Eclipse

Part I

© 2000 by E. Liddell


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They herded us through the black hole, one after the other. I was fifth in line. Normally, I don't think the line would have consisted of as many as five people -- the Negaverse doesn't get that many volunteers in the average week -- but six of my companions were convicts who had chosen this as an alternative to an extended stay in jail. They all wore identical shapeless coveralls that must have been issued to them by the police. I and the dark-haired girl in front of me were the only two wearing normal clothing.

There was an instant of cold and absolute darkness as I stepped into the maw of what I'd been told was called a "warp hole". The room on the other side was huge and dark and shadowy, but before I could get a good look around, the guy coming up behind me shoved me out of the way. I stumbled forward, dropping the little bag which was all I'd been permitted to bring with me.

The orange-skinned youma who was our guide -- or our jailer? -- stepped through last, and stood, with her arms folded, directly in front of the dark portal, blocking our way back. And just in time, too, because a couple of the cons were darting glances back in that direction. We'd been told that once we passed through the portal we'd reach the point of no return, but I'm not sure how many of us would really have believed it without that little reminder.

"Is that it, Dima?"

We all glanced around the room to see where the voice was coming from, but I sure couldn't spot anyone who wasn't already part of our group.

"That's the last of them," the orange youma confirmed. "They're all yours."

"Thanks." And the owner of the voice stepped around the edge of the Warp to confront us.

I gave it one look, then quickly looked away again, feeling sick. It almost -- almost -- looked like some kind of animal. Certainly it stood on four hoofed feet, the forelegs slightly longer than the hind, and had short, bristly fur all over most of its body. Short, bristly, green fur. A dozen or so tentacles, also green, sprouted from between its shoulder blades. None of that was so terrible. I'd known that there were some pretty strange creatures living in the Negaverse. No, what disturbed me was its head, or, more accurately, its face. Although the skin was green and its lower jaw was distorted, forced forward and out by two huge, tusklike fangs that reached almost all the way to the cheekbones, the overall shape was disturbingly human.

The tip of a tentacle cracked stingingly against my nose.

"Don't turn away," the green youma commanded. "Take a good, long look at me, all of you. Three years ago, I stood where you're standing right now, listening to a speech like the one I'm about to give you. Three years ago, I was human. And three years from now, this could be you."

And now, I couldn't take my eyes off the green creature. Human? That *thing*? It was...one of us? I felt sick.

It paced past our ragged line slowly, giving us each a long, hard look.

"In fact," it continued, "given that there are so many of you here today, chances are that one of you will end up as horribly deformed as me, if not worse. Dima, over there --" It nodded toward the orange youma, still holding her position right outside the Warp. "-- is more typical, of course. Most youma who start out human remain essentially humanoid. But you need to know that the other is a possibility, and that it could happen to you.

"I want you to look at each other, now."

Apprehensively, I glanced to either side, taking in the faces of my neighbors, the dark girl and the convict who had pushed me in the back.

"You see," the green youma continued, "six months from now, at least one of you is going to be dead. Some are killed by the transformation. That doesn't happen as often anymore as it used to, but it does happen. Some die because they can't learn to control their magic properly, or because someone else who lacks control fires off a lethal spell in their direction. And there are some who kill themselves, because they can't live with what they're turning into or just because they weren't all that stable to begin with. If you decide that you want to take that way out, no one will stop you. The Negaverse, even now, isn't a good place for the timid or the weak."

It turned around and strode back up the line, stopping in front of the girl beside me.

"You," it said. "You're pregnant, aren't you?"

She closed her eyes. "I might be, yes."

"You do realize that by choosing to come here, you've condemned your child to spending its life as a monster, assuming that you don't miscarry within the next few weeks?"

"I don't care," she whispered, then repeated it more loudly. "I don't care. It isn't as if any kid of mine would have a better life somewhere else."

The green thing resumed its pacing.

"You're probably wondering, by now, if I'm telling you all of this just to scare you," it said. "Well, the answer is yes. I am trying to scare you. They told you, on the other side, that once you walked through the Warp there wouldn't be any going back. That wasn't quite true. This is your last chance. In a few moments, you're all going to have to make a choice. Either you walk through that doorway over there --" It made a gesture with its tentacles, indicating a dark blot against the far wall. "-- permit yourselves to be infused with magic, and begin your new lives as youma, or you step back through that Warp and let Dima erase your memories of this little conversation. Once the magic touches you, you won't have a choice, because even if you went back to the Earth Realm afterwards, the magic would still change you into one of us.

