Above the cackling honks that the penguin minions were emitting all around him, the Rat could hear his his own heart pounding in fear. The creature before him was even more dreadful than he had imagined. This lich lord made the Collector look cuddly. His face was horribly desiccated, his eyes glowing with a terrible light that nearly made Seeker of Places want to throw himself into the Rift to escape. Unfortunately, as usually seemed to be the way with the more melodramatic of villains, Shalak's aura had frozen the heroes in place. "What is the meaning of this," the Lich Lord hissed, and the obelisk dimmed with the very awfulness of his voice.
"Shalak," Babe whispered in despair. "All is lost."
Melissa, distracted from her oncoming panic, turned to him suddenly. "I--I understood you," she said, in a surprised and silky voice.
"You're both talking!" squeaked Peep. "Hey! So am I!"
"My vocabulary," said Seeker, amazed, "it's more than just four words."
"Waugh!" said Duck.
The rotting monster waved his hand dismissively. "I long ago mastered the art of communication with lesser beasts. I repeat: what are you doing in my sanctum?"
"W-w-we..." Babe gulped down air, and gathered all his courage. "We're here to free my people," he waved his beak at the unmoving Rockhoppers, Adelies and other penguins, "to free them from you."
What flesh was left on the lich lord had the ashen green look of moss emerging from under snow during the first spring thaw, so he was unable to furrow his brow. But the dots of light in his empty eye sockets shrank, and Babe felt as though some manner of terrible weapon were being trained on him. "Are you the domestic companions of some mortal army? Am I to be forced to spill the blood of an empire? Again?"
"We have no army. None."
The pinpricks flickered. "Are you the familiars of wizards? Has some foolish vanguard of self-proclaimed heroes decided to seek an early death at my hand?"
"N-no. There's just us."
The monster stared and stared and finally said. "Let me see if I understand correctly. You five animals, and about the furthest from fearsome animals I ever did see, took it upon yourself to..." here he muffled something that might have been a guffaw. "To liberate these worthless avians, and have traveled all this way to defeat me, Lord Shalak, greatest of the Three, who was like unto a god before most kiljhac had learned the art of making fire... and only now it's dawning on your feeble brains what a hopeless, futile gesture this is?" He paused again. "Why, that's the funniest damn thing I've ever heard!"
The small room resonated with the sound of the lich lord's laughter, and Babe felt his heart sink within him.
Elsewhere in Ataniel:
He sensed it, as it flared back to life. He had felt its power in use once, and it was not something he would ever forget. Now, after over a year dormant, it was alive again.
In that same instant, he could feel the artifact itself fading away, leaving him. He had researched it as best he could, and knew that at that very moment it might be appearing somewhere on Ataniel. Or it might not be seen again for centuries. But it would be there, when some bastard was on the edge of victory, and someone would be there to make good use of it.
"Whoever you are, wherever you are," he whispered, "good fortune be with you, my friend."
"What are you smiling at?" the woman beside him asked.
"Oh," he said, smiling more and putting his arm around her, "I just got a little reminder that the forces of Good are as relentless as those of Evil."
"Of course they are, silly," Inez answered, placing hers around him.
The laughter was still echoing when Babe heard a voice above the din. "You let them go, you big meanie!" shouted Peep.
Shalak laughed even harder, but then his laugh seemed to swallow itself, and turned into a choking scream. Only the Rat had ever heard a scream like it; it sounded like Ælwyn's death throes, as Jack's mathematical virus had caused his body to reject his mind. "What--have you--done?" the monster shrieked, clutching his head with both skeletal hands. He made a slow, clumsy attempt to advance on the chick, but ended up slumping forward, wailing in agony.
Around Peep's neck hung the Gem of Contemplation, one of the Septum Potentis.
Shalak fought back against its effects with all his psionic might, but he was doomed to fail. Once, he had carelessly let another hero who possessed it into his mind; now that it knew the way, the gem was not to be denied. Finally, he wheezed "Please..."
