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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Ragnarok: Chapter 3

"And what might persuade you to part with that information?" said Tila, leaning forward.

Marie smiled. "You could work for me for a month."

"Now Marie. I'm much too busy for that these days."

"Doing what?" she said, pointedly.

-She's getting suspicious-, Flicker told her. -Agree.-

-Oh, like I have time to be a ho!- "I deal in information, Marie, and I make more in a month than the best of your girls. Whatever I'd fetch you I'd rather pay up front."

"I don't trust cagey girls, Jessica."

"I have access to a lot of things that might help you trust me." Tila adjusted her newly copious bosom. "Gold... jewels..."

"I am not--"

"...artwork..."

"Artwork?" Marie frowned at her. "What kind of artwork?"

"Oh, impressionist paintings, landscapes... there are some nice erotic sculptures that might suit your establishment."

"My establishment does not need embellishing," said Marie. "But I have a contact who is very interested in art. What impressionist paintings are we talking about?"

She shrugged. "Arisa... Mollan Tach... Ensari... what are you looking for?"

"Let me consult my contact." She stood. "If he is interested I will tell you what you want to know."

"Thank you." Tila folded her hands with satisfaction. -See?-

-She's acting strange.-

-How do you know, Flicker, you come here a lot?-

-Maybe she just likes art,- suggested Syndy. -I like art.-

Book Divider

"Actually," purred Marie, "it seems that there *is* a certain amount of interest in the artworks you mention, Jessica. They've been off the market for some time now. Wherever *have* you found them?"

"I have powerful friends."

"I'm sure you do." A knife blade buried itself between her shoulder blades, and the thief sagged hard. "You also have a price on your head. Tila."

She turned, staggering like a bull in the ring, wounded but not down. A lingerie-clad woman with a bloody dagger stood behind her. Flicker materialized on Marie's desk, the Kjallensword already back for a swing; Marie's eyes went a little wide at the sudden incongruous appearance of an armed Viking warrior, and she put her arm up, but the sword crashed into the side of her head once and she went down. Flicker stood on the desk and stared down at her. "That was *it*?" He turned to Tila. The whore was already lying at her feet. "Are they *mad*? You could have taken them both yourself!"

"Owwwwwwwww," whined Tila.

Book Divider

"Stupid Marie," said Tila, "stupid, stupid, stupid. Let me give you a piece of free advice. If there are a million dollars on someone's head, two women in their underwear are probably *not* a match for her."

"It depends on the underwear," said Luthien.

"Now tell us what we want to know or we'll kill you."

"Then I guess you'll just kill me," she said, "because I don't know anything."

"We won't hurt you if you don't know anything," said Luthien. "But we have ways of knowing if you're telling the truth or not. Tell us everything you know, truthfully, and we will reward you."

"If you think I'm going to reward--" Tila started.

"Have a bloody mary, miss?" said Signet.

"Oh, *fine*! Anyone who backstabs *me* gets the royal treatment!"

"Tila," said Luthien, "she's scared. Listen, we can protect you."

"I'm not playing good cop bad cop with you, Luthien!" Tila booted Marie in the butt. "Praxis, just read her mind. I don't trust anything she'd tell us anyway."

"Why did you try to kill Tila?" said Praxis.

"To get Lord Javert's reward, of course."

Praxis nodded and held out the wanted poster. "Who is this man?"

"I don't know. The cops are looking for him. I've never seen him before."

"Good. What do you know about Quatro?"

"Nothing. They're terrorists or something."

"And you told Tila you had information she might want. What was it?" Marie balked. Praxis didn't blink. "Wemble killed one of her girls a few weeks ago. Very violently. There were threats and a cover-up."

"*Really*," said Shilree, with sudden interest.

"Oh, God. I am so dead."

"Could you put that in this crystal for me?"

"He's probably insane, Shilree."

"This was well before everyone went wacko. His ass is mine."

"I don't have any more ball gags," said Tila. "Marie, I'm putting you in the closet with Philip. He may try to kill you. Let us know."

Book Divider

"Crap!" Tila slammed the door to her safehouse, her features morphing back into her own. "Where the hell is Javert!"

"He's still in the map room," said Signet. "Can we go to a temple now?"

"That stupid Baniac's been chasing us all over the city! I thought Javert was supposed to be in charge!"

Zzenith blipped in. "Still hold and Zzenith will crossbow bolts remove, Tila friend."

"Obviously Javert isn't as much in charge as some people think," said Praxis.

"What is with you and this temple thing, Signet?"

"I want to know if it's true that the gods are dead. I think we're being deluded here. Something's not right."

"Everyone's evil and the moon is going to crash into the planet. No *shit* something's not right!"

