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"Oh my God," said Tila. "Oh my God."
"You--brought us--to *Hell*!" Trissia throttled her theatrically.
"Oh my God."
"Hey," George accosted a passing devil, "hey, excuse me, I'm a greater angel of Morvon, could you point me the way to the upper planes? I seem to have left my--er, my road map--"
"Yeah? So what're they going to do to me, send me to Hell?" The devil afforded the alien a look like he was a reject from a lunatic asylum and went about his business. "Can you at least recommend a good hotel?" George called after him. Trissia started pulling at her own hair. "You don't have plane shift, do you, Luthien?" said Max. Luthien shook his head slowly. "We're in deep shit, aren't we, Luthien?"
"I'm in Hell," said Trissia. "I'm going to spend the rest of eternity playing gigs for demons and I didn't even *do* anything. I don't believe this."
"Devils," said Janther, quietly.
She looked at him. "What?"
"Devils live in Hell. Demons live in innocent civilians."
She blinked a few times. "Thank you, Janther. That's a real useful distinction. I'm *possessed* by a *demon*." She pointed to her own chest. "And I'm *surrounded* by *devils*." She flung her hands out. "Thank you, I don't think I could have made it without that distinction. Welcome to Hell," she shouted. "We're all damned, but at least we know who's a *demon* and who's a *devil*."
"Trissia, breathe into this bag," said Praxis.
"I brought us to *Hell*!" wailed Tila.
"My darling Tjekanefir, how *do* you get yourself into these situations?"
Everyone turned but Janther, who stiffened slowly along the spine. Ariath was leaning against a rock, and a sultry dark-eyed woman in stylized black and gold stood beside her, lips pursed in an amused superior smile. "Hey guys, need anything--heh--identified?"
"Shut up, Ariath," Luthien shot.
"Janther," whispered Trissia, "that--that's not a devil, Janther."
"Brionwy," said Max suddenly, placing the face.
She applauded dryly. "Turn around, Destroyer."
He turned and knelt. "Mother."
"Leave him alone!" Syndy fluttered desperately between them, brandishing her hand axe. "I have an axe!"
There was a very tense half heartbeat; the goddess looked at the fairy, nobody breathed, and then she laughed, and kept laughing, and had to sit down on a rock and laugh into her hand because she was so consumed in laughter. The party collectively exhaled. "Syndy," said Trissia sideways, through tight teeth, "now is *not* a good time to use your axe."
"You said only to use it when I really meant to hurt someone," said Syndy. Trissia pushed Syndy behind her and held her there by the arm, smiling much too tightly. "I bet you let her bring up the rear, don't you?" said Ariath. Brionwy shook her head and stood, still moist-eyed with laughing. "Oh, Tjekanefir. You can't imagine how dull it's been without you." She turned his face up in her long red nails and eyed him up and down. "Nice body," she said, with obvious sarcasm and still more obvious sincerity.
"Forgive me," he whispered, rigid.
"I would love to stay and chat, my dear, but I'm risking quite a bit just being here." She traced his chest. "After all this work it would be a shame to lose you to Manas. I've brought you a guide to lead you back to Ataniel." Ariath waved. "Don't say I never did anything for you."
"Please," said Janther hoarsely.
"Take good care of my Destroyer for me," she told Max. "I have plans for him."
She disappeared in a writhe of flame. Janther closed his hand. "I have grown accustomed to the light," he said hollowly, to nobody in particular. "I can't live without."
"Hey, you guys gonna sit here all day or what?"
Luthien clapped Janther on the shoulder. "OK. You win. You have the sickest relationship with your parent."
"Thank you. I think I'll just stay here in Hell if it's all right with you."
"Not allowed to show y'all out unless he goes," said Ariath cheerfully. "So, heh, what say I kind of guard the rear?"
"No, I don't think so, Ariath."
"Gimme a break, guys, I'm in Hell. Can't I crack a joke?"
"Who is she and why do we hate her?" asked George in a stage whisper.
"I was hired to assassinate them and they took it personally."
"Come on, Alain. Whatever her plans are I'm sure we can foil them later."
He stood, shuddering. "I don't know," said Ariath, "I kinda like her."
"You would," said Luthien.
"So, heh, where's Oethnar?"
"No! I can't let you give up your psios!" George pulled on his tentacles. "Oh, all right, I'll tell Jarth. I'm not really an angel at all. I'm an alien from outer space and I got mixed up with him in a transporter accident. Okay?"
