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Kevin poked Kayla and flicked with his thumb. A dazed- looking blond woman was making her way across the bar in small, uneven steps, staring. Kayla nodded and headed over. "Excuse me... are you all right?"
She nodded blankly and sat.
"My name's Kayla. Can I get you something to drink?"
The woman looked at her. There was something disquieting about her gaze, and Kayla had to look away. "Kala?"
"No... Kayla." She smiled firmly. "And you are?"
"I have no name," she whispered. Kayla made eye contact with Kevin, nodded, and brought her a tankard of ale. "Here. I think you need this." It was three hours and eleven drinks later when a short nondescript fellow bounded through the door and announced "Hey everybody, I am Signet the Significant, Savior of Neporris! Are you adventurers? Will you follow me?"
There was a pause just long enough to be awkward, and then the plump mage at the bar stood up. "Yea, verily, for I am an adventuring man. Wilt thou adventurest with us, fair Rhynwa?"
The thin acidic teenager beside him frowned. "Sit down, Oethnar. That guy looks really irritating. I was telling you about the glory of Arawn."
"What about Arawn?" Signet bounced over. "Tell me! I am Signet the Significant, Savior of Neporris! Come and do great deeds as my mighty warriors!"
"Forsooth!" shouted Oethnar.
The strange blonde touched the sword hanging at her waist. "I am an adventurer," she said with some wonder. "I am a wayfarer."
"I am Signet the Significant!" He shook her hand enthusiastically. "Are you my new group? What are your names?"
"For I beith Oethnar of the Forest, verily. This is the wondrous priestess Rhynwa of Death."
"Arawn," said Rhynwa. "He is death and He is more than death. Death is the great equalizer, it comes to all in their turn and makes of them their most perfect. Death is the destination and the final boon."
"Like a mighty sleep," whispered the blonde. "Like erasing a hole in the earth."
"DID SOMEONE SAY DEATH?" A wild-looking elf of impossible height loped over, grinning. "Kerouac likes death." He plopped down by the woman at the table. "Hey, what's a babe like you doing in a dive like this?"
She squinted at him. "I had a dream about you. Once. Only--you looked different."
"All come to Arawn in the end."
"Something like a bird."
"Are you my new party? We can be Signet and the Significants! You can help me do my great deeds!"
"You," muttered Rhynwa, "could stand a little perfection."
"We can be famous! `Signet the Significant--and his brave friends Oethnar of the Forest! Rhynwa the Death Priestess! Kerouac the Mutant Elf! And--' Who are you again?"
"I have no name." She looked out the window and drank her twelfth drink. "I am the Sunfighter."
"`--and the mysterious nameless Sunfighter!' Wow! Signet and the Significants! Wouldn't that be great, guys?"
"Somebody kill him," muttered Rhynwa.
"Yea, verily, good Signet, if thou buyeth the drinks."
"Buyest," said the Sunfighter, shivering.
"Your shirt is on backwards," Rhynwa told her.
"Yeah! Wow! Drinks all 'round, Kevin!"
"You guys shouldn't be drinking wood alcohol!" said Rhynwa, horrified.
"I'm a wood elf," said Kerouac, and turned his shot upside down. "Your fifth."
"That stuff can blind you. Where's Signet?"
Kerouac pointed under the table. The priestess bent over to look, as the Sunfighter threw back her shot. "Sunny, stop drinking that. Hasn't either of you got an ounce of common sense?"
"What's up your butt?" said Kerouac, slurring a little. "Kerouac likes a woman who drinks like a man."
"Seventeen," said Sunny, and turned over the shot.
"You idiots. Where's Oethnar?"
"He went up to bed," said Sunny.
"Excuse me," said Kerouac, and threw up near Rhynwa's feet.
"How did I get talked into this?"
"I win," said Sunny.
"Hey, no! I'm still up!"
"You said if somebody puked they lost the bet."
"I did not!" He tried to stand up, and fell into the pool of his own vomit. "Ohhhhhhh."
"That isn't going to teach you a lesson, is it?"
"Kerouac doesn't feel so good."
Sunny helped him up with surprising poise. She didn't even seem off-balance.
