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-Shhhhhhhh!- Tila crept closer.
"I'm telling you, it doesn't count!" said one of the men, in the distance. "You can't sacrifice someone who's already dying. That's *cheating*."
"Aren't we *all* dying?" said the woman. "In the larger picture, that is?"
-Luthien-, Tila thought into the Traveller. -This writing on the walls, is it magic?-
-I don't think so. Looks like some generic demon-worshipping stuff.-
-What about the circle?-
-Protective?- he hazarded.
-Can you tell what god they're worshipping?-
-Not really. Get us closer to the altar.-
-How come they don't ask you?- Syndy wanted to know.
-Probably because my first host was such a space cadet about it.- Flicker drew two cards.
Praxis turned around. -Do you know something, Flicker?-
-If I did I would have told you already. Luthien's right. Generic demon-worshipping stuff and a protective circle. They, ah, they don't seem to know what they're doing very well.-
"Look, she's alive, and if we killed her, she'd be dead," said one of the other men. "That sounds like a sacrifice to me!"
"It's a technicality, Bucket. I think it would make him angry. We should find a living woman to sacrifice."
-Oh, my God,- said Luthien. The woman on the altar was Lady Jenny.
-Do we fight?-
-No-, thought Tila. -They might summon demons or something. I'll sneak up to the altar and someone can jump out and grab her.-
-Let me try to bluff them. I still have my polymorph on.- Luthien crossed his arms and blipped in behind the altar as an artist's conception of a pit fiend. "This is mine," he roared, and pulled Jenny to him.
The woman screamed. "Tjekanefir, protect us!"
-*What*?- Flicker whirled on the bank of viewscreens, flinging out both his arms.
"Begone from here, mortals, for you are small and I am large!" Luthien stamped his clawed feet.
-I'm not going to *protect* you!-
-Flicker, let Luthien handle it,- said Praxis.
Flicker blipped in beside the woman. "What are you *doing*," he yelled at her.
"Aaaaah! Another one!"
"Well, so much for subtlety," said Tila, disgusted.
"So much for them summoning demons!" Flicker shook the woman by her shoulders. "Are you *insane*?"
"Zzenith," boomed Luthien. "I need you."
Zzenith blipped in, evoking more cries from the cultists. "Help us, Tjekanefir!"
"Oh, he's not going to hurt you!" said Flicker. "What are you--*idiots*--doing down here?"
"We're sacrificing this woman to our god," said the shortest man. One of the taller ones stepped on his foot. "*No*, we're not. She's already dying. Will you demons please tell this jerk you can't sacrifice somebody who's going to die anyway?"
"You know what your problem is, Klee? You never carry anything through. So you wind up summoning stupid demons and not getting any divine protection. *I'm* going to sacrifice her." He pulled out a long wavy knife; Luthien hit him across the throat with a big clawed hand and knocked him almost ten feet. "Anyone who lays a hand on her *dies*!"
"Oh my," said the woman, looking wide-eyed at her fellow cultist's body.
"Where--where did you *get* an idea like this?"
"Well, actually, it was Maggie's idea," said Klee.
"See, I was a comparative religions major?" said Maggie. "And we wanted to worship a demon lord, so I had read about Lord Tjekanefir? He conquered two realms of the Abyss, and they say, he walks among us in mortal form."
"Information correct religions comparative major *does* have," said Zzenith.
"Yeah, so get off the altar, blob," said the third man, "or face Tjekanefir's wrath!"
"Angry is friend SunFlicker?" said Zzenith, anxiously.
Flicker put his hands up like he was going to hold his head but didn't, shook them twice. "*No*," he finally said.
"And so we like, started this cult?" said Maggie. "And it's really pretty cool, and we've got some cult uniforms and stuff, and--"
"Get--get out!" Flicker's Nordic calm finished cracking into high-pitched frustration. "Get *out* of here! Shoo!"
"And don't ever sacrifice anyone again," roared Luthien. "Or I'll come back and kill you! You got that!"
"Yes sir. Oh, yes sir."
"If we worshipped him," whispered the other guy loudly, "do you think he'd give us power?"
"No," roared Luthien. "I'd kill you."
"He's got, like, a pretty bad attitude."
