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That was when Flicker backstabbed him. Jason ducked under the surprised arc of the huge axe and rolled, yelling with a certain amount of relieved triumph. Then Sigrid was there, and the thing was over. "Ah, Flick, man, you had even me going!"
He wavered a little, put his sword down to the ground almost as if to support himself, and stood behind the body of the giant. "Flick?" Maybe he *had* taken the hit that hard. Flicker was that kind of dependable. Jason came around to him, frowning. "Hey, Eren, you okay?"
"I'm fine," he said. He closed his eyes and put his left hand to the back of his neck. "So it goes. I'm all right."
"Can you make it up the flow?" said Jason. "I can try to anchor if you're too woozy, but we really don't have time to waste."
"I can do it." He picked up his right foot and looked at it, like he was sizing it or something, and wobbled weirdly on one leg. "Flicker, what in the hell are you doing?" said Sigrid.
"Finding my center of gravity." He stabilized, and put his other foot down in a low crouch. "I can't afford wrong assumptions. This is very soon. Just give me a second."
"Shit. Jason, he's got a concussion or something. We've got to get him out of here."
"If he says he can do it," said Jason, "he can do it."
"Thank you." Flicker snapped the crampons onto his boots and rocked up onto his feet. "Give me the rope." Jason gave it to him and felt his ribs. The little archer boosted himself up the slope and flipped out the first piton, looked at it very strangely, and then looked up and back at Jason. "Why are we going south?"
"Oh, for--" Sigrid hit her head. "Jason, get him off of there. He's going to kill us all. Flicker, we're going north, and we're doing it to rescue Stormhand, remember?"
"Of course," he said, "but we're going south."
"No, we're going *north*," snapped the Valkyrie. "Wolfborn said the report came from the jotun town north of the glacier. Get your addled brain down here. And next time stand behind me."
"North," said Flicker, "or to that jotun town? Because that"--he pointed--"is south-southeast."
"Says the north star!"
Jason shook his head. "You don't--you don't think he meant a different town?"
"Actually," said Flicker, "that's exactly what I think, yes."
Sigrid expelled air. "All right, get down, get down. Sif's ass, I can't even see the glacier on that side. If you're right we have a long way to go. You're absolutely sure about this?"
"Yes." He hopped down and pulled at his crampon straps.
"Well you'd better be." She took out one of her skis. "Because if you're wrong I'm going to kick your ass."
Jason uncovered Stormhand's broken body and lifted the blood-soaked Kjallensword from his side grimly. "Jotuns," he said.
Flicker, on his knees by the fallen warriors, shook his head. "These weren't jotuns." The skald turned around with the sword in his hand and stared at him. "Look at these wounds."
Jason drew back a little, repulsed, but Sigrid strode forward to see. "Broadsword," she said. "Slash and crush. The jotuns use broadswords."
Flicker shook his head again and pointed along a diagonal slash on a corpse's chest. "Why doesn't this stroke carry through?"
"The guy's wearing armor," said Sigrid. "That's the whole reason we *wear* armor. I've had a broadsword blow arrested by armor."
"You're not a giant." He turned the body's forearm gently. "There's too many wounds on these fighters, and they're shallow. If these are jotuns they were either using human weapons or they were deliberately holding back. These guys are fully armed and doing either would have cost them casualties. Why would they risk that?"
"Maybe they wanted to take a brace alive?" hazarded Jason.
"Then why wouldn't they have fought with flat swords?"
"What are you getting at, Flick? This *has* to have been giants; they left all the arms and armor, even the Kjallensword. Only jotuns do that."
"Or people pretending to be jotuns," said Sigrid darkly.
"Flicker," said Sigrid, "it never ceases to amaze me the way you pull a new talent out of your ass every time we need it."
