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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 44

The Last Player

Getting out of New Gila had not been easy, but the Sidewinders eventually made their way back into the Doomlands. Their camp by the collapsed diantri mine was still there, and, to Jason’s great relief, so were their horses. “Bait!” he cried, hugging the big gelding around his neck. Flicker was glad this felt like a happy ending in at least some small way.

They stopped by the ghost town so Hsin could say a little prayer for the ghost of Deputy Mongo, hoping the news of their thwarting the Gilans might bring his spirit and those of his fellow townspeople some peace.

As they rode back towards the Toleski homestead, Jennifer frowned and squinted northward. “What the ding-dang... Todd, are my eyes busted, or does that look green up there by the Rift?”

Praxis’ eyes went golden as he invoked his psionic griffin totem. “I--don’t believe it,” he said. “The--the whole area’s growing grass.” He turned his head back and forth. “For at least a mile in either direction. How did that happen?”

“Amazing what a little gardening’ll do,” came a voice from behind them. Everyone turned; it was a handsome Diari man in a long white robe. “Peace,” he added, raising his hands as some of the frazzled party went for weapons, “I’m a friend. I’m here on the request of your... missing comrade.”

Flicker’s eyes narrowed at that. “Then why don’t you show us your true face?” he said plainly.

“Oh, very well,” sighed the man impatiently. “You people put so much into appearances.” He clapped his hands and his form changed to that of a hideous mummified corpse, his eyes mere pinpricks of malevolent red light from somewhere deep within the sockets of his rotting skull. Hou-Hsieh screamed and made a warding sign. Jason looked about ready to pass out from fright. “Is that good enough, or would you like some melodramatic clichés? You know, I’m really not here to destroy anything today. I’m just fulfilling a promise to a minion.”

“Why would you want to do that?” said Flicker, frowning more deeply.

“Because it benefits me to do so, of course,” said the Lich Lord. “I know you’ve been dealing with Luthien the Dead lately, but really, the boy was a tyro. You don’t last millennia if you’re truly unwilling to pay off those who help you, at least when it costs you little to do so. You can stop entertaining ideas of attacking me or trying to reimprison me, by the way. Even if I weren’t powerful enough to defeat all of you myself--which I assure you I am--you’re surrounded.”

Flicker glanced about quickly, and did a double-take. The Sidewinders were surrounded by a horde of penguins.

“At any rate,” continued Shalak, putting his skeletal fingers together, “the Shilree Vestrin you all knew this past year was not in fact the real one.”

“We know,” said Flicker.

“Oh.” The Lich Lord looked a bit disappointed. “Well, anyway, after I sent the penguins to retrieve her from the Rift last year and found dueling Gilan programs in her mind, I decided to implant a program of my own--I was a Psilord once, you know--and take advantage of this opportunity to return to the world of Ataniel. The resonance of the Gilan gateway with the Doomfissure allowed me to break my fortress free of its prison dimension when the explosion hit.”

“So it was all a lie. The Doomlands Rift exploding and destroying a large section of the continent. Gila’s subversion. All of it,” said Praxis, faintly disgusted.

“Well, I don’t know about the Gila part,” said Shalak. “That may well be true. I’m not the one who put that there. All I did was hitch a ride, as it were. And I’m about to repay her for my use of her time, so you don’t need to get on a high horse just yet.” His red-lit eyes bored into Flicker’s. “But to do it, I will need that head you’re carrying.”

Flicker did not look away from Shalak’s undead gaze, and he drew both Psi-Killer and the antimagic sword in a slow scrape of steel that could not possibly be misinterpreted.

“Now come on,” said Shalak. “You know, I don’t have to ask. If I needed the head for something, I would just have taken it. I have a way of being there when you’re not looking.” Shalak’s grin sent shivers down Flicker’s spine despite himself. “Now be a good elf and hand it over.”

“What are you going to do with it?” said Flicker.

“Pardon?”

“I said ‘What are you going to do with it?’ I’m not giving you her remains unless you tell me.”

