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"Actually, Augustine's evil soul is stored in that flail. You didn't touch it, did you?"
Rhynwa put her hand, about two inches from the flail, behind her back. "I wouldn't have dreamed of it," she mumbled.
"That's good, because I think he'll possess the next person to take the flail." Tila squinted at the weapon. "Nobody has a magically protected box we could scoop it up in, do they?"
"How about a glove?" offered Luthien.
"I'm not sure that's good enough."
"Well, something had better be good enough," said Rhynwa, "because here come his minions."
"Let me have it," said Janther, softly.
"Janther, you jerk, he'll possess you. If he has to possess someone I'd rather it was somebody easy to overpower, like Schneider."
"I resemble that remark!" protested Schneider.
"How about we put a big rock on top of it?" suggested Max.
"They're going to find it, Max."
"He can't possess me, Rhynwa. Trust me."
"Is this your Y chromosome talking, Janther, or do you have something up your sleeve?" said Tila.
"Let's make Max's crow touch it," said Schneider. "Then Duke St. Augustine can spend the rest of his life shitting on statues!"
"Stop messing with my familiar, Schneider."
"Rhynwa," said Janther. "Trust me."
She hesitated. The soldiers of the Duke came bursting into the room then. Palmer put his head down like a bull and rammed into one onrushing warrior's groin; Luthien threw up his trident to cross a sword swing. Janther took up the flail with his left hand and thrust it firmly into his shirt and through his belt, pulling his sword with the right.
Quell pounded on the side of his helmet. "THERE ARE DEMONS EVERYWHERE!" he shouted in frustration.
"There are demons within us all, my friend," Janther said softly. "It is our duty as human beings to turn them towards the light and never falter."
Quell blinked a few times, and his brow furrowed. "YES!" he finally shouted.
Tila spurted laughter into her hand.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!" Janther threw both his arms around Max from behind; the fighter flung himself against his grip and almost broke it, screaming like a woman. "*Max*, let them go! We've got to get her home. Chasing them won't help her."
He screamed again, crazed with grief, and almost collapsed in Janther's arms. Luthien reached them and got under one of his shoulders. "It's all right, Max. Rhynwa can pull some strings at the temple. We'll get her back."
"I--I'll try," said Rhynwa. "I mean, I'll do everything I can. That wasn't a very glorious death. I'm sure Arawn would reconsider."
Max sobbed brokenly, supported by his friends. "I killed her. I killed her!"
"Max, you were possessed." Janther held his shoulder hard. "It was not you. Believe me. There was nothing you could have done."
"Yeah, you can't blame yourself," said Tila. "It was the illithids. It's like Malcar and your dad."
Max wept. "It was me. I wanted to. They made me want to. God help me."
"It still is not your fault."
"We must leave this place," said L'kar. "If--"
"Get away from me!" bawled Max, wrenching around; Luthien and Janther held him back by the arms, and the three of them scuffled briefly. "Get that thing away from me! Don't you *ever* come near me again, you *pervert*!"
"Get a hold of yourself," said Luthien. "He didn't do this."
"And he's right," said Janther. "If we don't get Khyrisse back to Ataniel she'll be gone for good, Max. You have to pull yourself together."
Max shook wretchedly. "I enjoyed it."
"It's all right. You couldn't help it. Come on."
"I WILL CARRY MISS KHYRISSE," Quell announced.
"Don't look at her," said Luthien, "don't even turn around. Just let Quell take care of it. It's going to be okay."
"I WILL SMITE THEM WITH MY HOLY STAFF!" Quell thrust Khyrisse at Janther. He staggered under her surprising cold stone weight. "Why should we trust you?" Max screamed at L'kar, his hair whipping in the hot wind. "Wheah could he possibly be taking us that is worse than heah?" Palmer pointed out, and stepped through the portal. "Ah can see you, can you see me?"
"We must hurry," said L'kar. "If we can't find a way to close it behind us they'll follow us through and kill us."
Palmer put his palms against the portal. "Ah can't git back in!"
"The portal only physically exists on this side." L'kar stepped through, pushing Palmer out of his way. "You must use your magic to seal it."
Luthien dragged Max through the portal. "Think fast, Max. Wall of fire?"
"They'll just shield themselves," L'kar objected. Janther stepped through. It was like walking through a thin film of water. He set Khyrisse's heavy body on the grass and drew his sword. "Dis--dispel?" said Max.
"It's not magic, it's psi." Luthien pulled his hair as Rhynwa stepped through. "How many can you teleport?"
"They would overrun this sphere," said L'kar. "That is not acceptable. Can't you activate the controls from this side somehow? If we changed the settings they probably wouldn't be able to find us."
Syndy fluttered through the portal, leading Spots by his chain. "That was my last fireball."
