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She dragged herself up on the beach, coughing. "Fuck," she choked out, waterlogged, pulled herself to a kneeling position and screamed "FUCK!" at the winking stars. They did not answer. They smugly pointed west-southwest. "I *hate* life quests!" She flung sand out furiously at the waves; it scattered, sprinkled. West-southwest. Just a few days with a good wind. She hauled herself up on the coastal rocks, hacking, paused at some water pooled there; drew back her sopping hair with her hook, touched her blackened temple, and took a good look at herself. "OK, Bud," she said, quietly. "The hero thing didn't cut it. Let's see where we can get on perspective and some spunk." She groped for her belt pouch. Long gone. It didn't really matter; she didn't need to eat anyway. The gold would've come in handy, but she'd find a ride somewhere. West-southwest. "I've never been to Trade," she said, aloud. "In a manner of speaking." She drew her sword with a flourish, reflected moonlight off it, returned it to its sheath with less enthusiasm. Two down. She looked in the pool again and splashed the water around with her hand. "Ah," she said, "it's been a long day, but the sun will rise tomorrow." She rocked up into a standing position, her tired legs swaying slightly. "Let's be ready."
"So, uh." She gestured at Wyvern vaguely and drank some of the wine. "You doing this because you want this world for yourself, or because you want to wipe out the dragons?"
"Let's say it kills two birds with one stone."
"How do you know I *can* possess a space dragon? It hasn't exactly been an issue."
"I have done the necessary research," he said, smoothly. "You will serve my purpose."
She put the wine glass down and turned around slowly, putting her hand on her hip. "You're *afraid* of me," she said. Her hair blew. "You're going to be here in two thousand years, and you're afraid of what I'm going to do to you."
His face split in a wide, thin smile. "Is that really the best you can do?" he said, and poured himself more wine. "How likely is it to bother me that I would prefer not to be possessed? Especially when I'm in a position to do something about it. Hardly what you'd call demoralizing."
"No," she said, "but I like being able to say it. You're scared of *me*." She drank the rest of the wine. "So does it matter if I agree or not?"
"Not much," said Wyvern, and smiled again. "But it will facilitate matters if you permit me to transport you to my homeworld astrally. I think you'll find it's the best solution open to you."
She couldn't help looking up, but she did have the presence of mind not to say anything aloud. -Yes?- she thought, carefully.
-Act natural. He has no power over your mind. Can you get to the window?-
"What do you think?"
"I don't know." -Yes.- "What's in it for me?"
"I thought you might prefer to destroy a world you didn't have emotional attachments to," shrugged Wyvern. "You've made friends here, I assume. Believe me, the space dragons are an odious lot. You'd be just as glad to see them all dead."
"*Great*," said Threnody.
He tapped his fingers together. "You might also prefer to spare this incarnation the necessity of being persuaded."
"There is that." Threnody turned from him and put her hand on the windowsill. -I'm at the window. Who are you?-
-A friend. Stall him for a few minutes.-
"Then are you willing to cooperate?"
"*Give* me a minute," she snapped. "It's not like I wouldn't rather have sex with a sea slug, guy. But I don't want to destroy this sphere. What are they going to do to my host if I go?"
"Kill you, I'm sure," said Wyvern, "but it will get much more difficult shortly thereafter. You may come to thank me. You will have power there you couldn't have imagined here. It's an extremely egalitarian exchange of spheres for me to be offering someone in your position, Threnody; it would be just as easy for me to sign you over to an archdevil, but this is a deal that I believe benefits us both." Rip Hunter suddenly materialized behind the dragon lord. -Jump-, urged the voice. "We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way."
"Look behind you," she yelled. As he turned to face the demigod, his face contorting with anger and his features beginning to blur, Threnody threw up her arm and launched herself through the glass with a splintering crash. She found herself about eighteen stories up in a city of chrome and black steel; she twisted in midair and landed in a shower of glass in a passing hovercraft, which careened with her weight and trajectory. The woman driving the machine struggled with the controls. She looked familiar. "I'm CJ," she said. Threnody got her breath back and laughed, lay in the burst back seat of the flying metal bug glittering with glass and blood and laughed until the tears rolled down her face as they banked away, pounding her bleeding hand on the side of the hovercraft. "Hard way!" she crowed, exultantly.
"I fail to see the amusement in this."
