them were on some sort of ephemeral hill, perhaps astral in nature. Below them, though, glittered the lights of a city, and not Rimbor. If there is anyone in this universe more skilled at getting into trouble than I am, thought Aithne, I hope I never meet her.

Then Khyrisse and Ebreth dropped through onto the hill, and their servant Garal, and Rani, and the rest of the Ratpack. Aithne was indescribably relieved at not having to be in charge on top of everything else. “Oops,” she said to Khyrisse in a frightened voice, giving her a wobbly smile.

“What on--”

“Jack?” Ebreth crouched beside the outlineless mathematician, trying to get a grip on his shifting arm.

“We’re in pandimensional space,” marveled Garal, looking around. “How did Hazh-- hajh-- the Locusts connect to pandimensional space? Even I can’t do that!”

Valende gasped loudly as she came through. “No! It--it can’t be--”

“Can’t be what?” sighed Rani, flipping open her spiral notebook.

“I--I’ve seen this before. Vastarin. Vas! Do you remember--”

Vas looked down at the city and back up at Valende. “No,” he said, smiling with guilty charm.

“It must have been a hundred and fifty years ago,” she whispered, passing her hand before her eyes. “We were very young... Vas, it’s Cynosure. It’s Cynosure.”

“Cynosure?” Khyrisse stared. “But I--oh, Grendel, Cynystra! Cynosure recurs in Southern Cynystra! The Diarians must have been planning to bring Rimbor City with it into the heart of Cynystra next time and launch some kind of surprise attack on Tremontagne...”

“And we stopped them?” wailed Skitch.

“Rimbor City isn’t some kind of weapon for jackass countries to use against each other,” said Rani crossly.

“Well, actually,” said Vas, “historically...”

“Shut up. How long till the city hits Cynystra, Khyrisse? Maybe we can just hitch a ride.”

“Ah,” murmured Khyrisse, “I think the next appearance is going to be in 839.”

Rani paused. “I hate to admit to being less patient than Lots of Locusts,” she said, “but--”

“We need a better solution than that,” agreed Ebreth, trying to help Jack to sit up. “Garal?”

“I don’t think I can get us out of here,” said the planeblazer. “Pandimensional space is terribly hard to connect. That must be why the Locusts had such a confusing, elaborate setup.”

“The problem is NP-complete,” Jack explained, in a strange staticky voice that sounded like twenty or thirty different voices. “It’s impossible to maximize.”

“Well, we’ve saved Rimbor City, anyway,” said Mina, optimistically. “And we’ve found Jack and Aithne and Sallie. So now all we have to do is find a way to get home.”

“And a cure for Rani’s fever,” added Orlen.

“Maybe we can find both in the city,” offered Vas. “I do kind of remember this now--and if you can’t find it in Cynosure, you just plain can’t find it.”

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