Sunny hummed descant and moved her hips absently. "I can't believe you guys just sit here."
"Look at Rhynwa and Oethnar," Signet pointed out, not unreasonably. They did cut an awkward picture, struggling stiffly across the dance floor together. "Well, Oethnar has no soul," said Sunny. "He dances pretty well, considering." She put her hands up behind her head almost unconsciously, shifting her weight from foot to foot. "They're trying too hard. You don't dance, you let the dance happen. Just move." She paused a beat. "I'll show you. Come on." She took Max's hand. "I don't know," said Max, a little awkwardly. "You don't need to," she said, and drew him from the chair. "Just feel the music. Move in rhythm." She hesitated a second, then put his hand in the small of her back. "Like this. Just move."
"I'm afraid I'm going to step on your feet."
She laughed. "Max, you can't step on me. I am the music. Come on."
Signet became studiously interested in burning little pieces of paper in the candle on the table. Max smiled and looked sheepishly at his feet. "I'm not doing this right, am I."
"Are you having fun?"
"Then you're doing it right." She rested her hand on his collarbone. "It's music, Max. It's not a contest. Loosen up."
He grinned. "Okay. Do you think you could show me a more interesting step?"
"Sure. Step back with your right foot. Just pull me with you; I'll come. Then right back onto your left foot. It's easier if you keep your weight on the balls of your feet. Now forward with your right foot, and back with your left. One, two, three, four. You can step around a little; you don't need to wind up in exactly the same place. Let's try it with the music, okay? One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. See, we're dancing." She turned his face up gently, her fingers brushing the bottom of his sideburn. "Don't look at the floor, Max. Look at me."
"Sorry," said Max, and smiled his broad, elfin grin. The song ended abruptly, and the band leader said something in a growly voice. Some of the dancers applauded. "I think they're taking a break," said Max.
"We can try again when they come back," said Sunny, and let him lead her back to the table. Signet looked up real carelessly. "Will you show me how to dance too, Sunny?"
"Okay," she said, and sat down. "Dancing is for sissies," said Kerouac. Rhynwa and Oethnar came hustling over. Rhynwa was flushed and smiling. "Hi, guys."
"I haveth no rhythm," said Oethnar, sadly.
"Will you dance with me when the band comes back?" said Signet.
"When I'm finished with Max," she said.
"You can show Signet first," said Max. "Maybe Shilree will practice with me."
"You don't know any of my dances," said Shilree.
"He could learn," said Sunny.
Shilree made her disparaging puff of air. "Maybe you aren't afraid of Max's clodhoppers, but I don't care to be tromped on." She paused. "Besides, somehow I doubt this band has got a Diari wind flute."
"I have a recorder," said Sunny, and opened her flute bag. "We could improvise."
"Diari music doesn't improvise," said Shilree.
"Oh, yeah?" She put the recorder to her mouth and played a run in a thin minor chord, a quick, piping beat. Shilree looked up quickly. "Oh, no."
Sunny crossed to her, her eyes twinkling, playing the recorder with both hands. She skipped back from the Diarian like a flirty schoolgirl. "Sunny, you can't expect me to dance to this," said Shilree. Sunny jumped about two feet in the air and came down stepping, her calves flashing from her swirling skirt. The recorder was fast and furious, something like a Celtic dance crossed with belly dancer music. Sunny's bare feet were quick and sure. "Forsooth," droned Oethnar. One of the waiters came over to watch. Sunny hit a long, high note, and Shilree, as if she couldn't stand it anymore, said "Sheeeeeeeeee!" and stood up. Some of the patrons yelled. They circled each other backwards, Shilree's heels clicking on the floor. She looked a little like a chorus girl kicking her knees up in her red miniskirt, but she didn't seem to care. The music twined out around them, their feet alternating on the floor. Shilree started to sing in Diarian, rhythmically, without much melody. The words fought with the flute, and the clientele started to clap. Sunny and Shilree stood side by side and danced like dervishes, their legs flickering in tandem. Then without warning Shilree started laughing, a choking, breathless sound, and Sunny stumbled into her, and they collapsed into each other and onto the floor, out of breath and hiccuping laughter. The bar applauded. "See," gasped Sunny. "Everyone has folk music."
