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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Ragnarok: Chapter 7

"You don't understand," shouted Torin. He smashed one of the pillars. "It doesn't belong here. It's not from our dimension. They're using it as a beacon. I have to send it back."

"It belongs to me," shouted Oscar.

"It belongs to Shadow!" Torin smashed another column. "Don't come any closer, unless you want to be sucked off Ataniel with me!"

"Where are you going," yelled Tila.

"I don't know, and I don't care!" Torin smashed the third pillar. "If I don't do this now, they'll never defeat Shadow. I have to send the beacon away. Now!" He smashed the last pillar and there was a huge burst of light, the flower unfolded and swirled around him, and then they were back on the Spiral Path. "Trade!" cried Khyrisse. The Spiral Path was broken off before them, opening into a grey void. Behind them it seemed to be crumbling. "My city is guiding Bane here, we have to get rid of Trade!"

"We don't know that," said Flicker. "It could be anything. It could be the same beacon. Torin is back here and it could be too."

"I don't like this," said Luthien, looking back at the breaking bridge.

"Well, what do you know," said Tila. "He was a hero after all, in the end."

"Something--is coming." Max squinted ahead. "That's not--not the Farstalker, is it?"

"I don't *think* so," said Flicker.

Book Divider

They walked slowly up the metal stairway into the sphere. It retracted behind them. The room was simple but strangely elegant, apportioned with curving metal benches and geometric light fixtures. "Please don't touch anything," intoned a smooth, mechanized voice, "Maxwell Silverhammer."

"Rip!" shouted Max, Luthien, and Khyrisse together.

The wall unfurled into a round portal, through which CJ stepped. "Hey," she said, and bonked Flicker in the shoulder.

"Hi," said Flicker. "What's going on?"

"Looks like someone destroyed the Spiral Path while you were on it."

"Oh, Knighthawke!" yelled Khyrisse. "Is Rip all right?"

"He's fine," said CJ, "he's not really that kind of god. It's more of a de facto thing. He'll be out to see you in a bit. Would anyone like a drink, or something to eat?"

"Bloody Mary, please," said Signet.

"Could I have a club sandwich?" asked Luthien.

"Turkey?"

"Please. Light on the mayo."

"Rose?" she said.

"What?" Flicker looked startled. "No thank you. No."

Book Divider

The wall opened again and Rip Hunter stepped through. "Okay, Signet," he said, "we're even now."

"Uh..." said Signet, "yeah."

"I should have you back in the temporal area you came from within an hour of when you left. I--do realize how critical time is to you just now, and I'll do my best to avoid delays."

"Could you drop us off *before* we left?" said Tila. "Like maybe a week before?"

"Dream *on*," said Rip. "Do you have any idea what that would do to the timestream?"

"Well, no, actually not," she said.

"You don't want to."

"Rip?" said Luthien. "The Spiral Path? *Were* we traveling in time?"

"You don't think I'm going to tell you that, do you?"

"Well, it's been destroyed."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I guess it has. Well, it was actually a separate temporal space that created temporary alternate timestreams from fixed points in the template's history. The memory was self-resetting, so it didn't use up an inordinate amount of metaphysical resources or anything."

"Ha!" said Luthien. "In your face, Gwen!"

"Anyway," said Rip, "I'm afraid this is as much as I can offer you in the way of help without creating more problems than I'd solve. Please make yourself at home here. The trip may take a few hours of apparent time. If you need anything, just call CJ." A panel with a button on it flipped up and extended from one of the benches. The button had a stylized silhouette of a woman in a baseball cap on it. "This may seem a little strange, but--good luck."

"Thank you," said Flicker, softly.

"You'll pay me back." The wall shuttered open and Rip stepped out, flashing his hand at them in a preoccupied wave. "What is he repaying you for, Signet?" asked Max.

Signet looked at the wall the god had gone through. "I--have never met that man in my life."

