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Something horizontal streaked past his line of sight and slammed into his windpipe, crosswise. The impact broke his breath and brought tears to his eyes. He lurched back and met a knee with his spinal column, ears ringing; went automatically for his sword, which of course wasn't there. Assassinated at a picnic. Dancer was going to die laughing. There was a dull chinging sound as a heavy metal object glanced off the feystone, just above his left ear; Alain struggled to his feet and smashed the lemonade pitcher over his head and back into something solid. The bar relaxed somewhat. "Run, Shannon!"
She backed off a few steps and watched with trembling fascination. Alain forced his fingers between the bar and his throat, straining from the shoulder; there was a tense second's tug-of-war, and then something exploded into the back of his head. Two of them. Alain smelled blood. "Shannon, get my sword," he croaked, trying to keep his balance. He pivoted his weight into the rod suddenly, swinging him and it back into his assailant. It was a burly stranger with a bald head. "Shannon!"
The mace clocked him in the side of the head again, and he slipped to his knee in the grass. *Damn* it. The bar caught his throat again, and he gritted his teeth and clawed at it. Shannon turned her face sidewise. "God damn ye," she said, soft, "finish it."
The end of a sword blade bloomed from Alain's chest, and he tilted his head down at it sickly. The world began to dissolve into background noise; he picked out Shannon's spirited sharp tongue dancing: "...when you've brought me back home you'll be gettin' the rest; I've done my part and plenty and you can bloody well pay *me* if it's thinkin' you are I am..."
"Shannon," he started, changed his mind, and died.
There was a flame so white and brilliant it was almost beautiful.
Alain winced into consciousness. His head was going like a drumbeat, and his whole body felt strangely warm. "Ouch," he said aloud. He was lying in a patch of bloodstained grass; he sat up, then felt for his chest in a panic. The wound was gone, the flesh where it had been very smooth as if melted. He reached for the wound in his back and discovered it was in that place he couldn't reach that Shannon always used to scratch for him. Thinking about Shannon hurt his head. He felt for his belt pouch and then, remembering, for the back of his head, which was matted down with blood but intact. The belt pouch was there. His sword wasn't. Alain stood with a groan, then sat down again, suddenly overwhelmed by dizziness. She killed me. Feathered like a bird. "How could you," he whispered. "I--I trusted you..." He tried woozily to figure out who he was talking about. Died trying to understand. The light. "Mother?" he said, and the bottom dropped out.
Alain sat in the cargo hold of the Nylevian ship and pressed his head with his palms. It must have been four or five in the morning, and he was beginning to realize that there were going to be a lot of fours and fives in the morning like this. These boats really weren't supposed to take passengers, but he'd managed to convince the captain, with somewhat more difficulty than he'd expected. I'm just not thinking straight. He sighed, and leaned back against a crate of some produce or other. His poor, beautiful Brytannwch. He didn't know exactly why he was leaving. What things could possibly have been going through her head? Alain jerked up quite suddenly-- my *dogs!*--and cracked his head on a shelf. "Ow," he said. She had probably killed them too. It hurt his head to think about her, her fury flickering in the firelight. They must all know what had happened by now. He thought about Rhynwa, and Shilree, and Max; should he find them, how much should he tell them? The people he knew once made his head spin because he couldn't keep them in his mind and make them stay congruous. Alain remembered different ways to see and his eyes ached with the strain. He remembered Max, he remembered Shannon. He remembered the hands of the cultists of Draize and he remembered the anguished glare of prophecy. He remembered realities that did not match and he thought his heart might break. Alain stood up suddenly and hit his goggles hard into the corner of a stacked crate. The corner smashed in, and his head felt appropriately jogged. "All right, MacLir, that's enough of this crap," he said forcefully. "Today is here. I am not Kerouac." He sat down. "I am not Lian. I am--" His mind whirled, and he knew why he was leaving. "I am Janther Moria. We are Janther Moria." It was fitting. She would have found it wonderful. He bowed his head. "I am the Sunfighter," he said, aloud. It sounded strange. He thought about Lian, terrified, visionary, a broken prophet seeking refuge. How fast her heart beat, like a bird's. She had been everything and nothing, and Alain knew he couldn't go back. Janther. Janther knew he couldn't go back. "The Sunfighter is dead," he finally said, "but I." He leaned back into the crate. "Am here. And life is going on. Tjekanefir Lord Vestaya." He touched his own elbows. "Welcome home."
Luthien spun around twice fully and back into Janther, hot blood spraying from his throat. Max slammed his war hammer into the giant's lower back with a huge crunch and the giant turned to face him, buckling somewhat and bellowing in pain. Janther lowered Luthien to the ground and tried to hold his jugular closed. Rhynwa!" She was locked in combat with a giantess; he could see her eyes widen, but there was no way she could get there in time. He gritted his teeth and wrapped his left hand around the necromancer's on the spear, his right hand still pressed into his throat. Max and the giant crashed back. Janther plunged the iron spear most of the way through his own shoulder.