Flicker ripped down the slope like a knife, cutting the trees as close as he dared and kicking up loose snow in walls with every turn. He couldn't hope to lose them at this point; outdistance them, certainly, but his skis would leave a trail a troll could follow, and he couldn't risk endangering Jason. He looped off right, down towards the ravine, and leaned into it as the steepness accelerated him. He did not hold back. It was time for panache. The snow burned his eyes, and he squinted violently through the barrage. The trees were dark, the rocks raised and irregular; there wasn't a chance in Hell of seeing the ravine before he was upon it, and he forced himself to breathe a steady rhythm. He heard the war shrieks of the berserkergang still behind him. He heard the wind shrieking bitterly in his ears. Kish-kao, kish-kao, kish-kao. Flicker's skis struck the ground like weapons, or like instruments; the rhythm was consuming everything, becoming everything. Kish. Kao. All or nothing. *Now.* He launched himself blindly up and out, his heart screaming with speed. The ravine was easily under twenty feet wide, but where was it, had he timed it right? The sense of flying swelled to a point near explosion and Flicker, keeping from shouting with it only through being Flicker, had a sudden surreal idea that he could feel the sun on him through the snow. He almost thought he would keep going up and up. Then his feet hit with a jarring solidness. He almost lost his footing on the sudden slope, but wrenched it around in a skidding spray of snow. Blood thudded in his head. I can't believe I just did that. Behind him the first berserker screamed, and he turned down the slope for Ringebu. "That's two I owe you, Shalini Kyber," he said, and pushed off.
"Ask of me a boon," it boomed, "and it shall be granted."
"The Myriad," hissed Sigrid, "Flick, wish the Myriad!" Jason held her shoulders indolently. Like she needed to remind him.
"Shalini Kyber," said Flicker, without hesitation. "Her soul. Free her. Ease her pain."
"*What*!" shrieked Sigrid.
"Shalini--Cooper?" the genie said, slowly.
"Ah," it said, "I see. It is yours."
"NO, wait!" Sigrid struggled free of Jason. "That's not our wish! How come Flicker gets to make our wish?"
"'Flicker' freed me. It is him I serve." The genie's deep rumble was ranged with amusement, as though it had just understood something.
"It is within your power?"
"Where it is bound by contract my power is great. If you're asking me if I can perform psychic surgery delicate enough to restring a shattered mind without destroying its integral essence, I think you overestimate my psionic skill. If you're asking whether I am capable of granting it, it is already done." Flicker exhaled, barely. "I offered you a wish, not a favor."
"Thank you," he said quietly, with feeling.
"You freed and I repaid. Thanks presume a closeness I am--not prepared for. I follow your progress with interest." The genie began to randomize at the edges and was soon gone in a filter of dust. Flicker put his hands in his pockets. There was a moment's stillness. "Eren Messala, you fucking *bastard*, you sold us out over a *woman*?" bawled Sigrid, and slugged him in the gut.
Flicker accepted the punch quietly, doubling over a little. "Hush, Sigrid," he said, gently, "I've healed something terrible today."
"At Frigg's expense you have!"
Jason held his forehead in his fingers. "So what in Wod's name did you *do* to this poor duck, Flick?" Like no one knew Flicker he knew Flicker.
"Who *cares*?" Sigrid was shaking Flicker like a rag doll, near hysteria. "You mother--fucking--*bastard*! Have you forgotten everything? Do you know what the Valkyrie could have done with that artifact? Couldn't we have reassembled your god-damned girlfriend *later*, damn you to--"
Flicker struck her on the wrist, without warning, the way he always struck. Her grip jarred loose and he sprang backwards about three feet. "Two months and nine days," he said with contained force, "she has suffered in silence, by my hand and for my sake, Sigrid. Each day I swore would be the last. Today I have finally kept my word. Stand away from me."
His nose was bleeding slightly. Flicker was so rarely commanding that when he was it was awful. Sigrid sat down and started to cry, her shoulders harped impossibly tense, and Jason had to go to her then, and touch her yellow hair. "We will take the Myriad," he soothed her, "we shall restore the temple of Frigg, Sigje, and the jotuns will not prevail. Pull yourself together, love, we haven't lost anything today." He met Flicker's eyes and, as usual, had to look away first. "You could have told me."
"There wasn't much to tell." He was quiet again, and finally shrugged. "It was an accident. I never meant to do to her what I did. Now she can rest."
Jason tried to remember the last time he'd seen Flicker sleep. "OK," he said, "you tell me about her tonight." He raised Sigrid to her feet, and she wiped her nose fiercely on her tabard. "We haven't lost anything. Let's go home."
"Something's wrong with the Valkyrie. I just know it."
"Come on, Sigje," Jason said to the tall, powerful Norsewoman, "you worry too much. They took up Bearslayer just a week ago. I was there. Flicker was there."
"I agree with Sigrid," Flicker said.
"You're both morbid," Jason said. "You've been worrying since Kelva left to find and bring back Norna."