"Well," said Luthien, "let's hope it'll be something *good*, or this is going to be a short trip."

Book Divider

"Come on, Luthien," said Max. "You *like* being a necromancer."

"Maybe I do." Luthien finished the club sandwich and folded up the tinfoil CJ had brought it out on. "Spectral's support has meant--so much to me. For the other mages to accept me as a colleague. I feel less ashamed to tell people what I do. But I won't make my son go through this. This curse stops here."

"Luthien?" said Flicker. "What--does this curse actually *do*? Aside from the--aesthetics, that is?"

"Aside from the fact that he casts his first healing spell and suddenly looks like the living dead?" Luthien retorted.

"Aside from looking like his father," said Flicker, "that's a curse to you, but Gordon has reason to be proud." Luthien looked down. "Wyvern was right. Your father killed his wife because he was an evil asshole. That has nothing to do with your curse."

"He will have necromantic powers," said Luthien. "There is a terrible stigma attached to this. I won't let them force him into this the way they forced me."

"I am finding a curse is a lot like a gift," said Flicker. "It's all in the perception."

Book Divider

Knighthawke's quarters were a shambles. Stacks and stacks of papers seemed to have been hastily burned in the fireplace. Tila and Flicker sifted through the ashes. "All right, Wemble," said Praxis. "Tell us what happened here."

"I--I don't know."

"Oh, come *on*," said Tila. "You can do better than *that*."

"It's true," said Praxis. "Who nailed Knighthawke to the wall?"

"Nailed Knighthawke to--I don't remember *that* at all."

"You--don't?"

"No. I wish I *did*."

"Wemble," said Shilree. "What about that prostitute you killed?"

"I never killed a prostitute! Are you kidding me?"

"He really doesn't remember these things," said Praxis.

"Well, what's the last thing you *do* remember?" said Luthien.

"I had an audience with Knighthawke. He'd been getting more and more intolerable. I told him Cynystra wasn't going to take this lying down. He said "Yes you are," and then he said something about the Time Of No Magic releasing a unique ally--"

"The Ti'Ar'Na!" Luthien sat down.

"She must have taken Knighthawke when we took out Wemble," said Khyrisse. "That must be why he tried to kill us."

"--after that, I don't remember anything." He shook his head. "Knighthawke has gone insane. I must report to Lord Eric."

"Not so fast," said Luthien.

"Let him go," said Khyrisse. "Maybe Eric can help somehow. Wemble, tell Eric that Trill and the Ti'Ar'Na are in league with Shadow."

"Shadow?" Wemble's eyes went wide. "You're telling me Knighthawke is insane, I've been possessed, and now we're being attacked by Shadow?"

Praxis touched his forehead. "And an elder witch has turned half of Ataniel evil," he said, "and Trade has been sacked, and the gods have been killed, and Bane is going to crash into Ataniel and destroy it in about twenty-four hours."

Wemble stared at him. "Does--Eric know about this?"

"All of it except the Shadow and Ti'Ar'Na parts," said Khyrisse.

"I--I'd better tell him then." He got up shakily. "What--what about you?"

Praxis stood up. "We're going to stop them."

"You're nuts," said Wemble, after a beat. "You are totally nuts."

"Port," said Flicker. "He's been sending shipments to Port."

"Southern Diaria," said Shilree grimly. "The ancient spaceport. He's been sending them to Bane."

"You're not--going to the *moon*?"

They looked at each other. Flicker took off the armband and gave it to Shilree. "I've been leaning towards Denier of Doomsday," said Signet.

"I like it," said Shilree.

Book Divider

The moon drew closer and closer in the window of the stolen spacecraft. Its surface was crumpled and strange. The vessel leapt beneath their feet. "Threnody would have loved this," said Flicker.

"This is *so* cool!" Siobhan looked raptly out at the stars, her small chin thrust up.

"If we survive," said Khyrisse, "would you teach me Diari?"

"I could *try*," said Shilree. "Diari is a very difficult language."

