Aithne was rather disappointed with her new artifact.
The most obvious power she'd been able to isolate was that the gem served as a well for mana. But here in this strange future where no one seemed to use the witch-magics, Aithne had an almost limitless reserve of mana anyway. She was also pretty sure that the gem could focus her magic, making her spells more effective, but as no one here seemed to have any real resistance to the witch-magics that too was moot.
She had found another connection to the Goddess, though, one that sparkled with animacy, and she was sitting by the window in her little flat concentrating intently on drawing it out.
The facets of the gem shimmered, and then she slowly pulled it out of the goddess-matrix she could see projected in the air, one green-white limb and then another, clicking crystalline joints. Aithne studied the sidhe for a long moment, his pincered demonic head glittering at her in the low light. "You are my servant," she said, in ancient Gaelic, "and I am your master."
"I am the servant, you are the master," he hissed, the air brittle where his voice rubbed against it.
Aithne nodded. "I am looking for a chicken."
"Have you tried the butcher shop?"
Aithne frowned. "Don't be flippant with me, faery. I am looking for a specific chicken."
"I am Katikusakta of the Mistral," the sidhe crackled, "not the Farm Bureau!"
Aithne slapped him sharply. "Do not presume to speak to me this way, minion!"
He bowed his head. "I am sorry, lady," he hissed, and paused a long pause. "I do not have powers over domestic fowl, lady."
Aithne sighed. "Do you have scrying powers?"
"How about powers over space and time?"
"No, lady. My powers are those of political conquest, both by insidious manipulation and straightforward ass-kicking."
"You mean straightforward physical domination, don't you, faery?"
"Good. Remember your station." There was a knock at the door then. "Hi!" she called in Dalen.
The door opened. It was Val. "Aithne," she started, "I--dear lord Corellon above, what is that?" She jerked her sword out automatically.
"Would you like me to dominate some physicality for you?" offered the creature in ancient Gaelic.
"This is my aunt, Valende," she told him. "You will mind your manners." He made a clicking bow towards the elf. "This is my friend from gem," she told Val in Dalen, smiling. "He will help us."
Val didn't put her sword away. "Aithne," she said, as levelly as she could, "I'm fairly sure Khyrisse doesn't want you summoning demons in the Rat Trap."
Aithne wasn't succeeding in parsing that statement, but the elven priestess didn't look happy. "I will call you when I have need of you again," she told the sidhe dismissively.
"It would help if you clued me in on our political situation, lady," said the Mistral. "Even I can't build an empire totally from scratch."
"I will do so shortly. My aunt and I would speak in private." The sidhe dispersed back into the magical matrix. "Yes?" she said to Val, with a bright Audrey Hepburn smile. "What I can do for you?"
Veni, Vidi, Vickie
"This powerful force you felt in Miss Dare's mind," said Amatsu, "it may have simply been the
Monkey King. What exactly did it say?" Rani recounted the terse discussion, word for word. "No, that doesn't sound like Monkey. I cannot picture him saying ‘good afternoon' when he meant ‘go away.'"
"So maybe it's the Monkey King with a big stick up his ass."
"Uh, perhaps. But somehow it does not feel right, even if he did, uh..."
"Have a big stick up his ass," she helped him. "Who is this ape king, anyway?"
"Monkey King," Amatsu corrected. "He ruled over the mountain of flower and fruit until his disappearance some time ago. Apparently he has been using Miss Dare as his, er, human proxy. Monkey is mostly a benevolent being, but very mischievous and self-aggrandizing. He has stolen from many of the most powerful beings ever to exist. It once took two of the Gods together to defeat him."
"So," said Garal, "if he's possessing Vickie, and someone still was able to capture her, then that someone would have to be really powerful, right?"
"A safe assumption."
"But a poor starting point," said Rani. "If we want to find her, what we really need to know is what she was doing between the time she left the Rat Pack and the time she disappeared."
"Pluvious Sturoster," Garal said. "He's the man we want to talk to."
