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"Is he alive?"
"Yes." Flicker hit the armband.
-Oh, that poor man!- said Syndy.
-Flicker,- Signet thought into the Traveller, -you know an *ungodly* amount about this. Have you helped people like this before?-
Flicker paused, set the body down gently with his bloody hands. -Crucifixion was common in Brionwy's realms,- he said, -and among her cultists. Bring us in for another pass.-
"Signet." Flicker held his shoulder from the front, his blood-flecked face very close. "You could never have done this without me. I need a favor from you now."
"You want me to put up with Shilree, don't you."
"Yes, but that's not it." He looked the thief in the eye. This close up Signet could see himself clearly. "This isn't a title. No one else has to know about this, and our people don't need the details."
"But Flickerrrrrrr! This is the most heroic thing we've done all *mission*!"
"Signet, you will know in your heart you have done it. Let that be enough this time. I'm not ready. Do you understand? This was important enough to do. It is not important enough to explain."
"Oh..." Signet kicked a rock. "All *right*."
"I promise on my signet ring not to talk about what happened." He turned dejectedly for camp.
"Signet." Flicker caught his arm again. "It was a good idea."
"Thanks," he whispered.
Signet and Flicker slipped out of the shadows. "Is everything all right here?" said Flicker, low. He looked terrible; his hands and forearms were soaked in blood, like a field medic, not like a fighter, and it was plain in his face it was not work he was used to. Signet was a bit spattered. "We're all right," said Praxis. "What success did you have?"
"We saved five people," said Signet, and glared at Shilree.
"Signet," said Luthien, "if you would just *present* your ideas, instead of threatening us all with them, we would agree with you more."
"That would be much too adaptive for him."
"One more *word* out of *any* of you and I *backstab*! Thank *God* I wasn't a Significant!"
"Where did you leave them?"
"In some tall grass. Signet left them some of his provisions." Flicker doused his hands in wine. "Is everyone rested? We should find the Spiral Path."
"I *still* have a headache," snarled Tila. "And I am *not* going to break into the Trade Council building with you petty, paranoid *jerks* squabbling in my head!"
"No." Flicker stood, wiping blood and wine from his arms in long, final strokes. "I am."
A man was nailed across the entrance to the tunnel, spread-eagled. Shilree gasped and pressed back reflexively, against the wall of the Traveller. -Curven. The, this way's not safe.-
-We already knew that,- thought Flicker. He touched the man's throat, beneath his ear. -He's dead.-
Shilree shuddered as Flicker dropped down and crawled through Curven's legs. -I... I knew him.-
-Stay with me, Shil. Where's your next ward?-
-There could be traps anywhere.-
-I know. I want to know where *yours* are.-
-What was that?- demanded Tila. -Look in the hall!-
-Flicker, be careful!- said Shilree, tightly.
Flicker eased half of his invisible face around the corner. Javert was sprawled unconscious on the floor. A paperweight was lying next to him, cracked in half. -Pluvious!- shouted Max.
Flicker looked both ways. -Signet, come out and bring him in.-
-We are *really* getting tight for space in here,- said Khyrisse.
-I'll stack some of the bodies up.-
-And it's really starting to *stink*.-
-I've got some perfume,- offered Syndy.
-Tila,- thought Flicker. -Strip him.-
-Already did,- she said, smugly.
Knighthawke was hanging from the paneled wall. A scrawny man with a wispy mustache was reading through a folder, swiftly.
-Wemble!- said Shilree, sitting up.
-I've got it.- Flicker put his sword through him from behind. He slumped over without a sound. Knighthawke rolled his head groggily. "Who... who are..."
Shilree blipped in. "You owe me," she said.
He just looked at her. "Sure," he said. "I'll keep that in mind. Now let me down."
"Hang on," said Signet, blipping in. "I've got some pliers."
"He'll be all right," said Flicker, his hand on Wemble. "Bring him in." Max blipped in, lifted him, and vanished. -Arghhhhhhh!- yelled Philip. -Stop putting these *bodies* near me! Nora, get me out of here!-
Knighthawke staggered but refused to lean on Signet. "Does anyone have some healing?"
-Oh, YES!- she screamed.
Zzenith blipped in. "Healing has--" The healing sword erupted from Knighthawke's chest. "Unhhh!" he said, and then as it pulled out with his wounds, "well, *that's* primitive," looking over his shoulder at the grinning Tila.
"What happened here?" said Shilree.
"A hostile takeover," said Knighthawke, "what does it look like?"
Praxis blipped in. "We're headed for the Spiral Path to find a way to banish Shadow. Would you like to come with?"