The gatekeeper bowed to him. "Since this *is* Hell, I feel obliged to inform you that I could not have stopped you from passing even if you had refused to give up anything. So you did it for nothing. Ha!" The gatekeeper disappeared in a pouf of brimstone.
"Arrrrrrrgh!" yelled George. "Tila, this is all your fault!"
"I *said* I was sorry!"
"Listen," said Praxis, gripping his forearm forcefully. "Alain, you--I was a street kid in Gwynedd. I used to mug tourists for a living. My gang didn't even have a name. And you, you came to speak. I will never forget it. You said "There is more to life than this." Nothing had ever been so true in my life. Are you listening to me? I had never heard anything so true. It was like a cloud lifting. The police came and tried to arrest you. There was a riot."
Janther breathed irregularly. "I don't--believe in riots," he said, indistinctly.
"You said "The truth is not a crime." And I understood the Voice for the first time. I knew what I could do, and I--I wanted to be a policeman. Can you hear me?" He closed his eyes. "I wanted to bring justice. I wanted to be like you. You were my hero, Alain. You have always been my hero."
He made a long shudder. "Maybe it's time," he almost whispered. "For you to go on. Without me."
"Well, it's like this," said Arturian. "Every time one of you gets killed, your demon jumps to a new host. When it does that, it drags quite a bit of the human psyche along."
"I know," said Janther, quietly. "Is there anything I can do to prevent it?"
"I haven't gotten to the problem yet," said Arturian. "Your mortal body isn't taking the strain of multiple psyches very well. You seem to be aging at about 2.8 times your normal rate."
"I don't understand," said Janther.
"The more souls you accumulate, the faster each body will age. It's asymptotic, of course; you'll never reach zero. But your millionth host or so won't last a minute. You'll pass the fertility rate, and even taking elves and other long-lived races into account you are going to flash this sphere like a plague in two thousand years, and there isn't going to be anything we can do about it."
Janther was suitably staggered. "But I--I mean--"
"Now, it *is* the most elegant world-destroying plot I've seen yet, I'll grant you that. But I would prefer it if you didn't destroy the world."
"I wasn't--planning on it." He closed his fist. "I will not."
"Actually," said Arturian, "my estimates are all quite conservative and don't account for premature death. In one or two hundred years you'll probably be down to a year or less per cycle, and it will be difficult for you to take an active part. Immediate attention is probably warranted."
"I *will* not be a part of this," said Janther.
"Actually, the Diari gestalt was--" Shilree stopped. "Janther, are you OK?" He nodded. "The--gestalt was goading the tarrasque westward to Cynystra. Nylevia is just in the way."
"You can't control the tarrasque psionically," said Praxis.
"You can control anything psionically with a powerful enough gestalt." She turned the swirling-sand paperweight in her hands. "This complicates matters. Talakan is--this war is badly timed. I need to get back to my office. You'll keep me posted?"
"Of course," said Praxis.
"Look, don't trust Talakan," she said, in undertone. "He's a dangerous man. Don't let him convince you of anything."
"Don't let a powerful psionicist convince us of anything?" said Tila. "Should I not let Edyric shoot me with an arrow, either?"
"He can't control all of you, and he can't control Janther. Just keep your eyes open. That's all I can say. He's not honorable. Don't trust him." She looked back and forth nervously, and walked quickly out of the room like she had something else on her mind.
"All this stress isn't good for her," said Max.
"Yeah?" said Trissia. "I don't know if I want to help people who won't accept us for what we are. Look at poor Syndy. She looks like a nerdy fuckin' fourth grader."
"I like my backpack," Syndy objected.
"This is their country," said Praxis. "We have to respect their customs."
"Fine, I respect them, I just think they're full of shit." Trissia took a long pull. "And if I need to cast a spell, some kind of spell, when we're, fighting, then you can damn we--wel--" Trissia's eyes rolled back in her head and she keeled over into her pasta.
Everyone jumped up in consternation. "Triss!" Luthien pulled her up off her plate. She sagged lifelessly, macaroni in her hair. "Is she choking?" said Janther.
"I don't know!" Luthien shook her.
"I'll handle this." Jarth pushed by. "Oh Morvon, give my hands the power to cure this unbelieving pagan, that all might know the benevolence of your law!"
"Do you *have* to put it that way?" snapped Luthien.
Trissia shuddered and moaned. "Behold the might of Morvon!" Jarth cried triumphantly. Trissia threw up on the table. Tila snickered behind her hand, put her finger in Trissia's beer, and sniffed at it. "Almonds. It's cyanide. Someone poisoned her drink."