Luthien jerked up with a strangled cough, his eyes huge. Max beat the giant leader back with a mighty blow, and Janther ripped the spearhead back out, breathing and groping for his sword with his other hand. "Holy *shit*, Janther!" gasped Luthien. "Hold still," said Janther, through his teeth. "You're badly hurt." He got his hand on the sword hilt and hefted it defensively. The giant leader fell back in the other direction as Max powered his hammer into him again. It was a few minutes before Rhynwa finally came skidding over, almost comically. "Arawn Almighty, *guys*!"
"Holy shit," said Luthien.
"It's all right. You'll be all right. With you in a minute, Janther."
"Janther," said Luthien. "You, ah--you saved my life."
"You needed help."
"No." He caught him by the arm, and spoke low. "Look, no one's ever done anything like that for me before. I won't forget this."
"We would all have done this," said Janther. "Rhynwa would have done this. You're our friend, Luthien."
He was quiet for a long moment. "She was worried about me."
"Of course she was."
"She shouldn't get involved."
"We are already involved," he said. "It is too late not to involve us. Nothing is wrong with involvement."
"She shouldn't get involved." He shook his head. "Janther. Listen. I--I don't really *like* feeding off other people's energies."
"No," said Janther, quietly. "No, I can't imagine you would."
"Your name is Janther Moria?" said Shilree. "How--in the *hell*--did you get named Janther Moria?"
"It was a prophecy," he said, very softly, as if that explained everything.
"A *prophecy*?" she said. "Those are Diari words. Look into the light. Moria means look inside."
"Yes," he said, "I know."
"So what kind of prophecy is *that* supposed to be?"
"I don't know yet," he said. "That's the thing about prophecies."
"The wall is starting to crack," said Shilree. "I've identified at least four fissures." She exhaled and leaned over her desk on the flats of both hands. Janther crossed around behind her and took her shoulder, putting his palm against the small of her back. She looked over her other shoulder, frowning crossly. "Janther, get your hand off me before I kill you."
"You're not standing right," said Janther. "You need to put your shoulders back instead of hunching forward. You're straining your back."
"Ever been pregnant, bright boy?"
"My mother was a midwife." He straightened her gently by the shoulder. "Someone needs to tell you these things."
"Go to hell." She rolled her head back as he pressed her lower back. "Actually, that feels good."
"How do we get through the fissures?" said Max.
"You use this." Shilree opened her desk and took out a smooth blue stone.
"Shilree," said Rhynwa, "what are you involved in?"
"Don't worry about me," said Shilree, almost gently, and flipped her the stone. "You need to go to Dalencia. There's a lot going on."
"When are you due?" said Max.
"You tell me, Max. What's the gestation period of a doppelganger, eight months? Ten?"
Max drew himself to his full height and took a deep breath. "You are my father, Malcar."
"I am not," snapped the alien warlord, most unmoved. "Who told you a stupid story like that? I have no children, and if I did they wouldn't look like you."
"You have no children that you know of," Max said softly. "I'm one of the ones you don't."
"Don't put on airs. You're no child of mine, and you mean nothing to--" He stopped short as Gdeon hauled up onto the bridge platform. "*What*--is *that*?" He picked the child up and held him at arm's length. Gdeon gave him a gassy smile. "An *infant*? Does this mean something to you?"
Max looked at Rhynwa. "He's your grandson," he said.
"I have no grandson." He snapped Gdeon's neck in his hands. Rhynwa screamed.
"Father," gasped Max, his hair sticking to his forehead. "Father, don't make me do this."
Malcar wobbled, supporting himself on the dais railing. "For the last time," he hissed, "I am not your father, you-- you deluded peon!" He lunged sloppily at the young adventurer, who ducked out of the way and hit him in the head with his hammer as he stumbled past. Malcar fell like a ton of bricks and did not get up again. Max dropped his hammer and put his hands on the railing to steady himself, the fight raging on beneath them.
"I don't understand it," said Rhynwa, feeling his neck. Gdeon clapped his hands. "It's gotta be a doppelganger thing. Maybe he has flexible bones."
"I'm just glad he's okay." Max took off the space lord's helmet and stared dumbly at the delicate, aristocratic features of the drow inside. "My god, he's right! This can't be my father!"
Tila squinted at Gdeon. "Is it just me, or has he grown since you came on board?"
"Probably," said Rhynwa. "He's not even a month old. Doppelgangers must reach maturity by like age two."
