Khyrisse blinked at Aithne in confusion, startled out of her bitter train of thought. "Jack's chicken?"
"I am sorry," the girl wailed, cringing as if she expected Khyrisse to beat the tar out of her.
Khyrisse sighed and tried to make her voice as reassuring as she could. Okay, yes, that's surely not very right now... "I'm sure it's around here somewhere, Aithne. Why don't you tell Vas? He can ask people around town for you."
Aithne looked about ready to faint with relief. "Thank you, Khyrisse! I am so sorry I lose..."
There was another hesitant little knock at her door. Grendel, everyone's afraid of me today. Khyrisse waited for some sort of guilt to surface, but it never did. "Yes, what is it?"
Val poked her head in. "Am I interrupting?"
"Not really, I thought of asking you anyway... Have you seen Jack's chick?"
"Jack's... oh! No, I haven't. I hope Melissa didn't get her..." Val glanced uneasily at Khyrisse. "I--I came to ask you about that, actually. Have you seen Melissa? Did she come back to your house?"
"No," Khyrisse said, a little flatly. "Not that I noticed." Valende studied her worriedly, trying to figure out if that meant no or yes-and-I-ignored-her. "Really, Val. No. Why?"
Valende sighed. "She's run away."
Khyrisse's face hardened again, and she looked back down at her papers. "Pet imitates master," she said. "Well, put some posters up around town or something. Oh--Aithne, I don't know if anyone has told you, but Skitch is not to be trusted anymore. He's a thief."
Aithne nodded soberly. "Amatsu tell me. That is a disloyal son. If you want one kinswoman to catch him and bring him home for punish, I will do."
Mixed emotions chased over Khyrisse's stiff face, but she shook her head. "Thank you, Aithne. That won't be necessary. I'm doing all that needs to be done."
"Then he is no more Ratpack to me," she said, and made a strange stylized salute across her chest. "I must go look for Jack's chicken now. Thank you for kindness." She backed out of the office with a respectful little bow of her head. Valende imitated it, with a rueful smile, and closed the door behind them.
Khyrisse just exhaled sharply, and went back to frowning over her notes. I should ask Asinus what Robinson told him about Jack, she thought, rubbing her aching head. ...Dammit, I'm going to need the Rat.
This Post Animated By Disney
Taking a Trade Coach as far west as the Land of the Little Folk was trickier than it sounded.
Babe, of course, just hopped up into the cabin. Detecting penguins was a notoriously difficult roll, and one none of the passengers made. The Rat scrabbled at one of the suitcases on the luggage rack while Melissa distracted the coachman by purring and winding around his ankles. Being an older, kindly sort, he spent several minutes skritching her behind the ears while the passengers boarded, which was long enough for the Rat's superior mathematical sense to overcome the cheap lock. He popped the latch with his paws and gestured the Duck and the Chick in with his rapidly twitching nose. Still no one noticed, though the Rat had the idea that the lady whose evening clothes the terrible-smelling Duck was pushing into was not going to be pleased with the state of her suitcase when she got to Samanal.
As the Rat's spatial reasoning had suggested, though, there wasn't going to be room in this suitcase for him or for Melissa. He had to jump on the top of the suitcase three times to get it to click shut as it was. The Rat's whiskers quivered as the coachman, giving Melissa a last affectionate pat, ascended to the driver's board at a leisurely pace. "All aboard what's coming aboard!" he cried.
The Rat scurried frantically down the rear boot. If the Coach took off with him sitting on the roof, the sheer velocity of the thing would shake him off as if he were a flea.
He dropped to the asphalt and scampered between the wheels. Melissa's slender body was already squeezed between the floor of the cabin and the axle she was perched on, her eyes larger than ever. "SQUEEEEK!" shrilled the Rat in alarm, leaping to the axle and from there to the thoroughbrace, almost jumping up and down in panic. Melissa, who understood mechanics less well, took a long moment to realize that he meant her to follow. To the horror of both animals, the Carriage was already moving by then, and the cat scrabbled frantically as the axle began rotating beneath her paws.
"Mrrrrrraoooooo!" she screamed.