"Vashi singha Diari lato," said Flicker.

"Even you don't have a very good accent. Kiljhacs must not have very talented tongues."

Tila waggled hers at her. "That's why I can pronounce your names and none of you can pronounce mine," said Flicker.

"Flick-er," said Shilree, with exaggerated enunciation.

"Lian-ah," Flicker mimicked.

"Lihan is a boy's name in Diaria. I'm sure they were just being polite." Shilree fluttered her fingers. "There are actually two Diari languages, low and high. You have to use High Diari for academics, religion, or anything formal. There are very subtle distinctions. It takes years to master."

"Diari just *think* their language is too complicated for us," said Flicker, and mimicked the whispering lilt of an older Diari man. "Diari is much too hard for you, Lian-ah. Very ancient language." "Gee, Elvish is older--" "SILENCE, kiljhac! Diari is a *tone* language!" "But it only has two tones--" "SILENCE, kiljhac! Diari has a thirty-six-letter alphabet!" "Well, Shikinti has over a thousand charac--" "SILENCE, kiljhac! Diari has funny consonant clusters like srai!" "I have a sister named Anjanxtpa." "SILENCE, kiljhac!" Everyone was rolling on the floor of the ship by then. Shilree folded her arms and looked darkly over her shoulder at Flicker. "Of all your incarnations," she said, "Threnody always was the one I most wanted to kick in the pakta."

Flicker smiled into his hand. "That's a low Diari word," he told Khyrisse helpfully.

"Zzenith," said Max, a little anxiously, "aren't you taking us in a little fast?"

"For speed are ships star built, friend Max."

"But we, we're getting really close."

"Land preparing to is Zzenith."

"Zzenith, pull *up*!" shouted Max, grabbed the controls, and pulled back. The prow of the ship reared like a schooner in a squall. Flicker seized the rail reflexively, caught Shilree as she fell into him backwards. Shannon was thrown back from the viewscreen and skidded across the deck, her eyes huge in her small face, fighting for balance. "Shannon! Hold *on*!" She righted herself and stood with her hands down, looking out at the looming moon. Flicker shook his head violently. "Siobhan!" he screamed. She jerked her head around. "Get the railing, hold the rail, we're going to--"

She lunged for the rail as the ship struck. The lights flared, a crazy red strobe sequence; Siobhan slingshotted around the railing post and off the bridge in slow motion, holding onto it for dear life, they bounced crazily once, twice, three times, one of the engines exploded somewhere below, and then they ground to a wrenching halt. The lights throbbed red and dark, and an alarm whooped softly. Max slowly released his grip on the controls, sweating profusely. "Is everyone OK?" said Praxis. Siobhan gasped and nodded, still clinging to the railing post, her face lost in her loose hair. "Sorry is Zzenith. Design ship of this different from ship Argos is."

"It's okay," said Praxis, "we're all right. Let's go."

Book Divider

A hand came down on Signet's invisible shoulder and spun him around, face to face with a Shadowlord. -Reinforcements!- he yipped mentally.

-No!- said Praxis. -Their whole evil army is out here. Surrender, Signet. They'll probably bring us in; it's our only chance.-

Signet took a deep breath. "I surrender," he said, and raised his hands.

The Shadowlord looked at him with his red slit eyes, and then he seized Signet's head and struck him in the back of it and the Traveller was plunged into darkness.

Book Divider

-Nora? What if... what if Signet's dead?-

There was a long pause. -Then our luck has run out,- she said.

-Why would he knock him unconscious if he was just going to kill him?- said Praxis. -We have to assume he's alive. I'm sure they'll at least want to interrogate him.-

-Let's concentrate on the task,- said Waterloo. -If we concentrate on the task, we can achieve our goals.-

-This is a good time to brief everyone on the people we're up against,- said Praxis. -Everyone knows not to use magic on the Shadowlords, right?-

-Max and Khyrisse should use true seeing to keep an eye out for the Ti'Ar'Na,- said Luthien. -If we find her maybe Shilree can catch her with her hook.-

-This is for Trill,- said Shilree, grimly.

