Shalak was brooding. His penguin minions were gone. True, they had been a rather odd cadre of minions for a mighty lich lord, but they had been startlingly effective, and Shalak had not had time to cultivate any other minions since his return to phase. It would take him at least a decade to craft some sort of legion of shadow creatures to do his bidding, and in that time he would have to do his own surveillance like a mere mortal. And all the fault of those meddling animals.
For a time, he considered breaking even his ancestral oath, thought of tracking down those five creatures and exacting an unspeakably gruesome revenge. But then he thought better of it, remembering not only his oath but the searing pain of that foul stone.
No, Shalak would simply scheme anew. He had all the power and time in the world. This was merely a temporary setback. Soon he would be even mightier than before!
But, he added, somewhat less loudly in his thoughts, whatever his new plans, they would in no way involve penguins.
It was the least visible exodus in the history of Ataniel. Even the Rat, in the midst of the honking, waddling procession, occasionally lost track of some of the flightless waterfowl, and to any surveying dustrider or desert sprite it would still have looked like a rat, a cat, a duck and a chick making their way across the cracked-earth flats of the Doomlands. Once a rattlesnake made that misassumption, but a few of the king penguins made short work of him.
They had skipped the trek across the mountains this time and made a beeline for the Bay of Folaithe. This would mean a longer journey home for the Rat and the others, but the penguins couldn't survive long in this arid place, and the bay wasn't far. From here it would be a long ocean journey back to their native waters of the cold north coast, but not one of the big birds was daunted by it. After all this time, they were free. Even a leopard seal would be a welcome sight now.
As happy penguins honked all around him, Babe was barely able to hold back tears of joy. He was less successful when he turned to say goodbye to the four companions who had braved so much with him. They were preparing to return to New Trade now, and Babe didn't know what to say. How could he express all that he felt, after all they had been through?
Seeker the Rat lifted up on his hind legs, looked at his penguin friend and said "I understand."
Great Minds Think Alike
"So how are we going to stop these guys from getting here?" Ralchar asked, as the five crossed the border into Oranda. Ahead loomed the Day of Judgment Mountain, the great slumbering volcano of the long-gone Invisible Empire. Kit had seen it before, but never gone near it. "We could try to get them lost," she brainstormed. "The universe is really big."
"We could trap them in a phase bubble," Araiji offered, "as my people did to the Lich Lord Shalak many centuries ago."
"We could wait till they're in the middle of a plane, then strand them there by detaching it from the prime material," suggested Crandall.
Dexy stopped and trained his good eye on the big rogue for a long moment. "As a matter of fact," he said, "that's exactly what I was hoping to do."
"Really?" said Crandall, smiling.
"I have a... sense... for the sebetekh." The gambler tapped his eyepatch absently with the knuckle of his left index finger. It made a solid tink sound, as if there was something hard beneath it. "If we can reach the Crystal Pipes, we should be able to use it to trap them. If all goes well."
"Those are the Cheated?" said Ralchar.
Something skimmed over Dexy's face and was lost. "They are now," he said.
Many years ago:
The wind lashed Dexy LaRue as he pulled his long coat around him. If everything that the seer on the hill had said was true, for the first time in his life LaRue was needed.
The tavern had saloon-style doors, and Dexy smiled. He pulled his hat down enough to shadow his face and pushed the doors aside, striding into the tavern. No one looked up, except for the bartender.
"Stout," said Dexy. "Double head, with a stone in't."
The bartender nodded and set to work.
Dexy scanned the tavern. It seemed larger inside than it did from the road. Then again, it was a dark night, and the gambler's eyes weren't what they used to be. Dexy rubbed the scar that jutted diagonally out from where his left eye once had been involuntarily. Perhaps the effect was due to the twin mirrors: one behind the bar, the other along the right wall of the tavern. The illusion they gave was one of infinite space. It made Dexy a little nauseated.
Still, it didn't take long to find who he was looking for.
Dexy sat down at the table across from the old man. His dark blue cloak was clasped with the symbol the seer had drawn in the dirt. "You're the harbinger, aren't you?"
The old man was silent.