"If you walked through that Warp because you wanted magic or eternal life, go back to the other side right now, because that isn't what this place is for. This is the outermost circle of Hell, boys and girls, the last refuge of the desperate. And you're all going to have to decide just how desperate you are."

Silence. The green youma sank down on its belly beside Dima, the orange-skinned youma woman, and stared at us out of its terribly human eyes. I forced myself to stare back for a moment. Then I bent down, picked up my bag, and started the long walk to the far door.

You see, I was desperate, and for me, there never had been a choice. I wasn't going back. Not now, not ever, no matter what happened. Not when it meant another two years of...

Hearing footsteps behind me, I glanced back over my shoulder. It was the dark girl who was following me. The convicts were still back over by the Warp and the two youma, milling around as though unable to make up their minds about what to do.

The archway, when I finally got near enough to it to make out the details, was barred only by a dark curtain. I pushed that aside to reveal a small room. Benches lined two of the walls, and there were four youma waiting there. One of them was holding a clipboard.

"Name and citizenship number?" intoned that last.

"David Santori," I said. "095C-3668-J980-A." She fished a pen out of a compartment on her belt and scribbled something down.

"Over there," she said, nodding toward another youma. This one, although also female, had to be fully eight feet tall. I walked over to stand in front of her.

She didn't bother to ask me if I was ready, or anything like that, just extended her hand to point at me. Something that looked like a bolt of black lightning jumped from her fingertip to my chest. My stomach lurched, and I swallowed, tasting bile.

"Welcome to the Negaverse, kid," said the one with the clipboard. "Siddown and wait. This usually doesn't take long."

I went over to perch on one of the benches, rubbing at the back of my neck. I was feeling a sort of prickling there.

The dark girl was the next one through the curtain. She received the same treatment as I had. Then five of the cons straggled through, one by one, first the boy who had shoved me, then the only girl in that group, a blonde that I suppose I would have been considered pretty if I'd been able to care at that point, and then the others, one by one -- a tall, broad-shouldered man, and one with a scarred face, and then another boy, short, slender, handsome, and dark, who glanced back over his shoulder several times as though he expected to see someone following him.

He was the last to pass through the curtain. After they'd dealt with him, there was a wait of several minutes, and then the green youma stepped through.

"One of them chickened out, did he?" asked the youma with the clipboard.

The green one chuckled. "Yup, ran right back to the dubious mercies of the police. I seem to have that effect on people. Can't imagine why... I take it you've got this lot processed?" Nods all around. "Then let's get them moving."

We were led through a warren of tunnels and down to an area that looked like it probably served as a barracks. I tried to keep track of the turnings by using the symbols on the walls, but I was soon hopelessly lost.

We stopped in front of a narrow door that looked like just about every other narrow door that we'd passed so far. There was a youma, a big one, lounging against the doorframe. He had to be six and a half feet tall, with dark red skin, multifaceted, insect-like eyes, and antennae growing from his forehead.

"Santori, Rashid, you'll be bunking here," the green youma said.

The red youma snorted. "More of your tender young pinks, Ban? Well, I suppose we can find somewhere to stash them, although they're a bit too skinny for my taste."

My heart sank as I heard harsh laughter coming from inside. Three more heads -- yellow, navy blue, and turquoise, respectively -- poked out into the hallway. All were smiling in a way that I really didn't like.

"That's Sergeant Ban to you, Ant," the green youma snapped, "and I expect them to stay in good enough shape to work and to train. Do you understand me?"

The red youma -- who actually did look more than a bit like an ant -- didn't reply until one of Ban's tentacles struck him on the side of the nose.

"Yes," he said sullenly. "Sir," he added when a tentacle began to rise toward his face again.

"Good." The green youma led the rest of our group off down the corridor, leaving me and the boy with the dark curly hair, who, presumably, was Rashid, behind. I stood in the hall, trying not to stare at the tall youma, while my companion swaggered forward...

...and ran right into the big guy's chest.

The Ant buried a hand in the young con's dark curls and forced his head back so that they were looking each other in the eye.

"Now let's get something straight," the big youma said. "I'm in charge 'round here, and you two do what I say. That clear?"

"Clear," Rashid said.