"Telekinesis!" said Luthien. Schneider, Quell, and Tila were still on the ledge, shooting their wands at the illithids. "Listen, I'm going to try this on a rock. If it works, then everyone get in here immediately and I'll try to scramble the settings." There was a long pause. "It didn't work."
"Telekinesis is a physical force," groaned Max. "It can't get through the portal. What if--what if I heated the metal on the control pad?"
"Enough to melt it?" said L'kar.
"Electricity would short it out."
Luthien hit himself in the head. "Dammit, I *used* my lightning bolt. Syndy, can you summon an air elemental or something in there?"
"I can only do that once a week."
"*Hurry*," implored L'kar.
"Hey, Max!" yelled Schneider. "Can you train your crow to push some of these buttons?"
"I'm not trapping Vel in the evil illithid dimension!" he hollered.
"Schneider, stop taunting Max," snapped Luthien. "Vel's already over here."
"GO HELP THE OTHERS," Quell commanded. "I WILL HOLD THE EVIL MIND DEMONS AT BAY WITH MY MIGHTY STAFF."
"Yeah, for about fifteen more *minutes*," said Tila. "Hurry it up in there, guys!"
"I could zap it with my wand of wonder. Something might happen eventually." Schneider passed through. "If we're lucky."
"Then let's hope we're lucky," said Luthien, grimly, "because it sounds like the only chance we've got."
"GO THROUGH, MISS TILA."
"You come with me, Quell. Let's let Schneider try his wand."
"I JUST WANT TO KILL A FEW MORE EVIL MIND DEMONS. YOU GO AHEAD. I WILL CATCH UP."
"Oh, Quell, no." She grabbed his arm. "Quell, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't f--" Quell picked her up and shotputted her through the portal like she was a rag doll. She bowled into Luthien and they both went down. "*Quell*!" The big cleric turned around and emptied his wand into the control panel of the portal. FZAASH! Rhynwa screamed. The portal was gone. Quell was gone. Tila sat up shakily and pressed her temples, trying to pretend she wasn't crying. "Oh God," she whispered. "Oh God, he was a feeb, but he was a wonderful feeb."
Max jerked around as they passed one of the windows. "Sunny!"
"What?" said Rip, turning as Max leapt through the portal, pivoting his war hammer. You could see the god's jaw drop. "No!" shouted Janther, pushing to the window. "No, Max, come back! It's too late!"
Rhynwa tried to jump after him, but Luthien got her by one arm. "Rhynwa, death is death," he reminded her. "Goodbye, Sunny!" she yelled through the window. Janther threw himself at the portal but hit the force field as Rip activated it belatedly. "Rip," he shouted. "Let me through, I've got to stop him." In the picture, in the distance, Max was locked in desperate combat with a feathered woman with a battleaxe. A second woman, wearing a chainmail shirt over a flowing white dress and no shoes, was slowly standing from the ground. Whatever she framed with her mouth was inaudible. The feathered woman hacked her wicked axe clean through Max's right forearm as he overshot his mark; he slingshotted the hammer back into her head with a powerful wrench of his left arm, crushing her skull into the stone wall. The glass blew out of two other windows. "Rip!" The axe clattered to the ground. "Oh, no, no, no," said Sunny, turning, the light glared from her eye into a blinding flash.
"Is something wrong, Sunny?" said Signet.
"Something is terribly wrong," she whispered. Max put his good arm around her comfortingly. Signet, Shilree, Rhynwa, Luthien, Tila, Schneider, and Palmer were sitting around the table with them in the Mithril Dagger. "Something is not right at all."
"Oh, *fuck*," shrieked Tila, and dove away from Shilree as she crumpled and the first of the soul spheres hit the ground. The explosion billowed after her in slow motion and paused on the point of overtaking her, the outlines of the other detonations beginning within it, Schneider and Signet reacting too late, the silhouette of Luthien laughing, the Sunfighter turning, her mouth open and her hair flying out, caught in the orange light, absolutely still. Nothing moved. Max breathed twice. Rip Hunter snapped his fingers as he materialized next to him. "We need to talk."
"I, uh, okay, sure. Let's talk."
"Not in this timestream." He snapped his fingers again, and they were quite suddenly in the Time Dome. Sunny finished turning. "Someone just walked over my grave," she whispered, without missing the beat. "Wait," said Luthien, "wait a minute."
"We have a problem, Max," said Rip.
"Uh..." said Max.
"Think back. Notice anything unusual?"
He blinked. "Well, I..." He thought about it. "Khyrisse?" He looked up slowly, and looked back at Sunny. "Oh, shit."
"I was thinking about something more substantial than your lovelife, Max."
"We have two sets of memories," said Tila, with some wonder. "I remember not being at war with the giants. I remember other people. What the hell is going on here?"