Peep was calmly standing beside the monster, watching it wither. "Please," the lich repeated, his voice gravelly and rather un-terrible now, "see! I'll free your friend's flock!" The obelisk flickered and went grey, and the chamber was filled with the honking of confused penguins, the dead, dark look gone from their eyes. "I shall leave them and the five of you in peace, I swear by my ancestors. Please!"
"Well," Peep relented, "I guess you've learned your lesson."
"Waugh!" added the Duck.
Aithne wasn't sure if she and Jack were still dating or not. She was too embarrassed to ask him directly, and she didn't have any girlfriends to send on a fact-finding mission. She'd been trying to act like she knew what was going on and follow his lead, but Aithne suspected Jack was doing the same thing, so neither of them was getting anywhere. She wished she knew whether he was being tentative because he didn't really want her after the disaster with Vas or because he was afraid she would take an advance by Jack badly because of it. Aithne wanted to tell him she would have liked an advance by Jack, but after what had happened with Vas she was afraid of appearing easy.
Val and Khyrisse were standing outside the Federal Building, talking with a woman in a blue uniform. Jack started to subtly alter their course of walking to avoid running into them. Mina had told Aithne what had happened with Val. It was a long story, she gathered, and there was some identity confusion the young witch didn't understand, but Jack and the beautiful elf had had some sort of relationship in the past which Val had broken off. There was still a sorrowful tension between them. Aithne was happy to avoid causing more trouble, so she followed Jack's trajectory unhesitatingly, but then Khyrisse noticed them and called out to Jack and they had to head over anyway. Aithne could tell Jack was anxious about whether or not to keep holding her hand in front of Val, so she rescued him by taking it back herself to fix a pretended flaw in her pinned-up hair. "Anyway," the uniformed woman was finishing up, "I don't think they'll be any more trouble now that I've given them a talking-to. You know how kids are."
"Well," Khyrisse said, "I will soon enough." The woman in uniform smiled, touched her cap in salute, and sauntered off. "Jack," the sorceress turned to him, "I wanted to talk to you about..." She glanced at Aithne. "...September," she said.
Jack looked uncomfortable. "Oh," he said. "Maybe, uh, a little later?"
Khyrisse nodded. There was something going on she wasn't privy to, and Aithne couldn't help being curious. Were Khyrisse and Jack talking over her head, or was Khyrisse trying to indirectly ask Jack whether he had told her something yet? Could September, maybe, be when the relationship with the mysterious Val had ended? "That would be fine," said Khyrisse. "You know where to find me."
There was a slightly awkward silence. "How many month," Aithne finally ended it for them, "until the baby is born, Khyrisse?"
"Four," she sighed. "I'm due at the end of October."
"Four?" Aithne couldn't believe that. "You are only five month?"
"Eight," said Khyrisse, and sighed again. "My people are pregnant for twelve months. Lucky us, huh?"
"Twelve," Aithne said slowly. She had been trying to politely distract attention from the mysterious secret, but now she frowned at her matriarch with true attention. "Jack, eight out of twelve is what nines?"
"Eight-twelfths is six-ninths," said Jack, "point six six repeating."
Aithne ignored the last part, which she hadn't understood. "Six month," she said dubiously, looking at Khyrisse. "I think, your stomach is very large for your hip, Khyrisse."
Khyrisse sighed. "Thanks, Aithne. I really needed to hear that." Val giggled.
"I mean," said Aithne, "I think your hip is very narrow, Khyrisse. Did you have a trouble in birth with Skitch?" The matriarch frowned, and Aithne remembered she wasn't supposed to talk about that. "I mean," she tried again, bobbing her head humbly, "you look like a very big baby will be there." The elven matriarch's shape reminded her uncomfortably of pregnant teenagers she had tended to. She wondered if that was how elves usually carried children. "You are forty years?"
