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Shilree landed on the pier of Port so hard she tumbled over herself and her miniskirt split. The staff was grey and dead in her hands. The moon was pale and luminous in the sky. Shilree breathed. The others emerged tentatively, one by one, Praxis leaning heavily on Zzenith, Max holding the sword that bore his soul. The moon stayed where it was. They stood in the wreckage of the oldest city on Ataniel and looked out into the sea of stars together, watching.
The firelight crackled. "My mother is dead," said Flicker, "isn't she."
"I can try to contact her," Praxis offered.
Flicker turned around completely. "Are you *mad*?"
"Well, I'll--need to rest first, you understand. But I can reach Riklandir by morning."
"Riklan--" Flicker shook his head. "No. No, Eren's mother died years ago. My--other mother. Brionwy."
"On second thought," said Praxis, "I think I'll pass."
"Woo-hoo!" said Luthien. "Brionwy is dead!"
"I don't taunt you," Flicker said, with real anguish. Luthien stopped and just looked at him, his perky little Oriental face falling swiftly to sober, his doe eyes still. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
Flicker put his hand on the side of his face. "This has not come for free," he said, "for any of us."
Luthien sat straight up and cried out suddenly, in the high-pitched voice of the Shikinti assassin. "Signet. Signet, do you still have the crystal ball."
"Give it to me. Please."
"The mission is *over*," said Signet. "We already saved the world. You can't take my magic items anymore."
"Signet, *please*. I'll pay you. I have to find my family."
"You are *so* *selfish*," said Waterloo, as if she were shocked.
"All right. All right." Signet took it out slowly. "All right, one last time, but then you guys get your own crystal balls, okay?"
He fumbled with it. "Rhynwa's all right." He exhaled, and bowed his delicate head. His hands were shaking. "And Gordon's all right. We're all right."
"Until Rhynwa gets a load of your new body," said Tila.
"It's not so bad," said Flicker. "I like the head."
"Inez is alive," said Luthien, "but I think she's in some kind of trance."
Praxis nodded wearily. "She should be. That's good."
"Malaras," said Shilree. Luthien gave her the ball. She passed her fingers over it and closed her eyes. "Nothing."
"I'm so sorry," said Max. Flicker took her hand. "Luthien," he said. "Timrin." Luthien's hand flew to his mouth and he grabbed at the ball. "No," he said, "no, he's OK. He must have escaped from Trade." Flicker nodded. Luthien touched the ball with pain. "Zenon is gone. Mattais--is gone."
"Did Endicott make it?" said Praxis, softly.
"Yes. Yes, here he is."
"What about Quell?"
Luthien shook his head. "Oh, *no*!" said Max.
"Shannon is--" Luthien blinked at the ball a couple of times. "Taking a bath."
"Tomorrow I'll call her and ask her what happened to Quell," said Praxis.
"Belle all right is?" said Zzenith anxiously.
Luthien was still kind of looking at the ball. "Whew," he said to Flicker. Flicker grabbed it away from him and focused on the Diari mercenary with more effort than he planned to acknowledge. "Belle's OK."
"Kind of huddling in a corner," said Flicker. "He may need a lot of help."
"Ataniel, in general, may need a lot of help," said Nora.
"We just need to adapt."
"What Ataniel needs is some good old-fashioned comfort," said Marie, putting her hand on her hip, "and I intend to see to it that the service industry rises to the challenge."
"How is the Dagger, anyway?"
"Dagger looks great."
"I guess your guild leader is dead," said Marie. "Are you going to go into business for yourself?"
"Oh, I'm sure Venom survived," said Tila. "He's very wily."
Flicker watched the sun rising over the green hills and broken buildings of southern Diaria. "But look," he said, "for the earth for a second time emerges from the shadows, green and fresh; foam shows white on the waterfalls; the eagle hovers high in the air and feeds on fishes on the rocks. Man has survived what the gods can not, and the sun rises on a new morning. That which was bad becomes better. Look, for Balder returns from Hel, and the winter at last has passed."
"Good morning, Flicker," said Praxis.
"Good morning, carad. How's the head?"
Max stirred. "Morning," said Khyrisse, and gave him a little kiss on the forehead. "Morning," he said. "I--you know, I foresee this really interfering with my ability to change my clothes."
"Maybe we can polymorph it into a ring or something."
Shilree looked out across the ruins. "We have a lot of work to do."
"Time of a lot have we," said Zzenith.
Edyric looked around. Her eyes were very dilated. "Where--where is Lotus?"
