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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 47

Not A Second Time, Chachka

There had been a small hitch in the retrieval of Jack from the tree, namely that in his current insubstantial form he wasn’t sure how to go about eating the cheese. Mina had fortuitously had wraithform memorized, though, so she phased the cheese out too, and everything went pretty smoothly from there.

Ebreth frowned over his shoulder as he caught a glimpse, from the corner of his eye, of Khyrisse being led away by the mysterious vigilante. We have got to stop traveling with so many people, he thought to himself. Every five minutes another couple of people peel off, and it’s nothing but trouble. “Keep an eye on things here, will you, Jack?” he said low, patting around where his friend’s shoulder would be if he were tangible and flipping his own cloak around himself. “I’m just going to make sure things are all right over there.”

The shadows here were strangely shaped but as welcoming as any at home.

Post-Surgical Communications

“Wow, so can you, like, read my mind now?”

“I could read your mind before, Marty.”

“Oh,” said Marty. “Can I read your mind?”

“You need psionic powers to do that, Marty.”

“Do I have psionic powers now?” Marty looked a little anxious. “Cause I heard that they, like, can cause cancer.”

“That’s correlative, Marty,” sighed Rani. “Diarians get cancer more often because they’re inbred, and most psionics are Diarian.”

“I hate coral,” shuddered Marty. “All these little fish live inside it...”

Rani decided it was probably best to skip complicated explanations about the biology of psios at that point. “You don’t have psionic powers, Marty,” she said.

“Whoa, that’s good,” he sighed in relief. “But I’m mentally connected to you now, right?”

“No, Marty.” She hesitated, and then gave him a quick peck on the forehead. “But you did save my life, and I appreciate it.”

“Whoa,” he beamed. “So, like, think of a number, and I’ll see if I can guess it!”

“I think in base twelve, Marty,” she said, and moved a few steps back from him and further away from whatever he still had that was making her think he wasn’t really that unappealing as men went. “And you’re not mentally connected to me,” she added, almost as an afterthought.

“I didn’t know there were, like, twelve bases,” said Marty. “No wonder the other boys always picked me last.”

“That must have been why,” said Rani drolly, without real malice, and went over to talk to Val.

And I Became To Myself A Wasteland

The hooded vigilante led the silent archmage to a deserted little house at the edge of the Actors’ pavilion. The walls were lined with hanging costumes of varying garishness, and a round table with five low-backed chairs around it occupied the middle of the parquette floor. It didn’t look like anyone had entered here recently, nor that they were likely to.

Octavian looked out the dark window for a long, pensive moment, then nodded to himself. Khyrisse chose the chair nearest the door, her heart pounding in her throat and her mind running through the vocal component of a power word. She was remembering, inexorably, her last such confrontation, with Ebreth; the deja vu was making her feel sick to her stomach on top of everything else.

A sardonic smile crossed Octavian’s masked features as he studied her pale face, and Khyrisse couldn’t be sure which of them the mockery was aimed at. She flushed angrily anyway. “This must be rather an unpleasant shock for you,” he said. “I would offer you something to drink, but...”

“That’s fine. Thank you.” At least he’s speaking to me a little more civilly this time. “How long have you been possessing him?”

Octavian blinked at her, seemingly surprised by the bluntness of the question. “I think you have a slightly skewed perception of the situation, Ms. Starshadow. ‘Possession’ is not the most accurate term for my presence here.”

Khyrisse’s eyes narrowed. “Do you have another word for what I’m seeing?”

“Yes, unfortunately, I do,” Octavian sighed. “The proper term for my presence should be ‘animating’, not possessing. The rightful owner of this body was slain in the Madness.”

Khyrisse shook her head violently and stood up. “I should believe that? Why couldn’t you have possessed him like you did Vas?”

Octavian’s back stiffened at this. “Because, Ms. Starshadow, I am no slaver. Were it not for me, this body would lie in a Rimbor alley, unavenged.” Khyrisse bridled angrily at the word ‘slaver’, and the two of them glared at each other for a long moment. “I didn’t ask you in here to argue with you,” Octavian finally said, “or to cause more strife for your group. I hadn’t meant to get into this at all, but now that my identity has been, shall we say, brought to light, there is something I must know. In the interest of fairness, I will answer what must be a similar question for you. I would appreciate it if my information went no further, however.” He paused, until Khyrisse sighed and nodded her agreement. “What happened to the spirit that was possessing your bodyguard?”

Khyrisse gave the vigilante a look of total bewilderment. “You mean you don’t know?”

“No, I don’t. I have no magical skills of my own. Until you and your friends came to Rimbor City last year, I didn’t even know Vastarin was still active. But I know what influences he used to be a victim of, and I need to know what happened to him.”

