The familiar warm sun of Ataniel beat down on the ruins of a cottage. Nothing but the foundation remained, carefully cleared of the debris that littered the rest of the area but with weeds growing through cracks in the stone. Around them, the Rat Pack could see other ruins. A few decaying walls stood but most were just foundations. "What a mess," said Skitch.
Garal looked a little bewildered and suddenly realized where he had brought everyone. "Excuse me," he said hastily, passing through the group and over the missing doorstep.
Khyrisse blinked after him. "What the--" The archmage looked around the ruins. "I don't recognize this," she said, a bit surprised. Archaeology was an interest of hers, and the Land of the Little Folk, being a Cynystran province, was a place she'd had years to tour. "I thought I knew most of the ruins here..."
"These aren't ancient." Rani squatted by the broken stone, taking off her glove to get a better psychometric reading. "Fifteen, maybe twenty years old."
That was after Khyrisse had left Cynystra. "What happened here?"
"I can't tell," Rani admitted. "I don't think anyone was in this house when it happened. People have to have been around for me to find psionic impressions." She put her glove back on. "But we could ask Garal. Because nine'll get you ten the weight of old grief pervading this place is his."
Garal sat quietly among the wreckage of what had once been his hometown. He would get back to his friends soon. For now, the halfling wanted a moment to himself.
The shadow of a fallen chimney shifted and flowed into his, and the moment was over. "Hello, my friend," whispered Amatsu's hollow voice. "This one is glad to be reunited with you."
Garal was too glad his friend had survived his solo mission with that treacherous Dave Thermador to resent having his quietude interrupted. "Hello, Amatsu-san. The others will be glad to see you again."
"This one hopes the mission has gone well in my absence." The spectral ninja hesitated. "Is--something wrong, my friend?"
Garal sighed. "This is where I'm from. Home. It's been too long since my last visit," he said quietly. "My parents died in a flood here when I was a boy. There was a Cynystran country club upriver and the dam burst. They were never found. Neither were most of the townspeople." The halfling looked downstream. "Everyone who was left moved on. I was sent to boarding school. I come back every so often, but I wasn't ready this time." Garal stood up. "I've held everyone up for too long. Let's go."
Yes, Jonah, I Can Do Understated Relationships Too
"So," said Kayla, untying her apron to sit down for a spell. "Did you save the world?"
"Not exactly," said Flicker. "We freed a lich lord."
"Ouch. Well, you ditched one last year. So you're sort of even."
"There's that," said Flicker.
"And at least this time it didn't take six months."
"Lich lords are the undead equivalent of a messy kitchen," said Flicker. "It's easier to get them that way than it is to clean them up."
"Do I expect you off for another six months, then?"
"Not right away," he said. "We're biding our time." He swirled his glass thoughtfully. "I've been thinking about moving to New Trade," he said. "I've been thinking about maybe opening a ski school there.
They've got good snow in those mountains."
"Really?" said Kayla. "Well, I think you'd be a good teacher."
"It's closer than Ringebu," he said. "With the coach lines I could come down here all the time."
"I'd like that," said Kayla.
"It's got to be a better job than lich maintenance."
"Yeah, and people wonder why I waitress, you know?" She clinked her glass into his. "To a
lich-free ski school. You should call it that."
"Isn't that tempting fate?"
"The Wyvern-Free Meeting Rooms have held up so far."
"To the Lich-Free Ski School, then."
"Skoal," said Kayla.
"You know," Schneider said thoughtfully as the Rat Pack flew back towards New Trade, "I wanted to thank all of you. Not just for letting me in when I showed up half dead on the doorstep, but... well, as adventures go, we did a pretty good job. No one died, we stopped the evil Diaria locusts, saved a city, cured Rani's disease, and made it out of the wacky other dimension we ended up in without too much trouble. All in all, I'd say the whole story turned out pretty well."
"Are you aware," asked Jane Crow, "that you've misplaced your soul?"
Rani was looking at John Tucson's, turning it in the artificial light of the Carriage. "There's still this, too," she said. "If we don't dissever it from the planar fabric this could happen all over again. Does anyone have any idea how to do that?"
No one answered.
"Damn, and I was hoping we were almost done with this plot," sighed Khyrisse.
"You were right to call upon me, Miss Dare," the immortal mage said. "I admit my own business has been taking up a great amount of time, but the consequences of leaving such a power source interconnected with the dimensional substructure are too serious to ignore. I will disconnect it at once."
"Nice to see some people can just fix problems rather than talk them to death."