"Get out. *Get* out." Flicker swept them out into the hallway. "I don't believe--"
"Arawn," moaned Jenny.
"Arawn?" Luthien whirled around. "What about Arawn?"
"Dead... all dead..."
"Dead, who are dead?"
"Lifeforce Jenny lady drained is," said Zzenith, sadly. "Heal her can Zzenith not."
"Gods... all dead..."
"Maka," whispered Flicker.
"Paninaro... the only survivor... find him... our last hope..."
"Jenny," said Luthien, "Jenny, who did this to you?"
"Luthien..." She focused blearily on him. "Why are you... a pit fiend..."
"It doesn't matter. Jenny, who did this?"
"Don't know... isolating the sphere... takeover... must find... Paninaro..." She lapsed back into incoherence, breathing shallowly.
Luthien buckled across the altar in grief, his great black wings shaking. "Oh God. Oh God, can't you do something, Zzenith."
"Resurrect Rip god Zzenith lifeforce still existed when did. Different situation is entirely."
"Bragi is--is dead?" Jason frowned and shook the runes like dice. "The Allfather is dead. Thor--is dead." Jason stared at the runes blankly for what felt like a very long time. "Ragnarok." He slowly took out his mead horn and took a very long pull.
A tall, dashing man stood in the center of the goblin carnage, King Cincinnati smoking at his feet. The Staff of the Walker leaned against the side of the throne. "Nora!" he shouted, joyfully. "Welcome home, darling!"
"*Philip*?" She pushed forward, shaking. "What have you *done*?"
"I've won us a kingdom!" He gestured around proudly. "No more working to defend other people's lands. This is *ours*, Nora. I've made you a queen."
"*Philip*!" she shrieked. "How *could* you? This goes against everything--"
"Don't you like it, sweetheart? I did it for you."
"His mind is horribly evil," Praxis said to her, low. "If this is Philip something's wrong with him."
"Oh, believe me," she said, through her teeth, "this is *not* my husband's doing."
"What are you two talking about?" Philip advanced. "Nora, are you seeing another man? I *will* kill you both."
"What have you done with Philip, you--" Nora charged him with her polearm, and he jetted fire into her. A look of terror passed over his face then, and he scrabbled back. "Don't kill me. Help. Help, protect me!"
"Hit him once," said Praxis, with authority, "it doesn't have to be hard."
Flicker let loose an arrow, but it lodged in the shield of fire forming around the deranged hero. Max looked at Luthien and Luthien shrugged. "Item magic," he guessed. Khyrisse zapped Philip with a magic missile and he slumped over, a mask of fear on his face. "He thinks he's dead," said Praxis, "it should wear off in an hour. Maybe we can find a way to--"
"This isn't over," shouted Nora. The fire unfurled around Philip's body.
"That's no fire shield." Luthien yanked out his trident.
One of the creature's fiery arms took a burning swipe across Nora's body. Shilree fired her pistol into it twice. "It's a demon!" shouted Max.
"It's not a demon." Flicker pulled the Kjallensword and rushed it.
"Get out of the way," screamed Khyrisse. "Luthien, Flicker, Nora, cone of cold!"
"You'll kill Philip!" shouted Nora, and hacked at the elemental.
"Away go creature extraplanar fire!" called Zzenith, and the elemental crackled and was gone in a plume of smoke. Nora grabbed her husband up in her arms. Her face was blotched and burned. "Praxis, is he still evil, or was it just his Other?"
"I--I'm afraid it's him, Nora."
"Possession? A spell? What is this?"
"Some kind of change." He shook his head. "Whatever it is has already changed him. There's nothing to dispel. I--could try to restore him, later, but it might take me a week or more."
"Then--then it will have to wait." She stumbled numbly to her feet, clutching her fallen husband to her chest. "I'll bring him with us. Without his Other he can't harm us, not with his hands bound."
"Can he enter the Traveller without willing himself in?" said Tila.
"If I carry him he can." She touched the armband and they both disappeared.
Luthien struck himself in the forehead. "I could have brought Jenny!"
"Nothing done for Jenny could have been."
"No, but Flicker's lame-ass cult wouldn't be able to defile her body!"