"It's called a backdraft," said Rip. "You see, theoretically, you guys have infinite pasts as well as infinite futures, but you get locked into one past by temporal progression. When one of you acts like an *idiot* and changes something in your own past, a second past gets selected from that point, and your history changes. You wind up in a different present. This may not be a paradox from *your* perspective, but it's a pain in the *ass* from mine. Do you remember this, Max?"
Max looked at his own hands numbly. "I--I just--I didn't want her to be killed. I couldn't just let Kerouac *kill* her! How could that change so much?"
"Don't make me explain chaos theory to you, Max." He sighed. "All right, now comes the paradox. Come on in." Janther entered the receiving room, shaken. "I'm sorry," he said. "This has to happen. I'm sorry."
"You see," said Rip, "when you backdraft a powerful force, you screw up things that are beyond your power to reconcile. There are a lot of temporal mechanics involved here, but I've got two concurrent histories for a single unique power matrix, and I can't support that."
"Janther?" said Rhynwa, slowly.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I should have explained this earlier."
"The only way for me to resolve this is to go back and backdraft it again myself. My structuring will take precedence over yours." Rip's fingers moved quickly over the console. "Sunny, I'm afraid that in order for this to hold up you're going to have to die again."
"No," said Max, pale, "no, no, I won't allow it, I--"
"You've done enough damage here," Rip snapped.
"Be still," commanded Sunny, in pained glory, and everyone was, ashamed, like they had only just realized she was the center. Janther bowed his head, his expressive mouth twisted. Rip looked away and tapped his thumb on the edge of the console. "In my world. My time. They all die, don't they."
"All but Luthien," said Rip. "Well, and the demon, of course. Lotus found it very interesting being fate-linked to you when your body immolated and your soul shattered."
"Poor Lotus," she murmured.
"In the--" He opened his hand, then shut it. "It's your choice," he said shortly.
"But you already know what it is. What it will be."
"It's still yours."
Her shoulders were tighter than one would have thought a human being's could be. "I can't let my friends suffer for me," she whispered. "I don't belong here. I've felt something wrong since Kerouac. Strike me from history. I'll go."
"Christ." Rip kneaded his forehead. "This is all my fault. Look, you don't have to go back to that, that way. I can see you a clean death. I'm trying to make the best of a bad hand here."
She turned her head as if startled by a noise and looked through him. It was Janther who said "Thank you," so softly it almost wasn't audible. Rip nodded, opened up a display, and started typing. Sunny kept looking. "I," she said. Janther moved to her and put his hand on her shoulder. "Lee," he said. She looked at him, and her brimming eyes made shadows of light and darkness on the walls from his pulsing goggles. "Take care of Max for me," she whispered, and touched his face with the back of her unsteady hand. He seized its wrist with unexpected passion. "What you've shown me," he said forcefully, "what you sang that night, you were right, you have always been right."
"I will understand that one day." Her body made a strange shudder. Max sat down. "Lee," said Janther, "Lian." She looked at him. "I love you," he said. "Look into the light." There was a very small ripple, and she vanished into herself like a thought. Signet was gone. Syndy, Spots, Khyrisse, and Max's arm were back. The air was a little thinner. Rip closed the lock on the throw switch with his left hand. "If anyone asks you do you want to be a god," he said, "say NO." Janther turned his back to the group and leaned his head into the wall.
Tila cleared her throat. "Don't you owe those of use who aren't in on this an explanation, Janther?"
"I'm possessed by the same demon she was," he said.
Janther stopped short as they entered the dining hall. "Alain MacLir," said Rowan, rising, the rest of his sentence forgotten. Shannon's face twitched but she did not react, just drank her wine quietly without looking up. "Thanum an diabhal," he said, low. She seized up then, with a muffled shriek, and dropped her wine goblet on Faraker. "Did you think me dead?"
She spun around to face him and overturned the chair, her hands pressing desperately into the table. "N-now don't be mad, lion."
"You owe me an explanation."
She inched back even further, almost onto the table. "I never let any of your dreams die," she said rapidly, "not one. *I* finished your rebellion for you, me."
"I don't believe that's why you killed me."
"Did I *say* it was why I killed you?" She pointed at him, her hand shaking. "No, I *killed* you to avoid a scene like this and it hasna worked. Go away."
Syndriannia flounced up to her and leaned forward with pursed lips, her child's hands on her woman's hips. "You stink," she said distinctly.
"Dear God." Shannon's eyes floated off to the side, dazed and diluted, and she picked up Faraker's goblet and drank a long pull. "It's the Sidhe come for me."
Janther leaned into the wall and knotted his fingers in his hair, impossibly weary. "Why'd you do it, Shannon."
"*Please* leave me alone. Did I come here to argue with the shades of my dead lovers? No, I dinna think I did."
"I deserve to know this. I won't believe it was politics."
"Ach, it wasn' another man, Alain. I swear that. There was never another man like you."
"Then what was it," he said, low.
