She'd hated it for two days now, and unless something took an improbable turn for the better--or, she supposed, worse--she looked forward to hating it all day tomorrow.
It was bad enough that the small scale of the fucking place was keeping her from interfacing with it properly. Rani felt like she was leaking into an environment over which she had no control. But to add insult to injury, the dusty yellow earth here was making her eyes water and stuffing up her sinuses. It didn't seem to be bothering anyone else. Rani cursed her shitty Diari constitution and sniffled violently as the team trudged on through the ugly saffron landscape. Vickie wasn't going to appreciate this, either. Rani just knew it.
"So since our travel papers are all up-to-date," Garal was saying, "I think what we need to do next is find a native informant to use as a guide."
"I bet you sign in with the police every time you go to Rimbor, don't you?" Thermador said drily.
Rani snuffled and wiped her nose fiercely on her sleeve. "Not to agree with Jack Ryan over there," she said. "But covert ops aren't usually furthered by telling the first person you meet what the hell you're doing. We're trying to get in without Arturian noticing us, remember? He'd wipe the fucking floor with us if he caught us."
"We do have the advantage of being... unexpected," said Amatsu. "Our party's lack of magic use should put us comfortably beneath the wu-jen's radar... and our skills are all those of stealth."
"Done this before, have ya, ghosty?" Thermador gave the ninja a wolfish grin.
"Once or twice," Amatsu understated.
"Me too," Pigsy confided cheerfully.
"That'd be ‘an ultra-powerful guy's secret stronghold,' Porky," Thermador said, "not ‘the International House of Pancakes'."
"Oh, my, yes," nodded Pigsy. "Though this International House of Pancakes sounds simply marvelous! Perhaps we might break in there once we're finished here?"
Rani sighed. She'd cracked her share of buildings before too, but none of them had belonged to a Deathless archmage. She suspected Arturian was sort of used to every Kit and Kynvelyn on the planet trying to break in and swipe his artifacts, and though there was no way the guy could possibly have been expecting a psychometrist, two planeblazers, a ninja, and a giant pig, Rani wasn't sure the element of surprise was going to be enough to overcome whatever defenses he had up. She kept her doubts to herself, though, for now. "What we want to do," she said, "is find out where Arturian's safehouse is without alerting anyone we're looking for it."
"Well, when we used to do something like this..." Pigsy said thoughtfully. "...something like sneaking into the pavilion of a god to do a harmless little something, that is to say..." Thermador raised an eyebrow at the pig-spirit. "Well, Monkey always used to say the best place to start was a bar."
Thermador looked at Rani. Rani shrugged.
"Lead on, honorable Pig," said Amatsu, bowing.
True Lies: Coda
"Well?" said Duke Omeria.
K'Mar sighed. "Well, Spur was right about the Rat Pack strikeforce," he said. "Vas, Val, Marty, that Aithne chick, and some new guy called Mistral arrived in New Trade with Mordecai in tow yesterday. They reported right to Khyrisse. We could prove it was officially sanctioned, if you want him back."
"Not badly enough to expose our only source of information there," said Omeria. "What did our ‘friend' in New Trade have to say about Ariath?"
"Nothing," K'Mar admitted. "She hasn't heard anything about her. The last anyone there saw of her she was staying behind in Tobrinel. They're, uh, all pretty convinced it was her sister instead of her. Are heroes usually this gullible?"
"Yes," said Omeria, "and Ariath is a... very good liar, if you'll remember." The sorceress' voice was cold and hard.
"Uh," said K'Mar, unsure whether to take the familiarity of comforting her or not. "Anyway, my plant hasn't unearthed anything at all about Ari's jailbreak. If anyone there was involved in it, it's so undercover even she doesn't know about it."
Omeria nodded. "Very good, then," she said. "Thank you for the update, K'Mar. You'd better get back to New Trade. We don't want anyone getting suspicious." The Duke paused. "Send Marhault and Beliath up on your way out," she added. "I'm going to need to arrange a face-to-face with Mr. Cloak."
"Sure thing, boss," said K'Mar, and strolled out of the Capitol Building.
