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Shilree scanned the crowded tavern. "Kimberly must be happy. The grand opening is going extremely well." She turned to Max, who was sipping a root beer. "So what happened on the other side, anyway?"
Max brightened. "Well, I have to tell you, we saw many strange sights on the other side of the world. I'll always have plenty of stories to tell. One of the stranger ones would have to be our meeting with my friend ManTec and his people, the Bonded Ones."
"Yes," ManTec interjected, "it was fortunate that you arrived when you did, or I would have undoubtedly not survived that fall." The short figure could almost have passed for a dwarf, save for his darker complexion and the five wands attached in place of his right forearm. The jewel in his right eye-socket glared and his ioun-stone whizzed randomly about his head. "I am bonded with Max because of his great deed."
Max smiled, embarrassed. "Um, it's a debt of honor. We first sighted a group of the Bonded crossing a rope bridge over a river when the bridge broke. I acted instinctively, and... well, it's amazing what a Fly spell can do in a pinch. We were welcomed into the Bonded Ones' village as heroes. These people are amazing! They worship the idea of bonding. With each other, their weapons and tools, everything."
"Ooh, bondage," Tila perked up. "I like it."
"Tila!" Max laughed. "Bond_ing_. Like the bonds between family, friends, or even business partners. It's a unique way of looking at life."
"Yes," added ManTec, "for my people the bond is the most important thing. One with no bonds is one who is alone."
"Well," Max continued, "a few months after we found the Bonded Ones, we came across the most bizarre thing I've seen in quite a while. There are people who live geographically in the center of the continent. They have constructed huge, triangular temples in the middle of the desert out of stones many times heavier than King Gehenna. And it was there that I met Vizier Em-Ketekh. He approached me and told me he had foreseen my arrival. Then he showed me this."
Max opened his backpack and gingerly took a large stone tablet from it. "I must be careful not to damage it," he said, resting it carefully on the table. "Take a closer look!"
The group leaned in reflexively. Shilree, as usual, picked it up. "Let me see!" yelped Schneider. "Hey, let me see!" Flicker craned around Rhynwa's arm. The tablet had many etchings on it. There were eight figures standing in a line, and even in the unusual perspective they had been drawn in they appeared to be Max, Rhynwa, Schneider, Shilree, Flicker, Tila, ManTec, and one other figure too blurry and indistinct to be made out. There were also six large figures towering over something, separated from the group by a river, and a man turned to the river. The party seemed to be standing on a line of seven circles; the center one was a seven-pointed star. Under the circles was a three-eyed face that looked strangely out of place, looking up. To the side was a large cube with a door in it and several smaller doors within the cube. There was a boat next to a dark hooded figure, and a one-armed man whose face has been scratched off the tablet being led from the cube. The last figure was a featureless one, dressed entirely in black and surrounded by a river; in his left hand was a dark castle, and just out of reach of his right a small jewel. "What is this?" said Rhynwa, touching the hooded figure. "The Vizier said he is a God of the Dead," Max said. Rhynwa nodded, pleased. "I thought so." Schneider pursed his lips at himself in the bar mirror, trying to arrange his hands and arms the way they were in the etching. "Maybe it means we're all going to become contortionists like Roxy!"
"You see why I had to show this to you all," Max said soberly. "Something's about to happen, and I know we're all involved. The Vizier had apparently been waiting for someone to arrive so he could give them the tablet. He didn't know who it was until he met him--me. He also gave me this." He pulled a blue pendant from under his shirt. The seven-pointed jewel glowed in the light. "It appears in the tablet, there, under my picture. When I first put this on, I had the feeling that I had to, well, be somewhere. Like I had something to do. And I think we do."
"I feel it too," said Tila.
Flicker sighed and put the tablet down, the familiar restless itch stirring in his bowels. "As do I. I'm afraid we've been geased."
"Who are you calling a gay ass?" charged Schneider.
"Geased?" said Max.
"Geased. Or a good approximation of it. Trust the demon on this one. It isn't the first time I've been bound, but it's the first time I haven't known immediately what I was supposed to do about it." He put his hands in his pockets. "I don't suppose any of us were intelligent enough not to touch that tablet."
Everyone looked at each other.
"So it goes." He sat back down.
"Well," said Max, "anyway, the Vizier teleported ManTec, Savis, and me back to Trade, and then Savis disappeared. I need to look for her. There is much to do. Anyone care to join me?"