"I understand!" the Rat yipped back, backing as far along the thoroughbrace as he could to leave her more room for the leap that would be her only chance before the Trade coach picked up enough speed to throw her beneath its wheels.
"MRRRRRRRRAOOOOO!" Melissa stumbled and then threw herself blindly forward, catching the thoroughbrace at first with only one arm, from beneath. Her butt bumped the ground, and the Rat chittered anxiously, but then she swung both her hind legs up and around the brace, and then righted herself, pressed
tight between its metal and the wood of the cabin floor, her tail huge and puffy, panting a little.
The Trade Coach shot westward, the exponential increase of its speed rocking its shielded underbelly. Melissa and Seeker of Places clung to the thoroughbrace, on their way to the Doomlands.
3842 years ago, in Irla, Diaria.
"You are too late, old fool!" cried Shalak Anakazri, his green eyes blazing with power. "Behold the Lich Lord of Ataniel in all his immortal glory!"
"Immortal?" The wizened priest of Pysyri helped himself to a seat with his heavy oaken staff, wheezing private laughter. "What airs you put on, my boy. Hear me now: there will be only five true Immortals, in all of Ataniel."
"What?" Shalak was annoyed. The psimaster should have been cowering before him in his moment of triumph, not giving him inane prophecies. "There are twelve great gods of Diaria, for starters, old man."
"None of them among them," sighed the old priest. "And neither will you be, young Anakazri."
Shalak felt he was slipping out of control of the conversation, and frowned. "Five," he said, letting mindfire crackle across his powerful undead body, "why then should it not be six?"
"Because five is your unlucky number, Lich Lord," the priest said quietly. "Five are the meek who will doom your last empire, and five the thieves who will steal your eternal life. Five, too, will be those who shall attain what you seek, leaving you to dust."
"What nonsense you spout in a futile effort to save your mortal hide!" bellowed Shalak. "You know as well as I the future is not writ in stone, old man. It is ours to shape, ours to control, and ours to change!"
"Only for those who choose to change it," said the priest. "Will you be one of those, young disciple?"
Shalak hesitated only for a moment. "Tell me of the five."
"The five Deathless," began the old man, "the first of these shall be the Spirit--"
"Not those!" interrupted the lich angrily. "The five who will steal my immortality. What of them?"
The priest smiled, a barely perceptible smile. "Very well, then," he said. "The five Thieves shall be the Gambler, the Gypsy, the Lucky, the Liar, and the... Stealer. You will not know they are bringing your doom until it is too late, for they will not know it themselves until it is too late."
"Useless riddles," growled Shalak. "What of the five meek you say will destroy my empire?"
"I am afraid," said the old priest, folding his hands neatly across one knee, "that your fate has been sealed, Shalak. Only one of these three futures may you know, and you have chosen the one you have no chance of averting. Enjoy your reign."
Shalak howled, a long, furious undead sound. Even the blasting of the old psimaster's body into cinders did nothing to improve his mood.
Three months ago, in Edimon, Dalencia.
Crandall was bored beyond his ability to articulate it.
Given his silver tongue, that was saying quite a bit.
He had returned from the dead with the single-minded purpose of hosing Jack's lovelife. At that he had succeeded, and admirably; but it left him with nothing to do. He'd thought of starting over, of course. There was a second Jack in the Northlands now, and Reena was somewhere in Salagia. But being undead, Crandall couldn't really summon any emotion towards either of them. In fact, he couldn't really summon any emotions up at all, now that the blinding hatred of a revenant for its foe had been spent. He'd tried his hand as a con man in Edimon, and he was as good at it as ever, but it just wasn't fun. Everything looked like it was in black and white, tasted like bland crackers. Crandall had no energy, no sex drive, no joie de vivre, and no future. To add insult to injury, his combat initiative was always last. The only thing he was getting out of this undead state was an inability to die normally, and frankly, Crandall thought an eternity as a trudging undead thing was a vastly overrated fate.
So he had begun, slowly, to desire mortality. By now that desire had consumed what remained of Crandall's soul, an inexorable, revenant-like raison d'ętre to replace his last. Crandall wanted to eat fine food and drink the good wine till the wee hours of the morning, to drive his chariot much too fast and make love to someone else's spouse on the roof of a tony inn.