"Max!" shouted Janther, drawing his sword. "Look out!" Max fell back and flailed out with his arm as Malcar's cloak suddenly whipped around at him, rising from the body. "Whoa!" said Schneider. "Do you think my clothes would avenge *my* death?"
"Frankly, I'm surprised they haven't strangled you by now," said Tila.
Max took a swing at it as it banked and soared off across the bridge area. "What--what *was* that?"
"If I had to guess," said Luthien, "I'd say it's Malcar."
Max knelt and turned the dead drow over, fumbling. There were two gaping holes in the back of his neck, where the creature had been. "It--it must be a parasite. When I was conceived it must have had a human host."
"That's *disgusting*," said Tila. "Echhh, do you think that's what Malcar took prisoners like me for? Have I thanked you for rescuing me yet?"
"Maca," said Gdeon.
Rhynwa yelped. "Did you just say Malcar?"
"His first word is *Malcar*?"
"Maybe he was trying to say Max."
"They even took my hair pins," said Tila, regretfully. "Which was pretty smart on their part, actually. This lock doesn't look too complicated." She jiggled the door, and it swung open. "Hey! It's not locked!"
Her teammates emerged into the hall, tentatively. "Why would anyone put us in cells that weren't locked?" Rhynwa wanted to know.
"Beats the hell out of me. Is everyone here? Where's Schneider?"
"Leave me alone," came a muffled voice from one of the cells.
"Schneider, the door's unlocked. Come on out."
"You guys go on without me."
"Are you hurt?" Rhynwa tried the door. "Schneider, are you holding the door shut?"
"I'm not coming out."
"What's wrong with you?"
"Schneider, I look pretty ugly when I'm naked, too," said Tila. "We've got bigger concerns, here." She frowned. "Although, really, some of you guys should wear less clothing more often. You've got really nice bodies." Khyrisse folded her arms and stood in front of Max, glowering. Tila laughed and then stopped, abruptly. "Good God, Janther."
"Oh, *man*," said Rhynwa.
Janther flushed. "I'm not ogling *you*."
"No, it's not that," said Tila, subdued. "It's that brand."
His hand moved to it reflexively. "What's wrong? Is it infected?"
"No, no. Nothing like that. It's just--" Tila moved her hand vaguely.
"Sacrilegious," said Khyrisse, low.
"Out of place. Don't worry about it."
"You have such nice shoulders," said Rhynwa, with annoyance.
"I'm not a work of art!"
"Men totally deserve to get treated as objects once in a while," said Tila. "I have no sympathy. Schneider, come on out. See, everybody's busy bothering Janther."
"No," he said.
"It's not just that," said Khyrisse.
"Schneider, if you don't cut this out, we're leaving without you," said Rhynwa. "Would you rather we saw you naked, or the whole arena?"
"We promise not to laugh at you," said Tila.
Schneider slowly opened the door to his cell. Silence fell rather quickly. "You're--all right, aren't you?" said Rhynwa. Schneider stared fixedly at the floor and didn't answer her. Khyrisse was staring at him; everyone else had averted their gaze but Janther. Tila hesitated and planted a little kiss on one of his scarred cheeks. "Come on. Let's blow this joint."
"I know it's not a very helpful perspective," said Janther, "but you don't look unpleasant to me."
He had to grin; he was, after all, still Schneider. "Thanks a lot."
Janther shrugged. "I'm serious."
"Remind me to try dating blind girls. That might work."
"What I mean is there is nothing intrinsically ugly about you. It's all a matter of how you look at it. To me, your face looks more textured than other people's. That's all." He regarded him carefully. "I had always assumed you were hiding your face to avoid recognition. Maybe it's better you have lost your mask."
"Great. At least with the mask I could make people laugh, Janthro. Now I'm a sideshow freak again."
"By now you ought to know your friends don't care about things like that."
"Bar creeps do. It's hard to keep a stand-up going when the crowd *pities* you." He said the word almost with venom. "At least everyone respects you. Don't get me wrong--I don't want anyone to take me seriously or anything--but I wouldn't mind a little respect. Being mutilated and deformed is just not a PC handicap, you know?"
Janther thought about it. "Pity is a two-way street," he said. "If you don't believe it then they're just underestimating you, and that's much more of a problem for them than for you."
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
He obviously hadn't been expecting it. "Ah, sure."
"How old were you when you--lost your sight?"
He shook his head. "I was born blind."
"I know it's much more in character to have had my eyes gouged out in a prison camp for rescuing some kid or something..."
"Hey, are you making a *joke*?"
He rubbed the corner of his mouth. "Are you waxing depressed and philosophical?"
"Ouch. Ouch." Schneider winced. "You realize if you tell anyone that I *will* deny everything."
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