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"Talakan, you false breaker of oaths," snarled Praxis, with pain. "How do Diari goddesses like being impersonated, sworn by falsely, and stolen from?"
"That is not your concern, kiljhac," said Talakan, and glowed. "And now, fools, you will meet your doom."
"Yeah, yeah," said Threnody. "That was what your Psi Brigade said too."
He looked at her, his eyes gathering light like embers, and her mithril hook exploded into fiery shrapnel. She screamed, stuck her wrist between her thighs, and jumped up and down on one foot, a surprisingly coordinated effort. "Talakan, you *moron*! Did you really just waste your first move as a god blowing up my *hand*? My *god*, you are a pinjhac--"
"I wish that the shard of Psyiri would be returned to her temple," bellowed Luthien, throwing his wish-sphere to the ground. "NOW!"
It went flying from the psi-lord's hand and through the columns behind him; as he turned after it, there was a brilliant white light. "No," screamed Talakan, and disintegrated into dust. -Thank you, kiljhaci-, resounded a pure strong voice, -for restoring my crystal.- Praxis knelt; Luthien leapt wildly in the air and high-fived Max, shouting "Gringos 3, Talakan zilch!"
"I piss on your ashes!" yelled Threnody, hopping up and down.
"Still stand and heal will you I, friend Threnody."
"Heal can you not, friend Zzenith, because fucking hand had I not in the first place."
"Still stand nonetheless."
Tila tapped herself in the side of the head, twice, a gesture oddly reminiscent of Quell. Threnody thought nostalgic thoughts. The thief frowned and looked at Praxis over her shoulder. "Is it just me or is the Net down?"
"It's over," whispered Praxis. It was the first thing he'd said. "What?" said Luthien, slowly.
"It's over. The shard is returned. Psyiri has reclaimed her own." He put his hands in his deep pockets. "I'm back where I started."
"There are worse places to be," said Threnody.
"Well, I'm glad the fight with the Psi Brigade was this afternoon," said Tila, philosophically.
"Liar," screamed Max, and blasted them. It was like moving in slow motion; she felt the blade connect and pull free, connect and carry through, and then connect like an electric shock, as though the whole thing had not been part of the same fluid motion, as if the body falling were just the next link in a random chain of events. She watched the sword clatter to the ground, spinning slightly. She watched her pale fingers. All was quiet and uncomplaining. There had been no death cry, no cry of betrayal or even of pain. There had been no cry at all. Threnody knelt in the blood and rested her hand on the nape of his neck, undemandingly, as if trailing it in the water. She sat like that a long time, listening.
"THE DEMON! IT IS THE DEMON!"
Threnody remained kneeling by the crumpled body, her eyes off at the horizon. "Please, Quell," she whispered, "not today." Luthien sprang up between them with his usual ready poise, but Quell roared "MY DEMON FRIEND!" and pushed across to her. Really she had to smile then, and gripped his big hand as hard as she was able. "Yeah, buddy," she said softly, "I missed you too." Her legs were shaky when she stood. Shilree was pursing her lips at her in her characteristic wry way. "Don't tell me. Sunfighter."
"I've been sleeping with a doppelganger, Shilree. Give me a fucking hug."
Luthien grabbed Max by the hand and then gave it up and threw both his arms around him. "I have a son, Max."
Max's face lit up. "What else did I miss?"
Luthien looked at Praxis. "What all happened today?"
"Talakan was trying to become a god. We stopped him."
"Praxis lost his powers."
"Threnody foiled Brionwy's curse."
"It's been a long day."
"I guess I'm glad I'm back." He grinned and looked around. "New face or two. Where's Janther?"
Praxis looked at Luthien, and they both turned around and looked at Threnody, uneasily. "Janther's dead," she said. Max took it like a punch to the stomach; same old Max. "I'm the new Sunfighter."
He eased up at that. There was something strange about continuity that made death less real; Threnody had to keep glancing at the body, herself. "Thanks for trusting me. I didn't know if anyone was going to believe me or not until you attacked him."
"We believed you," said Luthien, quietly. "We'd been suspecting him for some time now."
Threnody turned all the way around and said "WHAT?", her voice cracking for the first time.
"We didn't have any proof," said Praxis. "But Max had specifically told me he wanted in on the Mindnet, and then after his abduction he did a total reversal. He also got a lot more secretive, and suddenly both the illithids and the Diari were trying to reinstate him as Duke. We figured something had to be going on. I thought he might have been a doppelganger but I kept finding evidence to the contrary. It didn't occur to me that he was an illithid."