"You've already put her at rest." Flicker touched Praxis' sleeve. "Didn't this happen to Inez' brother once? Could there still be a good version of Philip around?"
"It's possible," said Praxis. "Or someone could have deformed his brain. Psios might have done this."
"Lotus?" said Luthien.
"I don't know."
-I was just thinking,- said Signet. -Which do you like better, Banisher of Bane or Champion of the World?-
-Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself?- said Luthien.
-How about Savior of Ataniel?- suggested Max.
-I'm already Savior of Neporris.-
Flicker cleared his throat. -Now that you have some real titles, don't you think it's time to retire that one?-
-It's a real title!-
-Protector of Ataniel, maybe?-
-Or Averter of Armageddon,- said Flicker.
-Stop *encouraging* him!- Shilree thought sharply.
-THERE ARE NO DEMONS HERE,- thought Quell, loudly. He paused, clearly thinking. -WHERE IS *OUR* DEMON?-
-I'm in here, Quell,- said Flicker. -You can't sense me from outside.-
-I UNDERSTAND!- Quell lied.
-Detect evil, Quell,- said Praxis. -We need to know if Telerie and the guards are evil.-
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!" roared Quell, and collapsed, clutching at his head. Telerie, upside down in the viewscreen, said "Are you all right, traveler?"
Shilree blipped in beside him, got her shoulder under his, and went rocketing into the woods, the staff blaring green. Telerie and the guards were saying something but it wound away behind them with drastic speed. The viewscreen hit a tree and everyone jerked reflexively. Shilree panted. "Quell. Quell!"
"EVIL IS EVERYWHERE!" he wailed.
Praxis blipped in. "What did they do to you?"
"EVERYTHING IS EVIL! THE WHOLE WORLD IS EVIL!"
"What about Telerie?"
"I CANNOT TELL. THERE IS TOO MUCH EVIL." Quell sat up shakily from under Shilree. "I THINK I WILL JUST BE THE SCOURGE OF SOME EVIL TODAY."
Shilree laughed, unevenly. "Okay. Okay, that's good. You do that, Quell."
-Tag up,- said Tila. -The hell with Telerie. I'll just break us in the window.-
"If we get close again," said Praxis, "I can read a guard's mind and find the Trade Gate."
Tila blipped in. "Even better. I'll break us in the *right* window. Give me the armband, Shilree. Nice move."
"I WILL HEAL YOU, FAIR DIARI."
-Aaaaaaah!- screamed Syndy. -It's the Blue Fairy!-
Khyrisse dropped the tattered body and puked everywhere. Luthien caught most of it with his ring before it hit the ground. -Oh, Khyrisse!- yelled Tila. -That's *just* what we neededd in here, *barf*!-
-Maybe *you* should have ripped her off the portal!- Khyrisse hollered, on the verge of tears. Max put his hand comfortingly on her shoulder.
-Does someone have a bucket?- said Luthien.
-Can you guys keep it down?- Signet thought into the Traveller.
-Now you know how *I* felt.-
-Or a possible bag?-
-*No*,- said Shilree, folding her arms.
-Well, I need to put this somewhere! I can't very well examine the body while I'm juggling vomit!-
-Zzenith consume Khyrisse friend of regurgitation will.-
-Ohhhhhhh!- said Tila, as Zzenith engulfed the ball of vomit. -Now *I* don't feel so good!-
-The Blue Fairy is dead!- Syndy wept.
-Which way, Shilree?-
-Take your second left.-
Luthien gently touched the blue fairy's face and concentrated. -Offered them help... asked her to assist the travelers... brought her to...- Luthien's eyes flew open and he clapped both his hands back onto the Traveller wall like he was trying to steady himself. -Telerie and her father nailed her body across the gate.-
-That does it,- said Luthien, trying to get his breathing under control. -I am not being paranoid. Joining an evil alliance is one thing. If she's gone *fairy-nailing* wacko, something is wrong with the world.-
-Not *everyone's* evil, though,- said Max. -Praxis, the palace guard didn't feel evil, did he?-
-No,- said Praxis, -not like that. Not like Philip.-
-Wyvern said, trust no one.-
-And I'm sure he had a hard time convincing you, too, Shilree.-
Flicker stood up suddenly. -Signet, stop! Get against the wall! What's going on up there?-
Signet flattened. -My quarters!- said Shilree.