I shrank back against the far wall, trying not to attract the Ant's notice, but it was already too late. The insect eyes were aimed at me.

"That clear?" the Ant repeated, with a slight edge to his voice.

I swallowed. "Crystal. Sir," I added.

The Ant made an odd chittering sound that I think was supposed to be a laugh, or something. "Well, at least one of you knows how to be polite." He stepped aside, leaving enough space for the two of us to pass through the door, one at a time. "You get the lower bunks to either side of the door." Which would be the least desirable spots, of course. This was beginning to take on a very familiar pattern, one that reminded me of every pack of bullies that I'd ever known. Except that this time, the chief bully was a head taller than I was, and probably had magical powers that would kill me if I stepped out of line. I doubted any of the more senior youma would intervene in time to save me.

I took the bunk behind the door, huddling there on the unmade mattress while the room's four more senior residents talked to each other and Rashid listened. I was feeling too miserable to pay much attention to what was going on. My head ached, and my skin felt hot and dry and tight. I wanted a shower and some sleep, but it didn't look like I was going to get either. God, this is almost worse than what I was running away from! And I'm going to be stuck with it for the rest of my life.

So I'm just going to have to make the best of it, I told myself.

Dinner that night was some sort of brown mushy stuff served over greyish almost-bread. It was lukewarm by the time I got my first portion, and cold by the time I wormed my way back to the front of the line to get seconds. I couldn't have shoved my way through the press of student youma any faster even if I'd wanted to, though -- I was of a bit more than average height, but painfully thin, and I'd learned the hard way not to get into fights. Still, even if the food here wasn't very good, it was more plentiful than it had been at home for the past several months. Maybe after a few weeks of this, I'd finally start to fill out and look less like a walking skeleton.

Well, at least the water's clean, I told myself, taking another gulp from my mug.

I had barely finished my second portion when a bluish-purple female youma came to the table and collected me and Rashid and everyone else who was wearing prison pajamas or normal street clothes. She led us to a huge room lined with shelving where we were issued clothing: sleeveless shirts, pants with tail holes, underwear, and sandals -- three changes of everything except the footwear. The cloth items were all creamy-colored or tan, and the shirts had symbols painted on them in garish purple, and everything except the sandals felt like it was several sizes too big. We'd be permitted to keep our own clothes, we were told, but not to wear them while we remained trainees.

I was directed to go to a curtained-off corner, strip, and change. It wasn't until I got my clothes off that I realized how cold it was in here. The frigid air bit straight into me, and I struggled into my new uniform as quickly as I could manage. No matter how ridiculous I was going to look, it was better than freezing to death.

Oddly, I felt warmer as soon as I had dressed, even though my arms were now bare. I guessed that there had to be some sort of spell on the clothes.

I got lost on the way back to my room and had to ask one of the youma -- one of the other youma, I was going to have to remember that -- to set me straight. When I finally arrived at my own door, I discovered that it was a good thing that I'd been issued new clothing, because most of what I'd had was gone.

I stared in disbelief at the debris on my bunk. Someone must have flipped my bag over, emptied it out, and removed everything that could possibly be of value, including the bag itself. The only things that were left were old photos and similar stuff that wasn't worth anything to anyone but me. My clothes were gone, except for what I was carrying with me. My money was gone, what little of it had been left after the trans-Pacific flight. So were my books and the music cubes and their player. I could have cried, but all of my roommates were sitting there, watching me and waiting for a reaction. So I refused to react. I just lifted my pillow, put the few memorabilia that were left underneath, put the pillow back, and lay down, lacing my hands behind my head and staring up at the surface of the bunk above mine, ignoring the snickering and shuffling that was going on around me.

No one spoke to me, which was just as well. I doubt that I could have kept from bursting into tears.

If only I hadn't been so frightened...

Eventually, I fell into an uneasy doze. I wasn't used to sleeping in the same room with several other people, so I woke several times during the night -- basically, whenever one of my roommates moved, mumbled in his sleep, or started or stopped snoring, and, once or twice, for no apparent reason at all, although I was panting and soaked with sweat those times. I never remember my dreams, but I could guess what those ones had been about.