"We're not going to Hell again, are we?" said Tila, suspiciously.
"I hope not!"
Flicker put his hand on his forehead. "Oh, man. Leave it to me and Max to go our merry ways for two years and then return with global crises on the same day. Max, I like a good prophecy as much as the next man, and the Other Side does sound intriguing; you know I'll go with you, but I'd like to know how urgent it is. My country is in serious trouble and I don't know what they've done with my friends, but they're counting on me. I guess your friend here would say we have a bond. I know you don't know me very well yet, but I don't ask for help often. I can't do this on my own." He took up his wine goblet. "Don't get me wrong. I think we should do both, and if people's consensus is that it's more important to go to the Other Side and complete this prophecy first, I'll do it. I didn't come this far to crap out on you. But there are people I care about who need me now, and I don't see why some kind of vague destiny can't wait. That's all."
There was a pregnant silence. Schneider finally managed to get his feet into a straight line. "Pretty funky drawing, Tech Man."
"Right. As I was saying, this changes everything. It's clearly a world-shaking thing and of paramount importance. We've got no choice but to head out to Riklandir now."
"You lost me there."
"Heck, we went two months before figuring out the rings part of that omen poem. You remember that, Rhyn?" She spared him a grunt, still examining the cryptic etching. "You think this is gonna fall into place overnight? I dunno, this picture of me... Is my chin really that big?"
Shilree muttered something under her breath that Flicker didn't see the value in translating. "Yes," said Rhynwa, and pushed his finger out of her way. "Okay, here's what I'm getting out of this. The eight figures are obviously us. May I propose the eighth figure to be Zzenith, who is difficult to draw, let alone etch."
"Dimensions two in especially," agreed Zzenith, happily.
"So we're standing on seven circles with a face looking up from underneath--couldn't that be interpreted as us on _this_ side of the world? Since rivers often indicate travel, maybe we start on this side and then go down, indicated by the man "holding up" or standing UNDER the river. Keeping with this interpretation, we may need to go out of the world to find the black shrouded man, since he is surrounded by a river, or cut off from our own world. I do not like the idea that once we enter the cube, someone will die without having the joy of completing the quest, but they will have achieved perfection. And indeed, the fact that Death is on the same river that seems involved with our travels could indicate that the dead one may even yet be able to assist in our quest." Flicker drank wine quietly. "What I thus suggest, considering time pressures, is that we investigate the Riklandir situation. The tablet gives us no timing such as a sun or seasons or passage of time by markings. Flicker told us that friends may be dying as we speak. I have a feeling that like every other prophecy we have ended up with, if we don't find it, it *WILL* find us. Even though I am cured, I *STILL* have intestinal pain when I think of the Gorsedd Arbeth..." She snickered at herself. "I suggest we go to Riklandir as planned and try to find out what's happening there."
"That does sound sensible," Max admitted.
"Thank you," said Flicker, quietly.
"I'm worried about Savis, though."
"Where did you see her last?" said Shilree. "Here, or on the other side?"
They were interrupted by a sound from the stair. All eight of them turned as one, and a red-haired woman was standing there looking at them strangely. She resumed descending the staircase as soon as they turned and walked directly towards them. "I'm Centia," she said. "May I join?"
"Uh, sure," said Max. "I'm Maxwell Silverhammer." She stared at him and swayed a little, like she was trying to keep her balance. Flicker half-stood as she did. "The Amulet," she said. Max continued introducing her blithely. "And this is Shilree..." Her eyes unfocused and keyed back in and she interrupted him. "Max, where did you get that?... We need to talk." She blinked her eyes like she wasn't all there, a barely perceptible shake of her head, the slightest shifting of her weight that a woman trying to pick one line of reality out from others had. Flicker actually reached his hand out to steady her; she seemed too oblivious even to register it. "Easy," he whispered. "We're listening."
Rip Hunter appears, badly wounded, and imparts a cryptic message. He dies and his body disappears, leaving behind a cube Max recognizes from the prophecy and a glowing white door. Shilree takes the cube and sprints to her office to get her equipment. Rhynwa gets some travelling rations from Kayla, offers a sentimental speech, and steps through the door. Flicker asks Centia for help and she agrees. Shilree returns and all pass through the door.
"Look," Kayla smiled, pointing to the nine people (well, eight people, one blob) at the table. "We're already creating adventuring parties!"
"It is a fast start, Kay," Kimberly agreed.