"They've been... strange. Aloof, even to me..." Sigrid trailed off, staring into the distance.
"What is it?" Flicker asked.
Sigrid pointed to the Jormungandir. "Someone's on the mountain."
"How can you tell?" Jason asked. "I can hardly see..."
"You don't always need to see to know what's there," Flicker said.
"No one should be on Jormungandir," Sigrid whispered. "The danger of awakening the serpent is too great..."
"He seems to be coming down the mountain, not ascending," Flicker observed.
"We should go there," Sigrid said.
"He might be hurt or in need of help, since he's been on the Snake's Tooth," said Flicker.
"Well, that's two for, one confused. Shall we?" Jason smiled.
The three pushed forward, and started down the hill, their skis tracing runes of a peculiarly human nature in the snow behind them.
It was an hour later when they finally reached the base of Jormungandir. Far up the mountain, they could see the lone figure in black alternately climbing and stumbling down. Finally, the figure looked down, saw the three, and collapsed next to an outcropping of rock, about thirty feet from the foot of the mountain.
"Well, shall we go help him?" Jason asked. "The mountain's already been breached."
"No!" Sigrid cried. "We can't! Hela is too near, I can hear her."
"You're the Valkyrie, Sigje," Jason said, kissing her on the cheek.
"Someone's got to get him off the mountain," Flicker said.
"Well, Flick, if you want to fly up there and get him, I'll be happy to cheer you on," the bard said. Sigrid glared at him.
"Give me your rope," Flicker said to Jason. "I've got an idea." Jason handed his best friend a fifty-foot braided cord. Flicker made a loop and tied a knot. "I never thought I'd end up using one of *his* tricks," he said, an unusual but old anger in his voice. He took the lasso, and spinning it with uncanny skill, tossed the loop over the rock next to the man in black. He handed the other end to Sigrid.
"You two hold this taut."
"Wod's beard, what do you think you're doing, Flick?"
"I'm walking on the rope."
"Are you nuts?" Jason demanded. "Remember the time you fell out of the runepine? That branch was a foot wide and you couldn't walk three yards!"
"I've gotten better at it," Flicker said.
Sigrid flashed Jason a look of concern, but the skald simply nodded. "If you say so, Eren." Jason knotted the rope to the hilt of his sword and thrust the blade into the earth. "Help me hold this, Sigrid." Flicker slowly put one foot onto the rope, and imagined it was a ship's rigging. From there, the rest came easily. He walked along the rope, above the mountain, until he reached the man. He knelt, grasped the rope, and swung around until he was hanging by his knees above the figure. Even from this vantage point, he could tell that the man was dead. The face was certainly not Riklandic; Flicker guessed that he was Nylevian, possibly Rimborese, though he didn't recognize him. A long way to come just to die on a cursed mountain.
Reaching down, he grasped the man's pack and lifted it off the body. The pack was surprisingly light. Sliding it over one shoulder, he grasped the rope again, and flipped himself back on top of it. He could hear Jason mutter in amazement from the foot of the mountain. Slowly he stood and walked back down the rope.
"He's dead, a foreigner," Flicker said when he arrived at the end of the rope. He hopped off. "I retrieved his pack, so we can hopefully find out what he was doing there."
"I'm not even going to ask how you did that, Flick," Jason said. Sigrid just stared at Flicker, and he wondered momentarily what she saw with her Valkyrie sight.
It was the only thing inside the pack.
A black envelope, with "Sunfighter" written in silver ink on it. Flicker opened the envelope. It was written in Dalen, and read:
"Flick, let me see it."
"How do you know it's personal? You can't read Dalen!"
"I've been learning."
"Flicker, give me the letter!"
"It's for me."
"Leave him be, Jason. Flicker knows what he's doing."
"What?" Jason demanded. "What is he doing?"
"I'm going back," he said. "I'm going to Lianth."
"I am--gratified you were all able to make it tonight," said Wyvern, very softly. "Especially you, Luthien. I can't help feeling a certain--" He moved his hand expressively. "Kinship?"
"What do you want?" he said.
"Won't you sit down?"
"I'll stand," said the necromancer.
"As you wish, of course. I don't suppose you've made any progress on your father's curse, have you? How nice to know he lives on in spirit. I do regret having had to kill such an--interesting fellow. Come out of the shadows, Tila. I'm not really here, you see, not in the sense you're used to. I am still--" He looked intently at the ashen Khyrisse. "Imprisoned."
