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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 23

The Cheated

"Where are we going, anyway?" complained Kit.

"Everywhere and nowhere, little bird." Araiji smiled mysteriously. "Just as always."

"Are all Diarians like you?" Kit demanded.

"Like me?" Araiji threw her head back in a clink of jewelry and laughed. "No, dear, most of them are so lawful the Church of Morvon makes fun of them behind their back."

"I meant the lots of vague hints part." Kit kicked the table leg in the little inn. "Mister LaRue, I thought you said this was gonna be a cool adventure. We've just been mostly going from bar to stupid bar."

"Bars are the best place to find good quests," Crandall contributed.

"We are heading for Oranda," Dexy LaRue evaded. He didn't tell his recruits he was still hoping another gambler might turn up along the way, one he would truly know was the right one. Six dreams belayed, he thought, six dreams betrayed. The Cheated awaken, the debt is repaid. The gypsy had a flair for precognition, the lawyer for luck, the rogue could talk his way out of anything and the child had genuine moxie. One gambler with all four of those traits would have been just the person Dexy needed; but four with one each was risky, depended on their perfect cooperation. Dexy was playing to a straight, and he knew it. "To the Crystal Pipes. I have a--tune that must be played there." He paused. "You probably want to know what this is all about."

"Six of one, half a dozen of the other," Ralchar said cheerfully. "I'm enjoying the bar tour, myself."

"Why would you tell your followers what the quest was about?" the Diarian asked in confusion.

Kit glared at both of them. "I'd like to know," she said, swinging her legs and sipping from her root beer float. "You can tell me."

Dexy gave the girl a thin-lipped smile. "We are all squatters, Kit," he said. "Ataniel doesn't really belong to us, hasn't for a very long time. It belongs to a race of powerful beings known as the Cheated. You might even call them gods."

"I thought the gods were all dead here," said Ralchar, looking confusedly at Crandall. Crandall shrugged.

"The Cheated are not of this world," said Dexy, shortly. "The death of the gods of Ataniel has only opened the sphere to their influence further, and now they are returning to collect their unpaid debt. Not long after the Madness, I was awakened by a... dream."

"This was no ordinary dream," Araiji put in. "I had it as well. That is why I have come here. I should tell you now that I do not have the Gift; I have no magical ability, no special talents. I am nothing but a simple fortuneteller. But I have felt the touch of prophecy, and so I have come. I will help in what small way I can." The gypsy paused. "This dream," she said, "was a contact between the subconscious gestalt mind of Ataniel and those who would possess it. At the point of contact between those two would-be realities arose a third reality, the alternate space known as Dreamtime. Within this Dream, the slumbering psyches of Ataniel forged eight heroes, who bested the Cheated and took our world from their grasp once again."

"Cool," Kit and Ralchar said simultaneously.

"But now," Dexy said quietly, "they return again. For the third and final time." The gambler spun his dagger on its point, on the wooden table. "The first was a parry, the second a feint. The third must strike true, or our world will be lost."

"Wow," said Kit. "The whole world? Cause I'm, uh, a pretty seasoned adventurer and everything... but I've never done that."

"The world will still be here," Dexy said. "But it will belong to the Cheated."

"What can we do to stop it?"

"They have lost their claim," said Dexy, "and the heroes of the Dreamtime have stopped them from using the alternate worlds to reach this reality. The third and final route is through the planes."

"I know a planeblazer," Ralchar offered.

"I don't need a planeblazer," said Dexy. "I need a gambler."

"What for?" said Kit. "You're the greatest gambler who ever lived!"

"I... am old now," Dexy said, quietly. "And besides, I don't need a card shark, I need a true gambler. I need one who is willing to risk all for our freedom, to change the world if that will save it."

"Well, count me in!" said Ralchar.

"Me too!" said Kit.

"It is so prophesied," agreed Araiji.

"I--may have a trick or two up my sleeve," Crandall said thoughtfully.

Dexy nodded. "Then our first stop is Oranda," he said. "We must stop them from passing here through the planes."

Five

Shalak started and nearly fell off his throne of skulls. "Now?" he asked no one, and no one answered.

The ancient lich lord hurried to the Hall of Warning. Sure enough, the globe of polished tourmaline that had sat dormant for three millenia was beginning, faintly, to glow.