"Yes..." Khyrisse's brow was furrowed now, a bit. "My body's new, though, a little more than a year ago... but then it got magically aged fifty years, so I should be physically sixty-six."
"Those are both about equivalent to a human woman in her mid-twenties," Val helped, smiling a little.
"Then, maybe is okay." Aithne shrugged. The baby looked almost full-term to her, but Khyrisse's body certainly looked more like her own six-month estimate, and what Aithne knew about elves could fill a thimble. Val was a skilled healer herself, and surely older than Aithne. And Khyrisse had given birth at least once already. They must know what they were doing better than Aithne could. "I never saw a woman from your people before," she excused herself. "A baby is usually that big?"
"Half-human infants tend to have slightly higher birthweights," murmured Valende.
"And," Khyrisse sighed, "the father is a lot taller than I am."
This did not shed light on the other mystery Aithne was curious about, namely which of Khyrisse's consorts had sired her new baby. Both men were significantly taller than the petite elf. "Well," she said, "if you have a trouble in birth, you will call me, okay? I know many help about a baby, and even a big baby."
"Do you know many painkiller?" muttered Khyrisse. Valende patted her hand sympathetically.
"I know many plant. What is a plant that makes a pain go away?"
"Herb," suggested Jack.
There was a long, rather awkward silence. "So can you meet me after lunch today, Jack?" said Khyrisse.
Jack sighed. "I guess I've waited long enough as it is."
Sick And Tired Of The Matriarchy
"I'm going to have to tell her," Jack said miserably. "I've been putting it off."
"The rest of us know," Ebreth pointed out, toweling sweat off his forehead. Ebreth had taken to working out in Faraday's VR salon; it made him uncomfortable enjoying ass-kicking as much as he did, even when the asses in question belonged to villains, so he'd reached the uneasy compromise of beating up on simulations instead. Personally, Jack couldn't help sympathizing with the simulations. He didn't want to bring anyone else down by anthropomorphizing a fourth-level illusion spell, though, so he just stayed out of the salon. "None of us give a damn," Ebreth said.
"I think Val did," Jack said very quietly.
"I really doubt it," said Ebreth. "Val had issues." Ebreth paused. "And she and Jack had communication problems. That could happen to anyone."
"I'm not blaming her," Jack said quickly. "Robinson wasn't the most, uh, social guy on Paris Island, or anything... sometimes I wish he'd consulted Lora a little more where those, uh, parts of the code were concerned. It was probably mostly my Other's fault. I just... wonder, sometimes. If she would have given him more of a chance, I mean. If we'd been human." Jack looked at his feet.
"No," said Ebreth. "Trust me. I'm human. I've had it happen to me a lot." He paused. "Women are like that, sometimes. Even the good ones take us for granted a little."
"Trouble?" said Jack.
"Not really," said Ebreth. "It's not so bad, being taken for granted. Means they like having you around. I just wish men were a little less irrelevant around here. Khyrisse is pregnant. Khyrisse is having a baby. I'm just sort of here." Ebreth shook his head. "I don't even get credit for the sperm donation. I wish I was part of this. I wish, just once, she'd say we."
"Have you tried talking to her about this?"
"Jack," sighed Ebreth, "there is so much garbage we're working through it'll be next year before the fact that I never really wanted to live in a matriarchy in the first place makes the top of the stack."
"Well," Jack said thoughtfully, "societies are what people, uh, make of them... maybe what you need to do is take some of the initiative. If you say ‘we'... well, maybe other people will follow along."
"Or maybe they'll say oh, so the paternity test came back positive then?" said Ebreth. "Which I'd rather have a root canal."
"You shouldn't be letting other people's opinions of you affect you so much, Ebreth," Jack frowned. "Heck, there's probably a lot of people out there who still think you're a slave trader... do you let that paralyze you, or do you just go on being who you are?"
"Well," he said, "it helps that if they ask me about that I can say it's not true, Jack."