"The soul itself," Arturian continued, ignoring Vickie, "should be either restored to its owner or placed where it cannot do any more damage. It is too dangerous for mortal hands." The Deathless mage concentrated, and even Vickie could see energy flowing from his hands. "I would be willing to store it someplace safe, if Pluvious is interested."
"I'll tell him you're in the market for it," Vickie grinned.
Arturian ignored that interpretation as well. Energy was pouring forth from the mage, through the glowing ball of light in his palms and into the ether. Vickie was captivated. Then Rimbor City flashed once, brightly, and the energy subsided from Arturian's hands. "Your realm is cleansed," he stated.
"That was it?" Vickie asked, stupefied. "No side quests? No interpersonal psychodramas?"
"Distractions," said Arturian. "I have no time to waste on other issues."
"A man after my own heart," Vickie said.
"Any other issues," said Arturian.
Vickie shrugged. "Hey, as long as I can tell Pluv that the danger's over, we're square."
"Not quite," said Arturian. "There is still the matter of the Monkey King."
Vickie nodded. "A deal's a deal." The two figures disappeared from Rimbor City.
"An' where d'ye think ye're goin', ye barmy collector?"
The Fiend With Five Eyes frowned at Coomara from beneath his deep beard. "To my fortune," he said, "I have been able to collect on one of my debts. That should sustain me until one of the others comes due. I must return to my business now if I hope for that to happen."
"But ye never found me Tucson's soul, ye welcher!"
"It matters little," said the Fiend. "I have seen into your own soul, Coomara, and know the truth."
"Truth? What truth might tha' be, then?"
"You have spent too much time among mortals. Their vices have infected your nature. Were I a gambling being, I would put money that you will never find the will to drag yourself out of this tavern."
Coomara slugged back another scotch and watched as the Fiend faded from vision.
"Ah, but ye're forgettin' me ace in the hole, friend," Coomara muttered to himself, patting the one soul he still retained. The soul of Schneider the jester.
What You Gonna Do
Elaine smiled at Carson Delaney over her shoulder, brushed a little piece of blond hair behind her ear, and strolled back out of Solly's Deli. Solly squinted after her. "What's with you two?"
"It's a long story."
"She rode the Wild Zerthimon with you, didn't she?"
"Okay, so it's actually a short story."
"You're the man, Carson!"
"Look... well, yes, I am," he said with transparently phony modesty. "Look, Solly, I've got something really important to talk to you about." He looked around to make sure they were alone. "These guys, they're leaning on me for protection money. A lot of money. See, they think the Un-guild works like a normal guild and I can just get a piece of the pie from everybody in town."
"Those schmucks! We should kick their asses!"
"No, Solly. No way," said Carson. "These aren't dime-a-dozen johnny thugs, these are hardcore cases out of Rimbor. I... I think Tad's death was no accident. I think they killed him as a warning."
"Bloody Hell." Solly wiped his forehead.
"No shit. I know everyone in town's pumped about the fact that they're packing weapons now, that's nice and all. At least the streets are safer, but that won't do against these people. They can kill any one of us they want and then disappear. They expect whoever's left to give in to them soon enough."
"Then... then..." Solly's mind was racing. "Then I guess that's what we've gotta do. Call everybody together, collect up enough cash to pay them off. Before somebody else dies."
Carson shook his head sadly. "It won't work. Some merchants' guilds can cut deals with crime syndicates, sure. But only if they have a lot of money and political power already. We're too new and too poor for that to work. Let these guys get their hooks into us now and we're as good as stillborn."
"Then, what are we we gonna do?"
"We're going to do nothing." Carson sighed. "I'm going to Rimbor, and I'm going to talk them out of this or die trying."
A Quiet Night With Papa Hemingway
Ebreth Tor was home, but it didn't feel much like it.
He drummed his fingers on the cluttered bookshelf. Khyrisse was spending some time with her, well, her mother, apparently. Jack was on a date. He knew it drove Khyrisse up a tree, but Ebreth kind of liked the noisy, chaotic bustle of the traveling Mansion. His overwhelming sense of relief at not having Schneider the jester in his house was not really compensating for how much he missed the social energy.
Ebreth picked up a statuette of some Kyokota god or other, turned it in his hands, and put it down. Well, all right, what's to lose? "Hey, Skitch?" he called up the stairs.
"Yeah?" came the boy's voice.
"You want to learn how to shoot pool?"
"Cool!" Skitch's door slammed and he bounded down the stairs, stopping halfway down to lean over
the rail. "I don't have to wear underwear up my butt, do I?"