"The Demon Brigade," guessed Max.
Janther shook her head. "She put it there herself."
"She did?" Jarth looked annoyed. "Hey, Trissia, next time you want to kill yourself, let me know, and I won't waste a spell!"
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh." Trissia's head rolled. "I feel *terrible*."
"Well, that's what happens when you drink poison!"
"What makes you think she poisoned her own drink?" Luthien wanted to know.
"It's not the cyanide." Trissia sat up dizzily, pressing her forehead. "That stuff just gives me a buzz. I'm immune to poison. Something else is wrong with me."
"Funny that 'cure poison' solved the problem, then," said Jarth, stiffly.
"No, I'm--" Trissia blinked, vomit dribbling down her chin, slumping sideways into Luthien, one of the straps of her lace bustiere fallen from her shoulder. "My demon. My demon's gone. Wahoo!"
"It's probably gone to report on our movements to Bloodscar," said Janther.
"I don't care what the fuck it's doing. I'm free!" She whooped, and looked up at Luthien, upside down. "I'd kiss you, but I'm probably poisonous."
"Aaaah!" Tila stabbed frantically at an oozing mass of eyes and mouths. "Aaaaah! Help! It's alive!"
"Leave it alone!" yelled George. "Hey, it's not hurting anything!"
"It lunged at me! It tried to kill me!" The thing waved eyestalks in every which direction.
"It's a gibbering mouther," said Luthien, pulling out his trident. "It's not intelligent, George. It's a sorcerer's mistake."
"No, it's not! Hey, leave it alone!" George blocked Luthien back. The mouther gesticulated wildly, and then screamed simultaneously "PEACE", "COME", "IN", and "I!"
"Oh yeah?" said Tila. "Then why did you *lunge* at me, you stupid blob?"
"It can *talk*," said Luthien, amazed.
"I *told* you!"
"Gesture friendly a Zzenith intended. Is Zzenith sorry frightening strangers for."
"Listen," said George, "Zzenith, do you have a ship?"
"Race Zzenith space through floats," it said. "Of wisdom seeker is Zzenith, far from away. Pleased meet to natives is Zzenith."
"I'm Tila. Sorry for, uh, trying to kill you. Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Sorry, friend Tila!"
Syndy got up slowly from the ground. There was blood on her face. Trissia beat her assailant back gracelessly. "Syndy, are you all right?" she gasped.
Syndy almost glared at the bard. "Take care of yourself," she said, "old friend." She pulled her backpack off to reveal her delicate wings and took to the air, amid gasps from the Sturtevanters. "Old...?" said Trissia. She parried, distracted. "Old f--FUCK!" She tore off after the fairy, her axe trailing after her in one hand. The warrior's sword cut through where she had been. "Son of a *bitch*!" she screamed. "It's my demon!"
"Demon?" Praxis frowned. "But what--what could Bloodscar want--"
"Go!" shouted Max, smashing the warrior's head into the wall with his hammer. "Go!"
He was standing over Trissia's body when they got there, lifting his mighty sword from her wreckage. He did not look out of breath. Janther put his sword up just in time, pivoting against Bloodscar's deceptively fast swing; even so the force of the blow knocked him two feet to the side like a boy, and he nearly lost his grip. Inez didn't hesitate, but her katana chinged off the ancient warrior's burnished armor. Luthien, a few steps behind her, emptied a lightning bolt directly into Bloodscar's face; it didn't stop him from backhanding his weapon at Inez, who escaped decapitation by ducking with the instinctive speed of a prey animal. Janther saw Syndy then, beyond them, lighting candles in the alcove. He couldn't see it but he knew immediately it was a pentagram. The demon was ordering in. He charged towards her, blood roaring in his ears, half-expecting to be cut down from behind, but he was not. "Janther!" Luthien screamed. "Janther, come back, I can't--"
"Drain his levels!" yelled Inez. "Can you--" Her upper arm shattered audibly as Bloodscar connected with her. Syndy lit the third candle, calmly. "We've got to stop her!" Janther shouted. "She's summoning--"
Inez made an agonized scream, and then Max was there, and Bloodscar's sword made a terrible ringing sound against the handle of the giant hammer. Janther collided at full force with a wall he couldn't see. Syndy lit the fourth candle. "Luthien! You've got to get this wall down!" He turned. "Luthien!" Praxis was there by now, standing with his arms folded, in command. Max smashed the huge warrior in the hip. "I'm trying!" said Luthien. Bloodscar's sword suddenly shattered into pieces in his hands, and Max hammered him in the knee; he staggered, but punched Max in the jaw so fast it was barely visible, with a sickening snap. "I'm trying!"