"It occurred to me," said Tila. "I stole my shape-shifting pills from the illithids. But he had all these chances to betray us and he didn't, so I figured I'd give him the benefit of the doubt."
"None of you thought about mentioning this to me?" Threnody almost whispered.
"We didn't know for sure," said Praxis. "We didn't want to confront him until we knew what was going on. It could have been anything."
"What about *me*? You didn't think *I* might want to know? 'Gee, Luthien, I think Max has been replaced with an evil alien, do you think maybe we ought to tell the woman who's sleeping with him?' How hard a logical leap is *that*?"
"Sedative you need, friend Threnody?"
"Come on, *guys*!"
"We didn't want to alarm anyone unnecessarily," said Praxis.
"It wouldn't have been the first time he's been totally wrong," said Luthien.
"I'm sorry," said Tila.
"I wish you'd told me about those pills, Tila," said Praxis.
She shrugged. "So what would *you* have done about it? Started mental combat with an illithid? You would have stood there and kept an eye on him, just like I did, and just like you did anyway. It all worked out in the end. Hi, Max, hi Quell; how do you like my new look? I found a magic book of beauty."
"You look wonderful, Tila," said Max.
"YES, FAIR LADY!"
"So wait, uh, Janther?"
She threw her glove on the ground. "GodDAMMit Max. The least you can do is call me Threnody. Okay? I'm Threnody."
"Threnody. I just wanted to know about the curse."
"I'm not destroying the world any more. I'm only trashing two more souls, and I'm immortal."
Most everyone turned to look at her then. "You're *what*?" said Praxis.
"You can keep a secret. I can keep a secret."
Shilree, whose right arm was around Threnody anyway, shook left hands solemnly. "How long have you known this?" said Praxis.
"Since Timrin. I thought it might kill *me*, but I guess it didn't."
"That's *cool*," said Tila.
"We'll have a party for you when we get back to Trade. Being immortal is cool, Threnody. And it's a lot better than destroying the world, so stop bitching. We're going to rescue George's friend Frank, Max; do you all want to come with us?"
"I have to take Quell and the space ship back to Magnate," said Shilree.
"I'll go," offered the shorter and plumper of the two women. The tall one with dark hair looked at Max, raised an eyebrow, and looked Sway over. "Yeah, what the hell."
"These are Savis and Margolis," Max said, and came down the gangplank. "Margo, Sav, meet my friends. Luthien, Praxis, Tila, George, uh, Threnody, Edyric, though I don't know what you're doing here, and I don't think I've met any of you."
"This is Inez," said Praxis, and she bowed.
"I'm Kieran. Charmed, once again."
"Zzenith I am."
"What happened to Syndy?"
"She was possessed by Trillarillia," said Threnody.
"Time me," Edyric said to Luthien. "Two minutes. Tops. You guys take almost as long to reunite as you do to kill someone."
Shilree sighed. "Yeah, we'd better be getting out of here. My presence here is about as illegal as they get. You had to pick Diaria to be in when we got back." She squeezed Threnody's arm. "So do I tell Magnate you've joined him?"
"Why don't you tell Magnate all will be clear in time, and look at him real superior-like. That's all I ever get from *him*." Shilree laughed and strode smartly up the gangplank, plucking Quell's sleeve as she went. "Come on, big guy, we've got work to do."
"GOODBYE, MY FRIENDS! WE SHALL MEET AGAIN!"
"We're also rescuing Lotus," Edyric told Max. "Don't argue, just do it. I have a hostage."
"Edyric," said Threnody, "Max would make the Diari scientists stop torturing Lotus anyway."
"Yeah, assuming he's not a clone, or an illithid, or a spy, or--"
"Oh." Shilree looked down from the hatch. "The Diari-- *scientists* have her. I--see."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Edyric nocked an arrow darkly. Shilree shook her head and didn't even respond with fury to the veiled threat. "Nothing. They, uh, good luck. I hope you find what you're looking for."
The hatch closed behind her. "Who's the hostage?" Max asked Edyric.
"Trissia Maddyx's baby," she said, putting the arrow away without looking at it.
"Trissia had a baby too?"
"She already did," said Praxis. "We'll fill you in on everything later, I promise."
The space ship took off in a swirling roar of dust. Luthien grabbed Max by the upper arm and whispered in his ear. Tila was squinting weirdly at the plump blonde, who shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, but neither of them said anything. "*Oh*," said Max, and his eyes flicked to Threnody, who looked away. "I, uh, I guess this isn't a good time to introduce you to my girlfriend."