"What if it's a big illusion, and the moon's not really there at all? Zzenith's wisdom says the moon's not there and none of this is really happening."

"Bury your head a little deeper, Signet."

"Think about it! How come Quell can still cast spells if Tal is dead?"

-TAL IS NOT DEAD. TAL DOES NOT HAVE MORTAL FORM. TAL IS...-

"Quell, get out of my head if you're going to talk!!"

Quell blipped in. "TAL IS A MIGHTY SPIRIT," he explained patiently. "TAL IS THE FORCE OF GOOD. GOOD WILL NEVER BE DESTROYED!"

"Eternal are wisdom and good," said Zzenith, gratefully.

A little dart of light came skimming in under the door, circled once, and whizzed back out. -Scry!- yelled Luthien. -They're onto us!-

"Oh, *fuck*! Everybody in!"

-Wait!- Nora blipped in. "Philip and Marie!"

-Stupid!- Luthien hit himself in the head. -I have a spell that wards against scrying. Now they know we're all here.-

"We won't be here for long. Move."

-They know we're in Trade. They'll be able to home in on us.-

"Then we'll go somewhere else and you'll cast the spell then." Praxis hefted Marie and hit the gem. -Tila, do you have another safehouse?-

"That they won't be crawling all over after this? No. Let's go to the temple of Morvon. No one will ever look for us there."

Praxis and Luthien looked at each other. -Well, that's true,- said Luthien.

"I don't want to go to a *deserted* temple! I want one with *priests*!"

"Signet, will you shut up and go in the armband?"

Book Divider

Luthien swished into the Morvonic temple in his female guise. "I don't think anyone saw us. Signet, get out of my brain, this minute, or else." Signet blipped in. "The temple of Arawn is completely boarded up. We tried a couple of others but the clerics there were pretty paranoid and hostile." He looked at Khyrisse, pacing tightly across the tiles. "Are you all right?"

"We've got something," said Praxis, subdued, and showed him the crystal ball.

"Why is Paninaro hanging from a bunch of *bananas*?" Luthien reverted to his normal form.

"I have *no* idea," said Praxis, "but look at this." He passed his hand over the ball and the image shifted to that of Derek the Deranged, sitting in a white marble room, picking his toes with a banana.

"Holy shit."

"Cynystra," said Khyrisse, high-pitched. "I *hate* Cynystra."

Book Divider

"Khyrisse," said Eric, without looking at her. He nodded at the minister and signed whatever she was carrying. "I thought you might be by here. I assume you're not insane and evil?"

"*What*?"

"More so than usual, at least?" He looked up at her. He had a handsome, sly smile, but his face was haggard beneath it. "Never mind. You need protection, I take it. You and your friends may have the east guest rooms, if you stay out of my way." A soldier approached him, and he leaned across the throne to consult with him.

"ERIC!"

He rolled his eyes. "Women screaming," he said. "The music of life. What is it now?"

"Where--is--my--father?"

"Not--here." He said something to the soldier.

-Khyrisse. Take it easy.-

She was almost hyperventilating. "Eric. What do you know about people turning evil?"

"Hadn't you noticed?"

"Of *course* I've noticed, WHY IS IT HAPPENING?"

"Khyrisse." He turned around fully to face her. "This is way over your head here, and I don't have time to waste. If your friends want to talk to me let them out and get it over with. I've got a crisis on my hands."

Khyrisse put both her fists into her forehead. Praxis and Luthien blipped in. "Duke Eric," said Praxis, "it is very important that we find Khyrisse's father."

"If *he's* gotten more insane," said Eric, "then there is really no hope for the world. Come on out, all of you. The Diari too. I'm not really interested in Diaria at the moment. What do you want with old Derek? He really isn't here."

"What do you know about Bane?" said Praxis.

"You mean besides the fact that it's going to crash into the planet in--" He turned a calendar on his desk. "Three days?"

"That would be the relevant part," said Praxis.

"Yes, and our underground shelter construction is woefully behind schedule, so if you could get to the point?"

"Well, we're trying to stop it. And I don't know if you've noticed, but Trillarillia or whoever she's working with has destroyed the gods of Ataniel."

That got Eric's attention. "Destroyed them," he said, pointing at Khyrisse, "or demoted them?..."

"Destroyed them," said Praxis. "Khyrisse escaped, but she--"

"--doesn't know anything useful," Eric finished for him. "Naturally. Well, I'm glad I invested in sports stadia rather than a state church."

"Good for you," said Luthien. "We're searching for the last of the gods, and Derek seems to have him prisoner. Help us find him. We haven't got much time."