Omeria stood at the window, her slender hands clasped behind her back, and looked out across her city, contemplatively. "What are you involved in, little blade," she murmured, entirely to herself.
"He told me I had to stay at home with the baby. Can you believe that?" Khyrisse rolled her eyes, managing to divert most of her diffuse panicky rage at the idea into controllable exasperation. "The nerve of him. Like a child can't survive without its mother for a couple of weeks! My mother used to leave us with my dad for months at a time, and we all did just fine."
Ebreth cleared his throat. "Far be it from me to, uh, agree with Schneider, or anything," he said, "but you know, I think I'd rather you didn't go off for months at a time. I, ah, kind of enjoy your company."
Khyrisse laughed a little, a not entirely repressible delight at that eclipsing some of her stress. "I wasn't really planning on it," she admitted. "I just hate being told what to do. And now I feel like if I stay here, I'm obeying him!"
"That's very silly," Ebreth pointed out.
"I know," she sighed. "I'm just starting to feel like the wrapping paper on the last present under the tree." She paused. "With a couple of kids playing tug-of-war with it." She paused again. "With their teeth."
Ebreth made a sorry-sounding laugh, and closed his arms around her. She let him. "Poor Khyrisse," he murmured into her hair. "It's tough when everyone wants you, isn't it?"
"I don't think that's the problem, Ebreth...!" She put her hands on his arms, just in case he was thinking of letting her go. "It's the baby Schneider wants. I feel like a container whose contents people are squabbling over!"
Ebreth just kind of looked at her for a moment. "If you think this isn't about you," he finally said, "you're deluding yourself."
Khyrisse frowned. "What... do you mean by that?"
"It doesn't take Arturian here, Khyrisse," said Ebreth. "He said things were fine, he slept with you, and then he tried to kill me. Do the math."
Khyrisse shook her head too hard. "No," she said. "No, that's not it at all, Ebreth... it wasn't like that." Ebreth waited. "He... he was in love with Roxy at the time," she said. Ebreth looked at her. "He was going to go back to her anyway, Ebreth!" He kept looking. "I--I think," she said in a smaller, less sure voice. Ebreth raised an eyebrow, and she pressed her hands to her head a bit wildly. "Ebreth, it wasn't his idea. It really was the oyster totem."
"I know," he said. "I've never doubted you about that, Khyrisse. Have I?" She felt part of herself she hadn't realized was tensed relax. "But trust me on this one: men don't suddenly get possessive of women, try to fuck up their lovers, try to fuck up their relationships, totally independently of the fact that they had sex with them two days before." Khyrisse flushed miserably. "I don't mean to be playing tug-of-war with you," Ebreth said, "with you or the baby. I've been trying not to. But Schneider keeps pulling. What the hell am I supposed to do? I'm not trying to be possessive here, Khyrisse, but you've already given yourself to me, and a man has to defend that somehow."
Khyrisse sighed. "I don't mind that part," she confessed, in a little voice. "I like it when you act a little possessive of me. I just can't believe either of you takes it seriously. It doesn't matter how this baby turns out: I'm not part of the settlement."
"Have you ever told him that?"
"Schneider?" Khyrisse was horrified. "I can't do that, Ebreth!"
"If you don't tell him, how's he supposed to know?" said Ebreth. "Part of me would be thinking it."
"I can't just walk up to somebody out of the blue and say By the way, just in case you were thinking the two of us might have some kind of future together, I thought I should tell you it's not going to happen! He'd say he wasn't interested anyway, and I'd be humiliated. I don't even want him, and I'm going to set it up so he rejects me? I don't think so!" She groaned, and put her forehead to his chest. "Besides, he knows we're getting married. He's not that dumb."
"So he's trying to talk you into being my housewife?" said Ebreth. "Should I be touched?"
"I don't know, do you want a housewife?" She gave him a withering look.
"I want a goddess. Know where I can find one of those?"
"Unfortunately for you, the only one left currently looks like a hippo."
"I kind of like you all pregnant." He grinned down at her. "I'd never actually been with a pregnant woman before."
