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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 46

A Lonely Impulse Of Delight

Otter wasn’t precisely sure how many days had passed.

No sunlight reached this deep. Day and night were meaningless on the ocean floor, the cycles of the moons and their tides as inconsequential as surface storms. Occasionally a strange creature, or two, or a whole school of them, would pass through her limited field of vision; in the farther distance, bioluminescent outlines would occasionally pass. Callie brought her meals periodically. And time, in the amorphous, immeasurable way of the depths, went by.

Otter was no closer to understanding anything she hadn’t at her moment of arrival, either. Where she was; who or what the Fallen Ones were, or what they wanted with her; even the nature of her prison. Worse, she had somehow stopped understanding things she had understood before she had come here. Otter felt terribly alien here. The soft cold ocean that had once seemed like an extension of her own skin now felt somehow mysterious, and Otter didn’t like it. She didn’t like questions; she liked answers. And so she was wondering, and not for the first time, why she had banked towards an insignificant shimmer of light among the reefs. Not hunger, not greed, not territorial defense. It had been something almost like desire. She had been remembering the pointless, yearning shanties of the human sailors, and she had found herself moving.

Otter was coming to realize that she did not understand herself as well as she had once thought, and she hated herself for it.

Best Supporting Actor

They were led around to the back entrance of a large, beautifully ornate building, the murmur of voices and music louder now. A tall, dark-haired man opened to the kid’s knock.

It bounced back and forward again, in a weird gesture of annoyance. “Oh, I don’t want you!”

“Few people do,” he said, his mouth twitching. “That’s usually when I turn up; you should know better.” He looked over at the Rat Pack, scanning them with an air of amused interest. A pair of glowing, utterly unmortal eyes peered out of his grease-painted, vulpine mortal face--a combination that made Khyrisse’s stomach spin. “Who are these? Not Berechian, I can see.”

“Can’t I have your sister?” the opalescent street rat pleaded.

“Don’t take my Role in vain, Girasol,” remonstrated a sweetly clarion voice from somewhere behind the man. A woman, tall and fair and with the same blazing eyes, joined him in the doorway. A stage hand wandered past behind the two with an armful of costumes, arguing amiably with a member of the chorus. “I am the Goddess of Enlightenment,” she explained, with a welcoming smile, and added, “Well, on my good days I am. My unhelpful brother here is the God of Secrets; which he would not have told you, of course. Come right in, we’ve just finished our performance. What can we do for you?”

“We’re looking for the God of Curing Brain Diseases,” Rani said.

“Between enlightenment and secrets, I think we might be able to get the information we need to cure you here, Rani,” said Val.

“Hey look,” Jack said to no one in particular. “I can float.”

“Our friend here has the Dialys fever,” Valende addressed the alien gods. “There’s no known cure in our world... but surely gods as wise as you must know more than we.”

“And why should we help you?” asked the Goddess of Enlightenment, agreeably.

“Hey, this is actually kind of fun,” said Jack, slowly somersaulting in the air.

Khyrisse cleared her throat. “If our goodwill in telling of our encounter with the Gods of the Actors is not enough,” she said, in the practiced tone of a deferential colleague, “then perhaps we may offer some service in return.”

“Aaugh!” Jack cried from above. The mathematician seemed to have gotten tangled up in a tree.

“Give me strength,” muttered Rani.

“Hope it’s not a kite-eating tree,” offered Schneider.

The God of Secrets was looking curiously at Khyrisse. “Indeed,” he said, “there will come a time when you will be in the position to repay us.”

“No, dude, fall down!” Marty was advising Jack. Ebreth headed over to the tree, which was starting to make lip-smacking noises.

“So now will you tell us what we need to know?” asked Val.

“You may have one Secret,” the God of Secrets agreed.

“And one Enlightenment,” the Goddess of Enlightenment added.

“Which one is my cu--” Rani started before Val put one hand over her mouth. Rani squinted angrily and then realized that asking a useless question right now might count for more than she wanted.

“I wish to know a cure for Rani,” said Val.

“Enlightenment is yours,” said the Goddess, placing one hand on Val’s forehead. “Now you must excuse me. My curtain call is next.”

“Grab the rope,” Ebreth called up to Jack in the kite-eating tree. “See if you can climb down it!”

