Table of Contents
With A Little Help
“Why did you leave us,” whispered the apparition of Mattais Icewind.
Khyrisse’s voice had started to give out halfway up the second ramp, but some mixture of guilt and responsibility compelled her to keep explaining herself to each ghost. “I’m sorry,” she said hoarsely. “I came back as fast as I could. I was too late. I tried.”
“Who could blame you for that?” whispered Icewind. “Thor himself was defeated in the Ragnarok. Why did you leave us on the walls of Trade, Starshadow? Signet the Significant cared enough to try and save us. Why didn’t you? If you went with him, I might be alive today.”
And here Khyrisse had thought she was out of tears. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, her eyes burning. “I--I don’t know why I didn’t. I was scared, I guess... afraid Shadow would win if I didn’t memorize new spells that night. Maybe they would have. I don’t know. But I’m sorry.” She hurried past, shuddering.
“Do you know how I died?” whispered the next ghost as the ex-goddess approached. Monique, Khyrisse recognized her. Exotic dancer. Dreamed of owning her own nightclub... someday. “We were having a show. Suzette flipped out, hit a patron with a chair. It started a brawl, a bad one. Two boys from Nylevia wound up raping me on the stage.”
“I--I’m sorry,” said Khyrisse, a bit strangled. “That was Trillarillia--the Schism Tine. I would have protected you if I could h--”
“I survived,” Monique interrupted, her voice louder and more forceful than the other apparitions, “by crawling into the back bathroom. The men were pummeling each other to death out there. I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Then the Shadowlords came in.” Her ghostly hair fell across her face. “I hid in the cabinet under the sink. There was screaming, and then there was silence. I’ll never know if I could have helped anyone. I was too paralyzed by fear. I huddled in there for hours, afraid to breathe too loud, and then the madness broke, and I could think again, and I crawled out of the cabinet and stood up, and for one moment my foot touched that floor, and I thought I was safe, and I thought I’d survived.” The ghost’s black eyes impaled Khyrisse. “And then the city blew up with me in it.”
Khyrisse stumbled backwards with a muted cry, her hands over her face; the heel of her boot slipped off the edge of the ramp, and she stumbled. Then a hand clamped onto her forearm and pulled her back from the brink. “Are you all right?”
“I--” Khyrisse looked around the room dizzily. She was on the second ramp of the terrace. There were no ghosts nailed anywhere, no eerie whispering. Grendel, was that all inside my head...? “I-- think I just turned my ankle,” she mumbled sheepishly, and then her jaw dropped open, because the man she was looking up at wasn’t alive either. “Janther?”
The walls shifted weirdly around Rani and Mina, and then they were standing someplace completely different, with a tightly made bed and ugly seashell wallpaper. Rani lost her balance and Mina barely caught her. “Oh no!” wailed Marty, standing up from the foot of the bed. “Now we’re, like, all trapped in here!”
“Trapped?” Mina looked around. It just looked like an ordinary hotel room to her.
“S’okay,” said Rani, wheezing a little. “Give me a couple minutes, maybe I can teleport us out again.”
“I have knock memorized,” Mina volunteered. “I could just unlock the door.”
“No, Mina,” Marty said patiently, “we can’t open that door. Didn’t you see the sign?”
“Yeah.” Marty pointed to it. “It says DO NOT DISTURB.”
There were a couple beats of silence. “Marty,” Rani said wearily, “that’s for you to use. You put it on the outside doorknob if you... well, if you don’t want anyone walking in on you.” She took the sign down and held it out to him, turning it over. “See, the other side says MAID SERVICE PLEASE.”
“Aaaaaaaah!” Marty screamed, and dived behind the bed. “A feather duster! Run!”
Rani and Mina looked at each other. “It’s not a real feather duster, Marty,” Mina finally offered. “Just a picture of one.”
“Are you, like, sure?”
Rani sighed, and jerked the unlocked door open. “Let’s find somebody else before my brains leak out from sheer proximity,” she said.
“Janther?” gasped Khyrisse.
He looked surprised. “Y-es?”
“But--what are you--” Exceptin’ my Alain, she remembered suddenly. “Are you another impression--an avatar?”
“No, I’m the Sunfighter,” he said. “I came in with you. Don’t you remember?”
“Flicker came in with me.”
“I am Flicker,” he said.
“You--you are?” Khyrisse rubbed her eyes in confusion. It wasn’t exactly an easy mistake to make; Janther was a head taller than Flicker, black hair instead of blond, human features instead of elven. And then there was that voice. “You look like Janther to me,” she said, uncertainly.
“Really,” he said, and shrugged. “Well, maybe Janther’s the incarnation you need right now.”
“That’s... entirely possible.” She shivered. “Rotten place.”
“Do you think so?” Janther said quietly. “There’s something very beautiful about it here. Closure. Continuity. I find it... strangely peaceful.”
“You would,” Khyrisse muttered. “The souls you poached off of still like you.” She tested her turned ankle. It wasn’t too bad. “I have to find Ebreth. Do you think you could bring the others a message?”
“I’ll do my best.”
Khyrisse missed Janther, a little. “Well,” she said, “I spoke with one of the head Sidhe here, an avatar of Shannon of all people, and she said all thirteen of us have to leave the Hotel together. If anyone leaves early, the rest of us will be trapped here, probably for hundreds of years. So please tell everyone to wait.” Chaotic bunch that we are, that probably needs to be said, sadly enough... “Also, everything the avatars offer here is real, no matter how improbable it may sound. So tell people to treat this like a wish spell, basically, not a dream sequence. If they go around doing random things just to see what happens...” Khyrisse shivered again. “There’s a lot that could go wrong in here,” she said. “If people make flip decisions just to be wise-ass, they could be very sorry later, and so could a lot of other people.”
“I’ll let Skitch know,” said Janther, deadpan.
Khyrisse laughed sadly, and looked down. “She also said you were the only one of us who really deserves being here,” she said in a quiet voice. “Alain I mean.”
“Shannon said that?” Janther unsuccessfully tried to cover the smile blooming at the corners of his mouth. “Well, no one’s ever accused her of impartiality,” he said instead.
“Shannon’s already here,” Khyrisse said dully, worn down by her self-inflicted ordeal of ghosts. “Shannon belongs among the archetypes of Ataniel, and I don’t.”
“Belong is a funny word,” said Janther. “Who really belongs anywhere? Most of life is about rising to the occasions we find ourselves in. Shannon may be right about Alain or she may not, but Eren and Shalini certainly weren’t born to immortality. They would have died quiet, locally heroic deaths, meaningful to the few people whose lives they saved, and gone on to well-deserved rest. They were called to more, and so they lived up to it. What does it matter if you or Val or Rani really belongs here? Here you are; rise to the occasion now. Nothing else matters in the end.”
Khyrisse closed her eyes and let his voice wash over her. It was almost healing. They were just words, she knew; but so were Shannon’s, and so were her accusing ghosts. And why should words only hurt, anyway? The Sunfighter’s were just as true as the Sidhe’s, or her own. “I’m doing the best I can,” she said softly, and that, too, was true. “Go warn the others. We’re not leaving anyone behind here.”
Janther faded out, and after waiting a tentative moment to see whether her lost souls would reappear, Khyrisse adjusted the shutter on her lantern, took a deep breath, and started back up the ramp.
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