"The construction crew's nearly done with the new orphanage now," Khyrisse informed Schneider. "You'll probably want to oversee the painting yourself." She managed a reasonable facsimile of a smile for her old friend. "So that no one else goes blind, that is."
"If your Dad's gonna be in town, maybe he can help." Schneider rubbed his mouth. "Khyri... listen, I know this is a bad time and all, but there's something I've really needed to talk to you about since Rimbor, can't keep putting it off." She eyed him with sudden wariness, and he sighed. "You've got to stop adventuring, Khyri. It ain't good for junior." Khyrisse folded her arms, her facade of civility dissolving. "Look, I, uh, don't mean this as a reflection on your love monkey or anything, honest," said Schneider, clearly misinterpreting her closed body language. "He just doesn't have much experience in the whole baby department..."
"As opposed to you," Khyrisse said coldly, "who's had how many children?"
"Uh, well, okay, none. But I did complete my Nylevian Midwifery Certification!" Khyrisse actually stopped being angry to gape at that for a second. "Long story," said the jester. "Mostly in drag. But the point is this, Khyri: a good stomach shot could send you into premature labor."
"Schneider," she said crossly, "punch me in the stomach. As hard as you can." He stared at her like she'd gone crazy. "I have the magical equivalent of three inches of sheet rock between my uterus and the big bad world, Schneid."
"And it never gets used up? Or dispelled? You're telling me you never take damage anymore? That's not the Butterfly I remember."
She sighed brittly. "That could happen anywhere."
"It's a lot more likely to happen if you intentionally get into combat."
"If Rhynwa jumped off a bridge, would you, uh..." Schneider rubbed his neck. "Sorry. Practicing." Khyrisse put her hand over her face, not sure whether to laugh or strangle him. "Khyri, look, I know you can take care of yourself, okay, but this isn't just about you anymore. And, I mean, you're not going to be able to go gallivanting around the countryside anymore once junior's born anyway, right?" Khyrisse was starting to have trouble breathing by now. "I mean, even Rhynwa stays home with Gordon."
"I don't believe this," Khyrisse said through her teeth, only the carefully constructed icy remoteness of the past few days keeping her from breaking into tears at the overwhelming unfairness of it all. "You spend ten minutes knocking me up. I spend twelve months hauling this child around in my belly, getting lumpier, uglier, and more uncomfortable by the week..."
"It was more than ten minutes," said Schneider, hurt.
"That was the Oyster Totem's fault--"
"Isn't everything?" Khyrisse tried to bury her fingers in her hair, but she had it braided much too tightly. "It's not fair. I'm the one doing all the work. Why do you get to be the one who tells me what to do with my body all year?"
"This is my child too, Khyri!" He cleared his throat awkwardly. "I mean, maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but we won't know till the kid's born... and if he is, or she is--" Khyrisse hadn't told him yet that the baby was a girl, and now was not a good time-- "well, I want the best for him. That's gotta make sense."
Schneider's ‘ifs' upset Khyrisse as much as Ebreth, but for the opposite reason. And if she's not yours, if she's Ebreth's daughter, then it won't matter what happens to her? She shoved that tangent away forcefully. You were thinking of Rimbor as your last adventure for a while anyway, she reminded herself over her tightly stifled anger. And you have plenty of work to do right here in New Trade. This isn't a prison, it's your home. Breathe. "I won't go off adventuring any more till the baby's born," she said softly, coldly, and caught his eyes hard. "Unless I deem it very important. And that's my decision." Schneider raised his hands in acquiescence, but she cut him off before he could say anything. "And after the baby's born, Schneider, all bets are off. You don't get to put me on the mommy track, and that's final. And if you don't like it, you can... you can go get some other floozy pregnant, and condescend to her all you want!" Khyrisse fled, tears stinging at her eyes, wishing her feet could take her further, someplace away from them all, somewhere free.