"I don't like it either," she gasped, "but that's just about the coolest thing I've done in my life. I've gotta enjoy these things while I can, CJ. I'm Threnody Sunfighter. I'm pleased to meet you."
"Rip, man, I'm sorry I keep fucking you up."
"Don't worry about it. Well, no. Go ahead and worry about it." Rip Hunter eased his scorched arm into the healing device. "Help me out here. Incarnation number..."
"Three. I'm sorry about Wyvern and your arm."
He pressed his temple like he wanted a new job. "Tell me what you've been doing recently."
"Let's see, I've had two boats sunk, died four times, been kidnapped to a pissy future by the Self-Righteous Butthead, and now Luthien's fucked-up father wants to use me as a weapon to destroy his people. I've had better timelines."
"I mean the transfer. How much do you know. Slowly."
"That would be nothing. Goddamn Jarth talked Janther into exorcising himself. Our curse went off--"
"I know the curse part."
"No, not the curse curse, this other curse. Trill's curse."
"Trillarillia. This witch who thinks she's hot shit. Shilree killed her once." She waved her hand. "Anyway, when we exorcised ourself her curse went off, and I heard this voice say "Moria, wait." I didn't recognize it--"
"You didn't," he said carefully.
"Should I have? Who was it?"
"Not mine to reveal."
She sighed. "And then he was gone. He's dead, isn't he. I could feel him melting away from me."
"You didn't notice anything else?"
"I was busy dying at the time," she said apologetically.
"Well, we have a lot of repairwork to do before I can send you back. You understand."
"Not like I have anyplace to be."
"The trouble is that guy who looks like Anthony Hopkins is going to be able to anticipate a lot of this. He has that damn book."
"Book's vague," shrugged Threnody. "I was a prophet once."
"Let's hope you're right."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Go back to places you will have been, meet the people you will have met, and do what you will have done there."
"Be a little more specific?"
"I really can't. You'll figure it out as you go along."
"Guy, I'm not good at this destiny thing. Who am I looking for?"
"I can't tell you that. You'll know."
"Is there anything really you can tell me?"
"Will it all come clear in time?"
"Y-es, yes actually it ought to."
"Yeah, that's what I was afraid you were going to say." She stood tiredly. "Fire away."
"So what the hell are we supposed to do now," said Praxis, unpleasantly.
"I'm sure it'll be apparent soon." Inez put her feet up and sipped her drink. "Fate and all. Don't be tense."
"I still think this is stupid. On a rational level-- think about this. Evil Max must remember us doing this, if he has Max's memories. We should have left Max behind."
"I had to come, Tila." Max looked really stressed.
"So what do we *do*, sit here and *drink*?"
The door opened and a handsome young guy with curly black hair came into the bar a little springily, midlaugh, trailed by two young women. When he saw Luthien his smile disappeared with drastic abruptness. His lightning bolt broke two glasses and buried itself in the necromancer's gut. "DIE!"
"Duck," Tila suggested to Praxis, and disappeared behind the bar. The blonde whipped her bow from her shoulder and shot four arrows into Max with blinding speed. "The Duke," she yelled, "get everyone in here, it's the Duke!"
"Get out of my *way*, Jonni!" The man flung himself at Luthien, his fingers crackling with magic. The two women appeared to be struggling with the bow. "*No*," said the redhead urgently, "you don't understand, these are the ones the Leader--"
Luthien smashed the man in the face with the butt of his spear. "I don't want to hurt you," he said evenly.
"You're too fucking late."
"Stalker!" yelled the redhead. "They're OK, they're not the same, they're from my time! Cut it out, we don't have the strength to waste!"
He balled his fist and pulled it back with a curled lip, then stepped away slowly.
"We're Sway," said Praxis, quietly. "We're from the past. We're here to help you." The red-haired woman had moved into better light; she was an elf with a hook in place of her right hand, dressed flamboyantly in chainmail and silks, and she was staring at him hollowly, somehow disquietingly. "My name is Praxis; you are?"
"Funny," she whispered. "I had you figured for a brunette." He frowned with his eyebrows. "Threnody," she said, extending her left hand, still staring, "T, h-r-e, n-o, d-y... Means an elegy... Tuatha de Danaan, Praxis, aren't you glad to see me at *all*?"
He stared back, her hand in his, and then he grabbed her fiercely and kissed the top of her head.
Tila popped up from behind the bar. "You have *got* to be kidding me."
