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Chapter 17. A WARNING

We spend the night wandering the ark, sharing food and drink with some of the many creatures aboard. They don't know who I am or the special task Raz has asked of me. They think I'm just another face in the crowd.

I'm surprised, as I talk with the sometimes multilimbed, multiheaded, multicolored aliens, by how alike we are. Not in looks, clothes, or customs. But they have the same concepts of good and evil. Family is important to them. Most are religious. They have dreams and hopes for the future.

"Are all civilizations like this?" I ask Raz as we stroll beneath trees full of bat-like beings. A few are playing a game on a chessboard.

"No," Raz says. "We chose from the more compassionate species. They have a fighting spirit-we need warriors-but they can control their tempers. This world has to last an eternity. We cannot tolerate internal conflict."

"It might happen anyway," I note, watching a couple of bats chase each other through the branches, squealing happily. "People change, so I guess this group does too. You can't know what they'll be like in a million years. Groups might splinter. War could erupt."

"Perhaps." Raz sighs. "We'll use magic to preserve the balance as best we can. Evolution will be curbed, so there'll be no physical changes, but we can't take all possibilities into consideration. We'll plan as far ahead as possible. After that... as you would say, it's in the hands of the gods."

I still haven't reached a decision. I'm weighing up all that the universe stands to gain against all that I will personally lose.

They want me to become a living tunnel between universes. Sometimes a mage becomes part of a tunnel, and lives as long as the tunnel remains open. They don't age or die. If I agree to this, I'll live until the end of time. Death won't be able to claim me. I can keep moving the ark around, protecting this small pocket of survivors while all others are tracked down by the Demonata and slaughtered.

It's not foolproof. My piece of the Kah-Gash might desert me when it realizes what I'm doing, or Death might find a way to trap the ark. But the Old Creatures think it will work. If I play along.

In their position, I'd force the guy with the power to accept. I wouldn't give him any say in the matter. I'd open a tunnel, make him part of it, and leave him with no option but to do what was necessary.

But the Old Creatures believe I have the right to choose. It's the creed they live by. They'll guide their foster children in the right direction, but they won't force us. Ever. Even if the fate of the universe is at stake.

It's not a nice future-I don't want to spend the rest of eternity as a cog in a machine-but if I refuse to cooperate and everything falls to the demon hordes, there won't be any kind of a future at all. The Demonata will either get their hands on all three pieces of the Kah-Gash and destroy everything immediately. Or they'll work their way through the universe, world by world, and gradually grind us into dust. Either way, universal catastrophe.

But if I stay, I'll be surrendering all but a slim fraction of this universe to the demons. I might keep the millions on this world alive, but trillions of others will perish horribly. If I go back and link up with Bec and Grubbs... if we reassemble the Kah-Gash and test it against Death... then the universe has a chance. It might even be possible to save Earth.

Is it better to make a stand, fail, and lose all, or sacrifice unimaginable numbers of lives in order to keep a select handful alive? I don't know! This task should have fallen to someone equipped to meet it, like Beranabus. He'd have said yes to the Old Creatures in an instant, without batting an eyelash.

"Perhaps that's why he wasn't chosen," Raz murmurs. "We don't know why the Kah-Gash selects those it inhabits. It might be random, or it might be the work of a higher force. Maybe the universe chose someone who would weigh both sides equally, who wasn't so certain of his path that he'd ignore all others."

"But what if I make the wrong choice?" I groan.

"You can only do what you believe is right," Raz says. "Consider the angles. Heed your instinct. Decide. If you are wrong, at least you will have been true to yourself. Life asks questions of us all. We don't always know the answers. Most times we have to guess."

"But you think I should stay," I press, trying to force Raz to decide for me.

"Yes," Raz says. "But we also believed we were acting in the universe's best interests when we encouraged evolution. We are not always right."

I nod glumly. We've passed from beneath the trees and I can see the sky again. There are several moons, smaller than Earth's, different colors. They look like huge marbles. Thinking of marbles, I remember when Art was stolen by a monster from another world. I darted through a window of light to try and rescue him. I didn't know what lay on the other side. The safe option would have been to wait and consider my actions. But then the window would have closed, Art would have been lost. I'd have regretted my indecision for the rest of my life.

Raz squints at me. "You are going back," he notes with surprise.

"Maybe Death can't be defeated," I sigh. "Maybe the Demonata have won and this ark is all we can hope to protect. But I have to try to stop them. If I run now, I'll always wonder if there wasn't something I could have done to save everyone.

"If I fight Death and fail, I'll return to do what you wish, assuming I survive. But if I quit now, it'll gnaw away me... at my soul... forever."

I lower my gaze and wipe tears from my eyes. I don't know when I started crying, but my cheeks are soaked. "Open a window," I croak. "I'm going home."

The journey back passes unremarkably. A series of lights, windows, and worlds. We follow a different route most of the way, but the chambers we pass through are much the same. I don't explore any of the worlds. I'm fully focused on the battle to come, the huge risk I'm taking, what will happen if I fail. I wish I could be positive about my decision but I'm full of doubts. I think about changing my mind at least ten times an hour.

Eventually we start passing through worlds I remember from the trip out. I get excited as we draw closer to Earth. I might be going to my death, but if that's to be my destiny, at least I'll die on home soil.

Finally, as my stomach's starting to rumble again, we hit Atlantis and come to a stop. Raz looks around to make sure there are no giant slugs, then glances at me. "I'll wait here for you."

I'm surprised. "You're not coming with me?"

"No. I will escort you back but I won't cross with you. You must face Death by yourself, as everyone must when their time comes. If you wish to return, you can find me here."

"But I can't operate the smaller lights," I remind him.

"You won't need to," Raz says. "You will be able to use the normal lights to search for me. It will take a long time to piece them together-at least several hours-but just think of me and you will find the way."

"How will I breathe while crossing?" I ask.

Raz goes to one of the lodestones and cuts off a sliver of rock with a fingernail, as easily as slicing through paper. "Put this in your pocket," he says, handing it to me. "Draw on its power if you come back. It will sustain you."

"You're sure?" I ask, eyeing the tiny chip of rock suspiciously.


"How long will you wait?" I ask.

"As long as it takes," he says. "I will know when you are... finished."

"You mean when I'm dead," I smile.

"If the hand plays out that way, yes. But I hope it doesn't."

Raz sets to work on the window, and it materializes minutes later. I start to tremble and my stomach clenches. I was never the bravest. I hate fighting. But when I have to, I do. Wincing, I step forward.

"One last thing," Raz stops me, then hesitates. "This is a delicate matter. I don't wish to cast doubts without proof, but it's important that you know about the possibility of the threat."

"What threat?" I grunt.

"The girl," Raz says softly. "Her piece of the Kah-Gash was originally part of Lord Loss."

"So?" I ask warily.

"It was in the demon master for a long time. Pieces normally merge with beings who live no more than a few hundred years. They're influenced by those they share a life with. Having been part of Lord Loss for so long, her piece might have been more affected by the demon than by other hosts."

"Are you saying...?" I stop, the thought unfinished, not wanting to continue.

"The Kah-Gash could be manipulating the girl," Raz says. "Perhaps it spared her soul in order to give Death its freedom. Maybe it wants to restore the original universe. Bec is of good heart, but the best of people can be tricked and misused.

"We might be worrying unnecessarily," Raz concludes. "You may have nothing to fear. But watch her, Kernel. Use those sharp eyes of yours. Look for treachery and be prepared for it. Beware the priestess, Bec."

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