"It's a complicated story, though, and if they don't know it they might jump to conclusions." Jack shrugged. "The paternity suit is is really the same... no one who knows you, or Khyrisse, is going to think she cheated on you. Or that the paternity of the baby is going to make you any more or less important, to her or as a person. And people who don't know you probably don't know enough details to be judgmental anyway. For all they know, she, uh, slept with Schneider, then broke up with him, then started going out with you."
"Nice try," sighed Ebreth, "but they all know better already, thank you Vastarin Windbrain."
"If they care enough to pay that kind of attention to gossip," said Jack, "but they don't even know any of us well enough to know the thing with Schneider was a complete and total accident... are they the kind of people whose opinion matters at all?"
Ebreth raised his eyebrow, but nodded. "Your point," he said. "Well, if someone really thinks you're less of a person because of your, ah, origin story, are they the kind of people whose opinion matters at all?"
"No," said Jack, "but it would really be awful if my friends turned out to be that kind of people. I really like Aithne, Ebreth. Whether she ever, uh, wants anything to do with men again, or anything, which I wouldn't blame her if she didn't... well, I don't want to lose her as a friend."
"You won't," said Ebreth. "Jack, we may be a fucked up bunch, but we don't suck that much."
"Well," said Jack, with a sigh, "I hope you're right."
Rani watched the kidnapping from behind one of the gargoyles adorning the First Rimborese Bank.
It was a scene she'd seen more than a few times as a child, and she was as powerless to stop it now as she had been then. Rani resented Jonathon, resented everyone in the damn city who assumed they could kick her ass; partially because it was sexist, primarily because it was true. Rani's body ached from the combat training the older Octavian had been imposing on her. There was a cut on her lip and a big bruise across the side of her face. It hurt like hell. Rani was not in her element in combat, and she hated it.
But Jonathon needed to sleep sometimes, and if Rani wasn't here for this shift there would have been no one at all. The abductee was a lurker, a homeless pre-teen boy. If anyone missed him, it would have been people too afraid of the police to report his disappearance. Rani might not be able to take on the kidnappers herself--there were three of them, slavers in John's employ she guessed, and they looked moderately tough--but she could damn well track them. She could follow them and find where they were holding the boy. She could learn their names from the cobbles their boots had scraped. And come evening, when it was Jonathon's turn, there would be hell to pay, and a rescue. And that was better than it could have been.
To her surprise, though, Rani heard the whispering of magic at the edge of her attuned senses. She tensed, phasing her body partially back into the bank building in anticipation of an attack. Rani sucked in a fight, but she was a real master in the art of evasion, and it would take one hell of a concerted effort to catch her, of that the detective was confident. But when the spell she was braced for came, it was the kidnappers it shot out at, not Rani. Two of them froze in place, the other apparently made his saving throw and whirled on the wizard, who Rani could see now was a heroic-looking blond fellow in a bold-colored costume. The kid, forgotten, tore off down the alley like demons were at his heels. Well, good. Rani would still need to track these guys down so Octavian could deal with them before they caused any more trouble, but that was one fewer victim who needed worrying about. The dilemma now, though, was the ensuing fight.
Hero-boy had produced a silver sword as the slaver closed with him. He was doing better with it than Rani would, but it still looked like a one-on-one that the slaver was destined to win. Rani could help, but if she screwed up she risked making Octavian look weak. Better not to strike at all than to strike in a way that diminishes our power, Jonathon had admonished her. She could do this as Rani, use her psionic powers to augment the good guy's combat rolls a little and hope it was enough. Or she could do it as Octavian, hope the vigilante's appearance would be enough to tip the scales, and get thrown out by Jonathon if she was wrong.
Rani sighed and swept her cape around herself. The slaver's boot had thin leather uppers, offering little resistance as the spring-loaded blade of her sword-cane speared his foot to the pavement. He let out a highly satisfying scream and spun on her, his face inches from her cowled face. "There'll be no more of this," Rani said in a tone of frozen steel, "in my city."