Khyrisse blushed through her stoneskin. "Anyway," she said, clearing her throat. "I just want it stated, for the record, that having a baby is not the end of a woman's life and I am not going to be bossed around on account of it."
"Talk to Luthien," said Ebreth. "I delegated all the baby-related bossing to him."
"And what a lovely job he does of it, too," she muttered crankily.
Meanwhile, Back In The Holodeck
"Hmm?" Flicker took the big headphones off. "Oh, hi, Luthien. I'm doing a test simulation for Faraday Paris; she's setting up a ski lift for me, so I offered to help her out."
"Which incarnation was versed in spellcraft?" said Luthien, with some surprise.
"None of us. Faraday wants to make sure lay people can understand her interface."
"What's it for?" Luthien leaned over and squinted at the gold-glowing artifact.
"A virtual-reality salon. I'm actually testing it on a simulation of that naval battle from the Myriad." Flicker looked a little sheepish. "It was such a good combat setup, but I just didn't have the chance to enjoy it properly with Norna and Crazy Shilree along."
Luthien blinked a few times. "I... don't believe it. That actually sounds like a pretty cool use of illusion magic."
"Do you want to run it with me when I get it done? I have a good and a bad you programmed in, but it'd be more fun if you took the good one's place."
"Who else is on our team?"
"It's you, me, Max, and Praxis against the other Luthien, Tor, and Palmer, plus the undead horde."
"Could Rhynwa sub in for Praxis?"
"After I read the whole damn 3rd Edition Psionicist's Handbook for this?" Flicker said. "Why don't I just put her in as another human player, and program in Edyric or someone on the evil team?"
"Maybe you could put Norn in on their side," the necromancer suggested. "Is there anyone else in town who might like to play? Vas, maybe?"
"Maybe," said Flicker. "I figured Khyrisse wouldn't appreciate the appeal."
"Hmm. You may have a point there." Luthien stood up. "Well, I know Rhynwa'd be up for beating the snot out of an evil me, so I'll go see if she brought her good scythe."
"If she didn't, I could put an illusory one in." Flicker put the headphones back on. "Look out for the antimagic sword. It'll keep you from casting for a few rounds if it hits you."
"I'll warn Rhynwa." Luthien disappeared out the door in search of his wife.
Ain't No Mountain High Enough
The journey for the Pets had gone smoothly for the last few days. The river had finished winding its way to the sea, and the five animals, disembarking to the north bank, found themselves in the final leg of their journey: the desolate Doomlands.
Seeker of Places privately found the redrock desert rather awe-inspiring. The spires and needles were an impressive display of wind dynamics. Unfortunately, it was also a craggy and inhospitable place. Melissa was getting proficient at catching various geckos and anoles for the party to eat, and the Rat was able to divine the presence of water with his topology skills, but there was nothing anyone could do about the heat, so the Pets had resorted to traveling at night. At times, the loneliness of the desert and sense of impending evil disheartened the team, but Babe's resolve and generosity of spirit quickly fixed that.
A thornier problem occurred when the path they had been following through a ravine came to a dead end at a cliff face.
The Rat drew a little map in the sand, showing that their optimal course did indeed continue at the top of the cliff. Turning back to find a way around would cost them days, if not weeks, on their journey, and through hazardous terrain at that. It was the way up the sandstone wall or no way. It was not sheer, but close to it. Seeker estimated its height at twenty-eight feet.
Duck, of course, could simply fly up, and the Rat thought he'd be able to scale the cliff with little difficulty, as did Melissa, who offered to carry Peep.
Babe, however, had a problem. By far the largest of the Pets, his tiny legs made him less than agile, and his wings were useless for both flying and climbing. Seeker of Places wished, not for the first time, that he had been able to bring his humanoid friends with him. Vastarin, for example, besides having wonderfully fluffy hair in which to nest, could have flown the penguin up to the top of the cliff easily. It simply hadn't been possible, though. The Lich Lord Shalak would have seen them coming immediately. It was precisely the low profile of the Rat that had made him the hero Babe had sought out. And so the Rat was going to need to calculate a way up the cliff himself.