Unfortunately, there just didn't seem to be a good way to turn an undead into a human. The only precedent Crandall had been able to find involved cloning the original human body and transferring the soul into it, and he didn't have any tissue samples of his body lying around. There were plenty of ways to destroy the undead, but Crandall didn't want to die, he wanted to live.
Suddenly he sat bolt upright. He had it. Crandall knew how to regain his mortality.
But it was going to be his biggest con job ever.
Two days ago, in Tobrinel City, Tobrinel.
Crandall pushed open the swinging saloon door. "Mr. LaRue?" he said. The thin, one-eyed man looked up from the bar. To one side of him sat a dusky Diarian woman with unkempt hair; to the other a pleasant-looking blond fellow. "They say you're looking for a gambler. I believe I'm your man."
Vas Doesn't Get The Chick
It was starting to get dark. Aithne slumped miserably on Val and Vas' front stoop, holding her summer shawl around herself. Their elven magic had been unable to locate the chick, or Khyrisse's cat for that matter; and though some witches had great powers over animals, Aithne did not. Vas was trying to flirt with her to cheer her up. Aithne pretended she didn't understand he was flirting. She still hadn't figured out whether Vas was some kind of mate of the queen's sister, or their brother. If he was Khyrisse's brother, she was rather obligated to accede to his advances, and she found that idea so disgusting that she had opted to remain ignorant about his relationship to her matriarch as long as she could.
"I'm sorry, Aithne," sighed Val. "I hope the cat didn't eat her."
"I doubt," said Aithne. "When I bring the chicken to Khyrisse's house, the chicken peck the cat. I think that cat is afraid the chicken." She twisted one hand in the other. "I hope Jack will not be angry me."
"Jack is very understanding, dear."
"Oh!" Aithne leapt up suddenly. "Oh, silly girl! I forget my gem!"
Val's hand flew over her mouth. "You lost that?"
"No, I didn't lost. It is in my room. But maybe I can use it to work witch magic to find the chicken!" Aithne fairly flew across the square towards the Rat Trap, beaming with hope.
"Oh, dear," sighed Val, and followed her.
An Alliance Once Made
Khyrisse fussed with her keyring, crankily searching for the key to her office. She'd spent two nights alone in that house with her mother now, and signs of sleeplessness were beginning to show on her face. I think I'd cheerfully give someone a pint of my blood in exchange for a safe way to have a cup of coffee. She pushed the door closed behind her, yawning furiously... and nearly choked on the exhale.
On her desk, sitting innocently on top of a stack of crop reports as if it were a paperweight, was a sphere of rippling multi-colored light.
Lying on the stack of papers next to it was a single, beautiful white orchid.
"It's done," said Jendar Alliejin. The magically secured link they were speaking on was at least twice as safe now that the threat of the Psicorps monitoring it was past, and so the caution with which the mafia don's eldest son spoke was more a matter of habit than necessity. "The debt is discharged."
"Better," Relan nodded at the image of his elder brother. "She did us a little favor, we did her a little favor. I used to have to go through Father's kiljhac godson. Now Khyrisse Paris is a friend of the Family."
"This has good implications," Jendar concurred.
"I've heard rumors Tor is marrying in," said Relan. "That would cement it."
"An alliance with the Parises could be quite profitable for both groups," said Jendar, nodding. "Is it publicly known Ms. Paris is a friend?"
"Not what we did for each other, of course," said Relan, "but yes, in the circles that matter."
"Very good," said Jendar. "Very good indeed."
It was the third boat Jack had seen pass by that morning. They had all been marked differently, flying different flags, so he was pretty sure it wasn't some sort of army movement. However, they hadn't
been sailing in the relaxed manner that most of the fishing boats he'd seen over the past few days had.
Three days and no sign of Black Peter, Jack thought. Maybe the bait salesman was lying. I mean, why the flark was there a bait shop in New Trade anyway?
"Look at that ship," he said, nodding at it as it headed out to sea.