-Trust no one,- Tila reminded her.
-I didn't!- Shilree fumbled with her slate. -Alexis! Alexis, what is the status on my security system?-
-Looks like we've been breached, boss.-
-Could Alexis be evil?-
-I'm just a program, miss.-
-Offline. No information available.-
-We'll go to my safehouse,- said Tila.
-My quarters were the safest place in this city,- whispered Shilree, numbly. -If they could break in there they could break in anywhere.-
-Probably,- said Tila, -but your quarters are the public property of you, who they're trying to kill, and my safehouse is an anonymous hideout for some thieves they don't care about. We're not looking for a fortress. We're looking for a place to hide. Signet, hang a right down this alley.-
-Tila,- said Praxis, -we can't trust the other thieves in your guild, either.-
-That's convenient,- she said, cheerfully. -I never did. Want to help Venom interrogate a few of them? They might know something.-
"So Flicker," said Luthien. "You must have died again, right? Anything interesting for my research?"
"Not really," he said. "I was hit in the head by a big hammer."
"*Max*," Luthien reproached.
"What? I didn't do it!"
"It was a jotun," said Flicker, quietly amused. "And it felt exactly the same as getting hit in the head with a hammer and *not* dying. Sorry."
"You get hit in the head with a hammer a lot?" said Shilree.
"It's that kind of country." He paused. "Do you know about hypothermia?"
"I can't believe you're writing a book about this," Signet protested.
"It'll be a best seller in Riklandir."
"I can't believe you're writing a book about your stupid code of morality," said Luthien. "Yeah, Mattais has been telling me about some of the effects of extreme exposure. It's fascinating stuff, really."
"Do you know him?"
"I know of him. Icewind's one of our greatest heroes."
"He's in Spectral," said Luthien. "And so is your friend Timrin, incidentally."
Flicker looked quickly at Luthien, and then at his own hands. "I think," he said, "the less I know about that, probably, the better."
"Well, my second-in-command's gotten kind of *weird*, but he's not *insane*," said Tila. "I mean, he wants to start a gang war with the police. That's kind of strange. But he's not nailing fairies."
"We're wanted dead or alive," added Praxis. "The police are also looking for this man." He produced a wanted picture of a man with long hair and a greying beard. "He is to be captured alive only and brought directly to Javert. There are also some terrorists named Quatro who have been sabotaging the council for a while. That's all we've been able to learn."
"There's even less on this end," said Luthien. "Signet found Paninaro in his crystal ball, but he's just sitting in a white marble room. We can't place it. And when he tries to view Trill, or Magnate, or any of the Baniacs, the ball starts cracking. I'm going to have to mend it in the morning."
"We should go to a temple of Paninaro," said Signet. "Maybe his priests will know where he is."
"There *is* no temple of Paninaro in Trade," said Khyrisse.
Luthien looked at Max. "Lianth?"
"Give me the crystal ball."
"Don't look at Baniacs," Signet complained.
"I'm just looking at the temple." Max gasped. "There's blood everywhere."
"We have to go there."
"Leave Trade think should we not until more do we know. Special travel potential lose should we not risk time when is so short."
"He's right," said Luthien.
"I'll call Schneider," said Praxis. "He's a Paninaro worshipper. Maybe he can tell us what happened." The psionicist's eyes glazed over in his characteristic way. Signet took the crystal ball and summoned up Shilree. She was talking with another Diari. "We should go to *some* temple, though," said Signet.
"Why?" said Tila. "There aren't any more *gods*."
"The priests might know something."
Praxis snapped his fingers and held his hand out for the crystal ball. Signet didn't respond; Flicker plucked it out of his hands and gave it to Praxis. Praxis ran his hand over it and the image surfaced of Schneider on stage, doing some kind of grotesque dance routine with a severed arm. He was laughing. Praxis panned out on the audience. Most of them seemed to be dead. Praxis severed the connection and looked at Flicker. "Fairy-nailing?" said Luthien, subdued.
"I'm afraid so," said Praxis.
Luthien shook his head. "I'm glad he wasn't watching Gordon."