“You are Lucas St. Augustine! How can you not know?”

“I was.” She saw a flicker of some emotion cross his face, but couldn’t identify it. “Up for one more Schism Tine story, Ms. Starshadow?”

“Oh, God, I hate that fucking thing,” muttered Khyrisse.

“As they may or may not have told you by now, Valende attempted to shield herself and her brother from the Tine by hiding in a dimensional rift. This did not prove effective for any of us.”

“You were there already?”

“As a, possessing, as you put it, spirit. The fault of that stupid flail, if you were at all curious. It was designed to simply store the wielder’s soul in the event of his death and possess the next person to touch the artefact, but as the next person to touch the flail turned out to be a demon lord, I found myself trapped. Then my spirit was returned to the flail by Mr. McGee’s wish, and there I remained until Vastarin came upon it about a year and a half ago. The rest is, as they say, history.” Octavian sighed and tapped his boot on the parquette. “The metaphysics are unimportant and frankly beyond my grasp, but the soul of Lucas St. Augustine split in two. The... weaker... half was ejected from Mr. Vastarin. I animated an unfortunate victim of the Madness in hopes of tracking down my other half and preventing him from wreaking any more havoc. When I saw what had become of my old city, though... I decided my attention was needed more here.”

Khyrisse’s mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out. “Then--then you’ve been Octavian all along?” she finally said. “I--thought you must have possessed him somehow, after we booted you from Vas...” She sat down again, rather abruptly. “Eight. Octavian. Augustine... I am so stupid...”

Octavian crouched down in front of her, staring into her face. “Ms. Starshadow, I am by my nature incomplete, and my evil side has already proven the stronger of us once. I had the ace in my sleeve of knowing where he was, but now he is no longer there, and I must know. What has happened to the other half of Lucas St. Augustine? Tell me!”

“We captured it,” she whispered. “Ebreth smoked you out, and I trapped you.”

“And then?”

Oh gods. I should have listened to you, Val. “...I sold it to Hell.”

Octavian sat there staring at her, unmistakably startled, for what Khyrisse thought was possibly the longest five seconds she had ever endured.

Then he leaned back against the table and laughed, long and hard.

“This is funny? Half your soul is in Hell! What do you think’s going to happen when you die?”

“Nothing I hadn’t expected when I was in alive and one piece,” Octavian chuckled, one hand shading his eyes. “I sold it to them myself once, if you will recall. How ironic.” He looked up with a smile that was pure St. Augustine, startling on that stranger’s face. Khyrisse gasped and suppressed the fleeting urge to go backwards through the window. “Ms. Starshadow, I confess--I never thought you had it in you.”

“You know, I think I have an easier time believing you wheedled your way out of Hell again somehow than I do in a good half to Lucas St. Augustine!”

“Touché,” he murmured. “But then, you will recall I am the weaker half.”

“You’re trying to take over Rimbor again.”

“No.” The masked face hardened. “Not to rule. Once I might well have. Things have changed.”

“Pull the other one!”

“When I took this body,” Octavian said, looking past her out the window at that alien sky, “at the end of the Madness, I knew nothing of what had happened, nothing of what the intervening time had done to my city. Did you happen to spend those first few days in a city, Ms. Starshadow? Did you walk the streets of the aftermath? Can you picture what they were like?”

She went a sickly white, and her face stiffened. “I--spent part of the Madness in mine.”

“Indeed,” said Octavian. “Then you know quite well what my reasons might be.” He got to his feet. Khyrisse fixed her gaze on the floor, blinking furiously. “You’re worrying your... husband,” he said, after a moment. “You might as well ask him in.”

“What?” Khyrisse turned around to look out the window, successfully distracted. “Where?”

Octavian beckoned to the darkness outside. Ebreth appeared in the doorway after a few moments. “Everything all right in here?” he asked calmly. He seemed unembarrassed at being caught. The blue eyes met Octavian’s without apology or defiance.

“We were having a somewhat... disturbing philosophical debate,” Octavian explained. He gave Ebreth an amused look. “Watching her back, were you?”

“Someone has to.”

The vigilante whipped his cloak around himself, with a debonair flourish Khyrisse finally recognized. “I may rely on your promise?” he asked her. “My work... is difficult enough as it is.”

“I gave it, didn’t I?” I haven’t gone after Eric or Omeria yet, and I know damn well they’re just as bad as you are. ...Or were, anyway. Merde.

“The lesser of two evils, Ms. Starshadow,” he reminded her softly.

She looked at him for a long moment, and then gave him a strange, challenging, not unfriendly little smile. “Prove it.”

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