Valende wondered if she'd done the wrong thing, counseling Khyrisse to keep Aithne on. The girl seemed loyal and genuine enough, but Val was starting to get a really bad feeling about her and her evil magic. She wished Jack were here, but pushed that painful thought to the back of her mind before it could settle in and make her start screaming. At the very least, she compromised, she wished Ebreth and the other Jack weren't away. It was an unexpected strain, trying to serve as Khyrisse's advisor in their absence. Khyrisse had a good heart, Valende was sure of it, but she also tended to drift towards the behavior of the people that surrounded her, and right now that consisted mostly of organized criminals and crazy people. The fealty of Aithne the evil witch, Valende feared, was not as positive an influence on Khyrisse as the fealty of Mina Paris. And Mina was out of town, and Aithne was summoning Celtic demons.
Val hoped they weren't all in way over their heads here.
"That's it?" The Mistral pointed to the western sea. "Where's Brytannwch?"
"Gone," Aithne said shortly. "I don't wish to discuss it."
"Okay, okay." The sidhe construct pondered the map of the much-changed continent. "What's with this ‘Madness' everyone keeps talking about?"
"The details aren't clear," she said, "but it seems Trillarillia Carraria was awakened from the dead and joined forces with a king from another dimension who sought to conquer Ataniel."
"You are shitting me. Trill did that?"
"How many times must I tell you not to use such language in my presence?" frowned Aithne. "World conquest is not a novel concept for the Weird Sisters."
"I was talking about the ‘joining forces with a man' part."
"I trust she had an ulterior motive," said Aithne. "At any rate, she and the otherworld king slew all the powers of Ataniel except for Khyrisse. The two witch-queens did battle, and Khyrisse prevailed."
"Sheesh," said the Mistral. "Good thing you didn't arrive in the middle of that mess."
"Fortunately," agreed Aithne. "It's all over now, and my allegiance is to the victor." She paused. "The battle involved mighty and destructive magics. Khyrisse's citystate was razed to the ground, and there were
very many casualties across the land. According to Jack, the war is still heavy in the minds of the people."
"What's going on with you and this Jack character, anyway?"
"That is not your business, minion."
"The hell it's not!" he protested. "I'm your political advisor. I need to know these things."
"We are friends," she said.
"Is he noble blood?"
"I think he is a distant cousin of Khyrisse's," she said. "His uncle is a king."
"Well, that's all right, then," decided the Mistral. "Was Brytannwch destroyed during the war?"
"No. It disappeared before that. No one knows where it is now. That subject is closed."
"Yes'm," sighed the ancient demon, and smoothed the map beneath his crystalline fingers.
Down By The Boardwalk
Ebreth weighed one of the throwing daggers in his hand, casually. The boardwalk game stall was attended by a perky Shikinti woman, or maybe she was Kyokota. He'd never really had the chance to learn the difference, thanks to the Wall that had split Ataniel during his first lifetime. Ebreth thought of Cori without wanting to. Had she ever told Jack about that? He shook his head and skewered the dangling red ring to the wall behind it with a flick of his wrist. Didn't matter now. He hoped people wouldn't dwell on his more embarrassing moments when he was dead.
Ebreth tossed the second dagger, pinning the blue ring; the woman clapped delightedly at him, and grinning, still in the same fluid motion, he whipped the third after it. He missed by inches. The yellow ring swung mockingly back and forth. Aaaaaah, that's what you get for showing off too much, Tor. "Two ring," announced the woman, standing on tiptoe to get a prize from the two-ring shelf.
"You might have had that third ring if you'd set for the throw first," Jack pointed out.
Ebreth pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and the knuckle of his thumb. "You know, you didn't need to say it, Jack."
"You are velly gooooood!" the woman interrupted in cheerfully over-intoned Dalen, presenting Ebreth with a stuffed animal.