"Thongs are optional."
"Then sure." He hopped down the last few steps as Ebreth opened the door to the game room. "How do you play?"
"You try to knock the colored balls where you want them to go by whacking this white ball into them with a stick," said Ebreth, flipping him a cue ball and taking his cue from the rack. "Apparently there's also math involved, but I ignore that as much as I can." He appraised the other cues. All of them were really too long for the kid. He took the smallest one down and laid it across the corner of the table. "We'll get you your own cue sometime. For now--"
"Excuse me, my lord," said Sennett, materializing deferentially in the doorway. "Visitor for young master Skitch. A Miss Lorrini."
Skitch stared and then jumped about a foot in the air with an exuberant whoop.
"Go on," laughed Ebreth, taking the cue ball back. "You can learn pool some other day. Skitch!" He flipped his cue so that the butt end of it cross-checked the boy's chest, blocking him back from the door. "Tell her she's got pretty eyes," he said, and grinned. "Girls like that."
Skitch grinned back. "Thanks, Ebreth," he said, pushed the cue up over his head and ran out into the living room.
Ebreth turned it in his hands and put it back up on the rack with a light sigh. Quiet night after all, then. The front door slammed behind Skitch as Ebreth came out into the living room. He wondered briefly if he should have told the kid when to be home by. He'll figure it out. Ebreth glanced down at the coffee table at the latest book Jack had lent him. In Our Time. Huh, he thought, picking it up and settling in with it on the sofa. Ebreth didn't usually like short stories, but he figured it was worth a shot.
Outside the bay window, night fell quietly.
Turn My Life Down
Rani lounged in the molded white chair of the outdoor bistro in the clear Northlands twilight, nursing her gin and tonic. It was a nice enough town, New Trade, if a bit sleepy for Rani's tastes. She watched Khyrisse and the woman the archmage was convinced was her mother as they crossed the street. Rani was skeptical. If she wanted to insinuate herself into Khyrisse's life, taking the form of her long-lost mother and feigning traumatic amnesia was exactly how she'd do it. Rani had made her doubts known, though, and there was no sense harping on them further. Khyrisse had the right to her own mistakes.
"Evening, Rani," said Khyrisse quietly, as the two of them approached. Mad Sallie looked about distractedly. "Bubbles," she whimpered, "bubbles on the floor."
"This city is in desperate need of a gay scene," said Rani, rocking up to a less sprawling position in the chair. Mad Sallie looked a lot better in clean clothes and with her hair washed, but her eyes still had the sunken, haunted look of a street person, and years of malnourishment (or, of course, the accurate pretense of it) had left her hands bony and her body rail-thin. "You ready?"
"You're sure this won't trigger anything for her?" said Khyrisse nervously.
"Not unless she's psychometric too. I'm not going to mess with her brain. I'm just going to read psychic impressions from her body." Easier to forge, of course, but fewer people bothered. In cases involving children, elderly victims, and the mentally ill, Rani's sensory input was often the best form of interrogation available. She took her right glove off with her left hand, steeling herself against the inevitable heightened noise of the bistro deck as she did. "I don't have much control over what I get," she warned. "Recent experiences and emotionally intense experiences come through most clearly."
Khyrisse winced. "Are--you sure you want to do this?" she said softly. "My mother--wasn't a weak woman. Whatever did this to her... this is going to have to be painful to experience."
"Sister," said Rani, "I've been a Rimbor City PI for nine years. You'd be hard-pressed to stick me with something I haven't felt before." She took the old woman's bony hand in hers. "With a murder victim, though, the most recent traumatic event is pretty much the one I'm looking for. If you want me to dig back further, find something subtle... It may take me a few days." Rani fidgeted a little and wondered why she'd said that. Why did she want to stay around here for a few days? Was it Val? Rani was pretty sure she was over that. Was it just that she didn't know what she was going to do with herself when she got home? Maybe Rani was afraid. "Middle-aged white elven woman," she said quietly, her eyes sliding shut, her mind sliding slowly open. "Probably Dyved. Tubercular, malnourished, evidence of schizophrenia. I'd want to refer her to a psychiatrist for diagnosis. Confused emotional state." The noise of the bistro dimmed. Rani slipped into the rhythm of Mad Sallie's breathing. "Reaching," she said.