-Maybe I can use this on Trill.- Flicker picked up the torch. -I still don't know how it works.-

-Threnody was very good at improvising,- said Tila, -as I remember.-

-If worst comes to worst we can kill Trill,- said Luthien, -at least that will get rid of her for the duration of the fight. The Ti'Ar'Na can possess any of us at any time.-

-Well, she can't possess *me*,- said Shilree, and tossed her head.

-What makes you say *that*?- said Praxis.

She indicated her headband. -I'm protected.-

-Shilree.- Flicker gripped her arm. -The Psi Brigade controlled *me*.-

Shilree paused. -The Psi Brigade was much more powerful than Tiall.-

-I am *much* more powerful than you. In this one sense. Assumptions are very dangerous, Shilree.-

Book Divider

"Ohhhhhh," moaned Signet.

-Signet!-

-Open your eyes!-

-Where are we!-

-Please be quiet,- he begged, and the viewscreen opened fuzzily. They were in a cell of some sort. Knighthawke was hanging from the wall, by manacles this time; Magnate was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Tila blipped in immediately and started examining the door. Shilree blipped in too. "Magnate. Magnate, are you all right?"

The immortal businessman turned his head wearily to his former agent. "You don't have a cigarette by any chance, do you, Shilree?"

"That--that's a filthy habit," she said, with some small emotion.

"It's all right," he said, low. "I am sorry to see you here, though I admit the change in company is a welcome one." Knighthawke rolled his eyes. "I see you have the Traveller. Are the Inos with you?"

Nora blipped in. "Something's happened to Philip. Trillarillia has an artifact that we think is turning Ataniel evil."

"The Schism Tine?" said Magnate. Shilree gave him the crystal without a word, and he put it to his forehead. "That's the Schism Tine all right. But she must have augmented it to give it any kind of range."

"Maybe she's got it in Trade," said Khyrisse. "That would give her great range."

"I am quite sure that whatever she has, it's here." Magnate passed the crystal back to Shilree. "Though she may be routing power through Trade, as by now her allies are surely in control of the Heart."

"Bad news," said Tila. "I can't get through this door. You other guys can take a look, but there's a sophisticated locking clamp, and it's on the other side."

"I can wraithform through this crack," said Khyrisse.

"Actually, not really," said Magnate, "there's a powerful anti-magic shield up around us."

"Then I can," said Praxis.

"There's nothing you can do," said Magnate, in a low, dead monotone. "I'm afraid this is my fault. When I affixed Trade to Ataniel I seem to have inadvertently given Shadow a direct channel. They have homed in on Trade. You won't be able to drive them away."

"Well, then take the armband and let's get *out*," Tila told Praxis. "We're running out of time."

"What about you, Knighthawke?" said Luthien. "What's the last thing you remember?"

"What do you mean, what's the last thing I *remember*?" he said. "I've been imprisoned since my evil twin defeated me and took over my city two years ago." Khyrisse gasped aloud. "Well, don't tell me you hadn't *noticed*!"

Signet fussed with his manacles. "Hey," he said, "how come Magnate never let you down?" Knighthawke gave Magnate a dirty look; Magnate just looked at his own forearm. Shilree pulled at his sleeve. "Come on."

"I can't enter the Traveller," said Magnate.

"Let's move it," said Tila.

"But we can't *leave* him here!"

"After Wyvern, Trillarillia, and now him," said Magnate, "solitude would be something of an improvement."

"Wait," said Khyrisse, "Wyvern and Trill, are they working together?"

"Well, since he did try to kill her when she arrived," said Magnate, "I'd guess not."

"And the Schism Tine. How can we destroy it?"

"It won't matter. They're going to land on Ataniel."

