Shadow's lifeless body crumpled to the ground in front of Sage Advisor. Seth nodded in satisfaction, and Sage let his fistless hand drop to his side. He spat on the corpse and turned away.
"How many more, Seth?"
"Joel, you damn well know the answer to that. It had to start at the beginning; we had to recover Aerlin. No soul can exist twice in the same time, and now that he's lost control of her he can never get her back. He's vulnerable; we can fight him, as we have been, at every point in time where he's tried to interfere. Every. Point."
"Yes, I know."
"Then why did you ask?"
"I....I don't know, Seth. Seth muttered and quickened his pace, leaving Sage Advisor behind with Aerlin. " 'Lin, I've been thinking -- gods know, I've had time enough to think." Aerlin wore no expression, but a black linen band between her brow and the bridge of her nose. "Do you realize what this...this 'quest' means for us? The rift could take Shadow to the future as easily as it could take him to the past. Seth's never talked about this, but that means we'll have to fight him for Phaema's liberty until the end of its time, if this is to continue. Our quest dooms us to lifetimes of..." Sage stopped speaking and looked up at the eye-band that circled Aerlin's head, then looked down the length of his right arm to the fleshy stub at its end that had once been a hand.
"Of suffering, Joel. Yes, I know. But what can we do? Give in? Let Shadow overrun Phaema? What? Are we to walk up to him next time, and say, 'Oh, Shadow, we've grown tired of fighting. We've decided to just let you win this time.' You think he would spare us? I value my own life Joel, doomed to suffering or not."
"There's something else 'Lin. A feeling I remember from that first battle, when I spoke with Shadow. It's hard to describe, but I felt it coming strongly from him. It came so strongly then that it's still burned into my consciousness."
"And what is it?"
"Weariness, I think. Age and weariness to an unimaginable degree. As we've progressed through time I've felt it again, but now on a much larger scale. And when I search my memories enough, I can remember from before we first entered the rift, before Shadow'd altered time, I remember feeling it to the same overpowering degree that I felt in him. It was all around then, coming from every stone in KAAT'N, every blade of grass, every breath of wind.
"Phaema is dying, Aerlin, of its own accord. Shadow may quicken the process, but all things must eventually end. It is the nature of existence. Change means destruction, but an unchanging existence would be intolerable to the human mind, it--"
Sara came suddenly rushing back into the room, with Seth at her heels. "Gather your senses Joel; the next interference is occurring HERE, in just a few--"
"Ah, hello Sara, Seth," Shadow turned to Sage, "And old Gimp as well! This should be great fun, indeed!" Shadow laughed, and Sage felt a vice-like force grip his body and push it tight against the cold slate floor. Blood seeped from the back of his head, and pooled and began to flood into his ears. He could not see the others, but he could feel Shadow's magic squeezing the life out of him. They'd been caught with the fatalist of weapons: surprise.
The blood ran so thick into his ear canals that he could no longer hear, but Sage felt the great thud: a body had fallen to the ground next to him. His fears were abated as he felt himself come free of the binding magic. He turned his head and saw Shadow's corpse for the second time in the day, this time short one head. He rose to a panting Aerlin, gripping the Xidani-encrusted bastard sword like a security blanket. Her face was red, but no tears cooled her cheeks.
Just one chance, thought Sage, without thinking. He tore Shadow's own sword from its lifeless owner and drove it cleanly through Seth's forehead. Sara shrieked and instinctually let loose the full fury of her power on the traitor before her. Sage Advisor felt the flames of his inevitable death upon his back, barely heard the roar of the incinerated air. And then there was silence. I must be dead. Sage smiled, and turned to catch his first glimpse of the afterlife.
His beard was singed by the fireball which hung motionless and silent in the air. Aerlin was on her knees, convulsing. Sage saw another female body in his peripheral vision, its head bent at an impossible angle. He turned to the weeping woman before him. She shakily raised her head, and he knew the unposed question: "Why?"
Sage drew Aerlin into his arms and left the room, running his fingers gently through her singed hair. "Shhh, 'Lin, quiet. Everything will be alright."
Sage took a deep breath, memorizing the feel of Phaeman air in his lungs. "I couldn't tolerate my unchanging existence. Our quest was futile, but those two were bound by their foolish devotion to a forgotten cause, and they wouldn't have let me go. I've done all that I will here, Aerlin. If I stay any longer, the weariness of this place will overcome me and I'll die with it. Another deep breath.
"I'm leaving this plane, 'Lin. Leaving Phaema. Come with me if you want; I'd surely love your company."
Aerlin's eyeband had been burnt off, but those empty holes where her eyes should have been seemed to have their own sorts of haunting expressions. Sage wondered whether she'd really lost her sight when she'd lost her eyes. At this moment, she seemed, somehow, to stare him straight in the eye with those empty sockets. "Joel, I thank you for all that you've given me. I think, in my heart, I feel the same way you do. But in that sense, you may have saved me, because I don't think I would have admitted the truth to myself in time for such deliverance.
"Go ahead and go now. I want to stay a little longer in Phaema. Go, and when I come, I'll find you. I promise."
Sage smiled and turned away to hide a tear from his blind companion. He stood up, and paused before leaving. "Goodbye 'Lin. I'll see you at Milliways." She started to respond, but Sage Advisor had already left.
Eventually, when she herself left, Aerlin wondered how long it would take her to forget Phaema. It was not as long as she expected, though one particular thought did linger somewhat longer than the rest.