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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 19

There's Still Crime In The City, But It's Good To Be Free

Renee Delacroix was celebrating.

There hadn't been official word back from Diaria yet, but according to Mahoney, the meeting had gone well. Renee was an alchemist, a small-time player in the Rimbor City narcotics industry, and the work she'd done to ensure the cross-racial potency of Sugar Cane could be just what she needed to launch herself into the bigtime. Her sample had apparently passed the Don's test. George Mahoney himself had come by to congratulate her.

So Renee Delacroix had had two kahluas and cream at the Beau Soleil, and she had stood everyone a round, and she was thinking of splurging on that magic notepad she'd seen in the window at Hastolya's Oddities, once her check came in. Life, thought Renee, was good.

Then the ugly dwarf stepped out of the shadows and into her path. "Hiya, sailor," Renee said, a little silly with wine. He was looking more like a mugger than a propositioner, slashes of red war paint across his cheeks and a serrated knife in one leathery hand, but what of it? Renee had been mugged before, and she probably would be again. It was no reason to dampen the mood of the evening. "What can I do you for?"

"A message," said the dwarf, in a raspy and not entirely normal voice. "For John Tucson."

"The Scorpion?" said Renee, floored. "I--I'm sorry, you must have mistaken me for somebody else..."

"Renee Delacroix?" rasped the dwarf. "You work for George Mahoney?"

"Yes," she said, not sure where this was going, "but I've never met the Scorpion. I doubt he even knows who I am. I don't think I could get him a message."

"Oh," said the dwarf, "trust me, you can." His empty hand shot out and grabbed her by the arm, a powerful, viselike grip.

Renee's screams echoed through the Tobrinese Quarter.

***

Octavian lifted the cloak from the young woman's body with the end of his sword cane.

The one-time criminal mastermind of Rimbor City had long since become inured to most forms of violence, and this was no exception. Octavian surveyed the gruesome work of the killer introspectively. Unsophisticated, unprofessional, but effective. The woman had been dead by the time Octavian got there; though the villain had apparently taken his time slashing her to death, he had put an end to it by severing her head, rather than leaving her to bleed to death and perhaps be rescued. The killer himself was gone without the slightest trace, just as the last two times. Octavian was frustrated, though not too frustrated to appreciate the irony. The very depth of the city and its nights that made him an effective vigilante provided the same cover for any man who knew how to use it.

Octavian pushed the cloak further from the woman's body. Fixed to it with a pearl hat pin was a note, written in blood.

JOHN TUCSON, it read. YOU CAN RUN, BUT YOU CAN'T HIDE.

***

Andy's pulse quickened as the three teenagers swaggered down the alley towards them, laughing in that mean way only a street kid with a buzz laughed. He tugged at his mother's sleeve as surreptitiously as he could, but by the time she had gotten up, one of the toughs had pushed her back down to the dirty ground again. "Gimme some money," he mumbled, long stringy hair falling into his face from a knitted cap.

"I don't have any money!" said Andy's mother. "Do you think we'd be out here tonight if I had any money?"

"Shut up, bitch," muttered the teenager, producing a knife. "Gimme your money. I need a fucking nother hit."

The rest of Andy's friends had run off down the alley to get out of the bigger boys' way, but Andy wasn't about to leave his mom to get knifed by some junkie. "You leave her alone!" he yelled, kicking the teenager hard in the back of the leg. If he could get them to chase him, maybe his mother could go to an alley in some other gang's turf while they were gone. And Andy was little and fast. Unfortunately for his plan, one of the other teens was hopped on something less mellow than Cane, and had grabbed Andy and slammed him into the brick wall before the younger boy could make his break for it. "You need that nose, you little shit?" he growled, poking Andy hard in the face with his switchblade.

And then he'd fallen to the ground, the knife clattering out of his hand. Andy didn't know why, exactly, but kids who weren't quick thinkers didn't make it to eight years old in this city. "Octavian!" he yelled, pointing at the nearest shadow. "Look, it's Octavian! We're saved!"

The third teenager stopped his stoned laughter abruptly and bolted off without looking back. The one who'd been threatening Andy's mother looked at his felled mate and around the alley in confusion. Andy took a deep breath and picked up the fallen knife. He'd never actually been in a knife fight before.