Shalak withdrew his hand and looked directly at Flicker. He could feel the lich-fear crawling over him, but he planted his feet and stood his ground. “You were close,” Shalak finally said. “I can see it in your eyes. All right, little Sunfighter, I’m an old academic and I don’t mind expositing a bit more.” He clapped his hands and improbably enough Shilree appeared, wearing the grey uniform they’d all received in New Gila, looking quite pale. “I intend,” continued the lich, after a suitable pause to let the Sidewinders react to her presence, “to use this clone and the original brain to try my hand at a resurrection.”

There was a palpable pause. “And we’re supposed to believe that?” said Jethro. “Jumpin’ jee-hosephat, d’you think we was born yesterday?”

“Your heretical friend over there can read my mind,” Shalak said, almost sweetly. Praxis and Shalak looked at each other for a few uneasy moments. “Though I do suggest you concentrate merely on my intentions on this matter. Creatures more powerful than you have been known to go insane and claw their own skulls open once they got a peek at my mind.”

Praxis hesitated but finally closed his eyes to concentrate. After a moment he opened them again, looking a bit the worse for wear. “He’s telling the truth,” said the big psionicist.

Flicker was looking at the Shilree clone. “Then why not just give her back?” he said. “Why the shell game?”

Shilree spoke for the first time. “Because I am compromised Sunny,” she said. “I may feel like myself but I am really only a Gilan download. I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t betray you or Diaria or anything else that matters to me. I want what’s left of me to be used to bring my old self back to life.”

Now Praxis frowned. “Shilree,” he said, “if Shalak resurrects you, your old self, you’ll still be compromised. Would you rather be compromised by Gilans, or a Lich Lord?”

“Lich Lord,” said Shilree, very quietly, not like the thought hadn’t occurred to her before. Shalak made an ironic half-bow. Shilree gave Flicker a wobbly little smile. “I... can’t do this by myself either way Sunny. I can’t get any farther on my own. I have no choice but to put my faith somewhere.”

“And you’re starting with the Lich Lord?” said Praxis, incredulously.

“With Rhynwa.” Shilree looked tired. “There’s no way to dispel a clone. If Shalak turns me into an undead thing, Rhynwa can destroy me. I don’t have a lot of options left here Praxis.”

There was a heavy quiet. Flicker opened his satchel and took out the head of Shilree.

“Thank you,” smiled Shalak, and took it from him.

“One more thing,” said Praxis. “Green. Who the hell implanted the Green program with all the secret information for foiling Gila?”

“That you must learn for yourselves,” said Shalak, too smoothly.

“You don’t know, do you?” said Jennifer.

“I tire of this conversation,” said Shalak. “These lands are mine now. Do not intrude without invitation.”

“The hell you say,” growled Toleski. “These lands already got folks livin’ in em, skullboy.”

“Not any more.” The Lich Lord smiled, frostily. “They chose to emigrate. It was a wise choice. Recommend it to others as my holdings expand.”

Toleski looked about ready to blow a gasket. “Now you hold on jest a dangblasted minute, ya pompous spook. The Doomlands ain’t--”

“--yours,” finished Shalak, with danger in his voice. “I say again: these lands and any who enter them are mine. My return is permanent, young man, and my power inviolable. I will not be disturbed. Test me at your own risk.” Shalak whipped his robe around himself, and in a swirling red fog he, the clone, and the penguins were gone.

“And monkeys might fly outta my arse,” muttered Toleski.

“Hey, look everyone!” Kit waved a pair of pince-nez spectacles around. “Lich glasses! What do you figure these do?”

***

It was in Eyria that they found her again.

The trip back to Nylevia had been dusty and uneventful. Kit had wanted to say hi to the Sphinx again, so they took a detour through its valley and exchanged a few riddles about, respectively, coffins and elephants coming over the hill. They dropped the Toleskis off at the homestead. Keep in touch, Jennifer said, gave Jason a playful smile and Praxis a hug. They were not attacked by any worms.

And now they were back in civilization, or at least a mid-size Nylevian town with a coach line, and at the Turning Wheel, a spunky little nightclub Lian had played with some regularity, the Sidewinders were reunited with Shilree.

The whole thing had left a bitter taste in Flicker’s mouth. They hadn’t accomplished much, really, other than loosing a Lich Lord on the land. Their quest to save the west coast from devastation had been a ruse. The Gilans hadn’t actually been plotting to assassinate Anjra or detonate Ataniel’s psionics. He wasn’t even sure they’d learned anything useful, and sacrificing clone Shilree to restore the original didn’t feel entirely like a victory. More, Flicker didn’t feel like anything they’d done, any of the choices they’d made, had had the least bit of effect on the outcome. The same thing would have happened regardless. It was an ugly feeling, and an impotent one.