He paused. "Yes," he said, "yes, I think I would."
"Do you need a sword?" said Flicker. "You could use Javert's."
"I'll pick something up," he said.
Khyrisse blipped in with Javert's sword. "Can anyone *use* a bastard sword?" she said. "It's too big for me, but I need *some* kind of weapon. I don't think Kayla's kitchen knife is going to be very effective against Shadow!"
Flicker hesitated, looking back and forth. "I can," he finally said. "You can borrow my sword. Just don't--tell anyone."
"Tila will be our template," said Praxis. Flicker had faded back into the group, an almost imperceptible transition. "Hopefully her parents were right about Torin."
"He does look a little like a cousin of mine, actually," she said.
"Now we don't know if what we do here affects our past or not," Luthien cautioned, "so let's be as careful as we can not to pollute it."
"Are we going back in time?" said Siobhan.
"Gwen and Mattais think so," said Luthien; "Timrin and I think it's just an elaborate simulation. But you can never be too careful."
"We are going to view the past," said Praxis, "at any rate. Let's hope there's an answer there for us."
As they started up the path Knighthawke stumbled a little bit, the barest of noises. When Flicker turned he was touching his head in a disoriented way, and then they were in the Mithril Dagger without him. "Knighthawke?" said Flicker.
"He's not here yet," said the woman leaning on the bar. -Merwyn-, sent Luthien, subdued. "I'm surre he will be, though." She gestured out the window at the steady beam of light twisting from the beacon. "Looks like trouble. Are you heroes?"
"Yes," said Praxis.
"That's good. We may need all the heroes we can get. Have a drink."
They sat down. "Paradox eliminated perhaps has been by Hawkknight one only," suggested Zzenith.
"Could be," said Luthien. "Hey, Flicker?"
"You said you'd been crucified?" He looked up. "I had some questions."
"Did I say that?" he said, very softly.
Luthien paused a long moment and closed his notebook. "I must have been thinking of Knighthawke."
"That must be it."
Jork turned around and started waddling off in the opposite direction. "Ar, you bloody coward!" yelled Siobhan, and charged the dragon with her sword out.
"He's always like that," said Warp, and stepped through the air and onto the dragon's back.
-This is the Shadow Dragon,- broadcast Luthien.
-I remember,- sent Flicker. -If memory serves you slew it, Luthien.-
-Well, you had a fire shield up. It bit you and you took it down with you.-
-I remember the biting part.- Luthien put out his fists and burst into fire. -Don't argue with success, I always say.-
"It's the Shadow Dragon," shouted Shilree.
-No kidding?- Tila sent sarcastically from somewhere.
"People, this thing has *impossible* armor class. Don't waste time with missiles."
Flicker's arrow chunked solidly into its throat. "It's hard to shoot straight in bodyarmor," he said diplomatically.
"I'll help you guard the rear, Jork!" yelled Torin, and took off after him.
-You know, he *really* reminds me of that cousin.- Tila reappeared on the dragon's back and buried her sword in the base of its neck up to the hilt. It screamed. -At least *one* Torin is being a hero here.- Warp moved his hands and a hole opened up over the dragon's head, raining boulders down. Off-balance under the onslaught, the creature stumbled into Max, putting its great foot down on him. "Ow!" he screamed, and smashed it in the ankle. Flicker shot it again. It seized Odn in its mouth and shook him like a dog with a rat. Khyrisse exploded a lightning bolt into its backside and it dropped Odn onto the pile of boulders, bellowing. Merwyn dragged him back. "Odn. Odn!" Luthien teleported the boulders back onto its head again, and this time it collapsed to one serpentine elbow, its head jerking as it was pummeled. Max scuttled back, coughing painfully. Nora stepped past him and speared the dragon through the belly; it rolled and twitched, roared horribly, and then it was still. Tila ululated triumphantly, and the scene started to fade from around them.
When the surroundings settled they were in some sort of military encampment. Warp blinked at them rather stupidly. "Oh-- it's *you* again! Are you guys going to stick around for a while this time? We can use all the help we can--"
"Kieran!" said Tila.
-Tila!- sent Praxis sharply.
"Have we--met, lass?" He looked much the same but more vivid somehow, both boots on the ground, scarf flying cockily from one shoulder.
"No, but I've--heard of you, of course."
"You have?" He looked genuinely startled.
"Well, from a friend of mine. N-ina. She--had many good things to say about you."
"Oh, Nina, of course," Kieran lied. "A fine woman indeed."