He didn't like these signs. Shalak had been impassive towards that dilettante Odn's rather half-hearted investigation of lichdom, impassive towards Luthien the Dead's failed play at joining their ranks. But the danger foreseen by Dransaerin had not ended with their feeble attempts. No, it continued to mount, and Dransaerin's crypticisms and Marzoom's swagger may have hidden from each other the fact that neither knew as much as he pretended, but they hid nothing from Shalak, eldest of them all.

The signs were bad, and the Masters over Death understood them not at all.

And now this. Shalak looked intently into the off-blue sphere. A prophecy from the day of his Ascension, coming to bear at last. There would be five Thieves, the old psimaster had said, who would steal his immortality out from under him. Since that day Shalak had prepared tirelessly for those thieves, crafting wards and traps of the most intricate nature on his person and his fortress alike. He had personally invented the Wand of Thief Slaying during a particularly boring century of his exile, and had installed one at every window and stairwell of the stronghold. The walls, roof, even the foundation were buttressed against any kind of psionic or magical breach and were implanted with planar mines that would take down any mortal who tried to slip in through the ether. His home was one immense psiono-magical deathtrap for thieves. Shalak felt certain that not even the goddess Kijhari herself could have broken in and survived.

Still, the awakening of the prophecy stone filled the lich lord with an anticipation almost akin to dread.

"Five," he muttered to himself. The triggered wands could probably only take out two before the others could avert it, if the thieves were fast enough. The remaining mortals might yet confront him if they had the intelligence to lay in wait for him on the ground floor rather than braving the stairs. Shalak had cast every protective spell known to man and many that were not on his own person, but even so a danger might be posed.

The lich lord reached behind the deathshead sigil on the opposite table and threw a switch, heard the crackle of energy as the forcefield of Protection against Thieves sprang up around the castle. His energies would not sustain this most sophisticated defense for long, but if the tourmaline was glowing it would not be more than a week.

Shalak retired to his sanctum to ponder, and to prepare.

The World's Oldest Profession

"Ebret' Tor!" A black woman in a ruffled dress separated herself from the bustle of the plaza, her heels clicking swiftly on the cobbles. "Ay mon, whe' in a Fon you been? Com'pon what, ten year now? I been finkin' you dead o sunkin'!"

He balked completely, his blue eyes whirling in social panic that could only come from trying to remember an old lover's name. She laughed at him, and his posture relaxed in sudden relief. "I have been dead, Boule."

"Yah, lucky guess you," she growled, but let him kiss her hand. "Damn you, mon, but you look a di same dan las' time I see you. Mak a di girl feel old."

"You look lovelier than ever, Boule."

"Lie a di same too," she snorted, tossing her head. She was pretty but not remarkably so; tall and ample, a bit lighter than Ebreth, her hair pinned to one side of her head with gold beads. "Kip it fo di young girls, Tor."

"I'm wounded," he protested, grinning. "Boule, have you met Khyrisse Starshadow?"

She jumped a little as she noticed the little mage behind him, and snapped into standard Dalen. "Ah, Miss Starshadow," she said, a slight Caribbean lilt still to her voice. "I have been wanting to talk to you. Do you have a moment?"

"If you really mean moment," she said ruefully. "For anything complicated, you'll really need to find me in my office. The city's gotten too big for me to keep all the records in my--" Khyrisse fought down all the uncomplimentary adjectives she wanted to bestow on her limited mortal brainpower. "--head," she finished simply.

"Ah, this will take no time at all," Boule assured. "You see, I am interested in opening a massage parlor in New Trade." Ebreth raised one eyebrow at her, and she frowned at him over her shoulder. "Not like Nicole's. A nice place."

"Okay," said Khyrisse, "Lora Paris is handling business applications. Let me give you her--"

"Oh, of course I have already spoken with Mrs. Paris," interrupted Boule. Khyrisse frowned; she had tremendous trust in and respect for Lora, but it still annoyed her that people used to dealing with the Paris family presumed her to be in charge. "But she told me I would need to see you. I will be frank, Miss Starshadow, I have a profitable business back on the Islands, and I do not want to relocate here if I am not going to be welcome. I notice that your city, like mine, lacks legal measures against service transactions between consenting adults. Is that by oversight or design?"