Luthien struck himself in the forehead with his hand. "Tomorrow, Max," said Threnody, with excruciating gentleness. Tila looked even more intently at the blonde, who moved part-way behind Max.
"You know," said Inez, "that UFO's probably going to attract a lot of attention here."
"Find safer place should we sleep to," agreed Zzenith.
"So do we take lessons, Prax, or not?" said Tila, looking from the uneasy Savis to Illithid Max's corpse.
"I can't read your mind any more, Tila."
"She's hurting, Max," said Luthien, low.
"I hope they haven't hurt Frank," said George, unhappily.
"I say, my dear, you've dropped this." Kieran presented Threnody with her crumpled glove.
"Fuck the Diari, anyway," said Edyric, tightening her archery gauntlet with a jerk.
Threnody skipped pebbles across the lake with her thumb. "Either he loved me and I killed him," she said, "or he was using me the whole time. I don't know which is worse."
"He loved you and you killed him. Ha ha."
"Lay off, Tila," she said.
"I should have given him a chance."
"It really was the illithid," said Praxis. "We found its transformation pills and everything."
"Yeah, well I'm a demon. I might as well say it. I'm a demon and you don't all stab *me* in the back. I've been shown up by a man with a three intelligence."
"Come on, Threnody, it cone-of-colded Max and Shilree and Quell."
"That's true," she murmured. "It *was* when he attacked."
"And it had kidnapped Max and was trying to take over Nylevia."
"He saved my life. Twice." Praxis was silent. "Everything has feelings, and everything can learn. I should have taught him. I take and take and it's time for me to give back. I should have shown him. I should have talked to him."
"No one is perfect," said Endicott.
Threnody sliced into Malcar's collarbone and felt the searing kickback of the fire shield. It hurt a lot, and she bared a gritted grin as he staggered back. "Yeah," she said softly, "hurts me as much as it hurts you, alien boy, but I've got a warrior, and you've got a mage. You guess which of us'll be standing when this is through." He fumbled with a spell and she slashed him in the ribs, her fingers singing with pain. He lurched into her and Malcar bit her then, in the side of the throat, unfurling himself from Arcraver's shoulders in what could only be desperation. Threnody struggled, her head swimming, and stabbed at the cloaker. "Hey," she gasped, "hey, no vacancy." His jaw bore shut inexorably and she felt her knees beginning to give somehow. His wingtips had arced over her shoulders and beneath her armpits from behind, dragging her up to him; Arcraver's hands were on her hips, steadying her. She couldn't believe this. Threnody struggled with her loosening limbs and swiped at him one last time, wildly. The Touch clattered from her numb fingers. Malcar was going to take her. She felt an inane surge of pride: honey, you don't know what you're getting yourself into. Malcar was like a vise at her throat. And when you least expect it you will learn. The world spun eerily and Threnody dangled limp, her head and her hair spilling gracefully into the light.
Edyric frowned and pointed after him. "Wasn't that-- Arcraver?"
"He's been parasitized by an alien cloaker," said Praxis.
"Ah," said Edyric. "I thought I recognized him." She paused. "Parasitized by an alien cloaker, huh? Couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy."
"Lesbian lover kidnapped by Diari experimenters," said Praxis, coldly, "couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy."
"If I had *expected* you to care, I would have gone about this differently."
Threnody groaned and rolled over. "Ohhhhhhhh, my head. Where am I?"
"Threnody," said Tila, helpfully.
"Thanks, Tila." She sat up on Zzenith, looking narrowly at the thief, and cupped her left breast in her hand. "I was just thinking this might belong to Janther."
"Sunny had breasts," said Max.
"You noticed that, did you, Max?" She flopped back down on the ground. "I know *who* I am; what the hell *happened* to me?"
"Malcar bit you," said Tila. "You've got a *huge* hickey."
"Oh, *fuck*--" Threnody felt at her neck.
"Your hair mostly covers it."
"I remember that now."
"Kieran rescued you."
"Think nothing of it, lass."
"Did he get away again?"
"I'm afraid so."
"FRANK!" George was really upset. "How could you *do* this?"
"I, uh, they captured me. I was their prisoner. The Diari made me do it."
Edyric levelled an arrow at Frank's kilt. "Get that force field down or kiss whatever you've got under there goodbye."
"Uhhhhhh, sure. Sure." Frank hurried over to the control panel. The Diari alarms whooped and flashed an apocalyptic red. "Thank God you came to rescue me, George! These Diari are just crazy!"