I was still exhausted when the yellow youma, whose name I hadn't gotten yet, dumped me out of bed the next morning. He just grabbed the bedding and dragged it -- and me -- off the mattress and onto the floor, which actually wasn't all that much less comfortable. In fact, the coolness of the stone felt good against my tight, dry skin. Still, my hands and feet and jaw all ached, and I was ravenously hungry, so I forced myself to a sitting position, and then to my feet. I had slept in my clothes. Fortunately, the loose fabric of the uniform didn't appear to be any the worse for it.

I followed the tail end of the cavalcade of other trainee youma into a rather battered-looking communal bathroom and managed to get a few minutes' exclusive use of one of the open-fronted shower stalls. The cool water was soothing, and although my skin still felt too tight, at least it wasn't dry anymore. I rubbed at a couple of itchy, reddened patches on my chest and thighs, then emerged from the shower to discover that someone had tossed my clothes into a puddle of water on the floor. I couldn't tell who it had been, because just about everyone else was already gone, but I suspected the Ant or one of his cronies. Anyway, I shrugged philosophically, put my wet clothes back on, and went to the dining hall, where I received a bowl of cold mushroom gruel and a slab of grey breadlike stuff. I was still hungry when I had finished it, but there was no time for seconds that morning, because Sergeant Ban had already come to collect me and a group of other recent arrivals.

We followed it down a long, grey corridor and into a medium-sized room furnished with a series of stone benches and a slightly raised speaker's platform at the front. There was nothing that could have served as a podium. Evidently, any youma who wanted to go into teaching or public speaking had better damned well be able to proceed from memory.

The dark-haired girl who'd thought she might be pregnant was sitting beside me. She offered me a tremulous smile. I managed to smile back before a tentacle cracked against the stone bench next to my hand.

"Pay attention, Santori," Ban snapped. "This is important."

It began to pace up and down, as it had the day before, looking from face to face.

"The seventeen of you have all arrived here within the past two weeks," it said. "Those of you who have been around longer know that we've been waiting for yesterday's shipment in order to get a proper class together so that you could officially begin your training. I am Sergeant Ban. For the next three months, I will be in charge of you. All of you will address me as 'sir'. For that matter, you will address any youma who is not a trainee like yourselves as 'sir' or 'ma'am'. Generals are to be addressed as 'my lord' or 'my lady'. Don't forget that -- some of them are pretty nasty to those who screw up, and they're all much, much more powerful than we are.

"If anyone should ask you for your legion, company, or rank, you're all trainees of Lord Nephrite's legion and General Jasper's company. Not that the likes of you are going to meet either of their Lordships while you're training here.

"If anyone gives you an order, do exactly what you're told to, right away, and without arguing. You will be told when it's permitted to ask questions.

"During your training period, you will attend classes with this group, but you will be assigned work with your bunkmates. If there's some sort of friction between you and some other member of one of those groups, that's just too bad, because I have better things to do with my time than resolve quarrels between plebes. You'll have to learn to live with each other."

Abruptly, the green quadruped stopped pacing.

"Those of you who have been here the longest have already heard this part of what I have to say, but I will reiterate it for the benefit of those of you who have arrived within the past few days. All of you are going to develop magic powers, and some have already started to do so. Well, magic is not a toy, and if you use it without the express permission of your instructors during your first month here, you will be severely disciplined. Magic places a considerable strain on the bodies of those not accustomed to using it, and we lose at least twenty trainees to magical exhaustion every year.

"All of this will be discussed in greater detail in classes given by specialist instructors. Are there any questions?"

I think we were all a little subdued by Ban's speech, because no one spoke up. In fact, I don't think anyone even moved. Moving might have drawn our instructor's attention, and I don't think any of us wanted to do that.

After a few moments of silence, Ban gathered us together and led us out of the room again.

The next class was Physical Education, or, as Ban put it, "an attempt to see if any of you already know enough about weapons and fighting to avoid cutting your own feet off." Evidently, this wasn't something it was required to teach, because it just lay down in a corner and smirked at us as another youma put us through our paces.

"All right, listen up." The instructor didn't have tentacles, but she did have a whip, and she cracked it for emphasis. "We'll start with a little sparring practice. You're with him, and you're with her, and you..." She worked her way down the line, pairing each of us who still looked human with one of the youma-looking, more senior trainees. It wasn't until she'd almost reached the end of the line that I realized that she'd paired me with a familiar-looking yellow person. The Ant's crony flashed a gap-filled grin at me, and I couldn't stop myself from wincing. I'd learned how to spot people who enjoyed hurting others a very long time ago, and I could tell that this wasn't going to be pleasant.