"What do you want?" said Luthien again.
"Believe it or not, I have come to ask your help." He folded his fingers assiduously. "You see, not long ago, your good friend Trillarillia paid us a visit in the Void, wearing that charming body you provided her with. Really, I can't believe you never made more of her." Flicker looked right back at Wyvern, his still Nordic face as inscrutable as his mind. If it frustrated the alien psychiatrist he made the same thin-lipped smile he would have if it had not. "When she left she took with her my only companion, the man you know as Magnate."
"Willingly?" blurted Shilree.
"That would be no." Wyvern inclined his head in a rather serpentine way, looking down. "Before she left, she--confided--in me her plans for this sphere. You may have noticed the appearance of the new and entirely unprophesied moon you call Bane. In ninety-six hours this moon will crash into Ataniel, destroying it." There was a terrible silence. "I will now take questions. Let me save you some breath and answer the ones I already know you'll be asking. Why am I warning you about this? Let's say solitary confinement does not suit either my temperament or my ambitions. During my fascinating conversations with Magnate about the book both of us had the privilege of reading, we came to the realization that Bane is not part of the destiny intended for this sphere. As my eventual," he looked at Khyrisse, "release, is, I am as interested in pursuing the original plan as the denizens of Ataniel. What can you do to achieve that? I'm afraid I don't have the--access--to your world necessary to determine that exactly, but destroying Trillarillia would be a good start, I think." He pointed at Shilree. "Will this affect Diaria? Yes. And finally, why should you trust me? Primarily, I think, because destroying Trillarillia is on your to-do list in the first place, and you will surely uncover proof of what I have told you as you pursue that goal. If you're still suspicious, though, Todd is welcome to make contact with my mind in order to discern my true intentions."
Praxis leaned forward. "How stupid do you think we are?"
"Moderately." Wyvern showed the tips of his teeth in a smile. "But you'll have to do, I'm afraid. I do have one--gift--for you, which may help you or at least give you an indication of my sincerity." He took out a metal-banded torch. "I had been planning on saving this fairy spirit for a rainy day, as it were, but I think perhaps I will be better served by entrusting it to you. Besides, I've a weakness for a good bit of irony." He rolled the torch across the table to Flicker, who caught it in his hand without hesitation and without looking away from Wyvern. "She's certainly carried a torch for you long enough." A loud crash came from somewhere upstairs and Wyvern nodded. "It should be safe for you to carry it. My time here is limited. Are there any questions I've missed?"
"How do I use it," said Flicker, quietly.
"Well, that's up to you, now, isn't it? I do realize it's probably been a few years since you've been presented with an innocent soul to amuse yourself with, but I'm sure it will all come back to you with some small amount of practice. Next?"
"How is she controlling the moon?" said Praxis.
"I didn't have time to discuss that with her," said Wyvern. "I recommend torture. I don't think your mental investigative skills are up to my standards. Anything else?"
Shilree cleared her throat. "Does she still have Magnate?"
"I couldn't say. If she does you may tell him I would be glad to see him again." Wyvern stood up. "My presence here is becoming uncomfortable. Good luck. I have a feeling you're going to need it. If you require further assistance, I--would--be able to take a more active role in this were I on Ataniel myself." He looked at Khyrisse, and inclined his head. "It has been a pleasure getting to know you," he said. "Trust no one," and dissipated.
Flicker flipped the rope from the beer tap and down through the hole just as Shilree closed it. "Show-off," said Tila. "We have plenty of rope."
"You can never have too much rope," Signet pointed out.
"Besides," said Flicker, "now they won't know exactly where we've gone."
"And how long do *you* think it's going to take Lotus to get that information out of Kayla?"
"Kayla can take care of herself," said Nora. "Is the death mage all right?"
"Ohhhhhhhhh," Luthien groaned.
"I think I broke his fall," said Tila, annoyed. "That was the most graceless retreat I've ever seen in my life."
"You weren't a Significant," said Shilree.
"NOW WHAT, MY FRIENDS?"
"We've got to get to Trade, and find out what's wrong with Javert," said Praxis. "Maybe Trill's done something to him."
"The troops came from Trade," Max agreed.
"And I have a lot of useful information there," said Shilree, "and *very* secure quarters. But if we only have ninety-six hours-- *damn* it, but I wish my Staff of the Walker hadn't disappeared."
