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"Guinness stout, please."
Flicker touched the words ALAIN MAC LIR on the brass plaque. "That's a memorial for some of the heroes of our revolution," said the bartender, drawing Praxis' drink.
"Do you have hot chocolate, by any chance?"
"Uh," he said, "no, would you like some tea?"
"Guinness for me too," said Luthien, in Gaelic.
"*Declan*," said Flicker.
"Riley?" said Praxis, coming over.
"I didn't know he'd been killed."
"When we took the castle."
"He was a good man."
"Did you know Paddy Moran?" Praxis reached across Flicker.
"Bright red hair--"
"This doesn't help."
"Gawky, gawky kid. Big teeth. He worked for Dec. He was always whistling--"
Flicker grabbed his shoulder. "Dating that woman with the crossbow."
"He must have been." Praxis paused. "He was a friend."
Flicker caught Praxis' hand suddenly and pointed with two fingers. ROWAN CWYLEAGH. Praxis looked at it and back at him. "How--" He switched to the Net. -How can that be?-
-I have no idea. Something's wrong here.-
-Could we have slipped timestreams?- "Did these people all die in the revolution?" he asked, casually.
"Nah," said the bartender. "We've been adding 'em as they've dropped off. That Angus fella there died not long ago in a bar brawl."
"Oh, I see," said Praxis, with some relief. "And Paddy Moran, do you know what happened to him?"
"Aye, it was a tragic one. He was a stonemason and a wall he was working on buckled. That was ten years ago and his girls were still children. Sure and that was hard on 'em."
Flicker looked back at Praxis, who looked rather stunned. "And--what about this one," he said.
"Who, MacLir? He was one of our greatest heroes. A Cynystran monster killed him some twenty years ago." -Three?- thought Praxis. Flicker nodded. "And this one?"
TODD MC GEE.
"I couldn't say," said the bartender. "Do you know him? Those three were left behind on Ataniel, and not to pry, but you don't seem to be from around here."
"What was your first clue," said Shilree, and waved her fingers at him.
-Dancer,- thought Flicker. -If anyone knows what's going on here he will.-
"I was born here," said Praxis, "in Gwynedd. I'm looking for my old commander, a man they just called Dancer."
"*Your* old commander? Oh, you're much too young--"
"I'm older than I look. As--as Dancer is, I'm sure."
"Probably," he said, "but no one knows. He took off years ago and none of us have seen him. You might ask the queen."
"Deirdre," said Flicker.
"Aye, that's right."
-It's probably a dimensional time differential,- Luthien explained. -One year back home might be six or ten here. Which means I have time to finish my pint. So sit down.-
Deirdre was entering middle age gracefully, silver threads starting through her hair. Beside her was a light-haired woman with a rather noble bearing, wearing Alain's feystone. Flicker stared at her. "*Kelly*," he whispered, with some intensity.
"Yes." She turned to him, surprised. "Who--who are you?"
He looked from her to Dee. "Eren Messala," he said, "Sunfighter."
"Sunfighter," said the queen. "As our Alain was."
"A lot like that, actually," said Luthien.
"Yes," said Flicker.
"Have you come from Ataniel?" Dee asked Praxis. "What news do you bring?"
"It's not good," he said. "An elder witch, Trillarillia Carraria, is going to destroy the sphere in a matter of days." She reacted strongly to the name. "We need your help."
"My help," she said. "I will do what I can, of course. There have been--enough sacrifices between our worlds." Her voice was tinged with sorrow. "What can I do?"
"We need to find two men from our side. The last of our gods and a wild mage."
"Elven," said Khyrisse. "Hair everywhere."
"Could it be the two Siobhan took down the gorge?" Kelly asked Dee.
"That might be. There were two travelers here not long ago, from your side, and they did head for the temple of the Weird Sisters, whose names I would not, were I you, mention here again." She looked at Kelly. "Please find Siobhan. Tell her I need her as soon as possible."
"I'll tell her it involves climbing down the gorge again," said Kelly. "That'll bring her." She hesitated, and turned her head to Flicker. For a moment he thought it might break his heart. "We'll talk later?"
"I'd like that," he said.
"Feel free to use the facilities here," said Dee, "we"--she looked at Praxis--"*have* spent enough effort to make the castle a public place."
"That we did," he said. "Queen Deirdre, do you know where Dancer is?"
"I learned a long time ago not to question him too closely," she said. "It's a futile exercise and I wouldn't like the answers if he told me."
"You've never been?" said Flicker. "You should have told us you wanted to visit. Alain would have loved to put you up."
"I kept putting off a vacation," said Luthien, "and then the country went on vacation without me, so to speak."