Rani was flipping through her spiral notebook. “Maybe we should learn the secret of releasing Tucson’s soul from the dimensional substructure,” she said. “That’s the only real loose end left in this case.”

“Or we never did learn the secret of the Dead College,” offered Vas. “I was curious.”

“I know what not to ask,” said Octavian, looking warningly at Schneider.

“I... I have an important question.” Khyrisse glanced up at Jack. “Can you all trust me to use this for good purpose? I... I promised not to reveal this, but...”

Val caught her eyes. “I second,” she said firmly.

“Am I missing something here?” Schneider asked Orlen.

“I trust you, Khyrisse,” said Mina.

“God of Secrets,” the archmage said, “there is a hidden solution to a problem we have. I ask that the secret of this solution be given to the one who can best help fix the problem.”

“You must speak your secret aloud to learn mine,” the God of Secrets said.

“It’s... about Jack,” Khyrisse started.

“Oh, yeah!” said Marty. “He’s stuck in a tree! How do we get him down?”

“There’s some magic cheese backstage,” the God of Secrets said. “Feed him some, and he will regain his mass for an hour, long enough to free him from the tree.”

“Oh, Marty...” Khyrisse said, her eyes tearing.

“Magic cheese,” said Marty, smiling. “I wonder why we didn’t think of that.” Marty looked around, and noticed that Ebreth and Val were both frowning at him. Apparently he had done something wrong again, but darned if he knew what. Marty excused himself and ran off to get the cheese.

“Well, that was fun,” said Rani. “You can always count on a dull mind to solve problems like that. So, Val, you did get my cure?”

“Y...yes, yes I did,” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“Does it cure me? I’m there.”

“There’s a fluid in the brain that the disease roots itself in. Most people’s brain fluids are susceptible to it. However, a brain fluid transplant from someone who is immune will give your body the immunoprotections to resist it.”

“So, then all we need to do is find someone whose brain fluid’s immune, right?” asked Rani.

“Ah...” Val started.

“I got the cheese!” said Marty, holding it triumphantly. “Magic cheese for everyone!”

“Oh, no...” Rani pleaded.

“Oh, yes,” Val nodded.

“Hey, can we get me down from here yet?” Jack called from the tree. “It’s trying to chew me!”

Priorities

Ebreth put one hand on the kite-eating tree to steady himself and then, after a moment, his other hand over his face, trying very hard not to wish Marty Hu had wandered over to somebody else’s park bench nearly a year ago. It’s not his fault. He meant well, he forced himself to think, as the young paladin came bounding back out with the magic cheese. He couldn’t have known any better. Ebreth had no idea how he could possibly have gotten distracted enough not to ask about Jack in the first place. It wasn’t like it hadn’t been the thing foremost in his mind ever since Jack had told him about it. Or like the sudden appearance of demigods promising the secrets to the universe wouldn’t have gotten an immediate response out of him; Ebreth Tor was a direct man. In fact there was no good reason for it, no excuse at all, nothing but the cruel whims of fate and a failure to beat Marty to the punch. You’re getting old, Tor. He closed his hand. Old, and slow. “I take it from context,” he said softly to the two deities, “that we can’t persuade you to tell us another secret?”

“One enlightenment and one secret per mortal group per century,” agreed the Goddess.

“No... matter what we offer in return?”

The God checked his wristwatch. “Nope,” he said, “this plotline’s pretty much wound up, folks, no more chances to sell your souls for things.”

Ebreth sighed heavily and watched Vas fly the beaming Marty’s magic cheese up to the treed mathematician.

***

“You’re telling me I have to put... Marty’s... bodily fluids... into me.”

“Uh,” said Val, “well, yes, dear. But it’s better than dying, isn’t it?”

“Turkey-baster me up, then,” she sighed.

“That’s the spirit.”

“Hell, I was thinking I’d probably have to do something like lose my psionics forever or give up my Diari half or sacrifice my soul or something.”

***

“Do you really think Marty can survive with less brain than he’s got now?” Kingfisher asked Khyrisse, an unusual concern in her usually harsh voice.

“Encephalic fluid doesn’t actually make you smarter or, uh, less smart,” murmured Khyrisse, her attention elsewhere. “It’s an old wives’ tale.”