Strangers in a Strange Land
"It's nothing, really." Valende looked down at her hand. "Jack... Listen, I've been a terrible friend lately, and I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm not really as stable as I should be. I--don't know if I ever really recovered from what happened during the Madness, much less what I did to the first Jack. There are... parts of me I don't like very much. But if I've been avoiding you, Jack, it's only because you remind me of mistakes I've made and can't take back. It's not your fault." She offered him a wobbly little smile. "I'd like to be your friend, Jack," Val said softly. "But sometimes I think I'm a lot more messed up than anyone realizes. I just don't scream and yell about it. Sometimes I think Khyrisse is the better-adjusted of us." She laughed a little, sorrowfully. "I'd like to be your friend, Jack," she repeated. "I just don't know how I could support you, when I feel like I'm falling apart myself. That's all I wanted to say."
Jack cleared his throat a little awkwardly. "Well," he said, "would you, uh, like to talk about it? I'm very good at listening... Sometimes friends share their own troubles with each other, too."
"Oh, Jack," said Val, her eyes tearing. She wiped them on the back of her hand, smiling. "I know you're a different person from your Other... but I've missed you."
Aithne stood with her palms on the pane of the rain-smeared window of her new room, her hair down, looking down on the main plaza of New Trade. Two women in brightly colored raincoats were coming out of a boutique, sharing an umbrella. A bunch of children were playing around the central fountain with utter unconcern for either the summer shower or the impending darkness. A teenage boy was walking a yellow dog. It all seemed so normal somehow, so natural, that Aithne could almost have cried. Be patient, she admonished herself. You've been here less than a week. Take small steps. She wished she knew what she was supposed to do about her date tonight. Was she supposed to go find Jack, or would he find her? Aithne was the woman, but Jack had been the one to ask her, and she wasn't really sure what the protocol was. She couldn't even really be sure she hadn't mortally offended him in the interim. Aithne felt lost and very young.
She watched the city sparkle in the twilight.
Into That Distance, Grey Upon The Grey
Rani let most of the first images go by unremarked. There were no clues in them, no reason to upset Khyrisse with the harshnesses of life on the Rimbor City streets. "Water," she said, as she shuddered back from the dirty rain. "Something about the water. Reaching." She paused. "She misses a man. White elven man, young middle age, possibly Liratyni, greying blond hair, ugly clothes."
"That's my father," whispered Khyrisse.
Rani nodded, peeling back the years. "Yeah, his impressions are all over her. They must have been very close--stop! Wait. That's the same boy. Let me back up."
"What?" said Khyrisse.
"Down derry derry down," sang Mad Sallie, sadly.
"She spiked when she saw a boy," she said. "Elven boy, late teens, brown hair, brown eyes, lean build. I've got the same kid, much younger, with the man. Do you have a brother?"
"Yes," breathed Khyrisse.
"Ah, I should have been a fuckin' fortuneteller." Rani's eyes half-lidded. "She saw him in Rimbor when he was seventeen or eighteen. That may put a timeframe on it for you." She resumed her backward spiral, following the water this time. The family history was all well and good, but Khyrisse would already
know that part. "She nearly drowned," she said. "She washed up on the docks of Rimbor... before that..." Rani frowned, her eyes flicking back and forth beneath the delicate skin of her eyelids. "Something's wrong. The earlier memories are blurry. Your mother didn't have vision problems, did she?"
"Something happened," said Rani. "There. She's trapped underwater, she's drowning. She wants her bag. There's something in it. She..." Rani's eyes fluttered. "She has the Gift," Rani said. Khyrisse made a startled sound. "Wild talent. Calling magic items to her hand, I think."
"She always could get magic items out of her bag without looking," Khyrisse whispered numbly. "I thought she was just dexterous."
Rani nodded. "Well, there's something she wants in it now, but--she can't reach it, she's lost it. Derek. Is that your father's name?" She didn't need to open her eyes to hear Khyrisse nodding. "She's lost it. A pervading grief. She's lost everything." Rani opened her eyes. "She nearly drowned, and her mind must have snapped. It could have been oxygen loss. Or it could have been psychogenic, just brought on by despair." Rani wiped her hands on her jeans and looked introspectively at Mad Sallie, who was looking at Rani like she was trying to remember her name. Rani put her gloves back on. "That's all I can get tonight," she said. "I hope it helps."
The One With The Romantic Triangle
Ebreth was walking down the hall of the Rat Trap when he heard the strange noise from Jack's room. The door was ajar, so he looked in. Jack was sitting on his bed, fidgeting with a pile of tools and an unfortunately-sized mechanical ring.
"Oh, uh, hey," said Jack, looking like he had been caught at something. "I, um, think I've got most of the bugs out of the decoder ring."