"They're coming here, aren't they?"
"You're too old to stop them from coming through, aren't you."
A tear ran down the old man's face and he looked up at LaRue with mournful eyes. Whatever solace he might have hoped for from the one-eyed man was denied him, though, as the tavern doors swung open.
A tall man in a black cloak, his face hidden within a silver mask, stood titanic in the doorway. There were figures behind him, but the man's bulk hid them from Dexy. He reached his black-clad arm out to point at the old man. "Engillac de sebetekh," he whispered in an icy voice, and the old man stood, shaking.
"Smen cimmoc," he whispered back, and closed his eyes.
The dark figure's hand made a fist and the old man suddenly seized up before LaRue. Blood ran from his nose, and he gave one spasmodic shake before slumping to the table, dead.
The bartender pulled his crossbow out from under the bar. "I don't know who you think--"
The rest of his sentence was cut off by a hiccup of blood. The bartender fell, and a brooding woman with green slitted eyes stood behind him, a bloody knife--of a sort Dexy had never seen before--in her hand.
"We claim you," the dark man said to no one in particular. "You are now ours."
Dexy LaRue steeled himself and uttered the only words of power he had. "I've got fifty-two cards that say differently."
The dark figure turned, frowning dangerously, but no blood poured from Dexy's nose or ears, and he let himself smile his gambler's smile, feeling, for the first time since the omens had begun, that he might have a chance. "Do you know who we are, mortal?" the towering man thundered contemptuously.
"Sebetekh," said Dexy. Four others followed him into the tavern, but LaRue couldn't take his gaze away from the dark man in the silver mask.
"Then you know that there is nothing you can do. You have been claimed."
"Five card draw. Gambler's rules. Double or nothing." The dark figure laughed with no humor in it. Dexy reached up to his face and removed the gem from his empty eyesocket. He was not expecting the sebetekh to be daunted by this as mere mortals were, but Dexy was not without his powers. "One-eyed jacks are wild," he said, putting it down onto the table that was all that stood between him and the dark figure.
The others had approached now, looking curiously at the two of them. There was a sleek grey figure in loose attire and a woman so beautiful it hurt to look at her. Another was short and sort of sleazy-looking for a god, and the last large and blue-skinned. The woman behind the bar had served herself a large glass of red fluid. "For the eye of a dead man," the first sebetekh finally spat, pushing the body of the old man to the floor and sitting in his chair across from Dexy. "Deal."
Dexy shuffled the deck of cards that had appeared just as suddenly in his hands. Bridged. Shuffled. Spun and tossed. Bridged. The cards flew beneath his fingers in patterns familiar and comforting. Finally they shot out in two streams, like shots from a bow, into two piles of five cards.
The figure picked his up and held them up to his mask. Nothing was reflected but the sebetekh's black glove. No help there.
Dexy's hand was uncomfortably weak for the stakes involved. A pair of fours, heart and diamond; the seven of clubs, the ten of diamonds and the jack of hearts. Dexy looked at the silver mask. There was no expression.
Why did the seer pick me for this, he thought. A gambler's no good with something that's not... something that's like this.
The sebetekh placed one card on the table. Shit, Dexy thought. The stakes are set, no reason to bluff, and he asks for one? Dexy handed him the card from the top of the deck, his hand the kind of steady that only came with years of practice. Either he's got me dead to rights or he's trying to make a straight or a flush. Let's hope it's the latter, and pray he doesn't make it. I promised Kera... never again.
He tossed the seven and the ten. Jacks were lucky to Dexy. Another four, clubs this time, and the ten of spades. His gambling face never faltered, though his stomach withered at the draw. "What've you got?"
The dark figure laid down a straight flush, 8-9-10-J-K, clubs. Dexy had lost. He had failed the seer, and the world.
Kera flashed unbidden to his mind. Kera, beautiful, her red curls haloing her head on the pillow. His only love, cut down decades too young by the plague. He looked at his hand, looked up at the dark stranger.
Forgive me, Kera, he thought. I always meant to be true to my promise. I always meant to be true to you.