Then the magic missiles tore into him from behind. Rani had been hoping something like that might happen, but she turned her gaze frostily on the wizard anyway as the villain she'd distracted crumpled to the ground. Octavian had an image to keep up. "This vermin and I," she said, in Jonathon's voice, "were not finished with our conversation."
"Sorry," said the man, a bit out of breath, and gave a friendly and slightly sheepish smile. "I wasn't sure you had things under control... thanks for the help, rescuing that boy."
"Indeed." Rani wiped the blade of her sword-cane fluidly on the hem of her cape. "Friend of yours?"
"Oh, no..." said the man. "Just somebody in need of help. People shouldn't need to have powerful friends to live in peace... it's something everyone deserves. But what am I telling you this for, you've already dedicated your life to helping everyone in the city." He extended his hand to be shaken. "Justin Moore. Hero-at-large."
Rani had a bad moment wondering whether Jonathon would have shaken or not. Spending more than a moment in indecision would have been worse than either choice, though, and Rani found handshakes a rather useful information-gathering technique. The young man's hand felt odd through her black glove. No significant impressions. "Glad though I always am to meet a kindred spirit," she said, "I should warn you that most are not capable of facing the evils of this city by themselves. If you would continue in this vein, I can provide you with... contacts... in the city, who would be more than happy to work with you."
"Oh, no," Justin demurred, "mine is a solo mission... I'm trying to empower people, not just protect them. I want them to see that anyone can make a difference, wherever they are. I won't be in Rimbor long. Just thought I'd help out while I was in the area, you know?"
"As you wish," said Rani, having little trouble feigning Jonathon's dismissive impatience. She wanted to get the impressions she needed off these mooks, threaten the paralyzed ones a little, and then beat it before the hold spell wore off, and she really wasn't any more interested in chit-chat with this Lone Ranger guy than her mentor would have been. "If you will excuse us, these bottomfeeders and I have... business... to attend to."
"Sure thing." Justin tipped his hat, smiling. "I'll let you handle things from here. Sure you've done it a hundred times. See you around."
Then he was gone. Huh, thought Rani, but got back to work without hesitation.
Making Up For Lost Time
"He slept with you while you were under the influence of magical compulsion and now you feel like you owe him something?"
Sallie, who'd been insane back in April, had only just heard the news about the paternity suit, and she was not taking it well. "Mom," Khyrisse sighed, "he was magically compelled too."
"And this gives him rights, but you obligations?" said Sallie. "What kind of sexist claptrap is that?"
"He's not being sexist, Mom!" Khyrisse pressed her forehead, unable to believe she was defending Schneider's paternalism. "He just likes kids, okay?"
Sallie gave her daughter a narrow look. "This is the man who's obsessed with Derek?"
"He's not obsessed with him," Khyrisse groaned.
"The one who followed him home from the Terra Cotta genuflecting?"
The sorceress winced. "Mom... he was just..."
"He is not mentally well, Khyri, and trust me, I should know by now."
"He was just making a joke, Mom!" Khryisse threw her arms out. "Do you have to be like this about all my friends?"
"The one with the big black sword seemed rather nice."
"I am NOT getting back together with Max!" Khryisse hollered.
"I didn't say you should get back together with him." Sallie arranged flowers in the vase. "I just said I thought he was nice."
"Well, he's definitely not the father, so it's moot, all right?"
"Pity," said Sallie, sharply. "Because I get the feeling he would be more mature than to be demanding paternity rights over an incident in which you clearly had no control."
"Will you drop this, mother?"
"What is this going to do to this marriage you're charging into? You're going to have the village idiot's baby and acknowledge him as the father, do you think this walking Y-chromosome you're marrying is going to sit around here smiling and twiddling his thumbs? Could you think this through just a little, Khyri, would it kill you?"
"Maybe," Khyrisse said exasperatedly, "we are all a lot less crackers than you take us for, aniu."
"You had better be," said Sallie, plunking the flower arrangement down on the table with finality.