"For crying out *loud*, Frank! What did you do to her?" George stared at the misshapen Diari woman.
"You have five seconds," said Edyric.
Frank thwapped the controls and the shimmering walls dissipated. "Now don't *start* this, George. Why does everything always have to turn into a fight?"
George gestured furiously around the room at all the suspended Belle clones. "Because *you're* always doing things like building genetically engineered superarmies for the rudest, most idiotic alien countries in the galaxy, that's why!"
Edyric came out of the cell carrying Lotus. There was dried blood extending from both of the psionicist's nostrils, and she seemed to be having some trouble focusing. She was also naked. She looked blearily at Max for a long moment and then grabbed Edyric's necklace and rasped "Did you *have* to bring *them*?"
"What," said Edyric, "you wanted me to endanger people you *like*?"
The other prisoners, Brain Mechanism and a black woman with an electrode sticking out of her head, emerged tentatively from their cells. "This isn't about them, is it, George?" said Frank. "Look, are you ever going to accept this? We're not *right* for each other."
"Will you shut up," snapped Luthien.
"Now get us out of here," said Edyric. Lotus looked around uneasily and leaned in to whisper something to her behind her hand. "Our psionic power is gone," said Praxis, aloud.
Brain Mechanism shrieked and recoiled from George. "Don't hurt me. Don't hurt me!"
"You're kidding me," said Edyric, and slowly put Lotus down. "Then we're. We're just going to have to get out of here the old-fashioned way. Stay behind me." She put her bow up, grimly, as the first of the Belles burst into the violated laboratory.
"Look," said George, "we just don't have time to get into this right now, Frank."
"You never have the time for anything important, George. That's your problem." Frank took a device from his belt and fired a laser blast into one of the Diari warriors, who went flying. "Maybe if you spent more time listening and less time telling me what to do we wouldn't have crashed on this stupid planet in the first place."
"Now that's *my* fault? Who was navigating?"
Praxis fired Roxy's gun in an immense explosion of green and purple sparks and beams and with a thunderous KZAAAASH. Threnody was always impressed by good presentation but couldn't help noticing that the gun's victims looked much more surprised than wounded. "I was really worried about you, you know," said Frank. "I've been scanning for you everywhere, but every time I thought I'd picked up your signal, it disappeared without a trace."
George put his arm around his friend emotionally. "I was worried about you too."
Threnody ducked around one of the lab tables and pushed it over on one of the genetic constructs with a shattering crash. "Frank, can you turn these things *off*?" she yelled.
"Well, no," he said. "They're actual life-forms."
"Then can you activate these other ones to fight for us?" asked George, motioning at the suspended bodies.
"Those aren't ready yet."
Savis watched Max adoringly as he beat back one of the small warriors. It was disconcerting to fight enemies that all looked exactly the same. George twiddled with the giant Diari artifact. "Is this a weapon?" he said.
"No," said Frank, "just processing power, really. I was thinking of stealing it but can't figure out how to move it. It seems to be powered by psionic energy. I've b--uh, the evil Diari have been draining the psionic energy of these aliens to power a new program I've been working on to save backups of important people's psyches in case of accidental death. This is breakthrough stuff, George. I could get a Glasfur Prize for this."
Threnody took a shot from the invisible blade in her shoulder, but parried the rebound. She swept a rack of test tubes off the shelf and onto the Diari fighter with her hook; she staggered and covered her eyes. The black woman tugged at Frank's kilt. She pointed at a painfully bright glass tank in the CompuTor and said something, but Praxis fired his gun again just then and Threnody couldn't hear it. She parried the strange Diari weapon off hers three times; it made no noise against the steel. Praxis retreated from the fighter closing on him, firing into her repeatedly, but it did not slow her down; Endicott intercepted her and kicked her in the knee, and then the black woman picked up a chair and smashed all four of its legs into the glass tank. The room was lost in brilliant light; Threnody struck the woman she was fighting and struck her again, deflected a wild glancing blow off her armored forearm in the blind white haze. She could hear her genetically enhanced but less experienced opponent faltering and she pressed her advantage, colored afterimages pulsing blotchily across her washed-out vision like a bad trip. When her eyesight cleared she found the battle over, Belles strewn across the laboratory in disarray. Praxis stood with his arms folded, Roxy's gun lying abandoned on the ground beside him. Three eugenic Diari lay in smoking heaps around a bloodied Edyric's feet. The black woman put the chair down and sat on it. "That," she said, "take care of that."
Go on to Chapter 4
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