Dexy laid his cards down. "Four of a kind," he said. "Three fours and the Jack of Shit. One-eyed jack's wild, y'know."
He found he could no longer remember what Kera looked like.
The dark figure stood and slammed his fist on the table in rage. "Gambler," he bellowed, "I will--"
"That's the way the cards fall," LaRue grinned hollowly. "Double or nothing." He picked the jewel up and set it in his eye socket.
There was a dizzying effect, and the six figures were gone. Only strange images in the mirrors, in their infinite illusory taverns, let LaRue know for certain that this wasn't a dream. That, and the small copper coin sitting on the table that hadn't been there before.
Dexy picked the cards up, carefully, respectfully, and replaced them in his wooden deck holder. All except for the One-Eyed Jack, which he returned to the leather clip in his sleeve.
He hadn't noticed, but the tavern was completely empty now. He palmed the copper coin, slipped it in his pocket, and strode out again into the windy night.
"Good-bye, Kera," he whispered.
To Know Your Price
"They like to keep you in a state some of the devils call theta." Ebreth looked into his coffee. "It's--I don't even know if I can explain it. Eventually you get to the point where you're in so much pain you lose your, boundaries. You feel everything at once. I had never imagined such clarity." He closed his eyes. "It's right before your systems start shutting down. But in Hell they don't let that happen. They keep you right there. They used to have this guy there to monitor me, keep me from going over that edge. And they could keep you like that for... hours..." Ebreth shook his head. "That's when I was most vulnerable, that's when it hurt most. I believed anything they said or did, even if they contradicted each other. That's theta. I felt it all like it was God's truth. I--would have done anything, you know." He had to put down the coffee cup, his hand was shaking so. "You just reach a point, you can't take it any more, your senses just open out and your mind clings to any thing that's there, like a drowning man. I would know some things couldn't be true, and I would believe them anyway, with all my heart, I would feel them like they had happened. I don't know if it's some kind of reflex, the last reflex of a dying man to believe anything he can. But I believed every thing they told me, every thing they did to me, I would have believed anything and so I would have done anything." He held his own forearms, shivering in the clear morning air.
"I don't think you can be blamed for that, Ebreth," Khyrisse said gently. "I think you were insane by anyone's standards then. How could you be responsible for your actions? And if you--would have betrayed us, betrayed me, to make it stop... well, you wouldn't be the only one, you know. It's no more than Pieret did."
He put his hand over the bridge of his nose. "Khyrisse," he said wearily, "I would have joined them."
Khyrisse didn't quite have a response for that.
"I don't think you understand what I mean when I say they completely broke me down." He reached across to her almost wistfully, a hollow aching in his blue eyes, and brushed back a piece of her hair with unsteady fingers. "Maybe you couldn't understand it," he whispered. "You've suffered more than your share, and it's never done this to you. It's wounded you, even crippled you sometimes, but never made you entirely lose your defiance. You don't know how far I fell." He took his hand back, slowly, and put it over his face. "I would have betrayed myself," he said. "I would have sold out the pathetic handful of things I'd built for myself, for who I was, who I wanted to be. And now that I've built more, now that it matters to me more... I couldn't survive it, Khyrisse, not again. There would be nothing left of me. Nothing. I'm so sorry."
Carson rubbed his greying temples. It was times like these he wished the gods weren't all dead. He'd been so desperate for some sort of absolution that he'd actually tried talking to Randall about it at one point. Not about what he'd done--Carson couldn't admit that even to his closest friends--but about the concepts of sin and forgiveness. Randall didn't really believe in them. If you made mistakes, he said, you should learn from them and make a better person out of yourself, then go on with your own life. Forgiveness was just a kind of moral passing the buck. But what about the victims of people's mistakes? Carson had argued, hypothetically. They are responsible for their own lives, Randall said. There are no victims. Ultimately, we are responsible for everything that happens to us. That should have comforted Carson, but it didn't. Sure, Jake and the others had taken drugs they knew might be fatal, so to some extent they were responsible for their own deaths... but that didn't change the fact that they wouldn't have died if not for Carson, and he knew it when he did it. He had responsibility for others, whether Randall chose to believe it or not.