Khyrisse blinked. "D--esign," she said. "So we're--not really talking about a massage parlor at all here, are we."

"Of course we are," said the islander, her mouth quirking. "Vouch for me here, Tor."

She pronounced even less of the ‘r' at the end of his name than he did. "She's about as qualified as you're going to find," Ebreth vouched.

"I am interested in a classy operation, Miss Starshadow, and hopefully a quieter locale than I have now in Port-au-Sang, but this simply is not going to be a profitable move for me if our more discreet services are going to cause trouble here." She paused a beat. "Are they going to cause trouble here?"

"No..." Khyrisse hedged a little. She'd been trying to encourage open and well-regulated manifestations of the usual vices, in hopes of forethwarting any seamy underside from developing. She had a nice exotic dance place over on the east side, the casino by the lake, a whole bevy of bars and pubs, and the Shanghai Moon, where she knew they were smoking opium. Khyrisse could guess what Faraday Paris meant by the "adult" suite of her VR salon, too. But there was something about actual prostitution that made her feminist heels dig in despite herself. It just wasn't something women should have to do. Boule was looking at her, waiting for an answer. Khyrisse cleared her throat. "No," she said again, "not as long as your… operation… follows the laws we do have. I mean, you do realize that abuses against your, uh, masseuses won't be tolerated here."

"I assumed that," Boule said quietly. "I expect a less rowdy clientele here, and a more relaxed ambience. I should need such measures less."

Khyrisse didn't like the implication that she was happy with such measures back home, but it wasn't her business. "And, well, we'll have to zone you a little carefully," she said, trying to think where would be the easiest place to stash a massage parlor with a side business. Not next to the Church of Tal, she made a mental note. "But it shouldn't be a problem," she repeated, "no."

Boule nodded. "All right, then!" She shook Khyrisse's hand with vigor. "Pleasure doing business with you." She poked Ebreth in the chest. "You I gwon see me some mo' soon, huh?"

"I'd like that," said Ebreth, putting his arm around Khyrisse's shoulders in a way she was pretty sure was subconscious. Boule cracked up anyway, noisily. "Oh, you a trip, mon." She rolled her head back to Khyrisse. "You don' worry ‘bout me, now. I'm just funnin'. I don' want this old pirate no more." She whacked him affectionately on the ass with her fan. "Jes' happy a see you again, das' all. I'll get that permit from Mrs. Paris now. If either of you knows anyone who could use a good massage, we should be ready for business by month's end. Spread the word."

Virtual Vindication For Kris And Evan

To Aithne's immense relief, Jack had asked her out to dinner.

This was good on several levels. It meant, or Aithne hoped it did, that he was still interested in dating her. Aithne sort of liked dating with Jack. It also meant he didn't mind being seen with her in public, which meant, or Aithne hoped it did, that she hadn't embarrassed him too much by acceding to Vas' sleazy advances. Most importantly, it meant, or Aithne really, really hoped it did, that she hadn't lost her only friend in this strange place. Maybe Aithne hadn't screwed everything up quite as badly as she'd feared.

She put her shawl on. It didn't look like rain, but Aithne wanted to look as demure as possible. She didn't want Jack to think she was a floozy. "Thank you for help me," she blurted suddenly, as he held the Rat Trap door for her.

"For... helping you?" said Jack, looking confused.

"Helping me," Aithne corrected. "For getting me out of awful consort."

"Me?" said Jack. "I, uh, don't think that was me, Aithne... all I did was cause a scene."

Aithne wasn't sure what a ‘scene' was, but Jack looked discouraged. Had she said something wrong again? "You fought with Vas and told Khyrisse listen to me," she said. "If you didn't do, I am stuck. Now I am free girl. I am very appreciate."

"Oh," said Jack, "you're, uh, welcome. I'm sorry I didn't handle it better... I didn't mean to get you interrogated or anything."

"What is a terra gate?"

"Interrogated... it's like--ow!" Jack suddenly shouted, as something struck him in the shin.

"What is that?" said Aithne.

"I--" Jack picked it up. "It's a brick. Somebody threw a brick at me."