There was a terrible ripping sound from the center of the main room of the tavern. A loud burst of white light coalesced into the vague outline of a doorway.
"Incoming!" shouted Danq Fel, drawing the Twinblade from his scabbard. Tomas and Rastafa backed him up. Jace leapt under the table, bumping his head on Rhynwa's shin guards. He weakly held her drink up over the edge of the table.
"Down, Kay, I'll handle this," Kimberly spat. "Some things you really aren't ready for."
From out of the door, an emaciated figure lurched, in one hand a strange cube that hurt the mind to look straight at. He staggered over to the table and braced himself, facing Maxwell Silverhammer.
It was Rip Hunter.
"Shit," he muttered. Blood ran from his face and multiple cuts on his chest. His severed arm thumped on the table. He looked ten years older than the last time he visited. "I'm too late."
He slumped to the ground. The sound of healing spells going off filled the room. All stopped short of Rip's body. There was a flickering of his image, as with that of the door. "Out of phase is Rip reality with," Zzenith divined. "Device for protection probably active is."
Rip opened his eyes and looked up at the people gathered around him. "The stories... never told..." he coughed, "coming back."
There was another wavering of reality around Hunter. Rip's presence was weakening.
"The oroborus..." Shimmer. Blood ran out of Rip's nose. He looked up with dying eyes at the nine people whose table he collapsed at. "Damn, Max, you did it to me again."
Rip Hunter fell back, immobile. A small tinny voice intoned "Post-mortem body retrieval activated. *Breep!*" Rip's body shimmered a final time and disappeared. All that was left was an oddly-angled cube where Rip had been and a glowing white doorway which had oddly refused to disappear...
Flicker, who had been trying unsuccessfully to take the dying god in his arms, put both his palms on the floor. "Oh, Rip," he said softly. "I'm getting old, I don't understand this prophecy stuff anymore." He looked up at Centia. "Will you help us?"
She looked startled, but not nearly as startled as one might have expected. "I'll do what I can, as I am sure you will do the same."
Don scrutinized the floor for bloodstains to clean up, but didn't find any. "Rip?" said Max hollowly, to no one. "What did I do? What happened to you?"
"That would be our one-armed man," said Rhynwa, looking at the tablet.
Shilree sighed and rolled her eyes. "You know, it figures... Whenever we get together hell always breaks loose." She strode over smartly and snapped up the cube that had been in Rip's hand. "I'll be back."
"Um, Shilree," murmured Flicker, "I think Rip wanted us to go through that door before it shuts. I don't know about the rest of you, but I owe him some pretty serious favors. I really would have liked to have saved my people--maybe we still can somehow--but I'm afraid we've screwed something up terribly between our two worlds and we really ought to try and fix it."
"I figured that out on my own, Flicker. But I'm *not* going through that door with no equipment. I need my spell book, weapons, various and sundry items, and I'm not leaving without Alexis. I will be back in a flash." She bolted out the door. Flicker watched her go, shaking his head. "Comes to the Mithril Dagger without her adventuring equipment," he said, and stood up. "Getting old, girl."
"Kayla," said Rhynwa, "please bring a sack with bread, water, and some dried meat."
"Sure thing," said Kayla, her warm smile back in place.
Rhynwa tilted her head back and closed her eyes. "I remember the joy a new adventure used to give me, and the joy of having Luthien at my side. Now there is only the joy of a new adventure, but it is joy nonetheless. I have everything I need with me, and we will surely find more as we go. Max, it has been a long time since I led the Sewer Tour, and since then all I have done is lead prayers. You, on the other hand, are just back from a previous adventure that led into this one. Being the most informed, and perhaps the most experienced at the surprising and unexpected, I think you should at least lead us until we have a bit of understanding." Kayla returned with the sack, and Rhynwa paid her and said "Thank you. Sorry to ruin your opening night, but at least it'll give you bar stories for the rest of the month." She turned back to Max. "As I was saying, you should be our leader if you are up to it. However, for old times' sake, and to represent Luthien as well as myself..." She stepped out from behind her chair and put her foot through the doorway of light. "I will see you on the other side."
And she was gone. Centia turned to Max. "You were about to tell me where you got that amulet, but I'll wait until we can talk. Anyone care for a stroll on the wild side?" She offered a hand to Max and one to Flicker. Flicker took it solemnly and lifted his goblet as Shilree came sprinting back through the door, out of breath. "To Ragnarok."
Go on to the Hoaxes and Imaginary Stories Part 3
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