But then a man stepped boldly out into the alley, and though he obviously wasn't Octavian, he was tall and adult and unafraid-looking and the last gangbanger ran off into the night. Andy backed up in the direction of his mother, putting his left hand to his cheek. There was blood there where the kid had stabbed him, but it didn't feel like a very deep wound. Andy wanted to run away before anything else bad happened, but the man wasn't making any moves towards them, instead checking the fallen body of the teenager. And Andy couldn't help being curious. "What'd you do to him?" he asked, keeping his distance.

"Andy," hissed his mother sharply, pulling at his arm. "Come on."

"Just a little magic," smiled the man. He was really very heroic-looking, Andy thought. He was wearing a leather jerkin and a flat hat with a wide brim, and his eyes were blue and bright. "He'll be all right when he wakes up, but it's going to be at the police station." The man put his hand to the teenager's belt and lifted him by it, with superhuman strength. "What about you, young man? Are you okay?"

His friends were starting to creep back down the alleyway, peering curiously at them. "I'm all right," Andy said nonchalantly, trying to pretend his knees weren't still shaking from the close call of it all. "Thanks for helping me out."

"You helped yourself out," said the man. "I just gave you the opportunity."

Andy's mother frowned on him. "If I wanted you creepy self-actualizers proselytizing my boy, I would have stayed in New Lianth where the streets were safer," she said plainly.

"I'm no Objectivist, ma'am," said the man. "No man is an island... only by daring to help each other can we make Ataniel a place we really want to live in." He looked right at Jax, one of Andy's friends. "Why did you run away when you knew this woman was in danger?" he asked gently.

Jax flushed and looked down. "Those were Turtle Brothers," he mumbled. "They're bigger than me. They woulda kicked my ass, man."

"All of your, er, asses?" The hero looked around. "I see... five of you... maybe six? I'm not recommending foolhardiness here, boys. If John Tucson comes down the block, maybe discretion is the better part of valor. But three teenage boys, you can handle that." He hefted his unconscious prisoner over one broad shoulder and took a wand out of his sword belt. "Try it next time. The more you help others, the more likely they are to help you. Here."

Andy looked to his mother, but she just looked bewildered. He took the wand slowly. "What's this?"

"A wand of magic missiles," said the man. "My code is to give away anything I earn adventuring to someone I see spending his or her effort to help somebody else. That would be you."

Andy licked his lips. "She's my mom," he admitted. He didn't want to make the stranger take his gift back, but there was something in his noble bearing that made Andy not want to lie to him, either. "I probably wouldn't have helped Jax' mom, either."

"If I had a mom," muttered Jax.

"We all have to start somewhere," said the man, with a smile. "Once you care about one person enough to take a stand, you will find yourself doing it for others. Trust me, I've seen it."

"Wait," said Andy's mother, as he turned to go. "Wait, who are you?"

"Justin Moore," said the masked man. "Hero at large."

He tipped an imaginary hat, and was gone.

The other kids crowded around Andy as his mother, still a little dazed, gathered her scattered possessions from the ground where the punks had pushed her. "Lemme see," said Merle.

"Dag," said Jax. "Look at that! I bet you could sell that for fifty gold!"

"No way, man," said Razor. "Wipe out the rest of the Turtle Brothers with it, take all their stuff. A hundred and fifty gold, I bet."

"It's pretty," admired Merle. "What are you going to do with it, Andy?"

Andy put it through his belt, a distant gleam in his eye. "I'm going to be a hero," he said.

Breaking And Entering

Rani crept closer to the edge of the brush, her lavender eyes glittering over her grey bandit's scarf in the early morning light. "I'm not getting anyone," she whispered.

"Let me scan." Thermador inched up beside her and held his planar artifact out, the yellow and green lights on it flashing. Garal wished this mission didn't involve relying on Dave Thermador. The halfling didn't dislike many people, but he disliked Dave. "No, I think we're clear."

"This one will go first," said Amatsu quietly, unwinding his light silken rope from his pack. "Once I have secured an empty chamber, the rest of you will follow, and we may all, er, pull Pigsy up together. Mr. Thermador, if you could maintain a lookout; and Miss Rani, if you could use your powers to divine what you can of the tower's structure while I am occupied?"

"Look," sighed Rani, sticking her hand into the wall of the tower. "Amatsu. It's not ‘Miss Rani'. Rani's my first name. ‘Miss Rani' sounds like a hooker."

"A thousand apologies," Amatsu said humbly. "This one seems to have forgotten your last name."

Rani paused a beat. "I, don't have one," she said. "I'm illegitimate." There was an awkward silence. "Look, just ‘Rani,' okay? There's not that much to me. Two syllables should do you fine."