He'd been avoiding Elaine. Told her bluntly it was because he'd had enough of her inane chatter, but really it was because he cared what she thought despite himself and he'd rather she thought he was a rude bastard who'd just been using her for sex than knew the truth about him. As it turned out, though, Elaine, normally about as bright as a box of hair, saw right through that. Damn women, Carson thought. Always manage to misunderstand you every single time but the one you want them to. She'd tried talking to him herself, tried sending a damn psychiatrist around--Carson had sent him packing all right--tried getting Solly to talk to him, which just made Carson feel more miserable. Today she had apparently called Schneider in from out of town in an effort to cheer him up. Carson wasn't in the mood for even the comedy routine about John Tucson today, and the two men wound up sitting in silence looking into their drinks for a while.
"You know," Schneider finally said, "when life's really sucking, and I keep it to myself, seems like things usually just get worse. You wanna talk about it?"
"No," said Carson, and threw back his whiskey.
"It's also counterintuitive, but it's, uh, a good idea to lay off the booze a little when the shittiest things are happening to you. I'm speaking from experience on this one. You shoulda seen me after Rox left me. It was not pretty. Not that I'm ever that pretty... though I do make a half-decent girl, if I say so myself..."
"Yeah, you and Kerowena," muttered Carson, and pushed his drink at the bartender for another. Schneider was right, of course, but Carson had one ogre mage of a hangover coming already and right now he'd rather put it off a little longer. "Nothing shitty happened to me, Schneider. It's my own damn fault. I did something real bad, and the debt is coming due."
"Well," offered Schneider, clearing his throat, "you could, uh, try balancing it out by doing enough good deeds to cancel out the bad one. That was what I did after, uh, going nutso and killing a bunch of people in the Madness. Saved a life for each person I'd, uh, kacked. It worked for me."
Carson sighed. "That's a good thought, Schneider, but what I did already saved more lives than it took. That's why I did it. But I knew it would sacrifice some innocent people when I did it, and now I'm not sure it was worth it, and whether it was or wasn't... I feel like their blood is on my hands. My balance sheet's fine, it's my soul I'm worried about."
Let me handle this one, Jim, said Duke Faraker in Schneider's head.
All yours, boss. "Well," Schneider began, "something like that happened to a good friend of mine, once... made a choice he thought was for the greater good, wound up inviting Gila onto Ataniel. In a way, he felt guilty for everything the slimeys did since then. But who knows how much worse things mighta been if he didn't do it? You can't just keep second-guessing yourself over things like that."
"Do the ends really justify the means, though?" said Carson. "Is it really worth doing something that kills people just because it'll save other people?"
"Depends," said Schneider. "Had another friend who led a revolution against an oppressive government. Lots of people died there. Was it worth it? He thought so. Heck, most about every hero kills people for a greater cause. It's not necessarily bad."
This should be reassuring Carson even more, but it wasn't. "I'll think about it," he said, tossing back his next shot of whiskey.
"And you'll think about heading on home instead of finishing off that entire bottle of Jack, right?" Schneider said hopefully.
"Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Schneider."
Oh, There Be Breakers Dead Ahead
"You would think the dolphin would have mentioned this," said Otter with a frown, her eyes and forehead above water like a seal's.
-Perhaps we could find another way around?- Callie suggested humbly.
Otter watched the boulders on either of the strait crash together and then apart, together and then apart. "How long can you survive out of the water?" she wanted to know. "Maybe I could carry you up the rocks and go across the land."
-I have never tried leaving the water,- said Callie, her tessera trembling. -I would be willing to try... but I do not think I could go without breathing for more than twenty breaths.-
That didn't sound promising. Otter couldn't see it taking her less than ten minutes to scale the rocks, cross, and return to the waves even unencumbered by the three-foot-long mollusk. "Well," she said, "maybe we can just dart through between strikes. They don't seem sentient to me... they probably won't be able to adjust their movements." She ducked her head back below water. The gnashing of the boulders sent white eddies of force churning through the water, making it hard to see. Otter had no idea what could be driving such a thing. Perhaps magic. If men could do this, maybe they could open portals to Ataniel after all. She surfaced again to watch the violent, rhythmic dance of the boulders a few minutes longer, her whole head and shoulders in the warm wet breeze this time. "I won't be able to see them striking underwater," she said. "There's too much turbulence. But I don't know if I can swim fast enough, on the surface."