"We will go kill them?" offered Aithne.

"No..." said Jack, squinting at the dark figures scurrying off through the shadows, laughing. "No, I think it's just a couple of kids."

***

The three boys rounded the corner, laughing, and ran smack into Chief Averdale. "Going somewhere, boys?" she said, quietly.

"Oh, crap!" yelled Teddy, making a break for it.

One of her fairly large hands came down on Steve's shoulder and the other on the nape of Ferran's neck. "I think it's time for a trip down to the station," she said, in a firm but not entirely unfriendly voice. "If our little talk about this goes well enough, maybe I won't even need to see your parents tonight. This way, boys."

And They Hunger After Me

Otter was lost.

These waters felt like the waters at home, the same cold, salt pressure, the same slow flow of the deep. But there was nothing familiar about the contours of the ocean floor beneath them, nothing Otter could sense from the sea itself. They had found a whale, eventually, in the middle depths. It was a strange-looking whale, toothless and huge even by cetacean standards, but whales were intelligent and ranged from the depths to the very surface, so Otter couldn't have hoped for a better informant. Even so, the news was minimal. The whale was curious about them, hadn't seen anything quite like either before. There were no sea nymphs here, of that he was sure; there were some people who looked a bit like Otter out in the air, but they never went in the water. And there was nothing like Callie at all. He asked about their journeys, gave them directions to a shallow sea where the humans sometimes floated around on pieces of driftwood. Dolphins lived there, he added, and maybe they could be of more help. Otter thanked the great whale and went on her way, feeling no less lost than before.

Then, as they wound their way tideward, the squid attacked.

Otter had never even imagined a squid this size. Back on Ataniel a squid the length of her arm would have been pretty large. This thing was the size of a leviathan. Its damn eye was a foot across, and the suckered tentacle it had grabbed Callie with was so long Otter thought it belonged to a second squid at first.

Worse, when she commanded it to drop Callie and go away, not only did it ignore her, it closed its other feeding tentacle around Otter.

The naiad's long daggers whizzed to extension in her hands. Wherever they were, her mystical connection to the sea and its creatures was intact, but... dimmed, somehow. The squid understood her order, it just didn't feel compelled to obey. That was all right with Otter on one level--she had never felt too comfortable with regalia--but having to impose her will manually was a waste of time and energy she could have been spending on other things.

Otter enforced her will not to be eaten with a cross-bladed slash that nearly severed the huge squid's feeding tentacle. It recoiled screamlessly, its pain diluting in the dark water. Several of its other tentacles lashed violently at her, the suckers grabbing and tearing at her flesh. She could see old scars along some of them, jagged and deep in places, wounds of past battles. This squid was no stranger to combat. It had not picked a good fight this time, though. Otter might be dwarfed by its rubbery bulk, but she was armed, and she had the sea on her side. The expatriate naiad slashed through another of the tentacles and willed the waves between her and the burning grip of the monster's tentacles, torquing free in a diagonal flip beneath herself. Callie was screaming mentally, and she finally located the young anomalocaris girl being dragged in towards the giant squid's fearsome beak.

Otter pumped her legs like a porpoise, beating the monster's tentacle to its mouth and thrusting her ensorcelled blades through its fleshy underside before it could stuff her friend in. It rewarded her with what felt like about eighty gallons of ink in her face. Otter coughed and gagged.

-Help me!- cried Callie, receding. The squid was retreating. Good and bad: Otter didn't want to fight with it any more, but if it got away with Callie, it would surely eat her. Otter couldn't see a thing. Would a fleeing squid swim for the surface, the depths, or laterally? Otter suspected this thing was a deep-sea dweller, merely by virtue of its size, and so she struck off downward with all her might, covering her mouth and nose with one hand to avoid inhaling any more of the clogging ink.

To her relief, her other hand brushed a retreating tentacle. Otter had guessed right. She grabbed it and hauled herself along it until she was near the mollusk's beak again. Otter's eyes burned terribly, but the water had cleared enough to see now, and Callie was still there, tangled in a tentacle, trying frantically to saw herself free with her feeding arms. Otter effected the release with a broad slash of steel, and then the squid was gone in a trailing slime of blood, leaving the battered Atanielites staring dumbly after it in the clouded alien waters.