"It shall be as you ask," said Amatsu, bowing his head and looping the rope over his shoulder.

Garal watched in silence as his friend slid stealthily up the wall, the fluttering grey of his bandit robes melting into the worn stone of the tower, but his attention never left the dancing lights on Thermador's planar device. Garal had already figured out how the instrument worked, more or less, but he didn't see any reason to share that information with the mercenary. Thermador was scanning the magical substructure of the immediate area. No new magical activity was registering, which probably meant Arturian was not in range. Garal couldn't tell from here what ‘in range' was. If it had belonged to anyone else, Garal would have had a hundred questions about the intriguing planar artifact. As it was he just looked at it over Thermador's shoulder, neither hiding that he was doing so nor being belligerent about it. Garal knew more about observing inobtrusively than Amatsu, in his own way, and he did not catch Dave Thermador's attention now.

"Got it," said Rani. "I think."

"Still clear," said Thermador, and his scanner backed him up.

Amatsu gave a thumbs-up from the sill and tossed the end of the rope down to them.

Post-Partum Depression

"You've got to start being nicer to them, Coyri," said Tarrin, frowning on her. "They're my friends, and they're trying to help. It's not their fault we're in exile."

It was Tarrin's, actually, but even in her worst moments of despair Coyri never said so. She loved her husband too much to accuse him for not sacrificing his divine calling to the Emperor's strange new regime. "Where were you?" she displaced, sniffling. "I needed you. You left me alone with strange kiljhac men!"

He sighed. "Coyri, I was looking for Lorrini. You went into labor two weeks earlier than we'd guessed. What could I have done?"

"I've never been so ashamed in my life," Coyri moaned, rocking.

"He was just trying to help," said Tarrin. "What if the child had been breech, or had the cord around his neck as Sajhir did? I'm glad there was someone here to help you. We should be grateful to him."

Coyri shuddered and held her shawl around herself tighter. "I know," she whispered. "But I can't bear it, Tarrin. I have nightmares about it." She could, she thought, have dealt with a man violating her privacy under the circumstances, or a kiljhac; but both? "Will you thank him for me? I couldn't face him, Tarrin. I just couldn't. I'd rather kill myself."

"Please stop talking that way, Coyri!" Tarrin's voice was starting to get rather threadbare. Part of Coyri felt bad--he was under stress too, after all. But Coyri's heart was wailing with too much despair to cheer up for her husband's sake, and part of her resented that he would ask her to. The baby cried, and Coyri held her shawl around herself dully. Tarrin, after a beat, got up and picked him up. "I think you need to get out of the house more," he said.

"I can't," cried Coyri. "I can't bear it, Tarrin!"

"You can," said Tarrin. "Be strong, Coyri. We can get through this. It's not as bad as it seems to you right now." He paused. "There's another Diari woman from our caste in town," he said. "The ambassador's wife. I've asked a mutual friend to invite her over for lunch this week."

"Here!" Coyri burst into tears. "How can we have a woman of our caste here, Tarrin? We live in a poor man's flat! We live like migrant workers!"

"Coyri!" He grabbed her by the shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. "Our apartment is fine," he said. "What does it matter if it is richly appointed or not? Are we Cynystrans, that we measure our social worth in coins?" Coyri hung her head, crying quietly. "I will stay home to help you decorate," he said, "to be ready for a visitor."

"Thank you," she whispered, shivering.

"I know this is hard, Coyri." Tarrin put his arms around her comfortingly. "But you won't feel like this forever. Most post-partum depression clears up within a few weeks. You can make it. We can make it."

Coyri didn't say anything at all.

That's ‘Rescue' In The Loosest Sense Of The Word...

Rani slid her hand along the white wall, her eyes crossing with the effort. "In there," she whispered, nodding her chin at the carved door.

Amatsu eased into position behind it, lifted the strange handle, and slowly pushed it open.

Vickie looked up in startlement. "Matsie?" Rani almost wouldn't have recognized her; she was wearing a simple housedress, her hair was tied back, and she didn't have any makeup on. She was sitting quietly on a chair, writing on a clipboard. "What are you guys doing here?"

"We're here to rescue you," Garal said with more than his usual determination, running his hands over the forcefield surrounding her.

"Rescue me? That's, uh, really sweet of ya, Garry, but--" Amatsu lifted a finger to his lips warningly, and Vickie shook her head at him. "No, it doesn't matter. Arturian's not here now."

"Well," said Thermador, "yet," and banged the alarm button on the wall with the back of his hand.