What would Jack do? thought the Rat. Besides hemming and hawing, fretting over what a crappy job he was doing, and putting his foot in his mouth every time someone with mammary glands scampered by, I mean. Mathematically, how does one get a ninety-pound flightless bird up a cliff face? Dragging him up was out of the question. The other four animals weighed no more than ten pounds between them. Seeker of Places stood on his hind legs and twitched his head back and forth, his mathematical little mind humming. "SQUEEEEEEEEEK!" he exclaimed, as it came to him, and ran excitedly to the nearest tree, pulling at one of the vines hanging from it. Babe looked rather confused but came over to help the smallish rodent, his long black beak tearing the vine from the tree it had been parasitizing. "I understand," explained the Rat, jumping up and down on the vine, then next to a pile of rocks at the cliff base, and then pumping his head enthusiastically up at the stout branch slightly overhanging the top of the cliff.
Babe lifted his head until his beak was entirely vertical, looking at the branch far overhead, and made a soft, coughing honk as the Rat's plan slowly dawned on him. Melissa, even quicker on the uptake, had already begun enticing the Duck into helping her gather together large rocks to use as a counterweight.
Babe the penguin looked skyward, took a brave breath of air, and regretted that he had only one life to give for his people.
In Your Eyes
Khyrisse crossed her eyes and her study slowly dissolved into a grey blur behind her. Astral projection was not the sorceress' strong suit, but locating Garal had proved as fruitless as locating the Rat, and if Khyrisse kept waiting to make any progress on her research until the right people showed up in New Trade, Jack's time was going to run out before she'd done anything useful at all.
Her cheek had the strange impression of wet wind as the scenery rushed dizzily by. Almost like my cheek was the wind part. Heaven, Garal had told her once, was harder to get to than Hell, which made a certain amount of sense given that it was a place people might conceivably want to live in; Asinus said he knew a back entrance, though, and had a few strings he could pull. Khyrisse was dubious, but all Asinus' other ludicrous-sounding claims had turned out to be true, and Jack was his nephew, after all, so she figured she'd give him the benefit of the doubt. More of a concern to her right now was what she was going to find when she got there. Ebreth's misadventure in Heaven during the Rimbor City mission had left Khyrisse with the impression that the Negative Material Plane was corroding the place. If this world is in such a mess that even Heaven's falling apart, I'm not half-sure I want to know about it...
Khyrisse bit her lip, steeling herself as the impressionist blurs around her started to resolve into a landscape. To her relief, it just looked like a rather pleasant moonlit meadow, wildflowers swaying harmoniously in the warm breeze. It was a little bit hypnotic, and certainly relaxing: the kind of place Khyrisse didn't mind that much envisioning somebody having an afterlife, which was better than she'd been afraid of finding. She hoped she was in the right place. Khyrisse had never actually been to Heaven as a god, and she wasn't, she feared, going to make it here as a mortal.
"Hello, Khyrisse," said a man from behind her. She almost jumped out of her stoneskin, whirling with her wand out even as the less paranoid parts of her brain recognized his unforgettable voice. "Lord Asinus said you might be coming."
"Lord Asinus?" Khyrisse mouthed, but shook it off and embraced the shade of Janther Moria as tightly as her insubstantial planar projection would allow. She didn't know what kind of strings Asinus could possibly have been able to pull in flarking Heaven, but as usual, the ass had come through somehow. "Hi Janther," she said in a small, almost shy voice. He looked so like he had in life, straight and noble, with high and striking cheekbones and a soft, expressive mouth. He was not wearing the feystone goggles Khyrisse had almost thought of as part of his body. His eyes were a milky china blue, and distant. "We--we've missed you, down below..."
"Hi Khyrisse!" waved Syndy, enthusiastically, and Khyrisse jumped again. She wasn't sure if the astral projection was throwing her senses off or the unassuming nature of Heaven's shades really was making them harder to notice. "And you missed me too, right?"