Eric drummed his fingers. "Well, he *was* on Brytannwch. I don't know if he--"

"Brytannwch?" said Praxis. "But Brytannwch is--"

"--a long story," said Eric, "and one I'm not going to get into right now. The bottom line is I've got all my resources sunk into keeping my people from killing and maiming each other right now. I've got nothing to commit to Bane right now, and nothing to commit to you. But I *can* get you as far as Brytannwch." He opened a desk drawer, and paused for a moment. "Sort of. There's one island left, off the coast."

"That's impossible," said Praxis. "I sailed the length of the--"

"You see what he wants you to see," said Khyrisse, through her teeth.

"Right," said Eric, more tired than smug. He flipped Praxis a key. "Take that with you, you'll have better luck. I'll instruct a ship to give you passage. But I'm not getting involved in this, you understand."

"Thank you," said Flicker, quietly.

"Well." Eric rubbed his neck. He looked suddenly rather old. "Good luck."

Book Divider

"I'm comin' already!" Shannon threw the door open, angrily. There was a kerchief tied over her head; she was wearing a sleeveless tee and a loose Celtic skirt like the farmgirls wore. There was dirt on its knees. She seemed even more incongruous than usual. "Who the hell are--what do *you* want?"

Khyrisse hadn't quite stopped shaking. "My father's on Brytannwch. I have to find him."

"Take my word for it," said Shannon, "your filthy old father has *not* passed this way. Good after--"

"Please!" she cried. "We need to get to Brytannwch. Can, can you tell us how to go?"

"I *can*," she said, "but damn me if I *will*. Brytannwch is closed."

"Shannon," said Praxis. "Where is my country?"

"Ah," she said, with more gentleness. "Somewhere Mr. Expansionist canna get his grubby hands on her. You dinna need to worry about Brytannwch."

"My father's got there somehow," said Khyrisse. "Eric said--"

"Oh, and you're believin' what *he* says now?" Shannon put her hands on her hips. "I'm tellin' you, that madman's not been through here, and this is the only way to Brytannwch. I am the only way to Brytannwch. Eric's got no access."

Khyrisse stared at her. "You mean *you*--took the country away from him and got him to put up an elaborate illusion around it?"

"That's right," she said, folding her arms. "That's what happens when a man takes a wife who's a match for him. Next time you want to leave a man see that you're in possession of every piece of intelligence he's got on the country he's at war with. It helps your bargainin' position."

"Or you can kill him," said Praxis, coldly. "That works."

She looked at him narrowly. "Get out of my--"

Luthien put his foot quickly into the slamming door. "Shannon," he said. "Derek was in the company of a greater *god*. I don't care where you've put the country. He could have gotten there. My mother is from Brytannwch. I won't put it in danger."

She paused a long moment. "I suppose you and the other one can go back," she said. "But I'm not sendin' Eric's pet deity and all you lot. How do I know what he's up to?"

"I have no love for Duke Eric," said Shilree, frostily. "And I will do whatever you'd like me to to prove it."

"Oh, so it's wantin' me to betray my husband you are now, Diari?"

"As if he's never betrayed anyone!" said Khyrisse.

"He did what he had to do," said Shannon, "and I did what I had to. It's not your business. Now you all clear out of here. If the two of you want to return home to look for that crazy old wild mage I'll let you."

"All right," said Luthien, "that's what we'll do, then. Thank you, Shannon. We'll be back."

Book Divider

"Shannon!" Luthien knocked at the door. "We sent away the others!"

She swung it open. "You did not. You put 'em in your armband."

Luthien looked kind of sheepish. "Well, I didn't say where I sent them away *to*."

"It was a nice try," she agreed, "but I wasna born yesterday, you know. Now push off."

"I do apologize," said Praxis. "Now open that door and let us in."

She did, cursing up a cloud of Gaelic. The room was simple and well-kept: an oak table, a green chair, a book of Celtic love poems on a stand, a hanging mirror. Above the fireplace on the mantle was a crystal ball on a stand, and above that was a needlepoint that said A WOMAN NEEDS A MAN LIKE A FISH NEEDS A BICYCLE. "You'll get nothin' out of me," she snarled.

"Shannon, sit your arse down," said Praxis. She did, insulting his parentage some more. Tila blipped in and started examining the area; Signet joined her after a few moments. "We need to get to Brytannwch. Now tell us how."

"Do you think I'll be tellin' you that, you bloody great bastard? Go ahead and kill me."

Praxis sighed. "I'm afraid it does seem she has to willingly let us through."

"Did I tell you? Go on, console yourself with stealin' my meager possessions." Flicker blipped in with his hand on Signet's wrist and pulled it back hard; "*ow*!", said the thief, and then, as Flicker's grip tightened, "all right, all right," and dropped the silver necklace into his other hand. Flicker put it back in the drawer and pushed Signet back a foot and a half, his face set. "Stop being such a *jerk*," said Signet, shaking his wrist.