"Boat," Ebreth replied. Jack could tell he was still preoccupied over Khyrisse and Skitch. Fishing was a peaceful way to relax, but only if your mind was clear. Ebreth's wasn't, and it was making the long stretches of silence an arena for worry and guilt. He needed something to distract him.
"I wonder where it's going," Jack said.
"Hmh?" Ebreth looked up. "It's flying Talarian colors," he said. "But it's not much more than a skiff."
"Maybe it's going to the island in the middle of the Vadril," Jack hypothesized.
"Maybe," said Ebreth, and paused, as if he were about to resume his silent anxiety. However, curiosity had its hooks in as well by that point. "What is that island, anyway?" he asked. "I've seen it on
maps, but it's never labeled."
"The predominant rumor is that a lich lord lives there," said Jack.
"Oh, none of them," Jack said. "The rumor was started a century or two ago by a bard who wanted to enhance his rep. Gerald Paris debunked it years ago."
"Then what is there?"
"I don't know," said Jack. "I mean, I could ask the Word, if we wanted to go back to shore."
"Or we could give Black Peter a day or two more of life and sail out to see," offered Ebreth.
Jack smiled and started reeling in his line. The bait had been taken.
The Most Realistic Post On The Board
"It's a letter from my mother." Lorrini opened it, skimmed it, and sighed. "It's a big guilt trip. She wants me to quit school and go home."
"At least she's still talking to you," said Skitch. "My mom hasn't written to me at all."
"Why can't they understand that our dreams are just as important as theirs?" Lorrini crumpled the letter up and threw it in the trash can. "Just because we're kids doesn't mean we know less than they do. ...I hope I'm more understanding when I get old."
"We probably won't be," said Skitch, with one of his occasional flashes of preternatural insight. He paused. "I miss my mom," he admitted.
"I'm too mad at my mom to miss her." Lorrini folded her arms crossly. "But I miss my dad," she added after a moment.
"Because they're all old and stupid," Lorrini said. "Put on my Pink Floyd album, will you?"
Breaking The Ice
Schneider flopped down into a Rat Trap chair. The kid leaving was not your fault, Duke Faraker said.
"Geez, boss, it sure feels like I didn't do anything to help on that count."
If he left for friggin' Diaria, he definitely had issues that had nothing to do with you.
"He called me ‘kiljhac'. Shoulda known things were going wrong then."
"Schneider?" said Vastarin's voice from the real world. "Are you all right?"
"Uh, yes," lied Schneider, less than convincingly.
Corellon, he looks like Hell, Vas sized up the jester--thinner than normal and frowning pensively.
Paninaro, he looks like Hell, Schneider took in the elf's newly ragged hair and troubled expression.
The two men who had once been friends but no longer spoke looked at each other, and for a long moment, there was only silence. "Schneider..." started Vas, but his voice trailed off.
Mercifully, after a few difficult minutes, Aithne walked in the front door with an evilly glowing gem.
"Hi!" said Aithne. She was happy to see Schneider; given the masked warrior's absence the past
couple of days, and the way he had overstepped his bounds by trying to discipline Skitch in Rimbor City,
Aithne had been afraid he had run away with the boy. He looked unhappy right now. Maybe he felt guilty. "I am sorry your son is disloyal," she said. "That is not your fault."
Schneider blinked at her a few times. "Come again?"
"Your son," she explained. "I am sorry he run away. That is not your fault."
"Uh... Thanks, but he's not my kid, you know."
"I know," she nodded. "He is disown and no more Ratpack."
"He never was my son, Aithne."
"Oh," she said. "I am sorry. I don't know many words. What is the word for Skitch? I know you are not Khyrisse's main consort, but a lesser consort has a relationship with the child he give her too." Both Schneider and Vas were giving her very funny looks now. "Gives," she corrected herself hopefully. It didn't seem to help. "I will ask Jack when he comes back," she sighed. "Nevermind. Bye!" She ran up the stairs to
her room, the gem cupped in her hands emanating an ominous green light.
"What--is she talking about?" said Schneider, staring after her.
"I am definitely not responsible for any of those rumors," swore Vas, raising his hand.