Bloodscar punched Max in the face and shot him back into the wall so hard his head cracked, then collapsed almost to his knees as Tila put her sword entirely through his body from behind. He whirled with the sword like a stake through his heart and sent her flying with a haymaker. Janther put both his palms on the wall. "Syndy. Syndy!" She didn't respond. "Dispel's not working!" shouted Luthien. "Arliksa fanei saltaban!" roared Janther, and struck the wall with all his might; Syndy jumped and spun around, her wings fluttering with alarm, but the distraction was not long enough. "Kreasa markhanju," she said, nice try. There was a great heat and a wind. Janther was blown backward as Max, his face covered in blood, crushed Bloodscar's windpipe with his hammer and the impaled warrior finally fell. Janther had a dizzy glimpse of Speardancer slumped beneath him. Syndy started to laugh maniacally. Luthien turned suddenly and blasted her with a cone of cold, but she put out her hands and the spell split around her. "You fools!" she howled. "Do you think you can stand in my way? I am Trillarillia Carraria, the One True Bloodscar! I am back, and I!" She swept up one of the candles and crushed it in her little hand. "Am *pissed*! Bear my curse, you pathetic worms!" George yelped. Janther felt his wrist burn, distantly. "FEAR ME!" She was gone in a screaming explosion of fire. Janther put both his shaking hands on his face. "Dear God. What have I done."
"I'm all right," choked Inez. "Get Trissia."
"Who the hell was that?" demanded George.
Luthien pointed at the pentagram. "What-- what did she--"
"It was a preparator," whispered Janther. "How could I have missed this? It was a preparator all along. It was only to order in Trill. I should never have brought her here."
"She won't get away with this for long," said Praxis.
"Muhurfuck," mumbled Trissia, and puked all over Zzenith.
"Sway," he said carefully. "I'll remember that. Your leader's name?"
"Alain," said Praxis, as Janther said "Praxis." Praxis stood up entirely. "We're kind of democratic," Max apologized. Praxis opened his mouth like he was going to say something but didn't. Janther appealed to his teammates with outstretched palms. "Well, you *are*," said Luthien.
"You're telling me you didn't know this?" said Tila. "I thought you were a psychic."
"Don't guys usually vie *for* power?" said Trissia.
"I think Morvon should be our leader," said Jarth.
Praxis was still trying not to cry; Tila shook her head and told the Shikinti "Oh, just ask for Tila. Everybody knows me, and we're all mind-linked anyway."
"Have I--dishonored someone?"
"Nah," said Tila. "It's just, smart people can be real slow on the uptake, you know?"
"Well, I'm pretty dumb, and I don't get it either," said Endicott, deadpan.
Praxis kind of stumbled into the wall. Luthien punched him reassuringly in the shoulder blade. "You do good."
"Sneaks up on you, doesn't it?" said Janther, softly.
Praxis suddenly jerked his head. "No. Turn it off. Luthien!"
Luthien averted the beam as Janther fell in on himself with a whitening density and a single flash. There was an instant's afterimage in eerie negative inversion: brilliant green feystone, pearl-black skin, white hair, his hand, his mouth standing open, the trembling line of his throat. Then the feystone hit the metal floor, ringing resoundingly even through Janther's empty clothing. And then there was silence.
"That... is not what was supposed to happen," said Tila.
"Wisdom wrong was!" wailed Zzenith.
"Janther?" Luthien pushed forward. "Janther!"
Praxis put his hand to his face. Tila tugged at his sleeve. "Praxis. Praxis, did you get anything?"
"Ta ar siul aige," he whispered.
"So I can understand you, Praxis."
"Carry it on. He told me to carry it on."
The staff clattered out of Luthien's shaking hands as he turned around. Tila exhaled and squatted to poke at Janther's goggles. Their inside rim was smoking. "This was *not* a good idea. Zzenith, is there any way to find out if we took the curse out? He didn't blow up."
"On wisdom unreliable is subject this, friend Tila," said Zzenith, sadly.
"Because that would be all right," she said, "that would be worth it."
Luthien put both his hands into the wall and leaned into the wall, his back shaking. "I've gotta say, though," said Trissia, "when I die, I hope it's half that fucking cool, I really do."
Endicott put his hand on Praxis' shoulder.
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