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And Jackson’s arms were empty. He stood up slowly. No factory, no Ramrod. Just a big empty field, and the empty sky. “Goddamn,” Jackson said, his voice even more gravelly than usual. His nose was bleeding. He didn’t wipe it away. “All I wanted was five more minutes with the old man. And when I finally got ‘em, I wasted ‘em like all the rest.”
The grass blew in the breeze. Douglas Cage’s coffin lay in the field not a few steps away, a simple pine box with a cross carved in it. Jackson cast his eyes around until he found the broken neck of his guitar. He severed the strings with his pocket knife. “Least I can have a second chance at this much,” he said, and looked at the wooden coffin for a long minute. “I swear I never meant to take those things away.”
Then he started digging.
Ebreth kicked the door in with a crash.
“Mr. Tor,” said Coyote Jay, unfazed. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“I want Jack Paris,” Ebreth said, “and I want him now.”
“Nnnnngh!” Rani stumbled through the planar fabric of the Hotel and into a stucco wall. There were bright sparkles at the borders of her vision, but she still hadn’t lost anyone. Assuming the Rat was still in Skitch’s pocket, that was. Rani was going to assume. “Fourteen,” she gasped.
Mina didn’t react. She was sitting by the window looking out, lost in thought. “Mina?” Khyrisse tried tentatively, as Val helped Rani to her feet. “Are you all right?”
“Hmm?” Mina tilted her head up to the older sorceress, her eyes distant. “Oh... yes. Yes, I’m fine, thanks.” She glanced once more out the window, over her shoulder, as she stood. “It was just that the time was wrong,” she said softly, to herself.
“Unfortunately for your purposes, Mr. Tor, volume isn’t really a deciding factor in this matter,” said Coyote Jay. “As we’ve explained several times now, the fate of the Paris equation is entirely dependent on your own.” He took the misshapen black and gold lump from his rolltop desk and flipped it idly in the air a few times, as if it were a baseball. “He won’t be leaving this place until you’ve made your decision.”
“That is my decision,” Ebreth said forcefully. “Hang the rest of it. Give me my friend and open that goddamned door. What it means for my soul is your problem, not mine.”
“An... interesting premise, to say the least...” the Sidhe lord said dryly, examining the soul sphere from a few angles. “The consequences are hardly mine to live with, as I hope you’re aware of by now.”
“Oh, I’m aware all right,” Ebreth said, “I just don’t give a damn. Whatever they are, I’ll deal with them. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. I don’t understand your games, Jay, but I am sure as Hell not deciding to exorcise my past life by acting like him. If redemption is something I have to abandon Jack here to get, I don’t want it. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” said Coyote Jay, “Mr. Tor.”
“With these hands,” Jackson half-sang to himself under his breath as he worked. His fingers were bleeding, his guitar an unrecognizable splintered stump. “With these hands.”
“Sixteen,” screamed Rani, crashing through the ether and into a rolltop desk. All the little inkwells fell off its shelf and exploded on the Escher tiles, one after the other.
“Is--” Jack’s eyes were wide, staring at his Other. “That’s not--”
Ebreth’s arm was linked in his. “Have we got everyone,” he barked.
“Damn straight,” yelled Rani, equal parts adrenalin and exuberance and rage.
“Quickly!” cried Tarrin, beyond desperation.
Ebreth picked up Rani by the back of her jacket, and she shot out her bare hand and seized the doorknob in it.
They winked in and out through the window of the Hotel observatory like so many stars, a symphony of dreams and yearnings. Brett, or at least that part of her left behind here, could have stood and watched this mythscape sparkle forever, but even in the Hotel, there were some things that mattered more. “Jay?” she said, praying to herself it would not be the last time, that there still was some place on Ataniel for him, that all the world had not yet lost its hope.
He was sitting in his desk chair, his floor stained the color of fireworks. “I got one,” he whispered. His hand closed around the soul in his hand; it pulsed and flowed, glowing gold through the cracks of his long fingers. “Goddammit, I got one.”
The soaring of joy in Brett Astra’s heart was like nothing the mortal world could know.
With cracked and bleeding hands, Jackson lowered his father into his grave. “Come on, rise up,” he whispered to himself, as the evening sky faded to black. “Come on, rise up.”
Lita Paris stood alone on the beach, lifted her arms to the night, and was gone.
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