"That's what they say," he recovered blithely, flashing her a grin. She giggled, and he looked at the prize. It was an amorphous, white, vaguely cat-shaped creature in a red baby-doll dress. "Hello Kitty," the woman explained, patting its head. Ebreth looked at it some more. It was kind of cute, in an unnerving kind of way. "Maybe we can give it to Brett," he offered to Jack. "It looks like the kind of thing she might like."
"I... think I'll pass," Jack said to the midway woman.
Pockets Full Of Posies
"Tangled in the wires like a dying bird," said Mad Sallie sorrowfully, looking at her thin wrists as Khyrisse buttoned her blouse for her, "she breathed her last, oh, one, two, three."
"It was a pretty shitty weekend," Khyrisse sighed in agreement. "Do you remember who's coming tonight, Mom?"
"Ebreth?" said Sallie hopefully.
"No, Ebreth went fishing with Jack, remember?" She clearly didn't. Khyrisse bit her lip; it hurt to see her once-headstrong mother so disoriented. "Dad is coming, remember? Derek."
"Derek," smiled Mad Sallie, more as if she liked the sound of the name than recognized it at all.
"Derek," Khyrisse repeated. "Your husband."
"My husband!" screamed Mad Sallie, her eyes unfocusing. "No, don't kill me! And he struck--" Her head snapped back at an alarming angle.
"Mom!" Khyrisse grabbed her firmly by the shoulders. "That wasn't Dad. That was--someone else."
"Oh," said Mad Sallie, in a little voice, looking at her hands.
Khyrisse sighed with as little impatience as she could muster in her current state. "You'll see," she hoped aloud. "He'll be here soon."
"Ebreth will be here soon?"
"No, Mom, Derek. Ebreth is my husband. Derek is your husband."
"Derek," smiled Sallie, as if she was hearing it for the first time.
Khyrisse sighed heavily. It's not her fault. "Yes, Derek," she repeated yet again. "So I'm going to do your hair really pretty today, okay?"
"You used to be pretty," said Mad Sallie, sadly, touching the harsh alabaster of Khyrisse's cheek with the back of one gnarled hand.
Khyrisse winced. "I'm sorry, aniu," she finally said. "This just hasn't been my week."
"Are any of them?" smiled her mother. "Ashes, ashes, and we all fall down."
And the Meek Shall Kick Ass
Melissa shook her slightly damp paws out one at a time as Babe lifted his long, slender bill skyward. The furlike feathers on his throat ruffled uneasily, like a dog's hackles. "Peep!" exclaimed the Chick.
All five animals looked solemnly to the northeast. Between them and the Doomfissure were miles of cracked-earth desert, the Kharek mountains, and, right now, the Land of the Little Folk to transverse. It was a daunting prospect even for the Rat, for though he had thwarted the King of Kings, been to Hell and back for a friend, stopped elementals from conquering Salagia, saved the Paris family from their evil ancestor, and kacked a plan by Diari terrorists to hijack Rimbor City, he had never needed to save the world before. The high stakes were making his whiskers a little tetchy. But he raised his head bravely. After all, with courage, hope, and solid math, any goal could eventually be reached. His humanoid friends had taught him that.
So though it might seem a little unlikely at first for a renegade penguin, an abandoned cat, an incredibly stupid duck, a chick still in her yellow down, and a rat without his mathematician to be the
downfall of the lich lord Shalak, the Rat knew that stranger things had happened.
Softly, he squeaked his support to the penguin Babe, whose head was still turned towards the Doomlands rift where his people remained enslaved by the undead overlord.
The adventure was on.
Lora knocked on the office door. "Khyrisse?" she said. "Jane's here. She says she needs to see us."
"Come on in, then," sighed the archmage. "My week can't really get any worse."
"Augh!" Lora winced. "Don't ever say that!" Jane Crow wandered in behind her, running one thin finger along the wall in a looping pattern.
"I know, I know." Khyrisse smiled ruefully at Lora. "I'm being too negative."
"No," said Lora, taking her usual seat facing Khyrisse, "it's just that when you say that, something horrible happens shortly thereafter. It's a karmic invocation."