Aithne wondered what an old wives’ tale was. She also wondered nervously if the matriarch was angry with her for causing Jack to spill the alchemical setup and getting them into trouble. When Khyrisse had been angry with Vickie, she waited until the Ratpack was alone to start screaming at her. Aithne shifted from one foot to the other, hoping she would be able to communicate her sincere acceptance of whatever punishment the chieftess deemed appropriate without seeming cavalier about her errors.

Aithne moved closer to where Valende was preparing to perform some sort of healing ritual on Rani. Aithne stood, hopefully, far enough away to avoid causing trouble again, but close enough to get a good view. Maybe someday Aithne the Ratpack would overcome her curiosity, but today would not be that day.

***

“Ms. Starshadow?” Octavian’s chilly voice jarred her out of her blue funk, as she paced next to the white stucco wall of the courtyard. “May I have a word with you?”

She looked up at him, noting the lines of... stress? pain?... that had collected next to his mouth and eyes. She tilted her head away and rubbed at her neck. “Sure,” she sighed.

And froze. The light of those four rising moons was falling fully over them now, and wavering shadows danced into view on the wall next to them. Hers had wings.

She nearly dislocated something, snapping her head around to look over her shoulder at her back. Nothing. Exhaling raggedly, she stared at her shadow--a small mortal woman, just visibly pregnant, the silhouette in all ways faithful to her current state... save one.

-Ah...- sighed the mental voice of the Actor of Secrets, as if he were standing beside her and whispering in her ear. -Kienara’s light was ever more my sister’s friend than my own. A parting gift for you, cousin, from one whose purview is shadows--look at the shadow next to your own.-

Khyrisse looked to the side and frowned, positive that she was seeing things for a moment. Two shadows sprang up from the same source--one of the cloaked vigilante and the other a faint, secondary shadow of a much taller man with an excessively proud bearing, his head set at a coldly haughty angle, hand resting possessively on the gold-edged handle of his cane. Small, almost transparent shadows flickered at the feet of the two, edged in russet.

“Ms. Starshadow?”

Her eyes leaped up to meet those of the vigilante whose shadow she’d been studying; then over at Vas, flirting animatedly with one of the Actors, and back again. Octavian’s mouth curved in a humorless smile.

“Indeed. That is one of the things I find I must speak with you about.” He offered her his arm in an ironically courtly gesture. “Shall we?”

Scorpion’s Nest: Reaction/Action

Carson Delaney sat in his shop, depressed. Then, the young woman known as “the window of opportunity” entered.

She was about twenty, tall, with large eyes, killer legs and golden blonde hair (dyed, he’d discovered). Her name was Elaine. “Hi, Car!” she said in her normal tone of voice, which was cheerful and willfully vacuous. “I like your store. It’s pretty. Things are going well for you, I see.”

“No, they’re not.”

“Snappish!” she pronounced.

“Sorry. I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”

She waited, and when he didn’t elaborate, said “O-kay. You don’t have to tell me. We didn’t do anything for any emotional reasons or anything. I just wanted to talk to you, because, well... you’re the smartest person I know, and you know all about business and I got a job offer, but I wasn’t sure if I should say yes.”

“Doing what?”

“Turning tricks.” He spat his coffee out all over the counter.

“Tell me you’re not serious,” Carson coughed.

“I am serious. I mean, I don’t know about much. A little bit about animals, but that’s it. My main assets are...” she gestured. “And this guy, I think he was from Rimbor, said I could make good money, and work right here in Lianth, and I’d be getting paid for what I do for free now. Good deal, right?”

“Elaine, listen to me,” he said, and he realized his voice must have sounded almost desperate. “You don’t want any part of being a hooker. Aside from the fact that it’s degrading, it’s not some great career path. You have to do it when the customers want, not when you want, and it doesn’t matter if they’re disgusting and unattractive, and most of them are. You end up getting beat up by the pimps or the johns or both. And the people you work for aren’t some kind of free spirits there to provide happiness for the masses. You trace the lines of money back far enough and you’re working for hard-core killers. Walk away from this while you still can.”

She was silent for a long time, then smiled, and her eyes twinkled with mischief. “Why, Car, how sweet! I didn’t know you cared!”

“I don’t.” Goddamnit and then some! First Tad, now this. Rimbor everywhere. Can’t escape some things, can you, Delaney? The time for being reactive had, he realized, passed. Passed long ago.

He hoped it wasn’t too late.

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