-I don't know if I can swim fast enough at all,- Callie admitted.
Otter sighed, a gesture learned from people she doubted she'd ever see again, and not one Callie comprehended. "We'll have to go together, then," she said. It would have been easier to keep watch and signal the underwater Callie the instant the rocks began to part, then cross overland herself once the anomalocaris was safe. But perhaps she could use her powers over water to accelerate the two of them sufficiently.
Otter slid onto the smaller creature's back, her greater mass causing no strain in the buoyant waters. "Let us creep as close as we can," she instructed. "Perhaps if you stay near enough to the surface, I can lift my head to watch the rocks and then dive when it is time. That way we will only have to break the surface once."
Callie bubbled her assent. Otter willed the choppy water still around them as she inched forward, to keep them from losing their balance. Anything would be preferable to losing their balance as the great rocks crashed together; they would be lucky to recover before being swept into the boulders' maw and crushed, much less beached on the smaller rocks lining the strait. Otter paused a moment. "Hold," she said.
-What is it?- Callie whispered mentally.
"The current." Otter concentrated. "It pushes us away from the rocks as they come together... and pulls us in as they come apart."
-That would be in our favor,- Callie said hopefully. -Are you sure it is so each time?-
"No." Otter sank her brown head once more below the surface. "But it seems to be." Get a hunch, bet a bunch, Methele always said. "If I'm right, I'll know when the rocks begin to part without having to look. When I feel the waters begin to tug, I'll release us to them. Swim with all your might; I will assist you as best I can."
Callie's tessera rippled. -If I do not make it,- she said, her mental voice faint and a bit wobbly. -I... I want you to know...-
"NOW!" belted Otter, and the two shot forward like an arrow from a bow, Callie's eyes whirling in half-panic as the nymph's furiously pumping legs propelled them without warning into the churning water. The boulders smashed together several inches behind the toes of Otter's left foot, and then the boom hit and blew them head-over-heels forward; Otter lost her grip on Callie but caught her again by the feeding arm just as the rocks parted behind them again and started to suck the unanchored swimmers back into danger. The anomalocaris screamed as her arm snapped, and then Otter had caught a rock with her other hand, and then she had calmed the water around them again. "Beg pardon," said Otter, straightening, "what were you saying?"
-Nothing,- sulked Callie, cradling her broken arm in her good one. -I changed my mind. You are a pain in my chitin.-
"Oh, it would have been worse if you'd had to anticipate it first." Otter cracked a grin. "Come on, let's go see where the hell we are."
Skitch was starting to feel kind of uncomfortable around his new friends. They were better than most of his old friends, he rationalized. Even most of the RP'ers he liked, like Khyrisse and Ebreth, could get more violent on more of a drop of a pin than Lihan or Sherren. That wasn't even touching the wacko ones. Still, though the Edge members were fun to hang around with and Skitch's association with them had stopped a lot of the boarding-school harassment in its tracks, some of the things they said bugged him.
He didn't mind, per se, that Lihan thought kiljhac were ‘monkeys'. It wasn't very nice, but Tarrin had explained once that Diarians who had never met kiljhac could easily make that mistake. He certainly didn't mind that they all thought kiljhac were inferior. Skitch had seen the data in his sociobiology class, and they were on solid ground there. He didn't understand why they kept going on and on about it. Right now, Sherren was finishing a tirade about the mental inferiority of kiljhac at their table in the cafeteria. Sherren was in Skitch's class in maths, and he was getting a D. Skitch suspected there was a psychological term for what he was trying to accomplish by putting other people down further than himself, too, but he hadn't learned it yet. "Why are we always talking about the kiljhac?" he finally asked, when Sherren had finished.
"Bother you, Akjhir?" smirked Kailan.