"Well," said Warp, "Commander Talbot can find a place for your unit, I'm sure. I'd better tell Milamber you're here; he'll want to brief you. We're marching on Shadow tomorrow. You've sure got a gift for showing up at the right time."
"I'll see that a tent is prepared--"
"Is there room in your tent?" Tila interrupted.
"Just for me."
Kieran looked a little taken aback but grinned like he couldn't keep it in, jauntily, his eyes twinkling. Flicker hoped to God the cultists hadn't done something awful to him. "Well, that could be arranged, lass."
Warp stared at him. "What," he said, and gestured at her, "how do you *do* that? You didn't do *anything*!"
"If you have to ask," said Kieran, "you'll never know."
"I don't *believe* this," said Luthien. "She's using the Spiral Path to get *laid*."
"Tila is a very resourceful woman," said Flicker. "Does anyone know what happened to Kieran in our time?"
"I haven't seen him in a long time," said Max.
"If we spend the night *here*," said Khyrisse, "how much time passes at home?"
"I think we're talking minutes," Luthien said. "But it doesn't really matter. We don't have another choice."
Arturian came very quietly into the tent and stood in its opening, watching. "Can I help you," said Flicker, quietly.
He turned his head quickly. He must not have been expecting anyone to be awake. "Why did you come back here?" he said, low.
Flicker paused a long time. "We need to learn how to defeat Shadow," he said.
"Then we won't defeat them." He touched his brow. "You know what happens here. What should we have done differently? You have to tell us."
"*Arturian*," said Flicker, shocked. After a second he said "Whatever you're planning to do worked. We need to learn what it was. Do you understand?"
He closed his eyes. How young he looked. "Then they come back. Can we do anything?"
"You have to do what you were planning on doing. Don't change anything, Arturian, things will be worse. What you did gave us this chance. You didn't tell the others?"
Arturian rubbed his eyes and looked at him. "I hardly had to," he said. "If you should ever find yourself undercover again, I recommend that you ask Mr. Glub to refrain from passing out autobiographies copyrighted five hundred years in the future."
Flicker gritted his teeth. "Arturian," he said, "we're the ones who need help from you. Shouldn't this be obvious?"
Tila popped into the Traveller, a little out of breath, and ran her fingers quickly through her just-been-laid hair. -Did I miss anything?-
-What is it with that jerk,- said Signet, huffily.
-He's very charming,- said Waterloo.
-He's good in bed,- said Tila.
-Charming has *nothing* to do with good in bed,- Signet said sharply. -It isn't charisma, it's--it's dexterity.-
-Ooooooo!- said Khyrisse, laughing.
-I think it's strength,- said Max.
-It's *style*,- said Tila.
-I've got style!- protested Signet. -I've got rope use!-
-I've got tumbling,- said Luthien.
-Tongues many has Zzenith got.-
-*I* have the *Mount* spell.-
-I have two lifetimes of experience as a woman.-
Everyone stopped and looked at him. He shrugged. -I fold,- said Luthien, and pushed his cards across to Syndy.
-I... didn't really need to know all of this about you all,- said Siobhan.
The drowning Shadowlord thrust his hand up his own helmet. The water weird sizzled and boiled off in a plume of steam. Nora cried out and fell to her knees. -Nora!- screamed Philip. -Let me go, you fairy bitch!-
-That isn't a very nice way to ask,- said Syndy.
The Shadowlord she had been facing slammed his sword down at her and Flicker caught it on Javert's, gasping. His head rang. Tila screamed as the largest Shadowlord wheeled around and grabbed her by the face. Flicker ducked the black sword and hit the Shadowlord in the knee as hard as he could, checked, and thrust. The bastard sword ripped through the evil armor, but the Shadowlord's weapon crashed down powerfully on the smaller warrior's shoulder and he staggered back, an awkward grip on his hilt. He could hear Kieran's pleasant tenor behind him. He flipped the sword and swung it at the Shadowlord one-handed. It hit him across the face but shallowly and then the black sword got the side of his head and drilled him into the ground. -Aaaaaah!- screamed Syndy. -There's blood on the windows!- Flicker closed his hand slowly and slumped over. -Praxis!- echoed Max' voice across the Net.
-I'm on it.-
Flicker rolled his head, his vision starting to clear. The Shadowlord was standing over him, battling Nora. Flicker stared for two heartbeats, breathing, and then his hands moved slowly for the fallen sword, his upper arm sliding across his bloody cheek, tensing, and then he lifted his leg, rocked up and swung the sword in a two-handed overhead arc with all his might. The Shadowlord was knocked entirely off the ground and over Flicker, his abdomen split open. He landed and did not get up again. Flicker collapsed back, breathing heavily. He fumbled for his bow but as he got it nocked Max smashed the other Shadowlord's head most of the way off his body. "Fucking *Baniacs*!" hollered Tila.