Survivors

"How could I not, feel like less of a man?" he whispered, his back to her.

Khyrisse closed her eyes painfully. "I don't know," she said. "I wish I did, because you shouldn't. How could what other people do to you change who you are, Ebreth?"

"How you react to what other people do to you," said Ebreth, "I think maybe that has a few things to say about who you really are."

"Yes," she said. "It does. I don't know about you, but I like what it has to say about you." She hesitated and crossed to him. "Ebreth... do you even know how much I admire you, for having come back from something like that as the person you are? Most of the people I know wouldn't have, you know. When we're suffering we usually--lash out at the people around us. We can't stop ourselves. However sorry for it we might be later." She reached around him for his hand and turned it softly over in hers, looking up at him. "You are more careful than ever, though; you are so gentle with the people you love sometimes, that I can't imagine where someone with the first Ebreth Tor's memories learned it. You treat people the way you would want to be treated. Most of us just aren't strong enough to hold on and remember that, s'parde-vois. And I'll be damned if it's the behavior of someone broken and worthless."

He shuddered and held her hand to his heart. "They hurt me, baby," he whispered. "They really hurt me."

"I know they did. Shhhhhh. I know." She slid her other arm around him and held him as tight as she could. "But you're still standing, damn it. And if they were trying to break you for good, Ebreth... they failed." Khyrisse exhaled, a little shaky herself. "We're still standing," she said. "To Hell with them all. We're still standing, and we're going to be all right."

Let My People Go

Seeker of Places looked anxiously to one side and the other as he crept up the railing of the drawbridge to Shalak's floating palace. Even Duck knew better than to glance down into the depths of the Rift it spanned, but the bending of mathematics in the ancient and unnatural chasm was making the Rat a bit faint in the head, and he was terrified he might lose his balance and fall in. The Rift, he could already tell, was a worse place than the Rat King. His very whiskers trembled in fear.

But he made it, and so did the others. There was a crackling red forcefield across the gate Babe didn't recognize from his captivity here, but it did no damage to a pebble Melissa batted through, so brave little Peep winked her eyes shut and hopped through, to no apparent ill effect. Whoever the scary-looking magic shield was designed to ward against, it apparently was not an underage chicken. The others followed cautiously. No alarms sounded, no deathtraps unleashed. The halls were ornately carved and provided plenty of places for a small animal to hide when patrolling penguins passed. The Rat looked questioningly at Babe the first time this happened, but he only shook his slender head. His brethren were mindless drones of the Lich Lord now. They could not help.

Down into the bowels of Shalak's fortress the five animals went, emerging finally in a round room with a pulsing crystal obelisk in its center. Babe honked softly. This was the object of their quest, the generator that held his people in thrall.

The only question now was what to do with it.

The Rat put his paw gingerly on the surface of the roseate crystal. It was warm to the touch. Seeker knew enough about magic to know this thing qualified, but not enough to know how to turn it off. Pushing it into the Rift would probably work, but the Rat estimated the obelisk's weight at about 900 pounds, and anyway it seemed to be grafted to the floor. Melissa was circling it on light feet searching for a button or switch, but her keen eyes had not yet found any. The Rat wished they had stolen Flicker's antimagic sword before coming here.

"Waugh! Waugh!" honked the Duck, banging his head urgently into the side of the obelisk.

More honking answered him, a veritable chorus of soft, coughing hoots. Seeker jumped in panic and looked around the room.

Indeed, they were surrounded by a horde of dark penguins, their eyes glowing the malicious red of their unholy servitude.

"Thank you," groaned the Rat, pushing desperately at the implacable obelisk.

And then Shalak the Terrible entered.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sneaking out of the dorms at night made Skitch really, really uneasy.

Not that he thought it was bad to break the curfew, or anything. It wasn't the kind of rule that was about honor or morality or something else that he really ought to be obeying. It was just that he was terrified he was going to get caught and really catch hell for it. Skitch had been mediocre at sneaking to start with, and he was pretty sure he was worse at it now. He wished he'd thought to say that to Khyrisse during their last quarrel. Everybody knew elves and halflings were better at sneaking, and giants were stronger, so why should it be so bad if Diarians were better in a lot of ways? Skitch kept wanting to go back and add to the argument, make it come out with a better ending somehow, but it still just kept hanging there, unresolved. He wondered if she was still mad at him. There had to be some way he could have made her understand.