Praxis sighed again and released Shannon, apparently, because she got up and slugged him. "Shannon," he said, "Bane is going to crash into Ataniel."

"Really, now? And are flyin' monkeys then goin' to land from outer space?" She took the necklace and shoved it down her shirt. "Did you see the face of the fairy queen in your haggas this mornin'? Get out of my house, you're all damned honkin' nuts."

"This is not a joke. If we don't find Paninaro... Listen, this whole sphere could be destroyed."

"Well, too bad for it," she said. "I've saved the part I care about, and I'm not riskin' it over you."

"This sphere includes you."

"Too bad for me!" She threw up her arms. "*Let* the sky fall on my head then. Brytannwch is safe and she's stayin' that way. Now you go back and tell Eric that."

Book Divider

The eagle alighted and turned back into Luthien. "Trouble," he said. "The ship's Cynystran all right, and commanded by a Baniac."

"Lying bastard!" screamed Khyrisse.

"Easy," said Max.

"There's nothing they could want with Shannon," said Flicker. "They must be looking for us. We can lead them away from here--"

Shannon opened the door. "Come in, come *in*." The crystal ball was down on the table now. She shut the door behind them and threw the bolt. "Give me this again. From the beginnin'."

"Bane is going to crash into Ataniel," said Praxis. "We think an elder witch named Trillarillia is controlling it somehow. She's also turning people evil, and she's killed the gods. We're searching for the last of the gods now. We know he's with Derek, and Eric says Derek's on Brytannwch."

"Except he's a lying *bastard*!" hollered Khyrisse.

"Well there's no denyin' that, lassie, but he's also worried enough to break his silence to warn me. That man doesna get nervous easily." She paused. "And you promise if I send you through you'll do nothin' to endanger Brytannwch?"

"Shannon, we swear it," said Praxis.

Zzzzzzzap! The crystal ball crackled with energy and Signet screamed and flapped his hand. "Yes, I left that down just hopin' you might do that," said Shannon. She fished her necklace out of her bra and fastened it around her neck. Her hair was longer than it had been. "All right, come along then, before I change my mind."

Khyrisse shook her head dizzily and followed her. "Eric-- Eric warned you about them? Did he tell you to send us through?"

"No, he *told* me to run like a rabbit," said Shannon, pushing open her bedroom door, "but I never do what he tells me anyway. I'll be wantin' one of you to stay here and protect me. I'm not goin' to face down the minions of evil meself, now."

Quell brightened. "I WILL PROTECT THE LADY FROM THE MINIONS OF EVIL!"

She looked at him. "Right," she said, "you do the heroic stuff, and I'll do the thinkin', and we should be fine." She touched the wall mirror with both her hands and it shimmered. "And don't you be gettin' any ideas. I'm the only one who can open this gate, so you're not skippin' out on me."

"YES!"

Praxis cleared his throat. "Shannon?" He looked at Flicker, and Flicker nodded. "Why don't you--come with us?" It was a moment before either of them realized they hadn't actually used the Mindnet. Shannon just looked down. "I canna do that," she said. "It's just the way things are. Now get on with you. And see you dinna forget your promise to me."

"Quell," said Max, and gripped his arm.

"QUELL HAS HELD THE DOOR BEFORE," said the big cleric. "DON'T WORRY ABOUT QUELL."

"Keep your bloody voice down."

Book Divider

Flicker had almost forgotten how green it truly was here. Threnody's first visit had blown her away entirely, the overwhelming confluence of senses. Flicker was remembering how he loved this place, the rolling fields of Brytannwch, the mighty fjords, the warm turquoise waters, Lee's forest. And like Shannon he had a great yearning to believe that this pocket of it, at least, was safe. "Hey," said Tila, suddenly, "that's two exes! Now we just need to find Kieran and Savis, and--"

"I *don't* think that's what he meant," said Shilree.

"How do you know? This *is* Paninaro, after all. Is Magnate your ex?"

"No."

"Something's wrong," said Khyrisse. "No, he tricked us! Look at the sun! It's morning already! We've lost the whole--"

"Khyrisse," said Max, "if we're not on Ataniel, the sun doesn't have to be in the same place. When it's morning in Trade, it's night in Aegypt."

"Other planets on daylight unrelated to Ataniel is too."

"And seasons," said Flicker, softly.

"Seasons?"

"Seasons and too. Planets other Flicker has studied?"

"Ah," said Flicker, and touched the back of his neck, "can I forget the lavender winds of August?"

Praxis put his hand on the smaller man's shoulder. "You know," he said, "Flicker, in--in all the excitement back there, I think I never did get around to telling you how much I've missed you."

Go on to Chapter 4
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