"Look!" cried Max. The tower was sparking and swirling blue.
"Lord Warp," said Flicker, and put his head back, onto the ground. "This is his part."
"Do I have a scar?" demanded Tila. The blue light became stronger and stronger, flashed bright, and then they were quite suddenly on the Spiral Path. "Are you all right?" Praxis asked Nora.
She closed her eyes. "I'm okay," she said softly. "I knew it might happen someday. I'll be all right."
"Hey Flicker," said Tila. "Look back there. I see something really interesting."
"I'm not surprised, Tila." He gritted his teeth as she stabbed him from behind, exhaled as the sword pulled back and his wounds pulled together. He blinked a few times. "There--there *is* something back there. The Path. It's not where it was."
"Something's wrong," said Luthien. "We have to hurry."
They stepped through into the snow. Shilree squawked comically. "Where the *fuck* is this?"
Flicker looked up and shrugged. "Overcast."
Praxis concentrated. "We're in the Northlands."
"There's a town down there." Flicker pointed.
"You kiljhacs populate the *stupidest* places!"
"A brisk wind is good for the circulation." Flicker pulled out one of his skis.
"Mocking me is *not* going to be good for yours," said Shilree through her teeth.
"Get in the Traveller, Shilree. I can take you down."
"Let me," said Luthien. "I can be down there in twenty minutes."
Flicker glanced down the slope. "Half an hour," he said, "and I won't waste a spell."
"You--can get down this mountain in half an hour?"
"No," he said, "I can get down the mountain in ten minutes, and it'll be twenty across to the town."
"All right," said Siobhan, "this I've got to see," and touched the gem.
Flicker pulled his hood up over his head and wrapped his scarf around it. "Coming?"
Luthien hesitated. "You know, Flicker... Mattais came very close to being killed doing this once."
"Yes," he said, "well, I don't tell Icewind how to cast spells."
-I *totally* take it back,- said Luthien. -You have *got* to show me how to do this.-
-I'm gonna be *sick*,- said Max.
-No!- yelled Tila. -You want to barf, you get *out* and barf!-
-If you don't want to look,- thought Flicker, -you don't have to look.-
-Can you do jumps?- said Luthien. Shilree hit him in one shoulder and Khyrisse hit him in the face.
"So is it the custom to smash the shot glasses on the floor here?" said Luthien.
"It wasn't when Lian lived here," said Flicker. "Aren't you Nylevian?"
Luthien looked at him. "Ny-Nylevian?"
"We're in Nylevia," he said. "We're just up in the mountains."
"Praxis said we were in the Northlands!"
"North is relative." Flicker drank. "We're in northern Nylevia."
Tila panted. -It's like a sauna in here!-
-You're the ones who bought fur jumpsuits,- said Praxis.
-I have no sympathy,- said Shilree. -I hope Torin goes to the desert after this. It will serve you right.-
It took Luthien and Flicker about five minutes to overtake Signet, who was struggling miserably through the snow. Flicker tapped the armband and Signet hit it, wheezing. -Stand over there,- ordered Tila. -I think our group should go down in history as Eleven Sweaty Adventurers, Four Prisoners, Three Dead Bodies, Two Rescued People, and a Gallon of Blood in a Twelve Foot Square Room in Flicker's Brain. That gets the general flavor of this across.-
-Sweat does not Zzenith.-
-Uno,- said Syndy.
They were gaining on Oscar now. Luthien soared overhead and came down on him as a polar bear. Oscar thudded into the earth. "Help!" he yelled. Tila blipped in as Flicker pulled around. "Hi," she said. "Let me have it."
"It's mine! You're all mad!"
Praxis blipped in. "What, exactly, is it, Oscar?"
"It's an heirloom! It was in my basement!" Tila opened the beaded bag and took out a strange crystal with an unusual rose-like shape of twisting colors inside it. "I, I displayed it in my inn. It was great for business. Everyone wanted to see it. And then *he* came. Tried to buy it, but of course I'd have none of it. Then he tried to steal it. I've been running from him ever since. He's *crazy*, I tell you!"
"He's telling the truth," said Praxis.
"Of course I'm telling the truth!" The crystal suddenly disappeared right out of Tila's hand. She screamed. "You rotten ancestor! Come back here with that!"
"It's *my* *property*!" cried Oscar.
"Get in," said Flicker. "Get in, we'll follow him."
Go on to Chapter 7
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