"Unless we leave--*now*!" Tila shoved Khyrisse and Luthien towards Praxis. "The world is going to end with us sitting around and *talking*. Get *moving*. We'll figure this out when the time comes!"

"But--" said Flicker.

"A woman of action," said Knighthawke. It was hard to tell if he was being sarcastic or not.

"Get in! Get--in!"

Magnate closed his eyes behind them, like a man who had given up all hope.

Book Divider

Khyrisse nipped in through the ornate doors, invisibly and intangibly. They clanged shut behind her. The two thrones swiveled from the huge viewscreen to face her, in them Syndriannia's body and a massive Shadowlord that could only be Forix. Between them was the Heart of the City, and behind them stretched Ataniel, like some uncanny map. -Look what she did to my hair!- wailed Syndy.

"It seems you were right, my dear," boomed Forix. "Our guests have arrived."

Flicker charged the dais, the torch in his left hand, and slung Tila's force ball at Edyric with his right. She looked irritated and started rooting in her backpack. Trill wriggled her nose like a bunny rabbit and the room erupted in explosions, one detonation after the next, utter chaos. From the corner of his eye he could see Luthien at one white center, throwing up his arm, lost in the glare. The Heart swelled and then it exploded too, rocketing shrapnel into Trill and Forix. Forix stood, fury darkening his grey face. "Kill him," he roared. "Problem no," called Zzenith, and sank one of his mouths into Praxis' leg. Praxis screamed. Flicker got to Trill then and hit her across the face with the torch. "Ow!" She looked at him. "You *bitch*!" She kicked him in the balls. Where the Heart of the City had been it was swirling, golden dust. Flicker stuck the torch back through his belt and whipped his sword out, slashing diagonally through her body. She staggered back, bleeding. "This will change nothing," she hissed at him. "You of all people should know that."

"Then so be it." He swung at her again. "I will be here."

-Flicker!- sent Max. -Turn the torch *on*!-

Someone had frozen Zzenith in place. Praxis was at the artifact now, smashing at the crystal with Talakan's tortured face in it. The fragments of the Heart of the City finished resolving into Khyrisse, blinking a little dizzily. She looked back and forth at Forix and Trill. "Oh, *shit*!"

"Destroy the Schism Tine," shouted Praxis. "Khyrisse, destroy it!"

She shrieked out the spell and the Schism Tine blew out, collapsing the other artifacts attached to it with a crash. Flicker could see Syndy in the twisting flame of the lit torch, her hair curling into smoke. He swung the flame at Trill, but she ducked quickly out of the way. Edyric, who had been vigorously scrubbing the force globe with something, nocked her bow and sent two arrows whipping into Trill. "You had better get me out of here!" she yelled at Flicker.

He swiped at Trill as she flew past him towards Edyric but missed her again. Forix hit Khyrisse with one of his black swords so hard he knocked her down the steps of the dais. The undead creature with the Shikinti assassin's head shuffled over and flung the Shadowlord attacking Max ten feet back into the wall. "It's me," it said, in a high-pitched little voice, "Luthien."

Philip blipped in and emptied a stream of fire into Darkhawke, blowing him back from Nora. -The Ti'Ar'Na is in Knighthawke,- cried Max over the Mindnet.

"Shilree!" shouted Flicker, skidding down the stairs after Trill. "Asanjhi laisa maghinto ra astor, falja!" She whipped out the soul hook, hesitated hard, looked at Trill, at Flicker, at Trill, and then at Knighthawke, and ripped the hook through his body. He jerked and staggered, shook his head dizzily. "Now you really owe me," she said, through her teeth.

Trill poked her finger at Edyric just as Edyric started to put an arrow directly into her face and she turned to glass where she stood, the glass arrow half-released. Flicker finally hit her with the flame of the torch then, and she seized up; in the fire, Trill and Syndy seemed to be struggling. Javert strode across the room in his jockey shorts, pulled Darkhawke's head back, and slit his throat with Kayla's kitchen knife. "Syndy!" shouted Flicker. Trill's spirit seemed to be beating the crap out of her. He shook the torch frantically, but the flame had spread to the sylph's body, burning it but not consuming it. "Syndy!"