The instructing youma directed us over to the left, to an area that was carpeted with mats. Oh, great. Somehow, I was more worried about the damage that the yellow guy was going to do me than any bruises I might get from the floor.

"All right -- Santori, is it? -- let's see what you've got. Browning, don't hit him too hard."

The yellow youma chuckled. It was an evil sound. I swallowed and curled my hands into fists. Maybe when she sees that I don't know the first thing about defending myself, she'll call this off. I'd known when I signed the immigration forms that I was going to have to learn how to fight, but I thought that that would be with magic.

Naïve, wasn't I?

I never even got a chance the throw a punch. The yellow youma feinted a left to my face, then folded me over with a knee to the stomach. And, to make matters worse, he hit me near the edge of the mats. In all fairness, I don't think he really understood how weak I was, or realized that I was likely to land on the bare floor when he knocked me down.

I assume I must have cracked my chin on the stone when I hit the floor. That's certainly what it felt like when I woke up, anyway. But I don't remember, because I passed out before I hit the ground.

When I woke up, I was lying on my back on a narrow bed, and I felt like someone had taken a swing at my chin with one of the mallets that that girl in "City Hunter" uses. And connected. I didn't even try to sit up. It would have hurt too much. And anyway, I was still feeling weak and dizzy and generally rotten.

I suppose that would have been the moment when anyone else would have thought, I want to go home, but I didn't have a home to go to. Just this.

"Ban, what did you do to the poor kid?"

I'd been aware of the voices for a little while, but it wasn't until one of them said that name that I bothered to focus on them.

"Just the normal training regimen," came the sergeant's voice, defensive. "Shouldn't have hurt him -- he was healthy enough to pass the physical, or he wouldn't be here."

"A physical conducted by Crystal Tokyoan doctors who don't know what kind of stresses the youma transformation places on a person's body. I don't doubt that he seemed healthy enough by their standards, but our requirements are a bit different. I keep on trying to tell them that, but they won't listen because I don't have a demon-damned medical degree..."

I pushed myself up on one elbow as a gloved hand jerked the curtain that surrounded the bed open. For a moment, as he pushed through, I could only stare. So that's what a Crystal Weaver looks like in real life. Intelligent dark eyes, a face so handsome that it was almost beautiful, and dark hair carelessly braided and tossed back over one shoulder. Right now, he was scowling, and those gorgeous eyes were snapping sparks. I didn't recognize him and couldn't put a name to him, although I vaguely remembered seeing him in a newscast or two, standing at General Jadeite's shoulder. Why couldn't I have found a girl that looked a bit like that, and settled down on the other side?

Finally I managed to gather my wits. "Does that mean you're going to send me back?" I asked, belatedly adding, "My lord." Despite his obvious irritation, this stranger didn't strike me as the type to have anything unpleasant done to me for forgetting his title, but looks can be deceiving. Zoisite, the Prince Consort, looks like an angel if you aren't familiar with his reputation.

"General Alexandrite," he introduced himself. "And no, we're not going to send you back. We can't. Even if you ignore the magical considerations, our agreement with Crystal Tokyo strictly forbids it. You're stuck here, and I'm going to do my best to see that you survive the experience."

He sat down on the edge of my bed and flattened one gloved hand against my chest. "This may feel a bit odd. Try not to move." And he closed his eyes.

I had to agree, it did feel...odd. There was a prickling tingle where he was touching me, and I would swear that the crystal he wore as a pendant at his throat flashed.

Then he opened his eyes and shook his head. "You have no physical reserves at all. No wonder you passed out when you were knocked down. You're barely more than skin and bone. You're going to have to start eating a better grade of food than what they serve the trainees, or the stresses of the youma transformation are going to kill you."

"No special treatment," Ban rasped from outside the curtain.

"That isn't for you to decide," Alexandrite snapped. "For now, he's eating -- and sleeping! -- here in the infirmary. I'll talk to Jasper later and ask if we can come up with some better arrangement. We can't afford to waste the life of anyone who's even the least bit educated."

He kept me confined to bed for the rest of the day, serving me lunch and supper with his own hands. I'm not sure what the food was like, although I seem to remember the texture of something that wasn't mushrooms. I didn't care about the food. I was more interested in watching him. Such a very handsome man, and he acted and spoke with gentle authority.

Was it any wonder that some people were willing to believe that they were angels, or gods?