Garal almost screamed in rage as the chilling whoops echoed through the tower. Rani cursed in Diari and stuck her hand into the alarm, trying to turn it off. "Catch you later," said Thermador, with a wolfish grin, and dissolved in a burst of static.

"That... that..." spluttered Garal. "That traitor!"

"Zhay tak," muttered Rani. "It's just a relay. Garal, get that field down and let's blow!"

"Allow me!" Pigsy produced his muckrake and smashed the forcefield into thousands of coruscating pieces with a sound like a dozen stray cats climbing up a chalkboard.

"So much for stealth," Rani sighed to Amatsu.

"Wait!" said Vickie, as Garal grabbed her by the hand. "I had a plan..." She shook her head, and threw the clipboard on the lab table. "Oh, well, what the hey!"

"A befitting vessel indeed," Pigsy said approvingly.

A Mother's Job

"Why are you making this harder?" Khyrisse said, pressing her temples. "You used to like him!"

"Yes, when I was a raving bag lady. Telling, isn't it?"

"Mother!"

Most people flinched when Khyrisse Starshadow used that tone of voice. Mad Sallie was not one of them. "I don't think this wedding is a good idea," she said.

"Why not?" Khyrisse half-yelled. "What have you got against him, aniu?"

"Well, you tell me," said Sallie. "Why are you getting married?"

"Why don't you want me to?" Khyrisse fired back.

"Because I think you're doing it for his sake," Sallie responded unhesitatingly. "Are you?"

"For both our sakes," said Khyrisse. "It's what we want, Mom. Why can't you be even slightly supportive about this?"

"In my experience," said Sallie, "when a woman starts hyperventilating if she thinks about her upcoming wedding too much, this does not mean she's ready for marriage."

Khyrisse bit her lip. "That's not Ebreth," she half-whispered. "It's not him. I swear."

"Does it matter whose fault it is?" sighed Sallie, corralling a stray piece of grey hair. "If you don't want to do it, Khyrisse, you shouldn't. That's a terrible omen and a terrible precedent." She paused a beat. "And you shouldn't be letting him make you."

"He's not making me!" snapped Khyrisse, her temper starting to fray. "I didn't say I didn't want to, I said I was afraid to! Not everything scary is bad, Mom. I'm not seven years old anymore!"

"I'm your mother. It's my job to worry about things you're too close to and, forgive me, but a little too young to put enough concern into yourself."

"I'm a forty-year-old divorcée, mother!" Khyrisse threw her hands up in exasperation. "Where the flark were you twenty-five years ago when this might have mattered?"

Sallie looked away, tapping her thin fingers together. She looked surprisingly old when her face wasn't moving. "Not with my only daughter when she needed me," she said very softly, and Khyrisse understood everything in a single hot flash, and forgave her every annoying thing she'd said since regaining her senses and half the ones she was going to say sometime in the future. "It's okay, aniu," she said, and reached out for the older woman's hand with a wobbly smile. "I'm tough, remember?"

"I remember, all right." Sallie patted her hand and sighed. "If you were just a little more sensible, sweetie, you wouldn't need to be tough quite so often."

"You'd be surprised," sighed Khyrisse. "I've spent the past two decades perfecting paranoia. It hasn't protected me from very much." She paused. "And it sucks." Mad Sallie laughed despite herself, and Khyrisse pressed her mother's hands in hers, smiling up at her ruefully. "Please don't dislike him, Mom," she said softly. "It's taken me so long to find someone who makes me feel like myself."

Sallie sighed and squeezed her hands back. "I'll try, Khyri. I'll try."

Year of the Monkey

"Boy," Vickie puffed as the rest of her extraction force followed her pell-mell down the hallway, "talk about crashing in on someone else's covert ops, Rain!"

"Excuse the hell out of me," Rani wheezed. "Garal thought you were being used for some kind of hideous experimentation or something. Next time I'll follow my first instinct and tell him to zark off."

"I was being used for some kind of hideous experimentation," Vickie admitted. "I just also had a plan." She skidded to an abrupt halt as the double doors slid open in front of them to reveal three glowing one-eyed metal golems. "Oh boy. Somebody bring me a spare grappling hook or something?"

"Back!" yelled Garal, skidding. "Back the other way!"



"Thank you for the information," said Arturian.

"And my payment?" said Dave Thermador.

The Deathless mage nodded. "Five years for the message from Nathan," he said. "One for warning me about the Monkey King's escape attempt."