"Yes, especially you. Now I'm the shortest hero in the damn group again!" Her laugh was a little shaky, and she swallowed hard as she gave the little fairy a misty hug. "I--I'm sorry about Trill..."
"She beat the poop out of me," Syndy admitted. "But it looks like you guys defeated her anyway... and I'm in Paradise and she's not, so everything worked out okay!"
"If you take a long enough view," said Janther, "things usually do."
"Paninaro used to say that," said Khyrisse. "It made me want to kick him." She rubbed the projection of her temples. "Are things all right up here? Garal said there was some kind of civil war..."
"The angels are all fighting," Syndy offered. "So us souls are kind of camping out in the Elysian fields over here to keep out of their way."
"Much of the plane is... something of a war zone," Janther clarified, a hint of sadness in his rich voice. "Lord Asinus is prophesied to choose the victor. It would be well if he did it soon. I have had enough of war."
"I'll--bring it up with him," Khyrisse sighed.
"So how come you're here, anyway?" Syndy wanted to know. "Cause you don't look dead."
"I'm not." Khyrisse smiled wanly. "I'm trying to save a friend. I need to talk to Robinson Paris, and Asinus said he was around here somewhere."
"That's the guy with the ham radio!" Syndy said, excited.
"That's Mario Paris, my dear," smiled Janther.
"Oh." Syndy kicked a heavenly little pebble with her bare foot.
"Robinson Paris is the one with the telescope. And we can certainly find him for you."
"Thank you," Khyrisse said, took the orator's hand and squeezed it. "It--it's good to see you again. Not that I don't like Flicker or anything... but you'll always be the Sunfighter to me, in a way." She shook her head, overwhelmed with a nostalgic poignancy she wasn't sure came from seeing her dead friends or remembering divinity. "I'm engaged," she said, quite suddenly. There was something ridiculous about trying to update a man who had died seven years ago on the details of her life since then, and that was far from the pivotal one, but she felt, somehow, that it was something he would so want to know.
"That's good," Janther said softly. "That's good."
Syndy tugged at his sleeve. "We better go find the telescope guy, Janther. Cause if she's alive, then her spell duration's probably going to run out... right, Khyrisse?"
"Shalini will know where he is," said Janther. "She'll be at the Heaven's Gate tavern."
"I know where that is!" said Syndy. "By all the corn... right?"
"I'm not much for landmarks," Janther smiled, putting his hand in the little fey's. It actually took Khyrisse a moment to figure what the flark he was talking about, and when she did, she was thunderstruck by it. "You're not still blind?" she half-gasped. She'd assumed the unfocused distance in his light eyes was some kind of heavenly wisdom, or something. "But--but this is Heaven. Can't they cure you?"
"This is Heaven," Janther said gently. "They don't need to."
"I can see," Syndy explained, "and Janther can remember things. So it works out really good!"
There was a peculiar lightness twisting in Khyrisse's stomach, and maybe the yearning was coming from a lack inside herself, she realized, maybe Heaven was a place a certain kind of person could make out of nothing at all, and maybe she, even if she were to live here, would find no more of peace than she already knew how to look for. Maybe Heaven was a place in your heart. It was both an uplifting thought and a horribly upsetting one. Maybe Heaven was a place in your heart, and Khyrisse didn't have it.
Khyrisse watched the two souls cross the Elysian Fields together.
"Look," sighed Ebreth, stuffing his things into his traveling pack, "we've been through all of this already, Sallie. I don't know what experiences you had with my... past self... but I'm not like that anymore."
She arched one eyebrow at him in a disconcertingly Khyrisse-like way. "Not to impinge on your sense of self-importance, young man," she said, "but I've never heard of you before. You see, I've been a bit out of the loop for the past thirty years, and the name of this scoundrel or that wasn't exactly what I spent my rather fragmented brain power trying to remember." She set down the vase. "I know nothing about your past, nor do I care. My best friend was an assassin, and I've run with more than a few rogues myself in my day. What concerns me is your present. In specific, your relationship with my daughter."
Ebreth just had no idea what she was asking him, but she didn't elaborate, just fixed him with her bright eyes like she was appraising him and waited. "I love her," he finally said.