Running of the Minotaurs
Ebreth hauled in the sailboat and lashed her to the docking post as Jack took the sails in. "I'll be damned," he said. There were an uncanny number of craft docked in the simple harbor, far more than the lightly built-up wharf district would have implied to an experienced sailor. There was something lazy about the hand-lettered signs swinging outside the seaside shops, and there were a fair number of people out on the boardwalk, but, Ebreth could see, no one much beneath it, and that told him this level of activity wasn't a constant in the little port. "You think it's safe to leave her unattended?"
"Everyone else is," Jack pointed out.
"Fair enough." The two men turned up the pier and ran directly into a bull-headed man a good foot taller than Ebreth. "Whoa!"
"Excuse us," apologized Jack.
"No problem," boomed the creature, in a genial voice, slapping each of them on the back with one hard hand. "Not like you hurt me! Hhh! Hhh! In town for the Running?" He moved around them, gripping Jack by the shoulder as he passed. "Kind of skinny, aren't you? Hhh! Hhh!" His lip curled at the mathematician in some way half-friendly, half-dangerous, and he moved on down the pier.
"What was that all about?" Ebreth wondered, looking over his shoulder at the bull-man as he headed up for the wharf district.
An odd pair of friends and their initial connection
"So," Eric said, moving one of his pieces, "what is it, exactly, that she fancies you're doing here?"
Derek smiled, the laugh lines around his purple eyes deepening, and studied the board. "I believe her exact words were ‘watch him like a hawk and keep the backstabbing bastard honest, if you can'."
"She doesn't ask for much, does she?" his opponent observed, drolly. "And in her typical charming fashion. ...Hmm." Eric raised an eyebrow at the board, as Derek captured one of his pieces.
"Oh, we raised her very simply." Derek examined Eric's carved ivory piece with an innocent air, and placed it in front of him. "And she was such a lovable child, too. Must be something about Cynystra."
Eric ignored this. "You enchanted this board."
Derek looked with amused impudence at the Cynystran emperor. "Maybe you just suck at this game."
"I do not ‘suck' at this game," said Eric. "Bishops are not permitted perpendicular moves."
"It moved diagonally!"
"Yes--and then the board rearranged the check pattern."
"Aren't you even human enough to blink?" Derek inquired in a tone of friendly curiosity, not quite confirming the charge.
There was a faint crackling in the air of the study then, and a flickering, predominantly black-and-white figure slowly materialized beside the chess table. The Khyrisse-hologram narrowed her eyes at Eric. "I've been trying to get through to my father for an hour. You can drop the stupid screen, you know."
Eric didn't even look up, just smirked slightly. "It was put up expressly to keep you out, of course..."
She ignored him. "Dad... Listen, we found Mother. I think. She's--she's not very together. Mentally. But otherwise she's all right. I have her here in New Trade..." She trailed off. Derek's eyes had widened as far as they could go, and for a moment, he looked like he might faint. "Dad? Dad!" Khyrisse's intangible hands went right through her father's rigid shoulders. "Merde..."
Eric looked at the ceiling for a long moment--not rolling his eyes, simply studying it with an expression oddly lacking in his normal cynicism--then crooked one finger to the side. Derek's bright blue backpack flew across the room and dumped itself in its owner's lap, startling him out of his paralysis.
"I suppose I must arrange a leave of absence on your part," said Eric, with sarcastic patience. "I will save our position until you return from your personal business." Eric got up and glanced over the board. "Hopefully your personal business will prove a little less drastically inconvenient than previously."
Derek wasn't listening any more. Having been successfully snapped out of his shock, he'd left a hole in the air on his way out the door.
"There's a Carriage out of Tremontagne in an hour!" Khyrisse shouted after him. "Karel will meet you at the station... it'll have you in New Trade by tonight! Wait for the Carriage, Dad!"
"If you're quite through notifying the entire capital of your family's travel arrangements, Rissa..."
"Shut up, Eric," she said distractedly, without any particular malice, and winked out.