"Shalini Kyber." She saluted at Tila. "Ship's captain, swashbuckler, jack of all trades. I would have got back earlier but Wyvern kidnapped me to this other future even worse than *this* one-- by the way he has that damn book and he's taken over Will Ender, I don't know how long ago. I've got a lot to tell you about." She turned and stopped short. "Max."
"Max." She was grinning by now, and lowered her forehead into her hand. "You know," she said, "when I first met you, I was a woman. And I'm a woman again. What are you doing tonight?"
"ExCUSE me," says Jonni, "but can you do your weird reunions later, please? We have a crisis on our hands."
"Speaking of crises and weird reunions," said Luthien from the floor, looking at the young man. "You're not..."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"So if what we do here doesn't matter, why bother? I mean from a purely philosophical point of view. If this isn't real."
Threnody punched the flagstone then, without warning and with shocking force, extended her bleeding knuckles. "It's real now," she said. "I don't care if it slides off into the tesseracts of lost futures or just into history like they usually do. I see oppression and suffering, I'm going to fight it. It's real now."
There was a stunned moment of silence. Threnody licked her knuckles like a cat. "Tesseracts of lost futures?" said Praxis.
"The poetics I'll apologize for. I mean it though."
"I'm more concerned about melodramatic gestures."
"Comes with the body. Sorry."
"Is that how you lost your other hand?" said Tila.
Jarth approached her awkwardly. "So... Janther?"
"It'll be easier if you call me Threnody."
"I do not entirely understand what has happened to you."
"I, um, died. I'm sorry I was so bitchy about it. I had a pretty good idea that I might not be walking away and I didn't want to deal with you. You didn't have to give him such a hard time, you know."
"But what happened to the demon?"
"I *am* the demon," she barked, and touched her temple. "Look, I don't want to hear any more Destroyer cracks out of you. Tjekanefir is *me*. Janther was incarnation number two, and I'm incarnation number three."
Jarth blinked at her, his mouth trembling. "You really are the avatar."
"Yeah, throw me a party and dip me in rum." She twiddled her little finger sarcastically in the air.
"Why have you forsaken me?" he shouted at the rafters, in sudden emotion.
"Hey, *Jarth*. Take it easy. This is just Brionwy. She's only a lesser goddess."
"A *false*, *pagan* lesser goddess!"
"You should tell her that. I still have this tendency not to sass off at her."
"And you permit these *infidels*--I, your faithful Eye--you allow heretics to go about honored more by their false pagan gods than you--how can you allow this? What have I *done*? This must be a test."
"Jarth, you know, it's not exactly a barrel of monkeys."
"How you flaunt my failure," he almost whispered. "Are you testing my faith, Morvon?"
"Jarth, you know what we get to do? We get to wander around without sleep until we die and our souls shatter, and then we get to languish in torment while pieces of ourselves destroy the world. This avatar thing, it sort of sucks."
"I'd take it," he whispered almost inaudibly, not looking at her, with naked, painful honesty.
"Stop it," she screamed, and threw herself at Evil Max, "stop it, you're hurting him!"
"T'kam," he said, strangely pale, and stepped back a few paces. The big illithid with the barbed polearm intercepted her. She parried furiously. "Max," she said, inspired, "hey, Max, look at me!" He even did, for a second at least. "Don't do this, Max, you know you don't have to. There's still greatness in you, there's still will, I know there is, I know you can find it, Max." She ricocheted the polearm off her rapier. There were little beads of sweat in his dorky sideburns, he looked agitated and he wasn't meeting her eyes. She pressed on. "You don't need to beat people down to be a leader. You've got to know there's a better way, I know you have that in you, Max, I believe in you..." The illithid got her in the gut then and twisted, the floor came out from under her and she hit her head. Ah, fuck. She got her hook snagged in the weapon good as it pulled out and struggled, dizzily. She could have sworn Evil Max was still watching her, she could almost have sworn that his mouth twitched or even that he whispered something as he turned away but the illithid, failing to disentangle his polearm, kicked her in the side of the head with unexpected precision and her head exploded into darkness.