Ban looked in on me once, just after supper, shook its head, snorted, and walked out again without speaking.

Alexandrite shook his own head as he watched the green youma's departure. "You do realize that I'm going to have to return you to his tender mercies as of tomorrow morning, don't you?" he asked.

"Of course, my lord." The formal address was beginning to feel less awkward on my tongue. I might not believe in his godhead, but everything I'd seen of Alexandrite so far proved that he was worthy of my respect. I wasn't entirely certain that I could handle Ban's training regimen again so soon, but I was willing to try. I was willing to try anything, if only it would please the man who was sitting on the edge of my bed.

I think I had pleasant dreams that night, although, as usual, I didn't remember them.

When I awoke, Alexandrite was gone, and it was one of the youma who served me breakfast and directed me to the bath that served the infirmary. I washed, luxuriating in the feel of warm water against my skin, which was still taut and dry, and hesitated over the towel when I finally turned the shower off. I was still floating high on a cloud of euphoria...that is, until I rubbed one of my aching hands against the other, and watched, aghast, as my left thumbnail peeled away, leaving the flesh underneath it raw. It blazed with pain as the air touched it, and I whimpered like an animal. Staring at my hand, I realized that my other nails were discolored and puckered around the edges and would probably slough away soon as well.

I stuck my thumb in my mouth and sucked it, like an oversized baby, unable to come to terms with what I was experiencing. Something small and sharp and hard that was sticking out of the tip of my much-maligned digit stung my tongue. A claw. I was growing claws. I was turning into a youma.

I barely managed to get my thumb out of my mouth before I vomited into the bathtub. Then I sat on the edge of it, with my arms wrapped around myself, shivering, ignoring both the stinging of my nail-less thumb and the sickening scent coming from the tub.

I made my choice.

Yes, but I didn't understand what I was choosing! I'd known that I was going to change into something other than human, maybe even a creature like Ban, but this was the first time that I'd really believed it. I felt like I'd just taken a kick to the groin.

I'm... I am... I couldn't finish, not even inside my own head. Not without being sick again. And I was still trembling with more than just cold, although there was that, too.

"I'm," I whispered. "I'm..." I swallowed hard, forcing the bile at the back of my throat down into my stomach, where it belonged. "I'm a youma!" Then I reached up to cover my mouth. I hadn't meant to shout it, and it hadn't made me feel any better to do so. I still felt sick.

"So you are." The voice was soft, neutral, and non-judgmental, and it immediately mortified me. I blushed a scalding crimson and grabbed a towel off the rack to my right to cover my nakedness.

"It's a bit of a shock, isn't it, when you first realize what's happening to you?" General Alexandrite asked, leaning against the doorframe. "Don't worry. It'll be all right."

"What in hell would you know about it?" I retorted. "You're normal, and b-b-" I was too embarrassed to force the word "beautiful" out, but it was the only one I could find to describe him.

He shook his head. "Very few Crystal Weavers are normal by human standards, actually, and I'm not one of those few. Just a sec." He bent over into what had to be an awkward position and began levering one of his boots off, while I stared, wondering exactly what he was trying to accomplish.

Then I saw, and I understood.

"You can get used to the damndest things," Alex observed as he doubled his elongated toes over and forced his foot back into his boot. "Now get yourself dry and dressed so that I can bandage that thumb and you can eat a second breakfast before Ban comes looking for you."

I fished for another towel as he turned to leave. Hey, he didn't say anything about my being disrespectful. Maybe he likes me! That thought created a little ball of warmth somewhere inside me, and it stayed with me all that day. I'm pretty sure that I had an idiotic grin on my face every time I glanced down at my thumb, now coated in some sort of pink liquid bandage stuff.

It isn't all bad, Alex had told me. They tell you a lot of scare stories when you're in training, and give you a sample of the hardest life that a youma can live, so they can tell who's going to be able to handle things if there's another war. Even though most of you would never get anywhere near the front lines. And he'd made a disgusted face. But most of the time, being a youma isn't as bad as Ban and the other training sergeants would like you to think it is.

I was exempt from PhysEd after that, thank the gods. Even now, I'm not much good at hand-to-hand, not really. My mother had taught me very forcefully that fighting was wrong, and after her death, I was taught that I was only fit to be a victim. By the time I arrived in the Negaverse, the pattern had already been set. I can fight with magic, and to a certain extent with weapons, but not with my hands.