Making Up Is Hard To Do
"You thought I was being intentionally malicious just to spite you?" Vas was aghast. "I--don't know where to start with that, Schneider. I had nothing against you, would not have tried to sabotage your lovelife if I had, and had no idea this little bit of frippery would have that effect in the first place. Surely your lady could be no stranger to the world of practical jokes?" Schneider made a long, sad sound. "Besides, the whole incident was so clearly an accident beyond anyone's control. Ebreth wasn't angry with Khyrisse; Jack wasn't angry with Valende; even Tarrin's wife wasn't angry, and there was a non-Diarian involved! Why on Ataniel should your paramour have taken a little magically-induced tryst so poorly?"
"I, uh, hadn't exactly gotten around to explaining things to her," mumbled Schneider.
Vas blinked with such total wiftiness that Schneider abandoned the last vestiges of suspicion the elf might have stirred this up deliberately. "You mean you--didn't tell her?"
"I didn't see the point," he said wearily. "It was over, wasn't going to happen again, why get her all upset? I wasn't exactly expecting Khyri to get pregnant. Then I guess, what with one thing and another..."
"That possibility never even occurred to me. Schneider, I am terribly sorry..."
"Oh, well..." The jester forced a laugh. "I mean, if it was just a dumb joke gone wrong, heck, I can't hold that against anyone. Remember the time I screwed up Tze Lin's sculpture with that stone to mud spell?"
Vas giggled mirthfully, and then settled his face down to give Schneider a doleful look. "Am I forgiven, then?" he said humbly.
"I need all the friends I can get," sighed Schneider.
The Lost Generation
"So what have we got so far?" Jack asked.
Ebreth looked at the fresh new notebook that Jack had given him (like he ever wrote things down
before hanging out with the mathematician). "Well, we're in a city called Strive, which is on an island that no one seems to know the name of."
"And there are about a hundred restaurants on it, all of which seem to have opened last week."
"Right. And something called ‘the Running' is coming up. I wrote that down," Ebreth said.
"See?" Jack smiled. "Isn't it easier to keep all this stuff straight when you write it down?"
"You're only making me do this because I made you promise not to bring your notebook on the trip," muttered Ebreth.
Jack took another swig of his Moorcock Dark microbrewery ale. It had a nice taste, but the bartender warned that drinking it always ended badly. "This can't be some sort of evil plot or massing army or anything," he commented, looking around. "Everyone here seems to be just hanging out drinking."
"You know, I think it's a good thing that we got away," said Ebreth. "If you're getting paranoid, we were in Rimbor waaaaay too long."
"Amen!" Jack clinked his mug against Ebreth's. "We'll figure this out when we do. Until then..."
"Jack!" called a woman's voice from across the bar. A short-haired woman in a loose white blouse
and trousers waved at the mathematician and started towards the pair.
"Brett!" Jack stood up in time to be hugged by the woman. "What are you doing here?"
"Same as you, I'm sure," said Brett. "Perry and I came for the Running. Who's your friend?"
"Ebreth Tor," Jack introduced, "Brett Astra. She and Perry used to run into Cori, Reena, Crandall and me. They were our major non-player characters."
"I told you if you kept calling me that, Paris, I'd have to slander you something fierce in my social circle. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Tor," she said, holding her hand out to be kissed.
Ebreth complied. "So, Miss... Brett," he said. "What exactly is this ‘Running'?"
Brett laughed, long and hard. "Don't tell me you came to Strive without knowing," she said. "Jack, he's terrible. I blame you for not having introduced us years ago."
"Years ago he was... much less funny," smiled Jack.
"Do I get an answer?" Ebreth asked, not finding himself nearly as amusing as Brett did.
"Of course, of course. I've got to go find Perry, but meet us for dinner, we'll tell you all about it. Smoke and Mirrors Café, just north of the square." Brett leaned forward and kissed Jack on the cheek, then repeated the gesture with Ebreth. "TTFN, Paris," she said. "Tor. See you at dinner."
When she had sauntered out of the tavern, Ebreth looked expectantly at Jack.
"Oh, no," Jack said immediately. "I'm confused enough as it is. Besides, she's not my type."
Ebreth sighed. "Well, she'd better not be my romantic plotline."