Thermador took the golden wafer from the archmage. "Pleasure doing business with you," he said.

"Don't make a habit of it," said Arturian. "I trust you can find the door."



"Get a move on, Porky!" yelled Vickie, ducking out of the way of a metal golem's ruby eye beam.

"I'm afraid I'm not very fast," lamented Pigsy, waddling. "Won't you let Monkey out, miss? He could get us all out of here, I just know it."

"No, I will not let Monkey out!" Vickie gave one of the golems a flying karate kick to the knee with her denim boot. It reached down with improbable speed and caught her in one of its metal hands. Vickie gasped involuntarily as it squeezed. "Well," she gasped, "maybe... just... this... once."

There was a flash and a stick appeared in her hands, rapidly growing long enough to jab the cyclops in its mechanical eye. "Time to rock and roll," Vickie grinned manically, backflipping to the floor as the golem dropped her. "Hold ‘em off a round or two, Pigsy. I've still got some tricks up my sleeve."

"Is that good or bad?" Garal whispered to Amatsu. Amatsu shrugged helplessly.

"Hold them off!" Pigsy cried. "What a good idea! Now why didn't I think of that?" He pulled his muckrake out of nowhere again and sent one of the metal golems crashing back into its fellow with a mighty blow. Rani ignored them all. She had thrust her hand into the wall and was trying to read the tower for an escape route, but the miniaturization was making it fucking impossible. So she was focusing on the structures nearest her. Library. No windows. Useless. Garbage compacter. Stupid. Menagerie. Stupid and a dead end. Artifact vault, one, she suspected, of many. Probably useful, but deep-locked and force shielded.

Then a beam of brilliant red energy exploded into her from behind, slamming her forwards so hard that her wrist, buried in the metal wall behind her, snapped. Rani saw stars of pain.

Three more golems. From the other end of the corridor.

The Vickie Extraction Force was surrounded.

"Never fear!" cried Vickie, still in that strange hooting voice. "Monkey's here!" Her quarterstaff extended half across the hall and punched a number sequence into a wall pad with more dexterity than Rani would have imagined a quarterstaff could manage. All the forcefields in the building crackled and dissipated, and the Monkey King made a rolling dive for the artifact vault.

Then there was an ungodly roaring sound as the Tarrasque, freed from its holding cell, tore through the reinforced steel door of the menagerie.

In a hundred and forty-four years, Rani never would have imagined she would have found herself missing the restraint and forethought of Vickie Dare.

Just For Doug

"Whoa!" said Marty, hustling over to Khyrisse, Sallie, Derek and Karel as the four elves lunched in the park. "Is this, like, a family thing? Was I supposed to be here? Cause I might have overslept..."

"For the last time," said Sallie, in a voice that made it clear which side of the family Khyrisse had gotten her short store of patience from, "I am not your mother, young man!"

"Oh, I, like, remembered that, Miz Sallie," nodded Marty. "But since, like, Khyrisse is my sister, I'm sort of part of the family anyway, you know?"

"But..." said Derek, looking from Marty to Khyrisse. "But you thought she was your sister because you thought Laelissa was your mother, Mart--"

"Don't bother, Dad," whispered Karel, who caught on faster.

Marty watched them hurriedly clean up what was left of their picnic. "You don't, like, all have to go," he said, a little sadly. Khyrisse almost felt a little bad for him. "I'd been meaning to talk to you anyway, Marty," she said comfortingly, covering her family's escape from their unwanted ‘relative'. "Ebreth and I wanted to know if you'd like to be a junior attendant in the wedding?"

"Whoa," said Marty, nervously. "You mean like Lilith? I don't, like, know about that..."

Khyrisse squinted at him. "Lilith? Oh... no, Marty, she's an intendant. You'd be an attendant."

"Dude," Marty said, "you mean like, mage and magette?"

Khyrisse started to answer that, and stopped. "You don't have to be an intendant, Marty," she said. "We just want you to be part of the wedding."

"Whew," Marty sighed with relief. "That's okay, then. So who am I, like, marrying?"

Khyrisse pinched the bridge of her nose. "You're not marrying anyone, Marty. I am marrying Ebreth."

"Whoa," said Marty, "Master Ebreth? I thought zen masters were supposed to, like, be above physical relationships."

"Believe in the stork, do you?" Khyrisse said drolly, gesturing at her increasingly prominent stomach.

"I thought the, like, donkey did that."