"I can find--"
"No!" Luthien grabbed the ball out of his hands. "Praxis. Please. I don't want to know. I wouldn't be able to go on."
Praxis nodded, slowly. "All right. All right, but I'm going to try Shikintu. I need to know."
Signet took the ball back from Luthien. "Javert is still in the map room. Now he's looking--"
Shilree burst into the safehouse at full speed, gasping, and actually threw her arms around Flicker. He held her. "What is it?"
"Malaras," she gasped. "Betrayed me."
"Trust no one," said Tila. "Even Diari."
"He's *not* just Diari." Shilree put all her fingers in her hair. "He's family."
Flicker touched her cheek. "I'm sorry," said Luthien, quietly.
"From now on," said Max, "I think we should only go out with backup."
"Inez is all right," said Praxis, "for now at least. People are turning evil in Shikintu too. The entire sphere is falling apart."
"For on earth everything is at the point of collapse," whispered Flicker, "nothing is sacred any longer, murder is paramount, brothers fight and slay one another, and the world is wicked."
"What is *that* from?" said Luthien.
"You probably don't want to know."
Shilree grabbed him by the shirt front. "Tell me it wasn't a dream you had," she rasped.
"No," he said, "it wasn't a dream."
"I do want to know," said Luthien. "Tell me."
"Ragnarok," he said. "This is the age of swords, of the battleaxe that cleaves shields; this is the age of wind and the wolf, of the very day when the gods shall be no more. Ragnarok is upon us."
"Sunny was a hell of a lot less depressing," said Signet, crossly.
"I'm sorry," he said. "If it makes you feel better mankind is supposed to survive."
"Why don't we break into the Trade Council building?" said Tila. "I bet we can get some answers in there."
"Are you crazy!" yelled Shilree.
"Well, we've got to start doing *something* proactive! We've only got three days to save the world, and we can't even agree what to do about it!"
"What about this guy?" Praxis shook the wanted poster. "Javert wants him alive. If Tila disguised herself as him, maybe we could draw him out. He must know something about all of this."
"Okay," said Tila, "and *then* we can break into the Trade Council building, using his information."
"They'll *kill* us!"
"No, they won't. We're heroes."
Khyrisse shook her head. "They'll see right through it. Do you think they don't have magic detection? They'll know you're not really him."
"My shape-changing pills aren't magic," she said. "It's impossible to tell the difference. Isn't it, Flicker?"
"They have been effective in the past," he said quietly.
"I think it's a good plan," said Max. "If interrogating Javert doesn't give us any better idea, we can always use the Trade building as back-up. It's better than nothing."
"The Trade Council are the most powerful--"
"And I'm the best break-in artist on Ataniel."
"She's right," Flicker pointed out, and stood. "Okay, I'm for it."
"Not *now*!" cried Khyrisse. "We need to *sleep*!"
Flicker looked at her. "Oh," he said. "Didn't--you sleep on the way to Trade?"
"*I* didn't!" Shilree pulled her hair. "I ran two hundred miles today, broke my shoulder on a tree, got backstabbed, my brother tried to turn me over to evil kiljhaci, I haven't slept in sixteen hours, and *I* need to get what rest I can!"
"I had a good nap," said Tila, "and I don't need to recover any spells or anything, either. You want to come with me to check out some contacts of mine, Flicker? Signet can take the first watch."
"I want to go to a temple," whined Signet.
"You can go to a temple tomorrow."
"I have one more idea," said Praxis, and took a deep breath. "I can try to contact Paninaro." Everyone looked at him. "He *is* on this plane."
"I--I guess it's worth a shot," said Luthien.
"Monitor Praxis Zzenith had better," suggested the alien healer, and attached one of his mouths to Praxis' back. "Future choose can Zzenith use if powerful god mind Praxis friend circuits short."
"Thank you, Zzenith." Praxis concentrated.
X X X X
Flicker's head snapped back. "Ow!" yelled Tila. "What?" said Shilree. "What happened?"
"Unconscious is Praxis," explained Zzenith. "All right will he be."
"I got something over the mindlink," said Max.
"Four X's," said Luthien.
"Quatro," said Tila. "It must be."
Go on to Chapter 3
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