"You need her," she flashed back. "I've never seen a more codependent couple in my life."
"Well, we are what we are," he said, quietly. "I'm being as sane as I know how."
"The last time I saw Khyrisse," said Sallie, "she was a buoyant, unflappable child full of faith in the world and confidence in herself. That is not exactly the daughter I came home to."
Ebreth couldn't help wincing a little. "That wasn't my fault."
"It's my own," said Sallie. "I suppose that's what happens when a girl goes through adolescence without a strong female role model. But without assigning blame for circumstances beyond your control, Mr. Tor, you are making this situation worse."
"Listen, Sallie," he started, and then stopped. "Sallie, or Laelissa?"
"Oh, it doesn't matter." She waved her hand irritably. "Sallie is fine. I've been Sallie for a long time now. Mad Sallie and Derek the Deranged. Small wonder the poor girl's loose at the hinges."
"She's not that bad." Ebreth paused. "Look, Sallie, I know you've got no way of knowing this, but she's on her way back up. When I found her she had a bag of broken glass for a heart. She couldn't sleep,
she couldn't handle setbacks, she could barely admit emotions aloud at all. Maybe she's not the girl you remember but she's not the brittle, damaged creature I remember either. She's mending. She's getting better."
"Is she?" said Sallie. "Is she, or are you just keeping stress out of her life? Is she learning to cope, or is she learning to be dependent on you?" She picked up Skitch's unfinished clipper model, turned it introspectively in her thin hands, and set it back down. "My son assures me you are ‘taking good care of her.' Apparently it seems he could have used a strong female role model for the latter part of his youth too. She doesn't need to be taken care of, young man, and she doesn't need to be protected."
"Maybe she does," said Ebreth, after a beat. "Maybe even the most powerful sorceress on Ataniel still needs someplace to feel warm and safe. Would that be so bad?"
The older woman narrowed her birdlike eyes at him. "Save your charming paternalism for people who find it touching," she said crisply; "I do not."
"I'm not trying to keep her out of trouble," he argued. "I'm not trying to shelter her from things. I just want to be someone she can lean on without worrying about falling. Why should she have to go this alone?"
"There is a difference between walking beside someone and carrying her." Sallie looked away for the first time all conversation, contemplatively. "As my daughter is fond of reminding me, she is not a child anymore. I can't make her decisions for her, nor would I want to. But I see you enabling a disturbing fragility in her, Mr. Tor, and I do not approve. Good day."
Ebreth sighed and rubbed the back of his neck as she departed. He felt uncomfortably bad about the whole conversation, and guilty for feeling that way. It wasn't that he was afraid she was right--Ebreth had his share of insecurities, but he felt pretty confident in his belief he was a positive element in Khyrisse's life. He wasn't just upset that Khyrisse's mother didn't like him, either. Ebreth wasn't a person who felt the need to be liked by everyone.
Really, it was that he missed Mad Sallie.
And Ebreth didn't know what to make of that at all.
Tears in Heaven
The greying mathematician descended from the cloud with such a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye that Khyrisse had a disorienting moment of forgetting he was dead. He was accompanied by a warm-faced older woman in a shawl. "Robinson," said Khyrisse, a little awkwardly. "I'm sorry to, uh, disturb your spirit, but I need--" She blinked at the woman, suddenly placing her. "Astilla?"
"That's right, dear," smiled the abbess. "Khyrisse Starshadow, isn't it?"
"Oh, I'm glad to see you here!" said Khyrisse, flooded with sudden relief that the spirits of her lost citizens weren't necessarily all consigned to Hell for the atrocities they'd committed during the Madness. Then she realized that the tacit reference to Astilla's psycho rampage probably wasn't what the gentle priestess really wanted to be reminded of from the world below, and clapped her hand over her mouth. "Tal is forgiveness," Astilla said warmly, and if her feelings were hurt she didn't show it.
"You needed my help with something?" Robinson prompted.
Khyrisse looked down. "It's Jack."
"Jack?" repeated Robinson, worried. "Is he in some sort of trouble?"