Shilree wheezed, wiping at her eyes. "Where--did you learn a Diari high-step?"
"I used to travel the banks of the Aljhain."
Shilree stretched back into the wall, breathing heavily. Her hair had come loose and was falling in her face. "Psyiri's breath. It's been two years, hasn't it?"
The waiter came over with two tankards. "On the house," he said.
"I miss my sister," said Shilree, quietly.
"Of course," said Sunny.
The Sunfighter looked at him strangely, as if she was looking through him. "Farstalker?"
"I had, had a dream." She touched her temple. "Tell me about Faraker."
"He's, I don't know, he's the Duke of Lianth. He disappeared or something. Nobody knows why."
She looked at him and he found himself looking away, looked back with some surprise. "I can see myself in your eyes," he said.
"That's good," she said. "If you want to tell me more I will be here."
Fred seized up then, suddenly; his eyes went wide, and he choked over. Signet pulled his sword out of his back. "Hey, I did it! I backstabbed him! Look, guys, I'm Signet the Significant, Demon Slayer!"
Sunny caught the body in her lap, stared at it dazedly.
"Didn't know you had it in you, Signet." Kerouac gave him the high fives. "Course he wasn't that tough as demons go."
"Can we get a move on, please?" said Shilree, rolling her eyes. "We've wasted enough time here."
"I was talking to him," said Sunny, to nobody.
"I did it! I did it!" Signet grabbed Shilree and kissed her; she slipped in her tongue, then kneed him in the nuts. "Nimnol."
Kerouac roared his approval. "Buy you a drink when we get back. Hey, Sun Warrior, you comin'?"
"He wasn't hurting anyone."
"He was a demon," said Signet.
"He was a geek," said Kerouac.
"Sunfighter--you're getting your clothes all fucked up." Rhynwa pulled the body off her and dropped it immediately. "Shit, it's hot!" As it hit the ground it exploded. "Ow." Rhynwa hopped on one foot. "C'mere, Signet, I've got a present for you."
"It wasn't my fault! I didn't do it!" He backpedaled and tripped over the Sunfighter. "Hey, Sunny, I am Signet the Significant, Demon Slayer!"
"I don't feel so good," said Sunny.
Rhynwa gave her a cure light. "Okay, guys, that's enough of that, now let's get out of here before something else obnoxious happens."
She whirled around. A young, jaunty blond Nylevian was standing behind them, his backpack slung carelessly over his shoulder. He smiled as she made eye contact with him. "Ralchar?" she faltered.
"What did you leave for, girl?"
"You were dead!"
"I got better," he said.
She tripped over and into his embrace with a choking noise, her face unfolding into something almost soft. "Well, I'll be damned," said Kerouac.
The candles burned thickly, dark, oily smoke. She smelled panic like burning flesh rising across a river of nostalgia. The flagstones were cold and smooth. The scaled demon swiped at her with yellow claws on her way past but with a swing of her hips she like smoke out of reach. Never again. Signet was yelling something. The altar was black. The candle smashed into the wall as her hand struck it; the thin cry of the child split the smoke like a knife, like a woman's scream, like dawn on the battlefield. The room reeled. When she looked the child's head was smashed like an egg. Tell me why. The wall of your memory will echo your sorrow, the pictures of sadness are not what they seem. So hold out your smile, take my hand and be happy, these pictures of sadness are not all they seem.
The altar was cold but steady, and two demons charging towards her. The child cried like a blessing, whole, and the Sunfighter took it. The back of her hand hit the other candle with a sharp pain. Forgiveness. Love. Her mouth said "Tell me why if you think you know why people love when there's no tomorrow and still not cry when it's time to go, still not cry when it's time to go, still not cry when it's time to go." The child clung to her breast, whimpering. She pulled her sword with her other hand as the two closed. "He is ours," hissed one. "You cannot change that."
"Walk at night and touch your hand to the golden lights and let them show you the shadows disappearing, I'll smile and say "I told you so."" She swung her sword against fate, the light blinding.
Go on to Chapter 2
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