"NO, the donkey did not do this!" Khyrisse hollered. She pinched her nose again. "Asinus and Vas made that up. Didn't Vas tell you that when he told you about the Oyster Totem?"

"No," said Marty. "He just told me about his ass. I was like, too much information, you know?"

Khyrisse blinked some more. Talking to Marty was the conversational equivalent of a cryptic crossword, sometimes. "Geas," she finally said.

"Yeah," said Marty, "like, don't ask don't tell, man."

Khyrisse just dropped the whole thing. "Ebreth and I are getting married," she simplified, "and we want you to wear a tux and stand up front with us. That's all."

"Dude," he nodded happily. "I can do that."

Than To See You With Another Man

"I told you you wanted light walls." Jason grinned impudently at Flicker. "It's too dark in here already. Men always want wood paneling, but it's almost always a mistake."

"It looks good," Flicker acknowledged. Janther had been blind, and none of his other incarnations had been much better where interior decorating was concerned. Flicker himself would probably have just left the walls bare. He was going to be having people over more as the ski season picked up, though, and it was good for the house to have a welcoming atmosphere. "You should start a consulting business. There's a lot of new construction in town. I doubt I'm the only one who could use advice."

Jason flushed happily. "Well, maybe I will," he said. "I've never actually had a job before." He looked sort of embarrassed. "I was just a noble back home... we sort of considered it beneath us."

"You've got one now." There was a loud knock at the door. "Excuse me." The visitor knocked again, even louder, as Flicker was en route to the door. "Hello?" he said, opening it.

Three armed men pushed past him into the living room.

"Hello," said Flicker, louder, following them.

"Beat it, faggot," answered a guy with a mace, kicking an end table across the hall for emphasis.

"Hello, Josie," said the largest of the intruders, a man Flicker recognized as the new ambassador from Sturtevant.

Jason screamed and ducked behind the sofa.

The Fall of the Tower of Nataal

Rani had really been hoping they were going to be able to do this without earning the complete and total enmity of the Archmage.

For some reason, this was what she was thinking as she watched the invulnerable Tarrasque dismantling Arturian's tower.

The Rat Packers, metal cyclopes, and even the stupid fucking ancestor spirits had all stopped fighting each other in a desperate bid to dispatch or contain the beast somehow. Pigsy was waling on it with his rake, but it didn't divert it an inch from its path. Monkey Vickie had gotten the vault open and was flinging all manner of magic items at it, but they weren't having any appreciable effect. Neither were the metal golems' eye beams. Garal was trying to catch one of its feet in a dimensional hole to at least hold it in place, but so far all he'd gotten was kicked. Amatsu had quietly suggested they run like hell. Rani seconded the motion.

Unfortunately, that was just about when the undeterrable Tarrasque crashed through the load-bearing wall into the Naatale countryside and the tower, with a sickening grinding sound and a shower of stone dust, collapsed on them.

Rani's life didn't flash before her eyes as she pressed uselessly back into the crumpling wall, her psychic powers too exhausted to meld into it to safety. Instead, it was all the things she hadn't done that ran screaming through her mind as the tower fell on her in slow motion, and the bitterness of that, of having left nothing behind she even cared about enough to regret leaving in the panic of dying, was more crushing than the stone could hope to be.

Then an arm looped around her waist and swung her out through the Tarrasque-sized hole in the tower as it roared to the ground behind her.

"Owe you one, Vi--" she started, coughing with powder and futility, and then stopped, because it wasn't Vickie.

"Nothing to it," grinned Dave Thermador, setting her down on the dirt. The Tarrasque rampaged off across the chaparral, straight for the town the V.E.F. had passed through yesterday. Rani felt a constricted pang of helpless guilt. "Damn," added Thermador, looking at the collapsed tower. "Is Arturian ever going to be pissed. Glad I'm damped."

Rani privately thought that anyone so full of themselves they kept invincible monsters in menageries in their secret fortresses deserved what they got, but there was no point assigning blame now. She cradled her broken wrist, flicking her detective's senses across the scene of destruction. Vickie and Amatsu were outside and looked okay; Pigsy, battered but apparently undaunted, was pushing his way out of the rubble. "Oh, dear," sighed Pigsy, "are we ever going to make it through a little escapade without a building of some sort falling on us, Monkey?"

"I'm Vickie," said Vickie. "Where's Garry?"

"I saw the hopper sliding off-plane when the tower blew," said Thermador. "I'm sure he'll catch up later. Let's get out of here." He shouldered his jet stick. "Before anything else happens we'll all regret."

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