"We think Forix killed her," said Praxis, softly. "We--"
"*Fuck*!" screamed Edyric, and punched him in the face. "You *think*? You *bastard*!"
Shilree put her hand on her pistol and then, slowly, took it off again.
"Edyric," said Praxis, "she tried to contact Forix. He blew her away. If there was anything left of her we couldn't find it. We brought you; we would have brought her. This is Forix' fault. Blame him."
"Since Forix is not on my dimension," she said through her teeth, "a fat lot of good it does me to blame *him*." She stood shaking, leaning hard against her bow. "Trust the heroes, you said," she screamed at Flicker.
"I have never," he said, "ever, claimed that heroes never fail." He flipped the torch in the air, caught it, and walked into the Mithril Dagger, his lips compressed.
There was a long pause. -Yes, now what do you want?-
-It's Todd McGee. Are you all right?-
-I know who you are, you big bald galoot. Do you want me to sit my arse in the chair again? I'm not goin' t'do it.-
-We kept Brytannwch safe.-
-Aye, so I hear. It's a good thing for you, too.-
-Shannon, what happened to Quell?-
-I sent him through.-
Praxis exhaled in relief. -Thank you, Shannon.-
-I'm afraid I've lost the portal, though, when Trade blew, so he'll not be comin' back. It's not a bad place to live, though, is it now?-
-It seems to get better every time I see it.-
-They're... doin' well there, then?-
-Very well, Shannon.-
-And the queen, is she well?-
-She seems well.-
-And did she... mention me, at all?-
-Ah.- She paused, heavily. -I suppose not. Tell me Todd, am I remembered there at all?-
-Shannon...- He tried to think of what to say. -There's a time differential. It's twenty years later there. No one spoke of those days.- He knew without looking it wasn't good enough. -Shannon, if, if it's any comfort, some people have forgivven you.- He had been thinking of Flicker's soft voice in the palace library, but as he said it he realized that it was true, that the war was over. She paused a long moment. -Thank you,- she said sadly, and closed the connection.
"Schneider, it's Eren Messala. I'm the fourth Sunfighter. I've come a long way."
"I *said* go *away*!"
"Threnody never had the chance to say goodbye to you. She never thought it needed to be said, but she always liked you."
"I *don't* want to talk to you!"
"I'm leaving Lianth tomorrow."
He sat down outside the door. "Eighteen years ago," he said, simply, conversationally, "there was a powerful cult of Tou Mu rising in Shikintu. This was giving her great strength. We were losing ground. And so I went to Shikintu, I and a host of my army. We marched on a city named Inchan, which was the hometown of the high priest. The forces of Tou Mu were gathered around her temple, eighty miles away, waiting for us. And we marched into Inchan. We killed everyone under the age of about sixteen in that city and we put their heads out on pikes around the gates. The pit fiends raped and disfigured every woman they could get their hands on. And we left Inchan, and we went back to the Abyss, and we left the cultists in the temple of Tou Mu, still waiting. When the high priest learned what had happened he committed suicide. The survivors of Inchan--and we had left almost all the adults alive-- provoked a backlash against the Abyss. Tou Mu's power waned, and we drove her back. That massacre became known as Alshizawi. The command was mine." He tapped his wrist. "Whatever you have done. Whatever anyone on Ataniel has done. It is not as bad as the things I have done, and you have a better excuse. All these years we have known each other I have been carrying them with me, and today I am telling you things I would rather forget, because I, because Alain believed all things could be redeemed, and I do believe that. We have no control over the past, Schneider. So we have to work on the present. If I can do this. You can do this." Flicker contemplated his hands. "I don't think either of us," he said, "Eren or Tjekanefir, has ever spoken this much in one sitting before, in our lives. It feels very strange. Think about this, Schneider. The only thing to do is start again. I have been here. Some things can't be forgiven but every one can be redeemed. You are not alone."
"What for?" said Siobhan. "Praxis *said* we couldn't get through. Besides, I never liked the isolation policy. I want to see the world. Do you know, Max said there's a whole other continent on the other side of the world? That's where I'm for." She looked excited just thinking about it.
"Siobhan," said Flicker, "there's someone there I'd--really like you to meet."
Shannon opened the door. "And what do you want? I told your ugly friend already, the big dumb cleric's in my country, and I don't know where my country is."
"Shannon," said Flicker, "this is Siobhan MacLir." She did react; in fact she went three steps back into her house, steadying herself on the shelf. "She came back with us from Brytannwch, and I thought. I thought you might be able to explain some things."
"Then it's true," she whispered, "the time difference. I could have sworn he was lyin' to me. Oh, Siobhan, baby, I've lost the whole--*look* at you!" She burst into tears.