"They're calling it culu," said Praxis, skimming through the history, "which means withdrawal, and it was twenty-two years ago here, and barely three back home, so that's a ratio of seven or so to one."
"Culu also means waning of the moon," said Flicker. "Let's hope that's a good omen."
"There are no specifics on where, exactly, we are now," said Praxis. "I don't think these historians know. All this one says is that the queen struck a deal with a traitor to the realm to remove Brytannwch from Ataniel, rather than surrender to Cynistra. There was some disagreement at the time but most people were in favor, at least according to this history."
"It's in the palace library," said Tila. "Do you think it's going to say the queen was an idiot?"
"Well, in retrospect, it's worked out well for them," said Praxis.
"And if they'd stayed on Ataniel," said Khyrisse, "they'd not only be subjugated by Eric, they'd be insane, evil, and about to be destroyed by a moon. This is a *lot* better."
"The book gets very vague about this deal, though," said Praxis. "There seems to be the implication that the traitor was promised return to Brytannwch but was denied." Flicker put his hand over his mouth. "I assume this has got to be Shannon, but her name isn't even mentioned."
"She wasn't a *traitor*," said Flicker, to himself. "She was a, a murderer. She gave everything she had for this country, twice."
"She didn't get to write the history books," said Tila. "Sucks to be her."
"Assassinating political figures is more serious than just *any* old murder," said Luthien.
"It is a terrible thing to be an exile," said Shilree. "Even if you brought it on yourself, it is terrible."
"Oh, God, Dee," Flicker whispered.
"There you are," said Deirdre. Kelly was with her and a younger woman in battered armor with long, messy red hair. "This is my ward, Siobhan MacLir." Praxis looked quickly at Flicker; the elf's expression didn't change but he put his thumb on his mouth and he did appear to be doing some mental calculations. "She encountered the two foreigners I told you about and led them to the temple of the Weird Sisters a week ago."
"A funny pair," said Siobhan, "one short little guy and one with crazy hair. And their *clothes*."
"That's got to be them," Max said to Khyrisse.
"Do you know them? Because they clocked me in the back of the head and went into the temple without me, the rotters."
"Siobhan has agreed to guide you there."
"It's about three days to cross the mountains," she said, energetically, "and they're full of monsters, so you'd best be on your toes. Once we reach the gorge--"
"We don't have much time," said Praxis. "Can we use teleportation here?"
"It's best not to," said Deirdre. "Some people have met with tragic accidents."
"Then perhaps Shilree can use her staff to cut the travel time down. We'd meet fewer monsters that way, too."
"*Siobhan*," said Kelly.
The girl blew air through her lips expressively. "Well, if we're just going to blow by the monsters and things, I guess we might as well just take the path, then."
Praxis struck himself in the forehead. "How long will *that* take?"
"More like a day. But it's *much* less interesting."
"Can I make a suggestion?" said Luthien. "We're not leaving till morning anyway. What do you say we find ourselves a bar and try to enjoy ourselves a little, seeing as how it might be the last time?"
"Oh, I know some *great* pubs," said Siobhan.
"Hell the what!" agreed Zzenith cheerfully.
Shilree sniffed. "Clearly, Talakan had his minions take care of the border patrol for you."
"Face it, Shilree," said Tila. "Your border patrol sucks. I've had more trouble getting into nightclubs. Luthien summoned a fog and Threnody took our ship in through the shoals."
"So they misgauged kiljhac insanity. I've done it myself once or twice. No sensible person would try to navigate the Sheralaija Strait in a fog."
"Just because *you're* not a seafaring people," said Flicker.
"My people were sailing the bay before yours crawled out of some giant's armpit, Flicker."
"Give us another round. Heh heh."
"Luthien," said Flicker, "your Trollish Fortitude is going to wear off eventually. You're not going to win."
"I've got forty-five more minutes. Heh heh."
"You're not going to run this pub dry, either."
"I'm supporting the Brytannwch economy. Slange."
"Threnody--was a pirate, wasn't she?" said Khyrisse.
"I've--I've always wondered. My mother just, disappeared, along the Nylevian coast. I guess it's kind of silly now, but do you think--pirates might have captured her?"
"Well," said Flicker, "it's more likely someone killed her, really. Slavers don't really cruise the coast looking for travelers to kidnap. They mostly attacked weaker ships." Flicker smiled down at his drink. "Or ships they thought were weaker. Ahaha."
"I really wish I'd met her about ten years earlier than I did," said Luthien.
"Sorry I missed you, man."
She rolled over. "Uh-oh."
"Uh," he said.
"I think," said Waterloo, "this is a good situation for the application of rule twenty-eight."
"I won't tell if you won't?" said Signet.