Khyrisse laughed. "That would explain a lot, actually..."
"You should tie your hands to your chair, Miss Lanyard," Jane said out of nowhere.
"What?" said Khyrisse. "What did you want to talk to us about, Jane?"
"Jane," Lora sighed, "you said it was desperately important that you talk to us. Immediately, you said."
"So what's so important?" said Khyrisse, trying not to be impatient.
"How are you?" said Jane. "Nice day, isn't it?"
"I can't believe Mina just ran off and dumped her with us," Lora said parentally.
"Do you like my hair like this?" asked Jane. "If we keep talking, then no one will stop her from getting in to see you."
"What?" said Khyrisse, a new steel in her voice, just as the knock came at the office door.
"Excuse me, Khyrisse Starshadow?" said Ariath, poking her head in.
"It's not Ariath," Jane corrected narratively.
"I'm her sister," the woman said, stepping into the room with her hands up. "Call me Dee."
"I'm. Not. Calling. You. Anything," Khyrisse said through gritted teeth.
"I've come to warn you... Ariath and Omeria have captured Mordecai."
"Lora, get me Grace," said Khyrisse. "And maybe Kingfisher."
"Look," said the woman, "check my story any way you want. I promise I won't resist."
"It's, ah, your move," Jane shrugged innocently to Khyrisse.
Just Men Doing What Men Must Do
"Hello Kitty," Ebreth explained, accepting a breezy kiss on the cheek as he gave Brett the doll.
"How kicky!" said Perry. There was something disconcerting about a bugbear in tennis whites with perfectly modulated words like "kicky" coming out of his permanently smiling fangs. Jack, mused Ebreth, had the most eclectic collection of friends in the known universe. "Sparkling wine?"
"Uh, thanks." Ebreth sat down.
"You two aren't alone, are you?" Brett fluffed her hair out, laughing, as they sat down. "Jack Paris, if it isn't like you to come to an international sporting event without a date."
"Jack's women are what we're on vacation from," Ebreth deadpanned. The sparkling wine was rather flat, confirming his belief that the café's toniness was as quickly prepared a facade as its colorful placard.
"Oh, you are too much." Brett waved Ebreth aside. "Really now, Jack, are you still seeing Gabriella?"
"Can we talk about anything else?" said Jack. "Weren't you going to tell us what you're in town for?"
"For the Running of the Minotaurs, of course," smiled Perry. "What in the world did you think?"
"That's just the marvellous part of it, darling," laughed Brett. "They don't even know what it is!"
"Why, it's one of the top five must-see sporting events on Ataniel!" Perry said, with smooth incredulity. "You might as well ask what the Edimon Open is, or the Triangle Yachting Run!"
"Is it a race?" guessed Jack.
"Half race," said Perry, "half survival of the fittest. At least a dozen Runners are killed every year." Ebreth thought about the huge minotaur he had seen down at the docks. Perry, though Jack's height, was about three times the mathematician's bulk. Ebreth decided he was just as happy to sit this one out as a spectator, particularly since the women weren't there to stand on pride for. Before he could open his mouth to say so, though, Perry was continuing. "Unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects! The very epitome of athletic confrontation! Now that's how a man knows he's alive."
"That's just what I'm looking for!" Jack said excitedly. "Is it too late to sign up?"
"Give me a break, Paris," laughed Brett, twiddling the stem of her champagne flute. "I'm impressed you made it to dinner on five hours' notice. Spontaneity is not your middle name."
"I'm, uh, trying some new things," he said a little defensively.
Ebreth weighed imaginary weights in his hands and then shrugged, clasping them. "Aaaaaaah, what the hell," he said. "I'm in if you are."
From the other side of the café, Coyote Jay watched silently.
"It's Mordecai," explained ‘Dee'. "My sister seduced him and tricked him into leaving New Trade territory, and Bloodscar captured him. We've got to help him."