"Because most perfectly sane men with a reasonable store of patience and a healthy self-esteem would walk out on their wives over something like this, and the one you've managed to fall for has neither." Khyrisse paled despite herself. "I may not care for your taste in men, Khyri, but I hardly want to see your heart broken. Pick one and stick with him. You can't keep both."
"I don't want to keep both," Khyrisse said, strangled.
"That's exactly what you're talking about doing, Khyrisse. Gods help us all, but you seem to have inherited your stubbornness from me and your common sense from your father."
"I don't want to keep both," she repeated, at a whisper now.
"Then pick one and let the other go, Khyri. It isn't yet too late."
"Oh, tarinjai!" complained Jiffee, laughing through a perfectly made-up mouth. "Again? Coyri, I declare, you are the best jhilana player I have ever met, darling!"
"Oh, I'm just having a run of luck," Coyri lied modestly, gathering the tiles back together. She had been the jhilana champion of Irla University, ten years ago. She should probably be suggesting a switch to cards, or another game that her new friend might beat her at more often, but Tarrin didn't play jhilana--it was primarily a woman's game in Diaria--and it felt like forever since she'd had a chance to play against a competent opponent. "Another game?"
"By all means, darling. Hold on, I have a little something for you."
The ambassador's wife rustled in her handbag and came out with a little silk pouch, which she shook open on the table. A dusty off-white powder poured out, and Coyri stared at it. "That--that's not Diari opium?" she blurted.
Jiffee threw her head back and laughed, a loud, carefree laugh. "Oh my goodness, darling, do I look like a den sow...? No, this is something new. It's called miaslin."
"Sugarcane?" Coyri touched the powder uneasily. "What do you do with it?"
"Just sniff it, dear. It's like snuff, only less nasty and dirty. And it gives you that little champagne feeling." Jiffee took a little of the powder in the crook of her index finger, put her finger to her nose, and tilted her head swiftly back. "Ah," she sighed. "Now that's quality."
"Oh," said Coyri, uneasily, eyeing the powder on the table, "I couldn't, Jiffee..."
"Nonsense," Jiffee said firmly. "You offered me the hospitality of your house; why wouldn't I share my refreshments with you? Don't you worry about cost. My brother-in-law gets me all I like of it for free, so you see, it is less than the tea you gave me. Please. Help yourself."
Coyri bit her lip. "What does it... what does it do?" she said. "Is it addictive?"
"Addictive!" said Jiffee. "Listen to yourself, darling! Well, I suppose you are a psychiatrist's wife." She laughed indulgently. "No, it's not addictive, Coyri love. I use it once, maybe twice a week, sometimes not at all, and it's just the same to me."
"Is it legal?"
"Coyri," Jiffee said, laughing. "You are just too much. Well, it's legal here, and not in Sturtevant, I'm sure, and back in Diaria, right now? I think it depends on the day of the week? Who knows what the Great Emperor sanctions anymore, these days." She shook her styled platinum head. "All the best people are using miaslin, darling. Don't be so provincial."
Coyri flinched. She and Jiffee were the same caste--the intellectual and social elite--but not the same class, and Coyri was sensitive about it. Jiffee was a politician's wife, stylish, wealthy, popular, and Coyri was a priest's, and felt rather dumpy beside her, and bookish, and boring. And Jiffee had been very nice in not commenting on their exile or the obvious poverty they lived in now, but Coyri was well aware of it every minute. She had been to the penthouse Jiffee and her husband stayed in when they were in New Trade, and it put Khyrisse's house to shame. "Okay," she said, "I'll try a little, then."
She shifted a little of the drug to her own finger, hoping desperately that Tarrin didn't come home now, because Coyri felt sure he would not approve. "Not too much, now," Jiffee cautioned. "It's not ladylike." Coyri shook a bit of the powder back off her finger until Jiffee gave her an approving nod, and then lifted it and quickly inhaled.