Skitch could feel their eyes all train on him. He was the new kid, and from a kiljhac-tainted place at that. "No," he said, "it bores me. We don't talk about goats. Why do we talk about kiljhac?" Mirlee giggled, and Lihan's mouth twitched a bit in his faint approximation of a smile. "Everyone knows kiljhac are inferior to Diarians," said Skitch, although in a private part of his mind he was thinking that Khyrisse was smarter than twelve Sherrens. He guessed it must be a bell-curve kind of thing. Sherren was smarter than Marty Hu, after all. "Everyone knows when you drop things, they go down. We don't spend our lunch hour talking about it."
Kailan rolled his eyes, but Lihan was nodding, quietly. "Tanjha," he said. Skitch didn't know what that meant. "Akjhir is right. If we really believed ourselves, we would be beyond saying it. We would radiate it."
More Than One Way To Skin A Continent
"This is my lord Ebreth," Aithne introduced. "Ebreth, this is my friend the Mistral."
"Hey buddy." The Mistral rolled an appraising crystalline eye up and down him. "Where ya from, Salagia?"
"What?" Ebreth looked momentarily disoriented. "No. No, the Montas Archipelago."
"Gotcha," nodded the Mistral. His last conquests hadn't gotten that far, but then, there hadn't been much there at the time. "How much do you control?"
"How much?" he said slowly.
"Of the Archipelago," the Mistral helped him. "In other words, if we wanted to unite the Archipelago into a member state, how far could you get us?"
Ebreth started laughing. "Nowhere fast," he said. "Have you ever been to the Archipelago? The only political structure there is the underworld."
This was starting to make more sense. "Which is what you control."
"Ahhh..." said Ebreth. "Caimen sort of had it split with me, actually. What is this about here?"
"Possibilities." The Mistral swivelled his head to Khyrisse. "With all due respect, Mom K, a marriage would do a lot more for an overt political union between world leaders than a tacit one between crime families."
"Really," Khyrisse said drolly. "Maybe I should marry Eric Tremontagne."
The Mistral clicked his fingers together. "Well, it's not a bad choice," he said, "but really, you've already got a hell of a contract with Cynystra, and you don't need its military might right now."
"You're serious," said Khyrisse.
"I was thinking maybe Prefect Kisarki, of Dascold City? If you helped him solve the civil war in Dascold, he could bring the entire region into the Trade Alliance. He's also an older guy, a widower, so he wouldn't take too much maintenance, know what I mean. You two could keep seeing each other pretty much whenever you want."
"What do you think, Khyrisse," said Ebreth, with a straight face. "You want a sugar daddy?"
"I don't need a sugar daddy!" hollered Khyrisse, kicking him forcelessly under the table. "What kind of stupid matriarchy do you come from?"
"The practical kind," said the Mistral.
No wonder poor Aithne doesn't think she can say no. "Well, I come from the liberated kind," she said, "and my body's not for sale. If you think I could help with the civil war in Dascold find a scenario that doesn't involve sex, please!"
"Okay, okay," sighed the Mistral. "It was just a suggestion."
Day of Judgment
"A man has too much to drink," Kit explained as the five thieves started up the mountain trail, "so he turns out the light and goes to bed... but the next morning he looks out the window and kills himself. Why?"
"Did his girlfriend leave him?" guessed Ralchar.
"Does he belong to a holy order that forbids drinking?" Araiji asked in her heavy accent.
"No. This goes better if you ask more, uh, general questions first."
"Did he kill himself because of getting drunk?" asked Crandall.
"S--ort of," said Kit. "Indirectly."
"Was it because of what he saw out the window?" said Ralchar.
"Did he forget to do something before he went to bed?" guessed Araiji.
"No." Kit glanced across at Dexy. "Mister LaRue, aren't you playing?"
The gambler had seemed lost in thought, but now he stopped completely, raising one long finger for silence. The Day of Judgment Mountain seemed to echo under the piercing gaze of his one eye. "Something... is coming," he whispered, his brow furrowing in concentration.
"A good something or a bad something?" said Ralchar, and then a massive obsidian hand plummeted from out of nowhere into his head and the world fell abruptly into darkness.