-Telling the truth-, Praxis confirmed. The big psionicist had arrived that afternoon to have a look at Mad Sallie, and Khyrisse had coopted him for Ariath duty. It wasn't that she didn't trust Orlen, exactly... but given her prevalent mood towards Diarians right now, it was nice to have a second opinion.
Her aura read chaotic good. Definitely not possessed, according to Rauvin. She wasn't triggering Vas' vendetta. There were no spells active on her person, she was carrying no magic items. Wizard sight proclaimed her a first-level mage. The Orb of Kenru Lora had brought revealed Ariath and Marhault having dinner in a Tobrinese café with a couple of noblemen in ruffled shirts. Ariath was flirting with one of them,
who looked entranced. Khyrisse fought back the inappropriate urge to smash the Orb.
"Okay," she said instead, staring down the cute little blonde. "And who does that make you?"
Dee sighed. "Well, I used to be Ariath," she said, "but my sister stole it, like she steals everything." Still the truth, at least as far as magic or psionics could tell. "So I guess I'm Dyre now. Dyre Rapkin."
Dee made a face, and Vas, a little sympathetic despite himself, said "Bad memories?"
"No, it's just a godawful name. Sometimes I think maybe she went evil because she had the ugly name, you know?"
"It's not that bad," Orlen said gallantly. "It means ‘Gypsy Heart' in Diari."
"Lucky me," laughed Dee, rolling her eyes a little.
Prickles shot down Khyrisse's back. She'd heard that before. She had half-clenched her fist to let the lying bitch have it when she remembered where. My name means ‘Gypsy Heart' in Diari, Ariath had said.
Dyre. Her name really had been Dyre, at some point.
And this girl?
Khyrisse shook her head, confused beyond the point of thinking rationally. "Round up what you can find of the Rat Pack," she told Vastarin. "One way or the other, someone's going down tonight."
Kicky Is As Kicky Does
Coyote Jay could hardly believe his luck. Apparently by sheer chance, Ebreth Tor had run into exactly the person Jay had been hoping to have him meet. Now it was only a matter of getting the ex-slaver to find in that person what Coyote Jay needed found. Found and fanned, like an ember into a flame.
"Come on, Tor," he muttered into his dark ale, "Prove me right here... there isn't much time left."
"So," Jack asked, "do you guys have a house here?"
"No one lives in Strive, pet." Brett waved one hand slightly in airy circles. "This place is a ghost town when the Running's over. Too close to the Underworld, things always coming out and such."
"Besides," added Perry, "after this, we always head out to Sturtevant for some charity cleanup work."
"Cleanup?" Ebreth asked.
"Oh, you know," said Perry, his grin far too wide and toothy to be comforting, "following bandits and raiders and giving them the old Stanmouth bounce."
"He means that they, uh, kick their--"
"I got it, Jack," said Ebreth.
"It's just... our way of giving something back," Brett said, slightly pensively.
"To the less fortunate and all, you know?" said Perry.
"We first crossed paths when Cori and Brett ended up fighting over who was going to finish off Deadeye Roy Buncher," added Jack. Ebreth shook his head. Heroics as entertainment.
"Perry, dear," Brett said, rising, "I'm going to take the air for a bit."
"Everything okay?" said Jack.
"I'm fine, Jack," she said. "I just need a breath. You men keep it going while I'm gone."
"Perhaps we'll run by the Feats if you're going to be long," Perry said hopefully.
"Feats?" Jack asked.
"Feats of all sorts," said Perry. "Strength, speed, wit... we sportsmen are the ones who come early, don't you know, and it's impossible to keep our competitive spirit down."
"Spare me," said Brett. "Perry, I'll meet you back at the Bored Gull."
"Ta," Perry said, already turning back to Jack and Ebreth. "Shall we? There's supposed to be some just starting down on Copper Street..."
Perry continued to blather. Ebreth's attention, however, was with Brett as she shuffled out of the tavern. There was something in her gait, he mused. Something...
She looked back, only momentarily, and caught Ebreth's eyes in her brown ones.