"You're still in bed? Your date began at eight!"
"Oh. Uh." Jack looked about nervously. "Was that tonight?"
Ebreth heard the strange noise again, something like a squeaking. Maybe it was the Rat. More important right now was Jack. "It is tonight. Oh, Jack... Standing up a woman is like... well..."
"Bad does not begin to describe it," Ebreth said. "Well, you can't wear that. What else do you have?" He turned to the wardrobe and opened it. A chick and a duck hopped out.
"Peep," said the chick.
Ebreth just looked at them. "Where... did these come from?"
"I found them poking around the construction in back and I didn't want them getting hurt."
"Well, a chick might be a really good gift, actually," Ebreth thought out loud. "Women like things that are small and cute. Let's get you into something nice and you can head by and apologize for being late. Say you were getting her this."
"I, uh... I talked to Val earlier today," Jack admitted.
Definitely a headache. "Look, Jack," sighed Ebreth. "I know you've still got a thing for Val."
"Thing?" said Jack. "What thing? I don't have a thing."
"Anyway, this is just a date. It's not like you're getting on a plane to Athens with her."
"Okay, okay," said Jack. "Hand me the blue vest?"
"Whoa, hey!" Marty poked his head in the door. "Whose chick?"
"Mine," said Jack.
"Do you, like, know all about chicks?"
"Poultry, no," Jack said. "Women... nooo."
Ebreth had the bizarre impression of a missing laughtrack.
"WAUGH!" honked the duck, jumping out from behind a chair.
"Help! Duck!" cried Marty.
Ebreth pinched his temples. Fortunately the duck seemed to have scared Marty off.
"So, uh, do you think if I go out with Aithne, that Val will find out?"
"Jack," Ebreth sighed. "Everyone already knows you're going out with Aithne. In fact, it's probably what made Val feel comfortable enough around you to come talk." Ebreth had no idea if it was true or not, but it sounded good.
"Oh," said Jack. "That... I guess that makes sense."
"Now take the chick, here's your coat... just go have a good time. That's what you're trying to do, remember? Enjoy life. Carpe diem."
"Right," said Jack. "That was probably it. I'm sure she was just glad I didn't seem all, y'know."
"Aithne," Ebreth reminded him.
"On my way," Jack said, sounding more determined than usual. "Can you watch the duck?"
Ebreth sighed. "Sure," he said. "But Jack?"
"Take off the ring, okay?"
Jack looked at the baseball-sized ring on his finger and pocketed it. He gave a thumbs-up to Ebreth and wandered off down the hall.
"WAUGH!" exclaimed the duck.
"I totally agree," said Ebreth, massaging his temples.
Jack knocked at the door to Aithne's room. It took a moment for her to open the door. She was dressed in an incredible black gown with a loose sash neckline that highlighted her pale shoulders.
"I... I'm sorry I'm late," said Jack. "I was... vacillating."
Aithne nodded. "Yes," she said. "There is much dust in the new building."
"I brought you a chick," Jack said, holding out the baby chicken like it was a bouquet of flowers.
I Think The Significance Of This Chick Is Lost On Those Of Us Who Don't Watch TV...
"Peep! Peep! Peep!"
"What a chick does eat?" said Aithne, scrunching her petite square of a face up at the little bird.
"Uh, corn," said Jack. "Didn't they have chickens in your country?"
"Only on a farm. What is a big house with a queen in it?"
"I lived in a castle. There is no chick there." She offered the chick a piece of vermicelli.
"Peep! Peep! Peep!"
The Night Unfettered
Madeleine sipped chardonnay from a long-stemmed glass, her light eyes glittering with yearning.
"I miss the hunt, Thierry," she whispered.
The older vampire frowned at her. "Madeleine," he said, "you know our Master's pledge."
"What care I for the Duke's popularity or the good of her realm? I am a hunter by my blood, Thierry, and my blood grows thin with wine, and my quarry complacent."
"Complain all you like," said Thierry, already bored with the conversation. "There is nothing we can do."
"There is nothing you can do." Madeleine snapped the thin stem of the wine glass between her fingers and took her cloak on her way to the door.
"Where are you going?" he said sharply, panic edging into his normally smooth voice.
"To do what is my destiny to do," she snapped.
"You're not going to hunt?" he said. "It's impossible! Our Master Cloak has forbidden..."
"My master is the night," she snapped, and went.
It was a simple thing, the door shutting behind her, but its resonances would be impossible to escape.