But the truth was none of that mattered now. It was over, and they were still standing.

“Thank you Sunny,” said Shilree in Diari. “Thank you.”

And Flicker took her in his arms, smiling over her glittering head at Praxis, and gave his silent thanks to Balder for friendships that could, and did, move worlds.

In the Cynosure

Jack was desperately trying to stabilize his planar constants, but there was something about the new space he found himself in that refused to stay the same for more than a few minutes. All different planes and dimensions somehow seemed to exist simultaneously here, a patchwork quilt of worlds all coinhabiting the same space.

Okay, Jack, slowly, he told himself. This is definitely external, so it wasn’t an alteration to your equation. What you have to do is to make a patch to override some of these new constants. He vaguely remembered the other Jack having a problem like this once and searched his inherited memories for a solution, but all that came up was the embarrassing feeling of a thong wedgie.

Through the repeating interface flux, however, Jack could begin to make out that while the dimensional constants all existed simultaneously in this place, they weren’t evenly distributed. Some were more distant than others.

Most likely, Jack mused, that means that in any one physical location there is only one dimensional fabric. Isolating which set of constants was the “loudest” took a few minutes, but finally Jack was able to verify the area that he currently occupied. After that, it was a simple task to design a filter to block out all of the dimensional constants but the ones for the space he was in. The world cleared around him and he could see that the entire Rat Pack was here.

“I think I got it,” he said, and his voice came out strangely pale and reedy.

“Jack?” Ebreth asked, looking up at him.

“I think I’ve got things fixed,” Jack said. “I’m down to one dimension at a time.”

“You’re looking rather... tall,” Mina said, her hand covering her amused smile.

Jack looked down and discovered that his body seemed to be strangely elongated. Apparently the dimensional constants here affected his vertical hold. “It should be okay,” Jack said. “It’s just the dimensional constants. I’ll be fine once I get out of this area.”

He decided not to mention that something else would probably go wrong then. Jack felt a sudden recollection of how much he hated dimensional travel.

***

“Okay, here we go,” Khyrisse said, unfolding the map Val and Vas had acquired from what they said was a library. She had her doubts, looking at the building in question, but she wasn’t going to ask. “We need to find some kind of religious or medical center for Rani’s disease, first thing. ...Grendel, what language is this written in?”

Vas rolled his eyes good-naturedly and cast his comprehend languages over her shoulder.

“Mom, you look like a tourist,” Skitch objected. “Somebody’s gonna try to mug you or something.”

“I am a tourist. Anyone who thinks I’m a helpless tourist is an idiot.” Khyrisse spread the map out on a nearby table. The place looked like a crazy quilt--her Dad would have loved it.

“Dude,” said Marty, eyeing the alien building as the others conferred over the map. “Do you think they have a bathroom in there? I really have to go.”

“You should have done that before we came,” Khyrisse said rotely, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Sorry. This den mother thing’s really starting to get to me. Go ahead.”

“Hey, that’s for paying customers, you lot!”

“Somebody order something, will you...?”

“What are they selling?”

“Does it matter?”

Bewitched: There’s Something About Marty

Marty was about to zip up when he realized someone was standing next to him. “Aaahhhh! I’m sorry! I didn’t know this was the girl’s room, I swear!”

“It’s not,” Kingfisher replied shyly. “I... I needed your help, Marty. I know the Rat Pack’s trying to, you know. Get along better. Um, you don’t think I’m... cold... do you?”

He put a hand on the warrior woman’s forehead. “No, your temperature feels normal to me.”

“I don’t want people to think of me that way. Especially you. I’m not a virgin,” she blurted without warning. “I’ve had sex lots of times, you know. I’m pretty good, I think.”

“That’s, uh, nice...”

“Is it hot in here,” she whispered, giving her best attempt at sultry, “or is it just me?”

“I don’t think your temperature has ch--” He didn’t have time to finish the thought (such as it was) before Kingfisher pushed him back into the wall, placing her mouth over his.

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