"Does it *matter*?"
"Will you tell me the truth for once?"
"The *truth*." She held both her temples. "Alain, if anyone ever told you the truth about anythin', you would shrivel up, an' die. You have a lot of good qualities. You are not compatible with reality. Cwn A--" She looked around the room. "Do we *have* to get into this in front of the other world leaders?"
"Oh, think nothing of it," said Faraker, in a gentlemanly way.
"I, for one, am very curious to hear you explain this," Rowan said coldly.
"You have done a more serious thing than you will ever know, Shannon. It is the least you can do to tell me why."
She gritted her teeth. "I--loved--you."
"That is *not* a reason!"
"I did it because I couldna get a word in edgewise!" she shrieked. "All right? I didna want to be Shannon MacLir, the wife of the goddamn *hero*. Will you let me be? Dagda *fuckin'* Many, what does it take? I killed you, I finished your war, I went into exile--I have *never* done this much work to be rid of a man. What do I have to do to get *away* from you?"
His mouth moved. "You might have tried asking."
"Oh, God. Don't you use that voice with me. *This* was why I couldna just talk to you. I canna do a thing with that ache of yours. I would have killed my own mother if it'd keep us from this." She drank shakily from the goblet. "It's not for hurtin' you I did anythin' I did."
"Then you should have just told me the truth."
"It always hurts less in the long run."
"But the truth is what you *say* it is," she shot, flinging her arms out. A little wine sloshed over onto the Dalencian king's sleeve; he seemed too interested to notice. "I had to get out and I couldna tell you because when you say it I believe it. You control everythin'." Janther put his drawn face in his right hand. "It was the only way to get out from under you. Do you understand me yet? It was the only way to get free."
"I never controlled you."
"You control everythin'."
"It was the thing I loved in you best."
"Well, an' to keep it up I had to kill you." She shrugged violently. "Look, it made sense at the time."
"That isn't good enough, Shannon!"
"It is for me. I only make sense one time at a time." She finished off the wine; the color was starting to return to her cheeks. "I'm the one in control, Alain. You would have been dead and everythin' you loved with you if it wasna for that. I was losin' myself. It had to end."
"I would have listened to you."
"You would never have let me leave."
"If I'd known it was what you really wanted," he whispered.
"Oh, fine, it's that little I meant to you then?"
She advanced on him. "I'm not Deirdre, dammit. How dare you write me off like that? You selfish *bastard*!"
"Sel--you *killed* me, Shannon!"
"Well an' at least you remember me this way. Do you really think I'd humiliate myself to you just to be dismissed like a scullery maid? I'd kill you again. Get your ass back to Annwyn. You've got nothin' on me."
He grabbed her wrist suddenly and forcefully. Shannon made a squeaking sound and pulled against him with terror. "Unfortunately," he said, very low, "I can't do that, Shannon." He pressed her hand to his chest; she closed her eyes, her teeth showing. "Do you have *any* idea what you've done to me? This is not a game."
"Please let me go," she said through her teeth. He did, and she skidded back into the table. "Oh God. You're still the hottest thing walkin', you know that?"
He held himself by the elbows and turned his face.
"So you're really alive."
"Yes," he said.
"So I ruined my life, destroyed my best friend, alienated my people, busted my butt on a victory nobody credits me with, and killed the man I loved, all for absolutely nothin'. Thanks a fuckin' hell of a lot, MacLir."
Janther didn't answer. "You're mean," said Syndriannia.
"Put some clothes on, you little tramp," Shannon snapped at her, without missing her stride.
"I don't control," said Janther, with emotion, almost to himself. "I relate. I communicate. I understand."
"And what are we supposed to, disagree with that? We're screwed, Alain; we canna live up to you, and we canna argue with you."
"If you couldn't bear facing me you always could have left."
"Oh, right. The woman who threw over the freedom fighter."
"You'd rather be the woman who murdered him?"
"Well an' at least they hate me with respect," she said darkly. "Damned if I'm havin' your peasants snickerin' at me behind my back."
"It's a hell of a reason to kill a man, Shannon."
"It's as good a reason as any! You're never goin' to understand, Alain, and you can make me feel real shitty about it but you'll not change my mind. I wish you hadna survived to be hurt by this. I wish that sorry-ass psychic hadna told Dee about it broke her bloody heart. But I dinna regret anythin' I've done, not ever."
"That's because you've never loved anything enough to take responsibility for it," said Janther, "not ever."
She whipped the glass at him with startling fluidity, and he ducked it with startling proficiency. The crash was a strange real sound, and the room blinked collectively. "Sit down, Shannon," said Janther, low and with authority. She picked up her chair, white and trembling, and did, spilled her face into her little hands. "Alain MacLir," said Rowan again. "My lord," said Janther. Finn applauded heartily. "We are not amused," said the Lord High Diarian.
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