Siobhan's engaging chatter did make it easier to ignore the consequences of a misstep. Since in Praxis' case the consequence of a misstep was expending his energy on wings of force rather than actually relying on a hung-over woman half his mass to keep him from plummeting to his death, it was easier still. Flicker, Tila, and Signet were all more sure-footed, but Praxis was the one with the backup plan. -Flicker? What is the story with Siobhan, anyway?-
-Well, if you think she's taking us down the most difficult ridges,- he sent, -you're right.-
-I did get that idea, actually. I was more wondering where she, uh, came from.-
-I have no idea. Kelly says she's an orphan and Deirdre raised her from a baby. She's never spoken of her mother. It, it would have had to be after my time. Look out for the loose gravel.-
Flicker shook his head. "No one has passed this way in a very long time."
"They might have been flying," said Praxis, "or found another way in, or who knows what else. Paninaro and Derek don't have to do things the same way we do."
"Holy schlamoly," said Tila, brushing off the frieze. The faces had been scratched off but it did appear to show Trill and two other especially womanly women abusing some unfortunate men. The one over the doorway was particularly graphic. "All right," said Luthien, "that's that," and polymorphed into his female form. "I'm not being tortured to death for having a dick."
"Signet doesn't have to worry," offered Waterloo.
"That's not what you said last night," he huffed.
-I told you she did him.-
"I can give the guys shape-changing pills if you're worried," said Tila.
"I have a very well-developed anima," Flicker assured her, and followed her through the doorway.
As the post buckled and the glass globe hit the ground there was a burst of brightness and from it a face emerged, wailing a haunting wail. Shilree screamed, but her voice vanished into the plaintive cry and was lost without a trace. Flicker stood transfixed as the face washed over and through him. "It--it's beautiful."
"You're nuts!" said Tila. "That scared the *piss* out of me!" She thumped herself in the chest, breathing irregularly.
Flicker turned to look after the beansidhe. Khyrisse was slumped over in a heap and Shilree was gone. "Where--is Shilree?"
"Like a bat out of Hell. I'll get her. Hey, Shilree! It's gone!" Tila ducked through the doorway they had come from.
Khyrisse shuddered back to life underneath Zzenith. There were a few seconds and then she made a gasping, muffled scream and clawed at him. Zzenith retreated abruptly and she choked in air. "Inhale please do not Zzenith."
"I want to go *home*," she sobbed.
Luthien took out his knife and sliced open the curtain of flesh. As he did it moaned and started to bleed. Tila threw up on Khyrisse and Khyrisse threw up on the twisted floor of body parts. "My father has not been here," she cried out, shaking wretchedly.
"Still hold and clean will you off Zzenith."
-Shit!- broadcast Tila. -There's more of them! Quick, let's retreat into the sarcophagus room!-
"Retreat," yelled Max, aloud. Signet grabbed Shilree and tackled her out of the way of the striking snake and back into the blue-lit chamber. "Retreat!"
"Kiss her, Signet!" yelled Tila.
Shilree shoved Signet off of her. "Don't thank me or anything," said Signet.
"Come on," yelled Tila, aloud this time. "Come on, there's tile in here. They won't be able to reach us!"
"I'm coming!" Max smashed the stone snake into the wall and backed off.
"I'm *not* going to run away and let this thing eat Nora!" he shouted back at her.
"I can take care of myself," Nora said through her teeth, struggling with it.
"So can I, but I still don't want a snake eating my arm!" He hacked at it.
Tila took a deep breath and eased the catch on the sarcophagus towards herself, positioning herself low presumably so that any evil undead thing that flew out would attack Luthien instead. The lid swung open but nothing happened. Not being the patient type, Tila peeked over the lip. "It's a stairway!" she exclaimed, relieved, and then, with more disappointment, "but no treasure."
"*I* think the grey hairs make you look distinguished, Signet," said Waterloo.
He brightened and then, too late, pretended not to.
"I could use my phantom steed to get down that hallway fast," said Khyrisse, "and I'm a full-blooded elf, so I might not age as quickly as Signet."
"Maybe," said Luthien. "We have no idea how strong that field is. It may be stronger closer to the end. It may not even matter how fast you travel. You're not immortal any more."
"Flicker?" said Khyrisse.
"I'm not that kind of immortal, Khyrisse," said Flicker, softly.
"I'm going to check out the magic fields." Shilree mumbled to herself in Diari.
"We may just have to dispel it," said Max.
"We're running out of dispels."
Shilree shrieked and fell back into the wall. "Too--bright!" She blinked repeatedly, shaking her head. "I can't--I can't see anything."
"There's enough magic up there that wizard sight *blinded* you?" said Luthien.
"Zzenith? Where are you?"
"Here I am, Shilree friend."
"I need cure blindness."