There was a terrible, agonized scream from Lotus. Forix split Max almost in half with one of his terrible swords, and then ran him through with it again for good measure. His edges were beginning to get indistinct. "The Gem of Imprisonment!" shouted Praxis, on his knees by the collapsed artifact. "It's here!"

"FUCK!" screamed Shilree.

"Luthien!" screamed Flicker.

He turned and levitated the gem into the conflagration; there was a brilliance, Trillarillia Carraria wound into the artifact with a silent scream, and Syndy's spirit fizzed out. The flames collapsed into themselves, and the torch burned out. Syndy's body lay still.

Forix turned and struck a carved skull on the arm of his throne. The room lurched and the lights dimmed. Javert reached him and started struggling with him for one of the black swords. He and the other Shadowlord were starting to fade in and out now. Khyrisse sat up, her mouth bleeding, and expelled force at him with both hands. The swords clattered from his grip; Javert caught one of them and swung it at him and through where he had been as he faded out completely. "Five minutes till impact," intoned a voice from somewhere. Javert turned the black sword and plunged it through his own stomach. "Javert, no!" said Flicker, too late.

"In!" Shilree grabbed the armband from Khyrisse. "Get in! I'll try to use the staff!"

"We have to stop the moon!" shouted Luthien.

Tila jiggled the skull on the chair frantically. "It's not doing anything!"

"Four minutes to impact."

Praxis seized up the Mind Gem from the rubble of the artifact. "God help me," he said.

"What--what are you doing?"

"Telekinesis." He held the gem to his forehead.

"Help me get Max in the armband," yelled Tila, dragging him.

"Bring the swords!" said Khyrisse. "Their souls are in there!"

Luthien TK'ed the Gem of Imprisonment into Shilree's belt pouch, which she snapped shut. Flicker stood heavily with Syndy's body. "Someone get Javert," said Nora. "This wasn't his fault."

Waterloo hefted Signet in an improbable fireman's carry. "Sorry is Zzenith," wailed the alien.

"Three minutes to impact."

"Help me!" Luthien dragged at the glass statue of Edyric. Flicker set Syndy in the Traveller and blipped back in, grabbing its other arm. The room rocked sickly. Shilree put her hand to her forehead. "Magnate," she moaned, and shook her head. "We can't help him now. Get in. Everybody in."

"No," gasped Praxis, his hands shaking on the gem.

"Come on, come on!" Nora supported the stumbling Siobhan to the Traveller.

"Two minutes to impact."

The moon shuddered. Praxis shuddered. Shilree wavered, took a step forward and a step back, and then very suddenly ripped off her headband and flung herself at him. "Praxis," she gasped, and seized his wrist with her shaking hand. "Gestalt. Use me."

Flicker blipped in and put his hand on Praxis' on the gem. "Take anything you can," he said. Luthien appeared and then Khyrisse. The moon groaned. "Psychic energy Zzenith of can use friend Praxis." The psionicist's nose started to bleed. "I'm here," choked Siobhan. Flicker put his other arm around her hard. Nora and Philip clung to one of Praxis' arms, Tila and Marie to the other. Derek blipped in beside his daughter. "Come on, moon," yelled Waterloo. The room rocked. "Come on moon, *adapt*!" There was an aching wrench. "Inez," moved Praxis' lips. The Mindnet snapped and Praxis fell into Flicker, the Mind Gem clattered to the floor. "Praxis!"

"Get in," yelled Shilree, "everybody in!" She swept up her headband and the lifeless artifact, shook her staff like she was trying to get up momentum, and as Luthien was the last one to touch the Traveller she screamed out a prayer to all the dead Diari gods and redlined the Staff of the Walker.

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