Skitch shook it off and squeezed under the hedge into the copse the Edge used as a meeting place. It was actually kind of pretty and had a well-tended flower garden, but after ten pm the willows made ominous silhouettes in the Banelight and it made a decent hideout. "Marazha," Skitch whispered the code word as he wriggled in. It meant "to the glory," and was from the Hymn of Rekzyr. He didn't really need to say it--there were only five of them and they all knew who he was--but a little formality never hurt a club.

"Marazha, Akjhir," said Lihan, giving the Edge sign across his forehead. Akjhir was Skitch's new nickname; Lihan thought Skitch sounded too rubelike. Akjhir meant "hornet." Small and fierce, Lihan said, just like you. Skitch liked it. "Valeshr?"

Skitch took the bottle of beer the older boy was offering him and examined it. "Ever had valeshr before?" said Sherren, taking a swig from his.

"No," said Skitch, and then, carelessly, "we usually drank kamikazes, back home."

It was a partial embellishment. That was Khyrisse's favorite drink, and Skitch knew how to make it for her. He'd sneaked a taste once, and it was pretty good. "What's in that?" asked Mirlee.

"One part vodka, one part triple sec, and one part lime juice," Skitch said without hesitating. The other kids looked impressed, except for a scrawny kid called Kailan. "Vodka is kiljhac liquor," he said, and spat.

"Know what they're drinking in Ekyarn these days?" said Mardis. Mardis was a gregarious, cherubic-looking boy, not the kind you would have figured for a gang; he was always redirecting the conversation when it started to bristle too much, and everyone liked him enough to let him. He reminded Skitch a little of Khyrisse's friend Flicker. "Cynystran brandy!"

"No!" said Mirlee, shocked.

"That's nothing," Sherren said, taking a swig of beer. Skitch followed suit. It didn't taste very good, but he kept a straight face. "My sister says she saw a courtier kissing a kiljhac woman right in public!"

Mirlee made a nauseated face. "Ewwww."

"The court in Ekyarn," said Lihan, "has lost itself in decadence. It is time for a new generation to restore the purity of our race."

There were a few moments' pause. Skitch wasn't so sure it was bad to kiss a kiljhac. Tarrin had said that if two people were in love it didn't matter what their race was. He didn't want the other kids not to like him, though. "I saw a sranjhac," he contributed instead.

"Oh, you did not!"

"I did!"

"Stop trying to gross us out, Ak." Mirlee put her tongue out.

"You're not kidding?" said Lihan incredulously, looking at the smaller boy's face. "You really saw one? I didn't think they were real."

"Was it brain-dead?" Sherren asked, with morbid curiosity.

"Nah. She could talk and stuff." Skitch decided not to tell them she had the Gift. He hadn't figured out how he felt about that himself. "She just had a messed-up personality."

"That is disgusting!" Mirlee folded her arms, wrinkling up her nose. She was a tough girl, wore her hair short and spiky in a way that Lorrini found scandalous. It wasn't Diarian femininity, but it wasn't kiljhac, either. Mirlee made up her own mode as she went along. "Why didn't somebody kill it?"

"They tried to, but she got away."

"Damn kiljhac," muttered Kailan. "It's bad enough as it is without them rutting on us. The world would be a better place if we just fucking killed them all."

Sherren and Mirlee were nodding. Skitch was a bit shocked. "You can't do that," he said.

"Why not?" said Sherren, looking keenly at him over his beer bottle.

"Because if you react to barbarity with barbarity, you become as bad as your enemies," Skitch quoted from the Book of Diar.

Lihan raised an eyebrow.

"And," added Mardis, "it's bad for the ecosystem to drive other species to extinction." Mardis was a biology major.

"All right," Kailan relented, "just the Cynystrans, then."

"Oh," said Skitch, "well, the Cynystrans," and waved his hand. Everyone laughed, and Skitch felt good.

But he couldn't sleep that night, turning it over and over in his mind, trying to think if he'd ever met a Cynystran worth saving if it came down to it.

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