"Blindness--cure does not Zzenith have. Situation this arise does not frequently. Blindness can Zzenith cure tomorrow."
"You--you can't expect me--to go *on* like this, can you?"
"Shilree," said Flicker, "I'll watch your back, I promise. Ne vardalis." Trust me.
-And we're... walking down the hallway. Yep, walking down the hallway. Step, step. Doesn't look like anyone's aging. And it's Tila in the lead, Tila by a length. Signet's gaining on her now. Signet on the left. And no one's detecting any traps. Here comes Praxis from behind.-
-Please,- said Marie, -*please* shut that pixie up.-
-She's not a pixie,- said Syndy. -Does anyone have any fives?-
-Alexis,- said Shilree, wedged into the corner, -you... can stop narrating until something interesting happens.-
-You've got a five, boss.-
-Arghhhhh!- shouted Philip. -I have *two* fives! This fairy is cheating! I'm going to *kill* her!-
Shilree turned the neck of her bag of holding back and forth in her hands rather obsessively. -If I may say so, boss,- said Alexis, -you're getting kind of strange on me here.-
-I don't like being *useless*.-
-Well, Janther was blind,- said Syndy, -and he was really cool.-
-Janther was a *ranger*. I'm an *illusionist*. I need to see to do anything.- She banged the wall of the Traveller. -Damn it, where are those magic goggles when I need them.-
-Kelly has them,- Flicker thought into the Traveller.
-Don't answer my rhetorical questions, Sunfighter, you *know* I hate that!-
-Does anyone have any twos?- said Marie.
Flicker frowned at it. "This isn't a Celtic language."
"It looks like the blueprint for an artifact," said Tila.
-Let me have it!- Shilree blipped in, waving Alexis around. "Alexis! Put this in a crystal for me!"
"You're going to have to hold still first, boss."
"*This* is an old demonic word," said Flicker, gesturing at part of the caption with his thumb. "Vagta. It means the, the turning of a man's soul. Corruption." Luthien looked at him. "Well, we needed words for these things, Luthien. Maybe it's a loanword."
"Then maybe this is the Evil Machine," said Tila. She tried to pick up the page and it broke in half, brittle. "Nuts."
"I've got it on crystal," said Shilree. "Alexis, linguistic analysis, please."
"Language unknown," said Alexis, and shrugged. "Vagta is an old demonic word for the turning of a man's soul."
"Program her yourself, did you, Shilree?" said Praxis, straight-faced.
-Alexis!- yelled Shilree. -Alexis, what's going on?-
-Looks like three really big arthropods are trying to eat your friends, boss.-
-Augh! Alexis, if I shot at them, could you guide my aim?-
-Ah, no,- she said, -I'm really just an interface.-
-Well, don't just *sit* there, what's happening?-
-You're not going to like this, boss,- she said. -The monsters are breathing chain lightning.-
-So do you fold?- said Syndy.
Thogra kind of rolled over onto its side, its legs curling in like an insect's. Tila ululated wildly. "Quick, let's run past it into the study!"
"Oh, *Tila*!" shouted Flicker, bashing Gorath's mandibled head back with desperate strokes. "Is this all you ever think about? Run away from the Baniac! Run away from the stone snakes! Run away from the monsters that breathe chain lightning!"
Gorath spewed fire all over Flicker. "*And* fire," said Tila. "Foolhardiness, thy name is testosterone."
-Tila,- sent Praxis, -if we run they'll mow us down from behind.-
Siobhan, standing on Gorath's back, tried to ululate, but it came out more like a whoop. She jammed her sword between two of the chitinous plates. -Zzenith!- sent Praxis.
-Zzenith is coming!- One of his mouths snaked out and clamped onto Flicker's charred and smoking body.
Max cone-of-colded Ragoth, who basically cracked. Nora stepped over Flicker and Zzenith and plunged her polearm down Gorath's throat. It made a high-pitched noise. Siobhan whacked it again and again. "Yiyiyiyiyi!" she yelled. Luthien got there and impaled it through the breastplate with his trident, with a sickening crunch, and it fell then. Siobhan landed on her ass. "Ow," she said, in a smaller voice.
"Khyrisse is dead again, I'm afraid," said Praxis.
"Flicker? Are you okay?"
Flicker slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Luthien, upside down. "Great," he rasped. "How are you?"
"Well," he said, "I *had* been going to put my ring on you and run myself through with my trident."
Flicker licked his lips. "That bad, huh?"
"But Zzenith got to you first."
Flicker pulled Jason's fire rune out of his shirt and held it in his hand, sitting up on his elbow. It was still warm. "Thanks," he said.
"It's too bad. I would really have liked that."
Go on to Chapter 5
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