It hadn't really occurred to him that he was going to see her again until he got there. He sort of wished she'd smile. The illithidi called it d'kantu, the irrelevant weird cravings you got just before you knew you had to die. He really would have done almost anything if she'd smile at him. He tried to remember how the battle went as his cone of cold arced into Luthien and Zzenith. Luthien's sense of humor had gone to hell since he killed Rhynwa. Kind of missed the old days. Speaking of which his old self couldn't think of anything better to do than feign helpless wracking pain. How embarrassing. He poked out after Tila's mind but bounced off that damn kid's flute. That's right. His old self was doing the same thing. Might as well go down with the magic, he'd lost enough keeping his cover over the years that it would be a shame to blow it now. "Stop it," Threnody screamed at him, "stop it, you're hurting him!" He felt his ears thrumming and backed away from her approach, murmuring numbly for T'kam. T'kam interposed himself before he finished the name. Good man T'kam. He had forgotten she defended him. -For God's sake, get up off the floor-, he flung at himself, almost sick with shame, but it came right back at him. Fuck that kid, anyway.
"Max, hey, Max, look at me!" He did, he didn't know out of habit or what. -Smile for me, bright eyes.- He didn't actually send it for fear it might get through. Always something between them, some secret, something hidden. There was always something one of them didn't dare say. "Don't do this, Max," she said, fresh and urgent as ever. "There's still greatness in you, there's still will, I know there is, I know you can find it, Max." All over again. It was the way he had always remembered her, hair swinging, body in the process of twisting. And it struck him that it was the way he was always going to remember her; younger him, squalling on the floor like a jackass, who was on the verge of falling in love and didn't know it yet, had this entire same life to live and was going to be here in twenty more years watching another, even younger self acting out the same role while she turned at its core believing in them. He felt a little faint. "I believe in you," she said. T'kam skewered her through the belly with a deft grinding thrust. She hardly cried out. He had never liked T'kam. He meant to turn around and lightning bolt that damn kid of Luthien's but Threnody was *looking* at him, from the ground, struggling with the dark slick end of the polearm she had locked in her hook with her powerful wrist and looking at him. Well. Like he could save her. Was it really twelve years ago. For a second he thought he saw himself in her eyes, for a second he saw his hammer crashing in the side of T'kam's head and he almost forgot the power of circles. They stared at each other's bleeding ghosts for this horrible wrenching moment. -You survive this-, he thought forcefully, he very nearly let it escape to her. -I don't.-
T'kam kicked her in the head with violence and she arched to the slimy floor like a dying bird. Max closed his fist, turned his back and lightning bolted Stalker, his eyes unnecessarily shiny. -Carpe diem-, he thought ferociously at his younger self, who looked startled for a moment, almost frightened. -Seize the goddamn day.-
"All right, all right. I get the picture." Threnody chewed the inside of her cheek as Zzenith put her abdomen together. "It just seemed like I was getting *through* to him for a minute there, you know?"
"Still hold please, Threnody friend."
"The old gray mare," said Tila, "she ain't what she used to be."
"Oh, shut *up*."
Luthien banged furiously on the door. "Goddammit, Threnody, you've been in there for hours!"
"Babe, I've been through two bodies, two deaths, two pissy futures, demonic possession, and a high-speed hovercraft chase, and I am entitled to a bath. Go pee in the sandbox."
"Janther never did this!"
"No, and he could have used it, too."
"Trissia!" Trissia looked at her funny. "Oh, I, uh, hello. I'm Threnody. I used to be Janther."
Trissia looked at her even more funny. "I liked your old body better," she said.
"Yeah yeah yeah. Sic transit gloria mundi. Is this your baby?"
"Yeah. Isn't she beautiful?"
"She gon break a di hearts," said Threnody, making baby faces at her. "Ain'chou? Ain'chou?"
"If she turns out like she did in the alternate future, she sure is," said Max.
"Threnody," said Luthien. "This belongs to you." She looked up and froze, so still that he faltered. "I--I'm sorry."
"Hey, yeah," said Trissia, "what was with leaving me a stupid ring +2, anyway? Thanks a *lot*!"
"It was pretty," she whispered.
"Do you--not want it?"
She took the goggles from Luthien's hand and turned them, her fingers curling around the strange stone. She ran her thumb along the rim with an intensity that belied her steady hand. "Listen," said Luthien, "I'm really sorry about that." She lifted the feystone around her head as if in a dream. It lit up into life as she did, pulsing red and black. She turned her head slowly to Luthien. She looked thin suddenly, and terrified, and she looked hollowly at Luthien for what seemed like a very long time before jerking free of it. "Too big for my fucking head," she mumbled.
"Hey, will you watch the language in front of the kid?"
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