That didn't make me exempt from the academic work, or from chores, but Alex had managed to secure an easy job for me to do instead of mopping floors or helping in the kitchen: Teacher's Aide in an adult literacy class -- the one that the Ant and my turquoise bunkmate, whose name turned out to be Kim, attended. Almost none of the ex-convict trainees could read at all well, as it turned out, which explained why Alexandrite had described me as "educated", even though I'd never finished high school. But if Alexandrite had thought they'd think more kindly of me if I helped them, he was sadly mistaken.

I think it was about a week after my release from the infirmary that they jumped me. Certainly enough time had passed for the rest of my fingers and toes to shed their nails, and for the raw places left behind to begin to heal over, but my skin still hadn't thickened to any significant degree, and I know my jaw had only just begun to warp into its present shape, because it hurt like blazes.

I was still eating in the infirmary, and was on my way back there for supper, when I ran into Browning and Kim, headed the other way. I dodged into a side corridor to get past them. They followed, so I stopped and turned to face them.

"Did you want something?" I asked.

If I'd been looking down, I might have seen Browning draw his foot back to prepare for the kick he aimed at my stomach, but I wasn't expecting trouble. And so I could only watch, doubled over, as other shapes slipped around the corner from the main corridor to take up positions around me. Then Kim was holding my arms, and Browning and a couple of the others were working me over.

None of them said anything. I suppose that was the weirdest thing about it. Normally, guys like that wouldn't give up even a single chance to scream insults, but the narrow little corridor was silent except for the sounds of the impact of flesh on flesh, and the occasional whimper that I just couldn't keep back. It was frightening.

I could have screamed for help, I suppose, but it just never occurred to me. No one had ever come to my assistance before, and I had no reason to believe that things had changed. Ban had already said that I would have to resolve any problems with my bunkmates on my own. No, better to just let them have their fun. I was used to bruises and pains.

Then someone's foot smashed into my gut, and I felt something burst inside me, and I realized that they weren't going to stop with just hurting me.

I'm going to die here.

The thought was oddly comforting. Life had been giving me a pretty raw deal since my mother had died, and it felt good to know that I could just relax and give up and that it would be over soon.

I let myself go limp in my captor's arms, head dangling against my chest. The beating didn't stop, but I felt more distant from it, as though somewhere, somehow, a lump of flesh was being hurt, but it wasn't me. Then something painted itself in pink across the insides of my eyelids.

"Stop this immediately!"

The voice was familiar, but I couldn't muster the energy or interest to raise my head. General Alexandrite? What's he doing here? It must be a dream.

"You! Kim! Let him down -- gently, damn you!"

The cold of stone against my side and back pushed me a little further back in the direction of awareness. I groaned and forced my eyes open.

"Now, over against the wall -- all of you! Yes, you, too, Rashid! I don't care what you were or weren't doing, except that you weren't trying to stop it! Do you have any idea what the penalty for fighting is, among trainees? Well, you're all going to find out!"

It was an effort to force my eyes to focus, but I managed eventually, and realized that I wasn't dreaming Alexandrite's voice after all. He was standing in the mouth of the tunnel, eyes glowing with a baleful white-gold fire, with a strange, sourceless wind rippling the air around him, and his face was frozen in an expression of terrible rage. This wasn't the gentle healer that I remembered, and if I'd been all there, mentally speaking, I think I would have been afraid.

There were several minutes of silence, in which no one was moving. I recovered enough to realize that something in the general region of my intestines hurt like blazes, and curled myself around the pain, whimpering. Alexandrite must have heard that, because he turned in my direction, and I found myself staring into those white-gold eyes, mesmerized.

We may have stayed like that for hours, for all I know, but I think it was more like five minutes or so. The next thing I remember is the young General turning away from me again, to greet someone who had just arrived. I think I caught a glimpse of a second grey uniform, and concerned dark eyes set in a fine-boned face that wasn't Alexandrite's, but I couldn't hear what they were saying, and was barely aware of the other trainees being led away. Instead I floated on a haze of pain until Alexandrite, eyes no longer glowing, knelt beside me, gently but insistently forcing me to uncoil from my fetal position so that he could examine me. Then his fingers began to trickle coppery sparks onto my poor abused body, and the sudden absence of pain made such an impact on me that I lost consciousness.

Goto Part II


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