"The Staff of the Walker?" said Nora. "My husband just brought that to King Cincinnati of the goblins. Are you attuned to it?"
"I was," said Shilree. "Where is this Cincinnati?"
"Beneath Lianth somewhere--"
"Signet and I have been there," said Flicker. "We can lead you."
"Well, can I suggest." Nora sat up and pulled her hair back out of her face with a single deft twist. "If we're planning on jumping through more holes, I have a much more organized way to travel. This artifact is known as the Traveller." She indicated her armband. "Eleven of you might be a little crowded, but you can will yourselves inside if you're touching the stone, and out whenever you want. You can use my senses and communicate with me mentally. We'll be quieter, more maneuverable, and only one of us will take damage at a time. And you'll still be able to guide me from within."
"Would I fit?" said Flicker. "I--I have a lot of psychic mass."
"Well," she said, "why don't you try." She held out her forearm. Flicker touched it and found himself in a room about twelve feet square, strange viewscreens across the walls. A wispy little figure turned to face him. -Janther? Is that you?-
Flicker stared. -Syndy?- he said. His voice was strange and hollow.
She came closer. -Who... who are you? Where is Janther?-
-Janther... Oh, Syndy, I'm sorry. Janther is, he's dead. I'm the current Sunfighter.-
-You are?- She looked at him. -Janther was a lot cuter.-
-Well, yes, Syndy. Yes, he was.- He put his arms around her and they hugged each other. -Are you all right?-
-I *guess* so. I was in Paradise, but then I was somewhere dark and stupid and...- Luthien appeared quite suddenly. -Oh, hello Deadface.-
-What's going on in here? Syndy?-
-Who is she and where did she come from?- came Nora's voice.
-I like it better in here,- concluded Syndy.
Flicker slowly took out Wyvern's torch. -I didn't realize... I thought he was just taunting me.-
-Then there's just one of you,- said Luthien, relieved.
-No, there's two of us,- said Syndy.
-Just one of *him*, though,- said Luthien. -When Nora said there were two spirits, I thought... I was afraid your demon might be loose in here.-
-I am not a *prisoner*,- said Flicker.
Max appeared. -Syndy! We missed you!-
-I'm going out to tell the others it's safe.- Luthien disappeared.
-Maybe,- said Flicker, -maybe I could use this somehow to put Syndy back in her body, and draw Trill out.-
Syndy kind of crinkled her nose. -Trill is using my body?-
-I'm afraid so.-
-M...aybe I don't want it back.-
Praxis appeared beside them, and then Nora. -What are you doing in here?- Max asked Nora. -Aren't you... out there?-
-Not anymore. Tila thought she'd rather wear the armband, since she's quieter and can use thief skills.-
-Hi,- said Tila's voice. -I can hear you guys, but not see you.-
-It doesn't work. I can't contact Luthien when I'm in here either.- Praxis paused. -But I can contact Max when we're in together.-
-I think it's extradimensional.-
-Can I just stay here?- said Syndy. -It's much nicer than the dark place.-
-I could leave the torch here...-
-HELLO, MY FAIRY FRIEND!-
-Aaaaah! Quell, don't shout!-
-This is *it*?- said Shilree.
-Why? What's wrong with it?-
-We just need to learn to adapt to our new living space here. Mind... over matter.-
-Does anyone want to play Old Maid?-
-...but no one touch this. I don't know how it works.-
-SORRY, MISS TILA!-
-Maid old Zzenith will play.-
-CAN EVERYBODY PLEASE NOT TALK AT ONCE!- Tila shrieked mentally.
-This had better be important, Flicker.-
-It's not that important. Never mind.-
There was a pause. -All right, what was it?-
-When we were in the Mithril Dagger? Did--you think Kayla was checking me out?-
-Uh...- thought Tila. -Uh, maybe she was, actually, a little. I think so. Not a lot, though.-
-You're not that cute anymore,- Syndy reminded him.
-You're as lovely as ever, Syndy.-
She sat up. -Did... Janther think I was lovely?-
-What?- Flicker looked across at her, distracted. -Of course he did. Janther... had a lot on his mind. But he wasn't *stupid*.-
Syndy unsuccessfully tried to hide the fact that she was smiling with her hand of cards. -Do you want back on the Mindnet, Flicker?- said Praxis.
Go on to Chapter 2
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