Siobhan was rather stunned. "But--you're not--my mother, are you?"
Come in. Come in." She took the girl by the forearm with great emotion. "Are you her boyfriend?"
"Well you'd better not be. She's not three fuckin' years old."
"But," said Siobhan, "my mother told me my birthmother was dead."
Shannon took that very hard. "Still kickin'," she muttered. "Tirnanog, your whole childhood. What a wonder I am for losin' things these days. I'll be wakin' without my head any mornin' now. Look at your *hair*, baby, didn't she teach you to use a comb?"
"Hey, leave my hair alone!"
"Shannon," said Flicker, "where, how did you get a daughter?"
"It's not your business. Siobhan, were you happy there?"
"Well, sure," she said, "it's a nice place, but I'm glad of a chance to travel. Listen, is it true what my mother said about you?"
"Deirdre?" she said. "How is she?"
"She's fine. Did you really betray the country and murder my father?"
Shannon sat down. "You know," she said, "I really thought I might have a few years before I needed to start in on this with you, inion."
"Is that a yes or a no?"
"I never betrayed my country," she said, in Gaelic, "and what I did to MacLir, he survived."
"Then you're saying she lied."
"Not *lied* exactly, she--oversimplified. I did what I had to do, sweetheart, and--so did Dee."
"What about my father?"
"Siobhan," she said, "this is a--a very long story."
"*Was* he her father then?" whispered Flicker.
Shannon smacked him in the side of the head. "Is it eavesdroppin' on us, you ill-bred bastard?"
"You invited me in!"
"And if I wanted you listenin' I'd be usin' your bloody language, I would! Get out of my house!"
Flicker exhaled and touched his temple. "She betrayed Deirdre," he told Siobhan, in Gaelic, "if it had been Brytannwch this would have been enough."
Shannon turned on him slowly. "How do you know about this."
"Because it *is* my business," he said, "or--part of it is."
"I'm listening," said Shannon, and crossed her arms.
"If I tell you," he said, "will you tell me what happened?"
"No," said Shannon. "You'll tell me, and then I'll decide what to tell you. I am Shannon Cormyr and that's all you're goin' to get."
He bowed his head. "I am the Sunfighter," he said. "I am a powerful spirit that exists together with a mortal man. One of those men was Alain MacLir. I was with him for a year and a half after his, his death. Our joining kept him alive."
"Oh, so that was *your* fault," said Shannon, and boxed his ears.
"Oh, you wish you *had* murdered my father then?"
"It's no good askin' that. I canna ken how it might have been different and I'll not guess. I wish I'd killed that bloody telepath of yours before he could grass on me to Deirdre, that much I'll tell you."
"*Shannon*," said Flicker. "Please. This is terribly important to me. Was he really her father?"
She looked at him until she had to look away. "Yes," she finally said.
"Is he--still alive?"
"No," she said. Flicker breathed. He hadn't realized how much he had been thinking about it until now. "At least I--dinna think so. I've been wrong before."
"Did you kill him?" said Siobhan.
"No," she snapped.
"How," said Flicker, "when...?"
Shannon rubbed her forehead. "Well, Eric was gettin' more an' more aggressive," she said, "--with Brytannwch, that is, he and I are *certainly* not your business--and I was workin' there undercover with some of my men. I was the Minister of Intelligence for Cynistra for a long time, you know. And as for Alain I dinna ken what exactly he was gettin' himself involved in since whatever it was had transpired with that red-haired elfin slattern--" Flicker did turn his head, an angry flash starting in his eye, but he paused and turned it back again, and Shannon did not seem to notice. "--but when I came across him he'd had the worse of it. He was badly hurt and to tell the truth probably a bit delirious but he reached out for me and I came. It had been." She looked down and away. "So long."
There was a pause. "You're *sick*!" said Siobhan.
"I am not sick." She got up and turned to the window, folding her arms tightly. "He wasna dead, he was just a little-- banged up, that's all. So maybe he was a bit vulnerable and he needed to believe in me. Maybe I needed somethin' too. He called my name as if nothin' had happened. Could I ignore the voice of Alain MacLir?" She put her hand on the sill and rolled her head back, just slightly. "So I gave him what I could. I wasna goin' to leave him there to die alone, was I? And that's how I--broke my weddin' vows to the only husband I'll ever have, and you may think less of me if you will, I care not. Three weeks later he was dead. He was not a man to turn from risk, that one. But I know what it meant to him, my takin' up his hand. He loved me still. And I'll not be sorry." She paused, and shook her head. "And then I found myself with child, and I'd not been with Eric in months, so I was in a wee spot of trouble, you understand, but it's his own bloody fault for gettin' after my country the way he did. And that's the story and it's not your business, so I've no idea why I'm tellin' it you. I certainly dinna need to hear how *I* was conceived; I dinna ken what I'm doin' tellin' you."
Flicker's hand was on his face, his other on its wrist. "Thank you, Shannon."
She looked at him. "Well," she said, "you, you're welcome, I guess."
"ExCUSE me!" said Siobhan. "Hello, how about the part where you abandon me? Are you going to get to that?"
"I didna *abandon* you," said Shannon. "I left you in very good hands. Here I was with a child growin' not my husband's, and merry it was tryin' to hide *that* from him, and then he's bringin' me expensive wine which I dinna even want to be drinkin' as if *he's* the one with a bomb to drop, and I'm thinkin' maid-in-waitin' for sure, and what does he tell me but he's invadin' Brytannwch. Just like that. Well he had his reasons of course, and good ones they were, but I couldna let him do it. So that night I did what I had to. I went to Brytannwch and I took the ace out of my sleeve and I sent my country out of his reach. And I betrayed the second man I'd loved. And now I have a cat." She put her chin down, her mouth a line. "And then I sent you to Deirdre. I knew she'd take you even if she wouldna take me."
"But," said Siobhan, wavering a bit, "but didn't *you* want me?"
"I *did*, baby, it was just--" She moved her hand. "It was somethin' I felt I had to do."
"You just *felt* like it? You just *felt* like killing my father, you just *felt* like having sex with him, you just *felt* like sending your baby girl to another dimension--"
"I had to give her what was dearest to me," she whispered.
Siobhan stopped. "Well," she said. She put her hand in her hair. "Well, I--I guess there is plenty to do over here, you know, after all, and I guess maybe--Ansalia can wait. Maybe I might--stay on Ataniel a while?"
"I'd like that," said Shannon, brimming, and put her arms around her. "Oh, darlin', this hasna quite--worked out the way I'd intended, but I am--so glad I have found you again, I am--so glad there is somethin' left of us, of Alain and me, after all."
"So what--" said Siobhan, "what does that make you?"
"Confused," said Flicker, very softly.
"In, in relation to me, that is."
He thought about it, trying to steady his hand. "Father's brother?"
"Jason!" Flicker pulled up in a spray of snow and kicked out of both skis without looking back. "Jason, you're alive!"
"*I'm* alive?" Jason caught his embrace and swung him around. "*I'm* alive? Eren, my--"
Sigrid picked him up from behind and punched him in the face with unmitigated force. He landed hard and rolled. "What was *that* for?" he gasped.
"Take a *wild* guess," she snapped, "*Ragnarokkr*."
"*What*?" he said. "Sig, I--*I* didn't kill the gods--"
"Of *course* not. What the fuck is with saving the world without us?"
"Eren," said Jason emotionally.
"It's driving me crazy." Flicker wrung out Luthien's shirt. "I've been Flicker since I was a teenager. I can't just change my name like this."
"Janther did," Luthien said.
"That was for personal reasons. This is just stupid. I didn't even *do* anything. Praxis averted Bane and blew up the Heart to banish Shadow. Khyrisse destroyed the Schism Tine. Shilree trapped Tiall, and you trapped Trill. I was just sort of there."
"Well *Flicker*," said Luthien. "We were a team. We couldn't have done it without you."
"Maybe," he said, "maybe not. If you could have it would not demean me. I stood on the right side, and that's good. But I also stood in the background, and that's not bad either. I'm not the one who saved the world here. I don't like being called the one who did."
Flicker sat with his fingers pressed together in front of his face. -Praxis?-
-Can you give me some advice?-
-Ask her out. She's definitely interested.-
-Not Kayla.- He paused. -Say that, hypothetically, you, ah, inherited forty-five planes of the Abyss.- The connection was deathly silent. -And you don't have any... special delusion that anything would be any better with you there, but you know, if you turn them down, someone really terrible is going to get them, and you're going to feel partly responsible for everything that goes on there, and also there's a part of you that keeps wondering if you might not be able to make some kind of difference even there, but you... belong here.- He took a breath. -So hypothetically, what do you do?-
-How... hypothetical is this?-
-Well,- he thought, -the hypothetical part is that it's you.-
Kayla opened the door. "Hello?"
"Hi," said Flicker. His hands were in his pockets. "It looks like I'm going to be around here for a while. Would you like to go skiing?"
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